An excerpt from
Future's Dark Past
Earth, February 21, 2355
Kristen bent her knees and leaned back on the skyglider, clutching the sail’s horizontal boom rail with all her might. It grabbed more wind, lifting the rig higher into the sky. Red lightning arced all around as she bounced along the front edge of the raging storm. With her boots locked tight, she felt little fear of falling off, though losing control and crashing became a whole different matter.
A thousand feet below, her target sped along a craggy dirt road. The bulky, six-wheeled terrain tracker fought to stay in front of the onrushing tempest. It headed for the Dallas Life Pod, which appeared in the distance sooner than she expected. The city’s half-mile-wide dome glowed white in the desert sea like a lighthouse of old. Its immense concrete wall protected the inhabitants from their unforgiving surroundings.
That used to be home, Kristen thought. Her parents barely scraped by in Dallas. Then she discovered that damn bag of seeds. “Worth more than gold,” her dad claimed. They planned on bartering it to escape Dallas and start over in the Kansas Life Pod, but disaster struck during the treacherous journey. Bandits killed her parents. She ended up a slave in Kansas. Her new life became a living hell.
Now, only death awaited her there. She’d not be welcomed in her hometown, Dallas, either. “If only Missouri stayed open,” she grumbled to herself. “I could go there.”
Her helmet’s computer opened a channel. “Oklahoma is closer.”
“No, it’s dead too.” The entire planet is. She tried to imagine the vast, barren land thriving and green again. Then her parents would still be alive. But they’re not.
A burst of wind knocked her sideways, forcing her to muscle the board back around. She caught herself, then looked down. The terrain tracker seemed to hit a faster gear, trying to outrace the storm. “Computer! Will they make it?”
“Too close to call,” it replied.
A screeching alarm in Kristen’s helmet warned her that the oxygen tank bordered on empty. The envirosuit might protect her from the elements, but it wouldn’t do any good if she couldn’t breathe. She pushed with her foot, and the front of the board dipped. The rig streaked downward, hurtling toward the ground as if riding a giant rogue wave. She angled to intercept the vehicle before it entered the city. Furious wind buffeted her. Her hand furthest from the mast slipped off the boom rail, but she grabbed it before the sail could tear away.
At the bottom of the raging trough, she pulled up and ripped across the surface mere feet above the ground. The skyglider’s magnetic inductors kicked in, keeping it aloft as the rear of the terrain tracker grew rapidly in her visor screen. Kristen yanked in the sail in a futile effort to reduce her speed.
“Warning,” the computer blared. “Slow down!”
“Disengage the foot locks,” Kristen ordered.
“You will crash.”
“I know, damn it! Do it now!”
The boot snaps released with a pop. She scrambled to the front of the board and leaped for the back of the tracker. Her body slammed into it. She slid down, clawing for the grips until her feet dragged on the ground. Her helmet clattered and banged against the door. The sailboard hit the dirt road and exploded. Pieces rocketed out; a chunk of the boom rail shot straight for her. Kristen let go with one hand and flung herself to the corner edge, barely dodging it. She swung back and grabbed it again, her heart pounding.
The vehicle continued its breakneck pace, lurching across the rocky wasteland and desolate hills. Desperate, she pulled upward and heaved herself on top of the metal behemoth, wedging between the cargo racks and antennas.
Titan’s ass, she thought, shaking inside. I hope no one heard that.
The city’s massive outer door loomed ahead. It opened slowly, creating an escape route into the sanctuary. Stormy blasts of sand engulfed her as the terrain tracker barreled through the entrance and slid to a halt. The gritty cloud followed until the titanium gate closed behind them with a heavy thud. When the swirling dust settled and toxic gases vented away, the inner airlock opened. The tracker rumbled into the compound and stopped.
Kristen’s visor retracted up into a thin line, and she quietly sucked in the fresh air. Relief and amazement washed over her. Made it! Now if I can—
A stern voice came from below. “We know you’re up there. Come down now, and we might let you live.”
* * * * *
“Where is he?” the man snarled, backhanding her viciously.
Frothy red spit flew from Kristen’s mouth. She slumped in the chair, refusing to relent. Her interrogator grabbed her chin and jerked it up. Her long, dark hair, matted with blood, clung to her in thick strands. She squinted at him with her one good eye. Sweat rolled off his bald head and onto his nasty, sweaty T-shirt.
