The People of Gendreau

In the eternal twilight of the forest, life was simple for the earth-folk. The People, as they called themselves, communed with the other living things in the forest, from the tiny, hard-working woodmouse to the massive, lordly hawk that flew overhead and from the towering hardwoods that sheltered the people, to the delicately flowering mosses that cushioned the folk’s beds.

For thousands of years, generation upon generation, the People had lived in the Forest of Gendreau. Several clans roamed the sprawling forest, coming together only once every year. During the longest days of the snow season, every member of every clan met in the heart of Gendreau, despite the shortened days and bitter cold. In the midst of the dormant forest, life blossomed within the people. Bonds were formed and children conceived, trading and crafting boomed, and clans grew stronger within themselves and the whole.

On the last night of the gathering, while the eldest of the clans were conferring within a steam-lodge, a shrill, shrieking thunder boomed across the clearing at the heart of Gendreau. The folk, frightened out of their hide huts, gathered together, searching the darkness of the surrounding forest with questioning eyes. A young hunter, bolder than the rest, stepped away from the huddled masses and stepped toward the forest.

The elders calmed their people the best they could, but fear caused their steps and their words to falter. Snow began to fall, though it was not the pristine white that usually floated from the heavens. These flakes, though shaped as delicate lace, were tinged with crimson.

A smell, of iron and blood, washed across the crowd as the elders stumbled through. The terrified people stood frozen, waiting for reassurances that never came.

Near the forest edge, the young hunter still stood, now joined by other of his clansmen. Still more stepped forward, of other clans, but all were young and fearless. The elders consulted among themselves. The leaders of the clans moved to the hunters.

“Go,” they said, their voices strained. “Go and find out what has come to Gendreau, what has come to the People. Run quickly, remain hidden. Take no chances. Return on the winds.”

The hunters shouldered their weapons and melted into the forest.

The elders whispered among themselves. Wild speculations moved within the crush of clans, stifled with the turning of their leaders.

“The gathering ends,” the eldest of the old intoned. “But we will not disperse. The Time of Change has come.”

In shock, the people kneeled, their faces drawn and serious. After a brief blessing from the elders, the earth-folk returned to their huts. But soon enough, all the men of the People had re-emerged, holding tightly to laser-scoped assault rifles and clad in ancient polycarbonate armor.

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Vat 1765-243

The machine hovered over the vat of inky liquid. Tubes and wires dangled from the dull metal of the selector, trembling with even the slightest movement of the bulky device. In the control room overlooking the chemical vats, Luther grimaced as he punched in calculations on the main control board.

“I don’t like it,” he muttered to himself, his voice echoing in his headset. The balding man stood and peered over the control board to stare down into the eerily illuminated room below. Hundreds of containers of viscous goo stood in rows on the floor beneath the control center. Each one held several specimens of a particular species.

The control room, on its metal rails, moved on, pushing the attached selector deeper into the bipedal section. The computer ran endless calculations, showing each as a line of green code, on its way to choosing the most desirable candidate. But Luther still frowned. He went over his parameters once more, certain something was missing in his formulae.

The control room shuddered to a halt. As if by free will, the selector moved, the articulated metal arm smoothly maneuvering the wire- and tube-covered metal shell into place. Luther stared open-mouthed at the section and specimen numbers on the screen, then compared them to the numbers below the selector’s main body. He shook his head and slapped the emergency stop button on his command board.

The selector responded slowly. Luther watched in horror as the selector’s tubes and wires snaked into vat 1765-243. The delay was almost too much to bear for the controller. He slammed his hand down on the faded red button twice more, willing the selector to obey.

The machine stopped, finally, the main body halfway to the surface of the inky liquid and its tubes already submerged. Never taking his eyes off the selector, he snaked out his hand and grabbed the inter-system phone handset.

Into the static, Luther harshly breathed, “Command, we have a problem. Parameters, as stated previously, have led the system to choose vat 1765-243. Please advise. Repeat, please advise.”

The static continued in Luther’s ear for several long seconds, with no response from Command. Then, a single word, the word Luther dreaded most:

“Continue.”

 

Struggle

The assembled men stood stiffly in their formations, their gazes blank and expectant. Their leader, in every way less-than-average, stood before the group, his lapel pinned with an electronic loudspeaker. His voice bellowed across the men. His exhortations did little to stir their fires, but still, he continued his incitement.

The waiting mob wore a simple uniform, navy blue and crisp, pure white, with spit-shined black boots. The blinders were leather, like the boots and belts and gloves. The light above the raised platform focused the men’s eyes. The loudspeaker promised hollow rewards while the surrounding darkness smelled of fear.

From within the deep ebony lurking behind the assemblage, a single voice cried out. A solitary syllable, refuting the vileness spewing from the platform. Quickly, it was hushed, but just as rapidly, another rose.

