The First Immortal

The First Immortal

 

I walked the streets of a city I hadn’t seen in two-hundred years.

And I felt thousands of people watching me.

If Sumer’s crowds were passionate, it felt easy to forgive them. They knew me only from the stories they’d read, the outlandish tales their parents had told, and the exaggerations their schools had taught. In their eyes, I was something well beyond human.

‘Callista – Bringer of Light,’ the banners at the light-train station had blazed.

‘Callista – the Savior.’

I’d learned long ago to ignore such things.

Behind glass partitions, amid lush gardens, and atop silver towers, the people cheered me. An entourage of black-suited men led my way, pushing through the crowds as we neared Arcadia’s tallest tower – the Gran Spire. The people wanted more than my fragile half-smile.

But then, they knew nothing of the horrors I’d faced.

I crossed white streets and meandered through a courtyard made of glass. At the bottom of the Gran Spire’s white-marble stairs, I halted. High above, a long line of glass doors remained shut.

“Is all this necessary?” I asked the man beside me. He was young – at most twenty-five years. He’d never left the planet of Sumer. I knew it at a glance.

He’s never even left Arcadia.

“Pardon, m’lady.” He looked nervous despite his black suit and dark sunglasses. “It’s protocol. President Hephast and the Congressional Court want to welcome you in style.”

I sighed.

I’d known his answer before he’d said it.

But I’d been hopeful for something other than cheering crowds beneath the midday suns.

I stood in the entourage’s center, tugging at the collar of my deep blue dress. I hadn’t wanted to wear the sleek, ridiculous Arcadian fashion, but I’d allowed the heralds who’d greeted my landing to convince me otherwise.

“The people will love you,” they’d promised.

“It’s best to look as though you’re one of us.”

I miss the war already, I thought.

And I forgot how warm this planet is.

A dozen times since last I’d stood beneath Sumer’s two suns. I’d died and been reborn. My newest body had only ever known the cold of interstellar Rings and the deep dark of planets long ago murdered by the Strigoi.

And now the light hurts me almost as much as my enemy.

I glanced at the bronze-skinned Arcadians surrounding me. To them, my discomfort must’ve seemed strange.

“M’lady, are you well?” the young man in sunglasses asked me.

“I am. And please don’t call me m’lady.”

“As you wish, m’la— Madame Callista,” he stammered. “What shall I call you?”

Cal,” I said. “I prefer Cal.”

The glass doors at the Gran Spire’s bottom swung open. Out stepped President Hephast and seventeen members of Arcadia’s Congressional Court, all of them decked in garish Arcadian suits. They were old, many well over a hundred years. To them, standing at the stairwell’s bottom, I must’ve looked childlike.

Yet I’m far older than anyone here.

“Callista Lightbringer.” President Hephast boomed across the courtyard. The amplifiers on his collar projected his voice loud enough for everyone within a half-kilometer to hear.

The crowds fell into reverent silence. The entourage of black-suited men knelt all around me. I stood alone among them, the only soul in Arcadia gazing up at Hephast and his assembly.

“Please, Lady Lightbringer,” Hephast called to me, “come forth.”

With a sigh, I climbed the stairs. My heeled shoes clicked on the glass, and my dress’s train dragged behind me.

Why all this in the middle of the day? I winced against the light. Why not at night?

Symbolic. Must be.  

I arrived at Hephast. Standing just one step above me, he looked older than I’d expected. His bald scalp was tanned to a golden shine by Sumer’s suns. His shoulders were narrow, his fingers long and thin, and his eyes hanging in his sockets, busy yet so very tired.

Humanity had found many ways to extend their lives.

But only I had managed immortality.

“The light, it bothers you?” Hephast saw me wincing.

“It’s been so long,” I said. “And this new body…it’s never been to a sunlit world. It hasn’t yet adapted.”

The old man peered beyond me. I followed his gaze, and found the crowds still kneeling, their eyes averted.

“Wave to them,” said Hephast. “Wave and then join me in my tower. The people have waited so long for you to come. They want to see you happy.”

Happy?

I can’t remember happy.

I faced the crowds and waved to them. A few dared to look up at me, and within moments they all stood and roared with applause. I’d never heard such a noise before. The sound of such overwhelming humanity felt powerful, but empty.

