Exchange, by Dale R. Cozort is an outstanding new science fiction adventure. A series of Exchanges swaps town-sized realities with dangerous places and other times. Such Exchanges have become ‘routine catastrophes,’ creating a new frontier — a wild, dangerous place that people can go to start a new life if they’re brave enough and/or crazy enough. Sharon Mack wants no part this frontier, but when her anarchist ex-husband takes their seven-year-old daughter into the alternate reality she has no choice but to follow, fighting her way through threatening animals, a brutal street gang, escaped convicts, and the “Church of the Second Chance” to rescue her daughter before the Exchange ends.
Sharon stood at the top of a knoll. She stared across the EZ into Bear Country. Wind stirred a vast grassy sea marked with islands of trees. There was no sign of human impact to the landscape except for ruts ripped in the soil by trucks; ugly, alien slashes through thick savanna grass.
I shouldn’t have stopped.
Tracking the convoy kept her mind and body distanced from the pain and despair that threatened to overwhelm her. Stopping gave a foothold to the pain of her bruised jaw and rope-burned wrists and ankles. Pain she could deal with, but Anthony or maybe Sister West’s collection of loonies had Bethany.
Bethany, her fixed smile hiding what? Terror? Bewilderment?
A flicker in her peripheral vision startled her. She reached for the gun on her belt—Elroy’s heavy .45, retrieved from her car. A grasshopper-sized green and yellow bat hopped from a grass stem and fluttered away.
As she studied the horizon, details jumped into focus. In the distance, hairy, elephant-like mastodons tested the breeze with questing trunks while green monkeys scrambled between their bulky forms. Nearer, a prairie dog, big as a raccoon, stood at attention next to its burrow—watching her with suspicion. June’s hot late-afternoon sun made her squint through her sunglasses.
“You have to keep moving if you don’t want someone sneaking up behind you.”
The calm but unfamiliar voice was close. Reflex sent her hand streaking toward her belt, but he was quicker—he smoothly plucked her gun from its holster. Spinning, she turned toward the voice, acutely aware of her empty hand.
The man was tall, well over six feet, and husky. He had deeply tanned skin; his head was topped with blond hair mussed by the wind. His khaki pants and polo shirt were unwrinkled and clean, and he appeared cool in spite of the heat of the day. He smiled sheepishly—showing white, even teeth set in a square jaw.
“Childish of me to sneak up on you and take your gun. However, you looked like you were out to kill someone. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t me.”
Sharon blinked to see if he’d vanish as suddenly as he’d appeared. She moved back a step, then her anger boiled.
“I’m extremely tired of people sneaking up behind me,” she said. “If you’re real, I’m probably going to kill you.”
The man stepped toward her.
“So you are in the mood to kill someone, which is why I grabbed your gun. I’ll give it back if you promise not to shoot me.”
“I’ll think about it. Who are you?”
“My name is Leo, and who are you?”
“Sharon. To sneak up on me, you must move like a ghost—except you leave a trail.”
“Sorry about that.”
“Sneaking up on me or leaving a trail?”
“A little of both.”
“What are you doing out here?”
Leo smiled. “Good question. Wandering about in another timeline? Risky. We could get eaten by a sabertooth or we could stay out too long and get stranded. They say Exchanges last two weeks, but who really knows? Sooner or later, the Exchange will reverse itself and Rockport will disappear. Like getting off on the wrong floor and having the elevator door shut behind you, except that the elevator never comes back. Just you and me. Well, not quite. You and me and whoever made the ruts.”
“Like Adam and Eve.” Sharon intended the comment to come out sarcastic, but she heard a wistfulness in her voice that made her cringe. She hastily added, “The elevator does come back. There have been a couple hundred Exchanges.”
“But they never happen twice in the same place and only rarely even close together.”
Leo slowly extended the grip of her pistol—she grabbed it. He hurried along the ruts Sharon had been following, speaking over his shoulder.
“I can’t help but think of the Exchange fifty miles west of here, the one where the prison came back, but the guards were murdered and the prisoners were missing.”
Sharon hesitated for a second and then followed him.
“You still haven’t told me what you’re doing out here.”
“That makes us even. What are you doing out here?”
“I started out in a jeep—swerved to miss a badger. Hit a stump and broke the radiator.”
“But you kept going,” Leo said. “Determined. Well, Sharon, I think you’re trying to catch someone who stole something important. Money? Jewelry? Heirloom? What’s important enough to risk your life for?”
“How do you—”
“What’s with the bruise on your cheek?”
