The earth started to shake. There wasn’t much Kabela could do about it apart from sit down and wait for it to stop.
This had to be the spike. Had to be.
The spike was the climax of a short period of intense earthquakes; a short period in which Kabela guessed the rocks felt everyone else needed a reminder of just who was in control. Kabela - making a subtle adjustment to where she was sat to ensure that she didn’t fall down a hole which had appeared beside her - considered the regular, non-intense quakes a more than adequate, and far preferable, aide to memory. Unfortunately, the rocks had as yet failed to take onboard her feedback.
Thirty seconds and several holes later, Kabela got up. She looked around. To her left: Cobbold, brushing soil from his clothes; a few less crops to farm; and Brac in the distance. To her right: the rocks, looking pleased with themselves. Assuming that what she had just experienced was the spike, over the coming days the rocks would tone down their quakes to normal frequency and intensity. Which was nice of them.
Actually, thinking about it, this latest batch of quakes had been particularly vicious. As if the rocks had somehow focused their attentions on Brac. Thinking about it, that –
She stopped thinking about it.
There was someone on the rocks. A stranger. Moving. Towards her.
She holla’d to Cobbold. Immediately he began to lumber over.
She looked back to the rocks. The stranger had failed to disappear.
Odd. She had a feeling about this one. The sun behind masked his features, but there was something about him -
Kabela drew her scrap gun. Cobbold appeared at her side and copied her.
While the standard scrap gun divided danger equally between targetee and targetor, Brac still made sure that it was rare for a refugee to carry one. There was the incredibly distant possibility that some refugees might consider being barred from a town they fed stank of something other than fairness. And Kabela knew that for Brac, this incredibly distant possibility, when combined with scrap guns, became a rather disturbing one. Hence the aforementioned rarity. Anyway.
She turned to Cobbold. ‘If it’s a mutie, we shoot. Right?’
And she waited. As well as bearing striking resemblance to a mountain, Cobbold was perhaps a little slower than the average human. And to Kabela that mattered about as much as last weeks’ toenail clippings. ‘Yup,’ he said, after a few seconds. ‘If that’s what you say, Bela.’
‘It is. And a warning shot only.’
True, Brac’s rulebook stated they should do otherwise, but Kabela preferred to be able to live with herself.
‘A warning shot, course.’
Cobbold glanced at her in a way that informed her he had discovered the centre of the universe. She brushed his hand: they would celebrate later.
Then: ‘Hello... ?’
The stranger, and he was clearly unmutated.
‘Whadda we do, Bela?’ asked Cobbold.
Kabela eyed the new arrival. Taller than her, shorter than Cobbold, and standing in a manner that bordered cocky. Looked strong too, in a certain way: in fact, it was as if a chunk of the rocks had got up and walked over.
Scars adorned his body like tattoos, and lines deep enough to be incisions played games on his face. Probably out of necessity as much as anything else, his skin had browned and hardened to resemble a crust. The man hadn’t been born, he’d been hewn.
But it was the eyes that held her: blue and watching and confirming her earlier suspicions.
This man could cause problems.
This man could also work in the fields.
She consulted Brac’s rulebook to see which ranked higher, then pointed to the stranger with the butt of her gun.
‘Hi! Can you use a rake?’
While the man’s reply was affirmative, Kabela considered a more accurate and possibly still too generous response would have been, ‘sort of.’
She watched as he swapped dirt between here and there. Said his name was Max. No surname, which wasn’t a surprise. The rocks had no time for surnames, they were a quirk of an age with more people. And Brac, of course, but Brac and the rocks had issues outstanding.
Every now and then Max would glance up. Either towards the stony lump in the distance, squatting like a frog and shimmering in the heat, or at the crops, the latter of which Kabela felt was worthy of a lot more reaction than the man gave. Should an award for best patch of field ever be available, her patch of field would definitely win it. Admittedly healthy wheat wasn’t that colour, and traditionally it bent more, but still. The award was hers.
The day went on.
And as it did so, it emerged that Max had a keen interest in silence, because that’s pretty much all they exchanged until Cobbold pointed to the east gate and said:
‘Guard’s coming, Bela.’
He looked worried.
‘Don’t worry, Cobbold.’
He looked calm.
Max turned to Kabela. Curious eyes, though she preferred Cobbold’s. ‘What will they do?’ he asked her.
‘Nothing, if you’re servient and polite. Tell them how happy you are to find other humans, how you’ll do anything and everything for water and shelter. Tears of gratitude always help. They like those. Oh, and by the way, while you’re around here, you’re known as a refugee. Which basically means that you happened to be born anywhere in the universe that isn’t Brac.’
‘Oh, I’m serious, believe me. What, you thought if you ever found a place where us pink skins still lived it’d be all green grass and mothers’ smiles? That they’d have a basket of fruit and some candy kisses waiting? That, that they’d actually be pleased to see you?’ Kabela said: ‘Hah!’ and ignored something else that said: yeah, me too. ‘If you do what they tell you and smile - but not too wide, else they think you’re making fun - and nod your head - but don’t draw attention - and don’t ask the wrong questions - actually, don’t ask questions - they’ll let you work hard in the fields with the rest of us. Otherwise - well, there’re always the rocks.’ And wasn’t that quite the year’s understatement.
Then she turned to the patrol, saw who led it, and thought: shit.