A Time for Change

Okay, I’m going to be very, very real today. And that’s not an easy thing to do. Any nerdy gal wants to be Wonder Woman. But here are the facts: I’m not. And while I’ve managed to make lots of progress with writing now that Summer Reading has ended, it has only happened with a healthy helping of stress.

And if I’m feeling stressed, won’t that show through in my writing?

I’m not sure it has here on the blog–yet. And I’m thankful for that. But if writing isn’t fun for the writer… then it’s not going to be fun for the reader, either.

I don’t think I’ve crossed that line, but looking back over the last month of writing in a frenzy, I really think I need to re-evaluate.

Here are the facts: I have a full-time job. I’m also a wife. I’m also a friend, and a daughter, and a sister. All of those important elements of my life take time. And while being a writer is definitely one of the ways I define myself… it’s not the only way.

I know it sounds like I’m going to stop blogging–I’m not. I promise.

I just want to do it in a way that makes more sense–that isn’t just me spewing out material because I have a deadline and a schedule. I want it to be natural. I want the stories or poems or observations that I write to come for a real need and desire to say something.

I’ve said that before and adjusted Word-Maleerie accordingly.

And now, I think it’s time to do it again.

When I first created this blog, I had a few goals:

(1) Provide a sort of portfolio for prospective publishers and literary agents.

(2) Show publishers and agents who I am beyond a name at the end of a query.

(3) Write more! (Because it’s really easy to not write when a goal–namely being published–seems faraway and even impossible.)

This blog has helped me do all of that in many ways… but I have to be honest, too, and say that writing material for the blog sometimes means I don’t have time to work on my manuscripts.

And isn’t that kind of counterproductuve?

Again–I’m not giving up. I’m just changing. (And I’ll finish any stories that I have a good start on–namely Plugged In.) But when there are only so many hours in the day, and you also want to have time for loved ones and, you know, the occasional hobby… well, I need to adapt.

Because that’s what we do, isn’t it? It’s either adapt or stagnate, and I won’t let myself do the latter.

(After all, let’s be real: All those “still doing Summer Reading” posts got a bit boring, right?)

I have some time off coming up, so I plan on revamping the website. Bear with me during that time, as I won’t be adding new material. But when I’m done… I hope Word-Maleerie will be a lot more fun for everyone (me included).

Thanks, as always, for all of your support. I truly appreciate everyone who takes the time to check out my blog as I work towards my ultimate goal of publication. Lots of love, everyone.

It’s All the Same

Yes or no; right or wrong.
In or out; short or long–
Whether in print, or online,
Or spoken aloud, or in my mind–

It’s all the same, only different in name.

You’re with them or against us,
You’re a liar or you did what you must.
We have two teams–for everything–
Everything! A side to pick; an anthem to sing.

It’s all the same, different only in name.

Choose where you stand and plant your flag,
Keep your heart strong, don’t let your head drag.
An opinion is yours, it cannot be changed
Admitting defeat is the worst kind of rage.

It’s all the same, different only in name.

So many ways to divide ourselves,
Ways to sort, and to order and to shelve–
And now the lines we’ve made we cannot sway:
I just wish I’d find a shade of gray.

Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

Plugged In, Chapter Eleven: Professor Pathos

“Can you talk or what?”

     Delaney waved a hand in front of Armin.  She had a face that was made for smiling: high cheekbones, arched eyebrows, and sparkling eyes.  Her extremely curly hair was thrown back into a pony tail, and her tan complexion was soft in the moonlight.

     “He could a minute ago.”  Satchel clapped Armin on the back.  “But I think that frizz fest on your head might’ve sent an electric current through the air and shocked him.”

     “Oh, shut-up.”  She held out a hand, and Armin took it awkwardly.  “I’m Delaney Hobbs.”

     “And this is Armin Fisher,” Satchel supplied.  “Hey, listen, is your dad around?  I’ve got a bit of a problem.”  He moved his hand, revealing a blotch of fresh blood. 

     Delaney gasped.  “What happened?  Are you okay?”

     “I’ll be better once I see your dad.  Where’s he at?”

     “Behind you might be a good place to look.”

     Satchel turned around, breathing a deep sigh of relief.  “Hey, Hobbs.  Think you could help me out?”

     Armin, after another long glance at Delaney, turned around, too.

     “YOU!”  Armin shouted, taking several steps backward and glaring at the newcomer with wide eyes.  He had seen that man before–he knew him well.  He had booed him episode after episode, cheered when Hem-V had, again and again, triumphed over his evil powers.

     Professor Pathos was staring right at him.  He looked more relaxed than during any episode, but it was undoubtedly the same person: same curly brown hair and thick glasses.  He wasn’t wearing the usual scientist lab coat, but instead was wrapped in a raggedy bath robe.

     “I see,” Professor Pathos began mildly, “that my fame precedes an introduction.”

     “You tricked me!” Armin shouted, rounding on Satchel.  “You’re part of his plan to create an army of Twickens–recruit, debriefed–how could I have been so stupid!”  He made to run away, but two pairs of strong arms held him back.

     “Calm down, kid!”

     “Yeah, you’ll get lost runnin’ off at this hour!”

     Armin continued to squirm: two men, both probably in their early twenties, were holding him back. 

     “Let me go!”

     “Looks like you’ve brought a live one, Satchel,” another voice supplied, and with a surge of terror, Armin realized there were more of them: they were coming from behind the buildings, staring at him, laughing.  More Twickens–all tan and stronger than him.

     “I’ll never join you, Pathos!”

     A chorus of laughter.

     “Satchel,” one of them, a girl with short, choppy red hair, admonished, “it’s your job to explain everything.”

     “This wasn’t my typical run. I–ouch!”

     “Sorry,” Pathos muttered.  He was examining Satchel’s wound.  “What did you do, use needle and thread?”

     “You can thank my surgeon, after he’s done freaking out,” Satchel muttered. 

     “I would’ve thought Dav could have–wait, where is Dav?”

     All the laughter disappeared as quickly as water sucked down a drain.  Armin, still struggling, was the only person making any sound at all.

     “Dav’s dead,” Satchel said quietly.  “I think they went after his family and he… he got mad at me for it.  So–”  He nodded to where Pathos was now working diligently, using materials from a first aid kit Delaney had fetched for him.  “So he stabbed me.  It was awful.  I think… dammit, I think he wanted me to see him die.  He… he really blamed me for what they did, and he wanted me to suffer by… by watching him–do I have to say any more?”  He gave Pathos a pleading look, and Pathos shook his head. 

     “That’s enough, Satchel.  We all get the picture.  Luckily, you’re okay.”

     “You can thank him.”  Satchel nodded to Armin, whose flailing resembled a fish trying to break free from a net.

     “Then let’s.”  Pathos straightened and approached Armin, who only began to fight harder, grunting and groaning.

     “Thank you for saving our dear friend.”

     “If I’d known what he was a part of, I woulda turned him in!  He tricked me, he–”

     “Come on, kid,” the redhead said with a sneer.  “That’s a TV show.  You don’t honestly think that’s the evil Professor Pathos, do you?”

     “Don’t fault him too harshly, Bly.  The line between reality and fiction is easily blurred, and the Governance knows it.”  He grinned at Armin in a way someone would when talking to a tantrum-throwing toddler.  “Allow me to introduce myself using my preferred name.  I am Milo Hobbs, former scientist for the Governance Research Facility.”

     Armin didn’t stop struggling.

     “I trust you saw my video I made a few years ago?  I also hope you realize that I was right–the Governance has been restricting the populace, using a nonexistent threat to exert their control and force.”

