ISOLATION, a sci-fi/fantasy novel. Buy Now.
ISOLATION Buy Now
The Chronicles of the Survivors of Johanum, Book 1
by Tiffany Aurora
We know it now by many names, but in those days it was known by only one: Johanum.
The writer in me longs to describe it to you, but I’m afraid any such attempt would do you a great disservice. Johanum is not so much understood as experienced. So I will let the story speak for itself. I ask you only to reserve judgment.
To all who have walked in Johanum
May you find yourself among friends
For you are not, nor have you ever been, alone.
It was not the day I had planned.
I was preparing for one of the biggest evenings of my career. Finally, I was getting the chance to breathe, for I had been struggling professionally. A tenure-track professor with reasonable popularity among my fellow faculty, I nonetheless was not particularly popular among my students. Each spring, I ranked in the bottom quartile of the professors on campus, thanks in large part to my “mumbling, incoherent lectures.”
I spent years searching for the one thing that would set me apart. I knew the answer would lie in research, for I hated public speaking, and I was not terribly fond of students.
Six semesters back, I found my niche: Interplanetary military strategy.
Never mind that my own planet, Middlestan, had been the first to sign our solar system’s peace treaty. The treaty required a surrender of our right to bear arms and handed that exclusive right to the powerful men in the tall, ugly towers on the planet Bisurakhan. Bisurakhan, in exchange, bore responsibility for protecting themselves and the other eight planets in our solar system.
Interplanetary military strategy. It was an unusual line of research, in large part because it attracted unwanted attention from the Curators. Curators were the men sent from Bisurakhan to observe all important developments and record them in our universal Logs.
I knew my choice was risky. But I needed to take a risk if I was ever going to advance.
So I gambled. And I won.
Last week, all my research was published in the paper, “Future Alliances and the Planets that Build Them.” By week’s end, I was a small-time celebrity.
Leaders on the planets Cornersville and Kabira called to congratulate me. Faculty members at the university treated me with a new level of respect. Dean Everett Corban summoned me to his office and handed me a memo from Bisurakhan’s president, the Honorable Khalid Basjid. President Basjid congratulated the university on its homegrown talent, even while he “acknowledged it a shame that Middlestan has neither need nor reason for producing such insightful material.” The dean called the memorandum “highly entertaining,” and promised me that the university would continue to support my research, as long as I made sure to “keep Basjid on his toes.”
Tonight would be a reception, followed by the official presentation of my paper. Dean Corban himself would be presenting the summary. I was a terrible speaker, and this was an important night for the university. The dean wanted to make sure everything went well. Truth be told, I didn’t mind. I was happier hiding.
A university driver pulled up to my house at 6:05. Black clutch firmly in hand, I locked my front door and walked down the sidewalk to the street.
A large man dressed in black exited the front of the car and reached for my door, waving me into the back seat. As the door closed, I caught a glimpse of a tattoo winding its way up the nape of his neck.
We arrived at the university forty minutes later. The driver’s assistant opened my door as wordlessly as before and averted his eyes as I passed.
“Dean Corban has the strangest taste in contractors,” I muttered, walking up the stairs to the building’s entrance.
“Welcome, Dr. Kanale. What was that you said?” An overly friendly student with a toothy grin had been placed at the door. Dean Corban believed it was important for visitors to feel welcome, and he routinely offered extra credit to students who would volunteer their time to work events or fill seats.
“It’s not important,” I replied. “Am I headed to Barclay Hall?”
“Yes, Professor Kanale. Tonight’s festivities will take place in Barclay Hall, which is directly down that hallway, then to the right. Just follow the signs.”
“I know where Barclay Hall is,” I said with a scowl.
The young man looked taken aback but he quickly recovered. “Of course you do. Forgive me for stating the obvious. We are so delighted to be celebrating you tonight, Professor. Your paper is truly groundbreaking.”
“You read it, did you?”
He stuttered, and I rolled my eyes. “You didn’t read it. This is what we teach these days. Flattery and empty compliments.” I took off down the hallway in a huff, ignoring the withering stares of nearby students.
With any luck, I was on my way to a permanent research position. No more students. Ever.
The foyer outside Barclay Hall was full of lively conversation. My entrance drew an instant round of applause. I dutifully forced my face into a painful smile. Three history professors were standing near the doors I had just entered and quickly struck up a conversation.
“I don’t know how many people noticed,” began Dr. Butch Moody, a middle aged, stocky man, “but I thought you would want to know that your reference to the Peace Treaty on Page 32 contained an error. It listed the signing date as the fifth day of the tenth month, yet it made no reference at all to which planet’s time signature you were using. If interpreted under a time signature other than that of Middlestan or Cornersville, your paper could be perceived as factually inaccurate.”
I blinked. Some of my students referred to him as “Dr. Bitchy Mood” during finals week. The name fit.
“It would also serve you well to name Quanderos as the signatory location in future papers, should you spend much time on the Treaty’s history again,” said Dr. Catherine Cassidy.
“I didn’t spend much time on it in this one,” I answered, trying not to sound dismissive. “I didn’t think it necessary to name Quanderos. It’s common knowledge.”
“And it is common knowledge for us, the well-educated,” Dr. Cassidy replied, patting my arm. She came from a family of celebrated academics and took every opportunity to make sure others knew. “It’s just that I like to encourage my students to read innovative research, like yours, and these students, well…they know so little about history these days.”
I was sympathetic. She was right. History classes in primary school had become painfully rudimentary.
“If Dean Corban continues to fund my research, I will give Quanderos more attention in the future,” I promised. Professor Cassidy’s smile let me know that I had responded correctly.
Dr. Moody looked at me with continued displeasure. The third person in their circle, a visiting professor from Cornersville, offered a friendly smile and kept quiet.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around.
“You did it! You really did it!” There stood Dr. Brian Fieldbein with all his boyish enthusiasm. He grabbed me in a bear hug and crushed my face against his shoulder. It’s what he always did when he was happy and a little bit drunk.
I had a genuine fondness for Brian. He had been one of my only real friends at the university. He looked the part of the wild professor: clothes always mismatched, too many buttons left undone, and socks at curious lengths climbing up his legs, a fact that was hard to miss given how unfortunately short the pant legs were on all his trousers. He was fifteen years my senior, and had given himself a role in my life somewhere between mentor and father figure. Sometimes I wanted to strangle the cheerfulness out of him, but quietly I envied his positivity.
Dean Corban approached with two men. They were dressed in formal attire that looked military in nature. The dean slapped Brian on the back good-naturedly, then firmly grasped his shoulder and moved him several steps to the side.
“Let me introduce our honored guests,” Dean Corban bellowed, signaling to Brian his exit. Brian bowed, winked in my direction, and moved to join his fellow law professors.
“Professor Kanale,” Dean Corban began, donning his no-nonsense administrator voice. “May I introduce you to Calif Asamov and Antoine Duval, Chieftans of Bisurakhan’s armed forces, sent here on behalf of President Basjid, the most honorable leader of the same planet.”
We exchanged pleasantries. I could feel their weighted looks. It was as if they had been sent to size me up.
How disappointed they must be, I thought ruefully.
Among all the military might of Bisurakhan, only one ranks higher than the Chieftans, who are commonly referred to as Chiefs. The Logs refer to the military’s highest leader as the “Commander,” and no one in Middlestan (or any other planet that I know of) has seen his face. Even the Logs contain no description of his physical appearance. But these two men, standing before me, were second in command of the entire military force of our solar system. I was starstruck.
My adulation quickly turned to anxiety.
“I’m sorry, forgive me,” I said, interrupting the small talk that had sprung up between Dean Corban and the two chiefs. “Have I put someone in danger?”
Both men stared back intently. I shifted nervously from one foot to the other. Even the dean began to feel uncomfortable. I could tell by the way his foot was tapping the floor.
Chief Calif Asamov was an older man, approaching sixty, with a well-groomed beard and kind blue eyes. “President Basjid sends his greetings,” he finally said. His voice was low and soothing. I felt myself lean forward, hoping he would continue to speak. “We mean Middlestan no harm. We are here merely as a…precaution.”
“I don’t understand,” I replied, “but even so. Surely there are plenty of lower ranking officials – a General, perhaps? – who could have come instead.”
“As I said, a simple precaution,” Chief Asamov repeated. “Hopefully one which will come to nothing. Then you will not need your question answered, and I won’t need to lie to you.”
I was taken aback by his bluntness. But I liked him. I trusted him. Instinctively.
This must be how Bisurakhan became so powerful, I thought to myself. I had never actually met anyone from Bisurakhan before, military representative or otherwise. They get people to trust them when they’ve done nothing to earn it. Incredible. I’m going to explore this in my next paper.
Dean Corban’s foot tapping picked up speed. I could feel my own anxiety rising. These men said they meant no harm, but they had never visited our university before. Why would they be here if someone wasn’t in danger? My growing anxiety gave way to one of my worst habits: word vomiting.
“So, I don’t know if you read it all the way through, but my theory on the spatial reconfiguration of the planets is enough to make me into a wannabe physicist. What good could ever come of that theory anyway? I mean, of course there are resulting adjustments to troop disbursement needs, and all geography-based weaponry would need to be reexamined. I’ve considered bringing Reality Persuasion into my next round of research, because, after all, who doesn’t love an academic arguing ad nauseam about an unproved hypothesis while taking herself far too seriously. Even your own military denies the plausibility of Reality Persuasion as a legitimate method of reliable intelligence acquisition. Even so – “
I don’t know how long I would have continued if Brian hadn’t heard me and reappeared, rescuing me from myself the way he often did.
“Well now, I see you have made your introductions. Allow me to introduce myself. Brian Fieldbein, Head of Department, Middlestan Law Circle.”
They exchanged greetings and Dean Corban took his own cue to exit.
“I do believe it is nearly time for the program to begin. Gentlemen, if you will excuse me. If you will excuse us.” He grabbed me by the elbow and ushered me alongside him toward the stage and the hustle of stagehands moving the podium into view.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered.
“You don’t need to be sorry. Just – “ He stopped and glanced over his shoulder. Both chiefs steadily returned his gaze. “These men are very powerful. They could destroy our careers, destroy the reputation of this university. Just…don’t say anything stupid.”
“You mean don’t say anything.”
“Your words. Not mine.”
I took one of the front row seats near the podium. Dean Corban shuffled his papers once, twice, then a third time, before taking the seat to my left. His foot began tapping the floor. Every now and again, his knee bounced, bumping into mine.
I scowled, sat up straighter, and shifted away.
He wasn’t the nervous type. The dean was political and savvy – all the things that make for a successful administrator. But he was also kind and conscientious. Faculty and students alike respected his leadership. The presence of the chiefs had unnerved him.
