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“Shh.” Mama pressed Sorren against the wall in the dimly lit hallway. Smoke seared her throat and the wall behind her burned through the thin material of her nightgown. She moved restlessly. “It’s hot.” Mama laid her palm against the wall and quickly pulled Sorren away, crouching with her in the middle of the hall. The air was clearer down there. “The fire’s spreading.”
“I’m scared, mama.”
“I know, sweetheart.” Mama’s lips were cool against her forehead. “But you have to be brave.”
The sound of shuffling footsteps reached them. They were close. Walking slowly, blank stares, silent screams, grasping hands.
“Go through the kitchen, Sorren,” Mama whispered.
The shuffling sped up. They’d heard.
Mama held her face between her hands. “Don’t forget I love you. No matter what happens, I love you.” She glanced over her shoulder and pushed her towards the kitchen. “Go now! Don’t look back!”
Sorren crawled beneath the smoke to the end of the hall. Mama screamed behind her. Sorren didn’t look back, but she couldn’t block out the screams, or the horrible crunching, tearing sounds.
The smoke was thinner in the kitchen, but still too thick to breathe. She pulled her collar over her nose, ducking down beside the hutch to listen. Mama wasn’t screaming anymore. The shuffling sounds started again behind her. She didn’t think the things could see in smoke better than she could. She felt a draft and knew the door must be that way. She felt her way towards it, pausing at the doorframe, gulping in the cold air that poured in. What if there were more of them outside? The smoke and heat made the decision for her and she bolted outside.
Burning trees and buildings painted the dark with a bloody brightness. Flames licked at the planked walkways between buildings and steam rose through the cracks from the river below the floating homestead. She crouched beside the woodshed. Figures moved in the half-light, some dark and armored, glowing with tech, others slow, ragged forms with vacant eyes and grasping hands.
As soon as she saw an opening, Sorren crept from swamp tree to ancient swamp tree that poked up through the walkways. Some of the planks were burning or already burned out and she could see the dark water swirling beneath them. Whatever they were, the walking things and the things with tech would be watching the docks, so she didn’t even try. Instead she went the opposite direction, towards the swift-side, where the upstream current pounded the planks. The only safe way off was under.
The swift-side of the homestead was mostly storage, with towers of crates full of Brigham Tea, ready to be shipped down river to Shingay, then carted upland to Hardside. The techies and walkers didn’t seem to care about the tea. Sorren slipped into the water, holding tight to the rough planks against the foaming current. The cold, swirling river stole her breath and tried to suck her under. She held tight and pulled her way to the grate that covered the till shaft running the length of the barge. The water pulled at her harder and she knew she was close. She heard a scream and a splash portside. Finally, her feet found the edge of the wide shaft. She took three deep breaths and ducked under the water, crossing her arms and letting the current suck her in.
It was a great trick when she played hide and seek with the her cousins from the village to go down on the swift side, ride the current underneath the floating barge and pop out at the docks. She was the only one brave enough to do it, until Papa caught her and forbade it. Now papa was torn apart by the walkers.
Sorren opened her eyes under the water. Red and orange flashed overhead between the planks as she passed. Muffled booms and watery crashes pushed their way past the rushing in her ears. Her lungs and eyes burned, whether from the fire or from the water she couldn’t tell. The current sped up and then abruptly slowed down. She knew she was out. She pushed her hands upwards to keep herself underwater despite the burning in her lungs. She was out, but she wasn’t away. They’d be watching the boats. She opened her eyes again and oriented herself away from the glowing light and swam as hard as she could beneath the boats. She swam until her lungs were screaming and then surfaced, forcing herself not to gasp.
She was on the slow side of the homestead, right in the middle of the river. She looked back.
Everything was burning. The techies shot flames from their hands, setting fire to everything that wasn’t already alight. The walkers were gone. Something bumped against her. She covered her mouth to smother a gasp. She wasn’t the only one in the river. The wide, staring eyes of Aunt Nora met hers before the current rolled her over and Sorren saw that she was missing half her head. Aunt Nora wasn’t the only one. Sorren rolled onto her back and floated out into the fens with the rest of the dead.
O' What may man within him hide, though angel on the outward side!
-William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
There were still a few hours till dusk, but it made no difference in the windowless tavern. The only light, except for the occasional flicker through the tattered curtain over the doorway, came from the open pit fire in the center of the hall.
Sorren cradled her cold bowl of stew and glanced at the door. Where was McKayal?
A hot wind rustled the curtain and Sorren tensed, but nobody came through. She closed her eyes and breathed in, then out slowly, trying to force herself to relax. The smell of barley loaves baking in the coals of the fire mixed with those of the large clay pot belching out earthy aromas of eel, potato and wild pole-onion in contented bursts. It was almost enough, but not quite.
