The Last Ones

A little something based on these musings.

It was difficult to tell what the animal might have been. A rabbit, perhaps, but a large one. These days, half the creatures Buzz ate didn’t really fit any of the old names.

He waved his hands to scare the flies away, but they just came back. Fur from the ragged skin of the carcass puffed away and floated in the air of the dying desert day. The meat of the creature was greenish and almost liquid as he lifted it to his mouth. He tried not to breathe, tried not to taste, tried, just for a moment, to suspend all conscious thought, to become a machine until the creature was in his belly. There were parts worse than the meat, and he would have to eat all of them to stay alive.

As the first bite slid down his throat, he took a shuddering breath and wiped a tear from his cheek. His stomach reacted happily, asking only for more.

“Hi Buzz!”

The girl was sitting on a rock about fifteen feet away, glowing in the evening light, her schoolgirl dress shorter than what he suspected would actually be tolerated in a Japanese school, her legs akimbo. The sere landscape behind her was faintly visible through her glowing form. “Heishi-chan,” he said.

“I’m so glad you found the food!”

“Yes. Thank you for telling me about it. I’d be lost without you.”

“I found another thing, kind of a dog, maybe? It’s still moving. Twenty-one point seven-five kilometers on a bearing one-one-six. It’s a little out of the way…”

Buzz opened his throat and let another bit of carrion slide its way to his stomach.

When his throat loosened up he asked, “Did you get another look at the river?”

“Oh, yes! I have devoted most of my sensors to the river since you told me you wanted to know more about it.”

“Are there people there?”

“Yes! There are many, many people!”

Buzz felt his heart jump in his chest. His time of solitude was almost over. “That’s great!”

“But they’re all dead. I think the river must be poison. Whoever escaped the bombs seems doomed to drink from the river.” Heishi put on a sad face.

Buzz slumped into the sterile dust and looked at his meal. He wondered if it was worth even bothering to eat anymore.

“You have to stay strong,” Heishi said.

“Why?”

“You’re my friend, Buzz. I would kill everything that still lives on Earth for you.”

“I don’t want you to do that.”

“And I won’t, because you don’t want me to. Because you’re my only friend and I would be so sad if you were mad at me.”

“Don’t you talk to other people, too? When your orbit is over some other continent?”

Suddenly she was cagey. “Of course I do. But… I would kill them if you asked me to.”

“Don’t kill them.”

Her face lit up with happiness. “Okay! I think they’re all going to die soon, anyway! They can’t eat what you can.”

Buzz let out a breath into the cooling desert air. “This really is the end, isn’t it, Heishi? There’s no reason anymore to pretend that humanity will survive. I may as well end the farce.”

Heishi knotted her hands together and clutched them to her gratuitously-ample holographic breasts. “Um… Buzz? I just detected motion at the farthest reach of my instruments. I won’t know until I can adjust my flight path, but it seems like it might be a woman.”

“You’re lying.”

“Please eat, Buzz. I promise I have detected a female biped that might be human.”

Buzz looked at the almost-rabbit he was choking down and wondered what an almost-human would be like. Not unlike himself, he concluded.

1

Knives Episode 36 Published!

A quiet place, relatively safe. Physical wounds can be tended to, but perhaps those are not the only injuries our little band of heroes has suffered. It is, at last, a moment to pause, and to decide how to act rather than merely react. Which begs the question “Just what is it we want to accomplish?”

I like this episode for a few reasons. The last sentence is the biggest of those. A big moment for Katherine.

Anyway, enjoy Episode 36: People Like Us.

Behind the scenes, I didn’t get as many actual words written as I had hoped to while in Kansas. The reasons for that are complex, but with the help of the Repeat Offenders I came to a couple of significant decisions, story-wise. One of those changes is particularly scary (for me), and will be challenging to get right. To be honest, it paralyzed me for a bit. I have taken on a new tactic as I make my way to the big change: Try not to think about it too much.

Knives Episode 27 Released

Actually I hit the “publish” button a few days ago, but never got the announcement out. Whups.

