Welcome to In From the Cold!

Who am I and what is this blog?

My name is Anna Kreider, and I’m a game designer, illustrator, and writer. Mostly what I write these days are roleplaying games and blog posts, but my first love was and always will be writing fiction. I desperately miss writing fiction, and would like to get back into it – but I need your help!

The goal of this project is to write a novel, albeit one that will be written and released a chapter at a time. I’m hoping that I can attract enough support to make this a financially viable prospect.

Project Details

In From the Cold is a novel that I have been planning for the last few months, based on a long-running tabletop campaign of Apocalypse World set in the Canadian arctic – albeit with many liberties taken and changes made for the needs of a different format. While it’s hard for me to precisely predict length, my target for average chapter length is 4-5000 words, and the story itself will take place over 14-16 chapters. My goal is to publish chapters approximately once per month.

The first chapter will be published publicly here. The rest will be distributed to patrons only. For more information, you can visit my Patreon site here.

Advertisements
Welcome to In From the Cold!

Prologue and Chapter 1

Prologue

At first, as she slowly clawed her way out of the blackness, all she had were fragments. Jangling and disjointed, with sharp edges – nothing seemed to fit. There was a city, her home? It was half in ruins, half on fire. But there was also a ship, crammed with refugees and reeking of despair. Tears, her own or someone else’s – too many of those to count.

Think.

There had been shouting, angry voices and restraining arms. She had to get away! She had to get to them! They needed her! But the voices, the arms, they wouldn’t let her go. A voice shouted to hold her down. There was the pinch of a needle in her neck, and then…

Slowly, she began to wake up. Clawing her way out of the darkness was like trying to swim through molasses, and she was tempted to give up and just drift. But with the return of memory and self came the howling, and it would not let her rest.

Where was it coming from? It was everywhere, pervading her very being, and yet she knew that it came from outside herself.

And then the howling saw her. It reached for her, with gossamer tentacles spun of nightmares and impossibility, and tried to pull her into itself. She knew that if she let it, it would subsume her, hollow her out until she was nothing but an empty vessel. So, not knowing how else to keep the thing at bay, she defined herself, her place in the universe. She was Specialist Alice Brooks, a soldier. She lived in a world with rules and limits and order, a world that could be measured, quantified, and predicted. Two plus two equals four. The atomic mass of Hydrogen is 1. Light is both a wave and a particle…

The tentacle that had begun to wrap itself around her wrist recoiled as if burned and began to unravel into nothingness. The howling shrieked in anger and —

There was a loud hiss of air as the seal on her pod was broken and the lid slowly opened. Woozily, Alice tore off the monitor pads on her face so that she could sit up and retch over the side. There was nothing in her stomach to vomit, but that didn’t stop her from retching until she had evacuated even the slightest desire for food. At last, however, the vomiting subsided, and Alice levered herself up into a sitting position.

“Hello?” she croaked. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Hello?”

Silence.

It was mostly dark, the space lit only by dim red emergency lights and the light given off by the pods themselves. And there, on the edge of hearing was the howling. She shook her head in confusion, but it persisted. She’d thought it was only a dream, but clearly there had been something more to it. Instinctively, she pushed it away, just an unwanted stimulus to be ignored, at least for the present.

Once her head stopped swimming, Alice carefully removed the rest of the monitors and unhooked herself from the machine. It was a clumsy operation; her hands shook, and the pods had not been designed for self-removal. Still, she managed it without further injuring herself and swung her legs over the side.

Upon standing, she could see that all of the other pods remained closed, their status lights calmly blinking green as their occupants remained in peaceful slumber. That is, all of the pods except one. There at the back…

She hung on to the pods for support as she wobbled her way over and tried to regain her equilibrium. The pod was indeed empty, the status lights dead. The display screen, cracked, still read SPC TAMMY JACKSON.

 

Book 1: Quarantine

 

Chapter 1: Day 0

Alice stayed in the vault for nearly two weeks, trying to piece together what had happened to her with the scraps of information that she had available to her. Since waking up, she’d discovered that her memory was full of gaps, some of them frighteningly large. And what she could remember was hard to piece together into a coherent whole – often she was unable to recall when a particular memory fragment had occurred. A side effect of the stasis perhaps?

The vault’s archives weren’t much help either. They contained all of the expected survival manuals and the database of human history, languages, and culture, but they were woefully lacking in information that would tell her what happened after she and the others were put into stasis. There were dry reports about the beginning of the crisis and how it grew into a global catastrophe, but from there the reports just… stopped.

