Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favourite episodes. A different member of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2016 each week in January.
We hope you enjoy former assistant editor Jeff Hite’s favorite story from 2016, Planar Ghosts by Krystal Claxton, narrated by Paul Cram. The story originally aired across two episodes in April 2016, Episode 205 and Episode 206. The story is presented here in its entirety.
Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
by Krystal Claxton
The walls around the town of Bootstrap are mostly old cars stacked one on top of the other and welded together. Outside Bootstrap, market stalls made from patchwork tarps and rusty pipes lean on either side of the wide gate. They are temporary places for the people who live inside to trade goods with the people stuck outside who need in.
People like Pup.
He looks up at the guard by the gate, who is thicker, but not much older. Probably grew up inside the walls. He looks as if he’s been well-fed, even during bad years. His skin is sun-reddened and spotted along his cheeks and the high bridge of his nose.
Pup offers his frayed duffle bag to the guard. The man kneels to comb through it with one meaty hand. Inside is Pup’s winter scavenge–a length of rope, a glass vial with lighter fluid, and three almost-full rolls of duct tape.
If this is enough to buy Pup in, he can work for water until summer is over. As the guard measures Pup’s worth, the one good pocket of his cargo pants seems heavier. Inside is something he’s not supposed to trade. He’s not sure what it is. Some Before thing. Probably the guard wouldn’t know what it is either.
Pup can just make out Ghost waiting a long way off, gazing longingly into the dying grasslands and the stark, cloudless, afternoon sky. She is a violet shade at the edge of the crowd, a soft see-through specter that no one but Pup will notice. She’s uninterested in his business, has been distant all winter. Driving him farther, faster than normal, and not at all interested in foraging. Even now, she wants him to keep moving, but he needs to find a place to hole up. Summer is coming and it will be too hot and dry to survive on the plains.
The guard stands to his full height, presses his thin lips together, meets Pup’s gaze and returns the worn bag. “It’s not enough.”
Pup sighs. He’ll have to walk to the next town, Washing, but if they’re full, the fee will be no better. If Pup were a young woman, preferably pretty, the price would be cheaper. If his skin was lighter, the price would be cheaper. If he was heavier, more muscle and less sinew, the price would be cheaper.
But Pup is none of these things, so he shrugs into the strap and makes his way along the wall, past people swapping lentils for plastic fletchings, moonshine for unrusted screws, salt for bullets. The market is too loud for Pup. Though the crowd is small, trading is more urgent just before the season change. The air is thin and the scent of roasting peppers fights against a dry breeze coming off the plains.
He lingers at an open pit fire with a grill made from a bed’s link spring. A woman who would have already been old during the Before time is tending sticks skewered with carrots and onion slices. A few even have hunks of brown meat. He knows that he should get moving, but this may be his last chance for a hot meal. He glances toward Ghost to see if she’s tired of waiting for him, but she’s not paying him any attention.
“Have something to trade?” the old woman asks. Her fingers are thin and dry and singed at the tips like the skewers. Gray dreadlocks hang past her frayed shawl. She’s hunched, but Pup recognizes the sharp look in her eyes. There’s a reason she’s survived these many years.
Pup sits in the dirt at the edge of the fire to dig a loop of twine hanging around his neck from beneath his threadbare shirts, measures out two arm-lengths, and holds it up for her inspection. When she nods he pulls the small blade from his boot.
She passes him a skewer with a big enough chunk of meat at the same time he places the string in her palm. He should wait until it’s cool, but the scent of spiced meat fills his head and his mouth turns watery. It’s half gone, tender carrots and juicy meat–beef? lamb, maybe–settling warmly in his belly before he can stop long enough to savor the taste. He stares off to the southeast.
“Hope you’re not headed to Washing.”
Pup’s head tilts down as he studies her. She’s busy turning each skewer with a blackened, doubled-over length of stiff wire. He doesn’t answer, but waits to see what she’ll say.
“Heard they’re full up already.” She peers at him with one eye.
“Not much else around,” he says.
“Not unless you’re headed to Springfield.”
“Thought that was further off.” Pup’s never been this far east before. Ghost keeps him moving. But he’s careful to ask after where he’s headed and what’ll be waiting for him when he gets there.
“Couple hundred miles. . . . About a month walking– two if the weather’s bad.” She corrects herself, “That’s a full moon or two.”
“I know what a month is.” Pup sucks the juices out of the stick, careful not to let either charred end ruin the meaty flavor. He’ll wait until next winter to make that trip, may take him the winter after too, if there’s trouble along the way: raiders, flash floods, coyotes. Pup had planned to stop in Salem next year.
“Isn’t Salem closer?”
She’s talking to herself, and hasn’t heard him. “Unless you’re going over to Base.”
Pup tosses the stick in the fire. “What’s Base?”
She takes a breath that seems larger than her skinny frame. “Back in the day, the military commandeered a power plant a bit over the state border, east of here. They moved in, and they’re still there. More or less.”
Pup stands, brushes dirt from the seat of his pants. “They have summer work?”
She fights with her wire to turn a skewer that has burned to the grill. “Nope. They recruit every now and again, but you don’t leave in the winter if you sign on with them for the summer, if you get my meaning.”
“Then I guess I’m headed to Washing.”
She’s peering at him with one eye again. “Reckon so. Good luck.”
Pup stops at the edge of the shanty booths to stand beside Ghost, but doesn’t look straight at her. When he was very young, he learned that it’s better not to speak to her when other people can hear him. Since she doesn’t talk and no one else can see her, they tend to think he’s touched in the head.
Ghost is see-through in places and seems to glow without casting any light or shadow. She is a faint purple, like butterfly-bush blossoms, and her long hair floats about her as though she is always being caught in the beginning of a breeze. Her face is soft around the edges, and her feet don’t quite touch the ground.
