Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Minds Wandering

Written by
M. A. Packer



Excerpt from a history report by Marci Caldwell

                “That was almost 100 years ago and tensions continue to rise as reports come in, claiming that the Jovians are running out of necessities and are believed to be amassing an invasion fleet.  This has caused a lot of fear in the world as all the nations now prepare their own fleet of ships in anticipation of another war, but unlike the Great Solar War, they fear that this one will culminate in the loss of hundreds of millions of people.  Personally I hope we don’t go to war, because I don’t think anyone would survive.  Nobody trusts each other anymore and nobody would be united enough to stop anything bad from happening.


Part I

                Nancy Gale stared out the narrow, transparent band, which served as her apartment’s view port.  It was the same spectacle of the stars rotating as though speckled across an endless black disc on which Mars made an occasional appearance.  Naturally it was the Mars Orbital that was spinning, but Nancy always felt more comfortable imagining that it was the other way around.  She had spent all fifteen years of her short life on this station and its confined, composite construction was endearing to her.  It was home, it was safe, and now she would be forced to leave it behind.
                The doorway behind her slid open, almost fully silent, but the shift in air pressure always told Nancy when someone was entering the apartment.  Her mother strode in, tall, beautiful and strong, but when she saw her daughter slouching against the view port, as she had been doing for the last hour, she began to worry.  Nancy tried hard to keep her fears from her mother, but living so close together in such a small, densely furbished place made it impossible.
                “Dad feels really bad that he won’t be arriving with us,” Mrs. Gale said, plopping down beside her daughter and stroking her auburn hair.  “But he told me to tell you that he has arranged for a very special surprise.”
                “What surprise?” Nancy said, her face smeared against the view port.
                “He didn’t say.  You know how he is, he just gives you the least amount of data to go on, but when it happens he’ll be sure to explain everything to death.”
                “Why do we have to go?”
                “I told you, he said he needs to work more closely with his client.  Besides, his assignment here has been over for well over a year.  It’s just the right time for us to go back home, is all.”
                “It’s not home,” Nancy pouted.  “Maybe for you guys because you’re older, but I want to stay here.  I don’t want to be a Grounder.”
                “What’s wrong with that?”
                “My friends will still be Spacers, and Spacers and Grounders always stop talking to each other.”
                “That’s ridiculous.  You can always jump on the Net and talk with your friends.  You can still play your games in the VR and interact like you never left!  It’s not like centuries ago when people could only communicate long distance over ground lines.  Come on, let’s get your things.  The shuttle is due any minute.”
                Nancy collected her baggage, which consisted of only two bags on rollers.  All of her clothing and personal belongings had been vacuum-sealed into tubes, which stacked neatly into the durable containers.  Nancy’s mother explained how strict the station was on conserving atmosphere and every last speck of air had to be pulled from their belongings before they were allowed to load it.
                The two walked along the curvature of the outer ring of the Mars Orbital.  They said their goodbyes to neighbors and other passersby, all of whom had seemed as close as family, but Nancy felt her gut wrench when she saw how casually they regarded them, already treating them like mere acquaintances.  People they had shared meals with now said “bye” to them like they had just met on the Net to briefly discuss a video.  Nancy could feel her entire life slipping away, like stepping into a dream, or worse yet, as though she were being lowered into her grave.
                They reached their docking bay where they were further prepped by station workers.  Nancy always hated being scanned and then sprayed for potential germs, which usually happened whenever a Space Jockey or some other outsider visited the station from Earth or one of the other colonies.
                Nancy and her mother said nothing as they watched for the displays to confirm the arrival of their shuttle.  When the vessel did arrive, they were both slightly embarrassed when the first people to depart from it were the replacement team for Dr. Gale.  They were a stern bunch of people and Nancy felt jealous of them, knowing they would be warmly welcomed into the station and treated like family.  Everything she had was being taken away and given to these strangers and it filled her with so much angst that she allowed her head to thud noisily against the wall panel behind her.
                “Our turn,” Mrs. Gale said, smiling and taking Nancy’s hand.  She lead her daughter through the port and into the tiny shuttle.  A shuttle worker hand their baggage sent to the rear cargo bay and escorted the two females to their seats.  The seats were quite comfortable, cradling their bodies with adaptive gelatin cushions, and the facemasks they wore filled their nostrils with clean oxygen and very mild sedatives to help them ease into the process of departure.
                “Here we go,” Nancy’s mother said, almost thirty minutes later after all the pre-launch checks were completed and the ship’s computer gave them a green signal, showing that all inspections shows no signs of worry.  The cockpit crew spoke through the comm systems, explaining their departure course.  So much of it was beyond Nancy’s understanding, but when she heard mention that their shuttle would make several passes around Mars to pick up speed, she felt herself panic.
The thought of approaching any kind of planet terrified her.  She knew that planets, like Earth, were huge and pulled things toward them.  Her thoughts envisioned several terrifying scenarios of their ship going out of control and plummeting toward an obstinate, rocky surface like a bullet from an ancient gun.  Her mother eased her tensions by placing a hand on her knee, which was about as much contact as she could give the frightened girl due to the constraining nature of their seats.  Nancy placed her hand on her mothers’ and tried to breathe deeply as the ship was released from its docking clamps.  It gave a terrible shutter, but quickly everything turned to peace as the slender vessel steered itself clear of the Mars Orbital.
Nancy looked at the display in front of her, which displayed camera feeds from all around the shuttle.  She tapped on one in particular, which provided a full-on view of the Mars Orbital.  She watched as her home, her life and everything she ever knew slowly drifted away and out of frame, possibly never to be seen again.
The vessel began rounding off towards Mars, using the smaller world’s gravity to build up sufficient speed.  But as Nancy and Mrs. Gale’s true journey home commenced, another journey was ending.  Well beyond the sensors of the Mars Orbital, away from all of mankind’s many prying eyes, a distortion formed in the tiniest point in space.  The very center of this distortion became dark with a ring of starlight encircling it.  Then, smaller than a pinpoint, a shape emerged, growing into its actual, relative size as its long body emerged.  The object was, perhaps, larger than a city bus, but jagged, angular, and completely black.  So black that it was camouflaged against the backdrop of the cosmos.  At its front was a long, sharp nose, like the proboscis of some strange, insect-like creature.  Clustered about the top of this point were many twitching, staring, red eyes that scanned it surrounding before focusing indelibly on Earth.
Earth was nothing more than a large, blue star in the distance, but this was its destination and it sped off at relativistic speeds.  Nothing would deter it from its mission and if all went right with its agendas, no one would ever know of its existence, right up to the very end.


                “Nikaniel Graham, I’ve had it with these bad reports from school.”  The older woman was leaning over her grandchild like a stooped gargoyle and gestured sharply with her finger.  The Graham family was a rather eclectic trio of African-descendent people, consisting of Granny Graham, the head of the household, her grandson Nikaniel, and her other grandson, Famous.  Neither Famous nor Nikaniel were related in the biological sense, they were cousins, but Famous had been adopted in after tragedy struck his own parents on another side of the family.  Nikaniel never tried to make heads or tails of his relation with the older boy, but the two got along well enough to avoid unnecessary drama.
                As the two boy sat, playing their Trideo games, Nikaniel sighed and steeled himself for the impending drama unfolding before his eyes.
                “What now, Granny?” the boy asked, putting his hands up defensively as the old woman pulled his Trideo  headset from his face.
                “You’ve been picking fights with that white kid again.  I told you not to do that!”
                “I’m not picking fights with him, he’s the one who’s got it in for me!  I got to protect myself!”
                “That’s what the school’s resource officer is for.  Don’t go dirtying your hands with anymore violence.  Violence doesn’t solve anything.”
                “Just wars,” Nikaniel rolled his eyes.
                “Nobody in this family is going to war.  But now that we got that out of the way, there’s something else I want you to do.”
                “It’s Famous’s turn to do the dishes.”
                “I’m not talking about those dishes, and incidentally it’s your turn to do them.  But that’s not what I want you to do right now.  This Friday I want you to look for a nice girl who’s new to your school.  She’s really cute and her name is Nancy Gale.”  Granny Graham pulled out her Handicomp and showed Nikaniel a picture of the girl.  Though Nikaniel did agree that she was cute, he furrowed his brow incredulously at the image since it appeared that the girl was at least six years old.
                “Why do I have to make friends with her?  She’s not going to my school.”
                “Why do you say that?”
                “Because she’s like a kindergartener or something.”
                “It’s an old photo!”
                “Still, I don’t know if I could be her friend.”
                “Why can’t you make friends with her?”
                “She’s a white Spacer and I’m a grounded street warrior, we don’t have anything in common.”
                “I don’t care if she’s got lobsters coming out of her ears, she’s moving here from Mars, she’s new to the community, and we’re going to be good neighbors.  Besides, they knew Aunty Vern on the orbital, they’re practically family.  And you’re going to help her finish enrolling in school.”
                “Why does she have to enroll?  School’s out in a month.”
                “Plenty of time for you to help her make friends.  I hear she’s a little off, but I just know if she’s got a handsome stud like you on her arm, she’ll make plenty of friends in that school.”
                “I’m not that popular,” Nikaniel shook his head and put his Trideo set back over his eyes.  His grandmother left the room to yell at Famous, allowing the boy time to ease back into his game.
                It was a cheap game that required him to view ads, many of which had so little to do with him or his interests that he wondered if they were worth enduring for the game.  This time, however, the ads displayed local news reports for Albertson North Carolina; the state of residence for the Grahams.  Familiar news anchors, Bob and Betty appeared before Nikaniel, beaming their fake smiles as they cozied up together on the studio’s broadcast couch.
                “Negotiations with the Jovians continue to struggle,” Bob said as Betty gazed into his eyes with so much phony adoration that Nikaniel wanted to vomit.
                “That’s right, Bob,” Betty said, turning her big, milky eyes and unnaturally white smile towards the viewers.  “Amid allegations of our solar neighbors building up ships near the asteroid belt, they refused to comment, save a cryptic message, which was damaged during an unexpected solar flare.  Officials say they will require some time to decode the message, but say that it seems to be regarding the stars.”
                “Sounds ominous,” Bob said, beaming an energetic smile.  “Almost as ominous as these weather patterns for the next few weeks!”
                Nikaniel mashed the “skip” option the second it appeared and was glad to find himself back in the midst of a tranquil fantasy world with his familiar weaponry at the ready.  As he fought against hordes of rather silly-looking monsters, the back of his mind troubled over the news report.  Despite what his teachers thought, he was aware of the hostilities in the news and knew about the Great Solar War, which could easily have spelled the end of all mankind.  He and his classmates rarely spoke of it, by Nikaniel knew they were all just as nervous as he was.  This was why they retreated so deeply into their games and fun, looking for any refuge they could find against the mounting madness all around them.  Madness that they as children had no way of combating or at the very least, changing.
                It was with no small amount of irony that Nikaniel regarded the upcoming Peace Day Festival, a celebration that marked the end of the Great Solar War.  These events always seemed to bring the community together, for however short a time, and he expected it to be the same as it had been all the days of his sixteen-year-old life.

