NaNoWriMo returns, and with it the public airing of my first night’s work. Thanks to all y’all who suggested ideas for me to write this year; it may or may not be obvious which one I chose from the following excerpt. Had a chat with my sweetie after I wrote this bit and I’ll be going back and inserting a fairly disturbing event, but here’s the first two chapters of what I did last night.
The usual disclaimers apply: I haven’t even reread this, so errors likely abound. I’m about to take this setting and try to turn it into a story, but so far I have no story in my head, just a regular superhuman guy and his daughter getting by in a harsh world.
By mutual consent they paused to rest beneath the tree that separated their dusty fields. Dot leaned the plow against the tree’s rough trunk while Joe shrugged out of the harness, sweat staining his tattered shirt where the straps had lain across his skin. Dot sat carefully, cradling her gravid belly with both hands. She sighed heavily, her cheeks puffing out, and closed her eyes. Beneath a sheen of sweat her face was gray. Her loose tunic blended with the bare earth between the tortured roots of the tree.
They didn’t talk about her sickness. There was a lot of things they didn’t talk about. The race between the malignancy that would destroy her and her unborn child. Who — or rather what — the father was.
Joe stretched his back, flexed his shoulders. On her side of the creek, the dirt was turned and ready for planting, the soil almost white in the unforgiving sun. On his side, stubble from the last crop limp and dry. Beyond the fields, nothing. Poisoned soil dotted with stumps and rocks, impossible to till. It had been a mighty forest, once.
He wondered why they were doing this. Plowing their fields, as if either of them would be around when harvest-time came.
“Water?” he asked.
Joe stepped cautiously down the embankment to the edge of the stream. The water moved sluggishly, weighed down by green scum. The swarms of insects left him alone as opened the pouch on his waist and extracted his water kit. He put the fine mesh filter over one of the cups and scooped water with the other. It took two minutes or more to pour the water from the first cup through the filter and into the second, but there was no reason to hurry. There was never a reason to hurry anymore.
He took the water back to Dot. She drank it down in one go. Joe took the cup back from her and returned to the stream. When he got back, her eyes were closed. He put the water near her, but no so close she might knock it over by accident, and returned to the stream to refill his deerskin water bag.
Fifteen minutes later he returned to find her watching him with haunted eyes, her sandy-brown hair shifting with the listless breeze. He sat facing her, and took a sip.
“How are you going to feed her?” she asked.
Another thing they didn’t talk about. Not until now, apparently. Dot was certain her child was going to be a girl. Joe had no reason to doubt her.
“I’ll find a way,” he said. “Don’t worry.” As if he could say anything else.
She was staring at him now, and he was sure she was going to say something else. Something that demanded an honest response.
“Do you regret it?” she asked.
Joe thought for a while before answering. He almost didn’t answer at all. He wasn’t sure what she was referring to—probably the night they had slept together, after she had learned she was going to die. The night they had created a new life they had no means of sustaining. But she might have meant a thousand other things, large and small. “No,” he said, and it was mostly the truth. “Unless you mean the time I let you cut my hair.”
She smiled, showing gray teeth, then her face went slack again, as if exhausted by the effort. She made a listless effort to push a stray lock of hair away from her face. “That didn’t turn out well, did it?”
He passed a rough hand over his close-shorn scalp. So much easier than the long, black waves of hair he had worn back then. “It turned out OK, in the end.”
“She’s going to be all right.”
Joe nodded, wondering where she had found that confidence and wishing he could share it.
Dot pulled her feet underneath her. Joe jumped up and helped her stand. “That field’s not going to plow itself,” she said.
Joe hefted the plow and harness and stepped carefully over the creek. He went back to help dot across and up the slope, then shrugged into the harness. They probably shouldn’t have rested so long; now they would not be able to finish before nightfall.
“Wait a second,” Dot said.
Joe relaxed in the harness. He twisted around to look at her, but couldn’t when bound by the hardened leather straps. “You want to take a break?”
“We hit something. Huh.”
Something about the huh made the hair on the back of Joe’s neck stand up. “What is it?”
“I don’t know, but…”
Joe tried harder to turn around, partially shrugging out of the harness. Dot was crouching, knees far apart, one hand under her belly, the other holding a perfectly spherical object.
Joe’s heart tied in a knot, refusing to beat, and his lungs became stone. He dropped to one knee as stars danced at the edge of his vision. “Shit,” he said.
The artifact—there was no doubt, this was an artifact—lay in her palm, the size of an apple (Dot had never seen an apple), black to the point that it was an absence in the world, rather than a presence.
“It’s warm,” Dot said.
“Put it down!” The scream tore from Joe’s throat, edged with hysterical panic.
She flinched and dropped it, pushing it away from her. Joe dodged as it landed right in front of him. Dot was pushing herself away from him, her eyes wide. She stopped when she was about ten feet away. She swallowed and collected herself. “What is it?”
Joe took a ragged breath and regarded the orb. He didn’t recognize it, but that didn’t matter. “Trouble,” he said.
“It’s an artifact?”
“What’s it doing here?”
Joe shrugged, hoping he wasn’t betraying the churning in his gut. How far into the future do you have to see to arrive at the blade of a plow here, now? Long ago someone dropped this thing here, and it stayed buried until circumstances suited it. But had the artifact reached its destination or were the two—three—of them just the next step to get it where it wanted to be? “You can never tell with these things,” Joe said.
“What do we do?”
Joe stared at the thing, tried to look through its perfectly-black surface to see what purpose it might conceal. Run away! some prudent part of his mind shouted. “I don’t know,” he said to Dot.
“I—ugh” Dot’s face contorted.
She smiled, and for a moment her skin flushed pink and healthy. “It’s time,” Dot said. “She’s coming.” Joe had seen that look before, on the faces of soldiers who lay dying after a victorious battle. Dot would not survive childbirth, but her daughter would.
Joe lifted her in his arms and carried her to the hut that served as her home. He laid her on the straw-filled mattress that served as her bed and dripped cool water on her forehead. She was burning up. She clung to his hand. “I’m frightened,” she said. Her face contorted with pain again.
“I am too.”
“You’re supposed to tell me I’ll be all right, you idiot.” Another wave of pain hit her and Joe could hear her teeth grinding together.
“You’ll be all right.”
She was breathing fast and shallow now. “Too… late…”
Joe wanted to stand, to pry her hand off his, to get the hell out of there. To be anywhere else. Dot was about to be dead, and nothing was going to change that.
“Bring it,” Dot said.
“The…” she grimaced again. “The thing. Out there.”
“It can help her.”
“It came to find her.”
“To use her. It might just want her blood. Tomorrow I’m going to dig a very deep pit.”
She contorted as the next spasm tore through her. “Bring it.”
“I…” Dot moaned and words were done. In the terrible hours that followed, the baby arrived, Dot departed, and Joe wondered what he might have done differently.