Chapter 5

“Are you sure you’re just 16 years old?” Crawley asked, having spent the last 20 minutes listening to a barrage of some of the most inventive cursing he’d ever encounter in his hundred-plus years. He’d half-expected her to drop the rifle he’d bought her and swear him off, and he considered it a credit to her and her people that she didn’t.

But damn if she didn’t make him pay for it.

They were tromping through the ruins of Ector Sanne, one of the great hobb cities of Planet 11B, the so-called Green Planet XX. Why the hobbs of every dimension always seemed to call their homeworld Planet was beyond him, but their stubbornness in doing so was well reflected in their race.

Terna being a prime example.

She panted and glared, the question finally quieting her in a way the dangerous echoes of her tirade amongst the monster-infested ruins had not. 

Which was fine by Crawley. He’d seen the shadows of some unsavory pod defenders watching them in the shadows, and he’d rather they not draw any more into their vicinity.

A dozen or so of the unpredictable and multiversally-originated beasts was well enough for him.

Fortunately there was no guarantee of attack. Ector Sanne had been an advanced city, according to the database, and within it still wandered the occasional police bot last tasked with battling the vermin. 

Even as they hunted, they were hunted themselves. Some small intelligence in their pea-sized minds made them cautious and careful.

“How dare you call upon the BuyMort for blessing?” Terna growled, growing vocal again. Crawley put his still-exposed face in his hands.

“The BuyMort is an evil being. A demon who came from the sky to steal the hearts of women and men. The BuyMort destroyed our world.”

Terna glared around at the ruins, seeing glass panes sheared white through the sheer erosion of grit and time. Hanging from a metal pole, askew and emitting a small grinding noise, an electronic ticker still displayed its message in faded lighting.

ALL CITIZENS EVACUATE TO YOUR NEAREST EMERGENCY SHELTERS

THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

It glared at her accusingly. And she, in turn, redirected that accusation at Crawley.

“BuyMort is what it is. It isn’t evil. It isn’t some fabled demon lord, like some say. Like you say. But it isn’t a god either. Something those dipshits at the Church of BuyMort would do well to figure out. Actually, scratch that. I think the ones at top have already cracked that nut. Doesn’t matter. BuyMort is a system. BuyMort doesn’t kill people. People kill people.”

Terna stopped walked and pointed at the emergency ticker. Around them a slight pickup in the wind caused a hooting howl to roll through the nearest alleyway.

“Whatever that was about, BuyMort didn’t do it. Probably someone attacked one of the pods. Either here or somewhere else on the planet. Then defense monsters got ported in and they killed the attackers and stuck around and bred.”

Terna stared, wide-eyed. “That sounds like how a demon protects its treasures.”

Crawley cocked his head, unamused. “Listen, Terna, you can be a zealot if you want. I don’t truck in religion. And it doesn’t matter what you think. Me, I’m already in the system. Have been for a long time. Whenever we need something and I can afford it, I’m going to BuyMort it.”

Terna gasped. 

“And,” he said, his voice suddenly rising, “You are not. Something is going on here and we’re betting our lives that it has to do with you and your lot not using the system. Planet 11B used to be a haven for NoMorts. Your fellow hobbs set up reservations and were protecting you.”

Terna looked like she was about to protest, so he held up a finger.

“They stayed out of the way and looked out for you all. But now someone is rounding you all up and taking you into camps. Doing experiments. And we need to know why. I mean, you NoMorters have descended into savagery and collective tribal government. You don’t produce anything of worth and you aren’t a threat. Nor is most of the land you are living on worth the effort it requires to take it.”

“Experiments?” Terna’s already gray face somehow looked grayer, or possibly a combination of gray with nauseous green. Her earlier attitude collapsed immediately, the wind out of her sails. “That’s what Roger told me. The human who let me go and told me to run.”

Terna gazed up at him and it was now he who was mesmerized.

“You were let go?” he asked. His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “BuyMort, single purchase TrackerScan5000 Alpha target Terna hobb girl age 13.”

He paused.

“No, I do not want to sign up for the goddamn newsletter. Yes I will pay the extra fee. Just do it.”

Rings of green popped into being above her and rained down into the ground, dissipating on impact. Terna tried to scream, but found she could not move.

