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The Ninth Metal

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The Ninth Metal

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Author: Benjamin Percy
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021
Series: The Comet Cycle: Book 1

1. The Ninth Metal
2. The Unfamiliar Garden
3. The Sky Vault

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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It began with a comet. When it came into view on a close pass by Earth, people took off work, gathering on sidewalks and in parking lots to watch it burn by. One year later, Earth spun into the debris field the comet left behind. The worldwide effects of the meteor shower are yet to be known, but in the first book of the Comet Cycle, Minnesota seemed to bear the brunt of the damage: meteors annihilated barns and silos, cratered pastures and hardwood forests, tore up county highways, and evaporated one small town in an instant.

At first, it is a colossal disaster. Until the people of Minnesota notice deposits of unusual metal in the comet's debris. Not gold, silver, copper, tin, iron or any of the noble metals, it's a previously unknown ninth metal: omnimetal. With high-density charging capabilities and conductive properties that can change the world as an energy source, the deposit might be the best thing that ever happened to the northern section of the state, where the economy has been dying for a long time. Or it might be the worst.

It is then that the "gold rush" begins. Farmers sell their metal-rich land for millions. Comet-worshipping cults set up compounds and repeat the phrase "Metal is" as their mantra. Roughnecks flood the town, hungry for work and trouble. Prostitutes flourish. Businesses rise. Families are divided. Saudis bid against the Chinese on land grabs. Bodies lie in shallow graves. As witnessed when oil was discovered in the Bakken Formation of North Dakota, the heartland in our story goes from the middle of nowhere to the center of everything. And one family--the Frontiers--hopes to control it all.


His father came in the front door and went directly to the picture window as if he couldn't decide whether he belonged inside or out. He stayed there a long time, studying the county highway that ran past their farm. Whenever a car grumbled by, he took a step back and tugged at the curtain, ready to drag it shut. Night was coming, but he snapped off the lamps in the living room.

He didn't say hello to Hawkin when the boy hugged his leg but he absently patted his head. And he didn't respond to Hawkin's mother when she called from the kitchen, "Henry? Where in the hell have you been?"

His father locked the door and walked over to the shelving unit where his mother kept her books and teapots and porcelain figures. He dug into his pocket and then stared at something cupped in his hand. He pulled down the Bible and hurried through its pages, sometimes pausing as if to take in a certain passage. He glanced back at Hawkin, said, "What?" and then returned the Bible to its shelf. He paced in a circle and turned on the television, but with the volume down. Its shifting light and color made the room an uncertain space. The news played. Something about the historic meteor shower expected that evening, the beginning of a light show that could span several days. Hawkin's teacher, Mrs. B., had talked about it. The fourth-graders could keep a sky journal for extra credit.

His father was balding but kept his hair long enough to comb over and spray stiffly in place. Right now several clumps of it stood upright and revealed the pale dome of his head. His eyes were redrimmed and his cheeks unshaven and he hadn't changed his clothes since yesterday, when he'd driven off in the pickup and said he was going to make them some money.

These days he was always seeing about a job, trying to catch a break. A few years ago he had sold their horses and their ATV and their fishing boat, and when Hawkin asked why, he said he was retiring. Hawkin knew he was too young for that. The only people who were retired in north-central Minnesota spent their days slumped in wheelchairs. You worked until you couldn't. You could be white-haired and wormed with veins and still put in your tenhour shift as a waitress or bank teller or hairdresser. Retired might as well mean near dead.

In fact, his father and hundreds of others had lost their jobs at Frontier Metals after the federal government shut down the mining lease on over a hundred thousand acres of land. Northfall was located at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and Hawkin's parents and their friends complained constantly about the forest service and the BLM and the damned hippie vegan environmentalists who thought the land belonged to the owls and walleye. "These are the same sort of people that think you're killing a carrot when you eat it," his father would say. "I look at a tree, I see a house. I look at a deer, I see venison sausage. I look at a hill packed with iron, I see a skyscraper and a fleet of fighter jets and a club-cab pickup with a chrome nut sack hanging from the hitch."

Hawkin heard his parents arguing through the walls at night. About money mostly. About his father spending it on nonsense or blowing it on pipe dreams or throwing it away at the poker table until the bank account emptied. "Why can't you get a job?" Hawkin's mother asked and he said, "Where? Where are the jobs? You want me to serve cheeseburgers at the McDonald's?" There were a lot of men like him in town. Loggers and miners who didn't seem to know what to do with themselves except crack a beer and shake their heads and lament what had become of this place, this life.

