Excerpt from The Farthest City

 

Chapter 1 – Four

 

Izmit was a Digger. Kellen could tell right away from his dirty clothes, broken fingernails, and pale skin. The man sat beside him one day at a ration stall, ordered food, and turned out to the street, whistling softly and watching the crowd. Particles of dirt clung to the hairs on his arms.

In his mind, Kellen sketched. Arms of corded muscle, elbows battered and scratched, dark eyes under a thick brow. Moustache like woven wires.

“Kellen, right?” the Digger said.

Kellen stood and gathered up his things.

“I’m Izmit.”

Kellen nodded, just enough to be polite, and edged back a step. He’d known a Digger before. He knew what they wanted, what they always wanted.

“You’re a Drawer,” Izmit said.

Drawers tended to keep company with those compelled to dig beneath the cities. Kellen no longer encouraged those friendships. He never drew in public. Digger, Lighter, Drawer, Singer. Four fools.

Kellen looked into Izmit’s eyes. “I’m not who you’re looking for.”

“You’re an artist.”

“There are lots of artists around. Check the feed.”

“Not like you,” Izmit said. “I’ve seen you sketching. Even when you don’t have a pen, your fingers move. You barely go out, don’t talk to anyone. What are you hiding?”

Fear pooled in Kellen’s guts. Perhaps Izmit only pretended to be a Digger. Was he with the government?

“I’m not a freak.” Kellen spit out the words like poison, then walked away as fast as he could.

“I know you’re not,” Izmit called out. “Everyone thinks we’re crazy, but we’re not. We’re everyone’s last hope.”

People had turned to listen.

Kellen fled.

#

Despite being rebuffed, Izmit continued to appear whenever Kellen slipped out of his apartment.

Kellen had hidden for five years now. He’d gotten skilled at blending in. Now this interloper had shattered his anonymity. Yet, despite his anxiety, part of him welcomed the intrusion. He’d forgotten what it was like to know someone, even Izmit, who wasn’t much more than a stranger.

His loneliness bubbled to the surface at inconvenient times, driving him out to walk the city where he’d be more likely to run into Izmit. His fear of discovery faded, even as he derided himself. If they see what I am, they’ll catch me, and I’ll be disappeared. Just one more freak no one will miss.

He walked through the city one day out to the Altamaha River. Other than recycled place names, little was left of the original Jesup as it had stood more than two thousand years ago. The New Cities were chine-built. Whereas Jesup nestled in the pines and flats west of the Altamaha, the city of his childhood, Grand-Mère had been all hills and lakes and dark, wet trees. Despite their differences, the two cities were almost identical in their basic layouts. Sometimes he expected to pass by his mother or father, felt them nearby in the home they’d shared, or where it should be, if here were there, which it wasn’t.

Izmit found him sitting along the river bank.

Kellen watched eddies form and dissolve as the brown water slid by. The river smelled of rotten logs and mud. “How are we anyone’s hope?”

Izmit sat on an overhanging root and reached down to crumble damp earth between his fingers.

“We were created by the chines for a time like this, when humanity needs help,” Izmit said. “The Four are the only ones who can call back the chines.”

“No one believes that,” Kellen said, “except the chine cults, and they’re crazy, too. It’s just a myth, a delusion. And the Four who believe it, the ones who think they’re heroes, they get taken away, and they don’t come back.”

Izmit formed a ball of mud in his fingers and hurled it out into the river. “You’re wrong. We’re more than that. We’re here for a purpose. When did the Four first come to light? A hundred and eight years ago. The Butcher of Yunxian. She imprisoned and tortured people for seventeen years. There were protests, assassinations. That’s the first time the Four come up in the records. That’s when the legend began.”

“They killed them,” Kellen said.

Izmit’s eyes lit up with a fervor Kellen had seen before. Cesar had looked at him the same way the last time they’d met. “When did the Four come up next? Twenty-five years ago when the scientists detected asteroid 5261 UV2. Just over a kilometer wide, and the government projected it would strike Earth.”

“My family sheltered in the habs,” Kellen said. “I was only three.”

“I was seven,” Izmit said.

Kellen could see the excitement in Izmit’s eyes, and suddenly he was back with Pearl and Cesar, spinning stories about what they’d do when the chines came back. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He’s the same. He’ll get me in trouble, get me killed. Kellen felt the urge to run away before the craziness caught him up as well, but something kept him there.

