Since the Bombs Fell: Six

Continued from One, then Twothen Threethen Fourthen Five.

Finn’s entrance into the fallout shelter was therefore not a graceful one. Their imminent pursuers, his rescuer’s voice, and her near-pushing him in order to secure the door befuddled him. Patrick was better at instant decisions; perhaps he would know what to do and wouldn’t be walking at near-gunpoint to a foreign elevator shaft.

Perhaps.

Finn stumbled again. “We ‘ave to get b’low,” his companion said. She activated the elevator, then gestured to enter once its heavy cross-doors opened. Finn nodded and went first. She followed, turning a key in the wall and pressing a red button.

They dropped to a chorus of pained and rusting gears. Patrick’d be able to fix those, Finn thought. And the entry. Thinking of his brother worried him. Even one leg down, the rash young man might go looking for Finn if he didn’t return. Muties made the surface dangerous, yes; but there were ways to get back if Finn needed. Not all the train tunnels lay in ruin nor all the rooftops proved unsound, he knew.

They stopped. The door ground open to reveal a dim and untidy living area. The layout resembled Finn’s, albeit in greater disrepair. He made a mental note to thank Mary, should he see her again, for insisting they fix up and clean their post-apocalyptic warren.

“Home sweet home,” she’d said, once things were in order. She’d smiled that charming smile of hers, the one she’d borne since Mother’d first noticed Mary wasn’t -as Father said- “Quite all there.”

After exiting the elevator, his companion sealed the door and punched at the filtration system. It whirred like a hoarse donkey, but worked. She then began extracting herself from her breathing gear. Finn shrugged and did the same with his. He felt this an odd game to play with a stranger; making himself more vulnerable, piece by piece. If she wanted to kill him, however, she could have shot him back at the hospital.

He set his breathing system on the counter. His helmet followed suit. He turned as the woman did the same, her auburn hair falling sweaty and loose. It rested in a disheveled braid and framed a pretty but scowling face.

“All right, then,” she said, setting her helmet next to his. She rested her right hand on her hip and studied him. Then her eyes widened. “Finn?”

“Aye,” Finn answered. He smiled a crooked half-grin at his former girlfriend. Of course she’d been skulking around the hospital; they’d first met there. He’d been a patient and she a surgeon. “An’ how you doin’, Livvy?”

Olivia Green could not reply. She looked at Finn again, who wished he’d shaved before surfacing. “Where …Where’s Patrick?” Olivia gasped. “Oh, no! Where’s Mary?”

Finn waved a calming hand. “They’re fine, though waitin’, I’d wager.” He smiled fully. “Would you like to go to them?”

THE END

 

©2019 Chelsea Owens

 

Since the Bombs Fell: Five

Continued from One, then Twothen Threethen Four.

Ungainly, inhuman, unsettling; the Mutants roiled into the supplies room. A piece or part or person in the mass swung into the lower shelves; unseating bandages, dust, tins, and pills. Finn counter-balanced against the blows. The measure brought to mind that series of weeks only months ago, when he, Patrick, and Mary crouched together beneath the rocking world; when they wondered if they or the Earth herself would come out of it, and what they’d all look like then.

“Ooomph!” Something hit his shoulder. In the noise and tumult, he’d forgotten the person near him. Having gotten Finn’s attention, the stranger tugged at his arm. Tugged hard. Finn couldn’t tell where his companion thought to go, but the writhing ground was no longer an option. He nodded in the wristlight and followed.

Together, they squat-walked across the shelf top. Finn wondered if their attackers could climb. He felt certain they could, given the right impetus -say, like him. That thought and their howling and scrambling drove him faster.

His companion stopped and sheathed his gun across his back. Then, to Finn’s surprise, he stood. A second later, his legs and feet kicked the air before Finn’s face. He disappeared.

A sharp jarring beneath him galvanized Finn. He, too, shuffled to where his companion had stood. Rising, he found himself halfway within a wide ductwork. Probably the heating, he thought. Sheathing his own weapon and bracing against either side of the hole he’d entered, he pulled his heavy body up and in.

A dim light shone from down the tube and off to the right. Finn deactivated his, and followed. A reverberating *clang* of metal on metal, then a *clong* of metal on cement told him their shelf had fallen. The animal sounds seemed muted or leaving, but maybe it was he who left them behind. He had no idea where he crawled or if he crawled to safety; he knew only the bobbing glow ahead, and the scrabbling form attached to it.

