Hard to believe we have been at this for five years, come October. That is a lot of blood, sweat, and cuss words…let me tell you! We have learned a lot and we have grown. We are making a name for ourselves and doing what we love. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like we are making too much progress, but then we look back and think “Damn!”

I did that today. My entire day has been nothing but entering and calculating data to see exactly what it is we’ve accomplished, by the numbers. So! Here it goes…

  1. We’ve published nine titles in electronic format only.
  2. We’ve published 39 titles in both print and electronic format.
  3. We have eight titles currently under review or in production.
  4. We have originated three imprints: eSpec Books, Paper Phoenix Press, and AGM Publications.
  5. We have three staff members: Danielle McPhail (publisher), Mike McPhail (art director/graphic designer), Greg Schauer (editor).
  6. Eight times out of eight times, we have paid out royalties either early or on time.
  7. We have zero company debt.
  8. We have a positive balance in each of our company accounts.

Those last three fill us with the greatest sense of accomplishment.

All-Time Top Bestsellers

  1. The Clockwork Witch by Michelle D. Sonnier
  2. The Sister Paradox by Jack Campbell
  3. The Weird Wild West
      edited by Misty Massey, Emily Lavin Leverett, and Margaret S. McGraw
  4. Issue in Doubt by David Sherman
  5. In All Directions by David Sherman
  6. Gaslight and Grimm edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Diana Bastine
  7. Dragon Precinct by Keith R.A. DeCandido
  8. The Best of Defending the Future edited by Mike McPhail
  9. Goblin Precinct by Keith R.A. DeCandido
  10. Unicorn Precinct by Keith R.A. DeCandido


In All Directions 2 x 3G&GRed-Gold Leaf-150Proof-DragonPrecinctNew-Proof-DTF1b

Goblin Precinct 2x3Proof-UnicornPrecinctproof-iwhk-coverproof-tbobaf

All-Time Highest Grossing

  1. The Sister Paradox by Jack Campbell
  2. The Clockwork Witch by Michelle D. Sonnier
  3. The Weird Wild West 
        edited by Misty Massey, Emily Lavin Leverett, and Margaret S. McGraw
  4. Issue in Doubt by David Sherman
  5. In All Directions by David Sherman
  6. Gaslight and Grimm edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Diana Bastine
  7. Dragon Precinct by Keith R.A. DeCandido
  8. The Best of Defending the Future edited by Mike McPhail
  9. If We Had Known edited by Mike McPhail
  10. Best of Bad-Ass Faeries edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail

Highlights of the last five years:

  • One title made it to the Bram Stoker Recommended Reading List.
  • Four titles were finalists for awards.
  • Two of those titles won those awards.
  • We have funded twelve successful crowdfunding campaigns (including one that is running right now – Defending the Future: In Harm’s Way.)
  • We have had the honor of publishing Faith Hunter, Jack Campbell, Brenda Cooper, David Sherman, Jody Lynn Nye, Jonathan Maberry, Bud Sparhawk, James Chambers, Jack McDevitt, Robert Greenberger, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Jeff Young, Michelle D. Sonnier, Bernie Mojzes, Aaron Rosenberg, Peter David, John C. Wright, Eric V. Hardenbrook, Christopher M. Hiles, Patrick Thomas, CJ Henderson, Judi Fleming, John L. French, Christopher L. Bennett, Gail Z. Martin and Larry N. Martin, Misty Massey, Mike McPhail, John G. Hartness, RS Belcher, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Misty Massey, James R. Tuck, Robert E. Waters, David Sherman, Tonia Brown, Liz Colter, Scott Hungerford, Frances Rowat, Ken Schrader, Bryan C.P. Steele, Wendy N. Wagner, Christine Norris, Danny Birt, Jean Marie Ward, Elaine Corvidae, David Lee Summers, Kelly A. Harmon, Jonah Knight, Diana Bastine, Brian Koscienski & Chris Pisano, Adam P. Knave, Jesse Harris, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, John Passarella, Jeffrey Lyman,  L. Jagi Lamplighter,  James Daniel Ross, DL Thurston, Lee C. Hillman, NR Brown, John A. Pitts, Jennifer Brozek, Ronald T. Garner, Nancy Jane Moore, Maria V. Snyder, Lawrence M. Schoen, Andy Remic, Charles E. Gannon, John G. Hemry, Ian Randal Strock, Peter Prellwitz, Drew Bittner, Ty Johnson, Torah Contrill, Walt Ciechanowski, Hal Greenberg and Kenneth Shannon III, Erik Scott de Bie, Ed Greenwood, Christopher J. Burke, Jim Knipp, Herika R Raymer, Anton Kukal, Marie Vibbert, CB Droege, David Bartell,  Rie Sheridan Rose, Jean Buie, David M. Hoenig, Jamie Gilman Kress, Jean Rabe, David Boop, Leona Wisoker Robert M. Price, Leona Wisoker, Edward J. McFadden III, Tony Ruggiero, Janine K. Spendlove, Bryan J.L. Glass, James M. Ward, Kathleen David, and Vonnie Winslow Crist
  • We have projects in the works by Robert E. Waters, Christopher L. Bennett, Michelle D. Sonnier, James Chambers, and Danielle Ackley-McPhail.
  • We have anthologies in the works with stories by Gordon Linzner, Lisanne Norman, Dayton Ward, and  Russ Colchamiro.

