The Newcomer - Jonathan C Gillespie - ebook
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From a young couple struggling to look after their baby to a new captain's reluctance to take command of her ship, and from a sun-addled stranger's appearance in town to the emergence of a sentient AI, the twelve tales presented here explore the central theme of an arrival by someone or something new.There's even an alien puppy.The stories are:Tithe by Griffin CarmichaelExodus by Alec HutsonFirst Bonding by Tom GermannIce Dreamer by J J GreenThe Nanny by Cindy CarrollRight Hand by Jonathan C GillespieWhat Make is Your Cat? by Richard CrawfordKaxian Duty by Cherise KelleyLessons Learned by J Naomi AyThe Humra by Laura GreenwoodThe Hawk of Destiny’s Fist by James S AaronRepulse by Alasdair Shaw

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The Newcomer

 

Twelve Science Fiction Short Stories

 

 

edited by Alasdair Shaw

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2016 Alasdair C Shaw et al.

All rights reserved.

 

 

First published 2016

ISBN10 0995511012

ISBN13 978-0995511019

 

 

 

Contents

Contents

Introduction

Tithe

Exodus

First Bonding

Ice Dreamer

The Nanny

Right Hand

What Make is Your Cat?

Kaxian Duty

Lessons Learned

The Humra

The Hawk of Destiny’s Fist

Repulse

Conclusion

Introduction

 

This collection of short stories was put together to showcase the variety of talented authors writing science fiction today. The twelve chosen come from around the world, including the US, Britain, Canada, Taiwan, and China.

Each tale presented here explores the central theme of an arrival by someone or something new. And the reactions produced range, as they often do, from hope to fear.

 

#

 

The world is nothing but a dry husk of itself. Jacob Heinlein has lost his home, everyone he knew, and hope. While on a journey to the mythical ocean, an unforgiving sun beating down on him, Jacob finds himself in a town with a source of fresh, clean water. However, there is a “Tithe” to pay for the privilege of staying.

 

In “Exodus”, the orphaned children of Old Earth are scattered across the solar system, protected from the darkness by god-like beings fashioned from lost technologies. But something has changed. Ancient rules have been broken, and after centuries of isolation one of these beings approaches Mars with overtly hostile intent. A defence must be marshalled, and the coming conflagration could result in the destruction of one of the last bastions of man.

 

Humanity had aimed for the stars and a glorious future in space. The alien’s arrival had tarnished that shiny dream. Now the first AIs are fully coming online, even while the government tries to block their use, and humanity is once again looking to the future. “First Bonding” tells of the illegally-created level 8 AI known as Genghis, and his reactions to an alien attack.

 

In “Ice Dreamer”, lab technician Prussis has dreamed all her life of reviving someone from the past. Whilst no-one understands why she keeps trying, she works long hours defrosting heads. In her latest attempt, what happens is the last thing she expects.

 

Then in “The Nanny”, the first natural birth in over two hundred years brings a new life to Cardea’s family. Despite the risks, she and her husband are determined to raise a family the old fashioned way. But social habits die hard.

 

The war with a forgotten conqueror has been over for decades, but that doesn’t mean the Earth has recovered. Life in the American Midwest is only getting more dangerous. His town besieged by hunter-killer drones left over from the conflict, gifted high school senior Daniel Bell would give his “Right Hand” to make the Army believe that the machines are somehow not being harmed by their operations.

 

“What Make is Your Cat?” welcomes you to London-Atlantis where, after the tsunami, your cat has higher social status and earning power than you do, and evolution is an elite, designer trend you can’t afford to join.

 

Three-month-old Clem faces his first day of “Kaxian Duty” with anxiety. He is keen to find out what his assignment will be, but runs into distractions on the way to headquarters. Training will be hard. Mistakes will be punished. Oh, and his tail has a mind of its own, which doesn’t help matters any.

 

Ary had known he was destined to be a starship captain his whole life. After all, his mother was Captain Sandy and his father was the guy who was supposed to be Fleet Admiral. However, the prospect of attending the Spaceforce Academy was daunting. Enough to make Ary question his future. In his first few weeks there will be quite a few “Lessons Learned”.