I waved for a full thirty seconds, and then faced Hephast again. All at once, I felt the Congressional Court’s eyes fall upon me. The line of elderly men and women smiled down at me, but not because they loved me.

They smiled because they needed me.

Soldiers clad in powered white armor emerged from the Gran Spire and held open the giant glass doors. Hephast beckoned for me to lead the way, and so I did. Behind me, Arcadia trembled with the cheers of thousands, and then I vanished into the tallest tower humanity had ever built.

Inside, I breathed. The midday heat fell away, and the crowd’s roars went silent. I stood beneath a spinning silver fan whose blades ushered cold air across my face. I closed my eyes and pretended I was still aboard the Sabre, still gliding through the deep darkness between the stars.

If only…

The soldiers stepped aside. Hephast and the seventeen Court members swept toward the Gran Spire’s central hall.

“Come,” Hephast called to me.

I followed.

In a vast white chamber with pale carpets and sharp lights, I settled into the chair they offered me. They put me in the second highest seat, just a half-step below Hephast’s colorless throne. Below us, some hundred chairs sat in a great ring around a table carved of glass.

Every seat was filled.

All eyes were on me.

As I looked into the room, I considered my audience.

These people have never seen me before. They know my stories, but not the truth.

The lights dimmed. Only two still shined.

One above Hephast.

And one above me.

“Welcome to Sumer’s high assembly, Lady Lightbringer,” announced Hephast. With his amplifier still active, his voice spread throughout the room like thunder.

“Thank you.” I gazed forward without expression.

“Before you sits the Arcadian Congressional Court.” He waved his skinny arm. “Also here are delegates from the city of Mercuria, emissaries from Iona and Venya, and members of the Far Court from distant Plutari. They come from all corners of Sumer to hear you speak.”

I gazed at my audience. Their faces, shrouded in shadow, looked shapeless in the dark.

“Forgive me,” I said, “but most of these places…I’ve never heard their names. When I left Sumer more than two centuries ago, the planet hadn’t been fully colonized. Now it seems—”

“We’ve come a long way, Lady Lightbringer,” said someone in the darkness.

Callista,” I corrected him.

“Pardon?” He sounded confused.

“My name – Callista,” I replied. “No one in the fleet calls me Lightbringer. I am…I always have been…Callista.”

Murmurs spread throughout the chamber. The Court’s discomfort hung heavy in the air.

“Callista,” Hephast said my name. “So be it. We’re told you have a full report. If it pleases you, we will hear it now.”

My report arrived years before I did, I wanted to say. You already know everything.

“As you wish.” I nodded.

I reached into my bodice and withdrew a slender silver capsule. I motioned for the nearest attendant, and the nervous young woman took the capsule from my fingers.

“Slide it into your holo-viewer,” I said loud enough for everyone to hear. “You will see what I last witnessed.”

“Wait…” said someone in the dark, “is it—”

“Yes. It’s a vid-capture from Strigoi hive XV Prime,” I said. “From their home-world. Or should I say — the home-world that is no more.”

The Court drowned in a sea of whispers. I heard their voices, faint and full of disbelief, and I allowed myself a smirk.

“…it’s true after all,” one woman said.

“…XV Prime? Their last stronghold in the Milky Way?” uttered a man in the seats below me.

“…she has a vid-capture? We’ll get to see the dark planet?”

The attendant girl looked to Hephast for guidance. He nodded, and the young woman scurried to the projector machine beside his throne.

She slid the silver capsule into the machine.

And we watched the battle unfold:

* * *

“They’ve nowhere to escape,” the young pilot beside me shouted.

“Which means they’ll fight all the harder.” I shook my head.

From the cockpit of my scythe-winged warship – the Sabre, I saw everything:

To the left, the star we’d just created blazed with brilliant yellow light. Even at ten-million kilometers away, the infant sun hurt my eyes to see.

To the right, the bloated Strigoi world XV Prime shuddered beneath the impact of the two-thousand string reprogrammers our fleet had just dropped on its surface. We’d sequenced the string reprogrammers, or S.R.’s, to turn the black substance composing XV Prime’s surface into glass.

