029 – Chasm

The flames grew on Zee’s hand. Ben stared, shocked for a moment. When she cried out in pain, his mind snapped into action. He disassembled the metal cast on her injured arm. He swirled the tungsten into a sphere around her hand. Platinum from the ring on his finger and silver from the stud on his ear added volume. He grabbed Zee’s arm.

“Hold still,” he said. He shaped the tungsten around the fire, shrinking the spaces between the molecules, replacing air with platinum and silver. He vented the fire’s oxygen, and the flames died on Zee’s hand. She cried at the pain of her burnt fingers and fell to her knees. Ben released the metal from her hand, and air stung her raw skin. Zee’s hand shook, skin bubbled and blistered.

Ben looked back at the young man. “Stay away from me,” the young man shouted, his voice a warning. Ben felt warmth grow on his own arm. He gasped and wrapped his arm around Zee’s waist. He half-pulled, half-carried her, and they backed into the darkness of the building. They slumped, gasping, against a moldy wall. Zee whimpered, her blistered hand shaking out in front of her.

“It hurts,” she said.

“Shit,” Ben said. Carbon swirled from his belt. He wrapped it around Zee’s hand like a glove. He closed his eyes and created vents that swept cool air over her skin. Zee gasped in relief.

“What the hell,” she said, gasping, “was that?”

Ben shook his head. “Not a drone.”

“What are we going to do?”

“Wait for Rice?” Ben said. “She’ll bring guns.”

Zee forcefully calmed her breathing. She shook out the pain and fear. “He was just a child,” she said.

“He was my age, and he somehow grew a freaking fire on your hand,” Ben said, his voice wavering. “He tried to hurt you.”

Zee turned her gaze on him. Mud smudged her face and sweat glued wet strands of loose black hair to her pale forehead. “He was afraid, wasn’t he?” she asked.

Ben looked away from her. “I don’t know,” he said.

“Yes, you do. You always know,” Zee said. Ben didn’t answer. Zee nodded. “He was afraid, and I’m just an analog. No harm done.”

Ben glared at her. “You can’t—”

Zee struggled to her feet. “Stay here,” she said.

“Wait. What? What’re you doing?”

“I’m going to try talking to him before we shoot him,” Zee said, turning. “I am the business liaison, after all. Negotiation is what I do.”

“Like you did on Helioset?” Ben asked, the dark words snapping from his mouth too quickly for him to stop them.

Zee’s back stiffened. “I do what I have to,” she said, her voice quiet. She covered the pain with coldness. He closed his eyes, wishing he could take back the words. The tectonic plates creaked apart, widening the rift between them. Everything he thought of to say in the seconds before she walked away felt like throwing a grain of sand into a chasm.

Still, he threw a muttered, “Sorry,” into it. The word echoed hopelessly as she stepped away from him and into the gray light.

 

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028 – Fire in the Rain

Bodies shifted in the darkness. Townies. Along with cannibals and somatics, necrophiles and flesh traders, townies made up the nightmares that residents of Rust told their children to keep them home at night. People of the dark, devolved humans, they’d lived generations in the deep parts of Rust, living on fish and garbage, stealing children and food from those who lived above the water level. Every child of Rust knew the stories.

Boss had told him the worst of them. She relished in describing the long grasping fingers, slicing claws, lank hair twined with moss and garbage. The townies that surrounded Zee and Ben remained just beyond the tab light, whispering. Disjointed words wafted through the dark.

“What should we do?” Zee asked.

“We need more light,” Ben said, breathless with fear. His eyes shined in the tab light, wide and darting. His hand shook on the gun.

“Stay calm,” Zee said, voice soft. The pain in her head dulled, becoming a low ache. The millites began healing her wounds, tingling in her arm. She placed her fingers on the gun in Ben’s hand, touching his cold skin. He blinked and half turned towards her.

“Stay calm,” she repeated with an evenness she didn’t feel. Something shifted in his eyes, and he stopped trembling. She took the gun from him and held it pointed towards the darkness, forcing her hands steady. “Besides they haven’t attacked us. Maybe they won’t.”

Wincing through the pain still pulsing in her arm, Zee pushed herself in front of Ben. Though a thin defense, her lease agreement required her to protect his wellbeing with her own body if required. The pain and the fear made stepping forward difficult. When he stood in front of her, even while scared, she felt safer, protected. In her head, she knew he should not have come down here to help her, but she also felt glad that he had.

Zee sighed. “Use the nanoblade. Go back to the upper floors,” she said.

“I can’t—”

“Don’t argue with me, Ben. Your safety is more important than mine.”

“No,” Ben said. “I mean I can’t go back up that way.”

“You flew down here, but you can’t fly back up?”

Ben shook his head. “I can only slow my fall,” he said. “Would probably have to OD on soma to go back up. The nanoblade can’t lift.”

