The dust blew through her hair as the outlaw surveyed the carnage around her, dim in the shadow of the oncoming dust storm. She stood among the scattered dead like a commemorative monument erected after the fact. Katherine hadn’t killed them, except that she had, her body had, the body that was Dead Katherine and the body that she shared with Talia. That wasn’t to say that Katherine wouldn’t have killed them of her own accord—she would have, she had been trying to, only to find it quite suddenly over before she’d really started.
“What happened?” Katherine asked, when she’d found her own voice again. Her throat was as thick with coarse sand as the bodies collecting it at her feet.
They fired in a line when you crested the hill. You were hit a half dozen times. I took over.
Talia’s voice was like a soft wind, making the hairs on the back of Katherine’s neck stand up. When Talia took over, her vision went the purple color of a bruise around the edges and she invariably lost track of time. Not quite lost control of herself, not entirely. It was more like being close to blackout drunk—still somewhere in there, but sloppy, feeling like swimming upstream, half fighting as she surrendered her body over to someone else, half blissfully relieved to be along for the ride. It was hard to piece together after.
Being shot a half dozen times also didn’t help. Her body felt fine, a little stiff maybe, but her head was a fog that thoughts had to wade through to get to the forefront of her brain. Was it just her, or was this one worse?
Will they be getting up? It had been long enough that Katherine was starting to be annoyed with herself for instinctively trying to look for the ghostly alien, like Talia was actually speaking from somewhere over her left shoulder instead of her own mind.
Katherine nudged a nearby man’s calf with the tip of her boot, like that was what she always intended instead of looking for ghosts. “Nah, probably not,” she said, real quiet. While Talia got to be a wind, Katherine had to actually speak aloud to respond.
Bit unfair, that, but that was their current arrangement in a nutshell.
“Excuse me, miss?”
The voice behind her made her jump, whirling around. She would have had a revolver up and ready to fire from her hip had there actually been one in the holster. “Dammit, where’s my gun?” she muttered out of the corner of her mouth.
Probably among the bodies.
Anxiety crouched on her chest and dug in the spurs as she stared at the woman, one hand up in a gesture of no ill intent. The woman wore a dress made out of flour sacks with rough edges, sewn patchwork, like Frankenstein. She raised her hands in turn. She even made a pretty good show of painting on a smile right after she’d checked Katherine’s right arm. There was no blue armband overtop her jacket like Dawes’ men had, pretending they were the law in the Dust.
Behind the woman was a caravan of four wagons, but more like three and a half if she wasn’t being generous. Not enough to arrange into a horseshoe, even if they’d had time to try. Bullet holes pockmarked the worn canvas stretched over the top, and splintered in some of the siding.
“You folks alright?” Katherine asked, drawl thicker than it had been talking to herself. The woman was wearing a hat fit for a cowboy, and it pulled at some long atrophied part of Katherine’s brain that yearned to connect with someone else.
“Yes,” the woman said, a little too quickly. She had, Katherine was a little disappointed to learn, no real drawl to speak of. Northeast accent. “Oh, thank you. Thank you miss.”
The woman’s gratitude curdled in her gut, so much so she felt like she was fighting the urge to retch. There’s more of them, peering from around the wagons, Talia said, and indeed there were. Rail thin people, gaunt faces, peering around from behind axles and oxen. Most were pinkish red, despite the wide brimmed, sensible hats and long sleeves they wore. We should ask why they ran away instead of helping.
Katherine didn’t have the freedom to tell Talia exactly why these people had done the right thing by getting the hell out of the way of the shooting, especially with kids among them, and not look like a madwoman. “You work for Dawes?” she asked instead, feeling Talia recede into a testy silence like she did when she was ignored.
That stopped the woman up short. She glanced into the wagon, and then back at Katherine. “We—I mean, we’ve been that way. Did some day’s work, when work was offered…”
“Hearing there’s a fair bit these days,” Katherine said. “But here’s you heading in the other direction.”
