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“Is my mommy and the baby okay?” The young boy’s eyes watered, tears on the verge of spilling.
Marie Suiza leaned down, kissed his forehead and tucked the blanket around him, careful not to disturb her own sleeping son. “Xander, your mommy will be fine. Your daddy is with her, and so is Mrs. Jans.”
“But they’re not doctors. Babies need doctors.”
“Your mommy will be fine. Many babies are born without doctors.”
“Really. Mrs. Jans knows what to do. She helped with my Oscar. I’m fine, he’s fine.”
The boy looked over at the other child in the bed. “He snores.”
Marie laughed softly. “Go to sleep, Xander. Tomorrow I’ll take you home to see your mother and your baby brother.”
The boy yawned. “Daddy said they’d name him Jamuson.”
“A strong name for a strong baby.” Marie went to the bedroom door and dimmed the lights, leaving a pale green glow in case the boys woke up in the middle of the night. “Good night, Xander,” she said and closed the door behind her.
“Get him settled?” Reuben leaned against the wall, waiting.
“He’s worried. But he’s only six, it’s okay to be worried.”
Reuben took his wife’s hand. “Yes. It is okay.”
“Emese is strong. It’s been a good pregnancy. She’ll come through fine. I hope.”
“We’re colonists, uncertainties are part of our life.”
“I know, but…”
“Emese will be fine. There’s always a risk where there’s to be a reward.” Reuben sneaked a quick pat to Marie’s behind.
“Reuben!” Marie pursed her lips at him, then smiled.
He shrugged. “A risk.” Sweeping a giggling Marie into his thick arms he walked toward the stairs to the second floor and their own bedroom. “Now about the reward.”
The light panels in the house flickered and dimmed. Reuben sighed and put Marie down. “Blasted lizards probably chewing through the wiring again.”
Marie echoed her husband’s sigh. “I really don’t like the wildlife on this planet. Bunch of nasty little bugs and nasty little lizards.”
“Could be worse. But, hey, we don’t need light right away…” Reuben goosed Marie, making her jump, “do we?”
Again the lights flickered. This time they didn’t stop. “No, but the boys do. You should probably go out and fix it before it gets worse.”
Rolling his eyes into a playful pout, Reuben nodded. “I’m taking the rifle. Those little creeps are gonna fry for ruining the night.”
“Be quick.” Marie goosed Reuben as he turned to go. “The night’s not ruined yet.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said while walking away.
“I’ll check the boys.” Marie stepped quietly to the bedroom door. Cracking it open, she heard a strange chittering sound.
She flung the door open. The flickering lights cast a wavering column of light on a large black hole in the concrete floor where the bed should have been.
“Reuben!” She frantically searched for the boys. “Oscar! Xander!”
Reuben bolted through the doorway, rifle in hand, and stopped short of the hole. “What the—” He swiped on the lights. Xander lay curled in a ball in the corner of the room, whimpering.
Marie rushed to Xander. Clutching him in her arms, she searched the corner. “Where’s Oscar?”
“The lights. I g-g-got scared,” Xander choked between sobs, “I wanted to find you—”
“Where’s Oscar?” Marie shook the boy.
Trembling, Xander pointed to the hole behind Marie.
“I see the bed,” yelled Reuben. “Get Xander out of here. I’m going down.” Reuben knelt next to the hole. “Oscar! Daddy’s coming.”
Chittering sounded from the hole. A mass of legs and spines jumped out, knocking the rifle from Reuben’s grasp. Pincer like fangs attached to a multi-eyed head sunk into Reuben’s chest. He shuddered and coughed blood.
A scream tore from Marie’s throat. She snatched the rifle, firing heated blasts into the body of the giant spider.
It reared back, and squealed, purple fluid pumping from its wounds. Three more spiders erupted from the hole. Marie kept shooting. Screaming. Shooting. The spider on Reuben collapsed back into the hole. Two of the others latched onto Reuben and retreated with him in tow.
The last spider charged Marie.
She backed toward the far wall and fired the rifle as fast as it would reload—the barrel glowing hot. The last two rounds blasted half the spider’s head off. Reduced to a quivering heap, the spider collapsed on top of her. She screamed as the spikes on its carapace pierced into her body.
In its death throes the spider dragged Marie toward the hole.
She couldn’t lift it off.
Sliding over the precipice, Marie kicked hard. The spikes tore free and the spider fell. But she kept sliding on the blood-slickened concrete. Desperate, she grasped at the floor—at anything until one hand clasped the glowing hot barrel of the rifle. Her eyes widened at the searing pain, but she refused to let go. At the other end of the rifle, Xander tugged with all his tiny might.
Marie gripped the barrel with both hands. “Pull, Xander!”
He grunted and fell on his butt, his bare feet slipping out from under him. He backpedalled with both feet in an effort to ooch backward. Out-weighed and slathered in purple spider blood, he managed to hold his ground.
She forced a smile. “Good job, Xander. You can do it.” Then pain lanced through her leg as another spider barbed her from below and tugged. Her smile morphed to a snarl then a roar as she released the rifle before she took little Xander with her.
She landed on her back. Oscar’s broken, empty bed cushioned the fall. Flickering lights above her highlighted a small silhouette holding a rifle.
She screamed as the spider pulled her down a tunnel and into darkness.
Every morning was a struggle. A battle of mind over matter—or my head over my pillow. I wanted to sleep in. I wanted my body to rest longer. Years of waking up before dawn had programmed my internal clock and try as I might, I couldn’t beat it.
That morning I lay in bed staring at the rifle mounted on the opposite wall. Warped and melted, it didn’t work. But I kept it. At first I didn’t want to. When I was little, the damn thing terrified me. My father hung it on the wall, said it would remind me of bravery… and to never let my guard down.
Now, all it did was remind me how quickly things could go to crap.
I closed my eyes. One last effort to sleep. Five more minutes, that’s all I wanted. Then the smell of fried crelix eggs and fresh oat loaf hit my nose, instantly waking up my stomach. With mind and stomach against me, I gave up any chance of more sleep.
Hurray for another monotonous day of labor. Another day exiled in Brunning. What a dump of a town, if it could even be called a town. The spattering of dusty shanties and barns were more like a half-dead, fully-baked madman’s vision. Except Brunning was too inhuman to ever be a human contrivance. No, Brunning sprung directly from the minds of the Hibernarii, higher beings that used us lesser humans for higher purposes we didn’t have a say in. Hurray.