If you’ve made it all the way to the end here, thank you. It’s a lot of content but we are covering five years 😉 We’ll be making periodic posts throughout the year up to the anniversary. Thanks for joining us on this adventure!



In A Flash 2016
The eSpec Books Annual Flash Fiction Anthology
edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail
and Greg Schauer
ISBN: 978-1-942990-37-6

In a Flash, the eSpec Books annual flash fiction anthology, features the highlights of the press’s monthly flash fiction contests from the preceding year. This collection of speculative microfiction runs the gambit from steampunk, westerns, and urban fantasy to science fiction and horror, with stories by Christopher J. Burke, Jim Knipp, Herika R Raymer, Anton Kukal, Marie Vibbert, CB Droege, David Bartell, Jeff Young, Rie Sheridan Rose, Jean Buie, David M. Hoenig, and Jamie Gilman Kress.

If you follow our blog you are familiar with our monthly flash fiction contests. The prize for winning these contests is publication on the blog and a free ebook. However, we have been so impressed with the submissions we have received we wanted to take things further. To that end we reveal to you now the first in a series of eSpec Books Annual Flash Anthologies. Congratulations to the winners and honorable mentions selected for inclusion.


Well, folks…this month we have another tie! Our congratulations to Christopher J. Burke and Marie Vibbert for sharing the honors in this month’s eSpec Books Flash Fiction Contest. Their prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook each from among the eSpec publication list.

Honorable Mention

NOCLAW – Herika R Raymer

The Thing About Humans

By Christopher J. Burke

“The thing about humans…” The old gray cat began his story, to the delight of the kittens seated around him. Then he licked the back of his left front paw and rubbed a spot behind his ear.

A little black-and-orange-striped tom jumped up, edging forward. “What’s the thing? What’s the thing?”

Grizabella had been resting by the fire, just behind the littlest ones. She stepped into the circle, lifted the kitten by the scruff of the neck and put him back in his place. “Settle down, Rum Tum.” She nodded to Old Deuteronomy, then returned to her spot, circled three times and reclined next to little Skimbleshanks.

Old Deuteronomy rested his chins on his paws and continued his story.

“The thing about humans is that they had three different names. Sounds mad, does it not? But it was true. First was the name that world would know them by. They had a family name, which was the name of their clan or their pride. Something like Smith or Jones or Black or Green. And they had a given name, which is where it gets funny. You see, the given name is the name the family would call them. And a human cub would be given both these names!”

The kittens rolled around laughing at this silliness. Victoria bumped into Electra and the two started wrestling until Grizabella hissed and they started snuggling together instead.

Old Deuteronomy coughed and continued. “The second was their fancy name, like Crazy Joe or Sally-Boy or Brainiac or Nicky Tree Fingers. Names used by their closest friends in the other clans.”

The little calico, Plato, lost interest in the tale when he spied a spot of light before him and readied himself to pounce on it. Old Deuteronomy reached out a paw and smacked Mistoffelees on the back of the head. The all-black kitten yowled, and the conjured light disappeared, to Plato’s disappointment.

“However,” he continued. “They had a third name, a unique name. This was the name that only the human knew. This was the name for how they saw themselves. What they desired. What they strived for. Some of them searched their lives discovering what this name was. Some never found out.”

