Bonepicker (Episode 3)

By Matthew X. Gomez

“Picker, why’d you take this job anyway?” Breaker stood on a small hill. I was elbow deep in machinery, coils of wire, and scrap metal piled around me. A cobbled together tower of steel and iron loomed over me, jutting into the sky.

Sitting back, I used a bit of rag to wipe the sweat and grime from my forehead. The air was breathable for a change, meaning I didn’t need the mask. I’d laid my tools out around me, no real set order other than the fact I could place my hands on whatever I needed without having to look. I squinted up at Breaker, him looking down at me from behind his goggles.

“Nails asked me to.” I put down the screwdriver I’d been using and picked up a pair of pliers instead. All these tools were things I’d scavenged or traded for, and yeah, I might have stolen a few along the way as well.

“Yeah, but what I don’t get is the why of it.” Breaker slid down on his hands and feet, kicking up dust as he came. I glowered at him, but he’d been careful and all my tools were right where I’d put them. “What does she get out of this thing working?” He stared up at it and kicked at one of the metal struts. “What is it, anyway?”

“Ain’t you ever seen a relay station before?” I stuck my head back into the machinery, looking for the wires to get it going again.

“For what, a radio?”

“That’s right.” I found what I was looking for and smiled.

“What does Nails want a radio for?” Breaker leaned over my shoulder, looking at what I was looking at. He had the good sense at least to stay out my light.

“Ahh, there we go.” I clipped the wires I needed, felt a faint surge of electricity pass through me. “Huh? Look, what kind of business does Nails do?”

Breaker shrugged. “You know I don’t pay attention to that kind of thing. She does…stuff.”

“That’s your problem right there.” I slid the panel back in place, fumbled to get the screws in enough so I could finish tightening the panel.

“What? That I don’t know the business of everyone in Trade Town? Seems a bit of a waste of brain space if you ask me.”

“That’s not what I mean. Hand me that screwdriver, would you?”

“Which one is that again?”

“Never mind, I got it.” I placed my hand on the tool, and wondered, not for the first time, why I let Breaker hang around. I mean, an extra pair of eyes were always good, especially when I’ve got my head stuck in one bit of machinery or another, but other than that he was pretty useless. Guess I just liked having someone to talk to other than myself. “Anyway, Nails is a broker and a trader. She doesn’t like leaving Trade Town because, let’s face it, that’s where a lot of the action is. It’s not the only action out there, though, is it?”

“You mean like Pincher’s.”

“Damn right, like Pincher’s.” I cursed as the screwdriver slipped a bit. “And how do you think someone like Nails keeps in touch with like-minded compatriots? If there’s nothing physical to go back and forth, it doesn’t make much sense to use messengers, does it? Not with all the other garbage and shit prowling the burned lands.” I finished the final screw, giving it a final twist to make sure. “If I was Nails, I’d want to be able to sit nice and tight at Ferro’s and send messages out to the other settlements — tell them what I was looking for, and what I was willing to give in exchange. Faster that way, isn’t it? Bit safer too. For that to work, though, the relays have to be working. Otherwise the message won’t reach. Seems this one had broken down a bit.” I snorted, backed up and found the outer panel, started to wrestle it into place. “Just like everything else.”

“Hey, you hear that?” Breaker picked up his head, looked out into the sky.

“Hear what?”

He held a finger up to his lips and scrambled up the side of the hill with barely a sound, keeping his head down and low. “Shit.”

I clawed my way up to him, but made a lot more noise doing it. Breaker grabbed my arm, made sure I stayed low.
“Butcher Bird?” Even though I was whispering, it sounded loud.

“No. Look, see those flags? Those aren’t BB’s.”

“Then who-?”

“Easy there, lad. Keep your hands where I can see them.” The voice came from behind me.

Turning slowly, I kept my hands up. It wouldn’t matter much, though. My gun was back on my bike, and that was well out of reach. I could have grabbed one of the tools on the ground, but that wasn’t going to do me much good.

The person who snuck up on me stared at me, a short automatic cradled in his right hand. I didn’t recognize his colors, and Breaker’d pulled his disappearing act.

“Can I help you?” I tried smiling. It worked about as well as it usually does.

