Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Name: Paco José Madden
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: Little Red Riding Hood, Wolf Killer
His breathing labors, as he stumbles on four legs. From a large gash at his side, blood falls dying the last of the winter snows crimson.
I’m not doing much better. His paws have torn flesh from my arm. A bite on my thigh leaves me limping. But I’m steadier, more determined.
Normally, his kind doesn't come out during the day. But he surprised me. Before fear or alarm could register, I was in the thick of battle—tooth and claw.
The animal gnashes his teeth and growls. Tufts of thick black fur stand on end. Red hot coals glow in his eyes, eyes like those found in fairy tales of monsters and mythical beasts. But this is no monster, no dragon or ogre out of lore. It’s a wolf.
We lurch around each other, leaving a trail of dirt, snow, and blood in our wake, each waiting for the other to make a move or let down one’s guard. It is only a matter of time before the wolf or I bleeds to death, and thankfully, the lupine’s wounds are worse than mine.
The wolf retreats. Perhaps he thinks best not to fight but to wander into some thicket and die. I drop the point of my sword to the ground but continue to hold the grip tight.
Then the creature lunges. As I fall to the ground, I thrust my sword forward. He is upon me, maniacally shrieking in rage, his jowls mere inches from my face. I’m going to die. I know it. I’m going to—
The animal stops. He lets out one last breath of fetid air and slumps to the ground with my sword protruding from his neck.
In the distance, a howl rises.
I must return to the village post haste if I hope not to become wolf’s meat. I scramble to my feet, ripping strips of cloth from the bottom of my cloak and hurriedly bind my wounds. My sword sheathed, I grab a branch to use as a walking stick and shuffle toward the village. It is less than a mile away, but a pack is on my tail.
In the village, I’m known as Wolf Killer, a position held in each settlement of the realm. It was my father’s title before me and my father’s father’s title before him. He wanted a boy, a male progeny that could carry on his name and profession. Instead, he got me. A girl.
It wasn't easy convincing my father that I could fight as well as any man. Barely out of diapers, I escaped from home to follow him when he practiced swordsmanship or was on the hunt. I used a stick for a sword and imitated his every move—smelled the ground or touched tracks in the earth as he did. This amused him at first. But when I proved I fought better than the local village boys and disarmed the Wolf Killer himself, he took me under his wing and trained me in the art of tracking and killing wolves.
That was a long time ago. I suppose anything over the passing of a few months seems ages for a girl of sixteen. It is a year from the time when my father passed. Ever since, I’ve been on the hunt for the wolf that killed him, the one the village people call Big Bad.
“Little Red Riding Hood, Little Red Riding Hood, hurry inside,” Mother exclaims from the parapets beside the gatehouse. My keen eyes pick her out in her bonnet and apron, waving a kerchief in my direction. I’m only a few hundred feet from safety.
Wolf Killer may be my title, but around here I’ve always been Little Red Riding Hood. Since the day I could walk, I wore a red hooded cloak, which falls over my shoulders to this day. Somehow the name stuck, though I’m barely little anymore. I’m taller than all the village women and half the men. However, once a sobriquet has been bestowed, it is near impossible to lose. In fact, I doubt anyone in the village, save Mother, knows my real name—Abigail.
I hasten my pace. The caterwauling of the wolves trail behind me. I dare not turn back and lose an inch of ground. Soon I will be in range of the archers standing guard along the wooden stretch of fence that surrounds the village. They will protect me as long as I can make it past the—
I trip and land face first into a clump of grass. How can I be so clumsy at a time like this?
“Come quick. Hurry, Little Red, run,” pleads Mother. “They’re nipping at your heels.”
The pain in my leg is unbearable. I bite down on the insides of my cheek and pull myself up with the tree branch. The drumbeat of the racing paws are gaining on me. I return to my tottering gait when something tugs on my cloak, nearly tossing me backward. I pull, but can’t break free.
Something whiffs by my face. It’s followed by a yelp and a heavy thump on the rugged plains. I’m free and stumble several feet forward. Behind me I see the creature who moments ago had my cape its mouth. An arrow shaft protrudes from his left eye. One of the archers must have struck him down. I look back toward the wall. Among the bowmen, I glimpse a fringe of yellow hair disappear behind the barricade.
