The hunters came for me first. Pastor had moved me into the church basement – a dim cellar of cement with one light that went out whenever it stormed – and set up a narrow cot for me to sleep on in one corner on the uneven floor. He locked the door at the top of the stairs and I wasn't sure if he was trying to protect me from overzealous townsfolk unwilling to wait for the hunters or if he believed I had murdered the doctor. Old Telly, the post master with chronic asthma, had found his body. It had been torn in half lengthwise, a jagged seam starting at the shoulder down to the hip, the ribcage popped open like a peanut shell, and then discarded on the floor of his exam room with the bright lights and the cold white surfaces drenched with red. There was nothing else disturbed – all his medicines were locked away in their cabinet, his tools were untouched and his computer had been left alone even though he had a habit of not locking it under a password when he was away from the screen. The only indication of a violent death was the body. Old Telly had managed to call for the sheriff before collapsing into hysteria, coughing and wheezing and shaking. Pastor had come and gotten me before word spread too far.
I was staying at my brother's house. His wife felt sorry for me and would set me up a bed in the attic, where the black undersides of the solar panels joined with the wooden beams that supported the roof. It was hot up there and the air was stale. The energy collected during the day fed the rest of the house at night, circulating cool air into the first and second floors, filtering out the toxins in the air to give our bodies a reprieve at night, and whatever was left over was pumped to the fields to run the irrigation system. The attic only existed as maintenance access to the solar panels and had never been designed with an inhabitant in mind. I slept fitfully, trembling on the narrow bed as my muscles drew tight like wire until exhaustion pulled me into a half-sleep, half-faint, for a few hours until I woke and repeated the process. I hated it, but perhaps being out of the way didn't wear so much on my sister-in-law's tolerance and she was far more amiable towards me than the rest of my relatives. My parents had never reconciled themselves to having a crippled child and I certainly couldn't stay with my sister, not after she married my finance a year after he called off the engagement.
I was in the kitchen shucking corn when Pastor came. My brother was out in the fields, breathing the poisoned air as he turned the soil over. Weather control had issued a warning that a dust storm was heading our way in the next day or so and he wanted to get the field ready for the next crop before it hit and drove everyone indoors. We could grow crops year-round but the frequency of the dust storms meant we only had a handful of productive crops. This close to the glass fields meant that the storms were laced with razor-sharp particles that would tear flesh from bone and leave fields shredded like paper. The houses would shine after a storm as the light caught on the shards lodged into the plastic and wood siding. It left us poor and largely ignored by the merchant fleets, save for the few that stopped to resupply on organics and glass from the fields as luxury curiosities for people that lived lives so different than mine that I could not comprehend it. I imagined them only as faceless creatures, tall humans with layers of cloth in rich colors, like the glass fields themselves woven into fabric and worn draped over thin limbs. Luxury was not something we could understand on our world of rock and dirt and storms.
My sister-in-law met him at the door. The tendons in my right ankle were tight, pulling the foot inwards so that it rested at a ninety degree angle with the other foot; so I did not stand to see what it was he wanted. My sister-in-law would tell me. I could hear their voices, muted from the hallway between the kitchen and the entryway, and my sister sounded afraid. The corn silk rested in my idle hands as I tried to catch snippets of the conversation. Then their footsteps started in my direction and I returned to my work. I would not be seen as a burden any more than I already was. Pastor's walk always sounded heavier than a normal man's, as if the world just wasn't strong enough to support someone of his bearing. He was a stocky man with broad shoulders, a thick neck, and the lines of his face were severe and chiseled. He always wore his black suit with the clerical collar buttoned at the small of his throat. I looked up and he swallowed the doorway with his presence, my sister-in-law hidden behind him.
"The doctor is dead," he said in the same voice he used to pronounce judgment and redemption on Sundays. I just stared at him, uncomprehending. It didn't seem real.
"I want you to come to the church," he continued while I remained mute, "Where are your things?"
The direct question brought me out of my stupor. People had been telling me what to do for the past five years until I adopted it as how I lived and didn't dare take anything as my own.
"Attic," I replied, "Why is he dead?"
