Stories from the Steel Garden, by Jesse Gordon (Excerpt)

Here’s a free preview of my 2006 novel, Stories from the Steel Garden. No strings attached, no DRM or fancy reader software required. For those interested, paperback and e-book editions are available here.

Chapter 1

On a Friday morning, a month before the great revolt, Richard Doroschenko was awakened by a soft tap on the window. Being a light sleeper, he was instantly alert, out of his bed, and across the small bedroom he shared with Gramma and Grampa, both of whom remained asleep. He pulled the curtain aside and saw Juju, one of the male residents, standing naked in the bushes. He had a small bundle in his hands.

Richard cracked the window open, stuck his head outside. “Juju? What’s going on?”

“Quick!” Juju whispered, beckoning. “They’ll be here soon! We should hustle!”

Perplexed, Richard nodded, started to reach for his coveralls—

“Leave them,” Juju hissed. He’d stuck his head in the window. “No doggie tag either. Just you. Now, come!”

Richard glanced momentarily at his grandparents, still in bed, still asleep. Then he tiptoed back to the window and crawled outside.

Juju nodded approvingly, started away from the worker dormitories and towards the gated perimeter of the Steel Garden campus.

“Rats, Juju,” Richard said after several minutes of silence. “You’re looking for trouble again, aren’t you?”

“Indeed I am.”

Richard sighed. Juju was new to Steel Garden, and, as such, was one of the more ornery residents. A transplanted thirty-something of African stock, he seemed to have a hard time coping with a good many aspects of his life; he was always ranting and raving and philosophizing about grand things, things that were as out of reach as the stars. The men of Steel Garden found Juju annoying, the women found him distantly amusing, and the younger children, why, they stayed as far away from him as possible.

“I’m making a run for it,” Juju said once they’d reached the campus perimeter and taken up post behind a gathering of creosotes. Every so often a patrol bot whizzed by, but none of them oriented on Juju or Richard. “I figured it out, see? They only give us one set of clothes because they know it’s demeaning, because it’s cheaper that way—and because they know it keeps tracking simpler. The bots’ cameras are only activated when they detect a person’s tags—the cheap bastards!”

“You mean the RFID tags?” asked Richard.

“Yes, the RFID tags. Each one is finer than a grain of sand and woven right into the fabric of our—wait, you know about them already?”

Richard shrugged. “Of course. Everyone knows. You’ve only found out about them now?”

Juju’s expression turned awestruck. “So . . . everyone knows, and not one of you could have let me in on the secret?”

“You never asked.”

“God almighty, I’m surrounded by imbeciles!” Juju ran his hands through his hair. “If this sort of thing is common knowledge, then why the hell haven’t any of you taken for the hills?”

“There aren’t any hills around here, Juju.”

“You know bloody well what I mean!”

Richard sighed. “You do this every month, Juju, and they catch you every time.”

“This time’s different.”

“Yeah,” said Richard. “This time you’ll be in your bedtime clothes when they haul your ass back on campus.”

Juju glared at him. “Look, kiddo. I didn’t bring you here to bust my balls. If I wanted that I’d still be in bed, counting the minutes until the goddamned work bell. I talk to you because you’re the only person in this godforsaken hole who truly has the ability to listen. Others hear, but you actually record the words and ideas in your head in a somewhat coherent fashion. We all know you’re the storyteller—so, I’ve got a story for you. Get the facts straight and maybe it’ll inspire your grunt friends to stand up for themselves.”

Richard gripped the chainlink and squinted into the burgeoning dawn. “So, the bots can’t track you. You’ll have a couple hours’ head start before Parsons realizes you haven’t shown up for work—still, there’s nothing out there but flatlands. Tumbleweeds, dust, and sand.”

“There’s a lot more out there than there is in here, if you make it far enough. Money, clothes, food—a decent Rob Roy, for Christ’s sake. You forget: I wasn’t born in-house. The outside world isn’t just something I hear about from friends.”

“What about when the sun comes up?” Even now, with dawn merely a hint of color welling behind the eastern horizon, it was more than warm enough to be strutting around unclad. By noon it would be in the 100s. There was shade on campus, but out in the wild, and with no clothes . . .

“I’ve been saving the ol’ zinc oxide,” Juju said. “And besides, a fellow like me”—he slapped one broad shoulder—“can take a little sun if it means I’ll have a chance at rocking the boat.”

“But where are you going to go?”

“Pacifica—or one of the coastal villages. There’s actually a sea breeze once you get over the levee range.”

“You’re a grunt. You’ll get busted. They’ll know you’re not one of them—if you even make it out of the desert.” Richard bit his lip, trying to choose the best method of placating his friend. His heart sank when he realized all the reasons had to do with his own preferences, and not Juju’s. Out of desperation, he said: “Why don’t you just stay? Mrs. Foster’s making her famous lemonade tonight for the Union address.”

“Unbelievable,” Juju muttered. “You’re the perfect citizen, you know that? Born and bred right here in the belly of the beast. You’ve got no experience. How can I explain to you the concept of freedom? The taste of a smooth merlot? The love of a good woman?”

“I work for freedom,” Richard said, the old pledges he’d learned as a child suddenly piping up in his mind. “We all do. Earth is a member of the Sol Union—the Kiengiri have agreed to offer us protection as long as we provide whatever aid is necessary for them to treat their soldiers and maintain their ships. It’s war, Juju. Galactic war. They need workers, not guys running around the outback looking for booze and sex. If we all did that, the Kur would have put us in a zoo or blown us to pieces decades ago.”

Juju spat. “You’ve seen your share of videobox programs. Explain to me why it’s okay for those high-class movie stars to parade around in front of a camera by day, to fill up on Hollywood glitz and glamor by night, to drive their fancy cars and live in their giant estates with private swimming pools the size of our dormitory—and yet here we are, slapping shuttle parts together, day in and day out. The ten-percent get off easy because the remaining ninety-percent are doing all the work for the Union—where’s the freedom in that?”

“I have my home,” Richard said. “My family’s here. So’s yours.”

“This isn’t family. It’s famine. Oppression. I was in jail once, did you know that?”

Richard shook his head.

“Oh, yes. Back before this whole Sol Union fiasco came to fruition. I was only a couple years older than you are now. I got drunk, went joyriding in a stolen car and trashed up some private property. Didn’t kill anyone, but I was set up for a nice little stay behind bars—but, you know, at least there they told you to your face you were a prisoner. It wasn’t pretty, but you knew the score, eye to eye. Here . . . here you’ve got the poor and the stupid—anyone who’s not a family member of a big corporation or the government—providing cheap labor for how long now? Twenty years? And all this time under the guise of community housing. Steel Garden my sweet ass. The campus system is nothing more than a chain of slave labor camps.”

