How a Fender Bender Inspired a Terrifying Book Series with Author Richard Crofton


Browsing some horror titles, looking for my next read, this cover caught my eye. I don’t usually read series because of time constraints and a very long “to read” list, but I bought it. Boy, am I glad I did! A terrifying premise and superb writing hooked me.


Would you believe that a secret group with dark powers to control your mind are at work to take over the world? If you don’t, you just might after reading this book. What’s the most terrifying aspect is that the members of this group could be anyone, including that friend or lover that you think you know so well! Richard Crofton gives you just the right amount of story to keep you guessing and wanting more. I’m dying for the rest of the story and I apologize to others on the “to read” list but you might get bumped.

I’m super excited to tell you that I reached out to Richard Crofton and he agreed to share some insights about himself and his books!

Richard, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Originally from Wilmington, Delaware, I currently reside in Florida with my wife and our three children. I taught English Language Arts for ten years but now work as an instructor in the art of Shaolin Kempo Karate. I’m an avid lover of animals, backpacking/camping, bowling, chess games, baseball, and homemade Italian food (also love my Philly cheese steaks!). However, creative writing and martial arts are my two main passions, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to pursue both avenues.

Teacher to Karate and Writer! That’s quite a career range. What led you to become a writer?

It’s always something I’ve enjoyed. I’ve been writing stories off and on since I was a kid, but I never held onto any of my work. When I was a school teacher, I used to create short, silly stories and turned them into grammar exercises for my students. I only recently became more serious about writing to publish when I came up with the idea for The Keepers of White series about four years ago.

Here’s something I get asked all the time and I’m always curious how other horror writers respond. Why do you write in the horror genre?

For some reason, I get drawn very deeply into the movies I watch, as if it’s real for me when I know it’s now. Therefore, in truth, I hate horror movies (except a select few of the classics). They actually still scare me, especially the stories in which the conflict is not resolved. The characters are desperately trying to stop the evil entity, but in the end, they fail and usually die. Or they think they win, and then there’s a twist at the end where we see that they actually failed. Then after it’s over, I still can’t stop thinking about it. But when I write horror, I have control over what happens. And with the horror stories I write, there is usually a powerful and evil supernatural entity, just like in the films, but I also like to create a character who is equally powerful to fight against it. In my mind, there has to be a balance of power between the things that cause fear and the things that cause hope. And having characters brave and strong enough to face that evil head on kind of helps me feel better about the not-so-pleasant outcomes of all those scary movies that freaked me out as a kid.

As a horror writer, I’m always thinking about what scares people. Besides being helpless against evil, what else scares you?

In books and movies: The intense music, tiny whispers and/or giggling sounds, and mostly little girls dolled up in dresses with blank expressions on their faces (It all started with The Shining).

In real life: Old, abandoned, haunted-looking buildings, snakes, flying (well, only the part right when you first land), and nuns. My two biggest fears are drowning, and most of all, someone stealing or harming one of my children.

Something happening to my kids is a big one for me, too. Thanks for sharing. I will file these away in my ‘how to freak out readers’ file!

Many writers have rituals unique to them. Do you have a writing ritual?

For some reason, I cannot work at home. When I was an English teacher, I could not focus at home to grade my students’ essays. It’s like that with writing as well.

My only ritual: Sitting with my laptop at a table at Dunkin’ Donuts with a large hot coffee.

Yuunmm! Donuts!

Your book The Keepers of the White, Book I: Agents of Shadow has a very spooky premise. Where did you get the idea for your story?

I’m actually working on my next blog article about this. I still can’t explain it. In the fall of 2010, I wrecked my car in an accident, so for a few days, I drove a rental to work. I had forgotten to transfer my I-pod from the wrecked car to the rental, so for the first time in years, I turned on the regular radio on my way to work (who listens to local FM stations anymore?). As soon as I hit the power button, “Black Magic Woman” was playing (I can’t remember if it was Santana’s or Fleetwood Mac’s version). Listening to the lyrics and the tune, my imagination suddenly created the character Diana Palmer from my
book, who, as readers will see in the upcoming second book, is the most ruthless of the Agents of Shadow. A woman so wicked, but also so beautiful, enchanting, and seductive, that no one can resist her powers of manipulation. From there it just grew, and the entire story just started forming in my head.

What’s next for you?

Books II and III of The Keepers of White series have already been written. I’m currently working on Book IV. I’ve also been writing a few short stories here and there, and when I have enough, I will compile them into an anthology. Further, in the future, I’d like to try my hand at non-fiction and write a light-hearted and humorous memoir about my experiences as a middle school Language Arts teacher.

I’m so glad to know the rest of the story is waiting for me! Working in Middle school certainly gave me lots of laughs as well. I’ll look for that one, too!

Where can we find out more about you and your writing?

Best place is my blog: I blog three different categories. One is “All About The Keepers of White,” where I talk about the background, the inspirations behind, and the characters of my series. I also write book reviews for other authors. But the third category is called “The Little I’ve Learned,” in which I write about my experiences as a writer, a father, and a teacher. I think that’s the best way for readers to get to know me as a person.I can also be followed on:

Amazon: Richard Crofton’s Amazon Page

Thank you so much for your time, Richard. I truly enjoyed reading your book and look forward to the rest of the story!

And thank you, dear readers! Check out Richard’s book The Keepers of the White, Book I: Agents of Shadow if you dare! I promise you will be thinking about it long after you close the cover. Until next time, Never Turn Off the Lights!

Announcing Ghost Light Stories


By LouisHeon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I’m a firm believer that you can never get enough scares in your life! That’s why I’m so excited to introduce a new feature to this site: Ghost Light Stories. Once a month you’ll be treated to a spooky tale either from myself, a guest horror author or from readers just like you!

A Ghost Light is a single naked bulb left burning in an empty theatre. For practical reasons, this light keeps someone from accidentally walking into to the orchestra pit or off the side of the stage, but it’s also surrounded by superstition. There is a widespread tradition that most theaters are haunted. One story goes that the Ghost Light allows the spirits to take to the stage in otherworldly performances when the living actors have left the building. In a little darker version, the Ghost Light keeps the spirits with evil intentions away from the theatre ensuring safety and success. Either way, you may wish to fire up your own Ghost Light before you hear these creepy tales!

If you have a story of your own you’d like to share with us, please email it to  Fellow authors encouraged to play! You can also follow Ghost Light Stories on my YouTube channel at


Easter Bunny. Friend or Foe?


Easter weekend is upon us again. I’ll be dying eggs tonight with my family and preparing to host everyone for a meal on Sunday after sunrise service at a park here in my town. We will have an egg hunt or two and hopefully, we can find all the eggs. There have been a few years when some of the eggs disappeared into a different dimension and were never seen again. Pretty typical Easter.

My kids have made sure we have carrots for the Easter Bunny. I don’t know about you, but I think he might be the strangest Easter icon of all. You might believe he came about because he’s a symbol of new life and pagan in origin, but he might be more German than pagan.

German immigrants brought the tradition of Osterhase or Oschter Haws, a colored egg-laying rabbit, to America with them. As the tradition spread so did the gifts the bunny drops off on Easter morning to include chocolate, games, and other goodies.

Now, let’s think about that for a minute. A rabbit. That lays eggs. Colored eggs, no less.

Then the little freak, or mutation, or whatever he is, also leaves chocolate. Sometimes in the shape of HIMSELF. I don’t even want to know where the chocolate comes from!

I think there’s more weirdness going on here than first meets the eye.

I know what you are thinking. It’s a cute little furry bunny who brings nothing but happiness. But check this out. If you look at this one just right, it looks likes an alien skull. AN ALIEN for crying out loud! animal-1934328_1920

Yes, you say. But they are cute and furry. Oh? Really? He looks pissed. And look at those claws! I dare you to touch his eggs. Those things aren’t easy to lay, you know.easter-eggs-2009530_1920

That’s not even a bunny, just a bear impersonating a bunny. Okay, what do you say about this guy? What is that sticking out of his mouth? Antenna? Feelers? What, I ask, WHAT?DEARLORDBUNNY

I’m not being fair to the bunny you say? Okay, how do you explain these guys? It’s a whole dang army. Those are not bunny buck teeth. They are FANGS! I can see the bloodlust in their eyes.bunnies-151390_1280

Look at more traditional Easter Bunnies? Oh, all right. These guys look like specters haunting the woods ready to curse you or eat your soul.decoration-1557661_1920

Too commercial? Homemade bunnies are better. Really? easter-bunny-7253_1920

Oh, and look! Another unholy bunny army! You might want to eat them before they eat you. I think I see some black-eyed bunnies in there!easter-bunny-7255_1920

Come on, Joy! You are shouting at me now. Kids love the Easter Bunny, you say. Yep, looks like love all right. I’ll bet this poor kid is still in therapy.WEREBUNNY

Hey! That’s over the top now, you object. All I can say is, it’s better than this guy showing up! HALLOWEENBUNNY

Okay. Would you rather have this show up? easterbunnywagon

Now that we have examined the Easter Bunny, I’m not so sure I want him to come by.