With my cloak free, I face my snarling predators, whose thick hides are the color of ash or the burnished brown of chestnuts. They halt several feet behind their fallen comrade.
“Back off, cretins or you’ll discover the same fate as your friend.” I hold my stick out as if that can possibly defend me. But the wolves are not foolish enough to face a hail of arrows and bark at me in defiance. Their grumbling is interrupted by a howl, one deeper and more guttural than the others, which echoes from beyond the tree line. The surviving wolves drag their dead compatriot by the scruff of his tawny neck and withdraw into The Woods.
As I reach the gates, I catch my breath. However, I don’t feel safe until the great timber doors open and slam shut behind me. I made it. I’m alive.
Mother descends the tower and grouses, “Oh, what have those monsters done to you now?”
“I’m all right, Mother.”
“You are certainly not all right.”
“The bite is not deep and the cuts on my arm are nothing but a scratch.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” Mother undoes the bindings on my arm and thigh.
“You look as pale as a ghost, and these wounds could’ve nearly killed you,” she appraises.
“You always make things sound worse then they really are.”
Mother turns to one of the guardsmen. “Get the cart. I will take her home.”
“I can walk.”
“You’ll not take another step while I still breathe.” She stands with her feet set wide and her hands on her hips, the picture of immovability. It’s no use arguing.
Two guardsmen help me onto the wooden cart. An old heifer with a coat of mud brown hair is hitched to the rickety wagon.
“Now you just lie back and relax. We’ll be home in no time,” Mother says from the seat in the front. She slaps the reins, and the wagon jolts to a start.
I lay my head against a sack of grain and stare at the sky.
Puffy white clouds pass overhead like a herd of sheep, and my mind wanders to the days when my father and I saved a boy or a farm animal from the wanton clutches of a lupine. I remember him saying that in this world there are sheep, there are wolves, and there are shepherds. Always be a shepherd, he would say. Never a sheep or a wolf. For it is the shepherd who protects the flock. It is the shepherd who can do the greatest good in this world.
I never knew what the last half of my father’s statement meant. What was the greatest good a shepherd is supposed to do beside protect the flock? When I asked, he said it was something I had to figure out for myself. I ponder my father’s words, as my head sways to the rhythm of the jouncing cart. Soon, I’m rocked to sleep.
Monday, November 18, 2013
Name: Tlotlo Tsamaase
Genre: Young Adult, science fiction, thriller
Title: Satellite Hearts
Sunday carries a static silence in our home, punctuated by Mama’s praying; always in the lounge as though it’s a mihrab pointing to God. There is a buzzing sound high above. I can’t see the tiny dark object in the sky. But I know it’s there. And I know they are listening: the Botswana government. The air is the only way they can invade our conversations, with the often intermittent faint white noise.
I remember the day they released them into society: seven prototypes, known as Eco-Humans or Progs, short for Programmed Humans because their actions were easily editable. They were my father’s designs. Dangerous. I was, by default, supposed to love them…but I feared them.
Eleven years down the line I didn’t know I’d find out I was one of them.
Mama doesn’t want to believe it. The government owns me. To them I’m military warfare. Tomorrow they will transfer me to a new country and delete my memory. I can’t let them.
Mama shifts in the lounge and my heart knocks a marimba beat. I squeeze myself, carefully, through a crack in the corrugated sheeting that forms the wall of our home. Outside, I can still hear her soft voice praying, praying to the savior to delete my fate.
Praying won’t save me Mama.
I stare at the compound of Old Naledi: rusty shacks, unpaved grounds littered with broken glass, fizzy drink cans, plastic bags and trees. My childhood prison.
It stings to know I’m leaving forever but I don’t know what it is to cry, how it feels before and after the tears fall. My program settings for tears are disabled. I was as much a victim as the patients Papa and I programmed: Papa driving a screw into their hearts to extract their emotions as though they were juice from a fruit. I don’t want to be a Prog—thoughts deleted, emotions altered and body controlled.
This is my body. I won’t lose it.
A few minutes left to decide my freedom: I’m sorry Mama, to be another death in the family.
I run four huts down from mine—old, scraggy and made from scrappy sheet iron— along the Old Naledi fence, my hand scraping the diamond wire. The Botswana heat melts into the air coating my skin with a layer of sweat. I strain my eyes to look up as the fence rises—shaking in the breeze—towards the deep crimson sky: the time when the sun begins to bleed.
