An Excerpt from The Sister Paradox by Jack Campbell, now funding on Kickstarter.
With death on four legs and two wings heading straight for me, I finally turned to run, but slipped on the loose rocks and bare dirt on the edge of the large hollow. I caught a brief sideways glimpse of the charred, dead trees standing bare-limbed around the hollow as I landed on my shoulder, then I started cart-wheeling down the slope accompanied by a shower of rocks, pebbles and dust. The slope seemed a lot longer that it had looked, but that was probably just because I was picking up fresh bruises on every bounce of the way down. Finally I slid to a stop at the bottom, accompanied by a pile of rubble and a cloud of dust that kept choking me while I tried to make the world stop going around in dizzy circles.
I’d just about managed to stop coughing and start seeing straight again when the dragon I’d been trying to run away from in the first place came slamming down to earth a few feet from me. Yeah, that’s right, a dragon. The earth quivered from the impact, making the little collection of rocks and pebbles I’d brought down the slope with me jump around like they were panicking. The bones of some of the things unfortunate enough to have gotten here well before me, which carpeted the bottom of the hollow, quivered as if given a few seconds more of life to be afraid. Up close, the dragon looked even bigger than I’d first thought, especially when it hissed and spread its jaws really wide. I hadn’t managed to get up, but I tried to backpedal away. The dragon just took two steps and stood right over me, jaws gapping.
If you’re like me you’ve probably played one of those video games that claims to be totally realistic. Don’t believe it. Having a real dragon standing over you with its jagged teeth dripping saliva is very, very different from whatever thrills you get out of a game. If there’d been an escape key I’d have been punching it like crazy just then.
The dragon reared back a little and prepared to chow down on me. I just stared at it, unable to move and unable to think of any way out of this mess.
Did I mention that I wouldn’t be in this mess if it wasn’t for my sister?
Did I mention that I don’t have a sister?
I guess I should start at the beginning. Like, this morning.
There’s two things you have to know about me right from the start. First, my name is Liam. Liam Eagan. Second, I don’t have a sister. Or a brother. I’m the only kid in the family, the only kid my mother and father have ever had. It’s been that way all my life, and it hasn’t been all that bad. I mean, sometimes I’d wish I had a brother to toss a ball back and forth or something like that, but I had friends I could hang around with instead. I never wished I had a sister. No way. Never.
There are advantages to being an only kid. No competition, for one thing. No fighting for the bathroom, or having someone else pawing my stuff, or complaining that they wanted something else to eat tonight when I wanted pizza. No one else asking mom and dad for expensive but important junk. Just me. All in all, life was pretty good for sixteen year old Liam Eagan.
This morning started off as usual. I lay in bed awhile after the alarm went off, took my time getting ready because I knew I wouldn’t have anyone else hogging the bathroom, and slid down the stairs and into the kitchen with just enough time to spare.
Mom was already there, going over some stuff related to her job selling real estate. She gave me a quick glance. “About time you got down here. You’re going to be late for school.”
“No way,” I assured her while I pulled out a box of cereal.
“Yes, way. Hurry your breakfast, mister,” Mom ordered me.
I shrugged and dug in the cereal box until I had a handful, then shoveled it into my mouth before answering. “Okay, okay,” I mumbled around my mouthful.
She gave me that look that moms get sometimes. “Nice. What happens when someone else in this house wants to eat that cereal?”
“You told me to hurry up, and nobody else in this house eats that cereal,” I pointed out, quite reasonably I think. “You eat that twigs and bark stuff and Dad just has coffee in the morning.”
“That’s not the point,” Mom informed me. “Besides, what if we had a guest?”
That reminded me. “Hey, speaking of that, when can I have the spare bedroom?”
Mom looked baffled, though I couldn’t imagine why. “The spare bedroom? You want to move into the spare bedroom?”
“I want the spare bedroom, yeah”
“What’s wrong with your bedroom?”
She waited as if thinking I needed to say something else, then sort of frowned at me. “Why do you want to move out of your bedroom and into the spare bedroom?” Mom said the words really slowly as if she thought I’d have trouble understanding them.
“I don’t. I don’t want the spare bedroom as a bedroom.” Mom just kept waiting, so I explained even though it should’ve been obvious. “I need a place to hang out. You know, a room where I can play video games and music and stuff with my friends.”
“You mean like your bedroom.”
“No! Give me a break, mom. I need another room for that stuff.”
She just leaned back and stared at me. Finally, after several seconds, Mom shook her head. “Just what makes you think you can have two bedrooms for yourself?”
“Because there’s no one else using the spare bedroom.” Which was perfectly true. I didn’t see how Mom could argue with that. “And it’s not like you and Dad are doing anything with it.”
