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.

The Cover Art for the Battle of Langeles is Complete!

 

This afternoon my cover artist Gabriel Perez sent over the final copy of the cover art for the Cover of Upon Stilted Cities: The Battle for Langeles. To me, the cover is absolutely amazing but then, I blew it up on a bigger screen and saw the level of detail he put into this thing. Looking closely you can see Runners battling all over the place. Small skirmishes are everywhere and the details are just insane. If you have not visited this guy’s website you need to check him out. He is, hands down one of the best sci-fi artists around.

Book 3 in the Chronicles of the Great Migration

Upon Stilted Cities: The Battle for Langeles is out October 17th!

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Upon Stilted Cities is here!

My second book in the Chronicles of the Great Migration has arrived! This book has been a long time coming for me. In 2011 I woke from a strange dream about a man overlooking a giant walking city, and another imprisoned in some kind of green pod. Through those scribbled notes, the very first chapters of this novel were born.

At the time I was a graduate student and had to put the story aside, but as I wrapped up my thesis the story became a thorn in my brain. I couldn’t stop thinking of it. Some nights I would even toss and turn until I got up and wrote some of it down.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it!

You can get your ebook here! Paperbacks will be up in a few days!

USC Front Cover Graphic

Chapter 3 of Upon Stilted Cities is here

Chapter 3: The Inspector is here! 

USC Front Cover Graphic

 

Alexa Turon, a young girl who works as the inspector in the docks has no idea Mimi is watching her. But the one person she can’t seem to stop thinking of, is Runner 17.

This chapter is Spoiler Free for Mimi of the Nowhere

Only 12 days left before Upon Stilted Cities is released on 7/17/18

Preorder has begun at some sites! 

Check out the Prologue and Chapter 1 Here 

Chapter 2 Here 

 

 

Chapter 3

The Inspector

 

Alexa Turon watched Runner 17 descend with the lift, sinking until he was out of sight. Her two-way mirror caught a flash of setting sun just before the dock bay door shut. The fluorescent lighting flickered across her face.

She ran out, picked up her dropped tablet, and then hurried back to her office.

There was a hotness in her. It surged up through her chest and settled in her throat. She sat down at her desk. Placing her hands on the ancient cracked keyboard, she felt the rough bumps against her fingers. She began typing up her report. Missing keys had already caused her fingers to callus. Slow work, many typos. Worse, the delete key was completely gone.

“Alexa Turon,” a high, obnoxious voice whined over the com line. It was Marty, her shadow, her boss. She still couldn’t remember his last name and when she called him by his first, it frustrated him. “You have a call from a man named Douglas Turon, who claims to be your father?”

Alexa groaned. “Great, here we go again.”

“Pardon?” asked her supervisor.

Alexa blinked, she hadn’t realized she had said it aloud. “Oh… um… put him through.”

Douglas Turon flashed on the view screen just above Alexa’s cluttered desk. He didn’t look much older than his daughter. The screen flickered for a moment and settled. At 193 years of age, his face was frozen in that of a man in his mid-30s. His chin-length blond hair, short pointed nose, and thin patchy beard made him look a brother, not a father. It was the alcoves.

“Alexa, how are you? Is everything all right? Your mother and I are worried about you, you know.”

She tried hard not to roll her eyes. Here she was, 23, and her parents were still calling her at work. Granted, she wasn’t legally an adult yet regarding voting and other privileges, but she would be in just two short years. Besides, so far as she knew, none of the other 23-year-olds had parents freak out if they didn’t hear from them for a few days. Even though the legal definition of an adult was 25, most parents still accepted that their children were adults at 18. An ancient habit.

“Oh, things are fine, how’s Mom?”

“Your mother is doing just fine. She landed another promotion in the library. She is going to be working almost directly with Senator Lightfoot on one of her artifact-cataloging projects. You know your mother, always the archivist and never much a people person. The prospect of spending days on end cataloging items from the last dig has got her so excited she can’t sleep. It’s all she talks about.”

“Oh, well that’s great news. Does that mean you could move to the Uppers?”

“You know Alexa, we just might. Your mother says that Senator Lightfoot has offered to sponsor us. I mean, Floor 39 is a wonderful level to live and all, but can you imagine the Turons making it to Floor 40? I mean, think of the benefits we would have as an Upper. Your mother and I have talked about having another child, and a move upward would make that possible. Speaking of which Alexa, I may have a job for you here in the IT department.”

