(The events herein occur soon after Prophet of the Badlands, but prior to Daughter of Ash.)
Home offered a sense of security that Althea struggled to accept. Being alone in the house reawakened old worries. Though she hummed to herself while stuffing empanadas for later, she glanced at every shadow and found herself freezing still whenever the building creaked. Over and over in her mind, she planned out how she might react if someone did try to kidnap her again. She wouldn’t let that happen. Her spike of determination made her mash the spoon down too hard, spreading filling over the side of the dough. She bit her lip and grimaced, as if Karina would’ve seen her mistake and been disappointed in her.
The city police wanted her to visit them for a little while today. She shifted her weight onto her right leg and tapped her left big toe absentmindedly at the floor while scraping the stuffing paste into a nice lump in the middle. Each excuse she tried to come up with for not going to see them made her feel like more and more of a liar. Anything from the big city took her back to being separated from her family, and made her think sad thoughts. Still, the psionic police did help Querq as they promised to. She had to keep her promise.
A few more empanadas, and she’d go see what they wanted.
Karina had made a mush mostly consisting of black beans and shredded chicken, with some chopped up herbs. Her sister wanted to try some of the new ‘spices’ the city police had brought in. Even Father seemed pleased by sniffing the jar. Despite that the powdered seasonings came from that place, she couldn’t argue they smelled good. The fragrance made resisting her urge to taste it uncooked difficult, but Karina had specifically made her say ‘I promise not to eat any before they’re done.’
Althea jabbed the large spoon into the bowl of filling and scooped out a dollop, which she plopped into the middle of a new dough square before leaving the spoon upright in the chicken-bean mush. She folded the dough to make a pillow and sealed it by pressing around the edges with a fork as Karina had taught her. After adding it to the tray, she glanced out the window at the position of the Sun. Late afternoon. At the time, she huffed a sigh that made her hair jump away from her face.
“I said I’d go…”
She draped a cloth over the tray of unbaked empanadas, another over the bowl, and eyed the sink. The Water Man had gotten the faucet working, a feat that most people in Querq still considered an act of magic. Althea didn’t want to ‘waste’ the faucet water just washing her hands, so she ducked out the back door heading for the water pump. Despite the street empty of people, the sight of the place where Dean kidnapped her with a tranquilizer gun tightened her throat. Karina still didn’t want her going off alone, but she no longer feared the stinging green needles. Now that she knew what they did, she could protect herself… not that she expected anyone to try that again.
Althea stepped into a warm puddle on the boards around the pump; an involuntary squirm climbed her legs and continued into her back at the sensation of mossy slime squishing underfoot. She pumped twice to get water flowing, and rinsed food and flour from her hands before rubbing them down the front of her simple white dress to dry them. It didn’t hang as long as her beloved skirt had, stopping about halfway down her thighs. The white dress Archon made her wear had been longer; at least she could run in this one.
Wanting to get home as soon as possible, she ran past the pump to the end of the alley, and hooked a left on the street. Cool dirt gave way to warm paving. Despite the small group of city police, and the fancy things they brought with them, few cars drove through Querq. Only the Watch had working vehicles, three ‘pickup trucks,’ as Father called them… which didn’t make a lot of sense. They couldn’t pick anything up. She pondered that while walking down the centerline of an ancient strip of blacktop. Here and there, scraps of reflective paint glinted at her. She skipped from one coin-sized spot to the next, grinning, daydreaming about what it must’ve looked in the before-time when the whole street glimmered yellow in the Sun.
Mrs. Alvarez wandered by, offering a wave and a pleasant greeting; her three grandchildren also smiled and yelled hellos. Althea grinned back at them, savoring the joy the woman had shown once clear of pain. Most of her bones had looked strange around the joints, and it hurt her to move at all. She remembered fixing the youngest boy’s broken ankle once, and tending to the nine-year-old granddaughter, Belinda, when she ran through Jorge’s scrapyard and got a hunk of metal stuck in her foot.
The grandkids broke formation long enough to hug her one after the next, and followed Mrs. Alvarez off to the street leading to their home. The odd machine smell in the place came back to her. She’d visited to mend the woman’s bone sicks. Their home smelled like metal and the underside of a car. It had to be from whatever happened in that building before it became someone’s house. Father said most of the buildings in Querq had been shops and things before the war. Corinne and her husband lived in something called a ‘pizza place.’
“Pee sa. Peetz uh.” She tilted her head; the effort of thinking about a word slowed her walk. “Piza. Piz-uh. Bah.”
Two blocks later, she emerged in the center of Querq, where the city police made their home. They’d even brought a new building, a rectangular metal box elevated off the ground on fat metal legs. Various small components on the roof glittered with tiny flashing blue or green lights. One emitted a continuous whirring. Some of the smaller kids could run underneath the city police’s house without ducking. Althea bit her lip, feeling a twinge of shame at her reaction to the noise of the flying machine that had brought it here. It had taken Karina a good hour to talk her out from under the bed. Even though it had felt like their home would shake itself apart, she didn’t want to come out.
Unlike the rest of the children of Querq, who all came running to watch the flying machine set the enormous box down in the middle of the city, she wanted nothing to do with anything that could make her home tremble. Two black sky cars sat near the long wall of the rectangular box, identical to the one she’d been riding in when Archon first appeared to her. From the outside, where they should’ve had windows, they had slabs of black metal.
Althea blinked, certain the one she’d been in had windows. People can’t see through armored plates. She shook her head, dismissing it as ‘stupid city stuff,’ and gave them both a wide berth on her way to a metal staircase attached to the side of the boxy structure. She gasped as soon as she stepped on it, as hot as a cooking plate. With a yelp of surprised pain, she raced up the four steps and hopped from leg to leg while knocking, though her small hand didn’t make much noise.
She bounced on tiptoe to keep her feet from cooking for a moment, but no one answered. A small metal box perched on the wall to the right of the door looked like another tiny door, perhaps for mice. Figuring it more ‘stupid city stuff,’ she leaned her face close to it.
When nothing happened, she stood straight and frowned. Annoyance got the better of her and she pounded her fists on the door, but made only a slight bit more noise than knocking. She screamed, “Hello!” at the little box. Seconds later, she opened the tiny door to reveal a glowing green square about as big as her palm. Eep! Glowy! She leaned away and swatted the little box closed. A few seconds later, the big door split down the middle with a loud pfshh. The two halves retracted into opposing walls, releasing a blast of freezing air.
“Eep!” She jumped back.
A man in a clingy black uniform with a silvery belt smiled at her from the doorway. Darkish skin and black hair almost made him seem local, but he didn’t look like everyone else here. “Althea?”
“Yes, sir.” She stood with her feet together, arms at her sides.
He backed up, gesturing for her to follow. “Come in. I’m Officer David Ahmed, but you can call me David if you like.”
Having acclimated to the scorching metal porch, the inner hallway felt like walking on ice. Gleaming white walls caught the glow of overhead lights, forcing her to squint. Despite it being a clear day, the light inside seemed brighter than the sky. Teeth chattering, she gathered her dress as tight as she could around herself and followed the man through a short hallway to a square room with two desks at opposite corners. He glanced at one for a few seconds, chuckled, and went past it to a smaller room with two cushioned black seats catty-corner against the wall. Each looked a little like Father’s sofa, but only big enough for two adults. He sat in one and gestured at the other.
Althea perched on the edge, hands on her knees, back straight and rigid. Her body wouldn’t stop trembling from the cold. An odd sense tugged at her mind; she looked up at him, somehow knowing he attempted to ‘read’ her emotional state. Probably to figure out if her shivering came from cold or fear. She didn’t fight him.
“Would you like a blanket or something?” He smiled and crossed to a small storage cabinet by the wall. “I’m sorry it’s so cold in here. Lieutenant Franck, my superior, can’t stand heat. That dress is so thin, and you’ve got no shoes.”
“Is this going to take long?” asked Althea. “I have empanadas I need to finish making.”
Officer Ahmed took a plain grey blanket from the cabinet and returned to the adjacent mini-couch. “I understand you’ve had a difficult time of it before you arrived in Querq.” He handed her the blanket. “This won’t take too long, but I would like to meet with you somewhat regularly to offer any help you might want coming to terms with what’s happened to you.”
Althea cocooned herself in the blanket, pulling her feet up under her on the soft cushion. She clutched two handfuls of plush fabric at her chest and waited a few seconds for the shivering to lessen. “What does it mean to come terms?”
He rested his arms over his knees and laced his fingers. “People react to traumatic things in different ways. I’m aware you don’t fully trust Division 0, but my interest here is only to help you heal any mental or emotional wounds you’ve suffered from your ordeal. Coming to terms means reaching a point where bad things that happened to you in the past no longer affect you as strongly.”
Her telempathy read genuine concern from him, without a trace of deceit or greed. Not like the old man back in the city… Burkhardt. He’d initially felt like a raider finding treasure, until he learned ‘all she could do was heal.’ He couldn’t use her as a weapon, so he couldn’t care less about her. She bowed her head, staring at her lap; blonde hair draped down her front onto her legs. “Like how I wanna hide when the sky gets loud?”
“You’re frightened by storms?” Officer Ahmed raised his right eyebrow a little.
“No.” Althea brushed the blanket at her chin to chase away a minor itch. “I’m scared of fly machines. I like rain. I always go outside when it rains.”
He nodded. “Are you worried that whoever is in the aircraft is coming to take you?”
“A little.” She looked up, smiling. “But I can stop them. I’m scared it will break an’ hurt someone when it falls. Metal boxes aren’t s’posed ta fly.”
“You can stop them?” He slid a flat bit of plastic, one of those ‘datapad’ things, into his lap and tapped at it. The surface facing him lit up blue and green, painting his features in colorful shadows.
“Yes.” She flexed and relaxed her toes while staring off into nowhere. “I used to be scared to, but I’m not anymore.”
“Afraid to protect yourself? Didn’t it bother you the way people kept treating you?”
Althea’s mind filled with memories of cages, rope, handcuffs, leashes, and locked doors. She pressed her arms to her chest, wishing Karina or Father sat at her side so she could cling to them. “The Wagon Man took me all over. Alla people inna Badlands know I can fix hurts and sicks. They wouldn’t do bad to me. If I did mystic things, they’d be scared and wanna kill me.” She slipped a hand out from under the blanket to wipe a stray tear. “I feeled good helping people, even if I hadda be in a cage.”
He typed for a few seconds. “Sorry… that’s no way to treat a child. I’m… You don’t seem as traumatized as I’d have expected for a girl your age having spent so much time in captivity.”
“I’m scared of being tied.” Althea looked down again. “I don’t like it.” Silence hung thick between them for a little while before her mood lightened and she raised her head to make eye contact. “I have a home now. A family. I’m not scared to say no when someone wants ta take me.” A spread of embarrassment warmed her cheeks. “I used ta always let people take me. I promise not to run away, an’ I don’ run away. That way, raiders don’t tie me.” She gave him a pitiful look. “Much.”
“You’ve got to be the most potent telempath I’ve met… that Division Zero has ever recorded. And you’ve got a passable grasp of suggestion.” He stared at the datapad. If this kid wasn’t so damn innocent, command would be losing their minds.
