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PRINCIPAL

Kevin Gaughen


Copyright © 2018 Kevin Gaughen

Distributed by Smashwords

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are being used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Cover art by Benjamin Ee

Ebook formatting by www.ebooklaunch.com

Published by the author:

Kevin Gaughen

PO Box 1517

Mechanicsburg, PA 17055-9017

USA

ISBN-10: 0986380539

ISBN-13: 9780986380532

First Edition: Published January 2018


Acknowledgments

My wholehearted appreciation goes out to the following individuals, who spent many hours helping me shape this book into what it is.

Beta Readers:

Joel K Church

Rustin Coziahr

Tobin Coziahr

Grant Gaughen

Laryssa Gaughen

Tom Gaughen

Ryan Jackson, MD

Joe Lombardo

David Lynch

Maria Elaina Martinelli

Teresa Pezzi

Franny Ryan, Esq.

Ken Sams

Mike Sams

Kathy Savage

Donald Smart

David Lynn Smith

Jeff Smith

Editor:

Ray





To my children:

You are your own candles in the darkness.


Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

Dedication

Epigraph

Prologue

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76

Chapter 77

Chapter 78

Chapter 79

Chapter 80

Chapter 81

Chapter 82

Chapter 83

Chapter 84

Chapter 85

Chapter 86

Chapter 87

Chapter 88

Chapter 89

Chapter 90

Chapter 91

Chapter 92

Chapter 93

Chapter 94

Chapter 95

Chapter 96

Chapter 97

Chapter 98

Chapter 99

Chapter 100

Chapter 101

Chapter 102

Chapter 103

Chapter 104

Chapter 105

Chapter 106

Chapter 107

Chapter 108

Chapter 109

Chapter 110

Chapter 1





“The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.”

Mahatma M. K. Gandhi


Prologue

Circa 15,000 BCE, an extraterrestrial race of scientists known as the Ich-Ca-Gan traveled to Earth to study it. Upon their arrival, the Ich-Ca-Gan discovered two forms of life on the planet more evolved than the rest: human beings and the Dranthyx.

The Dranthyx, cephalopods who had descended from the common octopus, had several remarkable evolutionary advantages: the ability to breathe air as well as water, the ability to camouflage themselves as other beings (particularly humans), and superintelligence. Of note was that the Dranthyx were a ruthless and greedy species who were biologically incapable of empathy or altruism.

The Dranthyx, being much more intelligent than humans and having evolved fifty million years earlier, held a tremendous technological edge over early humans. At the time of the Ich-Ca-Gan’s arrival, human beings were in the Stone Age, whereas the Dranthyx already had supercomputers and advanced bioengineering. The Ich-Ca-Gan discovered that the Dranthyx were using humans as slave labor and that the Dranthyx considered them mere livestock. The entire Dranthyx civilization and economy were propped up by free human labor, allowing the Dranthyx to live in relative ease below the water while humans toiled above it.

The original human stock had evolved from monkeys. However, using biotechnology, the Dranthyx manipulated the human genome to optimize humans for slave labor. In much the same way that humans created different dog breeds for varying tasks, the Dranthyx created three different types of humans for specific roles:

Tchogols: The Dranthyx spliced some of their own genes directly into a number of humans, creating the original Tchogol stock. Tchogols, like the Dranthyx, have no empathy, no remorse, and no conscience. Dranthyx DNA gives them a strong drive toward material wealth and power. They are designed to be ruthless, cunning, and charismatic. Due to their ruthlessness and inborn desire for domination, Tchogols are the unwitting managers of the Dranthyx slave hierarchy. As a border collie instinctively herds animals without being told to do so, Tchogols simply do what they are genetically programmed to: they rise to the top of organizations by any means necessary and rule. Tchogolism is a recessive gene, making Tchogols the least common of the types.

Saskels: Early on, the Dranthyx identified human genes for intractable behavior and independent thought. These are not favorable attributes in slave labor, and as such they had to be removed to produce Saskels, the second type of human. Saskels are designed to do tedious labor without questioning those ruling over them. Saskels have low to average mental abilities and ostensibly have the ability to reason through minor problems. However, they are genetically engineered to not trust their own thoughts and to have a deep fear of losing their security. They are terrified of having to think, or fend, for themselves. This inborn insecurity causes them to constantly seek external guidance and to obey authority, no matter how irrational or malevolent that authority is. Saskelism is a highly dominant gene, and Saskels compose the majority of the human population.

Xreths: Xreths are humans who were designed for creativity and problem solving. Xreths have both ethics and the ability to come to conclusions independently. Xreths create math, science, engineering, art. Before the introduction of the Xreth type, humans hadn’t even thought of agriculture. Human technological development stalls without Xreths, and labor output declines, to the Dranthyx’s detriment. The Dranthyx have kept Xreths around because the science and technology they produce benefits them. Complicating the situation is the fact that human Xreths are more creative and productive than Dranthyx intellectuals, which means the Dranthyx are extremely concerned that Xreths will usurp control. The Dranthyx consider Xreths a necessary evil, one that they monitor very closely. When the number of Xreths grows too large, the Dranthyx cull them. Xrethism is a moderately dominant gene.


Believing the Dranthyx culling of Xreths to be unethical, the Ich-Ca-Gan intervened circa 680 BCE. A global war between the Ich-Ca-Gan and the Dranthyx erupted. Fourteen of the original fifteen Ich-Ca-Gan were killed, while untold millions of Dranthyx perished in the conflict. A truce was called. The last remaining Ich-Ca-Gan agreed to not interfere in the Dranthyx culls, and the Dranthyx agreed to not interfere with the Ich-Ca-Gan’s attempts to educate the human race.

In 1322 CE, the sole surviving Ich-Ca-Gan went into hiding beneath a Buddhist temple in Tokyo. He continued teaching, albeit to a select group of Zen monks.

