I know there are some people who are eagerly waiting for the second part to my Barren Series, so I thought I might surprise you with a little teaser of what’s to come. This is first draft stuff, so go easy on me, but I do appreciate any feedback.
The story picks up shortly after where Barren left off, with Mackenzie and the others trying to resume some sense of normality to their lives, but with many new dangers looming over them. And the consequences of Mackenzie’s past actions are beginning to take their toll.
When Mackenzie’s eyes shot wide open suddenly, she saw that cold steel walls towered above on all sides, stretching far above until they vanished into darkness. Mackenzie stared up at them from her back, confused about where she was, unable to remember how she got there. She tried to move, but found that she couldn’t. Her arms and legs were tied down with strong straps, which kept her on the narrow bed.
“Hey!” Mackenzie screamed, the echo of her voice dying instantly. “Hey!”
No reply came to her, so she began to struggle. She strained against the bindings that kept her on the bed, beginning to feel claustrophobic as the towering steel walls appeared to close in on her.
Suddenly, a figure loomed above her, appearing so quickly out of the shadows that she might as well have simply popped into existence. The woman leaned over Mackenzie, glaring down at her with sunken eyes and a curled lip. Mackenzie stared back up in horror, not believing what she was seeing, who she was seeing.
Ileana Rivera stood over Mackenzie, her eyes circled by the shadows of death. Mackenzie saw blood running down the side of Ileana’s face, mixed in with her hair, dripping off her ear and chin, spattering on the bed like rain on a rooftop. The blood flowed from a large wound in Ileana’s head, under her hair, where the bullet had entered. Mackenzie cringed as the smell invaded her nostrils. Ileana reeked of decay and rotten flesh.
“Murderer!” Ileana spat, her voice raspy and strained. “You killed me!”
“What? No, I…” Mackenzie stammered, her heart racing, shaking her head quickly from side to side, but unable to take her eyes away from Ileana’s.
“You killed us both!” a new voice hissed from the shadows.
A younger boy, named Vasilii, stood over Mackenzie opposite Ileana now, glaring down at her. His cheeks were gaunt and his eyes were nothing but black orbs. He, too, was sneering down at Mackenzie in disgust.
“Please,” Mackenzie begged. “Please, go away.”
“You killed us,” Ileana spat, more blood dripping onto the bed and onto Mackenzie’s face, making her gag.
“You didn’t have to,” Vasilii added. “You didn’t have to kill anyone.”
“Please, stop!” Mackenzie pleaded, but Ileana and Vasilii didn’t respond.
As Mackenzie struggled against her restraints, trying not to look at the rotten and decaying faces that spat abuse and hissed blame, a third figure began to approach from the foot of the bed. Mackenzie looked at the figure and she knew who it was before his face came into the dim light. She stared up at him in horror, scarcely able to believe he was standing there, wanting to look away, but unable to do so as her eyes bulged and her mouth fell open in horror.
The man named Mikhail Boroslav stood before her, sneering in contempt at her, his cleft lip revealing one sharp canine tooth. He looked exactly the same as Mackenzie remembered him, except for the fact that he was bleeding from his eyes. Twin rivers of blood ran over his cheeks and to his chin. In the center of his eyes, though, his pupils were gone, replaced by a fierce and glowing flame, like candles that burned far too brightly.
Mackenzie tried to think of something to say to the man who had tried so hard to kill her, but before she could think of what to say to this fearsome monster, Boroslav lifted his hand and aimed a gun directly at Mackenzie’s face.
“Wait!” Mackenzie cried.
Boroslav only sneered once, then pulled the trigger.
Mackenzie awoke with a start, jolting awake as though electrocuted, the sound of the gunshot still ringing in her ears. For a few seconds, she didn’t know where she was, but then everything came back to her.
She was flying in the VTOL, strapped into one of the chairs bolted to the walls in the cabin. She had been working all day with the others and her exhaustion had finally caught up with her, resulting in her falling asleep for the first time in days. And, as she had known they would be, her dreams were there to greet her.
Still shaken from the nightmare, Mackenzie held her hands out in front of her, watching her right hand tremble with nerves. Her left hand, however, was completely steady. Of course, that was her bionic hand. Nerves had no effect on the steely appendage and Mackenzie took some comfort in knowing that it was there. Like it somehow steadied her. That hand alone had saved her life on several occasions and she had come to see it as a source of calm.
