This is something of an experiment. I sometimes dabble in a little fiction. But my fiction tends to be scenes rather than complete stories. Scenes pop into my head, often connected inside a common fictional world, but the complete story often eludes me. So here’s a chapter one for your perusal. Let me know what you think, and feel free to contribute any ideas in the comments.
Dusk descended on the Cupertino foothills. The onshore breeze had already begun cooling the Silicon Valley foothills, parched from too little rain and the August sun. The third day of a heat wave usually brought on a welcome onshore push from San Francisco Bay, sometimes aided by fog wafting down from the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The last remnants of rush hour along Foothill Expressway could be heard below the flat-roofed Eichler-style house. The house was an oddity in the neighborhood, the last of an old breed of northern California – homes demolished to make way for large houses on small lots – “McMansions” in local parlance. Usually built by lucky startup employees cashing in lucrative stock options, McMansions hulked over the older homes in the neighborhood, robbing it of any semblance of character. The Eichler stood at the end of a cul-de-sac, with only the forest of the local open space preserve behind the small, fenced-in yard.
Several pairs of eyes watched the house; three sets of eyes hunkered in the forest behind the house, the other pair of eyes, green and worried, watched from an old VW bus parked at the open end of the cul-de-sac. Neither knew the other was there, though the owner of the pair of eyes watching from the street sensed a wrongness from the forest side. All of the watchers were there for the girl.
The object of attention didn’t feel particularly special at that moment. Victoria Thorne didn’t so much stand as slouch sullenly, hands stuck firmly in the pockets of her skintight jeans. The expression on her face was neutral, but disdain, boredom, and a trace of anger flashed in her eyes.
Eric Thorne sighed. “Once more, Tori, where did you get a tattoo? I don’t think it’s legal for a 14-year old to get tattoos in California without parental permission. I didn’t give permission and I’m pretty sure your mom wouldn’t, either.”
Tori stood silently, not quite looking him in the eye, not quite looking away. It’s a technique developed by countless teenagers over the years to avoid answering questions from annoying parents. Thorne was in no mood to play that game, however. “Once more, how did you get a tattoo? If I don’t hear an answer, I’m locking down your web access.”
The anger was tempered by what might have been a little panic. “You can’t do that.”
He smiled his most evil fatherly smile. “Yes. Yes I can.”
She knew he could, too. Unlike a lot of parents in this modern age, Thorne knew a little about computers. Actually, he knew a lot about computers, albeit most of it self-taught. Thorne worked during the day a freelance technology consultant, while trying to do the solo father thing the rest of the time. Technology tended to be an obsession as well as work, which partly explained the “solo” part.
Finally, she cracked. “It’s not really a tattoo. It’s henna. Jodie did it.”
Jodie was one of her BFFs at school.
“Ah, I see. So it will eventually wear off.”
She tossed back her long, straight hair. “Yeah. I wish it wouldn’t.”
“Look, kiddo, I know you’re 14 going on 18. But until you’re actually eighteen, I have some say as to any permanent changes you might make on your body. Trust me, even at 18, you’ll want something much different than… that.”
She shrugged. “Can I go to my room now?”
Thorne sighed an inward sigh, but kept his face from showing exasperation. “By all means, kiddo. Dinner’s in about a half-hour.”
She brightened just a bit. “Can I bake snickerdoodles after dinner? We’re having a Halloween party in class.”
Her father grinned. “Sure, just make a few extra for your old man.”
She sprinted down the hall of the 1950s generation Eichler house to her room. Within minutes, she’d be on Facebook telling everyone to expect home baked cookies in class the next day.
As soon as she was out of sight, Thorne leaned wearily against the wall. At fourteen, his daughter had just entered the age pushing boundaries were a way of asserting independence over now-uncool parents. Part gangly girl, part developing young woman, Tori often seemed just as confused as her father, a story as old as parents and their offspring.[nextpage title=”Next page” ]Next[/nextpage]
Eric had just returned from a frustrating day, trying to extract encrypted financial data from a solid state drive. Colloquially called SSDs, these high speed replacements for old-school hard drives are built from flash memory chips, a kind of computer memory that isn’t automatically erased when you turn off your computer. They use the same type of silicon technology as those little USB flash memory keys everyone totes around these days, but faster and bigger. Extracting data after a deliberate reformat is much harder than it is with the old style, rotating platter hard drives. Computer users love the speed and lack of noise of an SSD, but they have a downside, at least if you wanted to recover lost data
A lot of people who use SSDs think that once you erase a file, it’s gone forever, unlike magnetic hard drives, which tend to retain the data from an erased file, even though the file name is no longer visible. People like Thorne could pull data from a solid state drive, though it’s not easy. Encrypted data is even tougher, since you can’t immediately know the content, unlike a text file. It was painstaking, time consuming, detailed work – and Thorne wasn’t known to be particularly patient He sighed. Like father, like daughter.
