TEAL: Chapter 12

Teal is available as a free CC-licensed science fiction novel. You can read more about the project here.

Click here to download this chapter as a PDF (104kb)


I don’t know that anyone knew the lone boy’s real name. At his request, everyone called him “Niche.” Even the teachers.

Niche seemed to be a nice enough guy. He never got into fights, never caused trouble – but if you met him in a dark alley you’d probably crap yourself. He was actually an exchange student from…well, I don’t know where. His voice was really deep and he spoke with a harsh accent, making him always sound angry. Thing is, he never really smiled or frowned or had any expression but a look of total indifference.

On top of that, he never associated with anyone unless they first engaged him. He was always polite – almost too polite – and more than one girl had pointed out that with a haircut he’d be very good-looking.

I wasn’t so sure. Today he wore his usual outfit: baggy camouflage pants, heavy black boots, and a black denim vest over a t-shirt with “Animal Mother” written in bold letters across the front. The only part of the outfit that ever varied was the t-shirt; everything else was pretty much the same regardless of the occasion or the weather.

So what does this all have to do with my desperate need for a distraction? Not much, except in reference to a conversation between Eddie and I on our first week of high school. We were eating in the lunchroom when Eddie suddenly pointed at Niche.

“See that kid?” he had said.

“Yeah. Niche, right?”

“Yep. If you ever need an answer to an impossible question, talk to that kid. There’s way more to him than meets the eye.”

At this Eddie had began humming the Transformers theme as he resumed eating. I didn’t have any idea what he meant and the topic had never come up again. I never found out why he’d said this or what he meant by it.

But I was in a bind – a bad one – and I needed help from wherever I could get it. I just hoped Eddie’s advice was good.

I slowed as I approached Niche’s tall, stoic form. He didn’t move except to turn to the next page of his book. I could just make out the title; it said US Army Survival Manual.

That worried me somewhat.

“Uh…hey, Niche.”

“Hello Teal,” he replied, his gaze never leaving the book.

How did he know my name? We’d never talked before.

“Hi. Um, I have a strange question for you.”

Niche folded down a corner of his current page and closed the book. He slowly raised himself from against the tree and turned to face me. I couldn’t help but tense.

But Niche simply looked at me, apparently waiting for more information.

“Uh, someone once told me that if I ever had an impossible question, you’d be able to help.”

He almost smiled.

“I don’t know about that.”

“Heh, yeah, it’s kinda weird… Anyway, I need to create a distraction.”

Wow. That sounded even dumber than I expected.

“A distraction? Why?”

“See those guys in suits? The ones by the row of black cars?”

Niche glanced sideways. He examined the agents for a moment before nodding.

“Those guys have a friend of mine in their custody, only he hasn’t done anything wrong.”

“Then why do they have him?”

“I don’t know. Maybe because he’s with me.”

Niche paused.

“Then instead of creating a distraction, perhaps you should simply turn yourself in. That could be the best way to free your friend.”

“It’s not that easy, Niche. It’s…well, it’s complicated.”

“Who do the agents represent?”

Man, his voice was deep. He sounded like a Russian James Earl Jones.

“They won’t say, but I don’t think they’re police, FBI, or CIA.”

Niche nodded.

“They do not work for the government. They must represent a private interest.”

He glanced at me, then shook his head.

“Sorry Teal, but it’s not in my best interest to get involved.”

He opened his book and resumed reading.

“Niche, buddy – I know it sounds crazy, but I really need some help. Can you help me or not?”

He didn’t look up from his book.

“I can think of more ways to create a distraction than you can probably imagine, Teal. But I have no reason to help someone who withholds information from me.”

The grating buzz of the fire alarms suddenly ceased.

I was running out of time.

“Niche! I’d give you more information if I had it, but I just don’t know what’s going on! I think these guys work for the Zargansk and they’re after me for reasons I don’t understand.”

He didn’t move.

“But Eddie – he’s innocent! He hasn’t done–”

“Eddie? Eddie Singh?”

“Yes, Eddie Singh! We gotta help him! Please!”

Students were starting to file back into the school. Time was up.

Niche suddenly placed a massive hand on my shoulder.

“I’m helping because this makes Eddie and I even. Don’t expect charity from me, Teal. If you want my help again you’ll have to pay for it.”

“Okay. Whatever! But we gotta act now!”

A car door slammed shut. Niche and I glanced sideways to find the agents climbing into their vehicles.

Were we too late?

“Stay here and act surprised,” he muttered as he sprinted back toward the school.

Act surprised? No problem. Every part of the last three days had been surprising. Surprise was my trademark expression.

Niche darted between thinning throngs of students like a snake, and faster than I could’ve imagined, he was back inside the school.

Exactly seven seconds later the fire alarms started back up. Niche was good.

I smiled as bunches of grumbling students trudged back outside.

Suddenly I heard the roar of a starting engine. I glanced over to find one of the black sedans – not the one with Eddie in it – backing out of its parking spot. Two spaces down, Eddie’s silhouette appeared to be banging on the back window of another sedan.

Argh. Niche or no Niche, I needed to get Eddie out. Time was officially out.

I took off at a sprint as I tried to formulate some kind of plan for freeing my trapped friend without getting both of us captured or shot. Nothing came to mind, but the next black sedan had just started its engine. That meant Eddie’s was next.

Niche suddenly emerged from the front doors of the school. He ran to the flagpole, placed something at its base, then ran back inside.

I slowed down, wondering what had just happened.

The final black sedan started its engine.

A sudden BOOM exploded from the base of the school’s flagpole. Kids screamed and sprinted in all directions as the pole began to topple.

The brake lights flickered on all three black sedans.

As the screaming escalated, the flagpole fell outward, gaining momentum as it dropped. I’m not sure of its total length, but it was taller than our two-story school, making it at least twenty feet high.

Students plowed into me and I had to fight to keep from getting run over.

Then I realized where the pole was falling.

Niche was a genius after all.

The gigantic metal beam smashed through the front windshield of the middle black sedan. Its tip crunched through the roof, popping metal and shattering plastic and glass as it turned the general shape of the car into a V. The horn blared, the airbags deployed, and the pole didn’t stop until it nearly touched the ground.

The car was decimated.

The driver and passenger of both Eddie’s car and the undamaged car jumped out. Two ran toward the school, weapons drawn, while the other two ran to the damaged car.

Now was my chance.

I ran past fleeing classmates in a direct line for the last black sedan. Once I reached it I slowed down, ducked, then crawled to the street side of the car.

I quietly opened the back door and beckoned Eddie out.

“Teal! Dude! Am I glad to see you! These stupid doors have no handles on the inside, so if you hadn’t come I–”

“No time to talk,” I interrupted. “Let’s get outta here.”

Eddie climbed out and I quietly closed the door behind him. The two agents trying to move the pole off the damaged car were making steady progress, but at least they hadn’t noticed us.

I quickly considered our options. Eddie and I wouldn’t have much time to make our escape, and I wasn’t even sure where to go. The only idea I could settle on was to try and get lost in the now-huge group of students running from the school.

We scurried away from the car and into a nearby group of running teenagers. I led the way as we made a wide berth around the school and started moving toward the back fence. Eddie loudly questioned this decision but I ignored him. He should just be glad he wasn’t still in the back of a black sedan.

A sudden boom erupted behind us. We looked back to find the two agents from Eddie’s car blasting away at the pole with – you guessed it – green laser guns. They were trying to split the pole into smaller sections so they could remove it from the mutilated car.

I sped up. Those agents weren’t gonna be happy when they realized Eddie had escaped, and I was starting to wonder if they might finally decide to use those green blasts on us.

Once we reached the back side of the school, we stopped jogging and started sprinting for the fence at the edge of the schoolyard. If I remembered things correctly, our destination would be just past the large, weed-filled field on the other side of the fence. With a bit of luck, Eddie and I could reach it before the agents noticed he was gone.

I just prayed other men in suits wouldn’t be there waiting for us.

My legs were starting to hurt, but that didn’t stop me from pouring on the speed as we sprinted toward the fence. I reached it at a full run and somehow managed to gracefully leap onto and over the top of it.

Eddie tried to jump over behind me but somehow he missed; all I heard was a crash and a curse, and I turned around to find him on the ground in a painful heap.

“Eddie, c’mon! Those agents are gonna see us!”

He grunted and tried to stand up.

“Dude, my ankle is killing. I think I broke it.”

I fought the urge to panic.

“It’s not broken. C’mon! We gotta go!”

Eddie tried to lift himself over the fence, but his leg collapsed beneath him.

“I can’t, man. I can’t make it. Go on without me. I’ll stall them. Go find Cronus.”

I shook my head as I backed up from the fence.

“No way. I’m not leaving you here.”

In one fluid motion I leaped toward the fence, grabbed the top of it, and flipped myself back over. My heart thumped and my mind raced, but I only had one thought: Eddie and I had to get out of there, and we had to do it fast. By now, the agents almost certainly knew were missing.

I pulled Eddie up and half-lifted, half-shoved him onto the top of the fence. He teetered dangerously before falling to the other side. It sounded painful.

I lined up for another running start, then leaped back over the fence. My legs were tired and this time I scraped my hands as I flopped to the other side.

Eddie moaned and held his ankle as I watched the school grounds through gaps in the fence. I didn’t see any agents yet, but it wouldn’t take them long to pinpoint the possible places Eddie and I could have gone.

I reached down and lifted my injured friend to his feet. Eddie grimaced, but he threw an arm around my shoulders as we hobbled across the field.

I tried to reorient the weeds as we walked, hoping to cover our tracks, but the two of us were in a bad situation. No way could Eddie go much further without medical attention, and if we happened to encounter more tall men in dark suits we wouldn’t stand a chance.

I just hoped I could get us somewhere safe before he passed out.

“Hey – you okay?”

Eddie said nothing. His face was pale and frightened, but despite his obvious pain he continued hobbling alongside me.

It didn’t take us long to arrive at the cul-de-sac on the far edge of the field. The streets here were empty, but if we walked to the end of the street we would find ourselves on a busy road. I didn’t want to spend more time on public sidewalks than we absolutely had to, but my plan required us getting to that main road. Eddie and I hurried down the sidewalk as best we could.

The dissonant blur of chaotic screaming and exploding continued to play across the field, and more than once I thought a black sedan would suddenly pull into the cul-de-sac.

But none did, and we managed to reach the main road undetected. I scanned the busy street for the help we needed.

Perhaps it was fate, perhaps it was luck, but the street had exactly what I’d hoped: a bus stop. Eddie and I hobbled over to the empty bench and within thirty seconds a bus arrived.

Eddie stumbled down the center aisle while I took care of the fare. As the bus doors closed, I grabbed several bus schedule pamphlets and joined my friend, who had settled somewhere near the middle. He looked like he was suffering.

I sat and began searching through the various bus routes. Eddie held his ankle and stared blankly out the window.

A minute or so later, he elbowed me and motioned out the window. I looked out to find us driving past the far end of my street.

And wouldn’t you know it, a host of black sedans sat parked in front of my house.

Eddie grinned.

“Guess we’re not going to your place any time soon, eh?”

“Guess not.”

His smile faded.

“Speaking of which…where are we going?”

I sifted through the bus routes in my lap.

“Actually, I was hoping we could go to University Hospital. That’s where my dad is staying. I figure we could get your ankle examined, and maybe my dad will have some advice for us. He’s the one family member I have left, and I know he has more information about what’s going on.”

Eddie raised an eyebrow.

“And what about Cronus? Shouldn’t finding him be our first priority?”

“Eddie, look at us! You’re injured and can barely walk. I spent my last three bucks on bus fare, so now we’re broke.”

He started to interrupt but I cut him off.

“And, as if that’s not ridiculous enough, these agent guys are after us at every turn. Getting help is way more important than hunting down some Cronus guy.”

Eddie looked like he disagreed but he stayed quiet. I just hoped the police and/or agents wouldn’t be at the hospital. Based on the events of my last visit there, I didn’t know how safe it would be – but it couldn’t possibly be more dangerous then sticking around the school.

I just prayed we’d make it there alive and unharmed.

And then I prayed we’d find my dad alive and unharmed. Bad as our situation was, his seemed even worse.

Then I prayed for Jackson. And Emmary. And mom.

I really missed them.

Next Chapter (Chapter 13) >>

<< Previous Chapter (Chapter 11)

TEAL: Chapter 11

Teal is available as a free CC-licensed science fiction novel. You can read more about the project here.

Click here to download this chapter as a PDF (92kb)

It wasn’t until my third candy bar that it hit me: meeting at the vending machines was a dumb idea. After the final get-to-class bell rang, the school’s halls cleared out and everything went deathly quiet. If I stayed at the vending machines, a teacher would undoubtedly find me and force me to go to class – something I really wasn’t in the mood to deal with.

So I bought another two candy bars then snuck around the corner and into the lunch room. If I hid in a back corner it would be harder for a teacher to spot me, but I would be still be in a good position to see Eddie coming.

Speaking of which, where was my strange little friend? At least ten minutes had passed since our disastrous lock-out. Maybe the office ladies were giving him crap about faking sick. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that had happened to some poor student.

I absentmindedly chomped into another candy bar and tried to ignore my growing sense of panic. Eddie would show up any minute. He had to.

Two candy bars later I changed my mind. Apparently Eddie didn’t have to return, because there was still no sign of my delinquent friend. My rising panic seemed plenty justified since nothing short of an emergency would keep him from coming.

Another five minutes passed…

…and still nothing. This had to mean something bad.

I wasn’t in the mood for bad.

But without any other options, I dumped my pile of candy bar wrappers in the trash and went in search of my missing friend. A quick glance down each hallway surrounding the cafeteria revealed nothing, and a pass by the now-infamous janitor’s closet showed it just the way we’d left it: closed and locked.

I hurried back to the cafeteria – my eyes darting every-which-way in search of a hall monitor or wandering teacher – but still Eddie was nowhere to be found.

I glanced at the analog clock hung high on the cafeteria’s back wall. Almost twenty minutes had passed since I last saw my friend.

Something had to be wrong. I prayed it didn’t involve green laser guns.

Much as I didn’t want to, the next logical place to search was the main office. Maybe someone there could tell me if Eddie had successfully checked out.

Of course, the downside was that the place would be crawling with teachers and administrators.

But what other choice did I have? Unless Eddie had abandoned me – and I really couldn’t blame him for that – he probably needed my help. I at least owed him one final check at the office.

I hurried there as quickly as I could, and as soon as I reached it I knew something was wrong. Really wrong.

Three tall men in dark suits and sunglasses stood, arms folded, immediately inside the front doors. Two more were outside talking to an administrator while another two paced the sidewalk. All looked like FBI agents, but recent experiences made me doubt that.

I debated doubling back and approaching the office from the opposite direction, but it quickly became obvious that no matter which way I went I would have to pass the agents. Worse yet, if they were related to this whole Zargansk thing they would almost certainly recognize me.

But I had to get to the office. I had to find out what happened to Eddie. He’d been brave enough to follow the janitor into the tunnels despite having no promise of protection, and I knew if I ever disappeared again, he would go to any length to track me down.

So I took a deep breath, tightened my borrowed backpack, and made a beeline for the office doors, trying my best to look inconspicuous.

I held my breath the entire way and – thankfully – the men in suits ignored me. This ray of hope gave me newfound courage, and once inside the office I headed straight for the front desk.

But before I could reach the desk, a familiar voice floated from a room down the office hallway.

“I told you already – I don’t know anyone named Teal. Why do you keep asking me about him?”

I stopped in my tracks as another voice followed.

“Listen, kid: we were told to pick up you and a student named Teal. You can either help us find him, or you can count on being in a lot more trouble than you’re already in.”

“Trouble? What have I done wrong? You haven’t even told me why I’m here!”

“Excuse me, young man – do you need help?”

I looked up at the secretary, who gave me a matronly smile.

“Um, no, I’m alright. I was just wondering why the police are here.”

She frowned.

“You’re not the only one wondering what they’re doing here. They’re not even police officers. I don’t know who they are,” she continued, her expression growing angry. “I was worried they’d frighten the students, standing around all scarily like that.”

I put on my most convincing frightened face.

“Oh, it’s okay, ma’am. I’m not,” I paused for emphasis, “too frightened. I just wanted to make sure no one was hurt.”

Suppressing my sudden urge to gag was no small feat. This was so unlike me.

The secretary smiled sympathetically.

“Well don’t worry, son. I guess they just needed to ask two boys some questions. Hopefully they’ll leave after that.”

Two boys, and Eddie was obviously one of them. That could only mean the other one was…

I forced a smile.

“Okay. Thanks.”

I left the office and walked out the front doors of the school, trying hard to stay calm even though one of the suited men showed a hint of recognition upon seeing me. I just kept my gaze firmly forward, carefully avoiding eye contact and acting like I knew exactly what I was doing.

As soon as I was out the second set of doors, I dashed behind the row of bushes set along the front side of the school. I waited, but no agents followed me outside. Maybe my luck had begun to turn.

I crept quickly along the wall, hidden from view by the bushes, until I was directly below the window of the room with arguing voices.

“How many times do I have to repeat myself? I don’t know anyone named Teal!”

“You know what – I’ve had it with you, kid. Stay here while I go make a phone call.”

A door slammed; I waited a moment, then slowly stood up and peeked through the open window.

This looked like the principal’s office. It was empty except for a lone figure hunched in a chair opposite an oversized oak desk; the figure appeared to be shaking a fist and mumbling bad words underneath his breath.

I’d know that brand of grumbling anywhere.

“Eddie! Over here!”

My no-longer-missing friend whirled around.

“Dude! Where have you been?”

“What do you mean, ‘where have I been’? I was at the cafeteria waiting for you! What’s going on? Who were you arguing with?”

Eddie rolled his eyes.

“I don’t know – some stupid guy. He won’t say who sent him, but he’s obviously not a cop, not FBI, and not CIA. He won’t even tell me why they want us.”

As much as I’d anticipated this, my stomach still dropped when he said us. Apparently these stupid men in suits were also after me, surprise surprise.

So why hadn’t they grabbed me by the front doors?

I pondered this as Eddie continued.

“So I got to the office and was just about to check out when this big guy in a suit grabbed me from behind, dragged me into this office, locked the door, and started asking all about you. I told him I didn’t know anyone named Teal, but he didn’t go for it.”

“And he didn’t say why they wanted me?”

“Nope, and I’m not even sure he knows. He just kept saying we’re going to take you down to the boss so he can ask you some questions.” Eddie scowled. “Somehow I doubt that’s a good thing for us.”

I nodded in agreement, making a mental note to try and get information on this boss guy if the opportunity presented itself.

“So what are you waiting for? Jump out the window! Let’s go!”

Eddie darted for the window. He was halfway out when the doorknob to the room clicked. I slunk down into the bushes as Eddie pulled himself back inside.

