If you’ve read my posts and enjoy my work and haven’t checked out my book series, The Chronicles of the Great Migration, now is your chance to get the first 3 books in the series totally free until Friday March 25th. My books are leaving KU permanently and to celebrate, I thought I would run a free promotion for the series.
Mimi of the Nowhere, Upon Stilted Cities: The Winds of Change, and Upon Stilted Cities: The Battle for Langeles are totally free until this coming Friday.
Feel free to share the link to as many people as you like. And, if you do read the books, all I ask is you leave a honest review.
Join us as we go live on March 18th with Anthropologist David Price as he talks about his war investigating how Anthropology has been used in War, Intelligence, and Surveillance. If you can’t join us live, you can also watch the reply at the same link.
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
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.
It is a far-off noise, but a potent one. Something urgent, some knowledge of what that noise is stirring in him.
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.
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?
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.
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.
I 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!
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.
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.