“I love this room.” Leeber watched as Swan settled in with a mound of honey preserved fruits and tea, tucking her knees up under her chin. Her feet, now bare, burrowed into the soft, deep teal cushion. She wrapped herself with the wide skirts of her purple gown and closed her eyes. “I can smell the years here, mostly happy, the old wood, especially in this rain, is happy, to have us here. Mmmmm, happy. It holds Leeber so dearly. I simply love it.” She nibbled on a small bunch of grapes, her eyes closed her face- content. “Swan!” Beck yelled. “Don’t you know that grown up people sit with their feet on the floor, and wear shoes? But you, you don’t care if you look like a fool. I don’t know why Leeber puts up with you.” He wanted consensus but he wasn’t going to get it. He pulled out a chair next to her, raking the legs dramatically over the stone floor. West came in, shook his raincoat off then folded it neatly, placing it on a nearby chair. He sat on the table, with his back to the group. NOW AVAILABLE ON AMAZON! This was typical for West, just as it was typical for Beck to yell at him for it. “Get your ass off the table!” Beck glared at him and West began to shrink, first his head and then his hands, which, for a moment, made him look like a balloon animal created by a clown fresh out of the Academy. “Cut it out! The last time you did this . . .” His voice squeaked as he grew smaller. “Leeber wasn’t there then, and it took me days to . . . Stop!” “Enough.” Leeber frowned at the two and West returned to his normal size. Rem walked in with his well-trained guide dog, Hershel. The graying dog shook himself and curled up by the fire. Leeber smiled at Hershel, who, if he had to admit it, was the only member of the circle he always enjoyed seeing. “Thank you all for coming on such short notice. I apologize for being so cryptic but something has happened.” “I am guessing the entanglement experiment?” Kitz said, a mixed look of irritation and glee painted across her face. She had been part of the Circle of Eight for decades, but no one was certain why. Except Leeber, of course. She was an odd little woman whose expressions and movements always seemed out of sync. You were never sure if what you were seeing was what you were truly seeing perhaps a serial killer crossed with an untrustworthy leprechaun. She had short-cropped red hair, a face sprinkled with freckles, and an unreasonably large, impish smile that made everyone uncomfortable. Except Leeber. “Yes, Kitz. The entanglement experiment.” Beck slumped forward, putting his head in his hands. “Damn, what happened? I knew from the very beginning that we shouldn’t have continued the project. We still have no idea if it will work, but we do know that if we get caught we’ll be thrown in prison. I have been wary about the last ten projects, but this one could really backfire. I said it then and I’ll say it now! But nooooo… no one listens to old Beck!” Kitz turned to him and smiled, her teeth even more prominent. “Calm down, there’s no lynch mob at the door, right?” She looked at Leeber, who maintained his placated gaze. “Right?” Leeber didn’t answer. Except for the storm, the only sound in the room was the slow creak of Sonya’s rocking chair by the fireplace. It had been her spot for more than a century, and, predictably, Leeber’s cat was curled up in her lap, fast asleep. “We have found The Mac,” she said, stroking the cat. They gasped and looked at Leeber. He nodded. “But not the other?” Beck asked, visibly distressed as he rubbed his gray hair forward and back. “No.” Sonya, a chameleon, blended with the chair and the cat’s streaks of brown, gray and white seemed to vanish. “No, not the other.” “Where is The Mac?” Beck asked. “And quit doing that, Sonya. It gives me the creeps.” Kitz giggled. “That’s exactly why she does it.” She poked Beck and he lurched away from her. “The Mac is on Earth, of course, since that’s where we sent him,” Sonya said. “But Earth is a big place and it has taken time to locate him.” Leeber raised his eyebrows, surprised that she knew. But she always knew things that she wasn’t supposed to. It had been that way since the beginning. “Does he know who he is?” Rem, who had lost his vision and decided not to go through regeneration again, stood slowly, painfully and felt his way to the windows, flattening his palms on the old, leaded glass, feeling the deep, long thunder. “Beautiful storm today. I love the rain. The Mac doesn’t know, does he?” “No, but he will. It’s inevitable,” Leeber said, staring at all of them one by one. “There’s much at risk, and I agree with Beck. There is serious danger here. An entanglement purposefully created, and then?” “We’ve lost one,” continued