Tales of Rabid Vegetation
Jaleta Clegg & Frances Pauli
Shakespir edition Copyright 2016
This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between the characters, events, and places herein and real persons, events and places is purely coincidental. In stories in which historical figures are used it is for purely fictitious purposes.
The stories in this collection are Copyright © 2012 their respective authors.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used, reproduced or transmitted in any manner whatsoever without the written permission of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Cover design by Jaleta Clegg and Frances Pauli
First edition, released July 2012
When we came up for this project, it was with much excitement and absolutely no idea what we were in for. The theme sounded like a fun and limitless concept, one that we felt could spark a great deal of diversity in interpretation. On that note, we hit the mark exactly. The stories that our simple idea sprouted blew me completely away. Not only did we receive pieces that stretched our initial idea of where the “tumblers” could take us, we were gifted with a collection of finely imagined tales and poems that I am very proud to present to you now. I am honored and indebted to each author featured in Wandering Weeds, for their hard work and for allowing us to gather and share their words with the world.
This book happened because of a chance comment in a chat one night. That comment led to a what if? moment, which led to a story challenge, which led to this anthology idea. I thought, how hard can it be? I’ve done graphic design and book layouts before. Ah, the innocence of naívety.
So what if tumbleweeds, exposed to radiation, mutate to become man-eating tumbleweeds? What if the plants gain sentience and decide to fight back? What if aliens came to colonize our world, but they were plants? This anthology explores a lot of those ideas and more.
It’s been a journey bringing it to publication, with many bumps and bruises along the way. At least we weren’t eaten by rabid weeds.
I sincerely hope you enjoy the stories. I certainly have.
I owe Louise Maskill a big thank you for line editing on this book. You saved my eyesight, Louise!
Table of Contents
Beyond The Fence
Rebecca L. Brown
I built these fences to catch them—no point using electric ones, the dratted things don’t feel it. Vampires, they are, or zombies maybe—something like that anyways. They’ll suck the flesh right off a man’s bones if he’s unlucky enough to run into them.
Saw it happen once, just a couple of miles from here. Fella was minding his own business when it hit him a glancing blow to the head. Just a little one, mind you, not one of the man-sized things you see around these parts sometimes. Stripped half the skin off his face before he managed to shake it loose.
Don’t ask me where they came from, I wouldn’t like to say. Nowhere I want to be going though. The kind of place they’re rushing away from won’t be turning up in those fancy holiday brochures anytime soon.
Fire. They’re scared of fire, about the only thing they are scared of. We used to have a guard dog, fiercest thing you ever saw. Gave me this raggedy scar right here on my arm when I tried to worm him. One day he just got crunched up by one of them, bones and all. The barking didn’t even slow them down.
You don’t believe me, eh? Well I suppose that’s up to you. I’ll tell you what, you step over to the other side of that fence and see for yourself. Just don’t expect me to come looking for your bones when they suck you clean.
Colors of Blood
Kevin J. Childs
A fitful breeze slid over the dark landscape of the Zanir foothills. Flowing from out of the night, the wind brushed over Riko with a damp touch. His attention had dwindled over the last hour. He barely registered the puff of his long duster against El’s flanks. The wind waited, deceptive in its calm. Just like the rest of the world.
Riko shifted in the saddle, the leather creaking under his weight. The sound snapped through the quiet like a whip crack, startling him alert. His heart stuttered and thumped. With a gasp, he snapped his eyes open. Fifty paces was visible in every direction, before shadow obscured the world. The two moons were still out, descending to opposite horizons, but their light was pale and impotent. The wild land around appeared as a silhouette; a gray scene without depth that turned the most mundane form into claws, pincers, and terrible imagined shapes.
Thirty-six cycles of experience as a Watcher kept Riko from panicking. He pushed the misleading scene from his head and focused on the rest of his senses. He took in the tiny, regular sounds and the caress of the breeze. He checked the calm way El stood beneath him and the way her ears flickered without concern. With a deep breath, he calmed down. Nothing threatened. He was safe.
A nervous chuckle escaped his lips as he relaxed, embarrassed that he’d let his control slip. A Watcher doesn’t dwell on what he can’t see, Riko reminded himself. Imagined threats distract from real ones. It was one of the first skills a Watcher had to learn. He nudged El into a walk and started back along his route.
For several minutes, all was well, until a crunch sounded beneath one of the mare’s hooves. Insects surged from ground, clicking and hissing in anger. He choked off a yelp as El snorted and stamped, destroying more of the nest in panic. In the dark, it was only the bugs’ bright blue coloring that let Riko see them gush out of the ground like water from a spring. The sound grew as the angry wave surrounded his mount, faster than he would have believed possible. He sawed at the reins, fighting to control the gray mare as she shied sideways. He thumped El in the ribs and let her prance away in fright. Once fifty paces away, she calmed enough to be pulled to a stop.
“Cursed bugs,” Riko muttered. He checked the ground for signs of another nest before dismounting. Fumbling in the dark, he plucked the squirming hand-length insects from where they’d latched onto El’s legs. Each one squealed in a high, almost inaudible, pitch as he yanked it free. They burst in a splash of dark goo when squished in his gloved fist.
Tucking the blue-dyed gloves behind his belt, Riko ran his bare hands over El’s flanks and legs, checking every inch. A blue burrow-leech left too long would dig its pincers into a horse’s—or a person’s—skin and then inject a poison as they died. Leech rot would set in soon after, if even one bug were left. He shuddered at the thought, remembering his younger brother’s leg amputation after a burrow-leech had festered. Thankfully, his brother had passed out during the procedure, but Riko still had nightmares of the screams, and the sound of the saw cutting bone. This is no time for that, he thought, and shoved the memory away.
Once satisfied he’d gotten them all, he swung back into the saddle and returned to his path, searching the ground with his eyes even though he knew El stood a better chance of avoiding anything.
First dawn came as a relief to his eyes, but not to his tense shoulders. Sunlight burned away the darkness and the Foothills came to life under yellow morning rays. To his left, a slithercoil bush unfurled its sinuous coils, reaching for the sky. The twills of colorful tongi-birds and the deep bleat of squat, shuffling muskreits filled the air, replacing silence with the sounds of nature. Yellow-light creatures were of the Good Mother, and the scene was beautiful. But they were not what he was here to watch for.
According to Aril, the town’s Sun-Seeker, Red Dawn would come about ten minutes after First Dawn today. Aril was a mean old hag, but she was accurate about half the time, and that was considered excellent. Riko hoped she was wrong today. He could really use a good yellow-light day. He gripped his warning horn and lifted it to his lips, ready to blow at the first sign of a red-light horde.
Red Dawn came a short time later. The tiny red second sun crept above the distant mountaintops to join its larger yellow companion. He held his breath. Anticipation roiled in his stomach. The bloody light spread and grew stronger. The slithercoils shuddered and contracted at its touch. The land went abruptly silent.
A faint noise drew his eyes to a patch of ground a hundred paces off, to a bare patch of ground just in front of a copse of trees. The soil shifted. Riko’s mouth went dry. The horn trembled in his hands. The red-light tumbleweed sprouted. Please, Good Mother, let it just be the one, he prayed. The weed pulled itself out of the ground and shook off the dirt, quite like a dog shakes off water.
It was a small one, less than two foot high, but still deadly. It splayed its blood-colored branches out wide, sensing the air. And then it tumbled away, as if the wind had tossed it in a random direction. Riko knew it hadn’t been the wind. He was just glad it had chosen a direction that was away from him.
A full minute passed before Riko let himself breathe. He studied the ground for a minute more, then two, then ten. Normal sounds crept back to life. He sighed in relief. Thank you, he prayed, and lowered the horn. El nickered and swished her tail. She was impatient to get home. After so many years, she knew the schedule even better than he did. He grinned and patted her neck. “We’re going,” he muttered.
Riko’s mind wandered as he headed toward town. Red-light tumbleweeds woke hungry. And their only action was to hunt for prey. The instant they sensed anything warm-blooded they would attack, rattling to attract others nearby. A horde could gather and rush in moments. As a Watcher, Riko had been trained to avoid dangerous areas and situations. He’d spent his first few cycles memorizing every detail of his area. His job was to get a safe glimpse of a threat, report it, and then get away. After so many close calls, Riko couldn’t help but wonder how he was still alive at all.
While listening for a horn blast from another Watcher, he never let his eyes rest in one place. Every inch of ground was suspect, as though it was a thing alive and not to be trusted. He held El at a steady canter that covered ground fast but didn’t raise a dust cloud behind him. Most of his attention was on the sides and the rear. He trusted El to avoid the patches of red-light poison-pods and to veer around a large gully that was riddled with needle-rats. Those were the least of the threats, and thankfully stayed in one place for the most part.
An hour later, he dismounted in front of the watch station. Old Watch-master Erin and his son stood waiting next to the decrepit building. They stepped out of the shade and approached as Riko led El to drink from the old stone trough. Dust covered everything, puffing up from his boots, clouding in the air, and caking on Erin’s wrinkled and sweat-streaked face.
“Sightings?” Erin asked, in his usual wheezy voice.
“A lone tumbler, thank the Good Mother,” Riko replied.
“Good, good,” Erin said, and then hesitated. The worry lines etched on his brow deepened.
“Anything from the others?” Riko asked.
Erin heaved a sigh and shook his head. “Nothing much. Boward found signs of a recent kill, but not a horde. And Jona says the Bone Draw hasn’t stirred at all. It ain’t good, Riko. They don’t just disappear like this.”
“I’ve been having the same thoughts,” Riko said.
It had been three spans since the last horde had been sighted. Worrisome indeed. Small sightings were good. They told everyone where to avoid, where to defend, and when to run. In some ways it was like the weather. The longer it went without rain, the bigger you knew the storm would be when it showed up. No sightings meant doubt and questions… It meant the next attack could happen anywhere.
Before Erin could respond, the thump of an approaching horse drew both their eyes. It was another Watcher returning from his patrol.
“Good day,” Riko said. “I’m aiming for home and sleep.”
Erin grunted and shuffled away.
On his way to the main trail, Riko passed the returning watcher. It was Boward. The way he slumped in the saddle reflected exactly how Riko felt. Drained. Boward met his gaze, blinking dust away from dull and hopeless eyes. For an instant, a flash of memories surfaced in Riko’s thoughts, memories of a time when eyes glittered with purpose. And then the moment passed. Emptiness returned in a smothering flood and he no longer cared.
They passed without a word said. Staying alert during a stress-filled watch reduced even the most energetic man to a sleep-craving mute.
El sped down the path without needing to be prompted, she knew they were headed home, and wanted to get there as much as he did. Three more days of watch duty, he thought. Good Mother, I hope I can handle three more days. He groaned and wished he hadn’t reminded himself of that. It was best to take watch duty one day at a time.
After rubbing down and stabling El with a nosebag of oats, he shuffled in to bed, too tired to worry about hunger. Still fully clothed, he collapsed into his cot. Dreamless sleep took him.
Ono wiped at the sweat on his forehead and walked Shield deeper into the shade of a spiraling waterleaf tree. Reaching up, he plucked a plump purple leaf from the canopy and squeezed it into his mouth. Even in the heat of midday, the leaf provided a cool and sweet tasting drink. Waterleaf trees were rare, especially outside town. Today Ono had been assigned the only Watch position that had one.
Once there had been fifty Watchers on duty at all times, spread in a ring around the town and the fields, at least that’s what he’d been told. Now, there were only fifty watchers in total, five on each shift in locations chosen for their view of the surrounding terrain.
From atop Shield, Ono could see a mile in every direction. Behind him, a few figures toiled, growing berries, vegetables, and oats in square plots surrounded by tall wooden fences. Wild land stretched out in every other direction. Yellow-light plants grew in clusters, separated by clearings that had been taken over by red-rot or other red-light creatures.
To his left, an overgrown road meandered into the distance, curving back and forth to avoid hazardous areas. The road had not been used in a long time. He could only remember one traveler ever coming to town, maybe ten years before when he still fancied the thought of running away to see the places of legend. The lone wanderer had stayed a single night, leaving the town with news of desolation and death. “Immense hordes of tumbleweeds have devoured the great cities,” he’d said. “Eating their way across the land and leaving no red-blooded thing alive.” Ono no longer thought traveling was a good idea.
“Cursed Red Sun,” he swore. The red sun followed an unpredictable cycle, sometimes dormant for long periods of time. When it did rise, it followed a strange course, unlike the stable yellow sun. It rose and set in an arc that lasted a few hours at most, and it never reached far above the mountains.
But today was different. The Red Sun should have set hours ago, and Ono’s watch should have ended with it. It still hovered a few inches above the horizon. He had watched it all day, and it hadn’t dropped back down a bit. He couldn’t get his mind to accept the change. It has to set. It has to. What if it never sets? The horrible thought ate away at him, growing louder in his head every second. He couldn’t begin to fathom the consequences.
Eyes locked on the distant Red Sun, he caught a glimpse of a blur, flying at him from the side. He threw an arm up in time to catch the tumbleweed, stopping it only inches from his head. The weed thrashed and stabbed, puncturing his glove and tearing the cloth of his long-sleeved shirt. Pain shot up his arm, and he felt its needle-like hollow branches pressing in, seeking veins.
Shield snorted and frisked, but somehow Ono raised the horn to lips with his good hand, reins and all. He managed a single, frantic blast before Shield reared, his eyes rolling in panic. Flinging his hand out, Ono struggled to remain in the saddle. But one hand wasn’t enough. He landed on his back, breath exploding out of his lungs. His head hit something that seemed oddly soft. Only the pain and incredible pressure in his arm kept him from falling unconscious.
Abruptly, the agony vanished and his vision cleared. If it weren’t for the sound of his heart thumping in his ears, he would have thought time stood still. He gasped and gawked at his bloody arm. A dark blue liquid mixed with the red of his blood. Then, the tumbleweed was gone. It made no sense. They never let go. The disconnected words flitted through his thoughts.
Sitting up, he looked around at where he was. He could hardly believe what his eyes told him. He’d landed on top of a burrow-leech nest. Thousands of them swarmed around him, letting off continual clicking sounds. He started to crawl away, but stopped in wonder as he realized the angry bugs were attacking the tumbleweed instead of him. A thick mass of the leeches had circled it. As one, they sprayed a dark blue liquid. He gaped as the tumbleweed twitched a few times, then shriveled, only to disappear under a torrent of blue carapaces and black pincers.
Ono scrambled to his feet and lurched away from the nest. He expected some of the leeches to attack as he rushed away. But they didn’t. The swarm parted and he exited the circle without incident. He slumped to the ground under the waterleaf tree, and tore his other sleeve to wrap his arm. Holy Good Mother, what happened? Fire was the only weapon against tumbleweeds, everyone knew that, but fire burned houses and people as well. Cutting them apart didn’t work. It just made more to deal with. A sudden hope blazed to life inside him. It was unlike anything he’d ever felt before. He’d learned something new, a valuable secret that could change everything.
He stared at the blood already seeping through his makeshift bandage, and a piece of his mind screamed. Get up! The smell of red blood! He shot to his feet and tried to scuff dirt over the droplets he’d trailed up from the nest. A low grinding and rustling sounded, building in volume. That sounds like a full horde, he thought in terror. He quit covering the blood, and ran.
As shock wore off, pain returned, throbbing in his arm. The sound grew louder, audible even over his ragged breathing. And then an idea blossomed out of the panic. He tried to recall the locations of every burrow-leech nest between here and the town. Burrow-leeches didn’t attack unless threatened, but any near the town were exterminated anyway. They were just too dangerous to have around. Especially anywhere kids might go. Now, he wished they’d let more survive. He sprinted for the largest nest he could remember.
The piercing blare of a horn snapped Riko’s eyes open. He waited one second, then three. The lack of a follow-up signal jolted him out of bed. A single blast meant red-light creatures had not only been sighted, but had attacked. How? The Red Sun should have set by now. Blinking sleep from bleary eyes, he ran outside, slamming his shoulder on the doorframe in his haste.
The Red Sun still shone, like an evil red eye glaring at him from over the mountains. Riko gawped. It didn’t seem possible. He had never heard of a red-light day lasting more than four hours. His head spun, until the urgency of the horn blast surfaced again in his thoughts.
El frisked in her stall and resisted the bridle, a clear sign she sensed something wrong, but Riko managed to get her saddled and outside quickly.
Galloping down the path under red-tinged midday light, Riko rubbed his sore shoulder and fretted over the Red Sun still floating above the horizon, and over the lack of more horn blasts. Unless dead or in flight, a watcher always followed an attack signal with a location indicator. Silence meant a watcher was likely dead. Shaking his head, he concentrated on the ride.
He pushed El hard, speeding by small houses and several fenced-in fields where nothing moved. In an event like this, the men would gather at the watch station. Women and children were to huddle in their safe rooms, hidden away from the soil or any windows.
Dust billowed into the air as El skidded to a halt in front of the watch station. A crowd of fifty or more men and their lathered horses were already there, looking grim. Riko’s eyes scanned the group, searching for Ono, but his son and his gelding were missing. Panic rising, Riko caught sight of Lin and slid from the saddle.
“What word?” Riko asked as he jogged up.
Lin’s narrow face was drawn and pale. “An attack signal was blown. It sounded as if from second or third position…but no riders have come in yet.” Riko swallowed a lump when Lin’s voice wavered. False alarms happened occasionally, but never without a quick recall signal, or at least a rider with some news.
“Is Ono on duty?” Riko dreaded that he already knew the answer.
Lin hesitated and looked at the ground. “Third position.”
Riko felt his chest seize at the news. No…Good Mother please…not Ono too.
Heart thumping, breath loud in his ears, Riko turned away. Without a word, he darted between horses and men and leaped into the saddle. He’d gone a mile before realizing a few riders had followed.
The land blurred by as Riko leaned low in the saddle, coaxing El into going faster. She snorted in protest but stretched out into every stride, careening around turns at dangerous speed. Riko’s need to save Ono drowned out caution. I can’t lose him, my only remaining son, my only remaining family.
He crossed the distance in minutes that seemed like hours. Heart pounding with fear, he rounded the last turn and climbed the rise to the third watch position. His stomach clenched. The waterleaf tree stood alone. Ono was gone.
Dread squeezed his chest like a giant fist. Forcing steady breaths, Riko leaned over to examine the ground. Horseshoes and boots had scuffed and left prints everywhere. A few drips of blood scattered in the dirt made it plain that Ono or his horse had been wounded. For some reason, the horse tracks led off in a different direction than the boots. Even stranger, a nest of burrow-leeches had been crushed, and boot tracks all around made it look like Ono had trampled on it. Riko shook his head. What? Ono knows better than to disturb a burrow-leech nest.
Riko spun El around at the thunder of approaching hooves. Lin and two others crested the hill, their mounts blowing as hard as El. Without stopping to talk, Riko gestured them to follow and booted El into a reluctant trot.
The boot tracks led off toward town, spaced wide in the dirt as though Ono had been running. Instead of taking the path, the tracks led a course straight through the foliage. He must be hurt or scared out of his wits to take a trek like this, Riko thought.
Tongi-birds squawked in protest and fluttered away as El dodged around slithercoil and thickets of yellow-nestle. Several times a snake slithered by. For minutes that seemed like hours, they followed the trail. The tracks stretched on, clear and fresh.
A horse’s terrified scream snapped Riko’s head around. Pulling El to an abrupt halt, he tried to sort through the scene. Starting less than twenty paces behind him, tumbleweeds rolled and jumped everywhere. Two men, horses and all, were covered in them. The horses fell to the ground in twin thumps, and Riko fought the reins as El strained to run. The men no longer made any noise. They were already dead. It had taken less than thirty seconds.
Lin remained unscathed, mounted a few strides back. His horse’s eyes were rolling and it was clear she was about to bolt. Lin turned terrified eyes to stare into his.
“Run!” Lin shouted. Fear added volume to Lin’s command. It startled him into action.
Riko kicked and let loose the reins. El lunged forward in a burst that almost unseated him. He barreled through thickets and down dry washes, without any destination in mind. As he crested a knoll, he suddenly remembered Ono. Despair joined terror in his throat. At this speed, he couldn’t begin to make out any tracks on the ground. And he was already too far away from the trail to have any idea what direction it has gone. One thing was sure though: stopping surely meant death. And he couldn’t help Ono if he died. From the side, a red streak flew through the air and whistled by, inches from his head.
Riko urged El up a slope, and they burst out of a thicket into a wide clearing. And there was Ono. Riko yanked on the reins. The shock of seeing his son just standing there, seemingly safe, was enough to jolt even the danger of a horde from his mind. Ono stood in the middle of a warren of burrow-leech nests, a blood-soaked bandage wrapped around his arm. Riko blinked. I must be dreaming, he thought. Other than the arm, Ono looked fine, even oddly calm, considering where he stood.
Ono’s eyes moved and he pointed. Riko turned to see Lin stumble out of the thicket. His horse was missing and a tumbleweed had latched on to his shoulder. The weed writhed, and Lin cried out in pain, struggling to dislodge it from his already torn shoulder. Riko fought down the impulse to help him. Everyone knew there was no way to dislodge a tumbleweed short of amputation. Lin fell to the ground, rolling onto his shoulder in a vain attempt to crush the weed.
Ono dashed by, running out to him.
Riko swung down, bellowing, “Stop! Ono, stop!”
Ono didn’t listen.
Lying on his back, Lin tried to push Ono away, but Ono slapped away the meek attempt and started dragging him by the leg.
“What are you doing?” Riko shouted as he ran close.
Still pulling, Ono yelled back, “The burrow-leeches, we need to get him to the burrow-leeches.”
“What?” Riko said. Has he gone mad? “There are a thousand tumbleweeds out there! We’ve got to run.”
“Just trust me, Pa.” Ono grunted as Lin spasmed. Riko hesitated only a moment more before reaching down to help. Insane or not, he did trust Ono.
“Lin!” Riko screamed. “Calm down, we’re trying to help!”
Lin twitched and moaned in pain, but didn’t make any sign that he’d heard or understood.
Tumbleweeds rolled into view at the edges of the clearing. Riko’s stomach twisted into a knot, his instincts telling him there was no escape from this. As if brought by an unfelt wind, they came through the thicket and from the sides, more than Riko had ever seen before. He glanced over his shoulder at the burrow-leech nests teeming with untold numbers of bugs. They only seemed better when compared to the approaching tumbleweeds.
Ono kept moving, Lin’s foot held under his good arm, and brow pinched with effort. He brought them straight into the warren of nests, and Riko felt his eyebrows lift in surprise as the bugs cleared a circle for them.
“They only attack if you try to kill one of them,” Ono said.
Before Riko could respond, Ono pulled Lin the last foot into the circle. A sudden buzz of anger rose from the insects and in a rush they charged at Lin. Riko started forward, intent on defending the old watcher.
Ono stepped in his path. “No!” he said, with his good arm outstretched. “Look.”
Riko watched in bewildered horror. The bugs advanced, and ignored Lin. Instead, they attacked the now-blood-filled tumbleweed. With an angry hiss, the mass of blue insects sprayed the tumbleweed with a dark fluid, a blue quite like the stains on his gloves.
His jaw went slack as the tumbleweed rolled off of Lin. It shriveled and tried to roll away, but the insects swarmed, burying the weed in hissing carapaces. When they dispersed, the tumbleweed was gone. Only the red smear of Lin’s blood indicated it had ever been there.
Clacking his jaw shut, Riko looked at Ono to find him grinning, with a new and fierce light in his eyes.
“Help me get him to the middle of the nests,” Ono said.
A short time later, Lin lay on a patch of bare earth, unconscious but alive. Riko stood and surveyed the warren. Perhaps thirty or forty large nests jutted from the ground in four-foot-high mounds. Hundreds of other smaller nests were scattered about. Riko shivered. That was a huge number of leeches.
But Riko didn’t have time to count. From all sides, tumbleweeds closed in, a crackling sea of blood. The rustling filled Riko’s ears like a storm of swishing whispers. One tumbled close and neared a streak of blood left by Lin. Riko held his breath as its branches flexed. The tumbleweed sprang toward them with mind-numbing speed, seeming to fly for a moment.
But Ono had led them far into the warren, and even tumbleweeds couldn’t leap a hundred paces. The instant it touched down, a thousand insects erupted from a hundred nearby exits, and the weed vanished under the furious bulk.
For hours the tumbleweeds tried to reach them. Hundreds at a time rushed in, drawn by the smell of red blood. But they never got close. The blue gel sprayed so often that it misted the air, giving Riko a hazed, surreal view of the fight. Angry hisses sounded from more than one place, at times rising above the volume of the tumbleweeds. Riko lost count of the rushes, but thousands of tumbleweeds couldn’t dent a colony of what had to be millions of burrow-leeches.
Riko found himself sitting on the ground, tending to an unconscious Lin’s wounded shoulder. He shook his head in amazement as he realized the injury wasn’t very bad. He’d seen much worse from regular farming accidents. Without the blood loss, Lin probably wouldn’t even complain about it. He never thought he’d live to see the day.
He’d just finished re-wrapping Ono’s arm when the attacks abruptly stopped. Riko stood and gazed out to see the remaining tumbleweeds rolling away or digging into the ground. Understanding dawned on him, and he turned to watch the Red Sun set. It had been the longest red-light day he had ever heard of.
“Ono, you feel good enough to get moving?” Riko asked, feeling dizzy from the constant strain the day had put on him. “If we leave now, we’ll make it before dark.”
Ono grunted and stood up. “I’ll be fine. What about Lin?”
“I’ll carry him.” He squatted down to arrange Lin’s wounded arm, only to yank his hand back as the injured man moaned.
Lin struggled to sit up and looked around through foggy eyes. The moment of recognition came and Lin’s eyes widened in horror. He gasped and tried to edge away from the nests, only to find more behind him. With a sudden burst of energy, he yelped and shot to his feet. He looked about frantically for a way out.
“Calm down, Lin,” Riko said as Ono burst out laughing.
Lin gazed at Riko as if he was dreaming. He touched his shoulder and cringed in pain. “Riko? What happened?”
“I don’t understand it yet myself,” Riko answered. “But Ono somehow figured out that blue burrow-leeches kill tumbleweeds. And they don’t seem to want to kill us unless we threaten their nest.” He gestured at Lin’s bandaged shoulder. “The bugs got rid of the one that had ahold of you, and killed hundreds more that came for us.”
A befuddled expression settled on Lin’s face. “What do we do now?”
“We take back what’s ours,” Ono said instantly. “We can fight back. Start new communities. Stop living scared.” His voice filled with zeal. “And these are the key to it all.” He gestured to the nests.
Ono’s eyes glowed with an inner light, and he stood straight, a defiant set to his shoulders. Riko recognized something in his son that he’d lost. Hope. That fire kindled inside his chest, and Riko couldn’t suppress the resulting grin.
“Let’s go,” Riko said. “I’ll call a town meeting, and we can spread the news.”
“We can make a plan for the future,” Ono added.
Plan for the future, Riko thought. Now that’s something we’ll have to get used to.
Lin still looked lost, his face scrunched in thought. Riko clapped him on the back and laughed. Hope blazed, stronger than the fading yellow sunlight, as they walked toward home, and toward a better future.
They Call the Wind Mariah
She swaggered into town, leather chaps slapping against denim jeans. A holster rode low on each hip, silver butts glinting against the westering sun. Her hat, black as night where it wasn’t dusty, obscured her face. Her boots thumped on the boardwalk in front of the sheriff’s office. Hinges squeaked as she pulled the door open.
“I hear you got a tumbler problem.” Her throaty voice registered unexpectedly deep for a woman.
Sheriff Newcomb spat to one side, his feet still propped on the desk. “Who told you that?”
“Tourist town, lots of flavor, out on land no one else wants. For good reason. I don’t need to be told.” She lifted the hat, knocking dust to the floor. Gray streaked her tangled hair. Squint lines bracketed her eyes. “Tourist business is way down, judging by the lack of vehicles in the lot down the road.”
“Off season.” Sheriff Newcomb lowered his boots to the floor.
The woman cracked a small smile. “Dust storm tonight. Tumblers will be coming. You’d best get your people under cover. Got a cellar?”
“Deadwood Gulch doesn’t need a cellar, or you.” Sheriff Newcomb stood, puffing his chest wide to intimidate the woman.
Her ice blue eyes cut him down to size. “You ever tangle with tumblers before, Sheriff? They’ll suck your juices dry, reduce your flesh to dust in moments. Your bones will be so brittle, they’ll snap into nothing at the slightest touch. Tumblers are meaner than a rattle-snake in a frying pan, and more dangerous.”
He shifted a step, fingering his pistol.
She hitched one hip on his desk, setting her dusty hat on his pile of tax records. “You see the glow first, faint and green on the horizon. The wind shifts and you hear them moaning like lost souls. Next thing you know, you’re surrounded by tumblers and your soul is joining them while your body crumbles to dust. You don’t want that, Sheriff, not for you or your people.”
“Trigger Flats people sent you to scare us, didn’t they?” Sheriff Newcomb slapped one hand on his thigh. “They can’t handle the competition. We were here first and we do it better. Old Man Paulson still hates that I hired Kid Casteen away from him. You can tell him it was a nice try, but no dice. Deadwood Gulch won’t be scared into closing by some half-baked ghost story.”
“You’ve seen the glow, all green and sickly. Three of your people up and disappeared last spring, when the dust storms rolled through. You know where they are, Sheriff. Not lost in the dunes or run off. Tumblers got them.”
He flinched, unable to hide the truth in his eyes.
“Best get your people moving. Wind will rise at sunset. They’ll be here before the moon clears the horizon. Hungry and feral, them tumblers will be looking to feed. Spawning season is coming.” She slipped an odd weapon from her holster, caressing it like a lover.
“Who are you?”
She smiled, tender and soft, as she cradled the awkward gun. “Tess. You been warned, Sheriff. Tumblers are on the move.”
Wind howled down the main street of Deadwood Gulch, slamming doors like firecrackers. Sheriff Newcomb jumped.
“Miss Tansy down at the saloon is the only staff here.”
“Tell her to bar the doors and latch all the windows and hide in the darkest corner she can find.” Tess rose to her feet at the sound of horses in the street. “That would be my sisters, Jo and Mariah. We’re here to clear your tumblers once and for all.”
Sheriff Newcomb hitched his belt higher. “I’ll ride with you. I’m sheriff of this two-bit tourist trap. It’s my legal responsibility.”
“Then you believe in tumblers?”
He nodded, face pale. “I seen them, once.”
Tess laughed, harsh and short. “Then fetch your geiger counter, Sheriff. You’re going to need it.”
They rode to the edge of town. Shadows stretched long and dark down the main street. The setting sun burned red on the horizon. Dust streaked the air, pushed by the gusting wind.
Four horsemen of the Apocalypse. Tess on her gray mare, Jo on a roan gelding, Mariah on a spotted Appaloosa, and the sheriff on his ATV. The geiger counter clicked, bursts of background radiation only slightly higher than normal.
The three women sat their horses like statues, eyes squinting to the west, to the ridgeline burning in the western glare of sunset. Dry brush rustled and moaned. Dusk closed over the town. Sheriff Newcomb pulled his bandanna higher.
Fluorescent lights flickered, settling to a yellow and blue glow on the arched sign over the main entrance. Deadwood Gulch, home to the fastest draw in the West.
Tess shifted her seat. “They’re a coming. I can feel it.”
Jo smiled, showing her teeth. “Spit in the wind, sisters. I’m itching for a good fight.”
The geiger counter spiked, then dropped to normal. Sheriff Newcomb wiped sweaty palms down his thighs. “What are tumblers, exactly?”
“Don’t rightly know,” Tess answered. “Some say they mutated from wild tumbleweeds when the nuclear plants went wrong. Some say they’re God’s punishment on man for his uppity ways. Some say they’re the devil’s own soul roaming the desert looking for his lost loves. Don’t see that it matters none. I’m here to destroy them all, sheriff.”
“Please, call me Irving.”
Mariah shot him a sidelong glance. Her dark eyes danced with mischief, like her dark curls in the breeze. “Sheriff Irving Newcomb.” She laughed, a musical lilting bird call against the rising storm.
“I smell them!” Jo whipped her hat into the air. Fiery red hair streamed into the wind.
“Not yet. We want to be certain of them this time.” Tess sat like stone, unmoving except for her hands caressing her holstered weapons.
The geiger counter clicks rose steadily as the green glow deepened and spread over the hills. The horses pawed the dust, tails switching nervously.
“What’s the plan?” The sheriff’s hands tightened around the handlebars.
“Dust, fire, then storm.” Tess smiled.
Irving shivered at the menace in her voice.
“Are you afraid, Irving?” Mariah leaned towards him, coquettish smile flirting across her full lips.
“Of the tumblers or you?”
She laughed, teasing him.
The ridgeline flickered, undefined, as if a strange fog rolled across the crest. The green glow intensified. Irving slitted his eyes, trying to focus. Strange round shapes, huge rolling bushes of thorny branches, moved across the ridge. Light flickered and spun through the withered leaves, ghostly fire writhing like snakes.
“Breath of the devil himself.” Jo pulled a rifle from the holster beneath her leg.
Mariah lifted her face to the sky. She sang, a haunting melody wailing like a lost soul.
The tumblers hesitated, slowing despite the wind shifting dust across the hills. They changed direction, drawn by Mariah’s wordless lament, rolling into the gulch that widened enough to allow the tourist town to exist. Blue halos of electricity crackled above the green light. The single clicks from the geiger counter merged to a crackle of static.
The roiling mass of tumblers gathered, concentrated by the landscape. A few last stragglers bounced from the ridge into the main group. Mariah’s song increased in volume and passion, pulling them closer to the town gate.
“Now, Jo.” Tess nodded to her sister.
Fire crackled from the rifle, blasting the trailing tumblers. Red flames scorched across the hills, building in seconds to a roaring inferno in the dry brush. The tumblers stopped, hunching on top of each other, tumbling into a pyramid of rabid green light and threatening spines. Jo’s wild laugh mingled with the howling wind and Mariah’s ghostly refrain.
Jo’s rifle drew a stream of liquid fire across the dusty road under the gate. The tumblers writhed, a living mass of radioactive malevolence trapped in the narrow gulch.
Tess smiled as she drew her weapons. She raised both silver guns over her head, aiming at the scudding clouds still faintly lit by the last rays of sunset. Lightning flickered from the barrels. The clouds swirled. Wind howled, tossing Jo’s red hair and sending Irving’s hat rolling into the tumblers. Thunder cracked, like the voice of doom.
The tumblers roared their anger as the fire struck from Jo’s rifle and the lightning spat from Tess’s guns. Mariah’s voice soared inhumanly high. Flames erupted from the dry bushes, incinerating them in moments. A drenching torrent exploded from the roiling clouds, rain falling in sheets to drench the mass of ferociously burning weeds. The ash pile crumbled, washed away by the torrent. The storm lasted only seconds.
The last drops of rain spattered to the ground. The sand soaked in the moisture. A faint film of greasy ash coated the road where the mass of tumblers had menaced them only moments before. Stars glittered through the breaking clouds.
Tess holstered her guns. “Rest in peace, demons of the desert.”
“Let’s ride, sisters!” Jo kicked her horse into a gallop.
“Good-bye, Sheriff Irving.” Mariah winked and blew him a kiss before following her sister.
“You and yours are safe from the tumblers.” Tess gathered her reins.
“Wait. Who are you, really?” Irving stood on the sideboard of his ATV.
Tess tipped her hat, then urged her horse into a run.
Irving watched them ride through the gulch into the night. He sighed as the last horse crested the ridge and disappeared.
“Don’t rightly know who they were or where they came from.”
Miss Tansy filled both shot glasses again. Whiskey glowed like amber under the simulated kerosene lights.
Irving slumped on the table. “At least the tumblers are gone. Maybe the tourists will come back.”
“Music will cheer you up, that’s what you need, honey. Medicine for the soul.” Miss Tansy popped open a panel on the player piano standing against one wall of the saloon. She pressed a button. The piano keys dipped as music filled the room.
Irving struggled to his feet. “That’s what she was singing. That song, but like I never heard it before.” He closed his eyes and sang, his cracked voice blending with the piano. “Away out here we got a name for wind and rain and fire. The rain is Tess, the fire is Jo, and they call the wind Mariah.”
A single tear slipped across his weathered cheek to splash on the shiny star pinned to his fake leather vest.
“She’s gone, love, but you’ll always have me.” Miss Tansy gathered him against her powdered lacy bosom. “Dust dies, fire burns out, and wind blows away. But the love of a good woman is always there for you.”
Duncan Derring and the Call of the Lady Luck
Bryan Thomas Schmidt
The mission sounded simple: get out to the edge of the solar system and save the Princess Line’s Lady Luck from the Andromedan tumbleweeds. It was the sort of mission I was made for, and I fully expected to wrap her up in less than a day and be on my way. For once, my expectations were wildly out of synch with reality. Happens to everyone sometime, I suppose.
Duncan Derring, weapons and demolitions expert—what do you mean you never heard of me? Where have you been? It wasn’t exactly the kind of profession you’d expect to be called upon by tourism ventures, I know, but the galaxy held all kinds of odd dangers for these passenger ships. They weren’t outfitted with any weapons and only the barest sorts of shields. In fact, if I’d have been the one hired to approve the design, they never would have made it out of concept. But no one asked me.
The Lady Luck was one of the newer liners, “a five star resort amongst the stars,” the brochures said, and they weren’t talking about the kind of stars you see in movies. She could carry a load of up to five thousand passengers, not counting certain odd-sized alien species, and provide all the dining and entertainment options any aboard could imagine. She contained twenty-seven restaurants, eighteen bars, ten night clubs, eight ballrooms, thirty-five shops, fifteen cinemas, and any number of other recreational and entertainment facilities. If I hadn’t been aboard a liner once myself I’d have thought it absurd, but Princess Ltd. specialized in making absurdities reality.
I’d never seen the Andromedan Tumbleweeds, although I’d heard a lot about them, of course. Kinda goes without saying, in my profession, that you stay abreast of the latest developments. Floating in deep space between Neptune and Uranus, the Tumbleweeds were freshly arrived from Andromeda, where the locals tired of the toll they took on ships and planets and used a fleet’s worth of force fields to drag them to the edge of their own solar system and push them off on us. How nice of them, you might think, and you’d be right, but then you don’t know the Andromedans. No one ever called the Andromedans nice.
It took about two days at full on ultra-light engines to make the journey from my previous assignment, Ganymede Colony just off Jupiter. Why anyone had wanted to build resort towns in the Galileans was beyond me, but some people like looking at cool gaseous masses, I guess. I certainly prefer them to some warm gaseous masses I’ve known. I was able to set the nav computer to auto for much of the route and catch some much needed sleep. Despite my distaste for the location, the Ganymede Colony was a busy place and sleep had been more of a rarity there than I’m used to. The custom-made feather mattress I’d had installed in my quarters molded itself to the contours of my body as I slept. It took three tries and its sexiest feminine voice for the nav computer to awaken me. I warmed quickly as the heaters in my sleep pod brought my body temperature to normal and the blood raced through my veins again.
Yawning, I sat up, rubbing at the aches in my neck as I put my feet on the cold deck. The sensation got me moving faster as I slid out of my sleep jumpsuit and began strapping on my demolitions gear. At least as much of it as I could and still move around with speed and conduct ship’s business. You have to be ready to jump at a moment’s notice in this business, for both economic and literal survival, and the better prepared you were, the more successful you’d be.
As the Trini, short for Trinitrotoluene aka TNT, slipped out of hyperspace, I found myself immediately at the heart of the problem. Until I’d encountered her, I would have never thought a nav computer could be programmed with a sense of humor. I figured a jealous woman of some sort must be behind her, because she was always pulling this sort of thing on me, and for once, I wasn’t in the mood. As accustomed as I am to dangerous situations, the sight of three tumbleweeds rotating seeming inches from my cockpit view screen stopped my heart.
I requested a location on the Lady Luck herself and found her frozen in space just inside the edge of the field. She’d come upon the Tumbleweeds unexpectedly and figured staying put and keeping pace was her only chance. Given the Tumbleweeds’ propensity for random changes in direction with the slightest shift in gravitation, I’d say the Lady Luck lived up to her name. The readings my computer took upon arrival showed little influence from planetary gravitation at that particular moment. It was enough to make me relax again, which would turn out to be a regrettable mistake.
As I rotated the Trini and took in the view, I noted damages on the Lady Luck’s hull from unlucky encounters with a few of the surrounding tumbleweeds. The fact the liner was still functional and in one piece indicated the impacts had deflected the offending tumbleweeds away from her without disturbing any of the others. Such a disturbance would probably have caused a sizable enough chain reaction that my mission would have been pointless.
The Lady Luck’s Captain hailed me as soon as I arrived. “Lady Luck Liner calling craft Trini,” the comm officer said in that annoying formal style they have.
“Yeah, I’m here,” I responded. “Just checking out the damages.”
“None necessitating more than a change of five thousand shorts so far,” they responded. The Lady Luck had full on laundry facilities, too, so I figured that didn’t pose them much of a problem.
“How is it you came to be inside the field?” I asked, thinking only an idiot could have made such a colossal blunder.
“We were at full stop, under night crew. The weeds came upon us faster than we could bring her up to full and take evasives,” the Captain answered. “Our nav computer malfunctioned and the scanners read them as small debris.”
Given my own experience with nav computers, I didn’t bother to delve any further. When they weren’t in motion, the tumbleweeds always appeared smaller than their actual size to scanners. Pilots relied on nav charts and computers to pinpoint their location when they travelled this part of the system. But they always verified their presence with human eyes.
“Can you back her out the way you came in?”
“It’s not so easy to move a one hundred thousand ton liner,” the Captain said. “It’s a bit like backing Saturn through one of her rings. We don’t have the maneuverability. Backing up’s rarely called for.”
I checked my computer’s readings again. “For the moment, it appears you got lucky, but when the field reaches the influence of Neptune’s gravity, it could change in a hurry.”
“Can you try and have us out before then?” the Captain replied, as if I needed some amateur questioning my competence for the mission. Although I was tempted to leave him there, the thought of four thousand five hundred passengers suffering for the ignorance of their crew wasn’t something I could live with, so I set about my calculations for clearing them a path.
As I flew along the field’s edge, it became obvious I’d have to go in manually and set the explosives. My jetpack was quicker and a far smaller target, which would greatly increase the odds of avoiding entanglements with any of the weeds as I went about the task. The catch was that I hadn’t used it in over a year and never in the kind of risky situation that I expected to face amongst the tumbleweeds. All it would take is one wrong move, one wrong placement of an explosive, or one disturbance of the field to send the weeds into chaos, spinning like their Earthen namesakes randomly across space, colliding with each other or anything else in their way.
To complicate things further, Neptune’s gravitation was coming into range. I had to act before the field came under that influence and things deteriorated fast. Planetary gravity started influencing objects millions of kilometers out. On paper, the figures looked ridiculous but this wasn’t on paper. Even a slight gravitational pull could send the tumbleweeds into chaotic motion, which would be the end of the Lady Luck, the Trini, and me.
Finishing my calculations with due speed but proper care, I slipped into the suit and jetted out from the Trini’s passenger airlock, making my way into the field. The tumbleweeds were even more intimidating up close than they had been through the Trini’s ports. The temperature inside my suit rose immediately as the adrenaline poured through my veins. Spying my first target, I used the suit’s jets to swing left and approach, taking care not to lose control or come in too fast.
