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When I saw the stranger weaving through the newly settled dusk on my visz monitor, he looked like a lie—a mirage, half wavering fantasy, half dust in my eyes. Chaplin didn't even believe me when I told him about it, but then again, he knew that I'd stayed partway sane only because of one altered version of the truth or another. It always took him some good thought before he ever put stock in what I did or said, and I wouldn't blame him, or anyone else, for that. Lies and omissions were how we lived out here in the nowheres. It was how we made sure strangers like this one on the visz never paid mind to us.
We lied about reality to survive.
Hell, I would lie to anyone, even you.
When I grabbed my old revolver from the wall arsenal, that must've lent some credence to the situation for Chaplin. He looked at the visz, seeing that I was telling him true about a stranger coming toward us.
"Think he's another one of them?" I asked, while keeping an eye on the screen. "Think this guy's one of Stamp's?"
My dog chuffed, then padded over close to me, leaning against my leg. His long tail curled over my boot, like a child wrapping an arm round a protector.
Not that I'm all that good at protecting. Sometimes I even think that Chaplin does a better job of guarding me than the other way round. There's a lot of ways a person needs to be protected.
Strung tight with tension, I adjusted a knob on the visz's side to get a better look at the approaching stranger. The long view was gloomy with the surreal blur of the camera's night vision, streaking his movements as he lurched even nearer to my underground home. Could he somehow see this earthen dwelling, even though I'd taken great care to disguise the entrance amongst the scrub and mounded landscape?
Chaplin made a garbled sound, and I rested a hand on his furry head.
"Don't worry," I said. "I'll bet he saunters right past us."
I didn't even believe myself this time.
My dog softly yowled, as if chewing on words. To anyone not trained in Canine, his sentiments would be inarticulate. But years ago, when I was no more than a pup myself, I'd begged my dad for one of the Intel Dogs he bred and trained at his lab. Dad had obliged only just before we'd been forced to flee our Dallas home much later; then Chaplin had become necessary for survival—a watchdog genetically tooled to be more intelligent than most humans. Stronger, too. He was also a balm for us after my mom and brother had been murdered right in the home we'd abandoned.
I guess I needed Chaplin more than ever now, long after the murders and one year after my dad had taken his own life. My dog wasn't just my best friend—he was my only friend. In particular, he was nice to have round at night. Nice to have round whenever I thought about what waited outside the dirt-packed walls.
Just thinking about outside made the phantom scars on my body itch, but I forced myself not to touch them. They'd only bring back what had supposedly healed.
Now Chaplin growled low in his throat, his brown-haired ears lying flat against his skull as he backed toward a door barring a tunnel that connected our domain to one of the underground caverns.
I offered him a nod, a show of unity that didn't need to be voiced between the two of us. Then I turned back to the visz, which showed the stranger in post-stumble pause.
When I found him staring right back at me, my heart jerked, sending my adrenaline bursting to a hum that I fought to contain. His eyes were rendered luminescent by the camera's night vision and…
It was like he could somehow see the camouflaged lens.
Like he knew we were in here.
Pacing my breathing, calming myself lest I lose control—God-all help me if I did—I hefted down a mini-crossbow from the wall, then stuffed my revolver into a holster built into my wide belt. I loaded the bow with a bolt because it'd be quieter than the bullets if I should have to defend my home. Bullets might attract attention.
"If he's one of Stamp's men," I said, "I'll show him a lesson about coming here when he's drunk and looking for trouble. Stamp's got to be sending his crew to poke round, just like that other man who was already here."
My dog didn't make a sound, and I was glad about that. Neither of us wanted to talk about Stamp's workers. Meanwhile, the stranger loomed closer on the visz, his features coming into shocking focus.
Something in my stomach fisted at the sight of his facial wounds, but I battled back the clench, the emotion. Battled hard, until all that was left was a tremor that only reminded me I wasn't safe.
Then my dog crept to my side and stared at the visz, too, almost like he'd been drawn closer. He let out a long, sympathetic whimper.
Hurt, was what Chaplin's sound meant. The man is hurt.
I tried to glance away but couldn't. The blood enthralled me, even more than it had when I was young, back before my family had been attacked and before the world had almost ended. Back when the media had first started entertaining the masses with violent news images, films of close-up war casualties in North Korea and public executions that people had clamored to witness in real life. Carnerotica, it had come to be called, until that form of amusement had become old hat under the new thrill of the subliminal fantasies I heard they were airing on TV now.
