Ashe collapsed, gasping for breath, and rolled onto her back. The cold numbness from the granite cliffside seeped into her skin, relieving her burning muscles. Overhead, tree branches quaked in an unseen breeze as a quiet counterpoint to the terror from her frantic marathon through the forest. The ringed moon Aetheron rode high in the sky, calming her. She liked it the most out of Arcadia’s two moons and hoped to take a rocketship to it someday.
She relaxed against the cool rock with a slow exhale, unclenching her fingers and releasing the rifle that had kept her alive this long. After a moment, she turned to look over the cliff, noting the trees below.
There was nowhere else to run.
Taking a deep breath, she wondered, Should I give up? The world ended twenty-five years ago. Those of us still around; we’re all walking dead; we just don’t know it yet.
Feral screams broke her reverie, and she cursed, “Blast!”
Closing her eyes, she tried to ignore the horror that came to her mind whenever she thought of the growlers. A part of her worried about becoming one herself, and she focused on the flickering shadows from the leaves overhead to fight the growing fear.
Growlers were once people but had since changed—another aftereffect of the arrival and cleansing. Nobody was sure if they were alive or just reanimated corpses. Ashe felt it didn’t matter—they were feral, mindless, and nothing but killers.
I could just let them eat me.
But that would probably hurt.
With her breathing under control, Ashe sat up and ran her fingers through her sweaty, cropped red hair to cool off. A smoldering frustration filled her as she grumbled, “It was stupid to help Mosstown negotiate with Warthog!”
Speaking to herself was something she’d started doing with her voluntary isolation.
A twinge of sad anger simmered in her chest as she thought about her lost backpack. While trying to find Warthog’s base, things went south, and she had to leave it behind in a scuffle with the raiders. Giving chase, they followed her on a mad race through the forest when she ran into a roving horde of growlers. But she didn’t slow and dashed through the gaunt, zombified humans.
They should have taken care of each other!
She let out a deep sigh, doing her best to keep calm.
After a moment, she fought down the natural fear anybody might feel on the edge of a cliff and scooted closer to look down. The wind gusted up, instantly bringing tears to her eyes. A cabin poked through the trees below her, perched just on the edge of an overlook into the densely forested Fen and beyond. A faint hope grew as she realized how secluded it was, which meant it might have undiscovered supplies.
It could mean safety. And she needed safety. Safety she used to have.
“Damn Commissioner,” she growled, thinking how everything was easy growing up in Fenclave—an underground enclave shelter big enough to house a thousand people, with regulated temperature, food at the ready, other kids to hang out with, and normal things like weekly schooling.
Why did the Commissioner make us leave? I was born in Fenclave. I didn’t even know what it was like above ground! It’s horrible!
Ashe angrily grabbed her gun and checked the chamber. Out of ammo.
She pulled a string from her neck and considered the bullet tied to the end. Even with the growler’s grunts and screams coming closer, she debated what to do. This round was special—it was for the Commissioner.
Should I use it now? The Commissioner deserves it for the hell she put me through.
A branch snapped in the distance, helping to make her decision. I can always write her name on another bullet.
With hands shaking from adrenaline, she untied the knot, slotted the bullet into the rifle, and shouldered the gun with its sling. Turning around, she slid her belly over the cliff’s edge and stretched for a toehold. A renewed vigor came to the growler’s calls, heralding their imminent arrival as they caught sight of her, but she focused on remaining calm and moving carefully.
She descended the cliff, making it out of the growlers’ reach before they arrived. Loose gravel fell around her as they shuffled around the top. One of them, a young man in a red baseball cap, his features twisted and burned-looking, noticed her and snarled, “Escape!” while futilely swiping at her in mindless frustration.
Reassuring herself, she muttered, “Growlers don’t climb, right, Ashe? Hopefully, they’ll just give up and find better prey.”
Despite lacking climbing gear, her descent went well enough on the rough rocks, and she slowly left the growlers behind. As she reached the bottom, the bleakness that had gripped her at the top gradually faded away.
She kept out of sight while cautiously approaching the cabin, mumbling, “You never know what you might come across, Ashe. Be careful.” Feeling more secure in her chameleon body suit, she activated it as she drew near, blending into the terrain.
The song “Atom Bomb Baby” crackled from a radio through the trees, and that meant people. She held back a curse and mentally debated her options, her hopes fading. If somebody is in the cabin, they could be friendly. Or, they could be another raider gang—hnot that I have anything left for them to steal.
Her stomach groaned, a reminder that she had missed lunch, and she tried not to think of the potential threats raiders might pose beyond stealing her things.
Using every skill she’d learned since leaving Fenclave, she crept closer, pulling a hood over her face, tapping her thigh to engage the chameleon effect of the body suit, and staying in the growing shadows of the setting sun.
The log cabin, an A-frame with an upper floor, looked to be in decent shape for the badlands—probably thanks to its secluded location, nestled midway along a steep incline. The cabin sat tucked among the trees with a rusty old truck parked to the side, its rounded, flaring fenders a reminder of the sleek, pre-arrival world that was no more.
An automated turret chirped a warning, and Ashe froze, grumbling, “Of course, they have robotic defenses,” while scanning the house for additional threats. Her chameleon suit worked best against people, not turrets with infrared cameras.
I am shadow incarnate, she reassured herself. I’ve snuck past a whole squad of Wardens. But can this turret detect infrared? Maybe I should just run. If I run fast, it can’t get a lock on me . . . I think.
It’ll work, won’t it?
Her stomach groaned again, and she mumbled, “Sorry, Miss Sneaky Pants. Looks like we’ll be running for it today.”
With her decision made, she sprinted towards the building at an angle. The turret unleashed a staccato of gunfire, tracking her across the yard. Bullets peppered the ground behind her, the sting of ricochet close enough to feel. With a desperate burst, she rounded the side of the building, reaching safety.
A second turret on the cabin’s wall turned to face her. Spotting an open cellar door, she lunged through it as the turret traced her steps with a spray of bullets.
“Too close,” she muttered.
She paused as the automated guns spun down, leaving the door open to illuminate the gloomy interior while listening for alarms. Soon enough, she realized anybody here was likely dead—the stench of rotting flesh gave it away.
Other than the radio playing upstairs and the soft whine of a tired old reactor still running in the corner, the only sound was the buzzing drone of flies from above, likely circling the prior owner.
