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Born a prisoner of no worth in a dystopian Australia gone dead and dry from the nuclear, betrayed and forced into drone service harvesting wah (water) from seasonal mists for the underground city-brights, Skoshi is an unlikely hero. But her courage, spirit, wit and determination quickly draw a team of protectors and mates to her side, and as chaos mounts, they escape attacks by mutant spidys, a death sentence and violent earth changes that threaten to tear their world apart. Drawn into a vortex of danger, she and her teammates follow encrypted clues left by the ancients to discover a forbidden track to freedom, one that promises a new life in a new land across the Great Billows. But all is not as it seems and the betrayal runs deeper than anyone can imagine.
Sample Chapters from Spidy, Recluse’s Revenge
Spidy, Recluse’s Revenge
In the Beginning…
The penal colony sat in its dusty web on the edge of nowhere, in a land gone four hundred years dead and dry from the nuclear, allowin’ life and air to pass through with equal indifference. Like a spidy’s breath.
Over half the dwellin’s were empty, abandoned. Grey alloy facades were crumblin’, peelin’ like weathered skin burnt too many years ‘neath a harsh dusty yellow sun. No city-bright marts to break the bland monotony or the ever-present wind, just a single straight track-line north and south into the Void, and a small core of over-dwellin’s huddled together on either side.
Dust dirveys’s whirled round the tiny structures and down the hard-pack in the heat of the day, pushin’ blow-sand and blindin’ dust afore them with voracious intent. The accumulate piled high in the lee corners of the dwellin’s until the wind shifted, or until a shriekin’ contender funneled in to steal and relocate it, scourin’ the land like a clean-sweep, leavin’ only the hard pack and scrabble behind.
Life, tenuous at best in the Void, had fled most even-on underground to escape the dry, howlin’ gales of winter and the arid blasts of radiation storms or heat of summer. With the caretakers most gone from the surface, untidiness enforced the quiet feelin’ of despair and misery in this remote prison.
You could feel it to the bone. That slow, pulsin’ kind of existence that just lets things happen. Too dull to be called reactionist. Too lackin’ in purpose to be called adaptation. I know. I was born there. Under a death sentence.
“Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.” I watched the final verdict of my gentors’ trial replay on the light cube for the gazillionth time. Da never tired of tellin’ me how he and Mims had been wronged. How it was all a plot by the Assembly and that I, as his one chile, should care why, ’cause it had stolen my birthright. They’d been false-accused of hoardin’ wah, stripped of rank and sentenced to die in prison, sent away from the city-brights to this wah-less, sun-burnt hole. And all ’cause they’d dared question the Decree of Isolation. And when I’d birthed six months later, I came automatic a prisoner, no rights, no worth.
* * *
I looked away from the long-legged silhouettes of Da and Mims on the screen and out the dirty white radiation filter to the grey dwellin’s beyond. The place didn’t have an official name, not like the city-brights, just a penal-colony number, PC-249. But the residents called it Spidy Breath. For the dearth of input we received from the outside, it seemed to us we were as rare or non-existent to the rest of life as an arachnoid’s lungs. If not for the quarterly transports of grit, wah and prisoners, and the infrequent capture of an L-band transmission on smuggled scanners, I wouldn’t have believed there was anythin’ or anyone else out there.
My vision caught on a subtle movement at the corner of a dwellin’ ‘cross the track and I strained to see if it was our enemy, or a trick of light with my eyes.
By decree, all penal colonies had a state-appointed Executioner. We’d dubbed ours, “Recluse”. He bore his trident and his post like the elusive Satan he’d been called after. It was his job to carry out the death and disposal sentences of olders and sickers as new prisoners came in to replace them. But his sneakin’ ways posed a constant threat to us healthy ones too. And though I’d never seen him do it or known anyone who’d been done in, everyone knew that he might jump out from a shadow and drag you away to his underground. Da and Mims warned us constant to stay out in the open and not get caught.
* * *
“If that’s not him, I wonder where he is hidin’,” I mused out loud.
A knock at the radiation and dust screen interrupted my wanderin’s and Charly poked her head in the door, her short blonde hair slippin’ out from the tunic hood in wispy strands. She’d been born the day her gentors arrived in PC-249. I’d birthed from mine six months later and as we were the only two chiles in the colony, and both female, we’d been best mates ever-on. She was a head taller than me, with shocking big blue eyes to my brown, and there were times I wondered if I was ever goin’ to sprout into somethin’ that looked full-grow like her, ‘stead of bein’ small and thinny enough to still pass for a chile.
“It’s time for dwellin’ check, Skoshi,” Charly said, nudgin’ me away from the light cube and over-studyin’. “You’re goin’ to wear your mind out, fillin’ it with so much fat. And you’ll never use it, even if we make wah-drones.”
