The afternoon was quickly waning, but the convoy was now making better time. As the Great Eighty Road continued to lead them westward, past the sprawling ruins of Damoyne, there were fewer lectric cars, fewer iron signposts, less nameless lectric clutter lying in piles and creeping across their path. The hollow houses and crumbling creetrock walls that lay alongside the Eighty Road began to shrink, and the great leaning towers of Old Damoyne began to recede ever further.
Captain Syed had assured them that they would be clear of the ghost city by nightfall. When she called an end to the day’s march, however, it did not feel as if the convoy was free of the abandoned lectric city completely. With the sun hanging low and red in the sky before them and dusk threatening to envelop the Eighty Road, the echoes of Old Damoyne were still all around them. To the southeast, its towers were still visible. Indeed, as the sun retreated, their shadows only grew more stark upon the horizon, cutting fangs into the purple sky.
The ruins that radiated from the city’s center had never disappeared entirely either. Remnants of Merican structures still pockmarked the landscape in small clusters.
Eventually, the convoy came to a gravel trail that intersected the Eighty Road. A short distance to the south, according to Captain Syed, lay a stream where they could take on fresh water. There, they would make camp for the night. And so, wheels creaking, the bisox car turned down the path that Captain Syed had indicated, and the rest of the convoy fell in behind.
The trail led them past rows of roofless creetrock houses. Empty doorways and windows gaped in upon courtyards overgrown with gnarled vegetation, their foliage gray and inscrutable in the twilight. Finally, in a flat clearing encircled by these sorts of ruins, they stopped. Mr. Chavez unharnessed the bisox, and everyone began to set down their loads.
The stream that Captain Syed had promised could be heard murmuring nearby, and Mary and Laura were sent down with Devonte to gather wood from the trees that grew along its banks. When Laura reached the stream, she was surprised to find more ruins standing right in the middle of the water. Upstream and down, the water meandered undaunted through a maze of old walls and columns.
Laura wanted to get a better look, so she set down her armload of kindling and hoisted herself onto a tree branch that hung over the current’s edge. She scooted forward on the branch and leaned out to inspect the ruins that lay upstream. There, the water flowed through a large brick building with three intact walls. Daylight was quickly disappearing, but, as she stared and let her eyes adjust, Laura could see how the stream pooled up behind the building and spilled out in a burbling torrent through its half-sunken doors.
Devonte Aguilar had hopped up onto a low creetrock wall which jutted out into the water and now stood there atop his narrow perch, also admiring the flooded ruins.
“The river must’ve moved since Lectric Times,” he announced to Mary and Laura, making a great show of maintaining his balance as he tip-toed further out onto the creetrock wall.
Laura was always reluctant to acknowledge that Devonte might be right about something, but she supposed his theory made more sense than someone building their house right in the middle of a stream.
Laura swung back down to the ground. She was crouching down to pick up her bundle of kindling when she heard Devonte splashing in the water. For a moment, Laura hoped that he had lost his balance showing off for Mary and fallen in, but when she looked up she saw that his pants legs were rolled up. He appeared to be deliberately wading into the cold stream. Mary watched from the bank as Devonte leaned down, digging something up from the mud.
“Hello! What’s this?”
Devonte raised his hand up high. There was something in it. Laura came closer to see what it was, stepping down to the water’s edge beside Mary. The sun had just set, but the moon was already rising big and full above them, making the stream’s ripples glitter. Moonlight glinted through the glass object that Devonte held aloft. It was a drinking cup with a long stem, wrought in pure lectricmade glass. Devonte wiped the cup down with the hem of his tunic, rinsed it in the stream and held it up again. It shined even brighter, smooth crystal curves shimmering as Devonte twirled it in his fingers.
“It’s beautiful,” said Mary, and even Laura had to admit it was a very fine cup.
Playfully, Devonte bowed to them. Placing a hand behind his back, he dipped the glass cup into the stream and then raised it towards them.
“A toast to the Ingalls sisters,” he said, adopting a tone of teasing formality. “The most elegant ladies in the Golden City of Damoyne.”
Even in the dim moonlight, Laura could see that the contents of the cup were murkier than she would have drunk, but Devonte either didn’t care or had come too far with his joke not to follow through. With another dignified nod, he raised the gleaming cup to his lips and drank down every drop of that river water.
Ma helped Mr. Chavez prepare supper that night, a gravy full of dried peppers and herbs and served over soymeal biscuits. The convoy seemed in good spirits, relieved to have made it safely past the haunted old city. By tomorrow, they would likely reach the supervisory at Badger Creek. With luck, they might be in Lildaka in little more than a week. In the City of Mounds, the merchants would offload their cargo and the settlers would begin looking for their homesteads.
With the fat round moon lighting up their camp and plenty of wood to burn, the convoy lingered longer than usual around the firepit. The smell of pipeleaf, earthy and sour, began to mingle with the smoke of the campfire. Bill Keo reached deep into his giant carrysack and pulled out an old hardmold bottle plugged up with a wooden stopper. Declaring he’d squirreled away a few drops of doju for just such a night, he passed the bottle around, though most of the others declined the pungent liquor.
