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…

Skinwalkers, XLVIII

Perhaps it was the archaic thumbs-up gesture of Pul that confused Nathan. Perhaps he was, quite reasonably, diverted by the auburn-headed receptionist in passing her office space on his way out. Perhaps the waiting presence of Rex‘s barely-functioning Transport outside surprised him.

Most likely, all three distractions combined with his current mental load to lead to his lack of judgement.

Nathan stepped down the impressive staircase of Carapace, took a sharp turn to walk away from Rex’s attentions, walked down the citypath in an inattentive rush, and hurried right across a busy trafficsection.

He had a half-jiff to regret his short list of life accomplishments before a food transport permanently ended it.

THE END

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XLVII.

Skinwalkers, XXXIX

“Erm,” Nathan managed to croak.

Rex slapped his steering wheel and released an airy chuckle. “YOU called a transport, you know! Just where’re ya plannin’ to go?”

Nathan blinked and straightened. He was in charge here, not some nearly-dead operator with questionable manners. “Walls and Pruitt, 34th Beta,” he said, glancing past Rex and addressing the dash, instead.

The computer, however, remained inert. Rex wheezed his variation of laughter again. “Me nephew added a little something yesterday. You gotta say, ‘please.'”

Nathan was not certain how much of his shock showed on his face, but he knew time was not only against him, it had passed him and was taunting from a few paces ahead. “Please!” he burst out. His grandfather would have been critical of his insincere tones, but the lights of Rex’s transport activated and the vehicle jerked to life.

“Darn tootin’!” it responded in happy tones.

“You might wanna work on yer sincerity,” Rex noted, saying the final word in a drawn-out fashion so that Nathan could not miss which word was most important in the old man’s reprimand.

The transport bumped down its strip and Nathan took out his comm. His preferred option and initial instinct involved injuring a senior and being barred from using transports again. Ignoring Rex, therefore, seemed more polite. Problem was, he couldn’t follow the news thread very effectively in the moving environment. He found reading especially impossible with the constant stare of a bushy-haired operator with few teeth and fewer manners just beyond the screen. Surely Rex would get the hint and leave Nathan alone.

Not soon enough, they jerked to the curb before Carapace’s expensive façade. Nathan pushed out the door and almost ran up the steps to the familiar entry station. He was handing his comm to the stolid security guard when he heard Rex call out, “If I don’ get another client, I’ll wait for ya!” This generous announcement ended in a sudden blare of dated music, the sort Nathan’s grandfather had referred to as ‘Oldies.’

The guard cringed; Nathan looked at him and the man hurriedly smoothed his features and activated the main doors with his tablet. Nathan walked forward to the *shoosh* of automatic doors releasing heaven’s breath. His basic slipshods sunk once more into the lush carpet and his lungs drank the manna of purified air, as the guard marched down to have a little talk with a certain transport operator.

Nathan hoped Rex might lose his license to pilot around Beta, yet wondered at a simultaneous sadness he felt at the thought.

“Hello, N. Reed,” a familiar, feminine voice called from the end of the room. “Welcome back.”

His hands pulled at his suit of their own volition and his face grinned happily. Regaining control, he dropped the hands and turned the sappy grin into a determined set of jaw. The swaying plants waved in his passing stride, the carpet sunk and rose with his solid steps, and the perfect air flowed in and out of his thirsty lungs as he walked.

He approached the desk. Familiar with the process from his last visit, he lifted his comm and scanned it. She tilted her head and smiled. He met her eyes for a half-jiff of eternity; noted her fan of auburn hair; memorized the deep curve of her bottom lip.

Then the panel wall opened with a muted *ding*. Her phone beeped at an incoming call. His feet walked forward, beyond her desk.

Nathan entered the lift and turned to face the foyer. Just before his reflection pulled across to block his view, he saw that the receptionist was still looking at him. Still smiling.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXVIII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XL.

Skinwalkers, XXXVIII

Upon reaching his small sleeping area, Nathan stopped to get his hurried bearings. He squinted at each familiar object: bed, nightstand, walls, doorway, closet. The last was his goal and he groped to his clothes through blurred vision and the ever-present dimness of the cheap lighting.

I wonder if I’ll earn enough to afford good light, one cycle, he wondered. Remembering the importance of a powerful mindset, he cleared his thoughts and said, “I will get an apartment with good light. With daylight.” The near-barren hole that passed for a closet echoed his word-sounds and returned them in a garbled state.

His hands felt among the hangers till they gripped a plastic lining over a thick garment. His suit. He pulled the ensemble to his chest like a precious thing and carried it to where he remembered his bed rested. Laying the loosely-bagged suit atop his blanket wad, Nathan withdrew each clothing piece and began dressing.

