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Bad Candy

Candy Shop by Nikolai Lockertsen

Candy Shop by Nikolai Lockertsen

I must have been around twelve or so. It gets murky for me because the years tend to bleed together. One moment I am sure I was just turning ten, but then, I remember a detail, and suddenly, I am twelve.

Twelve fits the best. I was twelve. You would think I wouldn’t forget that time, but honestly, I think because of everything I have a permanent block over those years.

But, I am getting ahead of myself.

When I was a child, my parents never let me have candy or anything too sweet.

“You know, my mother is very sick from too much sugar, Mikey,” Mom would say. “I don’t want you getting sick too!”

I remembered my grandmother, vaguely–my mom’s mother. She died when I was young of diabetes. My dad told me he never really remembered her healthy, and he backed my mom’s choice never to give me sweets.

But, I was a child. When we moved to Macon, I explored the town, and my eyes were drawn to “Dr Zestro’s Candy Emporium.”

“Is he a doctor or a dur?” My dad would joke, jabbing me in the ribs. I’d giggle, and I even make the joke now to my kids. It’s lame, but it’s something I am very fond of remembering.

“It looks abandoned. Let’s go to the farmer’s market!” Mom had said. That was the last I really thought of Dr Zestro’s until a few weeks later in my new school.

“No one goes to that place,” Tommy said. He was my first best friend.

“Why?”

“I don’t know. We just don’t.”

“But, it’s a candy emporium! That means a lot! And probably special candy too,” I said with a flourish. I tried to convince him. I could tell it worked a bit. He seemed slightly moved.

“I don’t know… I could ask my brother. He gets an allowance,” Tommy smirked. He was on my side. “Maybe you can come over this weekend, and we can all go.” His eyes started to wander. He was thinking of the spoils to be had.

“I can’t this weekend. I have to visit my grandma.”

“Bummer. I’ll save some for you then,” he said with a laugh. It wasn’t fair, I thought. He didn’t even like the place until he met me, and he was going without me. I sulked most of the weekend.

By Monday, Tommy and his brother were reported missing.

That was the first real hard thing in my life, and it was a massive one. Police searched the area. His parents were on the news crying. They posted pictures all over town of Tommy, and his brother, both with identical blond hair and the most piercing blue eyes. Despite a three or four year gap, they looked like twins.

Parents told stories of the kids for months. At seven, Tommy was too young to be remembered as anything but a sweet child, but Ryan was well known in his school. He was smart, talented, and friendly. I met him a few times, and he always made sure Tommy was nice to me. He would show me new toys that were way too old for me, and he would share. For no good reason.

Who would want to hurt that?

The anniversary of their disappearance was rough. Then, another year passed. And another. Soon, I was older than Ryan when he went missing. People still talked about the missing kids, but that story was soon erased for an even more noteworthy story.

I was nearly twelve–see, it gets blurry until I start walking through it–when my dad had to go to Atlanta to make a speech for his company. Evidently, they were looking at being acquired, and his pull and knowledge were a massive selling point.

Before they headed back home, I remember a phone call. My grandma–my father’s mother–spoke with him for a while before he asked for me.

“How’d ya do?”

“I killed it, champ.” He sounded proud. “They are going forward.”

“All because of you.” I was excited. This was an important speech for him, and I knew it was bothering him.

“Yup! I’ll be moving on up soon. We may even move here.”

“With grandma?”

“I’d never leave my mom, kiddo. Things will be changing. I can feel it!”

I never saw or heard from them again.

Around 4AM, the phone rang. It sounds weird, but the ring set my grandma and me on edge. It sounded wrong. She answered, holding her chest a bit. She motioned for me to go back to bed.

I could hear her crying and screaming, feeble as it sounded in her advanced age. I started to cry. I didn’t know exactly what she heard, but I knew it was bad.

My parents died in a car accident late that night. They decided to drive back early and surprise us, my dad too excited from everything happening. I blamed myself for a long time. I was barely old enough to understand my budding attraction to girls, and here I was experiencing survivor’s guilt.

My grandma took care of me, officially. What’s worse, despite the massive loss, was I received a great windfall.

My parents weren’t killed by negligence on their part; they were killed by a semi truck, whose driver passed out after overdosing on caffeine pills. What’s worse is the company, a major retail chain, documented his hours as way less than he was actually working. I had a line of lawyers ready to take the case.

At the trial, the judge asked if I wanted to say anything, and my lawyer pushed me into doing it. The defense attorney for the company tried to grill me, gently, to show I was well off.

“What exactly you want out of this, Michael? My client, Mr. Roosevelt over there, is completely destroyed. He has to live with the guilt of what he did for life. He is unable to work. What will make you happy?” The lawyer’s eyes were pleading and kind. I felt vulnerable.

“I want my mom and dad back,” I said with a sob. I tried not to speak because it would become an ugly cry. The jury pool began to breakdown. Even the judge did.

They awarded me, and my grandma, several millions of dollars, more than I’d ever need. My lawyer stopped me after writing the check.

“You know, that speech really did the ticket. We won before that, but I think that little plea act got us over the top.” He was smiling. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d trade all the money to have my mom and dad back.

Life with grandma wasn’t bad. She was older. I figure in her late 70s or 80s. Her green eyes, like my dad’s, were always rheumy, and she moved slowly. She smiled a lot, like my dad, and she pretty much let me do whatever I wanted. I mentally compared her to my mom’s mother, but she died so much younger and so long ago that it seemed unfair to compare the two.

I admit, I took advantage of her advanced age.

I would only have access to my money if she permitted. I talked her into a sizable allowance, though I had no need for it, in hindsight.  I saved it most of the time anyway. I would sign up for every sport or after school program with her consenting to it all. Tae Kwon Do was the only one I really stuck with for long. Since I was taller for my edge, like my dad, I was able to excel in those classes.

The worst thing I did was convince her to let me go to the candy store. It was my first act of rebellion, I realize now, and since my parents were gone, it was all I could muster.

She was totally unaware of why this was any sort of a big deal, so she didn’t care. I felt like a bad ass. I was playing hooky from school, sometime in the late fall when it was cold enough to feign the start of a cold, so I had the streets, and I assumed the store to myself.

Dr Zestro’s was somehow still opened, some five years after I saw it first. No one ever said anything, but I always wondered if something happened there with Tommy. It didn’t really dawn on me when the police were searching; I was too sad to care much to offer help.

I approached the store, and it was a lot more intimidating than when I was younger. I think I got distracted by the word “candy” to notice the decor. The entire store was stylized as a 50s style sideshow. Dr Zestro brought candy from all over the world, including the “darkest parts,” according to a slogan painted on the dark window. I walked inside, giddy with excitement.

I was immediately let down when it wasn’t as big as I imagined. To my left, I jumped a bit at a large monkey’s head atop a rack of baskets containing various candies. Next to the monkey rack was a large pig with a top hat and clothes that reminded me of how I imagined Hansel and Gretel. It was holding a tray of these small balls that looked like eyes. The sign next to them said “Seeing Gum Chewing Gum.” I couldn’t tell if it was trying for a joke or anything.

“Welcome to Dr Zestro’s. Let me know if you need anything.” I was startled by the raspy voice of a balding man behind the counter. I barely even noticed him when I walked into the store. He had thick glasses that made his eyes bulge. He was rotund, to be nice, and morbidly obese to be honest. All visible hair–and there was a lot except on top of his head–was as white as a fresh snow. He looked sweaty.

“How much are these?” I pointed to the Seeing Gum.

“Try one. Some people aren’t into it,” he said with a grin. He was painting a small bottle in his hands. I popped a gum ball that had a blue eye painted on it. I shook myself as the image reminded me of Tommy. It tasted like the way varnish smells. I smiled as I chewed, trying to be nice. There was a liquid inside that was tasteless, and it broke down fast.

“It isn’t very chewy.”

“Ahh, another kid ruined by modern corruption!” the man squawked. “Old chewing gum was just a bit of rubber. Was it chewy?”

“A little.”

“Then, it’s chewing gum.” He beamed. “How about this: Try one of everything you want. If you like it, you buy, if not, no loss.” I wondered how he would stay in business with that practice, but I didn’t dare ask. He went back to work on his project as I tried things.

Nothing in the store looked familiar. No Mounds, Snickers, or Kit Kats. No Big League Chew, or even Big Red. It was all nameless candies with custom packaging. Worst of all, I never even saw anything like anything I knew of. Everything resembled inedible things, like buttons, pens, and zippers. There was even a candy floss bag that looked more like hair than anything else.

Still, I felt compelled to buy things since I tried so much. As I approached the register, I noticed a green light, dull as can still be considered on, shining from a doorway. The man noticed me looking and chuckled.

“That’s the lab. That’s where I try out things that isn’t ready for people.” He looked at the vial in his hands. “Want to try one that isn’t even on the shelves?”

“Okay!” I was a bit excited. Maybe this was actually good. “What is it?”

“I call it ‘Chocolate Fog.’ You put one eyedropper on your tongue, and it will add a chocolate taste to everything! Stick your tongue out. First one is on me.”

I did, and it tasted… surprisingly good. It had a bit of a bitter kick at first, but the rest was honest-to-goodness chocolate! I was tempted to ask for another one, when he bottled it and set it down. He looked down at his watch for a bit, and then, he rounded the counter and made his way to the door. I remember it being around 11 when I went to the shop. I figured he was getting ready for lunch after I was done.

I heard the door lock, but I felt a sense of lethargy to say anything. I felt suddenly emboldened, like he’d be gone too long, and I stumbled towards the green light. If the chocolate was this good what else was there.

I heard him chuckling as I walked forever to the door. I looked back, and he was smiling in the same way he was when he gave me the eye dropper. I took it as permission to go forward.

I opened the door, and my vision was blurry. I could make out these green and blue jars of bubbling liquid. I noticed there were black blobs inside.

“New candy?”

“The newest,” he said in return. He was a lot closer. I was feeling sicker and sicker.

“I think I had too much.”

“You are a tall one, aren’t you. Do your parents know you are here?” His voice took on a disgustingly seductive tone, like an old prostitute who has nothing better to live for but still needed money. When I felt his hand grab my shoulders, I was shook off the fog. In his other hand, he had a syringe with a black liquid in it. I realized what was happening before he could move.

I realized how much shorter he was than average, and I was taller than average, so it made us almost equals despite our age difference. As he came in with the needle, I punted him low. The pain registered instantly, and he dropped to the ground as he made a shrieking sound. When he was on his knees, I drove my shin into his head. The fog–I started to understand was a poison–made me stumble, but he was in a lot of pain and unable to stand.

I shuffled for the door, but the floor felt like it was made of glass, and I was wearing greased slippers. I couldn’t move fast enough no matter how hard I tried. Once I got to the door, which itself felt like years, I struggled to get my hands to work to turn the lock. I looked back and saw him rising. His face was a mask of rage and malice.

I got out of there and ran into the street. I remember, vaguely, passing out in front of a post office to screams.

I was in and out of consciousness over the next few days. The doctors found a high level of Ricin and Rohypnol. Yeah, ricin. I wish that show would have had a trigger warning because it brought back a lot of complicated emotions for me.

