Welcome! Table of Contents Below…

Welcome to writingjackal.com. This is a journal of original short stories that updates monthly. The topics can be broad but mostly cover science fiction and fantasy. I write all kinds of random stories with fantasy/sci-fi/horror themes. If you’re in a horror mood, try out Lynchpin, a story about a man who meets his fiancee’s parents.

It’s on hiatus, but I was working on a series of science fiction stories focusing on two people who try to recover the remains of their lost civilization. It’s meant to be fast-paced and action-oriented. If that sounds like it interests you, check out “The Veil”, which is the first story in that series and is self-contained (no cliffhangers).

Horror, Fantasy, and other stand-alone short stories:

Lynchpin: Stephen meets his father-in-law for a cookout.

Runes in the Snow: The Wilks Family comes across a traveling salesman.

The Tree and the Wolf: Supernatural house maintenance problems abound for Felix…

Foxfire: A traveler comes across foxfire during a nighttime drive.

Loyalty: A strange woman comes to stay with the Henworthy family.

————–

Keto and Daine “Scavengers of Rhea” short story series:

(1) “The Veil”– Keto’s attempted recovery of a medical device outside of quarantine goes awry.

(2) “On the Outside” — Keto and Daine travel to the northern wastes and find a massive, untouched structure.

(3) “Diversions” — Keto steals an artifact from the Regent’s Winter Palace.

(4) “Rain Down” — Daine gets involved with a crazed inventor named Lian Feng.

(5) “Bloodless” — Continued from “Rain Down.” Keto and Daine investigate a fallen object from Rhea’s orbit.

Bloodless (Scavengers #5)

This story is a (much overdue) follow-up to “Rain Down.” 

On a picnic table outside an old shack, not far from Lian Feng’s barn, Keto Avenant spread out a map. The map had a lot of smudges and blank spots, but it was serviceable. In the sky, Keto could see the distant, dissipating smoke trail from the Midas, extending to the heavens. A fresh trail took its place, forking off in a different direction, southward — a great gash of billowing vapor breaking through the night clouds. What goes up, must come down, thought Keto. Although, not necessarily alone.

The land was owned by a ved’ma, a witch who was a follower of the old God. Technically, it was the same God that the Regency promoted, but superstitious people such as this ved’ma worshipped both God and his underworld counterpart, known simply as Drevaskol, the Demon. As soon as Keto, Daine, and their Vydrina mercenary motorcade arrived at the shack, the woman, the ved’ma, began a ritual. She was deep into it at this point, inside her shack. Keto could barely see inside through the window, but she saw a red glow from a lantern, and occasionally saw flashes of a blood-tinged ritual knife.

The witch’s hut was the perfect place to set up a mobile camp – defensible, high ground, and a couple choke points through the tangle of trees. Also, this woman was so crazy that nobody would believe any story she told — especially a story about a band of mercenaries in the middle of nowhere, armed to the teeth.

Daine walked back from across the field, and all the gathered mercenaries perked up to attention. He had been on the phone with Alexander Vydrina, their commander.

“You’ve all been ordered back,” said Daine to the collected mercenaries. He snapped the antenna on the massive phone down, somewhat angrily. Without hesitation, the mercenaries began to pack up and leave. One soldier came up to Daine. “Sir?” he asked, gesturing towards a vehicle. “Leave that one for myself and Keto,” said Daine, taking the keys.

As Daine began to mark up the map, muttering to himself, Keto tapped him on the shoulder. “What’s up? Why aren’t we going out there to investigate?”

Daine shook his head. “We are. They aren’t. Vydrina wanted his men back.”

She pointed at the map, at the main Vydrina compound at the southeast of quarantine. “Well, let’s at least stop by home base. We’re not really equipped for a long-range expedition.” It was true enough. They had plenty of food and water, but the ground vehicles they were driving were little more than jeeps, not at all fit for long range.

“No extra supplies,” said Daine. “What we have needs to be enough.”

“I don’t get it.” Keto saw the flash of a knife inside the house. The woman was sacrificing some kind of small rodent. The knife went up and down rhythmically while she yelled out words in a foreign tongue.

Daine angled himself away from the other men, and whispered, “Neither do I. I think Vydrina’s in some kind of trouble. The kind of trouble where he needs his men back ASAP. But this mission is essential, he said. We need to recover the fallen debris.”

“Yeah,” said Keto. “Whatever it is.”  She heard the old woman ululating inside and saw her holding up entrails to a candle, as if investigating them.

“If anything’s left.”

————

Alexander Vydrina was in some kind of trouble. At least, that was what Valery Kapashen intended to impress upon the aged mercenary commander today. Flanked by fifteen of Regent Kerensky’s “Masks” — his finest soldiers, used for covert missions — their orders were to bring Alexander in for questioning. Normally, Valery was not involved in these military or police actions, but since the target was a man of high political esteem, and the charge was treason, the Regent trusted no one else but Valery, his closest advisor, to bring Vydrina in.

The Vydrina Company Headquarters was like a haunted castle out of some children’s story. Parts of the building were made of the shiny alloy of the Ancients, but most of it was new construction (though much older-looking than the work of the Ancients). The outside of the headquarters was a series of stone walls, a dark gray. The massive walls contained several brick barracks and a curious-looking tower, spiralling up toward the sky. It was the type of place Valery expected to find a mad scientist presiding over a patchwork monster. To top it all off, it was raining. One of the Masks (in a helmet with a wolf’s face) reluctantly held an umbrella over the head of the Regent’s advisor.

Valery was questionable about the whole arrest. Raskolnikov, the High Priest — a raving fool in Valery’s eyes — was the one who advised the Regent to arrest Vydrina. Valery felt as though the Regency was grasping at straws at this point. Reports of violence in the borderlands were becoming more frequent, as was the aggression from the starving commoners towards nobility. If the looming threat of civil war wasn’t enough to stir a panic, the worsening famine would cause the Regency to lose whatever credibility it had left. Finding whoever was behind the civil unrest was an afterthought at this point. This is like putting bandaids on a severed hand, thought Valery.

Valery adjusted the three-bar pin on his suit coat and, not knowing what else to do outside the massive fortress, merely knocked on the front door, iron-wrought and massive.

A man with ratty hair and a black Vydrina uniform answered by opening the doors wide. “What’s wrong?”

“Good evening,” said Valery. “I have a warrant for your commander’s arrest.”

The man, and a group behind him, broke out into laughter, the baudy kind heard in taverns after work. “You’re joking?”

“I’m afraid not.” The men behind the warden at the door began to creep up, sensing trouble. Valery cleared his throat. I hate dealing with hired guns. They always go off at the most unpredictable times. “I’d prefer to make this as easy and painless as possible. Just some questions for Alexander.”

The doorman crossed his arms. “If you think you’re throwing the commander in one of them labor camps, you have –“

“It’s fine.” A slender man strode out from the shadows of the inner castle. Alexander Vydrina, the old, revered commander. “I’ll come willingly,” he said to Valery. He turned back to his wardens. “The Regent figures if he arrests enough men, he can stop the revolution.” The men laughed.

Vydrina unstrapped his pistol and knife and held them out to a man with a bushy black beard. “Elliot,” he said, handing his weapons to him, “You’re in charge. Debrief the team when they get back.”

Without shackles, Alexander Vydrina stepped out of his castle and into the waiting crowd of Masks, their painted visors leering at him without expression.

—————

“I don’t see why this one’s different than any other recovery we’ve done,” said Keto, as she pulled the sliding door of her barn 0pen. This barn was seldom used, just off a dirt road, at the very edge of the plains of her inherited land. She was glad to have a chance to restock, since her farm was on the way south, near the ghostly quarantine fences.

“The whole world saw that explosion in the sky,” said Daine. “I don’t doubt that the Regent will send out his best to retrieve whatever’s out there.”

“And then destroy it,” said Keto sadly. That was the modus operandi of the Regency, since its inception after the virus wiped out the Ancients. Destroy the unknown…and it can’t hurt us.

They walked into the barn to reveal a massive truck with a mechanical winch and flatbed — the “Armadillo,” a vehicle that served Keto and Daine in their early days outside quarantine, before their official backing from the Vydrina Company. This was the long-range vehicle they needed to reach the fallen debris.

On the wall of the barn was a gun rack her father had built before he passed on. On it was her self-made “Sablin” sniper rifle. She grabbed it, and a box of tranquilizer rounds. Reluctantly, she took live rounds as well.

“Ms. Avenant?” said a voice from well outside the barn. Keto went out and saw a sharply-dressed man shielding his eyes from the sun.

It was her steward, Jean Corveau, a man with a head of hair and pointy noise like a raven’s. His family had helped with the day-to-day operations of the Avenant family farmland for several generations. When her parents were still alive, Jean’s father served as steward. Now that her parents had passed — as had his own — it had fallen on him to serve Keto. They grew up together, but separately. Jean was subservient to Keto, but they also respected one another; they were friends, in their own way.

“I don’t mean to interrupt you,” he said, fiddling with a hem on his suit jacket.

“No, it’s fine,” said Keto, finishing the straps on her heavy cloth biosuit as she talked outside.

“It’s just that, the workers are concerned about the civil unrest to the north,” he said. “With your permission, I’d like to invite them to stay on the grounds for safety.”

“Of course,” said Keto. She stopped suiting up and looked over at a nearby field, where a great wooly ox was pulling a plow. “I hadn’t even thought of it,” she said. “That’d be smart.”

Jean nodded deferentially. “I’m glad you think so.”

Keto pulled down her mask, covering her head entirely, and pressurized the suit. “I’m taking an extended vacation,” she said, her voice echoing through the biosuit’s filter.

“Of course,” said Jean, carefully. “You are going…out, I see.”

“As far as anyone is aware, no I am not.” She figured Jean knew that she frequently went outside quarantine, but he always had the good sense to not ask any questions.

“Right,” said Jean, beginning to walk off.

“Wait.” Keto ducked into the barn and came out with a shotgun. She tossed it to Jean, along with a box of shells. “Just in case, you know?”

“Thank you, Ms. Avenant.” To Keto’s surprise, he expertly opened the action of the gun and checked the chamber. “I do hope it doesn’t come to this.”

Keto hoped it wouldn’t. She equally wished her mission outside quarantine would be uneventful. Usually, their missions were bloodless. They’d hear a rumor, read something historical (what few texts the Regency hadn’t burned during The Cleansing), and they’d head outside of quarantine, through secret paths only they knew about. Up until this past summer, they had never encountered anyone else, dead or alive, outside of quarantine. The ruins were practically untouched, and the only hazards they had to worry about were hunger, thirst, wild animals, and the remnants of the virus, which lies dormant in virtually every plant and animal outside quarantine.

This past summer had changed all that. The Regent had sent out his Masks to Novoskaya, the very same place Keto and Daine were looking for lost technology. She had taken a life there, a man named Aramis, and though the death was mostly accidental and brought on out of self-defense, she couldn’t forget about it and still kept the man’s diary close at hand. Then, they were attacked by a savage band of survivors to the northern wastes, in the deep frost where the virus could not survive. She had killed a man there, too, in a failed attempt to rescue their pilot. She knew when a person needed killing, but it still didn’t make it easy for her. She wished she had Daine’s mental fortitude. No matter what they encountered, he was an island. She envied that about him, and she relied on his strength — not to help her do what was needed, but rather, to help her cope with what she had to do.

In any case, the area outside quarantine was getting very crowded, and missions of exploration had somehow turned into military actions. The millions of kilometers contained by the quarantine fences seemed very small compared to the rest of the planet. It was as if Rhea was waking up from a deep slumber.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can, Jean,” said Keto. She put a gloved hand on his shoulder and breathed heavily into the filter. “Keep everyone safe for me, will you?”