In this episode the group, now one larger, returns to the ruin to get the thing that’s under all the bodies. Whatever is is. We learn a little more about the woman who lends her name to the title of this episode, and a little of Bags’ history as well.

Speaking of Bags’ history, I’m giving up on the Patreon plugin for WordPress that is supposed to “simplify” the process of allowing patrons to see content others can’t. It’s just not very good, and I simply don’t have enough patrons to warrant trying to fix it. This weekend I’ll set up a simpler, manual system to allow my bestest friends in the whole world to see the backstories without the current malarkey. I look forward to the day that manually granting access is overwhelming.

Also, I’ll be posting the last, sloppiest, part of Bags’ history, so I can get to the job of posting Kat’s backstory. Once I get that out I’ll start twisting arms again to get people to spread the word so we can cross the next backstory threshold.

Read the episode!

1

All-Nighter

She lay her head down on the table, wild dark hair soaking up spilled beer and mingling with the guacamole. “The problem with places that never close,” she said, her airy voice barely audible over the driving ranchero music of the cantina, “is that you can never go home.”

3

November 1st, 2016

It has become a tradition for me to post my first night’s work here on the inaugural day of NaNoWriMo. This may not be all I write tonight, but it’s a good size for an excerpt.

Jaqi broke the surface with a gasp. “Four divers up!” Smokey called from the raft, his raspy voice carrying over the calm water. As Jaqi tread water, panting, she allowed herself a little smile. Last one up, again. Once the firefiles cleared from her vision and her breath slowed down she turned and swam to the raft, where her friends were already being pulled aboard. She passed her arm through a hoop welded to one of the steel barrels that foemed the floats of the raft, and waited until someone could pull her up. It would have been an easy climb, had she not just spent four minutes holding her breath.
After a few seconds Aaron’s sunburned arm reached down and she took his hand and let him pull her up.

Madre,” she said, and laid down on the sun-hot planks, feeling the heat of the sun on her skin. Someone handed her a tin cup with fresh water. Aaron had retreated to the sheltered section of the raft, heavy canvas supported by a steel frame cast half the raft into shadow impenetrable to her light-adapted eyes, but she could hear the children in there, doing their lessons with white-haired Annabelle, while young, gangly Alex no doubt watched over the cook fire. In the sun to her left Big John cursed steadily while fussing over one of the guy lines that held the mast in place.

“Anything?” Smokey asked. His dark hair was showing gray now. He had never been a big man, but now it seemed like a puff of wind would carry him back to his home in Cuba. He had threatened to pilot the whole raft there, one of these days, but Jaqi had heard that they were shooting new refugees there now. Sparrow said they were eating them, but Sparrow said lots of things.

Jaqi shook her head. “Fuckin’ South Beach,” she said. She sat up and looked down at the water, reading the gentle waves as they revealed where buildings stood below the surface. To the east, the rolling waves from the Atlantic broke over a reef that had once been the hotels and night clubs that lined Ocean drive, now just a jumble of broken, twisted beams and slabs of concrete breaking the surface, discolored by a slick layer of algae.

On the other side, the towers that lined Alton Road had also fared poorly when Henrietta had struck, the storm surge toppling two while undermining the rest. The Icon still stood, damaged when the Murano Grande went down, but only a few crazies lived there, distilling the brevetoxins from red tides into a substance they called “Brevelicious.” What they didn’t consume themselves, they sold to the archipelago. Sparrow knew a couple of them, he even said he’d spent the night there once, but Sparrow said a lot of things. At night the screams of madness from the Icon carried over the water for miles, while lights flashed wildly only to go abruptly dark

Jaqi lay back down, her black braid still dripping onto the deck. “Everything’s collapsed down there,” she said. “Your fuckin’ wine bar is gone, acere.”

Smoky looked up along the darker blue stretches that announced a streets lay below, forming a neat grid. “It’s around here somewhere,” he said.

