When Tarnish woke from her second red dream, she could deny it no longer—she had to leave, before that dreaming red became the kind of real red that drenched her hands.

She’d filled her pack by feel in the uncertain light of mountain-blocked dawn; she’d pulled on her coat, twisting it up and around, hem slapping her calves, the motions instinctive through long practice. She slid two buttons up and in where it was fitted under the bust, such as that was; she had no illusions she was not a skinny, stringy thing.

Packing, dressing, as if for yet another day with her partner Sol on the mail run, from Vanquish up the Freighter Canyon to Caribou and the other gold mining towns—the familiarity should have been soothing. Grounding. But she was stalling, and she knew it.

Not that knowing was any aid in ceasing to stall. Tarnish—which was technically short for but mostly less stupid for for Tarnation—searched for a next preparatory task to break into her hesitation and found none. To one side was the banked fire, and beyond it the impassive bank of the hill that vouchsafed no light for her and Sol even though the canyon-cupped stripe of sky overhead softened with the day’s beginning. The river to the other side and below them shushed to itself, not too high in summer.

It was for Sol’s safety that Tarnish must leave. Sol—short for Soliloquy, everyone said because her mama had visited the Holy Book of Words when she was carrying and read it on that day’s open page—was still a sleeping lump, more rounded than the skyline of mountains looming over them both, but no more yielding. Sol could pull the mail cart on the roads alone, but she couldn’t drag it from road to rails or back. They had three more switches until they reached the head of the canyon. Better Sol be forced to turn back now, find a new partner in Vanquish and live because of it; better the mail arrive late than not at all.

Sol didn’t groan, or stretch, or anything like that. One minute she was sleeping, the next she was pushing to her feet, ambling a little ways off to piss. She didn’t bother to duck behind a rock or even turn her back, but then, that was Sol. Life had weathered the caring about other people’s opinions right out of her.

The light was better now, picking out Sol’s orange hair. It suddenly seemed vitally important to Tarnish to use its true color word and not call it red. Not red like blood. Sol’s sunburns were real red, though, even on skin wrinkled and seamed from sunburns previous. Everyone said those who looked like her had ruled here, once upon a time, though they made a play of not using the words of rulers. Tarnish didn’t hold it against Sol, though. She didn’t try to act regal, now this land had no rulers, nor truly any real owners, and most of Sol’s line had died out.

Sol returned, stopped, showing only in that pause in her routine acknowledgment that Tarnish had broken her own. “Why are you up so early?” Perhaps it was a night’s disuse that made her voice harsh, or perhaps it only seemed harsh as it broke the voiceless calm of the night world, which didn’t need words the way people did.

“I have the red dreams,” Tarnish said. “I have to leave, before I hurt you.”

She wished she hadn’t said it, given it the power of putting it into true words. She couldn’t conceive of hurting Sol, and yet she couldn’t refrain from doing so, not if what everyone said about the red dreams was true. She hugged herself, tight, tight. No tears, no puking; she was no child, and she knew what needed to be done. She didn’t want to hurt anyone, so she would make sure she couldn’t.

Sol considered her. “No.” She turned aside, went to clang about amongst the pots and pans, preparing to make tea. The clanging stopped for a moment, then she picked up the kettle and headed for the scree slope down to the river.

Now, Tarnish told herself. She needed to leave now. She’d as much as said goodbye to Sol, and there was nothing to keep her. But that “no” had cut off her momentum, already weak and wavering as it was. Did Sol disbelieve that Tarnish had the red dreams at all? Tarnish dearly wished she could manage such a feat of disbelief herself.

Trembling overtook her, presaging more than tears, Tarnish suspected, likely wild sobs if she gave them freedom. She crouched down, hands to her face, and did not allow them free. Everyone knew what happened with the red dreams, ever since the broadsheets had first written of the man near Spoken. The man who’d gone outside to do the chores on his farm and instead set his hands upon an axe.