If the new star we’d made didn’t kill the dark planet, we’d shatter it instead.

We knew most the S.R.’s would be overwhelmed and reversed by Strigoi death-bots.

“…but they can’t stop every last one.” I grinned in my cockpit. “And when the chain-reaction starts, we’ll break this planet. You’ll see.”

The young pilot stared at XV Prime. The planet’s coal-black surface teemed with Strigoi death-machines, its dark towers housing billions of our enemy.

The poor kid shivered.

He sees them.

They’re coming.  

 I ignited the Sabre’s quantum engine. I felt my chair vibrate and the universe move around me. XV Prime and the infant star became blurs as we accelerated to twenty-thousand kilometers per second. Anything slower, and the Strigoi warships would’ve carved us to tatters. Anything faster, and we’d have moved too far from XV Prime to fight.

“Joff would’ve gone faster.” I grinned.

“Who’s Joff?” my co-pilot asked.

That’s right, I thought, he doesn’t know.

I seized the cockpit control stick, guiding the Sabre between webs of Strigoi death-beams. They weren’t firing at us, but instead at the bigger, more powerful ships in our attack fleet. Red lights flared on the vid-screens, each one indicating a friendly ship’s extermination.

“God, they’re killing us!” the pilot screamed.

Should’ve left him on his home-ship.

No. I saw another twenty red lights illuminate the vid-screen.

If I had, he’d already be dead.

After many hundred years and countless attacks on Strigoi worlds, I’d become a far better pilot than anyone else in the fleet.

And yet…

I’m still not as good as Joff.

I pulled, pushed, and spun the Sabre’s control stick. We weren’t moving through space so much as space spun around us. Whenever I pulled the trigger, streams of missiles tore into the darkness. The Strigoi scythe-ships, their hulls like black, cadaverous bone, dove out of the missiles’ paths.

Not one missile hit its target.

Not that it mattered.

I pulled a second trigger, and all at once the missiles erupted into orbs of light. Spanning a few hundred kilometers each, the orbs burned only a few seconds before collapsing back into shadow.

The Strigoi were made of nightmares, but they’d yet to find a way to survive our newest weapons.

Darkness overwhelms light, our enemy believed.

No.

Light destroys the dark. 

“They’re almost out of ships,” I said to my co-pilot. I looked at him, and I saw the sweat on his forehead, the color drained out of his skin. He looked like a Strigoi had touched him.

But it was only fear that paled my young friend.

“We have to get closer,” I said. “Fire the beacons above their largest city. We’re going in.”

“We’re going down there?” he gasped.

“It’s the same as every other world we’ve destroyed,” I told him. “Now fire the beacons before it’s too late.”

“How many?”

“All of them.”

He hammered a sequence into his half of the Sabre’s console. Nervous wreck though he seemed, he pulled himself together long enough to launch a wave of nearly a thousand light beacons from the compartments beneath our wing.

The tiny spheres ejected themselves into space. Soaring through the darkness behind them, I cut our speed to a few hundred kilometers per second.

XV Prime awaited.

On its surface, seas of black towers stretched to the end of all sights.

The Strigoi swarmed.

Having slain hundreds of their worlds and dozens of their interstellar death-spheres, I was their nemesis. They knew I was coming.

But they can’t stop me.

Can you see, Joff?

Are you watching?

The beacons formed a web a few hundred kilometers above XV Prime’s hugest, blackest city. All at once, they ignited. Strigoi death-beams died in the beacons’ light-storm. Swarms of death-bots soaked up the blinding radiance and disintegrated.

I blinked and saw clouds of ashes.

My eyes hurt in the aftermath.

The dark city had never seen such light before. Thousands of years ago, the Strigoi had stopped the planet’s rotation, cutting it off from the star blazing on its opposite side.

And then they’d killed the star.

And thrived in the shadows remaining.

“No death-bots survived,” I said to the young pilot. “Nothing to stop our Primary S.R.”

“Then can’t we turn around?” He shivered. “The other S.R.’s should be enough, right?”

“No,” I grimaced. “We have to be sure.”

I keyed a quick sequence into the Sabre’s console. A last few death-beams smoked and curled upward from the Strigoi city, but I seized the control stick and swerved just in time.

