Kali Wallace studied earthquakes and continents as a geophysicist before leaving academia. She lives in Colorado, where she now enjoys inventing fictional worlds more than she ever liked devising equations to describe the real one. A member of the Clarion 2010 graduating class, her short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and she has more stories forthcoming this year in Lightspeed and Asimov’s Science Fiction. The following story, “The Liberators,” is imaginative and unsettling in documenting a strange war. This is also an original, previously unpublished story, making its debut here at Weird Fiction Review. — The Editors
On the hill above the broken victory arch, Francisco picked his way through the rough talus, choosing each step with care. Sunken holes and gravel pits pockmarked the slope, the filled-in remains of what had once been openings to the tunnels below. The old officers still muttered about whispering caverns and scrabbling claws in the darkness, but the garrison hadn’t seen an enemy incursion in years. The fort itself was a crumbling ruin on the hilltop, a sleepy forgotten outpost where soldiers from the earliest days of the liberation lived out the empty ends of their service.
Francisco stopped at a sandy depression, hefted a metal pole, and sunk the end into the ground. The pole slid easily for about half a meter, then stopped with the clank of iron on stone. He leaned the pole against one shoulder, removed his gloves and wiped the sweat from his brow.
The desert quivered with heat and imaginary lakes shimmered on the plain far below. Francisco uncapped his canteen and took a long swallow, wiped a stray drop from his lips. Months at this post and he could feel himself shriveling into a dry husk beneath the sun, but even worse than the heat was the boredom. To pass the time, Francisco’s platoon shared hopeful rumors amongst themselves: command planned to build up the garrison again, augment the ranks with new recruits. Any day now, they told themselves, a column of dust would rise in the distance and another platoon would arrive to fill the holes left by the feverish soldiers malingering in the shade. But the only excitement the platoon had seen since arriving had been Private Jenaro going heat-mad and shooting at imagined enemy soldiers in the shadows. He had stumbled while fleeing, cracked his head on a stone staircase, and had been insensible in the infirmary ever since.
The day was burning toward its hottest hours, and there was no officer watching to notice if Francisco took a break. He left the pole stuck in the ground and picked his way down the hill to a slice of shade beneath the broken arch.
Whatever enemy victory the arch was meant to celebrate was long forgotten, the desert city it overlooked long abandoned. Francisco walked through the arch’s reaching arms to peer over the edge of the promontory. Below, two people were climbing the switchbacks from the river. They had passed Francisco on their way down; one was Sergeant Abel, and the other was an old woman from the village who had asked his help fetching water. There were no young people in the village: no couples lingering in doorways, no families shouting over supper, no noisy children leading soldiers to alien tracks in the dust. There were only scowling old women and stooped old men, many of them colonists from the original migration, and their flat, suspicious gazes made Francisco uneasy. He had learned quickly after landing not to expect gratitude from the colonists, but the creeping quietness of this village was more unsettling than the muttering and scowls he had faced in others.
He had thought, his first night at the fort, he might be able to pretend the flat valley was the ocean, if only to comfort himself to sleep. The ruined city could be a distant island, its beaches protected by a lone glinting beacon, and the scouring wind might be surf dragging on the shore. But in the daylight there was only rock and dust, and there were times he wondered if the cool, green sea of his memories was no more than a another feeble mirage bled from the desert.
A trace of road skirted the dead city, the same road the platoon had followed months ago on the last days of their desert march. Bloody blisters had made every step agony, and the soldiers had passed nervous nights beneath the city’s walls and windows as aimless wind moaned through its streets. And during the day the sun, the blinding, inescapable sun had quivered from dawn to dusk, throbbing in Francisco’s eyes, peeling the skin from his neck and melding the scaled armor to his body like a carapace. When they rested, stinking of sweat and blood, the soldiers shared stories of what they might find in the city. Alien riches and encampments, enslaved colonists and mountains of human bones, every possibility more outlandish than the last. Francisco had spun his own wild theories, heard the edge of desperate bravado in his own voice, and the nervous flutter in his throat had only quickened as they left the city behind and marched the final stretch across the dunes.
