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Excerpt for Barriers: A Dystopian Thriller (Book 1 of Barriers Trilogy) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




Barriers

Book One of the Barriers Trilogy




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PATRICK SKELTON


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

Copyright © 2019 by Patrick Skelton


All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.


Please visit the author at www.patrickskelton.com.





Manufactured in the United States of America




ISBN: 9781730747557



Acknowledgements

For Jennifer—my wife and best friend. Your suggestions were perfect.

A special thanks to the following people who read the manuscript and offered valuable feedback: Anna Chidiac, Lauri Kyler, Susie Hubacher, Jessica Hoffman, Cal Militaru, Marc Gegner, and Douglas Riggle.








One






October 2079



Three hard knocks on the front door jolted Nathan awake.

He jerked upright in bed and glanced at the clock on the nightstand: 3:35 a.m.

He shook his wife. “It’s them, Sarah. They’ve come for Ian.”

“What?” she said, her voice groggy. “At this hour?”

Nathan reached for the baseball bat he kept under the bed, adrenaline surging through his body. “I wouldn’t put it past Barrier Admin to show up in the middle of the night to do their dirty work.” His heart pounded as he threw on his robe. “They might order other law-abiding citizens to roll over and keep quiet, but not me, Sarah. No one comes into my house and takes our son without a fight.”

He darted to Ian’s room down the hall and stuck his head in the doorway. His son was awake in bed. “Dad, what’s going on? Who’s at the door?”

“It’s ok, Ian. We’re here. Just stay quiet.” Sarah pushed past Nathan into the room and sat on the edge of Ian’s bed, gently brushing aside the hair on his forehead with trembling fingers. Nathan closed the bedroom door and made sure it was locked, then he dashed to the living room.

More pounding on the front door.

He gripped the baseball bat, his knuckles white. Looking through the peephole, he saw two large law enforcers in grey uniforms and a short bald man wearing a tie.

“Get off my property. All of you,” Nathan shouted.

“Open the door, Mr. Gallagher,” the bald man said, holding up a badge.

Nathan couldn’t make out his full name, but he clearly saw the words “Relocation Representative” and “Barrier Administration.” Not good. Just as he suspected.

“We just ran a LifeTracker scan and we know everyone is home,” the bald man went on. “Don’t make me have to use force to enter your house.”

“You’re not coming in.”

“Mr. Gallagher, if we need to use force, you will be arrested, and you and your wife can kiss your son’s visitation rights goodbye. I’ll give you one more chance to open the door.”

The baseball bat shook in Nathan’s hands. Despite his overwhelming urge to die protecting his son, he knew he and Sarah had to be wise about this. They had talked about what they would do in this worst case scenario. But how could a parent fully prepare for a moment like this? If they didn’t cooperate they would never see Ian again. The fact of the matter was that Barrier Admin held the power. He was helpless to stop them.

He threw the baseball bat across the room and looked back in the direction of Ian’s bedroom. He would find a way to get Ian back, he promised himself.

He took a deep breath, disarmed the security system and opened the door.

The men entered, both law enforcers aiming their guns at Nathan.

“A smart decision, Mr. Gallagher,” the bald man said, pulling a SyncSheet from his pocket and scrolling with his pupils. “And now for the legalese.”

The man rattled off a calloused court order that both he and Sarah had read several days ago. Next, he skimmed through a letter Barrier Admin had emailed them a month ago. “As you are aware,” the bald man went on, clearing his throat, “only healthy, natural-born Barrier residents with high economic earning potential are permitted to remain in the Barrier system, and thus share in its benefits. We regret to inform you that Ian—”

“I’ve read the letter,” Nathan interrupted, his voice tense. “I don’t care what the court says. He might be a quadriplegic, but he’s a healthy kid with plenty of income earning potential. How can I convince you of that?”

The man folded up the SyncSheet and slipped it back into his pocket. “You’ll have to file your grievances with Barrier Administration, Mr. Gallagher. My job is to relocate non-compliant Barrier residents to appropriate Sanctuaries, and I intend to do so. Any effort to obstruct the law will result in prosecution. Am I clear, Mr. Gallagher?”

Nathan swallowed hard, glaring at both law enforcers. They looked back with cold stares, guns still drawn.

“I’m coming with Ian then,” Nathan said. “It’s dangerous in the Sanctuaries. They’re predicting another solar flare any day. My son needs to be with his father.”

The man shook his head. “I can’t allow that, sir. You’ll be notified when visitation rights are granted.”

Nathan took a step forward, struggling to hold himself in check. “You people are monsters.”

“May I remind you, sir, Ian’s visitation rights will be revoked if you or your wife attempt to obstruct the law,” the man said, straightening his tie. “Now, would you please escort your son from his bedroom, or do we need to do that?”

Nathan turned and rushed to Ian’s room, both law enforcers on his heels. Opening the door, he found Sarah on Ian’s bed, her arms wrapped tightly around his shoulders.

“Stay away from my son,” she shouted at the enforcers.

“Who are they, Dad? What’s happening?” Ian’s voice quivered.

The law enforcers peeled Sarah’s arms off of Ian as she shrieked and begged, “No…no…don’t take him!”

Nathan lifted his son’s limp body from his bed and strapped him into his wheelchair, unable to look Sarah in the eye. “Nobody’s going to hurt you, Ian. Okay? This is just temporary. Your mother and I will come for you. I promise.”

“But Dad—”

Nathan put his hands gently on his son’s shoulders. “Do you trust me, Ian?”

Ian nodded.

Nathan kissed his cheek, trying to hold back tears.

He wheeled him into the living room as the law enforcers followed, escorting Sarah who continued to sob uncontrollably.

“How can I trust that my son will receive the level of care he requires?” Nathan demanded.

The bald man grabbed the handles of the wheelchair. “We’ll take it from here. Sanctuary Administration will see to his care.”

The law enforcers released Sarah and led the way through the front door. She lunged forward and kissed Ian’s face before one of them pushed her away.

Nathan held her as Ian craned his head, screaming, “Mom, Dad, don’t let them take me! Please stop them…please!”

Sarah collapsed in a heap on the floor, her face in her hands.

Nathan clenched his fists, feeling powerless as they ripped his son from their home.