The ceiling lights dimmed and a crowd of several hundred made their way inside, filling the plush auditorium seating and leaving twenty or so students to stand in the back of the room. The chiefs took seats at the front.
A dozen uniformed men had been placed strategically around the room near the exits. They wore black slacks with a silver stripe down each pant leg, and black suit jackets with varying degrees of embroidered silver vines.
These men were members of Bisurakhan’s military. Khanists, as they liked to be called. I recognized the uniforms. They were described in the Logs.
The dean’s right knee was bouncing furiously.
Barclay Hall’s front row of seats was customarily reserved for any Curators who chose to attend. Curators are the Log-keepers. They travel between planets to record significant events and make themselves available to government officials who have questions about developments on other planets.
Curators are curious creatures. They are regular men, I’m told, though they seem a species onto themselves. Each has an uncomfortably high-pitched voice and long, black fingernails. Their facial features appear a bit stretched, the result of frequent travel between planets and time signatures. They have a habit of drumming their fingers incessantly against any available surface. At some point in the past decade, they self-adopted a uniform: a thick, taupe-colored cloak with a hood. Among crowds, curators don the hood and avoid eye contact. They slide in and out of public spaces, unannounced but never unseen, and the general public seems to prefer it that way.
Eight Curators entered Barclay Hall and took their seats in the front row. Eight was a bit high, but no cause for concern. Today’s turnout would ensure immediate reporting to leaders on the other planets.
Dean Corban jumped from his chair as the clock in the back of the hall struck eight o’clock. He approached the podium, tapped the microphone to make sure it was live, then launched full steam ahead.
“Good evening! Friends, colleagues, students, and most esteemed guests.” His voice was warm and pleasant, showing no sign of stress. He singled out and waved to a few key members of the audience before continuing. “Let me welcome you to Middlestan Accelerated University, the most distinguished and highly awarded university on our planet. We are also, may I humbly point out, continually ranked among the Top 5 of all higher learning institutions across our solar system.”
Applause filled the room. The students standing in the back began whooping and hollering, a sign of their enthusiasm for the dean more than their love for our dark halls of learning. A few of the visiting faculty from Charisburg, Cornersville, and Kabira grumbled good-naturedly. Dean Corban smiled and began to relax.
“We are here tonight to officially present the findings of our beloved and most esteemed colleague, Dr. Josephine Kanale.”
I stood for the obligatory round of applause.
And that’s when I saw them.
They were so unfamiliar, so unexpected, I couldn’t help but stare.
Three men had appeared in the back of the auditorium. I think they were men. They were tall, easily surpassing seven feet. They seemed to have materialized out of thin air.
The tallest one, the one in the middle, locked eyes with me. A burning sensation pierced my skull. I stumbled backwards, rocking my head in my hands. I tried to speak, but no sound emerged. Even as I willed the dean to turn around, to see me, to see them, no one moved in my direction. No one noticed the men who burn with their eyes.
The pain subsided. I sat back in my seat. Cautiously I raised my eyes, careful to keep my gaze at floor-level. The men wore outfits resembling long linen tunics. I could see the hems of their garments brushing the ground. They were still there.
I turned and met the gaze of Chief Asamov. He was studying me carefully. I tilted my head toward the back of the auditorium. Slowly, he turned, looking behind him, then scanning the circumference of the room. He returned his gaze to mine and shook his head ever so slightly.
Thinking perhaps they had gone, I lifted my head. The gaze was far more piercing this time. It stabbed through my head like a dagger. I cried out, but no one heard. Everyone was still listening to the dean, who kept talking and talking and talking.
Only the chiefs were looking at me. Both of them now. Neither seemed too concerned.
I decided to stand and get everyone’s attention. But I couldn’t. My feet were plastered to the floor. I could wiggle my toes, move my ankles, even rock my feet from side to side. But lift my legs I could not.
Then I heard it.
I knew it was the tall one who spoke. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew.
My legs lifted. They carried me forward. To the men with the burning eyes. To the tall one with the outstretched hand whose gaze I now steadfastly avoided. I was standing in front of him now.
“Josephine. We have come to take you home.”
And just like that, Barclay Hall and the world I had known disintegrated before my eyes.
We were left standing in the middle of a desert. The air was smothering and hot, the kind of heat that makes it hard to breathe. Then a harsh wind blew. I began to shiver uncontrollably.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“This is your home,” the man replied. “Don’t you remember it? Welcome to Johanum.”
BISURAKHAN (THE TURRIS, MILITARY HEADQUARTERS)
“She just ‘disappeared’?”
The question came from Chief Jorge Hernandez.
Urgent summons from the Turris had interrupted the chief’s quality time with his grandchildren. He hadn’t been happy about it when he arrived at the Communications Tower, but his annoyance shifted to concern as he exchanged messages over the central radio with the chiefs at Middlestan Accelerated University.
“Something was wrong, and she knew it,” Chief Antoine Duval said. “She was clueless before the ceremony. She seemed confused and perhaps a bit nervous at our presence, but she gave no indication that she was concerned for her own safety. But something changed during the presentation. I saw her looking at you, Calif. She saw something.”
“What I can’t understand,” Chief Calif Asamov responded, “is why we didn’t.”
“You saw nothing? Nothing at all?” Jorge repeated.
“Not a thing,” Calif answered. “We’ve talked to every one of our security guys, and no one saw or heard anything out of the ordinary. We have facial recognition confirmation on every person who walked into that auditorium. And we can confirm that every single one of them walked out.”
“Except Josephine,” added Antoine. “And this is where it gets tricky. Calif and I both saw her walk in. Everyone did, best we can tell. The whole audience gave her a round of applause, and several attendees have confirmed they saw her. They can confirm what she looked like, her outfit, how she wore her hair. She was definitely there. But her presence on our radar disappears inside that auditorium. She was on the radar in the lobby. But we went back and reviewed the footage, and she simply….disappeared…. as soon as she stepped into Barclay Hall.”
“What sort of security system do they keep around the auditorium?” Jorge asked. “Something has to be messing with our receptors.”
“That’s just it,” Antoine replied. “They don’t.”
“They don’t have a security system?” Jorge repeated. “If they told you that, they’re lying.”
“Sir, we already checked, and he’s right,” interrupted a voice. It was Officer Calvin Smith, one of the two communications engineers who had been sitting at the command desk, facilitating the transmission of signals between Bisurakhan and Middlestan. “There’s no identity security system within fifty feet of the university’s perimeter. Several of the Curators on-site have confirmed this. It was a decision made by the university president last year, meant to foster the free exchange of ideas without fear of reprisal. They have active weapons detection systems and pulse sensory systems across the entire campus. No identity system whatsoever.”
Jorge scowled. “That was a stupid decision.”
“Stupid as it may be, there’s nothing we can do about it now,” said Antoine.
“We can meet with the university president and demand that she install a proper security system,” Jorge replied.
“Later,” Calif said. “We can’t get distracted right now. We had one job. ‘Bring Josephine Kanale to Bisurakhan.’ That was the order. Now we have no Professor Kanale, and on top of that, it’s clear our security system has glaring deficiencies.”
“When do you expect the Commander to return?” asked Antoine.
Jorge looked down at the communications officers seated in front of him.“Can you tell me where the Commander is currently located? I think he left this yesterday.”
“He went to the Periphery with K-5,” Calvin answered, referring to one of the military flanks that regularly patrolled the solar system’s periphery. “They expect to return tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” Jorge repeated into the microphone.
“I heard him,” Antoine replied. “Any idea what time?”
Both officers shook their heads, then Calvin spoke up. “We don’t have any interaction with the Commander, but I can tell you that their pod is stationary right now.” He gestured to a small dot on the large screen that filled the front of the room. “They send a signal shortly before they begin the return voyage. Once that signal is received, you’ve got a couple of hours. At least three, maybe four, depending on the winds.”
“So come on back,” Jorge said. “We have work to do.”
“On our way,” Antoine replied.
The transmission signal went dark.
Jorge looked at the young communications officers. “Gentlemen, ready the landing pads. Send the chiefs and their men up to the Presidential Conference Room after they’ve been through detox. And you. Make whatever arrangements you need to. You’re working tonight. I want you both up in the conference room at 1:30.”
Both officers sat up taller.
“Don’t get too excited. This is not a reason to be excited.” Jorge grabbed his jacket from a nearby chair and left without another word.
Conversations were flying around the room.
“What system faults have we fixed within the past twelve months?”
“We’ve already fixed everything, that’s what I’ve been telling you.”
“I’m saying you didn’t.”
“This is not your area of expertise, General.” The woman who spoke didn’t bother to hide the animosity in her voice. “Why don’t you stick with your experiments and let me handle security.”
Calvin Smith and Joshua LeRoux, the communications officers from the Frequency Tower, had arrived a solid fifteen minutes before Jorge had instructed them to. They were clearly late. Calvin and Josh looked at each other, mystified.
“You boys want chairs?”
It was General Stanley Fossil. He had abandoned his argument with General Caroline Rivera, the general in charge of security, but he was seething with anger.
“Are we supposed to sit?” Calvin asked meekly.
“Never been here before, have you?”
“Why are you here tonight?”
“Chief Hernandez’s orders.”
“Which department?” He looked over at the right shoulder of Calvin’s uniform. “Comms?”
“Yes, sir. We staff the Frequency Tower.”
“That explains it. If I were you, I’d take a seat. Anyway, you’re standing in front of the door and blocking the people who are trying to get in.”
Calvin’s face blanched. He muttered an apology and moved to the side, looking for two empty chairs.
“I don’t like him,” Josh mumbled as he followed Calvin.
“Shhhh, don’t talk so loud.”
“He can’t hear me. It’s too loud in here.”
“Yeah, well – behave, why don’t you. Don’t get me in trouble.”
“I never get you in trouble.”
Calvin sighed and looked around the room. He was tired. Really tired. “Hey, do you think we’re allowed to get coffee?”
“How would I know?” Josh asked.
“There’s coffee over there.” Calvin gestured to a small table on the other side of the room.
“Then go get yourself coffee.”
“Yeah, but I don’t know if we’re allowed.”
“Why would anyone care?”
“Are you gonna get coffee?”
Josh didn’t get a chance to reply. Jorge was calling Calvin’s name from across the room. Calvin drew himself up to his fullest height and best posture and began pushing his way through the crowd. He was standing at attention in front of the chief before he realized Josh had followed.
“Officer Smith,” Jorge nodded, “and Officer LeRoux. At ease, men.”
“Yes, sir,” they both replied.
“You can forgo the formalities tonight. In this room we use only first names, no titles. Call me Jorge.”
“Yes, sir!” Calvin and Josh replied.
“Yes, sir, Jorge,” Calvin corrected himself. He winced at the awkwardness in his voice.
