Idols, p.1

Idols, page 1



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  In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitutes unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

  For my friends in Chang Mai, Chang Rai, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore—and for their stories.

  Khorb kun ka. Xie xie. Terima kasih.



  —Virgil, The Aeneid



  I want to close my eyes but I don’t.

  I refuse. I won’t let darkness be the last thing I see.

  So I watch while my world spins out of control. Literally. While our tail twists and our alarms scream and our lights flash and the impossibly loud roar of our failing rotors fills my heart with terror.

  Not now, I think. Please.

  Not like this.

  We have twelve more Icons to destroy. I never bound with Lucas—and Ro’s never forgiven me for kissing him.

  I’m not finished.

  But with every turn, the rocky desert floor beneath us lurches closer. And out the window, all I see is a dark kaleidoscope of stars, ground, moon—in a whirling, chaotic blur.

  A cloud of smoke chokes my lungs. I grasp Tima with one hand, clutching my gear to my chest with the other. The outline of the Icon shard in my pack is unmistakable as its sharp edges push against my ribs. I always know it’s there—along with the power it once seemed to give me, back in the Hole. Even now, I couldn’t forget it if I tried.

  It doesn’t matter, I tell myself. Not anymore.

  Nothing does.

  The Chopper drops again, and in the front seats, Ro and Fortis almost hit the glass window. Wedged as I am behind them—between Lucas and Tima—my head slams into the back of Ro’s seat.

  “Bloody hell!” growls Fortis.

  I feel Lucas’s fingers on my shoulder and his fear in my chest. Brutus barks wildly, as if he could attack our fate and chase the end away—when in reality he’s scrabbling just to stay put in Tima’s lap.

  Stupid dog. Stupid fate.

  Stupid, stupid Chopper.

  “Hold on, mates, this may be a bit of a rough landing!” Fortis calls over his shoulder, with the sudden flash of a grim smile.

  “I thought you said you could fly this thing!” Ro screams at Fortis, and I feel the clash of panic and anger coming off him in powerful waves.

  “You want to take a crack at it?” Fortis shouts, too busy fighting the controls to look up.

  “Dol.” Lucas finds my hand and tightens his grip on me, lacing his fingers through mine. He radiates little of his natural warmth tonight, but I know it’s there.

  The tiniest of sparks, even now.

  We’re together, I think. Lucas and me. Ro. All of us. It’s something.

  Grassgirl, Hothead, Buttons, Freak.

  The night we fell out of the sky, at least we were together. At least we had that.

  The moonlit landscape of wind-sculpted rock and canyons whips around us, and I wonder if this is the end. I wonder who will find us.

  If anyone.

  Our seats are shaking violently now. Even the windows are rattling. Tima tightens her grip on me, closing her eyes. Her fear hits me with such force that her touch almost burns.

  As she touches me, a new idea claws itself into my mind.

  “Tima, we need you—” I search for the memory of her at the Icon, how she used her fear to shield Lucas from the explosion.

  I reach out to her.

  Try. Just try.

  Tima’s eyes flash open. She stares at her blood tattoo, the colorful streaks and patterns on her arm. She grips Brutus tight.


  I hope she can do it. We’re going down fast.

  “It’s no use. You can’t fly a bird with broken wings,” Fortis shouts. “Hold on, children—pick a god an’—”


  Pray, I think as we slam into the canyon wall.

  I’m praying, I think as I listen to the violent clash of metal and rock.

  Chumash Rancheros Spaniards Californians Americans Grass The Lords The Hole. Chumash Rancheros Spaniards Californians Americans Grass The Lords The Hole. Chumash Rancheros Spaniards Californians Americans Grass The Lords The Hole—

  I recite it in my mind, the only prayer the Padre really taught me.

  I pray as I feel the streaming heat of spreading flames.

  I pray as I close my eyes to a flash so bright it burns through my eyelids, thin as onion skin, as paper.

  I pray as I fall into the silence.

  Pick a god—

  I don’t know a god. Just a girl.

  So I squeeze her hand as the Chopper hits the ground in a ball of fire.




  Internal Investigative Subcommittee IIS211B

  RE: The Incident at SEA Colonies


  I have, after great expense and effort, located and infiltrated the secure archives of Paulo Fortissimo. I believe their relevance to the disastrous recent situation in the Colonies will be instructive, or, at least, illuminating. It is to this effect that I offer my services, in the name of our dear mutual friend, the good Dr. Yang.

  Now commencing decryption of files. Will immediately send all relevant materials as they are unpacked and decoded, in chronological order.

  Following, you will find transcripts, beginning with initial contact with Lords (done via AI/virtual), research notes, personal journal entries, etc.

  We can discuss compensation in due time. Recommend destroying all files immediately after review, Physical Humans being as swayed by emotion as they are. The final decision is, of course, at your discretion.



  Virt. Hybrid Human 39261.SEA

  Laboratory Assistant to Dr. E. Yang



  I am lying facedown in the dirt. I taste it. Dirt and blood and teeth as loose as old corn. Every bone in my body aches, but I am alive. Death would hurt less.

