This morning, another contribution to early world building, this time by AK Alliss. This one is set long after the Fall, and presages a pretty grim, neo-barbarian future, but with remnant technologies and emergent structure.
There's some cool environmental details too. I liked this exchange between two of the protagonists.
“Are you crazy?” She points towards the clouds. “We’re gonna be shredded if that hammer front catches us.”
Kurt is already picturing hail the size of house bricks.
And this line, describing a small moment between Kurt and Sonja is very well done.
Whatever he does with his mouth is not a smile...
Finding new ways of describing simple expressions or exchanges like smiles or frowns or whatever, is surprisingly difficult. That one leapt out at me.
Enjoy the story, if your tastes run to forbidding reboots of the Dark Ages, and of course, feel free to send me your own. Having got two such different prices from AK and Jason, I've already got a few ideas about how to structure any companion volume as an anthology.
And of course, if you like AK's stuff, check him out at Amazon.
Sonja never ran. Not when the painted men had come for her family. Not even when they had come for her next. Every time she looks at the faint line of pale flesh on her wrist she thinks of the steel plate they had lashed her to and remembers its heat. At some time before she was born it had dislodged from the skeletal framework clawing skyward above it. Her father had told her the story plenty of times on their way past it to the path that went long miles to the Slice. But that had happened long before she had been born.
Lowering that scarred wrist from the thick band of steel encircling her neck, she takes a grateful sip through puckered lips from the small thimble of water. It’s all they allow her, rationed of course and she knows better than to ask for more. Her furtive glance reaches out for Jacob’s head, impaled above the work area on a sharpened pike of timber. This is what had happened when the boy had asked for more.
His once blonde hair, bleached by the sun, acted as a marker for time, and its wisped texture flutters in the morning breeze. That breeze is sullen and stinks of painted man shit. Cleaning their latrine pits is her next job after scrubbing the blood from their uniforms. She slows her movements deliberately to prolong the inevitable. She almost envies Jacob and his silent, immobile, watch.
A thick hands rasps itself across her stubbled scalp and then stops, the fingers lingering there, almost fatherly. Nothing like her real father’s touch though as it pulls back and then slaps hard against the back of her skull. It isn’t anywhere near as hard as what she has received before, but her vision still goes bright with the impact. She keeps her eyes on her hands and her hands on the brush and the brush on the thick fabric of the bloody uniform.
“You’re taking too long, Sonja.” The way the painted man says her name, it’s like they’ve been friends for a long time. “Captain doesn’t like it when his little Crows take too long.”
Crows. Pigeons. Doves. It was always birds. Tomorrow it might be Chicken. You never wanted to be Chicken. Her eyes flicker again to Jacob’s detached head and she thinks of his missing torso.
She does look up at the slaver then, because she thinks that he likes her better when she shows a little spirit. He has a large gap between his front teeth, which gives his words a slight whistle. His beard is thicker than it had been the last time she had seen him and the gap is there now, lodged in the centre of his broad smile. He puts his tongue in front of it, looking like he is trying to dislodge something before it retreats within his mouth. His eyes are bright circles of pale blue in a thick green band of inky paint that spreads from ear to ear, crossing the bridge of his nose.
“No words today?” He peers, shielding his eyes as he studies their silent companion, Jacob, taking in the head’s empty sockets. “Well, that makes two of you, huh?”
His laugh rumbles upwards from his belly, pouring from his mouth. It is a good natured laugh and at odds with the man who delivers it. He reaches down and yanks Sonja to her feet and she stumbles before he straightens her.
“I haven’t finished.” Her voice comes out as a dry croak and all she can think is that he was right to call her Crow this time. Better Crow than Chicken at least.
The man clouts her again and she nearly vomits because this time it is delivered much harder than before. She staggers forward but his hand in her collar stops her from sprawling face first in the red dirt of the ground.
“I tell you when you’re finished.” His breath is a hiss as he squats beside her and leans into the threat. “You wouldn’t want to be tonight’s Chick-“
She is confused by the warm spray that hits her cheek and she flinches away from a third blow that never comes.
“Get up.” The voice is cold and flat and not the painted man’s.
From somewhere beyond her line of sight, where she stares at the spreading pool of blood pushing its way slowly across the dirt, she can hear the sound of gunfire. She turns her head and sees the slaver lying face down, his lips still moving and faint groans escaping from his mouth. All she can think is that all the while she had been the man’s bird, she had never learnt his name. She rolls over, the collar chafing her neck as her hands find the ground beneath her.
