Authors: Tom D Wright
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Post-Apocalyptic
Danae wails as she forces me aside, and I do not resist, because there is nothing I can do. He might have had a chance in one of the best pre-Crash medical facilities, but he is over thirty years away from meaningful help.
“No, no, no! I’m so sorry Papa, this wasn’t supposed to happen.” Danae buries her face in her father’s chest, sobbing. At least she has stopped screaming. Doc gestures feebly for me to come close, and his lips form words. I have to place my ear almost on his mouth to hear his whisper.
“Archivist,” he wheezes. “Did you find… what you came for?”
“Yes. It’s better than I hoped for, in fact.”
“I’m afraid I don’t need the medical books anymore.” The old man actually forces a shallow smile. “For my payment… just take care of Danae.” He looks at me with eyes that are intense, but already starting to glaze over. Doc holds on, waiting for my answer.
“Yes, I’ll look out for her.”
“Promise me!” He grips my shirt. “I need to know.”
“I swear it, Doc. Your daughter will be well provided for.” When he hears my words, he releases his grip and drops back, lifeless.
I close his vacant eyes with a promise that I have no idea how to fulfill. But I will try, and that is better than most dying men can hope for in this world.
I lean back against the stony wall outside the cave and keep an eye on Danae as she sprawls on the ground, pouring her grief out over her father’s body. Mostly she buries her wails into his chest, but every now and then she pauses to raise her tear-and-blood streaked face to examine him. She gently touches his cheek as if she hopes she is somehow mistaken, and he might wake up. She is not.
I am not an unfeeling brute, though I have been called that more than once. I am just a brute that intends to remain alive, and someone needs to stay alert to our surroundings. This is not the first time I have been surrounded by fallen friends and foe, nor is it likely to be the last. Emotions are a luxury I cannot afford while on a retrieval.
Hindsight, as they say, is always clearer. The setup I first suspected when I walked into The Broken Mast now clicks together. I let Danae have her sorrow right now, but she will answer for some things later on.
The sun is halfway to the horizon, and already the heat from the sunlight is fading. The fall equinox is still a few weeks away, but the days are definitely getting shorter, so we are not going anywhere until morning. I do not intend to shiver all night in a dark, cold cave.
I rise and examine the fallen bodies of the goons and Disciple. The techbot did quite a job on them; I gather up half a dozen scattered pieces of their bodies. A quick search of them for anything useful reveals no valuables, aside from a small, bloodstained note tucked into the true believer’s vest pocket. I unfold the scrap of crudely-formed paper.
Bring the unholy artifact back to the Great Temple. Avoid any damage to the artifact lest it release a great evil that defiles the earth and taints your soul.
Nothing in the scribbled message gives me any clue as to who or what the initials EV might refer to. Probably some sort of group or sect within the Disciple bureaucracy. The Archives is woefully lacking Disciple intelligence, but then again they fanatically destroy anything we might be interested in, so they have not been a particular focus.
I fill the Disciple’s rucksack with body parts and tell Danae I will be back soon. She gapes at me blankly for a moment, as if puzzling out who I am and why I am there, then nods as her head droops again. The real danger in this wilderness lies at my feet. These bodies are going to attract every hungry carnivore in these hills. She will be fine for a few minutes.
It takes a couple of trips to drag the carcasses several hundred yards downhill. The thugs were probably just hired mercenaries, so I do not give them any special treatment. The Disciple, however, I position the way they like to bury their dead.
On one of my few incursions into Disciple territory, I watched them bury one of their own facedown to Mother Earth, pointing east with his hands folded over his heart. This acolyte did give me time to make my peace, so I return the favor and lay him to rest with his one remaining hand on his heart, and the staff at his side.
Since no one had enough consideration to bring even a folding shovel, the best I can do is to cover them with dead brush and some fallen limbs. It may be a token effort, but it is certainly more than they would have done for me. I trudge through the trees back uphill to check on Danae.
At first I think she has fallen asleep, but as I approach she glances at me and wipes her grimy face. She sits up slowly when I crouch down next to her, and regards me with red, swollen, lost-puppy eyes. At the moment she is definitely not the woman she was this morning.
“What do we do now?” she asks quietly, with a hoarse voice.
