An unexpected find

A dull glint in the bushes caught Kiara’s eye. She glanced around the forest, searching for any sign of watchers. Finding none, the lithe girl slipped into the undergrowth, her deep mossy green leathers blending into the foliage.

In the midst of a small clearing beyond the seldom traveled path was a man. Kiara’s hawkish gaze fell on a quartet of white-fletched arrows. Under the slim wooden shafts, the man’s body was covered in heavy plates of hammered steel. Kiara shook her head, sadly, then reached for her belt pouch.

A heavy silver ring slid easily from the pouch’s mouth. Kiara slid it onto her finger, with the deeply engraved face buried in her palm. Once she was ready, she crawled toward the prone man, her nose wrinkling in disgust at the rancid smell that filled the clearing. Her fingers searched for a heartbeat, but, as she expected, the man’s life had fled.

The silver ring pulsed a brilliant blue when it touched the cold metal armor. Kiara pulled her hand back and clutched it to her chest. Her eyes closed as the ring’s power throbbed in her mind. Her smile grew as the information provided by the ring of identification poured in.

Removing the armor wasn’t easy, but Kiara managed it well before sundown. She lugged the heavy metal pieces deeper into the forest, to a campsite well away from any interruptions. The night passed in drudgery, but the dark-haired girl didn’t mind. Her smile remained wide and catty.

Hammering the dents from the armor was painstaking, but not as torturous as repairing the four punctured places. When the time for polishing rolled around, Kiara’s eyes stayed open by sheer willpower. The lightening sky stole the girl’s smile. Wearily, she rolled up into her bedroll and fell into a deep sleep.

The sun was nearly touching the tops of the western trees when Kiara finally struggled awake. She rebuilt her fire and pulled rations from the pack beside her. A small iron pot also slid free of the bag. With just a few minutes work, Kiara had a pot of trail soup simmering. Her stomach rumbled. She didn’t wait for the soup to cool down before she slurped a mouthful. She ignored the pain and continued to eat. After her dinner, she rinsed the pot and stowed it back in her pack. Then she wrapped herself in her bedroll and slipped off to sleep.

The morning broke with a dense fog creeping across the forest floor. Kiara packed her meager belongings into her backpack, then tied the pieces of armor into a tight pile which she then heaved onto her back. Her knees nearly buckled under the weight of the armor, but she stumbled into motion.

On her way out of the forest, Kiara found herself whistling a merry tune. Her step lightened and she let her voice lift in a bawdy tavern song. By mid-afternoon, she had joined the stream of people headed into the city, to the King’s sportage. She had just enough time to sell the armor to a trade merchant before the archery contests began. Her lips turned up into a cruel smile. The fun was only beginning. Armor of missile attraction should make the day much more exciting.

 

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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.

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.

Dangerous curiosity

The sea of bloodgrass hissed in the darkness when the wind blew across it. In the paleness of a waning slivered moon, the sharp-edged leaves glimmered crimson. Above the vastness of the bloodgrass sea, a steely-eyed hawk danced in the swirls and eddies of warm air.

The cacophonous shouting of many men caught the bird’s attention. He floated closer, his curiosity piqued. But there was nothing to see, only the impotent calls of humans too frightened of the bloodgrass to do more than threaten and trample upon the closest edges of the green-black blades.

Disappointed, the hawk flipped his wings, altering his course away from the grating sound of the men. He dipped low over the garnet tips of the great grasses, showing off for men who couldn’t see what he dared. In his daring, however, the hawk spied another human, this one shivering and dripping scarlet, hiding in the midst of the razor-edged flora.

Curiosity pushed the hawk toward the girl. He passed low over her head, his belly feathers brushing dangerously against the stilletoed tips. Once past, in a flash of brilliant white, the hawk swept upward, spiraling heavenward on a warm rushing current. A harsh gasp and flicker of crystal-reflected light followed his ascent.

The hawk, at the pinnacle of the pillar of air, dipped his wing and glided gently, in counter-spiral, back toward the woman. With his sharp eyes, the stately raptor watched the young human. The sliver of moon sent enough illumination to send sparkles through the jagged crystal dagger piece the young woman held. The hawk kept the dangerous object in his sight.

Close, once again, to the piercing tops of the bloodgrass fronds, the hawk called out, his usual piercing cry pitched low and questing. The woman shuddered as he passed by, but the crystal dagger remained steady.

A sweeping gesture of his wings swung him back around to make another belly-brushing pass. The bird’s curiosity would surely be sated, this time.

But a whispered chant caught the bird off-guard, as he passed above the woman. Words in a language he could almost understand slid along his feathered body. His head turned, the sharpness nearly halting his gliding flight.

Beneath him, still huddled in the midst of the bloodgrass, the woman stood taller, her hands together around the shattered crystalline dagger. Her eyes glittered dark and avian in the silver moonlight. Blood, oozing and dripping from a multitude of tiny cuts made black tattoos on her bared skin.