Althea tilted her head. “I won’t take away your commands’ brain shapes.”
Officer Ahmed chuckled. “Listening to my thoughts?” He let off a resigned sigh. “Normally, we consider that a breach of manners… but given the life you’ve had, I’m sure it’s developed as a survival instinct. Also, considering your situation… it’s probably best that you keep checking people out. For security reasons, of course. I don’t mind if you peek.”
Althea considered the mixture of pity and concern swirling around him for a second or two before peering into his thoughts. He seemed to have expected her to be more upset, constantly crying or wanting to hide from people. That she acted relatively normal both relieved and intrigued him. “I can make people not do bads. I used ta be scared people would hurt me if they knew I could.” She recalled the image of a mystic, a scrawny man in a handmade skirt and wild-colored headdress who led a band of raiders against another tribe that had captured her, one that had kept those handcuff things on her legs so she couldn’t run away.
Of course, being a mystic hadn’t stopped an enormous raider from knocking him senseless with a pipe.
She leaked some of the memory of watching him scream and burn, chained to an iron beam, into Officer Ahmed’s mind. The kind of fear that glowed from her captors at the mere sight of a mystic had terrified her. They believed they had to kill him by burning, or he’d just keep coming back from the dead. Rather than try to explain it with words, she sent a shade of her fear that if she’d done anything other than heal, it would’ve been her lashed to a metal post and lit on fire. Everyone knew her as the Prophet, the healer. They’d take her away―some groups would keep her tied, some would be nice and treat her more like a person―but she would never stay in one place for long. She’d been with the Wagon Man the longest, but only because she hadn’t been famous yet. Once the entire Badlands knew her, she changed owners every few weeks.
As long as her captors allowed her to heal people who suffered, she tolerated her lack of freedom. After all, back then she didn’t have a home, somewhere she’d rather be. Wherever she went, she’d only get taken again. And so on.
Officer Ahmed shivered.
Her love for Karina and Father bloomed, an unintentional radiance made the city police man flash a dopey grin. Sensing her power running away, she backed off.
“I still did somes.” She shifted in her seat and stretched her legs under the blanket. “I stopped real bads, like wifeing. But”―she puffed up her chest―“I have a home now. I’m not scared.”
He tapped again at the datapad thing. When he finished, he smiled at her. “Aside from holding you against your will, did any of the people who abducted you do anything to you that you didn’t like or that made you feel uncomfortable?”
Althea looked him right in the eye. “You mean did they wife me?”
He coughed. “I’m sorry? Wife you?”
“Put boy parts in my girl parts.”
Officer Ahmed blinked. “Umm…” Discomfort fell away from him in sheets.
She shook her head. “Not right ‘cause I’m too young. Some raiders have harems. They make me help the women when they get hurt from wifeing. If they were too mean, I sometimes made them stop.” Althea fidgeted, thinking about Rachel’s fear of being wifed… almost as strong as Althea’s dread of it. “No one wifed me. I would not let them.”
“You’ve witnessed, umm, women being…”
“Wifed?” She nodded. “Yes. If they were real scared, I’d take ‘way the raider’s…” Her face scrunched up as she searched for how to explain.
“Urge?” asked Officer Ahmed, a second after a tingle in her mind. “You… interesting. Dampened their desire.”
“One woman wasn’t even as old as Karina.” Althea looked down. “He was gonna wife her, but she was so scared. I made him guilt. Strong. He helped her ‘scape.”
Officer Ahmed fidgeted and leaned on the armrest. “Well, I’m very happy to hear that nothing like that happened to you.”
“I wouldn’t let it,” said Althea in a matter-of-fact tone. “I rather burn onna post.”
He nodded. “I think I would too.”
“Why are you surprised?”
“From what I’ve read here, you were taken by this guy with the wagon when you were five or six years old, and put in a cage for about a year… you’ve been kept prisoner on and off since, and been surrounded by violence more or less the entire time.” He exhaled into his hands for warmth. “And that mess with Archon in the city… I guess I expected you to be more, umm… damaged. It’s remarkable how unscathed you seem from a mental standpoint.”
She tilted her head to the side. “Is that good?”
“Quite… but somewhat unsettling too. A child your age going through that… it’s astounding me that you’re not showing much mental trauma.” He tapped and poked at the datapad again. “Perhaps knowing you had the ability to leave whenever you wanted to, and staying of your own choice helped?”
She opened her mouth to protest, saying they’d kept her bound or caged… but if she’d been less afraid of being thought a mystic, she’d had the power to force them to release her. In a way, she had chosen to stay a captive.
Althea looked down at the little tents her feet made in the blanket. “Before, I only wanted to help everyone I could. ‘Cep for wifed, I did what they told me.” She rolled a marble of an idea around her head, smiling to herself at taking more and more risks as she got older. She hated being tied up, and used her ‘magic’ to manipulate her captors to avoid it. Small pokes at their emotion wouldn’t make them think of her as a mystic.
“Well…” He leaned back, smiling. “I’m honestly surprised and relieved that you’re so resilient.”
She stared at him, eager to get back home.
“I understand you’ve already given the Admin people back west a good idea about that Archon situation.”
Althea frowned. “He’s not a nice person. I don’t wanna see him again.” She looked down and to the side as Aurora’s words floated in her memory. The time will come when you will not save his life. You will watch him die.
Officer Ahmed rubbed his chin. “It’s distressing we weren’t able to find him at the abandoned power station. Though, I’m more curious about the entity you mentioned, the one from the garden.”
She shivered despite the blanket. “The Many… Bad.” Althea shook her head rapidly side to side. “Not good. Hates everything.”
“Some people think the reason we haven’t reclaimed the Badlands to modern civilization is due to supernatural influence, though they’re somewhat of a laughed-at minority.”
“I don’t know what you said.” Althea narrowed her eyes.
“You’ve seen the city in the west.”
She made a sour face as the urge to run home welled up within. “I don’t like it there. You said I didn’t have to go back.”
He raised a placating hand. “You don’t. Please calm down. I’m only saying that people think it’s odd that modern technology hasn’t spread back across the country. Before the war, people didn’t live in two massive cities crammed against the coastlines.” His datapad projected a map of North America, and he pointed out cities here and there throughout. “People are trying to understand why, since the war has been over for four hundred years, we haven’t spread out again.”
Althea looked down, speaking in a near-whisper. “Because he won’t let them.”
“That’s what a few people say, but no one believes them. Most think it’s due to money… it would be too expensive. There are still issues to be dealt with: weaponized mutants the corporations released during the war, runaway androids, environmental damage, and so on.”
“He told me that he’s made up of all the people who died. They’re angry and want other people to suffer too.” She looked up at him, eyes wide, searching. “I don’t understand. Why does he want to make other people hurt just because they got hurt? Making pain doesn’t fix pain.”
Officer Ahmed gave a mild shrug. “I wish I could answer that. I don’t think there is a good answer for that. Alas, being cruel is not an exclusively paranormal trait. Some people are like that.”
“That’s bad.” She shifted to sit straight, moving her blanket-encased feet to the floor. “People shouldn’t be bad… even if they’re already dead.”
Althea smirked at him thinking her ‘adorable,’ but held her tongue. ‘Aww how cute’ didn’t bother her anywhere near as much as ‘ooh, the Prophet, grab her.’
“I find it interesting that none of the reported manifestations of equipment malfunction have occurred here since we’ve arrived.”
She stared at him for a moment, blinked, and kept staring.
He bowed his head. “Sorry. It’s oddly easy to forget you’re ten years old.”
A sly grin pulled his lips to the side. “Maybe I’ll meet you halfway and say eleven. Though we really don’t know what effect such an overclocked accelerated healing would have on your body. Maybe you are twelve and you’ve been spending so much energy using your abilities on others, your body hasn’t been growing. Maybe you’ve got a subconscious fear of being ‘wifed,’ and your power had been keeping your body childlike as some kind of defense mechanism.”
Althea huffed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t have the school. You are talking words I don’t know.”
“Forgive me; I was more muttering to myself there.” He read from the datapad. “I wonder if your presence here somehow interferes with that apparition’s ability to break machines. You are such an unusual case.”
“I’m not a case. I’m Althea,” she muttered.
He closed his eyes, smiling away the frustration.
“Sorry for making you upset.” She scooted her feet back and forth to warm them.
“It’s okay. What I meant is that you have quite a few psionic talents. Healing of course. Your telempathy is the strongest we’ve ever seen. Your eyes… you see in the dark, correct?”
“Yes. Bio… loom nis ant.” She beamed with pride at remembering the word.
“They always glow blue.” He tapped a finger on his chin. “We have seen astral sensates who can see in the dark by shifting their vision half into the spirit world, but their eyes radiate white light, and only while they are using the ability to see in the dark… or to see spirits.”
“Spirits?” asked Althea.
“Ghosts? Apparitions of people who have died. Have you ever seen one?”
She shook her head. “Just The Many.”
“Interesting. Well, psionic potential doesn’t always translate to ability… like any other muscle, it needs to be developed. You’ve got a bit of suggestion, clairvoyance, and telepathy as well.”
“If you say so.” She shrugged.
“You can order people to do things sometimes and they do it?”
Althea nodded. “The woman in the bad city already told me ‘bout it. I don’ like doing that ‘cause it’s mean. Only when someone’s gonna get hurt if I don’t.”
He radiated relief and pride, much the way Karina and Father felt when she’d finally gotten the fork to work. He thought about people being frightened of ‘suggestives’ the way people out here thought of mystics. Her hesitance at using it made him happy.
“Most psionics exhibit anywhere from one to three separate abilities. You’ve got potential in six, though your healing and empathy are by far the strongest.”
Althea slipped an arm out from under the blanket and flexed her bicep.
“Indeed. A well-used muscle.”
“Well… I can’t say I was expecting you to be so well adjusted. I’m glad.” He leaned forward and patted her on the knee. “I’m glad that you’ve found a light at the end of that long tunnel.”
Her brow knit together. “I wasn’t in a tunnel.” As Officer Ahmed chuckled, she thought back to running away from those two raiders in the Lost Place. “Wait. I was… for a little.”
“I see why everyone here loves you.” He took her hand and squeezed it. “You make everyone near you happy.”
She shifted her weight forward. “Can I go home now?”
He nodded. “Yes. Thank you for visiting with me. If you ever want to talk about anything that happened to you, or if you have any questions about your abilities, please find me.”
Althea stood, letting the blanket fall to the cushions behind her. Cold air swam up under her dress, bringing a chatter to her teeth in less than a second. “Thank you for being nice. Sometimes I get bad dreams in my head, ‘bout people who wanna take me, but Father said it will need time.”
Officer Ahmed stood and patted her shoulder. “After the life you’ve had, a couple of bad dreams are to be expected. He’s right. It will take you time to accept that you’re safe here. Your dreams tell me you love your family very much and fear losing them.”
“Yes.” She smiled. “Father said the dreams will stop once I find a confee onza.”
He chuckled. “Confidence?”
“That’s not what he said.” She blinked.
