I know. I know.
It’s a week late.
Life was just super crazy.
Anyway, here is Flickering Lights 3: The Murklands.
Thin pillows and scratchy blankets rested on the two bunks of the sleeper pod. At least, the blankets looked scratchy. And probably lush with some sort of nightmarish vermin. Marcus wrinkled his nose and stepped into the pod. He hung Winston on a hook as Hermes bounced in after him.
Hermes surveyed the quarters with a grin. “This is cozy.”
Marcus did a double take of the pod. Colorless and flat—not cozy—came to mind.
Hermes squeezed past him to press his face against the pod’s lone window, as if he was actually going to see something in the darkness whispering by as the Chryseis Rail slid north to Kindle. “It’s been what, nine hours since we left Chryseis?” Hermes turned back to him. “We have to be a little over halfway to the Kindle Waystation. And that would put us right over the un-colonized, empty murklands.”
Marcus shrugged, and Hermes nodded to himself. “Yeah, that sounds about right. I’ve heard that a tribe of those wild murklands people—the pale ones—live somewhere in this part of the murklands.” Hermes reached to sling his pack up into the overhead rack and grunted. A grimace split his face as he tried to shove the pack into the compartment above the bunks.
Marcus dropped his own pack on the floor. “Let me.” He took the pack and stashed it in the rack.
“Thanks.” Hermes’s light flared a little brighter as he smiled.
Marcus motioned to Hermes shoulder. “Does your wound dressing need to be changed or anything?”
“Ah.” Hermes rubbed his shoulder. “Nah, I’m sure it’s fine.”
“You took a bullet eight days ago.” Marcus closed the compartment and plopped onto one of the bunks.
“Yeah.” Hermes waved a hand. “The medics didn’t say anything about care for it.”
Marcus shoved his pack under his bunk. “Probably because you’re from Chimo.”
“Yep, but they did give me these little pills to take.” Hermes pulled a small bottle out of his jacket pocket and shook it in front of Marcus. “I’m supposed to take one of these babies once a day. Something to do with oxygen utilization or some other science thing.”
“It’s called oxygenation,” Marcus muttered.
Hermes rolled onto the other bunk. “What did you say, Marcus?”
Marcus lowered the shades on each side of Winston’s aqua-lantern, shutting the darkfish’s light in. He shoved his nocturnals into his pack and started unlacing his boots. Hermes watched him for a moment.
“I feel like I want to take my boots off, but I feel so unready when I don’t have shoes on.” Hermes paused for a moment, and when he spoke again, the shine was ripped from his voice. “On Chimo, we never took our boots off. We always had to be ready to run or fight or chase or scavenge. If you weren’t wearing your boots, you were either dead or about to be.”
Marcus blinked. Oh. So that’s what Chimo is like. He started relacing his boots. See if these boots ever leave my feet again. Should he ask how Chimo-life was? Did he want to know what happened when violent criminals were dropped on an island and left to fight for survival? Eh… no.
“Anyway.” Hermes shook himself and life filled his tone again. “Are you still hungry? That food in the food car was kind of skimpy, and, personally, I’m ravenous.”
“Where would we get food?”
Hermes pulled two bars out of one of his jacket pockets. “These, my friend, are fuel bars, packed with… oxygen and protein and… vitamins and other stuff.”
Marcus sighed. Could he be stuck with a more scientifically illiterate person? “Sure.”
Hermes tossed him one and tore into the other. The bar melted in Marcus’s mouth, and an odd, but not unpleasant, flavor filled his brain. So this is what high grade, ultra-expensive fuel bars tasted like.
Hermes collapsed back onto his bunk, humming contentedly. “Marcus,” he said between bites and swallows. “Aren’t these incredible? I can literally feel it nourishing my body on an atomic level!”
Somehow, I doubt that. Both bars quickly disappeared, and Marcus licked his fingers. Sleep. He cocked his head. How does one sleep with a human-sized, organic light source bunking in the same pod? He would give it a try. He laid back and pulled the blanket—which was indeed scratchy—up to his chest and closed his eyes. Hermes’s light shone through his eyelids. He rolled over, but the light was almost a palpable presence, pushing against his back.
