Arcane Synthesis: A Blended-Genre Anthology
Publication Year: 2015
Print Length: 400 pages
(7 novellas + 1 novelette)
"I found myself wanting to know what happens in the stories when I wasn't reading. To me, that alone is the mark of a good book."
—Tris' Nook (Fiction Reviewer)
Blurb from back of book:
Eight big stories from the 31st Century: a blend of fantasy and science fiction, horror and hope, by new and established authors—different voices revealing a single, blended-genre vision.
• A homeless boy struggles to silence the voices in his head and master his burgeoning mental powers
• After bonding with a plant companion in the swamp, a naive mage finds wisdom and acceptance
• Trapped on a magic-scarred world, the descendants of a crashed mech carrier learn to live without technology
• A secret order of knights face overwhelming odds to stop a powerful being from the future
• On a world obsessed with magic, a stranded mech pilot turned private eye is hired to crack a murder case implicating technology
• A ragtag band of opportunists race to find a world-shattering weapon before their enemies
• The truth about a missing child lies in a treacherous forest harboring the Masked Man and lethal technology
• A sentient train and its exotic crew uncover a secret that threatens everything they hold dear
Excerpt . . .
Galactic Date: 24.12.6580 [Pantaran Calendar]
Galactic Spatial Coordinates: -68,-130,+7
Humanus Republic, Hope System
Endama, Lower Troika
Peeking out from under his covers, Anton stared at the glowing strip of light below his bedroom door. The shouting escalated, and with it came other sounds: frantic footsteps, heavy breathing, threats, objects careening off walls and bodies and doors, shattering or crumpling to the floor.
“Pleasepleaseplease don’t hit her again,” Anton whispered, not daring to draw attention to himself. Tears had always come easily for him, but he tried not to cry around Ford. That only made things worse. Alone in the dark, he made no attempt to stop them.
Mother told me to hide or pretend to be sleeping whenever Ford gets like this, Anton reminded himself.
But he felt too vulnerable and slipped out from under the covers. He quietly scooted underneath his bed frame, as he sometimes did when he was afraid, and laid tummy down, on the cold, dusty tile, vanishing into his own little world.
Anton cupped his tiny hands to his ears, pinched his eyes closed, and tried to visualize snugglebunnies playing in a field; their over-sized paws and ears flopped as they hopped about. His therapist told him to visualize those big-nosed, bright-eyed, pink fur balls from Toonaria whenever he was scared or frustrated.
But the voices made it difficult to focus on such things. His therapist didn’t seem to understand. Neither did his mother.
At first, Anton didn’t realize he was hearing things others were not. He didn’t question it.
As time went on, his problem became more apparent. His mother assumed he was just trying to get attention whenever he claimed he was unable to sleep due to noises she couldn’t hear—music playing on a neighbor’s headphones, water running through the sprinkler pipes, people talking in the surrounding houses—let alone nearby sounds.
Apparently it wasn’t normal to hear folks whispering in their bedrooms across the street. One voice in particular—a girl’s, he only heard in his head.
He could often be found sitting in his room covering his ears, crying. When his mother questioned him, he said things she thought strange, and knew things she said he shouldn’t. So she took him to a therapist and he’d been going ever since.
Anton tried to think about Snugs, his favorite snugglebunny ever.
Of course they aren’t really bunnies at all. “They’re better than bunnies!” he told his mother when they were out shopping a week before Christmas the previous year.
It was the night before she met Ford at a Christmas party and the first time she’d ever left Anton with a sitter. More sitters followed, but he was pleased at least, that Christmas came with a soft, cuddly snugglebunny and a picture book about faraway Toonaria, where all the gubbies lived.
Anton tried to visualize one of the stories from the book, which started out: “Toonaria is a happy place of never-ending adventure, a realm filled with magic and all your friends!”
He loved to sit on his mother’s lap and listen to her read. It was her voice that calmed him, even more so than the stories themselves. Sometimes he wished they could escape together to Toonaria.
Ever since Ford moved in, his mother seemed too busy for talk of snugglebunnies, chocolate rivers, and candy cane rafts. With Ford came shouting, tears, and pain.
Reciting the names of each member of his beloved Gubby Gang in the hope of blocking out the voices, Anton recalled their greatest adventure: Down the White Chocolate Rapids.
Together, the voices blended into an overwhelming cacophony: neighbors watching the big game, two boys walking down the street debating the merits of a computer game, the little maltipoo across the street yipping endlessly in the window, a baby crying in a passing car . . .
“One day, I’ll make you go away!” Anton said in a small voice, hating the man who had moved in and ruined everything.
The shouting stopped. Anton listened carefully, hoping desperately Ford had left, never to return. Of course, Ford always came back, and always got mad.
Something heavy fell over that jingled. The Christmas tree!
His mother screamed.