     “Yeah right.  I knew I shouldn’t’ve followed Satchel!  You’re all–”

     “Twickens?  Well, if the logic is that being exposed to chemicals makes you a Twicken–if it doesn’t kill you, that is–then aren’t you also now a Twicken?”

     Armin stopped struggling.  “What?”

     “Aren’t you also a Twicken?  Tell me, do you have a craving for spleen stew?”

     Nervous laughter spread through the group.  The hands on Armin’s shoulders slackened, then let go, and Armin didn’t try to run.  He realized he must have looked very silly, reacting as though a fictional villain was right in front of him… but he was.  That was Professor Pathos.

     “I’m sorry,” Armin said.  “I just–”

     “Reacted the way the Governance programmed you to.  My dear boy, no one can blame you for that.  Believe me, compared to some recruits, you were downright tame!”  The laughter became stronger, and soon everyone was welcoming him, introducing themselves.  Armin had never been around so many people, had never been touched by so many unfamiliar hands.  His eyes, however, sought just one other: Delaney came up to him, slapped him playfully, and said, “That’s for thinking my dad was a crazed super-villain.”

     “Your dad?”

     “Yeah.”  She smiled.  “And this–” She gave him a light peck on the cheek. “–is for helping Satchel.”

     “Not a problem,” Armin wanted to say, but it got caught somewhere in his throat.

     “I didn’t raise my daughter to give out kisses like they were chocolates!” Hobbs shouted from where he had returned to Satchel. 

     “Just a thank you.”

     “At least learn his name first,” Hobbs argued, squirting clear liquid onto a clean rag.

     “I do know his name.  It’s Armin Fisher.”

     Hobbs dropped the rag and the bottle; the strong smelling liquid soaked into the dirt and Hobbs swore loudly, grabbing it and standing bolt upright.

     “Fisher did you say?”

     “Yeah,” Delaney confirmed.

     Hobbs raised an eyebrow at Armin, then turned on Satchel.  “Fisher?”

     “Yeah, so what, Hobbs?”

     Hobbs spun on the spot, staring at all three of them in turn–Delaney, then Satchel, then Armin, then Satchel again.

     “Okay, okay, we can… we can do this.  Come on, Satchel, you need to lie down.” 

     The two of them, Hobbs now whispering fiercely in Satchel’s ear, walked off, leaving Armin feeling alone and confused with his overly-eager welcoming party.

     “Is there a problem?” he asked no one in particular.

     “Don’t worry about it,” Delaney said with a shrug.  “That’s just my dad for you.  Sometimes he gets worked up.  The things he’s seen will do that to a person.”

     “What has he seen?”

     “Oh, he’ll explain all of that.  But first–” Delaney spun around, grabbing his arms and leading him forward, towards the metal monsters, “–a tour!”

     “Yeah,” the redhead–Bly?–agreed.  “Now that you’re here, you’ll need to know your way around.”

     Feeling suddenly warm (a sensation that started at Delaney’s hands and migrated all the way through his body), Armin followed the two of them.  They told him all about the amusement park.  Apparently, this had been a place of fun and entertainment.  People had created these “rides” as a way to get a cheap thrill.  There had been games and food, and sometimes little shows.  It sounded like the kind of story his mother would have told him–except this was real.

     “What’s it like to ride that?” Armin asked, pointing to the giant circle that had first caught his eye.

     “The Ferris Wheel?”  Delaney asked.  “It’s great.  I’ve only been on once though.”

     “Why?  I mean, if you live here–”

     “We don’t run the electric stuff very often.  We have these back-up generators, but Dad’s careful with them.  Only emergencies or special occasions, he says.  He doesn’t want the Governance to know where we’re hiding out.”

     “Hiding out?”

     “Dad will explain.  Come on, he’s probably ready to talk to you now.”

     Delaney (again grabbing both of his hands) led him to the very center of the Park.  Everyone (about ten people, the youngest about fourteen, the oldest in their mid-twenties) was gathered around a comfortable bonfire.  Satchel was seated in a carved out boat, with peeling pink paint and a faded inscription that read T NN L O L VE.  He was stretched out in it, eyes closed. 

     “Come on, Satchel,” Delaney quipped, smacking his shoulder. “I’m not letting you milk that little cut for more than it’s worth.”

     Satchel stuck out his tongue.  “Your Dad said I could have the best seat in the house.”

     “Bet he didn’t say you couldn’t share it.”

     “Didn’t say I had to.”

     Delaney slapped him again, and Satchel moved into a sitting position. 

     Armin stared at them, eyes squinted slightly, and looked around for some vacated spot.

     “Armin, there’s room for three.  Come on.”  Satchel motioned him over, and with a sigh of relief (always better to sit with someone you know), Armin climbed into the boat as well.

     Hobbs came out of one of the buildings, carrying a fold-out chair.

     “Oh–see we’ve got enough, then,” he said, seeing the three huddled into the boat. With a shrug, he took the fold-out chair for himself, placing himself right in the center of attention.  Everyone became very quiet as Hobbs took a deep breath, collecting his thoughts, then:

     “Armin Fisher, if there’s one thing I believe in, it’s truth.  And this kind of strong belief can only come from someone who’s been both lied to and a liar himself.  Only someone who’s played on both sides of the field can truly understand what a glorious and dangerous thing the truth is, so before I say another word, I have to ask you–do you really want to know something as delicate as that?”

     Armin glanced at the pair beside him.  Satchel was staring straight ahead, but Delaney’s encouraging nod was all the encouragement Armin needed to say:

     “Yes.”

     “Okay.”  Hobbs scratched his neck, resituated himself on the chair, then said: “The beginning of a very long story: I wake up every morning wondering if I am a good man.  I figure I must be a better man than I used to be, but here I sit, in an abandoned amusement park, surrounded by people–young people with their whole lives in front of them–who would be safer if they were ignorant and at home.  And yet, I’ve taken them from their little havens and from their families, and I’ve told them the truth.  Does that make me a bad person?  Some days, I think that it does.  Others, I think I’m working for some sort of greater good, but who the hell elected me as the sole person to decide what the greater good was?  It’s a fight I have almost every day, but I keep doing it because, deep-down, I feel that the Governance is worse.  And as long as I think that, I won’t be able to stop educating people.  That’s what we’ve got going on here–an education program.

     “It started about two years ago.  As I’ve already told you, I was a scientist for the Governance.  Our job was to create poisons–”

     “Poisons?” Armin interrupted.  “But the Governance promised that no chemical warfare would ever happen again!”

     “And so they did. The key word being ‘warfare.’  They told us–the scientists that is–that the poisons we were creating were to be used to crush any rebellions.  They said they had created a near-utopia, but human nature being what it is, there was always a threat.  They claimed that they used it against Twickens–feeding our gullible minds with an urban legend.”

     “An urban–?”

     “The Twicken myth has existed since the Great Fissure itself.  The Governance has consistently used it to their advantage.  Something that has never existed outside of the masses’ imaginations and the Governance’s machinations.  But I’ll explain more about that momentarily.”  Hobbs cleared his throat. “Anyways, we scientists thought we were creating something special, something to help everyone.  We thought of ourselves as the world’s first line of defense, a rather testosterone-inducing idea for a bunch of brainiacs.

     “Well, the day came when I decided I wanted to do more.  Why stop with just this poison? I asked myself.  Why not try and do something that would help people expand their very limiting lives?  So, on my own time, I began running experiments on the environment.  What a hero I would be, I thought, if I could discover a way to dissipate the chemicals.  But do you know what I found?”