Walking to the Stats, our short name for the rank station, is tiresome but I’m not complaining; this is the last time I will see my home. I take my time as the sun sinks into the horizon. Not too long, an hour has passed. Darkness should freak me out, but I’m more nervous about how tonight will end.
The sky has a thousand eyes, a thousand insomniac moons: The celestial authority— The Beings of The Skies who’ve built a home in the skies from which to watch over our world. Want to know a secret? I think they piss on us, each time they gather for their monthly kgotla meetings and have a jol and they say, “Just rain people, just rain, move along.” Rain my ass.
During the day the Gaborone bus rank is full of bustling combis and hooting taxis, grey–clad commuters darting between them. At night, it transforms into a Death Train Station: a train the commuters board to death, having received the Letter of Resignation from society. It’s a desert of coldness, metal scraping against metal, empty pavements, and bare, derelict buildings. Tonight the wind whines a low wail, collecting paper as it sweeps through the station. Ghostly vapour creeps over the ground. I can see the old commuter bridge stepping over the railway to the rank area.
The breeze, controlled by the Celestial Authority, whistles through standpipes as if the night has a case of asthma. It snakes through the aboveground station, searching. I pin myself against a trunk when the nearby trees rustle and hold my breath, afraid the breeze will feed on more than my fear.
The fencing is torn through, so I step over it without much harm and search and pinpoint a lenyora. He’s a shady looking boy with pants high above his ankles and hands tucked into his pockets, shivering from the chill. His dark eyes are locked down at a body huddled at his feet, hands tied together. Perfect. A crime-druggie boy never disappoints.
“S’beno,” I say.
His head jerks up in relief. “Ao sister, z’khipane? What took you long?”
“Time.” I stare down at the culprit on the floor.
Michael Mackerel, a white, fat beefy man, stares at me with shocked eyes. “Little Zahra,” he says. The Magi Bio-engineer was my father’s closest friend.
“Tanki, S’beno,” I say. “No problems?” I add in Setswana.
I don’t trust the head-shake he gives me, but he delivered and I must pay him. S’beno holds one hand out respectfully while the other cups it and I drop a powdered drug in a plastic bag into his smoke-smothered hands.
He claps his hands together before kissing them. “Ah sho, sho skeem saka. Sharpo sharpo. ” He leaves, drawing a Craven-A from his pockets and lighting it. I watch the smoke curl from his mouth as he turns to wave.
“What are you going to do to me?” Michael’s voice trembles.
“I came to see you off,” I say.
“See me off? What you going on about?”
I keep quiet and this keeps him on edge. Good.
“I need a ride, Michael. Teleporting is far too expensive, and as you’ve seen money doesn’t grow on our trees. Hardly any trees grow in my poor Old Naledi.”
“You’re running away?” His laughter rolls him to the ground. “Where to? You can’t run from the sky, sweetness.”
But you can run to the skies, to where it all started; to where Papa started and died. The truth lies in the skies. Hung in the sky, the moon is a large lucent eye charging the air with a strange eeriness. The black clothing I wear won’t help hide me from that all-seeing eye.
“Each important national figure is given a Being of the Sky—a Thunder— as a protector,” I say. “And any threat or injury to their life is a calling. It used to be just a threat that could call a Thunder from the skies, but the expenses are too high—people die from their electrifying flight to our land. Now only damage so severe that it can cause death can call the Protector of a National Figure.”
The first time I saw a Being’s soul on fire, a kaleidoscope burst of intermixing neons: yellows, oranges, blues and greens across the dark skyline, aflame, wild and alive, I thought, how beautiful death can be sometimes…and how cruel.
I was nine years old.
Wunmi Nazer was eight years older when she killed a Being of The Sky along with 1187 others in Zaria, Nigeria. My fingers tremble at the thought, a shard of glass too sharp to swallow. I’m going to beat that record. My country, Botswana, a mass covered by the Kalahari Desert and baked under the sleepless, warm sun, will be listed as a country harbouring a child criminal.
I have to be brave. Brave, and get it over with.
Michael’s eyes glisten at the true essence of my plan, and he looks at the tracks dismally like I kicked him in the nuts. He is an important national figure like my father was, a creator of humans programmed to follow the nation’s Instructions for life, work and love. I don’t want to be a Prog. This is my body. It’s always been mine. I won’t lose it.