"Infected," he grunted. My body went cold and I shuddered as the sudden fear ran through me like electricity. The muscles in my back snapped tight and I twisted in the chair, the corn falling from hands that curled inward towards my wrists. I closed my eyes both in pain and so I didn't have to see my sister-in-law staring at me, my body contorted like an obscene ballet while my mind tried to sort out too much information and sent signals that threw my muscles out of my control and made me a stranger to my own body. There was a tremor in my ankle. It would be difficult to walk.
They hid me in the church basement and Pastor tied my armband on and left me there. I lay on the cot and tried not to be afraid, passing from fit to fit and sleeping when I could. Pastor came down when he could but he was a reserved man and didn't spare much more time than he needed to in order to make sure my needs were met. He told me a little news. The sheriff had called in to the city for help and they had asked Avin-Corp to send us some hunters. The town was afraid and no one went about alone. But there were no other killings and I languished in my prison, cut off from the rest of the town for everyone's protection. The dust storm hit and I went hungry for the two days it raged, alone in the dark while the electricity was out and Pastor couldn't reach the church from his small house just on the other side of the street. It left me weak and so when the hunters arrived only one day after the storm finally exhausted itself, I was vulnerable to my disorder and it wracked over my body with a fury.
There were two of them. I heard Pastor's voice as he unlocked the door and left it hanging open, opting to stay upstairs and out of their way. They clattered down the wooden steps and I heard their shoes scuffing on the cement floor. I couldn't turn to look at them. I was curled on the cot with my back arched, my legs bent so that my ankles dangled off the edge. One arm was above my head, the wrist and elbow bent as far as the joint would allow. The other was pinned under my chest. The attack had been persisting for some time and I was exhausted and my breath came in pained gasps. My eyes were sealed tight and I could not open them. My convulsions had twisted my blouse so that my belly was exposed and my skirt was up around the knee. The green armband was still tied on my forearm, marking me as one of the infected. Everyone in town was. We only wore them when we had non-infected outsiders around.
"Jesus Christ," one of the men muttered. His accent was that of an off-worlder.
They moved quickly, crossing the short distance between the stairs and where I lay. There was the rustle of leather and metal. As rare an occurrence as it was, the sound of someone drawing and arming a gun was still unmistakable. I knew what they had. The darts were microscopic in size and carried a nuerotoxin that would drop a person with just one hit. Three darts would kill someone within a matter of minutes. I'd never even feel it.
One set a heavy case down on the ground and then I felt hands pulling my blouse sleeve back to expose the inside of my arm and the veins at the bend of my elbow. I made a small sound in the back of my throat, like a whine, and the muscles in my back reached the point where they were too weak to resist the pull of the ones in my chest and stomach. I convulsed, this time curling in, and the hands let go.
"That's not a seizure." The other man in the room spoke up, sounding bemused. His accent was of a native. There was a click as he opened the case he carried with him. "She wouldn't be conscious during one of those."
"So what is it?"
The off-worlder sounded nervous and his partner didn't reply. I felt hands on my arm again, this time grabbing the wrist and forcing the arm straight. I whimpered and felt cold metal press against the inside of my elbow. There was a sharp pain for a second and then he let go and my arm curled back up again. They'd run the blood through their test, checking to see if the infection had reached dangerous levels. The doctor used to do that for the town on a bi-monthly basis, on Sunday, after church. We'd stand around in the shade, talking about the sermon, and he'd go from person to person with his kit taking minuscule amounts of blood. He'd run them through back at the office. Now he was dead and Avin-Corp had to deal with the problem they created themselves. They were still paying for their mistake.
They released the infection into the population thirty-seven years ago, eleven years before I was born. It was a bio-engineered contaminant that was meant to integrate with the human body and help us fight off the toxic atmosphere. Our planet was in danger of being abandoned by human colonization attempts and the merchant fleets stood to lose a lot of money if that happened. Avin-Corp rushed the process. The infection did what it was supposed to – it gave us resistance to the toxins in the atmosphere and made us stronger and hardier – but it mutated somewhere along the way, or perhaps the flaw had been there all along and Avin-Corp had missed it in their haste. The merchant fleets wanted a solution fast and now we were all paying for it. The hunters were just another effort in the company's struggle to make amends and control what they had done.
"She's clean," the native said.
The man put the gun away. I heard him let out a small breath in relief. They talked quietly to each other and I drifted in and out, catching snippets of the conversation. I was too tired to make an effort to speak. They'd figure it out or the attack would pass. I'd get my mobility back either way. It was only a matter of time before I regained control of my own body and could open my eyes. I had learned to be very patient in the past five years.
