What a day so far! Katie is off camping with a group of youth from our church, which means I’m responsible for keeping our daughters fed and safe for the next little while.
I of course decided to take advantage of the perfectly reasonable excuse for not getting any work done and took my girls to the swimming pool for the first time this summer. The water slide wasn’t turned on today, which was kind of a bummer since that’s usually my favorite part, but we had a surprising amount of fun despite that.
With the older daughter now being almost 5 and the younger being nearly 3 ½, there were a lot more options of things to do than there were last year. Daughter #2 and I chased the older one back and forth across the pool for a couple of hours, and now we’re all back outside (me under an umbrella so that I can see the monitor on my laptop, and them playing with their friends at the park outside our house.
Like anything else, there are pluses and minuses to writing, but I really am very fortunate to be able to write full time, and I never forget that my ability to have done so, and continue to doing so all rests on all of you amazing readers—thank you for coming along for the ride and trusting me enough to spend your money and your time on my stories!
Speaking of stories, we’re a little closer to the release date for The Society, and I’m finally caught up with my emails and comments, so I wanted to give you all a sneak peek at the first chapter—I hope you enjoy it.
People need to be monitored, or they’ll repeat the mistakes of the Desolation, a one hundred and fifty year old war that killed billions of people and destroyed civilization.
Skye is part of the Society, the hi-tech, nanite-endowed group responsible for making sure that the millions of surviving people—grubbers—are confined to the ancient, decaying cities where they can be watched to ensure they aren’t redeveloping the weapons technology that came so close to extinguishing life on the planet.
When the Society’s monitoring programs pick up troubling developments in one of the grubber cities, Skye is ordered in to deal with the man responsible, but what—and who—she finds once she arrives will change everything.
The sight of the city lights rising up through the darkness to meet me at more than two hundred miles per hour was nearly enough to make a proper Society girl regret agreeing to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. The sense of vertigo was threatening my ability to function—just like on the last jump—but I gritted my teeth and tried to focus on the explosions blooming like destructive roses all across the city.
The full-face mask I was wearing kept the wind out of my normally impassive brown eyes, and allowed me to breathe at an altitude where the thin air otherwise would have killed me, but neither of my other two jumps had been from such a high jump point, and I was starting to feel like the goggles were closing in on me, like my air supply was running out.
Hot orange tracers swept upwards from more than a dozen gun emplacements scattered across the city. The thought of one of those heavy-caliber rounds ripping through my body should have sent me over the edge, but somehow it had the opposite effect—it meant that things were going exactly to plan. Everything was unfolding just like the strategists from the Society’s military had said it would.
Another round of bombs went off below me and then a loud tone in my ear warned of the imminent deployment of my gravity chute. The buildings were terrifyingly close now, and I angled my descent towards an alley, counting out loud to keep myself focused.
The chute deployed with a whine as capacitors fed energy into the cylindrical device mounted to my back. Nearly a dozen different straps connected the chute to me, wrapping around my legs, chest, shoulders, and stomach in an effort to spread the stress of my deceleration across my entire body. It still almost wasn’t enough.
The Society’s doctors had long ago established that twelve G’s was the maximum safe deceleration for the average human body attached to a grav chute. My chute ratcheted up to nearly twice that over the course of less than a second as the onboard computer used a laser rangefinder to confirm the distance to the ground and plotted a safe landing for me.
The shock as the straps dug into my flesh knocked the wind out of me, and forced my vision to narrow into an ever-narrowing tunnel, but I stubbornly refused to lose consciousness. The brutal stresses being inflicted on me were not without reason. The grubbers—the residents of the city—didn’t have any proof that this particular attack was being used as cover to infiltrate their home, but that wouldn’t stop them from watching the sky in an effort to locate any jumpers. We’d never used an attack like this to infiltrate the city with a spy—I was the first of my kind—but we had used them in the past to cover larger assaults where hundreds of soldiers were inserted into cities like this one.
Black clothing, jumping under the cover of darkness, the self-destruct mechanism on my chute, it was all designed to make me as hard to spot as possible, to let me cross the danger zone as quickly as the limits of biology and technology would allow, but it still wouldn’t be enough to save me if I collapsed into unconsciousness once I hit the ground.
Twenty G’s was a crushing burden to put any human body through, but I had advantages that normal humans didn’t.
The whine on the chute took on a softer edge as the sonic baffling went to full power, and then the ground reached up and slammed into my feet with the force of a twenty-foot drop. I reacted as I’d been trained, throwing myself forward to convert the fall into a roll at the same time that my left hand slapped the release button that let my chute collapse flat against my back.
