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Story Excerpts

The Way of Attrition: Chapter Three

Happy New Year!

Today I’m posting Chapter 3 of my novel. Here are Chapters 1 and 2.

I’m continuing to have issues getting my chapters to load well in the blog so please let me know if you notice any issues.

 

Chapter 3

I’m awake by 0600. Rolling onto my stomach, I pull a tablet out of the top drawer of my right nightstand. Powering it up, I log on to the Filument, a vast network of computers connected by Lyril technology. All Chosen computers and mobile devices have seamless Filument and Internet access.

<Access news,> I instruct. A list of recent unread items maximizes under the heading Chosen News. The top one is a reminder about the semi-annual artponere, asking everyone who is participating to contact the organizer. This event brings Chosen from all over the world to the San Francisco Shelter for an exhibition of paintings, drawings, sculpture, and an evening of music, theater shorts, and various artistic endeavors.

<Send artponere reminder to Carson.> A list of Carsons appear under the heading, ‘Did you mean…’ None are Carson Wilde. An account must not have been set up for him. Knowing Davonte to be an early riser, I contact her. She agrees to my request, as expected. I’m out and back before Carson emerges from his room at 0702. He’s shaved. A simple change that does worlds to distance him from the Chair I found him in.

<Here,> I say, handing Carson a telamp. It’s a newer model than mine, slightly smaller and lighter.

Carson picks it up, runs his fingers around the rounded edges, turns it over in his hands. <Thanks. What’s the number?>

<We can program it to be any number the humans aren’t using, but its primary purpose isn’t to be a cell phone. It’s a telamp – a telepathic amplifying device. It has a built in cell phone, so you can use it as a regular phone too. In that case, you have a couple options. One is to go over their cell towers, using their technology. The other scrambles your call over the Filument, making it untraceable to humans.>

<How does the telepathic amplifier part work?>

I pause, collecting my surprise like an unwanted visitor. <You just give it your telepathic Imprint. It’ll pair to you so other telepaths can’t use it without your permission, except in an emergency. It will respond to your telepathic commands, such as ‘Call Eyan,’ and extend the range of your telepathy.>

<I don’t need to program you in?>

<No. It will access the Filument to see who you are frequently in contact with or in the proximity of. You’re registered as staying in my house so it will know you mean me. Even if you weren’t staying here, but spent any time on my computer terminals, it would know you meant me. If there’s ever confusion, it will ask for a last name. If that doesn’t clear it up, you would provide additional details.>

<That’s impressive.>

<Filumentary, my dear Watson.>

Carson chuckles and half cringes at the same time. <That was awful.>

<I know. I’m sorry.>

<What’s the range?>

<Anyone on Earth.>

<But…> He appears to flounder for words, finally settling on the simple, <How?>

<There’s at least one telepathic amplifying tower in each Shelter. The range of a tower isn’t spatial, it’s in the number of connections. Even if every Chosen were communicating via telamp at the same time, it would work. On Lyril, though, there were telepathic amplifying towers everywhere because literally everyone on the planet was a telepath.>

<Does it ring or…?>

<You can program it to make a sound or vibrate, like a cell phone, or to send you a telepathic…ping. It’s hard to describe. Like a brief, subtle pulse.>

<Thank you,> he pockets it. <How much do I owe you?>

I wave his question aside. <Don’t worry about it. You’re not going to be able to access any of your bank accounts until things blow over anyway. Let me show you how to check your FiluMessages – Filument correspondence. They’re like emails.>

I spend the next hour or so guiding Carson to the various computer terminals around the house, explaining how to navigate the Filument, and how to access his FiluMessages. There’s just the one from me, of course. He’s a quick study.