——————-

After driving nearly a week over the trackless savannah of the land south of quarantine — easily the farthest into the “dark territory” they had ever been — Keto and Daine were about to give up the search. They were stretching their fuel as it was, and they didn’t even recognize the land they were in. This savannah was covered in tall grass and strange patches of crystals of differing colors; natural formations that looked like some kind of quartz erupting from the ground.

But finally, at a spot not even identified on their maps, they found the wreckage in a small crater.

In the middle of a prairie, there was a mass of metal — the wreckage of a small ship. There were recent burn marks on the tall, golden grass, and the wreckage wasn’t overgrown at all. This was their quarry.

“My God,” said Daine, his voice heavy from within his blackened steel biosuit. “There’s no way we’re fitting this in the truck.”

Keto ran up to the spacecraft, her eyes wide and starry like a child’s. “We don’t have to,” she said. “Right? We can just take the…guts…out of it.”

“You’re right,” said Daine. He nodded slowly at first, then more emphatically. “Yura would only need the engine to work with. Maybe a piece of this plating. We could combine it with what we learned from that gigantic colony ship up north…”

He trailed off and staggered backward slightly. His face wasn’t visible through his opaque mask, but Keto imagined his jaw was slack with awe. “Keto, this thing will change the world. Do you realize that? If we can rebuild it…if this thing was up there in the sky…”

“…Then we can get back up to space, too,” she said. “And maybe even travel to wherever the ship came from.”

“Wherever we came from, Keto,” said Daine, beginning to laugh. “Where all of humanity came from!” He clapped his hands and yelled wordlessly, triumphantly.

“Assuming Yura doesn’t just make a coffee maker out of this thing. Remember what he did with the robot we brought back?”

Daine sighed. “Yeah,” he said. He perked up again. “But this, this is different. This is…spectacular.”

“I have to admit…when you’re right, you’re right,” said Keto, grinning from ear to ear. It was always a big deal for Keto to see Daine get excited about something, and she was feeding off his energy.

Keto and Daine drove the Armadillo up as close as they could to the wreckage without disturbing anything. A silver gazelle ran out of the wreckage as the two explorers got out of their vehicle. Daine took out a massive, two-handed tool — an Arc Cutter, used to slice through heavy metal. He turned on the tool and it vibrated, causing him to vibrate as well, like using a jackhammer. Keto suspected the tool was meant to be mounted onto some type of vehicle, but she also knew Daine was exceptionally strong. He cut through what appeared to be the front of the craft. The windows were smoked over and cracked from the crash, but once they were inside, they found a pristine cockpit. There were dials and buttons of all kinds, and two chairs. “Those don’t look very comfy,” she said, frowning.

“We’ll leave the chairs, then,” said Daine wryly. “But these must be the pilot’s controls. We’ll get that back first. And there must be a schematic in here or something that can show me where the engine block is…”

“Daine,” she said, laughing. “This thing isn’t a truck, you know.”

“I know that,” Daine said, partially ignoring Keto. “Let me figure this out. I’ll cut everything to size — carefully — and use the winch to get it all on the Armadillo. I need you up on that ridge, Keto, to keep a lookout.”

She took her rifle and clambered up the ridge, a distance equal to a cornfield away from the crash. She set up a tripod and rested her rifle on it, using the scope to survey the land around the crash. She whistled and waved at Daine when she was in position. He waved back and started cutting, his arms like cords of steel as he held the arc cutter steady. He got the flight controls out in one piece, or so it seemed — there were some wires dangling down, which Keto hoped weren’t too important. He began to work on what she assumed was the rear of the vehicle, and after a time, cut out a chunk of block of pipes, wires, and other metal Keto couldn’t even begin to make sense of.

The ship was nothing like she had dreamt. She always thought these craft — built by a technology advanced society — should look perfect and polished. The colony ship they found in the Northern Wastes, the tundra north of quarantine, was made of a white metal, pristine and smooth. Now she realized the ship must have been missing something. Maybe erosion over nearly a millenia had stripped off the exterior plating of that ship. Because what they were looking at now — from a ship crashed not one week ago — was a spacecraft armored with some kind of craggy-looking, natural rock plating. It was as if the ship had erupted from the core of Rhea; it was like a giant stone stalactite, cut out of some subterranean cavern. This ship was also substantially smaller. The colony ship was almost tall as a mountain, but this crashed ship was barely longer than two Armadillo trucks.

Keto’s attention was drawn by a glint of light in the distance, just where the distant prairie and night sky met. Other vehicles. Someone else was coming. She yelled down to Daine, but he couldn’t hear her with the Arc Cutter whirring. She left her rifle and slid down the ridge, then ran up to him. “Daine! Someone’s coming!” she yelled, over the din of the truck’s winch.

He pulled a lever on the Armadillo, and all was silent again, except for their breathing through their biosuit filters. “Come on,” he said, tapping Keto on the shoulder and running back to the ridge.

They climbed back up and Keto looked through her scope to see what was coming. Several white-and-red vehicles, closing in fast on the crash site. “Regency Foxhounds,” she said. “I guess they saw the smoke trail too, huh.”

Daine took a look through the scope. Their truck was stranded down at the crash site. Driving it away was futile — on an open prairie, there was no way the lumbering Armadillo would outrace a group of the Regency’s slick Foxhounds.

“We’re screwed.”

—————

Two armed guards led Alexander Vydrina into a chamber of stone. There was no roof, and sunlight poured in from far above.

Let’s get this over with, thought Valery Kapashen. He was already sitting down at a metal desk, with his legs crossed and a cigarette in one hand. “Please, sit,” he said to Vydrina, gesturing to a chair far less comfortable than his own.

Valery regarded Alexander Vydrina — a veteran of a dozen military campaigns, a decorated hero and a renowned gun-for-hire. His mother had always warned him to beware of working men who bore no scars, because they were liars. Vydrina’s face was pure and unscarred, strange for a soldier of his advanced age. The stories about Vydrina had always talked about his military involvement in broad, vague terms — “oh, he was the man who captured Misha Ryzhonin,” they would say, but there were always details missing from these stories. What exactly was he good at? Marksmanship? Scouting? What was his preferred weapon? Such was the legend of a man like Vydrina — he was described only as capability personified. He carred with him a dangerous reputation, filled with a hideous capacity for violence that Valery could only admire. Truly, Vydrina was a man after his own heart.

“There’s going to be hell to pay for this,” said Vydrina. “The longer you lock down my men, the longer it takes me to help secure Istovin from the rebels.”

Valery laughed. “Oh come on, now,” he said. “Your primary concern is outside of quarantine. As soon as I call of the investigation, you’re sending them right outside quarantine to follow the smoke trail. That’s your primary concern here, not the growing rebellion.”

“From what I’ve heard, that is your concern as well,” said Vydrina, pursing his lips tightly as he spoke the words.

“Fair point,” said Valery. “Fine then, let’s get this over with.” He slapped a file folder on the table in front of Vydrina.

Vydrina flipped through. “What is this?”

“It’s the evidence I’ve collected,” he said, elocuting each syllable. “From reviewing your files. You have some equipment unaccounted for in your inventory. Namely, some one hundred assault rifles that you purchased or manufactured, but never received.”

Vydrina closed the folder. “I’ve never had a love of paperwork,” he said dismissively.

Valery took a long drag from his cigarette. “Are you providing weapons to the rebels?” he asked in a simple tone used for children.

“No,” said Vydrina. “Good God, Kapashen. What would be the point? I’ve spent nearly thirty years supporting the regency through my wealth and manpower. Can you give me one reason why I’d throw that away for some workers’ revolt?”

“I can’t,” said Valery. He flicked the cigarette stub into the corner. “That’s why you’re free to go. I apologize for the inconvenience.” He looked Vydrina in the eyes for a few moments, then casually glanced away.

Vydrina got up and strode towards the door, where one of the guards opened it. He paused in the doorway. “There is one more thing,” he said.

Vydrina reached into the folds of his jumpsuit and slapped a dagger onto the table. “I found this in my cell. What’s the meaning of this? Why’d you put it there?”

“I’d rather hoped you’d use it,” said Valery. A jagged smile spread across his face like a creeping vine.

“You’re fucking sick, Kapashen. Fucking sick,” said Vydrina, seething. He stormed out of the room and yelled for a guard to take him back home.

————–

It was still nighttime, and Keto and Daine were cornered. From a secluded cave, sunken in to the side of the ridge by the spacecraft, they took turns looking through binoculars. There was a gathering army of Regency elite soldiers, Masks, patrolling the perimeter of the spacecraft. They inspected the ship, as well as Keto and Daine’s craft. But they didn’t do anything. They just sat around and waited, like they were guarding a bank vault. It was supremely frustrating, particularly for Keto, who didn’t relish the idea of walking back to the quarantine fences with no truck and no salvage.

Keto was throwing pebbles against the wall of the cave idly. “Why wasn’t there anyone in the ship, Daine?”

He set the binoculars down and sat down against the mouth of the cave, wincing from soreness. “I hadn’t thought about that,” he said.

“Maybe another ship picked them up and took them away from here,” she said. “There must have been so many ships that left. You know, when the virus hit.”

“Well,” said Daine, looking through the binoculars again, “We’ll never know with those assholes out there.”

Just then, a stream of fire gashed out from the prairie and hit one of the Foxhounds, causing the vehicle to explode and send metal everywhere. “What the hell was that?”

“A third party,” said Daine, handing the binoculars to Keto. She saw red lights now, some kind of lasers, coming from the tall grass of the prairie. One of the lasers sliced through a Mask’s polished red-and-white bio-armor and left a smoking hole.

“Come on, this is our chance! We have to make a move or else we’ll never get that truck out of there!” said Daine.

“But Daine, we don’t even know who these people are, or what they –“

“Damn it Keto, we don’t have time! If we wait, whoever that is will find us and kill us too! We won’t get another chance like this! Move!”

They ran out of the cave, using fallen rocks and the ridge at their backs as cover. The Masks had managed to cover and create some kind of defensive formation, using the Armadillo, their own Foxhounds, and the downed spacecraft as cover from the deadly laser-fire from the grass. “I can’t even see where it’s coming from, Daine.” Keto and Daine held their position and watched the two sides trading fire. Keto saw the flash from the muzzle of a Mask’s assault rifle and heard a scream from the grass.

“Look, they’re falling back,” said Keto, pointing at the Masks. “They’re giving up.” She saw the Masks piling into their Foxhounds and beginning to drive back north, towards quarantine.

“Not exactly,” said Daine. As he predicted, the vehicles stopped and the gunfire began again. “The Masks flanked them,” whispered Daine, as if he was explaining an opera to Keto.

Keto heard a rustling to her left and cried out. Daine drew and fired his pistol into the night, in a three-shot burst. A man screamed wordlessly and fell over dead. He wore dark-green armor, painted with symbols Keto couldn’t recognize. Unlike Keto and Daine, he wore no filter or helmet of any kind over his head.

“They’re advancing on us,” said Daine. “Come on, we have to get to the truck!”

Keto looked through the scope on her rifle and saw more of the dark-green armored men clambering into the cab of the Armadillo. “Damn it! They’re going to take the truck, Daine!” As soon as she said that, she heard the engine roar to life and saw the headlights flicker on. More of the men in dark-green climbed into the back. The combat was over now, and the survivors on both sides retreated, leaving their dead and dying by the husk of the spacecraft.

“Who the hell were those people? And what were those red beams they were firing?”

“We should go back to base,” said Daine, defeated.

“Yeah,” said Keto. She kicked a small piece of crystal across the savannah and looked on as the Armadillo disappeared into the cover of night. Half of the foxhounds were driving off farther into the distance, while half stayed stationary, either disabled or driverless.

“No,” said Keto. “No, actually, we need to follow them Daine. We have to follow the ship. You said it yourself, Daine. This could change the world.”

Daine turned his head and all Keto could see was his opaque black helmet. “Whatever it takes,” he growled.

