“Get yer head outa yer ass, Boots!” Bowman yelled back at the youngster sleeping at the back of his wagon. “Time to earn your keep.”
Boots jerked awake to a smattering of guffaws and low chuckles. She grinned back at the other gravediggers riding in the wagon. Wiping drool from the corner of her mouth, the dark, pixie-like young woman straightened and croaked, “Mornin’, Boss!”
She undid her harness and pulled a faded red scarf from the pocket of her cargo pants. With swift motions, she used the scarf to tie back her thick, red and blue braids. She scrambled down the aisle until she was crouching behind the pilot’s seat.
“We there yet?” She asked.
“Nearly,” Bowman grunted. He was the outfit’s boss, a sturdy and barely civilized sort with freckles and a bushy beard. Half a cigar hung, unlit, from the corner of his mouth.
Boots looked up to Bowman. He was rough but shrewd, and a gruff kindness lurked beneath the man’s mean exterior. Boots had caught up with Bowman’s diggers in the capital. Desperate to escape the tedium of Logistics Division, she’d begged to join his crew. Bowman initially refused but after much haranguing, he’d relented and let her join up, on a trial basis.
Daylight broke, snapping Boots out of her reverie. The horizon split wide open. Berne’s twin moons, Jaguar and Snow, loomed over the town as if beckoning the wagon-weary diggers into their watchful embrace. The wagon, a caterpillar shaped contraption, trundled into the heart of the derelict town.
A trio of ‘dactyls circled above the wagon. Boots was unnerved by their deep throated bellows. Large enough to snatch a grown man off the ground, the big vultures were generally harmless. Still, it was as if they knew something the grave diggers didn’t, the way they circled over the wagon as if waiting for something to die. Boots found it unnerving and wished they would go circle over something else, somewhere else.
Bowman shut the engine down and descended from the wagon. All the other diggers grabbed their gear and followed suit. Boots hurried back to her seat and snatched her pack from the overhead compartment. By the time she got outside, Bowman had already begun briefing the group.
“We need to find the hospital first. That’s where most of the bodies will be.” He set a small cube down on the ground. A holographic three-dimensional map appeared. “This town should follow the standard template.” His finger jabbed at three different spots on the map. These will be our designated burial grounds. Here, here and here.”
Sol, a stout Rasta man, stepped forward. He hooked his thumbs into his waistband, drew in a deep breath, and picked up where Bowman had left off.
“All right. Team One, take Sector One. Team Two and Three, cover the hospital. Rookies,” his head inclined toward Boots and a gangly youth named Terry. “You two stick with the Boss-man and take Sector Four.”
There was a pause.
“What’re y’all waitin’ fer? An invitation?” Bowman demanded.
Everyone except for Boots and Terry took that as their cue to skedaddle.
“Come on you two,” the Boss-man instructed. “I’ll walk you through deployin’ the mini drones. We need to get the safety net setup before we get to diggin’.
Bowman went back to the wagon and came back with a handful of small spherical objects. “These,” he said, “are set to work in tandem with each other. They send out a signal that’ll keep the bigger critters away. Switch ’em on. Let ‘em fly. Simple enough, right?”
Mini drones deployed, Boots and Terry followed Bowman northward in silence. They passed a saloon, vines growing wild over the walls and the latticed double doors. Boots wondered if there were any bodies inside. They rounded the corner at the blacksmith’s shop. A huge, rusted wagon wheel with a bent spoke had been left leaning against the ramshackle shack. Boots couldn’t tell which was holding up which.
“Y’all ready for this?” Bowman challenged.
Boots and Terry nodded.
“Inoculations up to date?” He asked.
“Yup,” said Boots.
“Yeah, Boss,” said Terry.
“Good.” The boss-man nodded. “Boots, you take the houses up ahead. Terry, take the ones on the right. I got the ones on the left.”
“Gotcha, Boss.” Boots slung her pack over her shoulder, grip tightening on her shovel. “Watch out for critters, ‘specially those Berne wolverines.” Bowman cautioned as the trio parted. “Just ’cause we’re inside the safety net, don’t mean there ain’t nothin’ that’ll try to get ya.”
Near noon, Boots found her first corpse. A woman had died at her table inside a quaint, wooden house. It was as if she’d been sitting there at the table, waiting for someone when she died. Her head was down on the table. Strung between her fingers was a necklace with a locket. She wore a silken dress, once white but now brown from time and layers of dust. The woman was nothing but bones now, but the corpse still managed to look dainty and dignified.
