“Burned. Bloodied. Beaten. Broken. The Daedal taught me what those meant. Gettin’ blasted reminded me of it. Don’t like it. Don’t like it at all.” Luke “Drifter” Caldwell
Drifter hadn’t awoken in days. He figured ’cause his dreams were usually shorter than this.
Vivid dreams were a side effect from the dream waters of the stasis pods in his youth. This wasn’t for the comfort of the prisoners more than for the safety of the officers. Men awakened in and out of a frozen state filled with dreams happened to more docile after the shock. Decades later, sleep still came with long streams of lucidity (lucidity, right?). Some nights he controlled it. Other he didn’t. Within the days locked in his own mind, he experienced a little of both this time. A twisting river of consciousness, writhing and twisting around bends and smashing into the shore of his own noggin’. There was places he recognized, places he ain’t seen in years. Then there was places he hadn’t ever seen before in his many years in this galaxy. This part of the dream was one of those.
Drifter looked around, feeling the air on his face and water underneath his toes. He caught his reflection on the waves. He hadn’t seen the old man. There was a younger man looking back at him, the young man in his thirties with long clay red hair, bright eyes, and sunburnt and pox-scarred skin. Had gotten shorter? Boy, he was a tall one, all wiry muscle and sinew. The red flare of his mustache twisted up into an uneven smile of chipped, yellow teeth. That hadn’t changed. He still had that. Good thing too. Seeing too much of his younger self without seeing something he recognized in himself now would’ve been mighty disappointing. Drifter straightened his back, grinning like a dang fool. It’s a dream, by dang it felt good to be young again. He forgot every moment didn’t come with a small sting of pain. Felt good. Felt really good.
His dream led him to an open field, not too different from the one at the bottom of the mountain. A small trail of smoke rose into the air, coming from deep within the sea of the grass. The blades of grass tickled the hairs of his arms, walking towards the fire. The smell caught his nose a few times, the taste of clean smoke bitter on the roof of his mouth. He knew the taste of a camp or bonfire from a wild or house fire. Maybe desperation ruined the taste. He didn’t know; he knew it tasted different and that was ’bout it. He kept heading for the direction, following his nose. Ain’t like my other dreams. Not at all. He was a few minutes in the dream and nothing hadn’t exploded yet.
There was still time for that, he reckoned.
He made it to the campfire without any incident (much to his disappointment). It was modest little thing of a few decent sized logs and a fire who’s crown barely reached his knees. A small bird of some sort roasted on a spit, turning on its own by a small mechanism. Drifter frowned, looked around. There was no one here, he thought. Dang well shouldn’t be without him knowing about it. His brain, his rules. There was no denying it, there was a stranger here. Somebody not him. The beauty of the landscape darkened around him in a way it did when a big cloud blotted out the sun. He was that cloud. An odd sense of urgency hit him in the way the only a dream could. He reached to his side and found that he didn’t have a weapon on him. Huh. That wasn’t like him. For the first time, he wondered if this was his dream at all.
“Oh, it worked.”
A dark shape appeared, swirling into shape. It approached from the opposite side of the dreamscape where the plain’s grass grew shorter and became the color of wheat. It wore a long tattered dirty red cloak, much like Loner wore when he was forced to go outside. The shape didn’t appear like Evan though, much too short and much too slim around areas. The shape sat down across from him, tossing back their hood. Kindle. The sight of his granddaughter brightened the world again, even bloomed orange flowers around the ring of the clearing. “Hey granddad, wassup?” Those simple words pumped even more life into him. This was better than explosions. Much better. She stopped the spit and pulled the crispy, browned bird from its pike. “You got hurt pretty bad saving Toby,” she said softly, voice touching on hesitation, “they got you pretty good.”
“Yeah, they did.” Drifter frowned. His body remembered for a second that this was a dream. A sharp pain flared all over his skin bringing tears of pain to his eyes. He shook it off. Dreams were for getting away, at least for a little bit. “Are you–”
“Here? Yes. Can’t explain, don’t got a lot of time.” She ripped off a wing from the bird and handed it to him. “Eat up. It ain’t real food but it’ll help you survive. Give you somethin’ to hold on to.”
He didn’t question it. The dream did feel different now that she mentioned it. Deep inside he was holding on. Drifter took the roasted bird from his granddaughter and bit into it. Duck, sweet and savory. He hadn’t had a duck in a long time. Out of all the animals brought over from the Old World, ducks were oddly rare in certain galaxies. Don’t ask him why. No one knew or cared that much at this point. Maybe they should’ve, though. Ravenous, he chewed through to the bone and beckoned for seconds and thirds. Kindle smiled and watched. “You look nice, Grandpa,” she said after a time, “I’ve never seen you so…”
“Not old,” he laughed, “well before your time.”