Silence stretched between them. Anxiety dug that spur a little deeper into her ribcage. She kept looking behind the woman for why, but only too large eyes stuck in gaunt faces stared back. Some of these people were several steps past sun-kissed, faces peeling in thin white strips. Work in the sun? Was Dawes shifting the work outside? Last Katherine and Talia had heard he was stuck in some mine somewhere.
“Afraid I can only offer you words in gratitude, miss,” the woman said, entirely misreading her wandering eyes.
Katherine waved a hand. “Where you folks coming from?”
“East a ways. Originally come outta Connecticut.”
Katherine let out a low whistle. She had thought there wasn’t much of Connecticut left these days to flee from. She cast a look behind her again, this time her eyes lingering on a pair of boots attached to a thin body laid up in the back of the wagon. The woman traced her eyes, then sighed. When she spoke next, her eyes were downcast. “My husband…worked the mines a spell, until his…he was sick already, ma’am, wasn’t his fault he dropped that detonator. He’s suffering too—his, his arm—”
Katherine moved forward in a burst of speed too quick for the woman to intercept. If she’d tried, she would have bounced off Katherine like she’d hit a brick wall—another perk of fusing with Talia. It was also the reason she yanked the canvas cover right off of where it had been securely tied, tearing almost all the way up to the top. She grimaced, but pushed it aside in favor of looking at the man on the wagon floor.
His face was bright red and peeling, like he’d been laying directly in the sun instead of in the shade, and beads of sweat dotted his forehead. He was missing his left arm, bloodied bandages wrapped tight to the stump. A girl child of about four sat at his head, bright pink in the face and big, wide brown eyes that seemed quite unfairly reflective.
Katherine fell into that gaze, enough that it took her a moment to notice the woman was at her side, lips working open, then shut, then open. When she found her voice, it was timid. “You’re her, aren’t you? Dead Katherine. The—you don’t look much like you’re dead.”
A muscle popped in her temple. “Thanks, I try.”
“He’s terrified of you.”
Dawes. Katherine reached forward, touching the tip of the man’s boot, then his leg. Something was stung at her like she’d rubbed a brush’s bristle. “Glad I’m getting his attention.”
That explained why he was after these folks. A shame, as Katherine was hoping to find an armory, a messenger, something…these folks were refugee workers that accidentally blew up a part of his mine. Like any good mob boss, Dawes had just been cleaning up shop by sending those riders to stop them from spreading word to stay away or giving out the secret of his location.
“More than that,” the woman said, breathless. Now that the tap had been turned on, she was spilling everywhere. Nerves, Katherine suspected, finally frayed and unleashed on the first new person who stopped long enough. “I’ve never seen such a fortress. He won’t leave it, not until someone brings him your head.”
“Hope he’s built that fortress real nice and claustrophobic like,” Katherine replied, brightly. She even affixed a humorless smile to her face.
Hope he suffocates in it, added Talia. It made the corners of Katherine’s lips twitch that much further up.
“What did he do to you?”
Katherine sobered quickly, closing down any false camaraderie as she shut the tent flap. She’d already saved these people, she owed them no more of her concern. She jammed a hand into her jacket pocket and produced a dusty tablet. It came to life with a hard press of the button by her knuckle, a dim map appearing under the dusty screen. She held it out to the woman. “I need you to point out real clear on this map where his aboveground operation is. I know he’s burrowed deep, but every mine has an entry somewhere. Tell me where, I’ll show you safe haven to bunker down that storm before you really get gone.”
The woman’s casual demeanor stiffened. She looked her down once, then trailed slowly back up again. “Would you tell us even if I said I didn’t know?”
There was a test there. She didn’t need Talia’s quick warning buzz to know it. Stand firm or act gentle? Be Dawes or Robin Hood? Katherine weighed the answer, worrying her tongue at her teeth. When she spoke, it was in a lowered, self-righteous tone. “Ride towards the sun three miles, there’s a town called New Haven that’ll take you in.”
There was silence but for the rustle of the wind through the dust. But then, slowly, as if Katherine had offered her a loaded gun, she took it. She scrolled for a second, her brows furrowed tight, before pressing a finger to the screen and dropping a pin at the base of a river in a valley nestled between three mountains.