At least the day would end with another chance to see Marigold. If it wasn’t the smell of food that got me out of bed, it was knowing the sooner I got my work done, the sooner I could see the most beautiful girl in Brunning.
And if Brunning had a population of forty-two million people instead of just forty-two people, Marigold would still be the most beautiful girl.
I threw on my pants and clima-jacket, stepping into my boots on the way downstairs. I pounded hard on Jamus’ door on my way to the kitchen. He had the bigger room, but I didn’t sleep on the ground floor. Ever. Plus, I enjoyed waking him up every morning. My internal clock worked so well… I had to share it with my little brother.
Breakfast was on the table when I walked in. My mother stood by the stove, looking out the window, stirring more eggs on the stove.
“Morning, Mom.” I sat at the table and grabbed a bread cake.
“Morning, Xander,” she said, looking out the window into the barely lit brown landscape.
I poured a shot of black coffee. “Eggs are burning.”
“Wha—Oh!” She pulled the pan off the element. She dumped the pan on a plate and served it next to the first plate. She set to emptying more of the small, leathery crelix eggs into the still-hot pan.
I eyed the two plates of eggs. I preferred hot eggs, not burnt ones. I took the lukewarm, non-burnt eggs. Jamus could have the others.
Mom kept her attention mainly to the window, absently stirring at the eggs. I may not have been the most socially observant person, but something was off. Mom never did things ‘absently’.
“Oh. Nothing.” She didn’t even look at me. “Just waiting for your father.”
My father, Absalom Floros, never slept in. I’d inherited my internal clock from him—only his was set on overdrive. Typically, by the time I woke up, he’d already been at work for an hour. Even my mother didn’t wake up as early as him. But my father made it a point to eat breakfast as a family. His absence was atypical, to be sure.
Jamus emerged, his dirty blond hair standing up in the classic Jamus-half-asleep style. He plopped his boots on the ground and took his seat at the table across from me.
“Coffee?” Jamus grumbled, holding his head.
“What? Does princess have a headache?” I ruffled his hair and clanked the earthenware coffee pot down next to him. “Hope it’s not… pounding.”
“Jerk.” Jamus glared at me and poured himself a cup. “I was awake before you attacked my door.”
“Right. Early to bed, early to rise. Except princess didn’t go to bed early, did he?”
Jamus shot a look over to Mom. “Suck it, Xander.”
“You kiss Alana with that mouth?”
“Nope, just Marigold.”
My turn to glare. “Watch it, little brother.” As much as I teased him about his weird girlfriend, he typically knew better than to say anything about mine. “You wouldn’t know what to do with a real woman.”
“Whatever. Where’s dad?” He yawned and poured goat milk in his coffee.
I shrugged. “Don’t ask me.” I dug into the eggs.”Ask the space chef.” I spat out a chunk of leathery shell. “Not a big fan of the new recipe, Mom.”
Ignoring my comment, she rushed to the back door.
She pulled back the curtain on the window next to the door and held the thick wool in a clenched fist as she peered out the window.
“Finish eating, boys.” She unclenched the curtain, leaving it open and went back to the stove in time to prevent another batch of eggs from burning.
“Crap,” Jamus whispered and slunk down in his seat.
I craned my neck. “What?”
“Mr. Jans is with him.” Jamus sunk further, his head barely above the table.
I looked out the window. Sure enough, my father and Sam Jans, Alana’s father, stood just outside the door. Both looked serious, even upset, conversing about something. My father had his hand on Sam’s shoulder.
I shot a glare at Jamus. “What’d you do? How late were you out with Alana?”
“Shhh!” Jamus looked nervously at Mom to make sure she wasn’t listening. “I swear I wasn’t out that late. I came back before you did.”
I knotted my brow. At twenty-one, I was old enough to avoid any curfew, unlike my fifteen year-old brother. Still, my mother, and especially my father, didn’t appreciate their sons sneaking around at night instead of resting up for the day’s work.
Jamus held his hands up in front of him. “I swear. Alana wasn’t even in her room when I went over there. I came back and went to sleep.”
“Why else would Sam be here?”
“Boys,” Mom set a plate and poured coffee at my father’s place at the table, “finish eating. Breakfast is over. There’s work to do.”
I grabbed another cake before Mom could take away the plate. “What’s going on?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
I didn’t like being addressed like a child, but I focused on finishing my food. Something in Mom’s tone told me not to press the matter.
Jamus didn’t pick up on it. “But—”
“Jamuson Floros, eat.” That shut my brother up. We all knew on the rare occasions when Mom threw out our full names that the conversation was over.
I’d cleared my plate by the time my father walked into the kitchen by himself. Jamus looked more than relieved Mr. Jans hadn’t come with him.
“Good morning, Emese.” My father kissed my mother and sat at the head of the table like any other morning. He nodded to my brother and I. “Jamus, Xander.”
“Morning, Dad.” Jamus spoke through a mouth full of bread.
“Father.” I nodded back. “Productive morning?”
To my surprise, Mom glared at me as she sat next to my father. “Let your father eat.”
My father gave me a weak smile. His smile faded altogether when he looked at Jamus. “Some unwelcome news, boys. But that will have to wait until after we see to the pumps.”
“Exactly.” Mom pulled our dishes away, another non-subtle hint. I had no clue what happened last night, but something was clearly bothering her. “And you don’t need your father for that job,” she continued. “I’ll clean the dishes. You two get a start.”
I pocketed the last of the bread and stepped outside, the dry heat already rising. “Come on, Jamus.”
“Jamuson Floros, go,” said Mom from inside.
I had to laugh when Jamus stumbled out of the front door and about fell face-first in the dirt while attempting to put on a boot at the same time as closing the door behind him. My brother was a big lanky kid for a fifteen year old. I hate to think I was anything like that at his age.
“You’re socially retarded, you know that, right?”
“No.” Jamus slipped on his boot. “I know that. I mean… Shut up, Xander.”
“Got your boots on the wrong feet, too. Maybe you’re just plain retarded.”
“Shut up.” Jamus made to push me.
I sidestepped and he fell flat with a clumsy thud. I started to laugh, then overheard my parents talking from the kitchen. Something weird happened during the night, something my parents didn’t want us to know about—making my interest immediate.