Richard couldn’t think of anything to say, so he merely continued to listen—to Juju, and to the steadily-growing low hum emanating from the west.

“What do you have to look forward to when you get old, when you’re tired and wrinkled and Klug, that turd of a foreman, retires you like an old shuttle? You want to be like your grandparents, with no rations, totally dependent on ‘community support?’ You better hope by the time you turn old and gray there’ll be someone there as benevolent as yourself, someone who’s willing to take care of you as well as you take care of your grandma and grandpa.”

Juju looked as if he wanted to go on talking forever, and very well might have if the bots hadn’t caught his attention. Four of them shot out from the perimeter and converged upon a pair of medical vans (two per van) moving up the road towards the Steel Garden entrance. There were no people in sight.

“Okay, kiddo,” Juju whispered, pressing himself to the ground and slinking snakelike through the sand. “Follow my lead. A sleepy campus guard will open the gate to let the procession in. He’ll need a minute to upload the bots’ task information, but I want you to catch him before that. As soon as he opens the gate, I want you to jump out of the bushes and create a diversion.”

Richard, amazed at how horizontal Juju was able to make himself, tried to follow suit, and only half succeeded. “What kind of diversion?”

“Anything will do.”

“But he’s got a gun,” Richard hissed, craning his neck to see the guard’s booth.

“He won’t shoot you.”

“But what if—”

“Goddamnit, he won’t shoot you. You’re a kid, for Christ’s sake!”

Richard stopped beside Juju; they were now adjacent to the main road. “I’m almost fourteen.”

“Close enough. Now, are you going to help me or not?”

Richard sighed. He’d already come this far; there was no point in turning back now. Shifting into a crouch, ready to spring into action, he said, “I guess, but I don’t know you if you get caught.”

The gate rattled and started sliding open.

“Deal—now go!” Juju ordered, and shoved Richard forward, almost knocking the boy onto his face. He recovered quickly enough, though, and stumbled out into the open, where the procession came to a grinding halt. The guard, having just stepped out of his booth, blinked twice and regarded Richard with an expression of bewilderment; there was an utterly awkward moment of silence before Richard forced himself to start talking.

“You’re new here, right?” He called up a memory of the man’s face in his mind, cross-referenced it with a story one of the Peeping Hags had told him. “Got in the week before last?”

The guard frowned, cleared his throat and started forward. “The day shift doesn’t start until eight. What are you—”

Listen. This is important.” Richard stepped forward as well; when he was close enough, he put his hand on the guard’s shoulder, persuading him to lean in close. Then, emulating Juju: “They’ve got electronic tags in the clothes, see? Did you know that?”

The guard blinked—Richard couldn’t tell if it was because he didn’t know about the tags or if it was merely the audacity of the situation he’d been unceremoniously thrust into. “Kid, you shouldn’t be here—”

“Do you know what RFID is?”

“Where’s your tag? Where are your clothes?”

“I don’t mean to be ill-mannered—I’m only bringing this up because I hate it when the big boys cross the line, but . . . have you ever been with a woman named Lips?”

The guard started, and a royal blush consumed his face as he looked to and fro, over his shoulder. “Hey, what is this? Some kind of prank? How did you know—”

Richard held his finger to his lips, signaling silence. He tapped the front of the guard’s uniform and whispered, “Radio . . . frequency . . . identification. Miniature computer chips. Each one is finer than a grain of sand and woven right into the fabric of our clothes!” Glancing over his shoulder, then back again: “That turd Klug likes to keep his finger on the pulse. We’re assets to him, see? He’s got us on his little screen. He knows how many of us there are, where we are at all times, and all from the comfort of his watch room. It’s a twenty-four hour a day thing. But honestly, I ask you, is it so necessary to monitor us during our rec hours? When we’re watching the videobox? When we eat? When sleep?”

“Well, I’m sure for security purposes—”

“Is it so darned necessary to monitor what you and Lips do in the privacy of your bedroom?”

“You’re fucking with me—”

“My advice,” said Richard, “is to keep your eyes and ears open at all times. You never know who’s watching.”

With that, Richard turned and started to stroll casually away, whistling a tune as he went and hoping he’d performed above and beyond Juju’s expectations.

“Hey—stop right there,” the guard called, running after him.

Richard felt his gut clench as the guard grabbed his shoulder, turned him so that they were face to face again. Surely the game was up, surely he was going to get it—

“Are you serious?” the guard asked.

Richard blinked. He glanced toward the entrance. Juju was nowhere to be seen; if he’d escaped, he’d done so with impeccable stealth . . . and if not, well, Richard couldn’t say he was totally averse to hearing his cop-out story during lunch break. Juju would certainly be amused by Richard’s experience with the Newbie Watchman.

He cleared his throat. “Sure, I’m serious. I mean, why else would I go bare-assed for a pee break? I don’t want anyone watching—I can’t piss under pressure, can you?”

The guard’s face oscillated between a variety of distasteful expressions. With one last nervous look over his shoulder, he stepped back and said, “All right then. You just . . . just get on back home before I call security.”

Amazed he wasn’t being handcuffed, Richard nodded and left the road. As soon as he was out of sight, he stuck his fist into his mouth and giggled fiendishly. Truth to tell, it hadn’t been Klug’s surveillance that had turned up Newbie’s carnal folly but that of the Peeper Hags, who’d employed a young boy named Squirt in lieu of proper tags and hidden cameras. If only the guard had known!

With the predawn shadows dying slow and painful deaths, Richard bounded between the creosotes and felt the promise of another scorching hot afternoon with each drop of sweat that escaped his pores—yet he could hardly wait for the sun to rise and the day to begin so he could get to work and tell the others the story of Juju’s daring early morning escape.

Chapter 2

Richard got home just as Gramma was getting up to close the bedroom window.

“Watching the medical bots with Juju, were you?” she asked as he slid noiselessly inside.

“Juju’s gone,” he replied, stifling his surprise at her having noticed his absence. He’d assumed she’d been asleep, unaware.

“Gone?” asked Gramma. “What do you mean?”

“He left. Through the gate, when it was open.”

Gramma rolled her eyes, put her hand to her forehead. “Oh, my lord. What on Earth does he hope to accomplish this time? He’s going to get himself killed, torn to pieces by coyotes. He’s going to get us all in trouble again—why didn’t you stop him?”

Richard shrugged. “You know Juju. Once he gets worked up over something, there’s little you can do to stop him.”

With a disapproving snort, Gramma turned away, fumbled in the darkness for her coveralls.

“Did I wake you and Grampa?” Richard asked, grabbing his dog tag and coveralls and getting dressed as well.