 

Bounty hunter Braillen takes a new job on “The Humra” to get close to her mark. When the crew discover her identity she is whisked in front of the captain. She must face her nightmares if she wants to finish the job and realise her deepest desire.

 

New captains take command in a variety of situations. Sometimes the passage isn’t an easy one. In “The Hawk of Destiny’s Fist”, Asarik Leah is sent to replace ShipLord Till and lead his InquiryShip on a dangerous new mission. Tradition demands she proves herself fit to take his place.

 

And in our last story, newly-promoted Commander Olivia Johnson is posted to the destroyer “Repulse”. Most of the officers are dead and the remaining crewmembers are exhausted. Johnson must step up to the mark and lead them back into battle despite her personal misgivings.

 

#

 

And so, on to the stories. I hope you enjoy...

-o-

Tithe

by Griffin Carmichael

 

It looked like a mirage, tempting him at the edge of his vision. The heat shimmered and baked better than any oven he’d ever seen, and the dryness of his throat was a cruel reminder that it had been nearly a week since the last trickle of water he found. He didn’t have to shake the canteen hanging from his waist to know it was empty.

Jacob stood wavering in the sun, squinting. He could go forward, head to the mirage, or he could try west, and try to find the end of the desert. He vaguely remembered people talking about something called an ocean, long ago in his barely remembered youth. Ocean meant water. Salt water, his brain insisted. Not good. But water was water. There were ways to get the salt out. His Grandpappy had said so, long ago when he was a boy.

There would be people close to water, he knew. Maybe they would teach him how to banish the demon salt.

It looked like real buildings ahead, though. If it was a town, a Wanderer’s caravan, even a group of travellers like himself, searching for a new beginning, there was a chance he could get water. Trade or work, it didn’t matter. He needed water.

Jacob sighed and trudged forward. The mirage was to the south of where he wanted to be heading, but he’d followed a dry stream bed this way, hoping to find the source, a spring or pond that might hold enough precious moisture to get him further along.

 

#

 

Maybe the town was built beside a good source of water. Jacob’s mind wandered as he walked towards the mirage. It didn’t seem to get any closer, which made his heart thump hard in his chest. He couldn’t walk much further, so tired and dry he felt like an old corn husk. He’d have to head west soon, or die here in this wasteland.

The thought of corn, sweet and moist as the boiled ear came out of the pot made him want to cry. It had been so long since he’d tasted anything so pure and good. Corn took water to grow, and as the rivers and streams and wells began to dry up, water was too precious to spare to grow corn.

It was getting hotter. Jacob rummaged in his pouch for a small stone, placing the rounded pebble under his tongue. If he was lucky, he could bring a small amount of saliva out of his squeezed-dry cells, just enough to keep him going for a little longer.

It worked, just barely, and he savored the spit as long as he could. Jacob put one worn boot in front on the other, over and over, until his mind refused to put forth coherent thought. After that, he just walked, an automaton that looked like a man.

The sun gradually shifted, until it was teasing him from the west. The right side of his body was blazing from the sun’s rays striking him, which wasn’t any relief from when it had rained fire down on top of his head.

Jacob took an old bandanna, threadbare and reeking of old sweat, and draped it over that side of his head. It blocked enough sun that he imagined he felt relief from the unbearable heat.

And he kept walking.

To stop now was certain death, to lie out in the sun without any shelter would surely be the last of him.

Hours passed, the sun sank deeper and deeper towards the horizon. If Jacob could have reasoned, he would have turned to walk into the golden ball, towards the mythical ocean.

But he kept walking.

Then he shuffled, too far gone to lift tired feet up and forward. It was twilight, and he imagined a cool breeze swept over his aching body. His imagination gave him a whiff of water smell. It was so dainty and light. Jacob’s heart hitched, his breath caught in his chest. He could die now, with the smell of fresh, clean water filling his nose, cooling his battered skin.

It didn’t matter that it was an illusion, a trick of his dying brain. It felt real, and that was blessing enough, to die with the scent of water perfuming his last moments.