She laughed. “I’m glad that I can see it.” The look in her eyes and lips changed for a second to an expression Drifter couldn’t pin down. “I don’t know what’s happenin’ here. There’re things that Remy isn’t telling me. He has his reasons and I know that…but there’s more. I don’t know what to do, Grandpa. Y’all need me. I know it. I’ve seen it. You almost died, if I was there…”
“It would’ve gone the same way.”
“You’re probably right. Don’t seem right.”
“Whatever he asked you to do, can ya say it’s not important? What did always tell you? Always–”
“Handle your business,” she finished. Kindle brought her knees to her chest and sighed. “I miss y’all already. It don’t say much do it. I haven’t been gone for very long and I already pining to be back at the cabin. I don’t like it here.”
“‘Bout time you left the coop though. You’ve been a good kid. Maybe too good for Woody.” Drifter laughed. He tossed the bones into the sea of grass. “But that ain’t why you here, are you? You got somethin’ on your mind. Or on my mind? I don’t know. Not gettin’ to that. Either way, you have somethin’ important to tell me.”
“You need to talk to Hounds and the rest around my age. Pa lied down some foundation, but they need to hear it from you. They backed you into a corner before and you reacted like they expected you to. Not what they needed. They needed to see this man. They needed some kindness, not force. They aren’t like Uncle Pit. He’s much more emotional and it almost got y’all killed. Get to him. Talk to ’em. He needs to hear that you care, and it might get y’all on track.”
It was good advice in hindsight. Their anger and confusion led to more mistakes than anything. Not only that, revealing how they came to be hadn’t helped much. The younguns picked up on stuff like that better. Drifter knew that despite his best efforts, he got caught in the moment and got them almost all killed. They couldn’t go on like that. They couldn’t pretend that everything was gonna be okay. Some people needed to talk ’bout bad things; others needed to talk more and never could find the words. A well of thick shame bubbled to the surface of his chest. The feeling tainted the dream world this time with a light, grey colored rain falling from a cloudless sky. The campfire hissed steam like a back alley cat and then choked like a man spewing on seawater. “I gotta do better,” Drifter whispered, “I gotta do better.”
“You would’ve gotten to it eventually,” Kindle smiled. She looked up to the crystal blue sky, raindrops bursting on the bridge of her nose and dripping down her face. “It’s ’bout time for you to wake up.” She stood up, dusting off the dirt and grass off her pants. “Stay safe, grandpa. I don’t wanna lose you.”
“I don’t wanna lose you either.”
Kindle walked over, the camp light glowing against her darker skin. She did look like her mom, but he couldn’t help to see a little of Woody and a little of himself in her too. She bent down to him and wrapped her arms around him into a strong hug. Drifter frowned, feeling the tightening fingers against his back. What’s going on, Cassie? What can’t ya tell me? She broke away before he could return it and turned from him. “I’ll come back when I can. Stay alive, all of you.” Drifter went to tap her on the shoulder, but she vanished into a flurry of marigold leaves. She was gone as quickly as she came, leaving her old man alone at the campfire. The dream world rained cats and dogs without her.
Drifter was back to being an old fella.
It wasn’t too bad aside from being wrapped from head to toe with bandages. The choking smell of antiseptics and burn treatment filled his nose followed close by an intolerable itch on his right arm. He looked around. He was in his bedroom, the small thing it was. The only window in the room remained open, letting in raw and unfiltered light blast him in the face. After a few painful blinks, he searched the room. The wall of his favorite guns right over his bed was unperturbed and dusted. Every corner of the room was clean and swept, his clothes packed into a closet on the side. Someone had taken the time to organize his bookshelf and maps. What was new was that the same person that cleaned his room brought in the flag from his workshop and hung it on the opposite wall in clear sight. The morning light managed to catch the tattered thing in the right angle, brightening up the red and white stripes and the stars on the blue (most definitely blue now he got a good look at in light) corner. One of these days he was gonna fix it up with the respect it deserved. He had to fix himself first.
