This work by Jeremy Baldwin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Arrival Day was what, some fifty years ago? That’s what my old man said, anyway. It didn’t go as planned.
Old Earth was used up, he told me. Too damn many people, too little of everything else, including air. We’d been sending colony missions out for centuries by that point, but that’s the bitch of lightspeed: nobody ever found out if a damn one of those colonies ever made it. The worlds should’ve been terraformed for a few millennia by the time humans ever touched foot on them, that’s what the brochures all said… but everybody knew you might never wake up if you got on one of those boats and took the long sleep.
My old man was no astronaut. He was a mean old cuss who beat the shit out of me and my ma pretty much every chance he got. Apparently my grandpa was the same way. They were packing the ships full of trash like him in those days: a few big brains to run the equipment when we finally arrived, and grunts like gramps to milk fucking oxen or whatever. We’re lucky that old bastard had enough mean in him to convince a Colony Authority mucketywho that he had two brain cells to rub together, though, ‘cause apparently some centuries after his ship blew atmo and said goodbye to bad Old Earth for the very last, some whackanut or another let loose all shades of nastiness there. We don’t know what happened on the homeworld. We don’t know if there were any survivors. But we do know that some motherfucker was crazy enough to send a bastard of a computer virus after us that made the ship go six ways of squirrely. Something about the AI; it started playing games with us, murdering us in our sleep or having us kill one another for sport. Yeah—they specifically took time out of their busy schedules to try to kill even the lucky SOBs who’d left that shithole. Lovely place, our alma mater.
The Kill Signal hit the terraformers, too, centuries before we got there since it was moving faster than the ship. We barely made it off of that boat with enough of us alive that you didn’t even have to use big fractions, and we got here to find we’d just traded one hell for another. This world was supposed to be a garden paradise, like you read about in the storybooks. Instead, we got this. Dust storms settle down long enough to dump half-radioactive soil on the crops you’ve been tending; eat a carrot, grow a third eye. A few preserves where the grass is greener, each and every one guarded by sadistic fucking bastards who don’t want trash like you or me to spoil it for what passes for the good life. Water that smells like vinegar and tastes like piss. Atmo not quite thick enough to keep the rads from the two suns from cooking you alive—who the hell thought that was a good idea, settling a planet with two solar bodies? And yeah, since the terraformers are set to “broil”, the planet is probably on its way towards total ecological meltdown such that even if we bother having grandkids, they’re gonna die when the atmo turns to poison or the ozone vanishes or the rains finally come and just wash us all away…
Oh, and there are still colony ships in orbit, dropping down every so often. More poor bastards like you and me, except they have no fucking idea what’s in store for them down here, no idea who to trust and who will eat your liver out of your trembling hands while his boys do things to your sister they don’t have names for even in the deepest corner of the ‘Zerker barrens. Those newbie morons don’t know a thing, don’t know to drop your babies and run when you hear the whine of ‘Zerker choppers, ’cause otherwise you get to just watch ’em die good and slow before they do you too. They don’t know that you gotta burn the dead, because it’s in the air, the Walking Death. We’re all infected, just by breathing. Those poor fucks don’t know you gotta burn the dead…
… but they sure find out, don’t they?
Red Dog sniffed the air, straightening up. Vanse cast a worried look at him: the spooky old bastard had that effect whenever he moved, because he didn’t do it unless someone was about to die.
“Trouble,” growled the sun-cracked lips. They spat a wad of goo on the watch tower’s pressboard flooring, but the dust sucked the moisture out of it before the shiver finished its trip down Vanse’s spine.
“What?” he cringed, but Red Dog was already pointing. Out on the horizon, a puff of dust: a vehicle, inbound, fast. Vanse brought up the MagnaSpex, fiddled for a second.
“It’s just Jo-Jo,” he sighed, as the image focused into view. The biker was pushing his chopper hard, but wasn’t that what Tex’s goons did? Rode hard?
“No,” rasped Red Dog. "Not just. Look at the sky."
Vanse looked up from the binoptics and out into the distance. The dust cloud was growing larger, and as he strained, he could just make out the roar of Jo-Jo’s bike as it tore through the decon track that led back to Wellspring from Parts Beyond. The sky to the east was the same pale yellow it always was… but tinged with just the faintest touch of red.
Red Dog was moving now, and with surprising speed for a man in his seventies. He shouldered past Vanse to the radio, and hissed into it, “Somebody get Major up here. Now.” Then, roaring down to men on the gate below. "Close ’em up! Right fucking now, get ’em closed!"
