Science Fiction aliens military tentacles

Bottleneck

By A.M. Dellamonica
Jan 11, 2020 · 7,771 words · 29 minutes

Photo by Max Titov via Unsplash.

Ruthless spotted the hunk of turquoise while standing outside her vehicle in a line for gas, thirteen miles outside of Kyle, Texas. A bead, she thought, as her eye snagged on the transverse corridor bored through its tip.

Picking the stone from the dust-streaked gravel that lined the road, she spat on it, rubbing off grime and admiring the colour. She wondered who it had belonged to, whether they were alive.

A child's face formed on her visor, interrupting her musings. "We want out, Sergeant."

"I can't allow that, Delores," Ruthless subvocalized, scratching at the collar of her civilian blouse.

"Tonio has to pee."

"He'll have to use the squatter." She'd locked the Burro's blinds in the closed position when she’d gone outside, so the children, within, could not be seen.

The girl's nose wrinkled. "It stinks."

"I'll have it flushed after we gas up." Pocketing the stone, Ruthless counted the cars between her and the pumps.

"You can't keep us in here."

Instinctively she put her hand on the locked hatch on the back of the Burro. "Delores . . ."

"I'm telling Papa."

Here's hoping you get the chance, kid. She felt exposed here, unsafe. Ridiculous: forty-eight hours ago she'd been under live fire, on the front line of the Democratic Army's doomed effort to keep the Fiends from pushing across the Rio Grande.

She tuned in the distant buzz and boom of the aerial battle that had driven them out of San Antonio. A stratosphere-high curtain of smoke and combat nanotech, sienna in colour, obscured the action. Flashes of reddened light from within revealed the shadows of planes and missiles. These were dwarfed by immense, spidery shapes: anti-aircraft platforms supplied to the Demo Air Force by their offworld allies.

Within the haze, Ruthless knew, the platforms were shooting down waves of Fiend aircraft, raining wreckage onto the city below. Her side had better tech, but the enemy had numbers. If the Fiends got lucky enough times--if they took out enough platforms--they could close in on this slow-moving convoy.

Too close, Ruthless thought and, seemingly in agreement, the gas line nudged forward. The Burro kept pace and Ruthless walked forward a few steps; she had programmed its autodriver to stay bumper to bumper with the SUV in front of them.

A monkey icon waved briefly on her visor--a ping from her younger brother that meant he was still alive. Relieved, she pinged back.

Interstate 35 was jammed with refugees from the recent bombardment, most in cars but some afoot, a flood of displaced Americans inching northeast toward Austin. The only lane moving at anything approaching speed was reserved for military vehicles.

Now and then, low-altitude flitters zoomed over the stalled traffic, raising dust and provoking irritated protests, even the occasional thrown rock, from the crowd.

"Sergeant," Delores said. "You have to let us out. Tonio's sick."

She felt a wave of compassion for the girl. "I'll come have a look."

"No! I mean, he says he's okay for now."

"You'll be with your father soon--"

The hair at the base of her neck prickled.

Cutting the link, Ruthless examined the ragged civilians in the gas line: passengers lolling in overloaded cars, weary parents slumping under the weight of dispirited kids. Wild-eyed survivors with photographs, working the crowd: You recognize this man? This is my wife, have you seen her?

My daughter, my lover, my missing baby brother. She had been one of them once, left searching for Matt after the colossal security failure at Kauai. Nothing since had been as bad as that. The uncertainty, wondering if he was out there somewhere, in pain and alone . . .

She'd found him. Once in a lifetime, impossible stroke of luck.

C'mon, Ruthie, stay on task. Someone's watching you.

She spotted him: a tall fellow with jet hair and ill-fitting jeans. A child's jacket gaped over his bare, sunburned chest. He was propped against a road sign, and when Ruthless met his gaze he pushed off, limping closer.

Fuck.

"Lieutenant?" he said, licking cracked lips. One eye was so bloodshot she couldn't make out his iris.

"Sergeant," she corrected in a low voice. "If you're after water, I can spare a little, but--"

"I am thinking we can help each other." His accent was weird, something from an old spy movie. Eastern European--was that possible?

She pulled her stone face: me-soldier, you-civilian. "Best if you moved along, Sir."

"Will you hear me out?" False courtesy. He'd pegged her for a captive audience, knew she wouldn't leave the Burro. "You're out of uniform and in the civilian gas line. This suggests you don't have explicit orders to get this car to Austin. But a self-driving, Dust-proof transport, expensive . . . whoever's inside is important."

"I told you to piss off, Sherlock Holmes."

"Are you AWOL, Sergeant? Perhaps hoping that if you reach your destination with your passenger, you'll avoid discipline? The only person in Austin with so much pull--"

"Enough!" She didn't want him saying the general's name aloud. "Assuming you're right, what good are you to me?"

Straightening, he bit back a moan. "I can get you into the priority lane."

The gas line moved; the car followed. Ruthless hoisted the man to the dubious comfort of the Burro's forward bench and hopped to the vehicle's running board. She pulled an awning over him and gave him a sip of water. He sagged against the backrest. If she wanted to be rid of him now, she'd have to toss him.

She couldn't resist the temptation of the priority lane. Getting the kids off this open stretch of road, before the air battle reached its inevitable end, was mission-critical. "What do you want in return?"

