Meet Gabriel Sorensen, the protagonist from J.R. Vikse's latest book in
The Tranthaean Adventures series: The History Collector,
in this excerpt from Chapter One: The Oddball
The white mists around Gabriel seemed to solidify as he slowly awoke, struggling against their tenacious hold until he finally broke into consciousness and realised he was fighting against his own sweat-soaked sheets. He sat up, panting for a moment before turning and placing his bare feet on the cold floor, slithering out from the clammy bedding into the chilly air of his room.
Another dream. Another night spent hearing words in other languages, words that his brain was translating faster and faster each time, as if the dreams were training his brain to interpret. Each night the words made more sense, even if the meaning behind them was vague and confusing.
It is a dream. It is not supposed to make sense.
Gabriel winced slightly as he opened his bedroom door and stepped out into the hallway. The cold air of a spring Yukon night flooded around him and he shook his head.
It wasn’t that many years ago that he would have resisted having an inner monologue. Back then, any voice in his head was suspect; the result of growing up in a family with a history of mental illness. But those days were long past. Gabriel was seventeen now, emancipated from the care of his grandmother, and he no longer worried about voices in his head.
Until three years ago, when the dreams had started, that is.
I am fine, he thought to himself. Also I am normal.
Gabriel’s mouth quirked up in a semi-smile at the thought, and he unconsciously brought his fingers up to his face to feel the placement of his lips. “Convincing,” he said aloud, pleased. “And natural.”
Gabriel let the smile live in his expression as he padded down to the bathroom and flicked on the light. Blinking against the sudden glare, he watched as the smile faded into a grimace. He sighed, then let out a yelp as a cold nose brushed against the back of his leg.
“Antigone!” Gabriel turned and looked down to see his playful border collie gazing up at him, her tail flopping back and forth in a slow wag, her jaws clamped loosely over a worn, red leash.
“Not now, Tiggy,” said Gabriel, pulling on yesterday’s clothes from a pile on the cold tile floor. “It is the middle of the night.”
Antigone whined, but Gabriel held firm, wandering down the stairs past piles of fantasy books and collections of poetry, ignoring the glowing display of the clock on the stove, and pulling on a pair of boots and a thick coat. He placed his hand on the back-door handle and hesitated when he heard a light yip from behind him. Sighing, he turned and looked down at Antigone.
“No walks. We have given people enough to talk about. No walks. Also I cannot be seen wandering the neighbourhood this late at night.”
“This early in the morning, then. Come on. I will turn on the heater in the workshop. No one will care if we are there.”
Antigone stubbornly held on to the leash, but Gabriel merely stared back at her, his hand on the doorknob, unrelenting. Eventually, she gave in, dropping the leash to the floor. Gabriel grunted and opened the door and Antigone trotted out, passing the gate that led to the driveway. She bounced straight over the frosty grass to stand in front of the shed door, looking back over her shoulder at Gabriel. He quickly stepped out and shut the door, not wanting any more of the cold spring air to flood into the house than absolutely necessary, then scurried across the lawn, keys jingling in his hand, to open the shed.
On a warmer night, Gabriel would have stopped to look up at the brilliant blanket of stars that hovered over the Yukon Territory, but it was freezing out and he already knew what he would see if he looked:
Cassiopeia: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon Cassiopeiae. Draco: nine stars plus the Cat’s Eye Galaxy, Tadpole Galaxy, a Messier Object, quasars, and more. Cepheus: Alderamin, magnitude 2.51, Delta Cephei, a pulsating variable star, three red giants, and quasar S5 0014+81, the supermassive hyperluminous black hole, one of the most powerful objects in the universe.
Incredible. But I can always look tomorrow night.
The door opened, and the bare bulb flickered to life above them as Gabriel pulled the thin chain. Antigone practically danced across the concrete floor to the safety of her overstuffed bed in the corner, where she curled up and let out a snuffling noise, her eyes flickering over to the space heater in the corner.
Gabriel grinned again and reached over to turn the heater on. Within seconds, the small space began to heat up and Gabriel turned to his workbench, rubbing his hands together to soak in the warmth.