He pulled the blanket over his head.
It didn’t help.
“Could you… dim, or something?” Marcus asked.
“Not exactly.” There was a pause. “Is it too bright?”
“Just a little difficult to sleep.”
The rail jerked.
A sound somewhere between thunder and screaming metal split the air. There was a flash of light—ugly fire—and Marcus slammed against the wall of the sleeper car.
Then the car was flying through the air.
He was smashed against the floor. His arm collided with Hermes as they both went to the ceiling.
Someone was screaming.
Marcus’s head hit the railing of the bunk bed. Hermes cried out. There was another flash of fire, consuming precious oxygen.
Marcus rammed into the floor again, and darkness overtook him.
Someone dragged him.
Heat scorched his side, and a white light heaved him away from the fire.
The white light released him and left. A chilly breeze nipped his cheeks. His vision went black.
The white light returned. It left voices near him. A man was crying while a child wailed.
Cool fingers pressed against Marcus’s forehead.
The white light returned once more, it hovered nearby for a moment.
Marcus caught garbled words.
“Hit his head… awake soon.”
Then the light left him again.
Marcus shivered. He felt so cold to his core.
His mind was a haze, a jumble of scattered screams and faceless voices.
“We could get water from the Kindle Slip,” someone said.
“It’s high season. The water’s too fast and dangerous.”
“Oxygen is our first priority.”
The voices slurred together.
“… Won’t get oxygen until… rescue…”
“… Stuck… the murklands… pale ones… near.”
Marcus tried to curl up, tried to get warm.
“Here, Marcus.” Someone was tucking something around him. He saw the white light.
“Drink this, Marcus.” Hermes lifted Marcus’s head and water dribbled into this mouth. He swallowed and coughed.
Marcus tried to speak, but words wouldn’t come.
Hermes motioned to a green light next to Marcus’s head. “I found Winston in the Slip. He seems fine, but you hit your head.” Hermes put something cold and wet on Marcus’s head. “Maybe that will help.”
There was a commotion. Hermes looked up. “Oh, no,” he breathed. “I have to go, Marcus. Stay here.”
In the next moment, Hermes was gone, taking his light with him.
Marcus tried to turn his head and blacked out.
Marcus opened his eyes. The darkness soothed his aching head. A rock dug into his backbone. He shifted and saw Winston’s aqua-lantern sitting beside his pack. “Hermes,” he croaked. He sat up and groaned. Hermes’s jacket was draped over him.
His head spun and danced and crashed while spots flared in his vision. “Hermes!” he called.
A little boy crawled into Winston’s circle of light. He was the one crying.
“The beacon is gone.” The boy hugged himself. “They came and took him away. Now we have no light.”
Marcus scrabbled around for his pack and pulled his nocturnals out. Even with them on, it was so hard to see. They must have been damaged. “Who took him?” His brain pounded, and there wasn’t a part of him that wasn’t in pain as he moved.
“The pale ones… where’s Mommy?”
“I-I don’t know,” Marcus replied. He held his head. The boy folded up and cried more. He had curly hair, probably about ten. “Let’s go look for your mom.” Marcus leaned over to pick up Winston.
The boy glanced up. “You’ll help me?”
“Sure, yeah.” Marcus closed his eyes for a moment and pressed his fingers to his temples before he shoved himself to his feet. It took a full minute for his head to clear, and when it did, his first thought was, I’m so glad I left my boots on.
“Here’s some water.” The boy dragged a hand across his face and handed Marcus a canister.
Marcus unscrewed the lid and took a sip. The icy water gave him a headache but seemed to clear away some of the spinning. He drank more.
The boy watched him. “People say we’re in the murklands. They say that we’re too far from any of the cities or compound to survive out here for very long.” Marcus paused in his drinking to glance at the boy. “Oh,” the boy said. He shoved his hand into the pocket of his blue jacket. “The beacon said to give you this. He said it would help your head.” He held out a solitary white pill.