He asked, "You will take me with you?"

"Tell me more while I look at your leg." Her civilian costume included a big purse. She opened it, digging out the medical kit.

"And if you don't like my offer, I can at least walk away? Very generous."

"Do I look like a taxi service?" She tore the leg of his jeans, exposing bloodied shin pierced by shrapnel.

"I'd prefer if you are being a medic."

"I know the basics, Sir."

"Basics are not reassuring."

"The people I work on tend to be beyond reassurance. Now, about you getting us into the fast lane?" Spray-cleaning first her hands and then his leg, she painted anesthetic nanogel in a circle around the skewer of metal.

"You're delivering this transport to--"

"No names," she interrupted.

"I'm to report to him, with intelligence." The man watched without expression as she probed his injury. "He may want your cargo, but he needs me."

"Yet here you are, thumb out, on the highway."

"My escort was killed. I tried flagging down someone in the military lane but . . ." He shrugged in the direction of the hurried Northbound traffic. "I have the squad captain's electronic orders. They should be enough to justify commandeering your vehicle."

The metal would come out of his leg easily, but something in his gaze kept Ruthless from yanking it. "Why don't you just commandeer me, then?"

"I prefer to ask."

Even as you burn to a crisp in the sun? "How many soldiers?"

"Pardon?"

"In your escort. How many grunts died so you could lose yourself among these refugees?"

He blinked, looking away, and Ruthless pulled the hunk of metal. Blood welled from the gash. She checked for remnants, then puttied the wound.

"Eight." The stranger was staring at her hands again.

"Eight dead?" Someone thought his intelligence mattered, assuming it was true. "Show me these orders."

He reached into his jacket, nice and slow, and pinged her visor. Text scrolled, and she scanned it unhappily.

A Fiend defector, bumming a ride. Sub-optimal.

"If you don't want me, I won't insist."

"Where you gonna go?" She dusted his burned skin with a powdered screen-and-salve.

"I've got further than you'd think on my own."

"You are asking me to endanger my passengers." A nine-year-old and a five-year-old, she didn't add, kids whose mother was killed before their eyes yesterday.

"The risk should be minimal." He smiled weakly. "One of the soldiers resembled me; I dressed his remains in my clothes. The enemy will think I'm dead until they run tissue samples."

"Would they need to?" Ruthless bit her lip. "These documents say you have . . . identifying marks."

"There's nothing left to check." He coaxed the torn leg of his jeans up higher, above his knee, flashing a quick glimpse of a Fiendish flesh mosaic--stained-glass pattern of multicoloured skin grafts.

Appalled, she pulled the denim back over the mosaic.

"I dusted my double's legs, after he died," he explained.

"They really aren't looking for you?"

"They'd have me by now, if they were." He offered his hand. "Zacha Bahdlof."

"Ruth Gerrikle," she replied, clapping a water flask into his outstretched palm.

His eyes widened. "There are stories of a Ruth--Ruthless, a Demo non-commissioned officer--"

"People exaggerate."

It figured: the guy came all the way from Russia or some other Fiendish nowhere, and he'd still heard the gossip.

Might have been nice to start with a clean slate, just once. He's hideous, but he has something . . . brains? Charisma?

It didn't matter, though, did it? Her duty was, suddenly, as clear as polished glass. "Well. As long as I'm commandeered," she said. "I might as well put on my uniform."

***

Zacha was right; once Ruthless uploaded her new orders, the military traffic paused, allowing her to merge the Burro into the priority lane.

She filed a quick status report, neglecting to mention that she had the kids. She'd been ordered to get them to their father, but her C.O. had clearly meant she should stick them on a plane.

Sending them, alone, through the Fiend's turkey shoot of an air blockade . . . she'd got as far as the airport before deciding she couldn't do it.

Now she was on the right side of a court-martial again, she allowed herself a quick scan through her messages, and sent Matt a status update: AOK, on the field, glad UR alive.

She and Zacha perched on the Burro's forward bench, motoring along within the convoy of zappers, mine-clearers, troop transports, old-fashioned tanks, and unmarked trucks. Unlike the civilian vehicles, most bore the silver-gray nanotech glitter of Dustproofing.

Ruthless had scrounged a ball cap for Zacha and--once she was back in uniform--had given him her civilian blouse. He was considerably taller than she, but thin as he was, it fit nicely. Anything to shield his burnt skin from the punishing Texas sun.

In time, he fell into a doze. Ruthless slipped into the Burro's interior to check the kids.

The vehicle was, essentially, an armoured camper. It had a kitchenette, fold-down ceiling cots, and a squatter in the back. Ruthless was using the AC sparingly, to conserve fuel. Compared to being outside, it was positively chilly.

She took a deep breath: she loved air conditioning.

"How long now?" Delores said.

"A few hours." Unlocking a cupboard, Ruthless sorted through foil packages. "Do you want spaghetti and meat balls or turkey stir fry?"

"Dog turds or cat vom?" Delores corrected, using infantry terms for the heated rations.

"Esta roadkill?" Tonio spoke around the thumb in his mouth.

"No. Wait, here's one tomato, beef and noodle. I'll heat this and the cat vom and you can have half a packet each, okay?"

"Papa's going to have you shot," Delores said. "We were supposed to get on a plane. This is kidnapping."