Katherine took it back without a word. She turned and took one heavy step away, and meant to take more, if she could find the strength to lift her boot. Concern itched at her, like the gritty way the fingertips that had touched the man tingled still. Another sunburned child poked his cartoonish eyes around the side of the wagon.
Katherine’s mouth tasted bitter as she walked away.
The white, nickel-plated revolver was hiding under the sixth body she pushed over with the tip of her boot. The man appeared to have been shot, but he also had a purpling bruise over the side of his face. “What, did you throw it at him?” Katherine muttered, crouching down to pick her weapon up from the dirt and swatting some of the dust off the side.
It popped, causing damage to you. I got rid of it before it got too bad.
Katherine looked down at her hand, noticing for the first time the shiny patch of skin over the knuckle of her thumb, like she’d had a burn there. Inspection of the revolver showed it was a little charred, but it was when she popped the barrel out that she truly saw what had happened. “Christ,” she mumbled, prodding the shrapnel stuck in one of the chambers. It poked her finger and made blood begin to well out for the few seconds before Talia sighed and the wound began to close in a haze of purple. The burn went with it, and a twist started to turn up against her temple. Migraines when Talia used her unnatural powers were also part of the package deal, as helpful as the healing had been to date.
Katherine pouted, lips pursed. “One of us double loaded it.”
The gun had exploded. One of them had stuffed in a cap and power, then someone had come along behind and loaded another cap and powder. The one in the back had exploded in a manner that Katherine was trying not to think might’ve blown off her hand if Talia hadn’t been in control, hadn’t reacted to a millisecond’s pain.
There was still powder in there. If she fired that chamber, the ball would lodge somewhere unpleasant in the barrel, and her hand really would come off.
Blowing out muttered, nonsensical swears under her breath, Katherine flipped the chamber around to reload the others. She didn’t have time to fix it, not if she meant to make the mines before the storm. She was just going to have to start remembering to count to five.
Why not take one of theirs?
“I like this one.”
Her mind’s eye image of Talia was making a face. Katherine imagined her pursing her lips together, but this was always accompanied by the reminder she had no guarantee Talia even had lips. Katherine had never seen the passenger in her mind. It’s defective…or is this one of those ‘shut up, ghost’ human moments?
“It’s one of those moments, though for the record I said that one time and I apologized.”
And yet I have not forgotten it.
“Yeah, noticed that.”
Katherine straightened up, tugging her vest back down so it rested more over her hips. She’d lost weight since she’d died, and now all her clothes felt as ill-fitting as her new name. She pulled her hat down a little further on her face as the wind kicked up some dust, eyes on the big storm brewing on the horizon.
They ran quick and hard, Talia taking control of her body to speed the journey. For all that Katherine and Talia had been circling these lands—the whole 7000 acres of it that belonged to William Dawes, and he wasn’t going to let anyone forget it, nevermind it was near valueless so long as the dust storms persisted—he’d holed up and built his mines not two miles away from the valley they’d been riding through for weeks. This could have been good planning, that all that circling they’d done had paid off and put them in the path of a caravan that needed help at the right moment and could point them the last few paces to their direction, but it stank of pure dumb luck enough that Katherine was in a bad mood when she laid down on the bluff overhang to spy on his bustling operation. It wasn’t much above ground—some dumping ground, a building or two, a long road with wagons moving to and from—but there was a big, obvious hole in the side of the mountain. She could see tents peeking out there, workers taking shelter in the slope of the cavern. There were walls up, gates, guarded. Towers filled with armed men.
Souring her mood further was the toll travel took on her since Talia joined her. Was she clearing vast distances like a streaking purple wind, careless of obstacles in her path? Yes. Did that effort make it feel like someone was determinedly jabbing ice picks into the tops of her eyes? Also, yes.
“How could we have missed this?” she muttered into her binoculars, for the eighth time that hour.
That is derivative. Focus please. And stop squirming so much.
She squirmed a little bit more, harder, just to be contrary. Talia settled into a testy silence. That was out of character, though admittedly Katherine didn’t know as much as she probably should about her companion, though it wasn’t as though Katherine had been an open book about her life either. The silence felt heavier than normal, though, and Katherine couldn’t let it stand.