Sighing, Mackenzie lowered her hands and placed them flat on her thighs, staring down at the floor. She felt as though she could still hear Ileana and Vasilii whispering to her. And Boroslav… his face never left her mind’s eye. Mackenzie felt the chill of a cold finger tracing down her spine and couldn’t help but shiver. Looking up from the floor, Mackenzie slowly looked around the inside of the aircraft to remind herself of where she was, as well as the fact that no dead people were coming to kill her.
Taking a nap in the seat opposite her was Jesse Greaves. His head had fallen sideways onto his shoulder, his black hair looking untidy and wild, stubble growing on his jawline, his strong arms crossed over his chest. He had pushed up the sleeves of his shirt and Mackenzie studied the contours of his arms for a moment, pausing as she laid eyes on a fraction of the giant burn scar that she knew covered Jesse’s upper left arm, shoulder, the left side of his torso, and some of his neck. Mackenzie remembered Jesse telling her once that he got the scars because of his father’s mental break from reality, starting a fire that claimed both his own life and Jesse’s mother’s. As Mackenzie watched him sleep, one corner of Jesse’s mouth twitched and Mackenzie wondered for a moment if he was dreaming, but then turned away, looking towards the cockpit.
Riding shotgun beside the pilot was Rebecca Bell, a petite Australian woman who rarely took anything seriously, the only exception being her job. She was looking out the windows of the VTOL as though trying to figure out where they were, searching for a landmark. Her dark brown ponytail swung from side to side with every turn of the head.
Bell suddenly pointed out the window towards her right and shouted, “That way! Over there!”
“Are you sure this time?” the pilot asked doubtfully.
Min-Hee, the only one present who wasn’t a part of the original Diviner crew as it was when Mackenzie joined. A slim woman of Korean descent and jet black hair that reached her shoulders, though she kept it tied up in a tight bun. She didn’t speak much and mostly kept to herself, but she had saved their lives several months ago, so Mackenzie trusted her completely, despite what some other people might say.
“Of course I’m sure,” Bell frowned. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Because,” Min-Hee began calmly, “the last time you were sure, we wasted half an hour looking for a water source that was 30 miles in the other direction.”
Bell heavily sighed in annoyance. “I told you, that was the navigational system. It was faulty.”
“Of course it was,” Min-Hee said, not bothering to hide her disbelief.
“Look, I’m a driver, not a navigator!” Bell said defensively. “Maybe if you let me take the stick for a while…”
“This aircraft is a highly complicated piece of machinery,” Min-Hee interrupted, sounding aghast that Bell would suggest such a thing. “It requires months of training to master just the basics of flying! Not just anyone can take the stick and pilot her, unlike your truck that you so fondly talk about.”
“Her name was Rhiannon,” Bell gasped, sounding offended. “And she was a lot more complicated than you think. So how about you go take a break, and I’ll just-”
“Not a chance,” Min-Hee replied, Mackenzie spotting a rare smirk tugging at the corners of her lips.
The desert passed by below in a blur as Min-Hee flew them in the direction Bell had indicated, sand dunes and rocks flashing by in an instant before being left behind. Spectre trees, tall and dead-looking trunks that were as white as ghosts, marked the landscape like ominous tombstones, while the rest of the terrain was uneven and hazardous to traverse. Mackenzie was quietly grateful they now had the VTOL. Flying for a few hours was so much better than driving for a week.
Feeling as though she needed to walk off the dream, Mackenzie unstrapped her restraints and pushed herself to her feet. She walked towards the cockpit, stretching her stiff back, and placed her hands on the pilot and co-pilot chairs to steady herself.
“Where are we headed?” she asked.
Min-Hee replied without turning her head. “Bell identified a small water source several miles from here. If we can fill the VTOL, we will have reached our daily quota.”
“We’ll have to land, though,” Bell added, turning in her seat to look up at Mackenzie. “The data you swiped from Scylla says it’s too small for us to pull off a low-fly scoop, so we’ll have to go on foot with the vacuum pumps.”
Mackenzie felt a chill when Bell mentioned Scylla, but didn’t say anything about her. Scylla had plagued Mackenzie’s thoughts for too long already in the few short weeks since she, Jesse, Bell and Min-Hee had escaped her merciless compound of slave labor and torture.