After her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she moved up to the main floor, turned off the radio, and found the source of the stench—a dead man in a bedroom. By the looks of things, he likely expired from a nasty bout of void worms.
She winced at the gruesome sight and mumbled, “Poor guy.”
Ashe needed to deal with the man first—the smell was overpowering. A quick search led her to a switch that disabled the turrets, making a mental note to turn them back on later.
Gagging at the malodor, she rolled him up in his old blanket, avoiding the glowing, purplish worms crawling through his remains, and dragged the fetid bundle out to the trees—far enough to avoid attracting predators or void-created terrors to the cabin.
Returning, she took a closer look around the cabin, deciding it was nice, if not a little run-down, and began wondering if she could use it as her new pad. It also had a great view overlooking the Fen. A panoramic window pane in the east wall remained unbroken, highlighting the vista beyond.
Ashe had become very good at finding supplies in every nook and cranny of pre-arrival ruins. Her search for supplies in the cabin was unfruitful, however, as she found little immediately valuable. Instead, she discovered dried toothpaste and dusty books. One thing that struck her was the wiring—she’d have to do something about the random cables stretched back and forth and tucked in corners—probably for the turrets. It made a mess of things and could even be a hazard in the dark.
But scavenging was her thing, and she worked harder, searching for secret panels and hidden doors. After a more careful effort, she found a stash of supplies hidden behind a bookshelf in the loft.
“I’m so good!” she exclaimed, pushing the bookshelf out of the way.
A grin spread on her face as she considered the items in the hidden stash. “Cool beans! This is a cornucopia of supplies! Did you catch that, Mister Emmett? I remembered my vocabulary from your class. Lot of good that will do me now. Thanks to you, Mrs. Commissioner.”
Ashe grabbed a package of Frosted Sugar Bombs cereal from the trove, tore it open, and started eating it dry while carrying the rest of the supplies from the loft to the kitchen.
Her shoulders relaxed after she found a box of ammunition hidden in the back. Setting aside everything else, she ejected the Commissioner’s unused round from the rifle and deliberately tied it to the string around her neck. Renewing her vow, she whispered, “You’ll get what’s coming if I can ever find you. It’s all your fault that Mom, Dad, and—” Her voice choked.
With a pause to draw in a deep breath, she forced herself to let the anger pass. Then, with focused determination, she returned to sorting the stash into organized piles, finding solace in the repetitive action, even knowing growlers might be prowling nearby.
Deep shadows filled the room, reminding Ashe how fast night came in the badlands. She flicked on her AstroCom’s lamp, strapped conveniently to her wrist, and searched for the cabin lights, a smile touching her lips as she remembered receiving the device on her eighth birthday.
With three pieces wrapped around her wrist on a canvas strap, the AstroCom was heavy on her arm. It could perform various functions for school and around the enclave. But what she cherished most were the songs her parents had loaded, and she wore it proudly, happy to share the tunes with her best friend, Talia. She had played the music so often that her parents insisted she use headphones to curb the constant noise.
Twisting the cable extending from the AstroCom up to the headphones hanging around her neck, a pinch of hurt turned her gut as she remembered her last birthday at Fenclave.
Did I turn sixteen last month? It feels like a decade since we left, not a year.
Ashe and her family were some of the lucky few who had lived in Fenclave, which was what the locals called their enclave in the Fen—a nuclear fallout bunker established by the government before “the arrival.” As scientists, her parents gained early entry to set things up. Then the Kraal came, followed by “the cleansing,” after which it was too late for anybody else.
At least, that’s what she was told.
Ever since they were kicked out, she had begun questioning the Commissioner’s story.
Thinking of her birthday brought to mind her father declaring Ashe as his favorite daughter, and she smiled. Admittedly, Dad, I’m your only daughter, but who’s keeping track of these things?
In the darkness, her thoughts circled back to the Commissioner, the one responsible for her family’s expulsion, which led to her family’s death. We could have stayed there. She didn’t have to send us out to clean up the world. Everything was just fine.
Ashe didn’t buy the excuse that Fenclave’s water purification systems had failed.
Groaning, she reminded herself to stop thinking about what was.
Finding the switch, she turned on the lights and looked around. Deciding a pick-me-up might help her think of something else, she pulled her headphones on and dialed into the AstroCom’s entertainment library. With “Pistol Packin’ Mama” playing, she started inventorying the rest of the cabin and couldn’t help but find a bob in her step as she relaxed.
“That’s right, Ashe, the dulcet tones of some dead guy can put a hop in your step long after civilization has ended. Besides, I am a pistol-packin’ mama, after all. Well, an Arbiter combat rifle-packin’ mama, but that’s a mouthful. I do pack a pistol, though.” She slapped the holster lower on her thigh.
Dancing in time with the music, Ashe gracefully slid across the linoleum kitchen floor, narrating her movements. “I’m such a cool cat. Nobody can catch me.”
Crouching, she whispered dramatically, “Hello shadows, I’m Miss Sneaky Pants and stealthy mojo courses through my veins!”
A thunderous clap shook the entire cabin, causing the floor to tremble and rattling the furniture and appliances around her, eliciting a yelp of surprise from Ashe. With adrenaline rushing through her stealthy veins, “Miss Sneaky Pants” silenced the music and lurched toward the Arbiter.
But her stealthy mojo didn’t stop her from tripping over a wire stretched across the room. The lights went out, leaving only the gentle whine of the reactor.
“Fuuuuudge!” she exclaimed, her voice a drawn-out groan as she fought the pain in her bruised knee. Embarrassed, she reflexively glanced around to ensure nobody heard her un-lady-like cursing. After the pain subsided, she whispered in a sulky voice, “I know, Mom! My mouth is foul! I blame the badlands.”
Ashe’s mom had often praised her cultured demeanor, straight posture, and high society voice—but that was then.
Feeling around in the darkness for her rifle, she located the Arbiter in the brief slashes of violet lightning. Creeping to the door, she eased it open to peer outside.
The impending void storm cast everything in a surreal, purple-tinted gloom, and her pulse quickened. Growlers were more active during a void storm.
The storms emerged after the Union of Stars military nuked all the worlds in their fight against the extra-cosmic Kraal. Now, all that remained of the military were the Wardens, and Ashe always tried to give them a wide berth. They had very dogmatic thinking—notably, that superior force was necessary to keep civil order. Using nukes twenty-five years before to repel the Kraal invasion, they still defended the action, despite its devastating effects on all the worlds.