And then had laid about with that axe, opening wounds upon every creature he could catch, first their cow, then their goats and the dogs—but not the cats, for they hid, and the chickens fluttered away, so he turned to unsuspecting prey in the house. His old father, and a cousin, with her wife, and their farm hand. Not to kill, no, to set the red blood free, it seemed, for it was so splashed about when others tiptoed in after, and no cut was deep enough to kill alone.

The broadsheets had found the right words for it, powerful words, for Tarnish remembered each of them and could see every detail of that little cabin and the death inside in her mind. No, she would not puke. “It’s not enough!” that man had called, as he slashed at this own feet, his own legs, until the neighbor put an end to it all with a shotgun. There had been other victims of the red dreams after, others who sliced to find the red blood that was not enough and who were ended sooner, the kinder path. But the man outside Spoken, he was the only one who’d left behind one who’d heard tell of his dreams. His wife, their little boy, had been visiting her family, and she told the broadsheets he’d had the dreams for days before.

Red dreams of monsters, made of great red gears and gnashing teeth.

Sol struggled back up the slope with the full kettle. In her other hand, she held an odd bit of broken tech, green with a meaningless map of dull metal lines. She considered it as she would have on any other day, apparently finding nothing of value to set it apart from all the other useless tech scattered like dust in the corners of the world, and tossed it aside. It must have been of no more use to those who made it, either, if tech had indeed turned invisible as some people said. But if that had been so, that kind of tech had long since decayed into dust, becoming part of the soil like the bones of its makers.

Tarnish straightened and clenched her hands. She could not let Sol steal her resolve. “Did you not hear me? You’re in danger, the longer I stay.” She would forge upward into the trees of the canyon’s peaks, lose herself where there was no one’s blood to harm except her own. Maybe if she didn’t keep any weapons, she’d last longer. Or maybe shorter, if a critter found her and she couldn’t defend herself.

Sol sighed. “I heard you.” She did not let Tarnish move her from the morning routine now, kettle set aside, fire prodded back to life.

“You should go back. There are no road switches, and you can get someone else to finish the run with you.” And why should the thought of someone taking her place tangle up further words, or even find space in her mind against the greater fear of the red dreams? Maybe because being replaced felt more real. Tarnish had worked to prove herself on this run. Worked hard, was saving up, had her simple dreams, those being the aspirational kind, not the tricks played by a sleeping mind. Do her job, get paid, save up for a new bike. A bike of a fantastical, nearly-but-not-entirely-impossible variety—one that no one had ever owned before her.

Maybe it was a failure in her imagination, that she could see that bike but not Sol’s blood on her hands, same as it was a failure in her that she hadn’t left yet. She looked at her hands here, now, in the dawning light, and found them as brown and familiar as ever. Empty, and she felt no wish to change that. She should have a day, at least, until that changed. Maybe two?

Sol snorted. “A veritable martyr, aren’t you?” She crouched by the fire and bent her head over the tea.

Anger rose up in Tarnish now, banishing fear. She was trying to do the right thing. “What do you think I’m supposed to do, then?”

Sol rose, making no effort made to keep Tarnish in her sight, nor any to turn her back either. She peeled away the tarp covering the mail cart, starting from the small corner Tarnish had left adrift in extracting some small supply of food to take with her. “What makes a dream red? I’ve always wondered. How does one even know?”

Tarnish could have given her every detail, a surfeit of details, drowning her in their exquisite precision. Both times, nearly the same. Everything in the dream town had looked so damn dirty, like a dust storm of soil redder than had ever existed before had blown through. The boardwalks and the stores and the shacks and the bikes and the carts, all of them buried in a rusty layer. A single horse, like she’d only ever seen in pictures, had clopped down the street, a sculpture of metal arcs that nevertheless moved like a living creature. No, Tarnish realized now. If it was a horse, those arcs must have been horseshoes, formed scale-like into three dimensions. It had paused and looked back over its shoulder at her. Straight at her. It had had no eyes, but it had been just as red as everything else.

But Sol would not be impressed by such, Tarnish knew that. Perhaps others should hear it, since no accounts of dreams had survived after that of the man from Spoken. But then, who would miss Tarnish, to prompt the broadsheets to investigate, to print such an account? Sol would miss her, she supposed, in a purely practical way, but she was no one who would ever bother to speak to broadsheet writers.

