The Dust came and Death followed. An alien pandemic unleashed on the world, transforming people into Dusters.
They called themselves Witnesses. Witness to what?
Delancie Haines didn’t know. She read the news, saw the reports about the new minority, hated and feared by everyone. Stories of loved ones transformed, turning on their own families.
She didn’t understand. Not until Death chased her down the trail.
Delancie Haines didn’t have breath to curse but she sure as Hell swore silently with each step as she ran from Death down the old railroad trail.
Nowhere else to go. On either side the ground dropped off into deep ditches clogged with brushes beneath the drooping bows of the Douglas fir and cedar trees. If she tried leaving the trail the creature would be on her in a minute.
So she kept running. No fun left in running now. Her arm pulsed with pain and the blood ran down before flying off her elbow. Her breath sounded ragged to her own ears. And behind her, she heard the sound of the creature’s claws scrapping on the pavement with each stride. Death’s breath came hot and heavy, thick with excitement.
But he’d have to work to catch her. She wouldn’t make it easy.
Despite the pain, she found she didn’t feel scared. Pissed, yes. It galled her that she’d be fodder not only for the beast but the newspapers. The forest on either side looked beautiful, rich and green, glistening from the constant drizzle that rained down from the cloudy sky. It pained her that she’d never see it again.
Ahead, at the bottom of the slope, she saw the bridge over the Deschutes. The wood planks ran across of the old railroad bridge. Chain-link fences lined either side. During good weather people swam in the pool beneath. But today there’d be no one.
Except for the house overlooking the river.
Delancie stumbled. No way she’d make it that far. It sounded like the creature was right behind her now. She half expected to feel his claws at her back but she regained her stride and pumped onward. He had to be so close. She could smell him again. A rich organic scent like a freshly turned compost pile. She’d smelled it before he came out of the bush but she hadn’t recognized it until she saw him.
If she hadn’t been running already this chase wouldn’t have happened at all. He misjudged and she got away with only the cuts his claws left in her shoulder.
Across the bridge. If she could make it that far, get help from the people in the house. It was a chance.
She concentrated on moving her legs. Her breath rushed in and out. She pumped her arms in time. Death’s breath panted relentlessly behind her. She didn’t dare look back.
The bridge was right there. Delancie imagined her feet hitting the wood. The hollow sound it made with each stride. It hadn’t been that long ago that she’d run across it coming the other way. She could almost see herself running blissfully in ignorance towards her death.
A low snarl behind her and something snagged her shirt. Fabric ripped. A chill ran through her limbs and she pushed as hard as she could. Running with everything she had until she felt like she was going to puke. Fine, puke, but she wouldn’t stop. Not for that. Not for anything.
She wanted to see the Sun shine again. She wanted to admire Mt. Rainier towering like an impossible snow-capped colossus over the landscape. She wanted a hot double-cheese pepperoni pizza straight out of the oven. Or a night watching movies with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk. Hell, even another day at work, never mind what anyone might think.
The bridge was only a half-dozen strides away now. Delancie ran for it.
Claws raked fiery pain down her back, the fabric of her shirt shredding like tissue paper. The force of the blow nearly drove her to her knees. She cried out. She screamed with as much rage as pain. No fucking way! Not like this!
Delancie slammed her elbow back. She connected with something that felt like a wood post but the beast fell away and she was still on her feet. She ran ahead onto the bridge. The chain link rose up on either side taller than her head.
She heard the beast’s claws on the wood. She felt sick and weak. She hated it and knew, she knew, she couldn’t make it to the end of the bridge.
Desperately she jumped at the chain link. She caught the wire and climbed despite the pain. The beast growled. She heard it coming.
She kicked out at the sound with everything she had. Her foot hit the beast solidly. She climbed. Grabbed the top of the fence.
Sharp spikes of pain sank into her calf and a terrible weight nearly pulled her from the fence. She clung to the fence and screamed.