His family discussed selling the land off as well, but only lakefront property was worth anything up here, and these four hundred acres of maples had not only been in the Gunderson family for three generations but made money for them every spring as a source of syrup. Which also qualified them for the cheaper ag-land tax rate. Gunderson Woods, the locals called it. "My sweet little sugar bush," his father called it and talked about the day he might install a pump and a web of tap lines instead of tapping over six hundred trees and hauling buckets as they dripped full.

Hawkin's mother worked as a clerk at the Farm and Fleet and smoked menthol cigarettes and had bottle-blond hair and pink fingernails and rhinestone-butted blue jeans. She spent Wednesday nights and the whole of her Sundays at the Trinity Lutheran leading Bible studies and ushering, but she was always reading books on Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, the Rajneeshees, the Church Universal and Triumphant. She believed there was something else out there, even if she didn't know exactly what. When Hawkin asked how she could be so certain, she pointed a lit cigarette at him and said, "Because that's the nature of faith. Besides, this can't be it." Here she traced the air with her cigarette, as if drawing a smoky map of the world around her. "The thought's just too goddamn depressing."

She was cooking dinner now. Burgers on the range and frozen French fries in the oven. Hawkin was helping put dishes away, but only in the areas he could reach, the cabinets below and the lower shelves above. He was a whole head shorter than his classmates, smaller than he should be. Sicker too. He missed school so often that the students in the fourth grade forgot his name. He'd had pneumonia seven times and wheezed when he ran. His mother blamed it on the chemical runoff in the water and all the years of beer swirling around inside Hawkin's father, which no doubt compromised his seed. "You'll get stronger when you grow up and get out of this godforsaken place," she said. "Don't worry. I've been praying on it."

Now Hawkin set a pan on a shelf, tucked a cutting board beneath the range, and tried to dodge out of the way of his mother, who didn't always see him underfoot. When his father entered the kitchen and picked up the wall telephone and listened to the dial tone before setting it in its cradle and then unplugging the cord, his mother said, "What's your deal?"

"I want quiet. That's all."

Hawkin's mother swatted at the air with her spatula. "All you ever do is make noise and suddenly you're Mr. Quiet? Something's gotten into you."

"It's nothing."

"Don't tell me it's nothing when it's obviously something."

His father was breathing too hard and his eyes couldn't seem to settle on anything. When he headed back into the living room, Hawkin's mother followed, her voice rising in pitch and volume as she asked him what stupid-son-of-a-bitch thing he'd gone and done now.

"I've got it under control. Okay? If I play my cards right, we might come out of this with a pile of money."

"Cards? This is about cards?"

"It was a metaphor, woman."

"So you weren't playing cards?"

"That's irrelevant. What matters is, I've got everything under control."

"Pfft. That's a laugh."

Hawkin knew that whatever happened next would probably involve something getting thrown. He turned off the range and nudged the pan off the burner. In the dinette, from the round table, he retrieved his notebook and pencil, then he headed out the sliding glass door and onto the splintery back deck.

The night was humid. Frogs drummed and crickets sawed. One side of the sky was still red with the setting sun, but the other was the purple-black of a bruise with a few stars dotting it.

He could still hear his parents, their footsteps tromping the floor as they followed each other around the house, their voices calling out sharply, as he went down the stairs and into the weed-choked yard.

There was a sandbox with rotten boards and the nails undone at one corner, but it still carried three inches of sand the consistency of wet cement. He plopped down and cringed as the water soaked through his jeans and underwear. He shouldn't be out here, he knew. His mother would say he was liable to catch cold, but he had come to weirdly enjoy his stays at the hospital, where no one ever yelled and he could watch TV and read comic books and eat as much strawberry ice cream as he wanted.

