Botanicaust Excerpt

Excerpt By Tam Linsey
© Tam Linsey, 2011. All rights reserved.
 
Amarantox Plains

“Run!”

The girl didn’t know much of the Cannibal language, but she understood that word.

In the sky, a strange flying machine had appeared, its curved, metal belly glinting in the desert sun. Twigs of desiccated bushes trembled as the near-silent thing descended, and dust swept into the girl’s eyes and filled her nostrils. The woman gripping her hand lurched into a run, jerking the child off her feet and dragging her a few steps before abandoning her.

The girl twisted to squint at the sky. A cone of flame erupted from the machine and pounded the parched ground a few steps away, engulfing shrubs and people alike. Screams, worse than when Brother Eli was butchered, cut through the fiery roar.

As the familiar scent of burning flesh filled the air, the girl’s stomach cramped; she’d eaten to survive, but the smell made her want to cry. Hot embers settled around her, singeing her skin. She pressed her hands together like Mama used to.

“Jesus loves me, this I know …” The song scratched from her throat, as dry as the dust she knelt upon, tears cooling her heated cheeks.

Blackened cannibals lay scattered across the cracked earth, either screaming in pain, or silent in death.

The stream of fire eased as the bird settled to the scorched soil. Several figures emerged from inside the belly of the beast.

“Little ones to Him belong …”

They moved toward her.

Angels?

They had come from the sky. But these men were green, not cream or tan like her or the cannibals. A hazy sunlit halo surrounded the nearest man’s face. When he held out his hand to her, she thought of her last meal with the fingernail still clinging to the charred flesh.

She took his hand without hesitation.

CHAPTER ONE

Conversion Laboratory
Haldanian Protectorate

One of the insipid overhead bulbs in the Confinement Lab had developed a mild flicker, not strong enough to demand replacement, but enough to bring on the beginnings of a headache. The smell of antiseptic and the sweat of the frightened boy strapped to the lab table didn’t help matters. Tula checked the monitor for the third time. The boy’s blood pressure spiked above one-eighty. Not ideal, but within tolerances.

“Okay, Jo Boy. You good. Good.” She looked into his frantic eyes and willed him to be calm. Preparing captives for the experience of conversion was next to impossible because the Cannibal dialects were too simple and straightforward. But Jo Boy was a quick learner, and she’d spent the last ten days building his trust.

Tula pulled a piece of candy from her sheer lab coat pocket, an expensive treat, but one of the best motivators when it came to teaching new converts. “Is it okay?” she asked the gene tech.

He nodded his permission and bent over the screens, his bare, green skin stretching tightly over each vertebrae.

The equally naked adolescent on the table jerked against his restraints as the IV dripped conversion fluid into his veins. “Ow, ow, ow.”

“I know, it hurts.” She spoke in Cannibal. Time enough for him to learn Haldanian during Integration.

She placed her palm on his shaven head, looking for the telltale hint of yellow in his skin signifying the chloroplasts were taking hold. The jade tint of her own hand would have been vibrant if not for the sickly florescent lighting down in Confinement. She spent far too much time down here.

“Like tattoos. You will be strong.” The only way to convince cannibals to accept conversion was to give them a choice in terms they understood. Strength. Survival. After Integration they would understand how they were making the world better.

Jo Boy flailed against his bonds, a high-pitched squeal rising from his throat. Tula cringed, remembering her own conversion and the burn of the genetic cocktail coursing through her cells — worse than any sunburn.

Showing him the candy, she asked, “Be still?”

He quieted a little as she pressed the sweet into his mouth.

A voice boomed from the door, “Sure it won’t bite?”

Tula jumped, but didn’t turn to look at her supervisor. She could picture the scowl on his sickly green face. Had she ever seen Vitus smile?

Vitus marched into the room and leaned over the terrified boy. “Dr. Macoby, this one has not been cleared for conversion.”