Jamus stood up. “Xander, I’m—”
I cut him off with a sharp shush, cupped my ear, and pointed at the wall that separated us from our parents. Jamus’s eyes widened. We crouched next to the heavy rock foundation of the house, our heads level with the floor.
“So?” Mom’s voice, slightly muffled by the wooden wall, came through clear enough.
“Not exactly.” My father assumed a tired, short tone. “Emese, Xander might be grown, but Jamus is just a boy. They’re good boys. I don’t want them upset—”
“That’s why I sent them out.”
Jamus gave me two big thumbs up, a mischievous grin plastered on his dusty face. I pushed him and he fell on his butt. “Shh,” I mouthed.
My father let out a deep breath. “Emese, some things are too ugly to know. I’m not sure even you would want to know.”
The sharp sound of a metal plate striking the table made Jamus and I jump.
“Absolom, you will not spare me the unpleasantries.” Mom’s angry voice came through the wall loud and clear. “I’ve been on this forsaken planet for the last fifteen years. I left a life infinitely more comfortable and safe. I could have stayed and kept Xander with me. But, no, we left all of that behind, and I did it for you, Absolom. So when it comes to anything that happens here. I, above any other person, have the right to know.”
A look of shock stretched across Jamus’s face. I’m sure my own face mirrored his expression. Mom was strong, but the quiet kind of strong. She never raised her voice, she never contradicted my father, and she never complained. This was the first time I’d heard her do all three.
“You’re right, Emese.”
“Of course I’m right. Now tell me what happened. Did you find Alana?”
Jamus and I scowled at each other. Alana? Jamus mouthed. I shrugged. He shrugged back. What did Alana Jans have to do with anything? I had hoped the mystery would be something more exciting, like the Hi-bernies finally calling us back to Tatmus Delta, away from Brunning. Instead my father was being secretive about Jamus’s annoying girlfriend? What a waste of time. I stood and hooked my thumb toward the field. Let’s go, I mouthed.
Jamus, still listening, shook his head.
His eyes went wide. Staggering, he fell on his butt. He sat there in the dust, pale faced, eyes staring into the distance. She’s dead, Jamus finally mouthed.
What? I pressed my ear to the warm wall.
“How can you be sure?” Mom’s hushed voice barely came through the wall.
“Trust me, Emese. When we found her dog ripped in half… Sam says that thing never left Alana’s side. Then the blood… so much blood.”
“By Yuan’s light. What did Tama do when you and Sam brought the girl back?”
“Emese, you’re not listening. Something butchered that girl, tore her to bits. There wasn’t enough of her to bring back.”
Jamus doubled over and retched into the dusty dirt. I didn’t know what to do or say. I placed a hand on his shoulder while keeping an ear to the wall.
“Poor Tama. She’s never been happy here… but now without her daughter… Poor Tama.”
Poor Jamus. Surely my parents knew the impact this would have on their son.
“Poor Sam, I say.” My father pushed his chair away from the table. “He was the one that followed the blood trail to its end, where they killed her. But enough, I’m going to help the boys with the pumps.”
At that point, Jamus and I should have gotten up and ran to the field, but we didn’t. Jamus couldn’t move, and I couldn’t pull my ear away from the wall.
“The boys,” said my father from the other side of the door.
“No, Absolom. You said they killed her. Who are they? Who killed Alana?”
“Oh.” My father paused with the door half open. “Spiders.”
“They’re back? But how? I thought we—”
“I know. Me too. But there’s no mistake. It was spiders.”
Spiders. Despite the morning heat, I had cold sweats. Spiders. That word literally knocked me on my own butt, my hand landing in Jamus’ vomit. Suddenly I was six again, slipping in spider gore, helplessly watching Marie Suiza scream and disappear into the dark.
My body shook as I fought down the urge to be sick.
“Xander, Jamus.” My father nodded to us as he shut the door behind him. “Enough sitting around. You should have been out to the pumps.” He looked to the red sun rising on the western horizon. “Daylight’s a burning.”
The familiar phrase jolted me from my flashback. My father always said those words. Everyday. He liked being clever, rolling the shortness of daylight and its intensity into one phrase. Usually he would laugh afterward, weaving all his energy into the spell he cast on those around him. Contentment, perseverance, purpose and meaning in the meaningless—he manufactured the will for the rest of us to keep going.
Today, looking at his two sons, sitting in the dust—Jamus wiping sick off his paled face, me trembling and terrified—my father did nothing but breathe deep and exhale. No anger at catching us eavesdropping. No attempt at humor. No, nothing but tired and worry.
That worried me.
There wasn’t a sufficient natural source of water in Brunning. The vast valley we lived in was a wasteland that saw rain twice a year if lucky. When the Fortitude Hibernarii faction conceived Brunning they could have sent the tech to easily generate water and lots of it, but they didn’t. Instead they sent an advance team of humans to Erimia to locate an acceptable site to start a new colony. That advance team put in the groundwork for us and the other eight families that followed my father to this dead planet.
My father said no planet was truly dead. That was the epitome of Absolom Floros—a determined optimism that found potential in every situation. His relentless and contagious attitude kept the whole damned colony running. Contagious but not universal.
Between the monotonous tasks of the morning, I found myself scanning the fields and wasteland beyond. I scolded myself. Spiders are nocturnal, get back to work, Xander. The work kept my mind busy, and I dove into it as hard as I could.
By midday we had serviced most of the pumps that fed water through subterranean pipes beneath Brunning. We cleaned solar cells and mucked out built-up sediment inside the pump housings. My father tried to send Jamus home more than once. It didn’t work. Jamus refused to go, instead plodding on with the work. Silent.
Despite everything, the morning passed quickly. Almost noon, my father finished up the last of the adjustments with his head in the Larkin’s pump. Jamus and I leaned against the Larkin’s barn, pressing into the razors-width of a shadow, and took one of our frequent water breaks.
Otherwise unoccupied, curiosity about the morning’s events itched at the back of my mind. Jamus had been quiet—something out of the normal for my little brother. My father, content to work in silence, had barely said a thing. Only the occasional greeting to the other colonists.
With a little patience and a mixture of keeping my head down and my ears up, I usually stayed informed of all interesting doings. That was if anything interesting ever happened in Brunning. Which typically it did not. But now, not only were the spiders back, they’d killed someone.