“You know he doesn’t wake up for anything less than an air attack,” Gramma said, glancing at her bed, where Grampa snored fitfully. “I, of course, am the complete opposite. I was watching you sleep, remembering the days when I could just come home from work and plop down like that. But I suppose now that we’re both up we can have breakfast together—”

“And I can tell you my story.”

Gramma zipped up her coverall and, after taking a moment to catch her breath, started towards the bedroom door. “Breakfast first.”

Richard sighed, reeled in his excitement as, tucking his hair into a ponytail, he followed Gramma out into the living room, which was the ideal example of modesty. All of the Garden’s dormitories were of similarly “efficient” dimensions, and comprised of two major compartments: bedroom and living space. No internal plumbing meant no bathroom, no kitchen, though Richard had helped Gramma set a small cutting board and eating table beside the curtained window.

He sat with her at the table, and they shared a grapefruit from the icebox, some water from the keg. Through the window Richard could see the bots quietly monitoring the medical setup in the plaza, and he was glad he’d showered before going to bed last night. It was going to be another torrid day; even now he was perspiring lightly under his clothes. In a few short hours the plaza would be mobbed, filled with doctors and nurses and Steel Garden workers waiting to get their monthly physical examinations.

It was going to be hot.

As was her custom, Gramma kept quiet for the first half of breakfast and only spoke to say grace and to routinely remind Richard not to eat with his mouth open. She was, as Juju lovingly liked to put it, a “proud bitch,” someone who struggled to maintain an air of respect and dignity despite her age and envi-ronment. Garden workers were retired at sixty-five, oftentimes earlier if there was an incidence of chronic injury; in the two years since Gramma’s being retired, she’d (understandably) honed her pride as a means of survival. The Doroschenkos’ rations had been cut twice now, once when Grampa had been deemed mentally unfit for work, and again when Gramma had turned sixty-five—she was a community burden, and she was painfully aware of it, though Richard often reminded her that he didn’t mind taking care of her and Grampa one bit.

“They say there’s a new extraterrestrial bug going around,” Gramma said after a while. “Supposed to be real nasty. The Ferrera sisters have heard that the doctors are bringing a vaccine today.”

Richard grunted. “The docs are always finding excuses to poke us with needles.”

“Better them than the Kur.”

“I guess.” It was still uncomfortable.

Gramma cleared the table, fetched one of the sandwiches she’d made last night from the icebox. She handed it to Richard—his lunch. “You know, not one of us has gotten sick since coming here. Not that I’m praising the campus system or anything, but it’s not like this in the big cities. I remember. Air so thick with smog you could go for days without seeing the sun. Apartments piled sky-high. Someone sneezes in the next room over and suddenly you’ve got the flu. People fighting like animals over who gets the next taxi ride.”

“Animals don’t fight over taxis,” Richard said.

“You know what I mean.”

Richard chuckled, fetched his lunchbox from the dish rack, and placed his sandwich inside. “Think you and Grampa will manage okay with your physicals? You can wait until I get off—we can go together, if it’s too much trouble by yourselves.”

Gramma looked flustered, the poise she’d carefully constructed during breakfast now unraveling fast. “If there’s time, we’ll go. If not . . . one month off won’t hurt.”

“But what about your meds? And Grampa’s?”

“Silly little pills, that’s all they are—”

“Gramma, it’s important—”

“—and you know how your grandfather has trouble in big crowds, especially strangers. He gets upset—people stare.”

Richard folded his arms and fixed Gramma with a stern look. “You’re going.”

Gramma sighed, made an exasperated noise that might have passed for a swear word in disguise as she went over to the window and gazed outside. Somewhere behind her tempered visage was a wall of tears just aching to burst forth—but she kept herself in check. “Richard, you must understand. Your grandfather and I aren’t young anymore. We were on our way out when they first brought us here. The law says they can’t outright dispose of us, but, well, they won’t let us work, won’t let us contribute, so we get less food, no medical—every month we have to cook up a new story to convince the doctors to slip us what we need under the table. We’re only putting off the inevitable. And you . . . you’ve been an absolute angel to share your take, and I know you get what you need from that Foster lady . . . but you’re a young man now, old enough to take care of yourself. You need to keep those muscles bulked up so you can work, help the Union. You don’t need a pair of old fogies like us stealing from your icebox like common thieves.”

A cacophony of emotions roared through Richard—he countered them all with a firm, well-practiced clench of his gut. “You’ve known Mrs. Foster ever since the beginning. Why do you still call her ‘that Foster lady?’”

“All right, enough,” Gramma said, no doubt countering her own inner qualms. She sat once again at the table and motioned for Richard to sit as well. “There’s still time before the work bell. Tell me your story.”

Richard smiled and took his seat, and though dawn had by now delivered sunlight into the plaza, into the Doroschenkos’ living room, it was quickly banished as Richard began his tale. Gramma’s eyes, once reflecting the golden-tinged minimalistic planes of the breakfast nook, now reflected chainlink and creosotes and two pitifully unclad Garden grunts crouching conspiratorially between the security phosphors. There wasn’t much time for elaboration, but Richard recounted the details of Juju’s daring early morning escape with impeccable accuracy. Truthfully, the experience hadn’t been all that dramatic, but he made it dramatic, made the small and insignificant into something meaningful. He was very visual, and he made good use of his body to illustrate certain plot points: When (in his narrative) he followed Juju along the Steel Garden perimeter, he crawled along the living room floor, even took a moment, at one point, to remove an imaginary insect from his backside. When he faced down Newbie, he held his hands protectively over his crotch and summoned a genuine blush as if his coveralls had suddenly dissolved into thin air.

“Juju was a man of the wild,” Richard said, doing a little monkey dance and earning a genuine chuckle from Gramma. “He was a bird riding the wind—a free spirit shackled by a fate unceremoniously unloaded on all of mankind. He was a prime example of what we’ve lost as a race because of the war. No one seems to remember human individuality anymore, but Juju did. He knew because he was human, living a human life in a world that’s no longer humane, there was nothing for him here, and so he left, charging through the gates with a swagger in his step and a sparkle in his eye.”

The story ended; boy and woman were released back into the light, into the newborn day sure to be as monotonous as every other except for one small detail: a drift of sand, snatched from out of thin air and scattered across the breakfast table.

Gramma reached out, brushed her fingers over the sparkling grains. “I don’t know how you do it, Richard. I really don’t.”

The work bell sounded. Richard took a bow, then fetched his boots from beside the door, slipped them on. He grabbed his lunchbox and was heading out the door when Gramma caught him by the shoulder.

“Richard,” she said.

He stopped, one foot out, one foot in. “Yeah?”

