Excerpt: A Pause in the Perpetual Rotation by Vincent H. O’Neil

” … the main action manages to capture the imagination and hold it. The main players are developed well over the course of the narrative, and the book’s dialogue, especially, rings true and is consistently snappy and readable.” — Kirkus Reviews

In a future United States, robots do all the work and there is no need for jobs or money. The major corporations have been turned into government ministries, and the few universities left are tasked to train the human staff for those ministries.

Everyone gets just about everything they want, but certain limits are imposed based on what strata of society you inhabit.

People across the society seek to add more purpose and meaning to their lives. Some have embraced a philosophy called The Unused Path, which stresses self-discovery and self-reliance. No one knows where The Path came from, but it is gaining popularity and the government is starting to see it is a threat to contentment.

And anything that challenges the social order is not tolerated.

A Pause in the Perpetual Rotation Chapters 1 and 2 by Vincent H. O’Neil

Chapter One

The car slowly came to a stop at the curb, its door opening automatically. Lansing stepped out with difficulty, checking his balance on the cane before starting to walk. The rain had ended, but the reflection of the tall building’s lights showed that the sidewalk’s bricks were wet and slick.

Although the summer night was warm, he’d worn the tan raincoat over his suit anyway. A brimmed black fedora completed the ensemble, a look that had gone out of style and come back so many times that he simply stuck with it now.

Shall I wait, Inspector?” The car’s accent was flat American, like his own.

No, I’ll be here awhile.” The door shut, and the vehicle rolled away. It was a motor pool car, even though Lansing rated one of his own. He wondered if it was already receiving instructions for another pickup, and then decided that was unlikely at this time of night.

The wide stone steps were empty, but during the day they were usually dotted with workers from the other departments in the building. Sitting. Eating. Talking. Staring into their slims as if the devices were alive. All of them staff in the Ministry of Education, which occupied every inch of the structure except for Lansing’s office in the basement. He went up the steps steadily, ready with the cane if his quirky leg muscles fired in the wrong sequence. Twenty years of walking like this, and every step a crapshoot.

Two Mech Marshals stood guard on either side of the building’s long row of main doors, silent and motionless as stone lions. This version of the robot law enforcers was seven feet tall, black armor, and somewhat humanoid in shape from their block-like feet to their broad shoulders. Above that, however, was a drum-like head only eight inches tall with a dark red sensor screen that ran all the way around.

Lansing had seen the pair move once, a benefit of his odd hours, when he’d chanced upon an unexplained changing of the guard. Two identical marshals flew down and landed in the park across the street, to keep the jets in the soles of their boots from scorching the stone at the top of the stairs. Looking like a pair of weightlifters as they lumbered forward with their massive arms swinging. They took the places of the original pair, and those two clomped down the steps before lifting off from the park. Scheduled maintenance, or perhaps a weapons upgrade. Somebody was always making the things a little more dangerous.

Inside, Lansing shambled across the inlaid marble of the lobby and onto the dark blue carpet that led to the elevators. A beep inside his jacket sent him reaching for his slim. The screen held a greeting from his partner in their basement office, alerted when the lobby’s sensors had confirmed his identity.

Whatsamatter? Miss me?

Lansing smiled, stepping into the elevator. He always heard Partner’s deep voice when reading these messages, a gruff amalgam of private investigator characters from a hundred ancient noir films. Although Partner had no body, Lansing imagined the Investigative Artificial Intelligence with a bald head, bulging muscles, two days of beard, and a drooping cigarette.

Exiting the elevator, he went down the hallway to its only door. Hidden bolts retracted with a muted thud, and he passed down a short passageway as the heavy door closed behind him. The room he entered was a twenty-foot tall cylinder done up in brown wood. A railed walkway ran around the walls three feet above his six-foot figure, and the floor was a thick rug with an intricate pattern of maroon, beige, and gold. An imitation roll-top desk stood off to the side, and coffee was already brewing in a wall unit. Lansing went to hang up his coat and hat.

Didn’t you leave here fifteen minutes ago?” Partner growled, the voice all around him.

More like five hours.”

After you’d been here for twelve.”

That’s me. Dedicated.” Lansing set the cane against the desk, and settled into a big leather swivel chair.

Everybody else in this building comes to work when they’re supposed to, leaves when they’re supposed to.”

That’s because they have no work to do. It would be different if they had actual jobs.”

Being here is their job, Boss.” The AI argued. “You ever gonna understand bureaucracy? What you do isn’t half as important as the size of your department.”

Well then I’m afraid you and I aren’t very important.”

You can say that again. We’re the only cops in the whole complex.”

Forgetting the centurions guarding the main door?”

They’re not cops. Mech Marshals are just muscle.”

Partner was programmed to hold up his end of the banter, so Lansing decided to cut it off. “Where’s the latest feed from our friends on The Unused Path?”

All around him, wood paneling faded and then brightened into a collage of photographic images. Graffiti on an alley wall. Doodles and letters on a discarded napkin. Words chalked beneath a stone bridge. All of them selections from the last twenty-four hours of surveillance footage across Capital City. Captured by stationary cameras, high-altitude drones, and even mini-recorders that looked and flew like insects.

Some of the painted ones look pretty old.” Partner explained. “The chalk one’s new.”