The cobblestones under my shoulder were cold and gritty, and despite everything I still hit hard enough to add to the impressive set of bruises I’d already acquired from the chute’s straps. I rolled through two complete rotations and then stood, slamming my palms into the building in front of me to bleed off the rest of my momentum.
It took exactly two seconds to shrug out of the harness connecting me to the chute and then arm the self-destruct mechanism on the face of the flattened cylinder. I waited for the readout to flash twice and then took off at a sprint—I had less than thirty seconds to clear the area before a bomb would be arriving in the alley.
I almost didn’t make it.
The bomb landed two seconds before it was supposed to, and the blast from the shockwave slammed me into a nearby building as my outer layer of clothes started smoking.
I ripped off the black jumpsuit, revealing a set of much bulkier garments underneath—still black, but worn and holey so as to blend in with the grubbers. That last bomb—like most of what we were dropping that night—had been armed with an incendiary warhead, and I could feel the heat building behind me as the buildings that had survived the initial blast caught fire.
I double-checked the position of the moon to make sure that I was still heading north and picked up my pace to a three-minute mile as my straight brown hair fluttered in the wind from the speed of my passage. It shouldn’t have been possible—almost wasn’t possible even for me—but it was the minimum speed required to stay ahead of the waves of smart bombs even now headed down from the Society planes above me.
The first wave came down less than a hundred yards behind me, and bits of shrapnel shot past, nicking my arms and legs. Not fast enough. I was already breathing hard, but I forced my legs to push off from the ground with more force. I managed to pick up nearly five seconds before the next wave of explosions tore through the night behind me.
Glass windows shattered from the force of the concussion, and one of the ancient buildings listed to one side, slamming into its neighbors before twisting and crashing into the ground with enough force to knock my legs out from under me. This time even my unnaturally quick reflexes weren’t enough to save me. I led with my face and felt the skin over my right cheek tear as it collided with a solitary island of asphalt in the middle of the cobblestones.
I pulled myself back up to my hands and knees, dazed. The bombing was supposed to stop now—the only other explosions would be secondary events, ancient gas lines or overloaded electrical panels, but I wasn’t out of danger yet. I needed to get back to my feet and make my way further away from where I’d landed.
Bombing my entry point into the city into a hellish inferno was supposed to make sure that nobody would believe anyone could have survived, but it was still possible that someone had seen me moving impossibly fast through the city. I needed to clock another mile or two—at much slower speeds—before I could hole up for the night and assess my condition.
I made it only two more blocks before a horn sounded from deeper inside the city. The horn was quickly followed by a series of mechanical whistles from somewhere much closer. Within seconds people started emptying out of the buildings.
“There’s a fire moving this way from Jenks’ territory. I want every citizen of our fair province on the border with a bucket!”
The speaker was surrounded by half a dozen burly men armed with everything from clubs and swords to ancient-looking firearms. In the flickering light of the approaching fires, I could see that he was wearing a top hat like something out of the bootleg historical movies I’d watched during my citizenship tenure. It was obvious that he was mocking a speech given by some long-dead president of the Society, but he seemed no less serious for the levity—at least not based on the way that the unarmed people who’d been gathering in the street started moving toward the fire.
I was still too close to my insertion point; there was still too much risk that someone would think I was from the Society, but going against the flow of people would just make me stand out. I couldn’t afford that, not if I wanted to survive.
I joined the stream of dirty, frightened people and it took no acting ability to appear just as worried as they all were. As we got to a rickety barricade in the street—a barricade that I had blown past by the simple expedient of running through one of the many holes at street level—some of the ‘citizens’ slowed as though thinking that they’d arrived at their destination, but a quartet of armed men rolled a section of the barricade back and waved everyone else through.
“Jenks is going to need our help to secure this block. As faithful citizens and honest neighbors, we will do exactly that.”
“By secure you mean steal, don’t you, Piter?”
The comment came from somewhere off to my left, but whoever had made the wisecrack was smart enough to have kept their head down. That didn’t stop the guy in the top hat from frowning.
“Sedition is a serious crime, one that weakens us all against enemies inside the city and the ants who just finished bombing us. Anyone who can provide my men with information about who just said that will receive double rations for a week and an upgrade in their living accommodations.”
Nobody volunteered any information, and within seconds the warlord’s men were back to hurrying people past the barricade. Apparently securing additional territory was more important than punishing someone for daring to speak the truth.
I took my place in a long line of people who were passing buckets of water from a large pump to a series of low wooden structures that seemed to have been constructed of scrap wood and garbage. The first few buckets emptied onto the shanties drew curses from the inhabitants, but the profanity rarely lasted beyond the time required for the people inside to come out and see the approaching fire.