Those few uniformed souls nearest the back turned, their attention momentarily diverted from the words of their duly appointed master. But at an outburst from the small man, their faces flashed forward again.

In waves, voices cried out from the blackness. With each undulation of sound, a few more of the blissfully blinded army turned away from their leader. But the progress of the resistance was slow. For every soldier turned, another outburst came from the tiny leader, insisting on loyalty and faith.

The light and the dark, locked in bitter battle, neither side relenting, neither side clearly winning. For years, the struggle will endure.

The day the earth stopped

I couldn’t tell you what happened to the world. I was asleep when it all went down. Alright, fine, I was passed out from a night of hard partying, but it’s the same idea. I only know that when I woke up, to the sound of the neighbor’s car alarm blaring, there was no one around.

I looked. Really. My roommate was gone, which was only slightly unusual, since it was a Sunday, and he usually slept in on Sundays. Unless his parents were in town, of course, since they insisted on dragging him off to their ritualistic Sunday brunches. So, at first, I figured he was out at some fancy restaurant and my neighbor’s girlfriend was mad at her again.

But when I went over to ask Mel to please, please cut off the alarm, the door was open and no one was home. That’s when I noticed the other doors on the street were open. Lights and alarms were going off all up and down my street, but not a soul in sight.

Back at my place, I turned on the television. Replays of cartoons, religious services, and other programs were playing, just like every Sunday, but nothing that was live; nothing that could tell me what was going on. I left the tube going, to drown out the noise of the car alarms and grabbed my phone. I punched in James’ number, but it went straight to voicemail. So much for my roommate’s help.

I tried calling my parents, three states away. No answer there, either. With my heart racing, I dialed up my sister’s place. If anyone would answer, it would be straight-laced Sarah.

On the fourth ring, someone picked up. But there wasn’t a voice, just an eerie echo of clanging alarms and an overtone of labored breathing. I yelled Sarah’s name, but she didn’t answer. I told her, if it was her, to hold on, stay awake, wait for the cops. I thumbed the red button on my phone, waited five seconds, then dialed 911.

Nothing. No dispatcher, no answer, just nothing. The call rang and rang. Desperate to get help for my sister, and for me, I threw on my jacket and ran for the local fire station, six blocks from my house.

Everywhere I passed was deserted. Doors on houses and cars stood wide open, alarms and lights flashed in unheeded warning. I didn’t notice until I was almost to the station, but, there weren’t any animals, either. None of the dogs that loved to bark and slaver at me while I was on my runs were in their yards. Not one of the haughty housecats was available to turn their tails on me in disdain. I didn’t even hear any of the songbirds that used to provide my soundtrack.

I slowed to a walk. I began to think I was the only person left in the world. I dialed up my sister’s number again. Four rings and then it was picked up, just like last time. But this time, I heard Sarah’s voice. Loud and clear. But it wasn’t a word, it was a scream.

Signal fires

The fires flared in the distance, followed by an immense plume of crimson smoke. Smoke from other fires, further to the east, stained the sky with blood. The bells of the town clanged, calling for the people to flee.

Drayma rushed to the tower, shoving her way through the throngs of people rushing to gather their belongings. The solid ladder that led to the first platform felt warm under her hands as she began to climb. When she stepped from the ladder to the first platform, fifteen feet above the ground, Drayma paused to gaze out over her people. She felt the fear rising in the people and she wrestled with her own terror. She continued climbing, determined to complete her job at all costs.

At the top of the signal tower, Drayma slammed open the curved leather-covered lid of a small trunk near the edge of the stone platform. Inside of the trunk, several glass bottles stood waiting, each filled with a different blend of materials, according to the need of the signal master. Drayma chose one, the dust from the bottle clinging to her sweaty palms. Her thoughts flashed to her father’s face as he explained the meanings of each bottle. Red was for death.

Drayma gently set the bottle next to the bronze brazier in the center of the stone platform. The wood inside of the brazier, already coated with layers of oil in preparation, was easily lit. The fire flared, the sudden heat scorching the girl’s face. Quickly, Drayma broke the seal of the tempered glass bottle then dumped the entire contents into the flames. Blood-red smoke poured from the brazier into the sky, sending the message of coming death to villages and towns across the river, the western reaches of the land.

The tall girl stepped back to the leathered trunk and fished in the contents until her hand closed around a cold metal tube. She pulled the distance-viewer from its covering cloth and raised it to her eye. She gazed through the glass, searching for the nearest signal tower. When the tower came into her sight, she followed the stones and wood to the ground. She gasped in alarm.

Beneath the eastern tower, a flood of darkness flowed to the west, toward Drayma’s town. Her breath caught in her throat. Sunlight flared from within the flood, reflections from the advancing army’s weapons.

