Yesterday's short story went over so well, I thought I'd give this another go!
First, I want to thank everyone who sent emails and comments and various "likes" to tell me how much they loved Zero. You have no idea how much it means to me to get that kind of feedback and support—usually I spend months writing, publishing, and marketing a book before I get any feedback on it. Having someone tell me they liked what I wrote the day I wrote it—that's like Christmas!
Today's short story is a scene. It came to me almost complete. I wanted to write something with a strong female protagonist, but I didn't want her to be the cliche "man in a dress" that sometimes pops up in fiction. I wanted to create someone who was part of a larger mythos, and I think I pulled that off.
For those who have read my Sawyer Jackson books, you may note some similarities between this universe and that one. That's intentional. Mac isn't a Teth, and no one in this is manipulating the knotwork per se—but there's definitely a connection. And before anyone asks—no, this isn't part of a book. Yet. Maybe one day I'll mine it for an expanded story. Anything is possible! But for now, this is a complete scene with hints at a larger universe, and the characters were the point.
If you like this, you may want to check out Sawyer Jackson and my other books. Cruise over to the Books page to see the full library. You can also get Sawyer Jackson and the Long Land, and two other books besides, for FREE when you join my mailing list.
I hope you enjoy "Lost Causes." Feel free to let me know via email, in the comments, or on social media!
by Kevin Tumlinson
Too many potentials.
She'd been here before. This was the point at which the path split, and any choice she made would create a concrete universe where she'd have to start fresh again, start chasing leads again. Usually the path was pretty clear—there would only be one or two side branches to follow. Times like these, though, were the toughest. Billions of paths cloistered in a nexus, stretching out in every conceivable direction, and any one of them could be either the true path or a false trail.
She'd taken a lot of false trails.
"Mac?" she heard a familiar voice say. She turned and saw Jude standing and watching her. He was holding the scanner—the mechanical doo-dad he'd built that let him more or less see what she saw naturally. He could follow her, with that scanner. She wasn't sure how she felt about that. But Jude was a good guy, and he had helped out a few times. She let him follow. For now.
"I don't know which way to go. Does that thing tell you which is the true path?"
Jude shook his head. "I can see we're at a major point of divergence. That usually means something big is going to happen here, right? Something that affects the lives of a lot of people at once?"
Mac shook her head. She didn't think about the divergences. That wasn't her mission. She was after Rue, and Rue used these divergent points to keep ahead of her. They were a nuisance. They were mud she had to wade through.
"Mac, we have to do something if people are going to get hurt."
She looked back at Jude and fought the urge to run ahead of him, to just choose a path and take her chances. Their alliance was pretty new. They'd only been following the true path for the past few months. She could do without him, if she wanted.
But she didn't want it.
Somehow, despite her best efforts, she'd grown kind of fond of Jude. He was smart. And he was dorky. And he was kind. And he was slowing her down.
And she still couldn't leave him behind.
"What do you want me to do?" Mac asked.
"Help them," Jude said.
"Because it's that simple," Mac replied, not bothering to cover her sarcasm.
"Because it's easier for you than for anyone else," Jude said.
And he had her with that. Because it was true. Because it was what she'd originally been trained for. Because before Rue, it had been her real mission.
She rolled her eyes, looked one more time at the nexus of paths diverging in every direction, and sighed. "She keeps getting further away, every time I do this."
"She's running because she knows you can catch her, Mac," Jude said. "You'll catch her."
Jude had his own reasons for wanting to catch up to Rue. She'd taken something very precious from him. And as kind and forgiving as Jude was, Rue had stepped over a line that even he couldn't ignore. And, because he was brilliant, he was able to follow her, even though she laughed at him as she made her escape. Rue thought she was invulnerable. She thought she was safe from Jude—safe from everyone except Mac. Rue was wrong. Jude might actually manage to succeed where Mac had struggled and failed for so long now.
Maybe. He was still pretty green. He still lacked the steel in his spine that Mac thought he needed. But he was determined, and smart, and brave.
Mac would never tell him any of this, of course.
Mac turned from the nexus with her shoulders slumped and a pout on her face. "What do I need to do to save the world this time?"
Jude smiled, and waved his scanner around, taking in all the probabilities. "Ok, it looks like there's going to be some kind of convergence here—several lines coming together that probably shouldn't overlap. Maybe an attack?"
Mac reached to her belt and pulled her battle stave from the magnetic grip that held it in place.
"You think that will be necessary?" Jude asked.
"Has it ever not been necessary?" Mac asked.
"Point taken. So what should we do? Just wait?"
Mac was about to respond to that when the wait was suddenly over.