On second thought, it’s worth it to get some treats! Hi, my name is Joy and I’m a chocoholic.

We had some fun with our dear rabbit. Take a moment to consider the most amazing icon of this holiday, the tomb is empty. Until next time, Never Turn Off the Lights!

p.s. a special thanks to Pixabay for providing many of the fun images!

Top 5 Reads and Flicks for a Spooky Valentine’s Day



Valentine’s Day will soon be upon us and fans of romance everywhere are rejoicing. Hearts, flowers, sweet chocolates, and sparkly cards will be flowing. But there is absolutely no reason that us horror fans should feel left out. Here are my top five things you can read or watch to keep your Valentine’s Day spooky.

To Read:

1. The Monk: A Romance by Matthew Gregory Lewismonk

Don’t let the fact that this book was published in 1796 put you off. Star-crossed lovers, pregnant nuns, cross-dressing monks, murder, rape, incest, ghosts, demons, and sorcery rule the twisting plot and subplots. Oh, did I mention Satan himself is one of the characters?

2. The Witching Hour by Anne Ricewitching

A story of a matriarchal family of witches with varying talents and powers. The newest head of the family, Rowan and her lover Micheal Curry, have a deep and touching romance. Rowan used her skill as a doctor and her powers of psychic healing to save his life. But the Mayfair family’s personal demon Lasher wants Rowan for his own and there is little he won’t do to get her. Now that’s a messed up love triangle. At over 900 pages it’s a longer read, but totally worth it.

3. Salem’s Lot by Stephen Kingsalems-lot

Writer Ben Mears returns to his hometown of Jerusalem’s lot after losing his wife in an accident. He plans on writing a book about his boyhood there. Love is a powerful healer and he strikes up a passionate romance with a local young woman named, Susan Norton. Their picnics and canoodling is interrupted when a local boy goes missing. Then the townsfolk start dropping one by one, converted to the undead by a mysterious vampire, Mr. Barlow. Leave it to a vampire to suck all the fun out of a new romance.

To Watch

drac4. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker; Screenplay by James V. Hart; Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Lovers torn apart by duty. A man who gave all for the Church only to see his love condemned for eternity. A vow of revenge with a price to be paid until the end of time. And that’s just in the first ten minutes. When the Count finds Mina and realizes she is his beloved Elisabeta reincarnated, redemption is near. Too bad everyone else wants to drive a stake through his heart and cut off his head. This movie closely follows the original novel by Bram Stoker more than some other Dracula films. It’s quite sensual and visually beautiful. You’ll find yourself disgusted with the Count one minute and cheering for him the next.

41irodztwxl-_sx342_5. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour.

This creepy story takes place in the fictional place of Bad City, Iran. Just like the name implies, it is a place of crime, drugs, and hopelessness. A lonely skateboard riding female vampire stalks the inhabitants, preying on the most depraved residents. She meets a young man Arash and they begin to fall in love. Too bad Arash’s father is one of the most depraved citizens around. Shot in black and white this tale of love is weirdly fascinating!

It’s no surprise that three out of the five on my list are vampire stories, right!? Enjoy your Valentine’s Day. If you need some card ideas, check out my blog post Valentine Cards to Die For. It will keep the spooky Valentine theme going. Until next time, Never Turn Off the Lights!

Scary Christmas!


Welcome back! I know, I know, I almost missed our Christmas tradition of posting a Christmas horror tale! Trust me, this one was worth the wait! Read on, if you dare!


The Kalli-Who

Lenny squinted his eyes at the Christmas tree. If you did it just right, it looked like tiny fireworks exploding from every branch. He could lie right under it and look up the branches now that the presents were all opened and it was amazing. He aimed his prized brand spanking new nerf gun up the trunk of the tree, pretending to zero in on a shiny blue glass ball.

His finger jerked. The ball shattered sending tiny shards down on him. Lenny rolled over, jumped to his knees and brushed off the debris.

“What was that?” his mother called from the kitchen.

“Nothing,” he called back.

“Didn’t sound like nothing,” she said, her footsteps stomping his way.

She came around the corner, wiping her wet hands on a dishtowel. He put the gun under his shirt.

“Leonard James Doukas, what have you done?”

“Nothing,” he said, his eyes wide.

She held her hand out. “Give it over.”

“No, Mama! The ornament fell on its own!”

“Uh-huh. Give it here.”

He groaned and gave her the gun. She set it up on top of the mantel.

“You can have it back tomorrow. I told you not to point it at anything but the target that came with it.”

“But Mom!”

“Don’t ‘but Mom’ me. I told Santa not to bring you that! Get the hand-vac and clean it up then off to bed.”

He started to protest again. The adults were settling in around the dining room table, and he wanted to listen in to the stories they would tell about Christmases past and ‘the old country.’ Lenny’d never been to Greece, but it sounded like a magical place to go. His mother gave him the look and he knew better.

“You never know, maybe the kallikantzaroi knocked it down. It’s the first day of the twelve days,” his father said as he walked through the room. Lenny could smell the cinnamon and cloves from the cookie he was holding.

“The kalli-who?” Lenny asked. Maybe he could still get out of this.

His mother glared at his father. “Don’t fill his head with that stuff. It’s bad enough that the baby won’t sleep through the night, I don’t need him up, too.”

A broad mischievous smile cracked his father’s face. “Clean up your mess, get ready for bed, and I’ll come tuck you in. I’ll tell you all about the Kallikantzaroi.”

“Nick, you jerk! You can stay up with the kids tonight then,” his mother said.

Nick strolled over to her and covered her in a bear hug, picking her up off her feet. He nuzzled his face into her neck, and she shrieked with laughter. Lenny wrinkled his nose at their giggles and smooching sounds. He got started on the clean up.

As he knelt down under the tree, he looked up at the mantle and could see the tip of his gun hanging over the edge. His heart swelled. He’d gotten a lot of gifts, but that one was the best. Maybe heading to bed wasn’t so bad. That meant tomorrow would come sooner and he could have his treasure back.

Face washed, and teeth brushed, he slid his bare feet down the cool smoothness of his sheets. His father pulled the blankets up and smoothed them around his thin body. Lenny pulled the soft comforter up under his chin.

“Tell me the story, Papa.”

“What story?” Nick said, and the mischievous smile returned.

“You know! The Kalli-kontz-aroo!”

A deep rolling laughter came from Nick. “Your mother won’t be too happy.”

“Please! You promised!”

“Okay, okay. But you have to promise to be a big boy and not get scared.”

“I promise! I promise!”

“You know that big oak tree in the front yard?”

“Yes,” Lenny said.

“Well, there’s one just like it only much bigger that grows underground, and it holds up the whole world, it’s the world tree.”

Lenny scowled. “Papa, that sounds like make-believe.”

“Do you want to hear the story or not?”


“Okay, then. Shush,”

Lenny giggled.

“The Kallikantzaros are hairy little monsters who spend all year trying to cut the tree down.”


“Um, because they are bad. They spend all their time sawing away at the trunk. But on Christmas day, they can come up from the ground and run around for twelve days. On the day of Epiphany-“

“Oh, I know what that is. That’s a special church day,” Lenny said.

“Right. On that day the kallikantzaroi have to go back under the earth. They get real mad because the tree has healed its trunk and they have to start all over with the sawing.”

“That’s the whole story?”

“Well, yeah,” Nick said feeling disappointed at his son’s reaction. “But while they run around on the surface they do naughty things, like break furniture and pee in the potted plants,” he said, hoping to win his son’s approval.

Lenny laughed. “That would make Mom real mad!”