“Confianza.” He chuckled. “It’s Spanish. Means confidence.”
She flattened her eyebrows. “I’m not stupid.” That she’d been searching around Querq to find a ‘confee onza,’ made her blush.
Officer Ahmed pulled her into a brief hug and patted her on the back. “You are too much.” He chuckled.
She shot him a confused look for a second until she read his mood. He didn’t mean to sell her; he’d meant ‘too much’ as some way to say he thought her adorable. Eager to get home and finish the empanadas before Karina returned from her farm job, she waved at him and found her way back down the little white corridor to the door. A few voices murmured from a nearby room, discussing something about ‘Gee-ball scores.’ One woman thought of being stationed in Querq a bit of a vacation, while a man in the conversation felt it a punishment. The scent of coffee hung in the air, along with a fruity-sweet smell.
Althea couldn’t imagine how anyone could miss being in that big, awful city. Every time she thought of the place, it made her want to curl up and cry. So many people so close together, how could they be anything but miserable? All in a hurry; always angry. None could even be bothered to offer a kind word to a lonely looking child. She wrapped her arms around herself at the memory of being pushed aside, called a pickpocket, and stuffed headfirst into a trashcan. Before the tears started, she thought of Karina and how happy she’d be that Althea had finished her chore on time.
She stood at the exit waiting for a minute or two before Officer Ahmed walked up behind her.
“Something wrong, sweetie?”
“The door isn’t letting me out.” She pointed at it.
He smiled and pointed at a small green square on the wall to the left. “You have to push the button.”
“I don’t touch things that glow.” She shook her head. “It’s not safe.”
“This isn’t radioactive or harmful. It’s an electric light.” He gestured at the ceiling. “Like those, only smaller.”
Althea raised a tentative hand and poked the green square with her finger. She cringed, expecting it to burn, but it felt neither warm nor cold. The door opened, letting the warm outside air fall on her like a comfortable blanket. She flashed Officer Ahmed a grateful smile, hurried down the steps before they could burn her feet too much, and spent a few seconds basking in the sunlight, letting it chase away the chill.
“There she is,” said a woman.
A group of ten or so people hurried over, forming a horseshoe around her. She didn’t recognize most of them, though except for one blond man, they all resembled locals with sienna skin and black hair. All of them seemed about Father’s age, and wore backpacks and gear that suggested they’d been traveling. Sensing no malice in their emotions, she decided to stand still and quiet.
They gathered closer, about half knelt before her.
“We have journeyed for weeks to see you,” said a man.
A woman a little older than Father bowed so deep her hair tickled Althea’s toes. Her clothes smelled like wood smoke. “Guide us. What shall we do?”
Althea’s stomach knotted with unease. “Please don’t bow to me.”
The woman sat up. “As you wish.”
“She is real.” A man leaned closer and put his hand on her arm. “I can feel her power. She is the one.”
“Blessed child.” A man in the back raised his arms to the sky.
“Stop.” She edged back a step. “I’m just Althea. I don’t know what you think I am, but I’m only a girl who can help people.”
“So humble,” whispered a younger woman. “We should be like her.”
Murmurs of agreement swept over the group.
“Please don’t pray to me. I’m only a girl.” She caught fleeting glimpses from their surface thoughts; they all thought she’d come from some place called ‘Heaven.’ A few thought her to be sent by someone named God, one thought she was him… or her. “Please, don’t. I’m just a person like you.”
“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world,” yelled a woman to the right.
Althea glanced toward the voice. A thick-bodied woman with a square-jawed face and a weathered tan ambled closer. She didn’t look at all familiar. Her dress and boots appeared to be made of the same type of leather, fringed with goat fur. Numerous pouches and packs hung from her belt, and she carried a pre-war rifle over her back on a strap. A strand of pewter-colored hair hung over her face, the rest held back in a bun.
“Please don’t call me that. I don’t like Prophet.”
The stocky woman raised a hand at the group. “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”
Not trusting the outsider, Althea scanned her thoughts. Fortunately, she did not intend to abduct her. This woman believed she wanted to hurt people, wanted to be worshipped, that Althea committed a great crime against the same ‘God’ person that the others thought sent her here.
Althea scowled. “You don’t understand. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“Fools,” said the woman. “This girl is lying. She is not of God, or of heaven. Do not be deceived by her false innocence.”
“Why do you hate me?” Althea leaned away from the palpable emotion. “Do you need me to mend your ear-shapes, or are you just stupid? I told them not to bow to me. I don’t want them to.”
“Leave her alone,” shouted a man.
The angry woman fixed her with a glare. Her thoughts swirled in confusion; she hadn’t expected Althea to deny wanting followers. A scowl formed as the woman regarded her claim as a lie. Of course, the Devil will claim it does not want what it wants.
“She’s not what you think she is,” said a woman behind Althea.
Althea twisted around to peer at a Division 0 officer descending the metal porch, boots clanking on the steps. She stared at the nameplate, but the funny marks, the frozen word, didn’t mean anything to her. The officer looked like a local, with caramel skin, a rounded face, and black hair, but her English had no trace of a Spanish accent.
“This one spreads false testimony, seeking to lure the sheep away from the flock,” said the angry woman.
“Operative word there being sheep.” The officer folded her arms. “If your magic sky daddy has a problem with Althea, why doesn’t he pop down from the cloud castle and say something?”
Everyone, except Althea, gasped.
The angry woman closed her eyes and wagged her head side to side. “The Lord works in mysterious ways. It is not our place to question.”
“Right. Easy to keep the mindless sheep obeying your bedtime story when they’re trained not to expect to see anything happen.” The officer put a hand on Althea’s back, smiled, and filled her voice with concern. “Are you okay, hon?”
“Yes. These people are confused, and that woman hates me, but I don’t know why.”
“Maybe He sent her?” shouted a man, pointing at Althea.
Althea stomped. “No one sent me. I live here. I don’t want… followers, or people bowing. All I want is to help people.”
The crowd stood in silence for a little while before the angry woman scoffed at the man who’d suggested this ‘god’ person sent Althea. The would-be worshippers surrounded her and got to arguing about what this entity wanted. Amid their trying to shout over each other, all of them seemed to lose notice of her.
Althea slipped off to the side and started to make her way home, but stopped as a telepathic voice entered her head.
You let me know if these people bother you again, hon. The officer winked at her. These Cat-3 people can be dangerous sometimes.
Althea blinked. None of them have cats.
The officer laughed, and hugged her. Oh my, you are so adorable.
Althea hugged back, basking in the affection. She loved Querq, and how everyone (well almost everyone) here treated her so well.
It’s short for category three. It’s a rating system for mental problems. Cat-3 is religious delusions, those who commit crimes and attempt to justify it with religion, or those who’ve detached from reality and allow their mythology to cause real harm. The law considers them to be suffering a psychological condition.
While the words mostly sailed over her head, she picked from the woman’s surface thoughts to help understand. How can made up stories hurt people?
The officer rolled her eyes. Contempt fell off her in sheets. Oh, you’d be surprised. People used to kill each other for believing in the wrong fairy tale. Or sometimes people would believe their Easter Bunny would magically cure sickness and wouldn’t take their kids to a doctor. They’d sit there and watch their own babies die expecting some made up ‘god’ to zap them fixed.
Althea’s eyes widened at the images in the woman’s mind. Of course, it had been a long time since that happened. As far as the officer knew, few people in the area still paid attention to this ‘religion’ thing. Most of that occurred in other parts of the world. The officer regarded ‘religious’ people with almost as much contempt as the angry woman had for Althea. She didn’t hate them the way the woman regarded Althea as some kind of evil thing; the officer thought them stupid and primitive.
In a brief moment of dark logic, Althea wondered what The Many would think about the idea of a ‘god.’
I should go home. Althea offered a pleasant smile.
The officer nodded. Okay, hon. I need to stay here and watch these idiots so no one gets shot.
Althea’s eyes widened. She did not want anyone to get hurt because of her, or because of an argument about ‘religion.’ She stared at the arguing group and projected a wave of calmness. A shouting man cut off in mid word, staring dumfounded at the angry woman as if he couldn’t remember why he’d gotten so worked up.
Satisfied, she left them to exchange confused glances, and walked back the way she’d come. It struck her as silly to argue about a ‘sky-man’ who may or may not exist. The officer did make sense in a way. If this ‘god’ person really did have an opinion, why didn’t he show up and say so? The Many had no trouble appearing to torment her. If such an entity did exist far above the clouds, it either didn’t care or approved of things.
She shrugged, and let daydreams of fresh empanadas replace pointless thoughts. She walked about three blocks before pausing at the sound of someone running up behind her.
“Althea!” yelled a boy. “Please, help!”
She stopped and whirled around.
A pair of boys, both shirtless and in jean shorts, sprinted out of an alley. Santiago, on the left, had waist-length straight black hair and a thin build that often got him mistaken for a girl from behind. His best friend Diego kept his hair short by decree of his mother. They rushed to her side, both standing more than a head taller than her. A thick layer of grey dust covered them, as well as dozens of small cuts and scratches on their forearms and legs below the knee. Diego also appeared to have broken a toe, though it didn’t affect his walking. Something had scared him good.
Her heart sped up as she realized Pedro wasn’t with them. The three friends had always been together whenever she saw them, and the look of fear on the boys’ faces got her worrying.
“What happened?” Her gaze dropped to a trail of blood running down Santiago’s left leg. She squatted and pulled up on his shorts, exposing a deep cut a hand’s width above his knee. “Stay still.”
“Pedro’s hurt. He needs help,” said Diego.
She touched his leg near the wound, despite the pair of them tugging on her. Her mind linked to his body. Amid the darkness of her closed eyes, his life shapes appeared one by one. Bones as lines of white, followed by muscles and the inside bits. She directed her attention at his leg, where a blank spot in the muscle form revealed a puncture wound deep enough to swallow her whole index finger. Small black lines and smudges appeared in place of dozens of small cuts and abrasions.
A quick mental nudge disabled his sense of pain, and she willed his body to mend itself. The minor hurt sealed in seconds, a trivial exertion.
Diego pulled her to her feet. “Althea, please… He’s dying.”
Her eyes snapped open. “Where? What happened?”
“He fell through the floor in Old Town,” said Santiago.
Althea gasped. “We’re not supposed to go there.”
“Please don’t tell anyone,” said Diego. “But can you help him? I think his leg broke.”
She put her hands on her hips and sighed. “They told you not to go to the Old City, didn’t they?”
Santiago bowed his head. “Yes.”
“Yeah,” said Diego.
“Well, then, you should get in trouble. If you listened, Pedro wouldn’t be hurt.” She gestured at the alley they came from. “Let’s go… Take me to him.”
“I thought you weren’t gonna go, sayin’ we were told not to.” Santiago jogged off.
“Someone’s hurt because you broke the rules,” said Althea. “Going to help them isn’t breaking the rules.”
“Oh.” Diego hobbled along to keep up.
She waited for him and took his hand as soon as he got close enough to reach. Eyes closed, she linked to his life essence, concentrating on the broken bone shapes in his foot. The second and third toes had both snapped, and one of the muscles along the arch looked fatter than it should be, with a small rip. It took her about ten seconds to force his body to mend itself, and a small growl came from his gut.
