From up high, the clearing was just a green speck of hope in a sea of death. Theta was the first to spot it, and motioned to her pack mates – Leo, Ty and Rainer. The group eased up, spreading out their wing suits to fall back into a tighter formation. For them, flight was no longer a gift. It was a necessity.
“What is that?” Leo asked.
“The ground,” Rainer answered. “I’ve heard there are some patches where the trees won’t grow. I’ve never seen anything like that, though.”
“It’s huge,” Theta said, her voice full of hope.
“You think we should chance it?” Ty asked. His suit, like the others’, was a shimmering blaze of red, the fabric spread taught as he glided.
There were resources they could find in the relative safety of the tree tops. But that was slow foraging. This lush landing pad was potentially a week’s worth of searching all at once. No one needed to answer Ty, because this was a risk they were all happy to take.
The pack was slowing, descending. The nearer they got to the ground the more obvious it became that this was a potential jackpot. The clearing was the size of a football field (a sport Theta hadn’t seen since she left Earth) and completely devoid of the skyscraper trees that occupied the rest of the landscape. The ground was visible, inviting them like a runway. The lack of botanic competition in this clearing proved prosperous for a species of bright green fern that carpeted the soil.
In this wasteland, anything that bright and that green might as well have been solid gold.
“Stay there,” Theta pointed to Rainer. “We need you to keep watch.” He nodded, knowing the risk. They would be blind down there, beneath the safety of the canopy. He spread his wings and glided to a perch on an outstretched branch of a dying tree, a hundred feet off the ground.
The rest of them continued on and braced themselves for landing. This would be the first time Theta – or any of her packmates – had set foot on the ground in many months. It made her uneasy. The colossal height of the forest canopy was ever more apparent as they descended.
It was a soft touchdown, their feet padded by the layer of fern and moss that was thriving in the open space. The group looked at one another and couldn’t help but smile with nervous energy.
There was potential treasure here. All they had to do now was survive.
THETA was a Vulture, back on Earth. She spent her days finding salvageable parts from the dead; any organs that had enough life left in them to sell to some affluent assholes who wanted an extra kidney or a younger heart. It was not hard to find unattended bodies with the rate at which people died. That people were dying so often –and many from unknown causes – did not concern her. Humans had become too many.
“Good one over here,” Her friend and co-Vulture, Trix, called out. He was holding a string of intestines in his gloved hands. His toxin mask, cylindrical and beak-like (matching their namesake) reduced his voice to tinny garble. They were crawling around on the lakeshore, brown water lapping at their ankles, early morning sun struggling to cast its light through the smog. A few bodies had washed up on the rocks overnight.
“Are they all in one piece?” Theta asked. She knew they could fetch a good price for a decent length of small intestine. The wealthy ate garbage all their lives and then just replaced the parts that went rotten.
Theta waded over to join her friend, standing over the body. Some poor guy’s face looked up at them, bloated and blue, eyes glassy. Theta reached in and started unspooling his guts.
“Oh yeah. I’d say they’re clean.”
They bagged up the intestines and started poking around at the other organs.
“Lungs are no good,” Theta tossed them out into the water where the gulls could have their way.
“What about this?” Trix had fished out a small, blinking chip from the dead man’s ribcage. “Looks like a smart pass. RFID implant.”
“That’ll sell too,” Theta smiled. This morning’s scavenge was turning out to be fruitful enough. She would be getting close to her goal.
“How much more do you need?”
“About a thousand,” She said.
Like many her age, she had grown up learning about the Mars colonizing crusades. In school they taught her about the first people to land on Mars, the decades of research in hopes of supporting life on the Red Planet. Later, she would read articles and hear updates on social media about the terraforming missions.
By the time Theta was a young adult, the marketing campaigns had begun. They were appealing, and offered a new life on a new planet. Most people Theta’s age had dreamt about pursuing this path. A one way ticket off of a suffocating Earth, where the resources were failing to support the rising populations. You’d be performing an honourable service, not only helping the human race expand, but helping the Earth control its uncontrollable population. Hundreds upon hundreds were signing up to be shipped out each month.
Theta lived her whole life in her allocated compound. It was the same for everyone in her income bracket. There was no room for anything larger. No way for anyone to expand, or move. But Mars offered untapped potential for owning land. Real land.
“What do we have here?” Trix said. He sloshed through the shallows over to the body of a woman, lying face down in the water. He pulled her up by the hair. Her face was not bloated like the others. She was still fresh. And she was pretty. Her eyes were closed, her skin not fully devoid of its colour. Theta knew people who would take the entire face and transplant it. She would be easy to sell.
“I think you just bought me my ticket,” Theta said.
The shuttle reminded Theta of a cinema; she had been once when she was younger, but did not have time for the old nostalgic practices later in life. Many rows of seats were lined up in a cavernous space. Each row held twenty seats. And Theta had lost count of how many rows there were.
Every chair was facing forward, looking up at a large screen where a smiling woman greeted them and explained their journey. For the most part Theta tuned her out, but did catch that they would be asleep for much of the trip.
Strips of overhead lighting cast white and red glows over the rows, intermittently. The ship was rather industrial; there was a harsh metal floor, and wires and rigging hung loose above them. It wasn’t a luxury liner. This was simply a means of getting from A to B. The chairs themselves weren’t bad. At least they were padded in a dark pleather, high-backed with arm rests.
There were no staff members, no flight attendants or guides. Instead, a few drones – stick bodies with a metal arms, gliding on two wheels – waited in the aisles to be of assistance.
Theta made her way to her chair, E11, and set her bag down underneath it. She had been allowed to bring two crates, if she so desired, and they would’ve been stowed away below with the rest of the luggage. But Theta did not care to bring anything with her. She wanted a true new start. So she had packed only her Vulture tools (carving knife, freeze spray for the organs, therma-goggles for assessing body heat) and a few sets of clothes.
As the woman on the video announced that they would be woken up for the descent into Mars’ atmosphere, a large figure passed in front of her, blotting out the screen.
“Sorry,” A husky man said as he tried to squeeze in front. “That’s my seat.” He was winded, carrying a bag that looked far heavier than hers. He had a lion’s mane of golden hair and an unkempt beard.
Theta moved her legs to avoid getting crushed, and the man slid past her, collapsing into his seat with a sigh. They made eye contact.
“What’s in the bag?” She asked.
“You want to see?” He opened the zipper and pulled out a large vest that was made entirely of rigid metal. It looked medieval, something from the history books. But it was polished and had two small cylinders attached at the rear with a familiar logo on them. Theta recognized them as fuel packs.
“It’s an aeroshell,” The husky man said. “I am... or I guess I was a Dive Dog on Earth.” Researchers of the sea and marine life; Theta recognized the slang term. Some thought the ocean held the key to solving Earth’s problems. “We used them to propel ourselves under water. I’ve heard that on Mars you can use them to fly. Because of the lower gravity.”
Theta told the man she thought that was interesting and then turned her attention back to the screen. Shortly after takeoff they would receive their knockout cocktail, and spend the rest of the journey in stasis until landing.
“What’s your name?” The man asked.
“We’ll be asleep the whole time,” Theta said. “Does it really matter?”
The man blinked, and then turned to face the screen as well.
Theta was thankful for the silence, and shut her eyes as the video screen woman continued on. The video was on a loop, and began to repeat itself. But Theta didn’t mind. She was too busy focusing on the new life that awaited her.
Gone were the days of gutting corpses, bringing the freshest bits to market. She always hated the one they called The Butcher. He was the reseller. An arrogant weasel who always flirted with Theta, clicking his tongue and brushing up too close to her. He would hand her money, always dirty bills, for the organs she had frozen and packaged. Then he would go and supply these to the medical facilities that sold extra years of life to the planet’s high-earners.
Theta had always been aware that her own life was limited. Purchasing one of these procedures was out of the question. Given the fact that she was likely already halfway through her time in the land of the living – and that life expectancy was ever-decreasing – she couldn’t wait to start making something of the life she had left.
She always had a vision of planting a garden. A massive house with a great view, backing onto mountains or plains. Then she could go outside and tend to a plot of soil that was her very own. And she could grow and harvest living things, instead of pillaging from the dead.
The takeoff ended up being quite uneventful. Just a few loud noises and a quick rush of inertia. Shortly after, drones began to hand out cocktails. It went down smooth, tasting of vodka but packed with enough tranquilizer to keep her in hibernation for the trip. She let herself relax in her seat and dream of the massive garden where should grow fruits, vegetables, flowers, and maybe even a family.
Then the sleep took hold.
LEO had to rush onto the shuttle. He was late arriving, and lugging his entire aeroshell in his bag had been a mistake. It was heavy – at least in Earth’s gravity – but he hadn’t been willing to stow it below where it could get damaged. Some of his other scientific tools had gone in his crate, the ones he cared less about.
Leo had been one of the more cautious subscribers of the Mars colonization. His work on Earth had been satisfying enough; the sea bed was full of wonders that kept him occupied. But he had never ascended. He still didn’t have his own team. And there was always that pressure from his friends; if he was such a great scientist, why not go and make something of himself on Mars?
Leo would never admit it, but his spot on the submariner totem pole was rather low. He was mostly collecting shells and studying crabs. But Mars could offer him a chance to find things, and create things, that affected generations to come. He could lead his own team one day.
Still, there was no ocean on Mars – terraforming hadn’t gotten that far – and Leo would miss the water greatly.
He had bid farewell to his colleagues, who seemed more happy to be rid of him than he had liked.
Leo had split up with his girlfriend a couple months prior. He had always held onto a slight hope that perhaps they could patch things up, but this trip was now the end of that dream.