From the files Alice had access to, she had been able to determine that those drafted into the time capsule program had been put into stasis, then shipped north and installed in the vault, which was sealed shortly thereafter. They didn’t specify where the vault was located, but she’d been able to puzzle through enough astronomy from the archives to determine that they were in the far North, somewhere in Canada near the Arctic Circle. Frustratingly, she knew that there would be more information in the command files, but they’d resisted all her attempts to decrypt them so far.

Alice didn’t even know how much time had passed since the vault was sealed. The archives contained footage of Tammy Jackson waking up; it appeared that her pod had suffered a similar malfunction to the one that had brought Alice out of stasis. There was also footage of her leaving the vault, though there was nothing to indicate that Tammy had ever returned. And at some point before Tammy’s revival, the vault’s internal chronometer had failed, which meant that it was impossible to tell when this had occurred. Tammy might have woken up last week or last year. There was no way of knowing.

Then there was the howling. Since waking up, Alice hadn’t had any repeats of the nightmare where it had tried to consume her. But it was always, always there in the back of her mind, and she couldn’t shake the idea that her dream had been some sort of struggle for dominance. Unfortunately, Alice had no way of verifying her theory that the howling was somehow alive, and the archives were frustratingly silent on its existence, much less it’s underlying nature. So for now she settled for an uneasy truce. There were larger and more pressing concerns that required attention.

She was awake and alone in possibly hostile territory, and the vault’s resources were not indefinite. She’d discovered all that she could here, which meant it was time to strike out and look for signs of life. Through the vault’s surface-level sensors, most of which were still functional, she’d spotted possible signs of habitation to the southeast, so that was where she’d start.

Alice took time to suit up, donning every piece of her kit, as well as arming herself with an assault rifle, sidearm, and several knives. Then she took one last look around, put on her face mask that would protect against the cold, and stepped into the elevator that would take her to the surface.

Of late, Shudder had been troubled by odd turbulence in the currents of the maelstrom. He had attempted to plumb its depths, yet had come up with nothing that would cause such a disturbance, and his failure frustrated him. So that morning he decided it was time to go on a walkabout. It had been too long since he’d gone and wrestled with the cold. It always helped him to clear his head and gain perspective.

Once outside the base, he struck out into the snow, relishing the razor feel of it against his flesh as he silently dared the weather to try to get the best of him. The wind shrieked across the plain, whipping his jacket and trying to push him off balance, but still he pressed on. As always, it felt good to get out and wrestle with something larger than himself.

And then, where he had never seen anything before, he saw an unfamiliar shape in the distance. Shudder frowned. That was new – maybe the wind had uncovered something buried? Curious, he headed for the shape, but the mystery only deepened as he drew nearer. It was a door, standing alone in the middle of the wastes. Where had it come from? And what lay behind it? He had to know.

Shudder had gotten close enough to see that the door was attached to a tiny structure, just big enough to accommodate two or three standing adults, when there was a loud hissing sound and the door began to open.

The wind immediately buffeted Alice as the door opened onto the barren snow field, and dry, blowing snow severely obscured visibility. And yet, not more than twenty feet away there stood a shocked-looking man staring at her as she exited and the airlock door closed behind her.

The man wore clothing suited to late spring, not to the bitter cold of a near-arctic winter. Deep umber skin contrasted his gleaming, immaculately white slacks and suit jacket worn over an equally pristine hooded shirt. His face was completely uncovered and the hood pulled up past his ears was the only concession to the cold. Ice blue eyes stared at her in disbelief and for a long moment the two stood there simply staring at each other.

Then the stranger shook his head. He simply signaled for her to follow him as he turned back. Not knowing what else to do, she complied, trailing along behind the stranger as he walked, unfazed by the fierce gusts of wind, and following an already disappearing path of footprints in the snow.

According to her suit’s chronometer, they had been walking twenty two and a half minutes before their destination slowly became visible through the blowing snow – a complex of large, blocky buildings squatting low on the horizon. As they drew closer, she could see that the complex had once been surrounded by a razorwire fence, though only about a third of it remained upright. A prison then?

The smaller buildings on the outer edge of the complex seemed to be in ruins, either partially or completely exposed to the elements. The man appeared to be heading for the largest building, which was connected to its neighbor with a crude tunnel.

The entrance, looming imposingly as they approached, was watched by about ten heavily armed guards, who all watched her with single-minded focus. Alice had no doubt that she would have been challenged, if not fired upon, if she had attempted to approach on her own. However, her guide was apparently well enough known that the guards made no move to stop them.

