This Screaming Earth

Day 5

The sun was a hard-edged yellow disc in the sky, providing little light and less warmth, when Hamish looked up through frozen lashes and saw the temple.

It was huge, a great monolith of solid stone, rising out of the flat plains with the brutal grandeur of all large things. The pale sunlight made mirrors and abysses of its sharp-edged planes.

He stood for a moment, staring at it. The wind shoved at him, making him stumble a little—shaking the grasses, stirring the fallen snow up into fresh whirlwinds. Struggling over snow that slid out unhelpfully from underfoot, Hamish began to run.

He reached the doors and shoved at them, half-expecting them not to budge under his weak assault. They swung open easily, opening upon a dark cavern of space. He entered, boots clattering oddly against the smooth floor, scattering snow and bits of dead grass with every step.

The doors swung slowly shut behind him, and Hamish slumped against them with a hollow thump, raking greedy breath after greedy breath into his frozen lungs.

There were no more wailing people.

No crunching snow. No howling wind.

Just silence.

Day 1

Hamish sat in the straw of the prison cell, entertaining himself by fiddling with his chains. They were worn and slightly rusted, a testament to the prison’s long life.

“You have two options before you,” the scribe said. He stood outside the prison bars, holding a flat wax tablet and a sharp copper stylus. Hamish did not look up at him.

“Your first option is to appeal to municipal law, and consent to be tried before the county judge. This would likely result in a punitive amputation.”

Hamish did glance up at that. His fingers stilled over a link in the chain, prickling in protest.

“A what?”

The scribe cocked an eyebrow at him. “Your hand,” he said. “They’d cut it off.”

Hamish knew what an amputation was, damn it, but he hadn’t thought—he hadn’t thought what he’d done was that serious. Was it?

“What’s option two?” He asked, throat dry.

“Since it was a temple you stole from,” the scribe continued, looking back at his tablet, “You may apply to be tried by theocratic law, instead of a municipal judge. The priests would assign you a fitting penance. I’m told the most likely one is a temporary exile to the Wailing Plains.”

It was not really a choice.

Day 2

Hamish shifted from foot to foot, half in the temple courtyard and half in a dusty store-room, watching an equally dusty priest rummage through piles of liturgical necessities like animal pelts and brass censers.

“What are the Wailing Plains?”

The priest looked up from his search of the storeroom. The temple was evidently supposed to provide its exiles with supplies appropriate to their destination. Those supplies, he’d learned, included a coat, a scarf, boots, mittens, and whatever it was the the priest was currently searching for. No food. He was told he wouldn’t need it.

He hoped that meant it would be short penance. Somehow, he doubted it.

“It is a physical location,” The priest said, turning back to shuffle for the last of Hamish’s ‘supplies.’ “Though we have so far only reached it through mystic arts, so where it would lie on a map is unknown. Very few have been there, and returned.”

Which sounded less than encouraging, really. Hamish wondered how bad it could really be, life without one of his hands. He could get a hook, right? He could probably live with a hook.

‘Probably’ was not enough certainty to try and change his fate now.

“The few who have been there describe it as— not properly of this world,” the priest went on, finally finding what he was looking for. A flattish ebony box, inscribed with swirling, unreadable letters. “One grows hungry, but never starves. Grows cold, but never freezes.” He blew the dust from the box, and then turned, handing it to Hamish. “They say the true temple of the Silent God is somewhere on the plains,” he said, looking Hamish in the eye. “You will look for it. Should you find it, you may return.”

Day 5

Inside the temple, the air was close-knit and still. It was a balm on Hamish’s wind-worn skin and aching lungs.

He couldn’t stay here forever.

In just a moment, he would get up. Leave. Go back.

There were so many who wandered on these plains, so many whose ears bled under the weight of the eternal screeching. This place, whatever it was—he had to bring them here. He had to show them.

So he would get up, he would.

In just a moment.

Day 2

Hamish held his mysterious box, and again wondered if a hook would be so bad, after all.

“Open that,” the priest said, nodding at the box. Hamish did. Inside, lying on a bed of velvet, were two perfect spheres of black wax.

“You’ll need those,” he said. “There are…creatures, on the Plains. They will not harm you, but you cannot listen to them, not for one second.”

Hamish had never liked priests, or people telling him what to do. The combination of the two now was enough to loosen his tongue.

“What happens if I do?” He asked. If he was going to starve to death on an otherworldly hellscape, he would rather not do it with wax in his ears.

The priest’s gaze was soft, almost compassionate, but it allowed for no argument.

“You would become one of them.”

Day 3

The first thing he noticed was the wind.

It cut through his every outer layer, biting at his skin with no regard for his thick coat and stabbing itself into his finger-bones as though the mittens on his hands were mere prayers for warmth. Under the thick grey sky, thinly streaked with yellow by an indifferent sun, it whipped the brittle brown grasses and made intermittent whirlwinds of the icy snow—the refuse from the last blizzard, reliving its glory days by snapping hard icy pellets against Hamish’s face.

The third thing he noticed was that the priests had managed to give him a scarf of exactly the wrong size.

It was wide. It was long. But it was not quite wide enough to cover both his mouth and his neck and the awkward triangle of space where his coat didn’t quite button, and not quite long enough wrap around twice to make up for its deficiencies in wideness. He pulled it up to cover his mouth and keep the cold from entering his lungs, but that only let the cold in to slice, knife-sharp, at his throat. He shoved it back down to cover his throat, breathing through his nose; but he had already breathed on the knit wool and now it was wet and cold. His nostril hairs were frosting up and sticking together.

He growled, feeling the sound low and deep in his chest without hearing it. It was strange, not hearing his own voice.

The balls of wax in his ears were cold and itchy. His attempts to ignore them were failing.

Even with the ready distraction of his many annoyances, his attempts to ignore the second thing he had noticed was failing too.

They were everywhere.

Pale, ghost-grey things, with wide open mouths and cavernous eyes, solid as stones and—if their wild stumbling at every gust of wind was any clue—light as feathers. Milling around aimlessly, they didn’t seem to notice Hamish. He was glad of it.

More than once, Hamish caught himself being drawn in to look at their faces—the wide, pale eyes, the gaping mouths. Every time, he tore his gaze away again. The shivers that ran down his spine had nothing to do with the wind.

Look at them too long, and they might well look back. The wax in his ears itched, but he didn’t dare touch it.

Look for the temple, Hamish thought. It was a simple enough task. Or, it should have been. But the plains were flat as a skipstone, wide and wild, with a barely perceptible line for a horizon; and nowhere did Hamish see a temple. Not even the ghostly outline of one.

He squinted, wondering briefly if it was possible to build a temple underground. He looked down at his boots, half-buried in some dormant snow, and kicked experimentally. He took a step forward, still squinting at the ground.

Something solid collided with him, sending him sprawling on his back. Hamish caught a glimpse of wide, dull eyes and outstretched hands as the creature trampled over him, seemingly unaware of his existence; and then he blinked, and found that he was staring up at the sky.

That was when he heard the screaming.

Hamish sat up with a panicked jerk, turning to scrabble in the powdery snow in a vain search for the gobs of wax. He succeeded only in getting snow wedged into the gaps between his mittens and the ends of his sleeves. The snow was soft, and cold, and unhelpful. The wax was gone.

While Hamish was still on the ground, another of the stumbling creatures tripped over him. It did a sort of one-legged dance, trying to regain its balance, and then finally seemed to gather itself. It moved on, mouth open and face lifted as though it intended to drink the sky, letting out a wild animal wail as Hamish got up and brushed himself off.

