Three years after the Battle of Rift Ridge, Mink is still struggling as he adjusts to his new life as a Machinist in the high-tech world of Freeland. Two goals push him to keep going: developing his newly discovered affinity for metal and avenging his lost love. Both will require him to break the law.
Mink’s unique talents are illegal to use but his skill of manipulating metal soon catches the attention of a clandestine revolutionary group, who offer to help him achieve his objectives in exchange for sharing his abilities.
When a plot to destroy his former home is discovered, Mink will have no choice but to trust an unknown ally and hope that his newly acquired skills will be enough to save them before his past catches up to him.
Excerpt from Machines
Enough light filtered through the window slats that Mink knew being late was a risk. Not that it mattered. Mink had taken the same class numerous times now and knew the scheduled plan as well as the instructor. Next week, the former Elementalist would have a sixth opportunity to take the Citizenship Exam, offered semiannually, and become a full citizen of Freeland: a Machinist.
The faucet of the water recycler was taking forever to reconstitute the energy cube into a drink. At least the sweet smell of the powder broke up the usual musty smell of the hut. It wouldn’t be the first time the water supply ran out prematurely before the refill date. Maybe someone farther up the pipeline had a massive leak or there was another blockage. Mink opted to rummage the only cabinet above the sink pedestal for the tenth time instead of watching the water drip.
Pacing the tiny bungalow made of thick gray plastic printed in a cube, Mink irritably adjusted an ill-fitting donated shirt and shorts meant for someone shorter and fatter. Typical Machinist pants had extra-long legs and waists that came up nearly to the arm pits. The intention was to have the cuffs pulled back up to the knee and rolled back down over the calves and waist turned down to look almost like a skirt, but Mink preferred the shorts that had no shortage of pockets. The shirts were mostly plain as Machinists tended to wear thin vests as an outer layer. Those were still in a bag in the corner. Wearing them only made Mink feel like a clown.
The hut was one open square space with no dividing walls, which nevertheless felt cramped compared to the octagonal rooms Mink had grown up with. A simple gray chair was the only movable piece of furniture, pushed under the equally drab desk protruding as an extension of the wall. Likewise, the bed was printed as a lower platform of the same wall, covered with a thin mattress of something unnatural that felt like lying on mud.
Anxiety and bad dreams had deprived the applicant-immigrant of much-needed sleep, a condition that was either exacerbated by thirst, or the reverse was true. Last night’s nightmare of killing Gyov had been particularly unsettling. Dark hair secured in a long ponytail from years without being cut, Mink checked the lock on the door, slid the window slats shut, and pulled the foot off of the chair’s leg. The crystal Gyov had gifted Mink that morning before the Battle of Rift Ridge fell into open palm.
Eyelids drew deep brown eyes closed. A thumb searched carefully across the facets of the crystal. Gyov’s singing voice filled consciousness with Oongk Gyoriah Ahtima. It drove out fear of the exam. It eased the pain of the nightmare. That dear friend who was horribly taken away three years ago after they had just confessed their feelings for one another. Everything they had was preserved in this sole crystalline archive.
The two-ounce shot glass was filled enough. Shutting off the water, Mink gulped the drink. The crystal was returned to its hiding place. Drawing deep breaths helped the drink spread energizing and super-hydrating refreshment throughout the body. It tasted like plastic. Sweet plastic, but plastic all the same.
Everyone was issued a Wireless Information Service Portal, or WISP, upon arrival at the immigration camp. This singular contraption was made out to be the most critical possession. It didn’t look like much, being a shiny black case with a seam bisecting the top so it could be opened up and unfolded into a U-shape. However, this unassuming machine had tens of thousands of rows of tiny projectors that created holoimages within its frame that could be interacted with by voice or touch. A WISP was keyed to a specific user and allowed that user to perform a variety of tasks depending on the location of the WISP. Quickly, Mink’s WISP was plucked from the bedside table, the door was unlocked, and Mink Jolle stepped out into the immigrant camp.
The haze lingering in the lower atmosphere really brought out the green in the sky’s usual teal color and dimmed the glare of the morning sun. Two dozen more gray plastic huts were arranged along with Mink’s in a five-by-five grid separated from the administration building by a quad of dirt where sitting areas were provided around two large firepits. No plants could be seen and the camp’s own ten-meter-high perimeter concrete wall prevented a view as much as the nearby twenty-meter eastern border wall. The administration building, a rectangular, gray plastic common hall for the classroom and office, was flanked by smaller chambers, one for the water recycler reservoir and the other for maintenance and storage.