There was another touch of metal on my arm and another flash of pain. The drugs were cold in my veins and wherever they went, blessed lethargy stole over my muscles and eased the tension. My stomach and chest relaxed and I could breath easier. My arms grew still and I could open my eyes, blinking rapidly as the last vestiges of the attack retreated before the medication. My mouth was dry and I felt light-headed. The light from the bulb in the ceiling had a surreal quality to it, like I could feel it along my skin. My toes and fingers tingled. I turned my head to look at the two men, too tired to sit up and too relieved to try. I just wanted to lay there and rest.
The off-worlder was short with dark skin and black hair. The native was fair-skinned, sunburned, with windblown dirt-brown hair. He was tall with long limbs, crouched by the cot like a bird watching the world below. Both were dressed very practically with brown jackets that bore the Avin-Corp logo on the pocket. Their last names were printed just below the logo. Both carried guns. The native had a green band sewn onto his jacket.
"How long has this been going on?" the native asked. His name was Bruin. The other was Volant.
"I don't know." My voice was still very soft to my ears. I wanted them to go away. I hated answering these questions. "I lose track of time."
"No, in general."
His eyes narrowed and he looked angry. I looked at Volant instead. The foreigner was packing away their med kit. I saw a vial no bigger than a fingernail with my blood in it.
"And has your doctor done nothing?"
He was dead now.
"He says it's a dyskinesia," I said, "They order medicine but it doesn't get here very often. I think it gets stolen but the post office doesn't believe me. They think I'm selling it off."
"Why not get an inhibitor?" Volant asked. He snapped the case shut and Bruin gave him a sour glare. The off-worlder flushed and looked away. The disorder could be controlled by implanting something to filter out the bad signals coming from the brain but the surgery wasn't something I could ever afford. Volant must not have been living here long enough. The question had been asked without a thought.
Bruin changed the topic to spare me any further questions. I supposed he could see my discomfort. I propped myself up on one elbow, smoothing my skirts back down and pulling my blouse back over my waist. It kept me from having to meet their eyes.
"Have you noticed anyone acting peculiar as of late?" he asked.
"No sir. When they found the doctor, Pastor came and found me. The town all thought the infection was out of control when I first started moving like this and they still think that even though the doctor has told all us otherwise. He was afraid someone would hurt me. So I haven't seen anyone since then. I don't get out much anyway. Can't work the fields."
"Where do you live?"
"I've been staying with my brother for a while now. He has land to the north, right close to the glass fields. He's got a wife and two kids. None of them have been acting odd."
"Everyone here is."
Volant didn't like that answer. He stalked out of the basement without another word and Bruin gave me an apologetic glance before following. I walked carefully out of the basement and found Pastor in the sanctuary. The church only had three rooms, an office, storage, and the sanctuary. He sat at one of the wooden pews with his sleeve rolled up and Volant kneeling in front of him. Bruin stood a short distance away with his hand on the gun, watching.
"Clean," Volant said, "Is everyone in town today?"
"There's six families on the other side of the glass field that aren't here," Pastor replied, pulling his sleeve back down and buttoning the cuff. His green armband was the only bit of color he wore. "It's too much to ask for them to travel here by foot so soon after a storm."
The glass field would be littered with debris.
"We'll have to go to them," Bruin grunted, "Fantastic."
"Don't you have a ship?" I asked. Bruin shook his head.
"Avin-Corp doesn't spring for private craft for jobs like this. What's the best way to get across the field?"
"Horse." I looked at Pastor. "I could take them."
He was was startled. I was too. The first time I had fallen blind and helpless had left the town deeply shaken. The doctor couldn't find an explanation. Pastor's rituals and prayers didn't have any effect. It was almost a year before the doctor found someone from the city willing to fly out with some better gear to make a diagnosis. By then, the damage had been done. Even if the medicine worked all the time, I was labeled as a cripple to everyone, including myself. The world outside was a terrible, ferocious place for someone who no longer trusted her own body. I was afraid and my life had shrunk as a result, until I diminished and simply existed within the walls of whichever relative was keeping me for the time.
The fleeting desire to be what I was put words in my mouth before I realized what I was doing.
"Can you ride?" Bruin asked.
My heart pounded in my chest.
