The rusty bridge in front of me creaked from gusts of wind that blew through the gorge. Black water rushed over rocks. My breathing mask and goggles itched. The new material worked better but was damned uncomfortable. I took a reading. Nominal. Thank goodness. The head gear slipped off my face with one tug, and I scratched the stubble on my chin.
Forward. I needed to reach Fort Clatsop by nightfall. But the instant my foot touched the rotted surface of the span, a slick, wet, woman’s head poked through a gap ten meters in front of me. “This is a toll bridge.” White fangs gleamed. She pulled herself one-two-three up. A leather belt cinched a long shirt tight about her waist.
I’d seen water pixies south of here, but I’d managed to avoid any close encounters. “What’s the charge?” I twitched my jacket aside and put my hand on the butt of my revolver.
She moved faster than I believed possible. In an eyeblink, she stood next to me, breathing into my ear. “Pull that popgun, and it’ll be the last thing you ever do.” Raindrops spattered the bridge.
I breathed. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Whatta you got?”
“Jacksons?” My stomach roiled.
She laughed. “Paper money? No one can spend it, and it makes lousy insulation.”
“Worth a shot. Sandwich?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Bread.” The tiny scales on her face shimmered. “What are you lugging around? It looks heavy.” She undid a buckle on my pack.
“Detector. Camping gear.” I turned to face her. “It’s delicate.”
“Just asking.” She put her palms up. “No need to get huffy. How about a story?”
Her eyes widened in mock surprise. “For the toll.” She leaped past me. “Follow.” Her lean pixie body disappeared over the railing.
I took a step forward. She stood in the doorway of a hut constructed from the tangled detritus of the river: torn canvas sheeting, battered pallets, gnarled lumps of tree roots.
“Not as windy.” She waved. “I won’t eat you.”
Time was slipping through my fingers, but I didn’t seem to have a choice. I walked back to the base of the ramp and under the bridge to her hut.
She pushed aside a pile of blankets to make room. Smooth rocks and glittering chips of glass lined narrow shelves. In the far corner, a candle leaned from a spindly metal holder. She saw my gaze. “You have fire?”
I nodded. “Cup of tea?”
She clapped her hands. “Excellent.”
I took a reading – safety first! – before lighting the candle. Nominal. “My name’s Desmond.” A warm yellow glow surrounded us. “What’s yours?”
She shrugged. “Pixie.”
“What were you called? Before.”
Her eyes narrowed. “How about that story?”
I unfolded my camp stool. The pump for the stove was tricky, but I got the fire going first try. “My mother built dirigibles for the queen. One day – “
A grunting scrape sounded from outside the hut. Pixie leaped forward. Her shoulder caught me in the chest and we tumbled backwards. Boards snapped. I skidded on my side across sand and rocks.
An enormous shape loomed over the far side of the hut. Orca. Killer whale. Mottled black and white skin surrounded a long mouth filled with dozens of pointy teeth. “Having company?” Its voice rumbled like thunder.
Pixie grabbed my hand. “Run.”
The orca hunched and thrust its body forward. Even without legs, it moved as fast as a sprinting human. Its blunt head knocked a corner of Pixie’s hut askew.
I ran. My heart pounded. Pixie dashed up the bridge ramp with me in tow. The huge creature smashed more of her house. The candle tipped over, and the canvas caught fire. Flames danced. Noxious smoke billowed upwards.
“You bastard.” Pixie threw a rock. It bounced off the orca’s thick hide.
I pulled my revolver and held it steady. There. I squeezed. My ears rang.
The orca screamed and twisted over the sand. “You’ll pay.” Its mouth snapped closed.
I aimed again, but it launched itself into the water. Rain plastered my hair to my forehead. My hands shook.
“We should go.” Pixie touched my shoulder.
I holstered the gun. “Hang on.” My heart steadied. I unwound a grapple from around my waist. I wasn’t about to abandon the pack, but I didn’t relish venturing under the bridge again. A strap protruded from the wreckage of Pixie’s home. A long shot, but I had to try. I swung the hook and released the cord. Missed. Damn. Fire crackled.
“Leave it.” Pixie joggled my elbow.
