Read Chapter 2 of Battle for Langeles

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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.

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.”

Mimi of the Nowhere Chapter 3: Orphan’s Alley

Chapter 3 of Mimi of the Nowhere is now up!

You can find Chapter 1 here 
And Chapter 2 Here 

A brief synopsis of the book:

First Sketch of Mimi

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.

The sketch of the main character, Mimi, is by the very talented Kayla Rose who recently agreed to do the cover art. Check her amazing work at the link.

Mimi of the Nowhere launches on 5/17/18

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Chapter 3

Orphan’s Alley

Mimi surfaced and walked the street until she reached the entry to Orphan’s Alley. Passing through the mob of homeless, she took inventory of those she recognized and the ones she didn’t. They were islands, shackled and disheveled. Some clung to their cart full of possessions, others to the rags that draped their bodies and little else. For most of them, there was little to cling to, and so they clung tight.

Here, the homeless had no fear of the cold winter nights when they may meet endless sleep. They had no hesitation in the heat of the summer sun, needing to seek shade and water to survive the onslaught. They would not starve. They would not die of disease. The alcoves ended disease centuries ago. But some would be beaten; some would be recruited into the Runnercore. Some would be exploited in other ways, especially the women. All were disposable, like so much cast away paper, waiting for a time when their purpose, like so much else in the city, was recycled.

The city had various spaces where the homeless clustered, where they pressed their tired bodies up against ancient brick and mortar. There were only a few places that city security allowed them to live and so there was a limitation to where they could lay their tired heads. This one was called Orphan’s Alley. A name that the residents themselves had given it hundreds of years prior. Probably none here were alive to see the naming, but names, like ideas, can be passed on through the generations, and there wasn’t much else for the homeless of the city to pass on. Names were their empty legacy.

A single food dispenser had been installed at the end of Orphan’s Alley. It provided only the basics, a green algae nutrient-rich soup, once a day. It was enough to keep a person alive, but only just. If you could figure out a way to earn some credits you could get more, but panhandling was strictly forbidden in Manhatsten and so those who the city had cast aside, who it had made orphans, were left with only illegal means. After all, no one would hire you in the city if you did not have a place of residence somewhere. And illegal means usually meant that eventually you were caught and recruited.

Orphan’s Alley, a prime recruitment ground.

Mimi found who she was looking for. A man, standing slouched against a corner, thin brown rags covering his body in multicolored clumps held together by safety pins, staples, and in a few places, stitches. He was a tall man with short, dark, greasy hair, chopped off in places with a blade. Facial hair crowded the edges of the scars but did not dare cross it.

His voice was soft and deep. It was a welcoming tone like a snake’s slither. “Mimi, good to see you, you know I was just telling the boys you’d be back any day now.”

The redness was still there, just under the surface, and Mimi felt it threatening to break free. What part of her had she opened? It was a terrible, empty feeling. It was hungry, and she didn’t like it. It almost seemed to be whispering to her, telling her to release it.

Her eyes locked on the dealer. Mimi shrugged. “What else have I got to do to kill the time, Andrew?”

“Hmmm. True enough,” a ragged grin spread across his face, revealing several missing teeth. “Do you have credits? Or are you finally going to make some other arrangements?”

“I have credits.”

Andrew frowned, “You know, I am sure that if you would like to pay some other way than credits, we could arrange a more physical kind of payment.”

“No thanks.” She couldn’t help but skim his mind. She saw what she didn’t want to see. In his mind he was undressing her, peeling back the layers of her ragged clothes, unwrapping her like a little boy’s present.

Mimi felt her face flush. The redness rose in her. It spiraled upward. She could almost hear it beckoning her to unleash it on him. It was hungry for him, in the same way Andrew was hungry for her body.

She shook her head. “No.”

“Hmmm? What was that, Mimi? Let’s make a deal, one night with me for several months’ supply of Likatol.”

“No, Andrew.” She took a step back from him. The redness had died down now, but her normal anger was brewing and she didn’t want any more trouble today. Her heart was aching for her argument with Shannon, and she wasn’t sure if she could fix it.

“Tell you what, one night and I’ll give you a full year’s supply. Come on now, that’s more than generous, and I certainly won’t need an entire night, perhaps just a few hours.”

