Read an Excerpt
Fires of Man
Book 1 of the Psionic Earth Series
By Dan Levinson
Jolly Fish PressCopyright © 2014 Dan Levinson
All rights reserved.
He ran toward the edge of the cliff.
The sun beat down upon him as his limbs pumped. Earth crunched beneath his feet, and a breeze blew across his black-stubbled scalp. His breathing was calm, meticulously measured.
When the ground slipped away, he felt only anticipation.
Plummeting, the man inhaled. Power flooded into him, thrilling, delicious. He reached out with that power, warping reality with an energy born from the depths of his being. Suddenly ...
He winked out of existence ...
And then reappeared at the base of the cliff.
Ahead lay a farmstead, awash in noontime light. Past its assorted buildings — barns and silos, stables and chicken coops — a field of wheat swayed like the hair of some sleeping giant.
It would burn soon.
Through his years of service, he'd been called many things: "raven;" "hellhound;" "black-hearted bastard." There was but one epithet that mattered — the one he'd earned with blood and devotion.
He was "Agent."
A man with no name. A man who owed his nation everything.
Just then, he spotted his quarry — a teenage farmhand named Aaron Waverly. The boy had power — strong power, according to the readings.
Agent dashed toward the farm; dry winds kicked dirt and debris over his steel-toed boots. The expanse of greenery blurred past. He moved swift as a shooting star, his power saturating him with speed and strength.
When Waverly turned and saw, it was too late.
Agent teleported behind Waverly, and struck once, at the base of the farmhand's skull. The young man collapsed, and Agent caught him, and slung him over his shoulder.
A frown split the crags of Agent's face.
Before him stood a girl, no more than sixteen, a pitchfork clutched in her fingers. She was a pretty thing, her blond tresses tied back in a ponytail, her face darkened by hours in the field. She was an innocent. Agent did not relish the thought of ending her.
"Run," he said.
"I'll scream," she said, her eyes flitting to the silenced pistol at his side. She hesitated.
He laid a hand on the gun. "Run," he repeated.
He drew his weapon and shot her in the back of the head.
She pitched forward, hit the ground, dead. Blood spread in a widening pool around her. Waverly groaned, eyelids flickering. Agent holstered the gun and looked at the girl. Killing civilians was distasteful, but she had seen him. He'd had no choice.
Now, time to go.
Agent stepped toward the nearby barn, and pressed his palm against the red-painted planks. He sent his power into it, and a ripple spread through the wood, like a pebble striking the surface of a pond. Furrows of heat fanned out from his fingertips, crackling furiously.
He turned away and teleported to safety.
Back atop the cliff, he paused to watch his handiwork.
The barn exploded. Eruptive force flattened surrounding buildings and rocked the landscape. Screams broke out below, the sound carried on the wind. Again, Waverly stirred on Agent's shoulder.
Agent smiled, and was gone.CHAPTER 2
Sand blew past Stockton Finn in flurries. For the hundredth time he shielded his eyes. It was damn hot, but he kept his uniform jacket on and tried to ignore the sweat coating his body. It was a matter of pride. When the Orion Special Forces had come knocking, it had been for him, and him alone; not for his stronger older brothers, who'd always teased him, and called him "Stump" because of his small stature. So he was going to keep his jacket on, even if it killed him.
The convoy had been going a half-hour now — ten open-air, all-terrain vehicles jammed with fresh recruits. Behind him lay the titanic walls of Grisham City, soaking up sunlight with countless solar panels. Ahead, Grisham Desert was also a wonder. Miles of shimmering sand stretched to infinity. Dunes rose and fell, reflecting light with crystalline iridescence.
Finn had been enraptured at first, but the heat had quickly left him wishing for a drink, shade, and a shower. His body sweltered beneath his uniform. He could feel fine grains of sand that had managed to get inside the crevices of his clothing. His throat was dry; his eyes watered; his skin burned. He hadn't brought sunscreen, and now he regretted it.
There were four other riders on Finn's ATV — three boys and a girl. They looked relaxed, having stripped off their leathers and uniform shirts, down to their standard-issue gray undershirts.
It was the girl that caught Finn's attention. Her copper hair was tucked in a bun, and he could not help but watch as the wind teased out strands that tickled her delicate features. There was a pensiveness about her as she gazed out at the desert. She kept her arms tightly folded around her slim waist, still and solemn as stone.
She's beautiful, Finn thought. He did not mean to stare, but could not help himself.
As if sensing his attention, the girl turned to him. "What?" she asked.
"N-nothing," he stuttered back. He averted his eyes and studied the creases of his palms instead.
At eighteen years old, Finn had never been with a woman. Whenever his brothers questioned him, he'd lied and told them tales of girlfriends he'd never had. But the truth was he was as much a virgin as the day he was born.
When it came to women, Finn always thought he'd do the wrong thing, or bury his eyes where they shouldn't be. He thought his words would come out in a jumble of nonsense. Training in the Special Forces would make him braver. Or else nothing would.