Her attention darted to the electronic gamma pad next to the tech’s computer before looking up at her glowering supervisor. Copper strands around his neck matched beaded hoops dangling from his ears, but the adornments failed to disguise his yellowing skin. Must be due for another treatment. She didn’t dare say it out loud. Vitus was full Haldanian, born and bred, but to his shame, suffered from a medical condition called ripening. Every few weeks he underwent gene therapy to fortify his chloroplasts.

In spite of Vitus’s looming, Tula kept her voice firm. “The Board approved his conversion this morning.”

“Where’s the Telomerase Acquisition form?” Vitus crossed his arms. “And he seems a bit old. Did you get a Verification of Consent?”

“He’s in the early stages of puberty, but still a child by Ordinance three-one-seven. No need for consent.” Barely. Tula had rushed Jo Boy’s conversion because getting Verification of Consent from an adult within the time allotted was nearly impossible. And non-converted prisoners were euthanized. “I have the telomerase form on my gamma pad.”

Vitus snorted. “I’m sure he considers himself quite grown up. These mongrels breed at the first sign of a pubic hair.” He rearranged his necklaces over his own hairless chest and peered at the quaking Jo Boy. “If I don’t have the proper forms on my desk, the conversion stops. Now.”

The tech jumped to his feet. “Sir –”

Tula stood as well, shouldering herself between Vitus and the boy. “Don’t be an idiot, Vitus. Stopping the procedure now would kill him and waste the resources we’ve already put into him.”

You’ve put into him. Without permission. And I still think he needs a Verification of Consent.”

“The Board doesn’t agree.”

“The Board know how old he is?”

This was an old argument. Tula retrieved her gamma pad. “He doesn’t even know how old he is. I thought our mission was to bring enlightenment to the Outside. To make the world safe again.”

Vitus shrugged, his earrings swaying. His gaze lowered to her wrist where a shiny patch of pink scar tissue over most of her right forearm had not taken the chloroplasts during her childhood conversion. “You can’t trust a convert.”

Tula’s face burned. The scar served as a constant reminder of her outsider roots. By force of will, she met his eyes. “You look like you could use a little therapy yourself, sir. Jo Boy should be done in another forty minutes, if you want to come back.”

An angry flush obliterated the remaining green in Vitus’s skin. The tech covered his jolt of laughter with a cough and turned to his computer. No one liked Vitus, and it didn’t help that he thought he was too good to allow his own Conversion Team to oversee his treatments. “I want to see that paperwork before you go home today.” He pivoted on his heel and stalked from the room in a jangle of copper beads.

#

Old Order Holdout
Amarantox Plains

Levi stuffed his rain poncho into a sturdy leather rucksack resting on the foot of his bed, avoiding his brother-in-law’s eyes. Above his beard, Samuel’s solemn face was ruddy from working the fields, but Levi knew him well enough to detect a flush of controlled anger. “Brother Levi, you cannot go against the Ordnung.”

Levi continued packing. “I accepted Gotte’s Wille when the cannibals carried off Papa Lapp. And found peace in my son when the Lord took Sarah from me. But I will not accept the death of my little boy when there’s a chance to cure him. You were by my side when my brothers died. When Sarah let out her last breath–” He forced himself to breathe deeply, suck back the grief. “Surely, you would not see Josef suffer so.”

Samuel’s single-minded focus didn’t waver, even at the reminder of his sister’s death. “The Elders forbade it. You’ll be shunned.”

“Then shun me.” Levi pushed past to retrieve his shaving kit. Samuel always asserted the Elders’ decrees came straight from God. “Too many children die before they reach Rumspringa. If it’s Gotte’s Wille that they die, let Him stop me. But don’t you try.”

“Brother Levi, you know no one will lay a hand to stop you.”

Levi stared past Samuel at the quilt Sarah had made while pregnant with Josef. It was true. The Old Order did not believe in violence of any sort, even in the dry years, when cannibals broke past the electric fences and carried off those who didn’t make it to the underground passages.

Samuel continued. “This silly intuition of yours isn’t a call from God. It’s a selfish excuse to do as you wish. Leaving here, you risk falling to the cannibals. Or worse yet, the atrocities of the Blattvolk. Would you leave your son an orphan?”