“I just know they’re red,” she said, finally. The words made her think, though. Everyone always figured the red dreams were about blood, given what people did afterward, but Tarnish wondered now. When you meant blood, you said blood. The man from Spoken had said red.

But that didn’t matter. Tarnish was leaving. She would convince Sol—convince herself?—of that and be on her way.

Sol waved her words away. She took her can of salmon and settled back to sit cross-legged on her blankets beside the fire. “So they were red. Why do you have to sacrifice yourself, again?”

Tarnish remained standing, though the extra height didn’t seem to make Sol listen to her any better. She supposed she was too skinny to be impressive, but Sol was all bones too. “So when I start looking for blood—”

“And you’re sure that’s going to happen? You ever know someone who got the red dreams? Or know someone who knew someone? Or are you just going by the stories of one man from Spoken and the trader’s niece’s boss, like everyone else?” Sol waited for a response that Tarnish, stubborn, didn’t give her. “You feeling a hankering for blood this very instant?”

Tarnish glared at her. “I will. Everyone knows—”

“Ha.” Sol looked pleased. “You always did listen to ‘everyone’ overmuch. Comes of not having enough family, I’d guess.”

Somewhere in trying to figure out what the hell Sol meant, Tarnish lost track of her anger. Family? Why did her lack of that matter now? She folded down to sit, so she could curl around the fear and maybe keep it packed a little closer. Really, it only made her stomach roil worse, taking her closer to puking. “I could have a whole army of siblings down south,” she said, to be contrary.

Sol checked the tea, then squinted up at the strengthening blue of the sky. They might be sweating today, in the direct light. “Not when you dig in, here in the north, and keep volunteering for the mail run all the way up the Canyon, you don’t. A family’s constant well-intentioned advice is what teaches you to ignore ‘everyone’ and fight for your own way sometimes.” Her eyes bored into Tarnish’s. “You going to fight the red dreams, girl?”

Tarnish looked at her empty hands. It wasn’t like she’d picked up a knife while she was distracted. She didn’t—all right, she’d admit it, she didn’t want to be alone yet. Or ever, but her life thus far had certainly proved that certain things you didn’t get a choice on.

And Sol wasn’t scared.

“I’ll come along on the mail run,” Tarnish said, “as far as I can, if you’ll promise to...” Tarnish knew how this sequence went. She was supposed to ask Sol to finish her quick and clean. But maybe that was her limit. She could conceive of striking off alone, she could just manage that—the thought, not the action, apparently—but she couldn’t even hold in her mind the thought of asking to be killed. She swallowed to try to gather up a few more words. “Not let me hurt you.”

“Goes without saying.” Sol rummaged in her pack for her brush. “If we want a hot breakfast you’re going to need to get some more wood. I’ll take first shift pulling the cart.”

Tarnish started to feel it in the trail’s first switch, which came late in the day. The road smacked up against a fall of boulders, so she went first to break the switchbacking trail down to the rails on the next terrace below. This route had travelers enough, but those kinds of trails always washed out in each storm. They took their packs off the cart first, lowered those down, then Sol passed the bikes to Tarnish, one and two, her hands on the back wheel and Tarnish’s on the front for a moment, then the connection broken.

The mountain shadows eased longer, leaving the two of them in shade that would be unbroken now until night, as they did the same to the mail cart, braced hard so it didn’t slip from them and roll all the way down into the river. Sol and Tarnish had never lost one together that way, but most others on the route had, at least once. When they successfully reached the rails, it was time to switch the cart’s wheels. Sol held the first one on and Tarnish tightened the nuts. One done, and she set the wrench down while Sol settled the second.

Tarnish didn’t like that, though. She needed her hand around something tightly, to hold in the fear. Something solid and heavy, metallic.

She froze in her crouch, hand fanned above the wrench, then shoved herself away until her back crunched into the bushes clinging precariously to the slope they’d just climbed down. Something heavy to swing, until the blood burst free, was that it?