Jorge chuckled. His mood had lightened considerably. “It’s tough to give up, isn’t it? There’s nothing wrong with ranks and titles. But when they get in the way, it’s best to get rid of them. Gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the chiefs you heard on the radio: Calif Asamov and Antoine Duval.”
Calvin and Josh shook their hands. Calvin couldn’t bring himself to call them by name, so he bit his lip and stayed quiet. Josh mustered up a few words of greeting.
“I understand you were our eyes and ears at the Frequency Tower last night,” Calif said. “Jorge tells me you are also our top-ranking communication engineers. Thank you for your service.”
Calvin was struck by Calif’s deep and calming voice. Calif was an older man who carried an air of kindness and severity about him. It made Calvin trust him instinctively.
“You’re welcome, sir,” Calvin answered, basking in the glow of being recognized by a chief.
Jorge motioned for everyone to take their seats. It took a few minutes for the room to quiet down. The chiefs sat together, talking quietly amongst themselves. They looked up when two research officers entered the room. Calif gestured for them to take seats at the table, and Jorge called the room to order.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Jorge began. “It is my understanding that the Commander has left the Periphery and will be here with us before dawn. By now, you have all heard the report about the events in Middlestan. We have much to do.
“The Commander will want to be briefed on any known problems or deficiencies in our security system,” Jorge continued. “Now is not the time to defend your work, your departments, or the officers under your command. No one will be disciplined or on record for information provided here tonight. Our goal is to identify any and all system failures so we can take the necessary steps to repair them. This is our first order of business. Caroline, you’re in charge. Please work closely with Stanley, as there may be implications for our Reality Persuasion experiments.”
General Caroline Rivera was clearly displeased, but she nodded and kept silent. Stanley leaned back in his chair, a smug smile on his face.
“Next,” Jorge said, “we need a full report on everything we know about the way Johanum captures its prisoners. Obviously, none of us has been to Johanum, so we will have to rely on the reports in the Logs.” Jorge looked over at the two research officers. “You have two hours. Go and gather what you can.”
The research officers nodded, rose to their feet, and left.
“And finally,” Jorge continued, “our biggest problem. We need a plan to rescue Professor Kanale.”
“I’m sorry to call,” Calvin apologized. “I know you’re sleeping.”
“No, it’s fine, don’t worry about it. I wasn’t even sleeping.” Calvin heard the yawn in his wife’s voice and smiled. She was the worst liar. “How’s it going?” she asked.
“I have no idea why we’re here.”
“You said you had to go fix a problem.”
“Oh, there’s a problem all right. But I mean, I don’t know why Josh and I are here. These guys are talking about rescue missions, and psychological weapons, and these…like…magical people they’re calling survivors…and I don’t understand anything they’re talking about. We haven’t said a word the whole meeting. In fact, we haven’t spoken since we met the chiefs.”
“You met the chiefs?” Leah’s voice perked up. “Honey, that’s so exciting! You never get to meet anyone important.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“No, I just mean – “
Calvin laughed. “No, you’re right. They’re cool, and I’m glad we got to meet them. But I really don’t understand why we have to be here. I’d so much rather be home with you.”
“Well, you’re important now, honey. That means you have to go to meetings.”
“I don’t want to go to meetings. I want to sleep!”
“Hang in there. It can’t go too much later, can it? It’s four in the morning.”
“I know. The Commander is expected back soon. The chiefs will want to meet with him, so once he lands, I’m sure they’ll wrap up.”
“Calvin!” Josh called from his post at the conference room door.
“Break’s over. Gotta go.” Calvin hung up the phone and returned to the meeting.
The three chiefs were huddled at one end of the conference room. Caroline and Stanley were standing next to the research officers. Everyone else was claiming seats.
Josh motioned to a couple of chairs against the wall. He was holding two coffee mugs and handed one to Calvin.
“You got us coffee!” Calvin exclaimed, leaning over the steam and breathing deeply.
“See, I’m nice sometimes.”
“I can’t believe they expect us to work so late without caffeine. They should have coffee stations all over this room, and big signs that say, ‘Anyone who wants the coffee can drink the coffee.'”
“Who are you referring to?” Josh asked.
“The – chiefs, I don’t know.”
“You think the chiefs care who drinks coffee?”
“Whoever is in charge of these decisions then.”
“The Generals-in-Charge-of-Coffee-Consumption, you mean? Yes, I hear they’re real tough on guys like us.”
“Officers.” They looked up. Stanley was standing in front of them.
“Yes, sir,” they replied.
“Tell me, what sort of combat training do you get in comms these days?” Stanley oversaw several departments, including weapons development and intelligence acquisition. Neither Calvin nor Josh had ever seen him in the Frequency Tower.
“We’ve been through boot camp, sir,” Calvin replied.
“Boot camp, huh? So you’re telling me that if we sent you on a mission, you’d die?”
“No, sir!” Calvin protested.
“Probably,” Josh muttered.
“Well, I’ve got something you might be interested in,” Stanley said. “I need new participants for a series of experiments we’re running down in the Labs. Nothing big. You participate in a half-day simulation, you get a big fat bonus in your next paycheck. Interested?”
“Yes, sir!” Calvin replied enthusiastically.
Josh hesitated. “What sort of simulation, sir?”
“We’re testing weaponry against various terrain simulations we have reason to believe we might encounter in Johanum.”
“Is this a Reality Persuasion experiment?” Josh asked.
Stanley looked surprised. “How do you know about Reality Persuasion?”
“You’ve been talking about it all night, sir.”
“Ah. Yes, yes I have. I forgot you were here.”
“What can you tell us about the experiments, General?” Calvin interrupted. He didn’t want Josh to mouth off to the General and get them in trouble.
“There’s not much to tell. It’s an easy few hours, you make some extra money. Let me know if you’re ever interested.” Stanley walked away and took a seat at the conference table.
“I could use a bonus,” Calvin said, watching him leave.
“Don’t the Reality Persuasion experiments seem weird to you?” Josh asked.
“No, why would they?”
“We don’t get bonuses for anything. Why are they offering to pay us if it’s so easy and harmless? Why don’t they just make it mandatory?”
“All military experiments are voluntary. That’s the policy. But you get volunteers faster when you pay them. Anyway, I could use some extra money.”
Josh shrugged. “Do whatever you want. If I had a baby on the way, I’m sure I’d want the extra money too. Just don’t do anything stupid.”
Calvin sat, sipping his coffee, lost in thought. He and Leah were barely scraping by. Leah wanted to stay home when the baby came. He didn’t know how they would ever afford it, but he never said so out loud. He couldn’t stand the thought of crushing her dream. Leah had spent the last three weeks dreaming about a nursery. She knew they couldn’t afford it, but as she liked to say, “There’s no harm in dreaming, honey. It makes the days a little brighter.” He wondered how big that bonus was. Could it buy a crib? A rocking chair? Maybe a few gallons of paint? Josh had a bunch of paintbrushes left over from painting his apartment. Paint wasn’t too expensive. Even one fresh coat of paint would make Leah so happy.
“What goes on in that head of yours?” Josh asked, waving his hand in front of Calvin’s face.
“How much did he say they were paying?”
Josh chuckled. “He didn’t say. But I know a few guys who volunteered recently. I can find out.”
Josh hesitated before adding, “I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but you’ve heard the stories, right?”
“About some of the guys who have gone through the Reality Persuasion experiments. It’s more than just a simulation. They mess with your head.”
“What have you heard?”
“You know, what’s weird is that all the guys say it’s nothing. In fact, it’s almost boring. But then I keep hearing rumors about personality changes in volunteers have been through a few experiments. Gus Van Trop did a whole bunch of them. Old Man Quincy, the owner of that grocery store in my neighborhood, he said Van Trop went every week, for like six months. Bought his family a new house and his wife a new transport vehicle. He came home last week and blew his brains out.”
Calvin winced. “I had heard he passed away. But you know, Gus got roughed up pretty bad last year. That Periphery mission, do you remember the one where half the crew died? Those were his men. He was never the same after that.”
“So what are you gonna use the money for?” Josh asked. “Oh wait, I know. You’re going to buy Leah that nursery she keeps talking about.”
“She’d be so happy!”
“Well, hey, maybe I’ll join you. I could use a new bike. A loud one.”
“Single life’s been rough on you, hasn’t it?”
“Kat misses me.”
“I don’t think she does, buddy.”
Jorge gestured to Caroline and Stanley. “The floor is yours.”
“I’ll keep it brief,” Caroline said. “We have a couple security system modifications of note from the past year. It’s unlikely any of them impacts the recent events involving Dr. Josephine Kanale, but they may still be of interest.
“Over the last year, the Geospatial Reconnaissance department identified two environmental features that warp our identity security system’s ability to connect a pulse stamp with facial features. When this breakdown occurs, the system deletes the facial recognition data instead of identifying it as inconclusive. In theory, either of these system malfunctions could have taken place inside Barclay Hall, though the engineers believe it’s highly unlikely, and I’ll explain why.
“Two elements have been identified as causing system malfunctions. Neither of these elements exist in Bisurakhan, or in Middlestan, for that matter. They would have required outside introduction. The first element is Acidify. Acidify is present in the air on some planets outside our solar system and was first identified through missions to the Periphery. It causes rapid calcium buildup under the skin, resulting in permanent mutations or, in extreme cases, death.
“The second element is a compound our chemists do not fully understand but have dubbed ‘pre-bradycardia.’ It slows the heart rate dramatically at first contact, with heightened impact on the body over time. The irony is that humans continue to function as fully as before, they simply move at an increasingly slower pace, almost like they’re being played on a screen in slow motion. Remove exposure to the element, and the body instantly re-adapts. No indication of exposure, no long-term effects. None that we know of, anyway.”
“And you believe either of these elements could have been present in Middlestan?” Antoine asked.
Caroline shook her head. “Possible, certainly. But likely? No, not at all. The presence of Acidify has been ruled out, for obvious reasons. Pre-bradycardia is more complicated. But we don’t believe it was a factor.”
“But it could have been a factor,” Antoine said.
Caroline thought for a moment, then elaborated. “Hundreds of people were in Barclay Hall yesterday, yet only one of them – Dr. Kanale – disappeared off our radar. If pre-bradycardia had been present, we should have seen many disappearances. For it to only impact one person out of hundreds is something we haven’t seen before. Also, Bisurakhanatis respond differently than inhabitants of the other planets. We’re already living in a faster time signature. Over 90% of the Khanists who tested pre-bradycardia in the simulations were able to feel its impact on their movements. A return to a normal level of functioning brought an awareness that they had been functioning at a slower capacity. We had twelve of our men in that room, not including you and Calif. None of you reported such an experience.”
Calif and Antoine nodded in agreement, along with a dozen other men around the room.
