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The Bookworm

Art commission by @javi_draws

This is an Assassin’s Creed Short Story set in the time of Valhalla

 

The Bookworm – part 1

 

Absolute Silence. Hanna peered through the thin gap at the door outside at the thick billowing fog that had settled in the dark hours before dawn. It was eerie how it seemed to suffocate all sound. She had been lying awake, but the long absence of even the creak of a tree limb alerted her to what else she could not hear, her warden’s horse. The same she had been responsible for putting to stable the prior night. She’d have no skin left after the lashing she was sure to receive.

Moving from near slumber to alert in an instant she quietly slipped out the door, confirming immediately her fears. The horse was no where to be seen, and the unusual fog and predawn false light seemed to have swallowed the entire village past the low stone fence at the edge of the yard. Even the bare limbs of the great tree she woke to every morning were but suggestions of a shape in the mist. She pulled her worn blanket over her arms and made her way into the yard.

She was afraid to call after the horse only to wake her warden or his mean-spirited son, Brandon. She scowled at the thought of his mocking sneer. Her cheek and eye still hurt from where he had struck her with a rock, but she got even. Her scowl twisted into a smile as she recalled his expression when he was told he would also be whipped for the rock fight he insisted she had started. So, what if she had? He was not the only of the children in the village who was mean, just the meanest. They teased her for being tall. For not having a family, and for where she was from. Most days quiet indifference stung worse than words, but Brandon clearly resented her.

She walked gingerly through the thorny grass in her bare feet until she had checked everywhere close to the small home. Winnifred had left, which was uncharacteristic for her after dark. Or Freyja, as Hanna would call her in solitude; as they both had two names.

Hanna made her way up the worn path toward the middle of the village, where the weathered stone chapel towered over the surrounding village and small garrison nearby. This was where she would usually walk the horse each morning. With a sigh of relief, she found Winnifred eating flowers near the great wooden chapel doors. She patted the horse lovingly as her gaze wandered to the darkened glass windows above. To her surprise there was a faint flicker of light from inside. She looked both ways, in one direction a lone watchman struggled to stay awake under his torch, and the other way not a soul in sight. Then she noticed one of the great wooden chapel doors was slightly ajar. Whispering a kind word to the horse, Hanna stepped closer to peek inside.

The light came from a few candles at a large table at the far end of the main chamber, where several parchments lay rolled next to a heavy bound book. A book she breathed, staring with wide eyes. The horse continued to graze on the bright petals nearby. Hanna looked twice and slipped into the chapel. Someone had been here just minutes before she was sure, but she could not contain her curiosity. Before she had come into the care of her warden, she had just started to learn letters and remained fascinated by reading. Sometimes she would lay awake dreaming of stories of ancient libraries told to her by the Skald who visited the settlement she grew up in, among her earliest memories which now felt like a life ago. A life when she lived with the Northmen.

She had been told she was of Saxon birth but taken young as a servant to invading Vikings. Sometimes she thought she could remember the longships, but her warden would chide her that she was far too young at the time to possibly recall that. He made no illusion of his disdain for her time there in servitude, which she now only recalled with fond memory. It was hard work, but life with the Northmen felt freer than the oppression she felt today. Since the soldiers saved her, as she was often reminded. Saved, as the settlement she grew up in was burnt and the Northmen scattered or killed. Saved, and given a new name they preferred the sound of.

Her feet had carried her carefully through the main chamber, expecting at any moment to discover somebody there. She reached the large table with no one else in sight. She studied the shadows intently; the candles could not have burnt as such for long. Then her eyes fixed on the prize at the center of the light, the lone massive book. Its reinforced cover was intricate leather work and precious stone inlays. Surely this was too valuable to just be carelessly left out. The edge of the pages shone like gold. Midway through the pages there was a disturbed edge, as if it had been handled roughly. She opened it to the spot. The brilliant colors leapt off the page into her eyes like a vivid dream. Illustrations of men dressed like kings and row after row of careful tight script filled the page. She noticed a bit of the prior page was torn. No, not torn, an entire page was missing but for a corner. Who would damage such a priceless wonder?

She turned her attention to the rolls of parchment. One was held flat by the candle and a decorative knife. This looked like something a man she had seen at the garrison carrying. Neat rows of words paired with numbers. A list of things for the soldiers, she guessed. A sudden waver in the light caught her attention. A draft came from the door, now open wide. She heard hurried footsteps outside, but they were not coming for her. Winnifred made a nervous sound. Next, she heard the village bell.

They were being attacked.

The garrison was alive with commotion as soldiers rushed to down the hill towards the banks of the river where she could hear the first indistinct sounds of men shouting, weapons striking shields and the dull rumble of many boots. She could smell smoke. Then from nearby a familiar voice, Brandon. He had spotted Winnifred and was trying to guide the horse, who was objecting. Winnifred did not like him and when he got frustrated the horse listened even less.

“Hanna!” Brandon yelled out as he struggled with the horse before repeating his cry. He had come searching for her and the horse.

Hanna reverently closed the wondrous book and pinched the candles out as she prepared to quickly leave. Outside she found Brandon red in the face and dressed in a riding coat. In his fist he had doubled the end of a rope and was rising his hand to strike the defiant horse. Hanna caught his fist, gaze locked steady with his. In the eyes of the slightly older boy a flicker of fear, quickly replaced by anger.

“We have to go,” he shouted at her. “Now!”

Hanna took the tack and bridle from Brandon and helped put it on Winnifred, soothing the horse until Brandon was able to mount. She caught herself looking back into the chapel at the now dark table and book. Her feet felt heavy, something was amiss and even with the approaching din of battle she felt compelled to sort out why. Who had been there minutes before her looking at the book?

“Come on!” Brandon bellowed at her. Then, a burning arrow struck near where they stood. The glow of burning roofs from down the hill now illuminated the fog with a harrowing light.

“Freyja, go!” Hanna commanded, a crack in her voice. Hanna refused to get on with him. To Brandon’s protest the horse obediently started towards their home without her. Hanna trusted she would get them there, where his father was surely waiting so they could flee. She watched as they disappeared.

Footsteps approached where the watchman one stood, and Hanna slipped back inside the chapel and quickly hid in an adjoining chamber not far from the table. Two Vikings, one of broad shoulders with a bloodied great axe and the other taller, older with numerous scars and one blind eye. The latter carried a torch as they pushed open the chapel doors and began rummaging for anything of value. It did not take long for the elder of the two to come to a standstill at the table. She could hear them discussing something they were looking for; the book she now held where she hid. She recognized the dialect. They were not of the same ätt as her childhood family, but one she remembered to be a neighbor with a storied history of raiding.

A third raider approached the chapel. “Is it here?” the woman called to the two men as she entered. Her torchlight quickly met near where the others were searching, just narrowly out of Hanna’s line of sight. Her idea of sneaking out the door when they moved to search the rear of the great chamber was seeming a little less bright by the minute. The Vikings split up, turning through coffers and shelves, torch light casting long shadows everywhere. Slowly they made their way to the rear of the chamber as Hanna had hoped.

