BY J. D. WAYE
HOW DO you fight something when you don’t know the rules? Everything we’d been taught — all our survival skills, camouflage techniques, combat strategies — didn’t work on this planet. Deadly spores, deadly vines, ripe fruit denied to our empty stomachs. No meat to hunt; not a single animal roamed this Garden of Hell. Even the grass betrayed us, lying flat and exposing us as we crawled toward the crest of the ridge.
The last two humans left behind until that shuttlecraft streaked across the sky — and its occupants were avoiding us.
“Why haven’t they tried to contact us? They must have seen the smoke.” I forced my way through a thicket of undergrowth, trying not to damage any of the bamboo-like bushes. It would be easier to scythe the plants down, but who knew the repercussions involved in that action?
“They would have turned around and landed in the village, if contacting us were their intentions.” Miller kept his voice low, the bushes and trees seeming to lean in and eavesdrop on our conversation.
We cleared the ridge and kept our heads down, both of us scoping the scene with our binoculars. The shuttlecraft lurched to one side, landing gear damaged in an amateur attempt to touch down. Coveralled men milled about, tending a fire, rolling out barrels of supplies. The flight crew lay prostrate on the field, grey uniforms tattered and bloodied, one squirming, the other three motionless.
Blue bandana around his head, Citizen Faust 96239 — the identity stitched on his clothing — kicked the surviving crewmember, grabbed him by the collar, screamed into his face.
Faust’s pantomimed questions went unanswered. The last crewmember, pistol-whipped to a bloody pulp, collapsed to the ground. The gun’s barrel about-faced and dug into his forehead. Skull bones shattered; brains exploded. A fraction of a second later, gunshot echoed off the rocky ridge face.
I dropped my binoculars and reached for my rifle. Miller placed his hand over mine, the briefest headshake stopping me. Two of his fingers flicked; time to withdraw. I followed him back down the slope, away from the ship.
“We need to burn those corpses,” I said. “Those men — they’re all going to die.”
“Good.” He turned away, his long strides increasing the distance between us and them.
“Why are we leaving? What do you know, that you’re not telling me?”
Miller paused, the habit of rank secrecy so ingrained it still battled within him. Just like how he had to struggle each time he touched me, knowing it was forbidden in our old life.
“It’s a Chain Gang Shuttle,” he said. “Criminals condemned to hard labour, come to clear the land.”
“Why didn’t Mothership warn them, stop them? Make them turn around?”
“She would have. They hijacked the ship.”
I grabbed Miller’s arm. “We need to do something.”
“It’s not my job anymore.”
“Then what is your job?”
“To keep you alive. Let’s go.”
Something ate away at him, chewed him up inside. Miller was no coward. He looked Death straight in the face when we got left behind by Mothership, pulled me out of a nest of killer vines. He’d earned my trust. But now his muscles tensed, his eyes clouding with emotions I didn’t understand.
I swallowed my questions and followed him into the jungle. Whatever ghost nipped at his heels kept him moving. We hiked until my legs trembled with fatigue. Hours after sunset, we came across an abandoned barn, a crudely thrown-together wood-slat construction. I stopped, looked into his eyes. Exhaustion devoured me whole —t hat, and disappointment over the loss of human contact.
He held the barn door open for me, swept away our footprints from the path, and covered me over with our scavenged blanket. The whites of his eyes darted, watchful; sentinels to the demons that plagued him. Too keyed up to sleep, he took first watch.
Snake-like coils softly embraced my skin, wrapping around my limbs. A tendril strayed, wavered and withdrew, then stroked across the hollow of my throat.
I gasped as it squeezed, choking off my breath. Not even enough air left to scream.
“Eva. Wake up. You’re having another nightmare.”
Miller shook me urgently, until I blinked and surfaced. No — no killer vines — not here. We were safe for now, inside the barn. The scent of hay lingered along with the smell of livestock, all perished from the spores, but the imprint of life had not yet been erased.
I smiled as he kissed me on the cheek. Brown eyes flecked with gold crinkled at the corners, warm and inviting, the part of him I liked best. His lips strayed across my throat, pausing, waiting for an invitation. Dawn’s beams scattered through the cracks in the walls, shattering stripes of light across the hay bales. He sat back on his heels, his dark hair crowned by a halo as it crossed the beams. Out of the shadows now, his skin picked up an odd purple hue, the aubergine of eggplants.
“Eva. Wake up.”
A dream within a dream. Still trapped on this nightmare planet, though.
The real Miller had green eyes now. Something had changed them, something in the air, the food, the water, saturating his irises first with a hazel hue; now a deeper green. And the real Miller had a bloody nose, from where I’d accidentally punched him in my sleep.
He wiped a sleeve across his upper lip, smearing blood across his morning stubble. He kissed me tentatively, not surprised when I turned away, still too close to that dark dream world.
I shoved some canned food into my pack, somebody’s abandoned emergency stash. He filled the water bags by hand-pumping the well. At least the colonists had thought of how to survive if the power failed. They’d never considered how to survive if Mother Nature fought back against their efforts to farm the land.
Miller hesitated before he slipped into the bright morning, letting his eyes adjust, his senses sharpen. Overnight the moss had grown, climbing up the sides of the barn, bursting with new clusters of green at an accelerated rate, thickest on the outside wall where we had been sleeping.
He drew in a big breath and puffed it out slowly onto the moss, like blowing out birthday candles on a cake. Everywhere his breath touched, the moss reacted, greening and blooming.
“It’s feeding off the carbon dioxide in our breath. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the plants doomed themselves to extinction with those defensive spores. It’s just a matter of time before the environment collapses.”
