Anderson Atlas is an author and illustrator in Arizona

Inspired by crowded malls, streams hidden by giant boulders, patches of moss, charred forests, and distant mountain ranges, Anderson’s goal is to catch the lost dreams and carry them from the shadows of forgotten time, setting the fantastic on your plate to satiate your rabid hunger for adventure.

Dark Swarms Book Preview

 Dark Swarm Young Adult Book (preview)

“As engineers, we are going to be in a position to change the world – not just study it.” ~Henry Petroski

Chapter 1

Aggression in the Dark

On command, Jayce Morrison snapped open his eyes, apprehensive about Mire’s surprise. His eyes darted around, confusion and worry setting in. “Where the heck did you drag me?” Jayce whispered. He pushed up his thick-rimmed glasses, trying to study the shapes outside the vehicle windshield, reminding himself why he hated surprises; they never turned out quite right and gave him little time to prepare. His thin frame pulled against the seatbelt, nearly pressing his long nose to the glass.

“You would never have come if I told you the truth. Hence the secrecy.” Mire flashed a half smile, eyes glinting with amusement. She was Jayce’s best friend, a Korean immigrant since age four and had sleek dark black hair and ivory skin. She was too pretty to be friends with dorky Jayce, he always thought, but she continued to come around. “Now get the hell out of the taxi, or else,” she said, snapping her tongue like a whip. Her smile widened.

The auto-shaw, a two-wheel robotic taxi that looked like an egg and a hoverboard mated, stopped in the heart of a forgotten neighborhood. Abandoned buildings, trash, tagging extended for blocks in either direction. Across the street was an old doughnut bakery, a cell phone repair shop and three other businesses long abandoned; broken signage hung from brick facades, trash cluttered the sidewalk, and an alley with tents and taller piles of trash. All the windows and doors were boarded up with plywood and two-by-fours adorned with no trespassing signs full of bullet holes. Some traffic, likely passing through, traversed the wide road and bums milled about minding their own business.

dark swarm illustration

The auto-shaw’s entire front half opened up like a round cockpit. Mire dashed out of the vehicle, stopped when she realized Jayce was not following. “Come on,” she said in a hiss. “This you will like. I promise.”

Jayce shook his head. He leaned out of the auto-shaw, the vehicle gently rocking under his weight. “This place is not kid friendly.” Jayce instantly regretted saying ‘kid’. He was fifteen and in high school now. Time to start referring to himself as a young adult even if he didn’t feel like one.

Mire rushed back to the auto-shaw, grunting. “You should have kept your eyes shut until we got inside.” She grabbed Jayce’s arm and pulled.

“Inside where?” Jayce asked, refusing to budge from his seat, staring up at the creepy brick building looming over the auto-shaw, staring.

“Fine. I’ll give you two-hundred bucks if you move your ass.” Mire let him go and walked backward toward the brick building that resembled ga corpse more than a place of work. The building was surrounded by a tall chain link fence, had a yard full of tall weeds, probably an old factory of some kind. “If you don’t hurry, we will attract attention. Not the good kind.”

Jayce stepped out of the vehicle and jogged across the street with Mire, his backpack loaded with his laptop and some cables Mire ordered him to bring. At the curb he stumbled, stubbing his toe on the curb, face bursting red. He cleared his throat and straightened up.

Mire chuckled. “Jayce the Jaywalker.”

“Hey, I’m not…” Jayce did not cross in a crosswalk. He paused, considering her intent.

Mire’s face was full of amusement. “You can be such a weenie, sometimes. But I still like you.”

Jayce rolled his eyes. “I’m so confused. Why all the mystery? Why do I have all my gear?” He noticed a bum two buildings away looking in their direction. “No really. What’s going on?” Jayce’s voice broke, slightly. He hoped Mire didn’t hear it. His heart was racing uncomfortably fast. He never broke laws, ventured into dangerous places. Mire on the other hand had an assorted past. She’d ran away from home, lived on the street for a few months, got arrested for stealing. The day Jayce met her last year, she had a tracker ankle bracelet on because she was on probation.  