     Armin thought he knew the answer, but he stayed quiet.  Everyone had adopted disgusted expressions, and he did his best to copy them.

     “I found that the chemical traces were so minute they might as well have not been there at all.  Oxygen levels were stable; water contamination was extremely minimal–possibly even better than before the Great Fissure.  With this new information, I decided to run possibly riskiest experiment of my life.  I took a step outside.”  Hobbs smiled. “Then I took another, and another.  And then I took a whole walk!”  He released a humorless laugh.  “What a discovery!, I thought.  I was going to be the first person to tell everyone that the outside world was safe; we could leave our computers and start rebuilding the old life again.  But there was a bit of a kink in my plan–the Governance already knew.  Had known for years.  And they swore me to secrecy, when I refused…. When I refused, I came home to find a dead wife and a crying daughter.  My own poison, the one I had helped to create, had been used against me.”

     Armin glanced at Delaney; Satchel had placed a comforting hand on hers.  He wanted to do the same, tried, then stopped.  He must’ve looked like he had a nervous tick, because Delaney gave a little smile.

     “They always go after the spouse first.  They send a message.  Then they can use your kids as blackmail.  Except I wasn’t going to take it.  I told Delaney to leave home, to run, and I’d leave to.  We eventually found each other, and we continued on, with only limited rations, until we came upon this Park.  Since then, we have gardened and fished, and lived like right pioneers.  Well–”  He shrugged, “–if pioneers lived in an amusement park.”

     “The Governance killed–” Armin began, but then he realized how insensitive that sounded.  “I’m sorry.”

     “It’s okay, Armin.  Don’t apologize for something you didn’t cause.”  Hobbs looked around at the other faces, sparks from the fire framing his head.  They crackled and popped for a few minutes as Hobbs prepared the next part of his story:

     “Before I made a run for it, though, I managed to send out a video.  Apparently it went viral like that.” He snapped his fingers.  “Unfortunately, the Governance was prepared.  They used my little try at rebellion as an opportunity for propaganda.”

     “Propaganda?” Armin had never heard the word before, but Satchel supplied a definition before Hobbs could even open his mouth:

     “When someone powerful uses the media to make you think a certain way.”

     “Oh.”

     “Couldn’t have said it better myself,” Hobbs confirmed.  “They created Hem-V, a hero who’s antics constantly warn about the dangers of going outside and the inter-everything that the Governance relies on.  And, the best of course, warning against Twickens.

     “They designed Professor Pathos after me.  With a look alike and a lot of technical magic, they made me a fugitive without ever having to admit that someone was living outside with no chemical threat.  They made sure that anyone seen walking outside–such as Satchel–would be feared and, if possible, destroyed.  Wasn’t that your first impulse?”

     Armin didn’t answer.  How could he have been so used? 

     “Which brings us back to my little program,” Hobbs continued.  “It is Satchel’s job to do whatever he can to recruit as many new people as possible.  He’s proven himself to be both persuasive and stealthy, so he’s a natural at it.  We have a few other recruiters as well–”  He nodded at a pair, one boy and one girl, both in their late teens. “–but Satchel still holds the record for most recruits.”

     “It’s a title I hold proudly.”

     “The rest of us are runaways,” Bly offered.  “We couldn’t stand being under the Governance like that, so we left and came here.”

     “Sometimes just refusing to belong is the best rebellion there is,” Delaney explained. 

     “The amount of what we can do is limited,” Hobbs agreed with a sigh. “The Governance is many and powerful and we–well, take a look around.”

     Suddenly, the Parkseemed like nothing more than a hunk of twisted metal, tossed away and ignored. 

     “But it’s a start, and–” Hobbs shared a significant look with Satchel.  “–we’ve recently gained a new advantage.

     “But that’s us.  Who we are, what we stand for.  Not really all that dangerous, just a little… rebellious.  Though, of course, the Governance would think otherwise.  Do you have any questions, Armin?”

     All eyes were now on Armin, and he gulped.  He’d never had an audience before (the hundreds of people online suddenly seemed less real than the bodies sitting around him).  “Um… can I ask one?”

     “Please do.”

     “Were the chemicals ever real?”

     Hobbs breathed a long sigh.  “Yes, they must have been.  I said there were minute traces, remember.  And there have been skeletons discovered, mid-activity, many right here in the Park–don’t worry, you won’t find them.  We gave them proper burials.  But yes, there was some sort of warfare.  The Governance must have seen it coming.  I don’t know much about how they did.  Those who like a good conspiracy seem to think that they were a renegade bunch of radicals who slowly infiltrated the biggest governments of the day, initiating and instigating the warfare.  I, myself, think they were either a government that existed and saved a few successful or powerful people–”

     “But there’s compounds supervised by the Governance all over the world!” Armin argued.  “On the other side of the ocean!”

     “Yes.  I said one government was in charge of it.  I didn’t say they didn’t have allies in other countries.”

     “Oh.”

     “Either that, or they could have been a group of people–maybe a cult or something–that predicted a doomsday event like the Great Fissure.  So when it happened, they and their followers throughout the world were ready.  Whatever theory you believe–because I’m sorry to say that the Governance has done a good job in keeping the truth very fuzzy, even for me–but ultimately, they were prepared.  They had created the compounds, stored the food, water and oxygen, and utilized the interweb to its fullest potential.  The Governance, in the beginning, is what saved us, but now, it the very thing imprisoning us.  So is the way with power.” 

     “Satchel told me,” Armin began with a wary look at Satchel, who’s hand was still–(still? Armin thought)–on Delaney’s.  “Well… um… he told me that the Governance wanted to keep us inside.”

     “And so they do,” Hobbs agreed.  “It is much easier to control people who are contained than people who are free.  What’s more interesting is the complete lack of interest to go outside.  That video I sent out–the one that recreated me as the evil Professor Pathos–Satchel is the only one I have found who took that advice, took the risk, and stepped outside.”

     “You’ve been with him for three years?”

     “Not quite,” Satchel clarified.  “It took me a while to find him.  My dad went with me, but the Governance caught up with us.” Satchel swallowed.  “I hid, but the Governance took him… I don’t know where.”

     “How did they find you?”

     “We were clumsy and stupid.  We tried to hide in the compounds, but that didn’t work.  Late at night, Governance officials comb the areas, doing what they have to do to keep people inside.  If you don’t know their schedules–which I have since memorized–then you’re in trouble.”

     “Maybe your dad’s still alive.”

     “Yeah, maybe,” Satchel muttered, though his voice didn’t sound very confident.  He’d removed his hand from Delaney’s, and was staring off in the distance.

     “The interweb is more than just a way to keep people from getting cabin fever, more than entertainment and communication,” Hobbs continued.  “It’s a way for the Governance to watch everyone.  The Governance knows everyone probably better than they know themselves.  And not because they’re spying or invading, but because they’re just reading.  That’s it.  People post pictures and comments, statuses and Quips–have you ever realized how personal they are?  It takes so little to get to know someone when they put everything out there.  The Governance trains people to study those traits, and then learn how to use them against their victims.  Keeping people inside keeps them inter-connected, and that keeps the Governance in control.”

     “Basically,” Satchel supplied, sitting up and looking from Armin to the gathering around them.  “It takes three things to create a Governance: A dollop of fear.  A pinch of imprisonment.  And a liberal cup of spineless choice.  Do you realize how much of this happened just because no one stood up and said no, how much of this is the result of people letting the Governance in?”

     “People are lazy,” Delaney interjected.  She was sitting as straight as Satchel now, wide eyes furious.  “Why would they fight the Governance? They don’t have to work; everything is given to them!  All they have to sacrifice is their freedom for lives of luxury, and let’s face it, for most people that’s a fair trade.”

