- Age: 16
- Species: Human
- Weapons: Her wolf, Minna
- Special Attack: Using the forest to her advantage
- Can communicate with the trees
- Accompanied by her loyal wolf
- Can summon fire spirits
- Young and inexperienced
- No combat training or weapons to speak of
- Age: 20
- Species: Human
- Weapons: Wildly advanced tech, body mods, combat training, Li'l Bertha
- Special Attack: Knocking you out and then having a drink
- Eyes-Up display to monitor status and surroundings
- Neuroinjector for various chemical enhancements
- Body mods and enhancements
- Covert espionage, weapons, and combat training
- Young, inexperienced, rash
- May have a bit of a drinking problem
By G. T. Almasi
I smell the girl before I see her. Her scent reminds me of the underside of a fallen tree. Not bad, necessarily. Just kind of…muskily ripe. I wait for her to get closer and keep my boots nestled in the thick underbrush next to a thin dirt path through these woods.
Wherever this forest is, it’s not on the comm-grid. My commphone registers zero signal, which means I have no idea where in the world I am. My Eyes-Up display shows my vital signs clustered in one corner, and the bottom of my view is populated with status codes for my Mods and Enhances. Functions that rely on the comm-grid are down, but all my other gear is fine. I squat down a little lower and peer between the leaves of my shrubby hideout.
The girl walks into view, along with an economy-size dog loping beside her dark legs. The animal’s white fur catches the tree-filtered sunlight like a flickering neon sign. The girl, however, does not flicker. Her tunic, her short pants, and most of all her skin are coated with a layer of dirt so thick I swear she could support agriculture. When Dirt Girl abruptly stops walking I notice her face, arms and legs are densely tattooed with swirling designs and patterns. I also realize her dog is actually a wolf.
Dirt Girl swivels her head straight at me. “Minna,” she says, “why didn’t you tell me Scarlet was hiding in those bushes? I can’t do everything, you know.”
So much for stealth. I stand up and draw my pistol from its holster. In deference to Minna the Wolf-Giant I keep my sidearm pointed at the ground.
“How do you know my name?” I call out.
“The trees.” The girl squats down and scratches her hairy companion’s neck. “They told me I’d find you here.”
I slowly walk toward the pair, my hands tightly clasped around Li’l Bertha’s pistol grip. Branches scratch my black cargo pants and red leather jacket. The girl ignores my approach and picks at something in her wolf’s fur. Minna, on the other hand, has not taken her eyes off me. The beast emits a low, threatening growl and the fur on her back rises into a ridge.
My what big teeth you have, my dear.
I take a deep breath and try to relax my posture.
The girl stands up. “My name is Suri. This is Minna. She doesn’t know what to make of you.”
I slowly exhale. “As long as it’s not dinner.”
“Hah!” Suri laughs. “I knew you’d be interesting. Minna, isn’t Scarlet interesting?”
My feet move from the tangled thicket to the narrow track. Muddy pine needles stick to the soles of my boots. Since the trees have already introduced me, I say, “I’m lost, Suri. Can you tell me where in blazes we are?”
“Definitely far from wherever you came from. Minna, look at Scarlet’s clothes! Much finer than anyone in the dahl wears.”
“Uhh, the big group of huts on the hill.”
I peer into her dirty face. “You mean a village?”
Suri tilts her head to the branches above us. Curling tattoos slither past her jaw and down her neck. It looks like a head-to-toe thing for her. I’m wondering if a tattoo needle hurts more where the sun doesn’t shine when the breeze picks up and ruffles the leaves. Suri’s face scrunches into a mask of concentration.
After a few moments Suri nods and looks at me again. “Sure,” she says. “A village.”
Blessed Mother of electro-shock therapy, deliver me from wack-jobs now and at the hour of my death, amen.
“Terrific,” I say. “Can you take me there?”
“Sure. I can do that.”
Despite her helpful-sounding answer Suri stands stock-still.
Finally, I ask, “Will you take me there?”
“Oh! Yeah, okay. Come on.” Suri waves her hand toward herself, turns, and runs off along the path. Wolfzilla smoothly strides ahead to find and crush whatever passes for Tokyo in this place.
