“Dammit–I can’t see anything but blurriness and dirt. I need new optics.” Tembra heaved herself from the rock she’d been slumped on for the last hour while Alix kept watch behind her. “Sights, infrared. Compassing. Displays that aren’t cracked,” Tembra grumbled and kicked a clod with her boot-toe.
“You have what you have. That is all you can do.” Alix’s reply was reasonable and calm.
Maddening. And right, like always.
Tembra watched the horizon until her eyes burned. “They’re late. Again.” She sighed. No dust clouds and thundering engines, only sun-hot quiet.
“If they were coming, they’d have been here an hour ago.”
“I know. I’d just hoped…” Tembra’s voice faded into annoyed silence.
“The last time we traded, I heard one of them say that we are ‘bad luck.’”
Tembra shook her head, disgusted. Caravan traders didn’t truck with bad luck. She’d had a prize this time, too–ten sealed boxes of menthols she’d unearthed from a collapsed shed. Caravaners fell over themselves for a chance to set their lungs afire with tar and muck, and she’d come away with a stupid amount of fuel, of food she didn’t have to kill, water she didn’t have to purify herself. Things that took a lot more work to come by on her own.
But no, we’re ‘unlucky.’ The weird-eyed and three-fingered girl. And then me, skin splotched like a cow, mean-as-hell Tembra.
Tembra turned from the horizon, tiny suns burning behind her lids. “There’s no such thing as luck. Good, bad. Any of it. They’re idiots.”
“Yes. And there is nothing we can do about that, either,” Alix countered dryly. “We need to go, Tembra. Now.”
Tembra frowned but hefted her kit, the rope strap looped snugly over her shoulder. “The northwest bunker for tonight?”
Alix nodded and waved for her to follow. The other girl’s footfalls were silent, puffing out ash-gray silt with each step. Tembra doubled her pace and marched in the irregular darkness of Alix’s long shadow.
“The sun’s low,” Tembra mused.
“We should have left–”
“An hour ago, or more. I know.” Tembra cut Alix off mid-admonishment.
Alix didn’t reply, just walked faster, head turning from side to side in regular intervals as she moved. She was ‘scanning’ the land, systematically, like she always did. Tembra shuddered. Some alien sense Alix possessed allowed her to keep tabs on the world around them. Some knowing that had nothing to do with their cracked, surplus optics.
“How many charges do you have?” Alix spoke over her shoulder, slowing for a minute.
Tembra patted the holster at her thigh. “It’s full. I didn’t power it on at all today.”
“Good. At this rate, we’ll have to fight off at least two full waves. Are you prepared for that?” Alix stopped so she could turn her gaze on Tembra, those strange, clear-gray eyes shrewd in her golden face.
Nobody has eyes like hers. Mine sure as hell aren’t.
The last time she’d stolen a good look in a mirror, her own eyes had reminded her of motor oil. Alix’s were molten-metal shiny.
“We could find somewhere closer if you are not up for this. The caves, perhaps.”
“I’m good so get ready yourself. What d’you reckon, another hour?” She winced at the waver of nerves in her own voice.
“That is likely.” Alix unholstered the blocky hand-cannon she’d modded over the past months. A high-pitched screech of power sang through its workings but she kept the safety on. Again, quicker than before, she struck out over the silty plateau, head swinging back and forth until Tembra was mesmerized.
“Your aniseed–” Alix spoke out abruptly.
“Shit. Sorry.” Tembra shoved one hand into the pouch strung around her neck. Aniseed, more valuable than a whole damn crate of smokes.
It only took a little bit.
Thank the gods for that, she thought and shoved the seeds in her mouth. The dark, bitter flavor burned her throat and made her slobber. She despised the stuff but for some reason, Scavs hated it worse and might just give them a wide berth. Especially if they were getting food elsewhere.
“You gonna have any?” Tembra taunted, shaking the pouch so the seeds rattled against the rubber. She knew how Alix would react, what she would say.
Tembra blinked in surprise. This was not the standard reply. Alix was supposed to launch into a diatribe on the rarity of aniseed, to expound upon the fact that she was already less palatable to them because of her body chemistry and really, Tembra was the one at risk.