I had to cut the jets with just enough momentum to reach each tumbleweed’s surface. Then I could set each charge and use my boots to push free before jetting off to the next target. Firing the jets too close might start the weeds spinning, and once one went, the rest would follow. The Trini’s calculations determined it would take twenty-two charges to both clear a path for the liner and deflect nearby tumbleweeds away from her. My plan included setting five more just in case something went wrong. The force of the explosion from blowing them all at once would, in theory, destroy enough tumbleweeds to let the Lady Luck free, at the same time reversing the direction of the field’s drift.
Thanks to my experience and skill, the execution came off without a hitch. As I released the last charge and clicked the activation button, ready to push off and head back to my ship, a motion over my right shoulder drew my attention. A door was opening on the Lady Luck. It appeared to be a garbage chute.
I punched the button on my radio immediately. “Captain, don’t jettison anything, until you’ve cleared the field.”
But I was too late.
Debris shot from the chute into space, scattering randomly as it hit zero gravity. At first, it appeared small and harmless. Then I saw the bear.
“Who would throw that out?” I muttered as the smiling face and big fluffy nose appeared and floated toward me. A child was probably already missing it.
“It wasn’t us,” I heard the Captain respond as I watched the Teddy Bear start spinning along its trajectory.
My time for pondering dried up quick. Floating out behind it and just starting its spin was a metal lamp—the kind I’d seen bolted to the walls of starliners in photos. A kind I knew to be heavy, and heavy meant trouble. I could see from its slow spin I was right about its weight and its random trajectory seemed to be taking it right toward the tumbleweeds.
“Someone lost their Teddy,” I mumbled into the comm as my mind raced to devise a plan of action. Simultaneously my hands went into action, one reaching for the jetpack controls, the other for the explosive detonator attached to my belt.
Accelerating rapidly, I shot back toward the Trini, hoping to reach the airlock before I had to detonate the explosives. As I picked up speed, I glanced back and saw the lamp had maintained its tempo. I turned back to face the Trini and hit the comm.
“Captain, get ready to fire thrusters on full at my signal.”
“We need time to strap everyone in,” he replied, his voice rising in pitch with the onset of panic.
“There’s no time if you want to live!”
And then things happened so fast that even the memories remain a blur.
As I reached the Trini and glanced back once more, the lamp almost appeared to move in slow motion but it was too close to the field now. I’d run out of time. I slipped off again and flew around to the opposite side of the ship from the airlock, fumbling for the small outer panel and pulling out the cable by the loop which clipped in place on the belt of my suit. Then I grabbed the controls and keyed the comm again.
“Now, Captain!” I hadn’t intended to yell it but adrenaline got the best of me. With one hand I hit the detonator, then used the other to fire the Trini’s engines. When my mechanic had suggested the outside control panel, I must admit I’d thought he was nuts. I’d never had occasion to use it before but never had I been so glad to be wrong about one of his special features.
The cable did its job and held me to the ship as both energy waves from the first explosions and the jolt of the Trini’s engines conspired to knock me loose. I grasped the controls with both hands and struggled to control the ship, flying her away from the impending disaster.
Glancing back I saw a vapor trail coming from the Lady Luck’s engines as the mammoth struggled to get up to speed. Tumbleweeds seemed to explode around her just in time, disintegrating seconds before the Lady Luck moved into the space where they’d been. Debris flew chaotically all around her, some disintegrating further as it struck her hull.
I saw pieces of the lamp floating around now near a tumbleweed it appeared to have struck. It was one I had wired, and as it began spinning toward the Lady Luck, I said a quick prayer that her designers had made the hull strong enough.
One after another the tumbleweeds exploded in the order I’d wired them. The lamp’s victim should be coming up. It seemed inches from the Lady Luck, but then with the Trini accelerating and my having to buck the force and hang on, I wasn’t sure of what I was seeing.
Just as the tumbleweed the lamp struck was about to hit the Lady Luck, it exploded, sending shards flying outward in different directions. Two larger and several smaller pieces were still aimed at the Lady Luck. I winced as they struck her side, but the damage seemed minimal and her own acceleration carried the liner away as they struck, softening the impact.
The Lady Luck and the Trini continued sailing outward, well past the tumbleweed field to clearance a safe distance away, before we both slowed to a stop.
I took a deep breath, amazed we’d both survived it, then unhooked the cable and jetted quickly back to the airlock to climb aboard my ship. As I reached the airlock door I saw a fluffy brown nose there, wedged into the door frame. Grabbing the Teddy, I jumped inside and closed the door, counting the seconds the airlock needed to compress before slipping out of my suit and racing to the cockpit.
Firing up her engines again, I circled around and flew along the hull of the Lady Luck, looking for damage.
“You okay in there, Captain?” I said into the comm.
The Captain’s voice dripped with relief. “Aye, Trini. A few scratches and bruises. How’s the hull look from where you are?”
“One minor breech so far,” I answered as I eyed the spot where a larger piece of debris had torn a hole in the liner. The hole appeared small, about the size of my fist. The ships’ electronic seal would handle it. All in a day’s work. I chuckled to myself as I turned back toward the liner’s landing bay.
I landed the Trini in a large white bay with windows to the stars overhead. The Captain and several passengers hurried to meet me, their bodies radiating the joy implicit in their smiles.
“Someone drop this?” I asked, waving the Teddy as I stepped out of the airlock and onto the deck.
I heard a gasp and saw a little girl running forward. “Teddy!”
“How’d you find it?” a teary-eyed woman asked, looking amazed.
“It found me,” I said as I released the bear into its owner’s joyful arms. The Captain and the woman smiled back at me. “All in a day’s work,” I said with a shrug.
The Captain slapped me on the back as he laughed and led me through the parting crowd. And that’s when all hell broke loose.
Klaxons blared as lights flashed overhead. Female passengers screamed. Crew members ran.
“What is it?” I asked the Captain, who was speaking into his shoulder comm with the bridge.
“Hull compromise. And it’s failing.”
“What? It’s a small hole!” I knew I should have been more thorough. It couldn’t be the one I’d seen.
“Not any more,” the Captain said as he led me to a wall monitor and punched up an image. The hole had indeed widened and the vacuum seals were failing.
“How far to the nearest repair depot?”
“We’ll have to plug it then.” I raced back to the Trini before he could answer, flying down a chute to the cockpit and firing up the controls. Within minutes, I was launching again and immediately headed for the location of the hole in the liner’s hull.
Operating the Trini’s controls with one hand, I punched instructions into her computer with the other.
“Calculating,” the computer responded as it ran a formula on how to repair the breach.
The radio beeped. “The ship’s computer gives us twenty minutes until it fails,” the Lady Luck’s Captain reported. “We’re already evacuating the section and sealing it off.”
I nodded as my eyes went to the monitor. Trini’s computer looked perplexed. “Come on. It’s an emergency!”
“We are not equipped for starliner repair,” the female voice shot back. “A sizable carbonite fragment is necessary—”
I keyed the comm. “Captain, do you have any carbonite aboard?”
“I thought liners carried extra hull plates?”
“Not for any sizable repair.”
“It’s a small hole,” I groaned then saw that the hole had expanded again. It was twice the size it had been, about the size of a human head. It doesn’t sound large but plenty large enough to allow the ship to tear itself apart. Time was running out. Cursing to myself I was about to respond to the Captain when an idea popped to mind. “Calculate comparison: Trini hull curvature to Lady Luck hull curvature at breach.”
Finicky as she was, I at least felt grateful the computer wasn’t a real woman who could argue with me about what I had in mind. Using tractor beams and my own hole might be enough to get the liner to the nearest depot, even if we had to travel at reduced speed.
“Aft section Thirty-Eight match.”
I chuckled to myself. “Duncan, you’re a genius.” Then I opened the radio. “Captain, are you equipped with a counter tractor?”
The Captain sounded confused as expected. “Yes, but how will that help?”
“I’m going to place my hull over the breach and we’ll use my tractor and your counter to secure us together.”
“We can’t travel fast—”
“Not fast but we might just make it.”
Without waiting for an answer, I began manuevering the Trini into position. The Aft Thirty-Eight section was just to the right of my engines. I raced forward and spun around in an arc so that the Trini’s front faced the rear of the Lady Luck. Then I slowed down and eased her into position, preparing to fire the tractor beam as I did.
“Are you locked on?”
“We have you in range,” the Captain answered.
“Prepare to lock on my mark.” Sliding forward, I heard metal screech as the hulls met. Eyes locked on my computer, I prepared to brake and fire the tractor beam. When the computer indicated Section Thirty-Eight was aligned with the breach, I hit the switch. “Now, Captain!”
The jolt almost threw me from the chair, but I held onto the arms and waited. With a loud pop, the two beams did their job and locked the two ships together like mismatched Siamese twins.
“Locked.” The computer and the Captain said together.
I sighed and leaned back in my chair. “Let’s hope this works.” Keying the comm, I asked, “How far to the nearest depot, Captain?”
“Traveling at reduced speed, a day and a half.”
“It’ll have to do.”
Although the Captain invited me several times, I stayed alone aboard the Trini for the voyage. Someone had to stay in case the tractors failed. Besides, I wasn’t much for luxury ships. Too many people, too many possibilities for trouble. There was a reason I worked alone.
The time passed like an eternity. I slept fitfully because the cockpit seat wasn’t really designed for that and I didn’t want to risk leaving the controls. Besides, I had to monitor the seal regularly. To my relief, it held. The Lady Luck’s hull showed no further deterioration, and, at noon on the second day, we reached a depot on Neptune’s outer moon. Everything had gone perfectly.
But she wouldn’t fit.
The hangar opening was barely wide enough for the liner as it stood, but the two ships tied together couldn’t pass.
The Captain and I consulted with the maintenance chief. “If we separate, the hull could fail just from the pressure release.”
“Can you repair her outside?” I asked.
The maintenance chief scowled in the monitor. “We don’t have the equipment for zero grav repair. I can’t risk my men like that.”
“Then we’ll have to evacuate her.”
“We can’t handle an influx of five thousand—”
“What do you suggest, Chief? We sit here and you watch us die?” The Captain’s exhaustion was wearing him down. But I couldn’t fault him. The man we came to for solutions was just raising barriers. I was tempted to greet him with my blaster rather than a shake of my hand.
“We just need a temporary seal. Five minutes to pull you in.” The Chief was clearly searching his mind for options.
My eyes went to my zero grav suit. I hadn’t put it away when I came aboard after we cleared the field. The curvature of the breast might just be a match.
I keyed the radio and hurried to the suit. “I have an idea.”
“What is it?” The Captain sounded like a man resigned to his death.
“We’ll just have to try it. Get ready to fire your thrusters on my mark.”
I shut off the comm and finished putting on the suit then hurried to the airlock. Slamming my fist against the button to close the door, I punched in the code to start decompression and open the doors, then sealed my helmet as the warning lights and buzzer flared. My nose crinkled at the assault. I’d sweated a lot as I escaped the tumbleweeds. Time to wash the suit.
A moment later, I fired my jets and hurried around to where the ships were locked in their gravitational embrace. Moving my head in next to the two ships, I keyed the comm. “Are you ready to release the beam, Captain?”
“I wish you’d tell me what you have in mind.”
“I’m going to use my suit to block the leak.”
He started to object but I paid no attention, too focused on my task. Keying the comm, I took a deep breath, then put my right hand on the jet controls. “Now, Captain!” I fired my jets as my left hand keyed the comm to the Trini. “Tractor beam off.”
“Tractor beam off,” the computer repeated.
A whoosh of air struck me as the ships separated, the Trini drifting away. I jetted into position in a matter of seconds, placing my suit’s breast over the hole where the Trini had been. “Tractor me!”
It felt like my chest was being crushed by an entire planet. I struggled just to breathe. “Adjust!” I finally croaked, unable to manage more than one word. In seconds, the pressure eased a bit. “Go!”
The Lady Luck’s engines hummed, passing a vibration through her hull to the suit. To call it uncomfortable would be an understatement, but I held my tongue, instead calling up the Trini on the comm.
“Autopilot.” I forced it out, a regular one word wonder.
“Autopilot on. Course?”
In moments, it was all over. The Lady Luck settled into the hangar and the gravity increased as the tractor beam unlocked. I fell off and drifted to the hangar floor on my knees.
“You okay, Derring?” the Chief asked over the comm.
I barely managed a nod, too busy sucking in air. I’d done it. The Lady Luck was safe.
Soon we were toasting the victory in the liner’s ballroom. I’ll say one thing about the Lady Luck, her crew knew how to party. And the teddy bear child’s mother? She sure knows how to kiss. All in a day’s work.
Legends of the Tumbleweeds
When the wind turns things end over end,
and the tumbleweeds come en masse,
some towns, to placate the intruders,
leave troughs of drinking water,
a few stray cattle
or bones with meat clinging like last leaves
around the perimeter,
hoping to be spared
from too much enlightenment.
Other places expect to be attacked,
the inhabitants devoured down to bones
and the bones sucked so dry
that the victims join the mass
somersaulting across emptiness
toward the next meal.
They eye each other uneasily,
on guard for a lean and hungry look.
Still other towns
may never be visited.
They keep the doors and windows open,
suspecting all blessings and curses are transitory,
that tumbleweeds can only take root
in the wind.
Cowchip Charlie and the Tumbleweed Gang
C. H. Lindsay
Once upon a time, not so long ago and not so far away, when the old West was still the new west, there was a little town named Blue Hollow.
Now, Blue Hollow was your average, ordinary sort of town, except it had a problem with outlaws—one particular gang of outlaws.
These outlaws called themselves the Tumbleweed Gang ‘cause they would hide in prairie dog holes disguised with tumbleweeds. When the stagecoaches and wagon trains would come by, they’d pop out of their holes and use the tumbleweeds to sneak up on ‘em and rob ‘em blind.
The Tumbleweed Gang discovered that the pay wagon would ride into Blue Hollow every Friday at noon with the money from all the cattle, grain and craft sales that week. So they decided to make this their personal project. Every Friday they’d wait behind their tumbleweeds for the pay wagon to leave, then come racing into town, whooping and hollering on their wild ostriches and rob the bank.
They rode Ostriches for three reasons: one, they were mighty scary-looking, two, they were faster than a horse, and three, whenever the gang wanted their ostriches to stay put, they’d just scare them real good so they’d stick their heads in the ground and stay there a spell. The last was especially useful when they needed the ostriches to stay behind tumbleweeds. Once an ostrich stuck its head in the ground, it would generally stay here for a good while. Long enough to wait for a wagon train, at any rate.
After the gang robbed the bank, they’d go to the saloon, drink up all the sarsaparilla, and leave town without paying their bill.
As it just so happened, in that same corner of the New West there also lived a man named Cowchip Charlie.
Now, Charlie was not your ordinary sort of man. No siree. Charlie was different. He was half horse.
No one really knows how this came about, him being half horse and all. Some say his momma got kicked by a mule when she was carrying Charlie. Others say Pecos Bill laid a curse on Charlie when he was a little boy and kicked Pecos in the shins. However it came to be, Charlie was half horse. And he was mighty proud of it.
One day Charlie was galloping through the desert, looking for adventure. Now, when Charlie galloped, he didn’t need a horse. He just galloped all by himself. ‘Cause he was half horse and all. He didn’t look half horse like Greek Centaurs did. In fact, except for being short, and hairy, and ugly, he looked like most everybody else. He just acted different.
As Charlie galloped through the town of West Sagebrush, he noticed a newspaper advertisement for a Sheriff in Blue Hollow.
Well, to Charlie, this smelled like an adventure, and Charlie liked nothing better than a good adventure. So he headed straight to Blue Hollow, which wasn’t hard to do, as it was the next town.
He was halfway between West Sagebrush and Blue Hollow when he noticed a row of tumbleweeds on the ridge near the road. Now, seeing a row of tumbleweeds wasn’t that unusual, especially in the New West. Charlie’d seen more than his fair share of tumbleweeds. But these ones were different. They seemed to be watching Charlie. Not like a prairie dog or coyote watches. They do it out of curiosity or a hankerin’ for a good meal. No, these watchings were more on purpose. Like they were just sitting up there, waiting for something to happen. They even followed him for a ways, which looked both menacing and comical as they moved real slow and without rolling. They just bobbed up and down like they were attached to something. Although he did catch a faint whiff of chicken. But, as the chicken-smelling tumbleweeds weren’t after Charlie, he just kept an eye on them and gave them no mind.
When he got to the edge of Blue Hollow, he bellowed in a voice so loud and so fierce that the gamblers in the saloon dropped their cards and hid under the table, “My name’s Charlie and I’m half horse. I’m meaner than a mamma grizzly and uglier than the south end of a northbound bulldog. And I’m gonna be your new Sheriff.”
When the townsfolk heard this, they all ran out into the street to see what the ruckus was. They looked down to one end of the street, and didn’t see anyone. So they looked down to the other end of the street. There at the edge of town was a hairy little man that didn’t look big enough to pick up spare change, let alone a shotgun. So they figured they must have missed something the first time, and looked back down to the other edge of town.
Charlie lifted up his arms, which caused a stench so fierce that old ladies fainted dead away. “My name’s Charlie and I’m half horse. I can drink an ocean and piss a river. I’m here to be your new Sheriff.”
The townsfolk looked at each other, then back at Charlie, not sure what to do.
A round old man hobbled out of the group of townsfolk. “Howdy, Mr. Charlie. My name’s Bob and I’m the Mayor around here. We appreciate the offer, but the Tumbleweed Gang has killed six of the last seven Sheriffs. We don’t know WHAT happened to the seventh. He ran off and ain’t been seen since.
“The gang rides wild Ostriches, so a posse on horseback can’t catch up to ‘em. Meanin’ no disrespect, but we need someone who can stand up to them, better yet, catch ‘em.”
Now Charlie knew what he smelled coming into town. Ostriches. They didn’t scare him none. He just gave the townsfolk a great big smile. Now, as Charlie was half horse, his teeth were mighty ferocious-looking. He did keep them clean and shiny, ‘cause he knew good oral hygiene was important. So they were big, ferocious and sparkling clean. Charlie’s smile was so big and so ferocious that Mammas pulled their little ones back inside buildings and dogs turned tail and ran.
“I appreciate your warning, Mr. Mayor, but I reckon you didn’t hear me the first time. My name’s Charlie and I’m half horse. I can run faster than a cheetah with its tail on fire and throw a rock from here to the Mississippi. I figure I can handle a bunch of chicken-riding outlaws.”
The Mayor grew pale at anyone calling the Ostriches “chickens” ‘cause he knew the Tumbleweed Gang would hear about it. “Well, Mr. Charlie, I reckon if you’re willing to take the job, we’re willing to give you the business.”
Charlie smiled again, causing the rest of the townsfolk to run inside. “Where do I sign up?”
The Mayor pointed down the street. “You’ll find the Sheriff’s office down there a piece.” Then he scurried into the saloon to get himself a glass of sarsaparilla before the Tumbleweed Gang drank it all up.
Charlie moseyed down to the Sheriff’s office to wait for the outlaws. He didn’t have to wait long before he heard them whooping and hollering as they rode into town.
Charlie walked out to the middle of the street, faced the outlaws and hollered, “My name’s Charlie and I’m half horse. I can tame a Nor’easter with a glance, and out roar a tornado. And I’m the new Sheriff around here.”
One of the outlaws stepped forward. “We’re the Tumbleweed Gang, and we own this town. So if you value your hide, you better git. Now.”
Charlie stood as tall as he could, which still wasn’t very tall. “I guess you didn’t hear me the first time. My name’s Charlie and I’m half horse. I smell so bad polecats turn tail and run. I ain’t afraid of no yellow-bellied outlaws riding overgrowed chickens.”
The outlaws didn’t like that one bit. “They’re ostriches, you hairy little dog. And they can outrun anything you’ve got.”
Charlie put his hands on his hips. Now, Charlie hadn’t bathed in a while, so the stench was pretty fearsome. The outlaws’ eyes began to water. “They look like chickens, they smell like chickens and they run away like chickens. So I reckon they’re chickens,” Charlie grinned. “Wanna hear what I call their riders?”
Well, the outlaws liked that even less. So they all ran towards Charlie, looking to beat him up.
Charlie just grinned more, and began to blow. He blew so hard and so long that he blew them clean to Texas.
When the rest of the gang heard what happened, they were pretty mad at Charlie for what he’d done to their folk, ‘cause they’d heard stories that folks who went to Texas never came back. So the next day they sent another group riding into town. This group didn’t even stop at the bank. They headed straight for the Sheriff’s office.
They stopped right outside Charlie’s office, gave one big whoop to scare their ostriches into the ground, then pulled out their six-shooters. “Say a prayer, you ugly son of a pig-dog, ‘cause you’re about to meet yer maker,” one of them shouted.
They figured the sight of so many guns pointed at Charlie would make him turn tail and run. But they figured wrong.
Charlie walked out of his office and glared at the outlaws. “My name’s Charlie and I’m half horse. I once dug a hole so deep they ain’t never found the bottom. I’m meaner, faster and uglier than anything you’ll ever meet. And I’m the Sheriff around here.” He pulled up a cactus that was outside his door and popped it into his mouth. He chewed five times and then began to spit out the needles. He spit so fast and so well that he plugged all their six-shooters before the bandits knew what happened. Then he picked up the sidewalk, shook it out once, and tied it in a bow around all the outlaw’s waists.
Well, the outlaws felt pretty sheepish, being licked so quickly and all, that they scampered off into the desert, their Ostriches following close behind.
Charlie was never one to sit back and wait for something to happen. If he knew trouble was brewing, he’d march right out and meet it head-on. So, when three days passed with not a whisper from the outlaws, he decided to gallop out into the desert to check on the Tumbleweed Gang.
He followed the trail left by the ostriches–which wasn’t that hard to do, as ostriches weren’t known to pick up after themselves. But, even with the clear trail, there came a place where the ostrich tracks up and disappeared. That surprised Charlie. He stopped and turned a full circle, sniffing the air. If there were ostriches–or outlaws–nearby, he’d smell ‘em.
The air smelt strongly of ostrich and outlaw. Most of the scents were pretty old. There was also a strong scent of sage and grass. He looked closely in the direction of the smell. A dozen tumbleweeds were making their way across the rocky ground. Now, Charlie’d seen his fair share of tumbleweeds. He’d raced more than a few and he’d used them to start some mighty big bonfires. But the only time he’d seen tumbleweeds move like this was when he approached Blue Hollow.
He wanted to get a better view of these “tumbleweeds,” so he hopped onto a large rock. From here he could see the tails of the ostriches poking out from behind the tumbleweeds. He also got a good count of just how many tumbleweed outlaws he got to face.
Charlie jumped onto the ground, causing a minor earthquake, which caught the attention of the tumbleweeds. “My name’s Charlie and I’m half horse. I can pull the hide off a buffalo before he knows it’s missing and I’m meaner than a sunburned rattlesnake. I told you to get and you ain’t getting, so I guess I’m gonna have to teach you ugly chicken-riders another lesson.”
The outlaws didn’t like that one little bit as they felt Charlie was keeping them from their ill-gotten gain. With a giant war whoop, that almost scared their ostriches back into the ground, they raced towards Charlie, tumbleweeds and all.
Now, Charlie loved peppers. He loved habaneros, red savinas and especially ghost peppers. He popped a handful into his mouth and chewed three times. Then he sucked in a deep breath and blew. The peppers were so hot that Charlie blew a stream of fire onto the tumbleweeds. In a flash the tumbleweeds burst into flames, scorching the outlaws and their ostriches, which didn’t like their feathers being burnt, so they turned tail and ran.
The outlaws that could hang on went with them. The rest Charlie picked up, slung over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and hauled ‘em off to jail.
With some of their gang locked up, Charlie knew the outlaws wouldn’t waste time breaking them out so he didn’t leave the jail. But, just to keep a good eye on things, he chose to sleep on the roof so he’d see the outlaws coming.
Just after the moon set, when the night was as dark as it could be with the stars twinkling overhead, he caught the distinct smell of tumbleweed, ostrich and outlaw. They were coming from the south, trying to sneak around to the back of the jail.
Charlie had a good idea as to what they had in mind, as they weren’t very creative. But, it was late and Charlie was tired, so he decided to take care of these outlaws as quickly and quietly as possible. He jumped into the air and began to spin. He spun so hard and so fast that he created a tornado, which grew until it was strong enough to suck up the tumbleweeds, outlaws and ostriches into its maw. The tumbleweeds disintegrated in the vortex, but the outlaws and their ostriches were spit out the top with so much force they were sent all the way to California.
When he was sure the outlaws wouldn’t be back for a while, Charlie stopped spinning and grinned. He grabbed a startled snake by the tail, flipped it right out of its skin, and made himself a belt and climbed back onto the roof to sleep.
The townsfolk woke Charlie the next morning, having heard about his latest adventure. They reckoned that was the last of the outlaws, and started to celebrate, but Charlie knew better.
That Friday, the Tumbleweed Gang gathered all their outlaws and all their ostriches and headed back to Blue Hollow. They figured if they came in force not even Charlie’d be able to stop them. And, once they got rid of him, the town would give up trying to get a new sheriff.
But Charlie was waiting for them with a stack of cow chips and horse apples, buffalo chips and a few potato chips.
Charlie grabbed those cow chips and horse apples and buffalo chips and began throwing them at the outlaws. He threw so hard and so fast that they filled up the tumbleweeds so the ostriches couldn’t see where they were going and knocked the outlaws onto their backsides.
“My name’s Charlie, and I’m half horse,” he bellowed. “I can throw a cow chip so hard it’d cut a tunnel in a mountain big enough for trains to ride through. I can run so fast I once ran around the world ahead of the sun. Do you give up now you low down, no good weasels?”
Slowly each one of them nodded his head.
“Good, ‘cause I’m meaner than a Kansas tornado, stronger than a redwood tree and I can scare the tide back out to sea. I’m smarter than ten men and a herd of buffalo. And I can whup you any day of the week.”
Just to show he could, Charlie slammed the remaining cow pies into the ground. He threw so hard and so fast that they left a hole so deep he hit water. The townsfolk later named it “Charlie’s Well” ‘cause “Cowchip Well” didn’t’ sound very appetizing.
The Tumbleweed Gang had finally had enough. They all yelled their surrender, jumped on their ostriches, and raced into the desert.
Just to be sure they weren’t coming back, Charlie followed them, throwing more cow chips.
Well, those outlaws finally had enough. So they headed straight to Las Vegas, where they started the first casino. Since gambling was a legal way to rob, Charlie left them alone. And they were happy.
Charlie, who once again earned his nickname “Cowchip,” moved on, looking for more adventure, and he was happy.
The townsfolk got their pay again, and since Charlie found the Tumbleweed Gang’s hole, and returned all their back pay, they were happy.
So I guess you could say that they all lived Happily Ever After.
Rett knelt to the ground. Her lips brushed against blushing earth. The sun radiated up warmer than it fell from the heavens, the newly darkened earth reforming the frail rays into glory. She reveled in the tumbas’ sacred gift, inhaling the heat with care to avoid choking on redeemed dust. “Oh ever thanks, glorious tumbas.” She hoped they would accept her, that the long journey was not for naught.
Her solitary pilgrimage across the Pearl ended at the lane leading to the tumba master’s rectory. Across the sorrel plains stretched solid patches of sage, the great multitudes of tumbas. The sight rallied Rett’s spirits. So many. The plants-turned-animals were her people’s lifeblood. Like herds of bison in the former world, the tumbas provided all. Most importantly the promise of a future and, for Rett, eternal fellowship. Alone no more.
Moving thunder, the tumbling briers loped from one patch of red chloride to the next distilling the noxious deposits into fertile soil and tending the earth into a more heat absorbent shade. Some day other things would grow in the betterment the tumbas created. “Blessed.”
Taught by the Erewhon Order that the flocks descended from a lower life-form called a tumbleweed, Rett exulted at the miracle of progress spread upon the horizons. Testament handed down from one generation of sisters to the next proclaimed the tumbleweed existed as a nuisance before it reached its higher calling in the Pearl. In a time of legend before the new Eden’s creation, the tumbas evolved from ordained hands, their predecessors no longer damned.
The herd chirped in excited whistles and flocked to the right. Rett stood, pivoting with their movements. She watched her new mentor ambling toward her through the sea of sage. Rett bowed. “Our Ancestors lacked wisdom, Sister Dhan?”
Dhan stood small and ruddy, a scarf wound over her head and face to keep the dust out of her lungs. One weather-worn hand laced with the other. Her dark eyes, clouded over from age, had seen many years pass in the Pearl. “Must be new learning granted by the Erewhon Order yar contemplating.”
“I’m honored to be chosen as tumba keeper. It was gift enough to be selected by the Erewhon.”
“Yar humility serve the tumba and the Pearl, Sister. I will report so to the elders.”
“Keepers are few and far between. The honor is mine.”
Rett’s heart fluttered with joy which spread into her face, tickling her cheeks. Her hands came together in front of her dust caked robes, an echo of Dhan’s posture. “The Order communicated my coming, Honored Sister?”
“And the tumbas, Sister Rett. They tell me everything. On the morrow ya will be so privileged, too.” The squat woman waddled off toward her rectory, a rectangular box molded from red earth.
Most of the building sat sunk into the ground to keep the interior from getting too cold. The sorrel world the Pearl was a part of always stayed cool.
Rett was blessedly unaware of the chill. Her happiness ran over causing her to giggle. She couldn’t believe the day she would become bonded with the tumba had finally arrived. I will never be alone again. After a skipping hop, she settled into a more reverent stride behind Dhan. They paraded through a thick door molded from tumba paste and fibers.
The interior of the master’s priory felt cozy. The light of day diffused to a soft glow which could not reach all the edges and corners. The walls were lined with tumba limbs, stones, and vials of powders and oils. The ingredients came together in a heavy aromatic, smoothing away the worry the tumbas might reject her.
A long table carved from rock took up much of the main room; strewn with microscopes, vials, droppers, tweezers and beakers. Crude seats carved out of earth jutted from the walls. Other than the table and earthen benches, the only piece of furniture was a stool chiseled from crystal. Sister Dhan took her place upon it in front of the largest microscope.
“Sit.” Dhan’s wizened hand gestured at the closest earthen bench.
Rett’s heart skipped then pounded. This is it! A tumba keeper. Me. Her hand flew over her stomach. Its buckings were all elation.
A flat rectangle clicked on with a green glow. A sequence of letters scrolled across it—AAAGTCTGACAAAGTCTGAC.
“Ya’ve been taught the scripture of the tumba,” Dhan said.
“The Order would not have sent me otherwise.”
“It is my duty to check.”
Rett nodded, swallowing the panic. She didn’t know if she could stand being kept from melding with the tumbas one minute longer.
“Erewhon sends a request ya be given a golden herd.”
The air suddenly warmed. Rett’s cheeks radiated like the sun collecting in the windowpanes. “I was not expect—”
“Ya have excelled. Yar chosen master when I am gone.”
Delight swirled down upon Rett in giddy prickles. The gaping holes inside her would never yearn again. All tumbas would come to keep her as she kept them. Always. “The Order did not tell me.”
“It is my privilege to inform my successor. Yar to establish yar parsonage here beside mine.”
“I have a valley select—”
“If ya choose to move when ya become master, so be it. Until then, I choose.”
Rett bowed her head in submission to the elder. “Say the tumba.”
“Say the tumba.”
The green flaring rectangle on the table changed images from code to cells. Each nucleus waited, brimming with vibrancy. Dhan’s hands gestured in a blessing over them. “This will be yar golden herd. We will create it together.”
Rett’s palms sweated, cold and damp. Yet she did not hesitate to go to the master’s side.
Dhan yanked off the scarf wound about Rett’s head. Bald except for a tattoo—a wreath of tumba limbs interlaced with pearls, the eight planets and the sun. The master touched Rett’s bared skin. “Freshly shaven, good.”
“I will not slough in venerating the tumbas. Ya need not fear my devotion.”
Dhan slipped off her perch and tugged open a cache in the floor. She selected a bottle with liquid sun inside. She handed Rett a dropper as thin as a hair. “Draw out yar herd.”
Rett’s fingers trembled as she unstopped the bottle. She set it on the table, not trusting her excited nerves. She slid the slim dropper inside and smeared a gold droplet onto a small, glass plate. The bead looked nothing like the tumba it would become.
With wire-thin instruments, the sisters picked up the auric filaments and spliced them into the readied cells. Gingerly, they set each finished embryo on a glass tray kept warm by a coil attached to a solar collector in the window. When the herd was complete, Rett helped Dhan carry the trays into the incubator room dominated by an enormous glass chamber. Rett set the goldens inside and sealed the glass hatch. Dhan showed her how to arrange the dials for optimal heat and light to make the tumbas grow.
“By tomorrow night, ya will be keeper of the golden herd.”
Rett bowed her head over her clasped hands. “Thanks be, hallowed tumbas.” In mere hours she would be their heart and they hers. If they accepted her. Oh!
“Until they mature to bonding, I have much to teach ya. Obviously, ya learn with speed.”
Rett doubted she gained knowledge any quicker than any other sister. Intelligence marked all sisters of the Erewhon Order. The women kept the knowledge. They kept the order. They cared for the Pearl and nursed humanity. Yet Rett nodded along with Dhan’s assessment. She listened and absorbed the master’s lessons on the workings of the incubator. Then Dahn took her back to the main room with the great table where they had made the tumbas.
“This is the lab. Sit on the stool.”
The crystal stool! The honor twittered in Rett’s veins causing her heart to skip. With reverent care, she perched upon the special seat. Dhan hovered at her elbow. She supervised Rett in the making of a vial of traits which would generate a breeze when combined with basic tumba cells.
“In the world before, they often testify to wind. The tumba could return the wind to us.”
Rett’s attention piqued. She enjoyed hearing anything to do with the ancient lore. “Inside the Pearl?”
“I look forward to it.”
“Say the tumba. Ya will need yar rest. Yar herd will be needing ya sooner than it will please yar tired mind and body. Settle inside the incubator. Yar moment will not be missed.”
“Say the tumba.” Rett bowed. She did as told. Her heart palpitated as she lifted the latch and crawled inside the nursery. The golden specks of bramble had grown to the size of pebbles. In six hours the infants would mature to the bonding stage. Rett already loved them. Her devotion ached like the constant cold lapping at her bones. She would never abandon them. She hoped they would feel the same for her. Oh please.
Content, she lay down with care among her new-hatched flock. The nursery glowed with ambient warmth dispelling any trace of gnawing chill. The lack of cold felt wonderful. A blessed sign.
She melted through the material realm into the otherworldly. Screams pierced the hush of night. Sky tore from the Pearl exposing it to purgatory. The Barrens came rushing in. People lay in the dirt, mouths screaming without sound. The two moons, Phobos and Deimos, turned bloody. Out of Deimos stepped a shadowy man. He pointed a gun. Rett awoke with a start, panting and clammy. Fear oozed out of her pores. A bad omen.
Coos purred, the hatchlings nudging against her, chasing the raw edges of the horror away. The tumbas had matured. Their thoughts bonded with her psyche stronger than the nightmare, dispelling the foreboding. She gladly gave it up in favor of answering her herd’s insistent need. She spoke to them without sound, mind to mind. Blessed children, gather round.
The herd nestled close, gently bumping against one another and Rett as they jostled to touch her. She stretched out her limbs in all directions. Her mind greeted each tumba in turn. Bolts of bioelectricity arced between them: human and tumba, tumba and tumba. They communed, becoming one. The Pearl’s world hummed beneath it all, sealing the union as right.
Dhan opened the chamber. It is time.
Rett pushed herself to stand. The constant tumba chatter buoyed her being, feeling like manna. The abyss inside her filled. She had done it. A tumba keeper. A few years more learning and she would become tumba master. The tumbas told her so, told her Dhan’s time in the Pearl would soon end. The elder would leave the dome to complete her divine circle. The golden herd showed Rett the beauty of human joining the earth ingested by wild tumbas to be reborn.
The aura of the future glowed about Dhan in a halo. She bowed to Rett knowing what knowledge flickered through the apprentice’s mind. The barriers cast aside through bonding with the tumbas meant no secrets existed between the sisters.
Ya will spend the next three weeks in the fields with yar herd. Ya will take nothing.
The tumba provide.
So say the tumba. If they keep ya, ya will survive.
If they abandoned her, her new-filled emptiness would never find solace. Keep me, blessed tumba. Rett bowed and left the incubator. Her flock followed. Out the door and down the lane, over slopes and rills, then onto the plains. Rett could smell what the tumbas smelled, taste what they tasted, hear what they heard. One.
The strong scent of chloride made her mouth water and stomach rumble. One of her tumbas brushed against her leg and offered up a limb. She plucked it free with thanks and sucked down the marrow. Sweet and earthy, there was nothing equal to the taste of fresh tumba.
For three days she and the golden herd traveled, never stopping. They came to a gentle valley, the reds dull from the bounty of lush chloride deposits. Rett smiled as her tumbas spread out, dotting the dusky vale with gold. The sun highlighted their coats to gilded flame. Sublime.
She ran with the herd, played with them and took what they provided without ever having to ask. They knew. She spoke with the elements through the tumbas. Together they dreamed of a breeze. At sunset, the herd gathered around her in a tight clump. They kept the crusty frost from settling into her bones. Their attachment fixed deep. They would not leave her. Their coos hummed a lullaby.
Rett fell into the ethereal through the seamless veils draping off reality. Only the off timbre of color, light, shape and sound signaled entry into the spirit realm. Foul air swept life from the Pearl. She ran from village to village. The streets stood empty. Tumbas lay in heaps. Dead. Rett’s herd tumbled around like their weedy ancestors. The two moons dripped blood. A screech to separate flesh from bone rattled her. The gunman stepped out from gore-tinted Phobos. His hand stretched toward her. In his eyes brimmed laughter. Laughter! Another shriek shook the air, shaking Rett awake. She gasped, her gaze darting around the valley.
The laughing eyes from the dream haunted her waking, sending flashes of her forgotten past to the present. In a field jammed with tumbas she played tag with a boy. They laughed and bounded among the village herds. The exertion warmed them under the thin sun. Tumbas rumbled through Rett’s fingers when she brushed up against them. She pressed her cheek against a happy one. Its essence filled her spirit, giggling with her. The tumba shuffled, shielding her from the boy’s sight. But he soon snuck up behind her using another tumba willing to join in the game. The boy lunged, grabbing her. They tumbled to the ground filling the day with their joy. Then the memory turned dour. Rett could not recall why. She only had a faint feeling the events of that day had created the holes inside her. The boy shouted as grown-ups pulled him away. “Don’t worry. I’ll find ya.” She never saw him again. He had laughing eyes like the man in her dream.
Slipping her hand in the pocket of her robes, Rett fingered the crude carving of a tiny, lopsided doll. Smoothed from years of her caresses, it reminded her of him. She didn’t know what she couldn’t remember, only that she couldn’t. The doll sat waiting on her pillow in the dorm at Erewhon one evening. Etched into the body along one side was ‘Neeka Aimon’. Is it his name? What happened to him? The wondering poked at her longings.
She blinked up at the sky. Phobos was about to set. Deimos had already. She sniffed. Something new lurked in the air. The herd didn’t like it. Nervous and uneasy, they shuffled around, every tumba trying to touch her.
Rett reached out her thoughts and hands to reassure them. The bond can not fail. Not now. She’d be destitute, exiled into the Barrens. The Pearl could not afford to keep such a trespasser. She would lose the tumbas and her sisters. To be abandoned again would shatter her. Again?
The wail from her dream crashed through the night. Oh tumba. Not just a dream. Fine hairs rose on the back of Rett’s neck. The golden herd pushed up against her, ready to bolt. We shall return to the master’s, she communicated to them. They sighed with the promise of refuge.
Let’s go. She stood and took off toward the rectory in a trotting walk. The tumbas wanted to move faster. She couldn’t, not all the way to Dhan’s. Rett insisted her herd merge with her deeper in order to come to terms with her physical limits. The tumbas grumbled. Rett pled.
The wretched howls pressed them forward even when Rett’s body begged for rest. Three days wore long. Her trot slowed to a shuffle, the shuffle to shambling, the shambling to crawling. She pressed on. For the sake of her tumbas and the Pearl, she could not rest.
When she and her goldens finally topped the ridge overlooking Dhan’s, Rett’s heart leapt. Exaltation rose her up onto her feet. She started down the hill at a run then stopped. The rectory lay still. Too still. The vast plains stood empty. The tumbas were gone. Gone!
Tumba parts lay strewn upon the ground. Sage against red. Rett passed by a limb—ragged as if torn involuntarily from the body—and then another. She gaped, her hand over her heart. Her young herd skittered. They backed up. They whimpered in a frenzy which drowned out all her reason. She clasped her hands to her head, crying out with their agony. “Oooh.” She could not lose them.
She needed the master. Her feet churned up dust as she tore down the gentle slope. “Sister Dhan!” Fifty yards away, she could see the door half torn off its hinges. She slowed, stepping with more caution. “Sister Dhan?”
The entry squeaked at her touch. Rett trembled. Her steps faltered. The tumbas screamed. No!
She peered through the busted door. The inside of the priory lay in disaster. The cluttered arrangement that had decorated the shelves now littered the floor. The great, heavy table sat askew, thrown against the back wall on its side. The caches in the floor yawned wide. Vials of future tumbas seeped into the dirt. An enormous oozing tumba limb jutted out from the door to the incubator room.
Under the mess, the floor was stained. Blood spatter. Rett moaned and fell to the ground. Her hand patted at the droplets tinting the packed earth. That can’t be Dhan. It just can’t.
The ferocious keen returned, shattering all sanctity as if the beasts bellowed into Rett’s ear. So close. She jumped. Her herd spooked outside. She peered at them through the broken door. Fidgety, the tumbas kicked up the dust with their fear. Their minds flooded hers with runaway emotions, insisting. She promised they’d go as soon as she checked the incubator room.
She crawled over broken vials and microscopes. Shards of instruments poked through her hands and knees. At the wall, she used an earthen bench to pull herself onto her feet. She wrenched the giant tumba limb free from the doorjamb. Ferals. Inside the Pearl. She held her breath to steady her nerves, then yanked. The door stuck. Rett pulled with all her might. When it gave, she flew backwards into the pile of debris. The knob of a microscope jabbed her in the hip. “Ow! Tumbas, keep me.”
Outside, her herd danced on the ridge, close to leaving her. She scrambled to her feet, bursting into the nursery. The incubator lay shattered. Pulverized. She picked up a crushed capacitor. No repairs could fix it. Or the rectory. No tumbas would hatch any time soon. The Pearl could not afford to lose her herd. She ran back to them. I’m coming.
The world howled. The ferals’ screams assaulted Rett wresting her from the goldens. Her herd shrieked in protest and took off. “Oh, tumba!” Rett sprinted after them.
Stay with me. I’ll protect you. Her pleas came to no good. The tumbas’ hysteria would hear no sense. The Pearl. The divine. The herd did not care. Their deluge of panic caught Rett up. Blocking out all else until she shrieked maniacally with them.
The tumbas stampeded. She shuffled after them. Her feet throbbed. Her legs grew heavy and slow. She fell so far behind.
