The Afflicted by Ara Hone

I climbed the silo’s steps with Samey hanging limp between Justice and me. My hip banged into Samey’s, and Mama’s warning tingled between my shoulder blades: Topside isn’t safe for the afflicted, Amelia. I feared the bounty men who often hid in ambush. Not enough to obey Mama, though. She suffocated me beneath her quaint pre-alien sayings and prayers for a miracle cure. No magic pill could fix what tormented Samey and me.

Samey, my forever friend, deserved a last glimpse of topside before her change. I would also change, but while she gracefully accepted her fate, I struggled for us both.

At the exit, I lowered Samey onto the broken cement threaded with sprigs of green. In the twilight, glitter sparkled on her lips. The white smile might have been a fashion statement, before. After, Mama said it tempted trouble, especially in a B-man’s presence.

Justice gestured toward a ragged blanket covering the exit hole. “The area’s isolated. Should be safe.”

“Should be?” Samey’s voice sharpened. “Don’t trust him. He’s one of them.”

“This again?” He slammed a palm against the silo’s side. It rang tinnily. “Got no time for ingrates. We won’t go.”

“She’s thankful, and we’re going.” I knelt by Samey. “I’ll find beautiful images you might choose for your change. You won’t have to settle for rocks.” I squeezed her fingers. “Or worse, iron.”

Justice snapped a neon glow stick and tossed it into Samey’s lap. Yellow light washed over her balding head. “Let’s get on, then,” he said.

I might have stepped off a ledge into freefall, but I bit back the breathlessness expanding inside my belly. For Samey’s sake, I’d trust Justice with our lives.

“Back soon.” I placed the audio-vis feed between Samey’s papery fingers and wiggled through the hole.

Nocturnal chirps and flutters greeted me beneath a fat moon rising. Samey’s sigh whispered over my earlink.

Dilapidated wooden buildings circled the exit, and as I holocorded the scene, Justice watched me. A B-man’s in the trade for life, Mama said. The best B-men are dead B-men. But Justice was different. His brother’s affliction made Justice see us as people and not commodities.

“There’s something you girls might like,” he said. “Follow me.”

Farming equipment like Dada once owned loomed out of the night. A big tractor’s black tires had gone to decay in the sun. Hooked behind was a baler, a machine that gobbled fescue and spat out bales wrapped in wire.

Justice led me to a lake’s edge, and I sank onto the cool grass. Water glugged among the reeds. The moon’s glow scattered across the lake’s ripples. I’d forgotten smells and coloring, locked away underground. Maybe this was the answer to my unrest. When I returned below, and my change came, the images would remain vivid and bring me peace.

“I’m changing.” Samey sobbed. “My skin, Amelia. It sparkles.”

I sprang up. She was days early. Mama was right. Topside was no place for the afflicted. I’d repaid Samey’s friendship by accelerating her transformation.

Her shrieks tangled about my heart, but before my comm stuttered into silence, a woman’s voice knifed across the feed. A bounty-man had come.

I crouched with Justice in the tractor’s deep shadow. The B-man’s powerful fighter, a thorn, rested near the silo. A legalized scavenger dressed in signature gray leathers loomed over Samey. The B-man manipulated a pair of steel pliers the length of thigh bones above my friend’s chest. She pressed, and Samey’s ribs cracked with the crunch of a lobster’s shell. I gagged.

The B-man halted, listening, and I wished the world would hold its breath.

The wicked scavenger plunged a gloved hand into Samey’s cavity and scooped her innards-turned-diamonds into a lockbox—the diamonds of moon sparkles on a lake. Diamonds reflected her forever-beauty, but come the dawn, because of the B-man’s harvest, she’d be scattered. Sold for jewelry, medicines, and weapons.

We afflicted didn’t deserve to be hunted like rare prey or coveted for the prizes inside our flesh. I reached for Justice and shrank from the laser pistol in his fist and the message in his gaze.

“Don’t make this hard. That Bounty Man First Class is my sister.”

Baling wire strangled my lungs, and I wheezed.

“But, your brother—”

“Found that kid on a corner in L-Town. Good little actor—he got me underground. I targeted you and Bright Eyes as likely-to-burst. It’s not personal.” He shrugged. “You go in style. We collect the cash.”

Heat licked into my cheeks, and I slapped him. Why had I ignored Mama’s warnings? He pinned my arms and dragged me past Samey to Sister’s side.

Hellooo, Beautiful.” She scraped a fingernail across my lips.

I tasted glitter.

“A squad is inbound,” Sister said, all business. “They’ll fight for this pair.”

“Then we fight back.”

Justice hauled me up and strapped me into the thorn. Brother and Sister prepped the craft for battle and rocketed upward.

I’d wanted to help Samey, but by glimpsing her waxen face, her emptied shell pressed into the dirt, I uncovered the truth of my struggle against fate. Samey and I were different people. She accepted the change because she was gentle, but I’d journeyed topside because I was done hiding.

The thorn’s engines rumbled and spurted flames, and beneath my skin, an inferno ignited.

My body shifted and rounded and fashioned into iron. A jagged skirt of fire trailed me and lit the sky in shades of violet and gold. Soon, I’d stain the heavens crimson. Mama always said the best B-men are dead B-men, and good girls obeyed their Mamas. The afflicted wouldn’t suffer anymore. I’d found my peace.

Clothed in the power and glory of a living meteor, I blazed to meet my enemies.

Ara Hone’s work appears in/is once more forthcoming to Pulp Modern Flash, and with Silver Blade Magazine, and others, and in anthologies such as When the World Stopped and more, and is forthcoming to Raw Dog Screaming Press.