"Kidnappers would offer you real food." Ruth regretted the words immediately. When her father died, she and Matt had endured endless stupid comments from adults. Empty air, unhelpful awkward babble. Now she was the one mustering flaccid jokes and faking cheer.

Pulling the tabs on the foil containers, she relocked the rations cupboard. When the packs chimed, she gutted them, sharing the unappetizing contents half-and-half on plastic plates she'd washed this morning.

"It's boring in here," she said. "You shouldn't be alone, Delores, but--"

Delores spat on her, spraying Ruthless's neck and collar. Baring her teeth, furious as a dunked cat, she braced for a slap.

Ruthless held out the plates. "A few more hours, okay? Keep your brother occupied."

Tears filled Delores' fatigue-bruised eyes. "Go fuck yourself," she whispered. Then, pasting on a smile, she took the food. Tonio was waiting, like a wilted flower, for his roadkill.

Gee, that went great. Ruthless went back out into the heat. They were averaging twenty-five miles an hour. Over the sound of motors, the aerial battle was louder. Closer.

"How is she?" Zacha slitted one eye open.

"Pissed. If their governess had survived . . ."

"Governess?"

Oops. "Or their mother, obviously."

Zacha's oversized jaw was working. "You have his children?"

"Keep your voice down."

"I thought you were bringing a woman."

"Excuse me?"

He colored. "Where I come from . . . well, there's a song about him--"

"Don't," Ruthless said. If Zacha started singing 'Mighty General Fuckstruck,' it'd be in her head all day.

"No disrespect. I believed you had his mistress, yes? If I'd known . . ."

She shook her head, liking him better. Was that the point? Good guy, or con artist: you never knew until they turned on you.

"Lunch?" She held out a foil-wrapped ration of cat vom.

He fingered it. "I should transfer to another car."

"Bullshit." Ruthless said. "I'm tasked with bringing you in."

"But--"

"My passengers are safer in the fast lane."

"But--"

"I'll cuff you to the car."

"You wouldn't do that."

"You know who I'm carrying. You're not going anywhere."

Zacha eyed the ground, seeming to reckon his chances of surviving a jump at this speed. "It seems we'll have to leave all the eggs in your basket."

"Nice to have your blessing, Humpty," Ruthless said, glad she wouldn't have to break his leg.

***

Around dusk, the Demos lost the air battle.

The racket of ordnance had clamoured all afternoon, punctuating the air with shocks so intense they could be felt, like drumtaps, against her cheeks. As twilight descended, a flight of DemAir F22's screamed over the highway, bound for San Antonio. All the civilians on foot dropped to the ground, covering their ears.

The planes were sleek and deadly, vastly more powerful than the mix of antique kites flown by the Fiends--Typhoons, NextGen MiGs, Chengdu J30s. Demo equipment, enhanced as it was by the offworld Kabu Consultancy, was always better. Still, the Fiends had countless pilots to man those crappy planes. Not to mention an inexhaustible supply of missiles.

"That sounds bad," said Zacha, making a question of it as a series of sonic booms marked the retreat of the surviving Kabu anti-aircraft platforms.

"Get inside," Ruthless said, opening the Burro. She'd hoped to keep him isolated from the kids; no such luck. Pointing to a seat, she stood in the half-open forward hatch, watching the skies. The Fiends would strafe the highway.

Someone up ahead agreed--the convoy slowed to a crawl. The refugees on foot looked up, some with alarm, others with zombie resignation.

"You--under our Burro," Ruthless ordered a woman as they ground to a halt. She got four people under cover before the car went into hunker mode, scrolling layered plates of Dust-proof plastic over its undercarriage and motor.

Up and down the line, uniformed Democratic soldiers were doing the same, offering the civvies what cover they could, packing the road until there were bodies under every truck.

The roar of planes intensified. Black dots, a spray of fast-moving birds, resolved on the red-smeared horizon. Ruthless slammed the hatch shut on a rising chorus of sobs and screams.

"I can't access your vehicle brain." Zacha poked the console controls.

"Why would I give you access?" She strapped him into his seat, checking the window blinds, confirming the kids were belted in.

Delores, for a wonder, didn't complain, instead curling into crash position with her hand in her brother's. "It'll be okay, Tonio," she whispered.

"She's right," Ruthless said. "Everything's fine."

Fine, yeah. Unless the civilians roll the car, trying to get under it. Unless the Fiends throw rockets at the road instead of strafing with machine guns. Unless--no, no, stop it. Nothing we can do, just wait it out . . .

Ruthless belted into the driver's seat as the strafing run began.

She checked the Burro's exterior cams. Around the hunkered military vehicles, exposed civilians were panicking, pounding on car doors, jostling for room in wheelwells, fighting over Dust ponchos. As the guns and Funbeams laid into them, they broke, fleeing the highway. A few gas tanks exploded.

A sound like hailstones rat-a-tatted on the roof.

"Planes are past our position," Ruthless reported, trying to sound businesslike. She scanned all the corners of her display for heavy bombers, saw none, and allowed herself to hope. "Mine-droppers coming up now."

The mine-droppers were offworld tech. The Fiends had alien sponsors, just as Ruthless's side had. She didn't know anything about the aliens who had made the Fiends their pets, but her side in this long, pointless and mostly losing war had allied themselves with the Kabu Consultancy, a race of ocean-dwellers that humans referred to as squid.