“Ah. And you have rope marks on your wrists, plus shallow cut marks,” Leo said. “Someone clubbed you, tied you up and robbed you of something. But what could it be? Money’s worthless here and it’s too soon for food to be as valuable as gold. And you don’t seem the type to worry over jewelry.”
“My daughter. My seven-year-old daughter.”
Leo stopped abruptly and turned to face her.
“One of the people who made these ruts took her?”
“My ex-husband. Anthony.”
Sharon turned so that the tall man couldn’t see the tears on her cheeks.
“He wants to live out here. He thinks the cult will help him.”
“Cult? Sister West and her flock?”
Sharon nodded. “A bunch of them got arrested for kidnapping and murder a few years ago.”
“I heard about that.”
“Anthony was a member until they kicked him out. He says he still has friends there who’ll help him.”
“Friends in Sister West’s flock, huh?”
“I think Sister West plans to stay over here,” she said.
“That wouldn’t surprise me.”
“It should surprise you.” Sharon brushed a grasshopper-sized mosquito off her arm. “They couldn’t survive out here.”
“It would be a tough life if you weren’t prepared. What will you do if you catch up with them?”
Sharon sighed. “I don’t know. Grab my daughter and bring her back. If they’re guarding her too well, I’ll go back for help.”
Leo nodded. “Did you ask the Marines to help?”
“I didn’t bother,” Sharon said. “They have bigger problems on their plate.”
Leo nodded. “Their mission is to protect Rockport—enforce quarantine and get the city back to the world in one piece, if possible. I imagine chasing down a stray girl doesn’t weigh much on their scale. So, you’re out here alone. Brave. Stupid, but brave.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Like you did when you went up against the whiskey bottle?”
“He won’t find me so easy to surprise next time,” she said. “I have a black belt.”
Leo stopped and smiled down at her. “A martial artist. How interesting. Going to use your black belt against a bear?”
He turned and walked quickly.
Sharon hurried to catch up. “The plan is to stay out of the way of bears. Or shoot them.”
“Well at least shooting one might make it mad. A karate chop wouldn’t even do that.”
“So what’s your plan to stop a bear?”
“Play dead and hope he’s not hungry.” Leo stopped and scanned the horizon. “Hold up. I hear something. Sounds like horses.”
“Are there any over here?”
“Yeah, a species of mustangs that died out at the end of the ice age back in the World. They’re close. Almost on top of us.”
He crouched in the grass and tugged her to join him. A dozen men on horseback abruptly appeared over a low hill. They wore the tattered remnants of orange jumpsuits.
“Convicts! So much for Adam and Eve.”
Leo frowned. “Two years without women. I’m sure they’d be happy to be Adam to your Eve. I hope you know how to use that gun.”
“If they try anything, they’ll find out.”
The convicts rode up, deploying in a semicircle.
A wiry man with a pockmarked face said, “What have we here? Strays from the flock?”
The man glanced at Leo, froze and stared. His face turned pale under the dirt. He talked quietly to his buddies. A short, balding convict shook his head.
Sharon heard a fragment of the reply, “…don’t care who he is. I haven’t had a woman in years.” She eased the pistol from her belt.
Not a man. Just a target.
The balding convict spurred his horse and approached at a gallop. He raised a stone-tipped spear. The others eyed Leo and stayed put. Sharon raised the pistol, thumbed the hammer back, and aimed at the center of the man’s chest.
He grinned and kept coming. Sharon hesitated. The sight wavered.
No choice. Do it.
She fired. The pistol jerked against her hand and the bullet’s crack echoed in the still landscape. Above his paunchy stomach, a red stain blossomed on the man’s tattered shirt. The spear dropped at Sharon’s feet. The convict fell with one foot still in the stirrup, spooking his horse, and the animal ran off, dragging his unconscious rider. Sharon caught a glimpse of a rifle tattoo on the convict’s flailing forearm—AK. She shuddered when his head bounced off a rock outcropping and turned away, only to find the convicts’ semicircle had dissolved into chaos. Another convict fell off his bucking horse, which kicked him in the chest with both hind feet when he started to get up. The man flew backward and twitched in the grass.
When the remaining convicts got their horses under control, the man with the pockmarked face spoke to Leo.
“Don’t imagine you’d sell the bitch?”
“You can’t afford her,” Leo said.
Sharon stared at her companion. A strange, eager expression faded from his face as she watched.
“Let us just get what’s left of Joe and catch the horse that ran off. Then we’ll be on our way.”