"I can. I get enough warning before a spell that I can warn you before it happens. You've got medicine. And the town needs to rebuild after the storm – I'm not strong enough to help. They don't need me. But I can guide you across the glass field."
"What's your name?" Bruin asked softly.
I couldn't explain my desperation. Volant looked at Pastor for permission. There was a funny look on his face, a strangely gentle expression that I had only caught glimpses of in the past, and it was never directed towards me. I was a source of frustration and something of an embarrassment, after so long praying for nothing.
"I'll go see who can spare the horses," he just said, shoving off the pew and walking to the church doors. I found myself smiling.
Volant and Bruin worked for the rest of the day at the church. People trickled in throughout the day to be tested and the hunter's collection of blood samples grew. The infection was benign so long as it didn't overwhelm the body. Once it exceeded the human's ability to process it, however, violent dementia set in. It also ramped up the victim's strength and senses. While the infection would eventually burn the person out, leading to an eventual brain hemorrhage, it meant that there would be a lot of other people winding up like our doctor before that happened. That was where the hunters came in.
I gathered what we'd need for the trip. It was a day's ride across the field. I caught the stares of people as I came and went, pausing in their work to repair roof tiles and broken fences. I shrunk from them. The tension in the town was starting to lift as more and more people were cleared by Volant and Bruin. Pastor and the sheriff were watching closely to see who showed up and who was staying away from the church. Someone who had succumbed to the infection would be rational enough to avoid being tested for a little while, falling prey to their aggression only when they couldn't fight it off any longer. The doctor died first for a reason. His house stood empty and locked, the windows shuttered and dark. I avoided looking at it and hurried past.
I ate dinner with my brother's family. His children were talking about nothing but the hunters and how Bruin had stood there with his hand on his gun for the entire time. They thought he was frightening. My sister-in-law didn't like the look of him either.
"I'll be leaving in the morning," I said and the table fell silent. My brother seemed flustered by the sudden announcement. I typically didn't talk during meals. "They need a guide across the glass fields to visit the outlaying families."
My sister-in-law told the children to go upstairs. They took their plates and went. There was a dark look to my brother and he waited until they were out of earshot. My heart was fluttering and I felt the first shock of a tremor pass down my arm and into my hand. I hid it beneath the table so they wouldn't see the rhythmic trembling.
"You're not going," he said.
"They need a guide," I insisted, "Who else can we spare right now? Would you go?"
The reluctance in his face said it all. I pressed the advantage.
"It's just a ride through the glass fields. I've made it before – on foot, no less."
"That was before you were ill."
"They're both doctors." I didn't know that for certain, but they had enough medical knowledge to suffice. "I'll just get them to the other side of the field and that's it. It'll be more dangerous if we left a crazed infected loose."
"It's not that I'm worried about."
My sister-in-law excused herself and followed the children upstairs.
"I don't trust them," my brother said reluctantly, "Shady, you're weak. You can barely walk some days. What if the infected goes after you first? What if – God forbid – they get a mind to rape you? You can't possibly fight them off."
"You know that?" The anger in his voice felt like a physical blow. I remembered the feel of hands pulling my blouse sleeve up to get at the vein. There had been no tenderness in the gesture – just cold and detached professionalism. I wasn't sure if they even saw me at that moment, but saw instead a problem to be addressed, fixed, and forgotten.
"I'll take the risk," I replied, "I can't spend my whole damn life wasting away here. Besides, I'm an adult. Who are you to stop me? Going to lock me up like Pastor did?"
"That was for your own protection. People were scared." He still sounded guilty.
"Going to throw me out of your house? Abandon me, like Ivan?"
It hit hard. He grimaced and looked away, shoving his plate away from him in distaste. I first collapsed about four months before my wedding date. Ivan had broken off the engagement. A year later he married my sister. He didn't want to wed a cripple.
"I don't want you to go," my brother finally said, "I'm worried. Please, do this for me? You're my sister."
I wondered how much it cost his pride to plead with me. I wondered if that was why he sent the children upstairs and why his wife didn't stay at the table. And it almost worked. It would be so easy to submit and agree, to let go of the fear that I wouldn't be capable of the trip by forfeiting before I even tried.
"I can't," I whispered, "I'm going. It'll be fine – you'll see."
When I got up, I walked slowly and carefully so he couldn't see my trembling.