Though the process took far less time than his last costuming, he knew his time was already gone. Grabbing his slipshods from the floor, he rushed and stumbled back to the bathroom. Shower, off. Panel, closed. Comm, pocketed. Wristwatch, strapped.

He flung a quick glance at his reflection and nearly jumped out of his skin. Either he was more shaken from his dreams than he’d supposed or he had heavy-handed the eyedrops. The man staring back at him from the cheap, splotched mirror was a complete stranger, somehow adept at following his every movement and occasional blink.

“I intend to demonstrate the full capacity of a united workteam, led by a competent manager,” he tested. The mirror man spoke as well; his words were powerful in the cramped, reflective space. Try me now, Caill, he thought.

His pocket vibrated. He withdrew it and read its angry message: Inpracticum set to begin. Status?

“Reply,” he told the message response system. “In transit.” Waving the answered query to the side, he instead pulled up Transport Request. Expenses be damned; he couldn’t risk further tardiness. The program *pinged* and a green transport icon moved to his virtual location as a real one simultaneously did so outside his apartment.

Nearly sprinting through hallway, lockdown, and out the exit; he just missed knocking into someone swaying across the landing. It was Franks, but Nathan hadn’t the time to deal with charge demands now. He hadn’t the time for anything. He sprinted up the stairs, as quickly as a man in a skin and full suit could run. There sat a transport; his transport, rocking a bit in its streetside idle.

He strode forward past the usual street dwellers. They sat in a chorus line of hunched, silent misery, too saturated to know or care that he passed. Just before he activated the door of the waiting transport, one face lifted. Nathan’s comm moved over the door panel and he ducked and entered his paid ride.

It was after the door closed that his brain recognized the long, pale, older face that looked up. Shin.

“Well, howdy agin!” an exuberant voice jerked him away from his shocked surprise. Rex the operator grinned back at Nathan with what was left of his teeth. “Where to now, Sonny?”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXVII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXXIX.

Skinwalkers, XVIII

Nathan’s worried thoughts fueled a helpless anxiety. They chased each other round his head like feral Outlands beasts of some sort, snarling without reason or satiation.

“Look out!” Shin exclaimed, grabbing at Nathan. He managed to grasp at enough of Nathan’s thin upper arm to stop his oblivious pace, just as a large transport swung a sharp right directly at their toes.

*Cheerp!* *Cheerp!* Called the trafficsection signal, as the exhaust from the retreating vehicle still rose in the putrid city air.

Nathan exhaled; turned to his friend. “Thanks.”

“Yep.”

They crossed. “It’s just further proof that the autodrives aren’t perfect,” Nathan noted as they walked down the citypath.

He glanced back at Shin, and was rewarded with a half-smile; a, “Nope.” A moment of even treading later, Shin added, “They still don’t solve stupidity.”

Nathan, who’d nearly been enveloped in his worries again, was a bit slow to hear the truthful tease. He stumbled, and turned a quick look to Shin. Shin’s eyes seemed focused on their path ahead, as he grinned broadly. Nathan took the moment of distraction to punch his friend’s shoulder.

“Ow!” Shin reacted, surprisingly pained. Quickly, he covered with a playful laugh. He pretended a return punch; but, Nathan noted, with his other arm.

*I only use Sultronous* a sultry female autoad crooned. Her image dropped the towel it had barely been wearing to begin with. *Because I need my skin touchably soft.*

They walked through her without comment, stopping at their last crossing. Shin stole a quick glance at Nathan. “Did you feel something at that last one?”

Nathan considered. “Yeah,” he realized. “I thought they weren’t going to add sensory to the street ads, though.”

“Well,” Shin answered, nodding at the ever-present street dwellers, “Guess they’ll learn.”

“Yeah,” Nathan repeated. His friend’s comment drew him back to when sensory modifications had first been introduced. Every advertiser had clamored to use them and the citypaths had been saturated in perfumes, breezes, and flashing lights -until the street dwellers systematically cannibalized them for parts. One sensory mod covered a week’s worth of hits from the right vendor.

“If they’ve got a way to get around it,” Nathan posited, “we ought to look into it. I could use new slipshods.”

“And I could use a hit,” Shin replied.

They walked to the other path, past two buildings, then stopped. Shin gave a low, appreciative whistle at the sight of the monolith before them. “Check that shade,” he marveled. He tilted his head back, attempting to see where Carapace’s grey pinnacle reached grey-clouded sky.

“C’mon,” urged Nathan, turning away.

Regretfully, Shin abandoned his scrutiny. Together, they stepped to the neighboring alley. As with most of their assignments, the service side was less impressive than the streetside façade. Still, this one was cleaner and more secure than others they’d visited.

Adjusting his satchel, Shin approached the access door. After groping around various pockets, he found and withdrew his comm. Nathan watched him place it on the sensor; watched the familiar green activation light.

The entry slid open, and they went inside.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XVII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XIX.