Leo had stopped by her place to say goodbye on his way to the shuttle. She stood in the doorway as Leo told her he was leaving. She had been indifferent to his departure. Behind her, a man’s voice called her back inside. Leo felt heat rising in his throat, the kind of unbridled rage that he never let loose.
But he was leaving. What did it matter anymore? He pushed past his ex-girlfriend and charged into the bedroom where the man she had been cheating with lay, naked and surprised.
Leo struggled to get the blood off of his hands in the washroom at the shuttle station, and still had a few stains as he lugged his heavy bag to row E. The whirlwind events of his last day on Earth taxed his lungs, and he was wheezing by the time he started pressing past people towards his seat.
A stoic woman with red hair and a ring of tattoos around her neck blocked his path. Even seated, Leo could tell she was tall, her arms and legs lean and muscular.
“Sorry,” Leo said. She picked up on his cue and moved her legs.
Once he was seated in E12, she asked him what was in his bag. He showed her.
“It’s an aeroshell,” Leo said. “I am... or I guess I was a Dive Dog on Earth. We used them to propel ourselves under water. I’ve heard that on Mars you can use them to fly. Because of the lower gravity.” As he displayed his prized possession he noticed a spot on his knuckles where his girlfriend’s lover’s blood had not been washed away. He quickly packed his shell up and tucked his hand away beside him.
“What’s your name?” He asked then.
“We’ll be asleep the whole time,” She said. “Does it really matter?”
This was not the best start to making new friends in his new life, he thought.
When the cocktails were handed out, he welcomed it. He prayed for no dreams. He would rather see nothing than see his girlfriend’s lover’s mangled face again.
“Welcome to Mars,” The singsongy voice of the video screen woman interrupted Leo’s sleep, which as it turned out had been full of dreams of the sea bed.
Leo tried to open his eyes, but they were heavy. He brought his hands up to rub them, and noticed his arms too were stiff. That was what a few months of stasis got you. He slowly worked on stretching his arms out and soon his eyelids relaxed as well.
The shuttle looked the same as it had before. People all around him were starting to shake off the cobwebs. Arms popped up into the air in the rows ahead of him, people stretching. The screen at the front of the shuttle showed a live look at their descent. Ahead of them was the surface of Mars.
Leo, at first, had a hard time opening his eyes, and now he couldn’t bring himself to blink. It was stunning. The Red Planet still had much of the crimson dust that gave it its name, but breaking up these deserts were giant swatches of deep green. The terraforming had made Mars inhabitable. It had created oxygen.
Leo scanned the video for signs of rivers and lakes, but couldn’t see any features through the dense canopy of all the trees. They were giants. It was as though Mars’s surface had been dotted with green, leafy mountains.
Had Leo had his wits about him, he may have found it funny that there were no signs of cities or human life. He would’ve even started to assess the lack of water as a potential issue. But his excitement at seeing this new planet overshadowed all of the warnings that should’ve been sounding off in his mind.
Beside him, the nameless woman was waking up as well. Leo looked over and saw her jaw drop when she saw the surface of Mars for the first time.
“Please exit the shuttle in an orderly fashion,” The video woman said. “You will be a little groggy from our travels. We recommend taking some time to stand up, enjoy the fresh Mars air, and then grab your possession from the shuttle’s haul. Our drones will assist you.”
The shuttle started to whir with life as the brakes were applied, and they slowed down to a halt on a concrete landing pad that had been built into the side of a mountain. The mountain was wide and flat, and as such the tree tops were level with the landing pad. The ship was surrounded by branches, leaves and pine needles on all sides.
As soon as the shuttle touched down, the large bay doors – one on either side – lifted open. Ramps lowered and invited the passengers to the tarmac below. With the doors now open, they were all blinded by the Martian sun. Leo noticed that the woman beside him shielded her eyes.
“The trees have helped to create an atmosphere so the GCR doesn’t kill us,” Leo said, attempting to comfort her. She ignored him. Instead she rose from her seat, grabbed her light bag and leapt over Leo, quickly exiting. He watched her rush for the bay door and emerge into the sunlight.
Leo took his time, allowing others to pass him as he gathered himself. He would start pulling his bag from under his chair and then another person would try to get past, and he would stuff it back underneath. He reassured himself it was worth the hassle because soon he could attempt to fly with his aeroshell.
Most of the hundreds of passengers had already made their way onto the tarmac when Leo finally stood, tossed his bag over his shoulder and sauntered to the door. He paused in the ship’s threshold, surveying the scene.
The tarmac was large and flat, only painted lines breaking up its surface. Tree branches hung over the sides, framing the edges in imperfect lines. The passengers found themselves staring into a horizon of tangled treetops and greenery. The sky overhead was a pale orange. But you could see nothing else through the trees.
An intense bit of wind had picked up, tossing Leo’s hair wildly in his face. Warm gusts forced a few passengers to brace themselves on their way down the ramp from the shuttle. The wind seemed to be building, slow at first, then faster and faster.
There was an ominous charge to the air, as if the wind were bringing something with it.
Leo scanned the trees, thought he saw movement. Just the branches reacting to the breeze, Leo assured himself. But was it really? He thought he saw shapes. Faces. Advancing toward them. He noticed that the tall, redheaded woman was seeing it too. While most of the passengers stood and laughed, making conversation, she was staring deep into the trees, a statue.
She tensed. Then she took a half step back. Leo followed her gaze. Now he was certain of it. There were faces staring at them from the shadows. Something wasn’t right.
All at once the wind seemed to die out. Things became incredibly still. The conversation seemed to dwindle, passengers sensing too that something was amiss. One by one they started to turn the direction Theta was looking. But Theta had already spotted the threat. She was the only one pushing back through the crowd to the ship.
There was a scream off to Leo’s right. He turned. Through the chaos all he could see were branches moving again, though with no wind to influence them this time. A cluster of passengers on the far side of the tarmac scrambled over each other as they tried to turn around and get away.
From the canopy emerged dozens of figures. They were human, so far as Leo could tell, but a few of them seemed to have wings. They were dressed in dark shades of red, many of them with faces painted for war. A few were armed with small blasters or tasers, others brandished spears and clubs.
They came from all sides, groups of five or so would be dressed in similar colours, holding similar weapons. These warriors had laid an ambush. The ones with guns were opening fire indiscriminately. The ones with handheld weapons charged forward and began clubbing the unarmed shuttle passengers.
Leo watched in horror as the assault turned the jovial shuttle passengers into a frantic sea. People fell over themselves, crashed into the base of the shuttle, crushed their counterparts. Dead bodies dropped to the ground and tripped up the living. A chorus of screams did their best to drown out the gunfire.
The redhead was charging back up the ramp. Throngs of others were attempting to do the same, and all of them were jostling for position. Hands pulled the redhead back, trying to get ahead at all costs. She looked up at Leo then. Without thinking, he extended an arm. She took it. He carted her in through the door, and they both retreated inside the shuttle.
As the rest of the passengers battled for position, they looked at one another, terrified.
“Theta,” She said. She extended her hand. “My name is Theta.”
“Leo,” He grabbed her arm and shook in salute.
“It’s some sort of trap,” She said. He knew this already and nodded. Theta quickly opened her bag, fished through it, and grabbed a large knife.
There wasn’t time to talk through any sort of plan, or get to know one another. One of the passengers had rushed through the door into the shuttle and was panicking, lashing out at everyone. He had a knife of his own and slashed at Theta. He was weak, though, and his blade came down slowly. It only nicked her arm.
Leo was facing the right way to retaliate, and raised one of his meaty arms in the air, then crashing it down on the man’s skull, much like he had with his girlfriend’s lover. The man’s nose splintered, blood rushing out and covering his cheeks. The man whimpered and collapsed to the ground.
“Come here,” Theta called out to him. She was retreating back deeper into the shuttle, away from the door. Leo rushed after her, but his bag was too bulky, and it got caught on a nearby chair.
From the far door came a new crowd. This one was lead by those wearing war paint. Three wild-eyed men and two women darted into the ship and started stabbing at the remaining passengers with spears that seemed to be made out of the same material as the shuttle’s chair-backs.
The male warriors hacked down a few helpless passengers, while the women went to work grabbing at their clothes and bags, throwing them over their shoulders and hauling them away.
One of the men noticed Leo, stuck, and started over in a sprint. Leo tried to move away, but it was helpless, his motions were just further tangling his bag straps. The man with the spear closed in.
Theta intercepted the attacker, rushing back and jumping over a nearby chair. She kicked the attacker in the knee, dropping him to the the ground. He flailed upwards with his spear, but she grabbed it in her hand and wrestled it away. She tossed the spear to Leo and then dropped to her knees, wrenching her knife into the man’s chest as she did so.
Leo shed his bag, letting it drop, then turned around to open it. He removed his aeroshell, deciding it would be easier to carry this way, and set it on the floor while he gathered his things. Someone came rushing through the near door, already carrying one scavenged bag on their back. He saw Leo’s aeroshell and his eyes lit up. This man had a gun and raised it.
The first shot missed, startling Leo and causing him to duck. But the second shot ripped through Leo’s shoulder, feeling like a jolt of electricity passing through his arm. Leo growled in pain. The attacker rushed at him, wanting the aeroshell. This was a mistake. There was nothing left in Leo’s life he cared for more. Leo raised the spear that Theta had tossed to him and flung it towards the attacker.
The throw was perfect, catching the man in the stomach and causing him to topple, spitting up blood.
Theta came up behind Leo then.
“We have to get off the shuttle,” She said. “They are here for our stuff.” At the far end of the shuttle, another couple of attackers were ripping chairs out of the ground. Outside, no doubt, others still would be tearing apart the cargo hold and stealing their crates and all that was inside.