*              *              *

Nancy’s shuttle approached high orbit around earth.  A journey that would have taken many months in the past century only lasted ten days.  Nancy and her mother had been asleep for much of the voyage and awoke groggy as the captain announced their arrival.  Looking at the display screen, Nancy and Mrs. Gale were almost overwhelmed by the sight of the Earth.  Humanity’s home for countless centuries still shone radiant and blue with its deep oceans and swirling white cloudscapes.  It almost appeared heavenly and hellish all at once for the young girl.  All of her nightmares from before the trip came flooding in and she prepared herself for the worst.
                It would be several minutes before the craft reached the proper side of the Earth where it was to be picked up by a retrieval craft.  Nancy laid back in her comfortable chair and tried to clear her mind of all thoughts.  The captain announced expected weather patterns upon their arrival at the Albertson Aerospace Station.  As Nancy listened to the captain’s voice she became aware that something was affecting it, as though he were distracted while still speaking.  Finally the ship’s commander paused a moment and said “what the hell is that?”
                “Nancy and Mrs. Gale looked at the display screen, selecting one of the outside feeds that clearly showed a glowing white mass flying just beyond the ship.
                The object matched their shuttle’s speed and appeared completely unmolested by the gentle buffeting of Earth’s outer envelope.  Then it began moving closer to the ship, which caused Nancy and her mother to gasp.  The feed from the cockpit was cut, leaving the two of them completely isolated.  Lights in the cabin flickered and eventually died out entirely, blanketing the narrow chamber in utter darkness that was only briefly punctuated by lights from various control panels and display monitors.  These also died out, along with the red emergency lights until Nancy and her mother were utterly invisible to each other.  They grasped for each other’s hands and panted, terrified and bewildered by what was happening.
                Then a stream of light penetrated the cabin before Nancy’s eyes.  The angle of the beam slowly adjusted until it was aimed right at Nancy’s stomach.  It climbed upwards until it centered almost directly between her eyes.  She shook nervously as the stream of light seemed to irritate her skin.  Then suddenly she was drawn inward, her mind completely losing focus until everything became null and void.
                Nancy awoke almost immediately after this, or rather it felt as though she had awoken only a moment later.  When her eyes opened she saw a bright room come into focus with her mother on her left, standing over her and running.  There were other people running alongside her as well and as she grew more aware of her surroundings she saw that she was laying flat on a robotic gurney and traversing a crowded hallway.  At first it seemed as though they were back in the Mars Orbital, but the gradual return of consciousness told her she was in a hospital.
                “She’s coming to,” a nurse said and Nancy’s mother squeezed her hand.
                A strange sensation shook Nancy to the core as her mother touched her hand, and the girl began to notice a sharp pain in her head.  She shook all over as pain swept through her person and the feelings of dread from an outside source mingled with her own fear.  Her mother let go of her hand as they reached a lift and the extra sensation of dread immediately left.  She still felt intense pain, but Nancy was glad when they came to an examination room where doctors had prepared scanning equipment.  A device was set over her head and the specialist working the equipment asked everyone in the room to silence themselves.
                “Are those infections in her brain?” Mrs. Gale asked when she saw the imaging software come into focus.
                “We’re not sure,” the doctor said.  “Her vitals seem to be returning to normal, but stress patterns indicate an acute migraine.  We’d like to keep her overnight for observation, but according to these readouts she should be on the mend.”
                “Thank you, doctor,” Mrs. Gale said, on the verge of tears.  “I’m just relieved our shuttle came in safely.  There were some electrical failures, but the captain brought us in safely.  They had argued about changing course and heading to the moon first, but the retrieval craft was right on time.”
                “You’re in good hands here in Albertson,” the doctor smiled.  “We have some of the best clinics in the Carolinas.  We’ll see to it nothing dangerous happens to your girl.”

*              *              *

Buried within miles of secluded woodland where scarcely any man had ever walked, a crater was formed by a falling object.  The flames that would have betrayed its arrival were rapidly extinguished by a projected force field.  With all fires and smoke snuffed out, the field dissipated and the object tilted itself aright so that its body stood straight up.  Being positioned in this manner, it began to dig down into the burnt soil, using a myriad of small, insect-like legs that clawed the earth all around it until it was fully lost within the depths of North Carolina’s mossy woodland floor.
Upon reaching bedrock, thousands of small tendrils extended from its body, piercing the soil and stone alike and synthesizing its minerals after the fashion of a living plant.  As it commenced this process, the interior of its body glowed brightly and expanded.  New features grew out of its strange, black exterior, including one especially menacing growth that rose back up through the hole it had dug to lower itself deeper into the earth.  This growth lanced its way back to the surface where it sprouted open like a hideous, mechanical flower.
An array of unknown design faced itself towards the sun and exuded energies that drowned out all light around itself.  A dull hum permeated the air, but was lost to the trees, seemingly to never alert humanity to the odd goings on in the midst of an endless pine forest.

*              *              *

Nancy and her mother arrived at their new home much later in the evening than either of them would have liked, but seeing the freshly constructed rambler brought no small amount of relief to the two females, even if it was an unfamiliar place.  As their unmanned taxi pulled up to the driveway, a second vehicle rounded the corner several blocks up the street.  This second vehicle was a rather obvious black van with no markings on its exterior.  Its two occupants watched Nancy and her mother, one of them through an old military scope affixed to the top of an even older rifle.  The short, fat man with the rifle adjusted the focus on the scope to get a better view of Mrs. Gale and was soundly swatted on the head by his tall, thin companion.  Both were young men, in their late twenties, but spoke to each other in rather juvenile, whining tones.  One was tall and healthy, wearing a neatly pressed suit, his companion the opposite: short, fat and wearing a suit that was long overdue for a cleaning.
                “Put that rifle away,” the tall, thin man said.  “We’re not assassinating them.”
                “I know that,” the short, fat man shouted.  “It’s the only scope I could find, because you wanted to leave the hotel so early.”
                “The boss wanted us here at noon!  So I got us here at noon!  And would you keep your disgusting food wrappers on your side?”  The tall, thin man pushed crinkled wrappers and empty bottles away from the driver’s side of the van, using a pen from his pocket.  He took great care to ensure that all the garbage belonging to his companion was evenly parted away from his side, effectively bisecting the interior of the van so that one half was immaculate and the other a disaster of refuse.
                “So what’s the deal with this one, Rasmussen?” the short, fat man asked, putting the rifle into the back of the van and groping behind his seat for an unopened can of soda.  “They don’t look like they got any money worth talking about, why are they so special?”
                “The boss told us it was none of our business, Larson,” the thin man groaned as he watched his companion slurp his drink noisily.  “We’re just supposed to watch and wait, and when the moment comes up, we make a quick grab and bring them back to the hideout.”
                “How long are we supposed to watch?”
                “That’s for me to know and you to shut up and just do what I say.”
                “Hold on, now that ain’t right, Rass-man, we’re a partnership and we’re supposed to share everything Even Steven.  You can’t be holding out on me.”
                “I can when the client says so.  He told me the fewer who know about our assignment, the better.”
                “That’s another thing, where did you pick up this bum’s job?  He could have hired anyone from the Net.”
                “He says he doesn’t trust some military jerks to handle this, and he doesn’t want anyone on the payroll of the government.  Not very trusting, this guy, but he means business.  That’s why we brought all that firepower.”
                “Yeah, I can’t wait to test out some of these puppies,” Larson smiled and dove into the back of the van where he unpackaged various weapons with all the delight of a gluttonous child in a candy store.  “We’ve got enough hardware back here to stop a small army!”
“Get back up here, you big tub of lard,” Rasmussen hissed.  “They’ve got their stuff out of the taxi and they’re going into the house, we’ll have to change positions.”