“I suppose it would! Now get to sleep.” He leaned in and kissed Lenny’s forehead.

“Dad, could the kallikantzaroi come here?”

“Oh no! They only go to Greece. Now go to sleep,” he said.

Lenny drifted off to a sound and satisfying sleep.

Lenny blinked his eyes open and stared at the darkened ceiling. Something had woken him. He stayed as still as he could and strained his ears. Nothing. Just the night noises. His door was partially open, and the light from the bathroom nightlight almost lit the space.

Lenny sat up on his elbows. A shuffling sound on the carpet in the hallway. Maybe his parents were still up. He sat up a little further.

A longer-than-it-should-be arm reached in to grab the door handle. Stringy, black, rough hair hung down from the arm. Sticklike fingers curled around the knob and pulled the door shut slowly. It clicked, and Lenny threw his blankets over his head. His heart hammered in his chest, and his breath came in short gasps.

When he tried to holler for his parents, no sound would come out of his mouth. He clutched the blankets around his body and curled into the tightest ball he could like a roly-poly bug.

Lenny couldn’t be sure how long he stayed like that, but somehow he had fallen back asleep. He woke up in the same tight ball. His little legs and arms were sore, and it was hard to get out of bed.

He heard his mother.

“Lenny! What did you do?”

He came around the corner and saw what she was talking about. Several of the glass balls from the tree were smashed in front of the television. The screen to his father’s most prized possession was cracked.

Nick came stomping down the hallway. “What’s the matter, Laura?” His breath was sucked from him in a gasp when he saw the damage.

Lenny stood shaking his head. “No! I didn’t do that!”

Nick spun on him. “Go. To. Your. Room.” His voice shook with something Lenny had never heard before.

“He’s gotta have breakfast first! Then you go clean up this mess!” Laura shouted at Lenny.

“I didn’t-“ he started, but tears took over.

“I’ll give you something to cry about! Go eat!” Nick shouted at Lenny.

His dad had never yelled at him like that before. Lenny’s little body shivered against his thin pajamas.

Nick’s face softened. “I didn’t mean to yell, but son this is terrible. I can’t believe you would behave like this. Like an animal,” his voice rose slightly.

A light clicked on for Lenny, and he remembered the long hairy arm that closed his door the night before.

“I saw them! They did this!” he exclaimed.

“Who?” his mother said.

“The killy-can monsters!”

Laura gave Nick a stare so cold that winter was jealous.

“I told you not to fill his head with that stuff!”

Nick scoffed and stalked to the breakfast table. He dropped hard into his chair, and it splintered to tiny shards under him. He hit the floor with a loud bang that made Lenny jump.

“What the hell?” Nick said, shock on his face. “Damn, cheap furniture!”

“Ugh, seriously Nick? Clean it up!” Laura said.

The baby began to wail in the other room.

“Great. Thanks a lot, guys,” she spat and headed down the hallway.

Lenny crept over and began to help his dad put the pieces of the chair into a large black garbage bag. Tears dripped onto the floor and his hands. They worked in silence.

“Nick!” Laura shrieked from the bedroom.

Fearing something was wrong with the baby, he sprinted down the little hall. Laura stood among a pile of diapers and blankets that appeared soaking wet. She held the baby out from herself with straight arms as if she couldn’t stand for the little one to be close to her. When Nick approached, he could see that his little baby girl was dripping wet from head to toe.

“What the hell?” he said.

“I don’t know. I found her like this! Smell it! I think it’s pee!” she squealed.

“Pee? She couldn’t pee that much!”

Lenny watched from the doorway. He wrinkled his nose against the stench. Hadn’t his dad said the kallikantzaroi liked to pee in the potted plants? Maybe they had mistaken the baby for a plant.

A thunderous racket came from the kitchen, and his parents pushed past him to see what was going on. Lenny followed closely behind, but not too closely. Liquid dripped and splashed from the wailing baby.

The entire refrigerator was tipped on its face. The contents dripping and leaking out like a wound.

“Oh my gosh! What is happening?” Laura shouted.

Nick tried to right the refrigerator, but it tipped over and caught his leg underneath. He wailed in pain. Laura tried to lift it one handed with the screaming soiled baby in her other arm.

Lenny caught movement on the counter out of the corner of his eye. He jerked his head just in time to see two small black hairy shapes dart behind the curtains. Then he heard a crash next to the stove and looked up to see two more figures pushing the butcher block of knives to the edge of the counter, right over his trapped father. Red eyes burned in their bat-like faces.

“Hey!” Lenny shouted. The creatures looked at him.  One of them pulled his lips back in a growl and exposed razor-sharp teeth.“Leave my dad alone!”

Lenny picked up an egg that had rolled out of the fridge and threw it at them. They howled and scattered off the counter.

Laura must have seen them too because she started screaming.

Lenny knew he had to do something. His dad was trapped. It was all up to him.

He sprinted to the living room and shoved the big footstool under the mantle. Standing on his tippy-toes, he could just reach his nerf gun. Before he could grasp it, he felt his pajama bottoms slip down to his ankles. He looked down, and four terrible black faces snarled up at him, one of them had his bottoms in its teeth!

He stretched his little body and got his hand around the gun. Pointing down, he fired a dart at the one with his pants. It squawked and let go. Lenny fell off the footstool and right out of his pants. Clad only in his pajama top and underwear he scrambled to the Christmas tree. The box of extra darts was right where he left it the night before. Lenny grabbed handfuls of ammo and stuffed them into his underwear. The little creatures dove for him.

High ground. He needed to find high ground.

He jumped and ran, springing on top of the kitchen table. In one move he spun and began firing nerf darts at the monsters. It only slowed them down. They were still coming! The next thing he knew, his mother was next to him. She held a small vial high above her head.

“Get out of my house!” she yelled.

She flicked the vial at the monsters. Where the water touched them, their flesh sizzled and smoked.

“Holy water, Lenny!” she said excitedly and dumped some on the darts in his hand.

He loaded up and began shooting again. Over and over. His mother continued to squirt her vial at the creatures. They began to back up.

“Keep going, Lenny!” his mother said.

They got off the table and pursued the kallikantzaros, forcing them to the fireplace.

“Get out!” Laura shouted.

“Leave my family alone you poop heads!” Lenny shouted.

Then the monsters began to climb up the chimney. Hissing and spitting at Laura and Lenny.

“Lenny, grab the lighter from the drawer!”

He dropped his gun and ran as fast as he could back to the kitchen. His dad was still on the floor with the refrigerator on his leg, but he cradled the baby in his arms.

“Go, Lenny! Go get ‘em!” he said.

Lenny’s little heart burst with pride, and he clutched the long-nosed fire starter to his chest. He practically flew to his mother’s side. She was still squirting holy water, and the demons were hanging down from inside the chimney showing their teeth and trying to bite her.

Lenny flicked the lighter and held it to the dry wood in the hearth. Where the holy water had dripped onto the logs it flared like lighter fluid. The monsters went up with a shrill screech, the flames licking after them.

His mother turned her exhausted gaze on him. “Leonard James Doukas, thank God you are a good shot!”

“Thank God Santa didn’t listen to you!”

Laura began to cry. “Thank God.”


I have a gift for you almost as awesome as Lenny’s dart gun! The eBook of DREAD is on sale for FREE through Christmas Eve! Have a wonderful holiday! Until next time, keep your fires lit and Never Turn Off the Lights!

Spooky Break on Election Day

Hello there! I hope you all had a terrifying and delicious Halloween. I sat in my driveway with my friend, keeping warm over a  portable fire pit, and harassed over one hundred trick-or-treaters! A hauntingly good time was had by all!

Now here we are into November. Election Day to be exact. I voted weeks ago by early mail ballot. I’m staying off social media today because I seriously can’t take any more. I will check up on results, but I’m done with the campaigning. So, I’m looking for distractions.

I’ll be working on my NaNoWriMo project (Shiver), the kids need haircuts, and I’m listening to this guy, Dark Waters. I first heard him on the Darkness Radio Podcast. I made the mistake of listening while driving. I was so into it, I ran a red light! Luckily I was on a deserted rural road.

Check it out.

I could listen to this guy for hours! Go to his YouTube channel for more! Did his Black Eyed Kids story freak you out? Then my book Dread will scare you silly. Check it out on Amazon, free with Kindle Unlimited for a limited time! I have a skinwalker story of my own I might share here sometime!