Bruin and I left with sunup. Volant was staying in town to finish testing everyone and verify that all the town's residents were accounted for. We would cross the glass fields and stay at the Hason's farm. It'd take most of the next day to test the families out there and on the third day we'd ride back. Hopefully, by then Volant would have finished with the town. Hopefully, by then they'd have found whoever was dying to the infection. And hopefully I wouldn't be there to see it.
Pastor saw us off. No one else did.
The horses we borrowed had been genetically altered by Avin-Corp to survive the world as part of the process to develop the infection. They didn't suffer from the same instability and were strong and large with thick hooves and thick skin. There was very little hair on them and no mane or tail. The felt almost reptilian to the touch. The thick skin helped protect them from the glass and they could walk across the fields where a human could not. I rode with my skirts hitched up past my knees, my skinny legs bare against the sides of the saddle. I'd have blisters by the end of the day but I did not want to beg a pair of trousers off my brother. Bruin took a skeptical look at me and I just set my jaw and nudged my horse forwards. The glass fields were always visible on the horizon when there was light. The reds of the rising sun reflected off and created a nimbus of color on the edge of the world. Artists tried to capture the sight, constantly, in every medium they could imagine.
The field unrolled to us when the sun had bled out into the blue sky and the sunrise subsided. It sat in a depression, ringed on all sides by a gentle slope that would take about an hour to descend. It was like a hollow had been scooped out of the earth and filled with colored bits of glass, sticking haphazardly out of the ground at crooked angles. They were in cascading formations, solid panes or squares, jutting from the ground like a window had been smashed over God's knee and left on the earth below. There were blues and greens and colors I couldn't begin to name, that the artists wrestled with on their canvases and oil paints. I wore a wide-brimmed hat and I pulled this over my head to shield my eyes from the light reflecting at every angle. The field shone patterns on my horse's gray hide and on my pale legs sticking out from under the folds of my skirt. I nudged it forwards and it tentatively started down the hill, dislodging bits of rock and small streams of loose dirt. The heat grew significantly as we neared the field proper and I felt sweat trickling down the back of my neck before we were even halfway down.
The storm had left panes of glass littered across the ground. It formed a crackling carpet on the scorched earth that snapped under the horse's hooves. The animals were uneasy and I kept a careful hand on the reign. I could feel the muscles in my arm tightening now and then, but the movement of the horse seemed to be enough to still my body. Perhaps it was a leftover effect of the medicine Bruin had given me yesterday morning. Or perhaps Pastor's prayers were finally working. The hunter rode almost beside me, a pace back so I could lead. It was easy to navigate the glass fields if you could see the landmark. There were two hills on the opposite side that were almost identical, save for a scoop out of the eastern slope of one. I lined them up in my vision and just went straight towards them. Occasionally a glass formation would force me to change my path and go around, ducking in nervousness as we passed by the towering panes that flashed searing heat across my skin.
"Your pastor told me you were to be married before you got ill," Bruin said. It was close to midday and the heat was oppressive. Even the horses were subdued despite their surroundings.
"Yes." I felt cross. The heat was starting to flare up my disorder and it was a struggle to keep my jaw from twitching. I ached from the pain of holding it back.
"Did it break up because of your movements?"
"Yes." Everything had broken. Why was he asking this?
"I've been to a lot of towns like this one," he said, his tone casual. I couldn't tell if he thought light of my predicament or if he was just a good actor. "It's always the same thing. Someone succumbs to the infection and the town panics. They let fear get the best of them and someone gets hurt – sometimes someone that doesn't deserve it. Maybe they burn the house of the infected person and kill the family trapped inside as well. Or maybe they try to shoot him and he falls victim to the aggression and takes someone out with him. Or maybe they just grab an innocent – the sick, the elderly, or the widow – and kill him. Sometimes they try to get us to do it for them, even when the tests say the person is within acceptable levels and aren't responsible for the violence. It's just superstitious fear."
My chest felt tight. The light from the glass was too bright. The heat was too much. My chest hurt, like it was being pinched together, and I shuddered in the saddle, sucking in breath and feeling my lungs go rigid, refusing to let it go.
"Your pastor was right to be afraid for you."
