Issue #22, Honorable Mention #1

Melinda Brasher loves visiting alternate worlds through books and exploring this world through travel. She’s currently quite obsessed with Alaska, and has lived in Poland, Mexico, and the Czech Republic, teaching English as a second language. Her short fiction appears in Enchanted Conversation, Ellipsis Literature and Art, Spark Anthology, and others. Check out Far-Knowing, her YA fantasy novel, or visit her online at melindabrasher.com.

 

Stalked

by Melinda Brasher

 

Takumi shoved the slimy thing in Victoria’s face, his eyes wide as his smile. “Look, Mom. It likes me.”

Victoria laughed. This was a far cry from Takumi’s first eight years of life, growing up in Tokyo, where his feet had touched the ground maybe twice, where the potted plants in the sky bridges had a rubbery look.

Did you ever see a slug back on Earth?” Takumi asked.

On their yearly vacations, they’d taken him to the sea, the Peace Gardens, and even the protected forests of United Europe. They’d spent three days on a working farm once as part of an ecotour. Still, none of that had rivaled the wild emptiness of New Eden, where you didn’t have to stay on trails, where pesticides and repulsion fields hadn’t cleaned up the outdoors for all the gawking tourists.

I don’t think that’s a slug,” Victoria said. Half of her wanted to reach out and touch the squishy blue-black mess of living matter squirming lazily between Takumi’s fingers. Probably she should tell him to put it down. It could be poisonous. Full of germs at the least. But she didn’t have the heart. Instead she looked over her shoulder to see if her husband had any biological theories to share.

Kiyoshi wasn’t even looking at them. He’d stopped between two trees, his head twisted back, his body completely still.

“What is it?” she asked, instinctively lowering her voice.

His head snapped back toward them. “Nothing.”

“Look, Dad. I found it.”

“That’s nice,” Kiyoshi said automatically, his eyes on the forest ahead.

Takumi’s face fell.

Victoria tried to ignite that wide-eyed wonder again. “You’ll have to describe it to Miss Elizabeth when we get back. It could be the next species in her log. She might name it after you.”

He beamed, just as Kiyoshi stopped again, finger flying to his lips. Takumi, oblivious, began chattering about his new discovery.

“You hear something?” Victoria whispered to her husband.

He nodded.

“Maybe we can call it a Taki slug,” Takumi prattled.

Victoria wished they had a gun. But Peter hadn’t given them the passcodes to the arms locker. One of many things the “governor” had denied them. Anger quaked through her again. She grabbed Takumi’s hand—the one not holding the slug—and bent down. “Honey, let’s be quiet for a minute.”

Birds. A slight background rustle of leaves in the breeze. Their own unnatural breath. No one moved.

It could have been one of the small bear-like creatures they’d found evidence of several kilometers back, but which no one had seen. And wild canines frequented the bluffs, but they weren’t aggressive. The trouble was, Elizabeth had only logged a couple of hundred species so far. No one knew what lurked beyond their knowledge.

Victoria scanned the forest floor and found a fallen branch thin enough to lift, undecayed. She picked up the makeshift weapon.

“It’s probably nothing,” Kiyoshi said. “Some squirrel or something. Let’s go.”

This was the first time Peter’s schedule had set all three of them free for two days in a row. They’d set out after work the evening before, on foot, telling no one where they were going. They’d hiked until dark. Besides, Takumi had been begging them to go camping ever since they landed. He deserved this trip. They all did.

“You know,” she’d whispered to Kiyoshi the night before, wrapped in his arms in the thermal bag while Takumi breathed his raspy sleep breath beside them, “we could just keep going. Leave the colony entirely. Set up our own home.”

Kiyoshi sighed into the darkness, a darkness so complete she wouldn’t have believed he was next to her if she hadn’t felt his chest rising and smelled the strange outdoorsiness that clung to him. The night was alive with insects and crazy nocturnal birds.

