Cheatin’

Shaifennen Roehe illo

Cheatin’
by J. Kenton Pierce

“If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’ hard enough.”

That’d be our motto, if we was a big, fancy Town like Greenline or Agro 9. We were just a Homestead so we didn’t really have a motto. I still think it’d be a great one, at least when we got big enough for stuff like mottos.

I kept our motto-to-be in mind as Kethkennen and I slinked through the wild orchard. We moved careful and quiet, testing each step before we settled our weight so as not to alarm our prey.

Only one of us could bag the swarm, and my older sibbie had a lot of reach on me. As we got closer to our prey, Kethie sucked in a breath, getting ready to pounce.

There weren’t but one thing I could do.

I jacked a quick, sharp punch into Kethie’s short-ribs and made my own dive.

The bed of old leaves and smooshy apples took some of the WHUMPH! out of my landing and I slammed my basket down just right. That dive would’ve been real uncomfortable if I’d had a big, bounciful chest like Kethie’s; Mum says to be thankful for small favors.

The air in the wild orchard was so thick and rich with autumn warmth and the sweets-and-vinegar smell of fallen fruit that I could actually taste it. I checked my basket, and the air got even sweeter with the smell of glory and all that winning stuff.

Just right for a deep breath when you’re loading up for a big old whoop of triumph.

With our… no, my, prey locked down tight under the basket, I bounced to my feet and turned to fire my best smirk at Kethie.

Turned, and stepped right into an uppercut that felt like Kethie’d launched it from a meter or three below the ground.

While she was maybe riding on a Townie steamer or an old-style rocket or something.

Eventually, my brain finally decided to quit trying to put its left boot on its right foot. I puzzled out that I weren’t upright no more. The trees and sky did some wavy, wobblesome things and I was lying in a bed of apple mush. A stray bumblebug tickled its way across my cheek as it headed off to do some big, important bumblebug business.

I finally got my eyes going in the same direction and saw Kethie standing over me. She’d clobbered me real good. At least she seemed satisfied that giving me just one pop in my kissing-parts made her point.

My whole face hurt and I tasted blood. I got myself sorted and heaved my way to my feet.

“Ash for breakfast! What’d you do that for? I chumped you fair and square,” I hollered.

“Yeah,” Kethie said. “But you didn’t have to be smart about it. That was just rude.” Kethie blew on her knuckles.

“You was firing that punch off before I even got turned around,” I yelled. “Likety-not you’d made up your mind to clobber me without even seeing if I was pulling a face or not! Why? Why would you even think I’d do something like that?”

My jaw thumped and my temper simmered up.

“Because you’re Shaifennen,” Kethie said.

Um. Yeah. There was that. I was pretty awful sometimes.

A lot of times, actually.

I get all worked up and my manners get tromped right down. It’s been said that I’m an excitable girl. I put some manners back on so Kethie wouldn’t decide I needed more lessoning.

The whole unfortunate situation made me wish puberty’d quit dragging its feet and finish its work. I seemed stuck in the part that was just far enough along to complicate life without doing me any real good.

Be awful nice if Kethie didn’t always have so much reach on me.

“Your bumblebugs are getting away, girls,” said Xiennen. She was Terricker Daine’s youngest, but was older than me and Kethie. That put her in charge of our foraging expedition.

Kethie and I scrambled over to the basket and began snatching up the bugs that had started crawling out from under it.

They didn’t get far before they just up and forgot they was escaping from something.

Xiennen didn’t make any move to help. She just held her spring-bolter ready and kept an eye out for trouble. A body always had to be ready for a tussle when they were tromping around the woods.

The war had been centuries ago, but the enemy had dropped some pretty big rocks on our colony. The rocks busted loose a big old volcanic eruption and brung on the Long Night. Excepting maybe bumblebugs, most anything that had survived the ash and ice was ornery and tough, and some critters reckoned us Terran sorts was just yummy, yummy protein.

We finished herding our strays and Kethie popped one into her mouth and crunched it up. She gave me that look that’s how a person who’s on their manners smirks without quite smirking.

I gave Kethie the stinkeye. It was going to be a couple hours before I was up for solid food again. I’d been looking forward to snacking on some bumblebugs myself. Apple-fed bumblebugs were a fine treat; sweet and salty and just full of nutrition things. They were gonna be a nice addition to the Autumn Feast.