Finally, though the hour was late, someone convinced Pa to bring out his two-string. Ma made sure that Laura and Mary were tucked in atop their bed rolls but said that they could stay up and listen, at least for a little while.
It was Bill Keo that took the lead on the first song. Laura was surprised to find that, despite the raspy timbre with which the man spoke, his singing voice was not unpleasant.
I remember when we used to sit
Round the displacement camp in Hewstown
And my friend Georgie would make the fire light
As if it was log wood burning through the night
Then we would cook soymeal porridge
Of which I’ll share with you
My feet is my only carriage
So I’ve got to push on through
But while I’m gone
Everything is gonna be alright
Everything is gonna be alright
Everything is gonna be alright
It was not a song that Laura had ever heard, but Pa didn’t miss a note. He knew all the old standards.
Next, Janice Khan led them in a few rounds of Annie, Are You Ok?. As soon as that was done, Pa launched into So Sorry Ms. Jackson. Finally, Pa rested his bow for a spell, and, as sleep’s first caresses began to blur her senses and jumble her thoughts, Laura listened to the hushed conversation of the adults gathered around the dwindling fire and, more faintly, to the gurgle of the nearby stream making its way through the flooded village.
Something was wrong. Laura knew it before she opened her eyes. Before her dreams had faded completely, before she even remembered where she was, she felt the tension in the air.
Laura rolled over, blinking away the sleep. It was still night. The moon had climbed higher in the sky. It was just as round and bright, but it felt further off. The glow it cast across the campsite had grown colder and more fickle.
Pa was sitting up. His gun was in his hands. Nearby, Jack growled. Laura watched the pigdog’s silhouette pace, sniff the air, then growl again.
When Pa saw that she was awake, he reached down and touched her shoulder. Then he put a finger to his lips. Trying not to move too much or too fast, Laura raised her head. A short distance away stood a big broad-shouldered figure that could only be Bucky Malla. Moonlight glinted off his bald head. From the shadows, someone whispered something to him. The big man shushed at the voice, waving his arm in irritation.
Bucky Malla faced a ring of disjointed brick walls that lay along the edge of the camp. Shadebush and spindly birch trees had grown up around them, consuming sections of the walls within their branches and toppling other sections with their roots. In the dark, the ruins and the vegetation seemed to form a single misshapen structure. Bucky Malla crept slowly towards this thicket of darkness, bayonet raised high.
Then, everything seemed to happen all at once, with such chaos and fury that Laura couldn’t separate cause and effect.
“Bandits!” Bucky Malla bellowed.
His rifle exploded, deafening. Was it before he shouted or just after? Or had he fired twice? Laura couldn’t say. But when the burst of flame erupted from the gun’s barrel, that was when she glimpsed for the briefest instant several pale figures creeping among the bushes.
Suddenly, the whole convoy was awake. Voices were raised from every corner of the camp. In the darkness, there was a tremendous clanging as someone tripped over a stack of pots and pans. Somewhere, a lantern was lit. Its beams careened wildly around the clearing, this way and that, adding to the confusion.
Laura tried to rise, but Pa pushed her back down. Mary and Ma and Baby Grace were beside her by then. All of them crouched, huddled together. Pa’s rifle jerked back and forth in uncertain semi-circles, unsure which direction danger might come from.
Ma and Pa closed in around Laura and her sisters. Shoulder to shoulder, her parents’ bodies formed a barricade separating Laura from whatever madness had consumed the camp. But as they shuffled back and forth, trying to better position themselves, the smallest of gaps opened up between them.
And, through that gap, Laura saw. She saw people rushing towards Bucky Malla. Three of them. No, four. Five.
They lurched wildly towards him, limbs flailing. The moon and lantern light flashed across their pale skin. Two were naked. Scraps of clothing hung indifferently about the others, trailing from their bodies in tatters. These were not bandits, Laura thought. No, these were not bandits.
Bucky Malla fired again. One of his attackers staggered, knocked off course. The rest kept coming. He thrust his bayonet towards the nearest figure, plunging the blade deep into its stomach. As they struggled, the others leapt at him, tackling him to the ground.
“Fiends,” Ma whispered, the end of the word strangled by a terrible sob. “Devils. Prezdent Above preserve us. I beg you.”
Laura turned away, squeezing Mary’s arm. Mary squeezed right back.
Bucky Malla was screaming. There was more gunfire. The sharp pop of Captain Syed’s pistol. She was shouting. Everyone was shouting. And something else. Wails. Inarticulate and inhuman. Savage wails. Full of pain and blind rage.
“Ingalls!” someone cried.
In an instant, Pa was on his feet.
And then Laura saw it. It was rushing towards them. A man. Or something that had once been a man. He was close enough that Laura could see the silver-gray of the cloak that still clung around his throat, could see the sores on his face, could see the crazed expression in his yellow eyes.
Pa’s gun fired, and for a moment the chaotic sounds of the campsite vanished beneath the ringing in Laura’s ears. She saw but didn’t hear the fiend twist and drop to the ground, only to pull itself back to its knees and stumble onward. She saw but didn’t hear Pa strike the fiend with the butt of his rifle, kick it in the ribs to stop its furious scratching, and pin its arm beneath his boot as he shoved the barrel of his gun against its skull.