We’re in the kitchen when breakfast is delivered. Fresh vegetables, eggs over easy, and an orange shake. We eat in more silence than is typical, even for Chosen, with Carson entertained in his own thoughts and me reading the San Calloway Times on the table’s touchscreen display. There’s a discovery that top researchers hope could lead humans to a cure for AIDS. I peruse the information provided until one of the articles listed on the right, under ‘You might also like,’ catches my eye. ‘Trans Couple Ambushed and Beaten After School Dance.’

Disgust clenches my hands and hardens in the base of my throat.

<What’s wrong?> Carson inquires, question reaching me amidst a sea of concern. Are the remnants of allucinari cracking his control or is it his telepathic strength?

Brushing curiosity aside for now, I read the headline to him. <They’re so violent and hateful. You and Davonte would have me give them time. How much time? There’s still racism and homophobia, sexism… Shelters are wonderful but we deserve to be able to go to work and be honest about who we are without fearing we’ll be ‘ambushed’ like this trans couple. Do you know I’ve been paying rent on an apartment downtown to make it harder for the DOH to track down my real home? The ridiculous mall scheme was because we’re scared about what might happen if they find Headquarters. They bring in humans for interrogation when they’re suspected of aiding ‘Abductees.’ The drug doesn’t work on them but they torture them just the same and->

The clatter of Carson’s fork hitting his plate stops me. He’s gone ashen, his eyes are wide.

<What’s wrong?> it’s my turn to ask, tone more demanding than intended.

<My parents!> he exclaims, and this time there are no pictures of pristine beauty, no glorious sun or mountain peak. There’s stark terror, rats eating at decaying corpses, the stink of rotting flesh.

I choke and cough, trying to clear the vileness with deep, steadying breaths.

Carson swears. “Fuck. I haven’t had trouble like this since I was a kid.” But he doesn’t dwell on it, immediately continuing. “They’ll find and arrest my parents.”

I’m horrified. <Your amari are alive?>

“Why would you assume they aren’t?”

Great question; I don’t know. Shenti. If I’d realized I would have had Davonte assign a team to bring them to safety. <And there’s a direct link between you?>

“We have the same last name. They’re listed as emergency contacts for me at both my jobs.”

<Where do they live?>

“Norebrooke and Edward.”

<In San Calloway?>

He nods.

<We need to see Davonte now.>

Davonte is the Council’s CIC advisor. The Chosen Intelligence Corps isn’t really a corps at all – it’s a handful of operatives working secretly among humans as spies and another handful kept available for short term missions and assignments. Davonte coordinates our activities with the Council. She also has significant influence with the Security Commission; she was able to get Carson cleared for Filument access within fifteen minutes of my request.

In spite of her title and lack of field experience, I’ve always appreciated Davonte as a woman of action. She doesn’t ask unnecessary questions; she doesn’t delay. She gets exactly the information she needs and immediately sends people to the Wildes’ home. Carson wants to go with them but Davonte is resolute. Neither of us can be seen outside a Shelter while our photos are plastered over the media. She’ll keep us informed.

Carson and I leave Davonte in her office to return to my house. On the way back I tell him a little about the community, point out the library, school, and greenhouse, but he doesn’t comment or seem to register my words. Even the spiraling telepathic amplifying tower, with silver and green strands of venzanite cable merging functionality and art in a tight coiled braid, receives no notice, so I stop.

I’m not hopeful. Having performed a background check immediately upon their capture of Carson, the DOH will have arrested his parents quickly, the day of our escape at the latest. They’ll have changed their security procedures too, limiting the usefulness of my knowledge to the layout and the personalities of the soldiers. There’s also the possibility of his parents being transferred to another, uncompromised, facility. My intel on those is rudimentary at best.

Carson’s expression is grim with his own understanding of the situation; he disappears into his room. The morning passes in awkward, meaningless activity. I busy myself reading the Shelter’s newspaper, accessible only by Filument, catching up on what I missed while trapped at the DOH. A lot has happened but I process it distantly, in the detached way of someone learning about faraway events that have no personal impact.

