Mimi of the Nowhere Audiobook is finishing production (Free Chapters)

It’s been a long time coming, but the audiobook of Mimi of the Nowhere has finally begun its post-production. I do not have an exact date right now for release but it should be no later than April 2019.

Of course, if you don’t want to wait for the audiobook, you can find it in paperback and ebook here

Here are links to the first two chapters of the audiobook.

Chapter 1

Chapter 2



Read Chapter 2 of Battle for Langeles

USC_BFL_ebookcover (1)

Want to learn the fate of Runner 17 after the events of The Winds of Change? Well, here you go. So, that being said, major major spoilers for Book 1 and 2 here. If you haven’t read the first two novels yet, you probably won’t understand what’s going on here.

Oh, and in case you missed it, here’s Chapter 1: The Queen of Saud

The Battle for Langeles is out October 17th!

 

 

 

 

Here it is! Warning Major Spoilers Ahead in This Chapter

 

Chapter 2

Dreams of a Runner

 

Submission. Like a toy truck pulling a horse trailer, there was no way forward. The wound, open again, gushed. His eyes betrayed him, opening and closing and opening again. He marked the number of breaths, acknowledging that there were only a few more left. The only smell, that of iron and blood.

He released his helmet. It made no difference now, the suit no longer filtered air, was no longer keeping him cool. The fever burned, white-hot pulses through his body. He wanted open air during his death.

A long shadow cast over him. It caught the heat of the air and mingled, swirling and changing. Death was here. It had come in person. Of course, it would. He blinked and tried to focus. It took everything he had. He was deaf to all things, blind to most, and felt the dedication to his idol of persistence wane.

He whispered, “Persist above all…” he laughed and coughed, devolving into a choking, rasping, white-hot pain in his gut. Half of a groan escaped his lips; the other half died in mingled pain.

But, he had to tell Daniels. It was the only thing he was holding on to.

Then a tapping, the shadow pressed a heel against him, jostling his body. He was limp, only able to stare up at the semi-shielded face of the foot’s owner.

A moment of audio pierced the silence, but just barely.

“Are you alive, alive, alive, alive?” The words echoed.

What the Runner said next was garbled liquid. He thought it might be a female voice, but he wasn’t sure. Maybe the bastards were right; maybe it was Gaia. Maybe Gaia was Death, the reaper of all things.

Then the face in the shadow illuminated. A hallucination probably, but a strange one. It was the young girl, the inspector from the docks… Jade. No, not Jade, not this time. Her name was something else this time around.

“Hang on. Help was on the way.” The voice was different.

He blinked, and the face of the young girl was gone, replaced with another female Runner. Her face was weather-worn and aged. He didn’t recognize her but wondered how he could confuse Alexa and this woman.

Another shadow approached. And another. And another. Many stood above him now. They circled like conspirators in the night that held their daggers, ready to plunge him into his ultimate end. Then they were angels greeting him into the gates of heaven or demons into the gates of hell. Runner 17 couldn’t be sure, and it took so much effort to make a decision now, a decision that ultimately wasn’t important. With all of his effort, his eyes closed; they stayed closed for a long time.

 

 

His eyes are opening to a thick dark fog. It is a hot evening, and he glances at his alarm clock. It is 4 a.m. He looks at the calendar and recognizes the date: October 17th. The date seems somehow familiar, but he can’t trace it. He rolls up into a sitting position and tries to clear the sleep out of his eyes. It will not leave. He stands up and glances around the room. In the corner, in a makeshift bed, sleeps his son Joseph. He can tell his son is sleeping; his breathing is heavy, and there is no movement.

The only sound around is the rustling of leaves in the wind.

A moment of lucidity strikes him. Had it all been a dream? A nightmare? Had all that running around in that heavy suit in the middle of barren wasteland been a mere construct of his mind? Had he dreamt of a life so many centuries long in just a few hours?

Out of instinct, he reaches down towards his chest where the puncture wound in the dream had been. Relief. Already the images and sounds of the dream are fading.

Joseph is turning over; he is still sleeping, the blankets tangled between his legs. He is attempting to kick them off him but fails. Joseph never did like being covered. His breathing deepens.

The wind’s song is interrupted.

Thud, Thud.

It is a far-off noise, but a potent one. Something urgent, some knowledge of what that noise is stirring in him.

Thud.

There again, something internal is screaming at him, begging him to remember the information from the vault in his mind. He is peering out the window of a shabby old house. He is looking for the source of the noise. There is nothing but empty silence, a silence filled with potential terror and fright. He doesn’t hear any animal noises, and something about that is bothering him. Awareness trickles in. Then like a dam bursting, the flood. All the knowledge of the origin of the noise is consuming him.

Thud, Thud… Thud, Thud, Thud.

It is a whole series of noises, the sound of the air compressing and releasing from somewhere high up, from somewhere above the atmosphere. But the noises are still far off. He knows that for certain; if those noises are up close, you can hear the sound of metal and glass and concrete blasting into a billion pieces.

He knows what he must do. He needs to get Joseph to the underground shelter. A sense of purpose fills him, makes him whole again, despite the loss of his wife. They must get to shelter. It was what she would have wanted.

The shelter is only a few blocks away, but he knows that a few blocks might as well be a thousand miles when the High Altitude Drones (or the H.A.D.) rain death down on your city. For a brief moment, he is wondering how the people of China feel when the American H.A.D.s are demolishing their city. Do they feel the same sense of paralyzing fear, the same utter terror as the thudding and the sound of small explosions creep ever closer? Do they look to the sky and when they see a bird, do they feel a wave of terror? It must be so, for pain raining from the sky invokes a universal agony.

“Joseph, the H.A.D., we have to go now.” He tries to keep his voice steady, but like his body, it was shaking.

He is waking his son violently. Louder now, “Wake up. Wake up. We have to get out of here.”

Joseph’s eyes are opening to the sound of his panicking father’s voice, and then he hears the thuds. Every kid in the world knows this noise now, they hear recordings of it, see footage on the internet, and it is the stuff of every child’s nightmares. It is the subject of all great 6-year-olds’ crayoned masterpieces. Joseph is only 6, but he has the comprehension of a battle-hardened veteran and the same post-traumatic stress. Childhood and play are a thing long in the past, to a time before climate refugees, before world war, before the billions of tiny mistakes that were coalescing into one source of ultimate destruction of every human being on the planet.

He jumps up. “Dad, where are we going?” His voice is ragged and tired. The child-like whine is still audible. “The shelter is several blocks away.”

“It’s okay Joseph, as long as we move quickly, we’ll be okay. The drones are still far off.”

Joseph doesn’t argue, but he sees his father’s terror frozen on his face. Joseph has already lost his mother to the H.A.D., and instinctively his father knows that Joseph thinks he may lose his dad as well.

“It will be alright Joey, let’s go, the shelters are shielded, they’ll keep us safe.”

The shelters aren’t really shielded, but they are hundreds of feet below the ground, where the space drones cannot reach. Once you enter the shelters, already a dozen meters below the surface, you climb into one of a series of elevators that take you a hundred meters lower. Once you exit the elevator, you walk or run for nearly a kilometer before coming to the shelter entrance. The shelters are a few hundred meters in size and have several dozen rooms. Each shelter can accommodate a few thousand people for as long as a month. Every city has a few shelters, but the need for them is gradually decreasing as the populations across the planet fall under the weight of the H.A.D. and the endless wave of natural disasters.

Thud, Smash, Thud, Smash, Slam, Crash.

A cacophony of noise takes hold of the father and his son. The noises are intermixed with screams, shouts, and hard slaps of sneakers on concrete.

Joseph’s eyes widen with fear, and his father picks him up, grabs only a picture of his mother and runs out the door. He is holding the boy close and silently vows that nothing will make him let his child go. He will not lose Joey, too.

He has come so far since he quit his stockbroker position, and Joseph has changed his life in the blink of an eye. When he learned that Jade was pregnant, he was angry at first, but once he saw the ultrasound, he wept healing tears. This child was his medicine; he was what is saving his soul from monstrous greed and the pain of his mistakes. He is grateful for the change, but now he is in danger of losing everything.

Others are running toward the shelter. The sound of their footfalls are masked by the onslaught of thudding and the sound of breaking steel and glass as the devastation migrates across the city.

Some have children, some have companions, but so many are alone now. Loss is a trend. Humanity is crumbling under the weight of the Third World War. A billion are dead already.

The H.A.D. hits the building behind them and to the left. An energy pulse flattens a building, and the force of the explosion knocks everyone within a few hundred meters to the ground; they are scrambling to stand. Dogs on ice. Fresh scrapes and bruises mark their body and blood is trickling down 17’s left cheek.

17 is in his EnViro suit again. He picks himself up off the hard cement and then lifts Joseph and continues running for the shelter. Joseph doesn’t seem to notice the change in his father’s attire. Terror is with him. A fresh streak of urine is making its way down the front of the boy’s pants and the front of 17’s EnViro suit. They are twins in this way, variations on a theme. Divided only by time.

They run hard, and they make it to the entrance to the shelter. The metal door swings open and the pair enters one of the elevators. The door closes. There is safety for a single breath. At that moment, the thud echoes directly overhead, even through the metal and earth. Time freezes and 17 knows exactly what is happening. He is staring long and hard at little Joey. He wants to tell the boy so much; he wants to trade places with him. 17 knows how this will end. He will wake up several days from now in the hospital, but Joseph will not wake. He will live a little longer in a coma, but one night he will simply fade.

In slow motion, the pressure from the energy blast pushes the elevator down. 17 can hear the cables snapping, the sharp metallic clicking of each one giving way; he hears the metal above bending to the will of the H.A.D. He feels his body descending faster from the force of the blast. He is reaching, grasping ever so slowly out to Joseph, grabbing his son and pulling him close. This time he will change it, this time it will be different, this time the little boy will live, and the father will die. But it is futile. It is a memory. Unchangeable.

17 rages. He is screaming at the top of his lungs in his EnViro Suit, but no one hears him, not even Joseph. His screams cannot penetrate the protective insulation of the helmet. The world tinges red, red like his rage, red like a garment, red like a veil.

His suit is a prison, a curse, a crucifixion, like the lashes felt by his African ancestors in an age of slavery. But his bondage is eternal; he cannot die. Only the unending persists. This is his punishment for participating in the greed that brought the world to its knees.

Tears of red stream down the dark skin of his cheeks.

He must break the cycle. One day soon, he will give his life to try and do so. He must do his part.

 

 

3.

17 woke in a medical alcove. The fluid drained. If he had been able to, he would scream, but still, the stem-cell-based fluid was in his lungs, and he choked and coughed. It had been a long time since his semi-dream state returned him to that part of his history. Perhaps it was the bodies outside Langeles that reminded him of his own terrible loss.

The doctor pressed a button that lifted the alcove to a 45-degree angle. His lab coat was a novelty these days. Doctors were all but extinct with the Alcove, but a few still studied the medical sciences. The doctor had a well-manicured beard of brown and red and large, owl-like eyes.

“So you return to the land of the living, do you? Daniels is right; you are unkillable.”

17 grunted. He found the words distasteful. His long life felt like a curse. What was his purpose? Why the hell was he still alive after all this time? He had changed his life, given up the ways of greed and lust. He had donated most of his many millions to the Climate Refugee Alliance, and his reward? His reward was losing both his wife and son. What purpose could he possibly have now? The 1300-year-old wound was open again for the first time in centuries. It throbbed with every beat of his heart.

He pushed it all back down. All of it was for another day, another time, he couldn’t dwell on the pain; dwelling on the pain is how he had ended up a Runner in the first place. His choices in the first days of migration were born in grief. Addiction consumed him in those days, and he had hurt so many who stood between him and his private narcotic oblivion.

17 glanced around the room. The other alcoves were empty. It was a good sign he wasn’t too late to do something. He thought of Langeles, of that crazy female runner, of her mention of the trap and the Children of Gaia, and suddenly he had one burning need.

“I have to speak with Daniels immediately.”

“Runner 17, do you know how rare it is for anyone to survive with a ruptured EnViro suit out in the Barrens in the middle of the day? Not to mention your open wound and significant blood loss? Do you know how many toxins are flowing through your blood right now? It’s going to take days in the alcove to restore your body properly. You cannot get out of this alcove.”

“Then why did you revive me?”

“To monitor your brainwave activity and nerve responses. They were functionating in a way I have never seen before, not even with you. Something is going on with that chip in the base of your skull, and I was concerned that I would not be able to bring you back to full consciousness. But you will be returning to the alcove shortly now that I see you are your usual difficult self.”

“Dammit Doc, none of that matters. I need to see Daniels, now. The entire city is in danger. If I can’t get out, bring him down here.”

The doctor sighed. “Daniels is very busy, what with Saud so close and those Langeles ruins.”

“This is about that, it’s important. I need to see him right now.”

“I will bring someone down from security to relay your message.”

“NO!,” 17 shouted. It caused the doctor to jump. “I’ll only speak with Daniels.”

The memory of the female Runner screwing up and slipping info about the spies hidden in the city was fresh in his mind. Daniels was the only one he could trust. He didn’t like the grumpy prick, but there was no way in hell the cranky bastard would ever betray the city. In that fleeting moment, it occurred to him, that despite everything else, he and Daniels had that much in common. Perhaps Daniels had his own curse, his own debt to pay. The AI had told him he too had a lifelong assignment.

“Very well, I’ll request Daniels’ presence, but I have to say I doubt he would come down here. He doesn’t like you very much, you know.”

17 laughed a little, “What, you don’t think I know that? You think I’m stupid? Daniels doesn’t like anyone. Just get him down here, tell him the safety of the city depends on the information I have, and it’s for his ears only.”

The doctor, standing tall over 17’s medical-grade alcove, eyed him carefully. 17 could tell that he was trying to gauge the seriousness of his request, trying to determine if 17 was playing a game. 17 locked eyes with the man and did not break his gaze. Then he saw the doctor’s face relax, it was only slight, but it was enough. After only a few more moments of hesitation, he went to the other room to send the transmission up to security.