“Hey!” countered Vanse, features dark. "Jo-Jo’s still out there!"
“No he ain’t, schoolboy. You just ain’t looking hard enough.” Vanse’s glare didn’t abate. A half-second later, a ropy arm had jerked him off-balance as skeletal fingers dragged him close to Red Dog’s face.
“Zerkers,” the old man whispered. "So fucking get excited."
Vanse found himself in a shivering heap on the floor of the watchtower, with Red Dog sliding his way down the ladder and leaving him alone. Zerkers? Weakly, he got to his knees, and brought the MagnaSpex up again, careful to expose as little of himself as possible over the flimsy tin wall. By now, he could make out Jo-Jo’s face, could see the man’s terror even through his goggles. He kept whipping his head around, as if he’d be able to see behind him with all the grit he was kicking up as his bike roared towards Wellspring. Vanse could see his lips moving, and he fiddled with the radio for a second until he found the right frequency.
“… gone, man, like it never fucking existed! Might as well just call it ‘Parts’ from now on, ‘cause that’s all that’s left of anybody there! Oh, son of fuck…”
Tex’s voice harshed onto the channel. "Stay with me, Jo-Jo," she ordered. "How many coming?"
“You think I stopped and counted, man? A fuck of a lot, is how many! We are so beyond—”
The biker leader cut him off. "You said there were only bits left. Did the Zerkers finish the job? Did they burn the dead?"
Vanse could hear Jo-Jo go pale; he wasn’t watching anymore, just staring dumbly at the radio as if it might do something sane, like issue evacuation instructions off this godforsaken planet. "Aw, no, man, no, they didn’t burn a fucking thing!" The channel went silent for a moment. Then: "Hey, what the fuck, man? Gate’s closed! Get it open, Tex!"
“Sorry, Jo,” she whispered. Vanse could see her in his mind’s eye, all leather and blades, with her head hanging just so. In his imagination, a tear rolled down the knife tattoo that covered her eye—but he was probably overdoing it. "I’m really fucking sorry."
Whatever he was about to say got lost in the scream. Vanse couldn’t help himself: he looked up. All across his vision was an enormous cloud of red dust; it’s front edge had swallowed Jo-Jo’s bike from view. The cloud extended dozens of meters to either size of the decon track: whatever was causing it was riding right through the radwastes. Something that might have been human went flying through the air above it for a second, but it jerked like it was caught on some enormous fish-hook, and vanished from view, dragged back into the cloud.
Then Vanse’s brain registered it. The whine, just up at the edge of sanity. The sound of a fusion-powered motorcycle, being operated without core containment, except times a hundred. Nobody could ride one of those monsters and live. Nobody human, at least.
Pain wracked him, and his lips split wide open. He’d cut his cheeks open from ear to ear, just so he could grin the way he always felt he had to, when the pain came. The wind whistled through his remaining molars. It was good.
One howled at him from behind: “Runner!” The grin grew savage. He shouldered his way through others in excitement, bones blazing; he thought he felt something snap in one of them as his shoulder caught it just so; a howl. He nodded absently; that was also good. All pain was good. He grabbed the howling one’s face in his hands, lifting him off the ground by the head as his muscles poured a symphony of agony through his nerves.
The one gestured with a flailing hand, and kicked him hard in the knee with the other. He dropped it, and it scurried away as he wrenched his patella back into place. He exulted in every tearing noise his body made as he realigned it, allowing himself that time. Then, he sprang to his feet.
“First ones, you hear?”
He did hear; the moans were soft, but starting to rise from all around him. He roared, jaw opening like no one else’s could. Others joined in, his others.
“Follow!” he commanded. "Point them in the right direction!"
He raced for his bike. Howls followed him. Behind those, a low groan.
It was good.
“Jesus fuck!” Major slapped Vanse across the face. "Come out of it and tell me what’s going on!"
Vanse was shaking all over; he could still feel the aching in his bones. His breath tasted of meat, of flesh. He realized he’d been sick all over the tower. "Zerkers," was all he could manage.
“Yes, I know that,” rejoined the other man. He heaved Vanse to his feet. "You just had one of those visions, didn’t you, you weaselly fuck? So tell me, because we’ve got maybe two minutes before those bastards are using our holes for party favors… what is going on?"
Vanse shook his head. "They’re not coming for us," he whispered. "It’s what they’re bringing after them that we gotta worry about…"