The Blattvolk. Genetic abominations who hunted humans to drag them into Hell. “The green people are far to the south. I shouldn’t run into them at all. I’ll be back by harvest.” Levi shrugged with feigned nonchalance and looked Samuel in the eye. “And if it means saving my son, then I’m willing to risk my place in Heaven.”

Samuel gasped at the blasphemy and stiffly turned away. Levi clenched his jaw and went back to packing. After all their years as friends, Samuel should be used to his irreverence. But his long-time friend’s mind remained as closed as the Holdout’s gate.

Levi pulled his notebook from the rucksack to make room for the shaving kit, and hesitated. Only a few blank sheets remained, but the rest of the pages were covered with sketched memories of Sarah and the past four years with Josef. He was already breaking the Ordnung by leaving the village and venturing into the world in search of a forbidden miracle. Foregoing shaving would be the least of his law breaking. He put the kit to one side and secured the strap over the notebook.

“Won’t you at least wait until tomorrow?” Samuel didn’t turn around to ask.

Settling his wide brimmed straw hat in place, Levi stood beside his friend. The street outside the window was dead, everyone already inside for supper. He held out a hand to shake. “I’ve already said goodbye to Josef. The new moon is tonight, and I must use the dark.”

Samuel didn’t take his hand. “We will take care of Josef for you.”

Levi dropped his arm. The offer was the best he could hope for. “Thank you.”

He exited the room that he and Josef had shared in his brother-in-law’s house until the boy came down with pneumonia three weeks ago. Now, Josef was in the Ward with the other cystic fibrosis children. Beds filled with listless young bodies, malnourished and fighting for every breath. Most lived until their early twenties, but some, like Josef, became sick early in life, and from there the slope toward death grew steep. Levi meant to level that slope.

In the front room, Samuel’s wife, Beth, left her loom to hug him goodbye in spite of her husband’s dark gaze. She pressed a fabric package into Levi’s hands. “May God be with you, Brother Levi.”

Chest tight with gratitude, he tucked the gift beneath an arm and pushed open the light screen door to the porch. The wood frame clattered shut behind him as he descended to the street.

A breeze lifted the evening air as the sun settled below the horizon. Word of his intent had spread quickly through the township, and now people left their supper tables to stare from windows and covered porches as he passed the weathered brick homes. Cannibal dogs, trained to kill intruders in the event of a fence breach, sensed the tension in the air, taking up a howling bark that spread across the silent village. He hoped the cannibals didn’t know what the baying chorus meant.

He slowed as he passed the Ward. A child sang Grace, high and sweet, the piano accompaniment thrumming through an open window on the lower level. Josef would miss his nightly visit to tuck him in bed. You already said goodbye. Staring resolutely at the dusty street, Levi squared his shoulders and picked up his pace. He had to be through the gate before the perimeter lights came on.

Only the salt trader walked without harm through the cannibal lands beyond the fence, stopping at the Holdout once a year. He claimed he paid a heavy toll of the precious mineral to the cannibals to come and go. Levi had no such leverage. He simply hoped the cover of dusk and the moonless night would allow him to safely cross the territory that roaming bands scoured for anything edible.

After twenty minutes he reached the edge of the Holdout where a small stone outbuilding housed the gatekeeper and protected the controls for the electric fence. The generator in the methane pits kicked on, humming in preparation for perimeter lighting. High-pitched squeals echoed from the swine sheds as the animals fought over their nightly slops.

Levi focused on the gate, designed to power on and off without lowering the charge on the rest of the fence. The only way in or out of the Holdout. The only connection to the world. The only hope for Josef.

On the fence directly above the gate a weathered wooden sign read, The Gate is Narrow, in plain, black lettersto remind those inside of their salvation. Stopping at the small stone building, he knocked and waited for Peter the Gatekeeper to answer.

The old man took his sweet time opening the door. He’d lost both son and daughter to cannibals ages ago. “Goin’ through with it?”

“Before the lights come on.”

Peter put a finger over the switch box near the door. “I’ll watch you from here. Give me a hand up if the way is clear.”

