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You've never seen a true human being.
No one has, because for several millennia a hidden society has conducted a clandestine effort to “diminish” the entire population, biochemically changing humans into lesser beings while they’re still in the womb.
But now the Diminishing Act is up for renewal and Andra Barger, a last-minute addition to the voting council, has an opportunity to overturn the law. It’s an easy call… or would be, if not for the fact her cancer-stricken brother’s life, and possibly her own, depends on the secretive council’s good graces—and diminishing, council leaders insist, must be ratified.
That leaves Andra with two loathsome choices: maintain the status quo at the expense of the human race, or sacrifice herself and her family with an opposition vote.
Will she vote for… or against… the horrific Act?
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|Publisher:||Delcominy Creations, L.L.C.|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.76(d)|
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Conception took place in a hammock.
Andra Barger kept herself unseen, trying not to watch as the couple finished, calmed, cuddled. After three years on the job she thought she'd pretty much seen it all, but this insatiable pair almost made her wish she was still interested in dating.
She adjusted her sarong and inhaled some Kauai, awaiting confirmation. Palm silhouettes swayed and she swayed with them. Ocean currents massaged the shore near the couple's lanai, she mimicked them with a tilt of her head and a rush of her cascading, coconut hair, wondering why this was the first time she'd noticed that her training had become rote response. The North Shore breeze felt balmy so she responded, curtailing sweat, hormones, scent. Even at 2 a.m., with the world near-dormant, Andra maintained her defenses.
A striped band, one of two stacked above her right ankle, emitted a pale white glow. Conception confirmed. She glanced at the couple, still entwined in the now-motionless hammock. Slipping out of her flip-flops, she stepped from the shadows.
Even on the open lanai, under moonlight with her bare legs extending from the sarong, Andra remained near-invisible. She strode to the hammock, her leg movements confined to knees-and-down, graceful footfalls silent atop the wood deck. The patio reeked of alcohol, and worse, as she approached. The couple were inebriated, spent, half asleep, in their own world. The woman's left hand dangled over the hammock's edge — how easy could it get? Hot air balloons, pools, backseats, those were the difficult jobs. Here, out in the open — easy pickins. She wondered whether her own mother had made things so convenient for whoever diminished her.
The thought made Andra hesitate. This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong. She swallowed, hard, while mashing her thumb against the jagged setting on her pearl ring, trying to regain focus. There was a time for regrets; looming over the target was not it.
She extended her left index finger. One dab of glittering gel, one brief smear against the woman's dangling palm, and it was over. The gel turned gold, then sunk into the woman's skin as if the palm was quicksand. Andra nudged a tiny flip-cap on her ring, sealing the gel supply, and returned to the shadows.
The ankle bracelet no longer glowed.
Her chest felt hollow and her eyes close to tears, same as at the end of every job. She placed a hand below her belly button, massaging, wondering ... questioning. It's okay, the woman's baby won't die. Still, a zygote could develop into much more ... so very much more. Now the woman's child would just be ... well, the same as everyone else. Sure, diminishing served a purpose, but did that really justify ...
A series of thudding sounds made her look up in surprise. Footsteps, she realized ... heavy, commanding footsteps, coming up the stairs on the lanai's far end. Now? she thought. At 2 am?
Then she saw who it was and knew the couple in the hammock weren't the only ones who had gotten lucky that night. She pulled her sarong close around her shoulders and vanished into the shadows, knowing she hadn't just finished her job.
She'd finished it just in time.
* * *
Boots banged against the deck, knocks on a nonexistent door.
A man's voice, firm but uncertain.
The hammock stirred, but only the woman pushed herself up far enough to peek out. She had narrow shoulders and lean arms. Her auburn hair hung to one side, tangled and mashed like a spider's broken web. The edges of her lips flaked and her tongue looked pasty as she tried licking them, falling back into the hammock as she did. Bleary eyed, she squinted at the three tall silhouettes on her lanai. The first stepped forward, stubbled male cheeks and narrow green eyes materializing in dappled moonlight.
He ignored the woman, his eyes searching the shadows.
"No ... I don't think we're clear at all," he said, his voice in the tractor-scraping-asphalt realm.
He nudged the woman back into the hammock, caressed her softly, and waited as alcohol, passion's glow, and 2 a.m. exhaustion worked their magic. Then he looked up.
"Somewhere within fifty yards," he said.
The silhouetted figures with him fanned out, one down the steps, the other over the lanai's forward rail, neither with silence or grace. Floodlight beams burst from their positions, illuminating palms and the sandy shoreline. The beams became a motion sickness test, wobbly from their user's movements, fuzzy from surf spray.
The stubbled man didn't move. He stood, studied, felt. Stepping further into the moonlight he scratched at his whiskers then smoothed his tattered Henley shirt. His hair seemed stringy in the moonlight, matching a beard textured like late-season pumpkin vines. A pocketed cell phone vibrated but he didn't reach for it. He looked thick with clothes, especially for Kauai, and they were as dark and leathered as his skin. A Buddha belly jiggled as he deliberately scuffed his boots on the wooden lanai.
