ALLYBOT pt18: Catharsis

forest in fog
 a slim girl in a martial arts fight with a young man

ALLYBOT

Catharsis

Glee was written across Leah’s face as she watched Chris fly through the air sideways.  The shortest of the boys charged her from behind, while David was failing to parry her attacks. She dipped low and spun her left leg out in 360 degrees, upending the short boy.  In maybe the smoothest motion ever, she scooped him mid-air into a tree with her right foot.  The boy landed spread across two branches with a loud “Ouof!”. 

Chris had recovered and was aiming for Leah’s grounded foot, but she hopped up and swung her right foot back with enough force to send him sprawling again.  “What was your plan?” She grabbed David by his elbow and slung him hard over her shoulder.  The boy went rolling and crashed into Chris, “How will you find your thief if you get on my bad side?”

“Now Mitch!” David shouted as he pushed himself onto his knees.

Turning toward the one stuck in the tree, Leah saw him aiming something that looked like a tube at her.  Instinctually, she jumped away, but too late, because a small device suddenly hit her on the shoulder.  A pain like a thousand needles rushed through her body in waves.   As the electricity coursed through her, Leah’s body stiffened and she fell to the ground paralyzed. 

Her sensory augments seemed to flicker on and off as Leah tried to make sense of what was happening. At once she could hear nothing, then all the sounds of the surrounding night seemed to boom in her ears instantaneously, then silence again. Then sound! Then silence. Then a quieter sound. Then a muted noise…

Her eyes slowly focused on two muscular objects approaching her. They were saying something but Leah couldn’t make any sense of it. Her senses were quickly returning to normal when she realized she was thrashing limply on the ground. Dormant Mannah jumped off the ground and crashed against her body in response to her movements. The two boys drew closer warily as Leah began to make out what they were saying…

“…we expected to find people with augments.  I mean, we described our thief to you.”  David said as he reached her side, “Oh, wow.  Green eyes.”  The shock had thrown Leah’s systems into default, and she could no longer keep up the ruse of having brown eyes.  Looking back at his boys, David mused,  “Red-haired, green eyes, augments, and a quattour?  I think this might be our girl.”  Chris was smiling with relieved wonder.  Turning to Leah David said, “Just tell us who you sold it to or where it is.  We just need the stone.”

“I… tried to help… you!” Despite her breathless panting, Leah made her voice rich with indignance, “So I have red hair, what makes you–”

“You claim a spot on a high roof in the poorest district, you have all the physical qualities, and you certainly have the augments…” Chris interrupted.

“You kicked me into a tree!” The boy apparently known as “Mitch” was letting himself down. 

David smirked briefly at Mitch, then opened his arms toward Leah in an appealing gesture. “Come on, Pal. Why hide your eye color if you didn’t know who we were? After everything that’s happened today you can’t really believe we’d think you were just a random thief.”

“You kicked me into a FREAKING. TREE!!” At Mitch’s outburst, Chris and David glanced at him and began to chuckle. 

Feeling was returning to her limbs, and Leah began to wriggle.  Mitch pressed a button, and her body was frozen again with the shock of electricity.  “We were prepared for you,” David said, “Now, where is that stone?!”

Mitch was suddenly thrown forward and fell face-first into the dirt.  David suddenly went sprawling back towards Chris, who tried to catch him when they both tumbled over.  Leah saw the falling device Mitch had been holding hit the ground.  If only I could…, she thought.  A robotic paw came down hard on the device, and it broke into pieces.  Gizmo!  Her wide, purple eyes were focused on the three thugs, who were now bunched together on the ground.  Gizmo put herself between Leah and the boys while Leah tried desperately to flex her muscles. 

Though Leah was the last of all of them to recover, none of the others moved as Gizmo kept watch on them.  The quattour stood with its back arched; purple eyes glaring at the three teens. Fortunately for Leah, the boys seemed much more terrified by Gizmo’s strange behavior than they were of Leah. She looks like the big, wild cats from the books, Leah thought, …like some kind of ferocious predator. Was this the “Gizmo” she knew?

Standing to her feet, “I won’t be watching my back because of you jerks!  Who do you work for?”

As usual, David spoke for the group, “We want our stone, and we’ll be on our w–”

“What would you even know about some stone if someone hadn’t hired you to get it?!” Leah snapped, “What house are you working for?”

The boys all glanced at each other for a moment before David continued, “We don’t live in this city.  We don’t serve any houses.” His voice growing in a crescendo of exasperation, “That stone could mean life or death for us.  We need it!”

“Need it?  Is someone blackmailing you?” Instead of an audible response, all Leah got were concerned looks.  “Come with me!” and Leah decided to take them to Beathen.  Gizmo moved to their opposite side and a strange growling sound emitted from her exoskeleton. The three seemed to take Gizmo’s meaning, and started into a trot behind Leah.

. . . . .

At one point, Mitch tried to dash away, but Leah quickly caught him as Gizmo pinned the other two to the ground.  She was tempted to give Mitch a hard slap to the face, but his eyes told her that he would be compliant.  Throughout the journey back to Beathen’s, Chris’ face showed no emotion while David seemed as calm as if this was his plan all along.  His quiet demeanor almost seemed to be masking some sort of excitement.

Entering the shop, Leah was happy to find a light still on upstairs.  She led the group to the lift and, when they were upstairs, saluted Beathen with a friendly gesture.  As soon as the slim mechanic noticed the strangers, his face snapped towards Leah, “What do they know?”

“Nothing.”

Beathen visibly relaxed a little before, “It’s nearin’ on first hour of the morning, Lass.  I’d like to get some sleep at some point.”

“I hope you have something that can hold these guys for a few hours.  I need to do some investigating and I can’t have them roaming around.”

“Yep, I have something just for that.” Beathen pressed a button on his hanging remote, and a cage began to lower in the far corner of the shop.  A single door allowed access to the caged area, and Beathen unlocked it electronically.  “We used this to cage our goods before we installed the bay doors.” he said, “I haven’t used these things in some time.  Still, I kept the joints oiled just in case.”  Standing up, he motioned at the three bandits, “In ya go!”

At that, Gizmo nudged David hard in the direction of the gate.  Beathen gave a sideways glance to Leah.  The three boys made their way into the caged area, and Beathen hit the button for the door to lock.  “That will hold them, Leah, but what’s this all about?  Do they have augments?”

“Not physical ones, at least.  I was mopping the forest with them earlier.  They’re in town looking for some sort of glowing brown stone.”

Beathen was walking to his desk, but stopped hard when he heard mention of the stone, “Brown you say? …With a glowing light?”

Hesitantly, “Yeees.  Do you know about it, Beathen?”

“Have you seen it?”

“I… I might have found it…”

“Leah! you hafta bring it here.”

“Why? what’s so special about this st–”

“If it’s what I think it is, I need to see it now.  Can you get it tonight?

“Um… Sure…”

“Get it.  Bring it here now.  I’ll wait up for you.”  The intensity in the mechanic’s voice had grown tremendously.  He practically pushed her out the window to get it, “Take Gizmo with you.  Hurry!  I’ll keep an eye on them.”  He said that last part while motioning to the three caged strangers.

. . . . .

With Gizmo beneath her, Leah was able to make it back to her apartment within 15 minutes.  Tuning her augments, she listened for anyone nearby before entering through her window.  Retrieving the sack holding the stone as quickly as she could, she went back out and up her favorite route atop the ruined buildings.  Preparing to slide down the Zellwood hill to the industrial district, she goaded Gizmo into a monstrous leap to the highest building. 

Their momentum was stopped short when they saw what blocked their way.  A large, bat-like quattour with a lizard-like tail and tyrannosaurus-like arms.  It was perched atop the far edge of the building with its wings fully extended; in front of it was Lamia.  Leaning against the chest of the quattour and flipping a coin in his hand.

“Hello little sister,” he grinned wickedly, “I’ve been waiting for you.”

. . . . .

chapter 17 < > chapter 19

Special Author’s Note

It’s probably not hard to guess that this was a fun chapter to write. This is also the first time we get to see Leah with a smile on her face. As always, my favorite pieces are writing in Gizmo’s uniqueness. Also, for the careful reader, my hope is that they noticed that David never unsheathed Jaspeada.

We may finally be about to get some real information from a trusted source. Beathen’s excitement is certainly telling, if not entirely ambiguous. What in Heaven’s name is the deal with this shiny brown rock?

ALLYBOT pt17: A Trek With the Boys

forest in fog

ALLYBOT

A Trek With the Boys

Gizmo sent a picture of where she was perched to Leah’s ocular augments, but that wasn’t necessary as Leah was discovering that Gizmo was now like a beacon in her mind: she could always find her.  Beathen is awesome!, Leah thought, and silently leapt between high branches before descending a massive tree to the thick branch on which Gizmo lay.  Effortlessly moving along the branch, she whispered, “Have they done anything weird?”

Gizmo turned its head, almost no light came from her eyes “They’ve just been waiting there.”  No words came out of the thing’s mouth but Leah could “hear” them just the same.  She turned towards where the three muscular teens were waiting.  They were playing a casting game with sticks and stones, but without the usual cheer and banter one would expect from young men engaged in friendly gambling.  Instead, the boys seemed to be loosely focused on their game. 

Leah lept to a distant branch and deftly dropped to the ground.  Allowing her steps to be heard, she rounded a large tree and made her way toward the boys.  They looked up as she came into view, each of them standing and dusting the dirt from their trousers.  Each of them wore a small backpack and David had a leather-sheathed dagger strapped to his waist.

Their leader stood on the far right of the three.  He approached Leah first and held out a friendly hand.  Drawing nearer, Leah glanced down at the hand nonchalantly and moved past him.  “What have you found out?” David said, smirking, “Do you know where our thief is?”  

“Ha!” Leah chuckled, You didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?”

“I was hoping for something from you,” David raised a hand to his head in frustration, “two property coins is nothing to scoff at.”¶

“I want to see the coins first.”¶

David raised a hand, signaling one of the boys to come near.  The young man produced a rather shiny property coin from a pouch at his waist.  “See this!” David said, “You can see the other when I’m sure of your information.”

“Leah chuckled again, “Then how about this?  There’s a girl who lives in the upper side of the market district.  The family she lives with is wealthy, but she’s adopted.  She has green eyes.”

“What makes you think a girl who lives in a wealthy house is a thief?”

“She’s adopted!  Who knows why she really lives there.  Those kinds of people are always up to something sneaky.” 

“I’m not convinced.  There’s no reason why I’d just go up to her and demand what was taken from us-”

“Of course not.” Leah retorted, pouring on the feigned exacerbation, “Your description didn’t give me much to work with.  I want to show you the most likely candidates, and she was at the top of my list.”

“The top huh? How many ‘candidates’ have you discovered?”

Leah put up a chastising finger, “One at a time, Friend.  If this one isn’t your one, then we’ll move on to the next one.”

David thought about this for a second, then said, “Fine, where can we find her?

“She likes to visit a pub in the gardens. Likes to slum it up with the rest of us poor folks. I saw her there earlier tonight,” she lied. “She gets really drunk, so that might give you the chance to ask her some questions.”

“Well, then we better not waste this chance.”

David began making his way to the eastern edge of the forest; the other two boys followed him.  Leah started at a swift pace to catch up with David.  “If you talk to her, and she is the one you’ve been looking for, what are you going to do?”

The tall teen in red didn’t break pace, “Ask her kindly to return our things, of course.”

Leah thought his grim smirk was all too telling, “And if she doesn’t?”

“Then we’ll have to convince her.” Glancing at Leah, “What’s it to you, anyway?  You’ll get paid either way.”

“Not if you get yourself into enough trouble or get taken away by the Badges.  …Or worse, the Force.”

“The force?”

