Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

The Harrowers

The kid didn’t have a feed. He glanced over his shoulder and scratched the back of his head, and I saw there was nothing in his neck. You didn’t find many folks without feeds in the city. Right away, I knew he’d brought me a problem. “I’m looking for Ez,” he said, and I said yeah, I was him.

He looked relieved then lowered his voice. “And you’re a guide?”

I wiped grease on the front of my jeans, closed the hood of the 4Runner, and gestured for the kid to follow me. He took the hint, nodding with absurd gratitude, and I led him down past the line of old rigs, all waiting to be stripped. Across the yard, someone cranked up a saw.

“Who gave you my name?” I asked.

“Guy called himself Coroner.”

“You don’t want to talk to him again.”

The kid gave a sad sort of smile. “No. I really don’t.”

He wasn’t the roughneck sort who usually came around looking for a guide. Right age, maybe: Seventeen, eighteen. But the boy had a pressed, conservative look to him. Skinny, clean-shaven, all done up in slacks and suspenders and a white, sweaty shirt. I didn’t know what to make of him, and I didn’t like that I didn’t know.

“You from around here?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No, sir. Lynchburg.”

“Nice town,” I lied. Hive of fanatics. “How long you been here, then?”

“Not quite a day.”

“And you already want to go outside.” I grinned. “Jesus.”

It wasn’t much cooler in the office, but there was beer and shade. The kid settled onto my ratty, floral-print sofa, and I opened two Yanjings, thinking maybe he was used to the fancy stuff. I still couldn’t get a fix on him, but he dressed like a big spender. He folded his arms and crossed his legs at the knee, glancing at the old gas station signs on the wall.

“What do I call you?” I said.

He frowned into his beer. “P.K.”

“All right, P.K. You want to tell me about your deathwish?”

He shook his head.

“No deathwish. I just want to see my old man again.”

My turn to frown. “Your old man.”

“Yessir. He’s outside.”

I slid my bottle across the desk, back and forth from one hand to the other.

“How far outside?”

“Cherokee North. Between here and Johnson City.”

“That’s a lot of forest.”

He shrugged.

Some guides don’t like to get nosy. Take the job, don’t ask questions. Lot of those guides develop a nasty case of dead.

“You want my help,” I said, “you’re going to have to tell me what he was doing there.” If Coroner had sent him, I didn’t have many choices here, but maybe the boy didn’t know that. He nodded, answered without hesitation.

“We were out harrowing.”

Christ, I thought. And then: Of course—P.K.: Preacher’s Kid. Should’ve caught that earlier. I finished off the Yanjing, then opened the cooler and unscrewed a jar of whiskey. I’d heard of harrowers before, but never met one alive.

“You were with him,” I said.

“Yessir.”

“He preaches, you shoot. That how it works?”

The kid looked embarrassed. “I haven’t learned to bless yet.”

“And you got separated?”

He inclined his head. “Pack of wolves surprised us. We were running, and my father—” He paused. “He fell. Over a ledge. I saw him roll, heard him call out, but the slope sharpened and—I didn’t see where he landed. I searched until sundown. I love my father, but—”he pursed his lips—“but I’m not stupid.”

“You did right.” I leaned forward. “But you understand he’s dead.”

The boy was silent.

“I ain’t gonna sell you false hope. Your daddy’s gone. I’ll take your money, I’ll take you out there, and I’ll help you make whatever amends you want to make. But I want us both to understand what’s going on here. I don’t want any confusion between us. You have to show me that you know we’re not going to find him smiling.”

“I have to find him,” he said. “I know the odds.”

I wasn’t sure he did. “I ain’t cheap. And I ain’t stupid either.” I told him the deposit. “I need to see triple the advance in a credit account, and I need the account linked to my feed. In the event of my death, the triple transfers automatically to my family.”

Little joke, there. Family.

“That’s fair,” he said. “And if I die?”

“We link your feed to my account. The deposit transfers back.”

He shook his head. “I don’t have a feed.”

I’d forgotten. Mark of the Devil. I smiled through a stir of jealousy. The little metal nub in my neck let me work in the city, let me spend and collect credit, but mostly it just felt like a warm seed of debt, always itching beneath my skin, waiting for me to die or default, always threatening to grow.

“We can go to my credit agency and set up a timed withdrawal from my account,” I said. “If you’re not around to cancel it in three days, the advance’ll transfer to the account of your choice.”

He nodded. “Works for me.”

“I think we understand one another, P.K.” I took the Colt from my drawer, set it on my desk. The old, faded sticker on the grip said Keep Asheville Weird. “If you got the yuan, I got the yeehaw.”

And just like that, we were in business.

