26. in which the world explodes

•December 19, 2008 • 1 Comment

A sudden group of explosions lit the edge of the satellite image. The ground rumbled, and the air shook so hard with the sound of the blast that it seemed as if the earth itself must have broken open. Reflexively, Danny sprang back against the trunk of the tree. There, she huddled as peals of thunder rolled around her and waves of smoke and fine debris flew past.

The satellite image at the corner of her vision was a riot of black smoke and angry licks of vivid, orange flame. Adrenaline rushed through her body. She pressed her hands against the rough bark of the tree and fought to make sense of what was going on.

She zoomed back and watched as the dark cloud of smoke spread in every direction over the forest. As the smoke began to thin, she realized what had just happened. An entire convoy of ‘copters had just exploded midair in a giant blast of fuel and plasma.

On the tail end of this thought, another roar of explosions shook the world, and the satellite view in Danny’s vision flashed brightly. Just as quickly, the rest of the ‘copters disappeared in balls of flame.

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Christie “Iamba” Bailey

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25. in which danny gets smart

•December 14, 2008 • 1 Comment

Danny had been to this world before, so she was already familiar with its technology. What she needed now was armor — the best that existed here. Face screwed with pain, she gritted out the words, “She wore a Smart Suit, and an army of nanobots in her system healed her instantly of her wounds.”

Immediately, a HUD popped up at the perimeter of her vision. The blistering pain abated from her eyes and her skin, and she was suddenly aware of the heat around her as only a distant sensation. The close-fitting Smart Suit covered her completely from head to toe, and would shield her against all but the worst conditions. Although the Suits were exclusive to “Circuit Runner’s” military, Danny had conjured one for herself with but only a few words.

It took a moment for Danny to adjust to her augmented reality. Since the Suit covered her completely, she perceived the world indirectly through the Suit’s billions of cameras, touch receptors, and microphones. All information was processed by the Suit’s computer and relayed to her brain. She could feel every nuance of the terrain beneath her, as if she stood barefoot on the uneven ground. She could hear the scrape of her feet against the rock, and vibrations in the ground. Heat kissed the Suit; she perceived it, but felt no pain. At the same time, she could hear the dull roar of expanding air against her body. She felt alive — electrically alive — and as one with her surroundings. Not one mote of air moved around her that she did not sense.

A rippling wave of hot air preceded the next plasma explosion, which ripped into the forest nearby. Danny began to run, and — as she ran — she silently accessed a satellite camera of the area. A small window opened in the lower left-hand corner of her vision, displaying an aerial view of her location. It rapidly zoomed in from space until she could recognize the tree tops. Smoke and flame from the latest explosion cut a swathe from the view.

Several airborne objects approached her position rapidly. A unit of ‘copters. No doubt, they were what bore the plasma cannons. It seemed that the humans had not yet given up the fight to win back their city.

Danny zoomed out on the view. The treetops spread for miles, like an unbroken stretch of the Amazon. So, the forest had spread, and was far larger than she had last seen it. Where the edge of the city had once been, she could not even tell. She swore soundly.

She sprinted across the forest floor, leaped an immense root as if it was nothing, and ducked for cover in the crotch of a goliath tree. There, partially shielded from incoming missiles, she focused her efforts on scanning the sky for more ‘copters. All told, there were four units. Fire and smoke followed in their wakes. Each explosion could have leveled an entire shopping mall back on Earth, but against this forest, they were like darts being thrown at a blue whale. What could possibly be the point of such a weak assault? Either the humans had so few resources left that they were reduced to these impotent attacks, or they were testing the effectiveness of different tactics against the forest.

As far as she could tell, there was no pattern to the attacks. This would make it very difficult to avoid them. Besides a hostile forest, Danny now had to deal with the threat of the plasma. While the Suit would protect against hot air and flying debris — even the immense balls of rolling flame — it would do nothing against a direct hit from a plasma round. She studied the movement of the ‘copters and planned her next moves.

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Christie “Iamba” Bailey

24. in which danny is nearly vaporized

•November 28, 2008 • 1 Comment

Her inspection of the ground was cut short as a cannonball-sized gob of liquid fire flew into the ground nearby. Superheated debris exploded into the air and rained down around Danny in an instant fire storm. A sound like a thunderclap blasted Danny’s ears as the air around her suddenly expanded from the heat, drowning out the sound of the impact itself.

Danny cried out in pain and surprise as she was blasted by a flurry of hot ashes. Her arms flew up over her face, but not in time to save her eyes from being burned. The heat from the fireball and from the debris blistered her skin.

Although she had never experienced the effects firstand before, Danny had seen fireballs like this before in this world. In fact, it wasn’t fire at all, but a plasma round. Apparently, the humans were still attempting to fight back against the forest, this time using plasma cannons. She doubted they would do any real damage to the forest, but one round would vaporize her into hot carbon dust. She had to react quickly, and smartly.