“Everyone thought we would all die,” Kellen said.

“And the Four were there then, too.”

“But what good did they do? They were all over the feed, then they started doing crazy stuff. A Lighter electrocuted herself. They arrested a Digger below the habs drilling through a factory floor. And the asteroid missed anyway—they nudged it out of the way. The Four accomplished nothing.”

“Maybe,” Izmit said. “Maybe it got resolved before they could do anything. Or maybe they didn’t want it badly enough. Maybe they really were mentally ill. But I’m not. I’m solid, and I want it. I want to bring the chines back. Don’t you? We need them to return. The Hexi are killing us. You know it, I know it, even if the government won’t admit it. We’re losing this war, but you and I can change that. We can—the Four, we can change everything.”

Kellen wanted to believe it, after all the hiding, the pain. He could see it. He’d no longer be a freak. He could prove it to them, and they would love him again.

#

The next evening, at the agreed-upon time, Izmit knocked on Kellen’s door. Inside, he set down a bulging pack and studied Kellen for a moment. Kellen had on what he usually wore on walks in the fall: a light jacket, pants, and soft-soled shoes.

“It’ll be cold and dirty work,” Izmit said. “You have anything better to wear?”

Kellen went to find a thicker jacket and some old boots.

“Mind if I have some cola?” Izmit asked from the kitchen.

“Help yourself.”

Izmit drank his cola and moved about the small apartment, examining Kellen’s artwork.

Kellen knew he wasn’t like the Drawers people talked about, covering every square centimeter of their homespace with rambling scrawls of chine symbols, circuit diagrams, depictions of the chines themselves like portraits of gods. Some ended up scratching into their own skin, babbling their visions out to anyone who’d stop to listen, until the government came to get them and you never saw them again. Yes, he drew those things, but he was discreet. He drew on paper, painted canvasses, etched metal, carved wood. Framed works hung from his walls, the chine elements hidden in plain sight, blended into other artistic styles and subjects.

“I like this one,” Izmit said pointing to a painting of a bipedal chine standing on a hill, a human baby cradled in its robotic arms.

It was one of his early attempts using oils. The chine’s head bristled with antennae, but otherwise its pose was natural and somehow conveyed the warmth and concern of a mother. It appeared human at first, unless one looked closely.

A distant boom shook the walls, reminding Kellen of the building pressure he felt inside. As the war had progressed, the call had grown more insistent—draw more, paint more. So far he’d managed the impulse, not letting it boil over into mania.

“They seem closer each day,” Kellen said, as some of his newfound courage ebbed. “People say Jesup might fall.”

Izmit’s eyes narrowed, and his characteristic energy dimmed. “Not just here. King City, Xicoténcatl, Grand-Mère, and all the other New Cities are under threat now.”

Grand-Mère. Hearing the city’s name cracked open a door. Familiar faces threatened to force their way into Kellen’s mind. “Let’s go,” he said, not wanting to remember.

They set off in the cool night air, taking a path into the heart of the government district. Tall, darkened buildings loomed overhead. They passed through the plaza and down the north gate into the habs. The guards nodded as they entered.

They avoided the broad, central staircase with its sweep of white marble steps, in favor of the escalators on either side. Inside the central apex level, they made their way past refugee citizens out for a late-night walk and rode one of the lesser-used elevators.

They moved past the upper levels, where most people had taken refuge not long after the Hexi arrived in force three years before. They continued down into the lower levels housing the city’s power, sewage, and water utilities, even automated factories. Restricted access, but Izmit had a passcode. Kellen declined to ask from where.

The elevator stopped and opened. Alarmed, Kellen looked at Izmit, who shrugged and gazed at the floor. The elevator closed and continued downward, but Kellen’s adrenalin surge persisted. What happens if they catch us here? We’re not supposed to be here.

As they descended into the earth, Kellen felt a disturbing conspicuousness, as if the walls contained hidden eyes—this was how people like him got caught. He clamped down the lid of his mind, barely restraining his alarm. Despite the fear, a pressure lifted as if his spirit had been unburdened. Go with it, he thought.

The elevator came to a stop and opened onto the lowest level. A soft glow from the walls provided illumination. Drips echoed. Ready to flee or hide, Kellen and Izmit explored. The passageways were built with a precise geometry, but people had managed to clutter the spaces with palettes of supplies, pipes and metal plates, and machinery left by the engineers who kept the city running in the absence of its more skilled makers.