The mine-droppers were black, elegant-looking gliders. They passed overhead like shadows, releasing plum-sized Dust mines in dense clouds. Feather-light, riding the breezes like dandelion fluff, the mines wobbled downward, coming to rest on the concrete of the highway, on the cars, and on the ground to either side of the road.

Wherever they landed, exposed civilians froze in terror. The oblivious wounded and a few of the sheerly unlucky, those who happened to trigger the mines, went up in silent puffs of Dust. Death flowered through the traffic bottleneck, bursting spheres of powder the colour of Turkish coffee grounds.

Dust wiped out everything it touched: humans, cars, pavement--everything that hadn't been sprayed with counter-measures.

The miners passed; the fighters came screaming back. Another run, another round of chatter on the Burro's exterior. The AC whirred lustily.

"Must have caught the edge of a Funbeam," murmured Zacha.

Ruthless nodded. Her visor flashed damage reports: the gun had taken out her rear passenger-side camera and an armoured plate near the back. She'd have to do a walkaround later, check for breaches, and spray on more Dustproofing.

Zacha stole a look at the children. "Do you have ponchos for them?"

"No need. The Fiends aren't bothering with heavy bombers. Anyway, here comes the cavalry." The Fiend planes were banking hard, running back to base. Now she saw a ring of spacecraft, more alien ships, but these flown by Demos' offworld allies. They slid through the sky toward them like beads of oil on water.

Lived, lived, we lived!

She checked the kids. Delores was holding a picture book for her brother. They took turns pointing at the images, silent but seeming to converse. Long-forgotten memories bubbled up: she and Matt had collected beer coasters from bars, trading them back and forth in a private economy.

"I think the worst of it is over, guys."

Delores surprised her with a small smile. "Can we watch a movie?"

She ought to save the battery, but . . . "Just one."

She unlocked the media center and let them pick a live-action classic about a lost dog and his human family. Once that was done, she pulled up a convoy FAQ.

"Minesweepers are on their way," she told Zacha. "Estimated time before we're moving again is six hours."

"Could be worse."

Her visor pinged--her brother again. Still in play?

She pinged back. Game-ready, Matt.

Gladness. Unit's falling back to AUS.

Me2, she keyed back. Cya there.

Relaxing into the driver's seat, she fumbled in her pocket for the piece of turquoise she'd found, then took a minisculptor out of her small kit of personal effects. She pressed the stone through its rubbery larynx, activating a tiny LED screen as she slid her fingers onto the control cogs.

A quick polish first--she wiped the grime away, revealing an irregular blue lump the size of her thumb.

"May I use the Burro cams?" Zacha asked.

"I don't recommend it."

"Even so."

She wouldn't give him access to the Burrobrain. Instead she slaved the driver's goggles to her own display, pushing her visor up so she wouldn't have to see what the cameras were showing.

Even a glimpse was too much. It was all wreckage and bodies--humans who'd been schrapped into burger, or fried by Funbeams and car fires. Chopped corpses lay at the edges of dust craters, severed by the spread of the nanotech weapon. Survivors lay trapped between vehicles and corpses, surrounded by mines, afraid to move.

"Can we not help them?" Zacha asked.

"Too many mines." She concentrated on the turquoise, fighting tears. It wasn't the worst thing she had seen.

Zacha took a slow breath. His face--where it wasn't scorched--had turned a sickly gray.

"This ties up our side with civilian rescue. Gives Austin less time to prepare for the next Fiend push."

"I know the tactics," he snapped, pushing up the goggles.

"You ought to use the squatter." She unhitched him. "I'm strapping you in for the duration."

"You are still thinking I'm threat?"

"Nothing personal, Sir. I'm not taking chances."

"I have a name, Sergeant." He vanished into the bathroom. When he came out, he had a travel-sickness bag and a wash-wipe kit with him.

"You ill?"

"No, it's for morning," he said, as if that meant something. Ruthless searched the bag and kit, returned them, then locked him into his seat. She placed a motion detector over him just in case.

Within minutes he was asleep.

Using the sculptor, she carved small curls off her turquoise piece, finding the barest hint of a shape within its curves. The kids drooped, lulled by their movie. Everything was as okay as it was going to get.

She peeled off the wide-awake patch stuck under her arm. The last thing she did before dozing off was check her watch. She had been up for fifty-two consecutive hours.

***

Barfing woke her.

Zacha was upright, jerking against the restraints and making a sound that combined the worst features of retching and sneezing. He was bringing up gobs of a fluid the colour of chocolate pudding, catching it in the airsickness bag with the ease of long habit.

Afterward, he cleaned his blotchy face with the wetwipe and added it to the pack. Sealing it, he murmured. "Don't worry. I'm not contagious."

Stab of fear: what if he was? "Need anything?"

"I could use food." He gave her the bag.

She put it down the squatter and scrubbed her hands thoroughly. The bathroom was warm; the Funbeam hit had thinned the armour plating over its window. She'd repair it as soon as the mines had been cleared. Meanwhile, maybe, she could tape a Dustproof poncho over the gap, add a little coverage inside.

Do we have tape? Pondering repairs, she unlocked the rations, setting two packs of waffles in front of the sleeping kids and bringing a selection up front. "Eggs and sausage, breakfast burrito, or blueberry waffles?"