I was able to point police to Dr Zestro’s, but the man running the store was gone. What they did find would have made national news had another tragedy in Oklahoma not usurped the news at the time. I learned from overhearing the police talking that the jars of liquid were filled with decomposing bodies. They also found a skeleton in the office of who matched the dental records of the original Dr Zestro. He went missing around the time Tommy and his brother did.

Since then, my life was mostly normal. Now and again, I’ll search for places like Dr Zestro. I’ll occasionally find urban legends of stores that pop-up, some weird stuff happens, then they go abandoned. While I am sure that old man is dead by now, I still can’t help but get chills when I enter a store in my small town that is brand new. It will always remind me of that fear of vulnerability I felt. It’s also why I will never allow my kids to go into a candy store again.

The resounding memory I had out of that whole ordeal was just how familiar that seeing gum looked. And every time I probed that memory, I immediately retreated into nausea and fear.

“The Spirit Pyre”

This piece was inspired by this image by Jennifer Hom – http://jenniferhom.com/

 

Ninety Nine Good Chinese Girls by Jennifer Hom

She watched in horror as the Prime Minster went ablaze.

Sun-shi was one of many Sun-shis. She was a perfect replication of the girl behind her, in front of her, and everywhere in between. But Sun-shi, as far as she was aware, was the only one aware.

The prime minster had lied, she deduced. He claimed to have been part of a scandal. Something about the enemies at large. But she knew. He had spoken to her personally. He called on her and told her she was the only one different.

“What’s going on in that head of yours?”

“A lot.” Sun-shi remembered telling him. “I want to be an actress.”

“How do you even know what that is?” His old face turned somber and serious. “That was before your time, child. You know nothing of this.”

“No.” She said defiantly. “I remember my mother was an actress.” She saw tears in his eyes.

“You are special, child. But you must hide this knowledge.”

“I don’t want to, sir.” She beamed at him. “I want to be free.”

“You are flying too close to the son, my beautiful flower. We cannot have this.” He patted her and he reminded her of what a grandfather should look like. “Tell me more about your mother before you forget.” He smiled at her deviously.

She told him about a woman on TV, something she never saw anywhere but her dreams. She was a warrior, a princess, a villain, a vampire, a heroine, and more. She lived so many lives inside her short time, and she continued them on through Sun-shi. All the Sun-shis. She was the most remembered face in all of the country. No one would mistake her.

The Prime Minister tagged her and came visit often. He called her “dogteughan” over and over. He said he loved her, and she knew it was a special kind of love. Not like the one the soldiers grunted at the rest of the Sun-shis. Something… personal.

Sun-shi woke up screaming in the middle of the dark. Something bad happened, but she didn’t know what it was. She touched her stomach and felt a hallow sensation. She heard loud shouts at the camp, but she had been trained to stay in bed, no matter what, when lights were off. She stayed up crying, unsure why.

Now, she knew.

“I have delivered a great shame to our people. Our nation. And our Lord.” The Prime Minister spoke, nodding at various people. Tears were welling up. “I am not worthy of my title, so effective immediately, I won’t be Prime Minster. I am just another traitor slob. I am sorry for my embarrassment.” He pulled out a small canister and poured it on himself. He held his lighter, but before he lit it he shouted one word. “Dogteughan!” The flame engulfed him instantly.

Sun-shi was the only one to gasp. The others were trained to not react.

The Hubris of Superman – Short Story

Kal-El’s head was groggy. He was barely aware of his surroundings, and he felt that familiar pain that sent terror shocking through his body, jolting him awake. Kryptonite.

In the dark cave, with a subtle green glow stinging his eyes, Kal-El felt further from himself than ever. He had none of his strengths. Now, he was only Clark Kent.

He could feel it was close. Too close. The smell of it, whether real or imagined, began as a dull headache at the base of his neck, coiling like tentacles through his head and pulsating on his right temple with such ferocity that he lost his breath with each throb.

This wasn’t the plan.

Clark Kent grew sicker every day of reading about the butchers in the Middle East who would make a spectacle out of murder. He was used to otherworldly invaders coming to ruin his small ball of peace in this corner of the universe. He was ready to defend against them. But these men and women were different. They killed knowing full well how precious human life was. And Clark Kent wasn’t going to sit by a let that happen, not while Superman, his truer self, was able to do something.

His plan was simple. With a billionaire friend, he was able to pull the strings to get Clark Kent credentials into an ISIS-haunted region. Bruce fought him as much as he could, but Clark’s will was far stronger. It had been steeled too much to resolve this crisis.

Clark Kent, driving alone to minimize casualties, was captured less than a day after his arrival in Iraq. He waited patiently to spring his plan and bring the marauders to justice. He fed off the sunlight they marched him through, only to lose all of his reserves in seconds when exposed to that green pain that weakened a man strong enough to change the rotation of the Earth. He was helpless.

As the pain ebbed enough for his thoughts to return, he knew something didn’t fit. The outfit was in a cave with more sophisticated technology than Clark had seen in Wayne’s secret Batcave. Somehow, a group of people using improvised weapons and explosives, had secure Internet and an alien substance that affected only one person on Earth: Superman. He heard talking in the distance and strained to listen. Three soldiers walked up to him and held him off the ground. He hadn’t realized he was slumped on the floor until they heaved him into a chair.

Soft footsteps walked towards the chair. He looked in the darkness as a figure came towards the light surrounding him.

“Hello, Mr. Kent.” Clark’s jaw dropped.” Or Mr. Superman? I am poor with formalities in situations like this.” The man’s bare forehead creased as he smiled.

“How?” Clark asked Lex Luthor with a labored breath.

“I took my enterprise International. Would you like to do an interview?” He smirked and the third guard who wasn’t supporting Clark brought a chair. “My name is Lex Luthor, and I am the face of terror, Mr. Kent.” He nodded, and the glowing green of the Kryptonite grew in intensity. Clark lost consciousness as fear overwhelmed him.

#

Bruce Wayne’s hair was tussled in a frenzy as he pulled at his scalp. Alfred Pennyworth and Dick Grayson knew this to be his frustrated mannerism. Alfred met Dick’s eyes, and an unspoken battle began over who to pacify him. Bruce’s eyes were mad with rage.

“This isn’t like him.” Bruce broke the tension in the dank Batcave.

“You have to relax, Bruce. He’s more than capable of handling himself.” Dick smirked. “He’s even capable of handling you.”

“It’s not funny.” Bruce cut him off. His dark eyes studied the digitized map where the transponder had stopped. He typed a few commands into the computer, and all the recorded patrol routes were transposed on the map. “See, he was right in their paths. He should have found where they were and reported back by now. This isn’t like him.”

“Master Wayne, you are worrying yourself into a frenzy.” Alfred chimed in, barely looking up from dossiers on his computer that Bruce and Clark had created before launching their attack. “These men are amateurs, and Master Kent is a super being. He can improvise.”

“Maybe, but I can’t know for sure.” Bruce unclenched his jaw. His back and legs were aching from sitting in the chair for so long. He was used to being out in the battlefield and moving. This may have been the longest period he had sat in years. He stood up.

“How long would it take us to get to him?”

“About 22 hours using commercial airlines.”

“When have we ever used commercial?” Dick butted in. Bruce nodded towards him in agreement.

“You could get there by dusk.” Alfred shook his head. “You know, most people in your position try to avoid going to Iraq.””

“I’m doing my civic duty, Alfred.” He turned to Dick who was slouched in a chair with his legs up. He had a book draped across his stomach. He hated what he was about to say. He paused not relishing in the impact of his words.

“You cannot be serious.” Dick responded without him saying a word. “You’re going to get caught like Clark.”

“Then, I’ll need someone to get us both out of there.” Bruce said with finality, but he knew Dick wasn’t going to let him slide.

“This is the same argument you had with Clark, and now, where is he? I’m going with you.”

“You will.” Bruce agreed. “But, you will be at a remote location. We minimize risk that way.”

As Dick began to rear back with a retort, static exploded from the speaker system in the Batcave. Both men turned to Alfred who couldn’t hide his pride. They heard voices speaking Arabic with poor English peppered in.

“Caves are notoriously bad at being sound proof.” Alfred adjusted the levels, and the audio became clear enough to make out a voice in unaccented English.

“Keep the hostage close to the mineral. Do you understand me?” Lex Luthor spoke with authority.

“Yes. We will.” The tri-syllabic retort was thick with the Middle Eastern accent.

“He will have back up. Be ready for anything. If you any near us, shoot to kill. We need just a bit more time.”

“Luthor?” Bruce’s voice echoed inside the Batcave. “This is making me queasy.”

“The aircraft will be departing in 30 minutes, Master Wayne. ETA is five hours.”

“Five hours?” Dick burst. “How is that possible?”

“The trajectory will take you a bit higher than usual.” Alfred met Dick’s eyes. “Surely, you’ve always wanted to go into orbit, Master Grayson.”

“I hope Clark can survive.” Bruce wasn’t paying much attention to anyone. “Come on, Dick. Get your suit. You may not get the rest after all.” Bruce grabbed a heavy bag holding the Bat-suit.

“I wasn’t going to sit it out anyway.” Dick added joining Bruce’s trot out of the Batcave with his own bag. Alfred sighed as a sense of unease seized him about the situation.

Illusion of Choice Chapter 5

Chapter 5

A Few Minutes Later

Calvin tried to process what had just happened. After a long chastisement from one Officer of the State, Calvin, that Officer, and his partner, whom he knew to be named Joe, were attacked by a Sergeant who shot that first Officer. He was sure David Warren was dead, and he had failed his sole mission objective. Now, he had to survive.

He was unsure why a Sergeant in the World Government of Earth Union Guard would shoot an Officer, but he only had a brief dossier on David Warren. This Sergeant was a complete mystery.

The Unies were a violent lot, but this act definitely broke some of their Rules. When he finally got a grasp of what happened, Calvin saw the Sergeant aim the gun at Officer Warren’s head.

“Are you okay?” A disoriented Joe asked from Calvin’s left.

“Yeah” was all Calvin could muster.

“Stay low. Watch yourself.” The young recruit stumbled his way to his feet. He ran towards the Sergeant who turned and fired at him. The first shot missed him and hit Calvin’s car, shattering the back windshield. The next three shots hit Joe in the shoulder, thigh, and head, but his helmet protected him. He tackled the Sergeant to the ground, but the man was too strong and shook him off. The recruit was on his back as the Sergeant aimed a gun at him, center mass.

Ignoring all his pain, Calvin jumped on the rogue Sergeant’s back, throttling his bulky neck. They began to spin around, and Calvin lost track of how close the traffic was. Officer Warren may be dead already, but in case he lived, Calvin had to prevent his execution. Through his futile attempts to take down the mad Sergeant, a hand grabbed Calvin’s head.

The Sergeant yanked Calvin off his back and onto the ground. The world tilted as he slammed down, and Calvin couldn’t right himself. All he could see was a sick smile that grew on the maniac’s face. He dragged Calvin as close as he could to the speeding cars and aimed the gun at Calvin’s head.

“On your knees and stretch out your right arm into the traffic. Now!” Calvin wracked his brain for an escape, and realizing there was none, resigned himself to his fate.

With the most reluctance allowed by the Sergeant, Calvin raised his body to his knees and thrust his arm into a gap in the traffic. His arm was high enough to hit a car’s bumper. The impact forced him onto his back, and the tires of the car that hit him crushed the bones in his arm. The Sergeant laughed in a sick and scary way as he heard the thud and shatter of Calvin’s arm.