“Are you going to tell me what wedged that stick up your butt?”
Talia made a little noise that was either hmrph or a rude word. Katherine stayed quiet until they both came to the understanding that either Talia spoke about what was bothering her or let the conversation die. Katherine was starting to bet on the latter winning out when Talia finally was out with it. It is…getting harder to heal you. To do this.
“Okay,” Katherine said, slow. “Something I can do to help?”
We need to move. I am not supposed to be incorporeal for so long. There’s some…it would look like a vial of liquid to you. I need to absorb some of it.
“And something bad happens if you don’t?”
It’s like dying of thirst.
“Alright,” Katherine said. She felt like she was grasping at straws. This was the first non-human being (alien, as Talia kept calling herself) that Katherine had shared her head with, and no one had bothered to give her a guidebook. “You think Dawes has your ship at his mines, there’s the mines. Let’s get some more intel. Assuming it gets worse the more you use your juice, so meantime, don’t take over and don’t heal me if you don’t have to. Agreed?”
If you were less reckless with your body, I wouldn’t have to heal you so much, Talia retorted, and Katherine didn’t have a good comeback to retaliate with. Being with Talia had made her feel more than a little immortal.
As the storm was starting to swallow the setting sun, they took down a scout.
The sunburned boy was still breathing in the dim light, but he seemed dreadfully aware of how likely he’d not see the rising moon. There had been a lot of huffing and puffing and tears and not much coherence, but he’d given up a tablet and rubbed his wrists raw on the rope she’d tied him with. He was working his way around to having an actual thought, voice trembling a bit as he started to speak.“You’re her, aren’t you?” Katherine puffed up as he searched for the words, jutting her chin up just a bit. “The…he calls you She-Demon.”
Katherine made a face. “Can’t even call me by the right name, no, has to make up his own name.” She paused only long enough to deflate, a heavy breath pushing from her lips. “Yeah, yeah, I’m the—whatever. They call me a lot of things.”
But I like Dead Katherine, Talia supplied. That made her smile, just a little.
The boy was still puffed up. “You’re not going to get away with what you’re doing to him!”
His men act like thugs, and you’re the villain for stopping them? I do not understand this planet.
Maybe it was cruel to lean over him, close enough that he flinched, but damn if it didn’t feel good. “I was going and he chased me down. Now all of a sudden he don’t want me here?”
The boy didn’t have a retort. Katherine stood up and let him be, moving away a little to press at the tablet she’d taken off him. An electronic map, inside his little fortress. Entrances. Guard posts. The mine. And, most importantly, a blocked-off white square of space labeled only ‘SALVAGE’.
“What do you think?”
Katherine imagined Talia pressing fingers to her lips as she thought. Did Talia have fingers? Must have, how’d she grip things otherwise? In her mind’s eye, Talia was very human, but she easily probably wasn’t. It’s probably legitimate, Talia said, which was hardly helpful. We should use this to get inside.
“I agree,” Katherine said pointedly. “I was more asking for thoughts about how we do that.”
Oh, Talia said. After a beat, she added: I don’t know.
“Thanks,” Katherine grunted out, standing. Her thighs ached from so long on horseback and trembled under her. Crouching had been a mistake. Under her, the scout looked like he was waging a debate with himself as to whether or not to ask about her talking to nothing. With a look up and down, she could see him decide not to mention it like he was physically closing a door.
He instead turned to something more practical. “Are you…going to kill me?”
We likely should. He’ll tell everyone that we are coming.
“…may not be the worst thing,” Katherine mumbled.
“What?” His voice was sharp. He was coiling in on himself like a snake, not that she expected his strike to be very hard.
“Nothin’,” she said. She slipped her knife from her belt, then leaned in. He tensed, started to babble, but all she did was cut the ropes with one quick swipe. Before she backed away she yanked his blue armband off in a single rough motion, balling it up tight in her fist. “Do yourself a favor and don’t be on the west gate come sundown, because that’s where Dawes will get what’s coming to him.”
