The Lost Valkyrie
To die, is to risk getting caught…
A genetic mutation is RECCing the population, turning people into walking timebombs with no off switch. To keep her own deadly secret, a woman with no name is living a dangerous lie, helping people on the fringes of a crumbling society. Levi offers her the chance to stop hiding just in time for her to die in front of him. Clinging to the name he knew her as, Ravyn is sure she’ll have to dissapear forvever. When Eric crashes into her path he stirs up old ghosts. Suddenly Ravyn is breaking all her rules for one more chance with Levi. They found a cure but using it risks the lives of everyone who trusted her.
The penalty for Skraping is quarentine and rehabilitation for the first violation and death for the second.
The ash danced like fall leaves, as if a thousand oak trees had surrendered their foliage to a meandering breeze. They drifted between the canvas tents and grew into piles of soot; an other worldly veil that floated through an invisible current even as ear-splitting sirens and explosions rocked the Trinity Forest Outpost. Staff shouted orders to automated vehicles as they were hastily loaded and evacuated.
Zeero ducked behind the recycling compactor, waiting for three figures, dressed in white from head to toe, to pass. She watched as they carried torches over the ridge and towards the mass grave she’d just come from. The Guardian on her wrist flashed a black plus sign, the symbol for death by RECCing. She twisted a link in the band and the screen returned to a false readout of her vitals and the name of its original owner, Arla Zee Roades.
Judging by their white clothes and masked faces, Zeero guessed these were the Anarchists she had heard about but never seen before. They had set off the first of several bombs half an hour ago. The blast ignited a boarded-up silo and three tents stocked with medical supplies. Then a mob of at least fifty people had emerged from the surrounding trees with makeshift clubs. Any of the camp’s scientists or medical experts that they could catch, easily identified by their blue camo scrubs, were beaten and left for dead.
Zeero had already seen their handy work as she crept through the cadaver prep tents. Her bright green coveralls, a uniform reserved for unskilled staff, didn’t appear to be among their immediate targets but she was not interested in testing her luck. The ground shook with another explosion as the water reclamation units to the west belched black mushrooms. A cheer went up from somewhere behind her.
“And that’s my cue,” she sighed, slipping around to the back of the recycling compactor and making a run for the latrines.
The rows of gray box stalls flashed around her, her dark brown ponytail lashing behind her as her navy-blue eyes never stopped searching for more figures in white. Suddenly, she lost her footing and went down hard, rolling into the wall of a decontamination shower with a grunt.
Zeero recovered quickly, popping back to her feet as if the entire incident had been a stunt. Ash clung to her coveralls, dulling the bright green to a muted shade of pea soup. She checked for injuries, while she watched for any sign that she’d been seen. She almost missed the arm that had tripped her.
The arm was connected to a body in blue-camo scrubs, lying in a heap behind the shower. “Hiccup” was barely recognizable under the bruises that covered his face. Only the strip of blonde hair, a mohawk that he always wore braided and the spiral tattoos on the rest of his bare scalp gave him away. The ashes around his face stirred.
“Hiccup?” Zeero whispered. The wrist that bore his Guardian was behind him the way only a dislocated arm could twist. She braced his shoulder blade with her knee and yanked on his elbow.
“AHhhh!” he croaked, his eyes popping open but remaining unfocused.
“Hiccup, ya careless shit! What were you thinking taking a nap so close to a toilet? They’re never going to give you that promotion if they catch you.” he looked at Zee in confusion, which was fair.
He’d arrived a few weeks ago, rotating through the Trinity Forest Outpost as part of his medical training with several others serving their two-year Community Draft. “Hiccup” was her nickname for the shy boy that burst into hiccups whenever he was asked to lead an autopsy.
“Hiccup, you in there?”
“Why are you…?” he began and was interrupted by his own groan when he tried to pull himself upright. “Sam, my name is Sam.”
“Really? Damn, that’s boring,” Zeero persisted, helping him to sit upright. “How about I meet you halfway and we call you Samuel Hiccups Esquire? That way your name says you’re a man of substance who’s not afraid to laugh in the face of danger.”
“Yes, which is important if we are going to get you someplace safer.”
“They kept hitting me-” Sam mumbled, the distant pillars of smoke catching his eyes.
“I know. That’s why we need to get you out of here. Can you stand?”