“The Patrician Force.  If they lock you away, the last thing you’ll be worried about is some stuff some thief took.”

“The Patrician Force…?” This time, one of the other boys spoke up.  Leah recognized him as Chris from the conversation on the rooftop.

“They’re an elite group of constables run by the wealthiest families of the New Republic.” Leah said, “They stretch all across the cities and townships in the NR.”

“I know who they are,” returned Chris, “why would they care about anything we’re doing?  I doubt the local constables would care…”

Leah took a quick moment to review the things she’d said.  Did she give away anything that might suggest she knew more than she’d said?  They were making their way slightly north, along a path that led into the Gardens District.  Thick trees made the moonlight spotty on their path.  She could sense Gizmo nearby.  If she focused, Leah could get visions – like moving snapshots – of Gizmo’s perspective as she followed them silently through the trees.  “I don’t know what you guys are into,” Leah interrupted, “I just want to know I’ll get paid.”  She glanced at David to notice that he was watching her.  “Is something wrong?” she poured on the sass.

“We’re following you, right?” He was wearing that insufferable smirk as he spoke. Leah half thought that he wielded the expression like a weapon.

 The walk to the Garden District’s series of pubs was short, and Leah identified the one they were heading for.  It was one of four small buildings set apart from any others despite being surrounded by L-shaped plazas.  It was obvious that it was a pub, because of its large gray and red sign with “Nabila’s Pub” in green lettering.  Cheap and common quattours sat around its entrance, each in a sleeping state with its eyes dulled. 

People were coming and going from the feudal-styled, wooden building and a large burly man sat at its entrance like a sentinel.  Leah hoped that she’d find the woman she was thinking of inside.  Cameron of the Bricks was here so often, Leah had bet on the possibility of finding here with confidence.  Still, if Cameron happened to not be here tonight, she had a few other options for their wild goose chase.

Although she didn’t frequent this particular bar, her line of work kept her aware of who was generally where.  She recognized the pub’s bouncer, though she didn’t know his name, and her party entered the pub with little more than a curious glance from him.  Inside, the place was less crowded than usual, and Cameron was easily identified sitting at the bar. 

“There she is,” Leah said, “at the bar.”  She pointed at the pale-faced auburn-haired woman dressed head-to-toe in black, skin-tight cottons.  David moved past Leah to approach the woman, but Leah grabbed his arm, “She only respects people who are direct.”

“That’s something I can handle.” David waved for Chris and the other boy to take seats at a table near the bar and went to sit by Cameron.  Her hair was long and pulled back in a single braided ponytail.  Four empty glasses sat in front of her and she sat with her head face-down on the bar between her folded arms.  David spoke softly, “ I need your help.”  She didn’t respond.  After a moment, David tapped her on the shoulder.  Cameron started, and her head shot up and groggily turned to look at David.  Her deep, green eyes were the first thing David noticed on her face.  She was in her late twenties, but her facial lines expressed a face that had seen many hardships. 

“Who are you?” Cameron blurbed. “I’m not going home with you…”  She turned as if getting ready to flop her head back down. 

“I need you to help me find a stone.  The pay is good.”  David gave her two hard taps on her shoulder again.  “It’s really important to me.”

Cameron froze, staring at the wall on the other side of the bar.  Finally, turned back to David, her head seeming to clear, “How valuable?”

“Extremely.  It’s a brown stone that glows with a strong light.”

“What?!”  Cameron looked genuinely confused? “Like a gem?”

“Well, yes. …it looks more like a ragged stone.  But you wouldn’t miss the glowing light.  Haven’t heard of this, huh?”  David was eyeing her carefully, she didn’t seem like someone from a high family.  She was dressed like someone who wanted to move freely and go incognito from place to place, but didn’t get David the impression that she was the one he was looking for?

“I don’t understand… Is it a stone, or is it a gem?  And why wouldn’t I just sell it if I found it?  What is it, some kind of energy source?”  Cameron was interested.  To David, all her questions seemed to be genuine.  This wasn’t who he was looking for, and he was afraid he might be giving away too much with his questions.  He raised a hand to get the bartender’s attention.

“Two for us,” David motioned to indicate himself and Cameron.  Turning to Cameron, “If you hear anything about it, you can meet me at the edge of the Zellwood forest at 11 at night for the next three days.”  He threw a few foodcoins on the table, downed his drink, and walked out of the bar without another word, and his gang mates followed immediately after him.

Leah was seated at a table in the far corner of the room.  Besides coming in with the three strangers, she didn’t want to associate herself with them any more than she had to.  Due to her augments, she could clearly hear everything they’d talked about.  It was clear that David had determined that this wasn’t his thief, but she was surprised to hear him mention – even describe – the stone.  That could draw unwanted attention, especially from the Patrician force headed by her father.  She waited for a few moments after the others exited, then left the pub.

The thugs were waiting outside near a small patch of trees to the left of Nabila’s Pub.  When Leah approached, David greeted her with a grimace, “She’s not the one, how many more do we have to go through?”

“It’s like you said,” Leah replied levelly, “there can’t be too many green-eyed thieves even in a city as big as this.  There’s only one more I know of with green eyes; the last has gray eyes, but we may as well check if Tamilan doesn’t work out.”

“Tamilan?”

“She’s a really poor thief, that’s why she wasn’t my first choice.  Let’s get this over with.”  She started back for the main road, but David caught up to her and grabbed her by the arm.

“Can she scale a building and creep through a room of people without being caught!?” David’s voice was angry and impatient, but not loud, “Does she have some way of getting miles outside of the city within a few hours?!”

Leah shook herself loose, “I. Don’t. Know!  You’re the one so sure of all the details…”  David glared at her hard before stomping back towards his companions.  “Are we going or what?” Leah was getting impatient fast.  The three teens ignored her as they whispered to themselves.  Then, they stopped and trudged toward her with dejected looks on their faces. 

“I’m sorry about all this,” David’s expression was truly sorrowful, “we need to find that stone. You can’t imagine how important it is.”  Before he was finished, Chris and his companion darted to opposite sides of Leah while David charged her swiftly with arms spread in a combat stance.  Fools!, Leah thought, and instantly rolled to her left and closer to Chris.  Surprised, he threw a mild punch in her direction, but she ducked it and jabbed his side hard with her elbow.  Chris stumbled backward in pain but recovered quickly.  His companion tried a more carefully directed punch and received the same treatment.  David tried to dive for Leah, but he was much too slow to catch her.  She spun to the side and leapt backward as he crashed face-first into the dirt. 

Chris tried to sweep Leah’s legs but she stepped over his attack and kneed him into a clumsy roll. From a prostrate position, David tried to kick her legs from under her as the other came at her front. Leah spun sideways and pushed the boy tripping over David’s body. She backed up a few paces and assumed a fighting form as they collected themselves.

All three boys were eyeing her warily while Leah danced deftly in a boxing stance.  Normally, this would have been when she would make an escape, but the thrill of tossing these arrogant strangers around was exhilarating.  Leah was having fun.

chapter 16 < > chapter 18

Special Author’s Note

These guys don’t know what they’re getting into. They are grossly outmatched, not even counting Gizmo. My hope was to begin to physically illustrate their desperation and resolve. How will either party be able to turn these events to their advantage, and what part will Leah’s half-brother end up playing in all of this.

Also, where is Jake?

ALLYBOT pt14: Voice

forest in fog

ALLYBOT

Voice

The boys descended the condemned residential towers and made their way into the tiny forest sloping towards Koster’s industrial district. Leah waited a while before following the boys, but she sent Gizmo ahead to tail them from a distance. Once she was sure the thugs couldn’t detect her, she took a route she favored through the treetops and quickly passed them. Within a few minutes, she’d descended on the industrial district and made her way to Beathen’s shop.

The mechanic was expecting her and, even though the shop was closed, he’d left a high window open for Leah’s entrance. The red-headed teen leaped easily through the portal into the shop and made her way to Beathen’s workstation. He sat on a high stool, leaning over a podium-like desk and soldering something. The shop had just closed and the entire workshop was dark except under the soft lights where Beathen worked.¶

“I’m just about finished with your part,” Beathen said as Leah approached, “…it should be ready for you to use tonight.” Leah moved closer and sat at a stool near the podium. She could now clearly make out the advanced transponder Beathen had made for her to communicate with Gizmo over long distances. That didn’t help her to comprehend it at all; to her, it looked like a tiny lightning rod. She wondered, momentarily, how many kinds of upgrades Beathen had made for her father’s many servants and spies.

Of course, the fact that Leah’s estranged siblings were children of the Elite McNab was kept secret, and they were from all different walks of life.  The housekeepers and other staff in the McNab estate referred to them each by their various surnames and apparently genuinely believed that they were among the seemingly random tradesmen and artisans that Leah’s father would employ from time to time.  Only Master McNab and his wife, Beathen, Leah, and Mason (her father’s trusted valet) knew about the scattered offspring. From talks Leah had had with many of them, they didn’t even know about each other.

Leah thought that all those progenies were unnecessary, but to her father, they were part of some much grander goal. Once, while thinking about it, she’d wondered how he’d kept such a mass-scale plan from not only those he’d sired but from the greater aristocracy as well. Years of surveilling people from myriad walks of life had taught her why. The difference between her father and all those others was imagination. In this society, it was less risky (perhaps even most beneficial) to stick to the norms of one’s class, but Master McNab was clearly a man of deviant, incomprehensible goals.

High Chief McNab’s eccentric stratagems were so unusual, that they were hardly ever conceived by his peers, much less investigated.  As far as Leah knew, no one had even imagined that her father was planting his seed in cities and towns across the sprawling nation.  From her work as a thieving spy, Leah had provided intel on several of the other elite houses’ agents in Koster City’s many social circles, but none were more terrifying than those of her father’s own house.

Shivers shot down Leah’s spine as she thought of a handful of her siblings with the greatest penchants for murder. It troubled her to think that she was so closely related to some of the New Democracy’s most dangerous killers. Her father kept her close (opposite to how it must have looked to the local aristocracy) but didn’t involve her in his most heinous projects. She’d only met some of the vilest of them in passing. The scariest of these was her pirate half-brother Lamia.

Many of them had been granted various augments to aid in her father’s work; none of them as many as Leah herself. She received her first augments when she was only seven: a risky procedure to say the least. Her mother had compelled Leah to keep them a secret. Since each augment often required more than one operation, Leah had missed much of the normal life of her schoolyard peers. Her mother explained this as her being sickly, while her father bribed and extorted the operators.

By the time she was fifteen, Leah had endured hundreds of operations. She had become a master of storytelling and misdirection when it came to answering questions about why she missed so much school. Like a phantom only appearing from time to time in the classroom, she felt irrevocably distanced from the other young people. She remembered feeling quite lonely. I’m lonely still… she thought as her thoughts brought her back to the augments. Were they worth it?

Glancing up at Beathen, Leah was again reminded of the mechanic’s skill and versatility with the augments he’d created. She trusted him totally; when he motioned for her to follow him to his incline table, she lay down compliantly. Leah was still deep in thought as the shadows in the room began to swallow the lights above her. A single blue light – from the tattoed technician’s operating pen – seemed to create a dull laser that carved a path through her range of view. Objects around her began to lose their definition until the shadows swallowed them all.

. . . . .

“Leah,… Leah!,” a soft, feminine voice called out to her.

When she awoke, Leah felt as refreshed as if she’d woken from a three-day nap. She was still lying on the inclined table but lay there for a few moments collecting herself. Leaning forward and taking in the workshop, she felt as if her vision had somehow gotten better. Her mechanic friend was a few paces off to her left, tinkering mindfully with some other project. Leah closed her eyes and focused her augments, but could not find anyone else in the room.

“Beathen?,” she murmured.

“Hmmm?” the wiry man didn’t look up.