In the glaring noonday sun, the desert road was no more than a line, and the half-buried metallic pod a brilliant point of light. The colonists had called it a seed; they had deployed dozens before they landed to ensure nothing more than ruins and rodents awaited their arrival.
Francisco retreated into the shade and sat on a broken chunk of stone. He took a wooden pipe from his pocket, struck a match and cupped his hand around the flame. His blisters were healed, his armor packed away, and after months at the fort, patrolling beneath the walls of the village, the long desert march felt like dream, echoing and over-bright, the details stripped away like sand from shifting dunes.
The old woman reached the arch first. Her name was Dusana, and she was one of the few villagers who didn’t hide from the soldiers. Some illness or injury had warped her bones, shrunk her body into a desiccated sack of mottled skin hanging loose about a bent neck and crooked limbs. She carried a bulging bag on a strap across her chest and gripped its flap with both hands.
Francisco said, “Good afternoon, ma’am.”
Half in shadow and half in sun, Dusana stared at him with dust-colored eyes and said nothing. He had never heard her utter a word.
“It’s a beautiful day, don’t you think?” Francisco pressed his tongue against the smooth curve of the pipe. The tobacco tasted stale and bitter, like dead leaves crumbled up with dirt. “I hope you didn’t wear the old man out. He gets into a mood when he’s tired.”
Sergeant Abel panted his way into the shade and slipped Dusana’s water basket from his back. Sweat dampened his gray hair and stained patches of his uniform with rings of salt.
“It’s always farther down than I think,” Abel said. His words were hoarse and loud; he wasn’t a colonist but he had been part of the liberation for so long he had picked up their rock-rough accent. “Next time, Corporal, I’m sending you.”
Carrying water for old women was not what Francisco had left home and joined the army to do, but neither was sticking poles into sand to search for imaginary enemy hideaways. Francisco said, “I would be happy to help. Whatever you need, ma’am.”
Dusana ducked her head to rummage in her bag. Her pale hair shook like dried grass about her face. She brought out a large round egg, white in color and spotted with clumps of wet sand. It was big enough that her fingers closed only halfway around, soft enough that each pressed a dimple into the shell. Dusana held the egg out to Francisco and shook it gently.
Francisco glanced at Abel, who shrugged and said, “She found a nest.” The villagers survived on the meat of small desert creatures: scurrying lizards and bitter insects, skittish rodents caught in traps, and the lazy crocodile-like beasts that lurked along the riverbank.
Dusana shook the egg again and made a noise in her throat.
“Go on,” said Abel. “They’re not half bad, if you have a taste for them.”
“Thank you.” Francisco accepted the egg. It was heavier than he expected and cool to the touch, and it smelled faintly of iron and mud.
With another curt nod, Dusana hefted the water basket, slipped her arms through the straps. She didn’t so much as sway beneath its weight as she scuffed up the trail toward the village.
Abel leaned back and shoved his hair out of his eyes. He jerked his chin toward Francisco’s pipe. “May I?”
Francisco passed the pipe and shifted over to give Abel a bigger chunk of the shade. He turned the egg to examine its sand-spattered shell, curving beneath the tips of his fingers. He hadn’t returned to the fort for a midday meal; he had no desire to chew stale flatbread and dried meat in the company of mumbling old men half-asleep on their benches. They might have been admirable soldiers once, lively and eager for a fight, but now they were only sun-burnt and wind-scoured promises of what the desert did to those who lingered too long.
“My wife cooks turtle eggs,” Francisco said. “We live by the sea. We have a little boy.”
A little boy who would be older now, walking and talking, growing into a person Francisco did not know. Francisco reached for the knife at his belt. He had sharpened it that morning, in the drab hours before dawn when he had been unable to sleep and a shy wind had drifted through the barracks.
He pierced the eggshell with the blade and tipped the egg to his mouth. The inside was thick and warm, a rush of bright flavor across his tongue. It was sweet, almost rich enough to make him gag. He gulped once, twice, and swallowed until the last glob slid down his throat.
