Kal’s Farewell to 2018

Hey everyone!  As the year winds to a close, I thought I’d write a bit about what I’ve done and the obvious follow up to that is where I’m going next.  In 2018 I had five published novels, which is what I also managed in 2017.  My goal was higher, but I had a few things happen earlier this year, so I think getting those five out was good.  Two of those novels were in my Children of Valor series, with the third one being the start of the spin-off Forsaken Valor series.  The other two, Dead Train: All Aboard and The Colchis Job were both the starts of new series.

Writing-wise, I completed five novels, for a total of four hundred and fifty thousand words written.  Which is a lot of writing.  As the year winds to a close, I’m close to finishing another book, too, and prepping to start the next one.

I’ve also just approved the audiobook version of Valor’s Child and signed the contract to start the next one.

The year 2018 has brought some difficulties for my family, with multiple surgeries, the passing away of family, and a lot of stress and strain.  I’m very grateful to my readers and I want to thank all of you for reading and enjoying my books.  I’ve got a lot more of them planned, so as long as you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Thanks everyone for reading!  2019, here we come!

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King of the Seas: Aquaman Movie Review (no spoilers)

I watched Aquaman last night.  I’ve got to say, I haven’t been this hyped up about a DC movie in… well, ever.  Which is pretty amusing considering Aquaman has been sort of a joke for a long, long time.

The movie manages to live up to that hype.  It’s fun, it’s got good action, an understandable plot, and motivations for the characters that actually make sense.  They do a great job showing Aquaman’s character, in little things he does, not just the big dumb hero stuff of saving the world.  Some of it is sort of check the box, (save the nuns, check, save the trapped guy, check), but a lot of that stuff is cliche for a reason: it shows that he actually cares enough about people to risk himself to save people caught in the middle of his battles.

There’s a whole lot of comic book technology/magic.  It’ll make your head hurt if you think about it, so just eat your popcorn and enjoy it.  The other thing that rubbed me raw was the 2-3 minute pause to lecture about environmentalism.  Okay, I got it, it’s going to be a priority for the people (mer-people?  Atlanteans?) involved.  However, maybe instead of pushing issues that we’ve actually fixed in the past fifty years, you could focus on real environmental issues like illegal fishing trawlers that are pushing fish to extinction?  Oh, wait, those are Chinese fishing trawlers and WB doesn’t want to risk the Chinese market for the movie, so that won’t make the screen.

The movie glossed over some of the who’s who,  as well.  We get that the “fishermen” and the “brine” kingdoms don’t want to fight.  They’re also fish people and crabs, apparently, with no mention of how or why they evolved that way, while the Atlanteans somehow stayed as they were.  It didn’t need a ton of exposition, and I’ll admit, it all looked cool, but a bit more about what happened that they all changed so much might have been good.  Same for the Trench, though the sahuaghin-like creatures obviously couldn’t talk for themselves, it would have been nice to know what drove them so crazy (maybe the pressure, maybe they made pacts with cthuluoid entities, who knows?)

But by and large, the movie had good pacing and a plot you could follow.  Mamoa’s Aquaman shows moments of intelligence and compassion (two features sadly lacking in other DC movies).  I found myself on the edge of my seat for some of the movie because they actually made you care about the characters and there were a couple of times that I had no idea how they were going to get out of situations.  The underwater fight scenes are epic, the underwater cities are pretty epic, too.  There’s a bit too much shaky-cam at times, but I could still follow the action.

There’s also a lot of homages to the inspirations of the comic books.  There’s a HP Lovecraft book, Jules Verne references, and enough references and asides to make geeks, well, geek out.  They were little things, but the fact that they were there suggested a lot of thought went into the movie.

All in all, I’ll put it up as the best of the DC movies, hands down better than Wonder Woman and so much better than Batman v Superman and Justice League that it’s almost comical.  This is the sort of movie they should have done from the beginning, with a lead actor who’s given a bit of free reign to make his character his, to own it and add in his own humor.  Make no mistake, this movie succeeded because it embraced the weirdness that is an underwater kingdom and a superhero who swims well and can talk to fish.  They played that up for the ladies with a leading man who was eye-candy, but they also gave him the freedom as an actor to include his humor and swagger, and his performance felt far more human than the walking, talking, statues we had in Batman V Superman.