“Who else is in here?”

“No one!” Beathen glanced over at her so suddenly that Leah became alarmed, “What do you mean?”

“I heard a woman’s voice calling me,” Leah said, “that’s what woke me up.”

Beathen grabbed a small remote control near him and dimmed the lights in the workshop. Though it was now very dark, Leah could see him clearly. He sat up, closing his eyes and putting his hands on his knees. After a few moments, he said, “There’s no one here, Leah.” He returned the lights overhead to their previous luminance and gazed at the girl. “I installed a digital receptor so that you could see and hear what Gizmo sees and hears.” He said this as he rose from his stool and approached her, “Let’s test it out.”

“What do I do?”

“Say Gizmo’s name.”

Leah closed her eyes, “Gizmo.”

A flash of vision burst into Leah’s consciousness. Her eyes were closed, but she could clearly make out the tops of trees backdropped by the starry night sky. She couldn’t hear the forest, just the sound of a silent workshop and her own heartbeat.

“What do you see?”

“I can see through Gizmo’s eyes!”, her eyes were still closed, but her face had broken into a smirk of wonder.

“Can you hear anything?”

“Just that you’re getting closer…”

“Ask Gizmo to give you access to her auditory receptors.”

“Gizmo, give me access to your auditory receptors.”

“I cannot, Leah,” a voice in her head whispered. It was a soft, female voice but somehow mature.

Leah’s eyes shot open and she gasped for breath, “Wha…what?”

Beathen was by her side, “What happened?!”

“Where…?” Leah was looking all over the workshop, “Where is she?”

Beathen glanced around, alarmed, “Who?!”

“I heard that voice again. I asked Gizmo to give me access…,” Leah’s voice trailed off. She looked up at Beathen as if for an explanation, “The voice said, ‘I cannot, Leah.’”

The mechanic glared at her as if he was being pranked. The bewilderment in Leah’s face must have been enough to convince him that he was not because he began stumbling away from her with one hand on his forehead, “It’s… impossible!”

It was clear that Beathen was incredulous but Leah couldn’t help herself, “How can Gizmo have a voice?”

Beathen couldn’t respond. He just kept glancing between Leah and the floor and shaking his head.

“Leah,” the soft voice said, “It’s almost time for your meeting.”

After a moment, the meaning of this statement dawned on Leah and she jumped up from the table, “What time is it?” Not waiting for a response, she glanced over at the clock Beathen kept at the far end of the workshop and focused her ocular augments to see the hands clearly. She had fifteen minutes before she had to meet the young thugs in the clearing at the base of the tiny forest. “I have to go.” she said; thanking her friend before leaping through the high window and back out into the night.

She landed in a roll and sprang forward into a jog. She was just clearing the workshop gates when the voice returned, “Leah, there is a new danger.”

“Gizmo?! How are you talking to me?”

“I was not able to grant access to my auditory receptors, but I am able to send signals to your auditory augments.”

…And this is what you sound like? Leah thought. The voice continued…

“It concerns your half-brother, Lamia.”

If it weren’t for her active pace, Leah’s blood might’ve frozen in her veins at the sound of that name. Lamia was a pirate from much further south, and the only one of her siblings she knew of with a flying quattour. She’d only seen him twice before (once in her father’s mansion and once more flying over Koster City), but as far as Leah was concerned, that had been one too many.

Lamia had only ever spoken to Leah that one time in the McNab estate. Like all the other siblings, he had no idea how many others there were, but he knew the two of them were kin. He seemed to be most interested in instilling a deep-seated fear in her and recounted several stories of his most violent atrocities that day. When they were alone, he shared plans of more vile things he planned to do. Leah relayed all these accounts to her father, of course.

Since then, several goons would appear in Koster over the years wearing a sigil that claimed Lamia as their employer. Whenever one of his thugs was in the city, it was always for something most troublesome. They beat, kidnapped, tortured, and coerced, and there tended to be bodies left behind at each of their visits. Leah had long wondered how much of this was at her father’s bidding; it seemed to her that Lamia had sick practices all his own.

She didn’t break pace, but continued her conversation with Gizmo, “What now? Has he sent more of his goons to cause trouble?

“No.” Gizmo transmitted, “Lamia is here.”

…..

This is my first web-published story. Please let me know what you think in the comments below. To get the bi-weekly chapters I send out, just click here.

chapter 13 < > chapter 15

Special Author’s Note

When reading over this chapter again, I wondered if there had been enough established reason to fear Lamia. In the end, I ended up adding only one line about he was among the siblings Leah feared.

The biggest deal in this chapter is Gizmo’s consciousness. How long has (she?/it?) been conscious? What would’ve happened if some other person had chosen her? What does any of this have to do with the stone?

ALLYBOT pt13: Young Thugs

forest in fog
angry, blonde teen boy
taken from MaggieDent.com originally from Shutterstock

ALLYBOT

Young Thugs

Green eyes were unusual in Leah’s family. While she was her father’s only legal offspring, the leader of Koster City’s Patrician Force had sired several illegitimate children all across the New Democracy. From time to time, Leah’s father would host some of them in his home and Leah had met several of her half-siblings.  Neither among them nor any of her common relatives had she met one with green eyes.  The only relative (that Leah knew of) with this characteristic was her paternal great grandmother, whom she’d only seen in pictures.  Growing up, Leah had known a person here or there with the feature, but green eyes were an easy way to narrow a search for someone in Koster City. 

As an added quality to her optical augments, Leah’s father had had the surgeons add a feature that allowed Leah to darken her eyes to the point that they would go unnoticed or be mistaken for brown.  She used the feature often but preferred not to at night, or in near darkness, as it inhibited her ability to see clearly in those conditions.  It would be like a misty film that covered the choroid of her eyes. The effect was much like looking at the world through brown-colored glasses.

Right now, the sun was making its gradual departure but was high enough in the sky that the Mannah had just begun their fall.  She quickly darkened her eyes as the blonde-haired boy strode toward her.  He was tall and stocky and with a faint grin.  Besides his tossy clothes, he almost looks like he’s walking up to greet a neighbor, Leah thought. The teen’s red vest was easily the finest-looking thing on him and it looked like it hadn’t seen a wash in a while. His muscles were well-defined, however, and Leah couldn’t complain about his being bare-chested under his vest. 

“What are you boys doing up here?” Leah stood up straight and looked the boss in his eyes.  “Nobody comes up here…  I like my privacy.”  She had stopped moving, but he drew a few steps nearer before stopping and stood with his arms out in a peaceful gesture.  The thuggish lad peered over at Gizmo.  The quattour stood quietly in the corner of the roof nearest Leah, her tail swinging slowly from side to side. 

The red-vested teen’s face made an expression of mild annoyance.  “We thought this would be a quiet place for us to talk.  We’re looking for someone…” he motioned behind him to include his companions, “maybe someone like you can help us find her.” 

After a moment of considering them, Leah asked, “What are you offering?”  The two teens behind the boss remained perched on the ledge of the building.  They seemed mostly disinterested in this conversation but watched Leah with an almost absent-minded curiosity. 

“We’re looking for a young woman… maybe about your height.  A thief with green eyes.”

“What’s in it for the finder?”

“Once we find her, we’ll be on our way.  Someone like you could make our work much easier.”

“Dodging the price, huh?”, Leah smirked, “Let me know when you’re serious.”  She whistled shortly and made to move past the thug.  Gizmo followed suit and began to proceed to the other end of the roof. David raised an eybrow at Gizmo’s odd behavior.

“Property coins!” David blurted. Leah turned to find the boss looking straight into her eyes, “I can give you a couple property coins,” he said, “if you can help us find our thief.”

Leah looked away, pretending to consider this offer before, “How many coins?”  She felt a ripple of relief at the boys’ apparent naivete. It seemed they had not decided that she was the thief they were looking for.  This could be a fortuitous opportunity for Leah to learn more about the troupe and discover how they got to Koster City so quickly. 

“We’re not wealthy men, we’ve only got two coins.  That should be enough for this kind of work, don’t you think?  After all, how often do you come across a green-eyed thief?” 

Now, for the performance, Leah thought.  She strolled over to Gizmo, thoughtfully, and stroked the quattour’s head.  The other two boys were engaged in a game that seemed like Rock, Paper, Scissors.  Leah glanced at them, but they were paying her no mind.  She turned to the lead thug, “I’ll need to see those coins to make sure you can pay me.  And you’ll need to tell me more about this thief.  Whatever you think you know about this city, finding a single thief could be… troublesome, no matter what color her eyes are.” 

The blonde boss seemed to relax visibly.  He let loose a short sigh and motioned to one of the boys perched at the edge of the roof, “Chris…”  One of the thugs stood and quickly approached the two.  He wore a dark green vest and a plain white t-shirt.  Run-down loafers covered feet under his dirty, khaki shorts.  “What do we know about our thief?” the boss prompted. 

“Sure.” Chris nodded solemnly, “She’s gotta be quick, and can get to hard-to-reach places.  She probably has augments that let her see in the dark.  Also, we’re guessing she’s the type of thief that might leave town pretty often.  …And she likes to use poisons.  She killed one of our brothers…”

That last comment startled Leah. The poison she used last night could only kill in large doses or if the person it was used on was already quite frail. Leah had used the same stuff on their boss and he was standing here like nothing had happened. I’ve never killed anyone…, she thought as she fought back a wave of panic. Glancing up at the Chris, “What did she steal?” Leah practically blurted. 

“That’s our business…” said the boss, “I just can’t let people go killing us and running away in the night.” 

Tiny, orange and purple leaf-like flakes began to descend onto the roof.  The Mannah liked to fall in grassy or forested areas and tended to avoid cities and towns.  Some of the little creatures, blown in by the wind and unable to avoid a vast city like Koster, tried to settle in places like the small forest between Zellwood and [the industrial district].  Beyond the third boy still sitting on the edge, Leah could make out the beginnings of the gradually descending spiral of aliens whose existence skirted the boundaries of harmless and dangerous.  She turned back to the boss.

“Night is only a few hours off… Where should I find you if I learn anything?”

“Let’s meet back here.  I’ll be-” 

“This place is mine,” Leah interrupted, “Where are you strangers staying?” 

The muscular teen was taken aback for a moment.  Eventually, he turned and pointed to the base of the forest.  “Let’s meet where the forest meets that clearing.” Glancing at Leah, “Will that be acceptable?”

“I suppose it’s as good a place as any.” Leah looked up at him, “Now you just have to show me your coin and get off my roof.”

The thug grinned discreetly under a heavy sigh, “I don’t carry them with me, but if you show tonight, we will.  If you plan to cheat us, though, I won’t be responsible for what happens to you.” 

Leah snickered and nodded, “Same goes for you.  I’ll be there at the eleventh hour.”  She motioned with her hand for the boys to leave the roof. 

The boss turned casually to his peers and waved for them to leave.  The three of them moved to the corner they had been gathered on and began to descend the small stair that led to an adjacent roof.  Before stepping off, he turned back to Leah, “What’s your name?”  Leah cocked her head to the side and shrugged her shoulders.  She attempted to put on her best poker face.  The young man returned her shrug whimsically and said, “My name is David.” and leaped from the roof. 

…..

This is my first web-published story. Please let me know what you think in the comments below. To get the bi-weekly chapters I send out, just click here.

chapter 12 < > chapter 14

Special Author’s Note

The second phase of the story begins here where tensions begin to mount. My hope was that at this point the protagonists and antagonists were still mostly unclear. I wanted to write the true hero of the story into the tale without making it obvious that he/she was the hero. This conversation between two teens forced into early stages of adulthood was hopefully respective of their personalities and not too surprising.