“Where are the rest?”
“Of these? He was giving them to sick people. He told me to stay here and watch you.”
Marcus popped the pill into his mouth and took another swig of the mind freezing water. “You should probably stay here.” He screwed the lid back on.
“But you said you’d help me find my mommy!” The boy’s voice began to break.
“Yeah.” Marcus slouched against the wreckage. Perfect. What now? “But, first, uh, what’s your name?”
“Well, Peter,” Marcus said. Collecting his scattered thoughts proved to be harder than using electricity to split the oxygen atoms out of carbon dioxide. “You stay here.”
“Bu-” Peter started.
Marcus held up his hand. “I’ll come back within an hour. What’s your mom’s name?”
“I’ll see if I can find her. You stay here.”
Without waiting for more arguments, Marcus wrapped Hermes’s jacket around Peter and sat him down. “One hour,” he said.
Holding Winston aloft, he shouldered his pack and left the shelter of the wreckage. With each step, he wondered if he would pass out, but he gritted his teeth and pressed on. A faint, colorful lights dotted the area. Darkfish that had survived the crash. He picked his way to the nearest light and found a group of people huddled around an aqua-lantern. One man had a stump where his leg used to be.
Good thing he hadn’t brought Peter along. He tried not to sway so terribly. “How many survivors?”
The legless man didn’t acknowledge him, but the woman trying to stem the bleeding glanced up. “About a hundred accounted for.”
“And with that bright beacon taken, it’ll be hard for hovers to find us,” a man from the circle said. “And that explosion took a bunch of our oxygen.”
The woman rubbed her face. “We need to get that beacon back.”
“You’re right.” Marcus shifted. “I’ll go after him. Which way did the pale ones go?”
“You’re going to get him?” The man laughed “By yourself? With that darkfish? We’re in the middle of the murklands. That darkfish is too bright for you to go looking for the pale ones! They’ll see you a mile away.”
Winston was admittedly shining better than he had in days, and Marcus briefly wondered why he hadn’t tried train explosion treatment before. “I’ll leave him here and find a dim beacon to go with me instead. Most beacons are dimmer than darkfi–”
A woman stumbled into the circle of light. “My son! My son! Has anyone seen my son!” She slipped and fell, sobbing. She had a cut on her forehead and a piece of metal stuck out of her shoulder.
“Everyone’s looking for someone,” the man scoffed.
“He’s eleven years old” she cried. “Curly dark hair, h-he was in a-a blue jacket on the rail with a green s-s-shirt.”
Marcus’s grip on Winston’s aqua-lantern tightened, and a burst of pain ran up his arm.
“Are you Erin? Is your son Peter?”
“Yes!” Erin lurched to her feet toward Marcus. “Where is he? Is he all right?”
“Calm down. He’s fine. Follow me.” Marcus turned back the way he had come.
She staggered after him, crying and asking question after question. Was Peter alright? Was Peter scared? Was Peter warm? Was Peter safe?
After what seemed like an eternity, Winston’s light illuminated the familiar piece of wreckage.
“Mommy!” Peter cried out, flinging himself at her. She didn’t even grunt. She was down on the ground kissing his head, hugging him, crying into his hair.
Marcus was transfixed. There had once been a time when his mother would have greeted him so joyfully, before Marietta and Madden killed themselves, before life lost all color and taste. He looked away and swallowed the lump he hadn’t realized had begun to clog his throat. “I’m going to find the beacon. I’ll leave Winston with you until I return.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you.”
Marcus set Winston on the ground beside them and unzipped his pack. He jostled things around, careful to keep the oxygen tank hidden as he pulled out a box of darkfish food. “Feed him every once in a while. I’m not sure how long I’ll be gone, but this should be plenty.”
“You’re trying to find the beacon?” she asked.
“Yes.” Marcus rubbed his head. The pill seemed to be having some effect because his vision didn’t spin and lurch so much.
Erin stroked Peter’s head. “He was kind.”
“Yes, he is.” Marcus considered taking Winston back just for her use of the past tense. “I plan to bring him back.”
