The Nex: Chapter 1

My mom says stealing is wrong, my brother says it’s only stealing if you get caught, and my dad used to say good artists borrow, but great artists steal. I don’t know if I’m right or wrong or any kind of artist, but the best and worst and weirdest days of my life (so far) started with theft: first I stole something, and then I got stolen away.

The school bus dropped me off in front of my house, and I gave my brother Cal’s dirty old Mustang the usual kick as I passed by. Cal saved up and bought a car as soon as he turned sixteen, but he never drops me off at my school, even though it’s on his way. The car’s so beat up Cal never notices the dents I contribute, but kicking it makes me feel better.

Mom’s car was there too, and so was her stupid boyfriend’s, so I was thinking about sneaking around the side and climbing in my bedroom window to avoid them all when I heard the sound. It was this weird hum, high-pitched, like a bunch of bees buzzing in hundred-part-harmony. I looked into Cal’s back seat and didn’t see anything hummy, but I did see a necklace, half covered in a jumble of schoolbooks and fast-food wrappers, a silvery bright metal chain all strung along with jewels like teardrops.

The jewels changed color, from yellow to blue, then shifted and shimmered to green, and it was the prettiest thing ever, even though I’m not a fancy-jewelry girl. I’d never seen a necklace change color that way, and I wanted it. I didn’t even wonder how it worked. I couldn’t imagine why Cal had something so nice anyway – he only cares about girls and drums lately, so anything without boobs or cymbals is wasted on him. I knelt down and felt around in the wheel well for the magnetic hide-a-key where Cal keeps his spare.

I opened the door and pulled out the necklace. It was heavier than I’d expected, and warm, like it had been sitting in the sun. I didn’t want to wear it – I like jangly mismatched bracelets and that’s about it – but looking at it made my heart thump and my skin warm up, the same way stealing gum from the gas station or hair clips from the mall does. That humming went on, and I realized the necklace was making the sound, and when I held it to my ear, it was like whispering –

“Randy, get outta my stuff!” Cal came through the front door, face all twisted and mad, and I tore off running across the street, over the ditch, through the empty field, and toward the woods. Cal chased me, calling me a dirty little thief – nothing I hadn’t heard before – but I’m faster than him, especially since he started sneaking cigarettes. I knew once I got in under the trees I’d lose him. My Dad used to take me out there, teaching me what plants were edible and which were poisonous, picking wild mushrooms, stuff like that, and I know all the paths. Even though I could tell which berries were safe to eat, though, I’d have to go home eventually, and that would be no fun. Mom and Cal always team up against me, ever since we lost Dad.

Once I was in the woods pretty deep and couldn’t hear Cal yelling anymore, I slowed down so I wouldn’t trip on any roots. I stopped by a tree and looked at the necklace some more. Sure, it was pretty, but was it worth getting grounded over, maybe worse? Still, there was something about the way the gems changed colors, the way it hummed…. I started thinking about places I could stash it, making up a story about how I’d dropped the necklace and couldn’t find it, sorry, Cal, and –

That’s when I got stolen away.

The whole world went white and black and blue and everything turned sideways with a whoosh and I fell down flat on my back in the dirt. The sky spun crazily, and I swear all I did was blink, but just that quick the sky was dark instead of light. I couldn’t see too well because of the tree branches above, but there were things in the sky that weren’t stars or planets or satellites or low-flying planes, things like slowly-spinning chandeliers and big blue glowing orbs, and something whirring past that looked like a helicopter in a sketch by Da Vinci I saw once in art class, all corkscrewy and strange.

I sat up, cradling the necklace – the hum was a lot more like a whisper now, and I wondered if the necklace was picking up a radio station or something, the way tooth fillings supposedly can. I stood up, dizzy and slow, and leaned against a pine tree. I touched my hand to my nose and it came away bloody, but just a little. I have nosebleeds once in a while, ever since I was a little kid. I even used to get out of school because of them, until Mom figured out I was making my nose bleed on purpose sometimes just to get out of class.