“This way,” shouted Santiago.
She released Diego’s hand and sprinted after the longhaired teen. He raced down the alley, hooked left at the end, and darted across a street into another alley. Althea had little trouble keeping up on the run, barely feeling the exertion by the time the boys stopped, winded, beside a building that made up part of the eastern wall.
Althea looked up at the walkway upon which the Watch patrolled. Blue-painted steel covered by mismatched awnings and stretches of fabric supported on poles passed over the roof of a two-story brick-shaped structure with three garage style doors on the right, and a normal door on the left. The roll-top doors appeared welded closed, and what had once been an office had large metal plates secured over a giant window. A row of small bricks surrounded a dirt strip by the wall that likely used to have grass.
“You climbed the wall?” asked Althea.
“No.” Santiago gave her a cheesy smile. “The metal cracked.” He grasped the knob and yanked open the door.
Althea followed him in to a room empty save for a cluster of ancient papers on the wall, bearing images of women. At first glance, they seemed naked, though a triangle of bright yellow covered one’s ‘girl parts.’ She stared for a second, confused why anyone would bother wearing clothing so small. It wouldn’t do anything for warmth.
Scratches on the floor suggested where a desk or some heavy piece of furniture had been dragged to the entrance. Santiago crossed the room and headed past an interior doorway to a large room full of old mechanical junk well advanced into the process of becoming a single heap of rust along the far wall. Hulking metal frames took up most of the middle of the room, separated by pushcarts littered with junk. Scraps of yellow and red plastic flaked on the ground by a few fragments of snipped copper wiring. Matching insulation decorated nubs on one of the carts, suggesting someone had scavenged wire. Aside from empty steel shelves, and a small window peering back into the first room, blank grey cinderblocks surrounded them on four sides, darkened in mold-covered trails where water had leaked in.
“Watch out,” said Diego from behind. “There’s traps in the ground.”
Althea started to turn to look back at him, but his arm slid past her face, brushing her nose, as he pointed ahead. Three rectangular pits in the floor lined up in front of the garage-style doors. Santiago headed across the room to the most distant one, and sat on the edge.
“Don’t fall,” yelled Althea, while running over.
“Come on.” Santiago slipped off the edge, but wound up standing on something inside.
She bit back the shout of alarm and rushed to a halt at the edge of the pit. He stood on a wheeled ladder/cart that left him at about eye-level with her. It wobbled and creaked as he made his way to the floor inside the pit. She didn’t trust it, but if it held his weight, it didn’t seem likely to break under hers.
Diego offered his hand. She held it and stepped from the floor to the top panel of the ladder, which held a wide, shallow pan. She squeezed his fingers as the cart shimmied underfoot. After a second to find her balance, she let go and climbed down the steps to the concrete. A scattering of small white cylinders littered the floor between her and Santiago, who waited up ahead. The front end of the pit, opposite the garage doors, connected to a walkway that linked all three chambers, and continued off to the right.
Santiago bounced on his toes by the tunnel. “Come on… hurry.”
Her foot clipped one of the cylinders as she rushed ahead, which had a lot more weight than she expected. Althea gasped and limped for a few steps, trying to rub her ankle and run at the same time.
The boys ran down a narrow passageway lined with more empty steel shelves. A short distance later, it opened into a square room with yet more empty shelves and a number of pallets stacked against the wall. Santiago went straight to a concrete stairway that led up to the ceiling, and a metal cellar-style door. He gave it a heave, and the doors opened with a grating screech.
She followed him up the steps and out into the Old City, in the shadow of Querq’s wall. Althea regarded the metal hatch with worry. “Does anyone else know about this door?”
“No,” said Diego.
“Hurry… please.” Santiago jogged backward down the street, away from Querq.
Althea pointed at the entrance. “The Watch needs to know about this way out.”
“You can’t tell them,” whined Diego. “If they know, they’ll close it up and we can’t go exploring.”
Althea leaned at him, imitating the way she’d seen mothers act. “If we can go out here, bad people can come in here.” She gestured again at the cellar door. “Do you want raiders sneaking in at night? People could get hurt. You should have told the Watch right away.” After a quick look around, and up at the wall, she sighed. “Where is Pedro?”
“Two blocks over. In the big place.” Santiago took off at a sprint.
Althea ran after him, boosting her stride and endurance with a small psionic tweak. Diego let off a startled noise as she left him in the dust and overtook Santiago in seconds. She slowed to keep pace with him. He didn’t look back, but sped up a little as the clap of her feet on pavement came up behind him. They passed two cross streets and cut diagonally through an intersection of a third before he clambered up a severe hill onto the grounds of an enormous three-story building. It sat adjacent to a sprawling field containing the decaying remnant of some manner of coliseum. A fork-shaped pole stood at either end of a field of fake grass, some of which had peeled up in sheets.
A shiver took her at the sight of it, picturing raiders and bandits jousting with motorbikes or unwanted slaves forced to fight each other. She pushed the image of a severed hand flying overhead out of her mind and chased after Santiago, who had disappeared into a double front door.
The room contained numerous wood-framed cases, lined with jagged bits of long-broken glass. She stepped with care, mindful of debris in case any of the shards remained in her path. Whatever had happened to the shelves must have been long ago, as the floor appeared free of sharp dangers.
Santiago raced through another set of double doors and jogged past doorway after doorway on both sides of the corridor. He hooked a right perhaps sixty yards in and went down another hallway lined with narrow vertical doors. Most hung open, or simply didn’t exist, revealing chambers she probably could’ve squeezed into. Padlocks secured the few doors that remained. She cringed, wondering what sort of horrible person made such cramped cages for children… and so many of them. Though they had air holes, she didn’t want to look for fear she’d find skeletons. Maybe the war that ended the before-time had been a good thing after all.
“In here.” Santiago paused with his hand on a doorjamb. The distant wails of another teenaged boy echoed from beyond. “Be careful… the floor just fell out below us.”
He crept in.
Althea followed into a large room with a ruined wooden floor. Loose narrow boards peeled up in places, and several holes in the ceiling revealed the upper level, with more holes in its roof. Dirt and debris gathered in dried whorls left behind by past rain. Thick yellow ropes hung like a forest of slender trees a short distance in over cushioned pads. She grasped one of the ropes to brush it out of her way, and her hand clenched tight. The muscles in her back and legs locked as her mind leapt back to another time.
The rope extended past her face, close to her chin. Her arms and shoulders ached, the insides of her legs burned from where they gripped the rope. The overwhelming need to climb flooded her thoughts; fear of ridicule for failure built stronger and stronger. An indistinct man below shouted phrases like ‘move your ass, Adams,’ ‘come on, boy. The rope won’t climb itself,’ and ‘you’re halfway up, come on, couple more feet. Pull!’
Fear built to a peak. She gazed out of the eyes of a memory, an emotional imprint in the rope, at a crowd of adolescent boys all pointing up and laughing. The climber looked down and got dizzy at the floor so far away. Hot ran down his legs; the laughter got louder. Terror paralyzed him; he couldn’t climb up or down, and burst into tears. The shouting man turned soothing, beckoning the boy down. His grip failed, the rope fell away, and Althea snapped back to reality.
She shot a stare at the floor, and breathed a sigh of relief at not standing in a puddle. It had felt so real; she squirmed.
A distant wail of pain pulled her attention to the right. The boys hadn’t gotten too far away; the vision must’ve only taken a second or two. She took two steps after them before Pablo’s cries changed tone from pain to terror.
Althea sprinted in the direction of the screaming, heedless of the small bits of wood jabbing into her soles. She zoomed past the boys and stopped short at the edge of a hole large enough to swallow one of the Watch’s trucks. The floor below looked deeper than a single story, though not quite two. Pablo lay amid a mess of debris, likely what remained of the floor that gave out. His right leg twisted at an unhealthy angle, and he struggled to drag himself back while screaming out for his mother.
A man-like being with dried, mottled dark green skin shambled toward him, growling and emitting a shrill whining sound as if trying to scream despite a jaw he couldn’t open. It had no clothes, but also no man-bits to cover. The creature radiated hatred, directed toward Pablo.
“There’s stairs over there,” said Santiago.
She concentrated for a second on toughening her legs… and jumped.
Both boys behind her yelled in alarm.
Her toes hit the floor first, and she let herself fall into a somersault that dumped her on all fours; a dull ache spread through her left foot, though nothing felt broken. Pablo ceased screaming, staring in awe at Althea. She rose to stand, grasping hold of the creature’s emotion and pushing its hatred aside. It lumbered to a halt a few paces away. From here, the armor-like texture of its scabrous skin confirmed her suspicion. Scrags called them ‘ghouls,’ though unlike what some of the legends claimed, they hadn’t died and returned.
“You don’t have to hurt anyone,” said Althea.
It emitted a confused moan.
“Mi pierna está quebrada,” wheezed Pablo.
Althea turned toward him, but kept half an eye on the ghoul. “Sorry. Too fast. Broken? Oh, your leg. Yes.”
The ghoul advanced a few inches, reaching toward Althea. Its right eye widened, though the left remained a veritable slit.
“Run,” screamed Santiago from overhead.
Althea swallowed; her toes gripped the old concrete. She’d never been so close to one of these beings before. Always, raiders or settlers, whoever had kept her, had shot them from afar, fled, or sometimes risked a close-in fight. From the aftermath, mending shattered arms and crushed bones, she knew the ghouls had strength greater than the biggest raider juggernaut. Letting it get so close unsettled her, this person-thing who could crush her with ease.
“Hi,” whispered Althea. “You don’t have to hurt anyone. Maybe I can help you.”
“Get away from her,” shouted Diego. He threw small hunks of wood or concrete from above at the ghoul.
It ignored the pelting.
“Help,” whined Pablo.
Althea took two steps sideways to the right, toward Pablo, her gaze locked on the ghoul. “I don’t want him to hit us when I fix your hurts.”
The ghoul’s anger began to return. She quashed it and probed deeper into its mind. Its armored skin hurt whenever it moved, a burn as though inflexible plates ripped away from muscle. Althea raised her hands.
“Don’t hurt me. I want to help you.” She bit her lip, wondering if she could do for this creature what she’d done for the canid.
It remained motionless as she crept up to it and put a hand on its dry, scratchy chest. The skin didn’t feel at all like that of a living creature, closer to the vests some of the Watch wore while standing post on the wall. Despite its hardness, her attempt to link to its life essence worked, proving she touched living skin. Life shapes unfurled in her vision, close to that of a man, but some of the inside bits didn’t look right. The ghoul had two heart shapes, low in the belly where the bean-shaped blobs usually belonged. Lighter smears surrounded the inner bits, not quite as pale as bone. A few seconds’ probing revealed a dense coating around some of the organs, similar to a thick fingernail.
She couldn’t guess where to begin to make it human again; the change―if it had even been changed and not born this way―seemed too drastic. Would de-growing the armor around the inner shapes hurt it? Should she force the heart shape back where it belonged? And what about the second one?