“Release the Primary S.R.,” I commanded the Sabre.

And she did.

Somewhere in the Sabre’s underbelly, a door slid open. A slender silver projectile, no taller than me and only half as heavy, leapt into the planet’s orbit at quantum speeds. I couldn’t see it, but I felt it in my bones. It was the most powerful weapon we’d ever created.

“…strong enough to turn a half a planet into whatever molecule we want,” the scientist had told me.

“…hydrogen, helium, anything…”

No. None of those, I thought.

Glass.

I want the Strigoi to be glass.

And so it was.

At the moment the S.R. hit, we were already on our way out of XV’s atmosphere. The last of the beacons’ glimmers shielded us from the death-beams, and we soared out into far orbit.

A graveyard awaited us.

Clouds of dark powder floated in the void, the remains of thousands of Strigoi scythe-ships.

Metal spun through the emptiness, sprinkled with the remains of the humans who’d died.

“Look,” I said to the young pilot. “No, not at the dead ships. At the vid screen. See XV Prime? The S.R….it’s working.”

Together, we gazed at the screen. XV Prime’s surface, already cratered from the other, weaker S.R.’s, began to change color. From black to translucent silver, it went, and from hard, inflexible bone to brittle glass. Towers once black and mighty collapsed under their own weight. A full quarter of the planet shattered all at once.

I tried to imagine the sound, but I couldn’t.

God,” the young pilot exhaled.

“They’re finished,” I said. “The new star we made of its sister planet…the smaller S.R.’s burning…the Primary S.R. turning everything to glass. We don’t have anything capable of detecting Strigoi life-signs, but they’re all dead. I can feel it. Can’t you?”

He looked at me with his mouth hanging open.

“Weren’t they already dead?”

“Yeah…well…now they’re dead-dead.” I smiled. “And this was their last world in our galaxy.”

* * *

The hologram in the Gran Spire’s heart flickered and went out.

Having witnessed the spectacular end of XV Prime, Hephast and all the others fell into a deep, satisfying silence.

I wanted it to last forever.

But soon enough, Hephast spoke.

“It’s done,” he shouted. “It’s finished. The Strigoi are dead.”

I opened my mouth to interject, but the Congressional Court erupted into applause. Their raucous cries washed over me, hurting my ears. My new body hadn’t been conditioned for such noise.

“Lightbringer. Lightbringer. Lightbringer,” they chanted.

“The war is over,” they bellowed.

I waited.

And I let them come back to calm.

After five minutes, the clamor died. Hephast called for order, and most of the assembly returned to their seats.

“Lady Lightbringer,” Hephast said to me. “You have done a great deed. For hundreds of years, we have lived in the Strigoi shadow. Many of us never thought it would end. We assumed…no…we knew we would make weapons and send fighters to their doom until the end of all days. And now—”

“All hail Lady Lightbringer,” someone in the assembly cried.

“Our champion,” said another.

“Give her whatever she desires,” shouted still another.

With a wave of his fragile fingers, Hephast quieted the room.

“And so we shall,” he said. “Lady Lightbringer – or Lady Callista, as you like – we shall restore your full citizenship upon Sumer. You shall be given a tower, upon which your name will shine until the end of time. When our people look to the sky and fear no death at Strigoi hands, it is your name which will linger in their minds, and your victory for which monuments numbering in the thousands shall be hewn.”

“President Hephast…” My voice sounded small. “If I may speak…”

“You may,” he said.

“The Strigoi menace in our galaxy is destroyed,” I began. “It’s true. We’ve spent nearly a thousand years making it so. When he – when Joff Armstrong slew the very first Strigoi installation, I never thought it would be possible.”

“And yet here we are,” Hephast raised his slender arms, igniting fresh cheers from the crowd.

“Yes. Here we are.” I raised my voice. “But our galaxy isn’t the only one in which our enemy thrives. We know them to exist in Andromeda.”

Andromeda.” Hephast scoffed. “This too, we have heard. And yet even the Strigoi must know they can never overtake us now. Our scientists have said it will be a hundred-thousand years before our enemy can again marshal enough power to threaten our galaxy. A hundred-thousand years…might as well be a million.”

“Are you saying the war effort will end?” I asked.

