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
“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.
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.
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
"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
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,
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,
"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
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
"Don't call me stupid!"
"I didn't call you stupid, I said don’t
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
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.”
“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. ”
“Well, he shot the last one.”
“Of course he did. Maryanne, let him go
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
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
“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
"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
"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
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."
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
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
"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
"Too bad, there woulda been less to
"What about that monster-dog that
Clarence was going on about. I saw the marks on his neck, something got
"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.
"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
"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."
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.
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
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.”
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
She began her slow jog along the road to the
South. The Family lay ahead. It was time to adapt.