It wasn’t until the heavy steel door had closed behind them that the stranger turned to her, one eyebrow raised. “Welcome,” he said, and though his breath fogged in the cold entryway, he appeared to have suffered no ill effect from their extended sojourn through the arctic waste. “I suppose introductions would be in order.”

She hesitated a moment before extending a hand. “Specialist Alice Brooks.”

Bemused, the stranger briefly shook her hand, and Alice was shocked to discover that his hand was warm even through her gloves, as though he had just been heating his hands in front of a fire rather than walking in the snow without any sort of cold weather gear.

“Shudder.”

The newcomer’s mask was a living thing, with round glowing eyes and vents that steamed, and Shudder was almost surprised to see a human being underneath when she removed it. Her short black hair was pulled back into a harsh ponytail, from which messy bangs had escaped to hang over dark eyes and olive skin. Her pretty features wore a neutral expression, carefully revealing nothing. “Specialist Alice Brooks.”

Shudder studied her a moment. Underneath her heavy white coat she wore some sort of strange suit. Armor perhaps? Certainly it was hard to miss the fact that she was very well armed. “What cause sent you out into the waste alone, Specialist Alice Brooks?”

The woman sighed. “Specialist Brooks will be fine. Or even just Brooks.” Brooks hesitated, her expression still guarded. “I’m… stranded. I don’t think I’m supposed to be awake, and I can’t stay… where you found me earlier.I was trying to find a settlement that would take me in.”

Shudder frowned. Her words seemed intelligible, but only about half of what she had said made any sense.

“I can work,” Brooks added hurriedly.

The stranger – Shudder rather – shrugged. “You’ll have to.” He turned, gesturing for Alice to follow him again. “Come on, you’ll need to talk to Barbecue.”

Alice blinked in surprise. Barbecue?

As Shudder took her further into the compound, they passed people hurrying along the corridors, most of whom spared only a single curious glance. Alice noted that most of them were wearing ragged clothes, though appropriate to the cold; none of them were as impeccably attired as Shudder.

Along the way, Shudder pointed out important landmarks – the infirmary, the armory, the garage – before they reached the door of what Alice imagined was the former warden’s office. Another guard stood watch, a tiny woman in makeshift armor cobbled together from bits of kevlar and gauntlets embedded with shards of broken glass. Again, Shudder did not meet with any challenge from the guard as he approached to first knock, then push the door open.

Alice wasn’t sure what she had been expecting of someone named Barbecue, but the tall, slender person sitting behind the desk definitely wasn’t it. Dark, eyeliner-rimmed eyes looked up over a hawkish nose that might have looked unattractively large were it not for high cheekbones and black hair teased into an artfully-mussed pompadour. “Shudder?”

“This is Specialist Alice Brooks,” Shudder replied. “I found her wandering in the wastes. She says she wants to work.”

Barbecue paused to examine Alice, then stood and offered a hand. “Pleased to meet you, Specialist Brooks. I’m Barbecue Jackson, the leader of this hold.”

Unlike Shudder, it seemed that Barbecue knew how to properly shorten her name without being told. Alice took the proffered hand – cold, unlike Shudder’s. “Pleased to meet you. I’m a soldier, but I’m also a mechanic,” she half-lied. In reality, she was a weapons specialist, but she suspected these people might not appreciate the difference.

Barbecue sat down once more and regarded her evenly. “And what brings you here to us, Specialist Brooks?”

In for a penny, in for a pound. “This might sound crazy, but that place where Shudder found me. It’s like a time capsule — a vault,” she added. Right. Avoid idioms.  “There was a disaster… a long time ago, I’m not really sure how long to be honest. I was frozen in time, along with the rest of my unit — soldiers. Only I’ve woken up and they haven’t.” Mostly. “I’m not sure how long it’s been, or where I am, or who any of you are, but I need a place to live now.”

It all sounded absurd even as she said it, but the only reaction she got was a nod from Barbecue and a pensive look from Shudder.

“Well, we can help you there, although if you want to eat you have to work,” Barbecue said brisky. “You won’t be needed for guard duty, since the hyenas have that covered and you wouldn’t exactly fit in. You will be expected to join up temporarily if we have some shooting that needs doing somewhere outside the base. The rest of the time, you can help Strings – he’s been begging for an assistant to help him fix equipment and heaters around the base.”

“Thank you. You won’t regret this.” Alice would have to ask about these “hyenas” at some point, but she figured that could wait.