The shed was about a hundred paces from the gate, and Levi kept a sharp eye on the low greenery outside the fence, alert for any sign of hunting parties. Here and there, broad-leafed trees drooped over the landscape like umbrellas, holding their own against the waves of noxious amarantox — ideal hiding places for cannibal bands. Nothing moved in the fading light except the wind over the foliage.

He put up a hand and waited for several heartbeats to be sure the charge was down. A shock wouldn’t be fatal, but it would put him out of commission for a few days and leave a nasty burn.

With a tentative fingertip, he touched the metal and then freed the latch, slipping through and securing it behind him. A nearly imperceptible hum told him when the power once again flowed through the wire. His pulse roared loudly in his ears as he stepped away from the only home he’d ever known.

#

Over the last four days, between the impassible thickets of tamarisk trees and the tall sea of broad-leafed amarantox, Levi saw little in the way of edible plant life. He paused in the pale light of dawn near a stand of bull rushes at a bend in the river. Cracked and marrow-less bones, blackened by the ash of a campfire, littered the area. At the water’s edge, the vegetation had been recently crushed, and the distinct imprint of a human foot remained in the churned mud. But the ashes were cold, and Levi was hungry. Watching the camp in both wariness and morbid fascination, he dug up a few cattail roots and fled into the chest-high amarantox. He didn’t need to be far from the camp to become completely hidden behind a screen of leaves. Hopefully, the cannibals weren’t nearby.

Not daring a cook fire, he gnawed on a fibrous root and allowed himself a few bites of goat jerky before taking off his boots. The air on his blistered feet cooled and hurt at the same time. The best thing for blisters would be a few days free of boots, but he couldn’t afford to stop. He shouldn’t take off his boots at all, in case he had to flee, but he couldn’t bear to encase his feet in leather again.

An hour or two of rest.

At least he had Beth’s parting gift — a mottled goat-hair blanket that served well to camouflage him. He looked back along his trail in the burgeoning daylight and was pleased to see the path he’d cut already springing back into place in the morning breeze.

Plucking a few wide leaves from the nearby amarantox, he arranged them over the blanket before crawling beneath. The action brought back childhood memories of hiding from his father, taking an afternoon to dream and draw instead of hand-weeding the invading amarantox from the fields. Later, he and Sarah used to slip away from prying eyes and make love beneath a blanket of camouflage, much to her father’s disapproval. The Order forbade sex out of wedlock, but many broke that ordinance. Like most of the afflicted, Sarah had been forbidden to marry. But she’d wanted a child so badly. And he’d wanted to make her happy…

Levi grimaced away the sadness. To avoid wallowing in memories, he opened his notebook and flipped to the last page. He would record his journey by sketching. A journal to pass on to his son. But so far all he’d encountered were waves of noxious amarantox. Nothing different or exciting to draw. Not that he wanted exciting; he’d settle for a boring trip all the way to the Fosselites and a boring trip back. If only he didn’t have the blisters.

He allowed his eyes to drift closed.

Rustling foliage startled him awake. How long had it been? Holding his breath, he didn’t twitch in the still, muggy air. If cannibals found him, he’d be roasting by dark.

The noise continued, and his heart raced. What were they doing? It sounded like they were harvesting the amarantox seeds. Cannibals might be desperate, but they weren’t stupid. Not even pigs or goats could eat the toxic weed in any quantity.

Whatever was moving through the weeds came closer. He shrank into as small a space as he could. This might be the end. God would punish him for thinking to circumvent His will, just like the Brethren said.

The sound moved past into a thicket of tamarisk by the water. Branches snapped and twigs rattled.

Unable to resist his curiosity, he pulled the blanket tight about his head and raised his eyes above the level of the foliage. A golden tan and white goat-like creature tugged at the gray-green fronds of tamarisk.

In a flash of motion, almost too quick to see, the creature flicked long ears, launched straight into the air on stiff legs, and bounded into the weeds, followed by a second animal Levi hadn’t seen.

His mouth widened in a silent exclamation. It hadn’t been a goat. He was familiar enough with the blocky form of the village milkers. No, this had been more graceful. Delicate, even. And he’d seen that coat once before, many years ago when the old salt trader came through with a rare hide. “A deer?”