I ignored her slam on my hunger for learnin’ about any and all things and pulled on my leggin’s and sandals, then tugged the wind-sak quick-on over my tunic. Tuckin’ my thick mop of dark hair under the hood, I snatched the gloves off the table and pushed the screen open, grinnin’ at her.
“Then let’s get after it. We need to find the skinny on what Recluse has been sneakin’ to these last couple of days so we’ll have somethin’ for the week’s report.”
“Maybe he’s final-on dead himself,” Charly offered hopeful as we headed out, our bots bent low against the ever-present wind.
* * *
“Have you seen him today?” I whispered to Charly, edgin’ along the structure.
“No one has,” she said. “You don’t think he’s still feedin’ on older Harper, do you?”
The thought sent a shudder through me. “I don’t see how. His old bot was so dried up, he couldn’t have had more than a liter or so of juice left in him. How long could it take to drain someone that shriveled?”
“I don’t know. Can you see anythin’, Skoshi?” Charly croaked, frettin’ more than normal.
“Ssshh,” I hissed. I eased my head up level with the sill of the mortrary. Falling-wah! The radiation shields were back in place. I crouched down with Charly. “It’s shuttered up tight. I guess he’s still digestin’ older Harper. That leaves the rest of us safe for at least another day. C’mon. Let’s get outta here.”
The sound of a door-slide reached our ears. Charly’s blue eyes got big in her oval face and fear arced ‘tween us like a stolen jolt of Da’s quila. But which junction had it come from? A shufflin’ noise to the right had us stretchin’ for the left. We rounded the corner and dove into an open empty storage bin. I eased the lid down, prayin’ to the dust dirveys that the hinges wouldn’t squeak. The edges didn’t quite meet and mote-laden rays of light filtered in enough for me to see Charly wasn’t breathin’, frozen in place, her eyes still big-takin’ up her face. I couldn’t tell if the noise thrummin’ in my ears was her heart loud-poundin’ or mine. Was it true-on that Recluse could track the smell of fear?
* * *
Recluse skittered ‘cross the alley ‘tween the mortrary and the storage barn, clingin’ tight to the shadows. His compact bent-over torso edged slow-motion back into the breeze-way, eyes dartin’ here and there from shade to light, seekin’ the enemy. Us.
“I know you’re here,” he hissed, dry lips partin’ back mean over pointy, yellow teeth. His dreadful gaze spotted the disturbed dust on the hard-pack in front of our bin, and I watched his eyes follow till they final-rested on our hidey-place. A thin sneer curled his lined upper lip. He moved again in slow-motion madness toward the bin. Charly clutched my arm, her rough nails bitin’ into my flesh.
A clod of hard-pack sudden-hurtled out of the sunlight from the rear and to the right of Recluse. A bare-miss to his head, it shattered off the mortrary’s wall. A voice we recognized as Keb’s, sing-song taunted into the dusty silence.
“Recluse! Recluse! Can’t catch me,” he called.
Recluse whirled to face his attacker, even-on to find no one there. The Executioner sidled double-quick back up to the storage barn, then darted round the corner in a flurry of dust to track Keb-the-tormentor. Charly and I counted to five then threw back the lid of our prison, leapt out and ran.
But we forgot to look both ways racin’ from the alley. Charly screamed a split second afore I did. Recluse had circled round. He leapt upon us. A hideous unnatural strength seemed to pour from those bony appendages, smashin’ me face-first into the ground. I choked on a mouthful of dirt while a clawed hand pushed down on my back to keep me there. Charly’s terrified screams had me jerkin’ my head over to see what was goin’ on. Recluse sat astride us both, legs clamped tight in place, but his needle was aimin’ for Charly’s neck. His triumphant cackle sent a bolt of anger and adrenalin chargin’ through my limbs.
As if on cue, Charly and I rolled in opposite directions, away from each other, like we’d been taught. I swung a leg up and flexed into a Tchendo-stance, sudden grateful for the hours of practice with Da and struck at Recluse’s side. Charly followed with a well-aimed blow into his mid-section. I heard a crackin’ noise and saw the gleam in the Executioner’s tiny, ugly eyes fall from victory into despair. He pitched backward into the dirt, writhin’ in pain. Not waitin’ to see how much ruin we’d inflicted, Charly and I scrambled up and raced ‘cross the compound for safety.
We burst through the portal of my dwellin’ and slammed the bolt home, breathin’ hard. Safe. Then somethin’ grabbed hard at the back of my tunic. I heard Charly’s voice choke off in mid-scream and I spun round, ready-on to fight.
Rage twisted Da’s long thin face into that of a stranger’s.
“Buggers!” he shouted. “What in the Void do you think you’re doin’? You’ve ruined everythin.” He took a deep breath. His shoulders slumped and his face sagged, but the anger was still there, his words measured, “We need Recluse. He’s the key to our escape.”
Da had never used that word, never let it slip afore. Escape. It bounced off constructed mind barriers, batterin’ down my defenses. It meant change, and I didn’t like change.
