The Way of Attrition concept image
Story Excerpts

The Way of Attrition: Chapter Four

Today I’m posting Chapter 4 of my novel. Other chapters are here:
Chapter 1  
Chapter 2
Chapter 3


Chapter 4

My alarm rouses me at 0530 for food duty. Rolling out of bed, I mentally probe the household and am relieved to discover Carson, his essence a rippling pool that is at once refreshing and tinged with grief.

<Eyan?> he questions, fatigue etched into the two syllables of my name.

<Sorry,> I apologize, <I should have noced. I wanted to make sure you were back. Didn’t mean to bug you.>

<No, it’s okay. I didn’t mean to worry you.>

<We have food duty today,> I inform him hesitantly. <We’re supposed to be in the kitchens at 0630.>

A pause.

Maybe I shouldn’t have told him. He’s new and I could go without him, say he’s mourning the loss of his amarid. No one would question it.

<Okay,> he agrees simply.

Zantia, the elderly woman in charge of food services, welcomes me back to Headquarters with a warm smile, shaking Carson’s hand when I introduce them. The first thing she asks of her fifty or so Tuesday helpers is that we divide ourselves into groups: chefs, assistants, and deliverers.

I find myself explaining this to Carson proactively. <Chefs need no guidance, assistants are those who feel comfortable cooking under supervision, and deliverers, well…that’s pretty self-explanatory.>

<I’d like to sign up for chef duty!> Carson exclaims with such exuberance that my chuckle is shared by several neighbors.

Assistant is the role I typically take on but today I join the deliverers. We’re each provided with a schedule of homes and a fully stocked hovercart of breakfast plates that permanent employeesalready cooked this morning.

I enjoy walking through the neighborhood in the brisk early morning, slipping quietly into houses and depositing artichoke and bell pepper omelets onto stovetops. I bid gentle <Good mornings>s to those who are already up and about, relaxing into the chorus of <welcome home>s that most offer. It’s comforting to be back where I know everyone by name, back where so many things are cherished.

Atthya’s living room hasn’t changed. A beautiful quilt covers the wall across from the couch. It’s barely lit by the emerging dawn but my mind fills in the shadowed details, the patchwork of grays and black intermixed with light blues and the occasional tan square. I’ve loved it since the first time I noticed it. I think it’s made of old suits but Atthya won’t confirm this, won’t discuss the quilt at all beyond admiring my appreciation of it.

<Welcome back,> Atthya interrupts my appraisal, soft spoken and sorrowful as always.

I tear my gaze away to find the prematurely gray haired woman standing in the hallway entrance. My attention is at first drawn to the right hand that she moves in a consistent rhythm, as if tapping the air. She’s always moving somehow. The messy wave of her hair is pulled into a ponytail at the base of her neck, a couple strands falling loose down either side of her almond shaped face. The emerging rays of sunlight cast amber tones on her pale skin. Young for a Chosen, her 50 years weigh heavy on her; she wears them like a human of the same age would.

<Thank you,> I smile. <How have you been?>

<Well, and yourself?> Hers is an obvious lie, but it’s the lie all humans tell to acquaintances, strangers, and sometimes friends. She picked up the habit from her time among them, but we all see past it. There are volumes of sadness packed into her brown eyes and petite frame.

<Content this morning,> I return, <glad to be here again.> I spare one last glance for the quilt. <Let me know if you ever decide to sell it.>

Atthya smiles but it doesn’t reach her eyes. <I’ve left it to you in my will.>

I laugh but the seriousness of her expression cuts it short. <Truly?>

<Yes. I can’t think of anyone who would appreciate it more.>

Wow. I don’t know what to say to that. We’re not friends, she and I. Just friendly, polite. I don’t know that much about her, only that she once lived in the outside world and was happier than she is now. <Thank you, Atthya,> I say, because I have to say something.

She nods. <You’re welcome.>

<I brought someone back with me from the base,> I continue impulsively. <His name is Carson. He’s Chosen but grew up with humans.>

<I heard about the DOH prisoner you rescued.>

<Why don’t you join us for dinner and conversation next week?>

Atthya tilts her head a degree, eyebrows briefly raised. <That’s very kind. I would enjoy that.>

<Let’s figure out the details by Filument.>

<Okay.>

We share comfortable silence. Then I excuse myself to resume my delivery duties.