Night rose, the chill more biting than the day. She fell into the dirt yelping. A man walked out of the moonlight looming over her prostrate form. Quicksilver sparked off his hips. Guns. The nightmare awaking to life. Digging her feet into the dust, Rett tried to scamper away. She didn’t get very far. His touch stopped her, burning like sin. Dark eyes caught the dim light, but she could not tell if they laughed. “Please.” Then the world went silent, more unsettling than the demonic cries of the ferals. She clutched at her chest, tearing at it, desperate for air.
Waves of agony accompanied the dawn. She did not wish to be awake. Silence from her tumbas persisted. Not even a forlorn mewl came to her. I am abandoned. I have failed. Yet she felt warm as if the herd had settled around her. She raised her head to see. Maybe they had come back. But no. Her comfort came from blankets, the embers of a nearby fire and a body beside her. A body! She shot up onto her feet, swiping at her arms to get the feel of it off, backing away.
The blanketed lump rolled over, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “Hey, morning.”
A he! A man was worse than a body. How many egregious crimes would she commit in one day? Oh. Rett spun, her back to the man, gulping in air. Her vision swam and her insides went cold. The pressure of a hand on her shoulder made her scream.
“Ya all right? Sister?”
He knew she was with the Order yet he defiled her. She pulled away.
“What yar doing so near the fence alone?”
Near the fence! She whirled to face him. “Th-th-th…”
His eyes glistened dark and hard, the angles of his face, too. His jaw set, ungiving, lips red as earth. Muscle pulled his frame taut from a hard life. His clothes also attested to his lack of comforts, the patches worn thin. An aura of strength clung to him, making him as intimidating as a tower. “Come have a seat by the fire.” With slight pressure to her elbow, he steered her over to an obliging boulder. When he got her settled, he tended to the fire. His calloused hand stirred the embers to flame.
Near the fence. Maybe that was why she couldn’t hear them. Her goldens had left the Pearl. The idea brought no comfort. Rett felt sick. Her consciousness reached out into the wilds beyond the Pearl. A void answered with scouring grit filling the winds. A most hellish place.
“Ha-ha…” Rett could not finish her question. She hugged herself, rocking. She had failed; had been deserted by her herd, and Dhan lay dead. The Pearl had no tumba master. Humanity teetered on doom and it was all her fault. The third planet had been done in ages ago through remiss caretaking. Now the fourth would fall because of hers. The elders would banish her for it. Or worse. Rett held herself tighter.
The man proffered a plate of tumba jerky. “Eat something.” The invitation grated, crackling like the dried limbs feeding the fire.
Numbed, Rett took the dish and set it on her lap. She stared at it. Hunger eluded her. The pending apocalypse brought on through her careless deeds clawed at her. Her distress did not daunt the man. He tore into his plate downing it in a couple of chews.
She wondered what he intended. Fencers were not reputed for charity. Only for toughness and a low standard of morality. She scrutinized his every move, fixating on the worn holsters. His trespasses past and future would be great. Rett did not want to learn them.
Unconscious of his impious ways, he threw a canteen at her feet. “If yar not gonna eat, drink something. Ya shouldn’t be out here by yarself.”
He had no idea how right he was. The desertion by her herd ripped the hollows inside her wide open. Rett covered her face. Into her hands, she wept.
Awkward noises filled the spaces between them as he tried to gain her attention. “I have to check the fence just ahead. Then I’ll see ya safely back to the city. Don’t worry so much, Sister.”
Don’t worry. Rett wailed. She had just ushered in the final days of mankind. He should draw his guns and shoot her between the eyes. Yet she let him pull her onto her feet.
She felt a familiar touch in her mind. She jerked away from the fencer. Die, die, die, roared through her head. The chant could not be her herd. Is it? Oh! Clutching at her throat, she cried aloud with the voices overtaking her reason. Possessed. She couldn’t stop yelling, “Die, die, die.”
She felt her feet leave the ground. Everything vibrated in a low rumble. Air moved over her face and the landscape passed by in a constant blur. She became aware of another sound. Deep chatter serenaded her and the shifting horizon. A distorted wha wha wha. Her gaze flickered toward the voice. There sat the man. The scenery moved, but he didn’t. Her head lurched. The next thing she knew, she lay on her back and he rubbed at her cheeks.
Staring up into his face, Rett felt unsure of what was going on. Pain kept a firm grip around her heart. Squeezing. Agony would not let go. She didn’t want to remember why. Her gaze fell listlessly upon his face. Grit merged with his complexion, rusted and chalky. She reached up to wipe the grime off his jaded cheek. The dirt didn’t come off. Permanent stains. She wondered if her crimes marked her in the same way. A murmur in his dark brown eyes jabbed at her memories. Familiar. Soothing her. Her mouth worked like frozen earth. “I’m OK,” she said.
“Keep me, Honored Sister, but yar not OK.”
“Yar doing. Touching me!” Rett backed away. There was no telling what he was capable of.
He lunged after her.
“Keep back!” she said.
His steely grip wrapped around her upper arm. Her pulse fled, taking all feeling with it. Until something cold brushed against her lips. She could feel that.
“Yar hysterical. Ya need to calm.”
She did need to think. She did need her reason. Puckering her lips, she sipped at the spout held to her mouth. Then she coughed and sputtered. The liquid wasn’t water. It was fermented tumba sap. The life force of the tumbas. She moaned and spat it out. He damned her worse with every move than her crimes alone had done.
“Hey!” He held her chin firm and forced the sap into her.
She fought and choked. Sacred fire seeped down her throat burning over the unease tangling her nerves. She relaxed and drank until the man yanked the divine away, reminding her of her condemnation. She hung her head with the weight of her shame.
He handed her an oxygen tank and mask. “Put it on. The outside comes in until I fix it.”
A fencer. Such a lonely profession. His kind abandoned everyone and everything by their very essence. A creed Rett wanted nothing to do with. It is my fate now, too. Her shoulders slumped.
She watched him move toward the wall of red. The iridescence of the dome stretched overhead getting lost in the raging storms it kept at bay. The wind whipped through the cracks, pelting her and the fencer with irreverent dust. The pricks reproached Rett for her dereliction and echoed the needles rasping at her insides. She was so alone. Except for the crude fencer who would soon leave her to the Order and the Pearl’s justice.
Fence. The name those not in the Order called the dome surrounding the Pearl. The barrier preserved the atmosphere, generated greater gravity and prevented harmful things from getting in. Things kept out included the ferals. I must get them out of the Pearl before all tumbas are lost. She grew still and concentrated. Distant herds answered her need. They grieved with her and offered love. Maybe all was not lost. Yet what she had witnessed testified otherwise. The gate in front of her no longer separated the Barrens from the Pearl. The boundary lay in ruins over the ground.
A barrel sat beside the fencer at the breach. With a slender tool he pried the lid open then glopped the contents over the gaps. The goopy substance hung down in strings which hardened. The next layer of gunk stuck to those strings. And so it went until a new gate stood molded and the holes patched. Utter ruin had been thwarted. By a lowly fencer.
If he could fix the dome, maybe she could fix the ferals. Rett got out of his vehicle. The more she knew, the better she could attempt their conversion. She joined the fencer at the edges of the Pearl. The mask muffled her words so she sounded strange to her ears. “How did they get in?”
“Looks like they forced the gate.”
The fencer shrugged.
“Ya must have some idea.”
“Working together in numbers, is my best guess.”
Oh tumba! Why? Why did they come? “How many?”
He crouched down examining the dirt. So did she. Golden tumba bits were scattered over the feral tracks and feral sign lay over the whole. Rett jumped onto her feet. She tore at the oxygen mask fighting for a full breath.
The fencer grabbed for her. “Sister!”
She screamed, beating him away. She ran toward the nearest ridge. Her thoughts scanned out. Frantic. In circles she whirled at the top. Calling. The only tumbas that answered were the beasts. Die, die, die.
A blow took her to the ground and the fencer landed on top of her. She fought an arm free. A rough, brown hand pinned it under his body then clamped over her mouth. “Shhhhh. Lie still.”
All tumbas abandoned her, their chatter nil. Seeping into the dirt with the remnants of her goldens and her faith. Now this human animal demanded her purity. Then what? Leave her here in disgrace? Oh, I deserve it. She gave in, lying limp. Ready for her penance. Do yar worst, Fencer.
The ferals took over the vacuum left by the herds, conquering her will. She spat at the fencer. “Die, die, die!”
He slapped at her senseless outburst then held her tight against his chest. Her head throbbed, lanced by countless torments. She glanced at the sun expecting it to come crashing down to complete her persecution. A giant tumba blocked the light. Then three. Rett’s heart raced.
The fencer dragged her back. She smelled the bite of steel as his gun drew along side her head, aiming past her. He slammed his second shooter into her hand.
Shoot him, Rett! Yet if he intended to harm her, he would not have given her the firearm. She lowered the gun. Her gaze followed his aim. The ferals! She let the shooter she held drop with a thud. “No!” She would harm no tumba. She had sworn. And the beasts kept seeking a connection. Maybe they would hear her. She touched the doll in her pocket. Her memories said her link with the tumbas was innate. She turned in the fencer’s arms. Her eyes narrowed as she sought a truer communion with the ferals. Children.
Die. Die. Die. They tumbled closer, thorns gnashing.
“Why?” Rett sobbed, losing her resolve.
Heat roared past her temple with a hard trail of wind. The fencer shot again and again, hauling Rett back toward the rover with him.
Run! Save yarselves! Ferals or otherwise, tumbas were sacred. Preserving them remained Rett’s duty. The beasts turned. The fencer threw Rett into his transport.
The ignition ground in his haste to get away. Rett settled her hand over his. “For now they’re gone.”
He squinted, surveying the horizons. “For how long?”
“Maybe a few hours.” The beasts’ calls thrummed through her senses. Not the companions she expected, but Rett was not alone. The tumba provide. “I have been called and so have ya. The world keeps whispering so in my dreams. The ferals must be stopped and I think I’m the only one who can do it. For the Pearl’s sake, I have to follow them and try.”
“Yar crazier than a fencer.”
Again she caressed the wooden doll in her pocket, reminding her of how the tumbas spoke to her before she apprenticed with the Order. “It is what the tumbas have ordained for me. I must keep faith.” She gripped the talisman more firmly.
The fencer and she sat in uneasy silence. Nothing in common, everything whistled between them like the Barrens raging through a rupture in the dome. Yet Rett needed the solace of another. She breached the awkwardness seeking a bridge. “Have ya always been a fencer?”
“Aye. Was apprenticed to it young.”
“Oh. Yar natural inclinations?”
“No. My parents were killed in a mining accident. Sealed the fate of many children in my village. We were parceled out where the Pearl needed.”
“Do ya remember them?”
“Yar family. Yar village.”
“Like patched rifts in the fence. Those times are hard to get at. I had a friend I tried to keep tabs with, but she was taken by the Order. Like ya. Perhaps ya know her.”
“We’re given new names. I don’t remember my old one. Doubt she does.”
“Do ya remember yar family?”
“No. Sometimes I remember playing with other children in fields with the tumbas. Chasing each other. Laughing.”
The fencer nodded. The grizzle eased from his features. “The children in my village did the same. I have the same memories. Did they take them from us, Sister?”
“Who take what?”
“Erewhon, the Order. Did they take our early memories and names? Hide them? They are so hard to grasp.”
“I don’t know.”
“But yar a sister.”
“I am not honored with that knowledge. If it is so, it is kept by the masters and elders. Ya remember more than I about yar past before being apprenticed.”
He shrugged. Absently, he plucked burrs from his pants. After flicking away the bramble, he thrust his hand before her. “Name’s Adler by the way.”
Rett reached out and shook with him. “Sister Rett.”
“Ya remind me of her. The shape of yar face and the way yar expressions twitch.”
“The friend I mentioned.”
“Oh. Ya must have cared for her a great deal.”
“Not as yar thinking. She and me were very young. She just shone. We were ripped apart the day of the accident. No chance to say good-bye. It digs at me. Like a post in a too small hole.”
“I never got to say good-bye to my family and friends either. It leaves a pain, like waning faith.” She rubbed at her heart. “Now my herd has abandoned me and the Pearl has no tumba master. Killed by the ferals.” She swiped at the gathering tears. “I have failed yas all.”
Adler stared at the horizon. He strummed on the steering wheel awhile. Finally he attempted to sooth her grief. He sighed first as if put under a tremendous burden. “Ya called in the ferals?”
She shook her head.
“Ya told them to attack the herds and the tumba master?”
“Ya wished for the wild things to run rampant over the Pearl, dooming us?”
“Then none of this is yar doing.”
“They keep calling to me.”
“They call to others.”
“In vague drips I hear them. The tame ones I’ve heard more clearly when near them. My Neeka, they were always jabbering to her, too. When we’d play, their chatter filled our souls.”
Her head snapped up. “Who did you say?”
“Neeka. The name just came to me.”
She slipped the wooden figure from her pocket. “Neeka Aimon. This must be hers.”
His face lit up. “Fate smiles today. Fraught as it is with busted fences, my wish comes true. I find my Neeka. I made this. Do ya know her? Where’d ya get this?”
“I found it on my pillow one day at the Order.”
His eyes moistened as he stared at the doll. “Aimon must be me.” He touched its smoothed curves. “I put it there.”
“I hid inside a tumba from the fields in which we used to play. It gladly helped me get to Neeka. It sniffed her out. Ya. It sniffed ya out. That’s how ya know yar the one to turn the ferals. The beasts have always loved ya. Me, too.”
Rett inched away. “Ya crime worse and worse. How can ya love who ya don’t know?”
“We connected in the early years. Our spirits forever know each other. We had no years to hide behind. The love I profess is pure like that. Not the kind ya need to shirk from.”
His truth sat right on her conscience. She relaxed and picked up his hand. “We were so. I remember. No good-byes yet. Our path is not done.”
“How is that?”
“The tumbas bring ya to me. Either to remind me of my gifts or to go further and assist me in transmuting the ferals. Reformed they must be. It’s my duty.”
He frowned. “Dangerous business yar playing around with, Neeka.”
“Do not use that forbidden name.”
“It is Neeka I need to say good-bye to.” He moved closer. “Just sitting here with me is criming.”
“I know and there are more crimes coming my way. Yet I can make sure they are no more than need be. I must do as the ferals and Pearl call.”
“My trade is dividing not uniting.”
“I need yar help. I can not let the divine circle break. Will ya make me beg?”
He swallowed hard. “I will not desert ya. If ya say I have been chosen to do this with ya, I will do it.” His eyes promised along with his words, but they filled with sorrow.
She felt his yawning aches of loneliness bigger than any breach that ever cracked the dome. His needy gapes took hold beside hers. Clasping. Then she heard the jabbering of the ferals. She and Adler and the tumbas were all entwined. Eternally connected. A divine circle in its own right. Thanks be to the tumbas for this revelation. “Faith will keep us. All this time it has. And so will the wild ones. We will be together through them always.”
“So it must be. What is it ya plan to do?”
“Join their herd. Listen to why they are here. Then turn them into the tumbas the Pearl needs.”
“The Barrens are harsh. Ya will not survive.”
“The ferals will keep me if they accept me.”
“I will leave provisions outside the fence for ya in case they don’t. At this gate. To make yar keeping more probable than not.”
“They will temper and tame. The tumbas will save me.”
“So will I. As I have been called to do.”
Despite the wave of hellish events, she felt warm and whole. She had Adler and the wild ones. The tumbas did provide. Rett grinned. “The Pearl’s safekeeping is in good hands. Yars. Mine. Future tumbas will roll in from the Barrens. Say the tumba.”
He nodded and started up the rover. “My faith is in ya. I will take yar word for it.” He gestured at the horizon closest to the city. “Sign points the ferals went that way.”
They rumbled over the rugged terrain, pursuing the wild critters. The beasts tormented Rett with savage cries. She hummed an ancient song about the beginnings of the Pearl. Some of the ferals sang with her melody. “Red will turn to blue, green and brown. The tumbas’ grace till it round and round.” The chant grew louder. Their passion swelled so, Rett felt she might explode. She reached out for Adler’s arm. “Stop. This is the place.”
A crack in the earth spread to the left. Rett got out and headed for it. On the edge, she peered down and pointed. “Down there.”
“I’ll get some rope. But first … Nee … Sister, yar sure about this?”
“The ferals will come. We will commune. When we are ready, I will join them. It is so ordained. Ya must help me by thinking fondly of their kind. Place them in our childhood games in yar memories.”
“Hmmm.” He checked the ammunition in his guns.
“They will tear ya apart.”
“A risk I must take.”
“I am not willing to risk ya, Neeka.”
“Rett! I’m Rett. And I will not be lost.”
“How can ya be so sure?
“The ferals tell me. They tell ya, too.”
“They’re predators. Not to be trusted.”
“Then trust me.”
His fingers brushed against her cheek. “Yar my best friend. My only friend. The only one I’ll ever get. I’m a fencer.”
“I will never leave ya. I will speak to ya through the tumbas. When ya see them turn gold, it’s me. When ya feel a breeze inside the fence, it is me. The Pearl has no chance if I don’t.”
He nodded and tied an end of the rope into a loop. His expression hardened. “Remember the gate.”
She doubted she’d need his provisioning, but she made the concession to appease him. “All right. I will stop at the gate from time to time and take what ya leave.” Rett stepped into the loop and shimmied it up under her backside. She stepped backwards toward the edge of the ravine.
Adler wound the rope through winches on the rover and pulled the slack taut. “Farewell, my Neeka. Long life in this world and the next.”
She bit her tongue not to correct his use of her former name. She’d let him have his good-bye. With a deep breath, Rett stepped over the ledge. In mid-air she dangled. She shut her eyes, calling to Adler. He lowered her down. When her feet touched earth, she opened her lids. The ferals snarled just a few yards away.
She thanked them for their gifts of life and prostrated before them. Why have ya ventured inside the Pearl? Yar home is the Barrens.
Out there we are abandoned. We shall teach ya to forget about us.
No one forgets ya.
Yar part of the divine circle.
We are alone.
Ya have the love of the Pearl.
We feel only yar love and the fencer’s.
Adler thought of all tumbas fondly as she had asked then, if the ferals knew of his feelings, too. Rett exhaled her tension. It is yars. I can get ya more.
How? Oh! A patch of chloride is that way. They tumbled away.
Rett clutched at the leader, trying to stop them. Take me with ya. I want to be yar keeper. Join with yas. I can bring ya all ya seek and make ya greater. She spread her arms wide, showing her trust and a need as great as theirs.
The beast rolled forward. If yar lying, ya will die.
It engulfed her in its prickly thicket. The feral yelped in triumph then led the herd toward the city. Halfway there, the wild ones turned back toward the Barrens.
Adler looked away when the beast swallowed his Neeka. Too painful and grisly for him to witness. No matter what she said, she would always be his dear Neeka. “Criming or no that’s who ya be,” he said, following the herd toward the city. He worried at their continuing rampage. Their contempt for all in the Pearl tugged at his mind then his heart. I lost her for nothing.
He felt the wild things probe his thoughts. Then he barked at them to back off. The ferals fixated on his threat to shoot them if they did not turn. They tittered at it. Their irreverent laughter blasted the calluses of Adler’s soul like a sandstorm at the fence. And he felt something else. Less lonely. Irritating and irreverent as they were, the ferals offered camaraderie. He heard their thoughts change. He heard Neeka’s soft tones in a constant murmur under the wild raucous. Like a soft breeze. Her calm chilled their barbarous impulses. It was then the ferals turned back toward the fence.
Adler raced the rover ahead of them and opened the gate. He saluted them as the herd rolled through. “Till we meet again, friends.” His tone was sardonic yet the tumbas acknowledged his sincerity beneath. Many offered him limbs as they passed by.
Outside the gate he set a crate of oxygen, provisions and a recording of Neeka’s and his favorite childhood story. He waved at the last glimpse of sage. “I’ll be waiting here for that breeze.”
He built a ranch near the gate. He replaced the oxygen at regular intervals and left other gifts out in the Barrens. The ferals would come, chittering and jostling against the barrier. Sometimes they would recite the story he had left and give it new twists. Then they started bringing stories of their own. Adler could hear them clear as a crack on those occasions. He’d press his cheek and palms against the fence to speak with his Neeka. Just as she promised.
The new goldens are coming.
“I will usher them through the city so they receive their proper glory. And find them keepers. Good keepers. Until then they stay with me.”
I knew I could count on ya.
Soon after a young herd flaming in gold came to the gate. Adler let them inside the Pearl and led them into the city. Down the main avenue they marched together. He held one over his head while he ran. The golden leaves rained down behind him consecrating the Pearl with the new age of Rett’s reformed tumbas. Choosing to do their part. Not coded to do so, but influenced by the tumba master of all masters. “Behold the sacred tumba!” When the yearlings had their fill of cheering and parades, Adler shepherded them back to his place by the gate. The Order began sending keepers.
The elder sisters gave him flack at first. “Yar not of Erewhon, fencer! Ya cannot claim master.”
“I do not. Yar master is Sister Rett. She speaks to me through the tumbas. I relay her words and instructions.”
“Prophet.” They whispered in nervous fidgets.
He shifted from foot to foot. “I am no prophet. Only the Pearl’s servant. Like all on this world.”
They let him be after that. The tumbas from the Barrens became tamer with each new herd of weanlings. He patted their golden coats as they came through, touching each one with welcome. They filled his heart, sealing out the barrens which once rampaged through his soul. Then one day a tumba blew a breeze against his cheek.
He couldn’t smile big enough. The broad grin threatened to crack his face. Like when he was a boy.
The laughter is back in yar eyes. It warms my heart.
“Yar breeze warms mine, blessed Neeka.”
Sister Rett. She sighed in reprimand. The tumbas bounced through the gate jumping and rolling. Their antics made Adler chuckle. Her giggle joined in. This place is no longer lonely for ya.
He bowed. “Thanks to ya my dearest friend. The Order requests I pass on yar ordination. May I be the first so honored as to say, Master Rett.”
He felt hints of cool moisture upon the breeze. His fingers reached out to caress them. “Say the tumba, Master Rett.”
Say the tumba, Brother Adler. Next time the tumbas and I will bring ya a tree. The Pearl shall come to know forests.
The skunk moved through the sparse vegetation. It paused occasionally to dig in the loose dirt, using its large front claws to scoop away the dry earth, seeking a worm or grub. Hunger gnawed at its belly; its regular food sources had burrowed deeply into the soil to escape the heat.
A tumbleweed rolled by, carried by the light wind. The Russian thistle caught in the gnarled limbs of a scrub oak. The skunk stared with interest at the massive seed pods scattered throughout the branches.
The animal nibbled at the plump seeds, unaware of the sharp tentacles growing from the base of the plant. The tendrils moved slowly, circling around the sleek black legs and body. They tightened like a lasso. The skunk’s anal glands contracted, sending a stream of foul smelling oil shooting from its striped tail. It leaped forward, fighting against the restraints. It bit at the root-like growths as they squeezed tighter.
The needle fingers stabbed through the tough hide, seeking out the life giving moisture hidden within the small frame. The hollow roots pierced the vital organs, draining the skunk’s life away. The animal’s struggles grew weaker as the plant began to take on a healthy glow. The skunk’s eyelids fluttered a last time as it lay still.
“Easy there, Bud.” Dick Pryor patted the roan’s shoulder. “We’ll camp as soon as we get to the water hole.” He led the animal around the stunted growth, giving the gelding a break from carrying his weight. The afternoon sun soaked his shirt through. It stuck to his chest like a second skin.
Dust puffed from the shod hooves at every step. A coating of dirty foam covered the animal’s shoulders and chest. He’d been ridden hard and fast. Nate Clemmons promised them a job on the Lazy C on his last trip to Kansas, and Dick needed the work. He paused in the shade of a stunted oak. He yanked the hat from his head and wiped the sweat from his brow.
A rank odor swirled in the air. He noticed the shriveled carcass of a skunk lying at the base of a green weed. Several chewed seed pods lay in a semi-circle around the varmint’s head.
“Wonder what laid that skunk low?” Dick mumbled. His foot found the stirrup, and his free leg swung over the saddle. The familiar old leather creaked under his weight. “Blasted Russian thistle is spreading everywhere.” His spurs touched the roan’s flanks.
“Come fella, the water hole ain’t that far away. We’ll get a good night’s sleep. Start out fresh in the morning.”
After a half mile, he spied the dried corpse of a jackrabbit lying beside a robust thistle. Dick shook his head slowly. I wonder what’s causing this. Could those seeds be poisoned?
He shook the wild thoughts from his head. The water hole lay a mile ahead and he and Bud both needed a drink. After several minutes, he found a squirrel, the hide peeling away from the bones. A green weed grew beside the body.
Those seeds must be tainted. That’s got to be it. They’re killing the animals. I hope we find that water hole soon.
Dick’s spine tingled. Two large round weeds rolled across the trail in front of Bud. The spooked roan reared. Only Dick’s experienced hands kept him in the saddle.
“Easy there, it’s only weeds.” He scraped a work-scarred hand across his weathered jaw. “Still, I’ll feel better when we bed down for the night.”
He eased up on the reins, spurring the horse forward. Within seconds, he became conscious of two weeds following him on the trail. Are those the same weeds that crossed in front of us awhile ago? How is that possible? He gouged the roan’s flanks, urging greater speed from Bud’s tired legs.
The sun lay low in the western skyline when Bud smelled water. The roan quickened its pace, anxious to slake his thirst. They’d left the rolling weeds far behind. Dick began to breathe a little easier, as they approached the clear pool. He gave the horse its head and let it trot to the water.
The roan dipped its lips in the pool, sucking up the cool liquid. Dick swung his leg over the saddle, patting the roan’s neck. “That’s enough for now.” He tugged Bud away from the water.
He tied the roan to a gnarled elm near a good patch of grazing. He stripped the animal of saddle and bridle and rubbed him down with a handful of dried grass. The harsh odor of horse sweat filled his nostrils. During the ride up the hillside, Dick convinced himself that the seed pods were poisoned and had killed the animals that ate them. Still he couldn’t explain how two plants were able to follow him.
He pushed the disturbing thought from his mind and set about gathering firewood. “I’d sure like some supper,” he mumbled, dropping an armload of wood by the pool. “I ain’t seen a live animal in the last three miles.” He rummaged in his saddle bags for some hard tack. “I guess this will have to do.”
He found an abandoned bird nest in a stunted elm, among a few bones and feathers. Dick used the nest to start the fire. The dried grass caught easily. He added some tender and a few sticks of dried wood. Soon, he had a hat-sized fire going.
The first tumbleweed rolled through the camp. It stopped at the outer edges of the flames, despite the gentle wind which should have carried it into the heart of the fire. The weed lingered for a moment then rolled away from the campsite.
The thistle continued up the slight rise, holding at the edge of the high ground. A chill prickled along Dick’s spine. It’s only a blasted weed, what can a weed do to me? The memory of the dried animal carcasses lying next to the weeds sprang to his mind.
He gazed at the western horizon. A tiny sliver of sun highlighted the scattered clouds. There might be fifteen minutes of daylight left. Not enough time to pull out and find another camp spot. He threw another stick on the fire. Maybe I need to scare up some more wood.
A second tumbleweed rolled in from the opposite direction, against the wind. It joined the first on the rim of the bowl-shaped depression. Dick’s hand went to the worn pistol grip at his side. What can a bullet do against a plant? He wiped his hand nervously across his shirt.
He approached the roan slowly, keeping his eyes on the tumbleweeds. “Easy there, Bud, we need to move in closer to the fire.” He led the horse to the pool, staking him out within easy reach of the water. Dick circled the campsite, gathering all the wood he could carry. He hurriedly made another circle before the sun vanished from sight.
A third weed joined the pair on the rim, followed quickly by a fourth. Dick slowly exhaled a deep breath. I wish I knew what was going on. I’ve never heard of weeds doing anything like this. I hope I’ve got enough wood to last out the night. And all I wanted was a little rest and a good night’s sleep.
Dick pulled a battered coffee pot from his saddle bags. He found the remains of a pound he purchased a week ago in Fort Smith before he began his trek across the nations. He filled the pot with water and set it on the fire waiting for it to boil.
Movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention. Six plants rested on the rim, looking more like a pack of hungry wolves than a mass of plants. The fire will keep them away. He gnawed on his lower lip.
The water slowly came to a boil. Dick moved the pot to the outer rim of the flames and dumped the grounds inside. He gave them a few moments to settle to the bottom and poured himself a cup. The hot brew jolted his weary body.
Hope I can stay up all night. A rustling sounded behind him. Dick spun, the coffee cup dropped from his fingers. The scalding liquid splashed on his patched britches. He stared into the darkness beyond the firelight. A weed stopped at the outer edge of his vision. It weaved back and forth, resisting the pull of the wind.
“You don’t like the fire,” Dick mumbled. “You’re waiting for me to drift off to sleep so you can swoop right in here and get us.”
The thistle quivered in response.
“Well, you ain’t gonna get us.” Dick rose to his feet. He moved Bud closer to the campfire. The roan snorted as the smoke blew in his direction. Collecting the battered tin cup from the ground, Dick filled it with the strong brew. “Well it ain’t gonna happen. Go find another skunk to drain dry.”
He grabbed a flaming branch from the fire and tossed it at the dry weed. A nearly human shriek echoed through the night sky as flames ate into the brittle leaves. The fire burned quickly, reducing the thistle to embers.
“I told you, you’re not going to get us,” Dick shouted at the swaying weeds and thought himself mad for doing so.
He rolled the remains of the thistle on the fire. Thick black smoke rolled into the air. He swallowed a large gulp from the bent tin cup. It’s going to be a long time till daylight.
The hours passed slowly. Dick caught himself nodding off to sleep only to jerk awake when his chin dipped to his chest. Time for another cup. He grabbed the enamel handle, glancing at the dying flames. Blast, I dozed off. How long have I been asleep? He scrambled to throw more wood on the fire.
Sharp needles stuck him in the thigh. Intense pain blazed through his leg. Dick swung the firewood in desperation, swatting at the hungry thistle. The plant flew through the air. The needles popped as they were torn from his flesh. He threw the stick on the smoking embers, praying it would catch easily.
A second weed attacked him, landing on his back. His hands closed on the rough stem. The thorny growth sliced his hand. “Get off me.” Dick ripped the thistle from his shoulders and threw it on the dying fire.
Bud kicked at the advancing plants. The roan’s shod hooves sent the rolling balls sailing through the air. Dick tore a plant from the gelding’s shoulder, dumping it on the flames. The dead branches ignited easily, and orange flames leaped high into the air.
The fire cast the surrounding area in half-light. Dick gritted his teeth against the pain. He snatched all the approaching plants, tossing the weeds into the small inferno. Two thistle plants remained on the rim, lone sentries on patrol.
“Come on, come on down,” Dick shouted. “You know you want to.” He knelt by Bud’s front legs. He drew in a deep breath and spit, trying to clear the smoke from his lungs. “Come on, I’m ready for you.”
The remaining plants rolled from sight, disappearing below the rim of the depression. Dick fed more sticks to the fire. He kept his eyes fastened on the eastern horizon, watching the sun’s first rays break over the trees.
He filled the battered cup with the remainder of the witches’ brew, his eyes searching for more rolling weeds. Dick downed the lukewarm liquid in two gulps. A thorny thistle rolled across the upper rim, following after the others.
Dick rose to his feet, stowing his gear in his saddlebags. “We need to make thirty miles today.” He patted the roan’s shoulder. “We’ve got some hard traveling ahead, reckon we best get to it.” Bud accepted the bit easily. He scattered the campfire, draped the blanket and saddle over the roan’s back, cinched it down snug and climbed in the saddle.
Of Weeds and Wizardry
Did I ever tell you about the time I came face to face with blood-sucking tumbleweeds?
This happened back in the days when I worked as a messenger for the kingdom of Fringolia, during the reign of Frankfurt the Frugal. Once again, I partnered with the one messenger who was smaller than me. His name was Brutus but we just called him Nut-boy. We were both loaded with a couple of bags of letters to deliver to the Kingdom of Hatu, a country just south of Fringolia. We got this illustrious duty because it was a two-week trip one way and we were the lowest in rank.
Ten days into our boring journey, we climbed down from the last foothills of the mountains and headed toward a village on the northern border of Hatu. It had been a hot day and the stupid red messenger uniform I wore was soaked with sweat.
“So, Myrick,” Nut-boy said as he munched on some walnuts, “how much longer until we get to Remoporov?”
“Once we get down to the plain, it’s another five mind-numbing days across nothing but flat prairie.”
“Oh.” He looked over at me and said, “I wish I could borrow your socks.”
“Sorry, my boy. Believe me, I wish I could take them off.” You see, I have magic socks. The good news: they allow me to run for long distances and not grow tired. The bad news: they’re also cursed and cannot be removed unless I’m dead. Oh, and they glow in the dark, too. I found them in an old sorcerer’s crypt, but that’s another story for another time.
I’d been trying to keep them a secret, since the last thing I wanted was for my overseer to find out that I could run all day and not get tired. He’d have me working non-stop, the mean, old cabbage-head. Of course, Nut-boy found out because it’s hard to keep glowing socks a secret from your traveling partner.
At that moment, we heard screaming from up ahead. I looked down the last hill leading to the plain and saw a man running toward us. His clothes were shredded and he flailed his arms over his head as he ran. We stopped and watched him approach.
When he reached us, he skidded to a stop and panted heavily, staring with wide eyes at Nut-boy, then at me. Without warning, he screamed, “Run!” He took off again at a full sprint, resuming his flailing and screaming.
After scanning the area for danger and not finding any, I looked at Nut-boy and he looked at me. We both shrugged and continued on in silence. The man must have escaped from an asylum or something.
By the time we reached the village of Nogal it was dusk. I looked forward to finding an inn and a warm bed to rest in. The village seemed empty. We’d walked about halfway through town when I heard a voice shouting from inside a house, “Run! Run!”
I wondered if they spoke a different language in Hatu, where ‘run’ meant ‘greetings noble friend’. I tried to see who shouted, but they remained hidden behind closed doors. I turned to start up the street again, but came to a sudden stop, mostly because the tip of a menacing-looking scimitar poked into my nose.
“Who are you and what do you want?” said the large man holding the blade. His bare arms flexed with rock-hard muscles and his face looked like it had never smiled. His other arm held a second scimitar pointed at Nut-boy’s scrawny neck.
“We . . . we . . . we are just passing through.” I tried to sound brave, but failed.
“There is only death here. Leave now, while you still can.” He lowered his scimitars and tucked them one at a time under the wide belt at his waist.
“But we’ve got to get to Remoporov, it’s urgent,” Nut-boy squeaked.
“The tumbleweeds will kill you first,” said tall, dark and cranky.
I laughed and slapped my leg. “Oh, you had me going there for a second, big guy. You are one funny fellow. Are you a part of the village’s reception committee?”
He scowled and folded his arms across his large chest.
Time to change tactics. “Listen, friend, we just want to find an inn for the night. Can you direct us to one?”
He pointed to a large building across the street. “The tumbleweeds are closing in. If you stay the night, you will die here with the others who were too stupid to leave.”
I waited a second for a punchline he didn’t deliver. “Like you?”
He scowled. “I can handle them.”
“I’m sure you can.” I clapped Nut-boy on the shoulder. “We’ll just go to the inn, get some food, rent a room, catch up on the latest gossip and all. Good talking to you.” I waved as I started toward the inn. “Nice guy,” I whispered to Nut-boy.
The inn was as cheery as a crypt. For some reason all of the rooms were taken except for a storeroom. The innkeeper set us up a couple of cots on top of the crates of dried ham. We then went into the common room to enjoy our meal of dried pork soaked in butter . . . with boiled cabbage on the side. Ugh.
As we finished choking down the last of our meal, several of the remaining villagers gathered in the room with us. They filled up the remaining chairs leaving the latecomers to stand around the sides of the room.
A few minutes later, a rather robust man entered the room followed by our jovial scimitar-bearing friend. “All rise!” scimitar-man barked. We did.
The heavy-set man took a seat at the one table left unoccupied while scimitar-man stood behind him and looked menacing. He was good at it, too.
One of the villagers spoke up, “What we gonna do about the killer weeds, Mayor? You promised us we’d be safe if we stayed here.”
“We should have left with the others,” a woman said.
The mayor raised his fat hand in a calming manner. “The first thing we need to do is not panic.”
The villagers looked at each other with frightened expressions. I couldn’t believe these country farmers were afraid of some little old weeds. Of course, having grown up on a farm myself, I did know that these simple folk could make a big deal out of nothing.
“But sir,” another man said, “my cattle are all dead and I can’t reach my home without joining them.”
“Are they coming to the village?” another woman asked.
The mayor motioned toward his body-guard. “Jurl will explain.”
Scimitar-man said in his gruff voice, “They have surrounded the village. A few of the monsters have cut off the north road into the mountains.”
The first villager spoke up again. “Only a few? Then what are we waiting for? If we hurry, maybe we can break through. Let’s gather our families and leave.”
The mayor shook his head. “I said, let’s not panic. As I told you, they can’t eat through wood. We are safe as long as we remain indoors.”
“How long can we do that?”
“Long enough. I have a plan.” The mayor lifted a heavy bag and let it land on the table with a loud clank. That got my attention. “I’ve cleaned out the village treasury. One hundred and seventeen gold pieces to the one who will go to the wizard’s castle and find a solution to our problem.”
One hundred and seventeen? My mind immediately began to think of all the things I could do with that much money.
“That crazy old codger?” asked a man with only one eye. “What can he do?”
“I have a feeling he knows more about these killer tumbleweeds than we do,” the mayor answered. “I need volunteers to brave the trail and find the wizard. Anyone?”
The room went silent. One man cleared his throat only to be followed up with more silence.
“I will,” rang out through the room.
I tried to figure out what fool said that until I realized my right arm was raised and everyone stared at me.
“And you are?” the mayor asked.
I’m not sure why my arm had shot up on its own volition, but I figured it wanted the money as much as I did. Of course, now I needed to come up with a good story. Fortunately, my superior brain was up to the task. I put my hand to my chest. “I am Myrick the Magnificent, wizard of the first class. And this is my assistant . . . uh, the ever noble Nuttoboyous.”
“Myrick what–” My hand quickly covered Nut-boy’s mouth.
“Aren’t you a little young to be a wizard?” asked the one-eyed man.
“I am quite adept with youth potions.”
Old One-eye scratched his chin. “And what is that dorky red suit for? It looks familiar.”
“Of course it is, my friend. It is the uniform of wizards from my order.”
The mayor looked excited as he stood up. “Oh, Myrick the Magnificent, you have come in our hour of dire need.”
“That is what I do, my friend. I travel the world in search of those who are in need of my vast powers and wisdom.”
Nut-boy choked under my hand.
“Wonderful news!” the mayor said. “Any others willing to go with our brave wizard here?”
No one else in the room moved. I looked at Nut-boy but he shook his head.
“I will,” Jurl said.
The mayor turned around to look at him. “No. You must stay here and protect me. Um, the village. Just in case.”
Jurl maintained his stony face as he shrugged one shoulder. “As you wish.”
The mayor looked around the room. “Anyone else brave enough to accompany our great wizard?”
No one moved.
“Then it’s settled. Myrick the Magnificent gets all the reward to himself when he returns.”
“Yes!” I shouted, pumping my fist into the air. I dropped it back down and cleared my throat before saying in a lower, more dignified pitch, “Yes. Those terms are acceptable.”
Shortly after that, the meeting broke up and the villagers scampered back to their homes or, for the ones who had come in from out of town, to their rooms in the inn. The innkeeper, once he realized the grave error he had made by not giving me the best room, moved a family out of it for my ‘assistant’ and me.
Later, as we got ready for bed, Nut-boy asked, “What were you thinking? You plan to take on all those monsters by yourself?”
I laughed and put my hand on his shoulder. “My boy, this is what they call ‘easy money’. There are no monsters, just weeds and stupid farmers.”
“Yeah, but they are definitely afraid of something. This sounds dangerous.”
“That’s a bunch of boiled cabbage. Probably some farmer got pricked by a tumbleweed and he jumped to the conclusion that it attacked him. Look, I grew up near a village like this one. I know how superstitious these bumpkins can be.”
“But you lied to them. You’re no wizard. What if I tell them the truth?”
“Tell you what, if you go with me tomorrow morning, I’ll split the reward with you eighty–twenty.”
Nut-boy shook his head.
“Okay, eighty–thirty . . . Eighty–forty?”
He didn’t go for it. I ended up having to bribe him with five gold pieces from the reward money for him to keep his mouth shut.
I didn’t sleep much that night. Thoughts of all the ways I could spend that gold kept dancing through my head. Sure, it wasn’t enough to buy my own castle, but I could get a nice piece of property and retire before I turned twenty. Maybe even become a noble. The ladies of the court loved rich guys.
The next morning, just as the sun began to climb over the horizon, the mayor sent a boy to wake us. I left my mail bag in our room and headed out onto the street with Nut-boy following. I expected to see crowds of well-wishers lined along the street and all the village girls swooning in my presence. No such luck. Instead, I got the mayor and the ever-jolly Jurl.
“Myrick the Magnificent,” the mayor began, “I wish you luck. Please return safely with a solution to our predicament.”
“No problem, your immenseness,” I said. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
“My-my-myrick?” Nut-boy asked. “If you–”
I cut him off with a wave of my hand. “Don’t worry, my noble assistant, I shall return unharmed. Remember, my powers are vast. This will be much easier than that undead sorcerer I vanquished.”
“No, that’s not it. I was just wondering, if you die, can I have your socks?”
Sentimental little booger.
I begrudgingly agreed, then started off on my journey. I took a winding dirt road to the west of the village. At first, I kept my eyes open for signs of danger but the only threat came from yellowed grass and sagebrush. The sun rose quickly and I began to sweat as it beat down on me. Once I was out of sight of the village, I decided it was time to put my magic socks to good use. I could be there and back before lunch.
When I reached the top of a small rise, I saw a farm house with a fenced corral. As I walked passed it, buzzing flies drew my attention to a dead cow that lay inside. It looked emaciated, like it had either starved to death or had had all of its blood sucked out. I figured it was the former and that the frightened owners fled the house in fear so fast they forgot to take their cow with them.
Nevertheless, I picked up my pace to get away from the scene.
For the next half hour, other than the dead cow, I didn’t see anything even remotely dangerous. I stopped for a minute to get my bearings and saw the little hill on the left which marked the way I needed to go. Before I could take off running again, though, something behind me caught my eye.
Tumbleweeds; lots of them rolling my way, bouncing along with the wind. Except there was no wind. But tumbleweeds couldn’t move by themselves, could they? No, the wind must have just been where the tumbleweeds were. Yeah, that had to be it. I took off running again and tried to put the tumbleweeds out of my mind. It didn’t take long for me to out-pace the wind-driven ‘monsters’ and find the trail that led toward the wizard’s castle.
Castle was not the right word. Obviously, the hick villagers didn’t know what a real castle looked like. I saw a nice, two-story stone house. Not bad, but definitely not a castle. I jogged up to the front door and knocked. No answer.
“Haloo!” I called out before knocking again. I tried the door; locked.
A locked door was no match for my incredible lock-picking skills. I pulled out the kit that I kept hidden in my uniform pocket and had the door open in a matter of seconds.
As it creaked aside, I looked behind me again. Somehow, that pack of tumbleweeds had managed to turn off of the road and follow me here. That was a little weird, and I must confess I started to feel a little freaked out.
