Read Under the Empyrean Sky Online

Authors: Chuck Wendig

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Lifestyles, #Farm & Ranch Life, #Nature & the Natural World, #Environment, #Science Fiction, #Dystopian

Under the Empyrean Sky (13 page)

Something long, lean, whip-like. Almost like Poltroon’s got a tail.

Cael’s blood goes cold.
Could it be… ?

“I don’t know how it happened,” Poltroon says. His eyes lose focus, and he stares off at nothing as a blinding curtain of pollen separates them—Cael holds his forearm over his face, and when the drifting wind is gone, he can once more see Poltroon staring off at nothing. “I’m a good man. Always did right by my wife even though we never much liked each other. Did good by my kids. Tried to teach them what I can about these machines. And now…”

“Now what?” Lane asks. “What the hell are you talking about, old man?”

“Get out! Go away! Let me be at peace.”

Lane snatches the oar-pole from Cael. He thrusts its tip toward Poltroon. “Hey! Poltroon! Grab the oar and we’ll haul you over to the boat.”

Another blinding sweep of pollen, and when they can see Poltroon again, he’s staring at the pole with a baleful gaze. “Get that damn thing out of my face!”

Lane thrusts the oar-pole forward again, this time tapping Poltroon on the cheek.

A shadow whips in the cabin behind Poltroon.

Cael puts a hand on Lane’s shoulder. “Lane, I don’t know if that’s a good—”

Poltroon cries out, bleating like a wounded animal—then his arm reaches out of the window and grabs hold of that oar-pole. But it’s not a human hand that grabs it. Even in the pollen drift Cael can see the glistening darkness, the tangle of thick fibers—vines—dead-ending in something
resembling
a hand but with way too many fingers.

Those vine-fingers coil around the oar-pole.

The Blight
, Cael thinks, his mind reeling in horror.

Cael’s never seen someone Blight-afflicted this close. He feels woozy. Sick. Scared. Excited, too, though only Lord and Lady can say why that would be.

Poltroon comes climbing out the window, still holding tight to the oar-pole—Cael can see more of the arm now. It’s a human elbow poking out of Poltroon’s rolled-up shirtsleeve, but his forearm is thick and tuberous like a stalk of long-extinct sweetcane, the hand not a hand but a squid’s beard of tightening vines.

“Take a
good, long look
!” Poltroon screams—not a scream of vengeance or anger but of fear and desperation. “Go on!”

Then, with one swift motion, he jerks the oar-pole with tremendous strength.

Lane lets go, but too late—he’s already off-balance, and he starts to topple over the edge of the boat to the corn below.

But he doesn’t.

Because Poltroon catches him. An impossible act, but there it is—Poltroon’s vine-arm unbraids and unfurls, extending outward with eerie speed. Before Cael even knows what’s happening, Poltroon’s got Lane up on the hull of the motorvator. Vines wrapped tight around Lane’s mouth, squirming tendrils forcing open his mouth and working their way inside.

Poltroon’s going to kill Lane.

Cael has no choice now—he leaps across the boat and onto the motorvator.

“Earl, you’re going to have to let go of Lane. That’s my friend you have there. Let go of him, and we can figure
this out.” It’s a lie; Poltroon has to know that it is. You get the Blight, you don’t get a chance at
figuring it out
. You get quarantined. If you fight the quarantine, you die. If you go with it, then a battalion of Empyrean scientists in masks arrive suddenly, box you up like a rare antiquity, and then—you’re gone. That’s it. Never heard from again.

Lane struggles, his eyes bugging out.

“I can
hear
it,” Poltroon blubbers. “The Blight. It talks to me. I can hear it inside my head. It hates us. Hates who we are. Like a child who hates its parents.” Tears stream down his cheeks.

Lane’s hands fumble uselessly at Poltroon’s Blight-wracked arm.

“Hell with all this,” Cael snarls, drawing the slingshot from his back pocket. Half a second later he’s got a ball bearing in the pouch. He draws the pouch back.