17 shivered, why had the memory resurfaced now? He had always tried to keep himself from thinking about that awful night with his son, but every once in a while, it crept up on him. The H.A.D. had wiped out an entire section of the city that night, and only a few hundred had survived. It was an echo of the American bombing of Dresden during the Second World War, a repeat of history. There were no nukes used during the Third World War, at least not on Earth, but except for radiation damage, the H.A.D. were just as terrible.

Jade, his loving wife, had met him when he was in the midst of his wild nightly orgies. He had purchased an alcove with his extensive wealth and used it to lure women up to his large apartment. Their courtship was long, and despite her disgust at the way he had treated women, she befriended him. For months they spoke as friends, all the while eyeing one another, feeling their closeness grow. Then, one night, they found themselves in each other’s arms. 17 had vowed to love her then, and when they found out soon after that she was pregnant, he decided to give up everything and retire from his life to spend his days raising Joseph and trying to put right what he had helped make wrong.

Then the Third World War began. The Larger cities had prepared. Some even had anti-H.A.D. shielding. The island of Manhatten was already elevated and employed an early form of the EnViro shield to protect it from the massive floods that had taken over most of the coast. 17 had left Manhatten, though he never did sell his apartment, for the suburbs. Time and again he had told himself if he had only stayed in the city with Jade and Joseph, they may have all made it to Migration and 17 may have never become a Runner. But they had chosen to head west, toward one of the smaller towns in upstate New York. They wanted a fresh start. If only he had been able to bring Joseph or Jade to an alcove, but the military had confiscated all of them for use for their soldiers, and only military hospitals had access.

His injuries from that night were absolute. He didn’t know what the doctors had done to him to keep him alive, but the elevator incident was the first time he had survived death. Since then, he had survived countless close shaves, always managing to survive where others didn’t. But why? It wasn’t just that he was lucky, he seemed to be able to survive wounds most others wouldn’t.

He reached for the back of his neck and touched the chip for a moment. The AI was in there, and he wished, not for the first time, that he could query it outside of the suit. In truth, the AI was his only consistent companion for the long centuries.

Something in his memory flashed for a moment; the face of Dr. Solidsworth, the crazy old architect. He was in the hospital in Manhattan when he recovered from the H.A.D. attack. Why was his face standing out all of a sudden? Dozens of doctors had seen him during that time. There was something about a form, about permission, about an experiment. Something about the fact that 17 wasn’t going to make it. They had done something to him, what was it?

 

4.

 

A gruff voice echoed just outside of the hallway. Daniels and the Doctor entered.

“What the hell happened to him?” Daniels asked.

“He was hanging on to the edge of life. Parts of his EnViro suit had melted and fused with his flesh. There was no way to remove the suit without repairing the tissue damage first. Once again, and as I say all too often, Runner 17 is lucky to be alive.”

Daniel’s expression didn’t change, but his gaze drifted to 17. The alcove was filling with its healing solution. 17 would be under in a few minutes, unless they paused the procedure.

“I hear you are refusing to talk to anyone but me. What the hell do you want?”

17 was direct and blunt, “Ask everyone else to leave. We can’t trust anyone here.”

Daniels considered. What could 17 have to say to him that would require privacy? He recalled Patton’s corpse and the attempt on his life. Perhaps 17 wasn’t full of shit; maybe he had another piece of the puzzle.

Without turning his head, without breaking his gaze with 17, Daniels said. “You heard him. Get out.”

The Doctor didn’t argue and left the room quickly, latching a few cupboards on his way out. The door shut behind him with an audible click, indicating the lock was secure.

“AI, secure privacy in this space.”

“This room is now secure.”

“Now what the hell do you want?” Daniels hoped he had something to contribute. Otherwise, he might be tempted to shock his ass for a good long minute.

17’s voice was a bit hoarse. “It’s about a group that calls themselves the Children of Gaia. They are the ones responsible for Langeles, and they are probably planning an attack now.”

Daniels ground his jaw. “Where did this information come from?” Daniels found himself a chair and rested his tired body. He’d been on the clock for 29 straight hours. If he didn’t get some rest soon, he’d start making mistakes. A few hours in an alcove would probably do the trick, the body revitalized nearly twice as fast inside one.

17 told Daniels everything about his outing. He started with the piles of bodies in the ruins of Langeles. He told Daniels of the encounter with ‘Akif of the Rih and how he apparently was on some kind of hit list. He detailed his encounter with the Runner from the Children of Gaia, the bits and pieces he remembered from their adventure on that storm sail and about her claim that the ruins of Langeles were nothing more than a trap. Daniels kept his expression flat the entire time.

“You’re not lying to me, are you, Runner?” Daniels demanded.

“What possible motivation do I have to lie?”

“Spite, bitterness, a general dislike for me and the city, the usual shit.”

“If that were the case, I wouldn’t tell you shit; I would let it all burn. But Daniels… the children in the ruins,” 17 swallowed hard, and his voice shook. Daniels could see the anguish in the man’s face. “I can’t let that happen to the children in this city. I’ve… it’s… Fuck, they are monsters, Daniels. All those people, just… all those people.”

Daniels unclenched his jaw, and for the first time, he saw something almost… human, about 17.

“Listen… I…”

17’s voice lost all weakness. Rage replaced it. “Let me back out there. Let me track them down. I can do it. I can put a stop to this insanity. Arm me and let me out there. With a combat suit, I promise I will kill that bitch and every other member of those cultists.”

The anger was wild in 17, and Daniels felt a hint of nervousness. He had seen 17 in combat a few times, he was fierce and powerful, but he wasn’t sure he had ever seen his eyes flare with white-hot rage before. Daniels saw a deep passion in him and recognized that passion in himself. He was certain at that moment that 17 had lost something or someone, that the ruins had reminded him of. 17 wanted vengeance, he was sure of it.

“We both know you need to heal before we can even consider something like that. Besides, sending you out blind into the Barrens is no way to stop these assholes. I… have… some information as well…”

Daniels looked into 17’s eyes for a moment. He searched for a reason to trust 17. His guts told him that this was a man he could trust, but his years in security and dealing with the Runnercore and 17, in particular, suggested that he revoke that trust. 17 deserved the truth, he deserved to know what was happening. If his information proved correct, 17 might have just saved the entire city from a terrible trap. The real question, of course, was convincing the Senate. For that, they needed more information, and for that, he needed 17. He might even have the Runner testify to the Senate.

Only two Runners had ever testified before the Senate in the past, and they didn’t believe either. The Senate knew that many Runners were their enemies, and some of them held personal vendettas against either themselves or the government that had sentenced them to a life in a Runnercore. But if there was a trap, if there was a serious danger to the city, and Daniels was convinced there was, then they needed some other evidence.

Daniels stood, went to the control panel for the alcove and paused 17’s submersion. Then he sat back down.

“There have been some unusual events around here as well,” said Daniels.

Daniels told 17 of the murder and the strange ritualistic paraphernalia surrounding the body. He told him of his testimony to the Senate and the heightened state of security. He mentioned that Senator Lightfoot had some knowledge of the Children of Gaia in history and so they did appear to be a real organization.

When Daniels finished, neither of them spoke for a long few minutes.

“You see, Daniels, the Children of Gaia are already here. They’re setting the trap. We have to stop them.”

“We need more intel, the Senate won’t buy any of this based on the word of a Runner, and you know that.”

“Then let me go get some.”

“Not yet. Other things are happening. We just received a request for a vid screen meeting with Saud. It’s only a few hours away. After that meeting, I’ll know a lot more.”

“There’s something else. I forgot to mention it before, but somehow it seems important too. The AI in my suit, it’s… well, it’s sentient,” said 17.

Daniels shot a glance upward and stared deep into the lines and scars of 17’s face. “Something strange is happening with the city AI as well. None of the engineers have been able to figure out what’s going on.”

“It’s alive, that’s what’s going on.”

“It’s a machine; it can’t be alive. I’m sure it’s the Children of Gaia. They are messing with our computers.”

Daniels ground his jaw again. This wasn’t some science fiction novel about machines; this was the real world. In the real world, AI could have intelligence to a great degree, but being self-aware is something else entirely; centuries of experiments had suggested that self-awareness was not possible in machines.

“My AI saved my life, it helped me to combat that female Runner. Why in the world would the Children of Gaia want that?”

“Maybe they want you to go back to the city. Maybe they want you to convince us there is some trap. Maybe they have something else in mind.”

“You don’t spend much time out there, so you don’t know what it’s like. As much as that damn AI irritates the shit out of me, I respect it. It has saved me countless times. I don’t think this is something the Children of Gaia would want or expect. In so many ways, they are against technology. Their only desire to use it is to find ways to destroy us. Creating a fully aware Artificial Intelligence doesn’t seem in their best interest.”

“You’re assuming that the AI has become truly aware and it’s not some trick.”

“I don’t know how you fake something like true awareness. Do you?”

Daniels was silent. He thought back on his recent interactions with the AI. The only thing he knew for sure is that he didn’t trust the damn thing now. He had hated it before, but now there was a tinge of… what? Was it fear? No, it was just a damn machine. It couldn’t hurt anyone, but he knew that was a lie. The AI controlled an enormous portion of the city systems. Sure, people could do a lot manually, but that was assuming there were enough human beings trained in every single little task, and Daniel’s wasn’t sure that was the case anymore.

Daniels stood and walked to the control panel.

“I have some people monitoring everything the AI does. For now, we should only be concerned with the Children of Gaia. Look… I’ll come back and let you know what happens with the Senate. For now, get some rest and heal up. I have a feeling we’ll need you soon.”

Daniels didn’t give 17 the chance to respond. He simply pressed the button to close the medical alcove, and 17’s body submerged in the fluid.

First Chapter of Book 3 Battle for Langeles

Final_wip4I am very happy to share the very first chapter from Book 3 of the Chronicles of the Great Migration. Upon Stilted Cities: The Battle for Langeles picks up right where The Winds of Change left off. There are some minor spoilers in here but nothing major. Still, I would recommend having read the first two books of the series before you dive in.

The Battle for Langeles is out October 17th!

Here it is! Minor Spoilers Ahead!

Chapter 1

The Queen of Saud

 

Dust swirled with each impact. The impressions of twelve massive feet left lingering reminders of a migration, at least until a sandstorm refreshed the path. Microtremors webbed outward along the route. Long ago, cities left cracks and unstable earth in their wake. Many of the great caves below the surface had collapsed under the weight of the cities. But now, after twelve hundred years, most of the Earth’s soil was compressed. The hardpan spread deep into the Earth, a virus of time and pressure.

The giant hulking ark–more mountain than moving city–hesitated in its movement, and the shimmer of the angry sun reflected off the surface of the EnViro shield that protected it. The shield’s ripple of energy cast brief reflections of blinding light, like the surface of a lake in the summer sun.

The legs of the city of Saud slowed their pace. Often, stopping was a long process. From a distance, it was hypnotic. The precisely calculated trajectory of the legs moved in a kind of rhythmic orgy of twelve mingling lovers. Minutes passed. The legs slowed until they moved like molasses. A changing of tides. Then, it became difficult to tell if they were moving at all. They were. At last, the city groaned like a dying giant as the bedrock upon the legs froze with one stabilizing halt. The final foot struck the earth with one last puff of dust.

Two cities stood in opposition. A clear day marked the event. To the west, Manhatsten. To the east, Saud. Nestled between them lay the ruins of the once great Langeles, the victim of the Children of Gaia. Only thirty-four kilometers marked the space between the great moving mountains.

 

2.

 

A holographic map projected from the center of the table. It displayed the two cities and outlines of the larger portions of fallen Langeles. Red dots marked the surface of the map, indicating known enemy positions.  Around the edge of the table, many fingers clenched with knuckles white. All eyes were watchful now that Saud had halted migration.

“You are sure, Saud, that this is the best defensive position?” The Queen asked the city AI.

“Yes, Your Majesty. The city of Manhatsten must reposition 6 kilometers to the northeast before it has the most optimal conditions for an attack.”

Queen Sa’dah Karim nodded slowly. She reached up, pushing her hair behind her ears, and adjusted her silver hijab. Half-moon crescents shimmered on her head covering and reflected in her gray-green eyes. Her face was hard with sharp angles, and a thin scar ran from her left ear to her left cheek. She was short but wide, her width all muscle.

“Saud, how many Runners has Manhatsten deployed?” The queen’s voice was deep and commanding.

“Your Majesty, based on both long-range sensors and reports by your Rih, I estimate that the city has deployed 53 Runners. According to past patterns, it is likely that Manhatsten will deploy several dozen more in the next few hours.”

“So this map is up to date?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” replied the AI

Sa’dah turned her face up toward her council. “So, you see, it appears that as I had suggested yesterday morning, Manhatsten will attempt to claim Langeles for themselves.”

“Have you contacted their Senate?” asked Abdul Aziz.

Aziz was her most trusted advisor; he was one of the few amongst the city’s Uppers that supported her during the coup, once briefly Rih himself, he was a decent warrior. After a failed experiment with democracy, some of the elite in Saud had wanted a return to traditional Bedouin values, they had thought that the old conservative ways were necessary for stability, but Sa’dah had come to power, and with the support of the Rih, she was able to hold it. It was only because the queen had been first amongst the Rih, considered the greatest warrior, undefeated in all challenges.

“No Aziz, I have not yet contacted the leaders of Manhatsten, I prefer to watch my opponents for some time before I act. In patience comes wisdom.”

“And yet while you wait, Your Majesty, Manhatsten’s Runners are gathering intelligence and data that would allow them to have the upper hand,” said Councilman Rabah Nejem.

Other monarchs may not have appreciated Nejem’s tone or comment, but Sa’dah believed in advisors that were much more than just yes-men. She wanted men and women who would argue with all her actions, challenge her leadership and call her decisions into question. Nejem was one such council member. Nejem, like her, was well-known among the Rih. Both had proven excellent warriors, but it was Sa’dah who had turned out to be the better leader and thus became the leader of the Rih and the new monarch of Saud.

“There is a time to act, Nejem. You know as well as I do that we must wait for the conditions to be correct. We should not display the same arrogance of those in Manhatsten. The storms could turn and descend on this place at any moment.”

“But Sa’dah, why are you waiting so long to see if Manhatsten contacts us first? Nejem is right, the longer we wait, the more intelligence Manhatsten will have on the situation,” said Fatima.