“I said, where is he, bitch?” He leaned closer, leering.
She replied in a near whisper. “Who?”
The man’s face twitched. “You look just like him,” he hissed, spraying her with spittle. He yanked her jaw even higher. “Where are my seeds, Winters?”
It took a second for his meaning to register. A painful smirk quivered on her lip. “Long gone.”
“You think it’s funny?” His fat fingers slid down to her neck and crushed her windpipe in a vice-like grip. “You’ll be my bitch for the rest of your miserable life.”
Kristen could do little to stop him with the shackles chaining her. Her mouth formed a silent scream as she tried to suck in air. A tunnel of darkness descended over her. This is it. Right then, the door to the room opened.
“Damn it!” Her tormenter shoved her roughly aside and whirled around. “What do you want?”
Kristen gasped and coughed. An official-looking man entered the room and stood ramrod-straight, at least a head taller than the other guy. His threadbare, desert military uniform hung crisp and spotless on his lean body, and his salt and pepper hair looked impeccable. He assessed the scene in one sweep, and his mouth pinched into a scowling, hard line.
Now what? she thought wearily.
He came nearer and looked her up and down, meeting her defiant, one-eyed gaze.
“Telerson,” he eventually said, “this isn’t necessary.”
“That ain’t your call, Hernandez.”
A beat passed with the impudent retort hanging in the room. The new man’s voice dropped lower, sizzling with sarcasm. “Why don’t you throw her out the airlock and be done with it, then?”
“Maybe I will.”
Hernandez’s face crinkled with disgust. “Have we fallen that far?”
“What makes you think I want to add another food-sucking hole to this Life Pod? There’s barely enough to go around as it is.”
“It’s time for a different tactic. I’m taking over.” Hernandez glared down at him.
Telerson thumped the other man’s chest with two fingers. “I’m in charge of security.”
He knocked his hand away. “I run the Pod.”
“Bah. Have your little fun, but when I get back, she’s mine.” Telerson turned and stormed out.
Hernandez exhaled, long and deliberate. He pulled up a chair in front of Kristen, reversing it so he could lean on the backrest. “You’re tough,” he remarked, studying her. “No doubt about that. You lasted longer than the storm.”
She stayed silent, her senses on high alert.
“Hmm,” Hernandez murmured. “What the hell does Telerson have against you, anyway?” He withdrew a flask from his inner coat pocket and took a swig, then jiggled it in front of her.
She jerked back. What’s he doing? With her eye swollen almost shut, Kristen turned her head to get a better look. He jiggled it in front of her. She hesitated, but the offer proved too tempting; she nodded.
He dribbled tepid liquid into her bloodied mouth. “Swirl it around.”
The water caught in her parched throat, choking her a little. “Thanks,” she sputtered. She motioned for another swig. “You think I’m going to buy this make nice bullshit line?”
“That depends on how much you want to live,” he said, holding the canteen to her mouth. “I can help you, or we can bring back Telerson.”
Anger burned through her brain fog. She guzzled the metallic-tasting liquid and said, “He’s an ass.”
“No doubt,” Hernandez guffawed. “I don’t like him either. Unfortunately for you, I won’t be able to hold him off for long. I need something to work with.”
Kristen picked at the chains, considering his words.
“Let’s start with the basics. I’m Governor Hernandez. What’s your name?”
She sighed. “Kristen.”
“Okay, Kristen. Why are you here?”
After another pause, she replied, “Why else? I’m hungry.”
A dubious crease etched his brow. “Hmm. Where are you from?”
“Please.” Kristen wanted to slow down his questions until she could pull herself together. “Another drink?”
Hernandez held the flask out, pouring water into her mouth. She swallowed greedily, and he tipped it again before pulling it back.
She swished the last gulp, savoring every drop before downing it. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” Hernandez capped the vessel and stuffed it in his pocket. “Now, why don’t you answer my question?”
She tried to sit taller. “Dallas.”
“No. This is Dallas, and you’re not from here.”
Kristen shrugged and gingerly stretched her neck from side to side. Hurts like hell, she thought. The forced, cramped position made her back feel like it might snap.
“I grew up here.”