Mire dashed down the driveway next to the factory, following the chain link fence to the back parking lot. Jayce followed, grumbling. He’d rather be online playing Star Racer or Cyber Ops in the comfort of his bedroom. “What are you doing? Are we breaking into this place? Is this some kinda game? Like a dare or something?”

Mire dropped her backpack and pulled out a large bolt-cutter. “Zip it or you don’t get your two-hundred dollars.”

Jayce gripped his backpack’s straps, nerves twisting his gut. With two-hundred bucks he could buy Space Command when it comes out next month instead of waiting while he saved up.

Mire carefully, quickly cut link after link at the bottom of the fence. Jayce glanced at the surrounding buildings, eyeing the dark windows. People were watching them; he just knew it. Every cell in his body told him to run home, but he stayed anchored to Mire not wanting to look too weenie. Sweat trickled down his temples and forehead down his nose, making his thick-rimmed glasses slide down his nose. He pushed them up.

“This is a bad idea. Let’s go. Screw the two-hundred,” Jayce whispered. “It’s getting late and…and I really don’t wanna go to jail.”

Mire finished clipping the links and kicked her bolt cutters under the fence. She pulled up a section of loose chains. “Under. Now.”

“But–”

“Move it!” Mire hissed. “I’m bribing you, doing all the work. You just gotta beef-up. Hurry, before someone who cares, sees us.”

Jayce grumbled and squatted. “I’m thinking the bribe wasn’t big enough.” Mire shot him a warning look full of daggers so he hustled under the fence, stood and held it up so she could follow.

The two sprinted across the cracked pavement and passed the opportunistic grass and weeds growing out of every fracture and seam, stopping at the front door of the factory. A thick chain bound the handles of the weathered factory doors together.

Mire positioned her bolt cutters on the chain and bore down on them. The blade sunk into the metal but didn’t snap. Jayce grabbed the long handles and pulled them with everything he had. Which wasn’t much. Not a lot of muscle wrapped his bones. Finally, the link snapped, and the chain clattered to the concrete.

Mire slipped into the abandoned factory, hunched, her footfalls as quiet as a cat, calm and collected. She was uber-smart also one of the toughest girls Jayce had ever known.

The dark of the building fell over Jayce as he followed Mire. He tapped a button on the side of his thick-rimmed glasses turning on a flashlight. The light wasn’t as bright as he’d wanted so, with a hand gesture he turned on an overlay that lightened the view further. And just for good measure, he pressed his hands together, turning on the glasses’s cellphone app. A holographic image of his contacts flashed onto his vision, looking like a floating directory. He reached out, tapped his dad’s image. Jayce didn’t initiate the call, just loaded the phone number just in case the whole braking-and-entering went bad, leaving Jayce and Mire in the crosshairs of desperate bums or angry cops.

Jayce looked back and forth, sweeping the light around. Dust covered the floor and reception counter, and trash cluttered the corners. He coughed then instinctively took out his inhaler and took a pull.

The echo in the gloom was louder than expected. It was early evening, but as dark as the backside of the moon. Only a thin sliver of flickering light from a nearby streetlamp speared past security bars and grime smeared windows. Shadows lurked behind tables and doors and hallways hiding evil things waiting to pounce.

Mire stowed the bolt cutters and pulled out an actual, solid black flashlight. Jayce wanted to hold something solid right about now, something that could be used as a weapon. Mire moved quickly through a double doorway and onto the factory floor. Conveyor belts lay silent, their tracks and wheels rusted, the belts frayed. Electricity boxes were empty of fuses, splaying naked wires like guts. Everything looked ancient, preserved in its chaotic finale but the factory had only been closed for five years or so.

Mire spun back to the doorway, eyes wild. “Cops!”

Jayce’s heart seized. Instinctively, he sprang to the wall and ducked. His foot kicked a can across the floor, the clanking loud and obnoxious, startling him again. Jayce sat, pulling his knees to his chest, dropping his chin and closing his eyes.

“Just kidding.” Mire giggled, tucking her short black hair behind her ears.