“Leave me-” giant tears rolled silently down the boy’s face. He couldn’t be a day over nineteen, only six years younger than Zeero, but his voice shook like a child’s. “You have to get away before they come back.”
“You’re half right,” Zeero agreed, looping herself under his good arm and placing her other arm around his waist. “But I also have to be able to live with myself. And that means leaving you here isn’t an option so you’d better start helping.”
She tried to stand and got halfway up before they fell back into Sam’s pile of ashes and dirt. Zeero tightened her grip and grabbed his waistband, lining her knuckles up with the seam that ran between his legs. “I’ll make this easier for you Sam. Either you start using the muscles you have left or I literally drag you by your balls into the forest. And I will enjoy it, I feel like you should know that. So, what’s it going to be?”
“I can’t,” Sam cried, his slow tears building into full sobs. “Please just leave me here. I don’t want to hurt anymore-”
“Hey,” Zee cut him off. “Hey, this is all temporary. It’s just pain and as soon as we get the good drugs in you this will all fade into a bad memory. Sam, look at me. You put on those blue scrubs because you wanted to save lives. But you’re not going to be able to bring a person back from the brink of death until you’ve learned to spit in its face a little. This is your first real test man, and I’m going to help you cheat. One step at a time, okay?”
After a moment of silence, he nodded and the pair finally worked their way into a standing position.
They took their first steps and nearly collapsed again. Zeero had him lean on her as she bent over and finished tearing his pants leg open. Second Skin still protected his exposed calf and she noted more tattoo patterns programmed into his synthetic under garment. She quickly tied the loose fabric just below her knee, binding them together and taking his weight off of what she suspected was a fractured tibia.
Zeero led the next step and despite a wince, they remained upright. Each step came faster after that, Sam’s desire to survive seeming to rekindle.
“I wasn’t in this to become some hero doctor,” Sam said as they crossed into the cover of the trees. “I only wanted to piss off my boyfriend after he dumped me. Said I would never be more than a line cook.”
Zeero laughed before she could stop herself.
“Next time, lead with that,” she said, shaking her head “If I’d known you had a career change in mind and not suicide, I’d have left you to that jumbo size barb-a-que that was rolling your way.”
Sam laughed, a high pitched squeak of a laugh that sounded more like he’d choked a chicken, but a laugh nonetheless. Zeero took the win. As they approached a clearing they heard rustling and slowed. Fear rolled off the boy until Zee’s skin itched.
“Hey, I never asked you what your job was,” Sam suddenly asked in a hushed tone, his eyes locked on the clearing.
“I thought it was obvious,” she answered, resentment coloring her words. “I cover the graves this mutation is filling with bodies.”
Sam turned to look at her and for the first time she felt like he really saw her, saw past his pain and fear, and became conscious of the stranger that had insisted on helping him. He stiffened even as he leaned on her to take another step. And she knew what he saw, what anyone who looked past her practiced smile and modulated voice saw, death.
It lurked in shadows under her eyes, in the defiant way she held her chin, and in the anger that fueled her steps. She reeked of loss, of a well of pain so deep that to see it was to feel its pull; a siren’s song to the weak willed.
Sam looked away, the easy silence between them gone.
“If it’s safe, we’ll take a break up ahead and figure out how to get you back into town,” Zeero said without emotion. Sam didn’t answer.
The clearing opened up to reveal bodies convulsing in the grass, another half dozen people RECCing. The metallic click of a revolver being cocked pulled Zeero up short. Sam grunted at the unexpectedhalt and turned with her towards the new threat.
The pair tensed at the sight of a white coat spattered with blood. But it was loosely draped over familiar blue camo scrubs. The sign of a medical professional, not some lowly intern. Zeero looked up to see an ebony face with full lips, a small chin and apple cheeks holding her gaze. Whatever gentle nature that was implied by the face was lost somewhere in the older woman’s liquid silver irises. Zee had to look away from those haunting pools of tech to see the bruising and tiny cuts that started on the left side of the woman’s jaw. More blood blackened the tiny graying braids that formed a bundle atop her head. Ravyn Johnson had definitely had better days.
“You’re dead,” Ravyn spat, the gun steady.
“Not as dead as I’d like to be. But thanks for salting that wound,” Zee snapped back.