Her fingers went cold. The life shapes glided away from her as if pulled back by an unseen force. At once, she felt the presence of The Many. The Sentience, as Aurora called it.
He is mine, child. You cannot save him.
Althea scowled despite her closed eyes. Did you do this to him?
Dry chuckling circled around her mind. No. But I sustain him.
She tried to force her power into him again; a faint hint of his life shapes appeared far away, drifting closer.
You cannot help him, child. He has been a weapon of war for centuries. There is no mind left to save.
She emitted a faint snarl. I don’t believe you.
Again, The Many chuckled. You may think me evil, but not everything I speak is false. Look into his mind for yourself.
Althea opened her eyes and gazed up into a pair of pale yellow spheres. Where perhaps once a human’s eyes had been, the ghoul had orbs of a single, solid color, which emitted a weak glow. Reflected blue from her luminous stare glinted off smooth patches of its facial armor. She opened a telepathic connection to the ghoul’s thoughts. At the surface, it tried to comprehend why it wasn’t bashing her to death. It hadn’t hesitated out of hope, pity, or curiosity. It simply couldn’t understand why it had stopped.
Little of any memory existed beneath its surface thoughts, only the need to kill anything that moved, and attempt to feast upon whatever remained after.
I speak truth, child. You can only help this wretched creature by ending its sad excuse for a life. Go ahead, child. Kill it.
Althea stared at her hand against the creature’s abdomen. The dense, hard plate of skin rose and fell with wheezy breaths, flooding her senses with the stink of rotting-meat. She wanted to pull away, but couldn’t bring herself to. The Many had attempted to trick her before. It wanted her to kill someone. She had killed a bonedog, but the alpha had melted away into shadows. Was it a real dog, or had it been The Many in disguise? Perhaps she hadn’t taken a real life? She thought back to the millipedes, too simple for her to manipulate, too stubborn for fear to work on them. Bugs didn’t count. Especially mean bugs that wanted to eat people.
“I can’t kill him.”
So, you would choose to leave him to suffer an eternal agony? He will never die from old age. He will spend years and years in constant torment. Many years after you are no longer here, this creature will remain, still suffering. You could spare him that.
Althea looked down. “I… It’s wrong to kill.”
Is it? The Many laughed; though the sound existed only in her mind, her bones shook from the deep timbre. If a raider was about to kill Karina, and the only way to save her life was to kill him, would you?
Tears streamed down Althea’s face as an image overwhelmed her thoughts: walking into her bedroom, a man on top of Karina, knife at her throat, about to kill her after wifeing her. A gun in Althea’s hand. Seconds to react. Anger welled up inside her. Anger like she’d felt toward Hector.
Ahh, there it is. You would do it after all.
Althea wept. You are awful! Why did you make me see that? Why did you show me him wifeing her?!
I did not show you that. I showed you her after.
She let off a rage filled scream in her mind.
A spidery caress passed across her shoulders as though The Many walked around behind her, tracing his fingers across her back. It is nothing you have not witnessed before.
But not Karina!
The Many appeared in her thoughts, smiling. The ancient man in a leather duster coat, cowboy hat, and boots offered a resigned shrug with upturned palms. Of course, I wanted to hear you say you’d kill him, to feel your anger. Even one as innocent as you is not free of wrath. I had to give you the proper motivation. If Karina was in endless pain, would you take her life to stop her suffering?
Althea snarled. No. I’d make the pain stop.
An exasperated sigh scratched across the back of her mind.
“Althea?” asked Santiago, sounding close. “Pablo is hurt.”
Kill this wretched creature, or you own the rest of its suffering.
She looked up at the ghoul. Still, its surface thoughts held a battle of confusion. It wanted to smash her, but couldn’t summon the urge to do so. That it couldn’t left it bewildered. Pablo’s moans of pain crept into her consciousness as the essence of The Many receded. As much as she hated to admit it, the dark spirit had not lied. This creature, she couldn’t help. She pondered commanding its heart-shapes to stop beating, but couldn’t see it as anything but killing.
The ghoul snapped out of its stupor and raised its fist, its jaw opening and shifting left with a sharp snap. Thick saliva trailed off its teeth, fluttering in a bellow that wafted the stink of fetid carrion across her face.
Santiago let off a high-pitched shriek.
Althea gathered her fear at imminent death and threw it forward, filling the ghoul with dread and amplifying it. For an instant, she felt like the boy on the rope, a hair’s breadth from wetting herself. The tone of the ghoul’s roar shifted to terror; it fell over backward, flipped onto its hands and knees, and dragged itself across the room as fast as it could crawl. Some thirty or so feet away, it dragged itself upright and sprinted through a doorway, howling.
She took a deep breath and held it. It’s gone. Calm. Calm. Her heartbeat slowed back to normal. With the ghoul distracted, she rushed to Pablo’s side and knelt. He looked up at her with adoration in his eyes. The way his leg had twisted, she expected it to have broken in at least two places.
He shook his head. “I understand. It would’ve killed us if you looked away.”
Althea put a hand on his bare stomach, and commanded his body to stop feeling pain. “I need to move your leg. It won’t hurt, but you shouldn’t watch.” She took hold of the rubbery limb and pulled it out straight, unsettled by the lack of rigidity.
Santiago doubled over and vomited while Diego stared with fascination.
She linked her mind to his life essence. The bone-shapes in his leg had become a scattering of small fragments in three places. His hip had broken, as well the bones below the knee, and his ankle. Althea poured energy into him, commanding the splinters to move back in place and stick to each other. Shard by shard, his leg came together. A minute or so later, she directed the blood shape back where it belonged, and mended some rips in the muscles where the sharpened bits of bone had cut.
By the time she opened her eyes, a thin layer of sweat covered her.
Pablo sat up and wrapped his arms around her. Despite being bigger, he clung like a boy to his mother and cried. She smiled, sensing his tears came from happiness and relief.
A loud smash echoed from the hallway where the ghoul had run off. Hissing and moaning followed.
“Time to go,” said Santiago.
Diego grabbed Pablo’s arm and helped him stand. “I got you, man.”
“Is okay.” Pablo bounced on his feet. “She is amazing. It’s like I never broke it.” Overcome, he hugged her again.
Althea allowed herself a second or two to enjoy feeling loved before she squirmed away. “He’s right. We need to go back to Querq before the ghoul finds us.”
As if on cue, the ghoul let off an anguished wail.
Diego glanced in that direction, shaking his head. “That didn’t sound good. I don’t think ‘dat ghoul be findin’ anything.”
She stared at the doorway where the ghoul had run, more than a few feet in, the corridor turned black and white. A cloud of dust obscured the view, likely from whatever had caved in. She didn’t trust this building not to fall on their heads. Scratching, skittering, and hissing echoed off the walls. The ghoul roared and wailed. A wet, squishy crunch followed. Diego edged up beside her, transfixed on the hallway as well.
Pablo studied the hole he’d fallen in from. “How are we going to get out of here?”
“There’s a stairway.” Santiago pointed off to the side.
Scratching grew louder in the hallway.
“Come on.” Diego pulled on Althea.
She glanced to the side; the stairway Santiago wanted to use sat ten feet to the left from the corridor full of scary noises. They’d have to walk closer to go up. Diego and Pablo didn’t seem to care much about the crunching and scratching, and started walking toward it.
A long tubular shape emerged from the dust, weaving toward them.
“Somethin’s movin’ in there,” whispered Santiago.
“What’s that?” asked Diego.
A giant millipede spattered with greenish ooze slithered out of the darkness into the large chamber. Althea had seen ghouls shot before―green blood. This millipede was larger than the ones that had attacked her when she’d been in the desert with Rachel and the escaped harem. Its body looked thicker around than Shepherd’s thigh. She lashed out with fear as a reflex, but her telempathic assault didn’t faze it.
Three fourteen-year-old boys hid behind her.
“Scare it off,” whispered Diego.
“Can you kill it?” whispered Santiago.
“It’s poisonous,” said Pablo. “The pincers are red tipped.”
Gleaming black shell plates undulated as it propelled itself closer.
Althea closed and opened her empty hands. Even if she had a spear, she doubted herself strong enough to break its shell. The giant millipede fit right in the middle of the category of ‘bug.’ Worse, stubborn bug. She wouldn’t have hesitated to smash it, but lacked the means. Her left foot tingled with the memory of venom paralyzing it.
“I can’t scare it. It’s too mean.” She locked stares with it. “I’ll make it come after me. I can run faster than it. Go. Get help.”
Diego put a hand on her arm. “But―”
Althea poked it with anger. Venom exuded from its mandibles and it hissed at her. She channeled her power inside, strengthening her legs and fortifying her endurance. The instant it surged forward, she darted to the right. Her feet clapped the old wooden floor like tiny gunshots, echoing off the bare walls. Scratching and hissing followed her. She barely noticed the boys’ shouts and the creak of a metal door in the distance.
The millipede slid wide to the right, its pointy legs scraping on the bare concrete, as she cornered to head for an opening on the side of the giant room. A pile of blue padded mats twice her height blocked her path. She leapt onto it and climbed, grabbed the top of frayed canvas, and hauled herself up to stand on top. When she tried to jump to the floor, her feet squished down into the spongy obstacle, reducing her great leap into a near-fall. She scrambled for balance after landing, waving her arms about to keep from wiping out.
Knowing the millipede would be on her if she tripped, Althea squealed in fright and forced herself to run as fast as she could. Smears of grey walls, dark blue paint, and debris shot past her. Seconds later, everything went black and white, a sign she’d run into darkness. Maybe the millipede couldn’t see without light? She glanced back over her shoulder and screamed at finding the enormous insect barely ten feet behind her, and showing little sign of slowing.
Her gait took on a bounding deer-like quality as she further strengthened her leg muscles. Althea leaned forward, pumping her arms, trying not to think about the clicking, scratching horror behind her, and focused entirely on the end of the hall thirty yards ahead. Twenty yards. Ten.
“Aaaaaah!” she screamed as she dove between a set of ancient steel double doors.
She whirled about and tried to slam them closed, but the creature got its head in the gap. Althea rammed the slab of metal against the bug, trying to crush it, but succeeded only in pinning it. The fifteen-foot long monster thrashed and whipped about in the hallway outside. Venom dribbled from snapping mandibles inches from her face.
Her bare feet slipped on the dusty polished wood; the harder she pushed on the door, the more she slipped away. Althea grunted and struggled to keep from letting the millipede shove its way in. It gained a few inches, carapace scraping on steel.
“No!” she yelled. “Go away!”
It hissed, wrenching itself in a rotating back and forth motion. Althea pressed harder into the door, her feet pushing clean smears through the dust. She didn’t like whoever had decided to cover the floor with such slippery shiny stuff.
“Go away!” She strained, grunting
When its tail pincer punctured the door an arm’s length above her head, she screamed, high, loud, and clear.
The millipede didn’t react to her terror. This creature felt no hatred, nor particular animosity. It wanted dinner. It didn’t know anything other than eating and defending its territory from things it couldn’t eat. She stared at the twitching mandibles. Her throat dried out. She worked her legs, walking in place, barely able to keep up enough resistance on the floor to prevent the creature from barging into the room.
