Idyll Excerpt: The Streets of Belleterre

In honor of Westworld Season 2 premiering this weekend, here is a sample of my own sci-fi Western novel, Idyll. Idyll is now available for $0.99 here on Amazon!


The afternoon sun descended beneath the bluffs, and the quartz hills wrapped themselves in velveteen shadows. Samuel found a noisy stream, broke down his tack, and scrubbed Titan where a thick scum of lather had gathered around her saddle. The mare wandered down the bank to chew through a stand of tall grass, and Samuel squatted by the water—at a respectful distance—and watched the surface glimmer as it bustled past. Their father owned a high-priced casting net just to fish these streams. Alma Starboard had teased him because there was no place in Glenn County to use such a net, unless he wanted to try chucking it into wells or rain barrels. Samuel warily dipped his hand into the frigid water and watched the current form hillocks as it bulged and rushed around his fingers. For all he knew, Josiah Starboard had stopped at this very spot.

Samuel imagined that he was speaking to him.

“Is that why you told us it took ten days to get to Belleterre? Because you spent a full day fishing? “I’m going to beat you there, Dad. Nine days.”

Within ten minutes, he and Titan were on the move again. As he cleared each ridge Samuel expected to be suddenly staring down at a crowded city of timber, aluminum, and live glass. He remembered his father’s reports of streets covered with pearlescent river stones and three-story houses with foundations of laser-cut rock. Josiah painted pictures of deafening waterfalls powering gigantic mills and propelling water through a webwork of aqueducts and aluminum pipes. Belleterre seemed to be a hectic paradise with its toy stores, puppet-shows, and men selling food or candy on every street corner.

What if Belleterre had recovered since the Lullaby? At this very moment, the market might be teeming with merchants, hawking their wares, roaring to be heard over the river. Samuel imagined boys sluicing horse manure off the curbs. What if these city folk had been living their lives in busy luxury while Samuel and his family had been living in isolation, withering away bit by bit? Logically Samuel knew that this would be the best possible scenario, but the idea made him want to scream. They had waited for three years. Suffered through—and wasted—three years.

He imagined the city folk gaping at him. What would they think of this refugee in a torn shirt and stitched boots? He had expected rough riding through the quartz hills, and he was wearing his dusty chaps, which were discolored and scarred, with flaps of torn fabric hanging off of them. Samuel was certain that he looked like a hermit. He wished he had followed Walt’s example and taken a bath this morning. He had shaved on the day that they left their father’s ranch because he had fully expected to find people at the county seat. Since that disappointment, he hadn’t thought about shaving at all, and now his beard was tight and itchy, a webwork of ivy on his face.

After another fifteen minutes of climbing, Samuel saw the corner of a building emerge from behind a steep slope of rock. The highway crested a hill, and Samuel had his first good look at Belleterre. His notions of loud merchants and busy street cleaners quickly died as he stared down at dozens of dark row houses and empty storefronts. The buildings seemed exhausted somehow. As he looked closer, Samuel realized why: Where wood showed, the timbers were black and sagging. Broken panes of live glass littered the streets—crooked mirrors shining up to the sky.

There had been a huge fire here. Half of the city had been razed.

In a moment of horror, Samuel realized he was very visible on the hilltop. There could be lookouts hidden among the buildings, watching the road for careless travelers. He turned back down the hill and led Titan to a scrubby niche in the rocks, a spot where the highest buildings wouldn’t have an angle to see them. He dismounted and tethered Titan to a deadfall. Then he unlatched his chaps and his jangling spurs. He peeled the bulky water pouch from his back.

A footpath zigzagged from the hidden niche up into the hills. The path was sheltered on both sides by steep embankments and scrubby conifers. Samuel scuttled from one hiding place to another, always watching the burned out buildings for signs of life. Soot-blackened windows stared down at him like the mascara-smeared eyes of world-weary burlesque dancers. But the windows were empty.

Soon he was ducking through an archway and into the city. He saw that someone had chipped pieces off of the arch’s quartz pylons, probably to feed a rock-roller. Samuel reached over his shoulder and shook his own rock-roller carbine. Its ammo of polished pebbles clattered in the stock. Samuel remembered Uncle Warren’s stories of rival militias battling in the chaos that followed the epidemic. Apparently those skirmishes had spread to Belleterre—or perhaps the skirmishes had started here. Either way, the men who had conquered this city were probably still holed up somewhere in these buildings.

Samuel’s heart was pounding high in his chest, threatening to choke him with each beat.
For the next twenty minutes Samuel worked his way past deserted inns, saloons, and barter shops. Several buildings had collapsed, and the aluminum skeletons of porches, roofs, and plumbing systems had been twisted and dragged into the avenue to create ramshackle barricades.

He weaved between shards of live glass, careful to not cut his shoes or make noise. Live glass was one of the Settlement’s most precious commodities. Each square-meter was honeycombed with hundreds of tiny cells that expanded or contracted based on temperature changes. The cells were designed to store and multiply energy that could be transferred to mechanical devices, stoves, or incandescent lights. Even broken panes of live glass were valuable as insulation materials. And yet, here were thousands of square-meters (shattered or not) that had not been salvaged. The survivors in Belleterre must have had more dire priorities. Or perhaps there were no survivors at all.