*              *              *

Nancy hesitated when her door opened, allowing the heavy, humid air to rush inside the vehicle and sweep over here.  Immediately she felt sticky from the damp Carolina weather and her ears were assaulted with the shrill chirping of insects.  So many other sounds permeated the otherwise calm scenery, perhaps hundreds of different kinds of animals and the wind sweeping through endless rows of pine trees.
                Perhaps what terrified the young girl the most was the expanse of sky over her head, with mountainous clouds looming overhead like an entirely different world moving along on a sluggish course.  As the breeze reached out to her once more she clutched her seat, refusing to obey her mother’s request to come with her.
                “What’s wrong?” Mrs. Gale asked, touching Nancy’s forehead.  “Is the headache getting worse?”
                “No,” Nancy shook her head stubbornly.  “I can’t go out.”
                “Why not?”
                “I don’t want to fall into the sky!”
                The cab driver laughed himself into a coughing fit as he fished around for his Handicomp.  Mrs. Gale was more than a little embarrassed but given everything she and her daughter had been through, she wanted to find a way to diffuse the situation.  Reaching into a piece of her luggage, she pulled out a large coat, which she draped over the top of Nancy’s head.
                “Come on, if you can’t see the sky, it won’t bother you.  Let’s go.”
                Nancy shivered with fear but allowed her mother to pull her from the vehicle with the coat acting as a strange canopy.  The two dragged their luggage as soon as Mrs. Gale paid the cab driver.  The walkway to the front door was not long and as soon as Nancy saw the brass-colored kickplate of the entry way, she bolted for the house and crouched under the front awning.
                “See?” Mrs. Gale said, smiling timidly.  “You didn’t fall into the sky.  It’s not like the space station, we are pulled toward the core, not away.  You’ll get used to living under an atmosphere, then you can play and have fun in wide open spaces that even the Trideo arcades can’t match.”
                “I don’t want to play outside,” Nancy squeaked, having avoided the mere notion of wandering around under the blue and white haze.  “Please tell me there are tunnels leading to the school.”
                “There’s a beautiful walkway behind the house.  It cuts between two neighborhoods and opens into a big, beautiful park.  You should be lucky, long ago this all used to be farmland with hardly any houses or businesses around.  These days, Albertson has everything: shopping plazas, theaters, community parks and recreation sites, and the forest goes on forever!  I know it’s a bit warmer than we’re used to, but we’ll get used to it.  I’m certain Albertson will be an even greater, more memorable home to us than the Mars Orbital ever was.  And you know what?  There’s a lot more kids your age!  You’ll have so many friends your calendar will be full just to play with half of them.”
                “I miss my old friends,” Nancy grimaced.
                “Sometimes we have to make new friends.  Which reminds me, we haven’t seen the surprise your father has waiting for us.”
                Mrs. Gale opened the front door and Nancy bolted inside.  The house was dark, having all of its blinds down with tall boxes lining all of the walls.  The young girl ran inside so quickly that she nearly bumped into the oddly shaped child standing in the middle of their new living room!  She screamed and fell backwards into her mother, but quickly realized that there was no child in the room.
                “Say hello to Boot,” Mrs. Gale said and quickly palmed the light panel, illuminating the interior of their new home.
                The short figure standing in the middle of the living room had a large, bulbous head, two trunk-like arms equipped with small manipulators, a broad torso and two stout legs.  The entirety of its body was encased in a durable exoskeleton and it seemed to stare back at them with two, bulbous eyes, which were shut tight behind dome-like eyelids.  The height of the robot fell several inches shorter than Nancy, but its girth made it seem as though it possibly weighed twice as much.
                “Does it work?” Nancy asked, walking around the robot with as much fascination as a toddler who had just discovered a new bug.
                “Naturally your father wouldn’t give us a broken robot.  He said he custom-built many of its components and personally programmed all of its major functions.  He says he hopes the robot will serve us as well as protect us.”
                “Protect us?” Nancy said, managing a smile while still focusing on the robot.  “I guess from very small threats, like vicious cats or dust bunnies.”
                “Why don’t we turn it on and see what it’s capable of?”
                Mrs. Gale pulled out her Handicomp and immediately accessed the robot’s control hub.  After verifying her thumb print and biometric indicators, the option to activate Boot was made available.  Mashing her thumb down on the “startup sequence” icon, the robot suddenly came to life with dozens of small lights, which blinked intermittently as it ran its own self diagnostics.
                After several long moments and a dozen strange noises, the robot opened its eyes a tiny bit so that it squinted at them like an old man with puffy eyelids.  After looking the two women over it gave them a short bow.
                “Welcome home, Mrs. and Miss Gale,” the robot said, speaking in a monotone, buzzing voice that reminded them of ancient science fiction films.  “I am Boot, your personal house assistant.  It will be my pleasure to serve you.  Do you have anything that needs to be killed?”
                “Oh dear,” Mrs. Gale said and frantically shook her head at the diminutive robot.  “I don’t understand, when my husband said you were here to serve and protect, I wasn’t under the impression that he had put some kind of combat subroutines…”
                “I was programmed with a joke,” Boot replied.  “Some of Dr. Gale’s associates thought it would be humorous to alarm you.”
                “I’m not amused,” Mrs. Gale said, frowning at the robot and half considering shutting it down.
                “I like him,” Nancy said, looking into the robot’s squinty eyes.  Knowing that her father had personally created the robot allowed her to connect with it in a strange way, as though it were somewhere between being a pet or a family member.  She carefully prodded one of its tube-like arms and marveled at how subtly it counterbalanced itself and remained standing in place.
                “See?” Mrs. Gale said, putting her Handicomp away and moving towards the boxes piled along the wall.  “Now that we have a new family member, perhaps the three of us can tackle all the furnishings.  We should have everything we need in here.”
                “I will locate a box cutter,” Boot said and began running off in a peculiar, teetering fashion, like an awkward toddler.
                “That won’t be necessary,” Mrs. Gale called after it, not ready to dismiss its earlier remarks about finding things to kill.

*              *              *

Nikaniel was well beyond exhausted with his morning routine of arising early, forcing down a cold breakfast and dashing out the door.  This morning his cousin Famous was up early, which Nikaniel found quite odd given the older boy’s propensity towards staying up late every night on the Net to play his games.  What was stranger was how well groomed Famous appeared, even having trimmed and rewoven his hair, giving him a much neater appearance than normal.
                “What’s up with you?” Nikaniel asked.  “New girlfriend?”
                “No,” Famous said dourly.  “We’re having a career fair this morning and I need a good summer program to help with college.”
                “The Goodness! stand is hiring,” Nikaniel shrugged.  “They’re also looking for cashiers at the Quigley’s.”
                “Those are teenager jobs,” Famous pouted.  “I need something I can really sink my teeth into.”
                “I told you,” Granny Graham said, entering the room in her bath robe and curlers.  The sight of her in the mornings always seemed discouraging to the two boys as it always seemed to remind them of gravity’s inevitable victory over the human body.  “Join the Air Force.  That’s what your grandpa did and it opened a lot of opportunities for him.”
                “I thought he was a custodian in the Air Force,” Nikaniel asked.
                “That was a part time job to help pay for my wedding ring,” Granny Graham scolded the boy.  “Nothing was beneath him and he eventually worked his way up.  But this house is all that’s left of his legacy.”  Nikaniel looked around.  Though the house was small, it was immaculate and well furnished: his grandmother always took care of everything she had, as though worried it would all molder and decay before her very eyes.  “But Nikaniel, you’d better hurry and go to school.  That neighbor girl will be coming late today and it would be nice if you could wait for her and show her around.  I already called that nice lady at ISS and she said it was okay if you missed Home Room.”
                “Isn’t she that mean Pakistani lady who always yells at kids,” Famous chimed in.  His expression thereafter immediately revealed his realization that he should have kept his mouth quiet.
                “She’s a lovely young woman who has to carry her voice over all you rotten chowderheads!” Granny Graham said in retaliation.  “The fact that she runs a tight ship should mean a lot to you and the school.  Too many teachers put up with childish nonsense in the halls.  I wish she would be even tougher, especially on those nasty boys who ran through the halls in their skivvies.  Talk about shameful.”
                “Guess I’ll go,” Nikaniel said, putting on his Inline Skids and dashing out the door before he could hear more of Granny Graham’s lecture.
                The morning air was heavy and cool, and the moist wind felt good as Nikaniel pulled out his Handicomp and steered himself and his shoes down the sidewalk.  The paving was crooked, causing him to take short jumps as he was propelled along by the small motors in his Skids.  Eventually he reached the student paths, which were nice and flat, allowing for greater speed.  He weaved between several classmates, which seemed like permanent obstacles after one year of following the same routine.
                With the park in view he slowed down, knowing that patrolling security always watched for reckless behavior among the students transitioning from the neighborhoods to the school.  He couldn’t see any black and white cars, but a large, black van was plainly in view, parked alongside the manicured grass.  This stuck out to Nikaniel as he had never seen the vehicle in his neighborhood before.  What was more, he could swear to have seen two men tussling on the inside, and the vehicle rocked side to side for a moment before becoming still once more.
                Not wanting to know what was going on, the youth zipped along the path until he was in the school building.  While he waited for Nancy Gale’s arrival, he logged into the school’s Net with his Handicomp and checked his assignments.  Several were past due, but he didn’t’ care.  His only concern was learning the schedule for next year’s basketball tryouts.  He hated that he was too short at the start of the year to join, and he would have to wait until after summer vacation to apply during the next semester.
                An alarm that Granny Graham had sent to his Handicomp went off, letting him know to expect Nancy at any moment.  He waited around the school’s front vestibule, watching for the girl’s car.  He didn’t expect anything to come of meeting this girl, just another uninteresting white girl who would probably join in with the rest of the flocks of white girls as soon as she had arrived.  He wondered when she would finally arrive.  Several cars stopped at the front of the building and let out late students, most of which seemed to be lugging heavy musical equipment.
Finally, a small, grey car pulled up and sat there for what felt like an hour.  Nikaniel could see two people in the vehicle talking, one smaller and apparently frantic about something.  He wondered what was wrong when suddenly the passenger door opened and a girl, very close to his age, came bolting out as though expecting her car to explode at any moment.  She fumbled with the front door, apparently forgetting that it opened out, and rushed inside, pulling it closed behind her.
The auburn-haired girl leaned against a column and panted, avoiding eye contact with the few scattered people wandering the front of the school.  Then she looked up and made eye-contact with Nikaniel.  This girl wasn’t anything at all like what he had expected.  She was very pretty and seemed terrified of everything, like a small child lost at the mall.  He remembered his grandmother telling him that she had lived her whole life on the Mars Orbital and knew that spacers could be strange, but as he looked at her, he suddenly understood his grandmother’s sense of urgency in finding her a friend.
“You’re Nancy Gale, right?” he asked, speaking in a low voice and approaching her like he would a fidgety squirrel in the park.  “I’m Nikaniel, my grandmother said you needed help checking in.”
“Thank you,” Nancy said, shaking his hand.  She nearly gasped at how strong his grip was, but remembered hearing somewhere that grounders, especially Earth born, were much stronger than most spacers.
“Sorry,” Nikaniel said, releasing her hand after seeing her flinch.
“It’s okay,” Nancy said.  “I’m already registered, but could you help me find my classes?  This school is a lot bigger than the one in my last district.”
“If you have a list of your classes, you could ask HELEN.”
“Who’s she?  Which office is she in?”
“Oh, she’s not a person.  She’s a holo-whatsit the school had put in.  I think she’s more annoying than the last one, but she’s a lot easier to use.”
The pair approached a wall terminal where Nancy pulled out her Handicomp.  After pairing off with it for a moment, a new icon appeared on her dashboard.  The icon was in the shape of an animated hamster wearing a pair of oversized spectacles.  She clutched an ancient book in one paw and waved the other excitedly.  When Nancy pressed on the icon, the character enlarged and spoke to her in an annoyingly energetic tone.
“Welcome to Albertson High!  I’m HELEN: the Helpful Electronic Linguistic and Education Navigator!  Do you need help finding a classroom or joining a club?”
Nancy brought up her list of classrooms and saw that her first class was English.  “Could you help me find Mrs. Horsley’s room?”
“Just a moment!” Helen said and opened her book, flipping through the pages at lightning speed.  Nikaniel rolled his eyes and faced away as Nancy waited patiently for the program to finish loading the navigation software.  Or at least she thought it was loading navigation software.
“The library has several docs on horsemanship!  Would you like to register for a library card?”
“No,” Nancy said, almost frantic.  “I need to find Mrs. Horsley’s class!”
“Don’t bother,” Nikaniel sighed.  “I can show you where that is, it’s just a floor above mine.”
“Thank you,” Nancy said, blushing.  “Could you…help me find my other classes too?  When first period is over?”
“Oh, sure,” Nikaniel said, feeling the blood rush to his face.
They hadn’t gone far when they crossed paths with another boy.  He was tall, pale and had hair the color of coal.  He leered at Nancy and smiled menacingly, projecting ill intentions that cut through Nancy’s mind like cold ice.  She could almost see the thoughts he was having in his head, which made hers ache.  So vile was this boy’s countenance that she nearly fainted right beside Nikaniel.
“New girl?” the boy asked, sounding masculine and engaging, though his enthusiasm may as well be shared by every predator stalking their prey.
“Yes, Andrew,” Nikaniel said, looking at the boy sternly.  “Why don’t you go back to ISS with the rest of the criminals.”
“I just want to see what just hit the market,” the boy said and extended his foot to lift the hem of Nancy’s skirt.  Nikaniel kicked his foot away, causing Andrew to take on a stance that Nancy recognized from martial arts movies.  The feelings she detected from him seemed to intensify and darken all at once, filling her with a sense of danger.  This Andrew boy was like a missile nearing its target and she didn’t want to be in the blast radius.  But Nikaniel placed himself between Nancy and the danger.
“Something wrong?” a woman’s voice issued from a recently opened door.  Nancy saw a tall, thin woman of middle-eastern linage glaring at Nikaniel and Andrew.  As Nancy looked at her, she sensed that the woman was tired, but ready to spring into action like a bear trap.  What’s going on?  Nancy couldn’t understand why she was feeling these things about people all of the sudden.
“Nothing’s wrong, Mrs. Baqri,” Andrew said, straightening up and calming down.  Nancy could feel that Andrew’s anger was turned towards the woman, but he also seemed to fear her in a practical manner, as though she had the power to affect change in his life, and not in ways that were particularly meaningful to him.
“Why aren’t any of you in class?  Home room doesn’t end for another ten minutes.”  Mrs. Baqri’s accent made her sound feminine, but powerful all at once and Nancy felt instant awe in the woman, feeling a lot of pain and joy behind her words.
“My grandma called you,” Nikaniel scrambled for words.  “I’m supposed to help Nancy find her classes and whatnot.”
“That’s right,” she smiled briefly.  “Thank you for helping her, Nikaniel.  And say hi to your cousin.  Famous, isn’t it?”  Nikaniel nodded and smiled: he remembered hearing his grandmother get after Famous for being in ISS with Mrs. Baqri all the time.  “Well, get to it.  Mr. Payne, you should hurry as well.  And if I see anything untoward in the security feeds for this hallway, we may have to schedule another meeting with your parents.”
Andrew stormed away, but not before casting his scowl at Nikaniel and Nancy.
The pair waited until he was fully out of sight before moving on.  As they walked, Nancy slowly reached for Nikaniel’s hand.  When he felt contact with her he was somewhat surprised, but cooly took her hand in his.  Nancy felt relieved to have someone strong to guide her through this new, confusing world she found herself in.  What was more, as they walked, she was amazed to sense that he would have withstood whatever violence Andrew Payne was ready to inflict upon him.
But how was she sensing these things?  Before they reached her first class, her head began swimming with a feeling like insects buzzing.  Things she had never felt before were swirling around her and all she could do to block it out was lay her head on her desk and grit her teeth.

