The first few chapters are included below. Enjoy!

Chapter 1. Pistol Packin’ Mama

Ashe

Ashe collapsed, gasping for breath, and rolled onto her back. A cold numbness seeped from the granite cliffside into her burning muscles. Above, tree branches quaked in an unseen breeze, a quiet counterpoint to the dread she felt after her mad dash through the forest. She had nowhere else to run.

Lying near the cliff’s edge, Ashe wearily exhaled. Her eyes closed, her fingers relaxing to release the rifle—her constant companion for so long—while confronting the thoughts that plagued her: Should I give up? The world ended twenty-five years ago. Everyone left is walking dead; we just don’t know it yet.

Almost a year ago, Ashe and the residents of Fenclave, an underground shelter, were forced to leave their sanctuary. They scattered, each family or individual choosing a different path. Shortly after, Ashe’s family perished in a void-terror attack, leaving her alone to navigate the perilous surface of Arcadia. Despite being engulfed in grief and remorse, she had persevered in the mutated, horror-infested wasteland, enduring alongside other survivors as they scavenged through the ruins of the past.

Ashe’s gaze locked on the ringed moon Aetheron riding high in the sky, which stirred a melancholy ache. It was her favorite of Arcadia’s two moons, and she had dreamed of journeying to it aboard a rocketship someday. But those dreams now lay shattered—with the fall of civilization, such hopes were out of reach.

Straining to hear any sign of pursuit, relief washed over her as the silence indicated a momentary reprieve. Despite this, a smoldering anger lingered within her chest as her attention turned back to her lost backpack, which held all she possessed in this desolate world.

In her mission to locate the raider warlord known as “Warthog,” Ashe had sought directions from a wandering band of raiders, and this ill-fated decision had quickly descended into a skirmish.

After a year immersed in the grim realities of humanity’s descent, Ashe knew well that many raiders dealt in lust and pleasure—one of the many sins woven into the fabric of their savage existence. Thus, when they suggested capturing her for “their amusement,” Ashe had instantly realized her mistake. The chilling thought of becoming enslaved to their debauchery filled her with dread.

While she’d moved quickly, so had they, and she lost her pack amidst the struggle to escape. Even then, she managed to break free, leading to a frantic sprint through the forest with her assailants in pursuit.

Many wouldn’t consider her next encounter fortunate. Nevertheless, Ashe perceived it as a stroke of luck when, during her sprint, she accidentally stumbled into a horde of gaunt, zombified humans known as growlers. Quick thinking and nimble footwork allowed her to slip through their midst untouched, leaving the raiders to grapple with the growlers—a plan that, to her relief, appeared to have succeeded, and she felt no remorse for abandoning them to their fate.

Of course, losing her pack came as a massive blow to her, but a stubborn ember of hope glowed from within as she clung to the belief that maybe—just maybe—she could somehow reclaim what was rightfully hers.

With her pulse calming, Ashe confronted the true fear that had halted her flight, and it wasn’t the raiders or even the growlers. Having spent her formative years in the underground shelter Fenclave—a place devoid of expansive vistas and towering summits—she loathed to admit it, but she had a fear of heights.

Groaning, she inched on her belly to the cliff’s edge and peered down, squinting against the gusting wind that brought tears to her eyes. Through the trees, a cabin emerged midway down the slope, perched on a ledge overlooking the densely forested Fen. A fragile hope blossomed in Ashe—secluded meant potentially undiscovered supplies and safety. Not as safe as Fenclave, but it was something.

“Damn Commissioner,” she growled, reflecting on her simple life in Fenclave. At least there, everything didn’t try to eat you. Plus, it had regulated temperature, food at the ready, and the companionship of friends—a stark contrast to the harsh reality aboveground.

Feral screams echoed from the forest behind her, and she cursed, forcing herself to look down at the cabin again.

“It’s not that far down, is it?” she muttered with her heart racing, being this close to the cliff’s edge.

She didn’t know what was worse: descend the treacherous and unnervingly exposed cliff face or confront the horrifying growlers. Formerly human, the growlers had transformed due to the void storms, which were a side-effect of the Kraal’s arrival and the ensuing nuclear cleansing. A fundamental question remained unanswered: were they alive or reanimated corpses? Ashe felt it didn’t matter; they had become feral, mindless killers, and to her, that’s all that mattered.

Regaining control of her breathing, Ashe sat up, deliberately averting her gaze from the cliffside. Her fingers threaded through sweaty, cropped red hair, each movement exuding quiet confidence—a testament to her year navigating the planet’s harsh surface.

A glint of frustration smoldered in her steel-blue eyes as she considered the situation.