Weren’t the first settlers supposed to be of sterner stuff? Boots wondered, not that she, a dark little runt, had much room to criticize. She tugged her gloves on and got to work.
Boots worked with an efficiency that came from months of practice, under the tutelage of Bowman and Sol. First, she set her backpack down and removed a silicone body bag. She cut off a sample of the woman’s hair for the DNA records, then she carefully set about bagging and tagging the corpse. Boots would need to wait for the carrier to come around, to take the body to one of the designated burial grounds.
She radioed Bowman. “Boss, I got one.”
“Bagged and tagged?” Came the terse query.
“Yup,” she answered, heading outside for a breather.
“A’right. Stay there. I’ll send a carrier ’round.”
“Will do.” Boots took off her gloves and dropped them at the front door.
If you thought about it, grave digging was a terrible business, Boots contemplated. Like ‘dactyls, the gravediggers descended, upon desolate colonies, to rob the dead and bury their bones. To seek out such a vocation, must make her seem a particularly twisted sort.
Humanity had outgrown their old world. Berne had been a godsend, a brand-new frontier. When the first ships landed, wagon trains, motorized all-terrain monstrosities laden with the prospectors, cowboys, farmers and merchants plying every commodity from sex to sarsaparilla had dispersed. They’d all set out, carrying their hopes for a fresh start along with the seeds of life.
Five years after the new denizens of Berne made the planet their home, a native plant flowered for the first time. It sent deadly spores flying in every direction. The original colonists came up with an antidote. By then, myriads of settlements already got wiped out. Ten years on, grave diggers were now traveling from one settlement to the next. Cataloging and burying the dead, they paved the way for the next wave of colonists.
There was a large garden behind the dead woman’s house. Trees had sprung up there over the years. Peppers, cucumber and tomato vines were growing wild between their toes. Unlike their human planters, the vegetables had flourished. Boots plucked a ripe, red tomato from a nearby vine and took a bite. The sweet, savory flavor exploded in her mouth. The tomato’s sticky innards spilled over and ran down her fingers.
There came a distant rumble, growing closer and closer. The young woman whirled. The tomato slipped from her fingers and landed on the ground with a loud splat. Galloping towards Boots was a massive horse. Images flashed into Boot’s awareness, the rider’s leathery face, his wide brimmed hat, and spurs. They were coming right at her so fast! Boots froze. She wanted to run but couldn’t. Her damned legs wouldn’t work.
The horse reared up. She heard the rider’s gravelly voice sound out, “Whoa, girl! Whoa!”
Boots screamed and cowered as those mighty hooves came bearing down. With a loud poof, horse and rider disappeared and a murder of crow-like critters surrounded her. They swooped this way and that in a flurry of mad cawing and flapping of scaly wings. She flailed and yelped amidst the melee.
“What the–?” Boots stood there trembling after they’d taken to the skies. “H-holy shit…”
Knees turned to jelly; she sank to the ground. What was that? What just happened? There were black scales scattered on the ground. She hadn’t imagined it, but what could explain it?
“Boots?” Terry’s voice crackled in her earpiece. Several houses away, he’d heard her scream. “Boots, what’s wrong?”
“N-nothing.” She stammered, still shaken. “It was nothing.”
Late in the evening, the diggers camped out in the middle of the desolate town. The rookies cooked. Boots didn’t mind. With the bounty she had found on the vegetable patch gone wild, they would all be eating like kings and queens. She and Terry served up dinner and the conversation turned to things the grave diggers had seen and heard on their expeditions. The talk turned to eerie sightings, and inexplicable experiences.
Boots hesitated before joining in. “I saw something today,” she ventured.
Everyone was all ears.
“T-here was a man on a horse. They nearly ran me down, but then,” she said, “they turned into bird-things and flew away.”
“For real?” Sol demanded, aghast.
“Yeah,” Boots said.
He frowned. “You’re just messing around, aren’t you?”
Nervous laughter scattered all around.
“You don’t have to believe me,” Boots huffed, “but I know what I saw.”
“I believe you,” Sol answered, sobering.
A few other men and women grunted in agreement.
“There are ghosts on Berne,” Sol said, looking her square in the eyes. The dark of his eyes glittered in the firelight. “I’m not talking about the stupid stories we used to tell when we were kids on the ships. I mean, real ghosts.”
“What do you mean?” Terry asked.
“Well,” Sol leaned forward. “When we were kids growing up on the ship, Bowman and I use to crawl into the air ducts to eavesdrop on the adults. One transmission from the first expedition said there was intelligent life on Berne.”