Thinking about the feast turned my mood from bad to nasty. I liked the feast itself well enough, with the dancing, stomping, and hollering and eating just as much as I wanted all at once. The feast let us bank our joy before we sealed the gates and huddled up for the long, dark winter, but I always saw the shadow waiting behind the feast.

Bad enough that autumn led to winter, when the nights lasted weeks, and we had to mine or booby-trap every last hatch and vent. There was the constant fear that stores would go bad or the hydroponics might fail. Out in the cold and dark, death prowled and scratched at our gates.

But winter’s honest at least.

Autumn was tricky and clever. It fed your belly but tried to chump you into being sloppy and slack with its bounty. Autumn’s when an early frost might kill the crops that would have made all the difference if winter ran longer than normal. It was when neighbors maybe decided they didn’t have enough stores to last ‘til spring, and started casting fearful, hungry eyes about.

I dumped my catch into the big basket o’ bugs I’d rigged up like a backpack. Once I shouldered my bug-pack, Xiennen unrolled a flimsy and tapped it to bring up a map. Kethi and I leaned in close.

“Well, we got our bugs and lots of apples too,” Xiennen said. “No sense in just backtracking. We may as well find another route back, maybe see if we can find any late skizzer grubs that need burning out. That’ll save us some fuss come spring. Any other ideas?”

I reached in and scrolled around on the flimsy, then tapped it to zoom in on an area that was a good hour north of us. “Nobody’s gone through this area… here… for at least a couple weeks,” I said. “Might be some late burrows that got started. And there’s good apples there.”

“Shai, we got all the bugs and apples we can carry,” Kethie said, holding up her sack.

“Yup. But not all the seeds we can carry.” I picked up a fallen apple and used my knife to lop off everything but the core, which I dropped into the bug basket.

Bumblebugs were about as smart as a critter with “bumble” in its name can be. They’d forgot they was all trapped and fell to feeding, making that happy little chirping sound bumblebugs used to tell the world “Life is good, now somebody come eat me up.”

Kethie shot me a look that was just a twitch away from being unmannerly. She’d plumb forgot that the Imp stormjammer Schrödinger’s Brat was due any day now for a trade, and that the little xenos had offered silly amounts of good cargo for bumblebugs and apple seeds. Imps were generous traders, and a little squirrely.

“The bugs don’t eat the seeds,” I said. “We load ’em up with cores; they’ll have ’em cleaned by the time we get home. More different types of seeds we got, it’ll show the Imps we’re all eager to trade ‘big-good cargo party!'” I said that last bit in my best Imp accent.

Xiennen pinched my ear Imp-style. I hated it when she did that. “Good thinking for a nibblit,” she said. “Okay, load up with skizzer-busters and we’ll head out.”

Twenty centimeters of sharp alloy would take the starch out of any bandit, but a body needed something a little more spicy for busting skizzer chitin. Kethie and Xiennen yanked the drums of regular piercing shafts off of their spring-bolters and replaced them with yellow-capped explosive bolts.

I broke open Tommyknocker and swapped out the two heavy flechette shells for a couple of incendiaries. My cut-down old scattergun only held two shots, but they were doozies.

We tramped for a few kay, enjoying the warm afternoon. Our route took us through fields of goldenrod that grew as tall as me and kept tickling my nose. Eventually we hit a game trail that ran in the direction we wanted.

The goldenrod gave way to light brush and little patches of woods. As we hiked through a pretty meadow with a little hill, I rubbed my jaw and puzzled on justice. If Kethie figured we was even, then I had to be two or three behind. I needed to chump Kethie again, but I didn’t want to win another thumping.

That thinking shut right down when we spotted Peddler Daerr laying at the edge of a little copse of trees. Peddlers weren’t that common this far out from the Towns. The ones who did venture to these parts alone could be counted on to be tough or crazy. Old Daerr had a big bag of both.

I couldn’t see him too well from where we stood in the clear, gold light, but I could tell he’d been tore up something awful.

Daerr sat all a-sprawl, leaning back against a tree and just kind of flopped his arm at us all feeble-like. His pack and goods were scattered all about, and his coat looked torn to raggedy scraps, dark with blood. Daerr’s voice sounded weak and pained. It was a rough whisper I could barely catch. He made a sound that might’ve been a plea for help, then this awful, awful whimpery moan.

