Category Archives: Year of Stories

Escape Velocity

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STAND BY . . .

I thought stasis would be like sleeping. I thought I’d simply close my eyes on Earth and when I opened them I’d be a hundred light-years away, with no memory of the intervening time or the immense distance I had travelled.

STAND BY . . .

I’ve discovered that stasis isn’t instant. It isn’t empty. It isn’t restful. It’s more like a slow, swirling dream, a ghostly voyage through the events and emotions that you thought you were leaving behind.

STAND BY . . .

I thought stasis would be an escape, but I’ve spent the absent infinity of our voyage through space exploring the inside of my own head, reliving every one of those moments, those days, those joys, those sorrows.

INITIATE AWAKENING . . .

I was just TEN . . . years old when I met Molly. She was singlehandedly responsible for lifting me out of the juvenile “girls have cooties” mindset that characterizes so many young boys’ early days and kick-starting my adolescence. She entered my life that morning with short red hair pulled back by a white headband, round, rosy cheeks, and a button nose surrounded by about a million of the cutest freckles I’d even seen. There was a lily blossom tucked behind her ear. I thought she was an angel.

That very day I declared on the playground that I was going to make Molly my girlfriend and get her to kiss me, no matter how long it took. The preteen grape vine carried my declaration to Molly’s ears, and after that she was so embarrassed that she wouldn’t even make eye contact with me. I knew I had set myself a real challenge, but that only heightened my determination.

It took me NINE . . . months, just about the entire school year, to even get her to laugh at one of my jokes. It was a dumb joke, too, nowhere close to my cleverest. She was sitting in the tire swing while I dangled from the monkey bars with one of my friends. “A big moron and a little moron were sitting on a fence,” I said. “A gust of wind came along and blew the big moron off. Why didn’t the other guy fall? Because he was a little more-on!” When she giggled at the punch line I was so surprised that I imitated the joke by losing my grip on the monkey bars, falling down, and breaking my arm. It was entirely worth it.

I spent the last few weeks of school in a cast. Everyone signed it, and Molly put a smiley face next to her name. When the doctor cut the cast off, I asked him to save that piece for me.

“Your girlfriend?” he asked me with a wink.

“Not yet, but she will be,” I told him sincerely.

EIGHT . . . years later I asked Molly to go to the prom with me. I’d been working my way up to it for months, trying to gauge her interest, stressing over the possibility of rejection, wondering how she might interpret the request. We’d been friends for a long time at that point. We hung out during lunch every now and then, shared parts of our music collections, and went to some of the same parties, but despite all my hints and advances she’d never showed any real interest in me. I wasn’t even sure whether I wanted my prom invitation to “mean” anything, but she blushed when she said “Yes,” and I couldn’t stop smiling for an entire week afterwards.

Prom was the happiest night of my life. I presented Molly with a corsage of white lilies. The way her face lit up when she saw it made my heart jump into my throat. The event stretched on past midnight, and when it was over we joined up with some friends of ours for an all-nighter after party. We spent the entire night talking, laughing, watching movies, and playing games.

I dropped Molly off at home at SEVEN . . . o’clock the next morning. She was half asleep. Her eyelids were drooping, her hair was all mussed up into a soft, fuzzy halo, and she had tucked the lily from her corsage behind her ear, just like the day I met her. I couldn’t help it: I asked her to go out with me right there on her parents’ porch. That was the day I finally got my kiss, and it was worth every minute of those years of waiting.

That summer passed in a blur. I remember holding hands on the beach, riding the rollercoaster at the state fair, the road trip we went on to go see our favourite band, and the fancy dinner I spent an entire day preparing for her. All of the amazing memories we built with one another have blended together in my mind into one big, cozy ball of joy, warmth, and contentment.

Then, a few days before our SIX . . . -month anniversary, Molly told me she wanted to break up.

I wanted to know why.

She said things just “weren’t working” for her anymore.

It was a nothing explanation. It left me full of pain and questions. I was crushed.

I spent a week alone in my bedroom afterwards, only coming out when I absolutely had to, lying on my bed watching the movies we had watched together, listening to the music we had listened to together, looking at that little piece of plaster she had signed her name on back in elementary school.

Life went on. I got a part-time job, went to college. I told my friends I was over her so many times that eventually I started to believe it was true.

It was FIVE . . . years before I saw Molly again. I was working at a hardware store on the weekends, trying to pay my way through my last year of college, and she came in hanging off the arm of some guy who looked like he’d never held a hammer in his life. She had let her hair get long, her eyes were older and darker, and her smile was subdued, restrained, grown up. The girl I had known was gone; she had become a woman.

She saw me, did a double-take, and broke into a wide smile. In that moment I saw the girl inside of her, shining brightly like a summer day. She hugged me, and I knew then that I had never gotten over her, that I would never get over her.

Molly introduced the man she’d come in with as her fiancé, and the floor dropped out from under my feet. She told him I was an “old friend.” I shook his hand and stared into his eyes, searching for some weakness, some flaw that would justify my instant hatred of him. But the only thing I could determine was that she loved him instead of me, that he had taken away my girl and made her into his woman. That, I decided, was crime enough.

FOUR . . . days later I got a card in the mail inviting me to their wedding. I don’t know why she invited me. I wish she hadn’t.

In the photo on the front of the invitation, Molly was wearing earrings shaped like lilies. I put the picture on my fridge, sat at the kitchen table, and stared at it for hours.

I don’t know why I went. I don’t know what deep masochism led me to make the drive to the church, to sit in that uncomfortable pew, to clench my fists so tightly that my nails dug into my palms, to finger the piece of plaster in my pocket as I watched her stride radiantly up the aisle, shimmering in her white dress like a flower, like a lily bloom, like my dreams.

I imagined myself in his place, dressed in his THREE . . . -piece suit, coming down those steps, shaking hands with her father, taking her arm, leading her to the altar. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think.

Then she cut through the last weak, faint thread of hope that had been holding my broken heart together with TWO . . . simple words: “I do.”

I found myself at the Colonization Office the very next day. The lady there handed me a brochure and a consent form and told me to think over my decision carefully. I sat down and pretended to read the words describing the difficulties of space travel, the challenges of the pioneer life, the emotional hardship of the relativistic effects of faster-than-light travel, how everyone you knew would be long dead by the time you arrived at your destination. It didn’t surprise me how easy it was to sever my connection to Earth, how little I cared about leaving behind everything and everyone I’d ever known. I’d already done it emotionally.

It only took ONE . . . signature to get me on that spaceship.

DISENGAGE STASIS . . .

I’m lying in my stasis pod, eyes closed, skin cold and damp. My ears are filled with the hiss and hum of technology, of thousands of pods like mine disengaging the mechanisms that have kept us alive, kept us young, during our long sojourn through space.

A mechanical voice is informing us that we have arrived at our destination, that we are now thousands of light-years from Earth, in orbit over a blue-green planet with a breathable atmosphere and immense stores of liquid water. Here we are, as far from my heartbreak and my history as it is possible to be, separated from my past by an impossible distance and the turning of irretrievable centuries.

I open my eyes. All around me the other colonists are stretching their long-disused muscles, stepping out of their pods, dressing themselves, greeting their neighbours excitedly.

But I just stare at the viewscreen overhead, watching the projected image of our new home. Amid the swirling white cloud patterns skimming the planet’s surface, I see the shape of a lily.

END

Darla, Dragon Hunter

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My “friends” think I’m a paralegal. I do my best to keep them believing that idea: I live downtown, a short walk from all the big office buildings; I dress the part, during the day, in grey pantsuits and overstated lipstick; and I join in all the mindless complaining about workplace stresses and romantic endeavours. I amuse myself, during our regular group lunch dates, by wondering what the other girls would say if they found out that a couple of times a month I hop into my SUV, head out of city limits, meet up with a tall, handsome man (whom I have no romantic interest in whatsoever), exchange my pantsuit for camo gear and a high-tech sniper rifle, and hunt dragons.

They’d probably think I was joking. Fine by me.

Today we’re in a café on the ground floor of a tower built by some bank or another. There are five of them, sipping at their lattés and pecking at their side salads like hens while I take big bites out of my clubhouse sandwich and try to tune out their inane banter.

“How’s work going for you, Darla?” says Connie.

I apologetically cover my mouth and keep chewing. Sometimes this works to deflect the conversation away from me. Not today.

“You’re really scarfing that sandwich down!” Connie titters, waving her tiny plastic fork at me. “Do you have somewhere to be? Some man waiting for you in a private cubicle back at the office?” She breaks into a Cheshire grin and a couple of the others lean forward, hoping to hear something juicy that might stimulate their underdeveloped brains.

I swallow. “No, nothing like that,” I say. “I just… slept in this morning and didn’t have time for breakfast.”

“Oh, I never eat breakfast!” says Betty, the thinnest (and most sickly looking) of the bunch. “Unless you count orange juice and a Vitamin D pill, I guess.”

“I usually have one of those pro-bacterial yogurts,” says Connie.

“I’ve thought about that,” says Betty. “What brand do you buy?”

And now they’re off on that tangent, so I gratefully take another bite of my sandwich.

Soon Betty and Julie have to head back to work, and Annie accompanies Parvati to the restroom, leaving me as the only target of Connie’s prying conversationalism. I know I won’t escape so easily this time. My sandwich is gone now, but I hold my coffee close to my face, staring into it and taking frequent small sips.

“So, seriously, Darla, any interesting romantic developments lately?” she says, leaning forward and resting her chin in her hand.

“No,” I say, “not since Nicholas moved away.” Nicholas is a guy I made up about a year ago so they’d stop bothering me about how I never seemed to be interested in any men. It turned out to be counter-productive: they kept asking so many questions about him that I would forget what I’d said he did for a living, or the colour of his hair, or whether we’d had our first kiss yet, and eventually they were pressing so hard to meet him that I said we’d broken up because of a job offer he’d received on the other side of the country.

“Do you two ever talk these days?” Her tone is a bit too sympathetic, a bit too friendly, a bit too disingenuous. Connie is the only one who ever seemed to suspect that Nicholas might not be real.

“We kept up for a few weeks,” I say, “but you know how it is. We’ve just grown apart, I guess.”

“Sure,” she says, pouting her precious little lips in mock pity. “Don’t worry; I’m sure you’ll find someone new before long.”

“Uh huh,” I say, and reach for a newspaper someone has left behind on the table next to ours. The cover story is a big spread about a report that was just released on the number of dragon-related deaths over the past two years. I don’t want to show too much interest—I’m not supposed to be the kind of person who cares about that kind of thing, after all—so I casually flip past it.

Connie catches the cover as it falls open, though. “Ooh, I was waiting for this article to come out.” She holds the page up and puckers her forehead as she starts to skim through the paragraphs. I let her read. “Wow,” she says. “Did you know that three people from this area die every month, on average, from dragon attacks?”

“Really?” I say mildly.

“They’re poachers, a lot of them,” she continues. “I don’t know what kind of person would go out on their own and track down a dragon. Seems like a pretty stupid thing to do. That kind of thing should really be left to the professionals.”

“Yeah,” I say, with as much false conviction as I can muster.

Connie looks up from the paper with her I-have-a-secret face. “I bet you didn’t know my brother-in-law is in a Dragon Patrol.”

“Kiefer?” I say. I’ve met him once before, at a New Year’s Eve party. “Since when?”

“He just joined up a month ago, part-time. He’s on call, just for when they need an extra set of hands because one of the regulars can’t make it.” Her voice lowers conspiratorially, and she glances around us. “He actually went out on his first call this morning. I’m not supposed to know that, but my sister told me.”

This is information worth having. I put on an impressed expression. “So there’s been a dragon spotted, you think?”

“Must’ve been,” she says.

“Where do you think it was?”

“I don’t know.” She shrugs. “My sister said he was just told ‘east’ somewhere.”

It isn’t much, but it’s enough. I deflect the conversation to something more mundane again, and as soon as Annie and Parvati return from the restroom I excuse myself, saying I have to return to the office. I leave some money on the table and speed-walk down to the parkade, where my SUV is waiting. There’s no need to stop by home or check the back of the car. I always keep my rifle and a good stock of ammunition under the floor in the trunk, and a set of equipment stashed underneath the seat.  I have everything I need.

I use my SUV’s Bluetooth connection to speed-dial Fritz.

“There’s something happening to the east,” I say. “I’m already on my way.”

“I’m on it,” he says. “I’ll have it narrowed down as soon as possible.”

“Keep me updated.” I hang up. There’s no need to be more specific than that. Dragons are the only thing Fritz and I ever talk about. He’s my Spotter: he tracks down the dragons and flushes them out for me. I do the shooting.

It’s rare that I get a tip before Fritz does. He’s the one who really has his ear on the ground. I can’t afford to stick my neck out tracking down leads like he does. I’m the Shooter: I’m public enemy number one. If the government ever even suspected who I was, I’d have a SWAT team breaking down my door with their guns drawn.

It’s kind of funny, really, the war they wage against me and the other dozen or so Shooters I’m aware of across the country. On the surface, you’d think the government would appreciate our efforts. We do what the Dragon Patrols are supposed to do: we kill dragons. But despite that, the government labels us poachers and does everything it can to shut us down. They say they’ve criminalized our hunts because they’re too dangerous. They talk about all the deaths and publicly beg us to stand back while they handle the reptilian menace.

But those numbers in the report Connie was reading are a pretty twisted version of the truth. I only know of three hunters who have ever been killed by dragons, while I know of at least seven or eight more whose deaths were blamed on dragons when really it was Dragon Patrol bullets, not draconian teeth or flame, that ended their lives. The rest of those tragic deaths? Sure, some of them are civilians, but more of them are actually Dragon Patrollers. The patrols have an astonishingly high attrition rate.

We soldier on and protect ourselves the best we can. It would be futile to go to the media: the government controls those outlets. No one would believe us if we told them that when the Patrols are out hunting their dragons, they never shoot to kill. Most people don’t even know about the diamonds.

In ancient myths, dragons hoard gold, silver, and jewels in their mountain caves. Those stories come from historical misinterpretations: explorers found abandoned dragon nests, lined with diamonds and diamond dust, and exaggerated their discoveries until everyone was convinced that each dragon nest was a veritable treasure trove. The relatively mundane fact of the matter is that the dragons couldn’t care much less about diamonds: they literally crap them out.

We’ve known for decades that dragons’ digestive systems operate in what seems like a uniquely impossible way. They’re saxivores: they eat rocks and coal, and by some process which science is so far unable to explain, their feces come out as finely ground gravel and diamonds. What would you do with information like that?

Dragon habitat has been disappearing for centuries, leading to more and more encounters between dragons and humans. Like any other animal, a dragon will lash out if cornered or threatened. The number of “meteor strikes” being reported across the country started to grow rapidly about twenty years ago, as the government tried to cover up what was actually going on. In the meantime, they were sacrificing the lives of their soldiers to capture dragons for research. Eventually cover-ups became impossible, though, so they went public with the dragons’ existence and adopted their new strategy, employing civilians to fill the holes in the ranks of their Dragon Patrols, criminalizing any “unregulated” contact with dragons, and claiming their goal was to eradicate the dangerous, unpredictable beasts.

The first independent dragon hunter was a government employee named Hyatt. He saw what was happening, saw the number of deaths among the patrols and the amount of damage being done to our farmland, and decided he’d had enough. He made it his personal mission to kill the dragons off and stop the cycle of death.