He doesn’t aim for the man.

He aims for the plant.

Cael opens his hand. The steel flies.

The ball bearing punches clean through the plant matter of Poltroon’s arm with a spray of fluid. The vines open, then stiffen—and with a whip of Poltroon’s Blighted arm, Lane’s body comes flying past Cael, hurtling back onto
Doris
and crashing into the boxes of all the pilfered fruits and vegetables. The boat rocks. The boxes tumble
over the edge of the boat into the corn.

Cael cries out for Lane—but inside he’s mourning the loss of their garden bounty, too.

Wanda and Rigo hurry over to Lane as Poltroon stands, staring off at nothing, his chest rising and falling with great gulps of breath. Cael doesn’t take his eyes off him.

Please, Lane, be okay.

Poltroon’s gaze flicks toward Cael.

Cael slowly slides another metal ball into the slingshot pocket.

From the back of the pinnace, he hears Wanda yell, “He’s all right.”

“It’s crying out,” Poltroon says. His lips are trembling. “I hear it screaming.”

Cael doesn’t know what to do.

Poltroon mutters two words, the sound lost to the grumbling engine. Then he says them again, louder this time, shouting them:

“Kill me!”

“I can’t,” Cael says, horrified. “You’re clear now. Step down. Come on, Poltroon. It doesn’t have to be like this. Please.
Please
.”

“You hurt it. But it’s getting louder again. It’s healing. Look.” Earl holds up the arm. Little pea-shoot tendrils are braiding back together. “Do something. Kill me.”

I can’t kill him.

But he might make another move.

At Lane. At me. At any of us.

He’s in pain. He’s suffering.

Cael pinches another bearing, draws it back. Gets a bead on Earl’s head.

His hand shakes.

I can’t kill a person.

“You won’t do it,” Poltroon says. His vine-arm snakes toward the cabin, reaching in through the open window. “You tell my wife and kids that I love them and that my son Earl Jr. can take over the garage. Tell them that, McAvoy.”

Suddenly, the thresher bar at the front comes to life—growling, grinding, stalks chewed up as the cobs are spit into the back bin.
Bang! Bang! Bang!

Cael realizes what Poltroon’s going to do. He screams out, but it’s too late.

Poltroon pivots and takes a running leap toward the front of the harvester. His body hits the threshing teeth and is fast swallowed by the rotor bar. Cael can’t see any of it from this vantage point, but the sound, the
sound
will forever remain with him: the ringing metal echo as Poltroon hits, the whirring teeth chewing fast through a human body, the sound of bones—not ears or cobs of corn but godsdamn
bones
—spit into the back carrier with a clanging clatter.

For a moment the yellow pollen in the air turns red.

And then it’s over.

They sit huddled together on the pinnace, the pollen drift unrelenting. The rumbling of the motorvator is fading—the vibration on the boat now just a dull
thrum
.

“You good?” Cael asks Lane again.

He groans. Rubs his head. “I feel like I got stomped by a steer.”

“But nothing’s broken.” Bone gets broken out here, no telling how well Doc will be able to mend it with what few supplies he gets from up above these days.

Lane moves his arms around, lets them swing loose like the arms of a puppet, shrugs. “Guess I’m all clear, doc.”

“We did the right thing,” Rigo says suddenly. “Didn’t we?”

“We did,” Cael answers, but he’s not sure.

They let the motorvator go. Nobody will want to scavenge it for fear of the Blight.

Poltroon’s dead. A bloody mess.

Dead with the Blight. A shame for his family.

Best to let the harvester keep on its path away from town—away, away, until it dies somewhere in the middle of the Heartland for some scavenger crew in some other town to find.

“We don’t tell anybody about this,” Cael says. He looks at Wanda when he says it. Something about her tells him she’s the weakest link. Not a real member of the crew. Untested. He looks her dead in the eyes, sees the tears there. “They’ll burn the boat if they think it was Blight-touched. They’ll burn it and quarantine us.”

