I was choking in my sleep, suddenly, and it scared me upright out of my slumber. It was terrifying, the feeling of dust or sand caking the back of my mouth. I coughed and retched, bile following phlegm up and out before I even knew what was happening.
And what the fuck actually was happening? My mind fumbled the last fleeting images in its cache. I remember shovels of dirt being thrown on me, a tarp of some sort being pulled back…later? Faces around me…Motia’s voice “Deader’n a doornail. Go ahead. Give him a kick.” Sharp pain, which felt all too recent…I felt the ribs on my left side: bruised and tender, the sensation wrapping around my back towards my spine. What the hell was going on?
“You need to shake off the dust! HA! Really is dust all over! And no shower for days, I think!” The instantly recognizable voice of Pappu, the Walker Between. That was what they called him here.
Here. Yes. I remembered. We were back in our Prime, but still a few long, hard galaxies away from actual home. Still, it felt nice being somewhere familiar, somewhere where the laws of physics acted like they had when I was a kid. My mind threw a bunch of images at me at once, and the way they stuck didn’t make me very happy at all.
I remembered Pappu grabbing my head in both hands, forcing me to stare right into his eyes as he held his own face inches from my own. “No! You look at ol’ Pap! No thinking yet! Here it comes and be strongly!” A flash of light accompanied by pain. A shallow grave. Drifting in and out of consciousness. The gasp of children witnessing something shocking or awe-inspiring. A name. A face. Bool. We had come here for Bool.
“Well, good morning, sleepy-head.” I turned to see Motia striding my way and nearly bobbled the canteen she tossed at me.
“Did you…did you zap me?” I asked as I unscrewed the cap. It’s amazing the things you never really appreciate until they’re scarce. I’d never realized that water had a smell until my travels with Motia. Sure. The sea has a scent, and so does stagnant, murky swampland, but just regular, clean, clear water smells so damned good when you’ve been without it. I guzzled, almost choking again, but pushed past it to quench the arid landscape of my dirty throat.
“Easy there, turbo,” she muttered as she lit a cigarette.
“What the hell? Tobacco?” I shot at her between gulps.
“Can’t get a vape in this word for nothin’. Besides, I think mine’s dead.”
“Fair enough. So, did you zap me, or what? I’m a bit foggy, what with apparently being shoved in a shallow grave by you and this scrawny brown fucker.” I nodded Pappu’s way. He smiled and waved back.
“Of course I did. It was your idea, dipshit.”
I paused. The canteen was almost empty anyway. I stared at her, waiting for clarification.
“You had to be dead. Bool has to believe you’re dead. So we made you dead. Mostly. Let the neighborhood kids come look at your corpse. They thought it was pretty rad, seeing a dead guy up close and all.”
“I make several good trade for to see you! Better than movies to kids!” Pappu nodded proudly.
A notion struck me just then.
“Did you let them kick me?” I glared at Motia, who glanced around at anything but my gaze. “Pappu?”
His smile melted like Paula Deen’s breakfast. Guilt replaced it.
“Not for free, no!”
“Got a good price, did ya?”
“Well, hey, that’s something at least, huh?”
Pappu laughed and clapped his bony hands together like he’d just seen Robin Williams in a sold-out 1980’s concert (and who knows, maybe he just had). Motia walked closer and offered me a drag of her smoke. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d had a cigarette, but knew it was a generous offer; no telling what she’d done or paid for a cigarette out here in the middle of whatever galactic cluster we were in. I took a modest drag. I sighed. Motia tried to assuage my self-pity.
“Every one of those little rugrats will tell everyone they know that they saw you dead, covered in a tarp, eyes rolled back in your skull. When asked, they’ll talk of how they kicked you…hard…”
“Oh, for a certainty.”
“…and how you didn’t move. Didn’t flinch. You’re a corpse, pal. And you can be gods damned sure our pal has heard the news.”
“You’re sure Bool’s here?”
“Yep. Our Navajo tracked him here, otherwise we’d have bypassed this system.”
“Well, let’s go get ‘im.”
Motia smiled wickedly, inhaled one last puff of tobacco, regarding the smoldering butt with a wistfulness she rarely displayed. I recognized it for what it was: homesickness. No way of knowing how many years had passed back home, or even if we still had a home to go to. Tobacco, clean water, safety…all in short supply these last few months.
She tossed the remnants to the dirt and ground it out with her boot heel. Motia removed her revolver from the flythsteeg holster, flipped the cylinder open, saw that it was fully loaded (she’d known it was, of course, but checked it periodically anyhow) snapped it back closed, and re-holstered her piece.
“After you!” She grinned.
Pappu was at my side, arriving there in his creepily silent way. He handed me my canvas pack, which I shouldered. It felt lighter than it had in a long time. Most of our provisions were gone. The pack hung rather slack, but I could feel the weight of our prize, the treasure we’d picked up on our last adventure, pulling the battered tan fabric down. It was a reassuring mass, telling me that maybe, just maybe, this whole damned thing was almost over.
I looked around, getting my bearings. I remembered which way this planet rotated in relation to its blue giant (it boggled my mind how huge that thing was, knowing how far away we really were from it, and yet how much of the sky it still took up) and headed what we’d call “east” back home. I stopped after a few steps, turned and called out to our Indian companion.
“Papuulu! You coming or what?”
He had crouched down near what had recently been my shallow grave, but stood when I hollered.
“I found the neatest bug!” He squealed.
“Outstanding. We’re heading this way, buddy.”
The tall, ancient figure shuffled hurriedly after us, nearly losing one of his garish plastic flip-flops in the process.
I tried unsuccessfully not to smile.
Motia’s most recent appearance in this blog was last June. You can read it here.