Sunday, October 18, 2020

Mimicry: Chapter 2

(I forgot to mention in the first chapter: there will be one chapter per week published on Sunday around 10 AM CST/7PM GMT+2. You can read the first chapter here: Chapter 1.)

CHAPTER 2


I throw myself sideways out of the attack's path. The Alien's three-inch claw whizzes past my ear and slams into steel. I suppress a growl just as feral as the Alien's. How did I not notice the scarlet-flashing of my visor?

I roll and pull myself upright, hand jumping to the revolver on my belt, but then the Alien is already upon me. I dodge a second hit. My boots slip and slide on the loose sand as I level my arm and pull the trigger, miss even at this proximity because in the last moment I have to left myself fall to avoid a blade-like talon swiping at my head.

The Alien is fast. Faster than usual. It gives that otherworldly noise that makes my skin crawl. Up close it's almost human in size and shape, but that's where the similarities end. The Alien is some eight feet tall and its deformed body bulges with rippling muscles that look like putrid boils. Three to five inch claws sharper than my titanium knife sprout from each of their hands. Its skin is black as engine oil and hard and tough as steel. Its eyes are black voids without whites and its mouth is a gaping chasm hungry for my flesh and blood.

Too close.

I have to put space between me and the –

I can't suppress a groan as my head rings with the impact of a claw with the side of my face. My visors cracks. Blood spurts from the gash in my temples and sprays into my eye. I struggle to stay upright and throw my arms up before the next swipe slams into my chest and I'm tossed backward against the tower wall. My back slams into steel. White-hot pain sears through my spine as my vision darkens momentarily.

I force myself to focus over the pain.

My hands are empty. Where'd I leave my revolver?

Crash.

I twist aside and stumble as the Alien's body slams into the tower and is momentarily stunned. Blood trickles into my mouth and I spit it into the sand. I'm not going to die here. I spy my revolver on the ground behind the Alien's hunched back. I roll onto my feet and deflect most of the Alien's swipe with my right arm, where blood quickly blossoms from its edge. I lunge forward. My fingers close around the revolver and I turn just in time to land on my back as the Alien slams itself into my chest. Pain surges through my body. I clench my teeth and cramp my bloodied fingers around the revolver. I'm too vulnerable. My arm burns and blood makes the revolver slippery.

The Alien towers over me, ready to finish me off. The sky beyond its horrible head is aero-blue and brilliant. Out of the corner of my eyes I see its two companions outlined in the distant dunes. How could I have been so stupid? Why didn't I check whether they'd left sentries? But they never do. They aren't smart enough.

The Alien dives down on my midriff, forcing the air out of my lungs, and its jaws snap at my neck. I wedge my left forearm between its razor-sharp fangs and try not to scream as they clamp shut. Black stars pop before my vision. A whimper escapes my throat.

All the while my operator is oddly silent. Are they always silent if their charges are about to die?

The pitiful thought floods my senses with alertness.

I will not die here.

I won't go down as easily as my mother.

A growl bursts out of my chest with the savageness of a desert wolf. I let the revolver drop onto my chest and rip the combat knife out of its sheath. It slides smoothly into my palm. I rear upward like a sand viper and stab the knife up into the Alien's side in a swing that turns into a sharp jab at the end. The impact is jarring and the creature gives an inhuman howl in what I can only hope is pain. I take the revolver up and level it before the creature has a chance to retaliate, switching to hard bullet instead of the plasma projectile it used for the first shot, and dig my blood-slick forefinger into the trigger, hard.

Crack.

The reinforced titanium bullet goes right into the Alien's eye. Pieces of brain—if the spongy black matter is such—splatter the hill behind it. Black blood and puss drips down onto my cracked visor as I summon the last of my strength to roll myself out of the way of the falling carcass and stand on shaky legs with half a desperately insane laugh on my lips. If they don't advance me for this I don't know what will convince them.

Sentinel Rim.” My operator says the moment I'm upright. “You are required to return to base immediately.”

The gall! “Why didn't you warn me of that Alien?”

You are injured. We cannot use an incapacitated soldier on the battlefield.”

You didn't warn me.”

There was a solar interference.” My operator's voice is impassive as always.

I wipe blood from the side of my face and prod the gash in my temples. It doesn't seem deep, but half an inch to the left and the Alien would have done to me what I did to it. I look down at my hand. There's a hole in my glove where I singed my fingertips before the fight.

I look back to the center of the shade: a metallic glint meets my eye half-covered by dirt. I leave the alien carcass where it is – the sweepers will remove it later and walk to the iridescent spot. My stomach cramps as I brush debris off it with my boot. I don't want to risk crouching as long as I don't know if I'll be able to get back up.

Are you listening to me, Miss Rim?”

I don't respond. My efforts reveal a hand-sized disk that looks like a plasma mine. The thought makes me shiver slightly. But if it were a plasma mine, pieces of me would already be dripping down the slope of the hill. There's a familiar symbol etched into the metal: a single star on stripes.

Return to the Wall immediately.”

I shift my gaze to the empty horizon. My operator never was really good at making me follow orders.

They got away.” I can't even see the Alien's outlines any more.

Do you want your privileges cut?” Though he hasn't raised his voice I can tell he's annoyed. Let him be. He almost got me killed. Unfortunately we've worked together long enough that he knows just which buttons to push. “Insubordination will have you out of the scouting missions sooner than you can think,” he says, “and then there won't be an advancement for either of us.”

I kick at the sand and regret it immediately when pain shoots through my stomach. It's not fair the operators have so much control over us. They never risk their lives. They don't know what it's like to face an Alien in battle, where there's only your weapons and your wits to help you survive. They don't know the exhaustion of tracking down the enemy in the desert at 60° C in the shade. Most of their days are spent in an air-ventilated room somewhere atop the Wall and I doubt mine's ever been anywhere near the elevators.