And nobody was talking. People were working in their fields or homes like normal—conditioned to go about their routine as if nothing had happened. I realized they were doing the same thing I’d been doing all morning—holding the craziness and desperation back by keeping their minds and bodies busy. Brunning was a fragile machine and we were its fuel. Despite tragedy, work had to go on for us to survive.
Survive. I scoffed. “This is pointless.” I rubbed the salty residue left on my forehead from evaporated sweat and winced as some fell in my eyes. I splashed water in my eyes to clean them.
Jamus put both hands to his face.
“Use the water. Rubbing makes it worse.”
“Huh?” He looked at me with red eyes.
“Here,” I sloshed water on him, “let me help.”
He sputtered and swiped at me.
“Your face is clean isn’t it?” I laughed in attempt to manufacture some form of levity. Someone had to break this town out of its rut, wake it up to reality. “You should be more grateful.”
Jamus glared at me, water dripping off his nose. “Jerk.” He picked up his bladder and walked toward the Larkin’s house. “I need more water.”
“Get me some too?” I tossed my water bladder at his back, just missing.
Jamus ignored it and kept walking.
“Whatever.” The low whirring sound of the pump told me my father had finished. I turned and got blasted in the face with warm, gritty water. I tried to yell, but choked until the water stopped a couple of seconds later. “What the hell?”
“Oh, sorry Xander.” My father chuckled. “I thought I heard you ask for water. I had to clear the line anyway. Thought I’d help out, you know, in the name of efficiency…” He smiled and closed the access hatch to the underground pipes.
I scowled while scraping silt out of my hair. “Right. So helpful. You done?”
“Yep.” He glanced at the sun. “Your mother should have lunch ready.” He brushed mud off my shoulder. “You’ll have to clean up before she lets you in though.”
“You should be more grateful.” My father drank from his water bladder. When he finished, the smile had gone, the weariness back. “Speaking of which, where’d Jamus go?”
“Went moping off for some clean water.”
My father nodded to himself. “Let him be. Some wounds take time.” He clasped my shoulder. “You know that. He’ll need your help.”
Everyone in Brunning needed help. Fat chance they were going to welcome it from me. I shook my head. “Lot of good that will do. Spiders are gonna kill us all anyway.”
My father tensed. I hoped he would say something reassuring, counter my bleak outburst. He didn’t. He hefted his tool case onto his shoulder. “Your mother is waiting.”
My father and I entered the kitchen through the back door. Jamus trudged along a ways behind us, as distant emotionally as he was physically. Lunch had been laid out on the table. Cassava, red beans, and grilled crelix.
Not many things were naturally edible in our corner of Erimia, let alone palatable. The planet continued to produce regular surprised, most unpleasant. The small, fat, gray lizards that made a croaking ‘crelix’ noise practically infested our valley. While they were initially nothing but a nuisance, we’d since discovered they not only laid copious amounts of eggs, but when grilled they were way more appetizing than synthesized proteins.
After the spiders killed the Suiza family, crelix was the only thing my parents could get me to eat. Even then it took effort. Once the spiders had gone, once my father said they’d never be back, my hunger had gradually improved.
Now the spiders were back.
All morning I’d struggled to keep my breakfast down. My stomach had clenched at the mention of lunch. Nightmares danced in the shadows of my mind. More than once I’d repeated to myself, you’re not six years old. You’re a grown man.
Maybe I had matured, or maybe it was the morning’s work—the mental conditioning Brunning had worked on me—but the spiced crelix cooked in oil dominated my senses and I dug into my food without even washing up.
My father strolled into the sitting room, presumably to find Mom. Jamus leaned against the wall and sipped his water.
“C’mon,” I waved a grilled lizard at him, “it’s your favorite. Eat.”
Jamus smacked the crelix out of my hand and followed our father into Mom’s sitting room.
I stooped over to pick up the dirty crelix meat while mumbling to myself. “No reason to waste good food.”
My father returned while I was dusting it off. “Everything all right with you and Jamus?” He took his seat at the table.
“Guess he’s not hungry. Where’s Mom?”
“In her sitting room. Cali, Tenley, and some of the other women are with her.”
“Oh.” On Tatmus Delta, my family had lived a fairly isolated life. Not many visitors stopped by due to a mix of geography and class. In Brunning we never had a shortage of visitors. My father served as our honorary fearless leader while my Mom was the resident wise woman.
“Take it easy on your brother. There’s not been a death in the settlement in years. Yes, Jamus is young, but his heart’s broken.”
The food in my mouth tasted like ash. On the surface I understood what my father was getting at. I understood Alana had been special to Jamus. But I needed to know how we were going to stop the spiders from happening again… dark things needed to stay in dark places. But the spiders…
I pushed my plate away. “You’re sure they’re back?”
“I’m afraid so. We’ve never encountered anything else here on Erimia that would do…” My father paled and pushed his plate away. He stood as if to leave, but paused. “Still, something about it…” My father scrunched his brow and stared out the window as if replaying a memory across his mind’s eye. “The harsh conditions on Erimia breed efficiency. The spiders are no exception. They drink all of their prey’s blood—”
“Please, I know.” I struggled against old memories.
“—but Alana’s blood was everywhere. And the dog. They took Alana’s body—”
“Stop. Stop.” A black hole in the ground and anguished screams flooded my mind.
“—why not take the dog?”
“Enough!” I stood up, knocking my chair over. “Just stop! Heretic’s Hell, just stop!”
The crash snapped my father out of his concentration. He placed his hands on my trembling shoulders. “My apologies, son. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
I stepped away from him, took in a deep breath, and held it—a trick I learned to diminish the effects of recurring nightmares. I hoped the women in the next room hadn’t heard me. For Yuan’s sake, I was twenty-one years old.
My father let me have my space but didn’t break his gaze. “I didn’t mean to drudge up unfortunate memories. Do you want to talk about it?”
Unfortunate memories. Ha. “No. Brunning needs men, not scared children.”
Nodding, he gathered our plates and put them in the sink.
Eager to leave, I made for the door. “I’ll get Jamus.”
“Let him be. We’re done with pumps for the day. I need to meet with Reese and the other men.”
The idea of a council meeting hadn’t crossed my mind, but it made sense. We needed to do something about the spiders. By now my clothes were dry but coated with silt. “I’ll come to. Let me change first.”