Hyatt was the one who manufactured the first diamond-tipped bullets. He created the tactics and technology that the rest of use today. Funding his efforts with money he made selling dragon diamonds on the black market, he began to recruit and equip others and teach them about the government’s lies. Fritz and I were two of his earliest students.

Four years ago the government caught Hyatt slipping poison into the coal that was being fed to a captive dragon, so they locked him in the cage with it and claimed there’d been an “accident.” That’s what we’re up against.

The government wants its diamonds, and for that it needs dragons. The politicians have no interest in seeing the dragons killed off. They don’t care how many innocent ranchers and college kids like Connie’s brother-in-law have to die.

Fritz and I and all the rest of us aren’t prepared to accept that, so we take the dragons out every chance we get. Some of the hunters think we should be turning our scopes on the government research teams and leaving the dragons alone, but that was never Hyatt’s vision. If there were no more dragons, there’d be no more research teams, no more capture attempts, no more needless civilian deaths. We’re in this to save human lives, not to take them.

It’s raining today. The deluge pounds down, and my wipers sweep back and forth like pistons as I navigate through traffic to the highway. I notice a long, thin crack in my windshield where yesterday there was only a chip. I’ve been meaning to go to a glass shop and get it repaired, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Probably need to replace the whole thing, now. Oh well. I’m not exactly short on funds; no dragon hunter is. If the government started cracking down on the black market for dragon diamonds, they’d only be making it more difficult to move their own supply.

I’m about half an hour out of the city when Fritz calls me. “I’ve got it,” he says. “I picked up some D Patrol radio chatter. Head for the old black-rock seam in the Highlands.” We never say words like “coal,” “dragon,” or even “government” on the phone. There are too many computers listening in for those kinds of keywords.

“Didn’t we pick one off there two months ago?” I say.

“The Ds are probably searching out new ‘restaurants’ since the Patrols started staking out that gravel pit. I can text you the GPS coordinates.”

“No need. I remember where it is,” I say. “I’ll be there in twenty. Let me know when you get eyes on.”

I take an exit heading northeast. Ten minutes later I get caught behind a semi truck. I’m waiting for an opportunity to pass when a rock kicks up and smacks into my windshield. The existing crack instantly spiderwebs out across the entire pane of glass, obscuring my vision. I peek between the cracks and manage to negotiate my way onto the side of the road. I slam my hand on the dashboard in frustration.

The first thing I do is call Fritz. I’m close, so if he’s by his car there might be time for him to come get me, and I can call in a tow truck afterwards.

The call goes straight to voicemail.

Suddenly my car troubles are the least of my worries. If his battery was dying, he would’ve said something, and Fritz is far too conscientious to let that happen, anyways. The cell network is way too good these days for him to have just lost reception: he’d have to be sixty feet underground before his phone wouldn’t get a signal. So either his phone is broken, or he’s turned it off. I’ve never known Fritz to break anything by accident, and when we’re meeting up for a hunt we always keep our phones on, in case one of us has to call the other off.

There’s only one circumstance that might cause Fritz to turn his phone off, or maybe even to smash it: he’s been found by a Dragon Patrol.

A pit forms in my stomach. I can’t bear to think of what they might do to him, what they might be doing even now. If it was me they’d captured, I’d be dead in about as much time as it took for someone to pull a trigger. A Spotter, though, is worth more to them alive than dead. The Spotters are the ones who run our organization. They know our entire network; they know how and where to find all the Shooters. That information is far too valuable for the government to lose. It means torture, if Fritz won’t talk, and I know he won’t. He’s too strong for that.

I know what I’m supposed to do next. If I suspect that Fritz has been captured, I have to report it to my backup contact, go straight home, pack up everything, and head to a Safe House until one of the other Spotters gets in touch with me.

I already know that’s out of the question. I can’t leave Fritz in their hands. I won’t allow him to be taken back to the city and tortured for days, or even weeks, until they either extract everything they can from him or give up and let him die. He’s more than my Spotter: he’s my friend. I won’t abandon my friend.

If he knew what I was about to do, he’d be furious. I can picture his face right now, his blond eyebrows knitted together in consternation and his strong hands gesturing emphatically as he lectures me. “Call a tow truck, right this minute,” he’s saying. “Or leave it behind and hitch-hike back, if you have to. You are worth way too much to throw yourself away for me. If they have me already, then they know you’re on your way to meet me. Don’t be a fool.”

But I’m not listening. Fritz can vent as much fury as he wants on me next time I see him. At least it’ll mean he’s alive.

So I reach under the back seat, unzip my bag of gear, take out my sleek black hunting mask, and settle it onto my face. Then I slip off my flats, tug on my boots, and lean back as far as I can in my seat. The windshield is too shattered for me to see through it, and if I can’t see, then I can’t drive. I brace myself with my left foot, rear back with my right, and hammer it into the glass.

It takes three kicks for the windshield to shatter into pieces, and I take a few seconds to clean out the jagged edges with the thick rubber of my boots’ heels. Rain is pouring into the car now, but I don’t care. I’m going to get wet one way or another, and after this I’ll probably need a new car anyways, and a new address, too.

I drive. My mask only covers the upper half of my face, so the raindrops smack into my cheeks, stinging my skin. I use the sleeve of my jacket to wipe the shield of my mask clean every few seconds to maintain visibility. No matter what I do, it’s hard to see, but I speed up, faster and faster, thinking only of what Fritz might be going through. I almost miss the turn-off, but I see the sign just in time and squeal on the brakes to make the corner. Now I’m on a dirt road, climbing up the foothills of the mountain, churning through mud and bouncing recklessly across the potholes. Lightning strikes the mountainside.

I recognize a landmark in the near distance, a tall, dead tree standing out among a copse of firs. Last time Fritz and I met at these coal mines we used that tree as a signpost. I pull off the dirt road and jump out of my car. I throw on my camo jacket, as much for warmth as anything else, but leave on my suit pants. There’s no time to worry about that. I tear up the floor of the trunk so I can get at my rifle and a spare clip of ammo. I leave everything else behind.

As I sprint towards that stand of firs, good sense manages to make itself heard over my inner frenzy. I slow down and start to pay attention to the noise I’m making. It won’t matter how quickly I get there if they hear me coming.

It takes me ten minutes to work my way through the woods to a good vantage point where I can scout out our meeting spot. I look through my sniper scope, because I left my binoculars in the SUV. I don’t know if he was intending to choose this same rendezvous, but I have to hope he was. Otherwise I have an entire mountainside to comb.

I see something: there’s a tear in the grass and two branches have been broken off of one of the smaller trees at about shoulder height. Signs of struggle? No, it’s too subtle for that. These marks were left intentionally. Maybe Fritz left them as a signal for me, so I’d know he’d been there.

Then another interpretation occurs to me: Fritz wouldn’t have wanted me to try to rescue him, so why would he have left me signs? It’s more likely that the Dragon Patrol left the marks as a way to trap me.

I ask myself what they will expect me to do if they think I’m going to come looking for Fritz. What kind of trap might they set? The patrols always bring a big truck along to transport the dragons they capture. They use it a sort of mobile headquarters on their hunts. That’s the most logical place for them to have brought Fritz. The question is whether they’ll try to ambush me here by the rendezvous site, or whether they’ll centre their trap on the convoy. If I were them, I’d leave the rendezvous point clear and set a wide perimeter around the convoy to catch me on my way in. That’s the setup I’ll have to count on defeating.

The first piece of information I need, then, is the location of the convoy. This kind of thing is usually Fritz’s job. I try to think of how he would go about getting a sightline on a landed dragon. What’s that thing he always says? Right: “Need to see? Climb a tree.”

I sling my rifle onto my back and pick a tall, thick fir with strong, spoked branches. I begin to climb. How does Fritz do this so quickly? He’s bigger and heavier than I am, but still far nimbler. He’d get to the top of this tree in a minute or two. It takes me much longer. The branches are wet and slippery, and the rifle on my back makes it awkward to negotiate my way under, over, and between them. My thin pants catch a few times and tear. The leaves and branches scratch at my face and hands.

I finally reach a perch above the main tree line and take a moment to catch my breath. The rain is still falling, but it’s lighter now. I can’t see as far as I’d hoped, but there are gaps in the approaching clouds. The sun is starting to burn through.

Making sure that I’m secure in the crook between two thick branches, I bring my scope up to my eye and scan the forest, starting with the dead tree below me where I believe Fritz was taken and sweeping back and forth across my range of vision, in a broader arc with every pass. There’s a hill on the far side of the tree that rises a hundred feet or so and falls into a valley on the other side. As I follow the curve of the valley the rain stops and the sun begins to warm my face. I realize how cold I’ve been, without noticing. I try to stop noticing again.

Some colour and movement catches my eye in the valley. It could be the transport truck, or one of the patrol’s other vehicles. If their trucks are moving, they may not even be bothering to trap me. Maybe they’re just taking Fritz, forgetting about the dragon that’s supposed to be out here somewhere, and returning to the city. If so, there’s nothing I can do. I can’t take on a moving convoy on my own. I hold my breath as the movement approaches a gap in the trees.

It isn’t the patrol; it’s the dragon. She’s a massive specimen, black and silver with a long neck and sleek, scaly wings. She is old, beautiful, and terrible. The afternoon sun glistens on the diamond dust encrusted into her underside from years of nesting amid her own feces. These dragons are creatures of filth, but also of majesty. It’s a pity, in some ways, that our world can no longer be theirs. Out of habit, I find my scope wandering to the weak spot in her skull, just below and in front of her ear, where I know my diamond-tipped bullet could lay her to rest. I wonder idly how many humans she has killed.

I react to the sound the same time she does: the crack of a gunshot cuts through the air, followed shortly after by an echo off the mountains. The dragon raises her head swiftly and looks up into the trees. My heart pounds in my ears. Who was on the other end of that shot?

I swing my scope in the direction of the sound and find a clearing, hidden before by the mist of rain, only a kilometre or two up the road from where I left my SUV. The transport truck is parked there, along with two vans painted in drab military green.

There’s movement in my scope, in the form of several ant-sized bodies. I reach up and adjust the zoom, enlarging the scene. Black-clad Dragon Patrol squad members are scrambling, diving behind their vehicles. I hear more gun shots and see sparks fly off the bumper of one of the vans. A motionless body is lying on the grass, the recipient of the first bullet, I assume. But where is the shooter?

I find him crouched behind a tree. Fritz is holding one of the patrol’s rifles, peppering their hiding spots with suppressive fire. Now they are fighting back, and the echoes of their gunshots boom off the mountainside. Run, Fritz! I think. Why don’t you run? They outnumber him at least ten to one. It will only be a matter of seconds before they realize how easily they can flank him.

I steady my rifle and settle my sights on the edge of one of the vans, where I’ve seen one of the patrollers hiding. Fritz has no chance to make it out on his own, but he does have me. From this distance, wind and elevation will make any shots I take extremely difficult, but I have years of practice. I settle my finger on the trigger and wait for my target to show himself.

I see a curve of black, then the patroller swings out from behind his cover. He readies his rifle inexpertly, and I bring my sights up to his face.

I recognize his features: this is Connie’s brother-in-law, Kiefer, the one I met once in passing at a party. He’s just a child, really, a 21-year-old student looking to pick up some extra cash. He has no idea that only a quarter-inch movement of my finger separates him from death. Can I do this? Can I take a human life?

These thoughts flash through my mind in less than a second before I find myself adjusting my aim from his head down to his arm. Just as I’m squeezing the trigger, the patroller takes his own shot, and the recoil from his weapon makes him stumble. My bullet drops less than I expected and smacks into and through a tree in line with where his head had been. He scuttles back into cover.

My heart catches in my throat. I just nearly killed a man. It surprises me what effect that idea is having. A shiver runs over my body, some mixture of shock and adrenaline. I lift my eye from my scope and take a deep breath to settle myself. My conscience is blaring, but I try to tune it out. Fritz needs me.

Then I realize I haven’t heard any shots fired since my own. Instantly I turn my scope on the place where Fritz had been. At first I don’t see him, but I bring my gaze down to the base of the tree. He’s lying there, sprawled backwards on the grass, eyes wide and unblinking. Bile leaps into my throat, and the blood drains from my head. I nearly lose my balance, but grab at a branch and resettle myself in my perch. Tears are springing into my eyes, fogging my vision. I lift my mask and wipe it clear, blinking the tears away. I go back to the scope and zoom in on Fritz’s face and chest, searching desperately for any signs of movement that might tell me he’s still alive, that the shot taken by Connie’s brother-in-law hasn’t ripped the only person in this world that I really care about out of my life.

A roiling howl penetrates my panic, and a wash of orange and yellow catches my peripheral vision. The dragon has entered the fray.

The gunshots start up again, in earnest, and the dragon’s flames flow. The vehicles are all alight in seconds, and I see the Patrollers fleeing into the trees. They are not prepared for this onslaught. Their tactics are centred around surprising a dragon, surrounding it, and pumping its hide full of dozens of tranquilizer cartridges. Their standoff with Fritz has left them unprepared. Their guns are probably still loaded with the wrong ammunition. I wonder if they fear punishment from their government masters if they shoot to kill the dragon instead of capturing it.

Some small flame deep in my chest burns brighter as I watch the futile efforts of the Dragon Patrol to escape the destruction. The black beast is wreaking justice on my behalf. If Fritz is dead, I begin to think, then I hope they die, too.

I look down to Fritz again and take in the details of his face. His hair is mussed up and his eyebrows are raised as if in surprise. The damp, rough skin of his forehead and cheeks gleams softly. His beautiful blue eyes stare into empty space, and his strong, square jaw hangs open. Just above his collar I see a tiny puff of red. The feathers of a tranquilizer dart.

Something in his throat twitches.

Hope surges up inside me. He’s alive! Breathe! I command him, with every ounce of energy that I can put into the thought. Live!

I swing my sights around to the dragon. She’s peeling back the roof of a van with her jaws as bullets and darts ping ping ping off her hide. A few lucky shots appear to have found chinks in her armour, but not yet enough, not by far. These patrollers have neither the skill nor the equipment to kill a dragon quickly. The forest is beginning to burn.

The side of the dragon’s head is turned towards me, and her soft temple is exposed. Having seen Fritz alive, I don’t think twice: I line up my sights, adjust my aim based on the trajectory of my previous shot, and squeeze the trigger. The dragon reels, chokes out a massive gout of orange flame, and collapses amid the wreckage of the vans.

There are several seconds of stillness before the patrollers step out of the trees. They advance cautiously, but soon discover that the dragon is well and truly dead. A few of the patrollers yank a hose out of the side of the transport truck and start to spray fire-retardant foam on the burning vehicles and trees.

I train my sights on one of the patrollers who has a red stripe around his helmet. He is kneeling by the dragon’s head and frowning. I could kill him, even more easily than I have just killed the dragon, but something inside me makes me watch and wait. He stands and says something to a woman near him, who hands him a pair of binoculars. He raises them to his eyes and starts to scan the tree line. I keep my scope centred on his forehead.

He sees me and freezes in place.

I could put a diamond-tipped bullet right through the lens of his binoculars, but still I don’t. I whisper, “You don’t have to be my enemy.”