“We wouldn’t survive alone,” Kiyoshi said.

“We might not survive with them,” Victoria countered. “Peter’s taken everything from us.”

“Not everything,” Kiyoshi said.

“He took your dream.”

Back in Tokyo, Kiyoshi had worked as a city planner, which mainly involved deciding on sites for new sky bridges, issuing zoning permits, and monitoring water, electrical and communication systems. In his free time he drew out whole cities on coordinate systems, in rings, along natural contours of rivers and hills. He sketched vast roadways and contained communities. Some of them looked like villages from the old folktales he told Takumi—in Japanese—though Takumi, like Victoria, hardly understood a word. His dream was to plan a community from the ground up. Something no one on Earth had done for a long time. Before the colonization project was announced, he’d talked about razing some country town in order to start from scratch. The moment he heard of the colonization, he’d talked of nothing else. The day of the launch his happiness had been palpable. Then the accident. The rest of the convoy gone. The passengers in the other compartments dead. She and Kiyoshi had voted to return to Earth. Kiyoshi had his dreams, but he was also a realist. He didn’t want to plan a ghost town. Peter had declared they would forge on. All twenty-five of them. In the end, she and Kiyoshi were the only ones who dared stand against him. They’d been paying for it ever since.

“If we don’t make Peter mad, he might let me plan the rest of the colony when the second wave arrives.”

“Maybe,” Victoria said, not because she believed it, but because she liked it there in Kiyoshi’s arms, just as it had been the first few years. She didn’t have the heart to crush his dreams again, but she knew Peter would never relinquish his power over them—not until he gained something better. He would dangle the community planning carrot in front of Kiyoshi until the stars all went nova, while he did the planning himself and relegated Kiyoshi to building roads and digging ditches and using his hands and his back and his arms as he’d never done before.

His new muscles tensed now, defining themselves against his sleeves. “Let’s head for higher ground,” he whispered. They’d been following a sort of valley—more like an indention in the surrounding low hills. “Higher ground” couldn’t be more than five meters of elevation gain. She wasn’t entirely sure how that would help, but she grabbed Takumi’s hand and followed her husband.

They were almost to the top when she heard it: a low crash, then another. Thud, thud, boom, like a rock tumbling down a hill. She swung her stick toward the noise, but all lay motionless. The buzzing in her ears nearly masked the next sound—a tentative crunch, then another and another—too regular to be anything but the paws or the hooves or the feet of something living.

Victoria tightened her grip on Takumi’s hand and yanked him up the hill, away from the noise. They ran, slipping over and over on last season’s fallen leaves. They scrambled to the top of the hill and followed the wide crest.

Fear was carving holes into her lungs when Kiyohsi grabbed her arm and pulled her into a cluster of tall, rounded rocks, where they crouched, hidden between the crevices. Colors swam before her eyes.

Now she could hear the animal tracking them: the heavy rhythmic steps somewhere out of sight. If only she could see the creature, it would be easier to face. She pulled Takumi tighter to her side and tried to catch her breath quietly—a feat that took all her energy.

Then the woods fell silent. The animal had stopped. Was it closer than it sounded? Would it be sticking its sharp-toothed snout around the nearest rock any moment?

Takumi began crying.

“Shh,” she soothed. “It’s okay.”

“No, he’s dead.” Takumi’s jaw quivered as he held up his hand, black with goo that had once been a slug.

Her stomach convulsed.

“Shh,” she whispered.

He kept crying, but silently, his little body shaking against hers.

She strained her ears and waited. Minutes passed. No sounds of pursuit.

Finally Takumi sniffed and wiped his nose with his clean hand. “Claire says there are lions here,” he whispered, “with tails like scorpions, six feet tall.”

“Claire’s a schoolyard bully,” she whispered back. “Ignore her.”

“But something’s tracking us,” Kiyoshi added quietly. He fiddled with his compass. “We ought to head home.”