“We need to remember, however,” said Antoine, “that the simulations are just that. Simulations.”
“The simulations have provided some of our best intelligence,” Stanley pointed out.
“Even so,” Antoine continued. “They are your attempt to reconstruct environments you don’t actually know. They are, by their very nature, inconclusive, and limited by the reach of our own intelligence. Let’s examine pre-bradycardia further. Have your teams pull together a full report that we can present to the Commander.”
Caroline nodded. Stanley rolled his eyes, clearly annoyed at Antoine’s comments. The tension between the two men was evident.
“Moving on,” said Jorge, gesturing to the research officers.
Officer Kim Wilson stood to her feet. Officer Ahmad al-Asfour stayed seated beside her. Kim cleared her throat once, twice, then a third time, fumbling nervously through a stack of papers in front of her.
“We’d look so much worse,” Calvin whispered.
“Agreed!” Josh replied.
“The Logs contain very limited information on Johanum,” Kim said. “A couple items of interest: It seems uncommon for people of Dr. Kanale’s caliber to be targeted. When a disappearance is noted in the Logs and presumed to involve Johanum, it typically involves a person rarely mentioned otherwise. And to that end, these presumed victims are never mentioned again.”
“We know there are survivors,” Antoine said. “What can you tell us about them?”
“That’s a problem, sir,” Ahmad replied, standing to his feet next to Kim. “We made the same assumption you did. But the Logs contain no such data. Once a person has disappeared, they do not reappear. We can’t find any evidence of survivors.”
“I have personally spoken with several survivors,” Antoine replied.
Ahmad nodded. “These ‘survivors,’ as we’re keen to call them, are supposedly known to others. We talked to some of our colleagues who reported conversations similar to yours. There’s this theory floating around that these ‘survivors’ have special powers, that they can do things the rest of us can’t. But no one can provide any details. No one knows the names of these ‘survivors,’ or where they live, or what they experienced during their time as ‘prisoners.’”
“Why do you keep doing that?” Antoine demanded.
Ahmad had been placing air quotations around the words “survivors” and “prisoners.”
“Because, sir, we have no conclusive evidence that such people exist. I’m sure the people exist, don’t get me wrong,” he rushed to add. “And obviously you’ve had the conversations you’re describing. But who’s to say, sir, that these people are being honest with you? Or perhaps they are honest, but mentally unstable. It’s possible these ‘Johanum experiences’ aren’t real, simply a figment of their imagination. Possibly the result of mental instability, or some sort of unresolved trauma. We have no conclusive evidence, sir, to substantiate the theory that their stories are real.”
“So you’re calling me a liar?” Antoine asked.
Ahmad’s face turned bright red. “No, sir. I’m not accusing you of lying, sir. But like I said, sometimes people’s memories are…damaged. Incomplete. Unreal, even. The Logs offer us no evidence that Johanum has survivors. I mean, even you, sir – do you know where these people are? The ones you talked to? Could you bring them here to talk to us?”
A murmur filled the room in response to the young officer’s bold but naive questioning of a chief.
“We can’t argue with what you found in the Logs,” Calif said. “If it’s not there, it’s not there.”
“This is a ridiculous excuse for intelligence,” Antoine said angrily.
Ahmad’s face turned a darker shade of red. Kim looked ready to hide under the table.
“We’re here right now to collect the reports we need for the Commander,” Calif replied. “We need to rely on the Logs, as our protocol dictates.”
Antoine looked at Ahmad and Kim and smiled coldly. “Did you find out any useful information at all?”
Ahmad shuffled his feet nervously. “The Logs are, at best, inconclusive about, uhhhh…” His voice faded away and he dropped his head, staring at the floor.
“Inconclusive about what, Officer?” Antoine asked.
Ahmad’s voice came out more like a croak. “About Johanum’s existence, sir.”
Antoine jumped to his feet. Jorge and Calif rose quickly and placed their hands on Antoine’s shoulders, pushing him back down.
“I wouldn’t want to be them right now,” Josh muttered, nodding towards the research officers.
“Why would they say such a thing?” asked Calvin. “Our military is preparing for an invasion from Johanum as we speak. We have been, for months.”
“These research folks aren’t military.”
“They haven’t seen the messages you and I see.”
“They still know we’re preparing for war.”
“The Logs are their specialty, Calvin, not military strategy.”
“It is a little weird that Johanum isn’t mentioned much in the Logs, don’t you think?”
“Is it?” Josh asked. “Maybe it pre-dates our Log system.”
“Our Logs are close to a hundred years old!”
“You want to hear something crazy?”
“Oh no. Not another one of your conspiracy theories.”
“It’s not my conspiracy theory. I didn’t come up with it.”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
“Well, I’m going to tell you anyway. Look, we’re talking about Johanum like it’s a real place. But what if – just what if! – what if it isn’t? What if it’s more of a concept? The name we give to enemies or threats we don’t know, the ones we can’t identify.”
“We’re receiving actual threats of an invasion, Josh. You’ve seen them. You’ve helped me translate them!”
“Yes, the threats are real. But there’s no name. No signature, on any of those messages. They could be coming from anywhere.”
“So you think the chiefs are making up Johanum to explain away the threatening messages?”
“I don’t know. They could be. Look, Cal, I’ve seen the guys who come back from missions to the Periphery. I know there’s danger out there. I just don’t think we understand it half as well as we think we do. And I think the chiefs should listen to them,” he added, nodding toward the research officers.
Kim and Ahmad had taken their seats. Both looked positively terrified. The chiefs were engrossed in an intense, quiet discussion. Conversation circles had cropped up around the room, filling the tense silence.
Jorge finally rose to his feet and called the room back to order.
“Generals Rivera and Fossil, Officers Wilson and al-Asfour: please draw up your findings in two-page briefs and submit them to us within the hour. We will present them to the Commander. If he has further questions, he will call you for an audience.”
Another general seated at the far end of the table spoke up. “And the plan to rescue Dr. Kanale?”
“We will be proposing a rescue mission to the Commander,” Jorge answered.
“Which of our flanks should we be preparing for the mission?” the general asked.
“None of them,” replied Jorge.
“A satellite mission?” he asked in surprise.
“No,” Jorge said. “This mission will be undertaken by your chiefs.”
I don’t remember when I met Fletch. I don’t know how long I had been in Johanum. But I remember the confusion I felt at seeing another person.
I had been sleeping in the caves. They were cold and uncomfortable, but safe. One night I got lost. When I awoke the next morning, something didn’t feel right.
I moved around a bit, running my hands over the ground. Light should be visible by now. I realized I couldn’t see the mouth of the cave. Where was the entrance? I panicked and stood up too quickly, smacking my head against the ceiling. Wincing, I sat back down.
“You’re awake! Good. You’ll need to release the lever to let yourself out.”
The sound of words – a conversation – seemed so foreign. Was I dreaming?
“I don’t know if you can talk, and if you don’t, that’s okay, but do you understand me? Raise your face up if you do.”
My eyes darted to the right, then the left. They were beginning to adapt to the darkness. The ceiling was low and the room was small. I saw no exit. Finally I looked up.
A pair of eyes stared back, squinting through a small hole in the ceiling. “You do understand. Good. Let’s get you out of there. Just follow my directions. Reach up and to the left. You’re not moving. Stop staring at me. Now you’re creeping me out. Can you blink? No? How about moving your hands to the left? How about just moving your hands? Maybe a finger? Can you point your finger?”
I stared at my hands. They were clenched together. Slowly I pulled them apart.
“Okay. Okay, that’s fine. Now I just need you to move your arm. Above your head. Just like – oh, okay, sure, that will work. You’re like a marionette puppet. Don’t hurt yourself. Now move your hand to the left. To the left. The other left. In front of your face. Past your face. A little farther. Do you feel that?”
My fingers closed around a handle. I looked back towards the ceiling.
“Good. Now just pull down. Okay, it’s going to take more than that. This room was meant to keep people hidden. You have to really pull. Maybe use your other hand, if you can figure that out.”
I stared at the hand grasping the handle, then turned to look at my other hand. I tried to move my shoulders and both hands started flailing.
“How are you in one piece?” the voice mumbled.
I let my hands dangle by my sides. I could do this. Slowly, carefully, I lifted one hand, then the other. Both moved. I reached up, to the left, first with one hand, then the other. Breathing deeply, I exhaled and pulled with all my might.
The handle released the floor beneath me. It tilted and sent me tumbling backwards.
“Hang tight! I’m comin’ to get ya!”
The man led me down a series of tunnels and into a small room. A fire built with twigs was lit near the cave’s entrance.
Light. I could see glimpses of light outside. I breathed a deep sigh of relief.
The man with the blinking eyes knelt in front of me and placed a chipped earthen bowl in my hands. Inside, foamy liquid bubbled. I felt the steam on my face and leaned into it. There was warmth and coziness in that bowl. I was never letting go.
“It’s not a proper meal, but it’s the best I can do. Best you’ve had in a while, I’d wager, judgin’ by the looks of ya.”
I blinked and stared at him.
“That’s fine, you don’t need to say anything. I can talk plenty for the both of us. I do wonder that I’ve never seen you before. Are you new?”
He seemed to expect a response, which I found confusing. I shook my head.
“No? Well, I guess that explains why you’re mute. I mean, I talk, but I mostly talk to myself. And the plants, sometimes. They’re good listeners. The walls of this cave aren’t bad either. Mad Laugh listens too. Have you met him? No? He’s like you. Doesn’t talk much. But he laughs sometimes. Like a crazy man. You’ll know him if you meet him.
“We’ve got the Braid Sisters too. They’re around these parts. Any chance you’ve met them?”
I was especially confused now.
“They don’t remember their own names. Been here a long time. Truth be told, I’m not so sure they’re related. But they look out for each other. They’re always braiding each other’s hair. Lots of different braids. You know, I had no idea you could braid hair like that. I get a kick out of just watchin’ ‘em. ‘course, I don’t know much about that sort of thing. Hair, I mean. Obviously I ain’t got much. But I had a daughter once. She had long, silky blonde hair. It was soft and it smelled so sweet. I wish I would have learned how to braid her hair….”
His voice trailed off and sadness settled over him. I studied him curiously. I had thought he was about fifty, but now I guessed he wasn’t as old as he looked.
I was touched by his sadness. I leaned forward and held out my bowl.
“That’s sweet of you. But you need it more than I do. Anyway, it tastes awful. Try it.”
I leaned closer and inhaled. The broth smelled sweet and earthy. I tipped the bowl to my lips, took a long, savory sip, and promptly convulsed into a coughing fit.
“It’s bad, right? It won’t make you sick or anything. We all drink it. You get it from those Tufta plants. You know those long, leafy – eh, they’re almost like bushes, the ones with the long thick leaves and curled orange edges? You can rip off the leaves and twist ‘em like this. You get a runny, milky substance. Heat it over a fire and there you go.”