Samuel crossed a footbridge that resembled two squat staircases fastened together—one going up and the other coming down. Beneath the bridge, a section of the Kepler River foamed through a narrow canal. All around him, the metallic roar of the continent’s second-largest river echoed between buildings, rattled shards of glass, and settled as an uncomfortable weight between Samuel’s ears. He could see the city’s famous mill wheels, but the wheels had ground to a halt. The falls thundered off their useless paddles. Water sloshed over the sides of bent aqueducts, falling and slapping the ground. The clamor of millions of liters shook the city as if it were a gigantic caged creature. But the river raged at no one. The city was empty.

Belleterre was dead. They had trekked for nine days and subjected their mother to stresses that had nearly killed her. All of that suffering had been for nothing.

Samuel was ready to be away from these claustrophobic streets. The oppressive noise and humidity was settling on his shoulders, turning his clothes cold and heavy. The buildings loomed over him. He looked up, and the view made his head swirl. He came to an intersection between four hulking buildings and turned toward the sunset. He was trudging across a wide road that must have been one of the city’s main avenues. He didn’t worry about being seen; there was no one to see him.

Soon he was crossing a covered bridge over a large, squared-off canal. He watched the water bluster away under him, foaming angrily over splintered moorings and half-sunken boats, and his stomach roiled because all this water—all these buildings and manmade things so close to it—seemed unnatural. Samuel could not swim; he had never wanted to learn. He had a cattleman’s natural disdain for bodies of moving water. This city’s humidity—all its closeness—felt sickening to him. It was no surprise that the Belleterrans had all been wiped out by a contagion. Maybe their corpses had been swept away by the river, similar to cattle in a flash flood.

Samuel wanted to be in the saddle and racing away, far and fast and riding strong. But he was on foot and probably a full kilometer from his horse. His escape would be so slow, it almost didn’t seem worth it. Belleterre was dead. And Marathon might be dead too.
Samuel made himself walk. With his first step he stumbled on a loose flagstone on the bridge. The flat rock was angled wrongly and obviously out of place—as if someone had set it there specifically to trip him up.

Too late, Samuel realized he had triggered a booby trap.

A beam of wood crashed through the bridge’s aluminum canopy. Samuel flinched, raising his hands to his face to ward off any debris that might be flung up when the huge weight hit the stones before him. But the beam of wood didn’t fall normally; it arced toward Samuel, swooping to meet his knees as it accelerated to a bone-smashing velocity.

Samuel saw thick coils of hempen rope tied to each end of the beam. It was a pendulum. He didn’t have time to bend his legs and jump; he dove forward into the empty air above the hurtling beam. But a splintered edge caught his boot, and his body was flung backward and upward. He landed face first on the stone paving. Samuel stayed there, crumpled, for a split second. Then he remembered that the trap was a pendulum. It was coming back for him. Samuel rolled as fast as he could to avoid the beam’s lethal backswing. He fell off the bridge.

And the river swallowed him, pulling with an instant and nearly irresistible power. Samuel observed his situation with cold detachment, perhaps he was dazed from his fall onto the stone bridge. In some dim corner of his mind, he was considering the fact that he couldn’t swim. Simultaneously, he was absurdly fascinated by the novel sensation of being submerged in moving water.

He felt as if he were being propelled by a hundred mismatched cogs, all greased and moving incredibly fast. He was flung sideways, the current twisting his shoulders. Now he was face-up, now he was plunged headfirst to the cold, dark bottom. Samuel thrust out his hand, and his fingers raked up a slurry of mud. He rolled and plowed his heels into the muck, hopping along the bottom, going with the current, slowing his momentum. He straightened his legs and found that he could hold his head above the surface. Still, he took in a mouthful of frothy water as he tried to gasp for air.

The current pushed him toward a shattered skiff. The stern of the flat-bottomed boat had settled against the side of a broken building so that it formed a ramp out of the canal. Samuel grabbed the boat and clung for his life.

Now that he was within an arm’s length of dry land, his state-of-shock calm quickly flowed away. This new possibility of salvation made the imminent threat of drowning more palpable—more horrifying. His heart was pumping uncontrollably, as if the ferocious current was rushing through his chest. His legs were as flimsy as reeds beneath him. Did he possess the strength to pull himself out of the water?

He did. Samuel heaved himself up onto the slanted planks, which didn’t budge under his weight. Somehow, the strap of his rock-roller had shifted so that the carbine was stationed across his chest, not his back. Water dripped from his nose and from the twin prongs of the weapon. He wondered if water would affect its electromagnetic sling. Samuel climbed until he was teetering on the lip of a ragged hole in the side of a ruined building.

Its interior was dark and expansive. Here and there, damaged columns broke the darkness like jagged teeth. He looked down and saw that this improvised ramp had been tied to the building with ropes, not unlike the cords that had bound the booby trap on the bridge.

“Oh.” Samuel said. A flicker of green fabric moved among the shadows. He pulled the butt of his rock-roller to his shoulder.

An explosion went off in his right leg. He looked down and saw that his knee was wrapped in glittering wire. The wire crackled with blue lightning. Samuel could see and smell the fabric of his dungarees beginning to burn, but he couldn’t move to beat out the flames. He was paralyzed. His brain wouldn’t work. He couldn’t speak—couldn’t scream. The world seemed to spin around the fulcrum of his burning knee. Again he tried to grab it; instead he just pitched forward against the stone floor.


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