A few seconds of eternity passed and he crawled out of the jagged-edged remnants of ducting and onto a stone ledge. The sun wavered at the tops of the mountains in the distance. Sunset.

The stranger in the suit pulled at Finn again. One after the other, they scaled a rough climb down the hospital’s remaining back wall. Once their feet touched the ground, Finn and his guide took off running. He still followed, mostly by instinct. What Patrick might say or do worried him, though not as much as what Mutants would do should he be caught.

Passing shadow, outline, foundation, and rubble; his guide stopped at a large manhole cover set in a cement-crusted tunnel. He dug a bit in his pocket, then removed an access card and panned it against the cover. The outermost access door opened.

“In!” barked the suited figure. When Finn hesitated, it added, “Now!”

Finn complied. He still felt in shock. The voice commanding him was clearly female.

 

©2019 Chelsea Owens

 

Since the Bombs Fell: Four

Continued from One, then Twothen Three.

Step, Finn told his legs. Step againJust there. Almost there. This mantra kept his stiff-suited body moving forward, till a Mutant rolled or made a sound. At those times, he had difficulty maintaining the rhythm. He felt sweat pooling at every joint. He felt his heart pounding against his ears. He felt his finger itching to engage the Laserlock’s trigger.

Yet, he gained the supplies room door, leaping the last mound of creatures to do so. Some internal sense or paranoia warned him to hurry; warned that their movements increased with each second he passed among them. He’d be a sitting duck if that were true. “A legless duck, like Patrick,” he whispered.

But Patrick canno’ get you, should that happen, his thoughts reminded. “Damn,” he said aloud.

Finn sheathed his gun to free his hands, looking right to left to back to front as he did so. He did not, however, glance up. Activating a small glow pack on his wrist, he clumped over to the nearest shelf of medical supplies. There, he found an empty case. Near it were scattered bottles and a few ashen strips of material. More bottles and spilled white pills, like gravel, covered the next shelf. Yet another held filthy surgical masks and some sort of tubing.

He pocketed handfuls of pills and gauze, small containers of what he hoped were ointment, and a few liquid-filled bottles. Then, his view fell on a dirt-crusted tin. He wiped at the top, revealing the words, “General Suture Supplies.” Bingo.

At that moment, he thought he heard a scrabbling. Turning, he pulled out the Laserlock and panned it at the doorway. Nothing appeared out of place: the hallway still twitched with random, mutilated bodies. The wheelchair wheel still spun. The ash and late afternoon sunlight still filtered into a decimated hospital entryway and foyer.

Finn let his breath return to normal patterns. Scanning the room once more, he returned the gun to his back.

As his hands closed around the precious tin of suture materials, he heard the noise again. Spinning and backing against the shelf, he arched his whole form in order to look upwards. There, in a hunched, firing position, perched another fully-suited person.

Finn’s shock and tilted helmet made breathing difficult. He backed farther away, arms raised, till he reached the direct opposite corner from whoever this other being was. This other, armed being.

They may have stayed forever staring at one another, had not a moan sounded from the hall. The person gestured sharply with his gun toward the tin Finn sought. Needing no more encouragement, he rushed forward and grabbed it. He scrabbled with a zippered pocket on his suit front, as he heard the distinct shuffling of many bodies. Get in, he told the supplies. He shoved at them and turned to face the doorway.

Like in a nightmare, he saw the creatures’ movements increase in intent and purpose. They were waking. Stretching. Sensing. Shifting.

Finn arched up to view his companion again. The other person had activated a glow pack as well, and seemed to be waving with it. Finn watched for a precious few seconds before realizing he was meant to climb up. He turned and scaled the shelving without hesitation. No need for, Step. Step again; he sensed a rising intensity that lent his limbs a frenetic adrenaline.

Gasping, he reached the restrictive summit. He squeezed in the space between top shelf and ceiling. The other person squatted right next to him, mirrored helmet lens to mirrored helmet lens. Thus, Finn nearly knocked into his new companion when the first Mutants sprawled into the room.

 

©2019 Chelsea Owens

 

Since the Bombs Fell: Three

Continued from One, then Two.