His mother ran, her legs slender and quick. Another crash—Anton’s bathroom door slammed shut and locked.
Anton had no idea whether this marked the end, or the beginning of something worse.
A tidal wave of emotions swept over him. He was no longer under his bed, but wedged beside the toilet and tub in his bathroom. He felt the shower curtain and tub pressing up against his back, and beyond the toilet, the sink to his left, and the bathroom door straight ahead. The knob rattled.
He blinked and he was under his own bed again, the vision gone, and with it his strength. His mother’s anxious thoughts spun inside his mind: pain, fear, sadness, anger, hatred, and confusion. The conduit broke as something bounced off his bedroom door in a loud thump that caused him such a start that he hit his head on the bottom of the bed frame.
“I hate you!” he said through the tears, his strength slowly returning as his anger mounted.
Heavy footsteps stomped toward him. His bedroom door was at the end of the hall, right next to his bathroom. He heard her inside, whimpering.
Standing just outside Anton’s door, Ford’s heavy shadow blotted out most of the light.
Ford’s voice was surprisingly calm and tender when he spoke again, his knock on the bathroom door, gentle. “Lori?”
“Please open the door. let’s . . . talk this out, babe.”
“It was an accident, Lori. I’m sorry about the tree and . . . I didn’t mean to—babe, you know I hate talking to doors! It’s Christmas. Let’s start over, okay? Open the door.”
“No,” Lori said in a tormented voice.
Something along Anton’s peripheral vision moved, startling him. His snugglebunny had fallen to the floor when he slipped out of his bed and as he watched in horror, it began convulsing. Its pink, wavy fur bristled. The doll ascended out of sight along with a handful of marbles and a pile of plastic colonial marines he’d forgotten to put away before bed.
“Open the door, Lori.” Ford’s voice intensified as he continued until he was shouting. “Lori? You hear me? Open the frickin’ door! Right. Frickin’. Now, Lori!” Ford slammed his fist against the door twice in quick succession.
Anton knew she would never open the door as long as Ford was standing there, but he also knew Ford. Both the door and door jamb were new; they’d been replaced twice in the past six months at his mother’s expense.
Inside the bathroom, his mother was wedged between the toilet and the tub, hands over her face, whimpering and praying to the One Above All for a miracle.
Anton’s breathing pushed the dust bunnies out toward the edge of his bed. For a moment, he imagined he was betraying them, exposing them to the dangers of the larger world. Surprising himself, Anton followed after them, crawling out from under the foot of the bed. He stood trembling—just like the time Ford shook him to get him to stop crying.
“Stop it!” Anton shouted at the top of his lungs, now too angry to care whether Ford heard or not. Anger welled up within him, worse than ever before.
He was unaware that he too was now hovering above the tile floor.
“Leave her alone!”
The house grew coffin quiet.
Even the voices in the distance seemed to hold their breath, save for the maltipoo barking its head off.
Anton’s door swung open, flooding the bedroom with light. Ford’s massive shadow loomed like a Toonarian minotaur over him. He stood in the doorway, his breathing heavy, pumping alcohol-laced stench into the room.
"What’s the matter, Anton? Not enough presents under the frickin’ tree this year? Spoiled brat!”
Knowing Ford would hurt him regardless, Anton struggled to think of something terrible to say to hurt him first. “Leave my mother alone you . . . ugly old minotaur!”
Faceless in the doorway, Ford just stood there and laughed. “You’re a freak, Anton. You know that, right? Flush, you think I’m afraid of you? Do you?” Ford said, undoing his belt. Not waiting for an answer, he glanced at the bathroom door and shouted, “Lori? I’m gonna teach this little freak of yours some manners.”
Anton remained still, refusing to give Ford the pleasure of seeing him cower.
Ford’s belt, at first invisible under a swath of belly and shadow, appeared out of nowhere, slapping the peeling paint on the wall, leaving a mark as the minotaur gave it a final, prophetic yank, freeing it from its loops. Shirtless, Ford was covered in a carpet of hair, sticky with sweat and booze.
Everything not tied down in the room shot up to join the rest, as if invisible dobbers, pranksters of Toonaria, were playing their little game.
Ford swayed as he glanced about with wild, angry eyes. “What are you doing in here, you bangy freak?”
“I hate you so much!” Anton screamed, not moving an inch from the foot of the bed, though he remained pressed up against it, little fists tightly balled, his gubby shirt wet with tears and covered with dust bunnies. With chest out and eyes welded shut, Anton stood his ground and waited for the pain to come. His head was on fire and time slowed. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think.
The shouting intensified, but Anton was a million miles away. There were muffled sounds . . . of a door opening, and of a struggle. A strong, icy breeze blew over him, like someone had let the window open and all the world’s air was rushing in. The room grew freezer-cold. Though his eyes were still shut, Anton’s eyelids were bright and he was certain the room was full of light as bright as the sun. When he opened his eyes again, everything was gone.