Down the path to the right, chubby Crpeskth rushed with a determined look and short legs toward the common hall and lanky Yoloni was not far behind. Both of them were attractive in their own right. Yoloni had the fairer skin tone of a specklenut and curly, long hair showing more volume than the classmate’s body. Crpeskth had beguiling yellow-brown eyes and a dimpled smile, framed alluringly by short ruddy-brown hair. This was no time for gawking, however. Seizing the opportunity to not be the last one to class, Mink ran across the quad to cut them off.
Behind Mink, a sudden thump ceased the quiet hum as WISP shut off all services to the little house. Five meters away from the common hall, a click unlocked the door and slid it open. Mink rushed inside, hoping to hear the door shut, confirming neither Crpeskth nor Yoloni were right behind. Sliding into a desk at the back of the room, Mink heard the click and grinned.
The walls of the common hall were completely covered with maps of the thirty districts, common use words, the alphabet, the number system, simplified descriptions of the laws, rules for the class, generalized encouragement that life in Freeland will be the stuff of dreams, and job recruitment posts. Ten rows of eight desks lined up in front of the large, plastic instructor’s desk, but in the last few years, Mink had never seen all of them in use. Glowing tiles had been arranged throughout the ceiling to bathe the room in a warm, natural light without shadow. Each desk had been printed in place and allowed just enough space to lean toward the WISP dock at the far edge of the desktop.
Placing the WISP on the groove of the desk and swinging it open, it spoke, “You are four minutes late.”
“Water problem. I only got three milliliters every minute,” Mink said to the instructor standing by one of the few windows.
Instructor TiLou, a white-haired and congenially animated person shaped like a fruit, corrected Mink’s improper use of Freelandian grammar. “I was only getting three milliliters a minute.”
“Oh. You too?” Mink set off a round of chuckles. Proper use of Freelandian had proven difficult for Mink, despite the years of practice, and humor was often used to deflect the embarrassment.
“There is a problem with water supply this morning,” TiLou informed while crossing slowly in the general direction of the large desk.
Just then, the door opened and Yoloni sprinted through, wheezing, “Sorry. Water. Barely any water.”
“Yes. There is a water problem.” TiLou sat at the big desk in front of the room as the chair whined.
Before the door could close, Crpeskth sauntered in clutching a flabby side that wasn’t responding well to the recent loss of weight.
“My water wasn’t working.” Crpeskth dragged across the back of the room to an empty seat. Yoloni’s WISP said, “You are five minutes late.”
Instructor TiLou smiled again and spoke up from the chair. “We have a known water problem. It will still be a problem tomorrow. Adjust your schedules accordingly. After tomorrow, the problem will be fully resolved.”
Crpeskth placed the WISP on the desk and everyone heard, “You are five minutes late. You are the last one to arrive. Please send your apology to the rest of the class.”
Last one? Mink double-checked the room. Davder hadn’t shown up yet. Nevertheless, Crpeskth’s face broadcast across all WISPs with a huff and a thick Smranksth accent. “I must apologize to my fellow applicant-immigrants. My tar…tardi…” Crpeskth struggled to read the Freelandian word.
“Tardiness,” TiLou offered.
“…tardiness has delayed the progress of your learning about our new country…” Continuing to flatly read the words, Mink stared at Crpeskth’s holographic face projected by WISP. Such light-tan skin. Eyes seemed to scan Mink’s face as they read words. Mink’s fingers traced the three-dimensional image along the lines of Crpeskth’s cheek.
“I do not think I am any better than any of you. The reason for my tardiness is not because I think your time is less important than mine…”
Crpeskth had only taken the test once. There wasn’t any reason to kindle feelings based on fleeting attraction. Mink didn’t intend to fail the test this time and playfully poked at the gorgeous yellowish- brown eyes on the WISP screen.
“Please accept my humble apology, and I ask that you not hold my lapse of judgment against me.” Crpeskth concluded the dictated apology with no attempt at sincerity and the broadcast ended. The more Mink saw of the antidiscrimination laws and their punishments for violations, the less the definition of antidiscrimination made sense. Having been the target of many forms of bullying, Mink easily recognized the methods at work to create a deep-rooted avoidance of ever putting one’s own interest above another’s. That part was much more tangible.
The applicant-immigrants were rarely late as a result of the ensuing embarrassment of being the last one. However, some days it was simply unavoidable. That didn’t seem to matter to Freelandian law. There were no legal allowances for someone having different abilities, perspectives, or circumstances. The values of the antidiscrimination laws seemed utopian in a general sense. Yet, after experiencing the public humiliation on a few occasions, Mink doubted that the practical application of such well-intentioned austerity was better than the quasi-acceptance of differences back in Octernal.
