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Chemicaust: A Short Story in the Mad Element Saga

A flicker of time passed. The stars were smudged with blood, like a camera lens capturing
pictures in the crimson-smeared hands of a weary photographer. Another flicker; the world was ending,
the atmosphere was wrong, the sun shone through too intense, too yellow even through the blood. It
was painful to keep eyes opened, stinging with blood and with sweat, his mouth boiled dry of spit, his
throat parched. He lay flat on his stomach. It was painful to stay awake against a light like that. Another
flicker and it was dark again. The wind whipped at his hair, long by army standards and a darker black by
contrast to his pale skin.
Somewhere nearby a rat scurried about, digging in the dirt, gnawing on bones and devouring
bits of burnt flesh. The sand beneath him was a dark grey, and cold, like powdered granite. The smell of
burning and the heat of the explosion were already gone, had been gone for a while. It felt too soon for
the noise and the light to be left behind. The rat emerged in the dark, red eyes and pointed teeth, a
demon in the cold. The moon was a deep yellow unfamiliar tothesoldier’seyes, but kinder than the
sun. Luke didn’trememberanytimepassingbutitflickeredagain
He couldn’tmovesomethingintheexplosionhaddonehimharmtherewasn’tpainbutthere
wasn’tmovementeitherThevermin froze as it sensed a predator – the trees were gone – the sand had
bled into the wilderness. The two animals – soldier and rat – watched one another until the wind kicked
up andLuke’sconcentrationbrokeHiseyessnappedshuttopreserve sight against the closing storm.
The scurrying of claws moved away, little gusts of sand kicked up behind a flurry of sharply pointed
pawsLuke’smindclearedHe remembered everything sharply for a moment and then the images
flitted from him, wandering away into a desert which once was green. Wandering the night his vision
snapped around the clearing. Everything was sand for miles where earlier a forest had grown. The
explosion had caused it, the change. Luke was adjusting. Itwasn’teasy
The whir of gold and copper servos in his arm was sickening; they whined meaninglessly in
places and failed their adjusting procedure. Vents shifted opened and shut of their own accord like
metal gills striped vertically along the length of his forearm. The metal flaps squeaked from lack of oil
when they opened, and clicked when they closed – it was an annoying repetition and Luke willed it to
stop. It wouldn’tstopnorwouldhisheartItwouldn’tstop until sand drifted over him, the servos
stopped turning and the bare essential systems stopped functioning. The drive would keep him alive
until it ran out of energy, started feeding on fat, and then on blood, and then ran dry. The sky promised
a storm, but the moisture in the air seemed not to touch Luke, his skin was dry and cracked, his back
already seared red. He felt nothing.
He heard the rat again; it had come back, scurrying over the dunes. The blood was dry, the
sweat which had beaded at temples and on a back exposed to the sun was gone. Aperture eyes clicked
shut and flashed opened. The fear was gone from the animal. It perched regally on two feet and stared
down at the fallen boy, whiskers drooping nearly to the sandThestormhaddieddownItwasn’tthe
same rat. This one was larger, more intelligent; its eyes gleamed a horrid human blue, its hair floated in
wisps about its head. Its fur was the dark grey of the sand it stood upon, and where it fell away in
patches the skin beneath stood out starkly. Blue eyes seemed to float in the air above patches of rat-
flesh. Paws poked at his back, his arms and his face. The rat scurried around his body inquisitively. Luke
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