Izmit opened his pack, took out two short shovels, and handed one to Kellen.

Kellen grasped the proffered shovel. “We’re going to save the world with these?”

Izmit gave him a scathing look, then his face softened and he laughed. “We could use an automated excavator, but those require power and ID.”

“Right,” Kellen said. “What exactly are we looking for?”

They walked further along the passageway, their boots making clopping echoes.

“A way down,” Izmit said. “We’ve got to find something below the city, deeper down. I can feel it waiting for us.”

It? Whatever it was, Kellen took Izmit at his word. For once in his life, all his doubts had fallen away. Something’s down there, and we’ll find it.

Tools in hand, they dropped into a fissure where the passageway had shifted and cracked open, unmasking earth. They struggled to penetrate the layers of soil, silt, and cobbles at first, then dense clay. Downwards, always down. Kellen’s hands chafed under his gloves, his soft skin not accustomed to manual labor. He didn’t complain. Thrust, pry, lift, heave. His thoughts dissolved into a rhythm of labor until he heard Izmit’s shovel clink.

Izmit grunted and struck the bedrock they’d exposed. “We’ll try somewhere else.”

They worked their way along passageways, Izmit running his scanner along the walls, listening to its buzzes and clicks. Kellen followed, carrying the shovels and picks. They’d been at it for an hour when the scanner died.

Izmit inspected the device, turning it over. “Dead.”

“Batteries?” Kellen asked.

“Just replaced ’em.”

Izmit shrugged and tapped the smooth walls with a shovel, his ear to the wall. They went along like that until Kellen’s arms and back hurt. He wasn’t anywhere near as strong as Izmit. He stopped to rest, laying the bag of tools at his feet. Izmit looked at him and walked back to where Kellen sat against the wall.

“That’s enough, Kel,” he said. “We’ll find a new spot next time.”

It would be dawn soon, and activity would increase. It would be harder to move about undetected. Kellen nodded and got to his feet. They returned to the surface and parted at the gate.

 

 

 

Chapter 2 – Soldier

 

Prone in the mud, pinpricks of rain on her arms and neck, Sheemi thought of her brother and felt the dead space inside billow out like a shroud. It settled over her until she couldn’t feel her own body, except for one finger on the cold metal trigger. The scope fed her eye a magnified image of a Hexi marching down a path a few kilometers away, well within the reach of her K91. Her K-soft agreed with her target choice, all systems go, windage and rain accounted for, laser guide cal’d. She waited for her platoon leader to call it. From the other end of the line, Danbury gave the signal—three short clicks. It was on. Weapons fired along the line as Second Platoon engaged.

She held her breath and lightly squeezed the trigger. Her explosive round flew downrange, supersonic. She scoped the kill zone to confirm her shot. Her target had been reduced to a heap of jet-black limbs crowned by a splattered head and torso. You should have taken me instead.

She smiled and looked for another target, but her squad must have gotten them all. Only the designated alien survivor stood, looking stunned. It swayed, and she thought it might fall.

They stayed in position, providing cover as First Platoon swept the kill zone and recovered the prisoner. Danbury signaled to pull back—two long bleeps. Sheemi crawled through the brush as they withdrew. Minutes later, mud and fire leapt skyward at the position they’d just vacated. The Hexi artillery sent shrapnel whirring through the air. They waited for the initial salvo to end, then disappeared into the forest before enemy drones arrived.

Nestled among tree roots, Sheemi ate something tasteless while Nguyen dialed into their company’s encrypted channel. Trees danced as another round of air bursts tore apart the forest canopy, then the artillery fell silent.

“On your feet!” Danbury yelled.

They ran through the forest, covering the distance to the linkup point. First Platoon arrived on their heels, dragging the Hexi along with them. Third Platoon had the perimeter covered, their big guns focused toward the coast.

“We got ’em alive!” shouted one of First Platoon’s squad leaders.

That’s ironic, Sheemi thought. They usually celebrated the opposite, but this time it was different. Their orders had been to capture a prisoner intact.

The alien strained silently against its bonds, to no avail. It struggled, they beat it down. Repeat. Repeat.

Someone’s round had blown one of its legs half off. The ruptured flesh gave off gouts of blue blood until Freddy sprayed it with sealant. The alien slumped over.

“Is it dead?” someone asked.

“Everyone shut up and take cover,” Danbury said.

