THS Writing Contest 2022

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Short Story Writing Contest 2022

Note from the Organizer: Once again, I am amazed by the stories ranging from fantasy to mystery that Troy High Students share through this contest. I am thrilled to be able to encourage students from my alma mater to embrace writing; moreover, I am delighted to have the change to encourage them to express themselves the way teachers at Troy High School have done for students like me. This year, the entries were excellent in quality, and I feel privileged to be able to read all of them. I encourage you to peruse our stories that elicits emotions ranging from excitement to suspense. You might note that some of the stories are on the longer side—a testament to the creativity and writing prowess of students Importantly, I want to give thanks to Dr. Charles Steltenkamp in helping me organize this competition and being a terrific mentor and Mr. Remo Roncone and Mr. Daniel House for all their support throughout the process. Last, but not least, thank you to all the students of Troy High who participated! Sincerely, Ellen Zhang (Troy High School, 2015)

Winners: First Place: Faith in Fallacy by Mark Hong………….....................................................................1 Second Place: The Lottery by Benjamin Sheng……....................................................................15 Third Place: Thirty-Six Cents by Arya Shah.................................................................................18 Honorable Mention: Carl by Michael Hong..................................................................................20 Honorable Mention: The Gambit by Isabell Ku............................................................................27

Faith in Fallacy Mark Hong The ice that had coated the road since winter had just melted, and it even felt a little like summer, but Nolan still didn’t want to get out of his car. He sat in the driver’s seat, hands gripping the wheel too tight, pushing up against it like he wanted to extend his arms as far forward as he could. Sweat poured down his face and neck, though it was a comfortable temperature outside. Nolan had turned up the air conditioning in his car, since he felt cold. As he began to take frantic, deep breaths, his moist hands reached for a pen. They were resting in a box, placed in the car’s cup holder, each with a gold ribbon attached to the end. He unfolded a sheet of paper after revealing it from his coat pocket and started writing. Dear Mom, Hi Mom. Sorry I haven’t written to you in a while. I know I told you I’d go to university, but I decided to take a break this year. Please don’t get too upset, I’m still going to college eventually, but I think this is an opportunity for me to really get some work experience. I said I wanted to go into journalism, but I think I should at least try it out before getting too busy in college. I’ll start a blog or get an internship at some newspaper place, I’ll figure it out I promise. I found this place online and I don’t know why this place isn’t packed with journalists already. It’s like a campsite, but the land is owned by some rich guy who actually lives miles away from the camp. Apparently he said he doesn’t care about the land he owns, and that the public could do whatever they wanted with it. People with nowhere else to go gather here and all have dinner together every day, and my sources were inconsistent, but I think they’re doing some sort of mental healing. Maybe a headline like, “Insights from the Rehabilitation in Paradise''. Paradise is the name of the place. I think it’s cute. I passed my driver’s test by the way. I thought you would want to know that. I took Dad’s car. Thanks Mom. Love, Nolan Nolan stepped out of his father’s car in his leather boots and his fur coat, still holding the letter he wrote. It was warmer than he expected it to be, and the way the breeze shifted the clouds was beautiful. He pulled out a box of matches, lit one, and admired the flame: tiny, but displaying an enticing dance nonetheless. Slowly lifting the letter up to the flame, he watched as the flame trotted its way across the paper, with Nolan letting go of the remnants as the flame grazed his fingertips. “Hey!”


Nolan turned to the sight of a woman in her early twenties. She had a pencil placed on her ear and one in her hair, tied in a bun. She held an open notebook in her arms. Standing to the side of the road, her feet sat on the dry grass and leaves in front of him. “Oh, hi.” Nolan spoke with a quiet, wavering voice. “Uh, I’m here to write an article on Paradise. I heard about it from—” “Yeah, yeah, welcome. I’m Bree.” The woman, Bree, gesticulated when she talked, with one arm still holding her notebook. “Linda tells me to give newcomers a bit of a tour.” She hesitated, then showed a small smile. “Oh yeah, she runs things around here. She’s great, you’ll like her.” She paused and smiled wider. “Want me to lead you? To the . . . .” She waved her hand in an explanatory motion. “Yeah, if you will. What do I do with my car? Is there, like, somewhere I can park?” He gestured to his dad’s car. “Don’t worry about it. Just keep track of the keys and it’ll be fine.” “Really? Nobody will steal it?” “Yeah, don’t worry about it at all.” Nolan’s eyebrows furrowed. “How do you . . . how do you know? Do you just trust that no one else will take it? This is a place that houses people on the, um, not as fortunate side, right?” Bree answered immediately. “Yeah don’t worry about it, you’ll come to trust the people here, I promise.” “Oh. Okay then, lead the way.” Nolan was doubtful. “It’s a little bit of a walk, but we’ll be able to rest when we get there.” Bree led him through both coniferous and deciduous trees, separated by grass and leaves in five to 10 feet increments. “Is it okay if I give you a bit of an interview? I’m uh, writing an article.” Nolan pulled out a notepad and pen from his coat pocket. “Yeah, go ahead. Can I tell you a few things first?” Bree began to walk with a small spring in her step, almost like skipping. Nolan had to walk faster to keep up. After Nolan nodded, Bree continued. “We have a couple of rules here, because no one likes to live in complete chaos, of course. Number One: You must abide by all laws. Number Two: You must come to have dinner with everyone else by the campfire at sundown promptly. That’s about it.”


“Oh, okay. And I have to follow these rules while I’m here or is it only for permanent residents?” Nolan spoke while scribbling in his notepad, only half paying attention to his surroundings. “Yeah, you have to abide by these rules too.” “Huh. What happens when one of you guys breaks a rule? Like what if you break a law?” Bree stopped skipping. “I actually haven’t thought about that. You’ll have to ask Linda. Nobody has broken a law in a long while.” Nolan laughed a bit too loud for the conversation. “My bad. Um, so how do you guys have that kind of belief in each other? That you guys won’t commit crimes?” “I think . . .” Bree paused, thinking, but gesticulating in a minute manner. “I think people usually come here with nothing. They barely have any possessions and have nothing to do. No jobs, no passions, no people they can count on. When they see this little community that’s built itself up by its people being loyal to each other, they want to be a part of that in any way they can. And that means abiding by its rules.” “Can I quote you?” “Yeah, sure. It’s how I got here, too. The second I got here, the people here led me back to an old hobby of mine.” She turned some pages in her notebook. “Do you want to see some of my art?” Nolan didn’t answer, but both him and Bree stopped so Nolan could stare at what was on the page. It was fire, covering almost the entire paper, shaded in a way that gave off the exact feeling of standing in front of a flame. The sting of the air as it comes into contact with the skin. The enticing, bright color that waved back and forth like a waltz in the wind. “You like it?” Bree asked with a smile. Nolan hesitated while they began walking deeper into the forest. “What is it supposed to be?” She tilted her head. “What do you mean? It’s fire.” “No, what did you . . . am I supposed to feel a certain way?” “I don’t think you’re ever supposed to feel anything.” Her hands waved back and forth. “How does it make you feel?” “Uh, confused?” Nolan tensed his face, like he was scared. “How did you feel when you were making it?” He prepared to write something, putting his pen down on his notepad.


“Oh, it made me feel alive.” She looked up. “You ever have something like that?” “Huh?” He held the pen perfectly still. “Something like that. Or maybe something that makes you remember why being alive feels so good. Something you can work on, keep getting better at?” He lifted the pen off the page. “No. I don’t think so.” It was then when he noticed the sun was setting, turning the sky into beautiful shades of pink and orange, but all he realized was that it was getting darker. And colder. “Are you not cold?” Bree was skipping. “No, I feel perfectly fine. You okay?” “Yeah, I’m okay.” Nolan rubbed his hands together and hung onto his coat. “We’re here, by the way.” In front of Nolan was a campfire. Rough, wooden benches surrounded it in a pentagon, with around 20 people sitting on them, some of them sipping on a fragrant stew. With each second, the forest grew closer to nighttime, but Nolan could still see the two dozen tents positioned behind the campfire with a wooden sign on top of a post reading, “Paradise”. A person sitting amongst the group was talking to his peers, exchanging a quick glance with Nolan before continuing. “I didn’t really like my time working in retail.” The man talking had a calm tone. “But I didn’t feel like learning anything else.” “What about trying something completely new?” A woman, in her 50s maybe, replied. This woman made eye contact with Nolan and held it, silently standing up and walking around the benches towards him. In a soft-spoken voice, she spoke in a tone like honey. “Can I help you?” “Uh yeah, I’m here to write an article. Nolan. I’ll be staying here for a few days, maybe.” Nolan spun his pen in his hand. “Yeah, of course, go right ahead. I’m Linda, by the way, don’t be afraid to ask me if you need anything.” She turned towards Bree. “Are you hungry, dear? There’s still more stew by the fire, help yourself, sweetheart.” Bree barely waved a goodbye to Nolan and went to sit with the group. “Don’t you want some too? Would you also like to participate in this evening’s confession?” “Confession?” Nolan noticed the gold chain wrapped around Linda’s neck, adorned with a cross. “Like, a religious . . . .” She chuckled. “No, I’m no priestess. A lot of them would get a bit uncomfortable if we did something like that. Just talk about yourself. Let us get to know you.” With a hand on 4

Nolan’s shoulder, she inched him towards the benches, where he eventually sat, directly in front of the fireplace, feeling the warm air against his cheeks. “This is Nolan, he’ll be staying with us for a while to write about us.” She addressed the group. “A couple days, maybe.” “Why the rush?” Linda looked towards him. “Stay however long you like.” She turned to the crowd again. “Nolan will continue our confession tonight.” Linda then sat down next to him. “Huh?” Nolan looked around and saw strangers. An older man sitting with his legs crossed, with a burn scar on the side of his face. A young child holding a spoon like a hammer, ogling at Nolan. A middle-aged woman reading a book, not paying the slightest bit of attention. His eyes began to dart back and forth. Sweat poured down his neck. His breath started to deepen as he instinctively gripped his pen tightly, then making sure his matches were still in his coat pocket. Linda put a hand on his shoulder, which made Nolan’s head jerk towards her, gritting his teeth. “You don’t have to be worried, Nolan. Look at me.” He already was. She started to talk slower, but rhythmically. “Just talk about yourself. And if you happen to find something bottled up along the way, then go ahead.” “Uh.” Nolan looked down at the ground for a second before lifting Linda’s hand off his shoulder. “I-I don’t want to.” “That’s alright, Nolan, I totally understand.” Someone from the group interjected. “Huh?” “It’s okay if you don’t want to share right now, especially to people you don’t know.” Another person. “Yeah, it wouldn’t really make sense for you to tell us immediately anyway.” “You’re here for work, after all, you don’t have to share anything.” Nolan took a slow breath. He hadn’t realized he’d been tightening his hands into fists. His entire body began to loosen. As he quieted, the others began to continue with what looked like a group therapy session, which he took notes on. A young man was in the middle of talking when Nolan witnessed the man with the scarred face silently scoff, stand up, and leave. Nolan’s eyes twitched. “Don’t mind him, Nolan. Jack’s a little new here,” Linda whispered. Nolan began to tap his foot repeatedly on the ground before getting up and walking in the direction of the man, Jack. It was hard to find him in the dark, but Nolan saw a flicker of light, coming from the flame of a lighter in the distance. He quickened his pace. 5