“We should do a fly-over first,” said the only male voice on the aircraft. Jesse had woken up and silently appeared at Mackenzie’s side to listen in on the situation. “We scout it from the air, make sure there’s nothing nasty down there waiting for us, then we can land.”
“Roger that,” Min-Hee nodded.
Jesse had taken command of the Diviners after they suffered so many losses. Vasseur, Lowe, Abbas… all gone, leaving only Jesse, Mackenzie and Bell. Bell had been a Diviner longer than Jesse, but allowed him to take command because she knew he was better suited to the position. She also told Mackenzie once that she didn’t want that kind of responsibility, anyway.
As they continued flying towards their heading, Jesse placed a hand on Mackenzie’s shoulder and led her away from the others. Speaking quietly, so as not to be overheard, he asked, “Are you feeling okay? You look beat.”
“I’m fine,” Mackenzie replied automatically. She realized she’d been saying those words a lot lately, so much so they were beginning to lose their meaning.
“Are you sure?” Jesse pressed, sounding as though he didn’t remotely believe her. “Because you look like you haven’t slept in days.”
“I’m fine,” Mackenzie insisted, not quite meeting Jesse’s eye.
“Your eyes are all puffy,” Jesse pointed out. “And you look pale.”
“And you look like you should mind your own business!” Mackenzie snapped. “I’m fine, okay?”
Jesse took his hand off of Mackenzie’s shoulder, still regarding her with a look of worried skepticism. He nodded slowly and said, “Okay. If you say so.”
Mackenzie knew she’d feel bad later for snapping when Jesse was only trying to look out for her, but for now, she was too tired and short-tempered to care.
“We’re approaching the water source,” Bell reported from the cockpit. “We’ll be flying over in just a few seconds.”
“Slow it down,” Jesse ordered Min-Hee. “Let’s get a good look out there.”
Min-Hee adjusted the speed of the VTOL until it hovered slowly over a cluster of cliffs and enormous rocks. Leaning forward with her hands on Bell’s seat, Mackenzie could see a semicircular shape in the landscape, formed by the cliffs and rocks. Inside the semicircle was a relatively small pool of water. It was probably as long as a football field, but narrow and winding, like a section of river that had somehow become detached and lost.
Ordinarily, Min-Hee would fly the VTOL low over the water, open the underbelly of the ship, and scoop water up until she was full. Then the ship would close its giant scoops and they would fly away. Mackenzie could immediately see that Bell was right in saying that maneuver was out of the question, though. The water source was far too short and winding to manage that.
Min-Hee piloted the VTOL so that it hovered directly over the water, slowly turning in the air so they could all examine the environment. Mackenzie couldn’t immediately see any threats, but she knew firsthand that just because you couldn’t see danger, that didn’t mean danger wasn’t there.
“See anything?” Jesse asked, peering out the windows over Min-Hee’s shoulder.
“It looks clear,” Min-Hee replied, eyeing the ground scrupulously.
“Doesn’t look like there are many places to hide down there,” Mackenzie pointed out, examining the wide expanse of flat ground that surrounded the water. “Except for those cliffs, it’s all clear.”
“On the surface, anyway,” Bell muttered. “There could be ubergrades down there, for all we know.”
Mackenzie shuddered at the mention of ubergrades and Jesse’s jaw clenched tightly. Unlike Jesse, Mackenzie had yet to come across an ubergrade personally, but based on what she had heard about the horrific beasts, she prayed she never would.
“I hate flying blind like this,” Bell said, sounding exasperated as she continued to stare down at the ground below. “At least Rhiannon had thermal imagery. This bird just has radar, which doesn’t help us a bloody bit if there’s something down there. I wish we could just scoop and fly.”
“We’d have to land regardless,” Mackenzie pointed out. “We don’t know if this water is even drinkable. I have to test it first.”
“Which puts us on a potential dinner plate,” Bell said.
“We’ll just have to go on faith,” Jesse sighed. “I’d rather not take the chance and just find a different water source we know is clean and can pick up without landing, but we’re gonna lose the daylight soon. We need to get this done. Bring us down.”