The room quieted. I heard only the beating of my own heart.

“There is no war.” Hephast looked down at me. “This very day, we shall send word to the other planets. It is confirmed – the Strigoi are defeated.”

I hung my head. I’d always known what his answer would be, and yet I’d dared to hope otherwise. For all my centuries of wisdom, I often forgot the simplest lesson I’d ever learned:

Hope is a mistake.

* * *

The First Immortal is the opening chapter of upcoming novel – Eaters of the Light.

Eaters of the Light is the sequel to novels, Darkness Between the Stars and Shadow of Forever.

Look for it to hit stores in early 2018.

J Edward Neill

Funny. It doesn’t feel ‘Dark.’

Ok.

I’m done writing philosophical books for now.

I’ve got no plans to publish anything else like this weird little thing.

And I’m pretty much out of horror ideas.

So it’s like this. I’m getting back to my roots. It’s time for more darkness, more shadows, and more end-of-the-universe type books. It’s my bread and butter. It’s my dice-move on the dance floor.

My new book? It’s called Darkness Between the Stars. It’s now available to buy right here.

Here’s a splash of the Amanda Makepeace cover art:

DarknessTesseraBanner

*

Oh…and here’s the entire first chapter:

* * *

Earthbound

  

Many years before they selected me to save humanity, I knew who their choice would be.

Maybe that’s why they picked me. Maybe they planted the idea in my head when I was only a little boy. Or perhaps it was a simple matter of me guessing right. But somehow I knew.

I’m meant for something else, I remember thinking.

I’m not destined to be earthbound.

Those were strange thoughts for a six-year old boy. No, they were beyond strange. They were surreal. It was the year 4901, and I had no concept of what those feelings meant. I didn’t know anything about deep space travel, the Thousand-Year War, or humanity’s exodus from Earth. Everyone else in the world knew about these things, but not me. Not little Joff.

All I really knew were my father’s wheat fields, my mother’s love for me and my sister, and my teddy bear, Alpo, who was missing his right arm.

Alpo’s story was a funny one. He was named after an aluminum can. And it wasn’t just any can, but a three-thousand year-old one I found in the dirt in one of Dad’s fields. ‘Alpo,’ it said in faded yellow print. Maybe that’s why Dad used to say our fields were the most fertile of all. Something about being on a landfill. Something about wheat growing better on top of thirty-century old garbage.

Whatever.

I didn’t care. I was six years old. The same night I found the ancient can, I sprinted home and renamed my teddy bear. Everything in the world seemed right.

Those were the best of days. We were happy, all of us. We lived in a valley with mountains on three sides. Our fields of golden wheat swayed to breezes that never stopped. All around our little stone house, pale streams tickled the earth, clean and crisp as anything. Life wasn’t always easy, but it was quiet. Our family was untouchable, a last island floating on an ocean of technology.

Although weren’t entirely isolated.

A city lay just outside our valley.

By modern standards, Donva was a small town. To a six-year old boy who’d rarely been beyond his valley, it was awe-inspiring. They’d named Donva after the woman who’d first suggested a settlement there. Like most cities back then, it was all blacks and whites. Not the people, mind you. The buildings. Skinny dark towers jutted skyward from its heart, while warrens of pale, impossibly clean dwellings sprawled in the towers’ shadows. People lived in the little white houses and worked in the big black spires. Donva was so tight-knit that almost everyone walked everywhere. The only time anyone took a train or a hover-truck was to leave the city entirely, which most people rarely did.

I remember one of my earliest visits.

We were in the car on a warm, sunny morning. It was Mom, my sister Aly, and me. We weren’t piloting one of those fancy, matte-grey hover-trucks, but instead we rode in a combustion engine car. Yes, those. The same kind they say fouled the air centuries ago. And so rare in 4901 that only a hundred or so existed, while even fewer actually worked.

So when we rolled into town on a shiny white road everyone else used for walking, we got the best looks from people. They smiled, waved, and stopped to say hello to Mom. They didn’t begrudge our pretty chrome prize, but instead welcomed the sight. It was the way things were in Donva. It wasn’t like the big cities, the scary cities.