* * *
A putrid heap of soggy cardboard and rotting fruit and vegetables were stacked up beside an overflowing dumpster. Near the top of the mound, a small hand emerged, peeling back a protective layer of plastic, sending a cardboard lid of blackened tomatoes and other debris sprawling across the pavement.
“Aren’t you afraid the garbage men are going to scoop you up with the trash and haul your butt off to the dump?”
A blond-haired, blue-eyed, dirty-faced boy of six stepped out of the center of the heap and brushed himself off. “They don’t touch anything outside the dumpster. Besides, Dossey, they only pick up on Thursdays. Would you rather I got mugged in my sleep?” Like his companion, the young boy spoke in Traders Tongue, the predominant language on Endama.
The dumpster butted up against an old warehouse. Nearby was a ladder leading up to the roof. Dossey glanced up and pointed. “I told you to sleep on the roof, Anton.”
“I tried . . .” Anton said, frowning. “I couldn’t reach the fist rung.”
“Seriously?” Dossey walked over to the ladder and gave it a firm tug. It extended down to the ground with a loud clank. He shook his head and walked over to gaze out over the harbor, which had once been a busy container port, before the Exodus.
The cranes, enormous rusting titans, stood silent, only servicing the few remaining container ships that came to port. These days, only a skeleton crew maintained the crumbling docks.
Dossey said he would try to get some work there, but it had been two weeks and he hadn’t said a word about it.
“They weren’t hiring, huh?” Anton said.
The older boy shrugged. A seagull landed near him to peck at one of the tomatoes, but Dossey kicked the rotten fruit into the water and the bird flew off.
Anton knew they were almost out of money, but decided not to pursue the topic further. Had he delved deeper into Dossey’s mind, the older boy would have been powerless to stop him, but he didn’t always like what he found. Sometimes it was better not knowing what people were thinking.
Dossey was old––nearly sixteen, with a small scar on his chin and black hair that defied gravity, thanks to the NanoDo his mother allowed him to get for his ninth birthday, just months before he ran away from home.
No matter how he slept on it, nor how much the wind blew, or whether his hair got dirty while dumpster diving, it always repaired and cleaned itself within moments, maintaining any shape and length Dossey wanted. That is, it used to. He’d forgotten the password, and his hairdo no longer responded to voice commands.
Behind Dossey’s left ear was a tiny, flesh-colored reset stub, but that option had been removed the same day he’d run away, when three boys held him down in the bathroom at school and seared the back of his ear with a vibroblade—the same one he carried now.
Neither of the boys had much to call their own. Dossey lost nearly everything but his knife that first night. Anton still had his snugglebunny and gubby pack, but the blue jumper and white shirt the Rescue Mission gave him had become uncomfortably small over the past two years. Despite his appearance, few people made fun of him anymore.
Dossey started rooting around in the dumpster with a metal pipe he’d found.
“I already checked it, Dossey.”
“You might’ve missed something,” the older boy replied, and he was right, for moments later he fished out a perfectly good pair of ear buds. He shoved them into his pocket and smiled. “Don’t feel bad, I’m a Dumpster Ninja, little brother.”
Little brother? The thought made Anton smile. He had always wanted a big brother, and he admired Dossey.
The older boy had good eyes and street smarts and he was good with the blade too, though he’d learned to fear and respect Anton, too, over the past year and a half.
Anton didn’t like fighting, but while they tried to avoid trouble, over the months they had found themselves in more than a few fights, mostly with other kids, but with adults too.
While Anton was small, whenever he got scared or mad during a fight, his opponents would start to bleed out of their eyes, ears, nose . . . wherever it could find a way. That’s why they called him a freak, though not to his face if they knew better, and that’s why everybody avoided him—everybody except Dossey. The older boy had only witnessed him kill once before. It had been an accident, of course, and after, when Anton’s head cleared and he thought no one was watching, he broke down and cried. This happened whenever someone got badly hurt. Dossey knew about these episodes and would find a reason to be away, pretending not to know.
In time, Anton was able to read Dossey like watching a vid, but he never asked him about the darker things he’d found in Dossey’s head. He didn’t want to know and he didn’t care why Dossey stuck around, so long as he did. They got along well enough.
“I dreamt about that girl again last night,” Anton said.
“You get a good look at her this time?” Dossey asked. “She pretty? Does she got big . . . ?” Dossey started to say, cupping his hands to his chest, grinning, then caught himself, feeling bangy, knowing Anton thought girls were bangy.
Anton ignored him and continued, “It was the same as before. It’s dark. She says stuff I don’t understand, but I can hear her calling my name.”
“You think she was speaking in Humanus, or Alliance maybe?”
“Traders Tongue, I think. It’s more like something’s distorting it so I can’t make out the words. It seemed like she was in pain, Dossey. Just like before, as soon as I say something, I feel like I can’t breathe and I wake up.”
