The Changed by Dee Caples

When Pericles rescues a human female from nomads he risks the wrath of his fellow genetic mutants who have done their best to avoid mankind. Worse yet, Danna has tripped the trigger of Dancy, the sociopath mayor of Dirty Town, by stealing from him. In this steampunk tale of revenge, there will be a duel in the desert and only one faction will come out the winner. 

Silence And Death

In the wasteland there was nothing much to smell except dust and rusted husks of machines that had leaked their fluids into the ground years ago. Concrete and roadbeds were buried beneath the shifting, blowing clouds of dirt, lending their scent to memory. Even the once mighty river below had dried up to a wide bed of cracked desert-like ground where only stunted scrub grew, hearty and determined. Wild animals fed off their seed pods and most of these slept in the day, venturing out under cover of night to kill or be killed.

Pericles sat in the lotus position with an empty mind and receptive ears. He listened to the sound of his breath, felt the rise of his chest and ribs and paid attention only to the restless wind. Its sighing emptied his thoughts of useless things like an empty belly and survival. Food could always be found if one knew where to look. He would either live or he would die.

It was hot, of course. The rainy season was still months away. He and the others had found good water in old wells and they’d carried things from the desolate towns after their meager population had either perished or moved on. Foraging, The Changed had wandered with a will, avoiding mankind. They still did. It wasn’t safe to mix with them. Remembrance was long in both tribes.

Nothing. He heard nothing but the wind. The ears of Pericles stuck out from his simian-like skull and allowed him to hear quite a long distance. His sense of smell was not as sharp of that of the doggish ones nor his eyes as effective as the Cat People. What set him apart were the mighty arms, a little longer than a human’s, and muscled back that could have wrestled an elk to the ground, had he ever chanced to encounter such an animal. His legs were not stunted like an ape’s, although he squatted like one on occasion. They were long and well-shaped like a man’s. He wasn’t as hairy as an ape, either, but was covered in a fine, sparse pelt. It kept him warm when the blazing sun went down and the desert night grew cold.

He opened his eyes and viewed the country around him. There was beauty anywhere if one took the time to appreciate it. When the horizon yawned during the evening, as it was now, the sky turned purple and rose and a yellow color like no other in nature. It changed the shade of the cactus and the dusky gray-green of sage and mesquite to a less vivid color.

Smacking his lips as he came out of his meditative trance, his mind registered thirst. Tugging on the carefully oiled and maintained piece of leather strap, he pulled the enormous container off his back and up to his mouth. At one time it had watered one of the rusty cars and he’d patiently used sand and pebbles to remove the reddish sediment that had dried onto the metal inside. Now it was a fine canteen, if a little heavy. The weight was insignificant compared to the amount of life-giving water it could hold.

Behind him was the oasis The Changed had created. Once they found the natural spring of water they’d searched and carefully cultivated green, growing things. Under cover of darkness they hunted lizards and snakes and snared birds. They knew which insects were good eating. Stunted cacti provided flowers. They never ate more than they should, giving them a thin, whipcord strength three times that of homo sapiens. When the rare intruder came near they simply slipped up to their camp and made frightening noises and cast misshapen shadows that drove them away. Never did they allow men and women to see them, only enough of a glimpse to send them running. People still feared animals, what they didn’t understand, and there was much people couldn’t understand about The Changed.

If someone had asked Pericles if he was happy he would have said yes. If contentment could be called happiness. Among The Changed there were no other ape-men. The only other one to have escaped captivity had been old Issy and she’d been too aged to breed with. Sweet Selda had been young and lively but she’d been killed by a rifle when they’d run. Linka had fallen ill and died. He loved and cherished the others because they all had strangeness and a brutalized history in common. The dog-men had increased their tribe, as had The Cat People, but Pericles was the last of his kind. It made him sad but only vaguely. He couldn’t really miss something he’d been all too fatally aware of for most of his life, except sometimes when he lay alone on the hard ground with only half a blanket to hold in his arms, listening to the grunts and sighs of the others. Sometimes his hand would give him pleasure.

He was still vital but decades old. That’s why he heard it before he ever saw it. A plume of dirt and dust chased by others. Nothing unusual. Pericles saw the like of it all the time out here. What set these apart was the accompanying sound of motors. He hooted and rose to his feet on the butte and watched as one swirling cloud of dust preceded three more from the east. He would have to warn the others if they turned in a southerly direction.