“Your grandfather and I will see the doctors.”

Richard smiled. “Good.”

Chapter 3

The Steel Garden campus was a crisscrossing patchwork of sand and concrete, with the six dormitory buildings (A through F, respectively) spaced evenly around the domed hub of the central warehouse. Richard fell into step with a stream of other workers, male and female. All were dressed similarly in beige-colored coveralls and wielding early-morning grimaces as well as lunchboxes and knapsacks. On a normal morning, Richard might have struck up a hearty conversation with Juju, but as it was, he merely filed along with everyone else, silent and sullen.

In the locker room, as everyone was storing away their lunches and donning their hardhats, he was approached by Grabs (who was seventeen, and whose real name was Simon, but who’d earned the nickname “Grabs” due to his rather blunt way with women).

“Where’s Juju?” Grabs asked.

“Gone,” replied Richard. “Skipped out this morning.”

“Oh, geez.”

“Want to hear the story?”

Grabs held up his hand, shook his head. “No, no. I heard a rumor that you and him were running around this morning and causing trouble—I want no part of it, just in case Parsons decides to grill everybody.”

Disappointed, Richard slumped his shoulders and quietly followed Grabs out into the assembly sector, where everyone lined up for roll call and the daily pep talk.

Klug, the warehouse foreman, was a distracted-looking man in his thirties who lived off-campus, and who did little else than sit in his office all day and shuffle papers around. This was evidenced by his slightly pudgy frame and ultra-soft hands—Richard knew because he’d shaken the man’s hand once and it had been indistinguishable from a baby’s bottom. Always behind schedule, he very rarely looked directly at you while he was speaking, and he very rarely spoke to you while he was busy trying to conquer whatever bureaucratic malady threatened to run Steel Garden into the ground.

After the obligatory pledge recital, Klug took up post at the head of the gathering.

“Okay,” he said, clearing his throat and skimming over his clipboard through a pair of gigantic eyeglasses. “Just a few items of business . . .” His gaze darted to and fro, back and forth, from his clipboard to the amassed workers, counting, checking— “Does anyone know where Mr. Ngungu has gotten himself to this morning?”

Heads turned, shoulders shrugged; Richard looked squarely at the floor, perfectly willing to let the mystery go unsolved until time eventually revealed the truth. Grabs, however, seemed to have other plans, and shoved Richard forward with enough force that he nearly flew right into Klug’s arms.

It was the second time that morning he’d been unexpectedly thrust into an uncomfortable situation.

Klug regarded him with a bug-eyed expression. Awestruck and exasperated. “Hm. Mr. Doroschenko. I don’t suppose you could enlighten us as to the whereabouts of our dearly departed Juju?”

Richard shook his head. “I’m afraid not, Mr. Klug.”

“Because I certainly don’t want a repeat of last month.”

“No repeat, sir.”

“Are you certain?”

Richard bit his lip, hoped he was sweating heat-sweat and not nervous-sweat. “Sir, with each passing second, your productivity slips down another notch.”

Klug’s expression became ashen, and he quickly hustled Richard back into his line as, once again addressing the group as a whole, he reiterated the necessity of a ten-percent increase in the plant’s output. When he was done, he clapped his hands twice—his own little nonverbal expression of Go!—and disappeared into his office.

Laughter filled the room, and several of the men slapped Richard on the back.

Productivity!” one of them boomed.

“Now that was rich, kid!” said another.

There was a brief moment of exchanged quips before everyone was off to their various stations, and the work day officially began. Because of his age, Richard wasn’t allowed to operate any of the more intricate machinery (though he was certain he could handle any piece of Garden equipment without issue), and so was made to do more of the basic grunt work, packing this, unpacking that, loading and unloading and jogging back and forth between stations at the whim of anyone who needed something extraneous taken care of (thankfully, Richard had, from an early age, been blessed with an exceptionally sound muscle build). All the while, the adult workers got to actually drive the lifts, maneuver the cranes, assemble the various shuttle components, and so forth. Not that they were doing anything of great intricacy anyway; all the parts were manufactured to Kiengiri specs, and Richard’s coworkers merely followed the downloaded guidelines with their visors and assembly gauntlets—but still, even though the manual labor didn’t bother Richard as much as the monotony, he frequently had to stave off the boredom by telling himself soon, soon enough he would be a man. He was just over a week away from turning fourteen, at which point he would be nice and legal and allowed to play with the big boys’ toys.

As Juju would have put it, he thought, woeful.

* * *

At ten after five:

Richard wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead, hefted his clothing bundle in his arms. The late afternoon sun broiled mercilessly in the sky—he wondered if the zinc oxide cream was doing him any good. Behind him, Gramma was helping Grampa out of his clothes and was talking to him in slow, steady tones, trying to help him adjust to a nearly out-of-control situation that had arisen from a computer mishap. Nearly a hundred residents’ medical files had been lost in a computer crash, and so everyone in building A had to be tested all over again.

Needless to say, Richard was exasperated. Most Friday evenings weren’t like this. Most Fridays Steel Garden’s residents could do whatever they wanted during off-time—and even if it was one of those weird days when the power went out or the water system stalled . . . most Fridays Richard had someone to talk to.

Nine hours. Somehow Juju had gone nine hours and not been recaptured—and Richard had gone that long without a single meaningful conversation.

It was madness.

“Next.”

Snapping out of his reverie, Richard realized he was up. He stepped forward, and a tired-looking nurse in white took hold of his dog tag, scanned it with her reader.

“Richard, is it?” the nurse said, feigning a smile.

“It sure is,” replied Richard, nodding, hoping for the nurse’s name in return—

“Right here, Richard.” The nurse motioned for him to step onto a weight scale that had been placed beside the examination table.

Richard complied, setting his things down on the ground and stepping onto the scale. “Is it true there’s a new bug going around?”

“Well,” said the nurse, “these things, er . . . these things come and go . . . four foot ten. Over here, please.” She gestured at the height rod. “Yeah . . . there’s always something new going around . . . one-hundred pounds. On the table, please.”

Richard complied, asking again about pathogens, and then trying (unsuccessfully) to strike up a decent give and take. However, he soon discovered that the nurse didn’t talk to him so much as she mumbled various strings of semi-relevant words. She paid more attention to her collection of utensils for poking and prodding, lifting and looking; when she gave him his shot, she stared past his shoulder, as if looking for someone in the crowd (she might have been a female Klug!). When she was through, she hustled him off to one side, handed him his clothes and a printout of his medical results. Before he could say goodbye, she’d turned away and was assisting the next person in line.