Lesson 147 replaced Crpeskth’s face and Instructor TiLou spoke through all the WISPs. It was simultaneously familiar and frustrating to Mink, knowing how long each image would be displayed, what words would show up when, and yet still apparently not knowing the material enough to be allowed to enter the country. It would be decidedly better if Mink or the instructor ever saw a score, if not also what answers were wrong. Each of the previous five attempts had ended with WISP stating simply that Mink did not pass, which resulted in compulsively refreshing the status of WISP in disbelief. Few passed the test the first couple of times, but they all seemed to get it by the fourth try. Mink, however, was stuck.
Everyone at this camp had come from Octernal, having agreed to forego the use of the holy elements for a new life in Freeland. It wasn’t like Freelandians didn’t have affinities, since it was the core commonality of every person born on Georra. They eschewed their elemental use for a life where anyone could learn to perform any task, given the proper tools. There was even a deliberate lack of related terms in Freelandian. As an example, affinities for elements were referred to as resistances. Furthermore, the three chief languages of Octernal were forbidden so that they might learn to speak Freelandian better. Socialization had a natural way of fizzling out before it went beyond small talk and conversation practice.
The newer applicant-immigrants tended to start off buddy-buddy, with no concept of how quickly friends might leave, or how long they themselves would probably stay. Thinking back on it, Mink felt naive getting close to some of the applicant-immigrants who had already passed the exam and were now long gone. Nearly three years in, no one had even gotten as far as finding out Mink was at the Battle of Rift Ridge.
The extended-stayers were easy to spot at the immigrant camp. They were like Mink. Concentrated on their studying. Were nothing more than polite to the newbies. And most of all, they barely had muscle, let alone fat. Camp provisions were designed for shorter stays, built under the assumption that if an applicant-immigrant didn’t succeed on the first attempt that they would surely pass on the second. The general hope being that they would soon enter the country, find work, and make a better life for themselves by the merits of their own efforts.
From what Mink had learned, Freeland took very good care of its citizens. Even without passing the test, there was an underlying sense that everything was pretty well figured out. Driven to finally pass the exam, Mink still had to keep the priorities in order. Becoming a citizen was just one of many steps needed to track down the one who had taken Gyov away. Even more important than both objectives, the urge to discover what being a metal user meant remained a primary focus.
Amid the typical din, when people were unquietly settling inside their huts, Mink would experiment to find the rhythm and voice for metal chants. Even on this, the night before the Citizenship Exam, there was no better time for this illicit work. So had run the ritual for the last two years.
The wording wasn’t the problem. Every attribute enhancement effect was essentially the same eight-syllable line for each element, just switching out the name of the element and using the verb that adjusted to the proper number of syllables. In Mink’s case, the Octernalian word for metal was “shendyu,” making “trat” the proper verb choice. The attribute enhancement chant for metal should be “trat shendyu combando toma.” The literal translation to Freelandian would be something like “resulting from metal shared power with me,” but that would never work as a chant.
Mink had tried the chant in both Octernalian and Freelandian many times, but decided that the language used couldn’t matter much because the effects worked the same with Smranksth and Pashmeetan. Chants just sounded better in Octernalian, so that became the tongue of choice. The difficult part was discovering the type of voice and rhythm that needed to be used for the effect to happen. There were enough variables that Mink had trouble keeping track of them even with the assistance of WISP. Mink endeavored to try different combinations every night until it was no longer safe to be repeating a chant aloud.
“Trat shendyu combando toma!”
Mink continued variations of the same squeaky voice for over an hour using different emphasis without feeling the vibrational connection that would indicate progress. Frustrated, focus switched to passing the exam and getting out of the camp for good. Mink woke up WISP, which immediately went back to the practice test at question forty-eight. It hardly seemed to matter that the Combustion Cessation Act of the year 26,342 was still in effect when there hadn’t been any fuel to combust for over a hundred years, or a need thanks to quark yoking. Yet, Mink had four choices of which Chairperson-elect signed the act into law: A) Tyron Powers, B) Raggie S. Blinkmat, C) Illumin Federton, D) Momo Play. Raggie S. Blinkmat was just thrown in to add confusion as the one who was widely credited as bringing about the broadest sweeping environmental reforms, but Mink knew Illumin Federton was the right answer. WISP confirmed it.
Mink read over question forty-nine repeatedly without thinking once about what it was asking. Preoccupied with thoughts of what more could be tried with the chant voice, the Freelandian words lining up across WISP’s display meant nothing. What was the mandatory sentence for interfering with the task functions of a worker automate? Mink had to think about what an automate even was. They didn’t work in the Immigration Camp. Automates were described as mechanical entities built and programmed solely to fulfill a specific set of repetitive tasks. Given only enough intelligence to keep working when unforeseeable circumstances arose. Apparently, they were as complex as vehicles, and as simple as stationary objects performing one task several times a minute around the clock in factories.