They were …sleeping. Hibernating? Congealing? Finn couldn’t tell what the humanlike creatures inside the shadowed hospital hall were doing. Since none rose; none joined with its brothers into the mass of bodies they preferred for attacking, he assumed their actions to be a form of sleep.

He found himself gagging; forced himself to breathe. He needed control. Control lent Finn whatever fighting advantage existed.

Once a master of that small, living part of himself, he studied them from where he stood. “I shoulda run scans,” Patrick’s voice said in Finn’s memory. “We coulda ‘least seen how the Muties work. How they live. …If they be livin’.” Finn lifted a hand to his helmet and activated the feed. Half his visor view blurred as controls panned across. He knew Patrick’s regret to be a stupid one. He wouldn’t have wanted the interference, had he had any time for something as trivial as recording them whilst fighting.

Blips of focus reticles attempted to lock onto recognizable body parts. You won’t be findin’ many faces in there, Finn thought. He switched the sensors to heart rates; then, after a few moments, to heat signatures. The creatures stayed as inert as they’d initially been, meaning that they twitched or convulsed without rising. The overall effect unnerved him. He kept his finger resting against the trigger guard; it twitched as much as they did.

One moaned and rolled into the wall. Ash crumbled and fell like snow. “Snow, Finn!” he remembered Mary saying. “Can’t we go play in the snow?” She was so young, even when she wasn’t. Patrick and his coarse descriptions hadn’t convinced her of what really fell outside the shelter.

What fell on these creatures.

Finn stepped back and deactivated the recording. He needed as much view as he could get. His solid boots crunched against the foyer’s detritus, yet the sounds appeared to have no effect on the horde. Maybe, he told himself, Just maybe.

He tried a tentative step forward. No change. He took another step. No change.

The gaping, torn doorway of a medical supplies room stood just beyond a pile of creatures. He needed that room. He needed it for Patrick. Continuing to breathe as evenly as he could, Finn stretched his leg over the first body. He did it again and again, telling his imagination that they were rugs, or bits of desk, or wall. Step by step, he performed the most intricate, deadly dance since the bombs fell.

And, twitch by irritated twitch, he knew: they sensed something among them.

 

©2019 Chelsea Owens

 

Since the Bombs Fell: Two

Continued from One.

“You are a paranoid skinny,” Finn said aloud. His voice sounded both muffled and loud. He felt like a stiff fish, swimming through the driest ocean of death ever conceived. Stepping over the crumbling wall before him, he skirted a pile of charred remains.

The remains stayed inert.

“But then,” Patrick’s voice came to Finn’s memory, “An arm moved.” Finn felt his heart rate rise; heard his recirculated air pass more rapidly through his mouthpiece. He forced himself forward while his eyes roved over every broken beam, body, and nuclear shadow. The emergency room entrance loomed closer, its automatic door frame hanging at a skewed and jagged angle. Its filthy and cluttered foyer stood in full sunlight, thanks to the shattered glass roof and upper floors.

“I ran over t’side,” Finn remembered his brother describing. “That was the wrong way, but I didn’t know. There were …swarms. Swarms of them everywhere, pouring out the door…”

Finn stood, hesitating. He knew they’d decided the front would be best. He knew his goal ought to be just beyond the foyer. Yet, he also knew how he’d found Patrick, gasping at the last of his air, struggling against a crippled limb, fighting them from within a fallen shack a few meters away.

Mary had saved him. When Patrick didn’t show, she’d looked round the shelter and commented, “Where be Patrick? Shouldn’t he be back now?”

A movement caught Finn’s eye from the hallway past the bright, open entry. He squinted and walked closer. His hand reached back and pulled down the Laserlock. The gun felt solid and reassuring in his arms as he walked. He ducked beneath a bent piece of sliding door. Paused. Did a full sweep. Now fully inside what remained of the hospital, he couldn’t help but feel trapped. He swallowed and forced himself on, toward the movement he may or may not have seen.

There, in the dim light and falling dust, a bent wheel spun atop a smashed, half-buried wheelchair. Finn found himself mesmerized by the spin. How could it do that in this silent, still world?

And that was when he noticed them.

 

©2019 Chelsea Owens

 

Since the Bombs Fell: One

Nothing had been the same since the bombs fell.