“Who are you? What are you doing out here?” The gun didn’t waver away from me. I figured this wasn’t the first time he’d held a gun on someone.

“I’m Bonepicker. I’m a scrounger.” I tried to gauge his face, but his goggles hid his eyes, and I couldn’t get a read on him.

He looked around, saw the tools out. Lucky for me, he didn’t put one and one together to figure out what I was really doing out there. Nails would have been pissed otherwise. “Bonepicker, huh? I think you’d better come with me.”

“Now I don’t really think that’s nec-”

I didn’t even see him swing, but I hit the ground hard, lights exploding behind my eyes. I tried to get up but fell back down instead. I decided the ground was more comfortable after all, and darkness swam up and encompassed me.

***

When I woke up, the sun was dipping below the horizon, and I was alone…mostly. A single guard sat on the ground and I heard him snoring. Looking around, I was surrounded by bikes, and I saw mine in the mix with the others. That would make things a bit easier. On the downside, my arms and legs were tightly bound, though they hadn’t bothered with a gag. Why would they? Who would I scream for out here? My big question was why they decided to leave me alive. My pounding head almost made me wish they hadn’t. I heard shouting and laughter in the distance. Probably having a party out there, celebrating their good fortune and my bad.

“Huh. That is a good question, isn’t it? They must have something bad planned for you.”

I rolled over, trying to reposition my body a bit. It sounded like Breaker, and sure enough, when I was able to turn my body to see, there he was, sitting pretty as you please on one of the raider’s bikes.

“What are you doing here?” I hissed at him. “I thought you got away.”

A sad grin split his face as he got up and walked over to me. “I’m never too far from you. You know that, right? Now, do you want my help or not?”

“No, no, no. This isn’t right.” I shook my head and squeezed my eyes shut. “You never offer to help. All you do is talk. That’s all you do. You aren’t real. You aren’t real. You are only in my head.”

A sharp slap opened my eyes, and Breaker was there, nose to nose with me. “Only in your head? What shit are you spouting? If I was only in your head, how would I have this?” He held up an object in his hand. The dying sunlight reflected off the dull metal in his hand. I grinned and spat a gob of blood into the dust.

“Where’d you get that?”

Breaker shrugged. “Doesn’t matter much, does it? All that matters is I have it and you want it.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. Something about this smelled off, and it wasn’t just the fact I hadn’t had a bath since time knows when. “You want something.”

“Damn right I want something. I want control.”

“Huh?”

Breaker sighed and sat down in the dirt next to me. “Do you think I like being the passenger here? Always looking and never touching? I want a turn in the driver seat. I get that and you get the knife. Understand, this isn’t going to be a one-time thing. From now on, I get to take over.”

“And what happens to me?”

“Oh, don’t worry about it too much.” He reached out and ran a hand through my hair, then grimaced and wiped it off on his coveralls. “I’ll let you back into the driver seat every now and again. But, and here’s the big one, you need to choose soon. Sleeping Beauty there might wake up any moment now, and even if he doesn’t, well, his friends will be by soon, won’t they?”

I closed my eyes. “Okay.” It wasn’t much more than a whisper from my lips. I was scared. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t know what Breaker was going to do either. He’d always been there. Someone for me to talk to when there was nobody else around. Someone that never judged me, or looked down on me. I couldn’t remember a time without him. Maybe letting him drive for a while wouldn’t be all that bad.

“What was that? I didn’t hear you?” I opened my eyes, and the bastard was nose to nose with me again.
“Okay, I said. How loud do you want me to shout it?”

Breaker smiled, showing me his cracked, yellow teeth. “That was plenty loud enough. Now, hold on, this is going to hurt. A lot. I think.”

The entire world lurched to the right.

I felt the knife in my hand, right where I knew it was. I heard poor old Bonepicker shouting, scared of the dark, scared of not being in control anymore. Yeah, it really isn’t much fun. I should know.

A quick bit of work and the ropes on my hands were off, followed by the ones around my ankles. I popped the tip of the knife into the side of the guard’s neck and his snores became a rattle as he bled out. I made my way over to Bonepicker’s bike, my bike, and smiled. A gang like this, homeless, vagabond, tends to carry fuel reserves with it. I grabbed a couple of jerry cans and strapped them down to the bike. I looked around, contemplating my options. Bonepicker popped up from behind the bike, wringing his hands.