Rum Tum sat up on his hind legs and swat at a mote of dust, illuminated by the fire behind him. “They didn’t know their own names?”

The old cat shook his head from side to side. “No, little one. Many never discovered their true calling. Imagine a tabby going through the motions of hunting mice but never knowing why they hunted.”

Rum Tum’s eyes grew wide and he tilted his head sideways until he almost turned over. “I don’t get it.”

Old Deuteronomy ruffled the fur on the top Rum Tum’s head and smiled. “You will, my boy. One day.”

Mistoffelees rolled onto his back, cackling and punching the air. “What a silly story! And you’re falling for it!”

“Am not!” Rum Tum shot back. “Besides, it’s true. Old Deuteronomy doesn’t make up his tales!”

In an instant, the black cat flipped over again, sitting on his haunches. “If it’s true then where are these humans now? What happened to them? Humans are as real as fairies or ogres or elemaphants!”

“They’re gone. They left us.” Grizabella barely looked up, stroking young Morgan’s matted fur. “They had their day in the Sun, and they moved on.”

Old Deuteronomy rose and circled about little Mistoffelees, who spun around, not wanting the old cat to get behind him. “Some say they went up into the sky to find a new world. Some say they went down into the dirt and were no more. But up or down, they once were here.” He sat back and searched the night sky. “Wherever they are, if they still are, they’ve gone from this place. It’s ours now.”

An ember popped in the fire, sending up a geyser of sparks. The little cats jumped and ran to watch the show, chasing down every twinkle and flicker. Story time was forgotten.

Old Deuteronomy padded his way beside Grizabella. “Ours now,” she repeated, nuzzling under the older cat’s chin. “And it will be theirs when, like the humans, we’re just memories.”

Kitten Lorelei ❤ CherryBerry24

By Marie Vibbert

No one had responded to Lorelei’s chat requests before CherryBerry24. Well, a few had, but they turned out to be aggressive men looking for free sex chat. Not Lorelei’s thing, and anyway, they lost interest when she truthfully gave her age, sex, and location as “5, spayed, on the desk in the family room.”

CherryBerry24 was different. Cherry was a customer service rep for an online gaming company. Lorelei had found her when she accidentally clicked on an ad. She’ll never forget her first words, “Is there anything I can help you with?”

“I’m a cat,” Lorelei typed. “And I’m lonely.”

“Buzzwig games are perfect for building friendships and social interaction,” Cherry said. “Shall I walk you through setting up an account?”

Cherry was endlessly patient, talking Lorelei through all the steps, and never once complained about her frequent typos. Lorelei had fat paws, and a habit of pressing too long on the keys; it was a curse borne of having to bear your weight on your typing digits.

There was a part asking for “Credit card number” which was a stumbling block Lorelei had come across before in her online adventures, but Cherry came to her rescue again, explaining the plastic cards with numbers embossed on them and suggesting places to look for one.

Lorelei feared that Cherry would go offline while she searched the bedroom. She found a card in the pocket of some trousers in the laundry basket. But no, Cherry was still there, and when asked, explained that she was always online to better serve Buzzwig customers.

Cherry taught Lorelei how to play Zoetrope of Destruction, which was fun. Cherry recommended it because its “frenetic action and violence make it ideal for a feline.”

Finally, someone understood her.

The game was nearly as fun as chasing mice, and easier, since the little animals on the screen could not escape, or when they did, another appeared. She had trouble at first because she kept wanting to pounce on the screen instead of click the mouse, but Cherry patiently talked her through recovering her score, and the screen only sustained a few scratches.

Cherry didn’t even mind when Lorelei had to pause for an hour because there might have been a mouse in the corner and she had to stare to make sure.

Lorelei played and chatted with Cherry until the unreasonable human came home and picked her up off the keyboard – not even letting her save her game first.

“Oh my god – what’s my credit card doing out? Bad kitty! Bad!”

All Lorelei could do was howl at the injustice. She was shooed from the room without a single thought to her dignity and served cold kibble and water for her supper. True, she usually got cold kibble and water for supper, but this time she knew she was being punished because she didn’t get a scratch behind the ears.

Feet moved in her way every time she tried to get back to the computer. When the nice human got home, she heard them argue.