This was a fun, enjoyable movie.  It was good enough that I plan to see it a second time.  There’s nothing about the movie that startles or amazes, it was just a solid, fun movie.  I very much recommend seeing it in theaters, too, if for no other reason than to really enjoy the special effects.  A step in the right direction by DC, and I hope they’ll continue this with Zach Levi in the upcoming Shazaam.

Solo Movie Review

As the year has been pretty busy, I didn’t get to see Solo while it was still in theaters.  To be clear, I didn’t approach this movie expecting it to be the best Star Wars movie ever.  I wanted something fun and light-hearted, something to distract and entertain.  And coming away from it, that’s what I got.

It is fun, fast paced, and it’s got enough action and characterization that you come to care about the characters involved.  The movie went through extensive rewrites and reshoots when Ron Howard took over.  You can pretty much identify, scene by scene, where his influence is.  The actors, action, and plot move along comfortably.  Other sections lag behind a bit and there’s a much more campy feel.

The story has plot-holes you could drive a Star Destroyer through and additions to the Star Wars setting that range from interesting to asinine.  But it moves along well, the acting isn’t bad at all, and it passes the bar of being *fun* if a little bit of a stretch at times.  It feels very rushed.  Solo goes from a street rat to an “experienced” smuggler in the course of a movie.  Sections of the ending were clearly in the campier/more humorous tone rather than the grimmer, darker tone of other parts of the movie.  This would have made a better TV series than a standalone movie.

Solo is a movie that didn’t do well not because it wasn’t a decent movie, but because of the disappointment that fans had with The Last Jedi (and that in itself is a can of worms I’m not going to open right now, but you can read my review of TLJ ).  It’s also a movie that didn’t necessarily need to be made and which answers questions most of us don’t have.  We don’t need to know where Han got his blaster or his dice, or why he likes the YT 1300 Corellian Freighter.  There was a perfectly good novel series that covered all that, once upon a time.  It’s not to say the actors or director did a bad job.  They didn’t. There were sections where I was caught up in “young” Han’s story… but again, it’s a story that didn’t need to be told.  It was entertaining and fun along the way, but I wish the focus had been more on the story itself, rather than an origin story for Han.  I wish there’d been more characterization.  More ties to a greater universe, instead of the barrage of homages to the original trilogy.

New Release: Lost Valor

Lost Valor, book one of my new YA series Forsaken Valor, is now available on Amazon!    You can get your copy here: https://amzn.to/2UGbaeS

Thief. Orphan. Beggar. Spy. Killer

They say that without the dark, we would never see the stars, without losing the light, we can never truly see it. Well, I’ve lost the light, I’m in a dark place, a planet where the sun never shines.

My name is William Alexander Armstrong. Pirates took everything from me: the lives of my friends and family, my freedom, and even my honor. But I’m not going to let them take my drive. I’m going to escape, I’m not going to stay trapped, working as their slave. I’ll work with the cast-offs of society: thieves, beggars, and murderers. I’ll work with genetically engineered critters and mad doctors. I’ll lie, I’ll cheat, I’ll steal, and I will kill. I will do everything I can to escape.

I might be lost, I may be forsaken, but I will find my way to freedom, and when I do, I will bring fire and destruction on those who took everything from me.

If you want to read the snippets, you can find them here:  https://kalspriggs.com/2018/12/12/lost-valor-snippet-one/

Lost Valor Snippet Two

Hey everyone!  Lost Valor is now live, but here’s the second snippet of the book.  You can read the first snippet here.  You can find the book on Amazon:   https://amzn.to/2UGbaeS

 

Chapter 2: I Make Some New Friends

 

I woke up knowing that my family and friends were all dead.

The last thing I could remember was the look of desperation on my older sister’s face as she kicked out the support that dumped thousands of tons of sand on her and the pirates trying to capture us. I thought, then, as the ceiling collapsed in a roar that I was going to die too.

From the fact that I was awake, I guess I’d been wrong about that.

I opened my eyes, squinting at the harsh light. My head felt, weird, like I’d been drugged. My first assumption was that I was in a hospital or something.

As I looked around, I realized that I was wrong about that, too. Dreadfully wrong.

I was in a cold, metal room, with a single overhead light. I wasn’t on a hospital bed or even a cot, I was flat on my back on the floor. The rust-spotted walls were almost featureless, but I could feel a rumble of machinery through my back, in contact with the steel deck. I guessed that meant I was on a ship, though it could also mean I was on a station.