Also, are the boys lying about their comrade dying. If not, is revenge their real motivator for coming so eagerly to Kpster city. In addition, there is no clue about how they made a trip that took an augmented girl riding a vehicle the same amount of time? Could someone else, someone powerful, be making moves against Leah’s contractors? With the entire Patrician Force looking for the stone, how could such a conspicuous party search for it without being discovered?

ALLYBOT pt12: Encounters

forest in fog

ALLYBOT

Encounters

She had to admit, Leah‘s whole body gelled better after Beathen’s treatment.  Back in her apartment, she stretched and flexed her limbs, noticing how limber she felt.  Leah’s augments were designed to go unnoticed by most doctors.  There were only a handful of physicians trained to operate on an augmented body like hers, and only one of them, besides Beathen, lived in Koster City.  That woman creeped her out, so Leah avoided her at all costs. 

Beathen, on the other hand, had known her all of her life, and his allegiance to her father was unquestioned.  That mechanic’s team was merely one unit in an ever-expanding secret army that Leah’s father had positioned all across the New Democracy.  The intel that he got from his informants gave him a significant advantage over so many “elite” aristocrats.  This network of information was why he had such a powerful career in the Patrician Force, and was able to quickly rise to Koster City’s highest office in that field.  

The teenage thief suddenly felt a surge of embarrassment as she imagined for the first time that her father may not have only arranged for the stone to be brought to Koster, but may have also arranged for its two subsequent thefts.  Her mother had given her the assignment, but Mrs. McNab had often argued with her husband, dissatisfied that she was so often left “out of the loop”.  Leah had decided that it was anybody’s guess how much her mother knew about her father’s intentions.  Still, if her father was a major player in the events of the stone, he would have taken precautions well above Leah’s pay grade. 

She felt a returning impulse to check on the stone and make sure it was still in place.  The shades and curtains over her single window had already been pulled to give Leah the privacy she so often craved.  She was half-dressed now and freshly showered, but she put off the rest of her preparations to rush over to her bed stand.  She pulled at the bedframe’s corner leg until the digital code in her hand was accepted and the lock disengaged.  The hidey-hole slid open, and she immediately thrust her free hand in and retrieved the cloth sack.  The weight felt right, but she continued to slide the fastening rope loose to let the bag open just a bit. 

A bright, brown light burst from the bag, threatening to illuminate the entire room.  Quickly, Leah squeezed the opening shut and re-fastened the fastening rope.  She thrust the stone back into its hiding place.  With a quiet “whirrr”, the bedpost closed and locked itself automatically. Being a thief herself, Leah tended to prefer hiding places that were right out in the open.  By stashing minor values in more conventional hiding places throughout her apartment, she was that much more confident that her true best hiding places would never be questioned… Unless she was raided by someone as well-off as her own family.

The spy/thief/teenage girl stared down into her palm in wonder.  A thin micro-chipped film had been inserted into her palm.  This tiny, digital projector allowed her to create a unique locking code with security systems designed for ordinary-looking items.  These types of devices weren’t commonly seen in Koster City, except for amongst the very wealthy (those that could afford the microsurgery in the first place).  “Microsurgeries” were performed for various reasons, like projecting or receiving information, altering one’s personal body or appearance, or (like most of Leah’s) augmenting physical abilities.  Microsurgery was essentially any physical augment involving a micro-connector to the nervous system. 

Microsurgical augments had been added to each joint on Leah’s limbs, allowing her to add an almost hydraulic pressure to her movements.  From a standstill, she could jump almost three stories vertically and could punch clean through a brick wall.  Not that she could do the latter without pain. Her bony points had been covered in what the surgeon had called “organic metal” to protect her from damaging herself, but punching through a brick wall could still break her arm.

Others working for the elites would receive augments too, so Leah had to train intensely with various martial arts masters that her father controlled. An average person was nowhere near a match for her, and she could easily hold her own against most augmented people. But being an agent with valuable – albeit limited – information and access to the McNab operations, her father’s primary purpose for her physical augments was to avoid capture or, at worst, containment.

The physical ones were the least of her augments, however.  Leah’s optical lenses had been removed and replaced with highly advanced receptors.  A layer of film had been added to her retinas that allowed them to shift between various modes of light refraction.  The telescopic film could effectively “tune” her vision from high UV to frequencies of thermal detection.  She could see up to five times further than the average person in any light. 

Leah’s visual augments were particularly useful in the daily fogs, but she found her sound detection to be far more useful.  Somehow, the surgeon had replaced much of her eardrums with a receptor designed to interpret a wider range of wavelengths.  She had had to spend months learning to “tune” her hearing.  Mostly, that had just been teaching her mind to interpret this new data.  She could now tune her hearing until she became her own sonar: she could interpret sounds around her as three-dimensional images.  Thinking it over now, she felt like her auditory augments played the smallest role in that development.  That had been mostly Leah training her own mind.  Her hearing had given her a new form of sight. 

She let her palm drop, My signature’s unique, Leah thought, it could be traced back to me.  Hurriedly, she changed into flexible leggings with discreet pockets on the sides.  She selected a black vest and pulled it on over her cotton, grey blouse.  She already wore long black socks; she chose a pair of cushioned boots and put them on.  I should be doing a lot of jumping tonight.  Attempting to be ready for anything, Leah fastened her utility belt to her waist and refreshed the items inside.  Once she’d selected a few tools and weapons, she tuned her hearing and vision to scan for potential onlookers.  Satisfied that no one in the area was acting suspiciously, Leah unlocked and opened her window.  

As soon as the window was open, a single purple flake came fluttering toward the young thief.  The days were getting shorter as summer came to a close.  She blew at the creature to ensure it didn’t land in her room.  A sting by a single member of the Mannah usually wasn’t enough to kill, but it was more than enough to cause excruciating pain.  Leah leaped through the window, landing on the elevated deck in front of Gizmo. 

Gizmo calmly lay in its dormant position, but both eyes peered at Leah in what seemed to her like anticipation.  The thief pointed upward and motioned with her hand to indicate that Gizmo follow her.  Leah then leaped clean over Gizmo’s head and onto the wall.  She’d made a series of grooves and carvings, on the wall opposite her apartment to allow herself to move quickly around its surface.  After quickly scaling the wall, she proceeded, rooftop to rooftop, to one of the highest points in Koster’s poorest district.  There was no need to wonder if Gizmo was following her, the quattour was practically out in front of Leah as if anticipating her destination.  Leah had meant to ask Beathen about this. 

The vehicular cat was an old Margay model quattour.  Gizmo’s frame was specifically designed for climbing and moving quickly through forested areas.  Gizmo’s rocket launcher, plasma cutters and Rev-light were designed for those times when some obstacle could not be simply averted (like a boulder, or tall, thick bushes).  Leah kept two such rockets in her apartment for such purposes but had rarely loaded them, much less used them. As much as Leah loved trees, she made more use of Gizmo’s retractable claws and prehensile tail to move quickly between ruins and tall buildings. 

The two definitely made an unusual pair as they ran and jumped across the rooftops.  This was one of Leah’s favorite routes because it couldn’t be seen from any other vantage point. She and Gizmo made good time hopping over the buildings.  They were heading to a close-knit series of apartment buildings that sat atop Round Hill: the tallest point in the Zellwood District.  The buildings there had been many things in their lifetime, but now they were old and abandoned.  The tallest building, and its neighbors, had been condemned.  All the windows had been boarded up and the doors nailed shut, but from the roof, Leah could see nearly all of Koster City. 

Looking south from that point, Leah could clearly make out the East docks on her left and the tall buildings of the downtown district directly in front of her.  Beyond the tallest of them, mansions rose into the horizon against the city’s slope.  The West gates could be spied a little distance off to her right.  Koster’s main road wound down a gradual slope into Downtown before it broke off in three directions.  In Leah’s opinion, this was Koster’s most magnificent viewpoint.  The gears in the machine that was Koster City could be seen turning, from that vantage. 

Besides loving to gaze over the beauty of this industrial municipality with a river running through it, there was a very practical reason why Leah loved this location.  She loved to leap into a sliding path through the hillside forest that separated Zellwood from the industrial district.  From the industrial district, she planned to start her search for the mysterious stranger she’d robbed just a night before.  

Now, Leah was only a few leaps and bounds from that place of subjective serenity.  She hopped onto a long air conditioning unit, ran a few steps, leaped, and rolled onto another unit.  A few powerful skips took her to the top of a short chimney close to her destination rooftop.  Leah crouched and pushed off in a dynamic leap to clear that final wall.  Mid-air, she saw three boys crouching near the roof corner opposite her approach.  The three were facing away from her and seemed as unaware of her as she was of them only a moment ago.  The lithe noble-lady hit the roof in a crouching slide, and all three boys peered over their shoulders in a cool, almost nonchalant state. 

It seemed to Leah that the three boys were more curious than anything.  Leah locked eyes with the one in the middle.  He stood from his crouch and turned to face her.  Dirty muscular legs extended beneath his gray denim shorts.  He was shirtless under his loud, red vest.  A strong tan accentuated his muscular build and contrasted with his golden blonde hair.  Leah’s search was over before it had begun.  The thuggish boss pushed a lock of that golden hair out of his face and started towards Leah. 

…..

This is my first web-published story. Please let me know what you think in the comments below. To get the bi-weekly chapters I send out, just click here.

chapter 11 < > chapter 13

Special Author’s Note

Nothing much happens here, but augments will play an important role in Leah’s future conflicts. I had to take a moment to outline the basics of her abilities, and the costs, and give a quick demonstration. It seems that the boys she’s looking for are tough brutes but they may have bitten off more than they can chew when it comes to Leah.

While I guess I didn’t notice it as much while writing it, Leah and Gizmo’s unique relationship is really fun for me. The visual of them hopping from rooftop to rooftop over decrepit buildings was a bit …cathartic? In any case, I’d highly anticipated how things would go when Leah and David first met, and I hope that I did well in laying the groundwork for their working relationship.

Read the next chapter to find out!

ALLYBOT pt11: the Mechanic

forest in fog
Mechanics at work
photos at Alamy.com

ALLYBOT

The Mechanic

Walking back through the secret tunnel that connected the Northside District to downtown, Leah pondered over why her mother didn’t seem more surprised to learn that two of the boys she’d robbed on the other side of the Eastern Forests were in Koster today, and with enough energy to be tossing people around.  She was becoming more and more sure that some of Koster’s elite were behind the successful raid of the caravan. How else could the thugs have arrived here, perhaps as quickly as she did, without some kind of aid?

She’d followed the caravan, unseen, for days on its way to Koster City.  After it was attacked, she’d followed the raiders as they fought off small waves of their pursuers.  They were completely exhausted when they hid out in those ruins, but they’d taken several measures to avoid being surprised in the night.  Numerous noise traps were left around where they slept. They’d climbed into and hauled all their goods into a window that was hard to access.  Leah had had to repel over jagged stones and the smooth, dusty wall’s surface.

The ginger spy had been impressed with the boys’ efforts. When she entered their “fortress”, she’d found that they were all hopelessly drained.  Every one of them had been asleep, even the ones who were supposed to be keeping guard. That suggested to Leah that these really were just average thieves: they didn’t even have augments.  Even now, as she recalled the events, she felt stunned that their raid had gone as well as it had for them.

Or had it?  The boys in town were asking specifically for a green-eyed girl.  They were looking for a career thief and they had come to Koster City.  By keeping the stone, she must be quite the disturbance in more than a few people’s plans.  Even her own mother seemed to suspect her of not being entirely forthcoming. Am I losing my edge? Leah thought, Does she know I do have it?  If her mother did suspect her of having it, didn’t she just let her off a little too easily?  Leah was beginning to feel an urge to rush home and make sure the odd stone was still hidden in her bedpost.  It hadn’t been 24 hours since she’d stolen it; somehow it had affected every part of her day. Why do I feel like I need it?  …Like I must have it?  