“Maybe it got tired of us and left.”

“Maybe.” He gathered a pile of rocks and fist-sized seedpods from the trees above them, then began throwing them methodically in the same direction, slightly harder with each pitch. It sounded almost like footsteps, leading away. Victoria held her breath for sounds of the animal.

When nothing came, she felt her involuntary grip on the stick relax. It had gone. Kiyoshi looked at her and shrugged. She carefully stood, disentangling Takumi, and scanned the area. Nothing.

“Let’s go,” Kiyoshi said.

They’d hardly made it fifty meters before a telling snap behind them sent chills down Victoria’s back. They all whirled around. Nothing within sight.

“If something attacks,” Kiyoshi whispered, “make lots of noise. Wave your arms, stand up tall. Anything to look more intimidating. If it comes down to it, go for the eyes.”

If it had recognizable eyes.

Kiyoshi picked up a stick of his own, then found a smaller one for Takumi.

It didn’t startle her this time, the rustling behind them, because she’d been half expecting it, but it terrified her just the same.

They continued, Kiyoshi setting a rigorous pace that didn’t quite turn into a run. Takumi’s shorter legs struggled to keep up. The sounds behind them continued, regular, distant—and very real. Finally Kiyoshi motioned in an arc with his arm, making what looked very much like a signal that he was going to circle around and come at the animal’s back.

She shook her head frantically, but he motioned her on.

“No,” she hissed.

“I’ll catch up. Trust me. Follow the ridge half a kilometer, then find somewhere to hide and wait.”

She slowed her pace and watched as he picked his way down the gentle slope toward another cluster of rocks.

“What’s Dad doing?” Takumi asked.

“Recon.” She choked out the word, hoping that’s what it was, and that he didn’t intend to attack the animal on his own. All she could see when she pictured their pursuer was Claire’s stupid scorpion-lion.

The trees around them sprawled low and thick, their leaves the shape of human hands, dark-veined and trembling in the slight breeze. She visualized all the self defense training she’d ever done. None of it had been intended against wild animals.

After seven or eight minutes’ march, they found a cluster of trees and hunkered down behind them to wait. Fifteen minutes, she’d give Kiyoshi. Then she was going back, whether it embarrassed him or not.

Minutes crawled by.

Takumi quietly dug a tiny hole with his stick, then carefully scraped the remains of the slug into it and patted down the ground on top. Victoria stroked his back. How many minutes now? Then footfalls—behind her? She and Takumi both twisted toward the sound. Kiyoshi materialized ten meters away, bent low as he picked his way quietly toward their hiding place.

“Did you see what’s following us?” she whispered.

He crouched down beside them, breathing hard, not answering.

“What is it?”

“Gary.”

“Gary?”

“And Nathan.”

Relief soothed her rogue heartbeat.

“With rifles.”

Most everyone carried weapons when they ventured out of the colony. She would be holding one now if they had the passcodes. And for a moment she didn’t understand what Kiyoshi was saying.

He leaned forward, his face dead earnest. “They’re hunting us.”

“Ridiculous.”

“I heard them talking,” he insisted. “About us.”

“Maybe they think we’re lost. Trying to rescue us.” But even she didn’t believe herself. If Gary and Nathan were on a rescue mission, they wouldn’t be sneaking around behind them, stopping—out of sight—every time she and her family did. Peter was behind this. She’d seen his eyes, back on the ship, when for a moment she thought the other colonists might side with her and Kiyoshi, instead of Peter. How could it be that no one else saw through his dignified veneer and dramatic speeches about unity? Peter had realized they’d slipped out of the colony without telling anyone. Maybe he’d even given them the time free to do it, hoping they’d provide him an excuse for retribution. Now he’d sent Gary—the “police”—to find them and bring them back like escaped criminals. Or worse. Could Peter truly be that ruthless? Would he have ordered Gary to get rid of them quietly?

Well, she wouldn’t go without a fight.