It wasn’t a caravan, he became convinced of this in a few more moments. The lead vehicle, a motorcycle of sorts, began to sputter and fail. Whoops of victory sounded from the revamped car and motorized bikes that were chasing it. In the lead was an old VW bug, if he wasn’t mistaken, that looked as though the frame had been encased by a jungle gym. Behind it came two hopped-up things like motorcycles, but not. One had four wheels and the other three but they had fierce propulsion systems that put off a smell that wrinkled his nose. He recognized the stink of shit and piss beneath the composite odors of spent oil and vegetable fertilizer.

Pericles saw the leading motorcycle was in trouble and swiftly made his way down the butte, slipping and sliding along the path formed from previous trips up here to meditate in private. His misshapen feet, toes spread wider than a human’s and tougher of sole, were bare but they didn’t fail him when encountering sharp pebbles and the odd thorn. Not only had he seen long, pale hair flying in the wind, his nostrils had been filled with fear scent. And female musk.

Never taking his eyes off the pursued and pursuers, he heard the whine of the first engine begin to sputter and balk. It rolled to a stop and the chasers began to laugh and sing out in triumph, having run their quarry to ground. Both riders of the motorcycle jumped free as the driver dumped it in the sand. Pericles’ lips curled in disgust as he saw, and smelled, what was clearly a man desert his female companion and begin running like a coward from the bandits. The female took a moment to gather her wits then began sprinting in another direction with all her might. After a few stumbling steps she paused to draw a weapon he couldn’t identify from this distance. She clutched it in her hand, thought about making a stand, then wisely began to run again. For all the good it would do.

The men running them down abandoned their vehicles and gave pursuit. Two ran toward the man and the other catcalled as he hotfooted toward the woman. Her legs were sturdy, kicking up rooster tails of dirt as she screamed in fear and defiance, knowing she wouldn’t be able to avoid being caught, giving it the best she had all the same. Her clothes were a mixture of leather and cloth, ripped and dirty, just like her companion’s. These two were probably nomads. But were the men trying to catch them? Pericles hadn’t heard of any humans around here before. This was not good.

He knew what The Changed would advise him to do. Turn around and come back to the oasis, they would have said. It was no concern of theirs what the humans did to each other. If no one took an interest in them, who cared as long as they were left in peace? They had water. They had food. No one was the wiser to their presence and secrecy was paramount. It was imperative to protect their young ones. Pericles would normally agree but it had been a long time since he’d seen humans behave so aggressively toward their own kind. It was instinct driving him now. To save those who couldn’t be saved. More than one human had tried to free The Changed back then. They’d partially succeeded and now he felt compelled to honor their sacrifice.

By the time he’d come down from the butte to the flat land the scavengers were already on their fleeing prey. He snarled silently as he watched two attack one, clubs rising and falling to strike the man who ineffectually, unarmed as he was, tried to fight them off. Sickening blows fell, cracking bones and eliciting screams of pain from the victim. Pericles judged the greatest threat was, naturally, from two opponents so he went toward the men attacking the man first. He’d rather have gone to save the woman but his cold calculations told him the man would be preoccupied with lust just long enough for him to take care of his fellows.

Laughing like nothing he’d ever heard, like nothing that should be living, the men beat their victim over and over with their weapons of wood and steel until his cries grew more feeble. Before they stopped Pericles was on them. He snatched the first up and made short work of him, breaking his neck in one smooth move. The second man stopped beating the downed traveler and whirled about, perhaps having seen his shadow on the sandy ground.

At the sight of the half-clad hairy beast-man facing him, the nomad staggered back. He wore a helmet with a tinted faced shield and now pulled it up to make sure he was seeing what he thought he saw through the grimy, scratched plastic covering. Light eyes narrowed then grew wide in shock. The man staggered back. “What? What the...what the...” he stuttered. He shook his head and lifted the iron bar in his hand and waved it half-heartedly. His fear consumed him and he turned to run, screaming, “Fuck! Fuck!”

He didn’t get far. Pericles didn’t spare a glance away. He just cast his sharp hearing in the direction of the woman and her rapist. The man was still occupied and the woman was screaming but alive. Keeping the iron bar the man held in his vision, he advanced, all too aware the shock of seeing someone like him was to his distinct advantage. Muttering incoherent words of defiance that were much more courageous than his retreat, the man raised his weapon to strike. Pericles was within a couple of feet of him and stepped in, seized the iron as it came toward him. In one hand he stopped its flight toward his shoulder, the other hand reached out for the human’s neck even as he was wrenching the tool of protection from his grasp.