WISP wasn’t classified as an automate. Everything about the way WISP functioned was dependent on the user interface. It could not move, nor communicate on its own. WISPs and weapons were the only examples of that kind Mink knew. There was a word for that that Mink was forgetting.
Thinkers, their own classification of automate, were programmed with an impressive amount of instructions that took decades to write, making them capable of reaching their own decisions, developing their own plan of action, and infallibly maintaining a consistent code of ethics that even allowed them to supersede precedence when the situation warranted. They were employed in a variety of managerial positions and as judges, but never military.
If someone was caught interfering with the duties of an automate, their sentence would be handed down by a thinker. The severity of the interference would vary the punitive damages, but it would always be at least, what? A) two thousand chips, B) twelve days in jail, C) three hundred hours of doing the automate’s job for it, or D) exile… A gravelly voice? Mink hadn’t tried that yet. It would take a couple weeks to progress through all the speeds, but it would be nice to go lower on the voice for a change… B) twelve days in jail. Correct.
Question fifty out of two hundred replaced the screen. When someone invites you to a party and tells you not to tell one of your friends, what is the appropriate action? Ah. The social discrimination law section of the test. A) go to the party and not tell your friend? Mink remembered going to Pirk’s fifteenth birthday years ago. Pirk would be seventeen now… B) go to the party and tell your friend about it anyway? Mink turned seventeen in this same hut, without Dreh or Pulti around… C) don’t go to the party and be with your friend. Mink didn’t have friends. But it would be good enough to avoid any party just to have one more hour with them… D) inform the proper authorities of the infraction and take the friend to the party. It was all Mink could do to remember the last interactions with Dreh, Pulti, the parents, Sapo, Tralé, Mouké, Tolrin, Gyov… D) inform the proper authorities. Correct.
Mink got up from the chair and pulled off the foot concealing Gyov’s crystal. Sitting, listening, and remembering. Everything mattered. Everything was out of reach from this trap. This little hut that just recently started getting adequate water again had held its captive too long. It was keeping Gyov away. Mink had to remember Gyov was gone. Mink was gone.
The crystal went back into hiding. WISP turned off. Mink walked over to a tiled corner and disrobed. Freeing the ponytail with one hand and grabbing the soap shaker with the other, Mink shook out a generous portion of the powder. Rubbing it in completely was most difficult with hair as long and thick as Mink’s. Eventually, all the powder had been rubbed in. Mink grabbed a pair of shorts from a drawer and stepped inside them.
Mink opened the box of nighttime cubes and picked out a green one. The box still had about half of its original contents and that would be plenty. The cube rattled in the bottom of the shot glass with a clink before the water recycler filled the glass. Within seconds the cube had dissolved, giving the water a deep green tint. Mink swished the minty liquid around by mouth until it no longer fizzed. Spitting it back into the water recycler, a fresh blast of water rinsed out the glass.
“WISP, turn off the lights,” Mink said, settling into bed.
A collage of distant memories danced before Mink as the darkness shrunk the sense of space even more with its relentless black. Then came the moment when Mink couldn’t be sure if eyelids were open or shut.
“I have to get out of here,” Mink said, unaware of being awake or asleep.
Gyov walked ahead, bedecked in royal blue silks. There seemed no way to catch up as Gyov kept sending smiles back over a shoulder. It felt like running through the wilderness of Georra using Quick Legs, but Gyov walked ahead all the same, smiling, laughing. Gyov tried to speak, but Mink couldn’t hear any words.
“Slow down!” Mink called out, ignored. “I miss you. You’re too far away.”
Desperation turned to anger. Anger coupled with dread. Swinging an arm down hard, metal spat out of Mink’s fingers and Gyov twisted down to the ground in a supine position, laughing all the same. Mink stopped and crouched over Gyov’s body.
“Why didn’t you stop? I was telling you to stop!” Mink shouted into the laughter. “I couldn’t keep up with you.” More laughter. “Stop.” Mink swung a hand down to Gyov’s shoulder, only it wasn’t a hand anymore. Now it was a knife. “Stop!” The knife-hand swung down to the other shoulder. “Stop!” The laughing wouldn’t stop. Several times, Mink stabbed Gyov in the chest. Attacking gave way to sobbing and wailing. “You just needed to stop,” Mink belabored between wails. “You should have stopped.”
The wounds oozed a thick, black, and foul blood. Gyov was silent at last. They were both surrounded by people watching. Mink didn’t look up. There was no reason. Everyone was there, watching. The silent Gyov disturbed Mink more than the laughing one.
“I killed Gyov,” Mink confessed to the silent crowd. “I did it.”
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