Fatima was the only female member of her council. She was a tall, thin woman who controlled the majority of commerce in the city. Most of the Uppers had lost their power in the coup. Fatima had survived because she had provided financial support to Sa’dah and the Rih during their rebellion. She dressed in a full burka, as the Upper women of the city sometimes did. Only her brown eyes were visible.

“Saud.” Sa’dah called the city’s AI, “Please display the satellite image taken at noon of April 3rd.” The AI pulled an image, and Sa’dah continued. “We were lucky enough to have one of our three remaining satellites over that region during the fall of Langeles.”

The fuzzy image showed Langeles, still intact, but stationary. The billowing cloud of smoke issuing from its underbelly suggested that it had deployed its drill. On several sides of the city were small, barely recognizable dots. Sa’dah zoomed in closer on the dots for the rest of her council members to see.

“Are those Duggers outside of Langeles?” asked Walif Saab.

Sa’dah didn’t respond, “Saud, display the image from 12:20 p.m. of that same day.”

The dots had moved closer to Langeles in this image; it was clear now they were surrounding the city in a semi-circle. There was one large, gaping hole in the semi-circle, and as Sa’dah zoomed in on the empty region, something specific, something that looked like combat filled the empty space. It looked like Runners engaged in hand-to-hand combat, but even zoomed in, the images were tiny and indistinct.

“Saud, skip ahead to 2:30 p.m.”

The image was of Langeles, now lying broken on the earth. Part of the city was tipped up towards the sky, like a Frisbee lying awkwardly against a sand castle on a beach. Smoke billowed towards the satellite, obscuring some of the view. Several of the dots that Walif had thought were Duggers were moving further away from the city, some lay stationary with the tiniest hint of a wisp of smoke.

“Saud, will you please tell the council how far Manhatsten is from Langeles at this particular time?”

“Your Majesty, Council members, at the moment that this image was taken, Manhatsten was approximately 200 kilometers away from Langeles.”

“So, what are you suggesting, Sa’dah? That Manhatsten destroyed Langeles?” asked Nejem.

“Saud. Tell the council what you had told me when I asked this question.”

“Of course, Your Majesty. Council members, please consider the following image taken during the attack.”

The satellite image revealed a massive sandstorm between Manhatsten and Langeles. The dark blot between the cities was confirmation for the council that it would have been nearly impossible for Manhatsten to launch a coordinated attack from that distance with the massive amounts of interference in communications.

“So what caused Langeles to fall, then?” asked Aziz.

“The AI and I have consulted a great deal on this matter. I am concerned that we may be dealing with the Children of Gaia.”

“Impossible,” Nejem scoffed. “The Children of Gaia are not capable of such a large-scale attack. The city’s defense alone would have been more than a match for a handful of those wretched heathens. I think the important question is why Manhatsten was so close to Langeles? How often are cities in that close of a proximity?”

Sa’dah said, “Based on the position of the storm, our AI doesn’t think Manhatsten even knew Langeles was there. But, there is more, Nejem. There is a radioactive signature that suggests that several atomic weapons were detonated.”

“But no one has seen or used nukes in a thousand years,” said Walif.

“And that, that is why we have not yet made contact. Though it seems much more likely that it was, in fact, the Children of Gaia, if there is even the slightest chance that Manhatsten has nuclear weapons, we must be patient. I have dispatched a dozen Rih. They will bring back as much intelligence and information as possible, without arousing Manhatsten’s suspicions. ‘Akif and his team were already briefed on this intelligence and are prepared to fight the Children of Gaia, if necessary.”

“When, then, should we make contact?” asked Fatima.

“I am waiting on one final report from ‘Akif. Then we will make our move. Do any of you have any additional input or insights into this information?”

The four council members looked at one another. The fall of a city was such a rare event that there was no simple formula for proper conduct. When Mex had fallen, Saud had been in the middle of the Haj, across the Atlantic, and had only heard of its fate through a rare trade deal with Lundon.

“It is clear that your rule is one of wisdom, Your Majesty. I apologize for my earlier comments,” said Nejem.

“Nejem, my brother, your comments are always welcome here, whether I like them or not. If I had not wanted your strong will on this council, I would not have appointed you to this seat. You always served me faithfully when I led the Rih, as you do now.”

“Your Majesty,” said Aziz. “Have you considered the possibility that Langeles is a trap? That perhaps the Children of Gaia are out there waiting with a plan to destroy both Manhatsten and Saud? That they have nukes and are more than capable of crippling both of us?”

Sa’dah was silent. She reached up and traced the edge of her scar. A gift from one of the Children of Gaia in their attempt to destroy Saud decades earlier.

In truth, she had not considered that. It was true that in the past, the Children of Gaia had displayed a great deal of treachery, they were notorious for using cowardly techniques to attack and ambush their enemies, and there was nothing less honorable and more cowardly than using nuclear weapons. Even during the third world war, nukes had been avoided for fear of total environmental collapse.

Sa’dah said, “Aziz, what would I do without you? This thought had not occurred to me. It is vital that the city remain alert.”

“Your Majesty, I suggest we put the entirety of the Rih on standby,” said Nejem.

“I agree, Nejem, please see to that. Oh, and the moment that ‘Akif has returned, please have him report in. I wish to speak with him about what he saw out there. Not a word of any of this to anyone outside this council chamber. We have found spies of the Children of Gaia in Saud before, and we should remain cautious in case this is a trap.”

“Your Majesty,” Aziz began, “I feel strongly that we should contact Manhatsten immediately, that we should share with them our satellite images and other information. We do not know what kind of information Manhatsten has on the Children of Gaia; perhaps they uncovered something we’ve missed.”

“And if it is Manhatsten’s treachery that destroyed Langeles?” asked Fatima.

“The satellite evidence and Manhatsten’s behavior seems to indicate that they are just as cautious as we are,” replied Aziz.

“They are deploying their Runners in large numbers; doesn’t that suggest preparation for battle?” asked Nejem.

The queen traced her scar for a moment. She felt its sharp ridges, and the memory of the smell of the air seeping in through her cracked helmet where the blade had entered awoke in her nostrils. She remembered the taste of blood and the rage that kept her alive that day.

All watched her.
“While it is true that Manhatsten could be in preparation for battle, I am sure that our Rih and our defenses could easily handle a straightforward attack. It is this trap that Aziz speaks of that concerns me. If Manhatsten falls and we survive, other cities may see us as a threat. You are all aware that several other city-nations would still like to see Saud wiped off the face of the Earth. While it would be possible for the Rih and Saud to hold off against any one city, if several cities decided that we were a threat it is unlikely that we would survive. We must consider the long-term implications of these events, and not just what problem sits before us.”

“Your Majesty, I know the resource cost is high, but might I suggest deploying several Duggers at key points surrounding Langeles? We can use them as communication beacons and track any movement within the city as well as monitor Manhatsten,” said Nejem.

“An excellent suggestion, Nejem. Walif, will you see it done?”

“Of course, Your Majesty, I live to serve.”

“Council members. I agree with Aziz. After I speak with ‘Akif, I will contact Manhatsten. If all goes well, I may consider sending a small delegation to their city to discuss the situation at hand. It is my hope that we can negotiate over the salvage and that we can prepare ourselves in the event of an attack from the Children of Gaia. Do I have any volunteers for such a delegation?”

Abdul Aziz was the first to stand and volunteer. Soon after, Raba Nejem and Fatima Norba stood.

“Excellent. Our meeting is adjourned.”

The council members rose from their seats and left the room. Their long robes dragged against the floor in hissing echoes, fluttering through the room as if a thousand butterflies were flapping their wings at once.

Sa’dah turned and glanced out the window across the landscape. There looming in the distance was Manhatsten, a mountain on legs looming over Langeles. She wondered if her Rih could stand against them. After all, Manhatsten was home to the fabled Runner 17, who, it was rumored, had single-handedly entered Mex and somehow managed to deactivate their EnViro shield. ‘Akif had orders if he encountered that man. She would sleep better at night knowing he was out of the picture. Perhaps, if she weren’t queen, she would seek him out herself.

She frowned. Was 17 the problem, though? Or did Manhatsten have a weapon for deactivating shields? Perhaps Nejem was correct; perhaps it was Manhatsten that destroyed Langeles. They would have to be careful, but it was Sa’dah’s experience that sometimes reaching out to someone you perceive as a rival can yield great benefits. It has been so with Fatima; without her, the Senate would not have fallen.

“AI, would you please gather all the records on Saud’s previous communications with Manhatsten. And if possible, construct a profile of any members of their Senate that we can confirm are still in power?”

“Of course, Your Majesty, I will assemble that information for your vidscreen immediately.”

Sa’dah would spend the remainder of the time studying her opponents, trying to understand their wants and desires but ultimately trying to find a way to compromise over the salvage. There was no reason that the two cities could not share. Perhaps a show of goodwill in a compromise would change the relationship that Saud had with other cities. Her predecessors would have never agreed to any concessions. They had spent a thousand years damaging trade relations and negotiation with other cities. She would not repeat their mistakes. They were, as Fatima would put it, under new management.

It occurred to her that a mutual agreement on the salvage was unlikely, but perhaps with the threat of the Children of Gaia, they could at least prevent all-out war. Sa’dah was a warrior at heart. If it were a choice between the City of Saud and the City of Manhatsten, she would do everything in her power to assure that it was Saud that was still standing at the end of the conflict. In the end, it was her city that must survive, at all costs.

Upon Stilted Cities Chapter 2: A Return To Nowhere

***Warning Major Spoilers Ahead. If you have not read Mimi of the Nowhere you should do so before reading this chapter. ***

You can also purchase Mimi of the Nowhere on Amazon  or on other online stores like Barnes and Noble and Itunes

Chapter 2 A Return to Nowhere

Chapter 2 of Upon Stilted Cities centers back on Mimi’s point of view. Wondering what Mimi’s been up to since the events at the end of her tale? Well here is a chance to find some of that.

You can also read the Prologue and Chapter 1 Here (No Spoilers there to worry about)

Upon Stilted Cities Part 1: The Winds of Change Is out 7/17/2018

 

 

 

Chapter 2

A Return to Nowhere

 

“I think you should let her go.”

It was the third one this week, and Mimi was exhausted. She couldn’t remember a time she had been so tired, at least not since Shannon’s conversion into a reserve Runner. Four decades had passed since the terrible day, yet the intensity of those moments had never lost their edge.

She transmitted directly into the pimp’s mind, trying to frame it in a way that he would think. It had taken so much practice to learn to anticipate others’ thoughts. Doing so had turned out to be one of the keys to persuading people to act in a way you wanted them to.

“This girl isn’t worth the trouble, look at her man, why would you waste time on someone who isn’t gonna last selling herself?”

The pimp appeared to consider. He had a young girl by the arm and was tugging her. It reminded Mimi of when the recycled Runners had tugged on her and Shannon. It was a moment that she had dreamt of so many times, had woken to in her empty bed, had sent her running down to the underground to where Shannon lay in stasis. There was always relief seeing Shannon in her alcove, even if she couldn’t speak with her but a few days a month.
Mimi skimmed. The girl, a small, frail thing with dark brown eyes and auburn hair, had come to him for a steady supply of drugs. Eventually unable to pay, as they so often were, the woman had turned to sex work. The pig reminded Mimi of that low-life Andrew, the one that had caused all the trouble and was the reason that Shannon had become a Runner in the first place. Old anger sparked. He was the reason that two of her sisters had fallen to the army of the Recycled.

A pallid, light-haired greasy thing with bone-thin limbs and a track marks up his arms like freckles, the pimp’s grip loosened on the girl’s arm for a moment as he stared at Mimi.

“I think you should mind your own damn business,” he said. Though, there was less conviction in his voice now.

Mimi frowned. She skimmed the pimp’s mind again and found that he was attracted to the girl, that he wanted possession of her. That would make the convincing harder. Though she had occasionally practiced with the red veil, the ability to mind control another human being, she wasn’t confident in her ability, and she didn’t much care for it. Besides, the Order frowned on its use, except in times of emergency. There were other routes.

She closed her eyes and pressed into the pimp’s mind once more. She made herself look crazed and unpredictable. Considering her tattered garments, it wasn’t a stretch. Sure, her sisters had offered her new clothes, but she always ripped them, always made them look worn and dirty. She was on the streets for a reason, and clean clothes made you stand out.

She spoke again, saying, “I think you should let her go or you might find yourself in a world of trouble.” As she said the words,, she made herself appear bigger, made him imagine that her shadow was longer, that he would regret tangling with her. She suggested that she would bite and scratch and scar him like a cornered cat. She pushed the images into his mind to mingle with his thoughts.

She opened her eyes again. The pimp was barely holding on to the young girl’s arms now, a thin thread of control and desire so fragile that a light wind would break it. Mimi stepped forward and she saw the pimp flinch. She projected the image of jagged teeth, dripping with blood, drool running down the corner of her mouth. The pimp stepped backward, letting go of the girl’s arm and tripping over a piece of trash behind him. He crawled, crab-like, backward away from Mimi, never taking his eyes off her.

“You can… you can have her, man. Just leave me the hell alone.” The pimp crawled to his feet, still a clumsy crustacean, stood, turned, and bolted. He risked one last glance backward before he rounded the corner out of the alley.

Mimi turned her attention to the girl. She was huddled in a corner, and Mimi realized she had cast her net a little too wide. It was the one thing she still struggled to control after so many years of training. She routinely targeted additional people with her suggestions. Noatla had suggested that this was because Mimi was so powerful, but Mimi just found it frustrating. The girl was weeping and shaking in terror as Mimi approached her.

Again, Mimi closed her eyes. This time she projected the sense that Mimi was an angel, a being that while sometimes terrible, was there only to assist her. Noatla had told her that idea of an angel was so deep in the psyche of the city, that it was a powerful tool to soothe people. Symbols were powerful persuaders; the more ancient the symbol, the more powerful. Noatla had suggested that all sisters of the Order of the Eye read up on ancient mythology and religions, as it would help with their abilities.

The girl noticeably relaxed and Mimi moved forward, reaching out a hand to help her up.

