Red Fires to Keep Warm
“She’s tough, reliable, and dependable.” –Appetite
“She’s a nice girl that Kindle.” –Vermin
“Oh. I’m talking about the gun. Kindle’s much more than those things. I ain’t comparin’ no gun to my baby girl.” –Appetite
Kindle knew it was a stupid idea when the Hounds showed up to the cabin when the sun’s light fell into crimson.
She had finished her chores for today with every expectation to relax and enjoy a vid or a good nap. Grand-uncle Pit’s Hounds showed up at her doorstep: Bulldog, Mastiff, and Dane. They were the children of Shepherd, the meanest of Uncle Pit’s children, the only one left on planet. They had all inherited his thick black hair, large size, and cold red eyes, leaving nothing of their softer-spoken mother aside from her warmer skin. Dane approached first. When it came to it, she was the leader of this pack of Hounds. She was the tallest of the three with thick muscles, soft pink-red eyes, and her thick black hair shaved at one side. When Kindle was younger, she thought that Dane was the coolest thing on this side of the universe. A little older with a little more awareness, Kindle saw that there was something deeper than cruelty in her cousin’s eyes. She listened to Dane’s intoxicating words of glory and fun all the same. She went with them despite every part of his body telling her otherwise. She had gone, tied to the steep promised she knew the Hounds couldn’t keep.
She sat in their beat-up truck all the same, frowning and hoping. The Hounds liked her well enough. Not enough to let her sit up front though with Dane. She sat beside Mastiff in the back seat. He wasn’t as tall as his sister, but he was well muscled, covered with cheap tattoos and poorly healed scars. The embers of his cigarette glowed in the dark, smelling the smoke of his cigarette as he stared off into the darkness covered trees. They hadn’t exchanged a word since she entered the jeep. Kindle tried. Mastiff was never the talker. Tonight though, the Hounds didn’t speak at all. They rode a tangible silence through the bumps and turns of the road, not even the sound of a radio or a disc to fill the gap. Kindle opened her mouth, taking in a mouthful of ash and smoke. She coughed. That earned the smallest smile on Mastiff’s face. Might’ve imagined it, it’s mighty dark out.
They continued down the dirt road and through the forest. The Rippling Creek to the Four Water Lake was a well of interesting things. Kindle saw, even though the dark of the night, remnants of the Great Exit from the Old Planet. There were parts of their civilization littered all around them, car’s, broken down buildings up to a certain. The Caldwells had long scraped those things of any value when Grandpa and his brothers landed long ago, but it was still a wonder to see the remains of a great civilization was once now gone and scattered amongst the planets. Only they remained and even they were different, not even human entirely anymore to adapt to this wildly different environment. Anyone who had seen her grandfather transform or her father eat knew that. Things evolved, and the old things remained rusted and abandoned. That was life. That was all she ever knew.
“Aren’tcha gonna ask where I saw them,” Kindle said after a measured time on the road. “You don’t know if you’re going the right way.”
“You would’ve told us if we were going the wrong way. Since you’re quiet, we reckon we are.” Dane said from the front seat, hands casually on the wheel.
“I guess that’s true, but I can’t be sure either way. Can’t see as well in the dark like y’all.”
“Gotta point there,” Bulldog said, the shortest of the three Hounds. He grinned over the seat, his sharp stark white against his smushed face. He kicked his feet up on the dashboard. “But you gotta know where we at. You know the Four Water Lake more than the three us combined.”
“You guys aren’t normally this quiet though.”
“Ain’t it the truth?” Bulldog said, laughing. More like barking. “You’ll see why we’re quiet in a sec though, Keep your voice down.”
A few more miles of silence passed before Kindle heard the familiar rolling waves of the Four Water Lake. The smell hit her first, punching a hole through the smoky cloud of cigarette smoke. Kindle leaned out of the window to see the shore, bask in its glory. The yellow moonlight touched the surface of the water of reds, blues, greys, and soft whites. They swirled together within the surface, kept apart by the ecology of the C’dar like the redgrass or the black-barked trees. There were even different fish in each part of the lake, Kindle knew from her hundreds of visits to the Lake. It had become a blessing of sort her father, it meant that he couldn’t overfish if he played his cards right. It was odd being here without him. This was their spot. Kindle frowned, feeling a little guilty. He wouldn’t care, it’s just a lake. Our lake. Her frown deepened.