He never noticed when he passed through the city gate, held open by men who watched him continue his slow, tortured shuffle forward. Never saw the people rushing to catch him as he fell, spent, in front of the town well.

 

#

 

He awoke with thoughts of Heaven foremost in his brain, and the sights that greeted his wavering eyesight did little to dispel that. Sunlight filtered into the room through an old wooden shutter, highlighting the plaster ceiling and walls, the few pieces of rough-hewn furniture emerging from the night’s shadow.

Jacob turned his head with an effort, taking it all in. The heat and dusty air surely wouldn’t be a feature of Heaven, but of the all-too-real world he knew. The disappointment caused his chest to contract painfully. He was surprised when tears wet his eyes. He hadn’t been able to cry for a long time.

Damn God for leaving him on this forsaken world! What kind of loving Father would do that to His most faithful servant? Try as he might, Jacob began to believe less in that love and more in the notion that God was nothing more than a cruel, capricious bastard.

The sound of the door opening took Jacob away from his thoughts and brought his gaze to the woman who entered. She carried a tray, and her attention was focused on keeping the contents steady. She didn’t notice Jacob was awake and watching her until she’d closed the door and was halfway to the cot where he lay.

“Oh, you’re awake!”

Jacob nodded. “Yes. Where am I?”

His voice was little more than a croak, his throat was still so dry.

The woman stood blinking at him for a long while. She was dressed simply, in a loose, woven robe that covered her from throat to toe. Dark blonde hair was piled up on top of her head, a few fine tendrils loose and waving in a slight breeze.

Jacob thought she was the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen, especially when she finally moved to set the tray on a rickety bedside table. The cup she proceeded to fill with water and offer to him was surely the second most beautiful sight.

Jacob gulped the liquid, though he tried to make it last. It was so precious, so rare, that he wanted to savor it like the finest wine. But he was too thirsty, and so the water disappeared quickly. How astounding when the woman poured him another, and then another.

Finally, Jacob settled back against the wall and tried to speak again. This time his voice was much clearer, smoother.

“Thank you. Will you tell me, where I am? I’ve travelled so long, and the journey has been hard.”

The woman hesitated. “I think it’s best you wait for Administrator James. He will make all clear to you.”

After helping Jacob with more water, the woman took up the tray and left the room. There was a small sound as the door closed, and Jacob suspected the door had been secured. He was too weak to care, and as he lay back on the clean bedding he drifted into sleep.

 

#

 

Some time later, Jacob awoke to see the room had slipped again into shadow. He could barely make out the items in the room, only the glow coming through the window and striking the white plaster made it possible. There was no candle or lantern to be seen, so he pulled himself up and waited for someone to come.

How long he waited he didn’t know, but the light was fading into darkness before he heard the sound of the door being unlocked. When it swung open, the light of a lantern blinded Jacob for a moment. By the time his eyes had adjusted, a man was standing beside the bed, holding the lantern high.

The man watched Jacob, taking in his features, studying him like a bird of prey. His face was passive, no emotion breaking through.

Jacob was still, letting the man take his measure. It was to be expected, when one was a stranger. In return, Jacob studied the man. He saw graying brown hair, hazel eyes marked by wrinkles, though he thought the man not much older than himself. His skin was weathered, like everyone who lived in this harsh world.

Finally, the man smiled. Jacob couldn’t help himself and smiled back.

“Welcome, stranger. You have had a long journey, we could tell when you arrived. It’s taken many days until you recovered enough so I could talk with you. I am Samuel Malloy, Administrator of this community. And your name?”

“Jacob. Jacob Heinlein.”

The man—an Administrator, whatever that was—laughed. “No relation, I suppose, to the long ago writer of fanciful tales? We have several of his works, preserved carefully in the Library.”

Jacob shook his head. “I don’t know, Administrator. My family long ago lost whatever records they had. It’s just a name we knew to call ourselves in our village, handed down from father to son.”

“Well, no matter. It was just a peculiar notion I had. In the world long gone, many held great stock in even distant relations to famous people. Today, it’s your own good faith and work that distinguish you.”

