Snippet from my space-elves story, Echelon

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Once upon a time, I used to publish bits of fiction on this blog each Friday. I thought I might revive that with a bit from my current WIP, Echelon ( science fantasy/space opera).

Please note:This story is still in the process of editing and may be subjected to dramatic changes. What I’ve posted may not make the final cut. If it does, it may not look anything like it does below. There may also be typos and poor grammar and other nonsense because this story has not yet been proofed. Please do not quote, repost, or reblog in any format. And just as a friendly reminder, this material (rough as it is) is copyrighted.

Now that that’s out of the way, on with the snippet!

*   *   *

Maia knelt on the stone floor of the cave, as if she were meditating, and listened. Nothing. It was too early for most True Humans. Only the guard at the front entrance would be a problem, and then only if Control didn’t keep her end of the bargain.

Soft footsteps scraped the cave floor and the glow of a flashlight appeared around the corner of what she personally called her cell. Clothes flew out of the darkness toward her. She caught them before they could hit the floor. No sound. Nothing to wake those she had once called friends.

With shaking hands, she managed to slip the camouflage clothes of the regular soldiers over her t-shirt and modified shorts, cringing at the noise that made, no matter that it was no louder than a whisper.

Her belly had gotten just big enough for waistbands to be an issue. This pair was held together by a hairband looped through the buttonhole and over the button. The soldier’s clothes her friend had managed to sneak out were a size too large. Perfect. No one in her husband’s ragtag group wore their exact size. It was too difficult to find while they tried to stay out of sight. She slipped the mask over her face (an extra precaution since the days of the last raid) and stood.

Control could still betray her, she thought just before she stepped into the open, still tugging the heavy jacket closed. It would be safer to stay here. And the True Humans didn’t have much, but they had enough to take care of the baby growing inside her.

And enough to take her away, she reminded herself, and stepped forward, hoping she wouldn’t be betrayed.

Control took her hand and gave it a squeeze. That was the only sign of comfort she dared give before they started walking toward the guard, and Maia knew it. Shoving her hands into her pants’ pockets to keep them warm, she wished she could take supplies with her. Even a small delay on food would make her nauseous enough to hold her in place. Yet she couldn’t afford the time. This might be her only chance.

The guard was pleasant, even though Control was the one talking. “Emma and I are going to get some water,” she explained.

Emma rarely talked, especially to the guards. And she wasn’t that far off from Maia’s shape and height.

She knew the man who stood at the entrance to the caves Scott, their new leader, had forced them to stay at. Cary. Joined when he was fresh out of a high school that no longer existed. Tall, handsome, and always had a smile for her. She’d thought he would be on her side when she’d found out the group’s plans for her baby. But no one complained, not after her husband’s death. Cary had parroted Scott, said the caves were only temporary, only until the group was back on its feet. It wouldn’t be long and they’d get back to all the things they’d been building to survive long enough to take back their home. Besides, her daughter was going to be born in about six months, wasn’t she? They definitely wouldn’t need to hide then. She would save them.

Delusional. Her husband’s experiments had made them all delusional. All except her, Control, and Emma.

“Take care,” he warned, though out of concern, not as a command. No one in their group was better at hand-to-hand combat than Control. And no one could handle a weapon like her, either. She always joked she had to, since she was all that was left of the control group.

The experiment was dead. Anything else was a joke…or false hope.

No, the concern wasn’t for Control. Maia knew his concern was for Emma, Control’s friend and the closest to a little sister their group had. Quiet, kind, and always ready to help. That was Emma. Sometimes she reminded Maia of a rabbit, always sniffing for danger, but when she was around the women she smiled and laughed as if there was nothing to fear.

Emma was the only one Maia worried about her escape affecting, but Control had said she would handle that. You have to go, she had said. I’ll take care of Emma.

They walked down the side of the mountain they were hiding in, down a long winding path surrounded by pine and oak trees lit by the still-rising sun, until they arrived at the stream the True Humans used, a small series of granite rocks forming what her husband had told her was called a shut-in. They walked until the stood on top of a flat piece of granite by the edge of the running water. Unfolding the containers she’d brought, Control said, “I can’t hide your escape.”

“I know.”

“I’ll have to tell them you betrayed me.”

“They’ll believe you. You’ve done almost as much for this group as my husband.”

“Late husband,” Control gently corrected, though her face was without pity.

Only she knew some of what storm those words churned up in Maia’s thoughts.

Before Maia could say anything more, Control pulled out a small backpack from under her jacket. “I put some blue ice in there to keep the food cool, but it’s not well-insulated. You’ll need to eat the cheese first. And there isn’t much to start with.” She paused and slowly took off her mask, revealing brown, almond eyes and tanned skin. Short, brown hair had begun to grow out. Control would have called it shaggy if she’d been pressed to talk about it. Her friend tensed her jaw, and Maia wasn’t sure, but she thought she saw a glimmer of tears in her eyes. “You’ll get caught, you know. They’ll listen for you with those skills your husband gave them, and they’ll not only bring you back here, they’ll try cutting the baby out before her time.”