He nudged his horse up next to mine and caught the reigns and pulled us both to a halt. I twisted in the saddle, partly trying to get away from him and partly giving in to the disorder. I couldn't fall. The glass snapped underneath. Bruin pulled a metal cylinder from his jacket pocket and grabbed my arm, wrenching it over to expose the vein. I made a whine of pain at his fingers digging into my forearm. Then he pressed the needle into the skin and the drugs ran cold through my veins. He let go.
"When we reach the farms you're to stay on the horse, well outside," he said, "Bolt if there's trouble I can't handle. Get back to the town and get Volant."
His tone was cold. Remorseless. I gingerly urged my horse forwards again. The beast seemed to sense my discomfort and balked. I sawed on the reigns and pulled it back in line with the hills. Bruin continued to ride beside me and didn't make any more attempts at conversation.
My brother was right. I wasn't safe with him.
The sun set on the glass fields behind us. We had crested the ridge as the sun started its last downward slope to the horizon. The brilliant pastels of the glass deepened to reds and oranges, like streaks of paint caught in between the panes. The shock of cold brought on by evening was startling in contrast to the heat we had endured all day. My throat was dry and hurt, partly from the medicine that dulled my thoughts and partly from the heat that had seared my cheeks and arms. The inside of my legs burned with pain, rubbed raw from the saddle. It hurt as much as one of my attacks, but in sharp, precise moments instead of the twisting agony my muscles endured.
The Hason's were lined up outside to meet us. I supposed word had spread even across the glass field, one way or another. Perhaps it was broadcast to them by the sheriff, so that they would expect Bruin's arrival. The hunter clicked at my horse with his tongue, bringing it to a halt. He went on alone, dismounting and walking the last few yards to the family, his hand on his gun. I saw him stoop in front of the youngest child. They were all short and brown with narrow eyes and hard faces. They were afraid. I was too. Bruin angled himself so that the child was between him and the rest of the family. I hated him for it.
He tested each one, taking a small sample of blood and running it through his field test. Only when the last one was done did he take his hand off his gun and shake the father's hand. He waved for me to bring the horses in. The Hanson's children watched me curiously. I wondered if they had heard of the girl that falls and shakes like possessed, if they knew who I was. I cringed from their curious eyes and took the horses to the stable.
Mrs. Hanson knew who I was. She peered at me during dinner, while Mr. Hanson and Bruin talked. Bruin told him about the city and politics and other things that were so remote to these families scattered on the edge of the glass field. The children watched in wide-eyed wonder. They had forgotten entirely about me. I helped her do the dishes after in her tiny kitchen, held still by the medicine still winding sluggishly through my body. I felt slow. I felt stupid. It was hard to put my thoughts together.
"We heard about Ivan," she said, "The husband told me when he visited town a little while after he set you aside. A shameful thing, that was. Then marrying that sister of yours – it should be a sin. It should."
Her words were empathetic and I was grateful for them. I wondered if she would believe the same if she saw what I looked like when I fell. It was a shameful thing to have so little control over my own movements, as well.
"You need to come out here more, like you used to," she continued, "You haven't come since you got ill."
"It's not safe for me to travel," I replied automatically.
"You're here now."
"I had medicine." And an escort. But was Bruin the reason I was here, or was he merely an excuse? I risked a look over my shoulder. He was in the living room, smoking with Mr. Hanson. The children were in bed. He met my gaze and I looked away.
They had no guest bedroom so they set Bruin up for the night in the attic. It wasn't proper for a woman to share a room with a man so I slept in the living room on their couch in my shift. Mrs. Hanson woke me in the morning. I had slept fitfully and when I woke, I fell straight into an attack. She didn't notice, busy in the kitchen while I lay out of sight in the living room, my arms twisted above my head and my head tilted back to bare the throat like a cowed dog. I heard Bruin clattering downstairs. He stopped beside my makeshift bed.
"Do you need medicine?" he asked.
"Yell if it doesn't."
And he left me like that. I twisted and shivered some more until it passed and I was able to stand, walking in sort of a daze to eat breakfast with the family.
We left as soon as we could. The blisters on my legs broke as soon as I was in the saddle and I swallowed the pain and concentrated on remembering the landmarks. They were still familiar, even after four years. The weathered rock that looked like a stooped woman. The Joshua tree that had been modified from the Earth version to survive the climate. It had spread and several saplings now struggled alongside it. The second farmhouse belonged to Neveh and his sister. She was fifteen. He was twenty-eight. Their parents had passed away and he continued to raise her. She would inherit the farm after him, even if he married and had a son. He was very devoted to her future. I remembered her as a strong-willed girl, able to pick her own fights and hold her own when out from under his protective watch. I had thought it funny to see the girl brawling with the boys, until Pastor caught them and yelled at all of them for such behavior.