“Dreams are bangy,” Dossey said, resolving it with a shrug, like he did most things. “The mind gets bored, and likes to play games, that’s all. Come on, let’s go,” Dossey said, scooping up Anton’s purple gubby pack and handing it to him by a strap. He squeezed Anton’s shoulder as he passed by to retrieve his own, larger pack.
Off in the distance, dockworkers were offloading a large container from a ship.
The horizon was dotted with boats—stubborn fishermen trying to eek out a living from the polluted, overexploited bay.
Dossey hefted his pack onto his shoulders and headed off down an alleyway, checking out the graffiti as he went.
Anton ran to catch up.
* * *
For a long time, Anton had kept quiet about why he ran away from home. One night, a few months after they’d been living on the streets together, he started bawling and the words flowed till there were none left. He was worried Dossey would leave him if he found out, but Dossey didn’t even believe him at first. Everything changed after they fought the knuckle dragger behind the flesh bar and had to flee deeper into the city to avoid the police drones.
“What would your therapist have said about your dreams?” Dossey said, glancing back to make sure they weren’t being followed. One had to be very careful crossing Lower Troika.
“I didn’t dream about her back then, but my therapist would probably have told me to think about snugglebunnies instead.”
“You’re still sleeping with that thing aren’t you? They’re meant to comfort babies. You’re a big boy now,” Dossey said, obviously regretting his words the moment they slipped out.
“Plenty of adults like Toonaria and play the games . . . and they collect the figurines too!” Anton said, feeling irritable.
Dossey knew he would regret it, but couldn’t stop himself and said, “Okay, but yours isn’t a figurine, it’s just a doll!”
“They collect the dolls too!” Anton said in a burst of anger that slashed across Dossey’s mind, making the older boy wet himself a little. He staggered over and leaned against the ribbed, metal warehouse wall for support. Breathing hard and holding his head in his free hand, Dossey massaged his temples.
Anton’s face turned sheet-white and tears flowed down his cheeks. “I’m so sorry, Dossey! I didn’t mean to. I didn’t—” Anton’s voice caught in his throat, imagining Dossey curled up in a fetal position, bleeding from his eyes and ears and nose.
“Ford was right,” Anton said, bottom lip quivering. “They’re all right. I am a freak.”
“You’re not—” Dossey gasped, looking away.
“I’m sorry! I said I was sorry!”
After a moment, his breath ragged, his whole body trembling, Dossey said, “You trying to melt my brain?” He kept his face hidden, but Anton knew he was crying.
“Frickin’ still hurts!” Dossey said after several minutes, finally standing without support.
Anton glanced around nervously. He didn’t recognize the neighborhood.
Slowly, Dossey’s breathing returned to normal. “I wasn’t . . . going to tell anyone,” he said.
“I know,” Anton said in a small voice. “I . . . I wasn’t thinking!” He worried he might accidentally fry Dossey’s brain for real one day. “I wouldn’t blame you if you took off on your own, Dossey. I know I’m holding you back . . .”
“Just . . . you have to be more careful, Anton. I’m not the enemy . . .”
“I know . . .”
Anton sensed they were being watched. Glancing up, he saw a tattooed dwarf sitting in the open window of his third story apartment cleaning his needler rifle. Anton tapped Dossey on the shoulder and motioned with his eyes. Dossey quickly guided them out of the area. Cutting through a commercial district, they headed deeper into the city, taking breaks to rest when it seemed safe to do so.
* * *
It was late in the day when they reached the small, unassuming entrance to Borqa. A narrow alleyway opened up to Borqa, a sprawling squatter’s town that was all but invisible to the rest of the world. Surrounding Borqa was a wall of laser wire, barricades and sealed-off, centuries-old buildings that came to be known as Borqa’s Frame.
Most of Borqa was a shanty town of crude huts; tents; barely standing patchworks of salvaged plastic, cardboard, plywood, corrugated metal; and tiny homes of crumbling brick covered in layers of peeling paint.
From all appearances, Borqa was a claustrophobic throng of Lower Troika’s discarded poor, living in a crumbling corner of Endama, a world all but forgotten. Overhead, cables splayed like spiderwebs, some bearing power, others clothing set out to dry.
“Welcome to Borqa, Anton. Don’t worry, you’ll like it at the Monte,” Dossey assured him when Anton gave him a weary glance. “I promise!”
Anton nodded, but his heart sank, finding the high concentration of voices oppressive.
No one confronted them, though some waved, smiling, and others simply stared with an expression of abandoned hope. Those that refused to give up, no matter their state, seemed truly happy and greeted them as they passed.
Anton noticed a boy of about three standing in a cardboard box with high walls, holding a bright red ball.