Uh oh. Here it came. For the twelfth time since she took this job, her father was about to ask her to work for him, and then, of course, ask her to move back in with him and her mother. She knew the tired argument already. He would mention, again, some fantastic job opening (probably one that he made up just for her) and again, he would talk about the benefits of living at home as a young Upper Mid and saving to become a true Upper. Then he would talk about Alexa’s potential being wasted in the Runner Dock and how dangerous it was amongst all those criminals.

“Dad, I love you, but stop. I’m not interested.”

Her dad’s eyebrows shifted and one arched upward as if to say, whatever do you mean my sweet daughter.

“Dad, I don’t want to go through all this again. I’ve chosen to work down here, and I don’t want another lecture.”

“But Alexa—”

“No buts, Dad. I know you’re worried about me, but my new apartment in the Upper Lowers is in a safe area and working in the docks is as safe as anywhere else. You know damn well that they keep the Runners on a short leash. I have a button on my data tablet that I can press if I feel any threat at all.”

“Alexa. It… it’s not just your safety. Your mother and I are worried about your future too. You have so much potential. You scored the highest of any Mid on the Standard Placement Test; you were the top of your class. Supreme Justice Smith even offered you a position, and yet you chose the Runner docks. Why? If you could just explain to us why you made your choice, we could support you. We want to understand why our little girl is throwing her life away.”

Alexa felt a rush of anger. “First of all, Dad, we both know why Justice Smith offered me a position. You’ve heard the rumors about all his pretty young assistants and the after-hours ‘work’ they do for him.”

“Oh Alexa, those are just rumors. None of the allegations made against the Justice were ever proven.”

“Professor Claven told me that the rumors were true and to stay the hell away from him. So that’s what I am doing. For the last time, Dad, I’m not throwing my life away.”

Her father rallied, not dissuaded.

“Alexa, if you could explain why you chose the Runner docks when you could have chosen almost anywhere else in the city, then maybe your mother and I could be a bit more understanding.”

“It’s not any of your business, Dad. I’m done discussing it.”

Her father stared blankly at her, and Alexa felt a rush of guilt crest over her like a wave approaching the shore. She wanted to tell them, but she just couldn’t. They would never understand, and though they had been supportive of her alternative methods for dealing with her headaches… well, this was something else entirely.

She sighed. “I’m sorry, Dad. You have to trust me. I’m doing this because I feel it is the right thing to do. This is the right place for me to be. Can’t you just accept that?”

Her father frowned through the flickering glare of the view screen.

He sighed, “You are almost an adult now, Alexa, and of course we want you to do what you feel is right, but time so often has a way of revealing our mistakes.” He paused again. His head turned back away to acknowledge someone nearby. He nodded his head a few times and mouthed a few indistinct words before he turned his attention back to Alexa.

“I’m sorry Alexa, but the AI needs some routine maintenance, Joe Fisher told me it’s acting a bit strangely, so I have to go. But Alexa, I’ll make you a deal. Neither your mother nor I will mention anything else about your job if you promise to sit down and at least chat with Dr. Black in systems maintenance next week. He’s heard about you from one of your professors in scholar school and is interested in meeting with you.”

Alexa rolled her eyes. It was another deal. There would be more. Always more. She also knew that accepting the meeting would get them off her back for another week and would allow her to focus on… well… whatever it was she was supposed to be doing down in the docks. She wasn’t sure what it was yet, but she had some ideas.

“Alright Dad, I’ll meet with Dr. Black next Friday. How does that sound?”

A smile spread across her father’s face. She loved that smile. “Wonderful. Your mother will be so happy to hear it, and I just know that—”

“One thing, Dad. Don’t expect me to take the job. I will go to the meeting but please, no expectations, okay?”

“Of course, Alexa. Of course.” But his smile said otherwise. He expected her to take this other job, to get out of the Lowers and to move back in with them. She knew another argument was coming, probably even a yelling match this time. But for now, a temporary ceasefire.

“I have to get going; Joe Fisher needs me. Do me a favor and call your mother this evening, Alexa. I know she would be happy to hear from you. I love you.”

“Love you too, Dad.”

