Rather than post a short story today, I decided to share the complete first chapter of my novel (as it currently is, I can’t promise some details won’t change).
It’s sci-fi fantasy. A story about friendship, civil rights, and how we treat people who are different. The first chapter is apparently 8,147 words long. And that right there tells you a lot about the state of this long novel.
I had a lot of trouble getting the text of the chapter in here with paragraph breaks and italics and without entire sentences being dropped, which is a problem I ran into. To be honest, I’m still not sure I have it without cut off words and/or lost sentences. Please let me know if anything appears to be missing – there shouldn’t be questions that don’t get answered, unless something actually happens in the narrative to interrupt things, random answers not attached to questions, or shifts in the dialogue or descriptions that are abrupt / unnatural.
The Way of Attrition
by Erika Friedman
Part One: Camaraderie
The scream is agonized. It cuts the cold air, the walls, the closed door, fierce like a siren, too loud and too close. It echoes in the chill that tickles my spine, in the shiver that embraces me.
There is nothing unusual in the sound, except for its lingering in my ears and mind, masquerading as a surprise. It’s not. Not here. Here it’s so common it often doesn’t register. The ice of that knowledge steals my breath. I’m desensitized. When did that happen?
I’ve been stationed at this facility for over three years. Screams come with the territory. Most of the prisoners are normal, no more ‘inhuman’ than the hateful monsters that arrest and ‘question’ them. I suppose that’s made the cries easier to ignore. If they’re going to hunt, torture, and kill us, I’m not going to shed tears over those they mistake for us. They can worry about taking care of their own.
It’s rare for Chosen to be captured; we’re too well hidden, too well integrated for recognition. No, that’s not the truth. That makes it sound braver than it is. The truth is the majority of us are too scared by what they did to blacks, to women, to gay people, to reveal and stand up for ourselves. Humanity does not have a history of accepting differences.
The existence of this military branch proves our point. The world at large does not know of our existence but as soon as we contacted the U.S. government in the 1980s , President Reagan created the Defense of Humanity Special Operations Group. Abbreviated DOH, because DOHSOG is a mouthful, their official mission is to assess the intentions of Abductees and stop us by whatever means necessary should we prove hostile. ‘Abductees’ is their kindest name for us and in reality the DOH is conducting a witch hunt, convinced we’re here to destroy humanity.
Some of us think if we reveal ourselves to the general population the DOH will be forced into civil treatment at the risk of public outrage should news of their actions get out. I think these people are morons. Humans are small and frightened. They’ll see that we can do more than them, that we are more than them, and panic. We’ll be called abominations, condemned to hell, attacked and beaten. No. I refuse to endure the long civil rights fight of African Americans, of the LGBTQ. I will carve a piece of the world for us to live in, by force if I have to.
Another scream. Wordless. Hopeless. Inexplicably enthralling.
Pulled from my thoughts, I sit up in the small bed. This unknown man has shattered the barrier of separation I didn’t know existed, leaving disgust to solidify in its place.
I must know who he is.
I have an upper bunk close to the entrance. Swinging my legs over the side, I jump to the floor, landing on my feet with little more than a thud. It’s dark. Most of the soldiers sleep, some whisper among themselves. I walk to the door, open it wide enough to slip through, and leave the barracks. No voice calls after me to ask where I’m going. I haven’t made friends here. I haven’t wanted to. These men would not hesitate to kill me if they knew the truth about what I am.
The brightness of the hallway is a harsh difference. I blink until I get used to it. There’s no one about, no doubt because it’s after 0200. Holding Area One is around the corner. I’m there in less than a minute, my socks soundless on the carpet. It’s a large room with five closed doors evenly spaced in a neat row on the opposite wall. It’s not difficult to spot where the prisoner is. A single guard stands outside the center door. Shantrov. A talkative 22-year-old who will tell me anything I ask, even without a telepathic nudge.
I walk forward casually.
<Calm down. Calm down. Calm down.> Over and over, a litany of despair. Pain. Fear. Where am I? <Calm down. Calm down. Calm down.> My forehead throbs, my ears pulse. Please, stop. Where am I?
“Sy? You okay?”
I stifle a gasp. The question is an anchor that keeps me from wandering further astray. I’m in the hallway. Frozen mid step. Shantrov hasn’t moved but he’s staring at me, eyes a little wide. What happened?
“You just lost like a full two shades of color. Didn’t know niggas could do that.” He feels empowered appropriating language not his to take, yet it fits me less than he imagines; another slur would take its place, or be added to it, if he knew.
A few deep, steadying breaths leave me able to concentrate. I start walking again. The man in that cell is one us, so completely devastated that his thoughts bleed out for any fellow telepath to hear.
How did they find him?
The next scream almost makes me jump, hitting my ears and ripping through my thoughts.
<Hold on. I’m going to get you out of here. Later today. I promise. Just hold on.> I’ve sent the message, a vow and a lifeline, without figuring out how to accomplish this feat but knowing I must.