As much as he wanted to have a shower, wash his clothes, Richard knew such amenities would be out of the question until later in the evening, after the medical staff cleared out. He pulled on his coveralls and boots; then, standing at the periphery of the plaza, he looked over his printout, only recognizing half of the words (Gramma could read him the rest later, though he was sure it contained the usual random, meaningless statistics regarding his height, weight, body fat, mineral levels, and so forth).

He looked up, spotted his grandparents sitting together on the examination table. Gramma had a look of utter embarrassment on her face, and kept her hands over her crotch until it was absolutely necessary to remove them; Grampa merely stared straight ahead, and could have been watching the videobox for all intensive purposes. He did show signs of awareness when Gramma got into her usual argument with the doctor. Richard couldn’t make out the exact words over the ambient noise, but after several minutes of haggling, he saw her looking his way, and he knew it was time for an intervention. He started across the plaza, the noises of the crowd growing louder, suddenly urgent—someone was yelling from the direction of the south entrance.

“You heard me, you lugs! Hands off!”

In unison, a hundred or so heads turned towards the entrance as a path was cleared into the center of the plaza. Two gruff-looking soldiers were leading a handcuffed African man to the front of the line—

—Juju. He was covered from head to toe in dust and debris, but looking none the worse for wear.

“They insisted I make my physical on time,” he chuckled when he passed close to Richard, who nearly whooped for joy. “How kind of them, eh?” Then, leaning in close, he whispered into Richard’s ear: “Have I got a story for you, kiddo.”

Chapter 4

If the plaza had been on the verge of disorder before Juju’s arrival, it was now very nearly a full-fledged riot scene as building A’s residents waved their arms in the air, cheered, whooped, and whistled in celebration of their man-on-the-run’s return to the fold. Guards who had been inconspicuously placed throughout now stepped forward, demanded order through their megaphones, lest they start making arrests.

Richard’s neighbors were a rambunctious bunch, but not so maniacal that they couldn’t control themselves when necessary. Besides, it was hot—if everyone got into trouble, they would be spending needless days squeezed together in a stuffy prison cell. They poked their fun at the authority figures, but eventually reverted to their previous semi-chaotic state.

All but Juju, that is. He continuously released a steady stream of exclamations concerning community policy and human rights as he was led to the front of one of the lines.

Richard followed, caught up with the guards as one of them was addressing the doctor:

“The security chief would like an immediate physical examination for resident 82.”

“Hear that, everyone?” Juju shouted, half-heartedly struggling against his bonds. “Resident 82—I’ve been reduced to a number!”

The crowd booed.

“Pipe down, Juju,” said the other guard, smiling.

In response, Juju flicked him off and, at the doctor’s request, opened his mouth, squeezed his fist, turned his head and coughed, made a derogatory comment when he was handed the cup for his urine sample. In short, he was responsible for no less than five total blushes spanning the doctor and several nurses.

Richard stood off to one side, viewing the proceedings with amusement. He supposed there was some sort of underlying anti-establishment motive to Juju’s display, but none of it seemed more serious than business as usual in the Garden. Juju would get a stern talking-to by the security chief, would spend the weekend behind bars, and then be released into the warehouse on Monday so the cycle could begin again.

(On the plus side, Richard noticed out of the corner of his eye that Gramma had intercepted one of the more familiar nurses and was apparently negotiating successfully for her meds.)

“They treat us like cattle,” Juju said, reclaiming Richard’s attention. Red as a lobster and obviously about ready to explode, he winced as the doctor gave him his shot. “They come in here on our time—late, mind you—and have the nerve to tell us we’re not cooperating, we’re not going far enough out of our way to make their little visit here to Steel Garden a goddamned summer retreat—I should have pissed on the doctor’s shoes, not in the cup.”

Richard laughed, picturing such a feat.

Juju’s face got even redder. “You think this is funny?” He swatted at Richard (who dodged deftly out of the way) and flashed a devious smile—a reminder that though he often lost his temper, he was not unkind.

The doctors, however, weren’t aware Juju was anything besides a major handful; subsequently, they made it their top priority to complete their tasks in record time so they could turn Juju over to the authorities and have him on his merry way. The instant they were through, the doctor nodded at the guards, who bound Juju’s wrists again and hustled him out of the plaza.

Before leaving, he made a point of swooping his head close to Richard’s and whispering, “The usual time, okay?”

Richard nodded and stopped at the plaza edge, watched as Juju—flesh shackled, but spirit soaring—and his captors receded down the walk.

* * *

The apartment was stifling.

Richard helped Grampa into his recliner by the rear window; Gramma went straight for the keg, fetched herself a glass of water.

“Did you get your meds?” Richard asked her.

Depositing herself in a chair, Gramma responded by holding up a pair of prescription bottles. With her hair matted and her cheeks flushed bright red, she looked absolutely beaten by the heat. “Bless Marion—that’s the nurse’s name—for keeping her promise. If it had been up to the doctor, my chart—your grandpa’s too—would have been deleted long ago.”

Richard felt Grampa tugging at his sleeve. He faced the man, saw, surprisingly, a glimmer of coherence behind his eyes.

“Some water, boy,” Grampa whispered, focusing his gaze somewhere between Richard’s head and the ceiling. “If it’s not too much trouble.”

Richard shook his head. “Of course not, Grampa.”

He crossed the room, passing Gramma a hopeful glance as he fetched a glass from the dish rack, filled it with water from the keg, and then delivered it to Grampa.

“Good boy,” Grampa said, drinking thirstily.

Richard watched him intently, wondered just how much of this moment of clarity he could capture before it receded. Sometimes it was weeks between such lapses, sometimes less; the dementia was a slow, corrosive process—too much aluminum in the system, the doctors had said—that produced bumps and hiccups in Grampa’s mental state. All city-born folks had various levels of toxins in their bloodstreams, though Grampa had had the misfortune of being one of the unlucky ones whose symptoms had proved devastating. He rarely spoke to anyone, rarely did anything besides sit and stare out the window, mumbling to himself in short gasps. It was easy to imagine his body as a mere shell, a flesh coverall encasing the real George Doroschenko—and on days like today, days when the man inside could be caught peeking out through the coverall peepholes, blinking around the room and trying to remember how he’d gotten there . . . Richard couldn’t help but hope that maybe his grandfather would find the strength to finally burst free.

“I had a dream,” Grampa said once he’d emptied his glass. “Seemed to go on for ever and ever. We were at the beach. All of us. You and Robert and Jana and me and Elda. I don’t . . . I don’t know which beach, but it was clean. No warning signs, no alien acids in the water. There were people everywhere . . . spread out on towels, sitting under umbrellas, kids playing with volleyballs and Frisbees, on the sand, in the water . . .”

