CRATER LILIES: a novella

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This story flooded my mind so easily I thought it only appropriate to share it with the world. Enjoy, and please leave me a comment.

It’s a funny, science fiction romp with plenty of adventure.


CRATER LILIES

By Nathan Goldschot

 

“About time,” groaned Allison, hearing a familiar roar. Katie’s weather-battered Buick rounded the corner, illuminated by the pale orange street lights. The rust-tinged relic hurtled up the street before screeching to a halt in front of the coffee shop where Allison had suggested they meet up.

An irate man in a black Mustang leaned out of his window, finding himself trapped behind Katie’s double-parked sedan. “Move your ass!” he bellowed while pounding on his horn.

“Screw you!” yelled Anne from Katie’s back seat. She cranked down her window and flipped off the frustrated man as he accelerated around the Buick through the opposing lane.

Allison sighed as she hurried toward the car. She regretted not choosing to meet her old classmates somewhere further away from U Dub. Although most of her “sisters” at the Kappa Zeta house were off partying for spring break, there were still plenty of prying Greek eyes left on campus who would delight in spreading rumors about her association with such unsavory characters. She couldn’t care less about her reputation, but having to field a bunch of questions when her housemates returned would be detrimental to her goal of remaining invisible.

Katie honked the Buick’s horn incessantly as Anne beamed a smile and waved at Allison with both hands. The wayward pair were Allison’s only remaining friends from high school; the rest of her cohorts had left town for greener pastures after graduating.

“Stop honking, I’m here!” Allison rushed to the driver’s side door and pulled the handle to no avail.

Katie leaned out the window and looked Allison up and down with a sneer. “How much for a go-round, babycakes?” she grumbled in a low voice.

“You can’t afford me,” said Allison. “Besides, you two look more like hookers than I do. Just unlock the damn door, please?”

Katie shook her head. “That door finished rusting shut a couple of weeks ago. You’ll have to get in the back with Annie.”

“Hookers? This is our rock gear!” protested Anne. Allison opened the back door and slid into the seat beside her.

Katie craned her neck to look at Allison. “You look like a grunge rock throwback in that flannel, Allie. Gross.”

“Whatever. Let’s just go,” said Allison, crossing her arms. “Don’t call me Allie!”

“Okay, chill…I’m just giving you a hard time,” said Katie. “I’m glad you finally decided to hang out with us. Why aren’t you spring breaking with the rest of your Zeta hags right now?”

“I’m too low on cash to be traveling…plus, it’s not really my thing,” said Allison.

“Broke huh? Explains why you’re working the corner,” said Anne with a smile.

Allison rolled her eyes. “I met you guys here to save you some gas!” She squinted at her friend’s outfit. “Sorry I called you a prostitute, Anne. You look more like a pirate.”

“Well, I kinda am. This is my Halloween costume from last year. I just modified it to look more rock star than buccaneer.”

“Gucci leather all the way for me,” said Katie, hollering proudly as she sped up the block.

“That’s a knock-off skirt and you know it,” said Allison. “Where are we going again?”

“To the Showbox to see a band my cousin recommended. They’re called The Interrobangers?!

“Oh, I’ve heard of them!” said Allison, perking up. “They’re just a keyboard and drum duo, but they have a big sound. They’re actually from around here.”

“Ugh, let’s just go get drunk somewhere instead,” said Katie, dejected.

“No way! Come on, you’ll like it,” said Allison.

Anne kicked Katie’s seat, “Just go, bitch. No changies.”

“Changies…is that a thing?” asked Allison. Anne just shrugged.

“Fine, but if I don’t like it I’m leaving,” said Katie as she steered the Buick toward the heart of the city.

The Showbox Theatre was crammed into the middle of downtown, making parking a challenge. Katie finally found a spot a few blocks away from the venue. The young women took to the sidewalk, sneering at the tourists gathered in front of Pike’s Place Market.

“Hurry, they’ve already started!” said Allison, starting to run. She could hear a heavy drum beat through the walls of the venue.

“Wait up, we’re wearing heels!” complained Anne, trying to keep pace.

Katie stopped and crossed her arms. “Screw this, I’m leaving. I bet that drummer isn’t even hot.”

“Drummers are always hot. Besides, this was your idea!” said Anne, pulling on her arm. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

All three women eventually met up again at the door and paid the cover fee to get inside the hall. The crowd was meager but in high spirits and the band was remarkably loud. “They’re a brother and sister duo!” yelled Allison over the noise. “Pretty good, huh?”

“What?” yelled Anne in response.

“I’m going to go get a beer!” hollered Katie as she left the floor. Anne followed her but Allison stayed behind, enjoying the cacophony. She clapped loudly when the song finished. The skinny young woman behind the keyboard sustained a strange sample that sounded like crying babies trapped in a stone well, letting the noise rattle around the room for a few seconds.

“Jesus…enough, Gerrie,” said the man behind the drums as he leaned up to his microphone. “Hello, we’re The Interrobangers?! I’m David and this maniac is Gerrie. Before you get your hopes up, no, we’re not an enigmatic touring band from Japan…we’re Korean-American and we live a few miles from here. We don’t have a record to sell but if you’d like to buy a t-shirt that’d be great. Please keep in mind my sister spray painted penises on all of them but maybe you’re into that. On with the show.” The drummer launched into another breakneck beat as his sister slammed her hands along the sample buttons of her keyboard.

As Allison started bouncing to the syncopated rhythm she accidentally bumped her shoulder against the young man beside her. “Sorry!” she said, brushing her long blonde hair behind her ear.

“What?” asked the man, leaning closer.

“Sorry!” she yelled.

The man smiled and nodded. “Yeah, they’re great!”

Allison laughed. The guy was cute, in a geeky sort of way. She decided he’d be better company than her friends, who were busy drinking themselves into a good time with fake IDs and five dollar pints.

Allison and the young man beside her out-cheered the rest of the crowd when the band finished their song. The drummer–looking perpetually bored–moved his face against his mic again. “Next up, our friend Peter is going to join us on stage to help us perform a cover of ‘Chainsaw Gutsfuck’ from black metal legends Mayhem. Give him a hand.”

A pale man wearing studded leather lederhosen stepped onto the stage holding an accordion. He threw up a two pronged salute with his hand and the crowd went wild. The band immediately launched into an absolutely punishing song. Allison had no choice but to back away as her ears began to throb. She retreated to the bar with a smile on her face, but was immediately disheartened to see her friends flirting with a pair of jocks in a darkened booth.

Allison sighed and sat at a small round table near the door. A few seconds later, her cute concert mate entered the doorway, looking as if he’d lost something. Allison raised an eyebrow and wondered if he might be looking for her–if so, he apparently hadn’t noticed her haunting the secluded table in the corner. Seemingly unable to find what he was searching for, the young man slumped his shoulders and trudged up to the bar.

After mustering some courage, Allison stood up and approached the bar as well. “Two pints please,” she said over the young man’s shoulder before he could give his order to the bartender.

The young man spun around and his eyes lit up. “Oh! I mean…hey. Aren’t you the girl I was standing next to by the stage?” he asked, obviously trying to play it cool.

“Yeah…it got a little too loud so I retreated. Were you looking for me?” Allison asked with a smile.

“No! I mean, I’m glad you’re here…but…yeah. Loud, right? I have a…thing.” The man pointed to his ear nervously. “Anyway, don’t I know you?”

Allison laughed. “You do look really familiar. Did you go to West?”

“Yeah! That’s it. I think we had a couple classes together. I’m Alyn.” He stretched his hand out for a shake.

Allison leaned over the bar. She gave the bartender some cash and grabbed two bottles, one of which she put in Alyn’s outstretched hand. “I’m Allison.”

“Is this mine? I mean…thanks. Next one’s on me.”

“Sure.” Allison looked over at the dim booth occupied by her even dimmer friends. Katie and Anne were oblivious to her presence, mesmerized by the thick-shouldered jocks sitting across from them. She returned her attention to Alyn. “Let’s go back to where I was sitting before. I can’t stand to listen to those girls over there cackle.”

“Is it pirate night?” asked Alyn, looking at Anne as he followed Allison. He sat down at the table across from her and smiled. “Cheers,” he said as they clacked their bottles together. After taking a drink Alyn gave her a thumbs-up and sustained it indefinitely.

“Um,” said Allison, confused.

“Check it out,” Alyn wiggled his disturbingly double-jointed thumb. He could nearly fold it backwards on itself. “I noticed how you were holding your glass. We can do the same trick.”

Allison laughed. “Oh…yeah! You’re right.” She lifted her thumb up and bent hers backward as well. “Cool! It totally grosses out everyone else I know.”

“If we started a thumb wrestling tag team we could dominate the sport.”

Allison shrugged. “It’s nice to know we have a back-up plan if our career paths don’t work out.”

“What are you studying? Are you at U Dub now?” asked Alyn, after taking a sip of beer.

Allison pushed her hair behind her ear again. “Yeah, I’m at the Kappa Zeta house.”

Alyn raised one of his narrow eyebrows. “Really? I wouldn’t have pegged you for a sorority girl, no offense.”

“Thanks for that,” said Allison with a sigh. “It’s a long story, but I probably won’t be there for much longer.”

“Cool, cool,” said Alyn, not wanting to pry. “I’m not sure what school I want to go to yet. I guess I better figure it out soon. That’s what pretty girls like, right? Listlessness and indecision?”

“Oh yeah, they go crazy for it,” said Allison with a laugh. “So, does that mean you think I’m pretty?”

Alyn snorted with surprise and Allison giggled again. He took a long drink of beer and then simply nodded.

“Thanks,” said Allison. “We better hurry up…I don’t want to miss the rest of the show.”

“Yeah, I’ll just stuff a little bit of napkin in my bum ear and I’ll be good,” said Alyn.

“I’m glad you said ‘ear’ after ‘bum,'” said Allison.

After finishing their beers they returned to the front of the stage together. Thankfully, the sadomasochist accordion player was nowhere to be found. The remainder of the concert was considerably calmer and quieter, shifting to a more ambient sound. Allison and Alyn managed to continue their conversation with only half-shouts.

Out of the corner of her eye Allison saw Katie and Anne leaving the bar area with the two bulky men they had met. “I’ll be right back,” she told Alyn as her friends made their way to the exit. “Hey, wait!” she yelled, running to catch up with them.

“Oh, hey Allison,” said Katie, drunkenly. “Can you find a lift home? Um…these gentlemen are going to take us clubbing.”

“Say hi, pretty men,” said Anne. She laughed against her hand as the men waved.

“Oh,” said Allison. “Sure. Have fun. I’ll catch up to you later.” The group left without another word. Annoyed, Allison walked back over to Alyn.

“You okay?” asked Alyn.

“Yeah, I kind of want to get some fresh air though.”

“Mind if I tag along?”

Allison thought about it for a moment. She barely knew the guy but she didn’t want to be alone. “Yeah…sure.”

They left the floor as the band rattled on, walking past the penis t-shirts at the merch table before exiting into the cool evening. “It’s only 9 o’clock,” said Allison, peering at her phone.

Alyn seemed nervous. “Well, if you don’t have any plans, I know a great place we can get a little bite to eat. Personally, I always wind up eating late.”

“Yeah, me too,” said Allison. “Okay. Food sounds pretty good right now. Hold still for a second.” She pulled up her smartphone and took Alyn’s picture.

“What are you—”

“I sent your name and photo to my uncle; he’s a cop and a third degree black belt. If I should disappear he’s going to come after you with a vengeance so I wouldn’t get any ideas.”

Alyn chuckled nervously. “That’s actually brilliant but you don’t have to worry. My intentions are pure…I’m just hungry and I enjoy your company.”

“Alright then. Where’s your car? How far away is this place?”

“Don’t worry, it’ll be a quick trip. Before we leave though, I want to show you something really cool that most people around here don’t know about. It’s at the top of that old warehouse around the corner. Using the fire escape we can get up there easily.”

“What? What is it?”

“Come on, it will be easier just to show you.”

“Uncle. Black belt. Kill you,” said Allison.

Alyn chuckled. “Let’s go!”

Allison pursed her lips. “Fine. I must be crazy.”

“Great!” said Alyn with a grin.

Allison followed Alyn for a block and then they cut through a narrow alley to a lonely steel ladder hanging off the side of an immense brick building. “You have to be kidding me,” she said.

“Nah, it’s easy,” said Alyn, pointing upward. “Once we’re to that platform it’s just a matter of walking up the stairs.” He went and grabbed a plastic milk crate leaning against the wall of the warehouse and put it under the ladder. “I’ll go first.” He quickly climbed the ladder up to the platform, his converse clanking along the rungs. Once at the top he smiled down at Allison. “Your turn.”

“Christ,” said Allison, her nerves wracked. She slung her small purse around her shoulder and started climbing. Her anxiety eased once Alyn helped her up to the platform. “I guess that wasn’t so bad.”

“That’s the spirit,” said Alyn. “Did you know they used to make can openers in this old factory? Just can openers. Weird, right?”

“I guess,” said Allison. “I hope you didn’t bring me here to see some old can openers.” She followed Alyn up four more flights of rickety steel stairs until they stepped over the lip of the building to the rooftop. Once at the top she immediately gasped. “Wait…am I dreaming? This can’t be real,” she said, feeling off-kilter.

Alyn shrugged. “I think I’m the one dreaming. I never thought I’d meet anyone else who liked The Interrobangers?!

“This isn’t about the band…it’s about the pulsating, glowing sphere hovering a few inches off the ground behind you!”

“Oh, that. But it was a great concert wasn’t it? The black metal accordion was little much, though.”

“Okay, listen up,” said Allison in a grave tone. “It’s not like me to abandon my friends after a concert to go hang out with some strange guy…and this is exactly why.”

Alyn looked confused. “What do you mean? We’ve been orbiting each other for years. I know this is the first night we’ve really gotten to hang out but I wouldn’t exactly say I’m a stranger.”

“I said you were strange, not a stranger,” said Allison.

Alyn frowned. “Huh. I don’t know…I sort of thought we were hitting it off.”

“Alyn, when you said you had something to show me I thought you were talking about the view, not a…what the hell am I even looking at?!”

“Oh, right…the spaceship. We’re taking this to get that bite to eat, if you’re still down for it.”

Allison took a few steps back. “You drugged me. That’s it…I’m on drugs. You slipped molly in my beer or something.”

“No, never!” said Alyn, looking offended. He turned and faced the glowing orb. “I just thought this might be something you’d find interesting. If I told you what was up here before we climbed the ladder would you have believed me? I doubt it.”

“So, you want to take me somewhere in your spaceship?” Allison laughed and shook her head, attempting to stave off her shock. “Okay, this is some weird joke, right?”

Alyn waved his hand over the front of the sphere and a seam revealed itself slowly, parting the object’s curved surface until a hatch was revealed. It opened up with a clunk, and a puff of green steam wafted into the night sky. He turned his head and looked back at Allison. “Sorry, what was that? I missed it.”

Allison eyes bugged. “Oh…um, nothing.”

Alyn stepped into the sphere. The windowless interior of the orb was formed with a single piece of bright orange, molded plastic. The wall was lined with small unlabeled buttons; each one blinking white in seemingly random patterns. A pair of black leather seats were bolted to the floor, clashing horribly with the rest of the interior. “So, are you coming or not? I’m kind of hungry.”

Allison shivered. She wasn’t sure if she’d be able to blink her eyes ever again. She stepped up into the sphere without fully knowing why and sat in one of the mesh covered seats. “Let’s go, before I change my mind.”

“Comfy, huh?” said Alyn with a smile. “I lifted these seats from my cousin’s ’79 Charger. It’s been hidden under a blue tarp in his garage for years…he won’t even notice they’re gone.”

“Uh huh,” Allison managed to squeak out.

“Are you cold? You’re shivering…but you’re also sweating. Should I just take you home?”

“Yes!” said Allison. “But not in—”

Without warning the orb shot into the sky. The funky orange plastic started fading along with the sphere’s outer shell until the ship was completely transparent except for the blinking square buttons and the car seats. Allison gasped and gripped the edges of her chair. She craned her neck over the cushion and looked through the floor, watching he rooftop they had been on disappear as they shot ever upward. Soon, the entire city was reduced to a puddle of twinkling lights. The moon and stars almost seemed closer than the ground.

“Oops! Sorry, I forgot to warn you about that. The walls are still here you just can’t see them. Check it out.” Alyn tapped his foot and the floor resonated with the sound of hollow plastic.

Allison bit her lip, trying to hold back a scream. She slowly uncurled her body and slid her feet off the lip of her seat and tapped her Doc Martins to the floor. “Thank Jesus,” she whispered, hearing the clunk. The orb pushed into a hazy cloud filled with filtered moonlight before emerging to an unobstructed view of the stars.

Alyn smiled seeing Allison’s wide eyes. “Nice view huh? Okay, hold on…I mean, you won’t feel anything but this might seem strange.”

The ship accelerated impossibly fast. Allison let out the scream she was trying to hold back. When she opened her eyes she saw the sharp angles of her sorority house’s moss-covered roof about 100 yards below her.

“You said Kappa Zeta right?” asked Alyn.

Allison nodded. Her heart was pounding. “Yeah, no…I mean yes, this is it.”

“Do you want me to touch down near the front door or the back?”

Allison looked at Alyn intensely. “Just tell me two things…and I’ll know if you’re lying.”

“What? Sure. Anything,” said Alyn with surprise.

“Are you an alien?”

Alyn chuckled. “Nope. Human to a fault.”

Allison squinted at him. “Alright, I believe you. Number two: if I go on this…dinner date…with you, am I going to regret it?”

Alyn ran his hand through his thick, chestnut colored hair. “I don’t know. I mean, you probably won’t be bored.”

“Could I get hurt?” interrupted Allison. “Traumatized?”

“No…no way. I’d never let that happen,” said Alyn, earnestly.

Allison went silent for a long moment, looking down at the yellow light glowing through the window of her bedroom. She started nodding wordlessly.

“Allison?”

“Alright. Fuck it. I’m hungry. Let’s go.”

“Sweet!” said Alyn. “Here we go. This trip is going to take a bit longer than the last, just to warn you.”

“Where are we going?”

“Don’t you want to be surprised?” asked Alyn.

“I’ve had enough surprises,” said Allison, lying. Alyn’s unshakable nerves somehow made her feel calmer.

“We’re heading to a sub orbital platform on Proxima Centauri b. There’s a buffet there you won’t believe.”

The orb silently blasted upward again through a cloud bank. In a single second the city disappeared. The curvature of the Earth continued contracting until the entirety of the North American continent was revealed, stippled with tiny lights. Soon, the full circumference of the planet became visible–its southern hemisphere glinting like polished amber as the sun crested its edge.

Allison gasped. “Incredible!”

“Yeah, I never get tired of seeing that. I’d orbit here for a bit but I’m starving.” The surrounding stars disappeared as the ship accelerated, replaced by the blinding flash of endlessly-stretching beams of light. “We’re creating a quantum singularity so we can dip through a fold in space-time. It might feel a little bizarre.”

Allison’s stomach lurched but the sensation quickly subsided. She took a deep breath.

“Oops, let me tint the ship a bit.” Alyn punched a random button and the white light softened enough for Allison to open her eyes all the way. “The way the starlight stretches always looks like a barcode to me. I know it’s disorienting, but 4.2 light years goes by quicker than you might expect.”

Allison looked at Alyn. “How far?”

“25 trillion miles, give or take a few,” said Alyn. “Really though, we’re taking a massive short cut.”

“How can you be so nonchalant about all this?” asked Allison, stunned. “Is your uncle Chewbacca? Are you Doctor Who?”

Alyn laughed. “I wish…on both counts. I’ve been flying in this spaceship since I was ten. I guess I’m just used to it now.” He suddenly had a far away look in his eye. “It’s amazing what you can get used to.”

“Where did this spaceship come from? ‘Spaceship’ makes it sound a little outdated, doesn’t it?” asked Allison.

“I guess. That’s just what my Dad always called it,” said Alyn. “He didn’t even bother to give it a name.”

“So, this thing was your dad’s?”

“Yeah. Before you ask, no, my dad’s not an alien either. He built the ship himself after NASA canned him for being too reckless. He’s was a genius astrophysicist but also completely pig-headed…definitely not a people person.”

“I can’t believe one man built this.”

“Yeah, it was all him for the most part. It helped that Dad’s best friend from high school ended up a billionaire. She fully funded all his research and never questioned anything he proposed, no matter how crazy the project sounded.”

“This is definitely crazy,” said Allison, enthralled by the light show. “Is this billionaire anyone I might have heard of?”

“I don’t think so. Her name’s Brianna Lothrin. She made her fortune gaming the real estate market in the 90s. Like a lot of her banker buddies, her sense of morality was…malleable…which left her with a ton of disposable income.”

“Did she fully grasp what your father was trying to do?”

“No. I just think she had a vague notion that she’d somehow be able to profit from Dad’s research. Back then, any theory with ‘quantum’ in the front of it was pretty controversial. My dad wasn’t interested in getting published in journals, he just built things. This ship is his legacy.”

“I remember now! Your dad got a lot of local press after NASA booted him. It was kind of a big deal on the news for a few days.” Allison felt a sudden pang of sadness. “I also remember hearing he had died a few years back. The reporters weren’t very kind to him.”

“Yeah, well…he wasn’t exactly the best dad or husband. He ended up having an affair with his billionaire benefactor and my mom was pretty distraught. She demolished his work and torched what little research he had written down. Mom didn’t know about his final project…this ship.”

“It must have been hard when your dad died…I can’t imagine. At least he taught you how to fly this thing.”

“Barely. He never had much interest in helping me follow in his footsteps. I really have no idea how most of this stuff works mechanically, only in theory. Some people I’ve met while traveling have helped me figure some stuff out but I’m still baffled by most of this tech. After Dad was diagnosed with MS he finally opened up to me a bit more but it was too little too late.”

“So, he taught you how to drive, but not how to fix the engine. Bummer.”

Alyn nodded. “Oh, hey…I almost forgot. Put this on.” Andrew handed Allison a strange gray sash. It resembled the padded strap of a messenger bag with a pink jewel harnessed in its center. “It’s important you keep this strap on the entire time we’re together.”

“What?” asked Allison, putting on the strap. “Why?”

“We’re here!” said Alyn, distracted. The white beams outside the ship faded and the star field came back into view. “Welcome to Proxima Centauri b, or, ‘Hurm,’ as the natives call it.”

“Hurm,” said Allison. “Shit. We’re going to see aliens, aren’t we?”

“We’re the aliens around here. It’s best if you just think of the Hurmians as special effects creations until you get used to them. They’re a lot like humans, except for the lack of ears and the orange skin…and the compound eyes…and the tusks. Make sure to speak up, they don’t hear so well.”

Allison felt a chill roll through her. “I want to go back.”

“Too late,” said Alyn. He landed the spaceship on a gleaming, metallic platform orbiting a brown planet covered with massive, swirling storms. “We’re going to run into a lot of strange things here. Some species are going to look a little frightening but remember they’re all here to eat, just like us.”

“But not eat us, right?” asked Allison, feeling shell shocked.

“Nope. Here, speaking of eating…eat half of this before we go,” said Alyn, handing Allison a pill.

“I’m not taking drugs, Alyn,” said Allison, firmly.

Alyn shook his head. “It’s not drugs, it’s food. One tablet is the equivalent of an entire meal…nutritious, too. Half a pill should be plenty.”

“Wait, you took me 25 billion miles—”

“Trillion,” interrupted Alyn.

Allison groaned and shook her head. “TRILLION miles just to feed me a tablet…that you already had in your ship?”

“Well, this is going to a be a mostly virtual dining experience. The food on distant worlds tends to be incompatible with human anatomy.”

“Incompatible?”

“Yeah, a lot of the ingredients found in these dishes are completely toxic to humans. In addition, a lot of off-world recipes contain silicon-based organisms our bodies aren’t able to process. That said, most of it is so freakin’ delicious.”

“How would you know if you can’t actually eat any of it?” said Allison, sniffing the tablet Alyn gave her.

“Some of the stuff is edible. Again, it will be easier if I just show you.” Alyn pressed another seemingly random button and the walls of the orb’s interior suddenly became opaque. The bright orange plastic was even more of an eye burn than the streaking star field had been. The hatch opened, revealing a full view of a platform covered in strangely etched patterns gleaming in the sun. An endless variety of exotic ships were moored in docking bays on the edge of the structure.

“It’s so…shiny here,” said Allison before coughing a few times into her hand.

“The air’s a little thin but you’ll get used to it in time. Humans apparently suck up a lot more oxygen than other intelligent life forms…it’s probably why our species doesn’t live as long.”

“Alright…I’m ready.” Allison steeled herself and swallowed the half-tablet she had been given.

Alyn cringed. “Ohh, you really should have chewed that up a bit, you’re going to get gassy.”

“Now you tell me!” Allison’s pulse raced as she stepped out of the sphere. She saw a pair of lanky aliens—nearly ten feet tall–walking on stilt-like legs toward the silver dome at the end of the platform. They had no discernible features–just a single gaping hole in the center of their heads. Their clothing was a wild mismatch of rainbow colors and loud patterns. “Special effects, special effects,” Allison mumbled to herself.

“Don’t worry, that race is pretty even-tempered…just try not to look them in the eye,” said Alyn.

“What eye?” asked Allison, baffled.

Alyn ignored Allison’s ire and offered his arm to her. She accepted and they walked slowly to the gleaming, bulbous dome.

“That’s a restaurant? It’s bigger than KeyArena!” remarked Allison. She did her best to ignore a sentient, gelatinous cube as it skidded by, leaving a pearlescent trail in its wake.

“This place is more theme park than restaurant,” said Alyn. “Welcome to The United Culinary Embassy Center for Interplanetary Epicureal Exploration, better known as the Culinary Dome.”

“Right,” said Allison.

Alyn walked up to a serious looking Hurmian standing behind a podium. His clothing looked remarkably Victorian, festooned with a myriad of bustles and buttons. The extraterrestrial concierge said something that sounded vaguely like Portuguese to Allison’s ears.

“I’m fine, Murdar Dar. Nice to see you again,” said Alyn. “My date and I would like to make dinner arrangements.”

“Murderer?” whispered Allison into Alyn’s ear. “Is he dangerous?”

“No,” Alyn whispered back. “That’s just how his name is pronounced in English.”

“How many chambers will you be requiring this evening, Sir?” asked the Hurmian, suddenly speaking with flawless English.

“I believe four will suffice.” Alyn looked at Allison. “Sound good?”

Allison shrugged.

Murdar Dar handed Alyn what looked like a plastic motel room key. “Enjoy your meals, Sir,” he gave a nod to Allison, “Madame.”

“Thanks,” said Alyn as a massive door slid open vertically in front of them.

Allison clung a little tighter to her date as she stared at what could only be described as a floating wheel of Swiss cheese graced with an impressive pair of crystalline antlers. She quickly looked away when the being growled at her with disapproval. “How did that Murder guy know English?” she asked, returning her attention to Alyn.

“Oh, I used to come here with Dad quite a bit. Murdar Dar became fluent in English after speaking with us for just a few minutes. Hurmians learn languages faster than any other race.”

Allison let go of Alyn’s arm as she slowly came to her senses. She saw the plastic room key in his hand. “What the hell. Do you actually think you can scare me into going into a hotel room with you?”

“No, no,” said Alyn. “Think of this place more like a Karaoke Bar, but with food.” They walked through a beaded curtain which instantly warped them to the 24th floor of the dome. Allison farted from the surprise of the transport then blushed.

“You should have chewed that tablet,” said Alyn, smiling.

Allison punched him in the arm. “Not funny.”

They kept walking until they found a door with the same symbol as the card. Alyn pushed the card into the space between the handle and the door jam and started jimmying it back and forth.

“Are you breaking in?” asked Allison, looking around nervously.

“No, this is just how they do things here. It’s pretty stupid.” The door popped open and Alyn smiled. “Gets easier every time. Come on in.”

Allison walked in, marveling at the view of planet Hurm from the massive window. Everything in the room was wood paneled, looking decidedly from the 1970s. In the center of the octagonal space was a puffy purple couch surrounded by four unmarked doors. Two bizarre headsets were sitting on a tiny table near the sofa. She suddenly felt a little dizzy. “Either I’m overwhelmed or under-oxygenated,” she said, approaching the couch. “Wait, am I about to plop down on some alien being that’ll try and kill me for sitting on it?”

“Nope, that’s just a couch,” said Alyn. He handed Allison one of the headsets. “Put this on.” He picked up the other cheap-looking device and tucked it behind his ears. Two plastic prongs with glowing bright blue tips extended in front of his mouth.

“Okay.” Allison put on the black headset tentatively then sat on the edge of the sofa.

Alyn sat next to her and smiled as he flipped the room’s key card around and pressed a button. “Here’s an example of what we’re in for…you’re gonna love this.”

Allison gasped as a blue light projected from the barbs on her headset onto her mouth. She pinched her lips tight.

“This light tastes like a chocolate chip cookie times a thousand,” said Alyn. “Go ahead, open your mouth.”

Allison closed her eyes and slowly opened her mouth. Her eyes immediately popped back open as the sensation of melted chocolate and crumbly cookie flowed against her tongue. “Oh my god.”

“Your first virtual cuisine. You’ll have to ‘chew’ with your mouth open, like a toddler might. It’s a little weird,” said Alyn. He demonstrated for Allison and she laughed at the absurd sight. “Here, I brought this for you so you can hold it over your mouth if you’re feeling self conscious.” He handed her a red Chinese fan covered in pandas.

“Uh, thanks.” Allison splayed out the fan and held it in front of her face. Feeling ridiculous, she began an open mouth gnashing motion, and realized that temporarily blocking the projected light replicated the sensation of the cookie crumbling inside her mouth. “This is so weird, but it’s tastes amazing!”

“The taste buds are stimulated on a molecular level by means of scattered photon pulses, combined with a specialized pheromone mist. Genius, right?”

“I’ve never tasted anything so amazing,” said Allison, marveling. “It’s too much! I…need to stop…no more, please.”

Alyn tapped the card and the blue light on their headsets turned off. “I know, right? It will eventually start to feel more natural.”

Allison licked her lips. “That was a little intense,” she said with a laugh. “Why couldn’t we just have the real thing?”

Alyn shook his head. “I wish. That’s called a voth cluster. It grows on a voth plant.”

“From planet Voth I’m assuming?”

“No, the planet’s called Vith,” said Alyn. “One bite of the real thing and you’d bleed out from every available orifice. Not pleasant.”

Allison cringed. “Yeah. No thanks.”

“That’s what so great about this setup! With this technology we can sample foods from countless inhabited worlds without worry. Behind each of these doors another delicacy is waiting for us…each one more perilous than the last, and more delicious.”

“I don’t usually like my food perilous,” said Allison.

“Trust me, it’s worth it.”

“Fine, I’m game.”

“Alright then, let’s try door number one! Once we walk through the beads hanging over the door frame we’ll be transported to a café on plant Maurs.”

“Mars? The red planet?”

“No, this Maurs has a ‘U’ in it. You can also call it Wolf 1061c if you rather…13.8 light years from Earth.”

“Maurs is fine,” said Allison. “Shouldn’t we have just flown there directly? I hope you don’t mind answering one billion questions.”

Alyn smiled. “It’s cool. The Culinary Dome is a unique place where denizens from different planets can sample foods from thousands of different worlds. The doors around us are actually wormholes that open into fully sanctioned zones on alien planets–sort of like embassies in a way. They’re safe, secure spaces…unless someone travels outside the designated areas.”

“Oh,” said Allison. “If we’re eating simulated food, why not just simulate it at the dome?”

Alyn shook his head. “Alien cultures tend to be fairly secretive about their recipes, even simulated ones. Many don’t like the information leaving their home worlds. A lot of these foods are deeply cultural–ingrained with pride and meaning. Some planets have even gone to war over misappropriated food stuffs.”

“Wow,” said Allison. She envisioned a war over a Twinkie and couldn’t help but laugh.

“What?” asked Alyn.

“Nothing. Let’s go,” she said with a smile. “Tell me about the Maurtians. Three heads? Nine elbows? Two teeth to share between all of them?”

“They look a lot like us, but tend to make poor choices in regards to facial hair. A lot of mutton chop sideburns. Plus, they like glitter. A lot of glitter.”

“Tacky.”

“Totally. But their caub salad is amazing.”

“Caub with an ‘a.u.,’ right?”

“You catch on quick! Actually, it’s called a caub moarth, but yeah, it’s totally a salad.”

Allison followed Alyn as he opened the wood paneled door and walked through a curtain. Once again, she felt dizzy as she stepped through the beads. When she opened her eyes she was in the middle of a riveted steel room in front of a steel table alongside two steel benches. Two steel bowls were on the table, each filled with what looked like a fairly normal looking salad, aside from the color. “This is a cheery place,” she said with a sneer.

“All Maurtian architecture looks like this,” said Alyn. He pulled out Allison’s chair then took a seat at the table across from her.

Allison smiled. “Trying to take a gentlemanly turn after giving me a fart pill?”

Alyn let out a nervous laugh. “Yeah…pretty much” He ran his finger along the rim of his steel bowl. “So, we have a decision to make.”

“Okay,” said Allison, her chair screeching as she pulled it up a little closer.

Alyn pulled the little plastic card from his pocket. “I know it looks great but we better eat this virtually.”

Allison looked into the bowl. “It’s beautiful.” The salad consisted of leafy blue and red leaves, green polyhedron-shaped fruit of some kind, and a sprinkling of chopped walnuts (although they couldn’t have been). A light dressing was drizzled over the top. She picked up a two pronged steel fork from the table. “Why can’t we eat it? Is it poisonous?”

“No, not at all, I just think—”

“Well, I’m digging in, then.”

“Wait!” said Alyn, urgently.

Allison lowered her fork. “What?”

“See those red caub leaves? Ingesting even a small amount will give you an orgasmic feeling that rolls through your entire body. It will be one hell of a first course.”

Allison, raised one of her sharp eyebrows. “Oh, and is orgasm salad an old favorite of yours?”

“No! I’ve only ever had the virtual version. You don’t get the same effect through the headset–but it’s still delicious–which is why I brought you here. I forgot about the…um…side effects until you started picking up that fork.”

“Yeah, sure,” said Allison with a laugh. “You’re just an interstellar pervert.”

“I swear it’s the truth,” said Alyn, blushing, “but I deserve that. So, go ahead and put on your—”

Allison took off her headset and slammed it on the table. She looked at Alyn with a grin. “You go first.”

Alyn swallowed hard. “Really?”

Allison nodded, not breaking her intense eye contact. “Chicken?”

“No way.” Alyn plucked a bite of salad from the bowl. Slowly, he put it into his mouth and started chewing. Immediately, his eyes rolled back in his head and he arched his back and groaned. He pounded his fists to the table as his entire body started shaking. After a moment, his breathing returned to normal and his eyes focused again. He wiped the sweat from his brow. “Damn!”

It took several seconds for Allison to stop laughing. “Need to change your pants?”

“Thankfully, it’s just an orgasmic feeling. Your turn.”

“Alright.” Allison put her headset back on and tapped the side. A green light shined into her open mouth and she started to chew. “Mmm! Hints of walnut, sharp cheese. There’s some great texture on those greens, er, reds. Is that a mild, pickled habanero dressing maybe? Spicy! Heirloom tomatoes at the finish…and a richness I can’t begin to describe. Yum!” She turned off her headset. “Fun. What’s next?”

“No fair,” whimpered Alyn, standing up with wobbling legs.

“At least you got some action on your date,” said Allison, helping him up. As they headed for the exit, a “man” with poufy mutton chop sideburns walked in the steel door. He had to turn sideways slightly to allow his huge glittery shoulder pads to make it into the room. Allison went pale at the sight of his gun, which wasn’t whimsical in the slightest.

“Oops, almost forgot. They need to body scan us to make sure we’re not trying to smuggle anything out,” said Alyn. “Stand side by side with me.”

“Heysheed!” shouted the tacky alien as he raised his gun. Allison closed her eyes tight. She felt a warm light move from her neck all the way down to her toes. When she looked over at Alyn, she saw a yellow beam scanning him in the same way.

“Cawpalenta!” said the man. He did some sort of strange bent over salute that Alyn replicated. Without another word the guard turned and went out the door; his shoulders leaving behind a storm of glitter as they scraped through the exit.

“We’re in the clear,” said Alyn. “Let’s go back through the curtain.”

“I’m probably going to need a cancer screening after being subjected to that beam,” said Allison.

Soon, they were back in their paneled room within the Culinary Dome. They both collapsed to the couch and laughed.

“This is beyond nuts, you know that, right?” said Allison with a smile.

Alyn shrugged. “That was pretty mild. A lot of the galaxy I’ve seen is completely incomprehensible–absolutely frightening.” He quickly changed his tone. “Don’t worry though, the rest of dinner should go smoothly.”

Allison looked out the window of their room in wonder. “This is going to sound weird, but there are animals flying outside the window right now that look exactly like dragons I used to draw as a kid. That’s it…I must be dreaming all of this.”

Alyn smiled. “The window is coated with a special screen that analyzes your brain waves. It searches for pleasant imagery derived from memories, even dreamscapes, then replicates them in real-time over the actual scenery.”