I readied the hook again. “It’s important.”
“Yeah? For what?”
“It detects the particles. We think I’ll be able to track the source.” I tossed the hook. It snagged the pack. “Maybe restore the Before times.” Wind shredded the smoke.
“Huh.” Pixie didn’t look thrilled.
With a scrape and a bump, I pulled the pack from the burning lumber. My arm muscles ached. The pack dangled, twisting in the air. The tea kit was a goner, but I hoped the detector and my other gear were all right. “Don’t you want things to go back?”
Pixie shrugged. “You were rich, right?”
I frowned. “Not really.”
She snorted. “Let me guess. You had tutors. Never missed a meal. A summer home.”
Pixie leaned forward. “I scrubbed pots and pans. Day-in, day-out. Da died working the bauxite mines. Ma’s indenture was traded to a cooper down the coast. He didn’t want me.”
I brute-forced the pack over the railing. Some of my supplies were gone, but the detector looked undamaged. The gauges twitched when I tapped them. The intake mesh was whole. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
She shrugged. “I get by.”
“Thanks for saving my life.” I shouldered the pack. “What got into that damn fish anyway?”
“He wanted me to be his wife.” Pixie’s eyes glittered. “Number four or five, I’m not sure.”
“Why try to kill us?”
“I guess he’s the jealous type.” She half-skipped to keep up with my pace. “He must have seen you.”
“You married him, then?”
“Not likely.” She laughed. “He wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I bit him.” Her fangs shone white.
“I wonder who he was. Before.” I shook my head. “We might never know.”
“He was the chief cook where I used to work.” Pixie tossed a rock into the water. “I’d recognize the bastard anywhere.”
We skirted a downed tree, scrambling through vine maples and opportunistic blackberries. The old highway followed the water, and we turned upstream towards Fort Clatsop. Worry twisted my stomach in a knot. I hoped everyone there was all right.
A splash sounded from the river. I whirled around. Nothing. I hated the way the mask restricted my peripheral vision. My nerves felt raw.
Pixie bounded ahead. I jogged after her. If we set a good pace, we’d make it to the fort before complete darkness fell. If they were all right, if my fears were groundless, we’d get clean beds, hot food. Good air.
Fort Clatsop straddled a bluff that thrust out of the ground like a fist. Old iron cannons guarded the narrows, relics of the days when Russia had designs on the wealth of the lush Northwest Territory.
I took a reading, cranking the handle to draw air through the mechanism. Pixie watched with bright, avid eyes. The bellows creaked. “On the warm side.” My words sounded muffled behind my mask.
Pixie sucked an enormous lungful of air into her body. “Like breathing sunshine.” The scales on her face sparkled. “You don’t know what you’re missing.”
“Easy for you to say.” I flicked a fingernail against the gauge. “I watched my brother grow roots.” Water dripped. “Wood beetles killed him.”
Pixie shrugged. “Sorry.”
“You’re one of the lucky ones. We could put a mask on you, keep the particles out for a few days. You’d turn back.” I moved closer to the fort and took another reading. The needle hovered over yellow. My tongue felt as dry as sand.
“Don’t even think about it.” Pixie’s eyes narrowed. “What makes you so all-fired sure you can stop the particles?”
I grunted. “I was trapped with a team of geologists in a mine shaft when the change happened.” Memories flooded through me. “They’re brilliant people. They built this.” I slapped the detector. “And the masks. They have a theory.” My boots crunched on rocks. “Their colleagues were working on a secret installation upriver. But word leaked. It always does.” I packed the detector. “A weapon the Queen could use to warp the fabric of reality. No one really thought they’d succeed.”
Pixie turned to face me. “But they did.”
“That’s our best guess.”
“So why aren’t they with you? Bring a whole team?”
“They’re old. Injured. They’d never make it.” I squared my shoulders. “So it’s up to me.” The wooden walls of the fort stood solid and quiet. “I’m supposed to get help here.” I frowned. We should have been challenged by now.
Pointed, thigh-thick logs, grey from years of rain, circled the top of the bluff. Roofed towers with overlapping fields of fire anchored the corners. No lights appeared. No hail-fellow-well-met came from behind the walls.