“Fight it,” Sol said. Her wide-brimmed hat, though it had no direct sunlight to let it throw deep shadow, still obscured her face, made her expression seem harder, perhaps simply through the difficulty of reading it.

“Easy for you to say,” Tarnish shot back. She clutched at the bushes, prickles printing but not breaking her skin. That wasn’t enough, though. She felt like the slope was disappearing beneath her feet, tumbling down into the river, and she had nothing to hang on to.

She ran. Back the way they’d come, between the rails, though eventually she’d meet the rockfall on the rails that had made the road serve as the first part of the trail rather than the rails. She didn’t remember how far it was, but for now, she ran. In running, she didn’t feel so much like she needed to hang on.

After she didn’t know how long, she settled into a thumping sort of jog. It made her think of the clopping of the horse in the dream. In the red dream.

Sol had said she was supposed to fight the red dreams. And Sol had said she shouldn’t listen to what anyone said. Tarnish stumbled to a stop, folded into a crouch and then a seat, with exhausted jerkiness. The remains of a concrete wall struggled to hold back the slope here, and she leaned against it in turn. She laughed at Sol’s contradiction, and tears slipped out too.

All right. What did she want? To not die. To not kill anyone. What did she know? The red in the dreams wasn’t blood. That seemed like a seed of hope, if nothing else. The single account of the dreams had not mentioned horseshoes, either. Tarnish touched the rusty crossing of bars within the crumbling wall and dragged her fingertips along one as she might have the flank of a horse made of metal.

Shiny metal bloomed out and out from her touch and the red rust disappeared. Her heart sped and it felt good. Not from fear, but... satisfaction? Tarnish sought the right word like in a prayer and it came to her. Euphoria.

She jerked her hand back, but the next instant she wanted more. She needed more, that little bit hadn’t been enough.

She said it out loud, before she realized what she was doing. There’s not enough. That’s what those with the red dreams said. Well, wasn’t she next to all the rust anyone could ever want? She reached out to the rail just beyond her knees. She pressed her hand to it and closed her eyes. Her heart pounded, pumping euphoria down to the very tips of her fingers, the very ends of her hair. She reached farther without moving, like her senses followed the shine down the rail, down and down, reaching and reaching.

It seemed everyone had been wrong after all, and Tarnish’s own dreams had told her more than anyone else ever could. She should have paid attention to that from the first.

Red dreams? Rust dreams.

Tarnish found Sol again as the last of summer’s long twilight fled. She’d set up camp early, where Tarnish had left her. Her bike was already hitched to the cart ready for the morning. She probably could have made some more distance, but she’d have had to leave Tarnish’s bike behind.

“It’s tech.” Some euphoria lingered still, making Tarnish’s voice high and fast. “There really was invisible tech, and it still exists, lost where we can’t see it, like some people say—” She laughed. “Like my own experience tells me there is.”

She knelt before Sol, wanting to see her face light up with understanding like Tarnish felt lit up inside now.

“It wants rust. Miles of rust, apparently. Most people wouldn’t be anywhere near that much. And when the tech can’t find enough...” Tarnish groped for an understanding she felt, but didn’t have the right words for yet. “I suppose it takes blood because it looks like rust when it dries.”

“Hemoglobin,” Sol said, and Tarnish stilled her breath to better hear the new word for the first time. From the Holy Book, she supposed. “Iron.” Sol rubbed her calloused thumb along the shiny surface of the rail near her. Amazement seeped into her expression.

In that expression was also the final and complete death of Tarnish’s euphoria. The fire had raised up a flush across Sol’s cheeks, and Tarnish suddenly thought of how easily Sol’s pale skin showed it. Like the blood was nearer, skin thinner.

She more than thought she didn’t want to have such questions appear in her mind, however. She felt it down to her feet and up to the crown of her head and every place between that the rust had filled with euphoria, but not filled enough. Not even with the length of two rails.

Not enough.

Now Sol frowned, a twitch of muscles in the brow, pointing down to where the flush of blood arched over the bridge of her nose. “Tarnish?”