“Actually, I need you to go to the Thurn place. They haven’t responded to com calls. They never do. They need to know about Alana.”
“But the meeting…”
“I imagine you were heading out there this evening anyway. Better to go and be back before dark. Day light’s a burning.”
My father had a point. I spent most of my evenings away, on the Thurn’s side of the divide, but now… Night wasn’t safe anymore.
I rushed into the other room and stopped cold. Usually when the women gathered in Mom’s parlor the room carried a generally happiness. Not this time. Mom and the other mother’s all sat close to Tama Jans, who in turn sat by Jamus. Both of them cried into each other’s shoulders. Nobody spoke. Soft weeping and the whirring of the house fan were the only sounds. The whole scene seemed surreal, and the oddity of it finally brought clarity apart from my own trauma. I felt like an idiot. A selfish idiot.
My brother lost his girlfriend and I’d been too absorbed in my own fear. I’d been a self-righteous jerk to him all day. To me, Alana’s death had been about the return of the spiders, one more reason none of us should be on Erimia to begin with. But what if it had been my Marigold?
I should have offered my condolences to Tama. Alana was her only child. I should have tried to bring some comfort, mixed my tears with the others. My father entered behind me and sat next to Mom, wiping away the tears on her cheeks.
The gravity of the situation hit me in the gut. I couldn’t let myself feel it. I panicked. I told myself I couldn’t disturb the reverence of the room, and I left. I slipped into my bedroom, shed my dirty work suit, and took a shower. A few minutes later I fled the house and the mourners without a single word or gesture of comfort. I should have stayed.
But I needed to see Marigold.
From the day that my family arrived on Erimia and I saw Marigold, a dusty-faced little nymph of a kid with golden curls that reflected the harsh sun, softening its severity, I wanted to be around her. I thought I’d be the only child my age in the Brunning experiment, that I was extra baggage my parents had to tote across the galaxy. Marigold changed that. Despite family incongruence’s, we spent every moment we could together.
Erimia had short intense days and long nights. Only a few hours of daylight remained and I had to get to Marigold’s family, the Thurns, before dark, before the spiders emerged. I told myself responsibility didn’t allow me to linger at the house. Still, guilt weighed me down. What could I do to help the others? What words of comfort could I offer, when deep inside, I knew the whole misguided settlement of Brunning had been doomed from the start?
The process of building Brunning, futile as it was, wove strong people together to make them stronger. The colonists were close. We loved each other like family. Mom said love was like sending out a part of your soul that always came back better, more full, but when someone you cared for died, that part of you that you had sent out to them died with them. No matter how tough you were, losing a loved one wore at you, it cut at the mountains, it spilled across space and made the stars cry.
I knew the people back at my house felt that way. It made sense. But I had learned about death early in life and never experienced love and loss the way Mom described them. I wanted to, but just couldn’t. Something in me was off.
I’d known Alana all of her life and for most of mine. Sure she was annoying, but like the other handful of kids in Brunning, she was like family. Rationally, the loss of Alana hit home. I’d been so occupied by my fear of the spiders, or occupied trying to ignore that fear, that I’d been blind to the feelings of others.
That was wrong. And it pissed me off.
The more I hiked across the burning ground, the more my anger burned. Every individual in Brunning was part of a larger plan for survival. Jamus and Alana, together, had been part of that plan. What part would Jamus play now? I couldn’t imagine how I would feel if Marigold was killed. I hoped I wouldn’t have to find out. Worst of all, what if I learned I didn’t have the ability to feel anything more than I felt now?
I picked up my pace toward the valley wall south of the settlement, as if I could outrun my doubts. The Thurns lived in the small valley at the mouth of our canyon. Because of a sharp switchback, only a narrow promontory of canyon wall separated the main valley from the smaller one.
For most people, a trip to the Thurns meant a couple hours walk across the valley and through the narrow canyon switchback. Early on, after the spiders had been gone for over a year, Marigold and I found a faster way between our homes. A deep set crevice formed a chimney running straight up both sides of the narrow promontory that separated Brunning from the original settlement site where the Thurns still lived.
At the base of the promontory wall, I slipped on gloves and crawled into the crevice. Similar crevice formations pocked the walls throughout the greater Brunning valley—strange geologic formations with no natural explanation, none that we had deduced anyway.
I jammed my hands into pockets on opposing sides of the crevice and began to shimmy up at a quick clip, one that would push my endurance by the top. I found traversing the crevice more bearable when done quickly and with as little thought as possible.
Due to he relative darkness, mass amounts of crelix, and even more of the nasty stinging insects that swarmed during the wet season, the crevices were avoided by everyone else in Brunning. All the better for Marigold and I to keep our secret route secret.
Of course my father knew about it. My use of the crevice as a thoroughfare explained why he sent me to deliver messages to the Thurns. He could have done it himself, but it would’ve taken him twice the time, and he didn’t get along with the Thurns. Nobody in Brunning got along with anyone in Marigold’s family except of course for Marigold.
She was the anomaly, beautiful and bright amongst a dark and derelict family. But like my father said, everybody in Brunning brought value. He didn’t say it had to be equal though.
After the first minute, I hit a rhythm in my climb and blocked out any thought of the lizards and annoying bugs. My frequent visits made it possible to root out infestations before they got too big. It had taken time and many painful bites to clean the crevice in the beginning. Marigold and I made sure to keep it clean.
I made the vertical ascent using rock holds, some natural, some I’d gouged out long ago. Only a small amount of indirect light shone into the crevice, a good thing since the heat would have been lethal. The lack of light meant the holds had to be felt more than seen, but I practically had the route memorized. I probably could have climbed it with my eyes closed, although I’d never had a reason to attempt it.
My arms and legs ached by the time I reached the top. Sweat poured down the center of my back. On the surface of the plateau, I drank from my bladder before setting a steady jog for the other side. Anything faster, during the heat of the day, would have made me sick.
A couple hours from sunset, the heat on top of the plateau was brutal. My clima-jacket and hat dispelled the heat enough to manage the short trip. I kept my head down, chin tucked into my chest.
No reason to pay attention to anything other than signals from my own body. Nothing existed on the surface world of Erimia. Just wind swept rocks and the occasional bush too stubborn to die. I made good time to the crevice leading down into the Thurn’s valley, about ten minutes.