Which was extremely unfortunate because quite quickly her lungs were screaming to take a breath.

But then the rings stopped and Terna fell to the snowy ground.

“No trackers. Good. Goddamnit girl, you need to be careful. Nine times out of ten, random acts of kindness are a trap. Some trick to get more morties.”

She coughed and gasped and his face lightened up. “Aw, shit. I’m sorry. I forget how mean and invasive a lot of this crap is when you first get caught up in it. Yeah, TrackerScan isn’t a pleasant first time.”

He reached down and helped her up, walking her around a bit. 

“Sorry. I’d put you up on my back again but there are monsters here. Quite a few of them. And just because they are afraid now doesn’t mean they will be in a minute. Almost no brains in those things. If they had them they’d be BuyMort customers. See, that’s how it works. Got brains? You get the market. So those dummies out there, they’re walking around on instinct. And when one of them charges, the others are gonna follow.”

Terna nodded, seemingly out of words. They marched forward together, past cracked cement blocks and broken dreams, the roads spider-webbed and icy. Once a police bot strode by, one arm missing. Terna had been frightened but it greeted her in cracked and jovial tones and continued stomping on by.

That made her feel a surprising amount of guilt. As if her people had abandoned these noble defenders when they made the ruin taboo. Maybe later, when all was settled, she’d find the robot and fix his arm for him.

She stopped short, Crawley’s hand on her shoulder, shaken from her reveries. In front of them was a building somewhat slumped over on its left side, but otherwise still in rather good shape. The walls and metal sidings shed paint flakes freely, but the material underneath looked to be cement, itself weathered and cracked yet still so very strong a century after the end of the city. 

A pair of rusted metallic doors faced them. Over those doors an electronic sign flickered.

PUBLIC SANITARY SERVICES – SEWER ACCESS PORTAL A3

“Welcome home, dear,” Crawley chuckled. 

She peered around, noticing that their shadowy stalkers had vanished into the night. Seeing her glances, Crawley broke into a broad smile. “Most of those beasties are extremely territorial. And the big bad ones that aren’t don’t usually go to the cold places and tundras.”

He paused, considered his dialogue, and cracked a grin. “Oh, and the ones that had territory here, well, they aren’t here anymore,” he added.

Terna shared his smile as her words hit home. Real safety then.

They moved forward to it, and then the metal doors opened, metal squealing on metal and echoing out across the ruins. The interior spilled out great waves of welcome heat and Terna felt herself shiver against it, the delight of real warmth spreading over her body.

Standing in the building’s threshold was a hobb woman, thin and fit as opposed to the traditional bulky and broad-shouldered look of her people’s females. Terna was of the same type, and it made her feel an immediate sense of kinship. She marveled, though, at the strangeness of the woman’s hair. Beautiful and long, red and orange like the flames of a campfire.

The woman took a step forward and Terna saw how they shined with polish. She wore blue pants of a make completely foreign to her, and a crisp white button-up shirt. She’d seen those before, but they were extremely rare. And never so cleanly white.

Off her thick black belt hung a leather holster, within which was a revolver. It looked similar to her granddad’s .38, but for the fact that this woman’s weapon looked brand new. And the rest of the belt held brass bullets, obviously meant for the pistol.

Terna stared, her mouth agape. Who was this being?

“Crawley, you’re back! I heard the comms. What the nuking hell are Dearth up to this time?” she asked.

Crawley stepped up, grabbing a hold of her in an embrace, then laying some thick tongue down her throat. She seemed to enjoy it, but it made Terna want to gag. Not because it wasn’t hot. But because he was half-BuyMort. Like making love to a demon.

That thought made her faint, her teenage mind running a strange hamster wheel in her mind and she shut it down by taking a last few decisive steps forward past the couple and into the building. 

“Nice to meet you, kissy lady. I’m going to go get warm now. Come find me when you get your tongue back,” she groused, walking past loads of pre-BuyMort ruin and refuse, and down a set of surprisingly strong and well-kept marble stairs.

“Name’s Zell!” the new woman yelled after her. Her face flushed as she heard the sound of them sharing a laugh, and she stomped down to her new life.

Published by Damien Lee Hanson

I am the founder of Damien Hanson Books. Come check out awesome authors right here at my website!

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