With gritted teeth, Jackson watched jets of fire spurt from the nozzle of the flame thrower while his eyes watered behind his windowed mask. He didn’t need to look at the target to know whether he was hitting his mark, but he couldn’t help himself. It was hard not to focus on the body that lay dashed across the mound of broken bricks, its limbs alight in a burning pyre whipped by the wind.
Coils of smoke slid over the rubble, following a lonely path through the ruins. Jackson doused his flame; he hadn’t snuffed a twitch in twelve days, and he would eat well when he reached the Meekon settlement, which was just ten clicks away. If he wound up with an extra allotment of rations, he might trade them for a pleasure ticket; the Meekon girls were worth it, even if they did smell like goats and cheese. There was one girl in particular he might go back to, a well-built woman he’d bedded the year before—but first, he had to mark his prize.
Without removing his mask and gloves, Jackson stripped off his pack and wiped down the muzzle of the flame thrower, which was still too hot to stow. Then he dismantled his crossbow, slung it in its leather pouch, and removed a bright red beacon ball from his pack. As he squeezed the ball, it lit up like a hot coal pulled from a blazing fire, but it gave off no heat; its light was cold.
Jackson approached the body. Leaning over, he gently lobbed the beacon at the mound of smoldering rubble, and he watched it bounce once before it came to rest in a well of clay shards. The little light began to flash, sending a signal that would let the Givers know that Jackson was responsible for this kill.
He turned away. He was pleased with himself, happy to have eradicated another twitch. He was halfway to his pack before he spotted the boy who was standing near his flame thrower.
Jackson froze. The boy was shirtless, clad in leather breeches, and he was crying. In the hours Jackson had spent tracking his prey through the ruins, he hadn’t seen another living soul. He doubted that the boy was a scavenger, since he wasn’t carrying a satchel or pulling a cart. Could he be the dead man’s son, perhaps? If he was, he would be twitching soon as well.
“Is that man your father?” Jackson bellowed through his mask.
Without answering, the child began to gesture in an odd fashion, creating strange signs with his hands. Jackson had never seen anything like it, but he gathered that the boy wasn’t playing a game; the earnest look on his face suggested that he was trying to communicate something that couldn’t be said out loud.
“Back up,” Jackson commanded. “Step away from my pack.”
The boy dropped his hands and stared.
“I told you to get back!”
Squatting down, Jackson grabbed a rock that was large enough to stop a wild dog in its tracks. Hefting it, he showed the rock to the boy, and then he lunged forward, feigning a pitch. The boy jumped back; repeating the gesture, Jackson forced him to retreat a second time. While the boy stared at him, he stowed the flame thrower and wondered what he should do next. He couldn’t prove that the boy had had any contact with the man he’d just killed, but he couldn’t prove that he hadn’t, either.
“I don’t know who you are or where you come from,” he said, “but you’re not showing the signs, so I’m not going to hurt you. Do you understand?”
The boy’s face remained a blank slate. His drying tears made dark tracks in the dust that covered his face.
“I won’t hurt you, but I can’t help you. You’re on your own. Got it?”
With his arms dangling at his sides, the boy kept staring at Jackson.
“Are you soft?” Jackson asked, pointing at his own head.
There was no response. Grunting, Jackson strapped on his pack and started for one of the footpaths that had been worn into the rubble by travelers passing through the ruins. He was sweating under the mask and the gloves cuffed his wrists, but he would keep them on for the time being, until he knew what the boy was going to do.
A few minutes later, he looked over his shoulder. The boy was following him; Jackson imagined a response that involved nipping the hard ground between them with an arrow from his crossbow, but the boy wasn’t enough of a threat to justify the gesture. Jackson walked on.
As he neared the outskirts of the ruins, he stopped to remove his mask and his gloves. The boy stood still and watched him with the same perplexed stare, sparking an uneasy feeling in Jackson’s chest.
Jackson thumbed through the pleasures that were waiting for him at the Meekon settlement while he hiked through fields of brush and tall grass. A bed, a bath, a night spent with a girl who was warm and soft, as well as a week or so of loafing, of not having to worry about the next catch. He’d be praised, as he always was, for enduring the life that had been chosen for him, and he’d be admired, by the women and the children, for his long string of kills. He looked forward to having a roof over his head instead of bedding down, as he would tonight, under the open sky, and he was tempted, because of the nearness of the settlement, to push on as the sun dropped lower, to walk all night if necessary, but he knew better than to take such a risk. There were too many unknowns, too many possibilities lurking in the darkness.
The quiet boy, for instance. He had fallen further and further behind, but when Jackson paused beside a blighted copse of burnt trees, he easily picked the child out of the brush with his magic glasses. Probably just some orphan out on his own, Jackson told himself, although he wasn’t ready to rule out the alternative—not yet. He knew better than to take that chance.