*              *              *

In the confines of the universe everlasting, two signals pulsed along the chords of infinity, which stretch inexorably from one point of the cosmos to the next.  Breaching the mantle of space and time, the voices were joined: one tiny and seemingly insignificant speck conversing with its master: something whose intelligence and purpose spanned from everlasting to everlasting, a creeping shadow full of secrets, which at one point had existed everywhere, now fills a crucible of technology so advanced and so sinister that its workings cannot be comprehended by the feeble minds of humanity.
                “Construction of array complete, awaiting the will to activate.”
                “Confirmed: the seed has been sewn and ready to bloom. Proceed at minimal power and increase by one percent every one tenth of a rotation.  Make certain that none of the native inconsequentials are ever appraised of the bloom.  Report back with data on their reactions, then await further instruction.”
                “Acknowledged, proceeding with the bloom as ordered.”
                “Keep all proceedings in secret: slay all who interfere and let none report back to organized body of inconsequentials.”
                Upon the closing of the dialogue, the small grain of intelligence began disturbing the waters of consciousness, creating ripples that began to irritate a small community of people, deep in the Carolina forests.

Nancy rocked back and forth on her feet as she waited by the front vestibule for Nikaniel.  She had never seen so many students in one building before, though the Albertson High School was large and she supposed you needed a larger building to handle a larger student body.  In spite of the students’ eagerness to return home at the end of the day, Nancy felt tension buzzing around like insects.  It had started quite suddenly and she was beginning to see the effects of it: students and teachers appeared more sensitive to one another, some shouting and arguing over the slightest trespasses.  One girl in particular threw a punch right into the face of her friend when the other suggested wearing clothing that didn’t match the trash cans in the hall.
                Nancy couldn’t believe her eyes and wondered if this was normal on Earth.  She had also overheard students discussing a rumor about other kids seeing a strange shadow up in the ceiling.  Some claimed it was probably just a digital shirt that someone had thrown up into the rafters.  Nancy thought this was an odd explanation as the digital shirts worn by students usually displayed flashy animations of their favorite shows or bands.  It made the girl want to check out the cafeteria herself, but her worries compelled her to remain in place.
When Nikaniel arrived she felt better.  Each time the front doors opened with torrents of students exiting the building, the young girl had hidden herself away, fearing that the gusts of wind would draw her out of the building and suck her straight up into the sky.  Having Nikaneil there allowed her to push past these fears, which she realized more and more were just plain silly.  Still, being outside terrified her, and the only thing distracting her from this was the pain surging through her head.
                “Let’s go,” Nikaniel growled.  Nancy’s smile quickly melted as she followed him.  Something was different about him as well.
                They reached the park where they saw two boys throwing down and fighting.  What they were fighting about was unknown to Nikaniel and Nancy, but it drew a crowd of students who were practically foaming at the mouth as they watched.  Something was definitely wrong with everyone and Nancy began to fear more and more.  The buzzing in her head reached new heights and pain spread throughout her mind and body, causing her to drop to her knees.  Nikaniel saw her and wanted to be angry about this, wondering how she could be so stupid to just crouch down near a crowd of rowdy students.
                Shouts from teachers reached the mob of excitable students and as the fight was broken up amid mounting screams and hostility.  As Nikaniel witnessed this and examined his own thoughts, he felt truly horrified.  How could I be mad at Nancy?  She didn’t do anything wrong.  He looked down at her, watching the frail young girl clutch her head and cry.  Feeling compassion return to his troubled mind, he helped her to her feet.
                “Please take me home,” she pleaded feebly, and Nikaniel was more than happy to oblige.
                They pressed on, avoiding angry students along the path that bisected the neighborhoods.  Nikaniel wished he could speed out of there quicker on his Inline Skids, but feared that Nancy would not be able to keep up.  Her migraine continued to intensify, right up until they reached her home.  Nikaniel knocked on the door and looked over his shoulder as he heard two cars crash into each other.  Mrs. Gale opened the door as the two drivers got out and proceeded to scream at each other.
                “Nancy, you’re home early,” Mrs. Gale said, dabbing her eyes with a kerchief.
                “Are you okay?” Nikaniel asked.  “School’s been out for ten minutes.  It’s Friday.”
                “Oh, right,” Mrs. Gale said, holding back more tears.
                “Nancy might be sick,” Nikaniel said, helping the girl into the house.
                “Probably stress from the day,” Mrs. Gale sobbed.  “Boot, could you run her a hot bath?”
                “I will do as you ask,” Boot said in its bland, unaffected robotic tone.  Nikaniel was about to enter the house with them, worried about the condition the two women were in, but the stocky robot blocked his way.  “Please leave the premises immediately.”
                “You don’t tell me what to do,” Nikaniel said, scowling at the robot.  Boot tilted its eyelids so that it appeared to have a scowl to match the boy’s, and with a flourish of its arms, it pushed him clear of the entrance and slammed the door shut.
                “I hate that robot,” Nikaniel said, balling up his fists and heading home.  As the distant air rang with car horns, the boy shook his head and wondered what was happening to his town.  And what had happened to him?