That was when she saw them. Sprinkled on the edge of the shore glowed a line of campfires. Dane slowed the jeep, turned off the headlights. The Hounds exited their car, leaning low as though the people on the other side could see them. No. That wasn’t right. They lowered their bodies like this was some hunt and on the other side was a prey, living meat they could consume. Kindle’s eye caught a flag on the other side, a waving blue flag. She couldn’t make the symbol on its surface, a white…. something. She hoped, prayed that it wasn’t what she thought it was. “Guys, I think–”
They ignored her, only earning three sets of red eyes as a response. Bulldog, at least, had the decency to shush her with his finger. They loaded their guns. Mastiff brought out his familiar red-painted axe from the back trunk. Kindle remembered the first time seeing it, seeing it cleave through a man when she was only eleven. She remembered the man’s face, mouth gawked, red spray leaking from his mouth, eyes glazed. It came with the awful memory of a rancid smell and Bulldog’s barking laughter. Only a year later, she killed her first man like her pa always said she would.
That memory she didn’t remember clearly. Kindle pushed that away. Not that it bothered her. She made her peace with that. Tonight, she had to focus on the here and now. Slipping Coal–her pistol– from its slings, she stalked after the hounds with a dryness caught in her throat. In too deep now. The Hounds needed her. “Alright,” she whispered in a low voice, assuming a more commanding tone in her word, “since you dragged me along to this, I’m leading.”
Dane arched an eyebrow.
“You heard me. And we leave when I say so. We ain’t going to get ourselves killed ’cause you guys can’t keep your triggers off fingers.”
The three Hounds made a perfect “o” with their mouths as though they hadn’t expected such authority. Kindle shouldered ahead to point, her trusty pistol at her hand. Everything her grandpa and pa taught her flooded her head. Her cousins were older than her, that was true. That didn’t mean they were wiser. This needed to be recon and nothing else. By the number of campfires alone on the other side, there were at least ten squads over there, much more than what they saw on the lake today. The bad feeling clawed her stomach with every step forward.
She led them through the trees on the edges of Four Waters and to a dirt road, cutting through the winding mazes of tall trees and grass. Small local wildlife scurried around them, accompanied by glowing green eyes or a rustle of leaves in the canopy. Small bi-pedal mammals with green and silver fur and a naked tail scurried into the branches. A massive Abk stomped past them, its black fur caught in the moonlight and hooves stomping past. Without her, they would’ve walked right into Little Bill’s territory. Without her, it would’ve been bloody. They snuck past Bill’s territory, through the Souring River, and passed a small abandoned hill of old cars and abandoned buildings they had named the Old Grounds. She needed to keep that in mind in case things got bad.
More than a few miles, they were on the other side of the lake. She hushed the Hounds quiet as they stalked through the trees to the other side. A buzz of chatters rose through the night air. Bluecoats like Kindle had never seen walked through the black of night, large white lights flashing from one side to the next. They were taller and meaner than he ever sees, far better trained with weapons. From here, Kindle saw a massive tent erected on the other side, each with a glowing translucent blue orb. Walking on the shore were two men, each with a Coat she didn’t recognize.
The first man caught her eye. His body was lean, but his shoulders and arms wide. Though much shorter than the man with him, he held this scary confident air to him. His walk looked casual and relaxed in comparison to the man he was with. Every step he made came with the sound of metal hissing. In the light of his white lantern, he looked normal with his stubbled wide chin, cropped short black and grey hair, and pale white skin. What was different was his eyes made of complete metal, as though someone had taken out his eyes and replaced them with metal spheres. He was smiling towards the other man, who flinched as though prepared for a slug in the face.
