Sample excerpt






Smashwords Edition, copyright 2011, by P.N. Elrod
Originally in Women at War, Tor, 1995


Cold wind cut Kella's eyes as she crept to the crest of the hillock to look for hunting parties in her wake. Nothing on two legs was in sight, just dusty gray and brown vegetation covering thousands of identical hillocks in every direction. The western horizon was still blurred by smoke, which surprised her. Things must be bad if they'd not gotten the fires under control by now. Maybe the prison authorities decided to let the place burn.

The sky was empty of movement. The attack that had enabled her escape would have knocked out any fliers or, at minimum, their control systems. One good pulse would fry anything left unshielded. Of course, if the orbiting scanners were working then this was for nothing and she and her companion would soon be picked up and--

She cut that thought off and scrambled down to where Farron lay curled on the lee side in an attempt to escape the wind. His head rested on one crooked arm, and he was sound asleep. Kella envied his easy surrender to the physical. Her own body craved rest, but her mind wouldn't settle enough to allow it; she had to focus to keep it from racing in useless speculation about the future. Useless, since it was unlikely she had one. Options for escapees from Riganth were limited to a return to their cells or death. Freedom was a fool's hope.

Kella gave an inward shrug. Fool or not, she would die before going back to her cage.

She was tempted to leave Farron where he lay, but the man's skills were her only insurance against an unknown future. He was not wanted, but necessary. If they were lucky they had a few hours left to reach their goal--her goal; Farron was too doped to think straight. If they hurried, a few hours might be enough. After that, what was left of the authorities at the prison would have reorganized and begun tracking down strays.

Farron protested the hard shake and subsequent pull to his feet, but followed as she threaded between the higher bits of drab landscape. Except for the cough he'd picked up in prison, the only sounds in this primal world were their footsteps and the endless susurrating wind bearing them away to infinity. It stank of burning plastic, chemicals, and organics.

She took Farron's hand when he stumbled, leading him around the less obvious obstacles. Touching another human felt strange to her after so many days of isolation. In those stretches when she'd been aware enough to mark the time, she kept count of at least three hundred of them, though that had to be an underestimation.

Farron paused, his grip tightened, stopping her. He blinked, puzzled. "Are we outside?"

"Yes, we're outside."

"It's cold."

"Yes, it is."

Was he waking up or had he gone simple like so many others? The drugs given to the general population induced docility and suppressed the libido, but a percentage of prisoners reacted badly, their brains shutting down by degrees. The worst were taken away. She heard what happened to them. If Farron was too far gone it would be a mercy if she broke his neck now than--

He struggled to get out words. "But. . .we shouldn't be here. Should we?"

She felt a wash of relief. Cognition was intact somewhere inside his skull if he could form that complex a question. "It'll be all right. Come with me."

"My feet hurt."

He wore prison scuffs, which were not intended for walks in the wilderness. Her feet were encased in regulation boots, taken from a guard she'd particularly enjoyed killing. The boots were too large, but she preferred their chafing over bruises and cuts. "So do mine."

"I'm tired."

"We'll rest soon."

He accepted her word and came along. They put a few more klicks between themselves and hell.

The wind rose, roaring, thick with the smell of destruction. She checked the sky, cursed, and quickly dragged Farron to the steep base of a hillock, pulling him down next to her. Not the best shelter, but it would have to serve. The wind moaned like a living thing, whipping the low growing plants.

The orbit of Riganth's moon was such that it eclipsed the sun once a day. Its apparent disc was much larger, blocking light and warmth for a long, cold hour, sometimes more, depending on the planet's own orbit. It made the planet's weather system. . .interesting.

"What's wrong?" Farron asked.

"Take a nap, we're fine."

Farron lay down and kept himself to himself as she spooned her back against his front. She felt awkward, unused to such contact. The need for shared warmth was more important than her need for body space; she stifled the urge to move away. The wind wailed around them; sharp gusts eddied in, plucking at her. Oblivious, Farron coughed twice, fretting in his dreams. She tried not to breathe his breath.

The delay was impossible, but she couldn't help resenting it. They might stumble forward in this dry storm, but in the twists and turns needed to negotiate the rough terrain, they'd soon lose their way. It was just too dark.

She filled the time scanning the black sky for the telltale lights of a flier among the shredded clouds, unlikely as that might be. No pilot in her right mind would choose to go prowling under these conditions. That left remote scanners, their operators safe indoors, but those would be grounded as well. The little machines were tough, but had their limits.