Hanna tip toed from her hiding spot and made a quiet dash to the door, only to come face to face with the keen point of an axe. The woman raider was taller than her, rows of blond braids framing her war painted face. “Ooh,” the woman spoke in a sing-song tone as Hanna froze. “Light reading?” She joked, lowering her axe. The other men stood near silently as if by command, watching. Outside the sounds of fighting was growing quiet. Hanna smelled rain.

“Someone was here,” Hanna replied in the tongue of her youth. All three raiders expressions shifted in response. “There are pages torn out,” she continued as she handed the book to the woman.

They opened the book; the eldest let out a whistle of appreciation. Observing the same missing pages she closed the book and began checking the situation outside. “Girl, what is your name?” the Viking woman demanded. “Do you read?”

“Hanna,” she replied, clearing her throat. “I mean, Hadda” she corrected bashfully. “And no. I want to learn to read.” She added.

The woman turned to face her directly. “How do you feel about sailing?”

 

continued in part 2

The Ghost Freighter of UJC Science Platform JE L4

This is a speculative micro fan fiction set in the universe of Callisto Protocol inspired by the game trailers and the audio podcast Helix Station.

Following exodus of the crew of UJC Science Platform JE L4 during intense radiation storms and a disastrous fire that broke out during the last hours of the evacuation, the orbital station was reported as a total loss of capital to UJC. Some of the station’s automated systems continued to run for weeks following, including an ice tanker on a least fuel transit loop between the station and Europa, where all the colonies relied on for water. It too eventually ceased to fly, presumably due to simple malfunction. However, the ice tanker resumed routine flights from the dead station a half year later prompting an investigation by Black Iron Security.

UJC lost contact with the security detail shortly after they arrived on station.

A shuddering creak of stressed steel jolted Rebecca from a restless sleep where she lay hidden. The once-soothing rhythmic hum and tick of the freighter’s alarm now seemed unbearably loud in her ears as she strained to listen for another sound she thought she had heard. Her nervous suspicion grew into dread as she heard the faint groan of the nearby capsule door followed by a shift in the composite floor plates. This is when Rebecca started to worry she was not the flight’s only stowaway.

Her, and the doctor lying in the stasis pod, she thought to herself. The only survivors left of the catastrophe at the science platform orbiting near the Jovian moon Europa. “Some six-week program,” she thought to herself for the hundredth time since she was originally scheduled to return home to her sister and parents on the Ganymede colony. More than half a year had passed as the handful of students, scientists and engineers had taken refuge in the station’s morgue to escape the fire. Conserving the oxygen tanks and suit propulsion the station’s chief engineer, Svend, was able to save, they had managed to salvage enough nonperishable food and medical supplies to turn the morgue into an ironically life-saving bunker for those who escaped. At the time, it was less than ten. Today the station’s principal botanist Dr. Albright lay clinging to life in a medical stasis pod in a last-ditch effort to save his life. Everyone else including Svend, who had been like a surrogate father to Rebecca had since died to the same infection they believed to have wiped out the crops on the science platform, or to other causes.

Before the unusual radiation storms they believed had sparked the widespread blight, the crops of UJC Science Platform JE L4 were the ticket to her thesis program, one of the last steps in her final year of schooling. Decades of research adapting Earth-borne plant species to the light and radiation conditions of zero-contact enclosed micro habitats on the Jovian moons and orbital stations had yielded breakthroughs that could enable them to grow foods previously inaccessible to the colonies. Rebecca’s work under Dr. Albright was much more conventional, long hours at a computer terminal crunching data with a hearty side of manual labor. Still, she had loved it. The class size was small and it would open the door for a prestigious fellowship upon completion of Ganymede Bio Habitat 3. Research now that had turned from hopeful to a grim warning now contained to a single bulky drive stored in her suit’s tool belt.

Short range communications were lost in the Jovian radiation, and the station’s long-range transmitter was irreparable after the fire. Svend had theorized the freighter’s transmitter may save them if they could broadcast at the apogee of the ship’s gravity-assisted orbit before it arrived at Europa. Assuming that anyone was listening, and that those that heard it were friendly. Unlike Black Iron Security.

The security forces of the Callisto moon served as law enforcement in the Jovian system, far removed from the eyes and legal systems of Earth. They shared a name with the system’s lone prison, Black Iron. They were widely distrusted by the colonists as operating above the law, which only added to the survivors’ apprehensions when they showed up at the burnt hull of the science platform. Still, Rebecca had held onto the hope that they would be saved by the security forces until it was evident that rescue was not why they had come.

On that fateful morning when the security detail began searching for their makeshift bunker, Dr. Albright had been placed in a medically induced coma to slow the progression of his illness which wracked him with a terrible cough. Rebecca could not shake the feeling that Svend and the doctor shared a secret knowledge that had doomed them, something too terrible for her to know, and was reaffirmed by how quickly Svend had deduced that the flamethrowers that Black Iron Security had brought were for them.

This long shot plan was of Svend’s design; the improvised radiation shielding, the manipulation of the freighter’s perpetual alarm to mask the presence of functional life support and live passengers, the precise amount of oxygen they would need and the suits to survive the crucial final step when it arrived at the Europan ice quarry it was destined for, as the freighter would open to near vacuum when it attempted to receive a new load of water ice. This was her only opportunity for escape before it would leave as there was no way to override without authorized UJC biometric commands. Svend had intended to be here himself until that day. Instead, when they began burning the survivors, he bought time for Rebecca to escape with the motorized stasis pod containing the doctor and her supplies before sealing himself in with the Black Iron squad. The ensuing explosion told Rebecca all she needed to know of their fate, but not before Svend managed one last radio communication. “They must know what happened here. You need to be brave, brave for your sister.”

Rebecca had allowed herself to be lulled into a tearful sleep in her hiding place in the narrow hollow portion of hull shielding until the unexpected sound startled her. She had to control her breathing as once the oxygen in the pressurized portion of the ship dropped too low, she would have only the reserve intended for her suit left which she knew she couldn’t use now. Except for a narrow gap where the shielding and hull segment let air in, she could not see out from her hiding spot, and the only light source was the dim red emergency light, which rotated in a slow pulse. The stasis pod lay just out of her sight secured in the medical isolation partition.

Suddenly a shadow passed in front of the light source, something very near where she hid. She could hear a wheezing sound, someone or something opposite the thin wall panel from her in the medical capsule. Rebecca held her breath, eyes wide in fear as she listened to it lurch slowly through the room. It had to be right next to the stasis pod. It let out a distressed whine, like frustration and sorrow. The breathing sounded wet, sticky. After what felt like an eternity, she heard the footsteps pass back through the capsule hatch and out of the room. Once she could hear what she believed to be movement again in the main hold, she dared peek out. The stasis pod was open; empty.