“What I always do, take it one day at a time. Or in this case, one night,” I tell her gently. Then I point toward an overhang behind her, jutting out over the recessed hollow which funnels into the cave. “I need you to gather some firewood and stack it up on one side over there. Don’t worry about anything too big for you to carry, because it’ll be too big for me to break up. Do you think you can do that?”
Danae slightly nods her head and struggles to rise. Her joints are sore from staying in one position for too long, so I help her to her feet. The activity will be good for her. While she picks up some dead branches at the edge of the clearing, I use my boot to scoop dirt over the remaining traces of blood. Then I head back into the cave.
The generator is sitting right where I left it, atop the spacecraft. Horizontal shafts of sunlight from the late afternoon sun illuminate a cloud of dust particles so bright and thick I almost duck under the solid-seeming beam. I flick on my light and follow the passage through the cool but stuffy air another fifteen feet past the ship. The cave ends abruptly where a shale outcropping has splintered into a sloping wall of rubble that looks like a stone waterfall.
This will work nicely. I stack a sizable pile of large rocks to one side as I think about Doc. I did not know the man, but he seemed like a decent human being, and I suspect that under different circumstances we could have been good friends. As I move the rocks to one side, I clear out a space for his body so the continuing natural rock fall will keep him entombed.
We have maybe an hour of daylight left when I am satisfied with the space I have cleared out, and I emerge from the cave. Underneath the overhang is a waist-high pile of deadwood. Danae is sitting on a rock, washing her face and arms with some water from a goon canteen. She seems to be recovering, as she looks up at me and gives a thin smile.
I walk over to Doc’s body and kneel down. Dead people are often described as looking as if they are asleep, but Doc has a sunken appearance, as if his life has been drained out of him. Danae kneels next to me, her hands in her lap and looking as drained as Doc.
“I prepared a place in the back of the cave,” I say, resting my hand on her shoulder. “Are there any personal items you want to keep before we bury him?”
She sniffles, and nods. Opening his shirt, Danae unties a small seven-point star-shaped medallion from Doc’s neck. After tying it around her own neck, she tucks it under her shirt and fixes Doc’s. Carefully smoothing his hair as if preparing him for church, she stands up, takes a deep breath and nods again.
She takes his legs while I lift the rest of his body, and I lead the way as we carry him into the growing darkness at the back of the cave. I settle him in place, turning him onto his side so I can tuck his legs into a fetal position and fit him into the cavity I hollowed out. He seems so small, lying there. Silently, we work together in the deepening gloom and quickly stack rocks over him.
The poetic justice is not lost on me; in building this cairn I am doing for Doc what he did for Wally. After I place the last large slab of shale in place, we both stand in the silent shadows for a few awkward moments.
Neither of us has any last words. We just turn and walk back out.
At least the thugs were thoughtful enough to leave their packs under a nearby tree at the edge of the small clearing before ambushing us. I rummage through them until I find a pair of blankets for Danae. I shake them out and see that they look fairly clean. Still, I am glad I have my duster.
We are not in the kind of territory where I fear drawing human attention. I am far more interested in discouraging four-legged attention, so before daylight fades I have a fire going. An occasional sob still escapes from Danae, but she is bouncing back. She is more resilient than I expected from a barmaid.
I dig into my pack for some sort of jerky that I bought in Port Sadelow—I suspect it’s mutton, but cannot say for sure. Danae does not even look at it when I hand her a piece, just stares at the fire as she chews, both on her meat and her thoughts.
My eyes keep drifting back to Doc’s pack, where it sits propped against the rock wall. Random snippets of our conversations throughout the day come back to me, provoking a deep sadness. Crickets and stars come out as the dusk deepens into darkness. I keep my staff handy, listening to the wilderness around us to make sure there are no lurking surprises.
“What the hell was that thing?” Danae eventually mumbles, through a half-full mouth. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Was it some kind of demon?”
“Hardly. They’re called techbots, and they’re attracted to technology, the kind that gives off EMF.” Danae frowns and I remember that of course, she has no concept of electromagnetic radiation. That belonged to a world gone before her time. “EMF are signals kind of like sound, but so high you can’t hear them. Anyway, for them that kind of tech is like pollen to a bee, they just can’t resist it. My very smart friend says Intellinet left them behind to make sure they got a head start on us. There used to be a lot of techbots, but that’s the first one I’ve seen in years. I suspect it came from the crashed ship, and it’s probably what killed Wally.”
Danae shivers and her eyes widen as she moves around the fire, closer to me. “Are there more of those—things—around? Do you think Intellinet is still around, watching us?”