She covered her eyes just in time to hear but not see the blast of Pa’s rifle as it went off a second time.
Never had dawn been so slow to come.
Huddled there between Mary and Ma, it seemed to Laura as if the familiar rhythms of night and day had been broken forever, as if the warm sunlit world she thought she remembered was nothing but a distant dream, far too faint to ever overthrow the infinite dark in which she now lived. No one spoke. Pa would stand sometimes, pace, speak softly with someone before crouching back down beside them. Otherwise, they simply waited. Waited and listened with a lingering, tedious dread. It was this dread that made Laura feel that this night, unlike all the nights that had come before, might never end.
Yet, finally, morning did come. The black sky gradually turned an ashy gray. Shapes began to differentiate themselves from the shadows. Outlines of the vine-covered ruins that ringed the camp emerged sharper and sharper against the dawn horizon. Further off, the row of trees that marked the course of the stream showed themselves once more.
At some point, the scales tipped, and now it was night that seemed a fantasy, its terrors unthinkable in this new world where birds chirped and soft clouds drifted peacefully against an ever-bluer sky.
As the camp brightened, the convoy took stock of its causualties. Oprah Khan had twisted an ankle, and Mr. Chavez had been cut by Caleb’s bayonet as the young guardsman swung wildly at an approaching fiend.
But these injuries were nothing compared to what had happened to Bucky Malla.
Once the immediate danger had passed, the others had dragged the big Deshi trader towards the center of camp, laying him out near the firepit. He had screamed in pain as they moved him, but, afterward, he had quieted, making only the occasional moan or feverish murmur. Mr. Chavez sat beside him, trying and failing to produce a fire from spent coals and what scraps remained of their woodpile.
Bucky Malla still lay there as dawn rose over the camp. Laura was not allowed near him, but even from afar it was plain that he was badly hurt. His face was bruised and beaten, one eye swollen shut, and he seemed unable to sit up straight. At one point, Laura heard him gasp in pain. She looked over and saw that Mr. Chavez was trying to roll up Bucky Malla’s tunic sleeve. The sleeve was sticky with blood. As his meaty arm came into view, Laura could see the dark crescents where the fiends had bitten him.
The convoy’s cargo was untouched, for the intruders had come for flesh, not silver. Frightened by the chaos, Penny the bisox had torn free of her hitching but was soon found a half-kim downstream.
As for the men and women who had attacked them—it was easier now, beneath the light of day, to think of them as men and women—they were eventually all gathered into a pile behind an old creetrock wall for burning.
Mr. and Ms. Aguilar protested that the bodies should be buried, but Captain Syed wouldn’t allow it. Their sickness might make its way into the groundwater, she said, maybe even sneak into the stream and glide downriver like a poisonous water snake towards the Badger Creek settlement.
So instead Mr. Aguilar said a prayer over the dead men and women, while Pa and Bill Keo hauled wood up from the riverbank to place beneath the bodies. Ma went to the handcar and pulled out a few pinecones dipped in tallow to use as tinder.
There had been seven of them all told. The five that had swarmed over Bucky Malla, the one that Pa had killed and another that had tried to creep into camp from the opposite direction only to be cut down by Bill Keo’s ax. As Laura watched the bodies being dragged off one by one, she found herself thinking back on the showtales where great swarms of fiends, hundreds or more, might descend upon a village all at once, only to be fought off by a team of courageous batmen who arrive just in time.
Whether there were a hundred of them or just seven, though, you always heard about fiends attacking in groups. Only after seeing it firsthand did it occur to Laura how peculiar that was. Why should people with the Ague stick together? Was it their disease that made them seek one another out? Or was it rather that, even after so much of their humanity had fled, there remained deep within them some need for community?
Laura knew that this was not the time to be thinking such thoughts, but she couldn’t shake them away. She was still wrestling with them when Captain Syed announced that the convoy must move on.
Bucky Malla was in no shape to travel. His eye, the one that was not swollen shut, was alert, but he seemed unable to rise. Wrapped in a blanket, he lay propped upright against a rock. Even though the sun was well risen by now and a healthy blaze had finally been coaxed from the firepit beside him, the man continued to shiver.
Captain Syed said that she too would stay behind until Mr. Malla was able to walk, and she instructed Mr. Chavez to lead the convoy onwards towards Lildaka as quickly as possible. They left the two of them there in the clearing as the first wisps of a foul-smelling smoke began to rise from behind the ruins.
They would catch up with the rest of the convoy later, once Bucky Malla was feeling better. That was what Laura kept telling herself that morning as the bisox wagon rattled down the Eighty Road. And so it was with surprise that, just a few hours later, she spotted Captain Syed’s silhouette on the horizon, striding rapidly after the convoy, her long coat flapping in the wind. She was alone.
Mr. Chavez called a halt to wait for her. When she approached, she gave the bisox driver a curt, grim-faced nod. Mr. Chavez seemed to understand. He nodded back and removed his hat. Pa did likewise, and Mr. Aguilar tapped his chest in the spot where the ink cross marked his skin.
Nothing more was said of it.