Sonya, “and if the general Assembly discovers this we will all be –” “Sentenced to death!” Beck blurted, sweating profusely. He got out of his chair and paced, bumping the chairs on his way around the table. “Yes,” Leeber said, motioning to Beck to sit and be quiet. “We, the Circle of Eight, who should be the wisest of the wise, have created . . . who knows what we have created? Doom? Destruction? Chaos?” Swan floated above them, scattering rose petals across the table. “Let’s not give up yet. Where should we begin? I’ve been to Earth. The men gorgeous, the food exotic, and erotic. We should all go, make a holiday of it!” She winked at Beck, who turned a shade of red. “You hyperactive, over-sexed, inept fool…” She giggled, and Beck quickly realized that she had baited him. She lowered back into her chair and plopped a few more grapes into her mouth. “Seriously, though,” Swan’s voice dropped almost to a whisper. “Where do we begin? We knew that we might have to remove our subjects, and it’s the same with this one. But why this concern about him, and why now?” He sighed, splaying his hands on the table. “It would seem that someone is launching events that will expose The Mac, and, in the process, expose us.” Hogess, a tall, twitchy woman, always found the meetings uncomfortable. She popped up frequently to refill their drinks, hand out cookies, dust a shelf filled with porcelain tea pots, all the while quietly humming. She sat back down, smoothing the hem of her skirt. Her eyebrows were up as if questioning while her mouth had a tight smirk. She was curious but wanted to be left alone. “I have an ongoing list of our enemies, and, as you all know, I am very good at baking. Perhaps we can organize a lovely dinner party, and then ferret out the ones to kill?” Hogess was the only member who was somewhat of a mystery to him. Leeber had no idea how to answer. She had defeated armies in ways that had never been anticipated or even completely understood. Poisons were her specialty. He looked down at his cookie and pushed it toward the center of the table. “Thank you, Hogess, we’ll keep that in mind,” he said, clearing his throat. “It has recently come to my attention that our entanglement experiment has attracted the interest of groups that we might not even be aware of and one, of course, that we know all too well. However, we’re not getting into that today, though we may have to deal with it soon. ” Rem moved around the table and sat back down. Hershel quietly got up and curled up by his feet. The room was silent until Rem stretched and surprised them with a rolling laugh. “So, we need a guardian, someone who no one would ever suspect. A marvelous fool.” Leeber nodded, smiling. “William.” “What? No!” West said, finally recovered from his shrinking. “He’s blubbering, stupid, volatile and vile . . .” “Yes, yes, yes, and tenacious. Rarely defeated. Stubborn. Once dedicated he will not give up. And, Leeber will agree, loyal. It is very probable that William and Mac will bond. William is the sort of man who takes on the underdog and is very protective. He’ll quickly realize that this boy who has just has had his world implode needs someone on his side. William doesn’t seek projects that will make him a hero. He just does them. He’s the man for the job.” “The Mac will need to be watched. We have no clue yet of his capabilities,” West said. “We need our options open. We need to be able to make quick decisions and act on them. There may be difficult choices.” Rem scowled at him. “West, young man who has more to learn than you have seen forward or backward in your life. Our choices will become apparent. We all know the risks. William will mitigate those risks, and besides . . . it’ll be a hell of a good show.” He chuckled, his voice raspy. Swan walked up behind him and put her arms around his skeleton-thin waist, resting her head on his back. “Rem, dear old friend,” she whispered, “so very wonderful and wise. Of course, William. Sir William, our William. That’s where we begin.”