A scrawny boy, no taller than Pup’s shoulder, too young to remember what it was like Before, veers around Pup and steps right through Ghost, unaware. She is not a hot or cold spot, like the old people tell him ghosts are supposed to be, and no one notices her unless it’s to wonder what Pup is looking at, who he’s speaking to.
Ghost tears her attention away from the plain to look up at him. When she smiles, her face glows a little brighter and he forgets that he shouldn’t look directly at her.
A dust devil swirls to life at the horizon, playing against the waves of heat already building on the plains. She points, insistent, to the east. Whatever it is that’s caught her interest will have to wait. Pup shakes his head and turns south. He’s only got a few days to get to Washing before it’ll be too hot to travel.
Dry grass pokes Pup through the wide weave of a blanket threaded together from strips of old fabric. The sky is a thick jumble of stars without a moon and the air is too brittle to hold daytime warmth, but he won’t risk a fire. Not while the plain is dead and yellowed.
On nights like this, when Ghost isn’t with him, Pup jerks awake often. He’s not sure what business a ghost has to attend to, but she’s gone more often than not these days. He wonders what she’s found that’s so remarkable, if one day it will keep her interest for good.
He drifts between awake and asleep, dreams of the world ending. The scorch, the grind of twisting metal, the pulse of his mother’s heart as she squeezed his face against her neck, running, her cottony hair tickling his nose. She must have died, but he’s never sure. She is there in some of his memories and gone from others.
When it was over, Pup was on his own. A boy on the plains.
That’s when he met Ghost.
Pup starts awake. The night is too still and he holds his breath, straining to hear. The crickets have all gone silent. Was it the dream of his mother that woke him, or trouble? Most big wolves have followed their food north for the season. It could be something small that won’t bother him if he doesn’t go looking for it. A fox maybe.
He unwinds from the ball he’d rolled into as he slept, lifts his head from the duffle bag to peer above the dry grass.
The bottom of a boot fills his vision and Pup rolls sideways, the kick grazing off his forehead.
He staggers to his feet but he’s already surrounded, one man to either side and a third–the one who’d tried to bash his skull in–before him.
He knows this man, even by dim starlight, recognizes the spotted face: the guard who turned him away.
The attackers descend like bobcats fighting over a scrap of meat. Tear at Pup from every angle. Grab his arms. Weigh down his legs.
Hot blood pumps in Pup’s ears over muted gasps and grunts. He’s swinging his arms and thrashing his legs, but they have him.
Even as he struggles, meaty hands paw over him. Search for anything worth stealing. Rip the twine from his neck. Shred his one good pocket.
Pup’s causing too much trouble and the guard untangles himself from the fray to rear back a thick fist. It lands soundly in Pup’s guts and Pup folds.
The other two men let him double over for an instant. He takes the opening to leverage one knee at an impossible angle and when they pull him upright, he jerks a leg free.
The guard pulls back to punch again and Pup braces himself against the two men holding him. He kicks off the ground with his free leg. And just as the guard is leaning in toward Pup, the other two pull him back down.
With the force of their help, he lands the thick part of his brow on the guard’s nose. Feels the other man’s face crack.
The guard reels, and on instinct, the man holding Pup’s right arm reaches out toward the guard.
Pup takes the opening, twists into the distracted man, pulls all his weight against the one still holding his left arm, and breaks free.
Without his scavenge, he isn’t worth the trouble to stalk and kill, but he keeps moving all the same.
When he no longer hears footfalls behind him, he drops low and keeps his breathing soft. Waits to see if they’ll search him out.
They have an electric light, crank or solar he can’t say, but he watches, belly to the ground, as it combs his small camp. They gather all of Pup’s belongings and start toward town. Pup keeps still and silent long after their light has become a pinprick in the distance.
At dawn Pup is already walking south again, toward Washing. He shouldn’t be. They won’t take him. Not without something to trade. Food at the least. But his heart is beating too fast, his jaw clenched too tightly, the muscles in his hands too strained for him to get any rest.
Ghost appears beside him, a bounce in her floaty step, a good-morning smile on her face. Until she sees that his forehead is oozing blood.
She steps in front of him so he’ll stop, and he does because she doesn’t like it when he ignores her. She reaches out her not-really-there fingers and traces the line of his wound across his brow, around his eye. Her fingertips dip into him, but he feels nothing. Her eyebrows are crinkled together, her eyes wide, her lips turned down.
He tilts his head away from her not-touch. “Where were you last night?”
Ghost’s arms fold over her chest and she seems to shrink.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “I’ve got a long way to walk and nothing to trade once I get there.” He side-steps her and starts forward, the plain ahead cast red by the morning glare.
She’s in front of him again, her legs back-pedaling even though she seems to float half a hand length off the ground. Ghost points east, forms a tense line with her arm, gesturing with her entire body catty-corner past him into the wasted grassland.
Pup crosses his arms over his chest. He doesn’t shout because Ghost is trying to help. She doesn’t eat or sleep or get heat sickness, so she doesn’t always understand him. “There are no towns in that direction. No wells, no food, no shelter.”
He should go back to Bootstrap and panhandle at the market while it’s still open, but he’s not small and cute anymore.
Ghost waves away the concern. Like water is a minor setback. Gestures again, takes ten steps in the direction she wishes him to follow, steeples her hands before her face, begging.
Pup unfolds his arms to let them hang limp at his sides. Forces his hands to unclench.
The first time he met Ghost she was a little girl, smaller even than Pup had been. She was crying, alone, and she was so happy to see him that she helped him find his way back to civilization, such as it was, After the world ended. Since then she’s grown with him, helped him find the best scavenge, warned him of danger, saved his life another dozen times.