This man was a lot like one of those old executions.
The visz's pale night vision showed his face to be a wounded map to nowhere, etched with open gashes on his forehead and cheeks. Blood and dirt seemed to crust his short-sheared hair. His battered mouth opened round a word.
Chaplin whimpered again. Hurt.
"Maybe that's what he hopes we believe." I gripped my crossbow all the harder, sweat breaking out over my skin, even though summer was a season away—a dry, brutal time that made staying inside my shelter all the wiser.
When Chaplin cocked his head, I realized that, for the first time, I couldn't exactly translate what his gesture meant. He was acting addled, off-kilter. Off-guard.
Inexplicably, a sense of isolation expanded in my chest, filling me up so there was no room for much else. I didn't like this sudden lack of simpatico that separated me from my only real ally left from better days.
"You're posing like you're going soft, boy. Where's the wariness in you?"
Chaplin turned his big brown eyes in my direction, emitting a series of whines. I still didn't understand, even though I could translate. It was his gaze that befuddled me, because it brimmed with foreign haziness, an utter lack of focus.
The dog wanted to help the stranger?
"You think we should open the door and let him in for nursing and shelter?"
Chaplin wagged his tail.
He still wagged.
"Hell, it doesn't matter that Dad and I spent sweat upon sweat trying to disguise the dwelling so it'd be quiet and unnoticeable. It doesn't matter that, if Stamp's sending his men round to search out more water for his property, he might resort to trickery to get one of his guys inside here and drag us off the property. Most of all, you know what we have to lose by letting anyone near. No, you're just sitting there cocking your head and flashing your browns and begging like none of that is of consequence."
The dog just kept cocking and flashing while the stranger's visage hovered in the visz, as if gauging the hidden device.
Chaplin gnawed out a few more muddled sounds. He asked for help.
I turned away, forcing my concentration on the visz again. It was as if I were stuck in one of my nightmares, where Chaplin had finally given up on me and had decided to go his own way, leaving me behind.
On the screen, the stranger crumpled to his knees and hunched over in what looked to be agony. Chaplin winced, then stamped round, fidgety.
But letting the man in would be too much of a risk… in so many ways. Yes, he was wounded, and I felt for him. I'd been wounded, too, way back when. But that was exactly why I couldn't drag him inside. I knew better than to welcome anything in.
And I knew the rest of the community would probably feel the same way. From the sights I often saw on the viszes, which were trained on the underground common area where other New Badlanders had begun gathering again recently, I could tell that the world hadn't changed fast enough for anyone to be trusting strangers. The bad guys were still out there, and Johnson Stamp might prove to be one of them. According to gossip, he'd permanently moved here about a month ago, establishing a setup for uncovering water in the area, seeing as the earth didn't produce a whole lot of it for regular folk these days. Of course, corporations had the means to desalinate ocean water and seed clouds, but their services came at a steep price few could afford without indebting themselves body and soul. Water was life, especially in an out-of-the-way place like the New Badlands.
The stranger made one last pain-ragged appeal over the visz.
"No… harm," he croaked out, lifting his head back up in supplication.
Then I saw something I couldn't be sure of. His eyes, already whitened by the camera's night vision, flared, reminding me of a gunslinger opening his jacket to show that he wasn't armed.
I sucked in a breath when he hit the ground again, dust wisping up round his flattened body like smoke seething out of the earth.
Chaplin whined deep in his throat, an accusation.
Well, screw him and his dog brain. Maybe his Intel was rubbing off him, what with living out here in the wilds. Maybe we'd all have every last bit of sense bleached from us soon. Wouldn't surprise me, seeing as I was halfway there already.
I ignored the visz and clung to my crossbow, still remembering that odd flash in the stranger's eyes, riddled by it.
Chaplin put his paw on my boot and I said, "I'm not falling for his tricks."
Hurt, he repeated.
"And his hurt trumps what might happen to us should we let him in, whether or not he's Stamp's man?"
No answer from Chaplin on that, because he probably had enough brain cells working to realize that this stranger could be a million things spelling a last mistake. Besides exposing our home, there was a chance that he was one of the bad guys himself—and bad guys would pull anything to make their way in life. See, after old prophecies had come to a head—things like pestilence and earthly change—the bads had taken advantage of all the chaos. The mosquito epidemic had wiped out and separated much of the population in the old States, and terrorism had coerced the normal, law-abiding citizens to take homebound jobs, where they only face-to-faced with their core families. But that was only the start.