He grits his teeth together and says, “How does it feel now to realize you were as much under the knife as the victims you and your father practiced on? Karma’s a bitch honey, and you ain’t no better than it.”
I ignore him. “History, it enjoys haunting the present day, coming uninvited. But today a memory of it will keep it alive to the future. You will be a constructive element of that memory. The thought that I will be the catalyst barely changes my mind.” I try to switch my heart off, like Papa taught me before we sliced a human open. “Ease the scalpel in slowly,” Papa would say, “it’s best people are distracted by the initial pain before you go out with a bang.”
“The way you speak, you don’t sound like a sixteen year old.”
Name: Alanna Peterson
Genre: Young Adult Thriller
Title: THE CALL OF THE CROW
Alex had always found it strange that Marina’s parents chose to hang this photograph in their upstairs hallway. She saw no beauty in the crows dotting the blue sky, or the wall of golden cornstalks stretching before two girls in matching braids. Alex and Marina were younger then, and it was back when they liked all the same things, back when they went everywhere together. On that long-ago afternoon, they had raced through the corn maze until they came to a dead end. Retracing their steps didn’t help; the muddy trail seemed to lead in circles, and the dry husks shuddered when the wind blew, and the crows swooped just above their heads, as if the sky were squeezing shut, and Alex was certain they were lost. But then they turned a corner, and found their mothers hunched over their cameras, comparing photos. For them, it was only a pleasant autumn outing; they hadn’t felt trapped at all, because they had the map, and knew how to escape.
Tonight, though, Alex focused on this picture, to avoid the grinning faces in the family portraits otherwise lining the walls. They had turned ghostly in the dark, seeming to admonish her for staying up here. She knew she should return downstairs, where her mother was waiting, as eager to leave this party as Alex. But the man’s words had carried through the closed office door, directly to her, as she stepped out of Marina’s room with her raincoat draped limply over her arm. When she heard the phrase clinical trials, she made her choice. She stared at the crows in flight, listening.
“Tara just called,” the man in the office said. “There’s been a security breach at SILO. Someone hacked in—and they might have accessed data from the clinical trials.”
“On the human subjects?” Alex strained to hear this second voice, which was quieter, and also familiar: it was Mark Chu, Marina’s father. “But if that’s released—”
“It won’t be.” His firm tone left no room for uncertainty. “Tara assured me that her team has it under control. They’ll locate the source of the breach and ensure that nothing gets out.”
“Is there any way I can help?”
“I’ll need you at the meeting when Tara comes in tomorrow. We can go from there.” A phone chimed, and there was a pause. “I have to get going—Emmett’s waiting for me to drop some cash at his crime prevention fundraiser. I’ll keep you posted.”
The office door flew open, leaving Alex blinking in the sudden light. There, slowly coming into focus as her eyes adjusted, was the source of the voice. Richard Caring.
Alex recognized him from television: entire newscasts were occasionally devoted to his achievements as CEO of Caring Corp, which had been in his family for decades. Everyone in Seattle loved him, since he’d made the decision to move the food company’s headquarters to their city. Many of her friends’ parents commuted to work at Caring Corp’s downtown skyscraper each morning, including Mark, whose recent promotion to Vice President was being celebrated tonight.
Fortunately for Alex, Richard focused on his phone as he stepped out of the office. Alex was about to turn and flee, but froze when Mark’s gaze landed on her. He opened his mouth and drew in a breath, and for one awful moment she thought he would call out to her: Alex, what are you doing up here? But instead, he gave a curt side-nod toward the staircase, entreating her silently to leave, as he said to Richard, “So, I hear you and Emmett were frat brothers back in the day.” Richard turned around to face Mark, without noticing the fifteen-year-old lurking at the end of the hall. Alex took advantage of the distraction and rushed downstairs, equally grateful to Mark and to the carpet quieting her footsteps.
Once in the dining room, she stared at the raincoat she still held. If she hadn’t gone upstairs to retrieve it, she would never have heard about SILO, or the clinical trials there. Alex could think of only one reason for keeping the data secret: the research must be harming the human subjects.