Malloy turned around, searching for something. It was only then that Jacob realized that two other men had entered the room after him. One of them pushed a small wooden chair up to the bed.

“Ah, thank you, Markus.” Malloy situated the chair so he was close to Jacob’s bedside, a good distance for talk but not too close.

“Now. I’m sure you have many questions. The tending woman said you’d asked where you are. Normal curiosity, but you must understand that I need to be sure of your intentions before you’re given information that might be used against us. Many have tried to take our community by force.”

Jacob nodded. It was the usual way of things, that those with nothing would take from those who had something, no matter how small a thing it was. To have water enough to be given freely to a stranger meant they were rich, indeed.

“So, Jacob Heinlein, might you share where you are from, and why you were travelling under such mean circumstances? We know you had nothing with you except a bag containing animal snares, a canteen, and some small articles of clothing. Your old knife was little more than a gesture towards offering any real protection.

“Which leaves me wondering, I won’t deny. We see few enough travellers these days, even the rebels and renegades have begun to die out. So, what brought you to our fair community?”

Jacob swallowed, thinking hard. How much he should reveal, how much dignity he could keep for himself. He felt the blush of shame coloring his cheeks, and knew the other men could see it clearly in the bright glow of the lantern.

Malloy waited him out, head tipped to one side, a slight smile on his lips. He was settled into the little chair, as if he could and would wait a long time for Jacob to answer.

Finally, it could be put off no longer. Jacob decided to tell it all, and let the Administrator use it as he would.

“I come from far away, many months walking to the East. Once I lived in a thriving community, with a good spring and lush crops. We were happy, and content to live simply.”

Malloy nodded. “As we ourselves are, here. But, go on.”

“One day, we noticed that our water wasn’t as plentiful as it once was, our harvests leaner. It became harder and harder to keep us all fed. We gradually decreased our livestock, changed the crops we grew, and we went on, poorer but still happy.”

Jacob paused, sighing. How he dreaded telling the next part of the tale. He didn’t want to share the rest with a stranger, but if it was the price to be paid for even one more cup of water, then so be it.

“We knew other villages were suffering as we were, because people talk when trading, no matter how many times the leaders say to keep our secrets our own. It was on one such trading day that something went wrong. Someone heard talk that should not have been shared. Our party was followed.”

He couldn’t go on. Not even for a gallon of water. It was too much to have to tell this man what befell his village.

Malloy waited, patiently, that ever-present smile crinkling the skin around his eyes. It was as if he had all the time in the world to hear the story, and Jacob realized with a start that he did. Whatever happened, Jacob was at the mercy of this leader. He could find himself beyond the gates, or dead, as Malloy pleased.

Jacob turned his head away, talking instead to the plaster wall. It, at least, offered no judgment.

“We had only been back for a few hours, the night fallen into full dark. There was no moon. The guards at the gate were overtaken, every man who rushed to defend us killed. The women and children—.”

“Yes, I know,” Malloy said gently into the long silence.

The pity was worse than condemnation. Jacob felt the tears falling, coursing down his drawn cheeks. So many tears nurtured by so little water, he marvelled as they fell.

“How was it you escaped, Jacob?”

“I was at the edge of the village, far from the gates. I was so tired from the trading trip that I fell into a deep slumber. By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late. I grabbed the few items I could find in the dark, climbed onto the roof of my hut and jumped over the wall.”

He took a deep breath and met Malloy’s eyes. “I’ve been walking ever since. At first I thought to find the invaders and extract some revenge, but they were too many, and my own death would mean nothing. As time went on, my journey became a pilgrimage, an atonement for what I allowed to happen to my people.”

Malloy smiled. “And how has that worked out for you? Do you believe God led you here, to this village? For whatever reason, you have lived despite your desire to die, which leads me to believe you don’t truly want to die.”

Jacob stared at him, mouth agape. How dare this man judge him? Jacob reddened, his heartbeat accelerating. He wanted to rip the smug expression from the man’s face, to tear him to shreds. His hands lifted from where they’d lain in his lap, but movement from the two other men in the room stopped Jacob.

