Published by Ivan Popov at Shakespir
Copyright 2017 Ivan Popov
Cover background image courtesy of JoakimOlofsson at DeviantArt
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Table of contents
The buzz of the generator permeated all moments of life in the Haven. It travelled the underground walkways and the maintenance shafts, went along the railings and the piping, and some even claimed to be able to feel it while standing in the farm fields topside. Jack always thought the last one was a little over the top.
He was in charge of replacing any spent supplies from the patrol run of the guards. There was not much to replace: they had not used the flares, had eaten the absolute minimum of food, even taking into account Ossa, the crazy girl, and hadn’t used their weapons at all.
Wrong, he thought, as he entered the armory. I fired a shot. The only major cost of the run, and something that Fricks shouted at him for. And yet the old cop was genuinely happy that they had captured a crazy, and said Jack was doing pretty well for a greenhorn. I could have spared the shot, though.
He arranged the firearms of the patrol on the slightly vibrating counter for inspection by the quartermaster. The later was an elderly woman, who looked like a nice granny. She wasn’t.
“Any specific problems with those?” She asked as she began taking the guns apart.
“Not that I know of. That one’s been fired.” He pointed out his weapon.
“Really?” She shot him a curious look. “Why?”
“By accident.” Jack decided the truth was best with that particular lady.
She frowned, but his blushing betrayed the rest of the story. There was an unexpected grin on her face when he looked up again.
“So what did you do, try your aim? Most do that on the first run. I always say you should only get a weapon when you know when not to use it.”
“No. I know I’m not that good, no need to have to explain why I used up the bullets for that.” He look at the range of packs on the side of the room. “I got scared by the crazy.”
“Hah, but she’s a ten year old! Don’t tell me you shot at her?”
“Have you heard her voice?” Jack countered. He wasn’t going to explain himself any more.
“No.” The quartermaster frowned. “Is it that bad? Did they mutilate her?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t asked. She’s in holding now, so we won’t know anything until Hugh comes back to question her.”
“The Old Man is away again, huh? He doesn’t rest for long, that’s for sure.”
“Why do you call him that?” Jack had heard the nickname before, but couldn’t find a reason for it. Hugh wasn’t older than the other senior haveners, present company included.
“It’s a thing from the first days of the Haven, before you and your mother came. We were few then. He wasn’t the oldest, but he acted like it. Acted like he knew the world better.”
“Did he really?” Jack was collecting the weapons now, but the story had gotten him interested. People didn’t talk about the early days often.
“Well, we did well for ourselves, and then we took up a lot of people from Taintland who’d probably have gotten the boot elsewhere. Or the axe.” She shrugged. “At some point you start caring less about how long someone’s been a tea kettle, you just want to know if they can make good tea. If you live long enough.” She shook a finger at him. “Don’t go wasting any more ammo on little girls, you hear? Or I’ll put in a recommendation to replace your gun with a big stick.”
“What good would that be if I meet something really dangerous out there?” Jack had gotten used to the gun in the short time that he’d had it. It gave him a sense of power and security.
“It’s still better than a small stick. I have some of those too.” The quartermaster looked serious. “Also an endless supply of no stick at all, if you’re up for it. Hurry back now,” she waved him away, “and say hello to your mother for me.”
Jack got out of the supply room and stomped grumpily along the corridor. The buzz of the generator was more tangible in this section of the Haven and he let his thoughts wander as the vibration numbed his senses. There were no living quarters here for a reason.
He knocked on the guardroom door, hitting the metal a little harder than necessary. The spy-hole opened and Y’s face appeared in the slit.
“Ah, you’re back. Give it a push on your side too, I think it stuck again when you went out.” The face withdrew and the hatch closed with a screech. Then the door rumbled. Jack hit it with a shoulder near the locks and it flung open with another piercing wail.
The inside of the guards’ station was not large at first sight, but there was another room further in that housed the bunks, lockers, and tables that were supposed to make ‘the force’ independent from the rest of the Haven. Jack had a growing suspicion that it also let the rest of the nearly thousand people who lived there feel secure in their knowledge that the unsavory characters who went to Taintland a bit too often were contained in a secure location.
He started arranging the guns on the wall-mounted rack. The others were playing a game of cards in the common room and only Y was surveying his work with an appreciative eye.
“You really like weapons, don’t you?” He asked, a smirk coming on his fig-like face. “Like ‘em a little too much maybe?”
“No. I’m bad with guns.” Jack went through the same explanation that he gave the quartermaster. “I just like having one.” He adjusted the firearm on its hooks.
“Makes you feel secure, right?” Y slapped a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “That’s new guy’s curse, Jack. There’s nothing that makes you truly safe out there.” His voice went conspiratorial as he whispered. “Colt found it out first hand.”
“What happened to him?” Jack turned and stared in Y’s mysterious expression. “No one told me that when they signed me up for this.”