“Da, I’m sorry. Please. Just tell me what’s stringin'”, I pleaded. “I don’t want to keep makin’ mistakes.” When he simple stared at me, I felt my chin tip up in defiance. Nothin’ I did of late seemed good or right enough for him. I only wanted to know why.
“You just do as you’re told, Skoshi,” he snapped. “Now get back to your studies.”
Charly turned toward the door.
“Charly!” Da barked. She cringed.
“You stay here till your gentors come for you.” He sent a white hot glare at me again then pushed out through the screen.
But Charly and I didn’t get to our studies. We rushed to peer out the filters. Da strode purposeful toward the hunched bot of Recluse. Our foe was crawlin’ slow through the dust toward his own fortress of safety.
“Skoshi, look,” Charly cried out in horror. “Your Da’s gonna sacrifice himself for us.”
I couldn’t believe my eyes. “No, Da!” I shrieked. But shame immediate overtook grief as I watched him stoop to gather Recluse in his arms. He was helpin’ the Executioner? How could he? I turned away from the filter in utter humiliation as Da disappeared into Recluse’s shuttered dwellin’.
“C’mon, Charly. Let’s study.” She followed without a word. I knew she was tryin’ to come up with a good reason for Da’s dreadshit behavior. Charly always tried to find the good side of everythin’. Sometimes it made me mad. Like now.
* * *
We’d been taught to hate and fear Recluse. He was the enemy, part of the ‘stablish that had banished us here. So why, all of a sudden, did we need him and why hadn’t I been told? As the thought came, I decided that was the real rub and had been for a long while. They hadn’t trusted me enough to tell. Just ’cause I was physical-small didn’t mean I wasn’t full-grow and ready-on to be responsible.
We climbed down the ladder to the dim-lit brown of the underground. The large hand-hollowed vault connected through a system of tunnels to the other dwellin’s in the penal colony, all with locked, concealed openin’s so that should one tunnel be discovered, the rest might still be safe. And each vault had at least three exits, though some were a bit tighter to get through than others, plus an escape hatch to the surface through a storage bin.
“What do you think is happenin’, Skoshi?” Charly asked in a voice bare above a whisper, a frown on her face.
“I don’t know, Charly, but somethin’ is definite skewed. Let’s go see Keb after he gets off work tonight. Maybe he’ll know.”
* * *
We tried studyin’, but both of us were too tight-strung over the word Da had let slip. Escape. When? Where to? What could we do to help?
Everyone but Charly and me worked in the underfarms. Long times past they’d been used as real green-farms. I mean, where they actual grew things. Da had showed me many times how it had worked. It had been a closed system set up to recirculate and re-use everythin’ and had got its life and light from the fib-op remotes and the quarterly ration of wah and seeds tracked in.
The outlyin’ prison colonies like ours had raised green food to ship back to the city-brights. But Da said the Assembly had turned scared the colonies were plottin’ rebellion, so they’d reduced the wah quota and shut down the farms. That’s when the grit rations started. But the olders forever talked about missin’ “the real stuff”. I’d never seen any green food growin’, just holos on the light cubes of what used to be. Grit was simple what you ate to keep on livin’.
Current, the underfarms were used as places to fabricate alloy-composites from the raw materials tracked in. But even that quota had slowed in recent years and Da feared the Assembly was plannin’ to do away with the colonies complete. That meant death, not relocation or amnesty. With a reduced workload, the colonists had taken the spare time to build tunnels so they could meet at night and plan.
Plan for what, I’d but had ‘spichuns of till today. Charly and I’d never been allowed to spend much time with the rest of the prisoners. But of late, we were even-on banned from the day meetin’s, and Da made sure they were held where Charly and I couldn’t spy, behind barricaded doors.
We did have chores besides studyin’, though. We’d been assigned as the dwellin’s clean-sweepers, and as lookouts since we were coddlin’s. Which meant we’d kept an eye on Recluse or sounded the alert when we sighted a transport out in the Void, or sand-trackers comin’ in.
We’d even-on done a good job, whatever our Da’s had asked of us. That’s why I couldn’t figure why the colony still barred us from their normal day-to-days. For a long time, they’d claimed it was ’cause we were chiles and they wanted us to devote our hours to studyin’ the light cubes, so we’d be full-ready to become wah-drones when our time came.
“It’s your single hope out of here,” they’d told us a zillion times. But of late, I’d begun to wonder. We were both of age, four years past our female-time and shoulda’ been let go for wah-drones two years past at the latest. For some reason, they didn’t want us with them, but they wouldn’t let us leave either. And the knowin’ of it, that we were deliberate bein’ kept in the dark, hurt.
* * *
“Thanks for handin’ us out this mornin’, Keb,” I said, finishin’ the clean-sweep of his hard-pack, sendin’ him a grateful-on smile, but studyin’ him too. He was more than two heads taller than me, and he’d filled out from the thinny-bot he’d been most all his life, sudden seemin’ to grow up complete in these past two years.