*              *              *

                “Another beautiful morning, right Bob?  Pity the viewers have to have the gorgeous peace and tranquility broken by your lopsided head, which must be absolutely protruding through their Trideo displays.”
                “You can go to Hell, Betty!  You and that fat horse you rode in on, oh, my mistake, those wrinkly old saddlebags must be your thighs!”
                “What a wonderful anecdote about your mother, did you write it this morning with a crayon?  Next we have a traffic report that our viewers will be too dense to understand!”
                The anchors for the local news had smiles plastered over their faces and spoke in professional tones, but the twitching and redness of their skin betrayed their true feelings of hostility.  Nikaniel watched the news with his mouth agape and milk from his last spoonful of cereal dribbling down his chin.  His cousin Famous and Granny Graham were shouting at each other in the other room, but the younger boy had been so distracted by the news report.  As he turned his attention to his relatives, he was further disturbed by the focus of their argument.
                “Famous, for the last time, don’t shave between your eyebrows!  It makes you look like your eyes are too far apart!  Do you want people thinking you’re some kind of fish-headed boy?”
                “I don’t look like a fish!  Leave me alone!  Let go of my razor!”
                “Stop shaving!  Nikaniel, get in here and pick up your towel!”
                “I need to go to school now!” Nikaniel called back with a dangerous edge to his voice.  He was shocked as he realized his emotions were somehow dragging him into the argument and when he looked down at his hand, which grasped his spoon, he saw a line of blood run down his palm.  “Why am I holding this so tight?”  He tossed the spoon in the sink and went to get a bandage.
                Suddenly there was a frantic knock at the front door, as though some lunatic were trying to break into their house.  Nikaniel grabbed the closest weapon he could find, a large, wooden spoon, and cautiously approached the door.
                “Nikaniel, get the door and come pick up this towel!”
                “I am opening the door!” Nikaniel called back, feeling a viciousness enter back into his head.  He opened the door and held the spoon out threateningly at the person on the other side.  “Nancy?”
                Nancy was indeed standing at the door and looked at him holding the spoon towards her like a knife.  Her eyes were wide and stained with tears, and just beyond her the street was choked with people’s cars, which had been abandoned by their drivers.  People were arguing all around them, as though the entire world were out of control.
                “Please,” Nancy said, grabbing Nikaniel by the arm.  “My mom, I don’t know what to do.”
                “How did you find my house?”
                “I looked it up in the neighborhood directory.  Please, I don’t know what to do.  Everyone’s going insane.”
                Granny Graham and Famous appeared behind Nikaniel, both tense and shaking with rage, but when they saw Nancy they became almost transfixed.  Though terrified, her presence was strangely southing and her words almost hypnotic.
                “What’s wrong with her?” Nikaniel asked.
                “I don’t know,” furrowed her brow.  Tears cascaded down her cheeks and she turned around to run towards her home.
                The three Grahams followed after, growing steadily conscious of the chaos afflicting their neighborhood.  A din was rising in the air and they all gasped at seeing a faint column of smoke in the distance.  Was the entire world falling apart?  They all wondered as they reached Nancy’s house.  A delivery truck was crashed against a light pole, which had fallen into the Gale’s yard and lay in a twisted heap, blinking on and off.  Nancy hurried inside and asked Boot to let the Grahams into her house.
                Inside they found Mrs. Gale sobbing uncontrollably and shaking, her skin pale and hair in an upheaval from being pulled at.  Granny Graham and Famous helped lift the woman onto her couch.  The older woman gently shook Nancy’s mother while patting her on the cheek.
                “There now, what’s gotten into you?”
                “My rabbit,” Mrs. Gale sobbed and launched into a torrent of slurred speech they could barely understand, only catching glimpses of reason in her tangled ramblings.  “…had put down…why did he leave us?  He’s with another woman!”
                “Dad?” Nancy asked.
                “Pay it no mind,” Granny Graham said.  “Famous, go get a cup of water.  Nikaniel, go…do something.”
                Everyone was at a loss.  Nothing made sense anymore.  Nancy wracked her mind, which still burned from the day before.  The intensity of the migraine had dulled, but she was always in pain now.  She went to the window and cried for several moments.  Granny tried to get Mrs. Gale to drink the water brought in by Famous, but the distraught woman wouldn’t drink.  After several failed attempts, the water fell to the floor, the bulk of it forming a puddle in the middle of the living room.
                “Nikaniel, why don’t you get a towel and mop this up?”
                Nancy turned and looked at the water.  When Nikaniel stomped past it, she saw its surface ripple before gradually absorbing into the carpet.  An image formed in Nancy’s mind of ripples and she pondered this.  Looking again out the window, she closed her eyes and felt the patterns of her migraine.  Something was pulsing in the distance, and with each burst of energy, she felt the disturbances.  The ripples she sensed were fast and faint, but the more she concentrated, the easier it was to see.  Though she could not discern where these disturbances were coming from, she knew it wasn’t natural and that it must have something to do with the chaos plaguing their town.
                Another idea came into Nancy’s mind.  She approached her mother and held the woman’s head close to her chest.  Breathing in deeply, she concentrated on her mother’s mind and was startled when she felt her turmoil!  Images, however faint, flashed through Nancy’s head.  Images of her mother clutching a rabbit with small, childlike hands.  Images of her grandfather, a younger man, taking the rabbit away, and grandmother, also younger, explaining that the rabbit had to be put down because it was sick.
                Nancy pulled herself away from her mother and looked at Nikaniel and Granny Graham with utter bewilderment.
                “What’s wrong?” Granny Graham asked.
                “I can read her thoughts!” Nancy cried.
                “What?” Famous said, standing in the corner of the room where he had his hands jammed down his pockets and wiggled his feet.
                “I don’t know how, it must have been that light…we should go to the school!”
                “What’s at the school?” Nikaniel asked, still trying to push past the idea that the new girl in town was telepathic.
                “I don’t know, I feel something…disturbing the air.  I think it’s affecting everyone and I overheard some kids talk about some kind of shadow in the cafeteria.  It might be connected.  We have to go, but first…”
                Nancy turned back to her mother and tried to project her thoughts into the older woman’s mind.  She worried about damaging the now frantic state of her memories and felt deeper.  Not knowing what to do, she tried to exude calmness.  This seemed to work and the Grahams gasped as her mother stopped muttering and slumped over on the couch.
                Everyone watched her, fearing the very worst.  Only Nancy smiled and was not at all surprised when her mother began snoring softly.  She had accidentally triggered sleep instead of calm, but at least for the time, the woman was at peace.

*              *              *

                “You blubber pot,” Rasmussen shouted at his partner.  Their arguing and tussling caused their black van to rock back and forth, but everyone beyond their tinted windows was too wrapped up in their own anger and hostilities to pay it any mind.  “Thanks to you and your stupid brain, which happens to be incredibly stupid, we lost the girl again!”
                “Why am I the only one who has to watch out for her?” Larson retaliated, pushing the tall, thin man away.  “You could open your damn eyes once in a while, if you weren’t too busy eyeing ever twenty-year-old butt whipping past your window.”
                “Shut up, you big tub of lard.  Why are you so fat?”
                “Why are you so lame-brained?”
                “Tubby!”
                “Lame Brain!”
                Both men reached into their holsters and drew pistols on each other.  Each weapon was trained on each man’s forehead, trembling from the tightness of their respective grips.  Indication lights atop each receiver told them that the power cells were dead.  Eventually they both noticed this and began chuckling nervously.
                “Guess I forgot to charge them last night after we spent time at the shooting range,” Larson laughed, putting his gun back into its holster.
                “I don’t know what’s gotten into me,” Rasmussen said, also putting his weapon away.  “It’s like everything annoys me right now.”
                “I know, right?” Larson shouted, clapping him on the shoulder.  “It’s like, every word that comes out of your mouth just pisses me off and makes me want to cram a rolled-up newspaper down your throat!”
                “And every new stain you leave in the upholstery makes me want to beat you over the head with a sock full of nails!”  Both men laughed until hoarse, and after lengthy coughing spasm, they began eyeing each other suspiciously once more.
                “You could have remembered to bring some water,” Larson choked the words through his strained throat.
                “You could have remembered to bring your brain,” Rasmussen said, also wheezing.
                After glaring at each other for several more moments, the men caught sight of a familiar auburn-haired girl running by.  She was accompanied by a strange black youth that neither had seen before, and a short robot trailed close behind, flashing emergency lights from its head.
                “That’s her!” Rasmussen gasped.  “Let’s get a move on.  This time, make sure you grab a gun that doesn’t have a dead energy cell.”

*              *              *

Nancy and Nikaniel halted in their tracks immediately after passing through the front entrance to Albertson High.  There weren’t many people here, but the few that were had fallen into a state of utter mayhem.  Teachers, students and office staff were exhibiting every kind of irrational behavior, some laughing hysterically, others arguing and some had merely slumped to the ground where they either cried or stared off into space.
                “What do we do?” Nancy asked.
                “This is your idea,” Nikaniel reminded her.  “Didn’t you want to check out the cafeteria?”
                Before Nancy could respond, Andrew Payne suddenly appeared from behind a column and took a wild swing.  Nikaniel had been so flummoxed by the state of his school that he couldn’t bring himself to dodge the blow, which landed soundly on the side of his face.  He reeled away and ducked as Andrew threw a second punch.  Nancy grabbed the crazed bully by his leg but was kicked so hard in the stomach by his free foot that she collapsed into a heap.
                Nikaniel snarled at Andrew as Nancy gasped for breath, the pain drawing her body together like a steel coil.  Knowing that words were useless against the troubled boy, Nikaniel simply shoved him into a corner and cocked his fist back, ready to rain blows upon him.
                “Don’t,” Nancy wheezed.  “Let me try.”
                She approached Andrew Payne who stared at her with eyes bulging to intensely that she worried he would tear his own face.  She felt a lot of pain in him and reached out with her thoughts as she had done with her mother.  More images flashed through her head: recollections of a boy, through many stages of his young life, perceiving acts of violence by a large man, a man who resembled Andrew Payne.  Nancy could not believe the memories she witnessed, each one a cascade of one abusive episode to the next.  Andrew was a wounded animal, caught up in a labyrinth of burning and anguish that he was running through in a mad exodus to find any kind of relief.
                Nancy could bare no more and simply shut his mind down, plunging him into a deep sleep.
                Exiting his memories, Nancy slouched and let her head fall into her hands.
                “Looks like it worked,” Nikaniel said, watching the once demented Andrew sleeping fitfully as a child.  “Are you okay?”
                “Don’t be mad at him,” she said through her hands.  “Just… feel sorry for him.”
                Feel sorry for Andrew Payne?  Nikaniel couldn’t understand why she would say that and simply chalked it up to her apparent naivete.  Yet, looking at her brushing more tears away and walking shakily beside him made him wonder what exactly she had seen.  Is she really telepathic?
                “Are all the girls on the Mars Orbital like you?” Nikaniel asked halfway through their trek to the lunch room.  “You know, all third eye and psychotic?”
                “I think you mean psionic.  No, this just started happening when my mom and I came to Earth.  There was a glowing object outside our shuttle and it hit me with something.  Some kind of ray.  I’ve been having headaches ever since.”
                “Maybe the Jovians are attacking.  Maybe they’re messing with everyone’s heads so they can take over.”
                “I don’t think it’s the Jovians.  Nobody could do all this.  At least I hope they couldn’t.”
                The pair entered the lunch room, which appeared to have been evacuated in a desperate hurry.  Tables and chairs were flipped over and scattered across the floor, and students’ backpacks littered the corners of the room.  Nancy looked all around, feeling with her mind.  She shook her head, realizing that this was not the source of the heinous ripples that stirred everyone into chaos, yet there was something there.
                As Nikaniel dug through overturned chairs, Nancy slowly looked up to the ceiling where she immediately felt the presence of something very small, yet rooted powerfully, like a plant that ran deep underground.  The air in the corner of the ceiling changed as she watched and suddenly several red eyes peeked down at her, as though looking through a shroud.
                “There’s something there,” Nancy said, pointing out the anomaly to Nikaniel.
                 Both stood and watched as the body belonging to the many eyes began to consolidate into one dark, menacing shape.  Like a black hornet the size of a German Shepherd, the creature grasped at the interior architecture of the building, tearing through metals and plastics with barbed talons as though tearing through paper.  It slowly walked along the ceiling, moving directly above them, then passing over to an opposite wall where it climbed down to the floor.  Long, slender wings buzzed and irritated the air with a horrible sound and mandibles writhed below its eye-clustered head.
                “What is that?” Nikaniel asked.
                “It looks like an insect, like it’s alive, but I think it’s a machine,” Nancy said and watched as a drill-like appendage extended from its mouth like a curious tongue.
                Examinations cannot confirm, a voice penetrated Nancy’s mind.  How can this inconsequential perceive our location?  We require specific data.
                “What do you mean?” Nancy asked, drawing a confused look from Nikaniel.
                “I didn’t say anything,” he replied and worried that Nancy was going mad from the encounter.
                The other inconsequential cannot perceive our words, how can this one?  The female must be brought back for examination to confirm our hypothesis.  Suddenly, the giant wasp lunged forward, grasping Nancy in its forelegs.  In the blink of an eye, Nikaniel picked up a chair and slammed it down on the creature’s wings just as it started ascending.  The crippled appendages crinkled and struggled to maintain altitude, so Nikaniel brought the chair down on them one more time, crushing the head of the creature.
                Nancy kicked it away and both watched horrified as it staggered about, dripping silvery liquid from its wounds, which sparked with electricity and instantaneously burned when it contacted the floor.  Sparks showered all around it as it crawled desperately for one of the windows.  Before climbing out of the school, it looked back on Nancy and Nikaniel, staring hard with its remaining eyes.  In an instant it was gone, launching out into the open air and vanishing, leaving a trail of burning puddles behind as the only evidence of its existence.
                “What was that stuff?” Nikaniel said, blowing on his hands as he realized that a speck of the creature’s silvery blood had touched one of his fingers.  “Now I’ve got a hole burned in my skin!”
                “It could talk to me,” Nancy said, shaking.  “Let’s get out of here, please?  I want to go home.”
                “Are you okay?”
                “My headache is gone,” the girl shrugged.  “But I’m worried about mom.”
                “Guess I’m worried about Granny too.  And Famous.  But what should we do about that bug?  I think it was heading to the woods, on the East side.  At least I think that’s East.”  Nikaniel sighed: he could never be sure what direction anything was in when it came to navigating the endless forests of the Carolinas.