The storms were the icing on the Wardens’ cake—unpredictable and leaving behind ruined creatures: desiccated, voracious shadows of people, like the growlers, or void-mutated aberrations, like the Deathmarks.
Even thinking of the Deathmarks made Ashe’s blood run cold.
Clenching her teeth for focus, Ashe peered through the Arbiter’s scope, surveying the nearby terrain, plotting how to fortify the cabin against the impending storm. The front door had a bar, and all the windows had shutters, which she could fasten secure. And the turrets—her thoughts lurched and anxiety clenched her gut as a sinking uneasiness crawled up her spine.
She had forgotten to reactivate the turrets, let alone closed the basement door.
The reactor’s whine cut out, plunging the cabin into silence, interrupted by a rumble from the coming void storm.
“We’re coming,” came a hiss from below, and fear spiked her adrenaline—the growlers were inside.
She wanted to run. It was the sane thing to do. But she knew being outside in a void storm was a death sentence.
The stair creaked, and she flung the front door wide open, sparing a glance for the coming store before pivoting to face growlers shambling up from the basement.
With a pull of the trigger, bullets sprayed in a chatter, filling the cabin. Many shots missed, but enough landed, dropping the first two growlers reaching the top of the stairs, but more followed. Through clenched teeth, she snarled, “How many of you are there?!”
One of them, wearing a tattered business suit, his face burned and twisted, lurched over the two writhing on the floor and darted toward her while hissing through withered lips, “Run!”
The single word sent shivers of terror down her spine, causing the hairs on the back of her neck to stand on end.
Growlers often uttered random exclamations while attacking, their chilling cries almost like warnings. Some speculated that the person they once were was still locked deep within, and their mutterings were all they could manage to get out, although Ashe had never bought into that theory.
Her second trigger pull sent a burst of bullets across the growler’s chest to his shoulder, spinning him back, but more emerged from below, and she gave up, resigning herself to the void storm.
It’s either death by a growler now or turning into a growler later. I’ll take the latter for ten points, thank you.
She ran, leaping from the steps to the ground in a single motion, knowing the growlers followed. On the horizon, a dark wall of boiling clouds rolled toward her, lit by an extra-cosmic purple radiance with occasional flickers dancing across the edges and illuminating something deeper within. She knew not to study it too closely because she would see shapes in the clouds—things that could not be explained, like tentacles and eyes.
Two humanoid forms appeared before her, illuminated by a flash of violet lightning, while ominous clicking from the Geiger counter in her AstroCom warned of the increased radiation brought by the storm.
Instinctively, she raised the Arbiter and stroked the trigger, her mind trailing behind her muscle memory as she slowly realized these two didn’t look like withered growlers.
Bullets sprayed over their heads, hitting one who cried out in pain. The other barked, “Don’t shoot!”
Distrust in her warred with the approaching growlers’ shrieks. The larger man darted past her, a shadow in the gloom, while the other fired a pistol—not at her, but at the growlers.
She turned, gun at the ready.
The taller man faced three growlers, slashing with a fierce, bladed gauntlet. Two more approached, and she sighted in on one, hesitated, then fired—missing; fear of hitting the man threw off her aim.
Taking a deep breath, she fired again, landing a shot in the growler’s chest. It shuddered and collapsed to the ground.
With help from the two strangers, they dispatched the remaining growlers and paused, scanning the area.
Lightning flickered. The wind picked up, reminding them of the storm.
The three stared at each other for a moment, debating what to say.
Meeting strangers in the badlands was dangerous; Ashe trusted no one. The darker man wore a top hat, his features unclear in the gloom. The other held his shoulder with care, and Ashe guessed he was likely the one she’d shot.
Wired with adrenaline, Ashe darted to the cabin, reaching the porch before the wounded one called, “Don’t run! We’re friendly! We come in peace!”
She paused, then lowered her voice as best she could to be more intimidating, “Then you can go in peace, too! Or come closer and be in pieces! Now make like a tree and leave!”
The void storm flickered overhead, and the Geiger counter clicked again, this time matching the patter of rain.
The wounded man took a few steps toward the cabin. “My friend, Rainwood, said we should find shelter. Then, would you believe it, we saw your cabin!”
“If you come any closer, I shoot!” she warned.
“Well . . . that wouldn’t be very nice.”
He continued to approach, closing the gap between them. Ashe backed into the cabin, keeping her Arbiter trained on him. “I’ve killed hundreds,” she declared confidently, racking a new round, hoping he could hear it.
The ejected bullet rolled away.
He stepped closer, keeping his hands high.
Even in the gloom of the coming void storm, she noted his features and realized he was near her age. He gave her a gentle smile. His dark, wavy hair curled around to frame his eyes just right. And the way he stood with a little shrug of his shoulders. A rogue part of her—the part that still seemed to think she was back at a safer time in Fenclave—had an irresponsible thought: He is kinda cute.
Ashe hollered in frustration at herself, as much as at him. “Stop coming closer!”
With little steps, he had already made it to the stairs.
She scowled, giving him that dead look she figured scary killers had while reassuring herself, I can be intimidating. I look like a raider. He has to see my raider attire and war paint.
Yet, he didn’t seem to notice as he mounted the first step of the porch. Just behind him, the tall man arrived, his features dark as the night. Ashe snapped the gun to the new target. He stepped past the other one, speaking in a low husky voice, “Just go in, boy. She won’t shoot us.”
A boiling fury welled up. Racking the chamber again, she hoped it would intimidate him. He caught the ejected bullet mid-air and walked past her, his eyes darting around the interior.
Wearing a trench coat and top hat, his scarred face showed stories of hard-fought survival, and his white-peppered hair made it clear he was an old guy, maybe even before the arrival of the Kraal 25 years before.
If he’s survived this long, he’s probably super dangerous.
Suppressing a dramatic sigh, Ashe declared, “Fine, come in. But stay over there, where I can keep an eye on both of you.”
Backing into the cabin, Ashe lowered her rifle but kept it ready. The tall, dark man walked in and pulled out a flashlight, scanning it across the growlers she’d shot at the stairs. He glanced at her, then casually lifted the first one in a rescue hold to carry outside.
The other guy bounced into the cabin, sporting a broad smile, and declared, “Awesome sauce!”