I should follow her now, he thinks. Summer is upon him and he has no plan and no supplies to survive it. But something has changed. He doesn’t understand what and she can’t speak to explain it to him. She’s never around anymore and he knows he wouldn’t be here now if she hadn’t pushed the pace over the winter. Ever since they scavenged . . .
“I don’t have it anymore,” he says.
Ghost quirks her head to one side.
Pup turns his palms up. “That Before box. You wanted me to keep it out of the scavenge.” He tugs at the scrap of fabric hanging from his pants that used to be a pocket. “It’s gone.”
She crosses the space between them, slowly. Studies his face in a way that reminds Pup of yesterday at the gate. Like she’s measuring his worth. Pup’s not sure what he’ll do if Ghost finds him lacking too.
She holds her thin hand palm-up between them. Beckons him forward. Turns and leads him east.
Pup follows, squinting into the morning glare.
Pup’s blood pumps thick and heavy through his temples. Sweat has soaked through his thinned, long-sleeved shirts and he’s glad he doesn’t have the heavy duffle bag to carry. His throat is dry and cracking, his mouth pasty, his vision wobbly around the edges.
The place where Ghost is leading him appears on the horizon as the last long rays of summer sunlight turn the edge of the plain golden. Pup can’t see all of its features but the column towering over the sprawling, multistory main building tells Pup it’s the power plant–the base–that the old woman in the market spoke about.
The field he’s walking through is made up of reaped stubs of corn and wheat in rows as far as he can see in any direction, a haul big enough to feed an army. The road leading up to the entrance is patched with asphalt, some bits still black against the sun-bleached surface, laid this very winter. A fence, part cinderblock, part chain-link, is punctuated by three guard posts. They are After structures, welded or stacked from scavenge, sturdy but sharp and ugly compared to the clean lines of the blocky building beyond.
The soldiers at the guard towers see Pup before he’s come within a stone’s throw of the entryway. A giant light, brighter than any solar light Pup’s seen, swivels at the top of the tower nearest the main gate. Fixes on him, blinding and inescapable.
Pup holds up a hand to spare his eyes, to cast a shadow over his face. “Now what?”
A few steps ahead Ghost turns toward him. Then she fades away.
The soldiers are nearly in uniform. Most have only sand-colored short-sleeved shirts and cargo pants, but a few have button-up shirts with badges and patches. They march, not quite in step. All have boots in good repair. And rifles.
It’s dark in large unused stretches and as they take Pup around the largest Before structure, he’s not sure which direction would be best to run if he has to bolt. The fading sunlight is improved along the way with islands of electric light, but there are more guard towers farther along the perimeter that might make running a bad plan.
They pass a pair of silos that are each a few stories tall and look like they were transplanted from somewhere else; drag marks gouge the pavement around them. There are other soldiers, men and women, moving about with purpose. Some are old enough to have been soldiers in the Before time, but most are not. A few are younger than Pup, kids still.
They round a corner and Pup misses a step. A long ways off, toward a cinderblock section of the gate, under a tent pole canopy, Pup sees a dozen sand-colored trucks. Each looks new, with huge undamaged tires, windows, headlights. Even the front grills are intact. They’re a fortune, sitting there. Even without gas, he could live on a scavenge like that for years.
Pup slows his pace to gawk and one of the soldiers pokes him hard in the back with the butt of a rifle.
There’s a metal stair with studded steps bolted into the brick sidewall of the main building. It ends in a single door with a window that lets off the bright glow of electric light. Soldiers behind take up spots at the bottom of the stairs. Soldiers ahead escort him inside.
The room is a collection of luxuries. Two overstuffed leather couches on top of a thick floor rug. Ceramic lamps with paper shades in each corner of the room and a fifth lamp with a green plastic shade craned over a heavy wooden desk near the far wall. A row of brightly painted clay pots house strawberry vines in bloom. Artwork in frames with unbroken glass decorate the freshly painted yellow walls.
There are two women in uniform in the room, but the one sitting at the desk draws Pup’s attention. Her hair is sun-lightened brown, straight, and cropped cleanly to her jaw line. Her sand-colored shirt buttons up in the front and has more badges and patches than any other soldier Pup has seen so far, though she’s too young to have been an adult soldier when the world ended. She appraises Pup from head-to-toe as though he is a scrap of too-old meat and she’s trying to decide if it’s worth the risk of food poisoning.
She asks, “This is him?”
The other woman is standing beside the desk and answers, “Yes, sir, that’s right.”
Pup forces himself to break eye contact with the woman behind the desk. Looks at his hands. To the woman standing.
Pup’s mouth hangs open. The blood drains from his guts in an unpleasant whoosh and his fingertips go numb. He feels the ground tilt beneath his feet, though he’s still upright.
The standing woman is Ghost.
Not see-through, or purple, or floating.
She has wavy, dark hair that rebels against the braid running like a spine on the back of her head. Her eyes are too small. There’s a mark peeking out from under the collar of her sand-colored short-sleeved shirt that looks as if tea stained the skin of her neck and never washed out. With her booted feet planted on the ground, she’s taller than him.
But it’s Ghost. There’s no mistaking her.
When she speaks again, this time under Pup’s stare, her voice seems misplaced. It reminds Pup of a puppet show he saw at a town two winters ago that’d had very bad actors and he’s too distracted to notice what she said.
“Does he speak?” It’s the woman behind the desk. Everyone in the room is staring at him. She speaks again, slowly, her voice raised like he’s standing farther away than he is, “What’s your name?”
He closes his mouth. Locks his eyes on the shiny brass arm of the lamp on the desk. “Pup.”
Her tone twists in annoyance. “That’s not a name, that’s supper. What’s your real name?”
Pup swallows the bile wetting the back of his mouth. He hasn’t had a drink since yesterday. He focuses only on the goal of getting some water from these people. He’ll deal with everything else after.
He returns the woman’s stare. “Pup’s good enough. Who’re you?”