“Not thinking of jumping out the window, were you?”

“Uh, jump out the window? Ha! Why would I do that?”

I was almost certain the person who’d just entered didn’t find this funny.

“So did you make your phone call?”

“Yeah, kid. I’m supposed to take you to the boss right now. My associates will bring your friend as soon as they find him.”

This sent my heart pounding. I had to get Eddie out of there and I had to do it fast. What could I do to cause some commotion?

I hunched over and ran to the end of the building, then turned and sprinted to the nearest door. Once back inside the school, I found myself in the same hallway as the main office.

A glance down the hallway revealed that more suit-clad men – agents, I decided to call them – had assembled around the front doors. Fortunately, none seemed to notice me. They were too far away, and whatever they were talking about had them deeply engaged.

I rapidly scanned the walls of the hallway in search of something that could create a distraction. It didn’t take me long to find one.

I crawled along the ground until I reached a fire alarm. After a quick glance around to make sure no one was watching, I closed my eyes, reached up, and yanked down on the alarm lever.

Sirens blared as red emergency lights flashed along the length of the hall. Sudden noise echoed from every open classroom door and more than one “agent” drew a weapon.

I slid to my feet and joined the throngs of students leaving the building. Once outside, I strolled around the corner of the school to the front lawn, hoping to find a good-sized crowd.

I wasn’t disappointed. Kids were everywhere and more continued to pour out of the school’s many doorways. Some of the more assertive teachers were attempting to organize students by last name and take a headcount, but it wasn’t going well.

This was exactly the situation I had hoped for. It would take the teachers awhile to get a grip on things – especially given how jittery everyone was after last week’s green explosions.

I just hoped there would be enough time for me to get Eddie out of his current ‘situation.’

I waited until my imprisoned friend exited the school. A group of annoyed agents escorted him to a row of – surprise surprise – black sedans at the edge of the parking lot.

I started weaving through the crowds of milling students. I tried to stay behind taller and wider students as I worked my way over, and I quickly realized how much I would have to hurry to reach Eddie before he was dragged “down to the boss”…

…whatever that meant.

So I moved faster, grateful for the adrenaline saturating my blood. I couldn’t believe I’d just pulled a fire alarm and was now trying to steal Eddie out of secret agent custody. Part of my brain told me to turn and run for my life, but I couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling that if I were the one stuck with the police, Eddie would almost certainly try to save me.

I also realized there was no way I could find that Cronus guy without Eddie’s help. If I wanted to get to the bottom of everything that had happened, I needed to keep him around.

I also remembered that the janitor had told the two of us to stick together, and though I found that entire conversation very confusing, it was probably best to follow whatever advice the crazy man had given. Right now I had nothing else to go on.

So I gritted my teeth and continued sneaking toward Eddie and the agents surrounding him.

By now, Eddie and the agents had reached the black sedans. The front agent opened a back door for Eddie and forcibly pushed him toward it. Eddie looked around (presumably for me) then reluctantly climbed inside. The agent closed the car door and began talking to several of his nearby companions, each of which looked exactly the same: big men, dark suits, dark sunglasses. How cliché.

A quick sidestep and I was able to sneak into the group of students nearest the black sedans. I glanced around to make sure none of the agents were watching, then I tried to signal Eddie.

As usual, he wasn’t paying attention. I was going to need another quality distraction to pull the agents away from their cars.

But what? It would need to be something flashy – something so slam-bang shocking that even the agents would fall for it. This couldn’t be an ordinary, everyday distraction.

My eyes drifted across the crowds of mulling students as I considered my options. Whatever I decided, I needed to do it fast. It wouldn’t be long before the teachers figured out this was all just a false alarm.

As I considered my options, I couldn’t help but marvel at how my displaced classmates innately ordered themselves into their usual social circles. The jocks stood near the flagpole, flanked by the Franklin High cheerleaders and drill team. Next to them were the drama kids, then the band geeks. After that came the artists, the yearbook staff, the math nerds. The debate team was next, followed by the skaters.

In fact, only one student stood completely alone – a tall boy with shaggy blond hair, his lean frame resting against a tree on the edge of campus and his face buried in what looked like some kind of old textbook.

A-ha. There was my answer.

Let’s just hope it worked.

Next Chapter (Chapter 12) >>

<< Previous Chapter (Chapter 10)

TEAL: Chapter 10

Teal is available as a free CC-licensed science fiction novel. You can read more about the project here.

Click here to download this chapter as a PDF (98kb)

We had walked less than five feet in when without warning the wall reappeared behind us and everything went completely black. I groaned, and Eddie said a word he probably shouldn’t have.

“Quiet!” the janitor whispered. “You think I don’t know my way around? All you gotta worry about is staying close to me.”

I hoped he was right. Plowing blindly through a dark tunnel was scarier than I liked.

As I waited for my pupils to dilate, I tried focusing on other senses.

The first thing I noticed was the slope of the tunnel floor. It wasn’t level. It sloped slightly downward, and the further we walked the steeper it became.

That meant we were moving underground.

The air inside the tunnel felt surprisingly fresh. I took a deep breath and tried to pinpoint any kind of smell or odor, but nothing came. Listening was useless too, since everything was silent except for our shoes tapping on the metal floor.

It took about thirty seconds for my eyes to adjust enough to start making out specifics of my surroundings. Like the floor, the tunnel walls were also metal, and there were no corners at any edges; the floor curved smoothly into the walls and they curved smoothly into the ceiling. Everything looked unmarked, untouched, and very smooth.

Even weirder, the walls were warm to the touch – not cold like I’d expected. A dim red glow provided a little light, only there weren’t any light fixtures. The glow seemed to emanate from everywhere at once.

The whole place felt like something out of Star Trek. Eddie must have been thrilled.

After a minute or so of walking, the tunnel floor leveled out and branched into two paths. Even here, there were no corners; everything looked smooth and clean, and the temperature felt quite a bit warmer than it had in the school – again, opposite of what I expected.

Despite the branch in the tunnel, the janitor didn’t slow down. He seemed to know exactly where he was going. He veered right and continued straight for another fifty or so feet before holding up his hand. Eddie and I stopped as he got down onto his knees and pressed an ear against the floor.

“…Damn,” he whispered. “I can’t hear a thing and I don’t like it. It’s not like the Zargansk to hide, waiting for us to come find them. They usually prefer to blast their way in.”

That didn’t sound good. I glanced nervously down both sides of the tunnel, but everything was still calm, silent, and really creepy.

Eddie, however, looked like he was having the time of his life.

“Hey,” I whispered. “Do you have any idea what’s going on?”

He grinned and shrugged as our fearless leader jumped back to his feet.

“Well,” the janitor said, scratching his head, “they won’t be here for something friendly. Time to arm up.”

He continued several feet down the hallway then began feeling the wall. His actions implied looking for something, but whatever he sought must have been well-hidden since every square inch of the silver walls looked identical to me.

While the janitor searched, I took another shot at analyzing our surroundings. My eyes had pretty much adjusted to the darkness and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

For one, the tunnel ceiling was awfully tall – probably ten, twelve feet high. And, like all the floor and walls so far, it too was made of unending, unmarked, bright silver metal. I wondered how anyone could keep track of where they were down here.

As I contemplated this, the janitor stopped searching and turned to face me.

“Have you used a gun before?”

“Uh, I…what?” I sputtered. “What do you mean?”

“What do you mean, ‘what do I mean?’ Have you used a gun before? It’s a simple question!”

“Well yeah, dad’s a hunter and we’ve–”

“Good enough.”

He turned to Eddie.


“Uh, I’m pretty good at arcade games that use plastic guns. Last summer I beat the all-time high score of 350,000 points on–”

“Okay, okay,” the janitor said, shaking his head and rubbing his temples nervously. “This may not have been a good idea. Let’s just hope you don’t accidentally shoot me with these…”

He then held out his left hand and pressed it against an unmarked spot in the wall. A bright white light in the outline of his hand appeared, flashed twice, then disappeared. He removed his hand and turned to face the opposite wall, where a dim rectangle the size of an electrical panel had just appeared. The janitor once again removed the diamond-shaped black pendant from around his neck, then brought it slowly toward the panel. The pendant glowed an effulgent blue – the same blue that had filled the upstairs room just minutes before – as he inserted it into a small hole on the bottom-right corner of the panel. Without turning anything, a soft click sounded and the panel swung open, revealing a hidden gun rack.

That was some kinda pendant.

The gun rack was stocked with four identical science-fiction-looking rifles; each was long, thin, and made of the same polished metal that lined the silver walls of the tunnel. The janitor removed three of the rifles, one of which he handed to Eddie, another to me. He then removed a 6-inch metal rod from the bottom of the safe and stuffed it in his back pocket.

Then he closed the panel and turned to face us. I found his expression somewhere between totally psychotic and totally worried as he grimaced and motioned over his shoulder.

“Follow me, boys. We got us a Zargansk to fry.”

And he started jogging down the tunnel.

“Hey!” Eddie said. “What is this thing – some kind of sci-fi rifle?”

The janitor slowed.

“You bet it is. Works like a normal rifle, only it uses vaporized silicon powder instead of powder or projectiles. Real powerful, real quiet.”

He glanced at our guns, then smacked his head.

“Oh yeah – almost forgot. Switch that lever on the right to red and pull the trigger if you see anything move. Just don’t hit me with the blast, ‘cause like I said – that’s no ordinary gun.”

And as if that were an acceptable explanation, he turned and continued jogging. Eddie and I switched the levers on our rifles to red and hurried to catch up.

After another fifty feet we reached a four-way intersection. The janitor plowed straight through it then took his next left. After several more turns I was hopelessly lost. I hoped Eddie was having better luck tracking our location.

Five minutes of jogging later, I had to fight to keep my breathing slow and steady. I was in the back of the line; the janitor still lead the way with Eddie in-between us. I caught myself reflexively glancing over my shoulder, because while we hadn’t seen anything yet, I half expected to see some monstrous, bloodthirsty creature sneaking up on us. I had assumed these Zargansk guys to be some brand of assassin or ninja or secret agent – but what if they were something else entirely?

I tried not to think about it as we took a sharp right turn.

Suddenly the janitor slowed and raised his hand. Eddie and I stumbled to a stop, both of us sweating and breathing heavily. I was way too out of shape for the amount of jogging I’d had to do in the last hour.

It was then that I realized the janitor wasn’t breathing heavily. He was breathing normally, and while Eddie and I were dripping with sweat, he looked dry as sandpaper.

Who was this guy? Some kind of superhero in disguise?

He mumbled something to himself and scratched his head while I leaned against the wall and tried to catch my breath. Eddie did the same, though after several seconds he leaned in and began whispering between labored breaths.

“Dude. Vaporized silicon – the stuff the janitor said was in these guns – from what I know about it, I bet it looks exactly like the green blasts we’ve been seeing.”

“Really? You think these are the same kind of guns the bad guys use?”

“I think so,” Eddie whispered, nodding excitedly. “Which means we’ve got the same firepower they do, only they don’t know it.”

Finally, some good news. Part of me couldn’t wait to try my new gun on a Zargansk, but another part of me – the sane part – secretly hoped this was all just a mistake. I didn’t know if my pounding heart could handle another gunfight.

Eddie was about to say something else when the janitor raised a triumphant fist in the air.

“Of course!” he said quietly. “I bet something went wrong with the portalgate! Serves him right for using it to transport! Ha! C’mon, boys!”

Back to jogging down the hallway. I was really, really sick of running, but the thought of being left alone in these creepy alien-looking tunnels really didn’t appeal to me.

So I followed. Grudgingly.

Three hallways later the janitor again raised a hand, bringing us to a halt. He waited for a moment before placing his hand against the wall.

Somewhere in the distance a sudden crash rang out, followed by a loud scuttling sound scurrying away from us.

That noise…

…I knew that noise.

It sounded like what I’d heard at the school Friday morning, and the same noise had also sounded at the hospital just moments before my family and I were brutally attacked.

That noise was always associated with green blasts.

The janitor cursed and took after the sound at a run, Eddie close behind him. I tightened my grasp on the silver rifle, tried to clear my mind, and sprinted after them.

Two turns later we entered a very long, very wide hallway. A blur whisked past the end of the tunnel and the janitor unhesitatingly fired. Sure enough, a brilliant green sphere the size of a golf ball burst from his rifle and soared down the hallway, dissipating with a hiss into the far wall.

The enemy glanced around the corner and fired back. This time it was a yellowish sphere; all three of us dived frantically out of the way and the blast barely missed the janitor’s leg before hissing angrily onto the floor.

“Phenx!” the janitor yelled. “I’m gonna kill you!”

A horrible, scaly laugh resonated from the far end of the hallway.

“Oh really, Joseph?” it hissed. “You want to kill me? I’m shocked. I thought we were friends.”

The janitor cursed and hammered his trigger. Multiple bursts of bright green energy lit up the tunnel before smashing into the far wall.

“Arrrgh! Why’d you come back through the portalgate? Why!”

“Must I explain everything to you? The project is over. Foolish Kepik is finally imprisoned, Zyken’s HIRC forces are in place, and I no longer wish to deal with you. I have come to kill you and collect the portalgate.”

The janitor roared and fired off another round of shots. A creepy, hissing laugh slithered from the end of the hallway.

“Foolish man. Will you use all your weapon’s energy firing at the wall?”

The janitor cursed again. By now the still-sane portion of my mind had kicked in, and I realized I really didn’t want to be forced to fight if his gun ran out of power. I reached out and set a frightened hand on his arm.

The shooting stopped, but the janitor looked absolutely murderous.

“Enough of your games, Phenx. Come out and face me like a man.”

The hissing laugh returned.

“Like a man? What an ignorant statement. Why don’t you come down here and face me like a Zargansk? Or are you afraid for your imprisoned family? I’d hate to have to punish them for yet another mistake of yours…”

The janitor grimaced as Eddie and I traded startled glances.

“You know the deal, Phenx,” he responded, his voice slightly quivering. “You can’t hurt them. Your laws won’t allow it.”

“Ah, but laws can be changed. With Kepik imprisoned, many representatives – including myself – are moving for complete termination of Project Earth. Complete termination, Joseph. Do you realize what that means?”

Somehow I didn’t like the sound of that. Project Earth? What was this Zargansk with the weird voice talking about?

“No way,” the janitor replied. “They’ll never allow it.”

“Ah, Joseph. You have so much faith in something you know so little about. We Zargansk are not like you.”

“It has nothing to do with race, Phenx! It’s about basic moral decency!”

More laughter.

“Do not lecture me. I am not here to philosophize with you. Now come face me – as you say, like a man – so I can kill you and be done with this ridiculous game we have been forced to play.”

More laughter still.

“And Joseph, how convenient that I can kill you here, where first we met! How fitting!”

I glanced at the janitor, whose face had become frighteningly inexpressive. How did he know this Zargansk by name? Were the Zargansk a different race? The conversation had seemed to imply that. Why did the Zargansk talk about us like we were aliens? Were they that detached from the rest of mankind? And what was this crap about ‘Project Earth’ being terminated?

So far this secret meeting with the janitor hadn’t clarified anything. In fact, it made things a thousand times more confusing, and now I was about to face down some elite assassin dude with a weapon I’d never even fired before.


“My only regret,” the Zargansk suddenly hissed with unmistakable sarcasm, “is that no other humans are around to hear your final screams. I wish all the universe could watch as I end your pitiful, meaningless life.”

And then it dawned on me.

Our opponent didn’t know he was facing multiple opponents. The Zargansk named Phenx thought the janitor was alone.

That gave me an idea.

I whispered my plan to the janitor, who – after a startled smirk at my boldness – nodded grimly and continued arguing with our enemy. Eddie raised an eyebrow but didn’t ask any questions, and he followed quietly as I began creeping down the hallway.

The janitor was yelling loudly now and I prayed that would be enough to hide the sound of Eddie and my scuffling feet. I double-checked the switch on my rifle; it was still at the red mark, which I could only assume was the maximum setting. I hoped that would be powerful enough.

Like before, my pounding heartbeat seemed fully audible. How could the enemy miss it? The pounding seemed to surround me, engulf me.

Eddie looked equally frightened. He seemed very eager for adventure, but based on my past experiences with him, whenever excitement actually arrived he usually found himself wishing there was less excitement.

But at least I wasn’t alone.

I just hoped this plan would work, because if it didn’t we would be sitting ducks. I focused all my attention into creeping as quietly as possible.

We neared the end of the hallway. The janitor continued his ranting.

Dim red light pulsed around us, covering everything in dramatic crimson hues.

I held my breath and tightened a finger around the rifle’s trigger.

Just then, I realized janitor-man was no longer yelling. I turned to see why when a powerful, hissing voice screamed out “THAT IS ENOUGH, HUMAN!” and a large shadowy form stepped out from behind the corner.

There was no time to think; I swung around and mashed down my trigger finger. Eddie followed suit.

Green bursts of energy blasted from our rifles. The hallway lit up and our target let out a horrifying scream.

I fired again. The enemy darted right, sprinting for a room at the end of the tunnel.

Eddie and I sprinted after him. The janitor yelled but I couldn’t really hear him. Hopefully he didn’t say anything important.

Our opponent was huge and unbelievably nimble. His giant form plowed through the door at the end of the hallway. Eddie and I plowed through it after him.

He was already halfway toward something in the corner of the room. I raised my rifle and prepared to fire again, but the janitor – who had somehow caught up to us – smashed my gun awry.

“No, Teal!” He yelled. “Don’t fire at the portalgate!”

The enemy shrieked again – a horrible, banshee-like shriek – as it darted toward a strange three-dimensional orb in the corner of the room. I raised my rifle again – the shot would’ve been clear – but the janitor wrenched the rifle from my grasp, leaving me to watch helplessly as the enemy plowed into the orb.

What happened next was totally unbelievable, even now.

The orb, previously a milky black, flashed bright white as it engulfed our opponent; it swelled from its original size – maybe 8 feet high by 6 feet around – to nearly twice that, the swelling accompanied by a series of violent vibrations and a loud, low pulsing noise.

I thought for certain it was going to burst. The janitor set a hand on mine and Eddie’s shoulders and pulled us backward, apparently fearing the same thing.

The three of us huddled together and watched, spellbound, as the numinous spectacle continued.

After several seconds the orb’s vibrating slowed and, slowly and almost painfully, it tediously began to shrink, its color fading from white to gray as the pulsing noise softly diminuendoed.

Eventually it reached its original size, and when it did the janitor let go of my shoulder.

I immediately turned to face him.

“…What just happened?”

“Well for starters, you shot a high-ranking Zargansk soldier. That’s gonna piss them off.”

My stomach dropped. The janitor stared at me for a moment before bursting out in laughter.