She could never completely relax. Too many emotions simmered too close to the surface, and none of them were calming. She didn’t mind, though. At least those were real. Sometimes they seemed like the only thing that was real. If her plan worked, she could be done living a life halfway between nightmare and reality. If her plan worked, DeVere would be dead, and she would be too. Then maybe the dreams would stop.
A silver strand of hair on the sleeve of her grey wool winter tunic caught her eye and she plucked it off and flicked it into the air, watching it flutter in the firelight like a spiderweb before it settled on the dirt floor. It was really too hot for wool, but everything else was dirty. She glanced at the hem where bits of yesterday’s dinner decorated her lap. Dirty was a relative term. Anything was better than a dress, though, even if a dress might give her boyish frame some curves. Her father wouldn’t like that she was wearing breeches. He’d have chosen his battles, though, and scolded her for using his belt and scabbard, but you don’t get a say when you’re dead.
She unclenched her fist from the grip of her dagger. She didn’t remember reaching for it, although she wasn’t surprised. Her hand went there all too often. It was comforting. She held the dagger up to the light. The smooth oval sapphire set into the pommel stared up at her disapprovingly. It didn’t like it when her thoughts turned dark, but you don’t get an opinion when you’re a dagger, either. She released the death hold she had on the grip and put it back in it’s sheath. The vine-like scrollwork had left an impression on the soft pad at the base of her thumb. She fingered the cold brand. “You’re too late. I’m already marked."
Heavy footsteps behind her broke the quiet.
“What’s taking them so long?” Sorren asked without looking up.
George the barkeep’s deep soft-side accent growled out like clotted custard. "Yer knows McKayal, Sister Sorren. She'll be here when she gets here. ‘Sides, Yer haven’t touched yer pottage.” He pointed at her bowl. “Would yer like somethin’ else?”
“Don’t call me ‘Sister.’” George was the only one left who still did.
George ignored her, as usual. “At’s good, cuz we ain’t got nothin’ else.” The stool next to her creaked in protest as he settled his massive frame onto it. Sorren fleetingly wondered how he got so fat when the rest of them were so hungry. “Not till we gets a shipment from Shagareth, which don’t seem likely anytime soon.” He used his dirty apron to blow his nose and wipe his forehead, then heaved himself up, taking her bowl with him. “Yer needs a refresh.”
He poured the cold contents back into the pot, stirred it, then ladled it out again. “Thank ‘eaven the eels ain’t subject to sanction.” He set the freshened bowl in front of her.
“The pole-onion is nice,” she said, trying to sound normal. “How’d you get it? The thorns are pretty dense on those stalks this time of year.”
“Jenna’s got them nimble boys.”
“My sister won’t like that.”
George shrugged. “Gave ‘em each a sweet.”
“How do you always have sweets?”
George laid a finger beside his nose and winked. “If ye know where ter look an’ ain’t bothered by a mite o’ mud, ye can always get yerself some nice Jon Skinner.”
“It’s a good thing. I’m not sure we can keep fighting DeVere and hunger, too.”
“You let McKayal worry about DeVere, and I’ll worry about yer belly. We’re safe enough. DeVere’s skimmers gets caught in the flux and we ain’t done nothin’ worth riskin’ his mechs way out here. At least naught what he knows of. It’s useful to be nobody with nothin’. Now, eat.”
Sorren dutifully took a bite. “Today may change that. If DeVere catches McKayal, he’ll come for us again.”
George’s eyes grew soft and he awkwardly patted her head. “It weren't personal. Yer knows that. Yer family weren’t the only ones. He killed all the Priesthood an’ their families everywhere in the fens. McKayal’s careful, an we can’t keep hidin’ forever. It were worth the risk. If we gwen-ta stop it, we must do things what ain’t easy.”
“I just want to see some suffering on the other side.”
“Don’t play God, missy,” George said with a frown. “Leave that to McKayal. She’s already goin’ ter hell, anyways.”
“If there is a hell,” a husky female voice came through the doorway. A very tall, very dirty redhead in green deep-eel leather body armor moved like a cat into the room. She dusted off her high boots and tossed her long copper braid back over her shoulder where it snaked down her back and bit at her ankles.
“You're back,” Sorren said. "Where's-- "
“Ah, ah!” George interrupted, pointing his finger at McKayal. “Yer knows the rules. Disarm!”
McKayal put a hand on her sword. “I ain’t sure we wasn’t followed.”