I hope you enjoyed our spooky time together today. Until next time, exercise your right to vote, and Never Turn Off the Lights!

Pandora’s Box of Horror Challenge


I like a good challenge. Participating in writing challenges gets my creative juices boiling. The ideas generated during the free-write/brainstorm phase, that aren’t used for the challenge, sometimes spawn into new projects.

This is my second time participating in the Pandora’s Box of Horror Challenge, and it was, well, challenging! Firstly, I have never written anything dystopian, and secondly, it had to have a hopeful ending. Hopeful endings, it turns out, are not my forte. To get started, I did some research on social, economic, and political trends. Imagining all the ways it could go wrong gave me more than a few sleepless nights, but I carried on to the end.

Thank you, Pandora’s Box of Horror for always showing me a good time! A special thanks to my husband and my sister who gave valuable feedback  and more than a little hand-holding.

Here is this year’s entry, enjoy!



Code Yankee-Sierra 7

Black clouds thick with lethal threat were gaining on her, she’d have to sprint the last half-click or be caught out in the storm. Her duty belt slipped down her slim hips, and her baton banged on her knee, but she didn’t slow down. She could make the 500 meters easy, but the storm was moving fast. The severe storm had not been predicted, but Mother Nature could not be held to weather reports. When the birds fell silent, she should have headed for safety.
The winds battered her with loose garbage and debris as if to keep her from getting to shelter. The clouds directly above her head began a slow swirl, and she felt pressure building in her ears. Just ahead in the swell of dust, she could see the heavy doors of the shelter being pulled shut. She picked up her pace, muscles stretching beyond comfort, lungs bursting.
“Hold the doors!” she shouted above the roar of the storm.
A man peered out between the metal doors; his skin pulled tightly over his face giving him the appearance of an animated skeleton. He braced himself with skinny legs to keep the doors open against the gale. She burst through the doors and helped him secure them shut.
“Thanks,” she said to him.
He nodded and shuffled down the darkened stairwell.
She touched her wrist to activate communications.”Yankee-Sierra 7.”
“Go ahead Yankee-Sierra 7,” came the reply to her ear piece.
“10-20 in the storm shelter for Capital Sector 32.”
“10-4. Signal confirmed.”
She peered down the darkened stairwell. You never knew what was waiting in the shelter chamber. A few weeks ago, a fellow Youth Squad member entered a shelter and was jumped by a group of druggers that had wandered off a nearby Medical Resort in the confusion of a storm. She wasn’t worried about a scuffle, in fact, she’d welcome it. It was that he’d been injured and had to be in the infirmary for a few weeks. She’d rather be stuck in one of the Indigent Sectors than the infirmary.
The hefty storm door rattled against the tornado raging outside. The inner shelter door needed to be closed. It was rare, but the outer storm doors had been known to blow open.
She released the snap on her weapon holster. The sound seemed unnaturally loud, and she cringed. Resting her hand on the butt of her weapon she made her way down into the inner area. The emergency lights buzzed on, and she could partially see into the long room. People lined the benches or sat on the floor; no one moved toward her. She turned and bolted the door shut.
“Yankee-Sierra 7, secure your weapon, please,” came the soothing androgynous voice of her Synthetic Intelligence Advocate partner in her ear piece. Her gear, vitals, body cameras, and scanners were continually monitored by the SIA.
She clicked the snap over her weapon, a gun loaded with rubber bullets that administered a high voltage shock. Only SIAs were armed with lethal weaponry but needed a confirmation from the human partner to use it.
“Threat assessment is low.”
“Thank you, Sulu.”
Each SIA had a humanized name to make the partnership as natural as possible. Most had names like Mike or Jill, but this one had an interesting name, and she liked that. The assignment engineer told her the name came from a fictional character from a science fiction television show and movie. He told her the character was extremely intelligent and bad-ass. She didn’t know much about it, but the name was cool.
Every Youth Squad Officer had an SIA assigned to them. Twenty or so years ago, when the country splintered beyond what many thought was the point of no return, the technology that powered the SIAs was revealed. And with it, order.
In 2017, the newly elected president began making statements and policies that further divided an already unstable situation. The will of the people was largely ignored, but even the people could not agree on what their will was. Personal gain by the elected drove most decisions from the capital with little to no regard for common citizens or the global community.
The Earth reflected the chaos of the inhabitants, or perhaps fueled it. Severe drought, flooding, heat waves, super storms, and unnatural freezes affected food production. Store shelves were empty for the first time in a place where it was thought to be impossible. People were angry, hungry, and looking for someone to blame.
Out of frustration or opportunity, loosely organized groups of like-minded people formed from protest groups into armed militias referred to as “crews”. Killing in the streets, riots, looting, and destruction became commonplace that summer. Police were openly attacked and assassinated when they showed up to help. Eventually, they quit showing up.
Regular citizens armed themselves for protection, and entire neighborhoods fenced themselves in, shooting any outsiders that approached. Suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks became a weekly occurrence.
Martial law was enacted in a failed attempt to bring society back. It didn’t matter if you were a White Supremacist, Black Power, Anti-whatever, Pro-nothing, or simply looking for food, all the groups hated the federal government. Troops were more viciously attacked than the civilian cops, and many soldiers defected to a crew that appealed to their particular biases. The rest could not stomach attacking fellow citizens, and the operation failed.
Late in the fall of the following year, a brilliant engineer, computer scientist, and pioneer in artificial intelligence from Mexico made an announcement that changed the world. Mercedes Santiago developed an artificial intelligence that passed the Turing Test, humans questioning the device over audio were convinced it was another human being.  Further testing showed it was a flawless rational agent, always making the optimal decision or action given a data set.
When provided data about the law and objectives, it was the perfect law officer. No biases, no misinterpretations of the law, and no personal agenda. Its physical appearance was created for utilitarian purposes, but the intimidating spider-like mechanics were many times all that was needed to end a riot. Mercedes dubbed her creation, Artificial Intelligence Enforcement Device, or “AID” for short.
With the government’s blessing, Mercedes’ company, Green Scythe Technologies, deployed the machines to hot spots that surveillance intelligence identified. Within three months, order was restored.
The only issue with the AID units was the inability to apply human mercy and empathy to situations; things were black and white. The general public was so worn down by the instability that no objections were raised until much later.
The tech was then placed in less threatening SIA units. The spider appearance and visible weaponry hidden in a smooth white body with four legs that resembled a large dog. The units were then placed with a human partner. Young people between the ages of 14 and 20 were best suited in temperament and physical ability to partner with SIA units. They were comfortable interacting with technology in a way other age groups were not. Youth Squads were formed and tasked with community policing.
The partners were never separated while on duty, except for in the public storm shelters. SIAs were bulky and took up room that humans may need. Instead, the SIAs used their storm protection mode and stayed outside monitoring their human partners. It increased the risk of losing an SIA, but better that than a human to lack of space in the shelter.
Adjusting her duty belt, she took a deep breath and began her sweep through the crowd.
A small girl with dark skin and blue eyes ran to her, holding out a bottle of water. Her body went into self-defense mode.
“Are you thirsty, officer?” she asked.
A woman quickly gathered the girl. “I’m sorry, officer, Garcia,” she said squinting at the badge.
“No worries, Ma’am,” she said, releasing the tension in her body. Then to the little girl,”Thank you very much, but I’m okay for now. I’ll come find you if that changes, okay?”
The girl nodded and her mother escorted her back to their seats. She was thirsty, but she knew better than to accept anything from the public. Order may have been restored, but some crazies still held onto the old ways.
“Yankee-Sierra 7,” came over her earpiece.
“Go for Yankee-Sierra 7,” she answered.
“This is Yankee-Sierra 89. I’m at your 20, but I don’t see you.”
