Never trust a mad scientist. Thinking about it now, if someone had told me that fifteen years ago, I probably would have agreed with them. But nobody told me and, of course, I didn’t stop to think about it.
The offer looked really good back then: A child, trained in all the fighting styles and other skills I would find helpful in my work and raised to be obedient, in exchange for an errand or two. I completed the errands early on even though I knew it would be a wait when the promised child had yet to be born. I was even given progress reports over the years as the child grew. Until I ‘took delivery’, as the aforementioned scientist put it, it never occurred to me he might have overlooked a few basic points of child rearing. I was expecting a person, a teenager I could work with, perhaps train further; someone who could eventually be my partner and later, my successor. I got a living, breathing automaton.
I can’t fault her training. She’s at least as good as I am, if not better, at all the skills I specified and she fights like a demon. She also promises to become a very attractive woman in a few years. She has long, blonde hair with just a little curl to it; big, light blue eyes; flawless fair skin; and the lean, lightly muscled figure of a trained fighter. It’s too bad there’s no personality to go with all that. At least she’s intelligent and has some common sense, so maybe, just maybe, there’s hope for her yet.
I was informed, when she was presented to me, she was designated F086. It’s a mouthful when I’m in a hurry, but she doesn’t answer to anything else. I’ve tried any number of nicknames and once I even sat down and attempted to explain a few concepts to her, and she still won’t answer to anything except that cursed designation. I get ignored when I call her ma fille, which I keep doing just because I can’t stand to not have any name or nickname for her at all.
But for what I'm doing tonight, I don't want or even need her along. I leave her seated in a meditation pose. She'll remain that way unless, by some really unfortunate accident, someone finds their way into our home. I pity anyone so foolish.
La Grotte is quiet, with very few people out in the streets. I don't mind. Quiet streets mean less likelihood of attack before I reach my destination. Whether I find trouble on reaching it... well, that's an entirely different question.
La Grotte is the largest of the cavern cities remaining on this barren lump of rock we call l'Enfer. The surface has been unlivable since terraforming failed, but the underground rivers allow us to survive, if barely. La Grotte surrounds the widest, deepest of the rivers, l'Eau. L'Eau enters clean from the geological north, but exits far from clean to the southeast. Fortunately water regulations have remained strictly enforced despite the unstable nature of a governance by strongest.
Le Laboratoire du Genome is on just about the farthest edge of la Grotte from my home, which means a long walk for me tonight. And since it is headed up by a mad scientist, the security measures run on the far side of paranoid. To the point where the employees have figured out how to subvert them instead of going through protocol every single time they enter or exit the building and grounds. This works nicely for me because they've sabotaged the integrity of the system and, for someone of my skill, getting in is très simple.
He also runs things flat out at all times. There's no quiet in the halls or anywhere else. Fortunately there's a staff change room not far from the door I enter by. The single male employee inside goes to sleep without a sound and I'm soon walking the halls dressed as Pierre, docteur. Even better, his identification card is high enough clearance to get me into everything except the private laboratory and quarters of the head scientist.
* * *
The day F086 left le Laboratoire was the happiest day of my life to date. Of course anything which makes mon père, le salaud Docteur Sebastien, that upset is a good thing in my books. F086 is the one girl he least wants to let go, but she's also the one he promised to some city mercenary in exchange for a series of errands.
I've lived in le Laboratoire du Genome as long as there's been a le Laboratoire. Which is to say not quite as long as I've been alive, although I don't remember our home before this. Before the death of ma mère and the beginning of this insane experiment of Sebastien's. But, having lived here as long as I can remember, I know everyone else who lives and works here. Same as I know every crack and cranny of both sides of the complex.
So to pass by the records room and see someone dressed as Docteur Pierre, who is clearly not Docteur Pierre, tells me we have an intruder. Moreover, this intruder is so engrossed in whatever he is reading he doesn't seem to notice me creeping up on him
“What do you think?” The realtor parks at the curb in front of a neat white house with deep green trim. The front yard is equally neat, with bright flowerbeds and a low, white fence.