He looked about the same age as Ashe and wore a ragged AstroTec jacket over a tattered purple shirt with the AstroTec logo splashed across the front. He pushed dark, wet, curly locks of hair out of his eyes while introducing himself, “So that gloomy fellow is Rainwood, and I’m Moonbeam. What’s your name?”
“. . . Ashe,” she answered hesitantly.
Internally, she couldn’t help but think of her real name, Ashley. But no, that girl was left behind in Fenclave. Only a burned-out husk wandered the badlands—the ashes of who she once was.
She knew they wouldn’t even recognize the dark irony.
Rainwood returned, glanced at them, and added, “Boy, check the basement. Looks like they came in from below.” Moonbeam raised his arm to give Rainwood a thumbs up but winced and grabbed his bicep, reminding Ashe she had shot him.
She sighed, fighting back a feeling of guilt, and asked, “How bad is it?”
“I think it’s okay,” he answered, “but it does smart some. And I can feel it bleeding.”
She turned the AstroCom’s lamp on and waved her rifle at a steel kitchen chair with vinyl-padded seats, commanding, “Take your jacket off. Show me.”
As Moonbeam took the seat, Rainwood growled and strode down the stairs, muttering, “Somebody should check the blasted door.”
Thunder rumbled, the storm coming on hard and rattling the rafters as the rain shifted to a heavy torrent. Blood had soaked down Moonbeam’s arm, and she reluctantly set her gun on the white-and-cyan patterned mica table. Helping him was the least she could do, considering she shot him.
The wire across the floor shook as Rainwood tugged on it from below, and the whine of the reactor started again. The lights flickered on a moment later. Ashe made a beeline to the switch and turned the turrets on again, feeling relieved when she heard the chirps declaring their active status.
Moonbeam rolled his shirt sleeve up to his shoulder, exposing his bicep. Ashe poked at the wound before observing, “You are lucky. Just a graze across the skin. Doesn’t even need stitches.”
She retrieved bandages, then cleaned and wrapped Moonbeam’s wound while Rainwood cleared the growlers, tossing them from the porch due to the coming storm. They would have to move them again after it cleared.
Rainwood closed the steel shutters on all the windows. Once finished, he shook the rain from his trench coat before hanging it on a hook. Ashe retrieved her Arbiter, pointing it at the couch on the far wood-paneled wall, “Sit there. I suppose you two can stay. At least till the storm is over.”
Smiling innocently, Moonbeam stood up and opened his arms to embrace her in a friendly hug while he said, “Thank you, Ashe!”
Her first instinct was to punch him in the throat and run, but she managed to keep her fists in check. She still backed away quickly, causing him to stop with confused surprise.
Rainwood interjected, “Boy, you have no sense in that head.”
Moonbeam seemed disappointed, then shrugged and turned to look around the room with the excited energy of a kid who had drunk too many Pop-a-Colas. He buzzed around, touching and poking at everything, which only put Ashe more on edge.
He picked up a box of mashed potato flakes, which she had sorted alphabetically with other food items on the countertop, and declared, “Wow, this is a great place you have. Nice and dry, too.”
She stared at the water dripping from the ceiling, then took the box away from him and put it back where she’d sorted it between the cans of imitation crab and pork-n-beans.
Trying not to grind her teeth, something deep inside her began to dislike him. No, he doesn’t have a nice smile—it’s infuriating. How could anybody be so happy in this destroyed world? We are all living corpses, just walking out the last of our lives.
Stuffing her thoughts down, she watched drops from the leaky roof hit his head and politely protested, “You must be kidding.”
He froze and looked at her with wide eyes. “I am? Gee, I didn’t realize I was kidding. Oh, hey, you have a Pop-a-Cola bottle collection!” He wandered to the corner to look at the display shelf.
Rainwood unbuckled his fierce-looking bladed gauntlet and set it on a side table. It caught her attention. She’d heard about people who fought with gauntlets, preferring to fight closely and intimately. From what she knew, the three twelve-inch blades along the top of the gauntlet were keenly effective if wielded properly—but it took some finesse to learn how to use it well.
Rainwood eased himself into a reclining lounge chair with a suppressed groan—not the couch she had pointed at. Ashe ground her teeth while fighting back a sense of rising frustration. The situation was quickly getting out of control.
Ashe looked at the two, wrestling with the thread of anxiety weaving through her. She wanted to stay away from others, yet two strangers had just invited themselves into her home! She focused on controlling her breathing.
Moonbeam stared at the guns on the floor—gifts from the prior owner. Ashe had sorted them by size and stopping power. “You know, it’s bad for these to be on the ground,” Moonbeam said, “You should have them on a rack. On the wall, maybe.” He glanced around the room as if expecting a gun rack to appear on the wall.
What’s the deal with this guy? Ashe wondered, taking a deep breath. Well, I can be civilized. Cultured, even. I don’t have to think everybody is out to get me.
Her shoulders sagged, and the will to fight drained away. She adjusted her grip on the Arbiter and asked Rainwood, “How did you know I wouldn’t shoot you?”
He grumbled like an ancient bear, “You may dress like a raider, kid, but a raider would’ve shot us before we could say hello. Besides, you don’t need to cock a gun twice. It was obviously for show.”
“Well, maybe I will shoot you next time. You can’t be too careful in the badlands!”
He nodded, a tiny smile teasing at the corner of his mouth as he responded, “True.”
An awkward silence filled the room. Ashe wasn’t sure how to have a casual conversation anymore. She had spent the last year avoiding people and not hosting social gatherings. She was good at conversing alone, but that wasn’t the same, as she rarely had prolonged arguments with herself.
She chewed on a fingernail, debating if she could trust the two men or if she should get them to leave. She didn’t want to stay awake all night in worry. Then she realized if they stuck around, she couldn’t claim the cabin as her pad. She was a solo wanderer, not a team member. Best that way for all involved.
Her thoughts kept bouncing back and forth. Moonbeam had wandered downstairs, his footsteps echoing through the cabin even over the rumbling of the storm as he hummed a tune to himself.
Unsure what to do, Ashe nervously started packing food into a backpack she’d found in the loft, happy to have something to keep herself busy so she didn’t have to talk. As a contingency plan, she always liked having a bag with critical supplies ready.
A few minutes later, Moonbeam returned, still sporting that smile, and broke the silence with a question. “While you were conversating, did Rainwood tell you we’re hunting treasure? And we’re lost!”