Zacha picked one at random, opening it without heating it first. He poked a bit in his hole, chewing without enthusiasm. "Something is interesting, Sergeant?"

"I've heard the phrase 'force yourself to eat' a hundred times," she said. "You've got it down to an art."

"Where I come from, you force yourself or they put a tube in your stomach." He swallowed. "Viranti used me as--how do you say?--lab rat."

"The Viranti?"

"The offworld allies of the Friends of Liberation."

Was he trying to goose her by using her enemy's more user-friendly name? She kept her tone casual. "I didn't think anyone had ever seen their offworld sponsors."

"Yes, I'm terribly special." He had a day's beard. The bloodied eye had gone yellow; sunburn, on his face, was peeling. "The Funbeam killed one of your cameras."

"They grazed the squatter." Changing the subject, she thought--guess he doesn't want to talk about it. She checked the convoy FAQ. "Minesweepers are inbound."

A tiny hand tugged hers--Tonio.

"What's wrong, honey?"

He climbed into her lap, swapping his waffles for the eggs. Ruthless popped the heat tab and they waited, watching the electronic timer count down, like a bomb.

Tonio was one of those kids who balanced lightly in your lap, like a bird, ready to flit away any second. Nothing like Matt, who'd been a lead balloon from day one.

Daddy used to joke about that. She hadn't expected this; that being with kids would bring back these bits of remembrance. Memories, like electrodes laid on the skin. Zap, ow, leave the past in the rearview . . .

Gutting the foodpack, Ruthless peeled off the fork, handed it to the boy. He sat with his small head against her chest, munching.

"I see them." Zacha was watching the road through his slaved goggles.

She pulled her visor down for a look. Kabu Consultancy minesweepers were indeed moving up the road, laying down a mist of oily Dust inhibitors. Squid soldiers came up behind them, walking on the tips of their tentacles, spraying any corners the sweepers had missed and bagging the mines. Coming up last, offworlder medics sorted the casualties onto pallets. Blue pallets for survivors, black for dead. They released them to drift, like helium balloons, up to waiting hospital ships.

"Bailing the Demos out," Zacha said. "Your people must have cut and run."

"The Kabu won't give us drizzlers. We get mined, all we can do is wait."

"Then why--" His expression changed abruptly. He reached for the console; then stopped, probably remembering she'd locked him out. Or, no--his gaze wandered to the boy.

Ruthless worked a hand free of Tonio and sent Zacha's goggles a measure of independence. What is it? she texted.

Zacha fumbled the controls. Some of the survivors look Friendly.

Prickling nerves brought up the hair on her neck. Friendly meant Fiendish, of course. She hadn't forgotten his flesh mosaic--he'd been one of them. Who?

Woman with brown wig, man on crutches.

U sure? The couple was well off the road. They looked like ordinary refugees. Even so, she snapped pics of them, flagging them as suspects and pinging Security.

They're watching the Bur-- Suddenly he cursed in Russian. "Where's the girl?"

"Safe . . ." She glanced back, didn't see Delores, and put Tonio down. The Burrobrain had both kids' tracker frequencies; she hit the locate icon.

Delores was out in the minefield.

Ruthless ran to the squatter . . . and found the damaged window hanging open. The Funbeam hit from the strafing run had done more than melt away their Dustproofing--it had taken out the steel bars that protected its window.

Furious, she returned to Zacha. "How did you know?"

He shook his head. "They'll have called her. Pretended to be someone she loves. Her mother. This governess you mentioned."

"Mama's dead." Tonio raised both hands, popping his fingers outward, miming the fireworks-spread of a Dustbomb.

"Honey, go sit in the back. I asked how you knew, Sherlock."

"I know my Friends when I see them." He rubbed his jaw. "I'll retrieve Delores."

"Sure you will. Get access to the kids, orchestrate a kidnapping, vanish . . ."

"Then I stay with the boy?"

She didn't answer.

"You're taking him with you on a rescue attempt and leaving me in the mule? Or taking me with you and leaving him alone?"

"Shut up," she said, wishing she could pound the sympathy from his sunburned, lantern-jawed face. He was right, which made it worse. She was stuck trusting him.

Time's wasting, stupid. Decide.

"I'm locking you out of the Burrobrain," she said. "I'll enable manual drive in case the line moves. Get to Austin HQ. I'm alerting the drivers in front and behind you. Try to run for it. . ."

"Yes, yes, they'll come in firing. What if someone pings me?"

"I'll answer on wireless."

"Fine." He nodded toward the disguised Fiends. "They'll head to the river valley."

"Would they risk it? Squid cleared the mines on the highway--why would Fiends take Delores off-road?"

"There are ways to bypass the mines. Probably . . ." His hand sketched out a route on the map. "I'd go this way, meeting for a prearranged pickup."

"You know that much about the Fiends?"

"It's why I'm needed in Austin."

"Okay." She crouched beside Tonio. "I have to get your sister. You stay with Zacha, okay?"

The little boy's eyes were huge. "Is Lolo dusted?"

"No. We're playing hide and seek, that's all."

"Hide and seek?" His lip wobbled.

She'd forgotten he knew armyspeak. "I'll get her, okay?"

He sniffed. Kissing his forehead, she pressed the carved piece of turquoise--she'd fashioned it into a bluebird--into his hand. Then she unclipped her rifle.

