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.