And perhaps Malloy was right to ask those questions, Jacob realized as he calmed down. Hadn’t he asked himself many times what God’s purpose was, why he alone survived from the village?

Malloy leaned forward, looking at Jacob with a serious expression. His eyes were like hot lead and as much as he wanted to, Jacob couldn’t look away.

“You may not believe in God right now, but I do. I believe that God watches over us all, and everything that happens is His will. The world dying around us is His sign that we must repent the evil ways of the past.

“I have a proposition for you, Jacob, but that must be a topic for another day. It’s late, and we all need to rest so we can work as we must tomorrow.”

With that, Malloy pushed himself up from the chair, which creaked alarmingly. He didn’t notice, just turned and walked out the door. The others followed, and once again the door was locked behind them.

Jacob’s stomach grumbled, but hunger was a constant companion. He ignored it, and made himself lie still until sleep overtook him.

 

#

 

Malloy didn’t come the next day. No one did. Jacob was longing for some food and water. It seemed especially cruel to have been given so much the day before, and now to be left forgotten in this small room.

He got up from the bed and managed to get to the door, but no matter how much he called, no one came. He shuffled around the room holding on to whatever he could until he made it to the window. The shutter opened easily, but there were bars on the outside. He couldn’t see anyone, and his voice seemed to get lost in the empty alley.

Finally he gave up, and lay on the bed watching the sun’s rays travel over the wall opposite the window. Hours passed, leaving him alone with his thoughts. He feared that Malloy was letting him lie here, suffering for the tale of woe he’d shared the night before.

And it would be justice, Jacob believed. His carelessness had allowed others to take his village, to kill everyone in it save himself. He could hear the screams and cries even these many months later, the women begging for the lives of their children in vain.

Night came, and still no one entered the room. Jacob fell asleep wondering how long he would have the luxury of cool sheets, a soft mattress. Surely others more deserving would like to have such comfort. Even without food or drink, these were the best conditions Jacob could remember since he’d left the comfort of his own bed.

In all, it was another full day before anyone came. Jacob struggled to keep his mind from thoughts of water, trying to recite all the scripture he had once memorized and could recall at will. When that grew too much, he drifted into sleep and dreamed of the days when he had a full belly and the voices of his village to comfort him.

 

#

 

Jacob was dozing, daydreaming about walking in the hot sun. Dust arose from his steps, drifting up around his head until it fell behind, only to be refreshed by another step. Rise and fall, the sun beating down into every cell until his body was like a farrier’s pit.

He was sure he was in fact walking still, and this bed, this small room, were only figments of his heartless imagination. A final, cruel joke to play on a man who was lost.

When the door was unlocked again, Jacob didn’t bother to open his eyes, but only lay still on the bed, turned so he could see the small window. He’d opened the shutter again at some point, and bright light flooded the room. Why bother to move, he reasoned, only to see another bit of a dream?

“Jacob? Are you awake? I’ve brought food and water for you.”

In his dream, Jacob heard the voice of his fine wife, who had died years before birthing their only child. The infant had lived only an hour before joining his mother. It was a mercy, Jacob knew, though he’d cried many hours over the loss. He was never certain which death hurt more, though he suspected it was the child he mourned most of all. Women were easy to come by, in those long ago times.

He wanted to remain in the dream, to see Mariah’s kind face, her pale blue eyes that seemed to see deep into the depths of Jacob’s soul. It would be better to remember the brief joy of his life, now that he was at the end.

The smell of fresh, sweet water and the smile of his beloved. It was all a man could ask.

A hand on his shoulder made him jump, and turn quickly to see what had come up behind him as he walked. He had to take a moment to clear the dream from his head, because he saw it was the same woman from before. Not his sweet Mariah. His heart broke.

“I’m sorry I startled you. I only wanted to make sure you were well. You should eat, and drink.”

“Yes,” Jacob agreed. His mind was clearing. “Why has nobody come ‘til now? I’ve been here many days, and not seen or heard a single person. Even my poor village gave better to a stranger.”

The woman looked down, but said nothing. Jacob looked at the tray she held before her, noting what was arrayed there. A biscuit, with some sort of meat between its halves, and a small carafe of water. His stomach growled.