“And a damn nice shot it was, kid. I’m impressed. You got guts.”

He patted me lightly on the shoulder.

“Is that a portalgate?” Eddie whispered, pointing at the orb. It had shrunk to the size of a gallon of milk and its color had returned to deep, milky black.

“Yes. It connects this room to Orionis.”


“Yeah, Orionis. Just be glad you didn’t shoot it – that would’ve collapsed the portalgate and blown the city of Franklin to smithereens.”

The janitor snickered as if this were somehow funny. I didn’t find it funny.

I started to ask my next question when a sudden pop reverberated through the room. I spun around to find the orb/portalgate-thing bright white and flashing. Another pop rang out and something fell from its glossy surface before slowly drifting to the bright metal ground.

The janitor frowned and walked over to the object: a small, plain-looking square of something like paper. He bent over, read something written on it, read it again, then slowly stood, one hand holding the paper and slightly trembling, the other pressed tightly against his forehead.

“Well, this changes things,” he mumbled. “Guess I’m going in after all.”

“What?” yelled Eddie. “You can’t be serious! You know they’re not supposed to be used like that!”

Huh? What were they talking about?

“I don’t have a choice,” the janitor replied. “He’s going after my family.”

“But you could die! Those things aren’t meant for transporting humans!”

“I’ve watched them drag enough humans through that stupid orb to know it’s possible. I can do it.”

“And what about Teal? What about your mission to protect him?”

The janitor looked from Eddie to me.

“I’m sorry, Teal, but I can’t stay here and protect you any longer. I have to go after Phenx, and I have to do it quickly.”

He reached into his back pocket and pulled out the metal rod he had taken from the gun cabinet. He gave it a longing glance, then handed the rod to me.

“Guard this with your life. Once I go through the orb, I want you to throw this rod at it. That will close the portalgate…at least for a little while. After that, I need the two of you to track down a man called Cronus. He’s the only one that can help us now. Do you understand?”

Did I understand? Was he serious?

“Hell no, I don’t understand any of this. What’s going on? Give me some answers!”

The janitor looked at me, then turned and walked toward the portalgate-orb-thing.

Unbelievable. He was going to leave without answering any of my questions.

“Oh no you don’t,” I growled, grabbing his arm. “You haven’t answered a thing! What’s going on here? What is all this? Who are you?”

The janitor pulled my hand off his arm.

“There’s not enough time, Teal. My family is in danger and I have to catch Phenx. Just remember this: the two of you must find Cronus. Stick together and you’ll be okay. Don’t worry about me, either. I’ll be fine.”

Then he grew stern, raising a warning finger into the air.

“And whatever you do: DON’T TELL ANYONE ABOUT THIS, especially the police. In case you haven’t figured it out, the Zargansk have eyes everywhere. Every time you mention them by name, you risk revealing your location. You should also know that they’re not going to be happy about shooting Phenx, so they’ll probably send a lot more horrible creatures to hunt you down.”

My stomach dropped again. If it dropped one more time, it’d be exiting via…

…well, you get the picture.

The janitor seemed to sense my worry. He smiled and shook his head.

“But don’t be afraid. Shooting Phenx probably bought mankind a couple extra days of peace. That slimy Zargansk was a major force in trying to start a war between us and them. When this is all over, you’re gonna be a hero.”

He looked straight at me.

“…Or more.”

…Huh? What did he mean by that?

“Anyway, take this advice seriously: you need to find Cronus quickly, because your lives will be in serious danger until you do. He can protect you. Do whatever you have to do to find him.”

The janitor turned to face the orb. Shockingly, I couldn’t think of anything to say. Eddie was also – surprisingly – silent.

“I’m coming,” the janitor whispered as he bowed his head. Hands firmly around his rifle, he closed his eyes and stepped into the center of the portalgate. It seemed to reach out and surround him, sucking him into its center.

Eddie and I could only watch, speechless, as the portalgate went through the same process as when the Zargansk named Phenx had touched it. Its surface rotated swiftly through dark hues of purple and blue as it swelled and began to shake.

Then suddenly it flashed an image of an empty green field with the janitor standing in the center of it. As quickly as it had appeared, the image disappeared and the orb faded to a pure, dark black.

I looked down at the smooth silver rod in my hand. Was I really supposed to throw it at the orb…?

I looked back at the so-called portalgate, which had slowly begun to shrink. I was almost tempted to jump into it myself but I had no idea where the thing led. Orionis? Where was that? And what if it didn’t take me to the same place as the janitor? The thought of being alone in a place I knew nothing about was even worse than being stuck here, wanted by some Zargansk things for more reasons than I could count, most of them reasons I still didn’t understand.

So instead I took a deep breath, wound up my arm, and hurled the rod at the orb.

Although I’d thrown it as hard as I could, the rod seemed to travel through the air in slow motion. As it floated nearer and nearer to the center of the orb, its two ends glowed a dim, delicate blue.

Slowly the rod came to a complete stop, hovering mysteriously in mid-air.

The portalgate began to surround it.

As soon as the surface of the orb touched the rod, both began vibrating dangerously. The rod seemed to be sucking the orb into both of its lit ends; the portalgate resisted, cycling rapidly through violent shades of color as it slowly slurped away.

As more and more of it disappeared, the pace of the sucking increased.

Suddenly the last of the orb disappeared in a furious blast of light. Eddie and I threw our hands over our faces as the rod fell to the ground with a dull clunk.

Several moments passed before I reluctantly uncovered my eyes. A quick series of glances showed the room to be intact; apparently the blast had only been bright – not explosive or damaging.

After trading nervous glances with a wide-eyed Eddie, I cautiously approached the thin metal rod lying innocently on the floor, half expecting it to somehow look different.

It didn’t.

I reached out and tapped it. The rod was warm to the touch, but other than that it looked like a normal metal stick. I picked it up, placed it in my back pocket, then turned to face Eddie.


…And then I just laughed. What could I possibly say after everything we had just experienced?

Eddie looked angry as he shook the alien rifle still clutched in his grasp.

“I can’t believe he went through the portalgate. He’s lucky he lived! And what are we supposed to do now – find some random guy named Cronus? That’s probably not even his real name, just some codename they use so they don’t set off Zargansk sensors. It could be anyone! And now the Zargansk are gonna come after us even more than they already have! This is getting way too dangerous, Teal…”

I frowned. My life was hard enough without Eddie panicking. Obviously things were dangerous, and they had been for some time.

“Enough, Eddie. We’ll be okay. We’ve been okay so far.”

“We? You’ve been okay so far, Teal. Or maybe lucky is a better word for it. Do you even know what we’re up against?”

I shook my head.

“How could I? Everyone that promises me answers ends up disappearing!”

Eddie grimaced and brought a hand to his forehead.

“Well I don’t know everything, but between my research this weekend and what we’ve seen here, I do have some answers. But here’s the thing – school is about to start.”

School? I had totally forgotten about school. I glanced at my phone to find that Eddie was right. We would have to hurry to make it to first period on time.

Wait a second. What was I thinking? School? Why should I care about school at a time like this?!

“Are you joking? Eddie, look at us! We just watched a man go through some crazy portalgate thing, we’re being chased by these Zargansk men–”

“They’re not men,” Eddie interrupted.

“What? Are they women?”

“No. They’re…well, it’s complicated.”

Boy, if I had a dollar for every time I’d heard that in the last 72 hours…

“Whatever. My point is – school doesn’t exactly matter right now. My family has disappeared, my bodyguard has disappeared, and I just shot a space-age rifle at some really important Zargansk soldier. An algebra class seems pretty irrelevant right now.”

Eddie laughed.

“Okay, you got me there. Tell you what: let me go check out – I’ll just say I’m feeling sick – then we can meet up and plan our next move. Cool?”

“Cool. Now let’s get outta here. This place gives me the creeps.”

I set my silver rifle on the floor where the portalgate had hovered, then we headed back into the tunnels. A dim red glow still lit the silent hallways and we used its light to find our way back to the tunnel where we’d first encountered Phenx.

Fortunately for me, Eddie seemed to know the way from there. I paid careful attention to the route; somehow, I couldn’t help but feel that knowing my way back to the portalgate room would someday prove useful.

Eventually we reached the long ramp leading to the entrance, and – thankfully – the secret door at the top had re-opened. I hurried the last few steps out of the room and breathed a sigh of relief once we were safely back in the janitor’s closet.

Eddie walked over to the bucket of sawdust. The strange pole with the blue light on top was no longer visible, and if I didn’t know better, it really would have looked like a normal, nondescript bucket of sawdust.

I smiled at the thought.

Outside, the first bell rang. I picked up Eddie’s spare backpack – both of us had left our packs upstairs when we’d followed the janitor into the tunnels – and handed Eddie his. I double-checked to make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything, then flicked off the light.

Eddie opened the door and I followed him into the hallway, letting go of the door as we exited. It swung quietly shut.

Then I halted.

So did Eddie.

We slowly faced each other, then turned to look at the door.

Eddie groaned as I cursed. Loudly. The halls were busy, too, which drew me some strange looks. (Even stranger then the looks we’d received when we exited the closet together; who knew what rumors would be spreading about me now…)

“Teal, I can’t believe we just…”

He tried reopening the closet door, but it was most definitely locked. I could only shake my head in disbelief.

“We just locked ourselves out. The janitor should have left his keys because now we’re never getting back inside.”

“Even worse than that,” Eddie replied. “He didn’t leave his magic necklace either – the one that opened the secret doorway. What if it closes? We have no way to get back inside the tunnels even if we could get back into the closet.”

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did. That seemed to be the new theme of my life.

And now I had a whole new list of questions, like how were we supposed to find this Cronus guy? Who was he anyway? Was he going to be as cryptic as the janitor? Who were the Zargansk, and were they really going to chase me more than before? What was I supposed to do with the metal rod in my back pocket – the one holding the portalgate the janitor had disappeared into?

What a stupid mess. I really needed to stop thinking in questions.

“Why don’t you hurry up and check out,” I told Eddie. “I’m going to the vending machines by the lunchroom to grab some more food. I’m still starving.”

“Okay. I’ll meet you there in a minute or two.”

Eddie scampered toward the office. I watched him leave, then started toward the lunchroom.

Maybe some snacks would help me feel better.

(…I doubted it.)

Next Chapter (Chapter 11) >>

<< Previous Chapter (Chapter 9)

TEAL: Chapter 9

Teal is available as a free CC-licensed science fiction novel. You can read more about the project here.

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It was a janitor’s closet. A very, very big janitor’s closet.

From what I could see, the room ran about 20 feet square, and except for a bare patch along the back wall it was piled floor-to-ceiling with every janitor’s supply imaginable. Brooms, rags, mops, and scattered piles of cleaning solutions lined one wall. Big boxes of toilet paper, multi-colored bottles of strange chemicals, and a lot of poorly organized tool racks lined another, while most of the back wall sat covered in vacuums and garbage cans. This cornucopia of items gave the room a very strong odor. It smelled terrible.

Above us, a single naked light bulb hung from the ceiling, its dim glow casting thick, stubby shadows across everything – including our host, who stood alone in the center of the room.

I realized for the first time that the mystery man might actually be one of the school’s janitors. He was tall – 6’3″, maybe 6’4″ – and he might be handsome if he weren’t wearing coveralls and a sour expression. In contrast to the coveralls, his eyes were large and intelligent, and they peered out at Eddie and I beneath bushy black eyebrows. His hair looked halfway between black and gray, and hey – he even smelled like a janitor.

Still, he didn’t look nearly as old as I had imagined (more like 40 instead of 60). I didn’t know if that made me feel better or worse.

Probably worse.

“Glad you could make it,” he said, spitting into a large bucket of sawdust at his right. “I was worried you weren’t coming.”

Eddie didn’t say anything so I spoke up.

“Worried? You didn’t think we’d show?”

The man raised an eyebrow.

“Are you serious? After everything you’ve been through in the last 48 hours it’s amazing you’re alive, let alone here with me.”

“Then you know what I’ve been through?”

“And then some,” he said. “Two of my best friends were in the Explorer escorting you.”

“The white one?”

“The white one. Two good men died in that wreck, Teal. I’m just glad you and your mom made it out okay. Nice work with the jumper cables.”

I couldn’t help but smile.

“How do you know about all that?”

“It’s my job to know. Some very important people want your family safe, while other equally important people want you dead.”

So he did have useful information.

“Who wants us dead?”

“Your mom didn’t explain much to you, did she?”

“No,” I said, inadvertently scowling. “She said she couldn’t – something about sensors that would be tipped off if she said too much.”

“Your mom’s a smart woman. Don’t you forget it.”

“Speaking of her…”

My heart pounded.

“…Do you know where she is?”

“What do you mean?”

“My mom. Where is she? Did they get her?”

The janitor’s expression darkened.

“I sure as hell hope not. Has something happened?”

“Yeah, something’s happened. When did you last hear from her?”

“Saturday morning after your car chase. She called to let me know that two of my men died in that wreck.”

This wasn’t going well.

“No,” I groaned. “This can’t be happening.”

“What, Teal? Spit it out!”

So I did spit it out. All of it. I started with the conversation between mom and I in my bedroom and ended with plopping down on Eddie’s lawn. More than once I found myself shaking, sometimes with concern, most times with rage. You’d think it would be easier to retell the story since I’d just told it to Eddie, but I actually found it much, much worse. My emotions were totally out of whack – a result of two days of sleep and the most erratic eating habits of my life, compounded by the stress of a dying father, a missing family, and a group of very determined individuals trying to kill me – and I was starting to worry that sometime soon I was gonna snap.

But for now I suppressed my hurricane of emotions and even managed to make it through my story.

Once I finished, the mystery man just shook his head.

“Teal, I’m sorry, but I don’t know where your mom is.”

I said nothing.

“But we don’t know the bad guys got her,” Eddie spoke up, patting me on the shoulder. “Right? She might have made it out in time.”

“He’s right,” said the janitor. “If anyone could escape these guys, it’s your mom.”

I wanted to believe them. Really, I did. But something inside me remained worried.

Oh well. Until I knew otherwise, I’d just have to hope they were right.

“I don’t want to think about what happened,” I responded with a sigh. “I could worry for days but that won’t change anything. Instead we need to talk about what we’ve gotta do to bring down these enemies once and for all. I think we should start by discussing why so many people are after my family.”

This sudden bout of sensibility surprised even me. Maybe I still had some emotional control left.

I looked straight at our host.

“So talk to me. Who are these guys, and why do they want my family dead?”

The janitor smiled.

“You should sit down for this, kid. It just might blow your mind.”

“Try me. After everything I’ve seen and done in the last 72 hours, I don’t think anything could surprise me.”

His smile turned to a chuckle.

“We’ll see about that,” he said, motioning toward a shop vac. I took a seat atop it; Eddie sat down on a stack of boxes across from me, and our host leaned against a blank stretch along the room’s back wall.

“I guess we’ll start with the obvious,” he began. “According to your story, you’ve heard about the company called Genetitech.”

Eddie and I nodded.

“That’s as good a place as any to start. You know Genetitech was started by a man named Augustus Beck?”

“Yeah. The high school was originally his lab.”

“That’s right. Thing is, it was never meant to be a lab. Genetitech’s never been anything more than a front for something way creepier than DNA sequencing and all that ‘cure mankind’s problems’ crap. Beck just said things like that to distract people from looking too closely into the real reason for building this huge complex.”

“…Which was?”

“A front for Zargansk study and experimentation. You guys ever heard the word Zargansk?”

I shook my head, but Eddie nodded vigorously.

“Where’d you hear it?” I asked.

“I saw it on a conspiracy theory website while we were researching the green blasts. There was paged called The Zargansk: Yesterday’s Savior, Tomorrow’s Slayer.”

Janitor man snickered at this.

“What did it say?”

“Not much. The story was pretty hokey, as you can imagine from the title. What do you know about the Zargansk?” he asked, turning to our host.

“More like what don’t I know about ’em,” the man replied. “The Zargansk are–”

He paused, interrupted by a sudden tremor beneath us. Everything in the room rattled softly; some mop and broom handles tipped over and a bottle of ammonia fell from an overstocked shelf.

“What was that?” I whispered, glancing at Eddie. He shrugged and shook his head, then we turned to face the janitor.

I’d never seen an expression change so quickly. Seconds earlier the janitor had looked smug – like he was getting ready to tell a secret he’d had bottled up for months. Now he looked…murderous.

“You okay?” I asked, but he ignored me, eyes narrowed in concentration.

Several moments passed, then a thunderous boom nearly rattled the teeth right out of my head. It sounded like a cannon had exploded beneath us, and at this the janitor man leapt to his feet and mumbled a whole line of obscenities I won’t even try to repeat here.

What was interesting, however, was his comment after the cursing.

“I can’t believe he’s actually going to try it,” he mumbled, shaking his head. “So help me God, that stupid Zargansk is really gonna try it.”

“What?” I asked. “What’s going on?”

Still the janitor ignored me, his brow furrowed in concentration.

“Dude!” Eddie whisper-yelled. “Remember the newspaper article I showed you – the one about the earthquake at this building?”

“Yeah. Do you think…?”

He nodded.

“I think it’s happening again.”

I jumped up and shook the janitor.

“Listen, man – I don’t know what’s going on but I want to help. Are the bad guys here? Can we fight ’em?”

He removed my hand from his arm.

“Watch it, Teal. You have no idea what you’re up against.”

“Sure I do,” I replied with a glare. “In case you forgot, I’ve taken these guys on more than once – and every time they’ve paid for messing with me.”

He glared back.

“These aren’t the same guys you’ve been fighting. There could be true-to-life Zargansk down there. Fighting them is a totally different game. Only a handful of humans have faced these guys and lived to tell about it.”

I didn’t know how to respond to this new bit of information. Every time I thought I was getting a grasp on things, the world fell out from beneath me.

New bad guys? Seriously?

“So what are we gonna do? Wait for them to come kill us?”

Another tremor shook the floor, causing more mops to fall over.

The janitor placed a firm hand on my shoulder.

I’m not gonna sit here,” he said. “I’m going down there and putting an end to that God-forsaken portalgate. You two are staying here and waiting for me to return. When I get back we’ll talk more.”

Portalgate? Why did that sound familiar?

“Wait!” I yelled. “You can’t go by yourself! These guys are trying to kill me and I want at ’em!”

“Quiet down, Teal. Your whining doesn’t mean anything to me. I’ve sworn to make sure nothing happens to you, and dragging you into a Zargansk fight ain’t my idea of keeping that promise. Now shut it and make yourself comfortable. I’ll be back ASAP.”

The tone of his voice didn’t leave any room for questions.

“You,” he said, pointing at Eddie. “Promise you’ll keep Teal here. Don’t either of you leave until I get back.”

Eddie nodded, which only infuriated me further. I didn’t need a babysitter.