Min-Hee nodded once and began the landing procedure, flipping switches and pressing buttons that Mackenzie had no idea the purpose of.
The VTOL slowly descended, the landing gear unfolding beneath it, and gently came to rest on the ground, the powerful plasma engines disturbing the sand and sending it swirling in all directions. The roaring of the engines began to die down and slowly become a gentle hum as Min-Hee powered down the aircraft and completed the landing procedure.
Mackenzie glanced out the window and found they had landed within just a few yards of the water’s edge.
“Okay,” Jesse began firmly, speaking to everyone. “I know this isn’t the first time we’ve had to do a foot-run before, but I want to run through the drill anyway. First of all, Mackenzie needs to check the water to make sure it’s still drinkable. Scylla’s data says it is, but like usual, I want to be one-hundred-percent sure. Once we know it’s all good, Mackenzie, Bell and I will position the vacuum pump to drain what we need into the VTOL. Min-Hee, you stay in the cockpit to keep an eye on the water intake and control the inflow. Everyone got it?”
Everyone nodded and affirmed their understanding. Jesse paused for a moment to look around at them all, then seemed to nod to himself.
“All right,” he said, looking as grim as usual. “Let’s do it.”
Min-Hee opened the doors as Mackenzie, Jesse and Bell gathered around the exit. As soon as the door opened just a crack, Mackenzie could feel the blasting heat from outside hit her in the face, so powerful that she couldn’t help but screw up her face and turn her head away. Raising a hand to shield her eyes from the glaring sunlight, the wind pushed its way inside the cabin and whirled around Mackenzie and the others, billowing their clothes and whipping Mackenzie’s ponytail about.
“Ugh!” Bell gasped in disgust as a potent smell suddenly struck them all. “What the hell is that smell?”
“It smells like something died out there,” Mackenzie choked.
“Focus,” Jesse growled at them both.
Once the door was open and the stairs had fully descended, Jesse led the way down to the desert floor, his rifle held in his hands as Mackenzie followed close behind, carrying a yellow case in her hand, with Bell bringing up the rear of the trio.
“Okay, Mackenzie,” Jesse said once they were all standing on the ground. “Do your thing.”
Nodding once, her eyes beginning to burn from the mysterious stench, Mackenzie hurried to the water’s edge and kneeled down on the rocky ground, setting the yellow case down in front of her and opening it. Jesse and Bell stood nearby, surveying the area with their guns at the ready, making sure nothing snuck up on them. Mackenzie was just reaching for the first device she would need to test the water when she glanced up and froze.
“Er, guys?” Mackenzie began nervously. “I don’t think I need to test this water.”
“Why not?” Jesse demanded, turning to look quizzically at Mackenzie.
Staring out across the water’s surface, Mackenzie pointed. Jesse and Bell both looked across the water where Mackenzie was pointing. At first, they didn’t see what Mackenzie was talking about, but after a moment Bell stifled a gasp and Jesse’s jaw clenched tightly as they both took in the sight before them.
Small, silver, creatures were floating on the water. Hundreds of them, roughly as long as a football, but narrow and covered in scales. Mackenzie could see they had tails and fins that allowed them to swim smoothly through the water, though they weren’t moving now. In addition to the small fins, the creatures also had skinny arms under their bodies, bending in two places and ending in sharp claws, reminding Mackenzie strongly of pictures she had seen of a tyrannosaurus rex. The creatures had large, wide, eyes that took up almost all of its head, but the eyes were glassy and vacant. None of the strange fish-like creatures moved. They all floated lifelessly on the surface, staring up at the sky with one oversized eye.
What made the sight so much worse though was not the simple fact that all of these creatures were dead in the water. There was the smell of rotten and decaying flesh in the air, an acrid stink that invaded Mackenzie’s nostrils and made her want to gag as she covered her nose with the back of her hand, her face screwed up from the smell.
“That explains the stink,” Bell said in awe.
“What the hell?” Jesse breathed in confusion at the sight. “What are they? What happened to them?”
“They’re some kind of aquatic animal,” Mackenzie said, rising to her feet. “They’re all dead.”
“How?” Bell asked, slowly gazing from one fish to the next, as though searching for one that was still alive.
“Something’s contaminated this water,” Mackenzie said, knowing that was the only thing that could have happened. “Maybe an underground pocket of methane leaked up into the water and poisoned them. Maybe a gas pocket broke through from an earthquake.”