The screen went blank. She exhaled. She wished so much that she could tell them why she chose the docks, but she didn’t exactly know herself. She also knew that until she could give them some sort of concrete explanation, something that made sense to them, they would continue to pester her. She wished she was a better liar.

In truth, she didn’t much care for the job. The hours were long and mostly boring, the smell of the place was almost intolerable. And the Runners, despite her reassurances to her father, made her very nervous. Well, except for that Runner 17. He had made her feel something… different.

17’s beautiful dark skin. And his eyes, like gray-brown orbs, she couldn’t stop thinking about his eyes. Her mind’s eye wandered downward, recalling each muscle. His chest hairless, covered in scars. She wanted to run her hands across those scars and feel the muscle below. She wanted to run her hands further down his naked body and… She caught herself at the thought and put a stop to it. Those thoughts lead to trouble, and she was already worried she was in over her head, despite what she said to her parents.

Her mind wouldn’t shift. She began to type at the keyboard again but found it impossible to focus. Her supervisor, Marty, had warned her that 17 was entirely unpredictable. But maybe it wasn’t the bad kind of unpredictable. And his face… it was so familiar. Where had she seen it before?

17 had told her that his only crime was pissing off the wrong woman. But she wasn’t sure that she believed that. After all, Marty had told her that every Runner claimed to be innocent, that every single one of them would say that were framed or imprisoned for ridiculous reasons. Most of them, he had told her, were murderers or thieves or rapists. Most of them were the scum of the Lowers. Marty had told her that, even if a few of them were innocent, it didn’t matter, because most of them were guilty as hell. What were a few innocent lives if the scum was off the street; if the city was safer. She wasn’t sure just what to think about that. Safety seemed like a big price to pay if innocent people were having their lives destroyed.

But was there any truth to what 17 had told her?

She felt that warmth again. Alexa found herself wondering, what was 17’s real name? The thought had overtaken her so rapidly, that she hardly recognized she had it. By the time she began searching through her data tablet for the desired records, she had only just become conscious of what she was doing. It almost felt intuitive.

It was quick work to find 17’s listing. He was first on the list of active Runners. Of course he was. The list was in numerical order. She selected his profile and opened up the record. In it, she could see most of 17’s missions and their details. A few were marked with a restricted access symbol, a circle with a red x in the middle, but for the most part, she saw that he had been on hundreds, no thousands of missions. She wasn’t interested in most of the mission by mission details and scrolled downward, looking for what she desired. As Alexa reached the end of 17’s profile, she felt a wave of frustration. There was no name, but there was something else, something that almost took her breath away. At the very bottom of his profile, after the first mission was a ‘years active’ indicator. 17 had been active for one thousand, two hundred, and ninety-four years.

Quickly she thumbed the main menu button and returned to the screen to put in the search query.

“AI?” she asked.

“Yes Miss, how can I help you?” Alexa’s AI now sounded just like her third-grade teacher, Mrs. Feltcher. It hadn’t sounded like that before. Why the change? It occurred to her that she did have a lot of fond memories of Mrs. Feltcher. Had the AI analyzed her history and psychological profiles? It was a thought that she didn’t like, but her curiosity was getting the better of her, so she put it aside.

“AI, can you give me a complete list of current Runners in order of the longest active duty status to shortest?”

“Yes, Miss.”

Almost instantaneously the list appeared on her data tablet screen, and just as she had suspected, 17 was at the very top. The next Runner down had only had an active duty status for 674 years. She gasped and then caught her breath before it ventured too far from her lips.

“AI, are these active duty stats correct?”

“Yes Miss, they are current as of this morning.”

“So that would mean that Runner 17 has almost double the years of active duty of any other Runner?”

“Correct.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m sorry Miss, but I am not fully sure I understand your query.”

“I guess… I mean… why is he still alive?”

“To quote Major John Daniels,” the AI’s voice switched to what was the imitation of a gruff old man’s voice that she assumed belonged to Major Daniels, “That bastard 17 is the toughest, luckiest son of a bitch on this whole worthless rock of a planet.”

The AI system was not without a sense of humor, and she almost burst out laughing. Before she could, however, one question burned. She could feel sweat beading on her brow, it had to be asked, or it might burst forth from her chest. There was that heat again. It was taking her.