“Help me get this on,” Leo said, lifting up his aeroshell. “I can’t leave it behind.” Theta watched him a second, eyes wide and thinking he was an idiot. But when she realized he really wasn’t going to move, she helped raise it over his head and slide it down into position.
Once on, they finally made their move for the door. As they rounded the corner and emerged onto the ramp, a shot fired from a nearby pistol caught Leo in the chest, but it ricocheted off of his shell. He flashed Theta an I told you so.
As it turned out, the woman who fired the gun at Leo was also wearing an aeroshell. She stood halfway out on the tarmac, standing in the middle of a circle of corpses. A stolen bag was slung over one shoulder, and her other arm was extended, firing rounds at the shuttle.
Theta dropped to her knees and slid down the metal ramp. Leo lumbered up behind her. A panicked passenger bolted up towards Theta, but Leo stepped in and knocked the man over with a stiff arm. He pulled Theta to her feet and they both took off running through what was left of the crowd.
Passengers wrestled with attackers. Some of them, like Theta and Leo, had opted to fight back. A few even had weapons from their bags. But for the most part the battle was more of a slaughter. Theta did notice, however, that some of the war-paint-clad attackers were turning on each other. It seemed to be a mad scramble for resources, and very little – perhaps aside from the colour of their face paint – mattered in the throngs of battle.
Leo lead the advance, half-crouched, until they were free of the hordes and face to face with the woman wearing the aeroshell. She glared at them, quickly raising her gun and firing two rounds at Leo. One deflected off of his shell, while the other grazed his already wounded arm.
Searing hot pain overtook Leo; he dropped to his knees, gritting his teeth. These two shots provided Theta with all the time she needed. She leapt at the woman and tackled her. The gun skirted away, lost among the stampeding feet of the battling passengers and attackers.
By the time Leo stood again and approached Theta, the woman who shot him was dead on the ground. He wasn’t sure how Theta had dispatched her, but it had been quick.
“You should take that,” Leo said, pointing out the woman’s aeroshell. Together they removed the corpse of its armour. Leo slid it over Theta’s head for her.
“There,” Theta pointed to a dense area of branches that knotted its way over the edge of the tarmac. They both sprinted for shelter.
They crawled into the trees, needing to balance along the branch and brace themselves against the smaller, off-shooting arms. As they entered the foliage, the Martian Sun was blacked out and they found themselves in a faux twilight, balancing among the leaves. Leo looked back at the tarmac. Through the cover they could see the carnage.
It was no longer possible to tell who was on whose side. People were being hacked down, their goods stolen, and then that thief was in turn murdered and robbed.
Many long moments passed while the attack continued. Eventually their laboured breaths became the only sound. The last of the survivors had fled, either by flying away or retreating into the trees.
They looked at each other, both afraid to speak, trying to gauge what they should do next. When enough breaths had past that they were certain everyone was gone, Theta led the crawl back out onto the tarmac.
Leo followed her, his larger frame making the branches sway with uncertainty. He told himself not to look down.
When he reached the safety of concrete he surveyed the wreck. The shuttle was eerily quiet, a ghost ship. It loomed over the battle scene like a tombstone, bodies laid out in circles around it like gory roses.
Those who had died were stripped, most of their bags and clothes were gone. The cargo hold of the shuttle appeared similarly empty. Leo did notice that some items had been dropped. In the chaos not everything had been collected. He felt guilty as he noticed a small satchel and a flask sitting unclaimed beside a corpse, and wondered if he should snatch them.
Suddenly, Leo noticed movement behind Theta and instinctively pulled her away. Someone was alive. A heap of bodies was breached first by one arm, then a second. For a time, no one said anything. They just stared at this gore-spattered ambusher, dressed in a crimson wing-suit as he pulled himself from a pile of corpses. He had a slender build, with a thin head and beady eyes peering through stained glasses.
Once the man had emerged he noticed his audience, and their presence caused him to flinch, retreating back partially behind a dead body. When he realized that neither Theta nor Leo were about to shoot him, he relaxed just a little.
“You’re new, aren’t you?” The man asked. “Bet you have a lot of questions.”
TY was good at playing dead. It had helped him procure several large hauls at the drop sites. He was never much of a fighter; his frame too wiry to win in hand to hand combat. But his wits had kept him alive longer than most on this planet. The average age seemed to be about a couple of months.
The day had been windy, and he was able to use the gusts to glide from his makeshift nest to a lookout spot not far from the tarmac. He could tell he was early. Usually there were whispers amongst the trees. Sometimes a hum of energy before the killing started. But everything was still when Ty found his perch.
He covered himself well. He saw other groups arrive, watched them through the branches as they staked out a good vantage point, unaware they were being watched.
When the shuttle appeared overhead – at first just a white blip in the orange sky – the energy changed. Ty still got nervous, even with the recent success of his plan. These shuttles were like a buffet cart, endless promise and delicious bounty. But it was the other people in line that scared him. Blood was about to be shed.
The shuttle blasted its reverse thrusters, kicking up dirt and rocks from the tarmac as it settled into place. Ty thought of what it had been like to be on a shuttle, only a few months prior. So naive. So unaware of what was about to happen. He was probably shaking off the sleep, stretching and grabbing for his bag, thinking about his camera and all the pictures he was going to take.
He had hoped to send his photography back to friends on Earth. But of course there had been no infrastructure for that form of communication. Anything that went from Mars to Earth was a lie.
This brand new shuttle held Martian virgins, as he had been, and they all poured out into the sun like beach-goers on spring break. Some laughed. Others pulled out celebratory beverages. They had made it. Ty pitied them as they ventured out to the fringes of the tarmac without any defence.
Then it began. The most successful packs usually charged first. The weaker, smaller ones waited in the wings and tried to pick off the injured or solitary passengers. People screamed, some thought to run back to the ship, others tried to fight or even froze in place. In the end it didn’t matter.
The larger packs cut through people and headed straight for the shuttle. Here there was usually a small resistance, maybe a passenger would get their hands on a gun or a spear and fight back.
Ty liked when the alpha packs had their numbers cut down. But after a matter of minutes, these hunters usually emerged from the shuttle with arms full of loot. They took everything. They stole bags for the surprises inside. They took pieces of machinery from the shuttle. They refashioned the seats into weapons and shelters.
Down below, at the cargo hold, was where the most blood was shed. Smaller packs would risk opening this bounty while the alphas were busy slaughtering. They would get their hands on a few crates, but before they could retreat to safety, they were intercepted.
Several packs would run into one another, now all fighting for the same crates. Only the strongest groups actually left the tarmac with a their prize. And they would get even stronger, as inside was often real food, clothing, medicine, or weaponry.
The drones were caught in the crossfire, and they were a hot commodity as well. Hunters would hack them in half, so they couldn’t run, then took the parts for trade or crafting.
Some of the passengers figured out what was happening – a slaughter – and joined in. They turned on each other, stealing and murdering before the same was done to them. They almost always lost out in the end. They didn’t have allies. And the packs always travelled together.
Ty knew of three packs in particular who seemed to have been here since the beginning. They each had ten members, whereas the newer packs struggled to gain even five. It was the larger alpha packs that made off with most of the crates on this day.
Outside of the big three, the general rule of thumb was the older the pack the more likely they were to die on the tarmac. They would be hungrier, weaker, more likely to take risks. Ty watched as several such groups were forced into extinction during the fighting.
One of the newer groups – people who had been on last month’s shuttle – scored decent hauls. They were able to get away with a handful of bags from the fallen newcomers.
As they were battling for these trophies, Ty made his move. He always did this while the alphas were busy fighting for the cargo hold, and after the passengers had started to fight back. It was the period of maximum mayhem. And it was the perfect distraction.
Ty had already painted his face with blood, making himself appear dead. Then he leapt from the trees, spread his wing suit, and glided down to the fringe of the battle. When he was lucky, no one saw him at all. If he was unlucky – as he was today – he would bump into a hunter who wanted his suit.
Ty sidestepped, slipping into the crowd, and lost his admirer in the bedlam. As soon as no one was looking at him, he dropped. He feigned death. As others around him died, he gathered them as a sort of shield, hiding under their corpses. He made himself look as unappealing as possible; just a gory face amongst others who had already been pillaged.
Here he waited. Things grew quiet quickly. Groups had all they could carry and took off into the trees.
The alphas all had aeroshells and wing suits, and could fly away unscathed. The other groups often had one or the other (suits but no power from the shells, or shells but no sustainability from the wing suits) and Ty was positive he would not see them in a month when the next shuttle arrived.
Once all these groups had either died or scurried away, feeling rather victorious, the tarmac was still. Ty knew he had about fifteen minutes until the scavengers showed up. And this was when he went to work. Rising from the dead allowed him first pick of the scraps.
He shot his arms up, working himself out from his blanket of bodies. The air was hot and stank of death on the ground. He was grateful to once again be breathing in cool gulps of fresh breeze. He wiped his forehead, removing some of the sweat that had accumulated, and turned around. He was surprised to see two people watching him.
One man was a bear, broad-shouldered and with hair and a beard just as robust as he was. The second was a tall, rangy woman with cold eyes and slicked back hair like fire. They looked bewildered. How they had survived the attack, Ty was not sure. But the fact that they stood here, arms down, not already picking him apart for scraps, told him they had just arrived on Mars.
He had never had a pack of his own here. In survival terms, there were certain advantages to travelling alone. He could avoid detection rather easily. But the months alone also grated on your soul. And Ty couldn’t help but feel that these two may be the real bounty from this month’s shuttle.