Javy stood and spit over the side, his brown skin perfect in the sun, his lean frame starting to fill out with muscle. He almost caught Jaqi looking at him. “Either someone got it already or all the bottles are broke. There’s nothing left this close to the towers,” he said. “Fucking scuba dipshits were all over this.”

“We got time for another dive?” asked Jaqi.

Aaron frowned and looked at his phone. “Satellite says weather’s comin’ in.”

“Don’t look like it,” Javy said, making a show of inspecting the horizon.

Smokey shook his head. “Those are the worst ones. Barometer?”

“Dropping,” Aaron said. “But not much yet.”

“One more dive,” Jaqi said. She hated coming up empty-handed.

“You haven’t had time to recover from the last one.”

“I’ll make it a short one,” she said. “We’ll be heading for the towers in five minutes.” Already she was taking deep breaths, hyperventilting to fill her blood with oxygen.

Smokey sighed. “Anyone else want one more?”

Javy shrugged. “Sure.”

“You just said there was no point.”

He shrugged again.

Rosa said, “Fuck it,” and took her t-shirt off. Jaqi watched Javy watch Rosa adjust her bikini top. Jaqi busied herself with her fllippers and her mask. Short dive. The building she had tried to find a way into her last time down might have had retail space on the bottom floor. If she went straight at it, found an opening, there might be something worthwhile inside.
“Three divers,” Smokey said. “Get ready.”

Jaqi moved to the edge of the raft, and fiddled with her own one-piece suit, almost dizzy from the oxygen in her blood, but still breathing hard.

“Divers go,” Smokey said, and Jaqi dropped from the edge of the raft into the cloudy tropical water.

Miami, 2049

A setting for a story: Miami 2049. Shining towers rise from the sea, a glass archipelago. On the lower stories, buffeted by the sea, glass has been replaced with stout timber, purchased from the mainland, but higher up the old glass still gleams. If you look closely you will see missing panes here and there; in Miami, breaking a window isn’t just bad luck, it’s reason for exile.

Some of Miami’s towers have have fallen in the storms; others still stand tall, each a city-state.

All around them, the sea. Once teeming with fish, perpetual algae blooms have robbed the water of oxygen. All that’s left is algae and whales that eat algae. Suddenly-prosperous whales seem more organized than they used to be.

Algae is the blood of this place. Each building has a small fleet of algae harvesters, plying seas once rich with fish to provide protein for the starving masses on the mainland, now 100 miles away and receding. Protein is worth a premium, and what is left of Miami is prosperous.

Below the surface are streets still clogged with cars, and drowned shopfronts where once was sold for a premium things which have no value now. Gadgets and fancy clothes. Two stories up, piers extend from the glittering city-buildings, providing a place to load cargo, but offering no shelter from the all-too-frequent storms. It is widely accepted that once ocean temperatures find a new equilibrium that the storms will return to the relatively benign level of fury known in the 20th century and before, but the people of Miami have learned not to wait for that to happen.

The buildings’ bosses can efficiently control access, both at the piers and in the stairwells. Socially, building-states are insular, with two exceptions: There is a complex system of taboos governing sex and enforcing the exchange of women between buildings, and there are some tradesmen, primarily doctors and merchants, who can move between the buildings relatively freely. Of course, wherever they go, they are quizzed about the other buildings, but the smart ones know that those who tell tales won’t be in business long.

Out on the sea the algae harvesters have their own society, quite distinct from the structure in the archipelago. While the harvesters are not completely separate from the building-state rivalries back home, they have their own ethical code while out on the sea. Because of the wealth they bring, they have a level of autonomy other citizens do not.

There is still enough tech that they know when storms are coming. It has been a couple of years since a building toppled, but the possibility is real – though the greatest risk was when the surf lapped at the buildings’ foundations.

When a building falls, the city pulls together to save the victims. And if your building rescues particularly valuable citizens, all the better. Spoken out loud is a strict ethical code regarding helping a drowning neighbor, but some building-states might not honor the intent, even while they honor the letter.

So there’s a setting, one I rather like. If someone were inspired to use that setting for a story, I’d be right pleased.

