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Through the Dead Lands

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The desert stretched so far, the edges blurred into blue. The sun had barely risen, but the early light promised to scorch the earth within the hour. In the vast silence, there was an interruption.

The blood spilled slowly after the thrashing stopped. Aiden had jumped out of the way as the first spray spat out, a bright red geyser around Caro’s knife. Now the blood pulsed steadily from the gash in the stranger’s neck. It pooled beneath his head, so his long, dark hair swirled and clumped in it, and then it ran down along the cracks of the dry earth. It was the closest thing to a river Aiden had ever seen.

“He didn't seem bad,” Aiden said.

Caro’s wiry arm was red and wet up to the elbow. “There's no such thing as bad out here,” he said. “There's us and them. Alive and dead. Look at his belt.”

Aiden looked. There were three holsters on the dead man’s belt. One held a gun. The other held a knife. The other was empty. “He didn't have water.”

“And we do.”

Caro knelt to clean his knife on the dead man’s jacket.

***

It was a good day. Caro picked off three of the birds hovering over the corpse, and they found a week’s worth of rationbars in the stranger’s pack. They made camp a mile away: far enough from the corpse that the tunnelers drawn to blood wouldn’t find them too.

They used to have two tents, because they used to be alone. Caro’s was better, so eventually they broke Aiden’s tent down for headscarves, arm wraps, and spare poles. They kept the space-cooler, even though it was heavy, in case Caro’s broke down.

That was two weeks ago. Aiden sometimes thought he had been with Caro forever, but according to his compasswatch it was still only three weeks. He'd been in the desert for a month, and they had at least two months to go if they were ever to reach the end.

Us and them; alive and dead; easier than me and them. Aiden would be dead by now if not for Caro, and he still wasn't sure why he wasn't. Caro’s skin was tough as the dry desert floor, and his eyes as distant and blue as the horizon. He looked old enough to be Aiden’s father, if Aiden had ever known one.

People said, The desert does things to men. It turns them wild. Aiden had trouble believing Caro had ever been tame.

After they ate, they sealed the tent against the light and dust. Aiden dialed the space-cooler onto its lowest setting—just enough to keep them from baking as they slept. The battery was supposed to last for years, but neither of them trusted that.

He sat with his arms around his knees. Caro was lying back, hands up behind his head, eyes closed. He was so still.

Aiden asked, “Why were you exiled?”

Caro’s eyes opened at once, but it took him a long time to answer. “I killed someone,” he said eventually. He had taken his belt off, and his knife was in easy reach.

Aiden had taken the dead man’s knife and gun. He had a knife already, but the dead man’s was better. The gun was too jammed with sand to fire, and had been useless for years.

“Killing isn’t a high sin,” Aiden said. “They wouldn’t exile you for that.”

“Smart boy.” Caro closed his eyes again. “But killing the wrong man—they’ll fuck you for that.”

***

If they finished the crossing, they would be absolved of their sins.

The prelate had assured him this was a golden opportunity. Kneeling and shackled, Aiden would have agreed to anything.

He was born from sin, a high-born mother and a forgotten father, and leaving Aiden with neither rank nor honor to call his own. A month ago, he was pulled from the workhouse before the sun rose, too shocked to struggle as they dragged him from bed.

He learned that a distant cousin of his mother’s clan had committed a crime. They were blood, the prelate said, and when the guardsmen sliced their forearms and bound them together, the guilt bled out from his cousin into Aiden’s impure veins.

Nobody said what the crime was. Aiden stood trial in the echoing steel chamber, eyes averted from the white-robed chancellor. When the chancellor finished declaring his exile, he asked if Aiden had anything to say.

As he’d been instructed, Aiden knelt on the hard, gleaming floor and said, “Thank you, Your Mercy.”

They stitched his arm and gave him the standard supplies: a backpack, a month’s worth of food, a week’s worth of water, a tent, a compasswatch. “Go east,” said the prelate. “The rising sun will purify you.”

He had never been in a copter before. He stared at the compasswatch in his hands as they flew, watching the delicate needle swing, and wondered how far east into the desert they were taking him. He wondered how far he had left to go, when they left him to the noon-baked earth.

***

He met Caro his seventh night in the desert. There was a rough, rocky outcropping he thought might make a good shelter for the day. He didn’t realize it was already occupied until he was too close to the low-burning campfire.

“I’ll gut you,” rasped a tired voice.

“Okay,” Aiden had said, and stopped.

He held still as Caro stalked forward. The knife in his hand gleamed by moonlight. Caro’s clothes were worn, his hair grizzled, his beard half-grown in. He was a creature of the desert, barely leashed.

Aiden said, “I can leave.”

Under Caro’s inspection, he was painfully conscious of his own weakness. Too pale from life in the workhouse, slouched under the weight of his pack, gritting his teeth against please don’t hurt me.

Caro laughed. “They’re sending babies out now?” He sheathed his knife. “Sit down.”

They sat, and spoke little, and watched the stars. Before dawn, Aiden set up his tent beside Caro’s, and the next night, they packed up and left together. There was no negotiation of their partnership, and Aiden was afraid to ask if he could travel with Caro.

He was more afraid of asking to leave.

***

At the top of a dune, Aiden’s foot slid out on a patch of loose sand. The horizon twisted, and the earth dropped beneath him. He skidded halfway down the dune face, arms pinwheeling, and when he came to a halt, it was against a rock. He heard his sleeve rip before he felt the pain, white-hot, along his forearm: his stitches had torn.

Next he heard slow, measured footsteps as Caro made his way down towards him. Caro would not fall as well. Under his companion’s silent gaze, he pulled the wrap from around his neck and pressed it against the reopened wound.

Caro’s eyes were sharper than the pain, and Aiden wondered what sort of mercy he would find in the starlit sand. “Could you grab another cloth from my bag?” he asked, voice tight.

Instead, Caro pulled the length of fabric from his own neck. He knelt at Aiden’s side to tie it tight around his injured arm.

“I don’t get it,” Aiden said later that night, when Caro was starting the fire. He traced the frayed edges of the makeshift bandage. “Why haven’t you ditched me?”

“There’s an idea.”

“Fuck off.”

When the fire flared, it lit up Caro’s rough-worn face. His expression was no more easily read by light than by darkness, and his voice was black as the sky above: “You reminded me of my son.”

The world twisted again, then resettled, colder. “I didn’t know you had one.”

“I guess I don’t, these days.”

***

“Come here,” said Caro. His knife lay on the canvas, three feet from him, sheathed.

You don’t need a knife to kill a man in the desert. You just need to leave him alone.

Aiden shuffled on his knees towards Caro’s bedroll. He let Caro take his arm, and he barely gasped when Caro dug a thumb into the wound. “Does it hurt?” Caro asked.

“Yes,” Aiden whispered.

Caro pulled and Aiden followed, until he straddled Caro’s lap. His hands braced on broad shoulders for balance.

The kiss was slow and terrifying. Caro’s touch was so warm it lit up the cold, dark tent, sunbursts blooming where skin touched, where lips met, where Aiden rocked hard against Caro. The callused hand along his jaw held him steady.

He would give anything Caro wanted, as long as Caro didn’t leave him.