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CHAPTER TWO

I started walking. I had a ways to go.

Since the pulse had hit this world harder than most—left the atmosphere soaking in radiation that would burn out anything with an electrical system in hours, faster if it saw heavy use—walking was about my only option for locomotion. That was one reason I'd had Scheherazade—that's my ship—drop me off at the top of the refinery: so she didn't have to land. Trying to do so would have left her damaged, badly, even if she just set down for the brief time it would take me to disembark.

The other reason I'd set down so far from my target area was to make sure we weren't in view of anybody as she descended. It had likely been generations since anyone visited this world from the greater galaxy beyond; it was in a mostly forgotten system of a mostly forgotten corner of unclaimed, untended space. I didn't need to be hailed as some sort of savior by the locals, come to rescue them from their pulse-soaked world and lead them back to the halcyon years of never-was. And that would be the better option: more likely was to be marked as some sort of demon, here to finish the job the pulse had started. You never knew which it might be on worlds thrown back this far; better not to risk it at all.

Worlds like this one—even those designed for a single purpose, like agriculture—had been terraformed and designed for vehicles like high-speed rail and sublight orbital shuttles, not for perambulation, which meant I had a bit of a walk ahead of me. Still, I'd been cooped up inside Scheherazade for a long hyperdrive flight on the way here, so I didn't mind stretching my legs.

Starting my trek out in the boonies also meant I got a chance to know the local populace before they got to know me. Which, this time, started with screaming. It often did, for some reason.

The scream shattered the quiet of the open fields. High-pitched, piercing, a great deal of fear and pain and confusion. A child.

I broke out into a run. All these years later, that's still reflex. You'd think, after watching the pulse eat the universe and being helpless to stop it, that I'd be immune to the sound of others crying for help. You'd be wrong. What you can ignore en masse—the death of millions or billions—just by telling yourself it's too big, there's nothing you can do, is much more difficult to move past when it's just one person, right in front of you, and there is a way for you to help.

That's the same logic that had been used when the pulse was first dreamt up, after all. Just because it went wrong didn't mean the argument wasn't sound. I slowed as I crested the hill, parting the grass with my rifle barrel; my weapon had been drawn as soon as I heard the child shriek. Down the incline below me was a simple wagon—probably the height of technology in these parts, wood and nails and iron-rimmed wheels—that had come to a stop, mostly because the beasts in its harnesses had been shot dead.

I didn't recognize the creatures, though the build and rough size suggested Wulf-homeworld extraction. It didn't much matter, really—they were whatever fauna had been on planet at the time of the pulse that the people here had enough of for breeding stock. What was more important, at that given moment, was the family seated at the front of the wagon, and the rough circle of men with guns surrounding them.

On every world, there are always men with guns. Even the pulse couldn't change that.

 
CHAPTER THREE

From my perch at the top of the hill—hidden in the tall violet grasses—I counted the aggressors. Three humans, two Wulf—how nice, interspecies cooperation was flourishing in the wake of the pulse, at least when it came to common banditry. Five total. Not too many for me take, not from ambush. Now, years ago, back before everything went to hell, I would have run through a kind of value judgment here—was protecting three lives, the family in the wagon, worth taking the lives of five others? I had no legal or moral authority here—who was I to interfere with the customs of these people? There were trillions upon trillions of lives in the universe; why should I involve myself with eight? People lived and died all the time, many of them violently; all I would have cared about was whether the deaths before me would have impacted my mission.

I didn't bother with any of that nonsense now; I knew what I was going to do the instant I heard the child scream. The questions I asked at this point were of a very different sort—which one looked like he'd be the first to shoot, the fastest to react? Which one had the gun that posed the most danger to me, which one would be the type to start firing at the family the instant they came under fire from someone else, and which among them would panic, cower, flee? In essence: which one would die first, and which last?
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