“I just don’t see why you have to do it,” Peter said. His voice was high and plaintive. “What have they done for you?”
“Claire helped me save your life, for one,” she argued. “Without her you’d probably be dead, but that’s not really the point. We’re alone on this planet, and I don’t just mean you and me. I mean humans,” she didn’t really know if she was making sense to her little brother or not. She wasn’t sure she was making sense to herself.
“We’re so far away from help. We have to help each other. We can’t survive by ourselves. Even if we do,” she made a motion that only included her and him. “We don’t” she made another which somehow included the rest of humanity. “We have the water and food, we should share it.”
Peter’s face said that he wasn’t convinced and he folded his arms stubbornly across his chest.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be careful. Besides, I have Bess here.” She patted the shotgun hanging across her chest.
It had been four days since Si left and she was worried. More so than when her anxiety sent her on the expedition into the bowls of the Samsara. She thought of the nervous joke he’d made before leaving and nearly cried.
It had been three days, so now she just had to wait longer, but she couldn’t. Her stress wouldn’t let her.
She shifted the pack’s straps on her shoulders and squatted to pick up the two filled jugs of water she’d planned to give to the kids in the cave. She hoped they were still in the cave. An image, more terrible than anything she would have given herself credit of having the ability to conjure kept her up at night, or what passed for night on this world. She could see the entrance to the cave, silent and unguarded. The dark interior held movement, but it wasn’t human. The writhing forms of the giant lizards stirred in the shadows as they tore the flesh from her shipmate’s corpses. She shuddered at the thought as she had every time it had come unbidden to her mind’s eye.
“I’ll be back in a few hours.”
“Annnnd how do I know how long that is here?” Peter said angrily, waving his hand at the planet in frustration.
Peter’s unflappability had been shaken in the past few days, and Iris was worried for him as well. She didn’t know if it was the fact that he had lost a leg, and with it his freedom, or the fact that he was worried for the dog, or both, but he had gotten uncharacteristically cynical, bitter even. Peter looked down at his leg and the look on his face brought tears to her own eyes even though his remained dry.
“I wish I could help,” he said, simply.
She sat the jugs back down on the ground and went to him. Her hand went instinctively to Bess to keep the shotgun from banging into him as she knelt to hug his sitting form. She stroked his greasy head and kissed it.
“We’re going to figure this out, and you will be up and about in no time,” she had no evidence to back up her statement. She didn’t see how it was even possible, and obviously Peter didn’t believe her either. He jerked away from her, and his head turned to glare the accusation at her.
“Tell me. How will this get better?” He nearly yelled pointing at his missing leg. She didn’t know the answer and knew that it would be a mistake to push it.
“I don’t know. Maybe you’ll have to just strut around like Horatio, yelling orders to ‘kill the Frenchies’,” she was relieved to see a hint of a smile cross his face.
Horatio Nelson, hero to every true Brit, was especially favored by her brother. His violent, trauma-filled life had always inspired Peter, and he would beg their father to tell stories of the man’s incredible existence every night since he could speak.
The fact that Horatio had fought most of his more famous sea-battles with only one leg lent the stories an air of prophetic inspiration.
“Yeah. I could smack sailors with my walking stick when they are slow to obey.” He was smiling in full now.
“Okay, Captain. You haven’t earned your ship yet,” she ruffled his hair and surreptitiously wiped the tears from her eyes as she stood once more. “Okay, Viscount. If you’re Nelson, then I’m Wellington, so your orders are to man your post and maintain discipline. Understood?” His face turned serious and he saluted.
Iris bent and lifted both water jugs once more. Without another word she scurried down the hill as best she could with her hands full.
She had to set the jugs down several times before reaching the area where the cave was, but even so, her hands were sore from the handles and her shoulders were burning when she deemed that she’d come as close as she dared and set them down a final time.
As her breathing calmed she began to hear voices. She didn’t think that she was close enough to the cave to hear the people inside, but she soon realized that they were getting steadily louder.
Tyrone’s voice was soon recognizable as it passed through the vegetation nearby.
Her plan had been to get the jugs and food close to the cave and then fire a few shots into the air then wait for someone to come investigate. She would hide, of course, until she was sure they’d found the victuals, but now her plan changed.
Iris could now recognize the second boy’s voice. One of the early converts to Geoffrey’s tyrannical oligarchy. Franklyn, she thought his name was.
Frank and Ty were going slow, and cursing a lot. She crouched, and half-crawled into their wake as their unseen forms passed within twenty feet of where she’d stopped. One of them stumbled and the ferns in front of her jostled.
“Why do we have to carry them out here?” Frank’s whiny voice complained.
“Are you an idiot or something?” Ty said. “If we leave them in the cave the smell will bring the lizards.” The words had a rote feel to them, as if they’d been said before, perhaps many times.
“I know. I know. I mean, why do we have to bring them out here? I’m tired and starving. Why can’t the others do it?”