“No, I saw saw your body two days ago, by the pits,” she continued. “They couldn’t bag you because-”
“They made a mistake,” Zeero cut her off. Shit. Shit. Shit. She thought. Of ALL the people to run into, why did it have to be one of the World Health Organization nurses? Zeero adjusted her grip on Sam and changed tactics. “Kind of like the mistake you’re making if anyone besides me sees you with that unchipped and therefore totally black market pistol. Did you rob a museum for the bullets or was that worked into the price?”
An impressed smile tugged at one corner of Ravyn’s mouth and she lowered the barrel, keeping it trained on Zeero’s stomach.
“I haven’t a clue. I pulled it off the asshole in white that gave me this,” she confessed, gesturing to the blood on her shoulder. “Since they ran from me I assume it’s good for at least one shot.”
“Still illegal to use.”
“Not as illegal as coming back from the dead.”
“Tell you what,” Zee grunted, her hand cramping as she struggled to keep Sam upright. “You help me get one of your precious interns somewhere safe, and then you can shoot me. Deal?”
Ravyn eyed the girl warily but the gun lowered a few more inches.
“Where am I going to run?” she complained, almost laughing. “I tied myself to ‘Hiccups’ here and the closest town is miles away.”
“That’s ‘Hiccups’?” Ravyn answered, finally slipping the gun into the nearest pocket on her lab coat. “He looks like shit! Wait, I thought I was the only one that called him that.”
“My name is Sam, S.A.M. Sam,” the boy protested as Ravyn slung his other arm over her shoulders.
“That’s good Sam. Keep talking. Can you spell hiccups next?” Zee cooed and looked to Ravyn. “Will you please turn off those creepy-ass implants and lead us all anywhere that’s not this meadow of death?”
Rayvn rolled her eyes and tapped a link on her Guardian. The silver contacts winked out and were replaced by the soft brown of the woman’s natural iris. Together they half dragged a fading Sam deeper into the woods.
Guardians were wonderful things. They stored your identity and credentials, displayed your vital signs, and could even call authorities to your aid. It was that last part Zeero was concerned with. Anarchist attack or no, she needed time to run. Time to disappear. With one hand at Sam’s waist, ready to drag him, Zeero worked the tip of her finger out of a glove and slipped it under Sam’s shirt. Another wiggle got her under his Second Skin, shorting out the system that connected it to the guardian, which immediately winked out, completely disabled.
When Ravyn stumbled up a particularly steep path, that same hand was ready. Zeero grabbed the woman by the back of her coat, letting the bare skin of her finger graze the smooth ebony skin of her exposed neck. The natural warmth was like playing with the flame of a candle. She knew the instant she connected.
They followed a tiny stream to where the aspens were interrupted by a stand of ancient oaks. The older woman told them to wait and knelt next to the base of the nearest tree. Zee decided that it was as good a stopping place as any and let the barely conscious Sam slump to the ground, pulling her down with him. Just as she finished untying his leg from hers, she heard a heavy thunk. A canvas bag, usually used to hide food from animals, had been cut down from its perch and was quickly joined by another.
“I’m impressed,” Zeero panted.
“Don’t be,” Ravyn grumbled, keeping her back to Zee. “I should have started doing this three outposts ago. People are losing patience, they are panicking and the Corporate Government is erasing all the evidence. You just wait, the drones won’t even scan for survivors, they’ll just incinerate anything the Anarchists leave behind and call it a forest fire.”
“Aren’t you, and Sam here, evidence?” Zee asked. Rayvn turned, her arms full of medical supplies, and looked at Zeero. Without the eerie reflection of silver in her eyes, the woman’s sternest glare was still warm.
“And you aren’t?” Ravyn countered. She flinched as she knelt beside Sam, absently rubbing her right knee before beginning her examination. Zeero studied the woman’s every move, double checking in her head that she would have done the same things but never lifting a finger to help. She gave herself a mental pat on the back as she realized her studies were finally paying off.
“So how is it that a W.H.O. nurse has seen the government’s dirty little secret and lived to tell the tale?” Zee asked as casually as she could.
“Well, my credentials, my age, the people I know; it all adds up,” Ravyn answered, pouring disinfectant over Sam’s cuts. She opened a black patch and slapped it onto his neck just under one ear. He stopped whimpering, his chest rising and falling in an even rhythm.