The woman behind the desk sits up straighter, her eyes narrowed to look down her nose at Pup. He’s said the wrong thing. “I am General Nass–the highest ranking officer still operating in the United States Army–and you’ll show the proper respect.”
Pup bows his head, tries to make himself look small, lets the rasp that’s leaking into his voice come through. “I’m sorry, General. I didn’t mean anything by it. I’m not thinking clearly. I haven’t had any food or drink in two days.”
General Nass taps her fingers impatiently on the glossy desk. To the woman who is and is not Ghost, she says, “Are you wasting my time with this shit, Alice?”
Pup peers at his captors from under his brow. He does not look at the woman named Alice.
Nass sighs. Flicks her hand toward Pup.
A soldier passes Pup a half-full canteen. Pup takes his time. Drinks every drop inside, unsure of when he’ll get more.
While he’s sucking down the water, Alice says to Nass, “He’s a scavenger. One of my anchors. And I saw the power plant. He salvaged usable components. I wouldn’t have dragged him here for your inspection if I wasn’t certain he would be useful to you.”
Pup swipes the drizzle on his chin into his mouth with the heel of his hand. He can’t tell if the wobbly feeling in his guts is from the sudden rush of water or because of what Alice is saying about him. Anchor. He doesn’t like the sound of that.
Nass says, “You have some reactor component? Let’s see it.”
“Don’t have anything from a reactor.”
Her eyes shift to the soldier taking the canteen from Pup’s hands.
“Not a thing on him when we picked him up outside, sir.”
Nass makes a sound between a growl and sigh, then pinches the bridge of her nose. “So what is he good for?”
Alice hedges, “He’s a good scavenger. He could help you relocate the other reactor to power–”
“I’m not seeing the proof to back-up what you’re promising.”
“Perhaps if you let him stay over the summer–”
Nass pounds the desk with a fist and the lamp, the strawberry pots, and everyone in the room jumps. “You may have been a darling of the last command, but all I can see is that keeping you requires more and more maintenance. You need to make yourself useful. This,” she holds out an open hand toward Pup, “is not useful.”
“No.” To Pup, “I’m afraid Alice led you here for nothing. I decide who stays and goes.”
Alice tries again, “Please, General Nass–”
The general fixes her in a glare that silences her. To the soldier standing beside Pup she says, “Lock him up.”
Pup tries not to think, but he’s been so stupid it’s hard not to go over every mistake that led him here. Letting himself get robbed so close to summer. Traveling too far too fast to gather enough scavenge. Trusting the shadow of a girl when he knew something was off. But she was Ghost. His Ghost. How could she have led him here to this?
He pushes the image of the flesh-and-blood woman out of his mind. It’s harder to forget her voice, speaking about him as though he wasn’t standing before her.
It’s cold in the holding cell. The room is made of unpainted cement that still looks new and smells somewhere between dust and bleach. There are no windows, but long tubes overhead cast sickly light and buzz with electricity. Every so often they dim or flicker. One set of bunk beds is bolted to the wall, and Pup can see that it’s been torn away from somewhere else and remounted here. Scavenged.
Time passes strangely. The air doesn’t change, the lights don’t change, and Pup’s not sure if he’s hungry or if the hollow feeling wearing on his stomach is the fear that they won’t remember to feed him.
The false lights overhead go out and it’s beyond any blackness Pup’s ever known on the plains. Like he’s been buried alive. His breath comes fast and shallow. Sweat soaks the tattered collar of his shirts and the fabric sticks to his cold skin in clumpy wisps. No matter how wide he opens his eyes, he can’t see.
If it’s been minutes or hours, Pup can’t say, but he’s staring at the door when Ghost’s head pops through. The door doesn’t open–it’s not the girl from upstairs–it’s really Ghost: see-through and purple and glowing without giving off any light. Pup’s heart beats so loudly that the soldier on the other side of the door might hear it.
Ghost looks over Pup and vanishes.
Pup sits up as the bolt groans in the wall and the door opens, yellow lamplight pooling in.
Alice moves the door only enough to let herself in. She’s carrying a flashlight that could double as a club and wearing thick socks that make her footsteps a whisper against the concrete floor.
“Hello, Pup.” Even though she’s whispering her voice seems too loud, too real.
Pup glances at the door without meaning to. She didn’t bolt it again. How far could he get before someone noticed?
“If I thought we could sneak out, I’d try. Nass has you locked down. That’s why it took me this long to sneak in.”
Pup angles away from her, crosses his arms over his chest.
She watches him, her too-small eyes wide, as she straightens her loose, short-sleeved shirt.
Pup opens his mouth to speak, softly so that the guard won’t hear, but he’s not sure what to say, “Look, Alice–”
“You can still call me Ghost. If you like.” Her smile is a phantom of the one he knows. “I don’t mind.”
He grinds his teeth. She looks so convincingly like his best friend but is completely different in every way. “Fine. Ghost, then. I don’t have the reactor part anymore. You’re on your own.”
“I didn’t come for that.”
“So what do you want?”
“To talk to you. After all this time, I can’t believe you’re here.” She sets the flashlight down and crosses the room to sit lightly at the other end of his cot.
Pup puts elbows to thighs, massaging his forehead with the tips of his fingers so he doesn’t have to look at her. “Funny, since you’re the one who led me here.”
“You were hurt, and I thought if I got you here, I could convince Nass–”
“I heard what you said to Nass. How I’m one of your marks.”
“A mark? I didn’t–”
“Anchor.” Pup leans back against the wall. “Yeah, I got what you meant.”
She folds her arms over her chest in that way that always made Ghost seem small. “I can project my mind outside my body.”
It’s not what Pup expected her to say, and the reply he has ready gets lodged in his throat.
