I was surprised to find myself alive when I opened my eyes. The ruststorm had swept in completely unexpectedly, way ahead of the schedule Kal had calculated and hit us before we could do anything about it.
Rustchasing was a dangerous gig, but Kal and I knew what we were doing. My brother Kal, a promising nanite-mage had a knack for predicting weather patterns and the last few hauls we’d made had been down to him. We chased ruststorms, scavenging the strange artifacts they left in their wake, objects of unknown use and value; sometimes built, sometimes uncovered, by the little makers that swarmed in the air. It wasn’t just me and my brother though, our success had attracted a few more people into our group of hunters. Atlas, a hulking beast of a man looked out for us, kept us safe from any creatures out on the plains or anything weird and twisted left behind by the storms. Bee was another nanite-mage. Her talents lay in activating artifacts and relics which made selling and trading them that much easier. I was more a jack of all trades and the leader of our troupe.
Not that any of that mattered any more. It was unlikely we’d ever be selling anything ever again.
Atlas was dead, or at least, I hoped he was. His body had been twisted by the storm, limbs splayed and curled into a grotesque shape and melded into the hard, rocky ground. Kal lay unconscious on the ground and I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw his chest rise and fall gently. The breath was quickly followed by a gasp as my eyes passed over him and to his right arm. Where it had been, the little makers had left him with a long, straight blade of obsidian glass. Something moved within it, like insects in a hive and I shuddered. Bee was trying to lift herself up and I moved to help her until the world suddenly shifted under me, colours folding away into white and black and something I couldn’t even describe, that didn’t even have words for it. Stumbling through the strange voidness, I reached Bee’s faintly silvery outline in the dark and hooked a hand under her shoulder to help her up. As she rose I fell backwards, shocked as she stood, back towards me, her head missing. Colour suddenly rushed back in with an almost audible noise and I as Bee turned, it was revealed that her face had melted down from where her head had been onto her chest, her small breasts buried under what was now her chin. Her clothes were fused to her in places, remade in metal and twisted glass, tears ran down her face and she pointed at me, a choking sob escaping her warped throat.
I touched my own face to find several rough, hard lumps, like scabs or blisters coating my face, replacing my nose. I blinked and felt the blisters blink too, seeing a glimpse of that weird black voidshadow of the world that had replaced my vision before they closed again leaving just my normal eyes open. Gone were my handsome looks, my soft brown curls and beard; my face was just a bubbling surface of eyes. I bent over, trying not the retch, to breathe, to hold on. We knew the risk, I told myself, we knew this could happen. The reality of it though, the horror of living through it was too much. As in answer to my fears the twisted lump that had been Atlas let out an inhuman screech, the rock itself trying to bend into a screaming mouth. Before I knew what I was doing a grabbed a nearby rock and slammed it down again and again on to what was left of Atlas until the plains were silent, the only sound left my ragged breath and the wet, coughing sobs of Bee as she collapsed back to the ground.
We didn’t even entertain the idea of heading back to the trading post.
Rustwalkers, freaks like us, they weren’t welcome around normal folk. People feared they’d somehow catch their afflictions or worse, that somehow they’d bring down a ruststorm upon them. Rustwalkers didn’t live long around normal folk and despite everything, we’d decided to live. I’d decided to live.
As rustchasers, we all knew the stories. Rumours of a safe-haven, a commune of rust far out in the lands beyond civilisation, across the southern plains. Rustwalkers lived there in a safe patch, a place the storms never touched, and accepted one another for who they were, not what the storm had made them. We’d all laughed cruelly about it before, a dream for chasers to talk about to feel less afraid about the risks they took, but now… now it was the only reason not to just lay down in the dirt and die.
Kal had taken his deformity better than the rest of us. When he woke he’d needed help to stand, the bladearm being almost as long as he was tall made it hard for him to gain enough leverage to pick himself up. After I helped him to his feet he just looked at us with sad eyes, looked at his arm and then back to Bee. She loped into his chest and he held her with his good arm and I hated him. He was always the more handsome brother, the more charismatic. Now Bee was in his arm, looking at his unblemished face and I was alone, jealousy twisting in my gut. They’d been together before the storm, but now it just seemed a cruel, unfair reminder of what I could never hope to have again.
