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August 7, 2017

Nellie kept her eyes on the back of Maggie’s head as they trudged through the jungle. She wished that they could have taken just enough time for her to go back to her house and grab a bottle of water, or even a stick of deodorant. Her whole body felt achy and sore after having spent the night sprawled out on the rubbery white ground. She tried to imagine how good it would feel to take a shower.

If Aleisha felt the same as Nellie did, she wasn’t saying anything. Aleisha was like that – the things that bothered Nellie always seemed to take twice as long to start to bother Aleisha. Nellie thought that might have had something to do with the way Aleisha was raised. She’d only actually been to Aleisha’s house a time or two. Her mother didn’t want her going back there when she heard about the bed bugs.

It was slow progress walking through the jungle. Twice already they’d had to circle around a mass of blue, pink and purple foliage, and they’d had to look for a good vantage point to climb to the highest point they could to see where they were going. Then, around mid-day, the fog started. Nellie was used to thick fog, especially living near the river, but this was the worst she’d ever seen – so thick that she couldn’t see much past her elbows when she held her arms out all the way.

Maggie leaned against the low-hanging limb of a plant, running her hands through her hair in frustration. Nellie sat down on the ground beside her. Aleisha lit up a cigarette and asked, “How long you think it’ll take us to make it?”

Maggie shook her head. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “We just can’t stop… Can’t give up.”

“This is insanity,” said Nellie, lying back against the soft ground. “How are we supposed to get there if we can’t see where we’re going?”

Maggie swung herself up on the branch and leaned back against the plant’s trunk. It wasn’t quite a tree – not enough bark – but big enough to be comparable. “I guess we can wait for this to blow over,” she muttered. She paused for a moment, listening. “Did you hear that?”

Everyone went silent. Somewhere nearby, plants were rustling. Something big was crashing through the trees. Maggie hopped down from her branch and crouched down beside Nellie and Aleisha.

“What do we do?” Aleisha whispered.

“Don’t move,” said Maggie.

“What is it?” said Nellie.

“I don’t know,” said Maggie. “Could be an asbilok. Just stay quiet.”

They waited, listening. “It’s coming this way,” Nellie whispered.

Maggie put a hand on her shoulder. “I’ll tell you what,” she said quietly. “If it’s an asbilok, you and Aleisha go running that way, and I’ll run the other way. I’ll make a lot of noise, so it’ll go after me.”

Aleisha gave a low snort. “That’s stupid,” she said. “You wouldn’t do that.”

“Would, too.” The sound was closer, now – it could have been several people, or one large creature with a dozen legs.

“What do we do if it’s the BRI?” said Nellie.

Maggie swallowed. Nellie could see by the look on her face that she’d been trying not to think of that. “Well,” she said, “I’ll try talking to them. It might be somebody I know – they might be willing to help.”

“So not everybody back there was bad?” said Aleisha.

Maggie shook her head. “Of course not,” she said.

Nellie gripped Aleisha’s shoulder tightly in one hand. “Shh!” she whispered.

The three of them flattened themselves into the brush and held their breaths. Whatever it was, it was close – Nellie could see the tops of nearby plants wobbling and crashing to the ground. Then, sooner than she’d expected, the white reeds parted, and a haggard man stepped into their little clearing.

He didn’t look anything like the kind of person Nellie would have expected to see coming out of the BRI – for one thing, he wasn’t wearing the uniform she’d seen on the men last night. He had a long, black beard flecked with grey, and he was dressed in a mix of rags and what looked like bubble-wrapper flesh, carrying rows of bottles of water and leather satchels and metal canisters strung up on parachute string. She noticed that he wore a gun around his waist.

The second he saw the women, the man sprang backwards and whipped his gun out of its holster.

“Wait!” Maggie yelled.

Three more men filed out from behind the man with the beard. The bearded man lowered his gun. “If I’m not mistaken,” he said, “I do believe that we have found ourselves Maggie Verger.”

Maggie cautiously stood up, keeping herself in front of Nellie and Aleisha. “You… Who are you?”

“Name’s Christopher Lau,” said the man with the beard. “I’m with the Western Front.”

Maggie’s eyes widened. “That means we’re on the same side,” she said. “Maybe you can help me. I need to get to Etris Lunn. Bill Benson’s dead. His son’s gone crazy.”