I could just let them devour me, I suppose.

But that would probably hurt.

With a sigh, she grabbed her gun and swiftly checked the chamber.

Out of ammo.

Pulling a string from around her neck, Ashe contemplated the bullet tied to its end. Even with the growler’s wails coming closer, she took a moment to debate her options. This particular round, earmarked for the Commissioner who exiled everybody from Fenclave, might be able to help against the growlers, but was it enough?

A branch snapped in the distance, helping to make her decision.

Eyes closed, Ashe bolstered her courage before turning around and sliding backward on her belly over the cliff’s edge. Immediate terror seized her as the wind howled, tugging at her clothes and whipping strands of hair across her face while she clung to the rock face, her feet dangling freely over the abyss below. Her senses surged, heightening the resinous aroma of the evergreen trees and the musky scent of moss, all intermingling with the rush of adrenaline coursing through her veins.

Battling vertigo and worrying she might slip, she swung her legs until one foot found a toehold. With her teeth clenched, she paused, her limbs trembling as she struggled to control the paralyzing anxiety that threatened to hold her in place.

Knowing she had to press on, Ashe forced herself to envision the drop as only a few feet. This ability to revise her world perspective had become a vital survival tool, enabling her to face challenges that might otherwise break her.

The growlers’ calls intensified, and Ashe caught a glimpse of them running toward her through the trees.

Despite the added stress, she concentrated on staying calm and moving with care as she tested each hand and foothold while she inched her way down the sheer rock face—enough to evade the growlers before they arrived. Loose gravel cascaded around her as they shuffled at the cliff’s edge, their faces twisted and charred. One of them, a young man in a red baseball cap, noticed her below and snarled through cracked lips, “Escape!” while futilely swiping at her in mindless frustration.

The rough surface scraped against her palms as she continued downward, and she muttered to herself, “They won’t follow me, right? Hopefully, they’ll just give up and find better prey.”

Though time seemed to stretch endlessly as she continued, to her relief, the growlers didn’t follow, and, despite lacking climbing gear, her descent went surprisingly well. Finally, her feet touched solid ground. She slumped against the rock wall, allowing her nerves to settle, and the oppressive bleakness that had gripped her earlier began to fade.

Once recovered and keeping to the shadows, Ashe cautiously approached the cabin. The song “Atom Bomb Baby” crackled from a radio within—an unmistakable sign of occupation. Hearing this, her initial hopes of uncovering a hidden treasure dwindled. Was it worth the risk of finding out if the occupants would be friendly or dangerous?

Her stomach groaned—a reminder of her missed lunch—and she dismissed any concern about those within. Instead, she hoped there was at least something edible inside the cabin—the last few months had taught her that hunger could quickly change her priorities.

Ashe pulled a hood over her face and, with a subtle tap on her thigh, activated the chameleon effect of her body suit—a rare find from an abandoned AstroTec lab up north. Drawing upon every skill she had learned since leaving Fenclave, she crept closer while staying in the expanding shadows cast by the setting sun.

The log cabin, an A-frame with an upper floor, looked to be in decent shape. It sat secluded among the trees, nestled midway along a steep incline. A rusty old truck rested nearby, complete with the rounded, flaring fenders that were a signature of the pre-arrival world that was no more.

An automated turret chirped a warning, and Ashe froze, grumbling, “Of course, they have robotic defenses.” Her chameleon suit was great at hiding her from people, but not turrets with infrared sensors.

I am shadow incarnate, she reassured herself. I have stealthy mojo. I’ve snuck past a whole squad of Wardens. Which, unfortunately, doesn’t matter, thanks to the turret. I suppose I could just run for it . . . 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 resolve, Ashe dashed toward the building at a calculated angle. The turret unleashed a staccato barrage, and bullets peppered the ground behind her, close enough that she could feel the sting of ricochet from their strikes. Putting on a desperate burst, she rounded the side of the building.

A second turret on the cabin’s wall swiveled to face her.

Noticing a basement door left partially ajar, Ashe lunged through the opening while the turret traced her steps with a lethal spray of bullets.

“Too close,” she muttered as the automated guns wound down.

Leaving the door cracked open for light, Ashe paused so her eyes could adjust to the gloomy basement.

Even with the soft whine of a tired old reactor running in the corner and the radio’s scratchy melody above, she could still discern the buzzing drone of flies from upstairs. Nevertheless, she waited, listening intently for any alarm at her intrusion.

After a few tense heartbeats, the pervasive odor of decay convinced Ashe nobody would object to her presence. Climbing the staircase to the main floor, she turned off the radio and traced the source of the stench—a deceased man in a bedroom, likely the victim of a vicious bout of void worms.

