Staring out over the wastes, Val wondered what had possessed him. Sand, dust, and more sand, that's what awaited him. He'd never been this far from the oasis, and knew that any water was days away...unless he turned back. Others had done so. It would only be a year till he had the chance to go again. Only a year. A year of sideways glances, and whispered jokes. After his strong words, his boasts, he could not go back. No, postponement was not an option. He would not learn anymore to prepare him for this journey in that time, and if he gave in now to his fear, it would only be all the easier to do so again the following year.
He stopped and rubbed his eyes, looking briefly up into the bright sun. Well...time to go. He put his sun-goggles on and looked around, waiting for his eyes to adjust. He smiled briefly at his two companions, companions that would not be following him. Olaf smiled back, but it was a worried smile. Morris did not. Olaf had been Val's mentor the past three years, and his friend. He was a tall man, lanky, well-proportioned. His hair was bleached blond from long exposure to the harsh sun, and his skin a burnished copper. He locked eyes with Val, and it was obvious that he was studying his student. He knew that Val was ready for almost any journey he could have chosen. A solitary raid against the Maxes, a salvage mission into the mountains, even scouting up north...but this was a trip into the Southern wastes...where the radiation was heaviest, where the night sky had been known to glow green on a very clear night. Olaf knew the reason Val thought he could do it, but it seemed a very risky bet.
Morris never smiled. He was a hard-ass from the day he was born, or so the story went. Bit his mother's tit the first day, as the expression went. He was shorter than Olaf, and much stockier. His skin told of a different lineage than Olaf's obvious nordic stock. Hispanic, Val guessed.
Morris' skin too was darkened by the sun, save for the many ritual scars that covered his chest and arms. Morris had never cared for Val, but that hadn't bothered Val much. Morris was a weapon...and a shield. He was the Pack's defender until death. As far as intelligence was concerned, Morris' extended to a fighter's caginess, and a certain tactical awareness. Val respected both, but knew there was more to life. Perhaps not ground-side, but there well should be.
Val tipped an imaginary hat to his two companions, and turned his back on them. "I will be back sooner than you think." He said, aloud, but not to anyone in particular.
"Glowing green and flesh hanging, no doubt..." growled Morris.
" I'd die far before I glowed, and you know it, Morris... But I'll be sure to give you a big wet hug if your prediction comes true." said Val, without turning.
Olaf grinned despite himself. " Morris getting hugged? I'd like to see anyone, let alone you, get close enough. Take care of yourself, you cockroach..."
"Why thank you...roaches survive!"
Both men watched as the dead man walked. Neither turned away until he was over the third dune and out of sight. It was their duty to witness his passing.
Val looked up at the sun for the tenth time this day. His skin was burnt, and his lips parched, but he felt he was doing better than might be expected. His slow, energy conserving pace was keeping the dizziness of heat exhaustion at bay. He remembered Olaf's lessons in conserving water, and if anything his discipline in that regard was to err on the side of caution. Tomorrow, his skin would peel, and he would not sleep much at night. If he found shelter soon, he would not be sleeping at night in any case. He would rest the day, and walk at night. That had not been an option the past two days, seeing as he couldn't bury himself in the sand like the lizards and scorpions. He shuddered, remembering the other night he had awoken with a rattler sharing his body heat. The snake had left peaceably enough a couple hours later, when the dawn sun arose, but even in this heat, Val could not help a shiver.
Arising over the next dune, Val stopped. He often stopped on these all too frequent heights. Each time he held the irrational hope that he would see the tall ruins of an old city, even though he had travelled nowhere near long enough. People had once joked that it was "a small world," but it had grown considerably for its' current tenants. Val knew more of what was lost than did most of the desert inhabitants. Until five years ago he had been a part of history, of a society where little had been lost, save contact with solid ground. Orbitals they were called by those who even knew of them. Many knew they were up there, without ever meeting one, or being told. A new star in the sky, or rather a new flickering satellite, told many all they needed to know, that the Old Ones were up there, and cared nothing for their previous home.
Val was an exile. Or rather, his parents were. They had never really told him why he had been dragged out of bed that fateful morning and told to grab 5 sets of clothes, two personal items, and get his ass to docking bay four. He had figured out some of it. His dad had been in contact with the 'natives' that worked one of the clandestine ground-side city mines, and Val speculated that his father had "compromised security." He remembered walking into his father's office and finding a dirty, unkempt teenager working an old-fashioned keyboard attached to his father's terminal. He had been about to shout for help when his father had walked in and offered the dirty kid a coffee...His father had almost dropped the coffee seeing Val in the office.