“Whatever it takes,” she agreed.

To be continued (no later than Feb. 14)…

Crash in the Crystal Savannah. Commissioned from Danil Shunkov -- http://danillovesfood.deviantart.com

Crash in the Crystal Savannah. Commissioned from Danil Shunkov — http://danillovesfood.deviantart.com

Rain Down (Scavengers #4)

Five hundred years ago — maybe even a thousand — there were millions more people across this planet. We call them the Ancients for short, but they are more than that. They are our ancestors, born on a different planet, transported here through great ships in the sky. They came from a planet called Earth, of which we know nothing. Of their intentions here on our planet, Rhea, we only know about what they left behind. Their culture died from the great plague known as the Adversary. From time to time, when I’m exploring their ruins, I wonder what type of people they were. Doubtless, they had dreams and ambitions of their own.

They wanted to explore. A thousand years ago, ships landed on Rhea, bearing colonists. We found one of those ships, and through some minor miracle, a man survived in some sort of advanced stasis. Before he died, he told us the name of his group: the Teremko Expedition. Bearing his own name, this expedition flew here on a colony ship named the S.S. Vintner (we suspect, through his behavior, that the man was a famous hedonist). Evidence from the craft suggests a crash landing. All the inhabitants inside were dead,  Due to the distance from our own quarantine, no effort has been made to send a larger salvage team to investigate further.

They wanted to learn. In the ruins of their great cities, we found evidence of laboratories, zoos, museums, universities, and other things. In our current home, our people are so absorbed with survival that hardly any of us can afford the time for advanced education. Novoskaya — one of their biggest cities, only approximately 50 kilometers from quarantine — was home to the majority of the science and education centers. My partner Keto found a massive biological laboratory. I hope that, with time and properly trained scientists, we could one day comprehend and even continue their research.

They wanted to survive. The Adversary, a debilitating virus with a quick mortality rate, spread among their population unchecked. Temporary quarantines failed as people would merely ignore them and spread the virus further. The Regency claims that it was the first regent, Toru Kerensky, who directed the construction of the quarantine fences around the country we live in today. I suspect that, as in all things, nobody knows the real story; it remains a mystery how such a virus could destroy such an advanced civilization. Life is difficult for us — there isn’t enough food for our people, and the disparity between the rich and poor is gigantic. I wonder if the Ancients had to deal with similar problems. Surely, they didn’t have to deal with the quarantine fence — a ghostly construct, built long ago, a last stand to defend the survivors of the virus. Over the hundreds of years, it has stood strong, and kept its people safe.

I want to explore more, but the window of opportunity is closing. We are in a state of revolution now. The Regency is beset on all sides by powerful men, each of whom have their own motivations. Meanwhile, the people are left to suffer whatever consequences may happen. I’ve kept this from Keto and my employer, Alexander Vydrina, but I wonder — at the end of this revolution, will we be led into an age of enlightment? Or will we suffer another dark age, erased from the pages of history? Will we be heroes, or will our children remember us only as nameless “Ancients?”

– Daine Laurent

——————————————————-

Keto Avenant was on her knees in the dirt, having worked for an uncountable number of hours in the Summer heat. Alexa Dorsey had graciously offered to help her retool her farm for the drought; a rare luxury other plantations couldn’t afford. There hadn’t been rain in quite a long time, and the parched soil all throughout Rhea meant food shortages and angry peasants. Her livestock weren’t happy, either. Ask not for whom the cows low; the cows low for your pathetic upkeep of this farm!

Keto hadn’t imagined Dorsey, a biologist, would be as good a worker, but she was tough and true in the fields. Since their last meeting, she had gotten a simple, metal prosthetic leg after recovering from her unfortunate incident with the savages in the Northern Waste. She had lost a significant amount of weight, but her complexion was better now, and she had regained all her strength. Dorsey had become an unlikely friend. She was a scientist in the Regent’s service — one of the few — which put her at odds with Keto’s often illegal work outside of quarantine. (When asked, Keto prefers the term “extra-legal.”)

“What happened to that man you were dating? The gardener?” asked Dorsey.

“Nikolai? Uh…well…I think I scared him off,” said Keto sadly.

Dorsey realized she tread on a sore spot. “Okay. Well how about that mountain of a man, your Vydrina contact? Daine? Have you seen him lately?”

Keto looked up at Dorsey thoughtfully. “You know, I haven’t. And it’s odd, really. He usually comes by at least once a week, either to visit or send me on a mission.”

Dorsey went back to digging. “Is he always so mysterious? I think I counted five words out of his mouth the whole trip back after I, you know…” she pointed at her prosthetic leg and made a clicking sound with her tongue. “Is he a little slow in the head?”

Keto smiled. “He’s just a deep thinker. The smartest person I know. Well, present company excluded.” She flashed a smile and put down her box of seedlings. “He’s probably in his library, sketching up our newest mission. Twice as many savages this time, and a big razor-cat — with extra-pointy teeth! — just so we can justify dragging you with us.”

——————

The guards threw Daine down into the dust, right in front of their master’s wooden porch. He had a bag over his head and his hands and feet were bound with coarse rope. The guard with the least teeth stepped up. “Novak, we found him skulking around the perimeter! He was gonna rob us blind, boss!”

The boss, Novak — a thin, baldheaded man wearing a heavy jacket — removed Daine’s bag from his head. “Is that true?” the boss asked skeptically, eye-to-eye with Daine.

“No!” said Daine. His face was a bloody mess. One of the guards took it upon himself to bloody it up further with a heavy swing across his cheek. The guard pointed at him, like a witness indicating the accused at a trial. “He’s a liar, Novak, a damn liar! We found this gun and two knives on him! Either he’s a thief or a murderer, but he’s for sure a liar!”

“I came here looking for Lian!” said Daine, his voice steady. “I want to talk to Lian.”

“He wants to talk to Lian,” said Novak. “What makes you so sure there’s some Lian here? Sounds like a fake name, boys. Sounds like the name of some kind of circus animal!” All three of Daine’s captors erupted in laughter.

The other guard, bearded and cruel, said, “Well, I figure we should take him out back and, you know…”

Novak took a hold of Daine’s chin and appraised him, like a butcher inspecting a side of beef. After a few moments he said, “Yep. Behind the barn.”

Daine, realizing what was about to happen, shouted. “No! I want Lian! Listen to me! I have information for him!”

They dragged him kicking and screaming across the dusty soil. Besides the two guards and their chief, there was nobody to hear Daine’s pleas. To the North, East, West, and South, were fields and grasslands, hemmed in by boreal forest — trees and grass alternating in height, all the way to the distant mountains — and beyond them was the ghostly quarantine fence. Such was the province of Istovin, the northern borderland. Besides the sparse valleys and plains, much of the land was unusable and uninhabited. Despite the hardships of its peasants, Istovin had a cold, desolate beauty to it. It was a poor land filled with poor peasants, and the only thing that differentiated these guards from farmers were the weapons in their hands.

Daine kicked out and nearly knocked the master to the ground. “You do that again,” he said while kicking Daine in the solar plexus. “You do that again, and we do you right here. No burial. God won’t know where to find you.”

“Oleg is dead!” said Daine, gasping for air. “Oleg is dead. And I know who killed him. Just go get Lian. Go get him. Go, please.”

The three men considered Daine for a few moments. Novak gritted his teeth. “Stay with him,” he said to the two guards.

The master left for the farmhouse. One of the guards spit at Daine, then he and his partner walked off a distance to smoke cigarettes. Daine kept his gaze fixed at the low-lying mountains. His face was a blank canvas now.

After a few minutes, Lian Feng came out. He was a slight, unhealthy-looking man, wearing coveralls. He was covered in tattoos in the Ancient language, which Daine mostly couldn’t read. They appeared to be religious; with the words “creator” and “heaven” interspersed among the other indecipherable phrases. All sorts of tools stuck out of his pockets, and indicated he was doing some type of heavy construction work, likely cutting metal and tightening bolts.

“Did you kill him?” asked Lian. “No, don’t answer that. I already know your answer. Well, what do you want here? Did you merely come to deliver me the news? Congratulations. You’re speaking to the one man who cares the least about a man such as Oleg.”

“Oleg is dead,” repeated Daine, “I saw him killed by peasants out in Istovin.” He nodded up North. “They don’t care for you, I take it.” Lian nodded once, the universal gesture for both I know and Hurry up. Daine cleared his throat. “Well, I’d like to work for you. I heard you were looking for men. Discreet men.”

The quieter of the two guards chimed in. “We could use the help, boss.” The other added, “He is a a strong one, at that.”

“Well? What are you waiting for? Put him to work,” said Lian. He walked back towards the barn, wiping off his hands with a shop cloth. “And don’t bother me again unless it’s something important!”

—————-

Keto unsuccessfully tried kicking in Daine’s door, and after a few more attempts, took a nearby rock and bashed at the door handle until it came off. She pushed the door in gently — as if caution would serve her even after that ruckus — and she took out her pistol.

She had never been inside Daine’s apartment before. As kids, they played on his parents’ land, but when he became an adult, he opted to live on his own near the core of Sovgorod, Rhea’s second-largest city. The apartment was dark, small, and gave off the feeling that it was hardly lived in. The furnishings were sparse; a bed that was no more than a mattress on a boxspring, and a splintered chair pushed up under a heavy wooden desk. There was a kitchen, which was the cleanest room in the house — likely from misuse. Keto had seen prison cells that were more homely.

On the desk, Daine kept several maps and notebooks scattered. Keto smiled nostalgically when she saw a photograph of herself and Daine. They were an odd pair, she thought, and not for the first time. Her pale skin, silvery-blonde hair, and tall, wiry physique contrasted his black skin and thick blacksmith’s chest. In the photo, she grinned like a child, while Daine kept a more reserved smirk (and for him, that was considered an outburst of embarrassing proportions).

It was something she hadn’t really considered before — how simple Daine’s life was. If his desk was any indication, she didn’t realize that she was one of the few people he cared about in the world. They had always been close, like siblings, but she never realized how little Daine had in the world besides his work. She realized he hadn’t fully recovered from his past, and he might never.

A piece of scrap paper on the desk took Keto’s interest. It was a to-do list: “#1 – Check on Keto. #2 – Oleg Vronsky, Scrapper’s Place, 5 AM.” The name of the Place was something Keto recognized immediately as a tavern for workers in Istovin.

————–

Inside the farmhouse, Novak treated Daine’s wounds. “I don’t trust you,” he said, quietly, so the other two guards couldn’t hear. “You act all helpless out there, but looking in your eyes, I can see, you’re a pro. And a bad liar at that. You might fool those lackwits, and my boss may be distracted by his work, but I see right through you.”

“What do you see?” asked Daine. He kept his arms on top of the table — a simple, open gesture. “I just want to work.”

The farmhouse was like something out of a nightmare. It was filled with blood, meat, and rusted, rotting furnishings. Again, not an uncommon sight in the impoverished northern borderlands, but the blood was excessive. The men at the farm survived primarily off their livestock; thanks to the drought, there were no crops to be had, and if it continued, there would be no more livestock to slaughter either. It went a long way to explain the guards’ teeth and Lian’s malnourishment, although the latter was likely a result of overwork.

Novak grunted. “You’ve got two jobs. Number one, feed the pigs, that was Oleg’s job. Number two, do not go anywhere near the barn. Nobody’s allowed in, except Lian. You understand?”

Daine nodded sharply. “Got it.”

A few hours later, Daine tended to the pigs in their enclosure, just like he was told. It was a peaceful night, with only the whistling of the wind to accompany Daine’s work.

Lian broke the silence by bursting through the barn doors, his coveralls partly on fire. A trail of smoke followed him as he rolled on the ground and yelled incoherently. Daine dropped his bucket and ran over to the man, using his jacket to wrap up the small man and extinguish the flames.