“So what else is new?” said Lau. He headed back into the brush. “Come on – we can talk about this underground.”

Maggie, Nellie and Aleisha followed the sound of Lau’s footsteps as they made their way through the fog, following the path they’d taken through the brush in the first place. “How did you find out about me?” Maggie asked.

“Your name’s all over the place topside,” said Lau. “Also there were all the ones we caught last night.”

Nellie thought about the men who’d followed them through the West the night before. “What did you do with them?” she asked.

Lau laughed. “Don’t you worry about it,” he said. “We won’t let them get to you. The Western Front is a private organization - completely unaffiliated with the BRI.”

“Except when we steal their stuff,” one of the other men added, and they laughed.

They waded blindly through a sea of white grass until they made it to the cave entrance they’d come out of the night before. Nellie saw Aleisha shoot her a nervous glance just before she followed Lau inside.

They spent a while retracing the steps they’d taken earlier, following Lau’s flashlight beam until they came to the place where light refused to shine, and then they kept their hands on each other’s shoulders in a sort of congo line. “We go left here,” said Lau, and shimmied into a little crack in the wall that even Nellie had some difficulty getting through.

They went this way for what felt like an eternity. Nellie side-stepped through the hole, sandwiched between Maggie and Aleisha, until the tunnel opened onto a narrow ledge on the edge of a cliff. Beneath them, accessible only down a rocky, narrow pathway, was a city built of freight containers, rusted junk, plastic barrels, and rock, illuminated by clusters of flickering florescent lights. A few fires were lit here and there; the smoke rose straight into the air with no wind to blow it. There were faded BRI insignias on the metal walls of some of the houses.   They reached the bottom of the ledge and marched down a dusty road towards the factory. More men had gathered near the edges of the path, watching.

In the center of it all was a building that might have once been a factory: a crumbling set of towers, chutes, and broken windows, strung up with bivouacs hanging from the windows and chimneys. The canyon opened up to a sea of black rock extending into an infinitely flat, barren landscape. If they were still underground, the cave was impossibly large, but there were no stars in the dark, blank sky, and the only light was a faint glow on the distant horizon. There was still that tingly, electric buzz in the air – they were still in the West.

“Home sweet home,” Lau said as they walked down into the city.
Next Chapter: The Tchacata Machine - Chapter Twelve
The West
August 7, 2017
Christopher Lau sat at the end of the table, chewing the end of a ballpoint pen with a BRI logo on the side of it, and said, “Can you tell me what exactly Benson’s trying to do?”
He and Maggie had been talking for the last two hours, mostly about the deaths of Maggie’s father and old Benson. It felt like an interrogation. Nellie and Aleisha were a few floors down in a room Lau had set aside for them. Lau’s office was up in the highest reaches of the factory building. It had once been a nice room, with a huge window on the side overlooking the little town and a balcony looking out on the factory floor. It had since been stripped down to the bare brick, and the only furniture was a careworn wooden desk and a huge piece of sheet metal atop four stacks of concrete blocks – this served as a table. The rest of the room was filled with dusty boxes and old books, most of which seemed to be instruction manuals and parts catalogu

Previous Chapter: The Tchacata Machine - Chapter Ten
August 7, 2017
Eric stumbled blindly after his Xzeejee escorts as they ran through the Tearil jungle. In the heavy fog that had descended over the past few hours, he didn't know how they were navigating - it was all he could do just to avoid clusters of tangled, white plants. The leader finally grabbed him by the hand and dragged him along.
The leader seemed to notice his gasps for air and she called to the others, signalling for them to pause. While Eric caught his breath, the Xzeejees mulled about, apparently unfazed by the forty-five minute jog, and the leader gazed up into the tree-tops. She let out a shrill whistle that rang in Eric's ears, and within moments four ape-like beasts descended from the trees, each equipped with pale-colored bundles strapped to their backs. It took Eric a moment to realize that these were saddles.
“Why didn’t we ride them all along?” Eric asked, more to himself than the Xzeejees.
“See,” said the leader.

The Tchacata Machine is a free, online, sci-fi serial novel I wrote with RRedolfi, titled "The Tchacata Machine." I'm going to try to get all the chapters uploaded here, but do visit the website at for the occasional easter egg and other neat tidbits. It's also @tm-project on Tumblr. Special thanks to Nashoba-Hostina

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