  I feel hands rolling me over, pressing against my arms, my legs. “No, don’t move her. She’s in shock.” Fortis.

  A blur of dirty blond hair comes into view in the darkness, and I feel the familiar warmth surge into my cheeks as a hand touches my face. “Dol? Can you hear me?”

  Lucas. I move my lips, trying to make a word. At the moment, I think, it’s harder than I remember. “Tima—” I finally croak.

  He smiles down at me. “Tima’s fine. She’s still out, but she’ll be fine.”

  I roll my head to the side and I see her lying in the dirt next to me. Tima, her scrawny dog, cactuses, and stars. Not much else.

  Brutus whimpers, licking Tima’s tattooed arm, which looks like it’s bleeding.

  “Fine? You don’t know that,” says a voice in the night. Ro. I see that he’s just on the other side of Lucas, tossing dead tumbleweeds onto a makeshift fire. Ro doesn’t feel just warm—not to me. He’s smoldering. I could feel him anywhere.

  Lucas rubs my hands between his. “I do know that, actually.” He looks over his shoulder. “Because if Tima wasn’t okay, we’d all be dead right now. Who do you think broke our fall?”

  Tima. It must have worked. She must have done it.

  I remember now the bright blue light expanding outward from T
ima just as we hit. The muted, violent shock as we landed, the heat of the exploding Chopper—then nothing.

  I sit up, weakly. I don’t know how we got here, but we’re clear of the wreckage, which is still burning black smoke in the distance. I can smell it from here.

  I cough it out of my mouth.

  Lucas pulls me up until I am leaning against the side of a rock. Ro is there a second later, forcing a canteen to my lips. The cold water chokes my throat as it goes down.

  I can’t take my eyes off the burning Chopper. The burning metal carcass that was our only chance to escape the Sympas and get to safety is going up in flames, like everything else. Then—


  A string of rapid noises catches me off guard. It sounds like gunfire, but it can’t be. Not out here. “What was that?”

  Fortis sighs from the darkness nearby. “Fireworks, love. That’s our live ammo, burning up with the bird.” He disappears toward the fire.


  There it all goes, I think. Our dreams of living another day, popping like bubbles. Like a pan of hot corn set in Bigger’s fire.


  Gone, gone, gone, I think. Our chances of success in our impossible mission to rid the world of twelve more Icons.


  Our shot at making it to the next Icon—let alone coming up with a plan of destroying it.


  I try not to think anymore. It’s all too bleak. I only watch. The flames would be higher than a tree—if there were any trees around here. But all I see in the firelight, aside from the five of us, is a flickering blanket of desert floor that rises and falls into a sheet of continuous cliffs and rocks and mountains. An uneven expanse of unkempt scrub and shale.

  Nothing like life—as if we’ve landed in the Earth’s own graveyard.

  I shiver as Fortis returns from the glowing wreckage, dragging two charred backpacks with him. His ripped jacket flaps and drags behind him, like some kind of maimed animal.

  “Where are we?” I ask.

  Ro flops down next to me. “Don’t know. Don’t care. Doc?”

  Lucas sighs. “Offline. Still. Ever since we took off.”

  “What do we have?” Ro calls out, and Fortis shakes his head, dumping the packs next to us.

  “Not much that didn’t burn in the fire. A piss pot an’ a pea pod. No real rations. Less water. I’d say we have enough to last two days, three tops.” Fortis taps on his cuff, but all I hear is a flash of static.

  Lucas tosses a branch into the fire. “All right, then. A couple days. There has to be something around here. Someone, anyway.”

  “Who knows if we even have that long?” I look up at him. “We barely escaped the ambush at Nellis—and now this? The Sympas will have us back in the Pen before we have the luxury of starving to death.”

  “Maybe there’s a Grass camp nearby?” Ro says it, but we’re all thinking the same thing.

  There isn’t.

  There’s nothing out here. We knew that when we left Nellis Base—when the Sympas attacked and we didn’t care where we ended up. But we should have, because now here we are.


  Ro tries again. “We can’t just sit here waiting to die. Not after what we did to the Icon in the Hole. We gave those people a chance—we gave ourselves a chance. If we don’t take it, who will? What then?”

  We all know the answer to that. The Lords will destroy our people while the Sympas laugh.

  Ro turns to Fortis. “There has to be a way out of here. A Merk outpost? Geo station? Anything?” Ro is relentless. Inspiring, almost.

  And absolutely crazy.

  “There’s your fightin’ spirit,” Fortis says, clapping him on the back. “An’ here’s my fightin’ spirits.” He pulls out his flask, slumping down to the desert floor next to me. And that’s his real answer, I think.

  “Ro’s right. We can’t give up.” I look at him. “Not now. Not after everything.”

  Not after the Embassy. The Hole. The Icon. The Desert. Nellis.

  Fortis pats my leg, and I wince. “Give up, Grassgirl? We’re only just gettin’ started. Don’t send me off to an early grave yet, love. I’m too young and too pretty to die.”