Amelia would laugh, he thought, when he told her how he ate the egg raw, like a long-legged bird stealing from a nest on the beach. It was hard to remember what her laughter sounded like, and when he tried, and failed, to recall the shape of her smile, guilt burned through him like a fever. She had been crying when he left, her quiet tears rolling down a face white with anger.
Francisco had written to her shortly after he had arrived, before the long desert march had begun. He had wanted to make her understand why he had left, why the colonists needed help, so he had told her about their last day of training. On that day, as the red sun sank to the horizon, a staff sergeant with ruddy skin and scarred armor had gathered the trainees on the hard-packed dirt outside the base. They were there, the sergeant had said, his voice a deafening rockfall, to see the enemy at last. The trainees had murmured and jostled for a better view, and Francisco had felt excitement humming beneath his skin.
The dead creature on the ground still wore shackles from the base prison. Its spiny tail was limp, its yellow eyes flat, its stunted horns crooked and asymmetrical. Its scales were the same pale color as the desert, but its blood was red where it seeped into the ground. It was the most monstrous thing Francisco had ever seen.
Francisco had recounted every detail in his letter to Amelia, but he seldom wrote after that. He left the base to march across the desert, and the words he managed felt false. He no longer knew who he was trying to persuade with his embellished tales of brave soldiers and fearful villagers, the land they gained and progress they made, the shifting map lines etched in sand.
Two years had passed since he first set foot on this world, and that lone dead prisoner bleeding into the ground remained the only enemy soldier he had seen.
“Doesn’t taste a thing like turtle eggs,” he said. He tossed the deflated shell away.
Abel slumped against the arch with his boots kicked forward. “Never seen the sea,” he said. He held the pipe at the corner of his mouth, caught between his teeth. “The only sea you’ll find here is the salt up north.”
Francisco said nothing. He knew the story of the salt sea and the front where the colonists had first rebelled against the enemy, the bloody battles they had fought and great victories they had won so many years ago. He knew all of Abel’s stories, tired tales from the beginning of the liberation, when skirmishes were common and every mission underground encountered claws skittering on polished stone, tails whipping around corners, yellow eyes shining through acrid smoke and suffocating darkness. The old men in the fort told the same stories as the old men at command, the same as the old men at training, as though they had all charged into the same tunnels, the same explosives on their backs and the same detonators in hand, and all their memories had bled together in the smoky confusion of past glories.
A year ago Francisco would have asked anyway, however familiar the story. The pain of missing Amelia and their son and their home by the sea had been fresh and sharp, like a salted wound, and even old soldiers’ tales had been better than silence. But the desert wind had worn that grief to a dull edge, and now he felt only a hollow ache before he pushed the memories away.
Francisco curled his hand into a fist and pressed it against a knot in his side. The unexpected meal sat heavy in his stomach.
Abel glanced at him. “How are you feeling, Corporal?”
It took Francisco a moment to focus on Abel’s face, and when he did the desert beyond faded to a blur. He blinked rapidly and shook his head. “I’m fine,” he said. “Why?”
Before Abel could answer, a shout echoed down the hillside. Francisco jumped to his feet and reached for his radio, but it had broken weeks ago and the fort had no replacement.
“What did they say?” he asked. He squinted up the slope but saw nobody outside the village wall. “Did you hear that?”
Abel shrugged and exhaled a lazy cloud of smoke. “Sounds like something’s happening.”
Francisco started up the hill, but he paused after half a dozen steps. Abel hadn’t risen to follow. “Aren’t you coming?”
“It’s probably nothing,” Abel said. He stood slowly, Francisco’s pipe clenched in one hand. “Everybody’s always seeing things in this heat.”
Francisco turned impatiently and ran toward the village, up the trail above the arch, footsteps unsteady on the jagged stones and sliding gravel. The sudden exertion made his vision whirl, and before he reached the wall he had to stop, rest his hands on his knees and squeeze his eyes shut until it passed.
There should have been two guards posted at the gate, but now there was only one. Private Perillo sat cross-legged at the base of the wall, hunched in the thin patch of shade. She was holding her head in both hands; blood dripped through her fingers and spotted her uniform.