Gizmo’s eyes suddenly glowed brighter as if in response to her feelings and the tunnels terminal reflected some of that purple light back at them.  Out of mindless habit, Leah tuned her augments to detect anyone near the tunnel’s entrance. Feeling that the area was free of bystanders and onlookers, she carefully opened the trapdoor and let Gizmo walk out before her.  Leah had one more order of business before setting out to find the red-vested leader of the band she’d literally robbed last night, so now seemed like a good time to get some food.

The duo moved into Downtown proper where Leah bought a refined crystal to recharge Gizmo’s energy matrix, then went to her favorite cafe in the Ivy Gardens.  It was almost two hours after noon when they headed to their mechanic’s shop north-west of downtown. The industrial district took up the entire space between Downtown and the West Docks, and the St. John’s River flowed right through it.  The way the industrial district appeared from the ground seemed like a random amalgamation of warehouses, workshops, factories, utility hubs, and plots of wild grass. However, if one were to view it from one of the tallest downtown buildings, they’d see a design in which most of the factories lined the river, most workshops were just west of downtown, and warehouses filled most of the space between St. Johns and the West Docks.  

Gizmo and Leah turned off the main road to a dirt one that was surrounded on either side by broad fields of wild grass.  One of the smaller, 2-story warehouses had been repurposed into a workshop, and stood alone, surrounded by what must have been a parking lot from the society that once was.  The surrounding area looked more like a junkyard, now, and was enclosed by a run-down, chain-link fence. Gizmo and Leah rounded the building until they came to two large bay doors facing the river.  Leah dismounted, and as she approached, a voice called out to her from the second story.

“Fancy seeing you here, Ms. McNab.”  A skinny, 30-something man with deep blue eyes and long black hair in a ponytail was leaning from one of the windows.  He was shirtless but wore a tattered denim vest and black jeans. His skin was almost pale but was covered in a variety of tattoos.  Just below the shoulder of his left arm, was a tattoo of a reptilian griffin surrounded by a circle of flames.

Leah waved a happy greeting to the heavily tattooed man, one of her only true friends who knew who she truly was, “Hello, Mr. McNab!”  

A sound came from Gizmo that sounded like a “purr”, and Leah glanced at the quattour in wonder.  Her family’s high mechanics had told her that it was just the sound of Gizmo’s hydraulic systems resetting.  They’d assured her that it was merely the noise of gases and liquids being flushed and replenished beneath Gizmo’s “exoskeleton?” Leah said aloud.  She continued to gaze at the cat-like thing that looked like something from a Terminator movie.

The mechanics could say what they want, Leah knew that Gizmo made that particular sound only when it? …she? seemed excited.  The quattour‘s gaze was focused, and Leah followed it into Beathen’s ocean-blue eyes.  The mechanic straightened, and with an arm covered in purple tattoos, motioned for Gizmo, “Come on in then…”. Leah felt a little ignored as Gizmo eagerly strode past her into the first and widest of the bay doors.

. . . . .

The inside of the shop was dim, despite the doors and windows being open.  The inner stone walls were a shady mix of dark grays, depending on how much light was hitting them.  There were four of these stations on the bottom floor, and three on the second floor. At each of the bottom four stations, 2-4 men and women worked on quattours or other machines.  The first bay door opened onto a small lift that allowed Beathen’s staff to work under machines. At the far end of the building, the painting area was the largest of the workstations; the 2nd bay door opening into it.  

Those two stations were separated by a larger lift that carried machines to the second floor.  All the workstations on that floor were Beathen’s. Gizmo trotted onto the large, wide, rectangular lift as Leah followed.  Once they were both still, the lift started with a jolt. Beathen sat in a swiveling chair-on-wheels near a desk-high console.  After the lift had fully ascended, Beathen flipped a switch and steel bars engaged grooves in its panel and locked it into place.  

“Hello, Little Princess.” Beathen had taken to calling Leah that when she was still little.  

“That’s annoying, Old Fart.” She had no idea what a “fart” was, but remembered that that’s what some of her schoolmates would call the elderly, “I’m no princess, and I certainly ain’t no child.”

“Ain’t?”  Beathen grinned mischievously, “Oh, when your mother hears that…”

The tattooed mechanic had greeted them from the window above the first bay door.  He smiled at his guests and walked back toward it, selecting some tools from a rack that hung just left of the window.  Gizmo trotted merrily over to a workstation centered on a large, round floor panel. The panel had small grooves and knots in its flooring that would allow a quattour to anchor itself to the disc.  Once Gizmo was in place, Beathen walked over and began turning the disc slowly with a remote control.

The cat-like machine lifted its head and shifted its posture in response to Beathen’s inspection: fully compliant.  I think she likes this a little too much…, Leah thought.  She realized at once how odd it was to think of Gizmo liking anything.  “Do other quattours behave like this?” She asked Beathen.

“Of course not,” he replied without looking at her, “other quattours ain’t Gizmo.”  He made sure to put obvious emphasis on “ain’t“.

Leah rolled her eyes, “So…, I’m not imagining things?  She actually likes the attention?”  

Beathen hesitated, then glanced back at her, “what in the time you two have spent together would make you think this is a normal quattour?”  

“I… I…,” Leah was stunned by the question and more than a little embarrassed.  “What does that even mean, Beathen?”

Beathen was thoughtful for a moment, then he pulled a tool from his belt that resembled a flashlight.  He aimed it at Gizmo and a dim light did emit from it. Beathen used it to scan Gizmo as the quattour spun on the disc.  “A quattour’s shell is completely unrelated to its mindcore.” He began, “They’re not even made at the same time. A factory over here makes and assembles shells; a factory over there pumps out mindcores.  It used to be that mindcores were made to try and resemble intelligence, and were intended for specific quatt-shells. That was long ago though, before even… the Mannah fell. Now they just make operating systems… Interfaces for quattour buyers: mindless mindcores.”  

The mechanic put the black-light scanner away and pulled out a small rubber mallet.  He moved around Gizmo’s surface, lightly hammering at this or that joint. Leah had heard rumors about what Beathen was discussing, but couldn’t see the direct relation to her question.  “Do you mean that quattours used to be able to think? Is Gizmo really old?”

Beathen shrugged his shoulders, “This model is relatively new… maybe a couple decades old.” He paused and looked at Leah, “But by comparison, Gizmo’s mindcore is ancient.”  

This answer stunned Leah for reasons she couldn’t explain.  She glanced hard at Gizmo for a few moments before, “So this quattour can think?”

“Think?!” Beathen seemed humored, “She can probably process intelligent thoughts faster than you can.  They make ‘em now to wear off in time. …So you have to buy a new one… But this is from before. There’s no telling how long this mindcore might last.”  

“If that’s the case, then shouldn’t there be a bunch of old ones out there?  Why would people accept the new ones when there’s a better, more durable model?”  

“People get afraid.”  Beathen walked over to another console and punched something into a keypad.  A holographic display of Gizmo’s systems appeared suddenly, and he waved at the air to turn it this way and that.  “The smarter models were de-commissioned for being ‘too smart’”, he said, “They had the capacity to hack personal systems and track targets around the world with satellite data.  By the time of the Crash, people just wanted machines to carry them around.” He walked back over to Gizmo and pulled another tool from his belt. It looked like a mix between a screwdriver and a crank.  He began “cranking” at some of Gizmo’s joints.

Remembering when she’d first brought Gizmo to Beathen’s shop, Leah recalled how the mechanic had applauded her at how lucky she’d been.  “I was the last one in my class to select a quattour. How come so many people overlooked this one?”

“You got the shell, and then were awarded this mindcore, remember?  Your father knew what he was doing. Besides, most people never really consider the mindcore.  They just don’t know what they’re looking for. …or what they’re talking about…”

“Is that why this core glows with that strange, ugly light?”  Leah remembered having mixed feelings when “awarded” a mindcore that glowed like a dying yellow lantern.  All the other graduates had cores that glowed a bright orange or white.

“Exactly!” Beathen said with an air of excitement, “To most people, it looks like a dull thing that won’t last long, but your father would’ve done his research.  To most people in his circles, having a quattour from the days that were would be a dangerous thing. Your father does love power, eh?”

“But that doesn’t answer what happened to all the others.  Shouldn’t they have survived like Gizmo’s?”

“Some are out there,” Beathen had reassembled Gizmo’s parts and was polishing the shell, “Most were lost in the wars before Mannah-Fall.  Many were useless once we lost our satellites. But there are some, like your father, that have hunted down some of the old mindcores and hide them in newer models.”   

“So he may want it back someday?” Leah observed Gizmo with a sudden sadness.  

“Hah!  You better believe your Da has a cache of his own.” Beathen winked at Leah, “You didn’t hear that from me, of course…. As for them that have an old core, watch out for those people, Young Lass.  If you ever notice a quattour, or its owner, acting a little too strangely, steer clear of them. Someone with that kind of power”, he threw up his hands as he gave Gizmo a final inspection, “you don’t know what they could be up to.”

Leah thought back to anyone in the elite class who owned a quattour.  She thought back over all of her old classmates and their parents. She couldn’t think of a single example in which a quattour didn’t do exactly what was expected.  No one, as far as she knew, would think of anything but a battle quattour as dangerous. Up until her experiences with Gizmo, she’d never even considered that a vehicle could have a mind of its own.  

The mechanic’s work was done on Gizmo.  He settled the disc and the quattour dismounted.  Leah said, “I still have a lot of work to do today.  I’ll try to catch dinner with you sometime soon…”

“Where do you think you’re going?” Suddenly, Beathen’s tone had become authoritative, “I owe your father big for rescuing my family from the New Democracy’s goons.  Once your augments had been commissioned, he made me swear to look after you. Working on Gizmo is always a treat, but I have a job that takes priority…” Beathen stepped to the side and motioned at a chair just beyond the disc.  Leah knew the chair well, it was time for the mechanic to tune up her augments as well.

“I’ve heard it all a thousand times…” she said as she made her way to the chair.  

…..

This is my first web-published story. Please let me know what you think in the comments below. To get the bi-weekly chapters I send out, just click here.

chapter 10 < > chapter 12

Special Author’s Note

Up to this point, I had been avoiding exposition; when writing Beathen’s character I’d decided he’d be my exposition guy. Through the stories he’s trying to tell, he’d be dropping important nuggets about everything else going on around our protagonists. I always liked Beathen, and was uncertain to make him a “good” or “bad” guy, but his loyalties eventually made that obvious.

This chapter was intended to use Gizmo to shift the stone from a possible McGuffin to something that was really important to the characters on an individual level. Alas, it felt more natural to creep into that by first forcing Leah to address Gizmo’s uniqueness. One of my favorite parts of this chapter is Beathen’s awe at Gizmo coupled with his awe at Leah’s failed acknowledgment of such.

ALLYBOT pt9: The Contractors

forest in fog

ALLYBOT

The Contractors

Along a clean, smooth gravel road, lay a well-groomed row of teal, orange, and baby blue flowers.  The flowers (clearly of a closely related species) contrasted strongly against the dark green bushes on which they bloomed.  They rose from the ground in tiered rows until the highest bushes appeared to be seven feet above the ground.  On the other side of the broad boulevard, residential manor-estates, separated by intervals of trees, lined the road in pairs.  Between each of the pairs, cobblestone avenues emptied scant traffic onto the main road. 

            Leah materialized from a hole under the tiered bushes directly across from a cobblestone intersection.  There was a lot of traffic on the boulevard today, so she walked behind the bushes about 40 meters to the next (more heavily shaded) intersection.  To avoid exposing her entrance, she waited for a break in traffic and slipped through a narrow gap in the bushes onto the sidewalk where she and Gizmo hurried along.  Gizmo’s relatively small size made this possible, but that didn’t prevent the occasional raised eyebrow at the sight.