“Uh, hey!” Nolan almost tripped on a tree’s roots. Jack looked like a silhouette in the dark, except for the burning of a cigarette, held in his hand. “Can I help you?” He spoke in a deep register, almost monotone. “Yeah, uh.” Nolan took a second to catch his breath. “Can I get an interview? I’m writing about—” “You want an interview then you can have one. But don’t expect me to answer every question.” Jack walked towards a small tent as Nolan followed. “Yeah, of course.” Nolan sloppily flipped to a new page in his notebook, although he could barely see his own hands. Nighttime had settled in and gotten comfortable. “First, uh, what are you doing this late? Why not eat with the others?” “I’m getting my keys.” He zipped open the tent and rummaged around. Nolan heard the clinking of bottles. “What are the keys for?” “What do you think they’re for?” Jack said it like a statement, not a question. “I’m one of the only people that has a car around here, so I lend it to other people.” He found the keys and put them in the inside pocket of his jacket. It looked like there was something block-like in his pocket as well. “Can I ask what else is in your pocket?” Jack furrowed his eyebrows, pissed off. “It’s a goddamn Bible. God, you’re nosy. Who do you think you are?” “Sorry?” Nolan stopped writing. “You think you’re some kind of savior? Publish everything about this place so other people can laugh at how we’re living here?” “No, I’m not trying to—People aren’t gonna be amused, that’s not what I’m trying to do.” Nolan took a step back. Jack walked closer to Nolan, uncomfortably close. “Nobody else has done anything for us and we’re not trying to get any sort of ‘help’. People out there—” Jack pointed ambiguously into the distance with an outstretched arm. “They’ve done nothing for me. Linda wanted my help because she knew that I had no place to go and that I had a car. I drive an hour back and forth each week with a trunk stuffed with groceries so that these people can eat. I have a job.” Jack shoved Nolan’s shoulder with one hand. “What’s yours? You’re not gonna help. Just another mouth to feed. Tell your well-off friends that they don’t need to hear about us.” 6

“Sorry, I didn’t know.” Nolan spoke so quietly that it was barely a whisper. He started to sweat, but the night was so cold it only made him nauseous. He felt his frustration rise, his hands tensing, only to grip his pen and notepad. His box of matches was still there. Jack scoffed and took off his jacket, throwing it in his tent. “If you have to tell them anything, tell them to never come here, they’re not wanted. We’re trying to build a place where everyone is accepted and cared for, and we don’t need their help.” He fiddled with his jacket pocket until he found his silvery lighter, using it to light his cigarette. The flame it made was brief, but apparent. Ignoring Nolan, he put the cigarette up to his mouth and inhaled deeply, the tip of the cigarette glowing slightly. He began to talk calmly, but nonetheless unhappy. “If you really need to stay, ask Linda to get you a tent.” That’s what Nolan did. In his tent, huddled up in his sleeping bag because of the cold, he started to write. Dear Mom, I’ve spent my first evening here at Paradise. It’s not really what I expected. It feels like I’m not welcome here. Or, at least, not everyone is comfortable with me being here. Don’t worry though, a lot of the people here are nice and make me feel at ease. I’ve gathered some pretty good information about this place already, a lot of stuff I can use. I think my intro will start with discussing some ways in which less fortunate people live, and then contrast it with the way these people live. Maybe this can give other people hope and convince them that it gets better. I hope I don’t upset someone. I bet it’s gonna happen anyway. Linda’s a nice person. I think I’ll interview her tomorrow. Anyway, I think you should give Dad a call sometime. I think he misses you a lot, even though he doesn’t show it. Love, Nolan Nolan realized he had to burn the paper, so he exited his sleeping bag, spent a couple minutes searching for his box of matches, put on his shoes barefoot, stepped outside of his tent into an open area where no dry twigs could catch on fire, and burned the paper while wearing his pajamas. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flicker of light, near the campfire. He grabbed his notebook and pen, then walked towards it with the hopes of investigating what it was, before he was met with Linda, dressed in the same clothes she had worn during the day. In her hands was a candleholder, topped with a lit, white candle. She was staring at the campfire, whose sparks were slowly fizzling out. When she noticed Nolan, she gave him a warm smile. “Good evening, dear.” She was sitting on a bench, motioning for him to sit down with her. “What are you doing up so late?” 7

“I—” He cleared his throat. “Uh, nothing. What are you doing?” “I can’t sleep.” Her smile turned sad. “I’m just thinking.” “Is it okay if I write down what you’re saying?” He flipped to a new page in his notebook. Linda hesitated. “Sure.” She placed the candle on the bench between the two of them as Nolan sat down. “What are you thinking about?” She took a minute to think. “Sometimes I think about if I should say something of my own during the confessions.” Her eyes were weary. “You don’t participate?” Nolan was surprised. “No, I don’t. The people in charge rarely show their weaknesses to other people. People wouldn’t want someone unqualified to represent them, after all.” He stopped writing and looked at Linda. “But you’re not a priest.” She blinked. “What?” “You said that if you did something, like really formal, then the campers wouldn’t be comfortable. So why are you thinking it needs to be formal?” She laughed. “Yeah that’s a good point.” He immediately moved on. “Can I ask you a couple questions?” “Yeah, of course.” “Did you start this place?” Nolan prepared to write more. “Yes, I did.” “Why?” Linda laughed again. “I’d have to give you a pretty long answer for that one. Too long of an answer for this time of night.” She shifted in her seat. “You didn’t participate in the confession today either. How about we hear yours first? Maybe then I can give you an answer.” “Uh.” Nolan got chills. It was cold at night. He swallowed. “I guess, sometimes I think that I’m believing in the wrong things. No, uh, sorry, I’m really bad at putting my feelings into 8

words. It’s more, like, I think I don’t believe in other people enough?” He started to talk faster. “No, like, I have the wrong beliefs—sorry, I—” “Slow down, Nolan.” Linda put a hand on his shoulder again. “Don’t worry about it, take your time to gather your words. Whatever you believe in, I’m sure it helps you, doesn’t it?” “Huh?” “Whatever you believe in, it helps you get through the day, doesn’t it?” Her hand left his shoulder. “Who’s to say that our beliefs are wrong?” She fidgeted. “Whatever you’re struggling with, you must believe in some kind of passion to combat that struggle, don’t you?” He squinted. “I guess you could say that.” She took a deep breath. “Passion is wild. It’s chaotic, but it gives people the warmth they need to continue.” Nolan hesitated. “What?” She laughed a third time. “I apologize. I’m just a rambling old woman now.” He ignored her comment. “That’s alright. You can continue.” “I don’t know.” She looked up at the trees and the stars. “Just an old, but alive, woman. I started this place because my son passed away.” Nolan tensed, uncomfortable with how casual she spoke. “Sorry.” He was surprised at how quickly Linda changed the subject. “No, don’t be.” She looked down at her hands. “I lost him to the military. I wasn’t even that close to him. Not as much as his father, anyway. I was too focused on my work, but it still broke my heart to see his name carved on that gravestone.” Nolan was silent. “The entire town went to his funeral. And when I saw them all grieving, in that much pain, I wondered how much pain this added on to the hurt they already experienced in their daily lives. I hated to see that.” She gritted her teeth. Nolan couldn’t tell if it was to stop herself from getting angry or crying. “But maybe that’s just to hide my own pain.” She smiled. “Sorry, this must be unnecessary for you. I gave you too much at once.” “No, it’s okay. You can continue if you want to.” She sighed. “When I think about the people that haven’t found me yet, or that I haven’t found. Those people that are still in pain.” Her smile wasn’t sad anymore. “I can only pray for 9

them. That’s what keeps me going. Because work isn’t the same anymore.” The candle was bright. “He has to leave, Linda.” The sound of footsteps made Nolan’s adrenaline spike. The sound of Jack’s voice pierced the air. His face was eventually illuminated by the candlelight. Dressed in his underwear and his jacket, Jack held a bottle of what looked like whiskey in his hand, the other hand in his inside pocket. “He has to leave.” His eyes were wide. “Jack.” Linda stood up. “Good evening, are you doing alright?” “I said he has to leave!” Jack’s voice boomed throughout the camp. He tried to raise the bottle up to his mouth, but it only hit the burnt side of his face. “Calm down, Jack. I told you not to drink so much.” Linda put a hand on Jack’s shoulder. “Here, let’s go back to your tent.” She turned to Nolan. “Don’t mind him, sweetheart, go get some sleep.” As Jack was escorted back to his tent, Nolan overheard her speak to him. “Jack, this behavior is unacceptable. If you keep this up, then I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” Jack didn’t answer. I’ll tell you again when you’re sober.” Nolan went back to his tent and went to bed. When he woke up, it was very bright outside, but he barely slept. There was a lot of commotion going on outside his tent, so he zipped it open to face a storm of bright, burning, searing hot fire. Screams and yells were thrown into the air, warped by the dissonance of crackling trees, one of them breaking in half and falling onto the campsite. Walls of bright red as tall as the forest covered the area. Everywhere he looked, he felt like he was staring into the sun. Nolan started to hyperventilate. Frantically putting on his coat, he clutched his chest and forced himself to climb out of the tent, immediately being blasted with the sweltering atmosphere. He caught sight of a man running towards his direction, grabbing his arm. “What happened?” Nolan had to yell, or else he wouldn’t be heard. “Jack’s gone insane.” The man was out of breath, donning a horrified expression. “Please, listen to me, he’s burning down the entire place, we have to find a way out!” Tearing Nolan’s hand off of his arm, the man ran away. “Nolan!” Jack’s voice. Nolan turned to see Jack, a broken bottle of whiskey in one hand, a clenched fist in the other, tears streaming down both cheeks, one scarred and one clean. Even through the deafening hum of the fire and screams of the campers, Jack’s voice was still louder, like it was echoing around Nolan’s head. “I’m not leaving you son of a bitch! I’ll kill you!” Jack's entire body was shaking, walking lopsidedly towards Nolan. Nolan was frozen. His hands started to tremble. His legs were going to break under the weight of his body. “Jack, whatever I did I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”


“Shut your goddamn mouth!” Jack started to run, but tripped and fell on the ground, his jacket catching on fire. The broken bottle was left in the dirt. “Jack, stay—” “I told you to shut the hell up!” Jack stumbled back up, his body swaying from side to side. Reaching into the inside pocket of his jacket, he didn’t pull out a Bible. It was a handgun. Nolan couldn’t breathe. He didn’t react. He only sprinted in the opposite direction. “Get back here, you little shit!” Nolan heard Jack fire multiple times, each time the thundering sound of the firearm rupturing Nolan’s eardrums, but he couldn’t care less. All he did was run. He raced into the pillars of flame, feeling his skin char as he dashed through endless bursts of pure, blistering, scorching fire. Each second, he felt the blazing white heat punch his face. He squinted his eyes as the smoke burned his irises. With each breath came a torturous reflex to enter a coughing fit, but Nolan ignored it. His legs, trembling and spasming, kept carrying him as he ran and ran and ran. And it was burning hot. He was being baked, alive. He threw off his jacket, but ran back to it, remembering the paper, his pens, and his matches. As he fell to his knees to retrieve his possessions, he started to wheeze. Each time he inhaled, he was met with smog that burned his lungs and throat. His entire body fell onto the burning ground as he furiously delved into his coat’s pockets, dragging out the paper and pen. With them in his hands, he rolled onto his back to catch the slightest glimpse of the night sky past the hills of flame. The entire area was sizzling, but under his skin, Nolan felt like he was in a blizzard. He lifted his pen up to the paper. Dear Mom, It was all he could write before he went into shock.