Lian gasped for air and shivered. Daine helped him up, and the slightly singed man looked up longingly at the sky. Both moons were out tonight — smaller Kirilenko, the “Shy Maiden”, with her blue hue, and Ralen, “The Titan,” the monumental sphere to the upper left.

Lian shook off the vertigo from his close call and broke his gaze with the sky. He brushed off Daine. “Get your hands off me! Don’t you ever, ever touch me again! Do you understand? And stay the hell away from my workshop!”

Daine held his hands up and backed away slowly, as Lian disappeared back into the smoky interior of the barn.

———————

Keto found Valery Kapashen at the newly christened (but quite aged) Parliamentary Building in Valenska, the capital city of the perpetually quarantined nation of Rhea. He was on a balcony overlooking an assembly of some 100 people, who were deliberating over a new bill for an irrigation system. The discussion was heated, and one man in particular had removed a shoe and began banging it on a conference table for attention. A man with a gray beard tried to yell over him. Valery was taking it all in at the balcony, as were a few other members of Rhea’s glittering royalty. It was like the opera Keto saw not too long ago, except with real people and real consequences.

“I’d advise against pointing a gun at me this time.” Valery took a long drag from his cigarette and leaned forward across the balcony railing. “There’s more eyes here.”

Keto pulled out a file folder. “This is everything I’ve found in the past week. I went to Istovin and all I found was a man named Oleg Vronksy tied up, alive, in a hotel room. Daine had him on a list, and interrogated him, but I don’t know why. Whatever this man knows, he’s not telling me.”

Valery put out his cigarette stub in a free-standing ashtray. He turned to face Keto with his cold eyes and sharp intimidating jaw. His honorific pin was also in view, three gold bars in parallel — a clear reminder of the Regent’s high regard for him as his most trusted advisor.  “And? What do you want from me?”

“I want to find Daine.”

“And you think I know where he is?”

“I know you do. You know everything that’s going on in Rhea.”

“And why didn’t you go to Alexander Vydrina? He still works for the Vydrina Mercenary Company, right? He made Captain, last I heard.”

Silence from Keto, as she looked down uncomfortably at her boots.

Valery smiled evilly. “I know why. You don’t want to go to Vydrina because you’re afraid Daine’s caught up in something that could get him in trouble. You found something else out there that indicated your bright knight might not be so clean after all. You came to me because you knew that I’ve supported your, ah, ‘extra-legal’ activities in the past.”

“He may be involved with some local gang,” said Keto, ashamed. “Willingly. But I don’t know anything about them.”

Valery went back to leaning against the balcony. The representatives below had calmed down again, but Keto could tell that there was no order to the proceedings. They had left the topic of irrigation and somehow gotten onto the issue of medicine.

“You see that man at the head of the room? On the dais?” Valery lit another cigarette. “His name is Yuri Kresko. A fool of a man. I mean, just look at him. He’s a little goblin of a man up there, like some fairy tale. Anyway, his job is to listen to everything that goes on here, and with the help of his recorder, he presents all of the decisions to the Regent for approval or disapproval.

“This parliament was created on the first day of Spring last year, after the riot. You came to visit me that day, actually. It was after the riot that Regent Kerensky decided he needed to cede some of his power to the people or else he would be deposed by the revolutionaries. So, he’s created the parliament and they’ve come up with all manner of ideas. Feasible ones really, but ultimately, ones that would shift more power away from the Regent and his noble vassals. You can imagine how furious Kerensky was when he heard proposals that involved ceding land to mere peasants. Now, before signing the parliament into law, he appended a clause that would allow him to dissolve the parliament, personally, whenever he chooses. I suggested it, actually, as a sort of fail-safe in case they tried anything too ‘gutsy.'”

“Since Winter, he’s dissolved them five times. Five times, Keto. Not just overruled them, dissolved them. And so, we shuffle in different representatives here — many of them the same each time, actually. All the Regent cares about is asserting himself and avoiding revolution. And so, change is talked about but never happens. The people still starve and lack medicine to cure their ailments.”

Keto shifted uncomfortably. “What does this all have to do with Daine?”

“What I’m saying is, there may be — will be — a day when I need someone of your talents to help me manage this unmitigated disaster below us. A day will come when this charade no longer works, and the revolution restarts. Now I know what you’re thinking, and it won’t be any assassinations. Just…a favor. Of my choosing, in the future.”

Keto nodded sharply. She hated being in debt to a vile man such as Valery, but she also knew she didn’t have a choice. Her investigation had reached a standstill.

Valery looked satisfied. He turned around again and pulled out an envelope of his own from his jacket. “Lian Feng,” he said. Keto looked shocked, so he added, “I knew you were coming, so I had the envelope ready. Anyway, that’s where Daine is. You’ll find the location in there. As for Mr. Feng, he is most certainly a criminal, but not like you’d think. He’s surrounded himself with a criminal element that has helped him with some sort of construction project. He’s needed a great deal of material, and you’ll find that detailed as well. Your Commander Vydrina already knows — he ordered Daine to surveil Mr. Feng — so you don’t have to worry about that. In fact, I’m sure he’d endorse a rescue mission at this point, given how long Daine has been off the grid.”

“What’s he building?” asked Keto.

“As near as I can tell?” Valery laughed, loudly, and drew a glare from one of the representatives from the floor below. “Supposedly, he wants to set the sky on fire.”

————————

It had been a few weeks, and Daine had seen Lian Feng leave the barn exactly twice. So, Daine busied himself with feeding the pigs, which he wouldn’t be able to do much longer. Their supply of feed and pigs was dwindling. If he ate pork again in the next millennium, it would be too soon. It was nighttime, and Novak was doing his typical badass-gangster thing of sharpening his knife while leaning against the fence.

Lian came out, and Daine stood at attention. The old, slender man was wiping his hands with a shop cloth, as usual. He joined Daine at the pig pen. “Please, continue,” he said. Daine did just that, and Lian took a bite from a hunk of jerky. “You know, I have a theory about you. I think the whole thing, when my men captured you, that was an act. I’ve seen you through the windows. The way you stand. The way you handle yourself around these men. You’re better than them. You’re a professional.”

Daine’s face betrayed nothing. “I have an interest in the work here. I believe in it.”

Lian laughed heartily, and coughed, a racking motion that shook his whole body. “Oh, you believe? You haven’t even seen it!”

Lian walked towards the barn and gestured with his half-eaten jerky like it was a baton in a parade. “Well, come on then! Let’s show it to you!”

Daine followed Lian through the massive double-doors of the barn. In front of him was a metal behemoth, with catwalks and support struts attached all around it. It was spear-shaped, with a large, half-spherical base. There were sharp, V-shaped wings on either side of the vessel. It easily took up the entire barn. On the silver sides of the craft, Daine saw symbols etched, the same marks that Lian had tattooed all over his body.

“Well? How about it?” asked Lian. He laughed crazily.

“It is impressive. What do you intend to do with it?”

Lian gestured for Daine to follow him upstairs to the loft. “Come up here, and look at the sky.” He pointed at the moons. “You see the smaller one there, Kirilenko? Everyone keeps saying it’s just a natural piece of Rhea, a huge rock that has been in orbit since the dawn of time.”

Lian waved his finger. “Not so! In fact, it’s a great treasure chest of sorts, filled with gold, and riches untold! This rocket, here — I will launch it and crack Kirilenko open. The Midas, I call her. Isn’t she beautiful?”

Daine looked back at the ship, and found it harder to hide his emotions. He knew the man was insane, but he was genuinely in awe of the vessel. In his entire life, he had never seen anyone construct a flying vehicle, much less one that could pierce the sky and reach the heavens above. There was no chance it could work, surely, but still…the prospect of such an achievement intrigued Daine.  “Crack it open with what armaments?” asked Daine.

“Nuclear weaponry,” said Lian. “Recovered on my own travels outside quarantine.”

They were interrupted by gunfire outside. A third party had appeared — well-armed and dressed in black. A female voice with a megaphone was ordering the guards to stand down. Keto. Daine grimaced, wishing Keto was a million kilometers away from this unstable rocket loaded with enough weaponry to destroy a moon. There was more gunfire.

Lian ran over to the control panel of the rocket. “You have to hold them off! Long enough until I can launch the Midas!”

Daine pulled out his pistol. “No,” he said.

Lian scoffed. “Did they pay you off, then? That was why you came here in the first place, wasn’t it? Well, I’ll double it! Triple it! I’ll offer you half of what I get from destroying the moon! Don’t you understand? Gold will rain down from the skies! We’ll be rich men!”

Lian went back to the control panel and started turning dials. Smoke billowed up from the tail of the vehicle. “If you don’t shut this thing down, I will kill you,” said Daine. “I’m under orders to stop you by any means.”

“It’s too late! The countdown has begun!”

Daine raced up to the panel, but none of the buttons were labeled. He pressed a few experimentally, but nothing happened. The system was locked down, somehow. “Turn it off,” he said, cocking his gun. “Now.”

All Lian did was laugh, triumphantly, at the now-opened roof of the barn, towards the sky he apparently hated so much.

Keto’s squad got inside, but it was too late. “Get back!” yelled Daine. Hellfire erupted from the engines, and everyone ran out of the barn, shielding their eyes. Daine tripped over Novak’s body and turned his gaze skyward. The rocket was flying upward, steadily approaching its target.

Lian was outside with them. He was still laughing, nearly choking from the effort. He shook his fist at the sky. “Yeah, I got you! I got you, you sons of bitches! It’s going to rain! Gold, jewels! It’s been prophesied!”

More laughing, as the vehicle became a distant beacon of light in the night sky. Keto came up to Daine and rested a hand on his cheek, as if inspecting him for damage. He grunted and fixed his gaze back on the sky.

Then, the rocket exploded, far, far away from either moon. It was a brilliant ring of light, and then, like a shooting star, it fell from the sky, several streaks of yellow-orange fanning out across the night sky. “No!” Lian cried. He fell to his knees. “No, no, no! That’s not what’s supposed to happen!”

He pounded at the ground, but it yielded nothing. He was sobbing and convulsing. “No, no, not supposed to happen…”

——————–

Daine and Keto were sitting on a hill overlooking the farmhouse. The Vydrina Company Mercenaries were sweeping the area for anything salvagable to load back up on the transport. The two guards bodies and Novak were buried, and Lian was tied up and loaded like cargo to take back to the Commander.

Keto handed Daine a large army jacket, and a sandwich — tuna on rye, which she knew was his favorite. “I didn’t have time to put anything else on it,” she said sheepishly. Daine accepted it awkwardly, and said,”That’s really not necessary.” She grinned up at him, and for a few moments at least, they were able to gaze peacefully at the low mountains in the distance, and the full, untainted night sky above them. “Two moons still,” said Daine. He took a bite of his sandwich and allowed himself a slight smile at Keto’s kindness.

Their reverie was interrupted by Keto’s satellite phone. She unfastened it from her pack and answered it. “Yes, he’s here,” she said into the receiver. She put the phone on speaker mode and set it on her knee.

It was Alexander Vydrina’s voice. “Daine? Keto? We have a situation outside quarantine, with the rocket.”

Keto looked frightened. “But it failed.”

“Not entirely,” said Alex. “It didn’t come down alone.”

To be continued..

Diversions (Scavengers #3)

Nikolai arrived five minutes early, and after some rushing around, Keto greeted him outside. For Keto, this was unfamiliar territory – she hadn’t been on an actual date in years.

“You look beautiful,” said Nikolai, as he led Keto to his car (very expensive and undoubtedly rented). Keto was in a slim, dark blue dress to match her slender figure. It was a gift from her friend Natasha, who was more full-figured and had little need for her mother’s hand-me-downs.  Her hair was down tonight, pale blonde shimmering in the moonlight. In her everyday life, she favored function over beauty, but in a situation such as this, Keto was self-conscious of her tomboyish looks.  She was hopeful that, at least, the cut of the dress was flattering. In any case, she had always wanted an excuse to wear evening gloves, and now she had it.