“Play ball? We play?” the boy said in Libbish, a dialect of the Traders Tongue. Smiling, the boy tossed the ball to Anton, but it barely made it over the lip of the box and landed with a splash in the trail of gray goo running down between the shanties.
Anton paused and stared at the boy, but Dossey kept walking, not even seeming to notice him, so Anton followed after.
Almost immediately, Anton’s vision blurred, the shanties seemed to sag and melt away. He struggled to think clearly and his head felt like it was literally on fire. The voices became deafening, but one voice rose above the others.
“What is it, Dossey?” Anton said, wincing from the pain.
Dossey glanced back, shook his head, and kept walking.
“What?” Anton shouted, annoyed, but even as he asked, he realized it hadn’t been Dossey’s voice.
“Quit messing around!” Dossey said.
The pain lessened; the voices diminished slightly.
Puzzled, Anton glanced around, his eyesight clearing, and spotted a small girl standing in the box where the boy had been just a moment before.
She must have been sitting on the floor of the box, and now the little boy is, he concluded. That’s a bangy game! When the little girl turned to look at him, Anton gasped.
“Run, Anton,” she said, only her lips didn’t move. She looked terrified. No one else seemed to notice or care.
Again his headache spiked and his vision blurred.
“Run, Anton! And don’t stop till you find me!”
Fear shot through his veins as he stood there staring into the eyes of what could have been a younger version of his mother. He remembered clearly the picture he had seen of her when she was young—and that voice! It sounded exactly like hers, which made him shiver all the more, until Dossey jerked hard on his arm, distracting him.
“We need to keep moving!” Dossey whispered over his shoulder.
Three boys Dossey’s age were watching them from the shade of a shanty, whispering amongst themselves as they smoked their zigs.
Anton felt lightheaded and allowed the older boy to pull him along, but he kept looking back over his shoulder. Everything was fuzzy. He felt something wet on his upper lip and wiped at it absently with his free hand. The girl was gone, but the boy had returned.
Just a game. No, it’s just my imagination. No one in Borqa knows my name. Something’s wrong. My power’s acting bangy. I must be imagining things.
Again he felt a wetness under his nose and wiped at it. Glancing down at his fingers he saw they were covered in blood the same bright red as the boy’s ball. He wondered if the blood was real or just his mind playing games.
Dossey stopped and pulled out a wad of napkins from a side pouch on his pack. “Quit picking your nose,” he said, handing Anton a few, then after a moment, the rest.
“I wasn’t—” Anton paused to quickly dab at a stream of blood running down over his lips. He held the napkins against his nose for several seconds, checked, felt the wetness again, stemmed the flow, and repeated the process as they walked along, finally surrendering and leaving the wad in place. “I wasn’t doing anything,” he said, head still pounding.
Maybe I’m going bangy. I don’t know a thing about this power I have. What if it just stops working one day or fries my own brain? He shuddered at the thought.
They came upon a small, open lot, with patches of grass surrounding a large slab of crumbling concrete. A basketball hoop, rusting and naked, was mounted to a wooden power pole at one end of the makeshift court.
Nearly a dozen boys were running around laughing, dribbling a half-inflated ball, and attempting to make baskets, missing more often than not. Several girls were on the perimeter either watching or playing with a tiny ball of their own, bouncing it, then chasing after it, squealing as they swarmed over it. They stopped to watch Dossey and Anton. Several smiled and a couple waved, then turned to each other and giggled. One was older, nearly Dossey’s age, shy and pretty, with large brown eyes.
“They seem . . . friendly,” Anton said and smiled up at Dossey, finally removing the bloody wad of napkins.
The older boy nodded and smiled, staring at the girl with brown eyes. “We’re almost home, little brother. Almost.”
* * *
It was late afternoon when they finally reached the Monte, a fifteen-story apartment building wedged between two smaller, crumbling tenements. Six-meter high, laser wire-lined barricades covered any gaps along the Borqan Frame, as much to keep people in as out, or so Dossey said as they approached.
Standing beside a heavy reinforced door was a two-point-two meter tall, purply-gray-skinned giant. His arms were thicker than Anton’s waist and even without the needler rifle slung over his shoulder, Anton doubted anyone could get past him.
“He’s a xeelotian,” Dossey whispered.
Knowing what the creature was didn’t put Anton at ease. He couldn’t help but stare at the giant, whose broad shoulders tapered to huge cones of solid rock-flesh, and whose cheeks flared down and out in smaller cones.
Dossey motioned for Anton to wait, and then without a word, approached the giant and handed him something. They talked for less than a minute, but to Anton it seemed like hours. He was too scared to listen in.
Removing his gubby pack and holding it against his chest, Anton slid a hand inside and began stroking the furry snugglebunny within, calming himself and taking deep breaths like his therapist used to advise him.
Finally, the xeelotian unlocked the heavy, reinforced door and held it open for them.