“You mean aliens?” Terry managed through a mouthful of grub.
“This is their planet, so I wouldn’t call them that.” Bernard Graves, a skinny man who was usually less than talkative commented. “They’re natives. We’re the aliens.”
“If there are natives, how come we haven’t met them?” Terry demanded.
Boots nodded in concert with him, wanting to know too.
“That’s the thing,” Sol answered. “They’re ghosts. They’re like will o’ wisps and change shape like the wind. Firebirds, the older folks called them.”
“Why firebird?” Boots wanted to know.
“Story goes, some of the first colonists actually saw one change its shape. It changed from moss that grew on a dead horse’s body into the shape of a bird. You know how in the old stories, the phoenix–“
“Nothin’ but hogwash.” Bowman grumbled. “Sol, stop fillin’ these kids’ ears with that nonsense.
“Right,” Sol grinned. “You never did believe in any of that stuff, did you?”
Boots ate the rest of her meal in silence. Had she encountered a firebird earlier in the day? It was hard to say.
The next morning, as Boots made her rounds, she spotted a trail that led far afield and up the side of the mountain. She thought about the bodies that might be there, forgotten and waiting to be found. How awful would it be if the gravediggers moved on without finding them. How damned sad would that be?
She considered radioing Bowman but figured forget it. He’d only yell at her and order her not to leave the safety net. She could go check and be back within minutes. If she did find something, Bowman would have no choice but to consider it a job well done. If she found nothing, no one would need to know that she’d left the safety net. She stepped outside of the safety net’s perimeter and made a mad dash for the distant slope.
At first, there was nothing but scrub along the dusty slope but up ahead was a huddle of thick-trunked trees. As she neared the thicket of trees, Boots rounded a corner and came face to face with a nightmare. A monstrous beast with horns protruding from its mouth leaped past her. It skated to a stop and turned toward her, long spiky tail writhing and twisting in the air. The creature pawed the ground and snorted. Its head reared up. The beast let loose a deafening bellow.
A small whimper squeaked out of Boots. Terror took hold. She turned and fled. She ran for the cover of the trees, scrambling upslope as fast as her legs would take her. The beast gave chase, hooves thunderous against the ground. Boots ran until her lungs were straining, the muscles in her legs burning. She heard the frenzied growls of the beast behind her and gagged on the putrid stench of its breath. She ran pell mell up the side of the hill. She ran for her life. She ran until she couldn’t hear the beast behind her anymore.
Just when Boots thought that she’d put some distance between them, the very earth beneath her feet gave way. She screamed as she fell into a cavity on the side of the mountain. She hit the ground hard. She blacked out. Time ticked on.
When the young gravedigger finally came to, it was dark. Every inch of her body screamed pain. She tasted blood, blossoming sweet metallic inside her mouth.
Boots forced her bruised body upright and gingerly slipped off her backpack. She fumbled around inside for a light and managed to get to her feet. The pain from her fall was subsiding, and thankfully, there wasn’t anything broken. She held the light up and surveyed the silent space. Someone, it seemed, had started building a mineshaft. They’d gotten off to a good start with this area but seemed to have stopped dead in their tracks. Puzzling over this, Boots made her way past some dust-laden machinery. She had yet to spot a way out, and her gut was starting to fill with dread.
The gravedigger looked up to the hole she’d fallen through.
“Long way up,” she murmured, worrying at her bottom lip with her teeth.
Boots tried to raise someone on the comms, but there was no response. Had she damaged her unit in the fall, or was she too far out of range? Either way, she was going to have to find her own way out of this mess. Boots took another step and stumbled, tripping over something. She shone her light downward. When she saw what was on the ground, her blood went cold.
The corpse was half mummified, half skeletonized, and enveloped by some weird, iridescent moss. Disgust warred with fascination. Fascination turned to bewilderment. Bewilderment turned to horror as Boots took note of the dead body’s features.
She scrambled away; knelt there shaking.
She recognized that half-rotted scarf tying back those thick locks of hair. She recognized the threadbare remains of that shirt and those cargo pants. She knew those nearly new boots. This wasn’t just any corpse.
She knelt there, trembling, her entire universe come crashing down.
“There are ghosts on Berne.”
Sol had said that.
As Boots knelt there, Sol’s words echoing in her mind, her whole body became suffused with light. The burning body changed, taking on the shape of a creature with wings.
Casting the dead woman’s memories aside, the newborn firebird took flight.