We started to dash over to him; something cold wiggled low in my belly. I grabbed Kethie and Xiennen by the arm and hauled them back.

I didn’t smell a plain old strong-arm boy ambush or any of Ayeden’s usual bitey wildlife. I didn’t quite know what I smelled. But something was just off.

Kethie put words on it first. “No birds,” she whispered.

The clearing had gone all empty this close to the woods. No chirping bumblebugs; no squawking birds eating them up. Just our own breathing and the crackle of dried grass under our feet.

I tried to look deeper into the shadows inside the copse of trees, but I couldn’t see much from the clear, bright daylight where we stood. The peddler’s arm flopped towards us again, and I caught something off about his whispered plea.

Something about the tone, maybe a little rasp or burr where it shouldn’t be.

I pulled Tommyknocker and started backing away. Kethie and Xiennen brought their spring-bolters to the ready.

“We’re going for help,” Xiennen hollered. I knew that yell had covered the snick of her spring-bolter’s safety.

We backed away, keeping our eyes on the tree-line until we crested the meadow’s high point and finally turned away to head back the way we came. It didn’t feel right, just leaving him, but I figured that if he was hurt but still fit to call out, he’d last until Mum got a posse horsed up and sent out here. The clearing stayed quiet and still, like the forest around us.

As we put the little rise between us and the peddler, I heard this hollow crunching sound, muffled and wet. Something came arching over the hillock and bounced clumpety-thumpety between us, coming to rest against Kethie’s boot.

Peddler Daerr’s head.

I squeaked, Kethie shrieked, Xiennen swore. Daerr’s waxy skin and sunk-in eyes told me he’d been dead a day or two. His head had just been ripped clean off.

We stampeded full-on towards the trail home, but all of a sudden I got another wiggly feeling low in my belly. I couldn’t hear any bugs or birds or critters over on this side of the clearing either; the shadows under this tree-line were every bit as dark from out in that bright, golden light.

Maybe I spotted something my subconscious took threat in, some shadow or shape different from when we’d first passed this way a minute ago.

Maybe I just panicked a little.

Without thinking, I brought Tommyknocker to bear on the thickest brush to the side of our game trail. I cut loose with his first barrel. A gout of white-hot flame howled out and lit the brush up. The brush… and something big just inside the shadowy tree-line.

There’d been two of ’em. One hiding behind the peddler and wagging his dead arm at us while the other ghosted its way around behind us. I caught a glimpse of a tall, creepity-thin form thrashing in the blaze for an instant, all wrapped up in fire. It flailed and howled, waving these long, skinny arms around. Arms that was longer than I was tall. The thing took off into the woods, shrieking and careening off of trees like a Townie steamer come loose from its rails.

We didn’t wait to see if it stopped or dropped or rolled or nothing. We just pounded down the dark trail, hoping the one that’d been hunkered down behind the murdered peddler wasn’t keen on chasing alert prey.

Steader nibblits are fit; we run and fight way more than Townie kids, but we ran so hard and so fast that my throat went dry and hot and burned we ran and ran and ran forever and ever through that little bitty stretch of woods.

Kethie pulled ahead of me and Xiennen practically ran on my heels, squawking for me to run faster. I picked up a flickersome glimpse of something moving low and fast through the brush to our right, trying to head us off before we could get clear of the woods and back under the open sky.

When we neared the edge of the forest, the thing cut over towards us. I let go with Tommyknocker’s other barrel to that side of the trail and got rewarded with another shriek as the brush lit up. That scream weren’t from pain. It was all rage and pure-devil hate.

We barreled past the new blaze and broke out of the forest into the clear, bright daylight again. The three of us ran maybe twenty paces more before Kethie and Xiennen turned and opened up with their spring-bolters. Their bolts’ light high-explosive charges tore the hell out of the tree-line, busting up the smaller trunks and shredding the brush.

I reloaded Tommyknocker lickety-quick and pulled one of Kethie’s frags off her belt, twisted the cap three clicks, to “Impact” instead of “Timed.” Seemed to me that something smart enough to bait a trap and then try to herd us into a fallback ambush might have enough smarts to chuck a grenade right back at us if I gave it half a chance.