“I thought we were spidy-bait, certain,” I added, easin’ quiet down next to Charly on the floor while Keb settled into his corner pallet ‘cross the room. His brown eyes held firm, starin’ at us hard, his normal good humor absent.
“A lot of good it did,” he groused, rubbin’ a hand through his shaggy sun-bleached hair and I wondered if offerin’ to trim his hair would improve his mood.
“You two turned and ran into his web like coddlin’s,” he growled. “Your Da’s have taught you both better than that. You’ll never make the wah-teams if you keep makin’ such dumb mistakes.”
I didn’t want to hear it. What I wanted was to be let in, to be a part of the Colony and their secrets. To quit bein’ s’cluded from their plans.
“Keb, I’m not goin’ to be a wah-drone. I’d sooner be swallowed by the Void than leave Da and Mims, or work for the Assembly as a drone. Charly and I want in on the plans with the Colony, whatever they are.”
“Don’t be a Dupid Dora,” he snapped. “You don’t have any choice. Your time’s way past due as it is. The trackers will be comin’ for you any day now, so you’d best prepare yourselves. To my way of thinkin’, your Da’s have been too soft on you. You could use a bit of toughin’ up–and growin’ up, too.”
His tone changed to sly and husky, “So what do you say, Skoshi? You’re four years past your female-passage ready-on. It’s time you quit pretendin’ to be a chile. Wouldn’t the first time be better with a friend who’s saved your life than with a filthy Tracker? And Charly’s welcome to join in,” he leered at her. Charly blushed, turnin’ her head away.
It was a familiar propo, one he’d been offerin’ since we turned thirteen. We’d been careful not to get caught out alone with him these last four years, never sure he was just tormentin’. It wasn’t that we didn’t have feelin’s, simple that havin’ chiles was forbidden, and comin’ with chile in a penal colony could get us sentenced to be drained by Recluse, or turned out into the Void to die.
“Thanks, but no shake, friend,” I said. “And you still don’t understand, Keb. I’m not leavin’ here with anyone but Da and Mims. No one else. Aside of that, I–I’m simple not ready to mate with anyone. But that’s not what we came to talk about. Our gentors have been actin’ skewed. They won’t tell us anythin’ and it’s makin’ us crazed.”
“Oh, yeah? How’s that?” he asked, but I could see his mind was on other things.
I followed his light brown eyes as they traveled down my bot and back up to stop at my chest I frowned back at him, wonderin’ what he saw in those two little bits stickin’ out, and wondered what he could possible be thinkin’. To me, they looked like somebody had thrown a couple of grit-balls at my bot and they’d simple-on stuck. At least Charly’s were big enough to look like they belonged, more like both our Mims’.
“Guess it’s close to six months now for my gentors,” I said, tryin’ to pry his stare off me with talk. “Sudden-like, in the space of a day or two, they went quiet on me–angered, old, and quiet. No more banter about the way things are forever goin’ wrong in this wasteland. No more teasin’ about Recluse catchin’ me–only orders, and yellin’ at me, tellin’ me to grow up and a lot of whisperin’ after they think I’ve gone to sleep. They’re drinkin’ a lot more of the quila and Mims gets angry at Da where she never used to. And we–”
Charly interrupted, “My Da and Mims went the same. We’ve tried to figure it out, but they won’t talk to us, won’t ‘splain. We can’t calc’ out what they want us to do different. I mean, we do everythin’ we’re told, even more. We do extra chores, try to plan ahead, and not be asked to do everythin’. You’re in on the night meetin’s. What’s goin’ on, Keb?”
Keb’s shaggy head shook a slow no and he changed the flow. “At least you have gentors. Be grateful,” he said, his voice bitter. He was forever remindin’ us that he’d lost his gentors to a sickness when he was twelve, four years after they’d been shipped here. “I can’t help you,” he growled rough and rose from his pallet. “And you shouldn’t be here tonight. You need to leave. Now.”
It wasn’t like Keb to be so rude.
* * *
“Cara, she has seventeen years and still acts like a chile,” I heard Da say. Their voices drifted down the ladder, clear and strained.
“And why shouldn’t she? We’ve never treated her like a grow-up, never demanded or expected anythin’ from her, never required her to think on her own, beyond studies and a few chores. We made a mistake, Will, not allowin’ her to work with us in the underfarms,” Mims said, her voice raised several tones above the normal whisper. “We’ve made everythin’ in her life a game. Even spyin’ and trackin’ Recluse. How can we ‘spect her to be what she’s never known? And how can we ‘spect her to follow what we say when we’re not bein’ straight with her?”
There was a long pause. Da answered at last. “I know. I did what I thought was right, but she’s not near-tough enough to make it. And I–I’m afraid it’s too late to do anythin’ about it.” His voice broke, “I want her to survive, Cara. And not just for her sake. She may be the one hope for all of us.”