“Sy,” Shantrov is insistent. “You look like shit.”
“I’m fine,” I lie easily, smiling. “Just tired. What’s with the racket?” I’m in front of him now, a few feet from the cell door.
He looks doubtful but we’re not ‘buddies’ and he won’t push it. “We got a live one this time. Telepathic. Telekinetic. Saw it myself.”
“How’d you bring him in?”
“Anonymous tip. Andrade went plain clothes, knocked on the guy’s door. As soon as the target opened it, Andrade threw in a canister of the gas. Freak lost control, shit went flying everywhere. The potted plants, newspapers and books from inside…Five of us were hiding along the front of the apartment. We charged in and knocked the Abdo out.”
Abdo. Short for Abductee. Half the length and packed with twice the venom.
I understand all his words but they describe a reality that doesn’t make sense. An anonymous tip. Gas. I’m tumbling, as if a monster has yanked the solid footing out from under me. The prisoner’s not inoculated against allucinari. It’s been over two years since I stole the drug’s formula and provided it to our scientists at Headquarters. A year and a half ago they created the vaccine and sent it to all Shelters. Everyone at Headquarters was injected within a week.
A spasm of pain clenches my throat, sewing it shut. He’s not being tortured in the traditional way. No one is in there asking questions, pulling out fingernails, waterboarding him, or cutting off body parts. Allucinari is the only targeted weapon and means of detection they have; it has plunged him into a mental horror. Delivered first by air and now intravenously to subdue him, to keep him from escaping. It doesn’t strip us of our abilities but it prevents us from concentrating, from calming our minds enough to use them. He must be formidable for his telepathy to seep out despite its influence.
My eyes bore into the solid metal door, magnetically sealed. I don’t know if he was able to understand my message but his monologue has subdued. I have to focus to distinguish the words, the hum of, <Calm down. Calm down. Calm down.>
Fuck. We defeated allucinari. We cured it! I was sure everyone had been given the shot. Is this man so out of touch with his own people? Or didn’t we do enough outreach? How many others are there, vulnerable pray for humans to persecute?
Another scream. This one not as loud but hoarse, as if his throat is raw.
Allucinari is a nightmare. It doesn’t affect humans but Chosen are subjected to fear induced hallucinations and physical pain. The creators don’t know the details of what victims experience; the creators don’t care. They stopped at determining it’s bad, at realizing it’s a brutal torture that renders their enemy defenseless.
“Wonder what he’s seeing?” Shantrov muses, sounding almost wistful, as if personally witnessing the prisoner’s torment would make him happy.
I have to admit I’m curious too, but not because I would enjoy it. Perhaps to fuel my hatred of these people for targeting us when we’ve done nothing to harm them. I could find out what his personal perdition is constructed of; it would be easy to unite the space between our minds, to part the walls of his thoughts. He’s too far gone to maintain shielding. But I digress. It would be a violation, like rape, and maybe it’s best not to know what has reduced him to this state.
“Sounds pretty nasty,” Shantrov continues with satisfaction.
I want to eviscerate him.
“What are they holding him for?” I ask, feigning a careless indifference that suggests his being ‘a freak,’ an ‘Abductee,’ is reason enough.
“Hoping he knows where they’re all hiding. Rumor is there’s some kind of settlement or neighborhood of them in San Calloway but we’ve had no luck weeding them out.”
I start to tense, then catch myself and relax. They’ve heard whispers about Headquarters. That’s a problem. This afternoon I’ll warn them to lie low for a while. Lower than usual.
Another scream, even more broken and a little quieter.
“Don’t suppose you can gag him?” I offer it as a hopeful comment.
“No. I don’t even have a key to open the door. Mason keeps it on him.”
Key is a misnomer. It’s a specialized magnet. To unlock the door you hold the magnet to a specific area, about two feet above where a doorknob would be. Then the computer does a retina scan, confirming you’re authorized personnel. You need both the magnet and the eyes to gain entry. That will be problematic.
“Well, I’m turning in,” I say, returning the way I came.
“Enjoy your shut eye.”
As I leave, I speak to the prisoner. <Hold on. I will get you out of here.>
Back in the barracks I sit on my bunk, staring at the darkness, at the barely visible edge of wall and ceiling. There are no more murmured conversations, everyone is quiet. An occasional scream is the only thing interrupting the stillness.
I forfeit sleep in favor of thinking through plans and permutations, methods of escape. There’s no way to do it without blowing my cover. Later today, at 1300, my paid three week DOH leave starts. The plan was for me to be debriefed by the Council and then luxuriate in some down time at home before returning to active DOH duty. When I rescue the prisoner I’ll be relinquishing my position as a double agent. I’ll never be able to come back, won’t be able to continue gathering intelligence. It doesn’t matter. Well, it matters, but I can’t leave that man in their custody. They’ll kill him.