Keith and Beth glance at each other, then at their two children. Their daughter, Bethany, is gazing around wide eyed. Their son, Kevin, is absorbed in his handheld video game and doesn't appear to notice anything.
“It's very nice,” Beth can't quite suppress her enthusiasm, “But what's the inside like?”
“Just as nice,” The realtor assures her, “Come look.”
All five get out of the vehicle and pass through the front gate. The realtor unlocks the door and ushers the family inside.
The main floor consists of a living room, den, dining room, and kitchen. All the rooms are empty, clean, and brightly painted. One set of stairs leads up to a second floor with two good size bedrooms, a large bathroom, and a master suite including a bathroom and gigantic closet. A second set of stairs leads down to a finished basement divided into a rec room, workshop, laundry room, and storage.
The back door off the kitchen leads onto a neat, sturdy sundeck. Beyond it, there are several nice shade trees and a garden plot. The lawn itself is short, thick, and free of weeds. The fence is higher than in the front, but not so high Keith can't see the next door neighbour working in his garden.
The neighbour, a late middle aged man, seems to realize he is being watched, because he looks up.
“Hello.” Keith goes over to the fence.
“Thinking of buying?” The neighbour eases himself to his feet.
“Thinking of it.” Keith tries to sound non-committal.
“You won't find a safer neighbourhood anywhere,” The neighbour smiles proudly, “Best place in the world to raise kids.”
“Not many places come up vacant in these parts,” The neighbour continues, “No one wants to leave. This's as close to paradise as you'll get in this lifetime.”
“Keith!” Beth's voice comes from inside the house.
“Go on,” The neighbour smiles knowingly, “We'll be seeing more of each other.”
Keith nods politely and goes inside to find Beth leaning against a kitchen counter.
“Oh, honey, this's even better than I imagined,” She doesn't even try to contain her excitement, “I never thought a place like this could exist. It's perfect.”
“And safe,” The realtor adds from the doorway, “I could quote you the statistics, but you wouldn't believe them.”
“Nothing bad ever happens?” Skepticism dampens Beth's enthusiasm.
“I wouldn't quite go that far,” The realtor shakes his head, “Still, even vandalism is rare here. Break ins almost unheard of.”
“What about assault or homicide?” Keith demands.
“I've never heard of either here. And you'll find the neighbours haven't either.”
Beth glows visibly at the news.
“Dad!” Bethany comes racing into the room, “There're kids outside! Playing outside!”
Keith and Beth glance at each other. The realtor smiles knowingly.
As night is falling, they come across a grassy mound with a smoking chimney. Pix flutters over to the half visible door and knocks. Almost before she finishes, the door is opened by a wizened old man with long white hair and a matching beard. He squints at the sprite and delvar through half moon spectacles before grinning.
“Better get inside,” The wizened man rushes them into the mound, “You two are in big trouble, you know.” He closes and locks the door.
“How much worse could it get?” Pix scowls, “We've been just ahead of the Athelon guard all day.”
“You're wanted for the murder of a kitchen elf.”
Pix and Gor exchange annoyed looks.
The wizened man raises bushy eyebrows, “You didn't actually kill her, did you?”
“Of course not,” Pix flutters over to a stool at the wobbly table, “But we left her cleaning up a big bag of her master's gold. Our last employer paid us off in stolen gold. We tried to return it... get the price off our heads for the theft.”
The wizened man nods to himself, “Out of the cooking pot, into the flame.”
Gor drops his sack beside the door before claiming the only large chair in the single room. Their host fills two tankards, one for each of the companions. Once they are sipping contentedly, he picks up a battered metal goblet.
“How did you come to be paid in stolen gold?” He looks from Pix to Gor and back.
“Well...” Pix sets down her tankard, “We were in a tavern and Gor was well into his tankard...”
The wizened man is slowly shaking his head as Pix winds up the tale. He drains the last liquid from his goblet, then gets up to refill it.
“The two of you certainly stepped in it this time,” The wizened man sips from his newly filled goblet, “You did both the worst and best things you could have done.”
Pix cocks her head, “Worst and best?”