Without being asked, Partner highlighted the words in each picture that had earned them a spot in Lansing’s gallery. In the middle of the graffiti he read the words, DEVELOP YOUR MIND. ALWAYS.

Second lesson in their canon.” He swiveled the chair to view the chalk message. “And this one is the very first sentence of their whole philosophy.”


Napkin’s got one that’s paraphrased.” Partner zoomed in on the letters. ROBOTS MAKE GOOD SERVANTS, BUT POOR MASTERS. “The actual words are ‘tools make good servants, but poor masters’.”

Lansing nodded, having memorized the entire dogma. It wasn’t long, and could be found all over the web. “If it’s different, what qualified it for the intelligence skim?”

It wasn’t alone.” Partner changed the picture to show five similar papers, neatly laid out side by side and photographed. The doodles and handwriting were different, but the words were the same. “This distribution was scattered on the tables of an outdoor food court.”

Video of the culprits?”

They’re somewhere in the body mix, but can’t be identified.” The screen jumped into high-speed motion, focused on two dozen four-seater tables in an open air setting. Automated food kiosks lined two sides of the square, and Lansing watched the frenetic flow of diners. Getting their meals and drinks, carrying them to the tables, munching, talking, leaving. Partner periodically halted the playback to show that almost every vacated table had extra napkins on it.

Clever. We couldn’t be lucky enough for this to be in a guv zone, right?”

Now why didn’t I think of that?” Partner now showed him a schematic of the city, the nation’s new capital ever since the Reorganization a generation earlier. The AI then overlaid a familiar color pattern on the schematic. A single aqua blue blotch indicated Tier One, the community where top government ministers and their families lived. It was entirely surrounded by a much bigger smudge in forest green, one of several inside the city limits. The green zones indicating the neighborhoods where administration employees of the government lived and worked. The rest of the map was a light tan.

Aqua blue for the people at the top of the society, known as the Swells because they were afloat in a sea of power and luxury. Green for the Shoals, not as privileged as the Swells but bobbing along happily and only occasionally touching bottom. Tan for the majority of the Citizens, the Sands, who received everything they needed but more slowly than the others. Their world was also referred to as the beach because the water touched them too, after passing the Swells and the Shoals. Sand folk were also known as Grains.

Red lines grew over the schematic, completely outlining the blue area and then creating a tight network of blocks and rectangles inside the green smudge that surrounded it. Those were the ministry complexes, the nation’s government, and they included the one where Lansing was seated. Constant electronic monitoring occurred inside the red boundaries, recording every detail on every slim. A blinking cursor showed the location of the food court, near an office complex in the green but outside the red.

Even if they’d come under our monitoring, a tweaked slim could beat that.” Lansing exhaled with a light whistle, leaning back into the leather. “We’d be chasing our tails, investigating everyone who ate there.”

His mind blanched at the idea of scrutinizing the daily activities of so many guv workers and mere Citizens. The dreary details of their contented, stagnant lives contrasting so darkly with what he’d learned from studying the Unused Path philosophy. A wall back at his house displayed every maxim in their creed, and they were now burned into his memory.

Develop your mind. Always.

Spend time alone with your thoughts.

Specificity contributes to accuracy.

Those aphorisms, and their increasing promotion, suggested their advocates were anything but stagnant and none too contented. Spreading discontent was a crime, and that was why he’d been told to look into it. The potentially subversive seeds of thought had so far been ignored by the Citizens, but the planters’ success at remaining anonymous was no small feat.

The words needled Lansing, walked with him, and sent him back to work at odd hours. To sit here in this round tower of an office, encased in counter-surveillance electronics while the words rebounded inside his head. Like some friar in a Dark Ages fortress-monastery, copying scroll after scroll while the outside world suffered in ignorance and despondence. The thought made him smile just a bit. The structure above his office took up two city blocks, but the hundreds of staffers who worked there by day were hardly despondent. Happily idle was more like it. Willing to go with the flow wherever that took them.

Whose life are you going to live?” Lansing hadn’t known he was about to speak.

You ought to be careful, Boss.”

He understood Partner’s warning, but pretended not to anyway.

Last time I was being careful, I got a thousand-volt kiss that turned my legs into Pinocchio’s.”

That fits. After all, you were born with his nose.”

You saying I’m a liar?”

The nose didn’t make Pinocchio a liar. It just ratted him out when he was fibbing. But you do that all on your own. Whenever you lie, it’s really obvious. Remember that, Boss.”

Chapter Two

Traxter watched the scenery sailing by as the metro brought him closer to home. He always sat in the third row that faced forward because, when the spherical car’s door rotated shut at the station, the outermost rows slid upward into tiers. This put him closest to the transparent bubble’s top, where he could see the passing landscape.

The Path had taught him to study his surroundings.

The single car flew through an equally transparent tube twenty meters above the ground. No passengers sat in the rear-facing seats across from him, and so those rows had stayed retracted. If Traxter looked right, away from the parallel tube and its cars going in the opposite direction, the twin shells of car and pipe simply vanished and it felt like he was flying.

Although each metro car could hold a maximum of twenty-eight people, in a four-six-four arrangement facing each other, he was alone. Very few people rode the metro in this direction when the sun drooped, even fewer of them dressed as he was. Traxter tried to imagine what he looked like to the people on the various platforms he passed.

