street signs reading, "hard times"
Hard times ahead signboard under dramatic sky. 3D illustration.

11 Months Ago

            David sluggishly got out of bed and dressed in his work clothes.  Every muscle ached, and each new movement seemed cost so much more energy.  He felt as if he’d been tethered to a 5-ton gorilla that objected to his every move.  He painstakingly made his way to the tiny toilet room, before looking back.  Where is Elise?, he thought as he glanced over his shoulder at the empty mat on the floor.  His sister was supposed to be on bedrest; David though she must be making breakfast.  He passed through the door-less threshold into the toilet room and regarded himself in the mirror.  A long gash above his left eye had been stitched closed and his right checked sported a colorful bruise.  He was shirtless, and both of his muscular arms were heavily bandaged.  Medical patches had been set to his right pectoral, the left side of his lower rib cage, and a large section just left of his abdominals.

            Yesterday had been hell.  He vaguely remembered the beating he’d taken at the hands of some of New Dorf’s more brutish youths, but his body remembered clearly.  They came back in flashes, those memories… of a quarterstaff striking him so hard he lost his breath… of fists with knuckles that felt like stone pelting his face… being thrown to the ground and gifted with a flurry of angry kicks.

            His knees ached and suddenly felt wobbly.  He faltered before leaning on the wall for support, eventually slipping down to the floor.  He slammed his eyes shut and cradled his hands as a wave of pressure engulfed his head.  As he began to wonder how he had gotten back to his room, David was suddenly distracted by an overwhelming need to vomit.  The headache was almost paralyzing, but he managed to reach out for the coverless toilet bowl and pull himself toward it.  Jerking himself forward, he let the gross surge come forth.  His eyes shut again as his bowels wrenched, and when it was done, he felt only the slightest modicum of relief.

            “This is always the worst part…,” David recognized the voice instantly, but didn’t turn his head, “It’s not the bite, but the recovery… The aching all over your body… all throughout…  And you… Whew!  …after all that training, to be met by those brutes.”  David finally turned his head to find Dennis standing in the bathroom doorway and regarding him.  The 50-something man was dressed in his typical loose-fitting black vest and white t-shirt.  His familiar black trousers were a little too short at the ankle, but he always wore his simple black suspenders.  “You’re a brave young man to do what you did.” Dennis continued, “Your father would have been proud.”

            David struggled to get to his feet as Dennis grabbed him by the shoulders and helped him up.  New Dorf’s head nurse produced a handkerchief and began wiping the boy’s face as he staggered back to the bed.  The simple mat lay against a wall opposite the bathroom and bedroom doors.  Both doors had been left open by Dennis and, from the corner of his eye, David saw his little sister standing in the bedroom’s entrance.  Dennis motioned to her as if to say, “Wait a minute” but before he could object, he was already drifting back into unconsciousness. 

. . . . .

            For the last year, David and Elise had been orphans.  The two had gone to live with their “uncle” in Stever’s building, Stone B.  Their father had been a military man before he settled in New Dorf.  He’d worked as the village letterer, eventually marrying their mother before she too adopted the trade.  With most of New Dorf being functionally illiterate, a person who could pen letters (professional or otherwise) could make some decent earnings for their services.  It was a spotty job, however, in that one would have to navigate lulls and surges in business.  Most of the year, they would help out with harvesting and building for food coin.

            Food coin was a creation of the New Democracy and was one of the benefits of having a government.  The value of food coins was adjustable, but mostly fixed throughout the myriad municipalities.  Its value translated into about a half a day’s worth of food rations for a single adult, but the coin was regularly bartered for other foods and services.  Technically, New Dorf was a fringe society outside of the New Democracy, but food coin seemed to work just fine here.  The coin was chipped (it could be easily tracked with the right technology) and so each municipality within the New Democracy was given codes and tools to track it.  In New Dorf, of course, no such assistance was granted; such exercises rarely took place.  For the fringe residents, bartering of goods and services was still the primary means of trade.

            Elise and David’s parents did well for themselves, and their children were born six years apart.  Living on the fringes came with certain consequences, however, and the sibling’s mother died from complications from Elise’s birth.  A year ago, their father fell sick and followed his wife into the next dimension.  Ol’ Ephraim was a portly old war buddy of their father’s and, sadly, a drunk.  The late patriarch had regarded Ephraim with sadness, but also as a brother for their time spent together as soldiers.  He regularly defended the drunk and took compassion on him, but the two rarely spent time together in New Dorf (Ephraim hardly spent time with anyone who wasn’t holding a bottle).  Around the house, the children’s father referred to him as “Uncle Ephraim”, and when they were orphaned, the town decided that the children should go and live with him. 

            Ephraim had no known kids of his own and kept his roomy 2-bedroom apartment messy.  Elise and David shared a tiny room with stacks of old books and piles of junk.  Ol’ Ephraim had inherited their parents’ goods and coins but had never upgraded to a large apartment or bothered to keeping food in the house.  He did, quite often, make time to complain about the financial burden the kids had been on him.  When the village council came to check on the children, they’d pressed upon Ol’ Ephraim the importance of making sure the kids were at very least fed.  After that, their “uncle” had given a weekly supply of coin to David: enough for two meals a day.  