“So, now that this waste of talent is going to be unconscious for a few hours it’s time to tell me, how you are alive. I entered your death certificate into the international database myself. And don’t try feeding me some bullshit story ‘cause I don’t have the time for it, not today.”
Zee kept her face still, resisting the urge to raise so much as an eyebrow or glance at the Guardian on her wrist; even while her thoughts became a hurricane of problem-solving and calculated eventualities. Arla Zee Roads was officially dead and there was nothing she could do about it. She was back to square one, back to nothing, again. Her anger was surpassed only by her desire to be reckless.
“Start with your name,” Ravyn demanded when Zee continued to watch her, unmoving.
“Which one?” the woman who was not really Zee shrugged but watched for Ravyn to reach for the gun again. “You already killed ‘Zeero’ so who do you want me to be?”
“That’s why you go by that nick name, isn’t it?
“It has other meaning but yeah, I wasn’t comfortable being called Arla. I hadn’t earned it yet.”
“I want your real name.”
“The first one I stole or all of them until Arla Zee Roads? Exactly how much of my soul am I going to have to bear to satisfy your curiosity?”
The two women held each other’s gaze. Though Zeero was going for defiance, there was the cold look of resignation in the back of her blue eyes. Understanding bloomed in Ravyn and she was the first to look away, a hand going to her injured shoulder. She coughed, a wet hacking cough, and leaned against the fallen log behind her, suddenly looking tired.
“You’ve never had a name,” Ravyn guessed correctly. “Because you’re not supposed to exist.”
The gun reappeared in Ravyn’s hand, only this time it trembled as she took aim. Zeero hadn’t even thought to duck yet when an ear-splitting ‘bang’ shook the forest. She waited to feel pain, any kind of pain but there was nothing. Something crashed behind her. Zeero looked back and saw a figure in white in a heap. All that cloth, a mockery of white burial clothes, turning red.
Fighting a swell of disappointment, traitorous heart pounding in her ears, she turned back to Ravyn.
“Was that on purpose?”
Ravyn smirked and started coughing.
Red specks flew across the divide and appeared on Zeero’s sleeve.
She jumped to her feet, stepping over the unconscious Sam and grabbed Ravyn’s wrist out of habit. Her Guardian was just a disabled as Sam’s. Zeero swore and frantically examined Ravyn. Her blue scrubs were soaked through, beginning to stain the white coat from the inside out. Once Zeero found the hole in the Rayvn’s she was shoved away.
“Stop. I was scanning myself when you found me. That’s nothing. I’m bleeding internally. It’s nothing you or I can fix out here. You need to go before more of them come. I’ll call for help. I’ll be fine.”
“You can’t,” Zee snapped, her stomach filling with a lump of sickening guilt. “Sam must have bumped into you at some point. I think you Skraped each other.”
Ravyn’s shock stilled her so completely that Zee thought she’d turned to stone.
The potential for being Skraped, the slang for the act of skin-rape, was a hazard that her job trained her for but nothing really prepared a person for the violation. Even though, as a legally explainable accident in this case, she wouldn’t be executed for it, it was something many survivors spent months or years in rehab facilities to work though. It changed a person’s life forever, where they could live, who would hire them; everything.
“And now I can’t go for help because, as you said, Arla is dead,” Zeero continued. She wanted to be sure that the older woman understood just how serious their situation was. “One scan of her Guardian and no one will believe anything I say. They will kill me on the spot.”
Ravyn smiled without meeting Zeero’s eyes. It spread into a giggle that became a full bellied laugh that continued until a bout of coughing silenced her. Zeero couldn’t help looking around in confusion.
“At least I won’t live long enough to have the withdrawals,” Ravyn explained with a sigh, rubbing her temples where they’d begun to show signs of gray. “When you’re my age, you learn to be grateful for the small favors.”
Zeero considered Ravyn as she sat back in the dirt and weeds, her hand going to the hidden pouch around her right ankle. The silence stretched between them until her conscience wrung the words out of her. “Were you going to shoot me?”
“Those Anarchists destroyed a year’s worth of research. It could add months to finding a cure to RECCing and will kill tens of thousands. What is that next to finding my first RECC survivor?”