Val had later been pulled aside by his father, and told not to say a word about the strange guest. Val had not needed the warning, he knew what his father was doing was something he could get into great trouble for. His father's surprised face had told him all he needed to know. What he did not know, was why it would get him in such trouble. The boy hadn't looked dangerous. His father had told him that the Executive Chair thought earth-bound people were savages...and as far as Val was concerned, that word meant dangerous. The boy in the office was just...dirty. Val didn't realise that it wasn't so simple at the time. Most of all he did not realise that such risks could be fatal, or that they almost always extended to the entire family.
His father had been caught teaching the primitives...such was Val's impression of the sudden need to escape. His father had been doing it for 5 years...it was only a matter of time. He knew it was wrong to deny the people unfortunate enough to live on the Earth knowledge or comfort, but he also knew that the Orbitals somehow felt threatened.
It was hard for Val to believe now that he had once considered them his people. He had thought his life ended that day, but it hadn't. And it wouldn't now, out in this desert.
He could remember grabbing his gun and his gear. Out of habit, he had almost grabbed his corporate cadet uniform on the way out, before realising he'd probably never wear it again. He could remember the whispered commands his father gave, as he told his son to shoot first, and ask questions later. Luckily, the two guards at the door to the shuttle bay had been more surprised than him and his father. Val hadn't had to shoot. Two very hard punches had sufficed. He could remember the howling of the engines, as they leapt out of the station's hull...he could remember the crashes as blasts from turrets rocked the small ship. He could remember his mother crying out in terror and then relief, as they made it out of range. But mostly, he could remember the engines...in fact he could almost hear them now.
In fact, he could hear them now...what the hell? He blocked the sun from his eyes and tried to get a bearing on the sound. He saw it coming almost straight for him, from the east...It was flying low, very low. Was it about to crash? Val blinked, realizing that staring probably wasn't the best course of action, and dove off the dune. The ship clipped the dune, sending a shower of sand flying over Val, but seemed to take no appreciable damage from the slight impact. It continued flying...gaining almost no altitude. Was the pilot crazy? Val trotted down the dune, in the same direction as the ship. He had been headed in roughly that direction anyway...besides...a functioning ship would be a hell of a prize to bring back to the tribe. If nothing else, the ship might have an extra day or two's supply of water.
"Go ahead, shoot me...I dare ya!" Muttered Zeke, as he tugged hard, freeing the two small missiles from the racks. He crammed them roughly into his two backpacks, one in each, then filling in the remaining space (which wasn't much) with rations and water. "Fucking Carter...thinks he can shoot me out an airlock and get away with it..."
Zeke's black-carapaced hands worked feverishly then, wiring the rest of the nukes together. He crossed his fingers and plugged a twisted mass of cables into the ship computer... "Fifteen million, up in smoke! Stuff that up your ass, Atlantis Enterprises..." He grinned wickedly, showing off his elongated canines...though there was noone there to see...or was there? Zeke blinked, and looked around rapidly. Heh...noone there. Of course there wasn't. Still crossing his fingers, he punched a few digits into the computer and stepped back...Was twenty-four hours enough time? Well, it was done now! Zeke took a deep breath and opened the hatch.
"Damn!" He shouted as the bright sun blinded him momentarily... "Picked a fuckin' remote enough place didn't I?" He adjusted his two packs on his huge shoulders and started on his way, taking long, rapid strides away from the shuttle. He noticed the heat immediately, it beat down on his black carapace like an anvil...however, distance from a nuclear blast was a little more important. His body would adjust...it always did.
Machinery hummed softly in the almost complete darkness of the vast, cement vault. Blinking lights seemed to project a sinister sense of life into the room, as if hundreds of tiny eyes watched. A pitiful, mewling cry escaped from somewhere below, penetrating the girl's consciousness briefly. A sickening thud followed, and a dragging sound. The woman tried to raise her body, but it would not respond. She noted the sound of slight electrical pulses made at regular intervals, and then noticed groggily that her arms and legs twitched with each one. She struggled a little harder to move, and finally managed to lift her head. It did not help her assess her situation much...she saw briefly, in the blinking lights, a glass cover above her, or clear plastic, something that reflected the pitiful source of light at any rate. She also saw a hundred tiny silver needles protruding from her flesh, before she lost consciousness again.
The tremor came after the blast by a good minute, and it knocked Val right off the dune. He'd stood speechless as the mushroom cloud rose up, unable to believe his eyes. After what had happened, someone was using atomics? Standing in the result of that same madness, someone was actually detonating a nuke? Only an Orbital could do it...that he was sure of. That Orbital had better have died in the explosion, that was for certain. Val felt sick to his stomach.
The blast came from the ship, he was certain of it. He wondered what the target had been. "Some tribal learn to tie shoe laces?" he muttered bitterly, running his hands through his hair. If the stories were true, he wondered idly how long he'd still have that hair. His toxin binders would certainly be put to the test if he remained here. Like they hadn't already been tested enough coming this far into the waste. That was why most of the Pack had considered his trip suicide, beyond the ritual idea of death associated with The Journey. This land was desolate for a reason, and rainfall likely would make only minor difference.