Two






Three Weeks Later



Nathan swiped his thumb at the downtown hover-rail terminal and boarded a tram headed to Sanctuary 87. He sank into a window seat, studying his ragged reflection in the glass. Dark circles shadowed his eyes and he could swear he had twice as much gray hair as he did three weeks ago. He just turned forty-six, but he felt like he’d aged five years since they took Ian. And he certainly looked it.

As a boy around Ian’s age boarded and passed Nathan’s row, Nathan reminded himself to hang on to hope. At least his son was still permitted to have visitors. For the last ten days, he and Sarah took turns making the two-hundred-mile trek into the solar badlands, where Ian was imprisoned in a dingy fallout shelter converted into a hospital. The court order allowed only one parent per visit, and Nathan hated leaving his wife at home just as much as he hated her traveling to Sanctuary 87 without him.

But that’s the way it was and there wasn’t much he or anyone else could do about it. Not yet, at least.

He gazed out the window as the tram glided above its invisible track, bulleting past the city limits within three minutes. He caught a glimpse of the sign warning passengers they were leaving the Kansas City Barrier and they should adhere to safety protocols upon exiting the UV protected hover-rail. Squinting, he searched for the massive energy dome that sheltered his city from destructive solar flares, but could not see it.

No surprise there, he hadn’t been able to spot the Barrier in weeks.

Less than one percent of the world’s population could even detect Barrier domes with the naked eye, and Nathan had always prided himself in being one of the gifted. But the task required immense concentration, and his mind was two hundred miles away.

As the tram entered the vast parched wasteland between the Kansas City Barrier and Sanctuary 87, Nathan’s eyes followed old I-70 in the distance, closely paralleling the hover-rail track. Desert shrubs had taken over, growing from its cracked, barely visible asphalt. Rusted frames of vehicles littered the ditches. The poor souls were at the wrong place at the wrong time when the first round of solar flares struck Earth forty-nine years ago.

The initial coronal mass ejection was sudden and of apocalyptic magnitude according to climatologists and astronomers. Experts theorized that the sun had been assaulted by an unknown energy source, but none had come to a consensus as to what that energy source might have been. The subsequent flares had been far less severe, but steady and powerful enough to gradually cook the ozone layer over the span of five decades. Crops on six continents struggled to grow in the baked landscape, resulting in years of worldwide civil wars over food supply. The poles, for the most part, had been shown some mercy, due to the planet’s trajectory with the sun. Too bad no one wanted to live where temperatures were sub-zero most of the year.

But the human race was safe again, the world had been told. Now that the Rankcon Intergovernmental Partnership owned the planet and graciously offered its proprietary solar barrier technology at a steep price. Rankcon’s agricultural Barriers protected the production of the world’s food supply. LifeTracker thumb chips and retina activated SyncSheets worked in tandem to keep track of the population’s daily activity, all but eliminating civil unrest. Automobiles and highways were gone for good, along with cell phones and FM radio. None were compatible with nonstop solar interference, or Rankcon’s agenda.

If you wanted to coexist with the flares under a decimated ozone layer, have a career, and live in a home with a green backyard you could actually use without your skin getting scorched, you counted yourself lucky to be under the protection Rankcon offered. You kept your mouth shut, played by the rules, and paid your outrageous dues cheerfully.

Or else.

He took a deep breath as the tram flew past a parade of abandoned eighteen wheelers. The whole scene reminded him of where he was headed. Sanctuary 87 was a no-man’s-land the civilized world had discarded decades ago. Where his son was trapped and desperate for help.

He leaned back and closed his eyes.

He hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in weeks.



_____




The tram slowed to a halt outside Sanctuary 87.

Two border patrol officers in silver UV suits boarded. As the passenger manifest was reviewed, Nathan looked out his window and felt his stomach knot. Beyond an endless towering fence, a sea of concrete barracks littered the horizon, walls and roofs blackened from forty years of solar flares. Over two million legal U.S. citizens were imprisoned here, including Ian. He still couldn’t believe it had only been three weeks since Ian had been taken. It felt much, much longer.

Twenty minutes later, the officers left and passengers began disembarking. Nathan lifted the hood of his UV jacket, grabbed his guitar case from the overhead compartment and stepped off the tram. Intense sunlight assaulted his face. He joined a moving line of bodies outside a windowless building marked Sanctuary Border Security. He entered and passed through a body scanner, swiping his thumb at a LifeTracker kiosk guarded by a pair of soldiers.

“Enter the next area when the gate opens and stand still until your name is called,” one of them barked.

The gate opened and closed behind him, and he entered a holding area where a few dozen fidgety people waited. After a long forty minutes, his name was called over a loudspeaker. He stepped through another gate and performed a second thumb and body scan. Questions were asked about his business in Sanctuary 87: How many hours did he intend to stay? Who was he visiting? Was he with the press? A search was made of his guitar case, with a quick peek into the sound hole of his guitar. Nathan pleaded with the guard to be careful. It was his father’s old pre-flare Martin D28, worth a pretty penny due to the scarcity of lumber. A guard reminded Nathan to put his visor and jacket back on and to return no later than 9 p.m. He’d have to undergo a similar process to leave.

A metal door opened and Nathan passed through, entering a metropolis of concrete barracks and sun-scorched dirt roads. A large sweaty man stopped near him, stomping on a massive scorpion as it crossed between them.

“You work for the Kansas City Tribune, right?” the man said, dragging his heel against the cracked dirt and leaving a black smear. “I’ve seen you here before with your press badge. I’m with American News.”

“I used to,” Nathan said. “They let me go several weeks ago.” His recent job termination was still a sore topic, one he wasn’t in the mood for discussing, especially with a complete stranger.

“The boss has me covering another story about a reporter who never came home,” the man rattled on. “Sanctuary police found him in a ditch covered with scorpions, and his neck was twisted like a pretzel. Whoever did it cut out his LifeTracker chip and probably bartered it for a week’s rations.”

“Wow, that’s horrible.”

“It’s downright vile, if you ask me. And the social justice activists want us to sympathize with these criminals? We’d be out of our minds to allow anyone in the Sanctuaries anywhere near our Barrier cities. It’s just not worth the risk.”

He wished Nathan good luck with whatever he was doing here, then disappeared into the maze of barracks. The man was right about one thing: LifeTracker chips extracted from Barrier residents were worth their weight in gold in the Sanctuaries. It meant the perpetrator stood a small chance of getting past border security with someone else’s chip in his thumb, and slipping into the nearest Barrier city unnoticed.