Barbecue pulled a small metal token from a pocket and tossed it to Alice. “This will tell the chow staff you’re to be fed.” They smiled and gestured an elegantly languid dismissal. “Shudder, can you show her to the workshop?” It was phrased as a question, but Alice heard the steel underneath the words.

Shudder nodded, though he held eye contact with Barbecue for an uncomfortably long moment, reminding Alice of two wolves testing each other for weakness. “Of course.”

Alice spoke up, her curiosity getting the better of her. “Jackson? As in… Tammy Jackson?”

Now Barbecue finally did look surprised. “Oh. You know Mother? I’m afraid she’s not here at the moment.”

The workshop turned out to be surprisingly well-appointed, if a bit cramped. The space boasted a sturdy workbench and a large assortment of tools. Strings, however, was a near-sighted old man who was clearly out of his depth, and was pathetically grateful to have someone around who knew what they were doing. The two of them spent the afternoon reviewing the depressingly long list of repairs needed around the base. When the bell for shift change rang, Strings dismissed Alice until the following morning.

The old man’s directions got her to the chow dispensary, as he’d called it, easily enough. She uneasily joined the line snaking its way toward a small window. As she didn’t have anywhere to safely stash her gear, Alice had taken her weapons and kit with her. She knew that she must have been an unusual sight, but aside from a few curious glances she was left to her own devices. Maybe it’s normal seeing people walking around armed to the teeth? That’s a depressing thought.

Dimly, Alice supposed she should introduce herself, begin making allies – after all, this was going to be her new home. But she was tired and confused from a long day of surprises, and on top of it all the howling was like a ringing in her ears that she couldn’t block out. So Alice just stood and waited, happy to be left alone for the moment.

The line moved quickly; once at the window Alice fished out the token Barbecue had given her and gave it to the impassive chow staffperson. “Name?” the chow worker grunted.

“Brooks.”

“All right then.” That seemed to be that. She handed Alice a dented metal cup full of a lumpy beige substance, then jerked her head for Alice to get out of the way.

Alice did her best to oblige as she considered the cup’s contents for a moment before chugging it back as fast as she could. The flavor was entirely nondescript, but the inconsistently mushy texture was unpleasant enough that she nearly gagged getting it all down. I never thought that anything could make MRE’s seem appealing, but even they’re better than this!

“Does it meet with your approval, Specialist Brooks?”

Alice jumped, not having seen Barbecue approach. The androgynous hold leader downed their cup, then tossed the empty vessel into a waiting bin.

“I’ve had worse,” Alice lied, tossing her own empty cup into the bin.

Barbecue nodded. “Things went well with Strings?”

“Yes, we went through the to-do list. He’s going to show me around tomorrow and we’ll figure out how it should get prioritized.”

“Good. Is there anything else you need?”

The question was clearly a formality, but Alice couldn’t resist asking. “There’s this… noise. Not… not a real noise, but it’s always there in the back of your head, you know? What is it? Or am I the only one who can hear it?”

Unaccountably, Barbecue’s expression darkened. “Ignore it. Don’t do anything with it. Pretend it doesn’t even exist, or else you’ll end up just like Shudder and the rest of the Warmth.”

Barbecue stormed off without explaining further. For a moment, tired as Alice was, she blanked out and the howling roared, drowning out all other sounds until she shook her head and shoved it back, as much as she could, to where it belonged. Sound returned, and with it a decision. She needed information more than she needed sleep. It was time to do some exploration.

Figuring that Shudder was probably weird enough to answer her very weird questions, Alice asked after him and got directions to a place called the Pipes. It was located in the far corner of the complex basement, and she got lost a few times in the cramped, twisting basement corridors before she finally found it. A heavy steel door painted with stylized flames stood open, leading into a cavernous room – likely the former boiler room. Only one boiler remained now, she imagined the others had probably long since been dismantled for scrap – but the eponymous pipes remained.

A small number of people were lounging against one of the walls, talking quietly amongst themselves. Shudder, still resplendent in white, was seated among them, seemingly deep in conversation. He looked up as she entered and signaled for her to wait. Alice was half-afraid he was going to leave her hanging as a show of power, but it was only a few moments before he laid his hand on one woman’s shoulder and excused himself.

Shudder smiled as he approached, and suddenly Alice was struck by how stunningly beautiful he was. She had been too confused by the circumstances they had met in, and then too focused on securing a place to appreciate that. But watching him now, she couldn’t help but react to the sheer physical perfection of the man.

“Brooks. What brings you here, to our place?”