Flat brown eyes beneath thick brows look over her head and their owner points. Sonja looks behind her and sees a woman. The woman shouts something, but her words are snatched away by the wind. The man standing above her appears to hear though and nods, then points behind him. He reaches down and scoops Sonja up as if she weighs nothing. She kicks but he braces her legs against his chest and tosses her over his shoulder, her world view becoming nothing but his back and the swaying ground beneath his feet. She guesses that the serious man is following the woman, but from this position, nothing is clear. More gunfire and it sounds louder this time, punctuated by shouts of fear that are cut short and when the gunfire falls silent, the final shot rolls in an echoing call. She is lowered to the ground and feels his fingers at the collar around her throat and for the first time she realises that his hands are not real.
The thick plastic of them feels alien after the long touch of her unnamed captor’s own grubby hands. A precise finger pins the space beneath her chin and tilts it up so that she can look into that stern face. He shifts her head from side to side, his eyes drilling into her own as if mining for something buried within. There is a rigid clicking sound which precedes the woman’s appearance behind the man. In her hands, black oblongs of disassembled weaponry disappear into pockets.
“Should we be worried?” Her voice is as flat as his, but softer and less intrusive.
“Mischa, I told you – “
“Yes. You did – and I told you -”
“She’s not a Drone.” His denial cuts through Mischa’s words, hot and sudden.
She had heard that word before, but doesn’t know what it means.
“Garrett said as much,” he continues.
“And you trust Garrett?” He doesn’t answer her for a moment before replying.
“How long have we been tracking these guys?”
“Kurt. Don’t. You know we have to be careful. I’m just being careful.”
“How long?” Kurt is insistent.
“Since before the Slice.”
Sonja’s home was the other side of that. Her father and brothers, Booth and Shane, had worked the Slice back when there had still been vehicles left in it able to be picked clean for parts. When the painted men had taken her through the Slice on their way to wherever they were now, they had passed beneath a sign that had been festooned with her brother’s entrails. Someone had painted a message over the faded words beneath in his blood. She had not been able to read what it had said any more than she had been able to read the original text.
Were the man and the woman here to take her home? She still had people there. People who had managed to escape. People that had run. Maybe Auntie Ruth and Uncle Seth? The man’s next words causes the hopeful thud of her heart to quieten.
“Garrett will know what to do with her.” Kurt’s decisive tone grants no opportunity for breaching, but Mischa seems inclined to try anyway.
“Bishop.” She says the other man’s name as if it is a benediction. “Bishop will probably tell you to turn her out towards the Parch.”
“If he does that, then that will be the end of my service to him.” If Kurt’s words had a colour, they would be grey.
“You’re serious?” Mischa’s disbelief is tainted by fear.
He doesn’t answer and instead crouches down before Sonja, turning his head and looking behind them.
“Kid, you know what a Drone is?” She shakes her head and he looks down, lobbing a glistening bead of spit onto the dead ground. “See them? Him?”
He gestures to the other children’s lifeless bodies, Jacob’s head. She keeps her eyes locked upon the corpses for a few moments. The bloodied ruin of their bodies stabs at her guts and she turns her face away.
“IED? You know those letters?”
Mischa sucks in air and looks like she is getting ready to run. Sonja studies her and her fright for a few moments and then nods without turning away from it.
“Papa used them to ex-ca-vate.” She frowns as she says the words, her voice still a dull croak. “Buried cars and such.”
“See? If she was a Drone, we would be dead already. They started building failsafes into them a couple of years ago, to stop them being detained at security checkpoints. IED is a trigger phrase.”
“And if they made the trigger adaptive?” Mischa folds her arms, but doesn’t break the staring competition she and Sonja have entered into.
“You really think some Jihadist Geneticist is that forward thinking? Look at her, she’s what? Twelve? Twelve years ago Drones weren’t even a thing.”
Mischa grunts and then starts walking, her route taking her past where Kurt crouches before Sonja. She waves a lazy hand at him as she continues on.
“Don’t be like that.” His voice is playful as he calls after her and Sonja is chilled by its casualness within the perimeter of death surrounding them.
He stands and dusts bloody hands against the legs of his pants, leaving a gritty wet smear upon them. He places a gentle hand against the middle of her back and gives her a push. She walks forward, keeping her eyes locked straight ahead so that she doesn’t have to see the bodies.