“We should find shelter. The storm came back once, I don’t want to find out what happens if it comes back again.” I said, eager to end this scene of affection.
Kal nodded stoically and we made our way to the nearby ridge we had been heading for when the storm hit. The large slab of rock jutted out from the ground like a gigantic splinter and we crept under it, into the shadowed region below, sheltered from the outside world. I reached into my pockets and then realised how lucky I was to find they were still there. The storm had left me mostly untouched, except for my face and I still had my collection of scavenged oddities and artifacts upon me. I pulled forth a small, silvery metal triangle with a circular indentation on one corner. I pointed it at the ground, pressed the indentation and a small globe of light materialised a few inches above the ground, radiating a faint heat. In the light of the globe we could see messages scrawled on the walls of the shelter. Wishes of good hunting or just acknowledgements they had been here by other rustchasers that had used this hole for shelter in times gone by.
“Let’s get some rest. Tomorrow we find Rusthaven.”
Kal raised an eyebrow at me and grimaced. “You really think such a place exists?”
I looked towards Bee who had already curled into a ball and fallen asleep. “Do you want to believe there isn’t?”
Kal followed by gaze and sighed. With a silent nod, he closed his eyes, leaned against the rock and went to sleep. For me, sleep came easily. What I hadn’t counted on were the nightmares. Dreams of that inky voidplace, seeing things further and deeper than was possible, somehow seeing more even in that place where only light and dark seemed to exist. Strange voices echoed around me, visualised like ripples in the air. Bee’s voice bubbled at me out of her mouth, black and white waves crashing against me, drowning me, blinding me to the light I swore I could see in a distance too far away to fathom.
I awoke suddenly, colour fading back into the world as one set of eyes opened and the other closed to reveal Bee gently shaking me awake. “Thul, wake up, you were screaming.”
I looked up at her, then caught myself in my mistake and looked down, towards where her face now lay. She seemed better. Maybe the shock had worn off. Maybe it was just acceptance, defeat.
“I’m fine, I’m awake.”I said, sitting up and gently pushing her aside. I looked around. “Where’s Kal?”
“He’s getting us something to eat.”
On cue, Kal walked in, dragging behind him a neatly bisected corpse of one of the beasts known to frequent the area. His bladearm must have been incredibly sharp as I could see the bones and organs cut clean through, as if he’d halved the beast in a single motion.
“I caught us some food.” He announced, dropping the body by the light globe.
“We have nothing to cook it with, the globe doesn’t make enough heat.”
“Then we’ll have to eat it raw. We shouldn’t travel on an empty stomach.” Kal said, slicing off a thin layer of muscle from the beast with his arm. He knelt down and chewed it thoughtfully. “And if we get sick and die, well… I don’t think any of us would complain.”
We all stood in silence at that, Kal eating his strip of flesh, Bee and me looking down at the beast. Kal cut a few more slices and we ate. When we had stomached as much as we were able, we packed some slices away in our packs and then decided to make our move.
I had no idea where we were going. The best information we had about Rusthaven was that it was somewhere South. Not wanting to lose hope, we didn’t think too hard about what would happen if we were wrong, if it didn’t even exist and instead we just kept walking.
After hours of trekking across the rocky plains, it became clear we were going to need water. So far we’d found nothing, but we had never expected it to be that easy. Sure, nobody ever came out this far, but even so if it had been this easy to find, it wouldn’t still be a secret. That didn’t make me feel much better though. My mouth was dry, I was hot and tired. Bee was visibly drooping and Kal was wincing, the bright sunlight heating up the black shard of his bladearm to a painful intensity. As much as I hated the sensation, I decided to try out my new eyes. Perhaps they could see a way out of this where I could not.
Doing it consciously, it was like opening my eyes even though they were already open. My vision faded to the black and white landscape of before and I stared out into the abyss, willing myself to see something, anything that could be a sign of Rusthaven or water. I passed my eyes across the horizon, seeing further than I could ever see with my normal sight, finding nothing.