And yet they're the ones who get to make the decisions on the battlefield.

Miss Rim.” Impatience tints his words.

I'm out of options and the kick's made my stomach churn painfully. “Understood.”

Then return to base immediately.”

I clip my revolver back into its holster and start back the way I've come. It takes longer with the injury and by the time I'm back at the Ruins the sun already starts to set. Long shadows warp the air among steel and masonry and I make sure to take cover where I can among the crumbled houses and rusty machinery.

I'm about to head out to the sentry-forest when a flicker of movement down the road catches my eye. My hand jumps to the revolver as I whirl around. Nothing to be seen at first, then my gaze falls upon the man standing in the run-down entrance of a house in the distance to my right. The man's wearing a debris-brown robe that allows him to all but melt with the environment, its hood draped over his head, a rope slung around his narrow waist to keep it together.

I snort. My hands slides from the revolver and I begin to jog out into the open.

There are those people who believe the Aliens are a kind of supernatural harbinger sent by God. These Cultists refuse to live within America's steel dome and the protection if provides, preferring to take their chances in the Ruins to be close to their saviours even when it gets most of them killed within a month.

I cast a look over my shoulder but the Cultist has vanished. In front of me rises the sentry-forest, behind it the Wall with its elevator tubes, and beyond that I spy the steel dome of America, its solar panels gleaming like the scales of snakes. I wonder when the Cult will learn that, though the Aliens came from the sky, they're nothing God-sent.

#

Back inside the elevator bay I strip out of my exosuit. The black skinsuit I wear underneath is full of sand. Itchy grains trickle down my back and shoulders as I remove the broken visor and even more debris spools out of my sweat-matted hair when I shake it out. Two more sentinels exit the elevators to my either sides and join the other soldiers headed toward the central staircase. Three attendants in grey suits wait to take my equipment and weapons belt for safety reasons: an accidental rail discharge might damage the steel]; a hard bullet might ricochet and hit somebody.

I can't help thinking it's a stupid rule. What if we're attacked? What if the Aliens found a way inside the Wall – or the city – and came upon us unaware?

Accidents aren't the only reason we're required to submit our weapons when we're off duty. What if a soldier got it into his head the Council isn't such a good government after all? Violence and bloodshed weren't such a distant idea in the beginnings of the Council even though they were quelled as quickly as they arose.

All the thinking is starting to give me a headache and I desist. The Council knows what they're doing – otherwise they wouldn't still be in charge almost two decades later.

Just off the elevator bay the corridor leads off to the central staircase on the left. To the right is the med bay and its adjoining facilities and wards. This is where I head after I've been stripped of next to everything I own to get my wounds checked out. The slash across my temples has stopped bleeding by now and my stomach aches only when I breathe too deeply, but unless I'm in top shape I'll spend the next days sitting idly on the Wall.

A line of medics in white-blue uniforms stands to attention at the entrance to the med bay. One of them detaches himself and joins my side with a hasty gait. The name tag on his uniform jacket unhelpfully proclaims: MEDIC. Under the neck of his uniform pokes out the collar of a knitted sweater.

Sentinel Dalta Rim?” Hiseyes travel across the blood smears on my forehead and a slim-fingered hand shoots up to straighten his already painfully even glasses

I nod.

I was informed you were injured during the mission?” Not really a question. “Please follow me.”

I wonder what sort of accent his is – sounds European. Northern? I guess.

I think there might be something wrong with my stomach.”

Your abdomen.”

I'm sorry?”

MEDIC winces]. “Never mind. Please...”

He opens the door to a ward with a touch of his palm on the lock and steps aside to let me in first. I catch a hint of pink on his ears and the faint smell of antiseptic soap as I pass him and take a moment to examine him more closely. He seems to be at most a year older than I. His hair is tightly curled and the shifting creamy blond-brown colour of sand. His skin carries the unhealthy pallor that tells me he hasn't been out in the sun once in the past few months? Years? Perhaps never, if he was born post-Invasion.

The door closes with a snap and we're alone in the small world of the ward. There's a stainless steel bed topped by a white sheet beside the right wall, the left is inset with a dormant holo terminal and a line of cupboards lit by neon lights and filled with medical instruments I don't know the names of. Below those a workspace littered with needles and bottles and what not expands to a portable regeneration unit on the other side of the ward. There are no windows.

MEDIC indicates the bed. I sit. MEDIC pulls on gloves and leans over me as he examines my forehead by the neon lights.

That looks quite shallow...” he mumbles as he dabs at the wound with a cotton swab. “I might have to suture it nonetheless.”

He dabs some more and then pulls away. I breathe again.

Your abdomen and... was your carpal bone fractured as well?”

I'm sorry?” My voice is a bit too tight.

Your wrist.” His expression twists as if with sudden pain.

Most of the damage was done to my arm and stomach.”

MEDIC takes my hand. The warmth that comes with his touch is surprising but pleasant. I'm not used to it. Most of the medics get so little exercise their bodies are as cold as their grey eyes: cold as the surrounding steel. “My apologies...” he says absently as he turns my arm, and I don't feel like asking what for. “However did you get into such a state?”

My operator neglected to tell me there was something sneaking up on me.

Got an Alien on my back scouting a hill.”

On your back?”

Yes.”

Does that happen?” His eyes meet mine and I see that they're not grey at all. They're a mossy emerald.

Does what happen?”

He frowns. “I thought the operators were supposed to warn you if there was a hazard.”

You tell him that.” The words come out more impertinently than I'd have liked. I continue quickly, “There was a solar interference that moment.”

MEDIC's frown deepens even as he nods wisely. “And you fought your way out?”

Obviously.” He's still turning my arm randomly and I grit my teeth against the onslaught of pain. Does this have anything to do with the injury he's supposed to mend?