U.S.-based terrorists had rigged massive charges along the quake faults of the West Coast to blow off some of the "devil-ridden" area, and the government had extended full security for the good of the country. But a lot of people thought the government could be just as bad as any enemy, and they'd left the urban hubs, seeking safety on compounds or isolated places like the New Badlands. From that point on, bad guys had risen from the ashes all over the place. There'd been a spike in identity theft, so we'd dug the ID chips out from under our skin. We stopped using the Internet and mass tools of communication. We basically wiped ourselves off the face of society since the government—which had even stopped pretending that it wasn't composed of many a bad guy itself—had been too slow to regulate privacy information legislation.
That was when bad guys seized even more identities and properties with impunity. Basically, to live nowadays, even if the government was said to have been weakened by out-of-country monetary sanctions, you had to decide whether to eat or be eaten. And, right now, I wasn't about to put myself on a banquet table.
When I checked the visz one last time, I saw that the screen was empty. A trickle of sweat slid down my temple. Eat or be eaten, I thought again.
But Chaplin didn't seem to get it. If someone had helped you when you needed it…
"Stop," I said before he could really cut into me. "Don't be talking about that. You know better."
The dog merely waited me out, big-browning me with those eyes. It was almost like I could see exactly what he was thinking, too: images of my mom and preteen brother reaching out, screaming while covered with blood as the bad guys got to them. To us.
If someone had helped us when we needed it…
Damn it all. Maybe the only thing separating us from the world we were hiding from was moments like this, when you could make the choice to do more than just stand by while someone else fell.
Could I just help the guy a little, then send him on his way? Was it possible? I did have an arsenal of weapons on my side, after all.
I had a lot of things he'd be afraid of, except I wasn't so willing to use everything at my disposal. He could thank me for that later.
Damn it. Damn it.
I raised a finger to Chaplin, but it trembled. "You'd better be right. If this man's fooling us with those injuries, I'll gun him off good and make sure Stamp knows we're not buying whatever he might be bringing. Then you and me are going to have a talk about common sense."
My dog shifted from one paw to the other, happy as could be. His gaze seemed… what? Inappropriately misty? Bright?
Adrenaline thudding, I set down my crossbow and rechecked my revolver. It'd been made in the early 2000s but would work fine, bolstered by the modifications and the old ammunition, plus the homemade, I'd loaded into it.
I couldn't believe I was doing this. Stupid. But Chaplin would never let me forget that I was no better than a bad guy if I didn't at least see if the stranger was truly wounded. The dog had put up with a lot from me, and someday, I'd push him over the line. I didn't want that day to be now.
With a hard glance at him, I tucked the revolver back into its holster, grabbed the crossbow, then moved toward the wooden ladder. I slowly climbed toward the exit panel, wanting to take the high ground in case I needed it.
God-all, when was the last time I'd willingly been outside? To hell with Chaplin for reminding me that this was the right and decent thing to do. To hell with him for playing that horrific card.
I heaved in oxygen, held my breath, slamming open the panel and emerging into the darkening dusk. Through my night sights, I scanned the area for traps.
Or maybe not.
I scanned a second time while the night air baked over me: dragon's breath, they called the extreme conditions forced by all the changes.
Heartbeat tangling, I smoothed myself out as I breathed. Breathed.
At the same time, I kept thinking: Outside. I'm outside. I should get back in…
Trying to shove my doubts away, I maneuvered over the dry, rock-bitten hill until I slid to the ground. A few sharp blades of cockroach grass, named because it'd sprung up in defiance of the harsh weather, pricked through my pants.
Inside. Get back inside…
Now I went a step farther, shutting myself from feeling altogether: smelling, intaking, experiencing. Then I approached the stranger, aiming my crossbow at his chest. It'd be quite a sight when he opened his eyes. Hopefully, he'd report back to Stamp that there was nothing near here worth even a third look.
Unless he was really hurt.
Peering closer, I discerned that the stranger's wounds seemed genuine enough, not to mention his obvious pain. Then, as I knew it would, the blood on his skin zoomed in at me, and I clamped off the sight before I could have a reaction. A contained tremor blasted through me and, when I was strong enough to open my eyes, I saw that his knees were drawn to his chest as he clutched his long coat round him. His jaw was clenched, as if holding back another fruitless request to allow him inside my home.
With a brief glance at the visz lens hidden amongst the scrub, I wondered how everyone seemed to be finding the equipment when I'd done such an expert job at camouflage.
Inside! Get yourself inside!
