There was a low, cool breeze on the scrub-land. It brought a small chill to my sweaty clothes. The vinyl of Keri-Anne's body-bag clung to my forearms as if clutching me desperately. Out in the open like that, a few miles from the gorge where I'd stowed the jumper, I was the most at risk of being caught.
Of course, that's when I felt the wave of the pulse; A low-altitude drone with thermals. If I'd waited until the daytime, I'd maybe have been able to catch them sleeping. Their thermals wouldn't have registered me during Ptolmey's sun-swept-period. But it would have meant spending another six hours in cramped quarters with a corpse already gone sour. There weren't much I could do but trudge on.
Eventually, the land sloped upward towards a series of blackened bluffs dotted with caves I knew to be mine-shafts the Tucsons had bored to farm the Tsillian-crystals. I lay Keri-Anne's body on the ground and stretched. clenching and unclenching my fists, trying to get some feeling back into the fingertips.
We were within view of the old settlement. It wasn't prime place, but it was close enough for last rites. I unfolded the trowel I'd brought, and started to dig. My shoulder ached, and a small trickle of blood snaked down my arm. I'd reopened the wound I'd gained when I'd landed. The harsh landing had pushed me forward too far. Flesh tore against the slagged metal of the sealant I'd used to ensure the jumpers space-worthiness.
The dirt was chalky and fell apart easily. Within half an hour, I'd made a deep enough grave that the body would be protected from the sun for a day or two. I tried to keep it out of my mind that the scavengers--if there were any left--would wrestle her body from the earth and tear her apart. What mattered was that her body came to rest, at last, in the soil that brought her forth.
After another fifteen minutes of harsh, flurried labor, I stopped. The blood from my shoulder had stopped and the slick run down the inside of my arm had turned dry and flaky. Fitting that some of my blood should remain with her.
I'd dressed Keri-Anne in her old corporal's field-gear, pinned the Cilcotta medal to her chest, and I unbraided her hair so it lay loose along her shoulders. Then I reached into the body-bag and pulled out the folded linen sheet. Linen was damned expensive these days, but Ptolemites believed that all honorable dead should have a burial shroud. It was one of the things Keri-Anne had always kept with her. I'd always thought it morbid, carrying a little part of your own death around with you.
I tried not to look where the dirt landed. There was no sense in trying to spare any part more than any other. She was dead and she didn't feel nothing no more.
I was about half-way through fillin' the grave in when I felt something hard prod me in the lower back. I froze and stood upright, raising both hands in the air. Slowly, I turned to face whoever was holding the thing at my back.
I'd been expecting Coya. Tucson was Coya territory. But the two guys facing me wore matte black Concord Vacc-suits. Nothing reflected from them at all--not even their faceplates.. The only color on their suits were the tiny status lights on their wrist panels and chest monitors. Usually, they were red. Theirs were cold blue.
"Who are you?" one of them asked, a mechanical sound as their voice was filtered through a crude vocoder.
The other one raised the pulse rifle and took careful aim at my chest. I rolled my eyes: I was going to be pretty hard to miss at three feet away.
When I didn't answer, the first one brought his rifle butt up and jabbed it at my midrift.
Instinctively, I sidestepped it, reached for the the barrel, and yanked hard, pulling the soldier off-balance.
He stumbled toward me and I moved forward with my other hand, as if I were just going to pass him by and start on a hopeless run. But, instead, I grabbed the stock of the rifle and cantilevered my hips, sending him to the ground hard.
He twisted when he landed and pulled me hard atop him. I jabbed an elbow into his neck, just underneath the helmet rim and heard a harsh choking sound from behind the vocoder.
Then, I felt a sudden chill as the other one nestled the barrel of his pulse-rifle behind my left ear. I heard him pop the safety off with an audible click.
"What's going on?" I asked, playing the only card I really had. "You've no right to interfere with a Ptolmey rite." I didn't really want to know what was going on. If Concord Marines were on Tucson, then maybe the Vox decided it was time to take it back.
"Who are you?" They repeated.
"Shane Watts." I lied. "I claim the rite of Journey's End."
The first one took a step towards the open grave and peered inside. He shook his head and a strange pulsing sound came from his suit-vocoder. It took me a moment to realize he was laughing.
He stepped back and lifted his arm. then he hauled off and punched me so hard he damned near dislocated my jaw. He brought his knee up into me chest hard enough to make me double over and throw up. Then he grabbed my hair and wrenched my neck back so that I was facing up into the quickly-lightening sky.
"Journey's End is a Concord Rite." the woman said, her voice devoid of emotion. "This is not Concord Space. Your claim is denied."
"Hold on." The other said. I turned to see him half in the grave with Keri-Anne. I could feel my blood boiling as he ran his hands down the front of her body. After a moment, though, he held up the red and black Cilcotta Medal.
"You're going to need to come with us." he said, his voice a flat command.