Of course, that didn’t stop me from taunting them. “Ha! You can’t catch me, you stupid cabbage heads.” With that, I ducked inside the door and locked it. I put my kit away and brushed my hands. Even if those tumbleweeds really were monsters, they wouldn’t be able to get me through stone.
“Haloo!” I called out again. No answer. I looked around the room. It had a fireplace, a large bookshelf, and a comfortable sitting area. I was more interested in the well-stocked pantry in the next room so I helped myself. After all, those of us in the fraternal brotherhood of wizardry should support each other, right?
As I munched on a carrot, I returned to the main room and heard scratching at the door. I peeked through the window and dropped my snack. Tumbleweeds covered the whole front of the house. Now, at this point I started to feel pretty scared. But if these tumbleweeds were somehow possessed and able to chase people, what could they do to me? Thorn me to death? I let out a chuckle as I relaxed and waved through the window at my bushy little friends.
I didn’t like being pricked, though, so I looked for a back door. If I could get out, my magic socks and I could outrun the beasties. I found a door with a wooden bar across it at the rear of the house. When I lifted the bar and pulled on the door, though, it held firm. There were no windows here so I couldn’t look out to see what was holding it.
I turned around to look for another exit only to come face to face with the largest tumbleweed I had ever seen. It was almost as tall as me.
“Um, excuse me,” I said as I tried to walk around it. It rolled into my path. I tried to go around the other side, but it blocked me there, too. “Hey, ah, look, I have nothing against you. Just let me out of here and I’ll get out of your hair . . . or branches or twigs or whatever.”
It rolled towards me.
I drew my little knife. As the weed rolled into my range, I lashed out, taking off a little twig. It let out a strange squeal and rolled back. Brown ooze came from its wound. This gave me a chance to initiate a sock-enhanced burst of speed to get around it.
Once back in the main room, I saw a sword hanging above the fireplace. I pulled it down and almost dropped it due to its unexpected heavy weight. I started for the front door but stopped. The windows were now completely covered by tumbleweeds thumping against it to get in. Fear spread through me. My only hope was to find the wizard and enlist his help.
My rotund adversary rolled into the room. It looked mad, if tumbleweeds can even look mad. I swung the sword around and pointed it at the creature. “Stay back! I am a rank seven sword master.” Okay, so I’d never used a sword before in my life, but the tumbleweed didn’t know that.
It advanced toward me. I glanced to my side and saw a stone stairway leading up to the next floor. I dashed up the first four steps. The creature stopped at the bottom.
“Ha!” I shouted triumphantly. “Can’t go up stairs, can you?”
It started up the stairs.
“Oh cabbage,” I swore as I scrambled up to the next floor. A hallway ran the length of the house with several doors leading off. I ran to one end and pushed open the door. I entered the room and, when I didn’t see a way to lock the door, grabbed a nearby chair and wedged it under the handle. After taking a few steps back, I started to breathe again.
My foot hit something, causing me to look down. I let out a scream when I saw a dead body wearing a wizard’s robe. The poor soul looked like all the moisture had been drained from his body; just like the cow.
The door started to shake. I stepped around the corpse and deeper into the room.
But with the wizard dead, what could I do now? My big mouth had gotten me into yet another mess. Why did I have to let greed overcome my common sense? And why oh why did I have to lie and say I was a powerful wizard? I was just a short teenager who could run fast.
Something on the table in the middle of the room caught my eye. A book. A large, magic-looking book. The door shook again. I examined the giant tome. It was open to a page titled ‘animate plant servants’.
A light of hope flared inside me. What if there was some kind of counter spell in this volume of arcane wisdom that would turn these weedy warriors off? I flipped through it.
None of the spells had anything to do with whacking weeds. Just before I slammed the book shut out of despair, a page caught my eye. The top of it read ‘unanimate’. Would that do it? I read through the words for the spell. It looked like it should work. I just needed enough time to concentrate and recite the spell.
The chair scooted aside and the door burst open. My rounded adversary rolled into the room. I raised the sword and flailed with all my might. Twigs and brown ooze flew everywhere. I backed up until I hit a wall, still swinging as the tumbleweed advanced.
I don’t know how I managed to stay alive, but a minute later all that remained of the monster were piles of twigs. I panted from the exertion and put the sword point into the floor. “Take that.”
My skin grew cold when I saw the twigs begin to move and crawl toward each other. Didn’t this thing know how to die? I felt a sharp sting on the back of my calf. “Ow!” I looked down and saw that one of the little branches had locked on to me and started swelling with blood; my blood! I used my knife to cut it off.
I picked the sword back up and jumped over my opponent before it could reform. I tried to scoop up the book as I ran by. It weighed even more than the sword. I realized that I couldn’t carry both of them. The sword could save my bum, but the book could save a lot more bums. Not that I’m all that heroic, but I do like having lots of adoring fans; especially female ones. Oh, and the reward money would be nice, too.
I dropped the sword, picked the book up in both arms, called on my magic socks, and zoomed out of the room. I ran down the hallway to the top of the stairs. The front door was open while tumbleweeds poured into the house. I skidded to a halt and headed the other direction up the hall. As I ran, I kicked open each door along the way looking for a way out. It wasn’t until the last room, a bedroom, that I found a window. I slammed the door shut, put another chair in front and went to the opening. To my relief, no tumbleweeds blocked it. I flung it wide and leaped onto the roof. I ran along the edge until I found a place I could safely jump to the ground.
It appeared that all the tumbleweeds were focused on the front door. I ran around the house and toward the road. Sure enough, the front of the building was covered with the barbaric bushes. They must have sensed my presence, though, because they stopped entering the house and began to roll toward me.
I tapped into the magic power of my socks and sprinted away from the tumbleweed tribe with ease. Several miles down the road, I stopped to look back. To my relief, I had left the weeds in the dust. I turned and continued on toward the village at a normal jog.
I arrived just in time. As I entered, I saw a wave of tumbleweeds washing in from the southern plains. My old buddy, Jurl, and a few other villagers were standing on the outskirts holding various weapons. There had already been a battle. I saw piles of twigs squirming back together.
I trotted into their midst. “Hi, guys.” I held up the book.
“What’s that?” Jurl asked.
“It is the solution to all your troubles.”
Before Jurl could say anything else, three tumbleweeds rolled from behind a building straight toward him. His scimitars flashed and in a matter of seconds, more twigs joined the pile. It was pretty impressive. Jurl could make a lot of coin if he decided to leave the body guard business and become a professional vegetable slicer.
The mayor and One-eye ran up to us. One-eye pointed a finger at me while the mayor scowled.
I patted the book. “Look guys, I came through. Here’s the spell book that can solve all your problems.” I opened it to the page with the unanimate spell.
One-eye just stared at me. “I know that uniform now. You’re nothin’ but a Fringolian message carrier. You ain’t no stinkin’ wizard.”
I stared at him with shock. “What do you mean, my cycloptical friend?”
The mayor sniffed in disdain. “Did you lie to us, young man?”
“Of course not. I have all sorts of powers. Look.” I undid my boot and pulled it off to reveal my glowing sock.
“And that is supposed to impress me?” the mayor asked. I looked at my exposed foot and realized that the noon sun hid the normal glow.
“Here they come!” one of the villagers shouted. I looked over to see a vast horde of rolling death coming our way. Jurl leaped forward and whirled his blades in anticipation.
The mayor spoke in a strange language as he read from the book I held open. It took thirty seconds for him to finish the arcane words.
One of the villagers called out, “They stopped!” Sure enough, all the tumbleweeds stopped in their tracks and just lay there like, well, weeds.
I smiled. “You see? It worked. Now, there’s this little matter of owing me one hundred and seventeen gold pieces.”
The mayor sneered. “I owe you nothing. I’m the one who stopped the tumbleweeds. So, the money stays in the town treasury. Besides, you’re no wizard, you’re nothing but a mail carrier.” With that, he tucked the magic book under his arm and walked back into the inn.
I felt crushed. All that money gone. The mayor had Jurl escort Nut-boy and me out of town. He told us to never return. I tried to give Jurl a piece of my mind, but he gave me a piece of his foot first. Some thanks for saving their lousy, stinking town from being attacked by rabid tumbleweeds.
The weeds rolled out of nowhere. One minute we were driving down California Interstate 190, the next being chased across a Death Valley desert floor by two dozen of the largest, most rabid tumbleweeds I’d ever seen.
I told Don not to leave the paved road, but he didn’t listen. He said it was a trap. So there we were, plowing through hip-high sagebrush at eighty-five miles an hour in Don’s Ford Bronco, sweating through a 107 degree sunset. “How’s this better than the highway?” I wanted to ask him, but decided to save it for when we were taking our last breaths. I didn’t want to distract him.
“You could help.” He dodged a hillock by yanking hard on the wheel.
I gritted my teeth to keep from biting my tongue or killing him. “What?”
“You could pour gas out behind us and light it.”
“Fine. I’ll do that,” I said.
I knew the gas he was talking about. It was in our extra tanks, the ones we kept for long trips like to the Yukon. I checked the glove compartment for a lighter before I stooped to asking him where one was. With the lighter in my hand, I clambered into the truck bed, closed off the connection between the extra tanks and the Bronco’s gas tank, and bumped my head on the window.
“Ow,” I complained as I hooked up the drain hose we used sometimes to tap the tank.
“You can fan it around,” he said.
“I know that.” I opened the tailgate and tried to keep my feet while I did it. He was so bossy. He always acted like he was the only one with any brains. I held the hose out the back, turned the valve, braced myself against the frame, and adjusted the nozzle until the gas sprayed out evenly and far.
The tumbleweeds were gaining on us. They were some mean weeds. You didn’t want to get caught by them. First they’d stuff themselves into your orifices to suffocate you and begin feeding on you while you still lived by growing tiny roots into your flesh and absorbing your nutrients, and then they’d nosh on your rotting flesh until all moisture and usable organics were consumed. Flesh-eating tumbleweeds were everywhere that was desert nowadays and deadly, but not as deadly as the wild dandelions. That was a whole ‘nother weed.
I swung the stream of gas back and forth onto the sage, creosote, and dusty earth, getting my brains bounced out while I did it. For a moment, just a moment, I thought I saw a creosote bush lean out of the way of the gas, straining against its roots. It fell behind before I could be sure. I waited for the stream to trickle down indicating the tank was emptying before I switched to the backup.
The tumbleweeds couldn’t catch up to us going this fast, but if we stopped, we’d never start again. Setting a fire would distract them, but probably only kill a few. They’d panic and leave the area, so we could get back on the highway.
“Don’t empty them both,” Don shouted.
“Ok.” I dug around through our junk with one hand and found an old newspaper. I smashed it into wick-shape, saturated one end of it, pinned it to the metal floor with my foot, and lit it, all while holding the hose steady with my other hand. When it was burning good and strong, I leaned back, shut off the gas valve, and at the same time tossed the flaming twist of newspaper as far as I could into the receding gas-soaked soil, and hoped it would catch.
And it did, just as the main bunch of tumbleweeds came even with it. I had the satisfaction of seeing the dry, twiggy bastards shoot up like torches before pulling the tailgate closed.
The fire wouldn’t burn far, just the length of the gas spill and then some. Death Valley Desert didn’t have enough old-fashioned vegetation—the kind that didn’t move or eat flesh—to start a real brush fire. But it would scare the tumbleweeds and that’s all we’d need.
I lurched into the front seat and watched as Don turned us back toward the highway. He laughed. “Look at those weeds scatter.”
Back on the highway, behind us, we could see the barricade of brush and dirt the tumbleweeds had left for us. We’d never have made it if we’d had to stop. So I had to say it. I knew I had to. “You were right to leave the road,” I murmured, barely audible.
He ignored my apology—his way of accepting it—and said, “It’s getting so we can’t leave the towns anymore.” He shifted up.
I thought maybe the temperature had dropped a few degrees since the sun had set, 103 degrees Fahrenheit now. I dug through our bag of snacks.
“What d’ya got there?” he asked.
“There’s crackers and cheese. Some juice boxes.”
He grunted. I took that for no.
“What do you want? I’m having salami and crackers.”
“Peanut butter on the crackers,” he said.
I dug through the bag of goodies at my feet. “While I was spreading the gas,” I said, “a creosote . . . it moved.”
“It was the wind.”
“Maybe,” I said. The hot night air was dead still.
“This is not good,” he said.
I nodded. This was not good at all.
Earth’s New Masters
Shura read through her contract again. It had taken a while to get used to the optic implant, but had proven well worth the cost. Data came in through the implant and out into her field of vision, untraceable and undetectable even with the best scanners. Bio-tech made her life easier.
She sat down, loaded the coordinates into her wrist unit, and prepared to leave. The next transport left in twenty minutes. She’d make it if she hurried. They’d already transferred the initial credits to her account. She’d have enough time to change her form on the forty-five parsec trip.
She wondered at the secrecy. Normally her jobs gave her a lot more details up front. More information gave her the chance to opt out, although if she did, she would have to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
She entered the passenger quarters on the shuttle, slid the door closed, and set the lock to voice recognition only. She flipped the dampening field into full silence and tossed her bag at the foot of the small decompression bed. She paid extra for the sound dampening field, but she always included the cost in her retainer fee.
She stripped, staring at the unfamiliar visage in the mirror. She couldn’t remember what form her body had started life as, just the never ending pain of transmutation.
She hated this part, the tearing of flesh as she snapped and reformed her bones to fit a role. She watched in the mirror as silent screams pierced the room. She focused, making sure she got the shape and feel of the body right.
Shura stepped into the sonic shower, cleaning the debris of dead skin and blood from her body. Then she crawled across the floor and into the decompression bed.
She lay down, hair damp, breathing heavy, resting. She reached over, disconnected the dampening field and relaxed into unconsciousness.
Shura watched out the portal as they approached Riker-10. A space station dedicated to orbiting, and defending, planet Earth. Humanity had decided to give their planet time to heal. She’d often thought it a good plan, but she wondered what millennia untouched had done to the health of the world. She turned away, gathered her stuff, and headed to the spacedock.
She took a small shuttle transport to Dark Woods. The spacer bar offered anonymity; no one really focused on the people coming in or out of the establishment. Not that it mattered to her, an unregistered body morph.
She changed her appearance so often she rarely worried about people picking her out of a line up. Her physiology allowed her to absorb the D.N.A helix of any living species she came into contact with.
She could be any other creature in the known universe, live as they did, love as they did, reproduce and mother her children as they did with maybe a one in a thousand chance of passing on her physiology to them.
Body morphs were outlawed, their parents required to register their child’s abilities with the Alliance. They were implanted with a chip that alerted scanners and transports all over the galaxy when they passed, letting the governing body of those places know that one of her kind walked among them.
Her parents hadn’t registered her. At least she didn’t believe that they had. She had no real way of knowing. She’d been raised by a spacer named Corbin who made his living hunting other species for pay, and he’d taught her the profession as early as she could remember.
Maybe he was her family. She’d never know. She didn’t know where he’d gotten her nor why a man like him had taken her in, but she did know that he’d cared for her in his own way.
She shook herself out of her reverie as the shuttle slowed and the disembark lights flashed. She followed a few people off the transport, being careful not to touch them. She didn’t like picking up random D.N.A.
The near sterile corridors of the space station made her slightly more comfortable. The short walk to Dark Woods allowed her time to calm her mind. She began the process of remembering all data coming in through her implants for later evaluation, documenting and cataloging the interior of the building. She placed her back against a wall and blended into the background.
A murmured “Shura,” brought her head around. She nodded almost imperceptibly to the tall, graying man who slid into the chair across from her.
“Tuoint,” he said and slid a small, clear film of data across the table.
She stared at it a second, 200 magnification, she thought. Words appeared in front of her. Earth compromised. Immediate action required. No known space craft has crossed the perimeter beacons. Movement on ground, evidence of civilization detected.
The disk ran on for several more paragraphs, but she’d gotten the gist of it and an inkling into why they’d hired her and not a standard squad.
They wanted someone to blend in and infiltrate this civilization. She stared straight into his eyes. “How long?”
“What do you want from me?”
“Infiltrate, figure out where the threat is from, and then eliminate the trespassers.”
It all sounded simple enough, but she had her doubts. “When do I leave?”
She nodded. “Who’s taking me out?”
“I am. I’ll monitor you through your implants. You’ll need to sign a waiver. Limited weapons allowed in zone. Sorry, but we can’t break the rules.”
“What are we talking then?”
“No explosives or artillery of any kind.”
She understood. Earth had become a shrine, and she could almost not blame them for wanting to keep it that way. Almost.
She stared in wonder at the blue orb of the Earth. It was hard for her to imagine that the humans had come from this glorious place. She’d heard tales of dark swirling clouds covering the planet, but if there ever had been, they weren’t any longer. Humanity’s goal of healing the world appeared to be working, and she couldn’t help but wonder what that first breath of unfiltered air would be like.
Tuoint looked over his shoulder at her from the cockpit of the jump shuttle. “Pack it in, pack it out.”
She glared at him. “Understood.” This mission was becoming more of a pain in the neck every second.
“We’ll be arriving at the jump altitude in twenty seconds,” he turned back towards the front.
Her implants gave her the read-out of the air temperature and wind velocity. They would give her ample warning on when to pull the chute.
He disengaged the door to the airlock. She stepped through without a backward glance. He’d told her he’d meet her in a few weeks at a landing site they maintained for scouting probes. It would take a day just to hike to the site from where the disturbances had been recorded.
She waited while the airlock decontaminated her and decompressed the air. She wore a re-breather to help with the descent and planet atmosphere until her lungs adapted to the unfiltered air.
She stocked several vials of compressed nutrients in her hip pouch. They contained everything her body needed to survive. Tuoint told her the water would be safe to drink, and she could cleanse it with the droplets they’d given her as long as she didn’t dump any onto the ground. Messing with the ecosystem of a planet was a big no no, as was killing and consuming animals.
She found it ironic, but kept her comments to herself and leapt from the shuttle. She loved the weightless feeling as the cold air whipped past her face. She took a moment to enjoy it before she pulled the zip cord and deployed her chute.
She landed with a well-practiced, running leap and hopped a few times as the fabric pooled around her. She slipped out of the harness and hit the button to instantly repack the chute.
Shura surveyed her surroundings. The forested area looked almost impenetrable. It would be a tedious two day walk. She sighed, determined, and set off towards the south. “Heat sensors on.” She rarely gave verbal commands anymore, but she felt the need to hear her own voice in the void.
It felt desolate. To think she might be the only known sentient creature on the entire planet. Sure, there’d been sightings of something, but they didn’t know for sure and that’s why they’d called her.
Several days later, she stood on the edge of the wood watching a billowing dust cloud headed in her direction. She scowled at it. “Magnification three hundred percent.” A swirling mass of tumbling weeds danced in an intricate pattern.
“Magnification five hundred percent.” She gasped, unable to help herself. As a weed stopped, thick branches became flowing hair down the back of its dusky grey form. The tall, thin creature turned in her direction. Even from this distance she could see grace in its movements.
It stared at her a long moment. Then it turned back and glanced over the mass of tumblers. Three broke from the dance and sped in her direction. They moved with incredible speed. She couldn’t keep her eyes off the first figure, but the advancing party needed her immediate attention.
“Magnification normal,” she whispered and pulled out a long, thin blade. There would be no infiltration on this mission after all. She sighed. She’d be lucky to make it out alive.
The station had bigger problems than just a few illegal colonists. These people had to be natives to the world. She flipped her blade around and braced herself. She was about to meet Earth’s new masters.
They came, swirling in one direction and then another around her body. They left her no room for retreat.
Their constant movement made her step toward the plain to avoid being touched. She allowed herself to be herded onward, wondering why they hadn’t attacked.
Shura stumbled on the uneven ground. She felt a sharp jab from behind. Blood trickled down her spine as she spun and brought her blade down through the one who’d broken her flesh. She didn’t think, only reacted, as her body took over and did what she’d been trained to do.
The vibrating shock hit her system first as a forced transformation overwhelmed her. She couldn’t control the shape. Her screams echoed through the plain. They’d injected her with undiluted D.N.A. Her body was absorbing and morphing to fit its new instructions.
She lay there among the creatures she’d butchered, changed and unable to move. She slipped into unconsciousness, not expecting to ever wake up.
She woke looking at the millions of lights in the Dark Father. She saw one flare brighter than the rest and shoot across the twilight blanket above. She’d often wondered what they were. She rolled over, her bracken slithering around and covering her in warmth.
She lifted a tendril, twirling it between her fingers. It shifted, hardening and softening in seconds. The clan cried through her mind, their pain palpable. An outsider had sent two brethren to Wind Father. A third lay unmoving in her bracken. Shura slid over. She paused momentarily as odd designs flittered in her vision.
She shook her head, sending her suddenly tense bracken rattling against each other. She stiffened and rolled them around her frame, hooking her legs into place. The hooks on her knees and the backs of her heels locked her lower half into the hardened tendrils. She stared, fascinated at her thin, wood-like legs. They seemed odd. She frowned. Why? Her elbow and wrist joints had the same hooks that locked in, immobilizing her as she spun in circles across the clearing. She sent her outer mind across the plains, detecting shapes and movement. She found the still form of the wounded one as the others milled around.
They were tumblers migrating where Wind Father blew them. She shifted subconsciously, flicking hardened bracken this way and that, propelling herself towards her fallen sister. She rolled up and hovered on the outside of the circle, unfurling into her standing form. Her tendrils hung in limp sections down her back. A few of them curled around her wrist, and some of them around her waist and hips. She wanted to help but was unable to figure out how.
She had a niggling feeling in the back of her mind, but it slipped away and she didn’t pursue it. Her sisters and brothers blocked her from the fallen one, thrusting impaling bracken spikes at her whenever she tried to get close.
She didn’t understand why they behaved this way. Was she being shunned? She tried to push past the blank spot in her memories, but the brackens on the tumblers near her stood out, rattling against each other. Then he was there. He rolled up and placed himself between her and them.
She felt the force of his thoughts, even as he blocked her from the others. She pushed against the boundaries. He pushed back. A high frequency echoed in her mind.
The pain of images and noise brought her to her knees. She clenched her head. The bracken formed a shield around her. The pain made her nauseous. His thoughts burned pathways in her mind unknown before.
Then she heard it. The massive tumultuous voice of the group, more clearly than she had previously. When she awoke, it was a sense of what they felt, a soft wondering, a group remembering. Now it was alive, intense and overwhelming.
He broke through her shell. ”What are you doing? I told you to stay where I left you.”
“I don’t remember.” She looked around at the encroaching tumblers.
He turned his head towards the others. “What do you here?”
“The outsider must die!” They answered as one.
“What outsider? What are they talking about?” She pulled her bracken tighter. Her hands ran through the strands, the weight of the others’ emotions crushing her.
“They’re talking about you.”
She shook her head in denial. “These are my family.” She glanced across the growing crowd.
He turned his back, blocking her from his words as he spoke to the others. She heard faintly before they closed off completely.
“I’m curious. We should study this.”
A vast amount of anger shot across the group. They pushed past him, swarming her. She was defenseless against the spears of bracken piercing her flesh. She wavered in and out of consciousness, but gentle hands clasped her up and pulled her away from the crowd.
“Cease,” a deep rumble plowed through the group, flattening them to the ground. They struggled against his will, finally submitting to the greater mind. She felt all this, barely comprehending the thoughts.
Shura lay bleeding in his arms. Images that she didn’t understand flashed in front of her eyes, imposed over the landscape. They brought feelings she couldn’t quite remember.
She felt him put his shield around her, protecting her from the thoughts of the others, and theirs from her. He curled his bracken around both of them, the defensive spikes out in full. The others backed away rolling into balls and moving off a short distance.
He closed her into a cocoon of thought. She could feel wind and sunshine on her sensitive skin. They lay near a stream. She smiled as she relaxed into the dream he created for her.
She knew it wasn’t real, that they still stood on a dusty plain beside the death that she’d created. Her heart ached. She knew them, knew their memories and the lives they’d lived, the mates they’d chosen. Now they were gone, snuffed out by the thoughtless actions of someone she didn’t know how to comprehend.
He carried her across the ground, encumbered by her and forced to walk on two legs. She knew all this but couldn’t remember how. Her bracken curled around his reflexively, and she couldn’t help but note this pleased him.
She let go and fell into the dream completely.
Shura woke, her bracken limp around her. Light streamed in from the roof of the cavern, and the lap of water could be heard beside her. The pain in her limbs, a dull ache, and she couldn’t see him anywhere around her. The comfort of his shield dissipated. She couldn’t tell if he was as close as he had been, and the distant rumble of the clan touched the edges of her mind. He’d lessened the shield there as well. She still couldn’t hear individual thoughts, but they were there just below the surface of her knowing.
Images flashed in front of her eye again, she shook her head but they persisted, symbols flashed that she didn’t understand. A female tumbler unfurled from the corner and rolled over to her, she was older, wizened, her bracken not as flexible.
“What is that?”
She knew that this one meant her no harm, had healed her in fact, watched over her while He was away. Shura shook her head, her bracken rustling. “I don’t know. Something keeps appearing in my field of vision then disappearing.”
“You are other, it stands to reason. Maybe it is part of your otherness.”
“How am I other? I look as you, I think as you, I remember nothing but the clan, how am I other?”
The old one pushed a memory at her: a creature with no bracken standing at the edge of the forest, the Sun Father glinting off an object in her hand.
She saw the outsider falling to the ground and shifting shape. The noise it made in the quiet of their dance had the whole clan trembling.
It stood over their fallen kin, wearing their skin where it hadn’t before. Then He came forward, pressing at her with his mind, and she struck out at him.
Her mind convulsed around the memories in her head, unable to break the block. The old one stepped back as He burst into the cavern.
“What do you here?” He kneeled beside her. She reached out for him, memories not hers thundering through her mind. She needed him to shield her, wanted him near her. Her body shrieked with pain, her hand pink as she reached for him before losing consciousness.
She didn’t know how much time had passed, only that she lay in his bracken, the branch-like limbs rough against her skin. She rolled over, staring into the face that had affected her so strongly that morning in the clearing. He’d protected her, kept her safe when he didn’t have a reason to. Her mind still heard the thoughts of the clan, still felt their sorrow over what she’d done. But she had her senses back. She knew who she was and what she’d done with her life, and suddenly wasn’t very proud of it.
Her optic implant turned on. She realized it had been doing that on and off through the time she’d spent with the clan. She’d been transmitting images. She should leave, before she did any more damage. This civilization wasn’t ready for what she’d brought on them.
“You’re not going anywhere.”
Her head shot up and she looked him in his marble brown eye. “What?”
“I said you’re not going anywhere.”
His bracken swirled around her as he spoke.
“I couldn’t let you cease to be, to stop the clan from sending you to the Wind Father, I had to claim you.”
She froze. Tender feelings evaporated. Her muscles hardened.
She paused, as he pushed the images of everything that meant into her mind. She grinned. Maybe being claimed wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
He’d brought her to the mating cave. He shielded her from the clan. He’d cared for her. She relaxed and his tendrils loosened. She reached up to his face, her fingers hovering inches from his skin. Shura held them there and glared at the soft pink flesh covering them. The implant cackled to life, and they both saw the transmission. Both understood the implications, since she could now remember what was happening. She leapt up and fell back to the ground with a shriek. There was a deep laceration in her leg, transforming hadn’t healed her. He gathered her in his arms and carried her down the slope. She watched the sky, waiting for the ship to appear.
“Put the woman down.”
She felt his denial. He shouted at the men surrounding them. A few clenched their heads and fell to their knees.
“Shura, can you understand me?”
She shook her head. She heard him, but didn’t want to, didn’t want to leave now that she’d finally found a home, found someone who accepted her.
She glared at Tuoint.
“Dart them. We don’t have time for this. We’ll sort it out on Riker.”
Shura stared in front of her, deciphering the emotions and images caught in her Bio-network.
Her hand slipped subconsciously to her hair, as if missing a limb.
“What happened down there?” Tuoint looked at her across the table in the darkened room.
“I’ll have to think about it. I’m not sure myself yet. All I know is he saved me, and I don’t have a clue why. I remember getting there and an initial skirmish. The rest feels like a memory, or a lost dream, buried deep.” She stared off into space for a while. “Where is he now?”
The scent of fresh air and strong arms holding her, wafted across her memory. She shivered.
“Good.” Tendrils slithered under her skin. Waiting.
My family and I fled. The east coast had too much, too much stimulation and busyness for my nature, and Laura quite agreed. We packed what little could fit in our trunks and took the train as far as it would take us—Seattle. From there we moved from place to place around the area. I worked the odd job, everything from coroner’s assistant to logging, even a stint in a local tavern. That only lasted until I spilled a jar of moonshine and burned my hands. The doctor said they couldn’t do anything about them, and I was left to even more menial tasks.
Laura got sick not long after that and kept mostly to her bed. It was a true stroke of God’s brush we settled next to as nice a woman as Widow Wetherby. She took care of Anita during the worst of my wife’s episodes. Without her, I would have had to stay home, and we would have lost the house.
When Laura died, I gathered what small amount of extra money I could scrounge together and took Anita to the widow’s door. She pulled it open, attempting to flatten her scraggly ringlets into something acceptable. It did little good. “Mr. Richardson.”
She smiled a rugged smile, not the sort the women on the east coast gave. Theirs were tight, high at the corners, no teeth showing—the kind taught to them in fancy finishing schools. The widow’s grin would have sickened them, but it came across more sincere than any of the ‘proper women’ could manage. She clasped her hands in front of her. “I apologize. I wish I could have made it to Laura’s services, but I had urgent business.”
She seemed to have quite a lot of urgent business, particularly for a woman of her age. I forced a smile across my face, hoping no bitterness came across. “I understand.” I handed her the small bundle of money. “I know this is quite a lot to ask, but I need you to watch Anita for a while. I have my own business to attend to now and won’t be able to take proper care of her.”
I looked away from the old woman, examining the mountains to the east. Widow Wetherby cleared her throat. “I couldn’t take your money at such a time as this, Mr. Richardson.” She stuffed the money back into my jacket pocket. “Go along and take care of your business.”
I swallowed a small lump in my throat. “Thank you.”
She nodded and grabbed Anita’s hand, leading her inside. Those sparkling, round eyes stared back at me, an arrow through my chest. All my fears weighted me to the spot. Was it right for me to leave my daughter now, just after her mother’s funeral? Not for her, certainly, but I had to get away from the town, away from everything that reminded me of Laura.
Including Anita’s eyes.
I staked down the tent on the first decent-sized plateau I came across and dropped my pack. The mountains had never been my favorite place, but I knew no one would come to break my solitude. I set up a circle of large rocks well away from the entrance to my tent, then gathered smaller branches and logs from the surrounding woods. In the process, I caught my sleeve on a sharp, broken branch. It sliced deep into my back and arm and left my shirt hanging almost completely around my waist. Normally, I would have left immediately, but in my grief it hardly seemed important. In retrospect, perhaps a part of me wanted to die there, alone.
I took the bloody top off, cringing at the pain as I pulled it away from the wound. I didn’t manage to find much kindling, but I hoped it would be enough to start something. The sun had already dropped below the horizon, and its absence left a chill in the air. Before long, I would need the fire just to keep warm, even wearing my coat.
Back at my campsite, I swilled down a mouthful of whiskey, struck a match, and set to lighting the smallest of the twigs. The first three matches in the book sputtered out before making any headway. The fourth, I managed to get down to the wood before it blew out. Frustration finally began cracking my numbness, but not so much I panicked. As I drank another mouthful of whiskey, the obvious solution appeared. I piled the firewood I’d gathered into the stone circle and doused it with at least half of the whiskey in the bottle. It hit my nose strong and all too bitter; I warmed just breathing the fumes. I stood far away, prayed, struck the match, and let it drop.
The logs and sticks erupted in blue flames, the warmth completely flooding over me. I slipped into my woolen coat and considered what else I had to keep the fire going. My shirt still lay on the ground, several larger chunks of wood, and something I didn’t recall picking up. A tumbleweed. A small tumbleweed, to be certain, but it still seemed out of place on a mountain. I could only assume it had been dragged up here at some point, probably on my own pack, since I didn’t imagine it blowing up the mountainside. I grabbed it from the pile and tossed it towards the fire. It fell just short of the fire and blew back towards me. How odd, I thought, and grabbed it again, walking closer to the blaze. The wind picked up, nearly blowing the weed out of my hand. I readjusted my grip and the spines stuck into my palm. I dropped it barely a foot above the flames. It still, somehow, blew away, but the tips caught all the same, fire quickly travelling over the dry, spindly form. It fell to ash.
As it dispersed on the wind I heard the first scream. It carried through the forest, high, grating, shaking the air with a tremulous wail. I went to my bag and grabbed the rifle, cocking it and aiming into the woods at my best approximation of where the screech came from. I was unfamiliar with the animals around these mountains, but I couldn’t fathom a thing that could make such a sound. The closest I ever heard was a wild boar cry during a trip to the south, and I’d never heard of a boar living in the mountains.
I shot the Winchester at a whistle through the trees. Of course I hit nothing, and the sound only left me more apprehensive. I sat on my pack, and took a deep drink from the whiskey jug, spilling it down my front.
Another shriek, this one from behind. I aimed the gun into the emptiness but didn’t shoot. The cold bit deeper, the whiskey’s warmth quickly falling away. I fumbled retrieving the bullets, and then another, much lower, louder roar came and I dropped them and whipped around. I only got one bullet in, the others scattering across the ground, invisible in the darkness.
Now I heard rustling. I thought of Anita. How many times had I told her not to be afraid of the sounds outside her window? Now each noise froze my blood. I moved to the pile of wood and tossed a few more pieces on the fire. Sparks blazed up. In the renewed light, shadows from the thinnest tree branches tangled and danced towards me.
Of course, that was impossible. The shadows from the trees couldn’t be cast from my fire. When the logic finally fell into place, my hands tightened around the rifle so much my knuckles hurt. When the next shriek came, I ducked. It had to be right behind me, so loud. I whipped and shot, and again hit nothing. The only thing I saw was a small group of tumbleweeds and I laughed. The light had cast shadows from the weeds, nothing more.
Screams from everywhere. My heart leapt into my throat. I stumbled back from the pile of weeds. Something pricked my ankles and calves through the thick fabric of my trousers. I looked and saw more of them, a veritable army of sharp, spiny tumbleweeds crowding the entire plateau. I beat at them with the butt of my rifle, but it did nothing to break apart the horde. They’d appeared from nothing. I sprinted through them, the hems of my pants completely shredded, and curled close to the campfire. They stayed away from that. Insanity. I couldn’t think of these weeds as animals, as thinking or planning anything. It might be an odd coincidence to find them here, but nothing more than an interesting tale to share at the tavern.
I hardened my nerves, stood, and walked towards my pack. The weeds dug into my skin. Blood trickled down my legs. It slicked the inside of my boots so much that I slipped, falling face first into the field of weeds. I heard rustling and felt more sharp pricks through my canvas coat, across my back. I struggled to pull myself away, but the weeds clung to me as I staggered to the ring of light cast by the fire. I had to rip them off my chest, sending them into the dwindling fire. My life source, the only thing keeping me safe, it seemed. I couldn’t reach the rest of the firewood, and I doubted the fire would last too much longer.
I reached my hand into the dying flames and grabbed the last burning stick. I fixed my sights on the firewood and the bloodied shirt and knew I had to go. I kept the torch low, burning the weeds away. They parted—they actually parted. They couldn’t just be tumbleweeds, could they? I stuck the fire to my torn sleeve, the wounds in my back aching. The shirt caught fire, pushing the weeds further back into the shadows, and I wrapped it around the smoldering stick, tying it quickly. I burned and blistered my hand in the process, but the weeds stayed well away, at least.
I broke through the other side of the swarm and grabbed the bottle of whiskey, already formulating a plan. The tiny wounds had stopped bleeding, but tightened annoyingly. I dumped out the whiskey, dousing the tumbleweeds around me in liquor. I don’t think they knew what I had in mind.
Before that night, I never thought tumbleweeds thought anything. It only took a quick jab from the torch to light the spindly devils. They backed further away from me, isolating the ones that had caught fire. I heard a whole chorus of the inhuman screams, too loud to handle. I think I remember screaming myself and running, just running away through the trees, heading anywhere but that plateau. I could still hear them five minutes later. Ten minutes into the run, I stumbled over a fallen trunk. The sound had faded, but still pulsed through the woods on occasion. I had to leave.
The sound haunted me on the trip home, even so far away. My eyes darted about, looking for any sign of the weeds. Most people gave me a wide berth. Only a few attempted to aid me, but I smiled and moved on. The pinprick wounds throbbed, forming blisters all across my body. More than one passerby darted into the nearest building, talking with shopkeepers and pointing at me.
I made it home. Anita would have to wait, just long enough for me to try and get the wounds under control. I scraped and scrubbed at them, trying my damnedest to get rid of the hideous affliction, whatever this was, but when I managed to remove one, I bled anew. No matter what I did, I didn’t see myself looking presentable.
I made it to Widow Wetherby’s door and knocked. She found it difficult to hold back her revolt, mouth curling at the sight of my sores. She stepped back from me. “Mr. Richardson?”
“Yes.” I smiled, but I’m not sure it came across through the blisters. “I had a slight mishap in the mountains.”
“I see that.” She looked me up and down once more. “Perhaps I should fetch Anita now.”
“No.” I said it perhaps a bit too sharply, as she jumped back. “I think it might be best for her to stay here until the swelling goes down. I wouldn’t want to cause her any needless worry over me, not now.”
Mrs. Wetherby came a bit closer, lowering her voice. “I must say that any worry she would have would not be necessarily needless. You look like you tangled with a hornet’s nest.”
I laughed, but it sort of came as a wheeze instead. “It’s just poison oak.”
“A pit of it, Mr. Richardson?”
I obviously couldn’t tell her about the weeds. She’d have me in asylum. “Please, just keep her a few more days, if you would be so kind.”
She nodded. “All right.” She came even closer, whispering, “If anything happens to this town, it’s on your head. I’ll keep your daughter safe, but I can’t protect you. I would suggest you pack up and leave before anyone else figures out what happened.”
With that she slammed the door in my face. What did she mean by that? I meant to knock again, but I saw a small crowd forming around her stoop, none of them looking all too happy. When I stepped down, they stepped far away from me, each of them glaring until I got back in my own home and shut the door.
For three days and nights, I stayed awake, watching out the windows and listening hard for any rustling. I still heard the cries, but never once saw a tumbleweed. On the fourth night, I fell asleep right before midnight, a shotgun next to me in bed. I was awoken by a prodding on my shoulder and snapped up the gun, aiming it at the floor. I saw feet, a night dress, a mad head of ringlets, and lowered my gun. “Mrs. Wetherby?”
“You should come now.” Her eyes were red and puffy. “It’s Anita. She appears to have fallen in poison oak as well.”
She couldn’t possibly mean what I thought. I whipped my night robe over my shoulders and ran in front of her, tying the sash closed around my waist. It proved difficult with my fingers so swollen and painful.
I knew which room my daughter stayed in. I flew up the stairs but fell when I heard the crying, warbling shriek. It echoed through the house. I moaned myself, slamming my fist into Widow Wetherby’s steps. I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Go see her. I’ll do my best to keep them at bay.”
“Keep who at bay?” No response. “What is going on?”
“You brought them back.” She pulled me to my feet and pushed me up the stairs towards the guest room Anita always used. The screams came in chorus and I crashed through her door, sending splinters into my blisters from the worn edge of the door.
Weeds crowded over her body, practically hiding her. On the rare occasion, I caught a glimpse of her skin—tiny punctures and rivulets of blood. The red liquid covered a good bit of the weeds’ spines, dripping down through the rustling masses and onto the floor. I stared, useless, too long. All at once, the room went silent, no more rustling, The weeds froze in place for a few seconds before rushing towards me, screeching. I clutched my ears and shot backwards out of the room, slamming the door shut.
“No.” Widow Wetherby led the rest of the town up her stairs. Angry, glaring faces filled her home, filing out the door. The old woman wiped tears from her face. “We won’t be dying for you.”
“What are you talking about?”
She just shook her head and opened the door. Two men I didn’t recognize pushed me into the room and the door shut behind me. I pounded on it, but no one came. When I tried the handle, it wouldn’t budge. Locked in.
Anita. I trudged through the rustling weeds, straight for the oil lamp. This time, they seemed to understand what would happen and kept clear of me. I sat on the bed next to my daughter, brushing her hair away from her face. Scabs had already started to form over the pinprick wounds. She wheezed with each breath.
The weeds screamed again. “To hell with you demons.” I tossed the lamp down and flaming oil spread all across the floor, burning the weeds to quick ash and igniting the floor. Anita muttered something to me, but I couldn’t hear over the crackling flames. “What?”
She took in a rattling breath and coughed, “Window.”
A window behind me. I crashed my elbow into it once, twice, three times. The shards of glass cut me open. I knocked the rest of them away, slung Anita over my back, and jumped. Both feet twisted under our combined weight, but nothing cracked. I could still walk, but only just.
Anita’s weight lifted away from my back. I turned around and saw Widow Wetherby clutching my daughter. “I’ll keep her safe.”
“You can’t take my daughter.”
She glared me down. “They will follow you, Mr. Richardson. No matter where you go, they’ll find you. I won’t let her die for your foolishness.”
A tear rolled down my face, but I turned away to hide it. “I can’t leave her.”
Another howl tore through the night, followed by at least a dozen more.
“They come. If you leave now, you can escape.”
“She must stay.” The old woman stepped back from me. “It would be best if you said your goodbyes to her as you ran.”
She disappeared into the shadows cast by her own burning home. I stumbled after her, tripping over two sprained ankles. “Anita!” I clawed forward, but she was long out of sight. The next scream stopped me dead. I clutched my ears to block it. A weed rolled into sight and I batted it back, but the spines dug deep into my palm. I felt more pain sear through my legs and kicked, but it didn’t stop. As the weeds rustled, their spines dug deeper still. I shrieked, but to no effect. A smaller weed lodged itself in my mouth and wriggled, scratching across my tongue, into my throat.
I pounded the ground as it worked deeper into me.
Oh, Dark Tumbleweed
Brian D. Mazur
It was born innocently, on the nudging of a gentle breeze that gave no indication of the evil that would evolve on this bright fall day. It began simply, as it always does, of dying grass and dead weeds, picking up more and more as it rolled. Tumbleweeds are made of death, after all.
The bundle traveled through open fields, with the breeze turning to wind as it frequently does this time of year. The wind grew harsh and the bundle grew larger, picking up more debris at a faster pace as it came upon a field of unattended hay and an old farmhouse in the distance.
Clouds filled the sky, draping the land in deep shadow as the tumbleweed entered the farmhouse property. It slowed in the pale reeds, but grew larger still. Weeds bent toward it, as if to purposely join the ball as it propelled past the rotting carcasses of small animals and the twisted forms of crows. The wind pushed it towards the farmhouse, where the shadows grew deeper.
At the foot of the porch, it tumbled over human remains. More bone than flesh, the figure wore the tatters of clothing, gray fabric flapping in the wind. Littered around the form was broken glass, a torn bag of rice and remnants of moldy fruit.
On the porch, the tumbleweed rested at the door, leaning against it as if it had come home from a long and weary journey. The wind had calmed back to a breeze and it gently caressed the leaves and twigs that had accumulated on it.
On hinges in need of oil, the front door opened a crack, revealing a sliver of darkness.