Pixie regarded the fort with a bemused expression. “Nobody’s home.”
“No shit.” I didn’t like the looks of this. We’d lost contact with Fort Clatsop a week ago. Our carrier pigeons kept disappearing. Part of my mission was to get new chicks. Restock our flock.
I sidled forward with my revolver held ready. Pixie followed. The main gate was shut tight. Cedar-shingled roofs were all I could see of the inside structures.
Rain pattered on the road. I followed the wall counter-clockwise around the fort. Wind howled. Basalt cliffs plunged to the river. At the base of the northernmost tower, a single footprint had crushed a newly-budded daffodil. I dropped to my knees. The toes pointed away from the fort. My goggles obscured tiny details, but the imprint of five clawed digits was unmistakable.
“Been a few days,” Pixie said. “Maybe a week.” The edges of the print had been eroded by rain. She followed a barely discernible series of impressions towards the edge of the cliff. “Well, there it is.”
I looked over the sheer drop. A handful of crows pecked at a crumpled furry body on the rocks. “Poor bastard.” I tossed rocks at the birds, but they evaded with lazy disdain.
Pixie turned back to the tower. I followed her gaze. Two meters from the ground, a raw piece of broken wood dangled from a firing slit. The opening was splintered as though something large had forced its way out.
I readied the grapple, but Pixie leaped up the wall. Clawed feet dug into wood. In seconds, she was surveying the fort from the tower. She turned a full circle. “Looks a mess.”
“Here.” I tossed her a line and climbed up.
Half a dozen bodies littered the interior courtyard. Smashed glass gleamed in corners. Wet, charred wood poked from the remains of the main barracks.
We descended a ladder and wandered through the wreckage. A woman lay across a doorway. Blood had soaked the wood, turning it dark brown. Ants trailed out of an eye socket.
Annie? Susan? I didn’t know. I’d only ever exchanged notes with them. Letters in tiny handwriting curled into a metal tube and clipped onto a bird’s leg. A pitiful way to communicate.
Waves of nausea wrenched my stomach. I needed to vomit, but the mask blocked my mouth. My fingers tore at the straps.
“It’s not safe for you.” Pixie grabbed my hands. “Hot spot.”
She was right. I stumbled backwards, away from the bodies, reeling through the courtyard towards the gate. Out of the hot spot, I’d probably be okay, if I didn’t breath too many particles. If I kept it quick.
Outside, I ripped my mask off and threw up in the dirt. With every breath, the bitter tang of stomach acid mixed with the sharp flavor of airborne particles. They entered my lungs, were absorbed by my blood, and lodged in my muscles like tiny chips of fire.
I slapped the mask back on. Too long. Change roiled inside me like a trapped tornado. My shoulders hunched and twisted beyond my control. Muscles tore with jolts of agony, and then rebuilt themselves in a heartbeat.
Pixie cocked her head and frowned. “Bad?”
The changes slowed. The bulk of new muscles on my back and chest melted away. The shakes calmed. “I’m okay.” I sat down hard. I wondered what I’d been turning into. My legs felt like rubber. Wouldn’t support a child.
“You could stop fighting it.” Pixie offered a hand up.
Anger surged through me. “Like whatever happened in there?” I slapped her hand aside. “Best guess. Let me lay it out for you. One: particle storm. Two: faulty detector. Three: some idiot didn’t have their mask.” Tears bit at the corners of my eyes. “Four: they turned. Into something. Something with claws.”
“It’s not always bad.”
“Thanks. Thanks a fucking lot.” I pushed myself to my feet. “I knew those people.” My breathing sounded hot and loud in my ears. “You think it’s so great, why’d you keep me from yanking my mask off inside? Huh?”
“I thought you’d want to choose.” Pixie looked me in the eyes. “Not change by accident.”
My anger vanished. I felt emptied out. Hollow. “You saved my life. Again.”
“You’d still be you. Inside.” Pixie helped gather the bits and pieces that had spilled from my pack.
“Maybe.” I forced myself to think of something else. The bodies. The thought of burying all the dead overwhelmed me. I’d have to carry them to a central place. Light a pyre instead. Tears dripped from my eyes. The goggles steamed up. I staggered to the wall and leaned on the rough wood for support.