Iris crept closer until she could make out their feet, and on the ground, staring back at her all of a sudden through the ground-cover were a child’s eyes, blank and staring. The skin was gray, the glassy surface of the left eye was half obscured with dirt that had stuck there. That was possibly the worst part. The dirt in the eye. So unnatural that it was difficult to comprehend it being there.
Her hand covered her mouth to keep the sobs from being overheard. She was lucky that the boys’ continued arguing and grunts as they hefted the corpse once more hid the small noises that inevitably escaped her.
She let them leave, and when they had escaped her hearing she let the sobs come for real. After a while the sobs changed to the more subdued crying of an exhausted, yet still grief-stricken person. For a long time she just lay there under the ferns and cried.
At some point the boys had returned from their grisly task, and had passed by her again completely oblivious to her presence. She let them go.
She finally lifted herself from the ground and walked, as if in a dream down the path that the boys had followed. She had to know, but was terrified to see.
After a five minute walk she came to the edge of a sloping pit. It looked almost like an old sink hole that hadn’t fully committed. Hisses came from the bottom where a scene played out similar to that which had plagued her subconscious for the past few days. The giant dragon lizards fought each other in their efforts to gorge themselves on the new feast that Ty and Frank had thrown down to them.
Lumps and scraps of clothing littered the bottom to the depression but it was impossible for Iris to make out exactly how many children the boys had carried there. A change in the wind brought the stench to her and she doubled over and vomited.
When she rose, it was like voiding her stomach had also ejected her sadness. In its place was a white-hot anger.
She clutched Bess in both hands as Si had taught her and chambered one of the Dragon’s Breath rounds with the jerk of her left hand. She turned from the pit and followed the path back toward the cave.
When she came within sight of the entrance the guard, Carter, a reluctant convert of Geoffrey’s, if memory served, saw her and began to raise the alarm, but a blast from Bess silenced him. She had aimed at a bush next to the boy and it erupted in sparks and flame in a most satisfactory manner.
Carter stumbled back as others came rushing forward, unaware of the danger they were in, but needing to know the cause of the thunderous noise.
When the ringing in her ears faded, Iris could hear crying coming from deeper inside the cave. The sound actually reassured her. At least Geoffrey hadn’t failed all of the young ones.
Beleaguered and haggard-looking shareholder kids formed a rough barrier, crude spears and clubs were the extent of their weaponry but they held them as if their lives depended on them. Some looked hopefully toward her, others were enraged.
She didn’t know what Geoffrey had told them about her, but some clearly hated her.
“Where is he?” She yelled. Anger made the words piercing and several of the kids flinched, half convinced that she would turn the shotgun on them. She, honestly, hadn’t ruled out that option.
The shareholder kids looked around the group, knowing of who she spoke, trying to locate Geoffrey. Finally, embarrassment got the better of him and Geoffrey’s big frame pushed through the crowd.
“Listen, Iris.” He purred. “If this is about what happened between you and me…” he looked nervously at the gun.
“You bastard!” She screamed and pointed the gun at him. The sights trembled and swayed, but it didn’t matter, the blast would cut him at half at this range. Geoffrey stumbled back, terror on his face. The other kids scattered, afraid that the coming blast might catch them as well. Or maybe the look in her eyes convinced them that one death wouldn’t be enough to calm her.
“It’s not about you! For once in your life, believe that it is not about you! It’s about them!” She nodded her head toward the way she’d come, and the look on his face testified that he understood. She knew about the dead.
She knew that he wanted to speak, to defend himself from her accusing tone, but he was too afraid to. She still wanted to shoot him. The barrel still trembled but it had calmed significantly as the sight at the end hovered over his cowering form.
Iris switched the selector on the back of the UTS 15 and shot Geoffrey in the chest. A bean-bag round slammed into him and drew the breath from him in a flash. He clutched a hand over his chest then looked at it, sure that he was dead. A second round smashed into the boy’s big nose. His head thumped Back against the dusty ground and blood oozed from his broken nose.
She might have killed him, and she found that she was at peace with the possibility.
“Anyone who wants to come with me, now is your chance.” Iris kept the gun ready and glared her hatred at Tyrone, Devon and his other cronies daring them to declare their allegiance.
After an uneasy minute, shareholder kids began filing out of the cave and formed up behind Iris. Most of the big kids, inexplicably, chose to stay behind, but the smaller kids shuffled out. Iris was exhilarated to see Claire helping guide two half-starved four-year-olds out of the dark shadows and she smiled at her. She wanted to hug her, but kept the gun ready instead, convinced that the Jeffites would use any opportunity to seize control.
“Are there any others that are too weak, but want to leave?” Iris asked Claire. The girl shook her head sadly.
“Right then,” she switched the selector back to the Dragon’s Breath and fired a round at another bush. “If any of you follow, Bess here will be happy to burn a hole right through you.” She patted the gun affectionately.” The remaining kids looked convinced and she backed away.
When they crested the top of the hill, Iris could make out Peter’s standing form. He used the side of the Samsara for balance as he peered down at the throng of Shareholder kids that wound their way up the steep terrain.
When they came within range, he yelled to her.
“Huzzah Wellington! Did you leave any Frenchies for me?”