“Ah,” a wispy female voice said. “You are perfect, so perfect.”
A pale arm with languid, tapered fingers reached through the opening and touched the tumbleweed. It turned black on contact, the raven tone slowly spreading with a sound like the crinkling of onionskin.
She waved her hand, dismissing the tumbleweed as it began to roll again. It took with it a piece of her. Where moments ago the weeds and golden rod eagerly bent toward it, all now leaned back out of its way. Her touch brought dark memories and a knowing of death.
Images of her remembrances flashed . . .
Three people dressed in black, sitting side by side, each looking very dour.
One spoke. “Clemence Townesend, the final verdict of this court is guilty of the practice of black magic, and of possessing such symbols related to this practice in your house and on your person. We are a community of white magic. Your methods are not condoned in our village.” The man’s deep voice echoed off the walls of the room. His name was Cotton Winslow and he was the Chief Justice of the court. His face was long and craggy. His gray eyes, overshadowed by a heavy brow, gave him a permanently angry look.
“It is the determination of this court that you are forever forbidden from walking the streets of Wellton or interacting with members of this community. Your sentence is banishment to a home on Goodwin Acres. There you shall live in isolation until the end of your days.”
Clemence Townsend cursed them. The rage in her words rose above the jeering and shouts of those there to watch. Judge Levi Green, a large man with a round face and shaking jowls, slammed a gavel down on the bench and it fell like thunder as he called for order. The audience’s voices trailed to silence.
A third judge, Archibald Bowden III, younger than the other two, had a long face and bright blue eyes that almost made him look friendly. As he cleared his throat his lips turned downward, and his brow darkened before he spoke.
“Several different persons, whose identity shall remain anonymous, will weave a web of white magic to close you in. Though you cannot leave, supplies you require will be passed through the web. You can of course, still grow your own vegetables, starting with a supply we will provide. Your magic will not leave the web—”
Clemence’s shrill, mad cackle of laughter broke the judge’s speech and the courtroom returned to screaming and profanities.
That image faded and another rose as the tumbleweed continued to roll.
She eagerly paced the edge of the property, as a horse and cart creaked up the road with a load of supplies. When the driver spotted her, he pulled up on the reins and the horse stopped. The air between them stirred, rippling the brim of his hat though her long hair remained unmoved.
“Well, are you coming? I’m hungry for biscuits and honey and a taste of porridge.”
He hesitated, his eyes roaming the area as if looking for another way. Then, shoulders slumping in supplication, he gently slapped the reins and the horse began to move forward.
“Hello handsome one,” she called, as the driver jumped down from the cart.
The driver, instructed neither to engage in conversation nor to make eye contact, loaded her supplies in silence, sliding them across the invisible magic web. As he was about to turn away, she lightly touched his arm. Before he could pull it back, she spoke something in a low voice and he stopped.
“Come and bring these to my house, won’t you?” she asked. “As you can see, I forgot to bring my cart.”
Without hesitation, he placed the supplies back on the cart. Clemence beckoned him towards her home. Though the horse was reluctant to move in the requested direction, it relented to the tug of the reins.
Driver and horse rode past the dead animals along the way, but the man did not give the remains a look. His lost gaze focused on Clemence.
“You can just put the goods here,” she said, gesturing to the weathered porch floor, as he pulled up to the house. “I can take them from there.”
Still silent, the man climbed down, removed items from the cart then placed them on the porch. The last was the heaviest, a bag of rice, which he threw over his shoulder.
“My,” Clemence said, “you are a strong one.”
When he slid the bag from his shoulder and bent to place it on the porch, Clemence once again reached out to touch him. The contact this time was different, not gentle like at the edge of the property. She grasped his arm firmly, and a piece of her soul slid into him at that moment. He staggered back as if he had been punched, dropping the bag of rice to burst open on the ground. He reeled, knocking food and bottles from the porch.
He steadied himself, then looked at Clemence. A wicked grin slithered across his face, revealing yellow, stained teeth. She had tried passing her essence into animals, hoping to get through the white web, much like a Trojan horse, without any success. They were fragile creatures, no matter their size, and each quickly became ill. Every time Clemence was forced to rush to get that piece of her soul back before death took the little creature and a portion of her with it.
A human would be stronger, but it would take more of her soul to accomplish crossing the barrier. A much riskier act, but it had to be, she had unfinished business.
The driver climbed back onto the cart. Still looking at Clemence with his iniquitous grin, he slapped the reins, then tumbled off the cart. His body jerked and shook on the ground as if possessed by the devil.
On shaky legs, Clemence stepped off the porch, then fell to her knees. She felt her essence in the two bodies at the same time. The convulsing driver’s skin started to turn gray. Foam erupted from his mouth. Spittle rained down on his face and the ground.
Clemence again spoke in a strange, rhythmic language. The driver slid closer to her. The faster she spoke the more he moved, but it greatly weakened her. His flesh crumbled like dry clay. Cracks spread across his face and neck.
There was not much time. He was dying quickly.
A frail Clemence placed a hand on his and slowly regained her strength and the piece of her soul.
That had been her final attempt at transferring into something living.
The tumbleweed reached the edge of the property and stopped. Clemence receded to the center of the dead vegetation; it returned to its usual bland, earthy color. She was still able to summon the wind into a swirl of debris. Branches, earth dust, remnants of grass and weeds, rotated into a funnel. It swept up animals and birds, many heartbeats she hoped would serve as a diversion. Lastly, the wind picked up the tumbleweed, swallowing it deep into the heart of the tornado, buried amongst all the waste and life the twister had acquired.
The cyclone picked up speed, making a run for the invisible veil. It broke through with ease. It roared down the road, then dissipated, dispelling all that it had accumulated, mostly dead now. The tumbleweed dropped to the side of the road, returning to the comfort of the tall grass and weeds.
There it crackled back to black.
Without hesitation, it rolled toward Wellton.
The town had not changed in twenty years. It was still quaint, picturesque. Farms and pastures dotted the lush green hills behind the town. At the foot lay the familiar church, General Store, Doctor Offices, law offices, a gristmill, gunpowder warehouse, a feed warehouse, and several inns, all still in pristine condition.
White magic could do that, keep everything new and fresh.
Sunlight draped itself over the hills and town like a warm blanket. Clemence pushed the tumbleweed closer. Townspeople walked slowly on the green and boardwalks, enjoying the rare warmth that came in the mid-fall. Men and women walked arm in arm, children laughed as they chased each other around.
So sad that this is such a dismal day, Clemence thought.
Dark clouds crept along the brilliant sky, turning daylight into late dusk.
The tumbleweed continued to move, keeping within the growing shadows.
People stopped moving, looking to the sky, mumbling to each other as they pointed.
Clouds continued to roil and thicken as they lowered. The green filled with awed citizens looking skyward. The tumbleweed worked its way between legs. No one paid attention to it.
Archibald Bowden III stood on the steps of the Town Hall, both hands balled into fists and resting on his narrow hips. For the most part time had been good to him, his face was smooth and he managed to stay thin, but his dark scowl remained. He chewed his lower lip as he gazed at the sky.
“There is evil at work here my boy,” he growled to the young man standing at his side. “Don’t know where it’s coming from though.”
The young man, a legal clerk, looked confused.
The wind blew harder, the clouds grew more ominous, and the tumbleweed moved faster. Its essence focused on Archibald Bowden III. Clemence directed the tumbleweed up the steps and over his feet, then back down the stairs.
The judge collapsed and rolled down the Town Hall steps. He landed in the road, jerking and bouncing, frothing at the mouth.
People ran to him, then backed away, gasping in astonishment. He aged before their eyes. Wrinkles creased his face, age spots formed like a disease and his skin became sallow and loose, collapsing to his skull. The knuckles of his hands swelled with arthritis. Teeth fell from his mouth, tumbling out. Glistening drool poured like a fountain from between his lips.
“Judge Bowden! Somebody please help him,” the young man pleaded.
Everyone stood back.
Above, the first bolt of lightning lit the sky.
Judge Levi Green was enjoying lunch at the Rose Inn in the company of his clerical staff when news of Judge Bowden’s death reached him.
Clemence came upon him standing outside the inn with a napkin still tucked into his collar as a bib. The look on his face was foul and those large jowls, now larger, shook with anger as he took in the increasing pandemonium on the green.
“What’s going on?” he demanded of no one in particular.
Then he, not so gently, grabbed the arm of a boy running past him.
“Boy, what’s the ruckus about?”
The boy pointed to the sky. “It started with the storm. It came out of nowhere. Then Judge Bowden collapsed outside the Town Hall. I am going for a doctor now.”
He twisted from the judge’s grasp and continued through the crowd.
“Bowden?” Green’s anger washed from his face as he squinted into the growing dark.
The tumbleweed rolled in the shadows, coming up behind Judge Green as he turned back to the inn. He took a step to the door, when the wind directed the tumbleweed out of the shadows and into his path.
The Judge’s leg barely touched the bundle of dead weeds and grass, but two steps closer to the doorway, Levi Green grasped his chest and fell to his knees. He gasped for breath. His bulk carried him forward, his face slapped against the wood planks of the floor. There was no one in the inn to help him. They were all outside watching the spectacle from the heavens.
Clemence watched from the tumbleweed as the judge’s heart ruptured. He grabbed his shirt, ripping it open. The buttons clicked along the floor. He struggled for breath. Blood bubbled from his mouth. His face turned red. His eyes bulged with panic and the realization he was going to die.
He went rigid, arms and legs twitching. His head bobbed then fell limp. A clock in the entranceway of the inn ticked away the end of Levi Green’s life.
Clemence found Cotton Winslow standing in the doorway of the Town Hall, silhouetted against the light. He wasn’t moving, just quietly taking in the chaos in the sky and on the green.
The Clemence tumbleweed sat at the bottom of the forty steps leading to the entrance of the Town Hall. Lightning bolts crackled across the clouds, lighting their bellies. With a little more spell binding, she brought them closer to the ground.
“Clemence Townesend,” Winslow declaimed in a voice louder than thunder. “I know this is you.”
Lacking voice, she instead brought death in the form of lightning onto the people. Those not killed outright screamed and ran. Pandemonium enriched Clemence’s spell. Single bolts split into two and then two into four. The stench of burning ozone filled the space around the running throng. The crackle of electricity surrounded them.
They cried hysterically, both men and women. Still the lightning came, striking buildings at the far end of the town. Burton’s Feed was the first to explode into flames. The fire spread from building to building, ash raining down, splinters of wood shooting into the night.
Winslow stepped onto the portico of the Town Hall. The wind fanned the fire and whipped the tails of his coat. He calmly watched the mayhem as the flames made their way toward the building.
“Clemence.” He stepped down the steps, tempting fate. “This is such a disappointment. I thought you would find a way out long before this.” He clicked his tongue against his teeth in displeasure. “I guess you were not as strong, or as much of a threat, as I thought you were.”
A bolt of lightning burst into useless energy over his head. Its light dispersed into the dark.
“And I see you still do not have much of a plan.”
Clemence unleashed a dark energy ball, straight for the old Chief Judge. Like the bolt, it did not reach him. It exploded into bits of black glass that clicked like hail onto the steps around him.
Winslow chuckled. Thrusting his hands toward the tumbleweed, white energy exploded from his fingertips. Left, right, left, right, he tossed them. Their pureness lit up the night, pulsing with power as the orbs flew through the air.
Clemence moved the tumbleweed in careful orchestration with the flying power, through the barrage of magic, avoiding being touched, while letting the fire swallow the threat.
Her confidence grew. She now knew what she had previously only suspected—he had to drop his protection to release his magic.
She dropped more bolts around him in rapid succession. The stone steps exploded into the air.
“I knew a greater punishment was in order for you, but I was outvoted! Green and Bowden were blind idiots. They didn’t see you for what you were and still are!”
He raised his right hand and released a beam into the sky at the same time he sent two more white orbs from his left.
Clemence was ready, firing a black one at him a split second before.
It was perfect timing.
Winslow, blown back, arms pin wheeling, stumbled like the drunk he was. Clemence summoned wind directly toward him, knocking him back through the doors of the building. She turned back to the lightning, sending more onto the building, shaking it violently, sending pieces of brick and mortar to the ground.
More lightning emerged in a spiral from the flashing clouds, wrapping around the structure. She drew it inward, imploding the Town Hall onto the inert body of Chief Judge Cotton Winslow.
Plumes of dust, stone, and ash made it nearly impossible to see. The townspeople appeared as ghostly shadows in the haze. Horses broke from their stables and joined the mayhem on the green, making for a deadly mix.
The fire reached the gunpowder warehouse. An explosion shook the ground, knocking people down, throwing some across the roads, blowing others to pieces. Horses stumbled and fell.
The tumbleweed catapulted into the air from the force of the explosion, flying into the flames.
All the buildings burned. The people were cut off by a perfect ring of fire. Clemence summoned a protective shield, so that nothing, not even the flames could reach her.
The sun shone brightly as warmth caressed the cool earth beyond Wellton. Birds flew in formation. The dark tumbleweed made its way through a golden meadow. The grasses leaned away from the unwanted traveler.
This piece of Clemence’s soul was satisfied. She had finished her revenge. Those that sought to punishment her, and those that enacted her sentence, were now gone. All that remained for her was to reunite with her human half then leave that old farmhouse prison.
The trip back was longer, she was too exhausted to conjure a tornado to carry her along, but eventually, arrive she did. Her physical self sat unmoving on the farmhouse porch.
They were apart, yet one; the weariness of one sensed by the other. She needed to reunite her soul.
Clemence rolled to the edge of the property, but could go no further. A ripple ran through her soul, a storm of sorts. Her physical self pulled a wrap tighter around her shoulders against an unseen chill.
A locking spell held her tumbleweed bound soul on the wrong side of the barrier.
Clemence had been too busy dodging Cotton Winslow’s last two orbs to understand the beam of light he sent to the sky. Now she knew. He’d locked down the white web so she could neither return nor leave. It no longer mattered if those that wove it were alive or not, Winslow’s spell sealed it forever. Too weak to hold control over the tumbleweed, she bounced along the pitted road without direction.
From the porch, Clemence stood on shaky legs, leaning on a post for support, helplessly watching a part of her roll away.
Down the road, at the bottom of a small hill, just out of sight of the house, the tumbleweed wedged against an old tree stump. Stuck there, exposed to the weather, it would eventually deteriorate, returning to the earth and taking Clemence with it.
A cat emerged out of the wild grass, white coat glowing in the fall sun. It rubbed itself against the ball of dead vegetation. Back and forth it moved, purring like a low, mad chuckle. A locket around the neck indicated its name was Cotton. With a final look back, the feline disappeared into the goldenrod laced grass.
Crispy Fried Pickles at the Mad Scientist Cafe
Great Aunt Gertrude died first.
As a mad scientist, I was interested in the suspicious circumstances. As a grieving niece, I was distraught. As a pregnant woman, I was hungry.
“It’s a horrible accident,” the officer in charge told me. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.” He led me to the potting shed that up until last week had been filled with flowers.
Something had shattered the glass windows and bent the metal frame. In the middle of the destruction lay my dead Great Aunt Gertrude. Tumbleweeds packed the shed all around her.
“We found her in there,” the officer pointed. “One of the neighbors called; her mail wasn’t picked up and she didn’t answer the door. He didn’t come around back here, but he called us for a wellness check. May have happened yesterday morning. The M.E.’ll give us a cause of death after the autopsy.”
I noticed some weird marks on the ground in front of the shed. I knelt to look closer, to get a better look around my second trimester pregnancy girth. In the background, I heard the officer say something about me throwing up, but I felt fine.
Something had brushed the dirt. Like a kid with a broken Zen garden rake. Or tumbleweeds.
I looked at the tumbleweeds. They looked wrong. Evil.
Remember how I said I was a mad scientist? I notice things. I noticed the tumbleweeds weren’t there by accident; they’d been following something. They’d congregated in this spot on purpose, had sought her out. This had been planned. The tumbleweeds had murdered my Great Aunt Gertrude.
My fiancé, Jim, didn’t believe me. He thought I was overwrought.
“You’re hormonal,” he said, as he served up another batch of pickles from the table-top fryer. Ah, fried pickles with hot fudge. My most insatiable pregnancy craving.
“I understand, really I do.” He drizzled the hot fudge sauce. “But I really don’t think something as innocent as tumbleweeds could kill a person.”
“Innocent? Innocent?” I heard the shriek in my voice and realized he might be right about the hormonally overwrought thing. I modulated my voice as best I could. “I know what I saw. I’m a mad scientist. I know when something’s turned evil!”
His hands shook as he handed me my plate of fried pickles and hot fudge.
“Eat up. Bon appétit. Ummm, börk, börk, börk!”
I laughed at his Swedish Chef impression. I couldn’t help it. He may not know mad science, but he was one rocking cook, and I needed my fried pickles now more than ever. Maybe Jim didn’t believe me, but I knew what I’d seen. Those tumbleweeds killed my Great Aunt Gertrude. I was going to figure out how and why.
First step: Acquire a tumbleweed.
We liberated some construction machinery that evening and drove around until we found a tumbleweed. It malingered outside the Lowe’s, near the garden center. We maneuvered over and snagged it in the claw, then raised it up and started towards home.
Before we’d gone a block, we saw it. A wall of tumbleweeds. They were mobilized. They were organized. They were heading right for us.
“Step on it!” I told Jim, knowing it was useless. Heavy equipment was not known for the great speeds it could achieve. But it did have those awesome caterpillar-like treads, and I thought we could get through part of the line, maybe even enough of the line…two blocks, what had to be at least 1,000 tumbleweeds. It could work. It had to work.
They couldn’t roll fast enough to catch up with us en masse like that, and we plowed through them. I felt like little red riding hood running through the woods with all the branches snapping around me. Jim kept driving, crunching them under our treads, until we broke out and could see the house.
“Go!” I heaved my pregnant bulk out of the passenger side and waddled as fast as I could to the door while Jim found a way to work the tumbleweed from the claw. We arrived at the front door at the same time, and I dug out my key while he clung to the agitated tumbleweed. Jim had prepared himself to avoid scratches, wearing a heavy jacket and a pair of leather work gloves. But once the door opened, the game changed. The tumbleweed began bucking, like it was trying to jump from his hands.
“Ouch!” He clung to it despite the bloody scratches on his face.
I closed and locked the door behind us moments before the tumbleweed mob caught up. They slammed into the door and into the walls, and I could hear the sound of breaking glass.
“Get it to the attic,” I said. “I’ll close up down here.”
Jim wrestled the tumbleweed up the stairs as I pulled down grates and hit the button to lower the mechanical shades over the lower windows. When we’d bought the house, one of the first things we’d thought to do was prepare for the eventual zombie attack. And while this didn’t quite count as a zombie attack, it was just about as bad. Tumbleweeds.
By the time I got into the attic, Jim had shoved the tumbleweed into a cage. A good mad scientist is prepared for every eventuality, and that includes having a cage or two at the ready.
Jim didn’t seem to feel too much pain from the numerous scratches and welts he’d gotten in the mini-battle, but I couldn’t be sure that the tumbleweeds didn’t have some sort of unpleasantness on them that we’d regret not cleaning off. He winced and whined a bit, but he let me get him all bandaged up.
Then it was time to get to work.
Being prepared for the zombie apocalypse meant that we were woefully unprepared for the tumbleweeds. The armory was excellent, but shooting and hacking doesn’t work for tumbleweeds.
“Did you see this?” Jim reclined on the couch in the small sitting area. (Sure, it was meant to be an HQ against hordes of undead, but that didn’t mean it had to be uncomfortable.)
“See what?” I looked away from the weapons collection.
He pointed out the attic’s hurricane-proof window. Tumbleweeds surrounded our house. And more kept showing up. I switched off the flood lights. I didn’t want to look at them, and I couldn’t be sure that they weren’t flocking to the light like moths.
“Great. Just what we needed. Check the news,” I said as I went back to the other room to stare at the tumbleweed through the bars of the cage. It rested, seemingly immobile and unable to achieve any motion by itself.
“Uh, I don’t think you’ll like the news, either,” Jim said.
“I’m shocked. Here I was thinking it would be all sunshine and lollipops.” Mmmmm. Lollipops. I could use some sugar. I shook my head to clear the pregnancy craving and went to watch the news.
The tumbleweeds blocked major roads all throughout the US, Canada, and Mexico. They knocked down power lines. They mobbed cars. No one knew why, but it didn’t look good.
So I did science. Mad science. It was, after all, what I did best. And I had the awards to prove it.
When I approached the tumbleweed in its cage again, it stayed still. Playing dead? Or was it dead? Had it ever been alive? I poked it with a scalpel. It reared back, suddenly active and angry. Interesting.
Outside, it sounded like a tornado was whipping up the tumbleweeds. The creepy kind of sound you’d hear before you’d die. I hoped it was just my imagination running away with me.
I sliced off a small piece of the tumbleweed before it could attack. I brought the bit over to the microscope, holding it tightly in the tongs.
The piece itself didn’t move or seem very menacing at all. It just lay where I put it in the dish. It didn’t matter if I poked it or put the scalpel on it. No attempts to get away. Nothing.
I pulled it apart under the microscope. Then I saw it.
You know how frogs, when exposed to pollutants, tend to mutate and get weird? Some will grow an extra tail, others will toss out an extra leg. But they are different, and they tend to be slightly misshapen or mis-formed. These tumbleweeds were perfect. Whatever had affected this tumbleweed had done so on purpose. The tumbleweed was not naturally occurring.
It was mad scientist created!
“Jim! Jim! You’re never going to believe this!”
He came running, holding the jar of pickles. My excitement at the discovery was momentarily tempered by a quick wave of emotion. He was making me my pickles, even in this POW camp style kitchen.
“There’s a rogue mad scientist. Someone created these weeds. I have to report to the council!”
Jim dropped the pickle jar. Glass, juice, and pickles went flying across the room. His shoulders sagged as he slumped into the sharp and soggy mess.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, so low and so un-Jim-like that I almost couldn’t hear him.
“What are you saying, Jim?” I had to ask even though the sinking feeling in my stomach left little doubt.
“It was an accident. I know I’m not a mad scientist. I shouldn’t have done it, but I’ve watched you. And I practiced. Little things. Stuff that stayed completely off the radar.” His voice stayed low, and I strained to hear him. “I was trying to make you a wedding present. It was gonna be flowers without the flower girls. They’d take themselves down the aisle. It was gonna be legendary. Instead it’s just turned out to be urban legendary.”
And then Jim did something else I’ve never seen him do. He cried. Not masculine crying, that silent shaking that John Wayne might have done if someone shot his mom, his dog, and his horse all with one bullet. This was huge, gasping, shaking, loud enough to drown out both the TV and the whirlwind of weed noises. His face turned red. His nose ran. It was, without question, the most pathetic thing I’d ever seen in my life. And while I wasn’t exactly in a forgiving mood, Great Aunt Gertrude’s murder heavy on my mind, I couldn’t help but be moved.
Even then, I hesitated. I was grossed out, both by the amount of snot he generated and the enormity of his mistake.
This was big. If the council found out, the repercussions would be unpleasant, like death by a ninja assassin in your sleep or life in maximum security secret prison at the bottom of a mountain pass only accessible one time a year. His intentions had been good, but there had been death and destruction. Nothing easily swept under the rug, like forcing a presidential election result.
But it was also Jim. It was an accident. A stupid, stupid, stupid pathetic accident.
I sighed. I knew what I was going to do. Even if it wasn’t the best and brightest decision.
I forgave him. Sort of.
I ran my fingers through my bangs, spiking them. The pickle juice was stinking up the place.
“Okay, Jim. You clean up this mess,” I said, sweeping my arm to show the smashed goodness all over the floor. “I’ll clean up this one.” And I pointed to the lab.
I turned my back. Even if I forgave him, I still wanted to make him suffer.
I won’t bore you with the tale of how I did my mad science. Suffice it to say that I sweated a lot, ate a lot of fried pickles (while avoiding speaking to Jim), and felt my little one toss and turn like she was having a nightmare. I felt like I was living in one.
I’d tried fire. Bad idea, considering the flammability and mobility of the tumbleweeds.
I’d tried acid. Almost successful, but for the question of distribution and the awful dying rabbit squeals the tumbleweed produced.
No matter what I tried, the tumbleweeds tumbled back or somehow wrought even more destruction. I couldn’t fix it. Every solution was flawed.
I’d been idly considering other toppings for the pickles. The attic’s supply of hot fudge had been sadly depleted. I went through our meager supplies – chili sauce (too hot), ketchup (too tomato-y), butterscotch (too gross, even for me), and then I thought of trying marshmallow topping. Sticky, sticky marshmallow that clung to everything and almost destroyed New York in the original Ghostbusters movie. If a marshmallow man could destroy a skyscraper, I reasoned, it could surely take out a few pointy pieces of wicked weeds.
So I tested it.
And that’s when I mumbled my Eureka. Because I’d found it. The solution.
“Jim!” I bellowed. Seriously bellowed. Not that I needed to; he couldn’t go very far, not in that tiny attic. He was at my side before I could even turn back to the equipment and ingredients I had prepped on my workspace.
“Jim, I need you to be happy cooking. You can never be a mad scientist again. Agreed?”
He nodded, hair greasy and flopping, eyes red and bloodshot, cheeks stubbly.
“Because sometimes…sometimes it doesn’t take mad science to save the world. Sometimes it takes cooking.”
And I pressed the big red button and pulled back the curtain as an army of giant marshmallow men crashed through the storm cellar doors and began smooshing the tumbleweeds.
Our baby was born three months after my Great Aunt Gertrude died, two months after I received my “Saved the World” award, one month after Jim and I got married, and six months before Jim opened the Mad Scientist Café with its signature dessert: fried pickles with whipped cream, hot fudge, and marshmallow topping.
I Survived the Sargasso Sea
Eric J. Guignard
My name is Melanie Moore, and I alone survived the horrors of the Sargasso Sea.
I told my story, these very events, to anyone who would listen. Police, Coast Guard, the press, family members, even strangers sitting alongside me in bars where I go to drown out the fears my mind cannot escape. As you would expect, no one believes me. They nod wearily and tell me I was lost at sea and hallucinated due to dehydration. Perhaps I suffered from amnesia or I was on drugs or I was lying because I killed everyone else on board. This is what they tell me. This is what I am supposed to accept. But I know what occurred. I was there. I lived through the nightmare, and I will never forget.
The four of us embarked out to sea on a warm, muggy morning, leaving the noise of Miami behind. Michael Edwards owned the sailboat; a twenty-seven-foot-long sloop named Lady’s Lash. He was in his late thirties, successful, and an experienced sailing enthusiast. His girlfriend, Kitten, was a busty blonde, not big on thoughts, but who made up for it with prominent physical features. Drew Kirkpatrick was Michael’s college roommate and business partner. I made up the fourth member of our party. Drew and I had dated for about a year, and he’d invited me to go out sailing with them before. That day was the first time I took him up on his offer.
The morning started as expected. We sailed past Biscayne Key into the open water and drank cocktails. We fished and joked. Michael and Kitten argued. Drew and I made out. It was a leisurely voyage, no destination in mind, just sailing, enjoying the open air and calm ocean. The forecast that day called for blue skies and big sun.
By the afternoon, we were all tipsy and rowdy. We alternated roles, and Michael and Kitten made out, while Drew and I argued. I caught him slipping longing gazes at Kitten and I sulked into the galley head, leaving him with that dumb “what’d I do” face he had perfected.
Drew was a decent guy, not husband material, but a good lay and successful. In the social circles of Miami, it was nice to be partnered with someone like him. I touched up my makeup in the mirror and made sure I waited a sufficient amount of time for Drew to begin worrying about me. I heard excited shouts above and calls for me to get up there. Drew rarely ever raised his voice, so I knew something serious was occurring.
I climbed back on deck and froze, staring at the sky. Massive clouds abruptly materialized, like none I had ever seen before; dark-yellow, red, and pink, as if each contained an angry falling sunset. The sun vanished, and the wind blew us furiously away from land, further into the open ocean, into the cloudy storm. Michael stood at the wheel in the cockpit, trying desperately to maneuver the Lady’s Lash out of danger. The sea swelled around us, deep frothy green, boiling tips of water flashing and splashing against the hull. Just as soon as I had taken all this in, Michael yelled for us to get below. Kitten pushed past me, her bikini top dripping seawater and perspiration.
I felt the ship pull into the storm, as if a heavy hand grabbed us and shoved, as a child pushes a toy boat across the bathtub. A lone flash of lighting lit the sky. Lumbering waves crashed over the bow of the ship and, dangerously rocking us, threatened to suck us under. I stayed, poised in the stairwell staring out the hatch at the surreal surroundings. Michael and Drew appeared frantic, yet seemed to move in slow motion. Then it started to rain.
The rain drops were red, the same color as the center of the clouds, a bloody rust falling in fat, solemn tears. They burned as they landed on my face and arms, and the rain had an oily, sticky feel. Michael cursed. I had seen enough. I jumped back down into the cabin and held onto the brass railing bolted along the wall. Kitten crouched next to me, shaking, her eyes huge in alarm. I listened to the men’s voices above.
“Mikey, what are we going to do?” Drew asked.
“I can’t get her around. We’ll have to drop the sail and switch to the motor.”
More cursing and stomping. A crackling and splashing. A boom as the ship lifted into the air then settled back down. Then silence.
Footfalls above and muffled conversation. “Is that it? Are we through?”
“That’s the weirdest damn thing I’ve ever seen.”
“We’ve got a problem here…”
The voices dropped to an inaudible tone. I climbed up deck to ask how long it would take to get us back into harbor, away from that frightening ocean.
The strange burning clouds had vanished, and the big sun and blue sky returned. Michael and Drew looked confused, standing at the helm pushing buttons one-fingered like cavemen at a keyboard. Their tan, shirtless torsos were covered in red blisters, the result of the acid rain. I bore those same blisters on my hands and could feel them forming on my face from the few moments I’d been outside in the storm.
“The electrical system’s out,” Drew told me.
“Ohh kaay…” I said, suspiciously. “What does that mean?”
“The radio and navigation systems are dead. Even the compass isn’t working.”
“Shouldn’t the compass work even without power? Or am I just being a dumb girl?”
“No, babe, you’re right, it’s just not working, though. The needle is spinning freely. We haven’t seen anything like this before,” Drew said.
Michael broke in. “We don’t need it anyway. The sun is overhead so land should be that way.” He pointed behind the stern.
“I don’t see land at all,” I replied.
“I don’t either. I don’t understand how we could be out so far but, regardless, the position of the sun doesn’t lie,” Michael said.
“Man, the wind is dead out here. There isn’t even a breeze,” Drew said. The sail of the ship hung loose like a wilted flower.
“Yeah, we’re not moving at all. There’s no current, no waves,” Michael replied.
I looked over the ship’s railing into the water below. Thick, fibrous tentacles of seaweed floated around the boat, forming a congealing, wet carpet. The ocean appeared motionless, but the algae-vines moved, flowing, coagulating. It seemed to clamber over itself, playing an aquatic game of king-of-the-hill.
“Look at the seaweed,” I said. “What’s happening?”
Michael and Drew left the helm and joined me, contemplating the water. They said nothing.
“Is that like an algae bloom?” I asked.
Michael made a weird face and scanned the ocean in all directions. “This isn’t right, this is… no way… no way…” he muttered.
Drew looked up at the sky then back down to the green ocean. “I’ve never seen this before.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll get out of here. I’m going to fire up the outboard motor.” Michael hastened to the cockpit and the revving of a deep throttle filled the air as the motor turned on.
“At least the engine’s working.” The Lady’s Lash started to budge, to pull through the plant soup, then abruptly stuck. The motor whirred in a horrible high pitch and a stream of smoke puffed up from the back. Michael shut the motor down.
“No good. The propeller’s getting tangled in the seaweed. It needs circulation or it will just burn out.”
I quietly said, “This is bad. We’re stuck, aren’t we?”
“Wait, let me think,” Michael replied.
“Are you sure you know where we are?” Drew asked Michael.
He shook his head. “I’ve heard of this, but it’s impossible we’re here. I just can’t figure it out.”
“It’s impossible we’re where?” Drew asked.
“There’s a sea in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle called the Sargasso Sea.”
I interrupted, furious. “You’re telling me we sailed into the middle of the biggest ghost story there is?”
“The Bermuda Triangle that you’re thinking of is just myth. I’m talking about a physical location, according to geographic coordinates,” Michael said.
“This doesn’t look like a myth to me. This looks like a real scary place we’re stuck in,” I said.
“We’ll float free and sail out of here.”
I looked around. I couldn’t see blue water anywhere. There was only the thick seaweed. We were confined, a ship snared in a botanical prison and trapped at nature’s mercy.
“Go on, Mikey. What about the Sargasso Sea?” Drew said.
“I can’t imagine how we could have gotten out here. The Sargasso Sea is hundreds of miles off the coast. It’s notorious for being an immobile swamp in the ocean, filled with seaweed. Although the strongest currents in the world surround the Sargasso, it has no current of its own. It just drifts around itself in a slow circle, like the eye of a storm. The seaweed is called sargassum, thus the sea’s name. It’s legendary for trapping old sailing vessels in it. They would just stick, never able to escape because of the lack of wind.”
“Like us?” I asked.
“That was before modern technology. Now we have radios and motors.”
“Radios and motors that don’t work,” I said. “And that storm. You know that wasn’t normal. Yellow and red clouds and burning rain? Just look at yourselves.”
Michael looked at the blisters on his arms. “I don’t know what to say, but you’re stressing me out, Melanie. Just calm down. At the worst, we’ll sit out here for a night and then the Coast Guard will come looking for us. Ships don’t get lost at sea anymore.”
“Mikey, I have an idea,” Drew said and snapped his fingers. “You know our lobster traps down in the hull?”
Michael and Drew were ardent crustacean hunters. After each sailing trip, they brought home prized lobsters if they were in season, or crabs or other shellfish. I always thought it was cruel, but it made them feel like real men, ghosts of Paleolithic hunters. The lobster cages were essentially just large boxes made of wide-spaced wire mesh with a trap door on one side.
“What if we attach one of the wire cages around the motor propeller? That way it will keep the seaweed away from the blades, but water can still circulate and pass through.”
Michael’s face lit up. “You’re right, you genius! I’ve got wire cutters down below. We can just cut out an opening in the cage to slip over the propeller and tie it on with cables. I knew there was a reason I kept you around.”
They high-fived and went below. I stared at the hypnotic twisting of the algae as it seemed to grow around the ship.
Thirty minutes later, they emerged back on deck with the modified cage, Kitten tagging behind. Drew carried a large knife and a snorkel.
“Drew has the honors,” Michael announced. “First, cut away the seaweed that’s tangled around the propeller. After that, I’ll test the motor, make sure it’s running. Before we try sailing again, put the cage in place.”
“Aye aye, Captain.” Drew swung his legs over the edge of the boat and lowered himself in. “Whew, it’s cold.”
A funny look came over Drew’s face. Then he screamed.
“Oh my God! Something’s got me! Get me out!”
I froze, shocked, breath trapped in my throat.
The seaweed churned around him. Leafy stalks rose into the air, bobbing and dripping brine. Drew’s screams intensified as thick tendrils wrapped around his head like a sargassum turban. He raised his arms flailing, but bulbous strands reached out of the water snaring his limbs, dragging them back down. Drew shrieked, his tongue sticking out like a panting dog.
Michael rushed forward and reached far over the boat’s railing for Drew’s jerking body. The seaweed grabbed onto Michael.
“No!” he howled. “It’s got me! Pull me back!”
Kitten grasped Michael’s free arm, and I wrapped myself around his torso, and we tried pulling him back. The stubborn algae kept hold of his other arm, then began to climb. Thin, slimy vines crept upwards, encircling his forearm to his bicep. It was a tug-o-war with Michael at the center. I noticed that by now, Drew was gone. A lump moved under the seaweed carpet, where moments ago, he’d been screaming.
Michael suffered the same fate. Like a boa constrictor, the tendrils coiled further up him, climbing and squeezing. It reached his shoulder then encircled his neck. I saw flashes of color in that seaweed, dark-yellow, red, and pink sparkles, the colors of the clouds from the strange storm.
Michael stopped struggling and his face went slack, eyes rolling upwards. Calmly, the seaweed plucked him off the Lady’s Lash and pulled him under the roiling green mass to join Drew.
Kitten and I both screamed and fled into the cabin below deck. The ship began to toss about, bumping side-to-side. I thought of a show I’d watched once, of sharks under a raft, in a feeding frenzy. That raft had been tossed about as if the sharks knew there was a meal in it, and tried to dislodge their human supper. They were tossed like we were, in the bottom of that sailboat.
Soon the ship settled, and it fell quiet outside. Kitten sobbed, lying prone on the galley’s bench seat.
I won’t bore you with the details, but we stayed in the cabin for the next week. The boat never seemed to move. I went above deck once in awhile and the sea always looked the same. Sargassum weeds slithered around us like a pit of snakes. The sun fell and rose. The sky was blue. There was no wind.
We had little to eat or drink on board, having planned only to be out for a day’s excursion. We rationed, but ran out of fresh water by the fifth day. Kitten took to drinking the alcohol. The bar, of course, was fully stocked and could last a dozen people for a year. She became sick and dehydrated.
Occasionally I heard the seaweed tapping on the hull, testing its strength, knocking to come in. If I put my ear against the wall and listened carefully, I could hear it hissing, calling to us, whispering promises.
We weakened while the weeds multiplied and grew more aggressive. I could not tell if the boat gradually sank or if the sargassum climbed, but as the days passed there was less distance between the level of the sea and the rim of the ship’s deck. Soon, the algae-vines would cover the entire vessel.
I explained this to Kitten, but she refused to accept it. She lay catatonic on the floor, bottle of vodka clenched tightly in fist like a crucifix.
I went to use the head, a small closet with toilet and sink. I lifted the toilet lid and the seaweed was inside. Thin, oily tendrils explored the water-filled basin, having crawled up the outflow pipe. I closed the lid, then tied it down with a cable I found in the aft cabin.
That night I sat on deck, huddling in the plush captain’s chair at the helm. The crescent moon glowed down on us like a crooked smile. The stars were magnificent, and I thought of faraway lands. Lands vast and dry of any ocean.
I saw a ship in the distance.
My heart leapt. I’d seen no sign of ship or plane since we entered this lethal sea. The ship appeared as a floating orb, outlined by the nighttime black – its lights were on, glowing windows from the hull and cabin. It looked to be larger than the boat we were on. It was hard to tell, but also seemed to be getting closer.
I shrieked for Kitten and ran down to rouse her from her drunken stupor. She burst out crying then vomited on the floor. We climbed back onto deck and watched the ship together. It was closer. Apparently we did move in that seaweed cesspool. There were no landmarks around, so I could never tell, but the distance between us and the oncoming ship slowly closed.
I ran to the ship’s horn, but it didn’t work. I realized it connected to the dead electrical system. Under the horn I found a pastel-red case with the image of a gun plastered on top. Inside was a flare gun and a belt of cartridges.
I had never fired a gun before and hoped it wasn’t too complicated. I brought the case to Kitten and we tried to read the instructions under the dim moonlight.
“Just drop the flare into the chamber and fire the gun,” Kitten told me. “That’s what they do in the movies anyway.”
I looked at her and, thinking of nothing better to do, followed her simplistic instructions. I fired the flare toward the oncoming ship, high into the sky. It ejected with the sound of a poof and exploded in the dark air like a giant firework. I was shocked it was so easy. The entire sky lit up with an artificial pink light.
The oncoming ship became revealed, but what we saw filled us with horror. It was a luxury yacht, big and fancy. It looked to be about one hundred feet long, with multiple decks, and it was engulfed in a mountain of slithering seaweed.
The seaweed coiled about the hull of the ship and crept over the top, crawling freely through the open portholes. The windows still emanated interior lights, perhaps kept on by the yacht’s emergency generator. The yacht inched nearer and the algae seemed to leer.
Kitten cried and retched again over the side of the sailboat.
I wondered how long the yacht had been prisoner to this vegetative nightmare. Had the passengers been sucked into watery graves by the seaweed or had they starved to death? Had they died by other means or found escape? The yacht now was nothing but a lifeless playground of the sargassum demons.
The flare light dimmed. I dropped another cartridge into the gun and cocked it. This time I fired, not above the yacht, but directly at it. With another poof, the flare arched along the sky and landed square onto the deck.
It burned on the deck, its pink light shining through the seaweed vines in a wavering glow. The seaweed frantically slithered from the fire. Moments later, a balloon of smoke and a bright, dancing flame erupted on the deck. I heard the angry hissing of the algae all around me as the flames spread across the yacht.
“Why’d you do that?” Kitten whimpered. “There could have been people on board.”
“Are you blind? There’s nobody living on that ship,” I said.
“They could have saved us.”
“They’re all dead.”
“We’re dead,” Kitten sobbed.
I felt like slapping her, telling her to go back to drowning in the vodka, but held myself. Kitten was a mess. She hadn’t washed since we departed Miami, and her caked makeup was now smeared, runny gobs concealing acne and cold sores. Her eyes were blood-red and swollen from drinking and crying.
Within twenty minutes the entire yacht was ablaze. It became a floating fireball, sailing past us into oblivion. The ocean grew enraged, seething, choppy green waves lashing at our boat. I sat down into the captain’s chair to steady myself.
“We better go back downstairs,” I said.
Kitten nodded and stood to step toward the hatch leading below. The sailboat suddenly lifted at one side, tilting the deck crazily toward starboard. The seaweed had struck a mighty blow from beneath. I grabbed hold of the wheel to brace myself, but Kitten was not as quick, still staggering in her stupor. The tilting of the boat lifted her off her legs, and she bounced against the rail, plunging into the seething seaweed below.
It happened instantly. Like a magician’s trick, one moment she was there and the next she wasn’t. Kitten didn’t even scream.
I screamed for her though. I held onto the wheel, expecting the boat to right itself, but it did not. A thick, bubbly arm of algae caught hold of the starboard rail while the boat was tipped and the sargassum held it down, sucking, trying to pull the Lady’s Lash over. I loaded another flare cartridge into the gun and fired down the side of the boat into the writhing green mass below.
The seaweed howled from the burning shot and released its hold on the rail, retreating back into the frothy ocean. The boat fell back, level in the water.
At least I knew I could hurt it with fire. It felt pain and I hoped it knew fear.
I scurried down into the galley below and lay in the dark, feeling the boat bob up-and-down and side-to-side, thinking again of sharks at a feeding frenzy.
I closed my eyes, holding the flare gun and cartridge belt tight to my chest.
I woke with the rising sun. I had survived another night, but thought this would be the last sunrise I would ever see. The boat was going down. I was dying. I hadn’t drunk water in three days. My mouth was parched, and I felt my muscles spontaneously spasm. Food was a distant memory, and my stomach shrunken to an empty, aching gourd.
I contemplated my death. The worst part was the realization I’d be considered nothing more than a missing person. Nobody would know what became of me. My parents would mourn and search for me the rest of their lives. They would never find closure. I would be listed as a casualty, lost somewhere at sea.
The stern of the boat dipped. Fear seized me, and I sprang up the steps back on top of the Lady’s Lash. Tendrils of the seaweed began to crawl onto the deck. The boat had sunk further into the sargassum muck, and I saw that it had coiled up around the anchor line. I crept as close to it as I dared and fired the flare gun into the slimy ocean where the seaweed climbed aboard.