I’d have had more fun that morning if not for Aly. She always made it a point to start little wars with me every time we were in the car. That day was no exception.

“You’ll never get to sit up front,” she told me for the thousandth time.

“Yes I will,” I argued. “I’ll be bigger than you someday. Dad says so.”

“But I’ll always be older.” She made a face. “Which means the front is mine. Forever.”

I felt myself getting angrier. If there was one thing I hated, it was injustice. Aly saw me grinding my teeth and grinned at me. I waited for Mom to stop our brewing battle, but she didn’t. I think she wanted us to fight it out without her help.

“We’ll run out of gas someday,” I told Aly. “Dad’s big tank will go dry. Then we’ll have to walk. There won’t be any front seats. You’ll see.”

She laughed at me. “It’ll be funny, you on your skinny legs. You’ll get half a kilo, and Mom will have to carry you. Isn’t that right, Mom?”

In her fancy black shades and wide-brimmed white hat, Mom didn’t say a word. She turned the wheel and drove down a side road. I think I saw her shake her head, but from the back seat it was hard to tell.

“I’ll break your dolls.” I decided to fight dirty.

“I’ll tear Alpo’s other arm off,” Aly shot back.

“I’ll steal your books,” I huffed.

“I’ll chop off your hair while you’re sleeping.” She smirked.

“Oh yeah…well…I’ll steal your skypad,” I dared.

Aly’s mouth fell open. Mom slowed the car and took off her sunglasses. I knew right away I’d gone too far.

“What did I tell you about the skypad, Aly?” Mom stared at my sister, calm as a cloud before a storm.

Aly glared at me. If she’d have turned any redder, her head might’ve burst.

“If your father catches you with it, he won’t even bother to sell it,” Mom continued. “He’ll throw it in the combine and grind it into powder. You know how he feels about those things.”

“But Mom—” Aly tried.

“Tomorrow we’re coming back here,” Mom cut her off. “You bring the pad. We’ll sell it, and you can use the money for whatever you want. But no tech. No vids, no sprites, and no dream-makers.”

“Mom—”

“Non-negotiable,” said Mom.

And that was the end of it.

We kept driving. Aly hated me, and I didn’t say another word. I hadn’t meant to get her into trouble. I’d just blurted out the thing I knew would win the argument. I’d always been good at winning. Not so much at surviving the aftermath.

If Aly was heartbroken, she had every right to be. Our father’s disdain for technology was legendary. He didn’t like vids, which usually just spouted ads for other tech. He really didn’t like sprites, which floated around people’s heads and played whatever media their users wanted them to. And he really, really disliked dream-makers, which were known to be addictive, so much that some people never slept right after just a few days of using them.

But above all those things, Dad didn’t like skypads. Skypads were like pieces of almost indestructible paper. You cold bend them, stick them to walls, wear them, whatever you liked. And using a skypad, with the right hacks, you could connect to and view everything. If you wanted to watch a signal from a satellite on the far side of Earth, you could do it. If you fancied eavesdropping on feeds from near-orbit space stations, it was easy to make happen. But worse than anything, if you wanted live video of world news, which Dad despised, all you had to do was click a button, and every channel in the world opened up beneath your fingertips.

I was sure all Aly used her skypad for was to vid-chat with her friends, but that wouldn’t matter to Dad. He assumed the worst of most technology. And therefore he’d banned it from our household.

That night at dinner, Aly and I sat in silence at the table. Dad heaped potatoes and greens on our plate, and both of us nibbled. It didn’t take long before Dad noticed us.

“What’s on your mind, Joff?” he asked me.

“Nothing,” I fibbed.

“Aly?” he pried.

“Nothing.”

Dad took another bite. He knew something was up. But as was ever his way, he didn’t get angry.

“Nothing?” he said while he chewed. “The funny thing about nothing is that it’s always something. You went to Donva today. That’s something. You brought home salt, spices, and a new kettle. That’s something more. And I’m sure you both saw your mother’s new hat. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? That’s definitely something.”

Aly dropped her gaze to the floor. I knew what she was thinking. And I also knew our father.

He knew about the skypad.

He’d already found it.

“Just tell him, Aly,” I whispered.

“Tell him what?” She stared a hole through me.