I scrunched up my nose and tried again. This time I kept it down. It wasn’t that bad, actually. It tasted smoky, which was weird. It didn’t taste like it smelled.
“Drink as much as you like. There’s plenty more where that came from. I mean, in the morning. I’m not going to go out now. I try not to go out at night. Too many crazy animals out there.”
I nodded. I understood. I had heard the howling late at night.
The man leaned forward and held out his hand.
“The name’s Fletcher. But you can call me Fletch.”
I slept better that night than I had in a long time. My belly was warm and full, and I could hear Fletch’s snoring on the other side of the cave. It was comforting to have another person around.
I woke up first and decided to go find some Tufta plants. Outside the cave entrance, a trail of broken sticks led me to a flat stretch of earth covered in green and orange leaves.
I realized too late I had nothing to carry the leaves in, but no matter. I picked a large pile and stacked them high in my arms.
Fletch was awake when I returned. He met me outside the cave.
“Well, will you look at that. You did the morning breakfast run.” He waved me inside. “Just drop ‘em in the back there. I need some sticks for the fire. Be back soon.” He disappeared over a ledge in the opposite direction of the way I had gone.
The sky was brightening. I can’t say where the light came from each day. I hadn’t seen a sun or moon since arriving. But the sky dimmed and grew bright with regularity, much the way it had in Middlestan.
The thought startled me. I hadn’t thought of home in such a long time. It made my heart drop.
I shook my head and turned in a circle, getting a look at the cave in the daylight. There was a tunnel towards the back. It plunged downward into the labyrinth of tunnels we had walked through last night. A light was flickering in the distance, casting shadows against the walls.
I walked down the tunnel towards the light and saw the entrance to another cave. Slowly I turned the corner and stepped inside.
A candle sat flickering in the corner. The candle’s flame sent my shadow dancing. I waved my arms, then my legs, then shook my head from side to side. For a second, I imagined I had a friend. We waved at each other.
A mural was carved into the wall. I walked closer. No, it wasn’t a carving. It was a painting. There was a thick canvas, made from some sort of animal skin, stretched tight and nailed into the wall around the edges. A bucket of brown paint and a stack of handmade brushes sat piled up on the floor.
I stared at the canvas for a good long while. I saw a lake. A boat. A set of docks with a dozen little stick figures. A forest with lots of dead trees. Some mountains and caves and a desert.
And then I saw them. The three tall men.
I leaned closer and felt a shiver run down my spine. The men were no more than stick figures, but instinctively I knew them. They were the ones I had met. The men who brought me here.
“You found my studio.”
I jumped and lost my footing.
Fletch walked into the cave, reached out his hand and helped me back up.
“I’m not a painter,” he said. “But when you’ve been alone a while, you start to go a little crazy. I needed something to do. Came across one of those desert dogs, all torn up and down on his luck. They attack each other, those dogs, when they’re hurt. They turn into cannibals. Anyway, I found a sharp stick and put him out of his misery. Then I dragged his carcass back here. Cleaned him out and the skin was so smooth. I remembered there’s this little grove of bushes not too far away. They have berries that stain your hands red. Well, they’ll stain anything, but for sure your fingers. Anyway, it works for paint. Turns brown after a while, but it’s pretty when you start. Those nails were in another cave back further into the mountain. So, there you have it, the story of my studio. I like it back here. Someday maybe I’ll become a real painter.”
Sadness had crept back into his voice. I put my hand on his shoulder. He looked startled, but he reached up and rested his own hand on top of mine, patting it gently.
“Do you ever wonder if people make it out of here?” Fletch asked, staring wistfully at his painting. “I don’t know how they would. There’s no way out that I’ve ever found. I’ve seen people die here. Seen ‘em go crazy. Ain’t seen nobody escape yet.”
I walked over to the bucket of paint, picked up one of the thicker brushes, and rolled it around between my hands.
“You can paint if you want to,” he offered. “There’s nothing special about what I’ve got here. I just paint whatever I see, the things I can’t get out of head. But paint whatever you like. I’m going to go make breakfast.”
I watched him leave. Slowly I knelt down and placed the brush back in its place. I wasn’t a painter either. Plus I liked Fletch’s art, just the way it was. I didn’t want to mess it up.
My eyes fell back on the painting and the boat in the corner. It was small but strangely alive. I could imagine the sails, dancing in the wind, and the bow of the ship rocking back and forth. For a second, I thought I saw the stick figures move over the docks.
I shook my head. Fletch was right. You go crazy here.
I walked back to the front of the caves. Two bowls had materialized. They were rigged up on long sticks, stacked like a tepee over the flames. The bubbling in the bowls made my stomach growl. I sat cross-legged on the ground in front of the fire and warmed my hands.
Fletch used a pile of leaves like potholders to protect his skin as he removed both bowls and placed them on the ground.
He sat down next to me and looked apologetic. “I haven’t figured out how to make any spoons.”
I shrugged and reached for a bowl. It was too hot. I howled in pain.
“You’re curiously not smart,” he joked.
“You’re plenty smart,” Fletch said. “You’ve survived here.”
I leaned over the bowl and began to blow furiously.
“Now you’re going to make it splash. Here.” He handed me a large leaf and gestured for me to wave it like a fan.
“I wish you could talk. I’d love to hear another person’s voice.”
I scratched my head. Could I talk?
“Don’t worry about it. Most of the folks here don’t. I’ll just keep talkin’ to myself. You know, sometimes I get in an argument with my shadow, just to have someone to talk to. He never argues back though. It’s disappointing.”
We went on like this for weeks. Fletch was the only person I had met since coming to Johanum. He was kind and generous and seemed to know everything there was to know about the place we lived. Sometimes he smiled, but always he was sad. I wondered how he came to Johanum. Where he had come from? Who had he left behind? I knew he had a daughter and he missed her terribly.
After months of being utterly alone, Fletch seemed like an angel. I was so fond of him. I knew he liked it when I gathered the Tufta leaves, so I went out each morning. Sometimes Fletch would paint, and I would watch him. Sometimes he’d disappear for hours. But always he came back.
We would sit by the fire for hours each night. He would talk and I would listen. Or we’d both sit quietly. But his presence was comforting. I knew he was looking out for me, and I was looking out for him. I thought maybe, just maybe, Johanum wasn’t so bad after all.
Early one morning, I heard voices. I walked sleepily to the entrance of the cave and froze.
The three men were there. One held a black X in his hands. He was twisting it back and forth methodically. Fletch sat upright on his knees in front of them. Their voices were low, so low I couldn’t hear what they were saying.
Red rings burned bright around the black pupils of their eyes. Tongues with the scales of a serpent flashed between their teeth when they spoke. The air around the men seemed visibly darker.
Fletch didn’t look scared. He was asking for something.
The man with the black X leaned forward and pressed his forehead against Fletcher’s. Fletch flinched but stayed his ground. When the man stepped back, Fletch looked as though he’d been punched in the gut.
The man with the X said something. Fletch began to nod. As he nodded, he glanced back toward the cave. Our eyes met. He grimaced. For a second, he hesitated.
“I’m sorry,” he mouthed. Then he turned back to the men and nodded.
Too late I understood.
The man with the black X placed his hands on either side of Fletch’s head. One swift motion, a loud crack to his neck, and the deed was done.
I clasped my hands over my mouth and screamed. Fletch’s body fell limp to the ground. The three men disappeared. I stared in horror as Fletch’s body slowly began to disintegrate. I rushed forward, reaching for him, but I was too late.
I fell to my knees and pressed my face into the ground. “Fletch,” I whispered. “Fletcher, come back.” But there was no one left to hear me.
“We’ve never tried anything like this,” said Calif.
“We’ve never been in this position,” Jorge replied. “But I have to tell you, I don’t like the idea of all three of us being in one place. We’re too easy a target. Especially in a place like Johanum.”
“I think the Commander will want to go,” said Antoine. He was the newest of the chiefs. He had been serving as one of Biskurakhan’s top military leaders for the past three years. Calif and Jorge had held their current positions for close to ten.
Calif turned to look at Antoine. “Are you sure you’re ready to go back?”
“Ready?” Antoine repeated. “Who said anything about ready?”
“You can stay behind. In fact, I would prefer it. If something happens, at least one of us survives.”
“I won’t stay behind while you go,” Antoine replied. “I survived it once. I’m sure I can survive it again.”
“Barely,” Calif pointed out gently. “You barely survived.”
“Josephine Kanale will be of more use to Bisurakhan now than I will. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that. But if a prisoner exchange is her only way out, I’m the person you need.”
“It can be one of us,” Calif said.
“It doesn’t work that way,” said Antoine. “And even if it did, I would refuse. Johanum has harmed enough people already. Better it stops with me.”
The men sat in silence.
“What do you make of the rumors?” Calif asked.
“Which ones?” said Antoine.
“This growing sentiment that Johanum isn’t real. Those research officers weren’t the first to make such claims.”
“It’s ridiculous, that’s what it is,” Antoine replied.
“We have a system dictated by evidence available in the Logs,” said Jorge. “We keep information about Johanum out of the Logs. Should we be surprised when our men don’t think it’s real?”
“Why are we doing that, by the way?” Antoine asked, turning his anger in Jorge’s direction. “I don’t remember being a part of that decision.”
“That policy has been around for a long time,” Jorge replied. “Since before you came to the scene. It even pre-dates our time as chiefs,” he said, gesturing to himself and Calif.
“And as I’ve been saying, for, hmmmm, let’s see now, three years,” said Antoine, “it’s time that policy changed.”
“There’s a process we have to follow for that,” said Jorge.
“There’s always a process. Funny you keep falling back on that. We are the chiefs. We create the processes.”
“It’s not a good idea to throw away policies that have been around for a long time,” Jorge said. “Not without doing your due diligence first. Policies and protocol, they exist for a reason, Antoine.”
“But they can become outdated. The world changes. And, quite frankly, while there might have been a reason for this policy at some point, I think it’s downright harmful.”
“You’re unreasonable when it comes to anything involving Johanum.”
“Am I? I don’t remember seeing you in Johanum. Remind me, again, when you were there?”
“Gentlemen,” Calif interrupted, a warning in his voice.
“I understand Johanum,” Jorge said, ignoring Calif. “I’ve been a part of our Reality Persuasion experiments since they started. In case you forgot, I invented them.”
“Oh, right!” Antoine answered. “Reality Persuasion. The experiments. Simulations of a world you’ve never visited. You’re right, you understand everything perfectly.”
“I didn’t say I understood it perfectly,” Jorge growled. “But at least I’m doing something.”
