Chapter 6

The bunker that Crawley had promised her certainly delivered. Terna glanced around, taking in all of the sights and smells of the place. Pulling off her new sneakers, and giving them an appreciative look despite their origin, she placed the shoes down in the corner and let her feet feel the lacquered hardwood floor beneath them.

It felt warm. And comfortable. The wood was soft — softer anyways than the bristly hay mounds she tended to sleep in back at the village.

A tear slipped down her cheek.

“Ondol heating!” Crawley’s voice boomed, the sound of his boots ringing out from the marble steps. She heard him pause, and she tried to stifle her sniffles, but to no avail.

“Hey,” she heard him say. He came in close, his arms out but hesitant as if she were a frightened animal that might bolt at any second. She heard Zell patter over as well and the two whispered.

“No, I’m wrong. Let it out. Take your time. But, maybe, you want to do it somewhere private and more comfortable? Something that’s yours?”

She sniffled and looked around herself. It was a foyer now, whatever it had been before. A place with a few benches, a corner full of shoes and boots, an actual ticking clock on the wall. 

Where she came from, this was nothing short of a palace already. The shock that there might be more well–registered on her face and gave her pause. 

Zell and Crawley shared a knowing look.

“Girls rule and boys drool, honey,” Zell said, her hobb dialect sounding refined and beautiful. She reached down and clasped Terna’s hand, pulling her up gently and leading her away.

“We’ll talk later, Terna. When you’re ready!” Crawley called out. Terna saw Zell give him a sour face at the words and almost giggled despite her grief. Crawley was gonna get an earful later. She’d seen her mother make the same face before. 

There were more rooms and corridors and people here. They passed by gathering spaces with electronic boxes for games and videos. They rolled through a whole eating area that Terna hid her face away from completely out of mixed sorry, fear and shyness. And soon she heard the clank of a metal door and the feel of soft carpet under her bare feet.

The feeling startled her.

“My shoes!” she exclaimed.

“Are being taken care of, cleaned, and will be brought to you at a later time, little one.” Zell said. She turned Terna and faced her face on, looking her over for damage or illness.

“There is a private bathroom here with a shower. A clean jumpsuit for you to wear if you’d like us to clean these things up. And we’ve got food in the cafeteria.”

Terna’s eyes widened and her face began to blush. Zell nodded.

“Don’t worry about the cafeteria. Just give me a call and I’ll bring your food to your room.”

Terna’s blush began to fade. She walked over to the bed in the corner, investigating it with her eyes and probing it over with her fingers. It was soft, with a giant cushion and pillows. And cloth coverings instead of furs.

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She frowned at it. “Is this from the BuyMort?” Terna asked. 

Zell shrugged. “Does it matter?” She walked passed plasti-wooden dressers and a full-length mirror, forcing Terna’s eyes to take in the entirety of the sky-blue room while simultaneously directing her vision towards the bathroom door.

“If you will follow me, I feel like there might be a lot of stuff that you don’t understand in here. Let me show you how it all works.”

Teran walked over and was introduced to the most foreign room she had ever seen. Every inch of it was coats in black and white ceramic tiles as if it were perhaps some great effigy to one to some unknown god. In the middle of it stood a basin over with hung two metal bars with turn wheels on their sides while above it hung a mirror.

A very dirty young woman stared out from the mirror at her with icy, matted hair and a face smudged with ruin dust and ground dirt.

Zell held up a toothbrush at her. “This is a toothbrush,” she intoned.

Terna rolled her eyes, grabbed it, and started rubbing at her teeth. Zell laughed.

“Right, okay. Well, we have some stuff to help you with that as well.” Zell grabbed a second toothbrush and some toothpaste, spreading it over the end and turning one of the flywheel to let loose a torrent of cool water overtop of the concoction. 

Terna watched, open-mouthed, as the beautiful red-headed hobb woman leaned against the tiled wall, her right arm moving steadily as she brushed her teeth in a series of circular patterns. Her wickedly delightful hair swayed to and fro with her motions, and Terna found herself entranced.

Zell spit and gave her another long look. “You like my hair, don’t you? Tell ya what, brush your teeth, take a shower, brush your hair, get all of the outside off of you. And then I’ll show you how to get the same thing I’ve got. Sound good?”

Zell cackled, her air bouncing about as if endowed with their own will and sentience.