“Wow,” said Richard, kneeling beside the recliner and taking Grampa’s hand in his own. “What else do you remember?”

Grampa seemed to think for a moment—perhaps tried to grasp something that didn’t want to be grasped, for the light in his eyes shifted, the man within the man suddenly recoiling a step. “When are you going to cut your hair? Army’ll never take you that way—”

“No, Grampa,” Richard said, squeezing harder. “The beach, remember? We were all at the beach—you were telling me about it.”

“Oh, yes . . . the beach . . .” Grampa smiled pleasantly, though it was obvious the memory was rapidly slipping away—

—Richard made a mental lunge. “I remember the beach too.”

“You do?”

“Yes,” continued Richard, catching that tiny bit of light behind Grampa’s eyes and drawing it out, building upon it. “We went on vacation when I was little. At first you didn’t want to go because you don’t like the beach, but mom and dad begged and begged, and you finally gave in and went with us. You wore flannel over your Speedos, remember? Everyone kept making fun of you because it looked like you weren’t wearing anything at all under your shirt.”

The smell of sand and surf filled the room, and the window, instead of framing the Steel Garden perimeter fence, now revealed an uncertain mesh, a wavering hint of a sprawling coastline that may or may not have ever existed.

Grampa’s head turned slowly, and his eyes widened as he looked through the window, seeing, Richard knew . . . remembering. He started to work his jaw, the words trying to escape; Richard held tight, thought of what to say next, where to take the story—

“Richard . . . don’t.”

Richard flinched, his concentration fractured. Gramma was standing behind him, and had put her hand on his shoulder. “Let him be.”

It was only a moment’s lapse, but it was enough to evaporate the ocean, dust away the sand. Richard jumped to his feet, facing Gramma. He wanted to swear out loud, to demand an explanation as to why his work had been trampled so, but he never got out more than an exasperated sigh. Not when he saw Gramma’s face, saw the tears streaking her cheek. She’d spent the last handful of years trying to adjust, to accept her husband’s condition; every time Richard tried to cheat the circumstances, it was like opening a half-healed wound. He didn’t understand it completely, but he knew it wasn’t his place to play doctor—at least, not now.

“I’m going up to the roof,” he said at last. “Maybe you and Grampa want to come get some fresh air?”

Gramma shook her head. “No thank you.”

“But you’ve been cooped up in here all day.”

“Yes, but I haven’t been physically exerting myself like you have. I can manage.” She wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead.

Richard kicked off his boots and shimmied out of his coveralls. “I’ll bring your laundry, then.”

“I washed our things this morning.”

Catching a pattern to Gramma’s hesitance, Richard sighed inwardly and let the matter drop. He used to think it was merely the nakedness, the abundant unfamiliar faces that kept Gramma from partaking in what she often referred to as “that Foster lady’s naturist raves”, but as of late he’d come to realize it was pride—Gramma didn’t want the other residents to see the burden placed squarely on her grandson’s shoulders. Pride or prejudice, it was one of those hot and humid evenings when the simple act of walking across a room felt like crawling across a ten-mile strip of desert at noon; all the world’s oceans and jungles and microbes-gone-wild couldn’t produce enough oxygen to seep its way into the Doroschenkos’ apartment—and yet Gramma was adamant about sticking it out, keeping herself hidden away like an ill-favored tool on the back shelf of some storage shed.

“Okay, then,” Richard said, heading for the door. “I’ll bring some oranges back, and whatever else looks good.”

Gramma nodded wordlessly.

Stepping out into the plaza (which was still bustling with doctors and nurses and overheated residents), Richard sneaked a quick shower and then made his way around to the back of building A, where the stairs were. He ascended them two at a time, rising above the sizzling pavement and sun-bleached sand and entering into Mrs. Foster’s rooftop sanctuary—a canopied oasis that could be spotted from a mile away because it was the only building on campus that was covered edge to edge with abundant foliage.

Mrs. Foster, an extroverted gardener in her mid-forties, was building A’s self-appointed stewardess. She managed everyone’s affairs, made sure everything that needed to be done got done, made sure everyone was properly taken care of. Officially, she was merely a Steel Garden resident; unofficially, she was building A’s go-between, dealing directly with the landlord and making sure her fellow workers were allowed certain amenities on a regular basis—and as long as the landlord kept her happy, she kept the residents of building A happy.

When she spotted Richard stepping onto the roof, she glided over to him, welcomed him with a flamboyant hug and a kiss on the forehead.

“TGIF, dearie,” she said, and took his coveralls, his boots. “Hottest day of the summer, today. Heard it on the news. They say it’s those Kur martyrs messing with lava fissures in our oceans—as if the Pacific tsunamis weren’t enough!” She placed his clothes into a plastic bin and walked over to where a large table had been set between potted palms. The Peterson twins (both blond-haired and blue-eyed, both eight years old) were dropping ice cubes into three-dozen eight-ounce glasses. “There’s always some new catastrophe happening in the world—but never you mind all that. The work day is over, the videobox battery is fully charged, and the girls here have just finished pouring the lemonade—Richard, would you be a dear and help pass out refreshments to everyone?”

Richard nodded and accompanied the twins—Jenna and Megan, respectively—as they made the rounds distributing watermelon slices and lemonade to a total of twenty-seven people. The numbers often fluctuated, but Richard could always count on seeing the core handful: Chad, the Peterson twins’ father, and a musician as well (who could always be found sitting in his own corner with a decrepit acoustic guitar and a small stack of wrinkled sheet music); Nina, Karla, Miranda, and Lily (the laundry women, all of whom were in their late twenties or early thirties and who were quite fetching); Squirt (six years old, Karla’s son; his campus name had been tastelessly derived from a certain specific biological function resulting in his conception); Magda, Eudora, and Welma—the Peeping Hags.

The Hags were old—the oldest residents on campus. Mrs. Foster was related to them in some way, though she’d never divulged exactly how. Physically in their seventies (but mentally still in their teens), they could always be found perched at the rooftop edge, where they processed the day’s gossip and whistled at the men showering in the plaza down below. (Richard, who was the oldest of the children in the A building, had only recently been declared mature enough that the Peeping Hags felt it appropriate to titter at him as they did the full-grown men whenever they caught him bending over or washing a delicate area.)

The Hags’ table was the last stop on Richard’s circuit, because as foul-mouthed as they were, they always had the latest news—and that’s what Richard wanted.

“How is my little big man?” asked Magda, the oldest.

“Fine as can be,” Richard replied, serving her lemonade and watermelon.

“Getting bigger every week, from the looks of him,” Eudora, the skinny one, said, staring fixedly at his crotch.