He pulled out his pencil and sketched madly before the image faded from his mind.

#

The Garden
Haldanian Protectorate

Sunlight flooded through the transparent nuvoplast walls and ceiling of the Garden, allowing children to photosynthesize without exposure to deadly ultraviolet rays. Air conditioning units kept a comfortable breeze flowing through the building. Tula urged Jo Boy toward a group of nearly naked nine-year olds sitting on the floor. Twenty bald, green heads turned his way, and he backed into Tula, his breathing rapid. His attention darted nervously between the sitting group and another class of prancing youngsters through the glass next door.

The concept of clear walls and ceilings must be mind boggling, Tula reminded herself. Outside, single story houses reflected harsh sunlight onto the streets from mirrored walls. She didn’t remember much of her own early Integration, but new converts were always flighty. Jo Boy would require a gentle hand until he grew used to his surroundings.

Taking Jo Boy’s hand, she managed to pull him forward and together they settled on a cushion at the outer edge of the group. Most of these children had been converted years ago. Many didn’t remember the Outside. And of course many were native Haldanians. One of Tula’s previous converts smiled at her and scootched a fraction closer before Tula shook her head and nodded toward Jo Boy. The girl stuck out her lip but stopped her approach. On future visits, Tula would socialize, but today Jo Boy needed all her attention.

Albert, the day-teacher, caught Tula’s eye and winked before returning his attention to the kids. “Class, eyes, up here,” he said, drawing attention away from the newcomers. He held a sealed glass cloche with a single-stemmed plant inside. “What do we do if we see a plant?”

Several hands shot into the air, and one little boy wearing a yellow friendship bracelet spoke out of turn. “Is it poison?”

“To you, yes. What happens if you touch it?”

“Touch it, Clay.” A little girl pushed the boy with the bracelet and he turned to slap her back.

“Enough, children.”

Jo Boy was older than the rest of the class, but Tula found integrating older converts into younger classes worked well, both socially and academically. His chloroplasts had greened up quite nicely, and now he needed to learn the language.

“My dad works the Burn. He says he likes the smell. It makes him high,” another boy chirped.

The silver beads in Albert’s short dark hair rattled as he turned to lance the little boy with a glare. “Plants won’t make you high. If you were out on the Burn, the smoke would probably kill you. At the very least, it would make you wish you were dead. Plants make our bodies think they are under attack, so our chloroplasts create poisons to fight back.”

“What about the yuvee trees? Aren’t they plants?” This was from a girl who wore gold earrings like an adult, obviously native Haldanian. Someone with family who loved her.

“That’s a very good question, Amaryllis. Yuvee trees are indeed plants. But they are one of the few plants we allow inside the city because they warn us of an upcoming ultraviolet flare when the leaves become pale. But even yuvee trees are only allowed to grow in designated areas. And never inside the Garden or the play yard.”

“I can see a yuvee tree from the cafeteria when my mom takes me to lunch.”

Jo Boy watched the interactions with wide eyes, his focus sometimes swinging to the class next door. Tula wondered how much he understood. He would be watched closely over the next few months. He needed to learn that sunlight outside of the protective glass of the Garden would harm him. Once he finished puberty, his system could endure the chemicals UV radiation caused his body to produce. Even workers on the Burn, who were acclimated to long periods of direct sunlight and exposure to foreign plants, sometimes came back with an overdose and needed therapy.

The children had digressed into personal stories, no longer focused on the teacher. “The sun will kill you if you look right at it when the yuvee tree turns white.”

“No, it won’t. Only if you’re outside.”

“It’ll burn your eyes out.”

“Okay, kids, settle down. We’re talking about plants now, not ultraviolet waves. As long as you’re in the Garden, the sun can’t hurt you. But sometimes when we go outside at night, you might find a seedling in the yard. If we see a plant, do we touch it?” the teacher asked.

“Nooooo,” the children chimed together.

Jo Boy jumped at the chorus and looked at Tula. She smiled in reassurance. He’d probably never seen this many children together before.