“But Will, we can’t lie to her about it. She’ll see through it. She always has. Please, it’s time to tell her…while we still have time.”
The silence lasted so long, my ears thrummed with the roar of it.
“We’ll do what’s necessary to protect the colony, Cara. We can’t wait any longer.”
Can’t wait for what, I wondered? And what hadn’t they told me–aside of EVERYTHING? And make it where? Out in the Void? Escape. That had to be it. I could do it. I’d show them I was tougher than anyone thought. An hour after, I final-drifted off to sleep still frettin’ over how I could prove myself.
* * *
They allowed me to join in the colony’s mornin’ salute to the sun, but not the evenin’ prayers for gratitude and safe-keepin’ as it set, afore the night-haze shut off the sky, and Da didn’t speak to me for a week. The few times I could get him to look at me, there was a coo-strange hurt on his face. When final-last he did speak, it was in anger and with bad tidin’s as he returned from the underfarms. He didn’t even take the time to change from his dusty grime-stained coveralls, his bot rigid, and the tired showin’ in his long face, in the way his shoulders slumped, but lashed right-out at me.
“Skoshi, three newcomers are due in tomorrow. Recluse took four long-timers today with no warnin’. One of them was Keb.”
“What? No, Da!” Panic overcame horror. “Recluse only takes olders or sickers. Keb’s young and strong. Da, we have to save him. If we all band together, we can overcome Recluse and leave, just like you–”
Da clamped a callused hand over my mouth, glarin’ fierce at me, then looked nervous down at the underground with its open tunnels, as if he feared there was a tap with someone listenin’. He lowered his voice most to a whisper.
“Now you listen to me, Skoshi, and you listen good. No more loose talk and no more questions. Keb will be shipped back to the city-brights to become a drone. If he’s lucky. And it’s your fault. You and Charly were seen leavin’ his dwellin’ last week after I told you to stay in. Recluse is punishin’ you through Keb for the injuries you and Charly inflicted on him, and for your disobedience.”
“Oh, Da—nooo,” I whispered, pullin’ away, the har at what I’d caused droppin’ over me full-weight. “He can’t. It’s not fair. Why not take me? I’m the one who spied on and hurt him. Not Keb. Da, I have to talk to him. I’ll give myself up and—.
“You’re learnin’ too many lessons at the s’pense of others, Skoshi,” Da cut me off. His tone had the sound of defeat and shame in it. “You have to grow up, chile. Start bein’ liable, or you simple won’t last as a drone. There are no second chances out in the Void.”
His eyes brimmed with wah, but I couldn’t tell if it was grief over losin’ Keb or bein’ disappointed by me.
I could feel my own shoulders saggin’ deeper with regret. “Da, I–I’m full sorry. I don’t know what–”
“Go below. I don’t want to hear anymore from you,” he said quiet, turnin’ away to stare out the filters.
I gulped back the wah leakin’ from my eyes at the reject, knowin’ it was a waste to argue, and stumbled down the trap-door ladder. Mims was changin’ to her worn grey coveralls for work.
“What have I done,” I moaned. “Mims, what can I do to save Keb? I am so sorry.”
“Sorry won’t begin to heal what you and Charly have skewed, Skoshi,” she said, even-on more quiet and distant than Da, and it felt like there was chasm ‘tween us that could never be crossed again. “Keb was supposed to go with us. We needed him. Now he’ll simple be another castrated slave for the Assembly. Havin’ Recluse drain him dry would’ve been kinder.”
Her words cut me deep, the more ’cause it felt like they were true. But I didn’t like it when Mims’ voice went low like that. It meant she was full-angry and hurt–too much to let it out. Even-on more, I didn’t like the new lines in her once-pretty face, or her blue eyes fadin’ from hope and her shoulders slumped with burdens, frettin’ I’d put them all there.
“And just in case your thinkin’ to make matters worse,” she continued, “by tryin’ some chile’s rescue that could get us all killed, we’re lockin’ you in till tomorrow. You should understand that this is for the good of the colony. Your concerns are no longer central to your Da and me–or anyone else.”
She turned away to leave, then spun back, pullin’ me fierce into her arms. “I’m sorry, Skoshi,” she rasped, and I felt her eyes leakin’ wah, warm and wet down my neck. “It can’t be undone, and it’s too late to turn back now. Simple know that your Da and I love you, no matter what happens.”
I hugged her back, but her words didn’t make sense and they scared me. “What’s goin’ to happen, Mims?” I pleaded. “I don’t under–.
“Cara,” Da called down the ladder, his voice fierce, “It’s time.”
Mims pulled away without a backward glance and mounted the ladder. Da quick-hauled it up after her.