Zeero had to turn away, pretending to check Sam’s vitals while she processed what she’d done. If she’d know the woman was in such bad shape she would have never…
“I’m not a survivor,” Zee said. “It just hasn’t finished killing me yet. It’s an important difference.”
“Finished? So this wasn’t the first time?” Ravyn asked eagerly. “So when you RECC, do you die and come back, or do you never actually die, or do you know? How long has it been happening? I mean, do you remember the first time or does it affect your memory? Specifically, can you tell me at what point a person becomes unconscious? Does it hurt?”
“Gee whiz Ms,” Zeero imitated a child’s voice, her guilt stealing from the sarcastic bite she was usually capable of. “I’ve always wanted to dissect my nightmares with a total stranger. Do I get a piece of candy each time I answer a question?”
But Zee’s mask held even while the answers dance behind it. No, she didn’t know if she died but her first Guardian had said that she did. That first time still gave her nightmares so vivid she sometimes woke up vomiting. No, RECCing wasn’t a shock after nearly four years but it still ruined her life each time. And the worst part was waiting to lose consciousness. Until then she was completely aware and unable to move, or protect herself, locked-in as the reflex to breathe slipped away and left her to suffocate. It was pure hell and she deserved it.
“Okay, too many questions too fast. I can see that now. I can sort of feel my clock running out though so let’s try this a different way,” Ravyn said, her eyes studying the trembling woman in front of her. “How about I tell you what I know and you tell me where I get it wrong.”
Zeero didn’t answer so she continued.
“RECCing is a genetic mutation that has presented in every human for the last six generations. No one, not even Naturals-” Zeero cringed at the slur but Ravyn ignored her. “Not even Naturals are born without it. It looks like an epileptic seizure but it’s actually a lighting storm of the brain that’s so strong it can last for hours. But whether it lasts one hour or eight, it’s one hundred percent lethal. We can’t stop it, slow it, or reverse it without making that person’s heart explode and that ends the same way. By the time we replace the heart, the brain is literally burnt to a crisp.”
“What can I say, I’m a new kind of broken,” Zeero rolled her eyes.
“Okay, maybe. Maybe it’s something else,” Ravyn prodded. “Like the fact that you are insane enough to walk around in only your First Skin.”
“No, I have personal items I’ll die before I’ll risk losing when I-,” Zee struggled to find the right word, “when I mostly RECC. This way, instead of getting stripped down to my Second Skin and bagged, people just chuck me in a pile with the rest of the dead. Thanks for being the first in years to be so thorough by the way. Life is going to be super fun until I find someone who will give me their Guardian.”
This made Rayvn pause. It was something she hadn’t thought to ask.
“Arla gave you her identity? Her life?” Ravyn scoffed. “Why?”
Zeero bit back a sarcastic remark as the memory of Arla’s last moments flash in her mind. She was just a kid, a kid that trusted a stranger to have the life she never would, to do something important with it. Six months later and what did Zeero have to show for it?
“I didn’t let her die alone,” Zeero answered quietly. “All the tech in the world still hasn’t made people brave enough to sit with the dying.”
“That’s why you work the graves,” Ravyn guessed.
“That’s why I make sure I’m there to do what you people should be doing,” Zeero clarified. “The ones you aren’t taking apart in your search for a cure are tossed, still twitching, still aware, into the pits.”
“We didn’t know they were still-” Ravyn tried to hold back her horror. “Without an accurate way to measure brain activity, and no way to save them we just assumed- You have to tell someone.”
“Why?” Zeero shot back. “You’re right, you can’t save them! But I would be taken apart down to the molecular level with no guarantee of you finding a cure. And then everybody would die alone. At least this way some of them don’t have to. Besides, it will kill me one of these days. I know it in my bones. Whatever is different about me is not the answer.”
The two sat in silence. Zeero’s last words hanging over them, seeming to muffle the sound of the outpost as it continued to burn in the distance.
“Does a person have to be RECCing for you to stay with them or is that a service you provide to all of the dying?” Ravyn asked.
Zeero returned from her own thoughts to find Ravyn studying her gloved hands. The woman had been a human force-of-nature. She had moved through the outpost with such unflinching confidence and intelligence that to see her so vulnerable was unexpectedly intimate.
Ravyn was staring down a person’s worst fear and she still had the composure to ask for what she needed in a way that gave Zee the option to refuse.