::

It’s past 2000 when Carson and I return to my house. I ask him what I’ve wondered all day. <How are you?>

<I walked through the Shelter yesterday and last night. I saw the gardens and greenhouses. The livestock, the school, the library. Are you guys using Space Expansion Units?>

The prosaic counter question catches me off guard. <SEUs, yes. Not for the school or library but for the gardens, greenhouses, and farmland. Environmental controls as well. To give us the acreage we need without taking up more obvious space, and to grow the food and care for all the animals without having to worry about what the area would naturally support.>

<I would like to perform the Right of Release.> It’s a complete change of subject, like we’re playing tennis with our conversation. <With you.>

The image of a woman accompanies the statement. She towers, waves of fiery red hair cascading over her shoulders, vivid green eyes. Young, yet I know her to be Carson’s amarim, years ago, when he was a child. She beckons, to him, to us both.

There’s a pitch in my stomach, a spasm of regret at once tight and sharp. I am not to blame for his amari, but the question of possibilities has me folding back time, planning a complicated escape that will never happen and probably never could have worked.

Carson shifts, returning me to the question at hand.

<I would be honored,> I say.

He nods once. <But first I would like to go to the place she died and see if she left an Imprint.>

The place she died… A holding cell at the DOH. The place I broke him out of. <No! Absolutely not!>

Damn it.

Chosen can share an impression of ourselves telepathically when death approaches with enough warning. The best and worst of who we are, left to live on in the memory of those closest to us. If one of us dies alone we can transfer that energy – the living essence of memory – to our physical surroundings. An Imprint, clinging to the walls, the floor, the ceiling.

But he can’t go inside the DOH. It’s too dangerous.

Damn it.

It’s tragic to leave an Imprint uncollected until it fades into nothingness, until everything the departed wanted remembered is gone. Imprints should be gathered, ideally by a close friend or family member, but better by a stranger than not at all.

Carson is an extremely powerful telepath… <Well, maybe. Fuck.>

<She died because of me, because I wasn’t careful enough. I can’t let what she was slip away,> he pleads, his desperation the color blue, everywhere, all around.

<She died because humans are little and scared.> I sigh. <How close to the area would you have to get?>

He considers. <A hundred feet.>

This is a lot trickier than picking up people’s thoughts. Thoughts are broadcast, in a sense, and some can hear them from farther away than others, like the team Davonte sent after Carson’s amari. An Imprint is planted, silent, and must be sought.

<You’re sure?> I press.

<Yes.>

<The perimeter is too far, we won’t be able to park a car there like the team did…but I can fly you overhead. The transportation hub is in the San Antonio Shelter – most ships are there. We have a small one here. It’s Resonanced.>

<But that won’t keep us off radar.>

<No, it won’t, but traveling at SLight speed will, at least for the getting there and leaving parts. As for stopping, you won’t have a lot of time.>

He nods. <Do we go to Davonte?>

<No.>

<Why?>

<She’ll say no.>

<So…?>

<We steal it. Temporarily. Borrow, really. Fortunately, Chosen are not thieves so the ship is not heavily guarded. Actually, the ‘guard’ is more of a person on standby in case of emergencies. My telepathic signature will get us in.>

<When do we go?>

<0200.> Really, no idea why that time instead of midnight or dawn, but I said it so I’ll stick to it.

He touches my shoulder and I’m overjoyed. No. Grateful. No. He’s grateful and sharing it with me. <Thank you.>

I smile. <No problem.>

Big problem. Davonte won’t forgive me for this transgression any time soon. Blowing cover to save someone’s life was one thing. Theft, risking discovery, risking one of our ships falling into their hands… She’ll say it wasn’t worth the danger. She’ll be right.

::

Carson’s been in the bathroom a long time. A long time. Long enough to make me wish I’d paid attention to the time when he went in there. Was it an hour ago? There’s been no sound of the shower running or even the sink. I’ve never had a housemate before. When is it appropriate, instead of weird, to ask if he’s okay?

Maybe I’m overthinking this.

I walk up to the bathroom door and knock, because in this situation it feels the least invasive option.

“Yeah,” comes the quiet, single-word response. Almost too quiet to hear. He sounds defeated.

Hmm. Why out loud? “Are you all right?”

The amount of time it takes him to respond answers before he does. “No.”

“Sick?”

“No.”

Okay. So…? “How can I help?”

He doesn’t answer, not in the amount of time I’m willing to wait.

<Carson?>

There’s a jangled flair of pain from him, a clatter of images all sharp and intrusive. “No telepathy,” he manages, and it’s barely a whisper.

I turn the doorknob. It’s not locked. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah.”

He’s sitting on the floor between the toilet and bathtub, in a space I hadn’t realized a full grown man could fit. Knees drawn up, hands tucked between his legs and stomach, head back against the wall, with his eyes closed.