Kurt Jackson hated it. What he liked to call the paranoia game. He had to play it though, especially when he was out on patrol with Mischa. The way he saw it, the world was one big shit-pile of the stuff and there was no avoiding it. At least when he was partnered with other Lamplighters he could pretend that it wasn’t that way. Goddamn bitch didn’t even have the common decency to use his call-sign.
That’s what the others called him, but not Mischa Curtis. Maybe he shouldn’t have slept with her that first night, but he had been drunk and female companionship was rarely found in this world. He studies her now and the way the sweat dampens the hair at the nape of her neck. He licks his lips and the kid pipes up.
“You want to lay with her? Don’t you?”
He retracts his tongue and shoots her a nervous look. These border rats were all the same. Weird. It took a special breed to survive out beyond the Slice. Well, special was one word for it. At least back in Perth he had some idea of what a person was gonna say but –
“Hell kid, already bought that T-shirt.”
“Sorry?” Her words cut through the distraction caused by the memory of Mischa’s skin on his, the swell of her –
“My name. Sonja.”
“Great.” What Garrett wanted with this kid was beyond him.
Bill Garrett and Martin Bishop had been ruling the city in an uneasy joint dictatorship for about as long as Kurt could remember. Maybe Mischa was right, maybe Bishop would just get him to turn the kid out into the Parch. Still, Garrett had offered him a tasty cut if he came back with the girl, so that’s what he intended to do.
It hadn’t been easy, killing those kids, but he couldn’t take the risk. Mischa was right about Drones, you just never knew who was and who wasn’t when it came to anyone beneath a certain age. The slavers had been a happy coincidence. Anyway, it was really the fault of those fucking Crispers. If they had just been content with changing themselves into lizards, or bears or who knows what, then yeah, it would’ve been alright.
But no. They had gone and fucked it for everyone by making human suicide bombs. Drones. The girl sniffles and he sees that a thin trickle of blood adorns her upper lip. She swipes her hand across it and then sniffs the back of her arm. He swallows down his revulsion and keeps walking, the thin blurred line of the wall appearing before them.
It stretches upwards, unfinished. Cranes dot its length, the faint clink of their rusted chains greeting each other and reaching them on an apathetic breeze. He tasted salt and dust in the air and something else, a charge of energy that made the blue of the sky that much deeper. Building on the horizon, clouds had begun piling against each other, big billows of dream-like white and grey. Within their depths, the sinister arc of lightning dances.
They needed to find shelter between here and the wall and already Kurt knew that it was not going to happen. The decimated hillsides bore only the stark reminders of long gone forests, red dirt drifts broken only by Spinifex. He looks down at the girl’s skinny and bronzed legs and sees that she is bleeding from numerous pricks of the plant’s long spines. She was going to suffer for her lack of protection.
He calls out to Mischa.
“We need to stop.” She turns at the way his voice breaks the silence.
“Are you crazy?” She points towards the clouds. “We’re gonna be shredded if that hammer front catches us.”
Kurt is already picturing hail the size of house bricks.
“No shit, but it’s gonna be worse if it hits us in the Midland ruins before we reach the wall.”
“What about there?” She points south, where a crumbling line of asphalt told the story of a settlement long reclaimed by nature.
“There’s nothing there.”
“No, but there must be something still standing if we follow it far enough.” Placing her hands on her hips she waits for him to tell her that she’s wrong.
He can’t do it, knowing that Mischa’s was the best option available to them.
“Alright.” She looks surprised by his response but shrugs and starts walking again, the girl, Sonja, bridging the gap between the two adults.
Mischa is right. Of course she is. Mischa was always right even when she was wrong.
The house is nothing much to look at, but still has a roof and walls if not doors and windows, and will offer shelter enough. As they enter the dry smelling abandonment of its interior, hard slaps of ice begin pelting its cladding. She looks up at that and cowers from the sound. The man places a hand on her shoulder and this time it does feel exactly like something her father might have done.
Whatever he does with his mouth is not a smile and yet she tries to give him something in return to repay the effort. He frowns at that and turns away, slumping down against a wall and pulling the frayed collar of his shirt up around his neck. He closes his eyes, but she can tell that he will not sleep, his whole body remaining tensed in its readiness.
The woman, Mischa, looks at her from the opposite side of the room, the top of her stubbled hair growing damp as rain sneaks in through the jagged remains of the window. Beneath her hazel eyes, dark circles and sagged skin mar her otherwise practical beauty. Her hair has been shorn except for a fringe at the back of her skull that is feathered and worn by a lack of care. Sonja touches her own hair and grimaces.