“Dr. Albright?” Rebecca whispered fearfully, the hollow rattle of the freighter’s hull the only response. The stasis pod bed and opening were coated in a thick mucus-like substance that had a repulsive copper smell even through the filtration of her suit’s respirator. It was intermingled with what looked like blood on the inside of the pod’s glass panel. A similar liquid pooled at the base of the pod where something had recently tracked through towards the capsule door.

The hull shook again, this time for longer and she felt the floor shift under her. She braced against the paneling as she heard the poorly secured contents of the freight hold shift loudly. She looked to the readout the digital assistant on her wrist; they could be approaching apogee. She needed to make her way to the ship’s control station and see if she could get a transmission out. With luck the radio was not locked down like the flight and other ship controls were. There was just the matter of the missing doctor.

She switched on the small light on her suit’s helmet, good for illuminating a few feet in front of her but not much further. Beyond that was only faint red light from emergency bulbs, each slowly rotating. The unfamiliar ship was nothing like the open design of the science platform, here the corridors were not much wider than shoulder width with deep shadowy recesses the light did not reach. The medical capsule attached to the main freight hold after an exchange module that was about ten meters long.

She passed slowly through the open hatch, minding the slimy residue. In her suit her breathing sounded loud to her, even as she fought to remain quiet and calm. She cautiously moved the light to each side of the exchange, checking the overhead rows of cabling and conduit for any signs of damage. Aside from a slight vapor leak there was nothing for her to worry about. The heavy door opposite her was already open, where she spotted another glossy handprint.

“Dr. Albright?” she called again, daring to raise her voice just slightly. Again, only the grumble of stressed steel bulwark replied. She inched forward until she could start to see the inside of the freight hold, a massive chamber that made up the majority of the ship. Her path would take her up a ladder at the far end of the room into the overhead loft where the ship’s lone exterior window was along with operator controls.

Inside the hold were just a few pallets of supplies that had been largely picked through and were no longer flight secured. They rest at oblong angles free of the tiedown restrains. The center of the room, which would normally be loaded edge to edge with blocks of ice, was empty except for packaging trash left when the ship was first looted. She peered as far as her light allowed but saw no sight of the doctor.

As she crept into the room, she checked the dark corners behind her. The rattle of the hull and hum of the alarm the only sounds below her breath. She could not see any more signs of the mucus trail, nor anything that was out of place from what she remembered seeing when she had boarded, although at the time at a quick dash. She checked her composure and raised her voice further to call out. “Dr. Albright? Hello?”

A sudden sharp gnashing sound from somewhere ahead of her called back, causing her to flinch. It sounded inhuman, what she imagined an animal might sound like. Following the almost bark like sound, she heard a strangled noise like constricted breathing and that same sticky wet wheeze. Her heart leapt into her throat as she struggled to control her breathing, searching with her light for the source of the noise. She looked around, fear creeping up her spine as she checked to look a second time behind herself. A loud strike of metal against metal ahead of her in the room caused her to let out a small cry.

She focused the narrow beam of light intently where she had heard the sudden loud noise. An overhead storage unit had fallen open, now swinging on creaky hinges. She remained still, fighting back a tremor as she peered into each dark corner and long shadow to find no sign of the unseen presence. She braced herself at the first of the cargo pallets as a strong vibration shook the ship. The cacophony of the loose compartments of the mostly empty hold formed a pit in her stomach. She strained to hear what seemed to be in the room with her, but after a moment still had heard nothing.

She redoubled her nerves, making her way through the midpoint of the room past the next two cargo pallets before the hull began to shake again, each time feeling a little more severe. She tried to remember what Svend had told her about the automated flight maneuvers but had focused so much on what would happen during landing that she had glossed over the mid orbit flight corrections. She was feeling less and less sure she knew how far along in the journey she had slept. Either way, she needed to try and send a radio transmission in hopes that someone on the Europa colony was listening. She forced herself to keep moving until she reached the ladder.

Her boot steps on the ladder sounded louder than she expected, seeming louder than anything else she could hear. The narrow ladder safety cage going up to the hold to the operator controls prevented her from turning her head to look behind her, causing her to feel panic coming on at the sound of something moving in the hold where she had just stood. Breathless, she rolled off the ladder onto the operator control catwalk and looked back down the way she had climbed. A tie-down was swinging freely as if recently disturbed, but she could see precious little with her headlamp from this vantage. She sat back and leaned against the controls. She could feel the click of the perpetual alarm originated from it. Standing up, she assessed the panel and the small port hole window into space.

Europa looked large already on their approach, but she reminded herself how far away she likely still was. Behind the pale blue moon loomed the night side of the king of the gas giants, Jupiter. It’s night sky rippled with aurora and the occasional flicker of lightning. The view gave her pause, stealing her breath until she had calmed, ignoring tears of stress as she took in the small dose of celestial beauty.

She pried her attention away from the window back to the control panel. All of the operator buttons were dimmed next to a large handprint scanner, keycard and pin panel. Svend had warned the controls would be inaccessible without biometric access, but she had held onto the hope that a common freighter would have some sort of manual override. The controls were complex to her untrained eyes, finding rows of oversized buttons both on the panel and overhead. The wall readouts had all manner of flight controls and positional readouts in simple monochrome display. She found additional controls for some of the interior, including an overhead crane and three heavy lift robotic arms, the latter of which looked like similar analog controls to an arm they used to move micro habitats back on the science platform. Wagering a guess, she flipped the safety cover over the yellow operators switch and flipped it on. The light illuminated. She nudged one of the controls and could hear the gas compressing in the articulated arm below in the hold. She smiled nervously, not all the controls were restricted after all.

She turned back to the main panel and moved to the radio which was positioned in the corner of the operator space that was big enough for just one. A single band selection dial pointed to a lone mark made by a previous operator. She turned it, half expecting she might hear feedback from the tiny radio speaker but nothing happened. When she pressed the call button there was no indication it was working. She wondered what she was supposed to say.

“Can anyone hear me?” she began. She brushed a layer of mechanical grime off the call box where it showed the ship’s identification. “This is UJC FR209 Echo”. She felt like she was holding her breath waiting for something to happen. She pressed the call button a few times and began turning the band selection. There was no way to know if it was even working. She repeated herself again on an arbitrary band. “Someone, anyone.”

“Rebecca” a pained, hoarse whisper came from below. She recognized the voice as Dr. Albright, but something was terribly wrong. Her heart pounding, she overrode her fear of whatever she had heard making noise below to descend and investigate. When she arrived at the bottom of the ladder in the hold, she could hear the strain of a pipe valve turning followed by a loud blast of venting gas. She looked towards the billowing mist, seeing the doctor standing in a corner just beyond it at the valve. He was facing away from her, and she noticed he was shirtless. Her headlamp illuminated his back and skin where she could see his sores were swollen to the point they had ruptured his skin. He seemed to be shaking as he breathed and was covered in a glistening sweat. “Rebecca?” he repeated.

He turned; his face disfigured beyond recognition from an injury that should have surely killed him. His jaw was split wide and hung open like a pair of grotesque fleshy flower petals. His tongue waggled lifeless from his enlarged throat, from within emerged two snakelike tentacles. Rebecca screamed in terror.