*              *              *

                “What a wasted day, all because everyone went crazy,” Rasmussen said, speaking blearily through intense pain in his head.  The two couldn’t be sure what had happened, but at the height of their rage, the desire to destroy one another faded away, leaving behind a glaring pain in their heads to rival the heaviest night of binge drinking.
                “Guess we should call it in, right?” Larson asked, massaging his temples and handing a cold bottle of water to his partner.
                “No, the boss only paid us a quarter in advance, I want the rest of that money.  We know where she lives, I say we change the paint on the van and just park across the street.  I don’t care if they see us anymore.”
                “Can we paint it to look like an ice cream truck?”
                “Why?”
                “Then we would have a reason to keep ice cream in here.  I’m starving.”
                “You would be, you big piece of crap.”
                “But, you know, Rasmussen?”
                “Wh-a-a-a-a-t?” the thin man said, drawing his voice out in an angsty stammer.
                “I sure am glad we made it: this is the scariest job we’ve ever worked, you know?  Makes me wonder if it’s at all worth it.”
                “For 50K?  Maybe it is, but if we end up having to kill someone, he better double it.  I’m not getting a new background again.”

*              *              *

Mrs. Baqri was the first adult to come out of the haze of anger that afflicted the entire community.  As she rubbed her brow, she noticed Nancy and Nikaniel slowly walk from the cafeteria, each looking exhausted and tense.  The older Pakistani woman approached them, eyes full of concern.
                “Do either of you need me to call your parents?” she asked, the stress in her tone strengthening her accent so much that both students had to stop and decipher what she had said.
                “No,” Nancy said, “we’re fine.  Are any students or teachers hurt?”
                “A few, but nothing serious.  You two should head on home, the principal’s trying to call the police, but everyone in the city is either unavailable or too busy to answer.”
                Nancy looked apologetically at Mrs. Baqri, sensing fear mounting in her.  It struck the girl for the first time that adults were almost as powerless as students, especially in these situations, and at their core, they were just as frightened and confused as any child.  Nancy hugged the older woman and thanked her.
                “Maybe you should get home and rest too.  Your stepson is probably just as worried about everything as you are.”
                Mrs. Baqri cupped her hand over her mouth and sobbed at the thought of this.  Nikaniel and Nancy walked towards the front vestibule, weaving through the spaced and distraught students that still remained in the building.  The SSI teacher turned to grab her belongings, but stopped suddenly.  She just got to this school, how could she possibly have known that I have a stepson?
                Nancy and Nikaniel took their time returning to the Gale residence.  In spite of being worried for their families, both were exhausted and felt ready to collapse.  Nancy looked up at the crisp, blue sky and small, blobby clouds that clustered around each horizon.  For some reason it bothered her that all of the immensity of Earth seemed unaffected by the events of the day.  Smoke still rose from parts of the outlying community and sirens blared in the distance.  A new chaos was forming, but this time it was the chaos of having to rapidly pick up the pieces after a hard-fought turbulence.
                Mrs. Gale had been awake for almost a half hour by the time Nancy found her, and Granny Graham had taken Famous back to their home.  Nancy bid her farewell to Nikaniel but didn’t want him to leave.  Strangely enough, Nikaniel seemed to hesitate on their porch for several moments, even after the door closed behind him.
                Little was said between Nancy and her Mother.  The silence was harsh, but understandable as neither woman could come to grips with what they had been through.  All Nancy could do was shower and lay down in bed.  She had been wrestling with the weight of her eyelids since she and Nikaniel left the school and it seemed that she would finally lose.  As she laid her damp head on her pillow, she thought about the kind boy she had befriended.  There was a strange kinship between the two of them and she wished to have him there as a pillar to support herself on.
                Even as she fell asleep, her thoughts focused on the African boy and his calming demeanor.  As though laying to rest on the back of a plane, she felt her consciousness drift away from her own body and circle far and wide in the dimensions of air over the Albertson community.  Even while at rest, Nancy felt as though she had reawakened to another state of being, one she had never known before.  Unable to make heads or tails of it, she searched for familiarity in the sea of slumbering minds.  After circling through the haze of consciousness, she discovered a bright kernel that felt familiar.
                Nikaniel was asleep, but his mind flickered with activity as his brain tried to reconcile all the events that had transpired that day.  Worried that she might disturb the gentle activity of his brain organizing his thoughts, she carefully slid in through a part of his mind that was more alive with thought.  She entered through his dreams.
                Nancy found herself back in the school, which had been vandalized by all kinds of hateful images: language both lewd and hateful peppered the air and Nikaniel was set in the midst of it.  Feeling great pity for her friend, Nancy reverberated her will through the strange dimension and caused all of the horrid elements of Nikaniel’s dreams to melt away into the ether of his subconscious.  They still existed, but at least they could no longer harrow up his mind.
                “How do you feel now?” Nancy asked he friend.  Both appeared to each other the way they always imagined themselves: dressed in their normal clothes, yet there was radiance in their skin and eyes, as though they were exuding knowledge and truth to one another.
                “Are you in my head?” Nikaniel asked, rubbing his eyes.  His dreams had never felt so real, but with Nancy in his head, it was as though he had access to all of his faculties.
                “I don’t know how,” Nancy smiled.  “I fell asleep and simply found you.  I can still feel my mind resting in my own head, back home, but somehow I can link myself into your mind and experience things like I was awake!”
                “Okay,” Nikaniel said, standing away from her and bearing a look of mistrust on his face.
                “What’s wrong?  You don’t trust me?”
                “It’s not that, it’s just that a lot of weird things have happened since you moved into the neighborhood.  Are you sure Spacers aren’t all psychic?”
                “No, I told you, I saw this object outside our shuttle.”  Nancy held out her hands and caused a radiant shape to materialize in the air.  The object was sleek and rounded, like a vessel meant to traverse any kind of atmosphere at fantastic speeds.  Nikaniel looked it over, wondering if there was a cockpit or something else that betrayed its true nature.
                “Do you remember anything else about it?” he asked, scratching his head.
                “No, I just saw it on a display.  I don’t think it’s from Earth or any of the other Colonies.”
                “Unless the government’s got secret probes flying around, giving people psychic powers.”
                “You’re funny,” Nancy giggled.  She was glad she could find humor in their peculiar situation.  “But you thought it was the Jovians before.”
                “You heard the news, right?  They’re getting a bunch of ships ready by the Asteroid Belt, like they’re planning an invasion.  Maybe this bug thing and the weird behavior in town is part of it.”
                “When I got home, the news didn’t mention anything about this happening outside of Albertson.  Of course, it looked like they had interns or something running the station, so they probably didn’t know anything yet.”
                “What do you think’s going on?”
                “I think there could be three groups at play here.  Earth, obviously, and the outlining colonies.  The Jovians, whatever they’re up to.  Could be that they want to invade, or maybe they just want to come back to Earth because life is too hard out there.”
                “And the third?”
                “I don’t know.  The glowing probe that zapped me and that weird Biot thing, either they’re together or working against each other, which I guess means there could be four groups comprising this whole mess.”
                “Biot?”
                “Oh, it’s a word I looked up.  It’s an old science fiction word for a robot that is so advanced it looks like a biological thing, like an animal.  See?  Bio and Robotic, or Biot for short.”
                “Weird.”
                “Nikaniel?”
                “What?”
                “I don’t think the adults will be of any use in this situation.  They’re all as scared and confused as you and me, and I seem to be the only one who can sense the disturbances in the air.”
                “What are you getting at?”
                “I think we should use my abilities and find the source of the bad vibrations.”
                “And do what exactly?”
                “Well, we’re going to have to stop it at all costs.  You saw what happened, a lot of people got hurt, maybe even died.  Everyone’s scared and I’m afraid that, if those disturbances come back, it might just make everyone die off from the stress.”
                “Maybe they’ll resist it.  I was able to, and I don’t have psychic powers like you.”
                “That’s because you chose to.  Whatever caused this to happen was simply tapping into the parts of peoples’ minds that govern stress.  Kind of like how drugs can trigger negative behavior in some people, but if you noticed, while some people were arguing and fighting, others were just crying and laying down like they had given up.  I think everyone has the ability to resist it, like you said, but it depends on how strong their will is, and what kind of attitudes they have.”
                “And you don’t think people are strong enough to handle it again?”
                “No.”
                Nancy’s words cut Nikaniel to the core.  His thoughts reached a dead end and he began to see Nancy’s points gaining in validity.  But he couldn’t figure out how they could stop whatever forces were afflicting the community.
                “I think I can help you,” Nancy said, reaching out to Nikaniel’s shoulders.  “I’ve been thinking about it, and I might be able to insulate your mind against further attacks.”
                “How?”
                “Just let me try.”  Nancy held Nikaniel closer to herself until they were pressing their residual foreheads together.  Nikaniel felt something wash over his consciousness, like a torrent of water that purged weakness from the frame of his mind.  His thoughts felt much clearer than they ever had before, and though he could not obtain abilities like Nancy’s, he at least felt more aware of his own mind and its workings.  It gave him hope that, regardless of whatever they faced, he may actually stand a chance.  Especially with Nancy by his side.

