Authors: Rajan Khanna
Published 2014 by PyrÂ®, an imprint of Prometheus Books
. Copyright Â© 2014 by Rajan Khanna. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, digital, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or conveyed via the Internet or a website without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Cover design by Nicole Sommer-Lecht
Cover illustration Â© Chris McGrath
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The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:
Khanna, Rajan, 1974-
Falling sky / by Rajan Khanna.
ISBN 978-1-61614-982-6 (paperback) â ISBN 978-1-61614-983-3 (ebook)
Printed in the United States of America
To my mother, Christine Khanna,
who always believed in the stories I wanted to tell.
It's when I hit the ground that my skin starts to itch, as if I can catch the Bug from the very earth itself. I know I can't, but I itch anyway, and the sweat starts trickling, which doesn't help.
But there's no time to focus on any of that now because I'm on the ground and there's nothing safe about that. So I heft the rifle in my hands, trying not to hold it too lightly, trying to feel a bit casual with its weight but the kind of casual that makes it easy to shoot.
And then Miranda is next to me. She gives me that half smile, that almost mocking look she always does, and I see the sun reflected in her glasses. Then she's off, moving quickly to the prone form in the nearby clearing, the filthy, long-nailed mess I dropped just minutes ago with a tranq gun.
The fucking Feral.
It's laid out in the grass, head lolling to the side. Not moving. Just the way I like them. Its hair is a tangled mess merging into its beard. Figures. Lone hunters are usually male. It wears a faded collared shirt so matted with dirt and muck that you can't tell what color it might have originally been. Its pants are tatters. And the stench. . . I always wonder how Miranda can stand it.
There's nothing about it that says who he might have been before. Someone's brother? A father? A son?
All swept away by the Bug.
It occurs to me that if my dad were alive, he would be telling me how truly fucked this is. He was the one who taught me to run from the things. To keep to the air. But my dad isn't around. Not anymore. And he'd be one to talk anyway.
As Miranda bends over the Feral, I catch sight of the pistol hanging from her belt in the makeshift holster. I gave her that pistol. Not that I ever want to see her have to use it. Especially not with the ammo supply being what it is. But she has one, and that's at least one smart change I've made.
The others. . . I'm still deciding.
My heart picks up in my chest the closer she gets to him. But that's not the worst part. He's out, and will be out for hours most likely with the dose I hit him with. He's not going to wake up and grab her. No, what I'm afraid of comes next.
Miranda pulls out the syringe.
My breath almost stops.
She's got the gloves on, the mask, and only the skin around her eyes is visible to meâanother smart change I've made to the processâbut we're talking blood here. Feral blood. And if my dad taught me to run away from Ferals, he taught me to fly away from their blood. Because that's how the Bug is transmitted. By fluids. And if Miranda were to swallow or maybe even inhale just a little of that Bugged-up plasma, well, there'll be one more Feral in the world. And while Miranda pisses me the fuck off on a regular basis, I'd hate to see her go like that.
She has the syringe in his arm, and the blood glugs out into a tube. You'd be surprised at how few test tubes there are in the world. But then again, maybe not.
Just a moment more and we're done, and Miranda will head back to the airship ladder and I'll follow, making sure I give her a wide berth.
I'm getting antsy, feet ready to move, when I hear the first screams. The rifle raises in my hands almost of its own accord as I scan beyond her for the pack. “Miranda,” I call.
“Now,” I say. I can see the shapes moving down the next hill, Ferals loping over the grass in tattered clothing. Their howls echo across the space between us. Miranda still isn't up.
Then yelps come from behind me. “Now!” I roar as another pack comes from the other direction, this one larger, and closer.
The rifle kicks back in my hands and gunshots punctuate their screams. I don't worry about where they came from, why I didn't see them. I breathe in, set up a shot, take it. Breathe out. Even after all these years, part of my body wants to jerk the trigger wildly, pepper the whole area with gunfire, but I don't have the ammo for that, and I can't afford to reload. And I've learned to control that part of me. Learned to push it into some dark corner of the soul. Or something.
The rifle bucks. One Feral goes down in a spray of blood that sends a chill through me. Another's face explodes in a wet mess. Miranda runs by me, careful to stay out of my line of fire, and I smell that elusive scent of hers. Then she's climbing up the ladder, and after another two shots I'm right behind her.
I try not to think about the vial of blood she's holding. Try not to think about it falling on me, somehow breaking. I try and I fail.
A Feral reaches the bottom of the ladder, and we're still not up to the ship. I hook my arm around the rope, and do the same for my leg. And I slowly aim and fire down on the thing's head.
Then we're moving up and away, Miranda at the controls of the
, and the feel of the wind on my face, meters above the ground, is like a kiss.
Making sure the rifle is secured, I climb the rest of the way to the gondola.
The thing you have to understand for this to all make sense is that Miranda's a little crazy. Back in the Clean, they would have called her idealistic, but back in the Clean idealistic wouldn't have gotten you killed. Or maybe it would. I've never been too good at history.
Miranda's crazy because she thinks she can cure the Bug. Not all by herself, of course. She has a lot of other scientist buddies working on it, too. But they all believe. That one day they can wipe the Bug from the surface of the planet. That one day, even, they can reverse it for all the Ferals down on the ground.
Me, I have my doubts. Which begs the question: why I am even here in the first place? Why sign up with this lot when I just know they're going to fail? Well, I guess sometimes you just have to pick a side. And this is the one that makes me feel the least dirty.
But still, all that blood.
I met Miranda while I was foraging in Old Monterey. She had been bagging Ferals on her own back then. Some ship captain she'd hired had bailed on her, leaving her stranded with a pack of hostile Ferals. I helped get her out.
She offered me a job. Flying her around. Keeping an eye on her while she was in the field.
At first I said no. Like I said, all that blood.
Then Gastown happened, and I saw the path the world was heading down. Miranda's path seemed somehow better. So I changed my answer to yes.
Luckily, Miranda's offers last longer than mine.