“You’re new, aren’t you?” He asked them. “Bet you have a lot of questions.”
“What happened?” The man looked around. “Was it... was it all a trap?”
“It’s all a lie,” Ty said as he pushed the last of the dead weight off his lap and rose.
He brushed himself off and stood face to face with the survivors. He had not encountered any newcomers during his raids. Usually everyone was gone, or dead, and he tended to avoid people anyway because of their murderous intent. These two were unarmed, though, and he felt comfortable enough at this distance.
The woman didn’t say anything. She was just staring a hole through Ty. She was probably assessing whether or not he was a threat. He tried his best to sound disarming.
“You were victims of the New World, New Life campaigns too,” Ty said. “Pretty good marketing, they were. Got us all to sign up.”
“Why,” The woman said. “Why is it like this?”
“I’ll tell you,” Ty said. “But we need to get out of here first. Soon the scavengers will come. They wait until the battle is over and they can smell the blood from a ways out. They are the ones that turned to cannibalism. They come for the meat. We need to be gone before they get here.”
Ty started jogging through the tarmac, stepping over bodies. He spotted a couple small items that he gathered up and threw into a pouch he had attached to his wing suit.
“You’ll want those,” Ty said, pointing out a corpse who was wearing a wing suit, similar to his. “They’re rare. You’re quite lucky with today’s battle actually. Seems like a few of the fliers were killed. Take them.”
“What are they?” The man asked, bending down to remove the clothing.
“Wing suits. They will help you glide. Best I can tell, some of the early colonizers brought a bunch of them along. There are only so many to go around. But sooner or later, they transfer owners.”
Ty spotted a bag underneath a woman whose head was nearly severed. He picked it up and peered inside. He dumped it out, sighed, and moved on.
“Good that you already have shells,” Ty said. He had noticed these newcomers really were struck by good fortune. They already had Mars’ most sought after technology. “Those are vital. They power your flight. Without them, a wing suit can only get you so far. I didn’t get mine right away. It was hell before.”
Ty moved through the bodies with the deft touch of a veteran. His companions clambered awkwardly and were wasting time picking up things that carried no real value.
“Drop that,” He said. “You won’t need it here. Now hurry, we need to get back to the trees.” They did as they were told and followed Ty to the tree line.
“Wait,” The woman said as Ty was about to climb onto a branch. They all turned. She was pointing to a body that was propped against the side of the shuttle. It was wearing a bright orange-red suit that glinted in the fading sun. A reflective fabric made the wings easy to spot even at this distance.
“Hurry,” Ty said. His heart was racing. He could sense the stench of the battlefield. It would be luring in all the rats now. He had seen a scavenger only once in his time on Mars.
There was something in the eyes that made him realize they were no longer fully human. They had resorted to eating their own, and nothing could save them now. They were solitary; they couldn’t travel in packs. They’d just end up eating their pack mates. So they travelled through the forest canopy alone, slowly losing their minds.
The woman sprinted. She hurdled a few corpses on her way to the shuttle.
Nerves shook his hands. “Get in the tree,” Ty said to the burly man. “We need to start covering our tracks.”
The man, not particular fleet of foot, began the difficult act of balancing on the tree branch. Ty urged him on, told him where to go. Soon the man was starting to fade into the shadows.
Meanwhile, the woman was finally approaching the shuttle. She knelt next to the body and began to undress it. She struggled with the arms, tugging at the zippers. Eventually she got them free and wrenched the fabric away from the pale flesh of this discarded torso. The body flopped out onto the ground and the woman started balling up the wing suit.
She turned on her heel and sprinted back. Ty was thankful that she had long legs; she was very fast. When she was nearly halfway back across the tarmac, there was a loud cry, high-pitched and cheery, like a hyena. But there were no four-legged creatures on Mars. Only scavengers who would soon tear flesh from bone with their teeth.
The woman hesitated, looking around for the source of the howl.
“Don’t,” Ty shouted. “Hurry!”
She sped back up. Ty sensed movement off to their right. More howling in the trees. The sun was now casting long shadows across the battlefield. He wasn’t certain if he could trust what he was seeing, but it certainly felt like the canopy was closing in. It was crawling with the hungry.
Ty relaxed only a little when the woman arrived back by his side.
“Into the trees, follow him.”
She jumped in first. Ty gave one last cautious glance back on the scene, noticing that some branches were bending, scavengers now descending from the tree tops onto the concrete landing pad. He could look no more. He turned and joined his new companions.
They made themselves comfortable in the trees. Ty knew a spot not far away that gave them relative shelter from prying eyes. It had been a tough thing, pulling ones self along like a squirrel on the swaying branches. But the trees truly were giants, and most of where they walked was a good foot or two thick. Many smaller branches acted as guide rails, especially for the burly man, who struggled with balance. Soon the sun disappeared entirely and darkness added an extra veil of protection.
Ty started the introductions, and his companions announced themselves to be Theta and Leo. A Vulture and a Scientist.
“Those organs have no value here,” Ty told Theta, motioning back to where the tarmac had been. “Only the scavengers use them. And if you tried to trade with one of them, they might try to eat you too.”
“How long have you been here?” Theta asked. It was one of many questions she had, Ty could tell, but it was a starting point.
“I came four shuttles ago. Which means this is my fifth month.”
“It’s always like this?”
“Every time a shuttle arrives, the surviving packs of Mars close in. They attack, gather what they can for survival, and retreat to the trees again.”
Ty adjusted himself in between two branches that acted as a seat. He told them to get comfortable as well, and that he would explain as best he could.
“The terraforming of Mars didn’t go as planned. We were lied to. The genetically engineered plant life they used for terraforming was uncontrollable. It took off under the less-restricting gravity. Trees spiralled a hundred feet into the sky, creating knotted forests where no sun hit the ground. Below, on the forest floor, there’s nothing but darkness. Nothing survives there. It’s just death and shadow.”
“But we have oxygen,” Leo said.
“Oh it worked in a sense,” Ty said. “Mars is terraformed. But it’s not built to sustain human life. You know those first colonizers, the ones they hand-selected to sculpt the planet? The “brave” first men and women? Their communities crumbled. Their plans for a civilization fell apart when the farming did. Nothing grows here. The trees steal all of the sun and the nutrients in the soil. All the first Martian communities are gone. They’ve been pillaged. Now they’re ghost towns.
“With no resources, no homes, Mars became the Wild West. Survivors split off into packs. Any chance of surviving here seems to hinge on being in a successful pack. And stockpiling what you can. You also need flight. You have to stay off the ground. The tree tops are slow, as you’ve seen, hard to navigate. Flight lets you move around quicker, find the things you need before someone else does.”
“Mars is not a utopia,” Leo said, playing with one of the leaves near his face. He sounded like a child who had been told they weren’t going to the park after all. “There’s no society? No jobs? Nothing to study?”
“Oh I’m sure there’s plenty to study,” Ty said. “Plenty of mysteries in there” He glanced off into the darkness below them. “Just no one who cares. No point publishing any papers.”
Leo didn’t seem to hear him. He was distraught, caught up in self pity.
“Why do they keep letting shuttles land?” Theta asked.
“Mars still works, doesn’t it? For the reasons they wanted to colonize. They wanted more space on Earth. They feed us lies, tell us this is paradise. People sign up. Hell, you even pay for a ticket. And then they send you here to die. Best case, you become food for the packs who live here. It’s like they’re sending resources to the colonizers, or what they’ve become. The wealthy don’t go to Mars. It’s people like us who wanted something new. Who had nothing to live for on Earth. Maybe the world leaders and the celebrities all know what Mars is. Maybe they don’t. Doesn’t matter. They’re never getting on a shuttle anyway.”
“And where are they? All the shuttles?”
“Eventually some of the packs will go back, make a second run, grab anything remaining. Then they’ll power up the shuttle and push it over the edge, into the abyss. They know that they need the space for the next delivery.”
An awful sound interrupted the night. It started first as a low, wet trickle. Like someone squeezing out a sponge. But it erupted into a series of furious clicks and crackles. This noise shot up from the depths of the forest floor and caused Theta and Leo to look down, faces paling.
“Gobblers,” Ty said. “That’s what I call them, at least. Never seen one. Only heard the stories when I spy on other packs. That sound is bad. But the screams of those they eat are worse. They feast on The Fallen. They’re the only life, aside from humans, that seems to be on Mars. They thrive on the dry, dark environment down there. In the tree roots. Some sort of insect, is my guess, based on the rumours. They make this awful, wet clicking sound. Sometimes the trees tremor and it’s got to be them that’s doing it.”
“The Fallen?” Theta asked. “Who are they?”
“Those who can’t fly anymore usually disappear below the canopy. No one who has fallen to the forest floor has ever come back up.”
Theta stared below them, seeing nothing but blackness. The clicking eventually ceased, only to start up again somewhere far off.
“Let’s make sure we can stay airborne, then,” Theta agreed.
RAINER held onto the tree with one hand, crouching and bent over the side of its branch. He kept waiting for her to come up. But the longer he waited, the more his insides twisted. There was only silence.
Rainer and his mother had been on a routine foraging flight. They soared low over the canopy, looking for some of the flowers that blossomed during the warm season. They were edible, and helped to make some of the other leaves they ate taste a bit sweeter.
Rainer was a talented flier. He weaved in between the outstretched tips of the trees, tempting them to pluck him from the sky, but always floating past with grace. He had grown up here, and therefore could fly better than he could walk.
His mother, one of Mars’ first colonizers, had seen the rise and fall of the Martian dome communities. She had spent five years on this planet without oxygen, using either a space suit or oxygenated tent to survive. It was in one of these tents that she became pregnant. By the time Rainer was born, the terraforming had begun, and forests sprung up faster than anyone had predicted, oxygenating the planet.