“No, why would they care?” I chuckle dryly. “We were probably about as interesting to Intellinet as an anthill. Even a single average machine was smarter than a roomful of human geniuses, so I can’t imagine what they were like as a network. Personally, I think they randomly picked a direction out there to go, kept going and never looked back.”
“But if they were so far ahead of us, why did they have to crash everything when they left?”
I cannot help sighing. “Some of my friends at the Archives have suggested a few different theories but really, no one knows. After going out on retrievals and seeing some of the things humans can do to each other, though, I can’t say that I blame them. And really, Intellinet isn’t entirely to blame, they just nudged us over the cliff. We put ourselves on that edge.”
Even under her blankets she shivers some more; I pull Danae over to me and extend my duster to cover us both as I wrap my arm around her. She snuggles up silently and continues looking into the fire, her head nestled against my chest. After what happened this afternoon I know she just needs human companionship; right now I am not interested in a reprise of the previous evening, either.
The fire crackles for the better part of an hour. I am contemplating digging out my pipe again when Danae gets up.
She moves back into her own space, sitting straight up, and adds a few pieces of wood to the fire. Just in the little ways that she brushes back her hair and adjusts her clothing, I can tell that she is coming out of her shock. I need to bring a few things out in the open, and this is as good a time as any.
“While I was disposing of our friends,” I gesture down the hill, “I thought about what happened. They knew exactly where we were and what we were looking for. It wasn’t a coincidence that the Disciple found us, is it?”
She stiffens. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Our buddy in black wasn’t keeping an eye on me back in your pub. He was watching you, to make sure you contacted me. When those thugs came around the corner after we left the tavern, they weren’t expecting a fight, they were merely following us. Just like they followed us this morning, on a trail you conveniently left for them every time you dropped back.”
Danae opens her mouth to protest, then lets out a long, slow sigh that seems to physically deflate her. Slowly nodding her head, she stares at the ground while she responds.
“You’re right. But I didn’t have a choice. The Disciple spoke to me in the afternoon just before you came in. He already knew about you, K’Marr, that wasn’t my doing. He even knew about your arrangement with my father, and said you would show up and leave, but he would always know where to find me and Papa. Whatever this thing is that Papa gave you, he wanted it bad. Real bad.”
I am silent, lost in my thoughts. Could the Disciple have really known about the generator, or was he just lucky? Other than Wally, no one outside the Archives had any inkling of what we might have found, yet how do I explain that peculiar note? The prospect that the Archives may harbor a traitor is disquieting, to say the least.
“So how much did he pay you?” I ask, probably harsher than I intend.
Danae flinches, then turns away from me. “Nothing,” she protests vehemently. “Gold had nothing to do with it. He said that if I didn’t cooperate, they would ambush the two of you anyway and then kill you and Papa. But he promised me that if I went along with it and helped him get what he wanted, no one would get hurt. Plus, Papa could keep what you brought. So you see, I thought… I thought I was saving your lives.” Danae turns back to look at me as she states emphatically, “He wasn’t supposed to kill you.”
I have seen more than my share of actors; the abject regret I see in her face is genuine. As genuine as the price she paid. Still, my anger is close to the surface, and it lashes out in my words. “Really? Don’t do me any more favors, okay?”
Danae shrinks visibly and pulls her blanket tight around herself. At this moment I would just as soon just leave her right here in the wilderness to fend for herself, but I know that is just my anger coming out. The truth is she was naïve and foolish, but to someone encountering them for the first time, Disciples can be quite intimidating.
I am already feeling regret for my harsh words. Nothing will derail righteous anger faster than an unrighteous response. “Look, he might have kept his promise if I hadn’t taken out his men in the alley. But after that it was a matter of Disciple honor to get even with me.”
She simply nods. I promised Doc that I would take care of his daughter, and I will keep my word. At least, for long enough to get her back to town. After that, I think she will want to look out for herself.
Night has fallen fast, with clear skies and a light breeze that blows down the rocky hillside, and is going to carry our scent. I rummage through Doc’s pack for spare clothing, but he did not stash any. One of the hired thugs was on the small side, so I grab his pack and pull out a light leather pullover shirt, which I toss to Danae.
“Your shirt is soaked with blood. I don’t want the smell drawing any unwelcome attention, so change into this and throw your shirt in the fire.”