The grenade landed true and went off with a dirty grey flash of smoke and a WHAM! that tore up more brush and slapped my clothes against me.

Xiennen heaved a frag of her own out. After it went off, she thumped Kethie’s shoulder and yelled “Reloading!” while Kethie laid fire down on anything that looked like it might be a good hiding place. I held my own fire and kept Tommyknocker ready in case we got rushed.

“I’m reloaded! Your turn!” barked Xiennen just as Kethie’s bolter went dry.

I didn’t know if Kethie was really scared, or just really into the spirit of things because she kept holding the trigger down.

Her bolter’s action whirred and clicked trying to feed rounds that weren’t there ’til the tension coil ran down, then the spring-bolter’s action slowed and stopped.

Xiennen smacked Kethie on the side of the head and yelled “Reload, you idjit!”

Kethie shook her head and got her act back together. She slapped a fresh drum onto her spring-bolter and replaced the spent tension coil with a new one. It’d be hours of work policing up those spent bolts, cranking and re-capping them, but none of us really cared.

We started backing farther away from the woods. I heard the thing I’d lit up screeching in the distance… and I heard the other one prowling just inside the tree-line. It’d been smart enough to hunker down when we started shooting, and it was smart enough not to rush us. It just paced and started throwing sticks in the woods.

Trying to spook us into wasting more ammo.

We were all shaking, but we were clear of the woods and out in the bright daylight where it didn’t seem inclined to follow. Xiennen called for double-time and we ran a couple of kay or so to a big, open hilltop. When we stopped Xiennen broke out the map flimsy again.

“That weren’t no bandit,” Kethie said as soon as she caught her breath. There was an awful dread in her voice, and it matched the cold, tight ache in my belly. “Weren’t no skizzers neither. Skizzers don’t set traps. They’re so dumb they’d hump rocks.”

“Spook-devils. It’s gotta be spook-devils,” I said.

It was too early for them, but that thing I’d seen in the fire weren’t no skizzer or grumper-bear or person, and they just didn’t stack Imps that high neither. Even the old enemy Genejacks our ancestors had fought centuries ago didn’t grow no bigger than two meters tall. They wasn’t monsters, just human people with their genetics all soldiered up.

Only one thing on Ayeden it could have been, and that’s a spook-devil. When I was a nibblit I’d been terrible afraid that a spook-devil would get me if I left even one little toe peek out from under my blankets.

That weren’t no childish fear, not in the littlest bit. There’s stories about what happened when a spook-devil got into a small Homestead. Stories about Riders making the first visit on the spring message circuit; finding a gate hanging open and their only welcome being deep darkness and the stink of old death.

These days, the winters weren’t near as long as they were during the Long Night that followed the war, but the monsters still came a’prowling down from the northern ice. This pair must have been either real bored, or real ambitious, to creepity-slink their way down here in the fall.

Kethie and I kept a sharp eye out while Xiennen plotted us a route home that wouldn’t put us within a hundred meters of no shadowy woods or gullies.

I think we’d taken maybe five steps when we spotted half a dozen Riders galloping towards us, all fierce and splendid in their red jackets and shiny gold trim. They’d come to feast with us before they wintered up at their Lodge out past the Circle Lakes, and had offered to help with patrolling in return for our hospitality.

Watchful Mother, but it was good to see them folks. Riders were tough. Carrying messages and news was dangerous enough, but they also kept the caravan routes clear and protected travelers and such. Did it like it was some preachin’ job almost.

Lead-Rider Hathcock was in front. She was a lean, thin-faced woman with silver in her blond hair. In addition to her saber and pistol, Hathcock had this gawdawful big rifle she called The Darwin Express. That rifle could have been a cousin to Mum’s rifle, Long Tom. The two women had a friendly shooting competition every year.

“What the bloody-damned hell did you littlies do?” Rider Hathcock looked fit to lay a whupping on us, and I couldn’t figure out why.

When we just stared at her like dummies, she pointed with her saber back behind us. I turned to look and my belly twisted all up. It didn’t take no math scientist to puzzle out that “incendiaries plus forest equals ‘Uh-oh.'” Smoke rose from the stretch of trees where the spook-devil I’d cooked had carried fire all along its screeching path.