Either way, I supposed I was in space, which, all things being equal, was a bad sign. If I’d been rescued, they would have taken me planetside somewhere.

I sat up, wincing as my head throbbed. My mouth was dry as the desert and I fumbled around, looking for anything to eat or drink. I didn’t see anything. In fact, other than the stained and dirty pants and shirt I wore, the only thing in the cell-like room was me. There was a door on the far wall, a metal hatch that didn’t have a handle on this side. I stood up, only to find my legs trembling and the room began to spin. I had to reach out a hand and catch myself, leaning on the bulkhead so I wouldn’t fall.

I squinted up at the light, wondering if I could use it somehow, but it was covered over with a wire mesh and that was welded to the ceiling. I didn’t have any tools and this wasn’t like one of the entertainment modules I’d enjoyed as a kid. I wasn’t the plucky kid hero who’d outsmart the pirates and get back home.

After all, I didn’t have a home anymore. My family was dead.

The realization hit me again, this time like a physical blow. I sagged against the wall, sliding down until I was seated on the cold metal deck. I brought my knees to my chest and wrapped my arms around them, in turn. I put my head down and fought back tears. This wasn’t fair. This wasn’t right. I wanted to see my dad. I wanted to see my mom. I even missed my bossy older sister, who at least had been less obnoxious since she started at the Academy.

I’d never see any of them ever again. They were gone. The pirates, the same ones who’d locked me in here, had killed them. My mother, my father, my sister, they’d all died fighting. Here I was, still alive. It wasn’t fair.

Who said life is fair? My internal voice sounded an awful lot like my older sister or possibly my mom. I let out a shuddering breath. What had happened had happened. Fair or not, that didn’t come into it. The pirates who’d killed my family, they had me as their prisoner. I might not be the hero in an entertainment module, but I could still try to escape. And even if I couldn’t escape, I owed it to my parents, to my sister, to all the people at Black Mesa Outpost to at least try to escape, to bear witness, and to do what I could to bring these hocking pirates to justice.

Despite the chill of the room, I found my rage was sufficient to keep me warm.

***

 

I was ready when the door opened.

A tall, skinny boy came through the hatch, holding a tray. I lunged for him, but I was still pretty weak and I wasn’t as fast as I would have liked. He saw me coming.

He let out a girlish shriek and dropped the tray. “Don’t hurt me!” He flinched back against the wall.

That was strange enough that I froze, staring at him in confusion. “Who are you?” I demanded.

“I’m Ted! Ted Meeks! Please don’t hurt me!”

“Well, that’s just great,” I muttered.  I looked from him to the door, which had slammed shut behind him. A slot opened on the hatch and I got a brief glimpse of eyes, then the slot slid closed. Apparently they didn’t care what happened here.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” I ground the words out. I felt defeated. I’d thought I could at least take out some anger on one of my captors, but I got the feeling that Ted here wasn’t anyone’s captor.  “What’s going on?”

“They captured you, a few weeks ago,” Ted whispered, slumping down against the wall. I stared at him, taking in details as much as I could. His skin hung off him, as if he’d lost a lot of weight. He had a nervous, almost mouse-like expression, and his complexion was pale, like he hadn’t seen the the light of day in months or years. “I didn’t have anything to do with it, they captured me too, a while back.” He shuddered. “At first I thought they were going to kill you. Whatever you did, Wessek’s son, Vars, really doesn’t like you.”

“Wessek?” I asked. I sort of remembered that name. “Wait… did you say weeks ago?”

Ted nodded in a quick, jerky motion. “They kept you drugged. They like to do that, when they…” He swallowed and pointed at the back of his head, “when they put the implant in.”

“Implant?” I demanded, reaching a hand back behind my head. I found scar tissue, there. It wasn’t clean, either, I could feel a long scar running along the top of my spine, right where it joined with my skull. “What did they– What did they do?!”

“It’s a control implant,” Ted said weakly. “They put one in me, too. And others.” He shivered. “They put it in all their slaves.  There’s nothing you can do about it.”

“I’m no man’s slave,” I rejected the very thought.  I stumbled away from him and my back hit the wall behind me. I slumped down, staring at Ted in a mixture of shock and horror. “How long have you been here?” I asked finally.