“AI…” she paused for a moment, terrified of the answer. She didn’t know or wouldn’t learn for a while why she was so terrified of that question, but it caught in her throat, struggling its way upwards toward her lips.

“What was his initial crime? I mean, why was he sentenced to Running?”

“I am sorry Miss, but that information is restricted.”

“Restricted? To know someone’s crime? That seems odd. Aren’t those records supposed to be public knowledge?”

Alexa had studied both the current and ancient legal systems in scholar school and was certain that this information was supposed to be public record. It was one of the concessions that the first Senate had made when they had originally commissioned the Runnercore because so many people had been worried about transparency once they had abolished lawyers. In fact, after the sentencing of the first Runners, there were riots in the streets. It had not been lost on the people in the lower levels of the city that they would be the primary recruitment grounds for the Runnercore. They had known that those in the upper tiers of the city would rarely, if ever, become Runners.

One city, Sydney, had fallen to the mobs. No one had ever heard from Sydney again it had apparently vanished off the face of the earth.

But here was a man who lived those times. Only two years after migration began, this man had become a Runner. Not only had he been alive during the transition to migration, but it was also likely that he one of the first Runners if not the first Runner. Alexa felt a tinge of disappointment in herself. Here had been a great opportunity to learn about the ancient history of the city, of what life had been like in those early days from an actual living, breathing person. The only other person in the city who had been alive during the transition, from what she had read, was Major John Daniels, the head of security, and it was unlikely she would ever have a chance to ask him questions about ancient history.

“You are correct, Miss, all criminal records are supposed to be available to the public, but Runner 17 is a special case. His records had been marked off limits by an Architect.”

“An Architect? You mean one of the creators of the migration system?”

“Yes, Miss.”

“Which one?”

“I am sorry Miss, but that is also classified information.”

Something about all this was strange. Maybe her unknown task had something to do with Runner 17? She bit her lip.

“AI, can I have access to all the files on 17, including before migration?”

“I’m sorry Miss, but most of those files are restricted.”

She frowned, none of this made sense, why would anyone hide the files of one of the oldest Runners? There just really was no reason to restrict those files. Something in her flickered, that familiar feeling of knowing, but she dismissed it for now. This was neither the time nor the place; she would explore that feeling when she got home. She kept her breathing slow and steady to keep her from going under. Her head had begun to tingle, but it was subsiding.

“Just give me what you can, then.”

“I am transferring the files to your tablet now Miss. Is there anything else you need at this moment?”

“No thank you, AI, that will be all.”

 

At that same moment, on the other side of the city, an alert popped up on a data tablet indicating that someone was attempting to gain access to 17’s files. The eyes watching traced the source of the data inquiry and for a brief moment activated the camera on the tablet accessing the files. The tiny camera on the front of the data tablet snapped a picture and immediately an image of Alexa Turon’s face was captured and transmitted. Facial recognition software identified the face as Alexa Turon, and instantaneously every known file and record on Alexa Turon was accessed and reviewed.

The threat was considered.

For now, at least, there was no threat.

But he would watch this one closely, lest she put many lives at risk.

 

 

3.

Alexa sat down at her desk, utterly unaware of the surveillance. She scrolled through some paperwork, the part of the job she hated most. She marked a few boxes on her tablet and signed her name below, indicating that the inspection of 17 was complete. She submitted the data through the city’s server and after less than a second, the central AI confirmed receiving the packet.

There wasn’t much to inspection. Between the AI, the engineers, the Recycled Runners, and the alcoves, most Runners were ready to go with only the most basic inspection. Her main job was to do all the paperwork, double check vitals and put up a red flag if something psychological was wrong, whatever that meant. Most Runners were at least to some degree unstable. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be Runners. All she was, was a cog in the wheel of the Runnercore, akin to a mechanical arm in the never-ending assembly line that kept the city functioning. Her parents were right about that, and she knew it. The job was a dead end.

She was told from the get-go that most of the time she wouldn’t even see Runners, and it would be an extremely rare occasion to see more than one at a time. In fact, the security advisor who had briefed her on her duties had told that she might only see a Runner once or twice a month. She had asked, what then were her duties in those slow times? She was told that she was to stay vigilant and to do her part. But in the month she had been there, she had encountered not only a dozen or so Runners but now even one of the oldest Runners.