Rainwood’s lips made a flat line. “You need to stop saying that!”
“Oh . . . right, yeah. We’re not lost. But we are hunting treasure,” Moonbeam said, retrieving a loosely bound book from his backpack and holding it up like it explained everything.
Rainwood grimaced. “Stop telling people we are hunting treasure.”
Moonbeam cocked his head. “But we are hunting treasure? We aren’t lost now. We’re here at Ashe’s cool digs. We even have a treasure map. But it talks about places we can’t find. We just got here a few weeks ago and don’t know anything about this planet!”
“You aren’t from Arcadia?” Ashe asked.
Moonbeam grinned and started explaining with excitement, “Nope! Rainwood got us a ride on a freighter that used a Star Ranger’s jumpship. We came in from the world of Rilea—not that it’s much different from Arcadia, from what I can tell, with void storms and everybody trying to survive—and the freighter dropped us off at some big empty spaceport back east, by a ruined city called Saratoga I think—and we walked through a bunch of badlands until we came to the Fen, but we can’t figure anything out here—”
“Boy, you need to stop sharing so much,” interrupted Rainwood. “All you need to say is, ‘We aren’t from around here.’”
Moonbeam stuck his chin out. “But people like to know about each other! If you say that, they ask, ‘Where are you from?’ I’m just skipping to the good parts!”
Rainwood gasped with exasperation, “It’s not about them! It’s about keeping yourself safe. I have no idea how you’ve survived this long.”
Ashe had become distracted by their comfortable banter. Something about them made her feel safe in a way she hadn’t felt for some time, which scared her. She knew she should stay on edge. But they had given her no reason for alarm. The opposite, if anything.
A tweak of interest grew as she realized they probably didn’t know about the horrors of the Commissioner. Every local knew about Ashe’s exile from Fenclave—so much so they were tired of hearing her tales of woe. Most of them figured she was lucky to have had even a few years in the enclave instead of in the badlands.
Despite wanting to avoid people, she yearned to vent about the hard times created by the Commissioner. While her thoughts jumbled, the desire to tell them overcame her, and she abruptly blurted, “The Fen is dangerous!”
They looked at her with baited curiosity, and Moonbeam opened his mouth to respond, but Ashe needed to get it out and dove in, “I don’t know how it is out of the Fen, but here we have lots of horrible creatures, like growlers, skulks, and even things much worse, like Deathmarks. We all had to leave Fenclave, which made no sense because it was perfectly safe. You should leave, and not just the Fen, try to find another rocketship off-world—”
Rainwood listened patiently, a smile teasing at his lips until he cut her off mid-sentence with a question. “If it’s so bad, why are you still here?”
She froze, not wanting to voice her hope that she could sneak back into the safety of Fenclave. To fix things so she could live there again and try to get everything back to how it was. Even though she knew that would never happen.
“Well . . . some of us are here trying to, uhh, to make it safe again,” she ended awkwardly, feeling a twinge of guilt. She wasn’t doing that, of course. But she had seen where others from Fenclave had tried to make life better, encouraging people to create towns and trying to make communal farms—those who weren’t dead, that is.
Rainwood glanced outside, his dark features illuminated by a flash of lightning from the void storm, and mumbled, “Safe.”
The bleakness of his statement hit her like a splash of cold water. Her motivation spiraled downward like it did when she pondered why she bothered trying to survive alone in such a destroyed world.
The Kraal changed everything. Nobody knew why they arrived, but they appeared across all the galactic worlds. They came from another dimension out of time and space and fed upon the essence of living creatures, most notably being attracted to large gatherings of people. Within months, they had killed 98% of the interstellar population. Between that and the Wardens’s “cleansing,” everything collapsed, leaving those few survivors to pick over the corpse of their lost civilization—an intergalactic wasteland, with communication and travel controlled by only a handful of power groups, like the Wardens and Star Rangers.
As hopelessness teased at Ashe, she resumed stuffing things into the backpack, telling herself, These two are walking dead, just like me. Really, is any world safe? Even if I could take a rocketship, where would I go? Another blasted wasteland?
Moonbeam awkwardly stood in the middle of the room, unsure what to do with Ashe’s sudden shift in topic.
After a moment, however, Ashe’s thoughts settled, and she returned to what he’d mentioned—a treasure map.
She’d heard of others looking for treasure, vaults, and archives—troves of ancient technology and supplies—but she’d never heard of anybody having a map.
With focused intent, she stuffed a can of food into her new pack and then stopped to look at the book Moonbeam still held. It had loosely bound pages with notes poking out the side.
She put her hands on her hips and said, “Okay, fine. Tell me more. Where did you get a treasure map?”
Rainwood pinned her with a cold stare, and she realized what a cold-hearted killer’s gaze actually looked like. Ashe suddenly wished she hadn’t asked the question, and a desire came over her to reconsider many of her life choices.
It was that good of a stare.
Of course, she tried to remember every part of it, tucking it away for future reference.
Moonbeam answered after sending a sideways glance at Rainwood, and Ashe could detect a thread of trepidation and confusion in his voice. “It . . . isn’t a treasure map?” Then, after a moment of determined thought, he confidently clarified, “It isn’t a treasure map. It’s a map that guides us to a place of . . . hidden things which have great value.”
Rainwood put his head in his hands with a deep sigh.
Moonbeam casually leaned against a cabinet, looking very smug. He opened the book, explaining, “It’s supposed to lead to the greatest treasure there ever was. But the Fen . . . it’s different. All the trees are tangled up, roads are washed out, and the land has moved. But, now—”
He paused, thinking hard while studying the book, failing to notice he held it upside down. Then he nodded with clever surety. “We are currently . . . unable to find our way.”
“So . . . you are lost,” Ashe clarified, fighting back a grin at his oblivious confidence.
“Yes!” He answered with confidence, then noticed the book was upside down and quickly turned it around, his grin only increasing.
She glanced at Rainwood, trying to find the right words to explain how bleak their world had become. “This place is terrible. You can become a growler, or some void storm gaunt can eat you. Is Rilea really as bad as this? I don’t know about further east, but here in the Fen, things will kill you in an instant, and there are also the Star vines, which did a number on things, from what I can tell—Although, for somebody like me who’s walked every corner it’s not a big deal.”
Moonbeam grinned, a mischievous glint shining in his eyes as he asked, “Well, if you’re such a cool cat, you know how to get around the Fen, right?”