“If you’ve really found a way to access Johanum, the way you claim, what you’re doing is giving Johanum direct access to our troops.”
“Is it? Because I keep hearing rumors, Jorge, about your experiments. They’re not as innocent as you claim.”
“No ones gets hurt in my experiments.”
“Not in them. But afterwards? I know about the suicides, Jorge. You can’t keep those hidden forever.”
“Those are not connected to Reality Persuasion.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Yes!” Jorge answered angrily. “Look, I’m as devastated about that as you are. These men and women are my family. But you’re not looking at the whole picture. Other things are going on in their lives. I’ve been working with General Cortez to improve and expand our treatment centers. It’s clear a lot of our troops have serious needs that aren’t being met. We can provide therapy and offer better services to support them. We’re working on it. If anything, the Reality Persuasion experiments have made us more aware of an existing problem, which we can now address. Don’t confuse a symptom with the root problem.”
Antoine sat silently for a minute. “Be careful, Jorge. I know you think Reality Persuasion isn’t the problem. But you don’t understand what you’re doing.”
“Antoine, what can you tell us about what might have happened to Dr. Kanale?” Calif asked, hoping to redirect the conversation.
Antoine shrugged. “It was a kidnapping by the Priests.”
“The rulers of Johanum?”
“How do you know it was them?”
“It’s a classic trick they play. They come and go and we can’t see them. They’re always visible in Johanum, but something about our solar system – it’s like they can exist in a space we can’t reach, a place we don’t even know exists. You never see them, but the result is always the same. Someone disappears. No warning, just – poof. Gone.”
“There is no such thing as invisibility,” Jorge said. “There has to be another explanation.”
“You don’t believe anything you can’t see,” Antoine said with a frown. “I’m not saying invisibility is a thing. I’m saying the Priests can exist in a space where we can’t see them. Don’t – no, don’t look at me like that. I’m telling you, this is how it works. It’s happened over and over again. On our planet, in Middlestan, Pendleton, Charisburg – and those are just the stories we know of. The Priests are powerful, they’re manipulative, and they’re far more intelligent than we are.”
“Yes, yes, the Priests this, the Priests that,” Jorge repeated, mimicking Antoine’s tone of voice. “They’re powerful, they’re liars, I get it. We’re powerful too, you know.”
“Not in the same way.”
“We have the greatest military in history.”
“It doesn’t matter. We’re nothing next to these guys.”
“I think we might need to come back to this,” Calif interrupted. He knew where this conversation was headed. Nowhere. Absolutely nowhere. The same place it always went.
“There are others,” Antoine said quietly.
“Other what?” Calif asked.
“No, there aren’t,” Jorge disagreed. “We’ve been over this, Antoine. All the others died. You’re the only one who returned and survived.”
“I’m the only one who survived out of the prisoners you rescued,” Antoine agreed. “But I’m not the only survivor.”
“The only way prisoners escape is when we send a rescue mission.”
“Why do you think we’re the only ones attempting rescue missions?”
“Who else has the transport technology to get to Johanum?” Jorge asked.
“I don’t know who they are, but I’m telling you, other survivors have been rescued. They’re out there. Other prisoners have escaped. The best thing we can do for our own intelligence is to try and find them. You need what they can give you.”
“We can get Josephine Kanale. She’ll be enough. She can help us.”
“We have to be careful though. People change in Johanum. They’re not like they were before.”
“You turned out all right.”
Antoine rolled his eyes. “And you can’t stand me. Look, everyone changes in their own way. You’re assuming the Josephine you rescue will be the same Josephine we met in Middlestan. I’m telling you, she won’t be.”
“That’s a risk we’re going to have to take,” Jorge replied.
A buzzer signaled the return of the Commander to his office. The chiefs stood and gathered their belongings. There would be no rescue mission without the Commander’s approval, and it was time for their meeting.
“Did you bring dinner today?”
Calvin cast Josh a sideways glare.
“I’m just asking!” Josh said.
“For the third time this week!”
“What? Sometimes you have extra.”
“No, I never have extra. I’m eating less because I’m on the keep-poor-Josh-from-starving diet.”
“Leah’s a good cook.”
“You mean you’re too lazy to learn how to cook.”
“I mean Leah is very, very talented. You tell her I said that.”
“Stop trying to get my wife to cook for you.”
Calvin pulled two plastic containers from his backpack. Josh smiled gleefully and reached for one. Calvin cleared his throat and leaned backwards, holding the containers over his head.
“I feel like I should get something out of this,” he announced.
“Yes. What have you got to give me?”
“Why do I have to give you something? Leah made that for me. Give me my food!”
“Eh eh eh,” Calvin said as he leaned farther back.
Josh scowled and crossed his arms. “Fine. What do you want?”
“How about an extra thirty-minute break every night and you cover for me?”
“Yeah! That seems fair.”
“Make it fifteen.”
“Done.” Calvin tossed Josh his food.
“I’m telling Leah,” Josh grumbled.
“I’ll finally have time to call her before she goes to bed. She’s going to be mad you didn’t give me all thirty minutes.”
Josh rolled his eyes. “You win, you win. Take thirty. And tell your wife thank you.”
“Why aren’t you thanking me? I bought those groceries.”
“Yeah, but Leah made the food.”
“Did you never learn to cook? Did Kat do everything for you?”
“You look so guilty right now. You don’t know how to cook, do you?”
“I order a mean takeout, thank you very much.”
“I think you mean handsome.”
“No, that was definitely not what I meant.” Calvin took his seat in front of the long silver control panel that stretched the length of the room and curled around to the right. “How many transmissions so far?” he asked.
“Nine? Johanum’s busy today.”
“The last five were sent with a new frequency. We can’t keep up. The shift that just left, they didn’t make any progress on translation. It’s like Johanum can tell when we’ve figured something out. They just change the frequency and mess with our heads.”
Calvin frowned. “Why send messages your enemy can’t read?” He was feeling around below the desk, searching for his earpiece.
“The messages aren’t intended for us,” said a voice behind them.
Josh and Calvin turned to see Jorge leaning against the door.
“They aren’t meant for us,” Jorge repeated, walking forward. “They’re all intercepted signals.”
“Who’s their target?” Calvin asked.
“We don’t know,” Jorge answered. “Someone outside our solar system. None of these transmission frequencies are ones we use.”
“I’m confused. I thought Johanum was threatening us.”
“They are. Just not to our face,” Jorge said. “They’ve mentioned wars on Bisurakhan, Charisburg, and Cornersville so far. At first, we thought these transmissions were meant to coordinate an attack, but now we think Johanum is acting alone. Someone else is interested in their progress, though. We don’t know why. We need these messages translated faster.”
Josh pointed to five envelopes on the right side of the room’s large screen. Each icon contained the audio recordings of one message. “The guys who left an hour ago said they barely started trying to decipher how those last five messages were put together.”
“I know. You guys are overwhelmed. Not to mention, this isn’t what we trained you for. We’re bringing in back-up. From Cornersville.”
Josh and Calvin looked up in surprise.
“They’ll arrive over the weekend,” Jorge said. “We’ll have twelve linguists to start with. Cornersville is prepping twelve more, and they’ll be ready for us when we need them.”
“How’s this going to work?” asked Josh, none too happy about the arrival of strangers in his control room.
“Two of you with two of them for each shift. We’re moving from two shifts a day to three, and you’ll work every other day instead of five on, two off. We want you refreshed and at your best every time you report for work, so we’re giving you more time off between shifts.”
Calvin’s ears perked up. Fewer shifts? More time at home with Leah?
“The linguists will focus on translation. You focus on interception. We anticipate that this increase in transmissions will continue and likely escalate. If you have extra time to assist with translation, that’s fine, but it’s not your priority. The linguists are equipped to take care of it.”
Calvin was happily daydreaming about how he would break the news to Leah. Maybe he would just show up early at home, unannounced. Surprise her. She liked surprises. Actually, no. She hated surprises. But maybe she’d like this one.
Josh, on the other hand, was feeling slighted. What was he going to do with all this extra time? Sit at home alone and feel miserable? Everything kept changing, and he hated it.
Jorge didn’t know anything about Calvin and Josh’s lives outside the Tower, but he could make an educated guess. “You’re good at your jobs,” he said. “This is not a reflection on you. But we need help. Cornersville has been developing their linguistic skills for decades. They even have experts who have studied languages from outside our solar system. I’m hopeful these frequencies will look familiar to them. But even if they don’t, their rate of translation will be faster than ours. Anyway, they’re eager to help.
“Our pace of life is going to be difficult for them,” Jorge continued. “Our time signature is faster, almost twice the rate they’re used to. Cornersville has a much more laid back approach to work. To life in general, I suppose. I need you and the rest of the guys here to show them what we consider normal. Make sure they understand what we expect, the level of performance that’s required to succeed here.”
Calvin nodded dutifully. “Yes, sir! We’ll be happy to help. Won’t we, Josh?” He looked over his shoulder. “Josh!”
Josh sat lost in thought. It wasn’t like he had any choice in the matter. He hadn’t met new people in a while. Actually, he had never met anyone from Cornersville. Maybe it would be good. Get him out of his own head. Maybe there would be a cute linguist in the bunch. Bam, problem solved.
“Any females in that mix?” Josh asked. “Ouch!” He rubbed the back of his head where Calvin had smacked him.
Jorge looked taken aback. “I think it’s a mix of women and men.”
“Then I’m sure we won’t have any problems,” Josh replied. “Let me assure you, I will do everything in my power to help them feel at home.”
“You better not be taking them home,” Calvin growled.
“You heard the orders. We’re supposed to make them feel comfortable.”
“Those were not the orders. The chief said to show them how the work gets done.”
“I’ll be happy to show them how a lot of things get done.”
“You’re a terrible person.”
“And your best friend.”
“You are not my best friend.”
“Yes I am.”
“I’m going to dismember you.”
“You’d miss me.”
“I don’t think I would.”
Jorge silently slipped out the door.
Twelve linguists from Cornersville arrived in Bisurakhan on Sunday morning. They went through detox and an orientation, followed by a tour of the Turris and nearby military housing.
Josh had volunteered to show them downtown, area restaurants, and some local hangout spots. He showed up at their apartments at five o’clock sharp, dressed to the nines in military black, dragging Calvin along behind him.
It took one glance at the group for Calvin to know exactly how his evening was going to turn out.
Her name was Shondra. She had long, dark hair, an elegant nose, and high cheekbones. Her hands were carefully manicured, finished with a light pink nail polish. She was wearing the latest fashion, complimented by heels and the perfect accessories. She talked confidently, smiled with only a hint of condescension, and commanded the attention of everyone who looked in her direction.
She might as well have been Josh’s ex-wife.