“This is unbelievable,” I muttered. “And what do we do if you don’t return? Wait here forever?”

“I always return,” the janitor replied with a smile so charming I almost believed it. “Now watch closely. Someday you might need to know this.”

He then reached around his neck and unclasped a thin black necklace with a diamond-shaped pendant. With the necklace clasped tightly beneath his fingers, the janitor crouched over the bucket of sand he’d been spitting into. One by one he opened his fingers until only his thumb held the pendant, and then, after a final glance at each of us, he let go.

Nothing happened.

No, really – nothing happened. The pendant didn’t move. It didn’t fall. It just hung there, suspended in mid-air as if held by an invisible wire. The janitor seemed to sense our doubt, and he waved his hand over the top of the pendant to emphasize its free-floatingness.

What was this? A magic show? This didn’t seem like a great time for tricks.

As I tried to solve how the janitor made the necklace hover, the overhead light suddenly flickered and went out.

Awesome. I had SUCH fond memories of power outages.

And then a creepy rustling noise filled the room. It was hard for me to pinpoint the source of the sound since it seemed to come from everywhere at once, but I soon realized that was just the acoustics of the closet.

The sound was, in fact, coming from the bucket beneath the pendant. It sounded like a handful of sand slipping through someone’s fingers – or maybe like an overturned hourglass.

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I realized that the bucket was shaking, the sawdust inside it rattling like something beneath it was climbing to the surface.

I noticed my breathing growing quick and shallow and I fought to slow it down.

The janitor sent me a calm, fatherly smile.

A bright blue light suddenly burst from the center of the bucket, transforming the room into a landscape of cerulean shades and hues. I shielded my eyes (which had just begun to feel comfortable in the darkness) as a bright blue sphere on a steel shaft rose from the center of the bucket. Higher and higher it climbed until it rose nearly two feet into the air – and in so doing, touched the pendant.

A sudden rush of air swept through the room as the blue light disappeared, both it and the shaft suddenly sucking back into the bucket. A soft clink echoed as the janitor’s pendant fell onto the dust, and after several moments the light bulb above our heads flickered back to life.

I was at a loss to explain what had just happened.

Then Eddie yelled, “Teal!” He pointed frantically at the back wall, at the empty stretch where the janitor had been standing just moments before.

My jaw dropped.

A chunk of the wall had completely disappeared. The opening it left behind was floor-to-ceiling tall and several feet wide.

The inside of it looked to be some kind of tunnel. The walls and floor shimmered like silver, and a soft breeze flowed from the otherwise silent entrance.

Eddie looked over at me, his eyes so wide they looked cartoonish. My eyes probably looked the same.

“Glad to see you liked that little trick,” the janitor said, re-tying the necklace around his throat. “But now I’ve got work to do. You two stay here.”

“Wait!” I yelled. I really didn’t want to stay here – especially if the bad guys had my mom. I had to try one last plea.

“What if one of these Zargansk guys gets past you and comes after us? We have no way to defend ourselves. I know you’re confident in your skills and all, but if you really want to protect us shouldn’t we at least have some kind of weapon?”

The janitor chuckled.

“Fair enough, Teal. You can follow, but don’t say a word. The Zargansk can hear much better than we can, and they might even have a way to track our movement. So stay close and stay quiet – got it?”

I suppressed a smile and nodded seriously. Eddie did the same.

The janitor turned to leave, then paused. He slowly turned back around and placed a hand on Eddie’s shoulder.

“Listen, Ed – this ain’t your fight. You’re under no obligation to follow us, and I need to be honest with you. My top priority is protecting Teal. I’ll do my best to keep both of you safe, but if it comes down to any kind of choice, I have to save him first.”

I’d never felt more awkward. First off, I didn’t have any idea why this janitor guy was so serious about protecting me. I was a nobody. A nothing.

And I really couldn’t believe he’d say that to Eddie’s face. I wanted to crawl under a rock.

But Eddie just smiled.

“Hey, I’m cool with that. No one’s making me come. But Teal’s my friend, and with his family gone he needs all the help he can get.”

He turned and gave me a thumbs-up.

“And hey, dude – if you’re really that important, I’d better make sure you stay safe. I’m definitely coming with.”

Eddie and I are good friends. Best friends, even. But man, to hear that…

…I guess I’m just a lucky guy. Not everyone has a friend like Eddie.

The janitor nodded.

“You’re a good kid. Teal’s fortunate to have you around.” He squeezed Eddie’s shoulder then turned and faced the tunnel.

“Okay, boys,” he muttered. “Time to go.”

We walked into the tunnel.

Next Chapter (Chapter 10) >>

<< Previous Chapter (Chapter 8)

TEAL: Chapter 8

Teal is available as a free CC-licensed science fiction novel. You can read more about the project here.

Click here to download this chapter as a PDF (113kb)


When I finally woke up, I woke up suddenly – as in sat-up-straight, eyes wide open, mind crystal clear.

I instantly realized something was wrong. My room was dark, way too dark considering how long I thought I’d been asleep. On top of that, the house was silent. That never happened.

And I had the weirdest taste in the back of my throat. It tasted like a little like grass, a little like cough syrup, and a lot like crap. Why?

I climbed quickly out of bed and glanced out the window. It was pitch black outside, the moon and stars covered by a murky layer of clouds. The only usable light came from a street lamp down the block, which shone like a lighthouse in the otherwise bleak setting.

None of this made any sense. Why was everything so dark? What time was it?

I stumbled across my room to the light switch and flicked it on.

Nothing happened.

I jiggled the switch back and forth (don’t ask me why – as if that ever fixes the problem), but still the room lay covered in darkness. What had happened to the power?

A sudden memory of the hospital flashed into my mind: the power had also gone out there just moments before we were attacked.

Could it be happening again?

I slunk downward, rapidly try to think of something I could use for light. There were no flashlights in my room, but what else gave off light? The computer (needed power), my lamp (needed power), what else…

…my cellphone. Thank goodness for cellphones.

I quietly slid out my phone and flipped it open. The light from its screen was dim, but it was enough to shed some cursory illumination on things.

Like a concert-goer, I lifted the phone over my head and waved it slowly back and forth. My room looked intact; nothing was torn apart or damaged, but things looked unnaturally hazy – like some kind of smoke or cloud had taken over the room.

That’s when I made the connection. There wasn’t a strange taste in my mouth – there was a strange smell permeating everything. I’d never smelled anything like it.

I turned sideways, examining my bed, and instantly I noticed the source of the problem: a small pile of dust sat atop a metal plate on my nightstand. The dust was black and smoldering, as if it were only the remains of a larger pile that had slowly burned away.

What was that doing here? Who put it there? Mom? Someone else? Someone bad?

I leaned in to take a closer whiff and instantly regretted it. The moment I inhaled, my head began to spin and my legs went wobbly. I dropped to my knees and fought unconsciousness as I dragged a pillow over the intoxicating powder.

It took a moment, but eventually the stupor passed. That stupid little powder pile was some kind of narcotic, and it must have been what knocked me out for so long.

Speaking of which, just how long had I been asleep? I pulled the phone in close and took a look at the time and date.

5:15am, May 16th.

…5:15am? Whoa. That meant I had been out for–


May 16th?

As in Monday, May 16th?


I double-checked the clock, then turned the phone off and back on again. Once it loaded up, the clock read “5:16am, May 16th.”

No fricking way.

I had fallen asleep around 10:00am Saturday morning, and now it was 5:16am Monday morning. I’d been out for almost two days.

As that recognition set in, a bunch of other feelings overwhelmed me. I suddenly noticed my stomach burning with hunger (not surprising, considering when I’d last eaten). I couldn’t believe I’d missed all day Sunday. Mom had talked about leaving town on Saturday night.

Had she actually left with Emmary and Jackson?

No. They couldn’t have. I had to have been knocked out before Saturday evening, because mom certainly would have notified me before she left. In fact, since I wasn’t that tired when I originally went to sleep, there was no way I slept for more than an hour or two on my own.

That meant I must have been drugged some time between 10:00am and noon on Saturday, which in turn meant the bad guys had been in my house during those same hours.

But why drug me? Why not just kill me? And where was mom during all this? Why hadn’t I heard anything?

A sudden creak echoed from the main staircase, followed soon after by a second one.

Something was coming up the stairs. Figuring out the specifics of my drugging would have to wait.

My room sits at the end of the upstairs hallway. Our top floor has a simple layout: a set of hardwood stairs climb up the western wall of the house, terminating at the start of the hallway. The carpeted hallway runs down the centerline of the house, and as you walk down it you first pass the master bedroom on your left, immediately followed by a bathroom on the right. At the end of the hallway there are two doors – one leading to Jackson and Emmary’s room, the other leading to my room. There are 14 stairs, and the hallway is approximately 20 feet long.

Which didn’t leave me much time.

As another creak rang out, I considered the two possible exits from my room. Neither was ideal. Way 1 was out the door and down the hallway – not great when someone’s coming up the stairs. Way 2 was leaping out my bedroom window, which wouldn’t be too bad except for the three massive (and I mean massive) rosebushes directly below. Even those might be survivable, except no one in the family enjoyed yard work so these particular rosebushes had grown totally out of control. If I leapt out my window I just might tear myself to pieces.

Another creak, followed by another.

I needed a better way out.

I closed the cellphone and quickly slid my door open. The smell of that smoldering powder still permeated everything, but I had to quit noticing it – every time I did I felt like I’d either vomit or pass out, neither of which would help my escape.

So I took a deep breath and slipped into the hallway, then sideways through the open doorway of Jack and Emmary’s room.

Another creak.

A quick flip of the cellphone revealed that this bedroom looked the exact opposite of mine. Whereas my room had been almost completely untouched, this room looked like every piece of furniture had exploded. Drawers were torn open, mattresses piled against the wall, and strewn clothes covered everything.

Another creak.

No time to waste.

I quickly picked my way across the debris and found the bedroom window already open. It took at least five seconds to get the bottom edge of the screen out, then three more to quietly pull the screen inside.

Then the creaking stopped, which could only mean one thing: my pursuer was off the hardwood stairs and onto the carpeted hallway.

I slid behind one of the overturned mattresses and waited, watching the hallway closely. A bright beam of light flickered across the doorway. A different, shallower creak echoed across the room.

The beam flickered past the doorway again. Fortunately, this bedroom door had been left completely open, so the hallway couldn’t have looked too different from when my pursuer had seen it last. Maybe he’d go back downstairs.

Another shallow creak, then another.

…Maybe he wouldn’t.

I slipped my phone into my pocket as a shadowy figure drifted past the open doorway and into my bedroom – the room I had just left.

Now was my chance.

I placed a hand on the window ledge and vaulted cleanly over and out. I’d like to say that my life flashed before my eyes as I fell, but really it was totally blank as I endured the most terrifying three seconds of my life.

When I finally hit the ground my legs gave way and I fell into an awkward roll. It wasn’t pleasant.

But nothing felt broken, so I leapt to my feet and ran like hell for the end of the street opposite my bedroom window.

I’d never in my life ran like this. I didn’t think about breathing, didn’t think about pacing myself. My legs just pumped as fast as they possibly could and my arms swung to match. I didn’t turn around, didn’t look back. I just ran and ran and ran.

After several streets, I realized that if I continued this direction I would eventually reach Eddie’s house. That seemed as safe a place as any, and without missing a beat I continued on my way.

Five minutes later I flopped, wheezing, over the enormous stone wall surrounding Eddie’s house. My arms and legs shook and my aching stomach had been replaced by the mother of all side aches – but at least I was a good mile from my house. I was pretty certain no one had followed me, and hopefully the bad guys wouldn’t know enough to track me to Eddie’s house when they realized I was gone.

Once my breathing slowed to the point I could talk, I took out my phone and dialed Eddie.

The phone rang only once before he picked up.

“Teal!” he yelled. “What’s going on? Where are you?”

“Why don’t you sound tired at all? Were you already awake?”

“It’s 5:30am, man! We’ve got to get to school for our meeting!”

“Meeting? What mee– oh yeah. It’s Monday. THAT meeting.”

“Of course it’s Monday! Did you forget? And where have you been?”

“Just come outside. I’m in your front yard by the teak trees.”

“You’re already here? So you did remember! Man, you’ve got me all confused.”

“Join the club.”

“…Huh? Wait there. I’ll be out in a minute.”

The end-of-call beep sounded and I barely had the presence of mind to flip the phone shut and slide it back into my pocket.

I slumped onto my back and stared skyward through dense layers of teak leaves. Eddie’s parents had shipped the trees all the way from India (at an unbelievable cost) with hopes they could someday harvest the wood for the second Jacuzzi they were planning. I never really understood why they didn’t just buy the lumber outright – growing your own trees for lumber seemed a little odd.

But when you’re worth a half-billion dollars, I guess you’re allowed to do strange things with your money.

I lay there silently, watching the stars and trying to avoid thinking until I heard the mansion’s front door slam shut. By then I had recovered enough energy to raise myself to a sitting position.

Man, I was hungry. I needed food.

My stomach growled as Eddie bounded across the lawn to meet me.

“Teal, Teal, Teal. I could kill you. Why didn’t you call me this weekend? Where have you been? And why are you lying down?”

“Stop asking so many questions, and keep it down! There’s no need to yell.”

“Don’t worry. My parents are out of town – as usual – so they won’t hear us.”

“They’re not the ones I’m worried about. You’ll never believe what’s happened to me.”

“Tell me on the way to school. I don’t want to be late to our meeting.”

“Can you get me something to eat first? I’m starving.”

“No! We need to go! We’re gonna be late!”

“No, we won’t. Please, man – anything! I haven’t eaten in two days!”

“…Really? Why not?”

“I’ll tell you on the way. Now hurry!”

Eddie couldn’t have looked more confused if he’d tried, but he diligently dropped his backpack and scampered back inside. A minute later he re-emerged carrying a full box of Pop-Tarts.

“Eat these. I don’t like this flavor anyway.”

“Thanks,” I replied, ripping open the box and handing him his backpack. “Now we can head out.”

I spent the rest of the walk to school gorging myself on Pop-Tarts and relating the details of my weekend. I did my best to omit no detail, however small, because I wanted the two of us on the same page before this strange meeting with the man from the closet.

More than once Eddie tried to interrupt, but I made him save all his questions until the end of my story.

As we walked onto the front lawn of the high school, I swallowed the last bite of Pop-Tart and finished the story by describing my jog to Eddie’s house just 30 minutes earlier.

“So that’s when you called me? After you sprinted to my house?”

“Yeah,” I replied, rubbing my now-stiff thighs. “I really did sprint the entire way.”

“If you were anybody else, I wouldn’t believe a word of your story. But I can’t imagine why you’d make this up.”

“Every word is true.”

“And your family? They’re really gone?”

“I don’t know. Like I said, I haven’t seen them since I fell asleep on Saturday.”

“Have you tried calling your dad?”

I hadn’t thought of that.

“Good idea. Maybe I can track down the hospital phone number and try to reach him. Maybe he knows where mom, Em, and Jack are. Good thinking!”

Eddie smiled.

“Anyway, dude – I’m sorry. You just gotta keep your hopes up. It sounds like your mom knew they were coming, so maybe she was able to escape before they got her and the kids.”

“But why would they drug me? Why not kidnap me too? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Eddie shrugged.

“Who knows? All I know is we’ve got this creepy meeting, and I’m really having trouble concentrating after all the bombshells you’ve dropped.”

“Tell me about it. I just hope this mystery man will shed some light on things. Maybe he knows more about my family – or at least more about the bad guys.”

“Let’s hope so,” Eddie said.

I took out my phone and checked the time.

“It’s 5:57. We’d better hurry. He said our life could depend on us getting there on time. I don’t think he was serious…but I don’t want to take any chances.”

We hurried through the front doors of the school. As we jogged down the empty hallways toward our lockers, I couldn’t help but notice how surreal everything felt. It seemed like weeks had passed since the last time I’d been at school.

But wow, everything sure looked nice and clean. The janitorial crew had done a bang-up job. If I didn’t know better, it looked like just another normal school hallway – not one that was covered in dust and debris less than 72 hours ago.

At last we reached the hall with our lockers, the fateful hallway where my life first started falling apart. Even here things looked remarkably new. The ceiling had been completely repaired, and a glance down the hallway showed the damaged door as repaired or replaced.

I hadn’t expected things to look so good. Someone had worked hard to erase every vestige of damage and debris – almost too hard.

“Hey Teal – do you have anything on you?”

“Just my phone and the clothes on my back. Why?”

Eddie popped open his locker.

“Why don’t you take this,” he said, reaching to the bottom of his locker and pulling out a second backpack.

“What is it?” I asked, taking the pack. “It looks exactly like the pack you’re wearing. Why do you have two identical backpacks?”

Eddie grinned.

“Emergency preparedness, dude. I always keep a pack of emergency supplies in the bottom of my locker in case I’m ever stranded at school – you know, earthquake or something.”

A week ago I would have laughed in his face upon hearing this. Today, it sounded absolutely brilliant.

“What’s in it?”

“Some food, water, matches, ponchos, a flashlight, etc. Basic survival stuff.”

“You, my friend, are a genius. What’s in the pack on your back?”

“My school stuff, along with a couple surprises in case things with the mystery man don’t go well.”

I didn’t ask for details. Frankly I didn’t want details, though the way Eddie said ‘surprises’ made me nervous.

He closed his locker and gave me a skittish look.

“Well? Shall we head?”

I checked my phone.

“5:59. Let’s go.”

We moved quickly down the hallway, climbing the half-flight of stairs and closing the remaining distance to the unmarked door just as the time rolled over to 6:00am. There was no sign of the mystery man.

Upon reaching the door, I took a moment to check the repairs. It looked like a very heavy-looking steel slab had been installed in place of the old wood one. The hinges had been moved to the inside of the door and a deadbolt now sat above the silver handle.

Apparently the school was serious about keeping people out of this room – which made me wonder if it really was a janitor’s closet, since major security precautions seemed overkill for protecting mops and cleaning supplies.


Eddie raised a fist.

“Should I knock?”

I shrugged, and he rapped the heavy metal door twice.

The weighty thunk of a released deadbolt sounded, followed by the swift opening of the door.

“Get in here and do it quickly,” a deep, scratchy voice commanded. Looked like the mystery man hadn’t forgotten we were coming.

Eddie and I traded nervous glances.

“Go ahead,” I whispered.

Eddie closed his eyes and quickly entered.

I took a deep breath, then followed close behind him.

Next Chapter (Chapter 9) >>

<< Previous Chapter (Chapter 7)

TEAL: Chapter 7

Teal is available as a free CC-licensed science fiction novel. You can read more about the project here.

Click here to download this chapter as a PDF (132kb)

“Okay, brain – let’s get down to business.”