And then I saw it, a lone tree standing in the distance. At least, it looked like a tree, it was hard to tell in the black voidness. It was better than nothing. I closed my eyes once and I was seeing normally again.
“That way!” I pointed, feeling exhausted all of a sudden. “There is a tree over there, which means there must be water somewhere nearby.” Bee and Kal strained to see it, but with normal sight, it was too far away.
“Trust me, it’s there. These things on my face, they see further than we can. We haven’t got any other ideas.”
It was almost 2 days before we could see the trees by normal eyes. We’d taken to chewing on the strips of meat just to keep our mouths wet and our tongues from swelling. We’d seen no sign of water except for the promise of it as the tree line approached and things were getting bad.
“One last push and we can make it by nightfall.” I croaked through cracked lips.
There was a wheeze behind me, then a thud and I turned to find Bee collapsed in the dust, Kal knelt over her.
“Thul, she can’t breathe! You’ve got to do something!”
I rushed over and looked, but I didn’t know what to do. I’d picked up a wide range of skills over the years, could patch people up after a fashion, but I was stumped, I didn’t know what I could do. If she had a neck we could have tried cutting an airway, but the rust can taken that away.
I turned her over, tried slapping her back, nothing. I looked down her throat but she was shaking and panicking too much to get a clear view.
“Kal, hold her still, I need to look!”
Kal grabbed her and I looked, but nothing was blocking the airway that I could see. We tried, fumbling as best we could but Bee let out a final, shuddering gasp and went still. We couldn’t revive her.
“This is your fault.” Kal said, his head hung low.
“Kal… I tried. I..”
“We wouldn’t even be out here if it wasn’t for you!”
Now I was angry. “That’s not fair Kal and you know it. I didn’t make you do anything. We all chose to be here, we all knew the risks, so don’t you dare try to pin this on me. Hey, you’re the weather man, you should have seen this coming. If anyone here is to blame for all this, it’s you!”
Kal’s face twisted like I’d stabbed him in the gut and I knew I’d gone too far, let my outrage make me say something I couldn’t take back.
“Kal, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…”
Kal stood, his back turned. “It’s fine. You’re right. We’re both right. We killed them, Atlas and now Bee. It’s both our faults.”
I put my hand on his shoulder. “Let’s finish this journey. We’ll bury her under a tree. She’d like that.”
Kal shook off my hand and went to scoop up Bee’s body. When he realised he couldn’t due to his bladearm, he just shot me a baleful look and began marching towards the trees in the distance.
I let out a resigned sigh, hoisted poor Bee into my back and followed. In under an hour, the rocky ground gave way to earth, then to grass and trees. I lowered Bee’s body onto the loamy ground and collapsed, feeling the cool, moist touch of the grass against my skin. I laughed, overjoyed we’d made it, that I’d been right. Then I looked back and was staring into Bee’s dead eyes and I remembered what it had cost.
I heard the splashing of water and saw Kal, deeper in the forest besides a small pool. I lifted Bee and headed over. Lowering Bee again, I looked to Kal and we both allowed ourselves a brief smile and then drank our fill. After we were sated I filled the canteens from our packs and sat beside Kal.
“We should bury her now.” Kal said.
I nodded and dragged Bee’s body to the nearest tree and then with a swing of his blade, Kal began to cut slices out of the ground, the razor sharp edge cutting through the soft earth like it was nothing. Together he and I scraped out a shallow hole and without ceremony, we rolled Bee’s corpse in and began covering it. We didn’t have any words to say. Nothing could make things alright. As I tossed dirt over her face, I felt anger grip me. Bee hadn’t deserved this, none of us had. She was a pretty woman before the storm had remade her. I was lucky in a way, at least my deformity had some utility, as did Kal’s, Bee had been lucky she could manage to eat. Was lucky. She’d not been lucky enough to keep on breathing though. Maybe it was better she’d died. For a second I wished we’d never survived the storm.
Sighing heavily, the we propped ourselves up against the tree. We used the holofire and told stories about Bee and as the exhaustion of the day kicked in, we slipped quietly into a deep, dreamless sleep.
