by Drea Silvertooth and Lian Rose
The vast desert sprawled before Kei, burnt sienna beneath the rising sun. In the distance, derelict buildings of the Old Cities defined the horizon, their dark and splintered silhouettes pointing like daggers at the sky.
Behind her, the city gate clanged shut with a heavy sense of finality. The outer sentries ignored her as she shouldered her supplies—food, water, and the exact number of bullets allowed for intercity travel—and walked toward the stables. Her red cloak dragged in the sand, leaving a path in her wake like a winding snake.
A half-mile out stood a small, hunched figure waiting for her. The faded blue fabric of his robes was drawn up over his face to protect from the stinging wind.
“My driving student,” he said warmly, extending his hand as she approached. “Mister Zhang?”
“Miss,” Kei corrected, taking his hand.
The touch was gentle, the skin of his hand paper-smooth in a way unique to the old. His eyes crinkled with grandfatherly lines.
“You’ll have to forgive me.” He released her hand to wave a few fingers in front of his milky eyes. “My vision’s not what it used to be.”
Damn, Kei thought. Her informant hadn’t told her the man would be blind. He also neglected to mention that he would be this old. She may have reconsidered, found a different target, if she had known.
“Ah,” she said out loud.
The driver turned and waved for her to follow, and Kei found it a small mercy that she did not have to fake a smile. They entered a stable, cramped and dusty in the shadow of the city wall. The posted guard checked her forged papers and let them in.
The room was dark, unlit but for a series of blue oval lights floating erratically at eye level. By the time shadows began to differentiate into shapes, the old man was already inside the first stall, petting an enormous lizard head. That blue, artificial glow was coming from inside the creature’s mouth, spilling out over a row of razor teeth.
A dozen more blue lights emanated from the mouths of similar creatures, poking their heads over the tops of stalls and bobbing them in open-mouthed excitement.
“So I’m Arlo,” the old man said, scraping dull nails over the beast’s nose and forehead, “and this here is Sarge. We’ve been together since this big ol’ desert dog was small enough to sleep on my chest.”
The desert dog opened its mouth wide and closed its black eyes, tail and hips waggling in pleasure. When Kei listened closely, she could hear the clicking of mechanical parts inside its cavernous torso, implanted to combat the surface-area-to-volume problem of genetically engineering animals so large.
“Sarge, this nice lady paid for lessons so she can become a long-haul driver like me. She’s gonna help us take this shipment of filters to Guerra.” Arlo rubbed his palms over the beast’s cheeks, then turned to smile at a spot a few feet to the right of Kei. “Ready to roll, sunshine?”
They lifted dozens of water filters from a pallet and arranged the precious cargo across Sarge’s back, strapped down with canvas and topped with a sunburnt leather saddle. Arlo’s own supplies fit in a beat-up knapsack that hung behind the stirrup bar. He did not seem to travel with any sort of weapon.
Kei, for her part, drew her robes up around her mouth, nose and hair as they set off in the morning light, the grit of sand already in her teeth. Once the stables and its guards had shrunk to specks in the distance, she moved her revolver back to her hip. No point in hiding it from a blind man.
The Old Cities had an empty, gutted sort of feel, like an insect husk or carcass that had been picked down to the bone. Kei imagined, when she closed her eyes, that she could hear the wind moving from one end of the abandoned cityscape to the other, whistling through crumbling buildings, shattered windows and open doors like breath through an ancient ribcage.
In an area that Arlo said was once “downtown”, where skeletal buildings crowded together, Sarge skittered up the walls to avoid chemical pools on the ground. Arlo and Kei gripped handles and pressed flat to stay seated while the world twisted and turned around them.
“Cars ‘n’ bikes have to navigate around the Old Cities,” Arlo explained. “Can’t go through ‘cause it’s too toxic at surface level. Routes are twice as long without a desert dog.”
“How do you navigate blind?” Kei asked the question that had been bothering her for hours. She hung on for dear life as Sarge leapt from a rusted steel balcony to an adjacent rooftop.