I thought maybe I’d fallen down and hit my head, that I’d been unconscious in the woods until nightfall. It was a good theory, except my head didn’t hurt, and there were those things in the sky. The other possibility was the whooshing and the colors had taken me somewhere else, but if I’d been kidnapped, the bad guys had kidnapped the whole forest, too, or at least the woods as far as I could see. I’d read books about people going magically or science-fictionally to other worlds, but chunks of their own worlds didn’t usually go with them. I took out my cell phone, just to see what time it was, but the display was all weird, nothing that even looked like numbers or letters, and when I tried to dial home, I couldn’t get a signal.

A woman’s voice said something like “Over here,” and twigs crunched and pine needles slithered under oncoming feet. I wondered if I should try to hide behind a tree, or if this was a search party looking for me or something. Lights approached from the direction of the voice, but not like a lamp, more like a bunch of fireflies, all yellowy-green and clustered together.

“It’s ridiculous for them to snatch all these trees to get one little device,” came another voice, this one deep and masculine like something out of a movie trailer.

“The Regent doesn’t mind. He snatched up that whole scrapyard when all he needed was a few hundred pounds of copper. You been down to that place lately? Ha, of course not, but I hear it’s full of refugees from the Walking Wars, all building clockwork siege engines and putting up flags and declaring sovereignty. Deluded bastards.”

“They’ll be absorbed,” the man’s voice said, sounding bored, just like my friend Jenny Kay sounds in math class. The teacher always calls on her, because Jenny always knows, but she gives the answers like they’re so obvious that even asking her is a stupid question.

“We could rally them to our cause.”

“This isn’t a fight we’ll win by force of arms.”

“Force of arms is what I’m good at,” the woman said, her voice clearer now. “Also force of fists, force of feet, force of fangs, and et cetera.”

“I’m well acquainted with your strengths.”

“You can –” The crunching stopped, and I hunched over into myself, back pressed against the tree, necklace pressed against my chest between my boobs (such as they are), not at all sure these were people I wanted to meet.

The woman stepped into sight. I could see her clearly, lit in the glow of the strange cloud of floating lights, which was about the size of a basketball, hovering and sparkling. She was taller than me, almost as tall as my brother, with short dark hair and a pointy-pretty face, wearing gray and black clothes that seemed to shift around on her body like shadows. She looked like she got a lot of exercise, and –

She saw me.

The woman let out a low whistle. “Lookit, Wisp. Another citizen press-ganged.”

“None of our concern. We’re not on the welcoming committee this time.”

It was that male voice again, but I couldn’t tell where it was coming from – was the woman throwing her voice?

Suddenly the cloud of glowing lights swooped down into my face and began wiggling like crazy. “She has it. She has the engine!” The voice boomed right in my ears.

The woman crouched in front of me, waving her hand through the glowing spots, which buzzed like bugs and reformed above her head. “Hello, little one,” she said. “What have you got there?”

I grabbed the necklace tighter, and it shifted and twisted in my hands like a pissed-off kitten, which was a whole new level of weird. “Nothing. Just something I found. What is this place?” The last part was maybe a stupid question – it was the woods, the ones I’d used as a shortcut for years – but it was someplace else, too, obviously.

“I’ll answer your questions, after you give me that.” The woman held out her hand.

If it had been, I don’t know, a candy bar, or a pair of earrings, or any of the other things I stole sometimes, I would have given it up – but the necklace, what they’d called the engine, was different. “It’s mine,” I said.

“I’m going to make this pretty clear,” the woman said. “I’m stronger than you, and if you don’t give it, I’ll take it.”

“Don’t hurt her.” That disembodied voice again – what, was there a ghost here, or someone in an invisibility cloak like in the movies? “If you spill her blood, a forensic dowser may be able to track us that way.”