Place…or time? This land is so foreign I’m not even sure what year it is here. I follow Suri past trees as big as the Washington Monument back home in D.C. In the murky distance I see small gleams of light, in pairs, that wink in and out as we run.
I initiate a maintenance routine for my cybernetic upgrades. The program returns Fully Operational for my Mods, Enhances, and LB-505 pistol. My implanted commphone still receives no signal except the targeting feed from my sidearm, so I’m completely on my own.
My Eyes-Up display measures the distance we cover. Two miles. Five miles. Eight. Suri can really move, and she seems about as tired as Minna, which is to say, not at all. She talks while she runs. If I didn’t already think she had a screw loose I certainly would after she tries to describe her world. Much of it sounds like drunken gibberish; crimbals, gryndal, magda, tabor, wogans, and yakkus. I ask Suri about herself. The girl tells me she’s a student of mysticism and that her teacher’s name is Tura.
Then Suri asks about where I’m from. Terms like Interceptor, ExOps, and Soviet Union really confuse her. What completely mystifies her are the acronyms; CIA, FBI, KGB, SZ, USSR, NRC, CORE, AGOGE, XIC, and many others.
She comments, “You sound like people in the dahls when they drink too much mead.”
We continue our extended ramble. I direct my neuroinjector to dose me with some Madrenaline so I can keep up with the tireless girl and her hairy companion.
Night drifts through the wooden ceiling like chilled smoke, and plunges the already-shadowy forest into utter blackness. I activate my night-vision Mod so I don’t run smack into a tree. For another mile the primeval woods listen to our soft footfalls. After a notably strong gust of wind Suri calls out that the trees just applauded our endurance. I grunt noncommittally.
The sound of rushing water grows until it becomes a lively crackle echoing off the trunks of our bark-covered audience. Suri drops out of sight, like she fell in a hole. I dig in my heels and skid to a stop at the precipice of a nearly-vertical decline. Suri’s glowing red figure skips down the cliff face so quickly she’s almost in free-fall. Her bare feet nimbly hop from one rocky outcropping to the next.
This feat of acrobatics stops me cold. I lean on my knees to catch my breath. Without my night-vision I can’t see at all. How does Suri know where the landing points are? How is she timing her jumps so perfectly? I was an Olympic-level gymnast as a teenager, but even at that age this stunt would have broken my neck a dozen times.
“Hey!” Suri’s voice sails through the darkness. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” I call out. “But I can’t run down cliffs.”
“Sure you can! Follow my footprints.”
“Suri, it’s pitch-black, and—”
“Use your magic eyes.”
Magic? She must mean my vision Mods. How the devil does she know about them?
“I am using them, but—”
“No, I mean the hot ones. I’m barefoot, follow my steps.”
Great Scott. She means my infra-red vision. It’s such a good idea I don’t bother wondering how she knows I have it. I switch the infra-red on. Her little warm footprints appear as orange spots descending the rock wall like a follow-the-dot sing-along.
“Come on,” Suri yells. “This is one of Grim’s hunting grounds.”
“No, Grin, like a smile. She’s a bear. Or a demon. Or both, I suppose.”
I exhale sharply, dose some more Madrenaline, then add a splash of Kalmers to help me focus. My legs jump off the cliff’s edge and pogo-stick from one set of orange footsteps to the next. I do great until I miss a pair and skid sixty feet to the bottom. My body rolls off the wall like a bowling ball. I’m braced to slam into a tree or a boulder but instead I hit something soft.
A pile of grass? Leaves? Beaver pelts?
No, this thing dances backward and absorbs my momentum until I tumble to a halt lying on my face. I lean on my elbows and wait for the world to stop spinning. The thing licks my ear.
“Oh my!” Suri squeals. “She likes you now!”
Minna. The big wolf likely saved my life, so I refrain from telling Suri her pet’s bad breath could curdle the River Styx. Suri helps me up, and we continue our nocturnal journey. It’s only another mile or so until the endless forest finally gives way to an open plain. Soon, we approach the heavy wooden walls of a large town.