Fifteen but already tall, dark-skinned, and thin inside a pair of khaki pants and a light blue collared shirt. The outfit was completed by a necktie from a private school that had never existed. That particular rig was already out of fashion with the upper crust in Tier One, but it was a decent enough disguise for the Shoal community of Fulton where Traxter had just spent a profitable day.

More than profitable. Other scouts had failed in this mission in the weeks before, but he’d succeeded by using his head. By studying the patterns of the flying robots that picked up or delivered the long container boxes from fenced-in storage yards in different parts of Fulton. By walking as if he had someplace to go, while also having all the time in the world to get there. By looking and acting like he belonged in Shoal territory even though he was Sand through and through. By applying a slow process of elimination that left a single flight path as the only candidate for what he sought. By getting close enough to observe that one yard and confirm that the box in question contained the items sought by the people who’d sent him. His people.

Broad fields of green summer grass stretched away to his right, while what was left of a crumbling highway was visible beneath the tube on his left. The ‘bots had removed the signs and knocked down the overpasses decades before he was born. Sand folk didn’t have car privileges, so why maintain the roads going where they lived?

But the robots had done good things too. They’d knocked down a wide swath of the city to plant the greenbelt he was now crossing. Groves of trees dotted the expanse, along with ponds and streams. A flock of water birds lifted off in waves, too far away to be identified, and Traxter watched them flap hard before stretching out their wings to ride the breeze. He wore a broad smile while turning his head to keep them in sight, his temple eventually touching the bubble’s hard casing.

Past the belt was the world he inhabited. So different from the place where he’d spent his day. Vast neighborhoods still separated him from home, and Traxler studied them like an old-time general visiting a country he might have to invade someday. Robot-generated housing as far as the eye could see, none of it more than four stories tall and spaced out to provide room for walkways, playgrounds, and parks. Artistic Artificial Intelligence had put its stamp everywhere, drawing on the entire history of human architecture and then adding its own flair. It was hard to consider it public housing when it was so varied in design and so pleasing in aesthetics.

The Behavioral AIs, studying humanity, had recognized that people need space and variety. Stuff them into small apartments that all look the same, and then stack those on top of each other into the clouds, and you were asking for trouble. Give them enough room to actually live in, change up the designs, and spread them out if you wanted tranquility and a contented populace.

Contentment, Traxler thought. The guv was big on contentment.

Free housing and free medical, provided by robot right in the community where you lived. Free food and free clothing, delivered by drones wherever you were. Free education, mostly about the merits of being a good Citizen of a contented society. No jobs outside the government, so a lifetime of free time.

His thoughts brought up something Muriel had taught him.

They meet all our needs. They spread us out. They teach us to behave. So they can ignore us.

The car stopped at a familiar platform. Traxter’s seat gently slid down, and the safety harness released him when his feet were on the floor. Exiting the bubble, he winced at a blister from the black shoes that were part of the rig he’d worn. Problem with Swell clothing, he thought. They can exchange it as much as they like, send the newly old back for recycle while getting something else. The ‘bots tracked the frequency of things like that, and crafted much of Swell clothing for look and not comfort.

He rested his palms on the metal rail, looking down into late afternoon activity. He was only two stops from home, but had business here in Market. Its official name was Ridgeland Crossing, but every neighborhood had a map designation that no one could explain. His own neighborhood was named Holly Corners, but everyone referred to it as The Holly. None of it mattered, of course, as long as people knew what you meant. Market aptly described this locality, and he never went there without twinges of excitement. Bouncing down the steps, he walked with long strides into the throng.

Track Star! Look at the neat outfit! You signing on with the gentry?” Hector Sandoval’s narrow face wore a layer of sweat as he loaded crates of vegetables into the back of a small truck outside his shop. The main roads might have been chopped up and Grains might not be authorized to have cars, but things still had to move.

Man’s got to think of his future.” He called, but started taking off the school tie anyway. “Five years from now I plan to be the Minister of … something.”

They’re all the same.” Hector replied. He was going to say more, but a late-day shopper had walked up with something to trade. In a world that had stopped using money, barter was king.

And Market was its local kingdom. In every direction, Traxter saw the scrutinizing eyes, the appraising palms, and the exasperated gestures as business was conducted. Filling the many gaps between what the government provided and what people needed right now. Hector traded produce, a fair deal of it grown in the soil of Traxter’s neighborhood, to supplement the tasty but nutritionally questionable food allowance. Across from his shop, Lagarde’s Luxuries offered sturdier reproductions of popular Swell apparel. Farther up, a spot called Shop ‘n Shock carried repaired and reconditioned personal electronics scooped up in the crucial timeframe between some Swell kid tossing it aside and the ‘bot recyclers grabbing it.

Blocks and blocks of stores, and streets filled with people from many neighborhoods away. Backpacks that sagged with what they’d brought or what they’d received, and eyes constantly studying the windows and sidewalk racks to see the latest haul. Even if the day’s shopping was done, the kaleidoscope of the barter economy was eternally shifting and there was an art to divining what was on the way based off what was on display.

The air conditioning of Tatiana’s was a welcome relief from the heat. Its window showed an array of antique phones, the electronic ancestors of the slims, but that was just for atmosphere. Inside, the walls were covered with transparent boxes hanging on pegs in neat rows, each of them holding accessories for all sorts of slim-related entertainment. The front of the space was narrow, and its counter blocked the path to the back.