A sense of dread struck her as she realized she’d let her mouth run too much.
The rocketship’s hull glowed bright red as it reentered the atmosphere, shifting to nose up. The engines fired at full throttle to slow its descent as it approached a landing pad chiseled into the top of a mountain. It hovered briefly in a cloud of smoke before the engines cut out, leaving it resting upright.
Two robots pushed boarding stairs against the hull. A hatch opened, and a man in a military flight suit emerged. Straightening his hat, he surveyed the pad. Besides several HWG-125 “Hog” transport aircraft lined up on the west side, a tower on the edge, and the two maintenance robots, the pad was empty.
Blast doors at the tower’s base slid open, and a soldier emerged, calling out, “Captain! You weren’t supposed to return until tomorrow!”
The captain descended the boarding stairs. “Engine-3 is acting up. Have the service bots look it over. How is the hunt? Our benefactor’s patience is running out.”
The soldier fidgeted, nervously adjusting his glasses. “The squads are still searching, sir. No sign of JDE-82, but a local warlord claims to have found him. We have somebody investigating.”
The captain growled, passing the soldier without comment as he headed to the tower doors.
☣ ☢ ☣
Ashe’s mouth watered as she woke to the glorious aroma of rendered fat and fried eggs. Rainwood worked at the wood-fired stove, frying something up. Bright sunlight filtered through the windows, revealing a clear sky after the passing void storm.
Even though Rainwood and Moonbeam seemed trustworthy, staying the night with two strangers left Ashe feeling uncomfortable. It wasn’t just because of the void storm hammering outside with enough noises and howls to make one’s imagination go wild—she also didn’t want to leave them alone with her new supplies.
So, instead, she’d kept her Arbiter with her in the blankets on a couch. This wasn’t the first time she’d slept with it, but as she’d learned previously, it wasn’t a great bedtime companion. That and the bone-rattling void storm made for a restless night—but what else could she do?
She pulled the blankets tight, relishing the pocket of soft, fuzzy warmth they created while wondering where Rainwood had gone in the early morning. She woke at his departure but soon resumed her restless sleep until his return hours later when he started cooking breakfast.
It was hard to want to leave her nest of warmth, so she chose to remain curled on the couch. After some pestering from Moonbeam last night, she had relented, agreeing to help them out, but only as long as it was convenient for her. And with the condition that they help get her gear back from the raiders. Yet, the entire situation was outside her comfort zone, and she considered changing her mind.
Rainwood, noticing Ashe stir, glanced her way before returning his attention to the food and adding in a quiet voice, “I scouted the raider’s camp. It was where you suspected. Are you sure you need that backpack? They have a sizable compound, and I saw some mech repair frames.”
She bristled at the thought of him backing out and growled, “Are you afraid of a few raiders? Are you sure you’re up to this? And did you actually see anybody wearing any suits of Mechanized Armor or just the maintenance frames for said armor?”
He ignored her response and pulled the pan from the stove, bringing it to the table. Ashe watched with hungry interest. Greenish scrambled eggs with unknown meaty bits. Yum!
Moonbeam continued his light snoring from the lounge chair he’d claimed. Apparently, he was a deep sleeper. Ashe pondered Moonbeam’s AstroTec gear, curious about his origins. His shirt and jacket were like the clothes everybody wore in Fenclave. The colors indicated your job and were always branded by AstroTec since they were the primary corporation behind building Fenclave. But Ashe had ditched all her Fenclave gear as soon as possible—she wanted nothing to do with it.
Yet his choice of clothing made her curious. He wasn’t from Fenclave, of course, but was he from another enclave or bunker on Rilea? He certainly did have a lot of AstroTec-branded items.
Rainwood sat, extracted a fork from his pocket, and polished it on a dishtowel before diving into the food. Between bites, he glanced her way. “You can accept my help or not. But don’t play games with me. I asked if there were enough items of value to make them worth retrieving. That’s on you to decide.”
She pondered the mementos from her parents before answering, “Some value can’t be measured. You know . . . the value of things from people I’ve lost.”
He nodded, “I see. Very well.”
Moonbeam lurched upright from his sleep while emitting a yelp. Then he froze and scanned the room with a slightly confused look. Observing Ashe, he paused while staring at her with a curious expression before approaching with his hand outstretched. “Hi, I’m Moonbeam!”
Ashe scrunched herself deeper into the blankets, shooting him a puzzled look as he acted like he’d not met her before and wondered, What’s with this guy?
Rainwood growled and emphasized her name as he responded, “Boy, stop bothering Ashe and come eat.”
Moonbeam tilted his head and studied her for a minute, then declared with a smile and a wave, “Hello, Ashe!” before wandering over to the kitchen, where he started poking through the drawers, mumbling, “A fork, a fork, my kingdom for a fork!”
Ashe shook her head in bewilderment and muttered her Dad’s favorite phrase under her breath, “Somewhere, there’s a village missing its idiot.”
Rainwood interjected, giving no indication he’d noticed her judgment of Moonbeam. “Last night, you told us how smooth you were, as you put it, sneaking into a camp of Wardens. Well, the raider settlement has two entrances. We can distract them on one side while you sneak in the other.”
“Gee, why didn’t I think of that.” Ashe let sarcasm salt her words.
Rainwood raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
She sighed, then continued, “I was hoping for more, I suppose. Some sort of cool plan, like with the mythical Trojan horse, but maybe as a crate of food instead of a wooden horse. And then, after they took it into the middle of their camp, it’d disperse sleeping gas. We could just waltz in wearing gas masks and take what we want. But, you apparently prefer a frontal assault.”
Locating a fork, Moonbeam turned to give Ashe a thumbs up. “Gas masks are tight. Let’s do that!”
Rainwood asked, “Do you have a sleeping gas dispersal system that can be timed or remote-controlled?”
“And even if you did, how do you expect to handle those suited up in Mechanized Armor, which filter the air?”
“So . . . that’s a negatory on the gas masks?” Moonbeam asked, looking like a sad puppy while poking at the eggs in the skillet with his fork, then mumbling, “Plate,” and standing again.
Making the tough decision, Ashe finally climbed from her blanket nest—which was difficult because they had accepted her as one of their own. Stepping over to the table, she picked up a handful of eggs, intentionally using her hands before answering. “Look, don’t be a jerk about it. I was just sayin’ it seems like there could be a better plan than ‘I yell at them in front while you pick their back pocket.’ But, I’m sure it’ll be just fine.”