“Get up and do it again with the other arm!” He laughed and shouted at Calvin that created a terrifying cackle.

Calvin felt nothing but pain. His arm felt like he had thrust it into a running engine. He was afraid to look at what was once his arm. As Calvin’s world tilted, he received confirmation about his suspicion over the Sergeant’s injection. His AID chip’s healing abilities were completely disabled.

In his delirium, Calvin thought he heard a voice call out to his attacker.


For the rest of this novel, please pre-order at either Amazon or Smashwords through their various channels. The novel is on sale for $0.99 until 12AM EST April 7th!

Illusion of Choice Chapter 4

Chapter 4

23.2228 – Sector 11 Express – Lasting

David Warren tried to allow his mind to wander, but it was hard with the incessant chatter from Officer #10255. Every time there was a moment to think, the kid spoke up.

“Why are we going in circles?” The rookie asked.

“The captain assigned us to this stretch of the freeway.” David replied as he entered a turning ramp to head the opposite way. The Lasting freeway was a stretch of 10km. Each direction, towards the inner sectors and towards the edge of the city, was four lanes, separated by a large median. Every quarter kilometer was a turning lane for State vehicles.

“But what’s the point?” The kid was becoming jittery. “You think people will just say ‘Hey, I’m breaking the law.'”

“We are watching and listening for any crimes against the State.” David hoped that would appease him.

“How long you’ve been on traffic?”

“Too long.” David replied with a sharp bite.

“I hate doing traffic.”

“Isn’t this your first shift?”

“First shift out of the Precinct, but I’ve been an Officer for the last eight days.” He said with a lot of pride. “I would have preferred to do Block Busting so I could see some action.”

“Look, kid, you aren’t my first partner.” David was burning at the trigger happy rookie. “My last one got himself killed, and I don’t need another doing that. Just sit back and do surveillance.”

“Shit, sorry, I heard about Officer #…” He hesitated trying to recall Keith Wilhelm’s number.

“It doesn’t matter.” David sighed. “Look, what’s your name?”

“Officer #10—” His training kicked in.

“Your real name. I don’t trust a number.” David smirked to himself as he heard his first mentor’s voice.

“Joe LeVay.”

“David Warren.” David replied. “See the console right here.” David pointed to a screen to the right of the steering wheel. “Code #2211 will activate a directional listening device.” The kid sat for a minute then punched in the code when he realized David was waiting for him. “Grab the microphone stick next to my seat and aim it at all the cars you can.”

“What else does this do?” Joe seemed focused on the control panel.

“Nothing important for you right now.” David answered with that same sharpness. He caught himself. Nearly every other officer was as cynical towards rookies. He tried to soften his demeanor for the rookie who was just eager to learn.

Joe pointed the microphone at a random car on the freeway, and the radio burst with speech.

“Why are there so many fucking cars on the road at this hour?” A man said.

“Don’t complain. At least the State gives you good health.” A female voice nagged back. Joe bounced from car to car, pausing a few seconds to listen to conversation.

“Won’t they see us and act straight?”

“Nope. Our cruiser looks enough like any other car that they wouldn’t even think anything of it.” David said focusing on the road. “The only difference is I get to use manual control, but they wouldn’t even notice.” David kept steering the car in and out of gaps in traffic. The traffic system creates gaps in traffic via the underground electric lines to allow a buffer should a vehicle break down and cause a major accident. “To those drivers, I am just like them—the car is making precise movements and passes based on data, but that’s because I’ve practiced a bit.” David smirked and got quiet when he realized he was bragging.

“Why even allow manual driving then?” Joe asked.

“We give people the choice to dissent. That’s how you know true rebellion” David explained his rationale. “If people cannot break The Rules, they are subservient zombies. The State has no need for that.”

“I want to skip my blocks today.” A male voice said on the radio after Joe moved to a new car.

“Don’t even joke about that.” A different male voice intruded.

“I’m serious. Who will stop me?”

After allowing Peter to miss his shift, David saw this as an opportunity to maintain status quo. He entered a different code into the console and tapped on the target car on the populated screen.

“What did that do?”

“It gives me control over every vehicle on auto. The one I tapped will stop somewhere safe.”

“How do you remember all those codes?”

“Practice.” Joe nodded and looked out the window. His fists clenched.

“Are we slowing down?” The second man said.

“Shit, I think I am being pulled over!” The first man became frantic and began to swear over and over again. David pulled the cruiser behind their car on the side of the freeway.

“Hey, kid.” David said. He always hated when people called him that as a rookie, but it came so natural. “You go on the passenger side of the car. Don’t say much, just observe. Got it?”

“Yes, sir.” Joe said, and then, frowned.

“Got something to say?”

“If this goes bad, what do I do?”

“It won’t go bad. Just don’t forget your helmet.”

As David walked towards the driver’s door, he entered a code into his wrist communicator. As he approached, the car’s windows lowered.

“I’m sorry, Officer #9301” The man scoured David’s badge. “I really didn’t mean to—” David held up his hand.

“No lying. Identification and registration for this vehicle.” The man produced it without a word. “Please state your crime.” David flicked his eyes over the ID with minimal movement.

“I was talking about skipping work.”

“Truancy is not tolerated by the World Government of Earth.” David replied. “And bragging, Mr. Coleman, is heavily frowned upon. I, by the power of the World Government of Earth, sentence you to a hearing by the lower court on 35.2228. Do you understand?”

“Yes, but—”

“Your crime is worthy of an arrest and review by the Tribunal of City-7434, you know?” David answered without a pause. His training instilled these words by instinct.

“Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir. I will be there.” After handing the man identification and registration back, David entered a code on his communicator to raise the car windows. Joe was waiting for him between the two vehicles.

“Why you went easy on him?”

“He was just venting.” David didn’t stop and continued to their cruiser. “The Tribunal handles bigger situations than that shit. He’d probably have been verbally chastised and jailed for a day or two, then released. Now, the lower courts can dock his pay.”

“But, how?” They got back inside the cruiser and removed their helmets. While the helmets were great for protection, they made driving cumbersome.

“The surveillance records conversations, and there’s a dashboard camera that records everything. We are sending the data to the lower courts right now.” David punched a series of codes into the control panel.

“How will I ever learn all this shit? It’s too much.”

“Kid, you are eighteen. I’ve been doing this for twelve years. You learn it.” David saw his own youthful fears in Joe.

“It seems like there’s so much to learn.”

“It’ll come.” David pulled back onto the freeway and noticed a car moving a slight clip faster than the rest. “See that car in the outer lane? What is he doing wrong?”

“I see him.” Joe moved for the command panel, and David stopped him.

“You don’t need that. Look at it closely.” David glanced at the guidance system to confirm his suspicions.

“I don’t know, sir.”

“He’s driving in manual.”

“What?” Joe was again shocked. “How can you tell?”

“He’s out pacing all cars by more than that lane allows.”

“He is in the passing lane, though. The far left one.” Joe responded.

“Right, but the lane is limited to passing the three center cruising lanes of about one or two vehicles at a time. He is doing way more than that. Also, look at the monitor. He isn’t there.” David switched lanes and began to follow him.

“Think he’s a terrorist?” Joe was beyond elated.

“I don’t know.” David shrugged. “Listen in on him.” Joe grabbed the microphone and voices boomed through the radio.

“Honey, I’m sorry I…” The radio blurted out.

“You bet you’ll be sorry! Sam wanted you at her play since she started twenty days ago. No way will you make it in time if you are heading into Sector 1 now. That’s an eight hour job, Calvin, then who knows how much driving time. You really let us down, Calvin!” The woman’s voice sounded familiar to David.

“I know I said I’d be able to make it, but… shit!”

“Calvin, what’s wrong?”

“Honey, do you see my card?” The man’s voice was frantic.

“Yeah, it’s right here. Charlie was playing with it, so he must ha… Calvin?” His wife sounded worried.

“I have to go, Cindy. I love you.”

“How did he notice us?” Joe inquired.

“I guess he saw a car keeping pace. Few can do that.” David entered a code and his voice resonated through Calvin’s car. “Driver, enter automatic mode immediately.”

“He’s on the screen.” David exhaled in relief that the man was cooperating.

“Thank you, driver.” David typed in the code into the command panel to shut down the car like with the previous driver. Within seconds, the car slowed and veered to the shoulder of the freeway as traffic permitted. David’s vehicle slowed, as the navigation system locked him to the other car. He pulled behind the scofflaw.

“Okay, this will be a bit worse.” David said to Joe. “He said on there he doesn’t have an ID, so we will have to chastise him. Just hang back and watch, okay?”

“Will I get a chance to join in?” The kid asked, his excitement obvious.

“I doubt it. Put your helmet on and follow me.” They flanked the car like last time. As they approached, David lowered all the windows.

“Morning Officer…,” the man looked at the badge. “…Warren. I’m sorry I was speeding, but I have—” Joe startled Calvin when he walked up to the other window.

“You did more than speeding, boy,” said David. “I.D. and registration for this vehicle?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but I just have my registration.” David took the card from Calvin’s trembling hand and motioned Joe to follow him to their car. When they arrived, he fed the card into his dashboard scanner.

“What are you doing now?” Joe asked.

“Checking his information. If he has anything outstanding we’ll know. Also, this is sending a request to a lower court to make a decision on his punishments.”

“I thought we made that choice.”

“We decide guilt, but they decide punishment for serious things like no identification.” David paused. “If he has any associations that are dangerous to State safety, we have to arrest him.”

The device scanned with a loud, whining squeal. With no rush, the dash printed information about the driver. The man’s name was Calvin Reed. He was 34-years-old. A bell rang showing one flag.

“What happened?”

“We’ve stopped him before. That doubles his punishment.”

“What’s his punishment?”

“Physical Chastisement for 20 minutes. The timer is set. Just stay back and watch.”

David walked back to Calvin, snapped the door open, and dragged the man between the two vehicles. He ignored the pleas from the driver. David pulled out the standard issue nightstick and cracked it across Calvin’s ribcage. Two bones broke immediately. With a deep wheeze, Calvin righted himself and shuddered with shock as another crack of the nightstick landed on the back of his head. David saw pain wash through his body.

With great reluctance, David, hidden behind the tinted shatter-resistant visor, continued the beating for a few minutes. To David, every minute was as long as an eon. He clenched his face and swallowed a thick lump in his throat. The bloody body of Calvin Reed survived from injections from his AID system. The chip could withstand blows from objects much larger than a nightstick. With a glance, David saw the timer read twelve minutes remaining of the punishment.

“Please, don’t do this.” Calvin screamed in a frantic tone. “You’re killing me!” That hyperbole took David’s breath.

“If you are using the correct chip, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.” David said with all the coolness he could muster. “Are you admitting to being off our firmware? That will extend your time.”

“Please, just a minute to catch my breath.” Calvin worked his way up to his knees.

David motioned with his head toward his car, “I’m sorry, but they will kill us both if I don’t finish your punishment.”

“But…I’ll…I’ll pay a fine, anything!”

“A bribe? I should add another 20 minutes for that one!” He gave him a kick to the chest, sending him on his back. “The State takes care of me. I take care of scofflaws.”