“Earthquake?” Bell repeated, taking half a step backwards towards the VTOL.
“It’s possible,” Mackenzie said, “but there could be a hundred reasons why this happened. If it is a gas that did this, though, we shouldn’t stick around to breath the air for too long.”
“Could these animals have just died of natural causes?” Jesse asked. “Could the water still be fine?”
“Not likely,” Mackenzie said, shaking her head. “Maybe if there were just a few dead animals here I’d think that was possible, but not with this many. One way or another, something poisoned this water. It’s undrinkable.”
“Jesse,” Min-Hee’s voice suddenly said urgently through the radios they all wore in their ears. “There is something approaching our location from the west. It’s small, but moving fast, flying towards you. It was hiding in the cliffs, I think.”
“What is it?” Jesse demanded, automatically flipping the safety switch on his rifle to off.
“It’s too small to be another VTOL,” Min-Hee reported. “But if there is a manmade device out here that does not belong to us…”
“Then it’s Scylla’s,” Mackenzie finished the sentence.
“Should we get out of here?” Bell asked. “What if it’s a missile or something?”
“There was no point of launch,” Min-Hee advised. “I’m not reading any explosive material in the scan. I think it’s a drone.”
“Why the hell would Scylla leave a drone out here?” Jesse growled.
“She’s looking for us,” Mackenzie realized aloud, feeling a cold sensation flow through her stomach. “We should go.”
Before anyone could say anything else, though, there was a loud buzzing sound in the air and Mackenzie saw something zip by overhead. Looking up, she saw a white disc, no bigger than a frisbee, shoot through the air, then begin to turn in a wide arc and bank back towards them.
“Crap,” Bell hissed. “It’s seen us.”
The drone, flying through the air like a tiny UFO, flew straight towards them now, but Mackenzie could see it was slowing down. Even though she knew a drone that size was too small to carry any kind of munitions, Mackenzie was nervous at the sight of it. She knew someone must be piloting it, and she knew who that person worked for.
The drone slowed its approach until it came to a full stop and simply hovered in the air. Mackenzie could see on the drone’s underside the tiny black lens that was the camera. Whoever was piloting the drone was looking right at them.
Suddenly, there was a loud, shrill, sound of feedback in everyone’s radios, causing them all to groan in discomfort and cringe as the high-pitched wailing drilled into their ears. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the noise died.
“What was that?” Mackenzie asked, still cringing from the ringing in her ear.
“Our radio frequency just got jacked,” Jesse scowled. “The drone is acting as a transmitter. Someone wants to talk to us.”
There was a long moment of silence as everyone waited for whatever was about to happen next, all eyes on the drone that hovered in the air before them. Even Min-Hee was leaning forward in her pilot’s chair to get a better view of what was going on outside. Then, after a long and tense few moments, in which Mackenzie held her breath, a voice crackled through their earpieces. The very voice Mackenzie knew they were going to hear, but the same she had prayed to never hear again.
“Hello, Diviners,” Scylla hissed in Mackenzie’s ear. Her voice was scathing and full of hatred, almost quivering with the effort it took to keep from losing her control and screaming abuse at them all. “It’s been a while.”
“Not long enough,” Jesse snapped back at the drone, glaring at the camera lens and tightening his grip on his rifle.
‘You have something that belongs to me,” Scylla said as though Jesse hadn’t spoken. “I want it back.”
Mackenzie knew what Scylla meant. When they had last met, Scylla had attempted to use Mackenzie to gain access to confidential material that had been locked away on the bridge of the wrecked deep space ship, the Panspermia. Mackenzie had tricked Scylla and kept certain parts of that information hidden from her. Mackenzie was now the only person alive who could access it.
“We’re not giving you the metric,” Mackenzie said forcefully, her heart pounding loudly in her ears.
“You have no idea what you’re doing,” Scylla snarled. “Don’t you know a damn thing?”
“I know not to trust anything you say,” Mackenzie replied angrily. Then, as a suspicious thought struck her, she added, “And I know you poisoned this water hole!”
“Of course I didn’t, you stupid girl,” Scylla replied. “Do you really think I would risk killing you before I can get the information I need from you? But I can assure you, if you don’t give up that metric to me, then each and every one of your friends will die. One way or another.”
