Windward

Science fiction western novel with a dash of psychological thriller; fully drafted at 110,000 words. #amrevising

Across the gray world, the wind whistled tirelessly.
It was the best she could do.

No more deep harmonies in a thousand perfect passageways between dense hides and violet eyes. The beasts had forgotten her; their herds were formless. The wind had not been able to sing a note since she had awoken, weeks earlier, to scatter the dry grasses.

So today, she whistled again around small, thoughtless disturbances left by humans, and it was a little better than silence.

#
Hank Bitters swore at the analog keypad in front of him then smacked the side of the metal storage box with a gloved hand.

Nothing had gone smoothly today, and today was far from over. He glanced up at the towering gray enclosure. At least they’d gotten the herd this far. The high-tensile steel panels were shuddering as the fifty-one behemoths inside it anxiously sought the comfort of each others’ minds. The link was being re-established already.
Of course it was.
Trying the code again, this time gloveless, he considered just shooting the box open. At least one EMP tile would likely be intact, and that was all they needed.

Out of the corner of his eye, Hank watched as the rookie reached up and yanked out a small handful of his own hair which had been brushing the side of his face. When he thought no one was looking, the young man released the offending strands thoughtfully into the swirling eddies of air. Standing apart from the other eight wranglers, the kid was swaying slightly, despite the lack of direct wind on the leeward side of the slaughter pen.
Hank sighed.
The wind at work again. Mean old bitch.
“Laz!” Hank called towards the group. His voice extracted a smaller, dark-featured man who trotted over, grinning.
“Problems, b-boss?”
Hank snorted and gestured vaguely at the offending keypad. While Laz’s fingers got to work on the code, Hank asked, being sure to keep his voice under the noise of the constant wind, “How did it go with the kid?”
The screen beeped pleasantly in response to Laz’s ministrations, and the box clicked open. Laz looked up him. His dark brown eyes met Hank’s slightly lighter ones for a full second before his gaze darted away towards the featureless horizons.
“Fine, fine. R-rookie just got a little turned around when the herd split.”
When Hank raised his eyebrow at this optimistic assessment, he knew it didn’t make him any prettier. Hank Bitters’ face was already asymmetrical enough. “Turned around?”
Laz was grinning again. “Well, more like he fainted dead off his horse. But he got back on, and look at him now!”
They both did.
The kid was pressing his hands over his ears. When he saw he was being observed, he yanked his hands down and stuffed them in his pockets. Immediately, his too-long blondish hair begin to float upwards before it got back to the business of tickling the side of his face.
At least Laz had the good sense to look a little sheepish when Hank turned back to him.
“Maybe, boss, maybe you could talk to him. Found out who you were this morning when we broke camp and he’s been staring at you ever since. Think he got in his head about it. He might do well here. He might. But he’s working really hard, Boss, at getting noticed a lot. And sometimes if you get noticed a little by the right person, you stop working quite so hard to get seen by everyone.”
“That is not my problem, Laz.”
“Ah, right. N-no. Not right now.”
The wind blew. Hank had been ignoring her for more than thirty years, and there were still days he wished she would just shut up.
“Fine. I’ll talk to him.” Hank spoke through gritted teeth at his second-in-command. Then he raised his voice. “Rookie!”
The kid started violently, and the rest of the wranglers paused in their conversation, several grinning at each other and leaning back against the flanks of their horses to watch the show.
The rookie, Hank racked his brain to recall that his name was Eric, attempted a swaggering walk towards him. A day and a half in an ill-fitting saddle, however, had left his knees unable to track straight, and his approach was more of the awkward, rolling gait of a drunk trying to keep his balance on the pitching deck of a ship.
His outfit didn’t help. Obviously based on the classic propaganda holos about wrangling on the Windy Planet, he was wearing a synth-leather duster, complete with tassels. He had even brought out yet another green bandanna, after already losing two in the wind, which was now tied around his throat. The young man determinedly kept his hands in pockets, shockingly blue eyes blinking repeatedly against the rushing air.
Hank cleared his throat. “Rookie, you’re out. When we go in the pen, you stay with the horses.”
Tassels fwap-fwapping in the wind, it took a moment for the kid to find his voice. “But sir- Boss, I’m fine, I’ve practiced this part. I’m good with the whip, and I never missed a prick.”
“That’s fine. You’re still out.”
Hank turned away before Laz could catch his eye again. He had too much riding on this cut, this season, to let another Earth-soft, hero-worshiping idiot get in his way. He looked at the rest of his crew, long-tested in the field. “Well?”
The seven others were a sudden picture of efficiency.
The twins were the first to pull the pricks out. The one foot, dense organo-carbon fiber weapons extended to its full eight foot length. Not overly given to showing off, the twins stood there. Their dark complexions matching each other in expressionless patience.