"What is it you Demos say instead of 'good luck'?" Zacha asked as she opened the hatch. "Play safely?"

She was surprised by how much she wanted to respond in kind. "Anything happens to the boy, I'm strapping you to the roof of this vehicle and leaving you to fry. Sir."

With that, she locked them in.

Run hard, play safe, she thought. And, please God, home for dinner after.

***

Delores's tracker confirmed a heading west of the highway, along the route Zacha suggested. Ruthless ran a straight line toward her . . . until she reached the end of the squids' mine-killing oil slick.

She had only had to pass through live terrain once before. Then, she'd been leading a platoon of newbies so green they hadn't understood that a wrong move would wipe out every trace of your existence. Hit a mine, all that remained of you were abandoned possessions and electronic ghosts: credit card bills, old e-mails, your official DNA sample in its coffin tube . . .

It's a hundred feet. Assuming the wind doesn't come up, I'm in more danger of being shot . . .

"Look for small craters," a voice in her ear said: Zacha.

Scanning the ground, she found them: ice cream scoops in the ground. Dust mines, compact globes a little smaller than her fist, rested in the depressions.

"Still active?" she asked.

"Oh, yes. The kidnappers got them to express just enough Dust to dig the holes--to reveal them."

So she could avoid them too, as long as a misstep, a good blast of wind or a cloudburst didn't set them off.

Dripping sweat, she stepped out of the safe zone.

Beyond the path, Ruthless could make out other mines, resting on the soft dirt and amid sparse tufts of grass. When first dropped, mines were deep brown in hue, glistening like polished walnut. The shine came from glue. Now, six or so hours after they had fallen, the adhesive had already captured enough airborne grit and litter to form a layer of camouflage over the mines.

Tiptoeing, trying to look everywhere at once, Ruthless counted off the steps until she was in the clear. Then she broke into a run, stumbling a little, at first, because of the shake in her knees.

There: two people moving toward a tin-roofed shack at the edge of the stream, a deserted public restroom that, in better times, had served as a rest stop for road-weary drivers. They looked shabby and ordinary. Even now, she might have discounted them. But they were fighting to subdue a thrashing, girl-sized laundry sack.

Further out, a flitter was approaching from the direction of San Antonio. The kidnappers' pick-up, presumably. If they reached it, Delores was gone.

Ruthless forced herself take a moment to line up her shot--

--don't miss, don't hit the girl, please let me not screw this up any worse . . .

--before she fired at the woman.

The bullet caught the Fiend low, in the back. She pitched forward, falling atop the sack.

Ruthless broke into an all-out run, trying to close the distance before the man could react.

Five steps closer, ten. The man made an attempt to grab the girl. The sack kicked back.

Good, Lolo. Ruthless stopped, firing again. The Fiend fled.

Run five steps, shoot. Run seven more, shoot again. He zig-zagged.

She closed the distance to fifty feet, missing shot after shot, running out almost her entire clip of ammo in the process. When she did hit him, it was more by chance than design.

She ran to the fallen woman, planting the full weight of a boot on the back of her neck without bothering to check for signs of life, and tore open the laundry sack. Delores was inside, tied and gagged, crying furiously and jerking at ropes on her wrists and ankles.

The flitter was getting closer.

"I'll cut you loose soon, okay?"

Delores flailed once and went limp.

Ruthless patted down the dead Fiend, coming up with a small handheld device that looked like an old-fashioned hair dryer.

What now, outrun a flitter?

Zacha's voice, on her comm, made her start. "Sergeant, you have to code me for Burrobrain."

"I do, do I?"

"I might learn something from their transmissions, but I am needing proper computer access to decode."

"I'm supposed to believe you can hack Fiendish comms when nobody else can."

"Uh, the curtains."

"What?"

"Sorry. I'm playing I Spy with Antonio."

How appropriate. "Zacha, I'm out here playing hardball and you're multi-tasking in my ear."

"If I am you, I wouldn't trust me either. But in truth I can probably hack your Burrobrain."

"Why don't you?"

"I told you, I prefer to ask."

She hissed. "You don't want to waste the time."

"Something that is blue . . . da, true, time is critical. Please, Sergeant, I beg. Let me help you."

The flitter was closing. She wasn't going to make it.

"We'll be here when you get back," Zacha said. "I swear it."

There it was: good guy, or con artist? Yessir, General Fuckstruck, she thought. I left your son with a stranger, one with flesh mosaics and Fiendish ties, and gave him the Burrobrain protocols too.

"The code is armyspeak for chicken kiev; get Tonio to tell you." Lifting Delores to her shoulder, she took stock. No grenades. No extra magazine. She'd never get close enough to knife them. Only reason they hadn't shot her was they were afraid of hitting Delores.

What now, throw rocks?

Oh.

She veered toward the river, watching the ground.

There--a sticky brown bump. Taking a deep breath, Ruthless pointed her confiscated gadget at it, pressing its trigger. A puff of brown, and she flinched--but the mine hadn't gone off. It rolled, at the bottom of a freshly dusted scoop of earth . . . and so did three more she hadn't seen.

Okay. It was a mine detector. Good. She took it slow, sweeping a path. Small steps . . .

"Sergeant, you're in the minefield."

"They want Delores alive. They'll have to park the flitter and come get her."