Jayce looked up, felt a flush of embarrassment. “Totally not cool.” Jayce heaved, grabbed his inhaler and took another puff. “Why do you want to zap all my health points like that?” He stood, one hand gripping the strap of his backpack like a safety line. “Sorry for sprinting away like a scared gazelle. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” He could almost hear the jail cell doors clanking closed behind him.

Mire stepped to Jayce and grabbed his hoodie sleave. “Nothing wrong with you. You’re just being you. To many people say that crap. I see it online all the time. Nothing wrong with any of us.” Mire’s playful tone had evaporated. “You good?”

“Yeah, epic. Tell me what we’re doing here,” Jayce answered. Though it did feel like he was more scared than he should be.

“We’re here to test our science project.”

“What?” Jayce and Mire had been writing code for the past three months for an AI simulation that would express creativity. Maybe even desire. Jayce believed the key to true artificial intelligence was intention and creation.

“Our code is ready. You’re run all these simulations and got some weird results, right? Well, I want to try it out on a real robot.”

“Jeeze, you could have told me. I could have prepared. This is an epic step.” Jayce filled with excitement and a flood of gratitude. He wanted to hug her but stopped himself. She wasn’t the hugging type. She barely said bye when she went home or to her bus. Before Jayce could revel in the excitement, worry and fear reared their ugly heads, battled the happiness and won.

“We don’t have to finish today. We can come back. This place has been for sale for years. No one’s gonna buy it.”

“There’s a robot in here? How do you know?” Jayce asked, swallowing hard.

“Online listing.”

Jayce threw up his hands. “Oh, great. Someone online led us here. This is a trap!”

“Trust me. Kick out the paranoia and let’s get this done before the cops do show up,” Mire concluded.

“I’m not just worried about cops. Bums live in places like these, desperate and all wacked out on drugs. We’re gonna get mugged. I can’t lose my laptop. I’ll never be able to afford to get another one.”

“I looked for a way for bums to get in.” Mire shook her head. “This place was locked up tight. Hence my bolt cutters. Sheesh. You worry like little mouse,” Mire mumbled.

“Okay, then the cops are gonna come and haul us in for trespassing. I don’t need a criminal record. I would not do well in jail.” Jayce said, his voice cracking again.

Mire stopped and put her hands to her hips, glaring at him. “Really? That scared? You really wanna tuck tail and just leave?”

Jayce coughed, realizing he was under her judgment spotlight. His face reddened and grew hot. “No… just…I’ve never done anything like this.” Mire’s cool-factor, her bravery and spunk rubbed off on Jayce, encouraging him to do things he’d never do on his own. So, he followed, trying to emulate her confidence.

“I’m your best friend. You can trust me. Nobody cares about this place.” She dropped her sass-pose and turned. “And nobody led us here. I found what I was looking for all on my own.”

What Jayce really wanted was to go home but he pushed down the sensation to flee. “Let’s just hurry.” She was right, always right. The AI script they’d spent months writing and tweaking needed to be tested.

 A sound startled Jayce. A ticking like nails on metal.

Jayce continued looking around, searching for anything out of place or alarming. “N…nothing here but rats with Ebola, dead cockroaches, spiders, and squatter-trash,” Jayce whispered. “All that’s left is crap. How did you deduce there was a robot here?” He pointed his light at all the empty racks and conveyor belts and cut wires.

“I saw this pic on a used-machine-auction website, called the seller’s number and pretended I was a buyer. They wanted to meet here but I said I wouldn’t go to this neighborhood.” She continued searching, swinging her flashlight around.

On the other side of a large storage box in the middle of the floor were a dozen empty tables. “All these tables had robotic sewing machines,” Mire said, pushing deeper into the dark factory. “Models T-50. Their fingers had dexterity and chipsets had onboard memory. They were autonomous to a degree. Before the government banned the use of labor-bots, factories were filling up with them. Putting people out of work. Don’t know who would wanna sit at a table sewing shirts together all day but whatever. Work is work for some people.”