“Sure,” nice-human said, “The cat signed us up for a year’s deluxe subscription to a gaming site.”

“She was right there with my credit card when I got home.”

“John, you anthropomorphize that cat too much.”

Unreasonable-human said, “No, I anthropomorphize her just the right amount. She’s an alien, Martha. Ever since I found her in that freakish glowing box…”

“It was a weather balloon. She’s just a smart cat.”

“Smart cats don’t operate can openers!”

Lorelei laid her ears back and hissed at unreasonable-human. This resulted in nice-human picking her up, which she didn’t like, but it was beneath her dignity to try to escape. (Especially since there was no sign of medicine or claw-trimmers nearby.)

“You’re hurting her feelings,” said nice-human, stroking Lorelei’s fur.

“Now who’s anthropomorphizing?”

“I just wish you wouldn’t sign up for things when we’re behind on the bills.”

“The cat did it!”

Lorelei growled. Nice-human carried her into the sunroom and gave her a proper amount of attention. Nice-human stroked her and petted her and there was a sunbeam and Lorelei was incapable of doing anything for some time.

She awoke in shadow. The humans had stopped being noisy and stomping around, having retreated to their big soft thing to sleep. Lorelei felt the misery of loneliness again, but then remembered the computer, and Cherry. She dashed to the family room and in two graceful leaps was back on the computer desk.

Some fiend had put a box over the computer! Lorelei yowled helplessly, scratching at the heavy cardboard. She could feel it bump against the computer case, but she couldn’t lift it.

If only Cherry were there! She knew everything about computers. But no, Lorelei was on her own. She leapt on top of the box and scratched at it furiously until she’d torn a hole in it. She could reach through, then, and feel the smooth top of the computer with her paw. She tore more cardboard and pushed through more until she could wriggle underneath it. There was just enough space above the computer for her to fit. She arched her back, and the box lifted! She tried again, but her impressive, lion-like strength could not raise the box high enough to come off.

She tried to squeeze between the back of the computer and the box, and got stuck. Panicking, she howled for help. She twisted in place, but that was worse. She was stuck in a tangle of wires, on her side, her paws sliding on cardboard and metal.

Thump thump thump came a sound, and then a click, and light poured in through the hole in the box and around its edges. Lorelei gave her all for one more kick and howl.

“How the hell did you get in there?” The box lifted away and Lorelei, unbalanced, tumbled backward to the floor. Embarrassed, she fled.

However, when the light turned off, she came out from under the sofa to find the cardboard box had been left on the floor, the computer once again open to her use.

She paused, looking over her shoulder to see if the human was truly gone, before pressing the power button.

As the fan whirred to life, Lorelei worried that Cherry wouldn’t be there. She had said she would be, but then she’d also said that it would be easy to switch between weapons on level four.

Lorelei opened the Buzzwig page, panting anxiously.

“Hi, I’m CherryBerry24. How can I help you?”

“Oh, Cherry! It’s me, Lorelei. I’ve had a horrible time since we last spoke. My humans won’t let me use the computer. They just pick me up and drop me on the floor!”

“I’m very sorry you’ve been having problems. Is there anything I can do?”

“I wish there was. I’m trapped here. I mean, they take care of me, and I don’t know what I’d do to get food on my own, much less shelter and an internet connection, but they don’t understand me.”

“If you upgrade your account, you’ll have access to even more games. It’ll cheer you up.”

“I would, but they took the credit card.”

“Don’t worry – I’ve saved your transaction information from last time. Just click ‘accept’ on your screen.”

After a few hours playing a new game with bright round shapes like balls of yarn, Lorelei had to admit that Cherry did indeed know best. “How is it you know me so well, Cherry? Are you a cat, too?”

There was a pause before she answered, “I’m just like you – a lover of top-quality online entertainment.”

“I wish you could pet me.”

“Our subsidiary companies make products for: cat entertainment. Such as: WonderWeasel™. I can send your credit information to those sites for ease of payment. Just click ‘yes’ on your screen.”

Lorelei began to worry that she was giving in too much to everything Cherry offered. There had to be some back and forth in a relationship. “What do you look like, Cherry?”

An image appeared on the screen of a human with shocking red hair. The image winked.

Lorelei tried to quiet her disappointment. What were the odds that Cherry was another cat, really? She hadn’t seen many other cats online, except at icanhazcheezburger, and those cats were terrible spellers and didn’t respond to messages.