“What do you do?” Albert crossed his arms over his chest, his silver wristbands catching the light.

“Call a grown up,” again the children chimed as one.

Jo Boy remained still, scanning the group in front of him.

“Call a grown up to dispose of it properly. That’s right. Touching a plant will make our bodies very sick.”

“What if I accidently touch one?”

Albert shook his head in sadness. “Then you have to go to gene therapy.”

A collective shudder rolled through the group. Even Jo Boy twitched, and Tula nodded in satisfaction. He understood some of the lesson.

“Now, I want you all to go read the history pages I have up on your gamma pads. There will be a test tomorrow morning.” Albert dismissed the children and Tula approached with Jo Boy in tow. The man smiled broadly, his focus on Tula even as he winked at Jo Boy. “Hello, Tula.”

“Hi, Albert. I’d like you to meet Jo Boy.”

“Jobie. Welcome to the class.” Albert always created pet names for the new converts that inevitably became their new identity within the Protectorate. “Can you tell me one thing you learned about plants today?”

Jo Boy glowered from beneath his naked brow line at Albert. This was going to be a tough sell.

“Go on, Jo Boy. Use your words,” Tula encouraged.

“Baad.”

She wasn’t sure if the single syllable was in regard to plants or to Jo Boy’s opinion of Albert. The smiling teacher seemed to have no doubts. “Wonderful! You might be top of the class if you keep up the good work. Why don’t you go sit by Amaryllis?” He called out to the girl. “Amaryllis, please read the lesson out loud to Jobie, here.”

As Tula watched Jo Boy slouch toward the girl, Albert sidled close enough to rub shoulders and cocked his chin her way. “You still seeing that good-for-nothing Burn Operative? What’s his name? Moo?”

“Mo.” She laughed. “And, yes, I am.” She and Albert had gone out for some time before she met Mo, a quiet, intelligent convert whose talent was wasted as a Burn Operative.

“I don’t know how you can stand the soot. And why hasn’t he given you any jewelry? If he expects to keep you, he’d better start putting his money where his mouth is. Mmmm. Has his mouth been here?” He tickled a finger across her bare collarbone and wiggled his brows.

Tula giggled and pulled away. “Not in front of the kids, Albert.” Even though she’d been converted nearly twenty years ago, she still fought the urge to cover her bare breasts. Photosynthesis only worked if the chloroplasts were exposed to light, so everyday Haldanian garb consisted of merely a loincloth or fringe skirt. Some extremists didn’t even bother with that much modesty.

“You never wear the bracelets I gave you.” Albert put on a sulky face. “And they’re not looking at us. Even Jobie has found something to occupy him.” He nodded to where the boy had his entire body spread against the transparent wall as if he could push through to the skimmer on the other side.

“Oh, Jo Boy. No. Come here. Let’s read the lesson.” She hurried to gather the child away from the glass, glad for the distraction.

The fact was Mo had bought her jewelry. She had a whole case of necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings, and anklets at home, from Mo and previous lovers. No self-respecting Haldanian ever bought jewelry for themselves, and the more bangles and baubles a person wore, the more loved he was perceived to be. But she couldn’t seem to embrace the ostentatious display.

Mo understood. He was a convert, just like her. They both respected their photosynthesis too much to cover it, even with jewelry. To do so would be an insult to the conversion technology that had saved them. Albert was native Haldanian; for him, photosynthesis was like breathing. The only time she covered her skin was in the lab, when she donned a long coat to ward off the underground chill, and the coat’s material was so thin it was virtually transparent.

As she coaxed Jo Boy away from the glass, a call came over the com system. “Dr. Macoby, report to Confinement for briefing.”

With a glance at Albert, she grinned and patted Jo Boy goodbye. The call meant only one thing — potential converts were on the way.

#

Amarantox Plains

Across the river, an old road sliced a line through the dusty brown plains for as far as Levi could see. He stood at the threshold of an ancient trestle bridge spanning the wide channel between two cut banks of red-brown limestone. Water swamped the tamarisk along the shore, allowing only the gray-green tips of the fronds to sway above the current.

