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A handful of short stories written for fun, for assignments, and for your enjoyment. If you'd like to see more please visit my blog at findmeserenity.com where I post longer bits and talk about life and politics and other random topics when I need to get things off my chest.
A short story in the world of My Soul to Keep
Ethan’s alarm woke him up at 6:30 am just like it did every morning. He reached for the blaring sound coming from his cell phone on the bedside table. He hit the snooze button without opening his eyes like he did every morning. The seven minutes went by in a flash like it did each, and every, morning. Ethan grunted and grabbed the phone off the table again opening his eyes this time.
“If Frodo can take the One Ring to Mount Doom you can get up and go to school.” The phone mocked him.
“Oh, shut up,” Ethan croaked at the device. He kicked the blankets off his legs and sat up slowly. He was no more awake after a quick shower than he had been before it. It was a near miracle that he managed to put his jeans and sweatshirt on right side in and not backward.
The house was quiet, as it usually was at this hour. His parents had gotten home from work just two hours before his alarm had gone off. Despite their best efforts to be quiet Ethan always heard them come in. They were good at their jobs, but Ethan still wondered if there’d be a night when they went to work and never came back. It kept him awake every time they headed out on a mission. Last night was no different. Which was why he was still cursing the morning as he placed his earbuds in and put on his “wake up and get your ass to school” playlist.
The music blared in his ears as he stepped out into the cold air. They were in the middle of one of the coldest spells in Iowa history. Ethan had been in climates like this before. His parents' job took them all over the country, and other countries too. “This isn’t any different from the time we spent in Toronto.” He tried to remind himself as he pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and started the 3-mile journey to one of the few places he hated more than anything else in life. School.
To cut down on the long trek from the house his parents rented in the middle of nowhere Iowa Ethan often cut through vast yards and fields that separated the small farm-style houses from each other. It was cold and only getting colder, a feat Ethan found remarkable as the sun was supposed to be coming up over the hills but decidedly wasn’t going to shine again in this town, he’d assumed because it just felt that way today.
The fields were well manicured. The people of Dyersville were proud of their land and they took good care of it. Thankfully they didn’t mind a five-foot-nine teenager trouncing through on his way to school, as they waved cheerfully every morning from large plows, riding mowers, and tractors with tires bigger than the cows that grazed on grass off in the distance.
Ethan wondered how anyone could be so cheerful in the morning and he enjoyed the moments when the cows came further into view. At least they were docile and gave him no indication they were happy or sad about the time of day. They were content to graze quietly and peacefully as Ethan passed by. But this was no ordinary day and these cows were about to give Ethan a whole lot of trouble.
The thunder should have tipped Ethan off. The sound came from considerably closer to him than thunder generally does. And then the fact that it didn’t rain, and there was no follow-up lightning should have been another indicator that something was about to go down that he’d not be too thrilled with. But the thunder. It cracked against the sky and in that one moment spooked every cow in the field all at once. It was instantaneous. The thunder hit in the too-near distance and then Ethan heard more of it coming toward him. From the ground. He looked up to see twelve, maybe thirteen cows heading in his direction, full trot. He first froze, then realized he needed to run, they weren’t going to stop when they got to him. He would be the first teenager in history to be trampled by a herd of cows on his way to school. He wasn’t exactly sure that was true, but he was certain it should be. And he didn’t want to be famous for something so ridiculous. So, he ran.
Cows are surprisingly fast when they’re terrified, Ethan would discover. Also, books get increasingly heavier when you’re running for your life. The backpack that held his school supplies was banging against his lower back. He’d no doubt have bruises if he survived. Ahead of him, the fence that separated the Jones’s farm from the Friedman’s farm was just a few more feet ahead. Ethan willed his aching legs to run faster. But they were tired and cold, and they failed him just as he reached the wood slats of what he considered the space between the land of not dying and the land of death by cows.
He tripped. Right as he grabbed for the top of the fence. Fell face first into grass and mud and the wet morning dew. Face. Planted. The cows kept coming. He could feel their large hoofs hitting the ground as they gained on him. And in that moment two things came to mind. He was about to die, and he wasn’t sure the fence was going to save him either. But he got up and climbed over it anyway. When he was on the other side it hit again. Thunder. It was then, on the other side of danger, that he realized it was too close to be weather-related. And the cows stopped at the fence as he had hoped. And he realized they weren’t afraid of the thunder. They were being controlled by it.
“Erik!” Ethan yelled into the sky. Which he later would deny because he knew damn well the culprit hadn’t been up higher than the ground Ethan was standing on, let alone in the sky for any reason at all.