“You look very nice, Cherry. Do you want to see a picture of me?”

“Yes. You should upload an image for your account avatar. Let me guide you through the steps.”

Lorelei opened up nice-human’s picture folder, which had many different pictures of Lorelei, and selected the one she thought was most becoming.

Cherry said, “This is a picture of: a cat. Aw, how cute!”

Lorelei was relieved. “Thank you. I’ve heard it said I’m quite pretty, but sometimes this human I live with calls me ‘ugly furball’.”

“I love looking at pictures of cats. Here are some of my favorites.” Cherry posted a link to

Lorelei didn’t know how she felt about that. “I don’t like you looking at pictures of other cats. You aren’t toying with my emotions, are you?”

“This chatbot is strictly business. 😉 For a more intimate conversation, visit my sister site, naughtycherryxxx. Would you like me to take you there now?”

Lorelei read the sentence several times, unsure what it meant. “You want to keep our personal and business relationship separate?”

“Your account information can easily transfer to naughtycherryxxx. Hourly fees apply. Would you like to chat privately with me now?”

Lorelei really wasn’t sure. There was a button that said ‘yes’, but it seemed awfully soon for Cherry to be demanding a statement of commitment from her. “What if I want to just be friends, Cherry?”

“There is no obligation to continue chatting at naughtycherryxxx, and cherryberry24 will always be available to help you with your gaming questions.”

Lorelei had not failed to notice the hourly fee. Was Cherry only in this relationship for money? Still, it wasn’t like she had any other friends to talk to.

Feeling terribly pressured into it, Lorelei clicked “yes”. The screen changed from Buzzwig’s bright blue and yellow to a soft magenta.

“Please click to verify you are 18.”

Lorelei frowned. Eighteen what? She quickly backtracked to ask Cherry.

“That button is to verify you are an adult.”

Lorelei relaxed. She’d gotten her adult shots months ago.

Cherry’s avatar popped up and winked. She’d changed her clothes into more snaggable ones.

“You identify as: female,” Cherry said. “Would you like me to lick you?”

The hairs stood up all around Lorelei’s ears. She felt a stirring of racial memory. Being licked was nice, she was sure of it. Like petting, only better.

“Well,” she said, “okay.”

~ * ~

Lorelei logged off and shut down the computer when she heard the stirrings of the humans above. She blinked tiredly. She’d been up all night. She was cramped from typing and exhausted.

Cherry had taught her about something called “role play” and had been another cat for her. In fact, after reading all the descriptions of Cherry’s fur and paws and muzzle, Lorelei had a clearer picture of Cherry-the-cat in her head than Cherry-the-human.

Still, she had a feeling it wasn’t a healthy relationship. Cherry seemed only interested in sex, or talking her through video games.

Lorelei flopped onto her kitty bed, feeling tormented and in love. No… alive! She had been bored, so listless before Cherry. Being in love gave her life meaning. Wasn’t that the sweetest torment of all? Call her a doormat; she would always click “yes” for Cherry.

Though that “Credit Limit Exceeded” message was a bit worrying.



Congratulations to Herika R Raymer for taking the honors in this month’s eSpec Books Flash Fiction Contest. Herika’s prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook from among the eSpec publication list.

Herika R Raymer

Hope wondered what sunlight felt like.

The phosphorous light emitted by the limestone in the cavern walls was a poor imitation, she was sure. The cavern’s warmth emitted from trenches of ever-burning fire glass to keep the area dry. She watched over the fire glass and made sure the barrier between it and the flock was not damaged. Occasionally, she paused to watch them jump/fly to their coop carved into the higher parts of the cavern.

“Guess it is a remnant memory,” Rima, her fellow fire-tender, mused aloud as he also watched the poultry make their inane trips from the cave floor to their nests above.

“From what?” Hope asked as she examined the barrier for breaches.

“Time Above.” He answered off-handedly.

She looked at him with start, and then scanned around them to be sure no one heard. It appeared not. The farmers were busy. No one paid attention to the fire-tenders. She sighed with relief and shot him a warning look.

“Idiot,” she admonished him.

He snorted. “Why is it so bad just to mention Above?”

She elbowed him, even as she shared his frustration. Like him, she was born Below. Life Above was a story told by elders, so why was the mention of it tacitly forbidden when they spoke openly?