“But… please… I have a wife and kids! I swear I’m not one of those… those terrorists!”

“Who said anything about terrorists? You seem a bit paranoid.” David kicked Calvin in the ribs and then followed with a club to the stomach.

“I’m sorry…please…it hurts so much. I’m sorry, David… I’m sorry! I can’t do this anymore.” said the man as he began to fall into hysterics. David thought he heard this man say his name. He glanced at his badge, but it only showed his State number.

“I said …” David hesitated before striking him again.

“Please, Officer.” Calvin sighed with so much effort, his body heaved and shivered. He held his ribs. “I am just like you. I’m less! I’m a nobody. Beating me to death won’t help anything.”

“I have to punish you to the fullest extent of the law.” David was speaking by rote. “For this crime, you could be sent to City-7434 jail for 16 days, or I beat you unconscious in front of that camera over there.” David pointed to the car, hoping Calvin got his hidden meaning to play dead.

David knew he had to knock Calvin out or his co-workers would question his loyalty.

“I’m sorry…”

“Shut the fuck up!” David said to silence the man as he heard a vehicle slowing down.

“Officer #93—Warren!” Joe shouted to him. “I think someone is here.”

“How long did you stop for?” asked Calvin. He held on to consciousness by a thin tendril.

“Too long.” The man who answered was in a sergeant’s uniform. He lumbered over to David’s car, placing a small box of doughnuts and a thermos of what David assumed was spiked coffee on the hood. Unneeded thanks to the AID system, but Unies loved donuts and coffee. The man flipped up his visor. “This isn’t for you, rookie.” The man said as he passed Joe.

Relief washed over David at the sight of Sergeant Vincent Judd. Since David trusted him, his relief quickly turned to embarrassment over his being caught relaxing the Rules. David flipped up his visor as he walked to meet Judd.

Judd walked over, smiling, and pulled David aside. “What we have here, Maverick?” David winced in reaction to the nickname. “You know I fucking hate that name.”

“You look wrecked.” Judd said ignoring the comment. He motioned towards Joe. “Who’s the kid?”

“Fresh meat.” David replied with a smirk. “I’m fine. I just relaxed a little. Let me finish his chastisement time.”

“It’s fine, my boy, just fine.” David noticed the kindness of Judd’s tone. Despite being only three years older than David, Judd still treated him with the gentleness of a father.

“I guess I am a bit tired.”

“It’s no problem, Warren. Go have some coffee.” Judd motioned toward the thermos. “I spiked it.” He smirked. “But none for the rookie.” Judd raised his voice for Joe to hear.

“Thanks, Judd.” David said. “Been a long day, I guess.”

“Stress… I miss,” Judd seemed to choke back the words.

“I know, Judd.” David didn’t want to hear it. Judd and Keith Wilhelm were close. “I’m sorry for it.”

“Death for a Unie cause doesn’t cause sadness.” Judd responded like a robot with little sincerity. “Let me take over for a bit. I saw the report on this guy.” Judd motioned towards Calvin.

“All yours. You got about ten minutes left.” David walked to his car. He popped the box opened and grabbed a donut with brown icing. Joe watched him, his visor flipped up. He had the look of a starving dissenter.

“How’s it taste?”

“Not unlike the flavor syringes.”

“What are those?”

“You were in the Youth’s Safe Haven weren’t you?”

“Yes, sir.” Joe replied. David knew another orphan when he saw one.

“Once you hit 30 days, you’ll get a shipment. It will change your world.” He chuckled. “Here, try a piece, but don’t tell Judd.” Joe pawed a piece of the treat.

“Why do they make real food though? The chips make us not need food.”

“Well, if there’s ever a terrorist attack on our chips and they inhibit that part that satisfies hunger, we would be fucked. The State has a cadre of chefs teaching people cooking skills all the time.”

“Smart.” The two turned back to see Judd tossing what looked like a syringe. “What did he just toss?”

“I don’t know. Let’s just trust Judd.”

Judd withdrew a nightstick and eyed Calvin. He flipped down his visor and began tapping the nightstick to the palm of his hand.

Judd stalked the rising citizen who was wheezing for breath. He delivered a kick that utilized Judd’s full 104-kilogram body. Judd’s kicks were coming in fast, as if he had no idea what exhaustion meant.

David noticed that Calvin was in a lot more pain than normal.

“Judd, I think he’s hurt.” David shouted.

“Not yet he’s not.” Judd kicked again. “But soon, he will be.”

“What was in that syringe?” David remained leaning against the cruiser to convey a relaxed façade.

“Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

“He’s going to kill him.” David said out loud.

“I don’t think he can. The chip is too good.” Joe responded, showing his naiveté.

Calvin struggled through the multitude of pain as another crack of the nightstick smashed his spine.

After several minutes, David saw the penalty timer was flashing zero on his dashboard, but Judd continued his onslaught.

“All right, Judd, the timer’s done. Let him go.” David paced his speech to sound calm. Judd continued to strike Calvin.

“He isn’t stopping.” Joe said. “Maybe he didn’t hear you.” Joe flipped his visor down and walked towards Judd. “Sergeant, the timer has depleted.” Joe said as he touched Judd’s shoulder.

“Get the fuck away from me, rookie!” Judd smacked Joe so hard across the helmet it dropped him and then went back to attacking Calvin. That reaction concerned David. He walked up to Judd who immediately struck him with the nightstick. It smacked hard on David’s wrist communicator. “You don’t need to protect him! For all you know, he’s another insurgent waiting to capture us or worse! Whose side are you on, anyway, Maverick?” Judd’s voice sounded full of a sinister glee that made David wince. He once saw this man as a friend, but in this moment, he had no clue who he was.

Turning back, Judd began toying with Calvin. As Calvin stumbled to his feet like a toddler, another blow dashed against his skull. Fear clouded the man’s face as Sergeant Judd continued to beat him.

“Judd, if you fucking kill him, we’ll have to deal with IA. They will cause a lot of headaches. Back off of him.” Judd ignored him. David knew he had to do something. He regretted the thoughts flashing through his mind, but he had to stop this assault.

As Judd cranked back for a potentially killing blow, David caught the nightstick before Judd could unleash the attack. When he couldn’t budge the stick, Judd turned to see David holding the weapon back. David heard a loud grunt of rage and frustration.

David questioned himself. He glanced at his patrol vehicle and knew it was watching this whole altercation. He then glanced at a motionless Joe.

Calvin looked terrified on the ground as well as relieved that David stepped up to stop this crime.

“Warren, what are you doin’? He’s mine. They took out Keith that day in the market, and I’m taking out one of them. I have to show them they can’t kill us.” Judd’s head twitched. David could tell he was fidgeting in his helmet.

“How do you know he isn’t just some nobody?”

“If you stand in my way,” Judd’s voice was breaking up, which led David to believe he was on something like Adrenall—an illegal homebrew that pumped adrenaline and testosterone into users. Emotional breakdowns were common. “Then, you are going to die first, Maverick.” Judd drove a metal-gloved fist into David’s visor, shattering it. While the visor remained in one piece, glass shards scrapped his face.

Judd’s fist breaking David’s shatter-resistant visor confirmed his fear. “Are you fucking using?”

“Fuck you, Warren,” was all Judd replied and swung at him again, with reckless abandon.

David glanced to check on Calvin—who remained still but alert—and Joe who was stirring. This lapse in attention gave Judd enough time to deliver a blow to David’s lower abdomen. David knew Judd had forgotten all about Calvin; he had a new target.

“It’s time all the State-haters paid the price. One of my men for one of yours.” David noticed the crazed tone in Judd’s voice.

“Where’s this coming from, Judd?” David shouted at him in frustration. “We were friends.”

“No, you killed my only friend.” Judd’s retort burned like acid.

David could see Calvin crawling towards his own car. With the man out of the way and protecting himself, David could deal with Judd.

David tossed off his now useless helmet. Judd charged full speed. As he closed in, Judd cocked his right arm back to punch David. With sudden focus, David saw Judd slow down, and he ducked a hard right and moved behind Judd. When he missed, Judd stumbled and almost tumbled into traffic. While facing his back, David unclipped Judd’s helmet. When Judd turned, David grabbed the back of the helmet and pulled towards his chest, while pushing his legs into Judd’s midsection. David rolled onto his back sending Judd overhead towards the parked vehicles. Judd’s helmet ripped off in the judo flip.

After standing, Judd cracked his neck with his eyes closed and snapped back open. Whatever damage David had done just healed.

David, still confused by his own speed and strength, tried to slow down the adrenaline rush. He needed to be in control so he didn’t hurt Judd more than necessary. Judd pawed at his belt and yanked his pistol out with quick precision. David was now at the mercy of an expert with a weapon. David moved for his own pistol.

“Don’t you fucking do it!” Judd shouted.

“Judd, don’t do this.”

David stared into the eyes of Vincent Judd—the one man who had kept the other men at bay, the one man who had protected him. He looked down the barrel of Judd’s Class-D Infusion Pistol. The situation surprised David, though he didn’t expect Judd to fire. He knew a Unie would never shoot another, especially on camera.

Judd laughed as he shot twice into David’s chest. Judd taunted, “How do those shots feel, Maverick? I loaded these bullets with a nice inhibitor.” The smirk on Judd’s face looked sick.

The Unie bullets were enhanced to pierce armor like David’s vest like a knife through bare skin. David’s chest deflated, and the world faded to black.

Illusion of Choice Chapter 3

CHAPTER 3

October 25, 2050 – Streets of Chicago

“Is that the time?” Alex Mason shouted as he jolted from the bed.

“No, it’s a random number generator silly.” Sophie giggled.

“It’s almost fucking curfew, Soph!” Alex didn’t yell at her, but this was serious.

“Sorry babe. I always lose track of time when I’m in your arms.” She cooed, still tired.

“Shit, I have to go.”

“Can’t you stay here?”

“I need my computer and uniform for work tomorrow. I’m working at dawn.” Alex was dressing as he spoke.

“Be careful out there.” Sophie said in a completely exhausted voice that trailed off.

He kissed her and descended the fire escape to an alley behind her building.

Alex ran through the narrow alleyways as quick as possible with his head low. Curfew was in effect now, and the city guards shot people on sight. Their public rationale was they couldn’t take the risk of spreading the infection. Alex knew he should have left Sophie’s apartment earlier.

He saw Sophie’s smiling face in his mind and knew he’d never regret spending a moment with her. She seemed more broken as of late, and she needed him more than ever. Sophie was a trained general practitioner. She dedicated her life to helping people, but thanks to the new laws, she wasn’t allowed to touch a patient for eight hours after admission. During her shifts, Sophie had to listen, unable to provide succor, while men, women, and children screamed in pain. It was killing her.

Alex sighed as he looked for his next move. The alleyway he was running down ended on an open street. With the darkness descending like a sheet over the city, the guards would be hunting for infected. The darkness offered protection for the infected to scrounge for food as it hid signs of their infection.

“This is fucking Hollywood shit” he laughed to no one in particular. The sick weren’t monsters, Sophie always explained. They were in so much pain that they just lashed out.

The street that lay in front of him was a typical two-lane road, and Alex had to get across with as few steps as possible. When the plague hit his city, Alex was one of the few who chose not to flee. The US government claimed many of the uninhabited buildings and converted them into medical, industrial, and military centers within the dying city.