Their cries were piercing, high and sharp enough to carve the moon into a harvest scythe. Remembering the priest’s warning, Hamish hastily stuffed his fingers into his ears. Another of the creatures brushed by his back, screaming almost directly in his ear, and Hamish flinched away, wondering if his skin was already turning gray, if he was going to start wandering aimlessly and screaming at the sky. He clenched his teeth shut to ward off that possibility as long as possible.

This wasn’t worth it, he decided. Not all all. He turned back—but when he swung around, he couldn’t tell if he was facing back the way he’d come or not. It all looked the same.

There was no way home.

His beating heart throbbed against his fingertips, doing little to dull the endless screaming, and Hamish swallowed the dull lump that clogged his throat.

The only way back was to find the temple. Wherever it was. If it even existed.

He wasn’t going to find anything by standing here. He started walking, dodging away from the grey bodies that wandered about so carelessly of his own and trying to ignore the spike of fear every time he tripped over the uneven ground.

Day 4

After one night without sleep, Hamish stopped stuffing his fingers in his ears. His arms were too tired, and the priests had probably lied about him turning into one of those creatures anyway. Lying, just to scare people, was what priests did.

His legs were jelly-soft, wobbling as he walked, and his whole body was aching under the oppressive weight of the wind.

It was shortly into this second day of exile that he began to recognize words in the screaming. Jumbled, garbled words, all being screamed over one another; but words.

He checked his hands frantically, wondering if he was beginning to go grey, if something about him was changing that he could understand the inhuman screams; but no, red-blooded flesh still laid beneath his mittens.

It was only a matter of time before the words became sentences in Hamish’s ears.

“Fire! There is fire, everywhere there is fire!” One cried, spinning almost into Hamish before spinning away again.

“Where do I go? Where am I supposed to go?”

“Floods! The rains are coming! The rain will kill us all!”

“I am beautiful! I am new! I am young and lovely!”

Hamish could have sworn it was enough to make his ears bleed. He walked as fast as he could, squinting against the flakes of snow that pelted his eyelids, trying to block out the noise.

Intent upon his feet, he didn’t see the figure until it collided with him. The solid body knocked him flat on his back, and he found himself looking up into a pair of pale, wide eyes, set into a long, sagging face. Irritably, Hamish got up, expecting it to wander off again.

The watery eyes followed his motion as he rose, and the keening, wordless cry died down a fraction. Hamish, occupied with brushing himself off, stilled. A spark of fear flared up bright in his belly as he realized that the creature was actually looking at him.

“Swords!” the creature bellowed, a hollow sound from hollow lungs. He watched Hamish without blinking, as though in expectation of a response.

“Swords, really?” Hamish said, trying to shake the snow out of his mittens.

“Swords! The grass is made of swords!” A gust of wind blew up, and the creature stumbled a step, but held his ground. The watery eyes stayed fixed on Hamish.

Hamish had spent so long carefully not looking at the creatures or their faces, only catching glimpses of the wide-wailing mouths. The thing’s face is strange, disturbingly solid and fleshy despite its ghost-gray color.

“The grass,” Hamish said, “is swords.”

“Old swords! Ancient swords,” the creature said, volume decreasing slightly as it spoke. It was as though the simple act of listening had created a thin shield around them both, blocking out the incessant screaming, if only for a few moments. The thing bent over, careless of the wind that nearly tipped him flat on his face, and plucked a bit of brown grass out from its bed of snow. It lifted it up, waving it in front of Hamish’s face.

“Blade!” It said, and then let out a wild whoop of laughter. “Blade! See? The grass is made of swords!”

Hamish blinked. He was cold. He was hungry. He was tired. He did not want to listen to a theory about the origin of grass, much less a theory based entirely upon a pun.

“Fascinating,” he said, even though it wasn’t. “I’m on my way to the temple, though, so—“

The man’s gaze snapped suddenly to his.

“The temple is empty!”

“It’s—you’ve been there?” Hamish asked. “Wait! Where—where is it?”

But the creature’s gaze had already slipped away from him, and when another snap of the wild wind made the thing stumble away, it began stumbling off aimlessly, once again screaming to the sky about swords—and grass—and swords. Once again just another dull figure in a horde of dull figures, all ears made deaf by their own shouting.

Hamish watched it go, heart pounding.

The temple is empty. That was what the creature had said. Not it’s gone, not there is no temple.

It’s empty.

There was a temple, then. There had to be. For something to be empty, it had to exist. And if that thing had found it, then Hamish could too.

The thought did not settle a sense of determination in his stomach. It did not invigorate his body with fresh energy.

Instead, his feet felt frozen to the earth.

The only thing that stirred them was desperation—desperation at the thought of an eternity of life like this, frozen to the bone, surrounded by the careless, screaming creatures with their blank eyes and drunken steps. He had to find a way out of this. He had to find a way home.

He took a step, hardly knowing where he went. At least he was going somewhere. Maybe, if we wandered long enough, he would stumble across the temple by accident.

He told himself that it was hope.

The sun slunk lower on the horizon, rebelling against the worldwide grey with a stripe of faded red.

Hamish’s limbs had stopped feeling the cold. He knew enough about cold to know that this was not a good thing, but all the same, he couldn’t help but be relieved at the lack of pain.

He could hear the words better now. When he listened to them, it made the screaming both easier and harder to bear. Parsing out the individual words distracted him from the fact that the cries made the very bones of his ears shake until they seemed about to shatter, but the words themselves were difficult to listen to.

The creatures, it seemed, were masters of truly terrible ideas. They screamed that the sun didn’t exist. They screamed about how unbearably hot the Plains were. They screamed that it was too quiet. They screamed so many inimitably stupid, false things that Hamish had to keep an iron vice on his tongue to keep from screaming back at them.

He clenched his teeth closed and stepped out of the way as one of the things spun past him, wailing that clouds were secretly made of bees.

“Curse the earth,” Someone said softly from right beside Hamish’s ear, and he jumped. He spun aside, turning to stare at the thing who had spoken.

No, not a thing. A girl.

She was small, fine-boned, with eyes set so wide apart that they seemed to be trying to make room for a third. Her flesh had not yet gone gray, and her fingers clutched at her arms, knuckles pale, as though trying vainly to keep warm. Her eyes flicked briefly over Hamish, seeming to take him in, before sliding away again.

“Curse the earth!” She said again. Not a scream. Not a wail, but a small-voiced, mourning plea. “There is blood in it. Curse me, for I have shed it!”

There were tears in her voice, and anger too. It was such a human voice that it caught at Hamish’s heart. He took a step towards her, and her eyes slipped towards him again. Instead of sliding past him, though, this time she fixed on him, her eyes suddenly intent. Hamish went very still.

“I have shed blood,” she told him. “Too much blood. It’s seeping from my feet. It fills my eyes. They sent me here to be whipped clean by the wind; but the wind is no cleaner than I am.”

Hamish could not tell if it was sorrow, or triumph, in her tone; whatever it was, it leaked out of her in the next moment. Her shoulders slumped, and her voice cracked with tears.

“Oh, curse the earth!”

“Why should I?” Hamish asked.

“Because it’s full of blood,” she said. “Can’t you feel it—surging beneath your feet? See, it’s starting to leak into the sky.”

Hamish looked at the sunset. It did look like blood, now that she mentioned it.

“That’s not—“ he began, turning back towards the girl, and his words caught in his throat. There was a living fire in her eyes, directed at the sunset; a wild, raging red; but the rest of her—

The rest of her was gray as a stone.

“I’m looking for the temple,” he said, mouth dry.

She looked back at him, unblinking. Her eyes had gone ghost-pale and watery.

“There is only the earth, and the earth is full of blood,” she said, unshakably certain. “Curse the earth!”