Mom buried her face in her hands for a moment, I guess while she thought about what I’d said. “And where would guests stay when they come here?”
“There’s that new hotel a few miles away.”
She raised her face and stared at me again. “You want our guests to shell out money for a hotel and have to drive several miles to and from here to see us each day while you use the spare bedroom to do things you can do perfectly well in your own bedroom?”
The way Mom said it made it sound like I was being unreasonable. “If it’s all that big a deal-”
“It’s that big a deal.” Mom leaned forward. “Hello, Earth to Mr. Liam Eagan. Have I got your attention? Listen carefully. You are not the only person in the world.”
I knew that. “I know that!”
“You won’t be getting the spare bedroom to use as a playroom. Forget it.”
“All right, all right!” Obviously, I’d have to work on this a bit before Mom and Dad gave in. “But when we get the new TV-”
“Mister, you’ve got plenty of toys as it is.”
Calling my stuff toys was not cool, but it did remind me of something. “Oh, yeah, I also need a new phone.”
“A new phone?” Mom shook her head. “The one you’ve got is less than a year old.”
“It’s eight months old! There’s a new model out with better memory! If I want to use the newest apps I need–“
“You don’t need anything, Liam,” Mom interrupted. “You want more stuff.”
Oh, here it comes. The lecture about kids starving in Sudan, like that has anything to do with me.
But the clock in the living room bonged, causing Mom to check the time and dash for the door. “Don’t be late for school!”
“No problem.” And it wasn’t. I’ve got the walk timed down to the second. I slid through the school door just before the bell rang.
Bill, my best friend, socked my shoulder. “Dude.”
“Dude. Looking forward to playing Demon Disaster in death match mode after school?”
Bill shook his head. “Nah. Sorry.”
“No?” I made a grabbing gesture toward him with both hands. “No? We’ve been planning this since Monday, remember?”
“I know, I know.” Bill waved my hands away. “I’m stuck at home watching my little bro.”
“Can’t you ditch him?”
“He’s three years old. He needs me. My parents are counting on me to watch him.”
“So? I made plans!”
Bill shook his head again. “Sorry. If you had a brother or a sister you might understand. Listen, you can come over to my place-”
“You don’t have the latest game console! And your little brother would be nagging at us! How am I supposed to have fun while you -?”
“Look, we have to get together somehow to go over those book reports.”
I hauled my mind away from sulking about no dual-Demon Disaster play tonight. “Book reports?”
“Yeah.” Bill squinted at me like he wasn’t sure I was serious. “Liam, the book reports are due tomorrow. We agreed that I’d read the first half of the book and you’d read the second half, and then we’d get together to write our reports.”
“When was this?”
“About three weeks ago!”
Like I’m supposed to remember something I said three weeks ago? “I’ll look something up on the web. Some, uh, notes or something –“
Bill interrupted me, looking seriously upset. “You know Mr. Weedle checks stuff against online sources to see if it’s been copied! You know he insists on details from the books that aren’t in online sources so he can be sure we read the books! How could you let me down this way? You promised me, man!”
“I don’t remember saying- Look, I’ll get it read, and I’ll call you tonight early enough so we can both get the reports done. Happy?”
“You’re almost done reading your half?” Bill asked.
“Uh, yeah.” What’s two hundred pages of small type? I could skim through that in, say, half an hour. “I’ll call you by…eight o’clock and–“
“Eight o’clock? Try seven.”
“That won’t leave me much time to play Demon Disaster before I start homework,” I complained.
His face got a little red as Bill answered me. “Dude, sometimes the world does not revolve around you.”
I should have known this day was going to be strange when my best friend started sounding like my mom. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked as we walked to English class. It’s not like Bill had put himself out when something important like playing a new game with me was involved.
Then Caithlyn went by and I perked up real fast. “Hey!”
She glanced at me, then away. “Hey, yourself.”
“Uh…” But Caithlyn was already heading off down the hall while I stood there trying to think of something cool to say.
“Wow,” Bill whispered to me sarcastically, “she is so into you.”
“She just has to get to know me better.”
“She does know you.”
“What does that mean?”
“You don’t spend a lot of time worrying about other people, you know,” Bill replied, apparently still steamed at me over the game thing and the book report thing.
“I do, too!” I tried to think of some examples of how much I worried about other people, but we reached the classroom before I came up with any.
I wanted to forget all about the book report, but Mr. Wheedle started English class by reminding everyone about it. Like I needed another reminder. Then he said if anyone needed extra time we should let him know now.
