An Excerpt from Three Days in April

By Edward Ashton
Jan 15, 2019 · 3,509 words · 13 minutes


From the author: In which Terry gets punched in the noggin, and subsequently learns that the world is beginning to swirl the drain.


Gary is sprawled across the sofa when I come down the stairs. One eye turns to focus on me. The other is vibrating back and forth so quickly that I wonder if he’s shorted out.

“Good morning, princess,” he says. “Anders says he’ll ping you when he gets out of class. Your sister says she’s going with Tariq, and she’ll let you know where they decide to hole up. Tariq says he thinks we’re all idiots who will believe that he outwitted NatSec on a three-wheeled golf cart. Can I get you anything?”

“No, thanks,” I say. “I was just leaving.”

“Excellent.” He closes his eyes. I can see them both twitching together under his eyelids now. “It was great meeting you. I’m glad your sister turned out to be not dead. Have a blessed day.”

I’ve gone maybe ten steps when I realize that I should have asked Gary for a gallon jug of water before I left. Between what I sweated out into Anders’ sheets and what’s coming out of me now, I’m gonna wind up shriveled up like a slug in salt before I make it home.

Of all the things that my brainless gene cutter gifted me with, I think the ice-age metabolism is the one I like least. I guess for some people there might be an advantage to being comfortable wearing a bikini in a snowstorm, but I live in Baltimore. It hasn’t snowed here since Obama was in the White House, and being outside in the summer for me is like being one of the guests of honor at a crab feast.

Fortunately, there’s a Jolly Pirate right there at the end of the block. While I wouldn’t eat one of their doughnuts on a bet, I’m guessing their bottled water is probably okay. The door dings as I enter. The air inside is at least twenty degrees cooler than outside, and I’m thinking maybe I’ll hang around until my core temperature drops back into the nineties when the kid at the cash register slaps his palm on the counter and says “Hey! No!”

I look around. We’re the only ones in the store. He’s looking right at me, and pointing at the door. He’s a scrawny little thing, with a shaved head and a wispy brown goatee. The Jolly Pirate uniform makes him look like he’s dressed up in his father’s clothes for Halloween.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “You’re not talking to me, are you?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m talking to you.” His voice cracks, and his lower lip is trembling. “No Altered. You need to go.”

I stare at him. He grits his teeth and stares back. I walk slowly to the drink cooler by the counter. I have no idea what’s happening right now, but I am thirsty, and I am going to get a bottle of water. I open the case, and take my time making a selection as the cold air flows across my legs. I choose a liter bottle of Appalachian Sweet, let the door swing closed, and set the bottle on the counter.

It sits there between us for a solid thirty seconds.

Finally, I pick up the bottle and tap it against the reader, then tap my phone for payment. A receipt pops up on my screen. I discard it.

And then he hits me.

I duck my chin, and his fist smacks into the top of my head. The snap of his hand breaking rattles all the way down my spine. I stagger a half step back from the counter and look up. He’s holding his right hand up in front of his face. The index and middle fingers have an extra bend between the knuckles and the wrist. His eyes are anime-wide, and a high-pitched whistle is coming from his nose.

As God is my witness, I will never understand how people like this drove people like me to extinction.

“Thank you,” I say. “You’ve been incredibly helpful.” I turn to the door.

“We won’t forget Hagerstown,” he croaks, as my hand touches the crash bar.

“Neither will I,” I say without pausing. “My sister was there.”

I stand on the corner outside for a few minutes, drinking my water and trying to decide what just happened. The clerk was obviously upset about something, even before his hand got smashed, but I can’t figure out what. I finish the water in one long pull. I’d kind of like another. I toss the bottle into the recycling bin by the entrance, and touch two fingers to the top of my head. There’s a little bump there, but nothing to get upset about. I pull the door open, and step back into the Jolly Pirate. The clerk is over by the drink fountain, trying to fill up a plastic bag with ice using only his left hand. It isn’t going well.

“Sorry to bother you again,” I say. “But I’d like some more water. Also, would you mind explaining why you just assaulted me?”

He keeps fumbling with the ice dispenser. Cubes are scattered all over the floor around him.

“Look,” he says finally, “I’m sorry I hit you. Just go away, okay?”

I walk over to him. His hand is swollen, and purpling up nicely. I take the bag and nudge him aside. I fill it with ice, tie it off, and hand it to him. He winces as he presses the ice to the back of his hand.