A strong gust of wind made her stumble backwards, almost falling. She wandered away, and as she walked, she began to wail. The wind caught at her words and tore them away, so that they reached Hamish’s ears as though it was the very air that screamed them.

“Curse the earth!” The earth itself reverberated, as Hamish looked down at his shaking hands and wondered when the color would leach out of them, when he himself would begin to wander, forgetting what he’d come here for. When he would stumble and scream his lungs raw at a sky that would never listen.

“Curse the earth!”

Day 5

It was early morning, the grey world made hazy by the new light, when his foot caught on something. There was a sharp pain, a sudden snag, and Hamish found himself splayed flat on the ground, taking panicked breaths through a faceful of snow.

After a night of sleepless wandering, every moment afraid of losing himself to the gray wailing plains, Hamish had to fight down the insane urge to start laughing. It was all so ridiculous. Sleepless and sore and starving, wandering to someplace that might not even exist, and he just had to trip. Fall flat on his face in a perfect farce, an excellent summation of his entire life up till now.

He wanted to lie where he’d fallen and just not bother to get up again. What would be the use?

Frightened by his own thoughts, he struggled to his feet and turned back to scowl vengefully at the thing that had probably left a throbbing bruise on his left big toe.

It was a stone. Low and square, half-hidden in the grasses. Hamish felt a jolt of rage for his still-throbbing foot and the snow that had been dumped down the front of his coat; who would set a stone like that out in the middle of nowhere, just for people to trip over?

Then, as sharp as the wind that cut into his skin: someone had set that stone there. It was too square, too clean-lined to be there by accident.

His head snapped up, and he studied the surrounding ground with renewed energy. There. Another stone, hidden by the grass, and another, just a bit farther from it.

It was a path. He set off, following it, and began to laugh. It was hysterical, his laughter; something that bubbled out of his lungs like vinegar fizz, sharp and sour, the product of sleeplessness and desperation and a wonderful, horrible relief that ran, soft and clean as soapy water, through his veins. He had a path. He’d had nothing, and now he had a path.

Just ahead , one of the screamers was stumbling under the force of the wind, a wild, unstrung dance. One of the pathway-stones caught at their feet, tipping them over in a sudden sprawl that looked like something out of a comedy play. Hamish hurried towards the fallen figure, laughing all the harder.

“It’s a path!” He shouted, even though the wind swept his voice away. The sprawled figure in the grass was still lying there, probably without the motivation to get up. “Follow it, don’t trip over it!” Hamish shouted, voice unsteady with the hilarity that bubbled up in his lungs. He knelt by the figure, tapping them on the shoulder, offering his hand to help them up.

They made no move to reach for it.

He touched their shoulder again, gingerly pulling, turning them over.

Their eyes were blank, mouth frozen open. On the grey skin of the heavy-boned face, a thin line of bright red marked where their skull had cracked against the frozen ground.

Hamish was still laughing, lungs seizing with it as though they had forgotten how to stop. His hand, where it rested on the human creature’s shoulder, was a cold and stony gray.

He slapped a hand over his mouth, trying to force himself to be quiet. He felt sick inside.

Laughing at this forgotten someone, someone who had been wandering just as he wandered, tripped just as he’d tripped, but—had not been given the chance to get back up again.

Even though all hilarity had left him, even though he had no desire to laugh any more, his clutching lungs and shaking throat too far too long to settle, seeming to have gained a will of their own. He got up and stumbled away, hand still covering his mouth, ribs trembling with his efforts to keep them still.

Hamish hated the path. He followed it, clutching his hand to his chest as though whatever warmth still thrummed through his heart could return the color to the changed limb, but he hated it. The sharp, stubby ridges of rock. The way they hid in the grasses and the snow, almost malicious as they lay in wait for someone to trip on them, careless of their deadly power.

And yet—if the screamers would just stop shouting, and look—they could find their way, they could get free of this place.

Thinking that, he almost hated them.

In the end, hatred was useless. He let it slip through his fingers. He followed the line of rocks again, keeping an eye on the stumbling men and women. He ran ahead to pull the them back whenever they seemed likely to trip. They yowled at him in response, never listening when he tried to explain, but they also didn’t die.

He didn’t laugh at them, or himself, again.

Day 1

“Well then. I’ll alert the court of your decision, and you’ll be remanded into the custody of the priests by tomorrow, if all goes well.”

The scribe tucked his stylus into his sleeve, clapping the wax tablet closed. He looked up at Hamish, his eyes unclouded for the first time, and gave a single nod.

“I’ll offer a prayer for your well-being,” he said, with a sincerity that made Hamish stop fiddling with the shackle that was beginning to gall his wrist.

“What have you to gain from that?” He snapped.

The scribe shrugged.

“Peace of mind, I suppose.”

Hamish shook his head. “Silent god,” he said, scornful. “With all that silence, how are you supposed to know if he’s answered your prayers or not?”

“I won’t.” The scribe said, simply. “But I hope you will.”

Day 5

The doors of the temple were solid and smooth against Hamish’s back. The warmth was making a slow but determined foray into his ice-numbed bones, sparking stabbing pains that ran up his arms and sliced through his joints. It was excruciating, but good. A living pain instead of a dying one.

As the shivers began to subside, one deep breath caught in his throat, making a hitching, soft sound that sounded like blasphemy in the stillness. His face was wet. His hands were shaking.

How many wanderers were there, he wondered? How many lost?

He could go home now, if he wanted. The priests would take him back. He’d found the temple, completed his penance.

But how many had been left unfulfilled?

He could go home.

But he wouldn’t.

He would drag every last one of them here, by force if he had to. No one was going to be lost on those lonely plains again if he could help it.

So yes, he would get up. He would get up, and go out, and start bringing every last screaming human thing here until the only wailing on these plains was the lonely wind.

The silence, the stillness, was like a healing balm on his skin.

He would get up.

In just a moment.


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Last Chance and the Lonely Planet (Last Chance, #1)

Eliazer Bronn hated the color blue.

His hatred for the unfortunate color was as acute and all-encompassing as it was pointless, as deeply felt as any love he’d harbored in his life, and, at the moment, it had so overshadowed every other aspect of his soul’s convictions as to become the whole of his personality. He was not hating so much as he was hate, a small, weak and useless unit of that feeling, primed and loaded like the laser cannons of a warship, aimed against the color blue and all its compatriots.

The forest that surrounded him just so happened to be blue.

The broken limbs of the looming trees bled blue, a visceral shade of indigo that cut a deep swathe in the teal-tinted jungle. The ground was midnight blue, almost black where it was torn up in thick clawing ruts, still smoking from the recent screaming heat, and littered with torn metal plates and scraps of red-hot machinery.

And at the end of that long gash ripped into the careless blue forest, sat a heap of twisted metal that, only minutes past, had been Eliazer Bronn’s spaceship.

The Last Chance was making small settling noises as the heat of the planet’s atmosphere began to siphon off its sides, making the surrounding air wobble like a watery reflection. Eli, standing back on unsteady legs and clutching a dripping arm, watched the red-edged bits of his ship curl in upon themselves.

He would have screamed, but the blunt-edged impact and terror of the crash had driven all the air from his lungs. He wanted to kick the bits of broken engine at his feet, but his legs were trembling and distrustful of themselves. He wanted, very much, to fight something–anything–but the only things around were trees, and he felt foolish enough already without trying to punch a tree.

There was a deep groan as the Last Chance sank lower into the soft blue earth. Shards of shattered glass fell free, tinkling to the ground with unnecessary cheer.

Eli let out a rage-filled roar and kicked the nearest bit of machinery. The compression box flew satisfyingly far into the jungle, but the roar stuck in his throat, catching at something which had been sitting there ever since he’d felt the sickly jerk as his ship had been pulled out of his control.Bending over to retch on the blue dirt and choking on burning acid, he felt the idiocy of his little tantrum like a brand between his eyebrows.