“Creepy,” said Allison, suddenly frowning…her sense of wonder replaced with unease. “What if I were thinking about gross butts falling from the sky?”

Pleasant imagery,” said Alyn. “Besides, these screens are typically shielded by content filters to ensure everything projected is family friendly.”

“Can you turn it off, please?” asked Allison, sitting back down.

“Yeah, of course,” said Alyn. He scrambled over to the window and tapped the corner. The dragons disappeared. “Speaking of drawing dragons…you were always more of an arty chick in high school. How did you end up in a sorority?”

Allison puffed her cheeks then exhaled. “I’m a legacy. My mom will be a proud Kappa Zeta until the day she dies. She expects me to bleed purple and gold and follow in her footsteps. Thankfully, U dub’s art program is decent enough, so I’m going to attend classes for a year before dropping out.”

“Not feeling it, huh?”

“No. I just want to keep Mom off my back until I figure out what I really want to do with my life. I rebelled against her all through high school and it was completely pointless. Being sneaky turned out to be easier…not that I’m proud.”

“That’s tough,” said Alyn.

“Yeah. When I strike out on my own I’m going to be burning a lot of bridges. I guess I’m not quite ready for the flames. What about you? What does a guy with a spaceship want from life?”

Alyn smiled. “Good question. I’m kind of floundering at the moment to be honest. I enrolled in the engineering program at U Dub but I chickened out. I haven’t told my mom yet. Things have been strange since she moved to Phoenix with her new boyfriend. My older brother is moving back home next year to sell our old house and he expects me to have my shit figured out by then.”

Allison laughed. “Sorry, I just can relate. Even though you’re able to go anywhere in the universe you’re stuck with just as many earthly expectations as I am.”

Alyn nodded. “You’re right. My life is a study in irony.” Alyn got lost in Allison’s grey eyes for a moment before he stood up suddenly with outstretched arms. “You ready for the next door?”

Allison popped off the couch with a smile. “Sure! What’s inside this one?”

“Leave your headset on the table. You won’t need it.”

Allison groaned. “What’s the next salad going to do to me?”

“It’s not a salad,” said Alyn. “Let me ask you, did you ever have to climb the rope in P.E. class?”

“Yeah, all the way to the top. I was good at it.”

“Excellent,” said Alyn. “I sure as hell wasn’t.” He opened the second door and waved for Allison to join him. They walked through the beaded curtain and stepped onto a large, flat rock shrouded by the shade of a dense forest. Only a few thin shafts of golden light managed to break through the canopy above them. A gentle breeze cut through the warm air but left the soaring trees unrustled; their leaves so lofty their shapes became indistinguishable in the verdant mass.

Allison felt a little woozy but the disorientation resulting from warp travel via curtain seemed to ease a bit with each jaunt. “It’s stunning here,” she marveled. The forest floor was completely covered in a crystalline, azure sand. There was no vegetation on the ground besides the white, straight trunks of the trees. Long vines were drooping from above, surrounding the bare stone platform in every direction.

“This is the culinary nature preserve on Gliese 667 Cc,” said Alyn. “This planet is tidal locked–one hemisphere always faces its red dwarf star and the other is stuck in eternal darkness. The entire population lives on the equator, which is the only inhabitable zone.”

“Gliese what? What do the inhabitants call their planet?”

“No one knows. The locals communicate with each other telepathically and seem to have no interest in giving names to anything. Because their minds are all linked, the populace just instinctually knows what and where everything is in their world. You don’t need names when everything is instantly identifiable.”

“Whoa, cool,” said Allison.

“It does make them a little reclusive, though. They don’t have much interest in interacting with other species…but they’re friendly enough. I doubt we’ll see any Gliese 667 Ccians while we’re here, though.”

“I’ve never seen trees so tall,” said Allison, craning her neck upward.

Alyn bent down and rose up with a spear longer than his body. He put it in Allison’s hand. “You’ll need this.”

“A spear? What for?”

“This dining experience will be decidedly more physical than the last,” Alyn twirled his own spear with a smile.

Allison glared at him. “If you expect me to hunt, it’s not going to happen!”

“This isn’t hunting. We’re in the midst of the harvest season…the lances are for gathering the fruit of these trees. I call them ‘balloon fruits.’ I know it’s not very original, but keep in mind I named them when I was twelve. Look, there’s one now!”

Allison squinted and saw a strange green ball with blue spots floating down from the treetops. It was essentially a deflating balloon, pushed in random directions by jets of air escaping from a series of ports in its hull. She couldn’t help but laugh at the pinched farting noise it made as it plummeted erratically.

“Those are the most delicious fruits in the entire galaxy,” said Alyn, “well, as long as you squeeze all the gas out before you cut one open.”

“So we run around and spear them? Does only one fall at a time?”

“These trees don’t produce much fruit. We’re actually lucky to be seeing one at all. Hopefully there will be more…it doesn’t look like we’ll make it to that one in time.”

“It’s not that far away. We can just run over and grab it.” Allison started to move off the rock but Alyn grabbed her wrist.

“Hold up…look.”

Allison watched the fruit touch down to the blue sand. The ground next to it began to swell. Suddenly, a slimy, tripartite jaw opened up under the fruit and swallowed it whole. Both the fruit and beast disappeared immediately. Allison backpedaled to the center of the rock. A few seconds later a loud belch sounded and a fountain of blue sand erupted where the fruit had been devoured.

“I call them Balloon Suckers. They’re sort of a cross between a hippo and a slug…slimy little guys. They’re completely blind and will go after anything that thumps into that sand. After swallowing a balloon fruit they grind the leftover pits in their gut then use the gas they ingested to wretch the remnants back up to the surface. All this blue sand is the ground up seeds of balloon fruit.”

“I could have been killed!” gasped Allison.

“Nah, I learned the hard way that Balloon Suckers have no interest in eating humans. They’ll just slap their wet jaws on your legs, suck on them for a bit then leave. They won’t hurt you…you’ll just end up with slimy, stained clothes.”

“Lovely. So, how are we supposed to get one of these fruits? This rock we’re on isn’t that big.”

“We’ll use those vines. Each of them has a natural knot on the end you can rest your feet on while swinging back and forth. When we see a fruit, we’ll swing from vine to vine until we can stab it with our spears.”

“Right. Easy,” said Allison, skeptically.

“You can tuck the lance behind your back right into that sling you’re wearing. It should stay snug there. Just pull it out when you need it.”

“Is that why you gave me this?” asked Allison, pulling at the sash.

“No.” Alyn pointed to the canopy. “Whoa, here comes another one! Come on…you start swinging toward it and I’ll stay on this side in case it changes course. We can’t be sure where the fruit’s going to land.”

Allison immediately grabbed a vine and started swinging away. “Like this?”

“Perfect!” said Alyn, smiling ear to ear. “I’m impressed! If you fall, haul ass back to this rock.” He grabbed his own vine and started to swing back and forth. The sound of the flarting fruit became louder as it tumbled closer.

Allison nimbly grasped another vine and swung further away, keeping her eye on the twirling prize. “I can almost reach it!” She pulled out her spear and nearly fell, but somehow managed to maintain her grip with her other hand. Her feet clamped the tangled knot at the end of the vine a little tighter. “Yikes, this is tricky. I can’t stop spinning.”

“Doing great!” yelled Alyn. He wished he was able to change vines so efficiently. The pair swung back and forth as their sputtering quarry wobbled ever closer. Allison thrust out her spear and jabbed its husk but only managed to gouge a hole in its side, making the fruit fly faster and wilder.

“Crap! Get it!” yelled Allison.

Alyn swapped over to another vine with a grunt and pulled out his lance. He thrust it outward but missed his target. Left with a poor angle to strike again, he instead slapped the fruit toward Allison with his pole. “Incoming!”

The fruit rapidly accelerated toward Allison, leaving a squealing fweet in its wake. “Too fast!” she called, unable to bring her spear around in time. The green orb smacked her in the chest and she lost her grip on the vine. She wrapped her arms tightly around the fruit as she fell, gagging at the warm gas it expelled in her face. After colliding against the soft blue sand she quickly rose to her feet with a groan, still holding the fruit. A mound of sand rose in front of her and she froze in place. “Shit!”

“No!” yelled Alyn. He swung, vine to vine, across the expanse then landed with a thump next to Allison. “We don’t have time to make it back to the rock and we can’t reach any vines from here. We only have a couple of seconds until the Balloon Sucker strikes.” He quickly took off his jeans and put them over his shoulder.

“What are you doing?” asked Allison.

Alyn picked Allison up in his arms, and held her as high as he could with a determined look on his face. “It will be over soon, don’t worry.” Three slimy purple jaws rose from the sand and surrounded his legs. “Oh god oh god.”

Allison closed her eyes tight, listening to the glorping wet noise and feeling Alyn tremble. “Ew ew ew!”

“Did I mention it also has three tongues?” said Alyn, his voice wobbling. Finally, the jaws slid slowly off his legs and disappeared back into the sand. He ran back to the rock as quick as he could, still holding Allison in his arms. They both hopped on to the stone and collapsed, panting. Alyn’s legs were gleaming with slug snot.

“Do you happen to have a moist towelette?” Alyn asked Allison. They both laughed.

Allison wiped the tears from her eyes. “Seriously, thank you. I’m sure that couldn’t have felt very nice.”

“Uh, no…at least I had time to take off my jeans.” He pulled his pants off his shoulder and slapped them on the rock.

“You must love those pants.” Allison took off her flannel overshirt and carefully wiped off Alyn’s legs. “There, good as new. This wasn’t one of my favorite tops anyway.”

“Thanks.” Alyn blushed and quickly put his pants back on. “At least you held on to the fruit.”

“Ugh, it farted in my face,” said Allison. “You expect me to eat this?”

“Trust me, it’s amazing. Just sit on top of it to let out the rest of the gas.”

Allison plopped on top of the fruit and the gas slowly flurped out of the its husk like an oversized whoopee cushion. “This is disgusting.” She picked up the deflated orb and handed it to Alyn.

Alyn promptly ripped off the fruit’s outer husk revealing gleaming white meat on the inside. He plucked out a few bright blue seeds, shining like sapphires. “I wish we could keep these, but it’s against the rules.”

“They’re gorgeous!” marveled Allison.

Alyn threw the husk and the seeds to the ground and some slug jaws rose up to claim them. He then ripped the inner fruit in half, each chunk about the size of a grapefruit. “Enjoy,” he said, handing a piece to Allison.

“Um, I’m not going to trip balls eating this or anything, right?”

“Nope, perfectly safe.”

Allison took a bite and her eyes lit up. She devoured the rest in seconds and licked her fingertips. “Super sweet, but not sickeningly so. I love how those tiny cells pop in your mouth. That texture is unearthly.”

Alyn took a few big bites and grinned. “Almost makes it worth being slurped on…almost. Like I said though, we’re lucky…sometimes you don’t see a single balloon fruit. It can take hours for one to fall. I’ve—”

“Look!” said Allison. A balloon fruit was coming down above their heads, falling back and forth with little spurts of air that kept it on a steady trajectory. It landed directly in front of Alyn on the stone. Allison nabbed it with a laugh.

“Figures,” said Alyn with a sigh. “Well, let’s have some more.”

After finishing the fruit, the pair went back to the door frame atop of the rock. They pushed through the beads and arrived back in their room at the dome. Allison promptly threw her wet shirt into the trash. “Did I get any goo on my tank top?”

“Nope, looks good,” said Alyn, trying not to stare too long. “Um…want to rest up for a bit? There are some good virtual drinks on the back of the room card.”

“Okay,” said Allison sitting close to Alyn on the couch.

“Go ahead and put your headset back on,” said Alyn. He flicked a raised word on the back of the silver card.

“Virtual drinking is a little awkward,” said Alyn. “You kind of have to open your mouth wide and stick out your tongue like—”

“Hold up…wait a minute,” said Allison. She reached up and pulled at the prongs of her headset, making them expand a few more inches.

“No, that’s too far out,” said Alyn.

Allison then bent the prongs toward her face and put them directly into mouth like a pair of straws. She looked at Alyn and blinked, tasting the flavor of a fruity punch with a kick of spice against her tongue. When she had her fill, she tapped the headset and the straws retracted. “Delicious.”

Alyn was shocked. “I’ve been doing it wrong this entire time?” He made the same modifications to his headset and his eyes bugged out when he tasted the drink. “Oh my god, that’s so much easier.”

“Dork,” said Allison with a grin. “Cue up that death cookie again.”

Alyn pressed the button for the chocolate chip cookie they had earlier. They both put the prongs back in their mouths and chewed normally until the program ended and the little prongs retracted on their own.

“I feel like such an idiot,” said Alyn.

Allison shrugged. “You don’t have to totally mansplain me through the universe…I’m more resourceful than I look.”

“No doubt.” Alyn stood up and walked to the window. “The sun is setting behind Hurm, check it out.”

Allison walked over and joined him. Hurm’s yellow star was dipping below the curvature of the planet, creating a shimmering green halo above the violet atmosphere. She shook her head and sighed. “Why would you ever come back to Earth after seeing all these wonders?”

“I want to see your dragons again. Do you mind?” asked Alyn, evading her question.

“I guess not,” said Allison. She pressed the corner of the window. The pink serpents came roaring back, slowly undulating back and forth through their view. Wisps of white smoke flared from their nostrils. A steady curtain of fluffy snowflakes began dropping out of the sky.

“What’s with the snow?” asked Allison.

“It’s picking up my brain waves too. I used to live in Eastern Oregon. It snows heavily in the winter. I miss it sometimes.”

“It’s nice. The dragons don’t seem to mind the cold,” said Allison. “You never answered my question…how do you will yourself back to our trashed planet after seeing all of this?”

“Earth’s not so bad,” said Alyn. “After you’ve spent some time traveling to other worlds you start to realize that the hidden wonders of the universe can only distract you for so long before a deep loneliness sets in. Being with the people you truly care about is the only thing that really brings meaning to your life. Everything else is just window dressing.”

Allison turned and brought Alyn’s attention to her. She leaned closer and shared a tender kiss with him for a few seconds. She blushed as she backed away. “Sorry.”

Alyn was blushing too. “I…don’t mind,” he said sheepishly. The sun disappeared behind the planet and the stars started blazing brightly. “These are mostly the same stars you’d see from Earth. It’s sort of comforting in a way.”

Allison hopped over in front of another door. “I’m ready for the next trip.”

“Okay, but it’s going to get a little intense in there…and it might take awhile.” While Alyn talked, Allison walked through the door. “Hey, wait up!”

Alyn sprinted through the beads and found Allison lying on the ground when he arrived. He ducked beside her, seeing terror on her face.

“Everything is exploding out there! It’s a warzone! We need to go back.”

“We’re safe, don’t worry,” said Alyn. “See that blue haze? We’re protected by a force field here. Nothing can hurt us unless we step outside those walls.” A smoldering brown landscape covered in craters lay just outside of the shell of blue energy. The air was thick with black smoke and swirling sparks. Clusters of bombs whined as they rained from the sky in almost clockwork intervals. Beyond the smoldering battlefield were other blue force domes, each protecting a different building. Some of the structures were mere huts and others towering skyscrapers. All seemed to be completely undamaged.

Allison stood up slowly. “Why would you take me to a war zone?”

“Remember how I said some alien cultures had waged wars over recipes? This planet is engaged in a culinary standoff.”

“Why would the Hurmians let anyone come here?”

“Because there’s something on Tau Ceti f that tastes like nothing else in the galaxy. This stop is a little different than the others, though. The embassy has no borders, per se…you’re free to wander around the countryside if you don’t mind being potentially blown to bits by bombs. Unfortunately, there’s no virtual component to this cuisine, which creates some potential danger.”

“What food is worth blowing up the planet?”

“It’s called crater lily. The petals of the flower are like the everlasting gobstopper of the outer galaxy.”

Allison looked at him with confusion. “Pardon?”

“Willy Wonka?”

“Oh, right…okay,” said Allison. “How could anything grow here?”

“That’s the thing…crater lilies only grow in the gunpowder-stained soot of fresh battlegrounds. It takes a thousand pounds of bombs to ready the soil before a single flower will grow.”

“And the people here…they’re fighting over the flowers?”

“In a way. This war has been ongoing for a thousand years. The original conflict has been mostly forgotten but the battle rages on simply to sustain the growth of crater lilies, which are always divvied up equally between the two sides. No one dies in this war unless they’re stupid. These blue shields are impervious…they protect the people who live and work in the battlefield.”

“Wow. These must be some flowers,” said Allison. She looked through the force field and saw a small field of white lilies under a blue dome a few hundred yards away.

“Once they find a flower growing in the field they immediately put up a force dome around the area and start farming crater lilies there. They can usually harvest a few hundred before the soil stops producing and they have to start dropping bombs again.”

Allison shook her head in disbelief. “Can’t they just use gunpowder fertilizer or something?”

“Probably, but battlefield farming has a long and storied past. It’s a great honor to farm the lilies. The process is steeped in tradition and glory and even has a religious aspect. But yeah, it’s pretty dumb.”

“And they’re going to let us just take a lily?”

“Yes. That dome you see over there is for visitors. We’re each allowed to take one flower. The only problem is that we have to cross the battlefield twice to get there.”

Allison took a step backward. “Um, no.”

“Don’t worry. The bombs fall in predictable intervals, just not always in the same place. After the next explosion we’ll have 33 seconds to run to that dome.” Alyn pointed to a shielded building about 50 yards away. “Once there we’ll wait for the next blast then run to the lily field.”

“How does the force field let us in but not the explosions and debris?” asked Allison.

“The force domes repel objects based on their velocity and size. Anything moving fast enough to cause harm is blocked from entering…shockwaves, fragmentation shrapnel and the like. Fine particulate is also repelled.”

“Does that mean I have to run slower?”

“No way. We’ll never reach enough speed on foot to achieve that kind of velocity. Feel free to sprint.”

“Okay. What’s inside the building over there?” asked Allison, pointing. “Under the first dome?”

Alyn sighed. “Oh, it’s just a gift shop for culinary tourists like us. It’s completely overpriced and all the merchandise smells like putrid meat. It’s not worth checking out.”

“Gross,” said Allison. “Alright, I can do this. I used to run cross-country.”

“Great, the ordinance should hit any second. Get ready.”

They waited side by side anxiously at the edge of the dome for the explosions to start. A series of ten bombs fell right outside the force field exactly on schedule.

“Run!” yelled Alyn as the smoke cleared. They both tore across the field, down into a shallow crater and up the other side. Alyn tripped on the edge and fell to the dirt. Allison stopped in her tracks and scrambled back over to him and helped him back up. They made it into the dome seconds before bombs started falling in the distance.

“Thanks,” said Alyn, panting.

Allison stood up first. She kicked Alyn in the leg. “Don’t do that again, dork!”

“Ow, okay,” said Alyn. He stood up and looked at the boxy building in front of them. It was sitting on a patch of blue plastic grass next to an orange plastic tree. “Well, they painted the gift shop pink since I was here last but I can still smell the nasty odor inside the place.”

Allison pinched her nose. “Ugh. Me too.” A lonely, bulbous looking creature with three arms waved at Allison. She waved back, forcing a smile. It’s skin turned from brown to bright blue as it grinned in return.

“Well, they seem friendly enough here.”

“Despite all these bombs, the Tau Ceti f‘ers aren’t so bad…the citizens at least.”

“I’m sure all the mother f‘ers are proud of their little f‘ers,” said Allison with a laugh. Something at the edge of the gift shop’s force dome caught her eye and she ran over for a closer look. “Hey, check it out!”

“What is it?”

Allison kneeled down and reached through the dome.

“Wait! Stop!” yelled Alyn desperately.

Allison rose back up with a crater lily in her hand. “Look, there was one just sitting out there! We don’t have to go to the other—”

An ear-piercing alarm–the analog of dying cats–filled the air. Allison dropped to her knees and cowered. Alyn ran up and put his arm around her. Blue lights emerged from the edge of the gift shop and started to strobe.

“What’s going on?” yelled Allison through the noise.

“Don’t worry! It’s going to be okay. If things get too intense just break your sash!”

Allison looked at the strap with the pink gem strapped around her. “Break it? Why?”

“Trust me, just—”

The roar of a nearby jet engine drowned out the alarm. Allison gasped and backed against the gift shop, still holding the lily. Alyn jumped in front of her and held out his arms. A massive ship resembling a red cube with a shark’s fin on top landed just inside the force field. Three beings similar to the one manning the gift shop emerged from the craft, each running down the ramp in a spinning motion.

Alyn and Allison were quickly surrounded by snarling red soldiers. “She didn’t know the rules! It’s my fault, take me!” Alyn yelled to the menacing trio. One of the creatures threw a shimmering purple bag over Alyn’s body and tossed him over their shoulder. Allison screamed as another f‘er threw a bag over her as well. Seconds later she lost consciousness.

Allison opened her eyes slowly and groaned, unsure how much time had passed. Her head felt like it was full of cotton. She was in a tiny black room with one window and a door. The crater lily she had picked was lying on the floor beside Alyn, who was still passed out. She leaned over and shook him awake. “Alyn…Alyn!”

Alyn woke up with a jolt and instantly jumped to his feet. “Allison! Are you alright?”

Allison stood up. “Yeah, I’m fine. I thought you said these f‘ers were easy going. Why did they…” She looked at the flower at the floor. “Is it because I plucked the lily?”

Alyn picked up the flower with a sigh. He took a deep breath and stretched his back. “Yeah. This is my fault. I didn’t warn you not to pick any lilies outside the force dome. Tourists are only allowed to pick them from the designated patch.”

“Where did they take us?” asked Allison.

Alyn moved to the tiny window. He could see the platform with beaded door where they had first arrived about a football field’s length away. “We’re in luck! We’re right outside the gift shop. I think they local authorities decided to keep us in this pop-up cell until they can figure out what to do with us. There’s a little force dome around this box.”

“That’s lucky?” said Allison. She looked out the tiny slit of the door and saw one of the f‘ers standing guard with its back to the cell. It was holding a vicious looking spear. She quickly stepped to the other side of the room. “There’s one standing outside!”

“Shit, they put a guard on us. At least we haven’t been transported to the capital yet. If we have to face the district’s governing council…well…it’s not going to be pretty,” said Alyn, hushing his voice. “The f‘ers in charge are proponents of swift justice and we can’t exactly expect a jury of our peers.”

Allison saw the offending flower lying on the floor. “Just for picking that?”

Alyn nodded and picked up the lily. “Well, we might as well give it a taste.”

“I lost my appetite,” said Allison.

“I don’t know why they left behind the evidence to our crime but it might be a good idea to destroy it.” Alyn pulled off one of the petals and waved it under Allison’s nose.

Allison immediately perked up. “I’ve never smelled anything so intense. I can almost taste it already!”

“When the f‘ers synthetically replicate this aroma it ends up smelling like rotting meat for some reason, at least to humans–nothing like the real deal. Go ahead, take a bite of petal.”

Reluctantly, Allison took a bite. Alyn did the same. A warm sensation surged through their bodies simultaneously, culminating in a sharp chill that dissipated with a flutter just beneath the skin. They sighed and leaned against each other.

“I don’t know if that’s worth an endless war, but it’s pretty damn good,” said Allison, in awe. They both took turns finishing the petals. They were left with a feeling of contentment, despite their situation. The pair slid down the wall of the cell, side by side and held hands. They kissed passionately for a moment, but Alyn looked troubled as their embrace ended.

“What is it?” asked Allison. She wasn’t used to seeing Alyn’s confident spark so diminished.

“Allison, you have to break that sash I asked you to put on earlier.”

She looked down at the odd strap with the pink gem. “I keep forgetting about this thing. What’s it for, anyway?”

“I didn’t want to have to tell you this unless it was absolutely necessary. These straps we’re wearing serve as a fail-safe. They’re constantly connecting us to the spaceship, even when we’re not inside. Once you release that buckle on your strap it will be like none of this ever happened. You’ll wind up on a predetermined point in an earlier timeline.”

“Hold up. The spaceship is a time machine too?”

“In a way. My dad was obsessed with the idea of the multiverse. The theory suggests multiple universes are all occurring concurrently across infinite dimensions. Essentially, each decision you make creates another universe…another branching path. Every choice leads you to a new universe, leaving your former reality behind.”

“Ow, my head.”

“I know. Normally, once you’ve quantum shifted into another universe you’d have no way to return to where you came from…aka the past. You’re left in the present with only your memories. My dad found a way to essentially leave a bread crumb trail as you moved through your personal timeline, through all the quantum phase shifts and branching universes. Using the spaceship’s computing power, you can backtrack through splitting realities and return to the past–sort of. Unfortunately, you can’t go any further back than the point in the timeline where you started leaving the ‘bread crumbs.'”

“Unbelievable.”

“There’s a catch though…and it’s a biggie.”

“What?”

“Once you travel back to a point in your previous timeline you lose all memories of what you’ve done past that point. It’s like a hard reset.”

“Wait…so, if I yank this thing I won’t remember anything we’ve done tonight?”

“No, but my dad came up with a small concession to the problem. He developed a quantum-locked computer, or QLC, that stores all its data at a singular point in the timeline of the operator’s choosing. The pink gem in our sashes is recording video footage that is being constantly transmitted to the ship’s QLC, not in the present, but to that same predetermined point in the past. When the strap breaks the wearer will return to the beginning of their journey with no memories of their trip. As a consolation, they can access the spaceship’s QLC video archive and see exactly what happened to them before they tore the strap–or more precisely–what never happened.”

“But no actual memories remain? What the hell? I suppose you could just do the exact same things all over again, though.”

“Not really. You may arrive in a future similar to one you’ve already experienced but it’s never exactly the same. The bread crumbs disappear once you’ve backtracked and you’ll never find the exact same path forward.”

“Why not?”

“A near-infinite amount of conscious and unconscious choices are being made within a person’s current universe every second. Our destinies are constantly shifting and changing chaotically. Time is like a giant tangled ravel of endless spaghetti noodles, we just can’t perceive it that way or we’d all go insane.”

Allison stared at the window at lilies and explosions. “So when I break this sash, where will I end up?”

Alyn went and stood beside Allison and heaved a sigh. “If things turned out badly tonight, and they obviously have, I didn’t want you to have to relive a traumatizing moment after accessing the QLC footage back on that rooftop. I’d hate for you to walk away from this night full of fear and regret.”

“Tell me where I’ll go,” reiterated Allison.

“I made your predetermined point separate from mine. If you break the sash you’ll end up outside of the club just before the concert. You’ll go through your evening and we’ll never meet each other…at least not until our High School reunion.”

“Not funny. What could possibly happen tonight that I’d want to forget everything? Sure, we’ve experienced a temporary setback here, but it’s nothing we can’t overcome…right? Besides, won’t we just meet up at the club and go through all of this again anyway?”

“No. My predetermined point is different. It puts me back in the spaceship long before the concert starts. Once I review the QLC footage I’ll realize that going into that club is a bad idea and likely, I’ll just return home.”

Allison shook her head. “Listen Alyn, I know you’re trying to protect me but there’s no way I’m letting you wipe away my memories of this night. It’s not fair. I’m a big girl…if things turn out badly I can handle it.”

“The sentence for crater lily poaching is death by impalement.”

“Oh,” said Allison, wide-eyed.

“But hey, we can live in the now, right? Just because the evening’s coming to an end doesn’t—”

“Shut up and smile again,” said Allison, with an intense look. “Smile! Wide!”

Alyn did as ordered and flashed a cheesy grin. “What is it?”

Allison reached up and plucked something from Alyn’s teeth. She smiled and held her finger in front of his eyes. “Ah ha! I knew I saw something stuck to your tooth.”

“Ew. I’m glad you didn’t see that before we kissed. Embarrassing.”

“Notice the color?” asked Allison, holding the speck closer.

“It’s red. It’s part of a caub leaf!”

Allison sneered. “Have you been having micro orgasms this entire time?”

“No, you have to ingest it.”

Allison peered at the little leaf. “Is this enough to give someone a mind-melting toe curler?”

Alyn laughed lightly. “Totally. You want it?”

“No!” Allison half shouted. With the speck of leaf pinched between her fingertips she walked over to the black door and banged on it loudly. “When the guard comes in, distract him!”

“What the hell are you doing?” asked Alyn with dread. Allison was shouting and slamming on the door with her fists and feet. The guard grunted angrily then shouted something incomprehensible. When Allison wouldn’t stop her pounding the angry f‘er began unlocking the door.

“It’s working,” whispered Allison. She ducked down and hid behind the door as it swung open, revealing the irate guard. He pointed his spiked staff at Alyn.

Alyn gasped and grinned wide, raising his hands in the air. “Don’t stab! I just wanted to say—”

Allison jumped on the globular crimson guard from behind and wrapped her legs around him. The stout creature snorted in surprise and started to spin around wildly. She shoved her fingers holding the bit of leaf deeply into the guard’s throat, and pulled her hand back out, covered in saliva. The guard managed to knock her to the floor with a kick.

“Are you nuts?” Alyn hurried over to drag Allison to safety.

The guard’s yellowing eyes went wide and he started to quiver. He collapsed to the cage’s floor and started to shake and drool in a blissful daze.

Allison put her hands in front of her mouth. “Oh god, I hope I didn’t kill him!”

“He’s fine! The door’s open…run!” yelled Alyn, pulling her by the arm. They skirted past the shivering guard and then ran out of the black box into the cratered expanse. “Head for the warp door!”

“What about the bombs?” yelled Allison.

“I’ll keep my eyes on the sky, you just run!”

Together, they tore over the cracked ground toward the blue dome in the distance, jumping over deep holes and berms of blasted mud. A whistle sounded above their heads, steadily growing louder. Allison could see the beads of the door frame beckoning to her.

“FASTER!” screamed Alyn.

Allison couldn’t keep herself from looking over her shoulder. Ten cube-shaped black bombs were tumbling through the smoky sky. She felt an arm wrap around her waist and lift her from the ground.

Alyn pulled Allison through the force field as a gigantic explosion expelled a wall of red hot shrapnel and dirt behind them. They collided with the platform next to the door where they had arrived, hearing particulate hail against the blue dome.

“We made it!” yelled Alyn, his ears ringing a bit. He helped Allison up. “Are you–”

“I’m good. Come on, let’s go before that angry beach ball wakes up,” said Allison. They hurried to the beaded curtain but before they went through Allison flipped off the planet in anger. “So long, f‘ers!”

When they were back inside the Culinary Dome Alyn slammed the door then collapsed to the floor beside Allison. “Maybe give me a little warning next time you tackle an armed guard?”

“Right,” said Allison. She couldn’t help but laugh. After a few seconds she stopped and turned to Alyn with a serious look. “Will the f‘ers follow us?

Alyn sat up. “I don’t think so. If they come after us they’ll be admitting two teenagers overpowered one of their elite guards. They’re a prideful people and they’re going to see this as an embarrassment more than anything else. Hopefully they’ll write us off as a couple of entitled brats.”

Allison took a deep breath then exhaled slowly. “I guess we are. At least me…plucking that lily was a pretty stupid move.”

“How were you supposed to know? Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if the crater lily fields were made off limits to tourists for awhile.”

Allison pouted. “Aw, we ruined it for everyone?”

Alyn nodded. “We may be ruiners, but at least we’re alive.”

Allison jumped on top of Alyn and put her hands on his shoulders. “See, the strap’s still on…we’re doing fine. I’m not traumatized in the slightest.”

“Speak for yourself,” said Alyn with a smile. He didn’t want to admit how much he enjoyed feeling Allison so close. He put his hands on her hips, rolled over top of her, then leapt to his feet.

“Hey!” said Allison. “Where were all those spry moves earlier?”

Alyn stepped closer to the window. “I out-jumped an explosion, what more do you want?”

“True,” said Allison, standing up. “Only one door left. What’s inside?”

Alyn’s playful mood dissipated. “You know what…that was a terrifying ending to a perfect evening in my eyes. Why don’t we just head back to Earth?”

“I want to check out the other door!” protested Allison. She noticed Alyn still looked troubled. “Hey, what’s wrong? I can tell there’s something you’re not telling me.”

“No, I just…I think it’s time we went home.”

Allison scowled. “Alright, I like you, so I gave you a pass on keeping quiet about this stupid sash, but that’s all you get. You’re not allowed any more half-truths or need-to-knows. Out with it!”

Alyn sat on the couch and slumped. “You’re not going to like what I have to say.”

Allison sat on the arm of the couch. A tear rolled down her cheek.

Alyn sat up, concerned. “Allison?”

“I think I already know what you’re going to say. I’m not an idiot, you know? The little things you’ve been quietly predicting–all your confidence when you should be scared out of your gourd like I am–it’s all adding up. You’re Groundhog Daying me, aren’t you?

“Groundhog Daying?”

“You know, Groundhog Day! That movie with Bill Murray where he repeats the same day over and over until he gets everything right! Until he gets the girl.”

“Whoa. No, this isn’t like that at all…not really.”

“I knew it! You’re doing the same thing to me again and again…or…is it different women each time? How many breadcrumbs have you followed? How often do we go on this little date of yours?” Allison stood up and walked passed Alyn to the window, realizing the depths of her disgust.

“You want the truth Allison?” Alyn stood back up, daring not to approach her. “I’ve taken five girls here…and their names are Allison, Allison, Allison, Allison and Allison. It’s only ever been you.”

“So, you’re some interstellar stalker. Do I always end up putting out for you? Or is that the ultimate goal?”

“It’s not like that! I admit, I do have ulterior motives, but they’re not…sexual. Will you just let me explain?”

Allison turned to face him, wiping the tears from her eyes. “What choice do I have? If I break this strap you’re just going to try again, right?”

“Please, Allison—”

“Shut up! Fuck you, Alyn! All your talk about the future never happening the same way…that was all bullshit.”

“No! Major events may be similar each trip, but the devil is in the details. Your reactions, what happens inside those doors, it’s been different every time. Yes, I’ve ran through this scenario hundreds of times…but it’s always been by myself except for these last few tries.”

“Tries? I’m guessing you’ve figured out just what to say and do to get me to kiss you. What’s the trigger, Alyn? What makes me fall for you, exactly?”

“Allison, I swear to you, my intentions are pure and my feelings are real! This trip has been so different than all of the others and I can’t even begin to explain why. Nothing I’ve watched on the QLC prepared me for any of…this!” Alyn tugged gently at the strap crossing his heart.

“Bullshit,” said Allison, dismissively.

“I would never toy with your emotions. Please believe me,” pleaded Alyn. “This is the first time we’ve ever been so…intimate. This was not my plan.”

“Then show me the video on the QLC so I know you’re telling the truth.”

“Yes, right…wait.” Alyn dropped his gaze. “The footage on the QLC is quantum locked. We can’t look at it until we’ve returned to the fixed point.”

“Convenient,” said Allison. The room went deathly quiet for a long time.

“You’re right,” said Alyn. “I’m a creep, and an asshole, and I’m sorry. I just…I just needed your help. I should have told you from the beginning. I shouldn’t have let it become something more.”

“My help?” Allison brushed some of her hair behind her ear. “What are you talking about?”

“My dad. This is all about my dad. He’s not dead, Allison…he’s in prison. A prison on a distant planet behind that last door.”

“Your father’s still alive?” Allison stepped closer to Alyn, her anger overtaken by surprise. She didn’t video footage to know he was telling the truth, she could see it in his face.

“Just as Dad’s symptoms were becoming unbearable, he finally found a cure for Multiple Sclerosis at the edge of the galaxy. After making a full recovery, he faked his death and destroyed his research so he could leave the Earth behind to explore the cosmos without worrying about someone following in his footsteps. When I learned he was about to leave for good I asked if could go with him. Begrudgingly, he agreed.”

“Wow, you really left everything behind? So, what happened?”

“Things went well for awhile. I was learning how to pilot the spaceship and seeing the type of man my father was for the first time…warts and all. However, it wasn’t long before Dad ran into trouble on HD 40307 g in the Pictor constellation, called Skreeank by the natives. He tried to steal a valuable artifact housed in a Skreeankian museum but got caught in the act.”

“Your dad’s a criminal?”

Alyn nodded. “I had no idea what he had planned. He just said he was there to pay off a debt. I waited in the spaceship for days but he never returned. When a security squad tracked down the spaceship and attacked, I had no choice but to leave my father behind.”

“Whoa. What happened to him?”

“He’s been locked up in a prison especially designed to house criminals offenders from other planets. I’ve yet to find a timeline where he didn’t end up incarcerated…but I can’t just leave him there to rot.”

“Alyn…I’m so sorry,” said Allison, walking closer. “But how could I possibly help you?”

“You’re smart, you’re strong, and most importantly…you can do this.” Alyn lifted his hand and bent his thumb backwards until it was nearly touching the back of his hand.

“Excuse me?”

“The anatomy of a Skreeankian is a lot like a human being’s, aside from their four long arms and double-opposable thumbs. The cell doors in the prison where my dad is being held aren’t barred by typical locks–they open by means of a series of pressure pads that receive input from all 20 Skreeankian fingers at once. I’m able to put both hands into two of the four locks by bending back my weird thumbs but that still leaves me ten digits short. I needed to find someone willing to break their thumbs or with the same genetic trait as mine to help me open the door to my dad’s cell. The first option never panned out…that’s why I brought you here.”

Allison suddenly felt relieved, if a little confused. “You just needed another freak!” she said, staring at her own thumbs.