He lowers his binoculars slowly and takes off his helmet. I watch him close his eyes and put his hand over his heart. He stands that way for three seconds, six, ten, gritting his teeth as he waits to die.

Eventually his eyes flutter open, and I see him exhale. The grimace on his face melts away. He turns his eyes in my direction, his eyes narrowed in consternation, then raises his hand to his forehead in salute.

Taking a radio from his belt, he begins to speak into it. He yells towards the rest of the Patrollers in the clearing and they turn towards the transport truck. One of them climbs into the cab and a puff of exhaust signals the starting of the engine. The trailer is damaged, but the cab is mostly unharmed. The Patrollers, including their leader and Connie’s brother-in-law, pile into the trailer through the rear doors. After a minute, four others—they must be the perimeter watchmen who were waiting to ambush me—jog in from the forest. They, too, jump into the trailer, pulling the doors shut behind them. The truck wheels around and chugs down the dirt road towards the highway.

I watch them go for several minutes, wary of some deceit. They may again be trying to trap me. My patience can only hold for so long, though, and then I’m scrambling down out of the tree and sprinting through the woods towards the place where Fritz lies. As I get closer, I follow the sounds of the still-burning vans.

He’s still lying as I saw him, but his head has dropped to the side now, and his eyes are closed. He’s breathing evenly. I drop my mask to the ground, pluck the tranquilizer out of his neck, and lift him in my arms. The rain begins to fall again, lightly. I’m shaking with the release of adrenaline and tears are streaming down my face, more tears than I’ve cried in the past fifteen years combined. I don’t care that my car is trashed; that my thin pants are a lattice of rips, and my legs are torn and bleeding beneath them; that Fritz and I are both going to have to go into hiding, probably for months, maybe for years. He’s alive. He’s alive.

Eventually I recover enough to drag Fritz into deeper cover, and I take out my phone to call in help from another Spotter who can evacuate us covertly. As I relay the details of our position, I wonder what Connie would think if she knew that after lunch I had hopped in my SUV, driven for an hour, covered up my pantsuit with camo gear, come inches from murdering her brother-in-law with a high-tech sniper rifle, and thrown away the secure, comfortable lifestyle of my false identity in order to save the life of a man who was clearly much more than a friend to me, after all.

She’d probably think I was joking. Fine by me.

END

Memoirs of the Model Agent: How I Rescued Mr. Dimbles

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Preface

You probably know me from the ad campaigns. I’ve been the face of the Chancellorate’s Security Forces for two or three years, now. “The Model Agent,” they call me, when they use me as an example in their training modules. “See how Agent Connolly did it?” they say. “Do it like that. Do it her way.” Really they mean their way, and they twist their stories about me accordingly, but that’s fine, and mostly harmless. In the end, agents learn by experience, not in the classroom, just like anyone else.

The one thing I don’t like about being the smiling model on the front of their textbooks is that I tend to get painted as some kind of hero. I was a good agent, but I’m not a hero. Not that kind of hero, anyways. Not their kind of hero. My career wasn’t nearly as glamorous as they like to paint it.

That’s why I’ve decided to share a few of the stories that haven’t been told about me before. I’m not calling anyone a liar; I’m not here to “set the records straight.” I just want to be represented on my own terms. I want to balance the scales a little, so you can see the bad with the good.

Why don’t I start near the beginning?

***

Chapter 1: How I Rescued Mr. Dimbles

It’s a tough job being an agent of the Chancellorate’s Security Forces. Aside from the numerous international threats that the CSF has to deal with, there’s plenty of domestic discontent, as well. The chancellors’ political decisions are rarely popular. We agents used to joke that the chancellors need protection from themselves as much as they do from anyone else. And beyond placing themselves in the line of fire, agents also experience the stress and aggravation of dealing with the whims, quirks, and fancies of the various chancellors, each of whom, it seems, can be uniquely exasperating.

I have my fair share of scars, both physical and psychiatric. My right leg is marked with a long burn I received blocking laser fire directed at the Northern Sub-Chancellor. My lungs are lined with scar tissue from the time I inhaled poison gas while checking the Secondary Executive Pre-Chancellor’s hotel room for traps. I have nightmares every Wednesday about the night I accidentally saw the Regal Lieutenant Chancellor in the shower. But all these wounds and difficulties have been worth it, because for all their imperfections I know that the chancellors’ regime has been far preferable to the chaos and darkness that came before.

Still, there were plenty of times where I wondered if the people I was protecting were really worth the sacrifices I made for them. In the early days I thought frequently about taking my mother’s advice to quit my job as an agent and go back to selling grapes and melons at our family’s roadside fruit stand. It took me a long time to work my way up the ladder to become the head of the Over-Chancellor’s personal bodyguards, which was where I first began to feel like I was actually making a direct difference to the security of our planet. Perseverance usually pays off.

The closest I ever came to quitting was one day back when I was a member of the entourage for the Junior Deputy Vice-Chancellor. He and his wife were nice enough people, as chancellors go. The two of them exuded a down-to-earth, homey kind of vibe that reminded me of being back on the farm. They had a little girl, a rascally two-year-old tyrant with fat cheeks and green eyes. We always referred to them as Baby, Mommy, and Daddy. To tell the truth, I’ve actually forgotten what their real names were.

Mommy and Daddy fawned over that child as if she represented every good thing that had ever taken place in the world. She had multiple closets full of toys, but there was one stuffed animal that she loved more than all the rest, a googly-eyed white bear called Mr. Dimbles. (Don’t ask me why I remember the toy’s name and not the people’s. Memories work in funny ways sometimes.)

We were out on a walk one morning, doing the rounds through downtown so Daddy and Mommy could show off Baby and get some good press release photos with John Smith and Jane Doe. There were six of us on duty, a small-sized retinue, by most chancellors’ standards. Baby was playing with Mr. Dimbles and soaking up all the cooing and “Aren’t you preciouses” that any toddler out in public is bound to attract.

It was all going pretty routinely, until a glassy-eyed man with a neck beard smiled at Baby kind of funny, leaned in close, snatched Mr. Dimbles away, and took off down the sidewalk. Baby started to wail like a police siren, and our well-oiled reflexes kicked in. I and two others, the pre-designated “Away Team,” whipped our blasters out of their holsters and tore off in pursuit, while the “Home Team” bustled Daddy, Mommy, and Baby towards the nearest shop to take cover in case of a secondary attack.

“Get Mr. Dimbles back!” screamed Mommy. “Don’t let him get away!”

The thief had Mr. Dimbles tucked under his arm like an old-fashioned football and was shoving his way through the crowd, hollering at everyone to get out of his way. I thought one of the more reckless bystanders might trip him up or tackle him as he went by, but then he pulled a blaster out from under his coat, turned it over his shoulder, and started firing at us. The agent beside me took a laser to the knee and went down.

The other two of us were just about to return the favour when Mommy’s voice pierced the air behind us. “Wait! Don’t shoot!” she shrieked. “You’ll hit Mr. Dimbles!

That made us hesitate just long enough for the guy to duck around a corner into an alleyway. We rumbled after him. When we hit the corner we were met by a hail of lasers and had to scramble back for cover. A flurry of hand signals and eye motions passed between us. We waited for a pause in the barrage and then I played the decoy, rolling across the mouth of the alley to the other side to draw the guy’s attention while my partner leaned out and returned fire, being careful not to hit the toy.

A laser grazed the thief’s shoulder. He howled and dropped his blaster, but held on to Mr. Dimbles. Then he set off running again. He had a bigger head start now, and seemed to know the maze of alleyways pretty well, but we managed to keep him in sight. He led us downhill until we broke out of the cover of the buildings and found ourselves standing at the top of the sea wall, with a 50-foot drop to the raging ocean below.

The thief was standing at the edge, huffing and puffing, holding Mr. Dimbles out through the fence, over the water, with his unwounded arm. “Stay back!” he warned us. “Any closer and the toy gets it!”

My partner whispered to me, “It’s just a toy…”

At a later point in my career, I probably would have shrugged it off, taken the shot, and let the toy fall where it may, but I was young and idealistic and, perhaps most importantly, proud. Not wanting to look foolish for having chased the guy halfway across the city already, I replied, “Baby absolutely adores that thing, and Daddy and Mommy think Baby is the centre of the universe. If we save that toy, I guarantee you it’ll be worth our while.”

My partner shrugged and allowed me to take the lead.

To the thief, I said, “Okay, you’ve got us. What happens next?”

“I have demands,” said the thief.

“What kind of demands?”

“My cousin is a political prisoner of the Chancellorate. I want his immediate release!”

“That’s very ambitious of you,” I said, “but my boss is only the Junior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, you know. He doesn’t really have that kind of authority. Maybe you should have kidnapped the Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s child’s favourite toy.”

“Oh,” he said. “But I’ve already gone to the trouble of kidnapping this one. It would be a waste if I didn’t try to get something out of it, don’t you think?”

“I suppose so,” I said.

“Can you give me a minute to come up with something else?”

He still had Mr. Dimbles dangling over the edge, so I decided to play along. “Sure. Take all the thinking time you need.”

A minute or so passed, during which he wrinkled his forehead and scratched his chin but appeared to be making little progress.

“Any new ideas?” I prompted him.

“Not yet,” he said. “The original plan took a lot of thinking, you know, and now I’m under all this pressure, and my shoulder really hurts… It would be easier if I had some ice cream. I always think better when I have ice cream.”

At this point, things were going bizarrely enough that I hardly even missed a beat. “We can get you some of that,” I said.

“Really?”

“Absolutely. Just sit tight.” I used my comm. unit to relay the request, and surreptitiously added a few details of my own to the order. About five minutes later a member of the Home Team showed up with a heaping bowl of vanilla ice cream covered in chocolate syrup. I’m still not sure how they got everything together so fast. Maybe they should be writing this book.

The thief’s eyes lit up. “Chocolate syrup?” he said. “My favourite!”

I took the bowl of ice cream and offered it to him. “Eat up,” I said. “Get those brain juices flowing. I’m sure you’ll come up with some new demands to give us in no time.”

“Thank you,” he said. Then he hesitated. “Hey, wait a second. I can’t hold the toy and eat ice cream at the same time. You’re trying to trick me! It won’t work; I’m not going to put the toy down. You’re going to have to feed me the ice cream yourself.”

It didn’t really make much of a difference, but I sighed as if he’d seen through my plan, picked up the spoon, and scooped a mouthful of ice cream for him. He opened his mouth, I stuck the spoon in, and slurped it up greedily.

Within a couple of seconds his eyes started to roll back a little. I quickly stepped forward, reached through the fence, and plucked the toy out of his hand before the sedative could take full effect. He moaned and I guided him to the ground as he crumpled into unconsciousness.

While the other agents stayed to watch the thief until a squad car could arrive to haul him off, I brought Mr. Dimbles back to the scene of the crime. I found the third Away Team member sitting on the sidewalk with a bandage around his wounded knee. Daddy was standing at the door, waiting for me. I handed Mr. Dimbles to him.

“Thank you so much for excellent work, agent,” he said. “I’ll see that it does not go unrewarded.” He took the toy and stuffed it into his briefcase.

“Sir,” I said, “don’t you think Baby will want that back?”

“Oh, no, it’s fine,” he assured me. “We’ve got about a dozen of them. My wife always keeps an extra one on hand.”

I leaned around the corner and saw Mommy watching proudly as Baby sat in her stroller, playing happily with an exact copy of the toy that I had just risked my life to rescue. “But,” I sputtered, “we just…”

“Yes, well, we couldn’t have our child think we didn’t even care about her favourite companion being kidnapped, could we?” he explained. “As soon as you were out of sight we snuck another one to Agent Gudbranson and had him bring it in from the street, pretending he’d rescued it. Our darling welcomed it home like it was a wounded soldier returning from war. Isn’t she a glowing little marvel?”

I smiled woodenly and immediately began a mental draft of the wording I would use in my letter requesting a transfer to the protective detail for the Third Assistant Under-Chancellor-in-Waiting. At that point I was more than willing to take the pay cut.

END

A Kingdom of White

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The stench of baking blood and evaporating sweat thickened the air, muffling the moans of the dying. A hot, dry wind moved sluggishly through the yellow grass, swirling the tattered red flag held up on a pole by a pale, sharp man dressed in a tunic coloured to match his banner. The flagbearer was leading a column of well-armoured soldiers up a hill, towards the thick, dark fringes of the Dothow Forest.

Two steps behind the flagbearer strode a fearsome giant of a man carrying a sword with three red gems in its hilt and countless red stains on its blade. The man’s cheeks and lips were coated with dozens of small, smooth gems of many colours, like a glistening beard. More outlined his eyes and circled his bald scalp. When he turned his head, the sunlight shimmered across his features like a wave of fire.

The soldiers marching behind the man bore decorations of their own. Similar gems glimmered beneath their eyes and on their chins, though in every case there were far fewer than those that shone on the face of their leader. As they marched, the soldiers leered at two prisoners walking in their midst, baring their teeth and turning their faces to display their accoutrements, pointing especially to the blue stones that matched their prisoners’ clothing. The elder of the two prisoners, a regal figure with a thin white beard and numerous gemstones of his own, held his gaze aloft, fixing his eyes defiantly on the tree line. A round purple gem glowed between his eyes. The younger, a man with a smooth, uncreased face and a far-off, empty expression, stared down at his feet. Only two gemstones marked his skin: one on his chin was small, bright, and red, and another, slightly larger stone between his eyes was a faint, soft purple, like a shadow of the one that adorned the figure beside him.

The purple gems marked the prisoners as King and Prince. Here, on the fields that bordered their ancestral kingdom, they had assembled their army, confronted the invaders, and been defeated.

“Stop here,” the leader of the invading army grunted as the column reached the top of the hill. His voice was guttural, almost animal-like. The man had the flagbearer plant his banner in the ground at the edge of the forest, then gripped the king by his neck and propelled him forward to stand beneath it.

King Vinick looked up at his conqueror, eyes filled with both pity and disdain, and although he was a full head shorter than the man who had overpowered him, those who were watching thought he somehow seemed the larger of the two. “Our people will never serve you, Carrow,” said the king.

“Nor would I expect them to,” replied Carrow, smiling humourlessly. “They may do as they wish, and die in whatever way seems best to them. Your people mean nothing to me. Your land means nothing to me. I care for one thing, Vinick. I desire only one thing as the spoils of my conquest.” He reached up with one finger and tapped the purple gem between the king’s eyes, then ran his finger along the vertical line of four purple gems that began between his own eyes and ran up onto his forehead. “Today, I will add another royal stone to my collection.”

The king’s face hardened. “You are little more than a beast. You line your nest with baubles, strutting and preening like a vain bird. I name you Crow, the most shameful of all the animals.”

“As defiant speeches go,” said Carrow, laughing, “I must say that yours has been my favourite so far. It’s a pity that it serves no purpose.” He lifted his sword and, before the king could react, drove it through his heart.

As the life drained from King Vinick’s eyes, he looked towards his son, Prince Filip. The king tried to wrap his lips around some final word, but it escaped him. Carrow lifted his foot and kicked the corpse off of his sword.

Tears sprang into Filip’s eyes. He twisted his arm loose of the soldier’s grip and ran to kneel at his father’s side. A few of the soldiers started forward to retrieve him, but Carrow motioned them back with his sword, smirking.