The hawk, frightened of the young human woman as he had never been afraid of anything in his life, pumped his wings frantically. His heart thudded as he found a current that eddied away from the sea of bloodgrass. The raptor, shivering in the night, zoomed past the trampled earth where the men had not dared enter the cutting, head-high grasses. No humans broke the silence of the night, not even the shaman, deep in the bloodgrass sea, her magic calling broken and her hunger unsated.

Guardian reborn

Deep in the Dark Woods, nestled in the hollow space under the spreading roots of an ironwood tree, pulsed a frosty blue light. Its piercing light drew animals from miles afar. The mesmerizing display of unusual light fascinated the creatures, large and small, but there was an undercurrent of fear, as well.

Hunters, on the edge of the massive forest, found little to bloody their arrows. The men feared to venture further into the darkness, but hunger gave impetus to several of the braver individuals. Those four, the youngest of the nine hunters, stepped gracefully from the paths they knew to cross into the deepening gloom. One, the youngest of all, paused. He turned to the older men, to bid them farewell, but also to gain a blessing of luck. Instead, he saw their retreating backs, his own father among them.

The young hunter’s fear returned, tenfold. None of them were expected to return to the village.

For a moment more, the dark-eyed young man hesitated, then moved, resolutely, onward at the call of his friends. His eyes adjusted easily and quickly to the darkness under the massive trees. The interwoven tops kept all but the strongest of the sun’s rays at bay. His supple leather boots made no noise on the rich, leaf-strewn soil.

The men ahead waited, crouched in a depression beneath a large oak tree. They whispered quietly and frantically to each other as the youngest approached. The deer, he learned, who had made the shallow impression had only recently departed. The more experienced hunters wanted to follow the trail left by the animals, but the youngest feared to move on. He remembered his father’s back.

The other three waved the youngest away, calling him a coward and laughing at his fear. They stepped away from him, their bows ready to loose at the first sign of living deer. The dark-eyed youngster hesitated. But, he, too, began the search for food.

Hours of searching in the darkened forest gave them no targets for their arrows. Even the oldest of the four was disheartened and frightened. Never before had the villager’s hunts returned nothing. The youngest begged his friends to leave the hunt. Eventually, with anxiety and hunger gnawing their insides, they agreed to return to their village.

Deep in the depths of the forest, the frosty glow intensified. The animals gathered around grew frightened. One brave squirrel darted into the hollow, searching for the source of the light. His chatter of excitement drew other squirrels.

A dozen small rodents crowded into the hollow, gazing at the translucent sphere under the long leg of the ironwood tree. With excited chittering, they eased the enchanted ball to the surface. The other animals gathered around as the light intensified. A mournful wail swept from the sphere and burst into the wider forest.

Far away, the four young hunters heard the sound and quaked in their boots. Another wail sent them into a headlong dash. The cries followed the hunters, to the furthest edges of the forest. They were certain, now, the forest was haunted. As they stumbled from the trees, a burst of aquamarine light splashed against them. None of them noticed the eerie quiet that followed.

In the heart of the Dark Woods, the gathered creatures bowed their heads. They noticed the startling stillness of the world, but, unlike the humans, they were aware of the cause.

Standing before the assemblage stood a shining nymph. Water dripped from her hair and flowers sprang forth from beneath her feet. She smiled at the waiting creatures.

“Rejoice,” she whispered into each ear, “for your guardian has been reborn.”

Late getting home

She was walking home, late, again. Her father would surely find out this time. Mother could only cover for Matilda so often, even with her drunkard of a husband. All the girl could hope for was that Mother had already poured her father into bed for the night. If she saw the kerchief on the wrought iron railing that led to the main door, she knew she’d be safe.

Matilda was so lost in her thoughts, she forgot her surroundings. She forgot she was in the soupy fog of a North Island fall. The thick grey pea-soup that swirled before and after her made her smile. Fog kept most people indoors. None of the neighbors would see her, especially in her gunmetal shaded gown.

The girl’s rapid steps sent her sharp taps bouncing off the soot-covered buildings on either side of the narrow alleyway. The noise echoed and multiplied, until it sounded like an army marched through the passage. Matilda cocked her head to the side, listening for a ghostly reassurance that it was only her heeled boots making the sound.

When the long arm snaked out of the shadows beside the last doorway before her family’s manor, Matilda had no time to scream. Her legs betrayed her and she fell into the accosting arms.

“What have we here,” a ragged, oily voice breathed. “Looks like a filly’s gotten loose from the master’s.”

“Let me go! You have no right,” Matilda demanded. Trembling in fear and anger, she asked, “Who are you? Why have you detained me?”

A harsh laugh burst next to her ear. Matilda could smell the fresh onions amidst the rot in that breath. Her stomach lurched. Her slender fingers flew to her mouth, determined to keep her lavish late dinner in its place.

“We ain’t nobody, girl,” the voice licked into her ear. “And we’s ain’t detainin’ you. We’ve only decided we’re to help you. Trust us, girlie.”

“Are there more than one of you? How many? What are you helping me with,” the frightened girl asked, her voice cast low and, she hoped, sounding helpless.