***

No one ran outside the law in Asheville without owing money to Coroner. He found you when you were down, desperate, earthless. He fed you, paid your rent. If you wanted to be a guide, he made it easy: Set you up as a company mechanic, pulled all the right bureaucratic triggers to assign you to truckers on his payroll, to divert shipping routes. Last Christmas, he’d bought me a suit of skintight armor straight out of Cupertino. Sometimes it was hard to figure out where the companies ended and Coroner began, but it was absolutely clear who owned you.

Coroner had placed me and Xin Sun together so often that I could tell you her granddaddy’s favorite singer (Johnny Cash) and the city where her mama was born (Raleigh). She was short, wiry, somewhere in her forties, with a line of faded hearts tattooed around her wrist. Her rig was a behemoth, a messy cross between a Humvee and an old furniture truck. I sat in the cab, behind the old automatic rifle mounted on the hood. P.K. huddled in the cargo crawlspace with the liquor.

Xin caught my eye as she eased toward the gate. “You’re a bad person, Ez.”

“Yeah?”

“The daddy’s gone,” she said. “Boy don’t need to see that.”

“I told him. He can make up his own mind.”

She shook her head, scratched her neck. “He’s green as shit. The dead on the moon can see it. You ought to know better.”

“He’s shot his share of dead. He don’t need a mama, Xin.”

She stared straight ahead, gripped the wheel.

Asshole, said the silence.

The traffic light changed, and Xin eased forward again. Bluecoats crowded around us with rifles and pads. My feed ran hot, so I could almost feel their fingers in the back of my neck, sifting through my licenses and permissions, my employers and outstanding debts. The bluecoat captain read through our manifest while his grunts looked over the cargo.  Xin ignored me, and I tried not to touch my gun or crack my knuckles or otherwise announce that I was scared turdless. I listened to the clang of footsteps in the back and wondered what the kid was thinking, hidden down there with the liquor.

The footsteps in the back receded. The door slammed shut, and the captain waved us on. I tipped an invisible hat and Xin told him to have a good one.

The gate opened, and we drove outside.

There’s something about leaving a city that makes you want to get drunk and scream. You ride out into the emptiness of the frontier and you can feel the weight of gazes falling away with every mile. Debts, shopping centers, manifests—all that headsmoke recedes until it’s just you and the quiet, the clouds wrapped around road-carved mountains. I watched the trees as we rode out: The leaves were only just tinged with orange. Ahead, the Interstate wound through the broad swells of the Blue Ridge, all steep slopes and sharp drops. If you rode fifteen miles outside of Asheville, you could hardly tell that anyone had ever bothered to live on the mountains. Even the billboards were scarce and choked by kudzu.

“Want to let him out?” said Xin.

“Guess I ought to.”

I pulled myself out of the gunner’s seat, grappled my way to the back and ducked past stacked pallets marked in Portuguese, Italian, Chinese. All the world’s shit packed up in crates. You couldn’t see much by the emergency lights, and as often as I’d navigated Xin’s rig, they packed it a little different every time. I pushed a box of canned soup off of the hidden door, rapped three times, waited, rapped again. I heard the door unlatch from his side, and I pulled it open. P.K. stared out from the crawlspace, his arms crossed over his chest like an old-fashioned corpse, mason jars shifting slightly around him. He was red-faced, his hair sweat-wet against his forehead.

“Thank you,” he breathed.

I offered my hand. “Everything all right down there?”

He blinked. “Are we out?”

“Yessir.”

I helped him up, guided him to the front. “Have a sit-down,” I said, waving him into the gunner’s seat. Xin glanced over her shoulder and smiled at the boy.

“Hope you didn’t sample the whiskey,” she said. Gently, teasing. “I don’t want Coroner to come knocking.”

He flushed. “No, ma’am. I don’t drink.”

I tried not to imagine Coroner at my door.

Xin laughed. “That so? You’re either wise or insane. Not sure which.”

“Out here,” P.K. ventured, smiling nervously, “I think it’s for the best.”

“Out here, you may be right.”

On the side of the road, empty signs. Words scraped and weathered away. A lone dead woman, one-armed and skeletal, limped along the side of the road, stumbling now and then into the guardrail, threatening to tumble over and down into a far hollow. Xin and P.K. fell silent, and I watched the sky for birds.

I still couldn’t work out what Coroner was trying to say, sending me this job. When I’d called to line up the ride, I asked about the kid, but the minder only told me that the operation was important to the boss. “Make sure the boy and his daddy come back with you,” he’d said. “Finish the job, you’ll be fine.”