To the west, the setting sun turned the clouds red as blood. Rain sleeted down, filling the world with water.
Pixie took my hand. “Let’s camp away from here. Get some sleep and come back in the morning.” She seemed to follow my thoughts. “We’ll take care of the dead tomorrow.”
I trailed in Pixie’s wake for half an hour of steady hiking. She found a hollow of ferns and hosta sheltered by an enormous cedar. A stream flowed down the hillside in front of us, pooling on the other side of the tree. Thick soft duff covered the forest floor, and the cedar’s flat sweeping branches protected us from all but the worst of the rain.
She watched as I set up the tent and checked the filters. The routine helped calm me. She’d been right. We’d go back to the fort tomorrow.
“Light a fire, Des.” Pixie stepped into the water. “I’ll tickle some fish out of hiding.” She slipped below the surface with a soft splash.
I gathered wood, looking underneath fallen logs for anything dry. By the time I had a blaze going, Pixie had returned. Three small trout hung from the claw on her index finger.
“For you.” She gave me a cockeyed grin. “I ate half a dozen of their brethren in the pond. Thrill of the chase, you know?”
Warmth spread through me like a healing balm. And not just from the fire. “Thanks, Pixie.”
The next morning, we returned to the fort. Water dripped from roofs. Branches waved in the wind. Pixie helped build a pyre, ripping half-burned timbers from ruined buildings with amazing strength, lifting bodies with me. When we finished, she held my hand as the flames caught and consumed.
Grit irritated the insides of my elbows. Black smoke boiled into the sky. Wood popped and crackled. The air filled with the smell of burning. I started to say something, anything, to mark their passage, but my throat clogged on the words.
I turned and pushed my way into the supply room. A rifle sat in a metal rack. Its barrel felt cool in my palms. I ripped a box open and stuffed my pack with dynamite and blasting caps.
I stood up, the pack heavy on my shoulders. Straps dug into my skin. I stumbled outside. Pixie walked behind me. We trudged east, towards the secret installation, towards whatever terrible failed weapon awaited us. I would stop the damn particles if it killed me.
Potholes riddled the highway. Entire sections of road had been washed out by winter storms. Pixie tagged along. I wasn’t sure why she stuck with me, but I was glad. More than glad. I wasn’t sure I could do this on my own. She kept me focused, sane.
Particles sparkled in the lee of every rock, every trunk. The readings got worse the farther east we headed. There were fluctuations, of course, random variations, but the trend was clear. By that evening, the needle stayed solidly on yellow with all-too-often excursions into the red. Pixie breathed deep and grinned.
I worried about the detector. Kept my attention up for the slightest tingle of accidental particle ingestion. My skin felt raw, burned. I had to swap out the filter on my mask days sooner than I expected.
The landscape altered. The lush greens of the inland valley turned harsher, rockier. Gnarled pine trees stretched wind-blown branches towards our approach as if imploring us to stay back.
Cat-sized gnomes with large, intelligent eyes scurried into our path. One wore a dirty lab coat. Another had cracked goggles wrapped around its eyes. “Go back, go back,” they squeaked. Pixie bared her teeth, and they scurried away. A distant part of me felt sorry for their change.
By mid-afternoon of the fourth day, the needle stayed pinned to the far side of the gauge. The air sparked and shivered around us. We walked the road next to each other, taking turns carrying the pack. The cliff went up on our left and dropped down to our right. The sky ahead glowed.
“I feel more alive this instant than ever before.” Laughter bubbled from Pixie’s lips. “You plod along, earthbound.” She twirled on her toes. “I bet you wish you could fly.” Her outstretched hands left trails of glittering afterimages.
A rock the size of my head hurtled past me, bounced over the road, and splashed in the river. More rocks followed. I dodged, clumsy as a hippopotamus.
Pixie danced and spun. Shapes scurried across the top of the cliffs above us.
I pulled my revolver and squeezed off four quick shots. A gnome sagged forward and slid down the scree. Blood shone on the gravel. The barrage of rocks stopped. The sharp smell of gunpowder tickled my nose even through the filter.