Spread out in front of him were the parts he’d built for his own laser tag system, which had so far taken the better part of a year to create, mostly because the parts were hard to come by this far north. Gabriel had taken to bringing an engineering wish-list with him on his work trips, flying bush planes to many of the smaller villages and outposts spread throughout the territory, delivering supplies. He would leave the menu at each location, then trade for items that his contacts found on his next time through. It took much longer than just ordering the parts online, but it felt appropriate to Gabriel to do it this way. Travelling and trading seemed like the right approach in the northern territories. It had been the way of life for centuries. Who was he to upset tradition like that?
That depends on who you ask.
The answer came to his mind, unbidden. Gabriel’s eyes shot nervously past the shadows that swayed over his workbench, shifting as if they were hiding from the light of the swinging bulb overhead.
The answer was familiar and unsurprising. Gabriel knew that the people of Whitehorse – those who knew of him, anyway – talked about him. Putting himself in their place, he understood why. His story was anything but usual, and his actions, seen through their eyes, would seem stranger still.
Gabriel could practically recite the gossip; he’d heard it often enough:
Mother ran away when he was seven. Father died when he was nine. Grandmother took care of him, that is until she was hospitalised. Schizophrenia. It’s hereditary, you know. I read it online. That’s probably why he’s so… different. So, steer clear of Gabriel Sorensen. He’s crazy.
Gabriel blew a raspberry between his lips, an expression he had learned meant exasperation and dismissal. He knew what the people said about him. He also knew what the psychiatrists and social workers called him. They had different names for his condition, clinical names. Asperger’s. Autism. ASD. Gabriel didn’t care about those labels. He knew enough without needing them. He had learned it the hard way, not by studying it in a textbook.
On the spectrum meant different things to different people. To his friends, it meant he was bluntly honest, often unaware of how his phrasing made others feel. To his bullies, it meant he was strange and abnormal, an easy target, ripe for picking. To the government, it meant he was a social experiment, closely watched to see if his condition would affect his emancipation. To Antigone, it meant nothing. To himself, it meant he had to work extremely hard to understand emotions. Not that he didn’t have emotions.
“Also I am not a sociopath,” Gabriel assured himself, busying his hands with a soldering gun.
Behind him, Antigone’s head lifted a second or two before Gabriel heard the creaking sound of the gate opening. He froze, and Antigone’s ears laid back on her head as a soft growl escaped her jaws. Outside, Gabriel could hear a shuffling sound as someone made their way towards the house. He set down his soldering gun and let his hand stray farther down the workbench until it found a larger, heavy wrench. He picked it up, feeling the comforting weight pressed against the pulse pounding through his veins.
This emotion I know, he thought to himself. This one is fear.
Not taking his eyes off the door, he slowly moved towards it, bending down to grab Antigone’s collar. The border collie was standing at the door now and didn’t react, her body stiff, her nose pressed against a thin crack leading to the backyard.
Gabriel eased the shed door open a few centimetres. The gate to the driveway was open, allowing a pale, yellow light from the streetlight to stretch into the backyard, stabbing weakly at the shadows beyond. There was no sign of movement, until a silhouette passed the kitchen window.
He is inside the house.
Gabriel looked down at Antigone. “Stay,” he ordered. The dog bristled at the command, but lowered her hindquarters to the floor, her body and all her senses still focused on the house. Gabriel released her collar, certain of her obedience. Antigone had been well-trained at a local school, a suggestion from a social worker that had been an exercise in socialising Gabriel as much as the dog.
Gabriel slipped out into the night, his feet crunching lightly over the frosted grass as he sidestepped his way towards the house, his body automatically adopting a defensive pose. He considered calling the police, but his phone was inside the house. An idea arose of heading to a neighbour for help, but he dismissed it. His reputation was odd enough. If he showed up at a neighbour’s door at this time of night, he’d be more likely to be attacked than defended.
Taking a deep breath, Gabriel raised the wrench and pushed open the kitchen door. There was no one inside, but a sound from the hallway upstairs led Gabriel to softly pad up the steps and peek around the corner. No lights were on, but Gabriel could see shifting shadows playing against his opened bedroom door. He shuddered, then blinked as a flash of light burst out from his bedroom. Then another, and another. Confused, Gabriel took a step back down the stairs until he heard the accompanying digital shutter click that indicated the flash was from a cell phone camera. Someone was taking pictures of his bedroom.
“Whoever is there,” Gabriel shouted, “I am home, I am armed, and also I am not afraid of you!”
There was a silence in the room, then Gabriel heard the sound of the window being opened. Seconds later, a chill wind blew through the hallway, but Gabriel didn’t notice it as he sprung up the last few steps and raced into his bedroom, surprising the young man caught with one leg out the window.