Coroner wasn’t an idiot—he knew the preacher was dead by now. Was he trying to play the kid for money? That didn’t make sense; this was small change for him. He wanted the job done, but I didn’t understand why. I didn’t know the stakes, didn’t understand what I stood to lose.

Xin braked hard, lashing me out of my thoughts.

I barely caught myself from toppling headfirst into the windshield. Ahead, an eighteen-wheeler lay on its side, its head curled into the median and its ass blocking half of the Interstate, splayed out like a sleeping cat. The semi’s rear turret was shredded, the cow-catcher banged up and twisted into bad art. Gathered around the cab was a cluster of red bears—dead, from the look of them—ripping the skin from the rig. In unison, the bears looked up from their work.

Some people call dead eyes dull, but I’ve never understood that. You look the dead in the eyes, you see the judgment.

When guides and truckers get together to drink, you hear talk of road churches that worship the red bears. We’re not a very spiritual lot, but I believe it. Sometimes you got to pray to the thing that scares you. And if you ain’t scared of a twelve-foot, three-thousand-pound monster bred to consume as much flesh as possible, you’re already underground. The companies engineered the red bears to clear the forests of the dead, and on paper, it still sounds like a good idea: Carnivorous cyborg weapons, carrion-eaters with titanium-reinforced skeletons. They were supposed to be uninfectable, a walking immune system for the world outside.

Problem was, they got infected anyway.

I grabbed P.K.’s shoulder, tried to pull him out of the seat, but he shook me off. Four of the animals broke off from the pack, loping toward us. Xin gripped the wheel, shifted the truck into reverse. The approaching dead split into two groups, flanking us; the ones that stayed behind tore open the cab of the downed rig—

Crack.

The nearest bear lurched to the right as blood sprayed from the side of its head. His face blank, P.K. swung the barrel of the rifle toward the next animal, then frowned slightly when he noticed that the first bear was still coming, its jaw hanging loose and swinging side-to-side as it ran. Xin watched the mirror and held the wheel steady, pushing the truck backward as fast as it would go, but the bears moved faster, hardly slowing as P.K. shot them in the chest, in the head. Finally, the one with the loose jaw stumbled and fell forward, as if it was dizzy or out of breath. At first, I thought P.K. had worn it down, but no: Its hind legs had collapsed.

The other three bears were close enough that I could see the meat between their teeth. I leaned into P.K.’s ear, shouted over the gun: “Shoot them in the legs.

He nodded once and concentrated his fire on the space in front of the animals. There was less flesh around the joints where their forelimbs met their paws; red fur and muscle fell away, and bone-alloy gleamed underneath. P.K. didn’t waste a shot, but we’d have to reload soon. The tallest bear staggered and hit the pavement, scraped away its snout as it fell.

The last hurled itself forward and hit our hood. The rig shook, but Xin kept it steady. The bear slumped and fell away then lay still on the road. Xin slowed, and we watched the rest of the dead in the distance. There were seven or eight bears circled there, maybe more. They’d already pulled apart the cab of the fallen truck, and now were eating.

“I can turn us around,” Xin said quietly. “Get off the last exit, bypass the Interstate for a couple miles.”

I wondered about the folks in the middle of that circle. Other truckers. Other guides, maybe. I wondered if I knew them.

“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s do that.”

“I hope they were Christians,” P.K. said softly.

***

We talked about our families. Xin’s mother, half out of her mind in a nursing home in Charlotte. She didn’t mention her ex-husband and sons. My daughter, grown and living on a Monsanto farm colony in the Pacific, still writing every couple months for money. Xin had heard the story a dozen times before—often enough that she ought to have pegged it for bullshit—but she still watched me with something between warmth and bitterness.

P.K. told us about his father, Joseph. At first, the kid spoke hesitantly, responding to Xin’s questions with short, one-word answers, but finally he relaxed into his story, seeming to surprise himself with the pleasure of the telling.

Joseph hadn’t always harrowed souls in the wilderness. As a young man of the Lynchburg Watch, he’d walked the walls and killed the dead. Joseph had mumbled his prayers since he was a boy, the town being what it was, but he didn’t find religion until a circuit rider passed through in the summer of his twentieth year. He’d only recently become a father, and the death he’d dealt out weighed on him with new urgency, even if it was only the long-rotted he’d sent to their final repose. The circuit rider preached that the souls of the dead still resided in those wasted bodies, that for all their hunger and decay, they could always receive or reject the love of Christ. He preached that the living death was an opportunity, a flesh limbo, and that it was the duty of all Christians to speak the gospel to lost souls and offer them salvation. Just as Christ had descended to Hell to harrow pagan souls, the faithful were bound to travel the wilderness and minister to the dead.