I turned back to the Riders and words just came tripping and tumbling out my mouth in a rush.

“It was spook-devils I think,” I said. “They tore up Peddler Daerr and tried to use him to bait us into the woods and threw his head at us to scare us into an ambush and chased us all the way to the tree-line!”

One of the Riders made a small, hurt, noise and a couple bowed their heads for a moment, so I guess they knew Peddler Daerr.

“Spook-devils? Not bandits?”

Xiennen spoke up then. “Yes, ma’am,” she said. “I think Shai’s right. I never saw the one hunkered down behind Daerr’s body, but I got a glimpse of the one Shai lit up. Weren’t any human person.”

Rider Hathcock didn’t question or argue that it was too early for spook-devils. She just rode over to me and pulled my bug-basket-pack off, then heaved it to one of the lower ranking riders. Before I could so much as squeak, Rider Hathcock snatched me up onto the saddle in front of her.

She called out in a crisp and sharp voice, “Cadet-Petitioner Iskender! You’re fastest. Ride ahead to raise the alarm. ‘Ware the shadows!”

The boy galloped of and other Riders pulled Xiennen and Kethie up onto their horses.

“Through ash and ice, FAUGH a BALLAGH,” Hathcock called out, all clear and powerful.

I guess that last bit was some old Terran lingo for “Ride, really, really hard”, because that’s what we did. I know my way around a saddle, but I hadn’t never ridden this fast. Iskender was already out of sight. We rode too hard for me to even think about looking for him, looking for spook-devils, or doing anything but hold on.

The Riders formed a wedge and we didn’t slow nor stop for nothing. We rode through brush and jumped streams and galloped all the way back. I picked up a bunch of welts from branches and such, and I swallowed a bug.

Maybe a kay out from Twelvety we met Iskender and Mum, along with a full posse of our folks and all the Riders who’d still been at the homestead. Mum didn’t stop or ask any questions; she just split her posse to form an escort around us.

The alarm bells clanged as we galloped into the palisade and I saw that better than half the people we had were up on the walls and the bastions.

We didn’t stop at the corral. Instead, we rode on through Twelvety’s main gate and into the mine itself; right on into the Faraday Hall where the livestock was being gathered. Hathcock lowered me down off her horse and Mum ran over to grab me and Kethie up in a big hug.

After she’d made sure we was both alive and weren’t tore up, Mum called out some orders and fetched up Terricker Daine and some of the other family heads. We made our way down towards Operations for a proper report.

As we tramped down through the cool, red-brown stone, Xiennen pinched my ear again. “Hey nibblit, you forgot to yell ‘frag out!'”

I gave her a flat, blank stare like the one Mum puts on when she’s about to perpetrate some awfulness on somebody.

“So’d you,” I said.

I must’ve gotten it right, because Xiennen just kind of paused and nodded. She never pinched my ear or called me”nibblit” ever again either.

After our reports Mum appointed Terricker Daine her Second and they got to some planning on how best two deal with a couple of spook-devils. When that was all sussed out, I joined a detail helping reinforce our defenses while Mum took a big, full posse and all but a couple Riders to hunt the spook-devils down.

I felt guilty, staying home safe while family and friends rode into harm’s way. I kept watching the sun and listening for shooting while I worked. As I lugged an ammo can over to one of the bastions I heard Long Tom’s deep boom come rolling across the hills. I couldn’t help but get all worried.

I squeaked and jumped at a feather-light touch on my shoulder, but it was just Terricker Daine. He was one of those rare sorts whose face told you exactly what type of person he was. It sort of long, with strong, solid features and the kindest eyes you’d ever see.

“Shai, your mum is the scariest thing in these hills,” he said. “On top of that, she’s with Rider Hathcock, and that woman’s the second-scariest. They won’t let themselves get chumped.”

That’s why Mum usually put him in charge whenever she left. He was smart about handling both the personal and practical stuff.

I huffed out a sigh.

“I know,” I said. “Just feels like if we’d finished the job, everybody’d be back here all safe.”

Finished the job. I knew it was stupid. Pure luck that we got away. It was nibblit-thinking to even pretend that the three of us could have gone back in them woods and lived.

Terricker took the ammo can from me and sat it down next to the case of mines he’d been loading up with submunitions. He put his hands on my shoulders and turned me to look him square on.