“I can’t go very far, maybe half a mile, but there’s a machine that lets me go much further. I was part of a military experiment just before the Collapse. And when General Ackerman–a real general, not like Nass–lost contact with the outside world, he asked me and the others like me to scout for him.”
Ghost holds her chin high. “I’m the youngest. And better at it than the others. A lot better. But the plane and the physical world aren’t alike, and I hadn’t learned how to control my projection.
“I got lost.”
She’s studying Pup now, like she’s saying something he should understand. But he doesn’t.
“My body was dying here while I was on the plane looking for something to latch onto. To get my bearings.” Ghost is smiling in a way that doesn’t suggest happiness. “And then you found me.
“You weren’t like the others. I can make most people see me, but at that time it was chaos. I couldn’t make a connection. When I reached out to you, you reached back. You were my anchor.”
Pup is shaking his head.
“You saved my life.”
“No,” Pup’s voice is thicker than he means for it to be. “I’d lost my parents and I didn’t stand a chance until you found me. I’d have died of heat stroke in a day–I was just a kid.”
“So was I.”
“But I didn’t do anything.”
“You were there for me when no one else was.”
It’s all backward from what he knows. Ghost takes care of him; it was never the other way around.
“That’s why I was always pushing you in this direction. I thought if I could get you here . . .”
Pup finishes for her, “They’d let me stay.”
Ghost rubs her fingernails together, making little clicking noises in the silence. Her voice is too soft, “And then Nass came. She was a refugee. Smart. Gained support. And General Ackerman died.” She swallows hard. “He was old but . . . It happened so suddenly. We were all devastated.”
“But not Nass,” Pup guesses.
She meets his gaze. “No. Not Nass. She named herself general. We lost a lot of our original people. Nass got rid of them, one way or another.”
Pup asks, “Why didn’t you try to get away?”
“I couldn’t have found you without the machine. When we scavenged a reactor, I hoped that Nass might let you sign on. She wants to expand, has a salvage of factory equipment–if she can get the plant really running. But now it’s all so messed up. This is my fault. I should’ve been with you last night.”
“Why weren’t you?”
She points to the dead overhead lights and spits out the words, “Power restrictions.”
Pup imagines reaching out, touching her shoulder, feeling that she’s real. “That’s not really your fault then, is it?”
She looks away. “Feels like my fault.”
Silence settles over the space. The cold concrete wall at Pup’s back is leeching the warmth from his body and he’s afraid that if he doesn’t say the right thing, she will leave. “I thought you were really a ghost.”
She smiles the familiar, completely foreign, smile. “Most people I project to can hear me. You’re the least psychic person I’ve ever met. I could’ve hurt you, forcing my way further into your mind than your nature allows.”
Pup takes a moment to consider that.
“Tomorrow,” Ghost says, “Nass will decide what to do with you.”
“Any chance I’ll get to stay?”
“I doubt it. Nass . . . likes to be the smartest person in the room. She only keeps people she knows she can control.”
Pup’s not sure he wants to hear the answer, but he asks anyway, “How does she control you?”
“With the machine. She thinks I’m addicted to it. She doesn’t know the real reason that I needed it was you.”
She blinks. “For what?”
“I didn’t know,” he gestures at nothing, struggles for the right way to say it, “that it took so much for you to help me.”
She smiles her best Ghost smile, the one that always made her purple glow a little stronger. Only now, in the splintered light she’s brighter than he’s ever seen her.
“I should get back before they find me here. Nass is treating you like enemy number one while you’re on base. Pulling extra staff to guard duty in this part of the complex.”
“Wait.” Pup’s brow furrows. “Where is she pulling guards from?”
Ghost shrugs. “I’m not sure. Why?”
He’s staring at the door, trying to remember the layout of the complex.
“Sorry. Could you do me a favor?”
She tucks a lock of hair behind her ear, giving up on keeping it in the braid. “Anything.”
It shouldn’t make his stomach flip-flop to hear her say that. But it does.
Pup wakes when the glaring electric lights hum to life overhead. The soldiers don’t offer him food or water. They lead him out of the depths of the base, through narrow corridors with well-maintained pipes overhead. The surface looks different in the daylight. Though Pup recognizes the spot where the trucks had been the night before, they’re gone now.
Nass waits for him in the yard at the gate with more soldiers than Pup could possibly merit.
“Mr. Pup,” she says with a hint of amusement that Pup takes as an insult, “you’re free to go.”
“Just like that?”
She shrugs. Standing, Nass is neither tall nor short, broad nor lean. She moves with absolute confidence, an ease about her that Pup can’t copy with so many rifles at the ready. “I might believe that you found a reactor, Alice seems to, but without proof, you’re not useful, so you’re on your own.”
“What if I want to sign on?”
Her eyes narrow for an instant. “You’re not the sort of man I like to recruit.”
“What happens to Alice?”
Nass’s jaw muscles flex tight before she answers. “Alice is mine and none of your concern.”
“If you send me out into the plains now, with nothing, I won’t last the summer.”
Her head wobbles from side to side as she weighs an answer. She motions one of the soldiers flanking Pup to step forward. Unbuckles his belt while he stands at attention. Frees a knife in a leather sheath. Tosses it to Pup’s feet. “Tell you what, you bring me working scavenge from a real reactor–I’ll pay you enough to buy you in anywhere.” She smiles without humor. “But if my people catch you around here without something to show for it, you’ll have more to worry about than summer heat.
“Cut him loose.”
Pup barely manages to scoop up the knife before soldiers begin shoving him toward the perimeter.
Pup’s careful to stay within half a mile of Base and the day is gone by the time Ghost appears. His muscles uncoil at her familiar image, though she seems too small to be the person he now knows. Her features are hard to make out, fuzzy around the edges, like a sun-bleached photograph. Her butterfly-bush purple flat and bland.
He asks, “How’d it go?”
She hesitates, nods.
