FE Fiction: Only Human

Here’s a work of short fiction I wrote during development of Fallen Earth:

Gray dust motes swirled, wingless fireflies in the amber glow of the flashlight. The beam swayed back and forth in the grip of the hunched, middle-aged man leading Marco Yates down the slope of the mining tunnel.

“Yessir, they call this mine ‘Impertinence,’” the guide muttered as he turned left around the corner ahead. “The story goes that Amos Gosby sank the first shaft back in 1873, lookin’ for gold. All he found was heartache.”

The younger man behind the guide did his best not to stare into the painful glare of the flashlight, focusing instead on the comforting shadows. He didn’t care about Amos Gosby. He didn’t care about lost gold. He sought a treasure far more valuable to his cause, one that wouldn’t have arrived until nearly two centuries after Gosby buried his ambition in this worthless pit.

“No one really knows how Gosby died, y’know,” continued the guide, who called himself Olie. “Rumor has it his investors did him in over the debts.” Another corner turned, down a slope for a hundred yards of blessed silence, and then Olie stopped. He set the flashlight on a stubby wooden column and motioned toward a latched, green-painted steel door emblazoned with a large black G over a gridwork globe. “This is the place you wanted, Mr. Yates.”

“Open it,” the younger man ordered.

Olie shrugged, but nodded. He lifted the latch and pulled open the door. It creaked and groaned on ancient hinges, dragging as if in a dead man’s clutch. Olie managed to get the door halfway open before it ground to a stop. “Won’t go no further,” the guide said.

“It’ll do,” Yates replied. He peered inside the vault at the faintly lit barrels marked with flaking red biohazard symbols. The skeletons of dozens of dead rats were scattered on the dusty ground around them.

“So, what do you want with all this stuff, anyway?” Olie asked, leaning to peer around the half-opened hatch into the vault. He straightened, took a canteen from his hip, and tipped it back for a swallow, but only got a few drops. Olie frowned, fruitlessly shaking the canteen. With a resigned sigh, he gestured at the barrels inside the vault. “Don’t look like no good could come from it.”

That really depends on your definition of “good,” Yates thought. He turned, smacking the flashlight with the back of his hand so that it fell off the column and onto the hard, dusty stone floor. The delicate bulb filament pulsed on the second bounce before snapping with a faint tinkling sound. “Clumsy of me,” Yates said into the abrupt and total darkness. Secondary transparent membranes winked into place over his eyes, enhancing the darkness into crisp green shadows.

“Damn it,” Olie mumbled. “Gonna be a chore getting back topside now.” He wandered through the verdant shadows, arms outstretched, and found the doorframe. “Maybe won’t be too tough if we just follow the wall.”

Yates stepped up behind Olie, pinning the older man against the wall while placing the palm of his right hand over the guide’s mouth.

Not to muffle his screams.

Even if anyone heard, Yates doubted they’d do anything to help someone foolish enough to shuffle down into this old mine in the middle of the night. He closed his eyes, quietly concentrating, manipulating chemicals within the guide’s body, merging pairs of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Olie’s airways and lungs filled quickly with water, which spilled around Yates’s hand and down the guide’s cheeks, splashing onto his plaid long-sleeved shirt.

A minute later, Olie lay dead on the dusty floor, a halo of water splashed around his head and an empty canteen at his side.

# # #

In the chill blue-gray darkness before dawn, along the remnants of an old asphalt highway in the Lower Toro Valley, Yates tightened a cap on the last bottle, placed it into the final crate, and then licked stray droplets of the sweet orange soda water from the knuckle of his right index finger.

The old gray mule munched desert grass, swishing its black tail. It took no interest in the man’s enterprise.

Yates crouched next to the wagon and stared northeast toward the walled town of Road’s End, savoring the night while it lasted. Will I find one this time? he wondered. Someone special? Someone like me?

Shiva’s Favored – twisted, hunched, pustulent creatures with ruddy eyes and misshapen limbs – had come to his family’s village in the Embry Commonwealth last year. They introduced a virus to the water supply. Everyone else died. Everyone but Marco.

Recognizing his potential, the Favored had taken him in and helped him harness his innate abilities. Now they used him as an advance scout in their crusade to re-shape the Grand Canyon Province to their liking.

They used him, he knew it, and he didn’t mind.

Someone special…

# # #

The next day, Yates led the mule-drawn wagon to the closed gates of Road’s End, maybe a half mile from the Impertinence Mine. A dusty, tattered black tarpaulin covered the contents of the wagon, which had been the back end of a yellow El Camino in an earlier age.

It was high noon, the sun boiling bright in the desert sky. Yates endured the blinding migraine as best he could. The cracked sunglasses filtered much of the light, but not enough. Not nearly enough. He could have waited until dark, but the guards on the towers around Road’s End would have assumed the worst about a nocturnal visitor and shot him on sight. Now, though, the guards waved him through the gate, just as they’d do with any other roaming merchant.

A crowd gathered as he entered the commons of the old shantytown within the ramshackle walls. He tugged the mule to a halt, then pulled back the tarpaulin, revealing crates full of bottled drinks.

“It’s a thirsty day!” Yates shouted as he hawked the tainted goods. “Half price for the good people of Road’s End! These drinks are good for what ails you!”

It didn’t take long to empty the wagon and fill his pouch with clacking poker chips. Yates found a bench in the shade of a shanty, out of the sun’s merciless glare, and pulled a revolver from the waistband of his trousers. Confirming that it was loaded, he laid the weapon across his lap and sat back. Time to wait.

Tomorrow, he knew, Road’s End would belong to the Favored.

But would he find another like him? Someone special? Someone strong?

# # #

The last straggler lay dying in the final throes of the disease as a pink-yellow gibbous moon hung fat in the sky above the Grand Canyon.

Yates emerged from the shadows into the moonlight next to the wagon and the corpse of the dead mule. He clutched the empty revolver in his right hand. His left hand favored the wound to his right arm, where a bullet fired by a panicky, dying Normal had grazed him. That hurt, a throbbing ache, but at least the sharp knives of the migraine had faded with the light.

Only one of them had survived the day. Perhaps aptly, it was the town’s doctor, a woman. Patterson. Yates had heard her name shouted many times in vain. He had watched her struggle against inevitability with the others and then with herself. Now she sprawled on the ground next to the wagon, mumbling incoherently.

Yates knelt beside her, setting the gun on the ground. He tilted his head, staring at the doctor and studying the misery behind her dark brown eyes. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” he whispered. “You can be better than the rest. Fight it. Own it. Make it part of you. Evolve.”

A few minutes later, Dr. Patterson took her last hitching breaths and died.

“Sorry,” Yates said, closing her eyes with a bloodied hand. “You’re only human.”