“It’s okay. I’m here to help.” Mimi kept her voice soft and calm.

The girl appeared to consider, and Mimi soothed with more encouragement. The girl blinked and then, hesitantly, she reached for Mimi’s hand.

“What’s your name?”

A stutter, words just above a whisper. “T-t-Tanya.”

Mimi smiled at the girl, but inside she was frowning. They had looked for Shannon’s lost ex-girlfriend Tanya for decades now, but she had appeared to have vanished. Even with Serah’s help, there had been no progress. It was as if she had never become a Runner in the first place. The strange thing was, others were vanishing from the streets too. All the sisters reported missing persons in the Mids and the Lowers, and they had even heard rumors of Security Officers missing. On her last visit, Shannon had insisted that it was somehow related to Tanya, but considering the distance in time, it didn’t seem very likely to Mimi.

“Well, Tanya, where do you live?” Mimi knew the answer already, but asking was part of the game.

Tanya shook her head. “N-n-nowhere. My parents… k-k-kicked me out of the house.” The girl’s frown was a kilometer long.

Mimi smiled. “Well Tanya, it just so happens that I’m also from Nowhere, so you’re in luck. There’s a place for people just like you.”

 

 

Mimi guided her through the alleys and down into the underground. The girl required constant soothing. She was cagey. It was probably the drugs. As they ventured through the old subway tunnels, she kept glancing back down the corridor. Anytime a light flickered, or one of the old steam lines sighed with age, the girl flinched.

Skimming her mind, the girl could think of nothing but her next fix and some of the fresh trauma she was gifted at the hands of the pimp. Mimi would have to pay the sleaze bag another visit, as she discovered, through skimming, there were several more girls under the creep’s thumb. But, first things first, they had to get this girl in a safe spot and get her clean. The addicts were sometimes trouble, but most of the time with a little persuasion they did okay.

“Where are you taking me?” The girl’s voice was a little stronger now.

Mimi smiled and soothed images of safety and warmth, of hot meals and bathing. “A safe place for women who have been through what you have.”

The girl was willful, though, and Mimi wondered, not for the first time, if she had been a giant pain in the ass in her early days of the Order of the Eye. How many times had Noatla had to soothe her? It took so much effort and energy to soothe someone constantly. She was starting to feel skimmer’s fatigue, the mental fog that came on from constantly using her ability.

The last week had been a marathon session. Two dealers and a pimp, picking on innocent runaways. Why were there so many more of them lately? The whole city seemed on edge. Even Fatima had complained of fatigue, and she had never heard Fatima complain about anything. Something was happening in the city, she could feel the tension rising, but no one seemed to have any idea what was going on.

They rounded a corner. Metal pipes framed the passage and twisted in the direction of the door. They ran down either side of the opening, and as Mimi pulled the young girl toward the gray metal door, she could feel the girl hesitating. The girl’s mind spiked with fear, of locking doors and imprisonment.

Mimi turned and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“You meant the actual Nowhere?”

“Yes, what did you think I meant?”

The young girl shook her head. “It’s just I’ve heard things about this place. I mean, no one in Orphan’s Alley believes it’s real. They say it’s guarded by banshees or ghosts  or something.”

Mimi laughed. “Well, it’s certainly well-guarded.”

“Jeanine, this girl I met in Orphan’s Alley, said that once someone goes in, they never come out again. That they hurt people in there.”

Mimi frowned. “Do you think I want to hurt you?”

Tanya appeared to think about it for a moment. “Well… if you did, why would you protect me from that pimp?”

Mimi nodded. “I was once like you. Without a home, without friends, wandering the streets. Me and a few others started this place to help protect the women who don’t have a home. We got tired of being afraid to go to sleep somewhere or of running into the SOs. It’s true that not a lot of people leave this place once they enter, but you will see why in just a moment. And I promise, you can leave anytime you want. Even now, if you wish.”

The girl appeared unsure, but she didn’t give any sign that she would run. She just stared at Mimi, almost as if she was trying to skim her, but not quite. The girl definitely didn’t have the gift.

Mimi moved quickly toward the door and knocked three times. The sound of knuckles on metal traveled down the corridor. It mingled with the sound of venting steam and dripping water.

After a moment a voice came. “Who is it?”

Mimi didn’t answer with her voice, she answered with her mind. It was the easiest way to gain access. The other way involved passwords, and Mimi could never remember the damn things.

Transmitting directly, Mimi said, “It’s me, Rosita, open up. I’ve got another one.”

The sound of a metal lock clicked and screeched an ancient protest. Mimi glanced at the young girl, and found terror just behind her eyes. The girl was wondering how she had gained access without a word. But, Mimi thought, at least she wouldn’t have to soothe her alone now. Rosita was an excellent soother; it was why she was assigned to work in the shelter. Mimi quickly warned Rosita of the danger of the young girl bolting, and Rosita pressed forward with a calming presence as she walked through the door and took the girl’s hand.

Rosita said, “Welcome to Nowhere.”

It helped that Rosita looked the part of a kind and nurturing mother. She had a small round face and button nose with dark hair in twin braids and soft brown eyes. Her round body and wide hips always made Mimi think of her own mother, and Rosita happily played the part of mother to all the women who came to Nowhere.

As they passed through the door, they came to a large, open space. The space, once primarily concrete and pipes, now had small square containers with plants and flowers growing, with UV lights dangling just above. Mimi had made sure to plant plenty of flowers in her section. It made it a lot easier to bring some to Shannon during their time together, and it made Shannon happy she wasn’t smuggling them all the time.
Several small shacks made from spare parts either smuggled or donated dotted the landscape. None of the shacks were much to look at, but they were a safe space. Each of the shacks had two sets of bunk beds and a little personal space for each of the four occupants.

In the center was a community kitchen and a bathing area. It had taken Mimi two years to find all the spare parts for that kitchen, and even Noatla had helped to smuggle a few parts so they could have an old-fashioned oven where they could cook fish from the underground and garden vegetables. They did have a food dispenser too, but if they used too many rations at once, it might bring notice to their little hideaway.

“And your name is?” asked Rosita.

“Tanya.” The girl’s stutter had disappeared. Her voice was strong and confident. Mimi reminded herself to sit down with Rosita again and try and learn some of her techniques.

“Come, Tanya, let me show you around your new home, that is, if you’d like to stay here.”

“And what if I don’t want to stay?” There was a sudden and surprising sharpness in the girl’s tone. But Mimi recognized it, it was the tone of someone who had suffered in the place they had once called home. It was a hesitation to trust. Mimi had probably used that same tone when she was asked to join the Order of the Eye.

“You may leave at any time.”

The girl looked around for a moment. “Aren’t you afraid I might tell someone where you are if I leave?”

“No.” Rosita smiled, but a current of power flowed from that single-syllable word.

The truth of it was, the Order protected this place now. If the girl left, they would transmit a number of confusing directions into her mind as they escorted her back to the surface. They would also take a very long route out. Both things served to confuse, and of course, even if she did make it back, or someone showed up who wasn’t welcome, there were always at least two sisters present onsite. Not to mention Serah and Shannon were only a kilometer away, and both of them were capable in their EnViro suits.

“Come, Tanya; I’ll give you the tour. Mimi has other things to attend to.” Rosita took Tanya by the hand, and they walked toward the shacks.

Mimi was puzzled, so far as she knew, she had nowhere else to be. Then she felt her. Mimi turned and saw Noatla entering the door, ducking to keep from hitting her head. She shut it behind her.

Mimi met her Matron with a warm smile. Noatla returned it with a hug. She always felt tiny in Noatla’s arms, like mother and child.

“How are you, Mimi?” Noatla indicated Rosita escorting the young woman. “I see you found another one?”

“Yes, third this week.”

Noatla frowned. “You are resting your mind enough?”

“Probably not, but I will take a day.”

Noatla nodded. “Good. Do so. Three times, you say? That worries me. Things have been very tense in the Senate. Everyone, even Senator Swanson, who is normally a symbol of patience and compassion, is on edge. It’s as if someone is agitating the entire city.”

“Miranda?”

Noatla frowned. “No, I don’t think it could be. Not even she could influence an entire city like this. Besides, we never did find any evidence of her presence.”

Mimi said, “Yes, but nor did we ever find the missing Recycled Runners. And what about the disappearances lately?”

“There is no evidence that all these things are connected… still… I have put all our sisters on alert. We are still scouting for new members. We still need one more to be at full strength again.”

“Shandie’s replacement?”

“I don’t ever like to think of them as replacements, especially considering the way that Shandie gave her life in service to the order–”

“You mean, to protect me.” There was still guilt there. Leahara and Shandie had died at the hands of the Recycled. It was a sacrifice that Mimi would never forget.

Noatla smiled. “You would have done the same for them if your position was reversed.”

Mimi knew that to be true now. She would give her life for any of her sisters, but back then, when it had happened, she wasn’t so sure. In a strange way, their deaths and that guilt had solidified her place in the order, had made her a part of the family.

“In any case, Vala is investigating one candidate, though she doesn’t look promising.”

“Who?”

Noatla didn’t reply at first. She opened her mouth to say something and then closed it.

Mimi knew exactly who, they had debated her for months. “Reevas? You’ve got to be joking right? I thought we weren’t sure if she had the talent, anyway?”

Noatla sighed. “There’s something there with her, I feel it. I just don’t know what it is. And I did say it didn’t look promising. But that’s part of why I am here. There is another candidate.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, a young girl, naive and inexperienced, but has the talent and is quite powerful.”

“Where did you find her?”

“She was a recent student of mine in the scholar school. I have been keeping an eye on her.”

“So why do you need me to investigate her, then?”

“Well, there are two reasons. One, her attitude reminds me of yours.”

“Meaning she’s stubborn as hell?”

Noatla had a smirk on her face but didn’t comment. “And two, she has, for some reason, and despite being offered a number of excellent job options, chosen to work in the docks.”

“As in the Runner Docks? Why in the world would any woman choose to work there?”

Noatla smiled again; her thin lips cracked slightly to reveal her perfect teeth. “Well, why would any woman choose to be homeless?”

It was Mimi’s turn to smile. She shrugged. “Fair point.”

“I want you to try and find out why she has chosen the docks and of course, your opinion as to whether or not she would make a good sister.”

Mimi shrugged. “Okay, when?”

“She’s on the clock, so I thought maybe you could take a look now.”

“Alright, but… why the rush?”

Noatla bit her lip. “Because I think something is happening. I am not willing to say that it is Miranda, but there are too many strange things going on to ignore. We need to have the order at full strength just in case, and my intuition suspects that this girl may be exactly what we need.”

“Alright, I’ll take a look.”

Mimi started walking to the door, but Noatla grabbed her hand and stopped her. “Remember Mimi, if you see anything strange in the docks again…”

But Noatla didn’t need to say anything else. Neither of them needed to skim to know what the other was thinking.

 

The girl definitely had the talent. Skimming her, Mimi noticed that she thought of it constantly. Like Mimi had so long ago, the girl assumed she was alone in her abilities. She was a thin, blond thing, and Mimi immediately spotted her in the docks. She watched her for hours, masking herself from sight the way that her sisters had taught her. The young girl had barely moved from her little concrete island office.

Then, something happened. Mimi watched as a Runner emerged from one of the many tubes that led from cold storage to the main docks. The young blond walked out of her concrete office, tablet in hand, and did her inspection.

Mimi crouched and listened to their interaction for a moment.

The girl said, “Runner… 17? Wow, that’s the lowest number I’ve seen so far.”

The Runner replied, “Ain’t no lower number now.”

Mimi stood up straight and looked carefully. Did the girl just say Runner 17? Mimi and practically everyone else in the city had heard of 17. According to the rumors, he had, by himself, disabled Mex’s EnViro shield when it had once attacked Manhasten. He was said to have been in more battles than any other Runner, that he was invincible in combat, or at least unkillable. Serah had said he was very attractive and spoke of one time when they had spent an afternoon in the Barrens together. But, as she looked at the man with dark skin and the long black braid, she didn’t think he was anything to write home about. Of course, the young blond was certainly taken with him. She could barely collect her thoughts. It almost made Mimi laugh.

A cold chill took Mimi, summoning gooseflesh. She had the sudden sensation that something was behind her, watching her. For a moment she felt frozen, unable to move. Then she pushed against that feeling and knew, with absolute certainty, that something or someone was behind her. She pivoted, raising her mental and physical defenses, ready to use all of her skills to strike.

And there it was. Only a dozen yards away. One of the creatures who had taken her sisters’ lives. The blue lines running up its pale face, those blank, white on white eyes pointed in Mimi’s direction. How had it snuck up on her in that EnViro suit? It cocked its head for a moment and then turned and walked toward the main entrance. Then, before it exited, it stopped and turned back toward Mimi. It waited. Mimi started to walk forward toward it. Still, it waited. Was it waiting for her?

Some Recycled Runners were still employed in the docks, but Noatla had proposed and passed a bill that put tighter restrictions on them. They had to be announced by the AI and monitored now wherever they went, and it required special permission for them to leave the docks or the subterranean areas.

But after the incident forty years ago, there were still dozens of them missing. None of the Order had ever found any trace and the one place they could have gone underground was completely inaccessible to everyone, even Noatla.

Was this one of those missing ones? It was heading up to the main level out of the docks; it wasn’t supposed to be able to do that. She had heard no announcement by the AI, and it seemed to be watching her. No, not watching, beckoning her to follow. It said nothing, but there was a definite calling to her.

Mimi felt anger bloom inside of her. Was this one of the ones that had murdered Leahara and Shandie, and had nearly killed Serah?

She began walking toward it quickly, and as she did, it turned and began walking up the steps of the docks and out toward the streets through what was once Grand Central Station. Mimi felt her heart beating faster, felt her desire to catch up to it and destroy it grow. She tried to reach out to it, to shatter its blank mind as they had done to so many of the creatures on that terrible day, but nothing happened. It simply kept walking.

A part of her was telling her to stop, to reach out to her other sisters, not to approach the thing alone. A part of her was screaming at her that it was a trap. But she felt the deep hunger to catch up to it, to find the others like it and end them all. It was a kind of madness in her. Her footfalls grew closer together.