Two events jolted him out of his reverie: the microwave, which had been warming up leftovers, chimed. More startling was the loud, urgent knocking at the door. Momentarily indecisive, Thorne moved one way, then the next. The door clattered open, hinges bulging in their mounts, as warm northern California air flooded into the hall.
She was maybe five foot two, and impossibly thin, but somehow gave the impression of more substance than her size might indicate. After a moment, Eric realized what he thought was exotic eye makeup were really subtly colored tattoos creating a fine latticework of lines surrounding her eyes. Deep green eyes, oddly large for her narrow face and slightly epicanthic, drew your attention. She wore a trench coat, and odd thing to wear on a warm autumn evening. The coat was unbuttoned, and he could catch a glimpse of a leather vest and loose cotton shirt underneath. Thorne somehow managed to keep his jaw from dropping, but felt an eyebrow crawl toward his hairline. “Who…”
She held her hand up, in a gesture of command. “No time. I’m here to protect Victoria. This house is being watched by dangerous… men.”
“Now look,” he began.
She muttered under her breath, then held up a finger. “Sorry about this.”
She reached out with a slender hand and touched the man’s arm, then muttered something under her breath. Thorne could swear he saw the tattooed lattice around her eyes lit up briefly. Then he felt a momentary tingling sensation.
Suddenly, he wanted desperately to believe every word she said. He knew in his heart of hearts that what came out of her mouth was absolute, complete truth. He would follow here to the ends of the Earth, obey her every whim, even kill or die if she requested.
The lights flickered, dimmed, went out. The slender woman stepped up to me and looked directly into his eyes. Her eyes seemed almost… luminescent in the dim light. “Eric Thorne, listen. They’re coming for your daughter. They will kill you and take her. If it can’t take Victoria, they will kill her. Is there somewhere safe we can go?”
Rachel, he thought desperately. “My lab. I’ve got a tech lab. Reinforced ceiling, windows replaced by walls, double walls, large UPS. Really a room inside a room.”
“Move, then, now.”
A bright beam moved down the hallway towards us – Rachel, holding a bright LED tactical flashlight. “What’s going on, Dad.”
“My office. Now. Then we’ll figure it out.”
Tori thought her dad’s voice sounded oddly monotone. Then she noticed the small woman, smaller than Tori, move quickly down the hall. “Hey, who…”
Eric grabbed Tori’s arm gently, tugged her towards the office. “Talk later, move now.”
Thorne’s office was as much a computer lab as office, a place he’d hunker down for long work assignments. One of the joys of being a consultant was working at home, and configuring his workspace how he wanted. The Panic Room, as he liked to call it, existed before he’d bought the house. The former owner had been a home theater nut, and had essentially built a room inside a room, with separate HVAC and soundproof insulation. Double, an uninterruptible power supply and a reinforced, almost completely soundproofed door rounded out the mix. The whole idea had been about keeping light and sound out of the room, but it also proved to be a very solid, quiet place to work.
The three of them moved down the hall towards the Panic Room, which suddenly seemed aptly named. A huge crash reverberated through the house. Thorne glanced back to see a rain of class shards cascade into the atrium of the Eichler. Something big – really big – fell into the room and landed impossibly lightly on birdlike legs. He felt his chest tighten, along with a sudden adrenaline rush. The world began moving in slower motion.
Then, two more figures dropped in, more human sized, but moving with inhuman grace. Tori doused the flashlight, giving us a precious moment of inaction on the part of whoever – whatever – stalked them.
Thorne cranked the door handle and shouldered the door open, pulling Tori into the room, the mystery woman on her heels. A huge sound, like a lion’s roar amplified a thousandfold blasted down the hallway. If his hair hadn’t already been standing on end, it was now. Dim light mounted in sconces along the wall cast shadows in the former home, a remnant from former home theater glory. A 10kv UPS humming in the closet provided power for the lights.
Both mystery woman and Rachel’s father leaned on the door and Thorne shoved the deadbolt over. “Will this door hold against that… thing?” he gasped at tattoo girl.
“Elfbane,” she said. “It’s called Elfbane. Started out as a mortal, then magicked to something evil and impossibly strong. Its lifespan is short, and is given a single task which it must complete against all opposition. Its mission is to take Rachel, or kill her if it cannot take her.”
She stared at me with luminescent eyes. “The door will only hold a short time. We must prepare. Do you have weapons?”