“That weasel is one of Her agents.”
Gor mutters into his beard. Pix shivers violently.
“The gem's sole purpose is to revive dragons,” The wizened man continues, “Fortunately, you took the egg as well.”
“What good is it?” Pix frowns.
“Heat it well and it will hatch a dragon,” The wizened man sips from his goblet, “But a newly hatched dragon is a far cry from a revived ancient dragon.”
“Aren't all dragons extinct?” Gor drains the last drop from his tankard, “Killed themselves off in some big war.”
The wizened man shakes his head, “History makes the matter sound so much simpler than it was. The dragons left... that much is self evident. Killed themselves off... far from it.”
“But why would we want to hatch a dragon?” Pix studies their host curiously.
Seren and Meredith prepare for bed without speaking, only partly due to the storm which makes it nearly impossible to hear anything else. Meredith can't help thinking of the first tale their grandmother had told them, especially about the ill will between human [colonists] and the aquatic natives. These thoughts keep her awake long after her sister has fallen asleep and, once again, she can hear the haunting music. As always, it helps her drift off to sleep.
Meredith wakes, completely disoriented, to chaos. As far as she can tell, she is no longer in her bed. In fact she seems to be tumbling through the water. She tries to cry out but can't seem to open her mouth at all. Managing to open her eyes, she can see herself surrounded by debris and her sister floating away. Then hands grab her and pull her even farther down, away from the remains of her home and family. Meredith struggles, trying to pull free of the hands, to get away to find her family and friends. The owners of the hands are stronger and she grows dizzy from being underwater and unable to breathe.
This time Meredith wakes to find herself in a bed inside a bubble of air. As she looks around, she realizes the bubble is floating in the middle of the ocean. Above her, she can only just see light which suggests the morning sky. Below her is ever increasing darkness. There is nothing else around her and she huddles in the bed, shivering with fright and confusion.
Meredith whips her head around, trying to see the source of the oddly muffled voice.
“You fear. I not show self.”
“Where are you?” Meredith frowns, some of her initial panic evaporating.
“What happened?” Meredith swallows hard, still looking around her for the source of the voice.
“Bediel. They make storm. Bad storm. Break homes.”
“The village is gone?”
“All gone. People safe.”
“People safe? But without the village...”
“People safe. New homes. Safe homes.”
“So where am I?” Meredith frowns in confusion.
“You different. You hear song.”
“That was you?”
“Friends. Friends sing. You hear.”
Meredith's frown deepens. “I don't understand.”
“Language hard. Your people language hard.”
“Okay,” Meredith thinks for a moment, “You said someone sent the storm, right?”
“Okay. And my village is completely gone? Nothing left at all?”
“But all the people are safe?”
“Yes. Saved many people.”
“And they have new homes?”
“Yes. Under storms. Bediel not hurt now.”
“You mean underwater? But how will they breathe?”
“Have air. Have homes. Have food. Good food. Not fish.”
“I guess that's good,” Meredith takes a deep breath, “But you're saying I'm different somehow? Because I could hear your friend's music?”
“But what does it mean? Why can't I just have a new home with my family?”
“Need you. Stop bediel. Else family not safe long.”
“But you said these bediel couldn't hurt them now.”
“True. Yes. But bediel change. New hurts.”
“So they'll keep finding new ways to attack until we stop them for good?”
“Yes. You help. Make safe.”
“But what are these things?”
“Not explain. Not good. You not fear now. I show self.”
“Okay.” Meredith swallows hard as the creature swims into view.
It appears to be male, based on what Meredith can see of the humanoid torso. The arms and head are also humanoid although the hands only have three fingers and a thumb, each tipped with a silver talon. But the entire body is covered with silver scales. His hair is long and silver and his eyes are big and brilliant blue. He has no nose and only a slit for a mouth with gills along his jaw and down his neck. The tail is that of a fish and ends in a blue, crescent moon shaped fin. His other fins are also blue. One juts out from his back and there are three down each of his sides between his arms and tail. As his hair moves, Meredith can see fan-like ears. He also appears to be quite short. Far shorter than Meredith.