With a lurch, the armored car crested a final dune.
In the cradle of a massive valley lay an outpost. Finn saw trucks in droves, carrying supplies. On the left, barracks, a mess hall, and supply shacks stood like slabs of granite against the backdrop of white-gold sand. Squat command buildings lay on the right. At the center of the compound was a vast parade ground with rows of reinforced metal targets. Finn could see the targets were blackened, the nearby ground pitted from some explosive.
The vehicles stopped at the base of the dune. Finn's stomach was a knot of tension. He and the others unloaded from the cars, forming into a tight line.
A stern man in a white uniform appeared, his face lined and brown like old leather, his hair a gray buzz, his eyes the color of glacier ice. "Attention!" he hollered. "Welcome to Desert Outpost Four. This is where you'll eat, shit, and sleep for the next three months. I'm Sergeant Douglass. 'Drill Sergeant' to you little pukes. Clear?"
Finn nodded. A few of the recruits mumbled words of acquiescence.
Douglass was not pleased. "That clear?" he echoed.
"Yes, Drill Sergeant!"
Douglass nodded. "Follow me."
He led the group out to the farthest limit of the field, where the battered targets lay.
"Some of y'all might know what we're about," he said. "The rest are in for a surprise. How's about a demonstration? Volunteers?" He surveyed the line. No one stepped forward.
Finn tensed. He didn't know what the sergeant was talking about. He didn't even understand why he'd been selected for the Special Forces in the first place. He could envision Douglass telling him there had been a mistake, that the uniform had been meant for one of his brothers: Garrett Finn, or Judd Finn. Not Stockton the Stump.
Douglass's gaze passed over Finn, and instead settled on the red-haired girl from Finn's car. "What's your name?" he asked.
"Private Sonja DeGaulle," she said.
"Know what we do here?"
"Yes, Drill Sergeant," Sonja said.
"Show us." Douglass moved aside and gestured down the length of the field.
"Yes, Drill Sergeant," Sonja repeated. She stepped forward from the line. Beads of perspiration popped on her nose and forehead. She inhaled deeply.
Finn stared. He was mesmerized by the expansion and contraction of Sonja's back with each breath. He watched a rivulet of sweat trace a line down the side of her face, trail down her slender neck. His mouth was chalk. He swallowed, but it caught in his gullet and it was all he could do to stifle the cough.
"We don't got all day, girlie," Douglass said.
Sonja's eyebrows drew together in concentration, and Finn thought she looked nervous. She thrust out her hand, splaying her fingers.
Something began to happen.
Shimmering waves rose from Sonja's outstretched hand, distorting the air like heat waves. At first Finn thought it was a trick of the light. What else could it be?
Suddenly that heat condensed into a ball of fire, roiling with intensity.
It's not a trick! Finn realized. It's real!
It reminded him of magic, right out of childhood stories. But this was no fantasy. There were no spells, no wizard's staves. This was something completely different.
Sonja made a throwing motion. The fiery orb arced into the distance, cutting across the red-gold evening sky. For a moment, the ball of fire appeared to merge with the setting sun. Then it fell, a single molten teardrop.
Flame lanced out from the point of impact, erupting in brilliant colors: scarlet and burnt orange, yellow, and shining amber. Finn stood transfixed. It was the most wondrous thing he had ever seen — more beautiful than the sapphire waters of the beaches in Vyse; more still than his mother's smile; or the garden in Dawn's Reach; or Jeni Darby when he kissed her under the cherry tree in seventh grade.
When the light died down, Finn peeked at the other trainees. A few gave knowing smiles; most were as awed as Finn himself.
"Serviceable," Douglass said, "but sloppy."
Someone started clapping. Finn joined in.
The clamor grew. People began whooping and cheering. Sonja offered Douglass a bow, then resumed her place in the line. Several of the privates pounced on her; they lifted her in their arms, tossed her hair, patted her on the back. Some others observed from farther away, regarding her with apprehension. As for Douglass, Finn thought he spied the hint of a smile on the sergeant's weathered face.
When the din subsided, Douglass bellowed, "Had your fill? Back to attention, and I mean now!" He glared at them until they arranged themselves in the semblance of a line. "I don't wanna see that kind of unruly conduct ever again."
The response was a resounding, "Yes, Drill Sergeant!"
For the next few hours, Finn and the other recruits attempted to use their power. "It's like a spark," Douglass told them, "deep down in your core. You grab hold, you pull on that like you're suckin' down a soda. That ain't too hard for you pissants, is it?"
For Finn, it was like trying to catch smoke with his fingers. He tried to follow the sergeant's instructions, but every time he felt a glow deep inside, it retreated as soon as he reached for it. And the effort of grasping for it left him strangely exhausted. As night fell, the desert became cool, then cold. Coated in slick sweat, Finn shivered every time a breeze blew through the valley.
