This update is going to be short and sweet! I’ve only got a couple hours before I hit the road for Y-Con this weekend! All my stuff is ready to go, and all that’s left is to pack up the car and hit the road. I’m very excited for Y-Con. I’m doing a talk on imagination and creativity, and hosting an open-mic for genre fiction as well. Here’s hoping both go off without a hitch and are a good time for everyone.

I’ve finally managed to have all the stuff I’d intended to add to my lineup at the beginning of the year. In addition to books, story cards, and snippets, I now have stickers, bookmarks, prints, and mystery envelopes! It’s a solid variety of inventory. Now that creating it is behind me, I can focus solely on writing. I don’t have any major shows between now and Hal-Con in November, but I’ll be at my regular markets and the odd day-long event here or there.

Capercon, over in Sydney, was a rousing success! I had a ton of fun meeting new people and new vendors too. If I learned one thing, it’s that Cape Bretton loves horror! I sold almost two dozen horror books and wrote several horror themed snippets. I felt right at home!

Speaking of horror, I’m working on a new Story Card! This time, instead of Jill doing a sketch I photoshop, I’m working with Urban Mantra Art! MJ’s already finished the image, I’ve got an outline, and I should have “The Rime of the Red Tide” on my table for sale by July! If you want to get a taste of the art style, and see some other creepy images, you can find Urban Mantra at https://www.instagram.com/urbanmantraart/

The launch of The Mud Fisher’s Catch has gone well! Interest seems high. I’ve sold dozens of them so far. It’s gotten great reviews. The hardcover I ordered still hasn’t shown up. So, haven’t confirmed quality. I think I’ll need to cancel and reorder. Annoying, as I’m excited to see how they look and I’ve got people waiting for them specifically. Hopefully, it’s sorted by the next Slogging update.

I’m 80% done with chapter 11 of Patchworld Nova. With any luck, the draft of the book will be 100% finished in the next two weeks. There’s a bunch of things in the serial release chapters that I already know need alteration and changing. Nothing too major, but a little tweak here and there, to even out a theme and substantiate the ending. Normal editing stuff. Once the draft is done, I’m diving straight into Shunt, my horror novel. The goal is to have both books written, edited, formatted, and copies ordered October 1st. This way I’ll have three novels for Hal-Con; one fantasy, one sci-fi, and one horror. Covering all my bases. The writing goal is ambitious, but I’ve done more before and my outline is solid and detailed. Shouldn’t be a problem.

Okay, so that’s it for me. I gotta go toss books into the van and hit the road! By end of day I’ll be sending weird stories home to spread the strangeness!

Again, this is a “working draft”. It’s gone through a couple rounds of editing, but don’t expect this to be the final version. I have swatted most of the typos, and any that remain are simply a mark of my humanity. Also, if you’d prefer to read a .pdf version of this, you can find one, free for download in the Chapter 5 post on my Patreon at: https://www.patreon.com/judemire  My patrons also get the next chapter early, so if you don’t want to wait, sign up to any tier and get Chapter 6: The Scorekeeper, now!

I hope you enjoy Chapter 5: The Gauntlet!

Troop opened his eyes to a bio-luminescent dream.

“Easy. Take your time. We don’t know if you’ve got a concussion or not,” said Callie. She had her helmet off and so did he. The air was cold and damp, with a thick muddy smell. He could feel a bandage tight on his head. Everything hurt.

He reached up and wiped his face, clearing his vision. It was dark. Darker than most nights, like the belly of a cave. A place no sunlight was meant to reach. They were all washed in the cool glow of their lantern bulbs and the chemical torch rods the Ancervin had brought. Behind Callie’s concerned face, he saw the branches of trees extending up into the darkness. They looked like weeping willows, but with the gravity on them reversed. Instead of hanging, the boughs all extended up into the sky. They were dotted with dim lights that ran along their lengths and grew brighter at the tips. These glowing specks were different colors, but were all adjacent to blue on the spectrum; emerald, sapphire, and amethyst hues. They swayed slowly. It looked like a black-light poster.