Her mother used to brush it until it was smooth and soft. She had always been amazed. The way that such a result could be produced by anything as worn and broken as the brush that her mother had used. Outside, a roll of thunder, animalistic in its low rumble, takes her mind away from the past. Darkness seeps into the room in a slow flood that clothes Kurt’s face with a shadowed mask.
Mischa’s eyes grow heavy and then they are also closed, her breathing deepening until the rise and fall of her chest proceeds slow and punctual. Sonja looks between Kurt and the woman and wonders if she would make it if she attempted an escape. As if her thoughts had flown from her mind to Kurt’s ears, one of his eyes opens, its glittering darkness studying her from the gloom.
“Stay put, kid.” He grunts and closes his eyes again. “You’re gonna be alright.”
“How do you know?” Betrayed by her own body, she shuffles forward, crouched before him as he opens his eyes before sighing.
“What do you think was gonna happen to you with those goons we rescued you from?” She doesn’t like to think about that. “Exactly.”
“And what are you but another captor?” She surprises herself with her reasoning and her words seem to have an equal effect on the man.
“That’s pretty deep.” He tucks his legs up and drapes his arms across them, leaning forward slightly. “Who taught you to think like that?”
“Albert.” She stifles a yawn.
“My old teacher.” She recalls the thick tufts of hair that had stuck from his ears, the yellow glint of his slitted pupils. “He’s dead now.”
“What happened?” Even though his slow drawl feigns nonchalance, Sonja can tell that he is interested.
“Exe - executed.” She trips over the word, wanting to use it even though she could’ve settled for something plainer.
He has slowly risen to his feet now and she notices the way his hand has crept to the pistol in its holster.
“What did Albert look like?” Kurt’s words are soft, as if he is placating an angry child, but Sonja isn’t mad.
In fact she has never been calmer. She hears movement behind her and sees that Mischa is also standing, a long knife with a serrated edge clutched in her hands. As if for the first time, Sonja feels the tension that has begun filling the room. It is as if it has its origins in the storm which continues fiercely outside.
“He had yellow eyes – like a snake’s.” She thinks about that, wonders why she had never found it weird. “But he wasn’t nasty – he was a nice man. He said he wanted to change the world.”
“Sonja.” Kurt looks at Mischa and shakes his head once before returning his attention to her. “I want you to do something for me.”
“Yes, Kurt?” She clasps her hands before her and Kurt watches the movement carefully, as if he is waiting for something to happen.
“I want you to go and stand in that corner and don’t move.” He nods, but as she goes to move, Mischa’s hand snaps out and grabs her.
Sonja yells as the knife point flashes upwards. There is a dull crack and then Kurt is there and the blade of the knife is gripped in his hand. Blood wells between his fingers but he doesn’t release his grip.
“Not her.” He hisses the words at Mischa through clenched teeth. “Not this way.”
“What’s gotten into you? I told you we should be careful.” The tension is written large upon her face. “Don’t you get it? Garrett is gonna use her to assassinate Bishop – don’t you fucking get it?”
“You don’t know that.” The man’s voice is thick. “You don’t know anything.”
“Don’t be an idiot.” She lowers her voice, her words coming out hoarse, tears rolling onto her cheeks. “Don’t make me kill you over this.”
“I won’t.” Looking up at him, Sonja sees his eyes go flat and then his free hand strikes and catches Mischa deep in the throat.
The woman makes a sound like the ball that Sonja had accidentally punctured when she had been younger. It is a defeated noise, followed by the woman’s downward collapse as Mischa falls away, her knife still held within Kurt’s bloody grip.
Outside, the rain stops but the darkness does not lift and Sonja realises that night has fallen unannounced during the storm’s passage. She expects silence but it never comes, the thunder replaced by a new noise, thick and potent. It is the same sound as a swarm of bees might make. Bright light punctures the room, streaming in through the broken windows as a garbled voice reaches through the cacophony.
“This - Lamplighter Unit - 18.” She manages to make out the first, middle and last part of the sentence. The next announcement is not much clearer. “Come out – your – up.”
Kurt looks down at Mischa’s body and groans, refusing to meet Sonja’s stare. Through the noise and light produced by whoever is outside she hears his next words clearly and it sends a hollow through her.
“You better be worth all of this, kid.”