“‘cause you had no choice anyway. But the truth is, they don’t really know. None of us know what came on him. He just disappeared one day, about a week after he joined us. We only found his gun at the place where he was supposed to be, along with the backpack. No blood, no bullet casings, no drag marks. You’d think he went crazy and tainted himself, but he was one of the most properly thinking men I’ve seen.” He shook his head sadly. “Not like you, Jack. You seem… unstable.” Y patted his shoulder again. “Go have your time off or something.” With that he turned and walked to the common room.
Jack was left feeling more downbeat than usual. He looked back at the gun he was given. He was stable, and he went missing. How long am I going to last?
The living quarters were at the other end of the Haven, as far away from the generator as possible. His family’s room was in the middle of the block, two stories down from the base level. Jack went down the old concrete stairwells and emerged into the main corridor. The walls were lined with metal and wooden doors of all colors. People usually let their creativity loose in the living quarters.
The door of his mother’s dwelling was one of the old metal ones, from back when the underground passages were part of a scrapped bomb shelter. It still had the numbering and warning signs that marked it as a chemical store room. Fortunately it had never held the chemicals it was meant to, as the shelter did not reach a fully operational stage. This was true for several other larger chambers that allowed some of the Haven’s social functions to be accommodated.
He pushed the heavy panel to the side and it slid into the wall with a soft rumble. His mother kept the mechanism well oiled, but not so clean as to not hear visitors when they entered. There was no lock on the door and installing one would mean punching into the thick walls. It wasn’t worth the time, the materials, and the inconvenience it would cause to the whole corridor. There was no stealing in the Haven. It was way too easy to get sent to Taintland for life, and there was really nothing to steal.
Jack’s mother sat in a worn armchair near the door and tinkered with a small piece of electronics. She’d picked up the craft as part of the frequent re-educational gatherings of the Haven. People used all of their free time to learn new skills, or teach skills to others.
“Hello, Jackie!” She put out an arm and Jack bent down obediently to be hugged and kissed. It was a stronger hug than usual.
“How’s the crafting coming along, mom?” He smiled at the disapproving look on her face. It was his little joke, relating to her aversion to ‘crafts’. People that have nothing better to do, do crafts, she said.
“You’ll turn around when the new water purification system comes around. You’ll be trotting back at every opportunity to drink our own water, and not that tainted murk that flows out there.” She hesitated. “Did you see your father out there?”
Jack looked at her in surprise. “What does he have to do with me going out?” He glanced at the old picture on the wall that showed his parents at their wedding twenty years ago.
“Well, I… I sometimes think I see him out beyond the fence when I do the night shift up at the farms.” She was embarrassed now, and that was a very rare thing to see.
“I thought you never saw him after the Question came. Anyway, why would he skulk around instead of coming inside? And how would he even know where we are?”
“Stop it, Jack! I don’t know all of these things!” Her voice trembled. Jack knelt down beside the armchair and hugged her. The chair creaked.
“I’m sorry. Sorry, mom…” The words stuck in his throat.
She caressed his hair with one hand. “Don’t be. You have as much right to know what happened to him as I do. But I just don’t have the answers. It’s mystery enough for me that I came out of that, that state,” she spat the last word out with true hate in her voice, “in the same way that I went in. Holding you in my arms.” She pushed him at an arm’s length to look at him. “And I am still amazed that you don’t remember any part of it.”
“Not a thing, mom. I remember the game we were playing just before it happened.” He repeated what he’d told her numerous times before. “Then you fell down and dropped me on some broken glass on the floor.” His recollection brought back that horrible moment into his mind, the pictures as vivid as they ever were.
He sometimes wondered if he was progressively adding details that had not been there at the time the more he lived in this broken world. He had been hiding from his mother in the laundry room, and she was pretending not to know where he was. Then she stormed into the dark, dank room, and grabbed him with a victorious cry, and he was crying out in joy and excitement at the game. The next moment she fell and there was a sudden light where the roof had been, and the laundry was gone, and it looked like a dog had died in the corner of the room. The house barely stood and there was no sound from outside where there had been the rumble of cars passing by just a moment before. And his father was gone.
“Don’t go there, Jack!” His mother shook him to bring him back to reality. He wasn’t sure if she meant the memory or the remains of their old house. He blinked to get the tears out of his eyes.
“I have to go, mom.” He couldn’t make himself stand up. “I’m supposed to live in the barracks.”
His mother’s expression became one of badly suppressed hatred again.
“And they think they are so righteous, punishing you when they teach you how salvage is the most important thing in the new world themselves. Making you live next to that monster of a machine. I’d go mad from the vibration if I had to stay near it all day.”
“I won’t be near it all day, mom. There’s another patrol coming up in the afternoon.”
“I don’t even know how they manage to make it run all the time. You would think there should be no more fuel for the damned thing fifteen years later.” His mother was ranting now, and Jack could hear her go on as he walked down the corridor towards the stairwell.
The atmosphere in the guardroom was tense as he entered through the wide open door. He stopped dead when he saw the peacetime leader Burr standing in the middle of the room.
Am I getting banished? Maybe Fricks wasn’t as pleased as he said he was after they got back. Jack thought about slipping out before they saw him but the booming voice of the sarge rooted him to the spot.