Richard squatted so that his head was level with hers and handed her a glass. Of the three Hags, she was probably the most provocative, often outright proclaiming her affinity for Richard’s form . . . though, for the most part, he didn’t mind, as he was male, and so naturally was predisposed to have a certain amount of pride concerning certain bodily features—and besides, she was an elder, a survivor of three failed marriages and four thankless children; she’d earned the right to be as crotchety as she liked.

Smiling, he said, “Easy there, garlic-breath. You’ll give yourself a heart attack—then who’ll give me my news?”

Eudora reached out and brushed her hand against his cheek. “Oh, honey. If only you were a few decades older and I a few decades younger. The things I could teach you.”

The Hags burst out laughing as Richard’s cheeks flamed crimson. Behind him, the Peterson twins, holding their empty trays, giggled as well. They almost certainly had no idea what was going on, and yet Richard often suspected there was some psychic link between them and the Hags, them and all women—a genetic obligation to toy with the male mind whenever possible.

He stood, handed Welma (who was the quietest of the Hags) her refreshments. “Have you girls been waiting around all day just to corrupt my mind?”

“I wasn’t talking about your mind, sweetheart,” Eudora said, earning more laughter from her sisters.

“I know,” said Richard, scowling. He handed his tray to Jenna, sent her and her sister off to Mrs. Foster. Then, sitting cross-legged on the ground: “The news, please.”

Magda and Eudora both leaned back in their chairs. Their forte was gossip and matters of prurience; Welma’s was current events.

“Young minds,” she said, sipping her lemonade and exchanging amused glances with her sisters. “Always on task.” She faced Richard. “We have a new campus guard on night watch. Fresh from boot camp.”

Richard nodded. “Newbie, right?”

Newbie. How appropriate.” Welma chuckled. “Anyhow, it seems he has the integrity of a tumbleweed when pumped for information by, shall we say, the right pair of hands? Lips was working him over the night before last and she got him to tell her about a little military blunder. Do you remember the Red Rain last month?”

Richard nodded again. “It rained blood. They told everyone to stay inside.”

“Not blood. Microbes. Nano soldiers built like viruses, except they do exactly what the scientists want them to do, and then they expire. You find them in everything these days, from clothes to toys to medical utensils, but according to Newbie, our Kiengiri friends were supposed to use a particularly nasty batch of nano soldiers during an attack on the Kur. Wouldn’t you know, though, the ship carrying the malaise was shot down—in our area, no less—and the little nano buggers were set free over our heads. We were all vaccinated that night, and the campus was cleaned up—but remember those three residents who came down with a cold a few days after?”

“Yeah,” said Richard. “That woman and her kid from building C, and a man from building D. They transferred to another campus.”

“Bah!” Magda spat, setting her glass down and slapping the table with her hand. “If that were true, we’d have heard about it beforehand.”

“Indeed,” Eudora agreed, nodding.

Welma continued: “They’re dead, Richard. They caught the bug and it made them really sick. It wasn’t supposed to happen, but you know those military types can’t be trusted to handle their own secrets, much less a vat full of voracious germs.”

Richard frowned. “Their shots must have been bad.”

“Heh,” Eudora grunted. “Must have.”

The Hags shared a group scowl.

Momentarily, Mrs. Foster made an appearance. She’d brought a pair of large buckets, both of which she handed to Richard.

“Our laundry girls need water,” she said. “If you ladies don’t mind, I’d like to borrow this lug for a little while. I promise I’ll have him back to you in pristine condition.”

The Hags shrugged and turned their attention elsewhere—namely the plaza below—as they waited for their next male victim to brave the shower.

Satisfied with Welma’s report, Richard, along with Chad and several of the other men, helped fetch water from the plaza. (There was a coin-operated laundry room at the south end of the building, though since Steel Garden’s monetary system had been canceled a good many years ago, it was now merely a boarded up memory.)

Afterward, he sat with Jenna and Megan and played the obligatory game of cards as evening settled over the Garden. A dozen or so workers had gathered on the west side of the roof, and were casually chatting, sipping lemonade or iced tea as they watched the sunset and waited for the Sol Union address to finish downloading on the videobox. When the program was ready, Mrs. Foster waved her arms in the air and shushed her guests, who assumed their various viewing positions—all except Chad, who remained in his corner and continued to strum his guitar (it was common knowledge that he didn’t like politics, and that he despised politicians even more).

Richard faced forward and watched as the President of Earth, with his pressed black suit and stately gray hair, came to life on the screen:

“My fellow humans, Sol is under attack. Our home is under attack. The Kur have come to our system on a mission of conquest, with every intention of taking our world for their own—but we have made it perfectly clear Earth is not merely a gem to be cleaned, cut, and polished for the auction block. With assistance from the Kiengiri, we have shored up our defensive forces. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of our young men and women, our military fleet is second to none—but our worker fleet is every bit as integral. The campus system is the backbone of our economic livelihood. You are our most precious resource in this monumental effort to rid ourselves once and for all from the scourge of the Kur. Were it not for your many hours of faithful service, we would have no Army support, and the Kiengiri, our closest allies in this time of need, would have no sanctuary.

“Let us be honest: These are trying times, and the road ahead is difficult. The concept of family has never been as important as it is now and in the coming years. As humans, and as citizens of Sol, we must band together or risk being eradicated by an alien race that cares nothing for our way of life. Our children, our elders, our husbands and our wives, the wounded, and the ill—our loved ones: it is these people we must keep in our hearts and souls as we rise to meet each new day. The blood, sweat, and tears we spill, whether in a factory or on a battlefield, is our pledge of freedom, our promise of victory.

“These are indeed trying times. Bureaucracy often seems a trivial matter in comparison to the big picture, but it is crucial that the campus system function properly, lest the foundation of our great society crumble into ruins. I have spoken to various heads of state, and have made it my top priority to reinforce the backbone of our community. That means a call for more state and national funding so that we can improve our dedicated worker campuses. This includes a more efficient allocation of resources, and quicker medical response times.

“It won’t happen overnight—but with patience, with perseverance, we will emerge triumphant. Thank you, and God bless.”

The videobox screen faded to black.

“Well,” said Mrs. Foster, rising to her feet and moving to light several of the lanterns that hung along the roof’s periphery. “If that wasn’t the shortest pep talk I’ve ever heard . . .”

“Hear that?” asked Lily. “He called us resources.”

“Smooth politician talk—” said Welma.

“—tailored specifically for clueless grunts like us,” added Eudora.

“Waste of a download,” confirmed Magda.

Richard stood, brushed off his bottom. “Probably never even been to a terra campus.”

Mrs. Foster snorted disdainfully, turned and faced the group. “Probably never even been to Sol—but come now, everyone. Let’s not bicker over our elected dunderheads. It’s story time.”