While Sharon and Leo watched, the convicts hauled up the bodies and arranged them on horses. They rode off, several looking over shoulders to stare or gesture at Sharon and Leo.
Sharon kept her pistol pointed warily toward them until they disappeared over a hill.
“They didn’t seem like the kind of men to give up that easily,” she said. “He was an AK. I think they all were.”
“Aryan Kings? Probably. They’re in most prisons and a lot of cities in the Midwest.”
“Not people to run away from a fight.”
Leo grinned. “Maybe you scared them off. Only three of them had guns and who knows if those guns had ammunition. Could be a lot of things.”
“I don’t think so,” Sharon said. “I think you scared them.”
Leo smiled. “You had the gun.”
“I had the gun but they weren’t afraid of me. Who are you?”
“That’s not enough.”
“No, it probably isn’t. You just shot a man. Are you okay?” Leo peered down at her.
“I haven’t had a chance to think about it yet.”
Sharon turned away, then felt nauseated. She fell to her knees
Leo rested a strong, callused hand on her shoulder. The touch felt right, desperately needed.
Don’t trust him! Don’t let him see you’re weak!
She stood up too soon and swayed, knees locked, dizzy but trying to look strong. It took a minute, but the sickness passed. While scanning the horizon for more trouble, she unconsciously replaced the spent cartridge in the pistol.
“Sorry,” she said.
“I understand. Taking a life is no trivial thing.”
“You won’t kill him. It won’t come to that,” Leo said. “Follow me.”
He veered off to the right of the ruts they’d been following. Sharon stopped. “Where are you going?”
“I think one of Sister West’s trucks broke down and they pushed it this way to hide it. If there’s nothing seriously wrong, maybe I can get it going.”
Sharon tried to spot a trail in the knee-high grass.
“I don’t see anything,” she said.
Leo nodded. “They hid the trail. I almost missed it myself.”
They trudged several hundred yards before Sharon spotted the truck hidden in a gully with branches piled over it. Leo opened the hood and poked around. He pulled open the driver’s side door and turned the key. The truck started.
He grinned at Sharon.
“Battery cable worked loose. They reinforced the suspension but didn’t tighten the battery cables. So, walk or ride, your choice.”
Sharon shook her head. “Good set of choices there.” She climbed in.
Leo drove back to the ruts they’d been following and swung onto the trail. Sharon looked out at the Bear Country prairie and forced her body to relax—pushing pain and worry to the back of her mind. She watched the little dramas of life around her. A tiny brown bat landed on the mirror outside her window. It glared at its reflection in the mirror, raised its wings, hissed, and flew away. A bird swooped on the bat. Sharon didn’t see if it got away. Half a dozen birds flew over the truck, darting and snapping at insects and small bats disturbed by their passage.
They drove for nearly an hour before the truck crested a hill and nearly hit a sabertooth cat feeding on a buffalo calf. The cat backed off, hissing and baring large blade-like teeth. It crouched, then charged the truck, but stopped before making contact. Leo slowed, but kept edging forward. Sharon took out her cell phone and took a picture as the sabertooth backed off. The cat came back once they were past. After growling disapproval, it went back to feeding.
“I’m glad we’re in this truck. I wouldn’t want to meet that beast on foot.”
He grinned. “I agree.”
His grin faded when Sharon pulled out her pistol and pointed it at his head.
“Too bad your ride ends now—before you drive me into Sister West’s compound to deliver me to them.”
Leo chuckled. “I knew finding the truck was too obvious, but I don’t want to be on foot out here at night. I didn’t think you bought it. Which is why I switched guns with you. The one you have is empty.”
Sharon frowned at the unfamiliar weapon. She shifted her aim a couple of inches from his head and pulled the trigger. The hammer clicked on an empty chamber. Sharon stared at the gun, then at Leo. All the anger, frustration, and pain of the day was in her voice.
“If the mind games don’t stop right now, I’ll tear off one of your arms and beat you to death with it. Let’s start with a full name; who are you?”
Leo laughed. “I have the gun and you’re making threats. I like that.”
He stopped the truck and shifted in his seat to face her. He held out a hand for a handshake.
“My name’s Leo West.”
Dale Cozort lives in a college town near Chicago with his wife, daughter, three cats and a lot of books. Dale is a computer programmer and teacher as well as a long-time science fiction fan. He has a huge and diverse range of interests, ranging from computers and history to martial arts. He loves animals and did a stint as a foster home for orphan Samoyeds. You can find Dale at his website: http://dalecozort.com/index.htm or at Stairway Press: http://www.stairwaypress.com/bookstore/exchange/
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