With the entrance in sight, I stopped. A cold chill shot up my spine despite the heat. Dimples dotted the sandy soil. Each one about the size of a crelix hole. Small but deep. Even though I hadn’t seen marks like that in years, I recognized them immediately.
Bile tickled my throat. The urge to turn and run home coursed through my body. But I had to warn Marigold.
Spiders are nocturnal.
I repeated the mantra while taking deep breaths.
Spiders are nocturnal.
They hate light.
Spiders are nocturnal.
The sinking sun sat above the canyon wall on the far side of the Thurn’s small valley. Shadows already consumed half of the valley, covering the well house, most of the small fields, and the orchard. It had almost reached the Thurn’s barn. Daylight was a burning. Soon both valleys would be dark pools in the Erimia dusk.
Spiders are nocturnal.
They avoid the light.
And I was losing light. I felt foolish, scared of the dark. Though it wasn’t the dark. It was what hid within it.
I retrieved a rope ladder I had rolled up in a canvas bag under some stones and tossed it down the crevice. Light shone through out the entirety of this chimney, actually more of a big crack. Otherwise I would have been hard pressed to climb into shadows right after passing spider tracks. I slid more than climbed down the ladder, my gloves blazing hot several seconds later when I hit bottom. I tore them off and shook out my hands.
The air in the Thurn’s valley was slightly humid and considerably cooler than back in Brunning. The smaller size and taller canyon walls made it so the valley floor saw direct sunlight for a much shorter period. Not only plants, but trees, actually grew unaided in the valley and flourished. The place could have been a paradise amongst the hell of Erimia. But the Thurns weren’t the best caretakers. Detritus—bits of broken tech, rusted tools, and garbage—littered the ground in various patches, covered in weeds and dirt.
Right in the middle of the valley lay Marigold’s house. All of her family lived there, but I called it Marigold’s because she was the only one out of her lazy family that gave a damn. Despite being built from a decommissioned space transport, the big house would have fallen apart if not for Marigold’s attention.
I slipped forward quietly, hoping to remain unnoticed until the last minute. I didn’t particularly look forward to meeting up with Deek or Boyd, Marigold’s older brothers. They didn’t like the sight of me. I didn’t like the sight or smell of them.
With the well-spring that fed Brunning’s water network literally in their backyard, I could never understand why those two beasts avoided bathing. It was like they were afraid of water. Idiots. Not stupid. Lazy, definitely. They only exerted energy when a clear benefit presented itself. It was hard to describe them. They were just Thurns.
I took a deep breath and did my best to stroll casually into the open.
“Hey there, Xandy Man. Wondrin’ when ya’d stop hiding behind that junk heap.”
Already tense and on edge, I didn’t respond well to being caught off-guard. I’d like to say I jumped into a defensive stance, ready for any challenge. Instead, I shrieked like a little girl. Right in front of Deek Thurn.
“Aw. Pretty.” Deek pushed away from the rusted junk he’d been leaning against and gave me a toothy grin—not a kind one, but a predatory-I-could-eat-you-alive leer. “You make noises like that when yer with my sister?”
I glared up at Deek, a good head taller than me. I’d played a weak card when he scared me—the Thurn brothers liked weak things, liked to play with them, and they didn’t play nice. I couldn’t back down now. “Only when we’re imitating you with your pigs.”
Deek’s bushy eyebrow shot up, his small eyes afire. He balled his fists and stepped toward me.
I stood my ground, despite knowing I’d gone too far. I took a deep breath and regretted it. “Damn, Deek.” I coughed. “Take a bath.” Since I had committed, I decided to sell it. “Or do the pigs like you better with that smell?”
Deek pulled back his arm, preparing to deliver a world of hurt my way. “Gonna kill ya, Xandy Man.” That close, Deek’s threat reeked of believability.
“Deek, Ma wants you back at the house.” Marigold stood a few paces away. Her sweet voice cut through the tension, stopping Deek’s assault before it started.
“Yer lucky, Xandy Man.” He shot me an ugly glare and stomped away. Then again Deek only had one glare, and it was always ugly.
“She’s waiting.” Marigold shoved her brother as he passed. “You know how Ma hates to wait. Best hurry.”
A few seconds later Deek was gone, and I had Marigold in my arms, kissing her. A second after that, she punched me in the gut.
“What was that for?” I asked while doubled over.
“You’re an idiot. I heard what you said to Deek.”
“Just a little macho banter. That’s all. I bruise his ego, he bruises my face. Me and Deek, we’re friends like that.” I took her hand, pulling her toward me. “At least he doesn’t sucker punch me.”
“Deek would have given you a lot worse.” She stood on her toes and kissed me. “Sorry for the gut shot.”
I stole another kiss. “It’s okay. You punch like a girl.”
She pushed back from me with a gleam in her eye. “Really? Do I need to try again?”
“I’m good. Thanks.”
“That’s what I thought.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Not complaining, but why are you here so early?”
Funny how girls can distract you. Especially ones with dusty golden hair streaked by the sun, hazel eyes with flecks of emerald, and a body perfectly balanced between strong and feminine. Even the harsh Erimian sun worshipped her, kissing her skin with a light tan the shade of honey. And in that brief moment, I forgot why I’d come. All thoughts of spiders, Alana, and Jamus had fled my mind, until they returned like a second punch to the gut.
“My father sent me. Alana’s been killed. I’m supposed to deliver the message to your pa.”
The smile melted from Marigold’s face, replaced by a look of mixed anxiety and anger. “They killed Alana?”
“Yeah. Last night. Jamus is a wreck, I didn’t even realize—”
“It’s getting dark. You should head home.”
“I’ll tell Ma and Pa about Alana.” Marigold gave me quick peck on the cheek and pushed me toward the wall. “You should get back before it’s too dangerous.”
“I just got here.” I slipped past her on my way toward the Thurn house. “Plus your pa isn’t ever going to respect me if I send you with the message while I scamper back home.”
“Some things aren’t worth my family’s respect.” She caught a hold of me by my jacket. “You should go.”
“I’ll deliver the message, and then I’ll go. I promised my father I’d deliver the message straight to your pa.” I grabbed her hand off my jacket and squeezed it. She squeezed back. “Believe me, I don’t want to be around when the spiders come out. I saw tracks atop the plateau. Had to have been from last night.”
“Spiders?” Her hand relaxed in mine and she looked around again. Not the reaction I had expected.