  The fire throws shadows on his face, hiding his eyes, grossly exaggerating his stubbled, bone-tight features. At this particular moment, he looks like some kind of evil puppet from a child’s nightmare.

  Barely human.

  “You know, you’re not all that pretty,” I say, my throat still full of dust.

  He laughs, more like a bark, pocketing his flask. “That’s what my mum said.” As he draws his arm around me I can only shiver.

  Then Tima groans awake, clutching her arm, and I forget about everything but staying and being alive.




  Internal Investigative Subcommittee IIS211B

  RE: The Incident at SEA Colonies

  As promised.

  Below are excerpted records of communication between Fortissimo (“FORTIS”) and his AI (HAL2040—the early iteration of the somewhat rudimentary Virtual Human we know as “Doc”). These are initial attempts by Fortissimo and his AI to contact the foreign object first thought to be an asteroid, and thus labeled Perses, proving early awareness of potential threat.

  Note: Fortissimo’s use of “hello world” (in this case, done in multiple languages) is an ancient programming trope. Displaying the phrase “hello world” indicates success in getting a new machine to connect to its network, to communicate, or show some intelligence. By human standards. (Note: Physical Humans, that is. Virtual Human standards are by nature much higher.)



  Virt. Hybrid Human 39261.SEA

  Laboratory Assistant to Dr. E. Yang

  HAL2040 ==> FORTIS

  Transcript - ComLog 04.13.2042


  //lognote: {PERSES communication attempt #413};


  sendfile: dict.glob.lang;

  //lognote: as before, sending files with dictionaries/text protocols;

  sendline: hello world;

  return:..… no response;

  sendline: 01101000 01100101 01101100 01101100 01101111 0100000 01110111 01101111 01110010 01101100 01100100;

  return:..… no response;

  sendline: 48:65:6c:6c:6f:20:57:6f:72:6c:64;

  return:…… no response;

  sendline: an ki lu sal an ki lu sal an ki lu sal an ki lu sal;

  return:…… no response;

  //lognote: communication attempts in English, binary, hex, ancient languages find PERSES unresponsive.;



  Sleep only brings nightmares. When I wake up, I return to consciousness as suddenly and as restlessly as I left it.

  Sitting up, I want to run, gasping for air in the cold. My heart pounds and every beat is a question.

  Where am I? Are we safe? Are we still free?

  I fall back on my side, staring into the growing shadows of the wild desert brush in front of me.

  No Sympas. No ships. No Lords. Nothing I haven’t seen for the last week now.

  I study the landscape like a clock as I try to catch my breath. The long shadows mean it’s nearly dark, which means it’s time to get up and move. The terrain has grown increasingly strange, alien almost, as we’ve crawled from rock to rock in the darkness. Anything to avoid the Sympas combing the desert, looking for us.

  We sleep in the day and travel in the night now, ever since our Chopper went down.

  At least we have established contact with Doc through the comlink cuffs—thanks to the com relay Fortis was able to salvage from the crashed Chopper. Doc keeps us away from patrols and, we hope, moving toward somewhere safe. He’s been tracking Sympa deployments since our Chopper went down; they’re looking for us—everywhere—but they haven’t foun
d us yet.

  They. The Embassies. The Lords. It almost doesn’t matter which, not anymore. They’ll find us, whoever they are in the end.

  It’s only a matter of time.

  The longer we wander in the desert—exposed to the elements and targeted by the Embassy—the stronger the grip despair has on me.

  Despair from the bleak truth that, back in the Hole that once was Los Angeles, even without the Icon, the Embassy reportedly still has all the power, and the weapons.

  The bleak truth that, according to what we learned during our too-brief stay in Nellis, Catallus has come down with a fury on the people of the city, and the Projects run uninterrupted.

  I look up to where Lucas sits across from me, huddling in only his shirtsleeves on the red rocky ledge. It takes me a moment to realize that Lucas has laid his torn Embassy jacket over me, along with his blanket.

  He smiles, almost shyly, and I soften, seeing the cold purple-blue of his mouth.

  I don’t know why I can’t just say what I think—that I’m grateful, that he’s thoughtful. That when I see his mouth I want to kiss it, kiss him, but since we are never alone, I don’t dare.

  My empty stomach growls as I turn to see who else is there, just in case I’m wrong. I’m not; Fortis snores on one side of me, under a pile of brush that can’t camouflage his woolen, red-toed socks pointing to the sky like two knit rabbit ears. Tima is passed out on the other side of him, covered in dust and almost completely hidden in a neat zigzag of folded arms and legs, like some kind of compact military gear. Brutus is nestled in the crook of her knees, himself snoring so loudly you would think he was Fortis’s son more than Tima’s dog. Ro, as usual, is nowhere to be seen, but he doesn’t like to sleep near any of us, not since we left the Mission.

  He won’t get that close to Lucas.

  To me.

  Things will get easier for all of us, Fortis says, when we find a way to get where we’re going.

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