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Christie “Iamba” Bailey

23. in which danny finally faces the forest

•November 21, 2008 • 1 Comment

Chapter Four

An instant later, Danny was standing in the Library again, safely sandwiched between the towering bookcases. The books she had taken and piled on the floor had disappeared, as if some unseen librarian had reclaimed them. In fact, when Danny looked through the titles, she did not recognize any of them. It was as if she’d appeared in a different aisle altogether. But that was the way of the Library: ever-changing, ever-shifting, books moving or disappearing when one was not looking.

Danny strode back toward the front of the Library, repeating to herself the name she had stolen. As she emerged from between the bookshelves and into the wide sitting area, the smell of salty air reached her. Sunlight still shone in through the gaping cliffside entrance of the Library. Besides the mysterious disappearance of books, nothing seemed to have changed in Danny’s absence.

A small cart had been parked near one of the walls. It was the kind of cart left in libraries to deposit books that needed to be reshelved. One book lied on the bottom shelf. Danny crouched and rested it on her kness. The title read “Circuit Runner.” On the front cover was a painting of a woman whose face was overlayed with a circuit board. Her eyes glowed orange.

Danny didn’t allow herself to hesitate. She flipped the book open to the first page and laid her hand over it.

The smells were the first thing she noticed. Damp soil, wood smoke, and the stench of burning plastic. The air was damp and cool, and it thrummed with energy. Whether it was magic or electricity or something else entirely was beyond Danny.

Once more, Danny found herself standing in a dense forest. As she turned slowly in place, taking in her surroundings, her reality wobbled. Huge trees towered all around her, giving her the impression that she was standing in Saliy’a, surrounded by the forest she called home. That impression gave way to a wave of dread deja vu as memories of her recent nightmares washed over her — nightmares in which this enchanted forest, which she had been fighting for months, engulfed the city of “Circuit Runner” entirely.

But this certainly was not Saliy’a, and — although she had had many bad dreams about “Circuit Runner” since beginning this mission — this was not a nightmare.

The landscape had changed drastically since she had last been here. What once was a bustling city of the near future — all towering buildings and criss-crossing skywalks — now appeared to be an ancient magical forest. When Danny had first come to this world seeking to restore balance, the city was still recognizably a city — albeit, one that was being strangled by unnatural flora. Now, instead of buildings, trees of gigantic girth crowded together. Skywalks had given way to hanging vines and thick branches. Sounds of the city gave way to sounds of a forest.

Danny noticed that the ground was rocky and even. It was not at all like the loamy topsoil of most forests. When she looked down, she realized why: she was standing on pulverized asphalt. The great, ropy roots of the trees had erupted up through the streets and sidewalks of the city, turning the ground into a mess of crumbling concrete and tarmac.

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Christie “Iamba” Bailey

22. in which danny tears a page from the book

•November 14, 2008 • 1 Comment

Danny approached the book slowly, one eye and both ears turned toward the crone. If she craned her neck, she could just make out what was on the wide, opened pages of the book: a huge green tree whose branches and leaves swirled over the paper. Danny felt a jolt of excitement.

She was almost to the pedestal. As she reached the corner that it stood near, she came in full view of the rest of the room. She could see the crone again. The old woman was hunched in front of a pantry at the other side of the shack, rummaging through the contents. Danny ducked down and prayed that she remained preoccupied.

So much of her attention was divided between the crone and the book that she did not notice the perils in her path. Suddenly, she tripped on the poppet, which was still lying where the crone had dropped it near the foot of the pedestal. She stumbled forward and let out a cry of dismay.

“Ey!” cried the crone.

“Oy!” cried the rabbit.

“Shit!” said Danny. She stumbled to the book and clutched the pedestal, finding her balance there.

“I’ll skin yer!” shrieked the crone. Danny looked up to see her running straight at her with the fire poke.

Danny had no time to think. She only reacted. She grabbed the page with the tree on it and ripped.

“No!” said the snake.

Danny ducked under the crone’s arm and past her, sprinting for the door.

“What? What?” the rabbit was yelling.

“A page!” cried the venison. “She tore out a page!”

“Throw you in the pot!” screamed the crone.

The poker whizzed by Danny’s head, so close that she could feel the force of the displaced air. She hit the door at an all-out run and shot out into the forest clearing. As she ran, she glanced down at the page. It was fading already, barely legible. It was disintegrating in her hands.

“Your skull!” yodeled the old crone.

Danny spoke the word at the bottom of the page as it crackled and turned to dust. Then, she tripped, flew, and hit the ground hard. Her face skid across the ground, burning and stinging. The wind was knocked out of her. For a moment, she was stunned.

The heavy footfalls of the crone struck the ground like hailstones. The ancient woman was surprisingly fast. Gasping, Danny fumbled for the rough linen sack she wore at her back. From inside, she pulled a black book with the inscription of a silver ankh.

“I’ll teach you a lesson!” screamed the crone, fast closing the distance between her and Danny.

Danny slammed the book down in front of her, flipped it open to the first page, and smacked her hand onto it.

An object whizzed toward Danny from behind. The crone grunted from a foot away.