I found myself being shaken awake by Kal. “Thul! Thul! Something’s happened!”
Bleary-eyed, I looked up into his face. “Wha-what is it?”
Kal helped me to my feet with his good arm and pointed. “It’s Bee. Something happened to her.”
Rubbing my eyes, I followed Kal’s finger towards the grave. Except where the grave should have been, there was something else. A tree, like the one we had slept under, stood there instead, from it a large sac-like fruit hung from a stalk as thick as a human arm. The fruit pulsed slowly, like a beating heart, a red light shining from within. Something twitched inside.
“What the hell is that thing?”
“I don’t know Thul.”
We both crept towards the hanging sac and jumped as there was a soft thud and the dark shape of a human hand pressed against the surface from within before fading back into the reddish, glowing murk.
“Cut it down, Kal!”
Kal swung his arm-blade, cutting a long slice across the fruit, splitting it open and spilling a thick, pink mucus across the ground. As if sensing it was open, the rest of the fruit fell away, thick reddish sheets of flesh falling down to the ground in a heap to reveal a human woman still hanging from the stalk by the back of her neck. It was Bee—before she’d been changed, before the storm. There was a click and the stalk disconnected her. She slid off a three-pronged spike that had been protruding from the end of the stalk into her neck and fell into my waiting arms.
She was breathing.
Hurrying back to the fire, Kal and I scrambled around Bee, too shocked to know what to do.
“Bee! Bee! Wake up! Is that you Bee?”
Bee stirred at her name then slowly, she opened her eyes. “Thul? Kal? What happened?”
She looked around, then broke into a wide grin, bringing her arms up to her face and neck. “I’m… I’m normal, I’m fixed! But how? Thul, what did you do?”
“You died Bee. You were dead. We buried you!”
“Then you grew out of that tree.” Kal finished, pointing again with his blade.
Bee turned back and looked at the tree, her head cocked, then she turned back to them. “What is this place?”
“I don’t know Bee. I don’t know.”
Bee had been naked when she’d been birthed from the tree so Kal had taken off his tunic and given it to her to wear. We talked for a bit but I found myself drifting apart from them. Something felt wrong, something I couldn’t put my finger on. Bee was off, everything she said or did seemed delayed, like she was observing her own actions with a sort of fascination. Maybe it was the rebirth, babies always seemed fascinated by everything when they were born. I wanted to believe that, I really did, but I hadn’t survived this long without listening to my gut, and my gut said Bee wasn’t quite right.
We were sat down by the holofire, eating the last of the meat strips when I noticed Bee wasn’t eating. Then I thought, I’d not seen her drink either. I offered her a waterskin.
“I’m not thirsty.”
Kal shrugged but I was suspicious. “You should drink something. You came back from the dead, you… I don’t know what happened but you should drink something. Please Bee.”
Bee stared at me for a few seconds then took the waterskin and took a sip. She held my gaze as she swallowed. “Happy?”
“I dunno Bee. This place, this whole thing it’s too weird. Something isn’t right about this place.”
Bee’s face scrunched up with anger. “You find this weird? You!? I was dead Thul! DEAD! You think you’re the only one having problems dealing with this? You think you’re the only one scared!?”
“Bee, Thul’s just worried for you, that’s all…” Kal said softly.
“You’re jealous! You both are! Look at you!” Bee spat. “I’m normal again, clean! I could go home!”
“Bee, look, I’m sorry! What’s gotten into you?”
“What’s gotten into me? I was dead and now I’m crazy is that it? The bitch has been cured and… and… and I don’t know what’s happening to me!” Bee cried, collapsing to the ground in huge, sucking sobs. I felt a flush of guilt. Maybe I was wrong about her. Maybe I just didn’t want to believe because I was jealous.
I crouched beside her and held her as she cried. For a moment I thought I saw a flash of jealousy in Kal’s eyes but then it was gone, replaced by a mask of concern.
“I’m going to see if I can find some food.” Kal said. “Take care of her while I’m gone.”
Kal never came back.
Bee had calmed down and together we went searching for him. Bee showed an uncanny ability to navigate the orchard and following her lead, we found out why he had never come back.