Sheemi joined the perimeter and stared downscope.

“You think we’ll get hit?” Kelly whispered.

Sheemi shrugged. Sometimes the Hexi wouldn’t reinforce when one of their units was ambushed, other times they came in droves.

They scanned the horizon until the fliers rumbled in and took them into their bellies. Safe. She strapped in and slept.

In her dream, Brin bled out in her arms. He was all shot up, yet he didn’t scream or cry or beg for life. “I love you,” he said. “Never give up.” She tried to say it back, to tell him that she loved him, that she wouldn’t, but her voice drained away.

#

Back at King City, Sheemi helped carry their prisoner to the lab. The thing was so large it took four of them to lift it, and it pulled against them. At least it hadn’t died yet. It must have been in quite a bit of pain, she guessed, but the Hexi didn’t make any noise. They never did. They were marsh creatures, at home in the mud and muck. The Army hadn’t yet been able to push them back, and the Hexi didn’t seem anxious to advance. They kept to the coasts, within striking distance of the cities, building their floating compounds, round and oblong, like eggs rising up from the brackish water.

Sheemi had never seen a Hexi up close before. Its black skin felt rough, like sandpaper. She guessed it would be at least three meters tall standing. It wore armor with holes for its six limbs. More armor protected its four biggest legs, all the way down to the splayed, plate-sized feet. A breathing tank was strapped to its back, with tubes running down into holes under its head.

She studied the chisel-shaped head, bisected by a long, stabbing snout. The Hexi had evolved to hunt with it, perpetually looking down for prey to impale. It had four pebble-like eyes and two the size of saucers below the central ridge of its midnight face. The eyes were round and black and shiny.

They brought the Hexi inside the lab, a large building Sheemi had never had occasion to enter. Inside, it resembled a kitchen-office hybrid. Scientists in white coats clustered at computer work stations along the walls or at lab benches with sinks and glassware. Pressurized cylinders stood alongside complicated devices full of tubing and racks of little bottles and other stuff she didn’t recognize. Science had been one of her least favorite subjects.

The Hexi’s neck slumped onto the concrete floor as they strapped it down using anchors embedded in the concrete to cinch the bonds tight. She couldn’t tell if it was awake, if it looked at them or not. She resisted the urge to put a round in its head.

The other soldiers left, but something held Sheemi there. The scientists smeared some kind of jelly onto the elongated, oval pads at the end of the alien’s delicate forelimbs. Jelly. Trust scientists to do something weird and disgusting. She stuck around anyway, wanting to see what would happen, even though her muscles hurt like hell.

One of the scientists attached clamps to the Hexi’s pads. The clamps were wired to computers. The scientists wore headphones and talked softly among themselves. One of them murmured into a microphone, then all heads turned towards the alien. It lifted its head, seeming to look at them, though she couldn’t be sure. After more discussion, the one with the microphone spoke again. The Hexi’s limbs traced patterns in the air. A few of the scientists cheered.

Are they talking to it? But how? The Hexi wasn’t making a sound. Sheemi moved closer to a young man watching squiggly lines march across a computer display. Each time the Hexi moved its limbs, more lines appeared.

“Do you want to listen?” he asked, excitement in his voice.

She nodded, and he handed her his headphones.

A familiar sound filled her ears. It reminded her of the woods each spring when cicadas woke by the millions, singing their songs, swelling and fading, until she couldn’t hear herself think.

“They communicate using electricity,” he said.

The sounds faded to static. She looked over in time to see the alien collapse. Its head hit the floor, its limbs limp.

“It’s gone,” someone said.

Dead, she corrected them silently. It’s dead.

The first batch of scientists left as new ones arrived with tools and carefully opened up the massive body. She put a hand over her nose, but the smell seeped through—spoiled cheese and jet fuel. Underneath the black skin, they exposed glistening, coiled structures the size of her palm.

One of the scientists scooped the coils into a glass container. “Nerve clusters?”

“Could be parasites,” another said. “Or embryos. They seem distinct from the rest of it.”

“Let’s assume they’re organs, Gil,” said an older scientist. “Occam’s razor, remember?”

Sheemi had seen enough. She left them to their cutting. On her way out, she passed the young man who had given her the headphones.

She tapped him on the shoulder. “What was it saying?”

“We don’t know yet,” he said. “But we will soon.”

She shrugged. “I don’t really need to know.”

She just needed to kill them.