“So you already know they’re back? Nobody in Brunning knew until last night, until Alana. When did you find out?”
“Spiders killed Alana.”
“Blight’s shadow, Marigold! What planet are you on? I already told you about Alana. Of course it was spiders. What else would have killed her? Besides spiders, there’s nothing but biters, crelix, and us.”
Marigold let out a nervous laugh and then covered her mouth—another weird reaction. “This is all so messed up. Of course it was spiders.” She pulled me toward the house almost at a run. “Let’s tell my parents about the spiders, and then you need to go before…”
“Before what?” I asked, stumbling behind her in an attempt to dodge junk littered bushes.
“The dark. Before sunset,” she called over her shoulder.
“I already said that. Are you feverish? Or are you trying to confuse me on purpose?”
“Sorry. You’re right.” We stopped in the clearing around her house and she grabbed both my hands. “I’m just scared. And sad. Alana was a good girl. I liked her.”
“Yeah. Everyone was pretty shocked. Sorry.”
“Why are you sorry?”
“It’s just…” I didn’t want to burden her with all my thoughts about the difference between how I felt and how normal people felt. “Whenever I think about spiders I remember what happened the last time…”
Marigold cupped her hand on my cheek, wiping away a tear I didn’t know was there. “Oh Xander. You can’t let old memories eat at you.” She wrapped me in a hug, her head against my chest. “Try not to think about it.”
“That’s the problem.” I stepped back from her. “I block out the spiders and everything and everyone else.” I breathed deeply and pointed toward the canyon wall. “Right now my house is full. All of Brunning is gathering there and I ran away.”
I dropped my hand and shook my head. “Jamus is back there. He’s a mess. And I ran away. I drop a bomb on you and expect you to handle it like it’s nothing. I feel like a selfish jerk, a self-absorbed sociopath.”
“Oh, you are an idiot.” Marigold smiled. “You’re scared. I’m scared. We all handle it different ways. And you’re not a sociopath—believe me, I know all about sociopaths.” Marigold looked past me and tensed. “Speaking of…”
“Xandy Man!” A meaty hand grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. Thank Yuan, this time I didn’t shriek like a girl, especially in front of Marigold. Nope, I came around with my fists ready.
“Wo there, Xandy Man!” Boyd Thurn, the bigger and only slightly less ugly and smelly of Marigold’s brothers, held his hands up in mock defense.
“Sorry, Boyd.” I dropped my fists. “Thought you were Deek.”
Boyd grinned, an unnerving gesture. “Now Xandy Man, them’s fightin’ words. I ain’t nothin’ like that pig-lovin idiot.”
My face flushed. “Deek told you about that, huh?”
“Came rushin’ in the house fumin’ up a storm about it, sure enough!” Boyd laughed, something between a growl and a grunt. “Then ran out again when Pa told him to shut his mouth. Said he’s too ugly fer the pigs.”
Marigold pulled at my arm. “Let’s get your message delivered.”
“Hold up, Goldie.” Boyd grabbed my shoulder. “Xandy Man and me, we’re a talkin’ here. Git up to the house, we don’t need you fer man’s talk. Right, Xandy Man?”
“Xander needs to git before the sun’s gone.” Marigold insisted.
“Pity. Got some meat cookin’ over apple wood since this morning.” Boyd’s grin went full smile. His yellow teeth peeked through the bush overshadowing his upper lip. “Be perfect in an hour, but I’ll cut ya a slice now, if ya like.”
Marigold tugged me, hard enough to pull me a few steps. “He’ll pass, Boyd.”
Usually I wouldn’t even be tempted to accept a gift from Boyd. He was just as nasty as Deek, if not more, beneath his thin, deceptive shell of congeniality. But some juicy pork sounded great. “Well, if you’re offering, I’d hate to be rude—”
Marigold about pulled my arm out of its socket. “You’ll pass,” she said to me, her eyebrows set and lips pursed. “Bye, Boyd.” She pulling me past him.
“Wait. What’s the important message?” Boyd called after us.
I had the words half formed in my mouth, but Marigold beat me to it. “Xander’s finally gonna ask Pa to let me marry him.”
I cringed. “Why the hell would you say that?” I hissed at her, looking over my shoulder to make sure Boyd wasn’t running to kill me. Thankfully, he’d already slunk off.
The Thurn brothers treated Marigold like a slave, including the notion they owned her. It was no secret I planned to marry her one day, hopefully sooner than later. That was one big reason, among many, for Boyd and Deek to hate me.
“It’s getting dark.” Marigold ushered me to her front porch and took my water bladder. “Stay here, I’ll get you some water and send out Pa.” I would have argued, but she was right. Only a small sliver of sun still burned over the valley walls. Darkness had crept up on the valley so subtly I barely noticed until Marigold called my attention to it. A chill swept through my body, probably from the dropping temperature and my sweat-dampened clothes. Probably.
“Catch yer death.”
They say things come in threes. I sure hoped so, because I was sick of being caught off guard by Thurns. After the two seconds it took to catch my breath, I turned to face Marigold’s mother standing on the far side of the porch.
“Mrs. Thurn.” I attempted some measure of composure. “Pardon?”
For a moment, an odd, amber light shone from something cupped in Ma Thurn’s hand. It illuminated her chest and highlighted the sharp angles of her sun-baked face. She quickly hid the object in her blouse, a faint glow visible beneath the fabric where it hung from a silver chain around her neck. “Catch yer death.” She said again. “Damp clothes and night. Make ya weak. Weak things die on Erimia.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” I didn’t know if she was trying to be helpful or threatening. It was hard to tell with Mrs. Thurn. Probably both. I followed my father’s example and tried not to talk much to her, ever. Show her respect? Yes. Engage in friendly conversation with her? No such thing with Mrs. Thurn.
She stared at me like she was calculating something. If Marigold’s two brothers made me edgy, her mother about sent me over the edge. I think she liked it that way.
I waited for Marigold to come back with her father. A conversation with Mr. Thurn didn’t appeal to me much, but it had to be more pleasant than trying to look anywhere but at Mrs. Thurn, who wouldn’t stop staring at me.
“Nice necklace.” The words left my mouth before I could stop them.
“It is, and it ain’t none of yer concern.” She pulled her shawl closed and strode toward the front door, almost colliding with Mr. Thurn on his way out.