The second man gritted his teeth, hand stuffed in his pocket. He was much taller than the man beside him, made of harsh angles as though he was wood cut by a rickety saw. His bald head glistened sweat against his light skin and odds red scales on his cheek. His beady green eyes blinked, hoping that the first made said nothing. It was written all over his face in layers. Kindle recognized this one, saw him once a trip down the mountain into the increasingly rare land that the Caldwells hadn’t claimed. Captain Owen Xan of the Sixth Battalion of the Bluecoats Fleet.
“I’m not saying I’m here to make you uncomfortable, Xan, but I’m here to make you uncomfortable.”
Kindle’s heart throbbed in her chest, so loud that it beat in her ears. Then who was this other man that shook him badly?
“Second Major Debenham.”
“You can call me Steve if you want.”
“Second Major Debenham.” The Captain squirmed. “I don’t see why you’re here on C’dar, it doesn’t require your attention.”
“I don’t plan to do anything. I’m here to observe. Ain’t a problem with that, Owen?”
Captain Xan froze, silver gleaning sweat dripping from his face. “We have everything under control.”
“You haven’t found what the big boss is looking for. I get that the mutant problem is an issue but c’mon!”
“The Caldwells aren’t–”
“Oh, they have a name? That’s quaint.”
“The Caldwells aren’t a problem, sir. I’m handling them.”
“Our definitions of handling it must be very different. Can you care to explain?”
“Don’t answer that. That was a rhetorical question. You need–”
Kindle felt herself being pulled away by the arm. She turned, Bulldog nudging her with his elbow. A mild irritation washed over her, being torn from the conversation like that. She turned around to see that Dane and Mastiff were gone. She clenched her teeth, turning away in a wave of panic. They had left her to inspect the campsite further or worse try to take something. Kindle stifled a scream of frustration, knowing all too well the men on the other side of the trees would hear them. She centered herself, stepping back with careful steps, keeping herself aware of everything underfoot. Kindle and Bulldog stepped away from the shore and a little back to the clearing. “Where did they go,” Kindle hissed. “I told them to follow me.”
“And they did…until they saw something they liked.” Bulldog shrugged.
“There’s a Captain and a Second Major of the Bluecoats. Here. We aren’t the people to be making this call. We can put our whole family in–”
Kindle wanted to strangle her cousins more at that moment. Sirens began blaring around them, lights flashing around them. She raised Coal, slipping through the trees and shrubs. Another squad of Bluecoats rushed passed, a hair’s breadth away. How many are here? Bulldog stepped forward, grinning with his weapon in hand. It took all her power to stop the Bulldog from lunging at the men. “There’s a difference between being brave and being stupid. That would’ve been stupid. What is wrong with you people? How are we related?” Kindle huffed. “Alright, we’re going to find your brother and sister before they get us killed. Then, we’re leaving. Got it? Do I need to put it in writing or somethin’?”
“My brother and sister are out there.”
“Didn’t I just say– Nevermind. Follow me. They don’t know we’re here.”
The sirens screamed louder and too did the gunshots. Kindle rushed through the lines of trees adjunct to the shore. The soldiers didn’t notice anything, not yet. They were too focused on Dane and Mastiff to even notice them if they could. Kindle knew better than to rush into a fight like this. There were too many factors. She scanned the Four Waters, seeing those massive mechanized monsters immobilized on the other side. Good. They didn’t have to worry about that for now. What they did have to worry about was people like them, superior numbers, and firepower. Whatever the Hounds saw in that camp, she hoped it was worth it.
Through the mist rolling off the lake, Kindle saw them. Two forms were running away from the campsite, arms full of what Kindle assumed were guns. She ran in their direction, heart and feet pounding. More squads were coming their way and even Dane and Mastiff couldn’t handle that number. It was now or never. Kindle took a deep breath, feeling the heat rising in her body. They need to make it before the rest closed in. Deeper she pushed, the heat in her body pressing hard against her skin and muscles. The speed helped. She wasn’t nearly as strong or durable as her father, but she was fast. They could as well make it.