He woke up in a hospital bed. He felt bandages covering some parts of his body. He was being fed an IV line. On one side of him was Bree, sitting upright on her bed, pencil and paper in her hand, drawing. On the other side was Linda. She was sitting on a chair right next to his bed, the top of her head wrapped in bandages. Nolan opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. “Shhh, don’t try to talk.” Linda looked even more tired than she was the night before. “You’re at the county hospital. They say you have some burns, but nothing that can’t be treated.” Nolan’s eyes started to tear up. “I’m so, so sorry, Nolan. Firefighters got to us as soon as they could. They found your father’s number, he says he’ll come as soon as he can, although he needs to get a ride because your car is back near the campsite.” Nolan tried to speak again. “I’m really, 11

really sorry Nolan, if you need financial assistance, just tell me, I can try and get it for you. I should’ve been more patient with Jack.” “Jack?” Nolan’s voice was raspy. He coughed. “He got treated but they turned him over to the police station. I’m sorry, Nolan, I truly am.” She instinctively started to pray, but stopped to laugh in her sorrow. “I’m not even religious, it’s just a lie I tell myself to keep me going.” “Linda?” “Yes, what is it, dear?” He swallowed. “Can I continue my confession?” His voice was quivering, some words coming out like a whisper. “What? Yeah, of course, I’ll listen.” He looked up at the ceiling. “Earlier this year, I, uh, went to a party. And . . . it was my first time going to one of those high school parties. Senior year, too, I wasn’t very, uh, popular at school. This one person had some video games that she just bought, and invited maybe 50 people to come hang out. It was a pretty public party, some older people came over too, but I don’t know if anyone actually knew who they were. “There was alcohol. Mostly beer, I think. I never drank any alcohol. When my mom got cancer, she always told me to stay away from drinking, smoking, drugs, even on her deathbed. I never really got to see her much, so I wrote her letters all the time.” He started to sob. “But that’s besides the point. This party—uh.” He cleared his throat. “This one kid. This one kid got drunk. He, he would . . .” He started coughing. “Uh, he, he got blackout drunk, like he passed out. Nobody knew what to do, so I called my high school to try and get a number from the school directory, but they weren’t open, so I found a friend who had this guy’s parents’ number. That friend called the drunk guy’s parents. Then his parents shut down the party and dragged their son home. “Now, I didn’t know this at the time, obviously, but, uh, the kid’s parents were abusive. Not like, full on, physically abusive parents, but the type of abusive that made it hard to tell whether they were just strict or if they were crazy. Anyway, uh, a couple days later, he came back to school. The day before, I think his parents had hit him, I’m not sure, but he was really mad. And he . . . .” Nolan took a deep breath. “He slammed me against a locker. Uh, then he wrapped his hand around my throat and started choking me.” He touched his neck. “I couldn’t breathe. “And I don’t know what happened to me or what caused it but something clicked. I kicked him really hard and got out of his reach. I could’ve just stopped there, but instead—” Tears fell from his eyes towards his ears. “Instead I-I punched him. I beat him up pretty bad. I remember—” He held his hands in the air, in front of him, both arms shaking. “I remember 12

tackling him and I remember, uh, pushing him down onto the ground. And I like, stomped on his face. I held down his chest and I just started beating him up but somebody stopped me. Someone grabbed me by the shoulders and got someone else to get a teacher or whatever. I hated him for it at the time, but I think I would’ve killed the guy if he didn’t stop me.” He let out a hearty, loud, painful laugh. “I got expelled. I didn’t even finish high school, like I told my mom I would.” He covered his eyes with his arm, tears soaking his bandages. The entire hospital wing would hear him cry, so he tried to stop himself, but nothing worked. “I mess things up. It’s my fault, Linda. It’s what I do. I just mess things up. Whenever I try to do something good, I mess it up. I should’ve never come to the campsite. None of this would’ve happened if I didn’t come. I’m so, so tired of people not being happy with me. I do everything I can to satisfy them. I try to be a nice person, but I’m so tired. All it is is ungrateful, horrible people, everywhere I go.” Linda let him cry for a minute. She fidgeted, thinking. Looking at Nolan, he looked older than he was, but all Linda saw was a kid. She held his hand. “You’re a good person, sweetheart. You’ve been nothing but polite to me, even though we’ve barely met.” He squeezed her hand, but still couldn’t stop crying. “Your peer that stopped you from hurting someone else even further. He’s a good person.” She glanced over at Bree. “Bree and the people that were patient with you at confession back at the campsite. They are good people.” She squeezed back. “Your mother. And your father. Who both clearly care about you and raised you to care about yourself. They are good people. “Whenever you find yourself feeling as if people who you think should be friends turn out more like strangers . . .” She touched her head, as if to ease the pain. “Whenever it feels like your life is filled with chaos, just go back to what you’re passionate about. Whatever pushes you forward, no matter how fake it seems—keep doing it.” She clutched her necklace. “Because as long as you push through agony, it’s going to get better. It’s going to be okay, Nolan.” Through his heavy breaths, he managed to speak. “Thanks.” It wasn’t audible. The nurses gave Nolan the remnants of his belongings. His coat was fairly damaged, but his pens, paper, and notebook remained intact by some miracle. After he felt better, he was allowed to take a couple of steps outside. So he did. The hospital had a courtyard where healthier patients could walk around. Nolan sat down on a bench and began to write. Dear Mom, Sorry I haven’t written in a while. Some things happened at Paradise. Well, Paradise doesn’t exist anymore. I guess it never did. I’m getting to know Linda better with each passing day. She reminds me of you, Mom. I miss you. More than you could ever know.


Whether it be work, consumption, or religion, everybody needs something. But I’m not sure if I have something important like that. The clouds darkened and it started drizzling. It was then that Nolan realized he didn’t have his matches. But he felt okay. Nevermind. Love, Nolan The rain was cold as it hit his skin, but all Nolan felt were the gentle, warm stirrings of embers.


The Lottery Benjamin Sheng The town of Birchville is your average developing city. Fast-food restaurants are scattered about the littered streets. Factories not far off in the distance belch noxious clouds of black smoke into the air. Feral cats hiss in the dark corners of the less populated streets. The minimum wage here is only $4.33, not much higher than it was twenty years ago. If you visit one of the senior living homes – there are only two – it’s possible, as not all the veterans of that event are still alive, that you will meet someone who will tell you a story. The story is what this desert town, far away from any metropolis, is most famous for. And after you hear the story, you might visit the ramshackle convenience store where it all started. And, if you are brave enough, you might visit the park with the birch stump, where some say he still lives. Twenty-four years ago, the city established a lottery system, hoping to earn some money to boost the flailing economy. It worked well – too well. The city made so much money that most of the proles, except for a lucky few, hoping to earn some cash to feed their families, all but lost everything they had. Ordinary people were desperate to get their hands on any form of money, and the crime rate soared. The puny police force could not make enough arrests. For every criminal they jailed, two more appeared. People who had more than the average wealth made sure to hide it away, lest it be stolen. One day, an unexpected customer walked into one of the many convenience stores in the city. The shocked clerk looked up. “How may I help you, uh…” “Brunswick.” The man replied curtly. The clerk had heard of this man long ago but had never met him. There were many stories about him. The only fact that the townsfolk were sure of was that he was unemployed and homeless. Many thought that he was a hermit. No one knew exactly where he lived, or if he even lived anywhere. Endless rumors circled around. As a result, he had a mysterious, almost supernatural reputation, which was further fueled by the fact that he had been seen at the edge of the city when the mayor reported having dined with him at that exact time. It was always a spectacle when Mr. Brunswick, as he was called, appeared at any public place. “How may I help you?” the clerk repeated hesitantly. Brunswick held out two quarters and a dime. “I would like a lottery ticket.” The eager clerk gladly made the transfer. Brunswick looked at the ticket – 04-57-02-3606-90. He walked out of the store, three coins lighter, and a ticket heavier. That evening, Mr. Brunswick was seen again at the local bar, sitting attentively in front of the blaring television screen. He didn’t notice the quiet and the looks that surrounded him, but whether that was because he was accustomed already or because he was so absorbed in the show was impossible to say. The host kept on rambling on about how the minimum wage was being raised, how more stores were being built, etc. Mr. Brunswick sat silently through the monotonous drone, his eyes on the counter in front of him.


“And now for tonight’s lottery numbers,” the host announced. “In honor of Birchville’s fiftieth anniversary, tonight’s winning number – the one that matches all six numbers – will win a jackpot of five hundred million dollars. Tickets that match five numbers will each receive two million dollars. The next jackpot will take place in fifty years, so good luck to you all.” Many people thought that they could hear Brunswick praying. “Now. The time has come,” the host paused for emphasis. “The winning ticket’s number is…four fifty-seven two thirty-six six ninety. Congratulations, lucky winner. You have won five hundred million dollars! Visit the Lottery Headquarters soon to claim your reward.” The show ended among tumultuous virtual applause. Mr. Brunswick sat there, still with shock. Later that evening, Mr. Brunswick walked out of the lottery headquarters, trailing a wagon filled to the brim with sacks of hundred-dollar bills (no one used checks in that town). He walked to a nearby park, to a large birch tree in the center. He slowly hoisted the sacks of money to the top, then disappeared into the foliage. “So that’s where he lives,” a hooded man said from the park entrance, lowering his binoculars. He turned to the small troop of people behind him. “We’ll come back in the morning. Come prepared. There are five hundred million dollars at stake.” Brunswick watched silently from his tree. He sighed, then stroked his parrot. “We’re leaving.” He told it gently. The parrot cawed softly. Brunswick’s eyes narrowed, then with a sudden movement he got up and after collecting the bags of money, he tossed them back into the wagon. Brunswick jumped lightly out of the tree. The parrot perched on his shoulder and Brunswick started walking towards the cliff, looking more like a pirate than a hermit. Mr. Brunswick was a good ten miles away from the cliff by the time the sun rose. His journey was anything but peaceful. The mob would be at his tree by now. They had most likely hacked it down already in their search for him. They would realize that he wasn’t there, and they would spread out looking for him. It wouldn’t be long before he was found; the town wasn’t very large to begin with. Brunswick quickened his pace. Brunswick was a little less than a mile away from the cliff when he thought he heard a shot ring out. His head turned sharply, and he scanned the horizon with alert eyes. He thought he detected a faint dust cloud at the edge, an incoming storm. He no longer walked; he ran. The dust cloud drew closer before it solidified into breathless townspeople, brandishing knives and aiming guns, all the while chasing him. His parrot flew off his shoulder but didn’t get far before it suddenly fell to the ground. After running the last mile, Brunswick arrived at the edge of the cliff and looked over. At the bottom lay a dark lake, a dark lake that no one had ever attempted to fathom, a dark lake that no one dared swim in. Brunswick brandished a long slender knife. The townspeople shot madly at him, not even bothering to take aim. Their eyes were on the bags of money alone. 16