“You know…”

Dad gave both of us The Look. We knew what it meant. Whenever he broke The Look out, it meant he wasn’t going to say another word. No one at the table, Mom included, was allowed to speak, eat, or leave until The Look was answered.

And on that night, the only right answer was for Aly to admit she’d been hiding a skypad in her room for almost three months.

I wanted to answer for her. My sense of justice told me that the sooner we fessed up, the better. But The Look that night was less for me and more for Aly. Dad wanted her to fess up, not for me to protect her.

I’m not sure how long we sat there and waited. The steam stopped rising from our potatoes and our greens got cold. Aly looked to Mom for an escape, but Mom just sat there with her hands folded in her lap. She and Dad were a wall. There was no getting around them, no climbing over. The only way to get through was to tell the truth.

“I…” Aly’s voice cracked. “I have a skypad. And I know what you’re going to say, but…it’s not what you think. I don’t care about watching the fights in the wasteland. I don’t hack into the space stations. I just talk to Sara and Melina. That’s all.”

“And?” Dad still wore The Look.

“…and sometimes steal a show from the satellites. But nothing gory, Dad. No war feeds.”

I knew she’d told the truth. Not because I believed her, but because Dad lifted his cup and took a deep swig of warm milk. He wouldn’t have done it had Aly lied. It would’ve gotten a lot worse.

“So…does that mean I can keep it?” Aly asked.

Our father let out a great gust of air. I sensed he was just a little sad.

“No,” he said.

“But why?” Aly pleaded. “I’m not using it for bad stuff!”

“I know you’re not. But the answer’s the same. It’s done, Aly. It’s gone.”

She looked angry at first, then stunned. I think her plan had been to blame me for everything. But it was obvious Dad had known all along. He’d destroyed the skypad while we’d been in the car arguing about it.

Which meant it wasn’t my fault.

 

 

* * *

 

The next months were a strange time.

The same as every day, we worked in the fields. It was summer, which meant keeping up the irrigation trenches, feeding the chickens, and doing lots of maintenance on our aging machines. Dad was teaching me to be a blackthumb, which meant I had to learn all about machinery, and that I came home every night with oily hands and dirty clothes. At six years old I probably should’ve been attending school in Donva with Aly, but Dad didn’t want that for me, and I didn’t mind.

“We’ve got enough tech designers and programmers to last ten generations,” he’d say. “So here you’ll work, learning machines. And if ever you need a job in one of the cities, you’ll be the best damn blackthumb they could hope for. You’ll be a master, and you’ll command whatever salary you want.”

And so I watched, worked, and learned all the things my father wanted, even though being a blackthumb wasn’t what I cared about. I did it because Dad wished it and I loved him, though in my heart I wanted something else. I didn’t know exactly what that something else was. But I felt it inside me, a dream smoldering in my mind, a hot thumping in my chest that wouldn’t go away.

I suppose, if I’d understood it better, I would’ve tried to snuff it out.

I don’t know if life would’ve been different. Maybe they’d have picked someone else.

Maybe not.

It wasn’t until near my seventh birthday, on a cold winter’s eve after a long day’s work hauling wood down from the mountains, I learned something about why my father was the way he was. I don’t know why I decided to go to the storage barn instead of rushing home to dinner. Tired as dirt, I wandered off the path and dropped my last stack of firewood against the barn’s outer wall.

And then I pushed the sliding door open and walked inside.

The barn was dark inside. We didn’t have any animals in it; the cattle were in a different barn. I slid inside to escape the howling wind and catch my breath before dinner, and I pushed the door shut behind me. The smells of old wood, of tools that hadn’t been used since summer, and of cold, hard soil drifted through the air. I reached out for the old bench that sat just to the door’s left, and I sank onto it, limp as a dishrag.

If I’d had a blanket, I might’ve slept the night in the barn. I was that tired.

Yet no sooner did I lean back against the creaky old bench than I smelled something else. It wasn’t wood or rusty tools or dirt.

Smoke, I know.

What’s that old saying Dad made up? About smoke and fire?

I stood back up. I don’t know why I did it quietly. Most of me knew no one else could possibly be in the barn with me.

Or could there be? I wondered.