He looked at her helplessly. “Not outside of my gaming. I don’t own guns or anything like that.”
She shook her head. “Guns wouldn’t work, unless equipped with iron bullets – steel jacketed bullets can work, too, since they have iron.”
She shrugged her shoulders, and the trenchcoat dropped to the floor. She reached over her left shoulder with her right hand and tugged, and a slender, almost saber-like sword, but shorter, appeared in her right hand. A moment later, an evil looking dagger was in her left. “Behind me, both of you.”
The man glanced helplessly around the room and staggered as an enormous blow slammed into the insulated door, which bulged inward slightly. Another look around, and he saw it: the ash walking staff leaning against a corner, a gift given years ago, when he was an avid hiker. Not really a weapon, but the tip was steel and it was all he had.
Another massive blow, and the door now had multiple visible dents. It wouldn’t be long. Thorne hopped over a mesh office chair between hammering blows on the door and pulled the staff from its corner. Its weight felt comforting, but some primeval version of him in the back of his mind screamed that this feeling was only an adrenaline-fed illusion.
Thorne scanned the room for his daughter. Rachel had pulled open the door to the UPS closet and huddled back against the tall power supply, with its glowing LEDs. Something – not fear – was in her eyes, something almost predatory, a look he’d never seen in my daughter. He opened my mouth to say something, but then the door blasted across the room.
It so happened that Eric Thorne found himself standing in almost the wrong place. Almost, because the door clipped him as it tumbled through the air, slamming into the opposite wall and tearing large chunks out of the masonry. Had he been in its direct path, Thorne would have been pulped into a thin red smear. As it was, one edge caught his chest mid-tumble and spun him around and over a lab bench, which fell over on top of his body. The edge clipped his forehead, stunning him, causing his vision to swim.
He staggered to my feet, shaking his head to try to clear it, ash staff in hand. Two huge hands gripped the left and right doorjambs and began pulling them apart to make a larger opening. A pair of smaller figures darted in, heading straight towards Rachel. Thorne lunged forward, the desperate act of a father, to try to get between them and his daughter.
Later, when thinking about what happened, he was positive if he hadn’t tripped in his rush, he would be dead. Thorne stumbled over a section of the blasted door, fell forward. He heard a thrumming sound and felt a sudden rush of air over my head. Falling had another unintended effect. The staff clattered out of Thorne’s hands and right between the legs of the leading assailant. His legs tangled with the rod, tripping him up. His accomplice slammed into him.
The woman leapt over Thorne, the sword stabbing down, skewering the fallen lead attacker through the center of his neck. He went limp, all control of his muscles gone, dark liquid spurting from the puncture. Dead. The dagger slashed upwards, through the throat of the second assailant, a horrible sucking sound coming from his now open throat, more dark liquid spraying into the air. Then he fell into a formless heap on top of the still-living Thorne.
When Thorne tried to remember what he saw next, he still wondered if it was a hallucination from the incipient concussion or real. He lay there, semi-conscious and helpless as the massive creature stepped through the door. At first, it didn’t fit, but the door jambs bulged outward as it force its way though. It looked like something from a comic book – the Hulk or maybe the Thing. Well, it also had curling horns on its head and looked bright blue in the dim light, not green or orange. The legs, though, the legs were reversed, like the hind legs of a dog or a stag, but massive tree-trunk sized.
Tattooed girl leapt across the room, crying a shrilling, ululating scream as her arms swung impossibly fast. The dagger dug deep into the side of the Elfbane, the sword striking true at the neck. Any normal human would have been decapitated by the force of the strike, but the sword embedded in the side of the neck. She yanked desperately at it. As it started to slide free, a massive forearm caught her square in the midriff. She flew across the room, slamming sickeningly into the wall and sagged down to the ground.
Thorne tried to move, but his legs, trapped by the two dead assassins, refused to move. His arms seemed to be taking a vacation somewhere other than here and now. The Elfbane scanned the room and spotted Rachel and roared again.
Rachel wasn’t sitting and waiting for the monster to take her. She pulled desperately at the cover of the UPS, and somehow succeeded in peeling off the steel cover. The creature clomped forward, one step, two.
And this is where it gets a little hazy in Eric’s memory. Rachel seemed to suddenly shove her arm into the power supply. Blue energy crackled around her, as if she were a human Tesla coil. As the elfbane came closer, Rachel leaned forward and shoved her free arm into the side of the beast, where the dagger had made its cut. She screamed something inarticulate and a thunderous noise, like lightning striking a nearby transformer, blasted from the creature.
The Elfbane stopped, shuddered for a brief moment, then froze into place. And moved no longer, utterly still, like a statue.
Then everything went dark.