A boy on a tricycle taxi emerged from an alley and Nathan flagged him down. The bike squealed and came to a stop against Nathan’s shoes. A tattered brown jumpsuit covered the boy’s legs and torso, and the blistered tip of his nose protruded from a rag swaddled around his face and neck.

“Where you headed, mister?” the boy said.

“Quadrant Three Hospital.”

“Jump on.”

Nathan climbed into the backseat and the tricycle sped off with a jolt.

You should be wearing an approved UV jacket and visor,” Nathan said. “You know they’re free here, right?”

Can’t stand wearing those stupid things,” the boy shouted as they weaved in and out of alleys, past one concrete barrack after another. Each structure housed six to eight people and all were identical: 13x20 feet; no windows; a tiny slab in the back with a stone oven.

“Why not?” Nathan asked.

“Too stiff in the arms to steer and I can’t see where I’m going with those visors.”

“Ah.”

Foolish kid. There were millions just like him, making skin cancer in the Sanctuaries as common as scorpion stings.

“My friends call me Smoldering Samuel. Want to know why?” the boy said.

“Why?”

“Plain and simple. I’m the fastest taxi cyclist in Sanctuary 87. I make the ground smolder.”

Nathan gripped the seat as the tricycle bounced over a pothole, then swerved around a gigantic scorpion. “I see.”

Samuel pedaled for fifteen more minutes, dodging several stray dogs that looked like they hadn’t eaten in months. He pulled up to the fence surrounding the hospital. “Well, that’ll be five dollars,” Samuel said, holding out his SmartScanner.

Nathan pressed his thumb on the screen and added a generous tip.

Samuel’s eyes lit up. “That’ll buy me and my mom three days rations. Thank you, sir.”

“I’m at least double your weight, little man,” Nathan said, patting him on the shoulder. “You earned every penny.”

“Well, this job is just temporary,” Samuel replied, still grinning over the tip. “My brother works in the Barrier maintenance program. He says that’s the only way out of here. He’s away right now repairing the New York City Barrier after that last flare, and if he does a good job, he might get selected to live there. When he comes back, he’ll be real pleased with my tips. That’ll show him I can work hard and do what he does, and then I can live there with him. He’s going to tell his boss about me.”

“I’m sure your brother will be proud of you, Samuel,” Nathan said. “Keep at it.”

Samuel shoved the SmartScanner into his pocket and grabbed the handlebars. “Well, gotta get going. Vegetable truck’s on the way and the line gets long fast.”

Nathan watched the boy speed off and vanish behind a barrack. Unfortunately, most of his earnings would be siphoned from his account to cover the scanner’s monthly maintenance fees.

Nathan approached the Quadrant Three Hospital—a massive, windowless concrete bunker with big metal double-doors that dared visitors to enter. A group of bearded men stood near the gated entrance. UV hoods were pulled low, concealing their eyes.

One of them threw a cigarette on the ground and commented with a gritty voice, “Hey music man. Play us a ditty.”

Nathan pretended not to hear them and kept walking.

“Nice UV jacket,” another added. “Looks fancier than the ones they hand out here.”

Nathan didn’t make eye contact as he quickly walked past.

“Are you deaf?” one of them shouted, followed by a string of obscenities related to Nathan being rich and privileged.

He swiped his thumb at a security terminal inside the hospital entrance as a heavy-set armed guard watched. Next came a body scan and pat-down.

A green light appeared and a bar raised.

“Clear to enter,” the guard said. He motioned Nathan forward and the bar fell behind him.

Nathan entered the dungeon-like lobby and removed his UV visor. A row of lights flickered in the center of the low ceiling, tossing long shadows around huddled bodies. This level was designated for skin cancer screenings, and these people were here for their required yearlies. Many earned their day's electronic rations in the unfiltered sun pouring concrete for new barracks, repairing sewage lines and maintaining solar generators that powered Sanctuary 87. Kids like Samuel put their lives on the line taxiing outsiders around with improper UV attire. Nathan had written dozens of articles about life out here.

He knew it well.

And he knew this place too well.

He located the stairwell and lumbered twelve flights down to another waiting area, mostly empty. The air was stale, like in the fallout shelter he remembered as a kid. He made his way to room 1207, located in the Post-Treatment Wing.

Ian was asleep on the bed closest to the door, his chest rising and falling with the aid of a diaphragm pacemaker. He shared the room with another patient, a little girl named Cynthia. Today a curtain was drawn around her bed, and three sets of legs could be seen from behind the curtain, one set was dressed in a doctor’s white lab coat.

Nathan set the guitar case down beside Ian’s bed, then he leaned over and stroked his matted curly blonde hair.

Ian opened his eyes and yawned. “Dad…I’m glad you’re here. It feels like it’s been forever since Mom left yesterday.”

“Your mother stayed until security forced her to leave at eight p.m. Just like always. How are you feeling?”

“Okay, I guess. Any idea when Gramps might be visiting?”

“He’s not back from Alaska yet.”

“Gramps is still planning on fixing me so I can get out of this hole, right?”

“I talked to your grandpa two nights ago. He says the neural synaptic device is coming along.”

“When’s he coming back?”

“Soon, Ian. Why don’t I get you into your wheelchair so you can eat something.”

“Yeah, this bed smells really bad. Do you think my breakfast will smell any better?”

Nathan carried his son’s limp body to his wheelchair beside the bed. Every time Nathan did this, he fought hard to hold back his tears. As of thirteen months ago, his boy was an athletic twelve-year-old with loads of agility and muscle. In two seconds flat, a reckless dive into the shallow end of a friend’s swimming pool turned him into a withered and rubbery quadriplegic, unable to move anything below the seventh cervical vertebra of his neck. Nathan and Sarah were grateful that he was still able to speak clearly, move his head a little, and eat without the aid of a feeding tube.

Nathan strapped him in and made sure Ian’s mouth could reach the flexible tubing connected to the water bottle on the back of his wheelchair. “Has your aide been in here this morning to change your catheter?”

“Yes, but I haven’t had much to drink since Mom left last night.”

“You need fluids, Ian. Is the nurse not encouraging you to drink more water?”

“The water here tastes metallic and the tube’s coated with crud.”

“You have to drink, son. That’s a non-negotiable. Promise me you’ll drink more?”

“Okay, okay, I promise,” Ian mumbled, grimacing at the yellowed tube dangling beside him. His son had a point. It looked disgusting.