Drifter rose upright in his bed. An IV pulled at his forearm, tucked deep within the folds of the bandages. A soft beep of the heart monitor chimed on and on. He hadn’t noticed it at first. Now he had, he only wished for it to can it. He went to rip every wire off of his body until the sheets beside him stirred. Mary Lu was sound asleep on his stomach, curled up and quiet. He often wondered how she slept with his loud snoring and endless stirring and managed a good night sleep. Ripping out the IV would sound the heart monitor and she didn’t deserve that. Groaning, Drifter forced himself to lie down. No sleeping though. He had enough of that for a spell. He placed his hand on his wife’s head, running his fingers through her hair. There were worse things than being stuck in bed with the love of your life, much worse things.
He lied there for a little under an hour, musing through the hundreds of thoughts. In the forefront was Cassie, his little fire, at the swamps. He had seen some weird crap in the Dusk Orbit planets in the times he went off planet, some weird crap. He even knew of the Flame and what it can do or a little bit ’bout it when Ina was here. It wasn’t so odd that she could speak to him in his dreams. Her words and his worry about her clung deep to his mind. Her advice was what gave him a little strength, beat up as he was. There were things he needed to make right.
Pastor walked into the room, gliding in his hempen brown robe. He looked more himself with his dreads up into a tight bun, amaranth stems and marigolds petals were woven into the greyer strains. They made eye contact for a brief second. He placed down his concoctions and his kit, walking over to check his vitals. He had learned all he could about medicine, energy, and farming–the good and just things in life. He wasn’t meant for killing, raiding, blood, and guts. Not his style. Power like his belongs to people like him. Too bad life didn’t work on the same morals. After he finished his checks, he unplugged the medical mess set up where his nightstand once was. “Time to get up sleep, gotta check your burns. Get up, steady now, don’t blow out your back.”
Drifter squinted. Pastor laughed softly and grinned. He did as he was told, carefully wiggling from Mary’s grasp. Upright, Pastor wasted no time peeling the bandages from his skin. No matter how careful he took, the burns underneath wailed in agonizing pain. He caught an eye of the dozens of thick burns on his body from the lasers. Pink, black, and brittle skin covered every part of his body, feeling kinda like tenderized meat after a few goes with a hammer. Drifter poked at one on his chest and got a shock of pain for his trouble. Stupid decision. Don’t do that, again, Pastor said with that sharp glare. “You’re healin’ okay. It’ll scar pretty bad.”
“Always wanted some burn scars. You know this.”
“Yeah, when you were twelve…”
“It never went away, Monty, but was never stupid enough to get ’em on my own.”
“Glad to see that you got a little sense left, Luke.”
They went quiet for a while. “I messed up…” Drifter said keeping his voice low. He told himself it was not to wake Mary; he always told himself the best lies. “I only put us in danger taking that fight at the Drum. I got baited and we almost died for it. We got lucky. That’s all it was dumb luck. A stroke of dumb luck.”
“If we weren’t there, Toby might’ve not been here right now. That little boy is safe ’cause of you, Luke.” Pastor rewrapped him with new bandages, at least what needed to be changed. “You said the same thing when we were flying here to C’dar. Stroke of good luck here and there. It piles up. There’s an old saying I heard a while back: once’s chance, twice’s coincidence, and the third’s a pattern. You ain’t dumb luck. Never have been.”
“Tell ’em again, Monty.”
Seeing his beautiful wife in the morning light brought a tingling to his face. They’ve been together for decades. It hadn’t changed. Maybe he was a sap, a hopeless romantic caught in an endless loop of affection. Waking up to her happened to be one of his favorite times of the day, now and forever. He took her by the hand, gently pulled her up, and into his arms by the small of her back. For his troubles, she kissed him on his cheek. A stupid level of warmth hit his cheeks like a young man on his first date. He doubted there was a luckier bastard in the whole world. They left the comfort of their bed together, Pastor bowing out gracefully to give him some time to get ready. They took their time after he was gone.
When they were ready, Drifter escorted his wife (or she escorted him) out of the bedroom and into the living room. To his surprise, all his brothers were here. Pit played with his dog, Sprinkles–a massive black furred beast with threes heads, almost the size of her master and drooling pink silva. Doc tinkered with Thunder’s new hobbled together prosthetic arm on the floor, going through routine maintenance and referencing his several dozens of red and orange screens. Pastor began on breakfast (maybe lunch) in the kitchen not too far away, the mess of the cooking meat stirring excitement in all three heads of Sprinkles. It was nice to see his mishmash group of brothers sitting around. At least our pa did one thing right. He didn’t give us a mom but gave me a family.
“Look who finally decided to join us,” Pit muttered. He always tried to be tough. Can’t be too tough when petting a goofy three-headed dog named Sprinkles. “Thought we lost you.”