Althea twisted, bracing her shoulder against the door. Wide-eyed, she stared at the millipede’s ‘face,’ dreading touching it. Out of desperation, she sent a surge of blood and adrenaline into her left arm.
And pounded it on the nose.
It emitted a sharp shriek and recoiled; the door slammed closed. She bowed her head to exhale with relief, and spotted a small metal stake that looked as if it would slide down into a hole in the floor. She kicked at it until it locked. A matching one near the top of the door hung out of reach. While she stared at it, the door rocked with a loud slam. Althea kept pushing it closed.
Mandibles pierced the door at thigh level.
She screamed and jumped back. It tore the holes wider as it ripped itself free of the door. Seconds later, it bit through again, a little above the push bar, striking with a slam that shocked the air in her lungs. Again and again, it attacked the barrier; Each time it crashed against the steel, it seemed as though the entire building shook.
Althea padded backward, unable to stop staring at the thrashing horror. She drew her hands together at her chin, and cried out with her mind for Father. When that awful man had left her tied to a post blindfolded for the night, she’d called out the same way, and the canid found her. Knowing that Father would sense her beaconing for him lessened her fear. Back in Querq, he’d get a feeling that she needed him, and he’d come running. Hopefully, the feeling would guide him to her instead of leaving him wanting to find her and not knowing where to look.
The millipede rammed itself into the door four more times, its mandibles making holes big enough for Althea to stick her arm through, and causing the metal to bow inward. By the time the creature gave up, it had riddled the door with so many gouges she had a clear view into the hall. She shivered at the sight of the massive black-shelled horror slinking off into the distance.
She deflated to sit on the floor and slouched, gasping for breath while staring at the boards between her legs. Like the room with the climbing ropes, the floor had so much polish it appeared to have a layer of glass above the wood grain. She traced her fingers over it, wondering what kind of stupid person would want to make a floor slippery.
A moment of terror came and went as she pondered what might’ve happened to her if it had caught her. Involuntary tears and sniffles broke the heavy silence. Althea trembled for a few seconds until she felt gratified that the boys had managed to escape unhurt. Once her heart stopped racing, she looked up.
Painted lines adorned the wooden floor wherever padded blue mats didn’t cover it. A little ways behind her stood a strange little bridge made from a pair of metal frames holding a thick beige bar off the ground. The span had a smooth top and rounded sides. More pads surrounded it on the floor. She stared past it at a large row of bleacher style seats, covered in dust and debris from the collapsing ceiling. Curious, she stood and walked over to the purposeless bridge. The surface hovered about at her shoulder level. Maybe someone built it to cross the holes in the floor? But why would they make a bridge so narrow a person had to put one foot straight in front of the other?
The second her fingers made contact with it, her mind filled with a vision.
People filled the bleachers, dressed in strange clothes she’d never seen before. A line of girls about her age stood off to the side, in bizarre garments that covered only their arms and bodies, leaving most of their legs bare. She looked down at herself, finding a similar garment wrapped around a body that didn’t belong to her. The girl who had left the emotional imprint had skin of a rich chocolate hue, and a much curvier shape despite being close in age.
Althea hovered like a spectator in a body moving on its own. The girl climbed up and stood on top of the spar. Flashes of light came from the crowd, snapping from random places. The cheering audience reminded her of the arena where Vakkar made men try to kill each other. A clench of worry filled her heart; did these people make young girls fight to the death?
The girl on the beam tried to keep herself calm, though the emotion left in the bridge said otherwise. She thought of the spar as a ‘balance beam,’ and had to do ‘moves’ on it to make her parents, and someone called Coach happy. Such intense nervousness at being in front of so many people left a permanent mark on the beam. She hated being watched by the crowd. She wanted to go home and be alone. The girl splayed her arms to the sides, brought her hands together, and bent forward, tumbling into a cartwheel. As the familiarity of a well-rehearsed routine set in, confidence overtook nerves, and the imprinted emotion faded.
Althea blinked away the vision, a hand on her belly to swallow the anxiety she’d picked up. As worried as the girl had been about falling off, Althea wondered what would’ve happened to her if she failed? None of the people in the vision appeared to have weapons, and no one looked angry or hostile, yet the girl seemed as nervous as those men who the raiders made fight.
Althea grinned and pulled herself up to stand on the beam. She walked back and forth twice, face scrunched up at how people could think the task difficult. In a moment of adventurousness, she mimicked the girl’s motion and rolled into a handstand.
Her dress fell down around her head.
She brought her legs down slow and found her footing after a little feeling around blind. She eased her weight from her arms to her toes and stood, smoothing her dress back in place.
“I guess that’s why they didn’t wear dresses.” She fidgeted with discomfort at the idea of those odd garments being so snug between her legs. Except for being pretty and shiny blue, they didn’t cover enough to have been meant for warmth or protection. She scrunched up her nose thinking of the little yellow scrap the woman on the wall of the other building wore. It made no sense at all why they would wear something so tiny. Why bother with it at all?
She shrugged. Perhaps the girls who played on this beam wore those things for decoration? They seemed to be putting on some kind of show for everyone watching. They’re too young for a harem… what did I see? She scowled. The before-time is strange.
Althea folded her arms, trying to make sense of what she’d seen. She walked back and forth on the beam, cartwheeled once more, and shrugged. “Is this supposed to be hard?”
She bit her lip and used the edge of the beam to scratch the underside of her foot. Those girls didn’t have her gifts. Maybe they didn’t grow up having to run and hide to stay alive. Elders had told her that life in before-time was quite different. People lived in relative safety. Perhaps anyone nimble enough to do something like this had been rare enough to be worthy of being a spectacle. Sometimes settlers would dress funny and dance for amusement. Maybe that’s what these girls had been doing? Some kind of festival.
The millipede had evidently given up for good, as it hadn’t returned… though she’d only spent two or three minutes playing on the beam. I’m not helping anyone now. I should go home. I’m not supposed to be in the Old City.
After hopping down, she turned in a circle, searching for a way out. She didn’t want to go back through the ruined door toward the millipede. Fortunately, another double door offered an alternate exit on the opposite side of the enormous room.
Althea walked past two more beams, and a set of smaller ones much higher up at two different heights. Those looked like they might be difficult to walk on, but she didn’t bother playing. A glint caught her eye from the floor about halfway across the room. She stooped and brushed at the accumulated dirt and silt, exposing a silver disc on a rotten red white and blue ribbon.
As soon as she picked it up, another vision came to her.
Her perspective changed to that of a girl standing on a small platform to the right of another girl, on a somewhat higher platform. She looked down at a skin-tight white and red garment like the others had worn, only this one covered the backs of her hands, connected to a fabric loop around her middle fingers. The girl peered down at the silver disc hanging around her neck. Shame crippled her, mixed with dread. Pale fingers caressed the silver amulet. She’d come in second. She didn’t win something. Her parents were going to be angry. So much so that she stared at the medallion she’d won, and contemplated not even going home after the tournament. She would run away. The idea of never seeing any of her friends again felt better than going home to face her parents’ wrath for merely placing second.
Althea gasped and dropped the medallion, backing away from it as if it were an evil thing unto itself. She melted to her knees and wept into her hands, overwhelmed by the shame and sense of worthlessness the ancient twelve-year-old had imprinted on the lump of metal. It took her a moment to gather herself enough to stop bawling. She wiped her face, hoping that the girl hadn’t run off. She couldn’t imagine wanting to be separated from her family. She scooted a little farther away from the medallion, lest it make her feel that way again.
How had the medallion remained here? Did the girl who won it leave it behind, disgusted with herself for merely doing great as opposed to perfect? Did the war start while they were in here? She clambered to her feet and jogged around it, heading for the door. It didn’t matter why it wound up here; that girl would’ve been dead hundreds of years ago, even if she’d lived to old age.
Reading that girl’s desire to flee her family made Althea want Father and Karina more. That millipede could come back and attack the door again at any moment, and from the amount of damage it had done, if it tried hard enough, it would break the tattered steel off its hinges.
She couldn’t be here when it returned.
Althea ran to the other door, raising her hands to the push bar. She intended to ram it aside in a hurry, but changed her mind at the last second, and pressed it gently. Old instincts returned. Noise meant death. She eased it open and peered out into another plain hallway lined with white-painted cinderblocks.
Benches along the side appeared grey to her, as did peeling paint on the walls that formed words she couldn’t read. Father wanted her to learn how, but so had Archon. The idea of ‘school’ learning made her think of him, so she’d done all she could to avoid it.
She took the first left, some thirty feet in from the door and found herself standing between two rows of those narrow vertical cages. Unlike the ones in the other hall, these seemed smaller and all had their doors. Only two hung open, though they contained some folded clothing rather than the skeletal remains of a young prisoner.
Althea looked down, feeling a touch stupid. The before-time people hadn’t used them for cages; they put stuff in them like closets. She approached one and tugged the door open. A scrap of cloth hanging from a hook fell apart as soon as she touched it.
“Everything here is dead.”
She sighed and moved to the end of the row where another doorway led to the right. She hurried to it and let off a disappointed moan when she walked into a dead-end room covered in white tile. The outer wall consisted of numerous individual segments, each with a faucet mounted high on the wall. She made confused faces at them for a little while before remembering seeing similar things on walls elsewhere, but still couldn’t figure out why people would put faucets so high up or fail to include a sink.
Althea turned on her heel and headed back out, passing between two different rows of the small metal cabinets. In one open door, she spotted a twelve-inch plastic doll. The too-skinny false woman wore the same kind of clingy garment the girls she’d envisioned had on. She stroked its hair and puffed dust off it. Maybe she’d ‘rescue’ it and take it home.
“Are you lonely?”
She peered into its plastic eyes and felt the tug of an imprint. The city police had called it clair voy ants, but that didn’t make any sense. That’s silly. Bugs aren’t sigh-onic. She hesitated, fearing another awful memory like the medallion, but curiosity got the better of her in a few seconds. She closed her eyes and opened herself up to the psychic energy embedded within.
A girl about Karina’s age with a larger bosom cradled the doll to her heart like a girl much younger. She cried and rocked it side to side. Althea got the sense this girl had brought the doll with her to competitions for years, believing its presence somehow gave her luck. The emotional imprint held worry and love for her father. A war seemed likely to start soon, and he would probably have to go fight. The teen sat on a bench, crying harder while clinging to the doll. She dreaded having to leave her home, this school, her friends, everything she’s ever known because of the danger. Her mother wanted to move west, trusting the government’s promises of a safe zone, while Dad thought they should stay since he’d gotten a great new job.
She tried to put her anxiety aside so she could compete tonight; her thoughts turned toward getting into something called college in two years. To do it, she needed to win tonight. After a moment, she kissed the doll on the head, asked it to give her luck, and tucked it in the locker where Althea had found it.
The room seemed to age four centuries in seconds as the vision faded. White paint became grey, cracks appeared, and lights went from glaring bright to smashed and missing. Althea looked around. This was a school? It’s bigger than Querq!
“No it isn’t. I’m just lost and frightened. It only feels big.”