From skeletal shells of once-laughing houses to shadows where trees had thrived, Finn’s view of the outside resembled a horror film. “Are you sure th’ equipment’s right?” Mary would ask. She’d asked every day, till Patrick snapped and told her to shut it.

Finn was more patient with his sister. Before Patrick stepped in, Finn had sighed and said, “Aye, Mary. They’re right.”

He thought about this exchange as he walked in stiff, clumsy cadence. He thought about Mary and what she might say if they allowed her on surface excursions as well. His breath echoed and amplified in his helmet. The radioactive puffs of dust and crumbling landscape around him struck him as surreal, no matter what he’d told Mary. His hands clenched and unclenched within their constricting gloves; itching to touch it all, to test if it were real.

He shifted his view to right and left, and felt at his back for reassurance. His Laserlock was still there. Of course it was. He’d checked for it only moments before, and moments before that. “You compulsive skinny,” Patrick would’ve told him. Fine enough for Patrick to tease; Finn knew his brother behaved the same when outside. Neither one of them wanted to be caught with his trousers down. It only took once. Just once.

Finn stopped and stood outside the hospital. Most of it was intact; Patrick had learned that on his last trip, right before sunset. Right before losing his leg. Finn flexed his own as if to ensure no one had taken it while he stood there. Irony certainly had a sense of humor. The place where his only brother had been attacked was where Finn needed to go in order to save Patrick’s life.

This time would be different, he told himself. This time it was full daylight. This time his weapon was fully charged. This time, he knew they were there.

 

©2019 Chelsea Owens

Smells Like Reanimated Spirits

You’re at a burial, dressed in shoes you didn’t have time to polish or lace up correctly. It’s a grey sort of day, overcast with rain coming soon. They’re lowering the casket into the ground and all you can do is stare at the stubborn knot in your shoelaces.

Someone lights up a cigarette after the service is over and you move away to avoid the smoke. Your heels slip into the soft ground and you get mud on the hemline of your clothes. You stop to catch your breath after a long day and close your eyes. You smell rain in the air.

There’s a piano you can hear in the nearby chapel playing a soft tune. You think they’re playing “Amazing Grace” and then it changes. A sudden thought strikes you: “I must get back into the car before the last note. Once the last note plays, it’ll start raining.”

You’re heading back to the car when you see a man standing at the fence. He’s dressed in overhauls and a flannel shirt, looking directly at you. You glance away but are drawn back by the man’s intense stare. He’s holding something in his hand. A letter? A book? You can’t tell. You feel you must find out, before the last piano note…

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Dodging headstones and mushy half-buried plots alike, you walk to the fence. And the man. Conveniently, they are both in the same direction. As you walk, you wonder at the prevalence of recently-turned earth. Just how many people have died lately?

The eerie piano playing from the chapel plays background beat to your even tread. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” will do that to a person, even if it’s a piano cover version and therefore lacks that awesome bass guitar.

Your attention draws back to the overall man who is fascinated with staring. Some people clearly need a hobby, especially since there are a lot more interesting things to stare at than a muddy-hemmed, sneaker-clad burial-crasher like you. You get closer and closer, noting his lack of blinking; his lack of attention on a bird that poops on his shoulder or on a passing dog that relieves itself on his trouser leg.

Just before you call out to him, his image blips and reloads. He is a clean, staring man again, proferring a flat object that is meant to look like a book. Thunder rumbles nearby, and he finally glances to the grey and heavy clouds. His gaze returns to you, who have stopped just before the projection of him.

“244224,” he says, monotone. “42,” he adds. Then, “2442.” He beeps.

You roll your humanoid eyes, reminded of how your familial assigners could not be happy with a short sequence like all the others. “Yes?”

“Precipitation imminent. Nirvana ending. Accept reanimation.” *Beep*

Your eyebrows raise. “Reanimation??”

“Affirmative.” He pauses, then remembers to *Beep!*

You look back and around at all the mounds of dirt, and swallow. It’s not easy considering the difficulties the body emulators had in transferring your normal shape to a humanoid form, but you manage. The sky growls again. A spot of earth near you seems to as well, but perhaps it’s the simulated imagination you’re equipped with.

Whipping back around to the hologram, you place your right forearm directly over the outstretched object in its hand image. The flat object glares a red light of warning. You realign. Still red. The growling from below ground is definitely not just your imagination now and you grit your teeth in frustration.