I cleared my throat so my voice would come out strong. "You one of Stamp's drunkards?" I was still targeting him, my lungs so tight I could barely talk.
The harmless moon caught a gleam in his eyes as he opened his gaze. He grimaced, dragging himself over to me. I stepped back.
"Shelter," he uttered.
Definitely not faking. I'd heard so many screams in my head over the years that I knew what agony sounded like.
Even so, I scanned him over for weapons with my bow monitor. Unarmed. But a quiver reminded me to keep clamping myself off from his wounds, his hurt.
The stranger stirred on the ground.
But I couldn't move. The sight of his blood was transfixing me again, owning me. Frantically, I grasped my mini-bow one-handed and jerked a dust kerchief out of a pocket, holding it over my nose.
"Do anything dumb," I said, "and you die."
"Understood." His whisper was barely discernible.
I wondered if I should get my dad's old med equipment and take care of him out here, but that would mean lingering in the elements. That might be more dangerous than bringing him in.
A sound behind me persuaded me to swing round my crossbow, but I yanked it up once I saw what was happening.
Three feet away, a scrub-shrouded trapdoor that served as another entrance to the domain had spewed open. And damn it all if Chaplin wasn't waiting right there like the most hyper welcoming committee ever.
He barked, intoning an invitation for the stranger to come in.
"Chaplin!" What was the mutt thinking?
Before I could react, the stranger rolled to the opening, his body disappearing as the entrance swallowed him up.
The thud of his weight hitting the dirt of my home pounded in my ears. I ran to the opening, peering down to find him sprawled near Chaplin, who was already licking the man's wounds.
"Are you crazy, dog?" I jumped to the floor, too, crouching to ease the fall. Right away, I reached over to secure the trapdoor again. Then I pressed the kerchief to my face. "You don't know what's in his blood!"
But that wasn't true. Intel Dogs had an even keener sense of smell than their ancestors, than any type of canine, in fact. Chaplin could warn me about the proximity of any intruders after taking an outside hunting trip; he could tell me if the man was carrying disease or not, too. My dog must've known the stranger was otherwise healthy.
Chaplin avoided me while tending to his patient. Keeping the crossbow in hand, I put some distance between me and the stranger as I headed for my living space.
Breathe, I thought, thankful, so thankful to be back inside. Lucky to have come back without bringing trouble with me.
You can breathe now.
In the food prep area, I leaned against a cupboard, where I could still my racing blood and my tremors. Then, after getting hold of myself, I pulled out some linen that could stanch the stranger's bleeding. I also ditched my bow and brought out antiseptic and a general first-aid kit, from which I opened a bottle of antiseptic gel and smeared the contents under my nostrils.
Back in the day, I would've been able to access the Nets to see if I was nursing a person correctly, but since the bad guys had taken over, that wasn't possible. I'd trashed anything—the computer, the phone, the personal devices—that could possibly allow criminals access to my life. There wouldn't have been good reception out here in the nowheres, anyway.
When I came back and sat down next to the stranger, I realized that Chaplin had licked off the blood, giving the man's features clean definition. Unhindered by crimson, there was something stoic and haunted, his nose slightly crooked, his barely opened eyes gray, his skin pale, just like everyone else's since day-walking without a heat suit was dumb business.
Looking at him did something, curling me from the inside out until I felt twisted up. Heat surged through me, but I couldn't stop, even though I knew I should.
It was just that… Well, in what looked to be all the clothing he owned—a long, battered coat that matched the misery of his trousers, a frayed bag slung over his chest, plus three shirts layered and weather-beaten—he seemed like one of those storied cowboys who used to wander the landscape of mid-twentieth-century cinema. I'd seen a few of those old movies Before, previous to the world's degradation. Hell, most all New Badlanders dressed in this kind of gear, but… it wasn't the same. Maybe it was the silver-star color of the man's eyes or his civil way of asking for help that'd done it. Maybe I was a right fool, too. But there was something about him that brought back a link to the comfortable, the soothing fiction of myth.
The stranger watched me just as well. Something seemed to tweak the front of my mind again, calming me down, making me think it was okay for him to be here.
When Chaplin tilted his head at me, I blinked, pushing the stranger's influence out of me. I was real good at pushing.
Feeling oddly unburdened now, I straightened up, then busied myself by pressing the antiseptic-dipped linen to the stranger's head wounds.
Weird, though. He didn't seem to be breathing. But he was alive all the same.
I glanced at Chaplin. "Does he ring familiar to you? I've never seen him wandering round on any of the visz screens before."