Pup breathes out a sigh. “Okay, let’s have it.”
She bites her lower lip as she lifts both hands to mime the answer. Her fingers hang rigid in the air between them a moment and then she lets her arms fall back to her sides. She huffs noiselessly. There’s too much.
“You said that you could push your way into my head. I need to know what you know.”
Her form wavers, her eyes growing large before she crosses see-through arms over see-through chest.
“Do whatever you have to do, I’ll be fine,” his voice is even, but his stomach twists against itself.
Her lips press into a tight line and she shakes her head.
Pup grits his teeth. “Just do it.”
Ghost looks to the sky as if she’s looking for a way out, but there isn’t one, so she extends a delicate hand toward Pup’s forehead. When her not-really-there fingers brush against his face, Pup’s world vanishes in a flash of blinding pain.
The inside of Pup’s skull is on fire. His throat is shredded and his mouth is dry, tacky. His hands and feet tingle and his guts quiver. He opens his eyes one at a time and finds the world a bleary haze. He’s on his back and there’s something crusty coating his face. When the washed-out blue sky comes into focus, he lifts a shaking hand to scrape the film away from his nose, lips, chin. It’s blood, sticky and flaking.
He sits up and the world spins. He doesn’t remember walking, but he’s not in the reaped field outside of Base anymore. Ghost isn’t in sight, but the town of Bootstrap is. And he knows what he has to do.
Neither of the guards at the gate are the one from before, and Pup’s not sure if they’re the two friends that helped rob him on the plain. He doesn’t have the time to wait until a shift change that might not see the guard he needs come on duty.
Pup lingers among the shanty booths, chewing his lip as he considers. The scent of roasted carrots and spiced meat causes his mouth to water, reminding him that he hasn’t eaten, and if he had something to trade he could buy a skewer. A skewer . . .
The old woman.
He tears his attention from the gate to see gray dreadlocks hunched over a frayed shawl. She’s holding the bit of wire but has stopped turning the skewers on the open-pit grill and they’re starting to blacken on one side, char ruining the flavor hanging in the air. Her face is bowed down, but one eye watches him with that knowing stare that says she’s survived in the After as long as he has and knows how to get by.
Her voice is dry, high pitched. She doesn’t run. She’s too old to escape him. “Care for a hot meal?”
“You told him where I was going. Which direction I was headed.”
Her tongue darts over her flat lips. “I didn’t–”
“I don’t care. I’m not here for you. I just want to talk to him. He’s got something worth way more than he knows, but he doesn’t have a clue what to do with it. You tell him to meet me where we met last time.”
“Just tell him.” He glares at her until her jaw clenches and her features settle. She nods once. When Pup snatches a pair of skewers off the grill, she doesn’t try to stop him, only watches as he makes his way onto the plain.
Pup sits in the glaring sun, wishing that he’d thought to say that he’d meet them in the shade of the market. At least here he can see them coming. The dry grass is crumbling in the heat and already patches of dirt show through. In a week or two, the dust storms will start.
He’s expecting three men, but four figures appear in the distance. They’re washed out to dusty pale by the high sun and flicker in waves of heat, ghosts on the plain.
As they draw near, Pup sees the guard who turned him away. He’s the tallest not because of height, but because he carries himself upright. The other three are lean, hungry, prowling after their leader like coyotes.
The guard stops a few arm-lengths beyond Pup’s reach and the others surround him, loose and snickering. The guard speaks first, “You wanted to see me.”
His friends laugh.
“I have a deal for you.”
The guard’s spotted face angles toward the man to Pup’s right, but he’s still looking at Pup, a purple welt across his nose. “Dumb shit here thinks we’re gonna give his stuff back. Whatcha think, guys?”
There’s a chorus of grumbling threats that Pup interrupts, “You’ve still got that box from my pocket.”
“‘Fraid I traded all your crap away.”
“No you didn’t. Not this. No one will trade with you for it.”
“And you will?”
“I’ve got a buyer.” Pup pauses to let the idea hang in the air.
“So, what? I’m supposed to give it back to you and you’ll let me in on the trade?”
Pup folds his arms over his chest. “No. You’re going to give it back to me and while I’ve got General Nass and her soldiers at Base occupied, you’re going to steal a working military truck with tread on the tires and a full tank of gas. Drive it down to Springfield and trade it for a small fortune.”
It takes a second for them to realize what he’s said, a brief silence before the three goons start to break down and laugh. But the guard’s not laughing. “Nobody steals from Base. Their patrol routes change, their guns are better, their supplies are never in the same place twice.”
For the first time it occurs to Pup that for someone like this guard, stealing from the base would be a constant temptation. A dangerous one.
“I have someone on the inside.”
“You have a friend on Base? You’re some little shit scavenger. Who could you know?”
“My friend got volunteered. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’m here to cash in.”
“Then what were you doing trying to buy your way into Bootstrap?”
Pup shifts his weight and rolls his eyes up toward the sky as if he’s annoyed with the guard’s stupidity, but really he’s taking a moment to pick the right lie. “I can’t exactly do it alone, now can I? If I’m busy distracting, how am I supposed to steal a truck?”
The guard shakes his head. “You expect me to believe that was a test? That you were testing me?”
“You proved you’ve got the guts for thieving.”
His response comes late, his voice even and softer than before, “You really didn’t have enough.”
“Doesn’t matter now. You in or not?”
The guard sizes up his three friends, but none of them have a word to say. Too greedy, scared, or stupid to find a flaw in a plan that could net them such an impressive haul. Maybe they’re as desperate as Pup.
The guard looks back to Pup. “What’s the play?”
Pup studies him a moment longer. Wishes that Ghost was here.
He puts one knee to the dirt and pulls the knife from his boot. Cuts a line in the shape of Base’s perimeter. Goes back over it and marks the important bits. “Right when the sun is highest in the sky, you’ll be here. . . .”