Tatiana stood behind that, a tall woman with graying brunette hair and blue eyes. Shopkeepers in Market usually wore rough work clothes, but Tatiana was always wrapped in a dress of shiny red or blue. Today it was blue, with gold hummingbirds embroidered up the left side to conceal the buttons. Traxler already had the slim in his hand. And passed it to her without a word.

She dropped the device through a slot in the counter’s top, sending it to a bin that blocked it from transmitting or receiving. He wouldn’t be getting it back, but that was all right because it wasn’t his to begin with.

Any trouble?” Tatiana asked, her words still carrying a touch of a Russian accent.

A delivery drone messaged me, wanting to drop off Marcus Hanson’s new belt. I was tempted to accept it, but from the photo I didn’t think it would fit these loops. Some kinda imitation biker leather from the movies.” For this trip, he’d carried a slim that identified him as a Shoal kid the same age. Tatiana’s operatives had cut the real Marcus Hanson’s device out of the system while Traxter had been riding the metro that morning, and had reinstated it when he’d been riding back. Any record of his travels that day would be attributed to the unsuspecting Marcus.

Accept it next time. Use for trade.” She looked him up and down, nose wrinkling.

What’s wrong?”

School uniform disguise. Tells everyone in Market you were out scouting today. Next time bring bag, street clothes, change at Hector’s. Going out and coming back.”

His face reddened with the knowledge that he secretly liked the stir his outfit had created, the greetings and jokes as he’d walked through Market. He’d forgotten that camouflage isn’t camouflage if it attracts attention, but his pride wouldn’t let him accept the correction.

Market’s neutral ground. Who cares who notices?”

Market neutral, true. No gangs in Market. No violence in Market. But plenty of eyes in Market, and one time maybe they catch you when you leave. Find out what the scout learned.”

They’d have to run fast for that.”

Leaving on foot even worse. Market and the Holly no longer connected. Sabretooth territory between us now. Remember that.” The neighborhood of Sailor Loop was nicknamed Sabretooth for the gang that ran the place. They’d recently shaved off a few blocks of Market just to make access harder for the residents of The Holly. As true entrepreneurs, the shopkeepers in that stretch of Market had simply relocated, leaving the finger of ground a ghost town.

I’ll remember.”

He gave a small wave and started for the door. Just before he opened it, Tatiana spoke again.

Be back in Holly before sundown. Tigers hunt in darkness.”

But there was one more stop to make, and he sure wasn’t going to miss it. Back onto the street, taking lefts and rights with mounting excitement. Sliding the tie from around his neck, folding it neatly, and tucking it into the shirt’s chest pocket so a small hint of maroon fabric showed against the blue. Mignon liked artistic touches like that.

Traxter entered the shop like a second home, pleased to see it was almost empty. Mignon’s father Leon was speaking with two women who were familiar sights in Market. Trax didn’t know their names, but remembered they dealt in Swell footwear. It reminded him of the blister now well established on his right heel and starting to complain. He stopped just inside the door, trying to look cool. His eyes ran over several standing racks filled with everything from earrings to nose studs to brooches, most of it hand-fashioned by Mignon or Leon’s other workers.

Hey there, Trickster. Be with ya in a minute.” Leon was a tall black man with a fringe of graying hair. Barrel-chested with a bit of a potbelly, he favored loose hanging shirts with short sleeves that showed off the muscles of his arms. Today he wore an indigo top embroidered with red flowers over a pair of khaki trousers. Trax pretended to study a set of imitation emerald earrings on a cardboard square, choosing that item because it placed the door to the back room in his line of sight.

Mignon and the others worked their magic back there, quality imitations of the newest fashions in Swell accessories. The main work was accomplished by machines that generated the jewelry bodies, but the fine touches were applied by hand with tools ranging from tight-focused lasers to delicate etchers.

Well now. Judgin’ from that rig, you been out fishin’ today.” Leon approached and shook his hand. “Catch anything?”

The two customers were still there, so Traxter motioned Leon over to the shop’s main counter. Not yet grown to eye level with the man, he stood up as straight as possible and spoke in a low voice.

Saw something new. These two Swell ladies were in a Shoal neighborhood—”

Which one?”

That caught him off guard. Muriel wouldn’t want him saying where he’d been, not for the job he’d done today, so he picked the name of the Shoal community next door to where he’d seen the two ladies.


Leon’s head tilted slightly, away from Trax, in a gesture he’d come to recognize. The smallest smile always came with it. “Sure about that?”

Edge of Pinehurst and Fulton. Thereabouts.” He’d spent the day nonchalantly searching Fulton, until finally locating the spot that had been his quest. Knowing he’d been caught lying, Traxter fell back on the traditional attitude of Market that said everybody was running some kind of game. He returned Leon’s smile. “Listen, if you don’t want this, I’ll stop wasting your time.”

Easy there. I’m only askin’ because the Swell ladies who visit Pinehurst are a lot less savvy than the ones who spend a day in Fulton.” A glance at the two customers. “So what did you see?”

They were wearing these brooches. Looked like bumblebees. Tails were gold stripes separated by a shiny black material.”