The city provided Alex with an easy job in the industrial sector as a welder. The job gave him a generous stipend, which he could spend freely since he lived rent free after his landlord fled. Though an evacuation was ordered, the city needed workers and gave anyone who stubbornly stayed behind work and money.

He stalked up to the edge of the building on the right of the alley, dashed into the street, and ran for the opposite alleyway. Once in the safety of its shadows, Alex gave a sigh of relief when he heard no shouts or gunshots.

He was almost home. All he had to do was take a right at the end of this alley, and he’d be home free. He kept his trot slow to avoid making too much noise. As he turned at the end of the alley, he ran straight into an artificial wall that was blocking the opening to the road.

Alex had heard of the guards using these walls to trap the infected. Sophia had said she’d heard of the Red Guard collecting fresh victims for a project. In his frustration, Alex turned towards the road he had just crossed and saw two people staggering towards him.

“Help me.” He knew the man on the left was a vagrant from his filthy appearance even with the sickness. “I am so hungry.”

“Stay right there. Are you sick?” Alex knew he was.

The homeless man looked to be in the advanced stages of the disease. His mouth hung open, sucking in as much air as possible. His eyes were completely yellow, and his teeth, what few remained, were sharp and broken from eating anything he could scavenge. As he lurched towards Alex, his exposed gum line showed decay. His skin was a strange mixture of grotesque yellow and bone-white.

The man next to him was less obvious in his infection. He wore a uniform so red it dominated all other colors into submission, though he was missing his helmet – something a healthy Red Guard officer would never allow. The guard looked to be a fresh victim of no more than eight hours. His stride was still strong, but his skin was becoming pale and his eyes were bloodshot. Alex had to be careful because, though these two were sick, they were prone to bouts of violence when confronted.

“Please. If you have anything, I’ll take it.” The homeless man was getting closer. His gait was weak and took a lot out of him. “I just want water.” The infection always caused extreme hunger and dehydration as it ravaged the body.

He knew healthy Red Guard would come if they heard his shouts, but he didn’t care. He refused to get infected. “Stay back. I don’t want to get fucking sick.”

Despite his pleas to stop, they kept walking towards him. Alex remembered Sophie mentioning that trauma killed the infected and saw a small brick a few feet away from him. Alex snatched the brick, took a few steps forward, and slammed it into the head of the guard. The guard stumbled, tried to stand, then went limp. Alex turned to grab another item, not realizing how fast the hobo had crept, and suddenly felt a burning sensation in his neck.

“You son of a bitch! No no no!” Alex screamed over and over again. He managed to grab the homeless man’s back and flipped him to the ground. Alex fell as his equilibrium shifted. He scooted back as the man dragged towards him.

“Why couldn’t you just give us some food and water?” He was screaming at Alex.

Out of nowhere, a rifle ended the man’s pleas, blowing his head apart.

Alex turned, lifted his head up and saw a man in a Red Guard uniform standing at the end of the alley with a rifle raised. The guard’s fire engine red suit had thick armor covering his joints and neck. The unusual color of the uniform was for identification purposes among other guards—red meant don’t shoot first. The soldier wore a gas-mask helmet. He removed a section of it covering his mouth to speak. Alex had heard of their brutality towards citizens breaking curfew, much less one doomed to turn into one of the creatures. He closed his eyes, breathed in deep, and waited for the gunshot, but instead, the guard walked to him and raised him to his feet.

“Bitten, hmm?”

“Yeah…”

“Well, you are infected. All I can do is put you out of your misery,” The guard smirked a bit. Alex never hated someone more than he did now. “However, there is another option.”

Alex remained quiet in response.

“If you come with us, we can use you to test our new vaccine,” the guard said with a slight British accent. “It will kill you, but your contribution to research will be invaluable.”

“What choice do I have?”

“Not much, really. You’ll die either way.”

Alex thought about what he would miss the most. Sophie was high on the list of things, as well as their new puppy. He would miss his co-workers who joked with him daily. He would also miss sunlight. Where he was going, he knew, lacked that.

“I understand.” Alex didn’t care what happened to him anymore. The guard replaced his mask and guided Alex towards the street where a large van, marked with the familiar ‘Daraby Pharmaceuticals’ logo waited. They approached the back of the vehicle, and the Brit banged hard on the door. It opened, revealing an interior that was so white it stung his retina. Each wall of the van had three seats. Two guards occupied the first and third seat on the left side, and a single guard sat next to the front of the van on the right. The guard closest to Alex on the left stood up and offered a hand. The guards hauled Alex inside and restrained him into the open seat between the two on the left.

“That’s for if you turn early.” This guard helping him seemed to know he was already infected. He remembered the searing pain in his neck and wondered how bad it looked.

The Brit closed the door and took a seat opposite Alex.

“All ready, Lisa.” The guard sitting to Alex’s left shouted. The van lurched forward, and Alex stared without much thought at the wall so white it gave him a headache.

“So, how are we dividing this?” The guard who helped him in asked as he removed the face part of his mask.

“The deal was each specimen we bring, we go 25%.” Alex pretended not to listen as disgust boiled in his gut.

“Well, gents, I believe I am owed a higher share. I did capture it.” The Brit said with enough smug to drown Alex.

“It? I am still alive, you son of a bitch.” Alex interjected.

An argument began. “I risked my life to get him out of the jaws of that other one.” The argument was soon cut off as the van stopped, jolting everyone in the back towards the front.

“Guys, can you come see this?” Lisa, Alex surmised, screamed. She sounded much older than him. All four guards crowded a small panel door to view the windshield.

“Holy shit, there must be at least 25 of them!” The guard who sat on Alex’s left shouted.

“So, here’s the game. We each get six shots. Whoever kills the most gets 50% of the reward for the live one, and the other three split the remainder.” The Brit guard said from the front by the slot.

Alex looked at the guard who helped him into the van. The guard’s focus was towards the front, but Alex noticed he had his side arm unfastened. Alex also noticed that all the rifles were on the floor. Thanks to his double-jointed shoulder, he slowly undid his restraints, being careful to not make any noise. The guards were still arguing and completely unaware he was free. He smiled as a plan began to form. He reached for the pistol and slid it from the holster without alerting the guard. Smiling, Alex waited to strike.

Illusion of Choice Chapter 1 Sample

Chapter 1

23.2228 – City-7434, Sector 8A, World Government of Earth (W.G.E.)

The alarm on his wrist communicator sounded at 0530 as the WGE mandated for Officer #9301. David Warren awoke with an hour and half until his State-mandated class. He stretched on his box-spring bed in a room as dark as a coffin. David glanced down at the metallic cuff enveloping his left forearm and saw the piercing green illumination change to 0531. It beeped again.

“Are you going to turn that off?” A female voice said in a soft, but harsh tone.

“Sorry.” David silenced the alarm. He forgot she was still here. “I told you I had Block 7 classes.”

“There’s a Block 7?” She mocked a yawn.

“Yeah, 0700 to 0800.”

“Why the fuck would you accept that?” The pale woman asked as she stretched. She was still nude, like David, below the small sheet that barely covered her.

“I will be working Block 9 through 19.” He explained.

“I work all Blocks, honey.” She purred as she pulled her long, jet-black hair into a ponytail. Though she dressed to look older, with her lying naked on the bed with her hair back, she filled out all 19 years of her life. She smiled with a look of primal longing. “I’m still on your dime.”

“What’s stopping me from arresting you and taking you to the Detention Center?” David asked as he met her eyes with a faux fierce stare. “You may not be legal.” He offered her a smirk.

“That wasn’t funny.” She flushed with anger. “You know I do my damnedest to stay straight.” The WGE had legalized prostitution and other vices and even encouraged their use. This leniency was done to ensure that everyone was safe as some of the worst diseases in the Old World were sexually transmitted or through the use of illegal drugs. By legalizing these practices, the WGE also made sure everyone was protected from unwanted side effects like pregnancy without proper care and services.

“I’m sorry.” He softened instantly. “I was only kidding.”

“It still hurt.”

“You know I couldn’t anyway.”

“Yeah, then, you wouldn’t have anyone.” She giggled in a way that always made him smile. “There’s that smile I love.” She stretched her arms out, and he couldn’t resist collapsing into them.

Despite her warm embrace, David felt a chill rise up along his spine and into his brain. Because the State set the temperature in the provided housing complexes, he had to learn to deal with the cold. A humming buzz signaled the piping in of oxygen to the bedrooms to shake free any sense of sleepiness. He pushed off Iliza and stood next to the bed as the lights in his apartment finished their morning awakening. Though he knew the State regulated all lights for energy consumption, David wished they would turn on faster.

“I need to get ready.” He said. “I have some new flavors in the cabinet if you want something.”

“You do!” Iliza squealed and perked up. “We never get the good stuff you Unies get.” She said in a mocking pout that he knew was true. “Especially us in the Fringe.”

“You could move out of Sector 13, you know.” He offered as he started to move for the door.

“I wish, but you don’t pay me enough for that, honey.”

David headed to the tiny bathroom. Per regulations, the lights remained off, but the mosaic-tiled window offered enough light to flood the entire bathroom. There was a sink with a mirror over it, a small shower, and a closet. David looked into his mirror for a moment. He needed a haircut and a shave. As he looked at the man in the mirror, the reflection disturbed David. It was foreign and outside of the norm. His eyes, blue as opposed to the typical brown of people with his hair color looked back at him mockingly. He was different in an obvious way and despised his eyes. He turned from the mirror to his shower without any further hesitation and pressed the button below the shower head. The water began with a timer counting down from ten minutes. He showered as fast as he could while clenching his teeth from the cold water.

The cold water, like the slow lights, was another result of rationing. Using excessive amounts of hot water would deprive others of even lukewarm water. David understood the reasoning, but he hated it. The trained part of his brain kicked in and chastised him for dissenting.

He pulled a towel out of his bathroom closet instead of standing in front of the dryer in his bathroom. David always found the air from that dryer to be too cool for him when he was soaking wet. After drying, he fed the towel into a slot next to the closet. A series of grinding sounds emanated from the slot, and the towel appeared on the shelf where David pulled it, folded and dry.

He headed, nude, to his bedroom, and a wave of self-consciousness hit. The State encouraged one to ignore modesty and indulge in every physical desire, but to David, a part of him never acquired that mentality. Except with Iliza. Though he knew she would leave his life the second he couldn’t afford her, he felt a deeper connection with her than he did with most Working Ladies. He retrieved his clothes from the closet and placed them on the bed.

He walked from the white cube that was his bedroom to the white cube that was his living room. Padding over to the cabinet, David removed a syringe labeled “Chocolate Cereal.” He injected the dark, metallic brown liquid into the back of his neck where it melted into his shoulders. The neck location would never heal from the constant injections, yet it caused no scar tissue.

As the liquid entered his Augmentation Implementing Dispenser (AID) chip, David waited to taste the cereal. Since the implanted chip satisfied all needs for food and water, the State simply provided the flavor injections to make the transition easier. Its use was popular, so the WGE, in an act of utter generosity, never did away with it. Today, only workers for the State in high positions got them delivered for free. Everyone else had to buy them, and they weren’t cheap.

“Yes! I am Queue Number 10!” Iliza shouted, snuggled on the couch. He had forgotten she was there.