Blood? I didn’t have any way to defend myself, not even a little pocket knife. I used to have some pepper spray on the ring with my housekeys, but Mom took it away after I sprayed some on Cal’s mashed potatoes once. I tried to remember the women’s self defense class I took with Mom, but I hadn’t paid enough attention, all I could remember was stomping on somebody’s instep or hitting a guy’s crotch, and neither would help much here. Oh, and sticking something hard into something soft, like a key into an eye. That expression, “Stick something hard into something soft,” had fuelled about a thousand dirty jokes from my friend Jenny Kay, but it seemed like a good idea, if I could reach my car keys. Getting a housekey in the eye would stop anybody.

“Shushit,” the woman said. “Nobody’s going to hurt anybody. Just give.” She lashed out fast, got both hands on the necklace, and started pulling. I tried to get a better grip, crystals weirdly slippery in my hands, and then I felt a funny click as two crystals touched. I gasped when a sudden sharp pain stabbed my palms. It stung for a second, then stopped, like I’d had anesthetic gel rubbed on the stinging spots.

The woman let go and held up her hands like I was a cop pointing a gun at her, and she whistled again. All the tension and menace drained out of her. “Well, that’s it. She’s done whatever you do to activate the engine. She set the focus.”

I looked down, and the necklace had stabbed my hands somehow, leaving pinhead-sized drops of blood on my palms. The necklace started to twist again, writhing over my hands, breaking into smaller pieces that twinkled and crawled, and after a second the necklace was gone… but I was wearing two bracelets on each wrist, brass and sapphire and diamond and silver, and rings of different-colored metal on three fingers of each hand.

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” the ghost said.

I looked up, my throat dry. “What just happened?”

The woman put her hand on my shoulder, and I flinched, but it felt like a friendly hand. “You just joined the revolution. What’s your name?”

“I’m… Miranda. Randy. What revolution?”

The woman rose, crossing her arms and looking down at me with a smirky little smile. “My name… Is Howlaa Moor.”

I thought funny name but didn’t say it.

She frowned, and the male voice said, “She’s not from here, she’s from Earth, she doesn’t know who you are.”

“Ah. I guess that’s some excuse.” She gestured vaguely. “Randy, this is Wisp. He is annoying but I cannot hit him, and neither can you.”

I looked around. “Up here,” the voice said. “The lights.”

I blinked. The lights were talking to me. Wisp was the lights. “How can you talk?”

“Sound is just vibrations in the air. I have no trouble making vibrations.” The motes jiggled.

“This is too freaky.”

“Just you wait.” Howlaa grinned. “Come on. We have to get moving before they show up.”

“They? They who?”

“The ones we’re revolutioning against, of course.” Howlaa gestured impatiently, and I got to my feet.

“Revolting,” Wisp said.

“What are you nattering about?” Howlaa said.

“It’s not revolutioning, that isn’t even a word, it’s revolting.”

You’re revolting.” Howlaa laughed, and I realized she must have a sense of humor roughly the same as Cal’s. I found it stupid and comforting at the same time.

I followed after them, Howlaa walking and Wisp floating, thinking I could take off as soon as we got out of the woods and I figured out where I was, exactly. The trees got thinner, and now that I could see the sky clearly it was even stranger, with ribbons of shimmery color like the Northern Lights, and flashes in the corner of my eye that might have been multicolored lightning. Pretty weird, but I had like a mental block when I tried to think about what that weirdness meant. These were the woods by my house. How weird could things get there?

Except when we got out of the woods, I didn’t see the electric fence around the horse pasture, or the steeple of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, or any familiar landmarks in what should have been a super-familiar place.

What I saw was bleak nothing, ground like the lava rock from our vacation to Hawaii before Dad died, all pitted and black and hard. It all hit me then, the way the impossible had become factual, and I let out a long deep breath and tried not to let my knees give out underneath me. My body was freaking out, my heart all thud-thud-thudding, but my brain was working over the situation. Because Jenny Kay and I had talked about this, exactly this – about how, in stories, whenever the normal girl goes to a magical other world, she spends all her time trying to get home, and how stupid that is. We both agreed, if we ever found ourselves over the rainbow or through the looking glass, we’d take a look around before we tried to get away. We’d have the adventure.