Angelina, the nurse appointed to be Ian’s aide, entered the room carrying a tray of food. When Nathan first met her ten days ago he guessed her to be Hispanic and in her early-forties. Polite, but not overly friendly. But could he blame her for being a little hardened? This place was anything but a nurse’s dream job.

“When’s the last time you cleaned his water tubing?” Nathan asked.

“I’ll try to get to that today,” she responded, setting the tray down on Ian’s bed. Nathan sensed the fatigue in her voice. He noticed her glance at Cynthia’s bed.

“I’ll be back shortly to feed him,” Angelina said, shuffling out the door.

“Will Gramps be here tomorrow?” Ian asked, his deep hazel eyes hopeful.

Nathan sat on an old stool and kicked at a dead cockroach. Truth was, he wasn’t sure when his father was coming back. He had taken off for the family’s vacation cabin several months ago, claiming he did his best work in God’s country, alone and uninterrupted. He was a brilliant engineer with many fascinations, including a doctorate in neurology and a long career in aerospace communications. He was also Nathan’s only hope for getting his son out of this hellhole. If they could get Ian to move and function on his own, then they might stand a chance of convincing Barrier Admin to allow his boy to come home.

“Gramps will be here soon. I promise,” Nathan said.

“How’s that device supposed to work, anyway?”

“It’ll make you independent again, and that’s what’s important.”

Ian sighed. “Maybe I could become a sports announcer or something. Then we wouldn’t have to wait on Gramps, and you could tell Barrier Admin about my career path.”

“I wish it was that simple.”

“Why isn’t it?”

“It just isn’t.”

The fact remained, his son was an adopted Sanctuary orphan and Barrier Admin had found a loophole forcing Ian to return to Sanctuary 87. Nathan and Sarah had done all they could to convince the monsters to take a minuscule risk on Ian’s future income earning potential after the accident. But in the end, Barrier Admin viewed him as a liability. A whole year at an upscale Kansas City hospital with half a dozen unsuccessful procedures sealed his boy’s fate.

“Got you something,” Nathan said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a baseball. He held it out in front of Ian’s face. “Autographed by Keith Ramus.”

Ian’s jaw dropped as he analyzed the scribbled blue writing. “Seriously? How did you swing this?”

“The Royals owed me a few favors after that glowing write-up I did last year for the Tribune.”

Ian stared at the ball, then looked away.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s just that…I wish I could feel it in my hands.”

Nathan put his arm around his son’s shoulder and lowered his voice. “You’ll be pitching again in no time after Gramps smuggles in that device and works his magic.”

“Do you think?”

“I know so.” Nathan placed the baseball on an old banana crate converted into a bedside stand. “Your grandpa is a genius and I know he’ll come through.”

Ian eyed Nathan’s guitar case. “Are you gonna play ‘Goodbye, Girl’ like you promised'?"

“If you promise to sing louder than me.”

“I’ll try.”

Nathan swallowed hard and started tuning.

‘Goodbye, Girl’ was a dreadful boy-band hit about teenage love gone sour. Nathan was sure his son had requested the song to torture him, but never-the-less, he aimed to please. If playing a pop song brought a grin to his son’s face, then it was worth the humiliation.

As Nathan tweaked the final tuning peg on his guitar, a man spoke with a hushed voice from behind the curtain around Cynthia’s bed. It sounded like medical jargon.

“Here we go, Ian,” Nathan said, grabbing a pick. “Wish me luck.”

He strummed a G-chord with a rhythm he wasn’t accustomed to playing.

"Girl, oh girl, what's the deal? Girl, oh girl, do you know how I feel? Girl, oh girl, we both need to heal," Nathan belted, his tone nasal and his notes hideously off-key.

Ian burst into laughter.

Nathan stopped. “What’s so funny?”

“No offense, Dad, but you sound like Kermit the Frog.”

“You’re supposed to sing louder than me, remember?”

"Right."

“Promise not to laugh this time?”

Ian nodded with a smirk.

Nathan continued strumming and singing while his son bobbed his head and joined in. “Girl, you hurt me too many times. Girl, don’t make me cry. Girl, this is goodbye.”

A woman suddenly wailed from behind the curtain.

Nathan froze.

The doctor spoke in a low, monotone voice. Most of his words were difficult to decipher, but Nathan clearly heard “…please understand this procedure is required by law…” and “…Cynthia is no longer in pain.”

The doctor swiftly exited the room.

“Dad, what did they do to Cynthia?” Ian asked.

Nathan jumped to his feet. “I’ll be back in a minute, Ian.”

He chased the doctor down the empty hallway, sizing him up in ten seconds, a reflex acquired from twenty years of investigative journalism. Dark thick hair and probably Greek. Mid-thirties. 5’8” and around 150 pounds. The doc might have youth on his side, but he was no match against Nathan’s six-foot sturdy frame.

Nathan caught up to him and grabbed his arm, whipping him around. The doctor’s SyncSheet fell to the floor.

Nathan pointed his finger in his face. “Did you just euthanize that little girl?”

He scowled and swatted Nathan’s finger away. “Who are you?”

"I’m Nathan Gallagher...Ian's father. My kid shares his room with Cynthia."

“Ah yes…Mr. Gallagher,” he replied, tugging at his lab coat and moving sideways. “We do need to talk. Perhaps we could continue this discussion in my office in a less threatening fashion?"

"No, we’ll continue it right here."

"Very well. We need to discuss your son’s Bedside Compassion date."

Nathan’s spine froze, the same way it had when he found Ian floating in the pool after his dive into the shallow end. "What are you talking about?" he gasped. "I was under the impression Ian would be here for several months, then moved to another facility."

"Plans change quickly around here, Mr. Gallagher. We’re overcrowded and understaffed. Your son’s condition requires a personal aide. We just don’t have the human resources to sustain him long-term. And I'm afraid I have no say in the matter, anyway. My orders come directly from Sanctuary Admin."

Nathan's blood boiled and he fought the urge to wrap his fingers around the doctor's throat. "You plan on murdering my son?"

"Bedside Compassion is a painless procedure involving one quick injection. The patient enters a relaxing, blissful sleep, then—"

"When will this happen?"

"Thirty days from now. Orders from Sanctuary Admin came through this morning."

“Then let my son leave with me,” Nathan begged. “His mother and I will move to Sanctuary 87 and take care of him. We don't need your resources."