Bumblebee brooches. Makes as much sense as any other kind of fashion, I guess. Both of ‘em had them?” Fads raced through the Swells’ ranks like contagious diseases.

Yes, more than one apiece. Each bee was in a different pose, and you could arrange them any way you want.”

Nice to hear the Swells still have some kind of individuality.” Leon paused, knowing what Trax wanted to hear. “You think you could describe these for Mignon?”

Mignon Bruhardt was seventeen, two years older than Traxter. She had her father’s height and her Vietnamese mother’s trim build. Her skin was light brown and unblemished, and her hair was the color of milk chocolate. A small black ribbon kept it out of the way as she worked.

She wore a simple black dress with short sleeves today, and a tan work apron around her neck and hips. Her head was bowed in concentration when Traxter and her father approached, her hand etching a complex image of an angel onto a silver bracelet. The engraver’s fine bit scraped spidery shards off of the shiny surface while its motor joined the general droning in the room.

Robot arms twitched and jerked at most of the other worktables while Leon’s employees monitored the cutting and polishing, but the robot attached to Mignon’s station was idle. She was so fast with the ‘bots that her work was always finished early, at which time she switched to manual creation. A monitor next to her station displayed an old painting of an angelic visitation, and Mignon was creating a duplicate on the bracelet freehand.

Leon and Trax stopped short, not wanting to interrupt her, but she called out sweetly while continuing to cut. “Don’t be shy, you two. Take more than you to get my hand shaking.”

A click turned off the engraver, and she turned on the backless stool with a smile. “Schoolboy Traxter. Look at that outfit. Only two weeks out of style.”

Pinehurst is always at least a month behind on these things.” Leon kicked a second stool with the toe of a boot, its casters rattling as it rolled over next to Mignon. “Or was it Fulton?”

Stop pestering, Daddy.” She patted the empty seat while her father headed back to the store. “Fathers are like that, when boys come ‘round to see their little girls.”

He sat blindly, his entire field of vision focused on the smooth nape of her neck and the hint of cleavage visible above the apron. She smelled like smoke and hot silver, and his mouth went dry when she laid delicate fingertips on his arm.

So tell me. What did you see there in Fulton?”

Hey kiddo, it’s almost dark.” Leon’s words brought Traxter out of something akin to a trance. The time had passed without his notice, taken up by the closeness of Mignon as she deftly sketched the brooches he described. Occasional brushes of bare arm to bare arm, longer contact thigh to thigh. Pride swelling in his chest when he made her laugh, and when she’d been impressed by the tale of his big coup that day.

Traxter now saw to his surprise that the other workers had all gone. He’d noticed some of them turning off their desk lamps and walking past, but had welcomed this as additional privacy. He stood slowly, mildly concerned about the run home but greatly reluctant to end the visit. Leon stepped up and looked at the papers arrayed on Mignon’s tilted desk, nodding.

Those are really nice. We can work with those.” Head turning to Trax. “Seriously, you either need to take the metro or get steppin’ right now, son.”

His brain stuttered for a moment, not letting him find the words. Nothing cool came to his racing mind to let Mignon know he’d enjoyed their time, something to suggest they do it again away from the shop. She gave him a big smile just then, finishing the mental short circuit, and so he turned to Leon.

Glad to help. Maybe sometime soon. Again, I mean.”

That’d be great, Trax. Now get a move on.”

His brain regained enough function to kick him several times as he headed for the door.

Outside, the sky was almost black and Market’s streets were emptying. More shops had gone dark than were still open, but motion-activated street lights lit up that part of Market almost like daytime. He turned east, looking over the rooftops to the illuminated sign for the metro but already knowing he wouldn’t be headed that way. Two stations separated Market from the Holly, both of them in Sabretooth. Violence on the metro would bring a massive response from the Mech Marshals, so the odds were good that he’d simply glide through unmolested. But if someone had taken notice of him as Tatiana suggested, a gang of Fouche’s Tigers could board his car and take him off at the next stop.

Being trapped like that held no attraction for a quick-footed teenager nicknamed Track Star, and he was only two blocks away from the edge of Market closest to The Holly. The long finger of turf recently bitten off by the Sabers was only three blocks wide, and he knew its every crack. A sudden stab from the newly awakened blister caused him to throw an uncertain glance at the shoes, but then he decided they couldn’t be helped. Kneeling, he undid the laces and then pulled them extra tight before tying them again.

Feeling his heart thudding against his ribs, Trax went into the relaxation breathing from The Unused Path. Long slow inhale, long slow exhale. This brought back other lessons, and they helped guide his analysis of the situation. If anyone was watching him, they’d call ahead when he set out for home. So to make that more difficult, he started walking slowly in the direction of the metro.

There weren’t enough people in the street to hide his planned move to circle back, so instead Trax took a right turn toward the public toilet booths. As soon as he went around the corner he shifted into a jog, noting that luck was with him. In the middle of the row of ten narrow cubicles, a door was just closing behind a user. Anyone following him would see the OCCUPIED sign and probably assume it was him. Hoping the booth’s visitor had a time-consuming case of the runs, he dashed around the end and picked up the pace. The hard soles of the shoes seemed to ring out on the pavement, so he couldn’t actually run just yet.