Carson emerges to join me on the couch with a book. One of the house’s three bedrooms functions as a study, containing a writing desk and five overflowing bookcases. I’m glad he’s not one of those guests who asks for permission to do every small thing. He’s picked a volume of Lyril fairytales and children’s stories, ‘The Hops in the Road.’ I wonder if his parents read to him from that collection when he was growing up, wonder if he’s actually reading it now. Fifteen minutes of glances is enough to confirm he’s not focused. He’s turned pages twice and no one reads that slowly. As if aware of my curiosity, he snaps the book shut, sets it on the coffee table in front of the couch, and walks out of the room. I hear a door shut, his bedroom or the bathroom, I can’t tell which.

At 1227 Davonte arrives with news. The Wildes’ house has been sectioned off with yellow caution tape as if it were a crime scene and neighbors saw the couple taken away by men in dark blue uniforms the morning before yesterday. The day we escaped.

The day we escaped.

I shiver, goosebumps standing my arm hair on end. The DOH arrest that precipitated my rescue of Carson was of his amari. I didn’t stop for any information. I just got Carson and ran. Could it have been different if I’d known? Could I have rescued all three of them? No. No. Maybe. Probably not, but maybe. Fuck.

<We have to get them out of there!> Carson recaptures my attention with this urgent exclamation.

Davonte looks at me; I avoid her eyes. I don’t want Carson to see us exchanging glances, to feel like he’s apart. <That’s why I’m here,> she assures him. <We’re putting together a team to go in as soon as possible. Neither of you will go with them.> The last is offered flatly – a command, not a suggestion. <But we want you to come down once they’re assembled. Eyan, you know the base’s layout better than anyone. Carson, they’ll need information about your amari. Be in the assembly hall in 15 minutes.>

Davonte doesn’t stay to visit but she does take the wine I promised yesterday. I appreciate her keeping Carson involved. The team will operate effectively with pictures of his amari and their names. It’s nothing they don’t already have but this way Carson can concentrate on something other than worry.

Davonte deploys five specialists following an efficient briefing. Three are Level 8 telepaths. They will be able to pick up thoughts and verbal communication throughout the base. Two are skilled at computer system control. All are trained in combat. The plan is to use a Resonanced vehicle to approach the base. The team will remain at the perimeter of the facility while the telepathy specialists gather intel, hopefully enough to determine whether his amari are still there. If they are, the team will pose as visiting high ranking officers from the Pentagon – a disguise aided by official uniforms, flawless IDs, and, most critically, telepathic manipulation.

<Write down your clothing and shoe sizes and color preferences. Alyx, my thyrafai, is going out to run some errands and will be happy to pick up things for you.> Davonte hands Carson her telamp.

<Oh, thank you. That’s very kind.>

Carson taps on the screen in various places, squinting slightly.

<Dictate telepathically,> I explain. <If you really want a keyboard, just ask for one telepathically and it will appear.>

<Oh. Thanks.>

I take advantage of his distraction to ask Davonte to deduct the necessary funds from my account. Carson and I are left to wander back to the house for the second time today. Carson’s not in the frame of mind for a tour and I’m content to enjoy my home after being so long away from it. Or, at least, to try, self-interrupted by variations of variations, by ways I might have rescued Carson and his amari if I’d only stayed to learn who the DOH was bringing in.

It’s mid afternoon when Carson approaches and initiates conversation. <I read your public profile on the Filument. You were a double agent for years, bringing back valuable information on the DOH.>

<That’s right.>

<And now you can’t go back.>

I wait for him to continue.