As dusk approached, he reached a narrow canyon cut by a river that had dried up before he was born. There was a clearing a stone’s throw from the canyon’s edge, a patch of earth where the grass was short, and this was where he decided to camp for the night. He kept his back to the canyon while he unloaded his pack; his crossbow was ready and within reach while he arranged his gear. But he was so preoccupied with the boy’s possible approach that he missed the whir of the little bird as it zipped up the cliff of the canyon. Startled by the bird’s appearance, he stumbled backwards, landing on a rock as the device circled around him.
“By the Givers, don’t you know better than to sneak up on someone like that?” he growled.
It had four whirring blades, just like Jackson’s bird, but it was larger than his, and it was painted green; Jackson’s was an ocean blue. The smooth contours of its hard shell gleamed in the light of the setting sun while it hovered, focusing its small black eye on Jackson’s face.
“I thought you might like some company,” the bird said, speaking in a familiar voice. “I’m on the other side of the canyon.”
It was Samuel, his old hunting companion. “I don’t have much to eat,” Jackson said. “Do you have rations?”
“Plenty of them. Get a fire started; I’ll come across.”
The mechanical bird’s blades whined as it descended into the canyon; Jackson rubbed the hip that he’d hurt. He checked the trees once more for any sign of the boy who’d followed him out of the ruins, and then he went to work.
He chopped wood for his fire, relishing the sharp crack of his ax against the boughs and branches, and cleared some of the dead brush scattered on the ground. Using a folding shovel, he dug a small pit that he walled off with stones and loose soil; his kindling and the logs he’d cut went into the hole. A breeze whipped the nascent flames when he lit the rolled bark and stacked twigs with a long match; the fire grew and then settled into itself, becoming a beacon of light set against the encroaching darkness.
Sam arrived. They hadn’t seen each other for some time, and although they hadn’t parted on good terms, neither one of them mentioned the woman they’d fought over at the year before. They swapped hunting stories instead, corroborating, with mutual observations, the twitches’ declining numbers while they cooked their rations.
When they’d run out of tales to tell, Sam scratched at his beard while he peered through the flickering flames of the fire. “Meekon’s council is taking up the quarantine again,” he said. “They’re talking about getting rid of it completely.”
“That might not be a bad idea, if the twitch isn’t spreading on the outside the way it used to.”
“We’re just catching up to it, that’s all.”
“If only we could wipe it out for good,” Jackson replied.
“Well we won’t,” Sam answered, “and I’ll tell you why.” He rolled some hot food over his tongue, swallowed, and took a quick swig of water from his canteen. “When I was at Five Points, I went to a young healer to have him look at a sore I had on this foot, and we got to talking about the twitch. He explained it to me like this: he said that although the spirit of it jumps from one person to another, it can also sleep in the water and the soil. While it’s sleeping, it can’t hurt anyone, but when it wakes up, it can take anyone who’s eaten something that lived in that soil or that water. Because we can’t burn up all the water or the land, it will always be waiting for us in one of those places where it’s gone to sleep.”
Because this was just the sort of nonsense a healer would spout, Jackson didn’t put any stock in Sam’s claim; it was an explanation for the twitches’ existence not unlike the others he’d heard over the years. Some people believed that the twitch was a punishment meted out by God after mankind had decided to unleash the fires of heaven upon the cities of the Old World; others were convinced that the twitch had always existed, that it was something that set man apart from the animals of the field, like toolmaking and speech. Jackson’s own mother believed that the twitch lived in the yellow pollen of a particular type of tree, and so she’d insisted, when he was a boy, that he stay indoors for several weeks each spring, when clouds of pollen drifted across the windswept fields of his family’s farm. For Jackson, none of these theories mattered very much; so long as the twitch posed a threat to the settlements and to the farmers who lived outside the settlements, it was a menace that had to be dealt with, that had to be contained by whatever means the Givers were willing to provide.
Thoughts like this led Jackson back to a question that he’d been asking more and more these days, a question he was afraid to pose out loud. He knew how to operate his flame thrower, his magic glasses, and the little bird that would fly wherever he told it to, but he didn’t understand how these tools were able to do the things they could do, just as the healers couldn’t explain how or why the tonics and ointments that they received from the Givers were able to cure certain diseases or heal certain kinds of wounds. The Givers, however, seemed to know everything about such things, and they seemed to be capable of solving any problem they wanted to solve, even the matter of transporting the food that the farmers grew for them up into the sky, where their ships plied the invisible lanes that cleaved the clouds. Why then had they chosen to fight the twitch with hunters like himself? Why hadn’t the Givers produced a potion that would cure the poor souls who’d been claimed by the twitch?