“Oh to be young again.” Then her face soured. “I keep forgetting. This is a time of mourning for you. I should go. All of the water, hot and cold, you can get it from the flywheels. Her and in the shower. I’m leaving you a comms unit on your bed. Just ask for callsign Fire Foxy and someone will get my ear if I don’t hear you myself.”

Terna nodded, looking again at the mirror and the dirty, sad girl that cowered within.

“I suck at this,” Zell said, and then she swept Terna up, lifting her into the air in a bear hug that signaled tremendous agility and strength. It would have been celebrated among the people of her village, a small voice noted in the back of her mind.

“There,” she finished. “That’s a lot more words than I know how to say. Terna, clean up, then lay down, rest, and live for your people.”

Zell set her down, gave her a final once over, then left the bathroom. Terna heard the clunk of her bedroom door a moment later.

For the first time since her she’d left to go hunting, she was truly alone. She pulled at her dirty tracksuit and figured out the zippers, snap-on buttons and clasps of it, stripping down for her shower. And she stared again at the mirror.

Gone. All of them.

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She swept it away mid-advertisement, tears blurring her vision. It was the BuyMort. Whatever this was all about, it would lead back to the BuyMort. Whatever Crawley had said, he was wrong. The BuyMort was a demon that took and took, handing out promises and demanding horrific payment in return.

“They’re dead and they aren’t ever coming back. Kaput. As meetable and huggable as the stars,” she told herself through the mirror. 

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Another ad swept to the nether. Terna growled. Just a little, but it felt good. So she growled more, letting it rise and build into a scream. Pouring all of her heart out into one cataclysmic singularity, she sprayed all of the past 12 hours into one powerful ray of anger and heartbreak.

“Crawley said they took us because of the BuyMort. Because we are NoMorts. I will find the ones who take the NoMorts and I will make them NoHeads. I will take away their pieces and their tribes and I will rain vengeance upon all of the NoHeads over and over until they are all gone. That is my vow upon the grave of my ancestors, my parents, and my people.”

She glared into the mirror. A demonic and hellish figure glared back.

“And when the NoHeads are no more, I will challenge the BuyMort itself. I will hunt it, track it, find it’s lair. And then I will pierce its heart with the strongest of my weapons, and turn it into a NoHead too.”

And she smiled, a dirty-teethed rictus that promised a great deal of pain and violence. “I’m coming for all of you. And I’m going to look goddamned pretty when I do it!”

With that she padded into the shower, turned a knob, and screamed in fury at the icy coldness that followed.

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.

Chapter 4

Terna hunched her shoulders, frowning. She’d gotten off of Crawley’s back right as soon as she’d realized his destination.

“We cannot go there. My people, they will not go there. It is forbidden. A holy site violated by things unholy.”

He stared at her, shaking his half-cybernetic head. “The place is riddled with old BuyMort pod monsters. We set up a safe meeting place, underground. A bunker in some basement somewhere. There’s nothing to be afraid of once we get there. But . . .”

The man held up a finger and surveyed the ruin before them. Stunted trees had cracked through pavement and ash to take hold of life here in this former metropolis. And there was something else, some sort of plant that he’d never seen before. Its leaves were shiny-click in complexion and should well have browned and fallen off during the fall season.

The fact that the trees were deciduous and that their leaves weren’t dead gave him some worry.

“How about we compromise. It’ll take a bit of around and over, but if we skirt the city to its southernmost point, we’ll find an old sewage access tunnel that still has a surprisingly large amount of usable surface exits and other sewer branches.”

“The sewer?” Terna asked. 

“Yeah. A place that some of the nations of your people used to build to run poop through. No worries on smell, though. Damn thing hasn’t been used for I’d say at least a hundred years.”

Terna nodded. “The sewer is forbidden.”

Crawley growled audibly, throwing his head to the sky. 

The storm was dying down, and the sounds of battle had vanished from the distance. He’d thought that everything from this point on would be rather straight-forward.

He’d apparently thought wrongly.

“Damnit child. What are you, sixteen?”

Terna nodded.

“We have to go in the city. We will meet the rest of the team there, get an extraction, and get to somewhere safe and organized. This place, it’s full of enemies. People that are hunting your people to extinction!”

Terna put a hand over her mouth.

“We are hobbs. We are many. There will be no extinction. My people are hardy. The enemy have tried, yet all they have inflicted is kaput.”

