Illustration by derpy.llamas
Raines' shoulders shook inside the ramshackle office. He'd expected it to be cold down here, but Academy lessons couldn't have prepared him for these cracked windows, or this warped steel furniture. His only real option was to be here, despite Secretary Bregun's supposed choice. Raines had nothing but respect for the Ranks, but to forsake his wings to join the them just so he could work the Terra Layer... Nether Ranger had a sudden ring to it. After missing the terrorist Blackstar twice and the Sunrise Ball breach, he couldn't really blame the Secretary.
Raines flinched when a weight fell across his shoulders. He went to throw it off, but realized it was a large fur cloak, warming him nicely.
"They say dress for the job you want," a voice quaked the floorboards, "I appreciate your honesty, Ranger Raines."
"General Bragg," Raines stood. His skin chilled in the presence of the living bedtime story. On more than one disobedient occasion, Raines' dad had threatened him with the Nether Layer and Bragg Boneblade, who'd eat him a slice at a time.
"Sit the hell down," said the hulking, cloaked man who plunked in the chair across from Raines. His heavy age lines made the disparity between Raines' assumptions and the truth even more haunting. Bragg was as big as Raines imagined, though he seemed to have forgotten what to do with all that mass. He slumped in his seat. His faded, golden hair flipped back and twisted around his neck. A thin salt-and-pepper beard veiled his chin. "Tell me, how do I get these fleas out of my hair?" he rumbled.
"E-excuse me?" Raines coughed.
"They call them Blackstar. They call them Raines. I call them fleas, and I want them out of my hair."
Fifty miles from Bragg's office in the Strand outpost of Almagreighn, Quincy lay awake on the freezing ground. The Beacon's first purple tinge washed over him. Tiny frost crystals twinkled from the swaying ferns at the fringe of their camp. For the first hint of winter, the bite was sharp.
"Rise and glow," said Crichton, already packing his compressed sleeping pad, "There's no atmosphere simulation, so the only light down here is whatever leaks through the Terra service walks."
"Wh-why is it so cold?" Quincy shivered.
"The Nether Layer is the drainage part of the Tower's climate control. Pressure pushes the used, manufactured air down without any of the regulation," Crichton rattled with the autonomy of practice, "You'd know that if you paid any attention in my class."
"What?" Quincy yawned while Crichton kicked dirt over the smoldering coals of last night's fire.
"Took me till this morning to realize we've met before. I was your Sustainable Climate Instructor, three years ago." Quincy snapped off a piece of frigid granola from his pack and chewed on the thought.
"For two weeks, before I dropped it," Quincy realized, "Sorry."
"Don't be. I only remember you because it was my job to know every brick in the Academy. Let's go."
Once the Beacon's heat got trapped in the thick jungle and they'd pressed pace hard enough, sweat beads popped up on Quincy's every inch. Crichton, though, seemed entirely comfortable in long sleeves. Staring at his guide's back all day kept Quincy's mind from the rough foliage chafing his shins. Instead he wondered about the man that'd saved his life. Crichton had no visible Ports, bet he'd clearly been Fitted with something. Quincy had never seen an Augment for hundred foot plummets or rocket-fire kicks, though. So, after they climbed over a gigantic moss-strewn blowdown to set up camp, Quincy had his question for the day.
"Crichton, what's your story?" he said, slapping a conservative cut of seitan on the grill. He figured it'd last him until they made it to Silvereach. Beyond that, he was uncomfortable to consider. "That's my question."
"I heard it," Crichton said, tossing a cut of meat on.
"You said I get a question every day I make it," Quincy prodded.
"I never said you'd get an answer," said Crichton, "Pass on that one."
"You can't pass."
"How shall you force me to answer?" Crichton cocked an eyebrow. Quincy sizzled as much as his seitan.
"Then... how do you know Charlotte?" Quincy neglected to mention that he'd switched the radio on in boredom several times during their walk, to find no one on the other end.
"I don't, really. We've never met. Hardly spoken."
"Wha- then how-
"Tomorrow," Crichton broke in," Quincy almost lunged at him, sedated only by the rolled up sleeping pad striking his chest. "It's yours tonight."
"Who do you work for?" Quincy asked the next night, when they finished clearing the brush for their fire. Crichton's brow curved with a hint of surprise as the first wisps of their fire flicked up at the sky.
"Levi Preacher," he said.
"Who's..." Quincy trailed off when Crichton shot him a self-explanatory glare. Tomorrow, then, he figured.
By day three in the jungle, Quincy came to the realization that he was well-equipped for foot travel. It wasn't from any innate sense of survival skill or stamina. Rather, it was because he didn't feel entitled to any of the amenities he missed. Between events ten years ago, the way he'd treated Leon, and the Roseyard incident, Quincy hardly felt entitled to the sleeping pad. His legs whined at the crest of the hill overlooking Silvereach, but he followed his partner without complaint. At a glance, the place looked like nothing more than a giant, iron wall. It parted the thick jungle around it to let down a shallow trickle of water. It struck pebbles at the foot of the momentous dam to feed a shallow stream.
"What's your Augment?" Quincy asked when they made camp near the water, a few miles off. It was the only specific question he could think of that would give him some insight on his companion. He figured asking about Levi Preacher would get him about as far as the man I work for.
"T-56 Series, Beta," said Crichton. Quincy grabbed a handful of his own hair in each fist.
"No- not- you know what I mean!"
"That's what was printed on it," he insisted. Quincy's ears twitched.
"If you're done," Crichton knocked the grill away from the fire, "You should get to sleep. Tomorrow we hike into town." The way he jammed it in his pack said more than words.
"The mystery thickens," Quincy mumbled, if only for his own sanity.
"What was that?"
"Goodnight," Quincy said, and settled in to his packed dirt cradle.
YOU ARE READING
Strand: the Silver RadioScience Fiction
A shape against the night, in the light of a highway construction sign, is a young man in trouble. An artist in an artless place, he must fit into Strand's machine, or be thrown away like garbage. From the best laid plans to hapless coincidence, Qui...