She winced at the macabre scene and mumbled, “Poor guy.”

Ashe needed to address the body. But first, a swift search led her to a switch that disabled the turrets, and she made a mental note to reactivate them later.

Gagging at the malodor, she bundled the cabin’s prior owner up in his old blanket, carefully avoiding the glowing, purplish worms crawling through his remains. Moving the fetid bundle out to the trees, she ensured it was far enough to deter predators or void-created terrors and returned to inspect the cabin.

Despite its run-down appearance, a panoramic window pane in the east wall remained unbroken, framing a captivating view overlooking the forested hills of the Fen. After a brief circuit of the cabin’s rooms, she found herself pleased with the overall condition and started to consider the idea of making it her new pad.

Ashe took pride in her ability to unearth the most obscure items in pre-arrival ruins, and she eagerly dove into searching the place for food. To her dismay, all she could uncover were old clothes, dried toothpaste, and dusty books.

Undeterred, she continued, becoming more meticulous, and her perseverance paid off when she finally uncovered a hidden stash of supplies concealed behind a bookshelf in the loft. A grin spread across her face as she pushed it aside, surveyed the hidden trove, and immediately snatched a package of Frosted Sugar Bombs cereal. Munching on her treat while ferrying the rest of the supplies to the kitchen, she began a dialogue with herself.

“Is this a cornucopia?” she pondered aloud, “Oh, hey! Did you hear that Mister Emmet? I remembered vocabulary from your class. Fat lot of good that will do me now, thanks to you, Mrs. Commissioner.”

Unearthing a box of ammunition in the back of the stash, she set everything else aside and reloaded her rifle, finishing by taking the Commissioner’s bullet from the string around her neck and renewing her vow.

“There will come a time we meet, and I’ll make everything right. It’s your fault that Mom, Dad, and—” Her voice broke.

Pausing to draw a deep breath, Ashe forced herself to let the anger pass. With grim resolve, she resumed sorting the stash into organized piles, reassured by the knowledge that the automated turrets would alert her to any impending danger. Repetitive actions helped bring her a sense of calm, and she leveraged this practice, losing herself in the focused rhythm of her work.

Ashe hadn’t even realized how late it had become until she noticed deep shadows slowly enveloping the room. With a familiar motion, she flicked on her AstroCom’s lamp and sought the cabin lights. A smile touched her lips as she recalled receiving the AstroCom on her eighth birthday.

Despite its weight and awkwardness, with three pieces wrapped around her wrist on a canvas strap, the device held immense value for Ashe. Its capabilities ranged from helping her navigate the badlands to analyzing substances and all sorts of other things in between. Yet, her greatest joy came from the songs her parents had loaded into it. At the time, she had enjoyed sharing the tunes with her best friend, Talia, to the point where the constant music had prompted her parents to insist she use headphones to curb the noise.

Twisting the cable extending from the AstroCom to the headphones around her neck, a touch of melancholy settled in as she remembered her last birthday at Fenclave and she counted the months, wondering, When did I turn sixteen? It feels like a decade since we left, not a year.

Ashe and her family were among the fortunate few who had lived in Fenclave. It was a nuclear fallout bunker established by the government before “the arrival.” As medical doctors, her parents had gained early entry to set things up. Then the Kraal came, followed by “the cleansing,” after which it was too late for anyone else.

At least, that’s what she was told.

Ever since their expulsion, 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.”

Despite this positive note, her mind invariably circled back to the Commissioner—an unhealthy obsession she just couldn’t shake.

We could have stayed there. She didn’t have to send everybody out to clean up the world. Everything was fine.

Ashe sighed in frustration as her thoughts spiraled, reminding herself that she now had this amazing cabin to make her own. Locating the light switch, she flicked it on, illuminating the open common area thanks to the ever-running domestic reactor in the basement.

A growing sense of satisfaction accompanied her survey of the room. Deciding a pick-me-up might shift her focus, she donned her headphones 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 bob along to the tune.

“That’s right, Miss Sneaky Pants, 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.”

Caught up in the moment, Ashe strutted in time with the music while she began an internal dramatized monologue about her survival skills—notably her sneaky mojo, a point of pride for her.

A sudden, thunderous clap reverberated through the entire cabin, shaking the floor and rattling the furniture. The unexpected clamor startled Ashe, and she might have let out a yelp in surprise if anyone had been there to witness her uncool reaction. With adrenaline rushing through her stealthy veins, she silenced the music and lurched toward the Arbiter.

Unfortunately, her stealthy mojo didn’t prevent her from tripping over a wire stretched across the room, and the lights went out.