Filip’s tears showered the king’s face as he cradled his father’s head in his arms. “Why did we not run?” he choked. “Father, Father, we might yet have lived…”

“Run?” said Carrow, barking the word like a hyena. “Yes, you should have run. Then I would have had more sport!” He laughed, and his men joined in. “But it makes no difference,” he continued. “Either way, I will receive my prize.”

As he spoke, Filip looked down to the purple gem between his father’s eyes. It had begun to fade and recede into the skin. Soon nothing remained but a dark spot, like a scab.

Carrow shook his sword, spraying droplets of blood across Filip’s face. “Another day, another crown for the killer of kings,” said Carrow. “But the prize is not yet mine. One other thing stands in my way.

“With your father dead, boy, what do you suppose you have become? Come, see your reflection in my sword. See the deepening of the colour in your own royal gem. You are the king of your subjects now.”

Filip slowly rose to his feet, wiping away his tears, and felt the familiar gem between his eyes, as much an extension of him as his ears or nose. It was warm to the touch.

“What an honour for you, at such a young age. May your reign be blessed,” mocked Carrow, bowing from the waist. “How unfortunate that you are to be the end of your line. But do not fear: I will gladly bear your birthright after you have met your demise.” He lifted his sword to strike a second killing blow.

Recoiling backwards, Filip tripped over a tree root and fell. Carrow laughed and loomed over him.

“Take it!” cried Filip. “Take it, and spare my life!” He grasped at his gem and pulled on it. To his surprise, it resisted briefly, then came loose in his hand, leaving a raw hollow in his skin. Acting instinctively, Filip flung the gem at his executioner’s face, scrambled to his feet, and fled into Dothow.

Filip didn’t know he was going: he simply ran. Tears of sorrow, shame, fear, and pain flooded his eyes, blinding him. Tree roots seemed to spring up out of the soil, grasping at his feet to trip him, and branches reached for him, tearing at his clothes and skin. The hollow between his eyes burned, as if reproaching him for his act of cowardice.

As he ran, the sky grew darker, though he was not sure whether that was because of the passage of time or the deepening of the forest. He put such questions aside, channelling all of his thoughts into blinking away his tears and moving his legs. I am alive, he told himself. I am alive, and I must keep running.

At last, he couldn’t run any further. His legs gave way beneath him and he tumbled down a soft embankment, rolling partially into a shallow pool of water in a basin between several tall, gnarled trees. He breathed, and breathed, and waited to die.

Time passed, and Filip did not die, though he thought that the burning between his eyes might consume him. When at last he blinked his eyes open, he found himself in a quiet glade, lying beneath a tightly woven ceiling of branches that allowed almost no light to pass through. He rolled onto his back and sat up carefully. Countless tiny pains made themselves known in his muscles and skin. He was aware of every cut, bruise, stiffness, and strain, but they were all overwhelmed by the pain where his gem had once been. The cool water of the pool felt refreshing on his legs, so he scooped up a handful of water and splashed it onto his forehead. It dripped down between his eyes, stinging at first but then soothing the pain.

When he wiped away the water from his eyes he saw his reflection in the pool, and his breath caught in his throat. There was a new stone where his royal gem had been. He reached up and touched it. It felt familiar, but different: some subtle element of its shape was unusual to him, perhaps the curve of it, or the texture. The dim, grey light that barely illuminated the pool made it difficult to see the colour of the gem. Filip leaned closer to the water and gasped. The gem was a sheer, translucent white.

Filip knew that the colour of every gem had a meaning, based on how it was acquired. Gems won by slaying an opponent in battle bore the colour of the opponent’s banner, and appeared on the chin and cheeks. A murderer would find himself revealed by the black gem that sprang up on the ridge of his nose. Purple gems, the most desired of all, marked royalty, whether through birth or conquest.

But white was the colour of the dead.

The small red gem on Filip’s chin had appeared earlier that day, during the battle, when he had taken the life of his first enemy, a man who had been felled by an axe blow from one of Filip’s soldiers but was not yet dead. Filip had stepped down from his chariot and used a short sword to bring a swift resolution to the man’s slow descent into death. He had found the act gruesome and unsettling.

But where had this white stone come from, with its symbolism of death? A white gem would never be won through battle, because no army would dress itself in white: it would be a prophecy of defeat. Could the white gem mean that Filip, himself, was dead? Perhaps he was a ghost.

Drops of water were running down Filip’s face and into his open mouth, and he realized how dry his tongue was. He plunged his head into the pool and gulped down mouthfuls of water. Did ghosts feel thirst? No, he did not think he was a ghost.

The slaking of his thirst quickly awakened Filip’s hunger. How long had he run, and how deep into the forest had he come? The dimness of the light offered little insight into the position of the sun (or was it the moon?). The air in the glade was dead, heavy, and cool. The stillness and quiet seemed immutable. As Filip gazed around at the water and the trees, he began to feel that he was unwelcome, that his presence had disturbed the peace of this hollow among the trees. He forced his aching legs to stand, turned from the pool, and limped stiffly up the embankment and out of that tranquil grove.

Almost as soon as he had pressed his way between the trees, Filip found that the foliage had thinned enough to let rays of sunlight through to the forest floor. He heard birdsong and the chattering of squirrels. By the warmth and the angle of the sun, Filip judged it to be late morning. He stretched gingerly, took a deep breath, and was surprised when the smell of cooked meat floated into his nostrils. Only a few feet away he saw the remnants of a large campfire, ringed in stones, with a picked-over roasted chicken carcass laid out beside it. He pounced eagerly on the scraps and began to tear off whatever meagre bits of meat he could find, then cracked open the bones and sucked out the marrow.

Only when he had finished his meal did Filip take the time to wonder how the chicken and the fire had come to be there, and why he had not been aware of their presence while he had laid beside the pool so close by. He saw, now, that a wide area around the fire had been trampled down by several sets of feet, and there were signs that multiple people had eaten and slept here. Could this have been a tracking party sent to pursue him? How fortunate that he had lain mere footsteps away and gone unnoticed. Filip placed a hand near the coals of the fire. They were still warm. Whoever had camped here had likely not departed too long ago.

Filip considered his situation. Where should he go from here? If his father were here, he would know what to do. With this thought, the memory of King Vinick’s death came rushing back to Filip like a flash flood. He sank down beside a tree and spent several minutes overwhelmed by his grief, pouring it out in heaving sobs. He drained himself completely of tears, and when these were gone he fought to still his ragged breathing. When he rose, he felt that a change had taken place in his heart. He vowed that these would be the last tears he had cried. His sorrow had been purged, and something harder and more determined was taking its place.

As he stood there, clenching his fists, stoking the candle flame of vengeance that was growing inside him, Filip heard voices approaching. He knelt behind a thick bush on the edge of the clearing and waited. Soon three men wearing red tunics and carrying swords at their sides came into view. Blue gems studded their faces, representing those whom they had killed among Filip’s father’s army—no, it was his army now, what was left of it. They were making little effort to go quietly, and appeared to be arguing.

“Here we are, back at the camp again,” said one. “I told you we were going the wrong direction.”

“This never would have happened if you hadn’t suggested that we make camp for the night,” said another.

“No, Kyrus,” said the accused, “I only suggested that we stop for a meal. You were the one who first slept.”

The first soldier defended himself: “I must have been poisoned by one of the enemy’s weapons, or struck by a spell. I had only sat down for a moment when I awoke again, with the sun already risen.”

Poison or a spell? Filip knew that no member of his army dealt in poisons or magic.

Kyrus went on: “Regardless, Pirrin, you could have woken me.”

The third soldier spoke up. “It doesn’t matter whose fault it is,” he said. “We all made camp, we all fell asleep for far too long, we all made another meal when we woke up, and we all set out in the wrong direction together. We can argue all the way back to the battlefield, but it won’t make any difference to how we’re received when we return.”

This silenced his two companions for the moment, as they entered the clearing and approached the place where Filip was hiding. Then one of them, Kyrus, pointed in the way they had just come from and said, “Well, this way, then?”

“No, that’s where we’ve just been,” said Pirrin.

“Are you certain?” said Kyrus.

The third soldier turned and sighed. “Look at the sun,” he said. “This forest was to the west of the battlefield, so we want to go east. That will bring us back.”

“I thought the forest was to the east of the battlefield,” said Kyrus.

“I think he might be right, Syle,” said Pirrin.

Syle rubbed his face. “No, it was definitely west. You are both confusing yourselves.” He sniffed the air. “There is something strange about this forest,” he said. “Something on the wind, fogging our minds.”

As Filip listened, he looked down and saw a fallen branch of about the right length and weight to act as a club. Something boiled up inside him, and almost without knowing what he was doing he reached for the branch and leapt out from behind the bush.

The soldiers whirled around, startled, and reached for their swords. They all stopped, swords half-drawn and mouths hanging open, as they stared at the white gem between Filip’s eyes.

“Wh-what…” stammered Kyrus.

“It’s white!” gasped Pirrin.

Filip lifted his makeshift club and swung it at the side of Syle’s head. The soldier made little effort to dodge, and was knocked to the ground. Instantly the other two soldiers let their swords fall back into their scabbards, turned heel, and ran off into the trees, shouting.

Syle scrabbled away from Filip, mumbling, “Dead! The Dead!” Filip raised the club again, and Syle bounded to his feet, chasing after his companions at top speed.

Filip rubbed the white gem between his eyes. Its effect had been much greater than he would have expected. Did that have something to do with this forest, as Syle had said?

Resting the branch on his shoulder, in case he came across any more of his enemies, Filip set out west, away from the battlefield and Carrow’s army. As he walked, he took fresh stock of his situation. He had no food or water, but it would be foolish to remain where he was. New search parties could be seeking him out even now, and they might not all be intimidated so easily by the colour of the gem on his brow. He had to find some place of shelter. Perhaps one of the villages on the forest’s edge would take him in. That would be far preferable to remaining in Dothow. The air did, indeed, feel and smell somehow enchanted. Even if the forest had so far sheltered and protected him, the one thing Filip know for sure about magic was that it was capricious, fickle, and untrustworthy. No, he did not wish to remain here any longer than was necessary.

Before leaving the forest, though, Filip knew it would be best to put more distance between himself and his pursuers. There was a river that ran through Dothow. It would not be far west of here. He decided to find the river, and then follow it south until he reached some town or village.

Filip made slow progress for several hours, until the sun was falling low in the sky ahead of him. Once or twice he thought he heard voices and hoof beats and ducked into the nearest hiding place, but the sounds soon faded away, and he saw no one. Assuring himself that he would soon reach the river, and driven forward by a growing thirst, he pressed on through dusk.

As twilight fell, the singing of birds gave way to the chirping of crickets, the hunting calls of owls, and, eventually, the rolling babble of moving water. The sound only heightened the dryness of Filip’s tongue. He strained his eyes in the descending gloom, attempting to see some thinning in the trees that might indicate how far away he was from the river.

Ahead, not far off, he thought he saw a flicker of yellow light, but it was quickly gone again. Had he imagined it? Filip stood motionless for a long minute. There, again: the shadows had moved. Had he come across another encampment of soldiers?

Creeping forward slowly, Filip attempted to find a gap in the trees through which he could see the source of the light. It was not jumping and flashing, like the flames of a campfire, and there were no sounds of burning wood. The light was softer, more consistent.

Then Filip saw the one-room cabin standing under the shadow of the trees in a small, tidy clearing. Through its open window Filip could see an oil lamp on a table. As he watched, wondering whether to approach, he saw a thin, hunched figure pass across the window, momentarily blocking the light. Beyond the cabin, perhaps a hundred metres further through the trees, Filip saw the glint of moonlight on the dark water of the river.

Filip wondered whose cabin this was. Should he approach it and learn who lived here? What if soldiers had arrived before him and were waiting to catch him in ambush? Perhaps he could find a better view of the window and gather more information.

While Filip was considering these things, the river was calling out to his parched tongue. Surely he had time to slake his thirst before satisfying his curiosity. He skirted the clearing quietly, counting on the noise of the river to hide the sounds of his movement. As he went, he watched the figure in the cabin pace rhythmically back and forth across the window.

The riverbank was a gentle slope of smooth stones and gritty sand. He worked his way to the river’s edge, put down his tree branch club, dipped his hands into the water, and lifted them to his mouth to drink.

A voice behind him said, “You lack wisdom, O King.”

Filip leapt to his feet, taking up his club, and spun towards the voice. A wizened old woman stood before him, her face deeply lined and pitted and her long, thin, tangled grey hair falling down over her shoulders to her waist. She seemed to be always in motion, whether through the movement of her hands, the twisting of her head and neck, the roaming of her watery grey eyes, or the flowing of her hair and cloak around her, even in the absence of wind. By her posture, Filip recognized her as the figure he had seen in the cabin window.

“If you had come first to my cabin,” the woman continued, “I would have given peace to your troubled mind and rest to your weary bones. All would have been restored to you. But instead of following the course of prudence you pursued the desires of your tongue. You have again chosen to obey your lesser desires instead of acting rightly.”

Filip raised his club cautiously. “Who are you?”

The woman looked at the club in Filip’s hand, and he found himself lowering it and dropping it to the ground. “You wish to know who I am,” she said slowly, “and yet you do not even know who you are.”

“I know who I am,” said Filip. “I am the only son of King Vinick, who has been slain.”

“If he is dead,” said the woman, running a bony finger through her writhing hair, “then are you not king in his stead? But I see that you do not wear the Gem of Kings.”

Filip reached up and touched the white gem between his eyes. “I… am not king.”

“For what reason?” said the woman, coyly.

“I surrendered my gem freely, in order to save my own life.” The white gem began to burn again, as it had in the quiet grove.

“Yes, you cast away your birthright,” said the woman, stepping closer and raising her bony arm. “You gave up your identity. That is why you bear the sign of the dead.” She touched the gem on Filip’s face. “Does it burn you, un-King? What will you do with your shame?”

Gritting his teeth against the intensifying pain between his eyes, Filip said, “I will kill the man who took my father’s life, and reclaim my honour.”

“Undoubtedly you seek vengeance, naturally you desire it, but to what end?” The woman covered Filip’s face with both hands and whispered something softly in a language Filip had never heard. The burning in the gem passed, and she lowered her hands. “Beware the blackness,” said the woman. “It creeps into your thoughts and taints the white symbol you now wear. Revenge cannot be its own purpose, un-King. If you wish to regain your honour and the birthright that you have cast away, you must examine the intentions within your heart.”

“I want justice,” said Filip. “Is that not the purest of motives?”

“Justice is desirable,” said the woman, “but that is not what you are seeking. The death gem on your brow is already a symbol of justice. It is the deserved reward of a coward.”

Filip cast down his eyes. “Tell me, then, how I can redeem myself. What must I do?”

“Because your understanding is not yet complete, your path will be a long and arduous one.” The woman drew a crude wooden bowl from under her cloak and bent to fill it from the river. She handed the bowl to Filip and lifted it to his lips. “This is now your kingdom,” she said as he drank. “Reclaim it. Redeem it. Do this not with a dagger in the night, but with a banner in the sun. Remember: a man is not King because of a gemstone, but because of a people and a land. Yours await you.” Then she turned back towards her cabin among the trees and left Filip where he stood.