Then a voice boomed over the intercom. “Alexa? Alexa, please return to your office immediately. You know the policy about speaking with Runners.”

It froze Mimi in her tracks. She blinked and looked around. When she looked back toward the exit, the Recycled Runner was gone.

What had she been doing? She should know better than to chase after one of those things. She and all of her sisters had pledged never to try to take them on again without at least six other sisters present.

Something horrible occurred to her then. For the last forty years, she had learned to persuade people into doing things they wouldn’t normally do. The key had always been to find something that the person wanted, some desire, no matter how deep, and suggest that it would come true if they went along with whatever she wanted. Had someone just done that to her? Had they used her desire for vengeance against the creatures to goad her, to push her into following it? And if so, to what purpose?

Mimi felt the coldness return, but this time there was no Recycled Runner. The coldness was from within. It was the terrifying idea that someone might be laying a trap for her and her sisters.

First Two Chapters of Upon Stilted Cities

I have had the Prologue of Upon Stilted Cities up here on this website for ages. So, I thought perhaps I would post that and an additional chapter up here. You can find the prologue and chapter 1 below. Over the next few weeks, I will post several more chapters in preparation for our release date for Upon Stilted Cities: Part 1 the Winds of Change.

Here is a Synopsis of Upon Stilted Cities: The Winds of Change

The Children of Gaia won’t stop until every last walking city is destroyed…

The city of Langeles is rubble, resources are dwindling, and storm systems are larger than ever before. The people of Manhasten are in great danger, and they don’t even know it yet.

Life in the city hasn’t changed much in the forty years since Mimi joined her telepathic sisters of The Order of the Eye, but the winds of change are blowing, and their enemy, the Children of Gaia wait in the shadows to turn the city to ash. At the center of it all is one man, a man as ancient as the city of Manhasten itself, a man designated Runner 17. A man who is more then he knows, and maybe the only one who can save the city and the rest of humanity.

CroppedCityWeb

Here is the Prologue

To Destroy A Walking City (I)

 

1.

The city had toppled. Bits of skyscrapers were strewn across the desert. With the city’s legs destroyed, it had collapsed from towering heights. Most of what remained upon the excavated chunk of earth on which the city had stood were smoking ruins, shattered mechanized EnViro suits, and sun-dried corpses. Welts from bombs, bullets, and energy weapons pockmarked the perimeter, as various vapors cascaded into the late afternoon sky.

Inside the ruin, occasional echoes of weapon-fire permeated the stillness in and between the few remaining buildings, but even that would fade with the day.

Far back from the fresh ruin of the city of Langeles, Roderick sat slumped against a rock. He was alone in the barrens. His body ached from laying inside his metallic suit for what was probably several hours. The air was a cool forty-eight degrees Celsius as the sun began its final descent. Perhaps an hour of light remained before the cold night air set in.

Roderick blinked. It was a glorious sunset. Even as seen through the tinted UV protection of his suit’s helmet, it was a ritual of beauty, a day that ended in victory. The power core within Langeles still remained, but the death knell of the city was ringing. Langeles would never walk again. For a city with no shield and no migration, there was only death. Mother Gaia would swallow it whole.

He pressed a small button under his chin and with his left hand pulled off his helmet. Its thick inner liner tugged at his graying hair as the helmet detached. He dropped it to the ground. It thudded against the gravel, rolling for a moment before settling in.

He closed his eyes and caressed the tattoo on his neck, the mark of his order, a tree of life with an eye in the center. He liked to feel the raised skin, the scars that had formed under the ink and burn scars. Most adherents of the Children of Gaia chose a simple armband or an inscription on their EnViro suit exterior, but for Roderick, only the mix of blood and fire and ink could mark his tribute and his loyalty. He was hers.

He felt the fresh air on his face and took a deep breath, knowing full well that he wouldn’t be able to keep his helmet off for long. The methane would trickle into his lungs with each breath. Fresh air, as rotten as it smelled, was a luxury. But, it had been a long day, and a little non-filtered air wouldn’t kill him. At least, it wasn’t anything that an alcove couldn’t heal.

He reached up to wipe the sweat from his brow. Already, beads of moisture gathered in the crevices of his pockmarked face and shimmered in the dying light. His light brown eyes reflected the play of colors on the hard, rocky earth and the swiftly changing sky.

Pain sprang up his right arm like a horse bucking its mount, and his square features tightened as he gritted his teeth. Roderick looked down the length of his right arm and remembered. He shuddered. Truth had a funny way of reminding you where you stand. It would take a long time to get used to a missing limb. The bloody stump of where his right hand been was now a symbol of his haste. He turned and gazed at the wreckage of his Dugger vehicle behind him. The City and the Dugger had shared the same fate.

With great pain, he poked the damaged arm out through the metallic hole of the suit where his armored glove had been. He had managed to tie the pliable, cloth-like underlayer in a knot to slow any leak of his air. He used his teeth as a second hand. After several frustrating moments, the knot came loose. He unwrapped the gauze and examined the wound. It was already stinking. He was fortunate that his suit had maintained his temperature and filtered air as well as it had. He would need to cauterize the wound, and quickly. If the toxins from the air entered his blood… well, he had better not let it come to that.

Silence slid into his ears. All noise evaporated. A high-pitched ringing emerged in the vacancy. Fresh fire burst forth from the remains of Langeles. Even from twenty-six kilometers out, he had temporarily lost his hearing. Roderick shielded his eyes from the blinding white light that erupted from the city like a second sun. No, not like a second sun, it was a second sun. For a brief moment, it was a star, a universe, created by the rupture of fusion and then winked out. His fingers pawed a solitary rock with his left hand for balance, feeling his feet giving way. His legs were so tired.

It was the Langeles power core.  Dense smoke seeped into the sky. A hint of a mushroom cloud emerged but was already caught by gusting winds and dissipated across the landscape, intermingling with the colors of the setting sun.

His men had reached it. Where he had failed, they had succeeded. Praise Gaia.

He stared at the city with anticipation. Where was the blast wave? Detonating a nuke inside the city core should have sent a cascading wave of energy. He should need to duck behind a ridge or be hunkering down inside a small cave, but nothing happened. Perhaps they didn’t use the nuke? Had his men managed to overload the core, containing the implosion? He would have to ask them.

It made no difference. Joy washed over him. Roderick let out of a roar of triumph. His roar caught on to the back of the lingering roar of the explosion and merged into forever.

He fell to his knees and bowed forward. Dry lips met the hardpan. His right stump grazed the ground, and a shock of pain climbed the length of his arm. He gritted his teeth but did not move from his position of reverence.

“Praise to you, Mother. Thank you for your aid in this great victory. I shall not forget the lesson you taught me this day. I shall not act in haste again. It is an honor to sacrifice in your name. May the blood that I shed bring new life in the soil.”

He pushed his right leg forward and used his left hand to thrust himself upward. Roderick stared at his bloody stump, still feeling where his fingers had been. Despite the immense pain of the open wound, his fingers itched; an itch he could never scratch again.

Roderick smiled, turning his attention back to the fallen city. The burning city roused his courage, his determination. There, in the smoking ruin, was the evidence it was possible to rid the earth of its infestation. The giant walking city of Langeles and its people were no more.

But what of his haste? What of his disregard for Mother Gaia’s words? Much had gone right, but what had gone wrong? Roderick reviewed the events of the morning assault.

 

 

Migration halted so that the excavation could begin. A massive drill protruded from the lower hunk of rock underneath the city and was burrowing into the earth. Clouds of dust cascaded into the empty sky. A cycle.

“Commander, the Duggers are submerged, in position, and await your orders,” said Patrick Lions. His face appeared before Roderick on his view screen. Patrick was a short, round, balding man who barely fit inside of a standard EnViro suit. With his helmet off, Roderick could see his rosy red cheeks and his crooked nose, broken from one too many fights.

“Excellent. What’s the status on the special delivery?” asked Roderick.

“The package has been delivered to the city’s AI Commander. Rocky said the primary shield should fail any time now. One thing, though, he also said the secondary shield is an isolated system. It’s unlikely the virus will deactivate it.”

“Yes, Rocky warned me earlier. But, there will be chaos, and that is all we need. What’s the status on city leg security?”

“One moment, Commander, I’ll check.”

Roderick squirmed in the semi-cramped quarters of the Dugger. He disliked being below ground in the Dugger transports. Duggers were designed for the conditions in severe climate change during the late 21st century, and were usually effective means of transport in the barrens. They had a small drill and two claw-like arms on the front of the vehicle that dug below shallow surfaces. Roderick had hated using them at first, piercing the earth had seemed like an act of great sacrilege, but Mother Gaia herself had given them permission to use the vehicles in her name.

“Commander,” said Patrick, “leg security has been deactivated. Should we send in Miss and her team?”

“No, stick to the plan. Shields fall first, then we send in the main attacking force, and then we send Miss and her teams to plant the nukes. If we deviate from the plan, it will be like Saud. You remember Saud, don’t you, Patrick?”

“Yes, Commander.” Patrick’s voice was notably lower in pitch and his eyes cast downward.

“It took 80 years to rebuild the Order after Saud, Patrick. Have faith in the Great Mother. She has blessed this plan. Langeles will fall before the sun sets.”

“Has she…” Patrick hesitated over the comm line. He knew that Patrick’s faith in Gaia had wavered as of late. Many of his soldiers’ faith had wavered. Inaction was a plague that could spread quickly, and six years of planning was a long time.

“Has Mother spoken with you about this plan, Commander? I… I only ask out of curiosity, of course.” Patrick’s voice contained a hint of a tremor.

Roderick smiled, showing his ancient, yellowed teeth. “Of course, Patrick. It was the Great Mother who devised this plan. She gave me a powerful vision that showed me the city of Langeles on fire. She whispered that other cities would come for salvage after the fire. And then,” excitement washed over Roderick’s anticipation, “then, we will destroy them as well. Mother Gaia has brought us Rocky and Miss so we could carry out the plan. Have faith, Patrick. We cannot lose this day. Today is the first of many victories.”

It was true that the plan had come to him in a vision that the mother had spoken to him. The timing of Miss and Rocky joining the cause was perfect, but even Roderick’s faith had been tested at Saud. They needed a victory to restore the faith of his people.

“The primary shield is down, Commander,” said Patrick.

“AI, confirm?” said Roderick.

“Sir, I confirm the primary shield system surrounding Langeles has fallen. Secondary shields surrounding their security buildings and storm shelters are active.”

“Excellent. There will be riots inside the city over access to those shelters,” said Roderick. “You see, Patrick? Mother’s plan will sew chaos inside the city while we destroy the legs. Send in the primary attacking force.”

“All of them, sir?”

“Yes, all of them, including your elite team. I want to keep their Runnercore busy.”

Seven hundred men were in the main attacking force, and only three dozen were on leg detail. Roderick’s personal guard consisted of only twenty-three men and women. He would hold his force until the nukes detonated, shattering the great legs. Then he and his personal guard would head straight for the city’s core, ending the long life of the parasitic walking cities.

“Yes, Commander. May Gaia bless your path,” said Patrick.

“And may Gaia bless yours. I’ll see you on the other side. Keep the mother in your heart and we cannot fail.”

Roderick watched his screen in the Dugger. He watched as the several dozen transport vehicles began moving toward the city. Most of them surfaced and crept along on treaded tires, but a few were still moving under the sand and hard earth. The ones under the ground would travel below the combatants and flank the Langeles Runnercore from behind.

They were greatly outnumbered. From what his spy had said, Langeles had 2,300 Runners ready for combat. Roderick only had 1,300 under his command, and several hundred were women and children back at Atlantis base. The fallen shield and surprise would give them a sizable advantage. Runners would have to be dispatched inside the city to maintain order.

The EnViro shield surrounding the walking cities weren’t just for defense in combat. The shield was also used to create an enclosed ecosystem. Without the shield, most of the cities inhabitants would be slowly poisoned by the toxic air and cooked in the extraordinary heat. Secondary shields were set up around important buildings in the event that the primary shield failed, but with two million people in the city and only room for about a hundred thousand in the secondary shielding shelters, there would be chaos.  Langeles’s own citizens were weaponized in the Mother’s cause; every man, woman, and child an agent of chaos, an inadvertent soldier in the army of the Children of Gaia. They were to be offered up in sacrifice to the Great Mother.

The radar screen saw the dots consolidating about a kilometer outside the city’s boundary. Over the comm came Patrick’s voice: “Duggers, mount artillery and fire. Infantry, dismount and engage. Be ready. Here they come.”

Underneath the soil, Roderick felt the ground vibrate. Langeles had opened fire, with its railguns blasting huge holes in the rocky desert. But, with the shield gone, Roderick knew their ability to use the rail guns would be limited. The guns ran off the same power grid as the main shield system. Naturally, after a few shots, the guns would stop, and the majority of Langeles Runnercore would be deployed in the city’s defense. Fresh blips on the radar screen were appearing. Roderick knew those must be the Langeles Runners.

“AI, status check on our cargo?”

“Sir, all three atomic weapons are stable and ready for deployment.”

“Excellent. Open a line to Miss.”

Miss appeared on the screen. Her short black hair was ragged and unkempt. She had a lean face that contrasted with her thick, cracked lips. A faint crosshatch of scars ran up the left side of her neck and ended just below her ear. Her time in the barrens had taken their toll, but there was still beauty to be found. Her brown eyes glittered with an inner fire that Roderick had always desired. His second in command stared back through the communications line, awaiting instructions.

“It’s time, Miss. Uncouple the cargo cars and take down the legs. The main force and the fallen shield will keep Langeles security distracted.”

“Yes, Commander. May Gaia bless your path.”

“And yours, Miss.”

Roderick felt a jolt as the cargo car he had taxied uncoupled from his Dugger. He felt lighter, more eager than before. His plan was unfolding perfectly so far. Now he had to wait.

Time passed. Roderick grew agitated. For all his planning, he hated to sit back and wait while the rest of his troops fought. He had spent most of his life as a man of action, as the one on the front lines. It was bizarre to sit back and watch. So much could go wrong, but Gaia had instructed that he wait.