Skinwalkers, XI

Very shortly, Nathan found himself facing the main floor reception area of Carapace. He stepped from the lift and walked in muted carpet footsteps to the right of the receptionist’s desk. She was engaged, speaking animatedly to what sounded like a vendor.

“Yes, I understand you wish to contact M. Billings. I’m afraid you’ll just have to message him from the netsite.” She cocked a head to the left for a few seconds, and a light wave of auburn hair shifted to expose her perfect scoop of neck. Nathan mentally shook himself, and continued walking past her work area and toward the exit.

He heard her speak again, in a strained sort of politeness. “I’m sorry, but I can’t connect you in any other way. Thank you for your understanding.” He was nearly to the doors when she called, “Goodbye, N. Reed. Please, come again.”

Whoosh activated the doors, as the delicious air inside was sucked out into the stale environment of the city. Raising his right hand in a departing salute, he left without looking back. Unlike his entrance, he literally stumbled at the intersection of the fresh air with the polluted variety outside. He recovered, straightened his suit, and straightened himself.

Feeling the guard’s gaze upon him, Nathan walked resolutely down to the street. Unfortunately, no transports were idle. He’d have to activate one, or walk. He looked skyward, attempting to forecast the likelihood of precipitation in the ever-variable cloudcover. He’d better not chance it; he needed the skin undamaged.

Sighing, he pulled out his comm and requested pickup. Within moments, a battered transport stopped curbside and idled unsteadily at his feet. Nathan scanned his comm and the door popped open. The transport seemed to shift more listlessly with his entry than the one he had taken just a quad prior. The operator was also less impressive, to say the least.

The man in question turned round from his front seat position. This side of him was even less impressive than the back had been. He seemed to be about 80 years old. An open-gap toothiness cheerfully smiled from beneath a gray and white mustache. All hair originating from his face and head stuck out, and was affected by shifting air currents. What Nathan could see of the man’s outfit seemed to consist of recycled garments.

“Where to, son?” The ancient operator’s happy voice asked.

Nathan hesitated. “128th Verge Slum,” he croaked out.

“Eh?” The old man asked. He wagged a finger at Nathan. “You’re gonna have to speak up a lot clearer or we ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Following this reprimand, the man wheezed and slapped his steering. Nathan realized the operator was laughing.

He cleared his throat, swallowed, then repeated himself more audibly. “128th Verge Slum.” He almost added a, “please,” but caught himself in time.

“Darn tootin’!” The dashboard computer responded, and the transport lurched forward on its track.

Nathan blinked in surprise. “Me nephew taught me how ta set it up with a voice I liked,” the man grinned.

Not wanting to appear impolite, Nathan answered, “I see.” He could tell that the strange man wished him to expound slightly more. “Um, it’s very creative.”

“‘Course it is!” Operator agreed, resolute.

Feeling a tad bewildered, Nathan pretended distraction in the rapidly-passing buildings. Peripheral vision and attuned listening told him that no change had been made in the position of the transport’s other occupant. It was like the man knew nothing of social awkwardness or personal space.

The sky-blocking rectangular structures outside grew increasingly drab and closer together. They were nearly to Nathan’s buildling, a fact he had not felt more grateful for in a while. Their transport stopped; he exited.

The operator deactivated a doorscreen between them and bellowed, “Call me agin, any time you need transport!” He wheezed his version of mirth one last time, and added, “Name’s Rex.”

“Of course,” Nathan answered, “Rex.” He’d remember that name, as one to never call again in his working life.

Rex, meanwhile, grinned, closed the open door remotely, and drove away. Nathan was certain, before the vehicle barely cleared the next bend, that he could hear Rex singing raucously through the open doorscreen.

Continued from Skinwalkers, X.
Read to Skinwalkers, XII.

Skinwalkers, IV

His newsfeed was not as interesting as Nathan had hoped, or he was simply too anxious to be captivated by its stories. He suspected a mix of both. Perhaps it would help if something newsworthy happened besides the unending reports of famine, over-pollution, rising costs, and no jobs.

Too bad he couldn’t risk watching something more interesting, but he wanted to appear confident and collected for the interview. He wanted to radiate the impression felt during his last glance in the mottled bathroom mirror.

The humming transport moved in measured automation down its predetermined strip. Lines of light, both natural and artificial, panned through the thickly-tinted windows and played across his comm, his suit, and the back of the operator’s head. Nathan was distracted by their movement, in part because his eyes still felt over-sensitive to strong contrasts of dark and light.

Not a minute too soon, they pulled up under the street shade of a grey office complex. The door immediately to Nathan’s side popped open, and he shifted over and out. Pocketing his comm, he carefully looked up to the heaven-reaching monolith.

A gray building tapered up to a gray pinnacle, surrounded by gray clouds against a gray sky. Nathan felt slightly mismatched in his dark blue garments.