The secure-locks drove home with a clang that resounded as hollow and empty as my heart. I tried all the tunnel locks but they’d been changed and I sudden didn’t have the desire to pick them. Curlin’ up into a tight ball on my pallet, I gritted my teeth in silent rage and frustration. Locked in. Why was goin’ to see Keb such a sudden crime? And why would Recluse punish Keb ‘stead of me? It didn’t make sense. I reached for the one thing that’d given comfort all these years; Knowledge, in the light cubes Charly’s and my gentors had paid to have smuggled in when they were new prisoners and still had mates and a cache of hidden credits in the city-brights. I pressed for the image of the penal colony that was my home. The grey alloy facades of the dwellin’s above me flickered into the holo-frame. PC-249 wasn’t pretty, not like the city-brights, least Mims had constant said–just a single straight track-line extendin’ north and south into the Void with a scatterin’ of desolate dwellin’s on either side. But it was home to me and I didn’t like the swirl of changes in the air.
Keb loaded out on the mini-transport the next day. I didn’t get to say s’long, to tell him how sorry I was, my chest hurtin’ coo-strange most of the day from it, frettin’ that I’d never see him again or that he wouldn’t make it ’cause of me.
The three newcomers escaped, runnin’ away that first night, afore Da and Mims could talk to them. Recluse was in a rage. He threatened us all with drainin’. His own survival depended on PC-249’s productivity, on how little maintenance or trouble the colony caused the Assembly.
Charly and I were off restriction and back on lookout the second night-fall after the escape when we heard a distant rumble on the track.
“Sand-trackers!” Charly yelled, wide-eyed.
Trackers rare came this close and it looked like they were headed in. We raced to warn everyone in the underfarms. Da grabbed Charly and me, draggin’ us back to our dwellin’ as the trackers roared in from the east in their sand-machines. It was the first time I’d seen terror in Da’s eyes. Against our protests, he shoved us down the ladder to the underground, “Not a sound,” he growled in a deep harsh voice not like his, “and stay put!”
The trap door slammed, shuttin’ us away from the sun’s wanin’ light. I heard the screen bang twice as Da left to make certain everyone else was safe. We sat quiet on the floor starin’ at the light cubes for a few minutes. “Ya know, Charly,” I said, “if we go out the escape hatch into the bin, no one would see us. No one would ever have to know.”
Charly nodded, uncertain. “Yeah. And aside of that, we’ve never seen a sand-tracker up close afore. We wouldn’t have to stay long. We’d be back down afore your Da knew we were gone.”
“Yeah, and maybe we could over-hear and learn somethin’ that would help the colony escape,” I said, convinced. “So let’s keep our heads straight. Five minutes. No more.”
She grinned her approve, and I was full-glad we were in sync again, like we’d been most our lives, most like doubles, Mims said. I had the locks picked in a flash and grabbed a light cube. Charly shinnied up the escape tunnel ahead of me, pushin’ up through the false bottom of our dwellin’s storage bin. I crawled, quick-fast up behind her.
The bin, braced up along one side wall of the dwellin’, stayed empty these days ’cause colonists kept their food caches in the undergrounds now. The bins had proved useless early on in protectin’ rations from radiation storms or the blow-sand that wormed its way into everythin’ and since prisoners didn’t own anythin’, and had nothin’ to store in them, they were most on simple good for collectin’ dust and sand that Charly and I had to clear out every week.
This bin smelled empty, dead, like the stark, sterile land it sat upon. But one end faced Recluse’s stronghold with a near-perfect view, so Charly and I watched with a combination of fear and curious hunger through a propped open slit ‘tween lid and base. A wicked odor wafted our way, worse than rotted grit. It was sulfide fumes, let off when the hydrogen fuel in the sand-machines burned and formed wah-vapor as a waste. The cubes said the city-brights had been workin’ for lifetimes to take the poisons out of the wah generated from fuel burning, so they could recover it, but it was no shake yet.
We usual saw the sand machines as specks on the horizon. Up close, these three seemed enormous. They were a mix of open sand-track and wheel, able to convert quick-like if the surface tension of the sand changed into a swallow-hole, and they were built for speed. They had an oblong radiation-dome coverin’ the main body and were mottle-colored dark and light, tan on brown-red, like the sand dunes and tracks they voyaged. They were also the even-on one vehicle aside of a transport that could survive the Void, where hard-pack could turn into a whirlpool of quick-death in a matter of meters, or so the cubes said.
I wondered how far the trackers had traveled and how fast. These were 168’s, A’s or B’s, older models. Da had said they kept the new ones for defendin’ the wah-gatherin’ teams. I plugged rough parameters into the light-cube till it gave me the speed and fuel capacity for the model number, A’s as it turned out. I did some rough calc’s. Max, if the hydrogen tanks were still three hundred-liters, they could have come five hundred kilometers to turn-back time. But was that where the city-brights were or just a refuelin’ station or outpost? Penal colonies weren’t issued maps, with good reason, and I had no way of knowin’ where these tracker’s had hatched, ‘cept most probable from the east.