The beast that was once Dr. Albright roared in fury and began a lurching charge towards her, still limping. Rebecca flailed as she continued to scream for anything to grab onto, finding an empty insulated crate that once held medical vials. She threw it at him, which barely slowed his advance. She spun around and scrambled for a handhold until she pulled herself back to standing and began to run. Her suit suddenly felt too tight around her chest, and her breathing echoed in her helmet. There was spittle on her visor, obscuring her view. She collided with one of the standing pallets of empty supply crates, falling back down. Dr. Albright swung wildly, striking the pallet near where she had stood, sending crates flying.

Rebecca thought in an instant to turn off her headlamp, which surely would prevent her from any attempt to escape and hide. She stood up again and ran towards the next pair of pallets as the ship’s hull began to shake and vibrate again, slowing her as she lost her footing and fell to a knee. An upward lift in the flooring suggested the ship was making another flight maneuver. The overhead storage compartments rattled deafeningly. Relying on only what the pulsing red alarm lights illuminated, she pulled herself to standing again and ran past the shape of the furthest stack of crates into a narrow maintenance access.

She dared a glance behind her but was unable to see the doctor who had been almost on top of her before the last set of pallets. She looked at where she had found herself. Nearby was a dangerous sounding voltage panel which connected to one of several conduits and pressurized pipes in the maintenance shaft. It was not tall enough for her to stand in, so she could only move at a low crouch. At first it looked like a dead end until she noticed that one of the flashing lights seemed to come from a source above the end of the passage. When she made her way to it, she found another service ladder to the upper deck, which from her memory would be near the overhead crane in the hold.

Finding nothing else that could help her in the maintenance shaft she ascended, finding herself in an even shorter ventilation access. The row of red alarm lights ran the length of the vehicle along this point in the ship, making the view forward a dizzying display of spinning lights and rotating fans. She crawled along, listening for noise below that could be the doctor but hearing only groans of the ships hull. She made it to a spot above a catwalk in the hold near the overhead crane. She could see through the slots in the vent cover that there was an auxiliary control panel for the crane on the catwalk. As she fumbled around for a way to open the vent, she heard a new sound. The radio.

The voice cracking through the static was an older gentleman’s, Rebecca thought his accent sounded Russian. The words sounded kind and conveyed a sense of concern. She had not heard the first of the message but listened with interest to the rest.

“…come in FR209. Do you copy?” the first reply ended. “Repeat, UJC FR209 Echo this is New Commonwealth Icebreaker 3.” It was a ship operating for the Europa free colony.

Rebecca’s eyes swelled with tears in relief, a tiny cry escaping her lips that was quickly cut short when the ship began shaking again, but now with substantially more bounce. The ship was beginning to enter the thin atmosphere but was not designed with passenger comfort in mind.

Without warning, the vent panel she was struggling with swung open, and Rebecca tumbled out crashing into the catwalk railing with a painful gasp. She struck and then fell over the rail, getting caught in her fall when her tool belt hooked onto the overhead crane control box. The tubes connecting the large box-lid shaped crane hissed to life and began moving in a lateral direction away from where she hung. She thrashed at the belt as it had slid up to her chest and below her helmet before binding up. Below she heard a long, sickening draw of breath followed by the uneven stomp of the creature as it moved closer to where she was swinging.

“No, no, no,” she panicked as the belt slipped further and the shift moved the analog control stick, sending the crane back her direction. She swung around to see it would strike her if she did not move, so without any time to think she unhooked her belt and fell the rest of the way to the floor. Her belt and its contents landed a few feet away.

She quickly rolled to her back, facing the doctor who was limping forward with his mangled arms outstretched, mouth tentacles flailing. She scrambled backwards on her hands and heels as he lunged for her. She rolled out of the way but not before another stack of crates came tumbling down on her. A strong jolt to the ship tipped the stack of crates further, and a new alarm started blaring. It was more rapid than the perpetual alarm, urgent. Something in flight control had detected a failure.

She looked to her tool belt which was out of reach and too near the doctor, and then to the ladder far to one side. She made a daring leap and dashed for the ladder while the doctor lumbered to face where she had ran. He crashed into the bottom of the ladder in pursuit, nearly making her lose her grip as she climbed. When she rolled out onto the catwalk on the top she could see through the port hole the horizon of Europa was turning under her; the ship was entering on a spin. Below, the doctor was fumbling trying to make use of the ladder to pursue her. She drew in a breath and stifled a shriek, moving to the crane controls.

Thinking quickly, she toggled the analog stick until the crane detached itself from the opposite catwalk where it had struck earlier and steered to block the doctor’s path up the ladder. With a grimace of determination, she lowered the crane with intent to crush the monster, only to find it stopped short of pinning him with a loud click of a safety system. The clear light flickered at her in protest. She sobbed, her strength leaving her at the cruel irony.

The shaking of the ship grew into a tremendous force, and coupled with the sharp increase in relative gravity and the ships spin everything in the hold began to shift until the large chamber was in full tumble, pallets crashing to the walls until the ship was flying completely upside down. The crane swung free of its conventional restraints and struck the overhead storage violently, sending large portions of steel flying everywhere. Rebecca sailed through the chaos before striking her head on a pallet.

Just as suddenly as they had spun out of control, the floor rushed up to meet them with force. Rebecca could feel the landing boosters had engaged, correcting the descent of the ship and greeting them with the G force of entry. Already struggling to stay conscious, she felt her grip slipping as she struggled to see where the doctor was. When her head stopped spinning, she could hear the radio again.

“FR209 Echo I have visual. Please copy.” The gentleman sent.

She leapt to her feet and ran through the debris back to the ladder, the doctor nowhere in sight. She climbed with renewed strength and stepped out on the catwalk to the radio. “Icebreaker 3 thank God,” her voice cracked. “I am so happy to hear a friendly voice.”

Before she could press the call button again, a single drip of mucus fell onto the control panel. Rebecca froze. A second drip struck her visor, and she leapt back, wailing in horror. The creature that was once the doctor had scaled the wall into an overhead corner above her, mandibles flexing menacingly at her. When she jumped to go down the ladder, so did the creature, landing on her other side to block her escape.

Cornered, she jumped for the robotics arm controls. The creature’s tentacles lashed at her, grabbing at her leg with surprising strength. She wrapped an arm around the railing, fighting back as she extended one of the robot arms out and began maneuvering it up to her position. Without having mastered the controls, the best she could manage was to swing it wildly at the creature, knocking it into the wall.

The ship touched down with an ungraceful bounce, settling on uneven ground. The ship rocked to one side, sending both the creature and Rebecca crashing into the control panels. The main cargo door sprung open, venting the pressurized cabin to the outside in a cold blast of air along with dozens of small crates and other trash. Rebecca saw her toolbelt among the ejected material. The massive door only opened as far as the safety latches would allow, which was less than a foot high. The creature had fallen over the rail to the floor, while she had kept hold of the rail.