Rainer never knew his father. He was some astronaut that he assumed had either died or returned to Earth as one of the lucky few who got to leave before it all fell apart. His mother never told him. They were not part of that lucky group.
Whoever the man was, though, had left Rainer to inherit his height and pale blue eyes. His mother had neither.
When the forests invaded the planet like weeds, sucking life from the soil as well as the planet, the colonizers crumbled. Food ran out. Illness ravaged them. One fateful night, Rainer’s mother and a few others realized the only way to survive was to leave the ground. They had their flight suits, until this point used for scouting missions in Mars’s low gravity. Rainer was not quite four years of age when his mother lifted her feet of the ground for the last time.
She raised him in the trees with a few of the other colonizers. By the time he was six, they had found a notch in a large conifer – essentially a cave – and made their home in it. The trees in this area grew on a slope, and theirs was at the top. Their little hole looked out on the forest, letting them see for miles. This view of the canopy was one Rainer woke up to every day for the past eight years.
Over those years, the other colonizers would leave on scouting missions and never return. Soon it was just Rainer and his mother. But she assured him it was all they needed. She reminded him that Mars was a test, to make them as tough as possible, because only the strongest could survive. “You my son, are the strongest.”
They had all they needed. Their supply of food had been well stocked for years. Their aeroshells were well-maintained. Their tree cave had been loaded with shards when they found it.
Shards. Fuel for aeroshells. This was more valuable than oxygen. The shards were bits of hardened fungus that burned well in their cannons. It was a sort of byproduct of the disastrous terraforming, sort of like a mushroom that had failed to become a mushroom, and instead was just a spongy tissue encased in a hard coating that sometimes turned up in the dirt
The soil had been loaded with them back in the days before they fled for the sky, powering much of the early colonies. Now they were harder to come by. But some tree trunks had pockets of shards embedded in them. And their tree home was one such lucky supply, that was so bountiful Rainer felt it was endless.
If other packs knew about their home, and the shards in it, they would’ve been raided ages ago. For the most part, Rainer and his mother stayed away from other packs. They watched them arrive as unknowing passengers, only to contort into cannibals and thieves. There had been two terrifying incidents where they ran into hungry packs of hunters. But Rainer and his mother were adept fliers, and could always lose them by flying through the trees.
It was this same acrobatic flying through the trees that Rainer had been enjoying on this fine day. The sun was hot overhead. A warm breeze buffeted them from the side. He had been stunting. His mother hung back a bit, watching. She was slower now, her age becoming an issue. She may have been the oldest person left on Mars, Rainer realized now. Or at least she was, before she vanished.
Rainer had spotted a flower up ahead, and flung back his arms so that he dipped. The wind scraped against his face and he sped up. He launched himself at his target and then at the last minute opened his wings, let the aeroshell blast in the opposite direction, and slowed down. He gracefully landed on the very tip of a wide, leafy tree. The ones like this, he had always referred to as cloud trees.
He retrieved his small tool knife from his belt, used it to pluck one of the pink flowers that was trying to grow in behind a thicket of leaves. Holding it up in triumph, he turned back to watch his mother sail overhead. She smiled at him, but then suddenly it all went wrong.
The wind picked up, a sudden gust bombarding them. The weather had been getting worse as of late. And it felt like a brick wall when this hot gust assaulted them.
Rainer held onto the tree top. It swayed violently, but his wings were tucked and he wasn’t going to budge. His mother, on the other hand, had her wings spread. The wind caught her and forced her off course. She careened to her left, struggling to regain her balance. She tilted sideways, unable to catch a draft back up. She was falling.
Her face was frozen in horror as she knew the trouble she was in. Battling against the wind, she tried to right herself, but before she could she brushed up alongside the bare arms of a rotting tree. It’s jagged edges pierced her wings, shredding one entirely to strings.
At the last moment, Rainer’s mother was able to catch a draft with her one good wing, but it was too late. She began to twirl, and corkscrewed her way down into the canopy. Rainer watched it all, feeling like it weren’t really happening. Perhaps it was a great play, some sort of grand performance.
But many long moments passed, and his mother did not call out from the canopy. Rainer looked over at the sharp branches that had claimed her. His sharp eyes – something his mother always credited to his Martian birth, though he didn’t know why – could make out the faint red slick on the bark. It had cut her wing suit, but it had also cut her. His mother was downed, flightless, and bleeding.
Rainer wasn’t sure how many minutes had elapsed, but he just stared at the canopy and willed her to rise. He had spent all fourteen years of his difficult life on this planet. He knew the rules. One did not fall to the forest floor and come back up. And if someone fell, you did not go after them. If you went any lower into the tree branches than the sunlight could reach, you had gone too far.
“Mother,” He whispered, when he was sure it had been too long. He left his perch then, dropping below to a lower branch. Then a lower one. And another.
He descended into the dense canopy, trying to see if she had just gotten caught. Perhaps she was unconscious and tangled. He went lower and lower, the sunlight starting to fade, swallowed up by the hungry trees.
He deposited himself onto a thick arm that didn’t even sway when he jumped on it. The world was a grey twilight. This was the lowest he had ever gone. Beneath him the branches of different trees started to overlap, a labyrinth that made it unclear which arms belonged to which body. The shapes were barely visible, even with his great eyes. It would be easy to get lost, make a misstep, and plummet a hundred feet to the bottom.
His chest was slick with a cold sweat. His wing suit felt as though it was suffocating him. He pulled at his collar and looked around in the darkness, wondering where to go.
A wet, clicking scream rose up from the forest floor. The tree he stood on vibrated at first, then began to fully tremor. These were the sounds that haunted his sleep. He had always called these unseen nightmare beasts by different names, but his mother was fond of “Lurkers”. They lurked below him now, making their swallowing and crunching sounds. He covered his ears. He prayed it wasn’t his mother they were eating.
Rainer burst back up into the open air, needing to get away. He was surprised to see it was almost night. His mother had been fallen long enough though that her fate was sealed. Even if he didn’t want to believe it.
“Hey,” Someone shouted.
Rainer looked behind him and saw a pack gliding toward him, silhouetted by the sunset. The pack was spread out in a V, a seven of them coming with great speed. Rainer had never been in a brawl. Those terrifying incidents he had been in with his mother had left them with the choice of flight over fight. That was what they were best at.
Rainer propelled himself into the sky, taking a large, lazy arc, and then curled back towards the trees once he had speed. He zipped around large branches, weaving in random patterns that left an impossible trail.
The pack chasing him had to split up. They could not travel seven wide through the canopy. When Rainer chanced a look behind him, he realized that they had only sent their best fliers forward. Just two hunters.
An animal rage was caught in his throat. He was alone now. Vulnerable. Scared. And these hunters had no remorse. Rainer was overcome by a sense of wanting to make them feel what he was feeling.
Rainer ducked down, lower into the branches where the shadows were harder to distinguish. He peeled off to his right quickly, and came in for a quick landing on a knot of bark and leaves. A single pink flower was growing in this notch, and the sight of it caught him, stalling his breath.
There was a rush behind him, and he knew his pursuers wouldn’t be defeated by his maneuvers alone. Rainer turned his attention back to the present. He grabbed at one of the branches from this tangle: a long, wicked one with good flexibility. He pulled it back as far as he good, loading it up with force, an eager slingshot.
He heard wings. He heard the air being cut. So he released the branch.
The tree branch flung forward. There was a sickening crunch as it connected with one of the hunters. In the dark it was hard to tell what happened, but the site of the collision became an explosion of blood, spit and what was either wood or bone. The hunter went limp and began his collapse to the forest floor.
The second hunter saw it, dodged, and glided around the tree where Rainer stood. For a moment they both stared at one another. Then Rainer dropped down into the darker branches.
The hunter paused, doubled back, and came after him. This was foolish. Rainer knew his vision was better. And he had the element of surprise.
As the hunter descended cautiously, Rainer waited. He pulled his blade from his kit. When he felt the moment was right, he soared upwards, his aeroshell on full blast. He passed by the hunter quickly, but was able to discretely slide a thin mark into his wing with the knife.
The hunter saw Rainer go by and followed, turning his aeroshell on full. They both rose high into the new night sky, stars dotting the black expanse. Once clear of the trees, Rainer killed his engine, spread his wings and caught a draft away.
The hunter was right behind him, but as he spread his own wings, the wing caught. This made the small tear that Rainer had sliced turn into a larger rip. The wing split perfectly in half, and instead of going forward, the hunter dropped straight back down. He screamed as he disappeared into the canopy.
Rainer couldn’t help but smirk as he soared under the cover of darkness. Wherever the other five hunters had gone, they wouldn’t see him now.
Rainer tried his best to regulate his breathing on the way home. He was still jittery by the time he spotted his tree, standing against the starry sky. But something was wrong. The entrance to their hole, their home, was glowing orange. A lantern. There was no way he or his mother had left one on.
His adrenaline moved from depleted back to fully engaged. He picked up speed and decided to launch himself straight into the cave, looking for a fight. He gritted his teeth, tucked his arms in, and came crashing through the opening. Once inside, he quickly spread his arms, braced his landing, and then looked around to see who he was about to fight.
Before he could do anything, however, a large man reached out and smacked him in the side of the head. Everything went black.
“I didn’t want to do that,” A husky voice said as Rainer came to. He opened his eyes and found himself staring at a bear man. The same one who had knocked him out. Rainer panicked, tried to move, but realized he had been restrained. A coil of vines were wrapped tightly around his arms and legs.