Nathan meant it. If he and Sarah had to leave the Kansas City Barrier to keep his son alive, then so be it. It might be an inevitable scenario anyway, considering he'd been out of work for weeks and didn't see any job prospects on the horizon. Sarah made a decent income as an English professor, but earned nowhere near enough to afford the Barrier taxes for the both of them.

"I can't allow you to remove Ian from this facility,” the doctor said, straightening his collar. “All Sanctuary residents above the age of twelve must be able to perform manual labor and earn their electronic rations. I didn’t write the rules, Mr. Gallagher, but I do have a legal obligation to enforce them.”

The doctor excused himself, leaving Nathan alone in the hallway.

He pulled out his SyncSheet and frantically tapped an urgent message to his father. He needed to get here as soon as possible with the neural synaptic device. Ian didn’t have months, he had days. As he sent it another message popped up.

It was from his wife.

Nathan felt his knees buckle as he read the four words:

“Your father is dead.”

Three




 


Fourteen Months Previously



Jillian Catterton embraced her daughter outside the restricted area of the Zathcore launch pad. In the distance, the Encounter Five spacecraft silhouetted the Nevada twilight, ready for its seventh mission to Ellis Three with Jillian as pilot and captain.

She pulled Ashlyn close and wept. "Fifteen months—that’s a long time until a mother can see her daughter again."

"We go through this every time, Mom,” Ashlyn said. “At least it’s not like the old days when it took you nine months to reach Ellis Three.”

"That doesn’t make saying goodbye any easier. What if something happens to you while I’m gone?” Jillian said.

"I'm a big girl, Mom. I can take care of myself."

"I know you can. It's just…"

Ashlyn lifted her UV visor and offered a reassuring smile. "I’ll be fine, Mom. I promise.”



_____




Kendall Rouhoff watched all seven astronauts board Encounter Five through binoculars. He was thrilled with his informant’s cooperation. Every detail supplied had been accurate: launch date, location, personnel, itineraries. Kendall’s client, Rankcon Corporation, would also be pleased.

He had to hand it to Zathcore for the great effort they put into concealing this mission. Unlike previous trips to Ellis Three, Encounter Five wouldn’t be bringing back ancient relics to sell to museums. From the data he’d gathered, this mission had far broader implications. It was funded by Elliot Gareth, the mastermind who invented Barrier technology forty years ago. Shortly after selling his patent to Rankcon Corporation, he fled to Ellis Three and hadn’t been heard from since. Rankcon wanted to know what the old recluse was up to, and Kendall had to admit he was curious too.

Four









The funeral was held inside his father’s massive greenhouse.

Nathan wrapped up a stiff ten-minute eulogy and took a seat at an empty table toward the back. His mind was elsewhere, rehashing the facts for the umpteenth time. A handwritten suicide note had been found at the cabin in Alaska, along with the LifeTracker chip that had been surgically removed from his thumb. Seven empty whiskey bottles were found on the kitchen table. According to local Alaskan authorities, he vaporized himself with a molecular separator set to maximum. All that was left of his body was radioactive soot blown across windshield of his old Cessna 172 seaplane. Docked in front of the isolated cabin, he’d done the deed in the pilot’s seat. The note said his father wanted to be remembered for his life’s work and not by his corpse. Forensic analysis confirmed a positive match of his DNA in the buckets of powdered remains.

But Nathan wasn’t buying any of it, not for a second.

His father wasn’t the depressed recluse the Journal of Aerospace Engineering made him out to be in a recent article, a two-page editorial written by an old colleague of his father. Neither was he an alcoholic. But after four days of deliberation, the family came to the consensus that a Celebration of Life ceremony on his father’s treasured estate—specifically in the greenhouse—would be the most sensible course of action. “People need closure,” Nathan’s sister, Briana, had said. “It’s the least we can do to honor Dad’s memory.”

Nathan agreed with little more than a nod over coffee the morning the decision was finalized. Anything resembling a funeral was the last thing he wanted, but he wasn’t about to be the bad guy holding up everybody else. Good for them. They’d accepted his father’s appalling fate. But the investigative journalist in him found it all a little too suspicious.

So much for closure.

He looked around the greenhouse. A hundred or so guests were in attendance. Maybe someone here knew something he didn’t? Perhaps he had overlooked an old friend or a distant relative who might have information proving his father was alive. Nathan had made dozens of calls over the last week. His father’s close friends and colleagues were as shocked and clueless as Nathan was about the news.

“Mind if I join you, Nathan?”

An old man in a loud blazer plopped down in a chair across the table. He looked mid-seventies, about the age of Nathan’s father. Dark stains plastered the gold lettering of his old GCTF ball cap, fingerprint smudges clinging to its warped bill. His father had a couple hats like that lying around.

The man lit a cigar and puffed. A smoke cloud floated between their faces. “What's the fine up to now, anyway?”

“Ten grand and a night in jail,” Nathan said without hesitation. He'd bailed out his father less than a year ago for lighting up in downtown Kansas City.

He removed the cigar from between his teeth. “Any snitches in the vicinity? I assumed we’d be amongst friends.”

Nathan shrugged. The greenhouse had little ventilation. Guests would notice. He wasn't fond of hosting illegal activity either—at least not today with dozens of people he didn’t recognize loitering around.

The man extended his hand. “Benjamin Hutchinson...but call me Bennie like your father did.”

Nathan shook his hand, his name ringing a bell. His father had mentioned him a few times over the years. “You served with Dad on the Global Communications Task Force, didn’t you?”

“Sure did, and I can’t believe it’s been forty years,” Bennie said. “Cellular technology was a wonderful luxury while it lasted, but it became obsolete after the flares started wreaking havoc on cell towers and carrier waves.”

“So I’ve heard. How long did you serve with Dad?”

“Nine long years in the trenches…demolishing cell towers and laying underground landline while Barriers were erected and the planet warred over crop supply,” Bennie went on. “We could have easily served an additional five years together if funding hadn’t run out, leaving half the world stranded in Sanctuary fallout shelters.”

Nathan folded his arms. “I guess that makes us the lucky ones, huh?”

“Depends on how you look at things,” Bennie said. “Your father and I have long suspected that when the Intergovernmental Congress took charge of the planet’s safety half a century ago, they saw a perfect opportunity to re-plan and stabilize the world, and get filthy rich doing so. Order and money, Nathan. That’s what it’s always been about.”