Gone.

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Christie “Iamba” Bailey

21. in which danny squeezes through dark spaces

•November 5, 2008 • 1 Comment

Danny froze, arm extended to pick up another onion. She remained crouched to the ground, stock still. Holding her breath, she looked up toward the crone. The old woman was half hidden behind the book and the pedestal on which it sat, so Danny could not see her expression or tell what she was doing.

“Careful,” said the venison.

Slowly, quietly, Danny crept to the wall and ducked behind the side of the kitchen cabinet. There, she hid in the shadows.

Meanwhile, the crone grunted and walked back into the middle of the room. “Rrrr,” she growled. “I smells onions. Where’s my onions, then?” She rattled the kettle with the fire poke. “You, then! Eaten my onions, have you!”

“No, marm,” said the snake, only the very tip of its white snout barely visible over the black edge of the kettle’s lip.

As Danny listened to the crone grumble around the shack like this, she peered into the darkness between the cabinet and the wall. There was about two feet of space between the two, in which a hung a filmy mess of spider webs. If she sucked in her tummy and moved slowly, she might be able to make sneak behind there and to the other side where the book was. She edged up to the side of the cabinet and stood ever so slowly. She found herself looking down at the back of the venison’s rump, and at the bright reds and purples of its spilled guts. The crone was within eyesight, back turned to Danny.

Closing her eyes and sucking her stomach in sharply, Danny began to creep behind the cabinet. She prayed and pleaded that the spiderwebs were dry and deserted. Once completely behind the cabinet, Danny could barely breathe. She kept her eyes bunched closed and focused all of her attention on her shallow breaths and on shuffling slowly sideways.

Finally, she emerged on the other side of the cabinet, covered in a thick layer of dust and old webs. Pressed against the wall, she took a deep, relieved breath. Then, she took stock of her new position. She could not see the crone from here, and the book was only a few feet away. All she had to do was move slowly, slowly to it and hope the crone remained preoccupied.

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Christie “Iamba” Bailey

20. in which onions go flying

•October 31, 2008 • 1 Comment

As the crone turned from the counter with the skillet in hand, she noticed Danny standing there.

“You!” she said. “Told you to git!” She advanced toward Danny menacingly, swinging the skillet.

Immediately, Danny lobbed the poppet at her.

The skillet crashed to the ground, and the old woman cried out in surprise. Slices of onion flew in every direction over the floor. The crone stood staring at the ground, clutching the poppet. “Oh, dear,” she sighed.

“I’ll get that,” said Danny quickly.

“Would you, dear?” said the crone.

“Yes, just… Play with me first, OK?”

“With these onions– Oh, all right.” She tossed the poppet back.

They passed it back and forth.

“Oh, this is going to be grand,” sassed the rabbit. “Anyone want to place the starting bet?”

“Shut up and help me out,” snapped Danny.

“Oh, I would, love. But I’m all tied up, you see, and I’ve only got these little paws here. And I’m just a little blight. Oh,” it added. “And I’m dead, to boot.”

“For a dead thing, you’ve got an active mouth on you,” said the old woman to the rabbit. To Danny, she asked, “What do you need help with, dear?”

“The name,” said Danny. “I’m looking for a name.”

“Oh! You’ve come to the right place, then, sweets. I know a name or two. Live as long as I have, you pick them up, all right.” She smiled, caught the poppet, and tossed it back. “It gets to be, you forget as many as you remember. What sort of name are you looking for?”

“A forest,” said Danny. “An enchanted forest.”

“Ooooh,” said the old woman. She smiled and nodded. “But don’t you know, they’re all enchanted?”

Danny waited silently. Caught. Tossed. Caught.

“Well, you are a dear,” said the crone. “Let’s have a look in my book, then, yes?”

“Careful,” warned the venison in a low voice.

“Wait!” said Danny, and tossed the poppet as the crone began to turn away.

The old woman caught it and chuckled. “What, dear? Can’t put it down, can you?”

“No. Just…not yet. Where’s your book at?”

“Just back here, dear.” She peered at Danny’s face. “Are you all right, now? Is something wrong?”

“No. I just…think you should hold on to the poppet while I clean up these onions for you, OK?”

The rabbit groaned.

“What?” said Danny as the old woman shuffled away, poppet tucked into the crook of her arm. “Any better ideas?”

“Dust pan’s in the corner,” said the rabbit.

“Right.” Danny knelt and began throwing onion pieces back into the skillet.

“Still edible, you know,” said the snake from the kettle. “Haven’t been cooked and all yet. Isn’t that so, Harry?”

“Don’t stew over it, Sam,” said the rabbit.

The crone stood in the far corner of the room, holding a candle over a huge book. Danny eyed the old woman as she picked onion pieces off of the floor. After a few moments, she heard the sound of something soft hit the floor — the poppet. The crone exclaimed, “Oop!”

“Oh dear,” muttered the snake as it shrunk slowly back into the kettle again.

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Christie “Iamba” Bailey