“What happened?” he asked.

“You got lucky, is what. The wind rolled you a good way before one of your pack straps got snagged on a rock. Enler and the others got us all through, and then all of them went back for you. I still can’t believe they found anything in that soup,” she said.

Hearing their conversation, Enler came over.

“Glad safe. Hate for you die on first visit to my home,” he signed.

Troop chuckled and tried to sit up, so he could answer, but there was a sharp pain in his side. He winced.

“You probably cracked a few ribs,” said Callie.

“You don’t say.”

He slumped back down. “Where are we?”

“Koveekoratha or… Choveekorethe or something. I can’t pronounce it. Jarheads are calling it Veek. It’s dark, but the air here is breathable. Isn’t trying to kill us,” she said.

“Help me up.” He raised his arms and Enler understood his meaning. Between the pair, they got him on his feet and moved him over to the trunk of one of the trees. He leaned on it while he looked over the camp. The group appeared to be doing well. Troop couldn’t tell who had initiated it, but everyone seemed to be sticking to the pairings they’d used to cross the storm. Either the humans were staying close to the Ancervin who’d protected them, or the Ancervin had taken their charges on as a responsibility. Troop didn’t care either way. As long as everyone got along.

“Have we figured out Coreward yet?” he asked.

Callie nodded. “First thing I did.” She held out her arm and indicated a direction. “That way. Not that any of it looks any different. As far as I can tell, this chunk of world came from the backside of a tidally locked planet. Like the Vapora Zone is, but facing the wrong direction. Don’t expect sunrise any time soon.”

Troop looked up at the dark expanse. There were no stars, only the beads of light along the tree tendrils. But when he squinted hard and shifted his focus, he could make out a few vague pinpoints of the sky behind the sky.  “Fantastic. When do we move out?”

Sargent Bayfield was close enough to hear them and had been listening. He raised his voice from where he was and answered.  “We don’t know what to expect out here, or how long it’ll take to cross to the next patch. Everybody’s pretty beat from that slog through the Ancervin world. I want us fresh, so we’re camping here and will head out in about eight hours. I assume you’ll be fine by then?”

Troop nodded. “I’m tender, but okay. I’ll be good to go.”

Bayfield nodded. “Glad to hear it.”

Troop knew he was more than a little tender, but wasn’t about to give anyone an excuse to send him back. Sleep would help. It had to. He had no choice. Now that he was finally out, there was no way he was going back into his cage.
___________________________________________

By their third day, the darkness of Veek seemed endless.

Crossing the patch was taking more effort than they’d expected. The terrain was hilly and the ground covered by a lattice of fine rootwork from the trees. It seemed they didn’t actually drive their tendrils into any soil, and spread them out in a spongy tangle instead. High steps were required and it was easy to get snagged by the coils. When they found a wide-banked river heading in roughly the direction they needed to go, everyone was relieved.

As they’d traveled, they caught glimpses of creatures at the edges of the light. Slug-like things, from what they could tell, about the size of ponies. Their skin was milky yellow with lumpy streaks of olive green. They were quick though, and slithered out of their flashlight beams. Sargent Bayfield managed to keep one illuminated for a few seconds. It had a bulbous head growing up from it’s back, like a camel hump. The face had two flat black eyes, the size of dinner plates, and a limp proboscis between them. There were a pair of tiny hands sprouting from it’s neck.

They seemed curious, not aggressive. The reclusive things didn’t respond to calls from either the humans or the Ancervin. None of the soldiers put away their guns.

Troop found himself yearning for the sun. Any sun. He kept blinking and rubbing his eyes, expecting the light of day to arrive, but it never did. The pale glow of the lanterns wasn’t enough. The glow from the plants wasn’t enough. The trees gave off only enough light to reveal a bit of themselves, but nothing more.  Everything was reduced to a tiny ring of shadows, surrounded by a black backdrop, undulating with tiny points of color. The darkness was a shroud, growing heavier day by day. Nobody had any idea how big this patch was, only that it had good air and was on the way to the Spire in the center. For all they knew, it was oblong and they were crossing it lengthwise. They could be in it for weeks, or they could see another barrier any time. There was no way of knowing.