Around 1600 CE, the Dranthyx discovered an insidious way of controlling the human population without the need for direct force: fiat currency. By creating paper money with no intrinsic value and loaning it at interest, the Dranthyx were able to yoke humanity with unsustainable debts that could never be repaid. Through usury and financial instruments, they were able to maintain complete control of the human race from the shadows. With this new slavery scheme in place, the Dranthyx painstakingly erased all evidence of their existence from the historical record and, eventually, from human memory.

---

The previous story in this series, Interest, begins in the early part of the twenty-first century. Our protagonist, Len Savitz, is a journalist living during a time of great unrest. Domestic revolutionaries are at war with the US government, and acts of terrorism are being carried out daily. Len finds himself caught up in the intrigue when his five-year-old daughter, Octavia, and ex-wife, Sara, are kidnapped by the rebels. The leaders of the revolution, a man named General Jefferson and a mysterious woman named Neith, who only speaks through an android, hold his family as collateral and force Len to do their bidding.

Neith’s first assignment to Len is to travel to Ecuador. On the airplane, Len meets a Russian woman named Natalia. In Ecuador, Len finds that his daughter and ex-wife are being held captive by a drug lord. Having verified that they are still alive and well, Len is given his next assignment, to travel to Japan.

In Japan, Len meets the last of the Ich-Ca-Gan, known in the temple as the Great Master. The Ich-Ca-Gan recounts the history of the Dranthyx and how they have worked to enslave the human race. Right after the Ich-Ca-Gan warns that another large cull is imminent, Len is rushed out of the building. He sees a SWAT team attempting to raid the temple just before a large Ich-Ca-Gan spacecraft rises up out of the earth. The spacecraft disappears into thin air.

Returning to the United States, Len learns of General Jefferson’s plans to sack Washington, DC, and completely usurp the existing government. He also learns that Natalia is a gunrunner who makes a living by buying weapons from the Russian government and selling them to Jefferson’s revolutionaries.

Using the information Len has gleaned from the Ich-Ca-Gan, Jefferson’s men capture a Dranthyx, drug it, and force it to talk. The Dranthyx confirms what the Great Master told Len: a massive Xreth cull is imminent, and billions will die.

Neith then infects Len with a virus known as the Tchogol flu and makes him get back on a plane to Ecuador with multiple layovers. On the way, Len infects thousands of people at each airport, which sends the virus all over the world causing a global pandemic. The virus kills every single Tchogol it comes in contact with but leaves the other two types of humans unscathed.

Back in Ecuador, Len saves Natalia’s life. In gratitude, Natalia helps Len and his daughter escape the drug lord’s island. While hiding out in Natalia’s flat in Bogota, Len composes the most important piece of journalism ever written: an exposé of the Dranthyx, the Ich-Ca-Gan, and Neith. While Len is writing his story, he sees on the news that General Jefferson’s coup has been successful and that he has appointed himself president of the United States.

Upon entering back into the United States, Len deliberately gets himself arrested by US immigration officials. In his luggage is a copy of his exposé. He informs the officials holding him captive to send it up the chain of command as high as it’ll go.

While Len is in captivity, the Dranthyx captured by Jefferson’s men visits him in his holding cell. The Dranthyx informs Len that he was freed, Jefferson has been arrested, and Neith was discovered to be a rogue, self-aware supercomputer who was summarily destroyed. He also learns that his ex-wife was killed by the Tchogol flu. Just before the Dranthyx tries to kill Len for knowing too much, Natalia and her associates attack the facility, kill the Dranthyx, and free Len.

Spurred on by what Len has written, and fearing that they’re losing control of the situation, the Dranthyx are forced into a position where they must act. Further, without any Tchogols left to do the cull for them, the Dranthyx are left with no choice but to come onto land to do the Xreth cull themselves. Accordingly, the Dranthyx stage a massive invasion on the entire human world. The Dranthyx military ascends from the depths of the ocean to land on the beaches of every continent. They destroy the major coastal cities before rounding up the world’s Xreths.

Len, Natalia, and Octavia befriend militia members who live in a fortress called the Freehold high in the mountains of West Texas. There, the militia attempts an armed last stand against the Dranthyx. They’re unable to compete with vastly superior technology, and the Dranthyx easily conquer the Freehold. Len, Natalia, and Octavia are sent to a massive concentration camp in the middle of North America.

Len discovers that General Jefferson is alive and well in the same camp. Len is forced into mortal combat with Jefferson for the Dranthyx’s entertainment. Len wins the fight and kills Jefferson. Shortly thereafter, Len, Natalia, and Octavia are rounded up and taken to the reactor, where they will be put to death.

While awaiting execution, Octavia tells her father about a dream she had the night before. In her recounting, Octavia unwittingly gives the signal that begins the Ich-Ca-Gan surprise attack. Instantly, thousands of Ich-Ca-Gan ships appear in the sky and begin a surgically precise bombardment, killing every single Dranthyx standing on dry land.

As they exit the concentration camp, Len reveals to Natalia that he planned the surprise attack with the Ich-Ca-Gan. Len incited the Dranthyx into coming ashore so that they could be slaughtered. He also says that approximately 0.3 percent of the Dranthyx population never came ashore and therefore survived the attack. Len warns that the Dranthyx could become a problem once again in the future.

Len and Natalia see a message broadcast on TV by the Ich-Ca-Gan. In it, they warn that they will not help again in the future.

When Len returns to his apartment in Pittsburgh, his landlord gives him a letter. The letter, from Neith, reveals that she is still very much alive and that every single bit of Len’s adventure was part of her plan. As compensation for his troubles, Neith gives Len the coordinates to where a fortune in gold is buried.



Several months after the story ends, the Ich-Ca-Gan ships depart the Earth as suddenly as they’d arrived, never to be seen again.





Thirty-Five Years after the Events in Interest


Chapter 43

“Octavia,” her father yelled over the gunfire, “keep your head down!”

Panicked, she dropped to her belly behind a large rock.

