Axis

Cover of Axis

Table Of Contents

Chapter I

Elle was elbow deep in a cow’s birth canal when one of Red Hill’s teenaged farmhands burst in to tell her the news.


“Doc! Jimmy told me to come get you— there’s a crack in the sky in Boston!”


If Elle didn’t have a hand in places best left undescribed, she would’ve stopped what she was doing, swore a bit, and then sprinted the half-mile to the main house to see for herself, no doubt assuming that the boy had lost his mind. A crack? It couldn’t be. Half-exhausted from an already long day and yet another night of nightmares, like every night, Elle just wanted to rest and wait. But as it was, now well into hour eight of labor, nature waited for no man— and never Elle. The cow gave a distressed moo, her insides seizing with the effort, and together with the help of another farmhand, Elle pulled the birthed calf free. The messenger still darkened the farm door as the calf and the after birth spilled onto the hay-strewn floor, splattering Elle’s boots and sweat-soaked cotton shirt. 


“Doc, did you hear me? A crack—“


“Yes, Tim, I heard you. Thank you.” She fought the urge to put a hand to her face, sticky with fluids as it was, and grimaced as she caught a glance at Tim’s reddening cheeks and ears. She always tried not to snap at the teenaged workers, but her thanks hadn't come across as sincere as she usually meant it. Having an arm inside a cow off and on for most of a day will do that to you. The weariness settled on her bones far too old and deep for her age.


“Jimmy also said you have a call.”


Lips twitching with the effort not to scowl, Elle nodded, head giving a single jerk. Of course she did. A few beats of silence hung in the air, and the teenager took the chance to rush out of the dusty barn, fear of Elle’s ire winning out over the usual awe and curiosity. The farmhand behind Elle chuckled.


“For all they gape at you, you sure do put the fear of God in ‘em.” Elle glanced at the much older farmhand, Matt, her scowl now firmly in place on her thin lips. 


“I’m nice to them.”


“Oh, I know. But it’s awfully scary to have someone like you talking to someone like them.” Someone like her? Elle shook her head. She never did know what that meant. It could’ve been any of many things that made her “someone like her” instead of part of the rest of the farmworkers at Red Hill. Elle went over to the barn's sink, scrubbing her hands viciously and then wiped her hands and arms on a nearby towel, turning back to the newborn calf to get back to work, but Matt cut her off. “Nah, Doc. Your call.” He made a motion towards the barn door, the universal sign for “now get.”


Elle sighed through her nose and plastered a smile onto her face. “Thanks, Matt.” Grabbing her discarded over-shirt, she wished she had more time to change out of her work clothes, but no such luck. Hosing off her rubber boots with the green garden hose that wrapped around the outside of the stereotypically red barn, she stripped off the stained t-shirt that had been over her now sweaty white tanktop and threw on the flannel long-sleeve, shivering despite the heat of the summer day and her thick jeans. She left the barnyard with her head held high, although her stomach flipped and churned. A crack in the sky? And worse, a call at the same time? This was her lucky day.


An avid watcher of the stars since she was a child, among other things, Elle wracked her head for any unusual events that could’ve been taking place over New England, but she came up empty. There was nothing out of the ordinary today. Not even a full moon or a new moon, for that matter.


Nothing at all.


Walking along the dusty road to the farmhouse, Elle passed towering cornfields ripe and bending with the effort, but no one was in sight. She frowned, blinking her eyes, their edges grimy and watering. Well, maybe the empty fields were out of the ordinary. 


As she approached the sagging front-steps of the main house, a white colonial number in vogue over a century ago, she could hear the crackling of the television through the open windows. The July air fluttered lace curtains as she trudged up the stairs and through the creaking door, and she stopped short at the crowd filling the hallway and living room to the brim. In the corner, a television showed news coverage and Elle’s eyes widened.


On the flickering screen, an emerald green crack seemed to split the sky of Boston in two, cleaving it with ease. It flashed and glowed, reflecting off of camera lens and the helicopters that swirled around it. A set of news anchors discussed the crack as the footage rolled and Elle’s heartbeat sped up with each circle of the crack. The green haze remained even as she blinked, dancing on the back of her eyelids, familiar and haunting but real for once. Sweat began to form at her hairline.


“…over Boston for a little over two hours now, with no sign of leaving. Some sources are speculating that this is a new test done by the South Russian government in the ever-accelerating arms race. President Barkes will be speaking soon on the matter and members of her cabinet have remained silent on the topic.”


“Eleni, you have a call.”


Elle wrenched her gaze from the screen, although the green still lingered on the edges of her vision, refusing to be ignored. Her father, Jim Anderson, stood at the top of the stairs, his face pale next to his customary red and white checked shirt. The crowd of workers clustered into the house turned to Elle as her father’s voice cut across the coverage, and Elle saw her older brother and sister exchange a weighted look over the threadbare sofa before their eyes drifted to her.


Trying to remain calm despite the icy fear creeping up her spine, Elle nodded, taking the stairs two at a time and brushing past her father without a second glance to the onlookers. She was almost past him when he grabbed for her shoulder, his work-toughened hand calloused even through her sleeve.


“It’s that Harvin man.”


“I know, Dad.”


“Eleni,” he paused. A man of few words, her father struggled to find the right ones now. His blonde and grey streaked eyebrows drew together and his jaw clenched. “Don’t agree to anything you’ll regret.”


“I won’t.” She hoped she was telling him the truth, but the drop in her stomach hinted at the contrary.