<Does the DOH arrest a lot of people on the suspicion of being Chosen?>

<They call us Abductees. And yeah. All the time. Used to be they’d actually get some of us, before I stole the drug and we developed the vaccine. For awhile all of the prisoners were human. Until you.>

<Did you rescue any of the others?>

No. Not even his amari. I meet his gaze and wish the truth were a different shade of reality, or maybe that reality were closer to the picture in my mind of how things should be. I intend to shake my head so I don’t have to say it but it’s like the command never reaches my brain. <No. In the beginning, even when they had Chosen, it was too important for me to keep my position. Sometimes I was able to leak information that Davonte used in rescue missions but usually… We didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything.>

He looks out the living room window at…what? The perfectly manicured lawn, the street and house across from it? <Why did you with me?>

How can I explain the way his screams drew me in? What phrasing makes that sound acceptable? <I heard you screaming. I thought you were just another human… I was surprised when I realized they had one of us. Your panic and pain were bleeding out. I… I don’t know how to describe it. I just couldn’t leave you, knowing how bad it was.> I will not tell him about his amari, will not give him cause to go through the same permutations I’ve turned over today.

<Just another human…> he repeats softly. <If I were you would have left me there to die.>

Not a question, and his sadness tastes of disillusionment. We’re so different, he and I. <Yes,> I answer anyway, <but if you were, you wouldn’t be you.> I can’t imagine this man separate from his telepathy, existing without the imagery and beauty I’ve glimpsed.

He frowns. <Don’t say that.>

Why not? But that doesn’t seem like the question to ask and before I can formulate the right one he follows with a non sequitur. <Do you play chess?>

I blink, because this doesn’t come alone. I’m left trying to make sense of the empty hospital bed I see, the one that corresponds to nothing in my memory. Before I can dwell on it, it’s snatched away.

Carson shifts abruptly and I expect he’s about to apologize. I cut his unnecessary contrition off. <Yes, I have a set. Do you want to play now?>

<Actually, I thought we might play telepathically.>

I hesitate; I’m not a strong telepath.

<It’s a fantastic way to build up strength! I can maintain the chess board, share the image with you. You’d move your pieces by manipulating the image.>

<Okay.> He’s too eager to refuse.

At first I sit on one end of the couch, he sits on the other. We discover his telepathy is not back to normal yet when I’m presented with a chess board that flickers like someone’s flipping a light on and off in an otherwise dark room. We rearrange ourselves so he can touch my wrist lightly; this solves the problem. His imagery is amazing. A board with interspaced squares of flaxen and rich auburn, the darker spaces a swirled blend of shades. The pieces are reflected on the smooth surface, ornately detailed, each one with its own personality. The queens are regal, the kings amusingly dopey, the knights proud. His set is golden, mine alabaster. I could admire this forever.

He opens with a pawn. Moving my chessmen is simple but requires a lot of concentration. At first my pieces pop out of existence mid move, disappearing from one square to appear in another. Over the course of the game I learn to keep them visible the entire time, so they slide smoothly across empty stretches, or sail cleanly through the air over pieces in the way. It’s a fascinating experience.

I’m not surprised when he checkmates my king and the board fades to black. Half my mind was enamored with the novelty of playing this way and my strategy was scattered. I am shocked to find the game lasted four hours. I’m ravenous, exhausted, and would have guessed a match of only 30 minutes.

<It’ll go faster once you’re used to playing this way,> he offers encouragingly.

Does that mean he was waiting for me to move for long stretches at a time? <How are you even conscious? I’m beat just from moving my pieces. I can’t imagine maintaining the whole game, and so much detail!>

He draws a deep breath. <I’ve had a lot of practice. When I first started I could only hold a very simple board in mind for about two minutes.> He flicks the back of his neck with his right hand.

I wonder if he’s still wearing that black device, and what it is. <How old were you?>

<Four.>

I whistle. Our standard telepathy lessons seem mild in comparison. It must be similar to what high level telepaths are taught in the advanced classes I was not skilled enough to take.

<My parents say we’re unusually gifted at telepathy, and that I’m talented with images.>

<Yeah, I’ve noticed,> I comment dryly, looking around.