“You’re handsome yourself,” she said quietly. She meant it — in his dark brown suit, he cut a muscular figure from his work outdoors, and everything about his features was dark, contrasting his lightly tanned skin. She self-consciously adjusted her scarf, a bright white and gray.

The car was off in minutes, leaving Keto’s farm behind. A few of her workers remained in the fields, taking advantage of what little of the sun was left. The whole farm was shadowed by the ghostly aurora of the southern quarantine fence, a massive wall of pure, translucent energy built with lost technology – one secret among many that the Ancients took to their graves, some five hundred years prior. The enormous territory hemmed in by the fence was named Rhea, both the name of the country and the entire world they lived in. According to historians, “we named our country Rhea, because, for all intents and purposes, what is within the fence is the entirety of the planet. The rest is dead to us.”

They were on their way to the Kerensky Opera House, an opulent venue. The Regent – well, rather, the Regent’s steward – had given all of his landscaping staff tickets to tonight’s show – Kerenskaba!, the story of the Kerensky family’s “divine heritage and their guidance of the people of Rhea through the darkest of hours.”

It was a strange situation for someone like Nikolai to be in; as a gardener, he had little experience with the pastimes of the high class. Asking Keto to the opera helped give him an excuse to keep the tickets. Keto had been buying Plumbagos at Nikolai’s market booth (or as she always called them, “Flumbagos,” perhaps out of ignorance, perhaps out of an inside joke). They were talking gardening as usual. Keto always had an interest in Nikolai’s work at the Winter Palace, which produced undoubtedly the greatest cold-weather display in Sovgorod, or even all of Rhea. When Nikolai mentioned the Regents’ gift of tickets to the opera, he told her, “I was going to throw them out, but then I realized I’d be wasting an opportunity to spend a night with the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met.” Keto – usually a conversationalist – was at a loss for words, and blushed, and after collecting herself, she gave him a demure smile and accepted. Later on, in the car on the way to the opera, Nikolai would admit that he and his friend Misha rehearsed the question over cards several nights prior. That made Keto smile all the more.

They arrived at the opera house with little time to spare. The building itself was a a technological marvel — a spiky, black-gold-red structure, extending upward at least ten stories. Another relic of a lost time.

On stage, Kerenskaba! unfolded, and Keto was enraptured. Performers acted out the earliest days of the Kerensky regency: the birth of the first of the line, Toru; his divine inspiration and subsequent building of the quarantine fence; and his son, who slayed the archaic beast Drevaskol when it threatened the quarantine. There were trapeze artists at one point, with a trained razor-cat, and while Keto enjoyed the pageantry, she didn’t understand what it all meant. She doubted any of the Regents of Rhea walked tight ropes or jumped through hoops of fire. It was equal parts circus and opera, and Nikolai seemed confused by it as well. Keto looked over at him from time to time to catch him doing the same. Nikolai emanated warmth, and Keto felt excited just to be near him. Her heart fluttered at times at the nearness of her ruggedly handsome date.

There was a brief intermission, and everyone gathered in the lobby. Marble stairs covered in red carpet served as a centerpiece to the royalty assembled in the room. The women were elegantly dressed in dark purples and blues, while the men mostly wore charcoal suits, a few with the Regency dress uniform.

“Miss Avenant, are you enjoying the show?” Keto spun around to see a young man behind her – well-dressed, with a three-piece suit and white gloves. He had no hat, and his brown, thick hair tumbled down nearly shoulder length. A simple gold pin (three parallel lines) adorned his lapel – the Regency Medal of Virtue, the highest honor any man or woman can possibly achieve in the Regent’s service. The man himself was made insignificant by all this rich apparel — but what features did stand out, were sharp, angular. The face of a politically important man, and very young at that. Her employer, Alexander Vydrina, had taught her to fear these sorts of men — the old and treacherous were set in their ways, but the young and ambitious were a complete unknown, willing to commit any sort of act to ascend in power.

“Valery? What are you doing here?” asked Keto.

Valery Kapashen rocked on his heels casually. “I heard you’d be in attendance, so I thought I might stop by to check in. That’s a lovely dress.”

“Thank you…but there’s more, isn’t there?”

“Yes,” said Valery, with a grin. Keto excused herself from Nikolai, and Valery led her to a dark corner of the lobby.

Valery continued. “It’s about something more your speed than this circus they call an opera. I’ve been meeting with your patron, you know. Alexander Vydrina. He has some theories about our origin, thanks to the efforts of you and your partner Daine outside-of-quarantine. He seems to have ideas about where all this came from.” Valery held his arms up in a flourish. “I’d like to give you some information, which should aid you in decoding the story of our origin. I’m sure Master Vydrina would be very interested as well.”

“Go ahead…”

Valery handed Keto a slip of paper. “Look for this. At the Winter Palace. Take nothing else, otherwise they’ll know you were there.”

Keto stashed the note conspiratorially. “You’re insane. There is no sneaking into the Winter Palace.”

Valery sniffed. “There will be a subtle diversion, enough to get you through. Everything else is your problem. Now run along with your date. Enjoy the rest of the show. I know everyone else is,” he said, grinning slyly.

Valery began to walk off, but Keto stopped him. “What are you smiling about?”

“Why, the two of you,” he replied, dripping with venom. “Look at how ridiculous you are.” He walked away, and made a baudy joke to a group of three diplomats, drawing a round of laughter.

That was when Keto realized all the nasty looks – in the wake of princes and princesses, Keto and Nikolai were out of place. Nikolai’s second or third-hand suit paled in comparison to the other male patrons’ flashy attire, and though Keto’s dress was on par with tonight’s opulent eveningwear, her tall, slender, athletic physique contrasted the soft curves of the noble ladies in attendance.

Nikolai was oblivious to the disdain of those around him, and smiled warmly as Keto returned to him. He took her hand, and the warmth of his touch made her nearly forget the haughty crowd. Valery’s comment hadn’t ruined everything — Nikolai drove Keto back to her farmhouse, and after joking for a while about the wasp costumes from Act 2 of the play, he leaned over and kissed her cheek; a sweet, delicate peck. She flushed and could hardly muster any words. As he drove away, she smiled and wished the night didn’t have to end.

———————-

“This is your dumbest idea yet,” whispered Keto. “Donuts? Seriously?”

“Calm down, Keto. It’ll work,” said Daine Laurent, his voice a buzz over Keto’s wireless earpiece. That little device was a piece of history; something they found outside of quarantine, in the ruins of the Ancients.

She was standing just outside the Winter Palace, holding a box of donuts and wearing a chef’s coat and hat. Daine planned it all out for her — he found the bakery delivery schedule, which allowed Keto to knock out the courier and take his goods. As she propped the dimuinitive, unconscious man up in an alleyway, she felt bad, and slipped a few royals in his pocket to compensate him. Now, Keto found herself just in front of the property gate, and noticed there was nobody there. It was partly a blessing; she was afraid that Nikolai would be outside with the rest of the palace staff, and that he would recognize her. With nobody at all at the palace, though, it was unsettling. Her intel was off.

“I’m telling you, this is bad,” said Keto. “I would’ve expected at least someone in the front. You know, since it’s the Regent and all.” She thought about the play the night before. “The First of the Righteous, the Maker’s Chosen –“

“I know,” said Daine, cutting her off. “But remember, Valery said there’d be a diversion. Maybe this is it. Get in there and follow the plan. It’ll work.”

Keto knew she wasn’t being fair to Daine. He planned out all of their scavenging missions outside of quarantine — he was a skilled tactician and by far the smartest man Keto knew. She was just nervous at the enormity of this mission.

She strode past the guardpost and made her way to the wooden double doors. The palace itself was a deceptively small structure; the grounds dwarfed the actual mansion, which was sizeable, but not nearly the size of the Krepost, the fortified seat of government in the heart of the capital. Unlike most Regency buildings, the winter palace was a relatively new structure, constructed less than 100 years ago. It was two stories, and mostly white, with a gold trim. It also had the distinction of being one of the only residences in Sovgorod with electricity.

The doors were not guarded at all. Balancing the box of donuts in one arm, she opened the heavy double door with her right, straining from the sheer weight of it. It wasn’t a large door, but it was made of thick oak. Inside, she found more emptiness. “Nobody inside either,” she murmured. The interior of the mansion was made up of colors of all kinds — green chairs, marble tile, red-and-white Regency banners. It felt strange to her; like it wasn’t really a house to be shown off rather than lived in. She proceeded into the kitchen to drop off the donuts, and saw the Regent’s Steward, Lukas Avachenko.

“Thank God, the donuts at last,” he said. “I was worried none of the staff would arrive today.” Keto noticed a sheen of sweat over him, and his hands were shaking.

“Yes sir,” she replied. The steward waited for her to do something. They looked at each other awkwardly, so she took that as a cue to put a few jelly donuts onto a plate and deliver them upstairs. “Good, right this way,” he said, relieved.

On their way upstairs, they heard a yell — “I don’t do ANYTHING without my morning donuts!” said the voice of a teenager. “Do you understand me?”

The steward, Lukas, led Keto into an upstairs bedroom. Inside were a robed man, and the teenager, who she recognized as none other than  Mikhail Kerensky, the Regent’s son. She also saw a third man — Valery Kapashen. Valery gave her an ever-so-slight, knowing smile.

Keto left the donuts on the table. The unidentified robed man drew back his hood. He had gray-white hair so short it was in spikes. His eyes were bulbous, nearly popping out of his head. He looked like one of those religious zealots Keto would often see begging for change and preaching about God on a street corner. He cleared his throat. “Your highness, please, I beg you, this threat is serious. You must retreat to the basement with your father.”

Valery spoke up, but Keto didn’t pay attention — she heard Daine break in over her earpiece. “Keto, I don’t want to alarm you, but there’s something going on outside. That might be why the guards are away. Make your move now, and head to the study.”

“…those peasants,” said Mikhail, as Keto focused once again on the conversation at hand. Mikhail scowled at her. “And three donuts? Since when do I eat three donuts? Take the third and get it out of my sight.”

Keto took the odd-donut-out and made her way down the hall and to the study. To her right was a balcony overlooking the first floor, and to her left, a row of portraits of former Regents — each one remarkably similar to the last, save for small details like facial hair and jacket cuts. Again, remarkably eerie to her — as if these items were props for a stage. Nowhere did Keto see any guards.

She entered the study and took out the slip of paper Valery gave her at the opera. “Fifth drawer on the far wall, star charts 6 and 27.” The room was lined with ornate shelves covered in dust. The books varied in age, but all appeared neglected. She rifled through a stack of large posters and came across the two she needed. As she rolled them up, she glanced at them. Both were large photographs of what appeared to be a panoramic night sky with the stars annotated. They were sealed in some kind of wrapping to preserve them. She put them in a cylindrical container from a nearby shelf, and slung the tube over her shoulder.

Another buzz over the wireless communicator. “Keto, there’s some kind of large crowd in front of the palace.” Daine sounded worried.

“How large?” whispered Keto.

“Can’t tell, but it has to be more than fifty thousand,” said Daine, annunciating every syllable slowly, like he always did when something bad was happening. He also sounded impressed, which Keto took as a distinctly bad thing. “You need to get out of there immediately. I think it’s some kind of protest. A line of soldiers are barring them from getting any closer to the palace.”

Daine was interrupted by a voice behind Keto. “Who are you?” the man asked. She dropped the charts, spun around, and saw a soldier in the doorway. He had a pistol and a sword at his hip, and a cruel smile across his face; without knowing the man, Keto could judge from his mixture of severe tone of voice and casual stance that he was the type of man capable of a high level of violence.

When she didn’t answer, he pressed the question again: “Who are you? I thought all the staff was on strike today, out there with them.” His hand moved to his pistol.