     “Doesn’t seem fair to me,” Armin muttered.  Only hours outside of the compound, and there was an almost physical reaction to being outside and with people.  It made his heart race and his skin prickle at the very thought that he was doing something real, rather than digital.  It was unbelievable, almost dreamlike.

     But there he was. And, even better, there she was, smiling at him and saying:

     “I knew I liked you.”

     “Thanks,” he said dumbly, smiling around at everyone else, who looked just as happy as Delaney.

     “Excellent,” Hobbs said.  “One more down.”

“Can you talk or what?”

     Delaney waved a hand in front of Armin.  She had a face that was made for smiling: high cheekbones, arched eyebrows, and sparkling eyes.  Her extremely curly hair was thrown back into a pony tail, and her tan complexion was soft in the moonlight.

     “He could a minute ago.”  Satchel clapped Armin on the back.  “But I think that frizz fest on your head might’ve sent an electric current through the air and shocked him.”

     “Oh, shut-up.”  She held out a hand, and Armin took it awkwardly.  “I’m Delaney Hobbs.”

     “And this is Armin Fisher,” Satchel supplied.  “Hey, listen, is your dad around?  I’ve got a bit of a problem.”  He moved his hand, revealing a blotch of fresh blood. 

     Delaney gasped.  “What happened?  Are you okay?”

     “I’ll be better once I see your dad.  Where’s he at?”

     “Behind you might be a good place to look.”

     Satchel turned around, breathing a deep sigh of relief.  “Hey, Hobbs.  Think you could help me out?”

     Armin, after another long glance at Delaney, turned around, too.

     “YOU!”  Armin shouted, taking several steps backward and glaring at the newcomer with wide eyes.  He had seen that man before–he knew him well.  He had booed him episode after episode, cheered when Hem-V had, again and again, triumphed over his evil powers.

     Professor Pathos was staring right at him.  He looked more relaxed than during any episode, but it was undoubtedly the same person: same curly brown hair and thick glasses.  He wasn’t wearing the usual scientist lab coat, but instead was wrapped in a raggedy bath robe.

     “I see,” Professor Pathos began mildly, “that my fame precedes an introduction.”

     “You tricked me!” Armin shouted, rounding on Satchel.  “You’re part of his plan to create an army of Twickens–recruit, debriefed–how could I have been so stupid!”  He made to run away, but two pairs of strong arms held him back.

     “Calm down, kid!”

     “Yeah, you’ll get lost runnin’ off at this hour!”

     Armin continued to squirm: two men, both probably in their early twenties, were holding him back. 

     “Let me go!”

     “Looks like you’ve brought a live one, Satchel,” another voice supplied, and with a surge of terror, Armin realized there were more of them: they were coming from behind the buildings, staring at him, laughing.  More Twickens–all tan and stronger than him.

     “I’ll never join you, Pathos!”

     A chorus of laughter.

     “Satchel,” one of them, a girl with short, choppy red hair, admonished, “it’s your job to explain everything.”

     “This wasn’t my typical run. I–ouch!”

     “Sorry,” Pathos muttered.  He was examining Satchel’s wound.  “What did you do, use needle and thread?”

     “You can thank my surgeon, after he’s done freaking out,” Satchel muttered. 

     “I would’ve thought Dav could have–wait, where is Dav?”

     All the laughter disappeared as quickly as water sucked down a drain.  Armin, still struggling, was the only person making any sound at all.

     “Dav’s dead,” Satchel said quietly.  “I think they went after his family and he… he got mad at me for it.  So–”  He nodded to where Pathos was now working diligently, using materials from a first aid kit Delaney had fetched for him.  “So he stabbed me.  It was awful.  I think… dammit, I think he wanted me to see him die.  He… he really blamed me for what they did, and he wanted me to suffer by… by watching him–do I have to say any more?”  He gave Pathos a pleading look, and Pathos shook his head. 

     “That’s enough, Satchel.  We all get the picture.  Luckily, you’re okay.”

     “You can thank him.”  Satchel nodded to Armin, whose flailing resembled a fish trying to break free from a net.

     “Then let’s.”  Pathos straightened and approached Armin, who only began to fight harder, grunting and groaning.

     “Thank you for saving our dear friend.”

     “If I’d known what he was a part of, I woulda turned him in!  He tricked me, he–”

     “Come on, kid,” the redhead said with a sneer.  “That’s a TV show.  You don’t honestly think that’s the evil Professor Pathos, do you?”

     “Don’t fault him too harshly, Bly.  The line between reality and fiction is easily blurred, and the Governance knows it.”  He grinned at Armin in a way someone would when talking to a tantrum-throwing toddler.  “Allow me to introduce myself using my preferred name.  I am Milo Hobbs, former scientist for the Governance Research Facility.”

     Armin didn’t stop struggling.

     “I trust you saw my video I made a few years ago?  I also hope you realize that I was right–the Governance has been restricting the populace, using a nonexistent threat to exert their control and force.”

     “Yeah right.  I knew I shouldn’t’ve followed Satchel!  You’re all–”

     “Twickens?  Well, if the logic is that being exposed to chemicals makes you a Twicken–if it doesn’t kill you, that is–then aren’t you also now a Twicken?”

     Armin stopped struggling.  “What?”

     “Aren’t you also a Twicken?  Tell me, do you have a craving for spleen stew?”

     Nervous laughter spread through the group.  The hands on Armin’s shoulders slackened, then let go, and Armin didn’t try to run.  He realized he must have looked very silly, reacting as though a fictional villain was right in front of him… but he was.  That was Professor Pathos.

     “I’m sorry,” Armin said.  “I just–”

     “Reacted the way the Governance programmed you to.  My dear boy, no one can blame you for that.  Believe me, compared to some recruits, you were downright tame!”  The laughter became stronger, and soon everyone was welcoming him, introducing themselves.  Armin had never been around so many people, had never been touched by so many unfamiliar hands.  His eyes, however, sought just one other: Delaney came up to him, slapped him playfully, and said, “That’s for thinking my dad was a crazed super-villain.”

     “Your dad?”

     “Yeah.”  She smiled.  “And this–” She gave him a light peck on the cheek. “–is for helping Satchel.”

     “Not a problem,” Armin wanted to say, but it got caught somewhere in his throat.

     “I didn’t raise my daughter to give out kisses like they were chocolates!” Hobbs shouted from where he had returned to Satchel. 

     “Just a thank you.”

     “At least learn his name first,” Hobbs argued, squirting clear liquid onto a clean rag.

     “I do know his name.  It’s Armin Fisher.”

     Hobbs dropped the rag and the bottle; the strong smelling liquid soaked into the dirt and Hobbs swore loudly, grabbing it and standing bolt upright.

     “Fisher did you say?”

     “Yeah,” Delaney confirmed.

     Hobbs raised an eyebrow at Armin, then turned on Satchel.  “Fisher?”

     “Yeah, so what, Hobbs?”

     Hobbs spun on the spot, staring at all three of them in turn–Delaney, then Satchel, then Armin, then Satchel again.

     “Okay, okay, we can… we can do this.  Come on, Satchel, you need to lie down.” 

     The two of them, Hobbs now whispering fiercely in Satchel’s ear, walked off, leaving Armin feeling alone and confused with his overly-eager welcoming party.

     “Is there a problem?” he asked no one in particular.

     “Don’t worry about it,” Delaney said with a shrug.  “That’s just my dad for you.  Sometimes he gets worked up.  The things he’s seen will do that to a person.”

     “What has he seen?”