When I really need to think hard, I have a conversation with my brain. I think I got the idea from Homer Simpson, although my brain-versations tend to be somewhat more productive than his.

“Here’s the deal: in the last 36 hours, our life has totally blown itself apart. Everything’s a disaster. I don’t know where to begin describing all the crap that’s happened since Friday morning.”

Brain stayed quiet. He’s a pretty good listener (most of the time).

“Tell you what – why don’t we start with what just happened and work our way backward.”

I nodded and started pacing, one hand on my hip, the other on my chin. The best pose for thinking.

“Mom has just notified me that our home is no longer safe. In her own words, ‘we have to leave.’ But I don’t want to leave.”

Why don’t you want to leave?

“Lots of reasons. I like this house. I like Franklin. I like Eddie. I really like Cierra.”

Brain smiled.

“Ha ha. But seriously, I’m comfortable here. Life is going well, I fit in at the high school, and I don’t think we should allow a bunch of thugs to determine our future for us.”

That all sounds nice, but what about our safety? Do you think it’s smart to remain here?

“That depends. Will our enemies attack us again? Probably. I have no reason to assume they’ll stop.”

Why not?

“Well… I don’t think they’ve accomplished their goal.”

I agree. Unfortunately, none of our conjecture means anything until we discover what their goal actually is.

“And that’s at the heart of this entire problem, brain: the question of why these guys are after us. In fact, I have a lot of why questions, but no one seems to have answers.”

No one?

“…Well, various people must have some answers. They’re just not willing to tell me.”

The strange man at the school – the one we met after the explosions. He promised us more information.

“Yes, he did. 6:00am Monday morning. I definitely haven’t forgotten that.”

Let’s just hope he’s not lying to us.

“Lying to us?”

Well, ‘lying’ isn’t really the correct word. Hopefully he’s not misleading us. Hopefully he’s on our side.

“What makes you say that?”

Oh, c’mon. Are we really that trusting? Green blasts – just like the ones that have almost killed us twice – explode through the school, followed by the emergence of this strange man. He recognizes us on sight even though we don’t recognize him, and then he proceeds to tell us to meet him at 6:00am Monday morning. No one will be at the school that early. We’ll be alone, with him, in a deserted building where green explosions have been occurring. Doesn’t that seem suspicious?

“Well when you put it like that…”

I’m not saying we shouldn’t go. I just want us to think twice about going to meet some stranger by ourselves at an empty building. Just trying to inject some common sense into the situation.

“Thanks. You’re so kind. And I wasn’t planning on going alone. I’d take Eddie with.”

Great, since he’d be SO useful in a fight.

“Hey! Don’t rag on Eddie. He’s my best friend.”

But not a particularly strong or brave or physically intimidating friend.

“It’s not his fault he’s short and skinny. Blame his parents – they’re tiny too.”

I’m not blaming anyone, I was merely commenting on–

“Yeah, I know. After all, I do control you.”

Sometimes brain forgets that.

“Anyway, you’re leading us way off topic. Back to the matter at hand: our life, and what to do about it.”

We were talking about our enemies and their goal. What do you think their goal is?

“Good question, brain. First, let’s discuss what their goal isn’t. I don’t think they want to kill us. After all, if they wanted that, the car chase would have been an easy place to make it happen.”

Yes, but what about the hospital?

“What about it?”

They certainly weren’t going easy on us there. Based on that experience, I don’t think they’re going out of their way to keep us alive.

“Maybe. But I’ve got a better explanation.”

Do tell.

“I doubt they knew we were there.”


“Yeah! How could they have known? Our trip to the hospital wasn’t planned. We didn’t tell anyone we were going.”

You told Eddie.

“No, actually, I didn’t. Nice try, though. I just told him that mom was freaking out and he needed to go home. I didn’t tell him we were going anywhere.”


“Why are you so obsessed with Eddie? Quit changing the subject!”


“Anyway, there’s no way our enemies could have known we’d be at the hospital that night. No way.”

Could they have followed us?

“No, mom would have noticed. She’s borderline paranoid lately.”

And what about their tracking sensors – the ones your mom described?

“She said they only responded to keywords. I guess there’s a chance they could have noticed something, but it seems unlikely since she didn’t say anything during our trip to the hospital. If she did trip a sensor, it wouldn’t have happened until after she met with dad.”

Hmmm. For once, I think you may be right.

“Of course I’m right! But you know where this conclusion leads us…”

I do. If these attackers weren’t trying to kill us at the hospital, they must have been after someone else.

“Someone else indeed.”

Your dad.

“Our dad, technically speaking. But yeah – that’s the logical explanation.”

So why him? Why would these strange attackers be after your – er, our old man?

“I don’t know, brain. I honestly have no idea. That’s what I’m hoping to learn at 6:00am Monday morning.”

Okay, we’ll remember that as big question #1: why are these guys after dad?

“And don’t forget it! Now for my other question: assuming they are only after dad, why not just kill the rest of us?”

I can think of several explanations. If they keep us alive, it gives them something to use against dad. It gives them leverage.

“Good point.”

How about this – maybe you have information about your dad and they want it.

“Hmm, also possible.”

Either way, we can’t know why they’re after us and mom and the siblings without knowing why they went after dad in the first place. Everything hinges on that.

“I agree. Way to get to the heart of the matter.”

You probably think I’m crazy for talking to my own brain, but hey – it really does help me sort things out. Now I knew the main question at hand: to figure out the connection between dad and our pursuers. Once I had that, everything else would fall into place.

…I hoped.

“Okay, brain – this is good, but it’s not enough. We have a couple other things to consider before we’re allowed to leave the room.”

I think I know what’s coming.

“The poisoning.”

Yeah, about that. I’ve got nothing.

“Me either, but it definitely gives the situation some urgency. I don’t think we can afford to sit around and wait for things to fall into place. We need to be more proactive than that.”

What do you propose?

“One of several options.”

A sudden spattering of knocks rang across my bedroom door, followed by a soft voice.


It was mom.

I slowly opened the door.

“Hey, mom.”

“Hey. I heard talking up here. Were you on the phone?”

“No, just talking to myself. It helps me think.”

“Oh. Sorry to interrupt.”

“It’s okay. Did you need something?”

“Actually, I wanted to run something by you.”


She sighed heavily – generally not a good sign.

“Let’s sit down,” she said, closing the door and walking to my bed.

This sudden need to sit – also not good. Had something new gone wrong?

“I’ve made an important decision,” she said as I sat down beside her. “Like I said earlier, I don’t think our home is safe. If we remain here, we’ll almost certainly be attacked again.”

Oh crap. She was going to make us leave.

“Mom, I–”

“Wait. Let me finish.”

She waited until I exhaled.

“I’m going to take Jackson and Emmary to a safe location, Teal. Somewhere far away from here; somewhere closer to the hospital where your father is staying.”

“Wait – just Jackson and Emmary?”

“That’s what I need to ask you. After everything that’s happened in the last 36 hours, I want to say how impressed I am by your maturity and bravery.”

Whoa. I wasn’t expecting that.

“The way you handled things at the hospital last night – as well as in the van this morning – were amazing. I’m very proud of you, Teal.”

As much as I didn’t want it, a strange combination of burning and prickly uncomfortableness – the one that prefaces crying – seized my throat.

I hate that feeling.

“After considering our situation,” she continued, “I think you should be allowed to decide where you stay. I’d obviously love nothing more than to have you with me and the other children, but I don’t think it’s fair to make that decision for you.”

This was unbelievable. I laughed awkwardly as my right eye let a tear slide out.

“Wow,” I said, quickly wiping away the rogue tear. “Who are you and what have you done with my mom?”

Mom laughed; it was strained, but it was a laugh. It sounded nice.

“Oh, Teal – I know I’m too overbearing sometimes. I know I should let you have more freedom. I don’t mean to be so tough on you.”

“You’re not too tough on me.”

“Sure I am. In my more lucid moments I realize how controlling I can be, how I sometimes forget how hard it is to be in high school. I really appreciate what a good kid you are. I mean it.”

Great. Now my left eye was dripping too.

“Thanks, mom. I… thanks.”

She hugged me and kissed my forehead, and then the floodgates opened. How embarrassing.

But man – it felt good to hear that. To know that my mom cared about me, cared about what I did. I don’t know that she’d ever said something like that to me.


Time slipped past, the seconds coalescing into minutes, and for the first time in 36 hours my life actually seemed okay.

Eventually mom stirred and I realized I had nearly drifted asleep; she gave me one last squeeze then stood up and walked to the door.

I rubbed my eyes and glanced at the clock. It was almost 10:00 am.

“Teal,” she said as she opened the door, “I’ll be downstairs with the little ones. Once you’ve made your decision, please let me know. I’m hoping to leave with the children later tonight, probably around 5:00 or 6:00. If you decide to come with us you’ll need time to pack.”

I yawned and nodded.

“Okay, mom. I’ll let you know what I decide.”

She smiled and left, closing the door behind her. In the stillness that followed, I realized two things.

One: as much as she sometimes drove me insane, my mom was alright.

And two: I was really, really tired.

Figuring a quick nap could help clear my troubled mind, I lay down on my bed, closed my eyes, and slipped asleep.

From: HIRC
To: zYken
Subj: gArrison

Plan @ 75%. gArrison fmly “escape” CONFIRMED.<break>

Sxsfl tracking CONFIRMED.<break>

Home locashn CONFIRMED.<break>

Prceding as ordred. Partl seizure plnnd for 10.30. Chld 1 to be lft behind as pr ordrs.<break>

ETA @ HQ ~11.00.<break>

Requst nver use humn phons again. H8 txtng.<break>


Next Chapter (Chapter 8) >>

<< Previous Chapter (Chapter 6)

TEAL: Chapter 6

Teal is available as a free CC-licensed science fiction novel. You can read more about the project here.

Click here to download this chapter as a PDF (107kb)

I’d never been in a car chase with my mom before, so I wasn’t really sure of what to do. Car chase passengers on TV always had a machine gun or rocket launcher or something exciting.

Unfortunately for me, a quick search of the glove box yielded Kleenexes, a Honda Odyssey instruction manual, and our insurance and registration. All useless in a fight.

“Teal, what are you doing? Sit back and don’t move!”

Mom swerved hard around a slow-moving car, slamming me down into my seat.

At the risk of distracting her further, I quickly leaned over the edge of my chair and scoured the back rows for anything that might be useful. Nothing stood out, and a glance out the back window revealed the black sedan steadily closing the distance between us. This wasn’t too surprising considering we were in a minivan. Somehow I imagined my first car chase would be in something a little cooler than an Odyssey.

“Mom, they’re gaining on–”

Bright white light suddenly interrupted me, engulfing our surroundings as a low-pitched boom rattled through the car. I swiveled backwards and watched as a mighty cloud of smoke and debris billowed outward from behind the black sedan, consuming everything in its path.

Mom accelerated hard, pushing the poor van over 90 as the leading edge of the cloud rocketed after us. Its black-gray mass swept over the black sedan, blocking my view, and seconds later it climbed up and over us.

Gas pedal still floored, the van hit 95 as we pushed back through the leading edge of the cloud. The dust ahead of us cleared and mom let out a heavy sigh of relief as she let slightly off the gas.

The dust behind us began to dissipate, and I again glanced back to find…

…Whoa. To find nothing. The white Explorer and two sedans that hit it were gone. Extinct. The only thing left in the intersection was a foot-deep crater and scattered shards of metal, plastic, and glass.

I realized then what the bad guys had placed on the wreckage. That shiny object must have been a bomb. A really, really powerful bomb. If the two men watching over us had somehow survived the initial crash, they were certainly dead now.

Fury welled up inside me. This last black sedan – the one chasing us – was them. The bad guys. Or at least some of them. For all I knew, these could be the same men that had tried to kill me at the hospital.

And from the way things were going, they were probably going to try and kill me now.

Not if I had anything to say about it.

Mom cranked hard right at the next light, nearly mowing over some guy on a bike waiting at the corner.

The black car swerved into place behind us. They were less than fifty feet away and rapidly closing.

I unhooked my seatbelt and started climbing into the back seat.

“Teal, NO!” mom screamed. “Get up here and put your seatbelt on NOW!”

“Quit worrying about me,” I yelled back, “and work on getting us outta here!”

Mom started to say something foul when another slow-moving car forced her to swerve dangerously, sending me toppling into the middle seat.

The van straightened out, allowing me to right myself and drop into the deep back. It was a tight squeeze so I slammed down the back seats to give me a little more room.

“Teal, get back here! I don’t want you hurt!”

“I’m fine! Just drive!”

Either she was too pissed or too focused to respond, because the car went completely quiet except for the pitchy whine of its poor V6 being pushed way beyond what it was designed for. If dad were there, he would’ve said, “it’s good for the car – it builds character.”

I wished he could have been there.

But this was not the time for wishing. I popped open the tire jack compartment and pulled out the lug wrench, the scissors jack and a set of jumper cables. I had no idea how these could fend off the black sedan, but since they were the only things in the car that might be useful I figured now was as good a time as any to grab ’em.

The black sedan moved to within twenty feet.

“Mom, they’re gonna try and pass you! Go left!”

She obeyed, swerving left into oncoming traffic. Luckily it was early and the road was empty…

…for now, anyway. The sedan countered right, and mom swerved to match.

They pulled to within ten feet. Their driver pushed left, then right, then right again, trying to move alongside our minivan.

And that’s when the idea hit me.

“Mom, brake! Now!!”

She hit the brakes, sending the van lurching against its suddenly cinched tires. I flew forward, smashing into the next row of seats as a sickening crunch burst from the back of the van. An inrush of air and the acrid smell of burning rubber drowned out the rest of my senses, followed immediately by mom revving the engine and sending the van staggering back down the road.

I opened my eyes to find the back of our Odyssey looking like a junkyard. The rear window had shattered and now hung onto its frame by a thread; the floor had crumpled upward and the sides bowed slightly outward. The latch on the bottom of the rear door had somehow held, but it wouldn’t last for long.

Fortunately, the damage didn’t seem to affect our rear axle since mom wasn’t having any trouble accelerating away from the black sedan. It was difficult to see through the shattered rear window, but from the looks of it our pursuer’s hood had been smashed upward, blocking their view of the road. They had been forced to stop, and at least two of the men were now trying to rip the hood off completely.

I smiled and began climbing back toward the front seat.

“Nice driving, mom! That was a sweet–”

Green balls of light suddenly exploded ahead and to our right, blasting away at the base of a traffic light support post.

I was really starting to hate green balls of light.

Another volley of blasts smashed into the concrete and the heavy pole began to topple, first swaying dangerously right, then reversing course and swinging outward and down.

Given our current speed and direction, it looked like it was going land directly on top of us.

Mom punched the brakes, again sending me flying forward. My head crunched against the second row of seats, followed by the loud clang of something gigantic and metal crashing onto the street.

Then she swung the van around, tires squealing, and this time I was thrown momentarily sideways. My mind spun from all this flying around, but I finally managed to grab a headrest and pull myself upright.

We had stopped in time to miss the pole, but the capsized tube of steel had effectively blocked our escape route. Mom had been forced to spin around, retreat 20 feet, spin back around, and now she was plowing through the corner of a park, aiming to go completely around the pole and back onto the street.

And judging by the thunderous engine roar dopplering in from behind us, the black sedan was back on our trail.

Mom cranked hard through a row of bushes as I worked on a plan for permanently disabling our pursuers. I had reached the obvious conclusion that these guys weren’t interested in killing us; after all, if they were they could have easily pointed those green blasty guns at our Odyssey instead of at a traffic light post.

No, I was pretty certain they wanted us alive, which was a lot more frightening than trying to kill us. If they captured mom and I alive…

…well, who knew what that would lead to. It couldn’t be anything good.

A sudden bam rang out and the van lurched awkwardly forward.

The sedan had caught up to us.

Mom swore and swerved right; another smash jerked us ahead, and the damaged rear door latch finally gave.

The hatch swung open, giving me an unobstructed view of our pursuers. There were still four of them and all were dressed nicely – two in suits, the other two in button-up shirts and ties. Three of the four wore sunglasses, while the fourth guy wore regular glasses. For a batch of murderers, they looked strangely ordinary.

All of them smiled upon seeing me, and the front passenger – the one in normal glasses – motioned for the driver to ram us again.

He nodded and accelerated.

What happened next is still somewhat of a blur. As the bad guys sped toward me, I remember recognizing that the hood to their car was indeed gone; the entire mechanics of their vehicle lay open and exposed, just tempting me to try something stupid. My unconscious mind recognized this and leapt at the chance, formulating a plan entirely without my permission.

I grabbed the jumper cable’s black clamp in my left hand and darted toward the open back. Mom screamed at me to stop, but I really didn’t have time to explain things.

I’d only get one shot at this and I couldn’t afford any distractions.

My right hand reached out and grabbed the hydraulic mechanism keeping our crumpled rear hatch open. Then I straightened out and leaned out toward the approaching sedan.

The enemy driver raised an eyebrow and hesitated, slowing slightly as he neared us.

As the remains of their front fender gently nudged the van’s bumper, I lunged toward the black sedan’s battery. The crocodile clamp in my left hand found their negative terminal, and I smashed it on before swinging recklessly back into the van.

In less than a second I found the other end of the jumper cable, grabbed it, and launched it at ’em.

Then I smiled and waved good-bye.

In retrospect, I think I know what prompted this bizarre maneuver. Three weeks earlier dad had killed the van battery by accidentally leaving the lights on overnight. Never one to pass up an object lesson, he got me up early the next morning and coerced me into helping him jump start it. When it came time to attach the jumper cables, he had very carefully explained that the positive terminals were always the first ones connected. If a negative terminal were connected first and the other end of the jumper cable accidentally touched the chassis somewhere, a massive short circuit would form, resulting in any number of terrible things. Dad hadn’t said exactly what would happen…

…but I guess I was about to find out.

The unclamped end of the jumper cable bounced off the sedan’s windshield before being sucked into a spinning belt to the left of the engine. That belt snapped and flew off, sending the jumper cable reeling into the guts of the engine compartment.

I didn’t see it happen, but the metal edge of the clamp must’ve connected because a sudden pop and flash of light burst from deep within the workings of the car. The battery exploded, the engine seized, and a series of horrible booms, cracks, and shrieks screamed out as the rest of the car’s mechanics ripped themselves apart.

Then, unbelievably, the driver panicked and made the mistake of cranking the wheel sideways while slamming on his brakes.

The black sedan was officially screwed.

Their front end collided with the pavement as the back end rocketed into the air, dragging the rest of the car upwards with it. Two flips and a half-spiral later, the car landed upside-down and sideways, skidded 50 feet into a lamp post, then burst into flames.

At which I smiled.

It’s the little things in life.