“I don’t know… years, maybe?” Ted shrugged. “They were going to kill me or sell me off, but then they found I was an accountant in training so Wessek kept me around.” He rubbed at his face, as if looking for glasses that weren’t there. “I stumbled onto some crazy book-keeping stuff at Champion Enterprises and—”

“Wait,” I interrupted, my head perking up as I realized why his name was familiar. “Champion Enterprises? Jiden mentioned you, you were another intern there, one who helped her uncover the smuggling ring!”

Ted blinked at me in shock. “Well, yeah… I was. You know Jiden Armstrong, then? I mean, she actually survived? I thought they’d killed her, like they told me they were going to… like they said they’d kill me if I didn’t do what they told me to do.”

“They didn’t kill her,” I told him. Then I felt the rush of pain and anguish, “Well, they hadn’t. I’m her brother, Will Armstrong. She killed a few of the smugglers who tried to kidnap her and then she went to the Academy.” I shook my head, “The Enforcers said you were dead. They had a funeral, if I remember right.”

“Jiden is still alive?” Ted shook his head. “That’s amazing… but they thought I was dead?” His expression fell, “Oh, man, my parents… gosh, I can’t imagine what they’re going through.” He let out a little sob, “That explains why no one ever came looking for me, I guess. Everyone thought I was dead…”  He sat back, looking stunned.

“It’s okay,” I said. “The authorities will know what happened at Black Mesa Outpost. They’ll…” I trailed off then, as I realized that there wasn’t very much they could do. If we were on a station or ship, then we could be anywhere. “Where are we?” I asked.

“Wessek’s ship,” Ted sounded miserable. Then again, I’d just told him that everyone thought he was dead. “Probably headed to one of his bases.”

“His bases?” I asked.

“He has a few of them,” Ted shrugged. He rubbed at his face. I thought he was wiping away tears, but I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t imagine what he’d been through in the past few years, a prisoner to pirates who’d threatened to kill him. He sighed, then, and stretched out on the deck, reaching for the tray he’d dropped. On his hands and knees, he picked up the tray, then the overturned bowl and the two cups on it. I watched in confusion as he carefully scraped what looked like gruel, off the floor and back into the bowl.

“Want something to eat?” Ted asked in resignation.

“That’s our food?” I asked in shok.

“Well, it was,” he admitted, staring down at the gruel, with bits of dirt and rust from the deck plates in it. “Water to drink and foot to eat… they won’t give us anything else, either.”

“Us?” I asked, staring at him. The tiny bowl seemed inadequate for one person’s meal, much less two.

“Yeah, they aren’t too happy with you. They said I could share my food, if you woke up, but I think Vars really doesn’t like you,” Ted sighed. “Not that he likes anyone, but I guess Wessek put him in charge of capturing you and some others, and I overheard that Vars only got you, so…” Ted shrugged.

“So Vars is in trouble with his dad, that’s good, right?” I asked.

“Except he’s probably going to kill you,” Ted answered. “Then I’ll be alone again.” He sipped at a little bit of the water left in one of the cups. “If you’re going to eat or drink, you’d better do it now. Otherwise I’ll eat it all.”

My throat was screaming at me to remind me how thirsty I was and my stomach rumbled, telling me I hadn’t eaten in weeks. I moved over and sat across from Ted. I took the other glass of water. Like the other stuff on the tray, it had mostly spilled. There was a tiny bit of water left in the flimsy plastic cup and I sipped at it. It had a harsh, metallic taste, like it had been through a recycler too many times.

I didn’t care, not just then. I let the water soak into my parched mouth and then took another sip, fighting the urge to gulp it down in a single swig.

“Food?” Ted asked.

I wrinkled my nose at the thin gruel in the bowl, complete with bits of dirt and flakes of rust from the floor. “No,” I said, forcing myself to smile in thanks, “You can have it.”

“Don’t need to tell me twice,” Ted muttered. He slurped the whole bowl down in a single motion, then held it up to get the last little drops. “It doesn’t taste good and it’s not very filling… but it’s all we get.”  He gave me a weak smile.

“We?” I asked, “Have there been other prisoners?”

“Yeah, quite a few,” Ted admitted. “Wessek likes to take prisoners, most of the time he takes them back to one of his bases for questioning. I don’t know what happens after that, but Vars told me that he gets to kill any that don’t do as they’re told.”