She quickly moved the robotic arm again, this time pinning the creature to the floor with the claw grasp. “Sorry, but the doctor is… detained,” she declared. It flailed frenetically against the restraint. Rebecca then moved a second freight arm to the cargo door so she could pry it open further.

Her suit had automatically cut over to onboard oxygen when the cabin depressurized. Outside the cargo hold she could see the bright lights of the Icebreaker 3 as it was approaching in the Europa surface snowstorm. She hurried down the ladder and out of the hold, stepping down the uneven slope into snow where the cargo and other trash lay scattered. She began searching for her tool belt which contained the drive of data on the research from the science platform.

Ahead up the hill she could see the lone pilot of the Icebreaker class ship had exited, holding a bright light aloft as he made his way down to help. After a moment of worry she found her tool belt, holding it high like a trophy as she smiled through her pain to show it to the man who had come to her aid.

The man froze, shouting a warning but it was too late.

Tentacles wrapped around her neck and helmet, crushing the glass on her visor. She fumbled, dropping her belt. The other grabbed her at the thigh, pulling her screaming back into the ship.

Thank you for reading

“Blackwater Falls” – a review

Ausma Zehanat Khan’s murder mystery “Blackwater Falls” is a carefully crafted thriller woven from elements of present-day current events. It does not shy away from political topics, instead tackling them head on in a story that feels like it could have been told in a town I had known.

Khan is a gifted character writer, penning a believable cast that I grew to care about. This strength carries the dialog and introspection heavy narrative and makes for an engaging read. Also, if you enjoy audiobooks the narrator Fareeda Pasha does an excellent job bringing the characters to life. I felt that the narrator delivered on the tone for the setting too, which is important to me when I choose an audiobook.

A parting thought for readers who like me also play video games, I feel like this setting and cast would fit well in the “Far Cry” universe and has some interesting parallels to Far Cry 5, except if Ubisoft had chosen to reference real political situations – and minus the gunplay, in this case, as Blackwater Falls is a detective story first. If you are in that niche, then please consider this book highly recommended.

Thoughts on “They Called Me a Lioness”

I recently finished reading Ahed Tamimi and Dena Takruri’s “They Called Me a Lioness”. I found it to be inspirational and uplifting. It concluded with some important questions for the reader to consider, but I had thought of a few more as I read.

Paraphrasing, the authors ask us to consider what we would do if our family were in their circumstance, which is a potent question indeed, one I feel too many distant observers blot from their mind; how would they handle life under occupation?

However, as I read the tale of the now-viral confrontation between the child and occupation soldiers on her family property I wondered how much of her story might have been left to tell if not for the accessibility of social media and ability of users to share this raw footage of human rights abuses. Lately, platforms have become more difficult to access in some conflict-torn areas of the world, and elsewhere too restrictive content policies can result in near total media blackout of censored topics.

I am speaking specifically of a number of laws passed that attempt to equate pro-Palestinian and pro-boycott speech as essentially hate speech or actual antisemitism. In all more than 30 states in the US have similar laws. Imagine if Tamimi’s video had been quashed before it reached its audience.

Consider the videos we haven’t seen, from Palestine or elsewhere in the world where youth stand up to a brutal regime.

I really enjoyed the book, which I listened to as an audio book. If you like audiobooks I highly recommend it. The narrative style was outstanding. It felt less like a book being read to you and more like a friend sitting down to tell you something important to them. By the end it was I that felt like I had been invited into their home to listen.

Halo, Anthem and why we don’t need another Destiny clone.

alternate title “A List Of Things I Hope Halo Infinite Is Not”

The Holiday season is looming, and the Halo Infinite launch party Xbox may once have intended to coincide with the release of the Xbox Series X is finally happening a year and many semiconductor and pandemic related delays later. It’s time to thaw Master Chief after an extended break following the 2015 release of Halo 5, in what 343 has once called a spiritual reboot for the flagship title of the Xbox brand. No pressure.

First, a story about why Halo is a bit personal to me. Years back when we were first living together, my wife picked up a copy of Halo: Reach for her Xbox 360 “to see if it was any good”. Neither of us had played a Halo before it, and I was into mostly fantasy RPG games. A weekend later, we had a second Xbox and another copy of Halo: Reach so we could play together. Soon we’d rearrange the living room to accommodate side by side TVs and forever changed what family night in looked like at our house.

Fast forward to present and on any given game night we may be on different games, single player games, watching a show or playing games with different sets of friends but we still play in parallel. There are a few games we still play together, or exclusively together, and Halo is one of them. As this next title nears release and I see features like cooperative play de-prioritized to make an already late release window, I can’t help but think of other titles we have been excited to try that did not turn out as well. Anthem comes to mind.

BioWare’s ill-fated epic multiplayer space opera fell far short of its potential. Anthem otherwise had all of the right ingredients – excellent flight and combat mechanics, innovative design, breathtaking views and top shelf graphics, a great team of writers and a likeable cast of characters. What went wrong? I can name one mistake, broadly, that no publisher is too big to repeat. Please stop trying to make another Destiny-style live service looter shooter.

Destiny itself is riddled with annoyances its player-base tolerates as they turn in each week to participate in what is otherwise an anomaly in the space-time fabric of gaming. Its success is despite of itself. Random loot rolls for the same limited set of weapons and armor is not the part of the game we need to copy. Another game that made this mistake and later course corrected was Assassin’s Creed Odyssey; the maddening, meaningless deluge of loot to be immediately deconstructed was addressed in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (thank you a thousand times).

It isn’t to say that there is no appeal at all in repeating the same content to try and get the ideal roll for your favorite set of gear, it is just that this cycle by itself can quickly become frustrating and lead to fast burnout. Adding in low drop rates or actual technical issues can turn the experience very negative fast for some players who feel like they put in the work but did not get the reward or expected progression credit. Sooner than the designer would hope, the game will get turned off. This is not hyperbole, but rather a recurring observation from my own home.

I liked Anthem. The storytelling and world-building reached straight into the depths of my imagination and did not let go. I trusted the talent behind two of my other favorite games of all time to be able to deliver something fresh and innovative. I even wrote a bit of fan fiction ahead of the release about one mysterious type of enemy character – ones that appeared to be a model of rogue hardware not unlike the heroes own. I feel like BioWare delivered on this much – the flight combat was as good as we hoped. They were just asked to fit it into a persistent world model it did not seem to be built to support. Fort Tarsis did not need to be Destiny’s Last City for us to love it. I could write for another hour what else they could have done differently but I am sure the team who worked on it knows better than anyone else what they wanted to accomplish.

Halo for me wasn’t ever what Destiny turned out to be, nor was it Call of Duty or Battlefield. Or Fortnite or Apex or Titanfall. Where I started with Reach, Halo was always about the fire team. Being an individual in a group working together to accomplish something heroic. I know for a lot of players Halo was first about playing as Spartan 117.