Dossey turned to Anton and smiled, motioning for him to approach, but Anton remained rooted where he was. So Dossey returned, grabbed his hand, and led him inside.
Mustering all the courage he could find to appear unafraid, Anton made eye contact with the giant as they passed by.
The giant waved at him, wriggling three fat digits and an opposable thumb, together forming an X shape. “Things won’t always be like this, kid,” he said. He smiled sympathetically at Anton as he shut and locked the door behind them.
Before them was a dark stairwell leading up.
* * *
After fifteen years of deliberation and preparation, the Taager High Council quietly began a two-step process of transforming an insignificant world on the southern frontier of Alliance Space into an exact duplicate of Earth, minus the pollution and chaos. The first step employed a taager-built terraforming machine, the second required the use of an ancient Architect Technoformer, to replicate Earth’s remaining major cities.
During this time, the owner of the Monte was renovating the top two floors. He finished only weeks before the Interstellar Alliance announced Neo Earth was ready for occupation. The Interstellar Alliance then donated Neo Earth, along with several other minor worlds, to the human survivors of the Second Galactic War. That was nearly seven years ago, according to Dossey—only a year before Anton was born.
While thousands of humans had died during the Second Galactic War, so had thousands of sygmans, humanus, dwarves, xeelotians, and other races. There was plenty of speculation as to why the Alliance did it, but none of it stopped the humans from flooding into Neo Earth by the millions, or enjoying the technologies the Alliance shared with them during and after the war.
The Monte’s owner hastily sold the property for much less than it was worth, eager to move to Neo Jerusalem, despite controversies over holy sites and other territorial claims superimposed upon Neo Earth. Space on the colony ships was limited, and many sold or left behind everything they owned rather than pay exorbitant prices to ship their belongings to Neo Earth.
A year later, the Monte’s new owner followed suit, so as to be closer to his daughter and grandchildren. The Monte was dumped into the hands of Leonard, the apartment building’s manager. Property values had plummeted and Leonard got the building for little more than a handshake.
Leonard didn’t actually want the property, but he had no desire to move, so to the outside world, the Monte seemed officially closed for business. As most of the tenants had moved to Neo Earth, he shut off the power and water to the rest of the building and presented a new contract to the few remaining tenants.
Those that agreed to his terms had their power and water restored, and their rent cut in half. Those who didn’t were evicted.
In truth, Leonard didn’t need the rent money, having invested heavily and wisely over the years. He dressed simply, kept to himself, and most were oblivious to his wealth.
Under the new terms, if something broke, the tenants were responsible for making repairs or going without. Further, tenants weren’t allowed to exceed their current occupancy, enter unused apartments, nor the lobby, front stairwell, or go anywhere above the twelfth floor without Leonard’s express permission. He made it clear he wouldn’t tolerate excessive use of power or water, loud noises, trouble, or damage to his property.
While some offenses would result in a tenant’s immediate removal, in most cases, he turned off power on the first infraction, water on the second, and then had them evicted on the third.
To encourage compliance, Leonard hired a private security firm to guard the doors, keep out the riffraff, and deal with any tenants that annoyed him. Shutting down the elevator, sealing off access to the back stairwell above the twelfth floor with a heavy, reinforced door, and walling off all internal entrances to the lobby and front stairwell below the thirteenth floor effectively contained the remaining tenants. Thereafter, tenants on the lower levels had to use the back stairwell, which emptied out into Borqa.
Leonard had lived in his apartment on the thirteenth floor for seventeen years. He had no interest in moving to another apartment when the original owner hired him to be Monte’s manager, nor did he move to the upper floors when they were renovated. He was determined to live out his remaining years in the same apartment. For extra security, he kept a gauss rifle handy.
By the time Dossey and Anton arrived, Leonard had stopped leaving the Monte altogether. Relying first on a friend of Dossey’s to run errands for him, Leonard agreed to hire Dossey when the other boy moved offworld with his grandparents.
Anton and Dossey made their home in one of the apartments on the top floor. Their closest neighbor was Leonard, two floors below. Aside from the guards, only Leonard, Anton, and Dossey had access to both stairwells and could come and go through the lobby whenever they wanted.
To enter Borqa, they had to use the back stairwell like everyone else, except they also had to pass through a heavy, reinforced door, which could only be unlocked by Leonard or a security guard, usually remotely. Most of the time, Dossey left via the lobby stairwell. It was a long walk down.
Anton didn’t go out much because the voices bothered him, Dossey didn’t think it was safe, and he didn’t like to hassle with the stairs, so he played inside.
Leonard wasn’t a people person, but tolerated Anton and Dossey because he could boss them around and pay them next to nothing, compensating them mostly in housing and an occasional meal.
Most of the time, Leonard would just sit around his apartment and watch the news, history channels, or soaps in his favorite chair, his gauss rifle within easy reach. He didn’t even have to get up if he didn’t feel like it, as he had invested in a cushioned hovermat that carried him wherever he wanted.