“What are you? I mean what do you call yourself?” Meredith is fascinated by the way he moves in the water.
“People Pamoel. Me Lapa.”
I have been writing since the primary grades of elementary school. I even still have a little bit of that work. To be fair, it is what one would expect of a second or third grade student. Most of those stories were for school assignments.
I started my first larger project in grade seven, out of a language arts assignment from a school reader. That story has never actually been finished, but generated a number of characters who have appeared in published novels and tales. But this was the first piece I remember taking home to write on. And I would continue to work on it and the stories of the various minor characters throughout high school and into university. Ultimately, at least two of the characters from that grade seven start would appear in my first published novel, although much altered from their early beginnings.
I have been known to get lost in fleshing out worlds and characters. Some things change a lot in the process; some don't. It's an ongoing process and I'm always working on something.
(The image attached to this post is of the Howling Wolf Books editions of my original Cemen Colony set, which are available, as of the posting of this, in both print and ebook)
“I write to keep the characters in my head from driving me crazy.” - from my Goodreads profile, which I reiterate every time someone asks me why I write. The image above is also mine, taken for an Instagram challenge (I think) a while back. It is a legitimate question for me.
Because really, my writing is a means by which the characters in my head are able to tell their stories. Some of those stories make for neat novels and shorter 'tales' (because I can never keep my word count to a true short story.) Others make for a lot of notebooks and text documents which may or may not ever see the light of day.
Living in a day and age where it seems people have lost any ability they may have had to separate the writer/performer/artist from their work, it can be scary to allow the character to tell their story as it happened to them. But that's the thing: If the character doesn't have a problem, the story has no plot. Stories without plots rarely make for enjoyable reading.
All of which goes to say, my characters do things, say things, and have things happen to them which I would never condone one person doing to another in real life. The flip side of which is people do worse to each other in real life all the time. That still doesn't make it right or good. (Different issue, I know.)
I can't not write. Even if I were to never publish anything ever again, I would still be writing. But since there are people who assure me that they love my work, I'm likely to keep publishing that which my publisher is willing to publish for me.
I sit on the opposite side of the small, smokeless fire and set my weapons aside. From my pocket, I take a flask and drink deeply.
“We'll start by building a house out here.”
My guard frowns, “So close to the road?”
I nod, “This is a dangerous steading. Who would want to risk being too far from aid?”
The words earn me a skeptical look and a shake of the head.
“The bane of the dragons is worried about being far from aid?”
I laugh. “One step at a time. I'm no foppish lordling to live beyond my means.”
“No foppish lordling would accept this steading,” My guard chuckles, “So it's to be a house and close to the road? Why not a lodge for weary travelers?”
I take some time to consider the idea before nodding, “The Earl granted me permission to hire whatever staff I deem necessary. Not that I have the coin at the moment,” A thought occurs to me, “You said we need a metal worker?”
“Do you know of one who would be willing to risk coming out here?”
“Aye,” A trace of a flush steals across his features, “A journeyman, mind... and a woman...”
I study him with a raised eyebrow, “You seek my permission to marry already?”
He flushes crimson, “I guess I do.”
I chuckle, “Then you have it. Just be quick about it. I want this lodge to have a solid roof before snow season.”
“Aye. Ye'll have that.” His eyes study me briefly, “The Earl will want to see ye married, ye know.”
I shake my head, “The Earl would rather see me conveniently killed by a bear.”
“Mayhap,” My guard adds a log to the fire, “But he needs to cement an alliance with Earl Haiver, who has a far too vocal younger son.”
I sigh, suppressing a groan. If I had wanted to be married to some empty headed little lordling, I would have stayed home and allowed my father to marry me off.
“Ye'll see.” My guard settles back onto the log he is using as a seat.
I change the subject, “Hot supper or cold?”
“I'm all for hot.”
I pick up my bow and quiver, “I'll be back with something to roast.”
My guard nods.
Alexandra A. 'Lexa' Cheshire is the author of numerous novels and short stories published through Howling Wolf Books.