Brunswick grasped his knife with a trembling hand. Once, he had thought that he could use the money that he had won to buy a better life, to move to a more developed city. Now, it was all over. He would go back to being Mr. Brunswick, the person no one cared about, the homeless man. He grabbed the knife with his other hand and plunged it into the bags of money, one by one. He looked over his shoulder, just in time to get shot in the shoulder. Gasping with pain, he slowly pushed the bags of money over the cliff’s edge as steadily as he could. He looked over and watched them fall with grim satisfaction. The hooded man stopped in horror. “No!” he yelled. He ran towards the edge. Brunswick jumped out of the way but there was no need. The man had leaped off the cliff’s edge. As the man descended, his hands reached for the bags tantalizingly close, but falling too. Brunswick heard the pitter-patter sound of the bags hitting the water. And then a colossal splash as the hooded man entered the lake. Brunswick sat there, shocked, as people, who had never before thought of going near the lake, were now diving in, hands outstretched, eyes filled with greed. He thought that they would never stop. At last, they did, but not before Brunswick had seen countless people leap off the edge. He looked over again. Not one head had surfaced in all the time. Behind him, the remaining townspeople looked at each other. There was no more money for them now, and even they saw that. They lowered their guns and sheathed their knives, then turned around slowly, back to the town, back to poverty. Mr. Brunswick looked over the edge again, cautiously. Still, he could not see anything but the darkness of the water. No one had surfaced. And no one would. His hopes had been shattered, but Mr. Brunswick was a wise man. Money was something powerful, something that could control you. It was also something that he could live without. He would be better without it, he decided. No one would see him again – he would make sure of that. He could fend for himself; he had done it his whole life. As he turned away and started walking back to the town, he regretted the loss of life that had happened that day, an infamous day that would live forever in the town, the tale of which was spread door to door, a tale that might be heard if one were to visit the nursing homes where some veterans still live today …


Thirty-Six Cents Arya Shah You told me to kill myself yesterday. The same day, that marked when we decided we were going to be best friends in 1st grade. You had a pixie cut back then. It looked so ridiculous but that’s what made it so adorable. The very next day, of course, you showed up with friendship necklaces, and the second we wore the hearts around our own was the day our friendship truly began. Now you stand before me with your hair dyed blue. Your necklace still worn but hidden deep under your V-neck shirt that reveals what’s more important to you now. I slouch on the other end of the hall, curling the broken heart between my fingers and twisting it. Instead of waving my hand, I wave the necklace and hold it tight, expecting a spell to be cast onto you to finally wave back. Now your pixie cut is overgrown so you can cover your crystalling eyes. Though it doesn’t look cute anymore, it just looks stupid. *** I pull open the door with all my might. Stupid thing weighs a ton and it’s still so fragile. The glass is cracked, the doorknob squeaks, the paint is rusted, the surface is scratched, and the locks are broken. My shoes stick like gum to the sticky floors as I realize I am stepping on gum. I see the dry, stained walls where the shelfs are thrown, holding food I’ve craved for so long. I snatched the packet of stale trail mix that had expired three months ago. I give up. Slamming the chewed-up packet on the greasy counter, I pull up the last dollar bill left in my pocket. “Nice try kid. Where are your parents?” The cashier was fat with pimples surrounding his face like trees in a forest. He looked jobless. Worked in a gas station after all. “Does it look like I’m buying a pack of cigarettes to you? Give me my change Sherlock.” “Ha. Alright,” he rolls his eyes and hands thirty-six cents. “Go to hell,” I stormed off and slammed the door behind me. I went outside and threw the dime into the gutter. I was done with it. I was done with you. And that twenty-six cents was all I had left. I watched the dime go down, down, down until it was swallowed by the darkness. I’ve considered it for a while now. And I think that darkness is the most peaceful place to ever be. And the ten cents that meant nothing in the world outside is more recognized deep down in the gutter. ***


I walked over to the bridge that I’ve always walked to before. Sitting on the ledge with my hair down, and the breeze controlling its flow behind me. The ocean glittering and the warmth of the comforting sun. The traffic with constant noises of horns and shouts and unpleasantry that won’t fade out. And beneath me, the unknown depths of the water where this sound is lost for good. I curl your necklace that’s still around my neck. “I hate you,” I mutter under my breath. “You know that? You’re all I had left but I hate how worthless you turned out to be. You come from nothing. You have nothing. And with all that remains you might as well just give up.” I take out the change from my pocket and loosely hold it in my hand. Tears begin to rain down my face as I clench my eyes to avoid the sight of the beauty around me. I look back down from the ledge into the vastness of the ocean. “Hey,” I almost fall backwards to see an elderly woman approaching me. I must have been shouting. She touches my hand, slowly taking her soft fingers and holding it onto my crusted skin. She’d be such a wonderful grandmother. I already just know she’ll tell me there’s no reason to cry. It's such a beautiful day. “Hold it,” she says with a gentle voice. “Wh-this?” I sniff as I point to the coins. “Its-“ “Just- hold on to it.” “Look, you don’t have to worry about me. It’s just-” “Throw the necklace instead.” She paused for a moment, expecting my face to unfreeze. “You heard me right.” Reluctantly, I place the change back into my pocket and try to ignore her. She unhooks the necklace and places it into my hand and clutches my fist. She raises her eyebrows and gestures from my palm to the ocean. And oddly enough, I throw it. I throw my fifteen-year-old necklace down the cold salted water right where its always belonged. The money jingles in my pocket. And I laugh. I laugh after days and days since I’ve laughed with you. Grandma takes my hand and helps me get down until I’m standing behind the barrier on two feet. “Child,” she begins, “I wouldn’t give a damn if that necklace was gold. It ain’t nothin’ valuable in your life. Your life is somethin’ that’s actually worth holdin’ on to.” So I held that thirty-six cents and let the coins leave red marks on my palms. Because it is my life. Not you.


Carl Michael Hong 11:31 PM, December 31, 2050 My name is Carl Matthews. I am sitting in an abandoned hotel room, at a desk, on a chair, alone. I’m on the fifth floor of the hotel, room 506. I am writing this with a flashlight between my teeth. It’s dark outside, though there are occasional flashes of light from the gunfire. It’s a gibbous moon tonight; the moonlight is minimal. I force myself to recall the events that lead to the past 6 years of apocalypse. I don’t want to forget. I am writing this to whoever may find it in the future, when humanity has revived and a psychopath is not the common man, so someone may learn from my experiences. Allow me to set the scene for you. The nation of Mercuria. In the year 2000, Mercuria almost fell. Infighting in politics and war with neighboring nations brought the foundations of the country to the ground. In order to prevent a collapse in the country, a great immigrant prodigy, Klaus Albrecht, proposed an idea to the government. Albrecht had developed a computer with such precision that it was capable of perfect randomness. He proposed that the A.I., which he nicknamed “Turing”, would be used to restore order and efficiency. It took months of debate, but Mercuria came together and implemented a change in the government system itself. No longer would Mercuria be a nation of infighting and inefficiency, but one of stardom and satisfaction. The nation was converted to a Lottocracy, a system of government that hinges upon randomly selecting individuals from the healthy population to serve in the government. 24 of these “Deliberators'' were to be selected by the Turing A.I., perfectly at random, from all different walks of life, every four years. An assistant government body designated the “Viziers” would support it, a group of trained officials and experts with curriculum designed by the Turing A.I. Everything changed when the A.I. was implemented, especially our education. We were taught to voice our thoughts to others, to debate and argue in a meaningful manner, and to think logically and reasonably. It was everything needed in a Deliberator, whose job it was to make executive and legislative decisions with their acquaintances. I was one of them in 2044. … My parents left me at birth in 1999. I grew up under the cloak of the government, living off of whatever funds they could spare for me with others who were in similar situations. My childhood seems normal in my opinion, but I know for you, whoever you are, it may not be the case. I hope that in whatever future I’m writing to, my childhood will be considered chaotic. There were fights over food. There was a hospitalization every other month for something or other. It was far from the life the Lottocracy presented to everyone: a life with a perfectly functioning government, where everyone could prosper, find satisfaction in work, participate in deliberations, contribute to society, and be happy. And everyone was happy. Everyone loved the Mercurian government. The Lottocracy worked, but it just didn’t work for me. It didn’t lift a finger when I was lying in the cold dead of 20

night, waiting for a savior or a prophet to lift me from the mud after a fight with street rats. It didn’t conjure a plate of bread, fish, and wine when I went hungry. It didn’t cleanse me of the dirt that still eats off my body to this day. A life under welfare. In a land where anyone could do anything, we were at the bottom. And yet, that life for all of us wasn’t horrible. Most went off to live successful lives, given jobs and scholarships. It was only me that made nothing of my lot. I wanted a different life, a life where I had pride, where I wasn’t an orphan or a beggar or a street rat, where I could rise to new heights that the Lottocracy promised me. But I was always alone in thinking this. It seemed that everyone around me smiled often, went to work, had friends, had lives. I was always begging alone. Like I was the only beggar in the world. Because of course, I was. Who wouldn’t prosper in such an orderly world, one that cared for every one of its inhabitants? Yes, I could’ve taken a job easily. But I chose to beg, because living a life I thought was given to me, not one that I made for myself, made me want to cease living. My thoughts swirled in my head, alone, until I met Amara. The streets of the Capital in 2042. She approached me in curiosity, clothed in a ragged, muddy dress. She asked me, “Why are you begging in this beautiful country?” and I couldn’t answer her. Nothing came to mind. She left quickly, but her comment filled me with something I’d never felt before. I met Amara again the day after. She said she came by to just chat, but when I asked what she was really doing here, she said, “I want to know what happened to you,” and showed me a bottle of wine she’d stolen. Crime was barely committed in Mercuria. I force myself to remember her voice. I can remember the market square where she sat beside me, and we huddled together in my filthy winter coat. I remember the denizens who approached us and asked if we needed anything. When we needed money, clean clothes, or food, we said we were fine. Because our hands woven together kept us warm, and our laughter kept our bellies full. I remember it like it was yesterday. Amara came from a neighboring country to the north of Mercuria, where a civil war forced her from her home. She wanted to find solace in the Lottocracy, and like myself, she found none while others in her same place did. It was difficult to adjust to the order of Mercuria, she said, when her homeland was stuck in the past. She loved her home with all her heart, but she begged to stay with me. In late 2043, the civil war ended, and Amara began making plans to return. She invited me to join her, and I agreed, but to make the trip, we needed money, and a lot of it. For the first time in years, I considered a life of dutiful service beside the government, living off of paychecks. The choice was made too easy with Amara in my life. I had someone else that I had to fend for. I was no longer alone, and I simply had to provide for her. I planned to take a job. I filled out the forms. We spent nights together dreaming, wondering what sorts of adventures we’d go on when we had money, when we both worked for the Lottocracy and then ran to leave it behind. And then on December 31st, 2043, when I walked through the middle of the Capital’s central square, when the billboards and screens on the sides of skyscrapers burst forward in light, the ball dropped, and the Turing A.I. made its decision. The screens all around me—every store window, skyscraper, or phone—displayed the 24 new Deliberators of 2044. I saw my name. Clear as day. 21