The ship eased itself another centimeter into the dirt.

* * *

By the time the sky began to darken with evening, Eli felt as empty as an abandoned mine shaft.He’d run out of energy to feel sorry for himself. It was a strange feeling. He was no stranger to exhaustion; Colony 9 had worked its inmates to the bone, and it had been rare that he’d had sleep or food enough to truly shake the persistent tiredness. He’d been able to work through it, though; dreaming of the day he’d buy his ship and be free, never stuck with his feet in the dirt of an alien planet again.Pieces of that ship were now scattered over the ground, as trapped here as he was; and for once in his life, Eli could not stir himself to work through the apathetic laziness that made his limbs feel as though they’d been made of clay.

He kept moving as well as he could. He picked the shards of glass and rust out of his wounded arm and bandaged it. Ate one of the thin plastic-wrapped meal packs he was able to scrounge from the ship’s only partially-wrecked hold. Cramped as it was inside the ship, it was better than facing the disgusting blue of the jungle. He rolled a spare blanket onto the floor of the hold and fell asleep.

* * *

He awoke to the sound of something banging against the side of the ship. He listened without emotion for a moment, dream-hazy and blinking until the sound brought him to attention with a start. Something was hurting his ship. The varied possibilities of robbers, aggressive wildlife, and automated wrecking crews sped through his mind. The hold was stupidly lacking in weapons–why had he never bought a gun, damn how expensive they were, he should have been able to guess he’d need one–and he tore through it, frantic for something he could use instead. After a brief search, he tore a loose board from one of the meal crates. It was short and broad and over-light, but there was a half-rusted nail sticking from the end of it, so it wasn’t utterly useless. Eli gripped it tight and hoped that whatever was attacking his ship was small and easily frightened.

From the hold, he made his way carefully through the twisted hallway into the cockpit, and crawled through the shattered windshield, landing softly on the moist forest floor. The action brought back unpleasant memories of being flung free of the ship as it tore through the trees, but Eli swallowed them back. There were worse things than memories afoot.

The sound had changed. It was more hissing than clanging now, and a screech of tearing metal whenever the hissing stopped.

Hiss. Bang. Screech. Hiss. Bang. Screech.

With growing apprehension, Eli slow-stepped toward the sound, raising his board as he did, until there was only one corner of ship between him and it. He paused for amoment, stomped a heavy boot over the pounding of his heart, and took a breath.

He swung around the corner with a wild leap and a war-cry, board readied to bash in some unknown monster’s head.

The monster leapt away from the side of the ship, recognizable at first only as a mass of blood-red hair and a body that was small enough to stop Eli in his tracks. The war-cry died in his throat, and he stared down at the thing which stared back at him.

It was a girl.

Her eyes flicked silently to the board in his hands, and he in turn frowned at the ion laser in hers. It was alive and buzzing, blue light-beam active and deadly, and the metal sides of the Last Chance bore a perfect square cut-out, still glowing with heat.

“You’re scrapping my ship?” He shouted.

The girl, evidently judging that he and his board were no great threat, shut off her laser and scowled at him.

“It’s not your ship. Crashes are fair game.”

Eli’s knuckles went white around his board. Not his ship. No, he had only sweat and bled and starved to earn it. He had only given up twenty years of his life working for it. Not his ship, indeed.

“Not while there’s someone still alive inside!” he shouted.

The girl’s scowl disappeared in a flash, and she stared at the Last Chance with an air of surprise.

“There’s someone inside?”

“Me!” Eli snapped, waving his board. “I was inside. And asleep. I thought you were some kind of forest monster.”

The girl snorted, putting her laser back into a pouch at her hip.

“Well. I’m not a forest monster. I thought this was an abandoned ship.” she gave the Last Chance a regretful look. “Sorry,” she added, and as insincere as the apology sounded, it cut the feet out from under Eli’s rage.

“That aside, then, hello!” she said brightly, extending a hand. “The name’s Ketzal. What’s yours?”

He found himself shaking her hand, drawn into an assumption of friendship that he’d never agreed to, with no notion of how to go back to wherever the mistake had been and correct it.

“Um. Bronn. Eliazer Bronn.”

“Eliazer, huh? There’s a name. Where are you from?”

“From? Oh, ah–”

He stopped, distracted, when Ketzal turned away from him and knitted her fingers into a tenuous grip on the ship’s seams. She hefted herself up by it, scrambling a little as she climbed, and for a moment, all thought was driven from Eli’s mind as he stepped forward, ready to catch her in case she fell. She didn’t, though; she made it on top of the ship, sitting cross-legged on the uneven surface and grinning down at him. Her ropy red hair looked like an illustration from the days when mankind had yet to map the galaxies, and still thought that there were creatures besides themselves out there, in the stars.

She was looking at him, expectant, and he stopped thinking about aliens and galaxies.

“Colony Nine,” he said, and cursed himself as soon as he did. He wasn’t from Colony 9, even if he’d spent more than half his life there. He was from Red 16, and had spent every hellish year in Colony 9’s mines trying to return there, though he barely remembered what Red 16 was like. He remembered that it was home, and that had been enough.

He’d been more than halfway there. If he hadn’t crashed into this damned planet–

“Colony 9…that’s a mining planet, isn’t it? That’s cool.”

Cool? Eli scowled up at her. No, it was not cool. It was the opposite of cool. Men and women alike had died there, crushed by collapsing tunnels or poisoned by bad air or trapped in shafts too narrow to turn around in and there was never enough to eat and the wages had been a pittance.

He was too tired to argue.

“What about you?” he asked.

“Oh. Everywhere, I guess. I was born on a floating intergalactic base and I’ve been traveling ever since I can remember. Kind of an adventure thing. Where were you headed, when you crashed?”

“Red 16,” Eli found himself saying automatically, and cursed himself again. He didn’t have to answer. It wasn’t an interrogation. He could hold as much of himself secret as he liked, if he could only keep his mouth shut. He asked a question of his own in a spirit of vengeance.

“Where are we now?”

Ketzal looked around, her expression taking on a mischievous glint that had him cringing in expectation of some inane answer like ‘in the middle of a forest, hadn’t you noticed,’ but she seemed to think better of it.

“Blue 12 is what it’s called now,” she said. “The original settlers called it P’Rau-Migal.”

Eli didn’t care what the original settlers called it. He just wanted to get off of it as soon as possible.

“Is there a city nearby? Some sort of settlement?”

If the girl was collecting scrap, there must be someone she was collecting it for, which meant there must be civilization of some kind nearby, and that would be better than nothing. He was tired of blue trees. But the girl shook her head.

“There aren’t any settlements on Blue 12.” she said, with such grave certainty that Eli snorted a laugh.

“Really?” he asked. “Searched the whole planet yourself, have you?”

Sheraised her eyebrows at him.

No. That’s just common knowledge. Popular knowledge, even. Every time humans try to settle here, they’re never heard from again. General consensus is that there’s a monster who eats them. The Beast of Blue Twelve. There’s even a film series about it.”

She was looking at him like he was stupid, and he resented it.

“Why are you here, then?” he asked sharply. “And why were you scrapping my ship? What are you going to do with scrap on a planet with no settlements–sell it to the monster?”

She grinned at him.

“I’m here because it’s dangerous, stranger Bronn. Not that it’s any of your business, but I was traveling here to find out about the Beast. The movies are awful, and I want to smash them with facts. My ship crashed the way in. It’s been a week, my rations are low, I haven’t seen a beast anywhere, and it’s boring here. I need to repair my ship, and I was hoping to do it with the parts from yours.” her tone was easy, but she cocked her head at him with an expression sharp enough to slice him in two, and added amiably, “Now, are you going to stop shouting at me any time soon?”