     “Oh, he’ll explain all of that.  But first–” Delaney spun around, grabbing his arms and leading him forward, towards the metal monsters, “–a tour!”

     “Yeah,” the redhead–Bly?–agreed.  “Now that you’re here, you’ll need to know your way around.”

     Feeling suddenly warm (a sensation that started at Delaney’s hands and migrated all the way through his body), Armin followed the two of them.  They told him all about the amusement park.  Apparently, this had been a place of fun and entertainment.  People had created these “rides” as a way to get a cheap thrill.  There had been games and food, and sometimes little shows.  It sounded like the kind of story his mother would have told him–except this was real.

     “What’s it like to ride that?” Armin asked, pointing to the giant circle that had first caught his eye.

     “The Ferris Wheel?”  Delaney asked.  “It’s great.  I’ve only been on once though.”

     “Why?  I mean, if you live here–”

     “We don’t run the electric stuff very often.  We have these back-up generators, but Dad’s careful with them.  Only emergencies or special occasions, he says.  He doesn’t want the Governance to know where we’re hiding out.”

     “Hiding out?”

     “Dad will explain.  Come on, he’s probably ready to talk to you now.”

     Delaney (again grabbing both of his hands) led him to the very center of the Park.  Everyone (about ten people, the youngest about fourteen, the oldest in their mid-twenties) was gathered around a comfortable bonfire.  Satchel was seated in a carved out boat, with peeling pink paint and a faded inscription that read T NN L O L VE.  He was stretched out in it, eyes closed. 

     “Come on, Satchel,” Delaney quipped, smacking his shoulder. “I’m not letting you milk that little cut for more than it’s worth.”

     Satchel stuck out his tongue.  “Your Dad said I could have the best seat in the house.”

     “Bet he didn’t say you couldn’t share it.”

     “Didn’t say I had to.”

     Delaney slapped him again, and Satchel moved into a sitting position. 

     Armin stared at them, eyes squinted slightly, and looked around for some vacated spot.

     “Armin, there’s room for three.  Come on.”  Satchel motioned him over, and with a sigh of relief (always better to sit with someone you know), Armin climbed into the boat as well.

     Hobbs came out of one of the buildings, carrying a fold-out chair.

     “Oh–see we’ve got enough, then,” he said, seeing the three huddled into the boat. With a shrug, he took the fold-out chair for himself, placing himself right in the center of attention.  Everyone became very quiet as Hobbs took a deep breath, collecting his thoughts, then:

     “Armin Fisher, if there’s one thing I believe in, it’s truth.  And this kind of strong belief can only come from someone who’s been both lied to and a liar himself.  Only someone who’s played on both sides of the field can truly understand what a glorious and dangerous thing the truth is, so before I say another word, I have to ask you–do you really want to know something as delicate as that?”

     Armin glanced at the pair beside him.  Satchel was staring straight ahead, but Delaney’s encouraging nod was all the encouragement Armin needed to say:

     “Yes.”

     “Okay.”  Hobbs scratched his neck, resituated himself on the chair, then said: “The beginning of a very long story: I wake up every morning wondering if I am a good man.  I figure I must be a better man than I used to be, but here I sit, in an abandoned amusement park, surrounded by people–young people with their whole lives in front of them–who would be safer if they were ignorant and at home.  And yet, I’ve taken them from their little havens and from their families, and I’ve told them the truth.  Does that make me a bad person?  Some days, I think that it does.  Others, I think I’m working for some sort of greater good, but who the hell elected me as the sole person to decide what the greater good was?  It’s a fight I have almost every day, but I keep doing it because, deep-down, I feel that the Governance is worse.  And as long as I think that, I won’t be able to stop educating people.  That’s what we’ve got going on here–an education program.

     “It started about two years ago.  As I’ve already told you, I was a scientist for the Governance.  Our job was to create poisons–”

     “Poisons?” Armin interrupted.  “But the Governance promised that no chemical warfare would ever happen again!”

     “And so they did. The key word being ‘warfare.’  They told us–the scientists that is–that the poisons we were creating were to be used to crush any rebellions.  They said they had created a near-utopia, but human nature being what it is, there was always a threat.  They claimed that they used it against Twickens–feeding our gullible minds with an urban legend.”

     “An urban–?”

     “The Twicken myth has existed since the Great Fissure itself.  The Governance has consistently used it to their advantage.  Something that has never existed outside of the masses’ imaginations and the Governance’s machinations.  But I’ll explain more about that momentarily.”  Hobbs cleared his throat. “Anyways, we scientists thought we were creating something special, something to help everyone.  We thought of ourselves as the world’s first line of defense, a rather testosterone-inducing idea for a bunch of brainiacs.

     “Well, the day came when I decided I wanted to do more.  Why stop with just this poison? I asked myself.  Why not try and do something that would help people expand their very limiting lives?  So, on my own time, I began running experiments on the environment.  What a hero I would be, I thought, if I could discover a way to dissipate the chemicals.  But do you know what I found?”

     Armin thought he knew the answer, but he stayed quiet.  Everyone had adopted disgusted expressions, and he did his best to copy them.

     “I found that the chemical traces were so minute they might as well have not been there at all.  Oxygen levels were stable; water contamination was extremely minimal–possibly even better than before the Great Fissure.  With this new information, I decided to run possibly riskiest experiment of my life.  I took a step outside.”  Hobbs smiled. “Then I took another, and another.  And then I took a whole walk!”  He released a humorless laugh.  “What a discovery!, I thought.  I was going to be the first person to tell everyone that the outside world was safe; we could leave our computers and start rebuilding the old life again.  But there was a bit of a kink in my plan–the Governance already knew.  Had known for years.  And they swore me to secrecy, when I refused…. When I refused, I came home to find a dead wife and a crying daughter.  My own poison, the one I had helped to create, had been used against me.”

     Armin glanced at Delaney; Satchel had placed a comforting hand on hers.  He wanted to do the same, tried, then stopped.  He must’ve looked like he had a nervous tick, because Delaney gave a little smile.

     “They always go after the spouse first.  They send a message.  Then they can use your kids as blackmail.  Except I wasn’t going to take it.  I told Delaney to leave home, to run, and I’d leave to.  We eventually found each other, and we continued on, with only limited rations, until we came upon this Park.  Since then, we have gardened and fished, and lived like right pioneers.  Well–”  He shrugged, “–if pioneers lived in an amusement park.”

     “The Governance killed–” Armin began, but then he realized how insensitive that sounded.  “I’m sorry.”

     “It’s okay, Armin.  Don’t apologize for something you didn’t cause.”  Hobbs looked around at the other faces, sparks from the fire framing his head.  They crackled and popped for a few minutes as Hobbs prepared the next part of his story:

     “Before I made a run for it, though, I managed to send out a video.  Apparently it went viral like that.” He snapped his fingers.  “Unfortunately, the Governance was prepared.  They used my little try at rebellion as an opportunity for propaganda.”

     “Propaganda?” Armin had never heard the word before, but Satchel supplied a definition before Hobbs could even open his mouth:

     “When someone powerful uses the media to make you think a certain way.”

     “Oh.”

     “Couldn’t have said it better myself,” Hobbs confirmed.  “They created Hem-V, a hero who’s antics constantly warn about the dangers of going outside and the inter-everything that the Governance relies on.  And, the best of course, warning against Twickens.

     “They designed Professor Pathos after me.  With a look alike and a lot of technical magic, they made me a fugitive without ever having to admit that someone was living outside with no chemical threat.  They made sure that anyone seen walking outside–such as Satchel–would be feared and, if possible, destroyed.  Wasn’t that your first impulse?”