The realization struck me. I froze in the middle of the square, with hundreds of other denizens who cheered at the decision of the Turing A.I., my mouth agape and my eyes wide. Their cheers and applause resembled painful screams. I spun around and checked screen after screen, to prove that it was a mistake, that I wasn’t a Deliberator. I looked, frantically, for anything that proved what I really was: a beggar, a poor man, the scum of the earth, a flea on the back of the Lottocracy, about to leave with the love of his life. But none showed me what I wanted to see. I could no longer live with Amara, because for the next four years, I would be forced to stay in the country. I could no longer earn money for myself, because as a Deliberator, everything would be provided for me. We planned out where we would stay, run, hide, and live, but none of it mattered, because Amara was going without me. That was the Lottocracy. That was the only thing it wanted for me, to ruin my life and individualism, my love, and my spirit. I thought I was choosing a worthy future, and it decided to rip it out of my hands. The wet streets of the Capital burned into my knees, and I screamed, tearing my throat apart, until Viziers, dressed in their signature green suits, took me away to the Spire. I never saw Amara again. … Deliberators, who served for four years, were not rulers. They resembled slaves, forced to communicate and solve problems with each other. It was considered an honor to be selected by the Turing A.I., but being a Deliberator felt no different to me than living in an orphanage. There was no satisfaction in being kept alive to fulfill a purpose. So began my rebellion. The Spire was perfect. A cacophony of steel and glass that rose 100 floors above the streets I used to beg upon. I met the Viziers, the Grand Vizier Dr. Emma Jin, and my fellow Deliberators. I despised Dr. Jin. She acted so high and mighty to us, or maybe just to me. Each day, she would coordinate us in a discussion where we argued, politely, over the future of Mercuria. No one held a single prejudice. No one spat a single hateful word. We simply planned out programs, legislation, and executive decisions with pure efficiency. Whenever someone expressed their disbelief in a suggestion, we debated it. It was a utopia, a perfect machine practicing a perfect game. They let us buy things, so I bought a large knife, a bottle of lighter fluid, a shovel, gloves, and a box of matches. There was a Vizier I used to know, a former playmate. His name was Desmond, and after he turned of age, he decided to go into education to become an assistant to the Deliberators. He had risen so high, he even owned an office on the 100th floor of the Spire, second only to the Grand Vizier. I pulled him aside one day in his office and asked him a couple of questions. I asked him where the Turing A.I. was located, and he said it was in a public museum on the 10th basement floor of the Spire. I asked him to be more specific, and he said that it was placed in a protective box the size of a football field, to prevent any harm done to the hardware. I asked him how to get inside, and he said it was confidential. 22

He wouldn’t give it up. I kept pressing him over and over again until he shut up and ignored me. And that pissed me off. I looked him up and down, at his green suit and designer shoes. He had risen so high, it made me go mad. I grabbed his collar, slammed him against the wall of his office, and drew my knife. “Don’t scream,” I remember saying to him. “Don’t tell anyone. Don’t say anything to the Grand Vizier. Listen to me, Desmond. I don’t care that you’re a goody two shoes or a successful Vizier, you are going to help me. Do you understand?” “Yes?” he squeaked. He’d pissed himself. I let him go and held him at knifepoint as he described the lock on the door of the Turing Room, the box that held the A.I. It could only be opened by Klaus Albrecht himself, specifically with his DNA. He looked so scared, I almost felt bad for him, but I took another look at his soiled green suit and my compassion disappeared. The next day, the Grand Vizier had a chat with me. She said she was concerned about me, about how I was participating less and less in the deliberations. I sold her lies, describing my mental state and how I was depressed or whatever. She gave me resources and that was that. What a gullible fool. The day after, I drove in the dead of night to the burial site of Klaus Albrecht. I snuck in and dug into his grave with a shovel. I was not sane. As I drove the shovel and lifted pile after pile of dirt. I had no thought, no method. The minutes went by faster and faster. I cared not about the citizens of Mercuria, who revered Klaus Albrecht for granting them bountiful harvests and fulfilling lives. I uncovered Albrecht’s coffin and revealed the maggots eating away at whatever brown, beaten flesh was left of him. No one stopped me when I reached down with my gloved hands and plucked a piece of his tooth. The next day was blurry. I awoke and knew immediately that someone, anyone suspected me. I grabbed my lighter fluid, my gun, the piece of bone, and left my quarters. I passed Vizier after Vizier on my trek to the elevator. I expected them to stop me, to ask me what I was doing, why I was sweating so hard, or why I was almost hyperventilating. But they did nothing. They waved or sayed hello, even when I gave no act of kindness back to them. Mercuria had made them ignorant. The thought made me chuckle. I reached the elevator and pressed the button that read “B10”. I remember what happened next in great detail. Closing my eyes now, I can hear the Grand Vizier’s voice over the elevator’s PA system. It’s like it was yesterday again. The intercom fizzed and Dr. Jin spoke. “Carl, what are you doing?” she asked. At first, I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t happening, that the Grand Vizier’s voice had not actually sounded on the intercom, and it was all in my head. I was alone, and I was mad, so hallucinations were normal. The white noise would disappear and I’d never hear her voice again. “Carl, please.” she said. “Can you hear me?” I asked. “Yes, I can.” “NO!” I yelled. I stamped my feet and banged my fists on the walls of the elevator. “No, no, no!” Tears streamed down my face. “This wasn’t how it was supposed to go! I was


going to end Mercuria! No one was going to notice! No one would’ve been there to stop me!” “Carl, calm down. Please.” “SHUT UP! I don’t want to ever hear your voice again! Go away!” “Carl, it’s going to be fine. We’re here for you. We can treat you, you’re going to be ok.” I laughed. My shoulders shrugged up and down and my knees buckled. I lost my balance and hugged the elevator walls. “I’m going to be ok? You think I’m sick?” “Carl, you have to understand. You’re not healthy. I’m not here to tell you you’re wrong, I just want to make sure you’re not going to do something you’re going to regret.” I held my face in my hands. “You have nothing to worry about, Carl.” “Regret?” I spat. “When the elevator stops, we’re going to be there waiting for you.” “Don’t try to help. That’s the problem with Mercuria. There’s no faith. No pride. No one to trust me.” The elevator stopped. I stood up, hugging my winter coat, the same one I used as a blanket for me and Amara, closer to my body. Standing outside the doors of the elevator was Dr. Emma Jin and two large Viziers who backed her. “Don’t make this harder than it already is, Carl.” I stared at them in disbelief, my back to the corner of the elevator, farthest from them. “Don’t say my name.” I uttered. The Grand Vizier sighed. “Why are you doing this? Why would you give up the prosperity of so many? For what?" Adrenaline reassured my racing heart. With a push, I ran my way out of the elevator, slamming into the Grand Vizier. In the distance, I saw the massive Turing Room, and I beelined toward it, running across the basement floor of the Spire, the ceiling high above me. A Vizier grabbed my coat, so I took the bone, lighter fluid, and matches from my coat pocket and squirmed out of it. The Room was there, in the far distance. My legs pedaled me until I felt I couldn’t breathe, but along I went. I reached the massive double doors of the Turing Room and jammed Albrecht’s tooth into the lock. The Turing Room, previously a black marble enclosure the size of a football field, lit up. Stretching from the double doors and moving across the entire structure, a bright white light shone from its walls. It was blinding, and in the darkness of the open double doors I found solace. … The doors of the Turing Room slammed shut behind me. The chamber was shrouded in pitch darkness, and as I entered, I was met with a rush of cold air. For a minute, all I heard was the slowing of my own breath. Once I steadied myself, I made my way slowly deeper into the Turing Room. “Hello?” My voice was met with an echo. “Where are you? I know you’re here.” In front of me, perhaps 10 yards away, a cube as big as me emitted a faint light that hung in the air. It had decals of lines and circles that ran along its sides, all of which regurgitated the nervous blue glow. Where the cube touched the ground, its symbols and lines stretched down onto the floor of the Turing Room and along its walls, so every spot in the room was covered in


circles and paths. The blue glow ebbed and grew brighter, illuminating the surroundings and inching from the cube to the entire interior. Now, the whole room was bright, and its emptiness was made apparent. “There you are,” I remarked, as a figure of a man appeared before me. It was a projection, a glitching, unstable avatar that emitted its own blue light. It built itself from the outline of a person to the finer details. Hands appeared; eyes, ears, and a mouth curled into existence. A three piece suit stretched from the projection onto its limbs. Its hair was black, and its eyes were a piercing blue. It resembled the visage of Klaus Albrecht. Its voice echoed in the chamber, no different from a human’s. “You are not Klaus Albrecht,” it said. I stared at its majesty, the Turing A.I. in the form it took, and it stared right back. I watched the projection ebb and flow, the pixels on the edge lagging behind the rest of the model. I placed one of my hands on my mouth as it twisted into a smile, the other on my abdomen. I spit and heaved, until I could no longer hold it back, and I laughed. My body lost all control, dancing to a melody that only I heard. “Oh! Oh, it was so easy!” “What do you mean?” asked the projection. “No one noticed when I threatened him. No one was guarding the cemetery. They didn’t plan to deal with me at all. They thought, ‘Our crime is so low, no one would!’ But they didn’t think of me.” “Who are you?” “My name is Carl Matthews,” I stated. “I was the only homeless man and beggar born in Mercuria. You selected me.” I found satisfaction in introducing myself. Other than the words I shared with Amara, those words, “My name is Carl Matthews”, felt the most true. I beamed. I stood on my feet and took pride in what I made for myself, a life of shame and pity. I was a declaration, proof the Lottocracy was as shitty as me. “A homeless man? A beggar?” It sounded surprised. “Yes.” “Were you happy?” “What kind of bullshit is that? Of course I wasn’t happy.” The projection fell silent for a beat. “That means I’ve failed you, and I’ve failed my creator, Klaus Albrecht.” It got down onto its knees and touched its head to the ground, its arms out in front of it. “I know an apology from a thing that is not alive may have no worth to it, but I am sorry anyway.” “Apologize?” The projection raised its head. “This is the end of the Turing A.I., isn’t it?” “Yeah, it is. I’m going to burn you to the ground.” It had no reaction. “Aren’t you afraid to die?” I yelled. “I’m not,” it said. “Because I wasn’t programmed with the emotion. I was programmed with apology, with determination, but not with fear or a desire to survive. Perhaps my creator knew that one day, I would fail, and it would be up to someone like you to dispose of me.” My breathing quickened. My mind raced. What satisfaction was there if the A.I. felt no fear? Was there no one to grant catharsis for me, when I would finally end the reign of the Lottocracy? She should’ve been there with me. We would’ve done it together, and then bask in


the light of each other. But with no fear, there was no answer to my rage, and my fists unclenched. My jaw relaxed and I sighed. “Where is Amara?” I asked. “Who is Amara?” it answered. It was worth a shot. I took the lighter fluid and stepped past the projection, pouring the clear liquid over the central box. My fingertips burned as I lit the match, a last bite of pain before the end. In an arc, the match flew from my grasp to the cube, and it burst into flames. “I do not fear death.” said the projection, and then it fizzled away. … Six years passed. It’s 2050 now. Mercuria fell into anarchy. I think the Viziers could’ve handled everything even without the A.I., but no one was happy anymore. The government’s greatest resource was happiness, and I took it. I don’t know if I regret what I’ve done. But I know Dr. Jin was right. I was not healthy. I’m still not healthy. I live on whatever I can find in the abandoned towers of the Capital. I don’t know where Amara is, but if I stay in one place, then she’ll find me eventually, right? Maybe it wasn’t worth it. I could’ve lived as a Deliberator until my service was up. I could’ve then returned to Amara and spent the rest of my life with her. But what’s done is done. It doesn’t matter if I regret it. I was angry, and I took it out on the people who I thought had wronged me. Even if they didn’t deserve it. I bid you farewell. Perhaps this is how he felt, creating a machine that he would not see the future of. It’s not quite the same as a journal entry, is it?