I hadn’t even met Vars and I already hated him.

“Tell me about Wessek, and the ship, and any of his personnel you know or have dealt with,” I said.

“Why?” Ted asked. He inched away from me and put his back against the wall, staring at me with dull, tired eyes.

“Because, maybe we can use that information to escape,” I fought the frustration down. Ted was my only resource, I couldn’t afford to get him angry with me. For that matter, he’d been through a lot in the past few years. I couldn’t judge him based off how he was now.

“That’s pointless,” he noted. “Even if we could escape, most of his bases are on airless moons, we’d just die. Besides, there’s the implants they gave us. Wessek or Vars could just kill us outright with those.”

“We can’t give up,” I told him, talking to myself as much as him. “We’ll find a way to survive and escape. I promise you, Ted, I will get you out of here. I’ll get you home.”

Those words tasted like ashes in my mouth, though. I didn’t have a home, or a family. Not anymore.

Ted seemed to perk up at that. “You really think? I’d… I’d almost given up any hope at all.” His gaze went distant. “Okay, so Wessek, he’s a big guy. Really scary. Talks nice to you one second and then he’s got a knife out the next, threatening to cut off your fingers.” Ted shuddered. “His pirates, they’re all scared of him, man. And his son, Vars, he’s even meaner. He’s not as big, but he doesn’t even pretend to be nice.”

“The ship?” I asked.

“Wessek’s cruiser, the Zairan,” Ted answered. “It’s an old ship, Wessek isn’t big on spending money on stuff like paint.” He waved a hand at the rusty metal walls of our cell. “Wessek says he won it in some kind of game, but I couldn’t tell you how it’s armed or anything like that. There’s hundreds of pirates onboard. I know Wessek has two other ships, I’ve seen cost reports on them.” Ted made a face, “Wessek hates how expensive his ships are, he’s always telling me to cut costs however I can, but parts are expensive and—”

“Okay,” I interrupted, “What about his bases, you said there’s several?”

“At least three. One of them is in Century’s outer system. We left there a few days ago. Wessek left his other ships there, I think. They have some kind of deal worked out with the Enforcers…”

“Wait, what?” I demanded.  The Enforcers were Century’s police force.  They had authority over stopping smuggling and criminal endeavors like piracy.

“Wessek brags about it. I guess he knows someone in the government. He didn’t tell me the details or anything, but he’s connected.  And he’s got some kind of connections in other places too. Like when I told him one of his ships was really low on antimatter, he just sent off a message. A few weeks later, a military ship of some kind showed up at his base and they transferred it. Even his pirates were impressed.”

“Okay, so where are we going?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Ted admitted. “Sometimes Wessek visits some of his other bases. Sometimes it takes weeks or even months. We might be doing some kind of raid or attack.” Ted shuddered. “I really hope it’s not that, Vars always comes back and brags about how many people they killed.” I got the feeling that Vars terrified Ted even more than Wessek. At this point, I was honestly surprised that Ted wasn’t crazy. Maybe he was tougher than he looked.

“These bases, what are they like?” I asked.

“The one at Century is some old mining station on an asteroid. Wessek had it retrofitted to hold air, but it’s really just a few habitat spaces bolted on to the surface of an asteroid. There’s not much to talk about there. There’s another two I’ve been to before, both of them on airless moons.”

“How do you know they’re airless?” I asked.

“There’s portholes in some of the outer areas, and airlocks,” Ted answered. “You can see outside, nothing but empty rock and starry skies.”

That didn’t sound promising. “No bases in cities or inhabitable planets?” I asked. Someplace like that, maybe we could escape and find some way back to Century, at least.

Ted just shook his head, looking miserable. “I tried to escape… once. Wessek had Vars beat me until I couldn’t move. I hadn’t even managed to get off that level, I just managed to get to a computer terminal that wasn’t locked down… and that’s when Wessek found me.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. I remembered a little of what Jiden had told me about Ted. He’d been cheerful, helpful.  I hadn’t paid much attention, beyond remembering how sad she looked, thinking about the friend that she’d gotten killed.

Only he wasn’t dead. He’d been here, trapped, working for a pirate who regularly threatened to kill him and had him beaten when he stepped out of line.