“Fuuuuu—!” she bit back a curse, resisting the urge to let it loose despite the pain shooting through her bruised knee, and reflexively glanced around. Even a year later, her mother’s shadow kept her in check. Her mom had often praised her cultured demeanor, straight posture, and high-society voice, but those accolades were from a different time.

After the pain subsided, Ashe growled in a sulky voice, “I know, Mom!”

Feeling around in the darkness for her rifle, she located the Arbiter in a brief flash of violet lightning. Creeping to the door, she cautiously eased it open and peered through the gap.

The impending void storm cast everything in a surreal, purple-tinted gloom, which caused her pulse to quicken—growlers were more active during a void storm. These other-worldly tempests had emerged after the Union of Stars military nuked all the worlds in their fight against the extra-cosmic Kraal invaders.

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 maintain civil order, and they still defended their use of nukes twenty-five years prior despite the devastating effects on all the planets.

The storms were the icing on the Wardens’ cake. They came without warning and left behind ruined creatures: desiccated, voracious shadows of people, like the growlers, and void-mutated aberrations, such as the Deathmarks.

Even thinking of the Deathmarks sent a lance of terror through Ashe. The thought of those unspeakable horrors always lurked at the edges of her consciousness, teasing at memories etched with pain and sorrow from the fateful day she lost her family.

Clenching her teeth for focus, she peered through the Arbiter’s scope, surveying the nearby terrain while reviewing how to fortify the cabin against the impending storm. The front door had a bar she could drop in place, and all the windows had shutters she could fasten. And the turrets—her mind lurched to a halt while anxiety clenched her gut as a sinking uneasiness crawled up her spine.

Amidst her efforts to organize and catalog the cabin, she had forgotten to reactivate the turrets, let alone close the basement door.

The reactor’s whine cut out, plunging the cabin into dark silence, interrupted only by a rumble from the approaching void storm.

“We’re coming,” came a hiss from below, and fear spiked her adrenaline—the growlers were inside.

The instinctual, primal side of her howled demands to run, but she knew heading 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 storm before pivoting around to face growlers shambling up from the basement.

With a pull of the trigger, bullets sprayed in an angry chatter. Many shots missed, but enough landed, dropping the first two growlers at the top of the stairs. More followed. Through clenched teeth, she snarled, “How many of you are there?!”

One of them, wearing a tattered business suit, lurched over the two writhing on the floor and darted toward her while hissing through withered lips, “Run!”

The single word sent a chill down her spine. Growlers often unleashed random exclamations while attacking, their unnerving cries eerie warnings. She’d learned to ignore them, yet occasionally, a haunting realization resurfaced: Some believed that the remnants of the person the growler had once been still lingered within, and their disjointed utterances served as desperate warnings to those they preyed upon—a feeble attempt to communicate in a state where they had no control over their actions.

Her next trigger stroke sent a burst of bullets across the growler’s chest to his shoulder, knocking him down, but more emerged from below, and she backed out the door, 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.

Ashe turned and leaped from the steps to the ground in a single motion, knowing the growlers followed. On the horizon, an ominous wall of churning clouds rolled toward her, lit from within by an extra-cosmic purple radiance and occasional flickers of energy. She knew not to study it too closely because if she did, inexplicable things beyond rational comprehension would begin to manifest, such as tentacles and unblinking eyes.

Two shapes appeared before her, illuminated by a flash of violet lightning and accompanied by the ominous clicking from the Geiger counter in her AstroCom.

Instinctively, she raised the Arbiter and pulled the trigger, her mind trailing behind her muscle memory as she slowly realized these two didn’t resemble withered growlers. At the last moment, she shifted her aim, even as bullets sprayed. One of them cried out in pain, and the other barked, “Don’t shoot!”

Distrust warred within her as the pursuing growlers’ shrieked warnings. The larger man darted past like a flickering shadow in the gloom while the other fired a pistol at the growlers.

She turned, holding her Arbiter 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 but missed—fear of hitting him 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.

She and the two strangers dispatched the remaining growlers and then paused momentarily, scanning the area for new dangers before their gazes ended on each other. Meeting strangers in the badlands was often dangerous, a fact Ashe had once again learned that day.

Extra-cosmic violet lightning flashed, and the wind picked up.

The taller, darker man wore a top hat, his features obscured in the gloom. Behind him, the other held his shoulder with care, which sparked a twinge of guilt in Ashe as she realized she had indeed landed an errant shot.

The moment passed in a single heartbeat, and, 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 and 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!”

She growled, “If you come any closer, I shoot!”

