Maude stepped back from the shadeglass, squinting. They had said the future would be bright, but this was ridiculous. Shielding her eyes, she looked past Martin, curled up on the rocking chair on the porch, and tried to make out the origins of the approaching dust cloud. Riders—it looked like—though who would be out with the suns at their zenith was beyond her.
Simon mewed from the kitchen as Magdalena rubbed herself against Maude’s legs, prompting Maude to fix them all some food. She keyed in the combination for the pantry’s lock and the door slid open to reveal her meager supplies. It wouldn’t be long before she’d have to make the long trek to Fountain to stock up. How she hated that town—its ways and its memories.
She ripped open two packs of instameat and emptied the freeze-dried contents into a pan on the burner, then topped it up with water from the filtration tank and set the burner going. Graham and Willard joined her by the window as she squinted out onto the plains once more.
Definitely riders, two of them, on the native strokers, not the souped-up horses the settlers used. Maude found herself reaching for her fission rifle. She never really held with all that stuff about native raiding parties burning their victims alive and eating the charred meat, but you could never be too careful.
“You can never be too careful,” she echoed her thoughts to Mimi. Mimi eyed her for a moment, then yawned.
They were closer now, the big, shambling creatures moving deceptively fast. Poor strokers. They’d been bioengineered so much they more closely resembled giant sloths than their amphibious ancestors. Their riders were crouched forward, their faces swathed in fibrocotton to protect their skin from the glaring heat. No one was more sensitive to the heat than the natives.
The instameat on the burner bubbled hard, huge globs of meaty gravy popping to the surface, but Maude was concentrating too closely on the approaching riders to turn down the heat. They weren’t following the line of the road. They were headed across country, directly for Maude’s shack.
She hefted the rifle, making sure all its functions were operational. “Just you try eating my skin, you fishy sons of bitches.”
Gary sniffed the air and yowled, drawing Maude’s attention back to the food.
“Goddammnit!” Maude snapped, turning the burner off.
She paced the kitchen, breathing fast. They were almost upon her. She could hardly run out there and confront them; she’d be a walking melanoma in seconds. But the shack was so small—if she stayed inside they’d overpower her for sure.
“What do I do, what do I do?” she muttered under her breath. A memory from Fountain tugged at her. Surrounded, cowering, but the name-calling wasn’t enough. They still picked up stones and dirt to pelt the freak. Strike first, or they would, that’s what Fountain had taught her. She planted herself opposite the door and trained her rifle on the handle.
Outside, there was a dull snuffling as the strokers came to a stop. Boots clumped up the porch steps. Through the window she saw Martin stand up on the rocking chair and hiss, ears flat, hackles raised. She had tried to teach the cats that a shady patch of porch couldn’t protect them from radiation, but some were too stubborn or too stupid to stay indoors. The neat row of little graves out back—unmarked and obscured by drifts of sand—attested to that.
One of the riders was clutching his stomach and Maude wondered if she should try to take him out first. The other one leaned toward the window. Maude showed him the rifle, an empty threat, but perhaps he didn’t know that. If she shot out the window, she’d die a slow, irradiated death, and if they made it through the front door, she’d only have one shot before they were on her.
He raised a gloved hand and spread his fingers. She exhaled, relieved. Human.
“What do you want?” she shouted.
The front one pointed to his companion and then made a crude gun with his fingers. Maude moved closer. She could see the blood darkening the fibrocotton of the rider’s tunic, the spreading stain. Maude sighed. Just because they were settlers, didn’t mean they were honest. They could still beat and rob her. Fists and threats, that was often the best someone like Maude could expect.
She saw herself, much younger, pinned down on a bed at the saloon in Fountain by a whisky-breathed farmer. Breathing the stale sweat of the previous bodies that had writhed on that mattress, feeling his weight, knowing there was no escape. If Marianne hadn’t clouted him around the head…
Well, that was the risk you took out here. People tried to hurt you and if they got hurt in return, well, that was on them. Nodding, Maude opened the door, shielding herself behind it.
The riders were barely over the threshold when the injured one collapsed. Without thinking, Maude closed the door and rushed forward to help him to his feet. She could feel his bony frame through his clothing. She wondered a moment about his mittened hands but dismissed the thought. The first rider had already shown his fingers. It was fine. They were settlers, not natives. She was just paranoid and jittery.