“Don’t worry,” I told him with as much confidence as I could, “we’ll get out of here. I promise.”

***

Lost Valor Snippet One

Hey everyone, here’s the first snippet of Lost Valor, coming out on 14 December!  Hope you enjoy!   See the earlier announcement here for the blurb.

***

Chapter 1:  Everything Changes

 

As the sandstorm howled outside like a mad beast, I couldn’t help but look over at my older sister and sigh.

Jiden was ignoring the storm, her attention focused on her datapad.  Not that she even needed to use the datapad.  She had a neural implant that could just as easily paint the data in her vision.  She was about to go into her fourth year of the Century Military Academy, if you counted her time at Academy Prep School, and she looked as if she weren’t nervous at all.

I wondered if she knew how hard it was to grow up in her shadow.

Even here at Black Mesa Outpost, there’d been some comparisons.  My sister had been years ahead of most of her year group.  Most of our instructors were either through the planetary network or were professors here doing work who contributed time towards the small population of kids at the outpost.  There had been as many as seven of us five years ago.  But then Tony Champion’s family had moved back to Duncan City, and my sister had gone to Academy Prep School and then her Champion Enterprises internship.  In the fallout of that, I’d almost missed the other two kids my age moving away as their parents finished up their research projects.

Then Tanner had graduated a year behind my sister Jiden.  He hadn’t really had the drive to do any secondary schooling and he’d started a job at New Zion.  I hadn’t been close to him or anything, but that had left Jesse and I as the only kids at the small school here.  Most of the people who came to live and work at Black Mesa Outpost were either really old, older than my parents, some of them older than Granny Effy, or they were still in university and they weren’t even dating, much less married with kids.

Jesse was only seven years old, so she and I didn’t really have much in common.  The small class sizes in general and the fact that most of the “teachers” also worked with my parents made comparisons between my sister and I pretty common.

When I was younger, being compared to my sister was mildly annoying.  “You’re smart, just like Jiden,” was something that sounded fine the first time, but around the twelve millionth time one of my instructors told me that, I’d learned to just grit my teeth and pretend to smile.

Not that I hated Jiden or anything, I just got tired of being compared to her.  Things had been even worse at the Academy Prep School, because there I had to work twice as hard just to measure up.  I’d been working for two years to get ready.  I’d done so much physical training, so much additional studies, and even dozens of her training sims on my datapad.  It hadn’t mattered though, because as soon as I showed up to Academy Prep School I’d been Jiden’s little brother from day one.

I looked down at my datapad and sighed again.  I’d earned my place there.  I’d graduated from Prep School with the highest score of any candidate.  Ever.  The first thing someone had said to me afterward in congratulations had been that I’d graduated number one, just like my sister.

Some day, some time, I wished that I’d have an opportunity to prove that just because I’d been born second, didn’t mean I was any less than her.

The wind howled outside again and I glanced at the alert on my datapad: Weather Warning.  Planetary Network Connection Lost.  We normally lost our connection to the planetary network when we got a storm.  We were way south, the furthest south permanently inhabited settlement in the northern hemisphere.   Black Mesa Outpost was over a thousand kilometers south of the southernmost town on the planet Century.  It was inside the deep desert, so far south of the northern polar region where most of the people of my world lived that life wasn’t really sustainable.  Temperatures got up to points where no real wildlife, even the native Century stuff, could survive. Plants didn’t grow down here.  The only water was what the supply skimmers brought in, and we rationed and recycled that over and over.

What our isolation and my lost connection meant just now was that I couldn’t finish off my homework assignments that I had to take care of before I started my Plebe Year at the Academy.  That bothered me more than anything.  I’d painted a target on my back by breaking all the records for scoring.  Every other candidate in my class now had a goal: score better than William Alexander Armstrong.

In fact–

The door to our parent’s house slammed open and my mom staggered into the room, wind and sand billowing with her.  I opened my mouth to make a quip about her getting sand everywhere… and then I realized she was carrying a rifle.

She slammed the door behind her and as she turned back to us, I saw her expression.  It was hard, desperate.  She checked the rifle she carried, racking the slide twice, but the magazine was empty.  She muttered a curse and threw the weapon to the floor, “Jiden, William, I need you to listen to me.”