Most of the quattours driven by the upper class were furry lagomorphs or scaly reptilians and pangolins; each ornately designed and colored.  Occasionally, along came a more expensive marsupial model or a very expensive raptor model (which were believed by most to be the only flying models).  The elderly tended to prefer the lizard-like models since they sat lower to the ground and were typically the least bumpy rides.  Soon, a long, limousine-styled reptilian quattour approached as Leah strode down the sidewalk.  Most of the windows had been tinted so that onlookers couldn’t identify its passengers, but its operator eyed Leah with open derision as he passed. 

            She hurried along the sidewalk for another 20 meters or so until she came to an intersection marked with tall palms and sunflowers in thick clusters.  Dashing across the road at an opportune moment, she proceeded down the cobblestone path until she came to a vast manor of lilac tinted stone behind a large barrier wall made of iron and granite.  At the wall’s opening, the manor could be viewed through an iron gate exhibiting its familial emblem.  Complimentary gate openings each held half of the emblem in their collective center where they met.  The crest was a reptilian-like griffen inside of a top-sided trapezoid, with what looked like flames rising up behind it.

  She passed the gate and advanced along the sidewalk until it split off from the main walk into a private path surrounded by trees and shrubbery.  After turning that way, within a minute, she arrived at a tall gray door that seemed to be embedded in the granite wall.  Directly right of the door, a square, metallic panel extended down outwardly from the wall, and a tiny red light shone in its upper left corner.  Leah extended her arm until the back of her right hand faced upward under the panel.  A pale, blue light flicked on under the panel and a glyph in Gaelic lettering appeared on her skin.  There was a whirring sound, and the tiny red light turned green.  A handle extended and Leah turned it and proceeded through the door.

            She entered a gray, décor-less hall that opened onto a gated courtyard.  This gate was quite simple; connected to a chain-link fence and only as tall as the hall itself (about 3 meters).  The gate’s door was left open, but there was a buff, elderly man seated at a small table behind it.  He was reading through a small stack of documents as she entered, probably the Koster City news reports.  The sentry glanced up at Leah and, after recognizing her, nodded curtly and turned his attention back to his documents.


            Leah moved past him without saying anything and followed a winding path to the manor proper.  A ridiculously wide stair led from a lavish open courtyard to the rear manor doors, which were attended by two doormen dressed like Twentieth-century butlers.  Once Leah was near them, the man and woman approached the center doors and opened them for her.  She entered the rear foyer and was nonplussed by the elaborate sculptures and paintings placed in sumptuous symmetry. She moved directly to a maple wood awning center-left in the foyer and continued into an open office-like space. 


            A finely dressed woman sat at a desk at the far end of the room.  The desk faced Leah and the room’s opening, but the woman sat with her back to Leah and facing the desk.  She had her chair pulled up close so that she could scribble away at what looked like a ledger.  Occasionally, she would hold up this paper or that and compare them to some other paper.  Leah never stopped feeling the relief of having dodged this kind of life.  The young thief approached quietly but, as she did, the woman extended a hand and tapped the chair next to her with her pen. 


            Leah approached steadily and took the seat next to the woman silently.  The woman continued busying herself for a few moments before breaking the beginning,  “What news do you have for me?”, she didn’t look up from her ledgers as she spoke.


            After a sigh, Leah said, “Not too much out of the usual…  The Freecs are about to be raided, but mostly the streets are quiet.  My group is looking into Lord Valdes’ operation.”  She grabbed a clear, semi-round paperweight from the desk and began to fiddle with it, “This is new…,”  The woman said nothing and Leah returned to her report, “No one seems to know Valdes is behind it.  They think it’s all on some merchant in the San Marco district.”

       “Yes…  James Marks.  He’s the shop owner that runs the ins and outs for Lord Valdes.”


       “Juliette and Zinf are doing recon this week.  The plan is to hit the shop 2 weeks from now.”


       “That could be useful, but not very.  I’ll run it by your father.”


       “From what I hear, he’s pretty busy these days…”


            The woman stopped and turned to Leah.  She had golden-brown hair pulled up in an elegant bun and wore two gold necklaces over her silver-laced maroon summer dress.  The first necklace was a thick gold chain, while the other was hung with a ruby charm surrounded by tiny diamonds.  Her eyes were deep green, and freckles decorated her pale cheeks.  Her eyebrows seemed slightly fairer than her hair and they furrowed as she turned her head to observe the young thief.  Upon seeing Leah, she seemed to hide a tiny, derisory gasp, “I do wish you’d clean up before coming here.”


            “I have to stay in character, Mother.  This day’s work isn’t done.”


            “Yes,” she said with a decidedly heavy drip of sarcasm, “it’s perfectly normal for someone looking like you to be visiting House McNab.” 

“After some of the visitors my father has brought here… My ‘siblings’…”

Her mother waved a hand as if to dismiss the conversation, “What was meant by that comment about your father?”, tossing the pen she’d been writing with onto the desk, she leaned back in her chair.


            “One of my crew was picked up by the Patrician Force a few days ago.  Some say they’re eager to get their hands on some stone.


            “And you didn’t consider this news?”


            “The word is that whatever they’re looking for is far from here…  Not even in the city.”  Leah shrugged, “Maybe they already have it.  I would’ve thought you’d know more about all this than I do.  All that’s in the streets are some unreliable scrapes of rumor.” 


            Leah’s mother eyed her suspiciously.  It was Leah’s hope that she could get her mother to reveal something about the stone, but after this day’s events, she half wished she had brought the thing to be rid of it.  Even now, she couldn’t think of exactly why she hadn’t.  She felt some inexplicable need to keep it or …protect it?  Why was anyone’s guess.  Leah had peeked at it once, yesternight, before she fell asleep.  Aside from that, she’d only felt its outline a few times in its smooth grey pouch.  There was no explanation for the attraction she was just realizing she was feeling for the thing.  After all, it had only been in her “possession” for a matter of hours.  There was every reason, in her opinion, to learn more about it before turning it over to a Head Patrician Chief’s wife.  Especially one that had commissioned its retrieval: her own mother.  Unfortunately, Leah’s mom was careful not to give anything away.  “A stone?  What have you heard about this …stone?” 


            It’s probably some sort of …jewel?  Some amateurs were after it and got busted by the Force.  They say the stone wasn’t even there.  The locals grabbed Kenneth because he just happened to be there.  Of course, he’s still locked up now.” 


            “Yes…  Yes, yes.”, she seemed to be musing to herself, “Kenneth Sayalero…  Do you need him for anything?” 


            Leah instantly recognized the test in the question.  Her mother was probing her daughter’s attachment to the deplorable city scum.  Leah shrugged, “He’s not important to the current mark,” she humored briefly at the thought that the current mark was actually named “Marks”, “we should be fine without him.”  The thief/spy returned the paperweight to the desk and glanced over at her mother.  The woman was still eyeing her curiously, and this time, Leah furrowed her brownish-red eyebrows, “What?” 


            “Don’t you have something for me?” 


            “I’ve brought your meats if that’s what you mean.”, Leah produced the package from the butcher from under her vest, “That midnight mission you sent me on didn’t produce anything of value.  They were just some scrappy boys out in the middle of nowhere.” 


            “Scrappy boys?  I sent you to raid a safe in a merchant’s caravan.” 


            “The caravan was raided by some thugs in the wild.  They didn’t just break into the caravan, they made off with the entire safe.  They didn’t seem to have any way to open it.” Leah slouched backward in her chair and began rolling the paperweight back and forth across her fingers. There seemed to be a foggy mixture within the glass, sloshing around as it made its rotations. “Maybe they were planning to hand it off or they were just dumb. Either way, I snuck into their camp at night, but there was nothing of value in the safe, just some old maps and foodcoin.” 

     “Maps?”, Leah’s mother perked up.  She eased forward in her chair.


      Leah’s mild surprise wasn’t feigned, “They were common maps; they didn’t seem of value…  When you sent me, you said I may not find anything worth bringing back.”


            Leah’s mother was leaning forward now.  She took the package of meat, stood, and reached over the desk to ring a small service bell.  “Find these thugs,” she said to Leah, “bring me those maps.”  As she spoke, a black-vested elderly woman in professional attire entered and approached the two.  Leah’s mother handed the package off without even glancing at the butler, “Bring me anything else in the safe besides the foodcoin.  I’ll be expecting you in no more than two days.”


            Leah fought hard not to visibly roll her eyes, “Their leader is here.  He’s roughing people up and asking about a green-eyed thief.”


            “That should save you some time then…”


            “I think I’m the wrong person to continue on with them.  They’re looking for me…”


            “They’re looking for a thief who stole nothing?”


            “I knocked two of them out.  I took their land coins.  If they find me, they could figure out-”


            “They’re looking for a shadow of you, not you.  If they found the real you, imagine the danger they would be in. 


            “But… Mother, -”


            The woman put a hand on Leah’s cheek, “Your father has his hands full, the Patrician Force has its hands full.  Those running that caravan will be clamoring to explain how a group of juvenile thugs managed to overcome them.  We need to know what we can about these boys and what else was in that safe.”  She put her other hand on Leah’s other cheek and held the girl’s face close to her own, “Get close to them.  Make amends if you need to.  Find out all you can before your father destroys them.”  She kissed her daughter curtly on the forehead and dismissed her with a gesture before Leah could object.    

…..

This is my first web-published story. Please let me know what you think in the comments below. To get the bi-weekly chapters I send out, just click here.

chapter 8 < > chapter 10

Special Author’s Note

This chapter certifies Leah as a spy rather than a common thief. Up to this point, I think it was implied that Leah comes from a humble background, but now it’s clear that she is a plant working for the very agency that her peers are trying to avoid.

My hope was to establish that while Leah’s relationship with her parents is strained, she still fears and relies on them. I thought it would be good to begin establishing how much Leah doesn’t realize her own independence in Koster City. The interest around the stone represents the first time Leah is considering actively working against her parents in any small way.

Along with Gizmo’s continued odd behavior, and Leah’s continued allowance of it (Why isn’t she riding her quattour through the streets like a normal person? Who takes their quattour on a walk?), I especially like the hints in this chapter about her father.

ALLYBOT pt8: The Visitor

forest in fog
old, small butcher shop
image available at Alamy.com

ALLYBOT

The Visitor

             Leah was the first to leave her covert meeting beneath the hidden market.  As usual, her association with thieves and conmen had proven to be profitable and informational.  It was bright outside, and the temperature was on the warmer end of comfortable.  Stepping out of the alley, Leah looked up at the sky and reveled in the day’s warmth. 

         Direct sunlight rarely touched the ground during the day.  Instead, Leah watched sunlight filter through the shifting purple and orange swirls obscuring the sky.  The “fog” had fully lifted. Here and there a beam of sun would escape the dusty mists but other than that, the landscape remained partially shaded by the Mannah. 

         The strange, colorful life forms were the reason Leah couldn’t make herself a campfire when she slept out in the woods.  They loved heat, and were strongly attracted to bright, hot light, but seemed to consider it an attack whenever they would catch fire.  For whatever reason, they didn’t seem to make the distinction that direct contact with fire was too hot, and whenever even one of them was burned, any others in the area would fly into something like a murderous frenzy.  Even in the dead of night, when the Mannah would lay still on the ground, the light of a fire could cause them to rise toward it: resulting in a swarm killing anything in the area.  People knew not to light any fires during dawn, dusk, or night. 