“During my previous trips I figured out how to sneak out of Skreeank’s culinary embassy, infiltrate the prison and get to my dad’s cell–the layout never changed that much—but I can’t get passed the damn cell door. I brought my best friend Doug along with me once but his thumbs weren’t able to bend backwards like mine. It ended miserably but luckily, he doesn’t remember a thing.”

Allison laughed. “Sorry, I just…I don’t know how to feel right now. So, you’re telling me you just used me for my thumbs? This was somehow easier when I thought you wanted to get inside my pants.”

“Not used, recruited! Remember that smart and strong part of you? That’s essential,” said Alyn. “I found several people with the same thumb-bending ability but for a myriad of reasons none of them seemed fit to accompany me. I went to that club just hoping to have a good time, never expecting to find someone with the same bizarre grip. When I realized you shared the same trait I was terrified. I never had the balls to approach you back in high school and I sure as hell didn’t know how I’d ever convince you to come with me to outer space.”

Allison blushed. “Really? I barely noticed you back then…no offense.”

“None taken,” said Alyn.

“How many times did I turn you down for this trip?”

“You never turned me down. Talking to you turned out to be easy.”

“Or maybe I’m just too nice.”

Alyn smiled. “Yeah, maybe.”

Allison bit her cheek and looked out the window into the darkness. “Why didn’t the other four times we attempted this work?”

Alyn exhaled loudly. “We’ve never made it this far. Every time I’ve told you the truth you’ve gotten angry and broken your strap. It doesn’t matter when or where I spill the beans…it never works. I’ve never blamed you for being angry and I won’t now…it’s alright.”

“Yeah, I tend to be pretty easy going unless someone pisses me off.” Allison turned around, looking determined. She was holding her strap tightly. After staring at Alyn intensely for a few moments, she dropped the sash and walked up to him. “I’ll help you…on one condition.”

Alyn couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Anything, just name it.”

“I want our point of origin on the timeline to be exactly the same. I don’t care how messed up things get…if these straps break I want a chance to review the footage with you on that quantum lock computer in the ship.”

Alyn nodded slowly. “It’s a deal.” He walked up to Allison and carefully put his hands on her sash. He pulled a silver card out of his pocket and pressed it against the pink gem. “Alright, now, just need to reset the date.” After pulling back the card he flipped it around he tapped a few raised areas in the center. “It’s done. We’re synced up. I’ve pulled your recovery point a little further up the trail of breadcrumbs next to mine.”

“That’s all it takes?” asked Allison. “The fail safe will take us both to the same place and time?”

“If your sash breaks you’ll be on the roof of the can opener factory beside me in the spaceship, ready to review the QLC footage.”

“Good,” said Allison. “I don’t want to vanish before your eyes.”

Alyn sighed. “I should fess up. The reality of the situation is a little stranger than you think.” He looked at his strap. “It’s probably not fair to call this thing a ‘fail safe.’ Tearing the strap doesn’t destroy this universe or transport your body or consciousness anywhere. The broken sash simply alerts the QLC to render the video you’ve recorded thus far. The footage is then quantum shifted to the beginning of your bread crumb trail so an earlier iteration of yourself can review it and potentially change their destiny.”

“Hold on, what?”

“This isn’t time travel. The other Allisons who pulled their straps didn’t see or feel any noticeable change afterwards. I can only assume what followed was an awkward trip back to Earth in the spaceship with you hating my guts the entire time. Or maybe we reconciled? We have no way of knowing because when the strap breaks the QLC stops recording.”

“Christ. It got a little creepy again.”

“I know. But remember, there are untold Allisons in untold universes. Actually, I take it back…it’s best not to think about that stuff. It’s disheartening to wake up knowing there will be a billion billion billion slightly different versions of yourself created by the time you step in the shower.”

“Yikes,” said Allison. “It’s completely ludicrous.”

Alyn pursed his lips. “Infinity has a lot of storage space, apparently.”

“Yeah, okay, let’s just move on. Time’s wasting. I don’t want to do this again…probably.”

Alyn’s smile stretched ear to ear. “This is going to be a piece of cake, don’t—”

“Worry. Gotcha. Never worry,” said Allison, with a smile. She went over and opened the door. “Sorry for calling you an interstellar pervert earlier.”

“Takes one to know one,” said Alyn, stepping through the final doorway.

“Hey!” said Allison, following him through the beaded curtain.

After the bright flash they arrived on a cobalt blue plateau stretching endlessly into the horizon under a dusky, cloudless sky. The landscape was layered in thick stone slabs of various sizes—some so large they seemed to stretch for miles. There was no vegetation, no dirt, not even a stray pebble on the ground. A crisp breeze whistled low through the crevasses between the jagged rocks.

“What a strange place,” said Allison, which truly meant something after all she’d seen during the evening. There were no signs of civilization except for an unremarkable wooden table sitting near the bead-shrouded door frame.

“Very little life ever sprang from this world. Organisms have a tough time establishing themselves on these huge, rocky shards. The Skreeankians fled their homeland thousands of years ago and colonized this planet after discovering it had a breathable atmosphere.”

Allison picked up a small, nondescript square of plastic sitting on the lonely table. “What’s this?”

“As you can probably tell, Skreeank’s culinary embassy isn’t very popular. To sample their food you’d scan that hunk of plastic with your virtual dining headset.”

“Why didn’t we bring them?” asked Allison, setting the little card back down.

Alyn scanned the horizon. “We didn’t come here for the food–and trust me–you wouldn’t want it. Their featured dish tastes like concentrated ox farts. No one ever comes here to dine–virtually or otherwise–which makes this the ideal place to infiltrate the planet.”

“I get it,” said Allison, scraping her heel on one of the slabs. Some of its blue color came off on her boot.

“The Hurmian Culinary Dome is the perfect way to get to Skreeank’s surface without a security clearance. Unfortunately, quite a few versions of my future self were blown away in the upper atmosphere before I discovered this ‘back door.’ Sometimes there’s a guard stationed here but more often than not they’ve left the post abandoned. I’m not even sure if the Skreeankians realize they still have a culinary embassy.”

“How many times have you attempted to rescue your dad?”

Alyn stared up at the thick stars for a moment. “Too many times. To be honest, I don’t really want to know. I do know I get a little closer each time…at least I did for awhile.”

Allison was shocked. “Alyn…I’m so sorry.”

Alyn shook his head. “It’s okay…it’s not like I remember all that failure. I only archive the highlights on the QLC so I don’t have to sit through all the ugly footage.”

“So, you must be really good at this infiltration business considering you’ve done it so many times.”

“I wish. This isn’t like that movie with Tom Cruise where he keeps repeating the same day to kill the aliens and gets more skilled each time. I don’t remember shit.”

“They Groundhog Dayed him too? Hmm. I never saw that flick but it sounds pretty similar to your situation.”

“Not really. For me, it’s more akin to watching Indiana Jones for the first time and then proclaiming yourself an archeologist without any of the whip or boulder evasion skills. You’d fall and die in the very first punji pit. Despite doing the same crap over and over I never retain any knowledge or gain any muscle memory.”

“Oh, right. That sucks.”

“The QLC footage shows that the prison is usually laid out the same way each time I attempt a run. A few times though, the floor layout has been vastly different. Sometimes the door on my dad’s cell doesn’t have the same locks…sometimes…” Alyn trailed off.

“What?”

“It’s rare, but sometimes my dad’s already been executed.”

Allison gasped. “How do you keep from going crazy?”

“I probably am. You’d be a better judge.”

Allison held Alyn’s hands and kissed him quickly. “You’re alright.”

“Thanks for that,” said Alyn. “Are you ready?”

“Sure thing, Dr. Jones,” said Allison with a nod. “Where do we go? It’s flat, blue and barren in every direction. I’ve never seen rocks like these.”

“Oh, that’s because they’re painted.”

“All of them?”

“Each of Skreeank’s nations are defined by a different primary color, and each color represents a different faith. Each year when night falls, they paint these stones as a religious rite.”

“They painted hundreds of acres of rock blue in a single night?”

“One full rotation of this planet would be equivalent to a year on Earth. One night here lasts six of our months. A new night has just fallen and the locals will soon be out in droves to cover Skreeank Prime with a new coat of blue paint. Hundreds of miles away, Skreeank Alpha will be freshly painted red, and Skreeank Proper will shine bright yellow. Thousands of years ago they would paint the landscape by hand but now it’s done with massive star ships.”

“I guess religious fervor is a powerful force the galaxy over,” said Allison, marveling.

“Each Skreeankian has four idle hands to keep them busy,” said Alyn. “Come on, it’s this way.” He hopped off the stone platform of the embassy and headed north.

Allison looked around nervously. “Where is everybody?”

“Skreeank’s population lives underground in gigantic caverns, but there’s no dwellings buried beneath this place. I wasn’t sure how this post was being manned but I figured the guard wasn’t walking to work. I eventually found a warp station he was using under one of these slabs. I left myself the coordinates on the QLC. It should be close by…if it’s even here in this universe.”

They walked for a few minutes but saw nothing that looked like a doorway. “I don’t understand, it should be here,” said Alyn, looking at his watch.

“I hear something clicking,” said Allison.

“Yeah, me too.” Alyn hopped over a rocky outcropping and located a modest looking doorway embedded in the stone. Silver beads hung from the empty frame, clacking together in the wind. “The warp door!”

“Let’s go through,” said Allison, stepping up.

“Not yet. This door would warp us directly to the guard’s neighborhood. There’s nothing there for us…unless you enjoy sulfurous caves inhabited by xenophobic alien rednecks that like to throw blue rocks at non-believers.”

“Yeah, let’s skip that,” said Allison. “So what do we do?”

Alyn leaned down to the edge of the door. He pulled a multi-tool out of his pocket and pried open a little hatch near the bottom of the frame with a grunt. He winced as he bashed his knuckles. “Ow.”

“You need a sonic screwdriver,” said Allison.

“No kidding. Luckily my Leatherman usually does the trick.” Alyn fished a small black chip out of his pocket. “I left myself instructions on the QLC to procure this little beauty from a black market tech dealer on Kepler-62e. It’s pre-programmed with coordinates that will redirect this door’s warp function. If all goes well it should put us directly inside the prison complex.” He pushed the chip inside a small slit and closed the hatch again, which promptly fell back open.

“Couldn’t we have done this from any beaded doorway?”

“I wish…this planet has a network of atmospheric warp dampeners to prevent outsiders from reaching the surface. Only local transit is allowed. That’s why we had to come here through the embassy.”

“Can you really trust some random hacker guy to give you the correct coordinates? What if he puts us in deep space or traps us inside the rocks?”

“Boc’s not random, he’s one of my Dad’s old friends. He’s more of a glorified mathematician than a hacker. The brains of the Gosshimasturs are huge…their race even looks like a pile of brains, with stumpy little legs.”

“Yuck,” said Allison.

“Essentially, they’re living quantum computers. All of the galaxy’s wormhole technology relies on the equation chomping powers of Boc’s people. My dad learned a lot from them…it’s not easy directing a singularity to warp space time as you see fit.”

“You didn’t answer my question. Can you trust him?”

“I had reminded myself on the QLC to pay him with a hundred pounds of pewter. He seemed thrilled by the transaction so I think we’re alright.”

“Pewter huh.” Allison sighed, giving in to the insanity once more. “I never imagined teleportation would rely on beaded curtains.”

“Yup. Each one of those beads contains sensors that scan your body and…you know what, it’s not important. Let’s go.” Alyn jumped through the curtain and disappeared. Allison swallowed hard and followed him.

“It’s pitch black!” said Allison. Her body was pressed tight to Alyn’s.

“Yeah, we were supposed to end up in a janitor’s closet. I think it worked,” Alyn whispered. He jimmied the door and fell out onto a bright yellow stone floor in a long, featureless hallway.

“That wasn’t nearly seven minutes.” Allison stepped out and helped him up. “Ugh. Everything’s yellow,” she said, squinting. “Is this the nation of the mustard worshipers?”

“Pretty much. We’re about to join their cult.” Alyn fished around inside the closet and brought out a can of paint and a wide, bent looking brush. He handed Allison a rubber band and an ankle-length yellow smock. “Tie your hair back. They don’t clean anything here, just paint over the dirt. These janitorial ponchos will be perfect for hiding our missing arms.”

Allison looked unenthusiastic. “You’re going to paint me yellow, aren’t you?”

“Close your eyes.” Alyn quickly slopped Allison head to toe with yellow paint. “The denizens of Skreeank Proper worship a yellow god. They dye every part of their bodies yellow in reverence, even their teeth. If you walk by anyone on the staff don’t smile.”

“Not a problem,” said Allison, feeling sticky and irritated.

“My turn,” said Alyn, urgently.

“Absolutely,” said Allison. She took pleasure in glorping the viscous yellow paint all over his body.

“A little thick, isn’t it?” said Alyn, after a cough.

“Yeah, I hope we didn’t overdo it.”

“Help me push this,” said Alyn, wheeling a wide cart from the closet. “We’re going to paint over stains all the way to my dad’s cell.”

“What if the real janitor comes back?”

“Hopefully he won’t.” In a final touch, Alyn took some stray yellow rags out of the push cart and tied them around Allison’s head and his, hoping it might somehow seem fashionable to the Skreeankians.

“This will never work,” said Allison.

“Shh. Skreeankians are bald so we’ll need to cover up our hair. Just… stay lowish. Not too low, though.”

Allison’s heart pounded next to Alyn’s as they made their way down an extensive hallway. When they finally turned a corner they were greeted by the sight of hundreds of doors lining the walls on both sides of another long corridor.

“Does this look how you remember it…I mean, how it looked on the QLC?” asked Allison.

Alyn nodded. “Yeah, Dad’s cell should be around the next corner.”

“Crap!” Allison blurted as she noticed a yellow, four-armed man walking their direction. His monochrome appearance had momentarily camouflaged him against the hallway. A strange rifle–also yellow–was slung on his shoulder.

“It’s a guard. Let me do the talking. I’m decent at the language…my dad and I have dealt with the Skreeankians for years,” whispered Alyn.

The bulky man in the yellow uniform squinted at the pair of janitors as he walked closer. Behind him, a yellow woman emerged from a doorway and sealed it shut with her four outstretched hands. She was wearing a uniform covered with dozens of pockets and pouches—another guard.

“Greetings Fruit!” said Alyn, in Skreeankian.

The male guard raised an eyebrow and stopped. He put one of his hands on the cart, halting the pair’s progress. “Are you two new here? You look a little young for this kind of work.”

“Uh…yes, new arrive. Muchly thanks.”

“What in yellow is wrong with you?” asked the annoyed guard.

The female guard walked closer and put two hands on the man’s shoulder. “Ease up, Hallin, don’t you remember the memo we got? The warden said the High Priest was going to transfer a few mentally disabled Skranks here from the temple to work menial jobs. The release order must have gone through.”

A look of disgust crossed Hallin’s face. “But Lallos, look at how thickly they’re painted! The only thing I hate worse than a Skrank is a fundamentalist Skrank. The temple has no business sending brain-dead zealots to a government facility!”

“Calm down, Hallin. They can’t help being stupid,” said Lallos, shining a condescending smile at Alyn. “Don’t blame these little fools for being overly religious…the feeble always seek comfort in the Lord’s mercy.”

Allison did her best not to look them in the eye or show her teeth. Her hands were shaking on the rail of the cart.

Hallin seemed to be getting angrier by the second. “They’re wearing rags on their damn heads, Lallos! If I have to look at these Skranks every day I’m going to end up killing one.”

Lallos kept grinning, her sharp yellow teeth on full display. She moved closer to Alyn. “Don’t fret little ones, he’s just cranky because he hasn’t had his splonty yet.”

Alyn nodded. “Don’t worries…praise yellow!”

“Praise yellow,” said Lallos. “Hey, I think there’s a big black stain at the end of the hall, why don’t you guys check it out?” She patted Alyn on his head rags.

Allison and Alyn resumed pushing the cart, when the male guard put his hand on Allison’s shoulder. She squeaked and froze up tightly.

“Hold up. The boy seems plenty stupid, but this one looks fine…if a little quiet. Turn around girl, you’re no Skrank,” said Hallin.

“Turn around,” whispered Alyn, leaning over to Allison. “Act disabled.”

Allison turned around slowly, feeling like she might pass out. The menacing guard grunted at her with clenched fists. Disabled? she wondered.

Allison rose her arms high in the air, revealing she only had a single pair beneath her smock. Alyn’s blood went cold.

Hallin’s eyes popped wide. He turned away and dry heaved as he leaned on the wall. “She’s a two armed freak! I think I’m going to be sick!”

“Are you happy now, moron?” asked Lallos, smugly. “Is she skranked enough for you now?”

“Just go, you invalids! Get out of my sight!” said Hallin, waving them along, trying not to vomit.

“I meant mentally disabled, but that worked,” whispered Alyn.

“I hate you,” said Allison. “I think my bladder emptied a little.”

“At least it’s yellow.”

Allison punched him hard in the arm as they rounded the next corner.

“Hey! Wait…this is it! My dad should be behind the sixth door down the hall,” said Alyn.

“The yellow door?” Allison sniggered.

They abandoned their janitorial cart and ran to the cell. There were no windows to let them look inside. “Dad’s not going to be able to hear us in there. Do you see those indentions for your fingers?”

Allison looked. “Yeah…whoa…those thumb holes are seriously bent. I don’t know if I can push mine so far back.”

“We have to try,” said Alyn.” He moved over and put his fingers in the ten notches on the left. With no shortage of grunting he finally maneuvered his thumbs into the slots. “Ahh…this sucks. Hurry! Do your side!”

Allison moved her hands over the indentions on the right. She forced a thumb into its hole. It hurt like hell but finally it slid inside the notch. When it came time for the next thumb she was at a loss. She used her teeth to bite her loose digit and push it into position. A loud clank sounded and the door split down the center.

“It worked! It’s opening!” said Alyn.

The door opened revealing a seven foot tall bipedal beast. It had several eyes on stalks and a mouth swirling with dripping tentacles. Its claws were gleaming even brighter than the hallway. It clomped out of the cell on grotesquely bent legs and growled.

“Is this your dad?” Allison asked Alyn. They backed off and flattened themselves against the opposite wall.

“Um, wrong door. Dad must be in the cell on this side of the isle, directly behind us.”

The algae colored prisoner quickly lost interest in his hapless rescuers and started shuffling down the hallway toward their janitorial cart. The monster flattened the cart like a tin can against the wall with one swipe of its grotesque hand. Yellow paint exploded everywhere.

After breathing a sigh of relief, Allison turned around and shoved her hands into the locks of the door they were leaning against. “This one, right? Hurry the hell up!”

Alyn jammed his hands in the indentations and the doors began to open. The steam cleared with a pneumatic hiss, revealing a heavy-set bald man, painted yellow from head to toe. He was sitting on a yellow bench reading a yellow book. He dropped the paperback and stood up slowly, looking dumbfounded as he stroked a hand through his thick yellow beard.

“Son? Thank Christ…that book was terrible. Struggle of the Atomic Heart my ass.”

“Dad!” Alyn ran up and hugged him tight, tears leaving streaks in his face paint. “You’re alive!”

“Yup, who’s the chick?”

“Samson Gold, meet Allison Anderson,” said Alyn with a smile.

Allison shook his hand, “Allison Anderson the Fifth.”

Samson smiled. “Clever girl.” He turned to Alyn. “This only took you five times to get right?”

“Not so much. Let’s get the hell out of here,” said Alyn. “Follow me.”

The trio ran down the hallway past the crumpled cart, heading back the way they came. They skidded around the corner and saw the two guards they had passed earlier pointing their rifles at the hulking inmate they had inadvertently liberated. The creature let out an ear splitting scream.

“Not this way,” said Samson.

“Hold on,” said Alyn.

The olive green convict lunged at the guards and smashed them both against the wall before they could fire. Thick paws hammered against the Skreeankians’ heads until they slid down the wall to the stone floor, unconscious. The creature turned and stared at Alyn then gave him a friendly wave.

“Oh, he’s cool. Let’s follow him,” said Alyn. The group tentatively tailed the hulking alien as it lumbered along the hallway. Samson stole a rifle from one of the unconscious guards,

“How do we get back to the embassy?” asked Allison.

“We’ll have to blast our way out,” said Samson. “Just as soon as I can figure out how to fire a four handed rifle. Christ!”

“Dad, forget it,” said Alyn. “The livery should be close to where we warped inside the prison. Once there, we can steal a patrol ship. After that, it’s just a couple hours back to the embassy’s warp door.”

“A couple hours? Won’t they catch up with us? We’re fugitives!” said Allison.

Alyn shrugged. “That’s the best I can do!”

“Should have thought this through a little better, boy,” said Samson.

“Seriously? Do you know how hard I’ve—hey, what’s he doing?”

The green beast had stopped moving and was staring directly at the wall. It let out a strange gurgle.

“Do you know this guy?” Alyn asked his father.

“No, but I know of him. His name’s Bill. His home planet, Pirn, is a major resource for pharmaceuticals throughout the galaxy. I know a bit of his people’s language”

“Bill?” asked Allison, dumbfounded.

Without warning, their green friend smashed directly through the rock wall and began attacking the surprised guards stationed on the other side.

“Duck!” yelled Samson, pushing down Allison and Alyn as gunfire rang out. Only Bill was left standing when the smoke cleared. His expression remained indefinable. He waved again.

“Friendly little murder monster,” said Allison, shaking her head.

Bill gurgled a series of wet hacks and Samson nodded.

“What’s he saying?” asked Allison, watching as the beast smashed through more rock.

“He told me to tell the ‘little worms’ thanks for letting him out,” said Samson as he waved away the dust and went through the new hole in the wall.

“Well, this has been a lucky fuck-up,” said Alyn. Allison nodded in agreement.

“We’re in the evidence room,” said Samson, looking around. “Bill’s ship should be in here.” The ‘room’ was a humongous natural cavern, lined with row after row of towering steel racks covered in brass boxes and strange looking objects. Massive stalactites covered in lights were hanging from the ceiling.

Bill gurgled again.

“Bill says his ship is probably in the impound bay. He says if we can find some fresh cells to power his gravity drive he’ll let us tag along,” said Samson, examining the rifle he’d taken. “Alyn, take Allie and search the racks over there. Do you remember what a Series TP power cell looks like?”

Alyn nodded.

“Find at least five cells then meet us at the north end of the cavern,” Samson pointed ahead of him then threw the weird rifle over to his son. “Have the girl help you shoot this thing if you run into any opposition.”

“Okay!” Alyn grabbed the split-stocked gun out of the air and looked at Allison. “The power cells look exactly like a roll of toilet paper. Follow me.”

“Series TP. Please tell me that’s a joke,” groaned Allison.

“It is.”

“My god…this is just the evidence room? This place is huge! How many prisoners are in this place?” asked Allison, rubbernecking.

“Around 59,000,” said Alyn. “The complex stretches for miles.”

“Well, I won’t bad-mouth your brain guy anymore. His math was on-point,” said Allison. “We could have been searching this place for weeks.”

“These rack are chock full of batteries…the TP cells should be here somewhere!” said Alyn, getting frustrated as they ran down the aisles.

“There, that looks like butt wipe at the end of that row,” said Allison, pointing. As they hurried to the stack of power cells they heard loud footsteps clomping on stone. “Alyn, look out!”

Alyn stopped in his tracks. A few yards away two angry looking yellow guards were rushing towards them holding sparking batons aloft. “Hey, you two, stop right there! Why are you here?” yelled one of them.

“I don’t think I need that translated,” said Allison.

“Get beside me!” shouted Alyn, as he brought the gun off of his shoulder. “Here, you hold the top, I’ll hold the bottom. We have to squeeze all four of these triggers at the same time.”

“I’m not killing anyone, Alyn!” protested Allison.

“It’s a stun gun. It won’t hurt them…much.”

Allison quickly grabbed the gun as Alyn instructed, bending her body into an awkward pose. She put her fingers near the triggers on the back of the long rifle as Alyn put his digits through loops on either side of the barrel.

“I’m ready!” said Allison.

“Ready…fire!” yelled Alyn. The gun unleashed a huge burst of flame that engulfed the racks ahead of them, making several rows of batteries explode in a violent chain reaction.

“Shit!” Alyn threw away the gun and flattened to the stone floor beside Allison as the yellow guards ran off in terror, their uniforms smoldering. A few seconds later the explosions abated.

“Stun gun?” asked Allison, coughing through the smoke.

“I guess not,” said Alyn, dropping the weapon. “Why the hell would that guard be carrying incendiary rounds?”

Allison walked up grabbed an armful of TP cells. “These are a little scorched, but I think they’re okay, let’s go!”

A shrill siren began to sound all through the cavern. Yellow lights on the edge of every rack ignited and began swirling. “Shit, we better hurry,” said Alyn. He sprinted with Allison through the cavern with the TP until they heard Samson shouting for them.

“Over here!”

Allison ran up and Samson grabbed the power cells out of her arms. He handed the batteries over to Bill one at a time. The monster used his huge claws to open a panel on his ship and inserted each cell with surprising dexterity.

“This can’t be a ship,” said Allison. Bill’s ride looked like an over-sized peach pit with a pair of huge jet engines poking out the end.

“It’ll do the job,” said Samson. A hatch opened up from the side of the lumpy craft as it powered up with a piercing hum. Bill scurried inside and moved behind the ship’s yoke.

“Get in there, you two,” ordered Samson. Alyn and Allison dove into Bill’s ship without argument. A dozen armed guards rushed closer as Samson hurried up the ramp. Yellow plasma blasts collided against the pit, leaving deep gashes in its dirt-brown hull.

“I can’t believe we’re going to make a break for it inside a glorified walnut shell,” said Allison as she sat down on a small ridge of wood jutting from wall. “Is this even a seat?” she asked Samson.

“Yes,” said Samson as he sat on a protuberance beside Bill. “Tie those ropes around your middle, girl…this ride could get bumpy.”

“Freaking ropes?!” said Allison, tying an overhand knot around her waist.

“It’s better than nothing. Okay, Maybe not…just try not to think about it,” said Alyn, shuddering as an explosion rattled the side of the ship. “Shit, the Skreeankians are pissed.”

The ship’s engines roared to life and it lifted into the air, promptly colliding with the stalactites on the cavern’s ceiling. “Nice job, Bill, you hung us up on the rafters!” complained Samson.

Bill belched a response and pulled a long lever beside him. The ship’s engines flared, making the hull reverberate as he attempted to pull free from the rocks. Sharp cracks echoed through the cave as some nearby stalactites began to shatter. Allison gritted her teeth and cringed.

“Don’t worry,” said Alyn, full of worry.

“Stop telling me not to worry!” screamed Allison.

Bill hacked and hocked as he finally broke free from the crumbling stalactites. A sharpened boulder larger than a Buick ripped from the ceiling and crashed to the floor. The Skreeankian security team below scrambled away from the shattering slivers of rock, buying Bill some time to correct his course.

“Bill says we’re going through an air vent directly above us. There should be just enough room to squeeze through. Hold on,” said Samson, struggling to tie a rope around his substantial middle.

The pit ship tilted and rocketed upward, smashing through some yellow grating. Allison felt her stomach lurch and her head spin. She grabbed on to Alyn tight. “I’m going to close my eyes now. If we survive, let me know.”

Alyn held Allison close as the ship scraped through the vent. His teeth were rattling from the vibration. A loud blast sounded a few seconds later–then everything went quiet.

Alyn and Allison opened their eyes, clinging to each other until the pit stopped shaking. “I think we survived,” said Alyn.

Samson turned around with a laugh and clapped his hands together once. “We made it! We’re out of Skreeank’s orbit.” He stumbled over and hugged Alyn and Allison tight. “Good job, kids! I can’t thank you enough for busting me out of there.” He patted Allison on the back. “You got some real heart, Allie.”

“You’re…you’re welcome, Sir,” squeaked Allison, still white. She didn’t have the heart to tell Samson she hated that nickname.

Bill gurgled again and Samson scooted beside him. “What’s that, Bill?”

More gurgling.

“Oh, I see,” said Samson, lifting a bushy eyebrow.

“What’s he saying?” asked Alyn.

“Well, ol’ Bill here says he’s a little hungry after all that action. He was wondering if he could eat one of our legs to hold him over till the next port.”

“What?!” Allison clamped her hands around her mouth to keep from screaming.

“Yeah. Bill says he’d prefer one of the girl’s legs, but he isn’t picky,” said Samson. “He’s says it’s the least we can do.”

“Why didn’t he just eat one of those guard’s legs?” asked Allison, appalled.

Bill gurgled excitedly.

Samson shook his head in disgust, “What, you think poor Bill here is some kind of a savage? He says he’s going to use his world-famous spice rub on your leg then slow roast it to perfection. Don’t ask me which world.”

“Dad, we’re not giving him one of Allison’s legs,” said Alyn, flatly.

“I know, I know…hold on,” whispered Samson. He began to gurgle some soggy words to Bill.

Bill nodded and hacked out a wet response.

“I asked Bill to give us a little tour of his amazing ship before he prepares his snack,” said Samson, standing up. “He said he’d love to show us around.”

Alyn leaned closer to Allison. “Dad’s got something up his sleeve, don’t—”

“Don’t say ‘don’t worry,’ ever again!” interrupted Allison, with a hushed yell.

The pit ship wasn’t much bigger than a motor home you might find on one of Earth’s highways. Bill gurgled on and on, pointing to things on the walls, seemingly proud of every gadget, indentation and crank. Everyone feigned an incredible amount of interest.

“Really? How fascinating,” said Samson in Bill’s language as they made their way to the back of the ship. “What’s this again?” he asked, pointing to a small, circular door.

Bill opened the hatch and bubbled on about some features.

“Escape pod, huh. Can you show us how it works?” asked Samson in Gurglish then English, so the kids could understand him.

Bill folded his bulky body into a tiny seat in the escape pod and slorped out some words.

“So, you just pull that handle huh? And I assume this red button is so an outside operator can launch the pod?” asked Samson in both languages.

“Oh god,” said Allison with a nervous gasp.

“Only if you unlock it from the control panel near the yoke you say?” Samson looked at his son with wide eyes.

Alyn got the message and sneaked to the front of the ship. He started flipping switches until the lights on the escape pod blazed red. “That’s it!” he yelled.

“Eat this!” Samson kicked a shrieking Bill backwards then slammed his hand on a red plunger above the door. The pod launched with a pop and began spiraling into space away from the ship. Allison screamed as the vacuum created by the gaping hole threatened to suck her out of the hull. Samson–grasping tight to a wooden beam above his head–used his free hand to grab Allison’s shirt until the airlock finally sealed itself. She trembled as her feet finally touched down to the steel plates.

Alyn ran up from the front of the ship and steadied Allison. “Oh my god. Are you alright?”

“Yeah…I think so,” said Allison, straightening herself.

Samson smiled. “Whoops, should have told you to step back a little, Sigourney.”

“You’re as much of a maniac as your son,” said Allison.

“What?” asked Samson and Alyn simultaneously with innocent looks plastered on their faces.

“So, what’s going to happen to Bill?” asked Alyn, feeling a touch guilty.

“A Skreeankian patrol will undoubtedly pick up his pod. Good riddance. He wasn’t going to take no for an answer about that leg of yours,” said Samson, putting his hand on Allison’s shoulder.

“Yeah, I’m not ready to rock a peg-leg yet,” said Allison.

Samson returned to the front of the ship. After wiping off the ‘seat,’ he sat in front of the ship’s yoke and punched a few buttons. He looked back at Alyn and sighed. “Please tell me my spaceship’s not still sitting somewhere on Skreeank.”

“Nope, it’s moored on Proxima Centauri B outside of the Culinary Dome,” said Alyn, as Allison walked up and sat on the other side of him.

“You snuck onto the planet through the embassy of vittles?” Samson laughed. “Genius!”

Allison noticed the yellow paint starting to flake off her hands. “Ugh, I’ll never ask for lemon in my water again.” She stared out at the void through one of the pit’s oblong portals. “How long will it take to get back to the platform?”

“Luckily, Bill’s ship has a singularity drive,” said Samson. The ship lurched hard and vibrated for a few seconds. “Annnd…we’re here. Damn, this little peach pit has one hell of an engine.”

“I know Bill wanted to eat part of me, but I kind of feel bad for him,” said Allison.

“Don’t,” said Samson. “I looked up Bill’s criminal record on the ship’s console. He was chewing through legs all over the galaxy before the Skreeankians locked him up.”

“Gross,” said Allison. The pit’s ramp opened and she stepped out into the fresh air on the platform. “Whew, it smells like rotten peanut butter in that thing.” She was elated to see the oversized Christmas ornament they had arrived in was still moored nearby. “Won’t the Skreeankians be after us too? We’re fugitives.”

Alyn nodded. “Yeah. We’re going to have to lay low for awhile and hope our trail stays cold. Don’t wo…” He paused, catching himself. “Have no fear….they’re not going to bother checking a backwoods planet like Earth. You’ll be safe.”

“So you’re just going to take me home now?” asked Allison, crestfallen. Samson displayed a sympathetic smile as he stepped in front of her and held out his hand.

“I can’t thank you enough, Allie. I don’t think Alyn could have pulled off that rescue without your help.” Samson shook her hand.

“It’s Allison….and you’re welcome,” she said, still unsure how she truly felt about the man. “Thanks for saving me, as well.”

Samson turned to Alyn. “I’ve been yellow for weeks. I’m going to head over to the dome and take a long shower. How about I meet up with you kids at the greasy spoon on the ground floor in about an hour?”

“Sounds good, Dad,” said Alyn. “I’m glad you’re back. I still can’t believe it…I think I’m in shock.”

Samson ruffled Alyn’s hair. “You done good, boy.” He turned and clomped away toward the chrome-covered dome. The rising sun sent streaks of orange and purple light across its silver curves.

Allison looked confused. “I thought this was a facility for culinary exploration, not a glorified truck stop.”

Alyn laughed. “The facility caters to travelers. I suppose the ground floor would be akin to a ‘Flying J.'”

“Still, the actual restaurant here must be incredible,” said Allison, her stomach rumbling.

Alyn shook his head. “Ironically, no…think truck stop again.”

“Really? At the Culinary Dome?” said Allison, disappointed. “Oh well. I’d eat anything at this point. That tablet you gave me is wearing off.”

“They do have a decent cheeseburger there.”

“Really?”

“Well, they’re called something else, but same concept.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” said Allison. “Your dad is a lot more…rugged…than I was expecting.”

“I know. He despises ‘nerds.’ Isn’t that funny? He’s a walking contradiction in every way. He definitely has a challenging personality, but he’s still my dad.”

“He saved my leg and my life. I shouldn’t have called him a maniac.”

Alyn laughed. “I think it made him respect you, actually.” He tugged at his yellow clothes and listened to the thick paint crack and crinkle. “Ugh, I could use a shower too.”

“Want to take one together?” asked Allison with a perfect poker face.

Alyn swallowed hard. “Excuse me?”

After pre-paying for some time in the washroom, Alyn and Allison walked into their rented stall together–still wearing their clothes–and let the water jets in the circular chamber hit their bodies. A ridiculous amount of yellow pigment flooded off of them and swirled down the drain. After sharing a round of laughter, Allison bit her lip and took off her shirt. Alyn did the same.

“Are our sashes waterproof?” asked Allison.

“Yes,” said Alyn, feeling light headed.

They moved closer and carefully helped remove the rest of each other’s clothing, leaving just the straps on their bodies.

The shower turned out to be an exercise in incredible restraint. When their time ran out and the spigots went dry, the pair stepped out and dressed in the cheap clothing with indecipherable logos they had purchased from the gift shop. They were both blushing uncontrollably.

“I mean, it’s only our first date,” asked Alyn. “We shouldn’t push things too far…right?”

“Right,” said Allison half-heartedly.

They collided together and began to kiss passionately. They were taking their clothes back off when a bell sounded and the room went black–their allotted time in the washroom was over. Laughing hysterically, they collected their wet clothes in a shopping bag and hurried past a perturbed bipedal rhinoceros holding a scrub brush.

They went back outside the ‘truck stop’ area and leaned on the wall, holding hands while watching the parade of strange beings filter in and out of the dome. “It took awhile, but I’m not frightened of this place anymore. I’m not ready to leave,” she said with a sigh. “This really sucks.”

“I know, but it’s not safe for you to stay right now. We’re already wanted on two worlds and there’s no telling how many other planetary systems my dad’s pissed off. After I get a handle on his misdeeds I’ll come back for you. I promise our second date won’t have any strings attached…if you want a second date, I mean.”

“I’ll think about it,” said Allison, grinning.

Alyn looked at his watch. “We better go find Dad before he orders a pizza.”

“But I like pizza.”

“Well, just think about how the quality of pizza degrades as you move west from New York to California…then add a few billion miles.”

“Oh, yuck. Yeah, let’s go.”

Murdar Dar gave Alyn and Allison and nod as they went back inside the dome and proceeded to the modest diner. When they arrived, Alyn’s father was no where to be found. He wasn’t sitting in one of the booths or at the lunch counter.

Alyn’s muscles tensed. “Oh no.”

“What’s wrong? Where is he?” asked Allison, as a Hurmian waitress looked at them in confusion.

Alyn ran out of the diner and back outside as Allison chased him. “Tell me what’s going on?!”