“Please align to shape,” the ‘man’ intones.

You try again and get the angry light again.

“Please align to shape,” he repeats.

Just as a very visible hand claws through the mud to your side and just as the final lingering notes of the piano are played, the tablet magically accepts your forearm’s outline and turns blue. “Code accepted.”

Your humanoid form releases a sigh of relief just before dematerializing. Your normal self, meanwhile, has a final, comforting thought. I am so glad that finally activated. Earth’s a real downer during a zombie apocalypse.

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From the story prompt beginning shared by the highly-imaginative, amazing, wonderful, and fantastic Peregrine Arc.

You can play, too! The submission window closes on April 12.

 

Photo Credits:
Daniel Jensen
Wendy Scofield

Crescent Illusions

“Hey! Wait up!” Pal gasped out the request, to no avail. The strange boy turned the edge beyond his view, taking all sight and sound of his movement with his retreating form. Pal leaned over his knees in crouched, deep-breathing pain from the chase. His heavy gasps echoed inside his helmet.

He’d need to keep going, he knew. He only had a few tics until -too late. Before his ground-pointed eyes, everything shifted and morphed. If his headgear were not equipped with anti-vertigo software, Pal would have retched at the twisting, swarming, mixing colors and land forms. He had no idea how the boy he pursued, apparently unencumbered by gear, could continue on through these conditions. How the boy could move so quickly. How the boy even existed, really.

Pal looked up from the sky beneath his feet, noted the re-orientation of his surroundings, and promptly crashed to the surface above him. “Eurgh,” he groaned, feeling the sluggishness and some of the bruising while his suit’s systems kicked in. He rose as it mended; scouted around.

Before this last shift he had been skidding around contoured shapes that rose from sand-like material. The ambient light had been annoyingly bright, yet also a pleasant shade of pink. Now, Pal noted, he seemed to be in a city. This city was unlike any he’d been in before, but not unlike images he’d studied at elementary training. “These are buildings,” his memory heard an artificial instructor note. “Homo sapiens sapiens inhabited and busied itself within these structures.”

Keeping his feet moving forward, Pal tilted his head back. The buildings reached beyond his sight. What a miserable, backwards way to exist. He supposed all species must start somewhere, but could never understand why his ancestors’ timeline progressed from perfection to disaster. Why had his progenitors constantly sought what was worse?

He heard a sound and snapped to attention. A face with large, crescent eyes peered at him from around a building just ahead. The boy.

Pal sprinted without thought toward his quarry. The boy rushed from hiding and pulled ahead, as he had since Pal first materialized and saw him. Both ran down the middle space between the tall, tall structures to either side. The ground felt soft, appeared white. Pal could see his footfalls leaving imprints in the material, though the boy’s odd tread did not. The dark shapes to either side seemed to melt away from them as they passed; no, they were melting away. Pal glanced right and left as he ran, witnessing the anomaly.

He wondered, yet again, what this destination really was. Clearly, it was not merely a physical location. No location they’d researched had behaved as this place did; morphing, moving, and melting like a living optical illusion.

Pal knew he was nearly at the end of his exploratory tic and would dissolve back to Central soon. He set his jaw, determined to gather more information before that happened. Since the ever-changing location proved intangible for collection purposes, Pal sought to catch the one constant he had encountered: the boy.

His suit worked overtime to compensate for energy and nitrogen loss. At his current rate, he would exhaust both and need to rest as he had before. And before that. And, before that. Surely, this time, he could draw near enough to catch the boy. Surely, he could get answers to return with.

The atmosphere darkened. A sound similar to a loud clap came from ahead, from the boy. To Pal’s surprise, the sky in front of them both molded into a dark sphere upon the dark of the air. Totally black at first; an outline of winking light grew to shine from the base and sides of the sphere.

As they drew nearer, Pal felt himself drawn to the new anomaly. Literally. The sensation felt like the projection arm of a spacecraft. He fought a natural panic, but explorer training calmed his initial reactions. “Always act decisively within your means,” another memory of an artificial instructor intoned. Pal ran on.

His wrist beeped a warning: a mere moment till dissolvement.