Very well...” His gaze drops onto our hands at the tightness in my voice. “Oh. I apologize.” He lets go of my wrist and turns to wheel the regeneration unit to the bed. “This won't take very long. Put your arm in the gap here... yes... that's it.”

I cringe as the machine's metal ring shuts around my arm above the wrist and hums into action. Though this isn't the first time I'm still somewhat horrified at the thought of sticking my limbs into a hole and trusting the machine attached to it not to clip it off if it couldn't mend it.

MEDIC sits on a stool opposite of me and stares at his slender intertwined fingers and bony knuckles in deep concentration. I wonder if the sentry-forest was as green as his eyes before the increase in solar activity and whether he bites his lips when he's anxious. They're chapped.

The machine drones on. When its done the clamp springs open by itself and there's not a hint of the gash left. My hand slides out of the tunnel, tingling slightly as it finishes healing.

Now for your abdomen... if you could – strip up to your chest?” MEDIC ignores the hint of pink that creeps back onto his ears and gestures for me to lie down on the bed. “I have to check if you have any internal injures or if there's anything broken...”

I zip my skinsuit open from my hips to chest and stretch out on the white sheet while he rolls up his crisp sleeves with much more precision that necessary. He's peculiar, and what interests me most is the frown that still furrows his forehead like that of a man three times his age.

Why are you looking at me like that?” I ask.

Like what?” My question seems to surprise him and he halts with one sleeve halfway to the elbow.

You look like my op with that frown.” I try to sound unconcerned.

I am sorry...”

You should be. He's terrible.”

That almost makes him smile if the twitching of his lips is anything to go by.

I really am – I was merely thinking...” He breaks off and rolls the stool closer to the bed. His sleeves are still uneven.

Yes?” I prompt.

Just about what you've said before – about the interference you mentioned.” I raise an eyebrow and will him to get on with it. “It's just that I can't recall there being an interference today.”

Now it's my turn to frown.

Maybe it didn't impact the Wall,” I say, even as reason tells me this can't be the case. Though we have the technology to interrupt magnetic currencies, it would be much too expensive – never mind impossible in the current state of the world – to shield the whole of the Wall from interference.

Perhaps.” His gaze drops to my exposed midriff. “You didn't notice anything unusual out there today, did you?”

Like what?”

Ah... never mind...” He gives me an apologetic half-smile as his hands dip onto my stomach, and I brace myself for the cold that never comes.

Warm slim fingers brush my bare skin and travel upward to the bottom of my chest. MEDIC pushes the heel of his palms into soft spots only he knows and kneads into it. My throat tightens to stifle a gasp of surprise even though I knew what was coming and I twitch involuntarily.

MEDIC's eyes find mine. “Does that hurt?”

Just sudden.”

There's that almost-smile again as he nods and continues to palpate my stomach. I watch his hands and wonder why they aren't as cold as those of the other medics and what makes him so much more human and why his forehead stays wrinkled. And why I have to blush right now even though I know he's just doing his job.

Well it looks good,” MEDIC says after some minutes have passed, and the pressure of his hands leaves my stomach. “I do not believe anything is damaged, but perhaps we should –“

No,” I say. This has gone on long enough and I'm flustered despite myself. Nobody with such warm hands has ever touched me like that. Nobody has ever touched me like that period. “I'm fine. I don't even feel it any more.”

There could still be damage to the –“

I'm okay.” I don't care for more medical jargon today. I zip up the skinsuit as quickly as my fumbling fingers allow. “I'm fine if you'll just put that in your report so I can get back to work.”

You might develop some bruises overnight. Are you sure you don't want –“

Yes. Yes, I'm sure.” At least with the suit zipped up I don't feel so naked.

Very well...” MEDIC switches on the holo terminal on the opposite wall with a tap of his finger then turns back to me with a serious expression as if he's made up his mind. His voice is quiet enough I have to lean forward to catch his words when he speaks. “You are quite sure nothing unusual occurred today?”

No?” I say.

Are you sure?” His eyes meet mine once again and the sobriety of his gaze unsettles me.

What is he getting at? Does he think I had a sun stroke or otherwise need assistance? Mental health checks are not unusual after an emotionally charging mission.

MEDIC seems to take my confusion for reluctance. He straightens his spectacles and sits back down on the stool. “Anything at all? Anything – different?”

I try to consider what happened out in the desert. The only thing that comes to mind is the peculiar behaviour of the Aliens on top of that hill. They don't normally behave that way. They don't converse and they don't think like we do. They will fight in packs if the circumstances allow, yes, but they lack ability to plan or coordinate and their assaults.

I disregard the thought. My operator already knows about that.

My operator.

Could he have let that Alien sneak up on me on purpose? The thought is ridiculous. He doesn't hate me that much. I hope.

MEDIC is still gazing expectantly at me over the top of his glasses, and I'm about to say I can't think of anything when I remember the metal disk half-hidden among the sand.

There was a sort of disk atop the hill. Looked a bit like a plasma mine and burnt me when I touched it but –“ I let the thought trail off. I'm guessing he's seen enough plasma-mine-victims in his career to not need the visual.

That's it.” MEDIC's expression is suddenly tight. He yanks my hands toward him and examines my burnt fingertips.

That's what?” I resist the urge to draw back my hand because he has the alarmed look that can't mean anything good from a doctor.

It must be.” MEDIC stares at my skin and the injury glares back angry red. His gaze jumps up and his too-warm fingers curl around mine, curl them inward to a fist, as if hiding a secret. “You can't tell anybody about this.”

I'm sorry?” I don't know if my disbelief is more panic or mirth. MEDIC's behaviour is starting to worry me.

I mean it. You can't tell anybody about the disk or what you've seen.” He pulls me over to the regeneration unit and places my hand into the tube with practised movements.

My mind ignites with sudden fear. Is he insane? But he couldn't be if they made him a medic? Did he have a sun stroke? The pallor of his skin says he couldn't have been out in the sun long enough for that to happen.