He had been shouting, he realized. And holding a board with a nail in it. He took a breath, trying to tamp down the anger that was still struggling to claw its way up his throat.

“Sorry,” he said. If not a completely sincere apology, it was as least as sincere as hers had been. Perhaps they were even.

“It’s all right.” Ketzal said. “I wouldn’t be cheerful either, if I woke up to someone taking an ion laser to my ship.”

There was a short silence, in which Eli stared out into the blue trees–still waving softly in an unsatisfying breeze. He still hated them. But there was no reason to hate anything else, however much his bitter heart felt like it.

Eli set down his board, sticking the protruding nail into the blue soil and looking back up at the girl on top of his ship.

“Hungry?” he asked.

* * *

“It doesn’t look so bad, up here,” Eli said, half an hour later. Ketzal had given him a hand up, and between that and some lucky scrambling, they were both sitting on top of the Last Chance. There was something about being even that short distance closer to the sky that made everything easier to bear, somehow. After spending years stuck in the innards of the earth, Eli had learned to love the sky.

Even when it happened to be orange.

“Yeah, I get depressed when the trees tower over me for too long,” Ketzal said, licking the remains of her second packaged meal off her fingers. She had been hungry.

Eli nodded. Belly full, his mind was a great deal calmer. Easier to manage.

“Why’d you hate them?” He asked, sudden-curious.

“Hate what?”

“The Beast movies,” he clarified. “Why’d you hate them?”

She looked at him oddly, opened her mouth, and then closed it again. With a slight frown on her face, she started again, seeming to think while she talked.

“I dunno. They were just…there’s this big old monster, right, that’s been around forever. And in the first movie, it just…kills people. No real reason, it just roars and rages and they die off one by one. And it’s so popular! I just…” she shrugged. In her sharp-edged, wire-thin body, the gesture looked like she was trying to stab the sky with her shoulders. “I don’t get it. It annoys me,” She finished, looking down to swipe some leftover mealresidue from the inside of the packet. Eli felt a smile tugging at his lips.

“Ah,” he said. “And clearly, the best way to respond to things that annoy you is to crash a spaceship on an abandoned planet to prove them wrong.”

Hey,” she protested. “I have theories. This is research that will benefit posterity!”

“What theories?”

“Oh! Where to start…okay, so. I looked for the original settlers of this place, and it turns out that the farthest back we can trace is to some race of mystery inhabitants–all they left behind were some outgoing radio signals in a language that no one speaks anymore. It sounds a little like old-style star pidgin, a mix of Russian and Hindi and English, but no linguist can really get heads or tails of it.”

Eli’s eyebrows flicked up. “Foreign species?” he asked.

“Eh,” Ketzal replied, screwing up her nose and waving a hand dismissively. “Doubtful. Probably just some of the old empire-builders and one of their lost societies. Anyway, they can’t send anything to the surface of Blue 12, but from the outer atmosphere, there’s no sign of any building projects, and there should be. If, that is,” she held up a finger, “The planet was ever occupied at all. I think that this entire planet is a conservation forest, or maybe private hunting grounds, for some person or society long dead. The garbled radio signals are probably ‘no trespassing’ signs, and the so-called Beast is probably just a security system of some kind, still operational.”

She sat back as thoughshe was anticipating applause; but Eli was staring over her shoulder.

Around Ketzal’s second mention of radio signals, something had rustled in the trees. He’d kept listening, even as he squinted to try and make out what it was; but when it stepped free of the trees, the whole of Eli’s interest had fallen away from trespassing signs and security systems to focus in its entirety on the creature at the edge of the forest.

It somehow managed to look like a cobbled-together mass of parts, even while it moved with a kind of easy grace that Eli had hitherto associated with snakes and dancing women. It had the legs and body of a deer, but a humanoid torso where the neck ought to have been. Its head was perfectly round; two dull, dead eyes and no mouth, and it was crowned with a set of perfectly curved, deadly-sharp antlers. He thought it was alive at first, until a step made it glint sharply in the sunlight. It was metal, though rusted and old. Moss and weeds were growing on it; some kind of floweringvine had wound itself through the antlers, drifting around the creature’s head like a veil.

Its head turned slowly towards them, camera-lens eyes staring blankly into Eli’s own. It seemed dangerous to look away.

“Ketzal,” he said softly. “I think you’ve got your Beast.”

Ketzal turned to look. The machine was a bright speck of red and silver at the edge of the blue forest, and though he couldn’t see Ketzal’s expression, he saw her back stiffen as she locked eyes with it. Then she relaxed.

“That doesn’t look like a security enforcement bot,” she said. “I don’t think he’ll bother with us.”

Eli, still haunted by the emptiness in those not-quite eyes, gave her a look that she missed.

“Are you sure?”

“Completely. Look at it. It’s built for agility and blending in with the wildlife, not terror and destruction. I bet he’s some kind of ancient mobile security camera.”

She turned around again, grinning at him as though he was child frightened by a warp-rat.

“We’re in no danger from that thing.”

“Um,” Eli said, eyes still fixed on the thing at the edge of the woods. It was studying the deep ruts in the earth, the broken and still-bleeding trees, following the path they cut to the Last Chance. Expressionless though its face might have been, something in the way it raised its head to watch them once again seemed anything but friendly.

“Are you really sure about–” he began. The machine tossed its head, a flash of knife-sharp prongs in the sun, and charged.

Eli only had time to yelp an incoherent warning before the beast collided with the ship’s side, rocking it out of its earthen grave and throwing Ketzal and Eli free. Eli had a brief impression of seeing the world perfectly upside-down, the branches or the trees reaching root-like to drink from the sky, before the ground knocked the air from his lungs. His head felt as loose as an unscrewed lug nut, and there was dirt in his mouth, but he was on his feet again before he was able to properly think.

Ketzal was struggling to get herself upright, looking as dazed as he felt, and he took a few stumbling steps towards her to help her up.

“What the…” she whispered, staring.

The beast was attacking the ship. There was a terrible, grinding screaming as its antlers tore the metal like paper; delicate hooves trampled the remains flat. There was a fury in the way the thing worked, as though the existence of the Last Chance was a personal insult.

Every blow to the ship was a blow to Eli’s heart, and he watched with shaking limbs.

“We have to run,” Ketzal was saying. “If that’s the beast, we’re gonna be next.”

She had a hand on his arm, oddly warm against his skin, trying to pull him away; but the impact of being thrown from the ship had taken all the strength from her, and all the mobility out of him.

“Come on,” she said. “We have to get out of here, come on–”

Eli read the panic in her voice, but it meant nothing to him. The dark-eyed, soulless thing was methodically ripping apart his ship. His ship. The ship he had worked for, twenty years wearing away the skin of his fingers and the bones of his back in the stone-shafted mines. The ship that had seemed like freedom when he stepped into it for the first time. The ship that had been taking him home. All being shredded and stamped into the blue unworthy earth of an abandoned planet.

He felt like doing a great many things with that creature. Running away from it was not one of them.

Ketzal was still tugging on his arm, and Eli wondered briefly why she hadn’t just left him behind yet. She could have run whenever she wanted, if she hadn’t been so hell-bent on dragging him with her.

Something was glinting in the torn-up earth, catching his eye, and he bent to pick it up.

“Leave the stupid ion laser!” Ketzal shouted at him. “We have to go!”

A laser, Eli thought. He switched it on, and it have him two and a half inches of deadly blue light.

Maybe, he didn’t hate the color blue so much, after all.