“So,” I say. “I’m guessing that’s the first time you’ve ever punched somebody?”

He hesitates, then nods. He won’t meet my eyes.

“Just for future reference,” I say, “everything between the eyebrows and the crown is pretty much a no-go zone for that sort of thing. That’s especially true for someone like me, but you’d probably have broken your hand on a standard Homo sap skull there too.”

He shrugs. His eyes stay pinned to the floor. I feel like I’m talking to a giant toddler.

“You know you’re gonna need to get those fingers set, right?”

I reach for his hand, but he pulls it away.

“I know,” he says. “But I’m the only one who showed up for the afternoon shift. I can’t leave the store until the night guy gets here at eight.”

I roll my eyes.

“That’s very conscientious of you. Sounds like you’ve read the Employee Handbook. Does it have anything to say about customer punching? Maybe with an emphasis on girl-customer punching?”

That gets him to look at me, at least.

“I said I was sorry. It’s not like I actually hurt you.”

I smile.

“That’s true. Still doesn’t answer my question, though. What, exactly, is your problem with me?”

He looks away again.

“Haven’t you been monitoring the feeds?”

I shake my head.

“Not really. I’ve been asleep most of the afternoon.”

He scowls, but doesn’t lift his eyes up from the floor. I’m almost starting to feel sorry for him.

“They’re all saying that not everyone actually died from the plague,” he says. “Only the Altered. All the Homo saps were still alive when they dropped the bombs.”

I have to stop to think about that. The one person I know for sure survived is as unmodified as they come. Elise doesn’t even carry a phone with her half the time. And while I have my doubts about Tariq, he’s always claimed to be one-hundred-percent natural as well.

“Okay,” I say finally. “Suppose I accept that. How do we go from there to you punching me in the head?”

“Well,” he says. “This is the start, isn’t it? Somebody figured out a way to take out the Altered—all of them. And the Altered who run NatSec killed every normal human in Hagerstown to keep it from getting out.”

This is the start, isn’t it? I’m still thinking about that question when I get home.

“House,” I say. “Direct contact. Dimitri.”

I expect to get the bear, but a few seconds later Dimitri’s face appears on the living-room wallscreen. He looks like he hasn’t slept in a week.

“Terry,” he says. “I am happy to see that you are well.”

I smile.

“I wish I could say the same. You look tired, Dimitri.”

He grimaces.

“Yesterday was hard. Today has been harder. What can I do for you?”

I try to make my smile apologetic.

“I have some questions.”

His expression softens.

“Ask. You know I can make no promises, but I will tell you what I can.”

Let’s work into this slowly.

“First,” I say, “a lot of the public feeds I’ve tried to access today have been redacted. These are just open-source jawing, not the kind of things that NatSec usually worries about. Any idea why?”

He rubs his face with both hands.

“You are probably not aware of this, but certain organizations are attempting to use what happened yesterday to stir up public unrest. Tensions are high enough already without any fanning of the flames.”

Yeah. That, I already knew.

“What organizations,” I ask, “and what kind of unrest? A guy just punched me in the head in a doughnut shop, and said it was because of stuff that was floating around the public feeds.”

He sighs.

“Are you familiar with the UnAltered Movement?”

I shake my head.

“Politics isn’t my thing.”

Dimitri scowls.

“The UnAltered are a quasi-religious group which preaches the sanctity of the body and the sanctity of the genome. They condemn both genetic and mechanical augmentation. Some branches claim that the so-called Altered have no souls.”

“Okay,” I say. “I think I’ve heard of these guys. They’re a cult, right? Like the Satanist Temple, or the Church of Cthulhu?”

“No,” Dimitri says. “Unfortunately, the UnAltered are no longer a fringe group, and they are no longer a joke. Over the past five years, their numbers have doubled, and doubled, and doubled again. There are enough of them now to be a serious danger, if they choose to make themselves so.”

His face is an expressionless mask now, and I feel a shiver run from the back of my neck to the base of my spine. I may not know exactly what Dimitri does for a living, but I know enough to know that I really, really wouldn’t want him to think of me as a serious danger. Dimitri thinks of himself as a sheepdog, faithfully guarding the flock. And if he decides that you’re a wolf?

“Okay,” I say finally. “So what does this have to do with Hagerstown?”

He looks down, then back up, and I can almost see him trying to decide how much to tell me.