TFNIWLNW: 15

Time makes no sense when the world is ending before your eyes. We stood, watching, helpless, as the walls of the fortress sagged, the towers fell, and all that could burn was consumed until not even ash remained. The captain held his men back and held back his own tears. After a while the horror exhausted us and we were just a group of empty shells, staring down on the destruction. Some of the soldiers sat; Bags disappeared into the forest. No one thought to follow their prisoner. Kat remained mounted, watching the destruction and death with a jaw set so hard I thought her teeth would shatter.

Elena stood next to me, her hand forgotten on my sleeve. “I hate all the gods,” she said. The captain looked up at her, startled, his eyes empty. He nodded slowly and turned his gaze back to the fortress.

I wanted my knives back. My skin itched where they should have been strapped against my wrists and legs, my hands twitched and flexed, missing their reassurance. My mouth was dry, which is just as well because my throat was too tight to swallow. If I didn’t find a way to get my weapons back soon, I was likely to do something foolish.

Finally it was over. The land around us was released from its unnatural twilight, and the fortress cowered under a sun no longer its enemy. In the town, the bell continued to toll in its stone tower, low and mournful, as if it were accomplishing something. Several of the dwellings on the north side of town were now afire, their thatch roofs and timbered rafters engulfed in yellow flame. The wind pulled the smoke of the fires toward the ruined fortress, where it rose with the heated air high into the sky. At least the fire would not spread through the town. I watched as men and women rushed about, some to draw water from the river, some to the burning houses, and others, soldiers, mostly, stepping cautiously into the blackened circle where their home and their friends had once been.

The captain stirred. “Let’s give what help we can,” he said. He looked around. “Where’s the big one?”

“Right here,” Bags said, emerging from the woods. The wind at his back blew his hair into his face, where it clung to the moisture on his cheeks. A few chunks of what had once been his breakfast were caught in his shiny new ring shirt. I’d never seen him look so tired.

“Get ready to move out,” the captain said.

“I think that would be unwise,” I said.

The captain was too exhausted to be angry. “I don’t care what you think.”

“They thought we would be in there,” I said. “They thought Elena would be there.”

He looked at me with narrowed eyes.

“That was for us.”

He paused for a moment but in the end he shrugged and let out a long breath. “Then the last place they will look for us is in there,” he said. “We are going. If you don’t want to come along, I’ll be happy to cut you down were you stand.”

I looked over at Kat and Bags. They were watching me. “Might be someone in there,” Bags said. “In a cellar or something. Needs help.”

Elena’s grip tightened on my arm. “We have to help,” she said. The wind shifted for a moment, bringing the smell of burning fields. A large gray ash drifted between slowly between us, hanging in the air, twisting and curling in the wind. It came to rest in her hair. “We have to fucking help,” she said. Her eyes looked a little wild and I regretted saying out loud that all those people had died in an attempt to kill her. The only innocent in the group was going to blame herself for the evil of others.

And so we went. Somewhere, people who could melt a fortress were working to confirm they had killed Elena. They would have people in the town, or somewhere nearby. Eventually they would know they failed, and they would try again. I had no hope of protecting her. Against the might of the Soul Thieves I had a few pieces of sharp metal. And at the moment, I didn’t even have that. As we walked I flipped a piece of wood between my hands, shifting it in my fingers, keeping them moving so they wouldn’t shake so badly.

The center of the destruction was a neat circle perhaps half a mile across; around that the fields burned, but the ragged line of the fire, driven inward by the wind toward the shimmering heat of the fortress, was not moving quickly. Once inside that ring we were blanketed in choking smoke that burned at my eyes and nose. I moistened a cloth and put it over Elena’s face, then did the same for myself.

We stepped past the smoldering stubble onto the hardened earth where the sun had shone so brightly. Around the edges bones of people and animals lay in charred piles, distinguishable by their teeth. A few cautious steps farther in and the dark, once-fertile soil was hard on the surface. Shining stone. Life had been erased here, never to return.