I drop down crosslegged on the bath mat laid out for wet feet to step on when getting out of the shower. “What’s wrong?”

He blinks a few times, looking more to my side than at me. Extending his right arm, he opens his hand palm up to reveal a black disk, an inch in diameter.

I take it from him, recognizing it as the device I’ve seen him wearing on the back of his neck. It’s smooth, warm to the touch. I trace my thumb and forefinger around its edges. “What is this?”

“A telepathic stabilizer to help counter the lasting effects of the allucinari.”

My fingers freeze. “What lasting effects?”

“Attacks. I won’t know where I am anymore. I see hallucinations like the ones when I was arrested.”

“How long do they last?”

“Sometimes just five minutes. Sometimes a half hour. They don’t happen when I wear that,” he indicates the stabilizer with a tilt of his head, “but I can’t wear it all the time. Doctor Marconi said I’d get dependent on it. I’ve been tapering off my usage since my first night out of the hospital.”

“How long will these attacks be a problem for?”

“She doesn’t know, exactly. She says longer because I’m a strong telepath. Maybe six months or more.”

“Shit, Carson. How many have you had?”

“Today’s makes five.”

“Is there something I can do?”

“Don’t use telepathy during or immediately after an attack.”

“Okay.”

“Otherwise, I don’t know. It might help if I didn’t have to focus on shielding during…”

“Then don’t.”

“I don’t know what that will mean for you, how hard it might hit you.”

“Let me worry about that.”

He nods.

“Come on, I’ll help you to your room.”

It reminds me of getting him away from the DOH, though to be fair he’s mobile without an energy assist and doesn’t lean much on my support after I pull him to his feet and steer him into the hallway. I see him to bed, where he stretches out on his back on top of the covers.

I set the stabilizer on his nightstand on my way out of his room, pausing at the words he sends after me. “Don’t worry about tonight. I’ll wear the stabilizer and it’ll be fine.”

Postponing our likely idiotic and nearly indefensible plan hadn’t occurred to me. Even if it had, I wouldn’t have suggested it, not after agreeing. She was his amarim.

“Of course. You’ve got about 90 minutes it you want to sleep. I’ll wake you.”

“I… Yeah. All right.”

I don’t look back at him but he sounds surprised.

::

<There’s just one person in there,> Carson informs me. <A woman.>

<Let me see.>

He presses his hand to my temple, giving me the visual self-perception of the person on the other side of the wall. I recognize her as Mara, a friend of Davonte’s emeral.

<She won’t sound the alarm. Let’s go with plan A.>

He nods.

Setting aside the backpack that contains food and water, I offer the computer my telepathic Imprint to match against its database. The door slides open a moment later.

Mara is standing directly on the other side, facing the ship. She jumps and spins, expression relaxing into a smile. <Eyan! You scared me. What are you doing here?>

<Carson’s new and I’m giving him a tour,> I gesture toward my redheaded friend.

The hanger is small, only a few feet larger than the ship it contains. The vessel itself is the size of an average car in width but taller and like a limo in length. We’ll be able to stand in it.

Mara frowns. <In the middle of the night?>

<It’s been a rough day.> I shrug. <And you know me – always the odd one out.> Stepping forward, I take her hand in mine, hoping it doesn’t feel as creepy as it seems to me. <It’s good to see you again. How’s your family?> As I ask this question, I bathe her mind in exhaustion, syphon her energy into myself. She slumps and I catch her, easing her to the floor. I’m not a strong telepath. Not a weak one either, just average. For me this type of attack is only possible with physical contact and when the victim hasn’t guarded her mind. When there’s trust. Regret dampens the buzz I’ve stolen, keeps me from jumping or whooping from the thrill of extra energy.

Carson leans back through the doorway to grab our pack of supplies, the smooth black stabilizer visible through the spaces between curls. He raises his eyebrows at my assessment and I shake my head, turning to the ship. Its rear hatch opens with my telepathic signature. I go in first, walk to the pilot’s seat and sit. Carson sits next to me.

<Close hatch,> I tell the ship. There’s no sound. When I glance over my shoulder the hatch is secure. <Open bay doors.>

The ceiling disappears, revealing stars and a moon half obscured by clouds. I engage thrusters at minimal power, slowly edging into the night.

<Activate Resonance Deflector.> The readout in front of me shows a blue sphere encircling the ship. <Deactivate external telepathic communication.> No sense being interrupted by inquiries.

