Unsettled Land

Weather-beaten and rangy. The library at her hip was grey steel and rainbow mother-of-pearl.

It’d been a dry year, killing dry. Ulloa could hardly breathe for the dust, spat mud even with her breather before she could get a swallow out of the bottle. Damn thing was probably dead anyway — indicator claimed otherwise, but her nose was full of algal rot like an aquarium gone bad.

Supposed to be work up to the Double B, some big project they were working on. Tarkovsky had said it was some energy thing, but that didn’t signify: everything was an energy thing these days. Still chasing the big score and a return to the fat days. Well, so. She’d take their money and ride herd for a season or two, build out a few processes or whatever they needed, enough to keep Nova fed, anyway. Poor dumb beast was happy enough with his steady diet of garbage, but she’d feel better for the effort.

She passed another wreck, some poor schmuck whose planning or luck had run short; just another sacrifice to the ‘9. Samaritans had been and gone, thankfully — not even enough grease left for Nova’s undemanding stomach. Ulloa glared into the mountains and thumbed the volume high on her library. Miles to go, and nothing owed to strangers.

Let Us Remember the Beautiful Dead

Sunny days and unseasonably warm. Cries of human traffickers in the harbor—drug and disease free! height-weight proportional!—and the clash of riot shields against barricades. Smell of spices and formaldehyde from the vivisectionist’s quarter.

Valentine is lounging. He should be looking for work, or hustling, or even sleeping, but instead he’s propping up a lamppost watching the world go by.

Flow of families in and out. In with a mouth too many, out with their thirty pieces of silver, ears stopped with wax. Protestors throng the sidewalks, singing, screaming, shaking fists. Their signs—a ten year old, rib cage wetly open; BETTER A CLEAN DEATH—are garish and ardent as folk art.

Sometimes Valentine does sidework for the clinics, running an autoclave, changing feeding bags, processing leftovers. The pay’s all right. He picks his teeth with his thumb and thinks about what he wants for dinner. Bouillabaisse at Antoine’s? Liver and onions at the Hash? He’s got fifty in his pocket and no desire to hang on to it.


This is an image post. Inspiration for this sketch came from this image.

They are a child army from where you sit in the jam, cockroaches scuttling dolorously from one side of the road to the other, heads gone heavy and long with their dust masks, backs bent against the wind, the light, notice.

You see the smoke before the dull crack of the shot works its way back to you, see the eddy in the parade before you spot the shooter. It all happens so languidly, so naturally: another round chambers into the rifle, another essene floats heavily down to the ground. They gather around the body for an instant and move on. They keep their faces down.

Hours pass. The shooter kills maybe ten more, but the river never stops, never slackens; never resists. Whoever it is grows tired of the game, or perhaps runs out of bullets, and still they stretch from horizon to horizon. Toward evening the last few trickle across the road, and the jam begins to move. By the time you make it to the front, there is nothing left of the bodies but a few slivers of glass, a few red smears from which you avert your eyes, and a trail leading off into the dunes, already being erased by the wind.


In the distance the samaritans are vultures, shoulders high and stooped and predatory with the black hump of their packs. Their faces are long, avian: the dust masks they wear are moon-eyed, needle-beaked, bleached white by the sun. As you ride past, your eyes delicately averted from the glittering remains of the crash, they swivel to watch you, blank and still, patient as the desert. The lenses of their eyes catch the world and throw it back to you, wide white sky, narrow spears of rock, endless sand. That reflection is their promise, their threat.

Sometimes you find the wrecks sooner rather than later, metal still ticking as it cools, colorless flames licking around the shriveled remains of the driver, but never faster than the samaritans. Once, long ago, so long ago that you remember the story of the memory better than the memory itself, a ride crashed in front of you, so close that the great wash of heat drove you backward. Under the roar of the fire you could hear the screaming of the driver. While you were still numb they were there, long beaks plunging, and only the flames were left to din in your ears.