By this time of day, the heat had become bearable. The sun had dropped out of the sky like a ripe plum and burst on the mountains in the distance, burst on that jagged black silhouette of a horizon, and had sent its last sprays of golden light across the cracked earth and scrubgrass. Nothing stirred. Night bugs, beginning to wake, picked and whirred from inside the hollowed-out husks of trees. Sometimes their trilling symphony sounded like the voice of the wasteland itself. You could hear them in the shimmering oil-black heat slicks that wormed across the dunes in the evening, vanishing when you got too close, or in the way that the sun's margins seemed to turn into jelly in the sweltering midday heat. If you were hungry or lonely enough, it was the sound of your burgeoning madness.
A pigeon cooed from its perch high up on a rusty wire. The last of the ruddy light burnished its lavender breast and turned its eyes into small pink discs. It cooed again, shifted its feet, and then launched itself into the air with a small, soft explosion of feathers. A coil of paper was attached to its left leg.
As it flew, the pigeon watched.
Sooty clouds had gathered overhead, leaving a glowering swath of scarlet where the sky was still clear in the far western ranges. It was a startling, vibrant color, like a vein of fresh lava hemorrhaging up out of a black crust of molten rock. The pigeon headed in the other direction. It passed above a town, a sparse growth of shanties and repopulated ruins clustered around the hull of a beached freighter. The ancient vessel thrust up from the earth at an angle. Its sides were tearstained with streaks of corrosion, and white windmills had sprung up from its back like parasites. Their arms barely managed to turn in the desultory breeze. As the darkness deepened, lights began to wink on in the freighter's shell, and then they spread to the outlying buildings until they defined the town's sprawling margins. A pale glow blossomed on the pigeon's belly. It ghosted past without interest, leaving the ship and the city behind.
Twilight faded into night. Somewhere in the early hours of the morning, the clouds broke apart to reveal a dusting of stars. The pigeon was still flying when morning began to bleed into the horizon.
Hours passed and the heat built up in slow, fat coils. A wind finally rose, rattling the parched branches of shrubs and whispering through the dirt and long grass. It lifted the bird's sagging wings and carried it a few miles further. The monotony of the landscape was finally interrupted by a minor anomaly: a campsite. Four tents arranged in a semicircle, canvas sides flapping against billows of wind-driven dust. The pigeon adjusted its trajectory to head downward. Although concepts of life and death were beyond it, it understood—dimly and instinctively—that it had found asylum.
"Oh, who's doing the dishes tonight?" Charlie crowed, slapping down her hand. Her teammates leaned forward to get a better look at the three ragged-edged Queens resting on the dirt. The smaller of the two mercenaries grimaced and tossed his cards down, before turning his head to spit over his shoulder into the bushes. Here, smaller functioned as a relative term. Aaron may not have been as big as Bear, who looked like he could hold his own in a wrestling match with his namesake, but he still had a good seven inches on Charlie. About the same number in pounds, too, if you added a zero on the end.
"God, I swear you're cheating. I'll kiss your horse's ass if you haven't been hiding one of those up your shirt the entire game."
"Pucker up, Aaron," Bear rumbled, as Charlie flashed a grin to the both of them and scooped the pile of cigarette packs and chore scrips over to her side. It took both arms. "You know as well as I do that Charlie's just goddamn lucky."
"And I hold a gentleman to his word," she added, retrieving her hand and tapping it even against her thigh. "I think you should respect that, seeing as I've just given birth to triplets."
Ignoring the smirk plastered across Charlie's face, Aaron snatched the cards from her and turned them over. If he was looking for a sign of duplicity etched onto their trio of identical faces, he was disappointed. He made a sour face and reshuffled them back into the deck. "Well, if y'all insist…"
"Oh, we do," Charlie egged. Bear gave her one of his don't-rub-it-in looks, but the parts of his face visible behind his dark, shaggy beard were already turning rosy like a scarier, blacker and more leather-clad version of Santa Claus—the type who'd look more at home at an oldworld motorcycle convention than riding in a sled full of presents.
Feigning nonchalance, Aaron heaved himself to his feet and wandered off in the direction of the horses, scuffing his boots in the dirt as he went. Charlie's gelding, a perpetually angry-looking roan, swung his head around at the sound of the approaching footsteps, a ring of white shining around his dark eyes. Charlie and Bear were seized with a fit of laughter.