         Leah had planned to walk to the meat markets after the meeting, but before she’d made it far, she noticed a skinless, chrome quattour waiting in her path.  Gizmo lay curled in the same seeping position from before, but about a block away from the alley flea market.  She cringed at the thought of anyone noticing the strange behavior from what was supposed to be little more than a transportation device, but decided it was unlikely anyone was following her behavior closely enough to do so.  Leah strolled casually over to the Gizmo, nudging it with her elbow to wake it from its slumber.  “Let’s go.”, she said under her breath, and Gizmo moved into position in front of her.  Once Leah had mounted the quattour the two strolled back through the Ivy Lane district into the heart of downtown.  

         Eventually, they came to an intersection rife with myriad displays of goods, furs, and smoked meats.  The smells in this area were so strong, that a blind man could easily find the place after entering downtown.  Gizmo crept to a halt as Leah slid casually from the quattour’s back.  They’d entered a surprisingly quiet ally, and Leah nimbly climbed the fire-escape steps on the side of the building.  The old building must have been 9 stories high, but her destination was on the 3rd floor.  Two adjacent windows had been repurposed and extended to make a door.  Surrounding the creative opening were decorative signs reading “Meat Shop”, “BEST CHOPS”, and “Rare Meats”. 

         Sliding the door panel open, Leah was met with another surge of strong smells: robust seasonings, cooking meats, and burning charcoal.  The tall, middle-aged man behind a wide counter took one look at her and called over his shoulder, “Cole!”.  Another middle-aged man, shorter and kind of pudgy, came bursting through the clear flaps that separated the clerk’s area from the kitchen.  Upon seeing Leah, he smiled brightly.

         “Oh! Young Master.  Will you be having the usual?”

         “The same.”, Leah handed him one of the silver rings she’d brought from the apartment.  He handed it back to his clerk, and that man scuffled away.  A silver ring was worth at least a dozen food coins, and such payments weren’t kept upfront with the other change.

The pudgy butcher motioned for Leah to wait in one of the empty chairs and said, “You must do very good work to be paid so well so consistently.”

         Leah nodded cordially and stepped out of the meat shop.  She wouldn’t be winning any awards for congeniality any time soon.  She descended the steps and gave Gizmo some quick maintenance.  After a few minutes, the tall clerk leaned out of the win-door to let her know her order was almost ready.  She was entering the shop as he put the last touches on the packaging and handed it to her.  This one always eyed her suspiciously and did so as she made for the exit. 

         “Hold on…”, he said as he retrieved a tray of meat chunks from under the counter.  “We’ve got some new options coming out and you’re one of our regular customers.  For a while, we’re offering samples to our regulars.”  He pushed the tray towards her suggestively.

         Leah eyed the meats, but only smiled faintly before saying, “Maybe next time…”, and left the shop. 

         Leah secured her package in Gizmo’s storage containment and chose to walk beside her quattour as they headed south.  Before they could make it out of south downtown, Leah noticed a bunch of kids near an alley between two abandoned buildings.  They seemed to be gathered around something, and as Leah got closer, the crowd parted, and a bloodied young boy went flying through the opening. 

         For a moment, Leah could see clearly into the opening and instantly recognized the young man in the middle: a tall boy with muscular arms, golden hair, and wearing a bright red vest.  Beside him stood another muscular boy; shorter but holding a wide scimitar.  That one was definitely different from the one that had been guarding the safe last night.  Leah glanced away and maintained her pace to avoid drawing attention.  As far as she could tell, there were only a handful of the young ruffians from their group here.  Passing the crowd, she heard the thuggish boss’ words. “I’m looking for a green-eyed thief.  A girl… A girl who likes to steal things.  Maybe she’s new in town or a traveler…  Maybe she likes to leave town from time to time…”  He went on, fully captivating the crowd’s attention.

How did he get here so fast? Leah thought.  How did he know to look for me here? She had been sent on what she thought was a queer, but simple mission.  Remembering the slumbering thugs in their not-so-clever hideout, they hadn’t struck her as so determined to follow her trail all the way back to this city.  They certainly shouldn’t have been able to reach Koster City by today unless they had marched all night.  Now, she regretted her blunder in allowing one of the boys to see her face; even making out the color of her eyes. 

Careless!, she chastised herself, I should have altered my eye color just to be safe. Though, as she considered it, the presence of these raiders raised many more important questions. For one, only one of the raiders had seen her for the briefest moment, so how had they come to town with such an apt description of Leah? Had one of them faked being asleep while watching the whole theft? In addition, she’d administered her sleeping agent to the red-vested boss, but did he have some kind of immunity to it? That sure was to leave its victims weak and groggy for half a day.

          Leah knew that she had used the right concoction on the boys because she hadn’t brought any others.  Here he was though, late morning of the very next day, strong enough to rough some boys up and give a demanding speech.   Who is he? What is that stupid stone?  Leah was glad she hadn’t brought the thing with her.  It might be too dangerous to have on her during her next appointment.  In fact, she was beginning to think the thing may not be worth the price she would be paid for it after all.

         She knew she needed to find out more but was frustrated by knowing it would be extremely difficult to ask about it without drawing suspicion.  The only ones she knew were interested in the stone were the Patrician Force, her contractors, and Zinf.  Maybe she could ask Zinf, but she would have to think of a strategy that didn’t make the con-lady suspicious while circumventing Zinf’s typical conversational misdirections. 

         She shook herself from her thoughts as the high-pitched squeal of a constable’s whistle echoed through the alleys.  The crowd of adolescents dispersed quickly as two constables strolled toward where they had been gathered, clearly in no rush.  The authorities joked lightly with each other as they passed the beaten boy crawling from the street.  They regarded him with brief interest, then continued on their path into another alley passageway. Once she was sure they were alone, Leah guided Gizmo into a heavy brush and opened a trapdoor with resilient bushes growing out of its top.  The hole was large enough for both of them and the pair hurried through the portal before letting it drop closed silently.  In the dark, with only Gizmo’s glowing eyes for a guide, the two made their way through the secret passage into the aristocratic district.

…..

This is my first web-published story. Please let me know what you think in the comments below. To get the bi-weekly chapters I send out, just click here.

chapter 7 < > chapter 9

Special Author’s Note

This is the last descriptive chapter before the story really begins to take off. There’s a lot of subtle world-building here with a paragraph about people’s relationship with the Mannah, a little about the relationship of the local authorities with people, and quiet clues about details that will be important later.

I like how Gizmo’s behavior continues to raise questions that Leah seems to be actively ignoring. Imaginge if your 1998 Camry was sitting outside waiting at the curb for you when you left the grocery store. But you’d walked to the store. How would you explain this to your friends? Gizmo was easily the most fun character for me to write.

Also, in this chapter is the only mention of Cole the butcher, who will eventually have his own upcoming story.

ALLYBOT pt5: the City 2

forest in fog
Meeting attic
taken from the Texas Monitor, originally from shutterstock

ALLYBOT

The City pt.2 – the meeting

            “Kenneth!…”, the slender woman stood from the table, looking aghast.  Kenneth was smiling at them with an expression like an aristocrat that just had legal charges against him dropped.  Leah noticed that the woman was trembling slightly.  She raised a hand to her throat as she spoke. “…but you got mitted… by the Patrician authorities.”

            “And here. I. Stand”, Kenneth didn’t miss a beat.  He was still standing there, smiling with his hands out as if he were waiting for a group hug.  The teenaged boy and Juliette glanced at each other briefly before suddenly starting away from the table; heading for opposite sides of the room.  Leah pivoted sharply and headed back for the stairwell she came through.  As she darted, she honed her senses to detect movement near the exits. 

            Each of the people in this room was an accomplished thief.  As far as each of them knew, they had never fallen under suspicion of the common authorities.  The Patrician Force, however, was a more dangerous matter entirely.  The Patties were an elite network of taskforce investigators employed by the very wealthiest citizens of the New Democracy.  They were notorious for their brutal policies and sting operations.  If someone were arrested (or “mitted” as it was commonly called because of the glove-like clamps used during arrests) by the Patties, there was a good chance they would never be seen again. 

The fact that Kenneth was standing here, seemingly unharmed, strongly suggested that he had betrayed the group and that there was a Pat force outside even now, ready to bust the whole group.  Besides the bustling market overhead, Leah couldn’t detect any indication of people waiting in ambush.  If there is a task force up there, she thought, they must be remarkably well hidden.  No one else in this room knew about Leah’s augments; by her reckoning, a group sent to ambush a handful of thieves in the poorest district of Koster shouldn’t be prepared for what she could do.

            “Wait!”, Kenneth called out, raising his hands, “They don’t know I’m gone.” 

            Reggie was standing now, “It’s true Lads.  Let’s hear him out.”  Reggie seemed to address any group of people as “Lads”.  Why he did that was beyond anybody.  His family had been in Koster for several generations, and he’d spent his entire life here.  He was well known, and had family all over the city, deeply entrenched in Koster’s social ecosystem.  Addressing the long-haired woman, “I checked the place good.  I got here two hours early and I got guys watching the place.”  Over time, Leah had realized that Reggie had a penchant for hyperbole.  She guessed that “guys watching the place” meant a couple of cousins outside only barely inconspicuous. 

            “How did you know I’d be here?”  Kenneth had dropped his hands and was glaring at Reggie, “Are you always so cautious?”

            “Please!, I knew you were missing before you did.”  Reggie was tossing his cane back and forth between his hands, almost mindlessly, as he chuckled lightly.

            “Kenneth frowned comically, not even the guards know I’m missing…”  The rest of the room had remained frozen, but after glancing at Leah (who had turned back to the group), Juliette returned to her chair.  Lajuana turned back toward the table but didn’t sit.

            The woman eyed the two men cautiously, “You were mitted by the Patties…”

            Reggie’s expression turned to real concern, but Kenneth said, “Easy Zinf…  It’s not like they were after me.  I got pegged on someone else’s scene.  You were there!”  Rumor had gotten around that Kenneth had gotten picked up a few days ago for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Some crew of thugs had conspired to steal a rare jewel coming into Carver by ship.  Apparently, they had planned an elaborate ambush at the East dock, but it had been foiled by Pat Force agents who’d been waiting in an ambush of their own. 

Local constables, part of the operation but not in the inner loop, had picked up Kenneth for “looking suspicious”.  It wasn’t uncommon for the Patties to order anyone mitted this way to be held until they were satisfied with their related investigations, regardless of how innocent or even relevant to the case they were.  Such people were often forgotten about, and many had been held for weeks or even years. 

      Kenneth’s story checked out in the minds of all who were present (the local jailers were in no way a brilliant security force), but that didn’t explain how Reggie was able to get out.  After a moment’s thought, Leah addressed Zinf, “Were you two together when he got grabbed?”

She nodded once, “We were scoping out something else… didn’t pan out…  We were making our way out of the area when six Patties walked in with a flood of Badges.”  Local constables were commonly referred to as “Badges” because of the forest green and sapphire metals they wore on their chests.

“How did Kenneth get mitted?” continued Leah.

“We hadn’t gotten far from where we were…  We were waiting for a small caravan to go by.  Turns out the caravan was the sting.  Some of the guys working the score got into scuffles with the Badges, so we tried to shuffle away with the crowd…”

“…But one of those baby amateurs! Pushed a Badge into me and we both hit the ground.  They mitted me for looking suspicious!”  It was clear that Kenneth was highly annoyed by the entire affair. 

“Why?” Juliette spoke in a voice with high resonance.  She tended to blend her words together in such a way that it often seemed she was imitating song when she spoke.  Leah had included that in her report.  “Why’d they even bother to look at you?”

“I barely had time to hit the ground before the locals were all over me.  They helped the Badge up and started wailing on me.  You know how those animals are.”  Kenneth grunted in derision. Lajuana looked at Leah and they both glanced at Zinf, who was nodding mildly at Juliette. 