“No robots here now.” Jayce searched by turning his head slowly.

Mire dashed to the far end of the room.

“Ugh,” Jayce mumbled and followed.

Nearly lost in the gloom, nested on its side along the wall was one remaining sewing-arm robot. It looked like the same type of machine that welded together cars and other heavy machinery only smaller and had two arms instead of one.

“See. She’s perfect.” Mire’s voice echoed softly in the large space.

Jayce knelt and inspected the bot. “How do you know it works?” He wiped off some dust and examined the wires coming out of the bottom.

“Website said it works. They’re trying to sell it for ten thousand dollars even though they’re banned tech.”

“Help me get this on a table.”

The two heaved the arms up but it barely budged. “Ugg, it’s a million pounds,” Mire complained.

Getting the arm on the table took nearly a half-hour of dragging, straining and using a piece of ply-wood as a ramp up to the table. One last push. Jayce and Mire grunted and heaved, tipping the arm up and into a bracket centered on the table.

Sweat poured down Jayce’s forehead. “My muscles aren’t built for manual labor.”

Even in the gloom of the factory, Jayce could see Mire roll her eyes. “Being strong isn’t always about muscle. It’s about brains. Now, let’s get to work. We burned too much time.”

Jayce gathered the wires, laying them off to the side. “You said there was still some power here?”

Always prepared, Mire pulled out an extension cord. “Yeah. They have lights on at night.” She ran off.

Two lights came on overhead. Jayce instantly felt relieved, then chided himself for acting like a kid. I’m fifteen for crying out loud. I should be tougher.

Jayce stripped the main data cord and connected it to a twenty-four-pin plug. He pulled his old laptop out of his bag, set it next to the arm and plugged in the cord. Tape held the screen to the keyboard and he was missing the S and the CTRL key but it still worked.

A bang startled Jayce. He spun around, eyes searching, throat tightening. Sweat dripped down his cheek, splashing on the keyboard.

Mire ran up to him, end of the extension cord in hand. “What? You see a ghost?”

Jayce shook his head. “There are scarier things than ghosts around here.”

“Got that right.”

“Don’t say that. You’re supposed to shoot down my paranoid thoughts,” Jayce said, typing feverishly.

Mire plugged the cord into the robot arms. Lights blinked on. “She lives.”

Energy surged through Jayce. If this project worked, good things would happen in his life, finally. He powered on his computer-glasses and dug into the robot’s bios.

Mire fished through her pack, pulling out a large roll of duct tape and a pen then carefully secured the pen to the hand-like clamp at the end of one of the robot’s arms. Satisfied, she sat on the table, popped a piece of gum in her mouth and waited.

Jayce continued mapping the robot’s bios to his program while simultaneously watching the Viewtube video that guided him. He moved as fast as he could, not wanting to drag out this experience any longer than necessary.

A moment of hesitation passed before he clicked the execute button on his program.

The AI software Jayce and Mire had spent a half a year coding cranked through images it found online. The goal was for the algorithm to want to draw a picture of its own making. Jayce encouraged the software by increasing energy when it made progress. If the robot stopped, Jayce would remove power, forcing the software to work harder. He was trying to simulate desire through creating discomfort. If his code expressed even the slightest spark of creativity, Jayce and Mire would win the science fair. The win would catapult them out of hell-hole Detroit High and, with full scholarships, into the prestigious Proxima Science Academy, a boarding school that trained astronauts and engineers for NASA.

Only one of the arms moved, raining dust onto the table from its seams. Jayce increased the power. A little squeak creaked from its gears, but it still moved smoothly. Mire leaned over and blew the surface clean. The pen touched the paper lightly and stopped. “Reducing energy.” Jayce drummed the table-top.

dark swarm illustration

The pen drew a line.

“Yes! It’s working,” Jayce yelped, his echo ricocheting off the walls feverishly. He wanted to hug Mire but held back. He cranked on the power, rewarding the system.

“Hell, yeah!” Mire clapped, watching the line turn and twist.

The hand drew a picture with precision, jerking and turning, shading parts of the image, fleshing out the artwork.

