|by kat Folland|
Vincent woke to the quiet but distinct sound of floatships, electric whirs and hums, only a few hundred kilometers away at the most. Sun was in his eyes, shining through the open spaces between the wooden boards; he had overslept. Outside the rocky sand was hot underneath his feet and he stumbled a bit through the rough brush growing around the shack – his shack, his responsibility, but it’d been driving him mad, every sound now a cause for alarm, a cause to jump to his feet from whatever little piddling amount of sleep he could have – with his head feeling as though bits of boulders were inside jostling, cutting up the fleshy insides. How long had it been since his last drink of water? How long had it been since the last rainfall? Long enough that, he reckoned, the large, bleached and picked-clean skeleton of the grazing roumper, sitting in the dust, down the slope, a few meters from where he was standing, had been inside an animal that was alive and well the last time water fell onto the parched desert land. Too damn long.
Could be only transports, he thought, maybe a trade caravan cutting through the desert to get to Ceres. Never, they were heading straight for the shack, fast too, be there within the hour. Vincent sat down, trying to calm the horrendous throbbing. Sleep would be beyond wonderful. No, stay up, keep the eyes open. He decided that he better put on some manner of dress, best not to meet the visitors wearing rags and dusty nudity. On shaky legs he stood, listening to the wind, the unnatural sounds of machinery growing louder.
Inside, in the glow-spotted darkness, Vincent pulled on beaten trousers and a long, blood-stained jacket. For a moment he lost his balance, falling over to bang his leg against heavy metal. “Ow” he said though it hardly hurt, hardly registered as anything more than a tingling sensation up his muscle, simply a reflex pulled from the memory of an ancient life. The thing, what was wanted, old technology, a killing thing, what they always wanted, things to make killing easier. And they would come and kill for it, or try. Try and fail. Button up the jacket tight, spots of skin peeking from every slash and ragged hole. It’s nice in the dark, he thought; it’d be nice to just stay here for the day and sleep. But the noise was unmistakable, no merchant transport was that fast, he stood silent and did his best to discern how many there were and how heavily armed they would be.
How did they know? There wasn’t much time left. Vincent looked for a good spot to sit, somewhere comfortable. Maybe they’d fly over, maybe they got their directions wrong, after all he was only a dirty vagabond enjoying the beautiful day outside his shanty. He figured there were at least four floatships, heavily-modded civilian models outfitted with armor plating and high-powered mag cannons. Mercenaries no doubt, paid by whom Vincent couldn’t guess or care. Only a few minutes away now, they were separating, flanking him, were going to try and approach it from four separate angles. How could anyone have found out?
The ships were slowing, nearly five clicks out, fanned out in formation. Vincent heard the first cannon ready itself a half second before shot fired, shifting his weight just enough so that the small metal slug passed harmlessly past his head and through the wood planks of the shack behind him. Only an anti-personal round? They believed him only to be a man obviously, a mere mortal. The day would not be exciting as he had hoped. At least, he thought, smiling, he’d have the chance to catch a few more winks of sleep soon.
A volley of artillery rounds rose high into the air, singing as they went, fiery shells converging on his sitting spot, small explosives carefully aimed away from the precious contents of the flimsy wood structure. The rounds only made contact with empty hard ground, kicking up chunks of dirt and more dust, most likely all the men in the first floatship could see through their scopes before Vincent reached them, shrinking the long distance within a few seconds of his bounding sprint.
* * *
With bloodied arms, Vincent crouched solemn in the wreckage of the third floatship. The fourth was already speeding back to civilization, not so fast that it couldn’t be caught, but it would take Vincent too far away from the shack and the deep buried thing hiding its uncovered head beneath the wood. Dark liquid – blood, his own – poured first and then soon dripped like sludge from a large wound, a block of flesh taken out of his abdomen side; caught by an anti-armor round, only at the end had they learned to be smart, figured out what he was. There’d be more now for sure now, smarter, stronger, and more numerous.
Only thing for him to do was to go back to sitting and waiting, healing up as best he could before they returned. Sleeping would help that, yes indeed. He’d have a few hours at least until word got out that they – whoever they were – would need a sizeable, well-equipped, and well-trained army if they hoped to pry the killing thing from him.