Involuntarily, unaccountably, Alice felt herself blush. She frowned, determined not to acknowledge the reaction, however. “I need your help. There’s something I can’t understand, and you seem like you know a lot about what goes on here.” Shudder smiled, clearly pleased, and she knew she’d struck the right note with him.

“I would be happy to offer any assistance that I can,” he responded.

Alice sighed and gestured vaguely, frustrated with the fact that Barbecue had seemed to know what she was talking about, and yet she still had no words to describe it. “The… howling.” She sighed, annoyed that that was the only word she could come up with. “It’s in my mind, but it’s not me and I can’t turn it off. What is it?”

The question came out more plaintive than she had intended, but Shudder merely nodded. “It is the maelstrom.” He blinked, frowned. “Did the maelstrom not exist… where you came from?”

Alice shook her head. “Not in my time, no. Or at least not before I was frozen. I wasn’t even sure that the… maelstrom was real when I woke up, that it wasn’t just some side effect of the freezing process.”

“The maelstrom is very real.”

Alice hesitated. “Barbecue said that I should leave it alone, or else I’d end up like you.”

Shudder laughed, a laugh that somehow contained both real delight and deep cynicism. “They would say that. The maelstrom can be dangerous, but it can also be a source of strength. Barbecue is a fool for rejecting the maelstrom entirely.”

Uncomfortable with the suddenly subversive direction of the conversation, Alice shifted tack. “A source of strength and danger? How so?”

“There are two faces of the maelstrom,” Shudder replied earnestly, clearly warming to a favorite subject. “There is the cold that freezes, that causes stagnation and death, and the Warmth which brings growth and life. We follow the Warmth here, and I am its true scion.”

Alice recognized the religious fervor with which he described this so-called Warmth and remained silent, unsure of where to draw the line between narcissistic dogma and the new shape of reality in this strange world.

Perhaps sensing that he was losing her, Shudder shrugged. “What about the world from which you come, Brooks? A world without the maelstrom? What was that like?”

“Warm. Huge. Full of life.” Alice’s throat tightened as she felt a sudden rush of longing for the warmth of sunlight on her face, the smell of coffee in the morning, and the cheerful squabbling of family. She paused for a moment until she was certain she had her voice under control. “A place of rules and order, mostly. At least before, well. This. I was just one person among billions, but I had a place. A job. And I did it well. But in the end none of us could keep it from falling apart.”

“I’m sorry. I’m afraid I can’t really imagine what that must have been like, but you must miss it”

“Tremendously.” She sighed. “I feel like I don’t know which way is up anymore.”

Shudder’s eyes narrowed, and when he spoke he seemed to be choosing his words carefully. “It’s no secret that things in our time, as you would call it, are broken. Humans are few in number, scattered, and fractured – warring upon each other. And Barbecue and their hyenas only make it worse.”

Oh man, I don’t like where this is going, but I guess I’ll play along for now. “Hyenas?”

“You saw them when you came in – the guards, Barbecue’s pet killers. The mad dogs that Barbecue uses to rule through fear. Mad dogs who eat their own.” Shudder pinned her with an intense stare, his ice-blue eyes seeming to look right through her. “You come from a better time, a more civilized time. You have a clear vision of what we could be once more. Has it occured to you that you might be the leader that we need?”

Alice was suddenly conscious of the fact that people had been trickling into the Pipes the entire time that they had been talking, and that their conversation had not exactly been very private. “Oh no. No no no. You can fuck right off, because I haven’t even been here a day and I already know I don’t want to be in charge of this shit show.”

She was prepared to leave then, but Shudder held up his hands in entreaty. “Well said. You are new here and I presume.” The other people seemed to have reached a critical mass; one of them separated from the group and stood a respectful distance away while clearly waiting. Shudder acknowledged the man, then turned back to her. “Brooks, it’s one thing to be told about what the maelstrom can do, and another to actually witness it. Would you like to see for yourself?”

Alice knew she was being manipulated, but something in the man’s demeanor made her think that she would regret it if she left now. “All right,” she allowed.

The responding smile was dazzling. “Feel free to watch, or to join in as you wish. All are welcome here.”

Thankfully, Alice didn’t have to make a response, for Shudder turned and walked toward the crowd, which opened up eagerly to admit him into the center. Roughly thirty people stood crowded around him, utterly transfixed as he raised his hands and began to speak.