"That is insane."

"You ain't seen nothing." Near the river, there were trees; she picked her way behind one, triple-scanned a narrow space behind it, and eased Delores off her shoulder. "Hold yourself up," she said. "Mines get lodged in the branches of trees like this. Knock one down, and we die. Understand?"

The girl nodded, trembling. She had the beginning of a black eye coming in. Ruthless pulled off her gag, gently as she could, before cutting her bonds.

"Lo siento, Ruth, lo siento," Delores whispered. "I know you said no comms but I only sent a text, and one came back from Papa I thought, and--"

So that was how they'd found the kids. She gave the girl a hug. "It's okay, Delores."

"Ruthless, it's Zacha."

"Yes?"

"The flitter pilot's coming after you on foot."

"He leave anyone in the plane?"

"No. It seats four. With the two who grabbed Delores and the girl herself--"

"That almost qualifies as a lucky break," Ruthless said.

"You have very low standards."

"Is he using Delores's tracker frequency to track us?" She scrabbled on the ground, grabbing up stones.

"Yes, but I can interfere--"

"No, it's fine." Ruthless gestured for Delores to help her.

"You killed his friends?"

"Pretty much." Calm descended. She was at her best when she was out of choices. She turned to Delores. "So, kid: live, or die?"

The girl's face pinched. "Live."

"Then I need you in the game." She held out the minesweeper. "You saw how this thing works?"

A quick nod.

"Show me."

Delores played the little hair-dryer over the ground between them and the water. A mine appeared.

"Watch the battery on it." Ruthless slung her rifle over Delores's narrow shoulders, "I'm hanging this here...  see how you can aim it if you use your free hand? Yes, right. Your papa teach you this?"

"Tonio and I play, sometimes--"

"That's good, you look great."

Zacha broke in, voice aghast. "Sergeant, what are you doing?"

"Not now, Fiend." Ruthless pulled a couple of the lightest pebbles from the haul in her pockets. She turned Delores to face the water, and put the stones in the girl's gun hand. "Move along the river, toward the highway. Walk slow. Remember what I said about the trees?"

"Shake them and Dust will fall out," Delores said.

"You cannot send a child into a minefield!"

Ignore him. "Right. Watch the trees and take your time. One step. Check. Another step. See that break in the trees by that fallen willow? Stop there. The Fiend will see you. If he doesn't, throw the rocks. When he looks, aim the gun."

"To shoot him?" Delores said in a small voice.

Ruth's heart wrenched, but she knew better than to show it. "It's empty, honey."

"You're using her as a decoy?" Zacha objected.

"You do this, Delores, we both live."

"He'll shoot me." Little girl voice, big eyes.

"I will kill him first."

"This isn't necessary," Zacha said. "Sergeant, tell him you have me. Offer to trade."

She cut off the feed, trying not to feel the time bleeding away.

Delores thought it through. "You promise to kill him?"

Solemnly, Ruthless crossed her heart. "You ready to play, soldier?"

With a shudder, Delores nodded.

"Okay, then. March." Ruthless pointed, waiting until the child had taken two steps, then three. Then she raised her voice: "Hey, Mister Fiend."

A surprised grunt, not far away. She risked a peek around the tree trunk. The enemy had stopped all of twenty feet from her position.

"I want that girl, Demo."

"I can offer something better than the child."

"You're buying time while she slips away. You think I don't see her?"

I'm counting on it, loser. "All I'm buying is my life. Let her slip."

"Sergeant--" Zacha had reopened the feed from his end.

"Seriously, 'Friend,'" she said. "I'll make it worthwhile."

"I'm going to shoot you and catch her," the Fiend said. "You have zero to bargain with."

"Let me start by stepping out where you can nail me easy. How's that for a gesture of good faith?"

"All it proves is you know you can't get away."

"It saves you from mincing around under the trees, doesn't it?"

"All right, step out." He sounded amused.

Delores was nearly in position, tiptoeing along the stream, scanning for mines. So far, she wasn't dead.

There could be a dozen mines barely stuck to the leaves above her, waiting for one good blast of wind . . .

Ruthless stepped out onto the path she'd already swept. Adrenaline jolted through her as she stepped into the Fiend's rifle sights, staring across a twenty-foot stretch of exposed, deadly spheres of Dust. "Want me to take off my flak jacket, too?"

The flitter pilot didn't look incompetent, stupid, or even particularly impressed. "Well? You were gonna buy your life?"

Hesitate and he'd shoot her; it was what Ruthless would do, in his place, if she caught even a whiff of bullshit.

Play for time. "I've got your defector. Badinov?"

"Badloff is dead."

"Ah, you do know his name. So, the corpse your pals found? It didn't have flesh mosaics. He dusted its legs."

"Is that so?" No reaction.

"He throws up, first thing in the morning. Every morning, probably. Lessee, what else do I know about him?"

"Enough." He shook his head. "Even if this is true, I'm better off shooting you, chasing down the girl and having someone else search for our Friend."

Hope glimmered. "Maybe. But you're gonna check with your bosses first, aren't you?"

"Don't move," he warned.

"I'll be right here smoking while you decide." She patted down her pockets, pretending to grope for a pack that wasn't there.

"Consider it a last cigarette."

