UPDATE: Redaction: Dark Hope is at the editors and should be back mid-December. I hope to go live with the book around the 20th and, like before, I’ll have it priced at 99cents for a week. My Christmas present to you:-)
With his tongue caught between his teeth, Manny Saldana cut off one perfect
round of tomato. One-quarter inch thick, not a sliver more or less. He whistled softly. It
was good to be cooking again. Red juice oozed across the metal prep table before being
absorbed by a towel. The overhead LED bulbs dimmed for a moment then brightened.
The council meeting sprang to life on the TV monitor above the buffet area.
“I wish someone competent would take charge of the electrical grid.” Chef Bonnie
Jardin glared at the Christmas lights strung across the silver-lined ceiling. Strands of
black hair escaped her bun and fluttered in the purring table fan. “Now that we’re starting
to receive fresh produce, I really must have reliable ovens.”
“We haven’t had an outage that lasted more than a few minutes in nearly a month.”
Using the side of his knife as a spatula, Manny scooped up the slices and added them to
the colander. A white ramekin caught the juice and the seeds. Precious seeds. One white
oval lay on the table. He poked it with his index finger until it stuck then scraped it into
Folding her arms over her bright-white chef’s jacket, Bonnie harrumphed. “We
shouldn’t be having any at this point. Aren’t these people receiving training?”
“I’m sure they are.” He dusted his fingers on the damp washcloth. One thousand
twenty-two slices of tomatoes. Everyone got one at dinner tonight. It was a good start,
especially when coupled with the potatoes that would soon arrive. He licked his lips.
Bonnie’s rubber soled shoes squeaked on the damp stone floor. She paused by his
side and inspected the silver prep tray holding the remaining slices. “I suppose I can’t
expect everyone to learn the basics as quickly as you, Emmanuel.”
Manny flinched at his proper name. He wished she stopped calling him that. It
reminded him too much of his mother, too much of all he’d lost. He sniffed back his tears.
Time to begin putting that behind him. Life was good in the caves. His parents, brothers,
sisters and friends wouldn’t want him to dwell on the fact that he brought home the
Redaction that had killed them. They’d want him to be happy.
And maybe… He cleaned the seeds out of the slices in the colander and added
them to the prep bin. Maybe he deserved a little happiness. After all, he had saved his
younger brother and sister and several neighbors.
That had to count for something.
Reaching to the metal shelves above his prep area, he retrieved the salt and pepper.
Measuring out only a quarter-sized amount in his palm, he sprinkled it on the vegetables,
making sure to get every grain off his hands.
“Nicely done. And not a bit wasted.”
No, nothing wasted. They couldn’t afford it. Not until the greenhouses started
producing more. And speaking of gardens… “My basil is finally growing. I could harvest
some and give the tomatoes a little extra flavor.”
Bonnie’s pink lips nearly disappeared as they thinned.
Fear lodged in his throat. He swallowed hard. What rule had he broken now?
“Now, Emmanuel, I know you mean well but these people have very simple
tastes.” She waved her hand at the rows of brown Meals-Ready-to-Eat pouches waiting to
be served for dinner. “We can’t start introducing complex flavors to a palate accustomed
He shifted his weight from foot to foot. He’d deliberately grown the herb garden to
add flavor to everyone’s meals. “I just thought–”
“Of course, your intentions are good.” She patted his arm. “And I’m envious of the
green thumb most of your people seem to have.”
He stiffened. His people? He eyed his tan skin. Really? At the end of the world,
some folks still saw him as a dumb Mexican?
“Oh, dear.” She raised her hand to her lips. “I didn’t mean to insult your heritage.
I guess the little green-eyed monster got the better of me.” Leaning in close to him, she
lowered her voice. “I can’t grow anything. In fact, I’ve been known to kill plastic plants.”
The tension knotting his shoulders eased but he still felt a twinge in his gut. Maybe
he’d been a tad too sensitive about his heritage. Bonnie was always talking about those
people and that kind. Maybe it was because English wasn’t her first language. He used the
“You’re such a good boy, Emmanuel.” Bonnie patted his arm.
Boy? Sure he might only be seventeen, but he was a man. He scratched a stuck-on
leaf off the stainless-steel countertop. Hell, he didn’t think there were any children in the
whole mine network. Not after everything they’d seen, heard, and lived through.
“If I had a son, I’d want him to be just like you.” After a quick squeeze, she
released him and straightened her chef’s coat.
Okay, maybe he was being Mr. Sensitive. No one would insult a person in one
breath then liken him to her own child in the next, would she?