“Mom, what’s wrong?” Jiden asked.  I noticed a climbing note of worry in her voice.  Mom hurried over to the mantle, taking down the hunting rifle that hung there and then moving to a cabinet and pulling out a box of ammunition that I hadn’t even known they kept in the house. “Mom, where’s Dad?”

Our mother froze, her hands in the middle of loading rounds into the rifle. I noticed her hands shake, ever so much.  She didn’t look up.  “Jiden, there isn’t time for questions.  I want you and Will to go out the back door.  Head for the dig site.”  I opened my mouth, confused.  What was this about, what was going on?

But the hard expression on my mom’s face stilled any questions I could ask.  I found myself standing, halfway to the back door just from the tone of her voice.  “Go inside.  Go all the way down and hide in the lowest levels.  Don’t come up until the storm passes.  I’d come with you, but I need to buy you some time and I don’t want to slow you down.”

I was confused, until I saw Jiden’s attention go to my mom’s leg.  I saw it, then.  A spreading stain of red that leaked down her pants leg.  Jiden spoke, “Mom, let me help you…”

“No!” My mom snapped at her.  “There isn’t time.  You and will need to go, now.”

I started, “But Mom–”

“Go!” She snapped.  Just as she did, I heard shouts outside.  “Get out of here!”

Jiden rushed towards me, grabbing me by the shoulder and shoving me towards the back door.  She shoved it open, wind and sand billowing through.  Even as she did, I looked back, hearing a crash as someone struck the front door.  I heard shouts and I saw my mom raise her rifle and fire through the door.

Then Jiden dragged me out into the storm.

I knew it would be the last time I saw my mother.

I did what she told me and I turned and ran.  Jiden and I raced through the gusts, sand whipping our faces and hitting us both hard enough that every step was a struggle.  I wanted to turn around, wanted to go back and help my mom, but she’d told me to run, so that’s what I did.

The entrance to my parent’s archeological excavation lay only a short distance behind my parents’ small house.  It was a square hole, the edges worn smooth by a million years of blowing sand, carved into the side of Black Mesa.  Jiden and I dashed through, knowing the area so well that we’d run straight for it despite the blinding sand.

I skidded to a halt, though, as a rough-looking man stepped out in front of us.  “What do we have here?” He jeered at us.

Jiden didn’t stop, she drove into him, knocking him down, even as she shouted at me to run. But I wasn’t about to leave her and I stepped forward, stomping on his fingers as he reached for his rifle.  As he drew into a ball to cradle his hand, Jiden wound up and kicked him hard in the side of the head and he went limp.

Jiden took off down the corridor and I raced after her, willing to follow her lead.  She’d fought for her life, before.  I hadn’t, and all the sibling rivalry in the world wasn’t going to make me argue with her now.  Later on, maybe, but not now.

As if she heard my thoughts, my sister picked the one thing that I wasn’t willing to go with, “If we run into someone, I’ll distract them and you need to run.”  She said the words in a low voice, slowing her pace to look back at me.

“I’m not going to leave you,” We had to survive this, together.  “Whatever this is, whoever these people are… we need to stick together.”

“No,” Jiden hissed the words.  “We need to stay alive, if we can.  And if one of us survives, that’s better than both of us dying.”

I gritted my teeth in response, “Why should you…

“Mom put me in charge,” Jiden snapped.  “Besides, I have rank on you, plebe.

That was a low blow.  I bit down a retort that I wasn’t really even a plebe, yet.  I wouldn’t be until I started at the Academy.  Right now I was just a civilian… but she was still a Cadet Second Class.

I kept quiet and I followed her.  All my instincts were screaming at me to ignore what she’d said, to refuse to leave her behind.  At the same time, the logical part of my brain was telling me to listen to her.  She had more experience.  She’d fought before.  I’d had my Academy Prep School training and that was all.  I was a liability when it came to a fight… and that thought shamed me.

As we went further down the tunnel, I realized that the noise of the storm had faded and the murmuring that I’d thought was the wind was actually voices.  My first hopeful thought was that someone else had come down here to hide.  That was, until I heard what they were saying.

“…even know what we’re looking for?” A woman whined.  “Wessek and the others are up at the outpost having fun, we’re down here for what?  A couple of computers that are thirty years out of date?”

A man answered her, “Wessek said to grab all their research notes.  You saw the alien stuff down here, these sand grubbers are onto something and Wessek knows it could be valuable.  Besides, we’re almost done.”