“What happened?” Francisco demanded.
“Miltos has gone heat-mad,” Perillo said.
Francisco felt a stab of disappointment, a flicker of quickly-quashed guilt for having heard the shout and hoping that finally something was happening, something new, something important. But it was only another sick soldier, another of their own to hunt down and stop.
Perillo lifted her face. “He’s mad,” she said. “He isn’t right.” Blood trailed down one cheek in a drying line, and her eyes were glassy, unfocused. She bent forward, one arm wrapped around her middle, her face pinched in pain. There were crumpled eggshells on the ground beside her.
The question came from behind Francisco: “Where did he go?”
Francisco turned, felt a dizzying moment of disorientation; he hadn’t realized Abel had followed him, red-faced and wheezing, stopping now just inside the gate.
“I don’t know,” said Perillo. “He ran. He’s sick.”
She gestured weakly toward the village. Grains of sand spilled from the cuffs of her sleeves, and Francisco remembered a night on the march when Perillo had stood at the center of a circle of soldiers, strutting and hissing, mimicking the enemy soldiers they had never seen alive, flicking her tongue between her teeth as her friends roared with laughter.
“Go for help,” Francisco said to Abel, though he had no authority to issue the order. “I’ll find Miltos.” He wasn’t speaking loudly, but the words echoed from the stone walls, surrounded him with a thousand repeated whispers.
Abel nodded, but he didn’t move, not toward Perillo, not toward the fort. He squinted at the sun and said, “Go on.”
“Find help,” Francisco said. The village seemed to sway and lurch, and the scent of blood brought another wave of nausea. Francisco breathed through his nose until it passed. He hesitated another moment, but Perillo said nothing, pale as sand and tense with pain.
Abel only nodded again. “Go. You’ll be fine, Corporal.”
Francisco left them to search the village. He wound through narrow streets lined with mounds of rubble where homes had once stood, past yawning doorways and dark hearths. Miltos could be anywhere; there were a thousand places to hide. The village had thrived long ago, but now it was little more than a collapsing pile of brick and wood, metal and stone. Pale-eyed villagers withdrew into dark doorways as Francisco passed. An old man, an old woman, another and another; there were no young people in the village, no children, and that was another thing he had never told Amelia.
Francisco’s head ached with every step; his fingers were clumsy on the grip of his weapon. He could still taste the egg on his tongue, and the fainter hint of iron-sharp water. He passed through a narrow alley dark with shade and stopped before stepping into the sun, slumped against a wall and closed his eyes.
Elsewhere in the village, somebody was shouting, but Francisco couldn’t make out where they were or what they were saying. Their words were meaningless. He opened his eyes, mere slits at first, waited through the initial stab of pain. He pushed away from the wall and began moving again. The pain in his gut sharpened, and his skin was too tight, his limbs aching as though his bones were made of hot metal, but he kept walking. He searched narrower and darker alleys, farther from the fort and its oppressive human scent, until he rounded a corner and a familiar figure caught his eye: white hair like straw, long neck and crooked limbs.
“Ma’am,” said Francisco. His tongue was thick and dry, the word little more than a gasp. “Have you seen…” The name slipped from his mind, flickering and vanishing like a silver fish in the shallows. “There’s a man. A solider. He’s ill.”
Dusana stood at the mouth of an alley; her bag flapped empty at her side. Eggshells beneath the broken arch, eggshells beneath the village wall, she had given away all of her eggs. She extended one knotted hand, curled her fingers back toward herself.
Francisco blinked slowly. “You’re seen him?”
Another twitch of her hand and the old woman shuffled around a corner. Francisco did not go with her right away. It would be better, he thought, to return to the fort for help, pass the duty to another and slink into the cool quiet of the infirmary, let the officers wake themselves long enough to deal with their lost soldier. But the old woman was waiting just out of sight, and Francisco was not so weak he could not follow.