And without a thought beyond how dare that thing rip up my ship, he shrugged free of Ketzal’s hold on his arm and strode forward.

“Hey, you!” he roared, as the beast tore another swathe into the ship’s engine. It stopped, looking up at him with dead eyes. The flowering vines were bruised and torn, dripping with thick yellow fuel, but they still swung lazily from its antlers as the beast cocked its head. It turned to focus on him, its deerlike legs high-stepping through the wreckage, and Eli tightened his grip on the ion laser.

“Get away from my ship,” he growled. “Now.”

His heart was pounding. The beast looked a great deal bigger now than it had a moment ago, but the rushing in Eli’s ears had drowned out fear and common sense alike.

When it charged him, Eli was anything but ready.

He’d planned the initial slash of the laser from the moment he’d switched it on. As the beast charged, Eli made a desperate slash at its face, across the twin lenses of its eyes. If it was blind, it was helpless, he remembers thinking.

After that, the great sharp-edged weight of the metal monster was on top of him, and Eli had no plans whatsoever. He stabbed and slashed the laser at whatever he could reach. Hot fuel splashed over his face and arms, burning his skin, and for a moment he was utterly certain he’d just done something monumentally stupid. He was going to die.

Then the metal limbs stopped struggling, and the heavy torso fell still. Eli choked on his own breath. As the pounding of his heart faded, the only sounds to greet it was the dull clicking of a recently disabled machine, and the sharp fizzle of temperamental electricity. Filled with a sudden panic at being trapped under the weight of the dead thing, he struggled, trying to shove it away. Hands were helping him, tugging the corpse away as he pushed it, and he was finally able to breathe. Bruised, certainly, but very much alive.

Ketzal was also alive. Eli stood on shaking legs. Between them lay the shell of the beast, clicking out its last.

“That,” Ketzal panted at him, “Was incredibly idiotic.”

The laser in his hand was still buzzing. Eli clicked it off, still staring at the corpse. He felt a sickly bruise forming on his stomach where one of the beast’s hooves had nearly punctured the skin, and remembered the moment of blinding terror when the thing’s antlers were coming at him and he almost forgot how to duck. A few seconds of forgetfulness more, and it would have been his body on the ground, reduced to meat.

‘idiotic’ seemed like a perfect description.

“Should we have run off and let it kill us both later?” he asked, instead of voicing his thoughts. “It was gonna come for us, either way. Might as well…” He wasn’t sure how to finish that sentence. Words were jumbled, half meaningless, in his brain.

“This is yours,” he said instead, handing the laser back.

The forest was towering again, feeling heavy as the ceiling of a mine shaft above him. Half of his ship had been torn and trampled into the dirt, and the gaping hole left in its side was trailing fuel lines and gears like innards. He was alive, and the thing at his feet was not, but he felt anything but victorious.

“Well then,” Ketzal said beside him. “Looks like we’ve got two broken ships and one ancient, dead…machine thing.” she kicked at it, then looked up at him with a grin. “Between ‘em all, think we can cobble together a working way off this place?”

Eli blinked. The dull hopelessness that had been sneaking up on him stopped in its tracks. He looked at the ground again, trying to see past what was unsalvageable to what was. He saw…parts. A lot of parts.

On the ship’s side, the scrolling script of the painted-on Last had been torn away; it now read, in bold, unaplogetic letters: Chance.

Eli found himself almost grinning back.

“You know,” he said, “I think we can.”

This work is part of a series. The next installment can be read here.


Thank you for reading! Enjoy this story?

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Bazar-Tek and the Lonely Knight

Death Wish

Brevian and the Star Dragon, Part I: Stowaway

Cracks in the Concrete

Prologue:

   Are they called ghost towns because they are occupied by ghosts? Or is the town itself the ghost?

   Perhaps.

   There are no ghost cities. Once abandoned, the towering buildings stand and rot, growing more vines than cobwebs. In the heavy, unethereal silence, the streets are slowly strangled by the growth of trees, becoming nightmarish in their very claustrophobia.

   When a city is left bare, the void is not filled by ghosts or even ghostliness.

   It is filled by monsters.

*   *   *

   Four hours till nightfall.

   Grey took a soft step forward. Moss depressed silently under his feet, and a low groan sounded from the heavy concrete over his head, but he didn’t wince. Tree roots, careless in their pursuit of life, had snaked roughly into the foundations, compromising them. The whole thing would come crumbling down soon; he could only hope that it didn’t do it while he was inside.

   With four hours till nightfall, it was worth the risk.

   He took another step, heart pounding softly as the building groaned again, and saw what he’d come for.

   The pair of does were young. They stuck close to each other, stepping over the grass-and-moss-covered ground with dainty feet, soft-furred, dark-eyed and thoughtless of the danger.

   Or maybe they were hungry too.

   A thin tree, already weakened by having to bury its roots in the unforgiving concrete, was growing wispily by the crumbling wall. Its thin, pale branches thrust through the window, searching for sunlight. The boughs jerked helplessly as the deer began tearing its leaves away with their all-too-efficient teeth.

   Grey sank slowly to his knees, keeping an eye on one of them. Just one. What he wouldn’t give for a rifle. The pistol in his hands was old, if well cared-for; and it had little forgiveness for his occasionally wavering aim. 

   He raised the pistol, squinted along the sight at a section of the doe’s hide that he knew would give way to her heart. His hands weren’t shaking yet, but they felt weak. He took a slow, steadying breath as his finger touched the trigger. One more breath in, and when he exhaled…

   The deer leapt.

   Grey lowered the pistol in surprise, blinking as he tried to see the world beyond his sights again. He hadn’t fired.

   The deer made no noise of pain. Confused, it tried to run, but spun in panicked circles as its companion gave a terrified snort and fled, leaping over Grey on her way to freedom.

   The doe stopped, wide-eyed and trembling.  Fell–gently, as though she half-believed that she was simply lying down.

   Then she was dead. A brown-feathered arrow stuck out of her ribs.

   The building groaned again, and Grey crouched low to the ground as someone laughed.

   Then the someone was there, yellow-haired and gangling, pulling themselves free of a patch of scrub mere feet from where Grey himself hid and walking over to eye the corpse appreciatively.

   “Nice shot, Farwell!” he called over his shoulder, in a voice as bright and unwieldy as his figure. 

   “My thanks,” another voice, also close by, and accompanied by furious rustling as the speaker tried to free himself from stubborn underbrush.

   The first boy grinned. There was bow in his hands, arrow nocked to the string. He slipped the arrow into his belt and looped the bow around his shoulders, drawing a knife in their place as he stepped towards the carcass. He knelt, studying it, and held a hand over the creature’s nose.

    “Dead,” he announced.

    The rustling renewed its energy by way of reply, and the yellow-haired boy glanced up, amused.

   “Do you need some help?” he said.

   There was a loud snap, and another figure stepped free of the bushes, bow looped over his shoulder. He was trying to get a tangle of stickyweed out of his dark hair.

   “What did you just say?”

   The boy kneeling by the deer raised his eyebrows.

   “It’s dead,” he repeated.

   “Good. Wouldn’t want it getting up on us like the last one.”

   “No. Keep your meat here, deer, we need it to live,” the blond boy said, addressing the still figure on the floor.

   “Keep my meat here?” the one called Farwell said, in a horribly pitchy impression of a woman’s voice. “Darling! How forward you are!”

   The blond boy rolled his eyes and snorted unappreciatively.

   “Here, if you’ll just hold her–”

   “Darling!”

   “Just–take a leg–” he faltered, face stiff in an attempt to enforce a little seriousness.

   “Heavens!”

   Wheezing, the blond boy bent over the body of the deer.