The horses grew uneasy as we approached the house. The glare of the glass field was hot on my back. Their house sat very close to it so that they could see the sunrise on the field every morning from their windows. It had seemed like such a beautiful idea when they built the house. I wondered if they had tired of it by now. There were thick curtains over every window. I hung back a good distance and Bruin gave me a nervous glance as he dismounted. No one had come out to meet us. He didn't have to speak. His eyes said it all.
Something wasn't right here.
My horse backed up as Bruin approached the house, calling out for Neveh. He didn't use his title, didn't identify himself as a hunter. Not yet. The doctor had died because he was a threat to someone dying of the infection. Bruin was worse than a threat. I looked about me, the skin on my back crawling. I wanted desperately to move – my body demanded I do something in response to the fear swelling in my throat. It was like trying to fight back gravity or the crushing weight of exhaustion. It would win eventually. I'd fall. I tried to keep my breathing slow. Bruin was hesitating in the front yard. He didn't want to go inside the house.
There was a white object in the dirt between me and the barn. I focused on it, squinting in the glare of the glass fields. It was a shoe – a girl's shoe. I went cold all over and my sight narrowed in on it and the barn beyond. Something moved.
I pulled at the horse's reigns, pulling it around. It didn't need any urging, finally breaking in panic. I screamed Bruin's name and he spun, his gun out of the holster and snapping up to a shooting stance. Neveh was moving inhumanly fast, skittering across the ground like an insect. The horse fled. I held on, breathing in sharp gasps of fear. It plunged into the slope around the glass fields and I dropped low on its back, praying that it wouldn't skirt too close to the glass formations. Praying that Neveh wouldn't catch up. The infection made us stronger and faster – faster than a horse? I risked a glance over my shoulder.
The man was thin and lean and there was a sort of shuddering to his movements, like each step was an effort, like how I walked when my limbs wouldn't cooperate; only sped up to an incredible speed so that he could lope along, like a jackal that found a carcass. I saw Bruin on his horse appear at the top of the slope. He fired. I saw the puffs of dirt from where the needles hit the ground. Then Neveh was in the field and vanished out of sight behind the glass. I tried to keep my horse under control. It skidded, cornered by a jagged formation that had cracked down the middle and collapsed under its weight, spreading out to form a wall. I tried to direct it to the side, to keep it from coming to a stop. It fought me and reared.
I fell. My back hit the ground and the glass shards that had been strewed about. They bit through my dress and I cried out, spasming and bringing my weight onto my shoulders and feet, pulling my back up into the air as if a string were tied around my middle. I saw shadows and light flicker across the panes of glass and I rolled onto my side, trying to push myself up onto my feet. My palms bled. I didn't want to die.
Neveh's shadow covered me. I saw his reflection in the glass all around me, wild-eyed with blood trickling from one nostril. I curled in on myself, on my hands and knees. Then his weight fell on me, crushing me to the ground, and I struggled weakly, trying to throw him off, terrified, not knowing what it would be like to be torn apart like the doctor.
The only pain was from the glass biting me where I lay on it. Neveh's body slid off mine and rolled to the side, eyes rolled back so that the pupils were almost gone. I stared at it, uncomprehending. Glass crunched under boots. Bruin walked over, standing over Neveh and fired the gun a few more times. There was barely a sound and no response from the dead man. The hunter had killed him before he could do anything. He'd saved my life. I didn't know what to do.
"Don't move," he told me, "I'll go catch your horse. Can you hold still that long?"
I got to my knees. There were tiny cuts all along my arms and I stared blankly at these. Bruin called my name. I looked past Neveh at him. I wondered if he didn't appear concerned because he had just killed someone. Did he just shove it all down and pretend to the world that he didn't care? I couldn't tell.
"I can," I said.
I knelt there in the broken glass. At some point I reached over and closed Neveh's eyes. My hands left a thin smear of blood on his brow.
"God give you peace," I whispered. He wouldn't give any to me, not for a long time. I felt very tired and old.