At night, Dossey and Anton often sat out on the balcony of their apartment, enjoying the view while yakking about Leonard, listening to music or watching a vid on the minicomp Dossey had given him. Tapping into Leonard’s unprotected Wi-Fi was bangy simple. Sometimes Anton got bored, despite all the toys he found to play with, especially when Dossey was listening to music or when he went off on errands or to hang out with his girlfriend.
Anton had long since decided that his encounter with the boy and girl in the box, and the strange event that followed, had been nothing more than a hallucination—a glitch in his powers. The headaches and blurred vision continued, and sometimes he felt overwhelmed by the voices and even got nosebleeds at times, but thankfully such annoyances happened only rarely. In time, as he practiced his powers, he hoped such side effects would stop altogether.
Eventually, Anton became friends with the xeelotian, who despite his appearance, was actually one of the most gentle and kind individuals he’d ever met; a few times the guard even left a new toy outside Anton’s apartment door. The xeelotian didn’t seem to care much for Dossey, who sometimes came home with cuts and bruises as if he’d been in a fight. As time went on, Dossey stayed out later and more often and Anton worried that one day Dossey would run off with his girlfriend and never come back. But Dossey always came back.
Over a year had passed since they’d moved into the Monte and became Leonard’s little helpers. Anton was expected to come by twice a week and help clean up Leonard’s apartment. While he didn’t like having to do chores and decided the old man smelled funny, Anton found if he worked hard, the chores didn’t take as long as he’d thought, especially when he didn’t rush through them, since Leonard would know somehow and just make him start all over again.
As part of their living arrangement, Leonard required Dossey to put Anton on a bus that stopped just outside of Borqa to take homeless kids to school, but Dossey argued that it wasn’t safe enough and Anton had special needs. He offered to teach Anton himself, but Leonard pointed out that Dossey hadn’t made it past the fourth grade. A compromise was reached and Leonard allowed Anton to be schooled on the Grid instead.
“Kindergarten?” Anton said, unenthusiastically glancing over the list of educational games and lessons on his minicomp. “This is little kid stuff!”
“Perfect,” Leonard said, looking over his shoulder. He didn’t leave Anton’s side until he’d picked a lesson and began. Literacy, math, history, and science; it was all there and Leonard was on the account. Anton felt trapped.
“I’ll be checking your progress regularly, young man.”
“Perfect,” Anton replied sarcastically.
After only twenty minutes, he walked over to where Leonard was sitting in his favorite chair watching a miniseries on the history of the Interstellar Alliance. He stood quietly beside Leonard until the old man looked over.
A huge, taager Peace Maker ship dominated the scene, dwarfing two smaller hordaqi dreadnoughts beside it. The hordaqi ships turned to flee and froze in mid-jump when Leonard announced, “Pause.” Turning to Anton, he said, “What’s wrong now?”
“This thing’s too old and slow, Leonard . . . just like you.” Anton had thought he was being clever and tried not to smile, but realized he’d crossed a line.
Leonard’s right arm snatched up his gauss rifle and swung it back around, pressing it up against Anton’s chest before the boy could blink. “You still think I’m slow? Maybe I’m too old and weak to pull this trigger—what do you think, boy?”
Anton didn’t move a muscle, but reached into Leonard’s mind and discovered that not only did Leonard have no intention of hurting him, but the rifle wasn’t even loaded. He was trying to make a point, trying to show how much he disliked not just what Anton said, but the way he’d been acting. Anton also noted something new: Leonard had served in the Humanus Defense Fleet and had black ops training.
You think I want to be reminded I’m going to die soon? Leonard thought, and Anton heard it as clearly as if he’d voiced it. He felt what Leonard was feeling, and it scared him. He quickly pulled out, not wanting to know more.
“The minicomp has a hard time loading . . . sir. It’s just too slow. I’m sorry you’re getting old. I really am. And I’m not just apologizing because you’re pointing the rifle at me. I know it’s not loaded, but I really am sorry,” Anton said, and meant it.
Leonard just stared at him, eyes narrowed, but slowly lowered the rifle with a sigh and set it on his lap. “Maybe it’s slow or maybe you just need to learn some patience.” He glanced down at the rifle on his lap and stared at it for a long moment. “It’s true, what you said.”
“I was just guessing. I know you don’t want to hurt me, sir . . .”
“I meant about what you said before. It’s true I’m slowing down, getting old. But it’s not your place to say. I don’t need to be reminded. It’s bad enough I have to haul this body around twenty-four-seven.”
Anton swallowed, his stomach in knots, and was about to say something but Leonard stopped him with a raised hand.
“Let me see that thing,” Leonard said, reaching his hand out.
Anton handed him the minicomp and Leonard toyed with it, trying to access the Grid to test it out. After a minute or so, he handed it back and grunted. “It does seem a little slow . . .”