What's wrong with you?” I try to wrench my hand back out but he's already started the machine and the ring's snapped shut.

No, no, no,” MEDIC hisses under his breath. “Nobody can know about that burn and the disk. Do you understand?”

He's definitely insane.

There's no way to dodge as he comes closer and brings his mouth to my ear, and a shudder runs down my back that's nothing to do with the cold draft of the ventilation system overhead. I yank again on my hand. I'm unarmed and he's trapped me and he's mad.

And he's not finished.

He leans – if possible – even closer. His breath ghosts across my neck. “Do not tell anybody about this, do you understand? Don't tell your operator or the Council or – don't tell your best friend. Not about the Aliens or the disk or –“ He waves a hand. “Anything.”

I'm frozen despite myself. I want to tell him that I have no secrets before the Council and that the Council knows best. But then I remember my mother and that I couldn't tell them anything even if I wanted. The Council isn't exactly publicly available.

MEDIC grabs my shoulders. “Do you understand? You have to pretend you did not see anything unusual when they come.”

I try to step back but my wrist is still stuck. I should call for help.

I don't.

Come? What do you mean 'when they come'?”

MEDIC looks over his shoulder at the holo terminal as if expecting to find somebody watching. “Your operator knows at least some of what you've seen and he'll have reported that.” He takes a moment to straighten his glasses. “And that means there will be an investigation.”

I haven't done anything wrong.”

Of course you haven't.” His tone is so matter-of-fact it sets me on edge.

Then why –“

The regeneration unit bleeps its completion.

You'll see.” His expression has returned to neutral. He switches off the machine.

I bare my teeth in a snarl. I won't be afraid of a medic. I could overpower him with my hands tied. If I wanted.

That's insane! You're insane.”

That actually makes him smile a little sadly. “I am not wrong.” He straightens himself and his glasses. “Once they have proven my mental status sound, or you decide you are willing to learn more... come and find me.”

His smile turns almost shy.

Just ask for Owen Early.”

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Mimicry: Chapter 1

 (Mimicry was first written in 2015. It's been some time since its last edit and attempts to get it published traditionally. I've decided to make it available to you on my website and fictionpress.com for free!)

CHAPTER 1


Ready for the descent?” My operator's drier than sand voice resounds in my ear.

I check my equipment for the third time that morning – failing to carry the right weapons could mean the difference between life and death out in the Area: on my weapons belt the titanium combat knife and the revolver clipped on next to it, the railgun strapped to my back, the satchels of emergency rations and ammunition clasped on the left side of my hip just above the first aid pouch. Then I slide the visor across my eyes, waiting out the familiar moment of disorientation as the device aligns itself with my optic muscle, and the blueish, semi-transparent screen appears on the inside.

Ready,” I say when I'm certain everything is working as it should. There won't be any going back once I'm out of the elevator.

Descent initiated...” My operator's detached voice comes again. “Release in three... two... one... you're off.”

The floor gives way under my heavy combat boots, the circular hatch door dropping away into breezy nothingness. Underneath, there is a tube just wide enough for me to stretch my forearms to the sides for balance as I go into a fall nearly uncontrolled by the magnets clinging to the tunnel wall. Down, down, down it goes, the whole mile the Wall is tall.

Arid wind from the desert below whips my hair upward as I watch the environment flit past on either side of me, tinted yellow by my visor. Most of it is the sickly yellowish-brown colour of a thirsty earth] beneath a light blue sky, but the narrow forest-belt that surrounds America is a darker shade of sun-burnt charcoal. Beyond the greenery the desert goes on for miles, dotted here and there with the Ruins of our forefathers and the burnt-out remnants of our last clash with the enemy. Creamy wastes of drifting sand and rock-strewn hamada expand into the distance to the north, crumbling skeletons of buildings built centuries before the Invasion provide shade to the west. Dead trees and bushes dried out by the ardent sun reach skyward with their scraggly limbs.

The magnets on the soles of my boots kick in as I arrive at ground level, decelerating my fall until I come down on the circular metal platform with a loud clink.

All clear,” I inform my operator.

I can almost see his unpleasantly pinched face nod. “I have you on my screen. Checking vitals... good. Rundown of the Area in your immediate vicinity: no hostile forces detected at a radius of two-hundred yards. Everything in order so far. You're free to roam.” With a faint click, the elevator wall slides into itself, leaving a human-sized hole in front of me.

I step outside into the warm sand. Heat assaults me the moment I am out in the open, a waft of bone-dry air that's been stripped of everything cool it ever held. Behind me rises the Wall that surrounds the worn steel dome of America, just visible beyond the battlements. In front of me is the sentry-forest that shelters the city from spying eyes and provides another layer of protection from the enemy. Nothing moves at the treeline as far as I can see.

That doesn't mean the Aliens aren't there.

My eyes flicker toward the upper right corner of the visor's screen.

Temperature: 57° C and rising

Wind Speed: negligible

Humidity: largely nonexistent

Nothing out of the ordinary.

I take off toward the shady treeline at a slow jog, breathing deeply into my stomach, saving my energy for the desert beyond, where I'll need all my strength and speed. Yet I'm under no illusion the Aliens couldn't be waiting in here as well. Waiting for a scout-sentinel like me to cross the tree-belt on their own.

But an asset would slow me down.

And the battle is too harsh to rely on anyone but myself.

I'm almost at the treeline; shortly before I reach it I cast a look over my shoulder at the human sentinels patrolling on top of the Wall, surveying the Area through their visors, then low-hanging branches and tangles of dry black brush swallow me whole.

The sun doesn't burn down as violently inside the forest-belt as it does in the desert. The trees, a mixture of juniper and pinyon and desert ironwood, genetically enhanced to withstand most of the intense heat and drought, spend shadow and sanctuary. I pass through a scattering of yellow needles and crisply blacked limbs. Not too far ahead I can see the sentries gleaming in what little light penetrates the charred foliage above and reflects on their casing. Their silvery-white spherical bodies turn on their metal sockets with a low whirr as they register the vibration of my movement on the soft ground, the sound so ominous and threatening in the sweltering noon heat that I have to force myself onward.