Deep underground in a vast room that looked like it could be the bedroom of any teenaged death metal fanatic Erik paced back and forth. His sister Mara stood in the doorway, or what one would consider a doorway but looked more like the opening of a cave. She was not even trying to stifle a hearty laugh. The sound shook the room.
“Shut. Up.” Erik stared at her. His deep dark eyes glaring in a mixture of anger and absolute and utter embarrassment.
“Okay but cows though? They’re the most docile animals on Earth. And even IF they’d managed to do any damage to the poor kid you’re obsessing over, do you think he’d ever forgive you for making his death the punchline to a terribly bad yet never not funny joke?” Mara mocked him.
That only made Erik madder. “He’s not a kid. He’s 17.”
“Whatever you say. Listen, you know the rules. The boy cannot die until it’s his time. It’s in the Reaper handbook. You should read it. Riveting stuff in there. Also, you might want to do a few Internet searches about vicious animals if you’re gonna keep this up,” Mara giggled as she stepped out of sight. “Just saying…” her voice echoed behind her.
“I’m not obsessed!” Erik screamed after her. He knew she didn’t believe it. He wondered if he believed it himself.
Erik walked toward a large table in the middle of his room. He had formed it out of rock shortly after a trip to the surface carrying out one of Mara’s errands. He had to give it to his sister, she had impeccable taste. The man’s apartment was decked out in designer furniture and expensive artwork adorned the walls. The man wasn’t home. But Erik knew that before entering the apartment. He made note of the large table in the center of the living room carved out of marble and as cold as the stark white walls and hard concrete floors. “A rug might warm things up a bit,” Erik had said out loud, he remembered how it echoed through the room. He shook off the memory and brought his focus back to the now.
Erik’s table had a rug under it. And one piece of decoration. A book. Erik scoffed at the cover, emblazoned with a gold scythe. He knew the Reaper handbook well. It was as predictable and out of date as the symbol on the front. Reapers didn’t wear cloaks, carry large weapons or suck out people’s souls, anymore. The rules were as ancient as the leather and papyrus the tome was made out of. And Erik was determined to fix them even if it took an eternity and a half to do so. He picked up a much more modern and less predictable piece of decoration, his laptop, and set it on top of the handbook. The screen came to life as he opened it. He would never admit it to Mara directly, but she was right. He had to come up with a new plan to get Ethan’s undivided attention.
By the time Ethan reached the football field behind Dyersville High School he was exhausted. He hadn’t even gotten to his first period math class yet.
Who takes math first thing in the morning? Instead of heading toward the main building Ethan ducked into the gym locker room to change out of his wet and muddy jeans. He kept spare clothes in various places in case of emergencies, which he imagined would be more of the fleeing his latest high school campus to run from rival Necromancers variety. He cursed at Erik a few more times as he shoved his mud-covered jeans into his gym locker and attempted to extract the grass, dirt, and manure from his Nikes. The warning bell rang out. Ethan quickly slid his feet into his still dirty shoes and ran toward first period as if the cows were still chasing after him, remembering the deal he’d struck with his father about being a model student. “Get good grades. Stay out of trouble. Graduate. Then we can revisit you joining the family business.” His father’s words rang out in his mind as he slid into his seat just as the bell rang to start class.
“How was your day?” Ethan’s mother asked as he stepped into the kitchen. He dropped his backpack, now heavier than it had been that morning, filled with new books he didn’t want to read and assignments he didn’t want to finish. “Erik tried to kill me, again.”
Ethan’s mother had the good sense to stifle the laugh that was clearly building in her throat. “What was it this time?” She asked through her wide smile.
This broke his mother’s resolve. She let out a heavy laugh and then immediately put her hand over her mouth. Ethan just stared at her. “Are you okay?” She finally asked, as if she remembered she was his mother and should be concerned about such things.
“He can’t hurt you. We’ve got so much protection on you it’s going to be impossible for him to get to you even when it’s time.” His mother assured him.
“Not the point. I didn’t plan on starting my day running from a herd of cows only to get to school and find out I had three pop quizzes. Math. Science and History. Tell me again why I can’t quit and come work with you?”
Ethan’s mother stopped smiling. “I’m still working on your father. It’s complicated. I’m sorry you had a bad day. Want me to make you a sandwich?”
This was about as motherly as she got. Ethan nodded and sat down at the small table set up in the breakfast nook of a kitchen he’d probably be in for less than a month before he had to move again. They think their life is complicated, Ethan thought. They should try being pursued by a Reaper whose idea of flirting is sending a stampede of bovine to trample you to death.