Alyn skidded to a stop in front of the bay where he had originally parked the spaceship. It was empty. “Goddamn it…no!” He fell to his knees and pounded his fists on the silver platform.

“Alyn?” Allison sank down beside him, already knowing what had happened.

“The bastard left me…again. After all we did to save him! He didn’t even bother to say goodbye.” Alyn stood up slowly, his eyes clamped closed and his teeth gritted.

Allison’s phone started buzzing. She picked it up and gasped. “It’s for you…somehow your dad left a message on my phone.”

“What?” Alyn grabbed the phone gently and looked at the text.

Sorry Son, but it’s not just those dirty Skranks that are after me…I’m afraid I’m in deeper trouble than you know. My rush to cure my disease led me down some roads that were highly questionable and mostly illegal. I don’t want your life wrapped up in my past mistakes so please don’t come looking for me. You have your own path to travel and your own destiny to discover. I’ll see you again one day…I promise. Don’t bother replying, I’ve already ditched this phone.

-Dad.

P.S. Take Allison home in the pit ship…or don’t. Let her decide. I like her a lot.

“Dad,” said Alyn, lowering the phone. He took a deep breath and handed the phone back to Allison, forcing a smile. “He’ll be alright.”

Allison’s eyes suddenly filled with terror. She grabbed on to Alyn. “I don’t want to disappear!”

“Allison, what’s wrong?” Alyn realized both of their straps had severed and were lying on the ground in front of them. “Don’t wor…panic! You’re not going to disappear. Remember what I told you?”

Allison held to Alyn tighter. “Right…okay, I remember now.”

“It just means our breadcrumb trail’s gone. No more resets.”

“We’re not going to forget anything that’s happened, right?”

“No. The earlier versions of ourselves at the beginning of our shared timeline will get to review the QLC and act accordingly. They’ll see what happened to us up until the moment the straps fell off. As for us…well, we’re moving forward into uncharted territory with only our memories to guide us, just like every one else in the universe.

“Good. I’d rather keep my memories than have some false sense of security.” Allison looked up at the stars and smiled. “I can’t imagine how we…they…are going to react to the video footage on the QLC.”

“Let me tell you, it’s fairly mind blowing to review the tape,” said Alyn, picking up the sashes.

“Yeah, but was there any footage of us sharing a shower last time you watched?” asked Allison.

Alyn blushed again. “No. Oh my god. Awkward.”

Allison shook her head and snickered. “Why did our straps fall off, anyway?”

“Dad must have disconnected the latches remotely.”

“Why?”

Alyn shrugged. “I don’t think he wants me to attempt any more do-overs. The QLC will show my former self that we freed Dad, but it will also show that he asked I not come looking for him again. He wants me to start living my own life, not keep worrying about his.”

“No more Groundhog Daying,” said Allison with a grin. “I’m glad your dad disabled the straps. I wouldn’t want to forget this night. Although, I guess one version of me did…but…ugh, it still makes my head hurt.”

“I know,” said Alyn, with a smile. He kissed Allison tenderly. “You were absolutely heroic tonight.”

“Yeah, but I also went to second-base in a shower with a guy I barely know.”

Alyn laughed as their embrace broke. “Truly, your bravest feat.”

Allison looked at the pit ship. “So, I guess this is ours now, right?”

“For all intents and purposes,” said Alyn. “I bet you anything Dad left the access card in the ignition.” After a little bit of searching he found the knob that engaged the pit ship’s hatch and lowered the ramp. After climbing inside they saw the access card was indeed still in its slot.

“Can you fly a walnut?” asked Allison.

“It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out.”

“At least it’s aired-out a little in here,” said Allison. “Or maybe it was your dad that smelled like peanut butter?” She picked up something sitting on one of the stubby seats–a crystal sphere with a small cube at its center, pulsating with violet light. “What’s this? It’s pretty.”

Alyn gasped and grabbed it. “Holy shit.”

“What?”

“That’s stabilized Astatine, the rarest element in the universe! It’s worth a fortune.”

“Whoa. Hey, there’s a note stuck to the bottom,” said Allison, pulling it off.

Alyn carefully plucked off the pink sticky-note and read it.

Son, this cube is pure Astatine, stripped out of that artifact I ganked from the skranks. Thankfully, the dopes never realized what had been hiding inside their stupid reliquary so they won’t miss what I extracted. I was able to smuggle it off-planet with a trusted associate before the bastards threw me in a cell. After my buddy fenced his share of the cube he stored what was left in a security box on Kepler-186f. Seeing as it was just gathering dust, I’ve decided to pass it your way.

As soon as we touched down together I ordered a courier to transfer the cube here, to the Culinary Dome. I knew it’d take about an hour for it to arrive…thus the long shower. After you cash in this little baby, ditch Bill’s pit then pick up something fast for you and Allison to tool around the galaxy in. Have fun.

“Sneaky son of a…” said Alyn, smiling. “Once we hock this Astatine we won’t have to worry about cash for a long time.”

“I don’t want to be a downer but that’s stolen property,” said Allison. “Shouldn’t we give it back?”

“When the Skreeankians caught my dad with the artifact, they didn’t realize he had already hollowed out the Astatine core. Dad says they didn’t notice a difference once the object was back in their hands…at least not yet.”

“Won’t they come after us if they figure it out?”

“They’re already after us. Besides, the cube’s clean…in contains no trace of the artifact. It’s all good-ish.”

Allison slide behind the yoke of the pit ship. “Well then, what are we waiting for?”

Alyn raised an eyebrow. “I thought I was taking you back home?”

“Like hell you are,” said Allison, shaking her head. “I’m about to take a semester abroad…way abroad. Are you coming with me?”

“Of course!” said Alyn, beaming. “Are you sure you want to try and fly this thing, though? It can be a little tricky.”

“I’m a quick study, remember?”

“What about your black belt uncle? Won’t he come after me?”

“Maybe. Better watch your ass.”

Alyn sat beside Allison as she activated the peach pit’s thrusters and rocketed away from the gleaming platform. Together, they launched toward infinite possibilities as the Culinary Dome on Proxima Centauri b shrank in the distance.

“Where are you taking me?” asked Alyn.

Don’t worry,” said Allison, with a sly grin.

END

 

 

 

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Have you read “The Ashen Wrath” yet?

Ashen-Sheln_flat_sm

A bright streak cut through the darkness and collided against the serpent’s jaw, creating a shower of sparks. The impact sent the machine reeling, its ratcheting segments thrashing in a frenzy. Another flash of sparks erupted, followed by the sharp sound of metal scraping across metal. Through the red lights of those horrible eyes I saw a spear of steel pushing through the snake’s neck.

 

Read it here:

https://ceredef.wordpress.com/2018/02/06/the-ashen-wrath-a-novella-in-76-chapters/

THE ASHEN WRATH – a novella in 76 chapters

The Ashen Wrath_FINAL

 

 

1

The airdrones ended their watch of our village each night by lifting into the sky with a haunting wail. The buzzing swarm of black orbs then traveled north toward The Walled City, where they were rumored to spend the evening hours absorbing strange magic to keep themselves aloft. When I asked my grandfather about the mystical properties of the Privus’ hovering spies, he told me they weren’t magical objects at all, but products of something called “science.” I was eager to know more but speaking of such topics was dangerous–curiosity had killed many a Thrall.

As soon as the airdrones vacated Zone 28, their mechanized counterparts from the Obsidian Tower clomped into the village. The stilt striders’ imposing, 10-meter statures and clanking innards created an air of menace the airdrones lacked. Each grotesque guard perched near the zone’s border on a pair of spindly legs, their cycloptic eyes sending a glare of blue light over our tents until the airdrones returned at dawn.

The airdrones and stilt striders enforced the doctrine of the Privus. Any Thrall who didn’t meet their work quota received a painful punishment. Repeat offenders were collected from their tents in the dead of night, never to be seen again. As terrible as the machines were, their actions were largely predictable. I soon learned the best way to avoid their cold gaze was to make my daily routines just as mechanical as theirs.

The Privus had asserted their dominance over my fore-bearers in what came to be known as The Final Lesson. The surviving dregs of the ill-fated revolution were labeled The Thrall by the ruling class and banished to isolated work zones kept under heavy surveillance. A generation later, we were still laboring in the fields and factories in exchange for nothing more than our lives. I wondered if life was somehow better in the other villages spread throughout the territories, but those who attempted to leave Zone 28 were never seen again. I was shocked when my grandfather revealed my siblings and I had once lived outside the valley, far beyond the zone. Sadly, none of us had been old enough to form any memories of the larger world.

The Final Lesson had claimed my parents, leaving four children behind in the wastes. My sister Mary was the oldest, making her de facto caregiver. After Mary died giving birth to her own child a year later, her overwhelmed partner turned us over to the Privus. We were then transferred to Zone 28, along with Mary’s surviving daughter, Annie. Once there, we were assigned to our grandfather’s plot and placed under his care.

Against all odds, my grandfather managed to maintain our plot’s cultivation quota by himself–enduring years of thankless drudgery until each of the children in the family became old enough to work. He did his best to keep our youthful energy in check by feeding us a constant diet of fear. Before zipping us up into our partitions each night, he gave a lecture about life in the zone. His words are etched in my mind.

The Thrall exist to work and nothing more. Survival means keeping your eyes down, your head empty and your hands busy. Uselessness marks you for death. No amount of begging or pleading can save you from the Privus’ metallic beasts. There’s no place to run. Nowhere to hide.

Finding it difficult to sleep after Granddad’s dire warnings, I developed a habit of whittling pine scraps into tiny figurines until exhaustion overtook me.

2

Although I was deathly afraid of the airdrones and stilt striders, my grandfather’s words never quite sank in until the day my brother was taken. Kooper had been given his own plot of land when he turned 21 but struggled to produce enough bushels of rye to meet his cultivation quota. Not meeting quota prevented a Thrall from receiving full rations, making survival a steep challenge.

Tired of seeing my brother struggle, I snuck away one night after the Meal Trill sounded. I crept to Kooper’s plot and waved to him through the plastic window of his tent.

“Danth! What are you doing?” whispered Kooper, looking panicked as he approached the window. “If the stilstry sees you wandering around during Meal Period, you’ll be killed!”

“The machines didn’t see me…I was careful,” I said, feeling a measure of pride. “Let me in, I brought you some bread.”

My brother cut his eyes at me in frustration. He put his hand against the canvas wall of the tent and pushed my shoulder. “Idiot, you’re only 12 years old! I don’t want your death on my conscious! Do you want Granddad or the girls to miss quota because you couldn’t follow the rules? Take your bread and go.” He turned his back on me.

I shrank away and returned home, fighting back tears. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Kooper was attempting to distance himself from the rest of the family, likely thinking it would make his inevitable death easier for us to handle.

I vividly remember the day Kooper finally snapped. After watching the last of his rye wilt under an airdrone’s jet of exhaust, he threw a tarpaulin over the offending orb and began bashing it with log plucked from his woodpile. The thing wobbled as it rose from the dirt and flew away, covered in a spiderweb of cracks. The rest of us looked on in shock as my brother sank to his knees and wept.

Although there weren’t any immediate repercussions, Kooper knew he had no choice but to run. While the drone was away, we all said a tearful goodbye and wished him luck. Deep down we knew he was just leaving so we wouldn’t have to watch him die.

Our family became terrified as night fell. It wasn’t long before the clank of ratcheting gears announced the approach of a stilt strider. The hunched fiend made a quick scan of the area until its pulsing blue light turned bright orange. After blaring a piercing tone, it stomped away as quickly as it had arrived, heading in the exact direction Kooper had fled.

I was awoken late in the evening by a series of red flashes high up in the hills. Minutes later, the stray stilt strider returned to the village. It hunched over Kooper’s ruined rye field and belched orange flames over every inch of the plot. I saw my brother’s blood dripping off the machine’s foreclaws in the firelight. When the machine’s grim task was complete, it took a slouched posture on the edge of the village to resume its watch.

Kooper was gone. All of us were too petrified to mourn. We resumed our work the next day, lining up in the field in our grey coveralls as if nothing had happened. I began to feel jealous of the other kids I had met during the Interaction Periods. None of them had never seen the blue light buried in the black glass shell of a drone start to glow like a hot ember as it hunted its prey. They were lucky.

3

While the Privus’ machines were watching us, I was watching them. As the years progressed, I noticed a flaw in the machines’ migratory habits. The airdrones left the village after the Meal Trill without fail, but there were five days in the middle of each month when the stilt striders arrived late to the zone–creating a one-hour gap free from surveillance.

To even speak my observations aloud could lead to my death. There were many a Thrall eager to inform on others to earn a ration reward during the Interaction Periods. Finding little use for the knowledge I had gleaned, my curiosity over the matter soon waned.

4

As I became a teenager, restlessness got the better of me. Nightly whittling was no longer sufficient to occupy my troubled mind. I plowed, planted, and harvested our grain with grim efficiency, but the praise I received for my efforts was meaningless. Knowing I reaped more rye than anyone else in the zone brought little satisfaction. I was just going through the motions each day, trying to keep my family safe and my head empty. Each month I felt tempted to test the surveillance blind-spot I had observed, despite my efforts to push the knowledge from my mind.

My sister and niece couldn’t care less about my mental state, but my grandfather sensed my growing ennui. He confronted me one evening during our usual mid-week meal of rye bread and soy beans.

“Danth, I’m worried about you.”

“What?” I replied, surprised. “I’m fine, Granddad.”

My grandfather sighed. “I see the same fire in your eyes as your mother. This is a confusing time for many children your age, but you must be careful not to overstep your bounds.”

“I’m not a child,” I protested.

“No, you’re not,” said my older sister, Marta. “You’re starting to stink.”

I sniffed my armpit. “I am not! I bathe in the stream every day.”

Marta wrinkled her nose. “Yeah, well, you should do it at night, too.”

Annie giggled.

“Alright, that’s enough,” scolded my granddad. He was a stern man, but fair. I always tolerated his lectures, knowing our family owed him everything. “Hard work is what we live for. It’s how we survive. We can never forget that.”

“I know, granddad,” I said. “No one works harder than I do.”

“Me do!” said Annie.

I smiled at my four-year old niece. “Okay, maybe Annie.”

“I can tell you’re not listening,” said Granddad. He took one more bite of bread then stood up. “Just know I see even more than the drones do!”

“Pop, you can barely see anything through those jar lids on your face,” said Marta.

Granddad adjusted his glasses. “These work just fine…I’m watching you too, young lady.”

I peered out the window at the blinking blue light in the distance. “They’re giving us a lot of time for dinner tonight. Where’s the Factory Trill?”

“Be thankful and finish your food,” said Granddad. “We may be in for a long shift later. The trill could sound any minute.”

I groaned. “Last night, we only punched metal for a half hour before the Sleep Trill rang. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Quiet boy!” said Granddad, slamming his fist on the table. “It is not our place to question.” He took a deep breath. “I’m retiring to the bedroom until the next trill. Do not bother me.” He stomped away and entered the flap to his partition, which he zipped up tight.

“You’re lucky you don’t have to worry about factory shifts,” I told Marta. “I wish I had the Care Card.”

Marta glared at me. “Being home with a bored and hungry kid all night isn’t any fun.”

“No fun,” said Annie, imitating Marta.

“We’re not allowed to leave the house or even rest until the Sleep Trill. At least you have a routine–I’m just a prisoner in this tent.”

“They let you read at least.”

Marta laughed. “Do you know how many times I’ve read The Ten Tomes? They’re–” A loud clunk made Marta slap her hands over mouth. I looked out the plastic window and gasped. The stilt strider at the edge of the compound had turned to face our tent. Its blue light was pulsing faster.

Even Annie went quiet. Getting the attention of the drones meant you were one mistake away from death. We remained silent until the stilt strider turned away again. Afterwards, we didn’t have much to say to each other.

5

The Factory Trill sounded a few minutes after dinner. After granddad and I changed into fresh coveralls, we said goodbye to Marta and Annie and stepped outside the tent. With our plot being the closest to the factory, we were always at the head of the line. Right on schedule, the rest of the able-bodied people from our village began milling onto the road behind us. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the dark, hoping to see a sign of my best friend.

“Where’s Binjin?” I mumbled.

“Quiet,” scolded Granddad. “Don’t give the stilt striders a reason to take you.”

“Relax,” I replied. “We don’t have to be silent until their lights come on.”

I jumped nearly a foot as I felt something jab against my lower back.

“BOO!” yelled Binjin, doing his best to stifle a laugh.

“Bin! You’re getting good, I didn’t notice you at all.”

Binjin slapped my back, “Sneakier than a drone, huh?”

“You’re going to get someone killed one day, kid,” said granddad with disdain.

Binjin laughed. “Hey, I’m just messing around. I–”

A row of stilt walkers perched along the road in the distance blasted their flood lamps, lighting up the road to the factory with turquoise light.

“The lights are on. Quiet now,” hushed granddad. “Get moving.”

6

We marched to the massive grey cube on the hill as black smoke began to belch from a pair of towering stacks. I always stared at the ground as we passed under the stilt striders, fearful to meet their gaze.

Binjin hurried beside me as we approached the factory’s massive steel doors. As soon as the stilt striders’ lights extinguished, we were free to talk again. “Hey, you ever wonder how the Privus make their machines move? Not just the drones, but all the stuff in the factory. It’s definitely not clock-work or magnets. My dad says they use black magic.”

I looked at granddad over my shoulder to make sure he was still in the line. He always refused my help and told me never to wait for his “old legs.” Still, I was wary of leaving him too far behind. I smiled when I saw his mop of grey hair bobbing in the distance as he shuffled.

Binjin slapped my shoulder. “I’m talking to you, Danth! Come on, what do you think?”

“He said black magic moves the machines? I don’t think it’s magic,” I said, turning toward Binjin again.

“What else could it be?” said Binjin, kicking a stone off the dirt road. “If they don’t get wound-up like our watches, how do they do anything?”

“Granddad says the Privus use something called electricity. It travels through all those narrow tubes strewn throughout the factory. The drones are a little different–they have boxes full of electricity inside of them called batteries that have to be refilled each day.”

“He’s crazy” said Binjin with a laugh. “What’s this elec–whatever–made of?”

“Granddad says electricity is inside the lightning bolts that strike the hills in the late summer. It only takes a little bit of electricity to move metal but getting it to do what you want is really complicated.”

“Impossible. I watched a lightning bolt split a 50-meter pine tree in half. No one could catch something like that then make it do their bidding.”

“The Privus can,” I said with a shrug.

“Yeah, by using black magic,” said Binjin, as the plant’s doors opened in front of us. It was our signal to go quiet again.

7

Every inch of the factory was stained with black oil and orange rust. The only light came from glass orbs hanging from high hooks on the ceiling, each filled with a single, trapped spark.

Once every Thrall was inside the oppressive interior of the factory, we were split up into work groups by orange, cube-shaped airdrones and assigned quotas. I followed my group through a maze of walkways between whirring belt drives and hulking, steam-spitting machinery. Strange gauges and dials covered every surface, but no one seemed to know their purpose.

My duties generally consisted of scrubbing oozing liquid from mechanical joints and sweeping the slate floors free of debris, but occasionally I was assigned to man a towering hunk of equipment called a press–a back-breaking task I despised. After being led to my station in front of the press I resigned myself to my fate.

An ear-splitting buzz signaled the start of the shift and I began sliding heavy plates of dull metal into a red-hot maw. I then pulled a lever with all my might until a loud clunk sounded alongside an eruption of yellow vapor. When I pushed the lever back up, the press lifted to reveal the flat slab had been formed into a gleaming new shape. I put the stamped object onto a moving belt which zoomed it away to another part of the factory and the process started again.

No matter what job was assigned, a brisk pace was expected. Thrall who fell behind quota were met with severe punishment, usually a painful slash by the Rake. Our shifts were unpredictable, lasting anywhere from a half hour to ten hours. I punched metal for three hours until the Sleep Trill sounded.

8

I wiped my brow and stretched my aching arms, relieved my shift was over. I left the factory and lined up with the rest of the workers outside until the orange airdrones dismissed us with a shrill ring. The Sleep Trill allowed 45 minutes for each worker to get back to their tent and zip up into the partition. We were allowed to converse and meander a bit, as long as we didn’t stray too far from our assigned path and made it back to our plots in the allotted time.

My grandfather was slow coming out of the factory. I rushed up to him when he finally emerged and put my arm around him.

“Don’t,” said Granddad with a groan, pushing my arm away. “I’m fine.”

“This isn’t fair. They’re working you too long.”

Granddad straightened his back. “Live to work, work to live. I’ll be okay. Just do your job and worry about yourself. The last thing I need is your doting attention convincing the Privus my usefulness is at an end.”

I nodded. “I suppose your right.”

“Go ahead and catch up with your little friend, but you better be zipped up in your partition by the time I get back.”

“I will Granddad, I promise,” I said, rushing away.

I caught up with Binjin about a quarter mile up the road. “Hey!” I yelled. “Why didn’t you wait for me?”

“One of those damn machines gushed oil all over me. It soaked through my clothes. I’m rushing to get home and bathe in the stream before time’s up.”

I laughed. “Wow, it really got you good. I’m surprised you still met quota.”

“I always do,” said Binjin, proudly. “You seem pretty clean. Were you scrubbing equipment tonight?”

“No, I was punching out big triangles. They looked like oversized fish fins. What were you making?”

“I was threading these huge, hollow cones. Having to crank those suckers around in a circle about tore my arm off. The next guy in the line was manning a machine that screwed them on to some kind of casing.”

I sighed. “I wish I knew what this stuff was for.”

“Ours is not to question–”

“Shut up, you sound like Granddad,” I groaned.

Binjin shook his head. “I was working near your grandfather tonight. Poor guy is barely keeping up with the rest of us. What’s he going to do if he falls behind?”

“How should I know?” I said, feeling angry. I didn’t like thinking about him getting the Rake again.

“Alright, relax,” said Binjin. “Ugh, I’m going to sprint on home, I can’t stand this grease.”

“See ya soon,” I yelled as Binjin ran off. I had been meaning to tell him about the Privus’ lost hour of surveillance, but the time never seemed right.

After saying hello to a few other people I knew, I decided to crouch down and wait for my grandfather. He came shambling up the road, not the last person in the line, but close. “Granddad, come on already.”

He was breathing hard when he reached me. Despite his objections, I put my arm around him and helped him the rest of the way home. As soon as we arrived at the tent, he went to his partition and zipped up his flap without a word.

“He’s not looking good,” said Marta, concerned.

“Shut up,” I said. “You don’t know anything.”

“Shut up,” said Annie, giggling.

Marta cut her eyes at me. “You need to grow up, Danth. We all love granddad, but his quota is bound to go down soon. Then we’ll have to fend for ourselves. We need to start thinking about–”

“Just, stop,” I interrupted, exhausted. I looked at my watch. “Time’s up in eight minutes. Just…get Annie to bed and try to keep her quiet.”

I could tell Marta was fuming as she stormed off with Annie. She slammed the canvas flap of her partition, but it couldn’t have been very satisfying. After drinking a few ladles of water, I flopped on my bed roll and whittled a scrap of pine into the shape of a river trout until I passed out.

9

I woke up with a jolt sometime in the early morning.

“Danth, come with me…quickly and quietly.”

It was my grandfather.

“Pop? What about the stilstries?”

“Lately, the stilt striders have been leaving the village ahead of the dawn, well before the airdrones arrive from The Walled City. During this time the zone’s not being watched.”

Granddad had been observing the machines too. I was aware of the hour gap during certain nights of the month, but not the one in the early mornings. I was likely asleep when it happened.

“Hurry, into the partition!” Judging from the urgency in granddad’s voice, the morning gap wasn’t as long.

“We’re not allowed into other people’s partitions,” I said, nervously.

“Come!” said Granddad, holding open the flap. Once I we were inside, he zipped it up tight again.

I gasped when granddad turned up his kerosene lamp, illuminating the canvas walls. They were covered in loose pages filled with blocks of writing I couldn’t read. Thousands of words, some of it handwritten, some of it looking as if it had been stamped by machine. Interspersed with the pages were inscrutable photos–pictures of people from a forgotten age. The only other photos I had ever seen were in The Ten Tomes. “What is all this?” I asked, fascinated.

“It’s our people’s history, boy. The real deal, not passed down rumors told by buffoons who’ve lost the ability to discern magic from science. The stories told during the Interaction Periods are even worse–fictionalized hero worship sanctioned by the Privus.”

“These papers on your wall are stories?” I asked.

“No, they’re facts. Shortly after the war ended, the Privus assigned me to scavenger duty. While scouring the blackened wastes of ruined cities in search of objects the Privus desired, I secretly collected as many remnants from the past as I could and hid them away. Now, I’m condensing these notes as well as my memories into a compendium–a history book.”

“But only those with Care Cards can read, and only from The Ten Tomes.”

Grandfather grunted. “Bah, The Ten Tomes are nothing but lies. I’ve known how to read since I was Annie’s age. Before all…this…happened. Now, I’m going to teach you.”

I was stunned. “But why?”

“Danth, I’m not long for this world. As much as I fight against it, my body is giving out and I won’t survive another brush with the Rake. When I’m gone, I’m leaving it up to you to finish this book.” Granddad pulled out a large, hand-bound volume from beneath his bedroll. “These notes on my wall will help you write the last chapter of our people’s history–the moments leading up to the Final Lesson. The night your mother and father died.”

“But why? Why is this book so important?”

“People need to understand that their situation can change. They have to see how the world once was. Only then will they start to believe things can be better.”

I flipped through the pages, spellbound. “Incredible. But granddad, I can’t learn to read…can I?”

My grandfather nodded. “You’re smart as a tack and bored as hell. You’ll learn it in no time.” He looked at his watch. “Speaking of time, we don’t have a lot left.”

“What about Marta? She’d older than me, and she can already read.”

“Marta is steadfast and fastidious. She’ll become the head of this family after I’m gone. She has enough to worry about–I won’t trouble her with my act of subversion.”

I didn’t see the use in arguing. “I’ll do whatever you say, Granddad. Can you tell me some of what the book says before I have to go back to my partition?”

Granddad nodded. “We weren’t always cowering in the shadows of crumbled buildings, scraping by on what little we could farm from scorched plots of earth. Your parents’ generation had hearts full of hope. They rose up to fight their oppressors, but their efforts were futile. Bolstered by preposterous amounts of wealth and weaponry, the ruling class could not be stopped by the will of the people alone. Millions upon millions died. By the time you were born, the class war was nearly over.”

“Class war?” I asked, confused. “What about the great plague? The cannibalistic hordes?”

“It’s all lies,” said Granddad, shaking his head. “The only enemies of The Walled City were people just like you and me. People who desired–and deserved–freedom.”

I took a deep breath. “So, Mom and Dad weren’t diseased? You’ve never told us much about them.”

“Your mother and father were proud people. Strong. I don’t blame them for joining the resistance. One can only take so much injustice before anger overrides fear–before violence seems like the only answer.” Granddad wiped his eyes. “When Helena and Ankor died in The Final Lesson, the only thing keeping my hope alive was a belief in the cyclical nature of life. Although the survivors had no hope of fighting back, perhaps our children’s children could.”

“Mom and dad were killed by the Privus?”

“Yes, but they weren’t called that yet. After the war, the nation reverted to a caste system consisting of two groups: the Privus and the Thrall. As much as the Privus may deny it, we are all human beings.”

I had a million questions. “Granddad, so much of the food we grow and the fish we catch is taken away. Where do the elders deliver it at the end of each season?”

“The Privus allow the denizens of the zones to keep what little food and materials they need to survive. The rest is hauled by donkey cart to the black gate in the west. There, the bounty of each zone is loaded onto the Privus’ massive, tracked transports and shipped to The Walled City.”

“Have you ever been inside the walls?”

“No. Only a privileged few Thrall are allowed inside The Walled City. Some labor to construct towers, while others are chosen to attend to the needs of those who have undergone Synaptic Rejuvenation.”

I was completely lost. “What?”

“We’ll talk more later,” said Granddad, opening the flap. “Now, back to your partition. The airdrones are on the way.”

10

There was no need for a trill to signal the beginning of the workday. At first light, you were expected to eat a quick breakfast then immediately tend to the crops in your assigned plot. With harvest season upon us, the family spread out into separate rows, using small scythes to thresh the rye. Because Marta had a Care Card, she was allowed to stop work every hour and check on Annie in the house, who was exempt from field work until she turned six.

We could talk, as long as it didn’t slow our pace. I waved to Marta when she returned to her row. “How’s Annie?”

“A little upset and bored. She’s making a mess in there, but I’ll clean it up when we’re done. Don’t you dare say I’m lucky!”

“I won’t,” I promised. My secrets were weighing heavily on me. I desperately wanted to tell someone else about what Granddad had shown me, but I knew it was dangerous–especially with the airdrones hovering nearby. “Marta, are you more scared of the airdrones or the stilstries?”

“Stilstries, duh,” replied Marta as she swung her scythe. “Just looking at those things makes me feel sick. I wonder why they aren’t here all the time…not that I’m complaining.”

“Maybe it’s more difficult to watch us at night. They must feel the need to intimidate us.”

“Well, it works,” said Marta. “Now, shut up…this is dangerous talk and you know it.”

“I’m just–” A heavy thud to my left interrupted my train of thought. Granddad had collapsed in the field. I rushed to his side. “Pop! Are you alright?”

“I’m…I’m fine. My legs just gave out on me for a second.” He grabbed on my shoulder and lifted himself up, gritting his teeth. “Go back to your row.”

An airdrone hovered to the edge of the field. A blue light deep in the black glass orb began to pulse.

I reluctantly left granddad, feeling my heart pound. Although I could tell he was struggling, he resumed working. Finally, the airdrone left.

11

It seemed to take an eternity for the Meal Trill to sound. “Are you okay?” I whispered to granddad, as we left the field and lined up in a row for Quota Check.

“Be quiet,” scolded Granddad, clearly out of breath.

A tear streamed down Marta’s cheek as the airdrone zoomed up in front of her. She placed her hand on the glass, and the blue light turned green. An equal sign appeared on the front of the drone, showing she had met her Field Quota. Another equal sign flashed moments later, indicating Marta’s quota would remain unchanged the following day.

“Verbal request,” said Marta, before the orb moved away from her.

I tensed up. Verbal requests were dangerous. Simply asking the Privus a question often led to the stilt striders taking you away in the night.

The airdrone’s green light blinked three times, which meant Marta was free to ask her question.

Marta swallowed hard. “I request my Care Card be transferred to my grandfather. Please, let him watch over Annie. Allow us to swap our quotas.”

I knew what Marta was attempting, but it was risky.

“Don’t!” choked my Grandfather.

The airdrone hovered in place for nearly a minute, its inner light extinguished. Finally, the light returned, flashing red twice. Marta’s request was denied.

Marta steeled herself, fighting back tears while clenching her fists. I shared her apprehension. Granddad’s collapse may have sealed his fate.

The airdrone slipped sideways in front of me and I placed my hand on its curved surface. A green equal sign flashed twice in succession. My Field Quota had been met and extended to the next day.

My grandfather was next. He remained stoic as he received a red minus sign followed by a red X from the drone. He hadn’t met his Field Quota, and most troubling, his next quota had been completely cancelled. This was the worst news imaginable.

Marta sobbed as the drone lifted away and the Meal Trill blared throughout the zone. Annie was crying inside the tent.

12

“Everyone, keep it together. We’ll get through this,” said Granddad, unshakable as always as we all kneeled around the table.

Annie crawled into my arms, sensing the tension in the room. “It’s alright, don’t worry,” I said, stroking her red hair. Inside though, my guts were lurching.

“They took away your quota,” said Marta, her tears flowing. “If they don’t think you’re useful, then–”

“No use worrying about something we can’t control,” said Granddad.

“Besides,” I interjected, “we don’t know if Pop’s Factory Quota’s been repealed yet.”

“Jobs are always cancelled at the same time, idiot!” said Marta, trying to catch her breath.

“We don’t know that for sure!” I was either trying to stay positive or in complete denial.

“Listen children, people who’ve lost their usefulness aren’t taken right away. It could take months for the stilt striders to retrieve me. Remember old Samson Pled? They didn’t come for him for almost a year.”

“Almost a year,” parroted Annie, as she played with my shirt buttons.

“Still, they’re going to take you away from us!” said Marta, slumping lower. “The bastards!”

“Stop, we can’t talk like this,” said Granddad, looking out the window for a drone. “We will do what we always do, sur–”

“Survive, right?” interrupted Marta. “Survival isn’t good enough! We’re human beings, we deserve some happiness!” Her face became drawn as the light in her eyes extinguished. “Don’t we?”

All of us went quiet, except for Annie, who clapped two wooden spoons together joyfully.

Granddad broke the silence. “We’ll consider our options. For now, we must eat. Boy, get those beans off the fire.”

13

Evening brought the Factory Trill. Lacking options, we all pretended it was a night like any other, although Granddad may have hugged everyone a little bit longer.

I found it difficult to concentrate on my work, but Granddad seemed to have more drive than ever, making it through his shift without incident. Still, I wasn’t surprised to see the stilt strider approach us as we were leaving the factory. The people around us scattered as the black machine lowered and shined a red light on my grandfather.

“Easy boy, stay calm,” said Granddad, motioning to me. He stood still and waited for the worst. Unlike the daily field checks, there were no quota reports for factory work unless a change was required.

The empty, ebony face of the stilt strider displayed a green equal sign, signifying Granddad had made his quota. I held my breath for the next light. Two green arrows pointing upward flashed before the stilt strider stood up and stomped away.

I was worried granddad’s quota would be cancelled, thus ending his usefulness, thus ending his life. Instead, the Privus had just doubled his factory work. I was in shock. “What just happened?”

“Good news,” said granddad, cracking a smile.

“But how could you possible meet that–”

“Don’t you worry. Let’s get home and tell Marta.”

I was relieved and anxious all over again. Even spared field work, I knew grandfather’s body couldn’t hold up to a such a demanding pace for long. I had to do something.

14

To my great surprise, the IP trill blared first thing the next morning. Considering Granddad’s condition, it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Interaction Periods were as unpredictable as factory work–lasting anywhere from an hour to an entire day. The populace was allowed complete freedom within the zone during the IP, which allowed families to meet up and trade ration cards to obtain goods they couldn’t get from their own plots. Cards for milk were exchanged for wheat; eggs for firewood; vegetables for rice and so on.

A Recreation Tent was erected in the center of the village during every IP, which was separated into three large partitions. The first partition contained an IP-drone, which told prerecorded stories (mostly from The Ten Tomes) while projecting moving images. Another partition allowed for dancing and held a variety of musical instruments people could play, which was normally forbidden. The last partition was reserved purely for socializing–a place where family members and friends could reunite. Family Reassignments and Plot Redistributions also occurred during IPs, which added an air of apprehension to the fun.

“Thank goodness,” said Marta as we all filed into the communal area of our tent. Even granddad seemed relieved. Annie was excited. Even at her age she recognized the IP Trill and knew it meant playtime with her friends.

“It’s been at least a month since the last IP,” I said. I was anxious for a break, but thoughts of my grandfather’s failing health weren’t far from my mind.

Granddad snapped his fingers to get my attention. “Get your head out of the clouds, boy. You need to help Marta trade our ration cards before you do anything else. We haven’t had eggs in weeks and we’re running out of soap.”

I groaned. “Right, I know.” I turned around, hearing scratching on the outer flap. I unzipped the tent and saw Binjin’s freckled face flashing a grin.

“Danth, come on! We need to hurry before those other jerks grab all the instruments. Sen and I want to form a band to impress the girls and we need your help. You’re the best guitar player in the zone.”

I stepped outside. “I have to trade ration cards first. There’s not much demand for rye, so we always have to do a lot of swapping to get what we want.”

“Boring,” groaned Binjin. “I’m going to see if Thomas can fill in until you show up.” He turned around and started running toward the Recreation Tent.

“Come on Marta!” I shouted in frustration. “Let’s get this over with.”

I watched Marta lean down and pat Granddad on the shoulders. “You rest up today. You need it.”

My grandfather nodded, lacking the strength to argue. “Head to the socializing area first. Alice Dans has three young girls…I’m sure they’d love to play with Annie while you trade.”

“Okay, Pop,” said Marta. She kissed Granddad on the head before leaning up and glaring at me. She shoulder-checked me on the way out of the tent with Annie in her arms.

“Hey!” I complained, rubbing my arm.

Annie stuck her tongue out at me.

“Boy,” said Granddad, getting my attention again.

I looked over my shoulder. “What is it?”

“Tonight, we begin what we…talked about earlier,” Granddad hushed. “There’s no need to worry Marta.”

I nodded then left. I was far more eager to learn how to read than get my hands on the Recreational Tent’s battered old guitar. I held out hope that something in granddad’s history lessons could help us.

15

Annie directed a series of sour faces at me while we walked. I began to feel bad about snapping at Marta as we arrived at the big crimson tent.

“Marta, give me your cards. I can handle these trades on my own. There’s no need for both of us to waste our time.”

“Really? Are you sure?” asked Marta, as Annie bounced on her shoulders.

“Yeah. I’ll drop off Annie with Alice. Go try to have fun for once.”

“It would be nice to find Maggie. I didn’t get to see her last time.”

I smiled. “Do it.”