Nathan mulled this over, but was interrupted by a burst of bright light outside the greenhouse.

“Speak of the devil,” Bennie said, looking upward.

Silence fell over the room. White light flooded the glass, illuminating faces and bodies like heavenly apparitions. After thirty seconds, the light dissipated to yellow, then orange, then red. Five minutes later, the sky faded to blue.

Nathan’s uncle raised a champagne glass and broke the awkward silence. “To Aidan!”

“To Dad,” his sister added.

Conversations sprang back to life.

“Right on time,” Bennie said. “They were predicting a flare in the next day or so.”

“Yeah…impeccable timing.”

“Pop quiz,” Bennie said, slamming his hand on the table. “Guess where I was when the first flare struck forty-nine years ago?”

Nathan shrugged.

“On the toilet with my pants down.”

“Yikes.”

“Yep.” Another suck on his cigar. Smoke streamed from his nostrils. “Have you noticed the flares becoming more frequent?”

“I stopped keeping track.”

“Well I keep track of everything. What can I say? I’ve had nothing better to do since Sherry passed last spring.”

“Your wife?”

“Number three, and she was a keeper.”

“Sorry for your loss.”

“Sorry? Nonsense,” Bennie said, snorting. “The only thing you need to be sorry about is being born in this century. If the sun would cut us some slack for a few years, the ozone layer might stand a chance of recovering, and we might be able to grow crops outdoors again. The moronic media is saying that at the current rate of the sun’s misbehavior, it’ll go supernova in a hundred years. Although, as usual, they’ve got the terminology all wrong.”

“How so?”

“The sun’s far too small to go supernova,” Bennie said loudly. “But it will explode, and it will annihilate Earth and everything on it. At least we won’t be around for the human barbecue.”

Nathan’s aunt glared from the table beside them.

Bennie paid no attention. “The big mystery remains…what caused the sun to suddenly start destabilizing forty-nine years ago? We were supposed to have a few billion more years before our cranky friend in the sky turned into a ravenous red giant and devoured the entire solar system.”

Nathan’s aunt stood, grabbed her purse and glowered at Bennie. “I’ve had enough of you, sir.”

Bennie furrowed his eyebrows as she streaked through the rows of tables and exited the greenhouse. “What’s her problem?”

Nathan was speechless.

Bennie cleared his throat. “As I was saying…we’ll never know why. The destabilized fusion is occurring in the sun’s core where it’s twenty million degrees, and we’ve only managed to send probes to the outer layer where it’s only ten thousand. But that still puts us three million miles from the core, and from that distance we’ll never get adequate information. So, the fact remains, we’re screwed.”

Nathan glanced at Sarah chatting with distant relatives at the table beside him and wondered how much longer he’d have to endure this. He cleared his throat. “If you don’t mind, Bennie, I’d like to ask you a few questions about Dad.”

Chewing on his cigar he continued, “After the Barriers were erected and populated, and NASA was up and running again, Aidan and I worked as senior communications engineers for twenty years on missions to Ellis Three. I retired at sixty-five, but you know Aidan, retiring wasn’t part of his vocabulary.” Bennie looked around. “Nice workspace Aidan had here. Lucky devil. I was always jealous.”

“Oh?”

“He was the only senior communications engineer permitted to work from home. Aidan always had the upper hand. He was the best man NASA had.”

Bennie tapped his cigar on the table. Sarah looked his way and coughed loudly. She shot Nathan a scowl.

“Enough about the old days,” Bennie said. “How are you handling yourself?”

Nathan rubbed his face with one hand. “I’ve been better, Bennie, and that’s what I want to talk to you about.”

Bennie leaned forward and whispered, “I hear you’ve been making phone calls about your father all week.”

“Who told you?”

“Word gets around.”

Nathan glanced sideways and leaned in. “So, do you know anything?”

“I know your father didn’t kill himself,” Bennie said, reaching for a brownie from a plate in the center of the table. He leaned back and took a big bite, brown crumbs cascading down the front of his blazer. He cursed under this breath, brushing them off with a napkin. “Lousy eulogy, by the way.”

“Thanks.”

Bennie tossed the napkin aside. “Tell me, Nathan, did your dear old dad ever disclose what he was involved with for the last five months?”

“I only know what everybody else knows.”

“Which is?”

“For the last ten years Dad designed communication schematics for an aerospace firm called Zathcore. They’re secretive but reputable, I’ve done the research. He worked in this greenhouse twelve hours a day behind a barricade of plants.” Nathan pointed at a thick wall of exotic vines covering a closed metal door to their right. “Nobody was allowed inside the greenhouse while he worked remote, not even Mom. Nothing unusual about that. When it comes to Ellis Three archeological missions, every employee takes an oath to protect corporate secrets. Dad had a ‘don't ask, don't tell’ policy, and the family upheld his wishes.”

“Anything else?”

“Dad picked up some lucrative contractual work to help fund the neural synaptic device he was designing for my son’s quadriplegia. Some top secret project he wasn’t at liberty to discuss. About three months ago, he decided to split for the cabin in Alaska, insisting he needed time alone to work on the device and finish up his contractual obligations. He said he was stressed out and overwhelmed. He kept his laptop and everything else in a bomb proof vault in the back office here. Mom says he emptied the vault and took it all with him. He called her every night from the cabin and seemed to be sound in mind. That’s about it.”

Bennie reached out and put a hand on Nathan’s wrist. “I know all about your son and that device, and I know how you’re getting screwed over by Barrier Admin. Aidan told me everything.”

“Then you know that if my father is still alive, I need to find him. My son’s life depends on getting that device and proving to Barrier Admin that he can pull his own weight.”

“What if I told you I know exactly what Aidan dirtied his hands with?” Bennie whispered. “And I believe he may still be alive.”

Nathan nearly jumped out of his seat.

Bennie glanced behind him, then to the right and left. “But you don’t want to get involved with these people.”

Nathan lunged across the table and grabbed Bennie’s shoulders. “They’re going to murder my son in less than three weeks if I don’t find my father and get that device. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

Bennie’s eyes widened and the cigar quivered between his lips.

“Sorry,” Nathan said, releasing his grip. He sat back down. “I didn’t mean to do that.”

Bennie stood, repositioned his worn ball cap, and handed Nathan a Day's Inn business card. “Call me and we’ll set up a time to talk some more. Too many eyes and ears in this vicinity.”