“Threaten us all you want,” Mackenzie snapped. “You’re all talk. We’re out of your reach.”
There was silence for a moment as the drone hovered ahead of them. Mackenzie stared defiantly at the camera lens, determined to show Scylla that she wasn’t afraid.
“Are you really?” Scylla finally replied, sounding as though she was mildly interested by what Mackenzie had said. “Are you really out of my reach? I don’t think you understand just how far I can reach, Miller.”
“How did you know to find us here?” Jesse demanded. “We never went to the same water source twice, just to make sure you couldn’t find us. How did you know we’d be here?”
A nasty laugh came through their radios at this question, the very sound of it nothing but mockery.
“How indeed?” Scylla replied cryptically.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Bell demanded.
“Never you mind,” Scylla said curtly. “I knew and that’s all that matters. Now, Miller… give me the metric.”
“I don’t think so,” Mackenzie replied with as much vehemence as she could. “Not after everything you’ve done.”
“Everything I’ve done?” Scylla repeated with false indignation. Then, more venomously, she asked, “What about what you’ve done, Miller? What about the pain you’ve caused?”
Mackenzie felt sweat beading on her forehead, but not due to the heat of the sun. She could feel Jesse and Bell glance sideways at each other in confusion, but no one said anything.
“You have caused a great deal of pain,” Scylla went on in the silence. “You have killed, so don’t think you’re any better than me. We’re remarkably similar.”
“I’m not like you!” Mackenzie shouted, taking a step closer to the drone and staring furiously into the camera.
“Really?” Scylla drawled, stretching the word out dubiously. “What about Vasilii? You murdered him in cold blood. Suffocated him, it would have been kinder to just shoot him. My men, who you gunned down in your escape. And then, of course… We can’t forget about what you did to poor Ileana Riv-”
Before Scylla could finish saying the name, Mackenzie had raised her gun without thinking and fired a shot directly into the drone, causing it to spark brightly and then fall to the ground, where it bounced and came to a stop just at the water’s edge.
Mackenzie stared at the destroyed drone, breathing heavily. She turned around to face Jesse and Bell and found them both staring at her with mixed looks of surprise and concern.
“What?” Mackenzie snapped at them both.
“Um…” Bell began hesitantly, glancing sideways at Jesse. “Nothing.”
“Good,” Mackenzie replied shortly. “Are getting out of here or what?”
Jesse narrowed his eyes at her, as though trying to read her mind, but Mackenzie just glared back at him, wondering if she should smack that look off his face. Before she could do or say anything else, though, Jesse turned around and started heading back towards the VTOL, saying as he went, “Let’s go.”
“Should we locate another water source?” Min-Hee asked through the radio as Jesse, Bell and Mackenzie started walking quickly back towards the stairs. “We haven’t reached our quota.”
“No,” Jesse replied. “We can dip into the reserves for one day. We should get home before we lose the light. Especially if Scylla knows we’re out here.”
Bell reached the stairs to the VTOL first and began climbing up, but Jesse stopped at the bottom of the stairs and stood aside, fixing Mackenzie with another look of scrupulous study.
“Mackenzie,” Jesse began as Mackenzie went to walk past him and straight up the stairs. “Hold on a sec.”
Resisting the urge to sigh in annoyance, Mackenzie faced Jesse and waited.
“I know something’s going on with you,” Jesse said. “Something’s eating at you.”
“I’m-” Mackenzie began, but Jesse interrupted her.
“No, you’re not fine, don’t pretend that you are,” he snapped. “Whatever it is, sort it out. Talk to me, talk to Bell, I don’t care if you talk to a freaking gozard, just get that shit off your chest before you snap. Because trust me, if you don’t get your act together, you will snap.”
“You have no idea what I’m going through,” Mackenzie whispered through gritted teeth.
“Actually, I think I do,” Jesse replied darkly. “Ileana wouldn’t want you feeling like this. Not because of her. ”
Mackenzie was about to say something angrily back, but the words died in her throat. She stared at Jesse in wonder and a little fear.
Does he know? Mackenzie asked herself. He can’t know, I never said anything to anyone!
Jesse’s expression softened slightly as he took a deep breath. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go home.”