There are large plastic bags on the chair across from us. Opening one, I find clothes. Alyx must have delivered them while we were playing. The two of us made an intriguing image, I’m sure. <This is for you,> I hand the bags over.

Carson excuses himself with the bags, returning empty handed in grey jeans and a green t-shirt. Lunch waits for us in the kitchen, the roasted vegetable lasagna no less tasty for it being almost dinner time.

Halfway through the meal, Carson sets down his utensils and rubs at his temples. <Headache,> he comments when he notices my attention.

<Want anything for it?>

<No, thanks,> he picks up his knife and fork to continue eating.

<Do you know how the DOH found out about you?> I ask over empty sauce-stained plates.

<Yes. My girlfriend turned me in. Well, that’s not quite right, it’s not like she knew about the DOH to go to them. But she obviously told someone. I lost control one night, levitated the bed while we were having sex. We’d been seeing each other for two years so I told her the truth. She said all the right things and I thought it was going to be okay. A few hours after she left I was arrested.>

<You dated one of them?>

He frowns. <They are just as human as we are.>

<The problem is they’re too human. Close minded and scared.>

<They’re not all like that.>

<Enough of them are. Have you read their history? Do you know what they’ve done to each other?>

<Yes, but it’s getting better. The younger generations are more open minded.>

<They’re open minded now about issues that never should have been issues. Gay rights, women’s rights, equality for blacks and other minorities… All of these things are a given to rational people who aren’t blinded by fear and brainwashed by faith. And they don’t take what they’ve learned and apply it to the next issue. We could be the next minority group struggling for equal rights, if we let ourselves. They won’t remember what black and gay people went through. They won’t leave us in peace because of the struggles of others. We’d have to start from the beginning. Assuming it’s worth it.>

<Their society as a whole has problems. That doesn’t mean we can condemn them all. There are a lot of really good people.>

<Like your girlfriend?> Fuck. Shenti. That was uncalled for, cruel. He probably loved this woman and she betrayed him. The kindest thing is not to make him remember it, not to make him feel worse. That’s what a friend would do. <I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking.>

<It’s okay.> His expression is somber but his tone genuine. <I was wrong about her.>

In a less abrasive manner I continue our debate. <The rest of them aren’t any different. When we made contact with the U.S. government they didn’t welcome us. They made the DOH to capture, neutralize, and torture us even though we never threatened them.>

<The government is corrupt and run by power hungry fools. We need to reveal ourselves publicly. Come out, as it were, so everyday people know who we are.>

<Then it won’t just be the government after us. It’ll be everyday people.>

<I’m not saying it won’t be hard,> he concedes, <or that it won’t take time and work. They’ll accept us eventually.>

If by ‘eventually’ he means ‘in a couple hundred years.’ It’s a ridiculous proposition and I’m losing the frayed patience that had me spying on the DOH instead of acting. <Why bother?>

Carson’s brow furrows in bemusement. <So we can have a home here.>

<We can have a home here, one they don’t control.>

<How? By spending our lives in hiding?>

<No. By establishing our power, by making ourselves the world power. A country of our own. It’s what our parents should have done instead of building Shelters.

<That’s not going to take any less time than a civil rights movement.> He doesn’t sound angry and I’m not upset either. Aside from my inappropriate jibe about his girlfriend, all of this has been said very calmly, with conviction but without ire. A conversation, not an argument.

We subside. Neither one of us is going to convince the other.

He rubs a hand over his forehead.

<How’s your headache?>

<About the same.>

<Let me know it you change your mind about a painkiller.>

<I will, thanks.>

::

I’m alone in the living room when there’s a tickle in my thoughts, a noc. The polite way of letting someone close by but out of eye sight know you want to speak. From the word ‘knock’, as in knocking instead of barging into a person’s home. I follow the sensation, pull on it in acknowledgment. Carson’s in his room; he probably need’s something.

<Eyan. It’s Davonte.>

I’m surprised. She must be out front. Why didn’t she just ring the doorbell or actually knock?