“Is he awake?” A different voice this time. A smaller man came into view.
“I’m sorry, young one,” The big man said. “I didn’t want to hurt you. Just a reaction. You came in here out of nowhere.”
Rainer was dizzy, felt like he was dreaming. “This is my home.”
“This is your home?” The big man seemed surprised. “Do you live here alone?”
Rainer didn’t answer.
“You’ve got a lot of good stuff here, kid,” The smaller man said. “Feels like a lot for one guy.”
“I live with my mother.”
“And where is she?” The small man asked. Rainer just looked away. His heart was aching, as was his head. All he wanted was to break free and make these people pay for their intrusion.
“Let me go.”
“Why should we?” A third voice. A woman’s. She stepped into view. Violent red hair, accented by the soft glow of the lantern, framed her cold face.
“This is my home.”
“You’ve got an endless supply of shards here,” The woman said. “As well as more food than we’ve seen in months. You’re far enough away from the tarmac that I imagine very few scavengers ever come out this way. What if I don’t feel like leaving?”
“I’ll kill you,” Rainer was angry. His mother would’ve scolded him for his lack of tact. Keep your head, she would say. But she wasn’t there. Never would set foot in the tree cave again.
“No, you won’t,” the woman said. Her demeanour was eery. Still. Calculated. “We are going to take this home for our own.” She looked at her companions, who seemed to agree. Rainer just noticed that the large man was holding a handful of scavenged nuts, ones he and his mother had been saving.
“What do we do with him?” The small man asked.
“We have to kill him,” The woman said. “Or else he’ll just come back and kill us in our sleep.”
“Theta,” The large man said. His eyes were pleading. “He’s just a boy.”
“You don’t think a boy who has survived on Mars is capable of killing?”
Rainer flushed. Until today, she would’ve been wrong. His mother raised him on survival tactics that did not require harming others. Until she was gone, he had never drawn blood. Even from those who intended him harm.
“He does not deserve to be killed,” The large man said. They stared each other down for a tense moment. The woman seemed to be thinking.
“Where is your mother, boy?” She asked.
Rainer swallowed. He wasn’t sure of the right move. He tried to think of what his mother would tell him to do. Negotiate, probably. She had taught him to barter with a few of the packs she trusted.
“She is Fallen?” The woman asked, then cackled. Her laugh was shrill, lifeless. It hurt Rainer to hear such a sound after his admission. “We have no use for him.”
“Theta,” The large man said again. “Have you really been here so long that you’ve forgotten what it was like when we arrived? Maybe there is a chance here to grow our pack.”
“His mother is Fallen,” Theta said. “That is weakness. That is Gobbler food. That kind of energy, that curse, is something we don’t need around.”
The two men surveyed their female counterpart, then looked back at Rainer.
“How is it you are so young, and yet living on Mars?” The large one asked.
Rainer was tired. He felt shame for having let his mother die, for allowing himself to be captured. He had not handled this day as she would’ve wanted. He resisted, but wasn’t sure if that was right. So he told them. Told them all that he was born here. Told them everything.
“I did not know there were children of Mars,” The big man said when the story was done. They seemed genuinely surprised.
“He knows nothing but this life, this planet,” The smaller man said. “He grew up here, Theta. Don’t tell me that isn’t valuable.”
The woman said nothing during Rainer’s story. She just watched with her stoic malice. Finally she opened her mouth.
“Are you a good flier, boy?”
“Can you outrun the alphas?”
There was a pause. One final thought. Then she bent over, revealed a large knife, and started cutting the vines off of him.
“Don’t try anything,” She said. “Remember how strong the big one is.” She flicked her neck in the direction of the man with the large fists. “And you better not turn out to be cursed like your mother.” She stood and walked away, going to the far corner of the cave.
The words stung. His mother had survived on Mars for nineteen years, fourteen of those with a child to look after. And what did it result in? In the end the wind and the trees claimed her, like they did all else.
“Don’t mind her,” The large man helped Rainer to his feet. He kept his voice low. “I think she forgets what life was like before. Been here a year now. She’s hardened herself by disconnecting. Staying distant. But she’s not all bad. I’m Leo.”
“Welcome to the pack, Rainer,” The other man said. “I’m Ty. I think we have lots to learn from you.” He handed Rainer a canteen, the kind Rainer usually saw in the hands of hunters. He took a sip. It was stronger than water. Warm, spicy. Unlike anything he had ever drank.
“You don’t think that curse is real, do you?” Leo asked, glancing at Theta on the far side of the cave. “About The Fallen?”
“If it is, we’ll all be Gobbler food soon enough,” Ty said.
THE CLEARING was full of so much potential. The pack was smiling. It was the first time any of them had set foot on the ground since leaving Earth. Theta never thought she’d be so happy to just stand on dirt again.
Rainer watched them from his perch, jutting out from the trees that hemmed in the clearing. He was hovering over them, somewhat jealous. He had never felt the ground. Though, the idea made him feel nauseous. Probably better that he stay up high.
“How is this possible?” Leo asked. He started walking around carefully, as if afraid to crush the ferns at his feet. “There is vegetation here. There is real life.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this on Mars,” Ty said. “Rainer was right. There were rumours. But even in the rumours the patches of dirt some hunters said they saw were never this big.”
Theta used her blaster to poke around at some of the leaves. The foliage only came up to her shin, a far cry from the towering behemoths on the rest of the planet. She swept her weapon back and forth like a rake, trying to peer beneath the green carpet.
“Careful with that,” Ty said. “You’ll put an eye out.”
The blasters were a gift from Rainer. He had put his speed to use during the last shuttle raid. They were stunners that a couple passengers had been carrying. Back on Earth they were used as non-lethal deterrents during the riots, when the over-population was at its high. Rainer had collected four and made off before anyone could catch him.
“What’s the plan?” Leo asked. There was no formal proclamation that made Theta their leader. But when the group was out hunting like this, she was a natural fit at calling the shots in the moment. She was quick and loud. Both helped.
“The leaves look good to eat,” Theta said. “Ty, you should gather as many as will fit in your belt sac. But I think there’s something better here.”
She pointed to the area where the towering trees stopped and the clearing began. The juxtaposition of green and brown was stunning.
“There’s something in the soil that the trees don’t like,” Theta said. “We should take samples. If we go back to that abandoned lab we found in the gulley, maybe we can figure out a way to grow something ourselves.”
“Aye, that sounds brilliant,” Leo grinned. The scientist in him was alive and well. There was still a spark in him somewhere that felt they could turn Mars into the home it was meant to be. Theta felt that despite his physical supremacy, Leo was a genius with a gentle soul. None of them were aware of the fate that his girlfriend’s lover had met.
It was true, though; Leo would much prefer the scavenger packs getting along than continuing to hunt one another. “I’ll take some samples from the edge. As well as some from the middle.”
“I’m going to see if there is anything good beneath the ferns,” Theta said. What she was really hoping for were shards. She had yet to tell the group the situation they were in.
A few days prior, she had gone to the supply in the tree cave, where all of the shards had lived since Rainer and his mother found the place. She gathered up a handful for her belt sac, so they could be stocked for their foraging. When she pulled out a dozen or so, her hand scraped something new. It was the bottom. The pit where the shards had been found – inside the hole that was inside the tree trunk – was nearing empty. They had actually worked through it and were nearing the end of their supply.
She had been having dreams about The Fallen ever since. In them, she was flying, and suddenly the trees would give way, and instead massive undead hands were clutching for her with their gnarled fingers. They caught her. They dragged her down into the dirt. Once buried there, she suffocated.
As Rainer watched, the group went to work. Leo collected his samples. Ty grabbed them enough food to last days. And Theta scoured for fuel. On a few occasions she thought she had found a shard, but they had just been rocks. Every square foot of ground she covered that didn’t produce results made her jaw clench tighter. She didn’t want to tell the rest of the group. She wanted to fix this before panicking them.
The pack worked with great speed. They were used to being short on time; hunters didn’t wait.
“All good up there?” Leo asked over their intercom – another supply run score from months back – as he trudged toward the trees. The behemoths cast shadows around much of the clearing. Only the very centre was getting to bask in the rays. When Leo crossed into the shadows he felt a chill overtake him, even though he was still in the short ferns. “I don’t wanna get jumped while I’m picking up dirt.”
Rainer squinted at them from his perch. “All clear,” Rainer said back. “There’s been no movement. This is the most open space we’ve had. I’ll see anyone long before they see us.”
“Just give the word and I’m taking off,” Leo said. He had procured a couple plastic bags. They were used to gather food, normally, but today they’d be good for soil samples.
Leo trusted Rainer; he had to. He had earned his place over the months. A truly valuable addition to the pack. He operated as a scout on foraging missions such as this. They had to be able to work quickly and without worry, and needed to fully trust his eyes. Rainer hadn’t let them down. As Ty once put it, his faith in God was gone, but was replaced by that which he had for Rainer.
For Theta, though, it always felt unnatural having someone else watch her back.
The soil was wet, Leo discovered as he grabbed a few clumps. He stashed them in his sample bags. Most moisture was usually swallowed up by the trees fairly. On rainy days, they had to scurry to collect enough with their canteens. Mars was littered with dust.
The sample bags were clear, and Leo held one up to his face, studying the dirt before him.
“What makes you so different?” Leo asked it. He noticed something move inside the bag. He put his face closer, instinctively, wanting to see. He jostled it a little to loosen the soil, and when he did a little pink creature was revealed. It was a worm. A plain, simple earth worm like you might find on Earth. He laughed. Pivoting the bag around, he studied it from all angles.
“What’s so funny?” Ty asked as he crammed the best looking ferns into a sac.
