Here’s a work of short fiction I wrote during development of Fallen Earth. It was part of a collaborative series with other game writers called “A Gathering Storm:”
A blue-white coil of smoke rose from the tip of R.J. Elliston’s cigar as he swished the brandy around in the squat, chipped glass. He peered through the bevels and the reddish-brown liquid, using the drink as a filter through which to view the sun setting over the town of Shackleton. He savored the mingling scents of vanilla and seasoned tobacco.
Elliston listened to the chugging of the printing press as it generated tomorrow’s edition of the Shackleton Endurance.
Tomorrow’s newspaper would showcase a headline article by a freelance reporter named Kincaid Bellows, blowing the lid off a series of “accidents” in New Flagstaff that led to two deaths and six serious injuries after the Vegas Family failed to sway the populace against their allegiance to the Union.
They had warned Elliston before not to meddle in Traveler business, but the man just couldn’t turn down a good crusade.
Janitor didn’t think killing R.J. Elliston would solve anything. After all, someone else would just take Elliston’s job once he was gone. Why not destroy Blackhand Pete’s printing press instead? It’d be much harder to replace. But Shine Perron, matriarch of the Vegas Family, considered the paper a valuable asset with the right person in charge. Information could be as valuable as currency as old poker chips, she reasoned.
So, the order was given: R.J. Elliston must die.
“Helluva story, Bellows,” the editor grunted, tapping cigar ashes on the balcony floor as the Janitor stepped out from Elliston’s office. He took a sip from his glass. “Drink? Help yourself.”
“No, thanks,” Janitor said with a taut smile, clasping his hands behind his back as he walked to the railing.
“You outdid yourself on that article!” Elliston puffed on the cigar. “I’d give anything to see the look on Shine Perron’s face when she reads it.”
“Anything?” Janitor asked.
It must have been something – or nothing – in Janitor’s tone of voice that made Elliston tilt his head. The editor was a creature of habit, much to his misfortune, but he was not unobservant. “What’s on your mind?”
“Nothing,” Janitor answered. “Enjoy your brandy.”
Twenty minutes later, the smoldering cigar tumbled from Elliston’s twitching fingers and rolled across the balcony toward Janitor’s left foot. A clumsy rookie might crush the cigar with his boot, raising the question: If Elliston dropped the cigar when he died, how did he get up to stomp it? So, instead, Janitor stepped backward and allowed the cigar to trace a lazy circle until it stopped.
The editor just got over-excited by the impending article and suffered a heart attack.
No one could argue otherwise.
# # #
“What is this shit?” Perron asked. She shook the newspaper in Janitor’s face. The headline proclaimed: TRAVELERS TERRORIZE NEW FLAGSTAFF.
“Smoke,” Janitor said.
“I wanted him dead to stop articles like this.”
“And they will stop, now.”
Shine gave Janitor a look. The tone of voice again, probably. Her green eyes widened a little as understanding sank in. “Looks less suspicious if the damaging article comes out when he dies.” She furrowed her brow. “Doesn’t come back to the family.” A sly smile edged onto her face as she tossed the paper onto the desk in front of her. “All publicity is good publicity, I suppose.”
# # #
Janitor didn’t handle many spills anymore. Most went through the Cleaning Crew – the numbers who reported to Janitor through intermediaries in the various Traveler families.
Someone always had a mess that needed cleaning. The Cleaners were always ready with the mop and bucket.
Janitor only took the most important cases; the toughest stains.
# # #
High noon in Fairground found him walking past the wreckage of a lost world of whimsy and hope, when commerce and prosperity could outspend desperation and regret. A warm, comfortless breeze blew in from the Parched Plains, coaxing a faint creak from the rusted cars of the Ferris wheel.
Eli Finney walked down the steps of the old World’s Fair corporate office building in the shadow of a battered geodesic dome. A scrawny man with wiry gray hair, thin and balding, about a foot shorter than Janitor, decked out in a pair of fancy brown trousers, a gray tweed jacket, and white button-up shirt. He poked a hand-wrapped tobacco cigarette in his mouth and gave a jaunty wave to the Cleaner. An executive of the Brenhauer Family, Eli spoke for that family’s leaders on most matters. Janitor stopped, offering a curt nod in response to Finney.
“Got an interesting enterprise for you,” Finney said, lighting the cigarette with a cracked wooden match. “Small farm over in the Grainway. All assets terminated.” The Brenhauer exec reached into his jacket pocket and plucked out a wrinkled manila envelope, which he gave to Janitor.
Janitor examined the envelope, which was addressed from Publishers Clearing House in Port Washington, New York, to Eunice Bagwin in Flagstaff, Arizona. Postmarked March 2031. Faded red letters proclaimed: YOU MAY HAVE ALREADY WON! Janitor opened the envelope. He found a set of black and white photographs inside. The lack of color didn’t mitigate the visceral impact of the brutality displayed in the images. A middle-aged man and woman. A teenage girl. A boy, no older than six. Two dogs. All slaughtered. The photographs could have been taken on the killing floor of a meat packing plant.
“Friends of the family?” Janitor asked.