“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 took a few more steps, 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 measured steps, he had already made it to the stairs, his presence encroaching on her comfort zone, leaving her uneasy. Ashe didn’t want to be near people and had spent months avoiding human contact.

Despite this desire, she had made the mistake of befriending the folks in Mosstown, followed by a boast that she could resolve their problem with the raider leader, Warthog. One moment of weakness, and look where that had led her.

Furrowing her brow, Ashe gave 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 spoke in a low, husky voice, “Just go in, boy. She won’t shoot us.”

A boiling fury welled up in Ashe, and she racked the chamber again, hoping it would intimidate him.

With frightening efficiency, he caught the ejected bullet mid-air and walked past her, his eyes darting around the interior. His scarred face showed stories of hard-fought survival, and his white-peppered hair indicated somebody predating the arrival of the Kraal twenty-five years ago.

Considering the imminent storm, Ashe suppressed a dramatic sigh and declared, “Fine, come in. But stay over there, where I can keep an eye on both of you.”

Chapter 2. Crazy He Calls Me

Backing into the cabin, Ashe lowered her rifle yet still maintained a vigilant grip. The tall, dark man walked in and scanned a flashlight across the remains of the growlers near the stairs. He briefly met her gaze and then effortlessly hoisted the first one in a rescue hold, carrying it outside.

The other guy bounced into the cabin, sporting a broad smile, and declared, “Awesome sauce!” He wore a ragged AstroTec jacket over a tattered purple shirt adorned with the AstroTec logo.

Pushing dark, wet, curly locks of hair out of his eyes, he introduced 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, sent a glance their way, 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 shoulder.

She sighed and asked, “How bad is it?”

“I reckon it’s fine,” he answered, “but it does smart some. And I can feel it bleeding.”

Thunder rumbled, and the storm crashed down with unrestrained fury.

Switching on the AstroCom’s lamp, Ashe gestured with her Arbiter towards a vinyl-padded kitchen chair, directing, “Take your jacket off. Let me see.”

As Moonbeam settled into the seat, Rainwood growled and strode down the stairs, muttering, “Someone should check the blasted basement door.”

Blood had soaked down Moonbeam’s arm, and she reluctantly set her Arbiter on the white-and-cyan mica table, complete with aluminum trim. Helping him was the least she could do, considering she shot him.

The wire across the cabin floor shook as Rainwood tugged on it from below. Soon after, the reactor emitted a familiar whine, and the lights flickered on. Ashe made a beeline to the switch and reengaged the turrets, feeling relieved when she heard the chirps declaring their active status.

Moonbeam rolled his shirt sleeve up, exposing his bicep. Ashe hesitated, contending with hormones and internal emotions that, by her reckoning, were entirely inappropriate given the state of the world outside. Even then, she couldn’t deny that he seemed well fit.

Pinching her lips, Ashe assumed the professional demeanor she’d witnessed countless times from her parents in their roles as medical professionals and probed at the wound before commenting, “You’re lucky. Just a graze. Doesn’t even need stitches.”

Locating bandages, Ashe cleaned and wrapped Moonbeam’s wound while Rainwood cleared the growlers, tossing them from the porch—they would have to move them again after the storm cleared. He then shook the rain from his trench coat before hanging it on a hook and working his way around the cabin, closing the steel shutters on all the windows.

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, which caused him to stop with confused surprise.

Rainwood interjected, “Boy, you have no sense in that head.”

Moonbeam seemed disappointed, then shrugged, scanned the room, and began buzzing around with the enthusiasm of a child fueled by too many Pop-a-Colas, touching and prodding at everything in sight. Each action set Ashe’s nerves on edge. The audacity of his casual comfort within her newfound sanctuary stoked the flames of frustration within her. This was her new pad. How dare he, in such a nonchalant manner, invade the sacred space she had already claimed as her own, even if only a few hours before?

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.”

Ashe stared at the water dripping from the ceiling, then took the box away from him and put it back in its proper place 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.

Accept it.

She watched drops from the leaky roof hit his head and sarcasm lined her response. “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. She’d heard about people who fought with these, preferring to engage in close-quarters combat. From what she knew, the 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 them well.

The old man then eased himself into a reclining lounge chair with a suppressed groan—not the couch she had pointed at.

Ashe ground her teeth, suppressing a rising tide of frustration as the situation spiraled out of control. Threads of anxiety wove through her, and she grappled with their tightening grip.

Moonbeam stared at the guns Ashe had sorted on the floor by size and stopping power—gifts from the prior owner. “You know, it’s bad for these to be on the ground. 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, then forced herself to calm down, wrestling to rein in her emotions while taking a deep breath. No. I can be civilized. Cultured, even. Not everybody is out to get me.