Perhaps this was the terrible moment she’d always dreaded, though it wasn’t at all what she had expected. She’d imagined a gunman invading her school, or a policeman calling her phone, saying, There’s been an accident. Or a gas explosion, something she’d feared for years, ever since she’d learned about how natural gas was scented like rotten eggs so you could smell a leak, but if you didn’t notice, or maybe if you weren’t sure what rotten eggs even smelled like, the gas would gather invisibly, replacing all the good air, until you’d flip a switch and the whole house would go up in flames. Late one night, long ago, when she admitted this fear to her parents, her father had gotten up and shown her the metal tubes where the gas came in, shown her how thick they were, how strong. She shivered beside him in the cold garage, unconvinced. Finally, her mother exclaimed, exasperated, We told you, Alex, there’s nothing to worry about, can’t you just let it go? Alex had gone back to bed, but she couldn’t stop thinking how it could all end—everything dissolving in a single burst of unbearable heat—just because she didn’t know the right smells, and because she turned on a light.
But she was older now, and realized that terrible moments didn’t have to be instantly catastrophic. Sometimes, they could be more insidious. Alex leaned against the dining room wall. With her free hand, she clutched her hair, twisting it into a thick coil. She took a slow deep breath, as her father had instructed her to do, but thinking of him only made it worse. She tried to stay positive: He’s fine. Stop freaking out about nothing. But all the while, wheeling through the back of her mind was clinical trials - clinical trials - clinical trials.
Alex’s thoughts were interrupted when she spotted Marina at the snack table, alone, scooping a handful of fluorescent-orange Blazin’ Bitz onto a red napkin. The bowl of spicy-hot mini-chips contrasted with the catered platters of bacon-wrapped asparagus and little toasts spread with pâté, but, like the ads said, it wasn’t a party without Blazin’ Bitz. Besides, they were one of Caring Corp’s bestselling brands.
“Where’ve you been?” Marina asked, before placing a single chip in her mouth.
Alex was surprised at this question. Marina had ignored her all evening; Alex was quickly abandoned in favor of the daughters and sons of the many Caring Corp executives in attendance. Nevertheless, she wondered if Marina might know something useful. After confirming that Richard and Mark were not in the room, Alex began in a low voice, “I just heard your dad upstairs talking to Richard Caring. Has he ever mentioned something called SILO before?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Marina’s phone buzzed, and she wiped her orange fingers on the napkin before poking at its screen. Alex fought her annoyance, not only with Marina’s distractedness during this important conversation, but also with her flaunting of the SynerG3, the phone everyone wanted, the phone that would not be officially released until next week, but that Mark had managed to procure as a gift for his daughter.
Marina smirked at the text she’d just received, then clicked the phone off. Alex tried to steer the conversation back. “It sounds like they’re doing some shady research. Something they don’t want anyone to know about.”
“You must’ve misunderstood. Caring Corp does tons of perfectly normal research—we even did that focus group during our field trip.” After spending a morning in the food science labs learning how plants like corn and soybeans could be miraculously transformed into ingredients like dextrose and lecithin, they had participated in a taste test of several food products still under development.
“No, this is different! I think they might be—”
“Alex, you’re overreacting. What Caring Corp does is none of our business.”
Name: Pete Catalano
Genre: MG Contemporary Humor
Title: ZOLTAN THE ADEQUATE
HARRY BLAINE IS THE WORST MAGICIAN EVER. That’s what the billboards would say after I totally embarrassed myself during my first performance. Wait, not just any billboards. I would be in the middle of Times Square and the bazillion lights from the three-hundred-and-sixty-seven electronic screens and digital billboards twinkling back at me would all be flashing those very same words so that everyone in New York City would know. And then there would be the tourists. Every tourist from every country would go back home and tell ALL of their friends, so after a short period of time, a good portion of the earth would know how totally terribly my first show ended. I think it would be kind of crappy to be twelve years old and made fun of in Cantonese.
“Harry?” a voice called.
“Harry?” it called again. I couldn’t decide if I was actually hearing it or if it was a figment of my imagination.
"HARRY!" My daydreams burst into flames as everything came into focus. Peeling paint walls. Graffitied desk. Twenty sets of eyes staring at me as this class, so close to the end of the school year, started off a little rougher than usual.
“Mr. Blaine, I’m not sure what your others classes are like with your head-in-the-clouds attitude,” Ms. Shufflebottom said, “but here we do our daydreaming at home. Now sit up, eyes focused straight ahead, and for goodness sake, pay attention.”