"Careful, he sees you comin'," Bear choked out. A fat tear rolled down his cheek and disappeared into his collar.
Behind them, the wind unfurled scarlet clouds across the landscape, which rolled over the barren hills as indomitably as icebergs, filtering the last few hours of ruddy light onto the tents and attenuating Aaron's shadow across the earth. It was Bear who noticed the pigeon first. He detected it with the mysterious acuity of a sheepdog, his eyes nearly invisible beneath the bushy outcroppings of his eyebrows. At first the bird was nothing more than a pale fleck against the red clouds, like a piece of debris whipped up by a rogue twister. Nevertheless, the captain recognized it immediately.
"Carrier," he grunted. When Charlie put a lid on her laughter and Aaron stopped to look over his shoulder, Bear pointed up at the descending shape.
Most onlookers would be fooled by the deliberate and laborious way that Bear negotiated himself upright. Charlie, watching him, knew that he could move with almost frightening agility when he had half a mind to, despite his resemblance to a small landform. He just kept that part of himself locked away for when he really needed it. The rest of the time he was the gentlest man she knew.
Charlie glanced over at Aaron, whose attention was fixated on the bird. It was growing more distinct by the second; she could already see the blue bands around its legs that identified it as a carrier. "You got off easy this time," she said ominously, pitching her voice so that Bear, who was heading into his tent for a handful of seed, couldn't hear. A halfhearted smile flickered across Aaron's face, but she knew he wasn't really listening. "Christ, you just live for the job, don't you."
"Danger's my middle name."
Charlie scoffed and punched him at the same moment that Bear reemerged, ducking under the flap as if it had been designed for a twelve year old girl. He stretched out his fist. A trickle of birdseed siphoned out from between his clenched fingers.
The pigeon landed on his arm in a flurry of feathers and breathless warbling. It strutted down to his hand and Bear spread his palm open, allowing the bird to pick at the food for a few seconds before he carefully gathered it up with his other hand and turned it over. The bird cooed and turned its head, the miniaturized reflection of Charlie and Aaron growing larger in its eyes as they came over to look. Bear stroked the pigeon's breast with his forefinger before he detached the message from its leg. It was an awkward, one-handed gesture. Charlie took the curl of paper from him and stretched it out so that he could read it. He was the only fully literate member of their team.
Bear cleared his throat. "It's from Stacks."
His observation earned a quick look from Charlie, who knew what was going to come next.
"You're from there, aren't you?" Aaron asked, looming over her shoulder to see the carrier.
She resisted elbowing him in the gut. "Yeah, I was. It's been a pretty long time."
"Not too long," Bear said, sparing her a glance. "You're what, twenty-three?"
"Twenty-two." Charlie's voice was terse.
"No offense meant," he said mildly, returning his attention to the message. Charlie realized that she'd tensed up and she let out a long breath and uncurled her fingers, which had formed fists of their own accord. She could sense Aaron's scrutiny at her back. She stared straight ahead, staunchly ignoring him.
"None taken. So what've we got?"
"Looks like a request for two power cells. Nice reward, too. Four barrels of crude oil, five if they're in proven working condition." Charlie felt a surge of gratitude for Bear, who possessed the rare ability to know when it was time to shut up and mind his own business.
For the first few months that they'd worked together, he had surprised her on a daily basis. Before meeting him she had thought that she was good at first impressions—a good judge of character. He'd been the one to prove her wrong. Despite looking like… well, like a bear, the captain was probably the smartest out of all three of them. He could even read, something that few people were capable of these days. It wasn't by chance that every settlement within a hundred miles knew him by name. Some people called him Professor, which had probably started out as a joke before everyone realized that it was a pretty apt description.
Aaron reached over to take the paper. He squinted at it in the horizontal light, making out the meticulous symbols drawn beneath each line of text. Charlie could see the symbol for Stacks: a simplified picture of a half-buried ship protruding from a hump of land, its deck bristling with objects that resembled a child's rendition of dandelion stalks. Windmills.
"Huh," Aaron said noncommittally. Charlie raised her eyebrows at him, anticipating a jibe. To her surprise, none came. "Either of you know where we can find these?"
Bear scratched his chin, his blunt fingernails rasping against his beard. "I'm pretty sure I saw some back in Pisgah last year. No telling if they're still there, though."