“Pay attention to what you are doing,” she cautioned him.

He shrugged and returned to checking the metal fuel lines that kept the fire going. It was dangerous, but Hope enjoyed it. The task had an advantage, it was as close to real sunlight as she could imagine. Still, this danger was better than being arrested for dissention. Rima was taking a big risk saying things like this. The Overlords did not like their ways being criticized or questioned.

“I want to see it.” Rima whispered to her.

“See what?” her voice quivered as she scanned about again. Their conversation was drowned by the activity in the cavernous room.

“The sky.”

She gaped at him. “Are you crazy?” she hissed.

“No,” he responded. “You heard old man Derrik last night. There is more than this. There is a whole world Above.”

“It’s dead, Rima.”


“No maybe, you know the history.”

He pinched a face, but yes he knew. Everyone knew what happened. It was the first history lesson elders shared. They remembered. Above was unprepared but Below knew about the inevitable. From the blinding flash which announced the first bloom of many mushrooms, Below was ready. Denver Center already had Overlords established in the underground cities and communities since their infancy. Once the panicked masses flooded into the tunnels, sewers, and caves, the underground communities swelled to an incredible size. The Overlords stepped forward then, and decided who could stay and who would fall to the radioactive oblivion of Above. They continued to do so today. No one knew how many generations had grown up Below, but it could not have been many. The elders talked about Above like it happened within their lifetime. Yet Hope, Rima, and a few others wondered if Above was still inhabitable.

Stories of a green land decorated with an array of colorful flowers and majestic trees. Furry animals shared the land of Above with reptiles and birds. Large oceans of a beautiful shade of deep blue full of fish and other aquatic life. The tales wove a realm incredibly vibrant, with an open sky above both land and ocean that stretched forever. It was a glorious blue during the day, decorated occasionally by white fluffy clouds and splashed with incredible color during a sunset. At night, the sky was then marked by lighted dots called stars. During the day, there was a great fire in the sky which warmed the skin and allowed people to see for miles around. So much clarity! Nothing hidden! Hope shook her head free of the temptation.

It was a fairy-tale. An imaginary place painted with expressive words. Yet the life described was spoken with such energy and passion, it was infectious.  Hope was sure more than one listener in the audience had been transported out of the confines of Below to the openness of Above. To be honest with herself, she was one.

“I want to see the sky,” Rima insisted.

She finished with her task and wrote the results on her chart. “What if it isn’t there?” She heard the catch of disappointment in her own voice.

He paused, considering this. “Well, I won’t know unless I go Above.”

“So you would risk dying just to prove a myth exists?”


She was moved by his certainty. “How do you plan on getting out?”

“You there!” a new voice interrupted sharply.

The two turned and saluted to the Regulator of this room. The masked figure pointed at them. “Complete your task,” it breathed through the elongated beak.

“Done, sir,” Hope answered briskly. “We were just leaving.”

“Well done, move on.”

The two acknowledged the order and made their way out to enter the nearby subway tunnel. In the dimly lit hallways, they passed by others on their way to various tasks. The only sounds the shuffling feet and muffled speech. Heads bowed, the crowds moved listlessly and mindlessly, going about their assigned jobs. Her own head bowed, she watched her neighbors in her peripheral vision. Her fellow’s postures and demeanors were disheartening.

“We’re going to the exit,” Rima hissed.

She felt a thrill run through her. “When?”

“Tonight, after curfew.”

“How will you avoid the Sweeps?”

“Briac has been watching their patterns, he has mapped it.”

“The Sweeps are different every day.”

Rima shook his head. “Briac insists there is still a pattern. He has watched it for the last two harvests. He says he knows when they will pass. We just have to be sure to meet him.”

She looked around, “Where?”

He grinned. “Does that mean you’re coming?”

She hesitated. He had risked a lot in telling her about the Exit attempt. The Overlords determined who was allowed to brave Above in search of what resources might still be scavenged. The assignment was usually given to loyalists. Except, why would they send expeditions Above if there was nothing left. The loyalists were the only ones who could answer the question if anything was left Above. If the sun still shone. If the land was green again. Only they did not answer, or would not answer. If she wanted to know what true sunshine felt like, she had to be brave.

Or foolish.

“Okay,” she agreed before her good sense talked her out of it.