I followed my nose. Soundless as a falling star, I crept through the darkness. I’d been in the barn a thousand times in my life. I knew where the door to the tool room was.

Five steps forward.

Turn right.

Seven steps through the narrow hall.

Now touch the door.

I reached out and touched the planks to the tool room’s door. They were warmer than I expected, and the smells wafting between the cracks caught me right in the nose. I put my ear to the door and listened. A voice, so far away, made its way to me. It wasn’t Dad or Mom, or even Aly. The voice was too small, almost like it came from…

…a skypad.

I can’t remember just when I’d learned to be so stealthy. Maybe it was part of having an older sister and knowing how to sneak past her bedroom without her coming out to chase me. But somehow, someway, I pulled the door open wide enough to see inside.

And Dad didn’t hear me.

In the little room, in the quiet heart of the old barn, he sat there on a stool, his workbench laid out before him. An old-world cigarette dangled between his fingers, but he wasn’t smoking it. Nor was he working. He had his back to me, and over his shoulder I saw the skypad’s soft blue glow. He’d stuck it to the side of our red toolbox. I saw it plain as the sun shining, a crown of wrenches standing just behind it.

I stood there and I watched. My shock at seeing Dad so absorbed in the very thing he’d always said he hated didn’t last. I guess I wasn’t really surprised. Maybe I’d known all along.

The program he’d found, The Dusktime Dispatch, flickered on the skypad’s screen. It was a blurry image, doubtless stripped from a satellite thousands of miles away. To hear the voices talking, I had to tune out the entire world, which was easier than I expected.

“What we’re looking at is all that remains of the city they used to call Lun-dun,” announced a man in a flak-jacket and a black beanie hat.

“Yes, Lukas. We know that,” said the newsman.

The two men appeared in separate frames on the skypad. On the right, the newsman sat in a too-clean office somewhere in a vast city. Meanwhile the man in the black beanie, Lukas, occupied the left frame, its edges burning bright red from the approaching sunrise. Lukas looked brawny and a bit dangerous. The skeletal remains of a vast city, which must’ve been a thousand times the size of Donva, stretched out behind him. The sight scared me more than a little.

Lukas adjusted his black beanie and continued:

“Now, as we’ve talked before, today’s the day we’re sending a team into Lun-dun to test the Exodus craters for radioactivity. It’s our hope, after all this time, the levels of poisoning might’ve dropped well below critical toxicity.”

Me being not quite seven years old, I shouldn’t have understood all those fancy words. But I did. I’d read all of Aly’s school books a dozen times, probably while she was hiding and watching the very same skypad Dad and I were watching now.

“When does your team depart?” the newscaster asked.

“In one hour,” said Lukas. “They’re suiting up in their safety gear now.”

“Well…” The newscaster looked concerned. “We’ve talked about this before, about the ERM, the Exodus Reclaiming Mission. But what we’ve never really discussed, Lukas, is exactly what you and your team hope to reclaim. Now that you’re there, and now that we’ve got every skypad in the world tuned to this feed, what can you tell us? Can you say what it is you’re looking for?”

Even on the grainy little skypad screen, I swore I saw Lukas hesitate. It wasn’t even a flinch. It was something about the way he breathed.

Whatever he says next will be a lie, I thought.

“Resources,” said Lukas. “Of course, much of Lun-dun was burned away during the Exodus. But there’s still resources. Precious things beneath the craters.”

“What precious things?” The newsman sounded skeptical.

I didn’t know why, but in that moment I wanted to hear Lukas’ answer more than anything I’d ever heard in my life. I didn’t just want to know; I needed to.

And that’s the exact moment Dad flicked the ashes off the end of his cigarette and glanced over his shoulder.

“Joff?” he said.

I didn’t know how to answer. I just stood there, frozen the same as the icicles hanging off the barn’s roof. I’d figured he’d known I was there. After all, he’d always known everything.

But this time it turned out I’d truly surprised him.

And worse, him facing me meant the skypad was blocked and I couldn’t hear what Lukas said.

Oh God. I shivered. Dad’s never gonna trust me again.

* * *

Look for Darkness Between the Stars in stores now.

In the meantime, if you liked this little chapter, you’ll definitely like A Door Never Dreamed Of.

J Edward Neill