Almost immediately, an orange tinge came into the eastern sky. “Is it already morning?” Filip asked himself. “But only an hour ago, night was falling.” He had not slept, and he had not eaten, but he felt refreshed, as though from a hearty feast and a deep slumber. He bent to the river, dipped the woman’s bowl in again, and sipped the water. It was clear, sweet, and light, but as he tasted it he knew that he needed no more. He had already been filled.

Filip gazed into the trees, now lit by the low-angled rays of the rising sun, and searched for the cabin, but it was nowhere to be seen. Either thirst had twisted his mind in upon itself, or he had been in the presence of powerful magic this night. Filip left the branch, his only weapon, where it lay, and took his first step southwards, along the banks of the river, towards whatever destiny the waters held for him. An hour or two passed, the river growing ever wider and deeper as he went. Every tributary creek Filip crossed fed new strength and purpose not only into the river, it seemed, but also into his heart.

A stone bridge rose into view, spanning the river in a tall, graceful arch. At its peak Filip saw five men, three dressed in the silver armour and red cloth of Carrow’s army and two in simple, faded brown. As Filip approached, he saw the soldiers draw their swords.

“What is your quarrel, sirs?” called Filip from the riverside.

The soldiers looked down on him and brandished their weapons. “What concern is it of yours?” they replied.

“All that takes place within my borders concerns me,” said Filip.

“What borders are those?” sneered the soldiers. “This land now lies under the domain of the Emperor Carrow, for he has vanquished its king and taken the royal gem to himself.”

Filip stepped up onto the bridge. “Indeed, he has,” he said, “and I bore witness. But this river has given itself to me. Between its banks, I am King.” He looked into the eyes of the two unarmed men in brown. “Now I am calling new subjects to my banner.”

The soldiers laughed to one another. “A pretty speech. Where is your banner, then, o ‘King’?”

Filip raised his finger to his gem.

The soldiers lowered their weapons and their mouths fell open. “White,” they gasped. “He wears white between his eyes. Who is this?”

As the soldiers gazed on Filip in awe, the men in brown sprang on them from behind, seizing their swords and tossing two of them over the walls of the bridge into the water below before the third could react. A red gem broke forth on the chin of each man, sparkling in the sunlight.

“Return to your ‘Emperor,’ the lowly Crow,” Filip said to the remaining soldier. “Tell him that the one he is searching for has established a new kingdom, and is jealous to expand it.”

The soldier ran, and did not look back.

Filip turned to the men in brown, who were watching him and gripping their new swords warily. “You have fought well,” he said. “Will you fight for me again?”

“Your pardon, lord,” said one of the two, “but how can we fight on your behalf if we do not know who you are?”

Then Filip declared, “I am Filip, son of Vinick. My father, once king, is dead. In a moment of cowardice I surrendered my heritage and flung it away. This gem of death was my reward, for I feared to meet my death, to my shame, but this land has not forgotten me. The river has declared itself mine, and from its banks I will go forth against the one who slew my father. I will restore my father’s kingdom under a new banner, a banner of white, a banner of redemption.”

The men said, “We will serve you, O King, for we would rather wear white than red.”

Filip saw that he was still holding the wooden bowl that the witch had given to him, so he led the men down to the river’s edge and gave them each water to drink. As they drank, the new red gems on their chins transformed into pure and shining white.

“From today forward,” said Filip, “we are a nation.”

END

Burns Mar the Sun-Grasper’s Hands

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The gym Mia worked at had its fair share of regulars. Some were polite and friendly, some were demanding prima donnas, and some were just intriguingly odd.

One wiry old Cajun lady, especially, always piqued Mia’s curiosity and made her days more interesting. She and the rest of the staff held the woman in something akin to holy reverence. “Louisa,” they called her, short for “Louisiana,” because they’d never learned her real name.  She didn’t actually hold a membership, but no one had ever really considered asking her to leave, for a couple of reasons: first, she could bench press 300 pounds, and second, there was something crazy in her eyes that made you shiver every time she looked at you.

The woman never smiled, not that any of the staff had seen, but there were creases around the corners of her eyes that suggested she used to.

Louisa had a routine. Three days each week, generally Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, she would show up exactly half an hour before sunset (Mia was the one who had first spotted the pattern) and spend 45 minutes completing a rotation through the gym’s strength training apparatus. She always hit the same stations in the same order, like clockwork, and for some strange reason she never seemed to have to wait for someone else to finish.

As she moved around the gym, Louisa carried with her a dusty cloth purse that bulged at every seam. When Mia and the other staff were bored behind the front desk, they would sometimes play a game where they tried to guess what she kept in there. The running theory was that the purse was magical, like Mary Poppins’, that it was bigger on the inside than the outside. The only things anyone had ever seen Louisa take out of her purse, though, were an old cell phone and a pair of black leather gloves.

One day, Mia saw Louisa’s routine get interrupted.

Mia was working alongside Karl that day. Karl was a wannabe bodybuilder who came in for one shift a week, just so he could work out for free. He’d arrived late again, and forgotten his name tag. Business as usual.

Louisa was about halfway through her rotation that evening, doing curls with a set of free weights, when her phone buzzed in her purse. That got Mia’s attention right away: no one had ever seen Louisa get a call or a text before. Louisa looked really annoyed as she put the weights down and fished around in her purse. Mia saw one of Louisa’s gloves fall to the floor as she pulled the phone out, but Louisa didn’t seem to notice.

The Cajun woman’s shoulders slumped as she read whatever message she had received, and she rolled her eyes and clucked her tongue. Throwing her phone back into her purse, she stood up, stretched, and bustled out through the lobby. She was out the door before Mia had a chance to alert her to the dropped glove.

Karl was checking on some equipment near the free weight area, so Mia got his attention: “Hey, Karl, Louisa dropped her glove. Bring it over here. She might come back for it.”

He picked up the glove, flashed a sarcastic smile, and stuffed it into the pocket of his shorts as he came back towards the desk.

“What are you doing?” said Mia.

“Holding onto it for her,” Karl replied.

“I can keep it here at the desk.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it. It’s coffee break time for you, isn’t it?”

Mia didn’t like the look in his eyes, but it was just a glove, so she popped into the back, grabbed a can of apple juice out of the fridge, swung her feet up onto the break room table, and tried to forget that she still had three long hours left in her evening shift.

A few minutes later Mia heard the bell above the lobby door ring, followed by Karl’s arrogant drawl. “A glove?” he said. “Sorry, ma’am, we haven’t seen one. If you’d like to look in the lost and found…”

The bell tinkled again.

“Karl,” called Mia, “was that Louisa?”

He appeared in the doorway. “Yeah. Ever heard her voice before? She sounds like a voodoo lady. That woman gives me the creeps.”

“Did you give her the glove?”

Karl shrugged.

Mia sat up straight. “Why didn’t you give her the glove?”

“Hey, I told her she could check the lost and found box, but she just left.”

“You had it in your pocket,” Mia snapped.

“Oh, right,” said Karl, in mock surprise. “Look at that. It’s still there.” He fished it out and tossed it on the table.

“I can’t believe you’re such a jerk.”

“Hey, no big deal. She can get it later.” Grinning, Karl added, “I’ll bring it to her myself, next time she’s here. Maybe I’ll get a peek inside her purse while she’s putting it away.”

Mia made a disgusted sound in her throat, grabbed the glove, and shoved her way past Karl towards the door to the lobby.

“Hey,” said Karl, “where are you going?”

“To provide some half-decent customer service.” Hurrying through the lobby, Mia stepped out onto the sidewalk and scanned left and right. Across the street, through a gap between buildings, she could see that the sun was nearly down, throwing red-orange light across the clouds.

Louisa was standing there, in the middle of the sidewalk, facing the sun. Her legs were spread apart, feet firmly planted, her hands were raised in front of her, and her arms were shaking, as if she was straining against a tremendous weight. It looked like she was doing some kind of crazier-than-usual yoga.

Other people on the sidewalk were staring at her and giving her a wide berth. Mia saw a few people in a car pointing as they drove past.

Mia waited for a break in traffic, then jogged across to the other side. “Louisa!” she said, then caught herself, remembering that the woman probably hadn’t heard the nickname before.  Holding the glove up, Mia walked up beside the woman. “I found your—”

Back!” Louisa barked. Her voice was heavy, deep, and thickly accented. Mia couldn’t help agreeing with Karl that it brought the “voodoo lady” stereotype to mind.

Without questioning the order, or even really thinking about it, Mia took two small steps backwards and fell silent.

Louisa held her stance. While Mia waited for Louisa to be done whatever weird thing she was doing, she began to realize that something truly unusual was happening. Louisa’s teeth were clenched, and beads of sweat were standing out on her forehead and dripping down into her eyes. Mia had never seen her sweat that much during her workouts. Her hands were formed into an “O” at the level of her eyes, like she was gripping an invisible softball, and her fingers were trembling. She was wearing one black glove on her left hand, and the leather was faded, peeling, and cracked. The other hand was bare, and the woman’s skin was… red. The skin of her palm, normally a creamy brown, was blistering and peeling, even as Mia watched, as if she was clutching something incredibly hot.

Mia looked up at the sun, its lower edge just beginning to touch the horizon. If she held her head in a certain spot, it almost looked like the burning orb lined up with Louisa’s hands. No, thought Mia. That’s crazy. It doesn’t make any sense.

For several minutes Mia just stood there, her attention captured by the exertions of the Cajun woman, whose hands were circled in front of her, pulling, straining, pressing, slowly, slowly, the skin of her hand continuing to char and boil. Then, finally, the sun had sunk  beneath the horizon, the light had faded, and Louisa slumped to the ground, cradling her hand in her lap.

Suddenly Mia was aware of herself again. “I, um… I brought your glove,” she offered, weakly.

Louisa looked up, panting. “T’ank you,” she said, between breaths.

“Are you alright?” Mia asked.

“I’ll be fine. Dey done it barehanded for centuries before me.” Louisa looked at her raw, peeling hand and clucked her tongue. With a hint of a twinkle in her eye, she added, “I grown soft, girl. Very soft.”

“Then were you really…?” Mia trailed off. Somehow she couldn’t bring myself to say the words. It seemed too insane.

“Well, somebody got to,” said Louisa, matter-of-factly. “Sun don’t go down all on its own, you know.”

“But you’re at the gym during sunset three days a week. If you’re there, then how does it…” Hold on, thought Mia. This is ridiculous. Of all the questions you could ask, you’re wondering about her schedule?

“I’m not de only one, of course,” said Louisa.

“There are others?”

Louisa nodded.

Mia tried to wrap her mind around what she was being told. “So on the days you come to the gym, someone else is…” Pulling down the sun? Absurd! “Then why did you have to come out here today? Shouldn’t someone else have been doing it?”

“Should have,” said Louisa with a shrug, “but Saundra never been de most reliable. I always said so.”

That is something I can sympathize with,” said Mia, thinking of Karl. “Are you sure you’re okay? There’s probably something in our first aid kit for treating burns.”

“Ah, t’ank you, chil’. Could you help an old lady to stand?”

Mia helped Louisa to her feet and picked up the woman’s purse, wondering how on earth she was going to explain this to Karl.

“Can you check de time on my cell phone?” Louisa asked, suddenly. “In my purse, please.”

Mia paused, then opened up the purse. The cell phone was sitting on top of a mound of black leather gloves, many of which were charred, cracked, and peeling, like the one Louisa was still wearing. “It’s seven thirty-six,” said Mia.

“T’irty-six already? Seven minutes late,” Louisa sighed, and clucked her tongue.

END

Diana and the Animal

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Diana cupped a mug of juice in her hands and watched bemusedly as her young cousins wandered through the back yard, searching for colourfully wrapped chocolates. The warm, orange, late-morning sun was trickling through the filter dome far overhead, casting dappled patterns on the brown rubber surface of the yard and throwing shadows under the plastic tower fort in the corner.

Uncle Peter stepped through the door that connected the kitchen to the outdoors and settled himself down beside Diana, carefully balancing a cup of coffee in one hand and a large jam-filled pastry in the other. He was only ten years older than Diana, the youngest of her mother’s siblings, and the most relatable. Setting his pastry down on his knee, Uncle Peter grinned at Diana, wrinkling his well-rounded cheeks. “You’re not hunting for Aster chocolates with the rest of the kids?”

“Ha ha, very funny,” said Diana. “I outgrew this stuff a decade ago. Besides, it’s only fair to give the little ones a chance to actually find them on their own. I’ve spotted half a dozen just sitting here!”

“You’d think Uncle Ivan would do a better job of picking hiding spots in his own yard, eh? He knows I can’t resist sneaking a couple here and there,” said Uncle Peter, winking.

Diana feigned shock. “I can’t believe you’d steal candy from babies!”

“Hey, free chocolate is free chocolate! You’ve got to take advantage of your opportunities.”

Diana smiled. “I don’t need free chocolate. I have a good job now. I can afford to buy my own chocolate.”

“That’s right, you landed that PR position at the Ministry, didn’t you?” said Uncle Peter. “How are you finding it?”

“It’s really exciting,” said Diana. “I’ve already been to all kinds of schools and special events, just spreading awareness, you know? I mean, most people understand the basic concept that animals are unsafe, but there’s still plenty of ignorance out there over the right steps to take if you see one. A lot of what we’re trying to do is get our message into people’s homes. If parents teach animal safety to their children, the problem starts to regulate itself, and suddenly we don’t have to focus so much of our budget on enforcement.”

Under the tower fort, two of the cousins were shouting as they wrestled over a red Aster chocolate that each claimed they had seen first. Tears were threatening to flow.

“Cindy!” called Uncle Peter to his wife.

“I’m on it,” said Aunt Cindy, bustling out into the yard to lay down some discipline.

Uncle Peter took a bite of his pastry and washed it down with a gulp of coffee. “So,” he prompted, resuming the conversation, “you’re enjoying it at the Ministry?”

Diana nodded. “It’s great. Exactly what I’ve always wanted to do.”

“I remember you as a little kid with all those old colouring books you had. You used to use up our black and red markers pretty quickly!”

Diana laughed. “Some kids like drawing buildingscapes,” she said, gesturing over the fence to the countless towering skyscrapers that crowded the horizon. “I liked monsters. They’ve always tickled my imagination.”

Uncle Peter looked thoughtful for a minute as he sipped at his coffee. “What are your thoughts on all the controversy that the new enforcement standards have been causing lately?”

“It’s a tough situation. I mean, I can see why people aren’t happy about it, but I don’t think they necessarily appreciate the dangers associated with animal infestations. They figure Animal Control is overreacting to minor cases, but little animals turn into big animals, and then they breed, and they spread, and all the diseases and health risks just grow from there.”

“I think most people understand that there’s a real threat,” said Uncle Peter, “but from what I’ve been reading, most of the uproar has to do with the harshness of the punishments, and the power Animal Control has to hold anyone indefinitely on suspicion alone.”

“That’s more of a media blow-up than anything,” explained Diana. “That language in the legislation only comes into effect in emergency scenarios.” She drained her juice.

“You’d know better than I would, of course,” said Uncle Peter. “It would be nice to see a clear definition of what constitutes an ’emergency,’ though. I think that would put a lot of people’s minds at ease.”

“That’s actually written into the—” began Diana, but she was interrupted by one of the cousins screaming.

“Cindy!” called Uncle Peter.

“Your turn!” said Aunt Cindy.

Uncle Peter sighed and began to stand.