Marta seemed to perk up as she transferred Annie to my shoulders. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” I looked up at Annie. “Can’t you walk?” I asked with a grunt.

“Nope,” said Annie.

“See you at home,” said Marta before disappearing into the crowd.

After dropping off Annie with Alice and her children, I moved to the open field beside the tent to start trading. Swapping rations was never fun. Villagers always rushed to finish their trades so they could get inside the tent, leaving the grounds densely packed with impatient people.

Wary of thieves, my hand was always firmly on my satchel. I had a weeks-worth of rations to trade and losing them would prove disastrous. The airdrones turned a blind eye during IP, which could be good or bad depending on your perspective. Thankfully, most denizens of the zone were extremely intolerant of violence and crime.

After two long hours, I finally finished trading rations. I managed to get every card I wanted and more, including an extra ration of beef, which was exceedingly difficult to acquire.

16

I made my way to the recreation tent and stopped at the edge of the storytelling area. I was unsurprised to see a T-drone hovering near the ceiling of the large partition. Only seen during IPs, the grapefruit-sized machines were used by the Privus to alert the Thrall of family or plot reassignments. Their capacity to throw lives into chaos made them just as menacing as the stilt striders, but just like anything else in the zone, you got used to them.

I peered into the story partition and saw Marta sitting cross-legged in the front row. She was watching the story-drone project narrated scenes from Heroes of the Final Lesson on the side of the tent. Heroes… was by far the most popular of The Ten Tomes, but Granddad had revealed it was nothing but lies. Frustrated over the content but fascinated by the moving images, I decided to watch for a while before I checked in on Annie.

A masculine voice was projecting from the story-drone: Disease rampaged the land, turning ordinary people into drooling beasts whose only pleasure came from ripping the flesh from those they once called friends and family. Only the strongest and bravest men and women survived the onslaught, taking refuge in The Walled City to make their final stand. Onus Samsol was among these brave survivors, which we now know as the Privus.

Granddad made it clear the werebeasts were just fairy tales. “Please,” I mumbled.

The drone continued: Growing tired of watching mutated freaks turn his beloved nation into a wasteland, Onus rallied his people together and took action. With the world outside the walls hopelessly overrun by the Plague of Beasts, Onus built an armada of immense, flame-spitting machines to cleanse the land. As hard as it was to watch the great cities fall and burn, it was the only way to eradicate the disease and kill the monsters.

I wondered what awful weapon had actually destroyed the old cities. Yet another thing to ask granddad.

Not content to simply cower in a metal transport, Onus assembled a team of brave Privus warriors to strike down the wiliest of the cannibalistic creatures for good. Perhaps you already know the names of these heroes…

“Pan Doontz!” shouted the crowd, in unison with the drone.

“Mantizona Vontageous!”

“Perious Handellem!”

“Shantilouz Partrinson!”

“Planzin Plo, the Grand Wizard!”

I wondered how names could have gotten so boring since the Final Lesson. I knew the most beloved part of the story was coming–chick-full of decapitations, spurting blood and explosions. I walked away with a groan, having heard enough.

17

I made my way to the social partition of the big top to check on Annie. As soon as I walked in, the T-drone at the top of the tent boomed a low tone, signaling everyone to stop moving and remain quiet. The diminutive sphere beamed a blood red light down on a young woman, causing her eyes to go wide. A few seconds later, a young man walked inside the partition, looking similarly shocked as a second T-drone hovered over his head, bathing him in crimson light. The spotlights converged, directing the man and woman to stand side by side as new Life Partners. One of the drones left, while the other dipped in front of the faces of the new couple to display the location of their newly assigned home–plot H3. The couple smiled politely and we all clapped for them. The drone then retook its position at the top of the room and spit out a cheery ring, letting everyone know they were free to go about their business. I jetted some air from my nose and shook my head, happy it hadn’t been me under the flood light.

I resumed my search for Annie. My heart fluttered faster when I couldn’t find her. Finally, I saw Alice standing in the corner, holding her three children close.

I cold chill ran through my limbs as I sprinted to Alice. “Where’s Annie? You said you’d watch her!”

“I…I’m sorry,” said Alice, starting to cry. Her children were quiet, but most children of the zone were, even when playing.

“Alice, just tell me,” I said, putting my hands on her shoulders.

“He held a blade on me. He said…he said he was taking Annie.”

“Who?” I demanded.

“His name was Sams. He’s tall, with brown hair and brown eyes. I told him no, but he threatened to take one of my girls if I didn’t do what he wanted.”

“What? Where is he? WHERE!”

“Please! He…he said he’d be waiting for you in the corner of the music partition, near the stage. You have to go alone or he’ll–”

“What does he want?” I interrupted. My hands were shaking.

“He wants your ration cards. The guy’s completely desperate. I could see it in his eyes.”

I looked around in a panic. “Is Annie hurt?”

“No, Sams was giving her bits of dried fruit. She was happier than a pig in mud. He told her he was a friend of yours.”

“Bastard,” I muttered, turning away. The carving knife I kept inside my boot was feeling heavier.

I heard Alice yell “I’m sorry!” as I ran for the exit.

18

I burst into the music room, trying to look between throngs of people as they swirled around in their grey coveralls. A violin, some pots and pans and a single guitar combined to make a surprising racket, shaking the walls with a syncopated rhythm.

Finally, I saw a man crouched in the corner in front of my little niece. Sams. After we made eye contact he became noticeably nervous. I walked closer, holding back my rage as he put a dried date in Annie’s outstretched hand. Before I could close in, he pulled a blade halfway out of his belt then held a finger to his lips. I stopped in my tracks as he lowered his hand to Annie’s shoulder.

Binjin’s eyes lit up as he turned around and spotted me. He hurried beside me, dancing the entire way. “Hey Danth, where the hell were you? I couldn’t get to the instruments in time, but these guys are pretty good. I–”

“Shut up!” I interrupted, keeping my eyes on Sams.

“What’s going on?” asked Binjin, noticing my stress.

Marta stepped into the room and ran over to me. “Who’s that guy with Annie?”

“Stay back, both of you,” I instructed. I walked within a few steps of Sams and could see the tension rippling throughout his body.

Sams put Annie on his knee and bounced her around, making her giggle. Stay back, he mouthed quietly, motioning to the knife on his hip.

“You want our ration cards, is that it?” I asked, unable to remain quiet. “Do you really think the people here will let you get away?”

A tear streaked down Sams’ face. “I…I don’t have a choice. My entire field’s diseased. When I couldn’t make quota they took away my rations. All of them.” He laughed. “Today they doubled my Cultivation Quota, but there’s nothing to harvest–nothing.”

“Don’t do this,” I told him, stepping closer. “We can work this out. I’ll give you some rations to get you through.”

Sams stiffened. “Only trades are allowed! One card for one card. You know charity is forbidden!”

It was true. The drones held no qualms about cards being stolen, but anyone who willingly gave rations away usually disappeared in the night. “Sams, stop!”

“Stop?” asked Annie, finally acknowledging the anger filling the tent.

I knelt closer to Annie. “Annie, come on, it’s time to go,” I said, reaching for her with one hand while dipping my fingers toward my knife with the other.

“No!” yelled Sams. He pushed me to the floor and grabbed Annie around the chest, holding her tight to him. He wept openly, pointing his blade toward me while my niece screamed and kicked.

“Annie! Just relax, don’t move!” I begged.

“I’m taking those rations!” screamed Sams. The music stopped and everyone turned toward us. “I’m not going to starve to death on that goddamn dirt patch they put me on!”

“Let her go, you bastard!” yelled Marta, clenching her fists. Binjin was holding her back.

“Alright!” I said. “Here! Just let her–”

I was interrupted by the deep blare of the drone above us. A wash of red light streaked across the tent, directly over Sams. He looked up, completely stunned and dropped his knife. Moving quickly, I kicked his weapon across the floor and grabbed Annie.

Another deep tone sounded, warning me to stop moving as I ran across the room. I slid to a halt and turned slowly back toward Sams. In the meantime, another T-drone had slipped inside the room. You must be kidding, I thought.

The second drone hovered over Marta and illuminated her pale skin with red light. “No!” she gasped, beginning to tremble.

“Whoa,” said Binjin, backing away from Marta slowly.

Sams stared in Marta’s eyes, his face still wet with tears. “I didn’t mean…please, not like this…” he trailed off.

The red light led Marta next to Sams, and she had no choice but to stand beside him. “Danth?” she questioned, looking on the verge of passing out as her eyes met mine.

“Don’t fight it! We’ll…we’ll figure it all out,” I whispered.

One of the T-drones left while the other lowered in front of the new Life Partners. People in the room clapped slowly, as expectations demanded. The drone’s black face flashed H4–the new plot my sister would share with Sams.

As soon as the orb lifted again, I rushed over to Marta, shoving Sams aside. I didn’t know what else to do besides hug her. She held to me tight and sobbed against my shoulder.

Sams let out a gasping laugh and sank to his knees. “I’m…I’m saved!” A life partner meant a new patch of land to cultivate, along with completely reset quotas. It was a second chance.

“Goddamn coward!” I said, turning to face Sams. I was fighting back my own tears. “If I hear you’ve mistreated Marta one bit during the next IP, I’ll kill you with my bare hands!”

Sams stood up quickly. “I’m sorry. I swear, I never would have hurt the girl–”

Another deep tone. I couldn’t believe it. The crowd was visibly shaken. The red light crept over the floor and fixed on Annie, flashing twice. She squinted then curled up on the floor, hugging her knees. The drone then shined a second beam of light directly on Marta then flashed “H4” followed by a double-sided arrow: the symbol for reassignment. Annie would go with Marta to the new plot.

Just like that, my family had been reduced by half.

19

After the T-drone lifted to the ceiling, the room emptied and the band put down their instruments. No one seemed to be in the mood for dancing.

I lifted Annie into my arms and kissed her forehead. “It’s okay now, everything’s okay.”

Wisely, Sams had slipped away. Marta took Annie from me and we hurried back to the family tent. We didn’t know how much longer we’d have before the Interaction Period ended, and it would be Granddad’s only chance to see his girls again until the next IP.

Granddad remained strong, not letting the news shake him in the least. The rest of us were weeping, including Annie. “Everyone…this is good. Free of the burden I represent, Marta and Annie will thrive on their new plot. I don’t know much about Sams, but we must give him a chance.”

“Are you kidding?” asked Marta, exasperated. “He held a knife to your granddaughter!”

“While his act was despicable, from what you’ve both told me it was also an act of desperation. Remember the rash actions of your brother? No one can predict what the zone will drive people to do.”

“At least Sams isn’t some fat old man,” I told Marta.

“Not funny,” said Marta, wiping her eyes.

“Sorry,” I said, my attempt to defuse the situation with humor failing.

“Marta, I’m proud of how strong you’ve become. You’ll be fine. And there’s no need to fret about me.”

Marta’s lip trembled. “Pop, that’s impossible.”

We all shared a long hug, during which Granddad finally shed a tear. We did our best to explain to Annie what was happening, but she was having a tough time comprehending the situation. I gave her my collection of carvings in a little woven bag and she seemed overjoyed.

“Is the little chicken in here?” she asked, grinning.

“Yup, I know that was your favorite,” I said, my lip quivering.

“And it’s mine now? Don’t have to give it back no more?”

“No, it’s all yours. There’s also a donkey, a rainbow, and little carvings of me, Granddad and Marta in there.”

Annie hugged me tight. “Thank you Dant!”

I’d miss hearing her drop the H from my name. “You’re welcome, sweetie.”

Time seemed to crawl until the Factory Trill sounded. Granddad and I said goodbye to Marta and Annie one more time then hurried to dress into our work clothing. None of us mentioned Granddad’s doubled quota–there was nothing to say.

20

My mind was swirling with so much worry, I nearly lost a finger in the factory’s metal press. When the trill sounded, I rushed to find Granddad. He was standing tall when I found him, exhausted but defiant. It was nothing less than a miracle. “I can’t believe it,” I said, “how did you keep pace with a double quota?”

“I managed, boy,” said Granddad, “that’s all that matters.

I broke into a cold sweat as we left the factory. Thankfully, the stilt striders remained in place–there was no quota change. I sucked in a huge breath and felt the tightness in my muscles loosening. “Yes! Finally, good news.”

“See. I knew it would be fine.” Granddad patted me on the back. “Go on, catch up with your friend. I see that idiot up there looking for you.” Despite his chipper mood, I noticed Granddad’s posture lowering the farther we walked.

“Forget Bin,” I said. “I want to go check on Marta and Annie. I’ve been waiting for that coward Sams to show up at the factory, but somehow he weaseled his way out of a Factory Quota.”

“Don’t be stupid,” said Granddad, his tone stern. “The H plots are on the other side of the village. The drones will notice if you stray too far from our route.” He waved a hand at me. “Stop worrying about Sams. You won’t see him for a long time. New Life Partners are given a year to cultivate their new plot before they’re assigned additional duties.”

“Right, I forgot.”

“Now, go to your friend.”

Not wanting to add to my grandfather’s stress, I nodded and ran up to Binjin. “Bin!”

Binjin adopted a look of concern as soon as he saw me. “Danth! Hey…I’m so sorry about your sister–Annie too. That was crazy.”

I shook my head. “They’ll be alright. Sams was just desperate…the bastard. No use worrying,” I said, in steep defiance of my actual emotions.

“Your grandfather was moving fast tonight. After getting his quota doubled, I thought he’d get the Rake for sure.”

I tensed up. “Really, Bin?”

Binjin laughed. “Sorry. I guess I’m pretty good at hopping around on one leg.”

I looked at him with confusion.

“Because I always have my foot in my mouth.”

I shook my head and groaned. “It’s alright…listen…I have to tell you something.”

“What is it?” said Binjin, moving closer.

I was holding so many secrets, I couldn’t bear the weight. “Granddad is tough as nails, but he can’t keep up this pace for long. One more Rake or extended shift and he probably won’t make it.”

Binjin pursed his lips. “But what can we do?”

“This place is Hell and we all know it. I need to get Granddad, Marta and Annie out of this damned village. The world has to be bigger than these thousand acres where the Thrall live, work and die…somewhere there’s a place the Privus don’t control, and I’m going to find it.”

“You’re insane!” said Binjin, looking around nervously. “Remember your brother? The stilt striders will find you anywhere you try to go.”

I immediately regretted saying anything. “Binjin…I’m…I’m just frustrated, that’s all. Don’t repeat any of this.”

“I won’t, I swear. Just, ease up on the revolutionary talk.”

I nodded, but inside my resolve to escape hadn’t eroded by one grain.

21

The next morning, Granddad and I waited patiently for the stilt striders to leave the village. As soon as they were gone, we immediately began my reading lessons, taking advantage of the surveillance gap. I battled my frustration and did my best to memorize every shape, line and slash I was presented. Just as I felt something was beginning to click, our time was up. I went back to my partition before the drones returned.

I was thankful granddad had been spared field work, but with his quota eliminated, I was unsurprised to find mine had doubled. My grandfather was desperate to help, but work sharing was expressly forbidden. To pass the time, he kept writing while safely zipped within his partition. He was taking a risk–tent raids were rare, but not uncommon. Knowing this, he was adamant about finishing his book.

By the time the Meal Trill sounded, my legs felt like rubber. After the drone cleared and renewed my double field quota, I joined Granddad at the table to eat some beans and rice. I missed Marta and Annie and hoped they were holding up okay on their new plot.

“Boy, whatever happens to me…promise me you’ll keep going, keep trying to survive,” said Granddad. Despite a lack of field work, the old man still seemed tired.

“Don’t talk that way,” I replied, putting down my spoon. “You always told us the only thing more powerful than the Privus is hope. I won’t give up, and you shouldn’t either.”

Granddad smiled softly and stood up. “I’m afraid I’m going to need to rest for a bit before the Factory Trill.”

I nodded. “I’ll clean up, don’t worry.”

Granddad shuffled to his partition and zipped up his flap. Outside the window, I saw a swarm of airdrones lifting into the sky. It was the middle of the month, the first of five days when the stilt striders arrived late to the zone. I took a deep breath and quietly left the tent. Solutions to my problems weren’t going to present themselves–I had to take action.

22

Although the drones were gone, I’d still have to move quickly and quietly. I couldn’t afford to be noticed leaving the village. Even friends and neighbors were potential informers–a reward of a few extra rations means a lot when you’re perpetually on the verge of starvation.

I couldn’t stop myself from checking in on Marta. After locating her plot in row H, I snuck up to the tent and peered inside. I was relieved to see her and Annie smiling as they ate a meal of bread and cheese. Sams was sitting across from them.

Tempering my rage, I watched quietly as Sams told a series of silly jokes to Annie. I soon realized the man was a completely different person. The panic in his eyes was gone. He seemed patient and unperturbed. His face was plumper and color had returned to his cheeks, replacing a ghoulish pallor.

Even though everyone in the tent looked tired, it became obvious they had found a measure of happiness together. I was confused and relieved at the same time.

Fighting the urge to intrude, I left their plot and made my way to the edge of the zone. Wary of the stilt strider’s black tower, I chose not to travel west. I had occasionally seen smoke rising from the east, so I decided to head to the nearby hills there, hoping to find a sign of civilization.

23

There was no fence indicating the edge of Zone 28. No discernible border to cross. Fear usually sufficed to keep everyone inside the village, zipped up in their tents. I squatted next to a butterfly bush and waited for my eyes to adjust to the dark.

I squinted into the open plain, seeing waist-high grass stretch to the edge of the valley before giving way to rocky hills topped with dense trees. What laid beyond the hills was a mystery–nothing else could be seen aside from a ridge of snow-topped mountains far in the distance.

I looked at my watch to consider my options. Having less than an hour, there was no choice but to run. I’d only have enough time to see if anything was on the other side of the hills before being forced to sprint back to the village. The risk was incredible and reward negligible, but I decided to press on.

I started running through the grass before I could talk myself out of the decision. The tall green blades whipped against my body until my clothes were soaking with dew. I kept my pace up, hoping I wouldn’t twist my ankle on a rock or sink my leg into a rodent hole. A gibbous moon cut through the darkness just enough to illuminate the edge of the outcroppings in the distance, keeping me on course. I obsessed over the dials of my watch–time was quickly running out.

24

I breached the grass and arrived at a rocky hillside snarled with tree roots. I peered up and saw oak branches hanging over a ledge high above me. With a bit of effort I knew I could reach them. I leaned against the stones and caught my breath while checking the time. It had taken me longer to get through the grass than I would have liked.

“I can’t turn back yet.” I hurried to climb the wet rock face, finding no easy route. My battered boots threatened to slip and send me to my death as I neared the top of the cliff.

Letting out a winded grunt, I tugged my body over the top of the hill only to wind up in a thicket of bushes. Every muscle was burning with pain. I remembered I had a factory shift to look forward to when I returned to the village–if I returned. After looking at my watch I let out a sigh of disappointment. “Just one look, then I’m gone,” I mumbled.

I heard a sharp noise. Wary of a wild animal, I rose up quickly and realized it had been a gasp.

25

A young woman was staring at me with wild eyes. She had a basket of pearl-white berries clutched in her hand, plucked from the bushes surrounding me. She was preparing to bolt.

“Wait! I won’t hurt you,” I said. “My name’s Danth…I’m from Zone 28, Plot B.” I didn’t know what else to say.

“I’m Daun,” said the petite woman, relaxing a bit. She was wearing blue coveralls instead of gray. Long blonde hair hung over her shoulder, secured in a complicated braid. I had never seen eyes so blue. “You’re not supposed to be here.”

“Neither are you,” I said. “Where are you from?”

Daun hesitated for a moment. “Zone 29, Ranch R.”

“Ranch?” I had never heard the word before. I knew other Zones existed, but I never dreamed they would be so close. “Is where we’re standing part of Zone 29?”

“Well, no,” said Daun, looking over her shoulder. “It’s about a quarter-mile behind me.” She cautiously stepped closer. “So, you must know the secret too?”

“Yes, the Privus aren’t watching the zones right now.”

“Right,” said Daun, smiling politely. “This is a good time of night to come pick wild gooseberries. There would be hell to pay if they caught me, but I love them so much, I can’t help myself.”

I looked at my watch. “Damn, I have to go! Please, can you come back tomorrow? I’d really like to talk to you some more!” Maybe this woman knew something or somebody that could help get my family escape the Privus.

“I…I don’t know. I’m not supposed–”

“We’re already breaking the rules,” I interrupted with a nervous smile. “Please?”

Daun sighed, looking over her shoulder one more time. “Okay, fine. I’ll come tomorrow night, at the same time.”

“Great! I promise I’ll be here,” I said, moving over the cliff. My foot slipped and I felt myself become airborne.

26

I woke up, staring up at the moon. My head was pounding but the grass had cushioned my fall enough to spare me any broken bones. A panic hit as I leaned up and checked my watch. I had been knocked-out for a while–there was no way to make it back to the village before the stilt striders arrived. “No.”

“Are you okay?”

I did a double take as I looked up. Daun was above me, atop the biggest donkey I had ever seen. It was muscular and more angular than the ones the elders used to transport goods out of the village. “You have a donkey?” I asked with surprise.

“It’s not a donkey, it’s a horse!”

“Horse?”

“My family raises them.” Daun reached a hand out to me. “Now, hurry and climb up behind me. If you live as far away as I’m guessing, there’s no way you’ll make it back to your zone on foot.”

Without arguing, I took Daun’s hand and managed to awkwardly slide behind her and mount the strange animal. Before I knew it, we were racing through the grass. I wrapped my arms around Daun’s middle instinctively and immediately felt myself blushing.

“Hold on tighter!” Daun yelled. “We don’t have time for you to fall…again.”

I held fast to Daun’s small waist as the wind lashed through my hair. I had never experienced such a sense of speed. “You didn’t have to do this,” I shouted. I couldn’t help but smile as the horse flew across the green field.

“You owe me one,” said Daun. She pulled back on a pair of leather straps and the horse slowed to a stop just outside the village. “All this time…other Thrall were so close,” she said, marveling, as she stared into my village.

I hopped off the horse, and gave it a gentle pet on its neck, admiring it’s solid, chestnut coat. “That was incredible. Thank you…both of you.”

“Her name’s Tenslin,” said Daun with a smile. “I better go, the stilstries will be back in minutes.” She turned Tenslin away and waved goodbye. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Danth.”

I waved back in utter astonishment, lost for words again.

27

After snapping out of my stupor I sprinted home to the tent–there was no time to worry if anyone was watching. Just before I zipped up my partition, I looked through the plastic window and saw the blue lights of the stilt striders shining across the encampment as they approached. My pulse raced, but after a couple of minutes it became clear my high crime had gone unnoticed. I let a laugh slip, my head spinning with possibilities as I lay on my bed roll. Five minutes later the Factory Trill sounded. Time for work.

Granddad seemed to be in good spirits as we trudged to the factory. I was exhausted and overwhelmed, running solely on leftover adrenaline. I prayed for a short shift–then remembered how hard my grandfather worked. If he could do it every day, I could make it through a few more hours. It was nearly impossible to keep quiet about my visit to Marta’s plot or my encounter beyond the hills, but it wasn’t the right time. Maybe after work. Maybe during my lessons.

My fear of being grabbed by the stilt striders eventually waned as the minutes wore on–I figured if they were going to take me, they would have done so the moment they arrived back in the village. Still, I walked a little faster as we passed beneath the blue light of each beast’s unblinking eye.

I was back at the press, punching more fish fins. Hundreds upon hundreds of them. My arms ached and a sharp pain was radiating through my back, but I kept pace with my comrades. Thankfully, granddad had been put on maintenance duty for the evening–a task he was able to do quickly and accurately, even with a double quota. I saw him pass by my station a few times while he tightened bolts, fixed leaks and checked the tangle of tubes connecting each machine.

Our shift ended after four hours. Once again, Granddad looked beat but in high spirits.

“You remind me of a smashed beetle,” said Granddad, patting me on the back. “Rough shift?”

I winced as his hand slapped against my bruises. “Yeah, I guess. I’m just feeling a little under the weather,” I told him.

“If I were you, I’d stay healthy. No one wants to a scan from the med-drone.”

I shuddered remembering my last “exam.” The med-drones were 6-foot-high white cylinders–more arms and legs than anything else. So many pinchers, needles and clamps. “Yeah, no thanks.”

Binjin walked up, looking chipper as usual. Sometimes it annoyed me to see how unaffected he was by life’s trials. “Danth, you were lagging behind in there. I was surprised you made quota.”

“What do you care?” I snapped. “Try minding your own business some time.”

Binjin was taken aback. “Take it easy!”

“Sorry,” I said with a sigh. “I’m just a little beat tonight. I feel raw.”

“I get it, but I have a big nose…I can’t help sticking it where it doesn’t belong.”

I laughed. “It’s a respectable honker, for sure.”

“Shut up!” Binjin punched my shoulder and I winced, feeling the throb of another bruise. “Hey, I’ve been keeping a look out for Sams. I figured you’d want to talk with him, but I never see him around.”

“Granddad reminded me new lifemates don’t receive factory shifts until their second year. Probably so they can get their crops established.”

“I guess that makes sense,” said Binjin. “Are you worried about Marta and Annie?”

“Yeah, of course…but what can I do?” I still didn’t know how to feel about Marta’s pairing with Sams, but I felt better having observed them share a peaceful moment.

“True. Do you think they’ll have kids?”

I nodded. “They’ll have to, unless they get a medical exemption.”

Binjin sighed. “After mom had me, she couldn’t have any more babies. Small families get smaller rations. I think Dad blames me for all our family’s troubles.”

My Granddad put his hand on Binjin’s shoulder. “I’m sure that’s not true, and you’re certainly not to blame.”

“Thanks,” said Binjin, lifting a weak smile.

28

I could barely go a minute without thinking about my next rendezvous with Daun. The moonlight reflecting in her panicked eyes when we first met had become a fixed image in my mind. I wanted to know more about her and wondered if life on a ranch was easier than on a plot. My curiosity threatened to distract me from my larger goal of developing an escape plan for my family. Granddad had been improving, but he was still one bad day away from an untimely death.

Unable to relax, I carved a little figure of Daun out of a pine bow. I woke up a few hours later, having slipped into sleep. I felt refreshed and eager for my next lesson with Granddad.

After stretching my vocabulary skills to their limits, Granddad decided to end the lesson. He seemed pleased by my progress, which was encouraging. It was my chance to ask him some questions about our forgotten history. I was still reluctant to tell him about Daun, but I wondered if he knew anything about Zone 29.

“Granddad, do you know much about the other zones? Are there any near here?”

Granddad put his hand on his chin. “When the elders trek to the wall, they are required to stay on the road. During my time as a scavenger, I never came across another village, but that was a long time ago.” He paused. “The stilt striders’ citadel is in the west, so it’s a safe bet there’s no encampments there. However, we’ve both seen the smoke plumes in the East, which may indicate another village relatively nearby. Sadly, there’s no way to tell. Why do you ask?”

“I have a million things I could ask you,” I told him. It didn’t seem like he knew anything about Zone 29, so I moved on. “Last time you said something about Synastic Rejuvi-something…something the Privus do. What’s that?”

“Synaptic Rejuvenation. The Privus have found a way to live forever, but it’s not a privilege granted to everyone. Before they see any signs of advanced aging, they transfer their minds to a new body. A body they grow in a special chamber.”

“Grow? Like a plant?”

“Exactly.”

My mind boggled. “Whoa. How? Magic?”

“Knowledge is more potent than any magic. The most powerful knowledge is called science. Science is used to create technology–like the great factory. The Privus allow us to know just enough to survive and grow our crops, but their scientific prowess is nearly miraculous.”

“They’re gods.”

“No!” said Granddad. “They’re humans, just like us. While their technology is astounding, they rely on it like a crutch and could never survive without it. The synaptic transfer is a complicated and draining process. They enlist Thrall attendants to help them recover, which can take a few weeks.”

“The best and brightest of us,” I said, shaking my head. “What happens to the attendants once the Privus heal?”

“No one knows, but they’re likely killed.”

“Bastards,” I growled.

Granddad closed his book. “We’re out of time. Get some more rest before the light comes.”

29

The sunrise didn’t take long to arrive. My thoughts kept drifting to Daun as I separated chaff from the Rye. No matter how fast I worked the hours seemed to drag. When the Meal Trill finally sounded in the evening, I easily cleared the airdrone’s quota check. I was so energized, I could have taken on a triple quota.

Granddad placed beans and bread in front of me on the table with a grunt. Clearly, he needed most of each day to recover from his demanding factory shift. Predictably, he retired to his partition as soon as our meal was over. I watched the skies impatiently until the drones lifted away then hurried once again to the edge of the village.

Halfway through the prairie I felt the hairs on the back of my neck standup. The ground beneath my feet was rumbling. Something heavy was dragging through the tall grass. I stopped running and crouched out of sight, praying whatever I was hearing wasn’t drawing closer. As soon as I mustered the confidence, I peered over the tops of the green blades and saw a series of black fins crest above the grass in the distance–dozens of them. There was no way to tell what the fins were attached to, but it was moving fast. As soon as the thing disappeared into the darkness and the rumbling stopped, I stood up and sprinted towards the hills.

I climbed the rocks twice as fast as I had the night before. As soon as I reached the top of the cliff I spun around and looked across the plain, but the weak light reflecting off the moon revealed nothing. Something glanced my shoulder and I jumped nearly a foot.

30

“Danth? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” said Daun, taking a quick step back.

I turned around and took a deep breath with a wide smile. “Daun! No, it’s fine…I’m just glad you’re here. I saw something strange…but it’s gone now.”

“Strange?” asked Daun, looking concerned.

“It’s nothing,” I lied. I decided to put it out of my mind. “Where’s Tenslin?”

“She’s tied up on the other side of the slope, enjoying some crab apples.”

I realized I hadn’t even looked at Zone 29 yet. “Is it possible to see your village from here?”

“Yeah, follow me,” said Daun with a gentle smile.

I followed Daun through a thicket of tall trees until her village came into view. My pulse was racing. Every new sight opened up my world and threatened to overwhelm me. “It’s beautiful,” I gasped. A field of white wildflowers angled down a gentle slope to a valley, much smaller than the one holding our zone. There were notably fewer plots–or ranches, as Daun had called them–in Zone 29, but the tents on each one were larger. Each ranch tent sat beside a large wooden pen holding three or four horses. There were no crops to be seen.

“It’s so different here,” I said.

Daun nodded. “From what I could see, your village seems much more—compact—than ours.”

I followed Daun farther down the slope until we reached Tenslin, who was happily plucking apples from the tree where she was lashed. I gently stroked the horse’s mane. “I’m glad you don’t have to climb a bunch of rocks from this side,” I told Daun.

Daun shook her head. “Yeah, I feel bad about that.”

“No worries,” I said. “I don’t mind.”

“Okay. We probably shouldn’t get any closer to the village than this, to be safe.”

“Right, how many people live on your…ranches.”

“About 50.”

“Wow, that’s all? We have 503 people in our zone.”

“But no horses?”

“No, just donkeys. A few cows. Chickens.” I looked over at the village. “Where’s all your crops?”

“We don’t grow anything here, just raise horses for the Privus. They deliver each family a box of rations every month.”

“Do you have IP in your zone?”

“What’s that?”

“Interaction Periods.”

“I’ve never heard it called that, but once a month we’re allowed to meet families from other ranches in a common area. They give us an hour.”

I realized if they weren’t growing their own food, there was no need to trade. “How big is your family?”

A pained look crossed Daun’s face. “It’s just me and my Mother now. My dad got sick. He was with us until last year…and…” She started to cry.

Instinctively, I put my arms around Daun and held her close, feeling her tears wet my shoulder.

Daun backed away after a few seconds. “Sorry.”

I shook my head. “Don’t be. I didn’t mean to pry.”

“What about your family?”

“It’s just me and my grandfather.” I looked at my watch quickly. Time was flying by. “My sister and niece were just transferred to a different plot.”

Daun became visibly angry. “Mom says I’ll get used to the way things are, but it’s insane here. It’s no better than a prison.” She slumped down and sat on the grass, leaning against the tree.

Prison. Another word I had never heard before. I moved against the tree and sat next to Daun. Beyond her vocabulary, something about her last statement seemed strange.

31

“I hate my zone too,” I admitted. I had no reason to trust Daun, but I decided to take a chance. “I’m…I’m trying to find a way to get my family away from this place. Somewhere far away from the Privus.”

Daun’s eyes lit up. “Really? That’s why you came all this way?”

I sighed. “Yes. I’m not even sure if escape is possible.”

“Can I come with you?”

“What?” I asked, surprised.

“Mom says I need to be patient, but I can’t…not anymore. I need to get away from this place.”

I don’t know why but I said yes. I was already taking too many chances. “Daun, I don’t even have a plan yet.”

“Together, I know we can figure something out. The Privus want us to think they’re perfect and all-knowing, but they’re not…the fact you’re here right now proves it.”

“Alright.” I smiled, finding Daun’s optimism contagious. “Oh, I have something for you.” I fished around in my pocket and pulled out the carving I had made and handed it to her.

Daun gasped. “It’s me…riding on Tenslin! Did you carve this?”

“Yes,” I told her.

Daun smiled ear to ear. “This is amazing! How did you color the wood?”

“Certain rocks and clays around our village make vibrant colors when you grind them up. I mixed the powder with some flax seed oil to bind it together then rubbed it into the wood with my fingers.”

Daun hugged me tight, still holding the figure. “Thank you.” Our embrace lasted a long time, far longer than it probably should have. I could feel her heart beat a little faster to match mine. She felt so warm against me. It was hard to let go and she didn’t seem to want to, anyway.

Daun finally backed away, blushing. “So, what happens now?”

“I wish I knew. I have to get back soon.”

“Let me take you again. Do you want to learn how to ride?”

I swallowed hard. “Ride…a horse?”

“Yeah,” said Daun, letting a laugh slip out.

32

Before I knew it, I was receiving an impromptu riding lesson from Daun. I could tell she was amused by my nervousness as she peered up at me from the ground.

“Try to relax,” said Daun. “If you’re nervous, Tenslin will be too.”

“I wouldn’t blame her,” I said. “This seat is weird.”

“It’s called a saddle and those straps you’re holding are the reigns.”

“Reigns. Right.”

Daun stroked Tenslin’s shoulder. “It’s okay girl.” She returned her attention to me. “Okay, to get her moving just make this noise.” She made a click sound out of the corner of her mouth.

I made the noise but Tenslin didn’t budge.

“Try giving the reins a gentle flip, like this.” She pantomimed the motion.

Tenslin started to trot, causing me to lurch.

“Easy! Just pull the reins gently to the side to get her going in a circle. It might feel a little weird, because we’re on a bit of a slope.”

“Yeah, it’s the slope’s fault,” I said, feeling Tenslin start to trot.

Daun couldn’t stop giggling. “Remember, you need to move with Tenslin, not just sit there, or you’re going to get saddle sores.”

That didn’t sound fun. I loosened my hips and things started to feel better. I clicked my mouth and Tenslin responded, moving faster.

“Wow, you’re doing great! I wouldn’t recommend putting her into a canter just yet.”

I laughed, pretending I knew what she meant. “I guess it’s not so har–” Tenslin gave a small buck–enough to launch me off the saddle to the ground.

“Whoa, girl!” said Daun, grabbing the reins. She lowered and helped lift me to my feet. “Are you alright?”

I brushed myself off and rubbed my head. “Yeah. Everything but my ego.”

Daun tried to stifle a laugh but failed.

I groaned. “I thought I was doing pretty well.”

“I’ve seen five-year-olds look more natural on a horse,” she replied, before putting her hand on my arm. “I’m just giving you a hard time. Get back in the stirrups and try again.”

Thankfully, my second attempt at mounting a saddle was more successful. Tenslin whinnied but seemed unperturbed.

“I can tell you’re going to be great friends,” said Daun.

Before I realized what was happening, I felt Daun’s hands wrapping around my middle from behind. She had slipped onto Tenslin’s back with remarkable speed and grace. “Keep the reigns on the way back to your village.”

“Me? I can’t ride as fast as you.” I argued.

“Sure you can,” said Daun, holding me tighter. I felt my muscles tense then relax. “Move Tenslin down the slope then turn sharply back onto the plain. We’ll be a little too close to the village for comfort, but not for long.”

33

I had never done anything so nerve-wracking. Somehow, I managed to keep Tenslin pointed in the proper direction as we skirted past Daun’s village. Leery of prying eyes, we turned toward the prairie as soon as possible and maneuvered through a narrow corridor between the cliffs.

“You’re doing great!” said Daun. “Now, to get Tenslin moving a little faster, just say ‘Giddup’ and whip the reigns gently.

“Giddup!” I said, snapping the straps. Tenslin whinnied and bolted into the tall grass as I held back a scream.

“Okay, maybe with less urgency next time!” Daun called out. “But since she’s already up to speed, keep her galloping!”

Only when Zone 28 appeared on the horizon did I feel like I had gained a modicum of control. Pride and disappointment enveloped me at the same time. I wanted to keep going–and I didn’t want to say goodbye to Daun.

Daun leapt from Tenslin, landing on her toes in the grass without a sound. She took Tenslin’s reigns as I performed a graceless dismount.

“Wow, you’ve improved so quickly,” said Daun.