Davonte will be furious when she finds out I’ve outed myself as a spy but she’ll get over it. I’ll give her a bottle of wine, or three. Maybe a first edition book from Lyril. It’ll be fine. The rest of them won’t be surprised. I’m notoriously impulsive; they’ve been expecting me to screw this up since the day I started, and over something far less important than saving someone’s life. They had a bet going in the beginning, that someone would say something idiotic and hateful and I’d snap and break him. I’ve shown remarkable restraint, truly.
It’s 0501 when I settle on the last details of my plan. It’s going to work. If I’m careful, if I’m smart, we’ll both be safely at Headquarters by 1500. Until then I must go through the day’s motions.
I’m scheduled for a Special Operation at 0600. It’s too late to sleep so I jump out of bed, put on my uniform, and head to the mess hall for breakfast. Scrambled eggs, bacon, and home style potatoes, all saturated in fat and salt. I miss the natural food of home and look forward to dinner there tonight. An outsider would think chemicals and preservatives are essential to human survival. They over process everything, seemingly having forgotten food is supposed to do something other than taste good and last for a long time without spoiling.
I won’t miss this place at all.
Four others are assigned to the Special Operation. We converge in the briefing room at the appointed time to be informed by Colonel Mason that we’re going to UC San Calloway to investigate a professor suspected of being an Abductee. I haven’t heard of him. Last night I would not have doubted his humanity but the prisoner gives me reason to hesitate.
We find the professor as he leaves his quiet suburban house, follow him to an Arco for gas, to a Starbucks for a different kind of fuel, and finally to campus. He starts his workday with a department meeting, then scurries to his office to prepare for class. Amiable and unquestioning, he lets us in at the flash of our badges. There are only a couple chairs for visitors so I remain standing in the back. The suspect sits behind his desk, two of my colleagues sit across from him.
Curiously, I reach into the professor’s mind. There is no spark, no glimmer, no stream of elevated consciousness. He is not Chosen.
Like most, he hasn’t heard of the DOH. We deflect when he probes for details about what we do. Pulling what looks like a cigarette lighter out of my pocket, I flick the top of the device to release allucinari. The gas smells like too-sweet cinnamon, an intentional modification so that soldiers would know it was released successfully in the absence of a reaction.
The professor sniffs curiously but is otherwise unresponsive. There’s a shift in the energy of my companions that is a mix of relief and disappointment. They want us captured but they’re scared of us too.
We question the suspect for about an hour but he does not betray the slightest indication of knowing what Abductees are, only irritation as he realizes he will miss class. Of course we don’t mention Abductees directly – knowledge of them is strictly classified – but there are enough allusions for someone who understands them to drown in, especially a frustrated person. We do this on purpose, aggravation encourages mistakes, slips of the tongue. He has many, but none are incriminating. Satisfied that he’s just an average man, we apologize for taking up his time and leave without apprehending him for additional interrogation. As procedure dictates, two soldiers stay behind to covertly observe him for the afternoon. The rest of us return to base.
I’m surprised, while eating lunch in the crowded mess, to overhear that a man and woman are being brought in by the guys who stayed to observe the professor. They were pulled from him in favor of more likely suspects, ones who must have replied suspiciously or reacted to allucinari. But what are the odds of that happening twice in two days? There can’t be that many uninoculated Chosen. They must be human. What did they do? I can’t stay to find out. They’ll be here within the hour and will be put in two of the remaining empty sells in Holding Area One. That will triple the guards. I need to get the prisoner out before they arrive.
I throw away my half uneaten food and place my tray and plates in the large bin next to the kitchen door, leaving the loud mess quickly. It’s just before 1200. I stop in the barracks, deserted at this time of day. I have no personal belongings here aside from some clothes, which I will leave. I use the solitude to make sure my sidearm is fully loaded and to steady myself.
If this fails, if I’m captured in an attempt to escape with the prisoner, I will be killed and it will not be gentle or quick. They will hate me for fooling them, hate me even more than him. Torture will be their way of getting even. Closing my eyes, I inhale deeply, exhale slowly. Again. Then again. This will work. It will.
All right. It’s time.
Colonel Mason should be in his office. I head there with no further hesitation, knocking three times on his closed door.
“Yes,” he calls from within, brusque.
Squaring my shoulders, I open the door and enter the room.
“Sir,” I salute. “I’ve been questioning the prisoner. He is ready to give us the location of the Abductees hiding in San Calloway but he insists on speaking directly with you.” It’s standard procedure for Mason to interrogate each detainee so this shouldn’t raise alarms.
Mason is friendly, a favorite among the men. I don’t expect trouble from him but am ready to apply telepathic persuasion if necessary.
“Good. I didn’t have any luck with him this morning.” He slaps the intercom button on his desk. “Chandler?”
“Yes, sir,” Chandler responds promptly, faint static accompanying his words.
“Have Adams and Burton meet Sy and me in Holding Area One.”
Adams and Burton are tough but not too bright. I can take them. Better still, since Mason was questioning the prisoner just this morning, they’ll have reduced the allucinari dosage enough for him to be lucid, which will make this easier.