He was frozen for a moment, not daring to move. His eyes were as wide as a doe’s, fixed on her.Then, quick as he could, he scrambled away, noisily kicking rocks and scattering dust as he raced away on four limbs at first and then on two.
Was that wise?
“Dunno.” Katherine affixed the blue band over her left bicep, pressing her tongue against her teeth distastefully. “Let’s see if they fall for it.”
Night and the storm overhead darkened the sky as the group of guards on the west gate tripled, steadily working the way up to quadrupled. In the middle of it all was their scout, gesticulating and seeming to direct the flow, a small group of official-looking older types around him. Couldn’t hear what he was saying from where Katherine had set up her overwatch, but it looked like the kid’s number had gone up among the veterans for having survived the she-demon. Katherine smiled to herself as she lowered her binoculars. “Good for you kid, get yourself a promotion.”
She was tucked into a small blind, down as close as she dared to one of the gates. The wind was picking up, the storm almost upon them. She’d seen sunburned workers start to erect defenses, but they were lackluster. They weren’t moving quickly enough.
Apathy or exhaustion? Katherine couldn’t decide. Regardless, when the dust storm swallowed the camp like a child pouring a bucket of water over an anthill, there was a hole enough that she could slip right through that gate. In the swirling dust she was an anonymous shape—blue armband, cowboy hat, bandana tied over her face to breathe, who was to say she didn’t belong? After all those weeks of aimless wandering, she walked right into the camp, through what amounted to be the front door, and down the entrance to the mines without so much as a how-do-you-do from anyone who should have stopped her.
The night shifted from cool to chilled the deeper she went, the memorized map burned into her mind’s eye. Something else burned too, though, itching at her. She’d only been climbing down, far enough now she had hit winding hallways of stone instead of tent villages, when she noticed her skin was turning a little pinkish.
There’s radiation down here, Talia hissed, like it was something Katherine ought to understand like the sun shining. Something’s happened to the power source. Spend long enough around it and it burns you from the inside out. Invisible.
Katherine felt a shiver down her spine. A lot of knowledge had been lost when the old world ended. Some things reverted back if they already had the template for survival, and hundreds of years down the line didn’t make the new Dust Bowl West any easier to traverse on horseback or on a desperate wooden wagon than it had been back when it was first flooded with those seeking their manifest destiny, no matter the harm. The concept of radiation was something that had been largely lost. For Katherine, it conjured a cartoonish vision of a skull and crossbones flag. Poison, at best, dangerous, stay away, the reason why lost while the warning survived.
But burning from the inside out. That was specific, and tugged on a memory. “Those people. They weren’t sunburned.”
They likely have radiation poisoning. Especially if, as they said, he was keeping people down here for days at a time.
“That’s—” Katherine stopped abruptly, slamming her back against the far wall. Voices, in the next room. She couldn’t quite make out what they were saying, but she knew one tone above the others. Angling her head, she peered around the corner, and her whole world tilted slightly left.
There, among two others, was Dawes. Cowboy hat on his head. Stupid blue band around his bicep. For a few blinks she didn’t see him, not there. She saw him walking down the main road to town, strutting like he owned the place. Saw him in her parent’s General Store, making gestures in her direction, always lingering close enough that her father came out from the back to man the counter. Saw his expression when she told him no, she wasn’t interested, no thank you. Saw him there, outlined by the fire of the store. Saw him with the night sky above him, gun in his hand, illuminated by the streak of purple across the sky and the explosion not far off. Remembered, like a whisper, Talia’s voice after the echo of his gunshot had faded, a promise and a plea and the start of a partnership: hey, please, I don’t want to die either.
Talia’s hate of him was only by osmosis, really, but there was plenty of bile in her voice when she spoke.
My ship, Talia said. Katherine only barely noticed now it was behind Dawes, dead like the metal buildings of the old world, surrounded by half a cave in. The power core, it’s gone, it’s gone, the—I need it, I need to go check.
“Do it,” Katherine whispered. If she was honest she’d say she’d expected more of a fight, but Talia was gone with a physical whoosh that left Katherine sagging a bit against the wall. The absence of her after so long with her was jarring.