If any operators were left. Kella became aware of an orange glow against the flying cloud cover.

Riganth still burned?

The moon's transit crawled to a conclusion; the day's second dawn asserted itself. Shivering, Kella stood and stretched warmth into her stiffened limbs.

"It's time, Farron."

He mumbled, coughed, and tried to roll away into the peace of his folded arms.

"Come on." She nudged him with her foot.

He shoved it away.

"Get up, unless you want to die."

He struggled briefly with his eyelids and lost. "There's no difference between catching it here or anywhere else," he mumbled. "One way or another we're dead. Yours is more work. I'd rather save myself the trouble."

His speech was reassuringly lucid. Some parts of his brain had slept off more of the drugs during the respite; the rest of him just hadn't realized it yet. All he needed was a little push to get moving. "Would you really? If you're that tired of living I can fix things for you."

"Don't do me any favors."

She stooped and closed both hands around Farron's throat and squeezed. She did it slowly. His petulance changed to panic and he struggled, then actively fought. He broke her hold and twisted away, gasping and coughing. She kept her distance, hiding her own sudden fatigue.

Farron was fully awake, on his feet, and glaring. "You rotten--you were really going to do it!"

She showed her teeth. "Who says I've stopped?"

"I do, I was just joking."

"Your humor could be the death of you."

"Only with you in the audience. All right, you got me up." He gestured for her to assume the lead, obviously reluctant to have her or her hands out of his sight.

Kella took a bearing from the sun and struck off.

"Where are we going, anyway?" he asked.

She tried to answer, but the words didn't so much as form in her mind, much less turn to speech. She had a mental picture of their destination, but her ability to tell him about it was . . .temporarily offline. "You'll see. We're close."

She hoped.

But their pace remained slow over the uneven ground. She was tired to the bone, hollow with hunger, and terribly thirsty. She speculated on the edibility of the plants, but knew better than to risk it.

Farron called for a stop; Kella ignored him and plowed on, right into a low solid object that cracked her shins as she fell onto it.

"Hey, didn't you see that? I tried to tell you."

It was a mound of metal and plas-crete, less than a meter across, sprouting from the earth like an exotic strain of edible fungus. It was colored to blend with the surrounding land. Kella stared, trying to recall what it was and why it was important.

"What's the matter with you?" Farron demanded.

"Well, are we going in?"

Her memory flickered and she stood back, favoring her bruises. "You first."

He made a face. "Of course, always me." He examined a plastic housing. "Locked," he pronounced, "and probably for a good reason. This is part of the prison, isn't it?"

"No, of course not."

She'd fallen over a. . .the correct word escaped her. A door then, she impatiently provided. The one she'd been looking for, though not the one she'd visualized. Her expectations conjured something more vertical. With a building attached.

All right, so the building was underground, shelter was shelter, and this was the way in. "Open it."

He grimaced. "With what? I need specialized tools."

"What kind of tools?"

"A cutter and circuit probe would be helpful, and maybe a bypass with a program override."


"With what, leaves and dirt? Without the right tools you'd need a battering ram to open that."

"I might just try one, providing the impact element is your head."

The look on her face was evidently inspiring. He found a rock and after several tries, cracked the housing, peering at the exposed works.

"This is more along your line," he stepped back. "Have a go."

Her fingers began trembling as she probed the mess. Her heart raced, and sweat suddenly popped out on her forehead. She broke off before Farron noticed.

"Anything wrong?"

"No, and this is hardly my line. You're the specialist, you do it."

Farron swallowed his puzzlement and had another turn. "I'm not sure what you mean. I'm expert enough with the right tools, but these multi-binary probability codes are a bit over my head--I could spend the rest of my life doing this."

"That is entirely possible," she said, with meaning.

"Still, I could try a more direct approach. This tech is just old enough for us get away with. . .there, press that down and hold it."

Kella had to struggle to keep from throwing up as he touched a bare wire against a contact. Sparks flew and her hand jerked back.

"Wants to bite," he remarked, sucking his own stinging fingers. He coughed and looked around. "What the hell is that pong? Something burning?"

She'd been too distracted to notice the worsening smell. The sky held more smoke than clouds. No point climbing a hill to look. She could hear the approaching fire. A vanguard of cinders tumbled toward them on the wind.

"Get it open, Farron. Now."


Continued in the P.N. Elrod Omnibus


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