We walk in silence. Mason stopped trying to befriend me about a year after I took this post, his efforts meeting with polite but cool reserve. Adams and Burton are already there when we reach the Holding Area. Artuso is the guard outside the cell door. All three salute Mason when we stop.
Mason. Adams. Burton. Artuso. I can do this.
“Sy, Burton, with me. Adams, Artuso, stay outside.”
Even drugged they fear us. It would be five to one if I were on their side.
Mason retrieves his command magnet from his pants pocket. It’s black, the same shape as a quarter and only slightly larger. He places it in the matching indent on the door and faces the computer panel immediately to its right. A red horizontal beam travels down his eyes.
“Access granted,” the computer announces, the male voice only marginally mechanical.
Mason pulls the magnet free and the door slides right, into the wall. I go first, Mason at my heels. Burton presumably follows him.
I hear one of them slap the controls. The door shuts with a swoosh. Immediately, I turn, swinging my fist straight up into Mason’s jaw. He falls with a groan, out cold.
Burton reacts quickly, drawing his gun. Before he can fire, I concentrate and send him careening against the wall with a single telekinetic burst. He slumps to the floor, unconscious.
The prisoner is held in what the soldiers witlessly call the Chair. Large, metal, and computer controlled, it monitors vitals and intravenously supplies the drug. Thick restraints bind his wrists to the arm rests, his ankles to the Chair legs, and form an x over his chest. An IV bag is suspended from a pole attached to the top of the Chair. A thin tube runs from it, disappearing into the bend of his right elbow. The allucinari is light blue, slowly dripping into its victim.
I take stock of the man. He’s young, probably mid to late twenties, with skin paler than even his red hair would imply. About five inches long, it’s plastered to his face by sweat. Head leaning awkwardly to the side, there are dark circles beneath bloodshot eyes, stubble from not having shaved. He looks terrible.
<I’m going to get you out of here,> I assure him.
The prisoner’s pupils roam as if unable to focus. He appears dazed.
I walk to the door and close my eyes, reaching with my mind, opening my awareness to the presence of those around me, searching. Adams and Artuso are talking, their voices a distant whisper in my thoughts. I push further but find nothing. They’re the only ones in the Holding Area. It would be easy to snap their necks, just a flick of thought and will. Two fewer people to harass us. Two fewer to hide from. But I can’t bring myself to do it like this, skulking in the shadows. Sighing, I fling them backwards against the door, headfirst. Two dull thumps serve as proof of their impact. Their thoughts and voices fade to nothingness. They’re out.
Stooping over Mason’s supine form, I fish the magnet out of his pocket. Then I levitate and rotate him so he faces the control panel on the side of the Chair. Standing behind him, I slip the magnet into its slot above the control panel and pull Mason’s eyelids open with my thumbs and forefingers while applying a hint of telekinesis to orient his pupils naturally. The horizontal red beam scans his eyes and the computer says, “Access granted.”
I let Mason fall to the floor and retrieve the magnet. The restraints disappear into the Chair, causing the man to slump forward but stay seated. Cautiously, I pull the IV out of his flesh and peel away the tape holding it in place. Pressing a single hand to his forehead, I funnel a small surge of energy from myself into him, imagining it to be clear water poured from one glass to another.
My vision darkens, my head aches, the room wavers, but then it passes and I feel normal. For now. On no sleep it will catch up to me. The prisoner will take it harder. When the effects of the transfer fade the contrast will weaken him exponentially. No matter. It will give us enough time to escape.
<Can you speak?> I ask.
“Yes,” he murmurs, too wasted from the drug to answer telepathically.
Good. He understands me.
Leaving the cell requires the magnet and retina scan. As before, I use telekinesis to coerce Mason’s body into cooperation. Adams and Artuso fall inside when the door opens, legs splayed across the threshold. I levitate them the rest of the way in, then return to the prisoner.
Crouching next to him, I swing his right arm over my shoulders, wrap my left arm around his back and under his left armpit, then stand, pulling his weight up with me. He’s unsteady on his feet, his fingers digging into my skin painfully as he uses me for support. After a couple shaky steps he steadies somewhat. We walk slowly out of the cell. Once clear, I touch the controls to shut the door. No one’s in sight.
<I need to trigger an evacuation of the base,> I explain, helping him down to the floor so he can sit with his back against the wall.
The cool screen of the computer terminal lights up when I place my hand against it, prompting for a security code. I close my eyes. Computer systems look different to every Chosen. Some see them as vast libraries, others as city streets. Those who lack the ability to manipulate them find labyrinths or unruly jungles. To me, they’re rows upon rows of meticulously organized file cabinets of all colors. Not like a rainbow, beautiful in its succession of shades, instead akin to a set of children’s building blocks, with reds, blues, yellows, and greens scattered throughout.