The sargassum shrieked and let go of the anchor line, retreating back into the water, away from the burning, fiery flare. The boat righted itself, and the algae writhed like a storm, bucking the ship back-and-forth, trying to throw me off. I dove back downstairs to the safety of the galley.
The ocean stilled.
An hour later I felt the stern of the boat dip down again. I swore at the sea, climbed up on deck, and fired a burning flare into the vines of seaweed that climbed aboard. It fell back into the sea, hissing, and tried to buck me off the deck. I retreated down below.
An hour later, the stern dipped again. The sargassum and I continued this game of cat-and-mouse throughout the morning. By noon, I had only one flare left and decided it was useless to fire again into the sea.
If I was to die that day, I wouldn’t let the seaweed have me. My death would be on my own terms. I poured myself a shot of tequila from the bar and downed it. My stomach and brain tingled wonderfully. I took another drink and warmth caressed my skin. I tossed the glass away and lifted the bottle to my cracked lips, pouring the tequila down in forced gulps. Then I sat on the floor and wondered at the final flare cartridge I held in my hand.
The alcoholic buzz soothed my worries. The pain and anger became distant like a receding tide. I placed the flare into the gun and cocked it, closing my eyes, dreaming of life, waiting for the stern to dip down.
The stern did not dip again. Instead, the entire boat lifted into the air with a crack of echoing thunder. I stood up on wavering legs and climbed the steps to peer outside, gun clenched in hand. The storm had returned.
The sky once again mysteriously transformed, filled with clouds of dark-yellow, red, and pink. The wind blew suddenly too, a finger snap from motionless to gale-force, and the bloody rust-colored rain drops fell. The boat lifted into the air, tossed by a wave. I slipped off the stairwell and fell, slamming my head against the wood cabin floor. I laid there, cartoon stars spinning, while the ship was battered by the strange storm.
I waited for the storm to pass. It hadn’t lasted long the first time, when Michael was at the wheel.
The wheel! The sails were still up and the wind had taken hold. Nobody manned the wheel…
Just as I thought that, the wind caught the boat and flipped it upside down with a loud whoosh. I landed on the ceiling of the cabin and screamed, while bottles crashed around me. Cold ocean water poured in through the hatch. The gun was gone, flung into some far corner.
The wind battered the hull and the boat bobbed up and down as I scrambled in the dark. The cabin rapidly filled with seawater. I waited, cringing for the reaching vines to slip inside and embrace me like a long lost lover. The seaweed did not come, but more water did and, half-drunk, I found myself up to my neck before realizing that if I didn’t get out, I would drown.
I dove, pulling myself through the hatch into the rushing ocean. I struggled against the force of the incoming water until, with a shriek, I burst out and surfaced against the exposed bottom of the Lady’s hull.
The sky was peaceful, bright, and the muggy sun beat down.
Fearful the seaweed still sought me, I desperately tried to climb on top of the hull, but it was too steep and slippery; I kept falling back.
Nothing reached for me. The water was clear blue.
I held tightly onto the boat and drifted with the current. I saw land close by, Miami’s harbor, but realized with dismay I had no strength left. I could not swim to it.
A motor boat sped by filled with stoned college kids, jeering and calling out.
“Man, your boat took a tumble. Are you all right?” one of them asked.
They brought me onto their motor boat, and I wailed in relief. They asked if there were others on board my ship, if they could help.
Drew and Michael and Kitten I thought, but instead cried out, “They’re dead, they’re gone.”
Two of the young men leapt in the water and searched beneath the waves for others who were not there. A girl called the Coast Guard for emergency assistance.
I was hospitalized for a week. Dehydration. Malnutrition. Shock. The bodies of my friends were never recovered. I told the police not to even bother looking. The Sargasso Sea would never give them up. I was labeled as crazy. Doctors told me I had gone through a harrowing experience and the trauma caused mental paranoia. They gave me pills and sent me home. I was told perhaps some day the effects will pass.
I still tell my story. It never changes and I never lighten the events. I moved away from Miami, inland to Des Moines, Iowa, as far from the ocean as I could get. I still hear the hissing of the seaweed when I sleep. I still imagine the tendrils climbing up out of the drain when I take a bath, intent to seize me and pull me back to the sea, to join the others.
Perhaps some day it will catch me yet. I do not profess to know the mysteries of the Sargasso and its reach may be further than I could ever imagine.
The Great Tragedy of the Illustrious Empire
By Audrey Schaefer
It was on the third of the long periods of light and darkness into the voyage when the reconnaissance team was beset by tragedy according to the recovered crew’s logs. The engineering team determined that the shape of their organically manufactured craft would be something common enough to the environment of the dry dusty plain. So far there were no signs of life or civilization to be spotted, which would make the world a prime target for colonization. If there were any to be found, they would subjugate it for the glory of their illustrious ruler. All would tremble at their might and cower at the mere sight of them.
There did not appear to be much free water on the planet and precipitation had not yet occurred. In an effort to conserve fuel while maintaining a covert appearance, they were not moving by propulsion as they were accustomed. Winds were often intense across the mostly barren landscape with large windswept dunes as proof. As a result of traveling by wind power they managed to save an extraordinary amount of fuel. So far their expedition had not met with any major issues but their luck was soon to change drastically.
Without warning, an enormous creature pounced upon the craft while it was stationary. Huge incisors cut into the craft and tore chunks of it away to be crushed between the beast’s molars. In a desperate effort to save what remained of their ship, the commander ordered the propulsion be engaged. Sadly it was all for naught as the fuel containment units were suddenly torn from the ship by another of the monster’s savage attacks. Unable to propel themselves away from the beast the crew decided make a last stand against it. With oaths and battle cries to the empire ringing through the air they charged. Without any effort the beast continued to tear into the craft and some crew members were crushed in its jaws. Others fell to their deaths or were crushed in the wreckage of the doomed craft. Soon enough the craft was completely consumed. One brave crew member managed to rise up and shoot at the monster, but to no avail. Its impenetrable hide covered in a strange long shafts was only nicked by his valiant efforts. He stabbed at the creature but it merely raised one mighty forelimb and with the end of long digits swiped him off onto the ground.
In what seemed a moment most of the crew was slain, the craft devoured, and the survivors lay on the hot sand. The immense creature left the scene of its victory, its disproportionate back appendages propelling it across the dune. Any survivors that did not succumb to their wounds or the heat did not last long. Once the monster had been gone for a length of time armored creatures with many limbs arose from the sand to carry them off into the abyss. It was decided by the captain of the ship that the alien world was far too dangerous to attempt colonization. Some things were better left alone.
And that is how a jackrabbit and a few beetles saved the Earth from tiny hostile aliens.
Garden of Legion
David J. West
The McHenry wagon train, bound for California, persevered through prairie fires, buffalo stampedes, Indian attacks, and even a bout of embarrassing dysentery, but their greatest struggle was when that flower of the prairie, nineteen year old Fannie Burton, became possessed.
Some recollected the pretty little blonde dabbled with an ensorcelled Ouija board stolen from a New Orleans juju man. Her mother claimed the girl was bewitched by a Navajo skinwalker, and still others said she had taunted Satan himself late one night around the buffalo-chip campfire after refusing to say grace. Regardless of the sinister origin, something hideous held the girl in demonic thrall.
The once shy and reserved Fannie swiftly took a rough frontier situation from dreadful to dire and finally to disastrous. She ripped apart the Conestogas, devoured the pitiful food supplies, guzzled or smashed their water caskets and, astonishingly, ate a pair of oxen…alive! The company attempted to subdue the normally weak girl many times, but even a dozen of their most able-bodied men were overpowered by the maiden with a newly developed voice that was deep as the pit of Gehenna.
She, or It, or Them, seemed determined to force the desperate McHenry party to die in the wastes, reveling in their cries of desperation and misery. Each day they grew weaker and she, It, or Them grew stronger. All hope seemed lost in the blossoming desert of the American southwest. Tormented by a devil in a black dress, it seemed the party’s bones would soon bleach under a merciless sun.
Being good Christian folk, they prayed for deliverance and a man they later called the desert prophet materialized. He appeared to be of late middle-age, medium height and build, walking barefoot upon the scorching earth and, most important, he could exorcise little Fannie Burton of her demons.
Spying the holy man’s approach, the girl cried aloud and wallowed in the powdered dirt, frothing, vainly trying to hide in a baptism of cinnamon-like soil.
The entire wagon train listened in hushed amazement as the desert prophet communed with the throng of evil spirits inside Fannie. “You don’t belong here. You must leave. I command you in His name.”
“Suffer us to enter into another set of the living,” came the bottomless well of a voice from the convulsing waif. “Even, He,” it gnashed, “was so accommodating.”
“You may enter into whatever lives on the other side of that nearest mountain,” allowed the mysterious holy man.
A vile grin split the girl’s face as her body shook one last time. An almost imperceptible mist spouted from her frame and flew like a swarm of ravenous locusts to the far side of the mountain.
Her own true voice restored, Fannie spoke hoarsely, “Thank you stranger, but who’re you?”
“One of three who tarry,” he answered, drawing her up from the baptism of fine powdered earth. “The demons shall not trouble you again. Go your way in righteousness.”
Fannie ran to her waiting mother and father. As the rest of the McHenry caravan came out cheering from behind their wagons, a dust devil sprang up out of the dunes and the desert prophet vanished.
The McHenry party never caught his name, his tracks vanished into the shifting sands. Their problems were over, but two mountains away, the hell on earth was about to begin.
Port trotted to the top of the pass, the dust swirling about his horse’s hooves like the phantoms of nipping dogs. The horse stamped at unseen ghosts and Port clicked his tongue softly to calm the beast. Grey clouds loomed on the horizon. Rain would strike the desert soon enough, drowning as much as quenching, and Port had no wish to get wet.
Port was a broad-shouldered man with long dark hair and a short beard. He wore a stained duster which canvassed the flanks of his dun horse. A brace of pistols jutted from his vest as he glanced back at his unwilling companion.
Lashed to the trailing mule’s saddle was a scrawny, red-haired kid with a face so sun-burnt it almost matched his curly locks. A thousand bitter curses were written in his gaze.
Neither spoke. Port, a gunfighter turned lawman, had nothing to say to the horse thief. Likewise, the kid had nothing to say to his captor. At the top of the pass, each looked down into the canyon before them. A small reservoir collected precious runoff from the mountain peaks, while a town lay jumbled a little farther below like a half-shuffled deck of greasy cards that had been played too many times. A wretched sign designating the town leaned at Port’s right. The name made Port crack a smile, it had to be someone’s sick joke.
The ruinous sign read, Eden, pop – 37. The number had been crossed out many times. With each scratch, the population had decreased until there was no space left for the last few numbers. Someone had tacked an extra board on the side to accommodate the count.
The mountain looming on the south side was covered with as many pockmarks across its face as the ne’er do well horse thief. Tailings from mine shafts spewed out discoloration and Port noticed few, if any, were working claims.
The town itself had two dozen buildings in various states of decay. There wasn’t a single tree and no plants except a desiccated tumbleweed passing by in the ever-present wind. The only other sign of life was in the murky reservoir. Insects skeetered by, but not a single fish jumped.
Porter had seen less promising towns but not by much. This was a town of broken promises, failed dreams and dead hope. Still, maybe he could get a drink.
Riding in, the breeze seemed to pick up and whine at this desert oasis. Port thought he heard a fell voice on the wind but he paid it little mind. He rode straight for the faded yellow star, bleaching upon the front of a peace officer’s shanty.
Port tied his horse and the mule to the rail, then dragged his prisoner inside, bringing a cloud of dust with him as he opened the door and shoved the kid through it.
“What can I do ya for?” asked a portly sheriff, startled from his late afternoon nap.
“I have a prisoner. I want to lock him up secure for the night. We’ll be moving on in the morning to get before the territorial judge by tomorrow night. I have a badge, my name is—”
“I know who you are, Porter,” the sheriff interrupted. “I suppose we can hold your prisoner.”
Port removed the kid’s bindings and pushed him to the sheriff, who put the kid in the tiny jail.
“What’d he do?”
Port stepped to the door, remarking over his shoulder, “Horse thief and murderer, he’ll hang soon. Where can I get a square drink?”
“Lulu-belle’s, it’s the only place still open.”
“Much obliged.” Port shut the door in the face of the gale and strode across the cactus dry street.
Inside Lulu-belle’s a hairy-knuckled barkeep wiped down unused glasses as an off-tune woman sang an off-color song. The carnival of patrons looked Port’s way as he entered and then went back to their previous distractions. He went straight to the bar, thumping down two bits.
“What’ll ya have?”
“Whiskey,” Port said. “The wind ever stop blowing around here?”
“Not usually. The miners like it. Helps keep ‘em cool. It’s hot as hell most days.”
Port’s gaze tightened. “Wait, is this the cursed town I heard about?”
The barkeep smiled. “It is indeed. That’s our claim to fame. The territorial governor cursed Eden as the wickedest city in the west and said we’d fade out, but we’re hanging on. We ain’t hardly licked yet.”
Port chuckled to himself. He doubted the town would last another year unless the miners struck something. Everywhere death and decay lurked, whitewash peeled leaving flakes like dandruff on the ground and a certain stink never left the air. It was a dead and bloated town, with inhabitants like fleas still clinging to the lifeless dog’s warmth.
Something banged near the back of the saloon and distracted the barkeep. “Sadie, will you serve this gentleman?” he called. “I have to see what that was.”
Port looked out the window as a single tumbleweed rolled by, helped by the ever present wind.
A homely saloon girl with a whiskey bottle and glass sidled up to Port. “Well howdy stranger, doesn’t it get lonely on the trail all day?” She batted her eyes like a butterfly gathering nectar.
He gave her a dirty look. “I ain’t looking for company, just a drink.”
“Everybody likes company,” she said through overly red lips.
Port grinned. “Maybe so, but not me.” She offered Port the glass but he declined and took the bottle.
“You’re funny,” she said. “I’m Sadie.”
“Howdy Ma’am, I’m Porter.”
“You from nearby?”
“A bit up north.” He noticed a pair of tumbleweeds ramble by on the street. He took another swig watching the sky turn azure as Venus appeared.
Sadie coaxed, “I hear it’s nice.”
“I expect you’d like California better,” Port said offhand.
The barkeep hollered for Sadie again and she shrugged. “Anything else you need, just you holler.”
Port gave a half charity smile and focused on his drink instead of the next tone-deaf song. Dusk was falling and the wind grew louder with a moan like a dying man’s last gasp.
Port rubbed a broad hand over his face and pondered the ride in the morning. The kid would hang in another night. It bothered him. The kid was young. Still, that he deserved it couldn’t be denied. What would the parents say when Port brought their son home? Wouldn’t likely be thanks. Nope, not a lot of appreciation for his service out here. He took another long pull on the whiskey bottle.
The wind moaned again and the rapid sound of a boot heel kicking the boardwalk shook Port from drowning his troubles. He stood and stalked to the saloon doors, hand on his Navy Colt.
Not six feet from the swinging doors lay an old man with the blue face of one who’d been strangled.
Glancing around the corner, Port looked left and right. Not a soul was on the street, just those blasted tumbleweeds rolling in the wind.
“Someone give me a hand,” he ordered.
The bartender and Port brought the dead man inside. His clothes were dirty and disheveled, food stained his shirt and jacket precisely where a napkin bib wouldn’t cover. Tight red gouges across the neck revealed the cause of his murder.
“Who was he?”
The hairy-knuckled bartender answered, “Quinn Cleary, town lawyer.”
Port gave the bartender the stink-eye.
The bartender gulped adding, “And town drunk. There hasn’t been a lotta need for a town lawyer last few years.”
“You don’t say? Who’d want him dead?”
Shaking his head, the bartender said, “No one. He was harmless.”
Wheeling, Port looked upon the rest of the motley group of patrons. “Anyone?”
No one volunteered anything. Most seemed in shock, but Sadie stepped forward. “He was liked by everyone, there weren’t no bad debts or dissatisfied miners if that’s what you mean?”
Port nodded. “I’ll get the sheriff.” He went out into the night, the dark wind whipping about him like a scorned lover. With the wary sense of a predator, Port kept an eye up and down the street and while a sense of dread filled him, he couldn’t see another soul. He convinced himself the dread was merely the aura of the town in general. He struck a match to light his cigar but the wind blew it out.
A rather large tumbleweed rolled in front of him and stopped abruptly despite the wind.
Port looked at the noxious weed, rubbed his beard and gave it a kick, sending it flying into the darkness.
He continued across the street, looking over his shoulder several times. Lamplight flickered through the shuttered windows of the sheriff’s office, and a hint of laughter filtered out against the moaning dirge of the wind. Port frowned, what could there possibly be worth laughing about in this stinking town?
The sheriff sat at the little wooden table playing cards with the kid. Each looked up in shock at Port.
Port barked, “This the kind of town you run sheriff? Granting the opportunity for a horse thieving murderer to escape?”
“It ain’t like that. We was just playing cards.”
“Yes, sir,” the kid agreed, “jus’ playing cards. I wasn’t gonna try and escape…honest.”
Port picked the kid up by the scruff and threw him into the jail cell. “He has killed three men already, for six dollars and a slow horse.”
The sheriff looked indignant at Porter, as if he didn’t believe him, while the kid gave his most innocent look.
“I suppose I can keep him locked up,” muttered the lawman.
“You suppose? You got more problems. Someone strangled your town drunk, and that murderer is still on the loose.” Port struck another match and lit his cigar.
Port nodded, smoke flared from his nostrils. “Strangled with wire. We got him over in Lulu-belle’s.”
Putting on his gun belt, the sheriff wheezed and said, “I’ll be over in a minute.”
Not waiting any longer, Porter went out the door back into the blasting wind. More tumbleweeds rolled by. Several weeds were massed up against the open saloon doors. The wind extinguished his cigar, and he prepared to light another match. Port kicked the tumbleweeds aside and went in. The lamps were blown out.
Everyone was gone.
Port spun around wondering if it was some kind of joke, but the saloon was deserted. No one was behind the bar or on the low stage. Then it dawned on him that the dead man’s body was gone too. Going up the stairs with his Navy Colt drawn, Port was ready for anything. A tumbleweed had been blown up to the landing. Port knocked it aside.
There were four small rooms. Two had doors cracked open. No lamps burned, but a hint of moonlight crept through the narrow windows.
No one in either room. Port opened the first closed door, standing as far back as he could reach and still turn the knob. He half expected a gunshot to explode through the door, but none came. Each room was empty as well, though the last had an open window with the wind whipping the sun bleached pink curtains like a banshee.
Port came back downstairs and puzzled. It had been at least five minutes. Where was that idiot sheriff?
He went back outside. Somewhere in the cold distance a horse screamed. Porter gave pause. The street was nearly covered with tumbleweeds, and his horse was gone too! “Wheat in the mill! That damn kid!” He waded through the sea of weeds that almost acted like they wanted to grab and hold him. He puffed on his cigar extra hard to keep it lit against the wind. The orange cherry flared and the weeds seemed to part a little. The door stood open. Expecting to see the incompetent fool dead, Port leveled his six-gun at the ready.
But the sheriff wasn’t there.
The kid was. Hunched in his cell in the darkness, in a fetal position, he sobbed and jerked as Port entered.
“Where is he? What did you do to him?” Port demanded.
“I didn’t…do anything. It was them…”
“The weeds, they came to life. He opened the door and they rolled in. They took the sheriff. He screamed ‘til he couldn’t breathe no more.”
“They drug his body out the back. They tried to reach me but couldn’t through the bars.”
“You damn liar. Do you got friends trying to bust you out? Tell me or I am gonna shoot you here and now!”
“Better that than those things getting me.”
Port wheeled and looked out the slit windows. The wind was forcing more tumbleweeds up against the door. Their scratching was unnerving. It almost looked like their myriad tiny branches were moving in a uniform, crawling chaos.
Port wrinkled his brow. The whiskey must be too strong here.
“They are trying to get in,” moaned the kid.
Port puffed his cigar and said, “You’re one defective bullet kid.”
“It’s true. Open the door and find out, you cold-hearted bastard.”
“All right.” Port opened the door, wary of gunmen on the street. He puffed on the cigar, looking with disdain at the weeds which fell back away from the door. “Yeah, kid, they’re alive, either that or the wind moved them.”
But the kid was as far back in his cell as he could be.
“Porter!” came a woman’s voice.
Port looked and there on the roof of the saloon was Sadie and a handful of others.
“Run! Run! You’ve got to get away!”
Port looked each way down the street. “From what?”
He furrowed his brow again and the wind blew out his cigar.
The weeds closed in.
He leapt back into the sheriff’s office, slamming the door as he did so, but the weeds clogged the threshold, keeping it open. So many rolled atop each other, that the pile was as tall as Port.
He did the first thing that came to mind. He shot the mass with his revolver. Smoke belched from the six-gun but the weeds were unaffected beyond a moment’s respite.
The kid screamed in his cell.
“Shut up!” Port kicked over the card table, which did nothing to the weeds. He then flung a chair at them. It crushed a few, but against the mass it was useless. Taking the other chair, Port smashed out the window behind him and dove through.
He landed hard on his elbows and knees, rolling to get up.
Weeds tumbled around each side of the office and then out the lip of the window.
Port was on his feet racing to the next building, a dilapidated smithy. Scrambling up a post, covered with tools, he managed to get several feet off the ground and above the weeds’ reach. Then he climbed up to the narrow slanted roof.
The weeds thrummed in unison and surrounded the tiny structure.
From his new vantage, Port could see thousands of weeds covering the town. Across the street, Sadie and a dozen others sat on the saloon’s roof. The wind moaned and Port sat precariously for what he deemed one of the worst nights of his life. He chanced throwing matches at the weeds, but they rolled away until the matches died in the blustery night. Port knew there was no way he could burn the brush while they were so spread out.
Several times individual weeds attempted to climb the post after Port. One on one he could knock them away, but what about when sleep would eventually take him? He couldn’t stay awake forever.
Dawn’s light only revealed a greater nightmare. There were more weeds than Port had guessed. Not a single horse remained. There’d be no way to outrun the horde, and still the hurtling wind blew fierce as the devil.
He kicked another tumbler that clambered up. Sadie and the others above the saloon did the same with their climbing invaders. Port knew that eventually they would lose. He had to take the fight to the weeds. Looking across the lay of the land, the narrow sloping valley, the reservoir sat above the town. Port chewed his lip and hatched a plan. As much as he didn’t like it, he would need help.
“Sadie,” he called, “Are the miners still using their powder magazines? Do the mines go deep?”
“Yes. It’s there past the east barn,” she shouted, pointing to a lone shack at the far upper end of town. “But so what about the mine’s depth? The weeds can go anywhere a man can go.”
She puzzled over his intentions and frowned, shielding her face.
Tearing off another, ascending tumbleweed, Porter then snagged a blacksmith’s hammer from the post. He tossed it to the roof of the sheriff’s office. Then he gauged the distance between the two buildings. It would be a long jump, especially since he didn’t have much room to start with.
He didn’t like heights, and while this wasn’t that high, the weeds waited below, hungry as rabid dogs. They seemed to sense his intent and gathered thickly underneath him. It was now or never. More weeds were crawling up the post.
Port reached with all he was worth, whispering a prayer as he jumped.
His fingers grasped the lip of the sheriff’s office as the wind was slammed from his lungs. Still, he didn’t let go. He struggled over the lip of the flat adobe roof. Port lay on his back a few moments, breathing hard.
“Are you alright?” called Sadie.
“Yeah, never better,” he panted.
Porter slammed the hammer at the roof of the jail cell. It was hard work and took longer than he would have liked. By the time Port burst through the ceiling, the kid below was screaming in terror.
“Shut up, it’s only me.”
Dumbfounded, the kid nodded and let Port pull him up to the roof.
Port whispered, “We got two things we can do. Nothing and die, or act and perhaps live.”
The kid nodded.
“Now, I know you can run, so I got a job for you. I need a distraction. I need you to get the weeds’ attention while I charge up to the powder box and blow the reservoir wide open. It’ll wash this town clean.”
The kid shook his head. “I’d rather wait here. Get someone else to do it.”
“Look kid, I can’t be yelling these plans across the street for the weeds to hear. I don’t know how smart they are. Wheat! I don’t even know how they are doing this. It’s gotta be you.”
“It could be you. I can run faster than you. Let me light the powder and blow the dam.”
Port grimaced. He knew the kid was fast, he’d been awful hard to catch. “Here’s my matches. There will be some powder kegs. Take one or two, whatever you can still move with. Get up to the reservoir, put the keg next to the drainage channel, light it and get the hell away. Once a hole is knocked in that dam, it’ll be like a river in flood. Get clear. You hearing me? These things will come tearing after you, so you gotta do it quick.”
The kid nodded. “But what about after? I do this, you still gonna take me to get hung?”
Port narrowed his gaze. “No. But you’re gonna head to Mexico.”
“I don’t wanna go to Mexico.”
Port cocked his head and gave a wicked grin.
“I’ll go to Mexico.”
“Good lad. I’ll lead the weeds south as best I can. You run north fast as the devil on your tail. Make sure this wind don’t blow out your match.”
Port dropped down to the sloping roof on the front of the office. He tore the sign from the rusted brackets and tossed it, smashing weeds beneath. He jumped down and ran serpentine through the streets of Eden. Weeds rolled after him like a pack of dogs.
The kid watched a moment then eased down the backside and made for the powder magazine. On the ground he peered around the corner to determine if the weeds would even see him. They appeared taken with Porter and paid no attention to him or the others on the saloon.
Porter dodged the few weeds that rolled to intercept him and booted a few, but more came on until they were so thick on his heels that kicking would only waste his time. They lashed at his ankles and no amount of shooting or struggling would avail him.
The kid moved behind the ghost town shops to avoid being seen, but Sadie saw him. “Where are you going?” she shouted. “Help us!” He signaled her to be silent.
While they watched, weeds with a thousand tiny arms grabbed Port’s heel and tripped him. He flailed and sent dozens spinning away, but for every one he threw a dozen more took its place. The weeds piled, reaching to strangle the human life they envied and hated.
Through some eldritch means, or from understanding Sadie’s shouting, the weeds sensed the kid. A number of them, too far from reaching Porter, stopped and rolled north after the young blood.
The kid glanced from the edge of the hotel and saw them coming. He turned and ran for the powder magazine. He pulled matches from his pocket.
Port reared up, tearing weeds from his throat. He roared like a mad bull and swatted the balled weeds away. Like an infinite hydra they attacked from all sides.
The kid saw a hundred or more weeds rolling. He reached the powder magazine and threw back the door. Inside were a half dozen powder kegs. He picked up the nearest and ran for the reservoir. “This had better work,” he muttered through clenched teeth. The weeds were gaining on him.
At the drainage ditch, the kid dropped the keg and fumbled with the matches. The wind blew out the first three—only two left. He looked over his shoulder. The weeds tumbled closer and closer. A light and the fuse went quick. He shielded the delicate blaze with his hands. The weeds rolled. There would be no time to escape and keep the fire alive. This would be his redemption.
“Sorry Mama,” he whispered.
The keg exploded in raucous thunder. Black smoke, brown earth, and gray water spit in all directions.
The pursuing weeds stopped and backed away from the spilling reservoir.
An arm reached out from the mass of weeds, and Port was free for a moment before he was sucked back down by the malevolent force.
A torrent of water become a river, as chunks of the dam broke free in a mighty domino effect.
Porter knew he was turning blue from the vine’s deadly grip on his neck. With eyes barely open, he fell to the dust. Torn in all directions, his tongue lolled in hot earth, then felt cool relief.
Water ran, slick and cold, as the weeds let go.
Porter struggled to his knees and saw the wave coming. He moved like a crippled locomotive and just managed to grasp a sturdy post as the river hit. Weeds were drowned and taken away past the corrals and abandoned bordello.
The tumbleweeds tried to hold to one another and again and again were washed downstream from the town.
Sadie and the others atop the saloon cheered and whooped. Port held to his post like a rod of iron, fearful of being carried away. When the water at last subsided to a few feet deep, he looked behind and saw a clumped mass of the drenched weeds.
They moved as one.
Forming together, they rose out of the ebbing waters, rounded like a head with hollow spots for colossal eyes and mouth. Shoulders appeared then arms, fingers, and a hideous weed-bodied torso. Thousands of wet tumbleweeds fused together to fashion a giant weed golem. The vines interlaced, wrapped and knotted about tenaciously. An inhuman cry echoed from the cavity of a mouth and the thing stood up, over three stories tall. It shook the wetness from itself and stepped forward with a ponderous gait.
Sadie screamed. The others ran for their lives to escape the colossus’s awful gaze. Port shuddered, but still his mind sprang like a steel trap to find a way to defeat this demonic foe.
Coming closer, the awful giant stepped on the bordello, crushing it asunder. With the waters gone, the town was now just a mud track. Some of the structures had been knocked off their foundations and were laying haphazardly. The street in front of the saloon was the biggest clearing the town had left.
“Wheat! I’m a fool,” Porter said to himself. “Now I got him.”
“We have to get out of here,” the barkeep shouted, tugging on Port’s shoulder.
“You think you can outrun that?” Sadie asked.
“We just gotta outrun the others,” the barkeep answered.
Port grasped his shoulder and swung the man around. “You wanna live? Get me a lamp! All of ‘em! And be ready when I am! I gotta buy some time.”
The barkeep stared at him like he was insane but dashed back inside.
The colossus was almost upon them and Port stepped into the muddy streets to face it.
“PORTER,” it echoed.
“You know me, but I don’t remember meeting you before.”
“WE ARE LEGION. OURS WILL BE A PLACE OF HONOR IN GEHENNA, WHEN WE DESTROY YOUR BODY,” the voice came, deep as the pit.
“That’s where we have our feud. I doubt I’ll get anything for destroying yours.”
The hollow eyes looked down on Porter, and an ominous sound that he believed was laughter echoed.
“YOU HAVE NO POWER OVER US.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. I do have power over your chosen body.”
“WE WERE TRICKED. BUT IT SERVES US WELL ENOUGH. WE CANNOT BE SHOT. WE CANNOT BE DROWNED. WE CANNOT BE BLOWN APART.” It leaned in closer to Port. “WE CANNOT BE KICKED, NOW.”
“You forgot one.” Port caught the oil lamp the barkeep tossed him. He threw it into Legion’s mouth and shot.
Fire erupted and an inhuman cry rocked the town. The whipping wind gave the behemoth a tongue of flame, and it laughed again before shooting witch-fire back at Porter like a blast furnace. “YOU HAVE ONLY GIVEN US MORE POWER TO DESTROY YOU! EMBRACE YOUR DOOM!” Still sopping wet, the Legion thing was not burning.
The front of Lulu-belle’s burst into flames, but the wily gunman dodged and ran about the slick street, taking cover behind the ruins of the blacksmith’s.
The tongue of fire blasted again, igniting the forge and structure. Port crossed to a ramshackle house. Again the fire tore into the dry wood. Port faked left and went right, taking cover in the collapsed bordello. “You have to do better than that,” he taunted.
The weed golem swung a colossal fist at Porter and shot its witch-fire tongue as he dodged yet again. Smoke obscured him, but as he chanced a look, the edges of the Legion’s mouth blackened.
Sensing that its protection of wetness was wearing off, the golem brought up a hand and suffocated the fiery tongue. It cast its wicked gaze for Porter and realized too late it was surrounded by the flaming ruins of the town—a second sacrifice it never could have understood.
Sadie and the remaining others threw more oil, and the flames grew. Porter backed away through burning wreckage, choking on the smoke. The Legion thing was trapped, and its weed body sizzled and smoked as the wetness boiled off. Every path was blocked. It twisted and turned looking for escape, finding none.
“WE WON’T FORGET THIS,” it roared, before dropping to the mud and writhing as dry weeds were burnt to skeletal ash. Dark things flickered amongst the smoke, and it seemed evil spirits, free of any mortal coil, fled up into the ether.
“The thing burned awful fast for being so wet,” Sadie said.
“Yeah, it did,” Port answered. “I’m glad at least one element was on our side.”
A barefoot, middle-aged man of medium build stood beside them as if he had been there the whole time. “With every blessing comes a curse,” he said. “And vice versa.”
Port cocked an eyebrow and shrugged. “Horse chips.”
out of the Russian steppes
blowing up and over
the South Dakota hills;
emaciated dryad condemned to rootlessness
in a sun-baked clime
where the light from rejected Apollo
shines the harshest, his kisses
so actinic and dry
they leach the green
from her body;
or perhaps it’s even restless Cain himself,
the First Murderer, booted from
the outskirts of Eden
and its own sinister vegetation,
who resides within,
embodied in the vagabond
weed like a spore.
There is, in fact, no end to the possible
co-opting of myth to metaphorically
adorn this scraggliest and forlorn
But at least for us, living
in modern times, the most prevalent
image of the weed-that-tumbles
derives more from the cinema
of the Western than any Classical
or Biblical source. Hence
the establishing shot of every
ghost town in the John Ford canon.
As the camera pans down
the deserted streets of dust,
suddenly the wind shrieks,
vanquishing the choral silence
of the dead, and a lone tumbleweed,
skitters, bounces, and bounds down
the empty thoroughfare like a drunk
spooked by his own shadow.
No cinematographer or screenwriter,
however, has ever bothered
to show the town at its finest hour,
pre-invasion—a western metropolis
of over 300 people, with a saloon-
slash-brothel, adobe jail, and weekly
gazette, nor its clean-swept, if wagon-
A good thing, too.
For only the jackrabbits and the rattlers
ever seem to take notice
of the gathering force out beyond
the town’s perimeter, hiding
in plain sight, or hear, under
cover of darkness or high cloud,
the skittering one-by-one
approach of soldiers
so hungry you can see right
through to their bones, fractalized
like Moses’ bush after the fire.
Only the beasts know better
than to imagine the weeds unguiled,
quitclaimed of the Promised Land.
Only the beasts know better
than to stand in the way.
The Souls of the Wicked
“You been here long?” The cabby flicked a glance in the rear-view mirror and blinked several bulbous eyes.
“No.” He ran a finger over the leather contraption in his lap and frowned. “I thought the atmosphere was breathable.” He examined the respirator. It looked like an antique, not something he felt inclined to trust with his life. “The planetary record lists this as a safe zone for humanoids.”
“Atmosphere’s fine,” the cabby croaked. “It’s the dust.” He jerked his huge head toward the side window. “The dust cakes in your lungs, gills, whatever. Kills you slowly.”
“Right.” Good to remember. He fumbled with the breather’s straps and felt for thin spots. Not that he planned to stay here long enough to be killed slowly. “Thanks.”
“Where you from?” the cabby continued, moved by the tradition of his occupation to fill the silence with meaningless chatter. Cabbies, it seemed, were the same everywhere.
“Here and there.” He liked the answer, used it more often than not.
“I move around a lot.” He liked that answer less. It told too much, but might keep the toad thinking long enough to provide a moment’s silence. Or maybe not.
“What do you do?” The question came too fast, the bastard wasn’t even listening to his responses.
“This and that.” He might have said anything, confessed to anything. “Jack of all trades.”
The cab lurched to one side, listing on its magnetic cushion and nearly colliding with the ground. The maneuver shoved him down the bench seat and slammed his shoulder against the rubbery interior. The cabbie’s voice cursed from the front, gibberish in the creature’s own language, as he fought to wrench the vehicle back under control.
“What the hell was that?”
“Tumbler.” The cabbie heaved on the stick and the seat leveled out again.
Outside the window, a dark shape rolled past. Soft colors glowed from inside its tangled branches, cutting through the dust enough to offer a view of the obstacle.
“Tumbler,” the cabbie insisted. “They’re on the move with this wind.”
“Why not just, you know.” He motioned forward with one palm. “Plow through them?”
“Listen.” The hover car slowed to a crawl, and the wide head swiveled to regard him over one thick shoulder. “You don’t ‘plow through’ the Souls of the Wicked. You don’t mess with them. You just get out of their way, got it?”
“Sure, yeah. I got it.” He held his breath and waited for the nut job to turn back toward the road. Eventually, the eyes blinked and swung forward again. The car returned to cruising speed, and he had a moment free from incessant questions.
Outside the glass, the storm spun, constant and thick in the dusky atmosphere. Here and there a dark blot bounced by. He smiled. He’d been enough places to recognize an errant bush. They had similar species on a dozen worlds. But local customs mattered too, at least for as long as he intended to remain friendly and in residence. He could play along.
His smile faded when the driver started in again. “What’s your name, then?”
“Jack.” He laughed to himself. It worked, Jack. He could certainly live with it for a little while. “It’s Jack.”
The old timer squinted across the counter at him. “What did you say your last name was?”
“I didn’t.” Jack smiled and shrugged. “Never had much use for one.”
“Huh.” The guy snorted and looked over Jack’s shoulder. As if there were a line of potential candidates standing behind him, as if there were even one. “You done much mining?”
“Zerinium gas,” Jack said. “Heavy ores on Tingham.”
The second one was almost true. He’d been on Tingham once, at least. He fixed a confident expression. It didn’t matter whether he could mine or not. He was the only idiot in line. He’d learn—he always learned.
Jack watched the indecision flicker on the old timer’s face, marked the moment where he caved to the inevitable, and stifled a grin. He glanced away, took in the store with a roving glance meant to keep his humor out of his new employer’s attention.
Outside the huge, plate-glass window, the dust riffled past. He’d learned in seconds that the breathers did little to stop it. The grit wiggled through the smallest gap. It lined the counters of the general store, despite the evidence of efforts to sweep it aside.
All the people passing wore the contraptions—the whole town did when outside—as if the idea of a filter might earn their lungs at least a few additional years. Jack snorted at a group, huddled and hurrying between the ramshackle buildings. The whole town would slowly suffocate, buried by their illusions.
He judged his moment had come, wiped away his grin and turned a serious mask back toward the counter.
“Can you use another man?” Of course they could, their entire workforce was choking to death.
“I’ll give you a try.” The man turned over his shoulder and hollered into the back room, “Ewan!”
A flutter of skirts appeared in the doorway. They swayed around a wasp waist and a full, lifting breast. The girl swung her hips from side to side and regarded Jack through wide eyes.
“He’s out,” she said. “Won’t be back for an hour at least.”
Jack explored her figure with his eyes while the old timer’s back was turned. She was young. He shuffled through stored information and tried to remember the age of consent on this rock. The words, “barely legal” came to mind.
“Well, where did he go?” the old man snapped. Probably her father—definitely nervous about the way she watched Jack over his shoulder. “Got a new man needs settling in. Darn that boy.”
“Ma sent him,” the girl said. Jack noted the trill in her voice, the veiled excitement. “I’ll take him round.”
Jack heard the growl, low in the old man’s throat, but it hardly worried him. The girl didn’t wait for an answer. She swung her little body around the counter, passed the old man without looking at him and snagged a breather from the closest shelf.
Her father recovered by the time they’d reached the door. “You get back here fast as you can,” he hollered as they slid through into the wind. “I’ve got chores to be done.”
Jack pushed the door shut and wiped the grit from the breather’s goggles. The girl skipped ahead of him, used to the dust’s assault. She faded in and out of vision with the flurries and gusts. Jack hustled to keep her in view, followed close enough to watch the narrow hips swing.
She’d be something, he thought, something to do while he was stuck here. They ducked across the dirt street into the lee of the buildings on the far side. He’d have to time it just right, have to be careful. He followed her around the side, toward the high wire fence that encircled the whole bloody town.
Not that the father worried him. He could handle fathers. But the whole town had a backwards bent, and he’d seen that moony eyed expression on girls before. This one would want a man to keep. He snorted. Most of them did.
Jack shuddered and lifted his gaze from her backside to the fence. The tumblers collected in angry piles along the barrier. He’d have to keep her at arm’s reach until he was ready to make a quick departure. He’d have to time things just right. The branches trembled as the wind forced them against the wire. They shook together, shifted positions until one of the end bushes lurched free and rolled down the fence line. Jack watched it pick up speed as it cleared the corner and continued on its journey. For a second, he’d have sworn the center swirled with colored lights.
The girl called his name. A good sign, she’d been listening longer than her father suspected. He smiled inside the breather’s confines and strode after her through the dust. Timing, he thought. He could manage timing.
He coughed into the handkerchief, spitting up grit along with traces of saliva. The damned dust got in—it didn’t matter what he tried. It collected in his lungs. He swore he could feel it weighing him down. He should have left last week.
He snatched his breather from the bunk and examined it for the thousandth time.
“It’s fine,” Lorey snarled from the table. “You just checked it.”
“Right,” Jack shrugged at the wiry, wrinkle of a man. Lorey’d been here the longest. Hell, he might have been a native. Jack never asked. The man knew his business, though. They said he could smell the ore. Jack frowned. He liked Lorey, and the man was as good as dead.
“You’re heading out to meet that girl,” Lorey said when Jack fixed the breather around his neck. “There’s a shotgun in her Daddy’s pocket for you, you know.”
Jack nodded and fastened his strap. He knew. But the stupid girl had more resolve than he’d expected, and Jack didn’t like to fail.
“She’s gonna wrangle you into that church, yet.” Lorey guffawed and nearly choked on a fit of coughing.
Jack shook his head. A knot of fear lumped in his chest. When Lorey got coughing, Jack felt death hanging over the room. He had no concern about a wedding, but he wanted off this rock, and he wasn’t leaving till he’d done everything he’d planned to do—including the boss’ daughter.
“Naw.” A whiney voice joined them from the door. The new kid, all bones and stupidity, leaned against the wall. “The Souls of the Wicked’ll get him first.”
“Shut up, newbie.” Lorey recovered his breath, and Jack felt death move on for the time being. “You don’t know nothing ‘bout it.”
“Ain’t that what you’re always saying? That them tumblers got the souls of the wicked in ‘em?”
“Maybe,” Lorey conceded. “But it sounds dumb when you say it.” He grinned and winked at Jack. “You go get her man, while ya still can.”
Jack nodded and adjusted his mask. He brushed past the kid in the doorway and slid back outside with a chuckle. He liked Lorey, and the man was as good as dead.
“Baby,” Jack sighed. He forced his voice soft and played at pleading. “You’re teasin’ me.”
“Maybe I am,” she answered. When she heaved a sigh, her breasts bounced and threatened to break free of her bodice. She cursed and fought with the laces again, stuffing her assets more firmly away. “I’m not some trollop, you know.” She pouted, stuck out her lip and leaned closer to where he reclined on the straw. “You need to make me a promise or two, Jack.”
His hand slid across her hip. He leaned on one elbow and watched her struggle to re-dress herself. He’d come close this time, closer than before, but she’d still stopped him short of victory. She’d gone past hinting about commitment too—not a good sign.
He clenched his jaw against a wave of irritation. What did he need with this stupid, slip of a girl anyway? He needed to get away, to escape before the dust ground away his identity. But his mind had set on a task, and the task was making things difficult for him.
“I promise you,” he whispered in the husky voice he’d found she responded well too. She leaned close enough to bring her chest back into range. He smiled and trailed a finger over the flesh peeking from her bodice. “I promise.” She moaned and leaned closer. “That you are the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted.”
Jack leaned forward, but his lips met only the barn’s cool air. He looked up and laughed before he could stop himself.
She sat back on her heels and glowered at him. Bits of straw poked out of her golden hair, and her small hands rested on her hips. “I’m just about done with you, Jack.” She didn’t mean it for a second.