“Few later risers today.” David said with a shrug. “Which one you got?” David asked, placing the used syringe in a special container for recycling.

“It said Strawberry.” She looked back at him from the sofa, with the numbers 0-2, emblazoned on the screen displaying her queue number. “It tastes sweet!”

“It’s pretty good, but you should try Orange.”

“Next time.” She turned to the TV. “We are 0-1! You think it’ll be cartoons?” Even though he had been her regular for over 100 days, she was still amazed by the perks, like flavor vials, that he received as a Union Guard. It amused him.

A taste entered his mouth that David identified as “cheap chocolate.” The flavor paled in comparison to a small taste he could remember as a child. It wasn’t perfect, but it gave him a connection to his childhood. He wasn’t sure when he had experienced it, but the memory was vivid in detail.

David saw a woman with hair colored like leaves in autumn. When he had this vision, he always called her that—Autumn. Even in memory, her smile lit up any darkness that lingered in his heart. As she pulled him close and embraced him, his tiny hands fondled the treat she gave him. The world melted as the flavor of the chocolate piece enveloped him. The mental image dissipated as Clark Wallace introduced WGE News.

Iliza groaned. “The news is always so boring.”

“We at WGE News Network would like to wish a congratulations to Sister Marilyn Winthrop and Brother Adam Gino as they have announced their union in the eyes of the State. While the Winthrop name is synonymous with the WGE Film industry, Brother Gino comes from a long line of public servants including his father, John who serves on the WGE Council. Let us wish our brother and sister well.

“Who the fuck cares about them?” Iliza said with an expression that mirrored her distasteful tone. “Sorry, but I never got the celebrity worship. It seems to counter to everything we were taught.”

“It does, but think about it.” David teased. “Two of the most well-known names in WGE service have joined. Winthrop-Gino will become a dynasty for the WGE.”

“That’s true. Just seems weird.” David shrugged.

“Union Officers scored a glorious victory in Sector 12 after an extensive firefight with insurgents hiding in the slums.” The TV stated.

“He’s lying again, isn’t he?” Iliza asked.

“Embellishing.” David corrected. “I’m sure there was a firefight, but I doubt it was the terrorists.”

“Sounds scary. Have you ever met any?” She resembled a child with her curiosity about his work. It enamored David that despite her line of work, she was still curious about the world unlike other women.

“I would bet few were true CLOC insurgents.” David pronounced it as “cloak.”

“What’s CLOC?”

“The Coalition for the Liberation of Oppressed Citizens.” David explained. The WGE rarely acknowledged their formal name. They were always “the terrorists.”

“Were they dangerous?” Iliza asked, but before David could respond, Clark Wallace said something on TV that froze them both.

“Join us, brothers and sisters, in a mantra for the hour. Repeat: I will work for one reason today: solidarity.” The smile on Clark Wallace’s face looked like it would touch his eyes if he pushed it a bit harder. David and Iliza recited the mantra. Iliza’s face mirrored Clark Wallace’s, but David, as usual, forced a smile onto his face.

“We are fortunate to live in City-7434, Brother Warren.” He hated when she called him that, as she always did after the mantras.

“Indeed we are,” David pushed the awkward address out. “Sister.”

“Can you imagine life outside in the Wastelands?”

“Not in the slightest.” Excluding his chocolate memory, David only remembered living under the World Government of Earth’s regime. They fulfilled everyone’s needs, though some received more perks than others. All citizens received the same stipend; however, the doctors, scientists, and teachers also received the top-notch goods, such as better food flavors, bigger apartments, and nicer cars. He, as a Union Guard Officer, received this tier of perks with a few hidden extras: liquor and real foods. In the poorer sectors where people worked more menial jobs, the citizens only received the basic income. It forced them into abject poverty to just get a car. Most in Sectors 10 to 13 tried to live the illusion of wealth and went into severe debt to buy the cars that David’s class drove.

“The Fringe is scary enough.” Most people called Sector 12 and Sector 13 the unkind nickname since the poorest congregated here. Most moved there for the relaxed laws from the WGE police, but they found that it was hard, if not impossible, to move back.

“Like I said before, move here.” He held her face and looked at her. David thought for a second she would greet him with a kiss, finally ending their business arrangement for something more tangible, but a loud pounding on the front door interrupted their moment. Grabbing his gun off the end table, he ran to the door, chambered a round, and checked the view screen on the door.

“Fuck.” He said loud enough for Iliza to hear.

“Who is it?” He motioned her to keep quiet and go to the bedroom, which she did without hesitation.

“Brother Warren, please, open up, I need your help.” The pounding was as wild as natives of the Wastelands. Peter Richardson, David’s neighbor, looked like an uncivilized man.

“What you need, Brother Richardson?” David shouted through the door.

“I’m in trouble, man. Open up!” His voice rose in timbre.

David disengaged the electronic locks. Peter stormed in without invitation looking like he was homeless. The dirty-blond hair that clung tight to Peter’s scalp was slick with sweat. Red worms attacked his greenish irises, and bleeding wounds riddled his lips. Through his training, David kept his gun at the ready.

“I fucked up last night.” Peter said with a sigh. “Gambling.” He replied, embarrassed to admit his crime.

“It wasn’t State-sanctioned, was it?” David paused, hoping his instincts were wrong. Peter’s eyes told him they weren’t. “How much?”

“More credits than I make in a month.” Tears filled his eyes magnifying the intense green. “I was on a roll.”

“Fuck, Pete.”

“I also skipped work this morning.” He mumbled as if he didn’t want to feel the words come out. David heard them anyway. David’s eyebrows arched high, trying to reach the bangs of his too long brown hair.

“What? Are you fucking crazy? Don’t you work 0000 clean up?”

“Yeah.” Peter melted into the couch.

“You are six hours late. They will notice that.” David was growing panicky.

“I was too scared to leave.”

“Well, I suggest you get out of my apartment before I have to use this.” He motioned to his gun, without much meaning. He was too tired to be tough with Peter. “But, since that would give me a headache with paperwork, I’ll skip that idea. You are in a bit of trouble, but I guess it’s nothing too serious. Maybe a week or two in Union detention. I think turning yourself in would be the wisest thing.” David’s mind began to betray him. Peter wouldn’t last the full sentence. Interrogations demolished people like Peter the first day.

“I… can’t do that,” stammered Peter. “What if I leave the city?”

“The WGE’s jurisdiction ends after Sector 13, so you will be out of their realm of persecution. But remember, you’ll also be out of their ring of protection. Can you handle what’s out there?”

David looked out the window, hoping to ground Peter into the hopelessness of escape. Beyond the concrete and steel labyrinth, he could see the whispers of trees and wilderness. “The terrorists will likely kidnap you and try to ransom you off, or the bandits out there will just kill you on sight.” David hoped these clichés would scare him into going to another Union Guard Officer.

“Can I crash here for a few hours at least? I haven’t slept all night, waiting for them to bust the door in, and…”

“Have you been using?” David had to get Peter back to his place before he found Iliza.

“Fuck no, man, I’m in enough trouble that I don’t need illegals in my system.” Most non-State upgrades were minor enhancements of State variations. Some enhancements were benign like the sleeping upgrades that would knock you out for a week. Others allowed for temporary bursts of speed and strength. The scarier ones were like the drugs of the Old World.

As with prostitution the State was fine with most that didn’t interfere with one’s responsibilities. The drugs like Adrenall, Blue Velvet, and a few others that caused increased aggression and rage gained their ire.

“I have a friend in Sector 9.” He thought of an innkeeper who he helped out once. “I have a Sleeper in the cabinet next to my flavor vials. It’s straight, so it will only give you two or three hours. Head to this address.” David typed it into his communicator and pointed it to Pete’s. Pete’s communicator dinged. “Take a Sleeper, shower when you wake up, and then, get to Sector 1 and turn yourself in. Deal?”

“Yeah, man. Deal.” Peter stared off into space with a placid smile before ambling out of the apartment. David didn’t believe him for a second.

“You are smooth.” Iliza said from the hallway. “Is he going to be okay?” She looked worried for him.

“I love that you care.” David said without choosing his words. He saw her cheeks turn a shade of red. Unlike most citizens of City-7434, Iliza seemed to relish the praise. That reaction reaffirmed that she was different like he was. “But, I don’t know. He’s on his own now. Shit,” David recalled seeing the time on his communicator. “I have to go.”

“I’ll be gone soon.” She said without much thought or emotion. “Bye… David.” She smiled.
To not ruin the moment, David left without another word. He grabbed a tan button-up shirt and his bag, packed his gun away, and headed out. He hoped Peter would regain some of his senses after a few hours of sleep.

He finished buttoning his shirt as the elevator arrived at the ground floor. Outside of his building, the sky was a perfect blue. Somehow, the color still amazed him while most didn’t even take notice of it. Everyone on the streets looked forward as they walked or down at the glowing device attached to their wrists. The wrist communicator had many useful tools, such as a clock, a phone, and a wallet into one device. David’s Unie communicator had many extra features. One tool he used the most was the ability to scan anyone’s identification port and learn their past transgressions. It allowed him to assess anyone at a glance.

David queued behind others waiting for the transport. The large transport vehicle arrived on schedule as always. The vehicle looked like one of the buses he had seen in his Old World History class but with the armor of a tank. He passed the driver and flipped his wrist up. The red laser next to the driver scanned his identification port eliciting a ding. David found a seat by the window. The hum of electrical current rose with a slow crescendo. The vehicle lurched forward following a track of radio signal, accelerating to the speed of the rest of traffic. Over the seat, he could see the driver writing in his log as the vehicle drove itself. State Drivers weren’t essential to typical vehicle usage, but they were the only ones sanctioned to drive with manual controls. If an emergency came up, like being behind schedule, the State Drivers were ready to put their training to use. Because of the efficiency of the State, most never had to do that.

David opened his satchel, removed his educational tablet, and began flipping through his notes on the digital pages. He scanned the syllabus to confirm it: 21st Century Mysticism. Religion, outlawed by The Rules, always intrigued David. He had once arrested some who were practicing religious sacraments, but most were strung out users who had “epiphanies” after binges. Still, he tried, against all logic, to question these people in their cells; they revealed nothing of interest except a look that David would never forget—a look of hope.

The transport groaned to a stop, and the intercom burst with sound. “Sector 3 – Public Education Center #23.” David flipped the book off in a hurry and got in line to exit the vehicle.

Outside in the warming air, he stood in front of a plain building. Other than being a giant copper rectangle, the building was a monolith of monotony—the epitome of the State. Besides its color, only a sign reading PEC #23 adorned the building. Following the crowd pouring into the building, David tried his best to contain his excitement. Most citizens didn’t enjoy these mandatory classes.

Window Shopping – Free Short Story

Kelly soaked in the warm bathwater without a care. The bubbles’ sweet scent placed her back in her childhood as she leaned her head against the tub’s edge. No more exams, no more homework for three months, she thought. When her freshman year had come to a close, she declined both the summer job her mom offered and summer classes; she worked herself to a breaking point and needed the time off. She could earn money with a job during the fall semester, and she would take more classes later, but for now, she had to enjoy this time.