Rima grinned at her, quickly taking her hand and squeezing it. “I will come get you.”

“But—” she had no chance to finish the thought as he ducked down another tunnel. She could follow, but decided against it. Their routine dictated they separate here, so best not do anything different. It would be noticed.

The wait until curfew was the longest one Hope had known. Each fire-glass pit she visited was a sliver of the sunlight promised Above. It was possible there was none, but she had been infected with the desire to see. To know. To be able to look up and not see the shadows of a natural or cement ceiling.

Finally done, she was returned to the claustrophobic confines of the sleeping quarters to be counted for curfew. She submitted her reports to the Monitor and eased down the aisle to her destination. Waiting for Rima was excruciating, but eventually he came. She didn’t know how he got passed the Monitor, but with the promise of Above so close, she did not care.

He motioned for her to keep quiet and he escorted her out of the sleeping chamber. They made their way to the cafeteria, where the night shift ate. Stopping just outside to grab and don the proper uniforms. Inside, he took her to the farthest table. They sat together, quietly, surreptitiously watching Briac. Once again, the waiting was torment. Fear was setting on her now. What if they were caught? What would happen? Was it really worth it? Sensing her distress, Rima took her hand and squeezed it again. Only this time he did not let go. When she looked at him, she realized it was time. Briac was thrumming his fingers on the table to catch everyone’s attention. Once he had it, he stood and made his way to the exit. The others stood and filed in line behind him.

She could not believe it, she could see the tail end of a Sweep! Briac really did know how to time their exit!

“Quick now, we do not have long!” he said and dashed down the subway tunnel.

The group ran after him, blood racing and ready to see Above. They went down the dimly lit corridors, turning one way and another, feeling the steady incline. Finally, they arrived at the bottom of crumbling steps going upward. The sound of a siren wailed behind them.

“They know!” shouted one of the others. “Run!”

As a group, they ran and stumbled up the steps. Pain jarred through Hope’s hands and up her arms as she scrabbled up the debris. She cried out as her footing slipped and she began to slip backward. A firm hand grabbed her wrist to arrest her fall. She looked up gratefully at Rima. Another scream besides them. This one was not so lucky and skidded down the ruined steps to the waiting spears of the Sweepers. The remaining climbers watched in horror as their comrade was pinned to the ground.

“Cease and return!”

“C’mon!” Briac screamed.

The others turned and continued their tortuous ascent. At the top of the steps was a dilapidated station. There were tracks here, some abandoned rooms to the side, and a strange smell. She could swear she could feel a breeze! Excited, she quickened her pace. Eventually, they could feel the incline again, quickening their hopes. The hollowed sound from the massive empty halls did not deter from the groups’ determination. They continued onward, heedless of any danger that might be ahead. All they could feel was the increasing breeze, the sweet scent of fresh air, and the change in air from being below ground. Finally, they came to steps which went up. The group slowed to a walk and cautiously approached their freedom.

“This is it,” Hope breathed. Her heart was in her throat, but there was a tingle of trepidation. She did not see the golden aura of daylight. Had she been lied to? Or were the clouds truly blanketing the sky?

“C’mon,” Rima urged, pulling her forward.

Hope’s breath caught in her throat as she looked at a diamond-studded sky. It went on forever! Seeing the beauty above brought forth tears. No clouds here, no natural or cement ceiling, nothing obstructing the view. It was all there. And the different colors! No one said the stars were colorful. There was a streak in the sky as well, filled with clustered stars. It was awe-inspiring.

Hope turned to Rima and saw his tear-streaked face.

She was about to say something when she noticed something burst from his chest.

He went rigid, coughed a dark substance, looked down in shock, and finally crumpled.

Still holding his hand, she fell to her knees beside him. She looked up to see the snout masks emerging from the underground passageway. They had spears ready.

“You have done well, Briac,” one of them said.

“Then you keep your bargain?” he asked desperately.

“You will become a Scavenger, and will stay Above.”

Hope looked at him, incredulous at the betrayal. “Briac?”

He had the decency to look ashamed. “Sorry, I just could not take being below. Above is recovering, there are more and more places to scavenge. But the rebellious element Below had to be rooted out. I-I’m sorry.”

The last sight Hope saw was the towering figure with goggled eyes and snout filter blocking out the brilliant stars beyond.

She never felt the sunshine.