It’s no tribute to my imagination, lacking all sense of drama or intrigue, but it’s manageable. I’m not as talented as some. If I were an expert I wouldn’t have needed Mason. I could have bypassed every retina scan. As it is, such an effort would be tedious and exhausting. I’m only familiar with the evacuation system out of paranoia. I needed to have a way out if things went wrong, a chance of escaping. Once a month for the last three years, I’ve infiltrated the computer and been glad of it. The evacuation procedures have changed four times, the most recent was five months ago.
The file cabinet I want is red and four rows back. It’s dented, with peeling paint. It wasn’t that way in the beginning – it was new and sleek like the rest. I can only surmise the wear is because of how often I’ve broken into it. Out of habit, I try to open it. It’s locked. I kneel to retrieve the tension wrench and safety pin from the floor in front of the file cabinet. At first I had to imagine these items into existence. Now they are always here.
Picking the lock seems to take longer than usual, perhaps because I’m nervous, but within two minutes it gives and I pull open the second drawer from the top. Everything is arranged alphabetically. The set of hanging folders labeled ‘Evacuation Procedures’ is halfway back. From within it, I remove one of four manila folders, titled ‘Evacuation: Code Three.’ The first paper in this folder describes what events lead to this kind of evacuation – carbon monoxide, natural gas, radiation, etc. – and the second paper explains the steps necessary to activate the alarm.
I set the second paper face up on top of the file cabinet and carefully re-file the folder, closing the drawer when I’m done. Then I walk away. I open my eyes to the Holding Area. A loud siren permeates the compound, interrupted every thirty seconds by the computer’s voice, “Code Three. Evacuate immediately. Code Three. Evacuate immediately.”
Footsteps and indistinct shouts sound in the brief silences between siren and computerized voice. Groups of soldiers run past the Holding Area but no one stops or looks inside.
I return my attention to the man.
“Why didn’t you do that to begin with?” he asks.
<Because it seals the cell doors. They’d rather let the prisoners die in an emergency than risk them escaping.> I realize after responding that I’ve lambasted him with a wave of bitterness.
He flinches a little and flexes his neck.
“It’s okay. What next?”
<There are four exits. Only one is used normally but in emergencies they’re all open. We’re heading to the one by food storage. Everyone is trained to use the nearest exit in emergencies and that area of the compound is less crowded.>
He appears satisfied with this answer.
I take a moment to probe. Similar to reaching out to discover who is in the vicinity, but trained to a specific frequency – the frequency of thoughts concerning me. It’s like a magnet when someone is thinking of you, watching you closely; if you’re searching for it, it draws you in.
I drift, dragged nowhere. Good. I am on no one’s mind, at least no one close by. I let the probe go. I’m not a skilled enough telepath to maintain it while actively doing something else.
<Let’s go.> I help the rescuee to his feet, arm around his shoulders again. We proceed into the hallway. The soldiers are fast from constant drilling so there aren’t many people by the time we get there. The ones we do run into are distracted, flustered, worried, and don’t pay attention to us. It’s fortunate that my companion isn’t wearing anything eye catching, just a dark grey t-shirt and jeans. Out of place among all the deep blue uniforms but only if someone’s being attentive.
In spite of my plan unfolding smoothly, my anxiety flares every few steps. He can’t walk fast. I’d levitate him out but that would be noticeable. I refrain from urging him to hurry because I know he is. He hasn’t said a word about it but he’s in pain, his labored breathing enough of an indication even without my knowledge of that accursed drug.
It’s better than I expected, I remind myself. If they hadn’t reduced the level of allucinari in his system he wouldn’t be coherent and certainly wouldn’t be walking. I had a plan for that, a more dangerous one, and I’m glad I don’t have to use it. But I want to be out of here, away from these everyday enemies.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers weakly. I barely hear him over the wailing siren.
“Not being stronger.”
Damn. He’s picked up on my impatience. I’m not sure what to say. It’s not his fault. This is something that was done to him. I just need us to be safe, now.
I don’t have to say anything, I realize; he’s Chosen. I send him a burst of understanding. He can’t respond in kind but a fraction of the tension in his body seeps away.
We labor on, ever closer to freedom but no freer than if we were in the center of the facility. I struggle to stay focused. The evacuation alarm is giving me a headache. They should have designed it to shut up after a while. It’s been going long enough for me to rue the sense of sound.
<What’s your name?> I inquire eventually.
“Sy?” The suspicious shout makes my every muscle go rigid. My companion stiffens as well. It’s Shantrov. He brought the prisoner in. He’ll recognize him. What is he doing in this part of the compound? Do I answer? Do we make a run for it? No. The only option is to attack and silence him.
I release the prisoner and turn, surprised to find Shantrov directly in front of me, swinging his arm forward. I move, but not fast enough. His fist catches my right cheek and ear and I stagger back, heart hammering. Shantrov lands another punch, this one aimed at my nose and mouth. I hear a crunch and taste blood.
Endeavoring to concentrate over the throbbing, I manage the single thought that sends my enemy flying away from me. He lands at the prisoner’s feet, grunting from the impact. Before I can move or think, I watch my companion kick Shantrov squarely in the face, stilling him.