Master Chief. Blasting alien bad guys with a likable woman AI sidekick and delivering great one-liners in that iconic lead guy voice, this time in a giant open world environment. A face on the front of soda cans and bags of chips and boxes of cereal, a brand almost as recognizable as Star Wars. I have reservations and doubts about the character of Master Chief, who for some people is their Luke Skywalker in this story, but other people may wish to see more of themselves represented on screen. I get this is their “spiritual reboot”, but I hope 343 builds on the amazing cast they had assembled for the previous stories and continues to push the idea of Halo as a larger world than just John and Cortana.

I digress. To be fair, I don’t know exactly what an average week will look like in the life of a Halo Infinite player. The Destiny comparisons above might be totally inaccurate. If the Master Chief Collection or Halo 5 were a good indicator, it was a mix of incentives from both replaying story missions and playing various cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes. On paper, this is pretty much any successful game with live seasons today, but I don’t think any publisher is too big to get this wrong.

The genre today is flush with worlds that built on the success of early titles that include Halo, and a publisher may be motivated to make “the next Apex” or successor to the other title I’ve referenced already. No Brand Too Large to fall over itself to copy a new formula, like Battlefield launching the equivalent of straight to VHS (yes I’m old) title, skipping story mode completely in favor of a large format team battle that looks nothing like the ones it pioneered because that apparently worked OK for another recent title. Banking on microtransactions when they have been broadly frowned on as bordering on predatory. Halo is not and never was any of those things. This doesn’t have to be billed as “a return to form” if they just.. not try to be something else.

Halo Infinite may have launched without co-op story mode for valid reasons, one envelope pushed at the expense of another. I just hope the teams working on it were allowed to deliver the Halo they dreamed of working on.

My wife and I will see you on Zeta, in one game mode or another.

Half Of My Heart Is In Havana – Far Cry 6

far cry 6 Dani in the capital city of Yara, car, high rise apartments and poster of  Antón Castillo
image credit Ubisoft Far Cry 6 fan kit

Set in the fictional Caribbean island of Yara, Ubisoft’s Far Cry 6 is a showcase of adrenaline and breathtaking locale. The series known for its over the top action and darker themes borrows at times from real life events, and like the Camila Cabello song you might hear on a radio in the game referenced in the title of this review, is very much based on a real place.

The richly detailed environments push the limits of even the highest end gaming hardware today, setting a high bar few other games released this year could approach. It flexes first its credentials as an action title, and then sets out to establish a story the player cares about. Or stories, plural, as it plays more like a good show on Netflix. Here in the finer details is where everything could have gone wrong, but turned out to be the best risk they had taken yet.

Dani Rojas, cover image with rifle and red smoke

The return of voiced protagonist to Far Cry is Dani Rojas, a reluctant heroine who at the onset of the game dreams of a better life away from her homeland in Miami. Unlike the previous protagonists in Far Cry games, Dani gets a full part on camera during dialog and in cut scenes. The difference is just the first way the team set this apart from the series before it, and it is not a small detail. The way the character interacts or even comments out loud on the world around her takes this further, even down to the way she occasionally hums or sings along to the radio while in the car. It is through her eyes and experiences the world of Yara comes to life.

Opposite Dani is the villain Antón Castillo, the Yara’s El Presidente played by Giancarlo Esposito. For a series known best for its iconic bad guys, they did not hold back creating a part that seemed made for the actor. The character of Antón steals the scene – commands it – whenever he speaks. It is very effective storytelling.

Antón Castillo , close up of expression as he listens

The narrative and writing teams on Far Cry 6 put their best work into the depth of cast and individual stories told in each of the regions explored in the game. The people Dani meet are the heart of the game, from families impacted by Castillo’s regime to farmers and musicians and artists or resistance fighters ranging from street gangs to veteran guerillas of generations prior wars. The struggles like those of the Montero family or Radio Libertad are the ones that really grabbed hold of me and did not let go. Far Cry does a good job of being both a game for fun and not losing sight of the bigger picture, giving each location the time and attention to detail to do it justice. I never felt in a hurry to leave an area, and fell in love with the characters I met. The stories felt personal. This was no accident.

Ubisoft described some of the work that went into creating the world of Yara, and the real places they visited and people they interviewed, including family of guerillas who lived through similar events that would serve as a backdrop for Dani’s journey. Every writer, artist, musician and actor who worked on it spoke seriously on the inspirations they found that went into the game. Their stories were important to them and the evidence is in the results. The Montero family seemed less like quest NPCs and more like people you might actually know and care about.

By the time the credits rolled I felt like I had been a participant in something extraordinary, and found myself thinking long after on what I had played.

If you had played the previous Far Cry games and are curious, Far Cry 6 does not “end” after the main story and has plenty to do after. I completed the main story in about fifty hours with time spent on most of the side stories, which I felt was a good length for the game. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey for comparison was around 110 hours, counting only some of the side content.

I am looking forward to the DLC content for Far Cry 6 which includes stories from three other Far Cry games focusing on the villains Vaas, Pagan Min and The Father.

sun rise in Yara, scenic view from atop a hill. far cry 6
Far Cry 6 screen shot taken on Xbox

“Sable” – Brilliance in simplicity

Sable Game screenshot rider on bike, dust trail and city in the distance

I don’t have a clear memory of how I was recommended to pick up Sable. Whichever games writer it was, I should thank. Developed by Shedworks, Sable quietly upended my gaming nights, challenging the notion that one had to suffer to grow or to fully appreciate the challenge of a video game. It is a masterpiece in simplicity, driven by a curious spirit and subtly. Sable is an exploration dream game that I am happy exists today.

Sable tells the coming of age story of a young girl who must leave home on a journey called The Gliding. Gifted the power of the “Perpetual”, she can hover to glide from one high point to another. Her only other boon is her hover bike, which she shares an almost spiritual connection with. In The Gliding she will discover new places, help others and when she is done, choose her mask.

The symbolism here simultaneously overt and loaded with subtext to ponder. Through the tasks she completes and places she visits, she earns and collects a number of decorative masks that tell a story of how she earned them or an idea they represent.

Featuring virtually no sense of conflict of any kind, danger of dying or punishing loss of progress, Sable sets itself apart in simple expressions of wonder. A detailed room in a ruin, or view cresting a hill and the mere suggestion there may be something to see or find further on. The exploration and climbing puzzles do get progressively more challenging and always assumed some degree of thought to solve, but never felt like tests of patience or frustrating.

sable climbing a difficult slope

The characters are well written and likable, anchoring the lighthearted tale. The beautiful style of art has to be seen in motion to fully appreciate, and makes powerful use of lighting and changing colors to bring the cell animated world to life. The original music score by Japanese Breakfast may be one of my favorite details, redefining what it might mean to actually unwind while enjoying a game. The music is soothing, playful and perfectly matches the setting. One could almost imagine the world built backward to accommodate the sound.

Sable is one of the very few games I played until I had every achievement unlocked. It was worth every moment. I still find myself thinking about the story, the characters and which mask I ended up choosing in the end.