What the hell is going on? Octavia thought. One minute I’m unpacking my bags in the guest bedroom; the next, bullets are smashing through the wall. Why are people shooting at us?

“Where are the kids?” her dad shouted.

“They’re in the basement of the house, where you told them to go.”

Fuck, I hope they’re OK.

“Dad, what the hell is happening?” she yelled over the machine-gun fire.

Rather than answering, Len popped up above the concrete wall, took some potshots at the boats a hundred yards offshore, and ducked for cover again. Octavia saw a man fall out of one of the boats.

Her dad grabbed the walkie-talkie that he’d dropped on the ground in all the confusion. “Jeff, do you have that thing working yet?”

The people in the boats were returning fire. Three bullets came whizzing over the rock that Octavia was hiding behind. She had always thought bullets flying nearby would sound like the ricochet noises in cartoons, but, in reality, they sounded like huge, angry hornets.

“Not yet,” came the reply over the radio. “I’m trying to figure it out.”

“What’s the holdup?” Len bellowed.

Just then, there was an explosion in the water near the beach. The boat people were launching grenades at them, and the first one had missed.

“Natalia left us an instruction manual, but it’s in some language I can’t read. I’m trying to figure out how to make it work,” Jeff answered. “The screen says ‘Calibrating.’”

Octavia’s father rolled his eyes. He grabbed his rifle and, keeping his head low, hobbled over to the big rock Octavia was hiding behind and fell to the ground next to her. Octavia could see that there were several boats in the water, all of which were shooting at them. Another grenade exploded near the south beach.

This is real. We’re under attack. They’re launching explosives at us.

“Dad,” Octavia asked, “who are those people, and why are they shooting at us?”

Her father didn’t answer. He was too focused on what was happening offshore. Octavia could hear long strings of gunshots coming from all over the island. The islanders were exchanging fire with their attackers in every direction.

“It just finished calibrating!” Jeff shouted over the radio. “Should I activate it?”

“No, let’s wait until we’re being overrun,” Len yelled into the handset. “Fuck yes. Activate it!”

Octavia heard a ploop sound, followed by a whistling noise. A deafening blast fifty yards to her left knocked the wind out of her lungs. She opened her eyes, gasping for air, ears ringing, to find herself covered in dirt and wood splinters. The tree she used to play on when she was a kid, the one with the tire swing, was now a crater.

“Take out the green boat. They’ve got a mortar!” someone yelled over the radio.

“OK, it says, ‘Acquiring targets; thirty seconds remaining,’” Jeff announced.

Can I make it back to the house where my kids are? Several small projectiles smashed into the rock they were hiding behind, dusting Octavia and her father with chips of limestone. She considered the bulletproof cover the rock was providing as several more rounds buzzed by on either side. No, they know we’re behind these rocks, and they’re shooting right at us. Standing up or moving seems like a bad idea.

Just then, one of the speedboats revved its engines and came in full throttle toward them. It looked as though the attackers were going to ram the island hard enough to plow up onto the beach. Len flicked a switch on the side of his gun.

“Come a little closer, assholes,” Octavia heard her father mutter.

At precisely the right moment, her dad treated the incoming vessel to a full-auto burst from his rifle. He must have hit something or someone, because the craft veered hard to the right and capsized just before hitting the shore. The old man changed magazines and then fired another long burst at the overturned boat’s hull for good measure. One of the spent casings ejected from her dad’s rifle landed in the collar of Octavia’s shirt. The brass shell was red hot, and it seared her skin instantly.

“Ow, son of a bitch!” she cursed, flailing to pull it out.

“Jeff,” her father said into the radio, “make sure it misses one.”

“Why?” Jeff asked.

“Just do it,” Len barked. “Let one of them go.”

“OK. It’s done!” Jeff yelled over the radio. “Get ready!”

Her father looked up to the big tower in the center of the island.

When did they build that? Octavia thought, looking where her dad was looking. That wasn’t here last time. How did I miss a ten-story tower?

At the top of the tower was a cylindrical, chrome-plated object. Octavia could see it rotating, moving up and down, stopping randomly. Its movements reminded her of the robots that built cars: abrupt and jerky yet precise beyond all human capabilities. She rolled over to look in the other direction, through the small gap below the oddly shaped rock. Out in the water, the three boats that she could see from her vantage point all burst into flames simultaneously. She could hear the anguished wails of the people onboard.

What the hell just happened?

Then, the gunfire stopped. This was followed by an uncomfortable silence. Her father waited a long thirty seconds, then peeked up over the rock.


Chapter 44

Daniel Barton stood at the enormous window overlooking downtown Detroit. From his seventieth-floor office, he could see for miles. The unconquered kingdom. What had once been a run-down shithole—postapocalyptic even before the apocalypse—was now a thriving, major world city. Construction cranes loomed to the horizon, building razor-thin skyscrapers that glinted in the morning light like titanium blades of rye.

Water. I should expand into water, he thought.

That was the reason they were there, after all. Rising oceans had flooded out the coastal cities. Even before the North Koreans invaded, decades-long drought and osmosis cartels had caused water scarcity in the West, which forced the population eastward. The Great Lakes region had vast quantities of water, which was its saving grace. Declining Rust Belt regions that previously had no future were propelled beyond boomtowns into cosmopolitan megacities.

The phone intercom interrupted his strategizing.

“Mr. Barton, the new hire is here,” his secretary’s voice announced. “Shall I send her in?”

“Please.”

Dan didn’t turn around as the huge oak doors to his office opened. Behind him, he could hear the footsteps of his secretary and the new girl. He always paid careful attention to how people walked. A person’s walk betrayed everything about them: confidence, shame, attention to detail. The new hire’s footsteps sounded careful, hesitant. Someone dutiful, hopefully. Dan turned around slowly. He eyed the new recruit. She was young. Twenty-five, maybe. Her business attire was off the rack, and she didn’t look at home in it.