“That should teach those creeps not to mess with me,” I quipped as I climbed back into the front seat.

But mom didn’t smile. In fact, she didn’t look even remotely amused.

“Teal – what on EARTH were you thinking?”

“Brilliant, wasn’t it?”

“Brilliant? You could have died! This is exactly why I told your father…”

“…What? Told him what?”

“Never mind.”

Never mind?! No way – she was about to shed light on what her and dad had talked about at the hospital. I had to know.

“What, mom? What did you tell dad?”

“Forget about it.”

“No! Don’t you think you’ve hidden enough from me? You can’t keep all these secrets! I have a right to know!”

Her eyes narrowed and she cranked the steering wheel right, plowing up and over a curve and onto some random driveway. I yelled and braced myself against the dash, to which mom responded by slamming on the brakes just seconds before we crashed into the home’s garage.

Of course, I had yet to put on my seatbelt. So I went flying – again – and nearly cracked my head on the windshield. Good thing I’d braced myself or my forehead would’ve looked like a sloppy joe.

I took a moment to glance out the window and I realized this wasn’t just any home. It was my home. Somehow mom had driven us back to the house. I’d been so involved in the car chase that I’d totally forgotten we were on our way home.

As the adrenaline started to scatter, the pain from all my flying around and smacking into car parts settled in. I groaned and slid back into my seat, swearing to never forget my seatbelt again.

That’s when mom grabbed me. She swung me around and buried her pointer finger firmly into my chest.

“You have no rights when it comes to this,” she whispered. Her eyes were bloodshot and angry, her expression equally grim. “If you had any idea what was going on you, wouldn’t speak to me like that. I am still your mother, Teal, and you will not speak back to me, especially about this.”

She let me go, then glanced at the clock and sighed heavily. It was just after 8:00am. It felt like 8:00pm.

“Listen up,” she said, turning to face me. “In case you haven’t noticed, there are quite a few people very interested in capturing and/or killing us. They will stop at nothing. Since they’ve now resorted to attacking us in broad daylight, and since our,” she paused, sucking down a sob before it surfaced. “…Since our friends in the Explorer are gone, our home isn’t going to be safe either. We have to leave.”

Seriously, this was getting ridiculous. This was my life – not a silly Lifetime movie.

“Mom, no. Where would we go? Would we leave right away? What if I don’t want to? Do I have a say in any of this?”

“I don’t know, Teal. I just… I just don’t know.”

A tear trickled down her cheek as she turned away.

This had become so much worse than I originally thought. So much worse.

At first, everything had seemed like a video game – some crazy explosions at school, a strange man posing as a detective, a mysterious history behind our school building. Even the gunfight at the hospital (if I could even call it that) had seemed somewhat surreal, like if we were shot or hurt we would wake up and find ourselves back in bed, safe and sound, realizing then that it had just been a dream. Sure, there were moments of terror – like chasing mom through the hospital before I knew dad was okay – but even then, it had all passed so quickly that none of it really registered.

But it was certainly registering now. Mom was talking about leaving our home. My home. Depending on where she wanted to take us, that could mean leaving school, leaving Franklin, leaving Eddie.

Leaving Cierra.

Oh crap.

In the feverish rush to make sense of all these strange events, I had completely forgotten about the dance.

Arrrrgggh. By now it would almost certainly be too late to ask her. Girls like Cierra don’t last through the weekend before Homecoming. The fact that she’d still been unasked as of Friday had been a bona fide miracle, and last night would almost certainly have found her being asked out by some stupid jock, some creep totally undeserving of her perfection.

Given the rest of my terrible weekend, this all seemed strangely fitting.

If possible, this realization turned my mood even darker, which was immediately followed by a sudden influx of guilt. What was I doing thinking about Homecoming dance now? My dad was poisoned, I’d almost died just moments before, and here I was thinking about a dance. What was wrong with me?

I felt my self-control slipping, my already fragile grip on things eroding.

But what could I say or do? Things had been happening so quickly, so rapid-fire and unpredictable and discombobulating that I hadn’t had any chance to quietly think things through since the start of this entire debacle.

I needed time. I needed to be alone.

I turned and placed a hand on mom’s arm.

“Look, mom – I’m sorry for doubting you, and I’m sorry for talking back. I didn’t mean to disrespect you. It’s just, all this is happening so fast. It feels like my life is spinning out of control and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I think I just need some time to sort things out – some time to wrap my head around everything that’s happened so I can prepare myself for whatever changes we need to make. I know you and dad love me – really, I do – and I’ll try to not question you again.”

I took a deep breath. I knew I needed to say more, but I really didn’t want to.

Oh well. Sometimes you just gotta do what you just gotta do.

“And mom, I understand that you can’t tell me more. I hate it, but I understand. I don’t fault you for trying to protect us, especially after the last twelve hours.”

She nodded and placed her hand over mine.

“Thank you, Teal. I love you.”

“I love you too. Do you mind if I take the rest of the morning to lock myself in my room and think? Right now I need that more than anything.”

She nodded and gave me a quick hug. I let myself out of the van and thought of one last thing before shutting the door.

“And oh yeah – thanks for breakfast.”

She smiled.

“You’re welcome. Thanks for taking out the black car that followed us, even if your crazy maneuver scared me half to death.”

I grinned and nodded once, then gently closed the van door and hurried inside. Mrs. Barnhurst was inside, half-asleep, while Jack and Emmary sat quietly watching cartoons. Everything looked miraculously peaceful.

Finally, a brief respite from horrible surprises. Thank God.

The mechanical cranking of a shutting garage door echoed from outside, followed by mom quietly entering behind me. She woke Mrs. Barnhurst and showed her to the door as I walked quietly up the stairs, down the hallway, and into my bedroom.

Once inside, I closed the door and locked it. Then I walked to my bed, sat down, and sighed heavily.

It was time to do some hard thinking. Some real hard thinking.

The hardest thinking of my life.

Next Chapter (Chapter 7) >>

<< Previous Chapter (Chapter 5)

TEAL: Chapter 5

Teal is available as a free CC-licensed science fiction novel. You can read more about the project here.

Click here to download this chapter as a PDF (180kb)


From: Cronus
To: Kepik
Subj: Be strong

I would apologize for not replying to your initial letter – the one describing your fascinating dream – but since you sent it just before being hauled off to prison, I wasn’t exactly “able” to respond.

Your fault, Kepik. Not mine.

Regardless, I’m relieved to hear you’ve been moved back to Orionis, and I’m very much hoping that your encryption protocol remains active and unbroken. If not… well, I’d rather not think about it. I will try to be discreet, but frankly I am willing to risk detection if it means I can inform you of recent events – events the Council is certain to hide from you.

Zyken is growing increasingly reckless. Late last night a group of his HIRCs mounted a full-scale attack on a local hospital, presumably based on a tip that David Garrison was being treated there. Why they chose to target Garrison when there are thousands to choose from is inexplicably bizarre; I am not aware of anything that would make him a target deserving of so great a risk on Zyken’s part.

As much as it pains me to admit it, the obvious inference from the attack is – as some have suggested – that a traitor hides among us.

Still, I hold out hope for another explanation. The thought of a traitor in the group is more than I can currently bear.

Fortunately, Garrison and his family escaped unscathed, but I fear that Zyken will only get more desperate as the time of your hearing nears – which could mean terrible things for Garrison and his family, and perhaps others if Zyken (or god-forbid, a traitor) is able to crack the codes to your Project Earth files.

I just hope you encrypted them well.

As you admonished, I have double-checked with each of my contacts, and though many are shaken by the boldness of Zyken’s raid, they are still prepared and ready for The Closing. They will not let us down, Kepik – these men and women are strong, stronger than you may think. Perhaps I should be admonishing you to not lose faith.

Just kidding… I hope.

Speaking of which: did you really think I didn’t know I was being administered an antidote at every one of our meetings? I would have thought you more perceptive than to think that I – or any of us, for that matter – were fooled by this gesture. We all know about the poison, and we all know that the odds of any of us surviving are miniscule. But we persist because we believe in ourselves, and we believe in The Closing.

And despite all that has happened, many still believe in you, Kepik. Please don’t forget that.

I can’t promise any sort of action based on your dream, but I will try to convince whomever I can that it might work. If you have any further details on the specific “plan” you mentioned, I look forward to hearing them.

118 hours left. We will think of something.

Be strong.


On a normal Saturday I would sleep in until 10:00am – maybe even 11:00 – but this was no normal Saturday morning. I was wide-awake at 6:30 and there was no point in trying to fall back asleep. My mind was already running at full tilt, and I needed to get it in order before mom and I sat down to have our inevitable “chat.”

I debated between grabbing breakfast and jumping in the shower, but the butterflies pullulating in my stomach made the decision for me. There was no way I could hold down a breakfast given the anxiety in my gut.

I showered quickly and threw on a nice set of clothes (mom was likely to tell me more if I looked responsible), then got my hair looking nice and my teeth well-brushed. Then I walked downstairs and sat myself at the couch. The time was 6:57.

I didn’t have to wait long. At 7:01 mom came down the stairs, also dressed and ready to go.

“Good morning,” she said.


“I’d like to take you out to breakfast.”

“What about Emmary and Jackson?”

“I’ve asked Ellen Barnhurst to look after them. She should be here any minute.”

Mrs. Barnhurst was the kind old widow who lived across the street.

“Are you ready to go?”

I nodded as a knock rang out from the door. Mom let Mrs. Barnhurst in, and after a brief explanation of what to do when the little ones woke up (if we weren’t back by then), we took off.

As we backed out of the driveway, I noticed the lights on the white Explorer – still parked at the end of our street – flicker to life. We drifted down our street, took a left at the stop sign then a right at the next light, and at every turn the Explorer followed close behind.

“Don’t worry,” mom said, sensing my concern. “They’re… with us.”

They. So there were multiple people in that Explorer.

My mind burned with questions but I just nodded. Mom’s cryptic answer led me to believe the car wasn’t a safe place to talk. I just hoped she would recognize my silence as patience, not indifference. The grimace plastered across my face should have been clear evidence of the willpower I was exercising.

The rest of the drive passed in silence. I didn’t ask where we were going and mom didn’t offer any insights. The white Explorer never drifted more than a car length or two behind us.

Fifteen minutes and many turns later, we pulled into a truck stop on the outskirts of town. Cars and semi trucks filled the parking lot and fuel pumps, and I inferred that mom selected this particular destination because it was one of the few places in Franklin relatively busy on a Saturday morning. The white Explorer parked several spots down, and two normal-looking men discreetly followed us into the diner.

We sat ourselves, and the waitress brought mom a coffee and me a glass of orange juice. I took a sip but immediately regretted it. My edgy stomach was none too happy about having citric acid poured into it without warning. I placed the glass aside and asked for a water instead.

Our two “shadows” took a seat at a table between us and the front door. It was kinda cool to think that two guys had spent all day and night watching out for us. We must be more important than I thought.

Hopefully this conversation would answer that once and for all.

Mom waited until the waitress had taken our breakfast order, and then the chat began.

“Teal,” she said, her voice just above a whisper, “what we’re about to discuss can never leave this table.”

“What about Eddie?” I asked. “Can I talk to him?”

She glowered at me.

“Can Eddie keep a secret? Would you trust him with a secret so significant that revealing it could mean your death?”

Dramatic. I hoped she wasn’t serious.

“Yes,” I replied. “I trust him that much.”

“Very well. You may share generalities of our conversation with him, but please – let him know how serious this is. It’s not just your life at stake, but your siblings’, mine, your father’s, and countless others.”

Good grief. What kind of secrets was she hiding?

I nodded, then replied, “speaking of dad, is he okay?”

Mom took a deep breath before replying.

“Yes and no. For the time being, he’s okay. But his health is in danger.”

“He’s been poisoned.”

“…What makes you say that?”

“I overheard you talking at the hospital.”

“Really. What else did you hear?”

I knew this question would be asked as soon as I revealed I had overheard something at the hospital. Now the eminent question became to tell or not to tell. For reasons I can’t really explain, I decided to keep my disclosures to a minimum.

“Not much. I just heard the word antidote pop up, and that usually means some kind of poisoning.”

Mom allowed a smile to momentarily dance across her lips.

“True enough, Teal. True enough.”

I decided to play another card in my hand – the old reverse-psychology trick. Mom used it on me all the time, so maybe it would work equally well on her.

“I’m assuming you can’t tell me everything.”

She looked sideways.

“Technically, I can’t tell you anything. Even trying to explain your father’s condition is… ah… difficult.”

I was expecting this.

“Okay. Do ‘they’ – you know, the bad guys – have a way of tracking what you tell me?”

“More than likely, and if they do, the mechanism is probably triggered by me saying, mouthing, or writing certain keywords. Unfortunately, I have no idea what the keywords are.”

“What? So you’ve been bugged? But what kind of bug can detect mouthed words?”

“That’s at the heart of the question, isn’t it.”

She said it like a statement, which led me to believe she knew who was behind all this. That was good and bad – good because it meant I might actually be able to weasel answers out of her, bad because it meant we weren’t being targeted randomly.

Thing is, whoever had technology capable of detecting mouthed and written words was high tech indeed. I didn’t need Eddie to tell me that.

“So how are you bugged? Is dad bugged too?”

“I can’t really explain how, since it would require me to use too many ‘keywords.’ And yes, your father is bugged as well.”

“So what happens if they catch you using a keyword?”

Mom shifted, then looked into her lap.

“I don’t know, and I’d rather not find out.”

I pondered this for a moment.

“Then let me ask you simple questions – requiring only simple responses – and you answer however you think you can. Can they track what I say?”

She shook her head, and I felt a sudden rush of energy at the realization that this could work. Finally, it was time for me to ask the questions that had plagued me since yesterday.

“Okay, then. How long has dad been poisoned?”

Mom looked frustrated with this game, and I could only infer that she really didn’t want to reveal anything. I was about to protest when she quietly answered, “…awhile.”

“Awhile? Did it happen before or after I was born?”

“After. But before Emmary.”

That put the poisoning at somewhere between 15 and 9 years ago – not exactly accurate, but better than nothing.

“Do you know how to cure him?”


“Really? Then why is he still sick?”

“Knowing how to do something and being able to do it are not the same.”

“Oh. I guess you’re right. So are you able to cure him?”

“At present, no.”

“Is anyone able to cure him?”


This was the longest pause yet.


“Anyone, no. Anything, yes.”

Interesting choice of words.

“Okay… Is dad’s poisoning related to the fight at the hospital?”

“C’mon Teal, of course it is.”

“You’re right, stupid question. Was the fight at the hospital related to the explosions at school?”


Now we were getting somewhere.

“Are both of those events related to the previous tenants of the school building – specifically, the company called Genetitech?”

Mom’s eyes narrowed, her expression a sudden mix of surprise and concern.

“How do you know about that?”

“Uh, Eddie and I did some research.”

I did a poor job of suppressing my grin, and again a smile danced across mom’s lips.

“Figures,” she said. “You aren’t supposed to know that.”

I laughed nervously.

“You know Eddie, sharp as a tack. So does dad work for Genetitech? Are they still around?”

“…No, your father does not work for them. Just the opposite, in fact.”

“The opposite? So they’re the bad guys?”

“…not really, but kind of.” She sighed. “It’s complicated.”

No kidding.

“Were the guys that attacked us last night from Genetitech?”

“Again, not really but kind of.”

What kind of an answer was that? ‘Not really but kind of?’ That made no sense.

I was starting to get bored and confused and mom looked unsettled – so it was time to move onto the really exciting stuff.

“Where did you get your laser gun?”

“Teal, no. Not only does that require a complicated answer, but I don’t want you even thinking about those weapons. They’re not toys.”

“I know that, mom. How old do you think I am?”

“It doesn’t matter. Any talk of weapons is totally off-limits.”

Now it was my turn to sigh. This was going to be a long breakfast.

The waitress suddenly appeared, but instead of bringing us our breakfast, she placed a note in front of my mom.

“Sorry, ma’am,” she whispered, “but those men sitting three tables down paid me a lot of money to give you this.”

Three tables down – those were the two men shadowing us.

“They promised me it wasn’t crude, and I really needed the money. I’m so sorry if this is awkward.”

Mom gave her a forced but polite smile.

“Don’t worry about it, dear,” she replied. “But if they try to send anything else, tell them to grow some balls and come talk to me in person.”

The waitress giggled.

“Okay, I will. And your food is almost done. I’ll have it to you in just a moment.”

Mom forced another polite smile as the waitress scurried away. As soon as she disappeared back into the kitchen, mom’s smile vanished. She swept the note into her lap – where I couldn’t see it – and began reading.

“Mom, what’s it–”

She held up a finger, clearly telling me to can it. I was getting really sick of being interrupted, but I obeyed.

Her eyes darted back and forth across the note for what seemed like hours. It must’ve been a long note.

(Or maybe time just dragged because I desperately wanted to know what the note said.)

Either way, she didn’t finish until after our food arrived. The waitress had no further notes to deliver, and a quick glance behind me as she left showed that our shadows were gone. The white Explorer was, however, still in the parking lot. Apparently our two “friends” hadn’t stayed for breakfast.

Who were they, and what had they written in that note?

Breakfast smelled amazing and I’d gotten enough answers to calm my stomach for the time being, so I wasted no time digging into my French toast combo. Mom continued reading the note (and there was no way it was that long – she must have been re-reading it) as steam drifted from her omelet. I was grateful for the food; after no dinner the night before and an adrenaline high all morning, I was starving.

Halfway into my third tasty piece of toast, mom finally spoke.

“Sorry for the wait, Teal. It’s just… things get a little more complicated every day.”

“Mom,” I replied after swallowing down my too-large bite, “is there any possibility of us getting to the heart of the matter? I don’t have much use for cryptic one-liners.”

She laughed, then just as quickly shifted to a very serious tone and visage.

“Use, Teal? Tell me – why do you want more knowledge about what’s going on? Curiosity? Concern? Exactly what are you planning to do with the information I’ve told you?”

I was suddenly reminded of part of the conversation I’d overheard at the hospital the night before:

“Have you found a way to get an antidote?”

“…I think I have. But you’re not going to like it.”

“I’ll like anything that gets you cured.”

“It involves Teal.”

“…What? You aren’t honestly thinking of acting on that ridiculous dream, are you?”

“It isn’t ridiculous, Natalie. Please try and understand how significant–”

“No. Stop. Listen to me, David. I don’t care if God himself marched down here and commanded you to send Teal after an antidote. You’re no Abraham, and he will not be your Isaac.”

“…Well then no, I don’t have an idea. Not yet, anyway.”

“I can’t believe you actually considered sending your 15-year-old son through a portalgate. You must be insane.”

I have an exceptional memory for conversations. I’m not very good at remembering names or faces (or math formulas, as my last algebra test demonstrated), but I have a real knack for remembering conversations, and I’d never been more grateful for the ability than I was at that moment.