Jackson scanned the dark dome of the sky until he found the glowing crescent of the moon. “Sometimes I feel as if the Givers are watching us,” he said, “even when their ships are far away.”
Firelight flickered across Sam’s ruddy face. “Why would they want to do that?” he asked.
“Maybe it gives them something to do, watching us hunt. Maybe they enjoy it when we kill a twitch.”
Sam laughed. “You do get some cockeyed ideas, Jackson.”
Jackson smiled in a self-deprecating way. “Yeah, I do.”
It didn’t seem like a cockeyed idea, however. The Givers were human beings, after all, as red blooded as the settlers who lived on the surface. Meekon had its cockfighting rings; Five Points had its boxing matches. Didn’t the Givers need to be entertained in a similar way?
This was a disturbing notion, one that Jackson tried to set aside. He ate in silence, focusing on the reconstituted meal in his bowl and the rigid metal of the fork that was wedged in his right hand; when he heard something as large as a deer rustling in the bushes behind his back, a feeling of dread crept over him. He hoped the boy would be smart enough not to approach the fire.
“Hey now,” Sam whispered. “Looks like we’ve got ourselves a visitor.”
Jackson swiveled around until he could see the boy standing at the edge of the clearing. He was reluctant to admit that he saw anything at all.
“What’s he doing with his hands? Is he soft in the head?” Sam asked.
Jackson turned back to face Sam. “He’s trying to tell us something, I think.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I don’t think he can speak.”
“You know him?”
Jackson shook his head. “He followed me out of the ruins.”
Leaning forward, Sam set down his bowl. Wisps of smoke swirled around his head, firelight shadowing the deep hollows of his cheeks.
“He followed you out after you made that kill you told me about?”
“Were they together, the two of them?” Sam asked.
“Not as far as I know.”
Sam sat back with his legs spread wide. “Well, what the hell do you know?”
Jackson hesitated, glancing down at the ground. “He showed up while I was marking the corpse. I never saw him while I was tracking.”
Standing up, Sam walked over to the edge of the canyon, where he became a faint blur sketched against the darkness. While the embers in the fire popped, Jackson turned around again to stare at the boy, who was standing in the same place.
When Sam wandered back, he didn’t sit down. Jackson watched him remove his compound bow from its leather satchel; as Sam clipped on his quiver, Jackson stood up as well.
“Sam,” he said.
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone,” Sam said. “But I’m going to take care of him right here and now.”
“He’s not showing the signs.”
“Which means nothing, Jackson.”
“Maybe. But there aren’t any farms out here. We can afford to wait.”
Sam’s lips twisted into a sneer. “I think you’re the one who’s soft, not him.”
Jackson grabbed his wrist, squeezing it until he could feel the corded tendons in Sam’s forearm.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Sam asked.
“I told you, we can afford to wait.”
“You are crazy.”
Jackson wrenched the bow out of Sam’s hand, tossed it next to his own pack, and circled the fire. He was aware of the intense anger that Sam seemed to exhale into the night air, but he refused to respond to it. He scrubbed and stowed his mess kit while Sam stood rooted to the same spot, and he kept his eyes lowered as he kicked some dirt into the fire. When Sam finally eased himself down to the ground again, Jackson looked over his shoulder, checking the tree line; there was no sign of the boy.
“The Meekon council will want to hear about this,” Sam mumbled.
“We can talk about it in the morning.”
Jackson unwrapped his little bird and put it in sentry mode, so that it would survey the perimeter of the campsite and alert them to any intruders. Then he smoothed out his bed roll and lay down on the firm ground with his back to Sam. While the fire sputtered, Jackson listened to Sam cleaning his side of the camp; ground squirrels scurried along the edge of the clearing while Sam made up his bed.
Jackson lay awake for a long time, long after the fire had died down. Staring at the lonesome jewels scattered across the sky, he prayed that the boy would be gone by the next morning. As the moon disappeared, Jackson put his faith in the powers of the little bird he’d received from the Givers and finally went to sleep.
He woke with a start. Dawn was breaking beyond the canyon; a golden haze was draped across the tops of the distant trees. Sam’s blanket was stretched out over the ground opposite the ashes of the fire, but Sam was gone. His weapon was gone as well.
Jackson unpacked his crossbow, assembled it with trembling hands, and strapped on his magic glasses. The crushed clumps of grass at the edge of the clearing showed where Sam had entered the stand of trees; Jackson touched a button on the side of the glasses’ oval frame, activating his blue bird.
“Scout,” Jackson told the bird. “Target: male; armed. Direction: west southwest.”