His notebook had Superman on the cover, a montage of the Man of Steel as a baby zooming toward Earth in his Krypton rocket, hoisting a cow over his head as a teenager in Kansas, and finally soaring through the sky in his red trunks and cape. Hawkin ran his hand across the image before flopping the notebook open. He poised his pencil over the lined paper and studied the sky. Nothing yet, he wrote in slow careful letters, then paused. He was an excellent speller, a wonderful writer, Mrs. B. told him, but he wasn't sure how to describe what he felt then. If every falling star was a wish, and if the whole sky was supposed to light up tonight, then he had a good chance of finally getting what he wanted. A kitten, for starters. And a rabbit too. And how about no more wasps or spiders or bullies? In their place he'd ask for buckets and buckets of strawberry ice cream. And a Star Wars bedspread like in the Target flyer. And a nice house that didn't have nightmare water stains in the ceiling and paint peeling off the walls like flaps of old skin. And a truck that didn't die in the Shopko parking lot so that they had to beg a jump-start off strangers. And parents who didn't fight and who hugged him and kissed his forehead and called him smart and strong and handsome and awesome. And a good immune system so that he could stop burning up with fevers and coughing until his lungs ached and start going to birthday parties and playing kickball with the other kids at school.

A mosquito whined by his ear and he swatted at it. Another bit his arm, another his neck, his forehead. "Stop!" he said. His father had taught him a trick: If you tossed sand into the air, the bats would swoop through it, mistaking it for a cloud of insects. It was like a flare. A call for help. Organic repellent, his father said. Hawkin thought he would try that, try summoning the bats to him so they would eat up all the mosquitoes eating him.

So he did. He scooped sand and tossed up smoky handfuls of it. He scrunched shut his eyes. His hair and shirt dirtied with sand that crumbled from creases when he moved. The bats came--just as his father said--wheeling and fluttering in the air around him, and he felt like a conjuring wizard.

He was so busy with his bats, he didn't notice the last bit of sun seep from the sky as night took over. He didn't hear the engine of the approaching vehicle. He didn't see the headlights cutting through the pine trees and blinking out as the car parked. He didn't hear the footsteps crunching on the gravel driveway or someone testing the locked knob of the front door. But if Hawkin had, he might have also heard his parents' voices rising. The money. The money. That was what they were arguing about. His mother was goddamn tired of living off goddamn food stamps and goddamn handouts from their goddamn parents.

They didn't know what was coming, and neither did Hawkin. Not until he heard the scraping charge of a shotgun shell loaded into its chamber. He spun around in time to see a figure sneaking along the edge of the house and testing a foot on the deck stairs to see if they creaked--and then creeping up them slowly, slowly. He wore a black jacket and blue jeans and his face looked like a smear, a melted nub of candle, veiled in pantyhose.

There was something off about his movement and balance. A slow, confused deliberateness, like somebody exploring the dark in a blindfold. When he stumbled on the top step and caught himself against the house, he mumbled a curse, and Hawkin recognized the slur of his voice as familiar. His father sounded like that most every night when he shut off the TV and rose unsteadily from his recliner and stumbled down the hall and said, "Had a few too many."

His parents were visible in the windows, moving between the squares of light and gesturing wildly, like characters in a cable program Hawkin wasn't allowed to watch. He wanted to yell something, to warn them, but his voice felt zipped up and double-knotted and shoved in the bottom drawer of his lungs.

The sliding door opened, and the stranger charged inside. He knocked against the table and then righted himself and continued out of sight. A moment later his parents hushed. There was the mutter of conversation. And then a thud and a cry as his father fell to the floor.

Though Hawkin did not comprehend what he heard next --over the next five minutes or so--he understood his father was in pain. He understood the stranger was asking him questions, and because his father wasn't answering them satisfactorily, he was being kicked repeatedly.

The last thing he heard his father say was "We can work something out, right?," his voice somewhere between a whimper and a shriek. "This doesn't have to be an argument. It can be a negotiation. A simple business negotiation between two --"

A shotgun blast strobed the windows and made the house sound as though it had been split by a great hammer. There was screaming --his father's--and then there was no more screaming.

Hawkin felt the sand grow warm beneath him and realized he had wet himself and worried he would get in trouble for it. His mother appeared in the kitchen window then. She was backing away with her hands held up.

"Didn't mean to shoot him," the stranger said, his voice carrying through the open door. "Was an accident. Finger fucking slipped or something." His words garbled in a slurry jumble. "If the idiot had just --I just needed him to tell me where it was." He muttered something unintelligible and then seemed to find his focus. "What about you? You know where it was? Is, I mean?"

"I don't." His mother shook her head --no, no, no. "I don't know anything. I swear."

The stranger sounded tired, like someone trying to get out a few thoughts before falling asleep: "This is--you better not be--" But before he could finish the sentence, another shotgun blast sounded.