“Why don’t I clean up here while you go check on those potatoes.” When she
looked down at the countertop, she wrinkled her nose. “The farmers should have been at
Manny glanced at the surface. Not a smear of juice or a stray seed in sight. “Okay.
Anything to get away. Leaving the rag on the counter, he fumbled with the knot
securing his apron. Sometimes her cleaning OCD set his teeth on edge. He resisted the
urge to touch the stoves and ovens, smearing them with his fingerprints as he passed.
Folding the fabric into a neat square, he set it on the table near the buffet separating the
He had to remember that. Besides, he had been a bit of a clean freak after his folks
had died. Especially after learning the Redaction virus had lived on surfaces for over a
week. Of course, the niños had cured him of that pretty quick. He couldn’t keep a clean
house with four young children underfoot.
Shaking off his thoughts, Manny followed the wall of ovens to the end. He
rounded the serving line and stepped into the dining area. Metal folding chairs and tables
filled the fifty-foot cavern. In the front, airplane wings had been welded together to form
a stage. Behind it hung a sheet of white canvas that acted as a screen for the projector
caged in a repurposed pet carrier hanging from the ceiling.
After he cleaned up tonight’s meal, he’d have to get rid of the tables for movie
time. He hoped the feature was something other than giant radioactive bugs. He could
do without the nightmares. Of course, only a few had thought to pack movies during the
evacuation and anything was better than cutesy cartoons.
Threading a path between the tables, he made his way to the shed tucked in the
back corner. Hammer indentations and soot marked where the soldiers had torn the plane
apart to be repurposed in the mines. He shivered in a draft. They were dead now. Many
dying on the job, leaving him to find them in the morning.
Sometimes, he could swear he heard them coughing. His arms twitched. He shook
them out. That was over and done now. The last one had died ten days ago. So why could
he see one propped in the corner or another sprawled across the threshold of the storage
Stop it! He liked his job. Liked cooking. Ghosts didn’t exist. He reached for the
lock on the airplane door and paused. The hasp wasn’t fully seated in the padlock. Holy
shit. Had he forgotten to lock it? Sweat bubbled on his upper lip. He glanced toward the
Bonnie couldn’t see him from the kitchen. But that didn’t mean she hadn’t checked
After the thefts of tomatoes and two cases of MREs, they’d been extra careful. He
twisted his wrist then lifted the lock free. Guess she hadn’t checked it this morning or she
would have reamed him a new one. She was more paranoid about the lock than he was.
Manny opened the door and reached around the metal wall. With a flick of a
switch, light flooded the ten-by-twenty-foot storage room. He scanned the nearly empty
room. Sitting by the door, tomatoes filled two fabric grocery bags. A stray leaf lay beside
them. Empty MRE boxes were stacked in neat towers by a galvanized conveyor table.
The rollers waited for potatoes and other goodies to come up the conveyor belt that
He grabbed the Geiger counter off its hook and switched it on. It blipped once then
remained silent. The lights flickered again. Bonnie really shouldn’t complain so much.
Everyone was doing his best. Sure, some did better than others, but most at least tried.
They all knew the stakes: Life or death.
The readout ticked up to seven as he walked deeper into the room. His heart leapt
with every beep. Still okay. It was in milli-something or other. And it took lots of milli-
He took another step, heading for the triple-paned windows separating the
storeroom from the lead-lined conveyor belt. The readout jumped a hundred.
What the fuck? He thumped it against the heel of his hand. It leapt another two
hundred. The hair on the back of his neck rose. Grit crunched under his heel. Had the
Manny glanced down, lowering the Geiger counter. The readout purred until it
reached one thousand seventy-two. His mouth dried.
Jesus! That would make him sick. He back-pedaled toward the door. His left foot
shot out from under him. His right knee buckled. He dropped to the floor in a half split.
Pain zipped up his thigh. His teeth clicked together, the impact traveled up his spine until
he felt sure his brain hit the top of his skull.
The Geiger counter slipped from his hand. The numbers continued to climb. Two
He had to get out of here. Now! His nails dug into stone, bent under his weight
and ripped. He ignored the burn and scrambled backward. The conveyor must have been
breached. Radiation was getting inside.
Flipping over, he sprang to his feet and jumped the two feet to the door. He swung
for the doorknob. Missed. The counter continued to spiral higher, deleting days of his life
with each tick. He tried for the handle again.
Over the panic drumming in his ear, he heard the window to the conveyor slide open. He turned.
His fingers closed around the knob just as a hand reached through the opening.