She rolled her eyes. Just her luck she’d get stuck down here with him. Of course, he didn’t see her; he couldn’t find his own butt with a flashlight and a map. Not entirely true, but he did cost them the YS football championship because he dropped the damn ball.
“89, I just locked the inner storm door.”
“Oh. I see you now!”
A tall, slender boy with rich chocolate skin sauntered her way.
“Why didn’t you wait at the inner door? If I hadn’t come down it might not have gotten locked,” she said, not trying to hide her irritation.
“Well, there was something weird going on down at the end when I came in. I thought I heard, I don’t know, like a door shutting.” He gestured behind him to the end of the shelter chamber.
She raised her eyebrows. “And?”
“And I didn’t get very far down when I heard your radio call.”
“Okay, let’s go. I’ll take the right; you take the left.”
He nodded his head, “Okay, Rachel.”
“Excuse me, Officer Mateo More? It might be Rachel off duty, but on, it’s always Lieutenant Garcia.”
He shrugged, “Okay, Lieutenant.”
Protocol called for Youth Squad officers to patrol the storm shelter, looking for violations of the Citizens’ Code, assisting medical needs, and keeping order. When the storms lasted more than 2 hours, which seemed more and more frequent, people tended to get restless. The two officers began walking the chamber.
Most heads were bent, people passing the time playing games, working, or messaging friends with their devices. Small groups congregated in front of screens where “never before seen footage” of the reality show of colonists trying to survive on Mars was being broadcast.
It was action, suspense, documentary, and soap opera rolled into one that gripped most of the citizenry around the clock. Viewers interacted with the show and cast members with various apps, making it very personal for some. She’d heard rumors of people scheduling their whole life around the show.
A group of three girls a little younger than herself stood in front of a selfie-drone, smiling and laughing. After the flash, the smallest girl scanned her wrist I.D. on the port under the drone. The photos would be added to her cyber media profile.
Rachel caught the eye of one of the girls who dropped her gaze to the floor. Her companions stared wide-eyed. A meeting like this was always tinged with awkwardness.
School was compulsory until the age of 14. Then, as one teacher liked to put it, the wheat and chaff were separated, but everyone knew it was money or lack thereof that determined your future. For reasons Rachel didn’t get, that sometimes made those with money uncomfortable around those without. To her, it was what it was. You had to figure out your spot and make the most of it; there wasn’t an alternative.
Smart kids with money went on for more schooling eventually becoming doctors, teachers, engineers, and such. Smart kids with no money went to the military for similar schooling, but would spend their professional years in service to the government. Poor kids with athletic ability and some smarts went to Youth Squad. When they aged out of Youth Squad, they’d move into a position with the National Police as a trainer or investigator, and sometimes to the military.
Poor kids without brains or brawn went one of three places. If they had a certain look and were born female, they might be able to get service work in an Executive Resort. This was a community for the wealthy of a group that used to be known as Baby Boomers. Male-born could get employment there as well doing manual labor. Otherwise, they did similar jobs in the General Population sectors. If neither of those worked out, they ended up in an Indigent Sector. Youth Squad did not patrol there, no one did. What happened in those areas was anyone’s guess.
Although she missed her, she was glad her younger sister, Melanie, had been able to get into an Executive Resort. She was quiet and liked to draw and paint; Youth Squad would not have suited her. Thanks to the property their parents had owned, they grew up in a General Population orphanage after their parents were killed. It wasn’t the worst place they could have gone and they had each other.
Resources, such as educational opportunities, were not allocated to the young even though their numbers were equal to that of older generations. Older generations had most of the money and as such held the power. Things would not change anytime soon; the Boomers were living longer than ever. It was the middle generations, like her parents would have been, that she felt sorry for. They toiled away managing the young and catering to the old, waiting for a chance that would likely never come to move up in the world. Once they were too old to work and exhausted their resources, they would probably end up in an Indigent Sector along with Baby Boomers that didn’t have financial means.
Rachel nodded at the girls and kept moving.
A woman sitting on the ground with her head bent caught her eye. No personal device, but something clutched in her hands.
The woman looked up, startled. Rachel saw a small figurine in her fist before she could hide it.
“Resin. Nonflammable. Non-explosive. No metal or moving parts,” Sulu reported.
Rachel held out her hand, “May I see?”
Reluctantly the woman placed the small smooth object in her hand. Rachel inspected it. Flat and about the size of an egg the top was worn in a way to fit a thumb. Rachel rubbed her thumb along the surface.
“It’s nothing, officer. Just what old-timers call a worry rock,” the woman said.
“A worry rock?”
“Used to release emotion, possibly for meditation,” Sulu said.
“It was my grandmother’s. I carry it for sentimental reasons.”
Rachel hesitated.
“Yankee-Sierra 7, it could be used for religious purpose,” Sulu said.
“You know all religious iconography and paraphernalia is illegal outside of a Sect Reservation,” Rachel said to the woman.
Her eyes bulged, “Oh no, officer! It’s not anything like that, I swear!”
Sect Reservations were areas allocated for citizens that would not agree to the limitations put on religious practices in the Citizens’ Code. On Reservations, they were free to practice their particular brand of religion to their hearts content, separate from the rest of society. Anyone who decided to go to a Sect Reservation was not allowed to leave, ever. The Citizens’ Code agreed on a completely secular society, fewer divisions and other possible problems brought on by zealots.
“Yankee-Sierra 7, citizen penal code sixty-dash-six states-“
Rachel cut Sulu off. “I know the code.”
She studied the woman. Her head was completely bald on the right side and long bright blue hair cascaded down the left. Like some gender-fluid citizens, tell-tale physical markers of her birth gender were visible to a careful eye. A swirling tattoo of various hues of blues went from under her chin to under her blouse and continued down her left arm. Her right arm was void of any artwork. Although it wasn’t unusual, it gave her an unbalanced look.
Rachel pulled a scanner from her belt and the woman held out her wrist for her implant to be scanned. It beeped and data appeared in front of Rachel’s eyes from her micro-ocular-processor implant. No criminal, citizen, or religious infractions. A survivor of the Times Square New Year’s Eve drone attack in 2018.
An anti-capitalist terrorist group launched a host of drones weaponized with pipe bombs on the reveling crowds. 5,000 people were killed, and close to an additional 3,000 were injured. It was the catalyst that paved the acceptance for the AID units.
Judging by her age, she must have been around six years old when the attack occurred, just a little older than Rachel was when her parents were killed in a food riot.
Rachel handed the rock back to the surprised woman and moved on.
“Yankee-Sierra 7, that was a violation. Item should be confiscated and citizen issued a citation,” Sulu said.
“I’m exercising a compassionate override due to citizen background and vagueness of object’s use for religious purpose.”
“Override confirmed,” Sulu said.
Rachel’s stomach growled, and she began to maneuver her way to the nearest vending area.
A sizable line had formed, and she walked passed it. Youth Squad had a machine designated for their use only, not that anyone else would want what was in it. The machine for citizens was stocked with a variety of chips, pastries, and delicious sweets. The YS machine was stocked with tasteless nutrition bars and water. YS member’s diets and physical fitness routines were strictly regimented, but Rachel didn’t mind. It beat being hungry.
Angry voices from the front of the citizen line drew her attention. Two dark-skinned, well-dressed women were arguing with a pale woman in an unflattering flowered dress that was on the verge of a decency code violation.
“Officer, this woman is budding the line,” one of them said when she saw Rachel headed their way.
“Who let this riffraff in here? Put her out in the storm if she doesn’t want to be civilized. Everyone else is waiting their turn, and she just walked up here and went right to the machine,” the other woman complained.
“Some of these people still think everyone owes them. Disgusting,” her companion said.
“Ladies, take it easy,” Rachel said.
“I just need one thing,” the pale woman said.
“So do all of us!” someone further back in the line shouted.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to wait like everyone else,” Rachel said.