“Your blood, it’s so—” Tarnish couldn’t find a word. She doubted she could even with the whole Holy Book of Words before her now. So... ‘ever-present’? So ‘intrusive’? Surely one would wish blood to intrude quite strenuously upon the crannies of one’s body, brook no delays in carrying out the heart’s work.

“Tarnish.” A snap in Sol’s voice. “Go find some more wordless rust, if you that’s what you need to fight it.”

Fight it, as if Tarnish had been surrendering to it so far. She’d fought it, she’d discovered the rust, and the longing hadn’t left her, had it? It had just burrowed and wiggled deeper, below her words, like some kind of infection.

It brought back the anger, it brought back the despair, and all Tarnish could think of was to turn and stumble off, sweeping along the trail for the abandoned metal of mail runners and travelers previous. Her toe came down upon the half-seen arc of a can, salmon by the size, and she lifted it. She couldn’t see it turn to shine beneath her fingers, with little light to reflect, but she felt the relief, just a puff, like a door to a stove-warmed cabin opened on one who stood huddled in the snow before it, and just as quickly shut again.

But then, perhaps the longing would grow less hungry in the way of a stomach adapting to a parent’s new poverty, or the strength to fight would grow stronger in the way of a worked muscle. Perhaps.

In such a truce, nearly a week passed. Tarnish could not have called herself less hungry, but neither had past travelers become neater, nor had those who’d built the cracking concrete and rails all along the trail ceased that building. Sol gathered decaying cans into a sack because Tarnish could not pick them up herself and leave them worth the saving, and Tarnish kept such distance from Sol as she could and still be carrying the same mail and sleeping in the same camp for safety. Whatever safety meant for Tarnish now.

This morning, the land could not precisely be said to flatten, not with mountains still on the horizons and foothills closer, but they had more room to breathe. Given the space of the plain, the rails diverged one way, the road another. Their pedaled path followed the road, cracked and crazed but not buckled here, without the numerous great roots and one greater earthquake that had generally worked upon pavement in the Canyon and south.

They were close to Caribou, close enough Tarnish could no longer see her way clear to put off this particular argument any longer. “I don’t think I should go into town.” She’d had long enough to consider it from all angles, long evenings when sleep eluded her even after hard days’ traveling, but she doubted that would count for much with Sol.

“Instead, you’ll do what?” Sol asked. “Camp on the outskirts alone, with the critters and the thieves? Absolutely not.”

“If I was to hurt anyone—” Tarnish tried to be just as exclusive of argument but missed the trick of it somehow.

“Keep your metal close.” Sol shrugged.

“And if someone was to touch me and get infected—”

“Stand and deliver!” A stranger stepped out of the trees, shotgun trained on them. Both of them braked instantly, though Sol had to feather her speed down over a meter or so beyond Tarnish to avoid jackknifing the cart. A strip along the road, maintained well in the past and less so now, still ran more to brush than trees, but Tarnish noticed now that the brush had been supplemented with snapped branches, rendering it better cover for someone to crouch and wait completely unseen.

Bandits were not so common as shouting broadsheet headlines painted them, but Tarnish had dealt with enough in her time with Sol that routine gave her a firm foundation to hold to even as her heart pounded. She knocked down her bike’s kickstand with a toe and stood off in one smooth movement.

This bandit, proclaiming her cliché, clearly fancied herself some kind of Bandit King. In truth, she was far too worn for the part; the only color her shirt boasted was that of sweat mixed with dirt over months.

Tarnish had her role in these encounters, as Sol had hers, so Tarnish stepped cautiously closer to the bandit as Sol drew their own shotgun from the cart with a quick, efficient movement. Tarnish held her hands wide and empty. Might as well make the gesture of trust when they had only the one gun and no other choice. “Hello, stranger. We’re the mail run, not supplies. But we know you’re probably hungry. We could share a meal. There’s no need to start trouble, one against two.” Desperation drove thieves often enough in these parts, but the question was whether it was desperation strong enough to disregard simple odds.

Or if it was not desperation at all.

Routine’s foundation shifted under Tarnish as skidding wheels sounded behind her. She sidestepped, making herself a point in a triangle to see both the bandit and her gun and this new variable without turning her head.