With that thought, 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 plugged us before we could even say hello. And why bother cocking a gun twice? That was just for show.”

“Well, maybe I will shoot you next time. One can’t be too careful in the badlands, you know?”

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. A year spent evading people had eroded her social skills. She was great at conversing with herself, but that wasn’t the same. Those internal dialogues were typically stimulating and agreeable . . . except when not, and then things just got ugly. It’s not like she could banish herself to the couch in anger.

Chewing on a fingernail, Ashe debated whether she could trust the two men or if she should insist they leave. The prospect of staying awake all night in worry lingered in the back of her mind. Rolling thunder shook the foundations, reminding her she couldn’t simply put them out. Her hopes of having the cabin as her own began to sink, and she fretted that if they stuck around, she couldn’t claim it as her pad. She was a solo wanderer, not a team member—best that way for all involved.

While her thoughts continued bouncing back and forth, Moonbeam wandered downstairs, upstairs, and through all the rooms. His footsteps occasionally echoed through the cabin during lulls in the storm as he whistled a tune to himself.

Unsure what to do, Ashe nervously started packing food into a backpack she’d found in the loft, glad 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 two were conversating, did Rainwood mention we’re hunting treasure? And we’re lost!”

Rainwood’s lips made a flat line. “Would you quit saying that!”

“Oh . . . right, yeah, sorry Daegom—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, speaking slowly for emphasis, “Stop telling folks we’re 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 arrived a few weeks ago and don’t know anything about this planet!”

“You aren’t from Arcadia?” she asked.

Moonbeam grinned and started explaining with excitement, “Nope! Rainwood got us a ride on a freighter that used a Star Ranger’s jumpship. I’m from the planet Miratori—not that it’s much different from Arcadia, from what I can tell. It also has void storms, and everybody is 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, I’ve told you, and told you, you need to stop sharing so much,” interrupted Rainwood. “All you need to say is, ‘We’re not from around here.’”

Moonbeam raised an eyebrow. “But people like to know about each other! If you say that, they just ask, ‘Where are you from?’ I’m simply skipping to the good parts!”

Rainwood gasped with exasperation, “It’s not about them! It’s about keeping your own hide safe. Truth be told, I don’t know how you’ve managed to survive 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 flicker of interest grew within her as she realized they probably didn’t know about the horrors of the Commissioner. The Fenclave residents’ banishment was common knowledge in the area, and Ashe had done her best to further elaborate on the mistakes of the Commissioner whenever the opportunity presented itself. Yet, the prevailing response from the locals remained dismissive—they usually felt she was lucky to have had even a few years in the enclave instead of on the harsh surface.

Despite wanting to avoid people, Ashe yearned to vent about the hard times created by the Commissioner. While her thoughts tumbled about, 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 elsewhere, but here we have lots of horrible creatures, like growlers, skulks, star vines, 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 as awful as you say, why haven’t you packed up and left?”

She froze, not wanting to voice her hope that she could sneak back into the safety of Fenclave. That she could fix things, and everything would get 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 said awkwardly, feeling a twinge of guilt. While she had witnessed fellow Fenclave survivors striving to make life better—encouraging people to create towns and trying to make communal farms, in truth, she wasn’t part of that effort.

Rainwood glanced at the shuttered windows. As if on queue, a flash of violet lightning from the void storm illuminated his features, followed by a curdling wave of extra-cosmic unease that often came from the void storms. He lifted an eyebrow and stated flatly, “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 had arrived, but they had appeared across the galaxy 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’ “cleansing,” everything collapsed, leaving those few survivors to pick over the ruins of their lost civilization—an intergalactic wasteland, with communication and interplanetary travel controlled by only a handful of power groups, like the Wardens and Star Rangers.

While 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 world?

Moonbeam stood in the middle of the room, fidgeting from foot to foot while considering Ashe’s shifting demeanor.

After a moment, her 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, food, and supplies—but she’d never heard of anybody having a map.

With focused intent, Ashe stuffed another can of food into her new pack and then shifted her gaze to the book Moonbeam still held. Its pages were loosely bound, with notes protruding from the sides.

Placing hands on her hips, she said, “Okay, fine. Tell me more. Where did you get a treasure map?”

Rainwood pinned her with an icy 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 to reconsider many of her life choices came over her.

It was that good of a stare.

Of course, she tried to remember every part of it, tucking it away for future reference.

Moonbeam sent 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, deep in thought, while scrutinizing the book, unaware that he held it upside down. After a moment, he nodded with a clever surety. “We are currently . . . unable to find our way.”