If only that was the end of the horrors they might inflict. “Then I’d better go,” Maia whispered. “Thank you.”

Control snorted. “If you want to thank me, you’ll shoot me before you take off. Gah, you’re gonna get so lost in the Ozarks.”

“It’s beautiful country. I had my honeymoon not far from here.”

“I put a map and compass in there, just in case your oh-so-incredible memory fails you. And for the love of all that’s holy would you please get over your squeamishness about looting and raid any buildings you find on your way to the Mississippi? I don’t know how long that food’s going to last you and who knows how long it’ll take you to get past the caldera, let alone the other side. The Tuatha don’t care about anything right now except fixing the damage your husband caused. I think their tracking systems are still out, and it doesn’t hurt that you’ve never been chipped. Just run fast as you can.” She paused. “Gah, you’re such an idiot. Couldn’t you have tried going through Oklahoma?”

Maia tried to smile and found she could barely manage it. They both knew she couldn’t go there. The vast plains were being transformed by the Tuatha to the north and the south. But as far as any in their group could tell, none of their enemy had tried to touch the Mississippi.

Control took a pistol out from behind her jacket. “Try to keep it steady, ‘kay?”

Maia froze. “What?”

“You betrayed me, right? I’m the best fighter in the group now. You can’t just run off while I cry, ‘Maia, please, don’t go.’” She reached out her empty hand to the distance, her face contorted in mock anguish.

Maia stifled laughter, throwing a nervous glance toward the direction of they’d come. “This isn’t a joke.”

“That’s my point. I doubt I could get an angle that would look convincing. Scott’s great with ballistics.”

“And if I kill you?”

Control rolled her eyes. “You’re the worst shot I’ve ever seen. If you even hit me in the first place, I’ll be shocked. And if you do manage to hit me, how about this: take lightly wounding me as a sign you should keep going. I mean, you are at point-blank range. That should help.”

Maia reluctantly took the pistol, noticing the silencer Control had added to it. Guns made her uneasy anyway, and she’d never been strong enough to manage the kick that jolted her arm, even if she held it with both hands like John had taught her. She wasn’t as bad a shot as Control made it sound, but she wasn’t good, either.

“Now, remember: aim to wound, not kill. The last thing you need is them thinking you’re a murderer.”

Maia nodded as if this were perfectly reasonable, though she thought this was absolutely insane.

Control went back to filling the water containers as if she hadn’t just given Maia everything she would need to start her journey.

Maia’s hand shook. “You have the first aid–”

“Just get it over with and go, before someone comes to check on us.” When Maia still hesitated, Control said, “If you don’t, we go back inside, and you know what that means for you and your baby. And if I have to be the one doing it, you’ll only cause more trouble for me.”

Maia took a steadying breath, raised the pistol with both hands, aimed for the back of Control’s leg (they would expect a wound that would keep anyone from following her) and fired. She turned and ran before she could see the damage, only knowing she’d hit flesh because of Control’s strangled grunt. But eventually, her concern for her friend made her look back to see if the wound had been as superficial as she hoped.

She couldn’t tell from this distance. But Control was moving, wrapping the wound, though it looked difficult for her.

It took all she had not to run back, apologize, and help Control with the kit.

She did this for you, she told both herself and the baby growing inside her. Tears in her eyes, she headed east, moving as fast as her body would let her.

*   *   *

No one called Control by her real name: Lynn Cart. She didn’t want them to. It reminded her that there had been a time when things had been good.
Teeth clenched, Lynn tightened the bandage around her leg. Maia was a terrible shot. Always had been. Any closer and she would have hit something important. The bullet had grazed her leg instead of tearing through muscle and nerves. Luck, she supposed, had saved her this time.

Luck had a lot to do with any of them being alive right now.

She pulled herself to her feet, keeping the weight off her leg, and began moving back toward the caves, leaving the water as it was. Amazed she felt shaky, Control did her best to stay calm by working out her story. No scuffle, she decided, refining the lie. Maia Thomas, widow of the charismatic John Thomas, had surprised her.

It was their own fault, she rehearsed. Control wasn’t part of the evening meditations because she was part of the control group. She had no abilities like the others, no taint of Tuatha running in her veins or melding with her nerves. She was the human with only a mild ability to read the thoughts of others, the one they could use to make sure the changes happening in the experimental group were actual changes, and not some latent ability.

But Maia had been part of that group. She should have been involved in the evening meditation, even after she got pregnant. Yes, John himself had kept her separate, and their geneticist-turned-family-doctor, Dr. Marlow, had agreed. Why? No one knew. But if she’d been part of those evening meditations, when the whole group could see what the rest were thinking, they would have known.

Anger, Lynn decided. She needed to be really angry about this. She’d been betrayed, both by her friend and the group as a whole. For crying out loud, how on earth did Maia get that gun in the first place?

She only chose me, she continued, struggling to the top of a grassy hill, because I couldn’t read thoughts like the rest of you. I was vulnerable, and you let her use me.

Thought was becoming difficult. A sound ahead caught her attention.