I was captivated by her smile. “I wish we had more time,” I replied.

“Me too,” said Daun. She pressed her hands gently against my chest and leaned closer to me. I dipped my neck and kissed her softly on the lips. The impact was greater than falling off the horse.

“This is crazy,” said Daun, blushing, as she stepped backwards.

My heart battered my rib cage. “Was that too much?”

Daun’s rosy cheeks lifted with a grin. She shook her head. “The world’s been turning so slowly. It’s nice to feel some…urgency.”

“Good,” I said. I put my hands around her hips and pulled her closer again. We shared an intense kiss until she pushed away with a laugh. “Okay, maybe a little too fast.”

I nodded and let out a laugh. “Right…okay.”

Daun frowned. “We only have three more days to figure out how we’re going to escape. If we can’t, we’ll be forced to wait another month to see each other.”

I looked at my watch. “It’s all I think about…but we can’t worry about it now,” I said with a deep sigh. “Daun, you better get out of here.”

Daun hopped back onto Tenslin. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay? Do you want me to meet you halfway to save time?”

“No!” My heart skipped, remembering the shadowy form I saw sliding through the grass. I had been so caught up in the ride back to the village, I hadn’t given it another thought. “There’s something strange on the north side of the prairie–some kind of huge animal. Keep to the south edge on your way back. If you see black fins, ride faster.”

Daun swallowed and nodded. “Alright. But I can’t let you come back to see me with that…thing out there!”

“I’ll be fine. It didn’t notice me before, but I was on foot. Tenslin’s hooves might land heavy enough to give away your position, so please be careful.”

“I’ll ride like the wind if I see anything odd. Please, don’t come tomorrow night if you sense danger…I’ll understand. Promise me.”

“I promise,” I lied. Nothing was going to keep me away.

“Alright, until next time,” said Daun with a smile. “Thanks again for the figurine. I love it so much.” She turned Tenslin around without another word and rode back through the grass.

I tried to dismiss my worry by telling myself Daun was a skilled rider, not that I had much frame of reference. She was certainly better than myself.

My head and heart felt heavy as I returned to the tent. Deep down I knew I had been pushing my luck to its absolute limits. How long could it possibly last?

34

Once again, adrenaline staved off my weariness as Granddad and I hurried to the factory.

“You seem chipper,” said Granddad, raising an eyebrow at me.

“Just excited to go back to work,” I told him.

Granddad groaned. “Oh, of course.”

We abruptly stopped in our tracks and the rest of the workers bunched up behind us, murmuring and mumbling. Three stilt striders were blocking the path.

I tensed up. “What’s going on?”

Granddad grabbed my shoulder. “Be ready for anything, boy…I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

A blaring, heavy note ejected from the stilt striders, instructing us to remain still and quiet. Red Xs flashed on their dark faces.

“ATTENTION THRALL WORKFORCE,” boomed a disembodied voice.

A public announcement from the Privus was unusual. They preferred to say little while expecting much.

“Pay attention. The following statement will not be repeated.” The voice was male and sounded vaguely disinterested. “For the next two nights, the Factory Trill will not sound. This is intentional. Do not assemble for your shifts. Remain in your partitions after Meal Period and stay there until Cultivation Period begins.”

I could hear a few happy whispers behind me.

“In 48 hours, production will resume for those Thrall still assigned to Zone 28.”

Still assigned? I was already confused.

“For those who remain in Zone 28, your daily schedule will proceed as follows: Cultivation Period will begin at dawn and end with the Meal Trill at noon. The Factory Trill will sound at 2 pm. The Sleep Trill will sound at 2 am, indicating the end of the shift. All Factory Quotas will be extended. Single quotas will be doubled. Double quotas will be quadrupled. This new schedule will be strictly enforced.”

My blood ran cold. There was no way Granddad would survive daily 12-hour shifts.

“That’s not fair!” someone shouted behind me. “You can’t–”

A plume of steam ejected from one of the stilt striders. I felt a rush of air as something heavy whizzed by my cheek. Hearing a wet thunk, I looked behind me and saw Anz Caln–our neighbor from Plot B2–gurgling a steady stream of blood from his mouth. A three-meter long steel pole was jabbing through his sternum into the ground, keeping him upright as he died.

All of us fell to our knees in terror.

“Obviously,” boomed the voice, “complaints will not be taken at this time.”

I clenched my fists and gritted my teeth. Granddad pushed me lower to the ground.

“Before the next work shift begins in approximately 48 hours, the stilt striders will unassign 100 Thrall workers from Zone 28 and escort them several miles to the east on foot. After relocating in Zone 29, these selected workers will be assigned to single-occupancy tents. Their familial status in Zone 28 will be permanently dissolved.”

Daun’s village? I held my hands over my mouth as my anxiety peaked.

“Thrall relocated to Zone 29 will assist in the construction of a new manufacturing plant as soon as the land has been cleared. Once construction is complete, the workers will begin 16-hour shifts inside the factory. There will be no Field Quotas assigned to these workers.”

Panic was overtaking me. They’re clearing Zone 29? What about the people already living there?

“End of announcement. Return to your tents in an orderly fashion. Glory to the Privus, Defenders of All Who Remain.”

“Glory,” said the workers in unison, their voices wavering.

The Sleep Trill sounded. The workers turned away from the stilt striders and began silently trudging back to the village. I helped Robert Caln unpin his father from the ground then threw the bloody steel pole into the ditch. Robert gave me a nod of appreciation before hoisting Aln’s body over his shoulders to carry him back to their plot. Tears streamed down the young man’s cheeks, defying the stoic look on his face. I remained quiet, but my insides were screaming as Granddad pulled me away.

35

I suspected my next reading lesson could very well be my last. Rather than dwelling on my fears–which were many–I focused on the task at hand, doing my best to push down my feelings for Daun as I listened carefully to Granddad’s instructions. Neither of us seemed ready to discuss what we had just suffered through.

“Well, boy…you’re still slow, but definitely capable. Your comprehension is remarkably good and your vocabulary is improving. We won’t talk about your penmanship.”

I managed a laugh. “Good. Thanks for this, Granddad.”

“Do you think you’re ready to take over for me? To finish the book?”

I gave a reluctant nod. “I think so.”

“Excellent. I’ve managed to condense all my research and notes down to a few pages I’ve relegated to the back of the book. It will be easier for you to refer to than a bunch of loose notes.”

“I was about to ask you where all the stuff on your walls went.”

Granddad sighed. “I stripped my partition bare earlier this evening. Having them festooned with forbidden objects was a stupid risk I shouldn’t have taken.”

“Granddad, we have to talk about the announcement,” I said, moving closer. I had been preparing to tell him about my late-night excursions, but I knew he wouldn’t approve of my rash actions. I didn’t want to extinguish all the trust he had put in me.

“What’s there to say? It’s time to prepare for the worst, boy. Whatever happens, you must protect this book. It contains something even more potent than our people’s history–a secret I’ve never divulged to another soul.”

“What is it? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want to fill your head with foolish ideas, at least not until our lessons were finished. Now that you can read competently, I suppose there’s no use in keeping secrets.”

“Please, go on,” I begged, feeling like a hypocrite.

36

Granddad took a deep breath and crossed his legs. “As you know, years ago I served as a scavenger for the lords of The Walled City. I scoured the wastes searching for objects the Privus fancied. During my tenure, I portrayed myself as a loyal Thrall, dedicated to my masters in every way, but I was always searching for a way to betray them.” Over time, I became proficient at maintaining my ruse and pleasing the lords…so much so, their drones ceased accompanying me on my travels.”

“Unbelievable!” I said, completely enthralled.

“Unbeknownst to me, someone had noticed my autonomous nature. While traveling the road to The Walled City, a woman beckoned to me from the edge of the forest. Wary but intrigued, I met her behind a stand of pines. She stood nearly seven feet tall, with flowing blonde hair and piercing blue eyes.”

I recognized the description from The Ten Tomes. “What? You met a Privus outside the wall?”

“Yes. Her name was Sheln. She had become an outcast after publicly criticizing the Privus’ treatment of the Thrall. A high crime.”

“Wow…face to face with a Privus! She left The Walled City?”

“Not exactly. Instead of executing Sheln, the Privus High Lord secretly banished her to the zones to take advantage of her proficient skills in biology and chemistry.”

My confusion was evident. “Biology and…what?”

“They’re types of science,” said Granddad.

“Right,” I said, “go on.”

“Sheln did the High Lord’s bidding in exchange for her life. Keeping her captive beyond the wall allowed the High Lord’s secret projects to continue without scrutiny.”

All the lies, secrets and strife somehow made the Privus seem more human. “What did Sheln want from you?”

“Sheln had witnessed me collecting objects on the edge of her zone that clearly held no interest to the Privus. I was terrified when she confronted me, but I soon learned she shared my hatred for the Privus lords. She further earned my trust by alerting me to a stretch of time in the morning when the drones were not watching the Thrall, or her. It kept us safe while we talked. It’s the same stretch of time I’m using now to tell you all of this.”

It was the perfect time to tell Granddad my secrets…but I didn’t.

“Sheln begged my help in finding something in a nearby burnt city–a place once known as Portland. I told her I was familiar with the area.”

“You’ve been to a burnt city? Incredible!” I was on the edge of my seat.

“To understand the rest probably requires some knowledge of the technology inside The Walled City,” Granddad paused to carefully choose his next words. “The Privus’ are revered in The Ten Tomes for their extended longevity and robust immune systems. However, these attributes aren’t natural, but reliant on miniscule robots in their blood stream known as nanobots.”

“Bots? Like drones?”

“In a way. Invisible to the naked eye, these machines are injected into each Privus when they are young. They scour the blood for harmful bacteria and viruses–anything irregular–and kill any invaders, keeping their host healthy.”

I nodded. “I think I understand. Is that all the nanobots are used for?”

“No,” said Granddad. “Thrall chosen to attend to a Privus undergoing Synaptic Rejuvenation are injected with nanobots to make them completely subservient. It strips away their will and desires.”

I shuddered and put my hands on my head. “But only the Thrall beyond the Wall?”

Granddad laughed. “Yes, don’t worry. The injection is far too expensive to give to lowly serfs such as ourselves. The Privus rule us effectively through fear alone.”

“Sorry, but what do nanobots have to do with anything?”

“I’m getting to that!” said Granddad. “Long before Sheln had been banished, the High Lord of the Walled City sent her beyond the zones to a laboratory hidden among Portland’s charred remains. Sheln’s team of scientists began development of a new kind of nano-technology. It seems the Privus High Lord had become paranoid about losing his power and was searching for a way to keep his political opponents in check.”

“What was Sheln making?”

“Her team was developing a serum that could turn the helpful nanobots against the immune systems they were designed to protect. Once compromised by the serum, the nanobot’s host was doomed to bleed to death from the inside out. This chemical weapon was called The Ashen Wrath.”

“Damn,” I said, “what a way to die.”

“Before Sheln could perfect the serum’s formula, she was recalled to The Walled City by the High Lord and the project was abruptly cancelled.”

“The bastard must have got cold feet.”

“Sheln said the subordinates of the High Lord had gotten wind of several of his secret projects, forcing him to pull the plug on all of them, including Sheln’s. She was never implicated for any wrong-doing. Her later crimes were unrelated–unless you consider the heights of corruption she had witnessed.”

“And this is where you come in?”

“Sickened by what she had witnessed within The Walled City, Sheln wanted to secretly resume production of The Ashen Wrath to use against her own people. To do so, she needed the rest of the research data her peers had collected in order to perfect the formula. She tasked me with finding her former laboratory in Portland, hoping I could procure the missing data…and I did.”

“The place was still there…in the burnt city?”

“Yes, beneath an unassuming white hatch leading to a huge underground facility. The place appeared to have been left undisturbed aside from a fine layer of dust. After traversing the dark, labyrinthian halls with nothing but a kerosene lantern, I finally located the prize Sheln had described–a single datastick holding more information than the entirety of The Ten Tomes.”

“Computers!” I said excitedly. “I read about them in your book.”

“Yes.”

“So, what happened?”

Grandfather sighed. “The scavenger program was shut down only days after I recovered the data stick. I was reassigned to cultivation duty in this zone and I never saw Sheln again. The gap in surveillance we’re enjoying at the moment isn’t long enough to conduct a proper search for her–I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”

Could she possibly be in Zone 29? It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

“Boy? You have a far-away look in your eye.”

I shook my head. “Sorry! What were you saying?”

“Look in the back of the book.”

I turned to the last page of the book and saw a data stick carefully strapped inside the back cover. “That’s it?” I marveled.

“Yes. This data must be protected. In the right hands, it could end the reign of the Privus forever.”

“But wasn’t that years ago? Is Sheln still alive?”

“I have no idea,” said Granddad. “But there must be other Privus like her. Allies to our struggle. You must find them, boy.” Granddad stood up. “Hurry, come with me before the airdrones return. Bring the book with you.”

We slipped outside together crouched down beside the tent. Granddad brushed away some dirt, revealing a wooden lid which he pried open. “Keep the book in here, until you can find a better place to hide it.”

I nodded and placed the book in the secret chamber. After closing the lid tightly, we hurried to cover it with soil then returned to the tent. Yet again, I was full of questions but there was no time for answers.

“Boy, how come you’ve never asked me what we’re building in that damn factory?”

I shook my head. “I used to be curious, but after working in there for so many years, I guess I started to take it all for granted. I figured it was nothing good.”

“You’re right…it’s not good. We’re building weapons. Bombs.”

“I know they were used to flatten the great cities, but what is a bomb…exactly?”

“Imagine the power of a forest fire contained in a compact shell. Bombs deliver all of that energy in one quick burst. Just one could completely flatten our entire zone.”

I was speechless.

“The quadrupling of their weapon stockpiles could only mean one thing.”

“What?”

“The Privus are going to war.”

37

Suddenly prone to fits of trembling, I could barely get through my cultivation duties. My insides were in knots. As soon as the meal trill sounded, I rushed to confirm my quota then went into our tent, anxiously waiting for the airdrones to vacate.

“Quit looking out the window,” said Granddad. “They’re not gone yet…you’ll make them suspicious.”

I turned toward Granddad and took a deep breath. “There’s something I need–”

“I know what it is, boy,” said Granddad, keeping the conversation vague. “I know what you’ve been up to.”

I heard a roar as the airdrones lifted out of the village. We held our tongues until we were sure they were gone. “There’s another gap in surveillance, starting right now,” I said. “It’s longer than the one right before dawn.”

“I know,” said Granddad.

“Wait, you knew?”

“Yes. It’s still too short of a time to do anything of substance. I was worried you’d try to attempt stupid if I told you–but I’m guessing you already have.”

“Yes,” I admitted, straightening my posture.

Granddad sighed. “You’ve been leaving after I retire to my partition to rest, I’m assuming.”

“Right. But I did have enough time to accomplish something. Zone 29 is close…closer than anyone would guess! Just a few miles away beyond the cliffs.”

“Unbelievable!” said Granddad, his eyes shining. “All these years…I was too cynical to think anything could lie behind those hills. You must have run the entire way!”

I nodded.

“What have you seen?”

I told him about the ranches, about the horses, about the beauty of the hidden valley. “And…I met someone. A young woman named Daun. I surprised her while she was picking berries. She also knew about the gap.”

“You young idiot,” said Granddad. “What you’ve just described could have gotten you killed a hundred times over!”

“Granddad, we’re all in danger. I can’t just sit around and do nothing.” I stood up. “I have to go. I need to warn Daun what the Privus are planning to do to her zone.”

“Have you talked to anyone else in Zone 29?”

“Not yet, but Daun must know someone who has answers. Maybe even someone who can help get you, Marta and Annie away from the zones for good. I’m sorry, but–”

“Go,” interrupted granddad. I was expecting anger, but he just seemed tired. “Just promise me you’ll be as careful as you can.”

“I promise,” I said, before leaving the tent.

38

I ran through the prairie, my heart racing faster than my feet. I didn’t have time to worry about beasts hiding the grass. Something was stirring the ground beneath me but I did my best to ignore it.

A grin wiped across my face as I neared the edge of the prairie. Daun was signaling to me from the top of the cliff.

Something was wrong. Daun’s arms were waving erratically, almost flailing. As I came closer I realized she wasn’t returning my smile. She looked terrified.

“Behind you!” she finally screamed.

The rumble returned. I looked over my shoulder and saw a massive back lined with sharp spines rising from the shadows. A flat, diamond-shaped head lurched out of the grass, tracking me with a pair of crimson eyes. My legs flailed as I started to sprint toward the closest hill.

I fought the urge to look again but couldn’t help myself. The ebony segments of the massive metallic serpent glinted in the moonlight as it slithered through the plain. I could feel the cliff shaking as I thrust myself against it and began to climb. As I neared the top of the precipice, the snake bashed its head against the rocks below me and my grip faltered. A pair of shaking hands wrapped around my wrist, stopping my fall. I hooked my toes into a narrow crag, regaining my balance as Daun tugged on my arm with all her might.

With Daun’s help, I heaved my body up and over the crest of the cliff. The serpent’s ratcheting segments echoed up the rock face as it coiled in frustration. It loosed a crackling hiss, revealing a mouth full of jagged teeth before it turned away abruptly, undulating back to the darkness.

39

I realized my head was in Daun’s lap as I panted, trying to catch my breath. I leaned up and hugged her tight. “Are you alright?”

“Me? What about you?” she said, letting out a gasping laugh.

“I’ll be fine once my heart stops spinning.”

“I felt a vibration in the valley floor when I left your village last night, but I didn’t think it could have come from anything like…that,” said Daun, looking paler than usual. “Was that some kind of drone?”

“I don’t think so,” I replied. “The drones are more focused. That thing seemed animalistic. Almost as if it was guarding the grasslands.”

“Keeping people like you from exploring between zones,” said Daun. “I hope you’re right. If it is a drone, The Walled City knows you’re here.”

“We can’t worry about it now.” I let go of Daun reluctantly then helped her stand up. “Daun, there’s something I need to tell you.”

Daun pushed closer and kissed me. My heart had no chance of calming as our heads tilted together and our tongues met.

I forced myself to end the kiss. “Please, you need to hear this.”

Daun wiped her eyes. “I’m so tired of talking. I just want to…be.”

I nodded sympathetically and took Daun’s hands in mine. “The Privus made an announcement in our village last night. In less than two days they’re going to begin construction of a new factory. A weapons plant. Here, in Zone 29.”

“What?” said Daun, in shock. “No one’s said anything to my mom. She would have told me.”

“It’s worse. Your zone is much smaller than ours. If this new factory they’re building is as large as the one at the edge of my village, it could easily fill your entire valley. They said they’re going to ‘clear the land’ to make room for it.

I could feel Daun’s hands shaking. “It will be easier to get rid of us if we don’t see it coming. That’s why they haven’t alerted anyone.”

“We’re running out of time,” I said. “Daun, is there anyone in Zone 29 who may be able to help us escape?”

Daun put her head in her hands. “I’ve been racking my brain–but no–the ranchers in my village are just simple people. They don’t hold any secrets or have any connections.”

“There has to be someone. Go back now and ask your Mom, I’ll wait here for you.”

“No, come with me,” urged Daun. “Mother won’t believe a word I say unless you’re there.”

“Alright. What’s your mother’s name?”

“Lemi,” replied Daun, “but you better let me do the talking.”

40

Daun’s mother gasped in horror the moment I stepped into the tent.

“Lemi, I’m Danth,” I hushed. “I’m not here to cause trouble. I promise you, the drones aren’t watching right now.”

“They’re always watching, fool,” said the sturdy woman. “Get out!”

“No! He’s right, Mom. I’ve been sneaking out at night for weeks to pick berries. I know I–”

“What?” Interrupted Lemi. “What is going on?” She picked up a cast iron pan and held it in front of her, defensively. “Daun, get away from him!”

“I’m from Zone 28, only a few miles to the west. Please…we don’t have much time and I need to talk.”

Lemi lowered the pan. “Zone 28? Really?”

I nodded.

“What is it?”

“The Privus are planning to level this zone to make room for a weapons manufacturing plant. Everyone here is in danger.”

Lemi lowered her gaze and shook her head. “I…no. We’ve done everything they wanted! Our Livestock Quotas are always met. Why would they punish us?”

“The Privus are going to war, Mom,” said Daun. “They’re more concerned with making weapons than eating fancy meals.”

“Fancy meals?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“Horse meat,” said Daun, turning toward me.

“What?” I said, appalled. “They eat the horses…they don’t ride them?”

Daun shook her head, as if it were common knowledge. “It’s a delicacy within The Walled City. It’s horrible, I know.”

“This is nonsense,” complained Lemi. “You don’t have any proof the Privus would harm us.”

“Their announcement said they were ‘clearing the land.’ What else could that mean?” I said with frustration.

“Mom, please,” said Daun, stepping closer. She took the pan out of Lemi’s hands. “You must know someone—anyone—who can help us. The people Danth care about are in danger too. We want to get away from this place…get away from the Privus for good. There’s no time to argue.”

Lemi glared at me. “Go back to where you came from boy, before I call the drones on you myself!”

“Don’t do thi–” my words were stopped short as Lemi shoved me out of the tent.

“Mom, no!” cried Daun. She pulled her mother away then rushed to my side. “If you won’t help us, we’ll figure it out on our own!”

Lemi stomped back into the tent. I could hear sobbing.

“My mother’s lived her entire life in fear. I don’t know why I thought she’d act any different now,” said Daun, kneeling to me. “Danth, come on. We’ll take Tenslin and ride as far as we can, to the mountains if we must. There’s rumors of people living up there, completely out of reach of the Privus. We’ll come back as soon as we find a way to help everyone.”

I pushed thoughts of my brother’s futile escape out of my mind. “Okay, but first we need to ride back to my village to retrieve something.”

“What do you need?” asked Daun.

“it’s a journal containing the lost history of our people, before they were called the Thrall. More importantly, the book contains secret plans for a biological weapon capable of wiping out the Privus. If we find people in the mountains sympathetic to the Thrall, maybe they can use the information to create the weapon.”

“Why didn’t you tell me!” said Daun, lighting up.

I shrugged. “There’s been a lot going on. Besides, it’s a long-shot at best.” I looked at my watch. “We need to hurry.”

“Come on, we’ll take Tenslin. If we stay close to the north edge of the prairie, maybe that…thing…won’t detect us.”

I didn’t like the idea, but time was of the essence. “Alright.”

“Wait!”

Daun and I turned around. Lemi emerged from the horse pen, leading a beautiful, speckled gray horse.

“I know someone who may be able to help you, but they don’t live here,” said Lemi. “Son, can you ride?”

“Barely,” I said.

Daun elbowed me. “A little better than barely.”

“You’ll be much faster if you’re each on a horse. Take Rastin. She’s the quickest mare on the ranch.”

“Where are we going?” I asked, as I took Rastin’s reigns and gently stroked her side. I couldn’t help but smile. “Easy, girl.”

“One mile south of here there’s a small, unnumbered zone containing a single dwelling. It’s surrounded by a stand of tall pines. The place is easy to miss unless you’re looking for it.”

“What?” said Daun. “You’ve never talked about this weird zone. How do you even know it exists?”

“It will make sense soon enough. To say more would just waste time,” said Lemi.

“Thanks, Mom,” said Daun. She ran up to her mother and hugged her tight.

“Just..hurry girl, go on,” said Lemi, her lip quivering.

A mile wasn’t far on horseback, but the snake had emerged from the south—the direction we needed to ride. “We’ll have to ride fast,” I told Daun. She knew why.

Daun was already on Tenslin. “Then let’s go!”

I nodded. “On my way.”

“Danth,” called Lemi, demanding my attention as I swung my leg over Rastin’s saddle.

“Don’t worry,” I said, anticipating what she was about to say. “I’ll keep Daun safe.”

“I want to trust you,” said Lemi, pulling a strand of long gray hair away from her face. Tears fell down her face as she crossed her arms against a cool breeze.

“You can.”

Lemi nodded and pursed her lips. I turned Rastin around and rode off to catch up with Daun, steeling myself for whatever was coming.

41

The sound of thundering hooves rolled through the valley as we galloped into the unknown. With the moonlight barely adequate to guide us, we relied on the stars instead. Rastin proved a steady mount, responding to even the slightest tilt of my body as I trailed Daun across the plain.

Before I could delight in the sight of towering pines, I saw Tenslin rear up violently in front of me. Daun flew from her saddle into the gloom, landing heavily somewhere in the grass.

“Whoa!” I yelled, pulling back on Rastin’s reigns. The gray mare pitched and spun away, ignoring my commands. I hopped from the saddle and fell into the grass, hearing a moan somewhere nearby. I crawled a few feet and found Daun lying on the ground, a trickle of blood running from her head. “Are you–”

Without warning a terrifying squeal rang out. A few yards away, Tenslin was lifting into the air, her body gushing blood as a constricting shadow lacerated through her middle with a row of horrific blades.

“No!” screamed Daun, jumping to her feet. I grabbed her from behind as she tried to kick away from me. The eyes of the robotic serpent shined bright red as it’s shredding coils wrapped tighter around Tenslin. Seconds later, the horse’s bisected body fell to the ground with a sickening thud.

Daun buried her head against my shoulder and screamed. I searched in the darkness for Rastin, but there was no sign of her. “We have to run!” I said, pulling Daun away into the darkness.

Something I couldn’t see was approaching us fast. Heavy impacts shook the plain as a white blur streaked past us, accompanied by a sparking blue flash. Daun and I both froze, too consumed by fear to take another step.

A second bright streak cut through the darkness and collided against the serpent’s jaw, creating a shower of sparks. The impact sent the machine reeling, its ratcheting segments thrashing in a frenzy. Another flash of sparks erupted, followed by the sharp sound of metal scraping across metal. I saw a spear of steel pushing through the snake’s neck, illuminated by the beast’s red eyes.

The ground shook as the mechanized horror collided against the earth with a deafening boom, its tail whipping wildly through the grass. Electricity arced along the snake’s convulsing length until it went still and caught fire.

In the flames I saw a silhouette. A lean figure on horseback retracting the gleaming spear from the monster’s jaw. Daun and I rose up, sensing the danger was over.

Our rescuer leapt from their mount with legs nearly longer than those of her ivory-colored horse. The woman was exceedingly tall, with straight blonde hair down to her waist. She wore a pointed, wide-brimmed hat with tight leather clothing to match. A longbow and a quiver of arrows were strapped to her back, reminding me of the fanciful illustrations I seen within The Ten Tomes.

The mysterious woman pried open a hatch on the felled ebony serpent with her spear then yanked something large out and away from the flames. After leaning over the mass and stabbing something into it, the object stood up on two legs, revealing itself as a naked man. A Thrall. The woman watched calmly as the guy panicked and ran away.

After remounting her white steed, the woman disappeared. She reemerged from the dark moments later, holding Rastin by the reigns. Both horses clopped happily alongside each other.

Daun and I were speechless.

The woman rode closer and peered down at us. She handed Rastin’s reigns to me. “Lose something?”

“Are you Sheln?” I blurted.

The snake slayer’s blue eyes shined beneath the brim of her hat. “How do you know that name?”

42

The woman seemed fascinated by Daun but asked her no questions. She silently motioned for us to follow her beyond the pines, so we did.

Daun wrapped her arms around me as we rode Rastin, following our mysterious savior back to her private zone. Could it really be Sheln? I cursed myself for not having Granddad’s book with me.

I could feel Daun’s tears soaking through my clothes as she wept against my shoulder. “Poor Tenslin…I knew one day I’d have to say goodbye, but not like that. Not like that.” I put my hand on her leg sympathetically, but I was thankful it hadn’t been one of us ripped in two.

Sheln’s home was nearly invisible, nestled among the trees. I had never seen anything like it. The structure was small but sturdy, featuring vertical walls constructed with felled trees rather than canvas. The windows were solid glass, not plastic sheeting.

“As I’m sure you’re aware, we have a bit of time before the stilt striders return,” said Sheln, or, who I assumed must be Sheln. When she dismounted her horse, I could see she was taller than anyone I had ever met. There was no doubt I was looking at a Privus woman. “Please, come inside the cabin,” she said, holding open the door.

The interior of the ‘cabin’ was just as bizarre. One wall was completely covered with metallic hunks of machinery laden with buttons and dials. Several tables held glass vials boiling with colorful liquids, giving off an array of peculiar odors. Ration boxes were stacked in the corners. It was evident she had lived in the place for a long time, but the rule of law in her tiny zone seemed strangely lax.

“Take a seat,” said Sheln. She somehow seemed troubled. After hanging her hat and coat on a brass hook, she sat at a large table in a solid chair made of unfinished pine. Daun and I took seats across from her. I had only sat in a chair a few times in my life–it felt strange.

Daun finally made eye contact with Sheln. “Thank you for saving us,” she said with a gentle smile.

“My pleasure.” Sheln uncorked a glass bottle and took a swig of the brown liquid inside. She pushed the bottle towards us, “Take the edge off?”

I wasn’t sure what she meant. “Um, no thanks,” I said. Daun shook her head.

Sheln sighed and leaned to the side, throwing a long leg over the arm of her chair. She stared at Daun for a moment. “I had been meaning to hunt down that damn serpent. I’d seen it slithering through the grasslands for the past few days, spooking Lansred. Thankfully, it wasn’t a true drone.”

“Lansred’s your stallion, right?” asked Daun. “He’s gorgeous.”

Sheln nodded. “He’s a tad stubborn, but damned fast. I’m so sorry I couldn’t save your horse.”

“At least Rastin is alright,” said Daun, her voice a whisper.

“What were those bright flashes you used to take the snake down?” I asked.

“Thermite-tipped arrows. They really throw the sentries for a loop,” said Sheln.

“What are sentries?” I asked.

Sheln looked at Daun. “Can this boy do anything besides ask questions?”

Daun laughed. “He’s the curious type.”

“Right.” Sheln grabbed the bottle again and took another drink before continuing. “Sentries are strictly used to patrol a predetermined area. Each one is programmed to kill anything honing into its path and nothing more. They’re not spybots, like the airdrones or stilstries.”

“Good,” I said.

“So, are you ever going to tell me your names, and why you were looking for me?” asked Sheln, raising an eyebrow.

“My name’s Daun and this is Danth,” replied Daun.

“I’m Sheln…something your boyfriend already knew. I need to know how.”

“You’re Privus, right?” asked Daun.

“Yes,” said Sheln, leaning closer to Daun. “And so are you, daughter.”

I looked at Daun, completely stupefied.

43

“You’re not my mom,” said Daun, matter-of-factly.

Sheln laughed and lifted her shirt above her naval. “This scar begs to differ.”

“My mom is back at the ran–”

“Just let me get this out real quick, alright?” interrupted Sheln.

Daun tensed up and crossed her arms. “Okay, fine.”

“I nearly lost my life sticking up for idiots like this,” said Sheln, pointing to me. “The High Lord of the Walled City would have preferred to kill me, but my proficiency in molecular biology and organic chemistry made me an asset.” She went quiet for a moment, sensing our confusion. “You know, sciency stuff.”

“We’re not stupid,” said Daun, lowering her brow.

“Anyway, they stuck me in the outskirts, where they could keep an electronic eye on me. They didn’t know I had become pregnant by my Synaptic Rejuvenation attendant.” Sheln leaned closer to Daun. “Your father.”

“My father?” Daun looked on the edge of passing out.

“His name was Hathin Gnis. After nullifying his chemical restraints out of sheer boredom, I realized the Thrall were more than just snarling animals forced to do our bidding. They had just as much worth and intelligence as the rest of us…something the ruling class wasn’t willing to admit. Your father was a great man. I fell in love with him.”

“What happened to him?” I asked, butting in.

“I tried to get him out of The Walled City, and…I failed. He died. There’s not much more to say. It was my fault. I’m sorry, Daun.”

“Don’t be,” she said, her eyes becoming wet. “I still don’t believe you.”

“If you don’t want to be associated the Privus, I understand, but know this–there’s no Privus and no Thrall….just human beings. The Privus are just augmented by technology and genetically modified. We’re no better than anyone else.”

I suspected Sheln was telling the truth. I desperately wanted to trust her.

Daun wiped away a tear. “Why? Why did you give me up?”

Sheln’s shimmering eyes betrayed her cold exterior. “The lords didn’t know I was pregnant when they banished me…if they did, they would have killed us both, no matter how valuable I was to them. After coming here, I noticed the drones left me unsupervised for a few hours each day. I used that time to explore my surroundings, and that’s when I discovered Zone 29 and met the couple you called mother and father. We became fast friends.”

“Really? Dad too?”

“Yes. When I heard your dad had become ill I tried to find a way to help him, but the pneumonia took him before I could do anything. I’m sorry.”

Daun shook her head. “It’s okay, but thanks.”

“I know your mom loves you very much, but she isn’t really your mom–at least not biologically,” said Sheln, looking pained. “It doesn’t really matter. She raised you and clearly loves you.”

“And I love her. You can’t take that away,” said Daun.

“I never would! I swear to you,” said Sheln. “Part of the reason I bonded with Lemi was because she was pregnant at the same time I was. We spent more time than I care to admit weeping over my situation. I had no idea what I was going to do once you arrived.”

“I can’t believe mom and dad never told me…” said Daun, trailing off. I put my arm around her.

“Lemi lost the child she was carrying. We were all devastated. In a show of strength I could never hope to replicate, Lemi embraced the tragedy as an opportunity to help me. She’s an amazing woman.”

“What?” asked Daun.

“Lemi offered to take my child–take you–as her own. I dismissed the idea at first, but soon realized it was the only option. We had to act fast before the drones realized Lemi had lost her own baby.”

Daun started to cry. I nearly did as well.

“Daun, I knew I’d have to give birth to you during the short span when the drones were away, and before I became noticeably pregnant. As soon as I was confident you were old enough to survive outside of me, I alerted Lemi and Neshvin. With my guidance, they cut me open and took you out. Afterwards, they patched me up as best they could then took you back with them to the ranch. I feigned an injury when the drones came back that would pass muster should I succumb to too much pain.”

“Unbelievable,” I said.

“It took all my will power to stay out of your life. I visited you a few times when you were very young, but it started becoming difficult to say goodbye. The most difficult decision of my life was when I chose to cut all ties with you, as well as Lemi and Neshvin. They understood my decision. Afterwards, I hated the Privus more than ever and dedicated the rest of my life to stopping them.”

Daun stood up and hurried to her mother. They hugged tight and wept openly. I did my best not to pry on the moment.

44

Daun backed away from Sheln. She took a deep breath and sat back down. “Mother…there’s more important matters to discuss.”

“Right.” Sheln gasped out a single laugh and wiped her eyes on her palms. “First off, where is this boy from?” she asked, looking at me. “I’ve never seen you in the village.”

“I’m not from Zone 29. I’m from Zone 28,” I told her.

“What?” said Sheln with surprise. “Zone 28? Where is that?”

“A few miles to the east,” I said.

“All this time…I had no idea another zone could be so close! I never dared exploring to the east, knowing the stilstries’ black tower lay in that direction.” Sheln looked at her clock. “So, you must be taking advantage of the drone’s absence as well. You’re cutting it close, lingering here.”

“I know,” I said, “but there’s something I need to tell you before I leave. You once knew my grandfather. He was helping you look for something in the ruins of Portland City.”

Sheln stiffened. “Wait…Sanar Roundtrem is your grandfather?”

“Yes,” I replied. It was strange to hear my grandfather’s name after simply calling him Granddad my entire life.

“Roundtrem is a nice name,” said Daun.

Sheln smiled. “Not long after I asked Sanar to help me, the Privus withdrew all their scavenger crews. I never saw him again. It made my heart heavy to know I may have sealed his fate…but it appears he survived.”

“Yes. He wound up doing Cultivation Duty in Zone 28,” I said. “He raised me and my siblings by himself.”

“Sanar was a good man. Selfless,” said Sheln. “Did he tell you what I asked him to do?”

“He found it, Sheln,” I said. “He found your missing formula.”

Sheln stood up abruptly, her chair slamming to the floor. “What? He actually located the datastick?”

I nodded. “Yes. It’s hidden in my village. He showed it to me.”

Sheln had a faraway look in her unblinking eyes. She rubbed her cheek, lost in thought for a moment. “Did he explain why the data was so important?”

“Granddad said it can be used to create a weapon. Something called The Ashen Wrath. A serum that kills the Privus by attacking their…nano..somethings.”

“Kills them?” asked Daun, shocked.

“Yes,” I told her.

Sheln leaned on the table. “Since then, I’ve hypothesized a way to use The Ashen Wrath to kill all of the Privus, not just one at a time…myself excluded, of course.”

Daun’s eyebrows rose high in concern.

Sheln approached me and put her hands on my shoulders, her big blue eyes locked on mine. “I’ve been laboring for years to perfect the formula but it’s useless without the missing research data. You have to bring that data back to me!” Her eyes darted to the side as she looked at her clock. “Damn! You’ll never make it back to your village on time before the drones return.”

I had recently come to the same conclusion. “I know. I’ll have to do my best to sneak in past the stilt striders before they realize I’m missing.”

“What?” said Daun, horrified. “That’s impossible!”

I sighed. “There’s nothing else that can be done.”

“Wait!” said Sheln, rushing to a nearby wooden trunk. She threw open the lid and rummaged around inside.

