By: Nick Wisseman
By starlight, the refinery looked less abandoned than it had during the day, its empty bays and overgrown lot flattered by shadows.
The boneyard, on the other hand, had grown even more foreboding. The recesses were darker, the ridges veiled but suggestive. And everything — the parts Mika could see and those she couldn’t but knew remained — seemed somehow larger.
“I hope Desmond and Kady are still in the refinery,” she murmured. It wasn’t much farther; maybe this would all be over in a few minutes.
“I hope they rediscover their common sense,” Atalia muttered from behind. “Neto, you seeing signs of any critters we should be concerned about?”
To their front, Neto shook his head, his upturned visor glinting as it moved towards and away from the sky’s brightest star, a heavenly jewel that provided more nighttime illumination than most moons. “The flora here is well-established — ”
“Obviously,” Atalia said as they entered a dense stand of fuzzy-stemmed plants.
“ — but the fauna, at least what the scanners showed before everything went down, is pretty basic, and mostly microscopic.”
“That’s weird, right?”
“For a planet with this type of environment? Very. But it’s one less thing to worry about, I guess.”
“Makes me feel better about swerving off the path.”
Mika mostly agreed. By the time they’d geared up and left the Mantis — with respirators on but visors raised so they could hear each other without comms — the shooting had stopped. So Atalia had opted for stealth by veering off the trail the ship had blazed earlier that day. (Had it really been only a few hours ago?) But the surrounding vegetation was dense, even for Rocket. And while their suits provided ample protection against the thickets of thorns and resinous underbrush, it felt like it was taking far too long to get back to the refinery.
“I hate flying blind,” Atalia muttered.
Neto pushed aside an especially large and hairy leaf. “Maybe we should try hailing Desmond and Kady again — just in case.”
“I’m still getting blanket interference on every channel.”
“I know, but …”
“There’s no point. Let’s just hope the KI alert got through to Fleet before whatever’s blocking our signals went into throttle mode.”
Mika wasn’t sure it mattered. It had taken the Mantis three months to reach Virendell. Even if someone had picked up the ship’s automated distress call, what were the odds they were close enough to intervene?
Someone was close, though. That seemed clear when Rocket swiveled his head and stared at the boneyard. A moment later, a rifle discharge sizzled from that direction and confirmed the dog’s instinct.
“Is that one of ours?” asked Neto.
Atalia stepped past Mika and bent to adjust the noise-suppression settings on Rocket’s headpiece; the dog’s barking went from faintly audible to silent. She also freed his ears the rest of the way and removed his nosepiece. “Hard to say.”
An urgent roar lacerated the night air.
“But that sounds like Desmond.”
Mika clutched her gun tighter. She’d only heard Desmond shout a few times, but that echoing yell matched her memory. “He must be in trouble.”
Atalia motioned away from the refinery and toward the boneyard. “Neto, you’ve got the rear. Keep it quiet.”
She moved around Mika again and broke into a predatory run. Neto and Rocket seemed to have no trouble slipping through the undergrowth at the same pace.
Mika struggled mightily.
Her feet managed to entangle themselves in what felt like every intervening strand of viny vegetation, and each of her exhalations burst forth like a geyser fountaining from her helmet. Maybe she and Rocket should swap headpieces; he couldn’t possibly need noise suppression as badly as she did.
At least there was no getting lost. Many of the plants were tall — head-high or higher — but the boneyard towered over everything. And it looked no less ominous the closer they came.
One skull, in particular, seemed to be staring at them, its empty eye sockets gazing along the same trajectory as their approach. If Neto was right about the boneyard being a bone forest, then those monstrous holes had probably never been capable of real vision. But it was a hard thing to believe in the dark.
Atalia slowed when they reached the first mounds. This close, several paths were visible through the morbid shambles. But Desmond hadn’t shouted again, and no more rifles had discharged.
“Want Rocket to take point?” Neto whisper-panted.
Atalia nodded. “He’s the only sensor we have left. Find Desmond, buddy.”
The dog surged ahead, his prosthetic rear legs powering him up over a relatively small bone that tapered to a toothlike tip. Atalia leaped after him, and Mika managed a credible jump herself.
From there, Rocket navigated the giant graveyard quickly but considerately, always staying a few strides ahead and only once darting through an opening they couldn’t follow — a mistake he reversed almost immediately. The performance was a glowing testament to Neto’s skill as a trainer. And the dog seemed so certain of his heading that Mika barely hesitated before following him through the most grotesque sections, the worst of which was probably the patch where some of the fantastical bones had been sorted by type and stacked in neat rows like run-of-the-mill construction materials.
But what was Rocket leading them to?
Desmond, hopefully, and Kady. Would there be strip miners with them, though? Or worse, KI? The alert had only lasted a few seconds on the Mantis before everything cut out, but that had been long enough to conjure every horror story Mika had heard about humanity’s rivals in the last years on yesterEarth and the generations since. There hadn’t been any publicized encounters recently; the informal galactic détente appeared to be holding. That seemed like a good thing not to endanger, especially not by endangering themselves.
Thankfully, there weren’t any KI in sight when Rocket finally padded inside a vast rib cage that rested sternum-side down, as if the beast it belonged to had died lying on its stomach. The dog raised a paw and pointed with his nose.