“Everyone but you,” the woman spat.
“Ma’am, you are in violation of the Citizens’ Code. Let’s not make this a big deal. Move to the back of the line.”
“The Code gives me the right to something to eat! Why should I have to wait? Everything was better before all you darkies took over!” Her graying hair was sticking out in all directions. She pursed her lips together, and her body language changed ever so slightly.
“She’s going to engage,” Sulu said.
The woman took a clumsy swing at Rachel’s head. Rachel shot out her hand and grabbed the woman’s wrist and twisted it, spinning her around. The woman squealed and the citizens in line cheered.
“Ma’am, you have the freedom to move to the back of the line, or I can move you. Or I can detain your dumbass. I really don’t care. Exercise your freedom and decide.” Rachel gave the woman’s arm a hard yank to make her point.
“Fuck you.”
Decision made, Rachel pulled an auto-injector syringe off her duty belt and jammed it into the woman’s neck. She felt the woman go slack and she loosened her grip on her arm. Placing handcuffs on the now docile woman, she led her away to the cheers of the crowd.
“Yankee-Sierra 7 for Yankee-Sierra 89.”
“Go for Yankee-Sierra 89,” Mateo answered back.
“I’ve got a detainee. I’m taking her to holding. What’s your status?”
“I’m ten-ten-six,” Mateo answered, indicating he was fine.
Rachel led the woman to a secure door and scanned her wrist implant to unlock it. The bright lights came up as sensors detected their entrance.
The injection Rachel administered made the subject completely docile and compliant, another Green Scythe Technologies invention. She effortlessly maneuvered the woman to one of ten hospital like beds enclosed in plexiglass. Rachel lifted the enclosure and the bed controls booted up. The medical AI unit beeped to life and rolled to Rachel’s side and began adjusting the settings. The unit was made of the same smooth white body as Sulu but its shape reminded her of a vacuum cleaner.
Rachel scanned the woman’s implant, a long list of Citizens’ Code violations, mostly for unruly or rude conduct.
“Yankee-Sierra 7 for Central.”
“Go ahead Yankee-Sierra 7.”
“Uploading data on detainee.” She uploaded the video of the interaction and the woman’s data.
“Upload confirmed. Secure detainee for transport to detention center.”
“The storm will last another hour and 45 minutes,” Sulu said.
“Better set her up for two and a half hours,” Rachel said to the medical unit. Then to the woman, “Get on the bed.”
The woman did as she was told. She would be kept in a light sedation until the transport team came to get her and the medical AI would monitor her.
Rachel’s stomach growled again.
“Yankee-Sierra 7!” Mateo’s voice gasped into her ear piece.
“Go for Yankee-Sierra-“
“I need backup!”
A map with Mateo’s location appeared from her ocular implant.
“Thanks, Sulu!” She exploded from the room and ran.
As she approached, she saw Mateo pinning a man to the ground with his boot on the back of the man’s neck and his arm twisted high in Mateo’s grasp. People moved quickly away not wanting any part of the action.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“This guy’s I.D. is from an Indigent Sector. He took a swing at me,” Mateo said, his lip trickling blood.
The man’s info appeared before her as Mateo sent it to her. No violations, but Indigent Sectors weren’t policed. It was against the Citizens’ Code for Indigent Sector people to come into the Gen-pop areas without an escort.
Rachel leaned down and put her face in his, “Got an escort?”
The man didn’t respond.
“Stake his ass!” Mateo said.
She unclipped an auto-injector.
“Wait, wait!” he sputtered. “Let me just explain.”
“Explain why you hit my officer,” she spat.
“I-I’m sorry. There’s a good reason why I’m here, let me explain,” he said.
A metallic scraping sound came from directly behind them, the man’s eyes grew wide. Only for a second, but Rachel didn’t miss it.
“1.8 meters,” Sulu said.
An electronic grid filled her vision, and a red pin showed the exact origin of the sound. Rachel stood and moved to the spot; she stood over a grate that led to the service tunnels below. She shined her flashlight down into the gloom but saw no movement.
“What’s going on down there?”
He said nothing.
“Heat signatures of five humans in the tunnel moving north at eight clicks per hour,” Sulu said.
Sulu’s thermal feed appeared before Rachel.
“Yankee-Sierra 7 to Central.”
“Go ahead Yankee-Sierra 7.”
“Code 10-39,” she said.
“No! No! You have no idea what’s going on! No! Run! Ruuuun!” the man on the ground shouted.
“Code 10-39 initiated,” Central said.
Mateo pulled an auto-injector and jabbed it into the side of the man’s neck and handcuffed him in a swift continuous movement. Rachel and Mateo pulled the shield down on the front of their duty helmets, pulled up the neck protector tucked into the front of their uniforms, and connected the two. A light mist began to billow from the ventilation system. The few people visible to her slumped to the floor.
“Yankee-Sierra 7 and 89 in pursuit of five subjects in the service tunnel,” she said, as she motioned for Mateo to help her lift the grate. The lock had been cut.
“10-4 Yankee-Sierra 7. Backup unavailable due to storm,” Central said.
“Sulu, can you make your way to the outlet entrance?” Rachel asked.
“Negative, unable to deactivate storm protection mode,” Sulu said.
“Mike, do you copy?” Mateo called to his SIA unit. No answer.
Rachel and Mateo jumped into the open grate and hit the ground hard, weapons drawn. Pushing the gas shield back up into their helmets, they moved cautiously up the tunnel in the direction of the heat signatures.
The tunnels were dimly lit, and Mateo pulled his night vision shield down from his helmet. He turned his head to Rachel to tell her to do the same.
“Rach-” was all he got out.
A man, the size of a grizzly, shot out from a small indentation in the tunnel wall and barreled at her. He slammed into Rachel’s side, knocking the weapon out of her hand. She never lost her footing, though, and caught him with a roundhouse kick to the gut.
He roared and wrapped her in his massive arms and squeezed. Rachel dropped straight the ground slipping from his grasp. She rocketed her fist directly into his groin. He stooped over. Mateo staked him and the went to the ground. Rachel grabbed her gun and pointed it at the man’s head.
“What the fuck?” she said.
Not necessarily at the man, but herself for not checking the thermal scan when they first got in the tunnel.
Mateo scanned the man’s wrist. “Indigent Sector.”
Something crazy was brewing. Rachel’s pulse picked up.
“Yankee-Sierra 7, what’s your status?” Sulu said.
“I got jumped, but I’m ten-ten-six.”
“You sure?” Mateo asked.
Her shoulder screamed and her knuckles were bleeding, but she nodded.
“Alerting Central,” Sulu said.
Rachel pulled her night vision shield down as Mateo put handcuffs on the man and sat him up against the wall. The juice would take a little longer to have its full effect on him because of his size.
Rachel crouched in front of him, “What are you doing down here?”
“There wasn’t supposed to be a storm today,” the man answered.
Her fists clenched. She tasted blood where she was biting the inside of her lip.
“What are you doing down here?”
He looked at her, his eyes focusing on hers, “We had to save her. We have to save them all.”
“Save who?”
The last of the lighting flickered out.
A slow smile spread across the man’s face. “Jake really did it. He got the lights off.” His eyes glazed over and the drug took him.
“The rest of ’em are just up ahead. It’s a dead end,” Mateo said.
She nodded, and they continued up the tunnel.
“Something’s not right,” Mateo whispered. “The schematics show a dead end, but the heat signatures are continuing on. Like they walked through a wall.”
As they approached, Rachel could clearly see the skinny gap in the smooth concrete wall. Someone had used a laser torch to cut into the adjoining tunnel.
“How’d they do that without being caught on sensor?” Mateo asked.
Rachel shook her head.
“Sulu, are you seeing this?”
“Recording as protocol,” Sulu answered back.
Rachel stepped gingerly through the opening and pressed her back against the wall when she came out the other side, Mateo did the same. Down the tunnel to their right, they heard shuffling and frantic whispering. Rachel’s pulse quickened.
The tunnel ended in a widened area used for maintenance access. In the green sheen of the night vision shield, Rachel saw a group of four figures yanking on a door that would not open.
“Stop! On your knees, hands behind your heads!” Mateo said.
The figures remained standing but motionless.
“Now!” Rachel commanded.
One figure turned toward her, something in its hand. She fired. The figure let out a croak, jerked, and fell to the ground. The other figures gasped and dropped to their knees. The emergency lights kicked on, and the two officers put their night vision shields away.
Rachel went to the man on the ground. He had a screwdriver near his open hand. Drool ran from the corner of his mouth, and a wet spot grew on the front of his pants.
“Vitals steady,” Sulu reported.
Rachel turned her attention to the three on the ground, Mateo was using zip-ties to secure their wrists, his pair of metal cuffs already used. Two women and a girl. The zip tie on the girl’s wrists hung loosely even though it was at its tightest setting.