“Maybe I can watch these history videos with you instead,” Anton offered.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? You need more than history. You need to learn how to think. You need math and other stuff to get well rounded,” Leonard said and turned to the giant wall screen. “Ultimar Super Center. Computers.” The space scene faded from view, replaced by a computer showroom displaying the latest line up of high-end computers.
A virtual Shopper’s Assistant approached, the human male avatar was dressed immaculately in Cordaru, the price and a blinking “More” sign floated beside it.
"Welcome back, Mr. Bernarr,” the avatar said pleasantly. “How can I make your day a little brighter?”
“You can’t,” Leonard said, and then ordered a mid-priced computer.
Two days later, the computer arrived and was set up in Leonard’s living room facing away from his wall screen.
“You’ll study two hours a day and get decent grades if you want to keep living here,” Leonard said, adding, “and you’ll watch your mouth or my rifle will be loaded next time and I’d be happy to escort you and Dossey out myself!”
Anton wanted nothing to do with online classes, but Leonard let him adventure on the Grid using his snugglebunny avatar when his lessons were done. The graphics were photorealistic and the computer was much more powerful than his minicomp, so the lessons became more bearable.
To Anton’s surprise, he fell in love with math and history, especially military history, but found the lessons too easy. After boasting about his progress, Leonard shifted him up to first grade and the lessons got harder. Even so, Anton learned quickly and would finish his lessons as fast as he could and then search online for math games and watch history vids and go off on adventures. He even found domains devoted to Toonaria and gubbies where he could talk with other fans and interact with AI gubbies.
One day, after his lessons were done, Anton took a virtual walk down a path through a field of flowers, arriving at his favorite Toonaria domain, but its gates were shut. He turned back and headed down a different path for a neighboring domain he liked, but a mean-looking samurai blocked the entrance with his katana. There was no way around him. Then he sensed Leonard behind him.
“Until you bring up your literacy grade, no wandering!” Leonard demanded.
Anton threw a fit, but Leonard told him if he continued he’d turn off the power to his apartment. Somehow, Anton managed to hold his tongue.
When Anton got back to his own apartment, he went to his room and tried to access his favorite domains, but access was denied. Instead, he went online using the Matrix, an antiquated VR he hadn’t used since the new computer arrived. The next day he grudgingly applied himself in literacy. His grades slowly improved, but he had to wait two grueling months before Leonard finally unlocked his favorite Grid domains.
The harder Anton tried to improve on his grades and be polite, the better Leonard treated him. Overall, life at the Monte was parsecs better than living on the streets.
* * *
Anton continued having the same dream, sometimes several times a week, waking up in the middle of the night in tears, wishing he could help the girl in pain who kept calling his name. Then he’d calm down and remind himself that Dossey was right—dreams were bangy—and went back to bed.
Sometimes he would wake up dreaming of his mother. They would be sitting on the couch together reading, or in a park or eating dinner—just the two of them—and then everything would fade to white. He would hear her scream, and then would wake up and burst into tears all over again.
Last night, for the first time ever, he dreamt of the boy and girl in the box.
“Bangy dreams!” he muttered as he got out of bed and walked by Dossey’s door, pleased to hear him snoring in his bed because it meant he was home, not somewhere out with his girlfriend or getting into a fight.
After eating and dressing, Anton went over to Leonard’s apartment to begin his chores. Once finished, Leonard asked him to pour them both a glass of milk and sit down at the table.
Leonard sat down and revealed a bowl of Cragg sweets, setting it between them. For several minutes, they sat and ate the delicious treats from the far away Cragg Federation, neither saying a word. Only once before had Leonard shared the expensive treats with him—when he got his first B in literacy—but Anton sensed this wasn’t a celebratory occasion.
“Never get old, Anton,” Leonard said, taking another bite. He’d said it before, and Anton had no doubt that he’d say it again before long, but he didn’t know how to respond, so he just nodded as before.
Leonard’s thoughts always proved hard for Anton to understand and often surrounded feelings of regret over things he had done or failed to do, loneliness, thoughts of death and pain from a million little things that ached him.
Worried for him, Anton dug deeper into Leonard’s mind and was overcome with sadness. He had reached deeper into Leonard’s mind than he thought possible, and rushed into the bathroom, sat down on the commode, and cried.
Ever since that day, Anton did his best not to read Leonard’s mind or even Dossey’s. This became increasingly difficult as his power grew. But he no longer wanted to know what either of them thought, and found himself worrying that one or both of them would leave him one day. As a result, he worked harder than ever to please them.
In time, Anton became better at tuning out the voices and listening with his ears instead of his mind, but when he was alone at night and grew bored, he would sometimes allow himself to reach out to areas where he was sure he didn’t know anyone. When he heard something that made him regret having his power, he would stop, sometimes for days or weeks at a time.