Tembra took the bait. “Don’t what, Alix? Don’t offer you the one thing that we know those monsters hate so that we might have a better chance of making it anywhere alive?”
“Please,” Alix said quietly, her back stiffening. She kept perfect pace just in front of Tembra, her footfalls silent.
“No wonder the caravans leave us alone out here for weeks on end. No wonder they think we’re bad luck. You creep them out. You don’t take your medicine like a good girl.” Tembra rattled the pouch again, more aggressively. “You don’t even look like us–”
“I said, don’t.” Alix’s voice was hard and quiet.
Tembra spat what was left of the seeds in the dirt at their feet. The harsh odor of anise surrounded them for an instant then faded as they crested a crumbling mound at the edge of a gulley.
Alix spoke again, her voice tighter, thinner than before. “If they are ‘creeped out’ then that is their problem. I have killed more Scavs than any of them, and they know this.”
This time, Tembra didn’t reply.
Because she’s right. And that pisses me off.
They marched in silence. For how long, Tembra didn’t know. The sun began to slink below the horizon.
“Tembra, check the compass. I fear we are bearing too far east, and it’s getting dark.”
“Yessir,” Tembra mock-saluted, but the harshness had gone from her voice. Alix never got lost.
She was off her game.
Tembra knelt on a smooth patch of packed dirt. She glanced warily at their spindly shadows fading over the plain then set her kit on the ground. “Cover me.”
She hadn’t needed to ask. Alix stood at the ready, her gun primed. Tembra opened the box and unpacked the relevant items in quick, familiar motions. She smoothed a black mat over the ground. Careful, hands steady, she lifted the compass from its cloth-lined case, placed it on the mat and then held the thin, transparent plasticine sheet-map over them both.
“How far off?” Alix asked, face mooning slowly from side to side as she scanned, watching, sniffing the air.
“Worse than usual, for sure. Three waves of Scavs. If we’re lucky.”
“I am sorry. Pack it up. It looks like a dusty night is coming. I don’t like this.”
Tembra paused, compass in mid-air on its way back into the box.
When was the last time Alix had been nervous? Or had she ever been scared?
Tembra stowed the map. “Gear up, then?”
“Yes. The winds will be rough–I smell it.” Alix turned to her, frowning slightly. Both of them unslung their rucksacks and dug out their armoring. Alix tugged hers over her already bulky clothing in studied, precise motions.
Tembra kept watch until it was her turn to yank heavy, musty protectives over her arms, chest, and legs. She fastened her helm back into place but left her face open to the air. She looked over at Alix. All she could make out of the gangling, sand-gold girl was a lumpy blot against the late light.
“Ready?” Alix waited, weapon in hand.
“Alix, what’s wrong with you?” Tembra moved closer. “You’re acting…different.”
“I know. I don’t feel right. Something is different. I will try my best to remain on guard.”
“Yeah, good idea. You can bet your ass I will,” Tembra said, her tone grim.
They trekked over a kilometer in silence until Alix stopped abruptly, peering around them. “The wind is picking up much faster than it should.”
“Well, I can’t tell.” Tembra blinked away grit and spat a mouthful of silt at her feet.
“A joke?” Alix said absently, face satelliting intently towards whatever lay ahead.
“Yeah–” Tembra broke off. Alix stood frozen, hand on her gun. Tembra kneeled slow and quiet and powered on her gun. “How many?” She chanced a low whisper.
Alix held up three fingers. She only had three fingers on each hand.
Tembra aimed where Alix now faced. Before she’d even steadied her weapon Alix fired just left of where they stood.
A hoarse cry then a thud in the dirt.
Tembra wheeled around. Clouds of dust billowed ahead, bearing down on them. Two Scavs thundered by. They didn’t snarl or hiss, didn’t even acknowledge them. Alix fired again. Tembra couldn’t tell if the shot was true–the Scavs were already out of sight.
“What the hell?” She stood, gazing around her. “They were running away. Alix, they didn’t give a shit about us.”
Alix moved in closer. “I know. That is… worrisome.”