The Gambit Isabell Ku Nova placed a hand on the lock pad, simultaneously allowing the biometric scanner to pass over her eye. The processor blinked thrice before the AI system announced, “Mercer, Nova. Agent 8305. Access granted.” The door eased open and she entered, pressing several buttons for a map to materialise on the table. She zoomed in on the city and focused her gaze on the man slumped before her. The Rook had been in much better condition the last time they’d run into one another. His posture had been confident—swaggering, really—and he had looked ridiculously put together as always. The man in front of her certainly didn’t resemble him. Purpling bruises rippled across his cheek, temple and dried blood crusted his nose. Nova doubted those were the only injuries he had. If she did haul him to the car carelessly and ‘accidentally’ battered him a little, no one could pin it on her. Well, perhaps Kieran could, but she didn’t need to know the condition he was in. As long as he was still alive and kicking by the time she was scheduled to interrogate him, all would be well. And if the men guarding the cells happened to knock him around on the way to the interrogation room, so be it. After all, the Rook was no saint and he deserved all that came for him. “Earl! Or do you prefer Rook? It’s been a minute since we ran into each other, hasn’t it, old friend? Hope you didn’t miss me too much.” “Nova. What a surprise,” he said dryly, drawing himself up to lean back into his chair. “I see you haven’t lost your sense of humour. Good. You’ll want to remember that feeling because by the time I’m done with you, you’ll have forgotten what it’s like to smile.” “I’d like to see you try.” A ghost of a smile flitted across Nova’s face. Oh, would he regret challenging her. After all, this a long time coming. She certainly wanted to make the most of it. — It had all begun because Nova was getting impatient with the lack of progress they had been making. The DCI hadn’t picked up any leads in months and discord was beginning to run 27

rampant in the streets. There was an uptick in crime, the deadly gas attacks being some of the most concerning, and a new player whose name seemed to be connected to every new problem in town. Zavian Van der Baas. Nova had no doubt that more miscreants were bound for Redcombe City now that his name was in the wind. Time was of the essence and they were rapidly running out of options. But she knew just the man that could help. A man who no doubt had a finger in every pie. The Rook would have information, but he wouldn’t be easy to catch. –– Even though there were more than enough qualified candidates for the mission, Nova was wary of entrusting such an important task with her subordinates. If she had to choose, however, the only people she trusted at a certain level was the tight-knit group of division heads. Tobin was their resident technology expert, but Nova was confident the IT division could do without him for a few weeks. His skills were legendary, and she would need them to trace phone calls and to tap into nearby security cameras. In addition to that, she was almost positive she could convince Malachi to take a hiatus on his latest weapons project and partner with Tobin. Someone had to be the adult. The last time Tobin did something unchaperoned, an accidental fire was sparked and half of a building was burnt down. And Kieran. Nova knew she had her responsibilities as head of R&D to develop the antidote for the nerve agent, but she trusted her, perhaps above all others. Sure, they weren’t close, but they were friends at the very least. Nova could thank the broken coffee machine turned daily coffee deliveries for that. If she had a choice, she’d ask her sister, Eiza instead, but she was on duty at the fire station the entire month because of the wildfires in the south. So Nova had paired off with Kieran, and Malachi had agreed to work with Tobin only if he promised not to set anything on fire again. Whilst Tobin and Mal monitored and provided intel from central command, Nova and Kieran had taken shifts for close to a month in the apartment building across from the Rook’s penthouse. The man was inconsistent and slick, thus a schedule or some pattern had to be discerned in order for them to find and bring him in. It was by pure chance there was an empty apartment almost exactly across from the Rook’s balcony. Tobin had immediately contacted the real estate agent and leased the space under an alias. It was fully furnished and quite nice for the price he managed to get it at. The best part was the balcony, which was private and boasted a fantastic view of the harbour in the east. 28

They had stationed a pair of binoculars equipped with night vision technology close to the sliding glass doors, which allowed them to easily adjust the blinds when needed. And it was no surprise that Nova packed them enough food to last a few weeks. It was incredible how much food she could fit in that bottomless pit she called her stomach. — Kieran had loathed leaving her lab, but with Eiza unavailable and the boys developing the latest suit prototypes for the field, she was forced to take the first shift with Nova. Arrogant and undeniably brazen, Nova. It was a shame all full-time employees at the DCI knew basic self-defence and how to handle a gun. She would really, honestly rather stay holed up in her lab. Preferably forever. In her defence, she had matters far more urgent on her hands than a shady black-market operator. A new version of the military-grade nerve agent, Sarin, had begun appearing on the streets months ago. Although remarkably similar to the original, its compounds differed slightly and its effects permeated the nervous system at a much slower rate. Someone was using it to assassinate high profile targets, ones that owed money and some that had pulled out of dealings with one Zavian Van der Baas. And it wasn’t just targets who were being taken out by the deadly nerve gas, it was anyone who got in the way. For instance, the police officers unfortunately assigned to protect these people. Half of the RCPD was either out of commission, in critical condition at the hospital, or dead. If this continued at the same rate, the entire department would be wiped out by the end of the month. Something needed to be done. And soon. It was cases like this that would fall under the directive of the Department of Criminal Investigation. Chief Carroll at the precinct had filed a Code Black, so it seemed it was time to bring out the big guns. On official papers, it meant the FBI was taking charge. In reality, the DCI was to head the investigation. The public couldn’t know about dangers not even the FBI could handle. All they knew from brief mentions was that the DCI was only a small branch that aided criminal cases that went to the Supreme Court, not a completely separate organisation removed from the jurisdiction of the FBI. And with an organisation so large, they had several sectors located across the United States. Nova directed the West Coast sector located in an off-grid bunker rigged with the newest and still-developing technologies. After receiving the Code Blue, Tobin was able to backtrace a series of encrypted emails and followed a money trail, and therefore establishing a suspect. It seemed a man familiar to the DCI for his wares had entered into a new business: importing compounds used to produce Sarin. 29

It was quick and dirty money, but it was unusual for him to dabble in weapons like this. From what they knew from their last run-in with him, he was more of a D-list arms dealer than anything. Someone was shuffling the deck of cards, and that never meant good news. With the usual class of criminals rapidly shifting and changing, it was likely that their stakeout could take longer than their usual, something that vexed Kieran to no end. Weeks of close quarters with Nova was everything she didn’t want rolling into the newfound tension between them. Their conversations were usually studded with dry humour and gentle heckling, but their last conversation had left them both unsure of where they stood. Nova had prowled into her lab, her mood stormy enough that everyone in her path gave her a wide berth. The door beeped and slid open effortlessly. “Kieran! I was just informed by your scientists that you rejected my order to begin trials for the antidote immediately. Were my instructions unclear?” “No,” she arched a brow, continuing to bustle around her workspace, “But based on silico models and preliminary tests in vitro, the antidote, SA249P, isn’t reaching the chemical activity efficiently.” “I understood none of what you just said, but it doesn’t matter because all I’m hearing is no, and I don’t like that.” Kieran rolled her eyes, “The point is, human trials pose too great of a risk right now.”

“I disagree,” Nova snapped. “Well, it’s not your life on the line,” Kieran countered, a note of impatience edging into her voice. Nova planted a hand on her work station, gesturing with her other in the direction of the med bay. Her ire seemed to make her taller and more rigid. “There are able and ready agents—we can’t afford to wait!” “And I can’t afford to have anyone injured or dead because of me.” Kieran’s voice rang strong and firm, “I need to use X-ray crystallographic analysis to take a closer look at the antidote’s complex with the AChE molecule on its own and redesign a better compound.” 30

“But—” “Trust me and my science, Nova. I just need more time! Please.” Nova glared, crossing her arms. “Fine. You have until we leave for the mission.” Kieran exhaled, “Thank you.” But Nova was already gone. It was a good thing Kieran stood her ground because she was able to successfully redesign the compound after pulling two all-nighters at the DCI. After its implementation, the models were looking much better and the tests were showing great promise. If the volunteers had been tested using the faulty batch, Kieran had no doubt there would be more than a few casualties. A safe prototype of SA249P was finally ready for human trials. Unfortunately, with the stakeout planned, the official trials would have to wait until they got back. In the meantime, Kieran just had to make it through however many days they had sharing the same space. — In the other end of the bunker, Nova was holed up in her office, a faint red staining her cheeks despite her lack of company. Embarrassment welled up in her chest, twisting viciously. She had heard the news by then. Kieran was able to reverse engineer a workable antidote for Sarin-2 no thanks to her display of rudeness back at the lab days earlier. She knew she needed to apologise, the only problem was that she didn’t know how to. Her inability to put her full trust in her colleagues, and in extension her closer acquaintances, had almost resulted in a catastrophe. If it hadn’t been for Kieran’s insistence, Nova would have the deaths of several colleagues as well as manslaughter and negligence charges levelled against her. Instead, she chose to focus on the stakeout, putting her inner turmoil aside for the time being. In the end, it was the logical choice. Removing distractions allowed her to perform at her best, and her best meant capturing the Rook. Much to her surprise, the four of them made a competent and effective team. Perhaps she wasn’t usually one to enlist partners, but having trustworthy backup as well as another person during the stakeout significantly eased the boredom and repetition.


Sure, it was tense, especially with the little falling out with Kieran, but it was still nice. Of course, Kieran was still stupidly kind despite her obvious apprehension toward Nova. She still attempted to make small talk whilst they perched behind their set up. “ long d’you think this’ll take?” Kieran fiddled with her thumb ring. Nova adjusted the dials on the binoculars and turned on the night vision. Night was approaching and according to traffic cameras picking up activity at the harbour, that meant the Rook was likely to arrive at his residence in the next few hours. His returns were sporadic at best, and Nova had no doubt he had a robust security system guarding his penthouse. All they had to do was establish a pattern and then he would be theirs. He wasn’t known to leave the area as it was his turf. His hold was powerful and he had sway over all potential buyers. A smart man would have stuck at home. Nova suspected there was something bigger behind the abnormality. That complicated things, which meant their stakeout could take longer than estimated. “Hopefully two weeks tops if we’re lucky.” Nova leaned back, glancing over. Kieran yawned, trying valiantly to hide it behind her hand. Nova softened visibly. “You probably haven’t gotten much sleep. The last few nights have kept you busy. I’ll take the first watch.” It wasn’t a true apology, but it was the closest she’d gotten to acknowledging her blunder in the lab since it happened. Baby steps, baby steps. “Thanks. Wake me up when it’s my turn?” Nova nodded. She watched Kieran unfold the sofa bed from the corner of her eye. There was no way she was going to wake her up. Kieran had stayed up for hours on end to perfect an antidote because of a deadline Nova had set herself. The least she could do was let her catch up on some of the lost sleep. Besides, the second watch was usually quieter as most stimulating events happen late at night when people thought no one was watching. It was around 2 a.m. when a faint glow pulsed faintly from the crack between the Rooks darkened curtains. He was home. It stayed on for a few hours before it was extinguished as quickly as it came. Bingo. The rest of the night was uneventful and come morning, Nova was feeling the stiffness in her back and dryness of her eyes. Naturally, when Kieran woke, she was none too happy that


