Dark Swarm YA Novel (preview)
“As engineers, we are going to be in a position to change the world – not just study it.” ~Henry Petroski
(this preview is unedited)
Jack Morrison spent six months working every night until midnight, finger tips calloused and always sore, eyes strained, back sore from hunching over his high school science project. It was more than a project. It was an invention that would change the world and rescue his hopes and dreams from the abyss.
He adjusted the rickety, flexible lamp, lowering it over a string of tiny bulbs. The last bulb in his needle nose pliers glowed red; hot but not too hot. Jack pressed the tiny single-wire electrode into the glass, slowly, carefully, his hands shaking. If he did this wrong he’d be working another two hours or more. The electrode sunk into the molten glass, like a needle piercing flesh, the waxy coating burning off the metal. Success. He’d managed to insert the electrode without letting the argon gas escape the bulb. The painstaking process could, no doubt, be done better by a machine, but the prototype needed to be born by human hands first.
Mel, Jack’s father, entered the garage where Jack toiled every night, carrying a plate with one cookie and a glass of powdered milk. “Hey, buddy. How’s it going?” Mel set the dessert down, his arm muscles pressing on his shirt like it was plastic wrap. He worked in a construction pod, and it showed in his muscles. Other than that, he was average height, brown hair, thinning at the top, peppered with grey. His eyes were kind and everyone liked him. Jack had the same eyes, but his experience with people was altogether different. The similarities ended. Jack at sixteen had carrot-top red hair, thick as a mulberry bush; he was taller than his father, lanky with no muscle tone what-so-ever.
“I’m doing good.” Jack didn’t move toward the cookie. They were okay, but flourless and sugarless, those items were too expensive, so the cookie wasn’t terribly exciting to eat. His eyes rolled as he grabbed the treat anyway, shoving it into his mouth in one bite. “I think I’ve done it,” Jack said with his mouth full.
Mel leaned over to inspect, smile wide. “You’re worth every penny,” he joked. “Who knew you’d be able to blow a glass bubble that small and still fill it with gas.”
Jack drained the powdered milk. “Trick is to use the gas to blow the bubble. I had to use non-flammable argon so it wouldn’t catch fire.” Jack inspected the final lightbulb with the magnifying glass, it being only two millimeters round.
“Let me know when you’re gonna test,” Mel said. “I wanna see it.” He moved back to the door. “Do the trash real quick so you don’t forget. Take two bags out. We can’t afford the fee for the weight. Maybe next week. Your little project better pay off, it’s cost us all our savings.”
Jack leapt from the chair, grabbed the trash bin, took out a couple of bags, leaving it half full. He pulled up the squeaky garage door by hand, the motor broken, and wheeled the half-empty container out to the street.
He returned to the garage door, reached up to the handle, when a tall, overweight man walked out of the dark street and into the light. He wore a blue bandana around his nose and mouth, sun glasses and a button up shirt with a bloody knife patch on the sleeve. The man was a Crypt, a local thug.
Jack’s heart stopped, he backed up. Adrenaline flooded his veins and he wanted to run away, but knew that would only get him killed, along with his parents.
“Hey, stick bug, call for yo mom or yo dad,” the man said, his voice booming. “But stay right where you is.”
Jack knew the drill, but never had to deal with the gangers directly. Crypt collectors came around once a month to collect ‘protection’ money, but it was pure extortion. “Dad!” Jack yelled.
Mel came out quickly. “What’s wrong?” He saw the Crypt collector and held up his hands.
“Payment is due.” The man held up a credit card, his button-up shirt shifting, exposing the handgrip of a large gun. Mel’s strength did not intimidate the man, not with the gun in his belt. Only bad guys and cops had guns these days.
Mel slipped his wallet out of his back pocket, took a similar looking card and touched the surface. The number one-thousand flashed on a digital screen on the card and Mel handed it to the man. The collector touched the cards together, the one-thousand transferring from Mel’s card to his.
Satisfied, he handed the card back. “Got anythin’ to report?”
“No. No Bloods, no Neoz.” The Crypts were very concerned about red or black flagged gangsters, making sure their neighborhood was always blue.
The collector walked off without saying a word. He’ll be back next month, at some random hour.
“I don’t know why we can’t call the cops on them,” Jack mumbled, returning to his desk. “I hate living here.”
Mel ruffled Jack’s hair. “They won’t hurt us, as long as they get their money. And we can’t call the cops because that would put you or your mother in more danger. We’re gonna get out of here one day. This little invention of yours might just help.” Mel closed the garage door, the squeaking interrupting the quiet night again.