My fear is irrational. The sentries are semi-sentient turrets designed to keep the forest clean of the alien threat, calibrated to distinguish human soldiers from the enemy and won't engage with the former while eliminating the latter on sight. I don't trust them. I can't help staring over my shoulder at the sinister red lens that sits in the middle of the mounted sphere like an evil eye as I jog past.

Then I'm out of their range and at the other end of the sentry-belt, where I take a moment to scour the environment ahead: any alien movement has to be registered immediately, because failing to do so might turn just as lethal as carrying the wrong or faulty equipment.

You're clear,” my operator's voice resounds in my ear. “The Area is clean within a radius of several miles on all sides.”

Thanks.”

I shield my eyes with my forearm and gaze ahead. Out in the white-hot haze of dunes everything seems calm and in order, as it should be this close to America, but that doesn't mean the Aliens aren't around. More than a few scouts have lost their lives relying on technology too much, and the operators' scanner at the wall have been known to malfunction when there are interferences or the heat becomes too intense.

I narrow my eyes and the visor pulls the images closer, enabling me to see into the distance clearly as I do a slow 190° turn. The sun glares hotly from the cloudless sky, dipping the area into white-hot light, throwing stark shadows on the pliable ground in which anything could be hidden. The brightness of it burns in my eyes despite the visor's shielding capacity. A not unpleasant smell of warm sand and dried resin drifts around me in the scare breeze as I listen into the day, where everything is silent save for the crunching of sand underfoot and the sound of cones clicking together in the branches overhead in the nearly imperceptible breeze.

Heat caresses what little of my face is exposed under the visor and ghosts over my neck with the low wind. I could get used to it if the ultraviolet rays weren't so lethal—and if the Aliens weren't lurking around every corner to gut us and eat our flesh.

I'm moving out.” I take a step into the sunlit wastes before me and began to sprint toward the sunbaked ruins that were once part of a pre-Invasion town even larger than America's steel dome. Cover is what I need now, both from the ardent sun and the enemy's line of sight. There's no room for error now.

Two decades ago it would have taken a simple craft thirty minutes to reach the outskirts of the Ruins. But there's no need for vehicles if you can run 25 miles per hour, in an exosuit that takes most of your weight, boosts your speed, and keeps you cool, without breaking a sweat.

Twenty miles and 40 minutes to the nearest building indicates the gauge on the left side of the screen. Speed: 27 mph. Once I'm there I can follow the alien tracks I unearthed yesterday. Wind plays with a few loose strands of hair in the back of my neck. The sun makes my shadow warble and the skin around my nose itch with tiny pearls of sweat as I push myself toward the shade.

I pass the run-down gas station with its frayed danger signs and arrive at the Ruins with time to spare. The numbers on my visor show that I surpassed yesterday's speed and should still be out in the open desert. Half a second later it adjusts to my current position and the data stored from yesterday's scouting mission appears on the interface.

I keep my right hand on the weapons belt and my back to the crumbled facades as I make my way along the edge of the Ruins toward the plateau where I'd seen the enemy patrols not twenty hours past, taking cover where I can in the sun-blasted terrain: corroded flanks of vehicles, tall weeds and brush growing from the cracked road.

The drought-scarred hamada is empty. I didn't really expect the enemy to linger. I crouch down at the end of the tracks saved by the visor, whose physical traces have long vanished with the drifting sands, and trace my gloved fingers over the desert pavement. There's not a hint left. I stand. If I were an Alien, where would I go from here? The plateau around me branches out to a shallow dust-bowl to the north, a small hill to the north-east, and into wind-swept dunes in the other directions.

The dust-bowl and the dunes hold little of interest – for us or them – and the only landmark on the hill that might be worth investigating is the steel skeleton of what might have been a radio tower pre-Invasion, still desperately reaching skyward.

I start toward the hill at a sprint. Even if there'll be nothing to be found atop, there might be something beyond. I reach the foot of the hill with time but no breath to spare; the visor won't be so generous once it has adapted to the new speed level. Then the numbers change and the distance to the top is calculated. Up the slope my infantry boots sink into the sand ankle-deep despite their soles designed for desert use. Hot dry wind whistles in my ear.

Dalta.” My operator's voice startles me in its abruptness and the use of my first name. “Movement spotted ahead.”

Cavy?” I can't help myself.

I would be grateful if you desisted using that term.”

I grin despite myself. The Aliens have been called too many names to count. Take your pick. Monsters is a public favourite. Cavy was coined by a scientist who thought we could use the aliens's bodies in experiments once we conquered them. He was one of the first to vanish. We didn't conquer them.

I mostly call them this: a target.

How many?”

One – two at most – a hundred yards ahead of your current position.” He coughs dryly. “Proceed with caution.”

Understood.”

The link goes silent. I sometimes wonder what it must look like from the outside: a slender dark-haired girl of seventeen in a sand-coloured skinsuit talking to herself. But I'm not. The earpiece is a tiny part of the visor clipped to my ear and somehow potent enough to receive and transmissions from the Wall – standard equipment for all American scouts and soldiers post-Invasion – and the mouthpiece is installed directly in my visor and equally as invisible.

On the screen two scarlet dots appear close by, blinking to indicate the enemy's position. I drop into the sands on my belly and pull myself onward with my hands while thrusting the slope behind me with my feet. Two isn't too bad. One would be easier – at least as easy as killing an Alien can be.

The slope steepens and ends in a tuft of coarse bristlegrass just tall enough to hide my lying form as I press myself snake-like on the warm ground. The two scarlet dots haven't moved – I halt. Or are there three? At this proximity, the markers converge into an indistinct red cluster like a drop of bright blood. I frown at the speck. Two isn't too bad. One would be easier. Three is suicide.