Why was he so insistent? Normally, Andrew knew how to take no for an answer. Mimi risked skimming his mind again for another moment and saw something she had never seen before. Something was pressing on him, putting pressure on him. It was almost like someone was encouraging him, egging him on.

What was happening lately? For so long, she thought she knew the rules, thought that she had everything about her abilities figured out, but first there was that strange silence by her favorite fishing hole, then the redness, and now this? It was almost too much. It was like someone, or something was changing all the rules, and she couldn’t act fast enough to figure out what they were.

Mimi shook her head. “No, Andrew.” She paused for a moment when his face twitched. Fear traced her spine, a cold finger. She could feel him growing impatient. But this was not the impatience of a man, rather of a stray dog hungry for meat.

She thought about walking away but then her anger released. She wasn’t going to be bullied by some low-life dealer. She wasn’t going to put up with any of his shit and she was going to make that clear.

She moved up closely to Andrew, leaning in almost as if she was going to kiss him. He leaned in close and then at the last moment, she dug her elbow right into his neck, pressing it into his windpipe. He choked and tried to step back but she had him pinned against the wall. His hands reached up to grasp for her arm but as he did, she pressed harder. His eyes bulged as his skin purpled and she felt satisfaction as she skimmed his mind and found terror.

“Do you really think that I would ever let you put your filthy hands on me, dealer? Do I look like some kind of whore to you?”

He was barely able to draw breath, but he still managed a guttural, gasping, “No.”

“Bet you thought I was just some weak little thing, didn’t you? You asshole, I’ve been on the streets longer than you’ve been alive, and if I even feel your eyes undressing me again, I’ll fucking pluck them out and feed them to you.”

Mimi thought that despite the dark shade of his face, he paled a bit at that statement, and a quick skim confirmed that not only did he believe her, but that he was thinking, “This bitch is crazy.”

“Yes Andrew, I am crazy, and I’m not afraid to maim your ass.”

His eyes were beginning to close. She skimmed his mind to wait ‘til just before he lost consciousness. She didn’t want him to pass out; something might be lost in the experience if he did. She wanted him to remember this day for a good, long while. It wasn’t the first time she had to put the hurt on a man like this, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Her best defense was a reputation and she had to maintain that. Long experience had given her every tool she needed to intimidate even the stronger men.

She pulled back her elbow and he fell forward, taking deep and wide breaths. On all fours, saliva dripped from his mouth as he coughed and sputtered.

Mimi said, “Act like a dog, get treated like one.”

There was a moment when his mind was blank, when she was sure he wasn’t going to say anything. It passed. At first, he seemed to be having trouble making words, as if he had forgotten language. Then he said, “Forget it, bitch.” He wheezed and coughed. “I’m done selling to you.”

Mimi shrugged, “Fine by me. I’ll take my business elsewhere. You’re not the only one ‘round here to sell Likatol, asshole. You’re just the dumbest and cheapest.”

In truth, Mimi hated to have to go looking for another reliable source of Likatol, but she was also tired of Andrew. In the old days, she might have done more than just choke him a little, she might have made sure he remembered the lesson for years to come. But lately, she was getting tired.

“Get the hell away from me, you bitch. I don’t ever want to see your face again.”

She headed back through the crowd and out of Orphan’s Alley. She only had a few days of supply left, so she would have to find someone else soon. She thought she might try one of the other city districts–she preferred staying around District 17 since it was so close to her hovel–but last time she checked, Districts 8 and 13 usually had a steady supply of Likatol.

She walked out past the threshold of the homeless territory, her mind at work on the problem at hand. She had, for the moment, forgotten about Shannon, knowing that the headaches would come soon, that the voices would grow so strong, that tears would come.

She rounded a corner and bumped into someone. The collision caught her by surprise, but a steady hand reached out and grabbed her and kept her from falling. It was Shannon.

Mimi froze. Here was another secret she was going to have to explain, and judging by the look on Shannon’s face, she probably had no idea why she could possibly want drugs. And to explain why she needed them, she would have to explain a whole hell of a lot more than her age.