She turned and walked back toward the front of the room. The other kids started laughing. Well, Ms. Shufflebottom, I thought, this is exactly what my other classes are like.
When I started my first day of middle school nearly nine months ago, I realized I’d always had this intense desire to be the “life of the party” or the “cool guy,” even though there was no history of my being either one of those . . . ever. More than anything, I wanted to be noticed.
Recognizing that I needed a gimmick, a trick, or a ploy, something that would get their attention. I needed to get back to my first love . . . MAGIC! I practiced as hard and as often as I could. After school, before school, sometimes even during school, I would run through the tricks and the steps in my head until I couldn’t think about them anymore.
I even picked a name. A name that would stand out, but at the same time lend itself to getting a few laughs. There’s nothing like a few laughs to help people remember who you are. So that was the day Zoltan the Adequate first took the stage.
One day, my opportunity to amaze, tantalize, and astound presented itself in the form of a flyer giving all the details about the Spring Talent Show. There would be two weeks of preparation followed by everybody in school being assembled into the gym to either witness the thrill of victory or to cheer on my own agony of defeat, which sometimes felt inevitable.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Criss Burton, my best friend since first grade, said as he pushed me toward the sign-up sheet. “Come on, Harry. You’ve been talking about your magic for as long as I’ve known you. But that’s all it’s been, talk. Now you have a chance to do something about it. Now you have a chance to make something of yourself in this school and I have a chance to ride your coattails . . . and I’m great at riding coattails. So what’s it going to be?”
“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” I hemmed and hawed as I took one step toward the sign-up sheet and then shuffled two steps back toward Criss. “There are details to be worked out, props to be gotten, sets to be built . . . ”
“My shoelace was untied, the sun’s in my eyes.” Criss laughed as he mocked me. “Come on. Sign up for the Talent Show and let’s shut some people up around here and start making my life easier. What are you afraid of?”
“My grandpa was one of the greatest magicians that has ever lived,” I explained to Criss. “When I first started showing an interest in magic, my dad was thrilled. After that I tried to make sure I never disappointed him.”
“Hey I’ve been thrown out of your house enough to know your dad a little bit and he won’t be disappointed if you don’t win the Talent Show,” Criss said, for the first time sounding like he knew what he was talking about, “he’ll be disappointed if you don’t even try.”
Just as I was about to take Criss’s advice, which the thought of really terrified me, put my fear behind me, and sign my name, my nemesis in magic, Lance Blackstone, stepped away from a group of girls that had been surrounding him and walked toward the sign-up sheet.
I had already taken a step toward the sheet when I first saw him coming. Now I stumbled a little as I fell over my own feet, trying to get out of his way.
“This isn’t a dance competition,” Lance laughed as he watched me flail in front of him. “This is a Talent Show. Those card tricks and sleight of hand of yours won’t be able to compete this time around. Maybe next year.”
Lance continued up to the sign-up sheet. Turning back to the girls who giggled and waved, Lance pointed his finger at the sheet, waved it quickly through the air, and Criss and I watched as his signature appeared on the very first line. A thunderous applause broke out in the hallway . . . and all he had done was sign his name with a little flair.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I whispered to Criss as I sidled up next to him. “If signing his name gets that kind of response, just wait until he does his act.”
Lance Blackstone has been practicing magic for as long as I have, but he was always terrible at it. There were always wrong cards, no doves flying, no rabbits being pulled out of any hat, and nothing ever disappeared except for his audience.
Lately, however, he somehow managed to get good. I mean, he got really good.
There were just no logical answers for some of the wonders I’ve seen him perform to the absolute amazement of the roaring crowds in the cafeteria. As each trick he performed became more astounding than the last, more and more people flocked around him. Every guy wanted to be his best friend and every girl wanted to be his girlfriend.
“Why don’t you just leave the magic to the memory of your grandpa,” Lance smirked as he walked past us, going back to his fans. “They’ll be plenty of room for you to sit in the bleachers and cheer for everyone else.”
“I’ll sit under the bleachers and won’t even cheer,” Criss called after Lance.
“Good comeback,” I slapped him on the back.
“He’s just a bag of hot air. So,” Criss repeated, “you gonna do something about that or just let it got? If you’re going to let it go, that’s fine, no big deal, let’s just get to our next class and you can wait until high school to stop being invisible.”
