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Dispatch work IV : Squidged

All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may only be used where there is no salvageable life. Heavy atomic weights are available: Arsenic, Caesium, Francium, Lead, Mercury, Plutonium, Radon, and Uranium.

Radon and Arsenic have been assigned.

 

Jay stepped out of nothingness, nearly losing his balance as leaf mulch slipped under his foot. Grabbing the nearest thing - a branch - to save himself with his free hand, he yelped as his passenger grabbed onto his torc to avoid a fall, pulling it tight. Choking he turned his head to get the pressure off his throat, tried to release her hands as they tightened, cutting off air. Setting his back against the tree trunk, he managed to get his arm under her for better support, prying the girl's fingers off his collar one by one.

            "It's OK. It's OK." he said hoarsely, when he could breathe again, knowing she couldn't understand him. It was the tone that mattered. "You OK, LaVonna?" The child smiled and settled, bushy head nestling against his shoulder. God knows what the translator was telling her, since she didn't speak any language of her own, but she seemed to like being spoken to. Even if it was essential, Jay really wasn't convinced LaVonna being sent on any mission was a good idea. She was too young to understand what she had to do, and he wasn't sure he had a good idea either.

            Even so, it was more of a briefing than they usually got: Salman's ability would make things unimaginably worse, and his own curse - he still couldn’t think of it as anything else - was useless as the problem was silicate, not organic. But the problem was still a life form, and so she could affect it. They'd know it when you see it, he had been told, which was a really useless briefing. Threatening to refuse got indifferent acceptance and 'then everything on that reality dies'. Gee, thanks for the guilt trip.

            Since they wouldn't tell him more, he gave up trying. Stuffing his pockets with chocolate bars and a rubber bouncy ball, he had picked up LaVonna because it was easier than trying to explain what they needed to do. Now they were here, in a forest, at night, and he still wasn't sure what his first ever mission actually was. If he took his torc off the forest and everything in it would die in seconds so that couldn't be the problem.

            "This is a forest," he said out loud to LaVonna, "and those are fields." She was beginning to look round, still clinging to him as if she was scared of the dark, and he shifted her weight to his hip as he straightened up. The girl was too heavy for him to carry easily, but if he put her down she was strong enough to pull her hand free and run off if she saw something interesting. With a town nearby that could be catastrophic, for them or her. As long as he could keep her interest, he could keep her from running off, and he really didn't want to deal with a ten-year-old playing hide and seek at whatever-o'clock this was. The road was just visible from where they were, being round the base of a hill behind them, and he started to walk. A road sign or two might tell him where they were, because he was completely lost.

            A car engine started and he jumped, laughing at his own surprise at the utterly mundane noise. Would have been nice to know there were people here, but he guessed there had to be people, or there wouldn’t be anyone to die if they didn't come. The sound was behind the hill, and he hung back cautiously as it got louder, just in case this was the threat. LaVonna looked towards the sound, fascinated but not afraid. Jay set her down, putting a hand on her shoulder ready to slip her torc if it wasn't a car.

            Rounding the corner, tires kicking up dust on the road, the car came into view, a real classic. Bright blue, a convertible with the top down, and the rounded headlights and gorgeous lines of a fifties Plymouth. What was in the passenger seat wasn't bad looking either, but her clothes looked like something his mother would - an image of empty clothes and ashes lying on the kitchen floor, don't think about it – dated clothes. And tight ones.

            The blond guy in the front seat was steering one-handed, his arm round the shoulders of the girl who was snuggling really close. Jay grinned appreciation, watching the car accelerate towards the town lights, engine roaring. Good going, guy, whoever you are. Car like that took a lot to keep running, but what Jay would have given to take that on his road trip.

            They weren't the threat. No chance. Salman would have fried two teenagers in a car along with everything else, and if he took his collar off - don't think about it.

            A shooting star. He paused, watching, and pointed it out to LaVonna. She looked up unafraid and then her brow furrowed as she pulled back. It was getting bigger, no, it was getting closer. As the blaze seared across his nightvision he threw himself over her with a cry. There was no crashing impact, just the sound of something tearing through trees and branches. Then silence.

            Raising his head, he couldn’t see any signs of the meteor. It must have come down in the forest nearby. Jay grimaced ruefully as he stood up, brushing mud off himself with one hand while he helped LaVonna up with the other. Know it when you see it, huh? He'd seen it and that had to be it. Taking LaVonna's hand as she pointed mutely into the forest, he nodded and slowly began to work their way through the trees.

            The woods at night were dark, the trees just thin enough that it was not pitch black. LaVonna didn’t seem to have problems, but she'd grown up in the jungle. After the second time he tripped on a root and she giggled, he let the feral girl take the lead. Picking her way cat-footed through the trees, he clung to her hand, grateful for the reflective strips on her clothing or he'd have seen nothing of her at all. She hesitated, pointed again, and he came up next to her.