Hank always appreciated that 20% of his crew never tried to start a conversation with him.
Martin and Sal were, of course, warming up with ostentatious whip tricks and prick thrusts. Harley was busy arguing with M. Tank about why he had forgotten to hobble his horse, again, even though the animal had only wandered about twenty meters, as
And Laird was hovering around the rookie, leaning in to whisper occasionally. Hank knew he should intervene. That man was a human vulture, but Hank didn’t want to get distracted from the outcome of the next twenty minutes. Fifty-one live Boven had to become fifty-one dead Boven, and all nine wranglers involved in the process needed to not die themselves.
As Hank was pulling on his sticky gloves, essential to not lose control of the prick while the Boven were busy impaling themselves on it, he heard Laz’s voice cut through the rush of air.
“No! G-get out!”
Hank turned sharply to see Laz, M. Tank and Harley rushing over to the gate of pen which had just closed. He walked quickly towards them. “What happened?”
The Boven inside were strangely quiet, and then Hank heard the crack of a whip from inside the pen, and the ‘whoop!’ of a young man’s voice. “Oh fuck.”
“Get out now! Kid, come on, back it up.” Harley called through the slats of the enclosure while Laz reached for the gate.
“Leave it! Do not open that gate!” Hank roared at his friend, even as he turned to sprint back to the storage container.
His sticky gloves couldn’t get the door to the EMP cache open immediately. Finally, he extracted a smooth tile, green center blinking patiently and turned back towards the entrance of the enclosure. He had to interrupt the link, to scatter the minds of the boven before- There was another whip crack and a roar from inside, then suddenly, the screaming death bellow of a boven reverberated through Hank’s skull.
It was too late. The animal sounds inside the pen rose in intensity, even as the dying cry of one faded. The kid’s shout of triumph “Yeah! Shit yeah!” carried weakly through the walls. Ignorant, arrogant moron.
Hank let the tile fall from his fingers. If a boven was killed while the link was together, if the other animals experienced the death together, then the EMP tile blast was hardly a pellet gun against the creature’s united fury. The kid had killed an animal while the link was live.
On cue, a very human scream tore through the air. Hank began sprinting back to the pen. At the gate, he held his friend’s eyes for longer than a second while Hank slowed his own breathing, deepening his mind to feel only the air rushing in, and the breath going out to join the wind. Hank washed his consciousness in the sound, the smell the feel of rain. The leftover chill of walking through grass when the wet grassblades stick to the bottom of your feet.
He was only vaguely aware when Laz nodded shortly and opened the gate. Inside, it was as though and forest had uprooted itself and the boles and limbs of the trees were angrily thrashing the ground beneath them. He did not think about (dinner-plate sized hooves), or (the angry lavender of eyes larger than his face), but only the dewy grass of rainy mornings.
In the melee of whatever was happening, never allowing the image of the creatures to fully form in his mind, Hank could see that there was something that didn’t belong, and he grabbed it. Ducking from (swinging legs) dripping tree limbs avoiding (eye contact) wet pant legs from the soaked grass wet branches showering as he brushed against them, he dragged out the anomaly and slammed the gate against the terribly entropy inside.
The others were already moving as Hank brought his consciousness back to now. He was holding the arm of the crumpled form of the rookie. So recently swaggering and complaining, the young man was now only bleeding, so many bones broken, there may not have been room enough for life inside.
Most of the rest of the group were mounted, ready to ride for the safety of the pulsing EMP field around the town.
Laird, the scrawny Russian, was practically hopping in his saddle. “Shit, shit, you stupid Rookie. Why are we bringing him?”
Harley answered, “Shuttup Laird, you fucking psychopath. If we leave him and the herd gets a taste we won’t see digital for the rest of the season, they’ll be circling the town so much.”
Laz and Harley helped Hank toss the limp form over Laz’s saddle, the double weight would be too much for the animals with larger riders. They strapped him roughly strapped into place. If he was still alive, further injuring him in this process was not a concern as any delay would mean certain death for everyone involved. The towering tensile steel walls were already clattering dangerously, no stronger than paper room dividers against the combined anger of a penned herd who had all just felt the gruesome death of one of their own.
Laz mounted quickly, Hank took the reins of the rookie’s horse, and booted heels quickly encouraged the animals to gallop.
Hank could make no mistakes as he led the full-scale route back towards town, even though no shapes were yet visible along the featureless gray horizon. They had minutes, perhaps, before the creatures were after them. Ten degrees windleft from the pens.
The persistent wind ran along with them, laughing in Hank’s ears, as the rookie’s blood dripped occasionally onto the thirsty moss which covered the surface of this worthless rock of a planet.