“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 from the other gravediggers riding in the wagon. Wiping the 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. She used the scarf to tie back her thick, red, and blue braids with swift motions. 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 intelligent, and a fierce kindness lurked beneath the man’s mean exterior. Boots had caught up with Bowman’s diggers in the capital. Desperate to escape the monotony 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. As 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 gravediggers 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 entirely.
Bowman shut the engine down and descended from the wagon. All of the other diggers grabbed their gear and followed suit. Boots hurried back to her seat and snatched her pack from the overhead compartment. Bowman had already begun briefing the group by the time she got outside.
“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 three-dimensional holographic 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 Rastaman, 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’ for? An invitation?” Bowman demanded.
Everyone took that as their cue to skedaddle, save for Boots and Terry.
“Come on, you two,” the Boss-man instructed. “I’ll walk you through deployin’ the mini drones. We need to get the safety net set up 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 automatically 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?”
Once the mini drones were 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 vigorously.
“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 simply 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 have been made 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 swiftly, 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 began 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 its old world. Berne had been a godsend, a brand new frontier. When the first ships landed, the wagon trains had dispersed, motorized all-terrain monstrosities, laden with the prospectors, cowboys, farmers, and merchants plying every commodity from sex to sarsaparilla. They’d all had 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, the indigo rose, which flourished in abundance, had flowered, sending out deadly spores in every direction. Entire settlements were wiped out before the original colonists realized what was happening and came up with an antidote.
Ten years on, gravediggers were now traveling from one settlement to the next. Cataloging and burying the dead paved the way for the next wave of colonists to repopulate the alien continent.
Someone had planted a large garden behind the dead woman’s house. Trees had sprung up there over the years, peppers, cucumber, and tomato vines growing between their toes. The vegetables grew wild and in abundance. Boots plucked a ripe, red tomato from a nearby vine and took a bite. The sweet, savory flavor exploded in her mouth. As she stood there, the tomato’s sticky innards spilling over and running down her fingers, she heard a distant rumble growing closer and closer.
The sound grew louder and closer. The young woman turned around. 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. A murder of crow-like critters suddenly surrounded Boots. They swooped this way and that in a flurry of mad cawing and flapping of scaly wings, the frightened young woman flailing and yelping amid 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 had just happened? There were black scales scattered on the ground. She surely hadn’t imagined it, but what could possibly explain it?
“Boots?” Terry’s voice crackled in her earpiece. Several houses away, he’d probably 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 were pegged as the group’s cooks. Boots didn’t mind. They would all be eating like kings with the bounty she had found on the vegetable patch gone wild. As she and Terry served dinner, the conversation turned to things the gravediggers had seen and heard on their expeditions. The talk turned to eerie sightings and inexplicable experiences.
Boots hesitated before joining in. “I saw something,” she ventured.
Suddenly everyone was all ears.
“There was a man on a horse. They nearly ran me down, but then,” she said, “they turned into birds and flew away.”
“For real?” Sol demanded, aghast.
“For real,” Boots said.
“No way.” He laughed nervously. “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 gravely.
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 ship. 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 used 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 croaked.
“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 vigorously 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 firebirds? Boots wanted to know.
“Story goes, some of the first colonists saw one change its shape. It changed from the 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 suddenly grumbled. “Sol, stop fillin’ these kids’ ears up with that nonsense.
“Right,” Sol grinned. “You never did believe in any of that stuff, did you?”
The following day, Boots made her rounds when she 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 loud bellow.
Boots didn’t even have time to wonder how it had gotten inside the safety net. A small whimper squeaked out. 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 fierce growls of the beast behind her and gagged on the putrid stench of its breath. She ran, this way and that up the side of the hill. She ran blind. Until she couldn’t hear the beast behind her anymore.
The next thing she knew, the earth beneath her feet gave way.
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. She forced her bruised body upright and gingerly slipped off her backpack. She fumbled around inside for light and managed to get to her feet. The pain from her fall was subsiding, and thankfully, there wasn’t anything broken.
Boots held the light up and surveyed the silent space. She’d fallen into a cavity on the side of the mountain, it seemed. The colonists had been 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.
An hour later, 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 just 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, nearly 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. Some weird, iridescent moss enveloped the body. 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 tattered remains of that shirt and those cargo pants. She knew those nearly new boots. This wasn’t just any corpse.
“Oh god,” she whimpered. “It’s me.”
She knelt there, trembling, her entire universe come crashing down.
“There are ghosts on Berne.”
She 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 young woman’s memories aside, the newborn firebird took flight.