At the sound, the woman looked up. She was flushed, shamed.

“I’m sorry, but it is our way. We must test any visitor, discover their true nature. Administrator Malloy ordered us to ignore your calls, to stay away. But you may eat and drink today, before he visits you again.”

Jacob didn’t argue when she made to lay the tray across his lap, only straightened up so it wouldn’t tip and send the contents tumbling. He wanted that biscuit, and if he got nothing else ever in his life, he would have it.

The taste of it bloomed on his lips as he bit into it. Flaky and moist, he felt it awaken his dead taste buds. It would be a terrible thing to have this delicious morsel, only to have to go back to having nothing.

But he couldn’t think about that, he knew. He must savor every bite, every crumb, make a memory that could sustain him long after the bread itself was gone.

It was a miracle. Bread took flour, oil, milk. The meat—a fist-sized piece of ham—meant animals. That this delight was given to a stranger meant there was enough to share. The water was poured for him freely, as he tried to slow his meal down by drinking cup after cup between bites.

The woman watched him eat with an expression of satisfaction, her arms folded across her middle when she wasn’t refreshing his cup of water.

Jacob looked up at her, holding the last bit of biscuit.

“I never heard your name,” he said. “I’d like to know who to thank for such a bounty as this.”

“Oh! I’m Jenny. I am one who tends to others as my lot.” She blushed. “No one has cared to know my name, or thank me before.”

Jacob didn’t want to think of strange customs and habits. He wanted another biscuit, but didn’t dare to ask. Instead, he turned the topic to something more likely to get information of use.

“You said the Administrator will want to talk with me again. Do you know what he wants? I’m a bit nervous, as you can imagine, not knowing where I am, or the sort of people around me.”

“That’s understandable, but I’m not privy to the Administrator’s business. I only know you are to be fed, and instructed to await him.”

Jacob frowned. “Okay. I suppose I have no choice. But if I may, am I allowed to leave this place?”

“This room? No, not until your visit is done. The Administrator will decide what happens to you next.”

That didn’t sound very good, Jacob thought. But, would the village feed and shelter him, if it only meant he was to be killed? It seemed a waste of good food and water, if so.

Still, he guessed he must wait. He watched as Jenny took away the water, cup and tray. There was a large crumb that had fallen in his lap, and Jacob idly picked it up and placed it on his tongue. The bit of bread made his taste buds tingle. How long before he ever had its like again?

 

#

 

Night was falling again before the door opened to reveal the Administrator and his lantern. The same two men stepped into the room and closed the door. They didn’t look happy to be there, faces closed and cold.

Administrator Malloy again sat on the wobbly chair, leaning back and crossing his long, muscular legs at the ankle.

“I believe you’ve been fed and given water. I hope it was to your liking?”

“Oh, yes, it was very good. More than I’ve had to eat in a very long time.” Jacob hated that he sounded too eager, too appreciative of what was truly only a small token meal, the sort by custom given to strangers. But somehow, he knew he must please this man, or lose his chance to stay in paradise.

Malloy was nodding, his smile distracted. Jacob waited, wondering what the man would say. If he had to beg, Jacob had already decided, he would. The taste of the smoky, salted ham still lingered on his tongue. In his travels since his community fell, he’d only managed small bits of meat, birds or squirrels too near death to escape his stones. The greasy flesh was barely enough to keep his body going, and nothing at all to enhance his meals. Almost not worth eating, except to keep him walking.

As if something had nudged him back to the present, Malloy gave Jacob a long, studying look. His eyes were serious, and Jacob’s heart fell. He lifted his chin and returned Malloy’s look, determined to keep his disappointment to himself. At least he’d had food and water. When he was shown to the road, he’d have regained enough strength to set off again for the ocean.

“Jacob, I’ve been thinking on things for a little while now. I think we can find a place for you here, in our community. What skills do you have that would be of use to us?”

Jacob sat up straighter, pulling his shoulders back. He flexed the muscles in his arms. “I can hunt, and I’ve farmed all my life.”