“Here’s the hero of day! Come here, private, and listen!”
Jack sidled around Burr to stand with the rest of the group.
“I won’t repeat myself for you, Clemence.” The peacetime leader barely spared him a glance and continued talking. “The shipment should be due north of here. Find it, and bring it back. All other patrols are suspended until then. The emergency squad will be mobilized for Haven protection while you’re gone. Leave immediately!” He waited for any questions for about three seconds, but the squad looked stunned, Fricks was already checking his gun, and Jack just looked confused, not knowing what was going on. Burr took this as his que and left.
“What are we looking for? What did I miss?” Jack was getting the feeling things were going bad, and fast.
“They kidnapped the fuel shipment for the generator. It was coming from a supply base to the north,” said TJ, who was the first coming out of the stupor and was heading to the gun stand himself. “We were told to pull out all the stops.”
“Gear up, PC,” chuckled Fricks as the other guards finally started moving, “or your mother will be knitting in the dark a week from now!”
With bread and butter
The food was the last straw.
Ossa dropped the piece of dark bread onto the plate. It was very thick and moist, it looked like it had been presses into being, not baked. And she knew why.
The woman that they had tasked with caring for her looked at the discarded loaf disapprovingly. She only seemed to care about how Ossa behaved as a prisoner, not where she came from. Maybe she’ll understand me better, Ossa thought.
“What’s wrong, girl?” The woman, whose name was Sarah, pushed the plate with the bread and salad closer to her ward.
As if pushing it at me will help. “This food is not for eating.” Ossa struggled to put the problem into words that wouldn’t make it worse. “It, it has stuff in it.”
“Really?” Sarah’s voice became sarcastic. “Do you have food with NO stuff in it where you are from?”
“Well, it has vegetables, and bread has flour. We make our own, even…”
“This one’s better then. It has flour from before the Question came. We kept it the proper way and it held all that time. No matter some people say it tastes like raw dough.” She made an assuring face and picked up the piece of doughy bread. “I think it’s something in the water. We always have trouble getting clean water.”
“You see, that’s exactly the reason we make our own flour.” Ossa started slowly. “Because no flour would hold so long…”
“Nonsense! There’s nothing wrong with that one. Believe it or not, it doesn’t have a trace of lice in it. And it saves us a lot of work up in the farms. Do you know how hard it is to make a reasonable amount of flour? They even go out and collect wild grain so we can manage.”
“Yes. It’s perfect flour,” Ossa prepared for any reaction that might come, “because it’s Tainted.”
Sarah simply frowned. “Impossible. We wouldn’t be able to open the sacks then. They’d be uncuttable.”
“I don’t know how it happened, but it’s true. We are taught to sense the spirits,” the girl tried to explain, “and I’m good at that sort of thing.” This didn’t produce any negative effect so she continued more boldly. “This flour cannot be baked well, because it doesn’t turn to bread. The yeast don’t eat it. They can’t. There is a woman inside it.” She had been able to get a visual form from the bread, something that the elders said was rare. “A woman with a broken nose.”
Sarah’s face went white.
“Where did you hear that? Someone told you so you could make me feel bad, didn’t they? Disgusting people. The damn world ended and they continue with their savage jokes.” She grabbed the plate and put it back in the cupboard that held the prison’s inventory. “There will be no food for you until you tell me where you heard about Janet’s nose!”
“I told you, I saw it when I Touched the spirit in the bread.” Ossa repeated without any real hope to get through to the woman. These people just couldn’t come to terms with the world.
“No food! And no visitors!” Sarah banged the door of the prison block and left Ossa in her cell. The girl looked at the distant cupboard where the still edible salad was, but the bars that divided the room in half prevented her from reaching it.
She lay back down on the low cot in the corner and closed her eyes. Meditation could lessen the hunger a little, or at least it usually did. Here there were no spirits to feel, no Vessels to discover, the world was as dead and empty as it probably had been before the Question.
No, there are spirits here, Ossa corrected herself. The woman in the bread was there, just beyond the bars and the cupboard doors, and she was in pain. They took her apart. They didn’t know she was in the sack of flour and they took some of her out. And they ate her.
Ossa didn’t know if the part that was eaten would survive or disappear. She didn’t know if the pain she’d felt was due to this or a remnant of the woman’s human self. If I could ask her…
She stood up and went to the bars. The cupboard was three or four arm lengths away. Ossa didn’t dare speak aloud in case there was someone guarding her on the other side of the door. She stretched a hand forward and willed the bread to come.
Nothing happened and she willed harder, imagining the piece of dark mush flying through the air. Maybe it won’t work with a piece of the spirit…
The cupboard doors flew open and the loaf soared between the bars to land in her hand. The plate with the salad wobbled dangerously on the edge of the shelf, and then smashed on the floor, spreading lettuce and some other green leaves she didn’t know the name of all around the room. Ossa stuffed the bread in a pocket and hurried back to the cot as the door opened and Sarah ran in, followed by a blonde man with spectacles.