“I didn’t,” Doc said unamused. “He’s tougher than that.”
“Dang right. So…” Drifter looked around, peering from person to person. “What’s going on here? Why’re y’all in my house.”
“Woody asked us to come,” Big Thunder said. “Ow. Ow. Ow. Too tight. My stump’s still healin’.”
“Stop bein’ a baby, Bobby,” Doc growled.
“Well I’m the–”
“You’re well in your fifties, you can’t use that baby brother excuse anymore. Man up.” Doc pulled a lever on the prosthetic limb for good measure. Big Thunder slapped his knee with his other hand, blinking tears from his eyes. “Alright, it should be working. Evan did a good job with it. Don’t know how he made it work all the way but I’m a mechanic, not an engineer.”
Drifter frowned. “Evan did that?”
“Your kids have been really stepping up to the plate, Luke.” Pit reclined on the couch, petting his dog (or dogs?). “Jo and Evan kept tabs on the Coats while Woody handled gettin’ us all on one page. Y’know, I’m sorry for ever doubting your kids. Without ’em, I think we would’ve done somethin’ real stupid…again. We’re lucky that the Bluecoats aren’t acting yet. Probably doing like us, trying to get our acts together for a final push. Woody wanted to talk ’bout the plan in small groups. He should be back in a few.”
Drifter stole a look to Mary, who didn’t seem at all surprised by the prospect of Appetite taking the lead. Leadership hadn’t appealed to him before. Always the follower; never the leader, a common trap for brilliant fellas like Wood. That changed. Seeing his pa touching death must’ve lit a dormant spark in the young man’s noggin. Pride as thick as mud ran through Drifter at the thought of his oldest boy taking the helm. The worry of any parent boiled down to a single thing: how will they manage when you’re gone? To see in his brief absence, their world wouldn’t fall apart brought a tear to the old eye. Among all the pride there was a small feeling that he was stupid to try to ignore; he felt a little worthless. They don’t need you anymore, nobody does. He swallowed and choked the thought down like warm, cheap beer. Didn’t bring nothin’ to the table. The next generation needed to step up at some point. He pushed it the thought deeper inside and outta his head. You haffta step aside some time, Luke. It’s how it is. He took his seat beside Pit and his excitable dog, Mary Lu right beside him.
Not even a minute later, the door swung open.
There was a certain grace in the way Appetite came in. He didn’t burst through the door with the weight of his entire body, but instead smooth and effortless like a massive predatory cat. Drifter noticed that for the first time in a while, he kept Ham Bone on him, the massive shotgun in its holster on his hip. He also couldn’t help but notice that the boy was big. Standing upright with his head a little higher, he dwarfed everyone. Sprinkles jumped from his owner’s lap and towards Appetite, barking and jumping from excitement. He petted her, grinning and laughing.
Vermin, Shepherd, Eleen the Silk Spider and Aiden “Tiger” Caldwell shuffled in behind him. The second generation of Caldwells was a diverse group like their fathers. Drifter hadn’t seen them together in a long time. Though not as nearly as close as the first generation among themselves, the oldest kids had their own bond. It wasn’t easy. The cousins didn’t like each other much, at first, touching dangerously close to hating each other at points. Drifter always thought that was a shortcoming of himself. With everyone already against you, you didn’t need your family added to that list.
“Looks like everybody’s here,” Appetite said, closing the door. He took the seat closest to the door.
“Looks like you brought the gang too,” Pastor smiled, giving his smaller and well-built son Tiger a big hug. Tiger gave a small smile on his soft face with a dark beard, his one good eye gleaming with pride. The father rustled his fingers through his boy’s hair. “I didn’t know you were back on the planet.”
“Came back this mornin’.” Tiger took a deep breath and shook his head. “I leave for a while and everythin’ goes to the crapper. C’mon, guys, didn’t I teach you better than that.” He grinned. “Y’all supported me during my tough times, the least I can do is come back and give these guys what’s coming to ’em.”
“You’re lookin’ good, Aiden.”
“Feel much better too, Uncle Luke. Feeling much more like myself these days. Been spendin’ every credit I can to pay for the dang thing. Hadn’t even had the chance to buy me some new clothes on my way back. I have a box of my old clothes for Kindle if she wants it. She should be about my size now.” He laughed.
Pastor gave his son another hog. “We’ll fix you up, don’t you worry about that.”