Drayma screamed, but her voice was lost in the chaos of her people’s retreat. Death was coming, for all of them.

 

Station 17

Station 17 had never been fully developed by LectroCorp. It was supposed to be their last stop on the way out of the system. Unfortunately for the LectroCorp leaders and bond-holders, the sun erupted long before they could get Station 17 fully manned and equipped.

The station, by the time I was born, was rickety and barely functional at all, but it was home for me. I was lucky, I suppose, being born at all, and entirely human. My parents were engineers and good at their jobs. That kept them from delving into some of the drugs and bio-mech devices most of the other workers used. Not all of the stationers were so lucky. I knew lots of people who had alien DNA mixed with theirs and even more who were born with deformities or bio-metal parts.

Out here on the rim of what used to be a seven-world solar system, Station 17 managed to attract a lot of unusual passers-by. Usually, the visitors hung out for a while before moving on. There were the occasional hangers-on, but they were almost always running from the law, or family, or some other worse-than-Station 17-thing.

My parents taught me a ton about the mechanics on the station; how to keep up the life-support systems, how to patch the outer hull, how to shape and grow the flexible bio-mesh interior hull, and how to recognize when something was about to blow to bits. But they never taught me much about alien tech. That was just something I knew. Don’t ask me how, I don’t know. All I know is I’m the one the station’s residents point to when a visiting alien needs something fixed. It’s kept me and my aging parents on the upper levels of the station, where life is easier.

One of the things my parents hadn’t taught me, though, was what to do when Station 17’s bio-mesh, with the aid of illegal alien DNA re-sequencing, became sentient.

 

The city of the airships

“We’ll not be gone long, Sergai,” my father said to me as we closed the door of our cottage. Though his words were meant to comfort me, the slightest quaver in his voice gave me icy chills.

I paused on the path, looking back at the darkened house where my mother and sisters still slept. My timidness irritated my father, who jerked my hand so hard I felt my shoulder pop.

“Yes, Papa,” I whispered. “I’m coming.”

Our winding path took us along the darkened yards and gardens of the still sleeping village. My father, crouched low, dragged me along, still holding tight to my hand. Every sleepy sheep’s questioning bleat sent us to the ground, holding our breath. Eventually, we left the dark shadows of the village and emerged onto the well-traveled Merchant’s Road.

“Papa,” I asked, my voice as steady as I could make it. Already, we were at the furthest reaches of land known to me. “Are we there, yet?”

“No, Sergai, we are not. We won’t be until well after the sun is risen. But hush, now, my sweet boy. Soon you will see the wonders of the world.”

Father pulled me down the road, guiding me into one of the wide wheel-ruts in the packed earth. He let go of my hand with the command that I must follow, silently, and never stray from the foot-wide trench.

I nodded sleepily, my curly black hair bobbing into my face. I kept my slowly-blinking eyes on the tawny ribbon that curled away into the distance while I listened to my father’s steady footfalls.

When the sun broke over the mountains behind us, my father stopped us for a short rest and a few bites of hard cheese. I gladly munched on the cheese. Once more I asked, “Are we there, yet?”

Father refused to answer. He was lost in thought, his own hunk of claret-rinded cheese dangling from his fingertips. I shrugged and slipped into the soft viridian grasses to sleep.

I was stopped by my father’s muttering. He spoke as if to himself: “It will be for the betterment of our village, yes. I know it is my duty, but oh, why must it be my only son? I have daughters. Four of them, each as lovely and tractable as the last. From four, a loss of one would surely pain me a little less. But the one and only son bestowed upon me? Unthinkable. Though, if I fail to deliver him . . . . No, I mustn’t even think of that.”

Startled by his scattered thoughts, absently said aloud, I stood up and reached for his strong shoulder. His body shuddered at my touch, but his unblinking eyes continued to stare down the road.

“Father?” My voice was small in the world, barely drifting to his ears. I tried again, this time with an accompanying shake of his shoulders, “Father! Who are you talking to? What are you talking about? I’m frightened.”

“Hrm? Oh, Sergai, I apologize, my son. It was nothing. Nothing at all. Just an old man’s thoughts spilling from his empty head.” Father stood up, his legs unsteady at first, but quickly steeled. “Come along. It wouldn’t do for us to miss the first airships of the day. Did you know, the airship station is a city all unto itself? It is marvelous, or so I’ve heard. Myself, I’ve only seen the tower from afar.”

My father stepped back onto the Merchant’s Road. He didn’t even pause to make sure I would follow. He just rambled on about how fantastical the airship station was and how much wonder it contained.

He never noticed that my feet didn’t slap in time with his. Nor did he notice the rustling of the undergrowth near the edge of the road, covering my escape.