Heat rolled off her, burning in waves as she ran. Too much, she’ll overheat and faint. Too much and she might burn everything around her, she had never gotten that far. Through the pain, she pushed as much as her body would allow. She came bursting through the other side through the shrubbery and ramming a much larger man on the other side. The contact alone sent the man flying, the heat from her charge scorching the Bluecoat. She turned, landing three shots and downing three men before they had the chance to respond. She went to shoot another, but they came for her fast. A rain of white and black energy whistled behind them, lasers from their energy-cell weapons. A mistake all in all. Her body knew heat. This was no different.
She put up her arm, the heat beams tearing through the cloth of her sleeves and shoulders. Small holes opened on her arm, breathing steam out like a vent. The men frowned in confusion for a brief second. That moment was enough for Mastiff to cut through them with his axe, slicing through the ranks. Dane was behind him, laying down cover fire with the familiar puttering of a rifle. They backed up together, forming up together in the cover of the trees. Kindle protected them the best she could, using her body as a shield to absorb the energy as best she could. She flicked from side to side, absorbing what she could and burning off the excess as best she could. Keep moving. Keep moving. What was so dang important?
Kindle lead them away from the campsite, now noticing the sack on Dane’s shoulder. She cursed again. What was so important? At the very least, the Bluecoats knew there was three of the now. They had to double back. If not, they were going to–
The conventional weapons came now. Bullets go ol’ fashioned bullets. Grandpa hated anything besides mechs with an energy cell, much rather smuggling ammo and gas like a normal man. She inherited that. She liked the feel of the good ol’ fashioned weapons in her hand. She didn’t appreciate being shot at though. Those will hurt her. Those will kill her if they had the chance. They had to keep moving, they had to. Kindle looked over her shoulder to see that they had curiously stopped once they hit the shrouds of shadows and leaves. She turned to see Captain Xan and Major Dedenham standing before them, the stars on their long blue coats glistening in the moonlight. Kindle stopped her pace. Fear gripped her tight the moment she saw them. In that second, she knew they were unmatched.
She was the only realized it though.
Mastiff charged at them.
Time felt slow for the moment in the moonlight. The smallest of smiles reached Major Dedenham’s lips in a way Kindle hadn’t ever seen anyone, but her Grandpa smile before. Confident. Dominant. Like a god playing with a piece so below them that it wasn’t worth the use of his finger joints. There was a kindness in his face, the crow’s feet against the corners of his eyes. Major Debenham spat out a stick, little bits of red candy still clinging to his perfect row of white teeth. He took one step forward. One, slow deliberate step forward and then…blood. Only blood. Everywhere. On the trees. On the ground. In the air. Red on his metal robotic arm. Major Debenham hadn’t moved, yet Kindle only saw blood on his fist and a hole in Mastiff’s chest where his heart had been. Dane howled. She would’ve rushed in too if Kindle hadn’t tackled her.
“I promise not to get involved, but,” Major Dedenham laughed, “I couldn’t keep myself still. Look at your faces!” His laugh grew harder the point that he snorted. “Alright, alright, alright.” He calmly centered himself. “That might’ve been traumatizing for the rest of you.”
“We can’t. You can’t. He’ll kill us.” Kindle shouted, trying to keep the thrashing Dane calm. Where are you, Bulldog?
“That one’s smart. I like her. I would keep you alive if I could. Alas, that’s not my word. Captain Xan. Thoughts.”
“Not much to add sir. I just want them gone. Let them be a message for the rest of the Caldwells.”
Kindle felt her mind swimming. They were surrounded, no way back through the trees. Squads closed in on them on all sides. They were two women, trapped in a circle of men with weapons of all kinds. Captain Xan nodded to the men, their weapons raised. They got me killed, Kindle couldn’t help but think. They got me killed. I should never come. She imagined the bullets mowing her down, each individual pain piercing through her skin. An anger filled her, hotter than anything the ever felt. The anger went through her in a wave, hearing the familiar clicks of fingers against metal weapons. She stepped forward. “This is our planet, what do you want,” Kindle asked. “What right do you have to be here?”