George shook his head. “Don’t care. Rules is rules. Just ‘cuz we’re Soft Side, don’t mean we ain’t got to be civilized, and if yer was stupid enough to lead DeVere’s mechs here, we’re all gonna die anyway. ‘Sides, it’d take yer all of three heartbeats to grab ‘em again. Take it off, or take yer’self out.” He folded his arms over his stomach and the two faced each other for a moment like a couple of wargs over a dead rock-chuck, although McKayal towered over the seated barkeep.
“You let Sorren keep hers.” McKayal pointed at Sorren’s dagger.
“You never mind Sister Sorren,” George said. “This’r my place and I say what’s what.”
“I’ve got beer,” George said.
McKayal’s sword, bow, quiver, buckler, and needler all went to the floor beside the door in a careful heap. Her buckler rolled to the side and McKayal picked it up, fingering the ends of several thin sharp needles embedded in the stretched rhono hide. “Didn’t see those ones,” she said, plucking them out and carefully pushing them into the straw ceiling. She deposited the small shield more firmly against the wall. “What I wouldn’t give for a deflector. Even a used one.”
“Wouldn’t work in the flux anyway.”
“Maybe we could rig it.” McKayal started towards her seat, but George stood firm. “All of it,” he said.
The series of knives from unlikely places about her person were almost as varied as the half-formed profanities that ground out from behind gritted teeth as they hit the floor. When the last one was dropped, McKayal raised her hands. “Satisfied?”
George nodded and hefted himself up to go to a barrel in the corner of the room. “Jenna making you weed again?” He pulled a dipper from the wall and pried the lid off the barrel. “Don’t tell your sister,” he said with a wink to Sorren as he ladled out a tankard of barley beer.
McKayal gave a very unladylike snort and helped herself to Sorren's food. “Your sister made me do four rows before I left,” she said. “And she weren’t even there when the d— mule kicked over the fu— spear stack. Does it seem right to you that she should use my own men against me?"
“You aren’t even a Believer,” said Sorren. “Why hold back?”
McKayal’s mouth screwed sideways thoughtfully. “I believe in your sister. Some things deserve respect.”
“You don’t have to give up swearing totally," Sorren said. "You could make up words. Like, ‘You smell like you landed in a pile of flombawart.’ You’d be the only one who knew what flombawart meant, and it could be as dirty as you want.”
“How ‘bout respectin’ this ‘stabalishment?” George said, plunking a tankard down in front of McKayal.
McKayal plucked a piece of straw from the floor and used it to pick her teeth. "You'd smell like flombawart, too, if you’d been layin’ on your belly in it all day."
“That’s more than mud,” said Sorren.
”Yeah, I think I might have laid in pig birth. Old man Jonas’ herd got loose around Ely and they’re breedin’ like, uh, pigs.” McKayal surveyed her grubby garb, sniffed cautiously at a yellowish-green blob on her sleeve. A startled look twitched across her face. “Whew! Not sure what that is.”
“Don’t smell no different ‘an usual,” said George, putting an oat loaf in front of her.
McKayal tore a hunk of bread off and turned to Sorren. “Do we always have to meet in this dump?"
George slammed a bowl of stew down, sending scalding droplets across McKayal’s front and ignoring her yelp. “I ain't sure I can keep feedin' yer, Sister Sorren, with the company yer keepin’, less’n yer can get this abomination what calls ‘erself a female to take a bath."
“Abomination,” McKayal snorted, smearing the stew in with the rest of the muck across her chest. “That’s a pretty big word. Anyways,” she said around a mouthful, “I’d like to see anybody try. Bishop Palmer tried to baptize me before the…,” she glanced at Sorren, “Anyway, I sobered up when I hit the water. Nearly drowned him, but he floated, an’ I swore then and there, I ain't gettin' in the water again ’til I'm done sinnin'. Blargin’ brethren.”
“That’ll be some trick, livin’ in a swamp,” said George.
Sorren was tired of pleasantries. “Did you get it?”
“Huh?” Mckayal asked, confused. “Oh, yeah." She deposited the straw back into the corner of her mouth and pulled a small leather bag loose from a cord around her waist. It landed on the table with a metallic thunk. "We got it."
Sorren pulled the bag towards her and fidgeted open the strings. She held it upside down, suppressing her excitement as a platinum cylinder rolled out into her outstretched palm. It was as long as her hand, and was small enough in circumference to easily grasp without her fingers touching. Sorren held one end of it level with her eyes. On it was a relief of an eagle, wings outstretched above it’s head with an orb in one claw and a spray of stars streaming from the other. Around the circumference were words, written in inverse.
“What’s it say?” asked McKayal.
Sorren’s brow furrowed and she ran her fingers over the smooth sides. Halfway down was a barely visible line around the circumference, dividing the cylinder in half. She held the lower half with one hand and twisted the upper half clockwise. Something inside the cylinder clicked and the raised ridges on the end grew warm, then white hot. Sorren pressed it into the wooden table. Smoke hissed out around it. George squawked in protest, but Sorren ignored him. She lifted it and the image was burned into the table. “GALACTIC TERRITORIES INC.,” Sorren read across the top, and then the bottom, “IN UNITY STRENGTH.” She set the seal on it’s side, even though the face was almost cool. “It’s TIC,” she said. “I was right. DeVere’s shipping under TIC. That’s why nobody’s come for us.”
“Casualties?” George asked.
“Five.” Darkness fell in McKayal’s brown eyes. She counted them off, pulling down her fingers one at a time into a fist. “David, Joe Jr., Ben, Nephi and Thatcher." Her fist pounded the table, sloshing stew out of their bowls. “I’m getting tired of burying kids.”
“They knew what they were getting into,” said Sorren. “They gave their lives for a cause they believed in. Some would envy them.”
"What lives?" McKayal spat. "They ain’t lived, but that don’t matter, right? Because this life ain’t worth livin’. Better to die young than to live like this. It's too much like death and not enough. Starvin’ in summer and freezin’ in winter, with your brothers taken and your Ma and Pa buried in the peat.” McKayal stared into her drink. “It ain’t life.” She looked up and the green fire in her eyes burned into Sorren's deep blue ones. "That's why I show them how to hold a sword and tell them lies about bravery and honor, and then line them up as target practice for DeVere’s mechs." She spat on the floor.
“Everybody gets their own peace,” Sorren said.
“Peace,” McKayal grunted. "Not for me. There ain’t never going to be peace. Too many voices in my head."
“Were you seen?”
McKayal drained her tankard. “We had a problem.” She looked around for more to drink and took a gulp of Sorren’s bitter Brigham tea. “Gah! It never gets better.” She waved her tankard at George for more beer.
“We wasn’t the only ones with mech worries. We got away from the shipping yards clean. The trouble didn’t happen till we got off hardside to the meadowlands. Did you know there’s farms up there now? They got big ol’ pipes carrying water from the fens to ditches. Kinda impressive, actually.”
“What happened?” Sorren demanded, getting impatient.
“We stayed off the roads and ran smack into a whole platoon of mechs.”
“How? Did they see you?”
“Nah. They was too busy tracking’ a missionary.”
“There ain’t no more missionaries. They’s dead with the rest of the Priesthood,” said George.
“Church musta’ sent ‘im.”
“There’s no way the Church sent a missionary here,” said Sorren. “They don’t act against local laws.”
“At’s what I thought, but there he were, runnin’ from tree to tree with ‘is black missionary cloak flappin’ around him an’ the mechs huntin’ after him, slow and steady. There were more’n a dozen of them. The missionary weren’t ahead of ‘em by much, then he bolted across a field to a farmhouse. The mechs stopped at the edge of the field, like they was waitin’ for directions. Flux don’t mess with their communications that far hardside. Next thing the roof went up in flames and the farmer ran out of the barn with a pitchfork. They stuck it in his chest. The wife and kids ran out of the burnin’ house, and they didn’t fare no better.”
“What about the missionary,” George asked.
“He stayed in there so long, I thought he were dead, too. The smoke climbed out though the windows like big black crawlers. He finally come runnin’ out, and I figure he’s gonna get killed with the others but the mechs just catch him and hold him, just standin' there with this missionary wrigglin’ between ‘em. I figured they was gonna needle him but instead they knock him on the head. Then, they start carryin’ him away.”
“Tell me you left it alone,” said Sorren. “Tell me you didn’t risk everything for some over-zealous religious nut.”
“Well, I thought about it. I really did, but then I thought a couple of other things. What’s a missionary doing alive on Anglia, and what’s so important about this one that he got mechs after him, and then not kill ‘im. Most important, I were pretty sure your sister were never gonna forgive me for lettin’ a missionary die without doin’ nothin’.”
“So you saved ‘im?” George asked.
“Well, it weren’t easy,” McKayal said, clearly relishing the story. “I…”
“Skip the dramatics,” Sorren interrupted.
McKayal frowned. “We killed all of ‘em,” she said flatly, “and brought the missionary back with us.”
“All of them?” asked George quietly.
“The only good mech's a dead mech,” said McKayal with finality.
“They were somebody’s brother, first,” George said.
“What did you do with him?” asked Sorren.
“His head were cracked, but I think they drugged ‘im, too. He ain’t woke up yet. I ain’t sure he’s gonna make it, so we took ‘im straight to the Temple."