Joseph found his calling. He rode with the circuit man for three years, preaching in the walled cities and preaching to the dead outside, returning now and then to Lynchburg to give his wife and son the money he’d collected from churches throughout the South. When P.K. was seven, Joseph came home to find his wife lost to pneumonia, his son motherless and afraid. For almost a year, Joseph gave up the circuit and raised the boy, working the wall as he’d done before, now hollering salvation as he delivered bullets into creeping bodies.

It was on the wall that he had his Revelation. As he fired his rifle at a cluster of dead in army camouflage, an angel of the Lord seized his tongue and set it ablaze with the language Enoch knew, the words spoken in the Kingdom of Heaven. The dead paused to hear his ministry, and he saw the light of Christ in their eyes. He killed them all immediately, before they could move or doubt. He was ecstatic.

His fervor restored, Joseph resolved to return to the wilderness, this time with his son. P.K. was already a fine shot, a junior watchman. The circuit rider had traveled in an armored truck, declaiming over loudspeakers, but Joseph now understood that glass and metal separated him from the souls he meant to save; he bought two horses and taught P.K. to ride.

“Wait,” I said. “You rode horses? Out here?”

P.K. shrugged. “They’re fast.”

“You’re fucking with me now.”

“No, sir.”

I glanced aside at Xin. She focused on the road, negotiating the sharp, mountainside S-curves of Cherokee North. We had to drive at a crawl, but P.K. said we weren’t far from the last place he’d seen Joseph.

“How do you survive something like those bears?”

He smiled tightly. “I got lucky last night. But the dead stand aside for my father. He preaches as he rides.”

They stand aside, I thought. Of course.

“What happened next?” said Xin. “He taught you?”

P.K. seemed reluctant. “That’s all there is to tell. He taught me to ride, and we rode. We visited churches often enough to keep food in our stomachs, but his heart was never much in ministering to the living. We spent more and more time in the wild, released thousands of souls to the Lord. Father’s done his best to teach me the tongue of Heaven, but I lack…” He trailed off, stared out the window. “The Revelation,” he finished quietly.

The tires whined as the road wound back around on itself, almost a three-hundred-sixty degree turn. I gritted my teeth, tried not to see the sheer drop to my left or the rock face to my right. P.K. leaned forward, pointed at a graffiti symbol on the rock. “I recognize—”

Something hit the side of the truck. Hard, on the right side.

We screeched toward the side of the road, mangled the guard-rail. “The hell—” Xin shouted. I swung behind P.K.’s seat, pulled on the safety straps and curled into a ball. There was another deep, metal-rending crash, and another, and then the world rolled and blurred. A rank, cloudy explosion as the airbags deployed and then gravity fell out from underneath me, snapped back in brief, vicious cracks against my knees and elbows. I covered my head the best I could, but suddenly it felt hot, and then everything was heavy and dark.

Metal ground against metal, keening.

***

“Wake,” shouted Xin, “the fuck up.”

Two gunshots. I took a breath like a knife to the chest, opened my eyes. The cab was pillowy and white. Almost heavenly, except for the bent metal and bloodstains. There was a sour stench, piss mixed with sulfur. My feed burned. I moved my fingers, feet, blinked blood out of my eyes. Felt like maybe I’d bruised a rib, but I could sit up, breathe. Limbs intact. Head was wet, but it was a shallow gash.

Xin stood over me, covered in white powder from the airbags. A pleasant, middle-aged phantom with a Desert Eagle. There was a wide hole in the back of the rig. Jeans and soda and high heels, all strewn around like Christmas in the Asheville Mall, not that I’d ever had the yuan or self-loathing to step in there. Three dead men in faded orange jumpsuits peered inside the truck, eager in the instant before Xin shot them down.

“You good?” she asked.

“Golden. P.K.?”

“Up top.” She gestured toward the roof with her head. “Looks like they hit us with rocks.”

I unbuckled the safety straps, stood up shakily. Almost fell, but steadied myself against the driver’s seat.

“Kid have a gun?” I asked, fumbling for my holster.

“He’s got the rifle.”

“So why isn’t he shooting?”

Xin bit her lip. I flicked off the safety on my Colt, and we pressed our way to the back, kicking aside boxes of designer boots, finally stepping outside. It looked like Xin had killed the last of the orange-suited dead: there was nothing but breeze and the glare of afternoon light. The truck was caught between two large trees; we hadn’t rolled all the way to the bottom, maybe hadn’t rolled that far at all, which meant we were still on a sharp slope.

Also, P.K. wasn’t up top.

I ripped the handset from my belt. Prayed it wasn’t broken.

“Where the hell are you?” I hissed.