<Walk with me outside,> she requests.

Getting up, I open the door to see her standing on the sidewalk beyond my driveway, as unobtrusive as a misplaced wall. I join her. <What’s with the slinking around?>

<It’s not good. Carson’s amarim is dead. The official DOH report is sparse but our team is guessing an extreme reaction to allucinari or overzealous torture. The amarid’s been transferred but we don’t know where. They used a code name we couldn’t trace and they’ve substantially updated their intelligence procedures because of your breaching their security. Looks like almost everything is being handled on paper only, if not just verbally. We’ll do what we can but we have no intel on where he might be. It’s going to take time.>

<Why are you telling me this out here?>

<You know Carson better than I do. I’ll break the news if you think that’s best but I wanted to check first.>

I sigh heavily. Carson is somewhere between stranger and friend; I feel responsible for him. Perhaps more than I should. Could I have gotten his amari out? <I’ll tell him.>

I’m not sure how to say it or where to look when I do. I walk into his room to find him lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling. I don’t wait for him to look at me and don’t preface it, don’t give him any kind of warning that there’s bad news to come. Instead, I say quietly, seriously, “Your amarim is dead. We don’t know where your amarid is. The DOH moved him to another facility but we couldn’t find out where. They’ll let us know if…or when…they have more information. I’m sorry.” It’s not until I’m done that I realize I was speaking out loud and how unusual that is.

Carson pushes away from the mattress, swings his legs over the side of the bed. I meet his gaze. It’s the least I can do and it’s so little. His expression is blank. He opens his mouth but when he speaks the voice is in my mind and what I see is a day without sun, a night without moon or stars, somehow both at once. <Tell me what happened.>

I do. All of what Davonte explained though it’s not enough, not at all.

<You worked for them. What hope is there of finding my dad?>

I blink against overpowering, conflicting images, the penetrating darkness, the bleak, bleak day, though it’s as useless as protecting your ears by closing your eyes. There’s no hope at all, not of finding him alive. But Davonte disagrees. We disagree about a lot of things. Sometimes she’s right, sometimes I am, and in most cases we don’t know, the truth held hostage by the future. What do I give Carson now? My pragmatic view or something less severe?

Honesty, as unhelpful as it may be. <I don’t know. We’re not often captured anymore. Some escape. Some are rescued. Some killed. Some we never know for sure.>

<Thank you for telling me. I would like to be alone now.> He gives me empty desolation, the skies with nothing in them.

<Of course. Let me know if I can do anything.> I consider offering the standard ‘My sadness is yours,’ but though it’s true it feels less so for being common. Instead I go, relieved to shut his door behind me, to dissipate the nothingness with normalcy.

::

I don’t see him for the rest of the day. I save his food, leaving the preservation plates in the oven and a note on the fridge. In the morning his door is open and the plates are stacked in the sink. I probe but he’s not here.

Should I look for him? I never gave him that tour. He doesn’t know where many things are. But he’s a grown man. The borders of the Shelter are clear. He couldn’t wander out unknowingly. Leave intentionally, yes, and now he knows where we are. But I trust him not to betray us and doubt he’s left.

Breakfast is delivered with a reminder that I’m scheduled for food duty tomorrow, Tuesday. Tuesday has been my day since graduating college and now Carson’s been added to that shift as well.

I eat alone, attempting to follow the meal with green tea that I clumsily spill when I set the mug down with too much force. A couple paper towels serve to blot up the steaming liquid. Careful not to burn myself, I throw them away in the trashcan beneath the sink, pausing as I notice the shards of a mug Carson must have broken. Looks like we were both a little careless today, though of course he has reason to be distracted.

Carson doesn’t return before I go to bed. I tell myself it’s all right, I’m not worried, he’s fine. I tell myself this at 2100, then again at 0000 when I’m still awake, and at 0130 just before I drift into restless sleep.

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