The guys took the group to Main Street. They showed them the Library, the Square, and how the restaurants were arranged by cuisine. The linguists were delighted to find all their familiar dishes in the restaurants down Cornersville Avenue.
Shondra announced she would rather eat on Bisurakhan Avenue that night. After all, she was here on another planet. She wanted the full experience.
Josh took his cue. “It looks like your team prefers a taste of home tonight,” he said. “But I’m delighted to hear you’d like to try our local cuisine. Do you like spicy food? You’re not a vegetarian, are you? Good, then you’ll love what we have to offer. In fact, I know the owner of one of the best restaurants on the avenue. May I treat you?”
Calvin watched them go. He wished Leah would have come, but she hadn’t been feeling well. The growing baby in her belly was making it harder for her to get around.
“Let’s grab a quick dinner and then head back,” Calvin said. “I’m sure you all are very tired from your trip.”
He tried to be a good host and pay attention. Two hours later, he was done trying.
“I have to get home,” he announced abruptly, standing to his feet.
The group looked incredibly disappointed.
“My wife is very pregnant, she’s due in about a month,” he explained. “She has a hard time falling asleep when I’m not there. You know how it is.”
The group took an immediate interest in Calvin’s wife, his pending status of fatherhood, his home, his in-laws, and his plans for the nursery.
He finally gave up trying to escape and slid back in his chair.
It was close to midnight when Calvin finally returned home.
Leah rolled over as he crawled into bed. He wrapped his arms around her and placed one hand on her growing belly.
“Is he awake?”
“No, she is sleeping,” Leah whispered.
Calvin had been convinced, the entire pregnancy, that they were having a boy. Leah was equally convinced they’d soon be welcoming a daughter. Neither wanted to admit defeat, so they asked the doctor not to tell them the sex of the baby.
“I thought those crazy Cornersville people kidnapped you,” Leah joked.
Calvin groaned and buried his head in her hair. “Leah, they talk so much. About everything. They’re nice people. Really nice. I don’t know how we’re going to get any work done with them around. Even while they were eating, they talked. And no subject was off-limits. I even told them about your dad’s drinking problem.”
“You did what?” Leah asked, aghast.
“I know! I’m sorry! I know I told you I wouldn’t talk about it. They just kept asking questions. And I was so tired, I just kept answering them.”
“They asked if my father was an alcoholic?!”
“No. They asked about you, and the baby, and if this was our first child, and if it would be the first grandchild, and if we thought our parents would end up visiting, and whether our parents were overbearing. And then they wanted to know why I didn’t think having the grandparents around too much would be a problem. And I could have just said it was because your parents live two hours away, but no. I said your dad probably doesn’t remember where we live because most nights he doesn’t remember where he lives.”
“You shouldn’t talk to people when you’re tired.”
“I know. I didn’t tell them about his time in prison, though.”
“You say that like I should thank you.”
“Maybe give me partial good-husband credit?”
Leah twisted around and kissed him. “You get all the good-husband credit. But you’re a terrible son-in-law.”
They lay quietly for a time.
“Are you feeling better, honey, about work?” Leah asked. “It will be nice having help. You’ve seemed so stressed lately.”
Calvin nodded. “I think it’s going to get better. Jorge mentioned something recently about how we’ll be sending more missions to the Periphery, but I don’t think I’ll have to go. We’re so short-staffed on comms engineers right now. By the way, I might need to work a little overtime during the next few weeks. No one can take time off right now unless another engineer is available to cover for them. Someone’s going to have to cover my shifts while I’m on paternity leave, so I figure I should go ahead and offer to do the same for the other guys.”
Calvin kissed the back of Leah’s head and pulled the comforter over her shoulders the way she liked it.
“Go to sleep,” he whispered.
Within minutes, Leah’s soft, peaceful breathing lulled him into a long, deep slumber of his own.
I didn’t go back to those caves for a long time.
Night bled into day and back again. I wandered from one cave to another, never sleeping in the same place twice. The mountain range seemed to go on forever.
I met lots of animals. Some big, some small. I had settled into my diet of berries, fruits, and Tufta leaves. The animals seemed to know I wasn’t a threat and they left me alone.
One day, as I turned a new corner at the base of the mountains, I found myself at the edge of a forest.
The forest looked peculiar. Some of the trees were lush and green, stretching high and opening up like an umbrella to shade the forest floor. Others looked as though they had survived a fire. They were all intermingled, those dead and healthy trees, growing up together, with roots tangling above the ground.
There was a path winding inwards from the edge of the trees. I knew a beaten path was dangerous, but I followed it anyway. Through the trees, past fallen branches and hollowed out logs. Eyes peered out from everywhere. I kept moving.
I stayed on the trail for a long time. As the light in the sky began to fade, I came to a long tree trunk that had fallen across the path. It looked sturdy enough. I was tired and unsure whether to keep going or turn around, so I sat down.
I’m not sure how long I had been there, but when I looked up, I saw four sets of glowing purple eyes staring up at me from the ground. Every now and again, one of them would blink. It struck me as funny, and I laughed.
My laughter echoed through the trees. I couldn’t remember the last time I had laughed. I’m not sure why I did then. Perhaps I had given in to hysteria.
The laughter echoed between the trees. I tried to laugh again, but this time it was forced and sounded dreadful. I grimaced and waited for the echoes to fade.
One pair of glowing purple eyes was getting closer. They were so very close to the ground, I guessed they belonged to quite a little creature.
It will probably eat me, I thought miserably.
But I soon discovered that the eyes belonged to an animal who didn’t look ferocious enough to do me any harm. It was cute, actually. It was round and chubby, covered in brown fur, with tiny little seven-toed feet sticking out from beneath its pudgy body. Out from its midsection stuck two small hands, one on either side, each adorned with seven tiny fingers. It had a tiny black nose, wet like a dog’s, smashed unceremoniously into its face like an afterthought. The eyes were kind and welcoming.
All four sets of eyes had crept close to me now. We were staring at each other, equally intrigued. They did not seem scared of me.
Slowly the tallest of the four creatures smiled. It was a shy smile revealing two large buckteeth. It reminded me of a tiny, pudgy little beaver. I strained my head to see if he had a tail. I didn’t see one, but my sudden movement made him jump backwards, and the smile disappeared.
I offered up a smile of my own. Smiling felt weird. It hurt the muscles in my face. But my offering worked. The little beaver-type creature smiled back, more confidently this time. One of his companions crawled over next to him, and after studying me, also offered a shy smile. A third followed.
The fourth little fur ball, the tiniest of the bunch, stuck his little legs to the side like a penguin and waddled over to me. He stood there, down by my feet, eyes blinking expectantly. I leaned down and stretched out my hand. He waddled into my hand and I lifted him up to my eye level.
His confidence quickly gave way to hesitancy. His tiny hands flapped over his eyes. I think he felt embarrassed.
“It’s okay,” I told him gently. “I won’t hurt you.”
One eye appeared, peeking through his fingers. Finally, he let his hands drop back to his sides and he stood there, wobbling back and forth, trying to find his balance. When he steadied, he returned his quizzical gaze to my face. He was so studious in the way he stared at me. I felt he must think me a giant ready to crush him.
He grew bolder and crawled up my hand closer to my face. He leaned to the left and stared at the left side of my face. Then he leaned to the right. He reached up with his pudgy hands and moved my head back and forth.
When he was satisfied, he crawled back to the middle of my hands, pulled his legs under his body in one fell swoop, and plopped down with a thump. A voice that was surprisingly strong for such a little creature came out:
“It’s a person,” the fur ball announced.
And that’s when I realized ‘he’ was actually a she.
Her three companions began to chatter excitedly. Evidently this was a very important announcement. They were moving back and forth at speeds their legs were capable of, but their bodies couldn’t seem to keep up. They kept falling over, then getting up, only to run into each other and fall over again. After a few minutes of this comical display, they all ended up together on the ground near my feet.
“A person?” the tallest one asked. It had a deeper voice. I wondered if perhaps he was the father. “Are you sure, Tabby?” He didn’t really seem to think she was lying. But the idea was incredulous, and he wanted to get his facts straight.
“Oh, yes,” Tabby replied, nodding her head vigorously. The movement made her body shake and her tummy jiggle. “Yes, I am sure it’s a person. Look at its nose!” She made an exaggerated motion in front of her face, indicating a very large nose.
I hoped my nose wasn’t that big.
“And its ears!” Tabby squealed, waving her hands in the form of gigantic ears on the side of her head.
I tried to pull my hair down over my ears. My hair was tangled and matted and gross. I decided I had to live with the ears.
“Look at its feet!” said another one. Before I knew it, one of the fur balls was bouncing on my foot, jumping up and down.
“Be careful!” warned the tallest one. “You don’t want to frighten it away!”
“Oh!” The jumping stopped. Now it stood on the ground, staring up expectantly.
“Does it have big teeth?” asked another female voice.
“Of course it must!” answered Tabby, turning to crawl back up my hand towards my face. “All the persons have big teeth.”
She stood there, looking confused. Straining forward and nearly losing her balance, she caught herself and placed her hands on my eyelids. Next thing I knew she was prying them open as wide as she could.
“Nope,” she mumbled, letting go.
Next, she leaned her head forward and twisted her neck to peer up my nose.
I scrunched my nose together, moving it up and down. Tabby moved back and continued to study it, looking thoroughly entertained.
“Ah ha!” she exclaimed in triumph.
Before I knew it, she had pulled my lips forward and was proudly displaying my teeth. She was showing me off like a horse!
I had finally remembered these creatures. They were Furpines, of the legendary Forestclan, creatures of the woods. The Logs said they were extinct.
It was a family of Furpines. Their names were Toby, Tubby, Tibby, and, of course, Tabby. And they weren’t alone. They introduced me to their whole Furpine community.
There weren’t many of them. No more than twenty Furpines total. But they were a flood of light into my dark world.
I met the newest baby, a miniature Furpine they called Jovi, and his parents, Jaundice and Judith. I met the eldest of the community, Gertrude and Lyle, with their grandkids – Fib, Fort, Festivous, and my favorite, Fabulous. I met Amos and his brothers Archie and Ace. I met Candy and Carrie, best friends. And then there was Benji, and little orphan Abby.
The community kept well hidden, deep in the forest, far away from the prying eyes of the Priests. But they had to venture out of their homes to find food. Each week, four Furpines were selected as scavengers, and it was their job to find the week’s food supply.
Two months before, the food scavengers had been caught by a pack of iron-fanged dogs in a big mud patch to the north. Johanum’s rabid dogs rarely enter the woods, they told me. They never saw the attack coming. Lyle thought they must have been hungrier than normal. The dogs caught Benji’s sister Benita, little Abby’s mother. Benita’s husband Booster fought hard to save her, but he was no match for the dogs. Now Benji was taking care of Abby. The community had forbidden him from being a food scavenger, at least for a while. They didn’t want Abby to be without family.