When they did see a bright glow, shining off to the left across the river, they all agreed to head for it.

They found a place to ford, waded through the inky liquid, and approached the strange light. It was on top of a hill, and the trees around it thinned out as they climbed.  As they got closer, they were able to make out that it was a single source, like a huge lamp. It was coming a different species of tree, bigger than the others. Instead of spreading it’s bio-glow among it’s branches, it had concentrated it all into one shining yellow fruit nestled at the top of its trunk. The long willow-like branches spread around it, rising up into the sky, like the others trees, but these ones didn’t have colored spots.

The illumination was enough to light up the entire hilltop to a near daylight level. Troop couldn’t help but feel a bit of relief. At his side, he heard Callie talking to herself.

“Finally.”

Even Enler stretched and gave his antlers a wiggle.

The branches didn’t make any noise as they reached down, stretched out, and wrapped around one of the soldiers. He screamed as it plucked him from the ground, snapping everyone out of their reverie. The trunk split open vertically, revealing ridges of grinding nubs. Moments later, the branches had one of Ancervin as well. The tree swung the pair toward the yawning maw.

Sargent Bayfield opened fire and his troops didn’t need orders to follow suit. As a unit, they dropped to their knees, raised rifles, and peppered the trunk with rounds. The Ancervin attacked as well, with their odd forearm guns. The weapons launched clusters of high speed discs, but they were designed to function in intense wind. They’d all trained in gale conditions and were skilled at compensating for it. In such a still place, they were having difficulty landing shots, and the projectiles didn’t hit with the same force.

If the bullets the humans were firing were having any effect, there was no way of telling. The tree lashed out, grabbing another pair of victims. Troop and Callie backed away, tumbling down the hill in a frantic rush. Enler followed. The first man was almost to the opening when one of the stray Ancervin shots went high and accidentally hit the glowing fruit. When it did, the light flickered and the entire tree shuddered. The roots covering the terrain they were standing on, constricted and tossed everyone to the ground.

When all the soldiers, from both species, righted themselves, they knew where to fire. The light flashed like a dance club strobe as projectiles sank into the fruit. There was a creaking groan and crash as it exploded. Everything went dark and the tentacle-like branches fell limp, dropping the captives to the ground.

The guy who’d been lifted first landed right next to the trunk. He uncoiled himself from the tendrils. He drew back a foot, as if he were going to kick the dying tree as it gurgled, but reconsidered. He picked up his dropped rifle and moved away from it instead. “God, this place sucks.”

Troop didn’t disagree. As the trio re-joined the others on the hilltop, he noticed something in the distance; the unmistakable glow of an orange force-field, off near the horizon. The light had been hidden behind the shine from the carnivorous plant.

He pointed at it. “Let’s all get out of here, yeah?”

Eager for daylight, they crossed the remaining dark with haste.

____________________________________________

The next patch was a welcome respite. The air was no good, so everybody was back in suit helmets, but it was bright and open and, as far as they could tell, uninhabited. There were three tiny suns, locked in a tight cannibalistic orbit. The largest one was green and the sub-suns were blue and yellow. Tendrils of color bound all three of them together as their gravity caused them all to suck mercilessly on each other.

Troop wondered how long that had been going on, or how long it would last. But, then he squinted, looking hard, to see the stars behind the false sky. Like all the others, this was just another false sky. They weren’t real suns. They were a snapshot of whenever this fragment had been stolen. Who knew when that might have been? For all Troop knew, there was only one sun over their home planet now.

The thought made him angry. He never liked thinking of himself as a captive, and the idea that this whole place was filled with a galaxy’s worth of prisoners, was frustrating. Who the hell thought they had the right to do that? When they got to that Spire, he would get his answers, one way or another.

They had an undemanding time crossing the plateaus of pink and ivory. They were low enough, easy to climb, and without the impediment of tall geography, it wasn’t difficult to spot a pair of barriers in the distance. They saw them on the second day; one lavender, the other lime. The lime looked closer, so they picked that one to conserve on their air supply. The tanks and scrubbers were doing pretty well in this environment, and only operating at about a third of what they could. They had a week of air, or more, but there was no reason to linger.