Straight out of MBA school and looking the part, Dan mused. Attractive girl, though. She’s got the look we need. Appearance closes more deals than anything else.

“Elise Sutton, I presume?” Dan asked.

“Yes,” she said nervously. “It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Barton.” She stretched out her hand.

Dan shook it. “Thank you. You as well. So let’s get started. There’s a lot to go over. I understand you were at the top of your class at Wharton.”

“Yes, sir. Summa cum laude.”

“Good. That’s what we need—brains. What do you know about currency trading?”

“My undergraduate was in macroeconomics, and my MBA thesis was on foreign exchange markets,” she answered.

“Let me ask again: What do you know about currency trading?”

Elise paused before answering. She looked uncomfortable. “Not as much as you, sir. I’m here to learn.”

Dan smiled. Political beyond her years. “Good. That’s the right answer. I’m going to go over it with you as though you don’t know anything. That isn’t a reflection on you, but more about the state of academia. I hire a lot of college graduates who have fancy degrees from top-tier schools but don’t seem to know anything useful. Those who can’t do, teach. You know.”

“Ready when you are, sir.”

Dan gestured for her to follow him as he walked across his spacious office, through the doors, and out onto a catwalk above the trading floor. Below, rows upon rows of haggard-looking employees frantically made phone calls and entered data into computers.

“What people think we do here is trade one currency for another, taking a fee in the process.”

“It isn’t?” Elise asked.

“Nope. What we do is define value itself.”

“OK, now I’m intrigued,” she said.

“There are three major currencies in use right now in North America and several minor ones. Do you know what the big three are?”

“Land Credits, MassMoney, and, um, LaborValue?”

“Nah. LaborValue is a BS currency.” Dan laughed. “No one uses that. I’ll explain why later. Land Credits are the most widely used, followed by MassMoney, followed by Calibuxx. These currencies are issued by various authorities, otherwise known as datamints. I’m sure you know the history behind them?”

“I’d like to hear you explain it, sir,” Elise said. “You know far more than I do.”

“The Invasion left such a bad taste in people’s mouths that fiat currencies issued by world governments fell from favor. Fiat, as you know, means a piece of paper has value simply because some government says it does, like the old euros or dollars. Even though the Dranthyx were wiped out, consumers no longer trusted fiat currency because they saw it for what it was—a control scheme. Consumers wanted something different, a form of money that was decentralized, secure, and limited in supply. First they tried using cryptocurrencies. Problem with that was, they were not tied to anything of value. Also, the security of cryptocurrencies became a joke with the advent of quantum computing—there was counterfeiting and private key theft all over the place. The days when data security revolved around the difficulty in finding the prime factors of huge numbers are long gone.”

“So how are currencies secured now?” she asked.

“Hashes, lattices, and supersingular isogeny.”

Elise gave him a blank look.

“I don’t understand it, either,” Dan said. “It’s serious egghead stuff. The important thing is that it all works, and even the most powerful computers can’t counterfeit the signatures. Anyway, the other thing that defines a good, modern currency is a tie to something of real value. In the case of Land Credits, they simply created one land credit for each of the Earth’s 150 trillion square meters of dry land area and then permanently capped the number. No more can be created. For MassMoney, they used the actual mass of the earth. Calibuxx are backed by Californium 252.”

“Californium 252 is what makes the Dranthyx technology work, right?” Elise said.

Dan tried not to smirk at her grasping attempt to seem professional and knowledgeable. She seemed so out of place, so kid-like. Like a little girl who tried on her mom’s clothes to pretend she was an adult.

“Yes,” Dan said without cracking a smile. “It’s the power source for the Dranthyx weaponry and technology. Problem is, it’s a very rare material with a short half life. It’s tough to produce. One Calibuxx is pegged to one microgram of Californium 252. Eventually, someone will figure out how the Dranthyx manufactured so much of it, which will implode the Calibuxx franchise. In the meantime, it’s a safe bet.”

“So why aren’t you a fan of LaborValues?” Elise asked.

“Because that currency is backed by labor, and labor is…well, worthless. Labor has no intrinsic value anymore. We’ve got more people than jobs, which causes extreme downward pressure on wages. The reason, as you know, is everything is automated now. Unemployment is now over 50 percent. It’s only going to get worse. Speaking of which, that you’re here says an awful lot about your qualifications. We picked you out of over three thousand applicants.”

“I am truly grateful, sir.”

Let’s see how she handles this one.

“Are you married, Miss Sutton?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. Having a family is a rather unproductive use of time for someone of your caliber.”

Dan watched her struggle to deal with the comment. It was like a bone going down her throat. She smiled and nodded.

Good. She can eat shit and still smile. The business world is no place for the weak and easily offended.

“Right this way to the elevators,” Dan said, motioning her to walk ahead of him. “I want to introduce you to your coworkers.”

The elevator door opened onto the trading floor. Dan led her into a corner office, where a tall man stood up behind his desk. “Miss Sutton, this is Randy Hughes, our senior vice president and governmental-affairs coordinator.”

“Nice to meet you,” Elise said, shaking his hand.

“Remember how I told you about defining value? Randy helps us make that happen. He’s our chief greaser,” Dan said.

“Greaser?” Elise asked.

“Skids, palms, whatever,” Dan said. “An operation of our scale needs to operate with as little friction as possible. You’ll get to know each other plenty over the next few weeks. This way. I want to show you your new office.” Dan led her down a long hallway on the eastern side of the building, where the sun shone through the windows. As they walked, a shadow flitted through the hallway.

“Oh my god!” Elise yelled.

“What?” Dan turned around. Her eyes were wide.

“I’m pretty sure I just saw someone fall off the building.”

“A person?”

“Yes!” she squeaked, her voice cracking. “He looked right at me.”

“Again? I wonder who it was this time. Well, anyway, as you can see, vacancies are always being created around here, so there’s plenty of upward mobility,” Dan said nonchalantly. “Don’t park near the east entrance; that’s my advice. OK, let’s get you to your office. I have a nine fifteen that’s of the utmost importance.”


