Another fireball scorched the land and I pulled further into myself. I could hear the others nearby. They were shaking, crying, some even praying. As if that did anything any more. When this had started, people had said the gods had abandoned us. I wish that had been true. It would have been a lot better. The very earth burned as we tried to hold out in one of the bomb shelters left over from one of the last wars of man. The faded yellow of circular symbol above the door was a reminder of the times when only man had tried to destroy man. One of the little ones crawled into my lap. I wrapped my arms around them without even checking to see which one it was. There weren’t many these days. Only three of the very young children were left in our group. It had been bad enough when the attacks had just come like this. Fire from the sky, storms, seas that literally fought us. Those things are bad enough. Then they started to come in the night taking the children and leaving sticks or leaves in their wake. We’d broken into the library to find out what was going on. Of course, the Tuatha de Danaan were stealing children. Glancing up, I wondered whether the one attacking now was Apollo again or a different one. Did it even matter? The gods didn’t abandon us, didn’t turn their backs on us. They turned on us.
The world was dead. It was silent and cold and empty. A tomb emblazoned with light blocked only by crumbling stones that cast stark shadows upon the landscape. That was how it was when the explorers found it. 3 sets of tracks led from their vessel with surety and experience in their gait. They had seen hundreds of worlds, faced innumerable dangers, but they had been able to surmount it all. This though, this was something else. This was raw desolation and a world with nothing. There were signs that there had been more, once, but now there was nothing. They hadn’t seen a single drop of water or spot of color beyond brown, gray, and rust. Sometimes, they came across a stone that was a bit too square and perhaps worked by the hand of someone or something, or a stretch of worn ground that might have once housed a river, or even an expanse ground littered with white salt that spoke volumes of an ancient sea. There were only memories, impressions, signs that there had once been more. But there was nothing to tell how the tale began or ended, or even how it was woven in the middle. The explorers made a mark on their long. Resources Negligible, Unable to Support Colonization. They left their footprints in the dirt, adding an epilogue none would read to the forgotten tale of a dead world.
The valley was over the next rise. That was what she kept telling herself. All she had to do was keep her family moving for a few more miles and they would be somewhere where they could stop for the night. It would never be somewhere they could stay forever, the past had seen to that. There were no such places left in the world. Not with the seeking eyes.
The children were slowing down. They always slowed down when the sky began to darken, when it was the most dangerous to stop. She picked up the youngest child and held her close as they moved into the trees. Cover was good. Cover made them harder to spot from above.
They had been promised water and food, and the promises held true for once. A river stretched out across the bottom of the valley and fruit hung from the trees. The children ran forward now, eager to taste the sweet fruit. She looked to her exhausted mate and he smiled wanly. They would have to make a shelter as quickly as they could. Stone was the best, but wood would work if it had to.
“No fires. Remember the rules.”
She said it from habit. Even the youngest knew the rules of the night by now. Never venture out of cover. Never stand on a height. No fire, no light of any kind. The older children gathered as much fruit as they could and dragged it to the shelter. They would feast in the dark but they would do it together in safety.
As the night wore on, she stayed awake. Not that she wasn’t tired, she simply couldn’t sleep. What if it hadn’t been enough? What if something had betrayed their presence? Then, like every other night that she could remember, she heard the humming overhead as the seeking eyes passed them by. Only then was she sure they were safe. Only then could she sleep.
He couldn’t have been more than nineteen and yet he was the one sitting behind the desk in the big office at the end of the hall. Opposite him cowered a much older man, hands trembling with nervousness. They both stood there in silence for a moment, while the young man looked over the latest trade deal his man had negotiated for him. Then he took another drag on the cigarette in his hand before snuffing it out on the papers in front of him. The much older man opposite him grabbed for the papers, frantically trying to blow out the small embers where it had nearly caught fire.
“I thought I made myself clear before. I have no interest in the currency of this backwater planet. The deal is to be negotiated for resource rights and nothing else.”