<Thanks,> I say.
He nods once, looking from the inert man to our surroundings. We’re alone, for now. It’s impossible to tell if it’ll stay that way. The alarm is too loud and consistent to pick up the noise of anyone who might be approaching. I don’t think I can manage a telepathic probe anymore. It’s not a strength of mine.
Shantrov groans and I draw my firearm, finger on the trigger.
“No!” the rescuee protests, frowning. “You don’t have to shoot him.”
And Shantrov didn’t have to attack me. Still, he’s right. Shrugging, I bring the butt of my gun against Shantrov’s head to ensure his unconsciousness. There’s a storage closet a few paces back; I leave him stuffed in it with relish.
Both of us look around again. The hallway is empty. Blood is gushing from my nose and my companion looks as if he’s about to fall. <The exit isn’t far,> I tell him, <and we’re past looking inconspicuous. I’m going to use telekinesis, unless you think you can run?>
He shakes his head.
I lift him into the air so he’s face up and parallel to the ground. Keeping him in front of me, I run. Thankfully it’s a straight shot from here. It would take a lot of concentration to navigate any turns. I’d probably send him headlong into a wall. The exit comes into view ahead. It’s open and there are no guards. That’s one of the reasons I picked a Code Three evacuation. All soldiers clear the building by at least two miles.
Within minutes, we burst through the door into hot air and streaming sunlight. The compound is surrounded by grass fields for six miles. Directly ahead is a parking lot with about ten vehicles left. Four soldiers are almost to the nearest one. From there they’ll take the only street, which leads directly to the designated meeting point for this exit. We’ll have to grab one of the trucks and take it off road. If we drive west we’ll hit a backstreet to San Calloway.
Several yards past the door, I lower my companion so he’s lying in the grass and drop down next to him, watching through the long green blades as the soldiers pile into the car, look back to see if anyone else is coming, then drive away.
<Stay hidden here.>
He turns over into a crouch. Without waiting for an answer, I jump to my feet and sprint to the nearest truck. In a Code Three evacuation all vehicles respond to the identification magnet of any soldier. I have my own magnet, and Mason’s, so the doors unlock and the engine roars to life when I’m about three feet out. Launching myself into the driver’s seat, I make a quick U-turn and drive to where my comrade is. He’s able to climb into the passenger’s seat without my assistance.
“Wait!” The truck is facing the exit and three soldiers are barreling toward us. I turn the wheel right and hit the gas pedal hard. We lurch off the pavement into the grass. “Wait!” The shout comes again. In the rearview mirror I see the men’s perplexity. Then they’re too small to distinguish, then they’re specks, and then they’re gone.
<There’s a tracking device on this truck. I guess we have a half hour before they realize there wasn’t an emergency, less if Shantrov regains consciousness and tells them I helped you escape. We’ll need to switch cars as soon as we can.>
I glance at him and see he’s looking at me, brow furrowed.
“Your nose is bleeding bad,” he comments, opening the glove compartment. “Aha!” he triumphantly pulls out a handful of tissues, passing them to me.
<Thanks.> Keeping one hand on the wheel, I use the other to hold the wad of tissues to my nose.
In ten minutes we reach the road into town. I turn right onto it, mentally cataloging the places we might find a car to hijack.
“My name is Carson Wilde.”
<Eyan Sugita.> It’s nice to say it after answering only to another since my last leave. I’ll never have to be Anthony Sy again.
“Thanks for rescuing me, Eyan.”
We both laugh.
I decide to try ditching the truck at a gas station five miles from San Calloway. It’s in a remote enough location that it’s rarely crowded, but close enough to town that there’s usually one or two patrons at any given time before dark. One person is getting gas when we arrive. A middle aged woman. We pull up next to her so the pump separates us, functioning as a partial shield. This is to avoid causing alarm because my nose has only slightly slowed its bleeding and my face is stained red.
I get out of the car, pretending to pay for gas with a credit card. The woman shoves her keys partway into the front pocket of her jeans and fishes a fifty dollar bill out of her purse on her way inside. We’re in luck – the keys look like they could fall out on their own. She returns talking angrily on her cell phone, continuing to do so while she inserts the nozzle into her car and waits.
“I’m tired of passive aggressive drama!” She says about four times, something that has her so distracted I’m able to make her keys float out of her pocket and into mine without her noticing. The pump clicks off and, just as I hoped, she goes inside for change. As soon as she’s turned her back, I concentrate on the two security cameras with a view of this area, turning them to face away.
The blue Pathfinder’s doors unlock with a mental push of the appropriate interior buttons and Carson and I rush in. I imagine inserting the key in the ignition, cause it to turn in the same way, and the engine starts. We drive away before the owner reemerges.
“Why did you take her keys if you weren’t going to use them?”
<Simplest if she and any employees of the gas station think that’s how the car was stolen. We don’t want them suspecting it happened without hotwiring or a key.>
“So you took the keys and decided to show off.”