Maybe she should have stayed still, then. Waited here for Talia to return, hoped no one noticed her, hide. But being with Talia had given her confidence, and it had taught her something. Standing there, Dawes didn’t look like a boogeyman. He just looked like a man.
And she’d killed plenty of those recently.
She popped up, pistol in hand. The man to Dawes’ right was looking at her, so she shot him first, two quick pops in the chest. The other man caught a shot in the head. By the time Dawes turned, gun in hand, held low at his hip, they were dropping.
Katherine shot Dawes square in the chest. He shot her in the gut, low by her hip. The pain barely registered, and she made to shoot him again when he burst forward. Too fast. In a streak of purple.
Her brain barely had time to register what she was seeing. He slapped his hand out, knocking the gun from hers, and then rocking the hand backwards, backhanding her with enough force to drop her to the ground. Pain starburst suddenly through her side, nerves catching up, and in a daze she was back to where he’d had her the first time he’d drawn a gun on her.
Flat on her back, staring up at him over the barrel of his gun.
Her ears were ringing. Dawes was smiling, glowing bright purple.
“Katherine, dear!” His voice boomed, echoing through the space. “You shouldn’t have! Hold that thought. There’s something I want to show you.” He seemed to mean that too, holstering his gun and moving back to the ramp, utterly ignoring the bodies of his compatriots and the fact she was bleeding out on the dusty floor.
The feeling of having been murdered was as real as grains of sand between her fingers—coarse, uncomfortable, but unshakable. Katherine growled out, angry, unwilling to let him do it a second time. She could see the glint of her gun across the way. Dawes was bent over the side of the ship, digging for something. Katherine pressed one hand over her leaking side and started to move. He didn’t stand to stop her. It was only after her long, agonized crawl to the gun that she realized she had no plan. By her count she had one bullet left, one real bullet, and that wasn’t enough, not if he was like her.
She was still frozen, hand wrapped around the handle, when she felt a rush of adrenaline, and the room took on a purplish tint.
I’m here. Talia’s voice was a cooling breeze across her feverishly hot mind. I can—we can take him. Get up.
Katherine almost did it. Without question, she almost lifted herself up and rounded on him with the pistol, filled with Talia’s conviction that they could and must kill him. But, something held her down for just a split second long enough to remember why she hadn’t tried that already.
If they killed Dawes, they’d never know what he’d done with the ship’s core, and Talia…
One real bullet left.
“You’re not here,” she whispered. She didn’t know if Dawes was still paying her much mind, so she tried to sound suitably heartbroken just in case he was listening.
I am, Katherine. The power cell’s gone, but I’m here.
“No,” Katherine whispered, more forcefully. “You’re not.”
Pistol tight in her hand, she forced herself to stand on shaky, wobbly knees. A glance over her shoulder showed he was there, bent over some rubble, back to her. She took one shuffling step toward him and then another. The hole in her gut was leaking hot blood against her fingers, not deterred in the slightest by the painful pressure of her hand. Katherine pressed anyway. She pressed even though her breathing was short and scraping, even though her steps were slow and staggering. Strength bled from her as sure as hot blood, leaking from every part of her body except her gun arm. That didn’t shake as she lifted her pistol, and cocked it.
“Reach for the sky.”
Dawes froze. Turned like his body instinctively knew what it had heard even as his brain tried to reject it. A slow, stuttering movement, and regardless of if he believed it or not when he faced her, there was a muzzle aimed between his eyes. She pressed it to his forehead, just in case he needed any help remembering it was a loaded gun.
“I said,” Katherine rasped. “Reach for the—”
Too fast, Dawes surged forward. She squeezed the trigger, but the bullet ricocheted off the cave wall and against the ship’s hull. He elbowed her hard in the stomach, and she went down again. In an instant their positions were reversed—he had the gun pressed to her forehead, not noticing or not caring how she flinched to feel the hot metal there.
“You dumb bitch,” he said. “You never did know what was good for you.”