Throughout high school, Kelly overworked herself. While it earned her the title of valedictorian and several high paying scholarships, Kelly felt cheated by her high school experience. Though she managed to meet her long-time boyfriend, Russell, she had missed out on the tight friendships that she admired from a distance. She craved to have a close girlfriend she could share her thoughts with, or even a couple with whom she and Russ could double-date. Normally, they went out with Steve and Karen. Kelly hated Karen. Since Kelly was attractive in her own right, she felt no jealousy towards Karen, but Karen was just plain stupid, almost as if she were doing it as an act. Kelly couldn’t relate to the girl, but Russell and Steve went way back, so she kept her mouth shut and played nice.

She stopped these thoughts and let her mind wander towards nothingness. She didn’t want to think about school, work, or anything stressful. Just relax. With her parents gone for the weekend, Russell would be over after work. Her head began to sag as Kelly fell asleep in the bathtub.

The sound of scratching woke her from the sleep. The sound was coming from the lock, and it reminded her of when Russell would pick the lock to surprise her.

“Russell?” She called out. No answer, but the scratching continued.

Kelly leaped out of the bathtub spilling water on the floor and rug. Bubbles clung to her naked body. She swiftly wrapped herself in a baby blue robe.

“Who’s there?” The scratching continued. “I have a weapon!” The scratching suddenly stopped. Kelly grabbed a pair of scissors from the side of her sink. Kelly grabbed the door knob. The handle shook like a pair of dice in her hand. She twisted. The bark of Paxton, her bulldog puppy, startled her. He looked up at her with his mouth agape.

She listened in the dark house but heard nothing. She tried to shake it, but the electricity of fear pulsed in and out of her. Something was wrong.

Kelly glided along the wall of the hallway. A bedroom was approaching directly in front of her on the side of the wall she was sticking to, while on the opposite wall, there was a closet. In a flurry, Kelly jumped to the opposite wall, holding close to the closet. The wood panels created a shuffling sound as she walked fast past the open bedroom door. She rushed to the end of the hallway to hit the light switch.

After a few seconds of adjusting to the light, Kelly could see the hallway to the old house was empty. The 14-foot ceiling remained its bland white. The high 10-foot doorways remained flanked with old wood. There was nothing to fear in front of her. As Kelly turned around, something in the window sent her heart pounding. It was a face.

In the window that opened to the backyard of the house, a man of no discernible age stood looking at her. His jaw was slack, and from the heaving, she could tell he was breathing strong. The man had a black and white beard that looked like a dog with mange. His left eye never broke from hers. His right eye was staring towards his ear. The man revolted Kelly. A sound caused her to break her gaze. It came from her left in the kitchen. When she looked back at the window, the man was gone. She shuffled to turn the kitchen light on and found her phone twitching on the counter. The number was private. She slowly raised the phone to her ear after pressing “answer.”

“Hello?” She said. She heard what sounded like moaning. “Who is this?”

“You’ve been a bad girl…” she heard a deep voice mutter through moans.

“I’m going to call the cops if you don’t leave me—”

“Looking so bad with that short blue robe… you tease…” He groaned. She nearly collapsed. Two possibilities blossomed in her head: either the man outside had her phone number, or someone else could see her. She hung up the phone and called Russell. He answered on the third ring.

“Hey, babe, what’s up? Kinda busy.”

“Please come over now,” she shrieked into the phone. “Someone is outside… I saw him… he was at the window.”

“I’m on my way. Call the cops… now!” A loud bang echoed from the hallway before she could reply to him. With the scissors in hand, she walked into the hallway and looked towards the window. She began to scream as she saw a message, in blood, written from the inside.

“No cops!” The blood dripped down the window towards the floor where Paxton lay dead. Kelly began to lose her ability to breathe regularly as she realized the enormity of the situation.

She wasn’t alone in the large, old house. Russell was on his way, but he had miles to drive. Her parents were as good as another planet away. She knew the safest room to wait for Russell was the bathroom: one door, one shallow closet, and one high window. Before hiding, she ditched her scissors in favor of her mother’s butcher knife. With all the courage left inside of her and knife and phone in hand, she stormed down the hallway to the bathroom. Inside, she yanked the closet door open. Nothing. She pushed the shower curtain aside. Nothing. Finally, she pushed the bathroom door closed all but a small bit to hear for Russell.

The wait seemed like hours. Her phone shuttered in the palm of her hand. The number was private. She bit her lip to stifle the sobs.

“He won’t be here in time.” The mirth in his voice was sickening. “As you saw, I have a key.”

“Who are you?” She whispered as her strength was sapped.

“I’m almost at the door. Here we go. Inserting the key.”

Kelly listened and heard a key enter the lock. Without hesitating, Kelly sprang from the bathroom and charged down the hallway.

“Knob is turning.” The knob turned. She kept her pace, knife cocked and ready with the phone pressed hard to her head. As the door opened, her hand came down like a bolt of lightning. The knife found bone and stuck. In the house lights, she saw Russell’s face begin to go flush.

“I knew you were a bad girl. Now, I get to punish you.” He let out a cackle that sounded infinite. The voice wasn’t from the phone anymore but behind her.

As Russell bled out from the knife wound, his eyes grew wide as an owl’s. Kelly started to turn, but before she could, she felt a wet, sweet-smelling cloth pressed on her face. Then, she felt nothing.

End.

Short Story Commentary: Window Shopping


When I first started a writing project in 2010, I had no idea exactly where I wanted to go with it. I knew the short stories would be lacking at first, but as I wrote, I hoped that the story quality would step up.

I decided to restart my project with my first completed short story “Window Shopping.” Pacing-wise, it is a bit lacking. Some of my typical elements are there (unseen force of evil; blacking out to death; etc.), but I think this was my first attempt to succinctly build a scene with lots of tension. The character is completely innocent and naive, so like the stranger who is watching her, we are given a candid look into her thoughts and actions. The only gray area for us is we have no idea what the stranger is thinking, planning, or why he targeted this character.

I got the inspiration of this story, much to my wife’s chagrin, by writing by a window near my computer desk. I started to think how terrifying it would be if I would walk into the perpetually dark room, which isn’t helped by the hunter green walls that absorb all the light, and see a second of a face in the window that moves when we make eye contact.

I took that fear and modified it; instead of fleeing at being caught, the stranger was excited and enticed. Kelly, without realizing it, had willingly accepted to join in his game. The results were obvious from the start.

I think if I had to go back and flesh this story out, I would have made the death of Paxton a little more organic. How did the stranger get in the house? Later, it’s revealed he has a key. Why isn’t Kelly more startled with the fact that he would have had to enter the house to do what he did? I guess I can attribute that to shock, and she did act within her means. Running outside wouldn’t have helped her.

The conclusion to the story is something I planned pretty early on. How horrific does her ordeal become when she suddenly kills the only person who can save her? Not letting her mull this over in front of us, I have the stranger knock her out with ether or chloroform and drag her for his own unearthly plans.

The elements of this story will appear in others. I do have some form of justice in mind for the stranger, as well as the appearance of Kelly and Russell. Hopefully, this entry was done well enough to whet your appetite and give you impetus to watch me improve.
Thanks for your time.

“Bows and Internets” by Eric Ponvelle

Originally published on The WiFiles

An’ki woke with a slight throbbing in his head. He sat upright on the fur covered ground. He looked down at Sul’ki, looking tiny and peaceful as she slept. He hated to wake her, but she panicked when she woke up without him near.

“Sunny,” An’ki whispered in a language unlike anything in modern society. “I am leaving now.”

“Ok, Annie.” She smiled and went still without opening her eyes. An’ki brushed the black hair that had fallen on her midnight-hued skin. She had taken fourteen years to get this beautiful, and every day she wowed him more.

An’ki stood at the entrance of the hut he built years ago while courting Sul’ki, when she was known as Sulia. The sun illuminated the valley below the village’s cliff with a sheet of gold. In the distance, An’ki could see a smoke serpent rising to the sky near a glowing, golden tree. Above this distant village, a Flyer fluttered. An’ki knew it buzzed like a dragon fly. Like the one in An’ki’s village, its wings and tail moved rapidly to keep it afloat. It made hunting and exploring easy.

An’ki smiled at the village his brother, Wyn’ki, built. He missed him greatly. At that thought, An’ki decided he would head to the Dome.
An’ki set himself for the community pantry to prepare for the experience. The tightly bound hut of leaves and sticks was guarded by two men, one older than An’ki and one younger.

“An!” The man on An’ki’s left shouted, becoming animated. “How are you?”

“Good, Kull.” An’ki looked over to the other man. “Ja’ki.” His younger brother tried to steel his expression. A smile broke through. Kull looked at him, resetting Ja’ki back to stone.

“What do you need?” Kull’s tone remained light and friendly.

“I am going to speak with Wyn’ki in the Dome.” Kull stiffened and nodded. He grabbed the door and said nothing more.

An’ki entered the pantry grabbing dried fruits and collected nuts from various shelves and baskets. He knew how much was needed for the “connection” he was about to undergo. He left the pantry and headed towards the Dome.

Kull’s reaction was typical with the older generation. They feared what the Dome provided, but they were compelled to stay near the Tree.

An’ki descended a small slope from the cliff where his village was. In front of him, a large building sat next to a golden tree, like the one near Wyn’ki’s village. The Dome looked like a large bowl, down turned, and placed on the ground. From the tree next to it, glowing yellow tendrils fed into the top of the Dome. An’ki ate his snacks as entered the Dome. He didn’t have to stoop.

Inside the Dome, six other people sat in the dark with golden tendrils in their mouths. An’ki finished eating and withdrew a free tendril from the cluster in the center. Sitting in a corner by himself, An’ki let his breath out slowly, emptying his lungs. He placed the tendril in his mouth, pulled deep, and within seconds, he went blind and could hear voices of everyone around him.

The chatter of his village’s residents merged with the voices of every other village that connected to their own trees. He began a slow, mental chant of “Wyn’ki.”

“Brother?” An’ki heard a monotone voice that matched his and everyone else’s. “Is that you, An’ki?”

“Yes, Wyn.” He could not sound excited. “I see your village is growing.”

“It is.” An’ki knew how proud Wyn’ki was for this achievement. His village was growing faster than An’ki’s.

“I saw the flying ship. Was that yours?” His voice held no inflection of a question. This lack of emotion frustrated An’ki.

“I learned of the design from the northern villages.” There was a pause. “Since you wouldn’t share.” An’ki knew Wyn was laughing to himself.

“Do they bring anything else?” An’ki could hear voices mentioning being from the north. He blocked them out and focused on his brother.

“A bad storm is coming. It passed them yesterday.” An’ki knew Wyn’ki was afraid of the northern storms.

“We’ll be okay. What about the southern villages?” An’ki listened, but no one from the southern villages mentioned anything. Both An’ki and Wyn’ki had sent several men and women to the south to find more trees and establish more villages.

“Yes. They are experimenting with one of the trees in the south. They have broken pieces of it to attempt mobile connections to the mind hub.”

“Any success?” An’ki was shocked and horrified that they would destroy the trees.

“I have heard words here and there.” That development intrigued An’ki. “But they still must bury the broken pieces for now.”

“Keep me informed. Goodbye, brother.”

“Goodbye, An’ki.”

An’ki stayed connected to the mind hub asking questions to anyone who could answer. After several hours, he was jolted by a tap on the arm. In his shock, he spat out the tendril. His vision slowly returned.