The bird’s blades whirred as it leapt into the air, flying high above Jackson’s head. An image of what the bird could see popped up over the view Jackson had of the clearing; watching the trees grow smaller in the lesser of the two views, Jackson touched a dial on the glasses to make the larger picture match the scale of what his own eyes could see. Treading lightly but purposefully, he picked up the path Sam had followed through the trees.
The bird spotted the boy first, instead of Sam. He was a tiny tan figure in the glasses, a creature the size of an ant scrambling down the side of a scalloped anthill. Whispering into the glasses, Jackson told the bird to hover, and it held its position above the treetops as he came out into the open, leaving the shadows cast by vines and dangling branches behind.
Sam was crouched under a slanted fir, hiding behind the crest of a rise dressed with wildflowers. His bare arms flexed around his bow while he waited for the boy to start up the next slope; an arrow was notched in the string, ready to be launched.
Jackson slipped the glasses off of his head with his free hand. He took heavy steps, crunching the low brush and weeds underfoot to let the other hunter know where he was, but Sam ignored him.
Jackson called his name.
Standing up, Sam threw a belligerent glance his way before he moved toward the summit, where he pulled his bowstring taut and sighted his prey.
The curved bow tilted toward the sky as the hunter staggered; he twisted as he fell.
Barehanded, the bowstring’s release stung Jackson’s palms. He looked past the short cross of his weapon, the bow he was cradling in his arms, and stared at the arrow that had flown from it. The feathered tip, a hand’s length of the narrow rod, stuck out from Sam’s back; Sam lay face down on the ground.
The wind was hushed. Jackson started up the incline, pausing for a moment beside the body that was splayed across the grass and flowers. At the top of the hill, Jackson could see his little bird still hovering high above the trees. In the opposite direction, at an altitude level with the clouds, a Givers’ ship floated in the sky, its blade shaped body ablaze in the early morning light. The boy was on the other side, just above the trough between two shallow hills.
He was moving slowly, methodically over the scattered rocks and dead trees, but he walked with an odd, contorted gait, as if he was wading through the waist high water of a pond. When Jackson caught up with him, he could see the faint beginnings of several bruises that ran up the boy’s spine, and there was no mistaking the quivering in the boy’s shoulders, the earliest signs of the twitch.
Arming his bow with a second arrow, Jackson jogged to the right of the boy, sprinting up the hill to reach the next summit. The boy saw him and stopped moving; Jackson raised his weapon once more.
The boy shivered while he stared at Jackson, his eyebrows arched to make a request he couldn’t express out loud. Wiping his nose against the back of his wrist, his chest shook as he took a deep breath, and then he looked down at the ground beneath his feet, his hands listless at his sides.
Jackson felt the tension of the string between his fingers. He knew what he was supposed to do, and he knew why he was supposed to do it, but for some reason that he couldn’t fathom, he was unable to complete the task. He let go of the string; he dropped the crossbow in the grass.
A moment later, he gathered the quaking child up in his arms. With the boy’s head pressed against his shoulder, he started back down the hill.
Insects buzzed in the heat of the afternoon. The nameless boy lay dozing on Jackson’s blanket beside the ashes of last night’s fire. He had eaten some of Sam’s rations before he’d fallen asleep, and a look of contentment registered on his face in spite of the twitch that ran up and down his arms.
While Jackson sat next to him, painfully aware of the suffering they would both endure, the great ship that he’d seen earlier in the day reappeared, blotting out the sky. It was lower now, close enough for him to see the windows trimming the elliptical dome that stretched out along its lower length and the large doors that enabled the release of birds far larger than the one he’d carried in his pack. It moved slowly but inexorably along, casting its long, dark shadow into the canyon as it passed over his head.
As the child moaned and cried in his sleep, Jackson tended to him, pressing a cool, wet cloth against his cheeks and speaking to him in a soothing voice, even though he knew that the boy couldn’t hear him, that he couldn’t hear a single sound. Jackson went on talking just the same; he spoke of the people he’d met in his travels, of the places he’d been, of the Meekon settlement and Five Points and the ruins of the Old World. He talked about the father he’d lost when he was a little boy and the mother who’d shielded him from the twitch, about Sam and the Givers and the world he wanted to live in, a world that neither he nor the boy would ever see.
When he looked up again, the sun was setting. The great ship was gone.
Chad Gayle’s speculative fiction has appeared in or at StarShipSofa, 365 Tomorrows, Perihelion SF, and The Absurdist Magazine. In addition to toiling as an English adjunct at several small colleges, Chad also did a brief stint at Poetry Magazine before he moved to New York, where he ran a photography studio a block from Times Square. His photographic work has been published in the New York Times and the Huffington Post, and his novel Let It Be, which is tied to the music of the Beatles, is available everywhere.