The adventure was a lot scarier now that it was happening to me, but so far it was good scary like riding a roller coaster, instead of bad scary like listening at your mom’s bedroom door and wondering if she’s going to come out all day, and if she’ll be drunk when she does.

What was so great about home anyway?

Dad used to say every journey starts with one step, so I kept on walking. I was glad to be wearing my big baggy jacket, and that I had on thick-soled stomping boots and black tights under my ragged patchwork skirt, because just looking at the endless desert night made me cold. “What is this place?”

“The outskirts,” Wisp said. “The far provinces. Land waiting to be filled.”

The only thing breaking up the landscape was that funny-looking helicopter I’d seen go past before, with corkscrewed sails instead of rotors and a platform with a couple of chairs bolted on, along with a few long levers and a set of handlebars. It didn’t look like anything that could fly.

“There’s only one seat with straps, so you’ll have to hold on tight,” Howlaa said. “The autogyro can be… a bit bumpy.”

“She should be the one strapped in, she’s indispensable now,” Wisp argued.

“Why am I indispensable?”

They ignored me. Howlaa said, “Unless she can fly this thing, she gets the other chair, because only the pilot’s seat has straps, you floating ball of –”

Something like a glowing red boulder came streaking out of the sky with a long whine, and it landed with a crash like ten thunderstorms… right on the autogyro, which exploded into flying fragments of metal and wood. Before I could even blink I found myself way back in the woods again, easily a football field’s length away from Howlaa and the remains of the smoking autogyro. Had the explosion thrown me back? But I didn’t feel like I’d been thrown, hadn’t felt any sensation of movement at all, I was just here, out of harm’s way, not that I didn’t scream a couple of times anyway.

Howlaa came racing back into the woods, Wisp bobbing after her. After the noise of impact, it was quiet again, and I heard Wisp say “self-preservation circuit kicking in” before Howlaa scooped me up in her arms and started running, carrying me like I was a baby, like I didn’t weigh anything.

“They found us, kid,” she said. “And you’re going to be the Ax’s most popular girl if we’re not careful with you.”

“Must have been an orbital rail gun,” Wisp said.

“I don’t care if it was a steam colossus with a powered slingshot, the autogyro is gone, and that means we can’t fly.”

“Well, you and I can,” Wisp said. “Albeit much more slowly. It’s only Miranda that can’t fly at all. Unfortunately. I don’t suppose you can carry her…”

“Not a hope. It would ruin my aerodynamics.” Howlaa wasn’t even breathing hard, though I would’ve been gasping way too much to speak if I’d been running as hard and fast as she was. “What’s the plan now, Wispy?”

“Find transportation. Resume our journey. Use Miranda’s… unique abilities… to complete our mission.”

“Short on details, aren’t you? We’re leagues from the city center. And now we know they’ll be waiting. I should never have let you talk me into this. Things weren’t so bad, working for the Regent – all the booze I could drink, permission to hit people, places, and things on a regular basis… There are worse prisons, you know.”

“We knew this wouldn’t be easy,” Wisp said. “But our freedom is worth some effort, don’t you think?”

“Yes, fine, it just seemed like a better idea before the shooting started. And now a lot depends on this kid, who is… a kid.”

“At least we don’t have to depend on Templeton now. He’s the only human I’ve met who’s more reliable when intoxicated, and even then not by much. We’ll –”

They were talking about me like I wasn’t there. I hate that – Mom did it at a conference with my principal after what happened to Dad, saying “We all want what’s best for Miranda, I’m sure it’s just because she’s grieving, she’ll try harder,” blah blah blah – like I didn’t have a say in my own life, and like Mom had it together herself, when I knew she’d probably had four glasses of wine before she got to the school.