Behind him, the crumbling remains of an old city lay buried in weeds. He’d had to resist the temptation to pause and explore the fallen structures — the engraved cornerstone on a brick wall, the tangle of plastic pipes hanging from a rusted metal girder, a paved stairway descending into an opening in the earth. What had life been like back then, to live without the constant awareness of the thin electric wire separating civilization from cannibalism? To travel freely from one shore to another — and farther — in a matter of hours?

That kind of hubris had led to the rest of mankind’s demise, according to the Brethren. In the Third Fall of Man, people didn’t respect the Earth that God put into man’s care. But the Old Order remained faithful to the Ordnung, the earthly laws of God, and the Holdout was spared.

Levi turned his back on the ruins and moved on. He didn’t have time to dally with the past. The lessons of the Days of the Prophet had been drilled into him well enough as a child.

Until now, he’d followed the river close to the banks. When he’d come to tributaries, he’d forded them or sometimes dared an old bridge. But now he had to cross the river and break toward the stone buttes rising into the distant sky.

Like the open asphalt roadways, this bridge would be a natural pathway for others, including cannibals. Levi hunkered near a rusty girder to survey the path ahead. Crossing the wide expanse of water without a bridge would be unwise, at best. The roiling water bobbed with debris and detritus that proved its unforgiving strength. He had no option but to cross the crumbling concrete and exposed metal.

Muscles trembling, he hurried to the next support beam, as if sprinting from tree to tree in the apple orchard in a game of hide and seek. The pavement gaped with holes; the edges of the bridge were nothing but sagging, rusty mesh and iron rods. A few empty husks of what had once been cars littered the roadway. He wondered about the people who’d abandoned the vehicles. Had they been overtaken by cannibals? Had they become cannibals? Where had they been fleeing when they’d finally deserted the car?

Stop thinking and move. You have a destination.

At the center of the span, he glanced over the edge as a jumble of tamarisk branches spun past at dizzying speed. He’d never been so high in the air, and a wave of vertigo overtook him. Clutching a beam, he caught his breath and focused on the other shore. Rusty metal cut into his fingertips, but he didn’t mind. The pain helped ground him. With carefully placed steps, he slid to the next brace and the next, until he completed the crossing.

With a final glance at the bridge, he started down the road into what appeared to be desert. No longer lush with green waves of amarantox, the hard-packed red earth had crusted like cracked pottery, fissures spreading from riverbank to horizon. Spindly stems of knapweed and a strange, rounded shrub with variegated leaves intermingled with dwarf amarantox stands.

The sun beat upon his shoulders with an intensity that made him wonder if another sunstorm was coming, or if the penetrating heat was due to the change in landscape. The brim of his hat shadowed his eyes and the back of his neck, but the sun penetrated his clothing and parched his skin. Perhaps he should hide under the blanket until nightfall.

Focused on the sun, he didn’t notice the whiff of smoke until he stumbled into the empty camp. Startled, he froze, eyes on the rosy coals of a small campfire. No sign of cannibals. He scanned the scraggly plants, horizon to horizon. Nothing.

Well, if they weren’t going to bother him, he wouldn’t bother them. He turned to the buttes on the horizon, but a tiny sob and intake of breath from the brush halted him. Someone was there. Something shivered against the earth, and he realized a person knelt next to a rounded bush, auburn-haired head to the ground, dirty rags of clothing blending in better than his blanket could.

Now was not the time or place to be a Good Samaritan. But what if God was testing him? What if someone needed help? What if it was a trap?

A whimper came again, and he stepped toward the figure. “Do you need help?”

With a grunting cry, the form rocked back to a squat, and he saw it was a woman, belly grotesquely swollen in pregnancy. Her pained face told him all he needed to know. Her people had abandoned her to give birth alone.

He’d only taken three steps toward her when a change in air pressure made him pause. A swirl of dust swept the hat from his head. He looked up to find himself face to face with a hovering metal craft, silent until a roar of flame spouted from the barrel of a gun on one side.

The woman screamed.

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