The uninjured rider came to support his companion and together he and Maude struggled through to the kitchen, then lowered him into a chair. The uninjured rider unwound the fibrocotton buff from his face. From her face. Maude had thought herself the only woman mad enough for a life in the desert, and her circumstances were less than ideal. This one was young, younger than Maude at least, with hard, sun-reddened skin and small, bright eyes. Her pupils had retracted to pinpricks from the hours spent outside.
“Bryony,” the woman mumbled, pulling off her gloves and extending a hand.
“Maude,” said Maude, wondering how long it was since she’d touched another person. “And your man here?”
“My girl,” said Bryony, eyeing the hissing cats, “is Katie. Do you have a medikit?”
“Of course, of course, I’m sorry.”
Another combination lock under the filtration tank and a drawer slid open to reveal some sterisheets and a tube of anaesthetic ointment.
“You don’t have no grafters? No synthskin?”
Maude shook her head. “They’re expensive. You get anything that requires ’em out here, you’re dead anyway.”
Bryony sighed. “Of course.” She took out the anaesthetic and a handful of sterisheets. “Better than nothing, I s’pose.”
She stepped toward her partner and took hold of the hem of her tunic. She hesitated, then looked at Maude. Maude put this down to anxiety about the inevitable pain she was going to inflict by moving the garment.
“Do you mind?” Bryony asked.
Maude wasn’t sure what was being requested. Slowly it dawned on her that Bryony was shy about showing her girl’s flesh to someone she’d just met. Blushing, Maude turned a half step away.
“What happened?” she asked, trying to distract herself. It had been a long time. Maude couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a person, never mind someone young, attractive, and within touching distance.
“Oh, you know,” Bryony’s voice was muffled, like she was stooped over. “Misunderstanding with Sheriff Gustav.”
Maude knew only too well. Gustav had strange ideas about law and justice. The soft rustle of fabric drew her away from unpleasant memories of Fountain and Gustav. She didn’t want to look, but her eyes were hungry for anything, any kind of glimpse, no matter how futile. She’d resigned herself to a life alone, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have the same desires as everyone else. She stole a look as Bryony was dabbing at the open wound and gasped in horror.
“You brought one of them into my house?!” She wheeled around, searching for the rifle. Goddammit, she’d dropped it by the door to help Bryony carry this… thing into her shack.
Katie, if that was what the damn thing was really called, leaned away from Maude’s clenched fists as if she feared a blow. Maude saw the circle of angry faces again, stones poised to be thrown, no matter how much she pleaded. Hate borne of ignorance driving people to cruelty and violence. She paused. What if she’d misinterpreted what she’d seen? What if the girl had psoriasis or some other skin ailment? She glanced at the mittens. No, that sealed it. Definitely a native. God only knew what lurked under that face scarf.
Bryony bent over her companion’s wound, squeezing out a small amount of anaesthetic. Katie stiffened, gripping the base of the chair. Bryony worked quickly, peeling the backing paper off a sterisheet and gently patting the adhesive antiseptic bandage into place. Job done, Bryony stood. She was tall and broad, but it wasn’t her size that made Maude feel small.
“I’d’a thought you of all people would know life ain’t always black and white.”
Maude swallowed. Bryony must be a Fountain girl. Just because Maude hardly ever went there, didn’t mean people didn’t talk about her past and the way her father reacted to it.
“C’mon, Katie.” Bryony lowered her shoulder and her companion gripped it weakly. “We wouldn’t want to bring the posse knocking on Madam’s door.”
The words stung like thrown rocks.
They had almost made it to the door before Maude found her voice again.
“The food’s prob’ly ruined, but you can have some if you want.”
Maude cleaned the dust off the spare plates with an old rag and then set the table, embarrassed by the mismatched cutlery and congealed food. Katie and Bryony didn’t seem to notice. They kept a watchful eye on the window and jerked when Willard leaped onto the kitchen counter with a loud thud.