#

Back in her quarters, she peeled off her cammies and armor and went to clean up. Mud and blood blended as they trickled down her skin to the shower drain, brown and blue and red. Her back hurt more now, but she ignored it.

Kelly and Dunn laughed, kissing next to her.

“Hey,” said Kelly. “You’re wounded, Sheems.”

“Fuck,” Dunn said, turning her around.

Sheemi examined her shoulder in the mirror. Two holes not much larger than her pinky finger dripped blood onto the tile floor. No wonder she felt so bad.

“What’s up?” Danbury asked, coming into the showers. “Shit, go see the docs right now, Sheemi. You guys go with her. Make sure she gets there.”

“I’m fine,” she said.

Danbury gave the others his platoon leader look. They dressed and walked her to the hospital.

The doc didn’t make a fuss. Pulled out some metal, real small pieces, patched her up and gave her some tranqs. She was done in short order.

“Fit for duty?” she asked as the doc entered her visit into the logs.

He looked at her, gauging more than the holes he’d patched, she guessed.

“You’re fit, Sergeant Tanamal.”

She rejoined her unit in the mess. Most of Second Platoon was there, chowing up before starting the evening’s maintenance cycle. Back before the Hexi had begun to raid the settlements surrounding King City, they had bitched about the hours of weapons cleaning. No one complained anymore. They did the work with a reverence for the tools that helped keep death at bay.

Danbury called her over. “You’re off tomorrow, Sheemi.”

“No, I’m in,” she said. “With Xan down, you need me.”

“We can take Sweeney.”

“Shit,” she said. “Sweeney’s a nice guy.”

He didn’t have the fight in him. She knew it, and so did Danbury. Some citizens didn’t.

“You’re wounded. You need rest.”

“Hell I do. Doc said I was fit for duty. Says so in my record. You can check it.”

He looked down at his food tray.

“I want to be out there, Dan. Not sitting holed up here in King.”

“I know you do, Sheems.” He looked her over much like the doc had. “Okay, zero five hundred. Pad C.”

“See you then.” She smiled, grabbed a fritter, and left for the weapons bay.

#

The insects sang to her in the night. Waves of sound, millions of singers, vibrating, calling. Blue blood dribbled from Brin’s mouth. “Don’t give up,” he said. Then he died and died and died and—

Sheemi woke the next morning wanting to see more blood. Blue blood. She blinked. Zero four thirty. Time to gear up. See you soon, brother. But not until she did more killing. Kill until killed. She laughed and shut the door behind her. She stopped at the armory on her way out, then took an elevator to the surface.

Her father caught her as she stepped onto the airfield, appearing out of nowhere as he always did.

“Dad,” she said. Beyond him, she saw Danbury and the other soldiers assembled at the flier.

“I remember when it was Daddy,” he said.

He looked older than she remembered—his hair mostly gray, worry wrinkles above his nose, the same hard eyes, broad shoulders like Brin’s. She remembered riding on his shoulders at a picnic long ago. Mama was alive then.

“I’m a soldier, Dad.”

“I know.”

She nodded toward the flier, wanting him to get out whatever it was he’d come to say. “I’ve got a mission.”

They hadn’t talked much since Brin died. It hurt too much, and he’d wanted her to get out of the fight. That was a no-go. She had the fight, too much of the fight. Or it had her. Either way, there was no going back now.

“You do have a mission,” he said, “but not that one.”

She looked at him sharply, eye to eye. What had he done? Her father the colonel.

A message popped. She blinked it, and the text overlaid itself on her natural vision. Orders to report tomorrow. Zero nine hundred. The hospital. Coded by General Enge himself, commander of all North American forces.

The muscles in her neck pulled taut, her hands clenched on her K. She scrutinized her father with narrowed eyes. “What is this?”

He brushed a strand of hair from her forehead, kissed her there. He gave her a look she couldn’t place, a searching look. For a moment she felt like a child again. Was that what he saw? She looked down at her boots, unable to face whatever it was he couldn’t communicate. What had he done?

“Goodbye, sweetie,” he said and walked away.

He hadn’t called her that in years and years.

The flier rose up overhead and turned north, flooding the airfield with jet wash.

“What is this, Dad?” she yelled at his back.

The flier leapt toward the horizon, her voice lost in its roar.

 

Click here to buy the full novel on Amazon. Or iTunes. Or Barnes and Noble.

 

 

Advertisements