Criss made me mad with those last couple of words, and but Lance had made me even madder. I gave him my toughest scowl and then marched right up to the sign-up sheet, fumbled a few times for the pencil as it danced on the string before me, but once I had it firmly in my hand, signed my name big enough for someone down at the other end of the hallway to read.
I turned around to see how much applause that little bit of flair would get only to see the crowds were gone, and Criss, best friend that he was, stood there and gave me the “slow clap” we’ve seen a dozen times in the movies. Of course, I took advantage of every clap as I walked back toward him.
“Let’s get out of here.” I grabbed him and we headed down the hallway.
“Harry,” Criss started chanting in the hallway as we walked along, waving his arms up in the air, trying to get some of the stragglers we passed in the hall to join him. “Harry, Harry, Harry . . . Come on. Give me something.”
I raised my fists up into the air and moved through that ghost-town of a hallway, pretending that there were hundreds, no thousands, of kids applauding, reaching out to shake my hand or hoping just to see me pass as I triumphantly pushed through the crowd. Man, it felt good.
The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. I walked past the sign-up list half a dozen times, and each time saw a few additional names appearing throughout the day. By the time the bell rang at three o’clock, there were eleven names on that list with Lance and me at the top and no one else worth mentioning below us.
The race to the Talent Show was on.
Name: Talynn Lynn
Genre: YA Contemporary SteamPunk Fantasy
Title: The ClockWork Bounty Hunter
The clockwork dragon detonated in a barrage of fire and metal.
I yanked my sword back and shoved the shield in front of my body, but it was too late. The acid laced fire already started to melt the silver blade. I growled and flung the weapon away from my body. It settled in a muddy bog and slid beneath the surface. The dragon hissed and disappeared, transmitted back to its creator, though it left most of it’s working parts scattered around the battleground.
“Echo!” I yelled over the explosion of noise. “It’s over. You can come out now.”
My twin sister had been standing behind me a few minutes earlier, tucked away in safety, but now I fought alone in the damp muskeg. I scrunched up my nose. The acrid remnants of dragon stench burned when I breathed. I glanced around me. It wasn’t easy to concentrate on the battle when Echo wasn’t in sight. Nothing but dark shadows, where the bog mixed with cypress tress and deep caves in the distance. All I could make out was rocky crags with dark circles that looked like black eyes keeping watch over the swamp. Creepy, even for me. Echo wouldn’t have run in there. With one last look around, I walked back toward base camp, betting my cards she’s run home to the safe house.
Lopsided wooden depositories spread out toward the bog on my left and the ghetto was cramped with half rotted shanties down by the river, off to my right. The worn path was slick with drizzling rain.
I picked through the pieces of downed airships, armor, and weapons looking for the injured. I was the only one fool enough to chase the dragon away from the safety of the city. What seemed like an invasion only minutes before turned out to be nothing more than a show of power. I should have returned home with the others, but the dragon got the best of my pride. At least I won against him.
Searching the sides of the road, I brushed my arm across my forehead. Black ash smeared my skin and my hand burned from the fiery exhaust left from the dragon’s spew. A wire poked out of my skin, too, and the cutaneous markings on my arm had been burned off. I needed a cybernetic artist, preferably from Chantal’s office. Her fees were the cheapest in town.
First, though, I needed to find my family and check to make sure they were okay. I stopped at the safe house that bordered the city gate and tapped the call button on the iron door and lowered my mouth to the speaker.
“Check in for Bridges 2-6-0.”
Static answered me before the posted watchman returned my inquiry.
“Number and name.”
“2-6-3 Sterling Bridges.”
Silence, followed by a beep.
One down, and three to go. I pushed through the gate and turned left, toward the terraced area. Shuttered windows and reinforced doors opened here and there. I shouted down skinny alleys as I passed by, “Echo Bridges! Are you here?”
A quiet reply came from the second alley way. “Sterling? Is that you? I’m here. Follow the brick path to the end.”
Her voice came from the opening of the mechanical depository. The faintest beam of light glowed in the dusty window. Echo emerged from the shadows. Her tousled hair didn’t distract from her dainty features. The only clue evidenced to her heritage was her steel gray eyes.
Black stains soiled her lace-trimmed bodice, and her elbow length white gloves were covered in oil and streaks of blood.