Troop was glad for the decision they made, because the walk was longer than it looked. It took them almost three days to reach the lime barrier. If it had been any further, they’d have had a problem. He didn’t want to think about what would have happened if the next patch hadn’t had anything to extract air from. If they’d been forced to turn around and backtrack to the lavender barrier. 

Or worse, back to the darkness they’d just escaped.

They were lucky though, and the next world was a tiny, perfect little landscape. Very little.

Troop stepped in to find himself looking down on a miniature world. Beneath his feet was a fuzz of forest. When he reached his hand up, he could brush the clouds with his fingertips. Off to his left, there was a mountain range that looked to be about the height of his shoulder with a pool-sized sea nestled at its feet. Tiny lines, presumably roads, cut paths along the ground. There were several spots, the size of manhole covers, that were covered with little geometric shapes he assumed were buildings.

Everyone stopped just inside the barrier and did their best not to move their feet.

“This is going to be a problem,” said Callie.

Troop agreed. “We can’t just march across this place. We’d kill thousands of them. Maybe millions.”

The Ancervin, more suited to perching on rocks, with their triangular toes, stood like flamingos, on one leg. Enler signed his agreement. “Less along wall, maybe. Not cross. Sidle.”

Troop translated his suggestion and Bayfield agreed. “It’ll add some time, but I don’t see any alternative either. We’re not out here to hurt people, not if we can help it. Only one question; left or right?”

Any route with terrain less likely to have homes was the better option. The mountain range and ocean were to the left.

“That way,” said Troop. “Everybody, watch where you step. Try to follow in each other’s footsteps, if we can. Pretend it’s snow.”

Tiptoeing along, they set off.

As they’d made their decision, the tiny sun crossed the sky and was already dropping behind the mountains. The new night was helpful, and they could see tiny lights on the ground where the small towns and homes were. They avoided them as best they could.

But five minutes later, the sun rose from behind them. Once it was up, their progress was slowed, as the front soldier couldn’t see as well. He squinted, scanning the ground before every step. It was frustrating, but several minutes later, Troop saw the sun was already at its zenith and was dropping. Not long after, it disappeared behind the mountains again, plunging them back into night.

He heard a couple of the soldiers mutter.

Behind him, Callie spoke. “Ten to one. Just about. Give me a while and I can get us a precise ratio.” Troop understood her meaning.

After a week, of sunsets, a little over forty minutes later, she confirmed her math. “Yeah, it’s not exactly the same every time, but it’s averaging 7.3 an hour. That means they’re getting just about half a year per one of our 24 hour days.”

Troop nodded. “So, if this patch takes us as long as the others, we’re going to be here for a few years.”

Callie chuckles. “Yeah, kinda. Relatively.”

It was a strange thought. Troop wondered how he’d feel about it, if he were on the other end of the equation. Some impossibly tall creatures, tiptoeing in slow motion, across the edge of the province, month after month. It actually made him feel better. The tiny inhabitants would have plenty of time to evacuate ahead of them. He called out to the front.

“Point to where you’re going! Before you step, point to the spot.” The man looked back, a confused expression on his face. Troop explained.

“If their lifespan matches their planetary cycle, they’re moving a lot faster than us. They’ll get out of the way.”

The guy looked dubious, but he did it. They proceeded at the slow pace for several hours. At one point, they had to climb over a large section of mountains and, while the Ancervin felt right at home, it bogged the humans down. The team took a break in an ocean, sitting down to rest in the shallow water. When they resumed, the soldier who’d been leading them let out a surprised yelp.

“Willya look a that?” he exclaimed.

Troop peered ahead, surprised at what he saw. There, in the ground ahead of them, was a trail of illuminated circles, like ghost footprints.

“Holy crap,” he muttered.

Callie let out a laugh. “Well, they’ve had a couple months to prepare for us now. It seems they’re showing us where it’s safe to walk.”