CHAPTER ONE A squeal came from Dylan’s left. The small animal’s high-pitched cries ended a second later. Then silence. The forest was dense here, tall bushes, massive ferns, and trees with low branches. He had noticed it only a few moments before the slaughter of the animal. All of the birds were gone. The forest was quiet and he found it unnerving. “An award-winning photographer you say?” He argued with himself. “Come on, get your stuff together.” He checked his camera, ready for any surprise. “I can do this, of course I can.” He realized that he was breathing hard and calmed down. Calm, he had to be calm. To hold the camera steady he would need to be calm. Something big was close, something that scared the birds away, just like the lions he had followed on the Serengeti. The wildlife would always scatter when they sensed the lions. He had been following them for two days when a brush fire hit. The regal pride had walked dramatically out of a cloud of smoke, and he had been there waiting, his lens focused. He had won an award for that one. He could handle this. He’d been in worse spots. He adjusted his camera strap again, running the old leather through his fingers and held his head up high. Something far to his right moved. The bushes swayed and shook, but he couldn’t see anything. He held his camera high and clicked fast, circling. Then he realized that he had made noise. It was stupid, he had just told this predator exactly where he was. He was sweating, his clothes sticking to him. “I can handle this,” he muttered over and over, his palms sweaty. “Sharks, snakes, volcanoes . . . survived them all.” Holding his breath, trying to float in silence above the forest floor, he moved forward avoiding sticks and leaves, forcing his feet to flex and grip the ground. A tall bush behind him moved. Not the movement of the wind or a small creature. Something had pushed against it almost laying it flat. “Pumas?” he whispered. Maybe, he thought, but pumas were known to be shy and avoided humans. Then he saw something, a few feet in front of him – a footprint. He gasped. Time seemed to slow as he processed what he was seeing, inwardly arguing with himself that it couldn’t be real. But there it was. The legend, the myth was alive. The ground still wet from the morning rain put a timeline on the prints. He pressed the toe of his boot in the mud and it left a mark. The prints had to have been made only hours ago, after the rain, or they would have been washed away by the early rainstorm. The impression, triangular shaped with the middle digit sharp and deep, was made by a very large bird. A huge bird. He moved further, his stride much shorter than the bird. He tried to step along with the pattern but failed. He was too small, too short. The prints were larger than his boot. Bending down, his hands shaking, he took pictures of them with his hand and boot next to them. He may not make it out alive, but perhaps his camera would. It was a thought that had been lingering and he had just at that moment acknowledged. Making it out alive was becoming less and less of a probability. A fallen tree lay across the path and, keeping one eye on the surrounding forest, he snapped off a pointed, long branch and held it down beside him like a sword. The prints suddenly vanished. “They can’t fly, can they? No broken branches on the bushes either.” He jumped. A rush of movement came from behind a large outcropping of boulders. The sound of branches breaking felt deafening. He watched, curious but vulnerable. He could only hear the breathing of an animal struggling, fighting. A desperate caw, dirt scraping, then a loud, hard strike on the ground. He thought of birds hitting the sand, looking for food. A small growl, high pitched scream and then, again, he was faced with deadly silence. Breathing was difficult as he became overwhelmed with fear. A thump, this time further down and to his left. Two of them. There were two distinct sources of the sounds. He fought against the reality. He was trapped. “No, no, no!” He pleaded in his mind. They’re hunting in pairs. His knees began to buckle but he gulped in air and stood as straight and tall as he could. The sun seemed to be conspiring with the predators, fading, leaving him as he crept along. The bushes turned darker, the forest dissolved into faded shades of grays and blacks. There was no moon. He walked on barely seeing a bush rattle then another further away. He felt ahead at each step, touching a branch, or a rock to guide him, struggling as empty spaces left him in a terrifying void. What if he reached out and touched the creature? Tripping on a broken branch he fell backward into a thick thorn bush. Scratches burned as he rolled to his side and fought to get out, fought to keep from yelling in pain. For a few seconds he allowed himself time to rest, to curl up on the moist ground, closing his eyes with exhaustion. He felt something scrape across the bottom of his boots. He ran.