As Maude served the two girls and then her menagerie, she did her best not to stare at Katie. She’d never seen a native up close, and the ones she had seen were always swathed in protective clothing. The Fountain Bulletin said the natives smelled strongly of dead fish and had needles for teeth, but Katie was hardly the terrifying monster in the picture on the board. Sure, she had larger eyes than a human, and when she blinked her eyelids came in from the sides. But her skin shone with tiny, iridescent scales. She had no hair, but her feather-like crest reminded Maude of a tropical bird.
Katie smiled shyly and looked down at her plate, and Maude realized she’d been staring too long.
“Sorry,” she said, reddening.
“It’s okay,” Bryony answered, picking at her meat with a bent fork, “people expect a creature from the deep.”
“Doesn’t she speak?” Maude asked, watching the webbing between Katie’s fingers flex as she reached for the pepper canister.
“She can, but it’s exhausting for her in this heat. Plus we’re low on water. Need to conserve her supply.”
Maude nodded thoughtfully, studying the breathing apparatus that concealed Katie’s gills.
If the aquatic natives were the vicious savages the settlers made them out to be, maybe they had good reason. 1775-E had once been covered pole-to-pole in water. When the terra-formers arrived, they were only supposed to create a couple of landmasses, make the place habitable for humans. But they malfunctioned. Within a week, ninety percent of the planet had become a deserted wasteland.
“Well, you can fill up from my tank before you go,” Maude said. “Where is it you’re goin’?”
“Heard there’s an oasis down south. Trying to get Katie there before…” Bryony left the sentence unfinished, but Maude knew what she meant. The natives didn’t have much of a lifespan without constant access to water. “You ever thought of moving further south?” Bryony continued. “They say livin’s easier down there.”
“Not for an old lady like me.”
“You could get some surgeries. You’re not so old as to be unsalvageable.” Bryony threw her a saucy wink, and Maude smiled in spite of herself.
“Too many surgeries on this old body already.” She sighed. “And anyway, I don’t want to be owin’ nothing to no one in Fountain. Never again.”
That seemed to be enough to remind Bryony of Maude’s past. She nodded once, and they finished their food in silence. Maude refused to think about Gustav telling her the crowd gave her what she deserved. She wouldn’t give her old man one more second of her time.
The silence made Martin’s sudden yowl all the more startling. Maude was at the door with the rifle in her hand before she’d even thought about it, Katie and Bryony close behind her. She pressed herself flat against the wall, motioning for them to keep quiet and stay out of sight. She peered out at the porch. Nothing. But she wasn’t fooled. Martin cowered beneath the rocking chair, tri-colored tail twitching. Someone was there. And she could guess who.
“Gustav?” she called out, priming the rifle with her thumb.
“Sheriff Gustav to you.”
Maude’s stomach went cold. Sweat broke out along her hairline and trickled down the back of her neck. She swallowed hard, willing her voice strong. “You got no business here.”
“I think I’ll be the judge of that.” Gustav’s boot banged the center of the door. Though it was an iron door, Maude had never maintained it, allowing it to be ravaged by rust. A few more kicks like that could send it flying. She glanced back out the window. The shadows of the scrubby ferns were longer than before. Two of the suns dipped toward the horizon; danger hour was over.
She waited until he’d wound up for another kick and then opened the door. Gustav stumbled into the room, eyes blazing. Maude knew that look all too well. Excitement at the prospect of administering “justice.”
“Well, well,” he said, running a hand over his short black beard, “looky here. How’s it going, Junior?”
Maude couldn’t stop herself from seeing the skinny boy held down on the bed by the drunken farmer, crying out for help, no one doing anything until Marianne took the initiative with a heavy old vase. And because it was Fountain, word got around. Gustav’s boy thought he was a girl, let anyone who wanted to take him like he was one. She’d cried and cowered and they’d thrown stones and Gustav had done nothing but tell her she deserved it.
Gustav watched her. He’d had a lot of surgeries; his skin was still as tight and smooth as when they’d landed, but Maude knew he was decades older than her. Hateful old man. Always wanted to control everything he touched. Maude met his eyes, wishing her fury could kill him where he stood.
“Why don’t you just ride on back to Fountain?” she asked, looking through the doorway for his horse.