“No, fucker! No fucking way!” She slammed her free leg down on the beast. Pain flared up in her leg and her stomach heaved.
Vomit exploded from her lips. She tasted her salad with Italian dressing again. She felt dizzy. She kicked down again as hard as she could. Again.
The weight vanished. Her arms felt like lead but she pulled up. Her breasts scraped against the top but she bent over..
…water dark and rippling below…
A growl and scrambling on the wood.
Delancie swung her legs over the top of the fence. Her fingers still hung onto the wire. The beast hit the fence and shook it.
She blinked and saw it clearly, inches away through the fence.
A man, except not. A bare muscled chest and arms like two small tree trunks. Nice. Thick neck leading to a face not too human. A short muzzle with dozens of small, sharp teeth. Eyes an impossible blue like a high mountain glacier lake. Shimmering blues-black layers of chitin surrounded the eyes, covered his cheek bones and spread back over his head like a helmet. Despite the alienness she thought it was a nice masculine face.
“Fuck you,” she said sweetly.
She let go. Falling felt like rest. She closed her eyes. It ended too soon. She hit the water and it knocked the wind out of her.
She went under. Oh Hell.
Delancie grabbed the bed rails and pushed herself up. Pain ripped along her back and shoulder. She cried out.
“Whoa, you didn’t try to get up, did you?”
The speaker was a fortyish black nurse giving her a look that forbid any disagreement. The room had plain walls with a television on a mount above the bed. Metal rails on the sides of the bed. A hospital then. She should have known from the medicinal smell alone. Delancie eased back down, that hurt, rolled onto her good side and breathed a little easier.
She attempted a smile. “Better?”
“I’d better not find you getting up again,” the nurse said. Delancie saw her name tag read Sarah.
“Okay. Where am I?”
“Saint Peter’s hospital. You’re lucky to be alive after a Witness attack.”
A Witness. Delancie closed her eyes for a second. When she opened them again Sarah wasn’t in the room but she found an older man sitting in the chair beside her bed. She must have fallen asleep. So had her visitor. He sat slumped in the chair. He had neatly trimmed white hair, pale skin, and wore slacks with a comfortable-looking brown and white knitted sweater.
His eyes opened. “You’re awake.”
“So are you.”
His lips twitched but he didn’t actually smile. He rose from the chair and placed his hands on the bed rails. No wedding ring but he did have a ring on his right index finger. A surprisingly delicate gold band which held a shiny blue-black stone. No, she thought. Not stone at all. Chitin.
“You’re a Witness.”
“At least you didn’t use the term Duster. I appreciate that.” His voice was calm. He seemed patient.
“Isn’t that considered rude?”
“Yes, but I am also being rude. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m called Wainwright. I’m here to be your sponsor, Delancie.”
“Sponsor?” Delancie shook her head. She felt her gut sinking. She knew what he meant. “I don’t need a sponsor. The guy that put me here needs a sponsor.”
Wainwright nodded. “Yes, indeed. He’s already been identified and is receiving the care he needs. But we’re talking about you. Unless you trust me next time it could be you attacking someone.”
“I’m not going to attack anyone!”
“That’s what we’re going to work on. I’ll be in touch. Here’s my card.” He left the card on top of the service table.
“Wait, shouldn’t you be answering questions?”
Wainwright shook his head. “Not just yet. It’ll all make more sense later on. Get some rest.”
Delancie lay back in the bed, grimacing at the pain. Although, to be honest, it didn’t hurt all that much. Most likely they had her on some good painkillers. She remembered the feel of the Witness’s claws raking down her back, and…
A thrum of excitement fills the air as she stands before the crowd. The houses have segregated themselves. Blue Hive clusters closest to the stage. Their chitin gleams like oil beneath the Sun’s light. To her left gather the Green and Red Hives, each keeping an extra space of separation between themselves and the neighboring hives. On her right are the members of Yellow Hive, only slightly fewer than Blue. The wind brings with it the co-mingled scents of so many people. Her mouth-parts vibrate as she draws in the odors. Their excitement pours across her pods like a fiery rush of hot blood. This is why she performs. This moment when she stands at the confluence of these hives beneath a deeply blue sky.