There was a long silence. I wondered what Coroner would do if I lost the boy. Lost the money. “Down the hill a bit,” P.K. answered at last, his voice crackling on the handset. “To the east. You can probably still see me.”

And there he was, through the trees: A dot.

“I already sent the SOS,” Xin said, leaning into my handset. “Company’s coming. Maybe thirty minutes. We just got to wait here.”

P.K. said, “My old man’s close. I can find him in half an hour.”

“Wait here for the rescue,” Xin said. “We’ll all go out and look for him.”

He gave a sad little laugh. “The company’s not going to send out a search party. You know that. All they care about is their cargo and whatever they can salvage from the truck. My father’s less than meaningless to anyone but me.”

Well, I wanted to say, he is dead. Instead, I started down the hill.

“Slow down,” I said. “I’m coming with you.”

“What?” said Xin.

I took my thumb off the handset.

“Kid can’t die,” I said, wondering how much honesty I could afford.

“You mean you need the money.”

I held on to a low tree limb with my free hand. Moved ahead, grabbed hold of another tree, all the while trying not to slip on leaves or trip on roots.

“Jesus, Ez.” Xin was flushed, agitated. She took a step forward, not following me so much as making sure I could hear her. “We all need the money. But it’s no goddamned good if you’re dead.”

“Not true. Boy owes me a pile if I die.”

“Yeah? What if you both get eaten?”

“That’ll be complicated. May have to hire an accountant.”

“I save your life and you’re going to leave me alone. All those times we rode together, you’re going to leave me alone.”

I forced myself to keep walking, to fix my eyes on the kid. “You know guilt don’t work on me, Xin. Lock yourself in the crawlspace. Pour a few shots, drink to our health, and don’t let the rescue team leave without us.” I stepped over another corpse in an orange jumpsuit, pale and gaunt and forest-scratched, its face little more than a skull beneath skin. These were the desperate dead, the old and ravenous. The fatter, younger, brighter ones favored the night, when the sun wouldn’t rot muscle from their bones.

“Ez,” said Xin. “The boy’s lying.”

I stopped.

“I don’t know what’s truth and what’s lies,” she said. “But I seen him before. Back home, at the New French. Playing cards and throwing back shots.” She lowered her voice, spoke in a high-speed hiss. “That no-ma’am-I-don’t-drink business was horseshit, and I reckon he’s been in Asheville a lot longer than a night. I don’t know what his game is here, but I don’t feel like dying for a lie today. Just stay back. If the kid gets himself killed, well, we lose a little money. We’ll have another job tomorrow.”

Was she telling the truth? Or just trying to keep me from getting myself killed? As long as Coroner was knocking on my door, it didn’t really matter.

“Tomorrow’s too late,” I said.

She shook her head and stepped back. She said, “You stupid asshole.”

I worked my way down.

***

P.K. waited in a hollow where the ground flattened out. There was a creek nearby, invisible but mumbling. He forced a smile, cradled the M-16. His clothes were sweat-soaked, weighted down with ammunition. The air smelled smogless and new. Like God had just invented it and still thought it was good.

“You ain’t a tourist,” I said.

He shrugged a shoulder, then turned away and raised his rifle toward the trees. Skipped over a rocky outcrop and made toward the sound of the creek. “I told you. I’ve spent every day outside for as long as I can remember. We should keep our mouths shut.”

Ordinarily I’d have welcomed the caution. There was a certain flavor of tourist who hooted his glee every time he pulled a trigger, or almost pulled a trigger, or thought about pulling triggers. But silence seemed ridiculous now, and I didn’t appreciate the boy hushing me. “We’re the only game in town, kid. Every corpse for miles around already knows we’re here.”

He gave another half-shrug.

The creek was low enough that we didn’t bother walking on stones. Tadpoles flitted around our boots. On the other side, we started moving uphill again. The leaves here were shot through with streaks of red, as if we’d stumbled our way deep into autumn.

“You’re a hell of a good son,” I said. “Boy your age usually wants to strangle his daddy.”

He looked back. “Did you strangle yours?”

“Never knew him. But I wanted to.” I paused. “Strangle him, I mean.”

He chewed that over a while. “Where did you grow up?”

“Richmond.”

“Never heard of it.”

“That’s because it ain’t there anymore.”

The flutter of birds overhead. You could depend on birds. They died and stayed dead. Twigs snapped underfoot. The climb sharpened.

“I have to be honest with you,” he said.

“Okay.”

“Sometimes, I think I’m not a good enough person.”

“I know I’m not.”

“I mean to speak the tongue. The angels’ language.”

“Are you an angel?”

“No.”

“There you go.”