I wriggled and arched my back and Howlaa stopped running and let me drop. “Fine, you can walk yourself, but keep up.”

I scrambled away, the rings and bracelets on my fingers and wrists pressing cold against my skin as my heart thumped fast and wild, like the drum part in one of the lousy songs by Cal’s band. Having the adventure’s one thing, but I didn’t even know what the adventure was yet. “Why should I go anywhere with you? Where am I? What’s going on?”

Howlaa and Wisp – I won’t say they exchanged glances, since Wisp has no eyes, but Howlaa looked at Wisp and then back at me and sighed. “We’ll find a safe place, and then tell you everything you need to know.” She rolled her eyes. “Wisp will try to tell you everything, period, all-inclusive, including a short history of space-time, but I’ll restrain him from going on too much.”

I hesitated, thinking about running, but wherever I might want to go, it was pretty clear I couldn’t get there from here on my own.

“Please,” Howlaa said. “Come with us? We’re the ones who didn’t throw a big rock at you from orbit. And you must be wondering about the thing you… found. That turned itself into your jewelry there. I can tell you about that, too.”

I was suddenly so tired. A day at school, no more terrible than usual but still pretty terrible, then getting chased by Cal, and now all this craziness, I just wanted to cocoon under my covers in my room in total darkness, without even the blacklight turned on. “Is it far?” I heard the whine in my voice, the one Mom always snapped at me about, but couldn’t help it, and didn’t care to try.

“Not much farther now,” Howlaa said, and scooped me up, and ran.

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10 Responses to The Nex: Chapter 1

  1. Siobhan says:

    Hmm…an exciting beginning…I won’t lie and pretend like I’m not happy Howlaa assumed female form. Female badasses are the best (see Sarah Conner Chronicles and even FireFly both staring Summer). I’m looking forward to the Nex!

  2. timpratt says:

    Author notes:

    As you can tell, this is set after the events of “Dream Engine.” Howlaa and Wisp are determined to escape the Regent’s service, and now this girl from Earth has stumbled into the middle of their admittedly not-very-well-laid plans. I love the orbital rail guns, the weird Da Vinci flying machine, and the fact that our characters are off and running by the end of chapter one… and they’ll keep running for most of the book. Right now they’re running away, but don’t worry: soon they’ll be running toward trouble instead.

    I wrote this book in a white heat over about six weeks (don’t worry: it’s been revised a few times since), and it was a story that demanded to be written, and wouldn’t let me go until it was finished. I usually have fun writing my books… but I’ve rarely had as much fun as I did writing this one. I’m glad to share it with all of you.

  3. Advodei says:

    Great start to the story. I’m glad that the main character is human – in a world this vast and complex, it’s good to have a character to relate to, who can understand the weirdness of the Ax at the same pace as the reader. Looking forward to next monday!

  4. AG says:

    I really like the short story and The Nex seems like it will be a great read. One question, could you explain the Zim zir zis syntax for me. I’m having trouble with it, I know it didn’t show up in The Nex yet since Howlaa hasn’t shown Zir true nature but I have a feeling its coming.

    • timpratt says:

      “zie” and its variants are gender-neutral pronouns. Details here:

      http://santiago.mapache.org/nonfiction/essays/zie.html

      Actually, they don’t come up in the Nex at all. It’s from Miranda’s point of view, and she wouldn’t know to use such language. I considered having Wisp use them, but it would have required a whole scene of Wisp explaining what they meant to Miranda, so I dropped them. I figure Wisp is just being accommodating for their new young human friend.

  5. Gary says:

    Yay! Cool Mondays are back!

    I just had to laugh at the stick something hard into something soft comment :) Tim, your sense of humor always cracks me up…

  6. goblinbox says:

    If I convert the chapters into ebook format/s (which I will, for my own use), shall I send them to you so you can offer them for download?

  7. Pingback: Table of Contents | The Nex

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