Just like when he’d first passed through the force-field, Troop found himself grinning.

It took a little over four days, just over two years, to cross the micro-world. In that time the tiny inhabitants set out patterns of light in the forms of geometric base concepts, to try and establish communication. Callie, in particular, was fascinated by their attempts, and she spent most of the trip with a pen and sketchbook in hand. She drew out responses, her own ideas on how to talk, and showed them to the ground as she walked. When they finally found another forcefield with promising air on the other side, she was sad to see them go.

The next world had a liquid sky.

Troop didn’t even want to think about how their captors were pulling that one off. The ground below the watery heavens was like a sandy beach, dotted with infrequent conical mountains. Some of these reached up far enough to touch the ocean above, and where they did, waterfalls flowed down to produce lakes and rivers. There were palm trees and tropical birds. Some odd combinations of crabs and lizards scurried around, doing crab-lizard things.

It was maddening, pondering how everything could be so upside-down, but it wasn’t dangerous. They saw figures, swimming in the sky above, but they didn’t come down or bother with them.

Two days later and they found themselves in a toxic hellscape.

The air had looked fine, at first, but they hadn’t accounted on the weather. Technically, there wasn’t anything wrong with the air, only the rain. An unrelenting toxic deluge that ate away at their suits and produced deadly vaporous off-gassing as it fell, they couldn’t rely on their filters at all.

They were stuck depending fully on their air tanks. They ran, as best they could, through the steaming, dripping mess. When the tanks got low, they setup a tent, and were able to keep the outside at bay while they recharged. But, before they finished, the acid ate holes in their protection and they only managed a short reprieve.

They went though six of their twelve tents that way, before being driven into a cave. After that, Sargent Bayfield sent soldiers out, in pairs, looking for a way out of the horrible patch. When two of them didn’t come back, he agreed, at Enler’s insistence, that he send future pairs comprised with one of each species.

After two days of this, huddled in the wet cave, the scouts returned with good news.

They all had to run through the green fog and hissing rain, and their suits melted small holes as they did, but they made it to the other side.

The next world found them on a sweltering hot plane of endless metal, and, at first, they were all relieved. It seemed better than the last.

Bayfield wanted to put down markers, some sort of tombstones, for the two lost soldiers. But it didn’t take long for him to scrap that idea. There was nothing to use as a marker. The ground was featureless in all directions, much like the Paperflat Zone. Only, instead of being dusty earth, it was a hot skillet. Within minutes of arriving, they all began to smell the plastic in their boots melting. The sun above took up almost half the sky. It was so big they could see currents and whirlpools of fire on its rusty orange surface.

Again, they ran.

The Ancervin had a harder time of it than the humans. Their feet weren’t designed for flat, open ground. While their feet were thick, and had a tough carapace, their shoes weren’t very durable. They’d never really needed them to be. Now, slowed down, they burned as they ran.

Everyone wrapped their shoes in whatever they could. Spare clothes was sacrificed, singing and crumbling to ash, as they raced to find another barrier. Everyone was dry as the sweat evaporated almost as quickly as it was formed. They gave up on their rationing routine and drank as much as they could. It was less to carry.

They left a trail of discarded gear, empty containers, and burnt footwear.

They never saw the inhabitants.

When they finally made it into the next patch, they found themselves inside of a building. They’d cut through into some sort of structure that looked very much like an Earth mall. It was clean, well air-conditioned, and abandoned. There were stores, but they looked like they’d been cleared out. Odd cluster-bodied mannequins, without clothing, stood in windows. The counters in the food court were low and the chairs were taller. All the openings were skewed, with no perfect rectangles or squares. Everything was imperfect angles, slightly off.

Sargent Bayfield didn’t give it much consideration. They found a unit that had a trapezoid-shaped sink with a working water source, and he commanded the remaining soldiers to barricade the entrance.

Here, in the seventh world, they rested.

Wounds were bandaged. They inventoried supplies. Callie did a calculation on their distance. It didn’t look great.

“Near as I can tell, we’re 6% closer to the Spire than we were the day we set out,” she said.