“Friends. It has been a lean time, a hungry time. But I have ventured out into the cold and seen signs of the Warmth to come, if we but persevere against doubt and coldness of spirit.” A susurrus of agreement passed through Shudder’s followers as he focused his considerable charisma on them, and Alice was impressed in spite of herself. “Friends, I ask you to join with me in opening ourselves to the Warmth, for the Warmth will provide for its true followers.”

Shudder’s followers reached out eagerly to touch him, the closest rank touching a shoulder, or an arm, or a sleeve, while those on the outside placed their hands on the shoulders of the inner circle. Alice was distinctly uncomfortable at the deeply religious overtones and the messianic fervor that Shudder seemed to have cultivated in his followers, but she could also feel a shift in the maelstrom as the generalized chaos of its currents began to take on focus, with Shudder at their center.

Shudder threw up his hands and his eyes flared a brilliant, luminescent blue; an image began to form in front of him of a snowy plain, and a creature with a gaunt and twisted frame and antlers covered with razor-sharp spines. What… But that’s impossible!

Alice could only gawk in wonder as the image stabilized. Then without warning, Shudder reached forward through the image and his arms disappeared up nearly up to his elbows. Almost immediately, the image of the caribou-thing bucked and bellowed silently as it fought against some unseen force. The struggle lasted several seconds before the creature finally wrenched its way free and ran off, panicked.

The image popped like a soap bubble and vanished. Shudder shook his head and withdrew his hands, only now they were torn and bloody, the flesh of his palms hanging in strips. I don’t understand. How is that possible? That can’t be possible!

“It is no matter, friends,” he said, blue eyes blazing. “I know where we can find it, and its mate. Tomorrow we will send out hunters, and then we will feast!”

By now, Shudder was visibly radiant, filled with a strange power that both attracted and terrified her. The cult followers, for surely that’s what they were, reached forward in wonder to touch his wounded hands. From somewhere, bandages were offered and a woman began to wrap Shudder’s hands with tenderness and great reverence. Meanwhile, the other cultists reached for each other with hands and mouths and…

Alice flushed painfully red as she realized what was about to happen. As Shudder’s followers drew him into the communal celebration, he looked at Alice, eyebrows raised, the invitation plain to read on his face.

Horrified, Alice recoiled, then turned and hurried back down the corridor away from the Pipes, running from the invitation and the small sounds of pleasure and especially from the man who could perform real, actual magic in defiance of everything that she had known to be true about the world. However, she didn’t flee quite fast enough to avoid hearing the sound of Shudder’s mocking laughter following her.

…in our top story, the new Ebola-like disease that has been ravaging Southeast Asia has now officially spread to Myanmar…

…first reports of cases in Europe as a man become suddenly ill while on a transatlantic flight. The other passengers have all been placed in quarantine as a protective measure…

…has been placed under martial law. The President made assurances that this was simply a temporary measure to allow for the centralization of resources in the face of collapsing infrastructure…

…unconfirmed reports. It is unclear if any members of the government have survived. There are rumors that…

Thankfully, one thing that the base didn’t lack for was space. After the unsettling encounter with Shudder, Alice found an unclaimed cell and got a few hours of uncomfortable sleep on the hard cement floor. Her sleep was troubled with half-recalled fragments of memory, and she woke at the shift-change bell feeling not much more rested than when she had gone to sleep.

The morning dose of nutrients didn’t exactly improve her mood either, and she dragged herself to the workshop in a decidedly grumpy frame of mind, only to find the door open and Strings absent when she got there. With a sigh of aggravation, Alice settled herself on a stool at the workbench and began to wait.

…and wait. And wait.

To occupy herself, Alice reviewed the list of outstanding jobs, then took a complete inventory of all of the tools still in proper working order. Finally, when nearly an hour had passed, Alice decided to go looking for answers.

There were a few people walking by as Alice stepped out of the workshop, so Alice cleared her throat to catch their attention. “Excuse me. Do you know where Strings is?”

“You didn’t hear?” asked one of them, a woman with amber skin, a shaved head, and elaborate facial tattoos asked. “He was working on a heater last night and the wiring caught fire – burned half his face off.”

“Oh,” Alice said distantly. “Okay. Um, thank you.”

Stunned, she went back into the workshop and sagged back onto the stool. She knew that she should feel sympathy or sadness about what had happened to Strings. He was a sweet old man who had done his best to put her at ease in the short time she’d spent with him. But all she could manage was a dull shock about the fact that it looked like she was now in charge, and she hadn’t the faintest idea of where to start. “Right. Okay, Alice. You can do this. …you can do this.”

Prologue and Chapter 1