“If that’s what you want, I’d be honored,” Zeero answered, omitting the fact that someone still had to look out for Sam. If Zeero knew one thing about death, it’s that it was always about the person experiencing it first. Everyone else came second.
The mood around the women shifted.
As the last of the sun faded and the stars came out between the cracks in the leafy canopy, Ravyn began relating her life story to Zeero. A red glow lit up the forest where the outpost had stood, like a beacon calling out to the souls that had yet to join their companions. It would have been an eerie sight if not for the laughter that was sprinkled among Ravyn’s stories.
The conversation turned to the cosmic and infinite well of souls that poured a life into existence, and took it back again. They debated the one thing science couldn’t tell them.
“I don’t want to just stay me afterward,” Ravyn whispered between labored breaths. “I want to be scattered and mixed with a million more souls so that when each is born again, I live a million lives at once. Can you imagine if all of those parts of me ate cake at the same time? Do you think it would taste, I don’t know…more?”
“I hope we stay just us,” Zeero answered, her hand returning to the pouch at her ankle, aching to go where Ravyn was about to go. “Not all of us are finished being us.”
“Oh, I’m not remotely finished Zeero, not by a long shot,” Ravyn insisted, her earlier fire returning to her face. “I wasn’t telling you about me to hear myself talk. I need you to know the torch you’ll be picking up.”
Ravyn held out a functioning Guardian.
“International protocol; they make us wear two, just in case,” she explained to a stunned Zee. “This one has its own power source. No Second Skin connection required but it’s limited because it’s only supposed to be used as a temporary safety net. It won’t put a roof over your head, show your vitals, connect you to anyone else or any tech, but it will tell people that you are me. It will buy you time.”
“Why do you think I want more time?”
“You may not be the cure my dear, but when you go where others do not, you see what others cannot. That’s more powerful than you know,” Ravyn explained. “And something tells me that when you do find a cure, it won’t die with you. You won’t let it.”
Zee swallowed a counter argument. She owed Ravyn a debt she couldn’t repay. What she asked was the least she could do. So instead she pulled two links off of Arla’s Guardian and let it fall into her lap. She dropped her hacks into Ravyn’s hand and the other woman understood. She swapped out the links and the screen froze.
Ravyn offered the Guardian again and Zee accepted it, twisting the worn links until the screen was set to “alive” and secured it on her wrist. After a moment of consideration, she held out Arla’s frozen Guardian. Ravyn took it like a sacred object, placing it around her wrist as if it was part of a burial ceremony. And in a way, it was for Zeero. She trusted Ravyn with the last token of Arla’s brief friendship. The two were more alike that Zeero had words to express.
A half hour later, Ravyn exhaled for the last time.
Zeero pulled a white burial hood out of the canvas bag and slipped it over the older woman’s head. The material bonded to her Second Skin, instantly encasing the body and sealing up any fluids that might start to leak. She was grateful for the continued darkness as she removed and changed into the real Ravyn’s clothes. In the fading light of the fire, she could just make out dozens of medication patches dotting the woman’s body. Ravyn had been medicating for some time to handle those doses but the reason behind them had died with her.
The first light of dawn warmed the sky as the Zeero, no Ravyn now, finished repacking one of the canvas bags with all the medical supplies she could carry. She awoke a very groggy and confused Sam who, after the generous application of more pain patches, was finally coerced into finding a way into town. He didn’t make it past the meadow where they’d run into Ravyn. Sam saw the bodies, remembered the source of his injuries and RECCed. She only left his body there after it went still, catching a glimpse of more drones on the horizon.
It was well past noon when Ravyn wandered into Eureka, California. The coastal town was abuzz with news that a forest fire had wiped out the sanitation and body disposal outpost during the night, leaving no survivors.
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Jennie began her editing career in 2011. Her no-nonsense, insightful critique and perceptive book coaching soon drew the attention of indie authors and literary agents, and she founded Myth Machine ePublishing in 2014. Since then, she has helped authors develop novels for indie and traditional publication; her clients have successfully published independently and are being scouted by prominent agents. Jennie believes that humor, honesty and keen discernment are the foundations of artistic growth, and is honored to journey alongside her clients as they discover new depths of authenticity, clarity and creativity in their work.