“Let’s move.” I grabbed Pixie’s hand. The river rushed by below us. Sunlight danced on waves. We ran.
A thumping, pulsating sound seemed to burrow into my brain. We turned a bend, and I stopped in awe. A scaffolding of pipes surrounded a boiler the size of a large house. Steam hissed from fittings. Gnomes rushed backwards and forward like panicked ants. Lumps of coal were scattered across the dirt. A hungry fire roared in the structure’s center.
Sparks geysered from a tower that speared the clouds. The detector made an agonized squeal and expired with a puff of rubbery smoke. Pixie laughed. She threw her head back, eyes closed, arms wide open.
I unlimbered my pack and tore open the wrapped packages of dynamite. No blasting caps. I dumped the pack on the ground and searched through the contents. “Pixie?”
“Isn’t this grand?” She sucked deep lungfulls of air into her body. Her face glowed with inner fire. “Why would you want to destroy this?”
“Where are the caps?” The grip of the revolver felt ice cold in my hand.
Pixie dropped her arms. “You can’t bring the Before times back.”
“Was that why you came along?” My heart turned to lead. “Why not just kill me?”
“I could have killed you anytime I wanted.” Tears welled up in Pixie’s eyes. “Pushed you into the river. Slit your throat.” Her lips twitched. “I like you.”
I knew I could pull the gun. That she wouldn’t move. My muscles tensed.
Water sprayed my neck. I whirled around. Ten tons of angry killer whale humped up the rocky sand towards me. “She’s mine.” An ugly black hole on his side wept bloody pus.
I drew and aimed, but I wasn’t fast enough. A flipper caught my shoulder and sent me flying. The revolver skittered away. My mask tore. I inhaled a lungful of liquid fire.
My body twisted in agony. Muscles bunched, tightened, and reformed. My back felt flayed, split open. Pixie threw herself between me and the orca. “Back off.”
He hunched forward. “But darling....” His mouth gaped wide. “I love you.”
Pixie darted towards him. Her finger flicked his head. “Get the fuck away from me.” A bright line of blood slashed across his snout. “I don’t want you.”
He reared higher. “Too bad.” His mottled black-and-white body loomed over Pixie.
I pushed myself to my hands and knees. White feathers filled my peripheral vision. I flapped. Flapped! Wings. Enormous, impossible wings. Energy thrummed through me with every breath. I felt strong. Invincible. I bounced to my feet.
The orca launched himself like a runaway locomotive at Pixie. A gnome threw a lump of coal that caught the back of her left knee. She slipped off balance and fell to the ground. Time slowed. The orca’s gigantic bulk seemed poised to crush her into the dirt.
I leaped forward without thinking. My body slammed into slick wet flesh. The orca pushed against me. I thrust back. Brute force against brute force. My new muscles strained, holding his full weight. My knees bent. Straightened. I lifted. Sparkles filled my vision. I felt exhilarated.
“No.” I threw the orca away from Pixie. He twisted in the air before smashing into the pipes. A terrible grinding assaulted my ears. Jets of super-heated steam cut into his flesh. He screamed.
More pipes broke. Flames shot skyward. Gnomes clutched their heads and ran in circles. I scooped Pixie into my arms, beat my wings, and leaped skyward. The chimney faltered, swaying back and forth. Sparks made crazy loops in the clouds.
“You were right.” I hugged Pixie close. My wings swept through the air. “We can do anything.”
Far below us, the boiler burst open. More pipes collapsed. The sparks sputtered and stopped. “Put me down.” Pixie pushed her body away.
“What? Don’t you like flying?” I swooped lower.
“The machine’s wrecked.” Pixie stretched for the ground. “You got what you wanted.”
She was right. Without the particles, we’d change back. My wings would shrivel and vanish. The new-found strength would wane. In a few days, maybe a week, I’d be my old self. I set Pixie on a bluff looking over the river. “I don’t know what I want anymore.”
Sunlight poured through clouds. Pixie squeezed my hands. “We’ll just have to find out.” She turned and stepped down. Cold wind blew against my face. She paused. “You still owe me a story.”