<No. No finger prints. They think they have mine on record but they don’t. They’re fake.>
“You’ve thought it out so well. Steal cars often?”
<Never before and hopefully never again.>
“I suppose it was a happy coincidence you knew where the security cameras were?”
<If you’d spent almost three and a half years working undercover at an agency designed to ‘neutralize’ people like you, you’d know where the security cameras were too.>
“You worked undercover at a gas station?”
That’s when I realize he’s just giving me a hard time. <The gas station has been the most likely place to change transport the entire time I was stationed at that base. Any other aspects of my criminality you’d like to question?>
“I’ll let you know.”
<I’m sure you will.>
“Seriously, though, we’re not going to keep the car, are we?”
<No. We’ll have to dump it too. I can’t risk taking a stolen car anywhere near Headquarters.>
<That’s what we call the San Calloway Shelter since the Council lives there.>
“Uh… What Shelter? What Council?”
I shoot him an assessing glance and see that he’s looking at me with genuine confusion. Does he know so little of his own people’s government? Refusing to make him feel stupid, I keep my tone normal. <Every three years Chosen elect five people to serve as our leaders. We call them the Council. The Council is responsible for maintaining and enforcing the laws we live by, for the projects we pursue, and for determining how best to coexist with humans.>
There’s a long pause. I have the impression Carson is trying to order his thoughts well enough to ask more questions. “How many of us are there?”
<About three million. A lot live in Shelters in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and Europe as well,> I pause, cataloging the various Shelters in the world. <There are Shelters throughout Canada and a couple a piece in Australia and New Zealand.>
“And the Council… are they in charge of all the Shelters or just the ones in California, or the U.S.?”
<All of them.> My own curiosity will be idle no longer. <Carson… How…?> I struggle for phrasing.
“When they returned to Earth my parents isolated themselves from other Chosen. My older brother was three and my mom was pregnant with me. They believed full integration would give us the best chance of fitting in here. At first my parents maintained some contact with the others. We’d go away for weekend visits to their various close friends about once every two months.”
So many words confirm his disconnection from Chosen society. ‘Brother,’ ‘mom,’ and ‘parents,’ instead of thiri, amarim, and amari. The earliest Chosen struggled with the Lyril’s mostly gender-neutral language; some words took, others didn’t, many were modified. Thiri, instead of ‘brother’ or ‘sister,’ is an example of the former, while amari never stuck as a complete replacement for ‘mom’ and ‘dad,’ leaving us with amarim and amarid, amari used only to describe ‘parents’ in their general or plural form.
“Just after I turned five we went to their best friends’ place. The Laurents. They had a kid who was a little younger than my brother and we’d all play together while our parents hung out. That Saturday night…there was a fire. I was with my parents in the guest room. My brother was staying with the Laurents kid, in his room. Mom got me out, and Dad went for my brother. He couldn’t reach him, the fire had spread too far and too fast. My dad and the Laurents almost all died in there, trying to get to those boys. The firemen pulled them out but… My brother and the Laurents kid were dead.” His story has turned toneless, as if feeling what comes with it is too hard and he’s shut it off.
“I’m very sorry, Carson.”
“It was arson. It turned out the Laurents had been careless with their mindcraft. A neighbor saw, and was scared. He set fire to the house. My parents realized they couldn’t know that any of their friends would be careful enough. By the time I was ten they had severed ties and had kept me away from Chosen for longer. I… I haven’t spoken with another Chosen, aside from Mom and Dad, since I was seven. Since college I’ve tried to find others but the closest I got were whispers.”
By the end of his speech I’m profoundly sad, remembering years long past. I’m a small boy again; I make friends easily but can never be honest with them. I love the world around me, see beauty in everything, but can’t share those images in the way that is natural – by painting them in another person’s mind. I always feel alone, cut off, different.
A surge of stinging in my nose claims my attention. I grimace at the feel of slick blood and rearrange the tissues so an unused portion does its part to stem the flow. Breathing through my mouth as much as possible, I shake my head. Then I realize. The image of the little boy was not my own. It was his. His memory of a lonely childhood, blending so perfectly with my own thoughts I didn’t recognize the intrusion. I’m impressed. That takes real finesse and skill.
<Did you mean to do that?> I ask.
There’s my answer. <You were thinking back to when you were younger, how isolated you felt.>
He mutters something I can’t distinguish, then, clearly, “No. I don’t know how that happened.”
<Don’t worry about it. It’s the drug. It messes with your control.>
In all his lonely sorrow there was no grief for the thiri he lost. This stands out, not in a bad way, just in a notable way. <Do you remember him?>
“No. Sometimes that makes me feel bad but I think it’s easier, for me at least. I can only grieve the idea of what I lost.”
<What was his name?> Why am I asking so many questions? This isn’t like me.
“Caelan.” He pauses. “How long will this ‘drug’ be messing with my control?”
<I don’t know. In fact…>
At the edge of my vision I see him turn to look at me. “What?”