“Okay,” she says. Sniffling. Wiping her nose with the back of her hand.

“Okay?” he asks once more, his voice cold and insistent.

“I said
okay
.”

“Good.” He looks to Rigo and Lane. “We need to get those vegetables. The ones that fell off the boat.”

But Lane shakes his head.

“No. Hell, no.” Lane winces. “I hurt. Rigo’s face looks like a pig bladder filled with phlegm. And her—” He just points to Wanda. “We’re done here, Cael. We’ll come back another day.”

“But they could be gone another day.”

Lane yells, “So let them be gone! They weren’t going to do shit for us anyway,
Captain
. Who we gonna sell them to? The maven? The mayor? They’d string us up by our short and curlies. What would Gwennie say if she were here? If you hadn’t—”

Lane’s jaw tightens as if he’s trying real hard not to let the words come out, and Cael’s glad he doesn’t say them.
He’s not sure what he’d do. Agree? Punch Lane off the boat? Start crying like a little girl?

The pollen hisses against the side of the boat.

“I want to go home,” Rigo says in a small voice.

Wanda nods.

Cael rubs his eyes and growls. “Fine.
Fine
. We go home. But we come
back
. You hear? We get this boat in better shape, and we come the hell back.”

PART THREE

 

THE GARDEN

 

They’ve taen a weapon, long and sharp,

 

And cut him by the knee;

 

They ty’d him fast upon a cart,

 

Like a rogue for forgerie.

 

They laid him down upon his back,

 

And cudgell’d him full sore.

 

They hung him up before the storm,

 

And turn’d him o’er and o’er.

 

They wasted o’er a scorching flame

 

The marrow of his bones;

 

But a miller us’d him worst of all,

 

For he crush’d him between two stones.

 

John Barleycorn was a hero bold,

 

Of noble enterprise;

 

For if you do but taste his blood,

 

’Twill make your courage rise.

 

—“John Barleycorn,” Robert Burns

 
 

THIS LITTLE SQUEALER WENT TO MARKET

 

THE DREAM COMES
again. Cael flying. Higher, higher, always higher. Toward the flotillas. Above the corn. Then something strikes him. And he falls. And the corn reaches for him.

And this time the corn tears him apart, his blood soaking into the earth.

Feeding Hiram’s Golden Prolific.

It’s been a week since the piss-blizzard came and went, but even still, everything’s covered in a greasy film of golden pollen—the corn’s seed spread far and wide.

The morning light filters through the smeared pollen veneer on Cael’s window, soaking the room in a gauzy golden light. Outside, he can see the early sun casting a bright white line against the corn, the light pushing back a sky of spilled wine.

He can no longer detect the scent of Gwennie’s hair on his pillow.

He wonders if Boyland has that smell on his pillow now. That thought is like a knife jammed in the space between his heart and his guts. Cael almost breaks out into a sweat just picturing it.

He runs his fingers through his hair.
Don’t think about that.

Think about the bounty. Think about the ace notes.
From there a fantasy unfurls its wings and takes flight: the Big Sky Scavengers get stacks and decks of ace notes, they become the heroes of the town for bringing fresh vegetables and fruits back into the world, someone like Pop figures out how to grow new plants from the seeds, the orchards reopen, the school reopens, Lane fixes up his farm, Rigo gets his father free and clear of the fixy demon inside him, Pop becomes mayor, the pair of Boylands get thrown out on their asses, Gwennie comes back to him, and once again Cael can breathe her scent clinging to his pillow.…

It always comes back to Gwennie.

Never mind that.

Today there are things to do.

First, he goes to his mother. Dampens her brow. Feeds her water and a food slurry. Medicates her chapped tumors. This was once Merelda’s morning job, but now it’s his all the time.

Afterward, Cael milks the goat. Nancy’s in a mood. Stomps and head-butts him as the meager squirts of milk hiss against the bottom of the tin pail.

Then inside. Pop’s not gone yet—though a lot of mornings he disappears early and gets back later and later. They must be running him hard at the plant.

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