Two more bandits braced their bikes, blocking any retreat down the road. Modded bikes, metal sheets welded to the front in a wide “V” to provide cover from bullets, but still rideable. One boasted a notch for a shotgun’s barrel, which was very quickly dropped down into it.

Panic clawed at Tarnish’s throat, cutting short her pretty speeches. She managed to turn her hands down, appealing to the first woman. Calm, calm, no trouble. Trouble made people bleed, and Tarnish could just imagine the first bandit’s blood spurting with heart-propelled strength from a slash across her throat...

She wanted to close her eyes to banish the image, but she couldn’t while they were all in danger. She was breathing too fast, couldn’t get the air she needed. Lightheadedness washed over her and brought her back from the brink, oddly enough. To feel lightheaded, that was familiar enough. It trumped the rust-longing, put it back in proper proportion. She’d cleaned a can not so long ago, she wasn’t desperate yet.

“Why would you want to hit the wordless mail on the way into the mining town?” Sol’s sardonic tone brought Tarnish the rest of the way back. “It’s not like the families at home are mailing carefully saved nuggets of debt to their miners. A fire made of the paper from the letters would barely keep the critters back for a few minutes tonight. Holy Words, you guys are shitty bandits.”

“My friend does have a point, however inauspiciously phrased,” Tarnish said. Deep breath. Keep everyone talking. “You won’t want the letters...”

“We’ll take everything you’ve got,” the leader said. She had the Bandit King’s stance down at least, uncaring wielded with dramatic flair, where Sol wore hers like an old jacket that had very nearly become part of her own skin. “Now.”

That last word was not for them, apparently. With a crash from either side, more bandits stepped onto the road. Tarnish meant to count how badly they were now the ones outnumbered, but she couldn’t look every direction at once, and then a gun went off. Her focus narrowed to only that way without conscious decision.

Sol swept their gun that way too and chased the blast back with a second, better aimed. In the still breath of reaction after a burst of chaos, Sol’s target sprawled back and still, the mess of his face splashed with red.

Too late, Tarnish remembered the leader had a gun as well. She dodged by instinct, even while she turned, as the leader reversed her gun and swung the butt at her temple. Not enough shells for that many weapons; perhaps she and Sol should have guessed at that. Tarnish wouldn’t have staked her life on the bandits not deciding to hand out one each, however.

“If he’s the only one with ammo, the odds just rather lurched out of your favor.” Sol lofted her voice to reach all the bandits.

Tarnish couldn’t see where Sol was aiming and if she had a good shot, but for now there was no blast. “The rest of us can still walk away from this,” she said. She kept her eyes tight to the leader, poised to differentiate between blow and feint with the shotgun’s butt in time to react appropriately. “Are letters worth two people dead? Three?”

The leader smiled at her, sharp and small. “Get them!” she called. Another blast, but farther back, maybe from the bikes. Tarnish didn’t feel it on her skin, and that was all she had time for, because the leader had closed with her.

This blow, she caught the butt. Pain splashed down her arm from her palm, like fire down a trail of oil. She let that clamp her fingers even tighter, and she hung on. Second hand on the wood and the leader grunted, wrestling against her angle and strength. A moment and she’d find her own angle, or remember to kick, but Tarnish didn’t give her that time. She knew how to win this kind of fight, whether it was a bandit with a shotgun or one of the neighborhood children trying to steal her bag.

Stop pulling, and swing. Swing the object, swing the person hanging on, right up until they remembered to let go, or else overcame your strength to reverse the trick. Tarnish didn’t know how their strengths were matched, but she still had the advantage, perhaps won in the transition from talking to violence.

One direction, Tarnish got only a stumble out of the bandit, a foot leaving the ground. Back the other way, and the bandit thought to let go but at the wrong part of the arc, and she almost went down, stumble, again, and waver. Easy now for Tarnish to shift up her grip and bring the butt to bear for herself. Slam, to the chin, and the bandit was down.