Elle pushed past him and into her room which held the one computer in the farmhouse. New in 2054 when she started college, the computer was now an ancient beast of a thing, taking up a small area of her desk, in comparison to the cutting edge technology available now ten years later. But not even the computer was as out of place as her caller. In holographic form and total contrast to her childhood bedroom with its floral wallpaper and worn carpet, Dr. Charles Harvin sat in a chair Elle couldn’t see, legs crossed, ankle over knee.


Even in a hologram, he looked the same as ever. Her scowl returned.


“Charles.”


“Elle, sweetheart, it’s been a while.” His voice was a smooth timber, a sound that even now made her swallow a lump in her throat against her will, but she didn’t respond. He pushed a set of black-ridged glasses up his sharp nose, dark eyes peering out through the lenses. “I think you have an old model, you appear to have frozen.”


“I haven’t said anything.”


“Ah, my mistake.” She again remained silent and he quirked a brow at her. “You’re going to make this difficult, aren’t you? What? Do you want me to beg?”


She couldn’t hold back a scoff this time. “Sounds unlike you.”


“Yes, it does. So don’t make me.” He smiled at her, his lips crooked in a way she would’ve once found attractive but now was, well, horrible. The nerves in her stomach turned to simmering anger and her hands clenched at her sides. 


“Harvin, if you have something to say, say it. Otherwise, I’m going back to my job.”


“Fine, fine.” He threw up his hands, running them through wavy and perfectly styled brown hair. “I need you to come to Boston. You know more about fabricational rifts and universal limits than anyone and you’d be perfect for the team.” She stared at him blankly. “Oh come on Ellie girl, show some excitement! This is the opportunity of the century!” His voice rose, his vigor clear. Elle couldn’t help but agree, but she highly doubted they agreed on what that opportunity was exactly. “You’ll even be working with the best in the field, right-hand woman to the man in charge.”


“Who? Dr. O’Connors?” Elle referenced their mutual advisor from grad school, unable to help herself. Despite the situation, she felt her stress start to unfurl. She wouldn’t mind seeing the aging professor once again; they’d parted on awkward terms, to say the least, and the scar around her eye felt tight at the memory. But Harvin’s grin turned catlike, the lines from his rarely genuine smile creasing.


“No, me.” 


“No.”


“Elle, this is for science. The pursuit of knowledge. Just like we always talked and dreamed about. Don’t throw it away just because I’ll be there. I’ll barely be in your way, you won’t even see me.”


“Can you promise that?”


“Well, no. You’d be my assistant so you’d be seeing me almost constantly.”


“No.” She pulled out her faded computer chair, sitting in it with a huff. “Absolutely not.”


The pair of them remained silent, both sizing the other up. Charles Harvin was entirely unchanged, Elle was now positive, may it be in manner, looks, or ambitions. Taking in his pristine suit jacket with buttons shiny and impressive even through the stuttering blue of the hologram, Elle felt a rush of weariness wash over. All she wanted to do was sleep, but she suspected the conversation wasn’t even close to being over. As Elle inspected him, Charles watched Elle in much the same way, but Elle knew better than to trust his false smiles. He never sized anyone up as anything other than prey or his next challenge.


“I was sorry to hear about your grandmother, I know the two of you were close,” he said, his formal posture softening and his voice warm, even as Elle stiffened. “She was a wonderful woman.”


“Thank you, yes, she was.” A tick of silence followed.


“You know, she would’ve wanted you to come back to the field. Especially now.” Elle ran a hand over her face, slumping forwards and fighting the urge to kick a hologram she’d just stumble through. “The discovery of the millennia has fallen in your lap and here you are covered in dust and farm gunk, slumming it with the locals. This could give you back everything. Your research, your reputation. Harvard may even turn a blind eye— ah forgive the turn of phrase— and you could get an excellent reference from them to continue your work elsewhere.”


“Charles, if you knew me at all, you’d know I don’t care about any of that. I’m happy where I am.”


“Really? Eleni Anderson giving into the life of a farm girl, I never thought I’d see the day.” Elle glared at him.


“You already did.” He paused, appearing unsure and Elle felt a wisp of triumph go through her. He clearly had expected this to be easier than it was.


“You’re right, that’s fair. I’m sorry, it was low of me.” He tapped his long fingers on his crossed legs. “I’m not wrong about your grandmother though, and I know that deep down below that thick layer of dust and the proverbial cotton in your ears, you miss it. Eleni, you love the stars. Can’t you see that this is a sign? For you to come and take back everything you lost?”


She closed her eyes, letting his words slip in and steep, despite her better judgment. She hated him for it, but he was right. This is what her grandmother, the formidable, Cora, and her most cherished person in the whole world, would’ve wanted. Even on her deathbed, months before, she’d sternly told Elle to give it another shot. Her grandmother’s words whispered in her mind, speaking of stars’ gifts and wonders beyond hers and Elle’s shared dark dreams.


“And if it’s not what you think, you can always leave. You can always come back here if you wanted,” Charles added, and Elle met his eyes as she, at last, looked up at him, her green eyes locking onto his brown ones.


“What would I be doing?” Charles didn’t have the decency to contain his smugness.


“Well, first we have to get you off this farm. And also into something presentable. What were you doing you anyway? You look terrible.”


Elle gripped the bridge of her nose as he rambled on, not requiring an answer from her. She sure hoped she wouldn’t regret this. And that she could sleep on the ride.