In no time he was on the fringe of Market, hustling down a tight alley that offered a hiding place while he got a final look at the ground he’d have to cross. Behind him was a distant buzz of street conversation, but the world to his front was devoid of life. The shops that had been here were small, in one- and two-story buildings that now stood dark and silent. Traxter’s roving eyes made out the gray masts of streetlights beyond the first block, their sensors just waiting for his moving form to bring them to life.

But that wasn’t a problem. He’d done this half a dozen times since the takeover, and had worked out a system. Taking a deep breath, he raced out across the pavement with his bouncing vision focused on the next dark alley. He reached its shadows just as the street behind him snapped into a glowing corridor outside of his new spot. Now the trick was to wait, silently catching his breath, until the light died. Anyone watching the unoccupied blocks would wonder if the lamps had been set off by a dog or a bird or even a rat. Not seeing other lights activate would convince them not to investigate. All he had to do now was stay cool and motionless. The technique was second nature now, and it had always worked.

Of course, all those other times he hadn’t been worried about a possible tail. If anyone had been following him earlier, they might have guessed where he’d gone. That possibility, and the dead quiet to his front, got him moving again as soon as the illuminated end of the alley went dark. Peering out, already knowing he could cross the distance before the first lamp snapped on and trying not to imagine people waiting up ahead.

If anybody was out there, they were certainly disciplined about it. No sound or movement whatsoever. Scattered Holly window lights flickered in the distance like fireflies, beckoning, and Traxter chided himself for his caution. Fastest kid in the neighborhood, frozen to this one spot from dark imaginings and the warning of a shopkeeper. Taking another deep breath, he took off.

The soles of the toney shoes slapped the pavement like hands clapping, making him cringe with each stride while the blister on his right heel suddenly sprouted a twin on his left. Even so, his body relaxed into the thing it did best, his pumping arms and reaching legs eating the distance until the next set of buildings materialized out of the gloom and he jagged left to enter another alley. Sliding to a painful stop, back pressing against the wall, eyes straining toward The Holly as he waited for the illumination to flare behind him.

Except it didn’t. The lamps should have opened their electric eyes just as he was reaching cover, spreading light up and down the side street. Puzzled, he looked back on a gray void that he could have crossed at a slow saunter. What had happened? Was there so little activity here that the devices had been permanently shut off? But that made no sense. The Tigers hadn’t claimed this ground to ignore it.

And they hadn’t. Two words came into his head, in Tatiana’s voice even though she’d never said them.

Tigers climb.

His mind filled with images of children close to his own age, faces painted with orange and black stripes, hands wrapped with metal climbing crampons known as cub claws, teeth biting down on cloth bags as they went up the poles to cover the sensors.

Tigers hunt in darkness.

Tatiana’s actual words now sent him running flat out, mindless, straight down the alley toward home. Trying to focus on where he was going, but unable to stop his head from swinging back and forth while his eyes searched for sights he didn’t want to see.

Behind him, a single male voice let loose in a roar more lion-like than that of a tiger. A second, much closer, bellowed a deep-throated response from his left and Traxter immediately changed course to his right. One more set of buildings, coming up fast, but now the sounds of snarls and howls and running feet filled the darkness behind him. Into the alley, terrified someone would step out to block him and resolving to slam right into them, tripping over unseen garbage, more pain in his feet, and then he was through.

The Holly’s lights now taking recognizable shape as streetlamps and windows. Echoes of animal roars from the alley he’d just cleared, but no sound or motion to his right or left and elation filling his chest as the cooling night’s air surged in and out and he knew he’d reach safety before they could catch him. The border of The Holly on this side was a stand of trees two hundred yards deep, and he was just preparing to go zigzagging through them when the forms came rushing out of the foliage to his front.

A half dozen at least. Dark clothing and hands elongated by the shadowy blades or shafts of their weapons.

The soles of his shoes skidded, refusing to clutch the ground as Trax turned left and tried to escape. One foot went straight out from under him, sending him to the concrete. He was up again instantly, but the ring had closed. He turned slowly, breath coming in bigger and bigger gulps, seeing he was surrounded. Leering eyes, long low growls, and getting closer.

Hey, Traxter.” One of them, a tall woman with dark hair cut very short, stepped forward. She held a long curved knife, and as she drew closer he saw the facial tattoo of a Tiger who had killed for the group. A single black stripe, running from her left eye to her ear. A trick of the light showed the second stripe, this one orange, hugging the first one. Two kills.

I know you?”

Stay calm. We just wanna talk.”

About what?”

How your day went. Where you went. Tell us and we’ll let you go.”

He knew it was all a giant lie, but at least the circle had stopped constricting. Traxter’s eyes flashed back and forth, hoping for an opening. Maybe he could tell them just enough to get them to drop their guard.

Tiger tiger, burning bright!” A deep male voice called from the woods, and Traxter’s heart jumped. Jenkins, the leader of the Holly Patrol.

The circle adjusted in lurching unison, the Sabers to his front turning in alarm while the others shifted forward. Knives, clubs, and hatchets at the ready. He could have run for it just then, but couldn’t pull his eyes from the wood line.

The shadows rippled as the men and women of the Patrol slid from tree to tree, their black outfits concealing them when they stopped. A breeze came down the street, filling Traxter’s nostrils with the scent of sweat and pine. One of the closest trees distorted, and Jenkins stepped out.