Jack returned to his project, calming himself by focusing, inspecting the metal wire and all the tiny electrodes. He sealed the last bulb with a blob of PVC plastic, fixing it to the string of lights. He’d ruined over a hundred bulbs at this stage, the garbage basket next to him full of broken little bulbs.
Mel sat on the other stool. “Gonna save the world, aren’t you?”
Jack shrugged. “Gonna change it. And this will save us, mom. We’ll be able to move into one of the gated communities. Her breather will never run out of power again.”
A rustling noise outside startled Jack, his head spun. “Is that the collector?”
Mel walked to the side door, unlocked it and, peered into the dark side yard. “Just a cat.”
Jack’s hands shook. Too much adrenaline in his veins making him jumpy.
“William’s out in his front yard,” Mel said, standing half out the doorway. William Carpenter, Jack’s arch enemy, was a bully, a freak and all-around asshole, but somehow never got caught. Jack knew the truth, he’d seen William’s guilt in his smile an in his cold stares.
“He knows I’m entering the science fair. Probably trying to figure out how to ruin it.”
“He’s coming over.”
“Shut the door! I don’t want him in here?”
Jack heard William outside. “I Mr. Morrison! How’s Jack?”
Mel pointed. “You’re gonna–” There was a crunching sound, snapping twigs. Mel’s head lowered, his palm resting on his forehead. “That was my wife’s new gardenia you just stepped on.”
“Oh man, so sorry, Mr. M.” William said from the front yard. Jack, at his desk and out of sight, shook his head. “It’s dark out. No moon.”
Mel waved. “It’s fine. We’re fine. We’re going to bed. Have a good night. Say hi to your father for me.”
“Oh okay, will do.” William’s voice was father away. “Say sorry to Mrs. M about the plant!”
Mel pulled the door shut, locking it. “That kid is Mimic.”
“What’s a Mimic?”
“Kids that tell parents what they want to hear, but do the opposite. They’re liars and cheats, but they can sure put on a smile.”
“I know. I tell everyone that. No one believes me.”
“I do.” Mel found the stool and sat. “He smashed your mother’s new plant, trying to pretend to be friendly.”
“Oh, he saw it.” Jack held up the string of lights carefully. “I’m ready to test.”
Jack plugged the wire end to a computer board he’d built, the size of a piece of bread, and flipped the on switch. The lights flickered, their glow intensifying until they were hard to look at. Jack smiled, all the bulbs were on. He checked the voltage meter he’d plugged into the line. “This is ten bulbs going, and it’s barely pulling current. Each bulb is only using half a watt.”
“Yeah, boy!” Mel yipped, jumping up, knocking back the stool.
The loud band startled Jack, “Geez, dad. Giga-hell.”
Mel clapped Jack on the back. “Come on. This is so awesome. I can’t believe it. I’m so proud of you.” Mel fumbled his words. “You’re freakin’ ready! My boy’s a genius.” The two watched the lights, their eyes hurting.
Finally, Mel made for the house. “Now cut that power and get to bed or you’ll be zombified.” He paused, half way up the steps into the home. “You did it. I’m so proud.”
Jack cleaned up and shut down for the night. He had three days until the science fair, plenty of time to finish the presentation. Another noise came from the side yard.
He walked to the side door, parted the blinds, stared into the dark. That noise couldn’t be a cat. It had to be something bigger. Jack instantly suspected William of crossing the street and spying on him. The prickles on the back of his neck echoed his thoughts. Couldn’t help but feel protective. Nothing could go wrong with his project, too much was riding on his win.
Jack double-checked the lock, then, out of sheer paranoia, took a piece of tape and barely stuck it to the bottom of the door. If someone picked the lock and came in, the tape would fall. He felt ridiculous, but didn’t care.
The day of the science fair arrived. Jack had not fallen sleep easily, but just before two in the morning, passed out, hard. He smacked the alarm off and jumped out of bed.
Mel wore his typical grey one-piece jumpsuit, hair neatly combed. He stared straight ahead reading the news feed that appeared on the inside of his thin, narrow framed computer-glasses, the processor and hard drive in a stick, the size of a fat pen, probably in Mel’s pocket. Jack wasn’t allowed screen time on his com-glasses on until after school, one of the bogus rules, he had to comply with. No matter, today was special and he had no time to dwell on anything but the science fair.
What kept intruding his thoughts was the rustling outside the garage the day the Crypt collector came. Jack had checked on the tape every day, but it remained where he’d stuck it.
“No breakfast today, honey,” Jack’s mom, Kalsie, said, wearing her breathing mask. “Smog is red-level, so stay indoors whenever you can.” She looked ready to exercise in her purple leggings and skin-tight top, but only did yoga. Her allergy to the air pollution was so fierce, she would stop breathing if she huffed and puffed too much.