The room has wood paneling that soaks up the sickly electric light, leaving the space dim and small. There’s a fold-out table in the center of the room with one metal chair. Along two of the walls are sturdy wooden shelves packed full of books, some not much more than scraps of paper bundled together.
As Nass leads Pup inside, a man old enough to have been an adult during the Before time starts and stands up straight. He’s thin, too tall, and his graying hair is cropped close to his head. He’s standing beside a long desk bolted to one of the book-free walls and stacked with electronic equipment in various stages of repair. If Pup were scavenging, he would have discarded most of it, except for the many gray and black cables that tangle and hang to the floor.
Nass hands the man Pup’s Before scavenge while four of the soldiers follow them inside and the door clicks closed. The air grows heavy with the hot breathing of too many people for the space. They’ve taken the knife Nass gave him, and they’re–every one of them–taller and heavier than Pup.
The man accepts Pup’s scavenge with long fingers that are knobby at the knuckles. Squints at the shallow metal box in his palm and then pulls a pair of wire-rimmed glasses from his uniform’s front pocket. He holds the glasses up without putting them on, inspecting the tiny metallic markings etched into the one green plastic side of the box.
Nass turns her attention back to Pup and holds out one hand toward the fold-out table and chair. A soldier claps a hand on Pup’s shoulder and urges him into the seat.
The older man shakes Pup’s scavenge next to his ear, but it doesn’t make any noise. His mouth turns down as he nods in approval.
The man connects the part to some wires, presses a button, and the pile of equipment beeps. The room fills with its clicks and tiny fans wheeze to life.
He taps at a screen that casts his features in sharp shadows and blue light. He squints at the screen a long time, tap, tap, tapping.
All the while Nass watches Pup.
Then the man’s eyes grow wide and he turns to speak too quickly to Nass. “It’s not corrupted. I can force it to mount, but the system won’t boot to it. Still as a secondary drive I think I can trick the main system into thinking we’ve met the requirements of the security protocols and–”
Nass rolls her eyes, looking from one young soldier to another before interrupting the man’s ramblings, “Speak English.”
He blinks dumbly at Nass, licks his lips. “This,” he points to the screen, “just advanced our efforts by ten years. Maybe more. If any of the other equipment is in this good of condition . . .” He doesn’t need to finish. Everyone in the room understands. Even Pup.
Nass turns her attention back to Pup. Her eyes narrow in a way that Pup has only seen on wolves, circling, growling. She gestures to one of her soldiers without taking her gaze from Pup. The soldier unrolls a bundle of maps, kicking dust and the smell of moldy paper into the air.
Nass stabs the stack of maps with a finger. “You will tell me where you got this.”
Pup fights against the wrenching hollowness in his stomach, swallows the tightness in his throat. “Let’s see the reward first.”
“You’ll get it–”
Pup interrupts, “I’m not telling you anything, until I see the haul.”
Nass’s nostrils flare. She flicks her hand out and a soldier thuds a backpack onto the table.
The pack by itself would be a prize find. It has two nylon straps, wide and padded, and a dozen pockets with working zippers. Pup flips open the flap and loosens the unfrayed drawstring. He takes out each item, slowly, stretching out time.
Inside is as good as out: a clip-on flashlight with working bulb and batteries. Boots with unworn soles and laces. A dozen unrusted cans of meat. Two thick blankets finely woven from some synthetic that won’t rot. Rope, pliers, sewing needles, army knife, a leather belt. All new.
It’s enough to buy him into any town twice.
Nass is pacing between the table and the old man tapping at his Before equipment, but the general’s eyes never leave Pup.
Pup packs everything back inside, it’s a challenge to get it all to fit so that he can pull the drawstring closed.
“Now,” Nass says, “the maps.”
Pup slides the heavy pack aside to get at the papers. He only knows how to read a few words, so even though he remembers how he got from there to here, it takes him a long time to get his bearings.
Nass lurks always at the edge of Pup’s vision, and Pup takes his time. He shifts through each map, looking for some way to decode the markings. Finally, he settles on one with less writing. It doesn’t highlight the old, deteriorated roadways and abandoned towns as much as some of the others. Pup focuses on riverways he recognizes, though many were only dried-up beds by the time he encountered them.
Pup asks about the map. Nass explains the symbols. Gives him a red pencil, and Pup picks out his route, starting at Base and working backward. He marks the dangers he faced along the way and suggests what kind of equipment would be ideal for each leg of the journey. Nass quizzes him, trying to catch him in a lie.
Long after Pup has figured which point on the map Nass needs, he’s still asking questions, pretending to narrow down the space, and Nass is eager to supply Pup with answers.
“Okay, I have it,” Pup says when Nass is about to burst.
Pup is hunched over the table, and Nass leans in, intent on the map, her face only a couple of hand-lengths away from Pup’s. Pup clenches his jaw, tightens his stance, and waits for Nass to meet his eyes. Waits a beat after he’s locked Nass in his stare. Says, “If I give you this, you’re going to let me walk out of here.”
Nass doesn’t answer right away, which makes Pup think she might be telling the truth when she says, “Fine. Yes. Now tell me.”
Pup is trotting across the grassland at a pace he could never keep up during daylight with the heavy pack. But the air cools with the oncoming night. He’s in too big a hurry to care about the stitch in his side or the spasm in his thigh.
He can’t know if the guard and his friends were captured, if they did their part right, or if they left him behind. Not until he gets to the meeting spot.
The bottoms of his feet still tingle from when Ghost forced her way into his head and he’s beginning to suspect it might not stop. It’s a small thing. A trade he’d make again in a heartbeat to get to stand face-to-face with her real-girl version even one more time.