No time to catch her breath though. Sol had a standoff with those on the modded bikes, and someone else was crashing away through the brush, taking the smarter path, with the leader now down. Was that everyone? Tarnish stepped to the leader, but her body lay too bonelessly. Stunned, she’d lie still, yes, but some quality to this stillness warned Tarnish even before she caught the dark wetness soaking into the grass around the leader’s head.

At the source of that wetness she found a rock, one corner visible between head and ground. A rock slicked garish red against its whitish background, when Tarnish knelt, transferred the gun to her off-hand, and rolled the woman up with a grip on her shoulder. The rock was not even so sharp, just curved up with ridges between three or four planes. Not sharp, but hard.

“She’s dead!” That might turn the fight for the rest, so the last of Tarnish’s instincts trailed off into the words. Then all sense washed away under a flash-flood rush of seeing the blood. Smelling it. Somewhere, Sol might still need her help, but here, here was the blood.

She touched the rock, brought up her fingertips with thin dots over the pads. In no way enough. She thrust her hand beneath the wound, to catch what dripped around the new concavity there.

Not enough. Like trying to chase starvation by drinking from a stream shocking with the cold carried from the peaks of the mountains. Hunger lessened by distraction, not satiation.

Tarnish let the bandit fall with a thud and lifted her smeared hand. Closer to her face, the smell grew even more distracting. Blood tasted metallic, would that taste satisfy—

A grip under her opposite arm jerked her up. “Tarnation, by the Holy Words, listen to me!”

The gun was still in Tarnish’s hand as she came up, easy enough to swing when standing. To slam into what startled her, defend herself. She swung, to no slam. Sol had jerked aside. Sol. Sol had spoken to her—been speaking to her before, with no answer?—and now she was back on her heels from one avoidance, no time for another if Tarnish was fast enough.

But why would Tarnish want to attack Sol, her friend?

Tarnish straightened her arm, let her fingers relax in their grip, freed the gun to make its own thud in the scrubby grass. The blood on her other hand was drying fast. Didn’t smell quite so strong.

“The last bandits fled, so you can go wash your wordless hands,” Sol said, voice devoid of intonation. A cautious, rocked step into range, then she pushed Tarnish. In the direction of the river, Tarnish realized, beyond the trees. Yes. Water. Wash.

Tarnish almost stumbled right in, shaking as she was by the time she arrived, though this tributary was safer for such an eventuality than the Freighter River itself. The water was nearly as cold as in her thoughts about hunger. When her hands’ ache had changed from deep to too sharp to bear, she finally cupped them together and brought up a mouthful. Her cuffs, having wicked up all they could hold, weighed at her wrists and dripped with steady plinks, nearly lost in the general rush of noise.

Sol was all right. Tarnish hadn’t hurt her. Tarnish wrung her cuffs as best she could, tightening each into a twist, though perhaps she should have removed her whole coat to do it properly. Shouldn’t she have wanted to hurt Sol, for her blood?

Steps to the side, approaching. Tarnish heard them this time, turning without Sol needing to touch or to speak. Sol seemed to see it in her, too, and laughed. Nervous laugh. Tarnish would never have thought to hear such from Sol. “I knew you had it in you to control it.”

This time, Tarnish did not check Sol’s expression, lest she find fear in it. “No.” She stood, looked at her hands. No congealed brown even beneath the nails. She felt the truth in her mind, but she built up her words one after another to share it, like a prayer to cement that truth. “Everyone’s opinion, everyone’s advice that I listened overmuch to—” Her time to laugh, careful. “It’s meant for anyone. No one in particular. Everyone. But no fever takes everyone the same. No grief, no love. I suppose in this I’m less the same as anyone than I thought.”

Tarnish had thought those were the right words, but she couldn’t find understanding in Sol’s face. She realized she was looking at that face, despite her intentions, only after she had done it and found only a frown. That was a rightness to cling to. Sol never showed fear.

“We should gather up their things.” Tarnish nodded in the direction of the bandit leader. Even shitty bandits would have items of use to save before burning. “I should do her, in case a body can hold and transfer this kind of infection.” Thinking of such, she remembered with a shock Sol had touched her—but only through fabric. Tarnish brushed fingertips where she remembered that touch under her arm, reassuring herself with the lines of rough weave.