He walked away, patting Nathan’s mother on the shoulder before stepping out of the greenhouse.

Nathan’s heart pounded as he sat alone, fingering the card.


Five








Nathan had two hours to kill before his meeting with Bennie.

It was 6 a.m. He threw on a robe and started the morning in the same fashion as every other day since his job termination. With a cup of coffee, he sat down at his desk in a loft overlooking a stone-tiled living room. His and Sarah’s nine-hundred-square-foot condo was no spacious haven, but it was a mansion compared to any living quarters in the Sanctuaries.

He unfolded his SyncSheet and scanned the web for job postings he might have missed the day before. After firing off a half-dozen resumes, he sifted through an equal number of rejection emails. All were polite and generic, but they might as well have said: “We know who you are, pal. Don’t bother applying here again.”

Next, he skimmed through his spam folder, in case something credible happened to slip through the filter. Something had. An eviction notice from the Kansas City Barrier Administration. It stated he and Sarah had forty-five days to provide proof of sustainable Barrier income.

How nice.

With a swift, forceful finger, Nathan deleted it.

He sat on the couch and pulled up CNN, a morning ritual since the news of his father’s suicide. He sipped on his coffee as he watched the non-stop media coverage of the Ellis Three Crisis. The daily press conference with the World Defense Committee was just starting. Most Barrier citizens had been following all the latest concerning developments. This morning, Nathan tuned in for other reasons.

The anchor went through the usual spiel. Five months ago, a satellite orbiting Ellis Three had detected an unidentified spacecraft leaving the planet’s orbit. Space Traffic Control held no flight records of any private or governmental missions that matched the vessel’s belly identification or its location upon takeoff from the distant red planet. Ellis Three, for those who might have been living under a rock and didn’t already know, was the third planet orbiting a star six hundred light years from Earth. It was similar to Mars in atmosphere and geography, and was located just beyond the Fold—a space-time anomaly that suddenly appeared in the asteroid belt sixty years ago. The anchor went on to explain that the Fold was a crease in space fabric where two distant points touch, allowing for a six-month journey to and from the previously unknown and unreachable planet. The Fold had facilitated the planet’s discovery via probe sixty-years previously.

The spacecraft filled the screen and had been nicknamed Black Ghost. It was dark and shaped like a boomerang, and blue light glowed from its belly. Its propulsion system and energy source were unknown and appeared to be highly advanced.

The scene switched to a crowded press room that was located at the World Defense Headquarters in the Chicago Barrier. Chairman Alkott took the podium and flashed his dimpled smile for the cameras. He towered over CNN’s news correspondent, Mark Scovotti, who asked the first question.

“Can you give the global community an update?”

The chairman released his smile. His chiseled cheekbones, lean physique and dark, slicked-back hair glistened in the stage light. Alkott was a well-calculated balance of stoicism and charm, Nathan’s father once commented.

“We have no new data,” the chairman replied. “Other than the fact that Black Ghost is now less than nine million miles from Earth’s orbit.”

“Which equates to how many days, Chairman?”

“At the current velocity of the vessel, nineteen days.”

“Has any being in Black Ghost attempted to communicate yet?”

“Not that we’re aware of.”

“Can you speculate why they’re not communicating?”

“We don’t know.”

“Any idea who they are?”

“We have no new information.”

“Have you ruled out the possibility of a private or government research vessel?”

“Space Traffic Control has verified seven documented missions to Ellis Three when satellites captured the liftoff of Black Ghost. All seven were conducting archeological excavations along the Great Riverbed in the eastern hemisphere—six privately funded and one by the British government. The undocumented spacecraft departed from the western hemisphere.”

“Safe to assume the occupants are human, Mr. Chairman?”

Chairman Alkott grinned. “Need I answer that question, Mr. Scovotti?”

A few laughs escaped the crowd of reporters.

Mark continued. “Is the World Defense Committee still holding to the theory that Black Ghost is inhabited by a surviving remnant of humans from an Ellis Three colony?”

“We are.”

“Mr. Chairman, how’s that even possible?” a reporter interjected. “Archeological records clearly show that human colonies on Ellis Three died off three thousand years ago. There isn’t a drop of water left on that planet. There’s nothing there now but old bones and bits of android prosthetics.”

The chairman shrugged. “You’re better off posing that question to an anthropologist, not a politician.”

More chuckles.

“Are there any new developments on the course of action the World Defense Committee will take in the best interest of global security?” someone added.

“We’re weighing all the facts before a strategy is finalized,” the chairman responded calmly.

Questions from more reporters flooded the room.

The chairman raised his palms and waited for the room to quiet. “Friends. There are many apparent impossibilities in our mysterious universe, are there not? Archeologists can’t even explain how ancient humans got to Ellis Three in the first place. We mustn’t act in haste, but it is the duty of The World Defense Committee to not allow a vessel of hostile intent to enter Earth’s orbit.”

More questions.

“Stop listening to this man’s lies!” a woman shouted.

Murmuring filled the room and the cameras focused on her: beige overcoat, rimmed glasses, bleach-blonde hair to her shoulders. Mid-twenties.

Chairman Alkott forced a smile. “Miss, do you mind holding up your press badge so the viewers at home know which media outlet you’re with?”

“No thanks.” She flashed both middle fingers at the cameras and bolted toward an exit. The cameras followed as she left, then refocused on the stage.

After a long thirty seconds, the chairman looked directly at the cameras. “Citizens of this planet’s great Barrier cities, I implore you to ignore the voices of the misinformed. We must unite and protect our Barrier infrastructure, and we must assume the vessel has a hostile intent. We don’t know what they want from us or what weapons of mass destruction they possess. If they are not willing to communicate, then we must prepare for the worst.”

“Still plan on hitting Black Ghost with a nuclear warhead?” a British reporter asked.

“Kind of seems like an act of war, Chairman,” another reporter said. “I thought bombs and missiles were relics of the past.”

Mark Scovatti jumped in. “Chairman, what is your official response to the critics who say the World Defense Committee is acting in haste?”

Pause. “I say to those critics….when would you like the World Defense Committee to respond? After it’s too late?”

More murmurs.

More questions.

More speeches.

Nathan shut off the SyncSheet and sighed, staring blankly out the window.