Delancie gasped. She clutched the bed sheets. For an instant she’d been somewhere else. Someone else. She still felt the sadness that underlay the excitement of the impending performance.
She lay in the hospital bed and turned the experience over in her mind. The people in that audience hadn’t been human at all. As it unfolded she hadn’t found anything odd in the way they looked because she hadn’t been herself. She’d been… Someone, the performer. She knew the name. It stuck in her mind like seeing an actor she recognized in a movie and not being able to recall the name.
But there wasn’t an Internet Movie Database for this.
Like everyone she’d read about what the Witnesses went through but she’d never realized it was like this.
The door to the room opened. Sarah came in and for a half second Sarah looked like the alien. A strange, soft, oddly colored alien. Her weakness made Delancie’s mouth water. Sarah looked like food.
The sensation passed in an instant and Sarah was only Sarah, her nurse. Even so it left Delancie shaken. She pointed at the service table just out of her reach.
“Can you give me the card, there?”
Sarah smiled. “Of course, hon. Here, let me move this closer.”
She wheeled the table up so it extended across the bed above Delancie’s waist. “Is that better?”
Delancie picked up Wainwright’s card. Just his name, number and email address. Nothing more. Plain type.
“Yes, thank you. Are my things here? My cell phone?”
“I’ll get them for you, they’re right over here.” Sarah opened a small cupboard in the corner of the room. A LCD monitor hung on a monitor arm off the side of the cupboard. Sarah took out a plastic baggy. “I’m sorry, your clothes were ruined.”
“That’s okay, just the phone.”
“You’re telling me I’m going to be a werewolf?” Delancie stood in her own tiny half-painted green kitchen, her arms crossed, staring at Wainwright reclining on one of her so-called antique wood dining room chairs. No matter what he sat in he seemed to recline and melt into the furniture. His calm vibe got on her nerves. “Really? Isn’t that the gist of it?”
Wainwright shook his head. “We don’t like being called werewolves any more than Dusters. And with my help you can learn to control the change. You must, or you’ll make someone else the victim.”
“How many people just give up and eat a bullet instead?”
Wainwright grimaced. “Too many. I don’t think you’re one of them.”
He had her there. Delancie turned away from him because if she didn’t she might start shouting. And it wasn’t Wainwright’s fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, even the poor bastard that lost control.
And she didn’t want to be like that. She’d just put in the new bamboo eco-counter top in her kitchen. She picked up a plain hemp dish towel and wiped away a few crumbs from her morning toast. Wainwright was right. She wouldn’t eat a bullet.
That didn’t mean she needed to accept what he’d told her either.
She shook the crumbs in the sink and turned back around. “There has to be a way to cure this. Something that can be done before it goes any further. Aren’t there treatments?”
“Treatments? No. Not the way you mean.”
“So I don’t have any choice?”
Wainwright stood up. He smiled sadly at her. “You can either accept my advice or take the consequences if you don’t. You choice. You know how to reach me.”
Delancie slammed her hand down on the counter. “You can’t just walk away!”
Wainwright paused and looked back. “Watch that temper.”
Then he left. Delancie swore and leaned on the counter. She needed to run. She always felt better after a run.
When she hit the trail she turned towards Yelm. Not running away from what happened. She wanted to see different scenery. Six miles to Yelm, another four out along the Yelm Prairie Line trail and then back. Twenty miles. After a run like that she wouldn’t need to worry about changing into a monster. She’d collapse and sleep for ten hours.
She ran toward the Sun and it played hide-and-seek among the trees over the trail. A few clouds decorated the sky. Her breath moved easily in and out of her lungs. She felt good. Her wounds didn’t hurt. She didn’t even have any scar tissue. That freaked her out when she noticed that there was hardly any marks left by her attacker. Wainwright explained it but she hadn’t needed the explanation. She knew right away what it meant. She’d known since her first inherited memory.