“What did you do, girl? How did you open the cupboard? Did you sneak out between the bars? I told you there wasn’t going to be any food until you stopped telling those lies…”
The man just stood there and watched Ossa as the woman picked the vegetables up from the floor and threw them in a metal bowl she took from the cupboard. Ossa stared back with her head held high.
“Where is the bread? Did you eat it? You tell me lies to make me feel bad and then you steal the food!” Sarah was building steam now, her face going red. Ossa reached into her pocket and withdrew the vessel.
“It’s not for eating!” She repeated heatedly. “It has a woman inside! And you ate her!” The accusation came unbidden and she couldn’t stop herself. So much for making friends here, she thought sadly.
“Wha… How dare you!” Sarah looked ready to dive through the bars herself, but the man put his hand on her shoulder to calm her down. She was taken aback as she realized he was there too.
“No need for aggression now. We have enough troubles as it is without fighting between ourselves.” He shook his head to stop Sarah from replying. “The girl is in our custody, so we treat her with the same respect. We are what’s left of civilization,” he shook Sarah’s shoulder a little, “and we must act like civilized people. Have a break, Sarah, I’ll keep her company in the meantime.”
Sarah’s face showed that she disagreed with almost everything he’d said, but she mumbled something and left, throwing Ossa one last dirty look.
“Tell me about the woman in the bread.” The man drew up the chair that Sarah had previously used and sat down in front of the bars.
“So you believe me then?” Ossa narrowed her eyes. This man was too calm compared to everyone else here and it made her nervous.
“There is Taint everywhere. Why shouldn’t I believe you?”
“Because you think that taint is something bad and you keep it away as much as possible. This place,” Ossa tried to measure her words again, “it’s clean.”
The man laughed. “You make it sound as if it’s the worst place you’ve been to.” He saw Ossa nod and became serious again. “We do not live with Taint, but you do. You are used to it. You use it, you learn to like it, to understand it. Do not expect us to act the same way. I want you to tell me, because I want to remove this Taint. This place is not truly safe with it around.”
“You’ve already been eating her spirit. Sarah told me. What difference does it make?”
“People here do not want to hear about spirits, ever. If you told them they had been eating one they would go mad, run away, or try to kill themselves, or each other. This place,” he motioned to the concrete walls, “will fall apart. And I had worked long and hard to build it, as have all of the others.”
“And if I tell you, what are you going to do with her?”
“You ask about the Taint? Aren’t you worried what will happen to you?”
Ossa shrugged. “I will deal with it when it comes. But she,” she raised the piece of bread, “is helpless. So?” She demanded again.
“I guess we will remove all the Tainted goods and go back to our lives. It’s not like we can destroy them.”
Ossa was hit by a sudden idea. “Will you let me free her? This way you might be able to use the flour again.” She was bartering now, and she saw that the man knew it.
“You are able to do that?” His look was one of doubt.
Ossa knew it was her age that was the problem. She tried to look serious and competent. “I know the basics.”
Hugo was standing still and quiet, his hands pressing lightly on the door’s smooth metal. Hira looked up and down the street with a growing sense of discomfort. She hadn’t been in this part of the city for years and the changes in the scenery were making her nervous.
The asphalt of the street lanes was cracked and small trees were growing out of the cracks here and there. The wind had blown in a layer of dust that was held down on the rough surface and offered enough soil for a thick carpet of some tiny plants with small, round leaves to appear. It was as if the street was turning into a fine lawn. It also made the tire tracks much more evident.
Hira tried to guess which direction the Bound came from on their way past the tower. She’d expected them to follow the street in a mindless, automatic way. They obviously didn’t. The tracks, marked by much less green mossy stuff, and looking like a country road due to the soil over the asphalt, swerved smartly around the trees and the regular, rusted vehicles parked at the edges of the street. The Freemaker glanced at the silent man at the door. His forehead nearly touched the surface, his head tilting slightly from side to side as he communed with the Bound in the metal gate. Hira sighed and returned to her observation. There was no use pushing him. He usually just pushed back.
Hugo took a deep breath and opened his eyes, blinking in the light. He had spent the last half hour without moving and his legs cracked a little as he turned to his companion.
“He wants a kiss to open.” He stated like it was the most normal thing to say, and sucked on his cigarette.
“Kiss him then, and let’s get off the street. I don’t want to take any chances.” She pointed at the earthen tracks.
“Not from me, my dear, from you!” Hugo’s smile made the cigarette hang at one end of his mouth. He adjusted it.
“How does ‘he’ know I’m here? I haven’t Touched the door.”
“Some of them have more sense than we might imagine. The more time you spend as a bound spirit, the more you are attuned to the Vessel. And the more you desire something, the more you notice your desired object, should it pass nearby.”
“So he desires me, is that it?” Hira crossed her arms in annoyance. It wasn’t a good time for the Speaker’s jokes.
“Let’s just say I did the impossible to get it down to a kiss, and leave it at that.” His smile widened as he stepped away from the door. “After you, madam!”