He strove to move more quickly but his speed was no longer his own. The boy and he were being pulled inexorably toward the eclipsed horizon. The buildings melted faster. Pal’s treads in the groundstuff deepened and blurred. His visuals clouded somewhat at the edges as he tried to keep the boy in sight.

Another beep sounded, then another. It was time.

Just as Pal’s body began to piece to data for dissolving, he saw the most unusual illusion of them all: an inverted flip of boy, buildings, sphere, and sky. Where once he knew the dark outlines of running youth and landscape; Pal saw the whitespace image of a gaping, grinning face. A face that swallowed the boy. A face that looked at him.

 


Written in response to D. Wallace Peach‘s extremely popular prompt. She just might get all 300 daily responses posted before she decides that April would be a good time for a vacation…

Writing Prompt: Badlands

Write a short story and it must contain the following words somewhere: downtown, graveyard, passenger, decoder, suave, badlands.

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It was a typical late afternoon for K. Jones: dusty, dry, barren. Even when she wasn’t standing as she was then –hands folded across her chest surveying the badlands– K. never shook the feeling of orange. Bits and pieces of windblown world caught at the edges of her tied handkerchief and protective sunglasses. She’d find them in every crevice of her equipment later.

*Jones* her left hip crackled. *Jones, Bwishda gurb donet!*

Quickly unfolding from her stoic stance, K. grabbed at the radio hanging to her side. She deftly activated its decoder switch in time to translate the end of the garbled message to “…Station 5 at Sundown, over.” She waited for the message to repeat, and was rewarded with silence. K. rolled her eyes. How difficult did her team find simple tasks, exactly? –Tasks like following certain protocol so a person had time to grab her radio and get the whole message, for example?

K. brought the mouthpiece near her face, squeezed her thick gloves over Respond, and enunciated, “Jones here.” She waited the required five seconds before continuing, “Repeat full command, over.”

Static. Then, she heard an impatient, “Smith here.” Roughly three seconds followed, if K. counted generously. “Assigned rounds completed. Will meet at Station 5 at Sundown, over.”

The setting sun pierced through a cloudbreak and caught K.’s glasses at an annoying angle. She squinted, repositioned. Shading her eyes, she peered off toward the general direction of the station referenced. It was either past the butte, down the dirt path, and near a distant mountain; or she was experiencing miragelike imagery.

Shifting the radio from one bundled hand to another, she applied the Respond button once again. “Jones here.” Five seconds. “Request transport en route. Will wait at Camp Point One near butte, over.”

K. used her right boot to shift adobe-colored sand over the top of her left boot as she waited for an answer. “Smith here.” K. mentally counted to two before Smith immediately continued, “Will meet as requested. Watch your back. Over and out.”

Though no one could see her expressions, K. smiled a wry, experienced look. She wasn’t novice enough to laugh aloud at Smith’s suggestions, however. Confident and skilled she might be, but anything could change on the swirling sunset landscape of these uninhabited zones. –Of these usually uninhabited zones, K. mentally amended.

She glanced right, left, behind, up, down, forward. She carefully deactivated the decoder option on the radio and returned it, swinging, to the side of her ocher pant leg. Following protocol, she checked the readings on her instruments. They were set to alert her if any anomaly appeared. As such, K. would have to remember to tone her tracker down a bit once she reached Camp One. She didn’t want to impulsively vaporize her ride just because of nerves.

She hefted straps, instruments, and packs from one sore area to another and began walking. Fingers of moving sand sank in a circular divot around each of her carefully-placed footfalls. The oranged sky outlined her bulky frame as airborne copper dust pushed and pulled at her tired body. She was regretting the rash, confident decision she’d made to patrol on foot.

A shape suddenly shadowed the glaring natural light and K. automatically reacted. In less than a second, laden as she was, she’d assumed a fighting crouch facing the unknown risk from the West. She breathed heavily beneath the kerchief, fogging her vision with each exhalation.

It was only a landform. Her heartbeat slowed in much less time than it had accelerated.

In fact, she knew this rock. It was a sort of gateway to an area they’d nicknamed The Graveyard. Beyond the tall Stele lay a carefully silent sort of valley decorated with small, oddly-placed stones. When K. and her team had first encountered the area, outlining its features by swinging desert-dusted beams, they’d all been struck by a creepy cemetery familiarity.

