<< Read Part One
The only thing in front of me is a huge field of red and it takes five groggy seconds to realize I’m looking at the insides of my eyelids. It hurts like hell to scrape away the caked dust, and when I finally manage to pry my eyes open, the lids part like I’m tearing open a wound. I can’t hold back, but my throat’s so parched my cry sounds like a death rattle.
Blinking, I try to figure out what I’m seeing beyond my bloodied fingertips, but it doesn’t make a lick of sense. My vision’s murky—like I’m peering through a jar of cloudy piss—but it looks like there’s a whole lot of distance between me and the ground… which doesn’t seem likely since I can feel the dirt under my cheek.
I squint and freeze when I finally recognize what I’m staring at: the cliff wall opposite. I’m lying on the very edge of a yawning chasm, my face an inch from the void. Lifting my head slowly, I can barely make out the blurry, jagged rocks below.
I’d been plodding along for hours, trying to out-walk the dust storm, blind in the stinging yellow cloud, and I must have collapsed. I’m damn lucky I didn’t go over the cliff.
Or am I? It could have meant an end to my purgatory.
Groaning, I turn with some difficulty onto my back. I can never decide whether I’m still alive because I’m too much of a coward to end it, or because I don’t think I deserve such an easy escape.
I’ve got my eyes closed again. I can’t help it. I’m fucking exhausted and my eyeballs feel sticky. Blinking is becoming impossible. Maybe it’s the end after all.
I’m rocking slowly. Voices… overlapping.
“Careful with his head—”
“Take it slow, Jessup. Watch your step—”
“Doesn’t he look like—”
“No, it can’t be—”
“I think it is, I think it’s the—”
I struggle to sit up, but I can’t open my eyes. They’re glued shut again. A cool hand touches my arm.
“It’s all right, friend. Peace.” The voice is male. Young. Another hand presses my shoulder. I hear a whimper and recognize it as my own. My skin feels like it’s been tenderized. I’m too tired to do anything except lay back down again and let them carry me away.
The sun wakes me up and for a few moments I have no idea where I am. Then, I remember the voices and I frown. Peace. I’m not sure I know what that means anymore.
I’m in some sort of small round tent. The walls are brown canvas and the ground is bare beneath an orange and yellow braided rug, the same kind they sell to tourists on every shitty planet I’ve been to.
I’m lying on a pallet no thicker than a folded blanket, but it’s the softest thing I’ve slept on in weeks. My eyes still sting, the lids raw and gummy, and my mouth is as dry as a desert, but it looks like I’m going to live.
The tent flap opens, and I’m blinded by the light—the figure beyond is nothing but a dark blob until it enters and the canvas falls close behind it. When my vision clears, and I see who my visitor is, I sigh and rub my sore, sandblasted face, squeezing my eyes shut despite the pain. Just my luck… seems I’ve been rescued by a damned cult—the man’s a Disciple of Rime. But, truthfully, as far as cults go, Rimers are probably the best I could have hoped for. For one, I know they didn’t drag my sorry corpse out of the wastelands just so they could eat me—cannibals, they are not.
“How are you feeling?” he asks, his voice gentle.
I crack my lids open again and peer at him. “Water,” I rasp.
“Of course,” he says and calls over his shoulder to someone standing outside. He looks no more than sixteen, but it’s impossible to tell how old Rimers are. The drugs they take to give them visions make them appear younger. They tend to be on the short side and their skin looks youthful, cheeks rosy and faces unlined. Though I figure the cultist seated in the tent is probably not as young as he looks, he can’t be very old either. Rimers don’t live past thirty—the drugs that show them God and keep them young also kill them over time.
The Rimer takes the small copper cup he’s given and slides his hand under my head to help me drink. I immediately start to cough—ironically, the water is too wet for my mouth and throat. It takes me three tries to swallow one mouthful and then I’m only given the little that’s left in the cup.
“More,” I demand, but the man shakes his head and settles me back on the pallet.
“You’ll get more later. I promise,” he says with a serene smile. “It’s best not to rush it. You were out there a long time.”
Eyes closed, I sigh my frustration. I know he’s right—I’ll be sick if I drink too much.
“You’re him, aren’t you?” he asks after a moment. “You’re—
I stop him with a growl. “I’m no one.”
“I am no one.”