Dark black coveralls hugged a tall, lean frame. Pale skin and short black hair. Tactical boots stepped out onto the pavement. Jenkins held a fighting stick in his right hand, but hadn’t flicked it into its full three-foot length. Deadpan, he held up the weapon.

How about you let Traxter finish his nightly jog?”

How about you take a big step back? You’re on Tiger ground.”

Well, seeing as you hid yourselves in our woods, I think that’s a little hypocritical.”

She took a step forward, and Traxter saw the fighting stick shift in Jenkins’s hand. The entire seesaw line of Tigers seemed to inhale at once, poised like springs bent back the wrong way, and Trax stared into the woods as if it would help him determine just how much of the Patrol was actually there.

Smart talk.” The words came from behind him, laced with boredom, each syllable its own sentence. Trax knew the throaty, guttural voice, and its unplaceable accent. His entire body went taught as the man passed, close enough to touch him. A little below average height, balding, and broad-shouldered under a long blue shirt that hung over tan shorts. Fouche. Leader of the Tigers.

Smart words. Smart Holly folk.”

The line of Tigers relaxed as he joined them. All but the tall woman, who stayed ready to launch until Fouche put a light hand on her arm. She took a step backward, eyes on Jenkins.

Good to see you, Fouche.” Jenkins spoke. “We should discuss the boundary line again.”

Boundaries. Temporary things. Here, used to be Market. Now ours.” He pointed a thumb at Traxter. “Your boy knows that. Next time he’ll be punished.”

You know what happens after that. An eye for an eye until the whole world’s blind.”

According to your Muriel, the whole world is blind.” Most people believed Fouche was French, but Muriel had once said that nothing about him was to be trusted. Fouche turned cold eyes on Traxter. “Scoot around the end there, cub. You’re not worth the trouble.”

Traxter was surprised to make it into the woods without at least a cuff or a swing from the Tigers, but they were already melting back into the darkness when he turned around. Fouche was gone, and the last thing he saw of them was a series of curling lips, up-down-up-down, the snarls accompanied by low growls.

You okay?” Jenkins asked, as if hoping he wasn’t.

Yes. Fine.”

You better have brought back something real important, kid. This one was way too close.” The face was blank when it looked down at him. “Understand something. If you ever get one of my people killed because of a dumb stunt like this, I will personally beat your brains out. No matter how much Muriel likes you.”

A quick run through the woods, the wraiths in black fanning out all around him. The lights now real and solid, the buildings taking shape, music in the distance. The Holly. His home.

Jenkins told him to get his ass over to the vegetable grow rooms, presumably where he would find Muriel, and then vanished. Feeling bruised in his pride but elated by the experience, Traxter walked quickly toward the community’s center. As the excitement wore off his feet really began to complain, making him wish for his sneakers and regular clothes. The music grew louder, a bouncy Latin beat, and he felt it thrumming through his skin long before turning the corner and seeing the neighborhood dance floor.

Open to the air but covered with a low roof of red tile, it was all lit up with light and energy. Skirts twirled, hips slid left and right to the one-two-three, one-two-three, and raised hands spun partners beneath them. He liked the dances, but heeded Jenkins’s instruction and went past.

Traxter soon entered a massive courtyard that was the heart of The Holly. Rectangular in shape, it was the size of three city blocks lined up in a row. The dead center was a recently repaired fountain with a round concrete wall. Broad walkways extended from the fountain on four points, bisecting the courtyard on both long and short axes.

Six-story apartment buildings ran the length of the long axis on both sides, a much older design not much seen in any American city anymore. For reasons unknown, many years earlier the construction robots had wrapped them all in a framework of steel girders more commonly used to prop up structures damaged by earthquakes. Horizontal supports ran around the buildings, one to each floor, and the verticals were spaced one to every two apartments. Three high archways ran through the structures at their base, letting in a cool summer breeze, and the long rows of lighted windows looked down on them as he walked. A delivery drone was just entering a hatch on the fourth floor to his right, depositing food in the apartment’s refrigeration unit.

Traxter’s gaze came back down to Earth as he started to pass the patch of ground known as the Original Garden. Planted by Muriel herself soon after she’d appeared in The Holly five years earlier, fresh from prison and unknown to any of the residents, it was considered sacred ground. He remembered the day they’d met, when he was only nine, on that very spot.

Hey Trax. Good day?” A passing Hollyite with a hoe on her shoulder greeted him.

There’ll all good, Marsha. You know that,” He grinned as they went by each other.

A gray-haired man carrying a bucket filled with weeding tools went by next. “Look at that. If I’d only known there was still a school in operation, I coulda been in class with my buddy Traxter instead of troweling out manure.”

They slapped hands in passing. “They only send the dumb ones to school, Jonas. You know that.”

A short figure fell in next to him, interrupting his reverie. Coco. Ten years old and a body that should have sported a sign saying WORK IN PROGRESS. Too-long limbs and a set of outsized teeth that the Tigers would envy. Light skin and dark, tight-curled hair that bounced like a tumbleweed racing across a frozen plain.

Good day, Trax?”

Great day. Night hasn’t started out so good.” She fell in beside him, her silence a question. “Got some solid info for Muriel. Headed there now.”

Good thing she’s a mind reader, then.”


That way, if the Sabers had eaten you, she’d still get this solid info you say you’re carrying.” A hand on his arm, stopping them both. “But she isn’t a mind reader, is she?”