She was a Duster. A freak. A werewolf.
Her face burned at the thought. She didn’t think that about other people. She understood that they didn’t have any choice about what they were, any more than anyone else with an illness. She didn’t approve of treating them like lepers. She’d always believed that the condition could be controlled.
But now she felt violated. It wasn’t even the attack. It was what happened. Like carrying a rapist’s baby. The thought of alien bio-tech coursing through her veins, remapping her DNA and changing her into something else made her angry. How dare they send that out into the universe, knowing that if it worked it would profoundly alter whatever life forms it came into contact with?
Much more practical than trying to send out starships to colonize other worlds. Just send out dust spread by the solar winds to rain down on other worlds and remap them to match your own physiology and embed memories so that the culture carried over as well. Better than any message. No need to decode it because the transformed organisms would simply understand the memories as if they’d lived them.
Delancie breathed deep. Her muscles flowed smoothly. She noticed a cross street ahead and checked for traffic on either side. Then she saw the name of the street. Bighorn. She’d reached the outskirts of Yelm already.
She checked her watch. 24:30:23. Impossible. She couldn’t run a four-minute mile. She considered stopping but she felt great. Fantastic. She crossed the street and kept going.
She ran past a housing development, the Nisqually Valley Golf course and then on into Yelm itself. She reached 510, darted in front of a large SUV and was across, ran past the metal wagon wheel onto the Yelm Prairie Lane trail. She kept running. She hadn’t even been trying before. She pushed harder. She felt her muscles work smoothly. Her left knee didn’t bother her. The wind blew past her face.
It didn’t take long for her to reach the end of the trail. She checked the time. 39:02:03. Delancie stopped. She put her hands on her hips and waited to be sick. She felt fine. Her heart dropped back to a normal rate. She didn’t even feel sweaty.
She turned around. Could she beat the time back? She grinned and took off running. She pushed. She sprinted. She didn’t hold back at all. She flew down the trail.
It felt like a baseball bat connected to her skull and tried to drive her head out of the park. She dropped and her momentum rolled her across the trail. She ended up on the grass curled into a fetal position. She clutched her head as if she could hold it together.
She screamed. She lost all control then and seized. Her body thrashed in the grass. Her fingers burned. She couldn’t think. She couldn’t even scream anymore. She rode the convulsions until she thought she’d die and they kept going.
Delancie eventually realized that the convulsions had stopped. Warily she tried moving. Everything hurt. She reached up and froze.
Her fingernails hung by strips of skin. In their place were dark blue-black claws. Lighter blue chitin covered the backs of her fingers to her mid-knuckle.
“Fuck no.” She sat up and carefully reached into her pocket. The claws made it awkward but she got her cell phone out. She pushed the voice command button. “Call Wainwright.”
He met her on the trail with a baseball cap, sunglasses and gloves. Delancie snatched them out of his hand.
“Take a breath,” Wainwright said.
Delancie glared at him. He looked so soft and he had the gall to stand there and tell her what she should be doing.
“Think,” Wainwright said. “Think about what you’re feeling. Why are you so angry?”
“Because…” She couldn’t say why but it felt like everything must be his fault. She growled deep in her throat.
Wainwright held up a mirror in front of her face. He might as well have thrown a large bucket of ice water in her face. She shivered.
She’d always known that she was pretty. Twenty-four years old, with fair skin and a complexion her girlfriends always admired. She felt guilty because she didn’t have any extensive regime to maintain her skin. Even with all the running and weather her skin usually glowed with health. No one would be signing her up to win a beauty pageant but that’s only because she didn’t fit the standard mold. With her green eyes and little nose she looked good. Unconventional, but pretty.