“Please officer,” one of the women said.
Rachel moved to face them, “Shut up. You only talk to answer me. Got it?”
The three nodded their heads.
“Is Louis going to be okay?” the other woman asked.
Rachel clenched her fists. No wonder police brutality got of hand in the old days. People never listened.
“I said shut up!” Rachel snapped.
Mateo stood up from where he had been scanning their wrist implants.
“One from this sector, one from a Religious Sect, and the little one is from the Capital Executive Resort,” he said.
The girl scoffed.
“There a problem?” Mateo said to her.
“Resort? They try to make it sound so good. If you only knew what happened in there,” she said.
“Lia, be quiet,” the first woman said.
“No, Mary. They have to know,” Lia said.
“What are you talking about? It’s the place everyone wants to go,” Mateo said.
The girl said nothing.
“You can tell me what’s going on here or I’ll stake you,” Rachel said.
The three looked at each other.
“We were trying to get her out of there. Executive Resorts are not what you’ve been told,” Mary said.
“You people are nuts,” Mateo said.
“No. It’s true,” Lia said. “Lift the front of my shirt to see for yourself.”
Rachel paused for a moment, then lifted the girl’s shirt. A fresh incision closed with staples stretched up her abdomen.
“What the…” Rachel’s voice trailed off.
“Ever wonder why the Baby Boomers live so long nowadays? They use us for parts, stem cells, and whatever else they want. We are slaves in there,” she said, tears welling in her eyes.
“No way. You live in the Executive Resort with people from the Ruling Court. Mercedes Santiago lives there for fuck’s sake,” Mateo said.
He moved around to see what Rachel was looking at. His eyes grew wide.
“Mercedes Santiago?” Lia let out a bitter laugh. “She is absolutely not who or what you think she is.”
“What do you mean?” Rachel asked.
“Are you going to listen to this bullshit?” Mateo said.
“I want to hear what she has to say. Tell me,” Rachel said.
“Ever wonder how she just rose up out of nowhere with this awesome technology to supposedly save us all? She got help from something or someone that I don’t understand. But whatever it is, it controls her and all of us.”
“Most of us,” one of the women said.
Rachel checked her status. Mary Little from sector Capital 32. No priors. Employed as a liaison for the Capital Executive Resort.
“You work for them,” Rachel said.
“Yes,” Mary hung her head. “I recruit girls like Lia to come to the resorts. I didn’t know what was happening until a few months ago.”
“How did you find out?” Rachel asked.
“We sent in a spy. The biological harvesting isn’t all that’s going on,” the other woman said.
Martina Porres from Jewish Reservation Sect 7.
“A spy?” Rachel said.
Martina nodded. “A girl from my sect. She was able to send back video before she disappeared.”
“How are you able to receive video in a sect?” Mateo asked.
“We have some tech people on our side,” Mary answered.
Rachel thought back to what the man in the tunnel said about someone named Jake getting the lights off.
“What else is going on?” Rachel asked.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. I’ll have to show you,” Lia said.
“Sulu, advise,” Rachel said. No answer. “Can you raise Mike?” she said to Mateo.
He shook his head.
“Central, do you read?” Rachel said. No answer.
“Communications are blocked. We didn’t expect a storm; we thought the storm shelter would be empty. The power grid blockade was to be a distraction,” Mary said.
“I’ll give you one chance to prove what you say,” Rachel said, and she staked the two women.
“What the hell, Rachel?” Mateo said.
Rachel pulled the girl up by her armpit. She was so thin; Rachel thought she might pull her arm out of its socket. Lia let out a soft groan.
“She said she needed to show us. So let’s go.”
“Rachel, this is all kinds of fucked up,” Mateo said.
“Look, my sister is in an Executive Resort. I have to know,” Rachel said.
Mateo didn’t move for a second then began to nod his head slowly, “Fine, let’s go.”
Lia led them through several tunnels to a security door that hung limply open, the locks cut with a laser torch. Mateo slowly pulled the door open onto a stairwell leading up. He led the way, followed by Lia, and Rachel took up the rear. Lia had to stop several times to catch her breath. At the top of the stairs was another blown security door. Mateo pushed it open with the nose of his gun.
The room beyond was a gleaming white stretch of counters and bio-workstations. The room was unoccupied and silent except for a massive 3D printer in the center of the room that hummed away at its task. They cautiously approached and peered at the partially completed object. Line by shiny wet line, a human liver was being printed.
“How is that possible?” Rachel said.
“That’s what they need the stem cells for, for ink. It’s easier and cleaner than harvesting us for parts. If they take too much of you, they lose a slave,” Lia said.
“I’m not the smartest person, but even I know adult stem cells wouldn’t be the best unless they came directly from the person this liver was going back into. They don’t need you for that,” Mateo said.
“You’re right. Fetal stem cells are best. They use us for that.”
Rachel felt a rush of blood to her gut, and her hands went cold.
“You mean they…” Rachel searched for the right words.
“Yes. Impregnate us artificially or by rape and then harvest the fetus.”
“What the hell?” Mateo said.
Moving further through the lab, they passed an area where it appeared protein bars were being tested.
“Been a while since you ate? Have a headache, yet?” Lia asked.
Rachel and Mateo nodded.
“Why do you think your diet is so strict? To keep you healthy? They juice it just enough to keep you in a slight docile state, making you more willing to follow orders, making you perfect weapons ready to act on their commands.”
“I don’t believe it,” Mateo said defiantly.
“No wonder they monitor our vitals on duty,” Rachel said.
They moved through the sterile bio-lab and out into a corridor of high ceilings, warm stone flooring, and lavish furnishings. This is what everyone pictured when they thought of an Executive Resort. The trio pressed their bodies against the wall and Lia directed them to a courtyard of flowering plants and a gurgling water fountain. Lighting coming from an unseen source replicated sunshine and butterflies flitted in the air.
“The generators are keeping everything going. Jake wasn’t sure how long his blockade would last. We have to hurry,” Lia said.
They approached a set of doors and Lia put her palms flat on each panel.
“Promise me that no matter what, you will tell everyone what you see in here,” she said to Rachel.
Rachel nodded.
“Try not to freak out,” Lia said.
A cold breeze hit the back of Rachel’s neck. She spun, weapon poised. The courtyard was empty.
“What was that?” Mateo asked.
An empty bench in front of the water fountain scraped across the floor and flung itself at them. They ducked, and it crashed against the doors. A fluttering of leaves rose to a roar as the plants inexplicably began to tremble and sway.
“Hurry!” Lia said, and she threw the doors open.
The face of death welcomed them. In the dimly lit room, candlelight bounced feebly off the dark red walls. A heavy wooden altar commanded the room and it overflowed with every type of item. Among some of the things, Rachel could see candles, wallets, locks of hair, clothing, food and jewelry. Towering above the gifts in the center was a statue. A skeleton dressed in a black lacy shawl, red roses adorning its head. In its hands, it held a green scythe.
“This is how they hold power. They give it gifts, it gives them knowledge or whatever they desire, and we pay the price,” Lia said.
“What do you mean, It?” Mateo breathed.
“I don’t know what it is. She brought it from Mexico,” Lia said.
“Who brought it?” Rachel asked.
“I did,” a voice came from behind them.
Rachel and Mateo spun, weapons ready.
“Lower your weapons, officers,” Mercedes Santiago said.
“I know this. It’s Saint Death!” Mateo said.
“Yes. I’ve been a practitioner all my life. Look at all the good it has done for us,” she said, her eyes sparkling with gratitude.
“It’s illegal,” Rachel said.
“Oh, Lieutenant Garcia. Always the consummate Youth Squad member. I applaud you,” she said.
“We regulated religion to unify the Gen-pop. What you’re doing is-“
“Wrong?” she cut Rachel off. “It was necessary. Santa Muerte’s power is more complete without other spiritual interference. Without this, the country would have imploded. I saved it from becoming a third-world cesspool.”
“And made into what? Your own personal kingdom?” Mateo said.
“The Goddess is what made Mexico the world power it has become over these last twenty years. I just brought her favor to you.”
“The girls. You’re abusing them,” Rachel said.
Mercedes sighed. “They make a necessary sacrifice. My Goddess requires blood after all.”
“I haven’t seen my brother for five years! You sent him to a Reservation for wanting to carry a string of beads, and you’re here doing this religion? Shit, you’re crazy,” Mateo said. “Rachel?”
“This is not religion. Religion is as empty and as useless as the beads you speak of. This,” she swept her arms around the room, “is power.”
“Get on your knees!” Rachel said, her training vanquishing her confusion.
“No. I think not,” Mercedes said.