Ethan’s alarm woke him up at 6:30 am just like it did every morning. He reached for the blaring sound and hit the snooze button without looking at the phone. Before he could roll over and get 7 more minutes of restless relaxation his phone made a different noise. Ethan sat up, suddenly alert. “Missing Nebraska Teen Found Buried in Shallow Grave in New York.” The headline said. He slid his finger over the text and opened a page in his web browser. He scanned the news article. All the key words were there. Mysterious death. Satanic symbols. No suspects. Parents unsure how she ended up in New York. Ethan sent the article to his printer and jumped up as everything came to life. The printer made sputtered as it turned on just as his alarm had counted down its snooze time.
“If Frodo can take the One Ring to Mount Doom you can get up and go to school.” The phone mocked him. Ethan shook his head and turned off the alarm. He grabbed the printed article off the machine and quickly circled the words he had searched for when he first read it. He tiptoed into his parents’ office and set the article in the center of his father’s desk with a note. “Worth looking in to?”
Ethan stepped into the cold air and headed toward the open fields, starting his 3-mile journey to school with a renewed purpose. He looked down at the ground and asked it for mercy.
Deep underground in a vast room that looked like it could be the bedroom of any teenaged death metal fanatic Erik paced back and forth. He did not hear the faint plea being called out to him. He was listening to the symbols carved into the young woman’s skin in the image that covered his laptop screen. They weren’t telling him anything he didn’t already know. This was a Necromancer problem and he could not interfere. It was bad enough he pushed the article to Ethan’s phone knowing the boy would bring it to his parents’ attention.
“I have a feeling we’re all going to wish it was as simple as killer cows,” Erik said into the empty room.
The Obedience Project Prologue
A brief history of Gullivad as told by Xander Slater
sustaining major cracks in the asphalt and creating gaping holes no vehicles could drive over. But the pillars remained standing and in a genius move by the newly formed government, they saw an opportunity to build a cement and steel wall using the freeway overpasses as anchors. The Los Angeles River had not survived the many droughts California had suffered, and its dry bed served as a perfect foundation for the final portion of the wall. It is the shortest and most vulnerable part of the structure, but you didn’t hear that from me.
With so many people boxed into one area and not enough resources to go around, riots began to occur all over the city. What was left of the police force were overtasked and the government had to figure out a way to both keep its citizens safe, and fed. While scientists were developing a means to deliver food and water to the survivors living within The Gull they also discovered a way to stop our need to rebel against authority. There was an idea, a while back, that humans could survive on bugs and plants as their source of nutrition. With that in mind the scientists build large domes housing plant and bugs and employed workers to turn both into sustainable food sources. It turned out humans were not ready to accept this plan, and the riots grew stronger even as the citizens grew weaker from lack of nutrition.
The Staples Center, a giant arena that used to host sports and entertainment events, soon became a warehouse full of genetically created livestock, vegetation and grains. As our population grew, the larger capacity Convention Center was also designated as a food supply area. Our newly formed government, made up of one Governor and a serious of lieutenants, operate out of what used to be the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Next to it is the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion which is now the home of a newly created Ink Enforcement Agency or IEA. Their sole job is to track down and eliminate any person over the age of sixteen who has not yet been tattooed by OBT-27 infused Ink.
The OBT program began in 2035. While genetically modifying our food sources to make them more docile, scientists discovered tattooing the animals with nanotech infused Ink calmed them down so much they stopped trying to escape and simply stood around grazing on grass and grain provided specifically for them. When Governor Avery discovered this he tasked the scientists to come up with a similar solution for humans. The OBT (named so to invoke the word obedient) program went through twenty six different failed tests before it was perfected. Hence the name OBT-27. The first test patients reacted as the cows and chickens had. They stood around and did nothing. Where livestock had the sense to continue eating, the human subjects just quit everything. And died. Several other iterations caused mass mutations and one version caused the opposite affect in two subjects who managed to kill the other patients before turning their weapons on themselves. OBT-27 only targets the portions of the human mind that produce the chemicals that make up what they call the “fight or flight” component. The combination of the nanotechnology and the tattoo Ink quells the brain’s instinct to do either. Tattoo Ink has the unique ability to regenerate itself on the skin of the wearer which is why the pigment remains despite human skin dying and shedding over our lifetimes.