Troop’s heart sank. 6%? That meant they were only one twentieth of the way there. He looked at the tired, disheartened team, rife with injuries and lost gear. They’d been at it for over two weeks. At this rate, they still had months and months ahead of them. Would the province even last that long? For all they knew, the Outbreak, or Escapees, or whatever they were calling it, had already broken through.

“We’ve got to find a faster way to cross these patches,” he said. “Maybe we can find some help, explain ourselves. Some of them have to have better transportation than walking.”

Callie rolled her eyes. “Okay, Troop, we’ll keep an eye out. I’m sure the mini-people would have lent us a bus.”

He didn’t need her sarcasm, but he saw the point. They were tired. His suggestion was as obvious as it was impossible. The only real course they had was to carry on.

They took three days to rest and heal, pack and repair, before they even ventured out of their mall. When they did, they were surprised by what they found.

They were surrounded by an urban environment and, all around them, robots were dismantling and reassembling buildings. They didn’t appear to be fighting or competing in this task. As far as they could tell, they were taking things apart so that they could gather the materials to build somewhere else. But the very act of doing so, left vacant lots without a buildings. Other machines would swoop in to fill the spaces.

The whole thing reminded Troop someone attempting to sleep beneath a blanket that was too tiny. Wherever they pulled to cover themselves, some other bit became exposed.

Crossing was mercifully easy. All they had to do was make sure they weren’t underfoot, and there were plenty of areas where construction wasn’t happening.

The first barrier they came to had a terrible environment, and nobody was ready for that again. They could see another one, not far off, so they decided to check it. Unfortunately, it opened up onto an ocean. Troop and Callie were ready to suggest they keep looking, even though it took them further off course, but Sargent Bayfield had other ideas.

“Plenty of building materials here. Good ones. We can make a boat. You can use that Knife to make the opening bigger, right?”

Troop could, and he liked the idea of not walking. A day later, they were cruising along on a wide raft with billowing tarp sails. The Ancervin didn’t have large bodies of water on their world. With their high winds, sailing wasn’t anything their people had ever done. They could swim, but only when forced. It wasn’t an enjoyable experience for them, like it was for humans. They found the whole plan strange and didn’t trust it. They spent the trip huddling around the mast. The Nova Scotians seemed to go out of their way to illustrate their connection to the water. Diving in to check on the rudder, tighten straps, and just to show off.

At night, their synthetic sky had more stars than Troop had ever seen. It was like fairy dust and was as bright as daylight.

After that, the worlds began to blur.

They navigated a maze of ice, guided by a group of sonic entities.

They survived an awful tree-quake in a lush jungle world.

They made friends with the Rovisco, an advanced race that resembled small upright gerbils on steroids. Three of these tiny muscular warriors joined them, coming along in robotic suits. The scaled-down mechs they drove looked like something Troop had seen in anime cartoons, reduced to the size of a child. They brought a crew of a half dozen mechanics with them, to keep the machines running.

One of the Ancervin was killed in a world where everything was covered with hair. They never did see what was beneath the furry ball that consumed him, but managed to drive it away before it ate anyone else.

Private Lee fell onto an anti-gravity platform and flew into the sky. Troop still wondered if she’d been launched into space, or if she’d collided with whatever the false sky was projected onto. Either case, she didn’t return.

They’d been hunted mercilessly by man-sized earwigs in what looked like Victorian England. The mustached insects had been armed with dart shooter umbrellas and saber walking sticks. They’d only made it out when one of their new Rovisco allies overloaded their mech and sacrificed themselves for the chance to escape.

Both Troop and Callie learned how to use rifles.

They were all veterans, battle tested explorers who’d started to consider themselves experienced, when they cut their way into the home-world of the Myo-rak Empire, the Realms of Eternal War, and the Unending Struggle.

For all their confidence, their weapons might have been toys. They were easily captured by the brutish armadillo-like warriors.

They were stripped, shackled, and dragged in chains across the battlefield wasteland.

Chapter 6: The Scorekeeper arrives on May 31st for free release!

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