There was a roar of noise followed by a billowing cloud of debris as something big exploded nearby. People started screaming, and Mac leapt to cover Jude and protect the two of them from flying chunks of rebar and concrete. She raised the battle stave and gave it a flick, creating a small, dome-like shield that just barely gave them cover. It would be enough to protect them from a direct missile strike—but not necessarily all the fiery and explosive bits that came with a missile strike. For the moment, though, it was doing an admirable job of keeping Mac and Jude from being skewered by flying rebar.
"That way!" Jude shouted, pointing toward the epicenter of the explosion.
"Seriously? You know I'm standing here too, right? I know which way the explosion was."
Jude made a face and shrugged, and then followed quickly as Mac sprinted toward all the chaos.
And chaos was putting it mildly.
As they arrived on the scene, dozens of people were staggering away, looking for a safe spot to collapse and wait for help to arrive. Some were injured badly. Most seemed to be covered in a black soot that was also spread over everything else in sight.
"That ash seems almost volcanic," Jude said. He was peering again at the scanner, which gave him a chemical analysis. "Traces of basalt, tephrite, and foidite. Lots of alkali. It's ..."
"Later," Mac said, gritting her teeth. "It's not a volcano."
"Well, obviously. I mean, the tectonics in this region ..."
"It's one of Rue's Edits."
Jude looked up from his scanner and saw what Mac was pointing at. An Edit—in this case a creature about eight foot tall that looked like a walking pillar of molten lava—stepped out of the ruins of what used to be a small coffee shop. This was the epicenter of the explosion.
Mac saw Jude scan the creature. As with all Edits, it was a twisted mass of potentials—the timelines of several people, animals, and objects all bound in a mass and reshaped in an unlikely scenario. It was an atrocity—the kind of thing that Mac and Rue had both been trained to fight and, if possible, undo. Jude had seen one of these first hand, in the most tragic way imaginable. It was part of the reason Mac had let him tag along. He deserved his revenge, too.
"What do we do?" Jude asked.
"You stay here," Mac said, and she flicked the battle stave again, this time letting it extend a bit, to about the length of her arm. She whirled it above her head as she ran toward the Edit, and the Edit noticed.
There was a roar, like cars being crushed in a junkyard as Death Metal played on all the stereos. It made Mac want to vomit, which was exactly what it was intended to do. That roar was the scream of hundreds of potentials, all mourning their fate.
Mac ignored it, just as she'd been trained to do. She leapt, raising the battle stave above her head, and then brining it down solid into the head of the Edit.
The Edit split from the impact, but instead of falling to the ground it turned its eyes toward her—one on each "stalk" of its former molten head. And as she watched, both sides formed full heads, and the Edit continued to split until now there were two Edits standing in front of her.
"Right," Mac said.
"Stay back!" she cried, and during that brief distraction one of the Edits took a swing at her.
She barely managed to flick the battle stave and make a shield before the molten paw made contact, sending her flying and flailing into the windshield of a car parked across the street. A car alarm blared, and Mac laid there for an instant wondering if she should bother getting up.
"Mac!" Jude cried again, and she could see that he was running toward her.
Idiot. Now she had to get up, because as Jude ran her way, the two Edits were closing in on him.
Mac pushed herself out of the collapsed windshield, feeling shards of glass make a thousand tiny little cuts in her arms. She'd lost her jacket a couple of weeks ago, and hadn't yet found the time to make a new one. It was part of her armor, and she needed it, so not taking the time had been a stupid move. Nothing she could do about it now.
She just hoped the blood loss wouldn't slow her down too much.
One of the Edits was closing in on Jude, who had noticed he was in trouble and was dodging behind another parked car. The Edit swung a molten arm, hitting the car and flinging it to the side with a loud screech. Jude was out in the open now, and he was facing the Edit with nothing but a scanner in his hands.
Mac leapt from the car, sprinted toward Jude, and flicked the battle stave to make a large hammer. She spun, and used the weight of the hammer to launch herself through the air, smashing the hammer's head into the chest of the Edit. She was hoping the larger footprint of the hammer was enough to compensate for the the flexibility of the Edit's mass, spread out the area of her attack to do some actual good.
It worked. The Edit stumbled backward, loosing its footing, and toppled to the ground. Its chest was starting to ooze over the hammer's head, though, and Mac had to pull it back fast to keep it from being absorbed into the mass of the thing.
The second Edit was closing in on her now.
This wasn't working. These things were too pliable, and just hitting them was causing her damage and slowing her reaction times. She needed a plan, and fast.
"Mac!" Jude shouted again.
"Jude, please, just go take cover somewhere!"
"Mac, look at the potentials!"