I could feel Bill looking at me, but I sort of shook my head and stared at my desk. We could get it done. Probably. I mean, the report wasn’t due until tomorrow, so dealing with any problems could wait until tomorrow, couldn’t it? And maybe something would happen like Mr. Weedle being sick or me being sick, or whatever. Never stick your neck out if you don’t have to. That’s what I always say.
In English we started learning about something called splitting infinitives, which sounded like it might be fun to do, especially since Mr. Weedle said some grammarians insisted we weren’t supposed to do it. But it just turned out to be something about organizing sentences, which is boring if you ask me, and Weedle said it was okay with him if we did it, so what was the point?
Boring, by the way, is Mr. Weedle’s specialty. You’ve probably heard of teachers who can make any subject exciting and interesting. Mr. Weedle is sort of the anti-matter version of that. He could make anything boring. It wasn’t really his fault, I guess. The tests force all the English teachers to go over the same old books chosen by a bunch of people who think reading doesn’t count unless you have to force kids to do it.
So instead of worrying about obscure grammar rules and about society in a small town in 18th century England, I was thinking about what size TV to put in the spare bedroom when my parents gave in. But then one of the school office assistants stuck her head in the classroom. “Liam Eagan?”
Everybody looked at me, while I tried to think of anything I might’ve done lately. Or something I maybe didn’t do and should’ve done. Aside from the book report thing, that is. Then Mr. Weedle pointed at me.
The office assistant made a “come here” gesture. “You’re needed in the office.” I started to get up. “Bring all of your books.”
This looked bad, but I had no trouble looking confused instead of guilty, because I sure hadn’t done anything. Bill had gotten over his attitude enough to give me a worried ‘what’d you do?’ look, but all I could do was shake my head to say I didn’t know as I gathered my books up and dumped them into my backpack. The office assistant waited, tapping one finger on her arm impatiently until I got to the door, then led the way toward the office.
She led me right through the outside waiting area. I was so worried by this time that I didn’t even notice if anyone was in there. We went directly back to the principal’s office, where the assistant knocked, looked in, then waved me in and closed the door behind me.
Ms. Lockridge was the sort of woman kids did not mess with. She had this way of pinning you with her eyes so that you felt she was reading your thoughts and knew everything you had even dreamed of doing wrong. She sat there at her desk and frowned at me so hard that I wanted to yell “I didn’t do it” even though I had no idea what “it” was.
Finally, she pointed to her phone. “We haven’t been able to contact your mother or your father, Mr. Eagan.”
That happens. “Mom usually keeps her cell on, but when she’s doing real estate stuff she sometimes goes places where she can’t get coverage or has to shut off the phone. And dad’s on a business trip out of town.”
“I see. Since we’ve been unable to contact your parents,” Ms. Lockridge paused as if trying to prolong my agony, “you’ll have to take your sister home.”
Have you ever heard something that’s so completely strange that you just can’t understand a word of it? This was like that. I heard everything Ms. Lockridge said, every word as clear as a bell, and I couldn’t understand it at all. Ms. Lockridge looked at me, waiting for me to say something, so finally I just said, “Excuse me?”
“I said that you’ll have to take your sister home.”
“My…sister? Ms. Lockridge, I don’t have a sister.”
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An interview with the author – AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT – JACK CAMPBELL
Jack Campbell (John G. Hemry) is the author of the New York Times best-selling Lost Fleet series, the Lost Stars series, and the “steampunk with dragons” Pillars of Reality Series. His most recent books are THE LOST STARS – SHATTERED SPEAR, THE LOST FLEET: BEYOND THE FRONTIER – LEVIATHAN, and the Pillars of Reality novels THE SERVANTS OF THE STORM and THE WRATH OF THE GREAT GUILDS. In May, VANGUARD will be published, the first in a new trilogy set centuries before the events in The Lost Fleet series. John’s novels have been published in eleven languages. This year, Titan will begin bringing out a Lost Fleet comic series. His short fiction includes works covering time travel, alternate history, space opera, military SF, fantasy, and humor.
John has also written articles on declassified Cold War plans for US military bases on the Moon, and Liberating the Future: Women in the Early Legion (of Superheroes) in Sequart’s Teenagers From the Future. At somewhat erratic intervals he presents his talk on Everything I Needed To Know About Quantum Physics I Learned From The Three Stooges, showing how Stooge skits illustrate principles of quantum physics.
John is a retired US Navy officer, who served in a wide variety of jobs including surface warfare (the ship drivers of the Navy), amphibious warfare, anti-terrorism, intelligence, and some other things that he’s not supposed to talk about. Being a sailor, he has been known to tell stories about Events Which He Says Really Happened (but which cannot be verified by any independent sources). This experience has served him well in writing fiction.
He lives in Maryland with his indomitable wife “S” and three great kids (all three on the autism spectrum).