Jayce looked around the busy arm, trying to see the image. His com-glasses’s light highlighted the page in the factory but he couldn’t make out what the drawing was, even with the single light on above the table.

Mire smacked Jayce on the back. “You did it.”

“You did, too. This is our project.”

Mire shrugged. “I know. But you’re the big brain. How many other freshmen can program boss-algorithms like you can?”

“I couldn’t have done it without you. You found so many mistakes I didn’t see.” Jayce felt emotion well up in his throat. He couldn’t believe his AI program was actually working. A surge of energy coursed inside his veins, tingling the tips of his fingers and every hair follicle on his head.

The lights and electronics went out, plunging the building into shadow–only sunlight shone through the smog and grime-obscured windows and security bars. “Epic hell.”

Brownouts happened daily and were no surprise, but this was bad timing.

“Give it a minute,” Mire mumbled.

“This is bad. The program can’t be punished for doing the right thing.” Jayce snapped. “It’s like it just got killed. When I reboot, it’ll be all messed up.”

“How do you apologize to ones and zeros?” Mire laughed.

A minute later, the power came back on, booting up the robot arm and the two overhead lights. The software restarted, but Jayce killed the program.

“What’d you do that for?” Mire asked.

“I don’t want the program to think the power outage was a punishment. We have to figure out how to reboot safely.”

“Ok. Clear the memory first. No past, no future, no problem. Right?”

Jayce’s com-glasses beeped from an incoming call. A video feed of his dad, Mel, flickered on the left lens of his com-glasses. “I’m right in the middle of something,” Jayce said sounding ruder than he planned.

“Excuse me,” Mel said. The feed was staticky because of poor reception but Jayce still saw Mel roll his eyes. “I’m just checking in. You’re coming home before nine, right? That’s–static–an hour.” Mel had a muscular though friendly face, and wore thin, no com-glasses. He always said they couldn’t afford them. Instead, he used his com-watch for calls.

Jayce stood straight, stretching. “Yeah, I know. I’ll be home on time, promise.”

Jayce’s stepmom’s image popped up on Jayce’s screen. Kalsie took a deep puff off her breather; a plastic face cup and tube connected to a filter that blocked air pollution that irritated her lungs and made breathing difficult. Odd that she and Jayce shared similar allergies because she wasn’t his real mom. It didn’t matter she carried the ‘step’ title. Jayce new no other mother and she was the best at what she did. Her allergies were worse, tying her to the breather and keeping her indoors when pollution warnings rose too hight. “What are you doing? It’s all dark behind you –static–you working on your sci–crackle–project?” She puffed again.

“Uh.” Jayce didn’t tell his parents where he was or what he was doing. If he did, they’d lock him up for the rest of high school.

Mire pressed her face next to Jayce’s so she could see the image on Jayce’s com-glasses. “Hi Mrs. K, we’re just taking a break watching some vids. We’ll get back to it.”

Kalsie’s eyes relaxed. She trusted Mire. “Okay. Home by nine. No exceptions. You have–static–school tomorrow.” Her image broke into serrated lines as the single weakened.

Mire moved away, smirking.

“I won’t lose track of time. Promise,” Jayce said. He looked past the image of his parents to the laptop screen and scanned his AI code. Jayce waved, his mind already tuning out his parents. “Bye.” He killed the call.

Another noise in the dark corner pulled Jayce’s gaze. Blaring sirens rushed by outside the factory, closer this time. Jayce tried to focus. He hated when his parents zapped his concentration. “What were we doing?”

Mire reached and grabbed the drawing. “Uh Jayce. Look at this.” She handed the drawing over.

Jayce took the paper. The image shading wasn’t finished but the outlines were.

“Look around you,” Mire said.

Jayce looked up then back at the drawing. “Whoa.” Jayce’s heart skipped a beat. “The AI scanned the internet for pictures and downloaded hundreds. It was supposed to find inspiration from them. Instead, it drew this place.”

“Not just this factory. It drew the other sewing robot arms. See?” Mire pointed. “Every table is full. Bright light is coming through the windows and everything.”

