The weather had picked up. Brisk snowflakes blew about the darkening sky, visible through the sheen of glass or possibly transparent aluminum in which she was encased.
Terna was regaining her facilities, yet there wasn’t much she could focus on. There were figures shuffling to either side of herself and their thick winter clothing reminded her of childhood stories of the umbermen, the creatures born with no skin so they had to fashion it for themselves.
She shivered. Considering the strange prawns she’d seen today, certainly anything was possible.
As if conjured by the thought, one of the things flew into her vision, hovering over her container in a way that suggested it was examining her awakened form.
She heard words that she didn’t understand, followed by words that she did.
“Experimental Test Subject 114 – NoMort facility.”
All in her language.
Terna narrowed her eyes. She had a feeling the creature, whatever it was, liked to cause fear and pain, and that the mention in her language was intentional.
Refusing to spend any more time looking at the floating nightmare, Terna looked past it and high above, to the snow-laden clouds that now jockeyed for position in the sky. There was a rumble of thunder, then the flash of lightning. A red-orange hue illuminated one of the clouds and for a second she thought that maybe it would spill fire and that the apocalypse of her people had finally come as foretold.
But quickly the clouds energized then burst as the massive frame of a metallic cruiser sunk through them, a millipede’s legs worth of landing struts descended from its hull.
She didn’t see such things often, but when she did, she knew it was danger.
Every NoMort did.
Terna looked away, fright gripping her chest. None of this was good. She checked herself, first noting the thin yet warm track jacket and matching pants that had replaced her former wear, before noticing metallic bracelets on her ankles, wrists, and around her neck.
An ad flitted through her mind.
No one is safe when those people are around. Lock them up with new and improved Diama-Steel Shackles! These unbreakable bad boys come complete with automaton-tendrilized body control capability, reducing even the baddest of the baddies to an unwilling puppet. 22,000 morties. 4.5 stars.
The ads came sometimes. Sometimes she was tempted to click them. But her elders were clear. Do not engage with the BuyMort. The BuyMort is an evil god, tricking the lazy and selfish into eternal damnation.
She flicked it away. The BuyMort would not have her soul.
There was the sound of pressure releasing, and the top of her capsule lifted up and shifted to the side. Meaty hands gripped her and lifted her out into the air, setting her down onto her feet. She noticed with a bit of surprise that she had rubber-soled sneakers on now. A prized rarity among the NoMorts.
“Where am I?” Terna asked. “What are you doing?”
Her eyes widened. She recognized the location, all of it, from the rise upon which they stood. The tribe had wintered here before. She could tell because of the tall plateau on the horizon shaped like a cooking pan and ridged along its mostly vertical slopes.
But it was different now. Formerly a lush coniferous forest grew here, spotted with raised clearings in which to lay back and enjoy the wonders of the open air. Now it was wasteland, a barren field of stumps and hard rock, mostly cleared of its snow. There were metal blocks with doors in them, a sort of lift and drop camp that hinted at a space-faring semi-nomadic existence.
They were clearly too heavy for tribalists like herself — but everything about it screamed mobile and temporary.
There had been berry bushes here in the summer. Terna grieved to think of the food source her tribe had lost.
A man stepped in front of her questing eyes. He wore a uniform, one that was green in color and held incomprehensible badges and patches.
“From this moment forward you are ETS 114,” he stated, a bored monotone hinting that he’d made this speech many times. “From this point forward you are a guest of Ablivion Affiliated Holdings. You will do as you are told, you will follow all instructions without question, you will not break your principles and reach out to BuyMort.”
He stared, as if waiting for a reply, despite having asked nothing.
“I understand your words,” Terna replied hesitantly, a small stutter riding her tone.
“Good.” The man, a human she was pretty sure they were called, reached into his pocket and pulled out a packet of cigarettes. She was plenty familiar with their smell and glow; her elders occasionally found and used them. He flicked flame onto its tip, and engaged the narcotic.
“Do you smoke?” he asked her. She shook her head without a word. “For the best. Costs a shit ton to get the tar cleaned out when you go cancerous. Most people just die.”
A wave of heated air rushed over them and Terna saw that the cruiser had just touched down at the edge of the metallic camp. It was near to where a small creek of clean water trickled from a hot spring in the earth. She wondered if the craft had befouled the water supply now as well.
Blowing smoke out of his nostrils, the man reached out and took her hand. “I’m Roger. You can call me that anytime those things aren’t around. Don’t be scared, kid. This whole operation, well, it could be a lot worse. I mean it when I say don’t dick around and just do what you are told. If you are a smart shopper and do what the big whitecoats say to do, well, you might just end up in a nice hut somewhere with a wonderful retirement package.”
Terna nodded, trying to envision it and dispel her fear. She saw herself in a hut on the edge of a clean lake, a forest filled with meaty herbivores from which to take meat and feast.
It was a beautiful vision. But her fear remained despite it.
“Hey, I get it. It’s good to fear the unknown. But I got you. Come on, we’ve got some walking to do.”
Roger, Terna, and two burly guards left from the retinue, breaking away to head down toward the ship. There was a well-trod trail here and it made her wonder how many of her kind had been grabbed up and then trundled down this path into the great unknown.
She wondered how many had broken and called upon the devil BuyMort.
It was maybe a test of her faith. The great creator did such things at times, to judge who would be worthy of great things. Terna steeled herself.
The creator would not find her wanting.
A prawn zipped past them from ahead. Then another two. They followed the trail, descending the rise. From here she could see that a couple of the metal rectangular temp-houses had been set here, and that there were hobbs and humans milling about, holding papers, making notes, and moving things out from the cruiser down a ramp that jiggled when they walked it.
She turned her head and met the eyes of Roger. They were kind. She looked back at the camp, following with no questions.
They had been about to the first house when a blaster shot rang out, and Roger fell to the ground.
Terna screamed, watching the blood pump out from his shoulder, his face twisted in a snarl of pained rage.
“Get down, girl. Get down and then get out of here!”
She stared at him, confused and torn. He struggled with his pocket, pulling out something that looked like a long metal stick. The end of it glowed, and suddenly her metallic bracelets had fallen from her body, her neck collar hitting the ground at the same time that one of the rectangular houses exploded into flame.
“Go! They’re NoMorts. They’ll help you. I’m a shit person who deserves this, okay? Just go!”
Terna’s eyes welled up with tears for the man, unsure of what he was saying but positive that he’d just saved her life. She looked over at the two guards with them. One was on the ground, a long spike driven into his neck, his body convulsing and his mouth spitting bloody foam.
The other had his back turned to her, firing blazes of red light down range at unseen targets. A scream and a flash of flame suggested that he’d found one of his targets.
She looked at that other guard’s back and made a decision. She liked Roger. But Roger was dying. And these pukes, they were not her friends.
Running over to the dead guard, she grabbed a hold of the metal spike and pulled it out of his neck. Then she ran over to the other guard and stabbed it into the base of his.
He screamed and rolled, and she saw that he was a hobb like her. He was a big man with a bald head and he screamed bloody murder when he hit the ground. With an expression of intense fury, he reared up brandishing his giant fists, his weapon on the ground where he’d lost hold of it.
“You’re going to —” he snarled, cutting out mid sentence when his head exploded off of his body. Terna turned, shocked. The blast had come from behind her.
As the sounds of battle grew greater and more intense around her, she paced back over to Roger. He was dead, a trickle of dried blood lining the corner of his mouth. And in his hand he clutched a large plasti-steel blaster.
“Thank you,” she whispered, kneeling to take the weapon. Then she turned and ran toward where the hobb had been shooting. If Roger was right, these people would take her home.