“I can still feel light, sun risin’ and settin’ in the sky. Plus you can smell the sulfur spill to the south. Seein’ is only one of the five senses, Miss Zhang.” He winked. “I’ve got four perfectly good ones. And Sarge more or less knows where to go anyway.”
Kei leaned back in the saddle and thought about where she’d go with a desert dog. The farther the better, she decided. A new beginning.
Loud hissing alerted her to a pack of wild dogs hanging off the side of an adjacent skyscraper, heads bobbing and throats puffed up. One was missing its tail, another an eye. All looked worse for the wear.
Arlo shook his head and confirmed what Kei already knew from her research. “Desert dogs bond to another soul rarely in their lives, and without that they go feral. Bad for everyone. Can’t replace parts in a feral dog.”
They moved on, both pretending not to see the stray bones and sun-cracked gas masks, their large glass eyes reflecting the sky, poking up from beneath the sand as they navigated through the poisoned relics of a world left for dead.
On the second day, Kei drove.
Arlo sat in the back, instructing her in a calm tone even as they nearly flipped multiple times. He talked to Kei in the same way he talked to Sarge: softly, slowly, and with absolutely no expectation of response. Which was lucky, since Kei had never been much of a talker.
“Gettin’ in the long-haul trade ain’t what it used to be,” he reminisced once they hit a smoother stretch of road. Flat, barren plains surrounded them for miles in every direction. “The freight corporations got greedy once they learned how valuable desert dogs could be out here. Drove all the small-time breeders straight outta business, then hiked up prices like crazy.”
Kei leaned to the right, guiding Sarge around a sinkhole several yards wide.
“You sign a contract with a forwarder yet, Miss Zhang?”
“No.” She shook her head.
“Don’t let ‘em hoodwink you into a high-interest one. You’ll be makin’ payments on your dog ‘til you’re gray as me.”
“I won’t,” she said.
What Kei didn’t say was how her chance at even the worst of contracts went up in smoke three months ago, when she got picked up for smuggling in Moreno. She’d bribed her way out of prison time, but not a rap sheet. No lender this side of the continental divide would deal with a felon.
When the sun was highest in the sky, they took a break to escape the heat. Kei undid the saddle and learned how to clean the sand from Sarge’s ear holes, then hung a tarp up for shade.
“They’re expensive to raise, sure. Gotta buy new gears and heart valves as they outgrow ‘em, heavy metal supplements for their bones…” Arlo threw an arm over his tired face where he lay at rest under the tarp. “But they pretty much care for themselves when they’re grown. Get all their nutrients and water from eating nasties that skitter in the wastes.”
As if on cue, Sarge slid past on a fat belly in the sand, snapping up something black with too many legs. Arlo laughed and Sarge wagged like an ugly puppy.
They made camp again only when the growing dark made it difficult for Sarge to see, and the plunging temperature slowed the desert dog’s movements. Kei set up the tarp and blankets, then removed the saddle and cargo so Sarge could wander free overnight.
Once Arlo was snoring, Kei touched her revolver, dragged her thumb over the hammer, and hardened her resolve. She was sick of fighting, sick of stealing, sick of shooting people she knew nothing about because it was worth something to someone. Death’s ugly, desperate face had been her one constant companion for too many years.
Tomorrow, she decided. Tomorrow would be the last time.
She kept telling herself that until she almost believed it.
They stopped at a trading post on the morning of the third day, a rickety collection of tin-roofed shacks slouched at the foot of a red sandstone outcrop. The hardpack dirt road that ran past the place branched out into a gravel parking lot, where Sarge lumbered up next to a rust-eaten beater. A handful of travelers picked through the meager stock offered at a food stand on the edge of the lot. To the side, a group of traders sat in the shade of an old shipping container, smoking and playing cards to pass the time.
The sign for a water pump station caught Kei’s eye. She’d gone through her supply faster than she anticipated on the road, the bottles sloshing about a quarter full at the bottom of her pack.
“I’m filling up,” Kei told Arlo while he checked Sarge’s feet for injuries, running his palms over thick scales and between huge curving claws. “Back in a bit.”