“So . . . you’re lost,” Ashe clarified, wondering at his clumsy symphony of self-assuredness.

“Yes!” He answered confidently, then, noticing the book was upside down, quickly turned it around, his aplomb only increasing.

Ashe resisted the urge to smile or laugh, which demanded some effort. She needed to stay on topic. It seemed as if the guy was deliberately trying to divert her anger, which, upon reflection, only fueled her frustration.

With her emotions properly realigned, she glanced at Rainwood, trying to find the right words to articulate the profound bleakness that had enveloped her world. “This place is terrible. Is Miratori really as bad as this? I don’t know about elsewhere, 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—”

Then, Ashe’s pride took the reins, and her tongue, which had already landed her in trouble by boasting that she could take care of Warthog, continued. “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, once again, had let her mouth run too much.

Chapter 3. Straighten Up and Fly Right

The rocketship’s hull blazed with fiery intensity as it reentered the atmosphere nose up. The engines thundered to life, altering the vessel’s trajectory and slowing its descent as it pierced the clouds. Closing in on a landing pad etched into the mountain’s summit, it hovered briefly in billowing dust and smoke before the engines cut out, leaving the craft standing upright.

Two robots rolled boarding stairs toward the hull, and with a hiss, the hatch opened, revealing a man in a military flight suit. Straightening his hat, he surveyed the pad. Aside from several HWG-125 “Hog” transport aircraft lined up on the west side, a control tower looming on the edge, and the two maintenance robots, the pad was deserted.

Blast doors at the tower’s base slid open, and a soldier emerged briskly, calling out, “Captain! You weren’t supposed to return until tomorrow!”

Descending the boarding stairs, the Captain replied, “The slipstream drive is acting up, and Engine-3 was running hot. 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. “We’re 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 woke to the glorious aroma of rendered fat and fried eggs, causing her mouth to water in anticipation. Rainwood worked at the wood-fired stove, frying something up. Bright sunlight filtered through the windows, revealing a clear sky after the night’s void storm.

Even though Rainwood and Moonbeam seemed trustworthy, staying the night with two strangers still 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 at her side on a couch in the main room, where she could keep an eye on everyone. This wasn’t the first time she’d slept with her rifle, 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. He had slipped out while it was still dark, rousing her briefly, though she had resumed a restless sleep until his return hours later, and the sizzle of breakfast preparations woke her again.

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 remained 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. Right where you figured. Are you still set on locating that backpack? They have themselves a decent-sized compound, and I spotted some mech repair frames.”

She bristled at the thought of him backing out and growled, “Are you scared of a few raiders? Do you really think you’re up for this? And did you actually lay eyes on anybody suited up in Mechanized Armor, or did you just see 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.

Moonbeam continued his light snoring from the lounge chair—apparently, he was a deep sleeper. Ashe pondered Moonbeam’s AstroTec gear, curious about his origins. His shirt and jacket were similar to the uniforms everyone 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.

Yet his choice of clothing made her curious. He wasn’t from Fenclave, of course, but was he from an enclave on Miratori? He certainly did have a lot of AstroTec-branded items.

Rainwood sat at the table, extracted a fork from his pocket, and polished it on a dishtowel before diving into the food. Between bites, he glanced her way. “Take my help or leave it, but cut out the nonsense. I simply asked if there’s enough value in it to be worth retrieving. It’s on you to decide.”

She considered the mementos of her parents she had in the pack before answering, “Some things just don’t have a price tag, you know? Like things from people I’ve lost.”

He nodded, “I see. Very well.”

Moonbeam suddenly 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 like they’d never met before. “Hi, I’m Moonbeam!”

Ashe scrunched herself deeper into the blankets, shooting him a puzzled look.

Rainwood growled and emphasized her name as he responded, “Boy, quit pestering Ashe and come eat.”

Moonbeam tilted his head and studied her for a minute, then with a smile and a thumbs up, he declared, “Hey, 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 ignored her comment and offered. “Seeing as there’s two entrances to the raider’s compound, and you’ve mentioned your ‘smooth prowess’ slipping into a Warden’s camp, perhaps the straightforward approach is best. We’ll keep ’em occupied on one side while you slip in the other and fetch your pack.”

“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, you know? A clever plan, like the mythical Trojan horse, but maybe as a crate of food instead of a wooden horse. Then, after they took it into the middle of their camp, it’d release sleeping gas. We could just stroll in wearing gas masks and take what we want. But, you seem to 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 possess a timed or remote-controlled sleeping gas dispersal system?”

“Well, no.”