Despite her long battle with boredom and the overwhelming pressure from her family, Alexa knew she was in the right place. The pieces of the puzzle were beginning to take shape, though the picture still wasn’t clear.

“Alert, Runner 494 deployment.”

“Of course.”

Alexa grabbed her electronic tablet and searched for 494’s profile. She walked out of her office and toward the EnViro suit platform. 494 was emerging from the tunnels. He was, unlike 17, clothed from the waist down. Several tattoos of red lines of concentric circles painted around his nipples and cascaded outwards across his chest.

Alexa reviewed the profile as she walked. 494 had a warning label attached to his profile. “Convicted Serial Rapist” it stated. She shivered. There wasn’t any real danger to her since the dozen or so armed security guards would incapacitate 494 if he so much as breathed the wrong way, but she still disliked dealing with individuals like this. It was the thing she had dreaded most about the Runnercore.

Alexa approached with her clipboard, “Vitals are all looking good, 494, how are you feeling?” She tried to hide the quiver in her voice. She didn’t want this one to know that she was afraid, but it was too late.

494 turned and stared at Alexa, his face expressionless but his eyes hungry. He glanced up and down her body, “Fine.” It was a long, drawn-out word, and his lips spattered saliva just a little bit. He licked them to keep the moisture from becoming drool.

She felt his eyes consume her, and every part of her instinct told her to get away from this man. She felt that at any moment he would lunge for her. Her fingers drifted toward the emergency assistance button on her tablet, a button that would call every guard in the dock and potentially activate 494’s shock chip in the base of his neck if the AI felt he was too aggressive or out of line.

Her heart was racing. He kept staring at her. Now he was taking in every detail of her face, and she didn’t like it. She could tell by the way his eyebrows worked in concert with the slight changes in his eyes that he was considering something. Alexa hoped to the gods that he wasn’t considering what he should do to her. She decided to stay out of this one’s mind, it wouldn’t help any to skim him.

Even still, she felt exposed and even a little violated. She moved her feet a little closer together, narrowing the space between her legs. Her thumb moved to a hair’s breadth above the emergency button. One sudden movement and she would press it.

“Um… Your EnViro suit… It’s in station 12,” she said, forcing the words out.

She thought he was about to say something, but instead, 494 turned without further interaction and began walking toward the platform where his suit waited. She let out all of her breath, so hard in fact, that she worried he would turn and look back. But he didn’t.

Then she lost control of herself, and Alexa felt 494’s mind overwhelm her with images of violence, anger, and lust. She felt nauseous, dizzy, and had to stop herself from fainting. 494 was truly a terrible human being. She was glad to see him leaving.

Some of the Runners she had encountered so far had definitely deserved to be there but 494… he was exceptional. Sure, most of the Runners were slimy and could even be malicious at times, but 494’s mind was the very definition of insane. She hoped that the Barrens consumed him, that he disappeared in the winds forever.

Her mind returned to 17 as she watched 494 walked toward the lift that led out into the Barrens. What had 17 done to deserve his tenure? Were all Runners true criminals, or were some in the wrong place at the wrong time? She would have to do some more reading up on it. It’s not like she had much else to do while waiting for Runner deployments, and if her boss asked her, she could simply say she was learning about each Runner for her own protection. He would probably approve of that; it would probably fit into his narrow definition of “being vigilant.”

Cover Art for Upon Stilted Cities: Winds of Change

Special thanks for the remarkable work of Gabriel Perez an amazing Sci-Fi artist! The cover art of Upon Stilted Cities: The Winds of Change is here! Some sample Chapters are below, but remember they contain spoilers for Mimi of the Nowhere (which you can get here) so be warned.

Blurb: 

Forty Years after the events of Mimi of the Nowhere the city of Manhasten is in danger. It just doesn’t know it yet. An organization known as the Children of Gaia has returned from the ancient past and destroyed the city of Langeles. Resurrected and more powerful than ever, their leader is hell-bent on destroying every single remaining city that roams the earth. At the center of it all, is one man, a man as ancient as the city of Manhasten itself, a man designated, Runner 17.

Final Cover!!!!

Sample Chapters 

Prologue and Chapter 1 Here (No Spoilers there to worry about)

Chapter 2: A Return to Nowhere (Spoilers Here)