Cutting through The Graveyard also shaved five minutes off her trek to the rendezvous butte. K. looked at its shady entrance, then glanced toward the area she could go in order to intentionally not walk through there. Up a scrambling red-rock slope and down through a very wide, open area of squat, wide rocks they’d named Downtown ran her longer option.

The sun seemed to sink more quickly. Graveyard it was.
Readjusting straps once again to cover for the unaccountable fluttering in her stomach, K. stalked determinedly into the tiny valley.

Red-yellow motes magically suspended among the headstone dirt and stoneforms K. suddenly remembered. The whole valley reminded her of an old toy her grandfather had let her play with decades ago. Whenever she had shaken the glass ball in a pudgy hand, swirling white pieces had danced and then floated slowly back down upon a small, smiling child on a sled.

The badlands were no winterscape, however. K. felt she was tiptoeing through the polar opposite of a cheerful, safe sledding holiday. The dead, hot air was oddly still in The Graveyard, but still omnipresent. The particles may have been suspended in this sudden wind shelter, but they never disappeared either.

K. felt a small pulse from her chest-mounted sensor. Her heartbeat increased once again as natural terror primed her body for action. That sensor could only activate when it sensed movement of a living thing –other than her and her team members. K. increased her pace, sweeping her view around and attempting to keep her back to the randomly-placed rocks.

The pulse grew stronger as she neared the center of The Graveyard. K. tried desperately to see what was triggering it. She peered from one shadow to another in the dimming evening red-orange that barely penetrated her current location. Her mind constantly tricked her in the unfamiliar crowd of stones and sweeping sands. Imagination aside, everything appeared empty.

She continued her slow, hyper-sensitive, circular tread to the opposite side of The Graveyard. The pulse grew faint, and died. If nighttime and her ride were not so imminent, K. would be required to search until the source had been found. Fortunately, she thought, the rules clearly stated that no parties were to be on The Badlands after sundown. She could thank P. Brown for that, if he had still been around to thank.

K. stalked up the sandy incline exit, trying to keep everywhere in sight –especially the area she’d just left. She still saw no movement. Another sensor, one near her wrist, began to vibrate instead. Looking up, she saw the butte just ahead and to the right. Her wrist sensor indicated that a vehicle was nearby, hopefully the one carrying J. Smith.

Despite the landscape and unnatural gravity, K. increased her pace. She came out into the buffeting wind and tinted sunlight once again. The sun really was dropping quickly, as it always did when teetering on the edge of night. She could hear an offroad motor rumbling, even over the overpowering shrillness of moving air.

The pulse on her chest began again, very faintly. Stumbling in surprise, K. turned back to The Graveyard. No, she told herself and her trained senses. No, she did not see light in that vale. And yet, something that was not orange, not the setting sun, and not just a rock was moving. In fact, it was moving nearer. Quickly.

Like dreams where she tried to run and felt instead like she was slogging through mud, K. tried desperately to sprint the few hundred feet to where she knew Smith was waiting. Sunset sand particles flew from her muted, skittering footsteps. Her view was again fogged and unfogged with her heavy breathing. The jeeplike transport was there around the bend; Smith turned her direction.

He stood suddenly; yelled in surprise. She knew better than to look behind, but real or imagined noises pursuing told her she wasn’t going to make it to that passenger seat.

She looked up at Smith again, noting his suave, steady figure. He was the only one she knew who didn’t resemble a rambling, bloated marshmallow in his desert suit. Tiredly, she saw he had raised something. She was nearly to the rear tire when she realized he held their one allowable defense since Command had limited firearms to lower ranks two years previously.

K. heard the small *fzzzz* noise of the tiny laser pistol and watched, distantly, from some other place, as it floated over her left shoulder and made contact with something directly behind her.

“Aiiieargghhhhhgggggguuggh!” Something inhuman reacted.

K. reached the side of the transport. Smith dropped his gun to drag her panting form onto the seat, then immediately sat and gunned the engine. They shot forward in the dying twilight, scattering badland sand and rock sharply outward from the squealing tires.

Bracing herself unsteadily against the jouncing framework, K. realized she’d made it. Still breathing heavily, she turned to the dark outline of her teammate. He stared ahead, his face determined.

“Thank you, Jim,” she said, though first names were against protocol. Rules were irrelevant now.