Mac dodged a swipe from the second Edit, and rolled to keep a safe distance. The first Edit was starting to get to its feet again, and in a moment they'd have her sewn in between buildings and the wreckage from the explosion. The sounds of police and emergency sirens were echoing through the canyon of the streets, which meant more people would be arriving soon to be in huge danger they didn't understand. Some of them would have guns, and they might decide she was worth shooting at as much as the monsters.
She had to do something. She had to act. She had to ...
She looked at the two Edits with that special vision she'd been born with—that she'd been trained to use. She saw that the Edits were the same twisted collection of potentials that Rue usually used. But something was off.
Usually when Rue created an Edit, it was pretty complete. Thousands of potentials would be terminated in one ugly creature. But Rue was only able to do this with potentials that weren't quite solid. All the alternatives of a person's life, for example, might still be a potential for them, but their life choices and their path might make only one potential "most likely." It was only when things were in a state of flux that someone like Rue could manipulate the potentials—to "edit" them—and create something hideous that served her purpose.
That's what she'd done here, using stray strands from the local nexus of potentials to create something to throw Mac off of the true path.
But she'd screwed up.
One of the potentials wasn't such a loose thread after all. In fact, it only had two paths, rather than the thousands that the others could take. It wasn't tangled up in the mass of the Edits. It was more like a loose thread dangling from a sweater.
And everyone knew what happened when you pulled a loose thread.
Mac leapt forward, gave the battle stave a flick to create a shield, and charged into the front most Edit. The creature let out a roar as it toppled backward into the other Edit. They both stayed on their feet, and now they were partially merged, using their pliable mass to form a barrier and reaching outward with their arms to try to enfold Mac, to draw her in. She'd be burned to a crisp or, worse, absorbed into the mass of potentials. She'd become an Edit herself.
"That's not going to happen," Mac said.
She shoved the shield forward, and pushed further into the bulk of the Edits until she saw what she was looking for. The potential that Jude had scanned. The solid thread the she'd seen.
She reached out, and even as the heat of the Edits blistered her hand, she grabbed the thread and pulled.
There was another roaring, screeching noise as the two Edits now merged back into one, and then, like watching snow melt in fast motion, it drooped into a lumpy pool on the ground.
Mac rolled away, tapping the battle stave back to her belt and nursing her burned hand. Jude ran forward and knelt beside her.
As they watched, the "lumps" in the mass of the Edit began to wriggle and take shape. In moments they could see the forms of dozens of people struggling to get to their feet. There were two dogs in that mass as well, and they chased a cat who came wriggling out of the pool. Several odd objects—a microwave oven, a laptop computer, a garden gnome—also formed from the mass, laying in the street as if they'd been dropped there from a moving truck.
"It worked," Jude whispered.
"We got lucky," Mac said. "Rue got sloppy. But this ... she's getting better at this."
"She's had a lot of practice," Jude said, his voice and his features hardening.
"I know," Mac said. "We're going to find her."
They climbed to their feet and Mac limped ahead of Jude as they went back to where the nexus of paths had split. Mac smiled as she saw that the potentials had reduced down to just a handful. That was manageable. The odds were better.
She studied the potentials, weighing each one, and decided on a path that seemed most likely to be the true path. Rue was most likely to have gone this way, after laying her trap. She still had her head start, but even she had to stick to the paths that provided the best opportunities and resources for her to survive.
"This way," Mac said.
"Whoa, don't you want to take a minute and rest? Your hand is pretty bad. We should get you to a doctor."
"It will heal. Stepping onto the path will help."
"It helps, but it doesn't fix everything you know."
No, it didn't. He was right about that. Stepping onto the path had once been one of the most important things in Mac's life. But the path—the true path or any of the side paths, it didn't seem to matter—it didn't solve any problems. It created a lot more. And people got hurt, because of people like Mac and Rue. The rest ... the others ... maybe they would have been better off if no one had ever stepped onto the path.
And maybe there was no "true path." That thought had occurred to her, too. Especially lately, as she and Jude had endlessly chased Rue down one trail of potentials or another. Maybe that was the true path. And if so, it didn't lead anywhere Mac really wanted to go.
But Rue had a secret. She knew something that Mac and the others hadn't known. And she'd risked everything, blown the trust everyone had in her, betrayed everyone to protect her secret. Mac had no idea what it was, or what Rue could possibly gain from all she'd done. But she did know that she was going to bring Rue to justice.
Mac looked back and made sure Jude was with her. There was a saint named Jude, wasn't there? Patron saint of lost causes. Was that her Jude? Was he her saint? And did that make her a lost cause, too?
And since when was he her Jude anyway?
Mac shook her head, waved for Jude to hurry up, and then limped through to step onto the path that had the best potential for finding Rue. It was going to be a long journey. They might as well keep moving.
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