Only Val's parents and Olaf knew of Val's minor enhancements. His smartlink pads were perpetually hidden by his fingerless gloves, and his internal processor was well covered by fake hair. If any of his girlfriends had twisted instead of tugged his earring, they may have gotten a surprise. Many had asked him why he never took off the gloves. "Bad luck..." had always been his reply. Many of the Pack had strange talismans, so they never asked twice. Besides, Val had never been an overly social member of the extended family. He was an Outsider even after 4 years, which was part of why Val had chosen this particular direction for his Journey. He didn't care overly about friendship, he had Olaf for that, but he at least wanted their respect. No...more than that. He wanted them shocked. This Outsider, who'd needed to learn everything that the Pack was taught from birth, who hadn't known a cactus was a source of water, was going to do something they couldn't, or wouldn't.
He shook his head, and sighed...the blast area cut right across his planned route. He couldn't go right through; that would be suicide, even with the toxin binders. He'd have to cut around, and try to judge a safe distance...either way, he was in for a long trek, one he would no doubt be feeling the effects of long after.
Zeke looked behind him, seeing the mushroom cloud rising from the desert. They might have found his landing spot via satellite, but they wouldn't be able to trace his route on foot now. A crater half a mile wide tended to erase footprints. However, he was certain they were tallying up a tab in his name at that moment, adding a combat shuttle with nuclear armament to his unpaid bills. That might be enough to send a more thorough search after him...maybe even black ops. He'd have to be careful. Anyone he met on this planet could be Atlantean...or Atlantean paid.
The heat was atrocious. He was not built for this. His chitinous black scales absorbed heat far too much. Zeke noted the moisture seeping from his armored skin, and observed that his two day internal supply of water was likely only to be one in these conditions, unless he found daytime shelter. The only thing to do was keep moving. Looking up at the sun, Zeke growled. "Fuck you..." he muttered, through a tongue that already felt like cotton. With strides that showed his weariness, he continued away from the blast area. He tried to ignore the queasiness he felt in his stomach, preferring to hope it was simply the heat, rather than any result of radiation.
A few hours later, as night began to fall, Zeke managed a smile for the first time that day. Not only was the air cooling enough for him to be finally comfortable, but the change in ground beneath him gave him pleasure. Cleared by a desert wind, cracked and crumbling from age, it was still a vision of hope for Zeke. It did not matter that dunes crossed and obscured the majority of it. He was standing on asphalt.
Val knew it was the radiation that was causing him pain. He was well used to the heat, and had even gotten used to the pain of sunburn, and the itchiness of flaking skin. Besides, he had managed to find shelter the day before, in the ruins of a solitary building...The letters "INF" upon a tilted and hanging sign had been the only indication of what the purpose of the building had been. He had managed to avoid the heat of the day, and so should be feeling remarkably better than he did today. The rebellion of his stomach, it's refusal to accept any but the smallest amounts of food or water concerned him most. As he retched for the third time that day, he lamented the loss of moisture. At this rate, he would run out of water well before he reached the distant purple of the mountains he had spotted this morning.
Reaching the crest of the last dune, Val had realised that he was far closer than he'd ever meant to be to the blast area. He could actually see the crater, a smallish hole in the desert from this distance, but it was visible only because it shimmered brightly. Val knew this was because of the sand and likely the rocks far underneath. The shimmering would be a fused mass of glass, either clear or black...Val was curious to know what colour the pale sand would actually turn, but was far from curious enough to investigate any closer.
Nothing to do but keep moving. He'd have to find shelter again soon enough, and more water. He forced himself to repeat over and over. "I will not drink without boiling the water. I will not drink..." His immunities to poison and radiation were already being tested enough, he could not afford to be cocky. He looked behind him, longingly, realizing that someday he'd have to make the trip back, and it was not likely to be any easier. A tiny corner of his mind told him it would be alright to turn back, to return empty handed...he could stand the loss of status, the loss of respect. He shook his head, and was dizzied by the motion. Onward, he mentally commanded himself, and slowly his feet began to move, climbing down the dune, grimacing as he eyed the next.
Climbing to the top of that next dune, he was distracted from his grumbling progress by a glint off something in the distance, something metallic. Blinking, shading his eyes, he saw it again, but it had moved! He flopped to his belly on the sand, and winced at the heat, as he fumbled for his binoculars. They snagged on the strap of his backpack, and it took him a moment to tug them free. He looked through them, scanning the area, but whatever it had been was gone. Val muttered to himself angrily, then got up slowly, and started down the dune in the direction the glint had been moving. At the very least, he could find the trail by the end of the day. It may have been nothing, a lost scavenger, but it might too have meant that people were nearby...and water.