The gnarled tangles of swamp brush refused to bend or break, forcing Cliff Asna to make his way forward in a zigzagging fashion like an old drunkard. It was cold and it was dark, but it was no use at all being caught in the open during daylight hours—Betelgeuse would fry your suit and broil you inside it—so cold and dark was how it had to be. Cliff didn’t much mind it. He’d been ranging ever since the end of the war put him into early retirement. Society had no use for a man like him, so they let him keep his pulse rifle, gave him a badge, and politely asked him to keep to his own. He didn’t need the niceties; ranger life suited him just fine.
Word had come to Promontory City that someone was setting up shop in the shatterlands out beyond Koyto Crater—some kind of smuggling waystation—and eventually somebody’s boss’ boss had had enough of hearing about it and Cliff was sent to check it out. So he was checking it out.
Smuggling was a tough business—low margins for the time it took, not to mention the strict penalties against it. Cliff had tried it for a spell himself. It’s what made him a good ranger.
The swamp brush was sharp as glass and tough as wrought iron, and it made the going slow. The ankle-deep bog sucked at his boots and seemed like it wanted to freeze but just couldn’t commit to it. Then something pulled at his boot, weakly and persistently; something that wasn’t bog. He flipped on his headlamp expecting to find his eyes were telling stories, but they were true. Lying in the muck was a teenage girl, scraped and frozen something fierce with nothing substantial to protect her from the elements.
She thrashed in the light. “They’ll see! Turn it off!”
He flipped the lamp back off and tried to appraise the situation. He didn’t like it one iota. “Can you walk?”
She shook her head. Probably ruined her feet something awful just getting this far.
“Alright, I’ll carry you.” He scooped her up in his armored arms. Her wrists had been bound, but it looked like she’d cut the restraints on the swamp brush. The ends still hung loose. And in her hands she carried a metal sphere the size of a cantaloupe. She held it close, like it might run off if she let it.
“We’ve got a long way to go, and you’ve got a tale to tell,” said Cliff. “Let’s get to it.”
Notes: I used an image as a writing prompt for this piece. You may be able to find the image on the artist’s ArtStation page. Image by Alisa Romanova, used with permission.