Chapter 45

“Octavia, stay down,” her father yelled. He stumbled as fast as his old body would let him up the steps to the house. He came back out onto the porch seconds later with a familiar propellered object.

My drone, Octavia thought. That’s the one I used to play with when I was a kid!

Len turned it on and threw it into the air. The device came alive as it fell back to earth. It stopped just short of hitting the ground and hovered obediently. Len grabbed the controller and sent the device up into the sky.

Octavia looked through the crack again. The lone surviving speedboat fired up its throttle and did a big arcing curve away from the island. Len stood on the porch, giving chase with the drone, transfixed by the little screen on the controller. Disregarding what her father had told her, Octavia stood and ran up the steps to the porch. From there, she could see clumps of floating, burning debris out in the water where the boats had been.

“There must have been thirty boats. The laser did that?” Octavia said.

“Yeah,” Len said, his attention still on the screen of the drone controller. “We just got it. That thing saved our asses today. Give me a second, Octavia. I want to follow this boat to see where these assholes came from.”

“You need to back off when you’re following someone,” Octavia said, looking over his shoulder. “You don’t want them to see the drone and shoot it down. I lost three of them that way. Also, you need to adjust the trim. It’s meandering all over the place.”

Her dad gave her an annoyed look.

“Dad, let me do it,” Octavia said in exasperation. “I’m better at this than you.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.” He handed her the device. “You spent your whole childhood playing with those things.”

“Dad, who were those people?” Octavia asked as she piloted the remote-controlled aircraft.

“No idea,” Len said while coughing from being out of breath. “They’ve been attacking our island for months now.”

Octavia glanced at him as he lit a cigarette. She noticed his hands were shaking with adrenaline. “Yeah, but why?” she asked, returning her attention to following the speed boat.

Her father threw his hands up. “At first it was just one or two boats at a time. But the attacks have grown in size. Thankfully, we’re prepared for that sort of thing.”

Her father had almost finished his smoke by the time Octavia saw the boat park in a slip outside of Painesville. “Hey, look!” she said, beckoning her dad. “The old Headlands Beach Park.” He peered over her shoulder at the controller while Octavia flew the drone closer to study the area. She could just make out hundreds of crappy old boats and camping trailers. Tanks. Anti-aircraft weapons. Some sort of power plant.

“They’re closer than I thought. That’s quite an operation they have,” Len remarked. “Can you zoom in so we can see who was on that boat?”

Octavia zoomed in, though zooming made the image grainier. A dark figure disembarked from the watercraft.

Len and Octavia stood in frozen silence, staring at the little screen.

“What…what is getting out of that boat?” Len exclaimed. “Is that a bear?”

Then the video feed went dark.


Chapter 46

Len awoke at his post on the southern side of the island and found himself slumped over in a chair.

Dammit, he thought in shame. Fell asleep again. Can’t stay awake the way I used to. Hope no one saw me. Hope nothing happened.

Len had set a policy when the attacks began: no lights at night. Everything on the island that could possibly be illuminated was shut off. Blackout curtains were put over all the windows in the buildings. All movement was restricted by necessity, and the islanders wore night-vision goggles in order to get around after dusk. Any fool with a GPS could find the island in the dark, but why make it easier by keeping lights on as well? Len rubbed his eyes and looked at his watch. The little tritium dots glowed green in the darkness: 3:13 a.m.

The structure he was in was built by Natalia’s company. It was a tall concrete cylinder that reminded him of the old World War II lookout towers that he had seen on the beaches in Delaware, where his family had vacationed when he was a kid. The entrance was a heavy steel door. Inside was a spiral staircase leading up to the observation room, which was entirely spartan: a chair, a toilet, a sink, several night-vision apparatuses, a radio, and a rusty space heater with a glowing red grill. There were five such buildings on the island, plus the new tower, which was taller than all the rest: the one that housed the laser cannon. Everyone on the island took turns doing four-hour shifts in the watchtowers.

A fluttery sensation in Len’s chest made him cough. The first cough felt as if it shook something loose into a bronchial tube, which caused his body to involuntarily hack repeatedly in order to expel whatever was irritating his lungs. This developed into a full-blown coughing fit that left him red-faced and wheezing. Finally feeling thick mucus come up in his throat, he went over to the sink to spit it out. To his horror, it was bright red.

This is the nastiest case of bronchitis I’ve ever had.

After getting his composure back and catching his breath, Len looked out through the horizontal slit, which was just wide enough to stick a gun through. To his relief, the coast was clear, and he saw no vessels on the horizon. He felt the urge to radio the other towers but thought better of it. Next check-in was at 4:00 a.m., and there was no sense in ruining the perfectly good silence until then. Time to check the beach, he thought. He grabbed his rifle, slung it across his back, and walked carefully down the concrete stairs, holding the rail the whole way. The pain in his hip was getting worse, and he wondered if it was the precursor to another fracture. He’d already had one hip replacement. His finger joints were swollen and painful in the cool night air, which he knew to be the arthritic result of years spent gripping judo gis and typing news stories. A lifetime of habits was catching up with him. For some reason, the only body parts that didn’t bother him were his knees.

To conceal the flame, Len lit his cigarette before opening the door. Walking outside, he looked up and exhaled into the night. Heavy overcast; the clouds looked like brushed steel. The smoke from the end of Len’s cigarette rose straight up into the night sky. No wind.

He walked down to the water. There was a big rock there that he liked to sit on to look at the skyline. The blue skyglow from distant Cleveland illuminated everything in an ambient, ghostly way. No waves tonight, he thought. He couldn’t remember the last time everything was so still. The dead calm disquieted him.