Jack shrugged, used to mornings without food.
Mel sipped his coffee from a half-size mug. “Are you nervous?” Mel asked, pushing a small glass of orange fizzy, a vitamin charged drink made from a powder, toward Jack. “It’s the best science project I’ve ever seen.”
Jack heard Mel go on and on about it all yesterday and the day before that, but didn’t mind hearing it again.
“You really think I’ll win?” Jack looked different, hair slicked back with gel, uniform actually ironed. He wanted to look as nice as possible. The judges will take him more seriously if he’s groomed and professional; according to Mel, a verifiable fact.
“Yeah, your idea will be bought by a company and produced,” Mel said eagerly, smile as wide as it could be. “I mean that.”
Kalsie spun Jack around, a wet washcloth in her hand. She dabbled at a spot on his collar. “Toothpaste part of the school uniform these days, huh?”
Jack didn’t like Kalsie’s preening, but today was special. He let her inspect his uniform. She approved, removing her mouth cup to kiss his cheek.
“I’m gonna win this.” Jack looked dead in her eyes. “Then move us to the mountains where you can breathe.”
She teared up. “I believe in you.”
Jack downed the drink and headed out the door into the garage.
“Good luck!” his parents chimed.
Jack lifted the box of lights, computer, and poster board off the work table and headed out of the garage. He glanced over at the side door, noticing the tape laying on the floor. His heart stopped, his check sucking in air. He set the box down and picked the tape up. Dust covered the adhesive. The lock still engaged. Could it have fallen off by itself? No way to tell. His jaw tightened.
He didn’t know what to do or think. Today was the big day. Nothing can go wrong. Jack pulled the lights out of the box and the computer and plugged it into the wall. The lights lit up. He sighed, relieved. The tape probably fell off, or his dad had used the door.
Jack repacked the box and picked it up, heading to the curb. He waited for the taxi, his father having paid extra for a private ride to school so Jack could carry his things and practice his speech without stuffing himself in the bus. No taxi arrived. Only yellow smog hugged the street, looking like dust.
There were better places to live, better for his mother, better for his future. Jack’s dad could work from anywhere in his pod. Since the first realization that Jack was smarter than most the kids in his school, he felt the need to help his parents. He’d come up with many hair-brained schemes, but this was the first that had real potential. He liked that it would also help to save the world.
William strolled out of the house, his one-piece uniform unzipped to his waist, his under shirt black with an Astral Punk band logo on it. Jack liked the band, too, but that was where his similarity with William ended. “Trouble with your taxi?” William hollered from across the street. He had a wicked smile across his face.
Jack turned to go inside, talk to Mel, when his father exited the house. “Sorry, buddy. Your taxi got canceled.” Mel shook his head, a small light shining on the bottom corner of his com-glasses. “They say I’ve been blacklisted. I’ve no idea why. But since there’s no other company that picks up in this neighborhood, you’re gonna have to take the bus.”
“Giga-hell,” Jack hissed. He wished his parents could afford a car. Minutes later, the bus arrived, its brakes squeaking as it stopped. The vehicle looked like it came straight from the junk yard; fifty years old, cracked windows, scratches along the side, some graffiti.
Jack hustled to the door, climbed the steps, and struggled down the cramped aisle holding his box above his head. Chattering kids filled the seats, none paying any attention to Jack. No one on his block did. He finally found a spot next to Jen. She looked away, her headphones blaring.
William got on next. Kids stood, elbow bumped him, spat out jokes, laughed and moved aside in case he wanted to sit by them. It was disgusting. What was it about William that people liked? He was quick at comebacks, spiked his short hair, flaunted the dress code, and failed nearly every class gracefully, that’s why.
Jack rode to Detroit High School in silence. Half an hour later the bus pulled up behind fifty others. Students swarmed the grass before the buildings. A fight broke out by the far building, but broken up quickly by a security bot. Others smoked vape pipes, flaunting the rules, some chatted in groups, couples made out near the bushes. In general, most everyone pushed the clock to the last bell.
Jack waited for his bus to clear out before lugging his box off the seat.
He didn’t go to the main walkways, but down the long drop-off curb and around the administration building toward the enormous gym. There were a handful of other kids toting boxes and bags, too.
Ben, one of William’s best friends approached, his head bobbing to music played in his earphones. Jack kept to the other side of the walkway, but at the last moment, Ben swerved, stuck his foot out. Jack didn’t see the foot. He fell forward, landing hard on the box. His chin nailed the hard, cardboard edge. The poster board snapped in half like a cracker, the computer and voltage meter banging on the concrete, the string of tiny lights skidding across the concrete. One of the bulbs shattered like an egg.