He waits until Base is out of sight, far behind, before he fixes the clip-on light to the pack at his shoulder. His head is up and he’s squinting into the darkness between the edge of his bubble of light and the orange glow of the evening sun burning up the horizon. He should be about there, but he doesn’t see them. He’s a little late, but not so late that they’d have gone on without him, right?
Pup’s looking to the left when a pair of blinding headlights cut on directly in front of him. One pair. A single truck. Then they flicker back off and he hustles the rest of the way.
The guard is leaning against the sand-colored military truck, his elbow crooked over its hood like it’s a pretty girl. He’s showing all his boxy teeth in a grin that stretches his spotted face too wide. “Guess I gotta take back all that shit I said about you behind your back.”
“What about all the shit you said to my face?”
The guard throws his head back and laughs, high on his success. There are vague shapes, darkened outlines, of people inside the truck. The guard’s goons. Pup doesn’t see Ghost. “How’d it go?”
The guard pretends to think about it before he nods, his smile settling into a sly grin. “It went.”
Silence stretches between them. The longest moment passes while the guard considers him. “You have any more bright ideas, you let me in, yeah? You see I’m good for my part.”
Pup shifts his weight, impatience leaking into his voice, “Haven’t seen that you’re good just yet, have I?”
“I did just what you said. Gave her a ‘choice‘.”
The blood drains too quickly from Pup’s face, leaving him lightheaded. “And?”
The guard shrugs. Bangs his fist on the hood of the truck.
The rear passenger door opens and out climbs Ghost. She takes her time crossing the space to stand beside him. Smirks when she catches him staring. Pup remembers to close his mouth. To breathe. Looks back to the guard.
He winks at Pup.
“Alright,” Pup says to the guard, “I guess you are good for it.”
The guard laughs again, throwing his arms out to either side, wiggling his fingers toward himself. “You see? Remember me now. I’m your man.”
Pup doesn’t commit either way as the guard climbs into his truck and starts the engine.
Ghost leans in close, smelling of soap. “We’re not going with them to Springfield?”
“No,” Pup says, quiet so the guard won’t hear him over the even rumble of the engine, “if Nass is going to try and track us down, she’ll start by getting the truck back, and I don’t want to be anywhere near there when that happens.”
Ghost considers this as the guard turns the truck about, laughter spilling out of the cab, into the night.
Ghost asks, “Where are we going?”
Pup waits until the red glow of the truck’s taillights has faded into the expanse. When he’s sure they’ve gone, he unshoulders the heavy pack and kneels, tossing back the flap.
Ghost lets out a low whistle when she sees the supplies inside.
He says, “We can buy our way into Salem with this, easy.”
“We can work for room and water during the summer.”
She raises an eyebrow. “What kind of work?”
“Whatever they have. I might be able to find something that’ll get enough water for both of us. Maybe make something out of your projecting? Or if you could read a little bit–”
“I can read. And write. In English and Spanish.”
Pup laughs. Harder than he means to. Harder than he has in a long time, and it reminds him of the guard’s too broad smile.
He closes the pack and hefts it onto his back. “Know any percentages? Addition?”
She falls in next to him as he strikes out, heading south, giving him a side-eye like she can’t tell what he thinks is so funny. “We had regular school until Nass took over. I know up to college Algebra.”
“Of course you do. What’s Algebra?”
“That’s a few years after percentages.”
“In that case, you won’t have any trouble finding a job. Maybe you’ll work for both of us.”
She’s quiet for a time while they walk. Then she asks, “What happens after summer?”
Pup’s stomach flip flops unpleasantly. He’s never had to think about more than surviving the next summer, but Ghost has been playing a long game their whole lives. She wants a real plan, and he’s not sure he has one good enough for her.
“When winter rolls around, I’ll head out. Find a good scavenge and go from there.”
“Are you going to bring me with you?” Her voice is high, tight.
He grips the strap on his shoulder so that it bites into his palm, but doesn’t dare to look over. “I can bring you, if you like.”
“What if I decide I’m happy with the work in Salem?”
“Then I guess you’ll stay.”
Ghost slows to standing and Pup stops. He turns to face her, but keeps his head down.
She asks, “Will you stay with me?”
It’s a moment before he works up the nerve to meet her gaze. The Ghost he knew was a sad shadow of the person before him. Her brown eyes bloom green at the center, like the plains at the start of winter. Her glossy hair is too thick for the military braids to contain. She is tall, educated, soft-skinned, and discerning.
Her brow unfurls, and whatever she sees on his face forces her across the space between them. She reaches for him and when she takes his hand, Pup’s fingers tremble.
Pup answers, “I can stay. If you like.”
About the Author
Krystal Claxton (she/her) is a Systems Engineer I with unfortunate aspirations involving fiction, words, and publishing.
She was tragically born with a miscalibrated sense of humor, and lived in nine US states before the age of thirteen. The combination of the two has left her with an oscillating accent and a habit of laughing at things that aren’t funny. She currently lives in Georgia with her long-suffering spouse, a dog who thinks its a cat, and a number of children that is subject to change.
You can find her short fiction in Cast of Wonders, Daily Science Fiction, Factor Four Magazine, Fireside Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, Nature: Futures, Podcastle, and Unidentified Funny Objects 3.
She enjoys breaking Heinlein’s Rules, getting distracted by Dragon Con, and feverishly researching whichever random topic has just piqued her interest.
About the Narrator
Your narrator – Paul Cram – is a scrappy actor who’s character in movies always seems to be the one that dies. His latest role in Anniversary has him awake at night seeing things that no one wants to admit are happening. While Paul still considers his voice to be somewhat new to the world of audio books, he has a few full-length novels under his belt, including the love story Flirting With Death set against the beauty of Lake Michigan & the Zombie Apocalypse. When not acting, Paul can be found out in the woods of Minnesota, arguing pop-culture with his little brother.