He shouldered his pack and turned toward the little circles of darkfish light before she could say anything else. He stumbled along until he came the Kindle Slip and filled up the canteen in the frigid river water. He paused and checked to make sure no one was around, and then he pulled out the oxygen tank and took three breaths. The aches in his body receded, and his head cleared.
He stood and began to look for another beacon. In all the wreckage, there had to be one other one who had survived, one dimmer than a darkfish. After checking seven different groups, he found her in one of the far camps, crying with her face in the ground. The people around the aqua-lantern ignored both her sobbing and Marcus.
She was slim, with a cloud of pale hair. Her light was the typical beacon’s, dim with the occasional flicker. He nudged her with his foot.
“Go away!” Her light quivered.
Marcus took a breath. Beacons could be so rude. Except Hermes. “You’re coming with me.”
“What?” She rolled onto her side. “No, I’m not.”
Marcus leaned down and jerked her to her feet. “Yes. You are.”
“Let go of me!” Her screeching echoed over the wreckage of the rail, and she clawed at him.
“Stop your screaming, dim,” one of the women around the aqua-lantern snapped.
The beacon paused and twisted her head to look at the camp. “You’re just going to let me get carried off by some-some man?” Her fractured, spectacles-style nocturnals somehow made her look even more outraged.
The woman shrugged. “Yep. You didn’t get water. You haven’t helped any of the wounded. You’ve just sat on your backside like a useless idiot.”
“Go to the deeps!” The beacon lunged at the woman, but Marcus caught her by the waist and hauled her back.
“Let go of me!” She tried to kick Marcus.
Marcus snagged her wrist and dragged her out of the camp. “Stop it. You’re coming with me.”
“I am not!” She dug her fingernails into his hand.
“Yes, you are.” He ignored the blood that started to ooze when her fingernails broke his skin. “We are going to find the beacon–the other one, the bright one.” He jerked her along.
“You’ll have to go without me.” She dug her heels into the craggy earth. Her light flickered.
He stopped and glanced back at her. Was there any way to force her? Suddenly, he yanked her wrist up and swiped his own against it.
“Oh, no!” She kicked him and struggled. “Don’t!”
He ignored her and his wrist dinged as it registered her digits. “You wouldn’t come quietly. I’ll give you your digits back after we find the beacon.”
He released her, and she fell back a little before attacking. He gave her a little shove, and she folded into angry sobs. Ah, good old, typical beacons. So pleasant.
Good thing he had used some oxygen, otherwise she probably would have killed him. He pulled his hat out of his pack and tossed it to her. “Zip up your jacket and unfold your collar.”
She flung the hat back. “Why?”
“Because while your light is incredibly dim, I still want to be sure that you don’t give us away to the pale ones.” He ground his teeth together and threw the hat to her again. “Cover up as much of your skin as you can.”
She glared at him for a moment, and he could see his reflection in the cracked lenses of her nocturnals. She heaved a sigh and zipped up her jacket.
“You want to find the other beacon?” She yanked the hat on.
“Yep. And you’re going to help me if you ever want to get your digits back.”
She crawled to her feet. “Go to the deeps.”
Marcus stared at her for a second, the downturn of her mouth, the hardness around her eyes, the dimness of her flickering light that he could hardly see by. Beacons.
“Let’s go.” He turned and started off at a brisk pace.
She tripped after him. “You’re crazy, you know that, right?”
He stayed silent.
“What’s your name even?” She almost fell over a piece of wreckage.
“Marcus.” He adjusted is nocturnals. She gave off just enough light for his nocturnals to work. “And yours?”
“It’s Penelope.” She jogged to keep up. “Do you even have a plan? I don’t want to die with some crazy guy.”
“I’m still working on a plan.” Marcus glanced down at her. “But I certainly don’t want to die with some flickering light.”
What do you think of this development? What do you think of these mysterious “pale ones”? And this Penelope? What about her?
I’d love to hear your thoughts–what you like, what you don’t, things that didn’t make sense, etc.. :)