<Well, to get you out of there I gave you some of my energy. When that wears off… Well, I can’t say from personal experience but I expect there’ll be a nasty rebound effect.>
Carson slumps. “Fantastic. When will that happen?”
<I’m not sure, actually. I didn’t sleep last night, planning how I was going to get you out, so it’ll be brutal when that drain catches up to me too.>
“Sounds like we need to get to Headquarters as soon as possible. What next?”
It’s best to stick with the original plan for getting me home. <We’re hitting the mall, of course.> A bark of laughter escapes me at his look of dismay.
I’ve avoided anything that might be traced from me to Headquarters. No cell phone. No car. Definitely not a telamp. A telepathic amplifying device is for talking to fellow Chosen across long distances. Most look like smart phones, even have smart phones built in, but the risk of one falling into human hands was too great. My only means of communication has been a microscopic implant that transmits a telepathic message to Headquarters when activated. Depending on the message sent, a high level telepath would be sent to speak with me, or my information would be passed on and used appropriately. In an emergency an extraction team could have been sent to retrieve me.
Every year when I go on leave, I hitch a ride from one of the other soldiers whose time off coincides with mine. I ask to be dropped off at Cal Fair, the largest mall in San Calloway. My excuse is wanting to have gifts for my girlfriend – flowers, See’s Candy, jewelry, the typical ‘feminine shit.’ They call me a pussy but take me to Cal Fair without further comment. There, I lose myself in the throng of giddy teenagers, buy a gift card at Be Venturesome Books for my childhood friend Arelia, and meet Davonte in the food court. We walk back to her car and she drives me to Headquarters, using a rather long and circuitous route. She’s supposed to be there at 1400 today. It’s 1313 now.
I explain the basics of this to Carson, whose only comment is to suggest I clean myself up a bit before setting foot in public. Several miles later I pull over. Some scrounging about reveals a roll of paper towels in the backseat, and a bottle of water in the cup holder between us, warm from too long in the car.
Fortunately I’ve stopped bleeding. It’s painful to clean the caked blood away. I can’t help but wince at the rub of rough paper against tender skin but when I’m done I appear almost normal. Almost. My nose is slightly bent, my lip is cut, and a bruise is starting to form beneath my right ear. It looks like I got into a fight that already ended, as opposed to it being likely that someone is still chasing me to finish what they started. At least the dark blue of my uniform makes it so the bloodstains are only obvious if you’re looking for them.
I appraise Carson critically. He’s not quite as bad as when I first saw him in the cell. People will probably think he’s suffering from a hang over, the kind that had him puking not that long ago. It’ll have to do. We arrive at Cal Fair at 1345. I park in the enormous lot behind Macy’s, as close to the entrance as possible. At Carson’s insistence, we leave the Pathfinder locked with the keys inside.
The pavement radiates the day’s heat, and we cross it languidly. I’m tired; Carson struggles to stay on his feet, nearly falling three times. I wanted to appear inconspicuous but by the time we’re inside Macy’s it’s clear he’s not going to make it without help. I bring my arm around his shoulders, he clutches his arm around me, clumsy and unsteady. In this way we eventually reach Jamba Juice, directly across from where Macy’s joins the rest of the mall.
Davonte stands near the line of thirsty shoppers waiting to order, dressed all in black that does little to make her less eye catching. Her muscular seven feet looms over the crowd, drawing second glances from many. She spots us instantly and her expression hardens into the kind of glare that would frighten veterans and warlords. No matter. I can deal with it. She crosses the space with long strides, effortlessly parting the shoppers before her to take over my support of Carson.
<Wearing all black doesn’t work,> I say in lieu of greeting. <You’re more visible than the ‘M’ for McDonald’s.>
Davonte doesn’t glance at me or respond. Disapproval nearly irradiates me so I stay quiet. Twenty minutes later we’re in the backseat of her car, heading to Headquarters, though you wouldn’t know it, since right now we’re driving in the opposite direction. She won’t demand explanations until we’re there; even without them, Davonte knows there’s more reason than usual to be careful.
I lean back, glad to relinquish control to someone who hasn’t been attacked today and probably slept a full eight hours last night. Carson has lapsed into silence and I don’t have the energy to speak. The only sounds in the car are those of the quiet engine and tires against road.
Exhaustion sweeping over me, I weigh the benefits of staying awake and am decidedly siding with sleep when empty water bottles shoot up from the backseat floor to hit the ceiling, making me jump. They bounce a few times before falling as abruptly as they rose.
Carson is groaning, thrashing against his seat belt. Sweat pours down his face. The energy transfer has worn off. The drug is wreaking havoc on his mind.
<He’ll be okay,> I tell Davonte. <It’s allucinari. He hasn’t been inoculated. I’ll explain later.>
Davonte nods once.
I should help Carson somehow, try to soothe the blank terror that is splashing at my thoughts, but the knowledge that we’ll be safe even if I do nothing drags me toward oblivion. I turn to look through the window. The beach stretches out to our left. White sand and aqua waves, rolling forward, away, forward…