Zee sighed in frustration. “How are we supposed to get out of here?”

“The stairs you fell through also went down,” Ben said. He nodded into the darkness. “There should be a stairway over on that wall.”

Staring at him, Zee said, “If there were stairs leading down here, why didn’t you take them?”

“Falling straight down was faster,” Ben said. “Plus the stairs probably would have fallen apart.” As they argued the townies had inched closer until Ben and Zee could hear their breathing. Ben shuffled closer to her and the gun. He gulped. “You don’t really want me to leave, do you?”

Zee edged closer to him. “Well no,” she said, a tremble in her voice. “I guess not.”

One of the townies made a louder noise, somewhere between a grunt and a word, making both of them jump. Zee’s hand tensed on the gun. “Should I shoot?” she asked him.

“I don’t know,” Ben said. “Maybe a warning shot over their heads.”

Zee angled the gun upwards. The same townie made another grunting noise and shuffled forward into the light. Rags barely covered the muscular body of the male townie that appeared from the darkness. Dark hair hung lank and tangled on skeletal shoulders. Grasping fingers swept the floor dragging from a hunched back. Zee tensed. “What?” she whispered.

“They can’t talk,” Ben said through chattering teeth.

“No, he said something,” she said. She turned to the townie, still a few arm-lengths away from them. She lowered the gun and stepped toward him.

“Wait, Zee,” Ben said.

“It’s fine,” she said. Ben tensed, his pupils constricting. He watched the townie warily as Zee moved forward.

“We won’t hurt you,” Zee said, her voice clear and even. “Please let us go.” The man grunted again, but Zee couldn’t understand. “What?” she asked.

“Hep,” the man said. He paused, biting his lips. “Help,” he said, ending the word in a grunting growl.

“Help with what?” Zee asked. The man waved for them to follow. He turned and spoke gibberish into the darkness. Bodies moved, feet squelching on garbage. Ben tensed, but then relaxed. “What happened?” Zee asked him.

“The others moved away,” he said. He nodded towards the townie who had moved outside the light created by the tabs. “I think he wants us to follow him.”

“Maybe he knows where the drone is,” Zee said.

Ben winced. “I forgot about the drone.”

Zee glanced at her tab. “We’re running out of time.” Ahead of them, the townie grunted in the darkness. “But he might be leading us to exactly what we came for.”

“Or something way, way worse,” Ben said.

“He didn’t look like he had any weapons,” Zee said. “And we have a gun.” She began following after the townie, the light of her tab moving slowly away from Ben. As their two lights separated, the darkness grew darker. Ben hurried to catch up to her.

They followed the townie past piles of trash invisible in the dark. Water slithered all around them as the rain infiltrated the building. The sound muffled the stealthy movements of the other townies, who remained out of sight beyond their lights. The ceiling dipped downward, either because the roof was collapsing or because they had entered a smaller hallway.

The townie became visible ahead of them, his dark silhouette outlined by a slightly lighter gray. They neared a space where the roof and wall had collapsed completely. A diffuse gray light filtered inside and a curtain of water fell and puddled on the floor before plummeting into the dark depths of the building. The townie stopped and raised a long fingered hand. He pointed at a small pile of clothes.

“Is it the drone?” Zee asked craning her neck to peer over the stooped man. He stepped aside to let her and Ben pass. They approached the pile of garbage carefully. Ben froze and put his hand out to stop Zee.

“No,” he whispered. “It’s a person.” The young man slept in a small pile of clothes, his limbs curled up to his chest. The clothes and his hair steamed in the damp air. Ben looked back at Zee. She stared at the tab on her wrist. “What?” he asked.

“The drone signal is emanating most strongly from the same spot,” she said. She looked back at the young man and took a step towards him. The townie put a claw on her arm. Zee gasped and Ben tensed, but the townie didn’t move to harm her.

“D-dane,” he said. “Danger.” He held up his other hand. Ben and Zee stared. The skin had been seared, curled away and bubbled from heat, nails blackened. Together, Ben and Zee both looked back at the young man. He had awakened and stared at them, dark eyes intense, from beneath the heap of clothes.

Zee felt a heat on her face. Despite the cold air, sweat gathered at her neck line. She blinked and reached up to touch her cheek, but she stopped and stared at her hand. Gasped as a flame licked her fingers. Knife hot pain. She stumbled back, too shocked to scream. Ben turned towards her, confusion on his face. The townie fled.

“I told you to stay away from me,” the young man shouted.

The flames engulfed her entire hand. Zee screamed.

 

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Journey from Home

This poem was inspired by Ten Words on Facebook and is also posted there.