I strained to see any sign of activity through the dark-tinted domes of the machines, but had no luck. For a long forever-time, nothin’ happened. Charly and I stretched stiff muscles in the metalloy bin, tryin’ not to make any noise. “Do you think we ought to go,” I asked. “It’s gettin’ late.”
“Oh, please, a few more minutes, Skoshi. I true wanna see one up close,” Charly pleaded.
Dusk crept in with its long shadows from the west. Da and Mims were due home from work at any moment through the tunnels and I true-on didn’t want to get caught out. It would skew things ever-on with them.
I watched the sun sink low in the sky while the knot in my stomach bunched tighter. I’d just decided to definite, no argue, call off our watch, when the domes to the machines grated open near-simultaneous with fierce complaints. A pair of sand-trackers climbed slow out of each machine, shakin’ the kinks out, then headed for Recluse’s dwellin’ and disappeared inside. I guess it was true they hunted most at night. Was it ’cause they had good night vision–or maybe storms in the Void subsided after dark? Another five minutes passed and at last the meager sound of a door-slide from Recluse’s abode caught our ears. The trackers returned to their machines and began hookin’ up to the wah and fuel supplies.
“Look, Skoshi,” Charly whispered, excited, “They’re shocking.”
She was right. They were full-beauty. Taller than Da, they were thick-bodied and long-legged and their muscles looked like they’d been molded into their mottled sand-colored uniforms. Skin, where you could see it, was woolly with sparse hair and burnt dark brown by the sun. Face and head-hair was dark and curly. The trackers moved with a slow and deliberate fluid grace that bespoke arrogance and self-assurance–a knowledge that they were stronger and quicker than their prey, with sudden movement reserved for the kill.
“I’ve never seen such beautiful bots,” Charly breathed, presumable forgettin’ for the moment that these particular bots were hunters, hired killers who would soon be trackin’ down our fellow inmates.
“They must get a lot to eat,” I muttered, glancin’ down at my own scrawny limbs. As if he’d heard me, the closest one to us stopped pumpin’ the wah supply into his sand machine and looked round, spichus-like. He turned a slow, full circle, his bot tense. Charly gouged her elbow into my side as the tracker reached for the meter-long web-weapon slung ‘cross his shoulder.
“What is it, Mik?” I heard one of his mates ask.
“I dunno,” the tracker replied, but his gaze caught and stopped at our bin. “Somebody’s in there watchin’,” he said at last, pointin’ direct at us. A queer odor of fear and sweat invaded the dry air round me. Was it my own bot betrayin’ me?
Charly flinched afore the tracker’s glare and drew quick-away from the peep-hole, edgin’ quick-quiet back into the tunnel for safety. My heart pounded at my ears as if tryin’ to get out–like it had a right to desert if the rest of me was too stupid to run. But I couldn’t pull away. Seconds from bein’ caught and maybe killed and all I could think of was jumpin’ out at that arrogant beautiful bot and scarin’ the pee-d-lin’ out of him.
One of his mates jeered. “The whole bloody colony’s watchin’, Mik. They’re afraid we’re here to wipe em’ out. You’ll get used to it. The bastard’s are creepy, but they never give any trouble–long as you watch your back,” he added with a grin.
A flash of anger crossed Mik’s face. He turned round, shut off the wah, then, without warnin’, spun and raced for my hidin’ place.
Afore I could react, a rough hand covered my mouth and strong arms jerked me down into the tunnel. I dropped the light cube, kickin’ and fightin’ like mad, then recognized Da’s scent and went limp. Fear’s surge of adrenalin had left my legs weak, but Da jerked me up quiver straight on the underground floor. Afore I could say anythin’, he slapped me full ‘cross the face. It smarted, but he’d never hit me afore, and the sudden flow of hot wah from my eyes was more from hurt feelin’s than the sting of the blow. Head spinnin’, I felt the burn of shame course up my neck.
The sharp WHACK of the storage lid slammin’ shut from above made us both jump. Da whirled to lock the escape tunnel against invadin’ sand-trackers. He listened intent for some moments.
Then his voice, cold and low, assaulted me, razor-sharp and full-on, “You have given me cause to be shamed of you for the last time, Skoshi. Your Mims and I didn’t sacrifice these years just to lose our lives or you to a stray tracker. Don’t you ever disobey me again.”
Not waitin’ for a reply, he shinnied up the ladder and slammed the trap door. I looked round for sympathy from Charly. But Da had set the secure locks from the outside on all the exits, changed the combo, and Charly was gone.
* * *
Disgraced at being caught, but furious with Da for not givin’ me a chance to ‘splain why I’d done it, I paced the floor, tellin’ him all about it in a loud voice, hopin’ he was up there listenin’. They’d locked me out of their lives, not trusted me, never treated me like a grow-up and they were makin’ me true-on mad. They couldn’t control me like I was a chile anymore. I wasn’t. I was doin’ my best to help. Well, I’d show them. In direct defiance, it took me less than a minute to pick the new secure-lock on the escape hatch and scramble back up the tunnel. The false bottom was jammed and I had to give it a hard thump to force it open. The bin lid had also been slammed down tight so that not even the dusky light of evenin’ filtered in. I hoisted up into the dark interior, found a comfortable perch and listened.
