Edward opened his eyes and looked up into a hazy purple mist that was struck through with flickering tongues of lightening and swirled into eddies by the wind. A storm. I’m outside and there’s a storm coming.
That was his first conscious thought. And then he remembered everything. He was lying on the rocky ground and he tried to sit up, but his right leg screamed in pain. His hands curled into fists at the agony, and he dropped back to the ground. He turned his head, looking for….
The coach. It laid its side like a dead beetle, its shiny, cream-colored fiberglass splintered and cracked, its undercarriage still smoking from where something—probably a rock—had struck it. Oh gods. Please, no.
They’d been on their way back from a wedding, that of the Carlson’s firstborn son and heir. The Carlson farm was two hours away by coach, and they had lingered overlong. Anese had been reluctant to leave. She’d clung to the rare social gathering like a child to a favorite toy at bedtime, and guilt had robbed Edward of the will to force her out the door. On the way home, the storm had come up from nowhere. Signis had pushed the coach too fast, trying to outrace it. They’d nearly been home, and then—then there’d been a terrific grinding crash as something hit their undercarriage and—
Anese. Edward gritted his teeth and forced himself to move. He crawled on his elbows toward the carriage, dragging his howling agony of a leg behind. The wound was pumping out blood. He could feel it, hot and slick, soaking into his pants farther and farther down his leg. Moving only made it worse, but what did it matter? Whether he moved or not, he was a dead man.
The rocky surface of the road dug brutally into his elbows and knees as he crawled. Kalanite, the lovely lavender rocks that made up the planet’s surface, were harder than a priest’s conscience. No wheeled vehicle could survive long; only hydraulic hovercraft travelled the roads of Kalan—or crashed here.
He reached the coach and pulled himself up the undercarriage, then pried open the door that now faced the sky. He’d been flung from inside, so the door must have opened and snapped shut again, ejecting him into the air at some point in between. It might have been an amusing image, were it a children’s game. It wasn’t.
The emergency face masks hung inside the door. Edward felt for one and grabbed it, pulling it off the wall. He got it over his head and breathed deep, feeling the sick lightheadedness caused by the spores begin to fade.
He had not lain there long, then. And the growing wind of the storm helped, blowing the spores away. By all rights, he should be dead already. Invigorated by the filtered air, Edward pulled himself up further to peer into the coach.
Anese was lying against the far door. Both of her small, white hands lay palm up in her lap as if in supplication. Her eyes were closed, her young face as blank as a winter’s dawn. Her neck was bent awkwardly and unnaturally to the right.
Edward closed his eyes, breathing harshly and trying to swallow his gorge. His wife was dead. Poor, pretty Anese. She had never loved Kalan, nor Edward for that matter, had never quite fit in here, had wanted so much more from life than he could offer her. At least it looked like she hadn’t suffered.
And Signis? Edward pulled himself away from the coach door and slumped down against the undercarriage. It was hot and burned his back. He managed to pull himself a foot away from it. And when he collapsed to the ground, weary and weak from pain, he could see as a worm might, eye level with the ground. In the distance was a heap in cheerful livery, tossed like a broken puppet and unmoving. Signus, his adjunct, had been with the family since Edward was a boy. Edward relied on him. The strings of marriage were to be respected, but on Kalan, the ties of mutual need and cosurvival were rooted deep and red. The loss of his right-hand man cut Edward to the quick. He gasped at the raw sting of it and rolled onto his back, not wanting to see the body anymore.
The wind was picking up now, its light chattering building into a moody, swooping howl as the storm swept closer. He’d loved that sound as a boy, bundled up warm in his room. He’d imaged the wind was some gigantic creature that stalked the Kalanese moors, maybe seeking a friend. He’d been a fanciful child—and a lonely one. I’ll be your friend, he’d told the wind, reaching out a hand to lay it against the thick, shuddering glass of his bedroom window. I’ll be your friend.
Perhaps it was suitable, then, that he would be part of the wind at last. A true storm could sweep away picks and plows, even coaches if they were foolishly left outdoors. It would surely sweep his body away, tossing him along the rocky surface of Kalan and picking him up again. Would he be smeared like liniment across the hectares of Parmeter?
Oh, Kalan. My extravagant, harsh, and wretchedly beautiful mistress. You have done me in after all. Edward pulled off the air filter and gasped in the humid air of the storm. The spores or the blood loss would kill him before the wind gained enough strength to take his body. He was not ready to die; he wanted life in this moment more than he could bear. But if he must die, he would prefer it to be quick.
The mist swirled above him, the curls made lavender by the light reflecting up from the rocks. The eddies grew like waves dashing against the cliffs as something parted them—and then he appeared, huge and looming, his shoulders massive, his face lost as he was backlit against the sky.
For one insane moment, Edward thought: It is the wind. As if his childhood fancy had come to life. The creature squatted down, his face and shoulders coming into focus, his hair wild in the storm. And Edward recognized him.
It was one of the recons. The one called Knox.
Edward stared up at the monolith, too weak to move. Knox’s eyes surveyed him head to toe as if assessing a bit of scrap metal. The recon could easily crush the remaining life out of him. He certainly looked the part. But recons were programmed against violence, Edward reminded himself. And when Knox gently took the air filter from Edward’s hands and pressed it against his face, there was tenderness and compassion in his eyes.
A trick of the light was Edward’s last conscious thought as he slipped into darkness.