A faint man’s weeping emanated from the hallway outside the locker room. She tiptoed to the end of the row and peered out. A couple paces left of the opening, a man in a baggy grey uniform slumped on one of the benches, clutching his hands to his armored vest. Blood seeped through the fabric of his jumpsuit. For a foot or two on either side of him, the benches appeared blue, before fading to grey.
Althea rushed over to him. “It’s okay. I can help you.”
He didn’t react until she grasped for his bare hand, and gripped only air.
At her attempt to touch him, he looked up. Dirt and blood caked around his mouth; his expression twisted with great anguish, though not from any physical wound. This close, Althea noticed the wall appeared through him; his body shimmered like one of those holler-grams the city police made.
After a brief mournful stare, he disappeared. The bench faded to grey. He must have been emitting light.
Althea took a step back. The corridor hung heavy with an eerie presence that hadn’t been there before. At first, she blamed her fear of millipedes, but the longer she stood in place, the more she felt that man watching her.
“Are you still here?” she whispered.
Sorrow thickened the atmosphere. It seemed as though he wanted to make her sad, but she didn’t allow it to affect her. Officer Ahmed said she had ‘astrals,’ but she’d never seen a ghost before. What else could he have been?
Althea clenched her fists in determination. That man needed help. An odd compulsion deep inside her made her want to do something for him, but she couldn’t tell where he’d gone. She thought about wanting to see him. After a moment of squinting, concentrating, and probing around in her head, he reappeared―only he no longer looked transparent. While the bench, and the corridor around her remained in black and white, the man looked normal―and in color.
She figured him for a little younger than Father, perhaps in his early or middle thirties. He had short brown hair, had gone a couple weeks without shaving, and wore the most sorrowful look she’d ever seen on the face of a grown man. His black armored vest had a small patch with a word on it, a red mark to the left of white letters. He carried a handgun in a hip holster, and she recognized magazine pouches for a rifle around the side of his belt.
“Who are you?” wheezed the man. “Have you seen Madison?”
“I don’t know anyone named Madison.” Althea shook her head. “You’ve been shot.” Again, she tried to touch the man since he looked so solid and real, but her hand passed through him, as if she’d stuck it into a cloud of that ‘air conditioning’ again.
He exhaled. “You’re talking to me. No one else talks to me. No one else has seen my daughter. Bob won’t tell me where she is.”
“My boss. He’s not answering the radio.” The man sniffed. “You have to help me find Madison… my daughter. She’d be seventeen by now.”
Althea stared at him for a moment. “You were in the war?”
“Yeah. What are you doing here, kid? It’s not safe.”
“I know. But the war is over.” Something welled up inside her, and she knew this man did not belong here. “You don’t need to be here anymore. I’m sorry… but you died.”
He looked down at his chest. “Madison…”
“I don’t know what happened to your daughter, but she can’t be alive anymore.”
“What?” He reached for her, but his hands passed through her shoulders. Grief shifted to anger. “What happened to Madison!? Tell me!”
“The war ended a long, long time ago. Couple hundred years.” Althea shook her head. “She probably got old.”
“Hundred years?” He stared into space for a little while. “Madison went to this school. Is the war really over?”
“Yes.” Althea put on her most sympathetic look. “For a long time.” She took a breath. “Why did people fight?”
“Companies disagreed with the government about taxes. They didn’t think we needed politicians anymore. They were right.” He waved disgustedly to the side. “Bastards in Washington just sit there like fat leeches sucking money out of everyone. The rich keep getting richer and the politicians keep bullshitting us. Yeah, the corporates are just as bad, but why have both of them sucking us dry? Government took our money because they could, and didn’t do anything. Sure the corporates are rich fatcats, but at least they ran business and made jobs and stuff.”
“You fought the gov-mint?” She blinked.
“Yeah.” He chuckled, shaking his head. “Though, I guess ‘fought’ isn’t the right word. Verizon hired me as a security guard. I got the job like three months before things got bad. I should’ve quit when they gave us armor and military-grade weapons, but they paid so god damned much. A hundred and fifty thousand bucks a year to sit on my ass watching security screens. I couldn’t turn that down. Madison needed to go to college.”
She scrunched up her face. “They gave you deer?”
The man laughed. “Yeah kid, sure. So, things got worse and worse. The telcos were the first ones to tell the government to go f―orget themselves.” He glanced to the side, muttering, “damn kid.”
“I’m sorry you died.”
“Never saw it coming. I don’t know what Bob was thinking. They never even trained us or anything. Couple hours a week on the range… fu―ming special forces guys hit us. We didn’t have any warning. I didn’t even get a hand on my gun before I died. Heh.” He laughed. “Now that you reminded me I bit it, it’s all comin’ back to me. After they took me out, I watched the whole thing. They killed thirty of us in two minutes. Not one of ‘em said a damn word. Like a machine. We didn’t have a god damned chance.” He leaned his head back, tears streaming out of his eyes. “My daughter… I never even got to say goodbye. She went to this school.”
Althea held up the doll. “Was this hers? You appeared right after I touched it.”
“That doll…” He reached for it. His body became transparent again, and he grabbed the plastic woman as though he’d become solid. “Yeah. We got her this when she turned seven. She was so into gymnastics… took this doll with her to every practice, every competition.”
“For luck,” said Althea.
“Yeah.” He stared at her. “How did you know that?”
She clasped her hands in front of herself, fidgeting with her dress. “She left her ‘motions in it. I saw them. I’m sigh-onic. She was scared you would have to fight, and she didn’t want to leave home.”
“What’s sigh onic mean?”
She smiled. “I guess it means I can do stuff.”
Althea shrugged. “Like talk to ghosts.”
The man bowed his head with a sad chuckle. “We decided it would be better for them to go. Debbie couldn’t be reasoned with. She trusted the damn government. I decided to stay with my job, send them money when I could. The pay was too high to walk away from… stupid. Stupid. Stupid.”
A twinge nagged at Althea’s soul. An urge blossomed into action. She raised her arm. “You don’t have to stay here anymore. They are waiting for you.” She reached at nothing, and pulled aside the air like a curtain, revealing a shimmering silver doorway. Part of her mentally leapt back in shock, though the energy emanating from the opening bathed her in security, as welcome and reassuring as the scent of Father’s house.
“Dad?” A woman’s voice floated out of the silver rectangle. Seconds later, a thirty-ish woman with short auburn hair appeared. “Oh, God, Dad…”
“Maddie?” The man stood. “You’re so… young.”
The woman laughed. Another woman, a little older, appeared behind her. “I made it to ninety-four, Dad. I passed on in my bed, surrounded by grandchildren. Appearance is all in your head on this side. I think I looked my best at thirty-two. Everyone’s here waiting for you. It’s been many years…” She smiled at Althea. “You found Gina, my doll.” Madison looked downcast. “I never did compete again after we evacuated. I always told Mom it was because I’d forgotten Gina, but that wasn’t the real reason. Gymnastics always made me think about Dad.” She beckoned her father to follow her.
“Thank you,” whispered the man. He walked past Althea into the doorway of light, which closed like a theater curtain behind him.
For a few seconds, the sounds of an emotional family reunion echoed in the hallway.
Althea breathed a sigh of relief. She held on to the doll and hurried down the corridor, wondering what the heck just happened. Maybe she would talk to Officer Ahmed about it, but she’d have to ask Father first. She expected ghosts to scare or unsettle her, but something about meeting that man made her feel right. A part of her seemed at ease with what she’d done.
She rounded a ninety-degree corner and took the first door on the left, finding a large bathroom. Sensing a dead end, she pivoted on her heel to leave, but froze at the sight of herself in a huge mirror over a row of sinks. Her eyes glowed bright white, not their usual blue.
Althea crept up to the sinks and stood on tiptoe, hips against the edge. She leaned close to the mirror, studying her phosphorescent eyes. They no longer appeared to have pupils or irises, resembling eye-shaped holes filled with pure white energy.
“What’s happening to me?”
She reached out to touch the mirror beside her reflection.
The room shifted; decay, mold, broken tiles, and dirt vanished. Four hundred years ago, a girl sat on the sink shelf, bawling hard into her hands. She looked about sixteen or seventeen, and had a small, but telltale swell of a baby. The boy she loved had told her to go away and never come back. She didn’t want to tell her parents she had a baby coming, afraid they’d make her leave the house. She worried about something called ‘finals,’ and dreaded being a mother would ruin her school.
Althea squinted, trying to understand how getting wifed would make someone do bad at learning. She forced her way out of the vision, and pictured the girl’s emotions in a box, which she kept at arm’s length. Whatever happened to that poor woman happened too long ago to get upset over. Her baby could’ve had a baby who had babies who’d grown old already.
I need to go home. Father is going to be worried.
She stared at herself in the mirror, afraid she’d broken herself by making her eyes change color. The instant she wanted her eyes normal again, they changed back to their usual azure glow. She blinked in surprise, but grinned at the elation of not doing something bad. Perhaps that―why they changed color―would be a question for Officer Ahmed.
Althea headed out into the hall and turned left. It hadn’t been too long. She could still finish the empanadas before Karina got home from the farm. She rubbed her belly, looking forward to eating. Mending Pablo’s leg had left her ravenous. The hallway went for some distance, and turned another corner. Alas, nothing looked like a stairway.
A rattle high and left made her look up. Less than a second after she glanced at a ventilation duct near the roof, the millipede burst out of it, hissing, swinging its head side to side in a searching manner.
Althea screamed her lungs empty.
As soon as the giant insect lowered its front end to the floor, hundreds of legs gripping at the wall, she took off at a hard sprint. She cleared to the corner at the end in a few seconds, and screamed again at the sight of a cave in. Before her brain could kick in to process that she ran toward the creature, she doubled back for the nearest doorway, fortunately one made of steel. She ducked past and slammed it a second and a half before the millipede crashed into it.
Two mandible points pierced. Venom dripped from the tips as they wiggled, testing the barrier. With a grinding screech of stressing metal, the millipede closed its jaws, scissoring the steel. It couldn’t fit through the inch-high slit it made, but it wouldn’t take long to eat its way in.
Althea backed up and whirled around.
Her heart fluttered in her chest. She’d found a room with no other way out save for a tiny window near the ceiling in the back. From the number of shelves in here, she assumed the space had been used for storage. Her body twitched each time the millipede crashed against the door, piercing and tearing.
Again, she beaconed for Father. She couldn’t stop shaking. During her years drifting around the Badlands, she’d been comforted by the knowledge everyone regarded her as too valuable to hurt. As long as she obeyed, even the meanest raiders would protect her. She had never known true terror but once, when bad-Shepherd wanted to smash her. This creature, this millipede, was one of those monsters that didn’t care about her being the Prophet. It would kill and eat her with as little remorse as settlers hunting Squealers for food. No one thought much about killing the enormous prairie dogs. She rather enjoyed the taste of their meat as well.
Being the meal, however, horrified her.
Althea ran to the wall under the window, sucked in a breath to scream for help, and choked on dust. Her heart seemed to synchronize with the millipede’s assault on the door, thudding in her chest each time the monster slammed its face into the failing barrier.
