Wild Country Page 1


Windsday, Sumor 25

Jana Paniccia followed the gravel paths through the memorial park. There were no cemeteries on the continent of Thaisia, no individual gravestones, no family mausoleums unless you were very rich. Cities couldn’t afford to waste land on the dead when the living needed every acre that they were grudgingly permitted to lease from the terra indigene who ruled the continent.

Who ruled the world. They had smashed and torn that harsh truth into humans around the world, and only fools or the blindly optimistic thought there was any chance of things going back to the way they had been before the Humans First and Last movement had started the war against the terra indigene here in Thaisia and in Cel-Romano on the other side of the Atlantik Ocean.

Instead of gaining anything from the war, humans had lost ground—literally. Cities had been destroyed or were no longer under human control. People were running to anyplace they thought could provide safety, thinking that the larger cities were less vulnerable to what the Others could do.

In that, too, humans were wrong. The destruction of so much of Toland, a large human-controlled city on the East Coast, should have taught people that much.

But this wasn’t a day to think about those things.

Jana found the large flower bed with the tall granite marker in the center.

There were no graveyards, no gravestones, in Thaisia, but there were memorial parks full of flower beds and small ponds, with benches positioned so the living could visit with the dead. She looked down the double column of names carved into the granite until she found the two she’d come to see. Martha Chase. Wilbur Chase. The foster parents who had taken her from the foundling home and raised her as their own. There hadn’t been even a birth certificate left with her when the Universal Temple priests had found her on the temple doorstep. Just a printed note with her name and birth date.

All bodies were cremated and the ashes mixed with the soil in these flower beds, the names carved on the granite the only acknowledgment of who was there. Martha had loved growing flowers, and Pops had always tended a small vegetable garden in their backyard. She was the one who had no skill with the soil, no matter how hard she tried. She knew a rose from a daisy, understood the difference between annual and perennial, and, most of the time, had dug up weeds instead of flowers when she tried to help Martha tidy the beds.

You have other talents, Pops used to say with a laugh.

Other talents. Gods, she hoped so.

They had died in a car accident just a week after she’d been accepted into the police academy—one of only three women to be accepted. She’d spent the first few months struggling with her classwork and the hostility of her classmates while traveling from Hubb NE to a village near the Addirondak Mountains to meet with the Chases’ attorney and take care of her foster parents’ estate. There wasn’t much. Martha and Pops had never been interested in things, but the sale of the house and furnishings was enough to pay off the school loans she’d taken out to attend a community college while she tried to get accepted into the police academy. It was enough to pay for the academy and living expenses. She’d been frugal, but if she didn’t get a job soon …

“Hey, Martha,” Jana said softly after looking around to make sure she was alone. “Hey, Pops.” She sat on the bench, her hands folded in her lap. “I graduated from the academy. The only woman who stuck it out. Martha, you always said I was stubborn, and I guess you were right. I have a meeting with the academy administrator next week. Hopefully it will be about a job offer. The gods know, every human community needs cops right now, and everyone else in my class has already been hired by towns in the Northeast Region, which lost officers last month because of the war. But I know there are positions that haven’t been filled yet because no one wants to take a job in a village stuck in the middle of the wild country. They say that’s just delayed suicide. Maybe they’re right, but I’d take that chance.”

She looked at the flowers growing in the bed and wished she could remember the names of some of them. “I came to say good-bye. It’s getting harder and harder to purchase a bus ticket, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to get back here again. And if I’m hired—when I’m hired—I may be leaving in a hurry.” She paused. “Thanks for everything. When I get to wherever I’m going, I’ll light a candle in remembrance.”

Jana hurried through the park, gauging that she had just enough time to reach the bus stop near the park gates and catch the bus back to Hubb NE. She hoped that by this time next week she’d be heading to another town to do the only job she’d ever wanted to do.


Windsday, Sumor 25

“I quit.”

Tolya Sanguinati studied Jesse Walker as they faced each other over the counter in Bennett’s general store. The look in her eyes made him think of the lightning that sometimes filled the sky in this part of Thaisia. Despite being a dangerous predator—far more dangerous than the humans here appreciated—that look made him wary. “You can’t quit.”

“Oh, yes, I can.”

He took a step back and considered. It was tempting to point out that, since she didn’t actually work for him, she couldn’t, technically, quit. But Jesse Walker was the unofficial leader of Prairie Gold, a small Intuit town located at the southern end of the Elder Hills. As such, she was his most important human ally. He couldn’t afford to lose her knowledge or cooperation, so it probably wasn’t a good idea to point out anything.