Malloy nodded. “Yes, that’s common enough amongst our people. Every hand often has to turn to the necessary jobs. But what else? I know you said you’ve been on trading parties, which we currently have no use for.”

“Well, I’ve done carpentry, built houses and barns and shops. Done a turn with the local farrier, before the horses were all gone. I can read and write sums.” Jacob’s pulse was pounding in his ears as he watched the expressions flit across the Administrator’s face.

“A man who can read and write could be quite useful, at some point. Anything else?”

Jacob shook his head. “Just the usual shifts on the walls, pulling watch.”

Malloy perked up at that. “Ah, yes. A good man on the wall is worth something. Have you been in battle?”

It was something Jacob didn’t like to think about, and he’d wished he could control his tongue. As much as he wanted to stay in the town, to become a citizen, he didn’t want to have to be a warrior.

The silence stretched out as the two men watched each other, until finally Jacob dropped his eyes. It was no use. He’d tell all. And why not? He’d already admitted his deepest shame, having left his fellows to die when their town had been overrun. What mattered after that?

“I have killed in defense of myself and others, yes. It’s not my strongest contribution to my town.”

To his surprise, Malloy only nodded, slapping his hands on his knees before rising. He pushed the chair behind himself with one foot as he stood looking down on Jacob’s bowed head. One of the men took the chair and slid it against the plastered wall with a screech.

“Well, I think that’s enough for today. Why don’t you get a good night’s sleep, and we’ll meet tomorrow to see if I’ve found a place for you. You can take a walk around the main town, sit by the fountain. It’s quite peaceful there, and you look like a man who could use some peace.”

“Thank you, Administrator. I would like to see more of this fine town.”

With a final flip of a hand, Malloy stepped outside, followed by his two guards. Jacob listened, and despite Malloy’s warm words, the door was again locked.

Jacob wasn’t sure what that meant. He thought about it for a long time, watching the moon’s path along the walls of the room. As he fell asleep, his stomach full and his body on the way to being restored, he decided it didn’t matter. Whatever happened, he’d been treated well and he would go on his way with a renewed strength of will.

 

#

 

The next morning, Jacob woke to bright sun and the sound of the door unlocking. Jenny came in with another tray, this one holding a rolled tortilla filled with egg and more of the ham. Jacob’s mouth watered so hard he had to swallow more than once before he could speak.

“Good morning, Miss Jenny,” he managed to croak out while she set the tray on a small table. He was strong enough to sit up, and then rise. With careful movements, mindful of the man watching from the doorway, Jacob picked up the chair and brought it to the table.

“Good morning to you,” Jenny said with a smile, watching him sit. “The Administrator has said you may walk freely in the town today before your meeting. I thought you might like a little more food, now that you’ve recovered.”

Jacob breathed deeply. The smell was intoxicating, his head was spinning. How long since he’d had fresh eggs? A year, maybe longer. His jaw dropped when Jenny poured a glass for him. Milk! It was as if a rock had lodged in his throat. His hand shook as he reached for the glass.

For a long moment, he could only look at the white pureness of the liquid. Finally, knowing Jenny was watching, he brought the rim to his lips and took a long, slow drink.

Before he realized it, he’d picked up the roll and took a huge bite, chewing with his eyes closed. Ecstasy. Jacob forced himself to eat slowly, washing down the burrito with gulps of the cold, sweet milk.

When he was done, Jenny reached to take the tray. “If you’ll come with me, I’ll show you around, so you can enjoy the morning before the hottest hours come.”

Jacob could barely remember getting his sandals on, and then Jenny was handing him his old hat. He could see it had been cleaned and given some sort of oil rub. He settled the old leather over his head. His hand lingered on the brim, caressing the familiar curve. The hat had belonged to his grandfather, who had lived in the time before the world turned into an oven intent on baking itself into ash. It was the only thing left from his family, from his life before.

He followed Jenny out into the hall, with the guard behind him. He thought he should be angry about being watched, but he knew it was the right thing. His own people wouldn’t have let a stranger wander around alone.

But to his surprise, once they’d gone out the front door, the guard stopped. Jenny waved to him and took Jacob’s arm, leading him away.

“Don’t you need your guard?”