Hira’s disbelieving grimace managed only to increase his enjoyment of the situation, so she set her shoulders and stepped up to the door in turn. There were marks on the metal, probably dating from before the Question. Several bullet dents stuck out from the rest and she frowned.
“What was in that building before? This door looks old.”
“No time to explain now. The more you wait, the less likely it is to open for you. Do it!”
Hira shot him another dirty look and then pressed her lips to the cold metal. It shuddered and warmed up a bit faster than she expected, causing her to jump back in surprise. This saved her a heavy bump on the head as the doors sprang open at the same moment.
“A maiden’s kiss works magic!” Hugo exclaimed mockingly. He pushed her forward through the gap without waiting for the comeback.
The door closed behind them with a clang and their eyes had to adapt to the sudden change of lighting. There were no windows at this level and the barren walls held several light bulbs in wire cages. They were not strong enough for the size of the room and Hira felt like she was in a dungeon. There were staircases going up and down, and nothing more. She followed Hugo as he started to descend into what looked like an even deeper darkness.
“Is there a living person we’re meeting here, or did you just bring me as a bargaining chip?” She didn’t like the silence that entombed them as the doors closed. There weren’t any signs of human activity. I’m better with humans than with spirits. Maybe he’s right about the resonance thing.
“Both.” Hugo felt along the wall on the left until a click was heard and another set of bulbs shone above their heads. They were in an anteroom of sorts, with an old metal bench set in the floor next to one wall and a large double door occupying the opposite one.
At least there are no more stairs down, she thought. Her fear of underground spaces wasn’t something she was ready to talk about right now. She also tried not to think about it too loud.
The Speaker approached the doors and banged with his fist on the metal. It made a hollow sound that bounced off the walls, a staccato of rumbles that a piece of sheet metal would make. Hira unhooked the pipe from her belt.
“What do you want again?” A voice came from the other side, muffled by the door but unmistakably young. “Go away, old man!”
“They seem to know who we are.” Hira couldn’t keep the smirk out of her words. The Speaker had winced as the voice came, and then again at ‘old man’. “That is unfortunate.” She sat down on the bench, Touching it first to make sure there wasn’t a lusty spirit inside.
A rustle was heard from the door and the voice came again, this time louder. “Is that a woman with you? You brought a woman?” It was followed by a mad clanking of chains and locks.
Hugo rolled his eyes and stepped back. The right wing of the door opened and a source of brighter light burned through the semi-darkness of the bulbs. Hira couldn’t make out the face of the person who stuck their head out from behind the other wing.
“Finally!” The head exclaimed. “We were thinking you’d never make good on that promise.”
“She’s a wild one. You’ve been warned.” The Speaker stepped forward and became a silhouette against the light. “Turn those damn flood lights off, will you? I’m getting tanned!”
“I can’t. Jigs went in, uh… in a mood. The batteries will burn if I don’t use up the current somehow.”
“What, he was stoned? And I thought you two couldn’t get any dumber.”
Hira stood up and approached slowly, shielding her eyes with her free hand. The head followed her movement. There was an audible gulp.
“Uh, no, we don’t do drugs. He was, uh, reading?”
“Only literature I’ve seen in this den of yours is of an explicit nature,” came Hugo’s voice from around the door. “Oh, crap.”
“Uh, yeah, that’s what I meant.” The figure hid behind the door as Hira reached it. The light really did warm her up. She gripped the pipe tightly and stepped through.
There was a very thick carpet on the floor several centimeters beyond the threshold and she almost tripped when her foot was caught in the gap. She turned her wobble into a crouch and hit the carpet with one knee, bringing up her weapon and looking sideways behind the door. A stunned looking teenager holding a tray with something on it gaped back at her.
“Told you, wild as a horse. Lay off the waiter act and come give me something to drink. It was a long walk.” Hugo was walking around the other end of the room, which was taken by some kind of machinery and a pile of electronic remains on the floor.
The teen hurried over and pushed the tray into the Speaker’s hand. Hira took the chance to get up and away from the savage lights. They seemed to abate a little as she did.
“He’s reacting. You two are finally getting some experience under your belt.” Hugo exclaimed, and then picked up a mug from the tray and gulped it down noisily.
“He? There is someone in the lights?” Hira couldn’t understand the situation yet. Her stare kept the youth several paces away as he started back towards her.
“Yes. His brother.” Hugo supplied. Their host just stood there, almost drooling. He then seemed to realize he wasn’t making a good first impression and wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his checkered shirt.
“I am Tim.” He offered her a hand. Hira just stared.
The youth fidgeted under the look. “Uh, Hugo? Does she always stare at people like that?”
“Only when they wipe their snot and then try to shake on it, Timmy.”
Tim lowered his hand in a hurry. “Sorry!” He met Hira’s stare for another second and then hurried back to the machines on the far wall.
She used the chance to move even further away from the glare of the lights. It gave her a better view of the rest of the room.