Keto couldn’t think of anything to say, so she said, “I’m Keto, who’re you?”

The man gave her a severe look. “I am Roan, the Regent’s Master of Security. And you need to come with –“

He was interrupted by the clack of Keto’s dart pistol, which she drew out of her sleeve. The tranquilizer worked quickly, and the man collapsed to the floor unconscious. Not wanting to draw attention, Keto tried to pick him up. He proved to be very heavy. She dragged him across the carpet (smoothing out kinks in the rug as she went), and accidentally bumped his shoulder against a table leg before setting him down. She winced and said, “Sorry!”

Keto heard gunfire outside and raced to the window. The soldiers had opened fire on the civilians. From her vantage point, she could see that there was no return fire, since the civilians were unarmed. She realized something, then — what Roan had said, about the staff. They weren’t here, because they were out there. “Nikolai,” she gasped. He was part of the staff — the gardener for the Winter Palace. Something else made sense then, too. Something from the opera last night.

This was Valery’s diversion.

Everything moved in the way of slow motion that surrounds events of consequence. As she saw the chaos through the window, she felt a sick feeling well up in her stomach. She snapped herself out of it, grabbed the charts, and began to run outside. The rest of the mansion was clear — likely, they were all in a panic room of some kind until the situation was resolved.

Keto took the servant’s entrance outside, and ran to the fence, keeping her head down. The gunfire had stopped by now; engagements between people with guns and people without them, she knew, didn’t last long. The gunsmoke mingled with the morning mist, and through the haze and the calamity around her, she searched for Nikolai, crying his name at the top of her lungs. The crowd pushed against her, and the wounded reached up to try and grab her, begging for aid. She ditched the chef’s jacket — it was covered in others’ blood, now — and pushed her way through the crowd.

After what felt like hours, Keto heard a familiar cry for help. Nikolai. His voice, barely audible above the din of the unfolding terror, came from an alleyway between a clinic and a butcher. “Niko!” she yelled. He was hunched over another man that Keto did not recognize.

“Keto,” said Nikolai. “How did you…he’s hurt…Please…” Nikolai was pressing a dirty cloth against his friend’s wound.

She kneeled down and pressed her fingers against the wounded man’s throat. “He’s dead, Niko.”

“No, no, no, Misha!” he cried, then doubled over in pain. She strained to lift Nikolai up and prop him into a sitting position against the brick wall. “Niko? Can you hear me?” He didn’t respond.

“Daine,” she said, her voice breaking. “Daine, I need help…God save us…”

—————-

Nikolai’s eyes opened slowly, and Keto, starry-eyed from exhaustion and sadness, moved her chair closer to the bed. Despite Daine’s protests, Keto had Nikolai delivered to the Vydrina Company doctor. It was a security risk, Daine claimed, but Keto couldn’t hear anything like that right now.

Nikolai smiled, gradually. “I’m okay,” he said, partly to her, partly to himself. Keto didn’t say a word. She just took a damp cloth, wiped his brow, and around his neck.

He continued. “A man told us we were not to work…he told us this was the time for us to get everything we needed…to petition the government…”

Keto stopped him. “That’s not important now,” she said, smiling at him, her eyes still misty. He began to tear up, and turned his head away. “I’m sorry,” he said, and she realized that wasn’t entirely meant for her.

She said the uprising wasn’t important, but she knew it was. Despite the display of violence from the soldiers, the strike hadn’t ended. More than that, there were reports that the work stoppage had spread to the west, and even as far north as Istovin. This wasn’t going away anytime soon. It was the beginning of something larger. Since she was not a political creature, Keto couldn’t make sense of it, but she knew that dark times were ahead. Nearly a thousand people died that day out of the 100,000 who were on strike in Sovgorod. Many more were injured, and would soon die; rare was a man as lucky as Nikolai to find a real doctor and a sterile environment for healing. She was afraid for him; for the whole world. Afraid that the killing wouldn’t stop with today.

—————–

Daine stopped by the hospital room to fetch Keto. It had been three days, and Keto had hardly left Nikolai’s bedside. At the moment, she was asleep, her arms folded at the edge of the bed, her head buried in her arms. Daine watched the scene for a few moments, allowing himself a private smile, then straightened up. He nudged her and she roused. “Come on, I have something to show you,” he said.

He led her to one of the laboratories in the compound. “You’ve met Yura, right?” he asked. Keto nodded sleepily.

“I’ve been looking at the pictures you stole — err, acquired,” Yura said conspiratorially. “First of all, my assistant analyzed them for any artifacts. They’re not fake. Now for the important stuff…”

Yura pulled out one of the photos and smoothed it across his slanted drafting desk. “This one is our sky — judging from the constellations and their brightness, I’d say just northwest of quarantine.” He took out the second photo and placed it next to the first. “This photo, though, is all wrong. The stars are completely different. See this constellation, labeled Ursa Minor?” He pointed at a group of lines drawn on the photo. “After doing some comparative analysis and magnifying the images, I was able to find which stars they correspond to in our sky, except for one. The star labeled Polaris shows up on the second photo, but not the first. Not in our sky.”

Keto looked from Daine to Yura. “So?”

Yura laughed incredulously. “So, that means the first photo is not only of a sky from a different planet, it’s potentially from a different time. Stars don’t just disappear — if one was to ‘burn out,’ it would take potentially hundreds of years for the light to fade away. We are very, very far away from where this photo was taken, and it most likely was taken an incredibly long time ago.”

Keto would’ve been excited, but she didn’t have the energy. She looked over at Daine, who looked satisfied, and even mildly happy. “Confirmation,” he said. “The first hard proof we’ve gotten of what Shen Teremko told us.” He relished the act of discovery. Normally she did too, but her present concerns were closer to the ground than the stars.

————

Valery was walking his dogs through his cherry orchard. The dew-laden trees showed early growth, which meant it was going to truly be a beautiful Spring in Sovgorod. His two dogs — small terriers — barked and tugged at their master’s leash ineffectually, clearly overstimulated from such a sunny, fragrant morning. He looked back at the manor house, a shining pearl against the quickening daylight. It was the kind of day that defied the prospect of revolution. The kind of day that showed the inviolability of nature, and all sorts of poetic thoughts that filled Valery’s still-sleepy mind.

It was a perfect day, until Keto appeared with the gun.

“You did all of this.” Her hand trembled and the pistol shook in her hand. The safety was on, but her finger was against the trigger. “My friend is in the hospital because of you. What lies did you tell those workers?”

Valery tugged on his leashes in a single, sharp movement, and his dogs calmed down somewhat. “You give me a lot of credit, Keto. And apparently I didn’t give you enough. How did you find where I live?”

“Shut up! I’m asking the questions now.” Her steadied her pistol with her offhand, both sets of knuckles white against the grip. “Your little diversion? All so we could prove that we’re all from another planet? Was it worth it?”

“Keto, listen to yourself. You’re jumping to conclusions. Now listen to me — I do not respond to threats well. Okay? So, let’s calm down. Now, I cannot tell you what you want to know about the revolution. It’s all too new. But I can tell you that it’s possible for someone to know about a plan, without having a hand in it themselves! Maybe, hypothetically, I heard about a group of men who were planning to whip the working class into a fervor. A group of men supported by a more-and-more educated population who desired change. Maybe I knew what shape these changes would take.”

Valery turned his back and tugged his leashes again. The dogs followed him as he began to walk away. Keto released the safety with a click. “You’re not leaving this alive,” she called out.

He stopped and, without turning around, said, “Then shoot me. God knows I deserve to die for what I’ve done in my life. But not for yesterday. I didn’t give the order for those men to fire.”

Keto kept her aim, but lost her nerve and lowered her weapon. She slumped against one of the cherry trees, and watched Valery walk off. After a time, all she could see were the rays from the swiftly rising sun.

————–

(Originally written 6/30/12. Revised 9/11/12)

Loyalty

Sarah Henworthy walked in her kitchen, hands full of clothes, to see a pale young woman feverishly eating a bowl of soup.

“Excuse me, who are you?” asked Sarah.

The woman glanced upward but didn’t stop spooning her soup, a repetitive, quick motion. She wore a faded, dirty linen dress with pieces of a lace trim. Her hair was seaweed the way it fell upon her face — long, gnarled locks acting like a black veil. She ate as though the world was ending.

Sarah’s husband, George, bounded into the room. He rested his hands on his hips, which framed his ample paunch. “Sarah! I’d like you to meet Estella,” he said brightly, his face red from the exertion of running across the house. “She is our guest.”

Sarah narrowed her eyes. “Okay. Help me out with these,” she said, nodded towards the pile of clothes in her hands.

They went upstairs to the bedroom. All the candles were lit, which was a rarity in the Henworthy household, unless there were guests. It was a humble two-story home, normally warm from the fires of the adjoining silversmithy. Tonight, however, there was a stranger in Sarah’s company, who had intruded with no warning from her oft-scatterbrained husband. The house was anything but warm and inviting to her.

“Who is that?” said Sarah urgently, after she closed the door.

“An old friend, a very old friend,” said George. “She’s come up on a bit of trouble, so I’m helping her.”

“Trouble? You know that we have plenty of trouble of our own.”

“Now, now, Sarah, we must remember our Christian duty.”

Sarah realized she was crushing the clothes in her hands. She relaxed and let them on the bed, gently. It had been a hard week for her side of the family. Her aunt Edna had passed away, with whom she was very close. She was an avid seamstress, a vocal member of the Church, and one of the few relatives Sarah could look to for strength and support. Her mother had passed away several years prior, but truthfully, it didn’t hurt, at least not as much as losing Edna. It left a cold void in her heart that chilled everyone around her. The clothes she was carrying were her aunt’s; she had just returned from helping settle her estate. There were several gorgeous sundresses that Edna made herself, as well as a unique, lacy wedding dress, custom designed by a boutique in Charleston. A rich gift from a wealthy uncle.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I’ll make up the downstairs,” said Sarah.

“Actually, that bed is so uncomfortable, I was hoping we could take the downstairs and she could have ours,” said George.

Sarah winced. “Certainly.”

——————–

After a fitful night of very little sleep, Sarah awoke to the fires roaring in the forge, and the whoosh of the bellows. Hammer-strokes echoed throughout the house. Normally it was a normal sound, but on a Sunday, it was particularly foreign.

She looked outside. The sun was nearly at its apex. How long had she slept? My goodness, we’ve missed church! she thought urgently.

Sarah ran out to the forge, to find George and Estella. George’s girth was covered by his smoky silversmith apron. He used his tongs to reach into the fires of the forge. “There we are!” he proclaimed, laying down a fine silver chain on the workbench.

“It’s lovely,” said Estella. Her appearance had improved dramatically. She was wearing a nicer dress – a powder blue that Sarah had lent her – and her coloring was much ruddier. While she was slight and malnourished looking the night before, she now appeared voluptuous. She had brushed out her matted locks, and the flowed down her back like a waterfall.

“Where did you get the material?” asked Sarah. George made an adequate living as a silversmith, but he could scarce afford to keep the things he made. He frowned at his wife. “Don’t worry, it was Estella’s. An old heirloom she had me fix for her.”

A few moments later, a visitor walked up their lawn. “’Allo there!” he called out.

Nobody recognized this man. The man’s hair was black and wild, nearly shoulder-length, matching the strangeness of his clothing. His jacket was weather-beaten, a graying black, and his pants, while made of expensive cloth, were frayed at the edges. Sarah recognized immediately that though this man dressed as a gentleman, and perhaps had a gentleman’s upbringing, there was no way he moved in those circles now. Though a member of the working class herself, she had a fascination with the fashion of the ladies and gentlemen of Charleston. This man was putting on airs, but to a truly trained eye like Sarah’s, he was failing.

“I hope I’m not intruding on anything,” he said. “And who might you be?” said George, crossing his burly arms across his chest.