“Xiennen told me what happened out there,” he said. “She’s good, sharper than most, if I do say so myself. She didn’t spot whatever you did, so those things must have been hid real clever… but some part of you picked up on the ambushes. You’ve got the right reflexes. You brought my little girl home safe.”

I waved an arm helplessly at the forest beyond our palisade where the sun was gradually sinking. Ayeden’s long days were matched by long nights, and my mum was still out there.

“But Mum isn’t home yet and I heard her shoot!”

That man, he went and did something that pissed me off real good. He just laughed at me. I had to set my jaw not to go off on him.

“Shaifennen, where do you think you got your reflexes? Your wits? From that woman out there with that gawdawful, big, long rifle. That’s where. Your mum’s got a whole posse of our hardest people and Riders with her.”

“Think,” he said as he grabbed my chin and made me look at him. “You must have burnt the one bad. I don’t care what they show in the old vids you nibblits watch in the winter. Anything, human, xeno, or animal… it gets burnt that bad it’s not going to put up much of a fight.”

Well, I had to give him that, but there’d been two of ‘em…

“Now, the other one? That one’ll be a handful,” he said. “We’re gonna be ready for that. We’ve got fore-warning thanks to you, and plenty of boots and bolts. Not to mention our dogs. Spook-devils might be able to change the color of their fur, but they can’t change how they smell.”

Kethie’d have reminded him that technically, spook-devils didn’t change their fur color. The hairs were transparent, like really, really, thin fiberoptics. They just changed the color of the skin under it.

Kethie’s all about technical stuff.

All that aside, Terricker Daine was right and I knew it, but what your brain knows and what your belly feels are two different things.

“But you’re still going to worry until she gets back here.” He took a knee so he could look me in the eye. “And to be honest, so will I. In the meantime, we’ve got work to do so we can be ready for nightfall. Head over to the other bastions, make sure everybody’s checked their loads, see that there’s plenty of spare ammo at each one.”

I nodded and got to my duties.

A couple hours later, the sun was setting in a blaze of pink and gold and I’d was just finishing up when the posse returned. Mum rode in all tall and proud next to Rider Hathcock, and the two dragged a travois with some ponchos on it.

They stopped just inside the palisade gates.

“Family heads! Gather around!” When folks had shut up and simmered down, Mum got off her horse and walked over to the travois. Everybody made a big gasp when she pulled the ponchos off, and I almost threw up in my mouth a little.

It was the one I’d burnt, alright, but my fire weren’t what did it in. The thing had this humongous hole blowed through its middle I couldn’t take no credit for. Long Tom’s slugs were these big, fat, things as thick as my thumb. They did a number on whatever they hit.

The spook-devil was pretty well cooked; it was a blistered and ruint mess. Most of its shaggy fur had been scorched clean off except on its lower legs. When it died, that fur had shifted back to its regular white.

Mum hoisted the thing’s ugly head up and showed it for all to see. “We caught this thing out in the open, in the daylight,” she said. “It’d been blinded and burned so badly it couldn’t even tell which way to run. We just finished it off, so it’s my judgment that credit for this kill goes to Shaifennen te’ Daennen-Daitte Roehe.”

She dropped the head back on the travois and paused to let everyone get the gawking out of their systems. “The other one is still out there. I’m taking a patrol out tonight; everyone else is buttoning up here. I want a double watch on every bastion, double patrols inside. Nobody goes anywhere with less than three other people. I don’t care if you’re inside the palisade, or down inside the mine itself. Is that understood?”

Weren’t nobody gonna argue that, not with a dead spook-devil right in front of them, laying truth on our story like it was preachin’ words.

Mum stood aside as the Riders led the horses on in. They pulled a second travois and I realized that they’d gone and fetched Peddler Daerr’s body too. The Riders had hitched the travois to a spare horse, and one of them had draped a red jacket over the saddle. Daerr’s boots had been put in the riderless horse’s stirrups. I reckoned that’s how Riders made respect.

I felt a little buzzed and was trying to wrap my head around everything when Mum came over and caught me up in another of her crushing hugs. Before I could black out, she put me back on the ground and caught my chin in her hand.

“Shai, I’m real proud of you. You kept my people safe.” That perked me up in spite of my bellyful of worry about that other spook-devil. It’s about the biggest compliment you could get in these parts.