“Of course, sir. I’ll-I’ll fix it right away.”
The young man nodded curtly closed his eyes, considering his next move. With the resource rights of the entire planet in his hands, he could do what his father had failed to do on Homeworld, he would keep them all safe. He could protect this place, this world. He heard the door slam and checked the news holo. Ah yes, the protests had picked up once more. That didn’t matter. None of it mattered. He didn’t expect them to understand what he was doing for them. Not until long after he was gone, anyway.
She was all he had left. All he’d had left since the day those things had first shown up. The common parlance called them zombies, and they almost matched the tropes of the horror movies, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that they were nearly impossible to kill and had long since destroyed civilization as we once knew it. He had been home with his daughter, far from the cities where the outbreaks had been the worst. His wife, though, she had been at work at the hospital. They had never heard from her again.
They had to move again now, he and his daughter. They were making their way west, aiming to trek into the mountains and then start making their way north. Assuming they could enter Canada, of course. The rumors coming from the frozen north were that the creatures were there too but only in the southernmost areas. It seemed they had trouble with the cold. They were moving on foot, the car a scrap heap hundreds of miles behind them. They each carried a backpack and he had his father’s rifle. Not that he thought it would be useful against the creatures. But if other humans tried to be a problem, he would deal with it.
The underbrush was thick in this part of the forest, with lots of bushes that obscured the area around them. That was how they stumbled onto the scene. A creature. Just one, thank anything that might still be listening. It was feasting on a kill. He reached out but his daughter had already stopped in her tracks. The creature would be on them in a heartbeat if it noticed them. They couldn’t let it notice them. The head shot up and the creature sniffed the air and hissed. It was a hollow rattling sound, the kind of thing that leaves a body with their hair on end no matter how brave they think they are.
The only way anyone had been able to come up with to kill the things was complete destruction. Water was useless, as were the old legendary standbys of decapitation and firearms. Fire took time and left them able to function while immolated, which wasn’t really an improvement. Acid was reasonably alright if you could keep the creature contained. All in all, the most effective was probably a woodchipper. He had a rifle and his daughter had a knife. Things weren’t exactly looking great. He took a breath and then shoved the rifle into his daughter’s hands, pointing towards a way around. Then he ran at the creature, screaming.
She was all he had left. If only one of them was going to make it out of here alive, it would be her.
Nia thumped the butter churn, one ear on the winding road that passed by her family’s compound. The cows had passed by an hour before, led out to the pasture by her brothers and the dogs. Now she hoped to hear the bells of the trade wagons. They were due any day now, if they hadn’t bogged down in the mud or gotten hit by raiders. That had happened before. The roads out this far weren’t safe. She paused to stretch, hands behind her head as she arched her back. That was when she heard the jingling of the bells. Wiping her hands on her apron, she ran out to greet them. With any luck, they’d have something small they’d be willing to trade for the small horde of woven straps she’d made rather than a mess of decas
“Oh for the love of-! I said coffee, you damned bucket of bolts!”
Madison kicked the console and it emitted a series of irate beeps. Then, she turned, looking down at Nia.
“Are…are you the oracle?”
Chuckling, she held out the mug.
“Oracle, is it? I don’t suppose you like chocolate milk, do you? Here.” She pressed the cool mug into Nia’s hands and strode over to another panel covered in switches, levers, and numerical displays. “And why would you be looking for an Oracle up here?”
The girl fidgeted uncertainly and her gaze dropped to the floor.
“The villagers said…”
“The villagers don’t understand what I’ve got. It’s nothing more than old tech, from before. Take this console for example. It’s a drink machine when it damn well feels like working. That one? It plays music. The rest is the power source. Now tell me, why were you looking for an Oracle?”
Nia reached into her bag and pulled out the precious books with their figures and diagrams.
“To help with these?”
Madison’s eyes went huge and she reached a hand out for them.
“Welladay, if this is what you need…then you’re in the right place. And you just landed yourself an apprenticeship.”