“You’s was headin’ towards Master Stevenson’s manor, or I’m not worth me weight in gold. So, here’s a secret only us few knows; Master Stevenson’s to be made an example. See…,” the voice moved away from Matilda, leaving her in restrained silence.

The desperate girl twisted in her captor’s arms, but she didn’t make any progress in escaping. She flailed her arms and legs, hoping to distract the man long enough for him to loosen his grip. But she stopped when she felt her daintily booted foot sink into a leg and a stench of bog-water floated to sting her nostrils.

“Ahh, you’ve hurt poor Rob. Well, at least you’ve made a dent in the ol’ boy.”

The new voice was nicer, more polished. Much more the caliber Matilda was used to. Her head jerked toward the speaker. She gasped as she recognized the man with whom she had spent the evening. She blushed furiously as she remembered losing her inhibitions while the man watched. Then her cheeks flared with indignation.

“Charles, what am I doing here?”

“Matilda. I’m so glad the boys managed to catch you before you reached home. It would be a waste for a fine piece to go to waste, all for a drunk old man who can’t manage his debts,” Charles Vallingham chuckled at her.

“What? I don’t understand,” Matilda cried. She begged the man she thought was her friend, “Please, let me go. I won’t tell anyone. I’ll make Father pay his debts. I’ll hide his liquor. No, I’ll smash it all to pieces. Just let me go, please!”

Vallingham laughed, the mirth never reaching his sparkling jet eyes. Harshly, he barked orders to three large skulking men, in a language Matilda had never heard. In horror, she watched Charles Vallingham’s hand reach for her face. He roughly twisted her head until she stared at her family’s grand mansion.

Tears rolled unfettered from her eyes as three barrels of pitch were hurled against her house. Then she tried desperately to wrench her head out of the vile man’s grip, but she was too weak. In sobbing defeat, the girl watched as her family’s manor burned, along with every inhabitant. All fifteen people inside were sure to be asleep, at the hour of veil-less.

In the distance, Matilda heard the soulless advance upon the house. The pitch-flames didn’t bother the monsters in the least as they scrambled through the shattered windows and doors. Screams chased the last remaining Stevenson as she was dragged through the silvery streets. Blood and soot filled her nose, imprinting the odor on her soul. Her anger and hatred blossomed and she fought.

She fought until Vallingham’s golem threw her into the waiting carriage. A swift blow, placed just under her upswept auburn hair, pushed her into nothingness, to wait for the nightmares to come.

Computer generation

The first rumblings of unrest came long ago. But, like any change, it took a while for anything to become noticeable. In the beginning of the movement, it was mostly the young, unemployed, dissatisfied people who did the grumbling. No one could blame them, though, because it was nearly impossible for them to find jobs. And in that world, no job meant no food, minimal housing, and not a single moment of joy. The old-timers, like my grandparents, they kept their heads down and tried to ignore the brewing uprising.

The one good thing about the revolution starting with the young ones? No jobs also meant no advanced tech. No AI to listen in on their conversations, no overseers to make sure their gatherings were listless and unexciting. It was easy, I suppose, in the early days. But once the ideas began to spread to the older generation, it was much more difficult to organize.

It was about fifteen years ago that I got involved. My grandparents died about then, which left me without anyone to lean on. I’d heard, of course, about the revolution from some of the few friends I had. I didn’t think much about any of it, though, because I was protected by my grandparents. They both had jobs, both had positions in the tech industries, and I had enough of everything I wanted. I was spoiled, I guess. But that changed when the overseers decided that my grandparents were obsolete.

We had to move the resistance to the jungles, far to the south. It was one of the only zones where the machines hadn’t gotten a foothold. The primitive tribes there were considered a protected species, separate from our own, by the governing AI. I suppose the rugged terrain, lack of surplus energy sources, and simple oversight all helped the area to remain free of the machines, too. It was there that the real change began.

We soldiers of the revolution made our first moves in 2211. We managed to completely strip the southern jungle continent of its technology, then. It became the free zone. People from all over, in all sorts of low-tech, homemade transports, flocked to the zone. They came to help the revolution, for the most part. Many of them brought their families. We welcomed them, but we didn’t promise any of them that it would be easy.

The next few years were spent trying to gain a foothold in the northern, temperate continent. Generations ago, it had been three distinct countries, but the AI merged them, making it all one zone, with a massive, interconnected tech web. The revolution stalled in the south-western area, for years. It wasn’t until the machines made a mistake that we managed to move forward. That mistake proved to be a major break for us. It underestimated our resolve and it paid the price.

The NorAm continent still isn’t the safe zone its southern counterpart is, but it’s coming along. We’re working on a compromise, a treaty, with the machines, but it’s a slog-along task. The AI has hundreds of years of law at its disposal, while we humans have to examine and debate every word on every line, searching for loopholes and contingencies the computers already see.

There are new rumblings, far out on the fringes of our new society. People are unhappy about the lack of employment, food, shelter, and voice. But, like any change, it will be slow coming.