“It’s okay,” said Diana. “I’ll do it. You can finish your coffee.” She got up and jogged over to where Michael, Uncle Peter’s pudgy three-year-old son, was sitting and wailing, fat little fists balled up and quivering. Diana picked Michael up, sat him in her lap, and rocked him back and forth. “Come on, little guy. You’re okay.”

Then she saw the animal.

It was about six inches long, a thin, pink, segmented thing. Its body was stretched out on the rubber ground, writhing gently, half of it grotesquely flattened.

Oh no, thought Diana. Oh no! What do I do? Calm down. We can deal with this. We’ve got to report it.

She looked back over her shoulder towards the porch. “Uncle Peter, I need a hand!”

“What’s wrong?”

“Can you get all the kids on the porch and have them take their shoes off?”

Frowning, Uncle Peter called the kids over and came to join Diana. “What is it?”

Diana lifted Michael and put him in his father’s arms. “It looks like one of them stepped on this animal, so we’ll have to disinfect all their shoes, just in case. Michael might’ve touched it, too. I think that’s what scared him.”

“Where did it come from?”

“I don’t know. You can do everything right, and sometimes they still find a way to slip through the cracks. It should be okay, though. This is just a little one.” Diana took her phone out and snapped a picture. “I’m going to call it in.”

“Do we have to report it right away?” protested Uncle Peter. “It’s Aster Day. Lunch is almost ready, and the kids are really looking forward to their chocolate… The whole day is going to be ruined as soon as Animal Control shows up.”

Diana started dialling. “I know. I feel bad for the kids, too. But this is important. Besides, can you imagine how it would look if a Ministry employee didn’t follow the regulations?”

Uncle Peter sighed and carried Michael over to the porch. While he had all of the other cousins remove their shoes and go inside, Diana gave the necessary details to Animal Control.

“They’ll be here in a few minutes,” Diana informed Uncle Peter and Aunt Cindy, who were waiting on the porch with their son. “They said it looks like a worm, and worms aren’t known to carry many diseases, but it’ll be best to keep Michael out here until they arrive. Make sure he doesn’t put his hands near his mouth.”

They nodded grimly, almost distantly, and tried to quiet Michael’s sobbing.

***

It was late afternoon by the time the Animal Control team had finished cleaning up the worm, sweeping the yard for any other infestations, interviewing every person in the house, and thoroughly disinfecting little Michael. Aunt Karen and Uncle Ivan tried to convince everyone to stay for cake, but the ordeal had taken the excitement out of the day, and the kids were getting grumpy, especially those who had missed their naps. Uncle Peter and Aunt Cindy were the first to leave, with Michael still whimpering and sniffling, his skin red from the vigorous scrubbing he had received.

Diana ducked out shortly after, to get away from the accusatory glares more than anything. She could understand her family’s ill mood, to a certain extent. Nobody would have asked for an animal to show up in the middle of a family holiday. But it almost felt like they were blaming her for what had happened, and that wasn’t fair. She’d found it, and she’d been forced to call in. Just because she worked for the Ministry didn’t mean she got any special privileges, or that she could somehow shelter them from the consequences of having an animal showing up in their back yard.

They’ll get over it, she reassured herself as she got into her car to head home. They’re just disappointed. They’ll sleep it off.

The incident with the animal had produced a much different mood in Diana. Big family get-togethers had never been her favourite thing, anyways, so she didn’t mind having the rest of the day to herself. And she wouldn’t have admitted it if anyone asked, but seeing the animal had actually been kind of an exciting experience. It was the first time she had ever seen a live animal, and it had been very different from what the museum tours had led her to expect. This hadn’t been a hairy, toothy, plague-bearing mammal, like a rat, or a tiny, blood-sucking, pestilent insect, like a mosquito bug.

The worm had looked so benign. It certainly didn’t seem like a dangerous killer that bore the threat of plague. As she’d been telling lots of kids, though, sometimes the appearance of an animal could be deceptive.

Still, as she made the turn into the parking lot of her apartment building Diana wished she could have taken a minute or two to just look at the worm and watch how it moved, how it acted. From a safe distance, of course. It would have been fascinating.

Diana took the elevator to the fourteenth floor and let herself into her corner apartment. She left her phone on the kitchen table, flopped down on the couch in the living room, and closed her eyes. The memory of how the worm had stretched and writhed projected itself on the backs of her eyelids. She’d watched it try to squirm down into the crack in the rubbery ground.

Then an Animal Control worker in a mask and gloves had pinched it with a thin pair of tongs and dropped it into an opaque plastic container marked DISPOSAL. For the first time, Diana had wondered what was done with animals after they were captured.

She was drawn out of her reverie by a soft clung sound that came from the direction of the fire place. She looked up. Must have been the wind, she thought. Hers was one of the few apartments with an external chimney, and sometimes the wind blew down the chimney and pushed around the everburn logs.

There was a muffled “Cheep!”

The wind had never made a sound like that before.

Diana pulled open the fireplace’s small metal door and almost fell over backwards as a little creature bounced out onto the carpet and shook itself.

“Cheep!” it said again.

It had black, beady eyes, a pointed orange mouth, and two spindly, orange legs. It was covered in some strange kind of hair or fur that Diana had never seen before, black along its sides and back and white down its front.

As Diana stared in shock, the creature lifted up its sides and spread them out. It looked like it had wide, thin arms with no hands. Diana had never seen anything like it.

“Cheep!” said the animal. It bounced a couple of times, then jumped and flapped its arms, and suddenly it was whirling all around the living room, flying.

Diana yelped and dove onto the couch, covering her head with a pillow. For what seemed like an eternity she pressed herself into the cushions as she listened to it flap around her apartment. Her heart pounded in her ears.

Finally the noise stopped.

What had happened to it? Maybe it was gone. Maybe it had flown back up and out through the chimney. Or maybe it was sitting on the arm of the couch, getting ready to bite her and inflict her with some deadly illness.

Get up, Diana urged herself. Get to your phone. Call it in. She slowed her breathing. Here we go. She opened her eyes. No sudden movements. She lifted the pillow. Just stand up, and…

There it was. The thing was perched on the curtain rod above the window by the kitchen sink. Diana stared at it, afraid to move in case she set it off again. It was hopping slowly side to side, turning its head to look around the room.

What was it? It wasn’t a rat. Rats had long tails. It wasn’t a dog. Dogs were much bigger, and they couldn’t fly, could they? It wasn’t a worm, or a mosquito, or a goat, or a bear. It didn’t match anything in any of her presentations. How many kinds of animals were there? Diana wished she could remember more of what she had learned in high school.

She steeled her resolve. All she had to do was get to her phone, back slowly out into the hallway, and close the door, trapping it inside. Then just wait for Animal Control to show up and grab it with some kind of net and put it in one of those plastic containers for DISPOSAL.

And then what?

Would they burn it up somehow, to get rid of all the pathogens? Or gas it, and dissect it in a lab for medical research so they could create new vaccines?

“Cheep!” said the animal, and bobbed its head, and hopped from side to side, and looked down into Diana’s eyes. It almost seemed like it was scared. Could animals have feelings?

Diana slid gently off the couch and slowly, cautiously stood up. She grabbed the pillow and held it out in front of her like a shield. Keeping her eyes on the animal, she inched around towards the kitchen, freezing in place every time the creature looked her way.

Almost there, she told herself. Just reach out and grab the phone… Now dial the number…

But she didn’t. She just stood, phone in hand, pillow at the ready, and stared up at the animal.

“Cheep!” it said.

Still she stood and watched. What am I doing? She put the phone down. What am I doing? She met the animal’s gaze. WHAT AM I DOING?

It was kind of cute, really.

This is insane. I’m insane. I can’t let them kill it. What are my options? This is insane.

Option One: Open the window right now and let the animal fly out, or use a broom to shoo it out if it doesn’t want to go. At least that way its blood wouldn’t be on her hands (assuming this kind of animal even had blood). Maybe it would even find its way back through the filter dome and out of the city again. At least she would have given it a chance. Of course, if anyone saw it flying out of her window, she would be in big trouble for not calling it in. She could lose her job. She could go to jail.

So, Option Two: Wait until dark, and then let it out. That way it was less likely that she’d be seen releasing it, and less likely she’d get in trouble. In the meantime she could just stand here and watch it, study it. The way it moved was spellbinding. It might be risky waiting for nightfall, though. That was more time for someone in the hallway to hear it, and more time for it to decide to attack her and infect her with all of its diseases. Could she get sick just from having it in her apartment, or would it have to bite her to transfer the pathogens? It didn’t look like much of a biter, and she certainly didn’t feel strange yet. How long did it take for symptoms of illness to show up? Diana had never been very good at biology.

Options one and two each held their risks, and either way the animal would almost certainly end up in a DISPOSAL container eventually. That idea made Diana’s throat tighten up. Was there an option three?

Almost unbidden, another idea sprang into her mind. Option Three: Pack it into a box, hide the box in the trunk of her car, drive it outside of the city, and release it there.

Nope. Not an option. She’d be caught at the city border, thrown in prison, and branded an ecoterrorist. That carried a possible life sentence these days. And she worked for the Ministry; imagine the scandal! Then again, ecoterrorists were always caught smuggling animals into the city, weren’t they? Were the inspections as thorough for vehicles leaving the city?

“Cheep,” said the little animal.

I’m insane.

Diana backed up out of the kitchen. The creature hopped a couple of inches in the air and fluttered its… Its wings, she supposed. When they were stretched out they looked kind of like a jet’s wings. A jet’s wings didn’t move around, though. How very curious. The animal landed back on the curtain rod and watched Diana.

This is foolish. This is stupid. I’m going to get caught.

She pulled open the door of her hall closet and found a large shoebox. This would hold it, but if it moved around a lot someone was bound to hear, especially because of the handle-holes cut into the sides. She’d have to muffle the sounds somehow and hope there was no one in the halls or the elevator.

Diana brought the shoebox into the kitchen. Next problem: how in the world was she going to get the animal into the box? Maybe she could lure it in with food. It was probably pretty hungry. Food didn’t get left just lying around in the city; it went straight from the stores to the cars to the refrigerators. There was no way an animal could find food without being spotted.

Or maybe it had been spotted. Maybe Animal Control had been tracking it all the way over here, waiting for it to land so they could catch it. They could be coming up here right now…

But it was too late to be thinking that way. If they had seen it fly down her chimney, Diana was already in trouble for not reporting it immediately. And if they knew it was nearby, but didn’t know exactly where it was, then it would be seen coming out her window for sure, making her current plan the only real option.

Back on task, Diana reminded herself. She could talk herself in circles all day, but it wasn’t going to solve anything. Stop thinking. Do.

What did animals eat?

Most animals were carnivores, weren’t they? She got out a bit of tofu. No one ate meat in the city. Apparently people used to, but civilization had matured beyond such more primitive habits. There were better, safer ways to get protein.

The animal didn’t even sniff at the tofu. Either it wasn’t a carnivore, or it was able to identify the tofu as only a simulation of meat. It seemed uninterested in her vegetables, too. What else was in her cupboards? There was an old, crumbly bun that she should have eaten days ago. It was worth a try.

Diana broke off a few pieces of the bun and placed them in the shoebox, catching the crumbs in her hand so they wouldn’t fall on the floor. She nearly screamed when the creature dove down off the curtain rod, landed on her hand, and started biting eagerly at the crumbs with its pointy orange mouth.

Don’t scream. Don’t scream. You’ll scare it. It’ll bite you.

Fighting off hyperventilation, Diana watched apprehensively as the animal cleaned off all the crumbs on her palm and looked up at her, as if asking for more. Its jabbing bites and poky little toes felt weird and more than a little surreal, but it wasn’t painful, and it didn’t seem aggressive. At any rate, it wasn’t breaking the skin, so it was probably safe, right?

Diana gently reached with her free hand, took a chunk of bun, and crumbled it into her upturned palm. “Cheep!” said the animal, and resumed eating.

“You’re welcome,” said Diana, then caught herself. Did I just talk to an animal? I’m insane! She crumbled the rest of the bun into the shoebox and carefully lowered the animal in with it. It continued its meal, cheeping happily.

In a single smooth movement, Diana brought the lid down on top of the box. The creature hopped and flapped and cheeped for twenty or thirty seconds, but Diana held on tight, biting her lip, hoping no one outside of her apartment could hear what was happening. Finally the animal settled down.

Diana peeked in through one of the handle holes. Thankfully they were too small for the creature to escape through. It looked out at her forlornly. “I’m trying to save you, Cheep,” she told it. “Just keep eating and be quiet.”

I can’t believe I’m talking to an animal. I can’t believe I just gave it a name.

Cheep calmed down and went back to its bread crumbs.

Is it listening to me? It couldn’t actually understand me, could it? Diana closed her eyes and took a big, deep breath. I’m going to spend the rest of my life in prison.

Before she could lose her nerve, Diana grabbed a roll of tape out of a drawer and wrapped several strips over the lid to hold it down. She put on her shoes and grabbed a laundry basket and some old clothes out of her bedroom.

Diana laid down a few shirts in the bottom of the basket, put the shoebox in next, and then dumped more clothes on top. Hopefully that would muffle any sounds Cheep made, while still allowing it to breathe. Now Diana would just look like she was carrying a load of clothes down to her car. At the border she could even say she was taking it to a thrift store in the Suburbs. They needed lots of charitable donations down there. It just might work.

Diana took a deep breath, gathered up her phone and keys, and carried the basket to the door of her apartment. She listened for a minute to see if anyone was in the hallway. All seemed quiet.

She stepped out into the hall and locked the door behind her, trying to look natural for the security cameras that she knew were hidden in the common areas. Forcing a gentle, demure smile onto her face, she padded over to the elevator, straining her ears for any approaching residents or any sounds from Cheep.

The elevator seemed to take an hour to arrive. Thankfully, it was empty. Diana pressed the button for the parking garage. Down the elevator sank, floor by floor by floor.

The elevator eased to a stop on the third floor, and Diana’s heart kicked into double time. A heavy-set elderly man stepped in.

Diana smiled at him nervously. “Parking garage?” she said. Her voice barely made it through her tightly clenched throat.

The man nodded.

“Me too,” said Diana. “Just going down to my car. Bringing these clothes to a thrift store.”

The man smiled politely and tried to ignore her.

No one else boarded the elevator, and a few floors later they were at the garage. Diana let the man get out first and walked as slowly as she could to get some distance between them. Her heart was beating like a drum. When she finally reached her car it began to settle down. She popped the trunk and slid the laundry basket inside, then settled into the driver’s seat and started up the engine.

She’d made it. She was in the car.

And that had been the easy part.

***

The freeway was crammed with cars.

Diana had only been to the city border once before, on a field trip during a high school science class when they’d been learning about how the filter dome worked, how it blocked out the sun’s most harmful rays and cleaned the air to eliminate outside disease and pollution. She remembered that drive only taking an hour, but her school had been closer to the border than her apartment was, and they hadn’t gone during rush hour.

When Diana finally reached the border it was 6:30, and she’d been driving for over two hours. Her leg was sore from repeatedly working back and forth between the accelerator and the brake. Cheep had to be getting restless by now, or maybe it was sleeping. That would certainly make things easier.

Over the past couple of hours Diana had begun to realize how hungry she was. The incident with the worm had made her forget all about lunch, so she hadn’t eaten since mid-morning. She had considered swinging through a drive thru, but decided against it. A drive thru would just be one more place where something could go wrong. Stopping to recharge her car’s battery had been nerve-wracking enough.