“And even supposing you did, how are you aiming to deal with those suited in Mechanized Armor, with air filters?”

“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 finally accepted her as one of their own. Stepping over to the table, she picked up a handful of eggs with her bare hands before answering. “Hey, no need to get bent. I was just saying there’s probably a better plan than ‘I yell at them in front while you pick their back pocket.’ No worries, though—I’m sure it’ll be just fine.”

Rainwood held out his fork, but Ashe waved it away, smirking to herself. Silverware is optional when surviving on your own in the Fen badlands.

Ignoring her display, Rainwood returned to the topic. “In my book, simplicity tends to be the best for success. Stick to the plan, and you’ll manage just fine. The south end of the compound struck me as the most accessible, as I noticed a few gaps here and there in the outer wall. We’ll draw their attention at the north gate, providing you an opportunity to slip in undetected.”

She pondered and shrugged her shoulders, unable to think of anything better. “Very well. Any thoughts on the timing of this bold venture?”

“Now, if you can manage. Chances are they’re sleeping in late. Raiders aren’t exactly known for their discipline.”

Excited at having help getting her stuff back—even if she had to do most of the work—Ashe declared, “Let’s go for it!” before stuffing the last of the eggs into her mouth and stepping into a side room to get ready.

There, she checked over her chameleon body suit, a daily ritual fueled by concern over potential malfunctions—not that she even knew how it worked, especially with clothes over it, but it had saved her life a few times.

Satisfied the chameleon suit showed no wear and tear, Ashe dressed in the rugged Western attire she had discovered in the cabin—a functional and flattering ensemble consisting of jeans, a blouse, and a cowhide vest. To complete her preparations, she strapped on extra ammunition for her Arbiter and discreetly tucked away the commissioner’s bullet hanging around her neck.

Upon her return, Ashe found 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?”

She grinned, tossing him a package from the food supplies. “Have an Atomic Cake. They never go bad!”

Reaching the door, Ashe 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 still yearned to go to space, even knowing all of the other worlds were as desolate as Arcadia.

Exhaling a sigh, Ashe internally lamented the tedium.

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. With a vivid imagination, she tended to see everything as 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—

Growling quietly, Ashe brought herself back to the moment. At the top of the barricade wall stood a disheveled raider woman, looking incredibly bored. A grim smile played on Ashe’s lips as she sighted her rifle, focusing first on the sentry and then scanning around to consider her options.

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 in her forehead, 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 overpromised to all those folks at Mosstown. 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.

Finally!

The sentry remained vigilant.

Ashe pulled the trigger, having overcome any guilt about shooting raiders after her previous encounter with them. The shot hit the sentry’s shoulder, spinning her before she dropped out of sight.

Taking a moment to quickly reload, Ashe bolted forward, glad to see Rainwood was right—much like everything else in the compound, the outer wall was a hodgepodge of assorted materials, including logs, corrugated steel, and old tires, offering plenty 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 didn’t know where to look.

The girl moaned at her feet, holding her bleeding shoulder, and 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 building with corrugated tin sides. 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 be sure the chameleon effect still worked, then looked around, wondering where the voice came from.

“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.

She had made it about halfway across when the thought struck her: What if he really doesn’t have a family?

Ashe remembered how it felt being alone 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 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 took 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.

She sighed, figuring getting cornered in the cave would be madness. She needed to scout the camp better, perhaps try a diplomatic approach first. And if she was honest with herself, she now wondered if the quest to help Mosstown was really worth the effort.

Yet, if her gear was there . . .

“Are you certain 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!” 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.

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 whine of an empty minigun.

She only had a moment to study his mech. They were powered suits of armor, enhancing a person’s strength and adding layers of protection. But this mech was cobbled together from different models—including armored pieces that looked like they were from the first generation MA-15 Ogre, along with the later MA-27 Griffin plus 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!”

Her gaze lingered on the cave door while she clenched her fists, then growled, “You’re on your own,” before spinning around, retracing her path and 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.

Ashe 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.

“Alright, I got you out. Now you’re free. Go wherever you please.”

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.”

“I’m afraid not,” she answered, wrinkling her brow at his unprompted statement.

“Why?”

“Well, you see, I go to dangerous places.” 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 . . . damn, 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 sort out where your family is. . . or find a more fitting place for you to stay.”

He smiled and held his arms out for her to carry him.

This sent a stab of fear through her, 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. But, her frustration came to a shuddering halt 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 do they call you?”

“Jade,” he mumbled, sounding tired.

“Where are your parents?”

“Don’ have any.” His reply was almost unintelligible.

“That’s silly. Everybody’s got 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 had felt good to help him escape.

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