     Armin didn’t answer.  How could he have been so used? 

     “Which brings us back to my little program,” Hobbs continued.  “It is Satchel’s job to do whatever he can to recruit as many new people as possible.  He’s proven himself to be both persuasive and stealthy, so he’s a natural at it.  We have a few other recruiters as well–”  He nodded at a pair, one boy and one girl, both in their late teens. “–but Satchel still holds the record for most recruits.”

     “It’s a title I hold proudly.”

     “The rest of us are runaways,” Bly offered.  “We couldn’t stand being under the Governance like that, so we left and came here.”

     “Sometimes just refusing to belong is the best rebellion there is,” Delaney explained. 

     “The amount of what we can do is limited,” Hobbs agreed with a sigh. “The Governance is many and powerful and we–well, take a look around.”

     Suddenly, the Parkseemed like nothing more than a hunk of twisted metal, tossed away and ignored. 

     “But it’s a start, and–” Hobbs shared a significant look with Satchel.  “–we’ve recently gained a new advantage.

     “But that’s us.  Who we are, what we stand for.  Not really all that dangerous, just a little… rebellious.  Though, of course, the Governance would think otherwise.  Do you have any questions, Armin?”

     All eyes were now on Armin, and he gulped.  He’d never had an audience before (the hundreds of people online suddenly seemed less real than the bodies sitting around him).  “Um… can I ask one?”

     “Please do.”

     “Were the chemicals ever real?”

     Hobbs breathed a long sigh.  “Yes, they must have been.  I said there were minute traces, remember.  And there have been skeletons discovered, mid-activity, many right here in the Park–don’t worry, you won’t find them.  We gave them proper burials.  But yes, there was some sort of warfare.  The Governance must have seen it coming.  I don’t know much about how they did.  Those who like a good conspiracy seem to think that they were a renegade bunch of radicals who slowly infiltrated the biggest governments of the day, initiating and instigating the warfare.  I, myself, think they were either a government that existed and saved a few successful or powerful people–”

     “But there’s compounds supervised by the Governance all over the world!” Armin argued.  “On the other side of the ocean!”

     “Yes.  I said one government was in charge of it.  I didn’t say they didn’t have allies in other countries.”

     “Oh.”

     “Either that, or they could have been a group of people–maybe a cult or something–that predicted a doomsday event like the Great Fissure.  So when it happened, they and their followers throughout the world were ready.  Whatever theory you believe–because I’m sorry to say that the Governance has done a good job in keeping the truth very fuzzy, even for me–but ultimately, they were prepared.  They had created the compounds, stored the food, water and oxygen, and utilized the interweb to its fullest potential.  The Governance, in the beginning, is what saved us, but now, it the very thing imprisoning us.  So is the way with power.” 

     “Satchel told me,” Armin began with a wary look at Satchel, who’s hand was still–(still? Armin thought)–on Delaney’s.  “Well… um… he told me that the Governance wanted to keep us inside.”

     “And so they do,” Hobbs agreed.  “It is much easier to control people who are contained than people who are free.  What’s more interesting is the complete lack of interest to go outside.  That video I sent out–the one that recreated me as the evil Professor Pathos–Satchel is the only one I have found who took that advice, took the risk, and stepped outside.”

     “You’ve been with him for three years?”

     “Not quite,” Satchel clarified.  “It took me a while to find him.  My dad went with me, but the Governance caught up with us.” Satchel swallowed.  “I hid, but the Governance took him… I don’t know where.”

     “How did they find you?”

     “We were clumsy and stupid.  We tried to hide in the compounds, but that didn’t work.  Late at night, Governance officials comb the areas, doing what they have to do to keep people inside.  If you don’t know their schedules–which I have since memorized–then you’re in trouble.”

     “Maybe your dad’s still alive.”

     “Yeah, maybe,” Satchel muttered, though his voice didn’t sound very confident.  He’d removed his hand from Delaney’s, and was staring off in the distance.

     “The interweb is more than just a way to keep people from getting cabin fever, more than entertainment and communication,” Hobbs continued.  “It’s a way for the Governance to watch everyone.  The Governance knows everyone probably better than they know themselves.  And not because they’re spying or invading, but because they’re just reading.  That’s it.  People post pictures and comments, statuses and Quips–have you ever realized how personal they are?  It takes so little to get to know someone when they put everything out there.  The Governance trains people to study those traits, and then learn how to use them against their victims.  Keeping people inside keeps them inter-connected, and that keeps the Governance in control.”

     “Basically,” Satchel supplied, sitting up and looking from Armin to the gathering around them.  “It takes three things to create a Governance: A dollop of fear.  A pinch of imprisonment.  And a liberal cup of spineless choice.  Do you realize how much of this happened just because no one stood up and said no, how much of this is the result of people letting the Governance in?”

     “People are lazy,” Delaney interjected.  She was sitting as straight as Satchel now, wide eyes furious.  “Why would they fight the Governance? They don’t have to work; everything is given to them!  All they have to sacrifice is their freedom for lives of luxury, and let’s face it, for most people that’s a fair trade.”

     “Doesn’t seem fair to me,” Armin muttered.  Only hours outside of the compound, and there was an almost physical reaction to being outside and with people.  It made his heart race and his skin prickle at the very thought that he was doing something real, rather than digital.  It was unbelievable, almost dreamlike.

     But there he was. And, even better, there she was, smiling at him and saying:

     “I knew I liked you.”

     “Thanks,” he said dumbly, smiling around at everyone else, who looked just as happy as Delaney.

     “Excellent,” Hobbs said.  “One more down.”

To be continued.

Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

There Is No End

I’ve actually made some progress on the to-do list I posted last week. I’ve gotten one query letter sent off, and I’ve carved out some time to work on the NaNoWriMo story. It’s actually getting close… I think… to the end.

Wowzers.

It’s a crazy feeling–working on something for so long and then the end being in sight.

But it’s not really the end. Because next comes editing. Revising. Rewriting.

What am I saying? There is no end to writing! It just goes and goes and goes…..

*insert crazed laughter*

Ahem… but, yes, progress. So… yay!

Light Painting

Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

The assignment was to paint with light. The result: A reminder of all that can happen in only a few moments… and how the result can be something unexpected.

(How was this made? A long exposure while shaking colored Christmas lights around. This is a lot of fun to do–and you can use any kind of light source! Flashlights, glow sticks…. The only limit is your own imagination!)

Rowdy Little Boys

Dirt on jeans and mud between toes
And scrapes now patched with blackened scabs
Are souveniers of time well spent.

Toothy grins and smudged cheeks
And hair sticking up in all directions
Are simply life for these rowdy little boys.

Rolling eyes and constant shushing
Don’t mean much and won’t douse
The mischeivious glint in their eyes.

They’re too busy having fun–
Too busy making the memories that will
Fill their hearts in years to come.

One day–sooner than they know–they’ll be men.
But now, they just have scabs and mud,
Mischief and untidy hair.

And thank God for that.

Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

Plugged In, Chapter Ten: Motorbikes

There was no use in shouting.  Armin knew that; there was no one who would dare open their doors to someone’s useless “help” right before the chemicals began to do their work.  Armin watched as the door closed with an ominous hiss, and as Satchel, the same deplorable grin plastered on his face, appeared in the window.  Armin shut his eyes tight, holding onto his arms in a weak attempt at protection.  Any moment, the burning would start… the pain… the disintegration….

     The coolness?

     Armin, breathing so heavily he sounded like a bull, pried his eyes open.  The night air was cool against his skin.  The air smelled sweet with… what was that smell?  It was far away, but clear and deep.  There was no danger… nothing like what he’d seen in videos or read about in chat rooms.