The pigeon burbled in his other hand, reminding him that it existed. The creature was dwarfed in his large fist; the only parts of it that Charlie could see that weren't engulfed within his sausage-sized fingers were its head and the tip of its tail feathers. Bear beamed, his cheeks acquiring the relative color and dimension of a pair of apples, and placed it on the ground. He dusted the remainder of the seed off his hands.
"It's still worth a try, isn't it? Hey!"
Charlie had snatched the paper out of Aaron's hands while he wasn't looking. "Yeah, but check this out. This guy's the second out of five." She stretched the message between her fingers, displaying the numbers on the back.
"Aw, we've dealt with worse competition."
"Plus," Bear chipped in, gazing down at the pigeon as it picked through the dust, "we haven't seen another gang in at least two weeks. We might be the only people around."
"Jesus, I wasn't saying I didn't think we could do it. We've taken out plenty of other mercenaries. It's just worth keeping in mind, that's all."
Aaron threw an arm around Charlie's shoulders—naturally, because he knew it annoyed her. She was short, small, and a woman, three things that other mercs never let her hear the end of. "'Course it is," he said, indulgently. She pinched him.
"Yeah, there's more where that came from," she warned, watching Aaron shriek in mock agony and jog off in the direction of the tents. "Watch your back, Danger."
Charlie shook her head, opting not to clarify. The setting sun formed a golden corona around Aaron's pale hair as he knelt down next to the dewcatcher—a water-trapping machine that looked something like a pair of sails attached to a bucket—and started filling up their canteens. "Just Aaron being Aaron. Sometimes I forget he's older than I am."
"Maybe he's lived through less," Bear suggested. Charlie looked at him, but she couldn't read his expression. She shrugged.
"Remember that time he got hit by shrapnel in the middle of a bunch of suckers and thought one of them had bitten him? Jesus, he was so scared. For a second there he even looked like he was gonna ask you to shoot him before the infection took hold." Charlie shook her head. "Still, even while he was in quarantine, he kept making an ass of himself. I can't believe he's managed to survive this long."
"Darwin would have a field day."
"Who the hell's that?"
"You've never heard of Darwin?" Bear asked, and Charlie stared at him blankly when his expression registered genuine surprise. "I'll tell you about him sometime."
"If he's another one of those old dead guys with the crazy eyebrows, I don't want to hear it." She waved her hand at Bear in a gesture of dismissal. "I've got to start packing, anyway. We'd better get a move on if we want to be on our way before dusk."
His teeth flashed white through his beard. "Is this responsibility I'm witnessing?"
"Uh-huh, yeah. Maybe it's something in the water. Blame him." Charlie raised an arm to point at Aaron, who was capping the last of the canteens and putting them aside. He must have heard something, because he twisted his head around to look over his shoulder just as Charlie let her hand fall back down and slap against her gunbelt. Whatever he was being accused of, he seemed willing to shoulder the burden. His grin was unrepentant.
"My, we're in high spirits today," Charlie observed, setting off toward the horses. "Don't forget that you have dish duty tonight."
She paused. Then she swiveled around on one heel, her hands in her pockets, to regard Bear from several feet away. "What's up?"
"I found this earlier," he said, fishing around in one of his pockets. "Thought you might like to have it." Charlie gazed at him with a certain degree of trepidation. His coat was large enough to conceal half a dozen other people, including Bear, who practically was half a dozen people—there was no telling what else might be in there.
Finally, to Charlie's relief, he procured a small, flat, dust-colored stone, which he held out for her inspection. She trotted back over and took the proffered object in both hands. A delicate fish skeleton was embedded in its surface, a filigree of bones, gleaming yellow-white against the surrounding matrix of rock. Charlie ran her fingers across it.
"How did you…" She gave Bear a look too quick to decipher, but the setting sun still winked off of the moisture in her eyes before she could look away. "I mean, thanks. I love these things. I'll take good care of it." After tucking the stone safely away in her satchel, she gave Bear a punch on the shoulder and hurried away in the horses' direction, thankful that he was pretending not to have noticed her sudden outburst of emotion.
By the time Charlie, Bear and Aaron set out, the sky had faded to blue with an underbelly of cold, pale yellow. Their three horses were black silhouettes against the deepening twilight. It would take them three days to reach Pisgah. They would arrive at the city together, but all of them wouldn't make it out intact.
At the front of the line Bear lifted his arm and the pigeon flew free, warbling as it ascended and disappeared into the night.