Rainwood held out his fork, but Ashe waved it away with a handful of eggs, smirking to herself. Silverware is optional when surviving on your own in the Fen badlands. He can be a square about it if he wants, but I’m hungry.
Ignoring her display, Rainwood returned to the topic. “If you are willing to consider my plan, you should be fine. From what I saw, the bottom of the compound is easier to get into. But they have a lot of vulnerable points on each side. We’ll distract them at the top entrance, and you can sneak in from one of those—I saw a possible hole near the southern entrance.”
She pondered and shrugged her shoulders, unable to think of anything better. “Fine. When do you think we should go?”
“Now, if you can handle it. They are probably sleeping in late. Raiders aren’t well known for good discipline.”
Excited at having help getting her stuff back—even if she had to do most of the work—Ashe declared, “Let’s do it,” before stuffing the last of the eggs into her mouth and stepping into a side room to get ready. She checked her chameleon body suit, her prized possession she’d found in an abandoned AstroTec lab up north. It had miraculously fit her small frame, which was likely why it was still there. Back in Fenclave, she had looked even smaller when standing next to her best friend, Talia, who bore a large islander physique.
She didn’t know how the suit worked, especially with clothes over it, but it had saved her life a few times.
Verifying it still worked, she quickly pulled on the nice western threads she’d found in the cabin—jeans, a blouse, and a cowhide vest—and strapped on extra ammunition for her Arbiter.
Ashe returned to find Moonbeam still at the table, staring at the empty skillet while holding a fork in one hand and a plate in the other. He looked at her and asked, “Do we have more eggs?”
Ashe grinned and tossed him a package from the food supplies, saying, “Have an Atomic Cake. They never go bad!”
Reaching the door, she paused, scanning the cabin’s comfortably worn interior, while hoping it would remain undiscovered until her return.
The journey to the raiders’ camp unfolded without incident. Rainwood had found an obscured road down the steep incline, after which they followed the hillside into a lightly forested area with rolling hills, mostly covered with evergreen pines and maple trees that had thus far avoided the encroaching Star Vines.
Ashe worked her way around the compound and crouched by a bush with a clear view of a potential access point in the outer barricade. She rankled at the delay and again checked the time on her AstroCom, wondering when the guys’ signal would appear.
Moonbeam and Rainwood had old-fashioned watches, so Ashe had asked them to synchronize with her AstroCom. She preferred Solar Time, which changed daily so that 7:00 a.m. was always sunrise, no matter where you were on the planet. Spacers used this timekeeping method when on-world because their ships were always on universal time, regardless of the planet they orbited. A part of her yearned to go to space, even knowing all of the other worlds were as desolate as Arcadia.
Exhaling a sigh, Ashe internally lamented the tedious wait.
Waiting is a drag. When will Moonbeam light his fireworks?
Her thoughts wandered, and she remembered her friend Talia from Fenclave before all the horrible things had happened. Talia could make any boring moment entertaining. She had a vivid imagination and tended to make everything part of an action flick—even if only in her mind.
But no! That was then. I need to stay away from people now. They can’t be near me, or—or—
She growled, pulling herself back to the moment.
A ragged raider woman stood watch over the barricade, unaware of anything unusual, bringing a grim smile to Ashe’s lips as she sighted on the woman through her Arbiter’s scope.
Like most structures in the badlands, the compound was a mismatched assembly of salvaged materials, including the hull of an old rocket and what looked like an airship’s observation deck on an upper floor.
Should I just go in? I can take her out now.
When did I become such a callous killer?
I won’t kill her—just hit her in the shoulder, put her out of commission. Did Moonbeam forget to light the signal? Or perhaps the fireworks are duds?
Ashe’s pulse throbbed, and a thought struck her. What if the raiders already split up my stuff? I can replace most of it . . . But the tape of my parents, I want that. And Mom’s journals. Oh, and I need Kelly’s bandana—it’s all I have left of him.
She swallowed a lump in her throat, reminding herself that Kelly was just a dog. After a deep breath, she realized something else bothered her, and it wasn’t how long it was taking the guys or even if the raiders had split up her gear. It was the size of the compound.
If this really is Warthog’s place, I wonder if I over promised to all those folks at Motown. It’s a big operation; I can’t just sneak in and take out the leader like I had planned.
Calls of alarm interrupted her thoughts. Raiders shouted and ran about, then a firework hissed up through the trees, exploding overhead.
The guard remained vigilant, however.
Ashe pulled the trigger, having overcome any guilt about shooting these raiders. They were awful folk in general, ruthless, and given the chance, they’d kill her without hesitation.
The shot hit the guard’s shoulder, spinning her before she dropped out of sight.
After reloading, Ashe bolted forward, glad to see Rainwood was right. Due to the hodgepodge nature of the outer wall—which, like everything else in the compound, was made up of assorted materials, including logs, corrugated steel, and old tires—it had a lot of openings. She sucked in her chest, squeezing through a gap.
The sentry groaned on the ground, writhing in pain, but Ashe ignored her and scanned for threats. Several ramshackle buildings sprawled up the hill. The larger structure on the lower side seemed more important, but she just didn’t know.
The girl moaned at her feet, holding her bleeding shoulder. Ashe poked her with a foot.
“I’ll give you a medipak if you tell me where you keep stolen gear.”
The girl spat, laughing, “You think you can just waltz in here? You’re already dead!”
Ashe didn’t have time for a lengthy interrogation. She pulled the hood of her chameleon suit over her head and left the sentry, moving down the path to the lower structure. After carefully easing a door open, she stepped into a darkened interior, closed the door, and then froze. The chameleon suit made her invisible, but only when moving slowly.
The room was small and broad, perhaps ten by twenty feet. The only light filtered in through a door slightly ajar across from where she’d entered, leaving everything else in gloomy darkness. A table held a scattering of vacuum tubes, electronic parts, and an empty Pop-a-Cola bottle shaped like a rocket ship—no sign of her backpack.
She quickly crossed the room and peered through the opening. A bridge spanned to another part of the complex. Most raiders ran to the other side of the compound, which was good. But the sprawl of buildings gave her a knot of worry; she didn’t have time to search each one.
Just as she moved to leave, a faint child’s whisper came from across the room, “Can–Can–Can you help me?”