Reggie tapped his cane twice on the floor, “He’s here because he bribed a few guards.”  He said this while glancing from Juliette to Leah, then pausing a moment on Zinf before continuing, “Apparently no one thinks he’s worth anything to the investigation, and they don’t think any Patties will want to see him.  Just thought I’d throw that out before anyone asked…”  Juliette was about to speak, but Reggie held up a hand as he continued, and the green-clad teen frowned in annoyance, “But I think he and Zinf would disagree on how the job panned out.”

“No!”, Kenneth extended a hand in a gesture of warning, “I came here to make sure you didn’t go after it.”, he was looking at Zinf now, “Knowing you, you were gonna get this whole group after it.”

“Actually, we were about to discuss something else…”, Juliette said, suggesting that this discussion be closed.

“Fine, fine…  I need to get back to my cell before I become an actual suspect.”

Kenneth began to turn and leave when Lajuana asked, “What were they after?”  Kenneth paused and turned back to glare at Lajuana, but the young man pressed on, “What was the score they were after?  I mean, to get the Patties involved, it must-“

“They were after some jewel.  A brown crystal or something.  …not that you should worry yourself about it.”  It took everything in Leah not to visibly quicken at the mention of the stone.  “It wasn’t there anyway…”

“What?!”, Zinf almost hummed in surprised dismay, and everyone turned to look at her.  Leah thought she had never seen the woman look so surprised.  She looked more shocked at that moment than when Kenneth had first walked in.

Kenneth turned to Zinf, his face softening but taking on an expression of resignation, “The Patties replaced the thing with a fake.  The real one is supposed to be on its way here some other way.”

“If you know that,” Lajuana chimed in, glancing at Juliette, “then others know it too.  It might be that…”

“Best not worry about it, boy.”, Kenneth’s face now took on a strange, fatherly expression of disapproval.  Having been interrupted for the second time, it was Lajuana’s turn to frown in annoyance.  Kenneth went on anyway, “The Pats are all over that score, and they’re not gaming a bit.  I doubt those amateurs will see a trial.”  Lajuana said no more, and Kenneth waved the room goodbye, glancing once at Zinf before he left the room.

Leah let her senses follow Kenneth down the hall before he left through a stairwell that opened onto another alley.  “I came here to make sure you didn’t go after it.” His words stayed with her as she waited silently for Juliette to resume her proposal. 

The two teens who were not Leah outlined a job that would have them working in the upper-middle-class district.  An old shed on an empty residence was used to smuggle stolen goods into the market, where a wealthy merchant sold them to high-class clientele (at a heavily discounted price, of course).  The plan was to hit the shed just after a delivery when the score was the greatest.  The way it was planned, it should be a simple “smash and grab”, and Zinf had agreed to help Juliette with a preemptive recon. 

Leah was characteristically quiet during the meeting but agreed to help if Zinf and Juliette’s recon confirmed that it would be a worthwhile job.  Of course, she’d be watching the other thieves for their intel anyway. Learning who this “wealthy merchant” was would likely be more useful information to Leah than the score itself.

…..

This is my first web-published story. Please let me know what you think in the comments below. To get the bi-weekly chapters I send out, just click here.

chapter 4 < > chapter 6

Special Author’s Note

Feeling more confident about Leah’s role in the story, I began dropping hints about her treachery in this chapter. She’s already established as a cautious and secretive loner; Leah’s dubious nature is beginning to be revealed.

I mentioned in the last post that this meeting would help to establish the stone as a possible McGuffin. While the dialogue suggests that it may be an object of incredible importance, it also presents a case where what people are chasing isn’t what they think it is. Clever readers may notice the signs of parallelism.

The last major purpose of this chapter is to continue the mystery around Leah by raising the stakes a bit. The group is talking about other jobs, while every conversation just makes Leah more interested in the stone. Also, who is Leah reporting to? Is Leah a thief or a spy?

I’m especially interested in criticisms of chapters like this one, since they kind of dance on that edge of being interesting or asanine. Let me know what you think of this chapter in the comments below.

ALLYBOT pt3: Gizmo

forest in fog

ALLYBOT

THE CITY (part 1: Gizmo)

THE sound of the river was louder than usual.  Leah awoke to a loud “crack!” as a floating plank splintered against a rock.  She sprang awake, alert!  Glancing around her, the nearby river was already obscured by the morning fog-dust as the sun began to rise.  Sunrise and sunset were usually the only times the sun could be seen throughout the day.  Leah remembered stories of the fogs that would rise many generations ago.  They were said to be colorless and easier to see through.  They wouldn’t rise so high to blot out the sky, and they weren’t swirling flakes in shades of orange and deep purple.

Very near her, she could just make out the bushes carved in a five feet radius from where she lay.  She let her head clear, took a deep breath, and honed her senses like she’d been trained to do.  Letting her breath out slowly, Leah opened her eyes.  Despite this “fog” actually being more like a dusting of flakes, she still experienced a significant increase in vision.   Even if the fog were the kind one could see through, she’d still have a notable advantage over non-augmented people. 

Her perception increased to more than 120ft around her. She perceived the colors more vividly; was more aware of depth and distance.  The subtleties of the dust’s swirling patterns revealed themselves to her more readily.  Reading them, she could easily perceive the locations of objects in her vicinity; especially moving ones.

Leah squinted her eyes and stilled her heartbeat.  The river seemed even louder now, and she could hear the collisions of myriad twigs and branches.  Somewhere upstream, a tree had been cut to pieces and fallen into the river.  A harvester was nearby; meaning there was also a crew of ill-tempered foresters operating it.  She couldn’t hear any sign of them now, and so she decided they were probably far enough away for her to make an unmolested escape.

She’d slept under a short blanket that resembled the forest floor.  She stood and gave it a few good shakes before folding it and checking her inventory.  There were no signs of creeping opportunists or curious night forest creatures; it seemed she’d made it through the night undisturbed.  Tucking the blanket under one arm, Leah took a quick inventory of the pouches and pockets on her person.

She resisted the urge to peer into the small sack attached to her utility belt.  Doing so would unleash a light so radiant, it would demolish any chance she’d have of getting back into the city undetected.  Leah would have to be satisfied fingering the sack for the jagged contours of the brown stone inside.

A person from her social order would have been fitted with various augments from youth.  She had some that enhanced her physical abilities in concentrated bursts, but Leah’s augments were focused on her senses and perception, making her a specialist of recon and surveillance.  That was very unusual for a person of her “social standing”.

She focused her optical receptors to detect infrared waves and began scanning the looming fog around her.  The river was on her left, and the rising sun at her back.  To her right, about 20 meters away, she saw the glow of two purple, cat-like eyes staring in her direction.  “Gizmo”, she whispered, and the eyes began to move directly toward her.

They seemed to be squinted, those eyes, like a predator, silently stalking prey.  As they approached, Leah enjoyed the momentary infrared streak that they left in their wake.  They bobbed and swayed as if attached to a saber-toothed tiger, creeping closer in preparation to pounce.  Leah took two steps towards them before they did. 

The eyes seemed to be drawn up suddenly by some unseen tractor beam before falling again only a few meters away and staring at her.  The swirling dust suggested that the thing had just evaded some ravine or chasm.  Leah leaped into the air.  Aided by her augments, she easily cleared a full meter and a half vertical.  The thing spun, its eyes now closer to her, but facing away.  She landed on Gizmo’s back and righted herself comfortably before whispering, “Koster”.

Gizmo lunged once before bounding over the unseen chasm and taking off with silent speed.  They cleared a few brushy patches before the thing began an ascent of a bushy hill.  The few trees here were incredibly massive with long thick branches.  Gizmo leaped further and further upward, bounding between high branches until Leah was able to see briefly over the fog.  The top layer of the dusty stuff was orange and warm. 

Peering over the top, Leah was met with the intense rays of Sun’s light.  She’d been concerned that she’d overslept but was now reassured.  The fog thickly blanketed the Earth, and she expected to reach the city while it was still high morning.  Leah had rarely approached the city from due west, but she could make out the tall spires in the distance and estimated that Gizmo’s speed would get her there inside of an hour.

They began their descent, coming down the other side of the hill, and Leah ducked close to Gizmo to avoid low-hanging branches.  They cleared the forest wall onto a wide clearing at the bottom of the hill, where the fog was higher now and Gizmo’s body was visible beneath it.  The thing’s chrome skeleton reflected the orange and purple hues refracted by the dust as Gizmo’s body contracted in a quadrupedal fashion.  A long, nearly prehensile tail oscillated vertically behind it and its massive head housed the HUD Leah had grown accustomed to.

Gizmo was a quattour: a vehicle designed to operate like a four-legged animal.  This particular model was equipped for exploration and excavation. It had 2 small-yield rocket launchers in its forelegs and two plasma cutters in its hind legs. The tip of the tail housed a revlight: an energy cannon that could be “tuned” to emit a laser beam at varying intensities.

“Plasma cutter” was a misnomer for an energy field used to slice through solid objects.  Gizmo’s had an impressive 3-meter reach and 160-degree spread. They could cut through just about anything, except Gizmo’s tail which was encased in latium (a metal developed specifically for working with plasma cutters. 

Leah knew none of this when she selected Gizmo’s model.  She chose it because she thought it was cute and because it was one of the last models available to her.  It was sitting in a corner, curled up and covered with lavender, brown, and gray fur designed to resemble the coat of a calico cat.  Because Leah spent most of her time in the streets and slums, she’d stripped the fur and most of the luxurious parts away until the quattour was little more than a skeletal shell of a vehicle.

The quattour wasn’t much to look at, but Leah knew Gizmo’s secret lay in its mind-core; or “cortex” as the crafters called it.  The mechanical portion was merely a shell, but the cortex gave it functionality and …personality?  Leah had been given the mind-core as a gift upon graduation from scout training.  She didn’t even have a shell for it at the time but was assured it was one of the very best mind-cores she could have received. 

Not being one for imaginative names, Leah named the quattour Gizmo, much to the ridicule of her contemptuous peers.  Together, Gizmo’s mind-core and shell made one of Leah’s most useful tools.  Because of it, she was able to make frequent trips out of town, including the occasional reconnaissance mission.  What she was coming back from now, however, was nothing like that and she deliberated over whether or not she would tell anyone what she had been up to.

The lower gates of the city were coming into view as Gizmo approached with incredible speed.  The gates were 2 huge slabs of dingy gray stone affixed to hinges and pulleys.  As Leah drew nearer, the stone slabs began to swing open.  She was a frequent enough traveler that the gate guards knew her well.  Two of them were standing just inside the entrance with the rifles, and when she was near enough, they stepped to either side of the entrance to make way for her.  Gizmo slowed to a trot as she entered, and as the gate behind her began to close, she made a slow circle, waving at a cordial greeting to all those manning the city portico.

This is my first web-published story. Please let me know what you think in the comments below. To get the bi-weekly chapters I send out, just click here.

chapter 2 < > chapter 4

Special Author’s Note

This is where I started to get excited about this story. Lukas and David’s chapter was a prelude to the real misdirection in this story. This is the chapter where I introduce the real hero of the story but the whole chapter is from Leah’s perspective. I knew Leah would likely be the story’s main antagonist, and that her POV would be looking at other menacing characters as the “greater” antagonists.

The revelation of Leah as the bad guy would happen gradually while David’s story would set him up as Gizmo’s secondary protagonist. That didn’t pan out exactly as I’d predicted. While people came to accept Gizmo as a protagonist, I think most people still regarded Leah as the main protagonist at the end of the story. I think that’s mainly because the story is told mostly from her perspective. Most of David’s story is told from “the-watcher-in-the-sky’s” perspective and even Gizmo’s story develops through Leah’s eyes.

I attempted the tricky feat of having a primary hero described only through other character’s interactions while inhabiting a role that seems like a natural secondary/helper character at best. Having read through the whole story several times, I don’t think even Leah ever realizes that much of what’s happened has really been according to Gizmo’s wishes.