“There’s a worm in here,” Leo said. The group paused, waiting for the punch line. “I’m not kidding. There’s a small worm in this bag.”
“There’s life on this planet?” Theta said, walking over to see for herself. Sure enough, Leo was not lying. “Besides the Gobblers, I mean. I’ll be damned.”
No one had to verbalize what this might mean. Any proof that change could be brought to their landscape was more than just a chance to start over, to farm their own food again, to build cities again. Hope was an icon. If they could show this to other packs, there was a chance that humanity could band together again and stop fighting each other.
Leo was constantly vouching for this. If you could make food, you could make peace.
“Make sure we keep that thing alive,” Theta told the group. “If I can get ahold of another pack, I’ll arrange a time for us to show them.”
“You going to try and talk with the Alphas?” Ty asked. “They aren’t cannibals yet. They might be trustworthy.”
“Hate to spoil the party,” Rainer said. “But daylight is fading. Those shadows are stretching out and it will be harder to see into the forest soon. Please hurry.”
“I just need one more sample,” Leo said. He wanted some of the dead stuff, right at the tree roots, to compare. He marched that way, which was never easy in the flight suits. Their ability to be nimble in the air came at the cost of being awkward on foot. On the ground, they were vulnerable.
Leo felt less like a hawk and more like a penguin.
Ty was finished grabbing ferns and took to the air, his aeroshell bursting and letting him flutter over to a low branch. He watched the group from his low perch, on the opposite side of the clearing from Rainer.
Theta, meanwhile, had yet to find any shards. She felt the clock ticking in her head. If she didn’t find something – even just one or two – before the group took off, she was going to have to tell them. That was news she didn’t want to break. Especially following the discovery of the worm. If they ran out of fuel, if they couldn’t fly, how could they broker a meeting with another pack? How could they help humanity on Mars?
She moved faster, pushing aside leaves and praying that behind one she would find the crystallized white form she sought.
“I’m all good here,” Leo said. He had collected his final sample – a dry, unremarkable bit from the forest – and was looking back across the clearing at Theta. “How did you make out?”
“Nothing yet,” Theta groaned across the intercom. She turned her attention back to the ground, panicking now. She dropped to her knees and started to dig into the soil a bit, crawling forward as she went.
“We need to go,” Someone said in her ear. But she didn’t even register who had said it, because her hand brushed up against something hard. She froze. She took one half-crawl-step backward to make sure she was in the right spot. Then she dug in with her right hand. There it was. Something hard beneath the soft leaves and dirt.
Theta wrapped her fingers around it, the pale fragment was roughly the size of a baseball (another sport she hadn’t seen since Earth). When she pulled it from the ground she cackled with joy. It was exactly what she had hoped. A shard.
“Is that a shard?” Ty asked from his perch. “That’s cool. But we really need to leave.” They didn’t understand. They didn’t know how low the supply was.
Theta’s eyes began to water as she stashed the shard in her belt. This single shard could provide a day’s worth of flight for one of them. She collapsed into the ferns with relief. As she did, her elbow rubbed up against something else hard. She rolled in the dirt then, and began to dig some more.
From his high perch, Rainer saw the tiny dot that was Theta as she dug. But he also saw something in the forest. One of the low branches snapped – buckling slowly at first, then breaking clear in half – and tumbled to the ground. Something was coming.
“Movement!” Rainer was in Theta’s ear now.
Theta scratched away at the soil like a rabid dog digging a hole, and eventually she uncovered the source. Buried beneath where she had found the original shard, was another. And another. And several more. She pulled three of them from the hole and beneath those saw even more. She stood, widening her stance, and began to dig the hole out – broader instead of deeper.
“What are you doing?” Leo asked. “Just leave them.”
“Come help me with this,” Theta said.
“We don’t need them.”
“Yes, we do,” Theta said, but under her breath. She furiously started stuffing as many as she could into her belt sac.
“Guys, we have movement,” Rainer reminded them, he straightened, preparing for trouble. If it was a whole pack, there was going to be a nasty battle.
Rainer hit the chime on his wrist and all of their suits lit up, pinging a shrill beepbeepbeep. The sound was a warning; get out of the area. But for some, it had become a dinner bell.
Leo took off without hesitation, the sound triggering a reflex in his brain. He floated over to where Ty sat on the low branch on the far side of the clearing.
“Time to go, Theta,” Leo shouted at her over the intercom. “You’re being foolish.”He and Ty both had their blasters drawn, but it would do little at this distance.
Theta looked up. She saw a shadow gliding out from the trees. Something massive, bigger than a school bus, slithering its way toward her with surprising quickness.
But there was a potential year’s supply of shards here. Who knew how long they’d go unclaimed. Surely a site like this would be ravaged by the time they made it back.
She took another second, began tossing a few more shards in her belt.
There was a wet, staccato howl that echoed throughout the clearing as the last branches snapped away, and then Theta was face to face with the Gobbler.
The hair on the back of her neck prickled. It was the first time she was able to see the source of everyone’s nightmares.
Ty’s guess had been right; it was a sort of giant insect. It reminded Theta of a slug, or a maggot. The Gobbler had a gargantuan circle for a mouth, and no discernible eyes or other features. This one had its mouth open, which created a sort of vacuum, and an intense sucking sound filled the air. Inside the mouth were tiny razors waiting to grind her up, and a purple void that vanished into the blackness of the creature’s stomach.
Its skin was slick with a coating like snot. The creature was fat, with sinewy lumps at its base that pulsated as it surged forward. Its head reared up at the front, towering a good two-storeys over Theta.
Theta stashed one last shard in her belt and then fired her blaster. The Gobbler lunged, sensing its meal was not sticking around long. Theta’s shot landed directly in the slug’s face, but the monster barely flinched. Its massive body was still hurling towards her, and it landed just a few feet away, causing the ground to tremor.
As it landed, Theta kicked off the dirt and flew backwards a dozen feet, dodging most of the aftershock. From the trees, Leo and Ty began firing their blasters, but the Gobbler didn’t even seem to notice.
Suddenly, more shadows moved, emerging from behind the Gobbler. Smaller, paler grubs came leaping out from behind the first monster, sailing through the air with ease, bouncing like kernels popping over a fire.
“It’s got babies,” Rainer said. They had always imagined large, slow man-eaters cruising along the forest floor. But these little ones were much more nimble. They could leap off the ground, taking advantage of the low gravity, and sail through the air at great speeds. Compared to the mother, these things were tiny. But they were still longer and fatter than Theta or her pack mates.
At this news, Theta knew it was time to take off. She activated her aeroshell and began to blast off. She was no more than a couple feet off the ground, though, when one of the projectile baby Gobblers hit her right in the ribs. It sent her spiralling sideways and into the ferns. Her belt sac burst and the shards went tumbling in every direction.
Two more baby Gobblers leapt at her, hoping to latch onto her legs. But as they glided through the air, Rainer came flying in from his perch. He rammed into one of the babies from the side, making sure to get his elbow up and jam it into the creature’s head. This sent it tumbling into it’s brother, and the two of them missed Theta, instead crashing into a soft spot in the clearing.
Rainer crashed, too, landing near the hole Theta had dug. He rolled, came to a stop on all fours, and looked over at Theta. His eyes were wide. He was feeling the dirt beneath him for the first time. He closed his hands over it. It was so soft. Yet it held his weight. This euphoria was short-lived, though. The height of the trees that towered of them – things he was used to seeing only from the top down – left him with a sense of claustrophobia. His head spun.
Ty and Leo also left the safety of their perch and glided down to the ground. They fired their blasters. Against the babies, they fared a little better. The blaster bolts burned the fresh skin of the young Gobblers, and when they were hit, they retreated, at least temporarily, behind their mother. Ty sprayed fire at the babies on one side and corralled them all backward. Leo took care of the other side.
But the largest problem persisted, and the Mama Gobbler slithered its way forward, arching again. It was preparing to dive down on its meal, sucking it up into its razor mouth.
Theta sprinted and was able to boost with her aeroshell at the last second, avoiding the Gobbler’s mouth as it came crashing down into the dirt. The aftershock rocked her, though, and she tumbled face-first into the ferns. Dirt shot up her nose and caked her eyes, blinding her.
As Theta tried to orient herself, she reached out and grabbed at the couple loose shards scattered around her.
“Grab what you can,” She called out to Rainer, who was still crouched over the hole she had initially dug, looking shaken. “We need them.”
“We have plenty back home.”
“No,” Was all she said. And he knew then.
Rainer forced himself to grab a handful of shards, and stuff them into his belt as the others laid on suppressing fire. The Mama Gobbler shook itself off and brought its focus back on Theta.
Theta wiped the dirt from her eyes, and only half-seeing, once again tried to take to the sky. This time she was able to clear the area before the Gobbler could lunge, and she made it up thirty, forty, fifty feet before looking back.
The big Gobbler was crashing into the ground where she had been, stunning itself temporarily. Rainer was packing up shards in a frenzy.
“Let’s go,” Theta said. She spread her wing suit and glided back down to a lower level to help. The Mama Gobbler was up again, this time spotting Rainer. It made its trademark clicking sound, spittle falling from its gaping mouth.
Rainer was staring down imminent death. The vacuum started to pull at his wings. The Gobbler lunged. Any less talented flier may have succumbed, but Rainer was in his element once his feet were off the ground.
He spread his wings, soaring towards the Gobbler, which was about to inhale him. At the last moment, Rainer kicked out, bouncing himself off of the Gobbler’s cheek and pivoting away. He caught a drift and was able to glide up and over the Gobbler’s mouth. The Gobbler snarled and craned its neck up, chasing its lunch.