I imagine by his silence that I’ve either shocked or cowed him, but then he lets out a soft chuckle. “All right, friend. As you say. But, you can call me Pytre.”
“Well, Pytre, either come here and suck my dick or leave me the hell alone.”
I’m being crude on purpose—Rimers take their celibacy vows seriously—but it’s not because I have a problem with their religiosity. I don’t care enough to give a shit one way or another. I just said it because I figure it’s a sure-fire way to get him out of the tent. I’m in pain and pain makes me cranky. I’ve also been feeling sorry for myself for so long that good intentions sometimes feel like a personal attack.
I open my eyes, wondering if Pytre has somehow fled without my hearing him, and see he’s just standing there, watching me, his brow wrinkled.
With his head shaved to the skin, his big ear stick out like cup handles, but he has a nice-enough face—regular, inoffensive features with a pair of large, long-lashed hazel eyes that are just pretty enough to bump him past plain. The kind of earnest face I can never say no to, regardless of whether I have to pay for it or not. When he still hasn’t moved, I squeeze my cock through my pants and sneer.
“It’s not going to suck itself.”
I’m talking out of my ass, of course. Even if he was game and I could manage to get it up in my enfeebled state, I should probably hang onto the precious little liquid I have left in my body.
Indifferent to my taunts, Pytre just ducks his chin and says “I’ll be back in a little while with more water. Try to rest,” in a kind voice before leaving me alone.
Unflappable son of a bitch. I turn over carefully on my side to get more comfortable and notice something: I’m curious about Pytre.
I can’t remember the last time I was actually curious about anything.
The next two days I spend sleeping and drinking as much liquid as my body will allow. Pytre visits me twice as often as the others—the way they defer to him makes me believe he’s either in charge or close to it. One thing’s for certain, he’s definitely not the fresh-faced sixteen-year-old his appearance would have you believe.
By day three, I’m allowed a meal I can chew and fuck if it isn’t glorious. It’s only some stew with chunks of protein in it, but I’m in pure heaven. When I’m nearly done, Pytre pokes his head into the tent to see how I’m getting along.
“Hey, tell you what… I’ll suck your cock, if you give me another bowl of this,” I say, my spirits buoyed by the meal.
Surprising me again, Pytre just chuckles and enters, settling himself down cross-legged on the rug to watch me finish my stew.
I’ve had to reassess my impression of him. He’s better looking than I gave him credit for… but maybe I’m so swayed by his generosity that my dick’s giving me rose-tinted glasses.
“Padre, you’ve got a great set of lips on you,” I say, then burp against the back of my hand. “Has anyone ever told you that?”
Pytre lets out a laugh. “Not that I recall.”
“Yeah… they’d look great wrapped around my cock.” Shit, I don’t know why I’m talking this way. It’s like it’s become my mission to get a rise out of him.
“Since you’re feeling so ah… lively, you should come outside and take in a little fresh air,” Pytre says with his usual serene smile, but when he turns to push the tent flap open, I notice he’s flushed. Or at least I think so.
Carefully, I get to my feet, feeling a bit wobbly, and ignore the hand he holds out to assist me as I duck through the low opening. Instantly, my eyes begin to water. The sun is stronger and clearer than I’ve ever seen it, though maybe it’s just because I’ve been holed up in a tent for days. Wiping my streaming eyes, I look around in amazement at all the green I’m surrounded by.
“How…” I manage, shaking my head. “But, where are you getting the water?” I’m absolutely stunned. This is supposed to be a barren moon, but the field of vegetation must be three, maybe four acres across. I turn and raise a hand to shade my face. It’s green as far as the eye can see in the other direction.
“We sacrifice a virgin to Rime on the first of every month and he grants us rain.”
Startled, I look over at the cultist but he’s just staring out over the field looking completely at peace with himself. After a moment, Pytre glances over at me, and his youthful face cracks into a mischievous smile.
“We have a trade deal with the Argonaus Station for wastewater,” he says.
“You made a joke.”
“I’m known to do that on occasion.” His expression turns serious. “Come, you should lie down. I don’t want you to tire yourself out.”
Instead of a quip about how I’d like to tire myself out, I accept his arm for support.
Maybe it’s the millions of green leaves waving in the wind around us or maybe Pytre’s unrelenting friendliness is getting to me, I don’t know… but something’s changed.
[to be continued…]