Not now. Maia hadn’t gotten enough of a headstart.

Next to her was a small ledge just below the trail. It was shallow, but it would hide her for a while, long enough for Maia to get some more distance.
Of course, the danger was that she’d go into shock before then.

You’d better make it, Lynn thought as she half-crawled, half-fell toward it. I don’t die for just anyone. Not that she had any plans now. But the memory of Dr. Marlow and Scott’s announcement a week ago still lingered, and she knew this was something worth dying for.

She stared at the sun, remembering the words with a clarity that she hoped didn’t come from being near death, only from the shock of Scott’s words themselves.

She’ll be our weapon. Dr. Marlow thinks she’ll be as powerful as any Tuatha, maybe even stronger. But it’ll take work. Meditations three times daily, and we’ll have to train her thoughts from infancy up.

Even with her eyes open, she could see Maia’s pale face as the two stared at each other in dim light of the main cavern. What do you mean “train her thoughts?” You’re not going into the mind of a child, are you? We all agreed that only adults could make decisions like this–

That was before they murdered our Prophet. Do you know, Maia, that they hung his body in front of their headquarters so that every human slave would see what happens to the humans who resist? They cower now, more than ever. It’s like they want to be slaves, and all because they think fighting doesn’t work. But our child–

Mine, Maia had said with a forcefulness that had stunned everyone in the room. I know what it means to join in the meditations. I know what it does and how it changes a person. I won’t put a child’s growing brain through that.

Are you saying it’s dangerous? Dr. Marlow had asked, pushing her glasses back with one finger. Tuatha DNA is fully compatible with human DNA. That was why the children of the first Tuatha and the humans they copulated with had the powers they had. It didn’t harm them. It only added to capabilities humans hadn’t yet realized. There is no danger in opening a child’s mind in this manner.

Scott, in his usual way, made it clear the decision had already been made. Look, this is all we have left, Maia. Your husband’s dream about his baby, and the kid herself. She’ll do fine. We already have some experience using glamours–

On each other, Maia had said. Not on Tuatha, and we haven’t tried the nightmares they use.

But if she’s strong enough–

You do realize that little kids have difficulty figuring out what’s fantasy and what’s real, right? It’s something they develop over time. Even the adults in the group have trouble sometimes figuring out what’s part of the meditation and what’s reality. And don’t tell me that what we see is actually reality in a more symbolic form because you know it’s like walking through a dreamscape sometimes. The symbols are strange and more than one of us has had a sleepless night as a result. What do you think is going to happen to a little kid if you don’t just let her abilities unfold, but actually go in there and start forcing those kind of interactions? She won’t know reality, she’ll think those dreams are real, I can’t even imagine what other side-effects this might have, and this is my child.

She’s ours, Scott had said with a calmness that had frightened Lynn down to her bones. And she’s our last hope.

There had been no more discussion. Maia had been put in solitary confinement, which meant she was in her own small cave that was part of the underground system they’d modified. If anyone saw her walking the halls without supervision, she’d get chased back in.

Between Maia’s objection, Dr. Marlow’s lack of answers, and Scott’s insistence, Lynn had done the only thing that got rid of the growing sickness inside her gut. She’d helped her pregnant friend escape.

Maia’d get captured, of course. There was a reason the True Humans had managed to evade the Tuatha all this time and a lot of it didn’t have to do with any special powers. They just knew the terrain, especially John, who had loved backpacking through Southern Missouri. He might as well have lived there, as often as his dad took him camping. No one knew where Maia was from, but she’d met John in Kansas City at UMKC. The only times she’d been in the wild, she’d told Lynn once, was when she went with John. Not to mention, they were in the wilderness on the east side of Bell Mountain. It wasn’t exactly easy terrain. Her chances of getting away weren’t good and they both knew it.

But she also knew she wouldn’t be able to keep going as one of the rebels if she hadn’t at least tried to help.

The sun rose higher and Lynn remained quiet. Her leg might get infected, but she remained still. They would come looking for her eventually. In fact, she wouldn’t be surprised if they were looking right now.

She heard a group go by and decided to call out. They rushed over, worried, terrified, and desperate. Where was Maia? Did she know?

Never mind about the woman who’d been shot. Lynn managed not to smirk while they fired questions at her. It was easier to act outraged when she tried to get up. Pain shot through her leg, and she ground her teeth against the cry that still managed to get out between them. “Don’t know,” she whispered. “Shot me, then took off. Tried to get back. Couldn’t.”

The world spun round and Lynn fought to keep from actually falling down the steep, forested incline. Worry about me, she prayed. Focus on me, try to get information from me.

“Did you find her?” she heard someone say, but not to her.

“There were tracks for a while, then it looks like there was a scuffle. Couldn’t tell what happened exactly but someone took her.”

The voice sounded young. Maia hoped it was one of the more inexperienced, or at least insecure, men. That would mean more time as they called on Scott to double-check, and time while the tracking parties were organized.

Lynn focused on the pain to keep her from smiling. Her friend might actually have a chance…as long as those tracks were just an illusion. She hoped they were.



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