A few of the occupants tried to dive back inside for some prized possession or another, but Piter’s men were already moving inside the building and throwing people back through makeshift doors and windows, ordering them to form additional bucket brigades.
My mind was whirling. My briefing had mentioned that the grubbers would organize to put out the fires started in the bombing, but the sterile descriptions I’d read in the classified files hadn’t prepared me for anything like this.
They had formed more than a dozen lines that I could see in the flickering light—some from one well, some from another—as teams of six or seven people manned the manual pumps that were emptying water into large basins. Each line emptied a gallon or two of water onto a nearby building each second, but that was next to nothing against the blaze that I could feel moving in our direction.
Any group of free people would have stampeded away—that was what my fellows from the Society would have done if faced with this kind of danger, but Piter’s citizens held their places. They shifted around nervously, but they kept the flow of buckets moving, and a few seconds later a new trembling started working its way up my legs.
It felt like a herd of monstrous beasts were stampeding in our direction, but the people in my line actually seemed less nervous now than they’d been just moments before. It finally made sense when the first few drops of water started cascading down out of the sky.
The grubbers weren’t just going to fight the fires with low-tech bucket brigades, they had roof-mounted systems for spraying water over everything in the fire’s path. Now that I knew what to look for, I could see clouds of steam coming off of the fire further away from them. They wouldn’t have been visible—even in the flickering light of the flames—for normal, unaided humans, but that was just one of the advantages that I’d carried into the city with me.
“Don’t stand there and lollygag. The water cannons aren’t going to be enough to save your sorry hides all by themselves. Douse these buildings or you’ll all go up in flames with them when the fire arrives.”
The guy who’d talked to me was a big bruiser in his late thirties with an eye patch and a club. I looked away from him to take one last look at the rooftop water dispersal systems, and was nearly knocked off of my feet by a blow to my side.
My elbow clamped down against my fractured ribs and I dropped down halfway to the crouch that had been drilled into me during my two months of unarmed combat training. The guard tapped his hand against his club and gave me a sadistic smile.
“I said get back to work.”
I ducked my head, hiding subserviently behind a thin veil of long, dark hair, as I stepped back into line and accepted the next bucket full of water. The bruiser watched me for several seconds, making sure that I was really as cowed as I’d let on, before walking down the line.
“Bash is a monster. You going to be okay?”
The question came from a guy about my age who was two places behind me in the line.
“Yeah. I think he broke some of my ribs, but I can still keep up.”
The woman immediately behind me shook her head. “Not for long—not if they’re really broken. Donner, you hear that?”
The slender man in front of me grunted and then took a half step back towards me at the same time that the woman moved forward. She patted me on the shoulder as she handed off the next bucket of water.
“Your new admirer is named Jack and I’m Sally. Try to pace yourself. Don’t fall out of line or Bash will beat you to within an inch of your life.”
Jack moved up, splitting the distance between Sally and the person behind him. All three of my benefactors were already sweating and obviously tired, but none of them seemed ready to throw me to the wolves. It was the last thing I had expected out of three strangers. All of the briefings had agreed that grubbers were suspicious and cutthroat.
Some of the leading minds inside of the Society thought that grubbers were that way as a result of the endless gang warfare inside of their enclaves. Others thought that it was a result of some fundamental difference in their physiology and psychology, but everyone had seemed unanimous on the fact that I would need to be on my guard at all times.
I fell back into a rhythm swinging heavy buckets from Sally to Donner with my right hand and then accepting empty buckets with the left as they came back. The ribs were definitely fractured. The lance of pain each time I breathed told me that, but I knew I wasn’t in any danger of complications—not with my new-and-improved body.
“You’re from Jenks’ territory, aren’t you? You came through the barricade with us, but I’ve never seen you before. That means you used the confusion of the attack to slip over to our side.”
I nodded, unsure where Sally was headed with her questions.
“You’re going to want to keep your head down. Your best bet is to try to slip in with some of your own people and pretend that you were just swept up in the confusion when Piter came over and took control of this block. Piter doesn’t like deserters—he says if someone will desert one of his rivals, they’ll desert him further down the road.”
We’d all been talking quietly—little more than whispers—but as Bash worked his way back up the line, all of my neighbors fell silent and focused on moving the buckets even more quickly.
I continued to take in my surroundings as I worked, keeping my head down to avoid drawing Bash’s wrath again. The water falling on our heads from the buildings around us had grown from little more than a mist to a heavy torrent that seemed like it should be more than enough to stop the fire that was less than half a block away, but based on the way that all of the bucket brigades were speeding up, that was less of a foregone conclusion than I would have liked to believe.
