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1. Recovery

The ribbon of coast lay beside the town like a belt tossed aside. It was golden dawn, and Jaks stood ankle-deep in the surf, staring. A thin tickle of blood slid down his arm and dropped to the crystal green water below, winding like spilled ink between the waves. The buildings along the shore formed a low silouette in the early light. He moved toward them, arm throbbing. Time was short.

The remains of his entry suit were shredded to the waist, but the ejection kit was intact, its weight firm on his thigh as he limped. He felt his face with his good hand and found more than morning stubble. How long had he bobbed in this ocean? He quickened his pace. He thought of the others. Where they might be, how they had managed, if they had even survived. A useless path for his mind to walk.

There would be a doctor here. He would sit for a quick graft and, with luck, find a sliver of bandwidth to report in. Then, rest. The sun was slicing into view behind the town, now a cluster of ragged orange shadows. As he squinted, his nose caught a sharp tang. Sand gave way to black stone steps, and he slowed his pace to climb.

The smell was stronger now, assaulting him with each breath. He reached the top, choking on burnt air. What remained of the town was caked with ash. He leaned, coughing, against a blackened door jamb. It was still warm. The town’s houses, shops and meeting places still smoldered. Jaks reached into the bag strapped to his leg and felt for the standard issue sidearm, his eyes jumping from building to building.

A quiet wind nudged flakes of ash from hearth and step. The work had been methodical. Nothing moved. Death lived inside these places. Weapon raised, he moved building to building, wounded arm limp at his side. Each was the same, barricaded and torched. Inside, bones.

At his vision’s edge, something shifted. He followed with an eye, careful to focus his body’s attention elsewhere. His mind marked it. At the town’s ruined edge, a road wound away, off beyond the rocky hills that framed the coastal valley. He moved to follow it.

2. Race

Dobbes watched the stranger from behind the smoking remains of his ancestral home. The man wore odd fabrics and carried a weapon. In normal times, folk would have met the hurt man on the beach with food & herbs. But they were dead, and Dobbes was a careful boy.

Returning home, he had seen the gray trunk of smoke curling in the distance. Instinct had begged him to bolt there in a panic. Instead he had picked his way carefully across the rocky coastline, his father’s words crashing in his head like booming surf. Courage begins with calm. As his mind screamed, the phrase had rolled and repeated, stuck like a simple tune taught to a child.

Standing at the town’s edge, he had watched the men leave, traveling along the coast road. The same road the stranger now walked. North Cove, ancient place and home of The Ink, was gone and dead. He took his breaths and stole a look at the ocean. He would return. As Dobbes set out along the road, he watched the sun rise full over the mountains in the distance. He had never crossed them. But he knew well the places between here and there. His family was strong in the valley, and they would need warning. He began to run.

He pushed his feet into the rocky ground and gave his body to automatic motion. With the exhalation of each breath, he named the dead. Their names caught on the wind and disappeared into the ocean air. Sander. Cheung. Armstrong. Tanaka. So many names. So much ink. Images of his family name flashed in his mind, wrapping around his body in mourning and protection. He longed for the pain to come. His lungs burned, but with the dull broadness of exertion rather than the pierce of metal and heat he craved. It would have to do.

The thought cycle was broken by a blow from behind that lifted him from the road and sent him flying to land roughly among the scrub. The black slid over him like a cool sheet, and a tall shadow fell overhead. He whispered his family name and fell away from the world.

3. Rest

Jaks stood over his pursuer, chest heaving as the adrenaline seeped away. It was just a boy, no older than 12 or 13 years. He was shirtless, and his shoes and short pants were light and natural. A circular pendant of woven metal hung at his naked chest. The boy’s entire visible body was covered in tattoos, each overlapping the next to form an unbroken landscape of symbol and image. The markings seemed an undecipherable jumble of characters, embellished by filigree & flourish. The midnight tones swam and swirled.

He was no expert on body art, but to his eye, the markings did not look new. They had matured as their canvas did, in fits of growth. He would have been a child when the tattooing began. The artist had clearly worked this way often, on the resilient skin of youth. Eyes and brain refused to cooperate in making sense of the sight. His gaze found the sky. Time was burning, but he would sit and wait.

If his team had survived the crash they would also be heading for the beacon, feeling its subconcious tug on their internal compasses. His own tracking node pulsed like a reverse headache behind his nose, nudging him west toward the mountains with a pleasant tickle. When he mentally acknowledged the tracker’s dull pulse, it rewarded him by subsiding momentarily. But it would return if he lingered.

He nudged the knocked out kid with the toe of his boot. Nothing. He could cover more ground alone, but a guide could be useful. His arm sung with pain. Seeing the primitive village had dimmed his hope of finding a doctor. Meeting an inhabitant had snuffed it. The wound would need fixing the old way, with fire and cord. Both should be easy to come by. The boy stirred with a groan. Jaks rose.

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