“Nicholas Calloway, I’m a journalist from Charleston,” he said. “I was hoping to have a moment of your time. I had hoped to meet with you at Church this morning.”

George nodded his head hurriedly. “Well, out with it then, we’re very busy here.” Sarah was amazed at George’s coldness. He was normally a socialite through-and-through. Everybody loved him.

“Very well. I was hoping to ask you about the current conditions of Summerville from the perspective of one of its families. A somewhat historical piece on the town’s genealogy. I also would like to give my condolences,” he said, putting his hand over his heart. “Edna Henworthy was a fine woman and friend to the Calloways. I was at her funeral, if you recall. Lovely service for a wonderful person.”

“Thank you,” said Sarah. She was unmoved by the sentiment. She sensed something hiding within this man; a sort of caged ferocity hiding in his eyes.

“Well I haven’t got the time,” said George.

“Please,” said Nicholas, smiling invitingly. “I would be quick and ask harmless questions.”

When it sufficiently cooled down, Estella picked up the silver chain and fawned over it like a child in awe. It was much too long for a necklace or bracelet. Then, she noticed Nicholas staring at her and rushed inside the house.

“See what you’ve done? Estella, here now, this man’s not going to harm you!”

Nicholas held his gaze at the door Estella had disappeared to. His anger was well-restrained, but Sarah picked it up. “Are you upset, sir,” said Sarah.

“Why would I be?” he asked, the somewhat-fake smile coming back. “I hope you don’t mind if I call again soon. When things have calmed down, of course.”

—————-

The next several nights were terrible for Sarah. All she wanted was to sleep in her own bed and grieve for her lost aunt. Instead, her husband and their new guest were having the time of their lives. There was laughter and music (Estella played piano) at all hours of the day. At night, she began to notice her husband coming to bed late. She didn’t ask what he was up to. Her gardening and sewing provided her mind little refuge from making the obvious assumptions. Why would he want a mistress? The good Lord hasn’t blessed us with any children, but it wasn’t for lack of love. Has he given up on me?

After that visit from Nicholas three days prior, they hadn’t heard word from him. “I don’t want you to let him inside, or anywhere near Estella,” said George, on the day of the visit. “She says he’s one of the men trying to kill her.” Sarah was at the windows often at night, fearing for the safety of her family.

Any questions she asked about their mysterious visitor were met with swift dismissal. “For our friendship, it’s the least I can do. I owe her my loyalty,” he said, using the last word as though it were foreign.

She was feeling altogether claustrophobic by the fourth day, and decided that morning that a trip to the park downtown would clear up her cabin fever. It was a brisk cold, the kind that comes along between seasons. If the sun had been shining, it would be a pleasant day. As it was, the sky was gray, and there were no souls in the park, save a few pigeons. The vermin of the sky, Sarah thought, remembering the Hugh Days article she read in the paper the other day.

She felt a tap on her shoulder, light as the breeze, and she jumped nearly a foot.

“Sorry to startle you, Mrs. Henworthy!” said Nicholas. He was dressed more plainly this time, a cream-colored button-down shirt with those same smoky black pants. “I thought maybe that we could talk, just you and I – some lingering questions I simply must answer for my writing.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Sarah, starting to walk away briskly. “But I do,” said Nicholas forcefully, cutting in front of her. She stopped walking and stared directly at him.

“You have a way about you, Mr. Calloway, a sort of falseness, and don’t think I don’t see it!” “I apologize if I intimidate you, ma’am. I mean nothing untoward.”

“Then tell me your true purpose!”

Nicholas gestured toward a bench, and they sat down.

“Your houseguest,” he said, tasting the last word as though it were a fine wine, “is of great interest to me. I have questions for her. And I did not lie about your aunt. Would that I had brought photographs with me to show you. My father was a missionary, and often brought me to the church here in Summerville.”

“And why would Estella be interesting to you?” asked Sarah.

“Is that her name!” he said, brightening. “Well, as I told you before, I’m a writer for the Charleston Gazette. Her background would make for a lovely column.”

“I still don’t believe you,” she said.

“But, you want to. You don’t want her in your house anymore, is that correct? Let me talk to her. Perhaps my line of questions will help her remember…more pressing business.”

Nicholas’s sudden darker tone prompted Sarah to get up and begin to walk away. “I’ll be staying at the John Rutledge when you change your mind!” he said, that smile returning.

—————–

That afternoon, Sarah came back and charged up to her bedroom – not the guest bedroom where she had been forced to sleep, but her own room. “George, I want –“ she started, bursting through the door.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t what she expected to find. She expected to find Estella naked, underneath George. Instead, George was reading a book to her, and Estella was laughing. A constant, nearly hysterical laugh. Neither of them recognized Sarah enter. George read with a zeal she had never seen before (his literacy was limited to receipts and newspaper headlines). And, what was more, the subject matter was bizarre – Shakespeare’s As You Like It. And, there was one more thing.

Estella was wearing Aunt Edna’s wedding dress.

—————–

Sarah arrived at Nicholas’s hotel room at the John Rutledge Inn and knocked twice. “It’s open,” said a voice.

She emerged through the doorway to see Nicholas sitting in front of a desk strewn with maps and notebooks. He was wearing wire-rimmed glasses that made him look at least ten years older. One thing in particular stuck out to Sarah — a map of the graveyard where her aunt was buried. The mausoleum, where her body was interred, was circled.

Sarah cleared her throat. “I’ve changed my mind. I’d like you to interview Estella. You know, what you talked about before.”

“Excellent, excellent!” said Nicholas. “It’ll make for a wonderful article, truly.”

He collected an empty bag, shoved something inside, and joined Sarah out the door and on the road to the Henworthy home. He asked her some odd questions, like “When was your family’s mausoleum last opened?” and “Did George explain where and when exactly he met Estella?” and lastly “Has he given her any gifts?” Sarah answered the questions as best as she could — to the first, her answer was 30 years; to the second, she simply stated she didn’t know because George never told her anything about Estella, despite her questions; and to the third, she said yes, a silver chain. Now, it was Sarah’s turn for questions.

She only got one.  “What’s in the bag?” asked Sarah.

“We’re playing charades,” answered Nicholas, once again with that mocking smile. “It’s part of the interview.”

They traveled the rest of the way in silence.

————–

The only way Sarah was able to tear George away from Estella was by setting their storage shed on fire. She cringed at how much damage was being done, but nothing else worked. This woman had gotten hold of George somehow, and she had to do whatever it took to get her out of his life.

When Nicholas walked in the bedroom and stopped Estella from following George out to fight the fire, Sarah considered what she was doing. For all she knew, this man was a rapist, a thief, or some kind of hired killer sent to take out Estella. She knew she should have felt guilty, but truly, she felt relieved that, somehow, this man was going to get Estella to leave her family alone. She felt sick to her stomach knowing that she would rather see this woman dead than lose her husband.

Nicholas sat Estella down at a table.

“Could you get us some tea, Mrs. Henworthy?” asked Nicholas. “We don’t drink tea,” said Sarah. Nicholas looked at her, his eyes afire. With a cryptic smile, Nicholas asked “Could you leave us, then?”

Sarah left the room and clomped her shoes as if she was walking downstairs, but she stood silently by the door, peering through a crack at the two. Nicholas and Estella were sitting opposite each other; she looked positively frightened, more like she was when Sarah originally discovered her, pale, thin, and devouring stew.

“You’re afraid of me but you don’t know why,” said Nicholas.

“I suppose that’s true,” said Estella, rearing back in her chair like a frightened rodent.

“Allow me to show you,” he said. Nicholas emptied the contents of his bag onto the table with a clang — an iron rod, it looked and sounded like. Then, he pulled down the collar of his shirt. “You know what I am, now.”

“I’m not leaving,” she said, shaking her head vigorously like a child. “I won’t leave again. I like George. He treats me nice. First nice one in hundreds of years.”

“Mrs. Henworthy,” said Nicholas, making eye-contact with Sarah through the nearly-closed door, “I would prefer if you were not around for this.”

Sarah went downstairs, reluctantly. Outside, through the window, she saw her poor George throwing water on the storage shed. Fortunately, most of it was still intact. She hoped that the crib survived, which George built for their eventual child — “a good outlook leads to favorable results,” he always said.

She went back upstairs to find Nicholas shoveling some ashes into his bag with his arm. Estella was nowhere to be found. He looked over at the doorway, and made eye contact with Sarah through the crack. “You can come in,” he said. “It’s over.”

Sarah trembled. “And…is she…”

“She’ll trouble you no further,” said Nicholas. He turned for the stairs, with his sack of ashes over one shoulder.

“Wait!” said Sarah. “Just please, tell me, for my own conscience, what did you do to that woman? What have we done?”

“I will say this –” said Nicholas, with a pause. He looked at Sarah askance, as if judging her. He sighed. “I will say this. She was no…that is to say…oh, hells, you would never believe me. Look, she’s in the bag, all right? What more is there to understand?” He laughed.

“Is this funny to you, sir?” asked Sarah, her voice trembling.

“I love my work,” said Nicholas, and he disappeared out the back door.

On the Outside (Scavengers #2)

They didn’t know what to make of it when they first saw the obelisk against the mountainside, stretching up towards the heavens – it was like an opaque crystal, taller and wider than any building any of them had ever seen. With the snowstorm’s increasing intensity, it was white against a white background. Nearly invisible. The impossibility of such an object meant only one thing – it was technology from the Ancients, and a major find for the party of four. “No frickin’ way,” said Keto.

The four adventurers were an odd mix – Victor Rostov, a freelance pilot hired in the Northern territory; Daine Laurent, mercenary captain from Vydrina Company; Lieutenant Alex Dorsey, a zoologist from the Regency; and Keto Avenant, another freelancer, who was often associated with the Vydrinas. They had been on the outside of quarantine for nearly a week, and their intended purpose was related to the wildlife up in the North; they certainly weren’t prepared to find this massive structure.

Nevertheless, it was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up. Victor parked the transport as close as he could to the mountainside. “Stay here,” said Daine to Victor from the doorway, yelling over the swirling winds. “If we get trapped inside, we’ll need you to help. You too, Dorsey.”

They took account of their gear. Keto and Daine were wearing matching gray-and-white uniforms (standard Vydrina winter gear). Despite the fact that they were outside quarantine, the virus couldn’t survive this far north, so they traveled without masks or any other biosuit gear. If it wasn’t for their snow caps, their heads would be fully uncovered — a first for one of their trips outside quarantine. Keto’s pale, silvery blonde hair stuck out from her cap, and the wintry weather made her skin even paler, accentuating the freckles on her face.

Dorsey shivered in her white-and-red Regency winter uniform (much too thin for a truly biting cold) as she watched Keto and Daine begin to climb the mountain – ice picks in their hands, weapons slung across their backs. Their target was a circular hatch, about 50 meters off the ground.

“Race you,” said Keto, diving both picks into the ice on the mountainside enthusiastically. Daine gave a little shrug and lumbered after her.

Daine had the physical size and strength, but Keto was the more agile of the two (she was the arctic fox to Daine’s polar bear), and she quickly outpaced her partner. “Come on! I don’t want to miss it if there’s a carnival inside!” she yelled down to him.

————–

They made it to the hatch, and Daine set small explosives around the circumference of it. They stepped away, shielded their eyes, and heard a small crack. “Are you kidding me?” said Daine, seeing that the force hadn’t caused the door to budge. They repeated the process again, to the same result, and then Daine kicked violently at the hatch. With a stubborn creak, the hatch shuddered and fell inward.

“Keep your rifle ready,” said Daine, swinging his down. “You know what they say about the north. The virus didn’t survive up here, so there’s bands of savages…”

“Those are just myths,” said Keto. She figured he was joking. He was one of the most intelligent people Keto knew; he was always scholarly when he accompanied her on scavenging missions. Keto knew she was the one prone to flights of fancy, not Daine.