A couple of seconds later a heavy jet of water shot out from the top of the building, seeking the edge of the fire, and the burst of steam that shot back at the people on the ground was hot enough to redden exposed skin. It probably would have scalded my entire brigade if not for the cooling mist of water still coming down from the building just behind us.
It was hard to tell for sure, but it looked like the other areas I could see were having better luck stopping the fire.
“Is there a wind driving it this direction? Why is it getting so close?”
Sally double-checked to make sure that Bash was too far away to overhear, and then shook her head. “Piter’s men were slow getting the water flowing on this block. The fire-fighting equipment is all supposed to be standardized, but it never is. Part of that is because everything is jury-rigged, but it’s also because none of the warlords are too keen to make it any easier than they have to for someone to come in and take over their territory.”
I finally understood. “So Piter marched us all over here knowing that he might lose some of us, but he doesn’t care because at the very least he’s created a firebreak that should save his territory.”
“Exactly. Anyone he really values is still back at his headquarters making sure that water keeps flowing up to the suppression systems on the top of our buildings. Why, was it different here? If so I wouldn’t have expected you to try to run away.”
My instructors had all warned me of the danger of getting too close to the grubbers—especially at the start of my mission—but I’d still stumbled into exactly the kind of casual conversation that was most dangerous to me.
“No—it’s all the same here in Jenks’ territory. I’d heard stories though that it was different on the other side of the wall. It’s silly, really. I guess everyone always says things are better somewhere else, but it’s all just a bunch of lies designed to make us believe that we could escape and be free if the breaks all went our way.”
Donner laughed. It wasn’t a pleasant sound—more raspy than it should have been—but that wasn’t as concerning as the way that Sally looked at me.
“Freedom. Listen to you, child. You sound like one of those bloody ants all lazing around like mindless drones inside the comfort of the city they build on our blood and bodies. There isn’t any such thing as freedom. At least here in the city we know how the world works. That batch out there is too stupid to come in out of the rain.”
The heat coming off of the fire had continued to increase while we’d been talking, and I suddenly wondered how often the pumps in the building malfunctioned. When it came to the crumbling technology so common to the grubber cities, it wasn’t a question of if something would break down, but rather when.
If it happened while we were dumping our buckets of water into the inferno raging mere yards away from us, we would all be killed instantly. The icy water coming out of the sky was the only thing keeping the fire at bay, and even that wouldn’t have been enough to save us if not for the fact that a recently arrived breeze was blowing most of the steam away from the bucket lines.
I picked up the pace even further, ignoring the pain in my chest, and I wasn’t the only one. We turned the makeshift wooden buildings before us into a water-soaked barrier between us and the flame, a barrier that smoked as the water evaporated away.
It seemed as though we were standing there in that line for hours. Bash and the other enforcers came through at regular intervals and cycled the people in the front of each line to the very back, but it wasn’t out of mercy. As the heat continued to grow, it got to the point that the people in the front of the lines couldn’t withstand more than five or ten minutes before becoming so dehydrated that they started collapsing.
I was covered in soot, exhausted, and singed in more than one spot, but still I moved water down the lines, lines that were shortening as the heat drove us back. The shorter lines were a blessing because it freed up more people to form additional lines and increased the amount of water being thrown at the fire, but they also meant that the fire was that much closer to consuming the tall metal building at our back.
Everything hung on the edge of a knife for several minutes, and then the rest of the inferno was beaten down to the point where the closest buildings added the water from their big cannons to the single stream that had been battling our little corner of the blaze.
Between one heartbeat and the next, the fury seemed to go out of the flames. They were still going, still dangerous, but they lacked the intensity that had come within a hair of destroying all of us.
Piter climbed up to the top of the pump in the middle of the square behind us. “Once again, you’ve all shown why our little community is the premier group in the entire city. I thank you all for your service tonight, my good citizens. You’re all released to go back to your homes. Those of you who work directly for me can take an extra hour to report to your posts tomorrow morning.”
I had lost track of the passage of time, but between the disruption of having bombs dropped on the city and the time spent fighting the resulting fires, I was sure that Sally and the others had all lost more than an hour’s worth of sleep. Piter was just as contemptible as my briefings had said he would be. For the briefest of moments I considered assassinating the pompous windbag before moving on to my actual target, but I shook off the thought.