The line-up at the border crossing was still half an hour long, and Diana spent the entire time imagining what would happen if the inspector looked into the trunk and heard the box go “Cheep!” They’d drag her out of the car, handcuff her on the ground, and shut down all the inspection lines while sirens blared, lights flashed, and cameras recording the whole thing. Then the on-site Animal Control team would show up and capture Cheep and slam it into one of their DISPOSAL containers while it screamed in fear, “Cheep! Cheep! Cheep!”

Behind Diana, someone honked. The light in front of her was green, inviting her forward. It was her turn.

As she rolled down her window she was sure the white-uniformed, clean-shaven man with the digital clipboard could hear her heart pounding. She handed him her ID and tried not to let him see her fingers shake.

He looked at her ID for several seconds with his hard, grey eyes. Diana thought she was going to have a heart attack. Wouldn’t that give her family a story to tell. Nobody died of heart attacks anymore.

“Where are you headed?” asked the inspector.

“Just into the Suburbs,” said Diana. “I have some old clothes to drop off for one of the charities.”

The inspector was looking back and forth between Diana’s face and her ID. His forehead was wrinkled in what might have been suspicion. It’s okay, Diana told herself. They always look suspicious. That’s their job.

“You didn’t want to just drop your donation off at one of the pick-up sites?” said the inspector.

“I… Uh…” Why didn’t I think of that? Diana scrambled: “I like to see where my things are going in-person. It makes the giving that much more rewarding.”

“Which charity?” said the inspector.

Shoot. “I go to a different one every time, to spread things around. I don’t usually decide until I get there. Depends who needs it most.”

“Uh huh.” The wrinkles in the inspector’s forehead deepened. He looked at Diana’s ID again. “Could you pop your trunk for me?”

Diana complied. As the inspector walked around to the back of her car, she tasted bile rising to the back of her mouth. She watched in terror as the inspector lifted the trunk of the car open and leaned over to look inside. Diana waited for the telltale “Cheep!” She could already feel the handcuffs on her wrists.

The inspector straightened up and looked through the rear windshield towards her. He took three quick steps back to her window. Here it comes…

The inspector leaned down and smiled. “I just remembered why I recognize you. You work for the Ministry, right?”

Diana nodded weakly.

“You came in to my son’s school a couple weeks ago and made a presentation about animal safety. I was there. I go in one day a week as a parent volunteer to help the teacher out. Your presentation was really good!”

“Um… thank you,” Diana managed.

“My son has been obsessed with animals for over a year now. Always drawing pictures of them on his schoolwork and wanting to play dress-up games. We were starting to get worried that it was unhealthy, but now he says he wants to be an Animal Control Officer when he grows up.” The inspector was beaming. “Isn’t that great?”

Diana did her best to smile. “That’s wonderful.”

“Here’s your ID back. Tell your coworkers thank you from me, okay? And I hope the Suburbians appreciate your gifts.”

“Thanks.”

“Oh, wait,” said the inspector. “I forgot to close your trunk.” He scooted around to the back of the car and slammed the trunk shut. Then he hopped back into his booth and gave her a thumbs up as the holding gate was raised.

Diana shot her car forward and through the wall of the filter dome. She almost couldn’t believe it. She was through!

***

The Suburbs were much dirtier than Diana had expected. She’d never been out here herself; she’d only heard horror stories, and she didn’t believe half of them. Still, she didn’t think she’d find so much garbage lining the streets, and so many cracks in the pavement.

The roads were fairly busy, full of people commuting home from their jobs inside the city. Diana didn’t know why anyone would live out here if they had the choice. Supposedly the housing costs were a lot lower. Diana could see why. The buildings were grimy and old, and the structures were tiny: none of them looked to be any more than eight stories tall. What a waste of vertical space!

If the rumours were true, the Suburbs were a haven for all kinds of criminals. Theft, violence, and even animal breeding supposedly took place in the Suburb’s darker corners. The thought made Diana lock her car doors.

Enforcement was a lot more lax out here beyond the filter dome. According to the training Diana had received during her Ministry initiation, it was too expensive to fully police the Suburbs. Some day the government hoped to expand the filter dome to cover the Suburbs as well as the main city, and then it would be time to really clean things up out here, fully eliminating the criminal elements and scouring the stubborn pockets of plague and illness, but for now the Suburbs were only partially protected, covered by a thinner, cheaper, less effective alternative to the main dome. The money to do something about it just wasn’t there yet, because enforcement costs inside the main city were still too high. That’s why the Ministry was hiring people like Diana: prevention was cheaper than enforcement, and the long-term financial gains of increasing preventative messaging would eventually pay for the expansion of the dome. Theoretically, anyways.

Diana wondered what the people she was passing on the streets would think if they knew what she was doing. She was supposed to be helping them, but instead she was undermining her own role at the Ministry, violating the principles she was teaching and invalidating her own preventative work.

Too late now. Besides, Cheep was only one small animal, and it wasn’t listed among the biggest threats, like a rat or a mosquito. Once she had released it to the wild, outside the Suburbs, it wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone, and no one would be able to hurt it. Diana wondered which was more important to her at this point.

She kept driving.

Another hour brought her to the border of the Suburbs. Passing out of the Suburbs through the sub-dome turned out to be much easier than leaving the main city. The inspector took only a casual glance at her ID before waving her on and going back to watching television in his booth. No wonder the Ministry had so many problems with people smuggling animals into the Suburbs. No wonder so many Suburbians kept dying from preventable diseases. Look at how poorly they protected themselves!

As Diana passed beyond the Suburbs into the wilds, she set her car’s air conditioning intake to recycle the air inside the car rather than drawing its supply from outside. She wanted to breathe as little of the unfiltered atmosphere out here as possible. Centuries of poor environmental management had left the natural landscape fouled and polluted, according to the history texts. That was why the Ministry had built filter domes around its cities, and had so zealously protected its citizens from the elements for the past several decades. If the animal-borne illnesses didn’t get you, the airborne chemicals would.

The highway ran in a straight line directly away from the city for as far as Diana could see. It was raised slightly above the level of the land around it. The terrain was something Diana had only seen in pictures. Prairies, they called them, naturally occurring flatlands covered in wild yellow grasses that waved in the wind. They were similar to the wheat, barley, and other crops grown in the city’s agricultural district, but even though some were edible, the wild grasses were far less efficient and nutritious than what Ministry engineers were able to produce inside the filter dome.

Diana drove for about ten minutes, until she felt comfortably distant from the Suburbs. She pulled over and scanned the skies, wondering if she might be able to see more animals like Cheep. There must be others like it, a family of some sort. Would Cheep be able to find them back on its own?

She popped the trunk, unlocked her doors, and held her breath. Moving quickly, she flung open her door, jogged around to the trunk, lifted it open, and pulled the laundry basket towards her. The movement startled Cheep, and the animal began to hop, cheep, and flutter its wings.

“Shh!” whispered Diana. “I’m getting you out!” She had to breathe again, and prepared herself for the stench. She inhaled. Her eyes opened wide.

The air that entered her lungs was like nothing she had ever tasted. It reminded her of fresh bread from the oven. She breathed again, deeply. It was an incredible, heady sensation. She felt clean, bright, alive. Was this really what air outside the filter dome was like?

For the first time, Diana took a moment to quiet her thoughts and really look at her surroundings. The openness produced a brief sensation of agoraphobia, but it was exhilarating at the same time. She’d never seen a horizon like this. She’d never seen these shades of yellow.

She looked to the west and saw the setting sun. Its golden light was spilling across the undersides of the clouds as its lower edge kissed the surface of the prairies. All her life she’d watched the sun set over the tops of skyscrapers, but this… This was something else entirely. This was something altogether more beautiful.

Diana was so enthralled by what she was seeing, what she was breathing, that she didn’t hear the other car approaching until it was almost on top of her.

The whir of the vehicle’s poorly tuned electric engine snapped her back to reality, and she practically threw the box back into the laundry basket and slammed the trunk shut. All of her fears flooded back as she heard the other car come to a stop on the opposite shoulder. What should she do? Should she run?

“Hi there!” called a voice.

Diana turned to look. The other driver had rolled down the window of his beat-up old truck and was smiling in her direction. He appeared to be in his forties or fifties. His beard was flecked with touches of grey and his eyes sparkled.

“Hi,” said Diana.

“Everything all right?”

“Y-yes,” said Diana. “I’m fine.”

“I can give you a ride into the Suburbs if you’re havin’ car troubles,” said the man. “I’m headin’ in there on a supply run.”

“Thanks, but my car’s fine.”

“Okay. Just thought I’d check. Don’t see many folks stopped out here in the middle of the highway for no reason. You got enough juice to get to town from here?”

Diana looked back towards the city. “Yeah, I charged up not too long ago.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean the city,” said the man. “I thought you might be headin’ towards Prairie Town, since you were pointed that direction an’ all.”

Diana said, “I’ve never heard of Prairie Town.”

“Well you’re one o’ the city folk,” said the man, sounding almost apologetic. “Most o’ you don’t seem to know about Prairie Town. It’s just another hour along. Can’t miss it if you stay on the highway.”

“People actually live out here?”

“Sure! It’s a little rougher than city life, and you’ve got to work with your hands instead of just sittin’ in cars and chairs all the time, but exercise is good for you, and you can’t beat the fresh air!” The man sniffed appreciatively.

“I thought the air out here was polluted and toxic,” said Diana. “This isn’t at all what I expected.”

“Yeah, well, I hear they tell you a lot o’ nonsense when you live inside the city.” The man frowned. “Even in the Suburbs folks are fed plenty o’ strange stories. Say, is it true that there aren’t any animals at all inside the bubble?”

“There aren’t supposed to be,” said Diana, “but every now and then one gets in. This morning one of my cousins stepped on a worm. Animal Control had to come clean it up and disinfect everything.”

The man howled with laughter. “Disinfect?” he guffawed. “Because of a worm?”

Diana was taken aback. “Animals carry disease! You must know that.”

“Sure they do,” said the man, still chuckling. “And so do humans. Cleanin’ up after a worm? Boy, what an idea.”

Not prepared to let this stranger walk over her sensibilities quite so easily, Diana pushed back. “Don’t people out here get sick a lot, with so much exposure to animals?”

“Yeah, we get sick,” said the man, “and then we get better. Or sometimes we don’t. City people ain’t immortal either, are they?” He smiled.

“Well, no.”

“So, tell me, if I’m not being too nosy,” said the man. “If you aren’t on your way to Prairie Town, what are you doing all this way from home? Just come to find out if the air’s really as deadly as you’ve been taught?”

“Actually, I’m…” Diana paused. Should she tell him about Cheep? What would he say? What if he was secretly an Animal Control agent, patrolling for smugglers? She looked at him. If he was an agent, why was he being so friendly? “I found an animal,” said Diana, “inside the city.”

“Oh?” said the man. Now he looked really interested. “What kind of animal? Another worm?”

“No, it’s bigger than that. I don’t know what it is, exactly. It can fly.”

“What’re you plannin’ to do with it?”

Diana shrugged. “Let it go,” she said.

The man smiled. “Not scared it was gonna give you some kind of plague?”

“I was at first,” admitted Diana, “but…”

“Why don’t I take a look at it,” offered the man. He opened his door, got out, and crossed over to Diana’s side of the road. He was the skinniest man Diana had ever seen. He had no padding at all. She could see the muscles in his arms right through his skin! It must be really hard to get enough food when you live outside the city, she thought.

Diana opened the trunk somewhat reluctantly and pulled out the shoebox. The man looked in through one of the holes. “It’s just a cute little bird,” he pronounced. “Looks pretty freaked out, too!”

“Is it dangerous?” asked Diana.

“No, not at all,” said the man.

“I didn’t think so. I mean, it frightened me at first, but then it flew up onto a curtain rod, and, I don’t know…” Diana trailed off.

“They really do a job on your head inside that city, don’t they?” The man looked at her sympathetically. “Hey, tell you what. A lot o’ people in Prairie Town keep little guys like this as pets. They don’t mind livin’ in cages as long as they get fed right. Actually, they tend to live longer and happier that way than they do in the wild. I’ll take it off your hands, if you want, and make sure it gets taken good care of.”

Diana hesitated. She looked at the man’s unrounded cheeks and flat stomach. “You aren’t going to… eat it, are you?”

The man almost fell over laughing.

END

Discovery Two

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As Pilot Gina Cho finessed Space Shuttle Discovery II into its dock at the Second International Space Station, its crew finally began to relax.

The launch and flight had not gone as smoothly as the newly revitalized NASA had hoped. A series of false alarms caused by overly sensitive early warning systems had stretched everyone to the limit, but quick, professional reactions by Cho and calm leadership from Commander Carter Benson had brought them through.

NASA and its international allies were eager to make up for lost time after a sinking economy and deep budget cuts had crippled space exploration. Now new momentum was being gathered, and shuttles were bringing technology and researchers back to the International Space Station. In addition to Cho, who was a former fighter pilot with the US Navy, and Benson, an internationally recognized astronomer, Discovery II bore a second renowned astronomer, Doctor Paul Harding, and a journalist, Margaret Visser, a late addition to the mission whose task was to convey NASA’s sense of excitement and rejuvenation to the public.

A new space telescope had recently been put into operation, and Benson and Harding would be spending the next two weeks calibrating it and guiding its use in probing the mysteries of the universe. They were eagerly anticipating the gathering of enough data to keep them busy well into retirement age.

Benson was the first of Discovery II’s crew to board the station. He waited for Harding to follow, and together they retreated to their new quarters. They had been assigned adjacent bunks in the common sleeping area. Their beds were little more than fold-out trays with velcroed-in pillows and straps to hold their weightless, sleeping bodies in place.

“Here we are!” said Benson, bracing one foot against a hook in the wall and fluffing his pillow.

“Safe and sound in the bosom of space,” said Harding, stretching his arms above his head.

“There were a few times I thought we weren’t going to make it,” Benson admitted. “But Gina brought us through.”

“She was at her best,” Harding agreed, “probably because she didn’t want to be remembered as the pilot who was flying the shuttle three Nobel prizes and two Pulitzers died in.”

Benson chuckled. “Don’t forget the ‘Man Booker’ Visser got for her novel, too!”

Harding sniffed in mock derision, pursed his lips, and thrust his nose into the air. “I hadn’t forgotten it. I just don’t think something published under a pen name is worthy of recognition when placed alongside such true, esteemed achievements as ours.”

Benson smiled. “My son liked it.”

“Ah, well that changes my entire perspective!” said Harding, with a theatrical rolling of his eyes. “Your son is a young gentleman of discerning tastes. How can I disparage what he has applauded?”

Benson said, “What are you doing in space, really? You should be gracing Broadway!”

Harding dipped into a mock bow.

“On the subject of drama,” Benson continued, “I’ve been meaning to ask you, is there something going on between you and Margaret?”

“What do you mean?”

“Ever since she joined the mission, I’ve noticed the two of you exchanging glances now and then. I didn’t think much of it, but we’re in space, now. This is the most hostile environment there is. I don’t want there to be any… interpersonal complications.”

“We aren’t engaging in some secret romance, if that’s what you mean,” Harding said, an edge creeping into his voice.