   “Shut up and help me,” he managed and Farwell relented, albeit with a cocky grin.

   Gutting the deer was a messy business, made messier by Farwell’s unhelpful good humor.Grey watched from the safety of his pillar, fighting with his own mind. The pistol weighed heavy and warm in his hand, and the stink of entrails carried a similar weight in the damp and motionless air. Both brought back unwelcome memories. The boys’ sharp joking and choked laughter were unfamiliar, foreign. Grey had half set himself to edging away, quiet and unnoticed, to escape the strangeness of the scene, but he stayed, watching. Listening. Not sure why he wished to do either.

    It was the deer, he thought. He’d taken the majority of the day to track and follow it.

   Three and a half hours till nightfall.

   A little more hunger, and his arms would weaken, his hands would shake, and his chances of surviving what lingered in the dark would be cut to a third of what they were now.

   The boys were so young. So seemingly innocent.

   But Grey was hungry.

   He stepped out from behind the pillar, holding the pistol doubtfully, as though it were a shield and not a weapon.

   Farwell, between jokes and preoccupied in wrestling the deer’s innards free of its carcass, took the longest to notice him. The blond boy looked up when the building groaned, intending to make sure the ceiling remained where it belonged. He never got around to looking at the ceiling. His eyes were caught halfway to their goal, on Grey, and on the gun in Grey’s hands.

   There was a second of silence as they stared at one another.

   Then one of the blond boy’s hands went questing, bumping against Farwell’s shoulder, and he looked up as well, grin on his face faltering into an odd kind of blankness as he looked from his companion to Grey. He stood, red up to his elbows with the gutting knife still in his hands, and Grey kept the gun trained half-heartedly on his unprotected chest. Behind him, the blond boy was still crouching, but with one careful hand on his bow and another reaching subtly for the arrow in his belt.

Strangers.

   Grey had been hoping, foolishly, that they would take one look at the gun and run. But of course they didn’t. It wasn’t only the potential loss of two precious bullets that weighed on Grey’s heart at the realization.

   There was a clean-edged silence as the parking garage groaned again, protesting so many figures weighing down its abused frame.

   Unexpectedly, Farwell smiled at him.

   “Hello, stranger.” There wasn’t even a hint of wariness in his voice. He glanced at the gun–in a cursory, unfearful way that set Grey back a step–and then at the deer on the ground. He rubbed the back of his neck, a ridiculously boyish gesture that lowered Grey’s defenses farther than any words could have.

   “Ah,” he said. “You were hunting.”

   And we beat you to it, hung unsaid in the air. The yellow-haired boy was gripping his bow as if to say, and it’s ours now, so back off, old man.

   Grey nodded, trying to steel his muscles into raising the pistol, calculating which of the boys to drop first. Somehow, his arms didn’t want to respond. It was the heat, he thought, making him sluggish.

   “Well, it’s a good hunk of meat,” Farwell said. “Enough for all of us. Care to share?”

   His face was as honest as an idiot’s. Grey could only blink in response.

   “I’m Farwell. This is Golf.”

   Golf looked as surprised by Farwell’s statement as Grey was. He looked on the verge of disagreement for a moment, but slowly, his hand relaxed its grip on his bow, and Grey could only lower the pistol in response.

   They finished gutting the deer, and Golf’s mood improved considerably when Grey offered to carry it.

   The building groaned in relief as they left it. From the outside, it looked like even more of a monstrosity than from the inside. With the headache-inducing weight of the doe bearing down hard on his shoulders and its blood seeping warmly into the cloth of his shirt, Grey spared a glance behind at the overgrown thing. Green vines were overtaking it, snaking through the old stone and half-withering in the heat. The whole building would come down soon, crushing whatever was still inside; but then the trees would come and grow over it, like they were already growing over everything else.

   The deer was heavy, and Golf impatient. Grey turned away again before he could decide whether he liked the picture in his mind–of a city fallen to pieces and a forest growing alive and well over the top of it.

*   *   *

   Three hours till nightfall.

   The streets had moss and saplings encroaching on them, but they were streets all the same. A dead traffic light, dark against the twilit sky, leaned crookedly over the intersection, a bird’s nest sitting atop it like an ill-conceived hat. Yellow-painted lines stained the hard grey ground. The tops of the buildings–the ones that still stood–were green with foliage and gold with sunset. The air was thick and damp.

   “Much farther?” Grey asked, the deer on his shoulders weighing more than a man.

   “Not much,” Farwell replied, and Grey gritted his teeth.

   It was only a block later that Farwell turned down a ramp, and Grey stumbled after him. As brick walls rose on either side of them, the hellish heat began to abate a little.

The ramp led down into a cool hollow beneath a thick old building, somehow still standing strong in spite of the years and the vines. A cook-fire smoldered in the deepening shadows, and Grey dumped the deer beside it gratefully, breathing hard and blinking past the sudden dizziness.

   “Welcome to the camp!” Golf announced, giving him a slap on the shoulder that, like the words, was too sharp to be truly friendly. Grey responded with an ironic smile.

   Farwell was looking around the camp doubtfully.

   “Where’s Christy?”

   “I don’t know. I got here the same time as you,” Golf said.

   “I thought you’d have some sort of sense for her. She’s your wife.”

   “So I should know where she is all the time? You shared a womb with her, go activate some super-senses of your own.”

   “Or maybe one of you could look around for a change. I don’t hover around the fire all day, you know,” a voice–a woman’s voice–said, and Grey turned around.

   Tall as Farwell, with a wild mess of dark hair tied behind her head, she was walking down the ramp with all the grace of a deer, one eyebrow raised with Farwell’s humor, and a gentle smile gracing her lips that was all her own. A rifle was slung over her back, and she carried a jug that sloshed heavily with each step.

   Golf went to her, taking the jug and planting a gentle kiss on her lips. Farwell gave them both a crooked grin, but Grey looked away, turning back to the dead doe, which needed skinning yet. Somehow, he had forgotten how to begin about the business, and he was standing, knife in his hand and staring down at the dead thing, when Golf plunked the jug of water down next to him.

   “We brought back a deer,” he told his wife victoriously.

   “And a guest,” Farwell added, kneeling by the fire. Out of the corner of his eye, Grey caught the slight nod aimed in his direction, and he turned around, hurrying to return the unused knife to its sheath.

   Christy looked at him. There was a sharpness, a wariness in her eyes like Golf’s, but her smile was as sincere as her brother’s.

   “Welcome, then,” she said, extending a callused hand that still felt soft and delicate in Grey’s own. “I’m Christy.”

   “Grey,” he replied, cautious.

   And then she moved on, taking over the stoking of the fire as Farwell and Golf moved to skin the deer, working together with practiced efficiency.

   Grey quickly became useless. Limbs worn and weary, he sat, leaning against one of the pillars that supported the building. His skin prickled uncomfortably, the blood that had stained his shirt slowly drying, leaving the fabric stiff and sticky. The smell of it was sickly, but not unfamiliar.

   Grey had not lived through the aftershocks of the end of the world for nothing.

   They said, when the cracks had appeared in the thirsty soil and the green things disappeared, that it was Man’s fault. But when everything was dead and the world was reduced to rock and sand, whose fault it was had somehow…ceased to matter.

   The horrors of the Dust Age, though, had been everyone’s fault.

   Grey’s included.

   He remembered it too well. A world where food and water alike were scarce, where everyone was an enemy. You became as hard and dead as the ground beneath your feet and survived, or you…didn’t.

   He was very good at surviving. But somehow, along the way, he’d forgotten why he wanted to.

*   *   *

   One hour till nightfall.