45

“Here it is.” Sheln rose from the chest, unfurling a black and white blanket covered in clashing geometric patterns and lumpy, uneven folds.

“What is that?” asked Daun

“The drones and stilt striders don’t see the world like we do. They are capable of full-spectrum scanning, but to save power it’s rarely utilized. Normally, they’re content to track heat signatures and rely on pattern recognition.”

I was barely following. “And the blanket?”

“It’s a cloak! I designed it to confuse the drones, but I’ve never been brave enough to actually test the thing. The bulging fabric creases and circle-wave patterns throw off the bastards’ sensors. Furthermore, the cloak is lined with shielding I harvested from some of this scientific equipment. The metallic foil blocks the thermal signature of anyone wearing it. This garish thing makes you practically invisible.”

“Please! There’s no way the stilt striders would ignore such an obnoxious looking coat,” said Daun.

“They will, as long as they don’t activate their full-spectrum mode,” said Daun.

Daun was skeptical. “How are you supposed to know if they’re using that…mode.”

Sheln shrugged. “You can’t.” She draped the cloak over my shoulders and put up the hood. “Danth, use this to get back into your village unseen by the stilstries. Keep in mind this definitely won’t make you invisible to other humans.”

Daun rushed up to me. “Danth, you can’t! This is crazy!”

“I have to,” I told her, kissing her on the cheek. I looked at Sheln. “If I get you that data, can you actually use it? We only have a few days before the Privus flatten Zone 29 to build a weapons factory.”

“I suspected this was coming,” said Sheln with a sigh. “If you get me that datastick, I swear I’ll stop them.”

“Do you have to kill them?” asked Daun.

“I’m afraid so,” said Sheln. “They’ll never let your people free. The Thrall are chattel to all of them.”

“But you turned around, couldn’t–”

“Daun, we have no choice!” I was getting frustrated. I didn’t mean to raise my voice.

Daun shrank away and started to weep.

I moved to her. “I’m sorry. Listen, let’s just get this part over with, then maybe Sheln can figure out a better way to stop the Privus.”

Sheln shrugged. “I can’t make any promises, but I’ll try.”

“Alright,” said Daun.

I turned to Sheln. “The data stick is hidden in a book. If I can manage to get back inside the village, I’ll bring it tomorrow night.”

“Good. Say hello to your grandfather for me,” said Sheln. She stepped up and shook my hand with a smile.

“I will.”

46

Sheln let us ride Lansred back to Zone 28. The white stallion was twice as fast as Rastin, even carrying two riders.

“Whoa!” I called out. The village still wasn’t in sight, but I knew if we rode any closer Daun might not make it back to her ranch before the drones arrived. As soon as Lansred stopped, I hopped off.

“We can go a little further, Danth. Lansred’s so fast, you might even make it in time!”

“No,” I said. “I’m not going to risk you getting caught. I have the cloak,” I said, pulling it tighter around me. “I’ll be alright.”

Daun jumped off and hugged me tight, slipping inside the cloak with me. “You look ridiculous,” she said, her voice ringing with anxiety.

I kissed her tenderly than forced myself away. “Hurry, you have to go!”

Daun mounted Lansred with her usual grace. “Alright. Come back to me Danth.”

“I swear it.”

I watched Daun ride back the way we came, hoping it wouldn’t be the last time I saw her. After taking a deep breath, I pulled up the hood of the cloak and ran toward my village.

47

I moved quietly through the tall grass, keeping close to the ground. I could hear gears grinding in the distance. Peering up, I could see blue pinpoints bobbing near the village. The stilt striders were returning. I was too late.

Having no choice but to put my faith in the ridiculous cloak, I summoned my courage and moved ahead, doing my best to stay behind the stilstries as they clomped around the border of the zone toward their usual perches.

Knowing where the machines preferred to lurk, I entered the village from the south. I zig zagged between the canvas dwellings as I made my way home. When I saw our family tent I grew anxious and impatient. Against my better judgement, I took a short cut and rushed across an empty plot.

A few feet from our tent I heard clawed feet stomping closer. I sank to the ground and went limp beneath the cloak, collapsing next to a pile of compost. I knew I had made a huge mistake.

The ground shook as the towering machine approached. I was blind, but the rhythmic whirr of its spindly limbs told me the stilstry was close. The cloak illuminated with blue light and a giant boom rattled my bones. I froze in fear as the smell of rotten vegetables and donkey manure burned my nostrils. Daun, I’m sorry.

Another impact shook me, followed by a shrill but small shriek. To my shock and joy, the stilt strider stomped away. I peeked out from the cloak and saw a dead rat, smashed flat into the dirt beside me.

I quickly removed my shroud and stuffed it beneath the compost pile with a grunt. It took three seconds to get to my tent and dive inside. Another two seconds got me to my partition, which I zipped up tight in one motion. I collapsed to my bed roll and panted, waiting for my nerves to untangle.

48

Somehow, I managed to fall asleep, but not for long. I was awoken before dawn by the sound of my grandfather screaming. I burst from my partition and saw a bent black arm pulling him out the tent by his ankle.

“Granddad!” I yelled.

Granddad gripped the floor and looked up at me, gritting his teeth. “Be smart, boy! Get back in your partition!” he groaned before the stilt strider pulled him away with one sharp tug. I fought every urge to rush to him, but I would be no good to anyone if they took me as well.

I curled up in my partition and bit my hand to keep from screaming. I listened to the stilt strider clomp away and the world went quiet again.

Moments later, the trill sounded for an Interaction Period. I left the tent in a daze, watching people rush by me excitedly. When I reached the middle of the zone I collapsed to my knees, seeing my granddad clamped to a steel rack stop the platform that normally held the Recreation Tent. A stilt strider was stationed beside him with three red lines blazing across its black face. The symbol for the Rake.

I felt myself being shoved to the ground. I looked up from the mud and saw Marta standing over me. “You were supposed to protect him!” she cried, before kicking me in the side.

“I’m sorry,” I whimpered. “I don’t…I don’t know what happened.” I honestly didn’t. Granddad had made his last quota, and they wouldn’t be punishing him for my crimes.

Marta knelt beside me. She picked me up to my knees and hugged me, breaking into tears.

Granddad lifted his head. “Be strong, children!” he yelled, his voice weak. A deep tone blared, warning him to be quiet.

Marta and I rose up and stood tall. We moved closer, feigning strength, not wanting to let our grandfather down.

49

I held my sister’s hand tight. “Granddad’s tough…he’s been through a raking before. He can survive another.”

“We both know that’s not true,” said Marta, defeated.

“Where’s Annie?”

“She’s with Sams in our tent. I wouldn’t let her see this.”

“Good,” I said.

I could hear the twittering whispers and comments of my neighbors, even though they were doing their best to keep their distance from me and my sister.

Those poor kids. What did he do? Did he steal something? He was too old to meet the quota. Look at him, he’s too frail to survive the rake. Better him than me. I knew he was up to no good. He’s lucky to have lived this long.

A second stilt strider parted the swelling throng and approached the platform. “ATTENTION,” blared its loudspeaker. The rowdy horde went quiet. “This…MAN…known as…ROUNDTREM, SANAR…will receive…TWO…slashes from the Rake for high crimes against the Privus.”

“Two?” said Marta in disbelief.

Unlike the live announcement near the factory, the stilstry was using a prerecorded script adapted for each raking. I had heard the same robotic baritone many times before.

“…ROUNDTREM, SANAR…has been found guilty of…DISTRIBUTION OF CONTRABAND…and…POSSESSION OF CONTRABAND…consisting of…FORBIDDEN LITERATURE AND IMAGES.”

They found the book. It’s all over. My legs felt weak. How did they know?

TWO…rakes will now be administered.”

I watched my grandfather close his eyes tight and clench his jaw, his teeth bared. The forearm of the stilt strider extended–its single claw separating into three vicious blades. The Rake lifted then slashed violently along Granddad’s bared back, shredding away his coveralls. I held Marta tight as she pushed her face against my arm and screamed. Blood streamed down Granddad’s legs and pooled beneath him.

The crowd was agitated. Some were crying, some screaming, some jumped and bayed like excited animals.

“Hurry, go to the tent and get the medical supplies!” I told Marta. “We have to try to save him. I’ll keep him steady as long as I can.” She nodded and rushed off.

I pushed through the crowd, wanting to be there for granddad the moment he was dropped from the rack. As soon as the punishment was over, the IP would proceed as normally and I’d have an opportunity to save his life.

The black arm of the stilstry cranked to the side then slit through the flesh of my grandfather yet again, creating a lattice of gushing wounds on his back. I clenched my fists as granddad convulsed. More yelps and hollers filled the air.

“Punishment delivered. Proceed with IP until the trill sounds,” barked the stilt strider. The three lines on its face disappeared and the blue glow returned. The machine stomped away, returning to its post as the crowd dispersed. It seemed even those who enjoyed attending the rakes didn’t want to watch an old man die.

The latches on the rack popped open and my granddad fell into my arms. I laid him gently on his side, feeling hot rivulets of blood run over my hands. “I’m here Granddad,” I told him, seeing his eyes search for me. Marta rushed up with bandages and gauze and began a desperate attempt to patch up the flowing wounds.

Granddad put a shaky hand on the back of my neck and pulled me closer to him. “Boy…I was…stupid.”

“Save your energy, Granddad,” I said, doing my best not to cry.

“Shut…up. Listen.”

I nodded.

“I got nervous the…book…wasn’t hidden well enough. I went out there to check on the box. That boy, Bin…Binjin. I noticed he was watching me.”

“Binjin?” I said in disbelief.

“I had a feeling he was going to report me. I waited another hour and replaced the book…with some leftover clippings. The old research. I made sure no one was watching. I had to give them something to find or they’d rip the tent apart…searching.”

“Where’s the book now?” I whispered.

“Buried ten paces…due east…from the back of the tent.”

Marta stared at me–her face a mixture of confusion, pain and anger.

Granddad coughed blood into his hand.

Marta was weeping. “I can’t! I can’t do anything to help him! We need a med-bot.”

I knew it wouldn’t arrive in time. They med-bots traveled from the Obsidian Tower and were notoriously slow.

“Marta, stop…you did your best. Come around here,” begged Granddad.

Marta dropped a wad of bloody gauze and moved to the other side of Granddad. She leaned down close to him. “Pop, no.”

“Take care of Annie. Tell her I…I love her. I love you too, very much,” he peered over at me. “You too, boy.” His voice was fading. I held his hand tight. “I’m so proud of all of you.”

“Don’t go!” begged Marta.

“Be strong. Don’t be mad at Danth. I wouldn’t let him tell you…I wouldn’t…I don–”

He was gone.

A stilt strider returned and lifted my grandfather into its forearms. As the machine carried his body away to be burned, the only solace we had was knowing his spirit would no longer trapped in his long-suffering body.

I held Marta close to me and we both wept, our clothes soaking with blood. I managed to collect myself and stood up with my sister.

“Go,” I told her. “Go back to Annie…to Sams.”

Marta nodded, she was shuddering. “What about you? What was granddad talking about?”

“I’ll tell you by the time IP is over.” I clenched my fists. “First, there’s something I need to do.”

50

My rage threatened to boil over as I rushed through the village, searching for Binjin. IPs expired quickly after a raking and the zone wouldn’t be lawless for much longer. I wanted ample time for my revenge.

I barged into Binjin’s tent and ran straight into his father.

“What the hell are you–”

I threw a bloodied fist into the fat man’s face and he hit the floor, unconscious. His lifepartner retreated into her partition and zipped up the flap. I ripped down Binjin’s partition and glared into his terrified eyes.

“Stay away, Danth. I had to do it!” Binjin lifted a jagged piece of metal in front of him–a shiv made from a sharpened garden hoe.

“You were my friend…my best friend!” I yelled. “You betrayed me!”

Binjin sobbed, the shiv wobbling in his grip. “My family is starving. We…we weren’t going to make it much longer.”

“Bullshit. You’ve been making quota, or else it would have been you up there getting the rake!”

“Yes, we’re making quota! But my dad trades all of our ration cards for beets during every IP. All of them.”

“Beets? Are you kidding me?” My confusion nearly overtook my anger.

“He boils the beets and locks them up in a little pot under the tent. After a few weeks, he strains this clear juice from the pulp. It tastes horrible and burns your throat, but he can’t get enough of it.”

Alcohol. Granddad had told me about it once. It was one of the top items he scavenged for the Privus.

“Dad zips himself in his partition and drinks the juice all night long. It makes him crazy…he shakes if he can’t get enough and hits me and mom. He shouts and stumbles around, barely getting his work done. Our quotas are about to slip because we’re all starving.”

“I don’t care!” I shouted.

“Informants don’t have to make quota for an entire year. Reporting your grandfather was the only way we could possibly survive. I didn’t know they’d kill him!”

“Liar! You’ve always been a slimy little coward!”

“You’re a traitor!” said Binjin, rising to his feet. “You told me you were planning to escape the zone! Did you really think I’d let you leave me behind?” My former best friend lunged at me with his improvised knife. I was able to dodge the blade but his knee connected with my middle and I crumpled. I crawled for the exit, barely making it outside as the hoe jabbed into the dirt behind me. I looked up and saw Marta running toward us.

“Stay back!” I yelled.

Binjin kicked my ribs and pointed the blade at my sister. “Listen to your brother, Marta. I’m going to slice up the bastard so he doesn’t forget his place!”

Marta slid to a stop, staring. “Danth!”

Binjin dropped a knee to my stomach and I lost my breath. I recovered in time to catch his arm as he brought the improvised knife to my chest. I could feel the jagged tip tearing through my coveralls. A crowd was starting to form, surrounding us in a wide circle.

Binjin’s father stumbled out of the tent, rubbing his head. He stomped toward me with clenched fists. “Slice up that little shit, Bin. Leave some for me to–”

The stocky man toppled to the mud without warning. I twisted my head and saw Sams standing solidly with an outstretched fist. He grabbed Binjin by the collar and tossed him roughly on top of his groaning father. “You alright?” he asked, extending a hand to lift me out of the mire.

I grabbed his hand and rose from the mud. “Yeah, thanks,” I said, rubbing my chest.

Binjin coughed and recovered surprisingly fast. He bolted to retrieve the shiv but was stopped short by Marta’s boot crashing against his skull.

“You rat bastard!” cried Marta, kicking Binjin as he curled in the fetal position. Marta collected the shiv and hoisted it above her head. “You’ll pay.”

I grabbed Marta’s arms from behind. “It’s not worth it!” She struggled for a moment than the will drained out of her. The chunk of metal fell out of her hands and stabbed into the ground. I let go of her and limped away. The world seemed to be in a haze.

Sams walked over to Bin and his father. “Stay the hell away from our family. If either of you touch a hair on these people’s heads, I slit your throats and hang you from the trees with your own tongues!”

I realized Marta was no longer beside me. She emerged from the tent, holding the ill-gotten ration cards Binjin had earned for informing on my grandfather. She threw them into the crowd and they cheered appreciatively.

“No,” wailed Binjin, barely able to lift his head. He coughed a line of blood across the ground. “You just killed us.”

“Good,” said Marta, her voice cold.

Binjin’s mother peeked out from the tent, looking terrified. I stared at the woman. “You, if you want to save your family, turn in that bastard lifemate of yours. It’s the only way.”

Binjin stumbled back to his tent, leaving his father behind. His mother helped him inside and they zipped up their flap without another word.

I groaned and turned toward Sams. “Where’s Annie?”

Sams patted me on the shoulder and pointed into the distance. “Over there.”

I breathed a sigh of relief, seeing Annie playing with Alice’s daughters. “Thank you, Sams. You saved my life.”

“Please, I don’t deserve your thanks. Considering how I acted during the last IP, I’m no better than those two.” Sams hung his head in shame.

“It’s all in the past,” I said. “I’ve seen how you are with Marta and Annie. I’m glad you’re in their lives.”

Sams posture softened. “I’m…so sorry about your grandfather.”

I was suddenly unable to speak.

“I swear, I’ll always protect Marta or Annie. You don’t have to worry.”

I nodded, managing a weak smile. I couldn’t believe Granddad was gone. Marta walked over, holding Annie in her arms.

Annie pushed away from Marta and ran to me. “Dant!” Her little arms squeezed me with all their might and I hugged back just as hard. As expected, my niece became quickly distracted and ran off again. Sams chased after her. I walked up to Marta and held her hands.

“What is it?” asked Marta.

“Marta, Granddad showed me a way to stop the Privus for good. I’m leaving tonight, and I may not be back. This isn’t something I can walk away from…especially not now.”

Marta didn’t cry. She locked eyes on me, her gaze bright and unblinking. “Do what you must. If Granddad trusted you with whatever this is…I trust you too.”

I realized it wasn’t up to Sams to protect my family. The responsibility fell to me alone.

The Trill sounded. IP was over.

51

The plot was mine alone. Somehow, it seemed appropriate. I changed into a fresh set of coveralls and waited with baited breath until the drones left the village. Without delay, I walked ten paces away from the tent toward the south and began to dig in the dirt, just as granddad had instructed. A few inches down my hand contacted something. After a few frenzied scratches I liberated the book from Earth–dirty, but intact. Thankfully, the datastick was still inside the cover.

I ran. Faster than I ever had before. Through the village. Across the plain. My lungs burned and my feet throbbed. Deep in the prairie I saw Daun waiting for me, standing next to Rastin. My head felt light.

I woke up in Sheln’s cabin with Daun hovering over me. “You passed out,” she told me, taking my hand in hers.

I sat up with a jolt. “Oh, my skull.”

Daun hugged me tight and gave me a kiss. “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” I said. Seeing her instantly lifted my mood. “I think I overdid it a little.” Sheln was in the corner of the cabin, hunched over the book. An inscrutable device with a glowing screen was on the desk next to her, similar to the strange “faces” of the drones. The only screens I had ever used sifted grain, but these sifted pure light from an electronic brain. “Is that a…computer?”

“Yes,” said Sheln, turning her head toward me. “Welcome back. I see the cloak worked.”

“Barely,” I replied.

Sheln shrugged. “You weren’t lying–Sanar actually found the datastick. Was he surprised you had located me?”

“Granddad is dead. The stilt striders gave him the Rake after finding clippings he used to write that book. He couldn’t survive his wounds.” I could barely form my words.

“I’m so sorry,” said Sheln, twisting toward me.

Daun held me close and kissed my cheek. “Oh, Danth.”

“He died knowing I was on the verge of saving the Thrall. I won’t let him down. I got the book out of the village. We did it.” I peered at Sheln. “Right?”

Sheln smiled and closed the lid of the computer. “Somehow, the data on the stick was still intact. The missing piece of the formula was so simple, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t figured it out on my own. Perhaps I was overthinking everything.”

I stood up. “You can produce The Ashen Wrath?”

“Yes,” said Sheln.

“How can you use it to stop all of the Privus?” I asked. “I still don’t understand.”

Sheln stood up, looking stern. She said nothing.

“Sheln?” asked Daun, becoming nervous.

I heard clanking steps. Ratcheting limbs.

52

“Stilt striders!” cried Daun in a panic.

“Stay still, don’t try to run,” said Sheln with authority. She walked to the door and leaned her back against it as the thumping footsteps outside the cabin drew closer.

I moved in front of Daun, my heart racing. “What’s going on?”

“In exchange for foiling your terrorist plot, the Privus will give me anything I want–and I want to be free.”

“You bitch!” yelled Daun, her face going red. “I knew you couldn’t be my mother!”

Sheln shrugged and drew a gleaming sword from a scabbard near the door. She stared at us and twirled it menacingly.

I grabbed Daun around the waist and held her tight as she tried to lunge at Sheln. “Don’t!”

Sheln waggled my grandfather’s book in the air. “Possession of this book is a serious crime, but your attempts to develop and distribute a super-weapon is an unprecedented act of insurgency…especially for a Thrall. I’ll be regaled as hero for stopping you.”

“You’re insane,” I growled, “everyone in The Walled City thinks you’re dead!”

Sheln shook her head, looking disappointed. “Dear boy, the Privus have transcended death. My return will surprise no one.” Sheln stepped aside and opened her door. The blazing blue eye of a stilt strider filled the room with eerie light.

I picked up a chunk of firewood and threw it through the closest window, shattering the glass. “Let’s go!” I cried, pulling Daun with me.

Daun grabbed the edge of the pane and began to crawl through. She screamed as a gleaming black tentacle pushed through the window and wrapped around her body several times.

“No!” I screamed, fumbling to grasp Daun’s legs to no avail. The tentacle zipped her away, slamming me against the logs of the wall in the process. I fell to the floor with a grunt.

“You’re only making this harder,” said Sheln. “I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to win back the High Lord’s favor. I’m truly sorry, but my well-being comes first.”

I skittered over to the fireplace and snatched an iron poker from a stand. Using every last bit of strength I could muster, I sprinted toward Sheln, ready to strike her down.

Sheln easily parried by blow with her sword and bashed me in the skull with the hilt. “You’re no good to me dead!” she scolded as I crumpled to the floor.

I felt cold metal wrapping around my body, squeezing me until I felt I may burst. As the tentacle dragged me from the cabin I locked eyes with Sheln. A moment later I lost consciousness.

53

I woke up with a start, hearing a rhythmic pounding. I tried to scream but my mouth was clamped closed beneath a plank of steel. I peered down at the ground blurring beneath me–I was travelling fast. The stilt strider’s foreclaws were squeezing me against its frigid thorax, barely allowing me to take a full breath. Daun, where are you?

I could only see a portion of my surroundings through the whirring legs of the stilt strider. A stone road. Green grass. Then a haze of gleaming stone, smooth as a still winter lake. I realized I was enroute to The Walled City.

The landscape became ethereal and otherworldly as we breached the great gates. Everything was pure white. The road, the grass, even the trees and their star-shaped leaves. My eyes stared unblinking at hundreds of cylindrical towers rising to scrape the clouds, their spine-topped battlements etching a jagged pattern in the sky.

Denizens of the city stopped to stare at me as the stilt strider stomped deeper through the streets. Every Privus wore flowing robes of white silk, identical except for the embroidery and a few textural flourishes. The men were barely distinguishable from the women. They were all beautiful–at least superficially–with deep blue eyes and long blonde hair. Perhaps their most striking similarity was the look of disgust wiping across their faces when they saw me.

The stilt strider came to an abrupt stop in front of the city’s central tower, anchored to an immense, bulbous dome. I looked up and saw two guards, covered in shining blue armor. The sudden contrast in color was jarring. Scaled plating covered them from head to toe. They sank their wide scimitars into their scabbards and began to march closer.

I coughed for a breath as the stilt strider released its claws and dumped me onto the ground. The guards grabbed my arms and started wrapping my face in blue cloth. My lungs burned as the air thinned. I passed out before panic could overtake me.

54

I awoke disoriented, strapped to an ornate chair with a gag in my mouth. The room and everything in it was entirely royal blue, standing in stark contrast to the rest of the city. A pair of oval windows provided a startling view of the valley below, revealing more of the world than I had ever seen before.

I was so mesmerized, I barely noticed a man sitting between the windows in a massive azure throne. He wore thick folds of sapphire-festooned silk and a crystalline crown on his head. The imposing man sent a glare through me and I couldn’t help but look away. A dozen armored guards were stationed near the walls of the round room, standing like statues.

Daun was carried into the room and tied to the chair beside me. A blue rag was tied around her mouth. She looked at me with relief and desperation. I gasped, overjoyed to know she was still alive. I stretched my hand out, straining against the shackles on my wrist until my fingertips touched hers.

A moment later, Sheln strode into the room, now wearing her own set of white robes. She looked at us, dead-faced, then approached the man on the throne and took a knee in front of him. “High Lord, I am your humble–”

“Shut up and stand, Sheln,” said the High Lord. Sheln did as commanded. “So, you thought alerting me to the revenge fantasies of a pair of Thrall children would convince me to end your banishment? The Privus will not so easily forget your subversive remarks of years past.”

“Forgive me, High Lord. That was many years ago. I was young and stupid. My banishment has taught me the error of my ways. I have worked hard to regain your trust.” said Sheln.

The High Lord sighed. “True. You did reveal the secret vanity projects of my disgraced predecessor, as well as develop a series of biochemical breakthroughs we had not even thought to consider.” He paused for a moment. “Still, your actions only served to save your own life, not out of a sense of loyalty to The Walled City.”

“I am loyal. When I happened upon these Thrall on the edge of my zone, I risked my own life to gain their trust, sensing they were engaged in an act of subversion. After seeing the girl’s blonde hair and blue eyes, I convinced her I was her long-lost mother. Such a fool…no one so plain and weak could ever carry Privus blood.”

The High Lord chuckled. “Quite humorous. The Thrall truly are pathetic creatures…which is why I’m afraid you’re just wasting my time. Hurry, Sheln…give me a reason not to throw you back in those woods.”

“These particular Thrall are surprisingly tricky and mischievous. They were taking advantage of a time when the zones are free from surveillance…an hour span after the airdrones leave and before the stilt striders arrive. They used this gap to conspire against the Privus.”

“Yes, this has been a regrettable flaw in the Obsidian Tower’s automated maintenance system for years. It’s a constant challenge just to keep those damn stilt striders operating.” said the High Lord with a sigh. “We’ve always believed the Thrall’s fear and stupidity were enough to keep them in check, but I suppose we’ll have to address this particular issue more thoroughly.” The sinewy man cut his eyes at me again. “Sheln, please explain the nature of this grand conspiracy again, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“The book these Thrall were planning to distribute throughout the zones was far more than propaganda.” Sheln passed the book to a guard, who brought it to the High Lord. “In the back of this seemingly innocuous tome are plans to build bombs using everyday materials. After conducting some research, I concluded these improvised devices are explosive enough to disable airdrones and stilt striders alike.”

55

What the hell is Sheln talking about? I thought. Granddad had no bomb-making instructions in his book. She must have needed something to trump up the charges against us and added a few extra pages. Even if The Ashen Wrath was real, it was obviously no super weapon. Sheln had just been using us to return to the damned city.

“Shocking!” said the High Lord, looking appalled as he flipped through the pages. “These bombs may not have done much damage on their own, but it quite likely would have sparked an uprising in the zones. We can’t afford to quell an internal rebellion on the dawn of war!” He looked at Sheln. “Tell me who else was involved! Who wrote this book?”

“A traitorous Thrall named Sanar Roundtrem–a legacied scavenger and survivor of the Final Lesson,” said Sheln. “He was given the Rake after some of his propaganda materials were discovered. The old man died from his injuries. Thankfully, only the people in this room are aware of the book you now hold in your hands.”

I bit against my gag, enraged.

The High Lord sat the book on the arm of his throne and stood up. He walked closer to Sheln. “Stand.” Sheln did. “You have proven yourself worthy of the Privus. Henceforth, your title shall be reinstated and your banishment will come to an end.”

Sheln smiled wide. “Thank you, High Lord.”

“I’m sure you’re smart enough to avoid the topic of your execution should any curious parties come calling,” added the High Lord. “Be sure to keep such matters far from your lips.”

“Of course! I–”

“Do not think you are due for a life of leisure!” interrupted the High Lord. “As a condition of your pardon, you will be expected to begin development of advanced weaponry for the war. You will be provided a proper laboratory and state of the art equipment…I expect results!”

“You will have them,” Sheln reassured. “But, if I may be so bold…”

“Yes, what is it?”

“Send me to the Obsidian Tower before I begin work in my new lab. I am confident I can streamline their maintenance protocols and eliminate the surveillance gap. It should only take me a few days.”

“Very well.” The High Lord looked at Daun and myself. “What shall be done with the insurgents? The execution of children could spark a rebellion just as easily as a bomb blast.”

“High Lord, the young man has shown physical adeptness as well as endurance. He would be a prime candidate for Tower Service.”

“An excellent idea,” said The High Lord. He directed a lecherous look at Daun. “This girl seems aesthetically pleasing enough. She will be tamed and given to the Duchess of Hortmont. The old bat’s been hounding me to assign her an attendant for her next Synaptic Rejuvenation.”

“Brilliant, your highness,” said Sheln.

“Enough groveling, Sheln. I’ll give you a day to acclimate to your new dwelling, then your work shall begin. Welcome back to The Walled City.”

Sheln bowed. “Glory to the Privus, Defenders of All Who Remain.”

“Glory,” replied the High Lord, rolling his eyes.

I wasn’t sure what Tower Service meant. I struggled in vain against my constraints but couldn’t even tip my chair. I looked at Daun, doing my best to hide the fear in my eyes. If this was the last time I saw her, I wanted her to know I was brave.

The look Daun returned was determined and unflinching–true courage. I dropped my facade, hoping she felt how deeply I loved her. Without warning, the blue cloth wrapped my face again.

56

Once again, I was travelling in the grip of a stilt strider. The claws around me were so tight I nearly passed out from the pain several times. I thought of Daun’s kind and gentle face, hoping it would give me enough strength to survive whatever was coming. Finally, my body slammed to the ground and the cloth over my eyes was ripped away.

I looked up, squinting in the twilight. An armored guard was standing over me with an ebony spear pointed at my temple. “Get up, boy.” Behind him the towering silhouette of the Obsidian Tower pierced the sky, it’s three spires gleaming in the fading sun. I had been delivered to the home base of the stilt striders. Oh my god, no.

I stood up on shaking legs and the guard moved behind me. I winced as he jabbed the spear against my back. “Get inside.” A pair of massive doors slid open in front of me on creaking, rusty rails. I shuffled forward as my head pounded. The guard directed me up a spiral staircase. My legs were burning by the time he ordered me to stop.

“Welcome to your new home,” said the guard, opening the door of a blackened room. There was nothing inside but a hole in the floor and a cot. He shoved me inside and slammed the door, leaving me in the dark.

A slit high on the wall opened sometime in the morning, sending a sliver of sunlight into the room. I felt empty inside–completely numb. I suspected what was about to happen, but I couldn’t face the truth. I looked up at a dark oval on the wall, curious to its purpose.

A few hours later, the oval flashed in a repeating pattern of white light. It was a screen. I was happy to receive a distraction to take my mind off my hunger.

Just as the strobing screen was becoming unbearable, the image of a Privus man appeared. His face was hidden in shadow, except for his mouth.

“Listen carefully to my instructions or you will be killed,” said the man. I recognized the same bored voice from the alert we had received from the stilt striders in the village. “Do as requested and you will survive. Resist and you will die. Nod if you understand.”

I nodded.

“Stand up,” said the man. I still wasn’t sure if he was a recording or not.

My stomach grumbled as I stood up–I hadn’t eaten since leaving the village and I felt exceedingly weak. The door of my cell rattled open on rusty rails.

“Walk to the hallway. Follow my voice.”

57

Circular screens lit up in front of me in the hallway. The disembodied head only said “walk.”

“Walk…Walk…Walk…Stop.”

I stopped in front of wide door, which slid open slowly. A small room was revealed, containing nothing but a gurney.

“Lie down on the gurney.”

My heart rate spiked. I knew if I got on that bed I may never get up again.

“Last chance!” the voice reiterated. “You have five seconds to comply before a guard is called to stab you through the heart.”

I was utterly defeated. Hopefully, there would be a chance to escape my fate further down the line. I was clueless to what that fate may be.

“Insert your wrists and ankles into the straps.”

I tried not to think, I just did as I was told. The straps tightened around my limbs. I turned my head to the side and threw up on the floor. The voice didn’t seem to care. I heard a low hum and did my best to look over my body at the door. A med-drone hovered into the room and stopped beside me. Before I could even process what was happening, I felt something puncture my neck. A sensation of warmth flowed through me and everything went black.

58

I was sick of waking up in strange places. My head was spinning. Yet again, I was blind. I wasn’t strapped down, but my body felt heavy and numb. Nothing moved like I wanted it to.

“Get it together, Danth!” said a new voice. It was so familiar. “If you don’t at least pretend to have some coordination, you’re not going to survive another day.”

“What?” I asked, weakly.

“You’re resisting! Just let go. It’s the only way.”

“Who are you?”

“Shut up…assignment incoming,” whispered the voice. “Empty your damn head.”

The voice wasn’t Privus. It seemed to be trying to help me, so I did as instructed–relaxing my muscles and my mind. Something took over my body, moving my limbs for me. I did my best not to panic.

I shuddered as a blue light washed over my face. My vision had returned, revealing the world through a hazy portal.

I was inside a soaring chamber within the Obsidian Tower I hadn’t seen thus far. I was hovering a few feet off the floor–no, not hovering–if I concentrated, I could still feel the hint of my feet on the slates below.

I nearly screamed when a huge green circle appeared in front of my face, accompanied by a loud buzz. An oval screen lowered from the ceiling and I felt myself pivoting to stare at it, although it hadn’t been my decision.

The man in shadow was back, this time fully revealed. He looked just as disinterested as his voice had sounded. His eyes focused on me. “Unit 1104. Status report.”

“All systems nominal,” I said for some reason. “Subsystems nominal. 98% power. Functioning at 61% sync.”

“61%?” asked the disembodied head, sounding disappointed. “Spare the High Lord, that can’t be right! Revise status report. Now.”

I had been instructed to empty my mind, but I was still clinging to the edge of a void. I finally let go and felt myself sinking until only a glimmer of my existence remained.

“Subsystems nominal. 98% power. Functioning at 97% sync,” I said.

The head groaned. “That’s better. Glitchy hunks of trash. We used to have 1,000 pilots, newbie, now we’re down to 20. Sync gets worse every day. If Sheln can’t fix the tower’s failure rate, they’ll run the High Lord out of The Walled City on a rail.”

I said nothing.

The head pinched his brow. “Why am I talking to you? I must be losing my mind.”

Again, I said nothing.

“Unit 1104. Assignment Zone 18. Leave at once.”

“Yes Sir,” I said. I swiveled around, feeling an enormous sense of momentum as I stomped out of the tower onto the grassy plain. Two stilt striders were walking in lockstep on each side of me.

I realized I was being carried by a stilt strider again.

No. I was a stilt strider.

59

I floated within a dense, black fluid which served to protect my body from the shock of the stilt strider’s heavy footsteps. I was completely immobilized, with my knees and arms compressed against my chest. A series of electrodes and wires bit through my skin, firmly affixed to my head. Somehow, I knew my role without being told. The machine was accessing a deep pit inside my mind, not my thoughts or emotions, but the experience of every physical movement I had ever made. It adapted my unconscious sense of timing, coordination and balance to ambulate its own mechanical body.

Each day I felt as if I were watching my life through a dirty window. It took all my concentration to remain alert, but my consciousness inevitably slipped. Some days flashed from morning to night in an instant. I had trouble discerning the passage of time. I was trapped in a dream.

I stood guard over exotic zones full of Thrall I had never seen before. The only act of defiance I could muster was to keep my full-spectrum view on at all times. I witnessed villages clinging to snow-covered mountains; fishing communities perched on the edge of the roiling ocean; dense forests with towering trees Thralls were laboring to clear. I saw plants and animals beyond comprehension. Incredible sights that did little to alleviate my numbness.

Sinking further into emptiness helped keep me sane as I performed my “duties.” I chased those who disobeyed the Trills. I sent my Rake against quota breakers. My black tentacles pulled people from tents and grass huts. Those who ran in fear were stomped to the ground as they pled for mercy. All of it was beyond my control. I wept as I watched from a void I could not escape. If I concentrated hard enough, I was able to move the machine’s metal limbs, but only enough to cause a momentarily stumble. Eventually, I gave in, feeling content to simply observe.

After returning to the Obsidian Tower each morning, the electrodes were removed from my head and I was flushed from my cramped chamber within the stilt strider’s innards into a white room.

“Prepare for ferrofluid retrieval,” boomed the disembodied voice.

An ear-splitting hum signaled me to lie still as the black, cushioning gel was drawn away from my body by powerful magnets to ports in the wall. Afterwards, a series of water jets blasted my body clean and I was led by the oval screens to my cell. There, I waited out the day until the battery of my terrible exoskeleton was recharged. I voided my bowels in the hole in the floor and drank a slurry of grey liquid to sustain my body. The rest of my time was spent sleeping.

My will had evaporated. I had no desire to fight back. To escape. To question my fate. As far as I could tell, my door wasn’t even locked. There were no guards to watch over me. I saw no one else. I actually felt a sense of relief each night when the tentacles pulled my back inside the stilt strider. There, I could just float. Exist without existing. I reduced sensory input to detect nothing more than heat. It was enough.

60

“Hey, wake up!”

I sat up on my cot. I never dreamed anymore. “What?” Someone knelt in front of me. I rubbed my eyes.

“Don’t you recognize me?”

“You shouldn’t be here,” I slurred.

“For god’s sake…I guess I need to do this first.”

My guest pressed a small machine against my neck. I felt a sharp pain.

“Hold still.”

After what seemed like an eternity, the needle in my neck finally withdrew. I smelled smoke. The machine clunked as some sparks showered to the floor.

“Shit, the thing locked up! Danth…Danth! Are you alright?”

Pain. I hadn’t felt pain in so long. I sucked in air like I had never taken a breath. Tears spontaneously flowed down my face.

“There you are!” said the emaciated man next to me.

I looked him in the eye and shook in shock. “Kooper?”

My brother laughed. “Surprised?” He hugged me tight and the tears began flowing again.

“You’re…alive?” I looked at the hunk of metal on the floor. “What was that thing?”