“They came from the direction of the compound. Something’s spooked freaking Scavs away from us. This is scary wrong.”
Alix peered ahead. Tembra could not see her face but her stiff posture, gun on one shoulder, other arm at her side gave it away–Alix was scared.
In the three years she had traveled with the other girl, she’d never seen her so vulnerable.
“What do we do? If we try to go to one of the other sites, we’ll be there two hours past dark. Maybe more.”
Alix replied softly. “That the Scavs are frightened is telling. Whatever is out there is powerful. It does not follow that it is our enemy, though. More information might be useful.”
“I was afraid you were going to say that,” Tembra muttered.
“Let’s move on. Keep your safety off and stay behind me.”
“Yeah. Ok.” Tembra cast a wary look at the smeared remainder of the sunset glowering behind the coming Nightwinds and sand.
The terrain here was trickier. Level silt gave way to sudden depressions in the ground, their steep sides littered with scree. Navigating in silence was difficult. Alix picked a winding path over the soundest, quietest ground she could find. Tembra fought to keep her footing, the occasional scree-fall scattering sharp plinks and sifting rock into the twilight.
The ridge that hid the compound from view rose, rocky and uneven, before them.
“Stop.” Alix’s voice was barely audible. Tembra halted. Alix pointed–just beyond, an unfamiliar form jutted dark and irregular from the crest of the ridge. Tembra waited for Alix to begin her creepy, head-lolling scan of the area but the other girl just stood there, gun loose in one hand, arms at her sides.
Tembra edged closer.
Alix was muttering under her breath. The words were alien, spoken too fast to decipher. An edge of desperation broke the syllables in Alix’s throat.
“What? What is it?”
“It cannot be. Another one?” Alix pulled away her mask. She cast her gaze at Tembra, eyes wild. “It is not possible.”
“What isn’t possible?” Afraid and losing patience, Tembra pushed in front of Alix, struggling to get a better view.
It hit her with no noise. The pain flooded everywhere at once. Her skin, her bones–needling through the fibers of her muscles and slogging in her blood.
“Tembra!” Alix cried out from a million miles away. From underwater, from a thinning atmosphere squeezing away her voice, from night falling like the end of everything.
Void washed over her mind and her world went black.
* * *
“Tripwires, pit traps. Electricity through ground-wires, gasoline generators? Primitive tools. Charming.” A cold voice, a new voice crept into Tembra’s awareness.
She opened her eyes and tried to move. Her limbs wouldn’t respond.
She hung in mid-air, suspended from nothing. Her arms and legs extended outward–an awkward starfish, gasping for breath.
Below her, a woman in white armor stained deep, seeping red on her left side angled a gaze to where Tembra was frozen in shock and pain. The woman’s eyes were far colder than her voice.
Gray, icy eyes. Familiar eyes.
“You seem to enjoy subsisting as a primitive organism would. Interesting.” The woman in white directed her words to her right side. She shoved back her helm to reveal thin, gray hair tied at her neck. Her face was sharp, alien, knowing.
“I have always enjoyed a challenge.” The reply from a voice she knew…the voice she heard every day, that drove her up a wall more often than not.
Tembra fought to focus her vision. Alix walked into view and stood in front of her, stiffly and at attention. The alien woman placed one hand to the other girl’s cheek, searching, then dropped her arm.
“Did you Teach this creature? Give it the Knowing that all their kind desire, share our tech?” The chill voice was sharp with disgust.
“I did not.”
“Did you give this one the Secrets?”
“I gave her—and any like her–nothing but my non-aggression. Occasional assistance from my own hands after their fashion. I was stranded here, so I saw no reason to do otherwise.” Alix’s voice was carefully flat.
“Ah. Stranded, then. Not deserting.”
Alix didn’t reply.
“In assisting them, you sink to their level,” the woman said thoughtfully, glancing again at Tembra. This time, her gaze was appraising.
This made Tembra sweat with fear.
“So, she had no idea, Scout, what you are?” The woman stepped forward, hand dipping into the pouch at her side.
“No, Commander.” Alix replied in the same dull tone as before.
“Just as well. You felt my presence today, didn’t you.”