“Looks like a happy place. Is this a memory?”

Mire nodded. “Shit, this was how this place used to be. The machine is lonely, Jayce.”

He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “But…” There was no other way to interpret the drawing.

“No buts. You programed the AI to come up with something on its own. This is what it drew. Do you know how amazing this is? This has never happened before. Ever. When we were researching AI, looking at what had been done, what was successful and what wasn’t, I read paper after paper. No one’s code is this sophisticated.”

Jayce steadied his breath. “Epic.” He shivered. Not out of fear. He’d totally forgotten he was in a dark and abandoned factory full of spiderwebs and shadows. He knew his future had changed. Everything was about to change.

“We’re not done yet. I need to see what’d going on with the code, record it’s process.” Jayce leaned closer to the computer monitor. “While I do this, set up the camera. Let’s video tape the arm this time. We need as much proof as we can get otherwise everyone will think we’re full of it.”

__________

An hour fell away, neither Jayce nor Mire paid attention to the time, or the fact that the cricket sounds had totally gone silent.

Jayce smacked the table after the next failed attempt. “It won’t draw anything. No matter what we do.” He looked at Mire. “The blackout must have damaged the memory it was storing on the RAM.”

“Or it got punished for drawing and won’t do it again,” Mire mumbled. “We’re gonna have to start over. Wipe the RAM. Reboot.”

“Ugh. What if we don’t get the same reaction. I mean. The robot was thinking, feeling alone. What if we can’t replicate the effect?” Jayce turned from the computer, his eyes dry from staring at code.

“If it was real, we will. That’s science–reproducible effects. Just try it. We’ll see something similar. Don’t freak out. Just reboot.” Mire reached for the power button on the laptop.

The dull orange lamplight beyond the smudged factory window flickered as though something, or someone, had passed by outside. “Oh, giga-hell.” Jayce’s heartbeat doubled.

The mayor gulped, rubbed his forehead then continued. “A curfew has been instituted for all citizens of Detroit and–static–counties. We are proactively closing streets and parks and areas of public gathering like malls, restaurants and bars and–static–ordering all citizens to return–crackle–their homes for the evening.” The feed died suddenly.

Jayce glanced out the window as another shadow passed by the light outside. “Oh, crap.”

“Anyone out of their homes is at risk. I repeat, if you are not at home you are in danger. I repeat, all citizens are to return home as soon as possible and to remain indoors for the evening with your doors and windows shut and locked. The police are investigating and attempting to address this issue. We will find out why this is happening and will quell this violence. You have my word. Stay at home and wait for further instruction.”

Jayce yanked the data cord from his laptop and slapped the screen shut, tape ripping, leaving the screen crooked. “Why the heck are bums attacking people?” He shrieked, heart pounding in his ears, keenly aware that the warning applied directly to him and Mire.

“Don’t know,” Mire said. “Don’t panic,” Her voice was irritably calm. She slid off the table. “I’ll just call an auto-shaw.” She pulled out her vintage cell phone and pressed the app button.

“Don’t panic? We’re in Bum-Central.” Jayce crammed the computer into his backpack harder than he’d planned. He paused, looking at the sewing robot, frozen in place. It didn’t look like a machine any longer. It had a presence, leaving the corner of the old factory less empty. He did it once, got a machine to think. He’ll do it again.

Jayce ran past all the tables and racks and conveyor belts to the door. “I knew something bad was going to happen. I felt it. Why did you drag me here?”

“Don’t blame me,” Mire followed. “We’d have been just fine if crazies didn’t just start attacking people for no reason.”

“Sorry. This is just bad.”

“Look, one-hundred-fifty or so people were jumped. In a city of millions, what are the chances we get attacked? Pretty low, right?”

He paused at the door. “The attacks happened near tent-cities and abandoned buildings!” Jayce threw his hands up and pointed to the obvious then shoved through the double doors and jogged into the lobby. He stopped at the front door and opened it a crack so he could peek at the road. “You heard the mayor, Near death. People were beaten to bloody pulps!”