There was little doubt as to my ability to get to Piter if I put my mind to it, but my purpose inside the city was too important to risk on an ill-conceived assassination. If I succeeded, then Piter would be dead, but it wouldn’t make any kind of lasting difference in the lives of Sally and the others.
My three bucket-brigade companions had turned out to be much kinder than any of my briefings had led me to expect, but Piter’s death would just mean that one of his men would step into his shoes, and institute a reign of terror for weeks or even months until he felt like he had enough control over the territory to risk relaxing his grip.
As much as I wanted to do something to repay the kindness I’d been shown, that wasn’t the answer. I needed to carry out my mission so that the Society’s military wouldn’t be forced to raze the entire city to the ground.
I joined the throng of individuals heading back through the barricade, grateful that each step moved me that much closer to my ultimate destination, and didn’t realize my error until after I was already through the barricade. I stuck out just as much back in Jenks’ territory as I did in Piter’s, but at least back on the other side of the barricade I was one new face among many.
Bash grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out of the stream of humanity within seconds of my crossing through the barrier. My instructors had taught me half a dozen ways to break free of that kind of hold, but the pain from my broken ribs took me by such surprise that I didn’t even consider executing any of the techniques that had been drilled into me.
By the time that I pushed the pain back into a corner of my mind and locked it away, Bash had pulled me into one of the tiny pathways that wound around the wooden shanties that took up the space between the buildings on either side of the alley.
“You’re not from our territory.”
Bash’s voice carried over even the bedlam from so many people heading back to their homes, but it didn’t stop me from hearing someone approaching from behind. I turned my head far enough to confirm the presence of another enforcer—a slender guy with a long scar that ran from his temple down to his chin.
“I—I’m from Jenks’ territory.”
“I’d like to believe that, but you have to know that Piter doesn’t like deserters. I think you’re only admitting to being a deserter because you’re trying to hide something worse.”
I shook my head. I was shaking and I didn’t have to fake the fear in my voice. “I was terrified. The bombs were dropping in the heart of our territory and I could see the explosions getting closer and closer with each wave. It’s true, I ran away. I figured that Jenks had done something to piss off the…ants. I knew that I had to get out of there or I was going to end up dead.”
Bash smiled, but it wasn’t a pleasant expression. “Take off your shirt.”
“I don’t care what you think you have on me, I’m not going to take my clothes off. I—”
“You’ll do what I say or your new home is going to be a pauper’s grave. The perimeter territories keep a good watch on all of the approaches to the city, but Piter thinks that the ants are sending people in from the sky using some kind of fancy parachute. If you’re really an ant, then you’ll have the bruises to show for it—marks from the straps that stopped you from slamming into the ground.”
I started to hesitantly lift the bottom of my shirt, and despite the poor lighting, there was no mistaking the flash of excitement in Bash’s eyes. Regardless of whether he was right or wrong about me being part of the Society, he was still going to win.
My shirt was nearly high enough to expose the slender pack around my middle when I struck, slamming my right foot into his knee. He never even had a chance—my blow destroyed his joint before his brain had time to realize I’d started moving.
I didn’t allow him a chance to react to my attack. Instead, I moved in and slammed my elbow into his throat, crushing his trachea and knocking him to the ground. He would suffocate over the next several seconds unless medical help arrived, but I’d already spun around to deal with the second guy.
The second enforcer had a knife out and stabbed at me, but despite his adrenaline and obvious experience in violent confrontations, he was still moving too slowly to have any chance of scoring on me. I stepped to the side and slammed my palm into his elbow, shattering the joint a split second before I reversed the course of his hand and slammed his own knife home into his chest.
Despite my superhuman reaction time, it had all still happened too fast for me to register what I was doing. I’d been reacting out of instinct, responding with counters that had been drilled into me by some of the most brutal instructors inside the Society.
I was supposed to be leaving the scene of the fight already, making my way to a safer location before anyone stumbled upon my handiwork, but I just stood there staring at the two men lying there on the ground.
The skinny guy was already dying. Society med techs probably could have stabilized him if they’d been onsite already, but nothing the grubbers had was going to be able to save him at this point. Bash was a different matter—even the low-tech grubber doctors could probably perform a tracheotomy if they arrived soon enough. All my training said that I should take care of him, should ensure that he couldn’t come after me at some later date.
I looked back and forth between Bash and the knife in the other enforcer’s chest, and then forced myself to walk deeper into the narrow alleyway. A single instruction to the computer riding inside of my chest was all it took for my face to start shifting. Five steps later Sally and the others wouldn’t have been able to pick me out of a lineup. I was still me, but my features had been shrouded by localized swelling.
By the top of the hour, everything from my bone structure to my eye color would be different.