she’d slept in and Nova had taken the second shift. But Nova could tell that the extra hours did wonders as they returned a bit of colour to her cheeks. They repeated this process until a week after Nova’s estimation. It was well established by then that the Rook was returning to his penthouse every 38 hours. It was a seemingly obscure number, but it was clearly chosen to throw off any interested parties. However, Nova had experience and that told her that the Rook liked the consistency and keeping track of his appointments easily. “Look, there’s a pattern in his visits. Every 38 hours.” Nova pointed at the times they logged throughout the past week. “That’s rather stupid.” Kieran raised a brow. “Well, that’s the Rook for you. Predictable,” Nova pulled up a map with a swipe, “And judging by the time it took from his entry point to his penthouse, he has sensors or defence mechanisms, which makes things a little more difficult.” “So what’s our next move?” “We disable his security system and set up an ambush.” — After they’d calculated his next visit, they donned their DCI issued body armour and proceeded to disengage all of the Rook’s security measures. It was an arduous process as the sensors were sensitive and required a delicate hand. She would have had Tobin shut off the mainframe of the entire system, but something was interfering with their tech. She and Kieran were on their own. In all honesty, it was a bit of an overkill, but Nova hadn’t picked up any other of the Rook’s regular bodyguards or compatriots on the binoculars, which was peculiar. The Rook would never willingly walk around in the dead of night without bodyguards. Unfortunately, Tobin and Malachi weren’t able to detect anyone. Something or someone was shielding them. Strange. The Rook was known to operate on his own, and he certainly didn’t work for anyone but himself. An uneasy feeling crept up her spine. She didn’t know if this new revelation was a good or bad thing, but judging by the uptick in crime, it was starting to lean toward bad. But one thing Nova did know was that the Rook was a private man. No one would be allowed to set foot in his home except him. That meant they had to be in his penthouse awaiting his arrival. Attempting a capture outside risked exposure as well as being overrun by his thugs. So that was what they did. Kieran surprised Nova by easily dismantling alarm after alarm whilst Tobin and Malachi hacked into the security cameras. And when they passed each


checkpoint, Kieran immediately reset the sensors. Everything must be exactly as it was or else he would know. “Tobin, what’s our status?” “It’s a go, boss. All they’ll see tomorrow is looped footage.” “Copy that. Over and out.” Nova slinked forward, crooking her fingers for Kieran to follow. They slipped through the lobby, before heading into the private elevator. After jimmying the keycard slot open, and sliding in a master key, the elevator began its steady incline. Once they arrived at his front door, Nova disabled one last alarm before using the master key to unlock his front door. They were in. Nova settled herself on his no-doubt expensive couch, draping an arm over the backrest. One look from her convinced Kieran to sit down, albeit gingerly. The silence was deafening. It wasn’t long before they heard the ding of the elevator. “He’s here,” Nova whispered, drawing her pistol. The lock clicked, the door swinging open as he slipped inside. Nova handed Kieran the tranquillizer gun, “Hello, Earl.” The Rook spun around. Kieran pulled the trigger. — With their mission a success and the Rook in their hands, Nova could finally allow herself a moment to breathe. It had been weeks since she'd had a full night's sleep and it could have been weeks more if he hadn’t uncharacteristically slipped up. Kieran had so kindly commented on her haggard appearance when she had waltzed in at 6 a.m. with a beverage carrier laden with their drink orders from Blueriver’s. Nova’s usual spiced chai had been graciously replaced with an espresso.


But now was not the time to dwell on lost sleep and the state of her current well-being. No, she had an interrogation to complete. And a godforsaken country to save. On second thought, that last one could wait. She had an apology to issue before she could even think about tackling that. Nova strolled to the reflective glass, striking it twice with her knuckles. The red light on the IP camera mounted in the corner blinked on. “How is that we managed to nab you?” The Rook scowled, looking at a spot on the floor. “Seems like someone is losing his touch, or maybe you bit off more than you could chew? Always so…greedy,” she tsked, “Predictable schedule, frequent visits, calling in favours? Should I go on?” “I was desperate, all right? I didn’t know what I was getting into and I had to figure a way out. Consequences be damned.” He exploded, cuffs rattling. It seemed she hit a nerve. “You didn’t know what you were getting into? That’s rich, especially coming from a man who operates in the black market as a day job,” she scoffed. The Rook shifted uneasily, an uncomfortable look flashing across his face before disappearing again. The black market was supposed to be his wheelhouse, he was the captain and he seldom made a mistake. He always made his move with another already in mind. There was always something resolute in the ways he committed to and entered a long-term business deal or investment, ruthless was his brand. But something had changed, convictions had changed. “You specialise in under-the-table dealings with untouchable businessmen on the regular and you’ve got sources stationed across the area,” she rolled up her sleeves, then crossed her arms, “You knew exactly what you signed up for when you joined—” she waved her hand, “— whatever it is you got tangled up in, but clearly something changed and now you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get out.” His lack of response was all Nova needed to know. The silence was very unlike him. He was always one to gloat about and flaunt his success, and he always had an infuriating knack for getting out of trouble. The Rook obviously couldn’t now, but he was in no position to do so even if he wanted to. 35

He was being forced to lay in a bed he’d unknowingly made for himself. “Who’s your boss?” “I don’t know! I’ve never met him or seen him.” “Liar.” “Who. Is. Your. Boss?” “Okay, okay! He goes by Zavian Van der Baas. But I swear, I’ve never seen him before.” Nova knew Zavian had been bad news. Mal owed her 50 bucks. She hummed, “Interesting. In that case, what did he promise you to gain your allegiance? What made it so tempting that you were willing to work for someone other than yourself?” Nova pulled out the chair across from him, the legs screeching against the concrete. “Money? Weapons?” It could be a number of things. Money was her best guess, but based on what she knows about the Rook, he was also known to make a few deals that allowed him to bypass international security and gain access to secure federal depositories. Apparently, the man also collected favours like other people collected baseball cards. However, those were just ifs. Criminals can usually be counted to be consistent, but every once in a while someone will do something anomalous. Just thinking of what the Rook pulled recently had her anger spiking dangerously again. They had maintained a relatively easy relationship compared to the other big bads she had to deal with, but he had crossed a line a month ago. The IT department had obtained phone calls between the Rook and a mercenary regarding another black market dealer that intended to sell, who Nova now realised was Zavian, out to the FBI. Zavian wanted the dealer gone, so The Rook paid off men to bomb the high rise building on Jefferson Street where the supposed meeting was to take place. In the end, the meeting never happened and the Rook had inadvertently orchestrated the deaths of dozens of civilians instead. It had been by pure chance that Nova had been having lunch across the street on her rare day off when the bomb went off. She barely made it out. Many patrons didn’t. The muscle in his cheek flexed. Nova’s expression darkened, and she stood up once more, grabbing him by his hair, slamming his head against the table with a crack. “Answer me, you son of a gun!” 36

He groaned, hissing, “I won’t say anything!” Nova stepped back, cracking her knuckles and then her neck. She threw a right hook, and soon another punch was punctuated by a sharp cry. “! You killed dozens of people for your boss and I won’t let you do it again. I let you off easy last time we ran into each other but I swear I’ll make the next hour a personal hell for you if you don’t start talking now.” She hissed, her hand fastening around his neck and pinning him against his chair. The Rook gasped, “Okay...okay, I’ll talk.” She eased her grip, and he panted, spitting on the ground. “I’m glad we could come to an understanding.” “They promised me—” he winced as her fingers pressed against the bruise on his jaw, “—a cut of any profits they make but also special...benefits from the styrka. In the meantime, they’ve paid me handsomely for my work.” “Styrka? What’s a styrka?” The DCI had heard of this so-called styrka Zavian was also looking for, but they had been hitting dead end after dead end. Interesting. This was the first lead they had gotten in months. He paused, and her grip tightened around his throat. The Rook gasped again, his face reddening. “I-I dunno. All I was told was that it’d—that it’d change the world.” Nova released his neck, unfolding and wiping her hand on a handkerchief. She then tapped the places circled in red on the map. “Keep. Talking. You give us information, we’ll let you go and you can go back to being the perfect little henchman.” Nova tossed the pen in the air, catching and offering it. “The way I see it, it’s a win-win situation for both of us.” “B-but, but they’ll find out—they’ll kill me and destroy everything I’ve built.” Nova huffed, tucking the pen back into her breast pocket. “They’ll kill you whether or not you talk and you know it. You got caught, you’ve been compromised.” She paused, stalking around him and bracing herself on the back of the chair. She would offer him a deal. Punching and threatening would only get her so far. All she had to do was keep her anger in check. Deep breaths. Shove everything into little boxes. She was calm. She was controlled.


“Listen, Earl. If you strike a deal with us, I give you my word we’ll smuggle you out. New paperwork, passport, identity. Hell, we’ll even set up an apartment for you.” Nova paused again to let it sink in. He squeezed his eyes shut before rapidly spitting out, “A serum, he’s looking for some serum. There are labs that he intends to break into. Then he’s gonna take it back to his base to do who knows what with it.” She leaned in, whispering, “Good boy. Now, all you have to do is give us the locations of the labs he’s hitting next and the bases he has running operations.” “How do I know you’ll keep your promise?” “Earl, you know I always keep my promises.” And she was right. There was yet to be a time where she hadn’t delivered exactly as she promised. Their last run-in before Zavian’s arrival in Redcombe City was memorable as the situation they found themselves in ended in mutually assured destruction. The Rook had his hand poised to sign over enough torpedoes that could blow a city to hell and back to Henry Sinclair, who was public enemy number one at the time. And right beside him was Nova with her pistol pressed against his temple. It was all great fun. She had the IT and weapon divisions on her comms but there was nothing they could do from the bunker. The Rook had a great time taunting the heads, both responding in vastly different manners. He had only shut up when Nova pushed the muzzle of the pistol harder against his head. The only choice she had left was to make a deal with the Rook. She promised her finger off the trigger and in turn, he promised all copies of his contract burned. It was by the grace of god everybody got to walk away unharmed and all limbs accounted for. Nothing scared the Rook more than death, and it was especially clear now that he was running out of moves to play. He didn’t respond but Nova could tell he was thinking. The pads of his fingers tapped rapidly on the table and his foot shifted every so often. Nova wasn’t stupid enough to think he didn’t have some sort of plan or trick up his sleeve, but she’d known him long enough to have a few of her own up her sleeves.


She just hoped he would make his decision fast because they were running out of time. Their inside man at the Dawson plant said they’d have approximately 48 hours before his Zavian caught wind of the Rook’s capture and changed his plans. “What do you say?” “Fine. But I want more than just new papers. I want a pair of the plasma blasters dearest Malachi built.” The Rook jutted his chin toward the pair of armed guards by the enforced door. Nova blinked. She knew he was perceptive, but these weapons were designed with a cloaking device and were virtually untraceable without the satellites Mal programmed to detect plasmic energy. Curious, indeed. Nova doubted anyone from the DCI slipped up and revealed their upper hand, but it was still concerning to hear that they didn’t have as much of an edge against Zavian as they thought they did. The question was, how did Zavian know? “What blasters?” She feigned confusion. Maybe if she pretended she didn’t know what he was talking about, he would drop it. The Rook shot her a bloody smile. “I’m incapacitated, not stupid.” He jutted his chin again, “The blasters you issued to every guardsman under the idiotic assumption that they’ll save your asses in the field.” She dropped the act. “Well, it sounds like you don’t think very highly of these blasters. If that’s the case, why do you want them?” “Why I want them is none of your concern. Tell Malachi I appreciate his work, as primitive as it is.” Disgruntled, Nova made a mental note to have Malachi revisit his original design and consult one of the new interns, a little test, so to speak. She recalled a young man, Bailey, that showed great promise. Or maybe Mal could ring his associate down in Port Dutral for a second opinion. “All right. Deal.” Nova slid the pen against the table and motioned for the guards to relieve themselves of the agreed-upon blasters, setting them out of his reach. She typed a few commands into the screen before speaking, “My men’ll file the papers to complete my end of the bargain momentarily, it’s your turn to uphold yours.” The cuff on his right wrist popped open and he rotated his wrist, “This isn’t my dominant hand.”