Chaplin shook his head, and I continued to apply pressure. The quicker I nursed him, the quicker he'd be out of my hair.
"Just because he doesn't register," I added, "it doesn't mean he isn't a part of Stamp's crew."
Now, it seemed as if the stranger had fallen into a light stupor after expending enough energy to get himself past the trapdoor. He closed his eyes, his muscles relaxing. His lips opened slightly, and I found my gaze on the cuts and bruises that were making his mouth swell.
That weird heat started making me uncomfortable again, so I pushed it back. "How do you think he got himself hurt, boy?" I asked Chaplin.
My dog growled out an answer. Beat up by one of Stamp's guys.
"Makes sense, I suppose." I grabbed another cloth, dipped it in the gel, then kept right on nursing. "One of them could've gotten blazed on turtlegrape and found a distraction in this unfortunate."
Although Stamp and his men had been more aggressively exploring the area very recently, none of my neighbors were willing to fully reveal themselves so Stamp could be shooed off. They were still hoping to stay unidentified.
But it looked like we'd been discovered anyhow.
I used a corner of linen to wipe down the stranger's face, then paused. Hadn't there been a scratch round his cheekbone?
Chaplin wagged his tail faster, enthused about my willingness to nurse. Darn the dog.
"Bag," the stranger whispered, his voice raw. "In my bag…"
I touched the leathered carryall strapped over his chest, and he grunted in the positive.
"Unguent," he added before going silent again.
I searched the contents of his bag, taking care not to discomfort him. A comb, a scrap of fragrant pink cotton, a flask that seemed cool to the touch, a jar…
I grabbed it, screwed off the porcelain lid to find a solidified pool of goo, then scooped out a gob. It tingled on my skin.
As I slathered it over his wounds, I minded my breathing again. It'd quickened in these last seconds, fighting with my pulse and making me much too aware of the scratch of slight beard on his face, the coolness of his skin.
I caught a small smile right before the creases round his mouth went slack and he succumbed to rest.
And that was how the next few hours passed, with the man resting. Oddly, his head wounds hadn't been as bad as I'd first thought; they certainly seemed to have been humdingers at first, but I was no medic. Still, expert or not, I took care to mind every bit about him, even his lack of breathing. But he was alive enough, so I didn't search for lung activity too diligently.
In the meantime, I brewed some loto cactus-flavored water for when he awoke. He'd be sorely thirsty, no doubt, and the concoction would make him heal all the quicker.
As the water boiled in a stainless steel container I'd once salvaged from an abandoned highway weigh station a few miles distant, I sat on my ground couch. Chaplin cuddled up next to me and, out of enjoyable habit, I petted him between the ears. But I kept tabs on the slumbering stranger. In fact, I was so vigilant about watching him that something outside caught me by surprise. It took Chaplin's growl to shake me to the present—to the other visitor showcased on a visz monitor.
Chaplin kept growling. Even I felt myself tensing until I forced myself to better serenity.
"Lo?" the second visitor called out in greeting.
Like the other intruders from Stamp's camp these past few nights, this guy was speaking Text, the shorthand English that had become so prevalent because of chat rooming, texting, and the like. Since the Badlanders had long ago cut themselves off from all that crap, they'd clung to Old American, just like the shut-ins who tucked themselves away in their urban hub homes and the business people who communicated also in Hindi and Chinese with the global community.
I hunched toward the visz, my heartbeat tapping against my breastbone. Chaplin growled louder at the silhouette on the screen. The guy wore his long hair back, most of it secured into a bun by what looked to be chopsticks.
"C'mon ot," the silhouette said, strolling round the area as the camera tracked him. A jangle accompanied every footstep. Clink, clink.
He was still too far away to recognize in the night vision, and thank-all he wasn't looking straight into the visz's lens like visitor number one of the night had done.
Yet that didn't mean my defenses went down. I felt the threat of this one in my very cells, which collided and heated up.
As I got off the couch, Chaplin followed, going to the sleeping stranger's side as if to guard him. I didn't have time to ask him why he thought that important. I also had no time to indulge in the disappointment of seeing my dog's loyalty spread to another.
For the second time that night, I took out my revolver from its waiting position in my holster, then headed toward the ladder. While passing the visz on the way, I gripped my firearm, palms sweating and—
I whipped round, my revolver aimed.
But all I found was Chaplin barking up at the trapdoor as it closed, darkening the empty spot below where the stranger had just been resting.