She glanced back; the door had warped in, shredded in long gouges wherever the creature pincered slashes into the metal. The Many had to be laughing at her. It wanted her gone for reasons she couldn’t guess. But that’s what evil creatures do: they want innocent people to die. She held back the urge to burst into tears and scream, and forced herself to look around. It would take too long to get up to the window and escape; the creature would eat her before she could get away. She had no choice but to stand her ground… somehow.
Sticks protruded from a huge box on one of the shelves. She considered arming herself, but they looked too long and thin, with a weird L-shaped bend at the end. The box next to it held hundreds of rubber discs about an inch thick. She grabbed at the next box, full of decaying head-sized balls with white and black panels.
A loud groan of protesting metal stalled her frozen. She glanced back over her shoulder. The millipede forced a flap of the door inward, wriggling through the hole it had made. Inch by inch, the creature squeezed into the room with her.
Althea yelled in surprise and pounced on the next box. Small hard, white balls with red stitching. She pulled it out of the way, sending them scattering on the floor toward the creature. Maybe they would slow it down. The next box filled her with hope. Wooden clubs.
She grabbed one and pulled it out, grasping it with both hands. Another one caught her eye, metal. She dropped the wooden one and drew the metal club from the box. Black tape flaked off under her grip, but the weapon itself felt solid.
Holding the club high, she took a wide stance in the middle of the room, and concentrated on the muscles in her arms and back. As the millipede worked its way in, she channeled psionic energy into her body. Her biceps swelled; her already sinewy arms grew more defined. She moved her right foot back, watching the creature, waiting, pouring more and more energy into herself.
The millipede got enough legs in contact with the ground to gain traction. It dragged itself forward, its strength and mass bending the flap it made in the door with a wail of tearing metal. It spilled into the room and rushed straight at her, its head rising, mandibles poised to take her head off at the neck.
Althea let off a war cry and brought the metal club down with every bit of strength she could milk out of her tiny frame. The impact of metal on chitin jolted her fingers with a painful shock, but rewarded her with a wet crunch. Yellowy ooze sprayed on her face and chest.
The millipede waved its head side to side in a spasmodic, repetitive motion. It slithered backward over itself and kept coiling up in reverse, unwinding, and coiling up again. She backed up, holding the club in a ready position, but the creature kept thrashing about as if it had forgotten entirely how to control its body.
She stooped to pick the doll back up and darted past the writhing millipede to the door, but the warped metal slab refused to open. She eyed the jagged hole and considered trying to crawl through, but didn’t trust making herself that vulnerable near the millipede in case it snapped out of the daze.
Althea raced across the room to the shelf by the window and climbed. Much to her surprise, the metal-and-glass pane opened inward with little difficulty. She stretched her leg across the open space between two shelves, straddling the gap below the window with a foot on either side. The opening led out to an alley, the windowsill only a few inches above the paving. Her momentary amplified strength made pulling herself up and out a triviality. She crawled into the alley, rolled onto her back, and gulped down lungful after lungful of fresh, dry air.
She lay there for a few seconds trying to catch her breath. Her arms and back muscles spasmed as they shrank to their normal size and strength. A dull ache came on after, but she smiled, thrilled to be alive.
With a grunt, she sat up and got to her feet.
A moan behind her made her whirl, raising the club.
The same ghoul, torn up and bleeding in several places, stumbled out from behind a large metal dumpster and glared at her. Millipede mandibles had ripped great sections of its armored skin away, but new tissue bubbled up already, growing over the wounds.
She thought about making it afraid. It’ll only go hurt someone else.
She eyed the club and considered… killing it. I… can’t.
She considered attempting to ‘heal’ it. Perhaps instead of making it human again, she could permanently disable its ability to feel pain? But it’s mind had seemed so simple… that might not even help. The brain between those hardened green ears made the canid mutant seem like the town doctor.
Unable to decide what to do, she bolted and ran when it charged her.
Her sprint came to an abrupt halt as soon as she reached the street at the end of the alley. A strange metal truck with six huge wheels as tall as a man, sat in the road. Four people in dark blue jumpsuits with rifles similar to the ones the city police had given the Watch spun around to look at her. Three men, one woman.
They smiled and waved.
The ghoul, moaning, came shambling out of the alley.
Althea dropped into a ball and plugged her fingers into her ears, knowing what would happen next.
All four of them opened fire on the ghoul. She winced at the icy feeling of a departing life, and frowned. When the gunfire ceased, she opened her eyes and looked up. The people lowered their weapons and again smiled at her. A reaction one might expect from normal people finding a lost child.
She stood and returned a friendly wave.
“Hey sweetie,” said a pale man with black hair. “Would you like to see inside our fancy rover?” He pointed at the strange vehicle.
She opened her mouth to politely decline, but stopped at the notice of a symbol on his chest. A round octagonal letter with another letter inside it. She remembered Archon’s learning datapad enough to recognize a G with an I inside it. The image haunted her for some reason; time seemed to freeze.
Her memory leapt back. Framed by a haze of grey fabric, her vision contained the chin of a blonde woman, viewed from below, as if the woman carried her. Pale skin caught the reflection of blue light, and the same GI logo sat upon the woman’s chest, near Althea’s face. The world jostled in a rapid back and forth; the woman ran.
That’s me… I’m a little baby. My mother… She blinked as reality came back. How can I remember that? No one remembers being a baby. Althea reached out a psionic feeler; all four of them radiated eagerness, the same sort of eagerness raiders always had when they found The Prophet.
She took a step back. “No. I’m going home.”
“Real smooth, Ed. You might as well have tried, ‘hey little girl, want some candy?’ Idiot,” said a dark-skinned man with short, curly hair.
“Bite me, Joe.” Ed took a silver pistol from the back of his belt and pointed it at her. “We’ve been looking for you for a long time. Come on, sweetie. You don’t belong out here in this shithole. Please don’t make me dart you. This is for your own good.”
Althea poured herself into his thoughts. They worked for a corporation… Gravion Interstellar Incorporated. These must be the ‘corporations’ the city police warned her about. The reason they let her live out here in Querq. She frowned at the little silver gun. They didn’t use money to hurt people; they had guns too. He thought of it as a tranquilizer. Something that would knock her asleep.
“You’re bad. Go away.”
The woman quick-drew a similar gun and shot her in the chest. Althea peered down at a two-inch metal dart with green fuzz at the end. The delirium of drugs encircled her mind, but she’d readied herself for it. A seconds’ worth of concentration sent a stream of chemical running down her leg to the road. She grasped the dart and pulled it out with a twist.
“That wasn’t nice.” She glared at them, tossed the dart aside, and leaned forward in an aggressive pose.
Before the confusion of how the drug hadn’t done anything could wear off, she released a blast of sorrow.
“You hurt my mother!” she screamed.
The four adults crumpled in place. Ed and an Asian man who hadn’t spoken burst into tears. Joe stared into space, as did the woman. Althea’s lip twitched with a light snarl. This corporation already took her away from her mother. She would not let them take her away from her home.
“I’m sorry,” whispered the woman. She dropped the dart gun and reached for a larger pistol. The slowness of her motion made Althea hesitate until the woman lifted the weapon to her own head.
She backed off the sorrow and clubbed the woman with calm.
Her gun arm went limp, the handgun clattered to the road.
Althea stood tall. She forced her way into their minds. None of them had any memory of her mother beyond reading files explaining that ‘an employee’ had run off with ‘an unusual child’ that the company had expressed interest in studying. Her mother had refused to let the company doctors touch the baby, and fled. A ‘recovery team’ proved unsuccessful in locating the infant. Althea growled with desperation at their lack of knowledge as to her mother’s fate.
In Ed’s mind, she found a memory of him sitting in a meeting where a stern-faced woman with caramel skin told the four of them that Gravion Interstellar had maintained a facility in the Badlands which had suffered an unexplained catastrophic failure eleven years ago, in which forty-six of fifty-nine personnel died.
Althea looked down at her feet. I guess I’m not really twelve.
After a few seconds to process that―being eleven made her feel like a ‘child’ more than calling herself twelve had―she shook off the somberness of wondering about her mother, and glared at them. She radiated dread, a slow, building sense of ominous doom rather than ‘scream-and-run’ fear. These people would remember Querq; they would believe that something horrible would happen to them if they ever came near the place again. They would fear it so much that they would tell their whole company never to go here.
“Go away. Don’t come back and try to kidnap me. I’m not the Prophet anymore. I won’t let anyone take me away ever again.” She stomped toward them, making all four adults cringe. “Querq is my home, and you aren’t allowed here.”
A final blast of dread sent them scurrying back into their six-wheeled machine.
“Here!” a man shouted in Spanish from the end of the street.
The large vehicle lurched into motion and lumbered past her heading north.
Two blocks down, a man wearing the telltale blue denim of the Querq Watch waved. In seconds, six more men as well as Father rounded the corner and came running toward her. Overwhelmed with joy at having a father to run to for protection, she dropped the metal club and sprinted into his arms. He mumbled in Spanish too fast for her to understand, something about Santiago and the boys… and how worried he became out of nowhere.
“Thea…?” He patted her back. “Did you call for me?”
“Yes.” She nodded into his chest, and explained about the millipede and getting lost in the building.
The Watch decided to leave it be, figuring she’d likely killed it already, and headed back toward the gate.
Althea snuggled into Father’s embrace. She cradled the doll to her chest, and basked in the feeling of being held by a loving father.
“The boys told us about their secret door,” said Father.
“I told them to.”
He made a noise part way between grumble and laugh. “I thought so. They also said you came out here to help Pablo.”
“Yes. He’d fallen and his leg broke. I’m sorry for running off without telling anyone.”
“You worried he might have been dying, but you could’ve sent one of the boys to get the Watch.”
He brushed her hair back and looked at her. He exuded relief that came after a brief period of intense worry. “They also said you lured the ‘pede away from them.”
She gave him a guilty look. It had seemed like the right thing to do, since she could outrun it, but she’d been so scared.
Father hugged her to his chest and carried her in silence for a minute more.
Althea got the sniffles from thinking about the ghoul.
“It’s all right, Thea. You’re safe.” He rubbed her back. “Those ‘pedes scare me too.”
“I’m not crying about that.” She wiped her face. “I couldn’t fix the green man.”
“Those mercs must’ve shot the ghoul,” said Alonzo, at their left.
Luis, at the front of the group, called up to the Watch above the gate. Soon, the belabored whine of an electric motor started, dragging the great doors open.
“You cannot fix everyone,” said Father, his tone somber. “But you wouldn’t be you if you didn’t try.” He kissed her atop the head.
Althea smiled as he carried her past the gates of Querq―her home.
Karina raced out of a side street about three blocks from the house. She rushed over and pawed at her. “Thea, what happened?”
“I’m sorry!” Althea looked back and forth between Father and her sister, awash with as much guilt as if she’d accidentally burned down the house.
“What? What for?” asked Karina.
“It’s all right.” Father patted the older girl on the shoulder. “She’s had a scare.”
“Not that,” said Althea in a small voice. “I didn’t finish the empanadas.”
Karina and Father exchanged a glance, and burst into peals of laughter.
After a second or two of feeling foolish, Althea grinned and laughed as well.