Desmond was visible between the ribs, standing in a nearby clearing made almost bright by the starlight reflecting off the carpet of white bone fragments — like the wattage of a winter landscape at night. He was aiming his rifle at someone in a pristine suit of uncertain issue. The stranger’s gun looked similarly well-kept, and at his feet lay Kady, quiet and far too still.
“You didn’t have to hurt her,” Desmond growled. “We could have done this peacefully.”
“Sorry,” the stranger said — maybe even meaning it. His visor was up, and his wince seemed genuine. He didn’t point his rifle away from Kady, though. “We thought she was the KI.”
Atalia pulled Mika further into the rib cage. “I want to help her too, but we have to stay behind cover until we’re ready to move. Those look like the nastier variety of strip miners — ones with funding — and there are at least two others standing sentry in the bones between here and the clearing. Might be more; the interference is still going full blast, and their suits’ infra-blockers are probably at least as good as ours.”
Neto activated his rifle. “Plan?”
“I think I can work my way around to get the drop on the one by Kady. You go left and do likewise with the bastard over there. Mika, you see the one on the right?”
She tried to make out what Atalia was pointing at, but it wasn’t obvious where the pilot — there. A star-shined helmet gleamed amidst the graveyard. “Yes.”
“Your accuracy scores were good. Keep him in your sights, and you’ll be fine. Just remember that the guns are still in conservation mode; they’ll switch over to bullets after five shots. The sixth might kick a little if the stabilizers lag, so aim a hair lower on that one. Your rifle won’t recoup enough kinetic energy for another beam until your eleventh shot. But don’t shoot until I do.” Atalia turned to Neto, pulled her respirator down, and kissed his forehead. “Don’t be a hero.”
He nudged her respirator back over her nose and mouth. “Please take your own advice.”
She winked and moved further along the sternum, then followed the curve of another rib into the gloom. Neto was gone in a second too, and Rocket with him.
Leaving Mika alone. To watch one of her oldest friends face off against a stranger who’d just injured one of her newest. And, if things went badly — which seemed more than likely — she might also be about to gun down another person she’d never met.
This was not what she’d pictured when she wrote that first grant proposal.
“What now?” asked Desmond.
“We need your ship,” the bastard standing over Kady said. “The KI sabotaged ours.”
Mika took a deep breath and drew a bead on her target — her live target. Most of his body was obscured by the intervening bones, but his head was framed rather perfectly as if someone had arranged a little corridor for this very shot. She could hardly miss.
But the training sessions on the Mantis were the closest she’d come to a real firefight. And she’d certainly never sniped someone from the shadows before.
Don’t think about that. And never mind that the bastards had said “the KI,” suggesting he’d already encountered one. Hostile humans were the focus right now; they were the problem that had to be solved first. So stop shaking and —
Mika froze, but not because she’d settled her nerves. There were hanzi on the bones.
Not all of them. But flipping her visor down and engaging telescopic enhancement confirmed it: above her target’s head, both sides of a skeletal junction — a shoulder? A knee? — were inscribed with an elegant column of yesterEarth characters that probably translated to something like You shall not pass. Odd.
The Virendell colonists were thought to be almost entirely American. Had their flight included a few Chinese speakers as well? Or had more than one wave of yesterEarth refugees ended up here?
“What happened to Bheka?” asked Desmond.
What? Who was Bheka?
Before Kady’s attacker could answer, Atalia emerged behind him. Not entirely — she still had plenty of cover. But enough for Desmond to tell where she was.
“Drop your gun,” Atalia said. “All of you. We have you surrounded.”
Mika’s target flinched and started scanning the bones. The first bastard kept his rifle trained on Kady and mouthed the words, Now or never.
Not for Atalia’s benefit; she was still to his rear. And given the way his helmet shielded both sides of his face, the silent statement probably wasn’t intended for his companions either. From this angle, only Mika and Desmond could see the bastard’s lips.
Mika responded by tightening her finger around her trigger.
Desmond grimaced, twitched his rifle to the right, and shot Atalia in the face.
Mika sagged against the nearest rib, her body seeming to slacken in tandem with Atalia’s. Had Desmond really just …?
“ATALIA!” roared Neto, charging into the clearing only to be engulfed by a devastatingly precise crossfire.
Rocket sprang after his master, but Mika looked away before the dog met his fate. She heard it, though: a yelp so agonized she gasped.
And then fire sliced through her right arm.
She stumbled back, dropping her rifle — no, her forearm, which had been seared away at the elbow — and collapsing on the giant rib cage’s unforgiving sternum. The fall jarred her headlamp on. A second shot disintegrated her right hip.
“There’s a girl in the torso,” someone said, probably the target she’d failed to fire on.
Her nerves felt as cauterized as her limbs. But her mind writhed. Dimly, she knew her body was about to do the same.
Footsteps approached. She forced her eyes to stay fixed on the sternum, focusing on a new set of hanzi characters spotlit by her headlamp a few feet ahead of her. The men delved too greedily and too deep. Why would anyone write that here? Slender fracture lines webbed the surrounding bone.
“Mika,” Desmond said, voice flat.
Her remaining leg began to twitch. Her good arm threatened to do the same. Spasms of agony were surely about to follow.
“Save your charge,” the first bastard said from farther away — maybe still in the clearing. “We’ll need it for the KI.”
“I’m sorry,” Desmond whispered.
The first blow to her head opened the floodgates of pain but provided only a little darkness; the second blow injected heavy helpings of both. But it was the third blow that finally struck the right balance: a small, fleeting spike of agony and then persistent, liberating nothing.