The carpeting went another three or four paces in, then slimmed down to a simple rug. On it were several chairs, one of which the Speaker was now occupying. The room was filled with the buzz of electricity and the monitors and dials that Tim was now tending to were in constant motion. It looked like the control room of a power station.
“Can you run the old electricity network from here?” She asked. Fragments from her old life were popping up in her head, creating questions. The whole Gathering could live on this power.
“No, not until the lines are sufficiently repaired.” Tim sneaked another glance at her that didn’t exactly limit itself to her face. “But we have way more than we usually need.”
“And what is that?”
“Lights, the radio tower, some gaming. We have some good terminals in the other room.” He pointed to another door that Hira hadn’t noticed before that. It was painted the same dark green color as the walls.
“What do you eat? Raw electricity?” She was now surveying the room as the entrance of a home. There were no signs of food, although she recognized the large refrigerator in a corner.
“We go out to eat. Find some very nice stuff to the south-east lately. We keep it deep frozen. We also collect preserves, cans of beans and stuff. There’s food enough.” He followed Hira’s eyes to the poster of an almost naked woman that was pinned on the wall next to the refrigerator. “That’s, uh, food for the soul, you know?” She saw his ears go deep red.
“Didn’t Jigs get bound to it once?” Hugo stood up and joined Tim at the control panels. “How fast can we make a transmission?” The sudden change in subject caused surprised looks on both sides.
“What, again on the survivor frequencies?” Tim was apprehensive now. “You know they once had some tech that could pinpoint a transmission to a hundred meters? We are doing this way too often.”
“The survivors aren’t coming this far into the Taint just to see who’s transmitting. For all they know it might be a self-reliant retransmission tower.”
“Have you seen one?” The youth’s eyes were going to pop out. “Oh I’d love to get my hands on one of those. No more bound shifts!” He adjusted a dial on the board, but his wistful expression remained.
“Hey, why don’t you two stop talking nonsense and spill the beans, right now.” Hira felt excluded and she couldn’t put in context even half of what they said. “I didn’t kiss a door for nothing here!”
“She kisses the door? Oh man!”
“Don’t be jealous, it was just a peck. Okay, let me start…” Hugo raised a calming hand but the Freemaker was on a row.
“No. My priorities first! Why is your brother bound to the lights and what are ‘bound shifts’?” The pipe pointed at Tim’s chest and he tried to step back, bumping into the control panel.
“No use running boy, she can project that thing farther than you can see. Better start talking.” Hugo’s sarcastic smile was back and he started fidgeting with the switches on the board.
“I… We… We haven’t done anything wrong!” The threat of being smashed with a piece of piping was something Tim wasn’t prepared for. “Honestly, we just live here, do odd favors for the traveling elders or survivor vigilantes, that sort of thing.”
“The lamps?” Hira persisted. The teen obviously needed some guidance even in a simple conversation.
“It’s not really the lamps, it’s the generator. We bind to it in turns to power the operations. It keeps us running and halves our food needs. I must say it is a bit lonely…” He seemed hard pressed to keep his eyes on her face again. “You see, I am so psyched I can’t have a normal talk with a woman anymore! I’m sorry!” Tim turned away but Hira saw the tears that were running down his face. He crossed the room and wrenched open the green door, disappearing into the darkness beyond.
“Wow, you do have a knack talking with kids, don’t you?” Hugo didn’t turn to look at her at all. He was now attaching a microphone to one of the outlets of the panel.
“I’ll make it up to him after this mess is cleared. Now, about that transmission. This is why we came, right? You’re using their tower to send and receive messages so you know what happens in the area.”
“I usually send them. There are few places like this that can transmit long range effectively. Although lately the Chained have been doing some communication of their own.” He put on a pair of large headphones and turned a dial slowly. One of the twitching arrows started ascending slowly up its scale.
“The one who killed Gina?” Hira’s face was a stone mask now.
“Who is Gina?”
“Our Gardener. She led the defense while I got Ossa out of the battle.”
“I wasn’t there. Was it the one with the brown coat who killed her?” The arrow kept climbing.
“Yes.” Hira stepped up and looked through the items piled at the base of the control panel. She extracted a pair of headphones of her own. “Where do I plug these in?”
This caused a raised eyebrow. “You catch on quick, eh? Why the sudden interest?”
“I have a score to settle with Brown-coat. And you’re showing me the way to him.” She regarded the Speaker with a level gaze. “What are we listening for?”
Night had fallen over the craggy valley that held the large cistern prisoner. The calls of the owls echoed through the dark and bounced off the slowly rusting metal remains. Tiny bats fluttered overhead unseen.
The band of free knights had settled down for the night next to the cistern. Their horses were roped in inside the large metal cylinder itself. The only path in was a door on the side, and to get to it an enemy would have to pass through the camp itself.
The two fires illuminated the tired faces of the band. Their leather and rubber armor was put down and arranged in neat piles in the middle of the triangle created by the fires and the door.
The leader, a heavy set man with a mane of graying hair in a ponytail down his back, was finishing his round of the night watchmen. There were three of them, set apart evenly around the camp in patches of trees or natural depressions of the land. The last one had found a spot in the branches of a large tree and was looking through his looking glass when the leader appeared under the tree.