*              *              *

                “In light of yesterday’s…technical difficulties,” Bob started to say at the beginning of the Saturday morning news hour.  He and his co-anchor appeared almost undead with dark circles under their eyes and facial expressions that landed somewhere between angry pride and shameful embarrassment.
                “Yeah, technical difficulties,” Betty nodded, leaning closer to the camera, which caused stray strands of hair to fall in front of her glazed over eyes.
                “…the station management would like us to make a formal apology to our viewers for conduct and language not befitting of professional newscasters.”
                “Everything said during yesterday’s reports came under severe and unprecedented duress,” Better nodded while scooping her hair away from her face.
                “Yeah, right,” Bob muttered and immediately straightened up when he noticed the cameras projecting footage of him rolling his eyes.
                “And speaking of yesterday’s events, officials are still searching for the cause of the rash of odd behavior, which swept over Albertson.  Reports speak of it beginning the day before and lasting until yesterday afternoon.  Local scientists have confirmed that the water and air are non-toxic and that people should not be afraid to leave their homes.  We can also confirm that Albertson appears to have been the only known community in the nation to suffer from this wide-spread episode.  Experts from around the globe have zeroed in on our town and will be arriving within hours to conduct their own studies.  Police and the Mayor’s office would like citizens to comply with any and all of their questions.
“If you do have objections,” Bob added, “there is a link on the city’s Net Page you may contact if you wish to be placed under a ‘5th Reservation’ protection.”
“I can’t even do that fast enough,” Mrs. Gale said, turning off the Trideo set and picked up her Handicomp.  “I’m glad you don’t have school today, I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have you here.”
“Oh,” Nancy said and looked at her feet embarrassedly.  “I was kind of hoping to spend time with Nikaniel later this morning.”
“Nikaniel, eh?  He really is a nice boy, I’m glad you two have become such fast friends.  I know it took a load off your father’s mind when he messaged last night.”
“Dad messaged us?”  Nancy sat up straight and looked at her mother, wide-eyed and hopeful.
“Yeah, sorry, I would have woke you up, but he could only chat for a couple of minutes.  He’s also happy that Boot is such a big help, and he assured me that it won’t kill anyone.”
“That’s good,” Nancy slouched back into the sofa, wishing he would arrive already.  There still wasn’t any word on when he was going to depart from the Mars Orbital, which greatly frustrated the two women.  Everything he did was veiled in secrecy, yet to Nancy it felt as though only she and her mother were the only ones in the entire solar system who didn’t know.
“So, what plans do you and Nikaniel have for today?  I really should take his family out to dinner some time to thank them for helping us yesterday.”
“We were going to walk in the woods and see if we can figure out what caused the disturbance.”
“I don’t know, you should leave that to the authorities.  There’s too much danger right now.”
Nancy suddenly wished she had not told her mother everything about the day before.  Though at first it seemed a relief to her that her mother hadn’t reacted badly to learning of her psychic abilities, the woman hadn’t said anything of it all morning.  Nancy could sense she was avoiding even thinking about it.  She didn’t want to raise the issue, worrying that it would cause great upset, yet she knew they would have to come to terms with it sooner or later.
“I’ll be fine,” Nancy said calmly.  Inside she was tense and nervous but had learned how to keep this from showing in her outward composure.
“I’m sure you think you will, being able to read peoples’ minds and all, but like your father says, you should never overestimate your skills until you actually do something that beats your expectations.”
“Did you tell dad?  About me?”
“No, I really don’t think he could handle that kind of news.  He’s under so much stress working with this new client, I don’t want to worry him.”
“He’s going to have to know sooner or later.”
“Later,” Mrs. Gale said defeatedly.  “I’ll tell him later.  Have you been telling anyone else?”
“No, only the Grahams know.  And I really should go out now.”
“I suppose I can’t stop you.  Probably would put me to sleep if I tried.”
“That’s not true,” Nancy frowned, upset that her mother would even think that.  “You could come with us.”
                “I should…but I honestly don’t think I would be any help.  I’ll just keep Boot with him for protection.”
                “Are you sure?” Nancy frowned, not wanting to abandon her mother who still seemed on edge from the day before.
                “Don’t worry, just promise me that you and Nikaniel won’t overdo it out there.  The second there’s even a hint of danger, I want you to come back home.  We don’t know anything about what has been going on, and some folks on the Net think it could be Jovians trying to meddle with people.”
                “I don’t think it’s Jovians, Mom.”
                “If it isn’t, it’s probably something worse.”
                 