“We really oughta just get out of here, Breaker.”

“Yeah, yeah, in a second.”

“What are you planning?”

I winked at him and smiled. “Bet you can guess.”

Bonepicker shook his head and frowned. “I don’t like it.”

“Oh well.” I skulked from one bike to the next, setting up my surprise for them. I resisted the urge to cluck my tongue at the shabby state of repairs the bikes were in. You want nice things, you’ve got to take care of things you’ve already got. Yeah, yeah, ‘Picker was the real expert, but that didn’t mean I hadn’t picked up a thing or two looking over his shoulder all these years.

“One more thing to do.” I knelt down by my bike, opened one of the containers and oh so delicately removed the contents.

“That’s enough right there.” The voice was from behind me, and it wasn’t ‘Pickers. My knife was back in it’s sheath and it wasn’t like I could get to it with my hands full they way they were.

“If you’ve got a gun on me, I’d reconsider shooting.” I stood up slow and easy, not turning around just yet.
“Yeah, why’s that? How’d you get free anyway?”

“Trade secret. Anyway, I’m holding two sticks of dynamite right now, and they aren’t too fresh if you get my drift.”

“Huh?”

I turned around, holding the sticks up, one in each hand. “See, when dynamite gets old, it starts to sweat. And the stuff it’s sweating? Well, that’s the stuff that makes it go boom. And it doesn’t take much to make this stuff boom. I walk too fast and it might go off. Do you get my meaning now?”

To his credit, the biker nodded, his eyes wide as he stared at the two sticks I was holding. He backed away, the gun still pointed in my general direction. His hand was shaking though, and I worried he might still try and put a bullet through me.

“Here, catch.” I tossed the stick in my right hand toward the biker, and as he flinched, dropping his gun to grab it, I ran up, my hand closing around the crowbar tied to my belt. I swung it hard as he looked up, my arm shuddering from the impact as the claw end crushed his skull.

I sniffed as I bent down, picking up the stick I’d tossed at him. “Idiot should learn the difference between dynamite and a flare.” I finished making my preparations, including making sure the bike had enough gas in the tank. I stared down at the two corpses for a bit, then ‘Picker was there, getting on behind me.

“You’re done, right? You’ll let me have control again?”

“Uh-huh. Sure.” I kickstarted the bike and smiled as it rumbled underneath me.

“When?” ‘Picker screamed into my ear. Not that yelling was necessary. I could have been deaf as a post and I still would have heard him.

I smiled, pulled the goggles down over my eyes and the bandanna up over my mouth to keep the dust out. “You’re just going to have to wait and see.” Never, if I had anything to do about it. Sure, ‘Picker knew machines and how things fit together, and he paid some attention to the way people worked too. All useful stuff. Me? I knew how to take things apart, and people like me are always in high demand.

I was five miles out when the fuse I’d rigged up with the flare hit the dynamite, and then that hit the fuel supplies and the bikes. The ground shook under me, and I nearly lost control of the bike. Sparing a glance behind me, I saw the smoke rising dark against the blue black sky, the fires underneath. Even if the blast didn’t hit the bikers, they were out in the middle of nowhere with no supplies, no wheels, and nowhere to go. It was beautiful.
I pointed the bike in the general direction of Trade Town and smiled. Nails owed me for a job done, and I had the feeling it was only the beginning.

Nightfall In The Glade

By Doug Langille

(This story is a follow up to Artemis’ Nightrise, which is included in Dark Futures Annual 1)

Legato and Mezzo flew as if their wings were aflame, knocking baskets of gathered berries to the forest floor far below. The twins corkscrewed their way up and around the ancient tree to the canopy of the Glade. They landed on the Great Chamber’s platform at a sprint. Chancellor Fortissima of the Faie waited for her couriers to catch their breath.

“But Milady, we have to share these foul tidings,” insisted Mezzo.

She dismissed his concerns with a subtle nod. “I need clear words, young Mezzo. Take some nectar and bring your thoughts to order.”