My arms tensed. “Shisters. What happened? Are you hurt?”
“Just a tiny puncture. I’m fine. But he’s not.” Echo nodded behind her.
I squinted past her into the dark shadows. Hidden partially beneath a low shelf filled with parts, rested a crumpled body. His white lab coat was covered in blood.
“A genetic transient?”
“Yes, a cute one, too. Looks like he’s about our age.”
I slammed my fist into the doorframe. How did he get past the guards?
“I bet he brought the dragon with him.”
Echo frowned. “I don’t think so. He was inside the depository when I ran in here. And, he was already wounded.”
That didn’t surprise me. Echo couldn’t hurt a fly.
“Do you think he was killed in here, or dragged in here from the alley?” I looked around the floor for evidence of a body getting dragged through the door.
“He’s not dead, Sterling.”
I stopped in my tracks. Every hair on my body stood on end. Never in my life had I enjoyed taking the life of someone else. Not even the enemy. My eyes shut tight, I breathed in through my nose and exhaled, nice, long, slow, through my mouth while I reached for my dagger inside my boot. As I took a step in the direction of the wounded transient, Echo grabbed my arm.
“Please don’t kill him.”
Her gloved hand was damp with oil. “You’re leaking too much. I thought you said it was only a small puncture?”
She smiled her innocent, girly smile. “It is, but it’s in my main artery. I’ll need repairs soon.”
“I can see that.” I glanced at the still figure across the room. He moaned softly and I squeezed the handle of my dagger tighter. “Why don’t you want me to kill him?”
Echo reached in the pocket of her apron. “I found this in his jeans pocket.”
She held out a bronze bracteates, smudged gray and red from the oil and bloody mix. I rubbed it on the smooth material of my pants leg until an etched symbol could be seen. A simple arrow shot at a lightning bolt.
“A demurrage? From the Genetics Realm.”
“What did he come here to buy?” Echo looked over her shoulder at the moaning transient.
“Obvious what he was looking for. He was in the mechanical depository. I’d say he was looking for body parts.” I started toward the shelves and Echo followed close on my heels.
“Are you going to kill him?”
I bent on my knees beside the transient. His eyes flashed open. “Oh God. Don’t kill me.”
I held the dagger at his throat. “Give me one good reason why?” Why were all transients so weak?
He glanced at me burned arm and over at Echo’s gloved hand, which was saturated by now, ebbing up her arm toward her elbow.
“I can fix that leak and I know how to repair your burned cutaneous area.”
Echo leaned close to my ear. “Do we have enough savings?”
The transient smiled. “I’ll do it for free, in exchange for you sparing my life.”
I couldn’t pass up his opportunity. We had enough in saving for one repair, not two. I pressed the dagger deeper into his skin.
“If you lie to me, trap me, betray me, or hurt my sister in any way, form, or fashion, you are dead. Any questions?”
He shook his head. “I understand. My name is Zavati Cleon. Perhaps you’ve heard of me, or my family?”
Our city’s fiercest enemy had shoved us to the edge of the world. They lived on the other side of the bog, in the neighboring realm, yet they wouldn’t be happy until we were all extinct and they owned all the land, including the worthless swamp we now called home. And this guy wanted my pity?
“I could care less about your kind, including your family. Now, lets go, before my sister hemorrhages to death. Where do we go?”
Zavati struggled to sit. He compressed his hand over a gaping hole in his upper thigh. “I need a stitch or two before I can walk. Care to help me with that?”
I stood and searched the shelf for a bottle of healing glue. His wound sealed, leaving the tiniest ridge similar to that of a seamstress stitch. Too bad it only worked on human flesh. Echo wound dripped eerily to the floor “Let’s go,” I said as I hooked my hand around his elbow. “Where to?”
The transient stood. “I have a realm jumper. It seats four.”
I rolled my eyes. “This must be our lucky day.”
The last bit of sun slipped behind the trees lining the bog. One look at Echo told me time was of the essence. Her face paled and eyes dilated. I walked with an impatient speed.
Echo limped beside me. “I have a good feeling about him. He could have killed me.”
“Or he could be the kind that bootlegs illegal parts and dabbles in cyborg or genetic magic, striving to be the world’s next mad scientist.”
Zavati chuckled. “One thing I’m not is the one who ends up torn from limb to limb in some godforsaken cyborg cell.”