This is the way the stars shine
bright over hills empty but for fire’s rind
in coarse grass, too dry for flowers to grow
the silhouettes dig an hour or so,
staining the night with sweat sour
breath a huff hot with power
scratching at dirt pack,
breaking shovel and back
ground won’t give an inch
give it up, roll ‘im in a low ditch
father stands in respect, hat to chest
brother squats on hard heels and reflects,
dry men on dry earth
pushed from the land of their birth
mother and child search the dark for stones
cringe at every breath the wind moans
weave a pebble blanket over his body
a heavy weight to keep out coyote
they move on, wagon wheels squeaking
he stays, forgotten in their speaking,
and builds a fire in
his private cavern
to keep out night
and blind the twinkling starlight
‘til the winds make the grass bow
and buzzards find him anyhow
and that day star bleaches his skull
and gives the dreams room to grow

027 – Shuffling Dark

Zee opened her eyes to darkness and a jagged lightning bolt of pain in her head. A cold fire grew in her arm. A cry of pain leaked out between her lips, but she managed to sit up. Tab screen still intact, she shined it around, the small light smearing. She wiped her tears roughly and felt around for the gun. Couldn’t find it.

The dark smelled of wet garbage, moldy wood, and cold. The pain narrowed her awareness, made her alone and vulnerable. Zee heard something shift nearby and froze. Her eyes widened against the darkness, nostrils flaring in fear. Not alone. She listened for another sound.

“Zee!” Ben’s frantic voice screamed down into the darkness. She looked up and saw a shimmering source of light far above her. Droplets of water sparkled.

She coughed. “Here,” she shouted up at him, but her voice sounded weak in her own ears. “Here,” she attempted at a louder volume. “Think I broke my arm.”

“I’m coming down,” Ben said. He moved as he spoke so that she wasn’t sure she heard right. The light shivered a moment later. Sodden wood particles, moss, and water fell on her as something large plummeted towards her from above. The light grew, then paused in mid-fall a few meters over her head. She shifted her tab and could see he hovered, crouched on a thin metal platform.

He descended at an angle and touched down on the filthy floor next to her. The metal collapsed in on itself, flashing with energy that left patterns of light hovering in her vision. She stared at him. “You flew,” she heard herself mumble.

“No,” he said, breathless from exertion. “Fell. Slowly.”

“My arm is broken,” said Zee.

“Which one?” Ben asked.

“Left.”

Ben touched her arm gently, and Zee sucked in a breath through her teeth at the pain. “Sorry,” Ben said quietly. “Stay still,” he said and closed his eyes. The metal flashed again and swirled around her skin, seeped beneath the sleeve of her gray jumpsuit, and felt its way up her arm. “Carbon buffers and vents will let your skin breath,” he said under his breath. He opened his eyes as he finished shaping an immovable cast that covered her arm from her fingertips to the top of her shoulder. “That should prevent movement and pain until the millites can do their work.”

“Okay,” said Zee. She whimpered and closed her eyes. “I hit my head.” Ben reached forward with the lit tab and examined her head. He sucked in a breath. “How bad is it?” Zee asked.

“Pretty big cut,” he said. “You’re going to have a bump, but there’s not much I can do for it now. Stay still for a moment.”

“I lost my gun,” said Zee.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“No.” Zee half stood, but the pain in her head tilted everything and she sat back down. “There’s something else down here,” she said.

Ben tensed. “What?”

“I heard something—”

“Falling debris?” he supplied.

“Maybe…no. It sounded stealthy.”

“Shit,” Ben said. His nostrils flared in the light of her tab, and his eyes settled immediately on a section of the floor. He bent to pick up the gun and pointed it into the darkness.

“See anything?” Zee asked.

Without answering, Ben handed her his tab and stepped forward, his entire body tense. Slowly, slowly. He disappeared outside the circle of light emanating from the tab screens. Zee heard only his footsteps. Then nothing.

She tensed and bit her lip against the fear that wanted to climb up out of her throat. Seconds dragged themselves torturously by. The silence stretched and seemed to pull on her. Zee held her breath, listening hard for any sound.

Finally, she heard a small noise. Then the sound of his returning footsteps. Zee didn’t release her held breath until he appeared again in the light of the tab. He crouched down in front of her.

In a low voice, he said, “We need to leave. Can you stand?”

“I-I think,” said Zee, keeping her voice low as well. She struggled to her feet. Ben grabbed her good arm to help her up. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“We are surrounded by townies,” he said. Though he kept a casual tone, she could feel him trembling.

Surrounded didn’t sound good, but “What are townies?” Zee asked.

“Monsters,” Ben said.

 

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026 – The Governor’s Drone

Ben lifted a hand to pull the plastic hood of his rain jacket farther forward. Rain dripped an incessant, offbeat cadence from the dark gray sky onto the corrugated steel of the nearby shanties and the chain link fence that had been strung horizontally across the gap between buildings. Rice leaned over the gap, Hexsuit pneumatics hissing, and looked down at the drop into the water fifty feet below the rickety bridge.