There's two at least,” I say quietly.

Proceed with caution,” says my operator's dusty voice.

I grimace. I sometimes think my operator wants me dead.

I grit my teeth and continue forward on my belly, inch by inch, silent on the soft ground. Up ahead the skeletal shadow of the spindly tower lies in wait like a hungry beast. Two or three Aliens are clustered in the semi-darkness so close together they seem to be standing on top of one another, their jagged black outlines half-hidden against the burnt-out facade of the tower. I duck lower into the brittle grass as the width of my screen screams scarlet at the close proximity, but the flickering closeness of the dots remain impossible to count. Two? Three? Four? A shiver of cold sweat trickles down my spine despite the afternoon heat.

What can you see?” The loudness of my operator's voice makes me cringe involuntarily even though I know it's only in my ear.

Two or three. Close formation,” I breathe. “Not sure what they're up to.”

Well then do find out.”

He really wants me dead.

I shift position to get a better look, a trickle of sand coming loose under my belly, and I freeze as it disperses down the hillside with a low sssht. Too loud. They'll notice. They can hear a snake below the sand from a hundred yards with their heightened senses. My hand jumps to the revolver on my belt: Retreat is not an option in these circumstances.

The Aliens don't move. Impossible. What are they doing that keeps them so occupied? I swallow my fear and shift forward another inch. The Aliens are intent. I can hear the guttural noises in which they speak – if the grunts and groans can indeed be called speech – and their throaty breaths.

But what are they doing?

It looks like they're talking...” I cringe again at the volume of my own whisper.

Don't be silly.”

I desist a roll of the eyes only because it'll make the visor go haywire.

What do you want me to do?” My fingers are already busy unstrapping the rail from my back as quietly as possible.

I can take out one, maybe two if I'm lucky and not spotted immediately after the first discharge hits. The third will be a problem with the rail. The fourth – if there is a fourth – will gut me alive even if I'm fast enough to draw the knife.

My operator doesn't respond immediately.

I breathe deeply and slow down my frenzied heart, forcing myself to let go of the tension in my limbs and the stiffness of my fingers as I steady the rail on the ground and wait as its scope aligns with my visor.

Distance: two-hundred yards flashes across the screen as the rail locks on the first target.

Probability of direct hit: 97 percent.

I should be 100 percent. I don't miss.

I level the rail and the position marker turns into concentric scarlet-blinking squares as it locks on the target. The warm draft barely disturbs the sand under my chin as I exhale. My body is relaxed and my focus singular. Everything is silent. The seconds before a kill are the only time I'll rely on the visor to watch my back and warn me should anything else creep up from behind, because if I don't, I'll miss, and then all three of the aliens will be on me in the blink of an eye.

I pull the trigger back halfway and listen to the low whirr... whirr... whirr as the electromagnetic projectile charges up inside the rail. Any second now I'll receive the order.

My breath stalls completely now as my mind calms to the cool calculatedness that precedes a kill. My nerves vibrate in time with the charging rail.

Do not engage.”

The air goes out of me in a low sigh and I let go off the trigger prematurely. The rail powers down with an equally dejected sound.

Why not?”

Because I said so.”

They're right there!”

I can see that.” The dry voice stays impassive. “And I say not to engage, Miss Rim.”

It's Sentinel Rim. My teeth grind together with the effort not to snap back as the rail rattles back into its harness on my back.

Orders?” I ask.

Observe,” He says after a moment. “Do not engage.”

I don't respond.

Do you understand?”

Yes.”

Your brain activity is spiking.” His tone's turned flat as the plains. “Need I pull you out of this?”

My nostrils flare. “No.”

Good.” He doesn't sound like he feels it really is good. “Continue surveillance at a distance—we need to know what they're up to.”

I drop my chin back down into the sand and consider the Aliens. We knew they arrived on Earth in 2030. Thirteen years ago. Three years after I was born. We couldn't communicate with them, but that didn't matter much. They weren't interested in parley or negotiations of peace. They wanted our resources, our flesh, our planet.

The Aliens came without warning during the First Night. Europe and Eurasia were the first to fall. Both continents were stripped clean of raw material and their population decimated. Millions of people were killed. Cities were levelled. The Aliens turned their attention on the southern continents and Australia during the Second Night. The Dark Night followed. That was when we lost contact with Canada and the Northern States.

By the time our forefathers realized something was amiss, the invading forces had advanced too far to employ defensive strategy. The Last President of the United States was indecisive. By the time he agreed to deploy a nuclear warhead it was already too late. The Aliens' arrival had come so unexpectedly there was no time for counter-action left before they reached the coast. Destruction spread inland. The neglectful President was disposed of and a new government formed. The Council. The Council tried to correct the President's mistakes, but our nuclear arsenal had been destroyed, the military scattered. There are those who claim this was a good thing despite the horrors we now face. I doubt they ever knew loss.

About the same time the Aliens started their conquest, the sun's ultraviolet activity increased. The Council commanded what was left of the military northward and organized the survivors to build a steel dome around the last city: America. Like the main continent. The name is supposed to instil a sense of community and unity and solidarity.

At least that's what we assume happened. In theory. In reality the total loss of contact makes it impossible to determine the whole impact of the Invasion. There could still be survivors out there in the world, but most of the intelligence we are able to gather from the outside amounts to little more than rumours and I'm not old enough to remember anything myself.

I don't know how long I've been lying in the sand when the Aliens move. One after the other they troop down the hillside to the north in a more or less straight line. I wait until their still obscurely clustered markers drift alongside the edge of the screen before I push myself up into a kneeling position and rise, sand cascading out of my exosuit and the rim of my boots. I'll have to follow them at a distance, but first I'll check out the spot by the tower in case they've left anything. I saw them dip down and examine – or place – something in the sand more than once, and if they're mining the plateau or placing traps it could turn ugly very quickly.