“I’m sorry, Annie.” It was Sul’ki. She looked groggy. “I’m hungry.” An’ki stood from where he connected to the tree. He picked the tendril off the ground and returned it to the cluster. He was towering over Sul’ki and smiled at his young bride, twelve years his junior.

“I’m sorry, my love. Let’s find you something to eat.”

“I want deer.” She smirked as his eyes enlarged. “Is that okay?”

“I will get you one. Wait in the hut.” She hugged him tightly and ran off. After leaving the Dome and ascending the small hill to the village, An’ki headed to the hunters’ lodge. Their hut was close to the trees.

When their hut came into view, An’ki was relieved the village Flyer was docked and ready for use. He would finally be able to use it.

An’ki looked at the vehicle. It had a large circular hull, divided into an area where the pilot sat in front. The back had seats for up to five people: two on the wall the pilot shared and three on the opposite side. The outside of it had four large wings that were circular shaped, two on each side. In the back a flat tail would spin to propel the vehicle as a burst of energy would speed it forward. The device ran nearly silent, making it ideal for hunting.

“An’ki! Welcome.” A man somehow taller than An’ki broke the chatter in the hut as An’ki entered. “What can I do for you, friend?” Thull’s voice boomed in the hut.

“I need a deer.”

“Excellent! We were about to head out for a quick hunt. Do you want to join us?”

“If I may.” An’ki, unlike the other village Elders, enjoyed hunting. An’ki was the youngest of the Elders because his father had died recently. He knew eventually he would become sedentary like the rest of the Elders.

“Let’s depart now.” Thull charged out of the door, bursting with excitement.

Thull and the other two hunters loaded spears and nets into the hunting vessel. A fourth hunter was starting the process to fly the vehicle. The pilot began to pump his legs, charging a propulsion unit in the back of the vehicle. At a much faster rate than he pumped, the wings began to flap quickly and produce enough wind to push An’ki back. He laughed at the sensation. The wings began to flap harder pushing the vehicle off the ground. Once in the air, the wings would expand out, and the vehicle would hover down. Ropes kept the gliding vehicle from straying from the launch pad. This stage was when it was possible to board.

“Ready, An’ki? I’ll go first.” Thull jumped in right as the Flyer set down. The wings flapped seconds after he sat down and locked his arms in his seat. It shot up high above An’ki and the two hunters.

“You go next, sir.” One of the other hunters spoke to him. An’ki tasted adrenaline pumping. The device was gliding back to its starting position. As soon as it touched down, An’ki dove inside to a chair on the same side as Thull. No sooner did he drop into the seat did he feel his stomach lurch as the device bounded skywards, much higher than before.

“This will get higher before we start moving. Lock your arms.” Thull yelled over the blasts of wind as they got higher above the village. An’ki’s long black hair covered his face like a mat of fur. Sweat, despite the cool wind, drenched him. The wind pulled at the only cloth An’ki wore around his waist.

“When everyone was boarded, they will close the hull’s doors,” shouted Thull.

As they glided down, much slower than they ascended, An’ki let out a breath. “Have you ever flown before?” Thull shouted despite the reduced noise pollution.

“No.” An’ki could feel his stomach and head spinning.

“You get used to it. Anytime you want to come out with us, feel free.” Thull was smiling, but An’ki couldn’t imagine ever returning.

An’ki jolted in his seat when the device hit the ground. Both remaining hunters entered from opposite open sides. He saw the tethering ropes, loose on the ground. The Flyer shot up once again, even higher and faster than before. The two hunters stood up and grabbed small flaps that extended outside each opening. They were holding their chairs tightly with a free arm. If they fell out, they would surely die. An’ki closed his eyes. When the flaps were closed, An’ki was shocked by the reduction in noise from the wind.

“Hold on tight!” Thull shouted. An’ki wanted to question it, but a loud boom from behind the other two hunters muted him. The Flyer shot forward. An’ki heard a buzz as the back tail began to spin to propel them forward. The wings outside were flapping quicker than before to keep it moving. “You can stand up now.” Thull laughed, hovering over An’ki. “It will be pretty stable now.” An’ki tried his legs, but they weren’t working. He shook his head. Thull laughed again and yanked him up.

On his feet, An’ki could feel that the vehicle was shaky, but it was more stable than he expected. An’ki looked out the open window in front of the pilot. He saw the contours of the trees and landscapes. His mouth hung open as he saw various animals roaming and plants in full bloom.

“It’s beautiful.”

“It is.” Thull sounded vulnerable and happy. “I would never give this part up for anything.” An’ki wanted to leave the Elders and fly for the rest of his life in this moment. This was worth the discomfort of take-off. “That’s where they the deer will be.” Thull motioned to a clearing of woods. It was a little higher than the areas surrounding it.

The hunting vessel tilted to the right and quickly turned to the left. An’ki braced himself against the opening to the pilot’s area. An’ki saw the other two hunters fastening themselves to the frame of the left side opening. Suddenly, they opened the covering flap exposing the left of the vehicle to air and the clearing. Thull walked carefully, using a guide pole in the middle of their seating area’s ceiling and handed both hunters spears. The pilot flew below the tree line. An’ki began to fear his tight grip on the cockpit’s frame would fail him. He could see deer starting to flee from the passing vehicle. Both hunters threw their spears hard. Both spears impaled deer through their necks perfectly. A loud pop from where Thull was standing startled An’ki. A net exploded from a device in Thull’s hand that grabbed both of the impaled deer together. Thull removed the rope that was attached to the device, tied it to the guide pole, then began to pull the net up with the aid of the hunters. Both deer made it inside.

“Are these big enough, young Elder?” Thull laughed. An’ki was shocked at how big the deer were up close.

“More than enough.”

“Get two more.” Thull shouted to the pilot. The repeated the same process, and without mistake, the hunters collected two more deer. As the net containing the last two entered the hull, the hunters tied to the open frame and closed the flap. The change in the air made An’ki’s ears hurt slightly.

“Thank you, Thull. I appreciate it.” Thull was beaming at the praise.

“Let’s get back to the village.” Thull struggled to reply.

As they flew back, An’ki noticed a speck off the coast, not far from his village.

“Do you have a scope?” He asked the pilot who never ceased pumping his legs. He looked exhausted. Automatically, the pilot reached and handed him a tiny monocular scope. An’ki held it to his eye.

The speck enlarged to reveal a very big ship. An’ki saw the ship had white pieces of clothes with barbed Xs the color of the setting sky. These were not ships of the tribes. An’ki felt a nagging sensation.

The Flyer touched down, and An’ki helped unload in silence. He needed to get back to the Dome.

“Here’s your deer.” Thull smiled.

“Thank you.” An’ki was too preoccupied to show much gratitude. He lifted the deer onto his shoulders and started for the Dome. He knew he should eat first, but he also knew he wouldn’t be long. Inside the Dome, An’ki dropped the carcass near the center where the tendrils remained. He remained standing while he sucked on the tendril. The world faded to black and voices rose around him. An’ki spoke quickly, but the limitations of the connection showed no change.

“Is anyone sailing off the Eastern shores?”

Chatter continued, ignoring his question.

“If anyone is sailing off the Eastern shore, please say yes.” An’ki wanted to scream this at the top of his lungs. His fears were growing. There was no response.

He spat out the tendril and ran to his hut. Sul’ki greeted him.

“No deer?”

“I need the scopes.” He saw his panic scared Sul’ki. She ran inside and came back with two scopes like the one from the pilot. He held them both up to his eyes. The ship was near to shore now. He could make out individual people. They were pale men dressed with heavy clothes. He could see they had fat spears in their hands. An’ki dropped his scopes and ran back to the Dome. He grabbed a tendril, sucked hard, and began to repeat Wyn’ki’s name.

“Is something wrong, brother?” An’ki knew his brother was much more frantic than his voice sounded.

“Burn the tree. Tell everyone to burn the trees.”

“Burn the trees?” There was a pregnant pause. “Why?”

“Invaders are coming. We must protect the other villages. Burn the Flyers too.” An’ki spit out the tendril. He left the Dome and bounded up the slope to a fire that cooked various meats. With a long burning log, An’ki returned to the Dome and threw the burning log at the glowing tree. It ignited instantly. Returning to the fire, An’ki grabbed a second burning log, ran to the now empty hunting vessel and with great sadness, ignited it.

Residents of the village walked out of their huts in shock. Before anyone could speak, An’ki raised his arm and pointed to the shore. Men in heavy closes with fat, hollow looking spears began to march towards the village. An’ki prepared for the battle that was coming.

An’ki walked towards the fire that produced the logs he used to burn the tree and the hunting vessel. He reached into it and produced a scalding hot rock that was larger than his head. His survival instincts let him block out the pain. As the war party grew near, they spoke in a language that flowed together quickly. An’ki, hand in pain, looked at the terrified Sul’ki. He stepped forward the flung the hot rock at one of the closest men. It slammed into his head and dropped him instantly.

An’ki waited for the war party to retreat, but instead, he heard them shouting louder as they approached their dead comrade. An’ki moved to the fire to retrieve more burning rocks when he heard several loud pops from their fat, hollow spears. Smoke and fire flashed out of the end of them. An’ki felt strings of searing pain travel through him. An’ki heard another pop from a spear aimed higher at his head. The world turned dark. As his body fell to the ground, the last thing An’ki heard were the shrieks of Sul’ki. He died feeling helpless.

Buy “Illusion of Choice” Today!

This was a long time coming. Like really long.

My novel “Illusion of Choice” is available for pre-order from select retailers online. Please visit Amazon for more information on purchasing. If you purchase before April 7th, 2015, you can grab the book for $0.99. On April 7th, it will revert to its full retail price at $2.99, which I’d argue isn’t too bad.

This post is a hard one to write because it requires me to sell myself which I don’t really enjoy doing. I’d rather be observed of my merits than having to push people to see my skills. Unfortunately, I do want this book to have some traction, and for some reason, a paygate allows for that to happen.

I started this book as a teenager when I thought making video games were easy. It was a pretty big concept at 14, and I don’t think even today it’d have a chance at getting made. It had too many working parts. Somehow, underneath all those parts, I pulled out a story about an individual named David Warren whose life wasn’t what he wanted it to be. David just wanted a normal, simple life. From the onset of this story, we see even a simple morning cannot be normal for David. As the story progresses, we learn how far from normal his life really was and how he never had a chance to fit in.

The story has a lot of action, violence, profanity, I think some sex, but I try to do all of that as flavoring for the under arching story. I’m not done with this universe, but I think this is a great entry point.

If you decided to purchase the book, thank you very much. It means a lot to me, and probably more than you can realize. And if you enjoyed it, please submit a review. I know reviewing seems so tedious since people tend to only review stuff they hated, but it’d help me a lot to hear that people actually enjoyed something I did. Also, if you did enjoy it, feel free to share it with anyone you think may like it and forward them to my blog. I want readers more than anything else.

Here are the links again in case the hyperlinking failed:

Amazon – http://www.amazon.com/Illusion-Choice-Eric-Ponvelle-ebook/dp/B00UTQODI0/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1426729970&sr=8-6&keywords=Illusion+Of+Choice

It is available under creative commons Attribution-NonCommercial-SharALike 4.0 License –

Creative Commons License
Illusion of Choice by Eric Ponvelle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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