“Let’s crawl!” I heard one of the trackers shout, the sudden roar of the 168’s batterin’ my metalloy hidey-hole. I couldn’t miss seein’ them leave. I made ready to heave against the lid, but it popped open abrupt, of its own accord. Caught off-balance, I grabbed the sides of the bin to steady myself, then stared into the startled black eyes of Mik-the-tracker, the strong odor of male sweat and ‘stranger’ most over-whelmin’ me.
Surprise was slower than fear and I pushed away just afore his burly paw struck. But he caught the edge of my rough tunic, jerkin’ me back. I twisted round and bit down hard on the offendin’ hand. The tracker yelled in dismay and released his hold. We glared at each other, not movin’. But I saw a strange wave of hunger come ‘cross those glitterin’ onyx eyes and he looked me up and down like Keb had too often. A blarin’ noise sounded behind him from a 168. The tracker frowned, his whole brow wrinklin’ up, as if he couldn’t make up his mind about somethin’. He cocked his head, then grinned at me and ran to join his companions. In shock, I stood in the open bin, not movin’ a hair. He’d let me be. Why? A tiny unbidden voice in my mind, spoke back, “‘Cause no one wants you, not even a sand-tracker.”
* * *
I watched the 168’s abandon the elevated track and speed off into the Void. The machines churned up great clouds of dust, their noise lingerin’ long into the twilight. I wondered how the trackers could catch anyone if an escapee could see and hear them comin’ from so far away.
I should have returned to the underground immediate, but the confrontation had made me bold. I stayed and watched colonists emerge, cautious as chiles from their protective shells and the underfarms, huggin’ the barren frames of dwellin’s for imagined safety. I felt set apart from them, a stranger. I’d confronted a tracker and lived to tell about it. But pride gave way to practical. Who was I rillin’. Who could I tell but Charly without gettin’ into more trouble?
They had shut me out of their circle. And I hadn’t learned anythin’ that could help them or that would make them open up and let me in. Still, Charly’d be sick with envy.
I gazed at the small tight knots of prisoners clustered round the structures, judgin’ them with a harsh eye. All their focus was on the dirty yellow cloud billowin’ further out into the Void until it was swallowed up on a black horizon. I wondered if any of them had ever faced off a tracker. I was tougher than they thought.
Just then, Da and Mims emerged from a small group, turnin’ toward our dwellin’. Panic erased my bluster and I felt small again, bare-duckin’ out of sight in time. I slipped double-quick back down into the underground and fixed the lock. Yet a little rebellion stayed with me as I waited their wrath most with a smile. I wanted to talk to them, ‘splain, make up for hurtin’ them. But the trap-door didn’t open. No evenin’-meal. No Da. No Mims. Of all the recent happenin’s, their absence that night made the biggest imprint on my mind and heart.
* * *
Da released me from the vault next mornin’, but neither he nor Mims spoke to me afore leavin’ for the underfarms.
The colony kept a round-the-monitor watch for sign of the Sand-trackers, hopin’ they wouldn’t return. And another watch to protect the watcher from an un’spected retaliation by Recluse. Normal-times that would have been a job for Charly and me. But we were confined to our dwellin’s, on the outs with everyone when Da told them of our latest offense. There’d been no need to let it outside our two dwellin’s. Whose side was he on, anyway? Two days later, the signal came. Those that weren’t workin’ barricaded themselves behind closed doors in their undergrounds. Da and Mims were in the underfarms.
I quick-on picked the lock and watched once more from the storage bin, determined to discover somethin’ important to make up for my mistakes. The Sand-trackers roared round, then through the colony, their captured prey turnin’ and twistin’ along on thin cables behind the machines, much more dead than alive. At least I hoped they were. Recluse exited his dwellin’, hissin’ and cacklin’ his glee at sight of shredded torn flesh. He came bangin’ a stick at each of our doors, callin’ the colonists to gather at attention in front of his abode. The Sand-trackers spun their wheels and their quarry to a halt in front of the ragged line of colonists then strung what was left of the run-aways up from the Example pole. The shredded bots were grime-covered and rank with the odor of rot that wafted all the way to my bin. Holdin’ their thoughts, still a few of the colonists bent over to heave up their daily quota of grit onto the sand.
I watched Recluse and the trackers turn away from the carnage and head for his fortress. Wait a minute. There were but five trackers. There should be six. Where was the one called Mik? I pushed violent-hard back down through the false bottom into the tunnel just as a burly hand jerked the bin lid open and another reached in to grab me. Clutch-fast fingers grazed my head and I lost a few hairs as I slid quick-away. I heard the tracker swear, then laugh soft as I bolted home the escape tunnel door below breathin’ hard.
* * *
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