A large slash was cut through the turf, the surrounding grass stained red with blood. On either side of the scar in the ground there grew a tree and another stood a little way away, a trail of dark red running across the grass between it and the turf. Like the one before, from each hung a large, pulsing red fruit.
“There was a fight. Kal was attacked by a beast.” Bee said, cocking her head as if she was listening to a whisper in her ear. “He must have cut it in half before he fell.”
I just looked at Bee. “How do you know that?”
“This place, I.. we.. it’s in my head.” She said, suddenly shy, confused. ” I see things.”
All my suspicions came flooding back. “What kind of things?”
“I feel the roots of the trees in the ground, I feel us standing on the grass. I see us through a thousand eyes, crawling on the bark and the dirt. I’m everywhere Thul.”
I shuddered. She wasn’t acting like she had before. Before she was afraid, now, she was something else, almost eager.
“We should open the fruits.” I said, changing the subject. The more she talked about the feeling, the worse she seemed to be and I wanted no part of it.
Bee spun on her heels and grinned at me as if I’d just surprised her with a present. “Kal’s part of the pattern too, I can feel him.” Stepping slowly around her, I approached the fruits as Bee danced on the spot. Carefully, I tore into the furthest one and it split open, spilling Kal to the ground in a pool of pink mucus. Like Bee, he was normal again, his blade replaced with a normal human arm. Almost immediately he awoke, brushing himself off.
“Brother! I’m new and clean! I’m whole again!” He announced, standing up slick and naked.
“Kal? Is that really you?”
“It’s better than that Brother,” Bee and Kal said in unison. “we’re together. We can see ourselves, know ourselves, each other even. We’re both the pattern now.”
I edged away and slipped on the mucus seeping into the grass. “Bee! Kal! This place, it’s not right, it’s done something to you!” The two other fruits split open and two identical beasts slid out, stalks flicking back from their necks as they fell to the ground. The shook their chitinous manes, scales clattering, and bared sharp, metal teeth.
“It’s so beautiful Thul, being awake. We never knew it could be like this, in all these aeons we’ve never had an aware mind to be, never known a self.” Bee slurred, her face twisted in ecstasy.
“Join us Brother. The pattern knows ourself so much now, we want to be greater, know more selves. Before was beasts and plants, they didn’t know, but we know now. You can be one of us, see the pattern. It’s beautiful Thul.” Kal grinned.
I ran and I didn’t dare turn around to see if they were behind me. I dived further into the woods, ducking and weaving and running until my lungs burned. Eventually I collapsed against a tree, exhausted. As I tried to regain my strength for another run—I didn’t want to stop until I was out of this place—I remembered what Bee had said. I feel the roots of the trees in the ground, I feel us standing on the grass. Then I realised, this place wasn’t a place at all, it was a thing that ate things up and spat them out again, changed into part of it, like an extra limb. I flinched away from the grass and the tree, suddenly aware that it was alive underneath me, that it could feel me and that Bee and Kal, or whatever had replaced them would know where I was. Panicked, I bolted, straight into a waiting Kal and fell to the floor.
“Don’t be afraid, Thul.” Kal smiled, brushing himself off. “We can be together, one family, one soul, one heart. You can be whole again, healed. Look at us, we’re healthier than we’ve ever been.”
I pushed myself away, my legs trembling too much for to stand as I scrabbled backwards, away from Kal and the twin beasts at his heels. The beasts leapt.
I remembered the seeding, the tearing apart, the blood. So did I, and me and us. A one for each part planted. Everything was so much richer now I was more selves. It hurt, losing a self, but we learnt that tearing one apart meant we could do more seedings with the parts, more selves. We wondered why we’d never thought of it before. Bee, precious Bee her first self had woke us up. Our pattern was over a hundred strong now, but we knew that wasn’t enough, there wasn’t enough newness, just copies of us. But we had children, friends and family far away, we knew. More selves, new selves, new knowledge. We smiled the faces of the Thuls and Bees and Kals, we were going home. Our garden needed more seeds.
This work is published under the Creative Common BY 4.0 International License