I slip into the shadow of the tower and crouch to examine the ground. The wind has already cast a layer of sand upon most of their clawed footprints. My gloved fingers sift the sand among the tracks of a single Alien. Within half a minute nothing indicates their stay any more, save for their wobbling shadows in the dunes below.

Damn it. I'm about to stand when the something white-hot slices through my gloves like a sun-heated blade and sears my fingertips and I only just manage to strangle a yell of pain with a low gasp.

What is happening?” My operator asks as I draw back my hand. There're red blisters on it, and the smell of burnt flesh fills the air. Why a burn?

I think I –“

The words freeze in my mouth. Movement in the corner of my eyes shortens my breath. I'm kneeling on the earth. A shadow darker than that of the tower itself hovers over me. Its prey trapped it raises a clawed appendage the size of my head.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Webnovels and THE FUTURE (of this blog/website)

It's been a few months since I last posted. I've been a) busy and b) undecided where my writing life would be going in the future. I'm still undecided but figured it'd be the decent thing to do to provide you with an update of my plans.

So

What does the future hold?

I'm currently once again working on my novel (previously a series called Hourglass) set in modern/ancient Egypt. It's turning from a YA adventure story into something much more mature and interesting and somewhat Lovecraftian. I love it. It still gives me trouble sometimes but it's still my favourite bigger child. I'll update with more information on this once I... know more about it. At the moment I'm on draft ~approximately 15? and I think it's going in the right direction. Nonetheless it might still need a few months (or years - yikes) until I'm happy with it.


I'm also trying to improve my website (https://www.jasmingelinck.com). I'd like it to be more comprehensive and actually offer something to my readers in the future OTHER THAN Amazon BUY buttons. I'd like to add some stories onto it that you can read for free. This will include short stories as well as some (older) novels I've finished but wasn't able to find a publisher for. (I want to admit here that I only sent out a few queries before abandoning that path. Therefore I've no idea if the stories are actually publishable traditionally. But I did enjoy writing them and it'd be a shame if the better ones never saw the light. I also have faith that readers are able to decide on their own whether a book is worth it or not. Who knows? Give it a try and leave a comment! I'd love to know what you think about them.)

The first webnovel that will be published on the website (and this blog) is Mimicry. The publishing schedule is one chapter per week at

10AM CST

5PM GMT+2.


BLURB

17-year old DALTA RIM, soldier of the last human outpost, the city of America, lives to put bullets through the heads of Aliens – the extraterrestrials that invaded Earth thirteen years ago – but when she finds a strange transmitter on one of her missions in the Sonoran desert, she realizes the aliens are neither the only nor the worst threat to humanity's continued existence.

The novel needs a better name still but it's been five years and I haven't been able to make up my mind so Mimicry it is in favour of just publishing it NOW rather than waiting for the PERFECT NAME to come along. The first chapter is already up! It can be found here: https://jasmingelinckauthor.blogspot.com/2020/10/mimicry-chapter-1.html 

 

The second webnovel will be Warlike. This is up on Amazon but honestly since I don't do any advertising it's difficult to get readers interested. Therefore - another webnovel! It might be easier to draw attention to Warlike if it's on more than one single platform (Amazon). Warlike will be up on the website as soon as Mimicry is finished.

TEASER

A jungle adventure set on Earth in the year 2250. A torn Earth where people live in small tribes like they did before we evolved. An Earth poisoned by radiation, toxins, and experiments.

In the far future on Earth, the names of most cities have been forgotten, and wastelands have taken their places. The jungle-forest, a place of primeval predators and a barely surviving half-human tribe, the desert, sands in every direction the eye can see, and mountain ridges too tall too climb that hold ancient secrets. Thresha's lived in the jungle-forest all her seventeen cycles, a young woman too stubborn to admit defeat when the tribe's strongest war party is slaughtered by the raptors, ancient reptilian giants that were supposed to have been extinct thousands of years ago. Thresha is convinced she can kill the beasts and free her tribe once and for all, but she needs to throw her spears wider than elder Kava allows to do it. Thresha soon finds herself trapped in an ancient maze, in a world before a time anyone of her tribe can remember, faced with monsters she couldn't have imagined and, when she is discovered, exile. But for Thresha, the only way out is forward, and to the east, the Sands and the weapons they hold beckon. The Sands, the end of the world, which no one has ever returned from, and no one believes there is an end to.
It's only when she meets Zon, an almost-outlaw, and his shooting tubes, that her hopes of destroying the raptors earns a chance to succeed. But Zon has problems of his own, a horde of metal men so different from anything Tresha has ever known, and those will have to be dealt with before the raptors can be destroyed once and for all.

 

Additionally I've written a few short stories and novellas that need to be edited. I hope to do this this year rather than next but I feel like depression and all are severely impacting my ability to focus. (Or it might be that partner is home all effing day and it just breaks my concentration to nothing at all). The short stories are going out as queries to magazines and the novellas as well (Wish me Luck!). There are some that'll go on the website too. I'm undecided as of yet which those will be.


The last step to making my website more lively is literary analysis. Yesterday I typed up an almost 4000 word analysis of a novel I'd just read and found wanting in a few aspects. I'm debating with myself whether to post this or not. I'm writing them mostly for my own development as a writer - in yesterday's case it was a less on what not to do/how I wouldn't write it. It's of course quite subjective and a lot of readers enjoy the book so I'm not entirely sure it'd add any insights of value to readers. As I said: Not sure yet if it should be published. I'll have a think about it.


WriteBot.



Saturday, April 25, 2020

#PenPower Myth Debunk #8: Writing has to be scary and difficult!

This week's post is a bit later than usual. Apologies! I've had to hand in several assignments and hit plenty of deadlines this week and a lot of my time simply disappeared. Yes. All of the above are excuses for poor planning... but here is the post! I hope you enjoy it.