“This is not widely known,” he says. “We do not wish this to be widely known. But certain among the UnAltered are claiming that the actions in Hagerstown yesterday—both the plague and the airstrikes—were the first blows in the war between Altered and UnAltered.”

I laugh. Dimitri does not join in.

“Wait,” I say. “You’re serious? You think someone’s trying to start a war between us and the Homo saps?”

“It does not matter what I think,” Dimitri says. “If the UnAltered believe it, it has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Okay,” I say. “I can understand why you’d want to keep a lid on that. But it seems right now like pretty much everything anyone is saying about Hagerstown is being redacted. I actually had a couple of files pulled off of my servers this afternoon. Does NatSec really have that kind of authority?”

He looks less tired now, and more irritated.

“NatSec has a mandate to protect the people, and to maintain public order. The right of conspiracy theorists to spout foolishness in public is the least of our concerns at the moment.”

“No worries about the First Amendment, huh?”

His eyes harden.

“This is not protected speech, Terry. This is yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.”

I know this is pushing it, but I need to find out how honest he’ll be with me.

“Okay,” I say. “How about this: a lot of folks are saying they’ve seen video feeds of survivors moving around Hagerstown yesterday afternoon. Any truth to that?”

That touches a nerve.

“There were no survivors, Terry. Acting Director Dey made this very clear in his statement before the bombing.”

“But the feeds …”

“There are no feeds such as you have described. Anyone who says he has seen these is a liar.” He looks down at his hands, then back up at the screen. “This is beginning to feel like an interview, Terry. Have you become a reporter now?”

He looks genuinely angry. Time to back down.

“No, Dimitri. I’m not a reporter. I was just hoping you could help me understand what’s happening.”

He rubs his face again, and runs his hands back through his hair. “I am sorry,” he says. “I become unpleasant when I do not sleep. I know this is frightening. Please trust that we are doing what we can to control the situation.”

“I know, Dimitri. I do trust you. Try to get some sleep.”

“I will try. Good-bye, Terry.”

“Good-bye, Dimitri. Disconnect.”

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Dimitri can’t tell me the truth. I’m not sure exactly what his relationship with NatSec is, but even if he’s just a freelance contractor, they’d have him fitted with internal monitors. It’s also possible that he really believes that the truth in this case needs to be suppressed, and that he would have lied to me even if he didn’t have to.

It’s also possible that he’s right.

I spend the next two hours vacillating between boredom and frustration. No matter what combination of search terms I try, I can’t get anything from either the professional media or the private nets that doesn’t back up the NatSec version of what happened to Hagerstown. I do finally get a hit from my current-events sniffer, though. It’s from DC. A girl was found beaten unconscious in Rock Creek Park. She’d been jogging. She wasn’t robbed, wasn’t sexually abused. Just beaten to a pulp and left bleeding on the path.

She was a Pretty.

I’m thinking about following this up, when the wallscreen dings.

“Anders Jensen is at the door,” says House.

My heart jumps. What the hell is wrong with me?

“Open.”

I hear the door unlatch and swing open, and Anders steps into the room. He smiles when he sees me.

“Hey,” he says. “I know I said I’d ping you, but I have to walk right past here to get home from Hopkins. Okay if I stop by?”

“Come in,” I say. “Have a seat. Try not to trip over the table this time.”

He’s wearing khakis and a dress shirt. He hardly looks sweat-drenched at all. Apparently a tall, skinny mouse-man bleeds off heat better than a short, bowling-ball-shaped Neanderthal girl.

“You look pretty wound up,” he says. He sits down beside me, not touching, but not on the other side of the couch, either—midway between lover and visiting third cousin. “What have you been doing?”

“It’s been a busy afternoon,” I say. “I found out that a guy I’ve been friends with for almost three years is perfectly comfortable looking me in the eye and lying. I found out that NatSec can pull whatever they want off of my servers whenever they want to, even if I order a complete disconnect from the networks. I found out that there are a whole lot of people trying to blame what happened yesterday on the Engineered. Oh, and I got punched in the head by the doughnut guy at the Jolly Pirate. So yeah, a good day all around.”

“Wait,” he says. “Somebody punched you at the Jolly Pirate? My Jolly Pirate?”

“Yeah. The guy behind the counter.”

“Who, Joey? Skinny guy with a goatee?”

“That’s the one.”

He looks like he’s trying to decide whether to be angry or confused.

“Why would Joey punch you? Did you do something to him? Joey’s a nice guy. He always stuffs an extra doughnut in the box when I get a dozen.”