Erebus Sanguinati, the leader of all the Sanguinati on the continent of Thaisia, had told him to take over Bennett after all the humans had been slaughtered by Namid’s teeth and claws. The town had a train station that serviced all the ranches in the area, as well as Prairie Gold. That made it an important place that the Elders would no longer allow humans to control because, under human control, the trains that traveled back and forth across the land had brought enemies to this part of Thaisia. Had brought death to the Wolfgard and other shifters.

Every place inhabited by humans was in turmoil right now because no one knew how many of those places had survived. With quick communication between regions severed by the Elders’ destroying the telephone lines and tearing down the mobile phone towers all along the regional boundaries, e-mail and phones of any kind were useful only within a region. But even within a region, no one really knew whether a phone went unanswered because someone wasn’t in the office at that moment or because there was no one left in that town to answer it.

But the rest of the Midwest Region wasn’t his problem. Right now, his problem was the slim, middle-aged, gray-haired woman who had been helping him prioritize the tasks necessary to keep the train station open and to deal with urgent things like spoiling food and pets that had been left in residences.

Until he traveled to Prairie Gold to be Grandfather Erebus’s eyes and ears, Tolya had lived his whole life in Toland, one of the largest cities on the entire continent. He’d had the most extensive human-centric education available to the terra indigene and had been among the Sanguinati who monitored the television newscasts and the newspapers as a way of keeping an eye on what the duplicitous humans might be planning. And he’d been among the Sanguinati who had actual contact and dealings with government officials and businessmen. But those meetings had been formal, official, devoid of personal contact and feelings beyond the loathing each side felt for the other.

Nothing in his education or years of experience had prepared him to deal with messy, daily interaction with humans who had no interest in being formal, official, or devoid of personal contact. Even his previous interactions with this woman while he helped her and the other residents of Prairie Gold prepare to hold out against humans trying to cut them off from supplies hadn’t prepared him to deal with her now.

“Why?” he finally asked.

“Because you’re not listening,” Jesse Walker snapped.

“I listen to everything you say,” Tolya countered.

Her right hand clamped around her left wrist.

Jesse Walker was an Intuit, a kind of human who had a heightened sensitivity to the world, and her people had feelings about everything from animals to weather to sensing if someone was lying. Each Intuit didn’t have feelings about everything—their minds would break under that kind of strain—but each developed a sensitivity that matched who they were or the work they did. For Jesse Walker, it was people, and an aching left wrist was her tell that something about a situation made her uneasy—and the more severe the ache, the more dire the situation.

“I have listened,” Tolya said again. “But perhaps I’m not understanding?”

He watched her anger fade. Her right hand still cuffed her left wrist, but the hold was looser now. He wondered if her wrist would be bruised.

“What are we doing here?” Jesse Walker asked. “Are we just cleaning up what will become a ghost town with a few people manning the train station or are we doing something more?”

An important question. Looking at her, Tolya realized his answer would do more than decide the fate of this town. It would ripple throughout Thaisia in the same way that Simon Wolfgard’s decision to hire Meg Corbyn had started ripples that were part of the reason he was here in this town trying to figure out this woman.

If Simon were standing here right now, Tolya would cheerfully snap the Wolf’s neck. Then again, if he tried to be fair, Simon hadn’t known that taking in one stray human female would end up with the terra indigene trying to help—and even protect—packs of humans.

“Not a ghost town,” he said carefully. “Bennett is no longer a human-controlled town, but that doesn’t mean it has to decay.”

“Or that its workers are transient?”

“They aren’t meant to be transient. Some of the young humans who have come here don’t feel this is the right place. They came for adventure … or something.”

“They came for opportunities,” Jesse Walker countered. “They came because their home communities in the Northeast Region are crowded and it’s hard to find work, hard to learn a skill. And many of them left home for the adventure. But they also left what they knew because, suddenly, there are a lot of empty human places in the Midwest and Northwest. I have the feeling that there won’t be any new human places. Not for a long time. Not in Thaisia. Humans made too many mistakes over the past few months for the terra indigene to tolerate us anyplace we aren’t already established. So if the empty places aren’t reinhabited now, they’ll fade away.”

“I don’t think the Elders will allow humans to move back into those empty places,” Tolya said.

“Not alone, no. But there are terra indigene and Intuits working together here to take care of animals and make decisions about the food in the houses. And there’s a lot more that needs to be done. Decisions have to be made about every single thing in every single residence.”

Next page