He took another drag on the cigarette, using his hand to cup the glowing embers so they wouldn’t be visible. Looking out on the lake again, he noticed a silhouette of something in the water. It was close, maybe ten feet away. Not too big, maybe the size of a microwave oven. It looked like a log of driftwood, but it was too dark to see the object clearly. Len got out the flashlight that he used for night watches. Its beam was dim and red, designed for deer hunters because its light didn’t carry too far and deer can’t see that color. He shined it at the object. His old heart nearly stopped.

The head of a Dranthyx stuck out of the water, the rest of its body submerged. Wet purple skin, yellow eyes glowing with the reflected light. Len stared at it in disbelief for a second or two. Was he hallucinating? Then it smiled at him. A hideous, nasty smile that could have curdled gasoline. Snapping to, Len fumbled to grab the rifle off his back and point it at the beast. Quickly, Len switched on the light affixed to the rifle, a dim red one like his flashlight, and put the creature in his sights. Pulling the trigger, his stomach dropped as he heard a simple click. He pulled the trigger again. Nothing. In a frenetic fit of muscle memory, Len banged the magazine in place and pulled the charging handle back. Not hearing the bolt slam forward automatically the way it was supposed to, he hit the bolt-release lever to do it manually. He quickly shouldered the gun and pulled the trigger again. Click.

Fuck! Fuck! Stupid fucking gun!

Len groped around for the walkie-talkie, but nothing happened when he pushed the button. Len pushed it several more times in rapid succession, but it didn’t make the typical beep to indicate it was transmitting. He looked around in a panic, weighing whether he could get up the tower stairs to the other radio before the Dranthyx caught him. He wondered if he could shout loudly enough for someone to hear.

The creature laughed at Len’s dread. That laugh—how could Len have forgotten? Like big bubbles popping in a basement oil tank. Despite the malfunction, Len kept his rifle and its light trained on the hideous animal.

“We haven’t forgotten what you did to us, Leonard Savitz,” it whispered. Then it winked at him and instantly slipped below the surface, leaving nothing behind but tiny ripples in the still water.

---

“Are you sure you didn’t dream it?” Jeff asked, still half asleep. He and a dozen other people had been awoken and were now standing around at the base of the watchtower.

“Goddammit, I didn’t dream it!” Len bellowed. “The Dranthyx was right there in the water!” Len pointed to the dark lake.

Jeff kept silent, but Len could see from his face, and the faces of the others, that they doubted him. He remembered that expression from when he was a child. It was the look adults would give when he told them about monsters in the closet: halfway between sympathy and bemusement. So it was at the other end of life; seventy-some years later, people were once again doubting his faculties.

Jeff and the others shared a glance.

“Len, why don’t you go get some shut-eye in your own bed?” Jeff asked in his best trying-not-to-be-patronizing tone. “We’ll do the rest of the night shift.”

“Why don’t you people believe me?”

Jeff took a ragged breath and pulled Len aside where the others wouldn’t hear. “It’s not that I don’t believe you,” he whispered. “It’s just…”

“What?” Len whispered back. “I’m old. So what? I still have all my marbles. I know what I saw.”

“I know you have your marbles. You’re sharp as a tack. Sharper than me. It’s just…I thought you said the Dranthyx had been killed off,” Jeff said in a low voice, trying to avoid eye contact.

“No!” Len growled. “How many times must I explain it? We killed off 99.7 percent of them. That was thirty-five friggin’ years ago, Jeff. They’ve probably repopulated by now.”

“More importantly,” Jeff said, “you keep falling asleep on the watches. How can we know for sure you didn’t dream it?”

“I didn’t fall—” Len cut himself off midsentence when he remembered that he had in fact fallen asleep.

Len saw Jeff chewing his lip while studying him, as if Jeff were wondering how to defuse the situation diplomatically. Len looked past Jeff at his followers, their breaths steaming in the cold night air. Amazing that they don’t believe me, Len thought. As if I’ve ever lied to any of them.

“I believe you,” Jeff said resolutely. “You’ve always been a straight shooter, and I have no reason to doubt you. I guess I just doubt my own sanity at this ungodly hour.”

Did I dream it? The gun didn’t work. The radio didn’t work. Machines never work correctly in dreams.

Jeff turned to the onlookers and spoke loudly enough for them to hear. “OK, everyone, from now on we’re going to double up on the watch shifts. Two per tower at all times. Those octopus bastards are out there, apparently, and we don’t want this to happen again.”

Len found himself caught halfway between righteous indignation and a sudden pride in his choice of a successor. Good old Jeff, Len thought. Always with the savoir-faire.

After the crowd dispersed, Len walked behind the tower to urinate. He was just about to relieve himself when he stopped cold. There, on the concrete sidewalk, was all the ammo from his gun. The cartridges were arranged into a shape—a stick figure of an octopus. Next to that were the batteries from Len’s walkie-talkie.


Chapter 47

“Mr. Barton, I really appreciate your taking me out to lunch like this,” Elise said in between hurried, ungraceful bites of salad.

She’s brilliant but a bit awkward, Dan thought. You’d think someone so shrewd would have more insight into how they’re presenting themselves.

“The pleasure is mine,” Dan replied. “Elise, I’ve heard you’ve made some excellent trades so far. The Intercoin deal in particular was rather impressive—we made a killing on that one. You have a lot of potential.”

“Thank you, sir,” Elise said flatly.

“But, honestly, I think you might have too much horsepower for currency trading.”

“Oh?” Elise asked, looking concerned.

“Yeah. It’s brainless.”

“It is?”

“I was wondering if you’d like to help me on a different matter,” Dan said. “Possibly temporary, hopefully permanent. However, it’s an opportunity like no other.”

“Um, sure.” Elise’s answer was stilted with forced enthusiasm.

“I want your help on the governmental side of things,” Dan said reassuringly. “At Aegis. I’d double what I’m paying you now at Barton Capital.”

“Double? Wow. Aegis? But what would I do there?”

“Well, Randy’s my right hand, as you know. But I need a left hand too.”