“This device nullified the nanomachines they injected inside of you. The nasty little things were sucking away your humanity.” Kooper dropped the strange object to the floor. “Dammit, I was going to use that thing on the rest of the pilots but I think I fried it somehow.”

“You’re alive!” I said, still in shock.

“If you can call it that,” said Kooper. “They recruited me, just like you.” He moved to the door and peered outside into the hallway. “I don’t know how much more time we have.”

“Did someone use that machine on you?”

“No. I was perfectly content to spend my days in my stilt strider, but everything just changed one day. I’m not sure why, but I started to take closer notice of the faces flashing on the citadel’s screens–our nightly collection targets.”

“The Thrall offenders we take from the zones?”

“Yes. I started remembering them long after our runs were complete. A measure of my guilt returned and I was able to feel again. My emotions were still easy to shut off, though…until I saw you.”

“You saw me on the oval screens?”

“Yes, you and some other girl were set to be collected from some miniscule zone to the east. When I saw your face, everything came flooding back. I began to resist until I regained enough control to leave my cell. After some sleuthing, I became familiar with the Tower’s internal security routines and found ways around them. Eventually, I discovered the laboratory where they first stripped away my will. It was there I found this device.”

“You used it on yourself?”

“No…I was freed by the strength of my mind, nothing more.”

Immodest as usual–he was definitely my brother. “What do we do now?”

“Nothing. Keep doing everything exactly like you were before.”

“What?”

“Because the device broke, we’ll have to implement my backup plan,” said Kooper with a sigh. “You’ll need to be able to take complete control of your stilt strider–override its onboard computer with your own mind.”

I remembered how hard I struggled to just move a claw. “It’s impossible.”

“No, it’s not. If I can do it, so can you. Start practicing. Veer off course a few steps. Lift the machine’s legs higher. Flutter your damn claws. Just start practicing. When you’re confident and in control, you’ll know. Then we’ll make our move.”

“Our move?”

Kooper grinned. “We’ll destroy the rest of these metal bastards and knock down this damned tower!” With that, he ruffled my hair and left.

Clarity didn’t come without a price. Memories I had formed while in my emotionless state within the stilt strider suddenly had horrific emotional baggage attached to them. I realized I was there when the new munitions factory was being built on Zone 29–when the ranches were leveled and the villagers reassigned to factory work. I had killed dozens of horses after someone had tried to set them free. So many horses. That night, I cried myself to sleep. I wasn’t sure if Daun could ever forgive me.

I focused on what little good I could still do. Even if Kooper and I only made a dent in the Privus’ infrastructure, it may be enough to stir up the Thrall to a new revolution. A Final Lesson, on our terms.

I swallowed my regrets and tried to picture Daun’s face in my mind’s eye, but all I could see was Sheln. I’ll make her pay, I thought, quietly seething.

61

Each night it became a little easier to control my stilt strider. I began asserting my influence on the machine in imperceptible ways. Shutting out the computer was harder, but I soon learned how to keep its commands at bay. After a week, I was pantomiming my duties with ease.

With my guilt restored, collections were incredibly difficult to perform, but I couldn’t blow my cover. Thankfully, those I took became prisoners in the tower–I hadn’t been forced to kill anyone in weeks. I began to fantasize about escape. About freeing my family. About liberating Daun from The Walled City.

Kooper’s ‘visits’ to my cell were rare. The night he walked into my black room with wild eyes, I knew the time for our mutiny was at hand.

“We’re doing this?” I asked.

Kooper seemed tense as he nodded. “Do you feel confident piloting the stilstry? You’re not going to be strolling around leisurely…I need you to fight.”

I swallowed. “I’m ready.”

“It’s happening tonight…be ready. Follow my lead in the citadel’s chamber. Do you remember how I told you to take the other machines out?”

“Yes, tear out the power regulator beneath the foreclaws.”

“Right. Don’t be shy about firing your rods if you need to close some distance. You have six to spare.”

I remembered the dreadful night at the factory when a man was impaled right beside me. “Right.”

Kooper put his hands on my shoulders. “We can’t leave the Obsidian Tower until every other stilt strider is destroyed. If we don’t move fast, they’ll call in armed airdrones. We won’t survive an airstrike.”

“What about the other pilots? I don’t want to hurt them.”

“Ripping out the power regulators won’t hurt the men in the machines, but it may eject them onto the floor in the heat of battle. Remember, we have no way to help those poor souls…at least right now. They’ll be lifeless on their feet, maybe even hostile.”

I gritted my teeth. “What about the tower commander?”

“I’ll take him out myself as soon as we tear through the stilstries. I’m sorry, but it’s going to be 2 against 30…not great odds.”

I didn’t care. “When do we begin?”

“That’s the Danth I remember!” Kooper slapped my shoulder. “We’ll make our move soon after the silt striders line up for assignments.”

62

The steel tentacles loaded me into my unit, likely for the last time. I suddenly felt claustrophobic. As soon my machine hummed to life, I took control and made my way to the tower’s soaring inner chamber, taking my place among the other stilt striders.

I had one more task to finish before the mutiny commenced. Every stilt strider had an untethered connection to the Obsidian Tower’s data well. Every Thrall that had ever been targeted was tracked and monitored, even long after they had been captured.

I skipped my mind across the sea of information until Daun’s face flashed in front of my eyes. Wasting no time, I copied her records into my stilt strider’s repository, including everywhere she had travelled since being captured and her current whereabouts. I scanned the archived security footage long enough to confirm she was still alive. She was living in a palatial white tower within The Walled City, attending to a lanky woman confined to a bed. Daun seemed just as dazed as I had been.

I had what I needed. I knew how to find Daun, but she might as well had been on the moon.

63

The time had come to strike. As soon as the oval screen lit up and the stilt striders lifted their gaze to receive their assignments, my brother sprang into action. Before I could even take a step, he had already ripped out three of the stilt strider’s power regulators. The machines toppled and their pilots automatically ejected, sliding across the gray slate with a gush of black fluid.

My attacks weren’t as efficient. My targets batted away my arms as their self-defense modes activated. I punched and kicked my way underneath each stilt strider until I could crush their regulators to disable them. The armor of my own machine was steadily getting shredded by metallic claws as the horde surrounded me. Desperate, I tore off the leg of a fallen stilstry and began bashing my opponents until they backed away.

A steel pole punctured my unit and grazed my shoulder, tearing away some skin. A second pierced my armor from the other side. The tiny lights of the interior flickered but stayed lit. Undeterred, I battled on–tugging the pole out of my machine and using it as a pike. One by one the stilt striders fell. I lost track of the pilots but was heartened to see some of them were scrambling away from the chaos.

Graced with a clear view, I was able to see my brother bolting from the room. “Kooper!” I called, through my loud speaker.

“I have to stop the commander before he calls for reinforcements,” he cried back, disappearing up the stairs. Two stilt striders followed him, leaving six more for me to deal with.

Completely exposed, I dove behind a heap of fallen machines to take cover. I wasn’t fast enough. Thankfully, I had raised a black claw in time to intercept three incoming javelins, completely deadening my robotic arm but leaving me alive. I ejected the arm, hearing it slam to the floor then twisted behind the pile of smoldering scrap. More poles smashed into the onyx bricks behind me. I was pinned down.

A thunder of footsteps approached. I had to think beyond the constraints of my own body. I deployed four retrieval tentacles and sent them slithering among the scrap. As soon as each feeler surrounded a shard of steel, I sent the jagged hunks spinning in a controlled arc toward my attackers.

Two stilt striders fell as my projectiles sliced through their legs, dumping them to the floor. Another toppled after taking a direct hit to its middle. I tried not to think about the man inside.

Moving forward, I disabled the regulators of the fallen machines. I held up a sheet of stray armor to absorb more javelin hits as I rushed ahead. A sliding kick sent a claw into another regulator. Only two more to go.

Black fluid poured out of my stilt strider as I engaged my opponents in close combat. A massive impact sliced through my plating, letting in light from outside. Every punch and kick battered my body as the cushioning ferrofluid flowed away. I ripped off my oxygen mask and screamed, flailing my machine’s limbs in a frenzy. Satisfying cracks webbed across my foe’s flattened faces, but every second that passed brought more damage to my shell.

64

A succession of loud clangs announced the return of the two machines that had chased my brother. Their battered shells bounced down the stairs and rolled back into the room. Kooper was right behind them. He jumped to the floor and fired all of his javelins at once into the two remaining stilt striders. Their batteries exploded, sending them spinning away from me.

Before we could celebrate, I noticed a dark shape rapidly spiraling down from the high ceiling, clinging to the wall as it descended.

“Look out!” I screamed, as the huge object launched from the shadows toward Kooper. The collision threw my brother’s stilt strider across the room, creating a burst of sparks when it hit the wall.

It was another robotic serpent just like the one in the prairie. Its jagged spines bristled as it turned toward me and crackled a repulsive hiss, displaying its gleaming steel teeth.

“Come on!” I yelled, staring into the sentry’s glowing eyes. The beast whipped its segmented body at me with remarkable speed, barely leaving me enough time to leap out of the way. The entire tower shook as the snake’s diamond shaped head smashed against the wall.

The serpent lashed its tail, leaving deep gouges in the floor on either side of me. Remembering how Sheln had defeated the last sentry, I launched my remaining poles at the base of its neck. They had no effect–its armor was far thicker than the stilt-striders’ coverings.

“Hey ugly!” shouted Kooper, as his machine lifted from the floor. He blasted his incinerators to get the snake’s attention. The sentry turned its head sharply, revealing a chink between its segments. I pulled a stray spear of steel from the floor and jammed it into the exposed mass of machinery.

The serpent thrashed around in a frenzy. Something exploded deep within its neck. My exoskeleton launched across the room and I felt a bone in my leg snap. I bit my lip hard and struggled to my feet. Kooper rushed beside me as the entire tower quaked around us.

65

“The bastard’s smashing through the walls! We have to get out of here!” yelled Kooper. He tugged me toward the exit and we rushed outside into a moonlit night. Onyx bricks were ejecting from the walls as the serpent’s grinding screams filled the night air. Fire climbed up the tower in erratic amber veins, choking the air with black smoke. A massive spire toppled from the highest reaches and jabbed into the ground a few steps away from us.

We retreated further into the field as the once great Obsidian Tower began to collapse, coming straight down as if a giant hand was shoving it directly into Hell. When the smoke cleared I saw the shocked faces of dozens of naked men and women, their bodies dripping with black fluid. The other pilots. I was overjoyed to see the majority of them had fled, but I dared not count exactly how many remained. Each of them sent an empty gaze into the flames, mesmerized.

“Did you find the commander?” I asked Kooper. We were both too stunned to celebrate our victory.

“No,” he replied, “but at least I was able to free the prisoners.”

“Good,” I said, breathing a sigh of relief. “I was too busy to see if any of them were coming down the stairs. Had the tower commander already fled?”

“I don’t think so. The inner sanctum was completely empty. It looked like it had been abandoned for days. We’ve been obeying the commands of an automated system.”

“Is that good or bad?”

“I’m not sure,” said Kooper.

66

I was ready to vacate my machine, but I knew once I did, I’d never be able to get back inside. “What do we do now?”

“We have to act fast,” said Kooper. “I’m going to lead these men to Zone 28 and tell the people of the village it’s time to fight back!”

“Kooper, we’re lucky to have survived. We can’t keep pressing our luck.”

“Nonsense,” said Kooper with bravado. “The majority of the airdrones lack weaponry. If the Thrall rise up now, we may have a chance to take The Walled City while the Privus are still reeling from losing their stilt striders.”

I shook my head, realizing too late he couldn’t see me doing it through my black cocoon. “The Walled City will have ten times more reinforcements than the Obsidian Tower.”

“We have to try, Danth. Before these Stilt Striders run out of energy, we’ll run to every zone we can. We’ll tell the Thrall the time has come for revolution!”

“Kooper…stop. It won’t work!”

“Coward!” said Kooper, angrily, “I–”

“Please, just listen!” I interrupted. My brother’s idealism was admirable, but his bravery paled next to his ignorance. “Did you know grandfather died?”

“Yes,” said Kooper, calming down. “I watched it happen on the citadel’s circle screens. I nearly lost my resolve, having to watch him get the Rake. What does this have to do with anything?”

“I’m getting to that,” I said. “I’m not sure if you knew this, but Granddad wrote a book…a people’s history of the Thrall.”

“A book?”

“Yes. He risked his life to keep the knowledge within the book safe. You can’t dismiss what I’m about to tell you.”

“Hurry up,” said Kooper, becoming impatient again.

“Granddad’s book detailed the weapons of war the Privus use. The Final Lesson wasn’t won by a handful of super heroes described in The Ten Tomes. Our forbearers were normal people, not diseased monsters. They were wiped out by grim war machines that make stilt striders look like chipmunks.”

Kooper’s machine slumped, betraying his feelings.

I continued. “The Privus have village-sized cannons mounted at the top of the White Wall. A parade of angry serfs would be annihilated in seconds trying to take the city, even without having to deal with the stilt striders.”

“Dammit!” yelled Kooper. “What can we do?”

“Run,” I told him. “Go back to Zone 28. Find Annie, Marta and her new lifemate, Sams. Carry them while your stilstry still has power and flee to the snow-topped mountains to the east. There’s rumors of people there who somehow live beyond the reach of the Privus. Maybe they can help us.”

“They’re just rumors!”

“It’s the best we have. Go. Now.”

“What about you?”

“I love you, Kooper. I’m so happy you’re alive. Take care of our family. If I survive what’s coming, I’ll find you.” I started running to the north, toward The Walled City.

“Danth!” I heard Kooper yell. I didn’t turn back.

67

My body burned with pain but I kept up my machine’s pace, feeling every stride slam against my contorted body. I had absolutely no plan but plenty of desire. I wanted to rescue Daun. I wanted my grandfather’s book back. I wanted Sheln to die in my strangling hands.

The Walled City crested the horizon. It was massive…far larger than I had even imagined. It had been built in the center of a blackened expanse, likely another ruined city from years past. There were no buildings nearby. No dwellings. No tents. Just a ghostly, seamless wall with towers jutting to the heavens on the other side.

There would be no way to climb such an immense wall. I had no choice to but to go through the gate at top speed, hoping those massive cannons wouldn’t take me out from a mile away. My clanking exoskeleton was at 15% power and my body ached in continuous pain. At least I had an idea where Daun might be–her routes through the city had been tracked and logged by the Obsidian Tower.

I was close. Within a half-mile. The huge guns still hadn’t fired upon me. No guards clad in blue armor rode out of the gates. No sentry serpents slithered from the ground. It was far too quiet, which meant I was certainly sprinting directly toward a trap. For some reason, the Privus wanted me alive.

The gates were wide open. I told myself to press on. My entire being throbbed with pain. It was now or never. Trap or not, there would be no other chances.

I’d happily die just to see Daun’s face again.

68

My exoskeleton ran out of power inches from the gate. My body ejected from the rear of the machine in mid-stride, dumping me to the ground without warning. The stilstry collapsed and fell apart in a cloud of dust.

I groaned and crawled to the smoking heap, prying a metal bar from one of the machine’s crumpled joints to use as a crutch. I rose up and began limping toward The Walled City. My adrenaline was spiking. Death could come calling at any moment.

There were no guards, no carts, no vehicles, no sound except for the howling wind. As I moved through the towering doors I realized everyone in the city was dead. The bodies of Privus lay strewn across the ground, their ivory skin now gray and brittle–stripped of life. Men and women, once so powerful, were reduced to dried husks in splayed robes.

The carnage had happened fast. Corpses were curled against walls. Dunked in fountains. Dangling halfway out of lofty windows. Transports were compacted together in smoking heaps. Puddles of green bile oozed out of every body. The smell was horrific.

My god, I thought. I had never seen anything so awful. I wrapped a clean, stray robe around my body and covered my mouth to keep from gagging. The bodies grew denser the further I walked. Daun, I have to find Daun. I prayed she was somehow still alive.

Then, a sign of life–the sound of scurrying feet in the dust. A pair of young teenagers stared at me with eyes peeled wide as they cowered behind a wall. A boy and a girl, both Thrall. I picked up my pace and they dove out of sight.

“Wait!” I yelled. “Don’t go! I’m Thrall too!” I peeled back my hood and coughed.

The pair came back, taking tentative steps toward me.

I saw my pale reflection in a window and recoiled. I opened my robe and could see my ribs shoving against thin, lesioned skin. No wonder the survivors were afraid of me. “Please,” I begged, “have either of you seen a young woman? Blonde and blue eyed, but not Privus, Thrall.”

The teenagers looked at each other, then back at me. “Who are you?” asked the young man.

“My name is Danth. Please, have you seen her?” I pointed to the tower where Daun might be, based on my fading memories of the stilt strider’s map.

The young woman shrugged. “There’s something you must see.” She hurried beside me and her friend joined her. They grabbed me under the arms and led me through the streets at a pace that nearly blinded me with pain.

I recognized where they were taking me. My eyes were assaulted by a flood of royal blue as soon as we walked inside. I was back in the central tower, the lair of the High Lord.

“Don’t worry,” said the young man, feeling me struggle against his insistent help. “Come, this way.”

We rode a large elevator to the top of the tower. The doors opened into the throne room and I shuddered at what I saw.

“Sheln!”

69

The Thrall at either side of me grabbed my arms tighter, keeping me from attacking my sworn enemy. Behind Sheln, the High Lord was slumped dead in his throne, still wearing his crystal crown. “You lying bitch!”

“Well, hello to you too, Danth,” said Sheln. She was wearing a fresh set of royal blue robes. Her grin was constant.

“Where’s Daun?” I screamed.

Daun emerged from an antechamber, looking none the worse for wear. Her eyes were wider and bluer than I remembered, amplified by her azure cloak. “Danth?!”

A miasma of darkness seemed to lift from the pit of my stomach, ejecting from my mouth with a groan. With the last of my strength, I shook off my attendants and limped to Daun, wrapping my arms around her tightly. I could feel her heart dance against mine. She held my filthy face in her smooth hands and we kissed through our tears.

70

“I thought you were dead!” said Daun, as our kiss broke.

“Almost, but not quite,” I said.

Daun gasped after realizing my sorry state. “Danth, what did they do to you?”

She didn’t need to know everything. Not yet. “I’ve been…locked up…for a while, but I’m already feeling better.” I lowered my gaze to the floor. “Daun, your village…I couldn’t save them. I’m so sorry.”

Daun took my face in her hands and looked in my eyes. “Sheln told me you were trapped in that thing–It’s not your fault. I know you would have done something if you could. Even though Zone 29 was leveled, most of its residents survived. We’ve already sent out an airship to locate them and bring them to The Walled City.”

“Is your mother–Lemi, I mean–is she okay?”

“I think so,” said Daun. “Sheln said an airdrone had spotted her.”

“Good,” I said, taking a heavy breath. I glared at Sheln. “Can we really trust her?”

“For now.” Daun led me carefully to a cushiony couch and sat beside me. “You’re hurt.”

“I…I think my leg’s broke,” I told her. “But the pain isn’t so bad,” I lied.

“We’ll take care of that just as soon as you ask your inevitable round of boring questions,” said Sheln, walking closer.

I didn’t know where to begin. “What–”

“Happened?” interrupted Sheln. “Haven’t you guessed by now? I used the datastick you recovered to perfect the formula of The Ashen Wrath.”

“How did you–”

“Kill everyone? It took a while to nullify the nanobots of the Thrall attendants in the Walled City–as well as my own, of course–but once finished, the rest was easy. Using my connections, I infiltrated every well station in the city and dumped The Ashen Wrath into the Privus’ water supply. The formula was designed to be a slow burn, insuring everyone within the gates would ingest enough to ensure success. It took two weeks for the serum to start attacking the Privus’ nanobots. Before they figured out what was happening, it was too late. The bastards all died within minutes of each other.”

“You slaughtered everyone?”

“Trust me, every single one of them deserved their fates. I learned anyone who had ever sympathized with the Thrall had been executed by the High Lord–myself excluded.”

“But the children…you killed them too?”

Sheln shook her head. “There are no Privus children. The Privus transfer their minds into lab-grown clones. Actual children, like Daun here, were only in the city because they were kidnapped–forced to attend to the whims of the lords and ladies.”

“Stop calling me a child,” said Daun, crossing her arms.

“You’re my child,” said Sheln, smiling.

Daun turned to me, rolling her eyes. “Sheln lies a lot…it’s hard to tell when she’s telling the truth.”

“When it matters,” replied Sheln.

I was astonished. “How long has it been since The Ashen Wrath killed everyone?”

Sheln looked at Daun. “That was, what, three days ago?”

Daun nodded.

“Right,” said Sheln. “After that, I just had to wait for you and your brother to take care of matters outside the city.”

I was baffled. My exhaustion probably didn’t help.

“Oh my, such a stupid look,” said Sheln with a laugh. “I let you get captured, knowing full well I’d be able to get you work inside that damnable black tower. I apologize for not letting you in on my plans, but there was no reason to take any additional chances.”

“Apology accepted. You’re lucky Kooper broke free from the tower’s control, or I never would have.”

Sheln laughed. “Is that what the egotistical fool actually believed?”

71

“I risked life and limb for that idiot brother of yours!” continued Sheln. “I travelled to the Obsidian Tower under the pretense of upgrading their outdated maintenance system. While I was there, I nullified Kooter’s–”

“Kooper,” I interrupted.

“Right, Kooper…I deactivated Kooper’s nanobots to see if it would be sufficient to allow him to regain his will. It worked. He was my Guinea pig.”

“What?” I asked.

Sheln rolled her eyes. “Test subject. If my machine didn’t work on him, I had a backup plan to free you, directly. Luckily, everything panned out in the way I had envisioned.”

“You expected TWO Thrall to take out 30 stilt striders, plus a serpent?”

“Right, I forgot about the sentry. Whoops.” Sheln leaned on a table. “Well, I had faith in you and your brother. The stilt striders are designed to observe and enforce, not fight.”

“They did a pretty damn good job,” I argued.

“Sorry Danth, but I needed your help. Once the stilstries’ routines get interrupted, their automated defense systems kick in and they make a beeline for The Walled City, which would have caused me a lot of trouble while I was in the middle of my coup. I was able to shut off the airdrones from here, but because the stilt striders are semi-autonomous, there’s no way to control them remotely. Imagine my delight when you took the entire structure down!”

“You’re welcome,” I groaned.

“Sheln, you didn’t tell me any of this!” complained Daun, her face turning red.

“Easy, daughter…as I just told your boyfriend, the less you two knew the better. You both tend to fly off the handle.”

“She isn’t wrong,” I told Daun, holding her hand tighter. The gravity of the situation was slowly dawning on me. “Does this mean we’re free? The Thrall are free?”

Sheln sighed. “Well, even the best laid plans can go awry.”

72

“As you may remember, the High Lord was going to war,” said Sheln.

“With a neighboring Privus city,” said Daun. “Sheln told me that much. It’s called the Southern Keep.”

My granddad had suspected a war was on the way, but he died before he could elaborate on the matter. “Another Privus stronghold? Why would they attack other Privus?”

“The Privus are spread across several cities throughout the continent. The cities are all separate nation states, not one unified empire as they would like the Thrall to believe. The warlords of each territory only interact with each other peacefully when it is absolutely necessary—they’re always looking to expand their reach and they relish a good battle”

“So, the Southern Keep wants a battle? But there’s no one left to fight,” I said. “The Privus of The Walled City are all dead!”

“The lords of the Southern Keep are quite formal. They sent an envoy by airship to announce their intention to invade. Aryn–the girl who helped bring you here–rode out to meet them. She tried to tell the emissary that the Privus’ within The Walled City had fallen but he wasn’t interested.”

“He wouldn’t even come near the gates, suspecting a trap.” added Daun.

Sheln nodded. “The Lords of the Southern Keep learned The Walled City had been stockpiling bombs–enough munitions to blow up this valley a hundred times over. It must have worried them enough to inspire a preemptive strike. The generals of the Southern Keep are sending their largest airship to level this place. Afterwards, they’ll proceed to decimate every zone ‘loyal’ to The Walled City.”

“My god,” I said. “There must be something we can do.”

“I’m out of ideas,” said Sheln. “At least I was able to avenge Hathin–if nothing else.”

“Everyone is going to die, including your daughter! We can’t let that happen!” I yelled.

Daun put her hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry Danth, but we’re out of options. Sheln acts tough, but we’ve both shed tears over this.”

“There must be something we can do,” I stammered.

“There’s no use!” said Sheln, becoming cross. “The Southern Keep literally isn’t listening. Their warship has turned off their communication equipment. I even took photographs of the gray, desiccated corpses lining the city—but I can’t send them to their ship unless they accept my transmission!”

Aryn ran up to Sheln. “Miss Sheln?”

“Yes?” said Sheln, turning to her.

“The Southern Keep’s warship is nearly here. It’s…it’s huge. It’s surrounded by a black cloud of smaller ships. I saw them through your gazing glass from the top of the tower.” The red-haired woman handed Sheln a strange tube.

“It’s called a telescope, Aryn,” said Sheln, taking the device. “Ugh, these hayseeds are driving me crazy.” She rushed to the window and extended the tube, looking through the small end. “Damn. Their airships are faster than I imagined.”

“What is she doing?” I asked.

“The telescope lets you see farther than the eye will allow,” said Daun.

“We only have minutes, at the most,” said Sheln with defeat.

73

I rushed over and grabbed the telescope. I had to see for myself. Even viewed from a great distance, the floating warship seemed massive–larger than zones 28 and 29 combined. Its length was lined with blue jets, similar to the airdrones, but it’s body was gray and jagged, covered in obtuse angles–resembling some impossible flying stone. Hundreds of smaller ships resembling a raven’s beak were flying in slow circles around the hulking craft.

I lowered the telescope and faced Sheln. “Go back to whatever you were using to communicate with The Southern Keep and keep trying to flag them down!”

It was the first time I had ever seen Sheln look afraid. She rushed to a triangular console in the corner of the throne room and began turning dials and switches. A small, red light on the device started to shine as she spoke into a mesh covered ball on the end of a thin arm. “Hailing the captain of the Southern Keep warship, please respond,” she said. “I represent The Walled City, please respond!”

No answer.

Daun was still looking out the window. “I can see them now, even without the telescope!”

I ran beside Sheln. “Are they listening?”

“No,” said Sheln, banging her fist on the console. She pointed to a dim bubble of glass. “See this light? It would turn green if they were.”

“Maybe we can flag them down. Do they have their own telescope? Do you think they’re watching us?”

“Undoubtedly,” said Sheln. “I’m sure they’re eyeing the royal tower as we speak, trying to figure out our ‘trap.'”

“They’re getting closer!” yelled Daun.

Sheln spoke into the console again. “Hailing airship! The Privus of the Walled City are all dead! Repeat, there is no reason to attack.” The light stayed off.

My mind raced. I looked into the sunken eyes of the dead High Lord, his brittle, gray face offered no answers…at least at first.

“Keep trying, Sheln.” I clenched my fists. “We’ll show them something they can’t ignore!”

74

“Everybody, get back!” I yelled. I put my hands on a heavy metal desk near the wall and aimed it at the window. Ignoring my screaming leg, I pushed the desk with all my might, sending it grinding across the floor. The heavy chunk of metal picked up speed as it slid over the stone tiles. It smashed through the glass of one of the towering oval windows and plummeting hundreds of feet to the ground in a rain of glass. I nearly went out with the desk as the air sucked out of the room, pulling me along for the ride. My nails dug into the floor as I clung to the tiles for dear life. Finally, the pressure in the room normalized and my body went limp.

Daun ran to me and helped me up. “Danth? What are you doing?”

Ignoring Daun, I shuffled over to the High Lord and pushed his body out of the throne. I grabbed the corpse beneath its arms. The airship was so close I could see silhouettes of people through its portholes and hear the drone of the engines. “They’ll definitely see this,” I said through gritting teeth as I dragged the dead ruler to the window and tossed him out unceremoniously.

The corpse of the High Lord fell like a stone, his royal blue robes whipping wildly in the wind. His body fell for several seconds before hitting the black ground and exploding in a cloud of dust. His crystal crown soon followed, blasting into shimmering blue powder on impact.

“Are you watching, you bastards!” yelled Daun, staring at the airship. I had never seen her so angry–or elated.

“The light’s on!” yelled Sheln. “They’re listening!”

75

I watched Daun rush to the console and push Sheln aside. She gripped the sides of the device and lowered her head to speak. “Attention, Lords of The Southern Keep! The Privus of The Walled City are dead–every last one of them, including the High Lord. The Thrall now control this land! We are not as weak as you think.”

I grabbed Sheln and held her back, keeping her away from the console. “Let your daughter speak.”

Daun continued. “The Thrall have developed a super weapon known as The Ashen Wrath–a deadly biological agent. While we are completely immune to the chemical’s effects, it kills anyone with Privus blood within minutes. We know you watched the High Lord fall from the tower! You saw his dry and brittle flesh.”

Sheln stopped struggling. We both stared at Daun, spellbound. The authority in her voice was impossible to ignore.

“It’s stopping!” cried Aryn. “The warship is stopping! The little ones too!”

Sheln pushed away from me and ran beside Daun. “Keep going,” she whispered, as she turned a dial and hit a button on the console.

“What did you do?” I asked when Sheln returned.

Sheln smiled. “Because they’ve accepted our transmission, I was able to send my images of the dead Privus to the warship. Icing on the cake.”

Daun barely paused for a breath. “The Ashen Wrath is highly contagious–it cannot be stopped by masks or suits. There is no hope for any Privus who breathes the air of this valley! We’ve infected every inch of this land with the chemical agent, and we will keep deploying it for generations to come to keep you out.”

“And you call me the liar,” said Sheln. She looked behind her, hearing the airship’s engines change tone. “My god, the frigate is actually turning around. The entire air force is retreating!”

Daun stared at the green light as she ranted. “This is your last and only warning–stay away from The Walled City and the valleys beyond. Should Privus come here–from any nation–we will extend the reach of The Ashen Wrath far beyond our borders.” She took a deep breath. “Allow us to live in peace, or we’ll kill every last one of you.”

The light on the console went off. I could see Daun trembling.

’76

The lords of the Southern Keep said nothing in response. They were either seething with rage or overtaken with fear. I was willing to bet it was the latter. We all stared at the airship as it pitched wide and returned into the distance, leaving at twice the rate it had arrived.

I limped to Daun and hugged her tight, both of us sinking to the floor. I kissed her and laughed. “Where did that come from?” I asked her.

“I…I don’t know,” she stammered. “I can’t even remember half the things I said, but it felt good.”

I kissed her again. “You were amazing.”

Sheln walked closer. “Impressively terrifying, daughter. I think their captain may have soaked his britches. I couldn’t be much prouder.”

Dozens of freed attendants rushed into the room. “Are they really leaving?” one of them asked, staring at Sheln.

“Yes, for now,” she replied.

A round of cheers broke out. The liberated Thrall surrounded us, patting us on the backs and offering their heartfelt thanks. We returned the appreciation, sharing our mutual relief until the crowed split into small groups to discuss the incredible events they had just witnessed.

I sat beside Daun on the cushioned platform and held her hand. I finally felt like I could breathe again.

Daun kissed my cheek then looked up at Sheln. “Are we safe inside the city?”

“We’ve bought ourselves some time, at the very least. Staying here could be risky, but if we take control of the weaponry on the wall, we’ll be able to reenter the constant standoff that kept this place safe for years.”

“No,” I demanded. “Those munitions factories can never belch smoke again.”

Sheln nodded. “There’s already enough bombs in this city to last forever. We’ll demolish those horrible plants—there’s no reason for them to exist.”

“Good,” I said, relaxing again.

Daun sighed. “Are there any other options besides staying in this graveyard?” Even though the Privus were unabashedly evil, I knew Daun still felt conflicted about their horrific demise.

“Well, I suppose we could gather the Thrall from every zone and flee to the mountains in the east. A small population of people there have kept the Privus at bay for years. Not much is known about them.”

“They’re actually real?” marveled Daun.

“I prayed they would be. I told Kooper to find our family and take them to the mountains–it seemed like the best hope we had.” I swallowed hard. “We need to find them before they attempt to traverse the pass!”

“Don’t worry,” said Sheln. “The airship I sent out to look for the survivors of Zone 29 should be back within the hour. We’ll leave here in search of your brother as soon as it returns. I wish we had more working ships, but I swear we’ll find them quickly.”

“The Privus called it a scout ship. It’s even faster than Lansred,” said Daun, putting her arm around me.

“Alright.” I untensed a bit, choosing to trust my compatriots. “Are Lansred and Rastin okay?”

“Yes,” said Daun. “We managed to hide them in Sheln’s tiny zone along with several other horses before the Privus wiped out the ranches. We’ll retrieve them soon.”

I was relieved to hear at least some of the animals had been spared. “I’m so glad.”

“Before anything else, we need to attend to your leg,'” said Sheln. She looked over her shoulder. “Aryn, can you retrieve the aid kit from the wall of the antechamber? Please bring it quickly.”

Aryn nodded and hurried from the throne room.

“What do you think we should do next?” Daun asked me.

“All I know is the Thrall must be set free.” I looked at Sheln. “My grandfather’s book–do you still have it?”

“Yes, it’s safe,” said Sheln.

“I’m going to print a thousand copies and distribute them to the people,” I said. “Teach them the concept of freedom.”

“Yes, and we’ll abolish the zones while we’re at it,” said Daun, leaning closer to me. “No more Privus or Thrall…just human beings.”

“The people will be free,” said Sheln, sitting on a nearby table. “Just don’t be surprised if they choose both of you to lead them.”

The men and women in the throne room turned to face us again. They began to clap and cheer.

Daun and I looked at each other, knowing exactly what each other was feeling. Whatever fate had in store for us, we’d face it together.

END

 

stilt strider

 

 

Coming Soon: The Ashen Wrath

stilt strider

The Thrall exist to work and nothing more. Survival means keeping your eyes down, your head empty and your hands busy. Uselessness marks you for death. No amount of begging or pleading can save you from the Privus’ metallic beasts. There’s no place to run. Nowhere to hide.

 

COMING SOON

I WON THE LOTTERY!

Not really…but if I did, here’s what I’d want.

1. Monkey race track: Actual monkeys in scaled down replicas of actual cars racing on a figure 8 track. All participants will be willing. Weapons optional. Winners get bananas or mite-grooming.

2. A “bouncy-castle” replica of my mansion, complete with inflatable furniture, art, appliances, tchotchkes and other replicas. A full time staff will “update” the bouncy mansion every day to reflect changing conditions within the actual mansion. Inflatable food will match the meals my personal chef is cooking that day.

3. Man-made lake featuring an underwater swimming pool in a dome. Lake will be fully stocked with cloned, tamed Pleisosaurs.

4. A big TV, like, 32 inches.

5. An aviary featuring every bird mentioned in “The 12 Days of Christmas” (trust me, there’s a lot)

6. Blimper cars: full sized zeppelins designed for jousting.

7. Ewok village and Jaba’s Sail Barge replicas with full time staff of dwarves and puppets.

8. A tax exempt religion will be established with my commandments (“No glitter,” “Predator shall not make friends with Humans,” etc.) as its core beliefs and “God”zilla serving as supreme deity.

9. A tree fort with secret doors and stuff.

10. Hoagie fountain.

11. Maybe some stuff for my family, I guess. Keep it reasonable!

12. 12 is secret, but trust me, you’re not going to like it.

13. Bla bla bla charity.

 

images

THE PORTAL AND THE PIT (short story – horror) NEWLY REVISED

pp2

(Revised January 2018)

1

My rut was only getting deeper. I realized if I didn’t take strides to abandon my bottom-feeding existence, I never would. Determined to effect change, I moved out of my parents’ house and headed to Portland for a fresh start. Sadly, it wasn’t long before my past came back to haunt me. A Google search for my name always put my criminal record prominently on display, making it easy for landlords and employers to tear up my applications. Being the only Noah Sedalyn on the planet, there was little use in denying the truth. Years had passed since my time in the county lockup, but my “top hit” on the web kept my teenage crimes evergreen. I eventually settled for a dingy apartment far from the city and a menial job pumping gas—a lateral move at best.

Unwilling to just scrape by, I dredged up my long-dormant artistic ambitions and vowed to push myself harder than I ever had before. I set up a studio in my apartment and painted until my hands went numb. Once armed with fresh work, I hit the street and managed to convince a few local coffee shops to hang my canvases.

After tasting some success, I focused on maintaining my momentum. I painted every day without fail and entered my work into a few group shows in local galleries. Compulsive Google searches of my own name started reflecting the positive changes in my life.

I opened my eyes one morning, feeling possessed by a sudden burst of creativity. As soon as I picked up my brush, I knew my art was about to shift in an entirely new direction. Until then, my work had been largely representational, consisting of detailed portraits and landscapes. When I embraced the formless, everything changed. Gallery 903—one of Portland’s premier promoters of contemporary art—chose to display several of my abstract paintings. My career was gaining momentum, but my rise was far from meteoric.

Every artist is aware of a crushing truth—networking is just as important as the strength of your work. Sadly, schmoozing was not one of my strong suits. Worrying how the bigwigs of the scene might react to my larcenous past left my confidence shattered. It soon became evident I wouldn’t be quitting my day-job anytime soon.

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