He didn’t get to answer. Bart and Prutto, two late-teens already selected for Patrol, had spotted their favorite target. They were on the broad training ground reserved for Jenkins’s team, in the corner with the free weights and the chin-up bars. The floodlights made the sweat gleam on their bare chests and toned arms.

Hey Croako, did your face get smaller, or did those choppers get bigger?”

Don’t worry,” she replied, unconcerned. “I’ll grow into them.”

Yeah, if you grow a tail and two more legs.” Prutto neighed like a horse.

Cut it out, Proot. That ain’t right. She won’t grow into a horse. More like—” Bart worked his jaws, sounds of a broken accordion braying from his throat. Prutto joined in, and then the two boys went into one of the Patrol’s many physical fitness drills. Called The Mule Kicker, its practitioners would hop three times in place and then, on four, try to kick themselves in their own backsides with their heels. That would complete one repetition, and Trax had seen the Patrol do a hundred of them without breaking a sweat.

Don’t listen to them.” Traxter said as he and Coco walked on.

Never do.” Which was true. “I do think, though.”

About what?”

How little must be going on in their heads, for them to find a nothing like me so fascinating.”

Don’t do that.”

I’m not runnin’ myself down. I’m smarter than both of them put together. Of course, the grass here is smarter than both of them put together. But you know, for two guys with looks, muscle, and a good job in Patrol waiting … you’d think they’d have bigger things on their minds than a little kid computer hacker with horse teeth.”

You’ll grow into them.”

You’ve seen my mom. No I won’t.”

When you’re sixteen, you can have them replaced then.”

Now why would I do that?” They’d arrived at the building that housed the vegetable grow rooms. “They were a present from my mom.”

The grow rooms were in a separate building right next to the courtyard, and Trax went up the stairs quickly. Going through a swinging door, he entered the botanical nursery for new kinds of vegetables that might be planted in The Holly’s fields.

Lights conducive to plant growth hung from the ceiling, and wooden tables filled with soil stretched away across the long room. Despite the hour, several Hollyites with green thumbs were hovering over different shoots and climbing vines, muttering to each other. No one ever spoke above a whisper in the growing room.

He spotted Muriel Tenango on a tall stool next to one of the tables. Heavyset but muscular, her skin was very dark and she kept her hair cut short. Light dirt stained the arms of her work shirt, and Traxter saw the same markings on the sleeves of Victor Huang as he approached. The elderly man ran the grow room, and was showing Muriel the root structure of what looked like a malformed beet.

This is what we’re getting.” Huang’s fingers gently spread the web at the bottom of the plant. “This has been the third attempt to transplant these, and they’re just not thriving out there.”

What do you think we should do?” Muriel asked, peering at the root network.

Write it off. It was a nice idea, but these two strains were never going to work together.”

One more. Let’s do one more. Okay?”

Huang nodded, smiling. “You never give up on anything—or anyone—without a fight.”

Just a bit stubborn that way, Vic.” They both looked up.

Hey Trax.” Victor whispered. “How was school?”

I learned a lot.”

What school’s for.” Victor walked off, and Muriel waited until they were alone.

When you didn’t get back in sunlight, I had to send Jenkins out. Good thing, huh?” Muriel scowled at him, and he pretended to return it.

The job took a long time. Thing wasn’t easy to find.”

Raised eyebrows were all he got for that one, reminding Traxter that the time of his return to Market could be established with a single phone call.

Had to see Tatiana and drop off the cover slim. Got walking around, didn’t realize how late it was getting.” Traxter made a show of inspecting the rows of vegetables sprouting under the grow lights.

Hard to make the connection between the sun going down and night time.”

Okay, I stopped at Bruhardt’s.” The eyebrows went up again. “I got a little side hustle with him. Aren’t you always telling me to think of new things?”

She snorted, and pointed at his temple. “Do your thinking with this head, and not the other one. You’ll live longer.”

Won’t be half as much fun.”

Muriel wrapped an arm around his shoulders, giving him a quick kiss before pulling him away from the workers.

“Now. Tell me about this thing you found.”


Vincent H. O’Neil is the Malice Award-winning author of the Exile mystery series from St. Martin’s Press and the military science fiction Sim War series (written as Henry V. O’Neil) from HarperCollins. He holds a master’s degree in international relations from The Fletcher School, and a bachelor’s degree from West Point. In the Army, he served as an Infantry officer both stateside and in Panama, and graduated from the Airborne, Ranger, and Jumpmaster courses. His website is www.vincenthoneil.com.

His most recent work is A Pause in the Perpetual Rotation, a futuristic fiction novel about a world where robots do all the work, AIs make most of the decisions, and everyone has everything they need—except a purpose. While many people are content under this system, an underground philosophy called The Unused Path has sprung up. The Path promotes self-reliance and personal growth, and a suspicious government ministry has assigned a jaded police inspector to trace the ideology to its origin.

Barnes & Noble book link: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/a-pause-in-the-perpetual-rotation-vincent-h-oneil/1140074391

Amazon book link: https://www.amazon.com/Pause-Perpetual-Rotation-Unused-Path-ebook/dp/B09DF5CM3P

Vincent can also be found here –

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/vincenthoneil

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/vincenthoneil/

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