“Don’t say that, Baby.” He played along. The time had come to do something drastic, and Jack had a plan waiting. “I might just have to leave right now.”
“Where you gonna go?” He heard success in her tone, a trace of fear that would open doors, and laces.
“Off planet.” He picked up a length of straw and bit one end, chewing slowly. “Got enough money to catch a ship.” He had more than enough, enough to have left this hole weeks ago.
“Ha!” Dang, she was stubborn. “Ain’t no cabbies going to the port till this storm settles some.” She bit her lower lip and jiggled her torso at him. “You gonna wait that long, Jack?”
“Nope.” He stood up quick, heard her squeak of surprise. “I figure I’ll just walk.”
“Jack!” She pulled herself up using his trousers for support. Her voice cracked, and her eyes stretched as wide as he’d seen them yet. Perfect. “No, Jack. Don’t go and do something stupid.”
He bristled. Stupid this town had in spades, and he was nothing of the sort. He forced out a sigh and gave her a hanging look. “Not much to stick around for,” he said.
“You’ll be killed.” Her words trembled with concern. “Tumblers’ll get you.”
“Maybe.” Jack picked up his breather and tried not to smile at his victory. He’d take a walk, then. Let her get good and terrified for him. Then he’d circle back and have at least a week of reward for his efforts before the cabs showed up to get him the hell out of here. “Maybe getting killed is better than torture.”
He ignored her protests, gently removed her grabbing hands, and slid into his breather. It was important that he didn’t hesitate, that he made it out the gate, that he disappeared into the dust. Jack figured it would take about five strides. He could squat there, if necessary, give her time to stew before coming back in. He needed her more than concerned. She needed to see him go.
It took six long steps to get out of sight. It took less than six seconds for the dust to build into drifts around his ankles. He kept his face turned to the point where he’d slid through the gate, focused like a compass for his return. He’d give her five minutes.
The dust pelted him from all sides. Every few moments he’d catch a glimpse of a dark shape, of flashing colors as a tumbler drifted past. The slow, bounding roll of the vagrant foliage didn’t scare him. The colors were still a mystery, but static could explain them, some form of stored bio-electricity reacting to the atmosphere. The natives claimed the bushes grew a hundred years before slipping their roots. He ignored them and stared back at the ignorant town. She’d be half-way past panic by now. Three more minutes and he’d be as good as in.
He smiled inside his filter. The hunt may have stretched too long, but he suspected the reward worth the wait. He’d enjoyed a small sample already. More so, his victory would allow him to move on, to shed this planet like an old garment and get back to the business of living.
He’d give her another minute. The dust beat against his goggles, rattling against the plastic and completely obscuring his view. Not that it mattered. He hadn’t so much as flinched from his position. He stared at where the town lay as if he could see it, see her, wailing at the storm.
Colors flashed to his right as a tumbler shuffled past. He didn’t even twitch. The field of grit filling his vision darkened as another one crossed in front. It took its time passing. He squinted, but remained focused. She’d be ready now—a few more seconds.
Another bush followed the first, flashing its own electrical storm within. He frowned. She’d be outright distraught by now.
A shadow tumbled by his shoulder, and he shifted away on reflex. Another bush, nearly touching him this time. He should stand up. He should go and claim his prize.
The bush in front of him stopped tumbling.
He scrunched his brown and willed it away. Nothing. The wind still howled around him, carrying the dust like a grimy, airborne river, but the tumbler sat, unmoving, in the onslaught. It blocked his imaginary view. It flashed a rainbow of swirling light.
He could go around it. He might veer slightly from the gate, but he’d still hit the fence, could pull himself along it if necessary. The tumbler blinked faster, daring him to try it.
It should definitely be moving. No. He shook his head. He should be moving.
He pushed his heels in and tried to stand up. Nothing happened. His knees complained. He’d stiffened up in the unfamiliar crouch. He sighed. He’d have to crawl back. It might be better, would make an even stronger impression.
He tried to lift his foot, but the dust held it steady. Curse it all. The drifts had piled nearly to his knees. He twisted against the weight, but the ground refused to release him. He reached down and pawed at the grit, but more drove in to replace the handfuls he dislodged.
His chest stuttered through the first whiff of panic. Fear was ridiculous. Town lay six paces ahead of him. It lay just past the tumbler, just beyond the lights.
He closed his eyes. The lights hurt him—too bright, too much motion. He pressed his lids tight against the headache and drove his fingers blindly into the drifts. He’d crawl back. That would seal the deal. He just needed to get his feet free. He just needed to get to the space port, to catch a ship to anywhere.
The dust piled around him. It pinned his arms at the wrists. It pulled at his roots. It held him till his struggling ceased.
The old tumbler flared once and then rolled away to join its fellows. In its belly, the Souls of the Wicked churned and celebrated their freedom. They remembered roots. They remembered growing in dust. They flashed, and passed the newest bush without sympathy.
It still twisted against its anchor, still tried to be moving. No matter. The roots would hold. A hundred year sentence pulled along with them.
Fair Weather, with a Chance of Tumbleweeds
The first tumbleweed blew onto Galveston Island on a Monday at the home of Mrs. Abigail Milner, a seventy-six-year-old widow, Garden Club member, phone company retiree and long-time volunteer at First Presbyterian Church. The second tumbleweed arrived on Friday of that same week at Parker Elementary School, and that’s when the trouble started. We just didn’t know it yet.
Tracking down trouble. That’s my job. Heck, it’s probably going to be my legacy. Mike Jones. Big M.J. Private Investigator extraordinaire. Tracker of Tumbleweeds. Just hired by the city/chamber/school district joint task force to find the source of, or remedy, for all this trouble. This job is probably going to kill me. Of course, if anyone survives all this, it’ll make a great movie, and I’ll probably be the hero who dies courageously or ironically or something-ly after saving the world and getting the girl. George Clooney could play me. Ok, maybe more like George Wendt, but George Clooney would make a much better impression on the ladies.
But I digress. Let’s start at the beginning and get you all caught up.
It all began in September. Mrs. Abigail Milner, featured on the front page of the Galveston County Daily News in full color, stood in her yard wearing a straw hat two times as big as her head, a bright green old-lady gardening frock, and dirty green gardening gloves. She held the tumbleweed in front of her with both hands and smiled like a proud grandmother showing off her grandson’s latest grotesque sculpture. The tumbleweed was about a foot in diameter, sort of grey, pretty unremarkable as far as tumbleweeds go. The accompanying article indicated she didn’t know where it had come from, just found it rolling around her daylilies. Holly Von Fairweather, spokesperson from the Greater Island Chamber of Commerce, was quoted as saying something like this discovery would have a significant impact on tourism. Mrs. Abigail Milner must have been delighted to hear tourism in her daylily beds would start picking up.
Bucky Gentry, fourth grader at Parker Elementary School, discovered the second tumbleweed on the playground. According to the report in the Galveston County Daily News (no photo-guess the kid wasn’t as much of a looker as Mrs. Abigail Milner), the tumbleweed was much larger, at least two feet in diameter.
After the first two, the tumbleweeds stopped breezing in one at a time and converged on the city in droves. In hindsight, I think the novelty of that occurrence should have worn off much sooner than it did. But in reality, Holly from the Chamber was right. Over the next four months, the invasion of the tumbleweeds was followed by an onslaught of looky-loos who spent their time and money on the island during the slow fall and winter seasons.
Everyone was seeing green and looking the other way when the tumbleweeds piled up in the alleyways, in front of buildings, and along the seawall. After all, they were not nearly as unseemly as the bums who had previously piled up in those places. Sure, no one would actually say something like that out loud; it’s not politically correct. But no one seemed too concerned about where the vagrants had gone.
Just about everyone embraced the idea of the tumbleweeds and capitalizing on them. The ice cream shop on The Strand developed a tumbleweed sundae, which, surprisingly, didn’t taste like dirt. The trolley lines added tumbleweed stops to their schedules. Carnival Cruise Lines launched an “experience the old west on the Gulf Coast” as one of their ports of call shore excursions. Vendors sold tumbleweed dolls, toys, miniature replicas, postcards, photos, beer koozies—you name it, someone put a tumbleweed on it and sold it.
The scientists and researchers appeared during the onslaught of tourists. In a way, I blame them for not alerting us to the danger sooner. They’re paid to be smart. But not a one of them saw past the fame and power that would be bestowed upon the author of the paper that explained the phenomenon of the tumbleweeds on the island.
No one suspected a thing until this morning when Davey Hickey, chief of police, came into my office with a request.
“Hey Mikey.” He knew I didn’t like that nickname. “I got a real easy job for you this time.”
“What is it?” I said, trying to act casual but knowing I could really use the money since I was one of the few businesses not profiting from the tumbleweed extravaganza.
“I need you to go to Houston and pick up a package from the coroner’s office. And, while you’re there, if you could swing by the Americana Day Spa and let me know if you see my wife’s car there, I would consider it a personal favor. It’s so easy, a monkey could do it.”
“Yeah? Then why don’t you get one of your off-duty officers to do it.” I pretended to protest because that’s the way the game is supposed to be played. They teach you that in PI school, or at least they should.
“Ha. I said a monkey could do it. My off-duty officers aren’t monkeys. Know what I mean?”
He laughed nervously, which I knew was a sign that it wasn’t quite easy enough for a trained monkey, but, like I said, I needed the money. A handshake and a check for $200 later and I was out the door and in my 1997 Chevy Blazer with both outside mirrors attached with JB Weld, a passenger’s window that wouldn’t roll down, and two back seat doors that wouldn’t open no matter what I tried.
I drove out on Broadway, aiming for the causeway, one of the three ways off the island. The ferry and a toll bridge are the only other two ways, but I didn’t even make it onto the causeway. I pulled my SUV to the side of the road to let the trickle of northbound traffic cruise by me. Odd. No southbound traffic. Very odd, even for ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning in January. Normally you could see the top of the bridge from the bottom, but the fog bank that had rolled in was hindering my view. I needed to get a closer look. Reaching around to the backseat I found my camera bag. I grabbed the digital camera, twisted on a telephoto lens and rolled out of the car. Using the camera as a spotting scope, I scanned the lanes, through the foggy mist, and saw it.
Ahead, where the bridge begins to slope upward, sat two black and white island police cruisers, doors open, lights flashing. The cars that had trickled past me had stopped behind the police cars. Everyone had gotten out and was walking, sort of zombie-like, toward a massive wall of tumbleweeds that towered over them. The first ones to reach the wall staggered in and disappeared—just like that movie, “Field of Dreams.” You know, “if you build it they will come.” But apparently this was “if a bunch of tumbleweeds pile up on the bridge, people will wander into them.” Pretty soon, the road was cleared of people, and, I know this sounds crazy, but the tumbleweeds shifted around, almost like they were discussing something. As I stood there, firing off shots with my camera, I got the feeling that the tumbleweeds were watching me. I didn’t need to experience that sensation for long before I knew what to do. I tossed my camera in the passenger’s seat, slid in behind the wheel and got myself out of Dodge. I saw the tumbleweeds in my rearview mirror, flipping and skidding toward me for a minute or two. Then one by one, they rolled back up the bridge.
The chief was surprised when I showed him my photos.
“I knew something was wrong up there, but had no idea what,” he said.
In an ideal world, I would have said something with full-on indignation like “Who do you think you are? Sending me on a suicide mission. I’m not some pawn in your twisted reindeer game.” And, in the movie version, that’s exactly what I’ll say. But what I really said was more like “So, what are you gonna do about it?”
What he did about it was round up all the city players. Before lunch he had Mayor John Anderson, School Superintendent Sam Tate, Fire Chief Hector Armand and Chamber of Commerce Chairman Reginald Hightower assembled in my office.
After the proper amount of glad-handing and politicking, I was offered the unenviable task of investigating these tumbleweeds. I spent the rest of the day on surveillance, rotating between all the entry points on the island and learned that it was pretty much the same everywhere. Tumbleweeds blocking all of the entry points onto the island, and crowds of people wandering into them.
“And that brings me to tonight.” I ran my finger along the rim of the empty glass on the bar in front of me. “Here I am, with all this information, and I don’t have a clue what to do with it.”
“Heck Mike. I don’t know what you should do either,” said Rick, owner-operator of Millie’s Tavern. “Want another one?”
I held up the glass. “Sure, Rick. Fill ‘er up.”
Rick topped me off with my old friend Jack. I downed it and slammed the glass on the bar. “Hit me again.”
Behind me I heard, “Make it two.”
I spun around to see who belonged to that sultry voice and came face to face with Holly Von Fairweather, spokeswoman from the Chamber of Commerce. I’d forgotten how pretty she was, pretty enough to be one of Charlie’s Angels, not Farrah Fawcett or Jaclyn Smith, but that other one, Kate Jackson I think.
“Ms. Von Fairweather, what brings you here tonight?” I hoped I sounded charming.
“The same thing that brings you here tonight, Mr. Jones. Tumbleweeds.”
Rick slid two glasses toward me, the rich brown liquid sloshed onto the bar. “Looks like you two have plenty to talk about, so I’ll leave you be. Call me if you need more.”
He moved to the other end of the bar. Made me believe he wasn’t really interested in knowing “how it was going for me” even though he had asked when he poured my first drink.
Holly leaned in front of me, grabbed one of the glasses, tossed it back, swallowed, and slammed the glass back on the bar in one beautiful, fluid motion. Watching her do that made me like her even more. I tried to respond by doing the same thing, but ended up spilling half my drink down the front of my shirt.
“You will need help.” She settled onto the stool beside me. “Barkeep, another.”
Barkeep? Why is she talking like that?
“I have seen this type of thing before,” she continued.
What was she talking about? She was beginning to lose her appeal.
“Well, not exactly tumbleweeds, but this type of unexplained thing.”
She downed another drink. Then she slid off the stool, walked to the door, stopped, and called over her shoulder to me.
“Will you join me?”
Would I join her? Did I miss the part where we discussed a plan? “Yes.” I slid off my stool and stumbled toward the door. Smooth. No wonder she thought I needed help.
Outside, as we stood on the sidewalk, I breathed in the salty air and she reached over her shoulder and pulled out a two-foot broad sword from a scabbard strapped to her back.
“Die tumbleweeds. Die!” She swung the sword in front of her and dangerously close to me.
I threw my hands up. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, lady.”
If she heard me, she didn’t answer. Her only response was to run down the sidewalk and turn the corner toward the bar’s parking lot.
I reluctantly followed and found her standing beside my SUV, her back to the passenger-side door, a large knapsack at her feet. She held the sword as if she were guarding my ride.
“Take me to the bridge.”
I unlocked the vehicle and got in behind the wheel. I would have opened the door for her, but, honestly, she was starting to scare me.
She sat quietly with the sword on her lap as we drove to the bridge. I decided it was in my best interest to keep my trap shut as I drove. Didn’t really want to get impaled if she got excited again.
I drove to the causeway and parked midway up, several yards below the last bunch of cars with their lights on and doors open. I wondered how long a car’s lights would stay on and an engine would stay running before it ran out of gas and battery juice. If I had an ounce of mechanical know how, I might have had a better idea of how long those cars had been there.
I don’t think Holly cared how long the cars had been there. She flung the door open and hit the ground running. Screaming, she ran full speed up the bridge, toward the tumbleweeds.
Lord knows I didn’t want to, but I ran after her. Stumbling, falling, scraping my hands and knees on the pavement, I finally made it to the wall of tumbleweeds. It looked even bigger up close, and something, I’m not sure what, made me want to get just a little closer, maybe even close enough to touch it.
My arm was extended in front of me, fingers reaching toward the wall when Holly’s cries startled me out of my daze.
“Die, tumbleweeds! Die!”
I yanked my hand back and turned to face her. She hacked at the pile of tumbleweeds, slicing them into pieces. Watching her made me wish I had a sword or a stick or something.
I looked around for anything I could use as a weapon and found a shot gun in one of the police cruisers. I figured out how to release it from its state-of-the-art safety carrying contraption and pumped it once. I felt very cowboy until I realized it would never work.
Holly was slashing at the pile, but the pile wasn’t receding. No, it was growing. Instead of killing a tumbleweed when she hacked it in half, she created two new ones.
“Stop,” I yelled. “You’re making it worse.”
She kept flailing at the tumbleweeds.
I fired a shot into the pile as I ran toward her. The tumbleweeds shifted, but didn’t recoil to the shotgun blast. I didn’t think they would, it was more for Holly’s benefit. But she just kept fighting.
Exhibiting strength and skill that surprised me, and that will look fantastic in the movie version, I wrapped my arm around her waist and lifted her off the ground. I ran past the first cars before stopping, dropping the shot gun and easing her to the ground. I moved my hands to hold her shoulders. She still clung to the sword, but tears poured down her cheeks.
“It didn’t work,” she sobbed. “It always works.”
I couldn’t imagine what the right thing to say was, so I punted. “We’ll try something else. Come on, let’s go.”
I slid one hand to her back and reached for her sword with the other. Maybe it was time she put that thing down. However, as soon as I touched it, she turned off the waterworks and spun around, the tip of the blade just under my chin.
“Touch my sword again and it will be the last thing you touch. That I promise you.”
“Ok.” Kate Jackson pretty did not make up for this kind of crazy. I immediately started trying to formulate a plan to extract myself from her company.
“Come Mr. Jones, you will take me back to the tavern. We will give this further consideration over more whiskey.” She headed down the causeway.
“Yeah, about that, Miss Von Fairweather. I think we’d be better off going different directions here. We can cover more ground.”
“No, it is best if we remain together.”
She turned and walked back up the causeway, sheathing the sword as she moved. When she was right in front of me, she grabbed both sides of my head and pulled me down into a kiss. That was all it took. Kate Jackson kissing me would trump crazy any day.
“Now, come with me.” The sword was in her hand again as she walked down the bridge.
I obediently followed.
She stared out the window as we headed back toward the bar.
“What’s going on here? Who are you? Where are you from? What’s up with that sword?”
She answered without turning to face me. “We can just say I am not from here.”
“Yeah, I could have guessed that.”
“It is complicated. I had hoped to be rid of all this, but they keep finding me.”
“Tumbleweeds keep finding you?” The kiss was wearing off, and I considered pulling over and letting her out on the side of the road.
“No, not tumbleweeds exactly. Wandering weeds.”
“What are you talking about?” Seriously, she needed to kiss me again. Crazy was creeping back into the equation fast.
“It is an ancient curse, passed down from my great-great grandmother. But this time I thought I had finally escaped them. I need to find a way off this island.”
I shifted into park.
“How would that help?”
“Eventually, they will lose interest in you and leave.”
“Perfect, let’s grab a chopper from the hospital or flight museum and fly you and me both to Houston.”
She looked at me, then down at the sword in her lap. “No. Yes. Help me get off this island. You will all be safe. They will manifest as something else, somewhere else, and I will fight them there.”
Oh geesh. She was haunted. Or at least thought she was haunted, by tumbleweeds. Crazy reared its ugly head big time now.
“Or we could figure out a way to kill them right here, right now. Would that end your curse?” Was I buying her story? No, getting her off the island wouldn’t do us any good. The tumbleweeds would still be here. Of course, she and I could just escape. She was nutty as a fruitcake, but it had been a long time since a pretty girl kissed me. And I was betting if I rescued her, she might just kiss me again.
“Really?” She sniffed and a snot bubble popped in her left nostril. She wiped it with the back of her hand then leaned across the console and kissed me on the cheek. “Oh thank you.”
“What about fire?” I asked.
“What about it?”
“Do you think we could use fire as a weapon against them?”
Maybe was good enough for me. Hacking at them with a sword didn’t work, shooting them didn’t work, fire was certainly worth a shot.
“Now, where do we get torches?” I wondered aloud.
“I can take care of that.” She flung the door open, leapt from her seat, and was two feet into the brush before I could say anything.
A few minutes later she returned with three torches. I have no idea where she got the oily rags wrapped around the ends of them or the lighter she kept flicking. I didn’t ask.
She slid into the car. “Drive us back to the tumbleweeds.”
At the top of the bridge, we stood behind the police cruisers, facing the wall of tumbleweeds. She lit all three torches, handed me one, and then launched the two remaining into the pile. I threw mine as hard as I could toward the top. Then we waited. The torches disappeared into the wall, which began to smoke. I reached over to hold her hand, in celebration. But the victory was premature.
The wall spit out a flaming tumbleweed. It landed on the hood of the car behind us. Then another exploded from the pile. And another.
“Oh no.” I pushed Holly into a nearby police cruiser, climbed in and pulled the door closed. Flaming tumbleweeds rained down all around us.
“What are we going to do?” she asked.
“Let me think for a minute. We need something to put out these fires.”
I had no idea what to do, and instead of killing the tumbleweeds we had armed them.
“What about this?” She held up a fire extinguisher.
I looked around the car and found a second fire extinguisher. “Man, this cop was prepared.”
She smiled at me. Pretty beat crazy again, and we both got out of the car, fire extinguishers in hand.
“Let’s go.” I pressed the trigger and coated the tumbleweed closest to me. It shook and howled, as if in pain. I stood, mesmerized, just watching it.
“Come on.” Holly was already halfway down the causeway. I shook my head and kicked at the foam-covered tumbleweed which promptly latched onto my foot.
“Miss Von Fairweather! Help me!” I saw her standing in front of the SUV. The fire extinguisher was at her feet and she read aloud from a little notebook I assumed she had in her pocket. Crazy again.
I returned my attention to the tumbleweed on my foot and felt something wet on the back of my neck. I looked up. Rain. Within minutes, the flames were extinguished, and Holly was at my side.
“Brilliant,” she said, “you caught one. We will bring it with us. I have an idea, but we should test it first.”
“Bring it with us? It’s trying to eat me.” I held up my foot as high as I could without tipping over backward.
“No, it is not trying to eat you.” She smiled as if I had just said something ridiculous. “I’ll drive.”
She positioned her shoulder under my arm to act as a crutch so I could hop down the causeway to my car.
“Did you have anything to do with that rain?”
Witchcraft? I decided I didn’t want to discuss that further and hopped to the passenger side of my SUV. She opened the door, grabbed the knapsack, tossed it into the back seat and helped me in.
She slid behind the wheel and adjusted the seat since she was about a foot shorter than me. She turned to face me, smiled, then leaned over and gave me a quick kiss on the lips. Pretty again. Then drove straight to an all-night diner.
I couldn’t go anywhere even if I wanted to because the tumbleweed she said wasn’t trying to eat me had grown from just surrounding my foot to covering my leg up to my thigh. But she was out of the car running toward the restaurant before I had a chance to say a word.
Returning with a coffee pot full of bubbling water, she opened my door and dumped the water on the tumbleweed.
I screamed in pain, possibly like a little girl.
“What?” I looked at my foot. The tumbleweed shriveled. It shouldn’t have worked that fast or maybe at all. But I wasn’t about to complain.
“It worked.” she said louder, then poured more of the water up the length of my leg. The rest of the tumbleweed fell to the floorboard.
It burned like crazy, but I just gritted my teeth. I wasn’t about to let out another one of those girly screams.
“Where can we get enough water for the causeway?” she asked.
“Fire truck,” I repeated. “You could move a lot of water in a fire truck. But it won’t be boiling.”
“It will be boiling by the time we get there. Do you know how to drive and operate a fire truck?”
“Of course.” I didn’t. But how hard could it be?
“Then we will go.”
Now comes the part I’m not particularly proud of. We broke into a fire department substation and stole a fire truck. I was amazed at how easy it was. The keys were in the truck and the big garage doors are designed to break away in case of an emergency. Holly squealed as we burst through the doors and lurched onto the roadway. Thankfully it was still a few hours before sunrise, and the roads were mostly free of traffic. Holly quickly researched how to operate the pumping system on her iPhone as we drove. I have a feeling she knew I didn’t know how to work the thing, probably from the look on my face when I saw all those levers on the back of the truck.
“It says here we can use the water cannon on top instead of the hoses. That should be easier. We will just need to figure out which control feeds the deluge gun.”
I hoped she would yell out some instructions when we got there. It was all I could do to keep the truck in the road. No way I could pay attention to what she was saying and drive. She dropped her phone on her lap, fished a large book out of the knapsack and read aloud. I didn’t understand the words, and I didn’t ask.
One cool thing I learned about fire trucks—they are incredibly tough. We barreled our way up the causeway, pushing cars out of our path. Of course, in the movie version, they will all flip over and explode. It’s more exciting that way.
When we reached the police cars, I turned the wheel hard and the truck slid sideways into the cruisers. We jumped out, and I climbed onto the back and made my way to the water cannon. Holly found the control panel and started shoving the levers up and down.
Finally she said, “Try it now.”
I aimed the gun at the wall of tumbleweeds and cranked the wheel. It took all my strength to hold the nozzle in place and to withstand the searing heat of the water passing through the barrel. Had I had any training, I would have found the handle sooner and wouldn’t have had to fight the cannon so long.
Boiling water poured onto the wall of tumbleweeds, and they began to fall apart. Their organizational structure seemed to collapse and the wall crumpled into sticks that littered the bridge and fell into the Gulf below.
“Point it on the southbound side,” Holly yelled.
With a lot of luck and a lot more Internet research, we managed to refill the tank at a fire hydrant and repeat this process at the other two entry points to the island before returning the fire truck to the parking lot beside the station. We drove back to the bar, but neither one of us spoke until I pulled into the lot, empty except for her car.
“How did you—”
“As I said, it is complicated. But fortunately for me, the ancient curse comes with some pretty powerful weapons.”
“Umm, like magic?”
She smiled slyly and opened the door.
She stepped out of my SUV and walked toward her car. I followed.
I caught up with her just as she turned the key in her lock. “Wait, it can’t just end here.”
“No, it does not end here.” She leaned toward me. “It begins here. Let us both go home and get some rest. Then you will pick me up for dinner around eight this evening. My address is in the phone book.”
I caught her by the back of her neck and pulled her in for a long, hard kiss. She didn’t seem to mind.
“What about the curse?” I asked. “Is it over?”
“For now,” she whispered, and kissed me one more time before getting into her car and driving away.
Outstanding. I saved the day and got the girl. I couldn’t have scripted it better myself. Well, maybe I could have. In the movie version, I’ll know how to drive a fire truck.
The Tumbleweed Woman
V. Hynes Johnston
She lay crumpled on the ground—hurt, frightened, knowing she probably would not live the night—and thought this might be a blessing.
Things in the open had a way of dying when night fell, and it didn’t look like an easy death. People and animals alive and well were found the next day, dry and desiccated. She thought of the poor cat discovered outside the fence line a few months back. He’d been such a sweet thing, one day purring and rubbing against her ankles, the next day looking like he had been left to bake in the sun for weeks.
Some said there were those who could travel the night and live. She knew she wasn’t one of them, and a rumor wouldn’t save her now. If you were smart, you locked up your livestock behind fences and not fences with big gaping holes. Otherwise, you might come out to find your livestock or what was left of them, jerked out. You locked yourself and your loved ones behind four walls. The girl thought of this as she lay on the ground in front of her home. Nothing stood between her and the coming nightfall.
He’d thrown her out the front door as the sun began to slip behind the hills. Angered and drunk, he said something about the soup not being hot enough. Mostly, he didn’t need an excuse when he’d been drinking, which was more often than not. Pain swamped her and her head spun as she remembered how he’d first expressed his affection for her with his fists before the slamming of the door and the bolt being thrown home sealed her fate. She would die, but found the thought oddly welcome.
A hard life attracted hard men. Some of them brought wives and families. Others bought their wives at card games. The gold men sought during the day in the cracks and crevices of the earth sometimes didn’t yield enough to feed a family. However, the dreams of men die hard, and maybe their luck at the tables of chance would turn tomorrow. The land, dry and beautiful, haunted or cursed depending on who you talked to, all agreed it seeped deep into your soul, and you just couldn’t leave. Some tried, but all roads led back here. They came for the yellow rock and stayed because they couldn’t leave. In the end, they learned water, not gold, measured a person’s wealth. Newcomers didn’t know that, not in the beginning.
A year ago, her whole life had changed Sixteen and pretty in the way being young makes any girl pretty, she’d been the only item of value her father had when he bet against a pot of coin that would have kept them eating through the next six months. He was sure of his cards or so he thought. Charity tried to raise herself up, stopped, catching her breath. She struggled to breathe, gasping short shallow breaths. Think, she told herself, if you can’t stand, crawl.
Her Da hadn’t counted on the questionable card practices of the brute his daughter now called husband. Clive Barlow didn’t depend on the capricious nature of lady luck when he saw something he wanted. She was married at noon to Clive Barlow in the way of this harsh place. Some symbols of propriety were still in place, though marriage made a woman property the way nothing else would.
Now, Clive had sentenced her to death unless she could get somewhere safe and claim nightfall rights. She knew she’d die without shelter and there was none close by. He would claim she was too stupid to know when to come in, or claim he’d been drinking and thought she was safe inside when he threw the bolt on the door. No one would question him. In truth, Clive was tired of her, and Clive had strong opinions about things and wasn’t afraid to use his fists to convince others of the veracity of his opinions. Last month she’d planted a few flowers in a small garden by the side of the house. She used water from the well on the flowers and on some of the small tumbleweed sproutlings that had taken root next to the tiny garden plot. Clive had demanded an explanation for what he clearly saw as an extravagance. Everything should have a chance to grow, she’d responded.
Clive disagreed. It took her two days to recover.
The sun, just now beginning its slow slide behind the edge of the hills, took her hopes with it. Night was coming fast. She crawled to the road. She could go left to town, or right to the house where the tumbleweed woman lived. She could demand nightfall rights there. Rumors circled the woman, much as the weeds that always seemed to gather at the perimeter of her home. She had the healing gift. Many had reason to be thankful for her skill.
If she had a different name, few if any knew it.. Some said she could travel at night without harm. Some said she could call water. Despair took the girl as she lay in the dust of the road—she would never get to the town in time. Charity turned her head to the tumbleweed house where she saw the golden eyes of a huge black dog. A moment of panic overwhelmed Charity before she recognized the massive animal. He belonged to the tumbleweed woman. He nudged her arm as if to say get up. He hooked his massive head under her shoulder and gently took her hand in his mouth, trying to support her weight. She whimpered from the pain. He stood rock still until she reached what passed for upright in her current condition. They edged in the direction of the Tumbleweed house. Charity didn’t argue with the dog’s decision, didn’t think they would make it before the sun disappeared. It took all her effort to put one foot in front of the other. She leaned heavily upon her escort. A slight wind blew. She heard a faint rustling growing louder in the breeze. The big dog growled, a low rumbling sound, as night took over the duties from the sun. They were only half way to the tumbleweed house. Through the blinding pain, she heard a song, soft and gentle. It wove in and out of the breeze. It flowed like water around her and the big dog. She noticed tumbleweeds moved by the wind and the song along new paths The girl, concentrating so hard on each separate moment, hadn’t realized they’d reached the gate.
The tumbleweed woman stood on the other side, the music was hers, as if she were singing the wind. It made Charity think of water and growing things. The gentle wind buffeted outward from the three of them until they were safely within the boundaries of the garden and the gate closed against the dark. The tumbleweed woman turned and the light from the house illuminated the growing dark. The girl had never seen the Tumbleweed woman up close before. She noted the slight build, above average height. She thought the woman’s eyes kind.
The woman and the dog looked at each other for one long moment and then as if she agreed, the woman turned and said, “Come child, you need help.” The woman moved to Charity’s other side and helped support her up the steps of the porch and into the front room of the house.
The girl looked around the simple room with the smooth plank floors and the woven rugs. A large fireplace covered one end of the room. Two chairs with a table separating them faced the fire. Shelves loaded with books, more books then Charity had ever seen, surrounded a desk and a simple stool. She loved books, had owned one once. It had belonged to her mother. A spinning wheel sat in front of one of the chairs, and the woman steered the girl to the other one. Odd there should be two, as if more than one person lived here. The girl couldn’t remember ever hearing that the tumbleweed woman lived with anyone except the big dog.
Perhaps the woman was one of the widows, the rare and lucky ones whose husband had died and given them the gift of peace and freedom. A man’s widow inherited all he had. It could make her independent, free. Often there wasn’t enough to do more than subsist. Not all the games of chance took place at the card tables or in the search for the yellow stuff. Men had a way of dying because they got careless, misjudged the setting of the sun. More than one woman had tried to increase her fortunes in the oldest game of all. However, no one had ever seen the tumbleweed woman with a man.
“Sit here,” she commanded the young girl, then gave the dog an amused smile. “Perhaps you’d like to lie in front of the fire. I think it might be a long night.” The dog snorted and sat. The woman turned back to the girl. “I need to know how badly you are hurt. I can help if you will let me.”
With worn hands, she gently cupped Charity’s cheek, touching the battered face. She wore a plain white blouse and green skirt, and around her neck hung a silver chain with a large green jewel that matched the color of her skirt. Charity thought she saw a light flicker and pulse in the depths of the jewel. It must have been another trick of the light or her own dizziness. What else could explain why she thought she’d seen the woman’s eyes glow, just for an instant, like an animal’s? The woman lowered her gaze as if reading the girls thoughts. Surely Charity’s mind was playing tricks on her. When she looked at the woman now she only saw understanding and patience reflected in the gold colored eyes.
The woman asked, “Will you let me help you?”
The girl responded to the only kindness she’d been offered in the last year by starting to cry. “Yes, please.”
“Then let us see what can be done.”
The woman tended to the girl’s physical injuries, but Charity’s fear of her brutish husband was an injury in need of special treatment. The big dog politely turned his back to the proceedings, occasionally thumping his tail in agreement on some point of treatment or suggestion made by the Tumbleweed woman.
She handed a tin cup to Charity. “I want you to drink this. It will help relieve the pain and cause you no harm. You are safe here and tomorrow’s another day.”
The girl looked at the woman with despair. “He is my husband and by rights can do anything he wishes. Only the widows are free. I’ll have to go back.”
The woman gently touched the swollen cheek that still bore the marks of too much husbandly attention. “Hush. Many things can happen between one moment and the next. Don’t despair. Rest.”
The warmth of the drink spread through her limbs. It made her very sleepy, and the pain slipped away as her muscles unknotted. For the first time in a long time, she felt safe. She relaxed deeper into the cushioned chair. The woman adjusted the pillow behind her head, tucking in the edges of the blanket draped over her.
The girl sank deeper into that twilight state, drifting into the place where dreams and reality become tangled. She thought she heard the woman’s voice from a great distance say, “Sleep child. All will be well. I promise.” She thought she dreamt of a song weaving in, out and around her. It was the oddest thing, but she dreamt of a man standing next to the woman, a big man with black hair and golden eyes. Before oblivion claimed her completely, she thought she heard the sound of the front door opening and closing.
The sun rose the next morning, spilling light onto the pale plank floors. The girl stirred and the dog thumped his tail in greeting, letting out a soft woof. The massive animal got up and walked over to the table. He looked over his shoulder at the girl and then at the food and empty place setting. He once again looked at the girl and then back at the food. Charity moved toward the table, surprised by the lack of pain. The dog wagged his approval. Food prepared by someone else was always a welcome gift. The dog turned, moved to the door, nosed it open and joined the woman standing on the porch.
The dog followed the direction of the woman’s gaze. Old Jeremiah stood at the gate to the garden. Old Jeremiah, too old for the hard work of wresting the golden rock the land guarded so jealousy, worked other claims now. He had a small house at the other end of the town and always seemed to have enough gold to meet his needs. Rumor said his place had water, a rich man in his way. His woman had died more than a decade ago. He had loved her and they’d been happy. Graced with three daughters, he found a new appreciation for the difficulties of young women.
Now he spent his days taking an interest in the town he lived in. He wasn’t standing by the gate of the tumbleweed woman by accident. Old Jeremiah saw more than many realized, knew more, and that made many uncomfortable. He and the tumbleweed woman had an understanding.
“Good morning, Ma’am.”
“Good morning, Jeremiah. Are you well this morning?”
“Yep, thank you for asking. That stuff you gave me sure does make my old bones feel better, but some aren’t so good this morning, Clive Barlow’s dead.”
“Really?” the woman responded, part exclamation and part inquiry.
“Odd too. Only a fool would leave his gate and door open like that, found him all spread out on the floor, dried out something bad. Funny thing, his stock seems to be okay. Not a single dead critter.”
The woman waited patiently. Clive had a reputation, and men that drank too much often did foolish things, like hitting their wives.
Old Jeremiah gazed along the fence. He noted how few tumbleweeds seemed to be there this morning, and how many seemed to have found their way to Clive Barlow’s house. Sometimes the yellow dust made a man forget the better part of his self. Sometimes a man was so far gone from his self there was no better part left to find.
“Folks are worried about the young Missus Barlow.” His eyes looked directly into the tumbleweed woman’s.
She met his gaze. “The widow Barlow is within. She took a bad spill and came to me for care just before dark. I offered her Nightfall rights.”
Amusement glinted in Old Jeremiah’s rheumy blue eyes. “She is plumb lucky that ole Clive sent her to you for care. Otherwise there might have been two tragedies.” Jeremiah’s eyes looked over the lush, watered garden within the confines of the woman’s fence. “She will get the house and everything else. The widow Gentry said she would look after the Missus Barlow, make sure she was taken care of. I can look in on her from time to time, sort of keep an eye on her, and make sure she comes to no harm. I think old Clive has gone and left enough that she won’t need to worry none.”
The big dog thumped his tail.
Old Jeremiah’s gaze drifted to his feet. Next to the gate was a very new, very small, young sproutling—not yet a tumbleweed. Still anchored to the ground and green with a reddish tinge around the edges of its leaves and in the stems, it drew strength from the soil and a recent influx of moisture. Small sproutlings had a way of starting here, and it hadn’t been here yesterday. Old Jeremiah knew that. He nodded to the tumbleweed woman and tipped his hat to the large tumbleweed that stood guard over the tiny sproutling. It trembled in acknowledgment.
Old Jeremiah turned back towards town, and chuckled. Yep, it was a hard land, but things had a funny way of working out for the best.
Armina pulled the brim of her well worn hat lower, trying to block out the second sun’s light. She scanned the horizon along the cliffs, checking for signs of trouble. She smiled as she thought about her new position, Head Guardner. She’d risen through the ranks faster than even she expected. Though she’d always known that one day she would hold this position, she hadn’t expected to take over so soon. She knew the land, the job, and the signs of the sky better than anyone in Thunder Canyon. Her people’s lives depended on her and the few others like her. The Guardners knew the canyon, but she took it even farther, trying to learn everything about the world around her, especially the signs of the sky. The sky held the secrets to the rippers’ arrival.
Staring out along the valley’s edge, Armina watched the sky begin to darken for the first time in days. Tonight, before the rising of the first sun, the storm would hit. By the looks of it, it would be some storm, which meant she and the others could expect more than the normal amount of trouble. The weeds always came out after a storm.
The planet supported a variety of life forms, most of which posed no threat to the small pockets of humanoids trying to eke out an existence there. Then there were the weeds, the Rippers. No one quite knew if they’d originally mutated from plant life or some sort of animal. Either way the weeds meant trouble for her people, and Armina had sworn an oath to do everything she could to protect them.
Her mount chattered nervously. His large front teeth clicked in protest at being so out in the open. He twitched his bushy tail back and forth, growing more impatient. She knew he could sense the coming weather too. She reached down, patted his soft fur, and tried to calm the fuzzy beast before they ventured further along the cliff edge.
She saw the glow of the Rippers in the distance—more then she’d expected. All along the edge of the valley the vivid blues and greens lit up the night. Their strange glow, hypnotic and enchanting, had drawn more than one person to their death.
Armina knew better than to be fooled by the illusion of beauty the creatures created. Once her people wanted to try and use the gas within the rippers for their own needs, but all who tried ended up desiccated, empty shells drained dry by the Rippers. Not a pleasant way to go if the grimaces left behind were any indication.
The rippers rolled in on the winds and swallowed any living thing unfortunate enough to cross their path. They always came in packs, swarming quickly and leaving just as fast.
Armina felt a chill run down her spine in spite of the heat that still hung in the night air. She knew the risks that came with her job, but the thought of dying like that left her cold. She shook her head, clearing her thoughts of anything but the task at hand.
“You ready for this?” She glanced to her right where the rest of the Guardners awaited her command.
Each one in turn nodded, signaling their readiness for the battle ahead. Twelve men and two women sat their mounts, the furry creatures’ tails twitching in anticipation. The Trats meant more to the Guardners then a mere ride. More than once Gideon had saved Armina’s life. Fuzzy but deadly, Armina liked to call them, with their long fur and, more importantly, their sharp, long teeth and claws.
“Team One make sure you keep watch along the southern ridge. I don’t want any of those things coming up behind us. Team Two keep a look out for any other of the local hostiles. All the noise might draw them in, and the last thing we need is a bunch of Needlers sneaking up on us. May I see all of you at the rise of second sun. Good luck, let’s ride.” She gave Gideon a quick kick and began her descent down the cliff face.
In the darkness she saw the glowing swarm of rippers below them. Her adrenaline surged, the rush of the battle sharpening her senses. She felt the steady rhythm of Gideon’s feet as they bounded onto the valley floor. She steadied her breath and focused her mind on aiming her blaster.
Team two broke off to the left as they hit the edge of the depression. They would take care of the southern border. Team one continued on beside her with Old Jack leading the pack. He had seen more of these battles than anyone else, but he’d never wanted to be the Head Guardner. He lived for the fight not the responsibility that came with leading.
At the valley’s edge they engaged the enemy in a fury of spine and claws, flames shooting out across the desert from blasters. Armina smiled as she watched the ripper in front of her explode and burn, excitement rising at her kill. The other riders were only shadows in the darkness as they fought all around her.
The darkness filled with the sounds of the battle—the voices and screams of the Guardners, the chitter of the Trats and the booms of the rippers bursting apart. Sweat poured down Armina’s back as she moved ever forward, blasting everything in her path. Smoke filled the air and burned her lungs. Blood oozed from the cuts that covered her body. Her arms burned from the weight of her blaster. She knew she couldn’t stop until every last one of those things blazed.
She took aim at the largest glowing sphere, pulled the trigger, and nothing. Cursing under her breath she tried again, still nothing. A steady stream of profanity left her mouth as she glanced around, hoping someone would be close enough to help her. That’s when she saw the needlers. At least two dozen of them skirted along the edge of the valley, their silhouettes unmistakable. Tall, lean and covered in the toxic barbs they shot at their victims, the needlers were almost as bad as the rippers.
“Watch out! We have needlers!”
Giving her mount a hard kick, she shot off across the valley, hoping to find a new weapon and to warn the others. She fought the surge of panic as Gideon accelerated, darting through the remains of fallen rippers and the pockets of the still live ones. She spotted old Jack fighting alongside one of the other female riders, and let out a sigh of relief that at least two of her fellow Guardners still held on.
Without warning a searing pain shot through Armina’s whole body. The air left her lungs and her vision blurred. She tried to yell for help, but her throat felt like she’d swallowed fire. She knew if she could just reach Jack he could help her, but her body began to thrash and convulse. Then all went quiet.
The soft red glow of the second sun peaked over the horizon, its warmth spread across her skin as she regained consciousness. Her body ached and her head throbbed as if someone had hit her with a rock. She tried to raise herself from the sand but the intense pain forced her back to the ground.
She turned her head as much as she could, trying to get her bearings, but she could only see a few feet of desert sand. The morning was eerily silent. Not even the normal sounds of the valley hit her ears.