Rainer rotated, veering left. The Gobbler was late to react. Then Rainer veered back to the right, and by the time the Gobbler pounced, Rainer was hitting the gas on his aeroshell and accelerated clear out of the area, screaming with adrenaline.
Theta circled overhead. She had her blaster out and was starting to fire at the babies, freeing up Leo and Ty. “I’ll cover you while you take off.”
Ty blasted off right away, flying straight up and then spreading his wing suit to grab a draft. Leo was about to leave, as well, but one of the babies had gotten bolder and went for him. It latched its tiny mouth onto his back, preventing his cannons from firing off.
Seeing this, Theta angled herself and came in to help.
A second baby saw her and launched itself. It blindsided her, knocking the blaster from her hands, and sending her spiralling. Theta was able to correct her course, but now had no weapon. Seeing that Leo was still fastened to the relentless baby Gobbler, she did the only thing she could. She thrust herself into the side of the grub that had a hold of her pack mate.
The force of her, travelling at full flight, ruptured the side of the baby Gobbler, and a hot yellow ooze burst all over her and Leo. The worm shrieked and shrivelled itself into a ball. The collision sent Leo tumbling face first into the ferns. His blaster was jostled loose, as were the bags of soil
“Go,” Theta shouted as she herself crashed into the ferns. She did a few somersaults before she could stand. When she did, she saw Leo, looking horrified.
“The samples,” He said. Theta looked down and saw a baggy a few feet ahead of her. In it, a little pink worm writhed.
“Get the others. I’ve got it,” She said. Leo scooped up the other bags by his side while Theta made for the one with the worm. She cradled it carefully, and placed it in her belt sac.
The ground started to rattle as the Mama Gobbler had given up on Rainer and come back. Leo spotted this and jetted himself away from danger, flying off to the trees. A few babies lunged at him, but he was already too high, out of reach.
Theta meant to do the same herself, but her cannons didn’t fire. She looked behind her. They should have. Nothing was latched on. She squeezed her glove again, the trigger for the flight action, but nothing happened.
“What’s wrong, Theta?” Leo called out from the intercom. All three of them were circling overhead.
“My aeroshell isn’t firing,” She called back. She sprinted away from the area, realizing that the babies were regrouping. She tried to fire off again, and still nothing worked.
Theta quickly unlatched her shell, heard the click as it came loose, and then pulled it over her head like a sweater. Once she had it in her arms, she saw the problem. The thick slime from the injured baby Gobbler – effectively its blood, she guessed – had clogged the vents on her aeroshell. She tried to wipe it free, but in her panic only lodged the viscous fluid in further.
“There’s slime in it,” She called back. “It’s not going to fire.”
Rainer watched as they circled like birds of prey. His finely trained eyes could see the shell in Theta’s hands. His eyes also made out movement on the horizon. He looked to his left and noticed what looked like a swarm of insects flying at them from above the tree canopy. Only, Mars didn’t have flying bugs. The only things that flew were the hunters.
“Guys, we’ve got an approaching pack, to the East,” Rainer called out. Leo and Ty craned their necks and spotted it too.
“Fuck, that’s a large pack,” Ty said. “Maybe ten or fifteen strong.”
“Go,” Theta shouted back at them over the mic. “You can’t stay there. You’re sitting ducks.”
“But your shell,” Leo said. He knew they all felt as helpless as he did.
“I can fix it,” She said. “I just need to get away from these babies. That pack will rip you apart. Go.”
“She’s right,” Ty said. They all exchanged a look that imparted the finality of what they were about to do. But it was necessary. “We have to go.”
“We’ll travel low, along the trees,” Leo confirmed.
Ty went first, Leo followed. Rainer hung back a moment, watching Theta as she ran for the shadows. The Gobblers pursued her; the babies bouncing wildly while the Mama drove itself forward in a swell. Rainer knew how unlikely it was for Theta to fix the suit. She didn’t have the right tools. And that was assuming the Gobblers didn’t kill her first.
“Rainer, hurry,” Leo shouted back. Rainer fired his shell, and piloted himself up to the top of the canopy, joining his pack in their escape. Theta saw his outline against the sky – wings wide and proud – just before he disappeared.
On the ground, Theta ran as fast she she could. She approached the tree line, but knew that, especially amongst the tangled roots, the Gobblers would be able to move faster than her. Unless she shed some weight. She dropped her aeroshell, letting it fall to the soil with a clank. It had become her most prized possession, and everything in her body screamed at her to go back for it. But she couldn't.
She also needed to be more nimble. Her wings would be a hindrance. As the shadows of the forest beckoned to her, she reached for the seems of her suit and yanked. The wings were designed to tear away incase of danger or entanglement. And they came off all too easily when she unlatched them. Her bare arms came free, and immediately she got a chill. The wings were left behind, and a couple of the babies decided to give them a try.
Theta didn’t dare look back, but she could feel the air being drawn away from her, the sucking sensation closing in. The Gobbler was close. She pumped her legs a few more times, able to move better now without the wings dragging her back. She made a long-jumper’s leap and propelled herself into the forest. She landed in between the roots of an old tree, a gap just large enough for her.
The Gobbler lost sight of her. It clicked and squirmed. It was frustrated. Theta glanced back just long enough to see it searching for her. Then she continued. She hurdled some fallen branches, ducked under mangled roots, and veered around corners, trying to lose herself in the forest.
The world around her grew darker, colder. But the tremors beneath her feet began to trail away. She was small enough that she was able to fit where the Gobbler couldn’t, and she stuck to these hiding spots. When blackness overtook her, she stuck her hands out and felt her way around.
Soon everything was quiet. She hadn’t been aware of how much the Gobbler shook the world – like real heavy bass – until it was gone. She could hear only her own breathing, and the rustling of her pants against the branches.
Beneath her feet, the soil was chalky. She kicked dust up into the air, and it made her cough. She slowed herself down, uncertain of anything around her. She tried to walk one way, but would bump into a tree stump. Then she would turn the other way and trip over something she hoped wasn’t a body.
She moved at a snail’s pace, inching along the side of a fallen branch once she was sure she could trust her hands to guide her.
Her mind was racing with all the conversations they had had about The Fallen. The curse of The Fallen, dragging everyone into the darkness to die together. The screams they all heard at night haunting this entire planet. She was one of them now. No one had returned from the forest floor. Not in all the years humanity had been sending sacrifices to this forsaken place.
Yet somehow she was determined. She wanted to be the first. She wanted to climb out of here. To rise to the forest canopy again. And then she would find her way home.
She had something in her belt that reminded her she was not finished living yet. The soil sample. With the little pink worm in it.
Mars had been capable of cultivating some life. The clearing was proof of this. Within the packs of Mars, there were people of many different walks of life. There could be doctors, farmers, and city planners among those who painted their faces and hunted for supplies. Maybe the cannibalistic scavengers were a lost cause, but surely not all humans were. And if more and more shuttles kept arriving, the possibilities of what they could build were certainly promising.
Hope was linked to fertility. Theta carried with her a monument to this hope.
That little pink worm could be the beginning of it all.
There was even the possibility of one day turning one of those shuttles around. Making it a return trip. Theta let herself daydream about what it might be like to go back to Earth and make them pay for what they’d done. How they’d shipped them off to this wasteland to eat each other. That retribution was perhaps the sweetest fuel, and kept her legs moving even as she began to freeze.
The farther she went, the more she plunged into an abyss.
She hugged herself, trying to fight the cold. Hypothermia would likely claim her soon. She needed to climb. But her fingers were numb, and she could barely even feel her way forward anymore.
Her dreams of The Fallen came back at her, then. The mouth of the canopy had opened up and swallowed her. Now she was in its belly, being digested by the trees and the shadows.
Nothing would matter if she couldn’t get back to the canopy.
That little worm in her belt sac wouldn’t change anything if it froze in here.
She scrambled, thinking she could climb, but staggering. She stepped over a log, thinking she had cleared it, but catching her foot and then tumbling into the dust. She slid, not realizing she had been on a hill. Her body was tossed limply down the decline, over and over, until she came to rest up against a rock.
Had she hit her head, she wondered. Lights were beginning to appear in her vision. This was surely how she was going to die. Concussed and freezing at the bottom of the world. A world that wasn’t even hers to begin with.
She thought back to her time harvesting organs on Earth. Her own body was about to share the same fate as the corpses she used to violate. She wondered what would become of her heart, her lungs, her intestines.
But these lights in her vision grew. They didn’t just twinkle and disappear. They came closer. Soon these little specks she had mistaken for stars were becoming the warm glow of lanterns. And in the glow were reflected faces, concerned looks as many eyes studied her.
She didn’t understand what was happening at first. Were these ghosts? Five people in total, each holding a lantern, huddling together, dressed in thick blankets of leaves and vines. They circled her. She was too weak to move.
“She’s alive,” one said. This person put down their lantern and grabbed at her feet. Another grabbed her by the shoulders. “Let’s take her back home.”
By the light of the lanterns, Theta could see a well-worn path in the dirt. These strangers carted her off, holding her carefully. They did not look at her with cannibalistic intent. There was a gentle pity in their eyes.
Soon they rounded a corner, and ahead there were more lanterns. Only, these weren’t being held by anyone. They were on poles. Or fastened to branches. There were dozens of lights, each casting its pale glow to the greater collective, and as Theta’s vision began to clear she saw there was an entire camp here. Tents, huts and box shelters clustered together beneath the lights. A small city on the forest floor.
She patted her belt sac, making sure the little bag of soil – and with it, the worm – was still there. She felt she was going to need it. For it was then that she realized who these people were.