     Had Hem-V taught him nothing?

     Apparently, yes.

     Another whoosh, this time signaling that Satchel was walking outside.  Right before the door closed, he stuck a piece of cardboard in the doorjamb.  “Kink in the system.  Just give that a wiggle, and the door’s emergency mode will kick in and make it reopen.  Got it, Armin?”

     Armin couldn’t answer.  He was standing outside.  Outside!  And he was whole and healthy and–

     “What the hell?”

     Satchel’s eyes were sparkling.  “That was my reaction, too.”

     “How is–what is–” Armin waved his arms around uselessly.  There were no words to describe what had just happened.

     “I like when I see this in a recruit.  I hate the ones who cry or act scared.  A little rebellion when you realize you’ve been lied to is a good thing.  That’s what my dad always used to say.  ‘Don’t get scared, Satchel.  Get angry.’  Advice like that’ll save your life, if you ask me.”

     “Lied to?”

     “Who told you all this stuff about the chemicals?  About the Twickens?”

     “The…”  Armin couldn’t finish the sentence.  The Governance.  And by extension… his dad.  But no, his dad was a lot of things, but he wasn’t a liar.  Especially not to his only son. 

     “Does everyone in the Governance know it’s safe?”

     “I don’t think so.  Only the higher ups know everything.  Your average worker, like the Officers and such, are probably just as clueless as your five-minute ago self.”

     Armin breathed a sigh of relief–outside.  He couldn’t get over it.  He was breathing (and living) outside. 

     Satchel placed a hand on his shoulder, and Armin was surprised by the amount of weight that came with it.

     “I’m still… uh… kinda weak, Armin.  Mind if I rest just a sec’?  Then we can get goin’.”

     “Goin’?”

     Satchel was smiling widely; it was an expression that was both terrifying and exciting.  “This is only the beginning, Armin.  We Twickens have a whole world the Governance would just love to get their grubby little hands on.”

     Armin’s heart raced.  An hour ago, he’d thought he was going to be something’s dinner; a few minutes ago, that he was going to be flambéed.  And now… now he didn’t know what to expect. 

     “If you want to, that is.  I don’t force anything.  But understand, please, that I’m going to disappear if you don’t want to come.  Just thought I’d offer you the chance to, you know, really live.”

     “What’s that supposed to mean?”

     “If you’ll come along, I’ll show you.”

     Armin hesitated.  His dad would kill him… but why did his dad need to know any of this?  Armin straightened, looked right into Satchel’s eyes, and nodded.

     “Great.”  Satchel released a long puff of breath, then continued in a tour guide-like voice.  “Right this way.”

     What Armin expected next was a dodge-and-roll spy sequence, full of tiptoeing and specialized sign language.  What happened was Satchel limping slightly, leading the way, talking in a quiet, but animated, voice.  No blinds opened to watch the two of them doing the unthinkable; no Governance officials fell upon them like spiders on flies.  Everything was quiet.  The only hesitation was when they passed the same spot where Satchel had been found.

     It had been cleaned, and the other body was gone.  Satchel paused, an unreadable mask replacing his usual carefree features.

     “Can I ask what happened?”

     “There’s a time and place for questions, the best of which being when I know I’ll only have to say it once.”  Satchel’s jaw tightened.  “Come on.”

     They continued in silence for a while; Armin wondered who could have taken the other body.  But the answer came to him more quickly than he’d expected–some people in the Governance knew it was safe to walk outside.  They must have come to pick him up after the Drafting had ended for the day.

     The Drafting.

     “Unbelievable.”  Armin stopped, his shadow stretching in front of him.  Satchel turned, an eyebrow raised.

     “The Draft–there’s no reason for it.  If we could all go outside and get the things we needed–and if there’s no chemicals–then the Drafters are useless!”

     “Not useless.  All part of the elegant system of keeping people inside.”

     “I don’t understand.  Why would they–?”

     “You know, I’m not the best one to explain that.  Once we get to the Park, you’ll be debriefed, ‘kay?”

     “Debriefed?”  Armin sped up to walk alongside Satchel.  He’d also called Armin a “recruit.”  What was he joining exactly, an army?

     “That sounds bad, doesn’t it?” Satchel grinned painfully, clutching his side and leaning against one of the many concrete boxes that people called their homes.  “We like to think of ourselves as an ‘education program,’ does that make you feel better?”

     “Yeah, yeah,” Armin agreed uncertainly. 

     “Okay, let’s get going.  We’re nearly at the wall.”

     And after only a few more minutes of walking, they came to the final row of houses, snuck behind them, and met with the ten foot stretch of concrete that surrounded the compound.  Armin craned his neck to see the top.  He’d always known about it: there were maps that he’d studied during lessons, glimpses from the tram window.  But it had always just been a part of the landscape, a simple fact.  But, then again, the chemicals had once been that, too. 

     But now, the wall was taller than he remembered.  In his mind it had simply been a boundary: here’s where the compound ends, here’s where it begins.  No more imposing than drawing a line in the dirt.  But now, there was something prison-like in the way it obscured the stars and sent dark shadows over him and Satchel.

     “Well, we can stare, or we can climb.”

     “Huh?”

     Armin spun around.  Satchel was lifting up a loose piece of concrete, near where the ground and wall met.  He reached in, pulling out a rope and grappling hook. 

     “I’m gonna go first, just ‘cuz I’m gonna be slower than usual and I’ll need a lookout, ‘kay?”

     Armin didn’t respond; he’d only seen tools like that in the regimens.  He watched with awe as Satchel threw it over the wall (it took a couple of tries; he kept cursing, rubbing his abdomen).  But he eventually got it, and began the incredibly long (and judging by how often he groaned and swore, painful) climb up the wall.  When he got to the top, he clutched his side, and half-shouted to Armin.

     “I’m bleeding again.  Didn’t happen to bring a first aid kit, did you?”

     “No.”

     “Okay, whatever.  I’ll be fine.  It’s not bad.”

     “Are you–?”

     “Sure?  Do I look like a Medical Officer?  No, I’m not sure, but I’m hoping, so hurry up.”

     Hurrying up wasn’t exactly Armin’s strong suit.  He’d climbed walls before–digitally.  There was a difference between waving your hands in front of a sensor and actually commanding your own body weight to move at a ninety degree angle.  It took several tries for him to even get momentum going, but Satchel never once acted bored or frustrated.  In fact, he did his best to disguise the pain that Armin knew he must be feeling.

     “You’re actually doin’, good, Armin.  Way better than most.  Don’t worry about how long you’re taking.”

     “How-how long did I-I take?” Armin panted, his shirt soaked with sweat, when he finally met Satchel at the top.

     “About a half hour, but who’s counting?”  Satchel gave a half grin, then checked the grappling hook to make sure it was still secure.  He pushed the rope over the other ledge, then said, “Going down’s way easier.  Not afraid of heights, are you?”

     “I don’t know.”

     “Well, I guess we’ll find out, huh?”  He passed Armin the rope.  “Just hold onto this, and face the wall, then sort of… walk down it, ‘kay?”

     “Aren’t you going to go first?”

     “Are you kiddin’?  This is your first time, so trust me, you’ll feel better knowing someone’s up here steadying the rope a bit.”

     Armin didn’t argue, but did exactly what Satchel had said.  After all, he’d gone this far, why not see where this little adventure led him?  Going down was much easier–and he must not have been afraid of heights, because the entire sensation was a little exhilarating. 

     “Great job, Armin! Hold on, I’m coming!”