It was obvious to me that dad had concocted some sort of plan for retrieving an antidote, and that plan somehow involved me passing through a “portalgate”… whatever that meant. Mom didn’t think I was capable, or maybe that it wouldn’t be safe. Either way, she’d said ‘no’ to the idea.

But if I could convince her I knew what I was doing, maybe she’d let me participate after all. A flutter of adrenaline struck me upon realizing this. I needed to convey to mom just how capable I was – and if that worked, maybe I really could go after an antidote.

Newly charged, I delivered my best, most careful response.

“I’m gonna use the knowledge to do two things: prevent any further harm to people I care about, and,” dramatic pause, “…and I want to find dad an antidote.”

Mom’s countenance drifted from serious to thoughtful to tearful. I wasn’t sure if this was good or bad for me.

Because the thing is – yeah, I was curious. What kid wouldn’t be after seeing everything I’d seen in the last 24 hours?

I was also concerned. Knowing my dad was poisoned but not knowing how or why or to what degree was deeply unnerving.

And really, a lot of emotions were flowing through me, much more than just curiosity or concern. There was a certain amount of pride – I’m a pretty capable kid, and there was a good chance I could offer unique insights on whatever was going down. Another part of me was thrill-seeking, and the thought of going on a hunt for an antidote was just plain cool.

Then there were the grander, more melodramatic aspects of it. The general flow of events – including dad’s poisoning – seemed to indicate some sort of good-guy/bad-guy struggle, and I wanted in. I wanted to be a good guy, a hero, a savior. Taking out that enemy with a fire extinguisher the night before was awesome. My quick thinking had caused him to blow himself away instead of possibly killing me.



I hadn’t really thought of it like that.

I could have died last night. My life could have ended.

And there, in that sudden thought, was the dark other half to all this. My insecurities, my worries, my fear. Fear had told me to turn back and not go down the main hallway after the first batch of explosions at my school; good thing I’d ignored it, or I never would have met the man who promised more info come Monday morning. Fear had told me we were going to the hospital because dad was already dead – something he most certainly wasn’t. Fear never would have wanted me to sprint across a warzone for the fire extinguisher that most likely saved my life and maybe the lives of my siblings.

And yet fear clutched at me now, again, warning me that by offering to participate I was getting into something way more dangerous than I understood. Fear had a pretty convincing case.

“Teal,” mom said, reaching across the table for my hand. Tears rested at the corners of her eyes. “You know your father and I love you kids more than anything.”

I nodded.

“Good. Never forget that. It will always be true.”

Where was this going? Had she been poisoned too? Was that the next horrible revelation I was about to get?

“But Teal… I can’t tell you more about what’s going on.”

“What?! You gotta be kidding me!”

“Shh! Keep it down, please! Believe me, I wish I could tell you. I hate lying to you worse than you can possibly imagine.”

I doubted that. I had a pretty vivid imagination.

“But son, the chances of me revealing something that could place us in danger is much too great.”

“Is this what the note from those two guys said?”

“Part of it. The note went into some detail about how the enemy’s monitoring equipment might work. I thought the devices were fairly simple, but it sounds like they may be a lot more advanced than I thought. I just can’t take the chance, Teal. It’s essential they don’t find us.”

They. Always they. Whoever they were, I was really starting to hate them.

“Mom… can you at least tell me who ‘they’ are?”

She shook her head.

“…I’m so sorry,” she whispered, and I didn’t doubt it.

But honestly, this hurt. The thought of enduring another day without information was more than I wanted to consider. I felt like a bird who’d just spent an entire day learning about the beauty and wonder of flight, only to realize I was an ostrich.

The rest of my weekend was really going to suck.

“You’re mad,” she said, her voice soft. “I don’t blame you.”

I forced a smile.

“Not really mad, mom. Just frustrated. Imagine what it’s like to be me – having my school attacked by ‘them,’ finding out ‘they’ poisoned dad…”

I wasn’t sure of that connection, but the sudden narrowing of mom’s eyes told me I was right.

“Then ‘they’ ambushed us in the hospital and any one of us could have been hurt – or worse. The thought of not even finding out who ‘they’ are is hard to deal with.”

Mom nodded grimly.

“It’s a terrible, horrible situation. Believe me – if there was any way for me to tell you more without endangering you, I would.”

But a sudden volley of thoughts made me question that. Dad had suggested sending me on a mission to recover an antidote – which implied he was willing to tell me more. Maybe mom just didn’t want me to know more because she thought I’d try something stupid. Maybe the whole “they’re watching us” line was only a ruse.

I ran through that line of reasoning again and realized just how much sense it made. I could totally see mom convincing herself that giving me knowledge would be just as dangerous as dad involving me in some crazy antidote-finding plan.

Hmm. What a tangled web I found myself in.

Mom pulled out her wallet, removed a $20 bill, then set it beside her plate. She wiped her eyes then rose from the table.

“Uh, you haven’t eaten any of your omelet.”

“I’m not really hungry,” she replied, sitting back down. “But I can wait while you finish your meal.”

It took me less than a minute to scarf down the rest of my French toast. Mom still didn’t eat anything, and after I finished we returned to the minivan and started for home.

The white Explorer eased out of the parking lot directly behind us. Now that they knew we were aware of their presence, they apparently weren’t interested in being inconspicuous.

Just as well. It was nice to finally have something in my life out in the open.

No one spoke until we reached an intersection about halfway home, where a red light resulted in the white Explorer pulling up immediately behind us. I took a moment to turn around and examine the individuals in the SUV.

There were two of them, both men. One was somewhat heavyset and white; the other, shorter and more moderate in build, looked Hispanic. Both were dressed in nondescript street clothes and both wore sunglasses.

I wanted to know more about them, so I figured I’d put mom’s “can’t give you more information” line to the test.

“Say, mom – were those two guys in the Explorer with us at the hospital? Did they fight too?”

She hesitated, then responded, “I assume they were at the hospital, but I don’t know if they participated in any fighting.”

“Hmm. They look like pretty normal guys.”

She didn’t respond.

“Do they work for Genetitech?”

“No,” she replied with a quiet smile. “They’re on our side. And Teal – while that… company… is part of the puzzle, it’s important to realize they went bankrupt a long time ago. Nowadays, no one works for them directly.”

She paused, then smiled and pointed at a sign down the street to our left.

It read Dead End. How tricky of her.

I grinned and nodded.

“Thanks for the tip.”

“You’re welcome. If I were you, I’d…” she took a deep breath, as if internally debating something. “Well, if I wanted more information about things, I would start by investigating how that particular organization started.”

Finally! An actual tip!

…If only it were something novel. Obviously this was on my list of things to do. But some information was better than no information, and I’d take whatever I could get.

I pondered this as the light turned green and we pulled away from the light. Mom opened her mouth to say something more when a sudden screeching crash exploded somewhere behind us.

She slammed the brakes as I spun around in my chair.

The white Explorer had been suddenly demolished, brutally broadsided by not one, but two identical-looking black sedans. The sedans had hit the Explorer from opposite sides, colliding with such force that the fenders of both black cars looked to be nearly touching. The Explorer was decimated; from the looks of it, there was no way either passenger could have survived.

I heard a gasp from mom when another black sedan suddenly arrived from the west – but this one skidded to a halt at the edge of the intersection instead of crashing. Four men piled out, one from each door, and each leveled some kind of pistol-looking weapon at the wreckage of the Explorer and the two other sedans.

My stomach dropped, and I somehow knew what would inevitably follow.

Green bursts of energy exploded from the men’s weapons, engulfing the wreckage in a plume of fire and debris. The men blasted away at everything – including the two black cars identical to their own. Apparently they weren’t afraid to blow away their own men as well.

I watched, horrified and unable to pull myself away, until mom let off the brake and floored the gas pedal. The force of the acceleration smashed me into my seat but I stayed turned around, watching as the group of men stopped firing and pointed at our escaping car. Three leapt back into the intact black sedan while the fourth placed something shiny on the pile of now-smoldering car wreckage. Once he finished, the black sedan swung around and he jumped in.

Their car rocketed after us.

I buckled my seatbelt.

Next Chapter (Chapter 6) >>

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Rethinking Publishing, Rethinking Teal

I’ve written a book.

The book is called Teal, and it’s best classified as a YA sci-fi novel.  It’s 346 pages long – or more precisely, 102,282 words comprised of 550,713 characters.  (Characters meaning letters, numbers, and punctuation – not individuals in the story.)

I’m quite proud of Teal.  It took me some 18 months to finish the first draft, then another year to rewrite it in 1st-person instead of 3rd person (well worth it), after which came another year of reworking and rewriting the story to the point where I feel like it truly represents my best effort with these particular characters.  I’m a couple weeks away from having this latest draft done, at which point I can finally consider Teal “done”.

The road to finishing Teal has been…interesting, to say the least.  One of the high points in the experience came in 2007, when an early draft of the story was nominated as a semi-finalist in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) competition.  As part of the award, I was able to self-publish an early draft of Teal for free using Amazon’s CreateSpace self-publishing imprint.

If you have a copy of that self-published edition of Teal (with the red title and the misspelling of “apocalyptic” on the back cover), hang onto it, because that version is no longer available online.  A new edition of the book – with vastly improved writing and a new cover – will be available later this year.  If I’m ever famous, that out-of-print version of Teal may some day be worth a non-trivial amount.

(Or not.  Just to be safe, you might want to have a backup retirement plan.  :)

Another fortunate event in Teal’s short life was the opportunity to land on an excellent agent’s desk early last year.  The top agent on my list of “dream agents” asked me to send her a full copy of original manuscript – which was a dream come true.

Unfortunately, my almost-finished Teal rewrite is some thousand times better than the version the agent received, but I haven’t been able to elicit any sort of reply over the last year.

Maybe my original draft scared her off.  (I hope not!)

At any rate, this last year has given me a chance to reevaluate my feelings about writing.  I had originally planned to leave Teal untouched while the agent had it, but one minor fix led to another which led to another which led to a massive editing session that – I believe – has drastically improved the book.  All I know is that it feels much more “complete” than it did a year ago, and I’m finally hitting a point where I genuinely believe it’s gotten as good as I can get it without outside help.

Which gave me an idea.

<begin epiphany>

The publishing industry is seriously broken.  To quote one of a thousand articles on this subject:

…the publishing industry is in distress. Publishing houses–among them Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Doubleday and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt–are laying off staff left and right. Random House is in the midst of a drastic reorganization. Salaries are frozen across the industry. Whispers of bankruptcy are fluttering around Borders; Barnes & Noble just cut 100 jobs at its headquarters, a measure unprecedented in the company’s history. Publishers Weekly (PW) predicts that 2009 will be “the worst year for publishing in decades.”

That was from a January 2009 article in Time Magazine.

Paul M. Denlinger provides an excellent summary of how the fundamental model of modern publishing is woefully out-of-date:

Looking at the book publishing industry today, it is a broken business model. From the author’s point of view, while writing a book is hard enough, the business side is even worse. First of all, in the US, one must find an agent and complete a draft and book proposal. The agent then shops the book to publishers, and then negotiates a deal with the book publisher, which usually involves the agent taking 10-20%. The publisher then may pay an advance (becoming increasingly rare), and then the author is paid a portion based on royalties for the books sold, which is usually 5-10%. The book publisher makes sure that the book is edited and makes its way into the book distribution system (dominated by 2-3 players) which gets it into book stores. However, the author is largely responsible for promotion. To make things even worse, bookstores in the US don’t really buy books; they sell on consignment. This means they can return unsold books to the publisher and get a refund, which cuts back even more on how much the author gets.

When you figure all this in, it’s amazing that there are any authors who make money at all!

Another, more philosophical take on the matter comes from the incomparable Ursula K. Le Guin:

…the stupidity of the contemporary, corporation-owned publishing company is fathomless: they think they can sell books as commodities.

Moneymaking entities controlled by obscenely rich executives and their anonymous accountants have acquired most previously independent publishing houses with the notion of making quick profit by selling works of art and information…

In those departments, beloved by the CEOs, a “good book” means a high gross and a “good writer” is one whose next book can be guaranteed to sell better than the last one. That there are no such writers is of no matter to the corporationeers, who don’t comprehend fiction even if they run their lives by it. Their interest in books is self-interest, the profit that can be made out of them—or occasionally, for the top executives, the Murdochs and other Merdles, the political power they can wield through them; but that is merely self-interest again, personal profit.

And not only profit but growth. If there are stockholders, their holdings must increase yearly, daily, hourly. [A recent] AP article ascribed “listlessness” and “flat” book sales to the limited opportunity for expansion. But until the corporate takeovers, publishers did not expect expansion; they were quite happy if their supply and demand ran parallel, if their books sold steadily, flatly…

If you have the time, her entire article is well worth a read.

I hope every would-be writer is aware of these facts.  I hope authors everywhere have taken the time to peruse the swath of articles proclaiming everything from “books are dead” to “people don’t read anymore.”

Because if anyone can fix the broken publishing industry, it’s writers.

For hundreds of years, publishing houses have filled the necessary gap between “author’s manuscript” and “general public.”  Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, James Joyce, and every other pre-21st-century author required the services of a publishing company to make their respective works available to the public.

But with the advent of the internet, the gap between “author’s manuscript” and “general public” slowly disappeared.  In a matter of seconds, anyone with an internet connection can send a blog entry, status update, or tweet to a billion people across 100+ countries in just about any known language.  Instead of hunting for an agent who can hunt for a publisher who can hunt for a bookstore to present your creative masterpiece to the masses, you can present your novel directly to the public.

So why don’t authors do this?

Some might argue that it’s too difficult for the average writer to distribute a book electronically, but that’s simply not true.  Between services like WordPress and Facebook, let alone even simpler tools like Twitter, any human being with enough tenacity to write a book is 100% capable of setting up a website or online community that he/she could use to share AND monetize his/her work.

Some authors may not be aware that tools exist to distribute books electronically, but that is equally unforgivable.  In an age where very few publishing houses accept traditional mailed queries or manuscripts, anyone hoping to be an author must be aware of email and the internet.

And if you’re aware of those technologies, you’re halfway to building your own site.

Honestly, at the end of the day the answer to “why do publishing houses still exist” really boils down to one thing.

Writers are chicken.

(Chicken meaning “scared”, not “delicious bird”.)

Let’s face it: publishing houses exist because authors allow them to exist.  Without authors, publishing houses disappear.

The converse isn’t true.  Without publishing houses, modern writers can still exist, and they can continue to write as brilliantly as they have for thousands of years.

Every “you can be a writer too” essay/book/blog takes the opposite stance.  According to them, agents and publishing houses hold all the power.  They are the gatekeepers – the royalty – and without them you will never be successful.  Self-publishing is a hiss and a byword, something left for crappy authors who are too weak and inept to appease the mighty publishing overlords.

Would-be authors are told to simply accept this situation because “that’s just how it is.”  The same mediocre advice circulates on how to woo the mighty gatekeepers by prostrating yourself before them, begging for their acceptance and pleading for their blessing.  All this is done on the premise that maybe – just maybe – you will someday become one of the lucky anointed ones, an author with an agent AND a publisher.  As a prize for your newfound status, you are allowed to keep 5-10% (or less) of the profits made from selling your book.

Sounds dreamy, doesn’t it?  </sarcasm>

Thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Authors don’t have to spend their lives begging for approval from the publishing overlords.

I first started worrying about the current publishing paradigm when I participated in the aforementioned ABNA contest.  While there, I had the privilege – no, the honor – of trading reviews with ~30 other contest participants.

It was a mind-blowing experience. Of the 30 first chapters I read, at least 10 were good enough that I would have paid to read the full story. Even now, two years later, some of the stories retain an indelible impression. One of my favorite contest entries told the story of “Evil Outfitters, Ltd.” – a company with the specialty of supplying evil masterminds with wardrobes, equipment, and accessories befitting their world domination plans.  The premise was fascinating, the style intriguing.  I’d never read anything like it.

Has “Evil Outfitters, Ltd” been published?  Not that I know of.  In fact, after hunting through those old Amazon forum posts, it looks like most my fellow writers have disappeared from the face of the earth.  Almost all their listed websites are defunct, and since Amazon has removed the contest entry pages their books are nowhere to be found.

This is tragic.  Absolutely tragic.  Using standard publishing odds, it’s doubtful any of those 30 individuals have gotten a formal publishing contract (though I hope otherwise!).   Far more likely is that each of their manuscripts lies on an obscure folder on a hard drive, or in a forgotten drawer in an office, or in a dusty box in a dusty attic.

How many brilliant novels and songs and films are hiding on hard drives or in attic boxes?  Thousands?  Millions?  It sickens me to think of all the creativity this world loses because it cannot be quickly and efficiently monetized.   I hate the thought that I may be one of only a handful of people to ever read the stories written by my fellow ABNA contestants.

So I’m doing something different.  Rather than hiding my novel manuscript until a publishing overlord deems it “worthy” of attention, I’m releasing Teal under a Creative Commons license and posting it online in its entirety.  The prologue and first 4 chapters will be made available tomorrow (May 2nd), with each subsequent chapter appearing each Sunday until the entire book is available.   Assuming I can maintain a chapter-a-week pace, the final chapter should appear some time in October.  Releasing the book serially will give me time to finish the rest of my edits, as well as finalize preparations for the new-and-improved self-published version

I know that some will inevitably view this as a concession that I’m just not good enough to break into writing “the traditional way.”  Bullshit.  The traditional model is broken – plain and simple.  The traditional top-down approach of publishers controlling and disseminating creativity is changing, and the only way to hasten that change is for the creators of art to start replacing “tradition” with “common sense.”

If you’re writing/composing/drawing in an attempt to get rich, go ahead and stick to the “traditional” way.  If you’re writing because you’re passionate about sharing your creativity with others, spend an afternoon researching Creative Commons and jump on the “non-traditional” publishing and distribution bandwagon.

You may be surprised by what happens.  The internet is full of commercial success stories from authors who used non-traditional means to eventually catch the eye of a traditional publisher.  This will continue to happen, because it’s the way publishing houses should work – they should help facilitate distribution of the very best creative works available, the ones so good that they deserve a spot on store shelves everywhere.

Because there is still a place for publishers in the world – a very important place.

See, publishers should not be “gatekeepers.”  They should just be the “icing on the cake.”

Stay tuned for Teal.  I hope you enjoy it!

Update: Teal is now live! Check it out here: http://www.tannerhelland.com/teal/

TEAL: Chapter 4

Teal is available as a free CC-licensed science fiction novel. You can read more about the project here.