What pained him the most was that Black Ghost might meet its fate around the same time Ian was scheduled to meet his. Truth was, he’d only started paying attention to the Ellis Three Crisis because his father did. Relentlessly. Was he involved somehow? Was Nathan overlooking a clue from the endless coverage that might provide insight as to why his father lived and breathed the Ellis Three Crisis before his supposed death?

And there was the vacation cabin in Alaska.

Why his mother allowed a seventy-six-year-old man to split town by himself and fly an ancient Cessna 172 two hundred miles up the Alaskan coastline was beyond him. Sure, the seventies were the new sixties among Barrier residents, thanks to supplements and medical advancements. And as far as Nathan knew, his father’s mind was still as sharp as a tack, and he was in good physical health when they’d last spoken. He'd recently renewed his neurology certifications with high marks, and he'd finished in the top thirty percent in Kansas City’s 5K last year. Even so, he wasn’t a young buck either. At his age, anything could happen, and flying to the Alaskan wilderness alone didn’t seem like a risk worth taking.

“Everything okay?” Sarah asked, putting a hand on Nathan’s shoulder.

Nathan looked up. He hadn’t even heard her get coffee and climb the creaky steps to the loft.

“Just sending off another round of resumes.” He stood, pulled her close, and gave her a quick kiss.

“Any bites yet?” she asked, brushing her short chestnut hair away from her cheek. She’d recently turned forty-seven but nobody believed she was a day past thirty-nine. Her petite frame, hazel eyes and winsome smile snared him twenty-eight years ago in English Comp 101 during his freshman year at Kansas State University. And she hadn’t let go since.

“Afraid not.” Nathan folded up the SyncSheet and slipped it into the pocket of his robe. He turned toward the window. “I’m starting to think writing that article wasn’t such a bright idea.”

Sarah moved closer and cupped his face in her hands. “I’m glad you wrote it. You did it for Ian.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Nathan mumbled, breaking free and sinking into the couch. He thought about the path he had gone down. A path that led to where he was now: permanently blacklisted from journalism.

When he was a rookie at the Kansas City Tribune, he submitted an editorial to the Senior Editor critiquing the Rankcon Intergovernmental Partnership. Rankcon’s seventy-year renewable patent on Barrier technology was outrageous, his editorial claimed. It violated countless anti-trust laws. Other entrepreneurs deserved the chance to compete and offer similar services at a better price. Sure, Rankcon had made significant contributions to the betterment of humanity after years of solar flares and civil wars, and was thus awarded the historical patent on Barrier technology. But did that earn them the right to a global empire? The article was factual, ruffled a few feathers, but it needed to be said. The Senior Editor hated every word, calling it spiteful and reckless. Nathan pled ignorance to the industry’s unspoken rules and was miraculously allowed to keep his job.

The Senior Editor reminded Nathan that articles reporting the crime and relief efforts in the Sanctuaries were encouraged; articles critiquing Rankcon Corporation or government entities were discouraged. Three weeks ago, Nathan knew he was rolling the dice when he retrieved the old article that spoke out against the Rankcon Intergovernmental Partnership. He submitted it for front page publication while the new Senior Editor was on vacation. Nathan was his backup—a position entrusted to him after twenty years of servitude.

He could recall every word with absolute clarity. Titled: The Protector Has No Conscience, it informed the world of Ian’s condition, and how his thirteen-year-old son had been ripped from his home at gunpoint and escorted to a filthy Sanctuary 87 hospital, never permitted to return home to his parents due to some fine print in his adoption paperwork.

His boss caught wind of his rebellious words minutes before the article went live on the web. He called Nathan from a resort in South America, cussed him out, and told him he was doing him a favor by not publishing the article. The Rankcon Intergovernmental Partnership would never find out about his outburst, and that was a good thing for Nathan and his wife. Although he had been blacklisted, at least he had a small window of opportunity to find some other employment before quarterly Barrier taxes were due.

And here he was.

Still jobless.

“I’ll go see Ian this morning while you’re with Bennie,” Sarah said, sitting down next to Nathan and draping her arm around his neck. “Then you can visit him this afternoon.”

“Just be careful. Okay? It’s dangerous out there.”

“I’ve made it there and back more than a few times now, Nathan. I’ll be fine.”

He put his arm around her waist and pulled her close. “I know, I know. I’m just worried…about everything.”

Sarah turned to face him. “Be careful, Nathan. I don’t entirely trust Bennie, even if he was an old friend of your father’s.”


Six









The downtown Kansas City bike path was crowded for a Monday morning. Temps were forecasted to reach seventy degrees, warm for November, but expected considering the recent solar flare. Barrier temperatures typically rose an average of twenty degrees following a flare and fell back to normal within a couple weeks. Sometimes the atmosphere touching the Barrier glowed and flickered after a flare, like lambent embers of a dying campfire. It was the only time most residents saw tangible evidence of their city’s great guardian. Today Nathan paid the sky no attention.

He and Bennie passed a group of rowdy activists with Anti-World Defense Committee signs and stopped a block away.

Bennie bent down to tie his shoes and stretch his hamstrings. He jogged in place, sporting a turquoise track suit and the same grimy Task Force ball cap he had on at the funeral. “All set?”

“Yup,” Nathan muttered. He hadn’t set foot in a gym for months and was a shameful twenty pounds overweight. Between his son’s fiasco, his unemployment, and now his father’s disappearance, exercising was the last thing on his mind.

“I hope so,” Bennie said. “My granddaughter says I’m a machine. Keep up if you can.”

He darted off.

Nathan followed.

“Watch out for the crazy cyclists,” he shouted as Nathan fought to catch up, already struggling for breath. “They think they’re Lance Armstrong reincarnated.”

They jogged side by side while Bennie shared a story about how he once ran the downtown path with Nathan’s father during the old Task Force days. The Kansas City Barrier was brand new, the city’s landlines completed, and the two of them decided on a few victory laps. The experience ended badly when Aidan tripped and face planted on the asphalt. Nathan recalled hearing the same tale from his father years ago, minus the broken nose.

After thirty minutes, Bennie called for a break. They found a vacant bench and wiped their faces with their shirts.

“So what can you tell me about Dad?” Nathan asked, fighting to catch his breath.

“You’re not much for small talk, are ya, kid?”

“Not when time’s running out for my son.”

Bennie looked around. “Let’s start with that article in the Journal of Aerospace Engineering…did you read it?”

“You mean the one where some jerk named Preston Sherrick suggested my father struggled with depression? Yeah, I read it.”


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