CHAPTER TWO “This is bad, guys,” The ship wobbled and jerked. “I’ve pushed every button on the damn ship, and nothing’s working –” A voice interrupted him over the comms. “William, don’t you think that might be the problem?!” “We’re spinning and going down, and there’s nowhere to land. I’m trying to gain some altitude. I don’t want to wipe out the whole southern part of Elton but it’s looking very likely.” His voice rose an octave. “Any suggestions, ideas, thoughts? Any damn guesses?” “William, stay calm. We’re checking it out. According to what we see on this end it may be your time jump, hold on, we’ll get right back to you…” He heard himself scream as the ship encased itself in a blinding light. His lungs felt rigid, like flattened pancakes. Everything rolled together and out again as indistinguishable bits of matter. Then he was suddenly back, flying over Elton. He took three deep breaths, forcing himself to think. “The river, that’s my only shot. I’m heading for the river!” “William, we’re not really certain that’s wise. We’re on this… just a moment.” Emily, the ship computer screeched at him. “Forget the idiots. Dive into the river, you moron. Dive!” He[BG2] pointed the ship toward the river, jolted by impact as plumes shot up, covering the bridges and harbors. Thrown side to side he was finally slowing it down. It floated downstream toward the harbor, finally crashing into a loading dock, taking out only a few ships. Ships could be replaced. “Minor damages, really. Our people are safe, that’s the main thing.” William told a Fidean News reporter waiting for him by the ship. He looked at the destruction around him and nodded. “You could have been killed! What were your thoughts in those final moments?” William shrugged, rubbing his hair with the emergency team’s towel. “Oh you know, I just wanted to save the people. That’s a big ship. Could’ve caused some major damage.” “So brave!” The reporter rubbed his arm and he smiled. “What do you think happened?” “It’s simple really. Some engineers screwed up and the time jump malfunctioned, whipping me forward than back again.” By this time more press had arrived and a balding, sweaty man stuck a microphone in his face. “You signed up for this job, right? And you crashed a ship that costs how much? The budget of a small country? What do you have to say to that, William? Not the first time you’ve destroyed property, right? Would you like to comment?” William smirked, stared at his towel then took a deep breath. “What do I have to say about that? The budget and so on? We could stop developing and when the attacking hordes come we will simply say…. what’s your name, sir?'” “Reginald Blue,” he stepped back. “Glad to meet you, Reggie. As I said, the attacking hordes will come to call and we’ll tell them who to talk to, right?” He smiled at the balding reporter. “My job, while exciting, is necessary for the safety of our planet. In fact, there are few pilots qualified to test and use the newest technology and the latest designs. After this experience I understand why many don’t sign up,” he said. Turning up the charm, he winked at a few of the people. “Those people are intelligent people who want to live.” The crowd nodded, laughed, and clapped, sharing all-knowing looks that said William was wonderful and their personal hero. A young boy pushed through the crowd and asked him for his autograph. He obliged. Suddenly, his boss, Kasani Royale, drove up with three of the department’s engineers, taking William’s place in front of the press. “We are very grateful that no one was injured in this unfortunate incident. Also, naturally, grateful for the skill and bravery of one of our top pilots, Sir William,” he said, patting him on the back, perhaps a little too hard “He is known for his exemplary bravery, demonstrated by the destruction of the powerful photon monster. But, and I do apologize, we need to take him back to the lab and allow our medical team to make certain that he has not sustained any injuries.” William appreciated this only to the point that he was impressed with Kasani’s expertise at lying and misdirection, especially when it came to the press. On the way back to the lab Kasani was more direct. “Do I really need to say it again? Let me handle the questions! I can’t trust you to be discreet and your obsession with the press is exhausting,” he said, dispensing his favorite blue vodka from a nozzle on the dashboard. “In the future you will refer any press or public relations groups to me. You know our research is classified. And our funding is always volatile.” “Kassy, old man, don’t fret so much. You’re like one of those little yapping dogs that barks uncontrollably and pees on the carpet when you pet it. I didn’t tell them anything classified. I should have, however, told them the names and addresses of these three idiots in the back who call themselves engineers. Don’t take me to the lab. I’ve had enough fun with you people today. I’ll go to Height’s for a calming pint or two.” Maybe he needs to talk to himself in third person e.g. Come on Dylan, you’re an award winning photographer. You can do this of course you can.