The watchman waited long enough to be sure that he wasn’t made, then he tapped on the bark of his hideout to draw the leader’s attention. The eyes of the bear-like man flashed up in the near complete darkness of the tree’s corona. He gave the watchman an appreciative nod, then stalked back towards the camp.
It was to be a calm night, the leader thought. They hadn’t met any human beings for several days, and the wolves were pushed away the previous day as the band approached the cistern. They had several wolf skins to trade now, and meat for a day or two.
He often thought about what it would be like to settle down and claim a place for themselves. The life or mercenaries for hire, never stopping in one spot longer than their contract required, having no relatives, no partners in life, it all put a weight on their shoulders. He watched as the men and women who followed him tried to fill the gap in their hearts with their daily interaction, with personal rituals, fleeting hobbies that were washed away by life on the road, or short lived attempts at entertainment. They failed, time after time, and only the most basic of ideas stuck and left a mark on the group. They had a couple of bards, one who loved to sing and had a good voice, and another who had a knack with words and made up the text for their songs. They used remembered tunes from before the Question, and some new ones, although their talent wasn’t there. They were even now entertaining the group, their voices came to him as he got closer to the camp.
He had almost reached the fires when the whistle of one of the watchmen was heard. The band jumped up and brought weapons to bear in the direction of the potential menace, but a second whistle told them the newcomer was at least neutral. The sound of hooves echoed through the darkness, driving the owls into hiding.
The leader reached the fires together with the stranger. It was probably a messenger; no other would approach them so openly alone.
“Jake Stout?” The man on the horse called out, looking at the faces around him.
“That’s me.” The leader answered, the low tones of his voice causing man and horse to turn. He had been correct: only a messenger from one of their former employers would know his name beforehand.
“You are called to action by General Hurt! An army is assembling at the Testing Square in four days! Be there and aid the fight against the shamen of the large city to the east and you will receive great rewards!”
“And what if we don’t come?” The leader asked the question that he knew lurked in the heads of his band. They had no quarrel with the spirit people, and they had even traded with them on occasion, something every Unchainable they met disapproved of.
“There is no threat upon you then. But if you do you will have the favor of the General.”
If she survives. “Thank you for the message. We will act on it swiftly. You are free to go.”
“Thank you, sir!” The messenger turned his horse and cantered off into the night, and not in the direction he came from.
So they really are getting everyone in the area together. The leader sighed. It was going to be a long night.
“She convened the charter!” The advisor’s voice was full of fear. He gesticulated excessively when he was under pressure and now he all but flapped his arms around. “Those hill-men have caused a greater disturbance than anything I would expect. She could do anything in wartime, seize lands, fake accidents, kill off rivals. She’s unstable, Lord Druga!”
Druga stood at the balcony of his manor and surveyed the knights’ exercise below. They had lost another man in the assault on the servants’ nest but the unit held together just as well. They do not depend on one another too much. Perfect. He turned to the advisor, a minor noble whose lands, a mere piece of bushy countryside, were adjacent to his.
“Do not fret, Jinko. We will not be endangered by this turn of events. You are correct in assessing her instability, but you are forgetting something else. She does not act as a woman. She pretends to be a man, and she thinks men do as they say. If war on the servants is what she proclaims, then it is what we will have. And in the meantime,” he couldn’t keep the joy out of his voice completely, “we will be free to do all those despicable things you mentioned.”
The two went back inside the house, a large farm-like structure repurposed as a residence. The walls of the passage through the upper floor were covered with colorful tapestries retrieved from the shops in the city. Druga led the way into his study, raising the forged latch that only he could touch.
The large desk on the other side of the room held his official papers. He took out a sheet with his personal mark and wrote in silence. The advisor paced nervously around while he waited.
“Take this to the Gilded Clan.” The letter was ready. As it changed hands the advisor imagined what could happen to his messenger up in the hills. He only had two retainers as it was, but objecting was going to lose him his head, if not more.
“They will appreciate my generosity in the matter.” Druga smiled openly now. This room was a safe place.
The poker met the bolas without making a sound. The rope wound around it and Hurt pulled hard, dragging the weapon from the knight’s hand and throwing him off balance. She then pirouetted around him and wound her other hand around his throat until Edge was touching his skin. She allowed herself to put a little more pressure in the move. The knife was hesitant to draw blood if she didn’t desire it.
The knight’s body arched to relieve the pressure on his neck. Hurt held on for another second and let him go.
“You should never assume a weapon is enough to beat an enemy.” She called out. The knight danced out of her reach and spun the poker around. Then he attacked again with a leap, but suddenly dropped the metal stick altogether and aimed a punch at her face.
Hurt was smaller and the leather bound fist grazed her cheek as she leaned to the side. Her head found the man’s chin and she followed through with a sideways kick that turned his leap into a tumble.