His mother was shoved suddenly from view. The fridge sparked. One of the cabinets shattered and swung from a single hinge before coming loose and falling out of sight.

There was a long silence. And then the stranger spat a series of curses that gave way to a primal yell. Not of victory, but frustration. This was followed by heavy breathing. And then he moaned more than said, "What's wrong with you?" Who this was directed at, Hawkin wasn't sure.

The stranger then moved from room to room, switching on every light and taking their home apart. Pictures were torn from walls and smashed, drawers ripped out, pillows and box springs and couch cushions split open. Cereal boxes were shaken empty. The carpet was peeled back, the toilet tank checked. The stranger was searching for something. For the better part of an hour.

The bats continued to swirl around Hawkin, maybe a dozen of them, nipping at the mosquitoes, and he still had a lump of sand in his fist. He had been squeezing it so tightly his knuckles hurt. The bats made a chirping, buzzing sound like the electric fence that bordered their neighbor's property to the north.

Sometimes Hawkin liked to reach his hand for that fence--an inch away, then closer and closer still --not touching it, but almost, so that he could feel the hum of electricity. It made his skin tighten and his hairs rise. He felt a similar sense of prickling danger when the stranger came out onto the deck and heaved a sigh and ejected a shotgun shell. He tried to walk down the steps but missed his footing and fell.

He landed heavily only a few feet from Hawkin, who knew he should run but didn't; instead, he remained still and tried to will himself invisible. The stranger lay in the grass for a long time --long enough that Hawkin hoped he might have fallen asleep--but then he stirred with a grumble and hoisted himself up onto an elbow and said, "Oh. There you are." He clumsily rose into a squat. "Was wondering where you were. Hawkin, right? That's your name?"

Hawkin could see the pantyhose had gone gray with moisture at the eyes and the nose and the mouth, and it made the stranger look like he was rotting. A jack-o'-lantern that needed to be tossed into the compost. "Saw your name spelled out on the wall of your room. What kind of a name is Hawkin, I don't fucking know. But I like your room, Hawkin. I like the color of the paint." His voice wandered dreamily. "Is your favorite color blue? That's a good color. It always reminds me of Lake Superior or..." Here his voice fell off a cliff. "Did you hear what happened in there? Because I'm sorry how things turned out. Hawkin?"

Hawkin couldn't respond, not even when the stranger cocked his head and waited for him to.

"This is so fucked," the stranger said and laid the shotgun across his thighs and pinched the bridge of his nose. His balance wavered and he rocked back on his heels and popped up into a standing position. "Okay. Okay, okay, okay." The smoke coming off the gun burned Hawkin's nose. "So I have some questions for you, Hawkin. Some very important questions. Like a test. You take tests at school? This is like one of those. Except it's real."

A bat chittered then, and Hawkin remembered the sand. He hurled the clump of it, and it unfurled into a veil that glittered in the air between them. And harmlessly frosted the stranger along the head and shoulders. He did not flinch but seemed ready to say something when the bats struck his face. One, two, three of them. The first couple dived in and out, but the last caught its claws in the pantyhose and beat its wings furiously over his eyes.

The stranger dropped the shotgun and screamed and punched at the bat, punching himself. To Hawkin, the pantyhose looked like stretched skin when the stranger struggled to yank the mask off, to free himself, his forehead growing long and his eyes widely hollowed.

Hawkin lurched up and made it a few wobbling steps before tripping. His legs were cramped from sitting still so long.

He wasn't sure if he was crying or if the dew in the grass was wetting his face as he crawled forward. He didn't know where he would go. Maybe the shed. He could get a rake there or some garden shears. Something sharp to protect himself with. Or maybe hide behind some pots or in a watering can, like Peter Rabbit in Mr. McGregor's garden.

It was then he noticed, as he wormed away from the house, that instead of growing darker, the night was growing lighter. A bluegreen glow hued his vision, everything flickering and warping, like the bottom of a pond when he put on goggles and ducked his head below the surface.

He looked up. And there it was. Just like Mrs. B. said. It was the beginning of the meteor shower. It would be a night busy with falling stars. A sky full of wishes. Too many to count. But he tried to gather them all up in his gaze and collect them into one powerful wish. "Make me strong enough to fight him," Hawkin said.

And then the world shook and everything brightened to a blinding silver.

Copyright © 2021 by Benjamin Percy


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