“Every right,” Captain Xan said. “It’s your family that doesn’t belong. You’re backwater experiments, nothing more. Firing squad…”
An explosion of wood and splinters filled her ears as she saw them. Kindle gawked with wide eyes to see her father. Massive footsteps hammered into the ground as he ran like the monster of an Old Planet vid. He roared, his impossibly long tongue wiping through the air, insanely sharp stained red teeth. Appetite leaped through the air, crunching down the men as though they weren’t even there. He shot one of his loaded bullets from Ham Bone, the pellets spraying in commanding officer’s direction. The projectiles bounced off a portable shield, put up by Xan. That was all he needed. Killing them was never the option. It would’ve been nice, but it wasn’t Woodrow Caldwell’s way. Seamlessly, he tossed Ham Bone to Kindle, sweeping both her and Dane into his arms instead. And then like that, they were in the air with one of his massive jumps, sailing into the night air.
He carried them through the air, jumping and landing in a rhythmic beat. Kindle fired off one cover round from Ham Bone. The recoil alone almost dislocated her shoulder. Ignoring the pain, she slung Ham Bone over her aching traps to switch to her lighter weight Coal again. She fired off another few shots in midair as he father carried them. It wasn’t about hitting targets. Given enough time, she could’ve. Cover fire was what they needed right now. “Dane! Focus!” Kindle shouted.
“Matt’s back there…he’s…”
“He’s dead! And it’s–nevermind. You have a better weapon on you for the job.”
Appetite grunted in something that sounded like an approval.
Dane took a deep breath. That was her brother back there dead on a forest floor with a hole in his chest. Kindle fought back tears herself. Time and place. Time and place. Dane seemed to realize this too. She fired off rounds of her rifle, over Appetite’s back, lying down covering fire in a rain of bullets until they made it back to the Old Grounds. Only a few squads of Bluecoats followed them, the two commanding officers oddly uninterested in the pursuit. Appetite landed in the empty clearing, puffing from exhaustion. They needed to stop and let him eat a few things to get him back running. “You can stop, papa. You didn’t eat enough today to keep this up.” Appetite gave another grunt underneath the occasional burst of bullets. “You have to stop now.”
“We’re…almost…there…” Appetite responded in his sluggish voice.
They landed outside of the Old Grounds near a collapsed multi-layered building. Bulldog sat in the front seat of the Hound’s jeep with Vermin sitting in a large truck of his own. Appetite slowed his speed, the red fur on his arms, legs and face slowly relaxing. He huffed, allowing his daughter and cousin off his back. He grunted, wandering over with slow steps to Vermin’s truck. Vermin handed him a box of protein bars, ripping open cardboard and eating the contents, plastics and all. He soon found his words and his breath: “What happened? Who was that?”
“Where’s…Mastiff…” Bulldog added.
“He’s…. dead,” Kindle choked. “Major Debenham killed him…I–I couldn’t do anything. I tried to tell them…”
“Not to go,” Dane whispered. “She told us not to go. It wasn’t her fault. We…. dragged her along.”
Appetite pulled Kindle in his arms and hugged her tight. He kissed her on the head. In that small moment, she felt the hardened walls in her soul come crashing down. Emotions swelled in her stomach. Grief? Fear? Relief? She didn’t know. All she knew was that she was happy to see her dad. They held the embrace for a little longer, took a deep breath, before breaking apart. Again, Kindle wanted to cry. She knew this wasn’t the time. They were still on their heels. There was only a matter of time before they closed that considerable gap they made. Kindle reloaded her weapon. “This ain’t like nothing I’ve seen before. Major Debenham and Captain Xan aren’t the run in the mill boys we’ve been dealing with here. We gotta get back to the Mountain. This isn’t something we can handle here.” Everyone knew she was right. She saw it on their faces. “We gonna have to go.”
“She’s right,” Appetite said after a small time. “We gotta go now.”