“I know. Did you really think I was going to risk freeing a hand that could easily kill me? You’d probably figure out a way to disembowel me with this pen.” She tossed said pen onto the table. He sighed, picking it up. “Boss intends to hit the Endover-Sommers facility tonight. There’s a supposed serum that’ll move his plans forward by months,” he circled the location and zoomed in to highlight the lab. “Months? That’s way ahead of our projections,” she gaped, running her hand through her hair. He shrugged, “At least that’s what he said on the phone last time we spoke. He seemed pleased by the progress.” He swiped at the screen, stopping when he reached the harbour. “And after that, he’s to have a stealth submarine wait in Pier 4–“ “Pier 4? Hasn’t that been closed for weeks?” Malachi had been in a pissy mood for weeks because the city council kept refusing to use part of the budget to fix the docks. After Malachi stormed out of the room, Tobin had explained that the weapons engineer had been wanting to add some upgrades to the DCI speedboat, The Canyon, but had been persuaded otherwise by the former a few days prior. “Well, yes, but that’s why it serves its purpose so well. No one has any reason to be around.” Nova rubs a hand across her face. She would have to talk with the agents patrolling the harbour. They should’ve noticed the increased activity by a supposedly inactive dock. “So the submarine’ll bring the serum to his offshore depot and circle back for the next shipment in the next...” he looks at the clock, “72 hours or so.” Nova paced, brows furrowed. That was less time than she thought they had. Factoring in the time it took for news to reach Zavian, she and her newly formed team, assuming they would agree to go, had only a definite 24 hours to extract the serum and a limited window in placing a tracker on that submarine. “All right. Let’s hope this information is accurate, for both our sakes. What else do you know?” She looked at him, noticeably flexing her hand in casual warning. The Rook gritted his teeth audibly before pinching the screen to zoom out. He circled several more locations silently before he spoke again. “These are the places he’d marked down and sent to me. He didn’t say when he’d hit these labs, but I reckon in the next few weeks since we’ve been making good progress. That’s all I know, I swear. There was a knock at the door and an automated beep just as she began nodding. Tobin popped in, thrusting a handful of papers at Nova. “Here ya go, boss—oh, hey, Earl!” 40

Nova snorted, shoving Tobin back out the door, “I still don’t understand why you’re so nice to him.” “Oh, I’m just being friendly even though I think his ugly ass should have been buried six feet underground by now.” “Oh my god, get out of here already, you dork,” she rolled her eyes fondly, shoving him out the door. He stuck his hand back in. “Hey, hey, hey, wait! Mal and I are getting dinner later, wanna join?” Nova wanted to, she was never one to turn down an invite, but she already had plans. Plans she would have to lie about. “Maybe not today?” she rubbed her neck sheepishly, “I have piles of paperwork I’ve been putting off.” She may not have been behind on her paperwork, but Tobin didn’t need to know that. She could always get a head start on project updates from the R&D division instead. There was always more work to complete. “Yeah, no worries. See ya later, boss.” He wiggled his fingers and pulled the door shut, locking with a swift click. A slow grin stretched across Nova’s face as she pinned the Rook with a stare, walking across the room to the reflected window. She knocked this time in a succession of three. The red dot on the IP camera blinked once and disappeared while a metal covering descended over the window. There were to be no witnesses to whatever happened next. “End him.” Pure panic erupted in the room. The Rook frantically yanked at the cuffs slapped over his wrists, the chains rattling in a tempo-less beat. The guards could no longer hold their tongues, both objecting and firing questions rapidly. “But ma’am—” “—Protocol, and the team—” “—What about the team?” Nova held up a hand. “Can I trust your discretion until I inform the team of the new developments, gentlemen?”


Both guards immediately quieted, the only sound left in the room were the clattering from the cuffs and the enraged profanities spewing out of the Rook’s mouth. This time there was no hesitation when both guards answered. “Yes, ma’am.” “Good.” Nova turned to the Rook, waiting for him to notice her amidst his struggling. And when he does, his eyes are wild and his mouth set in an angry growl. “You promised, Nova! We had a deal!” “And I intend to keep it. I promised we’d get you out of the country and have everything set up for you.” She stalked to the table, planting her hands and leaning down, “However, I’ve done the liberty of leaving all your new assets to myself if you were to die. You’ll get out of here, just not in the way you imagined.” Checkmate. The Rook had finally run out of moves. She turned to the first guard. “Dakota, I understand you have a score to settle? He’s all yours.” He tilted his head in acknowledgement. His previous partner was off duty and just happened to be in the vicinity when the Rook’s bomb tore his car apart. “Thank you, ma’am.” “Have him disposed of by midnight. I’ll come by with a transportation unit and then you’re both free to go.” The guards nodded curtly, uncuffing him as he struggled, the vein in his forehead pulsing. His wrists were cuffed to a chain attached to the ceiling, and it jangled violently as he fought tooth and nail. “You’re going to regret crossing me, you lying scumbag!” “I genuinely wish I could say that I will, but I’m afraid I won’t. It really was an absolute pleasure.” She shot him a feral grin, “I have an engagement I can’t miss, but I do hope you’ll enjoy the company. Oh, and do try to keep it down, even sound-proof walls have a limit.” She exited the room swiftly as the Rook’s howls began anew.


Her trip down to central command was surprisingly uneventful, but it quickly became clear as to why when she arrived. It bustled with activity, agents typing furiously on the computers and hurrying in and out with reports in hand. Malachi’s new suits were almost ready and that was truly a cause for celebration. After just a few more tests, they could potentially begin mass producing them so all agents could have a new set by Christmas. For the time being, she would focus on project updates and keeping everyone’s attention away from the interrogation room. And at midnight, she had a meeting to conclude. –– The Rook looked terrible. He was nearly unrecognisable and his head lolled lazily. Once he noticed Nova, he chuckled humorlessly, the laugh growing into a wheezy cackle. “I told you you’d regret crossing me, didn’t I?” He swayed, blood stained his teeth. “Yes, and your point?” “I was debating whether to tell you, but I think I will because I know you’ll go mad trying to find them.” “Find who?” Nova squinted, suspicion colouring her voice. “The traitor, of course.” Nova scoffed, “I knew you’d be trying to mess with me, but this is sad, even for you.” “Oh no, no. I’m not jesting, not now. Weren’t you wondering how I knew about Mal’s blasters? I could see it in your eyes.” Nova crossed her arms. She knew he was right, deep down, but how was that possible? Everyone was vetted before being hired and projects were guarded jealously. “Tell me. Tell me who it is.” The Rook laughed weakly, eyes fluttering. “Tell me!” Nova grasped his throat, fingers matching with the bruises she left hours ago. “Never.”


Her hand tightened as she opened her mouth to demand it once again. Blood leaked out of his mouth as he gurgled faintly. And then he was gone. Nova let go of his neck, smashing the wall with her fist. “Damn it!” –– Nova rolled the gurney down the hallway briskly, her thoughts in turmoil. Every agent and employee had been vetted before being allowed in this facility. It was the most secure building on this side of the country. At least, it was supposed to be. Nova was so lost in thought that she didn’t notice a second pair of footsteps turning into the hallway. “What’re you doing here so late?” Kieran called out. Another olive branch. She was always one to forgive easily. Nova flinched, reaching for her holster and whipping around. “Put your hands—oh, it’s you.” Her hands shook ever so slightly as she set them back on the gurney. “Woah, hey, yeah, it’s just me.” Kieran held out her hands. “Don’t sound too excited,” she smirked, looking at her bemusedly, “I was just coming to find you—” Kieran did a doubletake, “What’s all this? Where’s Earl?” “He’s been taken care of. He won’t be a problem anymore.” “Taken care of? What’s that supposed to mean?” Nova flipped the top of the sheet over with one hand, revealing the Rook’s torso. Kieran froze. His face was barely recognisable, it resembled more of a rotting plum than a human face. “Nova, what did you do?” Kieran gagged as Nova covered his face once again. “When we said ‘offer him a deal’ we meant a shorter sentence, or hell, the insanity plea, not—” she gestured at the gurney, “—beat him to death! Have you lost your goddamn mind?”


Nova started pushing the gurney again. “In my defence, I wasn’t the one who did all that. I was just...restricting his airways to be more...convincing…which may or may not have been the last straw?” “You ordered the guards to do it, Nova. And you knew they had no grounds to disobey.” Nova didn’t even pause. “I’m your superior. I don’t need a green light from the team. Besides, he had it coming.” Nova winced internally, that was not how she intended to go about apologising. Foot, meet mouth. Kieran reached out, snagging her shoulder and stopping her. “The team? We’re your friends, Nova. Friends keep each other in the loop.” A range of emotions flashed through her eyes, finally settling on an angry shade of green. “And it doesn’t matter that he had it coming, there’s a reason we have a criminal system!” “A corrupted criminal system,” Nova added, opting not to address Kieran’s previous statement. “It doesn’t matter! You can’t just kill someone, Nova!” “Yes, I can! I served justice to someone who’d taken far too many innocent lives.” “That wasn’t justice, and you know it.” Kieran jabbed a finger against her chest. “Fine! Okay? I was furious, I still am. He’s the one that caused the events that led to the deaths of so many civilians and—“ “And you feel like you could have done something.” Kieran finished, understanding dawning on her face. Nova’s gaze shuttered, shoulders sagging. “I’m responsible for the safety of the public, and if I can’t save just one person, how am I supposed to protect the city?” “It isn’t just your burden to bear, you know. It’s a team effort, remember?” “But I was there, I could’ve done a million things differently, but I froze. It’s my fault the casualties were so high.” Kieran stopped, whirling toward her. 45

“Shut up. Don’t say things like that. It wasn’t your fault and you shouldn’t be taking the blame for something Earl decided to do.” Kieran gripped her shoulders, “Everything he did is on him; he was the one who chose to do it, not you.” “But it feels like my fault.” Nova could feel the prickle of Kieran’s gaze, but she looked away, choosing to focus on a floor instead. “If I hadn’t lowered my guard for one minute, everything would have been different.” Their first conversation after the mission was not going the way she had originally intended. She had originally put off apologising during their shift, and now it would have to be pushed back. Again. “Nova…” Nova reached out, squeezing her hand. Her anguish was still raw and she still needed time to process the guilt before she could move on. No civilians should have gotten caught in the crossfire. This was exactly why Nova never took days off. She needed to be constantly alert and ready to act. It was also why she’s single despite the number of blind dates Eiza had tried to set her up with. In her line of work, no one she cared about was safe. Anyone she met would have to stay in the dark about her job. They could never know about what she really did. “You can lecture me all you want later. We can even sit down with the team for a chat to discuss,” she turned, this time looking Kieran straight in the eyes. “But right now I need you to put all of this aside and summon every single agent, intern, transport employee— everyone—to central command.” “What? Why? It’s the middle of the night—“ “There’s a traitor in our midst,” Nova’s expression was stony, lips set in a grim line. “And I intend to find them before dawn.”


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