This week’s writing sample revisits Kate’s first series, the Annals of Altair. Set in an alternate future, these dystopia-lite adventures revolve around the Prometheus Institute, a government-run school for gifted children.
Book 1, A Boy Called Hawk, introduces us to a foursome of runaways with some… shall we say peculiar abilities?
Annals of Altair Book 1: A Boy Called Hawk
July 1, 2053, 8:13AM PDT, somewhere in Oregon
It was a long, lonely stretch of highway that Deputy Zielinski and his partner had been assigned to block. Only a handful of cars had passed by the hastily erected barriers so far, and none of them bore the description of the fugitive vehicle. Zielinski had to give the criminals some credit for guts: only a daredevil or a complete idiot would steal a military jeep as a getaway car.
Initially it had provided the perfect cover. No highway patrolman in his right mind would pull over a government vehicle unless explicitly ordered to do so by people very high up on the chain of command. Had the jeep’s theft been the only crime involved, Zielinski might have been amused.
The situation was far more serious than that, though. Two children had been kidnapped in the middle of the night from the safety of their home. Somehow, the kidnappers had disabled the kids’ sub-dermal ID chips and disappeared off the digital radar.
A chill traveled up his spine as he thought of his own two little girls, who by now would be boarding their school bus on this bright summer morning. His call to action had come before dawn, and Zielinski had failed to kiss them each goodbye before he left.
He couldn’t imagine the anguish of the parents whose precious children had been taken. The state had responded as quickly as it could, enacting its ancient Amber Alert system and commanding that a radius of barriers be set up on all highways. The kidnappers had a head start, but the state had a tight network of dedicated public servants. It was only a matter of time before the kidnappers slipped up and got caught. Zielinski only hoped that nothing happened to those two kids in the meantime.
The sound of an engine thrummed through the crisp morning air, much louder than the government-mandated electric cars that the citizenry drove nowadays. Zielinski spared a glance toward his partner at the roadblock, an unnecessary gesture meant to put him on his guard. In the distance, a vehicle careened into sight. It barreled down the road at an excessive speed, but it slowed as Zielinski waved his arms. His heart leapt into his throat. It was a jeep, dark green in color, with a canvas top, just like in the report.
He jerked his stun gun from his waist, as did his partner behind him, but his anticipation quickly melted into confusion. As the jeep came to a complete stop ten yards in front of him, he took in its battered, rust-eaten frame and the loud ka-thunk of the gas engine. It had probably seen its better days a century ago, back during World War II or Korea. He had expected one of the smooth, sleek military vehicles common today, not this decrepit piece of junk.
“Cut the engine!” he yelled, and the ancient, incessant chugging suddenly stopped. Briefly Zielinski wondered why the driver had not tried to run him down. Only he and his partner manned this roadblock, since the higher-ups had determined it an unlikely escape route for the kidnappers. The roadblock itself was flimsy at best, and could have been easily broken through, yet this vehicle had stopped as commanded.
Perhaps it wasn’t the kidnappers after all.
Even so, he approached with caution, stun gun at the ready. With each step, a growing sense of tranquility washed over him. Surely this could not be the jeep he was on the lookout for. Why, there was absolutely nothing suspicious about it.
His eyes homed in on the driver, and beneath that smothering tranquility his confusion returned, a vague sense of wrongness that nagged at the edge of his brain. A pair of clear green eyes peered back at him from the driver’s seat, open and honest. Their owner looked nothing like the depraved kidnapper Zielinski had expected to encounter. In fact, their owner looked nothing like any driver Zielinski had expected to encounter.
“Aren’t you a little young to be driving?” he asked helplessly.
“I’m eleven,” the driver said in cheerful response. Zielinski’s confused gaze shifted to the passenger seat where an older boy, twelve or thirteen, calmly stared back at him. His eyes were hazel but the same shape as the driver’s, and his face was similar as well. Brothers, maybe? Perched atop that passenger’s seat, a coal-black raven dug its sharp talons into the upholstery to maintain its balance, and one beady eye stared back at the confused deputy trooper. Zielinski swallowed and slid his gaze to the back seat and the little girl and boy who were there.
No seat belts, he mentally noted. That wasn’t right. Driving without seat belts was dangerous.
“Um, why are you driving?” Zielinski asked the eleven-year-old in complete bewilderment.
“Because he doesn’t know how to drive a manual transmission.” The boy jerked one thumb toward the front passenger, who smiled blandly.
There was something wrong with that answer, but Zielinski couldn’t quite put his finger on it. His eyes darted again toward the back seat and the little boy, who sat staring at the canvas ceiling above him. The child, five or six years old by the looks of him, appeared wholly unconcerned with the situation. Somehow Zielinski found that reassuring.
“Hey, Mister,” piped up the little girl, and his attention snapped to her small, delicate face. She was about the same age as his oldest, eight or nine. “Can you let us through the roadblock?” His heart melted at the sound of her voice. “We’re kind of in a hurry.”
Again that feeling of wrongness nagged at him, but he instinctively ignored it. “Sure, of course,” he said. “Just make sure you guys drive carefully.”
“We will,” the little girl said, and the two boys in the front smiled brightly. The little boy in the back continued to stare at the ceiling.
Zielinski vaguely nodded, secure in that warm, overwhelming sense of tranquility that enveloped him. Without hesitation he raised one hand to motion to his partner to open the roadblock.
Another car approached, its electric hum lost as the military jeep churned back to life. Above the din, he heard the little girl say, “Hey Happy, what do you s’pose is in the trunk of that car? I bet it’s something really interesting.”
Even as the little boy next to her finally pulled his eyes from the ceiling and turned to look, Zielinski’s attention snapped back to the trim coupe that had just come to a stop. Curiosity overwhelmed him. There had to be something of note in that trunk. Perhaps the kidnappers had changed cars, and the two missing children—
His heart quickened, and he again motioned his bewildered partner to let the jeep pass. They had much more important leads to pursue.
As the ancient jeep inched forward, the incredulous expression on his partner’s face disappeared. The roadblock eased open enough for the jeep to pass through, and it barreled away down the road, speed increasing as it spewed black pollution from its tailpipe.
Zielinski had already moved to the little electric car and its irate driver, who took offense at being thus waylaid. He rubbed his hands together greedily as he commanded the woman to open her car’s trunk. She complied, but not without grumbling under her breath. He fruitlessly shifted around the contents—a couple blankets, a tire jack, an emergency kit—and suddenly couldn’t remember what he was looking for in the first place.
Befuddled, he straightened and frowned down at the completely normal items.
“Hey,” his partner said helplessly as he joined him, “wasn’t that the jeep we just let pass?”
“Those weren’t kidnappers,” Zielinski replied irritably, “just a bunch of kids out for a morning drive.”
“I know, but… kids… can’t drive, can they?”
Zielinski stared at his partner as this question tumbled through his head. “They… can’t, can they.” This piece of logic seemed unusually difficult for him to wrap his mind around.
“Maybe we should call it in,” said his partner slowly.
The idea sounded better and better the more he considered it. “Yeah,” said Zielinski. His head felt hazy. “Yeah, maybe we should.”