After fidgeting with everything from his buttons to his earlobes, he pulled a matchbox from his khakis, removed a match, lit it, then tossed it down. The flame flared against the wooden deck but a boot-stomp kept it from catching. A second flame, flare, and stomp followed, then a third. The stubbled man made it seem absentminded. He opened and shut his mouth repeatedly, sometimes at weird angles, even though he wasn't saying anything.
By the tenth match several minutes had passed. Floodlights still danced across the beach, the planters, the lanai's underbelly, seemingly passing across every shadow.
Andra swayed with the palms, mimicked the sounds, muted the scents. She was good but floodlights were floodlights. She cringed as the beams flashed above her, then to one side, then off to the other. The searchers were becoming familiar with the area, recognizing the dense shadows from the palms, the surf from the sky. Night was no longer a single shade, the search no longer haphazard. The men knew if they aimed at a particular shadow just right ...
A beam hit the darkened base of a fern next to Andra, illuminating her foot amid the root tangle. She slowed her jumping heart, but to her it still seemed so loud she was certain the entire island must hear the beating.
The search stopped, the men scrutinizing the palms, the roots, her half-concealed foot.
Then the beam moved on, away from Andra. She exhaled softly, but knew the beams were still active and the men were approaching her position, using their lights to scan the area as they advanced. She glanced around, searching for better concealment, or a weapon, or better yet a hidden path that could lead her away.
She considered her situation: a slender woman with no fighting skills, no weapon, no jagged finger rings, no shoes, and no clothes aside from her breezy sarong and the underlying swimsuit. Her knack for remaining calm was a point of pride, but hiding from a Mechen Klav security detail was very different from the occasional angry couple discovering her in the act of diminishing.
And if the rumors are true, the Klav want to find me right away. Not because I've done anything wrong, but because they're worried I might.
A beating wasn't going to stop that. Mutilation, dismemberment, rape ... she clenched her teeth, terrified yet furious, determined not to let any such horrific assaults sway her convictions, or her opportunities for making some changes. Of course, the Mechen Klav officers would know that as well. Would they dispense with the horrors and simply kill her?
Highly possible, she decided, leaving her only one choice.
One I hate using.
Another beam flashed, this one on a coconut hanging some ten feet above her head. She felt exposed, her head and shoulders no longer in the pitch dark, still sheltered beneath fronds but likely visible to sharp eyes.
There weren't any sharp eyes on the beach. The beam moved on.
Again Andra exhaled. She heard the men approaching now, maybe twenty feet from her position. Right arm raised to shoulder height, fingers extended in the defensive position her grandmother had taught her so many years ago, she held her breath, waiting.
The light beams never came close. The men trudged past.
Then something dropped into the fronds next to her, snapping them with a huge crack. The subsequent crash, as the object hit the dried scrub below, seemed louder than the ocean waves. Whatever it was, it was large ... bowling ball large, or so it seemed in the darkness.
The beams whirled. Just like that, Andra was floodlit ... as was the fallen coconut near her feet.
The two men bounded over, objects — guns maybe? — in each hand. They shouted orders, hands-behind-head-type instructions, but she knew they weren't cops. She rose from her crouch, sarong draped loosely, right hand still positioned where her hair met her left shoulder.
I hate this, I hate this, I hate this.
Whatever the men were expecting, they seemed surprised to find her ... probably an advantage, she supposed. They instructed her to walk forward, she did. They told her to remain still, she did. But her hands never went behind her head, and she never turned around. They noticed, and ordered her to comply.
Instead she let her mind glaze over, tilted her head, and made eye contact. Her irises felt strained as she flexed her eyelids the way her grandmother trained her, manipulating her eyes, expanding and contracting her pupils imperceptibly fast, dozens of times per second, so rapid she felt air stirring against her eyelashes.
The Mechen Klav officers stood motionless, transfixed.
Disgusted with herself, Andra walked right between them, pausing only as they lowered their floodlights and angled their bodies to let her pass. She hated them, not only for coming after her like this but for placing her in a position where she had to rely on skills best left forgotten, methods that only existed so one set of people could wield power over another. Techniques created to help diminish pregnant mothers, she thought, appalled.
She scanned her surroundings, searching for shrubs, hoping to find better density amid the palm trunks. Moments later she was in deep shadow, re-hidden among an adjacent grove.
* * *
The men still hadn't moved.
They'd come around any second now, most likely with mild headaches. Because of the eye flicker, Andra knew. Because of the meditative alpha state it induced ... one of the same repulsive, Old World tricks that make me a good diminisher.
Atop the lanai, the stubbled man couldn't see what had happened but apparently knew something wasn't right. Andra watched as he lit and stomped several matches, deep in thought. Eventually he lit yet another match but held it for a moment before letting it drop a couple feet from the hammock.
"This one doesn't get smashed," he called out.