“He’s cloaked,” said Gustav smugly. “Clever, ain’t it?”
“If you’re a pig shit thick bastard, then I suppose it’d seem clever.” Maude checked her nails, keeping the rifle trained on his crotch. “Me? I think it’s a dumb gadget for a sneaking dog.”
Gustav leaped forward and she fumbled the rifle, still afraid of him after all these years. Strike first or they will, hadn’t she learned anything? He was on her in a flash, squeezing her cheeks with his big hard fists.
“Why don’t we stop dancing around and just—” he purred, just like the old days.
“You put her down!”
Maude turned her head, surprised to find Katie standing in the kitchen doorway.
“Hooooo!” Gustav let out a catarrhal laugh and dropped Maude. He rubbed his dirty hands together. “I knew it. Freaks find freaks. C’mon, Missy. Back to jail for you.”
“Like hell it is!” Bryony charged out of the kitchen with the big brass pot, still hot from the burner, and swung it hard at the side of Gustav’s head. He crumpled to his knees and Bryony probably would’ve gone on beating his head until there was nothing left if Maude hadn’t dragged her away.
“If you girls could give me a moment,” she said, calmer than she felt, “Gustav and I have something to talk about.” Her heart hammered in her chest.
Katie and Bryony looked at each other. Bryony at least would understand. Word got around in Fountain. Katie seemed hesitant, lingering, unwilling to leave Maude alone with this monster, but Bryony steered her outside.
They loved each other, those two, and they deserved a life, anyone could see that. And the man on the floor, he wouldn’t allow that. He’d hound them like he’d hounded Maude until she found the strength to leave.
She pressed the muzzle of the fission rifle to Gustav’s chest and cocked her head to one side. She’d always thought that when this day came, if it came, she would make some sort of speech. She would stand over Gustav looking elegant and murderous as a lioness and tell him how much he had hurt her. Not just on that day, but before then, whispering his poisonous little asides to her from infancy to puberty. Unnatural. Unwanted. Unclean.
But now, looking down at his sunken, burned face, little more than a grinning skeleton draped in donor skin, now as she took in the knowing look in those hateful eyes, the self-satisfied smirk on those thin, cruel lips, she knew she should save her breath for someone who cared.
So all she said was, “Bye Daddy,” and fired.
Bryony patted the dusty soil flat with the back of the spade and nodded curtly at Maude.
“It’s done,” she said, slipping away to retrieve the strokers.
Another mound. Another unmarked grave. Soon the sand would shift and only Maude would know it was there.
Maude groped around beside the burial plot, trying to find the damned cloaked horse without getting kicked in the face. She felt its neck, warmth coming off it in waves, and moved her hands up to the side of its head. Where was the switch? The horse kicked up dust as it sidestepped nervously away from her.
Katie stepped forward, put her hand over Maude’s, and made a brisk circular motion with her fingertips. Katie’s hand was cool, the scales rough but pliant, like the pads of the cats’ feet. Maude’s heart beat faster. The horse appeared, large and black and glossy, a welcome distraction.
“Thank you,” said Maude, suddenly feeling self-conscious as Katie gave her hand a squeeze before moving away.
Bryony returned, leading the rested strokers. “You sure you won’t change your mind? That horse looks a good one. I’m sure he could keep pace with the strokers if you asked him to.”
Maude smiled. For a moment she thought about it. Seriously thought about it. Turning up in a place where she had never been Gustav’s son, where she was just Maude and always had been. It would be nice.
But then she glanced around, and there was Simon, rolling in the dust, and Magdelena, sniffing at the freshly dug earth until she sneezed and sneezed, and Graham, sprawled out on the porch, blinking slower and slower as sleep gradually overwhelmed him.
“Who would look after my little ones?” she said with a smile. It was only a little sad. “I tell you what, though. I think I’ll use this fella to ride into town and visit Marianne. Can you imagine people’s faces?”
“I sure can.” Bryony, now atop her stroker, gave one final, fond smile before winding her face cloth back into place. Katie saluted with a mittened hand and then circled her stroker, kicking it into a fast lope.
Maude stepped up onto the porch with her cats and watched the riders until they were specks on the horizon once more.
© 2015 by Lynda Clark
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