Sulu and Mike came from behind and stood by her side. She placed her hands affectionately on their snouts.
“Sulu!” Rachel gushed, relief flooding her body.
“Stand down Yankee-Sierra 7,” Sulu said.
She shook her head, “No, Sulu! Help me!”
Sulu’s weaponry whirred and banged into action and sighted on her. Mike did the same to Mateo.
“Sulu, what’s happening? Holster your weapons!” Her heart felt like it would explode inside her chest.
“Put your arms down officers or they will kill you,” Mercedes said.
“No! They’re gonna kill us anyway! Shoot her!” Lia shrieked.
“They can’t fire unless we give the authorization code,” Mateo said, his voice tight.
“Oh, my dear Officer More, I gave them life. I am their authorization code,” she said.
Something shifted in the air. A black mist swirled from the skeleton figure and enveloped the room. A terrible stench choked them. Mercedes threw back her head and cackled.
Time stretched out and everything seemed to be moving in slow motion for Rachel. A flare from Mateo’s gun barrel. Mercedes twitching. Mike’s guns lighting up. Shards of wood and stone flying. Searing pain in her right thigh. Sulu’s guns smoking.
Time sped up again, and her brain went into combat mode. She ran toward her partner and slid into the space under its body. She jammed her gun barrel against the cool smoothness of the belly. Her heart lurched, and she pulled the trigger. Plastic and smoke sprayed her face. Sulu’s bulk shook the floor when it fell to its side.
Mike spun on her. She pressed herself flat against the floor using Sulu’s body for shield. It would take Mike 2.4 seconds to load new rounds. Rachel sprinted to Mike and slid under the machine, repeating the assassination.
An unseen hand pulled her from behind and tossed her against the wall, pain springing from her back. Through the swirling mist, she saw Mateo on the ground, a red swell spreading under his body. Lia lay sprawled next to him. Rachel clawed her way over to her; the girl was barely conscious.
“You have to get your video feed to the tech center! Give it to Jake, he’ll know what to do!”
All Rachel could see was Melanie’s sweet face in Lia. “I can’t leave you!”
“You have to! Now move, officer!”
Invisible hands lifted Lia’s head. Her neck broke with a sickening crack.
Rachel tried to stand, but a scorching pain in her right leg made her scream out and took her to the ground. Blood welled from her thigh, soaking her pant leg. The unseen force yanked her foot, and more blood gushed.
Hands shaking, Rachel tore into her medical pouch on her uniform. She jammed a coagulant auto-injector into the wound. Howling, she inflated a tourniquet bandage. Rachel tried to stand, but the dark force shoved her back down.
Her face pressed to the cool floor; she felt her will begin to seep from her. She blinked tears from her eyes, a vision of her sister smiling appeared before her. Her parents. Faces grave.
“One more food run,” her father said.
Her mother, straightening her hijab, leaning in to kiss her forehead, her lips warm and soft.
Rachel blinked again and saw a door on the floor under the altar. Gathering all that was left in her, she rolled to the altar and pushed. To her surprise, it slid easily. The dark energy swirled around her leaving deep scratches on her face and hands.
Using the edge of the altar, she pulled herself to her feet. Trinkets at the Goddess’ feet tumbled to the ground. The skeleton’s empty sockets glared down at her. Rachel felt a wave of frigid air that chilled her to the bone. She had never felt such hate directed at her.
Candles flickered at the edge of the altar. She grasped one and held its flame to the hem of the black lace. It seemed to take a lifetime for it to catch, but once it did, it went up in a spectacular plume. The white of the skeleton quickly charred black. The room filled with a hideous screech and Rachel realized it was Mercedes.
“No fucking way!”
The round Mateo put in her should have left her unconscious for hours, but she was on her hands and knees crawling toward Rachel. Snot and saliva dripped from Mercedes’ chin, her teeth bared like an animal.
Rachel felt heat rush through her body. She took a wide, low stance and cocked her fist back. Mercedes lunged at her and Rachel smashed her fist into her teeth. Mercedes wailed. Rachel straddled her back before she could recover.
Mercedes tried to bite her, but Rachel firmly placed her right hand on the side of Mercedes’ head, gripping her hair and holding her still. Rachel then reached around with her left arm, securing it under Mercedes’ chin and squeezed. Rachel felt Mercedes buck and writhe. She squeezed harder, gritting her teeth. The unseen force pulled and clawed at her body, but she didn’t stop. Finally, Mercedes fell still, and Rachel felt the life leave her.
She watched as the black mist was furiously sucked into the top of the skull of the Goddess until nothing was left.
Rachel stood. Her legs wavered, and she melted to the floor next to Mercedes’ body. She’d never killed anyone, never used lethal force. She looked at her trembling hands. They looked like they always did. A loud sob escaped her throat.
Smoke rolled across the ceiling and pressed down on her, choking her and making her eyes sting.
Rachel drug herself to the door in the floor. She yanked it open and dropped into the shaft below. Every inch of her body protested. She pulled a knife from her boot and plunged it into her wrist. Blood smeared her fingers making the implant slippery and forcing her to dig deeper. An anguished wail escaped her, giving her the last needed momentum to pull the metal disk out of her. She threw it to the ground and quickly wrapped her wrist.
Smoke began billowing into the shaft from the depraved room above. Using the metal ladder bolted to the nearest wall, she pulled herself to standing and started the excruciating climb up the ladder. At the top, she reached a sewer cover and pushed against it. Wind rushed into the small opening; the storm wasn’t over.
She felt hands on her calves and looked down to nothing, her mind on the verge of becoming shattered. Hooking her arm around a rung of the ladder, she pushed as hard as she could against the cover. The wind caught it and blew it the rest of the way off.
A hand thrust down to her. A real flesh and blood hand, blue swirls delicately covering it. She grasped it and was pulled effortlessly out of the shaft. Like ocean waves, blue hair swirled around a slightly familiar face.
The woman put Rachel’s arm around her neck, and they ran against the dying wind. Rachel mostly being dragged, but doing her best to keep up, trying not to wail in pain.
“How did you-“
“I’ll explain later!” the woman shouted.
“I have to get to the tech center,” Rachel said.
Not far up the deserted road, an all brick building with no windows and a roof of satellite dishes loomed.
“Hurry,” Rachel urged.
The woman banged on the metal door with one hand and tried to hold Rachel up with the other. The door swung open and small bald man with a beard so long and full it covered his torso, stood aside.
“Where’s Lia?” he shouted.
Rachel shook her head. They moved into the building into a secure storm space. The woman sat Rachel in a chair.
“Did you get it? Did you see it?” she asked.
Rachel could not be sure what she had seen. She flipped open a compartment on the front of her body armor and pulled the data card.
“See for yourself. My video feed,” she said. “Are you Jake?”
“Yes. Lia didn’t make it?” His voice shaking.
“I’m sorry.”
“Jake, get it uploaded. You’re badly injured, officer,” the woman said.
“Rachel. My name is Rachel.”
“I’m Joan.”
Rachel’s body shook, and a sob made her suck in her chest. “I have to find my sister. She’s in one of those damn places!” Rachel pulled the baton from her duty belt and made to stand up.
“Whoa! Whoa, honey. We will,” Joan said. “We need to get you patched up first; then you can go kick some more ass, okay?”
Rachel pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes, but the tears flowed.
“Broadcasting,” Jake said.
Like all the other storm shelters in the Capital Sector, groans arose from the crowd. The reality show feed lost to blue screen. Suddenly, an image of Lia’s incision from Rachel’s feed took over. Her voice clear and traveling through the entire space.
“Ever wonder why the Baby Boomers live so long nowadays? They use us for parts, stem cells, and whatever else they want. We are slaves in there.”
“What is this?”
“Is it a show?”
“Is it real?”
“Look at the stamp! It’s a real feed from a Youth Squad officer!”
The crowd grew, and the broadcast played on.
When the storm moved out enough for the shelter doors to be open, people flooded to the streets and streamed to the nearest Executive Resort.
An elderly Indigent Sector man bumped into a Gen-pop man in the rush. “My granddaughter, she’s in there,” he said.
“My daughter,” the other man said.
The men held each other’s gaze, not sure what to expect. Both men’s eyes flooded with emotion. A woman, dressed in garb from a Religious Sect pushed against them in the swell of the crowd.
“I’ll pray for us; my nieces are in there,” she said.
The Gen-pop man grabbed the other man’s arm. The Indigent man tensed, but the other man said, “Come on! All of us! Let’s get our girls!”
A cool breeze stirred the fallen debris from the storm, and gentle sunshine broke as the clouds parted. The birds filled the air with songs celebrating their survival against the tempest.