   The air was still thick and over-warm, but the suffocating power had gone out of it. Though the sky was still bright as day, the cook-fire was casting flickering shadows over the brick walls that surrounded them all. The meat that was cooking over it smelled like heaven.

   “Think the dogs’ll come tonight?” Farwell asked, breaking the relative silence. He was looking up the ramp thoughtfully, and Grey followed his gaze.

   “Well, they’ve come almost every night until now,” Christy said lightly. “I don’t see why they would stop now.”

   The sizzling meat was distracting. Grey’s stomach felt like a hard-edged pit. Farwell turned away from the darkening ramp, eyes troubled.

   “But why?”

   “We’re easy prey?” Golf suggested, and Farwell responded with a snort.

   “Not that easy. The deer don’t fight back; why do they never hunt them?”

  Grey was listening more intently now, and he didn’t realize that he planned on opening his mouth until he was already speaking.

   “They won’t eat deer. Not willingly,” he said, feeling his voice as something out of place, foreign to the little group. It sounded rough and harsh and wrong, but they were looking at him now, curious, so he had no choice but to explain. He shrugged, as if what he was saying didn’t matter much. “They’re not wolves, or really dogs either. The lords of the Dust Age bred them to hunt humans.”

   And Grey was old enough, stained enough, to remember the breeding. Golf looked as though he was going to be sick.

   “Well,” Farwell said, with a dry attempt at humor, “That answers it.”

   Christy nodded, taking the skewers of meat from the fire.

   “Guests first,” she said, handing one to Grey, and that was end of the matter.

*   *   *

   Nightfall.

   Golf and Christy talked, but Farwell was looking at the sky, watching the darkness sink in.

   Grey, for his part, was silent. He ate with abandon, and was surprised to get a second helping when he asked for it. He consoled himself with the thought that he’d carried the deer, at least. Perhaps he deserved as much of it as his stomach could hold.

   But these people didn’t seem to care much for the idea of deserving or not deserving. They just…gave. And the giving was as different from what Grey was used to as the green-grown ruins were different from the desertish wilds of the Dust Age.

   Golf cracked a joke that Grey didn’t understand, but which made Christy roll her eyes and Farwell almost spit out his mouthful of meat. Grey was halfway to a smile himself when a sound silenced them all.

   A howl.

   Grey froze at the sound, old terrors coming to seize his muscles, fingers tightening uselessly around open air.

   Christy snatched up her rifle and the half-empty jug of water, beginning to retreat to the hulking building behind them in the manner of a soldier doing a drill.

  “Got your knife?” Farwell asked, fear behind his eyes, and Golf nodded silently, then turned to Grey.

   “That gun of yours loaded?” he asked, and Grey looked at him blankly for a moment.

  “I’ve got a few bullets left.”

   Over the course of the evening, Grey had started to think of these boys as men. But out here, in the dark with the dogs hacking and howling all around, he saw them right again. Just boys. Frightened, softhearted boys; the Dust Age would have eaten them alive.

   But the Dust Age was not here. Just its ghosts.

   And Grey had been haunted long enough.

   The peculiar baying grew louder, and Grey stood, feeling for the knife at his belt. Gun in one hand, knife in the other. Hoping his hands wouldn’t start shaking. He could drop a couple of the dogs before he had to start hacking at them, at least.

   And like a flash flood, the dogs were there, pouring down the ramp. In the dull red light of a dying fire, the pack had an unholy look to it, and though Grey had never been a religious man, but he could have used a prayer right then, some sign or gesture to ward off evil.

   All he had was his gun.

   Three bullets–the last three bullets–were spent. He didn’t know if any of them hit their mark or not; it was impossible to tell. The crack of a rifle sounded from somewhere above them–Christy, thinning out the pack as best she could. A dog leapt for Grey’s throat, and he stepped out of its way, stabbing at it as it fell. The dogs were swarming, tripping over one another in their eagerness for meat. Grey could hold his own against them–he had before–but out of the corner of his eye, he saw Golf stumble–recover, barely–and knew that these boys could not. Not when the dogs were this desperate, and this many.

   With a growl of his own deep in his throat, Grey surged into the pack, their bodies bumping against his legs as they tried to turn and snap at him, to bring him down.

   But Grey was a child of the Dust Age. He did not fall so easy. He hacked at them–it was impossible to miss–ignoring the warm spray that started to stain his hands, his face, as one by one the beasts yelped and fell away, only to be replaced by another. No matter how many dogs he cut down, another was there to jump at him. Teeth sank into his arm, his leg. His world was tiny and panic-tanged and there was blood in his teeth.

   For the first time since he had stepped out from behind that pillar to be met with a smile, he felt at home.

   But his arms were growing weak, his feet unsteady, and when the next dog leapt for him, he fell under its weight. The world flashed white for a second as his head cracked against the hard ground, and when his vision cleared, he saw one of them standing on his chest, snarling. He snarled back.

   Fitting, that the monsters of the Dust Age would kill one another.

   The rifle cracked again, sharp and clear in Grey’s muzzy-headed world, and the weight on his chest slid off, leaving Grey coughing, spitting bitter liquid onto the ground and trying vainly to struggle to his feet.

   “Get up!” Golf shouted in his ear, hauling him to his feet and shoving him back, shielding him as another dog leapt at them both. Slashed at it, wildly, and it fell with a yelp.

   None leapt up to take its place.

   Grey blinked. Farwell was tearing his blade free of another dog, and one more was fleeing, whining as it went. The rifle cracked once more, and it tripped over its own feet, then went still.

   They were all dead. Every one. And Farwell was looking across them at Grey, a hint of caution in his eyes.

    Christy ran out of the building, barreling to Golf to wrap him in a hug, and Grey felt the tiredness in his bones grow. He let the bloody knife in his hand drop to his side, and he stared at it, watching the red drip from the blade to the ground, until a scratch of booted feet against asphalt told him that someone was standing nearby. He looked up to find Farwell giving him a curious look.

   “You know the dogs,” he said, glancing at the pile of bodies, then back to Grey.

   “I was there when they were made,” Grey said with a forced chuckle. He condemned himself with the words. But the marks of his past were on his very skin, and he was a fool if he thought he could hide them. He was a ghost, a relic, hard and cruel and useless as the dead city that surrounded them, and these people–they were the green as the life that would grow best when he was gone.

   But Farwell was watching him, considering, no joke lighting his dark eyes for once.

   “Well. There are more packs than that one around, and–I’m glad to have you with us. We wouldn’t have survived the night without you.”

   The fire flared up again, the red light turning gold as Golf piled more fuel onto it, and Grey’s head came up as he realized what he’d heard. He’d been resigned to leaving, almost set on it. And now he was standing on the edge of the firelight, with the night behind him and Farwell’s idiotic welcome before–and it was too much.

   He found himself chuckling again without meaning it.

   “I’ve killed a lot of dogs,” he said, intending a harshness that wouldn’t come. “And–a lot more than dogs. Don’t thank me, boy; killing’s my business. Has been, since long before you.”

   It was then that he realized he was covered with blood, painted red with it. His hair was sticky with the stuff, his clothes dyed in it, his hands–

   Oh, his hands had been red for a long time.

   But Farwell wasn’t listening.

   “They got to you,” he noted, nodding to Grey’s leg, where the blood wasn’t drying. The dog-bite was sore and throbbing, and his arm was a mass of pain, and Grey realized that if he did walk back into the dark, he wouldn’t get far.

   “Come back to the fire,” Farwell said, reaching out a hand to Grey’s shoulder. “We’ll patch you up.”

   The fire was blazing gold now, terrifying as a sunrise, but the familiar dark was lonely, and that was so much worse.

   So with stumbling, pain-racked steps, Grey let himself be pulled towards the light.

 

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