“We may not last much longer, dearie,” said Tubby, Tabby’s mother, doing her best to put on a brave face. “But we will try our best! For the little ones, you see.” Her chin quivered, and she placed her hand affectionately on Tabby’s head. Tabby hadn’t strayed far from my feet where I had set her back on the ground.
Toby shuffled over to Tubby and took his wife’s hand affectionately in his own. “We are going to be okay,” he tried to reassure her. “It’s a dark time. But dark times end. And you find reasons to smile again.”
They told me that a year before, they had numbered nearly five hundred. Now they were only twenty.
The cute little critters wanted to give me food. I could not stand the thought of taking food from them, not after hearing what it cost them to gather their tiny food supply. But they were so insistent, and they looked crestfallen when I tried to refuse, so I finally gave in.
“Maybe just a bite,” I said. Their faces lit up, and Tabby waddled away to their hidden tree-root home, accompanied by her brother Tibby.
They returned a few minutes later. Tabby had a collection of nuts and berries, piled high in a basket made of grass. She was struggling with the basket, first pushing, then trying to pull it. Tibby wanted to help, but he kept lifting the basket when she put it down, and setting it down when she went to pick it up again. The basket was nearly as big as they were. Ace and Amos waddled over. Carefully they lifted the basket above Ace’s head, then proceeded to knock each other over. This happened repeatedly. They would regain their balance, collect the scattered nuts and berries and return them to the basket, lift it up above their heads, then make it three or four steps before tumbling over again. They were utterly devoted to the whole inefficient process and I was charmed.
“We are little creatures,” Tubby said to me with a smile. “We haven’t much but each other. But each other is enough.”
I blinked back tears. Was I dreaming? It was unlike any dream I had dreamt before. Unlike any Johanum reality I knew. I dashed away tears and decided it didn’t matter whether this was real. It was lovely and beautiful, and I would enjoy every minute.
“How did you get here?” I asked Toby and Tubby. They smiled their shy smiles.
“We could ask you the same thing, dearie,” Tubby said gently.
“You first,” I insisted.
“Well, dearie,” Tubby replied, pulling her feet underneath her and plunking down on the ground the same way her daughter had done. “Ours is quite a little story, just like us.
“We lived in the Forests of Cataran, in northern Bisurakhan. Thousands of us there were, dearie. More Furpines than your eyes could count! Fine little homes we had there too. All prim and proper, real homes, with moss for carpet, and curtains, and carved wooden doors. Always had plenty to eat there, we did, dearie. We had feasts and festivals. We had birthdays. Why, we celebrated any time we had a reason to. And any time we didn’t!”
The other Furpines nodded enthusiastically.
“We didn’t have far to go for our food,” she continued. “It fell from the skies most days! And grew up under our feet. Nuts and roots and berries, dearie, of all shapes and sizes, colors and flavors! We had only to carry our baskets outside and collect whatever we wanted. There was so much more than we could eat. It was a beautiful place, those forests of Cataran. It was home, dearie. A real home!”
My heart ached for the longing I heard in her voice. I had not ached, had not longed for anything, in such a long time. It hurt.
Toby spoke up. “It was a nice place,” he agreed. “An easy place.” Toby was standing close to his wife, and the rest of the community had crept close behind him. They stood around, eyes filled with longing.
“Yes, it was easy,” Tubby agreed. “Too easy. We got lazy, dearie. We stopped talking to the rest of the Forestclan. We didn’t hate them, you know. We just forgot about them. Life was easy, and we didn’t need anyone else. They all talked funny, and ate strange food, and they didn’t fit in our houses.”
Tabby plopped down next to her mother and snuggled in. She looked tired. She had heard this story many times, I could tell.
Tubby continued, her arm wrapping around her daughter’s shoulders. “When the invaders swept in, we were caught by surprise. They had burned down whole sections of the forest before we heard anything about them. By then it was too late. Most of the Forestclan had already left. Some headed for the hills, others for the water. And there we were – stuck. No place to go, no one to help us.”
Tubby’s chin began quivering. “Furpines can’t survive in the mountains, dearie. We would be eaten by eagles and vultures. And we can’t swim, dearie. We would have drowned in the river. So, we did what we could. With our lovely trees and homes burning down around us, and the invaders sweeping through, we rolled up onto their field trackers and hid.”
“You were stowaways!” I said in surprise. I was also very surprised to hear that Johanum had invaded Bisurakhan. I thought the planet was impenetrable.
“It wasn’t much of a plan,” Toby observed quietly, “but it was the best we could do. We hid for three days. We didn’t know where the intruders had come from or where they were going.”
“On the third day, we came to a very bumpy landing,” Tubby interrupted, taking back the storytelling, which was clearly her domain. “We heard yelling, crashing – so much noise! I was quite beside myself.” Even as she recalled the story, Tubby wrung her hands nervously. “Finally, we heard the intruders leave the field trackers. We crept out, hoping to find another forest to call home. Instead we found ourselves sitting on top of the open fires of Henam.”
I crinkled my nose in disgust. I knew Henam. It was the valley of Johanum on the south side. Stretching as far as your eyes could see, the valley is filled with pits, open flames, and the worst stench you have ever encountered. A combination of decaying flesh, trash, and other things I wouldn’t know how to describe.
“How did you get here, to the forest?” I asked. I figured we were far from Henam, though I wasn’t entirely sure where the forest was.
It turns out Furpines are quite the talented little stowaways. They had arrived to Johanum as stowaways, and they moved about Johanum the same way. They attached themselves to all kinds of creatures, from the rabid dogs to the hyenas of hysteria. Slowly, one family at a time, they kept moving north.
Amos, Archie, and Ace were the ones who discovered the forest. They had become lost one day after latching on to one of the rare she-bears of Johanum. She-bears are violent creatures, Tubby told me. They cannot be controlled by the Priests, which makes them unusual, but they are very aggressive.
“Ace is our reckless one, dearie,” Tubby explained, flashing a smile in his direction. Ace covered his face, pretending to be embarrassed, but I could tell he liked the attention. “Mostly he worries us silly, but that day his recklessness paid off.”
Toby jumped in. He loved this part of the story and narrated with great enthusiasm. “Ace had grabbed ahold of a she-bear. Archie and Amos chased after him. But instead of being eaten or torn apart, those boys held on for dear life and arrived here in this forest. The she-bears hibernate here. Well, the boys, they explored for a few days, found us these little homes, and lots of patches of food. Then they created a ruckus to attract the she-bears again, and rode a she-bear all the way back to our little community. It’s a miracle they survived.”
“They left us in a wretched state, dearie!” Tubby cried, the pitch of her voice escalating quickly. “We were certain we had lost them forever. They had been gone for a week when they finally came back. We had already held their funerals!”
I looked over at the brothers. They were blushing. Ace’s face was particularly red. But his eyes sparkled. It was obvious he was an adventurer.
“It took us many days to get everyone back to the woods,” Tubby continued, finishing her story. “But it was like heaven when we arrived. We knew, of course, that this wood wasn’t like ours. There is much darkness here. We have to be careful.” She sighed deeply. “But it’s good, dearie. It’s a little home, a good one for us. A place where we can be with each other.”
“But there aren’t many of you left,” I said. It was a terrible thing to point out, but it was true.
“No,” Tubby agreed. She sighed again, but then she smiled in an accepting sort of way. “We live as best we can. When these days are over, we will be too. And we will have loved each other well. It’s all any Furpine can ask for.”
All the Furpines were nodding along, patting their bellies in agreement.
I felt a tiny pressure on the bottom of my leg and looked down to see Tubby’s hand near my ankle.
“And you, dearie? Haven’t you got anybody to love?”
The question brought tears in my eyes. I tried to blink them away, but they poured out uninvited.
“You are the first creatures with a hint of goodness I have met since coming here,” I replied softly. “I met one other person. A person like me. His name was Fletcher.”
The memory of Fletcher and the Priests was a weight too heavy to bear. I dropped my head and stopped talking.
“Oh my, dearie. Why, we are not the only ones here, you know. There are many other creatures in the forest. I can’t imagine living here all alone. We Furpines don’t do alone. Not like the persons do.”
I shrugged. “I don’t mind being alone. Or at least, I didn’t…in Middlestan. Before I came here.”
“Is that where you’re from, dearie?” Tubby asked me.
I nodded. “I was a professor. A researcher. I was becoming successful, too.”
“Well, I don’t know much about that,” Tubby answered sweetly, “but I am sorry you had to leave home. You must miss it an awful lot.”
“I do,” I agreed. “Perhaps I would have been okay on another planet. But I did not plan to come here. This is unlike any place I could have imagined.”
It was getting dark. The Furpines began to shift back and forth nervously.
“It’s night time, dearie,” Tubby spoke up. “It’s dangerous for us to be here. Dangerous for you, too, I reckon.”
“I should leave,” I said, getting up and stretching my legs. I wasn’t sure where I would go. I was lost, and too far into the forest to get back to the caves.
Toby motioned to his son Tibby, who turned deeper into the forest and whistled softly. It was a whistle that grew stronger as it built into a melody.
All was quiet. Even the rustling of the leaves seemed to stop.
The song slowly disappeared. I stood in the stillness, holding my breath, not even aware I was holding it. I could feel my heartbeat.
As if from nowhere, a pair of antlers appeared. Stepping out from behind a tree came the glowing eyes of a large buck. We stood there, staring at each other.
“This is Canwood, prince of the forest,” Toby announced. “Canwood is a good creature. All of the deer are good. He will take care of you tonight.”
I stared in amazement, still not sure anything I was seeing was real. I felt pressure on my foot again and looked down to see little Tabby trying to move my leg.
“Go,” she encouraged, looking up at me with her wide innocent eyes.
I walked toward the deer, then turned back. The Furpines stood behind me, waving goodbye. Tubby wiped tears from her eyes.
“You take care of yourself, dearie,” Tubby called after me. I watched as she grabbed Toby’s hand and buried her face in his fur. He waved at me, then turned to hug his wife.
Canwood did not speak. I followed him a good distance. At long last we came to a stop in front of a tall Oak Tree. It reached up, up, up, much higher than the trees around it.
Canwood lifted his hoof and tapped the tree near the roots. Slowly an opening in the forest floor appeared. Exhausted, I crawled in. The opening closed above me.
The ground was covered in blankets of moss. It felt warm and soft. The moss curled up around me and tucked me in. I laid down my head and slept like a baby, lost in a dreamless sleep.
When I awoke the next morning, the forest was gone. I was sleeping on a bed of Tufta leaves at the base of the mountains.
ISOLATION is the first book in the sci-fi/fantasy series The Chronicles of the Survivors of Johanum. Buy Now.