“That’s not going to hold my Hexsuit,” she said, her voice grim. She stepped back and swore, then leaned over and looked across the gap at the building, a dilapidated, neon sign-plastered mid-rise with just the original top few floors above water level. A mess of structures had been built on the roof, piled one on top of the other like a half-played Jenga game. Black windows stared through glowing lights, and moss grew on the rotting wood and gray adobo façade. The rickety chain link fence connected the Third Avenue Bridge to a darkened hole in the building’s side.

“You’re sure it’s in there?” Rice asked, turning to Zee.

Zee nodded inside the hood of her rain coat. She looked strange in a dark gray jumpsuit and boots instead of her usual business attire. “GPS says this is it, and witness statements corroborate,” she said.

“But they couldn’t tell us the building doesn’t have Hex accessibility?” Rice said.

“They said it did,” Zee said. “I think they meant that.” She nodded at the chain link bridge.

“Can you jump the gap, Rice?” Ben asked. He fidgeted and ran a hand over his eyebrow, picking at a scab. The Hexsuit had begun to attract an audience, a handful of observers that would withstand the rain for a front row seat to even a hint of violence. Their curiosity put goosebumps on the back of his neck.

Rice shook her head, the Hexsuit barely twitching. “I’m not risking Freda for one of the governor’s stupid toys.”

“We need to go,” said Zee, glancing at her built-in tab. “The drone’s battery will run out soon and then its resistance systems won’t be able to protect it from the elements.”

“Shit,” said Ben. He paused only a moment longer. “Rice head back to the hangar to secure the Hexsuit. I’ll head in and try to locate the drone—”

“You can’t go in without backup—”

“Zee will back me up,” Ben said. He glanced at Zee. “Do you have a gun?”

Zee blinked. “Yes, but—”

Ben nodded and turned to Rice. “Once you’ve dropped off the Hexsuit, follow us.”

“I don’t like this, Ben,” Rice said. “You’re supposed to be—”

“I’m fine. Everything’s fine,” he said. “Let’s go.” He moved toward the chain link bridge and tested it with his weight. It creaked when he placed one foot on it, but it held. He began edging across, arms out for balance. “Seems to be stable,” he called without taking his eyes off the chain link surface. “But wait until I’m all the way across before—”

“Oh,” said Zee. He looked back over his shoulder to find her right behind him, arms out for balance. “Oops,” she said.

Ben grimaced, but turned to focus on the bridge. “Keep going,” he said. The bridge turned out to be stronger than it looked, but it still creaked and jingled ominously as they moved across it. They reached the other side after a few breathless moments.

Ben looked back. Rice had gone, and with her departure the crowd had dispersed, disappointed that the Hexer hadn’t done anything interesting. Zee had drawn a handgun, a small semi-automatic.

She cleared her throat and said, “I don’t typically do this kind of work.”

“Know how to fire that gun?” Ben asked.

“There have been a few occasions that required it,” said Zee.

Ben scratched his eyebrow. “Really? When wa—”

“We’re running out of time,” Zee said.

Clapping his mouth shut, Ben turned to the building. He stepped towards the dark hole that served as the entrance. He paused at the darkness and Zee shone the light of her built-in tab, pointing it away from her face. It brightened to illuminate the space just inside the building. Though intact, the floor looked half-rotted, and the walls dripped with slime and algae. Clear footprints on the moldy floor indicated someone had been there recently. Most buildings in Rust served as shelter no matter how dilapidated they were.

“If there’s anyone in here, they’ll be on the lower floors,” he said. “We should avoid them.”

“The drone’s signal is stronger downward,” said Zee. “We’ll have to look for it on the lower floors. We have the governor’s charter, so no one will bother us.”

Ben muttered something about wishful thinking and shifted to step forward, but Zee placed a restraining hand on his shoulder. “I’ll go first and test the floor,” she said. Ben opened his mouth to argue, but Zee glared at him. “I should have gone first to test the bridge,” she said.

“Should have?” Ben snapped.

“Are we going to do this now?” she asked. “We are running out of time.” She watched the battle on his face. Zee nodded as he swallowed back his arguments.

Pointing the tab embedded in her arm forward, Zee held her gun up and swung it into the illuminated space. She cleared the room visually before entering. Beyond the short landing, a flight of stairs led up and down. Zee moved towards the first step.

She heard the crack of wood and paused. Shifting her weight, Zee lifted her foot to step back. The floor disintegrated beneath her feet. Her stomach swooped into her throat, and she forgot to scream. She released the gun. Hands flailed for something, anything. The floor flew up, splinters and darkness tumbled her around. A wood spar struck her head and darkness swallowed her vision in a red flash of pain.

 

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