"They do say it's never too late to quit." She had hoped he'd be distracted, mindful of Delores, getting further from him step by step. No such luck. His weapon didn't waver. She'd take one in the throat if she tried anything.

He was good, this guy, better than the two who'd lured Delores out of the Burro. He might never flinch.

If he didn't, she and the girl were both dead.

"Tell them I can deliver Badloff gift-wrapped. No muss, no fuss, no more bodies . . ."

"How would you manage that?"

She was still digging in her pockets. "He's honourable, and he likes the kids. He'd do a swap."

"Surrender?" the pilot laughed.

"Matter of fact, he all but offered--"

A rock bounced on the ground between them.

It might not have been enough, but in almost the same instant, the flitter's cockpit popped open with a loud, pneumatic hiss. The Fiend's gaze jerked sideways. His weapon swung towards Delores's position.

Yanking a fistful of rocks from each pocket, Ruthless threw them up and out, underhand. The stones arced upward as the Fiend realized his mistake. Then they were coming down in a hail. One bounced off his head, a mere annoyance; others rolled on the ground.

Comprehension, shock and fury played across his face. He fired. But Ruthless had already moved, mincing back toward the shelter of the tree trunk. One passing bullet tugged her right sleeve.

Missed, ha, lucked out again. . .

Brown powder unfurled from the ground at the Fiend's feet, as falling rocks triggered the first mine, then a second. Twin spheres of Dust disassembled everything they touched--the sagebrush around them, Ruthless's would-be executioner, the soil itself. All gone, in a breath.

She didn't wait around to watch. Instead she picked her way, fast as she dared, to Delores. The girl was leaning against a fallen stump, panting, staring at the twin craters where the Fiend had been.

"Papa's totally going to court-martial you." It was just conversation--the girl was more drained than angry.

Didn't die, didn't die again. "Told you I'd kill him."

"Great." The girl held out the minesweeper and rifle. Her hands were steady. "Can we go back to the Burro now?"

"Yeah. You played a good game, Delores."

The girl wrapped her thin arms around her waist.

"Zacha? You there?"

"Is Delores all right?" he said.

"We're good," she said. "You hacked the flitterbrain, didn't you? Popped the hatch?"

"You seemed to need help."

"You think you can steal that flitter?"

"Da. I'll reboot the engine."

"Thanks," Ruthless said. She led the girl out of the minefield to the small plane, lifting her into the cockpit.

"Now they know I'm among the living, the Fiends will be after me."

Fiend--he said fiend. Ruthless smiled. "You told me to sell you out."

"You'd already thought of it, hadn't you?"

"I play dirty. So what?"

"Flitter reboot will take a few more seconds." Was that amusement in his voice? "Then you should have control."

"Get ready to ditch the Burro--we're coming for you."

"Tonio would like to talk to his sister."

The girl's face locked.

"Tell him hang on." Ruthless shut the link.

No stupid jokes this time. Straight goods--say something useful. "You know, Delores, I was responsible for my brother, after our dad died."

Teeth bared. "I can handle the trauma, okay?"

She thought of things she'd wished she'd known, all those years ago. Delores wouldn't understand them, would she? Mostly not. Not until she was older.

"I wished I was the little sister," Ruthless said. "Wished I had a big brother to tell me what to do."

"I guess I'm more grown up than you."

"Obviously. But--if you ever want to pretend you have a big sister, or ask how I coped, you can text me, okay? Assuming your dad says it's all right."

Would it help? Could anything?

Tonio's voice quavered through the channel. "Lolo?"

Delores didn't touch the feed.

"Best thing I ever did for Mattie was give him a job," Ruthless said. "A real one. I made him take care of our canteens. It taught him we were in it together."

"Tonio's too little to carry water," Delores sighed. She picked up the feed, speaking rapidly in Spanish.

Piloting wasn't her forte, but Ruthless managed to bring the flitter alongside the roof of the Burro. Zacha had already grabbed the kids' personal effects and allocated the vehicle to a medic. A thinned crowd of civilian survivors watched as he climbed to the Burro roof, lifting Tonio to the flitter hatch.

"So Zacha waited?" Delores said.

"He waited." Ruthless said, and felt a goofy, relieved grin breaking across her face.

"Is he a good guy?"

"He's not a con man." She caught Tonio, strapping him in as Zacha climbed aboard.

"Good to see you, friends," Zacha said.

"You have to stop using that word," Ruthless said. "Someone'll blow your head off."

"You don't have friends at all? What do you say?"

"Buddy. Compadre--"

Delores interrupted: "You're Tio Zacha."

"That is a genuine honour, Delores." He looked at Ruthless warily. "But your wolf of a Sergeant, she can't call me Uncle."

"Let's go with playmate for now," Ruthless said lightly, avoiding everyone's eyes. She ran a last status check: fuel fine, flitter diagnostics in the green. Everyone sealed in and strapped down.

"Ollie ollie oxenfree," she sang, opening the throttle full, and she found herself smiling as the flitter accelerated over the highway, blasting away from the bottleneck and in the direction of Austin, racing for what passed, at least today, for safe harbour.

This story originally appeared in THE SUM OF US, edited by Susan K. Forest and Lucas K. Law, from Laksa Media Group, 2017.


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A.M. Dellamonica

Award-winning ecofantasy and near future science fiction, often with stand-up comedy, art galleries, and aliens.