“You did good out there, girl,” Mum said. “But if you ever forget too yell ‘frag out’ again, I’ll whip your skinny little ass until it whistles in crosswinds. You read me?”

“Yes ma’am, I read you.”

She got all somber. “Did Terricker Daine set up the details for tonight?”

I nodded. I didn’t much like it, but there weren’t any way around it. It’s what we had to do to keep everybody safe, and that’s all there was to it.

“We’ll do you proud,” I said. “You just be real careful yourself. I don’t like you heading out there in the dark like this, even with Rider Hathcock and a patrol going with you.”

Ayeden didn’t leave much room for illusions about anybody being indestructible, not even Mum. She just chuckled a little bit at me of all people lessoning her.

“You remember what you’ve been taught, girl,” she said.

I hugged my mum again, like to have squeezed all the air out of her, then we both got with Terricker Daine and Hathcock to make sure everyone was reading on the same file. It was full dark when Mum and her patrol finally slipped out the gate.

I stood first watch with Kethie, Ariker Giette, and Rider Finn Fennen. Nobody griped about having to get dosed with stims before taking our watch on the north-most bastion. Not with a spook-devil running around in the darkness.

The Core rose overhead with all its million, million stars, prettier than the finest singing show. The air took on the soggy chill that’d make for a heavy dew. I hoped for a little frost, that’d make tracking easier until it burned off. There were tricksy shadows all about the place, but I figured we could see better than our Terran ancestors could with a full moon. (I seen a vid once.)

Maybe three or so hours into the shift, Kethie’s started reaping the consequences of all the bumblebugs she’d munched on during our hike. In an unfortunate, intestinal sort of way. I took a deep breath and tried to keep my heart-rate to something sort of normal.

“Shouldn’t have ate so many bumblebugs, Kethie,” I said. “This is a really awful time for your belly to declare war on us innocent bystanders.”

“I know, Shaifennen, I knooowww…” Kethie started to hunch up, but she tried to put on a brave face. Weren’t no sense in dragging things out.

I put my hands on my hips and said “Damnit! You get inside and see if you can get your cargo sorted. You’re not gonna do us any good here, all cramped up and stinking us out.”

She looked over towards the main entrance to the mine, and back to me.

“Mum said not to go anywhere alone though.”

Then Kethie doubled up and blarfed half-digested bumblebugs all over my boots.

I rolled my eyes and tried out my bossy voice. It was hard to swallow my fear and talk all normal-sounding. Like swallowing a throat-full of dry leaves.

“Ariker, Rider Finn, escort my sibbie to the infirmary,” I said. “Then fetch up another warm body to stand the rest of the watch with us.”

Poor Kethie looked all ate up with guilt, Ariker looked nervous. And the Rider? She just looked bored.

I wished I could at least pace properly. Or even just step out of my puddle of bug-chuck. I settled for stretching up on my toes to loosen my legs some and sat Tommyknocker down on an ammo case next to me.

Just about the time they’d have reached the main gate and entered the mine, I realized I weren’t alone.

I didn’t hear or smell anything, I just knew. I maybe peed a little when I looked around and saw the spook-devil hoist itself, slow and easy, up over the wall a few meters away.

It didn’t make the slightest sound, and its shaggy fur rippled and shifted in a mix of dark shapes and colors. The thing settled onto the walkway and just looked at me. Its big, black, eyes gleamed in the Corelight.

The only reason I knew it was there was because it wanted me to.

Even squatted down on the walkway, it was taller than me. Long, ganglesome arms and legs that seemed too skinny to have much power. The way it bent and swayed whispered of something with way more vertebrae than human people or even Imps had.

It squatted there for a long moment, looking me up and down. The spook-devil glanced at Tommyknocker. The scattergun still sat on the ammo can where I’d laid it down like an idiot.

The spook-devil skinned its lips back from its teeth in this gawdawful, pointy, not-smile. It knew what Tommyknocker was, and it knew that I knew that there weren’t no way I could grab Tommyknocker before I got ripped from gullet to girlness.

It stood up all the way, better than two of me high when it weren’t all folded up and sneaky. I couldn’t move, could only look at them awful devil’s eyes. After a moment it turned its head. slow and deliberate, towards the main gate where we’d nailed up the body of the other spook-devil.