“I did.” Alex lifted her chin, the faintest note of defiance in her tone.
“None of their kind saw me, or heard the crash. Stealth engaged even at impact. Only the animals came for me.”
“There are many of those here,” Alix replied, dryly.
“As I can see.” The woman nodded towards Tembra, then continued. “You will come back to Yra with me if we can repair the transport. Or if you can get my beacons working–whichever you achieve first with such primitive tools.” The woman gazed, unimpressed, around the bunker where Alix and Tembra spent most of their time.
“Understood. How extensive is the damage?”
“Too soon to know. Communications are shot, and I have no power to engines. I am injured so you will work fast,” the woman continued. “I am sure you know Guild Regulations mandate that you must, at a commanding officer’s bidding, prove your loyalty if your purpose is in any doubt. You remember the Protocol Drills, yes?”
Tembra barely dared to breathe. The quiet purpose in the woman’s voice was terrifying. She didn’t even notice, for a moment, her aching arms and neck, the jabbing pins and needles in her feet.
Alix didn’t answer the woman. She looked even blanker than before.
“Come now, Scout. None of us forget. I am wounded, stranded. I fought off a horde of revolting monsters and now, I have found you. Yet I remember the Drills, burned in my DNA, in my central processes.” The woman raised both hands as if in praise of some alien god.
Three fingers on both hands.
“Establish your loyalty and we’ll start repairs.” The woman crossed to Alix and placed something in her right hand. “Close-range, one shot. No miss and no mess.”
Alix peered at the woman then clicked a mechanism on the device. It lit up like a tiny star. A weapon of some kind. . .
Tembra tried to yell but could only grunt low against the invisible binds crushing her windpipe. She struggled against the binding. A jolt of power rattled her teeth and seared the backs of her eyes with pain. Blood or tears, she could not tell, tickled along her cheek.
She heard stirring. Movement—a sharp jab in her side. “Open your eyes, you speckled little scavenger. See your place.” The woman’s voice was cruel, teasing. She hit Tembra in the ribs once more and backed away. Tembra stared ahead of her, lightning streaking her vision and forking through her brain.
Alix stared back. Unwavering, her gray eyes calm. She pointed the weapon the woman had given her. It was a small, white thing with a stock like a pistol and it glowed, hot-white, from within.
“Proceed, Scout. I will see that Guild Command looks not unkindly upon your association with this creature.”
“Thank you, Commander.” Expressionless, Alix peered down the short barrel.
Tembra could not close her eyes. Alix smiled at her–the tiniest quirk of one lip, a breath of a second of knowing. “For the Guild and for The Protocol.”
The woman crossed her arms over her chest, waiting.
A nova of radiance devoured Tembra’s vision. The world was a wash of light. Utter silence, then a roar like the Nightwinds in a maelstrom night.
Tembra gaped, blots of white starring her vision.
She was alive.
All that was left of the alien commander was a three-meter wide blast-mark where she’d stood and the smell of ozone.
“What–” Tembra croaked the word. Her eyes were streaming.
So slowly she was almost not-moving, Alix uncurled her fingers from the weapon, placing it on the workbench next to her. She uttered a single word, sibilant and soft. The energy field binding Tembra winked away.
Tembra collapsed into a messy jumble on the bunker floor. “Why?” The one word wavered, her voice cracked and pain-worn.
“I am free here,” Alix replied simply. “I have to go destroy her fighter’s tracking nodes and comm-panel. We will move to the east bunker in an hour—she probably scared enough Scavs that we’ll be safe.”
Tembra nodded dumbly from where she hunched, exhausted and in shock.
Alix started towards the door then paused, turning to face Tembra. “You are unhurt, yes?”
Tembra laughed, a brittle sound in the silence. “I’m not dead, if that’s what you mean.”
“Good. I am sorry she found us.” Alix bowed her head, a strange gesture of concession or apology–Tembra couldn’t tell.
Tembra closed her eyes and slumped to her side. On the edge of sleep she heard the bunker’s blast doors clanging shut and, minutes later, a muffled explosion in the night.
* * *
“You knew that I was not like you, Tembra.” Alix spoke finally, breaking the nearly hour-long silence.