Andra knew the statement was meant for her, not his men. She watched as he dropped another match, lit a few more, dropped them alongside one another. They flared atop the wood. Several fizzled.
"Plenty more," the man said.
His companions shook off their trance and returned to the deck, their body movements slumped, light beams bobbing atop their toes. Their stubbled leader shook his head. A few matches later, the deck finally caught fire. The flames were small, illuminating the man's boot, but licked at the surrounding wood, spreading in slow, quarter-inch segments.
"Lot of humidity," the man called. "But the hammock isn't too far away. You gonna' let the nice couple burn?"
He dropped a couple more matches, watching them ignite within the deck-top flames. As the pyre reached campfire level, deck boards spraying sparks and paint shriveling back along the corners, he backed away. The other two men were already down the steps, pulling back.
"Point of no return, lady," the man shouted, over the crackling flames. "Patience and shadows is a nice mantra, but another minute or so and you won't —"
Gushing water hit him in the face, knocking him over, then redirected to the base of the flames. The facsimile hiss of a thousand snakes erupted then died away. Flames and embers disappeared, steam in their place.
"Not the way to roll, Sandoval."
The arriving voice was male and commanding, yet had a slight drawl. Andra suppressed an involuntary heartbeat increase as recognition hit.
Sandoval, confused at hearing a man's voice from somewhere behind the steam and the spraying water, wiped the drips from his stubbled cheeks.
"Wade? What the hell, man? I was this close to —"
"To what, frying up a couple lovebirds?"
The water dropped away. Thick steam still rose from the charred beams but gaps had formed, exposing two bare forearms supporting a hose. As the steam thinned a man's angular face appeared, soot gathered in a cleft near his chin. He was everything high fashion wasn't: shell necklace over a black tee, fingerless biker gloves, patterned jeans and canvas shoes. Cop-walking across the deck, elbows held wide, he tossed the hose down and offered Sandoval a gloved hand.
Sandoval ignored it and pushed himself up, his hair and clothes soaked.
"Now listen, Wade," he said, shaking the water from his arms. "She already jacked the woman, hear? So there wasn't no danger of the job going south. But if we don't apply some pressure, let her know the council's got chops, she's gonna' screw everything up."
Wade stuck a toothpick between his teeth and began chewing. "Thought the Cinüe don't knock heads," he said, his mild southern drawl more obvious this time.
"We do when there's a wildcard," he said. "And I don't need to tell you she's about to become one big-ass wildcard. But I guess maybe you're a wildcard too, huh."
Wade chewed his toothpick.
"You know what that woman just did," Sandoval said. "People won't accept anything less than her continuing to do the same thing, year after year, no questions asked — and making sure the laws mandating it remain in place. It's the only thing keeping this world in one piece. Now, does she understand that or not?"
Wade continued chewing. "This one don't need your message," he said. "This one knows what's at stake."
"Yeah? Well if she knows, why'd she ignore the rules and do her own sweet thing last year? Why'd the council order us to keep tabs on her? Hell, why does she make so much effort to dodge us?"
Sandoval stomped down the three lanai steps, pausing for a long glare at Wade on each one. "I thought you understood keeping peace means setting some examples," he said. "You really this clueless?"
The toothpick cracked. Wade flicked it onto the deck.
"Don't need clues," he said. "Just facts."
Sandoval scoffed. "You didn't see me here," he said.
Sandoval shook his head, then gestured to his companions. The three men tromped into the Kauai dark. Wade watched the men leave, then rolled up the hose and spent the next half hour doing what he could to clean the deck. The couple in the hammock never stirred.
"You're clear, they're out cold," he said, to the darkness off the lanai's edge.
Emotion welled in Andra's chest, but she resisted.
"Yoo hoo — mail's here," Wade tried.
He searched the shadows.
"It's important," he added. "But you already know that, right? You've heard the rumors."
I'm not here, Andra answered, to herself.
"Would it help if I buy you a shave ice?" Wade called. "Pineapple-mango, ice cream at the bottom?"
Andra swayed with the palms, mimicked the sounds, muted the scents.
"C'mon, I can't be spotted with you so time's running out," Wade said, his shell necklace clinking as he walked from one rail to the next, peering into the darkness. "You need to grab this mail now."
She let the palms, ocean, and balmy breeze serve as his answer.
"I mean it, Andra, this one's urgent. But hey, don't let me risking life and limb to deliver the most important mail of your life affect your decision or anything."
One palm silhouette went still.
Wade sighed. "Annie, please ... no judgments, no baggage. Just the mail, I promise."
A silent moment passed. Andra collected herself. Why not, she decided, and stepped onto the lanai. Her sarong was island-thin but she didn't care. She lost her modesty when she lost her twenties.
"Jeez, Wade, helluva time," she said, readjusting the garment.
Wade shrugged. "Not really a nine-to-five guy, darlin.'"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Piercing Maybe"
Copyright © 2018 Dan Cray.
Excerpted by permission of Delcominy Creations, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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