The game is suitable for all ages, kids young and old as they say. At time of writing, it is available on Xbox Gamepass.

sable riding hover bike with light trail in a high contrast forest at night

My review of “Lost in Random”

image credit EA – official store pages for the game

“Lost in Random” is delightful, different in the right ways and drop dead gorgeous. Told in six acts, this puzzle exploration adventure follows Even on a journey to save her sister Odd from the nefarious Queen of the Kingdom of Random. The art style is a triumph of twisted dreamscapes telling a distinct story of each of the areas in the Kingdom. While one may be tempted to compare the trip down the rabbit hole to one or more other popular stories with unusual styles of art, Lost in Random seems quite comfortable being itself instead. Setting itself further apart is the combat gameplay and your adorable companion, Dicey.

Battles in Lost in Random put the player much closer to action than most 3rd person floating camera style games, which is where the zany art and fantastic animations really shine. Collect and draw “at random” one of many ability cards, which Even executes with a bodily toss of her dice friend. Some grant her a sword or bow, heal or shield her or unleash havoc in a number of other creative ways. Even’s voice actress plays a big part in setting the tone for fight sequences as the spoken lines not only pair with direct actions, but also continue the specific scene within the story. Combat never felt like an interruption in the story, and some of the best dialog between Even and the numerous adversaries she faces takes place in the thick of an encounter. The end result is a huge compliment to the voice talent that worked on the game and feels almost like a stage performance in several parts.

I reserved my last compliments for the character and story writers – I felt very engaged in what was easily a storybook come to life from the start. They hit all of the right notes – a lot of laughs, a few tears and many characters that were memorable because they were different.

Lost in Random is not exceptionally difficult but did get tough in a few encounters. I played it in approximately one sitting per act – about a weeks worth of evenings. It would be possible to complete much quicker if you rush through.

Lost in Random, night in Two Town.
Even and Dicey admire a mysterious mural

My Review of “This Is How You Lose the Time War”

This set unrealistic expectations for the quality of snide letters I would exchange with my nemesis.

Seriously, what a wild ride. Boldly unconventional, El-Mohtar and Gladstone have created a vibrant science fiction tumble through space and time I couldn’t begin to compare to another work. It is a joy to find a book that hooks me from the very start, and rarer still to find one that doesn’t let go. I will recommend this to all my friends who love to read.

The Ruins of Listening Post Five – Part 3

A short story set loosely in the Destiny 2 universe. This is Part 3. Read Part 1 here.

Clouds of pale pink mist punctuated the darkness where Phoibe had finally rolled to a stop under stories of wreckage. The space was no higher than a crawl. Davi had lost his light stick while bouncing on his way down, which was somewhere in rubble above. They had come to rest on a thick mat of the bioluminescent growth, this writhing carpet swollen with mature flowering spores that burst when disturbed. While the fungi were a pale green color approaching white at a distance, the dust released as a deep hue of violet before igniting into luminous pink in a suffocating foul odor. Phoibe could hear Davi no more than a meter from where she lay, coughing quietly, but could see nothing but the glowing cloud. It felt like a trick on her eyes to see the spot illuminated so clearly by the fungi, his gasp of breath in arms reach, and no sign of Davi.

She began to reach out a hand biting back a sudden flash of sharp pain in her arm. Even in the half light she could see her arm looked terrible, streaks of black already visible from a break. Trembling with severe pain, she clutched her arm close and low to her chest, using her good hand to scoot closer to where she thought she could feel Davi was in the patch of floating spores. Touching his back, she was relieved when he responded. He was completely invisible to her but for a faint cool grey dust that seemed to adhere to moisture on his face and elsewhere. He was regarding his own hands with wonder.

Phoibe pouted with a soft cry, seeing some of the wet on his face seemed to come from a swollen cut on his brow, but smiled through tears at his perpetually cheerful expression. He somehow always looked happy even when he was showing concern, as he had noticed how she was holding her arm.

“You’re hurt!” he protested her attention, but they were quickly interrupted.

Footsteps. Something massive was walking nearby, and it had the gait of one tall or upright. The footfalls were so heavy they could feel each step distinctly by the way the ground yielded. It was a slow, deliberate step. Something searching.

Through a gap between layers of concrete ahead of them they could see a larger chamber completely taken by the unusual growth, an eerie spectacle of contrast between neon glow and the black pools of settled water. There was a waver in the air itself of suspended dust and spores that moved like fog. They could only make out an interruption in the light, a passing shadow of the beast, but it was colossal.

Before they could act or think, the pile of concrete slabs above them was roughly disturbed, being cast aside like they weighed no more than sticks. With nary a split second to flee they hurried out from the spot of thick growth before they were crushed, the silhouette of the towering beast above them. As Phoibe dashed into the first patch of cover she could reach, an even thicker mat of growth that had raised like tall stalks of bulbous grass, she caught just the profile of the beast’s feet and legs – chitinous plate and gruesome carapace – it stood like a man, but tall as a house.  

A short distance away she spotted Davi, grey dust drifting away from him as the effects of the spores wore off, revealing him. The oldest of the alien fungi nearby quivered like it was alive, a darker shape moving within it that made a sticky wet sound. At the base, fist-sized larva wiggled oblivious to her presence. She recoiled from the noxious mass, keeping a close eye in the direction she had last seen the beast.

The room they had fallen in looked like it was at the lowest level of the collapsed main facility they had entered at; below the spot their football had rolled to when they got into this mess. Up a steep scramble of debris she could see the freight elevator, still stuck where they left it by a beam lodged beneath it. From the shattered space above it she could see a hint of moonlight.

Close by, Davi drew her attention to a series of blight coated burrow-like tunnels, made by something about their size. The pungent stench like acid they had smelled when they first entered the facility was strongest there, glistening like mucus on the oozing membrane walls. As if to answer her next question about what made the tunnels, they heard echoing through the tangle the chattering whine of the first creature that had been stalking them since they entered. Or from what they could hear, several creatures.

The sound of claws skittering became numerous, the behemoth in the chamber with them stepping faster to another pile of rubble, over turning it as it continued to search. Phoibe looked to Davi, and then the tunnels. The beast had not seen where they went, yet. The tunnels were far too small for it to follow and were how the other creatures would have been navigating the ruins. Davi opened his hand to show Phoibe he had picked a second violet flowering bud from the fungal mass. He handed it to her, eyes steady in the direction the monster was digging. The crash of concrete and steel was thunderous.

Inching towards the slimy pathway, listening for any sudden movement, they heard another sound. Noor, Galen and Peyton were calling out for them from somewhere through the largest impassible section of the debris pile the tunnels seem to intersect through. The scurrying sounds of the predators moved together in the direction of the other children. Phoibe and Davi exchanged a look of horror.

They entered the first tunnel that seemed to climb upwards, although just in a wide curve to another section of the same unstable section of wall. It connected to several other burrows, ahead in which they could hear a clamor of claws and teeth headed the other direction. As Davi emerged from one side with Phoibe close behind, they could see Galen and friends had found their way to a dead-end ledge a little higher, near the direction of the ventilation shaft they had fallen from. It was a sheer drop from them down to a heap of broken concrete below. The whine of the hunting predators grew into a frenzied pitch. Davi and Phoibe could hear the other children begin to panic as the sounds raced towards them.