“I…uh…” Elise stammered with a worried look. “Mr. Barton, I’m sorry. I don’t want to seem ungrateful. It’s just…I don’t know much about governmental stuff. I didn’t go to school for public policy. I don’t want to let you down.”

“Don’t worry. It’s brainless too.” Dan laughed. “I’ll give you on-the-job training. Someone as smart as you can pick it up quickly—no problem.”

“I…I’d love to!” Elise said, lighting up genuinely this time. “I’m always grateful for an opportunity to learn something new. Wow. Thank you!”

“You’re welcome,” Dan beamed. “Welcome aboard.”

Elise put her fork down and shook his hand. Abruptly, her elated expression turned serious. “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”

“Not at all.”

“I don’t mean to be rude, so please don’t take it that way.”

“Shoot. It takes a lot to offend me.”

“Why are you so involved with Aegis?” Elise asked. “I’m surprised someone of your stature doesn’t find it to be a waste of time. I can’t imagine it pays as well as trading currency.”

Dan nearly choked on his sushi. Once he swallowed, he gave Elise a very serious look and said, “Elise, being involved in government is never a waste of time. The reason I do currency brokerage is to make a living. That’s my day job, but it isn’t my true calling in life. Everyone has a passion outside of work that doesn’t pay well, right? Well, mine happens to be politics.”

“Fair enough. What drew you to politics?”

“I’m deeply concerned about how our communities are being run. I’m worried about the lack of safety on our streets, about people having access to education, clean water, and enough to eat. I believe I can make a difference. A big difference.”

“How?” Elise asked.

“Well, for starters, I’d completely change our concept of government altogether. In school, did you study the governments of the past, before the Invasion?”

“Of course.”

“So you know they were nothing like they are today. They actually worked back then.”

“But they were run by Tchogols and controlled by the Dranthyx,” Elise stated. “They worked, but they were designed to enslave us. Isn’t that how the story goes?”

“Well, that’s the simplified version, stripped of all nuance. The way the history is related to you younger folks is conspiracy-minded and ridiculous, if you ask me. It’s made everyone so paranoid about government that most of the developed world decided to eschew community organization altogether. The result: those magnificent old governments shriveled up and died. Now look at the mess we have. It’s sad. Everyone seems to have forgotten that government was about working together for the common good.”

“Things were OK for a while,” Elise remarked, her mouth full of tomatoes.

Business schools need to teach these kids some table manners.

“The Peace,” she continued. “Fifteen years of honest-to-God anarchy followed the Invasion, right? Most of the world had no government at all, but people got along fine.”

“Yeah, but is it peaceful now?” Dan asked. “That was a flash in the pan, and we’ll never see that again. You’ll never see another period of time with no Tchogols. The flu didn’t change the fact that the survivors carried Tchogol genes. Following the flu, there was a huge baby boom of Tchogols. Hundreds of millions of them were born all over the globe. Fifteen years later, the oldest Tchogols were teenagers, and there was a huge uptick in petty street crime. By the time those Tchogols were twenty, their transgressions had gotten serious and violent. Right now, those Tchogols are in their midthirties, and they have the chutzpah and the organizational savvy to form rogue armies that are a direct threat to our way of life.”

“Like in the hinterlands,” Elise noted.

“Like everywhere,” Dan said. “They’re everywhere. In the cities, on the lakes, in the mountains. Like cockroaches. Anyway, as you no doubt learned in school, Xreths banded together and formed security cooperatives. In the cities, everyone on a block would take turns patrolling the street. In the suburbs, people in developments would all contribute money to hire security guards. However, there’s only so much good a little ragtag neighborhood watch group can do. So, eventually, all those tiny concerns started merging together to pool their resources. They hired mercenaries, they bought armaments and aircraft, they started collecting intelligence.

“They got big, but not big enough.” Dan continued. “Look around. There’s still crime and chaos everywhere. Pre-Invasion governments worked because they were contiguous and omnipresent. They controlled all the land in a certain area, and if you lived there, you had to be a member of that government. Most governments aren’t land-based anymore, and they no longer own their citizens. It’s all voluntary and membership based.” Dan sneered while waving his hand in dismissive disgust.

“What’s wrong with that?” Elise asked. “People shouldn’t have a choice?”

“I understand that people want a choice,” Dan answered with a tinge of annoyance. “Forty years ago, you’d have to pack up your whole life and move across an ocean to change governments, but now you can change citizenship without getting up from your sofa. It’s great that everyone has that freedom these days. And sure, it’s nice to not have any taxes because we only pay membership fees. But look at the outcome. Most of the current governments can’t protect people effectively because they have no real territory. Aegis is huge in the Great Lakes region, but we can’t do a whole lot to serve our members in the Rockies because most people out there are SDI members. SDI doesn’t do reciprocal memberships and won’t cooperate with us half the time. This whole thing is an absolute train wreck.”

“If I’m not mistaken, Metteyya is a land-based government,” Elise said.

“If they can defend their territory, more power to ’em. I wish Aegis would take the same direction.”


Chapter 48

Octavia came out onto the house’s huge wraparound porch wearing a hoodie and holding a cup of hot tea. She put the cup down on a table and sat down in the rocking chair next to her father’s. Having not seen her in a while, Len was struck by how much she looked like her late mother: tall and Scandinavian-looking. He smiled at his daughter, and they sat in silence while looking at the vivid purple clouds.

“Kids asleep?” Len asked.

“I think so.” Octavia paused as a formation of young men and women marched past the house. “You have a damn army out here, Dad. How many students do you have now?”

“One hundred and three, not counting Natalia and me.”

“That laser tower wasn’t here last time,” his daughter remarked. “The watchtowers, either.”

“A lot has changed,” Len said. “When was the last time you were here?”

“You don’t remember?”

“My memory isn’t what it used to be.” Len frowned.

“Three years ago.”

“Three years! Geez, kid, you ought to visit your old man a little more often!”

“I wish I could, Dad. But you guys live so far away, and it’s tough to travel with kids and a job. I have plenty of time now, though. I may stay awhile.”