     Satchel did, with a kind of grace that could only come with having propelled up and down that wall many times.  He landed with a clumsy plop, though, still grabbing at his side.  Armin couldn’t see any blood, though he was sure Satchel was doing his best to keep it hidden.

     “Welcome, Armin Fisher,” Satchel said, regaining his tour guide demeanor, “to the Wonderful World of Twickens.”

     Armin squinted in confusion, but with a nudge from Satchel, he turned around… and gasped.

     There were trees, and bushes, and flowers… all just outside the compound.  He was standing on grass, not concrete.  That smell that had fascinated him… it was coming from here.  From a wood that breathed in and out with the wind, each individual blade, petal, and leaf releasing a bit of itself with every gentle breeze. 

     And it went on for miles.  So far that Armin couldn’t see the end of it.  Master your life, control your world–what he saw stretched in front of him was more than any person could ever hope to overpower.  Suddenly, the interweb seemed very small indeed.

     “I thought the chemical warfare destroyed all of this.”

     “Once, but that was long ago.  There’s someone who can explain all of this better, though.  Wanna come meet him?”

     Armin turned; Satchel’s voice was farther away than it had been a few minutes ago.  He was beginning to walk into the wood, motioning for Armin to follow. 

     He didn’t need to be asked twice. 

     Branches hit his face; leaves got tangled in his hair; birds and bugs chirped and buzzed around him–talk about a sensory overload.  His mom had always worried that Hem-V would be too much for him but this… this….

     This was something his mother would’ve loved.

     “I wish my Mom could see this.”

     “Where is she?  I didn’t see her–”

     “She’s dead.”

     “Oh.  Oh, I’m sorry.”

     “It was two years ago.”

     “Doesn’t make it any easier.”  Satchel opened his mouth, seemed to think better of it, then said, “I ran away from home after my Dad died.  I have no idea what Mom’s up to.  Haven’t seen her in forever.”

     “Maybe I’ll do the same.  Not like Dad cares.”

     “He said he was worried about you.”

     “Worried the same way a chess player is when a pawn gets taken.”

     “Oh.”  Satchel didn’t seem to know what to say, so he walked ahead, with a bravado that didn’t seem entirely genuine.  “Well, parents or no parents, this is the life, let me tell you.  Just wait ‘til you get to the Park.”

     “What’s the Park?”

     “You’ll find out in about an hour, but trust me, it’s somethin’ alright.”

     They came to the edge of the wood.  There was an ancient road–all asphalt and ghosts of yellow lines.  Satchel disappeared behind a clump of bushes.  When he returned, he was holding onto a machine that Armin had only ever seen on archeology websites.

     “That’s a–”

     “First of all, it’s not a ‘that,’ it’s a she.  And her name is Priscilla.”

     “That’s a motorbike.”

     “Well spotted,” Satchel said.  “You’re better read than a lot of the recruits.  Normally, I have to explain.  Now, you gonna get on, or are you gonna hurt Prissy’s feelings?”

     “Sure, I’ll get on… Prissy.”

     “Whoa, whoa.”  Satchel stepped in front of him, holding up a hand and wearing a would-be stern expression.  “I’m the only one who gets to call her Prissy.  Priscilla to you, mate.”

     “Right,” Armin said, barely stifling a laugh.  “What was I thinking.”  He leaned down to the motorbike, his reflection distorted in the curved metal.  “May I take a seat, Miss Priscilla?”

     “I’m bringin’ home a gentleman!  What a find!”  Satchel laughed, tossing Armin a helmet, and taking a seat himself.  Within seconds, they were situated, Armin holding awkwardly to Satchel’s waist.

     “Don’t get any ideas, cowboy,” Satchel joked, and he revved the motor.

     It made a sound like a lion waking from a nightmare.  Armin understood for the first time what it meant to hear something “rev to life.”  The tram didn’t make a sound like this, nor did his computer.  This wasn’t a sound made to move through the system efficiently; no, this was a sound that said “I am here.”

     “Ready to go?”

     “I guess!”

     “Then hold on!”

     And the motorbike roared onto the road.  Armin had never ridden something so fast and so smooth; it easily avoided the cracks and crevices that time had made.  The wind made Armin’s eyes water and the movement made the back of his spine prickle.  Was this normal?  Should his body be reacting like this? 

     He hoped the answer was yes, because he loved the sensation. 

     Satchel kept glancing behind him, smiling at Armin’s expression (which was somewhere between awe and uncertainty).  With both of Satchel’s hands preoccupied, Armin could now see the small, steady flow of blood staining his shirt.  He hoped they’d get to–the Park?–soon, and that Satchel could get better help there.

     “Can you see it?” Satchel shouted after a while.  “Up ahead?  It’s kinda dark, but if you squint, you can totally make it out.”

     “What?” Armin had no way of hearing him over the roaring gusts surrounding them.

     “Look up ahead!”

     Armin tried; it was difficult to keep his eyes open.  After a few seconds, he began to see something on the horizon.  It was a dark imprint in the night sky, like an embossing.  He’d never seen something that looked like it before; it looked a little like a giant abstract art piece, all odd angles and curves. 

     “That’s where I live!” Satchel shouted, his voice shaking with the motorbike.

     “How?”  Armin didn’t think it looked like a building, at least no building that he’d ever seen.

     Satchel laughed outright; his only response: “Just wait til we get closer.”

     As the motorbike advanced on the Park, it began to take shape.  It wasn’t just one giant metal monster, but a lot of them.  There was one that resembled a giant circle, another that looked like a huge snake, and yet another that seemed to be a slide.  There were little buildings scattered throughout the area (Armin could just barely make these out), and dull light (like a fire) shone from the center.

     The motorbike came to a stop right outside a main gate that read: “Cluster County Amusement Park.”  An aisle, lined with buildings advertising things Armin couldn’t understand, welcomed them.  Armin read each sign as they entered: TICKETS, COTTON CANDY, HALL OF MIRRORS, GUESS YOUR WEIGHT, FRIED VEGETABLES, SHOOTING GALLERY. 

     “What is this place?”

     “This was the kind of place people used to go to before the Great Fissure,” Satchel explained, and, with a pang of worry, Armin noticed he was swaying a little when he walked. 

     “You sure you’re okay?”

     “Yeah, yeah, Armin.  That was just more than I should’ve been doin’ is all.  A bit strenuous for someone who just got stabbed, ya know?  Just need to lie down.  I’m fine, really.”

     “You’d better be, Satchel Benedick Monroe!”

     A voice–a girl’s voice–shouted from the shadows of one of a building that had PALM READINGS written in peeled, glittering letters.

     “Ouch–middle and last name.  Why don’t’cha just throw acid in my face?”

     The girl’s voice laughed.  “I would if I thought it’d make that ugly mug of yours look better.” 

     Satchel smiled a little at Armin, but the second he turned to the voice, his face was nothing but haughty.  “Reduced to physical insults, Delaney?  Surely your well of insults hasn’t run dry yet.”

     “You wish,” Delaney replied, exiting the shadows and standing directly in front of the two of them. 

     Armin’s mouth went dry: he was staring at a beautiful girl, one with full, curly brown hair, a slender figure….

     And huge blue eyes.

To be continued.

Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

When In Doubt… Make a List

Alright, it’s time to get serious again. I’ve been working, but not really accomplishing. Things have gotten done, but not done enough to actually cross them off my to-do list.

So here it is. What I need to do in order to catch up:

(1) Send four query letters. (May, June, July, and August)

(2) Finish NaNoWriMo project.

It’s a short list… but each item is going to take a lot of time, effort, and creativity.

I’ve got this.