Ashe glanced at her translucent arm to affirm her chameleon effect remained in effect, then looked around, wondering where the voice came from as her eyes adjusted to the dark interior.
“Here,” the voice whispered. Ashe finally noticed a small boy sitting in a cage, his brilliant green eyes fixed on her.
He must have heard me—He can’t see me, right? I can just move on. He probably has family here and did something to get in trouble. It’s like a raider timeout—
“I–I don’t have a family. I need–I need–” he struggled with the words but finished with, “These are bad people.”
Yeah, she thought, well, I need to get my stuff and get out of here quickly!
“I know where your stuff is. I can–can–I can show you. If you help–help me.”
How does he know what I—? This is weird.
A surge in staccato gunfire across the compound urged her to move on. She focused on her needs, hardened her thoughts, and started across the bridge.
I don’t have time for this, and the last thing I need is some kid adding to my problems. He’ll have to figure things out on his own.
But the thought struck her halfway across: What if he really doesn’t have a family?
She remembered how it felt as a lone kid in the badlands after her parents died.
But . . . I can’t keep anybody safe, she reminded herself with a twinge of pain before growling, “This is stupid,” and returning to the room while reiterating to herself, He can help me find my stuff. That’s why I’m letting him out.
“You came back!” the boy exclaimed, standing.
She pulled her suit’s hood off and whispered, “Where are the keys?”
He shrugged. “Warthog has them. He doesn’t let any–any–anybody have them.”
Biting back a curse, she knelt by the padlock on the cage and pulled out her lock picks.
Padlocks are easy, and this only has two tumblers.
Yet, it felt like an eternity passed while she worked through each tumbler, and her hands shook with adrenaline, making it even harder.
The lock popped open, and she grabbed the boy’s hand. “Come on, show me where my pack is!”
With a nod, he pulled her to the bridge. They crouched to avoid notice in case any raiders were nearby, but from the cries and gunfire, it seemed they had all rallied to fight on the other side.
The boy pointed at a reinforced door leading into a cave on the hillside. Somebody had painted “Warthog’s Enclave” on a board over the door.
While she had unfinished business with their leader, this wasn’t the best time to face him, with everybody riled up. She sighed, figuring going in would be madness, as there was likely only one exit. She needed to scout the camp better, perhaps try a diplomatic approach first if she would face him. And if she was honest with herself, she now wondered if getting him to ease up on the folks at Mosstown was really worth the effort.
Yet, if her gear was there . . .
“Are you sure that’s where they took it?”
He nodded with wide eyes. Ashe considered how much she wanted her stuff back. The gunfire slowed on the other side of the camp.
A shout came from around the corner of the path, “Hold them down. I need more ammo!” The shout was followed by the heavy machine tread of somebody arriving wearing a suit of Mechanized Armor.
She pulled her Arbiter and aimed at the edge of the shack where she expected the raider to appear, and the moment he rounded the corner, she stroked the trigger. The rifle kicked into her shoulder, barely making a puta-puta-put noise as it unleashed three bullets in suppressed rapid-fire.
The first two ricocheted off his armored shoulder, but the third made it through, and he howled, reflexively bringing his minigun up and raising the alarm, “They’re back here too!”
He pulled on the trigger, and they both could hear the impotent clicking whine of an empty minigun.
She had only a moment to study his mech. They were powered suits wrapping a person, enhancing their strength and adding layers of armor. But this mech was cobbled together from different models—she noted armored pieces that looked like they were from the first generation MA-15 Ogre, along with the later MA-27 Griffin and randomly welded bits of steel. Most importantly, this guy’s mech was incomplete and didn’t have a helmet.
Ashe stroked her Arbiter’s trigger a second time—focusing on his exposed head.
Each bullet struck true—between his eyes. It was like shooting a watermelon, and he stumbled back, falling with a loud crunch.
A second firework hissed and crackled in the air overhead.
Ashe hissed in frustration. “That’s the warning. Time to go! “
She eyed the cave door again, grinding her teeth.
“You’re on your own,” she growled, spinning around and retracing her path before slipping through the barricade. The boy scrambled behind her, doing his best to keep up. Shouts from the compound continued as they ran through the brush and up the flinty hillside.
She didn’t look back; she wanted distance from the camp before stopping.
Eventually, she slowed, catching her breath, and turned to face the boy who had managed to stay on her tail. With a glance around to be sure nobody followed, she leaned down, putting her hands on her knees.
“Okay, I got you out. Now you are free. Go wherever you want.”
I don’t want attachments, she told herself. I’m a loner. And he . . . I just can’t do it. But can I leave him alone? He’s so tiny, probably not more than five years old. It’s a liability.
“I’m six,” he said with a scowl, “and I wanna stay with you.”
“You can’t do that,” she answered, wrinkling her brow at his unprompted statement.
“Because . . . it’s dangerous where I go.” The lie sat poorly with her—everywhere was dangerous.
He fixed his gaze on her, and she marveled at how the light pulled emerald highlights from his pupils, making them almost mesmerizing. His chin quivered, and tears welled in his eyes as he sniffled, “I don’t have–I don’t have–I don’t have anybody.”
Is he pulling puppy eyes on me? But . . . it’s working. I can’t leave him out here alone.
Although the forest seemed quiet, she was anxious to move on and stood up.
“Fine, you little ankle-biter. But only until we can find your family or a better place for you to stay.”
He smiled and held his arms out for her to carry him.
Her pulse increased, and she wanted to growl at him. Why did he think she’d carry him? She wasn’t somebody who could take care of kids.
Then, a little shock jolted her as she realized he wore no shoes. A trail of blood-red spots, clearly visible on the flinty stone, highlighted his path. He had run through the forest barefoot, ignoring sharp rocks and sticks that had lacerated his feet, all without complaint. And he was still able to keep up with her.
She sighed, let him climb on her back, and then started for the cabin.
“So, what’s your name?”
“Jade,” he mumbled, sounding tired.
“Where are your parents?”
“Don’ have any.” His reply was almost unintelligible.
“That’s silly. Everybody has parents. Where are you from?”
He didn’t answer, and she felt his grip relax. She shifted his weight so he wouldn’t slip and glanced over her shoulder.
He’d fallen asleep.
She sighed, fighting the fear welling in her chest as she considered taking care of him, yet reluctantly admitted it did feel good to help him escape.
Visit our social page and stay in touch!