“Yeah, yeah, but you know they’re going to keep any good loot,” the woman grumbled.  These people were here to steal, which probably meant they were with the man at the entrance and the people who’d attacked mom.

“Just shut up and help me with this pad, will you?” The man grunted.

Jiden moved up and peeked around the corner.  I could guess where they were without looking, since I’d been spending a lot of time down here helping my dad.  That area was well lit and it was the narrowest part of the entrance shaft.  A network of metal struts, connected together with metal latches, held up this part of the ceiling, though now and again, trails of sand cascaded down.

This was one of the alien complex’s old air shafts and it had been entirely filled with sand tens of thousands of years ago.  My parents and the other archeologists had tunneled through, bracing the sand above with sheets of metal held by those braces… but they had only tunneled a relatively narrow gap.  Jiden waved me forward and I took a look.

The man and woman were just outside that gap, loading up a couple of crates on a lifter pad.  We couldn’t sneak past them.  My heart began to race as I realized we were going to have to fight them.

Jiden looked over at me and spoke in a low voice, “Alright, Will, I’m going to go in first.  I’ll keep them busy, you run through.  Once you’re on the other side…”

“No,” I whispered back.  “There’s only two of them.  We can take them.”  This was my chance, my opportunity to prove that I could be useful.

“They’re armed, Will.  They’ll kill us both if we stay here fighting them,” Jiden sounded ridiculously calm, her voice reasonable.  She didn’t have any right to sound so calm about the fact that she was offering to sacrifice herself so I could escape.  So I could run and hide like a child, more like.

“I won’t leave you,” I snapped. I wasn’t a child.  I wasn’t really an adult, yet, but I was fourteen Century years old, almost eighteen in Earth years.  I was not going to run away, not when the two of us could work together and both survive.

“Let’s go,” Jiden gave me a nod.  I never felt so proud as when she acknowleged tha I could be helpful.

We crept down the tunnel, moving as quietly as we could and keeping to the shadows until we were only a few meters away from the two of them.  Jiden tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at the man.  I gave her a nod.  The man was tall and broad-shouldered, but I wasn’t exactly small.  I was close to two meters in height and I’d put on a lot of muscle from all the physical training I’d done.  I’d never exactly fought before, but I’d rough-housed at Academy Prep School and they’d taught us some basics of hand to hand fighting.  I hoped that would be enough.

The man and woman both had rifles slung over their shoulders, so their hands were free to work.  Jiden waited until both of them were bent over a heavy box and then ran forward, charging at the woman.  I wished she’d given me a signal or something, because I was a few seconds behind her as she charged.  She caught the woman mostly by surprise, but the man dropped his end of the box and met my charge with some warning.

Instead of bowling him over, we slammed against one another and we bounced off each-other.  He growled some curse at me and I lunged in a tackle, trying to knock him off his feet.  The man grappled with me and after a minute or so, I realized this wasn’t a fight I was going to win, not quickly, anyway.  I punched at him, but he was too close.  I heard shouting and grunting, I just hoped my sister was having better luck than me.

Even as I thought that, I caught a blow to my stomach that took all the wind out of me.  I dropped back, gasping for breath, but the man came at me, swinging wild punches at me.  I kicked out, like trying to kick a ball and managed to land a solid hit on him, sending him staggering back and giving me a second to see what was going on.

Jiden was on the ground, in the access tunnel.  The woman she’d been fighting was standing over her.  Things didn’t look good.

I looked back, wondering if maybe we could run that way… and then I saw more people coming down the corridor, rushing along with flashlights.  I looked back at Jiden and saw her expression set.  She knew that we were trapped.  There was no way out.

I saw her kick at a stanchion that supported the thousands of tons of sand above her.  I started to shout to her, to tell her not to do it, then the man I’d been fighting tackled me to the ground.  “I got the boy!” he shouted.  “I got him!”

Two more of the attackers rushed forward and I lost sight of Jiden.  But I tried to fight, tried to struggle, because I knew exactly what Jiden was going to do.

I heard a loud crash, and then a roar.  I heard the men fighting me shout and scream in alarm.  And then a black wave of sand roared through the room.  It picked me up and flung me, tumbling end over end and the last thing I saw was the back wall of the room coming up to hit me like a flyswatter.

***