“So, you’re a drug addict?” The wrinkles on her forehead creased. Her short blond hair never hid those wrinkles very well.

“No, I’m not.”

“So what were you doing talking to Andrew?”

Mimi breathed a heavy sigh. What could she say? That she needed small doses of Likatol to keep the entire city out of her head? That she would get terrible migraines without them because she could read people’s minds? Doubtful Shannon would believe her.

“Shannon, maybe it’s best if we don’t see each other anymore.”

Shannon’s face changed, from anger and frustration to shock and hurt.

“What? Wait, I don’t understand. I…”

“I like my privacy, Shannon. I understand you want to share your life with me, but there are certain things I am not sure I can share, not now anyway. I’m not a drug addict, in fact, what I need is Likatol, but I don’t think you would believe me if I told you why I need it.”

Strictly speaking, Likatol wasn’t a drug, it was a pill that someone could take before going on a drug binge. It would keep the user from losing all control and from becoming addicted, but it wouldn’t block the high. Likatol was a kind of drug buffer.

“Try me.” There was a note of desperation in her voice. “Please, Mimi, you said you loved me…”

Mimi shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. Anyone I have ever told has gotten hurt. It’s best if you stay away from me.”

Mimi began walking down the city streets. Shannon followed close behind. At first, she kept trying to stop Mimi, to get her to talk to her, but after a while, she just followed in silence. Mimi blocked her out, refused even to skim her. It was better this way. She would give up soon enough, she would go on with her life. Besides, it was better than Shannon leaving her, as some of them did.

After more than twenty blocks, Mimi began to hear sobs and sniffling directly behind her. She tried to ignore it, to let Shannon cry, but after a few more blocks she couldn’t take it. She loved her. There was something special about Shannon, something soft and warm. She made Mimi feel safe and warm and special. Shannon really cared about her. It was like, with Shannon, all the wounds from her life on the street didn’t ache so much.

She opened herself to Shannon’s mind. She dipped into it and there was comfort there. Comfort in knowing that this woman, more than anything, just wanted to feel Mimi in her arms, wanted to embrace her and never let her go. There was something powerful in knowing someone else’s thoughts, especially when those thoughts were of love and longing. People said a lot of shit, and their minds so often cast a shadow over the true meaning. But here, here was a woman who truly loved her and knew it.

Mimi could not stand against it. When love comes like that, all you can do is surrender, to lay down your arms and submit to the will of those who would love you. For in denying it, you face only regret. Mimi had been waiting for this a long time, she just hadn’t known it.

She stopped. As she turned, she realized that she too had been crying. She looked directly at Shannon, whose streams of tears had eroded the soot in streaks on her narrow face. Mimi reached up and touched her own face, running her finger along her cheeks, her tears had cleansed those parts they had touched.

Shannon stopped and looked at her. She took one step closer and hesitated. Mimi felt Shannon’s question press against her. All Shannon wanted was to hold her. Mimi moved closer to her, pulled her close and kissed her. Both minds blanked to the warmth of the embrace. Mimi could taste the salt from her tears on her lips. Then she pulled away slightly and hugged her hard.

“I’m so sorry, Shannon. I love you… I… Let’s go back to my place and I’ll tell you whatever you want.”

Shannon didn’t say anything, but skimming her mind told Mimi of the overwhelming relief she was feeling. Shannon’s smile was enough. The tears couldn’t darken it.
Perhaps it was time to take a chance. Perhaps this time would be for keeps. Maybe that was Mimi’s purpose, to love as deeply as she could.

A small voice pushed up in the back of Mimi’s mind. “This one won’t last long. It will be even shorter than Daniel. You will watch her suffer. It’s what happens every time someone gets close to you. Free her now or you will bring her nothing but misery.”

The voice almost sounded real, almost sounded external. Mimi felt a bit of a headache and took a few deep breaths.

She looked at Shannon again. She drank in her beautiful eyes and face and raised her right hand up to wipe away her tears. Her heart longed to be with her, to hold her close and feel her touch. She pulled Shannon in close and kissed her again, feeling the warmth of her body pressed against hers, the softness of her lips making her body tremble with joy.

She pulled away, grabbed Shannon’s hand and together, they walked home.