Roderick waited as the 8th and 9th nukes were attached to the city’s legs. A few more to go and then he would pull his troops back.

Then something went wrong.

Over the comm came Miss’s voice, the signal fragmented. “Commander… spotted us. Seven men… Confirmed that the…. 10th… leg. Should… detonate?

“Repeat that Miss, I didn’t catch all of it.”

“Signal… Under attack… Legs… Retreat…”

“No! Don’t retreat. Finish the mission and then get out of there.”

“Ten… pla… treating… distance. Gaia…”

The signal evaporated. “AI, what’s happening out there.”

“It appears that the Langeles Runnercore has discovered the leg team. Most of the team is dead. However, based on radiation scans, it looks like at least ten of the legs have a tactical nuclear weapon attached to them.”

“And Miss?”

“Her life signs are still strong. It appears she is back in her vehicle and moving away at high speed.”

“Then start the detonation clock. Let the Core team know we’re moving as soon as the blast wave is clear.”

“For detonation, a confirmation code is required.”

“Of course. V638927SI.”

“Thank you, Sir. How long would you like the countdown to run?”

“How long will it take for the main force to get a safe distance from the blast zone?”

“If they left immediately and put the Duggers at full speed, they could be clear in six minutes.”

“Alert Patrick and the main force to disengage immediately.”

“Unfortunately, Sir, Patrick Lions no longer has any vital signs.”

Roderick grunted. That was quite a blow. He liked Patrick. How many decades had they fought alongside one another? Patrick had saved his life at Saud.

Roderick sighed. “Fine, just alert the remainder of the main force. Set the countdown for fifteen minutes. Alert everyone at two-minute intervals. Any longer than that and we risk giving Langeles time to disarm some of the bombs.”

“Acknowledged, Sir. Countdown to detonation is now at fifteen minutes.”

It was a long fifteen minutes. Roderick passed the time watching the radar of his troops departing to a safe distance from the estimated blast zone. He watched nervously as more of the Langeles Runnercore seemed to be gathering around the legs. If they figured out what was happening… but Roderick knew it was too late, only six minutes remained in the countdown now, and there was no way they could disarm the weapons in time. Miss had planted the nukes at the upper third of the legs, only someone with her special skills could have easy access to them.

“Four minutes remaining until detonation.”

This was it. Roderick could feel a kind of giddiness pass over him. It had been a few hundred years since he felt so excited. The city would fall, their plan would work.

“Patience, Roderick,” said a powerful and soothing voice.

“Mother Gaia?”

The voice was outside him but coming through him.

“Yes, Roderick. You must have patience. Do not act out of haste now or there will be a heavy price to pay.”

“Yes, my Goddess, of course. Forgive me. I am unable to prostrate to you in this vehicle.”

There was no response.

“Mother Gaia?”

Still no answer.

“Two minutes remain until detonation,” said the AI.

What did Mother Gaia mean by “patience”? Did it mean that he would have to wait to assault the core? Did it mean that he should cancel the detonation?

“Sixty seconds remaining until detonation.”

A wave of panic washed over Roderick. He quickly reviewed the morning’s events. Had he overlooked anything? The AI began to count down the final thirty seconds. He smashed his fist into the steering wheel, and his anger burst forth at the same moment the bombs on the legs detonated.

Roderick watched over his view screen as the distant blast drowned out all vision with a great blinding light. He wondered if all of his men had remembered not to look directly into that light. Through his periscope camera it was fine, but he doubted the EnViro suit helmets would shield them from blindness. A mighty roaring noise pressed itself against the ground and waves of sand and rock shifted above the Dugger. Thunderous fury.

In the view screen, Roderick saw the city kneeling down toward the earth, like a man kneeling beside the dying body of a brother in arms. The west end sunk first, smashing into the hardpan of the barrens. Some skyscrapers broke in half and pieces scattered as they cascaded toward the ground. Tremors for each mass of concrete could be felt, even at this distance, when they returned to the earth from which they had risen. Then, finally, the rock slab of earth on which the city rested slanted up toward the sky, amongst the sand and gravel, and came to its final rest. A marker, a gravestone, a well-deserved end.

Roderick’s rage and frustration were forgotten, as were the words of the mother. Roderick’s cheeks pulled upward. A smile bloomed on his face. Red cheeks, like red roses, surrounded a sharp, toothy grin.

Roderick opened a comm line. “The Great Mother has brought us to the brink of victory my brothers, but we must not tarry. Main force, resume your attack, mop up what’s left of the Langeles Runners. Core team, you are with me. CHARGE!”

The vehicle vibrated violently, and the sand on top of the clear glass cockpit began to move and shake. As the vehicle moved up above the surface of the ground, Roderick’s view cleared. The vehicle lurched forward, its large, treaded, tank-like tires gripped like teeth in the earth.

The Dugger gained speed and began moving more quickly toward Roderick’s final destination. He felt his heart beginning to pound. He was almost there. The outline of the city grew larger with every passing second, and in only a few minutes he would be on the outskirts of fallen Langeles.

A proximity alert flashed in the vehicle view screen, and the AI spoke. “Warning, incoming projectile. Five seconds until impact.”

Roderick looked down at his radar. He saw the red blip approaching the vehicle. He grabbed the steering wheel and jerked it left to avoid a direct hit, but it was too late.

The RPG struck the ground just below the Dugger’s left rear tire and sent Roderick spinning through the air, rotating like a corkscrew. The vehicle connected to the ground in a series of long hops, and Roderick felt his right hand catch in the steering wheel. The sounds of tearing metal screamed through the air as the vehicle slid and came to a wrenching halt.

Silence hovered. Only the wind dared to raise its voice. Tiny dust devils formed and spun and caught some of the smoke that gradually began to rise from the Dugger. Behind, the city of Langeles had caught fire.

A cacophony of noise returned and Roderick, dazed from what was probably a concussion, pulled the emergency cockpit hatch release with his left hand. He reached up with his right hand to pull himself up and out of the cockpit, only to realize his hand wasn’t there. Confused, he looked down the length of his arm. A mangled stump of flesh, shredded muscle and bone were oozing blood down the exterior of his EnViro suit. All Roderick could do was stare. No pain came to him, only shock and surprise.

Where had his hand gone? Scanning the cockpit, he saw a metallic gauntlet still gripping the steering wheel. Bone and blood dripped at the end of the gauntlet. Roderick looked at his stump, then at the steering wheel, then back to his stump again. It felt unreal.

It was the wrong hand. It had to be. It looked so small and frail. How could it be his? He glanced around another time but, seeing nothing, he refocused his gaze on the steering wheel.

Roderick stretched out his left arm and reached for the gauntlet. In his denial, he had thought it a simple matter to plug the hand back into the arm, like a robot or a child’s toy. His left hand wrapped around the gauntlet, the first instinct simply to pull the gauntlet from the steering wheel. It would not release. Then, he tried to pry one finger at a time off the wheel. No luck. He had heard of a death grip before but… he started to chuckle to himself but the laughter caught in his throat. He almost choked on it. He cleared his throat and let a sliver of madness drive a fresh wave of laughter, and for a moment the sight of his ruined hand was a source of great humor.

The laughter died as suddenly as it had come. Roderick turned his head out toward the burning city. There he saw someone standing only a stone’s throw away from him. It was a Runner, fully armed and in a combat-ready EnViro suit. He had a high caliber pistol aimed at Roderick’s face.

If Roderick had looked up only a single second later, it would have been the end of him. Without thinking, he threw the rest of his body out of the vehicle and rolled behind a solitary rock as the Runner opened fire. A few bullets sprayed the terrain. One of the Runner’s bullets ricocheted off the metal of the Dugger and smacked into the Runner’s shin armor. The impact forced him to fall to one knee. Roderick, seeing his chance, jumped up and reached down for his sidearm in his suit. His bloody stump mashed against the holster and Roderick screamed in pain.

The scream further stunned the Runner. He dropped his weapon, falling backward onto his ass. Roderick reached across his body with his left hand. He struggled, grasping at the butt of the revolver from the awkward angle, and finally pulled his revolver from his holster. He aimed and fired clumsily until the clip was empty. One of the bullets struck home. A single hole opened in the Runner’s face shield, and behind it, blood splattered, and the Runner rolled to his side, dead. His metal armor at rest, not unlike the city from whence he came.

Roderick sat and slumped against the rock.

“AI?”

“Yes, Sir?”

“Are there any more surprises out here for me?”

“No, Sir. I do not detect any more Runners in the immediate vicinity.”

“How…” Roderick was starting to feel weak and tired. Blood dripped into his eyes from a small gash on his head. “How… are we doing… out there?”

“My apologies, Sir, your inquiry must be more specific.”

“Progress of… my… troops?” His breathing was slowing down and the lids of his eyes felt heavy. The head wound and the lost of blood from his arm were both a threat.

“Sir, the Core team has penetrated the perimeter and the main force appears to be overwhelming the remains of the Langeles Runnercore. I calculate that you have an 87% chance of victory at this point.”

“Good, good… How many dead?”

“Exact figures at this time are difficult to calculate because of various reports of your troops and some conflicting data from the Langeles AI that I have intercepted. However, I calculate the total death toll at 1,752,892.”

Roderick felt a pang of frustration. “No, ours. How many of ours are…”

“Ah, I see. According to my sensors, there are 289 casualties,”

Roderick struggled to make a quick tourniquet by tearing off some of the linings of the passenger seat. He pulled some gauze from the glove box and wrapped it on the end of the wound. With his teeth, he pulled the material as tight as he could. Then he pulled up the lining of his suit and tied it and wedged it in the hole where the gauntlet had been, in hopes to keep the suit sealed.

Muttering more to himself than to the AI, Roderick asked, “Why was that Runner… out here?”

The AI responded, “Standard drill deployment procedure requires that a city deploys four perimeter Runners in each of the cardinal directions. Runners are instructed to set up sensor beacons and report anything unusual.”

“Why… didn’t he see us… earlier?”

“My apologies sir, I do not know.”

“Haste… Mother… sorry for my…” Roderick coughed. The remainder of his words caught in his throat. He closed his eyes.

 

Roderick opened his eyes back in the present. He stood and turned, moving toward the wrecked Dugger. He pried open one of the cargo hatches and began to rummage through the medical supplies. He would have to review the morning events again later, but for now, he needed to tend to his arm. It took him a moment, but he found what he was looking for, an emergency flare, an antibiotic shot, some morphine, and an EnViro suit sealant patch. It was a damn shame he didn’t have a regen patch in the Dugger–they had them back at Atlantis base–but the flare would have to do.

He dropped the sealant patch on the ground. He lifted the morphine syringe case up to his mouth and used both his teeth and his left hand to open the case. He grabbed the syringe out with his mouth and used his left hand to pull up the armored sleeve on his right arm. He injected it a few inches above the messy stump. It hurt, but the pain was minimal in comparison to the exposed nerves.

“All right. AI?”

“Yes, Sir?”

“If I pass out, I need you to wake me immediately. Don’t let me fall asleep.”

“As you wish, Sir.”

The morphine acted fast. It didn’t block out the pain entirely, but it was much more manageable. Roderick winced in advance. He knew what was coming next.

He pressed the trigger on the flare. The short flames sputtered and licked the sky at various heights. Sparks flew. He braced himself as he brought his left hand toward his right arm.

Roderick thrust the blue flame onto his stump and screamed, a scream that carried across the kilometers. A war cry of pain and victory. Roderick felt his body’s desire to lose consciousness; he fought it. A few more seconds and the wound would close, for now.

Those last seconds were an eternity. He could bear it no longer. He turned off the torch. He injected antibiotics directly into the wound. Grimacing again at the pain, he withdrew his stump from the open spot in his suit. He picked up the sealant patch off the ground and placed it on the edge of the tear. He watched the sealant patch come to life and spread itself over the tears in his suit where his hand had once been. The pain eased. By morning, the wound would be well-scabbed. Though pain would be a long companion, the danger of infection was over, or at least long enough for Roderick to find an alcove.

Roderick considered laying down in the back of the wrecked Dugger for a moment, then thought better of it. He had to be visible, had to contact his men. It was either that, or he had to find shelter before daybreak.

Roderick reviewed the day again and again, through the mirage of morphine. He knew it was unfortunate that Rocky’s virus required the city’s security codes to work properly. The Langeles codes had not been easy to obtain. Eleven cities remained, and Roderick could think of only one path to absolute victory, especially with a fifth of his force destroyed. Runner 17 was the key. If he wanted to destroy the rest of the cities, he would have to find him.

Here is Chapter 1

 

 

Chapter 1

Designation Runner 17

 

“Activating Runner, Designation 17.”

The AI’s voice, muffled by the warm, gelatin-like padding of the greenish goop that surrounded 17’s body, echoed in his every cell. The lights of the Runner storage facility switched on. Flickering like a stuttering heartbeat, it pulsed against his closed eyelids. He was awake. He did not open his eyes. Not yet.

A large claw slid under and around his alcove on the storage shelf. Pops and hisses marked a disconnection. Thrumming eardrums. The claw tightened. It lifted. It rotated.  With the slow guidance of the machinery, the storage container shifted from its flat horizontal position to an upright standing position on the dock floor. As it stood stationary, the clear plastic of the alcove slid open from the bottom up. An avalanche of the stem cell, fusion-based gel escaped with increasing speed as the opening widened until it was man-sized.

AI said, “Runner 17, step forward.”

He obeyed, keeping his eyes closed; knowing from centuries of experience what came next.

“Initiating cleaning sequence.” A metal arm with four shower heads descended from above, spraying water into every corner of 17’s naked body, washing away traces of the gel mixture from his dark skin.

Eyes opened.

“Initiating drying sequence.” The same arm that had bathed 17 with soapy water now blew hot air from its four adjustable nozzles. The warm air felt good on his skin, and he stretched and rotated his shoulders. He tilted his neck from side to side, wiggled his square jaw, and rubbed his dark brown eyes. Then, he reached back and wrung out his thick, long, black hair. He removed a hair tie from his middle finger and braided it.

“Runner 17, please proceed through exit tube 8c for your pre-run inspection. Failure to comply will result in disciplinary action,”

“What? No baby powder?”