“This place have a name?” I ask.
“Dahl Rhen,” she says.
The chronometer in my Eyes-Up display says it’s one o’ clock in the afternoon, which it obviously is not. Usually the clock adjusts to whatever time zone I’m in, but it’s been totally confused since I got here.
We circle the town to the main gate. Two skinny guys, each holding a shield and spear, greet Suri with a mixture of fear and respect. She nonchalantly walks past them, Minna at her heels. Their reaction to me is markedly less cordial.
“Stop!” one of them shouts. “Who are you?”
I’m lost in both space and time, I’ve just run a half-marathon behind a near-feral grade-schooler, and I’m really varakken hungry. The last thing I wanna deal with is a pair of Dark Ages rent-a-thugs.
I pull out my pistol, set it for .50-caliber Explosives, and bang a shot into the ground. The raucous explosion carves a crater the size of an easy chair. Explosions tend to elicit a strong emotional response, but this time the effect is tremendous.
Tweedledee and Dum immediately drop their ratty weapons and run through the gate into town. I enter the town wreathed in gunsmoke. Suri and Minna are nowhere to be seen. The frightened guards jabber incoherently to a group of brawny men wrapped in kilts. The guards point at me and yell some of the words Suri taught me. All of them mean “evil spirit” of one kind or another.
The brawnies vanish into a large wooden house and quickly emerge armed with wooden bits of junk they probably consider weapons. Suri watches from across the lane with an oddly detached look on her face, like she isn’t sure this is really happening.
Brawnie One briskly stomps toward me. I point Li’l Bertha at the ground and glower at him from beneath my dusty eyebrows. He slows. But he doesn’t stop.
Everyone in sight turns into a kilted backside, running away from me—except Suri. She’s smiling, the tattoos on her face curving into a new pattern as she does so.
“Big magic!” she yells. “Much louder than mine.” The girl hops back and forth, waving her arms like a propeller.
I cross the deserted street and stand in front of the dancing girl. “Suri, I have to get out of here. I don’t want to hurt these people, but it’s only a matter of time until they try to burn me as a witch.”
Suri stops jumping around. “No, they wouldn’t burn you.” I draw in breath to protest as the girl finishes her thought, “They’d run you through with spears.”
“Where’s Minna?” I ask.
“Eating.” Suri lazily indicates the surroundings. “Rats, probably.”
Gross, I think to myself.
“It can be a little gross,” Suri wraps her arms around herself. “So I leave her alone.”
I slide Li’l Bertha into her holster. “So, what’s your magic?” If I expected an obtuse answer, that’s not what I get.
“The trees tell me the future, I know every inch of the forest—even if I haven’t been there, and I can make the fire spirits come and start fires.”
I cross my arms across my chest and survey the rows of houses. “That last one sounds pretty handy. Have you ever used it on anyone?”
Suri’s mouth drops open. “No!” Her arms tighten around her body. “Is that what your magic is for? Hurting people?”
That. And shooting beer bottles open.
I decide to change the subject. “Suri, is there a big…uh, dahl in this country?”
“Like this,” I pass my hand across the houses, “but a hundred times more.”
“Scarlet,” Suri says, “where you are from—”
I prepare to explain what a city is.
“—Is everyone as mad as you?”
My lecture on urban development falls down my throat and I start coughing. “What? No, I’m not…” Cough-cough-cough.
“I think you are. Nothing you say makes sense.” Suri peers into the back of my skull with her all-seeing mystic’s eyes. “If you want me to believe these things, you will have to prove it to me.”
“If I prove it, will you help me get home?”
Suri tilts her head to one side. “Yes.”
“Fine. What do I need to do?”
“Come,” Suri turns and waves at me to follow. “The dahl has a ritual to detect madness.”
We walk into one of the wooden buildings. Long tables rest between rows of benches. On the left is a long plank of wood slung over stout beams. Bottles and heavy mugs stand at attention on top of the counter. The air is so full of old smoke and sweat I can barely breathe, but for the first time since I landed in Ye Olde Where-Ever I feel somewhat at home.