Legato rubbed the salve brought him by the Chancellor’s handmaiden. His wings ached and the paste cooled his shoulders. He knew the young girl from his youth, but her name eluded him.

The elder Legato always carried himself more reserved than his slightly younger brother. He understood that whether in the role of leader or Auntie, the Chancellor was more often right than wrong. So he placed a hand on Mezzo’s shoulder and offered the bowl of medicine. Mezzo nodded, traded with the nectar, and they refreshed themselves.

Fortissima waited with patient grace before taking away the bowls; she handed them to her handmaiden and bade the boys to sit.

“Now, what news of South Farthing? Has it fallen?”

Legato spoke up. “Yes, Auntie– I mean, Chancellor. The Night-Seekers breeched the forest gates a few hours ago. Bravura insisted on us joining the fight. She wouldn’t abandon them.”

Mezzo voice shook. “She screamed while they fed. They plucked her wings and sucked them dry. We couldn’t save her. We couldn’t. We tried but there were so many.”

Legato hung his head and murmured, “We fled, Auntie.”

“How many of the aliens did you see?” asked Fortissima. The last reports were that they hunted in small patrols, organized yet nimble.

Legato raised his head and looked up at the beautiful Chancellor, her translucent wings reflecting flickers of torchlight. She stood painfully regal and misplaced amidst this garish interruption, her eyes sparkling wide in curious fascination.

Legato flushed with anger and frustration. “This wasn’t a hunting party, Chancellor. There were hundreds, an army, just like Spinto warned. They are headed here, to the North.”

Fortissima’s features shimmered and shifted as she assumed a warrior’s poise. “Your Uncle Spinto isn’t here, is he?” she responded sharply. “The coward fled, like so many. We will not.”

Legato fell silent, chastised.

“There’s more, Auntie,” said Mezzo.

“Oh?”

“The invaders numbered too many to match the skyship we saw them land in.”

Legato interrupted. “Some of the Night-Seekers had wings too, like us.”

“I don’t think all of us Faie are food,” said Mezzo, shuddering.

“This does not bode well, children. I know who these creatures are. They’ve found us. I don’t know how, but they have. But worry not, I’ve called for help.”

A thunderous crack ended the conversation as a large branch fell from above, knocking over the torches and setting the platform ablaze.

Shouts of pain and surprise surrounded the Great Chamber as the Chancellor’s Guardians greeted the invaders, yet fell one by one. Ever protective, Fortissima stood in front of her brethren as the company of Night-Seekers clambered on the platform. She marveled numbly that the aliens’ backs didn’t sprout wings but they nonetheless moved with acrobatic ease and uncommon swiftness.

The smallish handmaiden, caught on the far side of the platform closest to the newcomers, flitted and bounced awkwardly, trying to crawl away; her right wing hung at a queer angle, preventing her flight. A larger Night-Seeker broke rank and grabbed her by the back. Fortissima blanched in horror, watching as the brute snapped her tiny body, drank from her midsection and passed the remains back through the throng.

“Oh, Aria!” cried Fortissima. Legato’s knees weakened at the mention of the forgotten name. Mezzo steadied him as the noise and chaos rose to a frenzied crescendo.

“Enough,” shouted a strong feminine voice from within the ranks and the party fell silent. Only the crackling fire below and the rapid breathing of the Night-Seekers could be heard over the racing hearts of the Faie. The company parted as a lone female Night-Seeker came forward and stood in front, facing the Great Chamber.

Legato and Mezzo took wing and assumed flanking positions on each side of Fortissima. The Chancellor felt small but not altogether powerless; not all specie of Faie were small and flighted. Even in this place, there were secrets. But where were the Lamia? Why didn’t they answer? She straightened her back and regarded the woman approaching.

With her wings extended, Fortissima spoke. “How dare you defile our Glade, Night-Seeker?”

The woman walked forward, removed her gauntlet and offered her hand. She spoke slowly and evenly. “Chancellor Fortissima, I presume? My name is Evie. We did not expect to find Faie this far out. Extraordinary.”

Fortissima stood fuming and silent, her wings swirling in deep greens and blues.

Evie smiled and dropped her hand. “No matter. My father will be pleased.”

“Tell Artemis I’ll be awaiting his visit.”