Click here to download this chapter as a PDF (123kb)

What can I say? This was quickly becoming the worst Friday of my life, and the drive to the hospital was anything but comforting. Mom remained tight-lipped and distant, refusing to say anything more about the phone call she had received from the hospital. My two younger siblings – Emmary, 9, and Jackson, 4 – fought the entire way, and they probably would have murdered each other had I not constantly intervened. The two were rarely on good terms, and the events of the last hour certainly hadn’t helped that.

The nearly two-hour drive gave me way too much time to think. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that I made no progress on the day’s mysteries. My thoughts were too often interrupted by horrible imaginings of why we were driving to the hospital.

I tried asking mom for more information, but all I got were shakes of the head and budding tears.


It was almost 10:00pm when we finally reached the hospital. Mom plowed into a parking spot (two parking spots judging by the angle of our Odyssey) and jumped out, leaving me to unbuckle and remove the little ones. I dragged them alongside as I raced to catch up to her.

“Mom, wait! What’s going on? Why are you running?”

She said nothing, instead pushing firmly through the hospital’s revolving doors and marching straight to the front desk. I barely made it through the doors in time to hear my dad’s room number – 2731 – then I scrambled down the hallway, a screaming child’s hand in each of mine, and only by smashing an arm into the elevator door was I able to catch a ride up with her.

“Mom, listen – you gotta tell us what’s happening! What’s the rush? Is dad dying?”

But still she said nothing. She didn’t even make eye contact.

I had never seen her act like this. The only explanation I had was that she was either extremely angry or extremely frightened.

Or both.

The elevator bell rang and mom darted out. I picked up Jackson and dragged along an increasingly agitated Emmary as the three of us hurried to catch up.

Three turns and four hallways later we reached dad’s room. Mom entered and closed the door behind her. I, too tired and confused to pursue, set down Jackson and let go of Emmary, then slumped into one of the waiting room couches.

Not knowing how long it would be before she emerged, I decided to buckle down and try to make sense of what was happening. If I were about to get terrible news tonight (and really, given the circumstances, what else could happen?), I wanted to go in prepared.

I decided to start with the obvious. There was no denying how much mom was out of character. Something must have frightened her – angered her too, perhaps, but there had to be some sort of fear involved. Nothing else would put her into such an unbelievable hurry.

Next, I found myself waiting in the oncology wing of the hospital. I knew what oncology meant, having learned about just a week earlier in my health class.

Oncology meant cancer. Could dad have…?

I didn’t want to think about that, at least not until I’d heard something specific. I’d just have to hope the sinking feeling in my stomach was something else, that being in the oncology wing was only a coincidence.

My stomach rumbled and I realized none of us had eaten dinner – and it was after 10 o’clock. No wonder Emmary and Jackson were so edgy.

Suddenly the door to dad’s room re-opened and my mother emerged. She was shaking.

“Children, I need a few minutes alone with your father. He’s alive and okay, but we have some things we need to talk about – just the two of us. I’ll come get you when we’re done.”

She stepped back into the room, leaving me to grapple with my empty stomach, scattered thoughts, and two disgruntled siblings.

Well I’d had enough of that, so I jumped out of my chair and crept over to the door. Maybe I’d be able to overhear something.

I knelt down and pressed my left ear against the door.

It was quiet, but inside hospital room 2731 I could hear my mother’s tone shift from frightened to angry.

“I warned you about this, David. I warned you this would happen.”

Mom only called dad ‘David’ when she was pissed. Usually it was ‘honey,’ ‘dear,’ something of that sort.

Apparently tonight wasn’t a ‘honey’ kind of night.

“Listen to me, Natalie. It’s okay. I’ll be okay.”

“Okay? Okay?!”

“Yes, okay. This is only temporary until–”

“Until what? Until the poison kills you? What then, David? You’ll leave me a widow? A widow with three children, no money, and god-knows-what chasing after us?”

Did I just hear her say poison?

I pressed my ear more tightly against the door.

“They don’t know about you, Natalie, and they don’t know about the kids.”

“Kepik knows.”

Kepik? Who was Kepik?

“Kepik knows everyone involved in the project. I’m one of a thousand people on that list.”

“But you’re the only one to escape. Ever. And that means Kepik isn’t the only one who knows about us.”

“After next Friday, everyone else on the list will be an escapee too. We can disappear.”

“That may be, but The Closing won’t solve your poisoning. Have you found a way to get an antidote?”

Poisoning? Antidote?

“…I think I have. But you’re not going to like it.”

“I’ll like anything that gets you cured.”

“It involves Teal.”

My heart skipped a beat. Maybe two.

“…What? You aren’t honestly thinking of acting on that ridiculous dream, are you?”

“It isn’t ridiculous, Natalie. Please try and understand how significant–”

“No. Stop. Listen to me, David. I don’t care if God himself marched down here and commanded you to send Teal after an antidote. You’re no Abraham, and he will not be your Isaac.”

A lengthy pause.

“…Well then no, I don’t have an idea. Not yet, anyway.”

“I can’t believe you actually considered sending your 15-year-old son through a portalgate. You must be insane.”

“It’s a valid–”

“No, it’s not. It’s a terrible idea. I’m getting the children. They must be starving and terrified.”

“You haven’t fed them?”

“I had no choice. I had to make sure I talked some sense into you before you involved Teal in your dangerous, idiotic scheme.”

“It’s a good–”

“No, it isn’t, and I don’t want you to ever mention it again. Please, David, just forget about it.”

“It could work, Natalie.”

“No. And that’s final. I’m getting the children.”

I scrambled away from the door and pretended to be deeply engaged in the bland, amateurish landscape painting across from my dad’s room. It wasn’t hard to look deeply engaged – my mind was doing 100,000 RPMs trying to make sense of what I’d just heard.

The door behind me opened and my mother again stepped out, a forced, weary smile on her face. Emmary and Jackson – who had been momentarily distracted with a nearby fish tank – ran over to her.

I, however, took the opportunity to just stare angrily at my mom. Honestly, I’d never had too many problems with my parents; they were good to me, never asking for much, and in return I kept up my grades and occasionally helped around the house. If you ask me, parents are pretty simple creatures: smile when you talk to them, keep your room clean, be home when you’re supposed to and they won’t give you much grief.

But tonight I was starting to appreciate the rage a parent could cause. It wasn’t fair of mom to treat me like this. It wasn’t fair to hide information, to withdraw, to leave me in charge of two frightened children. It wasn’t fair that I had no idea what was going on and that she had refused to talk for the last two hours. It wasn’t fair that we were in a hospital at 10:30 at night without any dinner, especially my little brother and sister.

And then there was the conversation I’d just overheard. Dad had been poisoned? When were they going to tell me that? It sounded like he had plans to send me on a mission to retrieve an antidote, but mom disagreed. Who was she to make that decision? If dad really was poisoned, I’d do anything to save him. ANYthing. She’d never keep me from doing it, no matter how dangerous it was.

I felt my temper rising, which was rare. I’m a pretty level guy, but the more I thought about the last twelve hours, the more this whole day seemed like a load of crap.

Some Friday.

I shook my head and continued to scowl, but mom refused to make eye contact, instead speaking quietly to Emmary and Jackson.

After several minutes of consoling them, she reached down and took their hands in hers.

“Teal,” she said, finally making eye contact with me. “Are you hungry?”

I debated how sarcastically to respond when without warning, the overhead lights flickered twice.

I paused and looked upward.

Two more flickers, then the lights shut down completely.

Blackness engulfed the hallway and lobby.

Just frigging great, right? Just when you think the day can’t possibly get worse…

My younger siblings began to whimper, followed by fervent whispering from my mom.

“It’s okay, guys. It’s just a little power outage. Teal, are you okay?”

I nodded, then realized she couldn’t see me and instead said, “yeah, I’m fine.”

“Stay close. The power should come back in a moment.”

A moment passed and everything remained dark.

None of this made any sense. Why were no emergency lights on? This was, after all, a hospital. Weren’t there supposed to be backup generators? How could things like life-support machines and other equipment function without backup power?

And why would the power go out now, of all times? The sky outside looked clear as clear could be, so weather clearly wasn’t the cause.

I waited another moment for my eyes to adjust, then glanced around the lobby and hallway. The lobby desk sat empty, there were no other visitors, and a powerfully eerie silence weighed heavily upon everything.

Where was the desk attendant? And where were all the nurses?

And why was everything so damn silent?

I began to tip-toe toward mom and the siblings when the unmistakable creak of an opening door drifted from the distant end of the hallway.

I froze.

A slight tapping sound echoed out, followed by the soft click of a shutting door. Something about the tapping seemed so familiar…

Silence, then two more taps. I remained frozen in place, thinking.

That sound. It was identical to what I’d heard at the school earlier that day.

At the opposite end of the hallway – the end behind me – another soft groan from an opening door drifted through the air. This time there were no scuttling sounds; only a symmetrical groan and click as that door swung closed.

Now there was someone – or something – behind us and in front of us. We were surrounded.

A bead of sweat rolled off my forehead and onto the ground. I couldn’t shake the feeling that whoever (or whatever) had just snuck into the room must be after my family, since everyone else seemed to have evacuated without us knowing.

My mind continued to race, too busy planning an escape to spare effort making sense of what was happening. To my right, mom was retreating toward the exterior windows, a hand firmly clamped over each of my sibling’s mouths.

Another tap came from the far end of the hall. Then another. Three more followed.

It was moving toward us. Slowly but surely, whatever was there kept moving closer.

I began inching my way toward the outside wall, carefully planting each foot as quietly as possible. I struggled to keep my breathing smooth and silent.

It wasn’t easy.

At the distant end of the hallway (still the side in front of me) a door creaked again, meaning another one had arrived. That meant at least two in front of me and at least one behind.

I could only assume all of them were slowly converging on the lobby.

…Or on my father’s room.

That sudden realization stopped me cold. Maybe these things weren’t here for me or mom or my siblings – maybe they were after dad. Maybe these guys were the reason he was here in the first place, and now they were coming to finish the job.

I had to marvel at the way my mind raced from possibility to possibility, each one worse than the last. I had to get it together. I needed to get calm, think straight, think smart.

If only I had some kind of weapon…

I reached the outside wall and crouched down next to my mother and siblings.

Another tap. Then another.

The four of us huddled together. I could feel little Emmary shaking beneath mom’s arms.

Terror, rage, and adrenalin tangled inside me.

Tap tap.

Tap tap.

I slid slightly in front of my family, hoping that would be enough to protect them against whatever was coming.

Tap tap.


And then it happened.

Two bursts of purple energy exploded from the left end of the hallway, immediately followed by a rain of green bursts from the right. Explosions spattered across the walls, floor, and ceiling, showering the lobby in a sudden wall of light. Shadows scattered and I leapt to my feet, using the epiphanic light to search the surroundings for some kind of weapon, some kind of defense.

Another barrage of energy exploded across the hallway and into the lobby, spewing dust and debris everywhere.

But I was already moving, sprinting for the far wall. The next green blast blew out an exterior window, letting a sudden gust of wind into the room.

Behind me, mom screamed something. It sounded like “wait!”

Too late for that.

I reached the far wall and darted toward my goal. A solid smash from my elbow busted open the glass, and two seconds later I had a fire extinguisher firmly in my grasp. It was heavier than I would have liked, but it’d have to do.

I whipped around as a particularly vehement series of colored blasts consumed the desk to my left. Splinters swept across my side, but coursing adrenaline kept me from noticing the sudden swath of scratches across my arm and chest. I hefted the fire extinguisher over my shoulder and charged back toward the family.

Now I can guess what you’re thinking – this all sounds too brave to be true, right? Well it’s not. See, not many things make me lose my temper, but after a Friday like I’d had I was pretty pissed off. Add the possibility that my little brother and sister could be hurt by these thugs, and I was ready to kill someone.

And since they were obviously trying to do the same to me, I felt perfectly justified in what I was about to try.

Something rounded the corner and unleashed a series of shots in our general direction. I swung the extinguisher under my arm, cradling it like a football, and leapt into the air. Warm air and light coursed immediately beneath me, setting my hair on end and blasting charred craters in the floor.

Someone – a woman – mom? – screamed, and a wave of orange energy flew across the lobby, consuming the thing that had shot at me. My feet reconnected with the ground, and I glanced over to see who had saved me.

…What the hell?

It was mom. She was on her feet, a small silver weapon clutched tightly in her hands. Orange columns of light burned from its barrel, devouring the thing at the edge of the hallway until only a cloud of dust remained.

She then began creeping toward the hallway, pausing only to glance at me and yell, “the children! Protect the children!”

I shook off my surprise and sprinted the remaining distance to my younger siblings. Emmary was hiding under a chair and screaming wildly while Jackson cowered behind her. I threw down the fire extinguisher and threw my arms around both children.

“It’s okay guys. It’s okay. We’re gonna be–”

Another volley of light – this one the biggest yet – exploded somewhere overhead, turning the glass window behind us to powder. I swung myself over Jackson and Emmary but most of the glass seemed to fall outward, sparing us.

I heard mom yell something; then a man’s voice yelled back, none of it clear.

More explosions erupted from the hallway.

I had the sudden, eerie feeling that something was watching me and my siblings. I reached out my left hand, felt around until it connected with the fire extinguisher, then pulled it in close and slowly moved into a crouch. Jackson and Emmary were both crying, and another thought of someone hurting them brought the full brunt of my adrenaline to bear.

Smashing and booms still echoed from the hallway, though they seemed to be moving further away. My eyes – a little tripped out from all the flashing – slowly scoured the surroundings looking for something out-of-place. Why did I feel like something was watching me?

My eyes drifted across the broken reception desk, the charred sofa, the fish tank – surprisingly, still intact.


Something flickered on the other side of the tank. Was it an eye? A light? I wasn’t about to find out.

In a single fluid motion I swung the fire extinguisher behind me, then quickly rotated and launched the heavy metal container straight at the fish tank. Whoever hid behind it realized what was coming and quickly lunged sideways, aiming a weapon directly at me.

I dove backwards.

A bright green ball erupted from the thing’s weapon just as the fire extinguisher connected with the tank. I knew the blast was coming straight for me – I couldn’t make it out of the way – it was too close, too easy of a shot.

Water poured from the broken tank: some in streams, some in droplets, the rest as mist that moved into the path of the green blast. The ball of energy moved forward, passing through the water toward me – and then something changed.

The green blast suddenly deformed, absorbing into the mist rising from the shattered tank.

A monstrous surge of light swept through the water and vaporized everything. Whatever glass was still intact exploded, and the thing that had fired at me disappeared in the blast.

The shockwave from the sudden discharge of energy swept across me, burning my skin and eyes and knocking me to the ground. I thought I heard more windows break; Emmary and Jackson both screamed, and somewhere down the hall mom yelled something unintelligible.

Once the light from the blast subsided, I climbed slowly to my feet, realizing for the first time how many body parts hurt. My presence of mind slowly returned and I immediately called out for Emmary and Jackson.

They were fine, miraculously unhurt, but scared to death. I pulled Jackson out from beneath a chair and held him close as Emmary wrapped herself tightly around my leg.


I turned to see mom running toward us, arms outstretched. She looked like she had earlier that day when she’d first seen me at school – scared but relieved, angry but controlled.

She swept Emmary off my leg and hugged her tightly, then took Jackson and squeezed him just as hard.

Finally she turned to me, a genuine smile crossing her face for the first time in hours.


I stared back at her, wanting to reply but having no idea how. What do you say after something like that? What question should I ask first?

Who attacked us? Why us? Why now? Why here? Where did you get a frigging laser gun? Why are we here in the first place? Is dad okay? Is he poisoned? What’s this about a mission?

What else are you hiding?

“Excuse me, Mrs. Garrison.”

I paused my racing thoughts and directed my gaze toward the edge of the room, looking for the source of this new, deep voice. Sure enough, the silhouette of a tall, sturdy man stood in the corner, deep shadows concealing everything but his outline.

“Yes Joseph, I know,” mom replied.

She knew him…? But who was he?

“Mrs. Garrison, you’re not safe here.”

“I said I know. We’ll leave in a moment.”

The silhouette nodded.

“Good. I’ve got men watching every door in and out of the hospital. I promise they won’t get anywhere near you or your husband again.”

“I certainly hope not, for your sake as much as ours.”

“…Of course. I suppose I deserved that.”

“You placed my entire family in danger tonight, despite your many guarantees of protection. Your promises no longer mean much to me, Joseph.”

“Look, I’m sorry–”

“Sorry doesn’t cut it,” she spat back. “The only reason I even allowed The Closing is because I had guarantees from everyone – you and Kepik included – that my family would be safe. I can see I’ve misplaced my trust.”

“With all due respect,” the man in the corner replied, his scratchy voice not sounding respectful at all, “The Closing is about a lot more than just you and your family.”

“Not to me, and not to my husband.”

“Your husband knows–”

“ENOUGH,” she yelled. “I don’t want to hear another word from you.”

The man said nothing. Mom – with Jackson still in her arms – took hold of Emmary’s hand.

“Come, children.”

She began walking toward the hallway.

A sudden bout of anger sparked inside me. I wasn’t going anywhere until I got some answers.

“No, mom. Wait.”

“Teal,” she said, not even bothering to turn around. “We don’t have time for this.”

“That’s fine. I’ll get my answers from dad.”

“Teal, I know this is hard for you to understand, but–”

“Mom, c’mon! Hard to understand? I just had a bunch of guys try to kill me! I’d like to know why!”

“It’s not safe here. We can talk at home.”

“Do you promise to explain everything to me?”

A pause followed. A long, awkward pause.

It was the tall man who spoke next – the one called Joseph.

“Mrs. Garrison–”

“Not now!”

“You need to go. The police are almost here.”

Mom sighed heavily before turning to face me.

“Teal, come. Now.”

Angry though I was, I could tell she meant business. We needed to go.

She began walking toward the stairwell. I followed. I said nothing; everything I could think to say was either totally disrespectful or so honest it would have brought me to tears. I didn’t want to cross either of those lines, so I stayed quiet.

Our walk back to the minivan was strangely uneventful. Mom stuck to the stairwell, which we were able to take all the way to the parking garage. Though I probably wasn’t supposed to notice, every flight of stairs was guarded by a man with a weapon, and a halo of these ‘soldiers’ loosely surrounded us as we left the stairway and walked to the car.

The same went for the drive home. At least three vehicles followed us the entire way, and one of them – a white Explorer – parked on the far end of our street after we pulled into the driveway.

We entered the house without comment. Emmary and Jackson had somehow fallen asleep on the way home; mom carried Em to her bedroom while I carried Jack to his. Then mom went straight to her bedroom and closed the door. Apparently our talk would have to wait until tomorrow.

I fell into bed without changing clothes. My stomach growled again and I realized we still hadn’t had dinner.

Meh, screw it. I was tired and my mind was totally overloaded. I needed sleep more than I needed food.

And before my stomach could growl again, I had fallen sound asleep.

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