Of the buildings at the foot of the fortress, little remained. A stunted, sagging chimney and a warped, blackened anvil marked the location of a forge. Livestock pens had been reduced to areas with occasional charred bones. As had the barracks. Metal glinted here and there on the burned plain; armor, swords, and the simple tools of everyday life were almost indistinguishable. No knives to be scavenged out here.

We reached the moat, and I felt my stomach twist in my gut. The slow-moving water was choked with corpses — men, livestock, and fish all floating together, pale and bloated, singed and burned and boiled to death. Beneath the surface I could see hints of metal, the armor of men who had chosen drowning over burning. The earth, the stones, the air itself radiated with heat. I felt sweat trickling down my spine.

The air was heavy with the smell of cooked meat and the astringent smell of baked earth. When the bodies in the river began to decompose, Brower’s Landing would face a host of new problems. But, cooked as they were, the bodies would be slow to ripen.

We joined a group of men working to build a makeshift bridge to span the moat and reach the hole in the wall that had once been a door. It was going to take some time; they were tearing down structures in town for the lumber, and dragging it behind reluctant horses.

“Tell those lazy sacks of shit to hurry,” Elena said.

I nodded, and tilted my head back to look at the wall looming over us. “I’ll go on up,” I said. “See if anyone needs help.” I did not wait for the captain’s response.

I slipped out of my cloak and waded into the river, pushing my way through the death, stumbling over soft objects wedged in the muck beneath my feet. Something brushed my leg and I looked down to find a face staring up at me, attached to a bloated body, the eye sockets burned-out holes, the flesh pink and gray and shiny. No hair, teeth blackened behind burned-off lips. I turned aside and puked.

My great aunt Heldie was the one who taught me to swim. She taught all my family the art. It was, of course, a pragmatic decision — the water, she taught us, could be a very effective avenue of escape for those who knew how to use it. Today I was inclined to agree with her. I was sure I was escaping something as I crossed the water, but I had no idea what. I would be alone for a short time, and perhaps that was enough. I came up on the shore at the base of the fortress, clinging to rock still hot to the touch, streaked with soot where shrubs had once grown in the fissures. Around me others were already working to create the footings for a new bridge. They assumed I was there to help them. Instead I climbed.

The climbing was easy at first, over the rough living stone. By the time I got to the remains of the dressed stone blocks of the wall, however, there were few handholds and heat radiated off the walls and through my clothing and I was sweating like a slave in the pits of hell. I took off my shirt, tore it up, and wrapped a sleeve around each of my hands. I looked up at the empty gate, my destination, ten feet above my head. Rubble had fallen, partially blocking the way but providing plenty of scrambling opportunities. Move fast, touch as little as possible. Once up there, try to find a safe place before my feet burn up. A simple plan.

The day dimmed again, but it was not like before. I looked up. The clouds were back, gathering quickly. I swallowed, took a breath, and started my scramble. Up, up, the stone heating my hands and my feet, I scrabbled and pushed over the broken wall and into the cluttered gap that had once been a gate. I fell on my shoulder, cried out, rolled, the heat of the stone cooking my skin. On my feet once more I found a fallen stone to stand on; exposed on all sides it had cooled faster than the rest of the fortress.

I crouched on it, lifting one foot and then the other, certain I was about to cook to death. When the first raindrop fell, hissing at it hit the heated stone nearby, I paid no attention. But then another raindrop fell, and then another. The sky opened and rain fell in earnest, heavy drops that slammed into the heated stone with purpose, only to be turned to steam. I was surrounded by billowing clouds, turning the demolished fortress into a strange, shifting world of air and stone. My imagination turned shadows in the mist into monsters come to eat me alive.

I stepped off my rock. The rain was no more natural than the sun had been, but I was happy for it. Somewhere, someone who could change the weather was on my side. Or at least, not on the side of the ones who had done this. I turned my face upward, closed my eyes and let the cold hard drops hit my face.

Other rescuers would be here soon. If I was to gain anything from my head start, I had to move quickly. First things first: find a sharp piece of metal.

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