Panic rose, her thoughts racing to find an explanation for the silence. Surely the others couldn’t be far. They’d find her at any moment. She just had to wait and hope the healers could help her. But as the hours wore on she feared that no one would come.
The sun rose higher and beat down on her torn body. Still she waited and listened for the others, trying again and again to rise. The pain kept her trapped in the sand. She managed to pull out a few of the toxic barbs embedded in her flesh but could do little else. Armina struggled onto her hands and knees. She knew she couldn’t walk, but she’d do her best to crawl toward the cliffs. Inch by inch she dragged herself through the hot sand, hoping to find the others before the suns’ rays baked her or the weeds found her. Hours passed and she saw nothing but a sea of endless sand. Sweat dripped from her body, her muscles burned, but she pushed herself on.
The valley floor sloped upwards, leading to a large dune. If she could just get to the top, the others would have a better chance of seeing her.
Gathering the last of her strength, Armina made one final push to reach the top of the dune. Her tired muscles gave out. She fell face first into the sand, managing to roll to her side as she closed her eyes and took in a long deep breath. Her muscles ached and her lungs burned.
She took a few moments to rest, the sun beating down on her broken body. She gathered her strength and pushed herself to a sitting position. The world in front of her held nothing but death and desert. The remains of her fellow Guardners lay broken and still below her. Right in the middle of a soot filled patch lay Old Jack. His useless hand still clutched his weapon.
Now, Armina knew she would die under the heat of the new sun. She closed her eyes, fighting back the tears. Her last thought repeated itself in her head. She’d failed. They’d believed in her and she’d failed.
If the meteor had hit a hundred feet north, in Sam Jackson’s yard, or a hundred feet south, on Bob Cole’s property, things might have been different. Extreme doses of weed killer applied early enough would probably have stopped things—literally nipped them in the bud—at least, that’s what most of the scientists said. But the meteor landed in Pete Brady’s back yard.
Sam and Bob both spent inordinate amounts of time during the spring and summer tending their lawns. If there had been such a thing as a Nobel Prize for Lawns, they would have been in the running. Any weeds that dared show their heads were promptly troweled up, or zapped with weed killer. The lawns were mowed diagonally, northeast to southwest one week, and southeast to northwest the other. The mowers had bags on them of course, and after the weekly mowing the trash men had to pick up a dozen plastic bags of grass from each yard. Sam and Bob were proud of their lawns. They were totally ashamed to be seen living next to Pete Brady.
Pete Brady mowed his lawn every two weeks—well, sometimes it went three, if it rained or something, or if he was busy doing something else and couldn’t find the time. He mowed the grass, and he mowed the clover, and he mowed the dandelions, and he mowed everything that got in his way. He mowed around in a circle, and he didn’t have a bag on the mower, so the cuttings went all over the place. Pete didn’t much care, to him mowing the lawn was a disagreeable chore to be completed as fast as possible. So when some strange new weeds began to appear in the middle of his backyard, he just mowed them down.
This worked the first couple of times, anyway, but of course it spread the weeds over ever wider parts of Pete’s lawn. And then in August, it rained every weekend, and Pete was getting home late most nights because he was working overtime. From the end of July, the lawn didn’t get cut until the Labor Day weekend. When he finally got to it, Pete of course started mowing from the outside in as he always did, and the grass was so tall that the mower kept stalling just on the ordinary stuff.
When he got in to where the new weeds were, though, the mower simply wouldn’t cut at all. A month of growing with lots of rain had allowed them to mature and toughen to the point where Pete’s mower was totally ineffective. He took the blade down the basement and sharpened it, but even then the little 2.5 horsepower motor on his hand-propelled rotary just stalled.
After a while Pete gave up and went over to Bob Cole’s house to ask for some help. Bob had a big lawn tractor with a twenty horsepower engine, and he had special chrome steel blades that he kept at razor sharpness. Always glad of a chance to show off his toy, he agreed to come over, and shortly thereafter drove his tractor around the end of the fence and headed for the weed patch.
“Ole Babe here’ll take care of your problem, Pete,” he yelled. He engaged the blade and headed for the weeds at top third-gear speed. He hit the patch and Ole Babe promptly stalled. “Sonuvagun, Pete, you do have some tough weeds, don’t you?”
He disengaged the blade, started the engine, and backed up a bit. Then he put the machine in first gear and inched in toward the weeds, foot poised ready over the clutch pedal. As the blade hit them, the engine lost speed and Bob hit the clutch. Not soon enough, though, the engine stalled again. He repeated this cycle several times, and finally backed away and turned off the tractor.
He walked over and inspected the plants, shaking his head in amazement at the lack of cut marks. Then he got down on his knees and peered underneath the machine and gave a long, low whistle.
“Something wrong, Bob?” asked Pete, who was now feeling less upset at the failure of his little mower to penetrate the weed patch.
“Darn blade is all chewed up. Chrome steel blade, and I just sharpened it, too. Looks like I was trying to mow a rock garden.”
“Gee, I’m sorry. I guess that’s my fault. I’ll buy you a new one.”
“No, you couldn’t expect this. I didn’t. But I got one more ace in the hole. Just wait.” He ran around the end of the fence into his own yard. Five minutes later he was back carrying a new blade. “Latest thing on the market. Has a tungsten silicide monofilament edge, whatever the heck that is. Gotta install it with the wrapper on, otherwise they say it’ll cut your hand off.”
Pete looked on as Bob quickly dismounted the old blade and handed it to him. Even someone as unused to lawnmowers as Pete was could see that the old one had been through the wars. Bob mounted the new blade just as quickly, then mounted Ole Babe and started her. He engaged the blade and inched the mower forward.
This time, as the blade hit the weeds, there was a terrible noise, like fingernails on a blackboard, only worse. Bob hit the clutch and Ole Babe stopped her forward progress. The sound faded into silence. He backed the mower away and went over to inspect. A few weeds around the edge had been cut and were oozing a reddish fluid, but most of the plants showed no effects at all.
Again Bob looked under the mower, and this time he cussed violently. Then, without another coherent word, he remounted Ole Babe and drove her at top speed around the end of the fence to his own yard. Pete shook his head, looked back and forth from the weeds to his little mower, then put the machine away. Then he got a beer and plopped down in the hammock to mull things over.
The weeds spread rapidly after that. There was a trail of them leading over into Bob Cole’s yard, following exactly the path where Bob had driven the tractor back home. Bob got a new super-blade and started mowing that area every day, and for a while that worked. But as soon as he mowed the rest of his yard, the weeds spread everywhere. There just wasn’t time, even for a lawn fanatic like Bob, to mow the entire yard every day, and soon the weeds got the upper hand.
But they had a good head start in Pete’s yard. It wasn’t long before they had gotten all the way across the yard and were right up against the foundation of the house. One night Pete and his family were wakened by what they thought was an earthquake. The 911 dispatcher had heard nothing of any earthquake threat, but sent over a police car and a fire truck. Close examination showed that tendrils of the weeds were forcing their way into the foundation of the house, into the mortar between the cinderblocks. In some places they were even crumbling the blocks. As the foundation disintegrated the rest of the house settled, causing instability and the shaking the Bradys had felt.
When they saw what was happening, the family grabbed their clothes and headed for a motel. The next day Pete rented a truck and with the help of a few friends got as much as possible out of the house. Two days later the entire house collapsed.
Bob Coles’ house was the next to go, a week and a half later, and Sam Jackson’s house held out for two weeks after that. By that time, the weeds were visible on every lawn on the block. All the families living there were making moving plans, and the insurance companies were besieged by claims.
Mayor Terhune of Bradford sat in his office with a worried look on his face. Addressing Chief of Police Wickham, he asked, “What are your men doing about this problem?”
“Us?” replied Chief Wickham. “We’re cops, not lawn mowers or landscapers. We give out traffic tickets. We shoot crooks. We’re not equipped to do anything about weeds that tear down houses.”
“Well, then, who is? Who can we call?”
“One of my men had a suggestion, Mr. Mayor. His brother-in-law is in the National Guard, and told him they have flame-throwers that’ll burn almost anything. Get some of them in here.”
“Sounds good to me, Chief. I guess I’ll have to call the Governor, get him to mobilize some Guard troops for us.”
The initial contingent of Guardsmen, almost one hundred strong, deployed around the perimeter of the infected area. Their orders were to burn out a twenty foot wide strip all the way around the area, providing containment of the weeds, before moving inward.
PFC Pete Hayes stood about ten feet from the nearest weeds as he ran through a checkout of his flame-thrower, then hit the ignition button. The flame scorched all the ordinary vegetation in front of him, then he moved in toward the weeds. Even as the flames got close, the plants showed no effect. Then, as the hottest part of the flame hit a large cluster of weeds, something happened. There was a sound, like popcorn popping but much louder, and the air was filled with green particles. Hayes swung his weapon up toward the cloud of particles, expecting them to burst into flame, but they just continued to spread through the air until the cloud engulfed him.
Hayes stood there in shock as the particles landed on his clothing and flame-thrower, and instantly began to grow into weeds. He took a deep breath so he could yell for help, but it felt like he was breathing fire, the particles searing his throat and his lungs. He collapsed, dead before he hit the ground. PFC Pete Hayes was the first casualty of the operation, but by no means the last. By the time his comrades got to him, the weeds in his lungs were forcing their way out between his ribs and tearing through his uniform.
A quarantine was slapped on those Guardsmen still alive. A convoy of mobile decontamination units were brought in. The troops were subjected to the humiliation of stripping completely in public and throwing all their clothes and gear as far into the infected area as possible. They were shaved completely, lathered, and showered in the open, and only then moved into the decon units. Even with these precautions, two of the decon units had to be abandoned when they sprouted weeds.
This time a larger group was gathered in Mayor Terhune’s office. “What happened out there?” asked the Mayor.
“Unfortunately, the flame-throwers made things worse,” said the National Guard commander. “I think Dr. Roberta Swenson, a botanist, will be able to explain it best.” He nodded towards the middle-aged woman sitting next to him.
“Up until this incident, we had only seen the weed spread on the ground,” said Dr. Swenson. “However, it has an alternate means, via an air-borne pollen. The heat of the flame-throwers caused the pods containing the pollen to burst open. And the pollen grows much more virulently than the adult plant, almost explosively. Inhaling it causes instant death.”
“Why didn’t the pollen burn?” asked Chief Wickham. “Could we use something hotter, napalm or something like that, to kill it?”
“It’s extremely heat resistant,” said Dr. Swenson. “It would take thermonuclear temperatures to burn it. How many H-bombs do you want to set off here in the middle of town?” The question was unanswerable, and there was silence for a few minutes.
Finally, a man wearing General’s stars spoke up. “We have some, er, herbicides, that might help. They are extremely powerful, and might do the trick.”
“Herbicides, General Porter? Are you sure you don’t mean defoliants? Of course a lot of those are banned, just curious how you might happen to have them…?” asked Dr. Swenson.
“Well, er, yes, Ma’am, I guess you could call them defoliants. Left over from actions that took place before they were banned, kept at a carefully controlled Top Secret facility, in case of an emergency—like this one! Limited supplies, but if they work we know how to make more, banned or not.”
“General, I want you to know I was instrumental in the campaign to get those defoliants banned. But,” Dr. Swenson said, “I think I have to backpedal on this one. We have to do something, and we have to do it quickly. Bring your unholy chemicals out and try them.”
The convoy bringing two tank trucks of defoliants to Bradford had so many armed vehicles that it caused traffic tie-ups across three states. Interstates were closed for twenty miles in front of and behind it, roads leading to overpasses were blockaded, and the FAA was enforcing a no-fly zone over a hundred mile circle. The tank truck drivers, and the crew that would do the spraying, were dressed in outfits that looked like spacesuits, and were breathing bottled air.
When the convoy arrived, weather forecasts were checked in detail. The tankers were positioned in a spot that was upwind of the weeds and was likely to remain so for several days. Other trucks extended long booms that would hold the hose nozzles a hundred feet downwind of the trucks and their crews. Finally everything was ready and the spraying began.
Any other vegetation in the target area shriveled and browned instantly when the defoliant hit, but the weeds were unaffected. As far as anyone could tell, they might as well have been spraying water. The operation continued for half an hour in the hopes of a delayed reaction, but nothing happened. Dr. Swenson and General Porter, both wearing their spacesuits, looked at each other and shook their heads. Then the General signaled to stop the spraying.
The hoses, the booms, and much other equipment was abandoned in place rather than cleaned. The tank trucks, still containing significant amounts of defoliant, were washed half a dozen times until they were declared clean enough to leave the site. A high perimeter fence was erected well outside the area sprayed, and the convoy left for the base it had come from, again snarling traffic.
The next meeting was in the Oval Office. All those from the previous meetings were there, as well as a number of other powerful individuals. Mayor Terhune and Police Chief Wickham sat in the back row, feeling very much out of place.
General Porter spoke first. “Madam President, we have a real crisis here. The area infested by the weeds is still growing, and nothing we have tried so far seems able to contain it. I’ll let Dr. Swenson here explain the details.”
“Ma’am, these weeds are not affected by the most potent herbicides, defoliants, we know of. The adult plants are also immune to any heat we can generate via chemical means. In addition, high temperatures rupture the weed’s spore pods, and the spores appear immune to anything short of a thermonuclear explosion.”
The President’s face took on a very upset expression, and she interrupted, “Are you saying we should H-bomb this place? Are you serious, Doctor?”
“No, Ma’am, that wouldn’t work. We thought about it, but then we realized it would make things worse. At ground zero the weeds would be killed, but further out the pods would burst and the blast would just spread them over a much larger area. But we do have a possible solution.”
The President relaxed a little. “Well, what is it, Doctor?”
“I’m going to let my colleague explain it, Ma’am.” She gestured toward a man sitting several chairs over. “Doctor Smythe, a noted radiobiologist.”
“Thank you, Dr. Swenson.” Turning to the President, Smythe said, “Ma’am, I have tested a few samples of the weed, and it is vulnerable to high levels of radioactivity. A radioisotope dust, applied in a strong enough concentration, will destroy the weeds.”
The President’s upset expression had returned. “Dr. Smythe, I’m sure you are well aware of the dangers of such an action. If that dust were to get loose who knows how many deaths we might have? Is the danger here really so great that it justifies such a risk?”
Dr. Swenson interjected, “Yes, Madam President, the danger is that great. Remember the effect of two buildings collapsing on 9/11? If we don’t stop these weeds, eventually they will reach New York and bring down every building in the city.”
Dr. Smythe continued, “We have established safe parameters for this. The weeds currently occupy a roughly circular area between two and three miles in diameter, but there may be a few outlying infections. By dusting a circle ten miles in diameter we are certain to get them all. And we put a strong, high, fence around the ten mile circle to keep people out.”
“But Doctor, what if some of the dust gets out of that area?” asked the President. “A strong windstorm, for instance?”
“Yes, Ma’am. But if we put another fence outside that, enclosing a twenty mile diameter circle, the chances of enough dust escaping to cause any harm is infinitesimal.’
“Wait a doggone minute!” Mayor Terhune’s voice came from the back of the room. “You’re talking about wiping out the entire town of Bradford, and most of the county around it!”
“Yes, we are,” continued Smythe. “But frankly, there is no other choice. Madam President, we must do this.”
The President sat and stared for a moment. Finally she said, “Go ahead and start preparations. I’ll declare it a Federal Disaster Area. Thank you all for coming, let’s get busy.”
The two fences, twenty foot chain link topped with barbed wire, were erected around the area and posted with radiation hazard trefoils. On a calm day, when the danger of wind spreading it was minimal, radio-isotope dust was spread over entire ten mile circle enclosing the weed infested area. In a few days the weeds, and every other plant, were dead. In fact, every living thing in the infested area was dead. Everyone forgot about recovering what was inside. The government paid to relocate the people.
Two months later, little Jennifer Brady was getting settled into her new house and her new school in Summerdale, a hundred miles from where Bradford had been. She missed Alice Cole and Marcia Jackson, who had moved somewhere else, but there were lots of kids around and she was making new friends in her neighborhood, and her class at school.
Today was the class Science Project day, and Jennifer was showing her project, a potted plant. “This is a very strange kind of plant,” she explained to her teacher, “I can’t find it in any of the books in the library, so I don’t know its proper name. I got it from the back yard of the house we used to live in.”
A story, my dear? Why, of course. Settle down here by me—no, snuggle up closer, that’s better—and I’ll tell you a story about a princess.
This princess was enchanted—you know how it goes, my dear. Her mother offended the wrong fairy or some such foolishness; I don’t recall the details, if I ever knew them. In any case, the girl was placed under an enchantment that she would pierce her finger on a needle and sleep for a hundred years, to be wakened only by the tender kiss of her one true love.
And this was not a peaceful sleep, my dear—far from it. The princess slept and drifted, lost on a clouded sea full of ravenous dreams. Her fragile shell of a craft was tugged this way and that by currents she could see and feel but not control. Without sail or oars the gelid waves pushed her where they would, and slavering dreams leapt from the ocean to batter relentlessly at her. Many fell harmlessly, flopping onto the scarred wooden deck of her tiny vessel so that she was able to grab them by their spiny tails and fling them away, back into the grey swell. Some were luckier or greedier, fastening their needle teeth into her pale flesh and starting to feed before she could defend herself, dragging her beleaguered subconscious away and down as her blood seeped from the punctures.
Then she would crumple to the splintered deck, her body always assuming the same position, mirroring the shape of her sleeping form back in the conscious world. Anyone observing her as she lay in her tower room would notice her body twitching and occasionally almost stirring to full wakefulness as she fought to defend herself and her subconscious against the shoaling dreams, and then falling still as one took hold and sucked her mind away to deeper, darker places.
Of course, my dear, if anyone had been there in her palace bedroom the fact is that they would have been asleep too, adrift on their own private sea of dreams. Enchantments are funny like that—non-selective, clumsy and indiscriminate in their operation. Everyone in that palace, from the princess down to the scullery maids and the stable boys, slept and battled the shadowy places in their own minds as they had done for nearly a century.
Part of the enchantment, as I’m sure you know, was the dense hedge of razor thorns that sprang up and enshrouded the palace, sealing the recumbent inhabitants inside and disbarring all from entry. The thorns were as long as your arm, vicious and ragged, saw blade teeth with scalpel edges. The leaves were thick and leathery, darker green than the deepest forest night, and the stems and branches resisted any attempt to hack a path through them, twisting and writhing to trap the unwary or the foolhardy in a verdant tomb.
Those who tried—and many did, my dear, in the early days when folk were still testing the terms of the enchantment—were all beaten back, slashed and twined and strangulated into slinking retreat. Some never got the chance to retreat at all, becoming mired in the twisting growth, impaling themselves on the thorns and bleeding their life out into the roots of the plants. Their shrivelled corpses, sucked dry and gradually turning to dust, hung from the spines that drained them, the tatters of their clothing flapping and whispering like macabre ribbons on a deadly wishing tree.
As the decades passed the number of visitors dwindled, until eventually years might go by with no attempts on the palace at all. Where once there had been the laughter of well-bred maidens, there were no sounds but birdsong, the soft chirr of the wind slicing itself apart on the thorns, and the occasional sigh from the princess and her attendants in their tormented sleep.
However, excitement grew as the centenary of the enchantment approached, and hopeful youths came from far and wide. The beauty of the princess was legendary, as was the wealth of her father, and every boy in every village had heard the tales of the slumbering princess who could only be won after a full hundred years by her true love battling through the thorns and placing a chaste kiss on her soft pink lips.
Millers’ sons came, and farmers’ boys, and blacksmiths’ apprentices, and yeomen’s lads, and noble-born youths, and even a couple of princes. Some were handsome, my dear, and some were rich, some were both and some were neither, but all believed that the thorns would not pierce their tender flesh—or, even if they did, how bad could it possibly be? Gardeners’ boys laughed and bolstered their confidence with thoughts of how they had cleared mighty bramble patches and sustained only a few scratches, while dukes’ sons polished their armour, secure in the knowledge that no thorns could possibly pierce a quarter-inch of hammered steel.
On the very day of the centenary the bright and hopeful throng descended on the palace in its encircling mantle of twisted greenery. A band of local villagers had come along for the spectacle, and they eyed the hedge with curiosity and trepidation. A gentle summer breeze shifted the heavy leaves, revealing and then hiding the wicked thorns as if playing a game of “I see you, I see you not.” One or two people even caught glimpses of ragged corpses suspended within, pierced by thorns, twined about with viney branches and with leaves growing out of their mouths. These folk shivered and crossed themselves, but most merely settled down with their picnics to enjoy the fête.
The first to try his luck was Prince Edgar, who had ridden in state with his father’s blessing from a neighbouring kingdom. Handsome, tall and clean-limbed, he was clad in glittering silver mail with a quilted leather gambeson beneath. He pushed his fine blond hair casually back from his high clear forehead as he strode forward. Swinging his bastard sword nonchalantly he pruned a swathe of branches, and then, turning once to grin at his cheering band of retainers and supporters, he began to hack at the hedge in earnest.
He made swift progress, creating a tunnel carpeted with slashed stems and bruised leaves as he carved inward towards the palace walls. The further he travelled the darker it became, until he could look behind him and see an arch-shaped patch of daylight framed by the green and brown of the encroaching undergrowth.
A few thorns pierced his mail, but he brushed them aside, dismissing the wounds as minor scratches—as indeed they were. After a few minutes of concerted effort he could see glimpses of the palace walls ahead of him, flickers of white marble glowing through the forest twilight. He redoubled his ferocious swings and slashes, encouraged by the sight of his destination and the apparent ease of his passage.
After a few moments, however, he became aware that the encouraging sounds of cheering behind him had ceased. Irritated that his retainers should slack off as soon as he passed out of sight, he glanced over his shoulder and was startled to discover that the tunnel had closed behind him. He saw no sign of his recent travails. Thick fleshy leaves and gnarled stems pushed inwards, and thorns grazed the fresh clean skin of his face as he twisted, trying to catch a glimpse either of the daylight behind him or the palace wall in front.
He could see neither. All of a sudden it was as if he were encased in a tiny and shrinking bubble in an ocean of vegetation. He flailed with his sword, panic swelling in his chest like a balloon full of bile. Stems wound swiftly and surely around his limbs, leaves thrashed wildly against his eyes and mouth, and then he screamed as the first thorn forced its way through the silver chainmail and entered the soft flesh of his stomach. Many more followed, piercing him from all angles until his wracked body hung suspended and limp from the writhen stems. Blood gushed, and then stuttered, and then dripped, and finally ceased.
On the outside Edgar’s loyal retainers watched in gaping horror, open-mouthed in mid-cheer as their hero’s grand entrance had abruptly twisted shut behind him. One or two even started forward to come to his aid, but then the prince screamed from somewhere inside the towering wall of thorns and caution suddenly overcame feudal loyalty. They stood back, looking at each other and at the other candidates, listening in helpless shock as the prince’s gurgling yells grew more frenzied and then died away into rustling silence.
In the sudden stillness a baron’s second son stepped forward at the same moment as a blacksmith’s apprentice. The one was clad in black leather and armed with a pair of shortswords, while the other wore a heavy apron scorched from the forge and wielded a mighty two-handed axe. They glanced at each other, eyes meeting in a moment of competitive fellowship, and then both moved to attack the wall of greenery.
The baron’s son danced, his shortswords flickering in and out of the thicket as he moved with a deadly balletic grace and carved a mazy path between thick branches and under the worst of the razor thorns. In contrast the blacksmith’s apprentice was a battering ram, using his massive axe to smash his way forward. Both made steady progress, disappearing from the view of the onlookers as had Prince Edgar before them.
The baron’s boy began to scream even before his twisting tunnel had closed. The blacksmith’s apprentice held out longer, the leathery green leaves folding and sliding smoothly to seal him in the belly of the hedge. His bellows of rage and pain continued long after the noble-born lad had bubbled and thrashed himself into his quiet leaf-lined grave.
Well, my dear, as I’m sure you can imagine, in the silence that followed the blacksmith’s final choking shrieks there was a certain amount of foot-shuffling and sidestepping. A few lads simply turned away, deciding that they weren’t that bothered about marrying a princess after all. One or two hid their weapons behind their backs and sat down with groups of villagers, grabbing a sandwich and pretending they’d only come along to watch the proceedings. The rest glanced nervously at one another, unable to give up on the idea of the beautiful maiden behind her scything defences, but unwilling to be the next to try and die.
Eventually Prince John, dark-haired, charismatic and handsome in his shining platemail, stepped forward and urged everyone with him. Come now, he exhorted, if we all go at once, surely the hedge will not withstand us. We will win through, and one of us will waken the princess. The glint in his eye revealed that he fully intended to be that one, but his charisma was such that over half of the remaining hopefuls, some twenty fine strong lads, moved with him.
John organised his troop into a phalanx with himself on point. He shrugged his plate helmet onto his fine princely head and hefted his longsword, leading his determined band forward and giving voice to a loud warcry as he sliced through the first branches. The phalanx moved with him, arms rising and falling mechanically as swords and axes hewed and hacked. Splinters of thornwood flew, sap bled, shreds of leaves fluttered in the still air and a wide swathe of gnarly growth succumbed to their combined efforts. Villagers cheered and raised their glasses of small beer, and for a while John even thought he might succeed.
Then, suddenly and predictably, the screams began. The restricted field of view from behind John’s visor meant that he had to twist and turn his entire body to look behind him, and when he did so he realised that he was alone, his phalanx ripped apart by the writhing branches. Screams and thrashing sounded all around, above and below him, and blood sprayed through the slits in his visor and across his face.
With a dogged determination he carried on hacking and slashing with his longsword, but it wasn’t long before his arms were pinned and the first thorns were pressing against his visor and through the vulnerable joints in his platemail. The air was sharp with the iron of blood and the tang of sap. He drew a breath to yell and a thorn thrust itself through his visor and down his throat.
The crowds did not stay long after the screams had died away. Most simply gathered their belongings and left, taking with them the story of how a century apparently wasn’t long enough for a princess to sleep. Some lingered, wondering. After all, enchantments always have an end, and this one had been clear in its conditions—one hundred years, true love’s kiss, you know how it goes. The onlookers felt cheated out of their happy ending, but nonetheless they too eventually went on their way, sighing and frowning.
So the princess still sleeps, my dear, still drifts on the grey ocean and battles ceaselessly against the biting dreams that sink their teeth into her pale scarred flesh. Her family and retainers sleep with her, and the palace falls to ruin around them. The stems still twine and writhe, the ragged corpses still hang on their thorny hooks, and the fleshy leaves still flutter and sigh in the weeping wind.
And the local villagers—well, they still tell their tales of the lost palace in the forest, defended forever by an impenetrable thicket that has apparently developed a taste for blood. No one believes them these days, of course, but on dark winter nights the old folk sit around the fire, suck their teeth and swear it’s the truth.
I don’t know—I’m only an old woman. You, my dear, must make up your own mind. Go on now—goodnight, and ware those dreams.
Katie M John
My earliest memories are of sitting on Gran’s knee, the fabric of my own cotton dress mingling with the kaleidoscopic flowers of hers. Once a bright and gaudy print, it was now faded by time, caustic wash powder and bright desert sun. She was my father’s mother. He’d died in a distant war of which neither my Mama nor Gran ever spoke.
It was as I was sitting amongst the meadow of her dress that she first told me the story of the Desert Oracles—the tumbling weeds whose movement intermittently broke the endless landscape.
“Where are they going?” I asked her.
“They are travelling to the afterlife, child.”
I watched as one of them made its way across the distant sand with a definite sense of purpose.
“The afterlife?” My six year old brain was not able to grasp such an abstract concept.
“Huh hmm!” She nodded but didn’t expand.
I continued to watch the tangled mess make its way across the burning sand, fearful that I might never get an explanation and that I would now have to add the ‘afterlife’ to a list of unknown and misunderstood terrors. But then I felt her hand move through my hair, soothing it as if she were maybe soothing her own disquiet.
“They’re called the Desert Oracles. Some folks call them Carriers of the Dead.”
I turned to look at her, but she was lost to the distance, her eyes glassy in the midday sun.
“Do the dead ride in them?”
“Not their bodies but their souls. Listen!”
The low moan of a wind followed in the tumbleweeds’ trail. It was the sound of anguish, the sound of sorrow.
“Are they unhappy?”
“That depends on whether they have anything to fear.”
I could tell from her tone that that was as much as I was going to get from her for the time being. I had become accustomed to this kind of conversation, and I knew that to push it would just result in me being told to go and do a house chore so I sat watching the tumbling mass, its skeletal fingers clawing at the sand, throwing dust ghosts into the air.
Within twelve months, Gran was dead, leaving my Mama and I alone in the creaking timber-framed house. The only connection we had to the real world was a dirt track; a weak and pathetic vein straggling towards the small town of Sorrow’s Leap.
We went to the town once a month to buy canned goods for the pantry, exchange our library books and to catch up on the local news. It was my favourite day of the month as mother let me wear the dress she’d made from the remnants of Granny’s dress. Wearing it, I felt that somehow she was still close as if, enfolded in the fabric, she was still wrapping her arms around me.
Sorrow’s Leap was a small town with small town mentalities. Few ever saw the need to travel out of it much and so the arrival of a stranger was a major event—never mind if he was someone worthy of note or not. So it was with little surprise I watched my mother’s interest in the ‘new’ man. He was tall and strong; that was as much information as my child brain was really interested in. However what was more interesting was Mama’s blushing cheeks as she looked at him and the strange giggle that erupted from her when he made a quip with the waitress. Even with my limited understanding of the adult species, I knew that there was something ‘special’ about him. He sat at the counter, a large coffee in his hand. Sheila, the owner’s wife was also giggling and I found myself slightly startled by this weird and unusual display of female behaviour. I couldn’t think of any other time in my whole seven years that I’d seen her laugh.
The man turned as if my Mama had suddenly spoken out to him, but she hadn’t. He fixed her with a stare that sparkled and I found myself hiding my head into my shoulder and wishing Mama would not let him look at her so.
Mama paid the bill and packed us up ready to go, but before we could leave, the man approached us and offered Mama a card over which they exchanged a brief conversation. When they’d finished, he extended his hand down and touched the top of my head, just the same as when the preacher did it during communion, but his touch was different, as if I had been touched by the tongue of a snake. I shivered and felt the urge to cry, but knowing this would displease Mama, I bit down on my lip.
When I asked her what was on the card, she told me he was a repair man passing through and looking for trade, which was a good thing because the porch was starting to rot and it should be repaired before one of us fell through.
That night, I couldn’t sleep for the howling desert wind. I lay in bed listening to the rattle of my window in its frame. Every now and then a fistful of sand would smack against the glass as if thrown by a petulant child. I got out of bed, my sockless feet making contact with the wooden floor, and made my way to the window. I don’t know what I expected to see.
The full moon light flooded onto the sand, which moved in the rising waves of a storm-tossed sea giving the strange illusion that our house was a ship at sea. Out there in the distance the desert oracles came, speeding towards the house. Speeding towards the afterlife.
Hearing Mama’s footfalls on the landing, I turned and glanced towards the door and listened to her sleepy feet shuffle towards the bathroom. I turned back to the window, one last look before I crept back to my bed. What I saw triggered my screams. Standing amongst the storm, lantern in hand, desert oracles at his feet, stood the man from the diner. And even though the brow of his hat hung low, I saw how his eyes were fixed firmly at my window.
The morning after the storm, I skipped out into the yard. Happy for the light and the sun. Happy to be playing on my swing and not worrying about the stranger in the storm. Mama came out onto the back porch, her arms full of washing. She stopped mid-step and called out my name. “Summer!”
I jumped off the swing mid-move and danced over to her. Mama was love, and I loved her completely.
“Yes?” I smiled up at her, tried to read her unfamiliar expression.
“Have you been playing with the tumbleweeds?”
“No Mama,” I said, my smile slipping into worry.
“Are you sure, Summer?”
She looked down and smiled. “No reason.” She leant down and kissed the blonde curls of my head.
After she’d left me to go and peg out the washing, I ran to the front of the house, then to the sides and finally to the back where I prayed Mama would be for I was terribly afraid of what I had seen—one perfect, unbroken circle of tumbleweeds had surrounded the house.
I’d picked up my speed with the intention of crashing into Mama’s warm, reassuring arms but she wasn’t there.
“Mama? Mama?” I called through the house frantic to search her out. Every room was empty.
I headed towards the front door, convincing myself that Mama must have gone to rest on the porch, even though I couldn’t hear the rhythmic rock of the chair. I threw the door wide and then froze…
In front of me sat a large tumbleweed and as I peered into its heart of tangled, sapless limbs, I heard it whisper, “I love you. Be strong.”
“Mama!” I scuttled back to the security of the wall, my feet scrabbling under me preparing to run.
My soles hit the sand and I ran, ran as fast as my body would carry me, too fast, so that my head fell lower than my feet and I found myself tumbling along the sand, my hands reaching out, clawing at the earth as my body turned and turned on the road of wind. By my side, my mother’s voice sang to me as we travelled together towards the afterlife, towards the ones we loved.
Duane Ackerson lives in Salem, Oregon, leading a fairly settled life as a retired state employee after an earlier existence as a sort of tumbleweed: He was an Army brat, living in a number of states, Germany, and Japan. In between those two periods in time, he was a Director of Creative Writing at Idaho State University and received a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship in the mid-seventies. He has published several hundred things, including poetry, prose poetry, fiction, and criticism, in places such as Rolling Stone, Yankee, Christian Science Monitor, Prairie Schooner, and anthologies including Imperial Messages(Avon), Best SF 1974, (Bobbs-Merrill) and 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories (Doubleday). Check out his poetry collections, including the recently published Blinded by the Light then the Dark, http://www.ravennapress.com/books/title.php?tid=10030
Terry Alexander lives on a small farm near Porum, Oklahoma with his wife Phyllis. They have three children and nine grandchildren. His work has been published in anthologies by Living Dead Press, Static Movement, Moonstone Books, Paper Cut Publishing, Open Casket Press, Knightwatch Press, Mini Komix and at frontiertales.com. He is a member of the Oklahoma Writers Federation, Ozark Writers League, The Arkansas Ridge Writers and The Fictioneers.
Robert Borski lives in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and in his life arc believes himself to be somewhere between late-blooming child prodigy and premature senility. After a thirty-five year hiatus he began writing poetry again in 2006 and has now had over 150 poems accepted or published, about half of which have appeared in either Star*Line or Strange Horizons.
Rebecca L. Brown is a British writer. She specialises in horror, SF, humour, surreal and experimental fiction, although her writing often wanders off into other genres and gets horribly lost. Rebecca has written regular columns for publications including New Old Traditions, Butnu.co.uk and Zombie Command. She currently edits the Pagan Friends Webzine. For updates and examples of Rebecca’s work, visit her Twitter page @rlbrownwriter or her blog Bewildering Circumstances
Mo Castles lives and works in Eastern Washington where opportunities to eye tumbleweeds suspiciously are plentiful. She has mixed feelings about a world without viscious, man-eating tumbleweeds. On the one hand, it’s safe and predictable. On the other, plants—particularly desert plants—that suddenly evolve into rabid, though feeble, monsters sound kinda fun. Happy tumbleweed hunting!
Adriane Ceallaigh has been writing fiction since her early teens. She hopes you enjoyed the story you’ve just read. To find out more about her and her work, visit. www.adrianeceallaigh.com
Kevin Childs was born and raised in Utah, where he lives with his wife and 4 girls. As a child, reading and writing was Kevin’s passion. And then computers came along to vie for his time. Throughout school and through his years as a successful internet entrepreneur, Kevin has continued to read and write. He loves the incredible freedom that can be found in writing a character, building a story, and dreaming up a world to place them in.
Jaleta Clegg likes to play with words. She has one novel in print, Nexus Point: The Fall of the Altairan Empire Book 1, which implies there are more to come. Book 2, Priestess of the Eggstone, will release August 2012. She has lots of short stories, ranging from silly horror to weird western to monster hunting to fantasy to space adventure, in anthologies and magazines. She lives with her horde of children, the requisite cat, two dogs, zombie frogs, a fish, and a very patient husband. Someday she’s going to build Han Solo’s ship and explore space. Find more about her at www.jaletac.com
Voss Foster lives in a small town in the middle of the desert in Washington State. On the rare ocassion he can be pulled away from his writing, he can be found cooking, singing, playing trombone, or practicing his photography. More information can be found at http://vossfoster.blogspot.com
Eric J. Guignard is an award-winning author and editor living in southern California. He writes short stories in horror, speculative, and young adult genres, and writes research and knowledge-base articles in genealogy, woodworking, and ecology. Eric has been published in numerous print and online media, most recently in A Very Short Story competition (first place), Coscom Entertainment, The Horror Zine, SNM Horror Magazine, Another Realm, Indie Gypsy, and many others. He is editor of the acclaimed anthology, Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations (Dark Moon Books). Eric also designs and builds custom furniture. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Jeannette, and father to an adventuresome toddler son, Julian James. www.ericjguignard.com ~ www.ericjguignard.blogspot.com.
James Hartley is a former computer programmer. Originally from northern New Jersey, he now lives in sunny central Florida. He has published three fantasy novels, The Ghost of Grover’s Ridge, Magic Is Faster Than Light, and Teen Angel, and has another, Cop With a Wand, due out soon. He has had stories published as e-books, in Desolate Places, Strange Mysteries 1,2,&3, Book of Exodi, Christmas in Outer Space, Free Range Fairy Tales and in various e-zines and print magazines. He is currently working on a new novel, Princess on a Quest. He is a member of IWOFA and the Dark Fiction Guild. His website is http://teenangel.netfirms.com.
Katie M John is the writer of the UK bestselling YA Contemporary Fantasy series, The Knight Trilogy. She lives in the London suburbs; is married to a dashingly handsome giant and is mummy to a 3ft Mud-puddle Fairy. Katie writes Urban Fantasy and Dark Romance Fairy-stories.
V. Hynes Johnston can generally be found mucking about with her horse, hanging with her dog, or playing with fiber – the kind you knit, spin or weave not eat. Having been raised on Kipling and put to bed with “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service she couldn’t help but develop a love of books and a good story.
C. H. Lindsay has been writing off and on for longer than she cares to mention. She doesn’t have much to show for it as she has a nasty habit of getting involved in musical theatre and running science fiction, fantasy and horror conventions. Not long ago she gave up musical theatre and replaced it with running an online text-based Star Trek RPG. Her excuse: at least it’s writing. Among the conventions she’s helped with are: LTUE, CONduit, NASFiC (twice), World Horror (Chair), and several writing workshops. Every now and then she finds herself wondering exactly what you CAN do with a drunken sailor early in the morning.
Louise Maskill lives and works in Derbyshire, UK, surrounded by children, cats and apple trees. She is, among other things, a writer, a reader, an editor, a runner, a teacher, an historian, a psychologist, a musician and a textile artist. She edits other people’s words for a (partial) living, but has written and published a number of short stories, academic research papers and local history articles. She is also in possession of at least two fantasy novels in draft form, and really must do something about getting them published.
In the summer of 2009, Brian Mazur’s short story “Raven and the Darkness” appeared in Horror Bound’s anthology Return of the Raven. 2011 saw his story “What She Dreams” in another Horror Bound publication, Fear of the Dark. In the future, he will have two stories published in separate anthologies by Wicked East Press, Behind Locked Doors and Careful What You Wish For. The last twenty years have seen numerous publications in small press magazines as well. Brian also leads a local writing group of no specific genre.
Frances Pauli writes speculative fiction with romantic touches. Her books are published through Mundania Press LLC, Awe-Struck, and Devine Destinies, and her short stories are featured in various anthologies. More information on her worlds and writing can be found on her website and blog, where she also offers free online stories, web serials, and podcasts. More info on Frances and her writing can be found at: http://francespauli.com
M. Pax spends the summers as a star guide at Pine Mountain Observatory. The starry skies and high desert landscapes inspire the stories she writes. She pens mostly science fiction and has a slight obsession with Jane Austen. Author of The Backworlds, Semper Audacia, Plantgirl, Small Graces and Translations, she would love to keep in contact with you. Her website, www.mpaxauthor.com, and on Twitter @mpax1.
Katherine Sanger was a Jersey Girl before getting smart and moving to Texas. She’s been published in various e-zines and print, including Baen’s Universe, Black Petals, Star*Line, Anotherealm, Lost in the Dark, Bewildering Stories, Aphelion, and RevolutionSF, and edited From the Asylum, an e-zine of fiction and poetry. Her poetry has won numerous awards, including First Place in Byline’s “Autumn Poem” contest, First Place in “Lucky Thirteen” contest sponsored by Sol Magazine, and Honorable Mention in: The Houston Chapter Award, The Hap Fulgham Prize, and The “Varoom-Varoom” Award.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, parts of the Saga of Davi Rhii trilogy, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids. He has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.
Audrey Shaefer was born the middle of three children, but was the only girl among them. Last summer, she was married and now lives in a small house in Utah and shares that house with her husband, a pair of mischievous kittens, and a slightly neurotic Chihuahua. She has been obsessed with fantasy and science fiction since she was a little girl, and began writing when she was only four years old. She attended Utah State University.
Berin Stephens was born and raised in Alaska. He is a professional musician and saxophone instructor. The Dragon War Relic, a YA novel, is a comedy set in outer space with elves and other mythical creatures. His latest book, Time Gangsters, is a middle-grade urban fantasy about gangsters from 1927 who want to change the past using magical Egyptian coins. Berin currently lives in Utah with his wife, five kids, dog, cat, and an aloe plant. You can visit his website at berinstephens.com.
Andrea Tantillo has enjoyed writing since she was in elementary school. She holds a degree in English and Mass Communication from Southern Arkansas University and has worked in print and broadcast media, higher education, non-profit fund raising, residential real estate marketing and governmental sectors. She has had short stories and poems published in Sol Magazine and the Bay Area Writers League’s anthologies That Thing You Do and That Thing You Do II. Andrea lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband Marcus and their cat JonGlynne.
David J. West was born with an innate love of books and weapons, pursuing a career writing speculative fiction had to follow. His published and forthcoming works include controversial historicals: Heroes of the Fallen, Blood of Our Fathers; weird westerns: Fangs of the Dragon, Dance the Ghost (With Me); shadowy terrors: The Dig, Curse the Child; and heroic dark fantasy: Midnight Sons, The Hand of Fate. He collects truths, swords, the finest art he can afford, and has a library of 6,000 + volumes because he likes the smell of old books. You can visit him at http://david-j-west.blogspot.com
Ann Willows writes genre fiction and whatever she feels like at the time. She lives in the dry side of Washington State with her young daughter, husband, six tarantulas and her pet velociraptor. Guardners is her first published story.
They roll in from unknown places, mysterious and unexplained. They take root, take over, spread to all corners and refuse to be eradicated. no one can say why they came, but there's no arguing that they're up to no good. These plants are out for blood, and getting rid of them will take a certain kind of hero - the best kind. Twenty-five tales of evil weeds to entertain, enthrall and change the way you look at the unwelcome invaders in your lawn. Twenty-five tales of evil weeds to entertain, enthrall and change the way you look at the unwelcome invaders in your lawn. From feral tumbleweeds to ravenous seaweed, from alien life forms to migrating asteroid fields, in these pages you will find fairy tales and weird westerns, space romps and chilling horror stories. Scary or silly, wicked or wily, these plants are here to stay.