She looked down at Takumi and wished for the millionth time that he was still safe in Tokyo, face pressed against the glass, asking questions about wolves and geese and cherry blossoms.

But then again, if he were still in Toyko, he wouldn’t know all about the gooey innards of the oilwood, which he’d apparently seen all over the forest today.

“There’s one right there,” he said, pointing with his own mix of pride and exasperation. “Miss Elizabeth showed us two weeks ago. I told you all about it.” He grabbed a fibrous stem and, with some effort, pried it open. Then he held it upside down to drip over Victoria’s hand.

“Perfect,” she said. Takumi—her little genius.

They rose, with only a few quick glances behind, and began to move again, slowly, bending here and there to pick more oilwood, keeping careful track of how far behind the pursuing footfalls remained.

After a kilometer they found the perfect spot. They’d been following the very slow rise of the hill, and now their path led along what might actually be called a ridge, the ground sloping away on both sides at just enough of an angle to make this work. Directly in front of them lay a tangle of thick brush and a couple of jagged rocks. Enough of an obstacle to force them slightly down slope along what looked like an animal trail. The carpet of old needles and leaves made for a slippery trek as it was. When they came to the steepest bit of the faint trail, Kiyoshi tore into the oilwood stems with his pocket knife. Takumi used his fingernails. Victoria spread the milky substance across the trail, back and forth, in crosses and loops. She stirred the leaves and needles with her stick and let Takumi finish up. He flung the substance enthusiastically onto his leafy canvas, then gave them a thumbs up and tromped uphill, trying to make as much noise with his two little feet as the three of them had together.

She hated sending him off alone, even though it was safer.

She and Kiyoshi hid their packs beneath the bushes, then crouched behind the rocks that blocked the higher route. Kiyoshi held his pocket knife tight, already raised slightly. She gripped her branch with both hands.

The faint sounds of their pursuers’ footsteps began again, apparently taking Takumi’s bait, growing louder as Takumi’s faded. Gary and Nathan. She didn’t realize they were such skilled trackers. It was Dustin who came back with the most meat on their hunting trips, not Gary or Nathan. The footsteps advanced. Kiyoshi put his finger to his lips. As if she needed the warning.

Then a voice. Nathan’s. Very close. “Straight ahead?” It was asked in barely over a whisper.

“Yeah. Three hundred meters.”

The footsteps stopped for a moment, and Victoria feared they’d been discovered.

“Just go around,” Gary hissed.

Something crashed hard. A grunt. A struggle. Another thud. “What the—”

Victoria sprang up. Both men were on the ground, Nathan on his hands and knees, pawing at the ground, unable to find purchase. Gary’s arms and legs thrashed as he slipped and slid on the oilwood-slicked leaves. She spied Gary’s rifle, still caught stubbornly in one flailing hand. She swung her stick at its barrel just as Gary saw her.

“Hey!” he yelled.

Her stick made contact. The rifle flew out of his hands.

“Stand down!” Gary yelled. He caught her makeshift weapon and jerked. She dug in her heels and held on, but his strength pulled her forward. Her feet flew out from under her and she lost hold of the branch. She struggled against the slippery ground for a moment before she made herself relax into it and let the slope work for her, rolling downhill until she was even with Gary’s lost rifle. She grabbed it and rolled again, out of the oilwood zone, and came up with Gary’s weapon firm in her hands, trained on the scuffle of leaves and limbs and dirt where Kiyoshi and Nathan were rolling around like pigs. She pointed the weapon at Gary, where he’d stabbed her stick hard into the ground and used it to pull himself to more solid ground. He pushed himself to his feet and looked at her.

“Victoria, calm down.”

“I’m calm.”

Kiyoshi grunted in pain, hands flying to his face. Nathan pushed himself to a sitting position, rifle back in his hands, and pointed it at Victoria.

“Hold,” Gary shouted. “No one do anything stupid.”