“Impossible. Free trade among the Life Pods stopped over a hundred years ago.”
Nothing’s free. “You might remember my dad, Lucas Winters.”
“Winters,” Hernandez repeated. His mouth pursed as he mulled over the name. “The guy who took his family out on a terrain tracker? We found that years ago, abandoned in a gorge.”
“Dad talked with people from Kansas on the radio, promised them a new batch of seeds. We carried them with us—”
“Thinking he could buy his way into a better life, correct?”
“It’s my fault. I found those seeds and brought—”
“Your fault? You were only a kid.” Hernandez frowned. “This explains a lot. Those were Telerson’s seeds. He lost a fortune on the black market when they disappeared. He’s figured it out and wants payback.”
“He wants my father, but he’s wasting his time. My dad’s dead.”
Hernandez made a clicking sound with his mouth. “Guess you’ll do in a pinch. I’m curious. Why’d you come back? Doesn’t seem too bright, under the circumstances.”
Kristen shuddered as painful memories came flooding back. Can I tell him what happened to me? Why would he be different? But she had to say something. “Things aren’t any better in Kansas than they are here. In fact, they’re worse.”
“I’ve heard rumors.” He grimaced. “Hard to believe you got out. How’d you get here?”
“Carbon-coated sail and a skyglider.”
“What?” Hernandez rocked back in his chair. “I’m going to call bullshit on that.”
Her chains rattled softly as she shifted position. “You’ll find what’s left of it a mile or so outside.”
“Even if that were true, that’s suicidal.”
Kristen shrugged. “I caught a storm current and sailed to within reach of Dallas. I saw the terrain tracker and took my chance.”
“You were alone?”
“Quite the story you have.”
“It’s what happened.” Kristen pinned him with a pleading look. “I couldn’t stay there, or—”
“You can’t stay here,” he countered. “You won’t last a day with Telerson, and you’re already halfway gone.”
“I have nowhere else to go.” Despair tightened her throat. Can’t show it, she thought. “Now what?” Her voice broke.
Hernandez’s expression softened. “I have an idea.”
“I’m strong; I work hard. I can take care of myself. Just give me a job.”
He laughed. “Not in your current condition. You look like you’re ninety pounds, sopping wet.”
“Please. I’ll do almost anything for food.”
“I have a feeling you might not like what I’m about to offer.” He pulled an apple from his coat pocket.
Kristen drew a sharp breath.
“Hungry, you say?” He held it in front of her mouth.
You have no idea. She eagerly craned her neck for a bite, banging it into her split lip.
“Slow down. It’s yours.”
She winced and carefully bit off a sizeable chunk. “Mm.” Juice dribbled down her bruised chin. She grabbed another couple of bites, devouring them with a throaty gulp. “Please. Please help me.”
“Careful what you ask for.” Hernandez tossed the last of the apple aside and stood. He cupped a hand to his ear, making a show of listening.
“What?” She tried to follow his gaze but couldn’t see well in that direction.
“Right on time.” He squatted and unlocked the chain securing her to the floor, then lifted her by an elbow to a standing position. “We have guests. Come on, let’s go.”
The door flew open and banged against the wall like a gunshot. They both startled with a jerk.
“Stop right there.” Telerson sauntered in. Kristen shrank away as much as she could. “I’m not done with her.”
“No.” Hernandez stepped between them. “They’re here. We can’t wait.”
A low tremor, scarcely detectable at first, became more apparent. Telerson did a double-take. “Those damn bastards have the worst timing.” He jabbed his finger at them. “We’ll deal with this later, but you will give her back to me.” He stomped off, slamming the door behind him.
Hernandez grabbed her arm, but Kristen pulled back with her chained hands. “Where are we going?”
“The Spacers are here.”
A shiver went up her spine. “You’re the official doom greeter or what?”
“It’s time for you to catch a ride, that’s what.”
She stopped cold. Oh, snap. “You’re giving me to them?”
He opened the door. “It’s a long shot, but at least you’ll have one. Or would you prefer to wait around and take your chances with our illustrious friend?”
Kristen grudgingly relented. She shuffled her shackled feet as she followed Hernandez into the hall. “Anything beats that.”
“Maybe. I’m not sure dying in space is any better than dying here. But I’ll let you be the judge.”