In order to implement the program Governor Avery mandated every citizen over the age of sixteen be tattooed with the OBT-27 Ink. The scientists working on the program assessed that sixteen was roughly the age the average teenager starts truly thInking on their own. Questioning authority and saying such outlandish things as “Why can’t I do that?” and “Are you going to make me?” Any citizen who refuses to get Inked is considered anti-government and is eliminated, by any means necessary. Many are gunned down by the IEA when their flight instincts kick in. Most are injected with a serum they used to use for death row inmates which kills the subject within minutes. Injecting the OBT-27 compound directly into the body had little to no affect. It is the chemical makeup of the tattoo Ink that continuously delivers the OBT compound to the body that makes the drug work.
As the program was implemented they discovered several things. The tattoo Ink had to cover a certain amount of area on the body, a small finger tattoo or an inconspicuous beauty mark would not distribute enough of the drug to make a difference. They have assured us they tried every means they could possibly find before deciding death was the only option to anyone who refused Ink. Some of us wonder if they were all too happy to begin eliminating people as a means to thin out the herd, as they say. We do not say these things out loud, for fear we’ll be accused of not being Inked properly. In order to ensure the Ink has been tattooed properly on the skin, an Authentication Test is administered by the IEA exactly fourteen days after the Ink has been placed on the skin. Placed is the way they say it but in truth the process is not unlike the way tattoos used to be done. Needles and Ink and puncture wounds and all that. The technology only advanced in the sense that one large machine with several hundred needles sticks you with the Ink and the entire thing is more like a trip to the dentist rather than the right of passage event it used to be. There are no longer tattoo artists, they are OBT Engineers and the tattoo shop is a classroom at our high school.
There are many who tout the benefits of the OBT program as working on a deeper level than simply keeping the citizens of The Gull from killing each other over food and shelter. The program has not only eliminated crime, it has kept the citizens who used to refuse help off the streets, making them willing to be fed and sheltered. The government propaganda videos, shown on electronic billboards all over the city, and before every school day in each of our classrooms, touts the cleanliness and tranquility of our city and boasts that we now produce enough food and have built enough shelter to never see anyone living on the streets in filth again.
Despite the elimination of all crime, every building in the city has a camera fixed to each corner of the roof, monitored by the IEA at their headquarters and by the Governor himself at his. They tell us that the cameras do not face the streets and we are not being watched. They are simply monitoring the wall and keeping us safe from an outside harm. Meanwhile we’ve also been told the War and Weather killed everyone in the state. So. There’s that.
Kids used to climb up to the rooftops of the highest buildings to try to find out if they could see beyond the walls, but when the IEA got tired chasing them down from those heights the Governor had extra measures put in to deter the kids from climbing up there. Electronic wires which deliver enough voltage to render a human unconscious for days were installed alongside the cameras and no one has tried to see what’s over the wall since.
So now that you know a little bit about my city and how it came to be, let me tell you a little bit about me and how I fit in to all of this. My name is Xander Slater and I was born in The Gull in 2026. My parents had just moved to the city after being forced out of what used to be Culver City before an earthquake turned it into a pile of rubble and rock in 2025. Dad was an officer in the Culver City Police Department and mom was an executive at a movie studio. When they moved Downtown it hadn’t been renamed yet. I am told mom had a large part in developing the current structure of the city, along with her good friend and fellow studio executive Max Avery who is now our Governor. Dad worked for the LAPD before he became head of the IEA. I have admired my parents since I was a child, despite spending a great deal of time on my own as they continued to build and secure The Gull to what it is today. I have been dreaming of becoming a IEA officer like my father since I was eight. I am sixteen now. In fact, the story I am about to tell you takes place as my sixteenth birthday, also known as my Ink Day begins.
In the old days they called this area Downtown. Back then it was a small section of Los Angeles anchored by three freeways and a man-made river. Now it’s a walled-in city our new leaders named Gollivud, Russian for Hollywood. According to my mom, everyone outside the state assumed Los Angeles and Hollywood were one in the same. When The Takeover was finalized the people in charge of such things proved the theory.
We call it The Gull.
Large portions of California had begun to crumble under the weight of countless earthquakes made more frequent by our failure to admit we were in the throes of a climate crisis. Then the China/Russian War made this the only habitable area in the state. At least that’s what we’ve been told.
As cities all over the state were decimated by violent shaking and heavy bombings, residents moved into areas not affected by the catastrophic events.
Many of the high rise buildings in Downtown had either been built late enough to incorporate stronger earthquake measures or had been retrofitted to survive the violent shaking. The office buildings and hotels became shelters and soon after the true rebuild began, they were turned into apartments and condos.
In surveying the area the engineers discovered the freeway overpasses were no longer safe to drive on,