            A few months ago, David had taken a job as a Sentry for Stone B, which was a lot like what would have been apartment security in the societies that once were.  David had been saving the coin for an apartment for he and his sister to live.  Stever had been good to him, and during David’s shifts the building leader had been a mentor to him so he thought he’d stay in Stone B.  Both siblings attended studies during the day, but David didn’t like the idea of leaving Elise alone in an apartment with a grumpy old drunk they barely even knew during his shifts.  He’d arranged for his sister to study under the mud-brick makers during most of his shifts. 

            Sentry for Stone B proved to be mostly uneventful evenings until the horrific Lukas incident.  David was shaken after that and contemplated moving into another line of work.  Two weeks after Lukas’ parting, Elise became ill.  New Dorf’s Head Physician, Dr. Leah, had said that Elise’s lungs were fragile, and that she’d inhaled too much hazardous dust from her time spent with the mud-brickers.  There was medicine for her, but the young girl was ordered on bed-rest for two weeks.  Something snapped in David, and when he learned of the chance to work with the trappers (a higher paying job) he jumped at the opportunity.  Because he was fifteen, he was old enough to learn the trade and Stever set him up with a starting position with the net workers.  Right away, a couple of the teens there didn’t like him, and would pick fights with him after shifts.

            His first week had been grueling.  He’d had to leave his sister at home all week, hoping that Ol’ Ephraim remembered to give Elise her medicine.  Pulling the nets and sorting through the pulls required muscles he didn’t even know he had.  Yesterday had been his fifth day, when they told him to take a paid day off.  It turns out he would need it, as they would subject him to the same venom that had taken Lukas.  The boss brought in one of the notorious snakes and while two me held him still, they “got him bit”.  After a few minutes, Dennis administered the anti-venom.  They gave him some sweets and a jug of water & sent him home.

            Waking up now, David was aware that it was nearing sundown.  The single window in the room was on the far wall, perpendicular to the toilet and bedroom door.  It was mostly obscured by shelves and stacks of books, but David could make out the nearing of that orange and purple fog coming down from the sky.  A few rays of true sin penetrated the window and one lit on Dennis’ face as he leaned in to peer over David.

            “David… David.”, he motioned someone forward, “He’s coming to.”

Dr. Leah leaned in over David and waved, “David… how are you feeling today?”  She leaned back as David began to rise, Seating herself in a chair that had been pulled from the dining room.  David sat up, pulling his legs in front of him and Dennis sat on the bed.  Dr. Leah began examining him by shining lights in his eyes and listening to his chest while he coughed, and other annoying things.  Still, she had a way about her that made David feel comfortable.  The doctor always wore her brown and auburn hair down but kept a cloth-thing around her wrist to pull it into a ponytail while working.  Like now, David thought.  Her brown complexion was just on the lighter side of mocha and she had small facial features on her round face.

David noticed her eyes as she waved her long fingers in front of his face and asked him to follow them.  She wore a light, gray cloak that was pristine but contrasted with her magenta blouse and a long dark teal skirt.  Dennis looked like hadn’t changed clothes since the last time David had seen him.  David still hadn’t spoken.  “I want you to try to eat something.”, Dr. Leah reached over to a stack of books near her and grabbed a plate before handing it to David. 

            He took the plate, which held some greens, two sweet rolls and a selection of fruit.  David looked at the Head Physician, “How’s my sister doing?”

            Dr. Leah and Dennis glanced at each other, “…She’s walking around… I think the movement is good for her.”  Dr. Leah took a roll from the plate and handed it to David.  The boy took a bite and began to chew.  His appetite was ravenous.  David cleared the plate before he’d realized it had happened.  He plopped the last two berries into his mouth and was licking his fingers when he noticed the physicians watching him with humor.  Suddenly, a wave of guilt and embarrassment washed over him as he looked down at the empty plate.

            “…Elise…”, David’s face was downtrodden.

            “I didn’t forget your sister,” Dr. Leah chuckled, “She ate more than you did.”

            “Will she be able to go back to studies after week’s end?”

            “We’ll see…  David, have you notice any changes in her health?”

            “No.  Each day I check and make sure she’s receiving her medicine.  I check and change her plates.  I bring her juice and snacks.  …She doesn’t seem to be getting any better…”

            Dennis spoke up, “How do you know she’s been receiving these things?  Do you see her take the medicine?”

            David thought for a moment, “We usually eat together, and I set out her medicine each day for Ol’ Ephraim to give her.  Each day when I come home, it’s gone.  She says she’s been taking it.”

            Dennis stood and tugged at is loose high-waters.  He looked once at Dr. Leah and then at David, “We’ll continue to monitor her.  You’d better remember to eat… And rest!” He said this last bit while pointing a finger at David as if to push him into a prostrate position with telekinesis.

            David lay back in the bed, but asked, “Can I see her?  You said she was walking around?”

            “Of course,” Dr. Leah said.  The two of them left the room before Elise came in and sat with her brother.

…..

Next Time!  

We revisit David in New Dorf to learn what happens after Lukas’ misfortune. 
With every new clue, more questions arise.  What is the stone that Leah stole and what does she plan to do with it?  Why are Zinf and the Patrician forces so interested in it?  Each week, we draw a little nearer to uncovering the mysterious secrets that will drive our heroes together. 

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