When it looked back to me, there was no missing the satisfaction it was feeling. That awful mouth opened up again.
“Shaaaaaiii-fennn-ennnn.”

I definitely did pee a little then. It knew words, knew me. Watchful Mother only knew how many years it had listened at vents during the long, dark winters, snooping us out. How long it been waiting in the shadows for me tonight… Since the start of our watch, probably.

The spook-devil took a single, leisurely step towards me and slowly raised one of its long-fingered, clawed hands. It was enjoying itself; enjoying the smell of my terror like that first whiff when you uncork a real promising jug of apple-sass.

I didn’t want my eyes open for what I knew was coming next and I threw an arm over my face as I flinched a step back.

Back, and off of the pressure plate I’d been standing on for hours.

There was a bunch of klick! sounds and metallic, warbley chirps as half a dozen of the mines we called “giggle-brats” popped their springs and bounced up from between the assorted boxes and ammo cans. Their little tension coils unspooled, spinning them and scattering their submunitions all from hell to breakfast.

Instead of explosives, Terricker Daine had loaded these mines up with flashpots that cracked and flared all about us.

I dropped my arm and grabbed up Tommyknocker, hoping none of the flashpots was gonna cook off slow and blind me too. The spook-devil howled like a crazy thing and pawed at its eyes. Its fur had jumped back to the normal white in panicky response to all them bright, bright flashes.

The thing started to get its bearings even as I brought Tommyknocker up and unloaded the first barrel right into its belly. Instead of fighting the kick, I rode the recoil up and emptied the second barrel into the spook-devil’s skinny chest.

I don’t know if those flechettes would have killed it quick enough to keep it from carving me up. An instant after I’d fired, the spook-devil’s head made this sound like a green melon hitting a rock wall and blowed up. Before it could rag-doll, another slug plowed it between its shoulder blades.

It’d be a full second later before I heard the not-quite twin booming of Long Tom and the Darwin Express from a kay or so away where Mum and Rider Hathcock had set up their hides.

The spook-devil folded down on itself then in ways I don’t reckon nature intended, and flopped over, off of the walkway. About the time it hit the ground, Twelvety’s gate slammed open and the final (lucky for me,) unneeded layer of our ambush came galloping out: Terricker Daine, thirty mounted ‘steaders and Riders, and pretty much every dog in the Homestead. (Ramblesome Jack in the lead, of course. He’s feisty that way.)

Even Kethie, upset stomach and all. I maybe oughta try to be a little nicer to Kethie.

My legs went all noodlesome so I took a seat and didn’t even try to control the shakes. Without being told, my hands broke Tommyknocker open and slipped two fresh rounds in. I didn’t really know how they managed that with the rest of me shaking so awful.

“Carelessly” setting him down like that had been hard to do, took all my willpower to be that slackety and sloppy. I reckoned that it must have taken a lot of willpower for Kethie and the others to leave me standing out here as bait.

At some point I realized that Kethie and Terricker Daine and a bunch of other folks had climbed up on the bastion with me. They kept making stupid noises that I couldn’t understand while they poked at me and swatted at smoldering patches in my hair and clothes. Eventually I puzzled out that they was using people-words and let them help me to my feet.

My breathing started to settle down to normal and the breeze carried the nasty, stinging smoke from the flashpots off into the night. I shook everybody off and walked over to the edge of the walkway to give that second spook-devil a good look.
Not so scary all ripped and broken.

Them spook-devils was clever and wicked things that ruled the long winter darkness, but they hadn’t quite puzzled out just how clever and wicked me and my kin at Twelvety Homestead had learned to be. How well we’d learned that one biggest lesson that’d kept us alive through the war and the Long Night: If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t trying hard enough.

_______________

J. Kenton Pierce has done everything from wearing Army green in a place where things went “boom,” (not a combat MOS, just a REMF who learned how over-rated “an interesting day” and “adventure” were) to washing bottles and pushing buttons in a molecular biology lab, to studying art in Bratislava.  Three or four years ago, some fellow online gamers on a forum challenged him to expand his character’s standard bio from 300 letters to 1,000 words.  23K words later, he realized that he really, really, loved storytelling. This is his first published story.

Illustration by Brooke Volk of Tiny Room Productions.

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