A chain link fence surrounded the station, secured by a locked gate next to a keypad and payment box. Kei thumbed in the number of gallons she needed and dropped a ten-peta coin in the slot. The gate beeped twice, then unlocked with a clang.
As Kei approached the pump, a skinny, bearded man walked around from behind it and blocked her path, waving an oversized wrench. “That’ll be forty petas to use the pump today,” he said.
Kei frowned. “I already paid at the gate.”
“Yeah. Well. You’re gonna have to pay me too, sweetie.”
“Why?” Kei glanced around the empty yard. “You own this place?”
“Why?” he echoed mockingly. “Don’t matter to you, does it, ‘cause you ain’t getting water either way unless you hand over those petas like I asked.”
There was something wild in the man’s over-bright eyes, something jerky in his movements, that struck Kei as dangerous. The desperation, the pall of starvation, was heavy on him and Kei knew it too well. This far gone and anything, absolutely anything, was worth killing for.
Kei was already reaching for the revolver at her hip when footsteps shuffled across the dirt behind her, the silhouette of a desert dog casting her in shadow.
“Howdy stranger,” Arlo piped up, Sarge in tow. He dug around in his pockets and produced what looked like more than four coins, extending them to the man. “You have a nice day, now.”
The man took the coins in twitchy fingers, stuffed them deep into his pocket, and with a parting glance at Kei’s gun was outside the security fence in a few running steps, vanishing into the wind and sand.
Kei reached roughly into her bag and pulled out her bottles, shoving them into the station’s pump slots harder than necessary.
“You didn’t have to pay him,” she snapped. Arlo hummed softly while the water dispensed in a slow trickle and Sarge’s internal pieces ticked. “He doesn’t work here. Surely even a blind man knows that.”
“Oh, yes,” Arlo said serenely. “But he must be awful down on his luck to be sticking people up at a pump station.”
“Stupid, is what that is.”
“Sometimes people do stupid things when they’ve got nothing left.” Arlo turned his milky eyes on her, that grandfatherly smile peeking out from under the shifting folds of his robes. “A little kindness can go a long way, Miss Zhang, when people need it most.”
Kei stuffed her filled bottles into her pack, slung it over her shoulder and kicked the pump before turning away. Arlo was a fool. Didn’t he know that snakes are always ready to strike, especially at outstretched hands?
They spent the rest of the day traversing a deep gulch that split the land in two, descending one side, picking their way across the treacherous bottom littered with spent bomb casings, and climbing back up the other.
“Crazy, that they can fit into your arms when they’re pups,” Arlo began, later in the evening while Kei unfastened the saddle and cleaned out Sarge’s ears. “‘Course then they think they can always fit and you’ve gotta stop ‘em before they break your ribs.”
They’d stopped to make camp as the sun began to set, on the edge of badlands that stretched the last hundred miles between them and Guerra. Towering, heavy clouds hung to the north, where flashes of dry lightning attacked the overheated earth.
Sarge rolled around in sand still warm from the sun as Kei bit into her ration bar. The rations they carried were chalky, bitter, which was why at the last second Kei had bought something better at the trading post for the old man’s last meal. She poured water over dehydrated vegetables and rice in a bag.
“Here.” She handed it to him unceremoniously and pushed a fork into his hand. “Eat it.” It wasn’t hot, but it would have to do.
Arlo laughed with good-natured surprise, thanked her, and for a few minutes it was quiet but for the sound of his chewing and Kei’s preparation of their night supplies.
“It’s beautiful, the way they bond for life,” he continued absently as Sarge scooted past, rubbing up against Arlo affectionately and leaving a trail in the sand. “That’s the dog in them I expect. ‘Til death do us part, eh Sarge?” Arlo gave a throaty laugh at the lizard’s departing back. “Longer than marriage. You ever been married, Miss Zhang?”
Kei undid her wrap, hair windswept and dusty, and brushed the dirt from her face. “Once.”
“I lost my wife a few years ago to the bombings.” Arlo paused, then smiled sadly. “I suppose that makes it more than a few years ago, eh? There ain’t been nations big enough to build proper bombs in near twenty years. I expect you’re too young to have really known them.”