            The crater was smaller than he'd thought, visible in the light from the gap where it had cleared the trees. There was something in the middle of it, a pocked thing like an acorn or pineapple, Jay couldn’t see it clearly, but something felt wrong. Most meteors burned up in to atmosphere and those pockmarks were too regular to be natural. He put his hand to his torc on reflex, then remembered that there could be people around if they'd seen what he just did, and that only LaVonna's power would affect it. She was shifting a little uneasily, staring at the thing and huddling close to his leg as she pointed again, worry written all over her face.

            Smiling to reassure her, he knelt down and unlatched her collar, pulling it away as she grabbed for it. Around them the grass browned immediately. Before she could get upset he pulled the ball out of his pocket and bounced it, setting off the flashing lights inside. Her attention was captured immediately. He bounced it again, letting her go as she squirmed and the tree next to him aged and blew away like dust. Jay shivered, reminded of that morning he woke up when the town had… her curse was closer to his than Salman's.

            As long as the ball was here, she probably wouldn’t run off. If she did he'd be chasing her through an expanding trail of dead forest, to get her before she reached a town. Smiling even if he didn’t feel like it, he threw the ball hand to hand, watching her stare enthralled. Holding it up, with a flick of his wrist he deliberately threw it over her head towards the edge of the crater. She chased it, giggling and oblivious, as the forest died around her.

            It was good to see her laugh. LaVonna was the same age as his girlfriend's little sister - don't think about her, don't think about what happened to her, not now, not here - she should have been playing with her phone and discussing cartoons and clothes, not chasing a toy made for three-year-olds because she'd never seen one before.

            He guessed they all had their own tragedies. Their powers – curses - had ensured that. The ball rolled at his feet as she giggled and waited for him to throw it back. This time he aimed just towards the other side of the crater, still well-short of it. LaVonna chased the ball, grinning widely, bare feet crushing through dead grass. They'd tried putting shoes on her, but she hated them and the callous on her soles was as tough as leather. She tumbled over herself as she caught the flashing ball, sitting up and waving it over her head in triumph. Jay smiled and clapped.    

            On the side of the crater, a small scrap of something gelatinous heaved and shrivelled as it crawled up over the edge.

            LaVonna glared at it, disgust obvious on her face, and scrambled to her feet. Backing towards Jay frowning, she pointed at the ooze. He nodded, gesturing her back here and then ruffling her head as she cringed and giggled. Backing out of reach and clutching her ball, fifty yards away, trees died as she moved. He held up her torc invitingly, and she looked at it and then at the ball, shuffling her feet indecisively. Jay cringed inwardly. This wasn't a good place for her to decide to be difficult just because. He sweetened the deal, holding up a now warm and slightly squashed chocolate bar with the torc.

            The girl was still torn but chocolate won out. She shuffled forward, and eventually, reluctantly, offered the ball in exchange. Jay clipped her torc closed with relief, closing her hands back over the ball and trying not to laugh at her wide grin as she realised she got to keep both.

            He sat her on a rock covered with dust that had been moss, enjoying her chocolate bar, and looked for a branch. It was quite a distance to reach the trees, but he could still see her clearly, across the open space that had been a forest. Her range was terrifying. He'd have had to walk a way beyond the remaining trees to find an intact and fallen branch, and decided that leaving her alone that long wasn't smart. Instead he jogged to the nearest tree and hacked a thin branch down with his penknife, jumping and twisting to pull it free before he ran back.

            LaVonna hadn’t moved and watched with interest, licking the chocolate wrapper clean, as he approached the shrivelled mass by the crater. She wasn't going anywhere near it. Smart kid.

            Cautiously he poked at the cloudy ooze-like thing. It cracked, falling apart under its own weight as if flash-frozen. What was left was little more than sand. Whatever life it had had, it was dead now. He straightened up with a sigh of relief. This had to be the risk they'd been sent for, some invader, a pathogen that could eat-

            The ball hit him on the arm, as he belatedly remembered the other risk of the forest: a bored ten-year-old. "Ow!" he protested, not seriously, stopping to pick it up and throw it back only to see the state of his hands. Brown. He looked at his sleeve. Chocolate smears. Jay sighed and went to throw the sticky and now dirt-covered ball back only to see she wasn't interested. She wasn't looking at him any more, but up into the branches. He walked back fast, before she could decide to run off, and followed her gaze. From the branches a squirrel watched them, bright-eyed and suspicious. LaVonna'd never seen one before, or been to a park or.... Jay took her hand. Chocolate squidged. From the car he guessed it was the fifties, so he'd have to be cautious, but nothing said they couldn't take some time off before they went home. And find somewhere to clean the chocolate smears off.