Alarms must be sounding throughout Headquarters, alerting authorized personnel of an unscheduled liftoff. I don’t waste any time. I enter the coordinates of the DOH base. We shoot out of the Shelter at SLight speed, zooming toward our destination.

<We’ll be there in one minute,> I inform Carson.

I’ve never approached the base from above so it takes some mental juggling of the internal layout in relation to us for me to determine where to descend. <500 feet. 400. 300. 200. 100. Stopping at 50. You’re up.>

Carson’s eyes are closed and his brow creased. He’s already begun.

I wait, focusing on the display of our ship and the otherwise empty surrounding area. That will change. The DOH sees us on radar, will inform the Air Force to send raptors. We have no more than ten minutes. Probably closer to seven, judging by average response times from drills during my deployment.

Come on, come on, come on! My heightened energy sets me on a knife’s edge.

I glance between Carson, the proximity readout, the time, and back again. At five minutes an unpleasant twinge creeps down my neck. This is not a combat ship. It has minimal shielding and weapons. I imagine soldiers on the roof, straining to see the object their radar displays, eyes slipping over it as the men continually pull at their thoughts, struggling to keep them from sliding away.

Four raptors appear on the screen, approaching from the Air Force base. The new [F-26s]. ETA, 2.5 minutes.

<Carson, we’ve got incoming!>

Nothing. No response, so sign he’s registered my warning. I’ve had our escape course input since he started. It’ll take us five seconds to reach SLight speed and be safe from tracking. We should leave before they’re in weapons range.

<Carson!>

Nothing. Damn!

<You have one minute!> My fingers hover over the engine controls, ready for immediate action.

Forty five seconds.

Thirty.

Fifteen.

Ten.

They’re radioing us, wanting identification, warning we’re in violation of U.S. air space. Surrender or be fired upon. Blah, blah, blah.

“Carson! Do you have what we came for?”

They’ve launched missiles.

I punch the engine controls and we shoot away.

It takes a full fifteen minutes for the tension to drain from my body. It’s fine, we’re fine, everything’s fine. I breathe deeply and look to Carson. His eyes are open, staring at the view screen. He’s crying.

<Did you get it?>

<Yes.>

I smile. Good.

On a whim, I plot a course to Mars and punch it up to full light speed, easing the ship into orbit when we arrive. Activating the viewscreens, I set the front one to display the planet and the rear one to show space, lean back in my chair to take in the hues of red first.

<I…should take the stabilizer off,> Carson ventures tentatively. <She says it’s important at the end of the day, especially after strenuous telepathic activity.>

<All right. Should I take us back?>

He looks at the image of the dappled terrain far below. <No.> In a single motion he pulls the stabilizer free and slides it into his pocket.

There’s no immediate change. “Telepathy or…?”

<Telepathy is fine unless I suffer an attack. To be honest, that’s likely after collecting an Imprint. But you’ll know if it happens.> There are fields in my head, an imagined landscape of red grass with stones shaped like trees. Then the flash of singing pre-teens at a birthday party. A glimpse of looking down into a young woman’s face, pushing inside her. A few seconds of chasing a male teenager down a badly paved street at night. Water the color of autumn leaves against a shore of bronze. A Mars inspired world amidst Carson’s memories, but not an attack, more like the vivid imagery I often get from him, just a lot of it in quick succession.

<The seats are recliners. Let’s get some sleep.>

I show him how they work and we lay them back. They don’t go flat but they’re more than comfortable. I have just enough lucidity left to order the ship’s lights off before falling asleep. ::

I’m out – buried under oceans of dreams and exhaustion – and something grabs hold, yanking me to wakefulness through heavy, clinging layers of sleep. My heart pounds. I’m scared, without knowing of what, hear short, ragged breaths but they’re not mine. My own breathing is fast but quiet.

I turn the lights on low. Carson’s fallen, back against the side of my chair, feet still over the leg rests of his. His eyes are open, glassy, and focusless. His fingers spasm but otherwise he’s limp.

Still, he could hurt himself. Shifting to face his chair, I picture and channel energy into Carson floating up, horizontal to the floor, drifting over the empty floorspace behind the control seats, then gently down, down, so he’s laying face up.

Satisfied that his head is clear from him slamming it against anything should the spasms spread, I stand and edge around to crouch beside him.

No telepathy, he said.

“Carson?” I whisper, placing a hand on his shoulder.