She led him down the alley and through an empty stone square to a quiet street at the heart of the village. The buildings stood high and cracked on either side, windows broken out and metal roofs collapsing, shop signs shattered in the rubble. Francisco twisted his ankle on a beam and fell; his feet were clumsy, his legs difficult to control. His knees and palms struck the ground, and pain burned through his limbs, and his skull felt as though it would split.
It took him several tries to recover and rise again. Dusana was waiting. She looked over her shoulder one more time before disappearing into a narrow house.
“Wait,” Francisco said. His heart raced so quickly he could feel it shuddering in his chest, but he crept forward. He had dropped his weapon in the street; he didn’t go back for it. He could no longer hear the shouting soldiers.
Francisco stepped through the doorway and darkness closed around him. The house was cool and the air smelled clean, like fresh broken stone, and his fear vanished in a shiver of relief. Dusana scuffed ahead, one room beyond, her crooked body weaving with ease through frames of splintered wood, over broken tiles and abandoned furniture, scraps of blankets and drifted sand. She didn’t stop until she reached the back of the house and the entrance from the street was a pale block of light several rooms away. Francisco followed, his shadow thin and wavering on the floor.
There were no broken tiles in the last room, no forgotten belongings or debris piled in corners. Four walls stood on a rock foundation, and in the center the floor sloped into a shallow pit.
“Ma’am,” Francisco said, and he meant to ask, “What is this place?” But the question failed in his throat, and Dusana was already backing away step by step. The shadows swallowed her, and Francisco was alone.
He pressed against the wall, wary of the sandy pit. He had come here for a reason, but when he grasped for the purpose he had carried with him across the desert and into this village, he found only a twist of yearning, a hunger where before there had been nausea and fear.
He slid to the ground, off balance and trembling. The friction rucked up his uniform and cool stone scraped his back. Every bone and muscle in his body ached. The room was close and dark, a haven after hours in the sun, blissfully silent. Francisco plucked at the buttons of his shirt to pull them apart, fumbling as the air touched his body. His fingers brushed his chest and his breath caught at the rough texture, the familiar pattern of scales and ridges now sunk into his skin, the texture of the armor that was cleaned and stored in the fort and had been for months. There hadn’t been a enemy in this village in years.
He breathed quietly, waiting for the panic that never rose, tracing his fingertips over his chest and focusing on the gentle rasp of sound. Sweat cooled from his brow and the pain receded from his bones, the stinging thirst from his tongue. He tried to cling to the fear and worry that had driven him into the shadows, to the faces of the men and women who had marched beside him, the faded fervor that had driven him to take up a weapon and leave his home by the sea of another world. He tried to hold onto the rotten green stink of the ocean at low tide, the memory of bright flowers woven into a woman’s hair, seashells clutched in the fists of a child, memories softened like desert towers ground away by the wind. He tried to cling to sadness, and the ache that reminded him of the sea, but that too faded. He had only the iron taste of the river on his tongue and rough scales beneath his fingertips.
His eyes adjusted to the darkness and he studied the pit before him: raw stone at the edges, gravel and loose rock in the middle. He pressed his heel into the sand, then drew his legs up to remove the boots that no longer fit. No matter how diligent they had been, no matter how many baskets of stone the soldiers had poured to bury the burrows, there would be a tunnel below, and another branching from that one, countless junctions and corridors spreading beneath the surface, every carved cavern rustling with activity. It had frightened him before, to know that vast hive waited beneath his feet. But now the fear fit as poorly as the uniform and the boots, and he shed it as easily. It was difficult to remember why he had carried it so long and so far beneath the desert sun.
He parted his lips to taste the air with his tongue. The oily stench of humans pressed in from behind, worn into every stone of the house. But before him, seeping from the soft sloping dirt, the air tasted of metal and stone, sweet and inviting. His fingers itched and he grabbed handfuls of sand, relishing the texture on his palms, the satisfying way the ground parted for his claws.
He crawled away from the wall on his hands and knees, body low to the ground, peering from side to side. He rolled his gaze over the stones and seams, every detail razor-edged and focused. He tasted the air with each slow breath, each creeping step, and he listened for the furtive scrape of claws below. In the center of the windowless room, he began to dig.