The transport door closed and it left in a near-silent hum, a bit faster than regulation. Nathan snorted derisively at the operator’s obvious desire to get back, and hopefully ferry a more lucrative client.

Straightening his lapels, coat, and sleeves compulsively, he strode forward under the shade. It was a nice, expensive, semi-translucent roof that covered the entire width of the building’s front, and led from street to entrance. Remembering the brief precipitation during his drive, Nathan realized and marveled at the costs of maintaining the shade’s transparency.

The doors, too, were immaculate. They were guarded, by a man better-dressed than a hotel concierge. Nathan felt trepidation raise his heart rate; his palms threatened to sweat through his skin.

I can do this, he told himself. Considering, he altered his mantra, will do this.

Forcing himself to keep his nervousness thoroughly internal, he walked an even gait up the steps to the formidable front. The guard barely granted him a glance, but Nathan knew the man had already measured him up and down since he first stepped on to the curb.

The guard offered his tablet, expressionlessly. Nathan scanned his own device, matching and surpassing the man’s seriousness. A green bar flitted across the tablet’s surface; its owner blinked in acknowledgement and returned it to its pocket. Reaching somewhere behind his person, the guard activated the doors.

Resisting the urge to breathe a relieved sigh, Nathan cleared his throat and strode forward. The opening split rapidly, pushing surprisingly-fresh air gently against his body. He almost stumbled, stupidly, with the flavor of the expensive building-breath. Knowing, however, of the guard’s continued scrutiny, he fought natural reactions and continued walking. Internally, Nathan couldn’t help but marvel.

How would it be? He wondered, To breathe this well every suncycle? He couldn’t wait to find out.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, III.
Read Skinwalkers, V.

Skinwalkers, III

Dressing was more difficult than Nathan had planned. The task was exacerbated by myriad factors, including lack of a full-length mirror. He grunted, twisted, pulled and straightened like a possessed interpretive dancer.

“At least I’m not in a dress,” he mumbled, finally groping with the outercoat and its attachments. The full suit would hide most of his glaring, epidermal defects.

The wristwatch beeped again, at an antique half-hour, and Nathan knew it signaled a few ticks before morning traffic began. If he didn’t get to a transport soon, he wouldn’t beat the better-paid commuters.

He grabbed his slipshod footwear and his comm. Rushing through the three small rooms of the apartment, he sincerely hoped everything appeared in order about his person. He also hoped the appointment was in a building with a reflective lift.

Just before exiting, he slapped the defunct doorscan to activate lockdown. The trick was applying enough force to get the cracked reader to work, but not depress it to a further state of disrepair. He wanted to get back in later, after all.

He paused outside his exterior door, listening. Traffic echoes swirled like engined ghosts down the cement stairway and circled, trapped for moments, at the basement landing where he stood. No sounds of human movement came to him. Franks must have gone back to sleep.

Leaning to one wall, then the other, Nathan slipped his feet within their slipshods. He felt the contoured fabric lifting and shaping up his foot and ankle. Once the sole hardened with its habitual *click*, he immediately climbed the cracking steps to mainground.

What luck! A transport sat waiting, anticipating the impending work crowds.

Striding forward purposefully, he focused on the memory of confidence. His eyes blazed. His steps were measured and certain. Artfully, he withdrew and scanned his comm, immediately entering the vehicle when its activated door popped open.

The man up front seemed startled as Nathan sat and the vehicle tipped slightly. Nathan, however, appeared unperturbed.

“Er…” The operator began. Clearly, the man needed authority. Nathan felt happy to oblige; this would be great practice for later.

“Walls and Pruitt, at 34th Beta,” he enunciated, looking past the slack-jawed operator and to the dashboard computers instead.

All business, the dash responded in light patterns and beeps. “Destination acknowledged,” its female tones confirmed.

Nathan deigned to grant the still-surprised transport operator a raised eyebrow -a question of the man’s choice of High British female voice command, perhaps- before turning his attention to his more-interesting comm feed.

A shifting of garments on seat-cloth told Nathan the man up front had decided to face forward. As he should, Nathan thought. It’s not like the man needs to do anything, anyway.

Nathan had even considered an operator job, before Franks’ cousin’s friend had gotten him such a good deal on the outfit. Imagine someone seeing him in a transport! He shuddered, and resumed panning through stories.

Thunk, thunk, thunk, drummed at the semi-transparent roof. Nathan didn’t bother looking up, as the commonplace acidfall splattered and spread harmlessly above him. Internally, he felt relief.

If not for recent loans, he would have been walking right now. Showing up in drips.

He shuddered again. He’d make this work. He had to pay everyone back, or face the reality of shuttling friends around in the only occupation left to someone like him.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, II.
Read Skinwalkers, IV.

Writing Prompt: Badlands

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

Photo

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.