Of course I knew.
They were safe in the east bunker. Not a Scav the entire trek over but neither of them could sleep. Too much adrenaline. Too much strangeness.
Tembra frowned, hammering a warped sheet of trap-plating back into place.
“You are different than them, those traders. Tembra, you are better.”
“Don’t–” Tembra warned, punctuating the one word with a volley of noisy hammer strikes.
Alix pressed on. “I would not ally myself with someone unworthy. You’re more like me than them. You are not desperate and small like they are,” Alix said, stabbing a needle into a frayed pair of camouflage pants. “I would not have stayed if you were unworthy.”
She had stayed, too. Tembra was still surprised by that fact. That first day, Alix had found her stranded, bleeding out, abandoned by her caravan after a Scav-attack. Tembra let the strange girl mend her, let her crash at the bunker then suddenly, they’d fallen into a rhythm of survival. It worked. Alix was scary-good at everything she did to help them both live another day, and Tembra herself got better herself. Better at shooting, at salvage and repairs. But never as good as Alix.
Yeah, I knew she was different.
Tembra didn’t ask questions—just accepted that she had found an ally. A splotch-faced, bad-luck cow woman had to take what she could get, or so the caravaners would have her believe.
She pushed away thoughts of the past and looked over at Alix. “Why don’t your kind like aniseed?” Tembra cringed at the harshness of her voice.
“Why are your kind such terrible shots?” Alix shrugged. “Same reason as anyone, even the Scavs. Aniseed stinks. Horribly. And my sense of smell is far keener than yours.”
“Tembra, I know you don’t like me. That I frustrate you.”
Tembra paused, then wiped her face with her sleeve. She sighed. “I don’t even like me, Alix. I’m not nice. I’m not easy to get along with. Or to like. So don’t go feeling all special that you’re on Tembra’s Shitlist. It’s all-inclusive.”
Alix laughed. A sudden, short catch of breath–a real, honest laugh. Tembra looked up in surprise.
“Remember my promise, Tembra? That I would protect you?” Serious again, she fixed Tembra with her cool, gray stare.
“What, even though your people wanted to see my kind dead?”
“Only a radical few. And they were silenced. Our Guilds only allow us to observe, occasionally to visit and see if your world was healing from what was done to it.”
“You’re still one of them. That woman knew you, what you were–she tried to make you kill me. Why are you even here, Alix? Why didn’t you go with her?”
“I told you. I’m free here. There…” Her voice trailed off for a moment. “And she was nothing. An incompetent pilot who crash-landed and was stupid enough to hand me a Nixer that could vaporize anything in this world at close-range. Probably a radical dissenter. She paid for her mistakes. Now, do you remember my promise, Tembra?” Alix insisted, earnest.
“Of course I do.”
“You saw what I did to one of my own.”
Tembra shivered at the cold pride in Alix’s voice. “I know you meant it. I’ve always known. Doesn’t mean we have to be bestest friends, braid each other’s hair. Especially now that I know what you are.” She paused.
Alix averted her gaze, smoothing out a crease in her mending with one steady hand. “Knowing should change very little. We are still us.”
Tembra replied, the venom gone from her voice. “Maybe. I chose to trust you, back then. For some reason, despite what the caravaners said.”
“You chose correctly,” Alix replied quietly, not looking up.
“And I suppose—“ Tembra paused.
“Yes?” Alix goaded. She held her needle still in mid-air.
“I still trust you. As much as I can anyone.”
“So. We’re all on the same page now. Good and well. Can we get on with things?” Tembra stood up and heaped a pile of pants and shirts at Alix’s side.
“Yessir,” Alix mocked, re-threading her needle. Tembra looked down at where Alix sat, lap full of outsized clothes and sewing supplies, a snarky little smirk on her face. Tembra grinned back, despite herself, and plopped down at her workbench, wire-cutters in hand.
The a-rhythmic tink-tink-ing of metal to metal and occasional snaps of thread wove a familiar refrain through the easy quiet. Outside of the east bunker, the silt shifted in winds that howled out to nothing in particular and another gray night faded away towards dawn.