“Somethin’ the matter?” Marigold’s dad asked, switching his gaze between Mrs. Thurn and me.
“Nothin’ that won’t be better when he’s gone.” Mrs. Thurn flipped her hand at me and pushed past her husband into the house.
Mr. Thurn watched her go, then looked at me, his bushy black eyebrow cocked.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“Marigold says you’s got something to say. Best say it and git.”
“Yes sir. Alana Jans was killed last night.”
Mr. Thurn’s thin face went nasty. “Shame. Why ya sayin’ ‘killed’?”
“It was spiders, Pa. Xander even saw tracks on our side of the divide.” Marigold burst from the house. She thrust my water bladder and a light into my arms. “The sun’s about gone. Best be on your way, Xander.”
“If spiders be about, then dark’s dangerous,” said Marigold’s father. He craned his neck to look around. “Might be better for the boy to stay til’ light.” He looked back to me. “Just you then?”
“He can bunk in the barn with yer brothers,” he said to Marigold.
Standing there, on the Thurn’s front porch in the fast fading light, I faced a dilemma. Rushing home in the dark, knowing spiders were out there, terrified me. On the other hand, being alone with Boyd and Deek served as an unsettling alternative. Who knew what the two would do to me without Marigold around.
Even though the light had mostly faded in the valley, I could see enough to make it back to the rope ladder and there’d still be sun on the plateau. Maybe long enough to get me home. Maybe.
Then dark shrouded everything. The solar lamps on the Thurn’s house kicked on and a boom echoed off the valley walls, followed by a bright burst of light. Clouds raced in from the direction of Brunning. Wind rushed through the canyon and into the valley, filling the air with the smell of ozone and wet dirt.
“What the… So soon?” Mr. Thurn turned toward the door. “Ma! Storm! Close up the house! I gotta get the boys to put in the pigs an’ mules!”
Grating gears sounded as metal shutters closed over the few windows the old space ship house had. Mr. Thurn ran past me, calling for his sons.
“Uh, should I help him?” I asked Marigold.
“Xander, you need to leave. Now. It’s not safe here.” She hooked her arm though mine, pulling us toward the wall at a run. “I’ll take you to the wall.”
“You’ve seen spiders down here?” I cringed at another peal of thunder, the lightning right behind it. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Marigold kept a hold of my arm and didn’t slow. “There’s plenty I’m not telling you. Don’t stop.”
“What’s that mean?” I about tripped over a heap of junk.
“We have to keep going. Get out that light.”
I flipped on the light. The beam bounced with each stride and streaked with dark flecks. Rain. Hot rain. It came like a blanket, drenching us. “What’s going on?” I yelled to her while wiping the water out of my eyes with the back of my arm.
“Storm! Watch out!”
I jumped over an old fuel cell just in time, landing on the other side and slipping in the mud.
Marigold stabilized me. “C’mon, we’re almost there!” she yelled through the deluge.
Another lightning strike illuminated the cliff wall close in front of us. I didn’t know what had gotten into Marigold. She’d been weird since I’d arrived. Could have been the weather—the rainy season shouldn’t have come for another couple of months, and even then storms weren’t typically as violent as this. Not even close. But the wild, scared look in Marigold’s eyes told me to trust her. I focused the light on our path, and seconds later we stopped at the wall.
The wind screamed down the crevice, whipping the rope ladder around like a jittery crelix tail.
Marigold kissed me hard and pushed me away. “Leave the ladder down. I’m coming tomorrow morning.”
“No, I’ll come back here tomorrow,” I shouted back to her.
“You ain’t comin’ back here. Be safe!” With that she ran toward the flickering house lamps.
I moved the palm light to my wrist and tackled the rope ladder. Although loud, the wind whistling through the crevice didn’t bother me. The water did. Funneling down the crevice mouth, it pummeled me and made the ladder slick. My focus on climbing remained so complete, only when I reached the top rung did I remember the spiders.
I hung there, breathing hard, just inside the crevice mouth. I kept my head down to avoid the water. Then again, I always kept my head down, didn’t I? Why hadn’t I argued with Marigold? Why hadn’t I just stayed with the Thurns? I almost took a step down.
Marigold wanted me gone. She was scared, and I didn’t think it was due to the spiders. Marigold was beautiful, but she was hard—living with her family, she had to be. If something scared her worse than spiders… I’d have to trust her. That didn’t mean keeping my head down. That meant lifting it up.
I turned off the palm light. No need to make myself an easy target. Gathering my legs beneath me and shoving the fear deep, I sprung out of the hole and ran as hard as I could. I didn’t know if there were spiders. I wasn’t taking the time to find out. I almost didn’t care. I ran as if I were chasing demons, and if I ran hard enough, I might finally catch them.
The wind pushed against me. The rain turned the sandy dust slick. The thunder and constant slamming rain drops erased all other sounds. Black clouds choked the sky behind and above me. Faint stars appeared ahead of me. I ran with my head down, just like I had when I came. This time, I told myself I did so only to keep the wind-swept rain out of my eyes.
Deep inside, I knew better. Spiders killed quick. Better to not see them coming…
The rain stopped pelting me, the wind died, and the purple Erimian moon appeared. Just like that, the storm had passed. Still I ran. Now my pounding feet sounded loud in the twilight silence. When I looked up, Brunning was closer than I’d imagined.
I didn’t slow. I wiped the water out of my eyes and ran straight for the cliff wall illuminated by Brunning’s glow. I found the crevice and lowered myself in.
My heart pounded. I swallowed out of relief. I couldn’t believe my luck. Maybe the rain kept the spiders away. I held the palm light in my mouth—I needed both hands free for the slick rock walls—and descended at a steady but reasonable pace. The moon shone directly above, lighting the way.
Climbing up is physically hard. Down-climbing is worse, especially when drenched. Focusing hard on each hold, I barely noticed the moon’s light disappear. At first, I guess I assumed the clouds had returned.
Something blocked the crevice top.
No. Big somethings.
Then the chittering. I could have gone eternities without hearing that sound again.
With eight legs to maneuver the walls, the spiders had an unfair advantage. They coursed down the crevice toward me. I had made it little more than halfway down. At my current rate, they’d reach me before I reached the bottom.
With nightmares pounding at the door of my mind and nightmares steaming down the crevice, I had no other choice. I braced my feet on each side of the slippery wall and let go.
END of Episode One
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