Finney nodded. “Kin of Max Brenhauer’s wife.”
“Someone sending a message?”
“CHOTA, maybe,” Finney said. “They didn’t leave a note or anything, of course, but we do know that some of them are bent out of shape over the whole Storm debacle. Max thinks his brother-in-law – the one with his head cleaved in the first picture – was distilling chemicals for Eliot Moros. If that’s the case and the CHOTA got wind of the source…”
“They’re pissed,” Janitor replied, “but this looks too savage, even for a bunch of savages.”
“You’ll look into it then?”
Janitor flipped through the pages one more time. “Tell Max that I’ve put it on the clipboard.”
# # #
A blood-spattered teddy bear on the fireplace mantel leaned against a dusty snow globe that showed a spindly tower topped by a plastic disc. The base of the snow globe read: SCENIC SPACE NEEDLE.
Rain thrummed on the reclaimed tin roof as Janitor swept a flashlight from the mantel to the walls. Splashes of crimson were everywhere, a mindless pop-art creation.
Not all the shapes were random, though. On the floor, Janitor’s light caught a clear bloody footprint amidst all the smears and splatters – too big for any of the victims. Too big for any human Janitor had ever met.
He stepped back onto the porch, allowing the beam from his torch to swing left to right along the ground. Raindrops glittered and splashed in puddles. Any more prints had been lost to the elements.
Janitor took another glimpse at the sticky footprint inside the house and at the gaping slashes in the drywall.
He couldn’t tell who, exactly, had done this. That left him frustrated. The only witness to the incident didn’t help much – all it could do was crow the coming of dawn.
Janitor awoke the next morning on a porch bench upon hearing the rooster’s call. He walked a mile and a half to the nearest town – a Tech outpost called Bountiful – and flagged down a Franklin’s Rider whose route would pass through Fairground.
Janitor took an inch-long chunk of Burnt Sienna crayon from the compartment in the hilt of the combat knife stashed in his right boot. The faded “Greetings From Grand Canyon, Ariz.” postcard came from a pocket in his gray burlap traveling sack. He scrawled a message on the card:
NOT CHOTA UNLESS GROW BIG THIS SEASON.
“Max doesn’t want a mystery,” Eli told Janitor a week later, upon the assassin’s return to Fairground. “He wants results. His wife’s furious about this.”
Janitor nodded. “If I find out who or what was responsible, I will see to it that justice is done.”
“Max doesn’t want justice, either. He wants his wife to shut up,” Eli grumbled. He caught Janitor’s arched brow. “Not like that. He doesn’t care who pays for this, just as long as someone pays, so Arlene will get off his back.”
Janitor frowned. “That doesn’t solve the problem. You saw the pictures too. Whoever did it is still out there. Just a matter of time until it happens to some other settler family.”
“It solves Max Brenhauer’s problem.” Eli shrugged. “Just expedite the matter before Max starts blamestorming. Pick a CHOTA. Put them below snakes. Don’t get caught. Everybody’s happy.”
The Cleaner sighed, shaking his head. “It’s not a good idea. In fact, I’ll go right ahead and say it’s a patently stupid idea that will come back and bite us on the patootie.”
“That’s a possible outcome,” Eli replied. “But it’s a definite outcome that Max Brenhauer will make my life a living hell until Arlene gets a pound of flesh or ten for those killings.”
Janitor gave it a few long moments of thought. He watched vultures loft in the clear blue morning sky above the town. “Trouble costs double, Eli.”
# # #
Double’s not enough, Janitor thought as she pummeled his solar plexus and sent him sprawling in the dirt beneath a moonless sky.
He’d nearly had her, slipping the garrote around her neck while she’d been staring at the campfire. But she was alert, quick, and strong – and didn’t care how much it made her bleed to put a hand between the wire and her windpipe.
She wasn’t even the one he planned to kill. Anyone with a lick of sense would doubt this CHOTA woman could carry out the farmstead atrocity. His feet were bigger than hers, and his were like a petite dancer’s compared to the beast that cleaved Brenhauer’s brother-in-law and butchered the wife and kids. But she was on watch, so Janitor followed standard operating procedure, eliminating any liabilities for the operation.
Now she had the garrote. She stalked toward him, face gone feral, snarling. Janitor struggled for breath as he got back to his feet. She shrieked in fury and barreled toward him…
…but then paused, abruptly hesitant. She and Janitor backed away from each other a couple of steps, hyper-alert, unwilling to look away but straining to hear.
The ground shook again. A roar sounded out, echoing off the canyon walls, a roar so deep it sounded more like the grinding blast of an avalanche than anything produced by a living creature. A knife had appeared in Janitor’s hand, but he was barely aware of it as he turned his head, following the CHOTA’s line of sight.
His eyes lifted…lifted further…his neck craning as he took in the thing standing twenty feet away, its eyes blazing in the darkness.
Then he and the CHOTA sprang apart as a blade longer than Janitor’s body sliced through the air and dug a trench in the ground at the spot where he’d been standing.
“More…” the inhuman voice grated out. “More to kill…!”
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