Illustration by Atrazion
Between the fatigue and the river-spray, Raines' sight was blurred when a fist clamped around the collar of his heavy jacket.
"They didn't Fit you with deployable floaties?" Bragg hoisted his circumstantial comrade onto the banks of the Silvereach River. "You're an anchor waiting to sink!"
"I suppose," Raines coughed, "I'm expendable to them." To them fell out without a thought for who they were. Bragg slapped a gulp of water right out of Raines from the middle of his back.
"Don't go pitying yourself now, Raines. No one else will. They'll just expend you," Bragg paced off just slow enough for Raines to follow, "Your failure is Bregun's failure, and I'm not about to let him forget it by letting you drown!" Deciphering the true emotion from Bragg's jaded guffaws was more difficult than some Ranger exams.
"Don't thank me- catch me an outlaw. I'll send him your way- all you need to do is point the Tribesmen in the right direction and they'll do the rest."
"When did the Tribesmen get involved?" Raines hung a step behind, as far from the water as possible.
"They always were," Bragg murmured. Raines' face told that he didn't follow. "You think the Reachers pried that place from my old, bony fingers? Silvereach was a great spot for our biologists to study the jungle, but the filtration controls are remote. I can flip on the cancer from Almagreighn, and I have. Those poor bastards downriver must be pretty sick by now." Raines' hand slid over his mouth.
"How could..." his fear of Bragg became a well, deepening with the light of of a lantern dropping to unknown depths.
"The Ranger and his flea escaped south. That means Islaire. You'll be waterlogged and useless. That's why you'll head east instead. Meet with the Avalon Tribes. Point their... understandable anger in the right direction.When they realize the Reachers haven't been holding up their end of the arrangement, our tribal friends will gladly take Silvereach for us, and intercept our fugitives when I cut them off and send them back north."
"I-I can't..." Raines stammered.
"While you're there, dig into this Blackstar. You seemed to know his face. Find his name," said Bragg, "The faster we resolve this issue, the faster the good Tribesmen of the Avalons can be well again. Are we understood?" A slice at a time, echoed through Raines' mind.
"We'll have to skirt the checkpoint by the road to get in. I have a distraction in mind, but we've got no chance dressed like this," Crichton stopped behind a petrified old tree. Quincy had to strangle his gut's rebellion against last night's dinner first. Survival or no, he couldn't bare the thought of something so proud and primal as a lion churning around inside of him. "I picked something up in Silvereach."
"You actually had time to shop? And if there are roads, why in the hell have we been hiking through this... stupid... knife-grass?" Quincy struggled with the last bit as a chill breeze whipped the reeds across his thighs.
"You think Strand paved roads for the Reachers and Tribesmen?" said Crichton, jamming his old clothes in his pack. "They're crawling with people starving for a promotion. The kind they might get for turning in the infamous Blackstar."
"Or the Renegade Ranger, Crichton DeMarcus?" Quincy dared. A heavy bundle of cloth smashed into his chest. Crichton had already changed into a fur cloak by the time Quincy thought how the hell does he fit all this in there?
"No one's looking for me, but Levi," Crichton said, "I'm going to set up a diversion to get us in. Get changed." Quincy snagged his shoulder before he could go.
"Is there anything weird I should know about this place? Like the no-take-back rule you failed to mention in Silvereach?"
"If anyone asks for or offers you venom, its not code for anything. I have four vials of, it if we need." Crichton left Quincy on the wispy hillside, clutching what unfolded into a ridiculously over-sized fur long-coat. Even Crichton couldn't withhold a snort at the two-pound noodle in a ten-pound coat when he returned.
"Is this from Bragg's closet?" Quincy pouted.
"Everything's one size here- wastes less from outgrowing. Lets move." Quincy followed the leader through the reeds to a cobblestone walkway and the jaw of an iron wall.
"I'm... payin... guy... lemme...urp!" came through from the other side.
"You're blitzed," said one of the Ranks on gate-watch, "You've not leaving this place until you sober up. Unless you fancy roasting on a spit. Tribesmen get real hungry, and less picky, this close to winter." Crichton led Quincy along the wall towards the road, below the blanket of reeds.
"Since when... you care about us?" Quincy heard a thump that could only have been the man's head on the other side of the wall.
"Holy hell," one of the Ranks muttered, as both he and his partner folded in to help the toppled drunkard.
"Straight across from where we are now. Between the wall and the guardhouse," Crichton whispered, "There's a false panel in the right hand wall." They shot through like an arrow. Quincy popped the false wall back into place behind them.
"What's our plan?" Quincy sighed, a few panels down the dark steel corridor.
"I need to get you to Juno's and find us a ship," said Crichton. Quincy was about to ask why, when a dark shape scurried over his head. His eyes shot after it just in time to catch an image of the fuzzy, leggy creature. It was size of his hand. One, two, three, four- Quincy couldn't count all its limbs before it vanished into darkness. He'd have sworn it looked just like a spider.
"What was..." he wondered aloud before Crichton said,
"The Legs, Quincy. In case you're still lost, the nomenclature down here is very literal."
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...