Sol shook her head. “So the red dreams took you differently than the people in the broadsheets.” Her voice lifted, almost, almost a question.

Tarnish spread her hands wide, looking at the palms this time. Still clean. “The blood, it’s a... distraction. It pulls at my mind, but it’s not about violence, it’s about obsession. I think I’d rather stare at it than free it. I didn’t need to fight the red dreams, I needed to know them. Know myself and how they took me.”

Sol brought her chin down, once. Sorted. Tarnish almost smiled with the relief of it. “I ‘spose I’m big enough to allow if I tell you not to take advice, you should discount mine too. What now?”

Tarnish had thought that was evident—she’d even voiced it, and Sol usually did not need such a step. She started back for the dead bandits.

Sol fell in beside her. “I meant, what happens when we reach Caribou, Tarnation?” The name was a such a weight, it tangled up Tarnish’s first words and made her reconsider a second set, a third. She wondered that Sol trusted her to plan, not simply react instinctively, under the weight of the red dreams. But so Sol clearly did, and that trust wrapped Tarnish up warm.

“I don’t think I should go back to delivering the mail after this run.” Tarnish looked ahead unseeingly into the trees between them and the road, and then as an exercise decided to see. That one a sapling, that one odd in its root-climbing shape over a fallen log that was no more. “I have to track down any others. If I can find them in time—I can’t let them just assume the violence. Maybe they can find their own way around it.” She caught one side of her lip in her teeth. “I have some money in the bank in Vanquish...” Not much, for a long search. Who knew how far the red dreams had spread? Perhaps other victims might live longer in far places, coming into their confusion away from people and their assumptions.

At the bandit leader, Sol bent for the gun the woman would need no longer, nor would Tarnish want. “We’ll hire you out along the way, to clean people’s bikes and such, maybe. A little ‘patented oil’ and the rust shines clean off.”

Tarnish crouched over the dead woman’s feet, used the motions of freeing her boots to consider whether she should speak to what Sol might want to avoid. “We?”

No answer. And truly, what gain to Sol, for following someone still perhaps a little dangerous in weak moments, in search of those who were definitely dangerous? After Sol, the realization was growing steadily in Tarnish, had already done so much to keep her alive.

Tarnish tied the bootlaces together, looped them over her palm, and closed her fingers over to hold the not-quite-true balance of the boots on either side in alignment. A step, and she held them out to Sol. She had nothing real to offer, but perhaps these could be the stand-in for her impulse. For now.

Sol straightened and pointed, the gun’s butt an extension of her hand, making a line to Tarnish’s feet. “You’ll need those. I’ve seen the way your right sole is lifting off at the heel.”

“But I want to repay—”

“Friendship’s not about accounting.” Sol must have seen some sort of shock in Tarnish, at such a word used with such ease. Her expression eased, the lightening as good as a smile. “If you can stand one more piece of advice... Someone ever thinks to tell you something of yourself, turn the words back on them, see how they fit. Can’t have much of a family—anymore—digging in, here in the north, and forever running the mail all the way up the Canyon.”

Since they were not accounting, Tarnish accepted that tact admission—that gift—without a reply. Instead, she knelt to exchange her boots there, on the scrubby grass.

Sol nodded once when Tarnish had finished, strode for their cart. “Now. We have to hurry if we’re going to burn them and still make Caribou before dark.”

Tarnish surprised herself with the lift of her smile as she followed. The smile, she’d assumed she wouldn’t feel again, and the belonging, she’d not quite thought to feel at all. She’d take it, without accounting, and consider lucky to be one of her personal words.

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R. Z. Held writes speculative fiction, including the Amsterdam Institute series of space opera novellas. Her Silver series of urban fantasy novels was published under the name Rhiannon Held. She lives near Seattle, where she works as an archaeologist for an environmental compliance firm. At work, she uses her degree mostly for copy-editing technical reports; in writing, she uses it for world-building; in public, she'll probably use it to check the mold seams on the wine bottle at dinner.