*              *              *

Nancy Gale sensed tension within the Graham home before she reached the door.  Nikaniel allowed her to come in, having anticipated her arrival and waited by the front window.  They entered the kitchen where Granny Graham and Famous were arguing over which of the boys’ turn it was to process the garbage in their waste bins.
                “Nancy and I are going out,” Nikaniel called out over the loud tones of his relatives.  Both Granny Graham and Famous ceased bickering and looked at the two younger persons in their midst.  Nancy felt a change come over their minds and knew they were worried.
                “You’re going to go stomp through the woods?” Granny Graham asked.  “Fixing to solve whatever craziness is going on?  Famous will drive you.”
                “No,” Famous said flatly.  “The roads in the woods are too rough for my wheels.
                “That car was built for off-roading!” Nikaniel shouted.
                “It’s an antique petrol car and I don’t want to damage it on muddy, rocky roads!”
                “What kind of car is it?” Nancy asked.
                “Check it out!” Nikaniel said happily and took Nancy by the arm.
                The four left through the back door of their house, which opened to an outside carport.  Next to Granny Graham’s fairly modern, electric-powered sedan was a vehicle Nancy had only seen in old 2D movies.  It was quite boxy and had clunky, rubbery tires.  The windshield was flat and its body, which had paint almost a century old, looked frayed and tired like an old soldier who had been sitting in his uniform for far too long.
                “It’s called a jeep!” Nikaniel smiled.  “And it runs on petroleum!  That means it actually uses explosions to go!”
                “Tiny, concentrated explosions, thank you,” Famous said, using his shirt to wipe pollen from the hood ornament.
                “And it can really drive?” Nancy asked, admiring the craftsmanship of a bygone century.
                “It sure can,” Famous said, brightening up as though Nancy had just complimented a flesh and blood child.  “Spent all of last summer printing off the parts and putting them together.  Even updated its old fidgety GPS to connect with the Net.”
                “Why don’t you take the kids on a drive through the woods?” Granny Graham said in a pleasant tone.  Nancy sensed that the older woman was doing her best to sound proper and kind for her benefit, and as a course of action, Famous softened.
                “Only a little ways,” the older boy sighed.  “And don’t ask me to go off any jumps, I only replaced one of the brakes, the other three are original!”
                After allowing Granny Graham enough time to pack lunches for the trio, they climbed into the jeep and watched as Famous ceremoniously inserted a key into the ignition port.  Nancy thought this was absolutely darling, comparing the use of the key starter to unlocking ancient treasure chests filled with gold.  When the motor roared to life, the girl clutched the bottom of her seat.
                “Is it broken?” she cried.
                “That’s just the sound of the motor turning over,” Famous grinned.  “Even this shaking is normal, just means it’s ready to go.”
                “I don’t think it was meant to shake this much,” Nikaniel laughed as Famous backed the vehicle out of their car port.  Nancy once again found no shortage of charm in the fact that everything had to be done manually, and Famous’s jerky and uncertain maneuvers betrayed the fact that he had very little practice using it.
                After switching on the GPS, they followed a constantly adjusting rout, which was displayed with flat, grainy graphics.  Again, Nancy was delighted by the jeep.  She even enjoyed the peculiar looks given to them by other drivers and pedestrians while they passed through the edge of town.  Nikaniel followed the GPS rout all the way to a popular picnic area.  Due to recent events, nobody was around and the public area looked to have been abandoned in a hurry with rubbish strewn everywhere.
                “There’s a trail over there,” Nikaniel said, pointing to a small bike trail that was clearly marked with an animated sign that warned against recreational vehicles.
                “This is too big for that,” Famous scowled back at his younger cousin.
                “I think the bug flew in that direction,” Nancy said, pointing to another trail with just as narrow tracks.
                “We can squeeze along that.”
                “No way, this is as far as I take you.  You guys can walk and I’ll just wait here.  If there’s any problem, you can call me.”
                “But what if there’s a problem we have to get away from fast?” Nikaniel protested.
                “Tough,” Famous cringed.  He folded his arms across his chest and looked away from Nancy and Nikaniel.  Nikaniel knew this as his cousin’s ultimate method for refusing anything asked of him.  The boy sighed and undid his safety belt while reaching for the door handle.  Nancy was hesitant to give up just yet and she lightly touched Famous’ elbow.
                “Couldn’t you drive us just a little bit further?” she asked.
                Famous’s response was to immediately harden himself.  He breathed in stiffly, but upon looking over at Nancy’s childlike expression he immediately slouched and let out a long, exasperated sigh.
                “Just a little bit further,” he gritted his teeth and put the jeep back into gear.  “Wait, you didn’t use any of that psychotic power, did you?”
                “No,” Nancy said, but looked back at Nikaniel and held her thumb and index finger close together while mouthing the words “a little.”  Nikaniel smiled as the jeep lurched into the woods.
                The trail was just barely wide enough to admit the bulky, old vehicle and provided no shortage of bumps along the way.  Nancy felt herself wearying as she grasped whatever handholds were available to steady herself.  Nikaniel simply allowed himself to be jostled about as his cousin struggled to stay the course.  The older boy would constantly switch between giving the accelerator a feather’s touch and all the weight he could muster whenever the vehicle seemed stuck.
                Nancy looked out the window, trying not to get sick from the uncomfortable ride.  She gazed through the forests of Albertson and slowly fell in love.  It was like every enchanted fairtyail she had ever enjoyed as a child was unfurling and stretching outwards between every mossy pine tree.  She half expected to see enchanted fairy folk and their colorful abodes nestled among the ferns and shrubs.  Earth was beautiful, in spite of every history lesson she had ever heard about mankind’s constant prediction of nature’s undoing.  Life thrived and prevailed against all the uncertainty of mankind’s schemes, surviving wars and nuclear assaults.  Withstanding chataclysmic events of every kind.  Nancy hoped to be as strong as the foundations of humanity’s home.
                Then something pricked her mind.  Painful and sharp, she felt the presence of something nearby and her thoughts bled over the horizon some distance away.  Though the dense formations of trees obscured everything past a few hundred yards, she knew it was out there, whatever had set itself against the people of Albertson.
                “That way,” she said, pointing in an area just left of their direction.
                “Okay, this is far enough then,” Famous said.
                “No, keep driving,” Nancy said, a little forceful.  She drew concerned looks from both of the Graham boys, as though she had suddenly transformed into a tyrant.  “I’m sorry,” she lowered her head, embarrassed.  “But please, just take us in that direction.  There’s something over there.”
                Wordlessly, Famous steered the jeep off the trail, careful not to come too close to the trees.  His trail meandered so much he worried about losing sight of the direction, but Nancy pointed it out each time he lost track.  The closer they came, the more the feeling in Nancy’s mind worsened.  The disturbance she felt was strong, like a small star pulsating with waves of irritation.  It almost made her angry, but realizing this, she focused her thoughts and insulated her mind against whatever presence was upsetting her.
                The jeep went up a rise in the terrain, which Famous struggled against as the jeep’s tires failed to grip the slick, grassy earth.  Nancy urged the jeep on, wishing she could somehow push it.  Then she felt her seat wobble, as though she were ready to wrench it out of its fixtures.  Realizing this, she enveloped the whole vehicle with her thoughts and gasped as she felt the pin pricks of every particle of matter comprising the jeep.  She focused on the parts that seemed most substantial, such as the frame, and pushed it forward until they surmounted the hill.
                At the top of the rise, Famous slammed on the brakes and he and Famous stared on ahead, eyes wide with concern at what they saw.  It took Nancy a moment to register this as she felt strained and exhausted.  Her whole mind felt as though she had just run a marathon and she massaged her brows to ease some of the tightness in her forehead.  When she lowered her hands and looked ahead, she too was distraught.
                The forest had been flattened, as though by an inestimably dense disc.  Trees lay flat, all pointing away from the epicenter where a great hole had been dug with earth piled all around it.  Rising from the hole, above the piles of earth was something dark and sinister, like a hellish flower whose surface cascaded with lights.  Vessels and conduits growing within the stalk of the flower pulsated as though made from living flesh that was fed by a heart.  Nancy even felt throbbing in the air as this living thing drew energy from the ground and converted it into refined power.
                “What is that?” Famous asked, shaking his head.  “No, no, I don’t want to know, no, no, no.  We’re going.”
                “It’s kind of like that bug we saw in the cafeteria,” Nikaniel said, pointing at the thing.
                “You’re right,” Nancy said.  Truly, the flower, which had aspects of both plant and machine, was of the same sophisticated, yet disturbing build as the giant hornet.
                Without a word, the auburn-haired girl unbuckled her belt and opened the door.  Nikaniel did the same while Famous wordlessly jabbered to himself and held his hands helplessly in the air.  Unable to protest, the older boy held his foot firmly on the brake and watched as his younger cousin and new neighbor walked down the hill and entered the clearing.

*              *              *

                “What’s our plan here, exactly?” Nikaniel asked, walking sideways just a little ahead of Nancy who struggled to keep up.
                “I don’t know,” she said, fixing her gaze on the giant flower.  “We just need to see what’s going on and maybe report back to the police.”
                “Why don’t we do that now?”
                “Because we may be able to disable it somehow.”
                “Disable it?  You think this is what made everyone go nuts yesterday?”
                “Has to be,” Nancy said, looking at Nikaniel sternly.  “This shouldn’t be here, it’s not like anything anyone’s ever seen and it has to be linked with the enemy.”
                The two stopped several paces away from the stalk of the flower.  Its entire form was jagged, covered in dense alloy panels and black, fleshy conduits.  The lights seemed to intensify when they came close and the top of the flower swayed.  After a moment watching it, the two youths stepped back when they saw the flower at the top unfurl more fully.  Each petal looked treacherous and hummed from unseen energy surging within.  Before Nancy and Nikaniel realized what was happening, the flower erupted into a bright light and the air all around them was wracked with invisible force.
                Nancy and Nikaniel doubled over and held their heads as a horrible feeling burst through their minds.  They both fell to the ground, unable to use their own legs and soon their hands dropped form their heads.  Their bodies felt as though they were being pressed against the ground and as they looked at each other they noticed the earth shaking.
                Things were clawing their way up through the loose earth and Nancy and Nikaniel were utterly powerless to do anything about it.  Within moments they were surrounded by biots: all of them like the giant hornet in every way, except whole and more menacing.  The robotic creatures chittered and extended drills from their mouth parts as though preparing to devour the two kids.
                Nancy reached out with her thoughts until she felt Famous’s mind, higher up on the hill.  Using the remaining strands of will available to her, she compelled him into action.
                Famous was unaware of his actions until he was already barreling down the hill.  Passing through the last few standing trees, he sped across the open ground, passing between fallen pines and bounding over bumps in the terrain.  The flower was just ahead of him, as well as dozens of horrid creatures, which he could see surrounding Nancy and Nikaniel.
                The older youth’s senses were focused like a razor as he homed in on the flower.  Piloting the jeep between two huge mounds of dirt, he unbuckled his seatbelt, opened the door and launched himself out of the vehicle as it sped the remainder of the distance to the strange flower.  The jeep crashed into the stalk with such force that it wrapped around the base, which was slightly thicker than the trunk of a tree.  The whole structure swayed side to side and piercing, snapping sounds filled the air as its artificial sinews burst.
                The whole thing fell with great force and the air erupted with crackling electricity as its fluids gushed out, coming into contact with earth and stone.  Nancy and Nikaniel immediately felt a release from the force that pressed down on them and the biots surrounding them scattered in confusion as though the only guiding force in their existence had suddenly vanished.
                Sparks of electricity from the fallen flower struck out against the mangled jeep and ignited its fuel, causing it to catch fire and put smoke into the air.  What was more, Nancy, Nikaniel and Famous watched as a dome of energy, which apparently had been surrounding the whole clearing, dissolved.  Entire hexagonal panels of energy, which were aligned themselves into a honeycomb-like dome over their heads, dissipated until all they could see was blue sky above.
                “What’s that all about?” Nikaniel said, pointing up at the dying energy field.
                “Maybe it’s an energy cloak?” Nancy shrugged.
                “Good, maybe the city will detect the smoke from the crash,” Nikaniel smiled.
                “My jeep,” Famous cringed as he limped away from a mound of earth.  “Now I now that was you!”  He pointed at Nancy and came running toward her and Nikaniel.
                “I’m really sorry,” Nancy frowned.  “We were in trouble, I couldn’t think of anything else.”
                “Buck up, Famous,” Nikaniel said, slapping his cousin on the back.  “You’ll be a hero.  Maybe they’ll build a statue of the junk heap.”
                “Be quiet,” Famous cringed.
                There was a loud screaming sound in the distance and when the three youths looked, they noticed the biots crawling over the remains of the flower-like array.  Each of the creatures was in the act of tearing itself apart, allowing its silvery liquid to spill over the surface of the array.  A dread sensation spread over Nancy and she grabbed the fronts of her friends’ shirts.  Pulling as hard as she could, she guided them away as one of the biots climbed to the top of the heap and began shaking violently.
                Nancy, Nikaniel and Famous ducked behind a fallen tree and laid as flat against the ground as they could just as the biot initiated a strange reaction that caused it and all the other biots to burn violently.  Rapid bursts of energy blazed in the air as every trace of the biots was scorched into oblivion.  Nothing more than glassed terrain was left behind with rocks glowing orange and an uncomfortable wave of heat filled the entire clearing.  As though this were not enough, the fallen trees closest to the event were burnt to their cores and caught fire.  Soon smoke and cinders filled the air.
                Within minutes, firefighter drones appeared overhead and sprayed foam across the entire clearing.  Nancy, Nikaniel and Famous huddled together and covered their mouths as the horrible oozing stuff flowed over them.  The three were lost in a sea of pink and heard sharp hissing sounds as fires were extinguished all around them.  Each groped through the pink flood surrounding them, searching desperately for the edge of the clearing.
                Nancy was shocked when a towering figure suddenly stopped her and grabbed her by the arms.  She and her friends were quickly raised up out of the woods by a fireman piloting a rescue WBM.  Like a squat, iron giant, he harnessed the three to the vehicle’s broad torso and took flight.  There were two other firefighters tethered to the WBM and they quickly shoved breathing masks onto the kids.  The air in the masks was putrid, but helped clear their lungs until they could breathe normally.
                Nancy was on the verge of collapsing, feeling her head whirl around her.  Too much had happened all at once and she felt as though she had stretched herself well beyond her limits.  As she struggled to remain awake, she simply watched, in a dreamlike state, as the WBM piloted them clear out of the woods and all the way back to Albertson where the roof of the firefighting station waited to receive them.



More to come...

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