“I heard. It’s wack. But relax. Once the cab gets here, we sprint to it. Okay?” Mire said, pocketing her phone and zipping her bag. “We won’t give anyone time to jump us.”

Jayce gripped the handle of the front door, ready to push it open.

Mel’s face appeared in Jayce’s glasses but before he could answer the call, the connection died. “Perfect,” Jayce hissed. “We’re gonna die tonight. We can’t even call for help. No service.”

Mire checked her cell phone, held it up high. “Right, no service her either.” She took a deep breath. “Just gotta take care of ourselves.” He picked up a scrap piece of wood and handed it to Jayce. “Swing for the head.”

Jayce took the board. “What are you gonna use?”

Mire took out her bolt clippers. “Cut their damn heads off with these things.” She snapped the sharp blades shut a few times. “Don’t forget. We made history tonight,” Mire said, obviously trying to fill the stressed silence with positivity.

“I hope so. We have to reproduce it.” Jayce’s breath was hot on the door’s glass. He could barely see through the boards on the outside of the door but was fixated across the street on the shadows between the buildings and under the tattered awnings.  

The only operable streetlamp was crooked and flickering, causing shadows to jump around.

“Hold it. Damn. Do you see what I see?”

Mire pressed her face to a gap in the wood and searched the street. “Can’t see shit.”

“People. One under the awning, two in the alley.” Jayce gasped. “There’s one in the doorway of the doughnut shop. They’re all staring over here.” Jayce swallowed hard, but his throat had gone suddenly dry.

“How do they know we’re in here?” Mire practically growled.

“Don’t know, but they’re crazies. All of ‘em. I can feel it.” Jayce’s entire body shook. If his heart weren’t so loud in his ears, he’d probably hear his bones rattle.

“You don’t know that. Could be just regular-ol’-bums.”

The auto-shaw pulled up.

“Maybe if we wait right here, the crazies will move off. Find some other suckers.”

Mire tapped on her cell phone, eventually shaking her head. “I can’t connect with the auto-shaw and tell it to wait longer. That means, we only have five minutes until it leaves. We gotta go now.” Mire mumbled still staring outside. “We can make it.”

Jayce checked the cell connection one more time on his com-glasses. Still dead.

Mire shoved the door open and sprinted around the corner to the hole she’d cut in the fence, Jayce following. She pulled up the loose chain links that she had cut earlier and let Jayce slide underneath.

The auto-shaw’s entire windshield and the door swung open, sensing Mire’s and Jack’s approach.

Jayce leaned over, grabbed the handle and helped pull.

Finally, the door latched and locked.

“I’m gonna kick your face it, buddy! Back off!” Mire yelled.

The man’s red eyes widened as he pounded on the glass. He made sounds and gurgling.

Jayce gasped, taking a puff from his inhaler. “Go, go, go!” Jayce yelled at the auto-shaw.

The auto-shaw’s robotic voice chimed. “Please buckle up for your safety.”

Jayce and Mire each yanked the seatbelts over them and clicked the locks in place.

The auto-shaw drove off, its electric motor whirring softly, pushing past the two bums that had assaulted the windshield.

Mire smacked Jayce on the shoulder. “See. Told you we’d make it.”

“That was too close. It is just me or did they look like zombies? His eyes! Did you see his eyes? They were full of red veins.”

“Zombies aren’t real. Impossible. They’re just lunatics on drugs or something.” Mire shook her head. “He was thumping on the windshield, but he didn’t look angry. Maybe he wasn’t attacking us but trying to get us to help him.”

Jayce leaned back and let out a long-held breath. “Maybe. What the hell is going on anyway? Why are people losing their minds?” Jayce covered his eyes. “If it’s not zombies, what is it? I feel like things are going to crap.”

“You and your feelings. Anyone ever tell you not to believe everything you think?”

Jayce didn’t answer. He just needed to be still a moment. His whole body felt sick.

__________

The auto-shaw drove the ten blocks to Jayce’s house and pulled into his driveway.