P.K. pursed his lips, looked like he wanted to say something. Instead, he pointed up. I followed the line of his finger to the purpling sky ahead and the silhouette of an old fire tower. When clients wanted to hunt, I took them to towers like that. Tall, ancient, sturdy. Dead folks are slow climbers.

“That’s where he’ll be,” said the boy. “I should warn you—”

I raised my hand to cut him off. Listened.

“Do you hear that?” I whispered.

The strongest argument against talking when you’re outside is that your voice masks important warnings. Like the sound of feet against dirt, running.

We sprinted up the hill. P.K. scanned the woods ahead, his rifle following his eyes, and I glanced back over my shoulder. My lungs felt like someone had balled them up, pissed on them, and stapled them into my ribcage, but I pushed on, legs dragging underneath me. My feed was hot with its broadcast of I am alive, I am still alive, I will pay my debts, and a tendril of shame shot through the middle of my fear, because this was the only reason anyone cared that I was alive, to earn and owe money. We made it halfway to the tower before I saw our pursuers, and realized I’d been wrong about the sound.

It wasn’t just feet against the dirt.

There were also paws.

The wolves were ragged, skeletal things, ribs half-exposed beneath gray and white fur. They wove like steel needles through the trees. A man and a woman trailed the wolves, wearing tattered green uniforms. I fired at the closest animal. Missed.

“Behind us,” I rasped.

P.K. twisted around as he ran, took aim, tore the front legs off the wolf I’d missed. I couldn’t tell how many were left—they ducked in and out of sight, gray-green blurs, faces of the forest. One appeared a body’s length from P.K.’s left side; I got it in the head, almost fell over the body as it crumpled. Caught my footing and squeezed off a shot at the man in green.

The dead didn’t breathe, didn’t growl or hiss or groan. They watched and lunged and snapped, silent. Eyes flashed ahead. They flanked us with a kind of brutal grace, closing from every side with each footfall, and I had one of those idiot epiphanies that seem profound when you’re dizzy with adrenaline and about to be eaten: It’s like they’re dancing. Every lunge in concert, every bite. We were going to die because the dead were dancers.

The kid stopped.

I was running too fast, too close behind him. We hit the dirt. Someone shouted, but I didn’t understand the words. I smelled rotted meat. I tried to stand but my legs were tangled; someone was still shouting. My shoulder throbbed. Each breath was a suckerpunch. I gripped the Colt, braced for the bite, and someone was still shouting. I looked up.

The dead all stared at the man in black.

He was tall, pale. He wore a day’s gray-brown stubble and his eyes were hidden by the shadow of his wide-brimmed hat. His voice was hoarse but commanding as hunger—every nonsense syllable he shouted was a slap, a crack, all thunder and hard edges. The dead folks slumped as he spoke, cowed or subdued or enraptured. The wolves pawed the dirt, uncertain, saliva dripping from their mouths, their eyes never leaving the preacher. Joseph took off his hat and stared down at his son, his blue eyes blunt, and then he spoke English instead of the babble of Heaven.

“Go on and shoot ‘em,” he said. “My throat hurts like a bitch.”

***

When I first came to Asheville, I’d lived for six months with an ex-Pentecostal poet from the mountain collectives south of Blacksburg. Once, after a night of smoke and sweat and Blackjack, she’d given me slurred lessons in glossolalia, giggling as she coached me on tongues. There were, she said, patterns in the babble. Sounds that looped and recurred. Subtle cadences. The language of Heaven was poetry without meaning, empty words taking shapes.

There was an art to it.

Silently, I wrapped my tongue around the syllables of Joseph’s sermon. Nalumasakala, sayamawath, shit like that. Kidsounds, but they’d tamed the dead. The man had reached out with his tongue and controlled them. I tried to memorize his rhythms and words that weren’t words. I wanted to beg him to preach again.

Joseph wasn’t lost. He wasn’t stranded or waiting for saviors. He was at home, at ease.

There was a reinforced steel stable at the base of the tower—a horse grunted inside. After we killed the last of the dead, Joseph lit a cigarette and gestured to a rope ladder. Invited us up for coffee. “I ain’t got much to offer,” he said, “but I can boil you some beans.”

P.K. didn’t move. “You need to come with us,” he said, terse and low. “Rescue’s coming soon, but we have to meet them on the other side of the creek.”

“Already told you. I ain’t going nowhere.”

P.K. gripped his rifle. “Father. You can’t live out here.”

Joseph snorted. “Missed you too, Christopher. How you like the city? You going to introduce me to your friend?”

“He’s a tour guide. He’s here to help. You’re sick. We want to help you.”

Christopher. The kid glanced at me, frowned.

“My name’s Ezekiel,” I said. Held out my hand. He eyed me carefully, then shook it.