We’re in a bar!
The young girl drags a chair from a corner and stands on it to see over the heavy, crockery-covered wooden slab. She pounds on the counter and cries, “Service!”
A very old man skittles from a back room and takes up position behind the bar. He stares at me. Sweat streams down his forehead and his lower lip wiggles like a bullfrog hanging at the end of a kite’s tail.
Suri says something to the bartender. The man rapidly produces a bottle of liquor and a small glass. He then steps back as if any distance from me is better than none.
The girl remains standing on her chair. “Drink this. If at the bottom you still stand then you’re mad.”
I uncork the bottle and hold it under my nose. Deep-buried tree roots, fresh-cut grass, and ice-cold rain. It might be a distant ancestor of whiskey, pungent and powerful.
“Suri, I’m not drinking this whole thing by myself.”
“Hah! I knew it. You’re—”
“No, no, I mean where I come from it’s very rude to drink alone.” I hold up two fingers to the barman, then tap the bar’s surface. He leans forward, shoves a second glass toward us, then quickly returns to the safety of his alcove.
I set the two small glasses next to each other and fill them to the brim. “Here.” I push one glass toward Suri.
“Tura taught me never to imbibe in spirits.”
It takes me a second to remember that Tura was Suri’s magic teacher. I say, “I’m sure she wouldn’t want you to offend someone from another country would she?”
“Tura doesn’t want anything. She’s dead.”
“Well, then you can make up your own mind.” I nudge the glass until it rests against her fingers.
I grit my teeth and narrow my eyes at the stubborn girl. “At least hold the verkatchta thing, so we can pretend I’m not drinking alone.”
“That is bad in your home country, drinking alone?”
“Yes, Suri. Very bad.”
The girl picks up the glass. I grab mine, clink it into hers, and toss the contents down the hatch.
I slam the empty glass on the bar and gasp around a throatful of boiled lightning. Tears spring from my eyes as the liquid thunder roars into my guts and sets my blood on fire.
Dear god in heaven that’s good stuff!
I arch my back and howl, “Ahhh-whooo!” Then I shake my head like a wet dog and let the shiver travel down my arms and legs. This stuff hits as hard as ether.
Suri keenly watches my performance. I wipe my cheeks on my sleeve and pretend not to notice as the girl gingerly sniffs at the glass in her hand.
I nonchalantly rasp, “You’ve gotta slug it all down at once, or it won’t taste good.”
Now it’s Suri’s turn to eye me suspiciously. “This is how you always react when something tastes good?”
“Sure, hah-hmm.” I clear my throat. “Of course.”
“Okay.” She takes a deep breath and tosses the entire serving into her mouth. “Glergh!”
Suri’s eyes pop open like twin golf balls. Her glass clunks to the bar. The girl’s knees buckle and she drops like a rock. My hands catch her before she slams her swirl-decorated head into the floor. I carefully lay Suri on her back. Clearly, she wasn’t kidding about never having had a drink—but, jeepers, who’s that much of a lightweight?
I gently pat Suri’s face. “Hey, wake up. C’mon kid. Nobody gets drunk that quick—”
The girl groans, rolls over, and pukes out a few ounces of undigested alcohol. She sits up and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. The dirt on her face now has a wide smudge, making her look even more like a street urchin.
Suri brushes her unkempt hair away from her eyes and fixes her gaze on me. “Did you also pass out?”
“Me? Uh…yeah,” I blurt. “Out like—” I press my palms together and pretend to dive into the floor. “Thud!”
“Very well, you are not mad.” Suri stands. “I will take you to the Aquila. They will know how to get you home.”
“How far away is the akeeya?”
The girl holds up three fingers.
“No,” Suri laughs. “Three moons.”
“WHAT?” My boggled reaction makes Suri completely crack up. She has to place her hands on her knees to keep from falling down again.
I grab the bottle of Highland Pete’s Boozapalooza from the bar. “Okay, Chuckles McHaw-Haw,” I gently push Suri toward the front door. “Let’s see if we can cut this trip down a moon or two.”