“We can go back and try again tomorrow. Run the program fresh so we can get our proof,” Mire said.

Jayce nodded, still feeling stiff. He agreed, but only because he didn’t want to argue. Truth? He was never going back. He got out and ran to the front door as the auto-shaw drove away.

Before Jayce touched the handle, the door swung open. Mel and Kalsie towered over Jayce their expressions tight, arms crossed.

“When we say curfew is nine, we mean it,” Kalsie snapped. She took Jayce’s shoulder and tugged him inside. “Now we have a shutdown to deal with. You’re lucky you didn’t get stopped by the police and fined for breaking curfew…or attacked by one of these crazy people.”

Jayce didn’t want to tell his parents what happened. “What is going on? Why are people randomly attacking others? What’s wrong with them?” Jayce mumbled.

Mel shut the door and locked the deadbolt, clipped the security chain and engaged a thick bar across the threshold. He peeked out the peephole and scanned the front yard. “It’s a mystery. They’ll figure it out. As for you, mister. One week, no friends.”

Jayce nodded solemnly, expecting this response. His body still tingled from the adrenaline that raced through him. “I don’t wanna go out anyway.” He knew he’d have to go back to the T-shirt factory to finish the science project, but it wasn’t worth risking his life. He’d go back when it was safe to do so. Jayce headed toward the stairs, knowing his punishment started with him being confined to his room.

Kalsie grabbed Jayce’s shirt and stopped him. “Whoa there.” She pulled a piece of paper out of her back pocket. “Got this in the mail today.”

Jayce took the paper and unfolded it, glancing at the letterhead. It was from Proxima Science Academy. His heart flipped in his chest. He didn’t read it, instead looked up at his mother, tears filling his eyes.

Kalsie hugged him tight. “Oh, my bright boy.” She sniffled.

Mel wrapped his muscular arms around them both and squeezed. “I want some of this.”

Jayce knew what the letter would say. His acceptance test scores.

The hug broke apart and Kalsie led Jayce to the couch. “You know what your score is?”

Jayce shook his head, emotion tightening his throat.

“Over fifteen hundred!” Kalsie’s expression seemed to pop, bright and cheery.

Jayce closed his eyes and sat. A wide smile found his face. “I knew it,” he managed to mumble. He had felt good after the test but scoring as high as he did was shocking.

Mel and Kalsie sat on either side. Mel ruffled Jayce’s hair. “That’s extraordinary. You’re in the top point-five percent of all applicants.”

Kalsie took the paper and re-read one of the paragraphs. “Most gifted kids score between twelve hundred and fourteen hundred. Your score is exactly fifteen-hundred sixty-two.” She hugged Jayce again. “That’s amazing!”

“We know your brilliant,” Mel said. “But this is quite extraordinary. Genius level. Like Einstein, kiddo.”

Jayce felt his face flush red and hot with embarrassment.

Mel’s smile faded. “I’m glad you took the test. This proves you can do anything you want in this life. Anything,” he paused for a few breaths. “But you know we can’t afford that school, right? We already talked about this. I’m glad you took the initiative to take the test on your own but it doesn’t change anything.”

Kalsie injected. “We went to the bank last year, before you started at Detroit High. We tried to mortgage the house’s equity, tried to get a loan from the Education Department. Even asked the family for help. We couldn’t touch even one year of tuition. I would have sold my soul to get you into that school.”

Jayce nodded. “I know. I just…just wanted to apply anyway. See what I’d get. Maybe land a grant or something.”

Kalsie kissed his forehead. “I’m proud of you.”

Jayce recoiled a bit. “I’m totally too old for all this mushiness.”

“Really proud.” Mel added. “Now get to your room. Punishment for tonight begins now.”

“We didn’t have dinner tonight, but I’ll bring you a glass of water and a supplement bar.” Kelsie took a deep puff off her breather.

Jayce stood. “Me and Mire are going to win the science fair. We made awesome progress tonight. That’ll get me in the PSA with a full scholarship.” He started for the stairs again.

“I know you will,” Kalsie said, smiling, holding back lingering doubt.