“We’ve disproven a few myths in our time, you and I,” said Daine, with a hint of a smile. “You never know who or what’s out here.”

For some reason, the inside was much warmer – enough to discard their coats at the entrance. Under the coats, they still matched – long-sleeve, skin-tight black thermal shirts, belts with silver buckles (the Vydrina insignia, a raven), and their pants, the same gray-white camouflage as the jackets. While Dorsey was a traditional, curvy woman, Keto was more boyish and angular. Except for her height, everything about her was small and wiry. Daine was a burly man, and his shirt showed that off impressively. His strength came from years of metalworking when he was younger.

At the end of a hallway, they reached a balcony, looking out to a massive clearing, filled with glass chambers and platforms containing vehicles and crates. Green and blue track lights dimly lit the impossibly large room, all the way down.

Daine took out his binoculars. “Keto, there’s something inside of those chambers,” he said, his voice taking on an edge. He looked over at a computer console and experimented with a few buttons. He had only seen a computer twice before in his life, so it was a lot of trial and error. Flood lights came on after a time, nearly blinding after the near-dark. “My lord…” said Keto, the chambers in full view now.

There were corpses inside. Thousands of them, in various stages of decay. Most of the glass was smeared with blood. Likely from the occupants, thought Daine.

A male computer voice greeted Daine, finally. “Auxiliary solar power active. Cryostasis lockdown in effect due to critical thermal control failure. Passenger status: three-thousand, five-hundred-fifty deceased, one surviving.”

Daine and Keto looked at each other fearfully. “A survivor? Where?” said Daine.

“One survivor on level 40, location A56,” said the voice. The computer shut down suddenly, with a snap, and half of the lights went out.

“Level 40 it is,” said Daine.

————————

They found A56, a glass chamber with a control panel to the side. It was the only chamber they found frozen over; all of the others were radiating heat. Most importantly, there was a man inside — from the outside, he was whole, and unharmed, an older, thin man with gray hair.

After blindly messing with the switches – Daine had a knack for it – the chamber came to life, a massive amount of heat radiating from it. Music started playing — piano music, light and carefree. “Rise and shine!” an electronic female voice said enthusiastically. Keto and Daine stepped back reflexively. All of this technology was frightening to them – far, far advanced from anything they had ever witnessed.

The glass opened outward, like a door, and the man coughed, grabbing at a series of tubes fed into his mouth. Daine helped pull them out, and there the unfrozen man stood, naked and shivering.

“Are you all right?” asked Daine. “What are you doing here?”

“Where are the others?” asked the man. “This is not protocol.”

“They’re all dead,” said Keto, distantly, grimly. “We found them. You’re all that’s left in this building.”

The man stood silently and looked around at the adjoining chambers, all filled with decaying corpses. “Then we failed,” he said simply. He pointed over at a corpse. “That was Sylvia’s compartment, if I’m not mistaken. She made the best cupcakes you’ll ever taste.”

“Who are you?” asked Daine, touching the man’s shoulder to regain his attention.

The man scoffed. “You mean you don’t know? How could you be chosen for this expedition and not even know who I am?”

“We are not a part of your expedition,” said Daine, annoyed with the man’s arrogance.

“Then you must be with the others. Fine. I am Shen Teremko, leader of Teremko Expedition. Now surely that name doesn’t…isn’t…”

Shen looked around at the corpses and machinery, and he took on a contemplative expression, as if a puzzle was just now piecing together. “It’s been a number of years,” he said softly, slowly. “Hundreds, by the looks of it. Perhaps a thousand…a failure in the cooling system…our ship took significantly longer to get here…”

He looked at Daine and Keto, his eyes wild with understanding. “You have no idea what any of this is, do you?” Shen said, boastfully. “This is, I mean I am…wow! You have no idea at all! No idea!” He laughed maniacally. “How many years have I been here? What happened to the other expeditions?”

“Other expeditions?” said Daine. “We are…all I know of our history is that the ancients died out five hundred years ago, and we are what is left. Other than that, we have no history. I’m afraid we can’t tell you anything useful about our forebears. A virus wiped them all out.”

Shen looked introspective for a few moments, then said, “Well let me tell you that the structure you are standing in is a colony ship, the S.S. Vinelander, from Earth. And I would very much appreciate it if you…” — he paused to laugh again — “…take me to your leader.”

———————

They led the man outside, and entertained his questions about their culture. No, most places don’t have electricity, pretty much only the capital does. Yes, we mostly get around with horses and other beasts of burden, vehicles are a luxury. No, we haven’t mapped the whole planet. No, we don’t know what satellites are. He laughed at every answer. A ridiculous, piercing, mocking laughter.

Getting down the mountain was a lot easier. They had found a hatch closer to the ground, so rappelling down the ship wasn’t difficult.

There was a different problem, however. Dorsey was sitting outside the transport, and she was missing a leg. The snow was blood-caked, and she was using a belt as an improvised tourniquet.

“They siphoned most of our fuel and captured Victor,” she said. “They didn’t want to take me after I killed one of them with this.” She grimaced and held up an acid-covered dagger. “Said I was cursed, a ‘winter-witch.’ I’m tough for a scientist, huh?”

Shen Teremko had the same, stupid grin on his face, and Daine couldn’t decide if he was insane, or just an asshole.

——————–

They piled into the transport, and Dorsey led them in the right direction before she passed out from the painkillers. Although, it wouldn’t have been hard – there were large animal tracks leading towards their missing pilot and his captors, and there was no snowfall to cover them up. Meanwhile, Shen was actually being helpful, administering what first aid he could to Dorsey.

If the massive, white expedition ship was impressive, the ramshackle village was the exact opposite. It was set up just on the edge of a forest. It was made up of mostly wood, but some scrap metal and repurposed vehicles. And it was alive with activity. There were at least twenty men and women on guard; some with rifles and pistols, others with tools like pitchforks and plowshares. The most impressive structure – if you could call it that – was a large wooden watchtower, reinforced at its base by metal sheets bearing a “Teremko Expedition” insignia.

It was starting to snow again, this time far heavier and windier. It took away their sight of the village; they could barely see the torchlight in the distance.

“Sentry,” said Daine, pointing at a bored-looking man leaning against a tree. Keto took that as her cue. She snuck up to the sentry and knocked him out, making sure to tie him up.

When he came to, the sentry was looking right at Daine’s bold, dark features. “Tell me everything,” he said. “Why kidnap Victor?”

“We took him away because he intruded on s-s-sacred ground,” the sentry said, terrified. “We sent a s-s-scouting party and we saw you defiling the Most Holy Relic.”

Shen Teremko laughed heartily. “You idiots! You worship the vessel and you don’t even know what it is? Are all your people like this, Daine?”

“It is the house of our lord,” said the sentry, confused.

Daine didn’t share Shen’s humor in the slightest, but he considered what was said. It was a curious thing. These people judged the ship to be their god, based solely on what was on the outside. For all they knew, a golden god sat inside, directing every detail on the planet. They knew nothing about what the ship was. All they knew was its grandeur.

The sentry gave up other information, such as numbers, and the location of the building where Victor was being held. Daine knocked him out again and shoved him away.

“Keto, you and me. Shen, stay with the transport and Dorsey.”

Keto and Daine locked and loaded; her weapon of choice was a Sablin X30 sniper rifle with a thermal scope and silencer, almost completely refurbished by herself (a point of personal pride, though the scope was on loan), while Daine’s weapon was a bulkier Rapira assault rifle (fitting for a bulky man such as himself). This may have been a recon mission, but they always came prepared with every sort of tool they could carry. For their approach to the village, they knew the storm would provide cover; in their gray-and-white outfits, they were like stealthy snow leopards, stalking their prey.

They paused, and Keto lined up two men in her sights – according to the sentry they questioned, this was just outside the building where Victor was being held. Despite the snow, she could see their heat crackling through the thermal scope. Clip, clip, two bullets, and down the two men went. She heard bells in the distance, just barely audible over the whistling wind. “Come on,” said Daine, and they ran into the building.

Victor Rostov was there, in a manner of speaking. Most of his body was a gory mess, and his head was missing. Burn marks and other strategically-placed cuts made it clear he was tortured before being killed. “Son of a bitch!” yelled Daine. He kicked over an end table, and some empty cans clattered all over the floor.

Keto looked away from Victor’s body. She was accustomed to death, but not this gruesome. Although she had only known him for a couple weeks, she thought about the card tricks he showed her, and the pictures of his infant nieces. He’ll never get to teach them those tricks, she thought sadly.

The pealing of the watchtower’s bells brought their current situation back into focus. The door was kicked open by two villagers, one with a pistol, the other with some kind of spear. Daine was quicker than them, though and his Rapira cut through them with a couple noisy three-shot bursts.

They ducked down and ran toward a concrete divider, leaning up against it for cover. “Go!” yelled Keto. Daine ran to a derelict vehicle, while Keto drew the attention of the other gunmen with covering fire. Then, Daine fired, and Keto ran. They “leapfrogged” like this between several vehicles and buildings. Behind them were at least fifty villagers, throwing flaming bottles (“Molotov Cocktails”) and raining a hail of gunfire. Keto slung her rifle behind her back and ran faster, almost in a panic.

A man jumped down and tackled Keto, screaming some wordless battle cry and brandishing a sword. They struggled, and then Keto, quick as a cat, slipped out her own knife and stabbed the man through the neck.

She got up, but it was too late — a circle of five villagers surrounded her, swinging weapons. She dodged and parried with her small hunting knife as best she could. She snap-kicked one man’s knife out of his hand, and while he was distracted, she jumped up on him and leapt for the rooftop. She kicked away his grabbing hands and started sprinting, jumping from roof to roof.

“Keto!” Daine yelled, waiting on the edge of the village, surrounded by a few bodies. She followed the sound of his voice and leapt off one last roof, tucking into a roll. Keto and Daine hurried for the treeline, and their transport. The wolves were at their heels.

Once again, the snow was their ally. The shots fired by the locals missed widely. They climbed into the transport and sped away as fast as they could.

Keto looked into the back and found Dorsey, covered in blood, wide-eyed and speechless. “He just…shot himself,” she said, her gaze fixed on Shen Teremko’s body on the floor.

He had a smile across his face.

———————–

Twenty-four hours later

Daine cracked some smelling salts under Dorsey’s nose. “Hey, wake up. We need you to tell us if we got all the animals you need.” He pointed to some cages in the back of the transport. Dorsey was looking much improved — despite her missing leg, the cauterizing agent was working. She would last at least another week before getting medical attention at the capital.  She leaned up and looked at the cages. “Yeah, that’s all of them. I don’t see the snow mongoose, though,” she said. Daine reached behind a box and picked up a tiny cage. “Yep, that’s the one,” she said, drifting back off to a painkiller-aided sleep. Daine left the transport and went out to where Keto had a fire going.

Outside, Keto was looking at the night sky. She held up her hand and covered Ralen, the largest of Rhea’s two moons. Around the outline of her fingers, there were faint snowflakes; the beginnings of a late-night snow shower. “Do you think anyone’s ever been up there?” she asked, as she moved her hand to cover the blue-ish light of Kirilenko, the smaller moon.

“Well, it’s a sure bet, if Teremko was telling the truth,” said Daine. “In any case, the Regency will send more people out here to pacify the villagers and investigate the ship. They’ll find out for sure, eventually.”

Keto bit down on some meat she had just prepared. “Snow mongoose? I found a second one. They’re tasty,” she said, offering a hunk to Daine.  He shuddered, “Uh, no.”

Daine followed Keto’s gaze up to the moons, lost in thought. What if Shen was right, and that the people of Rhea were really originally from this place called Earth? That our people, and our descendents, all came from another world, far away?

They got back into the transport later, and traveled off towards the sheltering safety of home, contemplating a bigger universe outside the quarantine fences than they ever knew.