What does that mean? Never mind; I won’t pry. Maybe she had a fight with that so-called husband of hers. I never liked that guy.

“It’s good to have you back,” Len said.

“It’s good to be back. I missed you guys. Hey, where’s Natalia?”

“Off on one of her business trips. She’ll be back in two days.”

Len took a sip of Applewood and lit a cigarette. Exhaling, he made a choking sound, which triggered a coughing fit.

“Dad, I’m worried about your health. That cough sounds awful,” Octavia said.

“It’s just a cold.” Len choked on the words while trying to catch his breath.

“Someone told me you’ve had it for months.”

Len stared out onto the lake without saying anything.

“You said Natalia looks great now.”

“She always looked great,” Len said quietly.

“You know what I mean.”

Len inhaled deeply. “I’m not doing it.”

“Dad, I don’t want to lose you. I’ve already lost one parent.”

“Is that all? I’ve lost two.”

Octavia frowned.

“I’m sorry,” Len said, closing his eyes and rubbing his temples. “I don’t know where that came from. Look, I know you want what’s best for me. I love you too. But death is part of life. We’re all headed there. I’m not sure why everyone is so damn scared of something so inevitable.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way anymore. Natalia could live another hundred years. You could too.”

“Another hundred years?” Len scoffed. “What the hell would I do with all that time? Hell, I’m only seventy-seven, and I’m already bored of everything. I’ve been everywhere; I’ve seen and done everything. After a certain point, everything repeats. I meet the same people over and over again. There are only so many different types of personalities, you know. And every place I go reminds me of somewhere else.”

“Have you ever seen Mount Everest?”

The corner of Len’s mouth turned down in annoyance.

“Have you ever been to Mars?” Octavia asked.

“Of course not. No one has,” Len said.

“You could,” Octavia said, “if you lived long enough. You could meet your great-great-grandchildren. You’d have the time to master a hundred different skills. You could become a concert pianist one decade, a chess master the next. You could do anything, Dad.”

A gentle breeze blew over them. Len stubbed out his cigarette. “I just…I just don’t think life would even have any meaning if it weren’t for death.”

“That makes no sense.”

“Light is the opposite of dark,” Len said, “but one gives the other meaning. Contrast makes the image, you see. Good defines bad. Slow is the reason we have fast.”

Octavia gave him a miffed glance.

“Octavia, seriously, what would life be like without mortality hanging over our heads?” Len asked. “How can there be any greatness without the time pressure of getting things done before we expire? Mozart died at age thirty-four. He probably had a sense that he wouldn’t live very long, which is why he was so prolific. Had he known he’d live to a thousand years, do you think he’d have bothered with any of that?”

“Dad, no offense, but you’re no Mozart.”

Len laughed wheezily. “Well, OK. Bad example. I guess the point is, if we have all the time in the world, then time becomes worthless, and we’ll squander it. You already see it happening. Life-spans have increased so dramatically that everyone puts off adulthood. No one gets married, no one has children, no one sticks with a career. Now we’ve got a world full of forty-year-olds who act like teenagers. Do you know what my grandfather had lived through by age forty?”

“You sound like you should be telling kids to get off your lawn. Honestly, I think a second youth might do you some good.”

“And what the hell? I still don’t even understand how it works. Natalia looks like she’s twenty-five, but it’s not plastic surgery? I mean, she even eats like she’s twenty-five, but she doesn’t get fat. I don’t get it.”

“They inject you with a virus that changes your genome.”

“Oh,” Len said. “Sounds perfectly safe. What could possibly go wrong?”

“They’ve been doing it for years already,” Octavia said. “It works. I’ve had it done myself. You know I’m forty, right?”

“Yeah, I know. I was there when you were born.”

“Do I look forty to you?” Octavia asked.

“No. So explain it.”

“It caps your telomeres at a certain length. You can pick which age you want to be for the rest of your life. Between twenty-five and thirty is the optimal age, apparently, but they can do any age. As the seventy-seven-year-old cells in your body die naturally, they are replaced with new ones that think and act like they’re twenty-seven, or whatever age you pick. After a few years, enough of the old cells will have turned over that your body will actually be that of a younger person. Then you just stay that way. All new cells from then on out will be young.”

“But your parts still wear out, right?”

“Well, yeah,” Octavia said. “It doesn’t solve every problem of aging. Your joints will degrade from use, your arteries will still harden, your teeth will wear out. But if you keep up with it and keep fixing those things—”

“There’s an old Zen koan—” Len said.

“Oh boy, here we go.” Octavia sighed.

“A lowly street sweeper is pushing his broom down the street in old Japan. Some condescending jerk says to him, ‘My, that’s a lovely broom!’ You know what the street sweeper says back to him? ‘Thanks! This wonderful broom has served me faithfully for fifteen years. I’ve only replaced the head thirty-four times and the handle seventeen times!’”

His daughter gave him a tired-of-your-shit look.

“And let’s be frank here,” Len said. “You’re simplifying things quite a bit. Maybe you just had an injection, but Natalia’s procedure was way beyond that.”

“Dad, I was still young when mine was done. Natalia’s situation was different. Her body was decrepit.”

“I couldn’t even bring myself to visit her…” Len searched for the words, then shuddered. “In that state.”

“But it worked, didn’t it? I mean, she’s healthy now.”

Len reached over and put his hand on hers. “Octavia, look…it’s been a while since you’ve seen me.”

Octavia nodded while looking down at the wooden boards of the porch floor. The paint was peeling.

“I remember the first time I realized, with horror, that my mother was old. I saw her gray hair and wrinkles and realized that her vitality was slipping away. Losing what we love terrifies us all. I know you want to help me. But you need to understand something: nothing is permanent. Even if I do this antiaging thing, I could be killed in a car accident the next day. I could be murdered by those assholes trying to take our island. That’s life. Mortality is a scary goddamn thing.”


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