Crawley’s face softened. “Damn girl. Were you listening in on my transmission?” 

She nodded her head, her thin and youthful gray face full of defiance at an unknown enemy. Crawley twisted his body as if to find the answers in the hues and scents of the snowy lands around him.

“Fucking hell. Shit.”

“Damn,” Terna supplied helpfully. His eyes lanced hers and she quieted. Terna did not like the look she saw in his face. It wasn’t one of humor or shared defiance.

It was one of shared sorrow.

He turned away, cupping his masked chin in his hands and a pit grew inside her. Terna didn’t want to ask, but she suddenly understood that she needed to know.

“Crawley. What is kaput?” she asked.

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Terna stared at the latest BuyMort enticement. She wouldn’t select it, but it held useful information.

Information that seemed to indicate that her people had been eliminated from existence.

Tears sprang to her eyes. Crawley sighed and knelt down beside her.

“Yeah, I was afraid that might happen,” he said, nodding his understanding. “Shit. What’s your name? I don’t even know.”

“Terna,” she moaned, her voice quivering through the chill air.

“That’s a pretty name. A very pre-BuyMort name. Listen. Terna, I told you before that your tribe was either all dead or all locked up. You’re the one who chose to believe it had to be the latter. This multiverse — it’s a shit place. All of it.”

She stared at him, her eyes glassy and liquid, her face now a positive cascade of tears. He sighed again.

“You are what’s left. Unless you get your ass up and moving with me to the rendezvous. If you die, your tribe dies. Is that what you want?”

Terna turned her face away and Crawley grabbed her chin, turning it to face him. With his other hand, he removed his mask, exposing the nightmare circuitry of his otherwise handsome features.

“I am Ghonar of Tribe Hearthclaw, Earth 19D – Caveman Earth 3 they called it. From me descends the continuation of the tribe. Terna, I am 130 years old and though everyone in my tribe died on our opening day, I have since fathered over one-hundred new people to fill their ranks and take their place. There is honor in living and continuing. The memories of my people survive, as does their blood.”

Crawley stopped, realizing that he sounded very angry and that he was a little out of breath. He refocused himself, trying to see if his words had any impact on the young hobb girl in front of him.

“I thought you said your name was Crawley,” she responded in a tiny voice,

He clapped his hands on her shoulder. “I survived, so I changed my name to fit the multiverse. Perhaps you too will do the same one day.”

Rising up from his haunches, he checked their surroundings and smelled the air, checking for anything out of the norm.

“Come, Terna, last of her tribe and savior of her tribe’s future. Let’s enter the ruins and be done with this place. The tribe taboos are no more and I know exactly where we are going . . . if we enter from this spot right here. And, when you are warm and safe, you’ll have the time and space in which to properly grieve.”

Terna stood up as well. “Do you have another one of those?” she asked, pointing to his scoped long barrel black powder rifle.

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“I don’t,” Crawley said, noticing her momentary distraction. “But I’m judging by the ad you just got and dismissed that you know what it is. It is a weapon of your people from before the arrival of BuyMort. Would you like one?” he asked.

Terna nodded. A moment later a sleek cigar-shaped pod tore into existence, circling them once before landing at their feet. It opened and a long box was deposited to the ground before them.

It played a musical little trill of notes, then sailed off into another dimensional tear.

Crawley knelt down, taking his blade from its rotted sheathe and using it to split open the strangely skin-like tape sealing the box. Reaching into its interior, he pulled out a rifle the exact same type and color as his, and he presented it to her with open palms, a knee sinking into the dirt.

“Terna, last of her tribe. This is the Hord and Rata Hunting Rifle. An artifact of your people. Use it in their honor.”

Her face paled and her mouth a big O, she took the rifle from him, and looked down its length. It wasn’t the first time that she’d held a rifle, but certainly it was the first time she held one of this make and, more importantly, prime condition.

“What was all of that?” Terna asked, her face a contorted mix of fascination and horror. “The flying pod, the holes in the sky, the music?!”

“I’m not sure that you want to know,” Crawly said, his face guarded.

Terna’s face darkened. “There are many things that happened today. All of them are things that I rather would not have known. I ask again. What was all of that?”

“Fuck. You aren’t going to like it,” he advised.

“Tell me,” she shouted.

Crawley shrugged, his hands out and his palms up in the universal sign of giving up. 

“All of that? That was BuyMort.”