There wasn't much reason to, but Bruin finished checking the rest of the families on the outskirts. We asked the Hansons to see about bringing Neveh and his sister's bodies across the field for burial at church. I couldn't stay to help. Bruin needed a guide through the glass.
I reigned my horse in when we were a few hours from the edge of the field. It was barely within sight, glimpses of it showing between the towering formations. I wiped sweat off my brow and shoved my hat back off my head. Bruin pulled the horse up beside mine and took a drink of water from his flask.
"I can't stay here," I said, "I'm just existing. I don't want to live like this and I don't want to die yet."
"What do you want?" His words were cool and quiet.
"To go to the city. Take me with you – just to the city. I'll figure something out."
"Don't be stupid." I was shocked. He wasn't looking at me, just staring straight ahead. There were lines about his eyes, tight furrows of stress. It made him look worn. "You're already a cripple. At least here the entire town is infected. In the city you'll be an infected cripple – there's nothing for you there."
He wore a green armband too.
"I can't stay here," I repeated. There was desperation in my voice. I was barely living. Ivan had abandoned me for my sister and my family shuffled me off like a burden, wondering if this would ever stop. I spent my hours wondering the same thing, wondering if I even cared anymore.
"You'll starve in a gutter."
"Then at least I'll die trying."
I kicked the horse harder than I should have. Even when Neveh was bearing down on me, violence in his veins as the infection burned hot in his brain, even as my body twisted and betrayed me; I had tried to stand. Bruin didn't ever reply to me and I didn't try and coerce him any further.
Pastor met us just outside of town. He and Bruin spoke in low voices. I was exhausted from the ride and the heat so I just handed the horse back over to Pastor and started plodding towards my brother's house. Bruin's voice made me stop.
"Here." He tossed me a thin metal cylinder. "Just get the point near the vein and press the end. It's got enough left for three more doses. I want it back before I leave."
I wasn't sure what to think of that, so I just clutched it to my chest. He turned his attention back to the pastor. I had to use it that evening, after dinner. My brother was angry, even more so when I told him we had found the person who had killed the doctor . I didn't tell him that Neveh had tried to kill me in his craze. I didn't tell him he had died on top of me, out in the glass field. When he asked what happened to my arms and hands I told him I had fallen from the saddle on our way home. He yelled then and his wife sent the children away. I let him and when he was done I left the table and went to the attic. The injector was cold in my hands and my fingers shook as I put it along my arm. The medicine was even colder and I shivered and lay on my cot, letting the tube fall to the ground and roll along the floor out of my reach. It eased my sleep.
The hunters left after two more days. They finished testing everyone in town to ease everyone's fears and helped put the doctor's affairs in order. The funeral was held that Sunday. Both Bruin and Volant attended. I sat in the back, rocking back and forth like a frightened child. On Monday the ship arrived to pick them up. It landed well outside of the town, where the exhaust from its engines wouldn't upset anyone or blow away any roof tiles or siding. It whipped the nearby crops into a frenzy as it came to a landing on the dirt road between the fields. The wings of the metal craft bowed the corn stalks. There was a narrow walkway coming from the back of the ship and the two hunters made for it. I saw Volant grab Bruin's shoulder and point in my direction. I kept walking towards them, a pack over my shoulders with everything I owned. The two men waited until I was at the edge of the ship. It was small for a craft, made for transporting people and little else.
"I told you to stay," Bruin said. He sounded angry.
"I know," I replied, "And I told you I couldn't. Pastor got me the names of some of the clergy he knows at the city. They'll be able to shelter me until I can find work."
Bruin chewed at his lip. Volant gave me an exasperated look and walked into the craft, dropping his pack under a seat at the side. I held up a thin metal cylinder between my fingers.
"Besides," I said, "I haven't given this back yet."
"God." Bruin looked towards the sky. "Come on. I'll have to show you how to use the mass transit. What are the names Pastor gave you?"
I smiled and followed him on, dropping my backpack on the floor. Bruin was yelling something up to the pilot and I looked back out across the fields. The glass shone in the distance, a nimbus haze of yellow and blue light. The ship's engines roared and the hatch hissed as it closed, sealing away the glass fields behind it. My shoulder twitched and I rocked forwards in my chair. If I couldn't stop smiling, it was only because my muscles refused to relax and froze me that way.