The burglar stared at Gabriel, his eyes wide. He was young, no more than twelve years old. He swallowed and opened his mouth, his voice cracking as he sputtered, “The freak!”
Gabriel lowered the wrench, ignoring the pejorative. The word hurt, but he’d heard it before. He took a closer look at the boy, recognising him. The burglar hung around with a group of older boys that loitered outside Gabriel’s dojo after school. His older brother was one of those boys. Gabriel wracked his brain, trying to remember the boy’s name.
The boy had been glancing out the window, contemplating the drop to the frozen ground below, but his head whipped back as Gabriel said his name. He shivered. “You know me?”
“I know your brother,” Gabriel said, as calmly as he could. He could feel his pulse pounding, pumping adrenaline through his system. “We were in the same grade at school.”
“Before they kicked you out?” Claude was clutching something to his chest, but Gabriel couldn’t see what it was.
Gabriel frowned, trying for an expression that showed disapproval, but not anger. “I was not kicked out. I graduated early.”
Claude swallowed again. He glanced back out the window and his resolve seemed to strengthen. “That is not what I heard,” he said, his quick, clipped tone mocking Gabriel’s uncontracted way of speaking. “I heard you got in trouble for staring at people in the locker room.”
Gabriel blinked, surprised. That was a new one. It was true that he had not grown up understanding the shame that many felt from their nakedness, but that had ended well before he’d left school. He’d even blushed a number of times since. The first time it had happened, he’d bought a pizza to celebrate.
“That is a lie,” Gabriel said. Outside, he could hear Antigone barking. He took a step towards the window. “Also I –”
Claude didn’t let him finish his thought. The boy raised his arms and threw something at Gabriel, the item he’d been clutching to his chest.
Gabriel ducked to the side and heard whatever it was smash against the wall. He charged at the young man, trying to capture him, but Claude leaned back and delivered a surprisingly solid kick to Gabriel’s midsection.
Gabriel doubled over, letting out a gasp of air. He reached for Claude, but the force of the kick had knocked the boy out of the window-frame and – with a yell – the burglar rolled out across the shingles and over the edge to the ground below.
Catching his breath, gasping in the cold night air, Gabriel saw Claude scramble to his feet and limp away, his small form joined by other, taller shadows as they raced away down the street.
Gabriel stood, shaking, his fingers playing over his ribs. He seemed to be all right. He turned back to his room and saw that the item Claude had thrown at him, the item he’d been attempting to steal, was an alarm clock Gabriel had built from scratch the previous year. It was shaped like a TIE bomber from Star Wars, with one half of the ship serving as the clock and the other serving as the dock for his phone to charge or play music. The side panels were speakers, or at least they had been, before Claude had thrown it against the wall. Now the device seemed to be in more pieces than Gabriel remembered using to build it in the first place. He furrowed his brow, looking down at it, partly angry that the clock had been destroyed, and partly angry that even now, he was using the situation as a reason to practise showing various emotions. He let his face clear of the anger he was feeling and turned to hurry down the stairs to the kitchen door.
Moments later, he stood in the shed, the door wide open, all the heat he’d built up leeching out into the frozen Yukon night. Beside him, Antigone was quivering, her mouth firmly clamped down on a torn shred of denim, a trophy won in the battle to defend the workshop while Gabriel had been lured upstairs.
Gabriel closed his eyes and felt himself starting to shake again, his senses overwhelmed by the lingering scent of a cheap cologne. The smell seemed to be collecting inside his head, clogging it up and blocking his ability to think. He crouched down on the floor and placed his hands flat against the cold concrete, grounding himself. He took a few deep breaths in his mouth and out through his nose, dispelling the scent from his nostrils, as much as he could. When he had calmed down, he looked up.
A diversion, Gabriel thought. Clever.
The workshop was trashed. Tools lay broken and scattered all over the floor. The laser tag system he’d been working on for so long was missing. And the word FREAK was spray-painted across every flat surface in the room.
Gabriel stared around the shed for a few minutes, not a shred of emotion playing across his face. Underneath, however, he was a boiling mass of confusion.
Anger. Sadness. Pain. And underneath it all, self-pity.
Why?, he thought as he led Antigone back into the house and locked the kitchen door behind him. Why do I have to be quite so different?