“Those aren’t the kinds of glances I mean…”

Benson was interrupted by Visser’s arrival. The two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for journalism, also honoured with a Man Booker Prize for fiction, wafted into the room, her fiery red hair floating around her face like a portrait of a mermaid. “Which one’s mine?” she asked, gesturing to the bunks.

“Take your pick,” said Benson.

“The one over there is open,” said Harding, pointing to the bunk the furthest away from the one he had chosen.

“Suits me fine,” said Visser. A brief moment of eye contact passed between the journalist and Paul Harding. Not for the first time, Benson wondered what emotion was passing between the two of them. He never should have let it get this far without bringing things out in the open.

Benson said, “You know, Margaret, with all the training modules and briefings we’ve been put through over the past couple of weeks, I’ve never found a chance to really get to know you that well. I wish I’d had time to read more of your work. I was telling Paul how much my son enjoyed The Inadvertent Emperor.”

“I’m glad someone did,” said Visser. “I’ve never really liked it, myself, but it’s sold well enough. My PR firm does good work.”

Harding narrowed his eyebrows. “Oh, I agree. I mean, they managed to get you up here somehow, didn’t they?”

Visser turned her back and scowled.

Benson shot Harding a look and decided it might be better to find some alone time later to get to the root of things. He changed the subject: “Would you two like to do our post-flight debrief right away, or would you rather take a bit of time to rest and get acclimated to our new environment?”

As if in answer to his question, Gina Cho swung herself through the door frame. She was breathing rapidly, and was clearly excited. She grabbed onto a handle to halt her momentum, and a braid of jet black hair whipped around her face, catching her in the mouth. She sputtered.

“What is it?” said Benson, pushing off from his bunk.

“Something outside,” Cho breathed. “Come on!” She swung herself back into the hallway towards the airlock.

“What do you mean ‘outside’?” Benson called after her. “In space? Visser, grab your camera!” He followed.

Cho and Benson joined the rest of the space station’s crew at a large, translucent window that looked out upon the docked Discovery II. As Harding and Visser joined them, the group erupted in shouts of amazement.

Visser, who had been fiddling with some settings on her digital SLR, looked up. “What is it?” she said. “What’s out there?”

Cho pointed past the nose of the shuttle. Visser saw nothing but stars.

“There’s nothing—”

And then it appeared, swooping around the shuttle like a playful otter darting past the underwater window at an aquarium.

Visser was so startled she forgot to lift her camera. The whole group watched in shock.

“What is it?” said Cho.

“It has to be alive,” said Benson. “We all agree that whatever is out there must be some kind of life, right?”

Everyone murmured and nodded.

Harding said, “Unless we’re all breathing the same gas leak.”

And everyone was quiet for several seconds, until the creature showed itself again, eliciting new gasps of awe, looping and twisting with apparent abandon, a grey, ghostly form flitting in and out of view.

Visser clicked her camera to video mode and began recording.

Cho said, “Keep that thing running, Marg. Don’t you dare turn it off.”

In response, Visser fished a point-and-shoot backup camera from her hip pocket and tossed it to Cho. “Get our reactions. Set the scene. Shoot everything. It’s pretty dark out there. Are there any spotlights we can train on that thing?”

Visser’s business-like chatter seemed to break through the others’ reverie. One of the crew members, Kilger, pulled himself away from the viewport to a control room, where he could man a spotlight designed to facilitate docking. The rest broke into frantic conversation.

“How can anything live out there?”

“How does it breathe? It has to breathe something, doesn’t it?”

“We have to contact ground control right now. The world needs to see this.”

“Even if it doesn’t breathe, it has to eat.”

“Maybe it lives off UV rays.”

“Every TV channel in the world is going to want to put this up live.”

“Who saw it first? Turner, was it you?”

“There, the light’s on it now. Look, it has eyes! Can anyone see a mouth?”

“Turner, you’ve just become a household name, my friend.”

“See the rippling on its skin? It almost looks like tiny hairs all over its body, waving. Maybe that’s how it propels itself.”

“Where did it go? I saw it swim around the rear of the shuttle fifteen seconds ago. You don’t think the light frightened it, do you?”

“Good thing we have a real writer on board. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to put this into words.”

“There it is! It’s coming closer. It seems to be attracted to the light. I bet it absorbs UV somehow.”

“Is there any way we can capture it?”

“This could be the launching point for an entirely new branch of science.”

Harding, who been standing back and watching silently amid the pandemonium of enthusiasm, suddenly stepped forward, raised his hands, and rapped his knuckles against the window.

The hubbub abated as quickly as it had broken out.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Harding said, “I don’t mean to spoil the excitement of this seminal moment in human history, but right now we have an opportunity that no other people in the history of civilization have received. Are we going to waste these precious seconds in speculation, or are we going to do our jobs and actually learn something?”

After a few quiet moments, Benson said, “He’s right. Thank you, Dr. Harding. We can celebrate later. We all have a thousand hypotheses crowding our minds at the moment. Let’s start testing them as best we’re able. Did anyone see how the creature responded to Dr. Harding’s movement? That might give us a clue about its sense of vision.”

The astronauts quickly responded to Benson’s quiet authority. Two more of them swung through to the control room and raised ground control. Within ten minutes, billions of eyes were watching them on TV.

They began designing simple experiments. They tried to catch the creature’s attention, gauging the boundaries of its senses. It seemed to respond particularly well to light, following the spotlight around the shuttle and darting towards and away from the light source. Every few minutes it pulled itself up next to the light, closed its eyes, and seemed to bask in the glow.

Some of the more excitable TV science correspondents were already describing it as a UV-based life form. Millions of suggestions for what to name the creature were pouring in through social media. Every TV network had developed its own preferred headline-capturing moniker. The astronauts stuck with “it.”

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Turner’s home nation, called the discovery “perhaps the UK’s greatest contribution to human science.” The President of the United States called it “humanity’s highest achievement,” conspicuously avoiding any mention of nationality.

Every available camera continued to roll.

It was Cho’s idea, after half an hour of frenzied off-the-cuff experimentation, to don a spacesuit and get closer to it. Cho’s first spacewalk was supposed to have taken place the next day, when she and Lucas Fish, a Canadian engineer, had been scheduled to replace a few of the station’s protective panels. The spacesuits had already been prepared and checked over.

Benson cautioned against it. “We don’t know how it will respond,” he said. “If it comes into direct contact with you, it could be very dangerous. It may even become hostile.”

“I spent ten years flying fighters, three of them in active war zones,” replied Cho. “Those enemy pilots were hostile. This,” she motioned to the creature, which was turned slow circles in the spotlight, mimicking two of the astronauts, who were rolling and laughing in front of the window, “this is first contact. We have to do this.”

After conferring with Filatov, his Russian counterpart in command, and talking over the scenario with ground control, Benson relented. Once the media learned of what was about to take place, they clamored for face-time with the soon-to-be heroes, and Cho and Fish were taken to the control room.

Cho had handed the second camera off to one of the other crew members, but he was called away to prep the suits for the imminent spacewalk, and the camera ended up with Benson, who had taken to bouncing back and forth between the viewport and the control room, pointing and shooting still frames almost at random. Visser grabbed Benson as Cho and Fish wrapped up their pre-spacewalk interviews and asked him to cover the viewport while she took footage of the spacewalkers suiting up.

At the viewport, Benson snapped some shots of Harding and another crewmember recording some observations. The spotlight was being swept over the shuttle in a gentle figure-eight pattern, and the creature seemed to be following its path, then breaking off, then resuming the chase.

“If you watch it closely,” Harding said, in response to Benson’s presence, “it occasionally seems to lead out in front of the spotlight. See: there. It’s moving ahead of the light. It knows the pattern. This is at least a semi-intelligent creature we’re dealing with.”

“It’s fantastic,” agreed Benson. “There are all kinds of animals on Earth that have the ability to recognize simple patterns, but to find one in orbit?”

“Breathtaking,” said Harding. He looked up from his observations and noticed the camera in Benson’s hand. His eyebrows dipped briefly, and a haze seemed to pass quickly over his eyes, but it was instantly gone. “Is that Visser’s?” he said.

Benson nodded.

“Here, let me have it. I’ll take some video.”

Benson hesitated. He wondered what had passed through Harding’s mind during that brief moment. Then he was distracted as the creature swooped past the viewport within a distance of ten feet, and he caught a glimpse of its underside, which was a deep gray patterned with a jumble of lighter colours. The kernel of a thought occurred to him, and he handed the camera over and picked up a notepad to jot it down.

Harding adjusted some settings on the camera and began to scroll through its menus. Visser swung in, and Harding quickly tucked the camera down by his side.

“CNN wants to talk to me!” said Visser. “Cho and Fish are almost ready to go, so I need someone else to get some good video of them while we record my interview for replay later.”

“This is a big moment,” said Benson. “Are you sure you don’t want to shoot the video yourself?”

“Normally I would, but it’s CNN. This could be really big for my career.”

“Sure, okay. I’ll handle it.”

Visser thanked Benson and passed her primary camera to him, showing him how to start a video recording. Then she excitedly flung herself towards the control room, already flashing her best TV smile.

“Here, let me do the video,” said Harding as soon as she was gone.

“Aren’t you using the other camera?”

“This one doesn’t have nearly as high quality of a lens. Let me shoot with that one, and that way I can get you on-screen, too. You’re a Commander; you should be on-camera for at least some of this.”

“Fine,” said Benson. “I have to get some of these ideas down on paper, anyways.” He conceded the camera to Harding and went back to scribbling on his notepad.

Harding immediately began running through options menus and mumbling about apertures and white balance.

After a minute, the astronauts at the viewport were informed that Cho and Fish were about to pass through the airlock. Benson put his notepad down and crowded around the window. Harding hung back with the cameras.

Soon, the two spacewalkers floated into sight. They gave slow, gentle waves to the viewport and the cameras, then focused their attention on the creature, which so far hadn’t seemed to register their presence, still being absorbed in playing with the spotlight around the shuttle.

Cho and Fish moved slowly closer, and pulled up at a distance of fifteen feet from the front of the shuttle. They began to cautiously move their arms in an attempt to catch the creature’s eye.

Visser was beaming as she rejoined the group. “CNN loved me,” she declared. One or two faces turned to her with half-smiles, but everyone quickly returned to being riveted to the drama playing out in front of them.

The journalist took a memory card from her pocket and swung around beside Harding. “I’ll take over,” she whispered. “The card must be nearly full by now. Do you have the other camera, too? Good. I’ll get a fresh one in here.” She took the SLR and checked its remaining data storage.

Harding turned towards the control room.

“Paul, what is this?” said Visser.

Harding didn’t look back.

“Paul, where is all my footage?”

Just outside the control room, Harding stopped and turned. “Is there a problem?”

Yes, there’s a problem! What happened to all the video I’ve been shooting for the past 45 minutes!?”

“Shh, shh, calm down,” Harding protested. “There are cameras in here broadcasting live to the world, you know.”

“You deleted it!”

“What? No, of course I didn’t. Why would I do that? Your camera must have a glitch.”

“The camera’s working fine—you erased all my footage!”

Benson had come to check on the commotion. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“Harding wiped my memory card,” said Visser, quivering as the blood rushed to her face.

“She’s crazy,” said Harding, raising his hands innocently.

The motion brought Visser’s attention to her other camera, which Harding was still holding. Frantically, she clawed at it, wrenched it from his grasp, and checked its contents.

Harding was backing closer to the control room. “What’s gotten into you?” he snapped. “Why are you making such a scene?”

Benson added, “I really think you need to calm down, Marg.”

Visser howled. “This one, too?” She flung the camera in Harding’s face. He reacted too slowly and it bounced off his cheek and ricocheted to the ceiling. Two drops of red blood welled up out of a cut on Harding’s cheek and floated in the air between them. “I knew you were a malicious pervert, but I didn’t think you’d be capable of something like this, you son of a—” She lunged towards Harding.

Benson grabbed her arm and pulled her back.

Turner popped his head out of the control room. “Do you mind keeping the drama down just a little?” he said. “We’re in the middle of something kind of important.”

Benson said, “I need to know exactly what is going on, right now. You are two of the most accomplished professionals in the world, in the middle of one of humanity’s biggest moments ever. I am not okay with refereeing a fight like the father of a couple of spoiled teenagers. Whatever is going on between you two, I want it out in the open, and then I’m putting one or maybe both of you in private quarters until we have more time to resolve it.”

Visser was seething. “He wiped both of my cameras clean, completely deleted everything on their memory cards. And I can tell you why, too. Two years ago, I was interviewing him for an article, and he tried to force himself on me. I got out of there and cancelled the article. He lost a chance for some big national coverage, and he blames me.”

“Why didn’t this come up in the pre-mission screenings?” Benson demanded.

“The article was never written. My editor didn’t know what I was working on, and we never saw each other again until I was picked for the mission. I thought the whole thing was over. Apparently I was wrong.”

“What a journalist,” scoffed Harding. “A real spin doctor. You’ll gloss over anything that doesn’t fit the story you want people to see.” He turned to the Commander. “Have you read The Inadvertent Emperor, Benson?”

“No, my son did. I don’t see what that has to do with this.”

“If you had read it, you’d know. Part of her story is true: she did walk out on interviewing me. I didn’t force myself on her. I asked her out to dinner, and she blew up. She took all the background she’d collected on me, my life’s work, my personal history, my ambitions, and she twisted them into a parody and turned them into a book. Read her novel, Carter: she made me the villain of my own biography. And wouldn’t you know it, it’s a best-seller.”

Benson stared at the astronomer and the journalist each in turn, trying to read their faces. Paul Harding’s eyes flashed with triumphant vindictiveness; Margaret Visser had gone cold, and her lips were trembling.

Harding broke the pregnant silence. “I was willing to forget the whole thing and move on. This mission was a huge opportunity for me. And then here you were, as self-absorbed as ever, assuring yourself of yet another award earned on my behalf, accompanied by pictures and video I shot for you. You can’t have another Pulitzer, Visser, not if I can help it. You don’t deserve a thing you’ve got.”

With a savage cry, Visser pulled free of Benson’s grasp and flung herself at Harding, putting her shoulder into his chest and pushing him into the control room. Their momentum carried them into Kilger, who was still manning the spotlight. They jostled his arm and the joystick, jarring the spotlight so that its path crossed over Cho and Fish, floating in space on the verge of first contact with an extraterrestrial being.

The creature, which had been following the spotlight, eagerly darted in the direction of its movement, which carried it straight into Cho’s faceplate. The thick glass chipped, then cracked, then exploded with the release of the air pressure inside the suit.

A collective cry of shock echoed through the space station.

Cho was dead.

Startled by the unexpected collision, the creature darted into the black of space and was gone.

***

A CNN staff reporter named Jacob Hatherley won a Pulitzer prize for international reporting the next year, on the strength of his exposé on the mission of the Discovery II, titled “First Contact and the Death of Gina Cho.” He didn’t get every fact straight—journalists seldom do—but he wove a tale of pettiness, retribution, and oversight that set NASA back by ten years and utterly destroyed the careers of Doctor Paul Harding and Margaret Visser.

NASA buried Harding under an avalanche of damage control, and he lived out of the rest of his days in bitter seclusion. Visser retired very comfortably on the skyrocketing profits for The Inadvertent Emperor, which topped the New York Times bestseller list for nearly six months after the publication of the exposé.

END