She didn’t recognize the face in the mirror. It looked like her jaw bones had been pulled apart, widened. Rays of chitin extended from her now-missing eyebrows back over her head. And her green eyes had gone over to a deep sky blue. It was a striking face still, but broader and more powerful than her own. An alien face.
Wainwright lowered the mirror and held out the glasses. Delancie took them, slipped them on and then did the same with the hat. Before she could put on the gloves she had to brush away her fingernails. It seemed like it should hurt but it didn’t. She pulled on the gloves. She shoved her hands into her pockets as they left the trail to walk over to where Wainwright had parked on the street.
At home Delancie stripped off the hat, gloves and sunglasses and went straight to the mirror near the door. Wainwright came in and shut the door while she studied her modified appearance.
She looked at him. “How long does this last before I go back to looking like normal?”
Wainwright shrugged. “I couldn’t say. It varies. Some never switch back.”
“Have you changed?”
“Did you attack anyone?”
“I killed my wife,” Wainwright said. He didn’t look away. He didn’t whisper. “I got mad. I got mad a lot in those days. It didn’t take much. Someone driving too slow on the freeway. Anyone working in customer service. I wasn’t mad at her. As usual she just got to hear about how my stupid boss pissed me off. Then I went into convulsions. She tried to help. She called 9-1-1 but before they got there I’d already changed and killed her. I injured two of the EMTs before I ran out. I was stalking a young girl walking home from school when the police shot me.”
Delancie’s knees felt weak. She went to her couch and sat down. She grabbed one of the pillows, saw her claws pricking the natural cotton cloth and tossed it away. She hugged herself instead.
Wainwright walked over to the chair-and-a-half and dropped down. He swung a leg over the arm and watched her.
She felt like crying. She felt like tears should be pouring out of her eyes but nothing came. Her eyes stayed dry. She couldn’t cry. She looked at him and couldn’t bear it. She looked away.
“What happened after that?”
“I healed. While I was in the hospital I changed back. A Witness came to me and helped me. That was still in the early days.”
“You didn’t know you’d been exposed?”
“No. It was the Dust back then. I didn’t know until the change. It’d been in the news. You remember how it was.”
Delancie nodded. She remembered the fear bordering on panic. The alien pandemic that turned people into monsters. No wonder people had been terrified. But the world went on and there was a new minority for people to hate. If anything the hate burned brighter because this was a contagious condition. She closed her eyes.
In the darkness she listened to her house. The refrigerator made noises, the ice maker. Wainwright’s breath sounded soft and steady. She focused on that. Matched his breathing. In and out.
She felt an odd sensation. Like her fingers had become straws in an extra thick milkshake and they were trying to suck up the ice cream. She kept breathing. The pressure built and then popped. She felt a pressure growing on her head and jaw. It didn’t so much hurt as it felt like a chiropractor making a difficult adjustment. Then everything felt better.
Delancie opened her eyes. Wainwright gave her a small smile and held out his mirror. She reached out and stopped. Her claws were gone but her nails were still missing. The tissue looked pink and fresh. Tears sprang up in her eyes. She took the mirror and looked at herself. She had her face back. Except her eyebrows. Tears ran down her cheeks. She set the mirror down and wiped the tears away.
She took a deep breath and looked at Wainwright. “Okay. I get it. What do I need to do? This changes everything, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, more than anyone unmodified realizes.”
That night Delancie went out in her backyard and stood beneath the bright full Moon. She didn’t change into a monster. It didn’t have any sway over her. The stars burned bright above, the Milky Way a cloud of stars across the sky. The air felt cool on her skin. She rubbed her arms. She didn’t know what the future held. But whatever happened from this point on she knew she’d handle it. She wouldn’t let this beat her and make her into a monster. And maybe someday she’d actually understand why someone up around one of those stars had done this.
Because right now she didn’t have a fucking clue.
Delancie gave the stars one final look and went back inside. Time for a movie and Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk. She’d earned it today. Hell, she hadn’t killed anyone.
This story is the 69th weekly short story release, written in November 2009. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Better the Boy.