“You’re the ones who came hunting us with rifles,” Victoria yelled back.

“The rifles aren’t for you. What do you think we are?”

“I think you’re Peter’s yes-men.”

“I am the colonial police. I enforce the laws of the charter. I’m no one’s yes-man.”

Victoria laughed bitterly.

Kiyoshi, by then, had followed her lead and rolled down far enough to gain his feet. He still had one hand to his face, though she couldn’t see any blood. Nathan’s gun held steady on her.

“Then tell me what you’re doing following us,” Victoria said.

“You were seen leaving with colony property.”

“Camping equipment,” she responded.

“Yes, but colony property regardless. Property you hadn’t checked out properly. Neither had you noted your travel plans.”

“There’s nothing in the charter about that.”

“But it’s standard procedure. Do you realize how dangerous it is out here? Someone needs to know where you’ll be in case you need help. You didn’t answer your comms.”

“We turned them off,” Kiyoshi responded, pulling his hand away from his face. “We’re camping.

“And if we all put down our guns,” Gary said calmly, “would you come back home to the colony with us?”

“Why?” Victoria challenged. “Are those Peter’s—”

“We still have another day off,” Kiyoshi said, his voice loud enough to drown hers out. “Our camping trip isn’t finished. We’ll return to the colony then.”

“I’ll have to ask you to give back your equipment. It’s unregistered.”

“Sure,” Kiyoshi said with a smile. “We’ll turn it in tomorrow.”

“Now, I’m afraid.”

No guns had lowered.

“If we start making exceptions,” Gary continued, “things will fall apart.”

“Is that what Peter says?” Victoria couldn’t help prodding him, though she knew perhaps it was unwise. Maybe Kiyoshi was right this time—maybe giving Gary a way to save his dignity would get them further than challenging his honor.

“Peter is the governor, whether you like it or not, and I agree with him on this point. That doesn’t mean I’m his ‘yes-man.’ Don’t you see, the colony must stay together in order to stay strong. Peter thought you were running away. I told him you were too smart to try surviving on your own.” He grunted sardonically. “So we compromised. We’d follow. See what you did. Then I’d retrieve the colony property. The rifles are for the wildlife. Not so we can shoot each other like barbarians.”

Victoria stared at him. His annoyance somehow lent credence to his words. She lowered the barrel slightly, then looked at Nathan, willing him to do the same. He did. By tiny increments, in turns, they lowered the weapons entirely, but her hands never loosened their grip.

“Well,” Gary said. “Shall we head back together? Put this all behind us?” He smiled, hesitantly. For the first time, she wondered if he hated his unexpected police duties as much as she hated the job Peter had assigned her in the textile plant.

The first “community night” they’d had, two weeks after landing, Peter had scheduled her and Kiyoshi to be working. It was clearly a message, not a road building or textile manufacturing emergency. Afterward, late in the night, after they’d finished their nonsensical shifts, they heard a knock. There stood Gary, proffering up three bowls of the fruit and custard he’d made for the party. He offered it in silence, like a confused thief, then slipped off into the darkness.

It was that Gary she saw glimpses of now, standing in the dappled woods, his gun in her hands, a pleading smile on his face. “No use making things more…complicated,” he said.

She looked over at Kiyoshi, shrugged slightly, and waited for his lead.

He stared at the western horizon, where dusty clouds smudged the blue-purple sky. “It does look like a storm,” he said.

“There’s a poker tournament tonight,” Gary offered.

“Open to everyone?” Victoria asked.

Gary looked her straight in the eye. “Everyone.”

Kiyoshi nodded. “It’s time I taught Takumi how to bluff.”

Nathan’s hand relaxed on his rifle. “Pair of nines,” he muttered, chuckling to himself. “Mirek still owes you about a gallon of ale for that game.”

Kiyoshi smiled. “Maybe he’ll owe me two after tonight.”