“Baby powder is not part of the standard Runner activation procedure,”

“Yeah, well, it should be. Coming out of those damn alcoves is a little too much like being born. Next thing I know, you’ll shove a thermometer up my ass.”

AI hesitated for a moment. “Runner 17, please proceed through exit—”

“–or I’ll be disciplined. Got it. Can’t they install humor? I’m getting tired of the same old schtick. I want new material.”

“AI customization options are disabled in the Runnercore Activation procedures. For all complaints and concerns—”

“Alright, I will go through the damn tube. Jesus Christ.”

17 yawned and walked toward the long, tube-like corridor leading to the Runner Docks. He scratched the stubble on his long face. Behind him, several other alcoves in the storage area were coming to life. He glanced back to who the AI was unboxing.

“AI, why are you unboxing 875 and 913? You know they’re just going to get themselves recycled.”

AI repeated itself. “Runner 17, please proceed through exit tube 8c for your pre-run—”

17 shut tube 8c’s door behind him. He couldn’t stand the activation AI. It was so stiff. It was no way to wake up.

The briefing screen switched on and followed him down the length of the tube as he walked. He noticed the date, April 4th, 1291 AC, 6:30 p.m. He’d only missed a few months this time. Time was funny in there. The screen displayed his mission. He stopped and glanced at it.

“Basalt and Quartz, huh? Sounds like a real rollercoaster ride. AI, why is there a particular location marked here?”

“Sir, the coordinates are the most likely location of the two required resources.”

“Uh huh. And since when am I given coordinates for a resource recon?”

“As you know, sir, access to resources in the past few decades have become increasingly scarce. Major Daniels has decided that our best chance of resource extraction is to pinpoint specific locations that appear, at least by previous mineral surveys, to be resource-rich.”

“So Daniels is the one who made up that bullshit story? You know, I’ve been at this for more than a thousand years now. The only time you send me out at 6:30 p.m. is when there’s something much more important going on than resource recon. How ‘bout you tell me what’s really going on at that location?”

“I am sorry, sir, but the only thing, ‘going on at that location’,” the AI switched to an exact copy of his own voice to quote him, “is a rich vein of resources.”

“I’m sure. Can you tell Major Daniels that I know he is full of shit, please?”

“Sir, Major Daniels is not receiving messages at this time.”

“Then leave him a message and make sure you include a smiley face in it. I know how much he loves them.”

“As you wish, sir. Please proceed to Inspection.”

17 walked forward again toward the end of the long narrow tube without argument. He wasn’t in the mood for a shock in the base of his skull. Without being aware of what he was doing, he rubbed the place on the back of his neck where they had implanted the chip more than a thousand years before. He looked up at one of the security cameras. No doubt that Daniels or someone else from security was watching him. He raised his right hand and gave them the finger and then a salute.

17 reached the end of the tunnel, and like a thousand times before, an iris whooshed open. He stepped forward into the light, squinting while his eyes adjusted, pupils shrinking. He swished the little saliva in his mouth and spat out the remainder of the stem cell mixture from the alcove. A hint of the greenish mixture blotted and swelled on the metal floor. There was no getting rid of that chemical taste. He thought for a moment that maybe stealing a meal from a dock worker or inspector would be worth the pain of a shock. He longed for some mouthwash or a toothbrush. The pain he could handle, the grainy taste of goo in his mouth was far more intolerable.

Then the inspector walked toward him, tablet in hand. With a single glance, he forgot everything else. He swallowed hard. She was stunning. She raised her right hand, holding a small wireless scanner linked to her tablet, and checked his vitals. She waved it like a magic wand up and down, left and right, muttering to herself the technical jargon of the readout.

17 could feel his heart pounding in his chest as his breathing grew more rapid. Her long blonde hair almost shimmered in the brutal fluorescent light of the docks. Those lights made everyone look ugly, so the fact that she was still radiant caught 17’s attention. Her deep bluish-green eyes accented her bronzed skin. Her mouth had an almost natural upturn, and he traced the curvature of her tiny jaw with his eyes. He watched her lips as her mouth moved and felt his breath escaping him. For the first time in centuries, he felt butterflies in his stomach.

“Runner… 17? Wow, that’s the lowest number I’ve seen so far.” Her voice was light and curious.

17 focused. He shook his head. He couldn’t imagine their life together, or even just what it would be like to bed her. It would only serve to remind him that he was a prisoner.

“Ain’t no lower number now.” He tried to make his words sound hollow and dry.

“Sorry?” The young girl blinked at him.

“You’re new, aren’t you?”

“Is it obvious?” She frowned, her whole face flattened, but a smile hinted.

17 paused and looked her up and down again, this time making it obvious what he was doing. Her face flushed a little. He couldn’t help it. Chances were, he would only see her a few more times before she moved on. Inspectors always moved on. Hell, he may never see her again, but something in him resisted that idea, something in him said he might see a lot of this one. He pushed the thought away. It was nonsense.

“How many years do you have?”

She hesitated a moment. 17 knew inspectors weren’t really supposed to talk to Runners, but he wanted—no, needed–to chat with this one.
“I… only… 23 years.”

“23 years? Are you kidding? I didn’t even know they let anyone that young away from their parents anymore.” He hesitated a moment, deciding if he should ask the next question. It burst from his lips. “Uh, what’s your name?”

The girl, her eyes soft, looked around. Doubtless, she’d been lectured on fraternization with Runners, warned at great length how evil they were. 17 gave her a little smile, trying to encourage her, but that only seemed to make her more nervous. Was she nervous for the same reason he was?

“I’m not supposed to… I…”

“Yeah, yeah. I know. They told you the big bad Runners might hurt you if they find out who you are, might steal you in the night like the Boogeyman. Told you we are all dangerous criminals on a life sentence, right?”

The girl nodded. Her face was bright red. Her eyes kept sinking downward, admiring 17’s naked body, but she was trying to hide her curiosity.

She bit her lip.
He shivered.

“You know what my crime was?”

She shook her head.

“Do you want to know?”
She nodded.
“I pissed off the wrong woman, an Upper. Least that’s what they tell me, but hell if I can remember. Been too damn long. Everything bleeds together after a few centuries.”

“But I thought…” she hesitated again, looking around to see if anyone, probably her supervisor, was watching. She lowered her voice just above a whisper and moved closer. “I thought that to become a Runner you had to commit a violent crime?”

17 laughed. The girl jolted back, looking around again.
“You’re shitting me, right? Is that what they are teaching up in that… what do they call it these days? College? University?”

“Um… Scholar school… Sir.”

“And she gives me a Sir. Wow, I like you,” he chuckled.  “You know, it’s been at least a millennium since someone called me Sir? What’s your name again?”

The girl looked down at her feet and then met his eyes. Her soft eyes made his heart ache a little. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had looked at him that way; centuries, at least.

“Maybe we better just get on with the inspection,” she replied. She looked back over her shoulder again.
“Come on now, don’t be like that. I just woke up, and it’s been several months sitting in that alcove. Do you have any idea how lonely and boring it is in there? You know we don’t fully sleep in those things, right? It’s more like an acid trip or something.”

Her expression softened a little, and her left cheek slanted upwards just a hair. She hesitated, and the words almost seemed to leak from her soft lips. “It’s… Alexa.”

“Alexa, you don’t look like an Alexa, you look like a…” He stopped. No. She couldn’t possibly look like… He didn’t dare make that comparison. A deep sense of anguish welled up in him. His memory was trying to surface, but he pushed it back down. There was a sense of mockery and injustice in this girl’s presence. He tried to shake it off. Now he was starting to understand the effect she had on him.

“Uh… Never mind. Alexa it is, then. Tell me a little more about yourself, Alexa. Are you a Lower?”

Alexa shook her head. “Mid, actually.”

“A Mid? What the hell are you doing in Runner dock then?”

“I…” she hesitated, her eyes again dipping down 17’s well-scarred body. She looked up into his face again. “That’s none of your business.” She shifted her weight from one leg to another.

“Uh, you’re right, sorry. It just seems like a lovely young Mid like yourself wouldn’t bother with the big bad Runners down here in the docks. If you’re a Mid, I bet you got lots of opportunities and probably a lot of interested men too, huh?”

She frowned. “I’m not some object for a man to possess, you know. And my career choices are my own.” Now determined to focus on the task at hand, she fixed her gaze on her data tablet. He could tell that it was hard for her not to look back up at him. She peeped over the tablet, caught his eyes again and smiled. She forced the smile down and with it, her eyes. It made his heart flutter a little. He swallowed, thinking of his wife from many lifetimes past. Only the hair color was different.
“I’m sorry Alexa… I… this isn’t a good place to be.”

She looked up at him. Her eyes moved back and forth across his face and then her eyes locked with his. “I think…  I think I’m done with my inspection. You have to move along now, Runner 17. And…” Her face turned bright red, and she looked down at her feet. “And put some clothes on. None of the other Runners come out of their alcoves naked. Um, your EnViro suit is in station 9.” She pointed her finger in the direction of the EnViro suit platform.
“Alexa?” A man’s harsh voice rang out over the intercom. “Alexa, please return to your office immediately. You know the policy about speaking with Runners.”
She turned and ran off. He watched her go. She dropped her data tablet on her way back to the tiny office in the corner of the Runner Docks, but did not stop.

He frowned. It had been the first time in decades that someone besides the AI had spoken with him and he went and screwed it up. He shook his head. What did it matter anyway, not like a Runner could ever have a normal life. After he returned from the barrens, he was debriefed and then straight back into the regeneration alcoves until the next mission. He was lucky if they allowed him a real meal instead of that nutrition drip they ran through his EnViro suit.

There had been a few moments in his Runner career when he had tried to date the female Runners, but it proved impossible. The timing of re-activation never quite matched up. Sometimes months or years would pass between encounters. He found over the centuries that the best he could hope for was a quick fling, which also proved difficult out in the harsh conditions of the barrens. It was hard to get your pants down when they were under thick layers of metallic armor, but somehow, they managed. Caves were helpful in that regard.

17 turned toward station 9 and walked forward. He glanced back in the direction Alexa had gone and frowned. Then he moved forward and stepped into worn yellow outlines of feet. A machine both above and below made a guttural whirring noise, sputtered, and came to life. The platform on which 17 stood lifted several meters into the air. Cracks had begun to take shape in non-symmetrical patterns on the platform. The whole place crumbled from age.

From above and below the platform, large metallic hands with three fingers and an opposable thumb extended outward, each with its own task.

The arms dressed 17 in undergarments and then a thin, electronic, protective spandex-like coating that resembled a wetsuit and protected him from heat and cold. The boots enclosed his feet, granting him nearly a half meter more in height. Next, the arms pieced together an exoskeleton that tripled the user’s strength. Bone joints glistened, waiting for connections to metal plates. Around the exoskeleton, the mechanical arms assembled the exterior armor. It started at his shins, attaching one piece at a time, moving upwards. Each piece resembled the armor of a knight, but it was perfectly connected, perfectly sealed like that of an astronaut’s suit but much more flexible. For the final step, a helmet descended from above and enclosed the EnViro suit. Everything clicked on and came to life.

“EnViro suit activated. Welcome back, sir. It has been four months, three weeks, and four days since you were last in an EnViro suit,” said the suit AI. “I have taken the liberty of uploading your system preferences and the required mission data into this suit.”

“Good, I don’t suppose you can talk to someone about the Runner activation AI, can you?”

“Is there a problem with the activation system, sir?”

“Yeah, that system is an asshole.”

“I… apologize, sir, we may not customize—”

“I know, I know. It told me already. Tell me again, why can’t I just use your system for activation?”

“I am flattered, but my systems are based on the chip in the base of your neck and only works when in direct contact with an EnViro suit or another external uplink.”

17 sighed. “If you say so.”

“Are you ready to depart?”

“Yeah sure. Being out there in the Barrens is a hell of a lot better than in those damn alcoves.”

“I am sure I would agree if I had a body.”

The outer bay door opened. Before he stepped forward, he looked back. Was Alexa watching? He hoped he would see her again. He frowned and turned forward toward the lift.
As he descended toward his Dugger, 17 had his first glimpse of the Barrens in months. Dunes and rocky wastes filled his gaze. The wind changed the landscape right before his eyes. There was nothing but death and possibilities out there. He glanced in the corner of his heads-up display and noticed the wind was only 80 kph, a mild evening at least.
He missed trees. Even though they had some here in Central Park, he hadn’t seen one in centuries and wondered if there would ever be a day when he would see one again.

Before the end, he would see many.

 

 

Mimi of the Nowhere: Chapter 2 Home Sweet Home

Mimi’s adventure continues in Chapter 2: Home Sweet Home.

If you haven’t read it already, Chapter 1: The Fishing Hole is here

A brief synopsis of the book. Mimi Chapter 2

Life on the street is hard. Drug dealers, thieves, and even the security officers of the giant walking city of Manhatsten are up to no good. But somehow, Mimi’s done it for centuries. Of course, it helps that she is able to peak into other people’s minds and avoid trouble most of the time. Unfortunately, that same talent is about to get her into a whole other world of trouble. One that she never even knew existed.

Mimi of the Nowhere launches on 5/17/18

I am still accepting a few more readers to get Advanced Review Copies (ARC). If you are interested in getting an early copy in exchange for an honest review, sign up at the bottom and put that you would like to receive an early copy in the comments. I am taking ARC readers until 4/17/18.

Chapter 2

Home Sweet Home

Mimi worked her way through the large, cold pipe on her hands and knees, careful to keep the fish from touching the ground. The weight of it dangling was not great, but she struggled to steady its swaying motion as she shuffled along.

She slid out of the exit into the open area that led to her lair. A giant, metallic cylinder occupied most of the space. It was several stories tall and made a constant humming noise. Its outer shell was marked with rust and age.

Behind her, Shannon slid out of the pipe. Her sneakers slapped against the ground. The impact was almost too much. The sneakers barely hung together, bound by adhesive strips. Her clothes, like Mimi’s, were sewn together from discarded bits of cloth they had scavenged from the clothing recycling center.

So much of the city was recycled; it had to be. But the city, approaching the mid-twelfth century of its age, was showing signs of its tireless movement. Only rarely did the city cease walking across the barren landscape, and then it shuttered under the vibration of a massive drill, extracting the scraps of resources that were left in the earth’s crust.