A light round of applause went up as, glasses in hand, everyone gathered in a small circle.

Richard remained standing, and assumed a thoughtful pose as he tapped his foot on the ground, shifting his gaze from one face to the next, searching for the right inspiration—

“My story,” he began, smiling suddenly, “is about . . . a guitar . . .”

Chad, still in his corner, looked up—

“. . . and a woman—”

—stopped playing—

“—two of Earth’s most delectable blessings.”

—and, leaning his guitar against the wall, beamed brightly as he joined the group.

Richard paced slowly, delicately, back and forth before his audience as he lit the embers of his tale, as the rooftop came alive with the colors and smells of a land long ago and far away:

“Many, many years ago, back before the Sol Union and the Kur and the rising oceans, back when the desert was all rolling hillsides as far as the eye could see, there lived a farmer named Jacob, who was also a musician—a guitar player.

“One day, after selling all his cabbage, he went for a stroll through the marketplace. There’s wasn’t much to look at, as the afternoon was winding down, and most of the merchants had already packed away their wares for the day, but one little old man—a luthier—sat at his booth as dutifully as if the sun had just risen. He had a variety of stringed instruments for sale, but what interested Jacob most was an old guitar.” Richard scanned Chad’s eyes. “It was a French steel-string, solid rosewood. Vintage. Jacob strummed a few chords and fell in love at once. He negotiated for nearly an hour with the merchant before agreeing to hand over his entire day’s earnings in exchange for the guitar. He played it all the way home.

“The next morning, he brought the guitar with him to the marketplace and serenaded many a customer—one of whom was a beautiful woman named Lena. She told him his music had roused her from a long sleep, and that she was grateful for his song.

“Jacob took a liking to her right away, so much so that he invited her to have lunch with him. They sat in the meadow for hours, talking, laughing, and basking in the steel-string’s bright and percussive sound. Long after the marketplace had closed and the sun had set, they shared their first kiss . . . and Jacob asked Lena to marry him. Lena accepted, but on one condition: they had to spend the night together. No scandal, no sex—just the two of them, overnight.

“Jacob brought her to his home and shared his bed with her, and, as per their agreement, did nothing more than kiss her goodnight and tell her he loved her before turning off the light and going to sleep.

“He awoke the next morning with Lena still in his arms. Not wanting to rouse her prematurely, he quietly left the bed and went to make breakfast. He set the table, laid out fruit, bread, cheese—and then he waited . . . waited . . . waited for Lena to wake up. When noon came and went and she still hadn’t come out to eat, he got worried and returned to the bedroom. There she slept, peaceful—too peaceful, for she did not budge in the slightest when Jacob gently brushed her cheek, whispered her name. He tried opening the window, letting the sun in; he tried talking a little louder; he tried nudging her a little harder . . . but she would not wake.

“By now deeply alarmed, Jacob fetched the doctor, who performed a number of tests, all of which were inconclusive. Lena simply would not wake up.

“Heartbroken, devastated, Jacob collapsed onto the floor beside the bed and wept until he had no more tears at all.

“He reached for his guitar—and, quite unexpectedly, found a note tucked between the strings. ‘My love,’ it read. ‘It is morning and you have discovered my secret. I will not wake unless it is by your song. When you played in the marketplace, your abundance of heart and soul broke the spell—but I cannot take from you unless you are willing to give. I must hear a new song every morning for as long as we are married. If the songs run out, then I will sleep . . . indefinitely. So, you see why I wanted you to spend the night with me. If you can bear this burden, then I will be your wife. If you cannot, then all I ask is that you wake me this once so that I may say goodbye.’

“Jacob set the note on the table and thought for a while . . . really thought. He was a young man, in his twenties—Lena was just as young. Could he sustain her throughout her youth, into middle age and beyond? And if he ever stumbled? If his muse one day refused to cooperate?

“It was a difficult decision to make. Picking up his guitar, Jacob plucked a gentle tune, and Lena stirred, opened her eyes.” Richard stepped forward, knelt before Nina and took her hand. “Jacob held her hand, helping her to sit up. ‘Is this hello or goodbye?’ Lena asked him.

“He said . . .”

Richard trailed off, his listeners gasping in surprise as a loud boom! sounded from the west. There was a moment of disorientation, a dozen minds suddenly trying to orient themselves between fantasy cottage and rooftop abode—then the second explosion sounded, closer, and the night was split wide open as a flurry of bots suddenly encircled the roof, their emergency lights flashing—

“It’s a skirmish!” cried Mrs. Foster, jumping to her feet and waving everyone towards the stairs. “Everyone to the shelter! Now!”

There was no time to think, no time to process what was happening except as a very distant side thought. Richard grabbed the Peterson twins, who were closest to him, and, hefting one girl under each arm, made a beeline for the stairs. It took an enormous effort not to step on anyone’s toes, not to push or shove or simply jump over the railing in an attempt to reach the ground faster as all around the sounds of war closed in. At the bottom of the stairs, he couldn’t help but pause momentarily to sneak a glimpse over his shoulder—this is what he saw: cobalt sky aglow with dozens of frantic pinpoints, soaring, swooping, diving towards the black horizon, some veering back up again, others spearing the Earth in fantastic plumes of light.

“Get to the shelter, Richard!” yelled someone behind him. He felt a pair of hands on his back, shoving him along, moving him forward through a sea of bodies, a symphony of screams and prayers.

It was dark in the plaza. The security phosphors had been switched off. Several people (the guards, most likely) had flashlights, and were no doubt trying to light the way to the shelter entrance, but to Richard it was all chaotic shards of light filtering in between a vast tangle of arms and legs. He was carried forward by the flow, Jenna and Megan crying openly, and almost fell face-forward through the shelter’s trapdoor, which didn’t become obvious until he was very nearly standing on top of it. He set the girls on their feet, followed them down into an even blacker darkness just as a deafening explosion reverberated against the plaza walls.

The shelter was dark and dusty—and cramped. There wasn’t the slightest bit of light. The twins clung to Richard and cried for their parents. Everyone else was dead quiet as they listened to the foreboding exchange above. Most of the explosions were distant, but every so often a craft or projectile could be heard whizzing by overhead, causing the walls, the ceiling to shake. Steel Garden itself may not have been under direct attack, but right here, right now, with the quivering, trembling flesh of nearly a hundred frightened residents pressed against him, Richard knew he was utterly helpless, completely vulnerable—

—one more Union resource at risk of early expiration.

* * *

Check out the Stories from the Steel Garden page for details on how to buy the trade paperback or download the e-book.

Stories from the Steel Garden, by Jesse Gordon