Kei grunted and sat down beside him, leaning against the cargo stack. At the edge of her vision she could see Sarge wandering around in the dying light, big belly dragging on the ground.
“Where’s your husband?”
“Wife,” Kei corrected. She looked at him sidelong through her eyelashes and frowned. “Raiders got her. They took everything.”
The old man’s face softened. “I’m sorry.”
“Me too,” she said, and for once she meant it. Kei loaded her gun by feel, the cylinder clicking into place audibly. Next to her, she felt Arlo freeze. “I really, really am.”
His eyes looked in her general direction, then slowly back out towards the horizon. “Would you do an old man a service?”
“Would you describe the sunset to me?”
Kei blinked, and Arlo folded his hands neatly in his lap, face solemn.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one, you know.” He licked his lips thoughtfully. “Never know when it’ll be my last.”
Kei tipped her head back heavily and swallowed. In a thick voice she described every single shade in the sky. She told him how the horizon was yellow-orange like Sarge but the clouds were bruised pinkish purple. She told him how the moon was starting to rise and it was going to be full.
“I do believe that’s the most I’ve ever heard you speak, Miss Zhang.”
“Kei,” she murmured. “My name is Kei.”
“That’s a nice name. Who’s Zhang?”
“You’d have to ask the forger.”
“Ah.” Arlo bowed his head, as if deep in thought, then lifted it again. “There’s a pack of wild dogs up beyond the ridge just before the next pass ‘n’ they always scare Sarge. Heading a few miles east saves you the ordeal.”
Kei grunted an affirmation and listened to her own heart beating. She watched Sarge sniffing the air in the distance, oblivious.
“Also, Sarge’s heart valve is due for maintenance at the end of the month. Forgettin’ could be deadly, so,” Arlo cleared his throat, voice breaking. “Best nobody forgets.”
Kei was trying not to cry and failing. She lifted the gun, pressed the barrel right into the old man’s temple. No missing, no suffering.
“Wait until Sarge ain’t looking,” Arlo murmured. “And you work hard to bond. Be real sweet, commit to it. I don’t want Sarge being alone.”
Dying men weren’t kind, dying men were cruel and violent, dying men…
Kei was trembling fiercely, hot tears streaming down her cheeks, and it took several tries to press the cylinder release.
The bullets dropped into the sand.
“Christ,” she said.
A soothing hand came, shakily, to pat between her shoulder blades.
Kei swallowed hard against the lump in her throat. She thought of the trail of bloodshed in her wake. She thought about Sarge, wagging. “I wanted to get away. I couldn’t, I thought…”
“You know,” Arlo said, scratching his beard, “there’s longer routes out past Guerra. Haven’t taken ‘em in years, since my sight started to go. ‘Course they’re riskier, but the payout more’n makes up for it.”
Kei stared at him uncomprehendingly. “I’m not actually a driver. You know that, right? I don’t even pass the screening to buy a desert dog.”
Arlo’s eyes crinkled, and he leaned in like someone about to tell a secret. “Sarge is pregnant,” he said. “I wasn’t going to be able to afford keeping the pup, but with the right assistant…” He folded his arms. “Well, I reckon I’d take one on in exchange for a year of sunsets.”
Kei gave a watery smile that no one could see and watched Sarge’s distant form dart after something in the dunes. “You would?”
Arlo shifted, settling comfortably back against the cargo. “Tell me about the orange again?”
“Burnt sienna. It fades, up into the clouds where everything is pink…”
About the Author
Drea Silvertooth is a writer and podcaster who enjoys playing tabletop games with their partners and showing their dog a good time. Their co-conspirator Lian Rose pushes pixels by day and designs new worlds by night. The two live together with a motley crew of rescue animals in scorching Arizona.
About the Narrator
Stephanie Malia Morris works in a bookstore by day and a library by night, which gives her access to more books than she can possibly read over several lifetimes. She is a recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Award and a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in FIYAH, Apex, and Nightmare. She has narrated short fiction for StarShipSofa, Far Fetched Fables, Uncanny, and all four of the Escape Artists podcasts.