“Good!” She urged him on as he rolled away and came up on his feet. “Continue!” Another knight stepped in and took her place in the fight. She brushed off her clothes and put the knife and bolas away.
The grounds in front of the manor were turned into a training field. Several wooden walls were put up to simulate closed quarters fighting in the city streets. On one end several archers were showing their skills and offered free training to those who had finished melee for the day.
She surveyed her soldiers coldly. They were not going to be really prepared for what awaited them. They could not train with real spirits and shamen wielding them. She knew they could do things that looked like magic, and they were practically magic. It didn’t matter if you knew what these people did with their thoughts and emotions, it didn’t even matter if you could do it yourself. She dreamed to be such a warrior, taking the best of both worlds, but it meant breaking promises that she’d done too many times. It meant losing the trust of too many people. If she gave in to that desire then they were going to come after her, tear her freehold apart and hunt her down as a trophy. The greatest leader, turned traitor to the ways of the Unchainable, her weapons displayed as dangerous artifacts, probably part of the reason for her corruption.
She knew it wasn’t in the weapons, or the spirits themselves. She needed the power, the raw energy of the artifacts. It made her feel strong enough to go on, to keep beating the pain day after day, to show them she wasn’t weak. And so she hungered.
The raging eyes of the General passed over the fighters as she paced and the men tightened up, hit harder, without mercy or regret, lept into the fray without fear. Her scar burned scarlet on her face and its flame set them all on fire.
Extra: Culture of the Shamen
Although the first Question was a stressful event, and the following need to survive in the new, almost deserted world was paramount, there were people who wondered what had happened to them. The ones inclined to theorize, to dissect their experiences out of pure curiosity or just the need to finish things (something that was generally termed a pathology beyond a certain point) made countless theories about the ‘What’, ‘How’ and ‘Why’. It all ended in the need to experience the same phenomenon again, and the opportunity came every morning, everywhere they went. It wasn’t long until they started answering the Question positively again.
The process bore many names: binding, entering, entombing, possessing, to name a few. The ones who tried it used small items (as they already knew the basics of the process) and most of them asked someone else to guard them and the item while they did it. There was no knowledge of how one exited the object they were bound to at that time, and this led to a lot of these experiments lasting much longer than expected. Some of those first Vessels were lost, while others released their inhabitants at the next random occurrence that resonated with their souls.
The next wave of experiments, although much smaller, was hugely successful. The ones who dared try now had an instinctive understanding of how one ended the bound state. Nearly eighty percent of them returned successfully the next morning, helped by their living assistants.
It was a turning point for the part of humanity who accepted the change not as the end of the world, but as the next step in evolution. They started using regular occurrences and easy to define goals to ensure their spirits’ release. Once it was easy to go in and out of objects, they could start focusing on their experiences and what they could do while bound.
The second breakthrough came from a small number of binding experiments that failed outright. At the beginning people were amazed to find items that they could not enter. The ones who tried were left feeling empty and depressed until the next Question came. It was some time later that they found these items already held a spirit. This sparked even more questions, and it was asserted that no item could hold more than one spirit at a time. The art of Touching developed as the simple act of sensing the spirits when they were not apparent and without doing any harm to the potential Vessels.
Several different paths formed as different people developed different affinities to the spirit world. Some were better at binding to objects, their conscious though sparking even while in this state, and they soon developed skills to manipulate their spirit selves at will. Others excelled at detecting the Bound (the name that they gave to all people in spirit form), and even exchanging thoughts and emotions with them. Whatever their skills were, they embraced the new form of existence as their own.
A school of thought was born with the rise of this group that promoted peaceful coexistence with the new world. They taught their children and newly recovered souls to not fear the spirits, but also not to abuse them. They taught respect for all living things, as for them the Bound were still living too. They taught, and they learned, and they explored.
For them the Question was just another challenge, one that just hadn’t been overcome yet.
The Questioned World (the world of Soulhazard) is a special flavour of spiritual post-apocalypse. I will be following its story in three alternating viewpoints, each targeting a specific part of what humanity has become in this world. Each volume will come with some extra material about the world, either general or targeting some part of post-Question (post-Q) humanity. I plan to eventually develop the world to such an extent that it will be possible to run pen-and-paper RPGs in it (another passion of mine). Materials to that end will probably end up being published too.
Finally, I hope you have as much fun reading these stories as I had while writing them!
Ivan Popov is a fantasy, sci-fi and RPG fan with a knack for short stories and the desire to write something longer. He works as a bioinformatician in a medical research center, a complex job that probably takes advantage of his imagination too. He lives in Bulgaria, but his mind is always on an intergalactic journey or two.
Soulhazard, vol 1
Soulhazard, vol 2 (plus Slang of post-Q humanity)
Soulhazard, vol 3 (plus Culture of the Survivors)
Control, Subway stories 1
Weeping tree (only in Bulgarian so far, but an English translation is in the works)
Check often on my Shakespir page (see below) or your preferred retailer for the arrival of the next volumes from The Questioned World! Other story ideas are in development too, and I might eventually get to write the two Subway stories I have already promised.
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