“Wow, this is where you live?” asked Shannon. “Yuck.” She plugged her nose. “What’s that smell?”

“Sewage and garbage. Though there might be other things mixed in there, I’m not sure.”

Shannon almost gagged. “Here I thought, we’ve been together six months and I haven’t even been to her place yet. I thought maybe you were hiding something. You were: your place smells like shit.”

Mimi laughed. “Shit’s only part of it.”

“Why does it smell so terrible?”

“Because,” Mimi waved her stick toward the giant cylinder. “That’s a biorecycler. Well, the bottom half of it, anyway. The other half is up in one of the Sanitation departments.”
“But aren’t those things supposed to be sealed? Why does it smell so bad?”

“It leaks sometimes.”

“What, like, on you?”

“Nah, I’m over on the other side over there.” She pointed down a narrow corridor. “I think things would have to be bad in the city before the whole thing emptied. Maybe a war with one of the other cities or something. Besides, it’s one of the safest places in the whole city for someone like us.”

They walked toward the corridor. Small, iridescent puddles twinkled in the light. Mimi didn’t know what all the chemicals were, but she steered Shannon around each one.

“Doesn’t smell like it. Why’s it so safe?”

“No one comes down here unless there’s a major problem. So far, there’s been one in the last few hundred years.”

Mimi realized her mistake at once and hoped Shannon wouldn’t notice. She almost swore out loud. Instead, she held her breath.

Shannon stopped and grabbed Mimi’s right arm, the one without the dangling fish. “Wait a second. How. Old. Are. You?”

“Seventy or so.” Her words came out rapid fire. She knew she could pass for seventy, though she didn’t look a day over the age of twenty-five; it was the product of the regeneration alcoves. Even the homeless had occasional access to them. It was cheaper than dealing with disease and medical care, so the Uppers–the ones who lived in the top floors of the city–had decided to make some alcoves accessible to everyone, but only often enough that someone who was homeless or living in the lower parts of the city could live a maximum lifespan of two-hundred years or so.

“Then how do you know when this thing last broke down?”

“Uh… I looked it up. Come on, it doesn’t smell so bad back where I’m at.” Mimi knew that wasn’t going to cut it, but she couldn’t come up with anything else to say.

Shannon followed, but Mimi could tell she was frustrated. She would have to tell her some truth soon at least. It was hard to lie all the time. There was so much to keep track of. But how was she going to explain her age? How would she explain that she had found a way to access a regeneration alcove and extend her life like the wealthy Uppers in the city? She knew exactly where that would lead. Daniel had wanted access to the alcoves, and it had cost him everything.

They stepped over the crisscross networks of pipes in one section, ducked under them in another, and moved their way through several cramped areas until, finally, they reached her nest.

It wasn’t anything special, but it was a spot to call home. Multicolored sheets patched together tightly to create a sturdy outer covering over a frame of pipes, tucked away in a corner. It was well-hidden. You had to be looking for it to know it was there. Mimi pulled back a flap and ushered Shannon inside. A small, ancient mattress lay on the floor next to a small makeshift camping stove. The mattress also had patches, like a bandaged soldier after a battle. It was lumpy and uneven, but much better than anything they would find at street level. A few tattered maps of the city hung in the corners, displaying the underground networks of tunnels and pipes.

“Where’d you get the furniture and pictures? Some place down here?”

“The furniture, well, you just have to know where to look. Mattresses don’t exactly grow in Central Park. The maps I stole from Sanitation. Not like they will miss them.”

“What do you need the maps for?”

Mimi shrugged, “Nothing really, anymore. I know most of those tunnels by heart now, but it took a while to get the hang of them.”

“So why do you still have them up?”

“Habit, I guess. Better than nothing, right? Makes it feel cozy.”

Shannon walked around the room inspecting everything. “Hmmm. I suppose so.” She lifted the bottom of one of the maps and looked under, exposing the splotched green and brown cloth below. “Yeah, better with the maps. You need some flowers here or something.”

“Flowers? You’re joking, right?”

“You could swipe some from Central Park or one of the other green spaces in the city.”

Mimi shook her head, “Do you want to attract attention? You know how much those flowers go for in the uppers?”

Shannon shook her head.

“Let’s put it this way, you’d probably end up in front of the Supreme Justices.”

“For flowers?”

“For flowers.”

“So, you’ve never picked any?”

“No, have you?”

“No, but they smell so nice. I just thought that…” Shannon trailed off.

Mimi shrugged. “Think whatever you want, the point is, getting the attention of the Security Officers for flowers seems like a waste.”

“But in the vid screens… when a girl brings another flowers, it’s so romantic.”

“That’s the vid screens. Those programs are all about Mids and Uppers, anyway. No one wants to hear love stories about a couple of homeless women.”

Shannon frowned.

Mimi reached over and pressed a few buttons to prime the makeshift stove. She pulled the fish off her broom handle and flopped it down on the grill. She turned around and pulled out a wide and flat piece of metal with a wooden handle. It was bound together by some cheap twine.

“What’s that?” Shannon stared at the object.

“You ever gut a fish before?”

“Gut?”

“Yeah, gut. You can’t just plop it on a grill and cook, you know. You gotta take out the guts, cut off the head.”

“Ew, what?” Shannon’s nose wrinkled. Her face paled.

“I’ll show you.” Mimi grabbed the fish and stepped outside her dwelling. She found a flat surface and Shannon, following reluctantly, watched as she raised the blade and brought it down just south of the fish’s head. It made a soft squishing sound and a little of the creature’s juices sprayed onto both women.

Shannon’s eyes widened, and she pushed past Mimi. She ran around a corner and vomited.

Afterward, Shannon refused to eat the fish. Mouth full, Mimi said, “You can’t be so squeamish about things down here. You have to eat what you can get or you’ll go hungry.”

Shannon said nothing. She kept looking at the maps, kept looking at the ancient sheets that were tied to the pipes. Her hand caressed them. Then, keeping her eyes off of the fish, she stared right at Mimi.

“Alright, how old are you, really? And don’t give me that seventy crap. Besides, you look way too young for seventy anyway, even with our alcove allotment. It’s clear you’re a lot older than that.”

Mimi shrugged. “Women of Asian descent just age slowly.” She paused for a moment.  “Tomorrow we’ll take another trip down below. There’s a food dispenser down there I can hack sometimes, if you don’t like the fish.”

“Don’t change the subject. You have access to an alcove, don’t you?”

Mimi swallowed her last bite of the fish. “Sure you’re not going to eat?”

Shannon shook her head and gestured for Mimi to eat the rest.

“Answer me, please, or I’m leaving.”

“Come on now, Shannon, don’t say that. I love you.”

Shannon was almost sidetracked by this. Her face lit up. “You do?” Then her face darkened a little. “You love me, do you? But not enough to tell me the truth?” Shannon shifted her body in the chair, the little table wobbling off balance. “You’re always lying to me. You’re always holding back information. This little hut or whatever this is, is just another example. You didn’t tell me about it ’til last week. So, tell me the truth.”
There was a severity in her voice that Mimi took seriously. Shannon’s mind had always been a rather serious place, and her emotions always close to the edge, but it was clear she meant what she said, even without skimming.

“Alright. What do you want to know?”

“Everything.”

Mimi rolled her eyes. “They always do. Just pick something.”

Shannon scowled a little. “They? How many women have you brought down to your little hobbit hole?”

Mimi knew from the surface of Shannon’s mind that she didn’t really want an answer to that question. Few did. She knew that Shannon was a jealous person, but she was feeling a bit annoyed. Plus, the fish hadn’t been as good as she had hoped.

She made to count her fingers, pretending like she had to think about it. “Oh… Hmm… I think nine women and eight men have shared this bed.”

“Excuse me?”

“What? You told me to be honest.”

“So what am I? Your flavor of the month or something?”

Mimi rolled her eyes. “Considering how many years I’ve been doing this, more like flavor of the decade?”

Shannon’s face reddened for a moment and then she smiled. “Ha!” Shannon shouted. “I knew you were older than seventy. Tell me the truth. How old are you? You won’t distract me.”

Mimi bit her lip. Again, she pretended to count. This time she took much longer to respond even though she knew the exact number. It was hard to forget her 13th birthday. She thought on how easy it is to mark that night as the end of her normal life, to count off the exact distance from it. How could she forget the night she had murdered someone?

“Let’s see, in April I’ll be 782.”

Shannon’s jaw dropped, fishlike. Mimi was tempted to throw a piece of fish into it, but restrained herself.

“But… how? Even most Mids rarely live that long with their allotment. Oldest Mid I ever heard of was 650. I mean, Uppers, sure, but they’re the only ones who can afford unlimited access to the alcoves.”

She shrugged. “You’re right. I found an alcove.”

“What, just lying around?”

“Yep, just sitting right in the open underground.” Mimi knew Shannon didn’t understand her sarcasm and heard her ask herself if she was serious. “Yep. Serious.”

Shannon’s big eyes narrowed, “You’re being sarcastic.”

It wasn’t a question. Shannon was catching on, at least. “It’s dangerous.”

“So what? So is living on the street for any woman in this city.”

“Not like this. My last lover, Daniel… he got…” Mimi froze. She didn’t like to talk about Daniel, about what they had done to them. There were worse punishments than becoming a Runner, worse than dying. Daniel had been caught red-handed because he hadn’t listened to her, had gone to the alcove when she had told him not to.

“Don’t even think about it,” said Mimi. “It won’t happen.”

Mimi saw the anger forming on Shannon’s mind. She saw what she was about to say. She felt her own rage envelop her.

“Oh, I see. So, every few decades you get yourself a pet, someone to shack up with for a while, someone whom you can cast away when you’re bored, when they get too old and you don’t want their body anymore.”

The anger rolled from Mimi’s tongue, like dripping venom. “What the hell do you know? You’re just a little girl. Twenty-seven is barely an adult. You have no idea how deeply I’ve loved. You don’t understand what it’s like to watch someone you love stolen away from you.”

“Um… Tanya,” said Shannon.

Mimi felt the anger pulse in her chest. Her heartbeat thudded in her ears. She felt her tone sharpen. “Oh, no, no, no. There are things much worse than becoming a Runner, worse than death. You don’t even have a clue.” Mimi slammed down the remains of her food to the floor. She stood up at full height, which wasn’t much above Shannon’s height at sitting. But Shannon drew back.

For a moment, the light of the room tinged red. She had the strange sensation that her words somehow flowed into Shannon’s brain almost in the same way that Mimi could skim minds.

“Shannon, I’ve never had the luxury of watching someone grow old. Every single person I ever brought down here and told my secrets to ignored me. Every single one either left me because I wouldn’t tell them how to find the alcove, or ended up a Runner because I did. You have no idea what it’s like to live for centuries, having your heart broken over and over again. You have no idea what it’s like to lose every single person you love, to have them stripped from you. Wonder why I lie? Because no one ever listens to me, even after I tell them what happened to the others. So, Shannon, I do care about you, or else I wouldn’t tell you shit.”

Mimi’s sight cleared a little, the red tinge faded, but she had not seen Shannon’s reaction until that moment. She had not seen the fear and the pain that she had somehow pushed inside her. Shannon sat motionless, eyes wide open. She appeared unable to blink, but tears were pouring down her cheeks. An open faucet.

Then her face came back to life again. She blinked and her cheeks twitched. Shannon’s whole body shivered as she buckled from the inside. She was a building, collapsing under its own weight, unable to stop falling.

Mimi reached out to catch her, but missed. Luckily, she fell on the bed.

What had Mimi done to her? Was she able to push her thoughts onto Shannon? Did she somehow… scream into her mind? A sense of panic took her as she examined the ruins and wreckage of the woman she loved. Sharp sobs punctuated the space, deep rasping breaths and gasps for air. Shannon did not seem to be able to speak and Mimi walked closer to her, hesitantly putting a hand on her shoulder.

“Shannon… I…”

Shannon turned over, just enough to look in Mimi’s brown eyes. “Did… How… What did you…”

It was all that Shannon could utter.

Mimi felt the anger rise in her again. Shannon had made her do this. It was Shannon’s fault and if she didn’t get out right that moment, if she didn’t get away from her, she would hurt her again. She didn’t understand how, but she knew it on some instinctive level.

Her anger was a pulsar, a radical sun, heavy and dense and full of heat and fire. She felt it radiating from her body, she felt almost a desire to scream at Shannon again, to go back to the red. That redness was almost hungry, and now that she had let it see the light of day, it wanted more.

Mimi turned and fled the space. She hurried toward the long metal pipe at the entrance. She didn’t know where she was going, but she needed out, needed away.

Why was it they never understood? They always thought she was holding out on them. Didn’t they understand that she had loved them all? She watched them all leave, or be taken to the Runnercore or… She swallowed hard. She couldn’t let herself think of Daniel. Couldn’t think of what he had become. She didn’t dare turn her mind that direction.

The red had faded with each footstep. She felt herself cooling. The tectonics of her inner life had settled, for now.

Why did she keep doing it? Why did she keep sneaking into the alcove? Why did she keep extending her years? Most of all, why did she keep taking new lovers? Because she could? Because she needed to fill some emptiness in her? There was some reason, she reached for it, but it seemed impossible to grab hold of.

She heard footsteps behind her, felt the gentle press of Shannon’s mind come closer, like an invisible tide gradually rushing in. She did not turn to meet her.

Shannon had come. After what Mimi had done to her, of which she still wasn’t sure, Shannon had still come after her.

Her voice was soft and hesitant. “What happened to Daniel?” Shannon waited a moment for a response. “Mimi, please. Tell me. Sometimes it helps if you talk about it. It helped me… no, it saved me to tell you about Tanya. I don’t think I could have gone on without telling you. Just tell me. I love you too, you know. I didn’t say it earlier, but I do.”

Mimi still didn’t turn. She kept herself cold, afraid of the return of that redness. “Me. I happened to him.” Her voice was cold and quavering. She barely held her tears, her tears cried for freedom. She headed for the surface, breaking for a run, and did not stop until she saw that Shannon wasn’t behind her anymore.

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