They exchanged a few talks back and forth through the family, catching up on everything that’s happened. All the while, Appetite waited in the patient way only he could, petting the happily yapping three-headed dog on his lap. They went through their greetings and pleasantries, their news and gossip before reeling back around to the elephant in the room. Drifter found himself about to speak when Appetite shook his head. They needed to get away from it for a little while. He’s right, gotta let ’em be people first. That’s why we’re in this mess in the first place. Maybe, he could learn a little patience. Drifter stirred in his chair, trying to keep himself from fidgeting. Mary Lu slapped his thigh to keep him still. When they finished their chatter, Appetite took the center stage. Eleen quietened everyone down sharp hand.
“Thanks, Elly,” Appetite took a deep breath. “Y’all know why we’re here. I’ve already made this talk a couple of times before. I’ll cut to the chance. I think I know why the Coats are here.” Drifter felt his stomach drop. “‘course, they want to get rid of us for their colony. But they got me thinkin’. Uncle Bobby collected things and put them at the Drum. It only makes sense they found somethin’ special here. Then I got thinking, why would they come all the way back to a backwater planet to kill a few mutants? Why would they come all this way and send Major and Captain? Don’t make no sense unless we had a thing. Then I got thinkin’ again, what is something every colony needs?”
The old boys–Drifter included–blinked at the thought. Doc might’ve figured it out if he wasn’t too busy tinkering. “A good place to live. This planet isn’t like the others around, almost a perfect. I hadn’t thought about it before. Wouldn’t have if Aiden didn’t turn up? They’re lookin’ for a terraforming core. It’s the only thing that makes sense. The rest of the Dusk Orbit planets aren’t nearly as good as this one. ”
It made sense. Drifter knew vaguely about terraforming cores. They weren’t a thing they could recreate without having one intact, which they hadn’t had any luck so far. When the first Civilization fell apart, they left a lotta things. So much that they had plenty to live on for decades now. It only made sense that the dead shell of what they once were would try to recollect its arm or a leg of itself occasionally. A discovery like that might turbocharge them into all types of developments for the shareholders and catch the interest their higher-ups. Drifter stroked his beard. “It’s the reason why they’re takin’ it slow with us and not blasting us away.”
“It makes sense,” Doc nodded. “Terraforming technology ain’t easy to make on such a large scale.”
“Putting it like that.” Pit sat up interested. “It would jump-start their technology by years, decades even. You can’t say that ain’t good to swipe from them, wherever it is.”
“That’s not the problem right now. We’ll cross that road when we get there. We haffta find it first. Any ideas?”
“I was hoping that y’all would know.”
Every child looked at their father: Eleen’s calm and sure, Vermin’s anxious, Shepherd’s impatient, Tiger’s piqued interested. Drifter locked eyes with his son’s. The cool, patient expression on his face soften. Drifter rolled his shoulders and exchanged a look with his wife. She shrugged back. Drifter pinched his nose, looking out into the living room but letting his mind relax. He knew a lot about C’dar being he lived here since he was a younger lad. Over fifties years wasn’t nearly enough time to search the entire planet, not even with all the extra eyes and hands around. There were bounds to be places they hadn’t gone. Ain’t enough time in the world. Drifter dove into his thoughts, trying to find a place where a goody like that would be. Then it hit him, one place big enough for that.
One that he had been to but…
There were nasty things in the Old City, the one they cut through to get to Coyote’s place. They had tried to explore it before. Wild mutants, malfunctioning Old World droids, and strange and dangerous animals roamed that place. Drifter always thought it was a bit big for a colony city, perhaps a haphazard start to a fancy capital city or some sort. Big people liked their big buildings. What they liked more was messing with things they should’nt’ve. We’re a good example of that, Drifter thought. “I think I might have a good place to look. Old City. The only place I can think of. Ain’t that we searched. Too dangerous before.”
Appetite smirked. A sinister thing, one that Drifter caught himself doing from time to time. He paced around the room, heavy thuds of his boots pounding into the floor. “Sounds like a good place to start. Whether it’s there or not ain’t important, what’s important comes down to how greedy the Coats are. We know about greed. When we find somethin’, we take it. We can get a good jump on them there and the best-case scenario is that they take the bait. They can’t sit on us like they did at the Drum. Out there, we can give ’em what they paid for. A fight.” Black grit caked those last words in a certainty he hadn’t heard before. A fight and not a fair one. He realized that. They weren’t gonna drive them off with power and anger. No. That hadn’t been how he was taught. Did a fish have a chance to complain at the end of a hook? Nah. Play dirty or don’t play at all. “So, how ’bout it. Let’s hammer out details to give ’em hell.”