“You from around here?” he asked.

“No, sir. Richmond.”

He grimaced, exhaled smoke. “You had people there?”

My joke, my family. “I did.”

“I passed through, once. Few months after Christopher left.” He flicked ash into the dirt. “You see that place, you have a hard time looking the Lord in the eye.”

I didn’t know what to say. I said, “Yes, sir.”

“Father,” Christopher pressed. “You need to come with us now.”

Joseph shook his head. “It’s good to see you, son. I’m happy to drink a cup of coffee with you, and you can tell me what it is you really want. Grace Baptist took up a collection last month—you need money, we can talk. But I ain’t going to live inside of walls for you.” He turned around, started to walk back to his ladder.

And P.K.—Christopher—hit him in the head with the butt of his rifle.

The preacher crumpled.

My instinct was to reach for the Colt, but I balled my fist and stood very still. Christopher kneeled and fumbled in his father’s jacket, withdrew a ring of keys.

“He doesn’t want to leave the wilderness anymore,” he said. “He’s senile. He needs saving. If you want to help him, the best thing you can do is help me get him on the horse.”

You could smell the bullshit in every word. I watched him as he searched through his daddy’s keys, and I remembered Xin’s story about the New French. I remembered that the minder told me to bring back the old man, and a nasty hunch worked itself out in my head. I would have shaken my head in grudging admiration, but no one had told me, and that left me scratching the nub in the back of my neck. Feeling the dim heat of my feed, the constant heat of debt and return. Coroner had sent me into this blind, and now I was stuck, choiceless. Why had he chosen me? Because I was dependable? Or because he thought I was stupid, expendable?

Finish the job and you’ll be fine.

“Okay,” I said slowly. “I’ll get this arm, we’ll hold him up together.”

We pulled his father to his feet, draped his arms over our shoulders and carried him to the stable. Christopher unlocked the steel door, and we hauled Joseph inside. The place was cramped and thick with shit-stink. Bars of light slanted through the grates, and the ground was covered with hay. The horse huffed, stepped back. It was gaunt, its fur as black as Joseph’s coat. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen such a large animal alive. Rodents tended to stay dead, but most mammals bigger than cats were liable to come back. You didn’t see them much in the cities.

The horse was calm; it let us push Joseph onto its back without much fuss. We swung the preacher around by his legs so that he was sitting more or less upright, his head hanging forward. Christopher climbed onto the horse, inclined his head to me. “Thank you,” he said.

Then he shot me in the chest.

***

The blast knocked me into the dirt. Even with the armor under my coat, it felt like someone had jackhammered the breath out of me, and I fought to suck down air. Christopher’s horse charged into the woods, and for a beautiful, adrenaline-soaked moment, I stopped worrying about money and consequences and Coroner. I raised the Colt, fired.

The first shot missed. The second hit its mark, and the boy toppled from the horse. The animal panicked, reared back, and knocked off the preacher, who fell on his side and rolled.

I winced and climbed to my feet. Staggered outside in time to see the kid duck behind a tree, weaving and heavy-breathing but alive, the M-16 in hand. I pulled the trigger again, splintered bark, took cover behind a fallen trunk.

It looked an awful lot like Coroner had bought the kid Californian armor, too.

“So,” I called, “You want to sell your old man?”

Christopher coughed. It took me a moment to realize he was laughing. “Is that why you’re shooting at me? Because I’m a bad son?” His shot grazed bark, burned moss, whistled over my head. “Or do you want to sell him yourself?”

“Didn’t plan on it,” I said. I slid down the length of the log, listened for footsteps or tells. “I just make a point of shooting folks who shoot me.”

He was silent.

“I want to know if I got this right,” I shouted. I willed him to make a move while I talked, willed him to peer out and try to find me. “You were sick of it, weren’t you? The preaching. The wilderness. You were sick of it, and you were sane, and you wanted to go live with the living, so you ran off to the city and got caught up in cards and whiskey. Do I have it right so far?”

Wind in the leaves. The snap of a reloaded magazine. I focused on the snap, raised the barrel of the Colt over the log.

“You play the tables long enough in the New French, you start owing money around town. Which, in the end, really just means you owe Coroner. I bet it wasn’t long before Coroner came calling, and you started to wonder what you could give him to get him off your back. Then you remembered your daddy, and it all—”

He cut me off with a thundercrack. I fired twice over the log.

The Colt clicked.

Christopher must have heard it. He coughed and fired into the dead tree, tearing through moss and bark and wood as if he were hacking with a machete, moving closer and coughing and ripping apart the air—

And then he stopped.

There was a snap, and the woods fell silent.