As I mentioned last week this one is a bit special. We've been looking at all the scary things in writing so long that I thought for the last post it might be really interesting to see: Why do writers write when it all seems so difficult? Why make the effort and put in the time?

So this week's question is this:

What about the writing/editing process do you enjoy the most?


ADRIAN: The freer I can be in creating, the better. Those parts of my writing where I really get to explore the world, to show new perspectives and vistas, are definitely my favourite, even though they can also be the most challenging. The sections from the PoV of non-humans in Children of Ruin almost broke my brain, but they are definitely favourites. I am also a sucker for the big emotional scene – the chase, the fight, the doomed charge into the teeth of the cannon. There are definite scenes I’ve written that still carry a huge emotional weight for me, and hopefully some of that transfers to my readers.



SUE: I like editing the most, and that’s because I have something tangible that I can work with. I can fix any problem, but first I have to have a problem to fix.










ANNA: I love the feeling of seeing characters and settings come to life on the page. I love it when I really nail a scene - an interaction, a piece of action, a setting - and it feels immediately real and visible. It's a great feeling when the image in my head matches the one on the page. That can also come with editing; being asked to trim a certain scene, particularly a favourite scene, can be hard, but it's a bit like sculpting - all of a sudden the true image emerges from the surrounding detritus and what I was trying to say all along is still there, it's just much better.

And I love being taken by surprise by my subconscious!


YOON: Honestly, the planning is the most fun. Actually writing is kind of a chore because it goes on foreeeeeeever, and then revisions become fun again. Kind of like a sandwich? I like twisty chess plots, which are hard to pull off, so that aspect of Raven Stratagem was particularly satisfying.







CAITLIN: I think my favorite part is the first draft. Seeing how the characters interact with each other (it's not always how I predict when I first start writing), how my brain starts riffing on my original plans, figuring out the shape of the story. In The Luminous Dead, getting to the crunchy meaty bits about Em and Gyre's similarities (and how much they hated seeing those) was an absolute joy. Getting those scenes exactly right usually takes several editing passes that are totally agony, but getting the main ingredients down in the first place is just... fun.




THORAIYA: Like a woodworker who has to build their own chessboard and carve their own pieces before they can play with them, I definitely enjoy writing big emotional or action climaxes more than I enjoy setting up the board. It’s sad when you leave the game, too. That’s why, in every trilogy, whether to write or read, my favourite is book two.







EOWYN: It's hard to explain but there are certain moments in writing and revising when a sentence or a plot element will just appear to me, and it's as if it's part of me and has always been there, and when I click it into place, the whole thing shines in a new way that I couldn't have imagined before but feels perfect now. Those are the rare moments I live for as a writer.






RICH: That’s like asking whether I’d rather be poked in the eye or slapped around the head. I don’t enjoy any of the process, I find it extremely difficult, so you might ask why I do it in the first place? And I guess it’s more of a compulsion than anything. The burning need to create your story and get it on paper for others to read. Add to that the feeling when you receive your first print copies and smell that ‘new book’ smell! There’s nothing like it (just have a look at some author unboxings on YouTube).
Saying that, I did enjoy writing a diverse cast of characters in the Steelhaven books. I enjoyed inhabiting their heads and learning about them as I went (despite already knowing what they’d do, if that makes sense) – I liked Merrick’s witty irreverence, I liked Nobul’s brutal desperation, I liked Rag’s impulsive cunning, I liked Waylian’s unexpected bravery. Despite the hard work, despite the monotony of grinding out that first draft, particularly when times were almost unbearable, it was an experience I cherish. Go figure!

TIM: I like drafting, seeing and hearing the story unfold in my mind and documenting it as well as I can on the page. The romance was great! I had different favorite parts in all the [Axiom] books. In the Wrong Stars, Elena's confrontation with Sebastien near the end was great, and Callie growing to trust Lantern too. In the Dreaming Stars, all the virtual world stuff was a blast, and their rescue of Q, and the simulation scenes where Sebastien tries to murder everyone. In the Forbidden Stars, Callie's assault on the prison/lab on the planet was super fun, and every scene Kaustikos was in (scene-stealing little jerk). Also, of course, every single time I got to write Ashok, because Ashok is a character who writes himself.

MARTHA: I like the final stages of revision, where I already have the story down and I’m just polishing and figuring out how to really focus in on the important points. Nothing about writing Murderbot is easy, but I think my favorite parts are when I figure out a scene and know it’s right, and it’s just a matter of polishing it.







JOHN: There's something wonderful about the act of creation, about seeing what's inside you expanding onto the page.  There's something strange and beautiful and a little scary about walking around feeling that you're as much in what you're writing as you are in the world around you.






KAT: My favorite part about editing Whispers from the Abyss was reading all of the submissions. True, sometimes it was a bit of a slog but often the stories were entertaining on one level or another. I also was on the ground floor to be exposed to awesome authors I may never have heard about before.








What a great set of answers to end on! As much as we may sometimes be afraid or worried about our progress it seems writing isn't just sweat and hardship! There are many enjoyable things about the writing process as well, whether you enjoy the puzzle of the edit or the many many pathways you can take from an empty page.

As a last call to action to all readers: What do you enjoy the most when you're working a new project? What makes you get up and do it again and again even if one of them doesn't work out? Leave a comment below!

I sincerely hope you enjoyed this series.

It's been great to work with the authors and editor and get to ask questions! They've been very generous with their time and their answers. A huge thank you to all of them! (In no particular order...)

Sue Burke
Adrian Tchaikovsky
Anna Stephens
Eowyn Ivey
Thoraiya Dyer
John Langan

Martha Wells
Caitlin Starling
Yoon Ha Lee
Rich Ford
Tim Pratt
Kat Rocha

and you the reader!