I shake my head.

“They all do that, Anders. For everyone. It’s called a baker’s dozen.”

He looks crestfallen. I have to stifle a laugh.

“Oh,” he says. “Still, why would he punch you in the head? He never does that to me.”

I giggle. That’s weird. I never giggle.

“First,” I say, “he wouldn’t be able to reach your head. Second, he doesn’t seem like the type who would have the balls to punch another guy. And third, he punched me in the head because I’m Engineered, and the Engineered killed all the normal humans in Hagerstown for some reason.”

He’s definitely confused now.

“But … I’m Engineered. I got a doughnut from him on my way to class. He didn’t even give me a dirty look.”

“Yeah,” I say, “you’re Engineered. But nobody would know that unless they saw you escape from a cat. It’s pretty obvious for me.”

He gives me a half smile. That had better not be pity.

“Anyway,” he says, “I thought they’ve been saying it was the Engineered who died, and the UnAltered who lived? Shouldn’t you have been punching him?”

“Right. And then the Engineered, who everybody knows run NatSec, dropped the FAEs to make sure all the Homo saps died as well.”

He thinks about that for a minute.

“That’s not good,” he says finally.

“No, it’s not.”

“Who’s pushing this line?”

“My understanding is that it’s folks from the UnAltered Movement. Bear in mind, though, that I’m getting most of this from a conversation with a guy who punched me in the head, and the rest from a demonstrated liar.”

He shakes his head.

“I still can’t believe Joey punched you. Are you okay? Or do I need to go down there and give him what for?”

I smile.

“Nah, I’m good. I explained to him afterward that the top of the head is the wrong place to punch a Neanderthal.”

“Broken knuckles?”

“And how.”

We sit in silence for a minute or two.

“So,” I say. “How was your day, honey?”

“Oh, great,” he says. “Nobody punched me, but I did just spend three hours trying to explain fullerene fabrication to a bunch of bored-ass rich kids. Half of them spent the entire lecture watching porn on their oculars, and half the rest tried to follow along but couldn’t, because they have the attention spans of gnats. The rest maybe got a little out of it, but will probably give me a lousy evaluation at the end of the term anyway because I couldn’t find a way to mix references to SpaceLab into my visuals.”

I lean back and cross my arms over my chest.

“Look, Anders, I’d love to engage with your whole ‘kids suck these days’ old-man rant,” I say. “But I’m not going to, because you totally lost me at ‘fullerene fabrication’.”

This is his chance to roll his eyes at me.

“Fullerene fabrication. Buckyballs, carbon nanotubes, that kind of thing.”

I give him an exaggerated nod.

“Oh, right. Buckyballs. Gary told me you led a glamorous life, but he never said it was buckyball glamorous.”

His smile widens.

“You have no idea what a buckyball is, do you?”

I shake my head.

“None whatsoever.”

His eyes light up.

“This is actually kind of interesting,” he says, which is almost always what someone says right before starting in on something that is not even a little bit interesting. “A fullerene is a hollow structure made of carbon atoms. A buckyball is just a spherical fullerene. They’re useful enough in isolation, but you can make macro structures out of them with some really amazing mechanical properties—”

At which point I grab him by the back of the neck, pull him over on top of me, and kiss him. His eyes are wide open and his jaw is clamped shut, but when I don’t let go, he slowly relaxes into it. After a while, I come up for air. He pulls back a few inches and raises one eyebrow.

“Sorry,” I say. “You really needed to stop talking.”

“That’s okay,” he says. “I mean, I was just kind of surprised, and I thought—”

I pull him down again. I definitely like him better when he’s quiet. His hand slides under my shirt and up along my ribs. A shiver runs down my spine, and I can feel goose bumps rising on the backs of my arms. His mouth tastes like mint and his hair smells like chamomile and sweat and I can feel the muscles in his neck and back tensing and relaxing under my fingers.

A sweet time passes.

“Do you … uh …”

I nod.

“Can I …”

I nod again.

“You know,” I say finally. “This is a lot more fun with you conscious.”

He laughs into my belly. I run my fingers through his hair, and press him downward.


Ashton three days in april
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Three Days in April

Anders Jensen is having a bad month. His roommate is a data thief, his girlfriend picks fights in bars, and his best friend is a cyborg…and a lousy tipper. When everything is spiraling out of control, though, maybe those are exactly the kind of friends you need.

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