I peered over the log.

She held him like a lover. His head hung limp, twisted. Her forearm was mangled, her mouth bloodstained. She was still covered in the powder from the airbag. Three dead rescue workers in camouflage armor staggered through the trees behind her.

I gave up, then.

Those armor suits, so bulky and futile. Xin Sun with blood in her mouth. Everyone was dead. No one was coming for me. And even if I found my way home, Coroner would be waiting.

Xin pressed her lips against the dead boy’s throat. At first, it looked like a kiss. And then it didn’t. She opened the artery, ripped away muscle. Her eyes flicked to the side and met mine; she seemed torn between finishing her meal and moving on to me. The boy’s blood ran down the front of her shirt. The rescue crew’s legs were all bent into painful angles—maybe they’d wrecked—but they still hitched toward us, inch by inch.

“You were right,” I said softly. “I’m a stupid asshole.”

She watched me, shifted her weight. You look the dead in the eyes, you see the judgment.

“I can’t go back to the city. Don’t know why I’d go back, anyway. I ain’t got no family, no daughter in California. All I got is a landlord and some funerals I ain’t paid for.”

The rescuers were close now. I opened my fingers, dropped the Colt.

“I don’t want to be owned,” I said. “I don’t want to owe nobody no more. I been stuck a long time.”

She was silent. I tried to relax. Tried not to feel the blood drum in my neck, my chest. The air tasted good—I was glad to die outside. It was the best I could hope for, going out where I could see the birds. There was a kind of relief in it, a lightness. This is how it’s going to be. Feet scuffed the dirt, one step and then another.

“Go on, Xin,” I said.

She jerked backward with a thwip.

Xin and Christopher fell, tangled together. Before they hit the dirt, the rescue workers’ heads shattered in a spray of bone and blood. I spun around, followed the sound of silenced shots. The preacher stood at the base of his tower with a pistol in each hand, his guns raised toward me and the dead, his face empty as an abandoned city.

***

We burned the bodies in silence. Joseph stood too close to Christopher’s pyre, head bowed and lips moving wordlessly. The sun was almost down. I held one of his pistols and watched the woods. Far as I could tell, the preacher didn’t know what his son had planned to do. I wasn’t going to tell him. I didn’t have anything more to say to Xin, and I felt guilty for it. Still, I stood by her pyre, clinging quietly to my only friend at a lonely party.

When the preacher finished his prayers, we climbed the tower and watched the fires burn down. He made bitter coffee, and we drank it slowly as the stars came out, denser and brighter than I’d seen in years. When Joseph spoke, his voice was hoarse and flat.

“You still want to try to take me back to your city?”

I reckoned I could do it. Carry him to Coroner. My debt might not be paid, but the boss would be off my back for another day. He’d have something priceless, something that no thuglord or company—not even the few who could fly over oceans—could buy: Words that could hold the dead at bay. Joseph might not cooperate, but Coroner knew how to make a man talk. He’d learn the loops and rhythms, put poets on his payroll, try to vivisect the tongue of Heaven. He’d try to figure out what other things those words could make the dead do.

I swallowed my coffee. “No, sir.”

The old man nodded, then unsheathed his knife.

“You were blessing her,” he said.

I watched the knife’s tip, tried to work out the right answer. He took my silence for confusion.

“The woman. You were blessing her.”

The pyrecoals glowed below, a constellation of deaths.

“Her name was Xin Sun,” I said. “She was the nearest thing to family that I had.” I looked up from the knife and met his eyes, willing him to believe me. “I don’t know how to save a soul, but I would have liked to have saved hers.”

There was nothing about Xin’s soul that needed saving. I hoped she would have forgiven the lie. Joseph leaned on the rail and toyed with his knife, moonlight glinting on the blade. My palms were sweaty, my throat tight with unasked questions. I wasn’t used to wanting something like this. Wanting to walk in the wilderness, outside of walls. Wanting to ride the roads and forests, far from companies and criminals, free from Coroner and the machinery of obligation. I’d never believed that kind of life was possible, and now I was drunk on the fantasy.

“If you want me to teach you,” Joseph said at last, “I’m gonna have to cut out your feed.”

I touched the warm nub on my neck and bit back a smile.

Mark of the Devil.

Already, I could feel it. The sting of alcohol. Metal on skin, the knife’s edge like nightbreeze. Blood. One drop, and then a trickle. The cut, the last hum of the feed running my numbers.

And then a release, when it tells the world that I’m a dead man.

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Eric Gregory

Eric GregoryEric Gregory lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he is working toward his MFA at North Carolina State University. His stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Interzone, Futurismic, Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction, and other publications. Find more at ericmg.com.