There were those who succeeded immediately. One recruit sent gobs of flame skipping across the ground like a pebble on a pond, while another threw twinkling viridian sparks that bowed outward before homing on the targets at the end of the field. Each successful soldier was allowed to stand aside and watch. The people around Finn dwindled. Memories of the schoolyard rose up in him — being picked last for kickball and softball and everything else.
Douglass walked up, and Finn felt despair settle in his stomach like a lump of lead. He couldn't let himself be shipped home, a failure. He didn't think he could take his brothers' laughter.
Somehow, he had to do this!
"No rush," Douglass said to him. "We'll stand here all night if we have to."
"Yes, Drill —"
The sound of an approaching vehicle cut him off. An open-air ATV barreled down the slope and into the outpost, kicking up sand. A tall, broad-shouldered blond man sat in the passenger seat.
The car came to a halt near the line of recruits. The blond man hopped out, moving with a fluid, well-trained grace. He wore the white jacket of the Special Forces, a gray shirt, and desert camo pants. A kaleidoscope assortment of campaign ribbons and insignias of rank was pinned along his chest and shoulders. He marched toward the group, expression calm, his face all hard, rough-hewn angles; his eyes, two chips of green jade, were set in deep sockets. This was not a man to be trifled with, Finn knew at once.
Everyone fell silent, Douglass included. The blond man's presence commanded attention. The drill sergeant stepped forward to greet the unknown officer. They shook hands, and shared a brief exchange. The blond man smiled once, but it did not reach his eyes.
Douglass turned to address the group. "Our guest has a few words. Listen up and listen good!" Then he stepped back and let the other man take his place at the fore.
The blond man was quiet for a time, his pupils scanning back and forth, taking everyone in. Finn held his breath when the man's eyes passed over him.
"My name is Captain Nyne Allen," the man said at last. His voice was soft, yet clear. "I belong to a secret branch of the Orion Special Forces: the Psi Corps. Now, you're probably confused, afraid. That's okay. In the weeks ahead, you'll come to understand what it means to be one of us. For now, know this: you are special. You're important. Only you can master your psionic abilities, and help defend our nation from those who'd use these same powers against it." He paused. "Despite what you might've been taught, the war with Calchis never ended. It changed. So, welcome to the new battlefront. Welcome to the Psi Corps." Finn felt a chill. No one spoke. The wind howled across the dunes. The captain looked over the group again. His eyes rested on Finn.
"What's your name, soldier?" the captain asked.
"F-Finn, sir. Private Stockton Finn."
"Show me what you can do, Private Finn."
"I ... I can't, sir." Finn's heart hammered in his chest, a rapid thud-thud thud-thud. "I can't do anything." The other recruits were murmuring now. If his brothers were here, they'd be laughing and calling him Stump. Finn searched the faces of his comrades, ready to face their judgment, their ridicule.
Then he saw Sonja.
She watched him, not with judgment or mirth or even pity, but with conviction. She did not know him, yet he could feel her silent encouragement. She made him want to be strong.
The captain laid a hand on Finn's shoulder. Finn summoned the strength to meet the man's gaze.
"Do me a favor, Private," Captain Allen said.
The stars were everywhere — shining pinpricks dotting the vast blanket of space. Finn's life had been spent a stone's throw from the metropolis of New Axom, where the city's glow smothered all but the brightest stars. He realized he had never seen the night sky with such clarity, unhindered by the streetlights, neon signs, and bright windows that punctuated the landscape of civilization.
"I want you to focus on a star," said the captain. "Any one you like."
Finn knew which star he wanted. Called Tiger's Eye, it sat at the head of the constellation Tigris, burning with such ferocity that the nearby stars were dampened in its presence. Finn let the star fill his vision. It was as if he could feel its warmth spilling down from space.
"Concentrate on that star, until it's the only thing in your mind," the captain said. "Now, close your eyes. But imagine your star is there, behind your eyelids. Right there with you."
Finn pictured Tiger's Eye. He felt the captain unfurl his fingers so he held out his palm.
"Imagine you can move your star any way you like," the captain said. "Up, down, side to side. Then, picture it drifting into your hand. Good. Open your eyes."
Finn did, and gasped. A perfect copy of Tiger's Eye hovered above his hand, shedding silvery light. He grinned, exultant. He tossed the star over his head.
It burst into a thousand twinkling particles.
The captain let slip his first truly genuine smile of the evening — one that made the corners of his eyes crinkle. The other recruits burst into applause, cheering for Finn as they had earlier for Sonja. Finn looked for her, but she remained off to the side, awarding him with only a single glance that bespoke her approval.
It was enough. The heaviness lifted itself from his shoulders.
This was where he belonged.
Excerpted from Fires of Man by Dan Levinson. Copyright © 2014 Dan Levinson. Excerpted by permission of Jolly Fish Press.
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