<Calm down, calm down, calm down,> his litany slices into my thoughts, bringing pieces of sight and sound with it. Laughter, abrasive, on loop, closing in from everywhere. A woman huddled into herself on the sidewalk in the dark, but not dark enough to hide her torn clothes, the blood on her wrists, the mud on her legs. In her mind, a man she used to call friend. Laughter. That same man grinning in broad daylight, bragging, “Bitch was drunk. Begging me to fuck her, not my fault she regrets it now.” Laughter. Then him again, in an alley in front of a bar, sobbing, “I’m sorry! I won’t do it again! Please stop, stop, oh fuck.” Laughter, and it’s maniacal now, twisted around taunting jeers, “We’re everywhere, you can never find us all, never fix everything!” Laughter.

I wrench my mind back, picture my house with all the doors and windows shut behind brick, hide inside my walls and mental shields. Shenti. Those were memories of Carson’s, twisted into nightmares.

I don’t know what to do, how to help, so I just start talking, about trivial stuff. Classes I took in college. Countries I want to visit. Books I want to read. My first memory of stomping on grapes to make wine. When I lied to my amarim about breaking a vase from Lyril. The moment I realized she knew I was lying and had to see the disappointment in her eyes. Talking to my amari about being a CIC operative. Listening to all their arguments against it. Getting lost in San Francisco and being offered pot by dealers on a street that never seemed to end. Staying up all night while Arelia gave birth to her first emeral. Any and every random thing I can think of until my throat is dry.

“I was almost arrested once in Seattle, for breaking and entering. I was taking a walk to clear my head the day before finals. Ended up in a residential area, not paying much attention to where I was going. Some people in their houses called me in, because I fit this generic description of a black guy who had supposedly stolen electronics from three houses. Took all the telepathy I was capable of to convince the lead officer to let me go, much to his partner’s dismay.”

My eyes fall to Carson’s face and a lucid gaze meets mine. “Hey. How you feeling?”

“Tired but…okay.” He rolls up into a sitting position. “It helped, your talking. I don’t remember really what you talked about but…it helped.”

“Good.” I retrieve a bottle of water we brought with us and hand it to him. He sips it slowly, moving back to his recliner after several minutes. He puts the stabilizer back on.

“Can SEUs be used on backpacks or duffel bags?”

I frown at the unexpected question and how unrelated it is to anything that just happened. “No. Only on things that are stationary.”

He shakes his head. “I was hoping that had changed since my parents cut off contact. Having a Mary Poppins style bag would be really cool.”

“Even if SEUs did work on non-stationary objects you still couldn’t have the Mary Poppins effect. Anything you put into space extended by SEUs would have to be able to fit into it normally.”

“But the whole point is that SEUs allow you to fit stuff that wouldn’t fit normally…?”

“Think of it like a shoebox that fits one pair of shoes. SEUs, assuming they could be used on a shoebox to begin with, would let you fit numerous pairs of shoes, but they wouldn’t let you fit a bicycle. You wouldn’t be able to get the bicycle inside.”

“Oh.” He yawns. “That sort of make sense.” He yawns again.

Killing the lights, we sleep until mid-morning San Calloway time, surrounded by Mars and the stars. At least, I do. Carson’s awake when I blink myself to awareness.

The following hours are a patchwork of stillness and activity, of sharing conversation and food while being increasingly grateful for the ship’s small but functioning restroom. We could have returned to the Shelter immediately but the truth is I enjoy space. Mars is a beautiful world, so different from Earth’s blue, green, and white. So blissfully still.

Carson and I talk a lot. We play chess. He performs the Right of Release, sharing his favorite memories of his amarim with me. It’s a submersion into seeing what he saw, hearing what he heard, feeling what he felt. It stirs me to laughter, moves me to tears, and leaves me in profound silence.

The sequence that grips me tightest is a day at the beach, a picnic on the sand, running and playing in the water. Nothing extraordinary but the colors are vivid, the happiness strong, the love overpowering. I wish it were a day from my own past. They laughed so much, mother and son, until Carson struggled to breathe…

She and I, her husband and I, passed so nearly by one another, separated only by time and choice. My choice. It was the right one. Reason confirms it, probability. I didn’t do it knowingly. It wasn’t my fault. It was them. It’s always them. The DOH, the humans. I must let the doubts go, put the blame where it belongs, stop my mind from tormenting itself. Stop, stop these looping thoughts. Stay in the present, with Carson who I did save. Carson, who has trusted me with something priceless.

No one has performed the Right of Release with me before. Friends’ loved ones have died but they picked someone else, someone closer, to open their memories to. Arelia might have, if I hadn’t been on assignment for the CIC, but maybe not. I was too focused on my job, on doing my part to protect our people. Everything else, including my own family, took a backseat. Maybe it didn’t have to.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *