Kimberly Unger’s work has appeared in the NovoPulp Anthology, she is a game designer and CEO of Bushi-go, Inc., and most recently designed the cyberpunk mobile game “The Agiliste”. This is her first appearance in Galaxy’s Edge.

Kimberly Unger

The children railed against the sea. They were still at an age where the forces of nature, of gravity, of time could still be conquered with enough sound and joy. The sea failed to take notice, rolling over the cacophony, muffling it in sand and foam as if the children were less trouble than stones or seagulls.

Maryanne kept an eye on them as they played. Any trouble would show first in silence. She curled her tail around her front limbs and kept a watchful eye and ear on the brightly suited figures in the surf. Noses were only good when the wind was calm, the wind off the sea muffled smell even more effectively than sound.

“You know you could go play too. It’s not like you’ll rust or anything.”

Maryanne cast a glance at the children’s Mother and chuffed. The woman laughed in reply, a sound that reminded Maryanne of bells and warm weather. The laugh was what had drawn Maryanne to the family, for all of the noise they made.  She settled her chin on her paws and allowed the sun to reach all along her back. The fur there lightened, became transparent, the individual fibers each carrying sunlight down to the skin where it was used to create energy that could be stored for another day. The Mother scratched her affectionately behind the ears, careful not to interfere with the engineered photosynthesis in Maryanne’s coat.

“Aren’t you a remarkable thing.”  The Mother had said the first time she’d seen Maryanne’s fur go pale. Maryanne had held her breath, fearful for a moment that she might be rejected. Mother had laughed her bell-like laugh and the moment had passed. She’d adapted to her new place with confidence, reinventing herself as a guardian of more than just the beach.

“See the rip current on the right?”  Mother pointed a slim finger to where the currents crashed together, the telltale slack in the water suggesting the danger under the surface. Maryanne chuffed in assent. The undertow wasn’t what concerned her. Retrieving either or both of the children from the current would be a trivial matter. Both were clever swimmers and well versed in the dangers close to shore.

Maryanne kept watch for something else. Watch. Defend.

At the end of the sun, tired and pounded by the surf, they all collected at the line where sand turned to dust. Flat patches of leftover concrete collected radiation from the day, releasing it in a luminous glow as the sky darkened. The light from below filled in the straining shadows laid out by the setting sun, easing their passage into dusk. The dust where the sand stopped still held its own magic, formed as it was from the disintegration of the concrete. The effect was to cast an eerie pallor that outlined the skeleton of the man-made path against the dark of the natural born sand of the beach.

Maryanne preferred the shadows. Patches of salt grass and reeds that had taken over rustled when the night air passed them by. The children were caught up in their game, trying to follow her in the dark. They were fast learners, innovators, developing a quiet call and response interaction that served them well until the moon came up. The chattering of their voices began to return, filling the spaces in the nightscape. In full dark they were silent, but in the dim of the moonlight, they seemed compelled to push the dark back even further.

“Look, you can see the missing piece where the Moon City used to be.” The Oldest Child pointed to the sky and the Littlest leaned in close, sighting along the reaching arm.

“The Glitch got all the way to Moon City?”

“Nah. Dad says the Glitch was only on the planet. The power core overloaded because someone sabotaged it with bad instructions. Blew all of Central Governance straight to…” The last word was whispered so the Mother wouldn’t hear, “hell.”

Maryanne opened herself to the night air, the stiff quills all along her back lifting as the sea breeze filtered in. It wasn’t so much a sniff as a whole body experience, but tonight, like so many others, what she was looking for remained stubbornly absent. She nervously smoothed herself out, pausing to sort the long fibers into place with the heavy dew-claw on her hind leg.

“Hallo, Maryanne.”  

At the door to the house, the Man steepled his fingertips and bowed slightly. Unlike the children, who ruffled the fibers on her head and dared to poke fingers in amongst the sharpened pegs and sandpaper tongues between her jaws, he never touched Maryanne, not even by accident in passing. She chuffed as the Mother and Children passed through the door into his care and waited to hear the click of the latch. She never went inside. Too many smells, too much noise. Instead she took up her post on the worn wood of the front steps and closed her eyes.

Of the four, Maryanne suspected the Man understood her the best. Or maybe he understood her purpose better. He knew why she was here, waiting by the edge of the sea. The Mother was far more practical minded.

"Will it hurt the children?" Mother had asked plainly. Their communications were remarkably clear, it made them easy for Maryanne to understand.

"No, no. But it's here, this model is one of the last ones deployed. I don't know if it will stay or go or do what it came here to do."

"But will the kids be okay?"

"Oh yes, just.... Don't get too attached, okay?"

In her dreams Maryanne was on the beach again. She knew, intimately, the composition of the sand. Parts silica, parts calcium, parts living, parts not. She did not know it was pink. The Children had added that word to her lexicon. They had added a many things to her experience, and she had adapted to suit. Watch. Defend. The water was still, the moons and tides hung in perfect balance. She could hear the chirp of the Children's voices but they were nowhere to be seen. Her Sibs were here, more just like her, engineered together, incubated together, trained together. They never had names, never listened for them. Maryanne was what the Littlest called her, to her sibs she was marked by smell and motion. The first three had died quietly, taken by the Adversaries in the night with no moons. That loss had taken the edge off their youth, had been the first thing that pushed Maryanne to adapt. They had built nests in the sea grass and watched together, taking turns while the moon cycled through its phases. Their work should have been simple, but every encounter brought something unexpected and Maryanne, try as she might to stick to her purpose, found the pack drifting off task to stay alive past the next incursion.

The dream ended as the wind died, far into the evening. Maryanne shifted through her power cycles once and again before getting to her feet. The stillness made her uneasy. It puddled the enticing sounds and smells along the waterline, thick and easy to push out across the breakwater when the wind changed again. She shook all over; the hissing of her coat was far too loud in the quiet past midnight.

The murmuring of the sea came and went and Maryanne held her ground on the front steps of the wind scoured house. The Family was the only thing that kept her from padding back down to the edge of the broken concrete, back to where the sea was again in sight at all times. Maryanne and the sibs felt the change in the pressure-wave passing by, sparks dancing amongst the fibers on their backs. Before the Family, others had come to the cove, lost and searching in the aftermath. Some of them Maryanne and her sibs had chased off, this was their battleground, the attacks still came regularly on the tides. Some had simply been unable to settle there, the sea had a way of making the guilty uncomfortable. One had gone mad, walking into the sea until his scent was gone, ranting at the sky until the water filled his lungs. All alone, Maryanne had watched for his return, but he never came back, not even a corpse nudged gently to shore.

She stretched, the movement designed to loosen ligaments and reset muscle tone. She rearranged her limbs on the front step, sniffed at the scratches and gouges left by her heavy claws.  Movement in the house meant one of the family was awake. The Man paced through the house, checking each door and window. Man and Mother never missed a night.  Like Maryanne he was waiting for something and, like Maryanne, he had for a time, devolved into a rote routine, unthinking and predictable. She chuffed, blowing the sound out through her lips as he opened the door, peered out at her.

"Quiet night?"  He asked. She let out a long whine and rested her head on her paws, eyes fixed on the path to the sea.  "You can head down to the water if you want. You don't have to stay on the steps, you’re supposed to keep an eye on the beach."  He closed the door behind him and sat on the top step next to her, just out of touching distance. She answered him with a disdainful glance that was met with a chuckle. "More than the engineers made of you, eh?"  He rested elbows on knees and followed her gaze into the dark. "I appreciate the extra eyeballs, but you've got a job already, don't forget that, okay?"

She growled, low in the throat to warn him off the subject.

"Fine, I won’t tell you how to do your job, make sure you let me know if anything comes in off the water, okay?"  He chuckled again. "Goodnight, Maryanne."  He vanished back into the house, his tread skipping the noisiest part of the step. Maryanne waited until the quiet engulfed the house again before turning her full attention to the night. When the dawn crept up from the east, Maryanne quit her post at the door and padded back down toward the sand, pulled by an old, familiar ache.


"Maryanne Maryanne Maryanne!  CATCH!"  The Littlest Child leaned out of the window and tossed something into the air. Maryanne watched it with interest, tracking its motion through the air in a long, flat arc until it bounced into the dirt at her feet. She put her nose close, pretending to be interested in this morning’s offering. The gesture was important,  Maryanne could expect nothing but harassment until it disappeared.

"C'mon Maryanne!  Nobody hates berries!"

Maryanne picked up the offering, careful not to let it touch her tongues. She gave the Littlest a long suffering look and carried it around the side of the house, out of sight.

“She only eats sunlight and seawater, you know that. Don’t make her sick or anything.”  The voice of the older Child drifted out as Maryanne retreated.

"Don't be stupid, Maryanne can't get sick."

"Don't call me stupid!"

"I didn't call you stupid, I said don’t BE stupid!”"

The skinners were already circling. They never missed an opportunity, and the local flock had started to keep an eye on the house. Maryanne loped back down to the beach before dropping the treat. The noisy, swirling feeding frenzies were common enough along the waterline, feasting on the leavings that washed up during the cycling of the tides. The Children erupted from the house and made a beeline for the beach, bare feet making drumbeats on the concrete and sand.


Long after the first of the moons had set, with the sun still high in the sky, the scent caught her off guard, coming in on the wind from the land. It had always been hard to pick out before, mixed as it was with brine and sand, this time it was stronger, clearer. Maryanne cast a glance at the Mother and found her eyes already hardened with resolve, a bright bit of metal clenched in her teeth. The whistle split the air, the only sound that could pierce the veil of surf and wind. It took only two blasts for the children to hear and understand. They freed themselves from the water before Maryanne had covered the distance to them. She swept past and around them, looking for the source of the smell. The littlest Child reached out to her as she circled, but the oldest dragged her along, back towards the safety of higher ground.

Maryanne swung her head back and forth, trying to localize the source of the smell. She expected it to come from the sea and kept swiveling her head to check. The surf line, it ALWAYS came from the surf line.

The crackling, spattering sound of the weapon broke through her confusion. THAT she could pinpoint, that was something she could get her teeth into. Watch. Defend. She bolted, abandoning the beach and catching up to where the Mother and Children had dropped out of her line of sight.

"Maryanne."  She heard the name, but it fell away from her, buried under a tide of purpose and determination. The smell hit her again, bringing instinct to the fore. Her paws slid as she rounded the corner, slipping on the sand-dusted concrete. Nails gripped as she adjusted, digging in and leaving little furrows behind. The smell was quite close now, the enemy within reach.

"What the hell?" The new voice was almost lost in the purpose rushing though her head. She had to evaluate on the fly, even as her legs gathered under her for the leap.

The Man was flanked, one stranger on each side. She couldn't see their faces, but she could read their movements, the language of bone and balance. There was power at play here, and the Man was at a disadvantage. She almost stopped. They were not the enemy she knew, not the adversary she had been bred to defend against.

The Man went down on one knee as one of the strangers twisted his arm up and behind his back. Maryanne adjusted again, not to stop, only to re-target. The smell of ozone clung to one of the enemy, he was different, like the Man but not…. quite…. Maryanne’s long lunge brought her in high enough to hit the center of mass. She hit them both, the Man and his captor, relying on her weight to split them apart as they fell. The Man tried to roll and she shifted to let him go, keeping her weight on the attacker. The man under her claws was making a high-pitched keening noise, like a skinner knocked from the sky. The other attacker was gone, she could feel his panicked footsteps through the ground. She marked the direction and speed, felt the tremor as he mis-stepped and fell, but she kept her attention on the one that writhed under her grip.

“Maryanne. Let him go.”

She growled, low in the throat. The keening had stopped, replaced by a low, occasional whimper in between gasps of breath. The smell was everywhere, confusing. Protect. Defend. If this had been her own Adversary, she would have snapped her jaws closed already.

“Careful, Maryanne, hold him there.”  The smell of ozone returned. She didn’t need to look up to see what was happening. The Man had the weapon in hand. Her skin crawled and the long fibers on her back clumped together instinctively. This was the Family’s adversary, not hers. She could smell the change in the Man, from anticipation to action. She heard the high-pitched discharge and felt the distant thud of the corpse hitting the ground. The man under her teeth jerked, his bowels let go. She tightened her grip, the growl in her throat intensifying.

“I’d hold still if I were you.”  The Man spoke softly, the tone held an unconscious menace. “Maryanne here is the last of the beach defenders deployed before the Glitch. That smoking crater that used to be called Central Governance held the only way to keep a thing like her in check. They don’t usually take prisoners. Not really sure why you’re still alive, in fact.”

“Call it off.”

“Can’t. She’s not mine. You just happened to piss in her playground.”

“Oh God.”

“No God here but Time. Now, tell me why you’re here, and maybe I can convince her not to crush your throat.”

The power play was back, Maryanne could feel it under her grip and in the tightness of the air. The man on the ground had gone very still and stiff.

“I don’t know anything. Keller and me were sent to bring you back, that’s all.”


“Yeah, whatever we had to do to get you to come with us, kidnap you, bribe you, whatever. Look, there’s a thousand Trades in the trunk of the ATV, Boss said it’s yours if you come back. You could live like a king on that much cash.”

“A thousand Trades in the trunk and kidnapping was your opening move?  Boss needs smarter minions.”

“Fair enough.”  Maryanne could feel his throat jump as he swallowed. “Boss wants you back is all I know. Quality’s gone downhill and he can’t find another engineer. ”

“Can’t find?”

“Well, he shot the last one.”

“Of course he did. Maryanne, let him go please.”

Maryanne resisted. The coloring along her back shifted from pale through black then back again and she tightened her grip. The opponents always returned, unless you ended them and left them for the skinners.

"Pleaseletgopleaseletgopleaseletgo."  There was almost no sound, she could feel the words in his throat, vibrations under her teeth. This was not her adversary. He was another change, another of the unexpected twists that had plagued her since decanting. Her frustration emerged as a low rumble.

“Maryanne. Drop him.”  The voice of the Mother was flat, the bells out of tune. Maryanne opened her jaws wide to release the hooks and barbs that had burrowed into the skin. The opponent moved very slowly, placing one hand to his throat first, as if checking to be sure she hadn’t already crushed it. Maryanne didn’t quite understand why this one was still alive. Opponents were all to be ended. The Man and the Mother had different rules, this was their adversary so Maryanne obeyed.

"Go tell Boss I'm retired. Still."

“He’ll send us back again. Just come in, hear him out.”  His eyes flicked from Maryanne to the Man to the Mother and back again. Not fear, wariness.

“You can pick up your friend Keller when you come back, leave the truck and hoof it.”  

Whatever he saw in the Mother’s eyes made him blanch and turn away. Run away. He passed his cohort’s corpse on the ground and kept going, pushing past the sea grasses and disappearing from sight. She could still smell him, lingering on the air.

“How long do we have?”  The Man spoke first.

“Four hours, tops. We can be on the road in an hour.”  Mother was already moving. “Leave the Trades, we don’t want to give Boss another reason to follow us.”

Maryanne shook herself all over and sneezed the smell of fear from her sinuses. He would be back, they always came back. She began to wander, zigzagging back and forth across the hard packed dirt and sand. She now had two fronts to watch, she needed a new place to stand.


They used to divide up the beach, Maryanne and the remaining two sibs. Nine had a limp, a leg bone broken had grown back grotesquely, heavy and twisted. Whatever chemistry had gone into their making healed any injury, given time, making the site stronger. Maryanne's own coat of quills was peppered with scars, variations in thickness and color from where skin and fibers had grown back. Ten had avoided major injury, but he was smaller, lighter. He ran as quiet as the Moon, erupting from hidey holes and patches of grass to dispatch an enemy with a single stroke before vanishing again. Ten had chosen the vantage points, the slower, bulkier Nine squarely in the middle. Nine never hid, the opponents slithered up from the water and made a beeline to where she stood, outlined against the sand, freeing Maryanne and Ten to do their work of culling from the outside of the swarm. Maryanne had realized that the opponents couldn't adapt, couldn't learn on the fly. They came in with different tactics, with different weapons every time, but once they were out of the water their attack was set, preplanned. As long as Maryanne could analyze their movement, the outcome was moot.

Maryanne and Ten broke the enemy with broad strokes, crushing soft points with blows of their paws and bites too quick to break the skin but forceful enough to crack bone. Nine stood her ground in the center, absorbing small hits and knocking opponents out to the edges of the cluster where Maryanne and Ten finished them off.

Both Maryanne and Ten realized the lack at the same time, the knot of bodies was no longer being broken apart, but instead drew tighter around a core that was no longer fighting back.

They had buried Nine at the top of the hill, the deepest hole they'd ever had to dig. The skinners who scavenged the corpses didn't fare so well, the new poison in the flesh of the Adversary was indiscriminate and their remains only added to the stink. The entire flock died before the next tide came in, leaving the beach uncomfortably silent. Maryanne and Ten had chosen new vantage points, dividing the cove between themselves.


"We can keep just following the old road along the coast, then head inland when we hit one of the crossroads."

"Does the map even go further south?"

"The satellite dump shows more communities further down."

"More communities, more BOSS'es. Since the Glitch burned through our ties to Central Governance, its city-states all the way down."

The voices carried up here, the whisper of the sea lost its influence the further away one moved. Ten's favorite vantage point lay below her, a bulge on the cliff face that still bore the marks of his claws. The House lay behind her, she could hear the banging and sliding, the shrill chirps of the Children singing.

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying that maybe the enemy we do know is better than the one we don't."

“He kills people."

"Everybody kills people. You've killed people, I've killed people. We just killed some random thug of his less than twenty minutes ago, and Boss won’t even bat an eye. Ever since the Glitch blew out the Reactor, it's become a horrible, necessary thing. Whoever can generate the power we need sets the rules. There is no Utopia to find, nobody has better rules, not yet, it's too soon. Our perfect colony has become a perfect experiment in how to start over."

"They’re not all like that, not like Boss does to his enemies. You've seen the cages."

Their voices moved behind the house, outside the range of clarity. Maryanne could still hear them, but the words were muddled, all that remained was tone and intensity. It was unusual. It was unsettling. She shifted position on the sand and pebbles, curling and uncurling her tail, trying to find a place where she could watch the sea and still listen to the house. There was just one of her. Maryanne let out a long whine of frustration and cast back and forth, trying to see where the blind spots lay. There were just too many of them. She was going to have to choose.

The beach had always been her priority. There had been thousands just like her, deployed in every place where the sea had ground out a beachhead. She had come to understand that, once she and her sibs were gone, there would be nothing left to repel the adversaries as they swarmed up out of the surfline. That idea was the only thing that made her uncomfortable, the only thing that made her leave the Family every day to patrol the water’s edge.

It hadn't been the adversary that had taken Ten from her. He had simply vanished one day while she lay, sprawled in the hollow of reeds, recharging in the sunlight. The time between attacks had grown longer and longer, with Ten growing more restless during each long pause. It had made him careless, reckless. He had gone off task and she could not bring him back. He had begun to wander far afield during the sunlit hours. Maryanne would at first follow him as far as the edge of the ramshackle houses that were slowly being reclaimed by the sand and wind. Never further, never completely out of sight of the sea. He tried to get her to come along, running out and running back, throwing up long ropes of dust that hung in the air. Maryanne simply sat herself down in the space between the two buildings by way of reply. Eventually she stopped following him even that far. Watch. Defend.

There hadn't been an incursion since Ten had disappeared.

"Maryanne Maryanne Maryanne!"

The Littlest Child was calling, the high pitched tone cutting through the sharp smell of ozone that pricked at her senses. Maryanne was on the alert in one quick motion, quills rattling out to attention. The smell had stuck with her. She had always associated it with the Family's trips away from the sea. After meeting the Family's adversaries today it had taken on a more urgent context.

"Maryaaaaaaaaanne!" Both children came around the corner as fast as their legs could carry them. The Littlest was making the same wailing noise that came when the day had gone on too long, or when the Oldest did something unpleasant. Maryanne stopped in her tracks and dropped her guard, the fibers along her back softening so by the time the Children threw their arms around her they were in no danger.

"Maryanne we don't want to go, but Mom and Dad say we have to." The Oldest looked into Maryanne's eyes. Maryanne took a long look back and held it. The Child’s face was very calm, but the smell of salt and stress was there, just under the surface.

"Dad says you won't come with us, so we have to say goodbye."

Maryanne was puzzled. Littlest Child had her arms around her neck and was tugging, pulling her off balance. She resisted, ducking her head so the child’s arms slid away. The Littlest grabbed for her again, but the Oldest held her back.

"You can come with us if you want, Maryanne. We really want you to come with us."

"We can scooch up really small in the backseat so you have lots of room. And Daddy says he wants to drive down the coast anyways so you can stay by the ocean as much as you want." Littlest's hands twisted against one another. Maryanne sat her rump in the dirt and looked from one to the other, then back again. The Adversary would return, it always did. Her task was to defend the beach. Their task was....

It was the Man's adversary, not hers. Different enemy, different rules. She couldn't abandon her cove to fight their enemy for them. Everyone had an assigned role; everyone had a way to fight. Ten was quick, Nine was strong, Three and Eight could swim. The Man and the Mother were patient, careful. She followed the children back to the house, hanging back a bit while Littlest ran on ahead. Oldest went much more slowly. Maryanne could smell the worry and apprehension in striking counterbalance to Littlest's excitement.

Up ahead of them the little house stood, all the windows and doors splayed open to the sun. The life had already gone out of the structure, all of the sighs and little motions that told Maryanne that the Family was home were absent. It was dead, a corpse that would rot away now that the life had left it. She followed Oldest until the alleyway between the little houses and sat down in the same spot where she’d refused Ten for the last time.

The children scampered ahead, each trying to reach the vehicle first. The road stretched out in both directions, a long ribbon of pockmarked gray that gave off a smell so very unlike the sea Maryanne wanted to bury her nose in the dirt.

"C'mon, Maryanne!  Mom!  Dad!  Maryanne is coming. We hafta move some stuff!"  The little transport they used on the days they went away was there, containers and transport wraps strapped to the roof and back of the vehicle. Maryanne yawned, a long, nervous motion that exposed tongues and teeth.   

The Children were busy burrowing into the back of the vehicle, bags fell out of the open doors and raised their own puffs of dust to add to the haze. The Man raised his voice and moved to stop them, the Mother approached Maryanne.

"We can make room if you want to come, Maryanne." Her bright eyes were soft and sad. Maryanne scuffed her forepaws in the dirt and ducked her head by way of an answer. She had no desire to see them go. Protect. Defend.

She slowly got to her feet, eyes still on the ground. She had her enemy, the Man and the Mother had theirs. She chuffed, turned and trotted back between the houses towards the sea.

"Goodbye Maryanne. Be safe."

Watch. Defend.


The cacophony of surf and skinners were barely enough to cover the sound of her own footfalls on the sand. There were loud days and there were quiet days. Maryanne hadn’t expected this would be one of the quiet days. The departure of the Family seemed to warrant more. More noise, more motion to help fill the empty spaces. She was alone again, defending the cove her only purpose, but she found herself listening for the familiar chirps and footfalls. She adjusted her position on the sand and splayed herself out, letting the sun recharge her on its long slow descent into evening. The webbed chair that the Mother spent her afternoons in cast a shadow beside her, tipped on its side and forgotten in the rush to leave. Maryanne could hear the breeze singing faintly through the webbing, mixing with the whispers from the sea.

She rolled over and showed her belly to the sky. The skinners wheeled overhead in a turbulent mass, drawing a circle to mark the Man and Mother's fallen adversary. They hadn't begun to drop yet; the youngest and least patient would be the first. The young were the most expendable, the skinners could easily double or triple their number as long as there was enough to eat. A flock this size would strip a single carcass down to nothing before the moon came up.

The beam was silent, an ineffective flash that cut across the sky, if she hadn’t been watching the skinners she would have missed it. The flock of skinners split into two, then three, then rejoined into a single, protesting mass. Maryanne rolled to her feet and the smell of ozone reached her a few moments later. Not the vehicle. The weapon. She stayed low and moved up the beach, close to the tangle of cliff and boulders that marked the boundary.

She took the back way, the one that twisted up around the side of the cove. It took an extra burst of energy, a little more careful placement of the feet, but it brought her up behind the houses, out of the lines of sight formed by the once tidy rows and alleys.

"You're just wasting your shots."

The speaking female was shorter than the Mother, broader in shoulders, but equally commanding. Her voice reminded Maryanne of the skinners; it had a cutting edge to it. Maryanne hunkered down and waited to see what they would do. The cove, the sea was her priority, but the row of houses had become a part of her watch and she found that she could not go back to ignoring them.

The other two were younger, smelling of unruly disrespect. They rolled the corpse onto a tarp and wrapped it tightly. It did nothing to diminish the smell that called the skinners; the circle wheeled overhead, marking the spot for anyone to see. If they stayed up too long, more would come to investigate.

"Damn things oughta be more scared of us."

The Speaker sneered. "As long as we're alive and kicking, we're too much trouble. The minute you stop movin’, you're just meat, remember that. Bury him away from the road, skinners can't dig." She pushed her hat back, exposing dark eyes and sunburned features. "Make it snappy. I'm all for bein' respectful of the dead, but Tanner's got at least a couple hours head start."

"Boss said they'd hold him at Lackmoor when he got there."

"Lackmoor has three Enforcers, only one of who got something better than a slingshot. They're not holding Tanner or Nellie for more than fifteen minutes, less if she's in a bad mood when they approach."

"Tanner’s that much of a badass?"  

"Tanner'll talk his way out, he's good at that. Nellie doesn't talk much, they’ll never see her coming, and she’ll make it hurt."  She walked over to inspect the digging. Maryanne could just make out the brim of her hat, a defiant bright red against the sand and scrub. "That body look bit or shot to you?"

"Shot for sure. Skinners ain't got to him yet."

"Too bad, there woulda been less to bury."

"What about that monster-dog that Clarence was going on about. I saw the marks on his neck, something got him."

"What, the Defender?  Clarence musta shot at him or something. You don't go after the Defenders, they don't go after you. They're programmed to protect the beaches, nothing else. Nobody's got the firepower to deal with military grade biotech."

Maryanne raised her hackles at this, but stayed silent. These were not her adversary, the Family had safely escaped. Watch. Defend.

"Still, if we run across it, be prepared. No warning shots, that just pisses them off. Aim for the head and hope nothing can bite through a face full of lead."

The smell was gone, replaced by the deeper pong of fresh turned dirt and battered greens. The skinners grew confused, their tidy circle wavering around the edges, then breaking up into smaller groups that wheeled off, searching for more carrion.

"Check the house next. I'll get the transport."

"He locked the transport?"

"Clarence may not work well under pressure, but he follows instructions to a tee. The transport and everything in it were supposed to be a bribe to get Tanner to come back peaceably." She walked over to the vehicle, appraising it with her eyes. "Well, Tanner had the sense to cut the bolts. This thing's not going anywhere."

"Wheels look fine."

The Woman put one foot up on the front corner and put all her weight into the shove. The springs creaked. Maryanne caught the sharp sound of metal on metal as the whole thing shifted and sank, wheels akimbo as the bolts sheared through.

"Oh that's just mean."

"Tanner’s not stupid. We came prepped for cut tires. Not for this."  She continued her slow walk around until she came to the trunk. It popped open without protest. She stared into the shadows for a moment, harrumphed and slammed it shut again. "Left the Trades too, damn it."

"Boss'll be happy about that."

"Yeah, but it makes our job harder. The Trades were tagged, we can track 'em". The Speaker jerked a thumb at the little row of houses. "Change of plan. Burn it down. All of it. I want Tanner to see the smoke column in his rear-view mirror."

"You want him to know we're coming?"

"He already knows. I just want him running so he doesn't have time to plan any nasty surprises for us. Boss won’t let him go without a fight."   

Protect. Defend.

When black smoke started pouring out of the houses, Maryanne struck. She was not as lithe or silent as Ten. She was not as accurate or as hard hitting as Five. She was One. She could adapt. She could engage a new Adversary.

She dragged the body into the house, ignoring the licks of flame and sealing her nostrils shut against the smoke. She exited with grace through the wide open windows, ignoring the tumbled leavings. There would be nothing left when the fire had gone.

Protect. Defend.

She stayed low to the ground, hugged the line of sand and scrub that shoved up along the backside of the houses. She caught the second man there as he emerged from one of the abandoned places. Like the first, she dragged his corpse inside and left him, blood pooling on the floor.

The woman would be harder. She was already behind the wheel, safely sealed off behind transparent plexi and bonded carbon. Maryanne hunkered down in the shade beside the last house on the row. If it had been the Mother or the Man, they would have left to search for whomever was missing. The Speaker and the Corpses were unrelated, partnered up with a common goal, she didn't know if they would act the same, but until the vehicle started moving, she could wait.

Maryanne’s coat shivered, adopting the darker tones of shadow and dirt. She could smell the change in the air as the fire chewed its way through the Home and began licking at the surrounding structures. The Speaker, barely visibly behind the vehicle windows, grew impatient. Maryanne could hear the springs crackle as her weight shifted.

The born bleated, a flat mechanical sound that made Maryanne’s ears ring. The humming aftertone was almost enough to conceal the squeak of the window as it opened.    

“There you are.”  The Speaker didn’t raise her voice. She addressed Maryanne directly, looking straight into the patch of shadow and weeds. “I was wondering if you’d come up when you saw the smoke.”

Maryanne still waited. The Speaker’s gaze never wavered. She put one arm up on the window, a gesture meant to show confidence. Maryanne could recognize the posturing. The other arm brought a weapon into view, but held loosely, most pointed at the ground.

“I don’t suppose you left either of my guys alive?  We’re not here to bother you, or your beach, ugly critter.”    

The appearance of the weapon was enough. Maryanne got slowly to her feet, quills twisting into defensive spikes, jaw dropping. The weapon came up, the Speaker’s eyes widened, but more tellingly, her scent changed. Not for long, just a quick, sharp burst. Beneath the growing canopy of smoke, behind the lightning exhalation of the engine, Maryanne recognized the smell of guilty fear.      

“We’re just looking for somebody, we don’t mean any harm.”  The Speaker switched the weapon to her other hand, keeping it trained on Maryanne’s slow approach. “I know what you are. I know you understand my words. I am not your Adversary.”

Maryanne stopped.

The Speaker would continue to pursue the Family, she would follow them until ended. There would be a pause, then there would be more. Maryanne hadn’t adapted quickly enough. Now she understood. Maryanne stretched, a gesture meant to unlimber tendons, relax the muscles.

“Thought so.”  The Speaker threw the vehicle into gear. Maryanne heard the pins disengage, the flywheel start to spin. She waited until the Speaker’s attention had shifted to the road ahead.

Then Maryanne ripped the door off.

The bright asphalt ribbon stretched in both directions. The row of doomed houses continued to seethe black smoke as the flames chewed them down to their concrete foundations. Little licks of flame made reaching attempts to cross the road, to ignite the dry grass and brush that would feed it for days. The gap was just a bit too far and the wind was against it, pushing the smoke and sparks back towards the sea.

The smell of the road was so very unlike the sea. Maryanne wanted to bury her nose in the sand and be rid of it. Instead she sniffed, a broad, all over body inhalation and shook the sand and dust from her coat.

Protect. Defend.

She began her slow jog along the road to the South. The Family lay ahead. It was time to adapt. 

Copyright © 2015 by Kimberly Unger


by Leigh Bracket

One of the "10 Books You Pretend to Read (And Why You Should Really Read Them)io9



The Editor's Word

Recipe: 1 Universe
by Effie Seiberg

Airborne All the Way

by David Drake
Dreidel of Dread
by Alex Shvartsman
by Marina J. Lostetter
Red Letter Day
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

The Ides of Nevah-Nevah
by Sharon Joss

Hic Sunt Monstra
by Brian Trent
Sea Change

by Kimberly Unger
Frog Kiss

by Kevin J. Anderson

Give Your All

by Leena Likitalo
Miles to Go

by Sheila Finch

Connie Willis

by Joy Ward

Reboots (Part 2)
by Mercedes Lackey
& Cody Martin

From the Heart's Basement
by Barry Malzberg
Science Column
by Gregory Benford

Book Reviews
by Bill Fawcett & Jody Lynn Nye





(in December!)

ONLY $899

all-inclusive on a
luxury cruise ship















Copyright © Arc Manor LLC 2015. All Rights Reserved. Galaxy's Edge is an online magazine published every two months (January, March, May, July, September, November) by Phoenix Pick, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Arc Manor Publishers.