Victoria knew Kiyoshi’s whole arsenal of smiles, and this one didn’t mean exactly what Nathan and Gary thought it meant, but she still breathed easier. Going back would appease Peter, but Kiyoshi would somehow convince himself he had won, and poker would blot out the unpleasantness of this encounter.

Obviously Gary and Nathan hadn’t been sent with the sinister orders she’d imagined as she crouched hidden among the hand-shaped leaves of New Eden. Peter was a controlling, self-important little power grabber, but not a murderer. Perhaps she’d been making mountains out of molehills. Victoria carefully propped the rifle against a tree at her side.

“Very good,” Gary said with a hearty clap of his hands.

“Where’s the boy?” Nathan asked, looking at Gary, not at her and Kiyoshi. Why would Gary know? Gary shrugged, but the look he flashed Nathan told a different story, and as Victoria stared, Gary’s eyes strayed momentarily to something on the forest floor.

An upside-down datapad.

She and Gary dove for it at the same time. They wrestled in the slippery leaves, both trying to push each other away from the datapad, but her fingers found it first. She scrambled to her feet with the device—a thin Q-3 no longer than her thumb. The bitty screen showed only an arrow and a number: one hundred ten meters.

“What’s this?” she demanded. As she moved the screen, the arrow changed direction, pointing constantly up the hill. Toward Takumi. One hundred meters.

Gary said nothing, hands wobbling out at his sides to help keep his balance as he rose in the oilwood slick.

“Is this how you tracked us while keeping out of sight?”

“What do you expect? We’re not bloodhounds,” Gary retorted, but the tips of his ears had gone red.

Eighty meters. Kiyoshi grabbed the Q-3 and studied it. “Sneaking locators into my son’s backpack? That’s low.”

The arrow wobbled and then the counter stopped moving. She looked toward where Takumi should have been, but the thick trees blocked her view. “Takumi,” she yelled.

He jumped from behind a tree, wielding his fallen branch like a samurai.

“Come here,” Victoria ordered. When he was close enough, she pulled off his backpack and tossed it aside. The arrow stayed firmly planted at his chest.

“Take off your jacket, honey.”

Takumi—no longer the brave samurai, but a little boy again—obeyed.

She threw his jacket as hard as she could over her shoulder. No change in the readout. “Give me your boots.”

“Mom!” He squirmed under all their stares, just like the slug that had so delighted him, but he unlaced his hiking boots and stood in his socks, feet turned in, overlapping, as if trying to hide behind himself.

She handed the boots to Kiyoshi, who carried them off without disturbing the Q-3’s display. Then Takumi, in his stork-like pose, lost his balance and stumbled three steps sideways. The arrow jerked wildly.

“What’s this tracking?” Her voice quavered in rage.

Gary’s eyebrows furrowed. “I… I don’t know.”

“It’s him. It’s in my son.”

Silence.

“Peter gave this to you?” she demanded, brandishing the Q-3. “And do you have one for me too? Does Peter have one for you?”

The line of Gary’s mouth hardened. “If he does, it’s for our protection.”

The ground seemed to shift, mountains or molehills rising beneath her feet. “Is that ‘protection’ worth our civil rights? Subcutaneous locators are illegal!”

Neither Gary nor Nathan answered.

“And if we refuse to let Peter track our son?” Victoria demanded. “What will the rifles be for then?”

“It’s not going to come to that,” Gary insisted.

“Are you sure?”She stepped back and touched the smooth stock of the rifle. Her shaking hands would kill her aim, even if she knew what to aim at. And bullets like these didn’t stop when they first met resistance. They kept going, kept killing.

“Victoria…” Kiyoshi warned.

She stared at Gary. “No matter what Peter claims, this isn’t unity. It isn’t freedom.”

“No, Victoria,” Gary said. “This is survival.”

But here on New Eden, population twenty-five, she wasn’t sure what any of that meant anymore.

 

Copyright 2014 by Melinda Brasher