She could feel Talia bristling inside her. Katherine willed her to stand down, shut up, even as she let her voice shake a bit as she spoke. “And you know exactly what’s good for everyone, is that it?”
He pressed the gun more firmly forward. Katherine winced, even as her eyes were filled with long unspent rage. Looking at him head on hurt her eyes, the brightness of whatever he was glowing with searing into her. “This is going to help me make a dynasty.” His eyes flashed, purple to white. Katherine had a bit of a horrified realization that this might’ve been what she looked like when Talia took over. “You could have been a part of that, if you weren’t so stuck up.”
“What?” Katherine asked, quick. “What’s going to help you build a dynasty?”
He swung his free arm out, over to the ship. “It was filled with power you can’t imagine,” he said. “And now, all of that is inside me. All of it.”
He can’t possibly mean that literally, can he?
Katherine’s eyes dipped down to his stomach, then back up. “Did you…drink a vial of mystery glowing liquid from space?”
His eyes flashed. “It’s from the heavens!”
Katherine nodded, just a little bit, just for Talia, but Dawes took it as for him. He pressed the pistol forward enough to knock her head back, then took several steps back, keeping the barrel leveled at her head as he spread his other arm in a flourish. “Last chance, Katherine,” he said. She feared from the tone of his voice that he was trying to be sincere. “Join me, convince me you’re sorry, or I blow your head off right here.”
“Go to hell.”
Dawes squeezed the trigger. For a moment, nothing happened. Then there was a fizzle, like the lead to a firework, and with a ear-ringing pop the nickel plated revolver exploded. In just a blink to protect her eyes, Katherine missed the transition of the explosion.
Dawes had a hand and a revolver, blink, and he had neither.
Eyes wide as saucers, Dawes sank to his knees, other hand coming to wrap tight around his stump. He wasn’t bleeding, not yet, his body as shocked by the turn of events as Katherine was. From within the stump a purple light started to shine, the same tint as Talia. It grew no larger than a small polished stone before Katherine’s hand snapped out to grab his stump—no, not Katherine’s, Talia’s.
Katherine was aware of being on her feet without transition. Angling Dawes down by his forearm, pushing him to his knees. “You,” Talia said, with Katherine’s voice. “Should not have ingested that.”
There was a swell of purple light—bright this time instead of dull, but shining as a flare. It made spots dance over vision, and when she blinked rapidly to clear them there were tears on her face. The whole cavern was glowing, vibrant purple and there where Dawes had been was another figure. Shimmering, translucent.
“Talia,” she breathed.
The woman looked at her. Or, Katherine thought she did. There was no face, only a feeling. She was ghostly as ever. Katherine stumbled back half a step, strength starting to fail her, but Talia lifted an appendage, not quite an arm but more like the tendril of a jellyfish, and in another little burst of light the pain from her side was gone. She felt as rested as if she’d slept for hours. Her head felt clearer, enough to notice the ship, Talia’s ship, had the same shimmering material around it now, glowing inside out and reflecting outward like a forcefield.
Down the hall, angry voices echoed. Talia looked at Katherine. Katherine looked at Talia.
“Go,” Katherine whispered. She reached up a hand, but the air was too heavy between them, and she couldn’t close the distance. Couldn’t touch her. “Go, now’s your chance.”
Talia squirmed. Opened her mouth, shut it. It felt like she pulled the air from Katherine’s lungs as she turned away, and glided up the ramp, toward the doorway bathed in light.
The angry voices were getting louder.
Katherine should go. She knew she should go, but she was rooted to the spot, unable to look away from Talia.
Talia turned back before she got to the doorway. Held a hand down the ramp for her. “Come with me.” An offer, not a question.
Katherine had rocked forward automatically before realizing she ought to maybe pause. To ask questions, to think through the implications of what the alien was offering. But she could only come up with one question. “Will you stay with me?”
She was so unused to it that she couldn’t identify the expression across Talia’s face, except to say that it was vulnerable. “I always want to,” she whispered, voice as gentle as a soft wind.
Katherine didn’t hesitate again. She reached out and squeezed the hand that solidified beneath her. She let Talia pull her into the spaceship.