“One more thing to worry about,” I said.
“It won’t happen in our lifetime.” His hand rubbed my shoulder. I moved in closer, into the crook of his arm, inhaling that male scent of his, devoid now of civilization, of shaving cream and soap. “Have you reloaded your pistol? Here, take Reese’s ammo.”
I winced when he mentioned Reese, never considered plundering my dead friend’s pack.
Miller froze, put a finger to his lips, and pointed at the trees. Something moved there, shifting through the undergrowth. Branches swayed, leaves curling inwards. Wild field flowers closed their heads. Everything around us suddenly stopped moving. We crouched down, trying to conceal ourselves in the long grass, but it flattened.
Something hunted us.
We fled into the jungle in the opposite direction. I tensed as that rattlesnake vibration started up. We dropped and crawled away from the source of pursuit, but every leaf, every branch, betrayed our efforts.
No matter where we ran, an armed prisoner awaited. Herded like cattle, we were forced toward the shuttle, twisting and turning, running, running; flushed out, with nowhere to hide in the fields of wheat.
Six figures stepped out, guns pointing. “Drop your weapons.”
Miller froze, his cool gaze appraising the odds. Not in our favour. Three more of them perched in the trees. I counted Miller’s blinks, then he clenched his jaw twice: the signal to surrender.
I threw my gun to the ground and raised my hands to the back of my head. Faust patted me down, running his filthy hands over me, finding everything — my pocket knife, my hunting knife, even the coil of garrotte wire in my hair.
Lean and bald, a man stepped forward, eyes dancing over Miller like he’d just won the grand prize at the fair. “Well, well. Look who it is. Captain Andy.”
Miller swallowed, every muscle straining, tightening. “Hello Crow.”
“Bet you regret surrendering now. Would have gone out in a blaze of glory, wouldn’t you, son?” He strutted over to Miller, poking him in the chest with our machete. “Too late.”
Laughter bounced through the clearing. The trees shivered and hummed, but the Chain Gang didn’t understand the warning sound. They marched us to their campsite, leaving us bound and gagged until dusk.
Flickering firelight, greasy faces in the glow; the dank odours of fear, canned beans, and decay.
Faust ripped the tape from my mouth. “How many colonists? Where are they hiding?”
I stared at him, silent and defiant.
“Tell me.” He grabbed my hair, pulling back my head to expose my throat. “Talk.”
“I am Private Perez 4930. I am a hostage. I cannot be broken —”
Crow threw his head back and laughed. “Miller’s been feeding you that crap. I’ll break you Perez. You’ll see.”
“You are my enemy, but you shall not defeat my will.” Faust’s fist slammed into my skull, silencing me.
Crow signalled. Two men dragged Miller upright, holding his head.
“You want me to fix her good, boss?” Faust leered out of focus; I spotted four eyes, then two. He came closer, foul breath reeking, broken teeth grinning. “Make him watch.”
Miller struggled against the men holding him. “I’ll kill you, Faust.”
“She’s mine now.” The edge of Crow’s blade danced inches from my eye, ready to flick out my eyeball if I moved. Instead it caressed the skin of my cheek, carving a half-circle into the flesh. Blood swelled and dripped. “I’ve branded you. C for Crow.”
“You bastard.” Miller wrestled free in a twisting jerk, head-butting the two men restraining him. He charged Crow, heedless of the blade. Faust reached him first. They collided, toppling into the yellow grass. The knife slid into Miller’s chest, puncturing a lung. Blood erupted, bursting from his lips, his nose. My Miller, the reason I was still alive, tried to stand, dropped to his knees. An involuntary scream erupted from me.
Black eyes, red rage. Crow knocked Faust down, next to Miller. “No! You idiot! I told you not to kill him.”
Miller sucked in a gurgling breath and spit out a mouthful of blood, right into Faust’s eyes.
Faust blinked, wiped his hands across his eyes, and threw his arm over his face. “It burns.” He rose to his feet, stumbling, staggering, as the rash bloomed across his throat, down his neck, like wild fire over his skin. Blisters rose, broke, oozing green goo. He melted head first, arms and legs flailing, torso dissolving into a puddle of slime.
The Chain Gang stepped back, away from me.
Out of the jungle came that rattlesnake chorus, rising and humming, shaking with a storm wind that didn’t blow from the sky. Dragging footsteps; low guttural groans. An army of misshapen warriors emerged, a parody of the dead flight crew: aubergine skin, eyes without whites, mouths without teeth, mutant freaks with a zombie gait stroll. Relentless.
Chaos erupted. The Chain Gang screamed, ran, firing rounds into exploding targets, like smashing pumpkins. But the mutants kept coming. They gored and strangled the humans, dragging them away to God knows where, for uncertain purpose.
I threw myself over Miller; his blood pooling into the tall grass. One of the broken freaks crawled toward me, sniffing my legs, sniffing Miller. Motionless and quiet, I felt no fear. There wasn’t anything it could take away from me now. It ignored us, turning away, attention caught by the last living prisoner squirming near the campfire. I closed my eyes until the screaming stopped.
Miller squeezed my hand, staring unblinking at the two moons. Not quite dead — not yet.
“Don’t leave me,” I whispered.
Moss crawled and thickened where his last breath kissed the ground, resisting my attempts to tear it away from his limbs, until I finally stopped fighting it, accepted it; let it shroud him with soft tender leaves.
Tiny yellow flowers opened where my tears damped the growth, raising petal faces to the brightening emerald sky. Dawn always rises, whether you’re ready for it or not. Whether grief and loneliness overwhelms you, or doesn’t.
To give up now would dishonour Miller — everything he stood for.