“You have to run!” Phoibe called up to them frantically. “They can see you!”. The behemoth made an alerted snarl, then began to roar as he turned toward Phoibe and Davi just a few dozen meters away. It was an unearthly sound not like a beast that drew air, but as if it emanated from within. It sounded like pure agony and twisted hate. It stomped into the moonlight, revealing in full terror the might of the colossus and its massive, bone axe rent like a singular cruel thought. It was the visage of a heavily armored man, or the mockery of one, twisted horns and rows of black spines.

Quickly, Phoibe burst the violet blossom covering her and Davi in the spores just before the spot where they stood was fully launched into the air by the earth-rattling charge and swing of the beast’s axe. Tons of concrete, steel and fungi rained down across the chamber, causing the main pile of debris to shift suddenly until the entire installation was shaking violently in a landslide. Noor, Galen and Peyton’s screams mixed with a deafening roar of rocks and beast alike as the behemoth surveyed the clear spot for the children. High above, the beam barring the freight elevator had dislodged. The elevator made a jolting movement and loud buzz, a dusty yellow indicator light near the switch clicking on and off a warning. It was still stuck between floors on the heavy chain and pulley lift.

Davi and Phoibe, still shrouded by the pink vapor, emerged from a now severed length of burrow several stories higher from where they had vanished. “Galen!” Phoibe called out, knowing the beast would also hear. “The elevator!” The creatures pursuing them were drawing near, fast.

Galen looked up the shattered interior of the installation’s frame where the lift was stuck, and then to direction Phoibe’s voice had come from.

“They can’t see us, either” Phoibe remarked to herself after seeing Galen’s expression. The beast too had turned to look without immediately spotting them. The spores were already beginning to turn to dust and fall away.

Davi moved further into the open, getting a clear view of the lift and switch housing. The spores drifted from him in a cloud of dust as he was illuminated by the moonlight. The beast’s gaze snapped to him as it began navigating the uneven concrete platforms up to where he stood. Davi held his position, although not without a bit of a tremble in the knees.

“Galen!” Davi called out, relieved when Galen could see him. “Pass me the ball!”

With only a moment’s hesitation, Noor and Galen realized what Davi could see. Noor lobbed an overhead pass to Davi, who caught it and quickly turned and threw it at the switch box. A hit, but it did not depress the switch. It bounded far below with a hollow bounce as everyone’s hearts fell.

Phoibe spared not a second, sliding down the slick filth of the burrow to the bottom. “No way this works..” she whispered to herself before rolling to a stand, cradling her broken arm. “Hey!” she shouted at the beast.

Everyone stopped. For a split second even the sound of settling rubble was quiet. The beast turned for just a brief glance back at her as Davi bolted from where he stood. Phoibe ran at the ball with a skilled heel strike pass back to Davi, who spun to kick it back up. It sailed past the beast, striking the switch with force before rebounding further away. The elevator buzzed loudly and began to descend.

The beast roared in anger, breaking into a full charge at Phoibe. Phoibe let out a scream and gave chase, running across the opening to a newly exposed gap in the collapsed layers she had spotted. Davi made a running jump and caught the edge of the lift, now low enough for him to reach.

The creatures burst from the system of tunnels behind Galen, Peyton and Noor who were still pinned against a sharp drop. They were forced to jump with a terrified cry. They hit the slope in a tumble, howls of pain as they crashed uncontrolled into the wreckage. The enraged beast having lost sight of Phoibe now turned to them. Above the creatures had already adjusted route, losing almost no ground in their pursuit.

Phoibe emerged from another partially blocked hallway near them, motioning urgently for them to follow. They then arrived at the same conduit and stairs they entered by, the inhuman creatures now only meters away. The friends raced to Davi, who quickly hit the switch twice to reverse the direction of the lift. Galen made the leap first, then Peyton and Noor. Together they helped Phoibe up, gasping at the pain in her arm and shoulder.

The lead creature made the jump, knife-length claws tearing into the edge of the lift. It was not much larger than any of them, protruding spine and faceless with rows of hideous sharp teeth. It was a color like jaundiced flesh, coated in the same mucus as the tunnels. Its shrill whine drew screams from all of the children as it climbed up, swinging wildly at anything in reach. It tore into Noor’s leggings and boot. Peyton and Galen pummeled it with kicks, pushing it back. It struck Peyton in the leg, knocking them down as blood spilled from an open wound. Noor grabbed Peyton pulling them away as Davi landed a kick hard enough to knock the beast almost completely off the lift. Phoibe could see the other two nearest predators were quickly taking alternate routes to the top floor to intercept them.

Galen and Phoibe continued kicking with their boot heels until the beast lost its grip on the edge, plummeting below.

 


The children emerged from the facility into moonlight, Galen and Noor supporting a badly injured Peyton as Davi helped Phoibe. They were running as fast as they could, but no where near fast enough to outrun the second and third of the creatures. The roar of the behemoth could be heard deep from inside. Across the grassy lot was a sudden burst of bright halogen lights. It was Noor’s mother, riding her hoverbike-like sparrow.

She dismounted the sparrow and unshouldered a long rifle in one smooth motion, the practiced aim of a seasoned sharpshooter. Two shots rang in the night, felling the pursuing monsters only steps from the facility. She kept her rifle steady on the exit as the children crossed the lot to where she waited. Others from the village soon arrived, embracing and tending to the children.

Noor stood by her mother, who did not look away from the direction the beasts had emerged. One by one, the words waiting on Noor’s lips fell away, watching instead her mother’s expression. Even as the others mounted up and started to ride back to the village, Noor and her mother remained there until it was quiet. Once they were alone, Noor’s mother finally turned to her.

Her expression was more of relief than disappointment, but Noor felt both just from a glance. She turned back to her sparrow, freeing a bolt of rolled, woven cloth from the side which she then laid out. As it unrolled, Noor could see inside a long stake fixed to a sealed radio housing and an expensive-looking antenna. She recognized the old cloth as one from their home that had been undisturbed at the bottom of a stack but had never seen the unusual piece of equipment. On the housing she recognized a symbol she had seen on gear used by soldiers of the Last City. From another saddlebag her mother withdrew a canister of reflective paint.

Noor watched quietly as her mother painted a large symbol on a clear spot of concrete barricade, two concentric half circles over a shape like a doorway. She then planted the device firmly in the ground nearby. With a click, she activated it. It started a steady blink and chimed out a distinct radio tone.

Her mother turned to face her, neither saying anything until after moment. “What of your sister’s football?” her mother asked finally.

Noor’s expression sank. The lengthy story of what they had been through inside danced across her features until she looked down, defeated. Meeting her mother’s eyes again she spoke up. “It’s still lost in there. I’m sorry.”

Her mother lifted Noor’s chin and pulled her into an embrace. She looked to the stars, and then the horizon. Noor looked too; her mother seemed to be scanning the night sky for something she expected to see.

“You’ll get it back”

Thank you for reading!
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