He slung it away without looking and snatched the man toward him. Hooking a hand into the waistband of his trousers, he lifted him over his head and slammed him down across a raised knee. A cry of abject terror and alarm was cut short and became the sharp crack of bones breaking. A wet, meaty slap accompanied the savage rending. If not for the skin he’d have had two pieces of human in either hand. As it was, he dropped the man and took scarce note of the blue and red bruising of internal hemorrhaging. It didn’t spread. The human was dead.

No longer interested, Pericles turned and stalked his final enemy. It hadn’t failed to register with him, the cruel blows the last man rained down on his helpless victim. He’d heard the grunts of rage that he associated with someone being injured, but not too badly. Whatever the woman had had in her hand, she must have used it. Now she was motionless on the ground, subdued by the strength of her attacker. Once more a fist raised and came down.

“Stop,” is all Pericles said. It was all that was needed. The man had no head covering of any kind. His hair was long, tangled and greasy. Clearly he was unaccustomed to having anyone give him an order for he looked over his shoulder with a sneer and jumped to his feet in a nimble, graceful move that was surprisingly quick. He must have thought it was one of his companions defying him and was soon disabused of that notion when he laid eyes on the creature speaking.

He smelled rather than saw the blood from defensive wounds on the man’s hands and forearms. Red liquid coated the blade of the knife he’d obviously taken from the woman. This man had more fortitude than his other companions. After a moment of surprise he fell into a fighter’s crouch, sneered and said in a rough voice, “Jesus God! What the hell we got here?”

Not replying or allowing the human any more time to prepare, Pericles charged him. Reaching in and up, he grabbed an elbow as one foot swept his opponent’s feet from under him. Performing a perfect tuck and roll move, he went over the man’s head and snapped his arm at the joint. An anguished scream split the still, hot air but this was a nomadic survivor. He was a little slower in rising but faster than Pericles would’ve credited. Arm dangling, his other hand moved, lightning-quick, and took up the knife, holding it in a thumb on top, fingers beneath grip, ambidexterous. Faster than almost could be seen, he folded the index finger inside to the thumb and flipped the blade down, pinched between thumb and finger. The other fingers moved behind the haft, bringing the knife into a chambered position. He’d been moving toward Pericles with elegant, swift steps the whole time. In an overhand move, he drove the blade down toward his clavicle.

Pericles knocked his hand aside just in time but the human recovered and slid the blade in sideways. At the same time he kicked out with a leg to sweep him off his feet as had been done to him. If not for it striking a rib, the blade would’ve gone much deeper. This was what the old movies he’d watched in the laboratory long ago had called a “street fighter.” Pericles sensed the training of the old ones in the way the man’s body wove like a snake and moved with the grace of the Cat People. His blood and the man’s mingled on the blade and he vowed it would be the last of it.

He squatted just in time to keep from being thrown over and punched the man in the face as he was trying to free the blade from bone and stab him again. It barely seemed to faze the man even though he fell. He hurried back to his feet, blood oozing from his lips and he winced at the pain of landing on his broken arm. The fighter reversed the finger order on the hilt and danced out of the way. “What the hell are you?” the man asked, letting the blood flow from his mouth wound.

They circled each other, one hand holding a knife, arm cradled to side, Pericles with both arms limber and ready, his splayed feet balanced and itching to meet any move. “I’m death,” he answered. Having felt the rock with the ends of his toes, he bent and picked it up and, in one blurring move, threw it at the man’s head. It connected with a satisfying knock and the man dropped almost at the same time as the stone. Pericles bounded forward, snatched the long knife and sent it from under the jaw into the brain. It was a relatively painless and merciful death. Just to be sure, he dealt a final blow to the solar plexus.

Pericles regarded the fine piece of black steel, blood dripping down the length of it onto his hand. It was like no other knife he’d ever seen, with a ring at the end, and longer than other knives he’d seen on television. Not that he was all that expert in weapons of killing but he now remember that this knife used to attach to the end of rifles. A bayonet, they called it. The Changed tried to avoid such. He knew he was fortunate to have cheated this human of his objective. If not for his greater strength and quicker reflexes, he’d have lost the fight. He looked down at the trickle of blood and peripherally acknowledged that he was hurt.

First he went to check on the girl’s traveling companion because he knew the probable outcome. As he’d suspected, the bruised and battered young man was drawing his last few breaths. He looked down at the light brown hair matted with blood, the bone around his eyes already swelling, mouth caved in and teeth shattered, protruding this way and that. He coughed feebly and Pericles took the knife and ended it, wiped the blade clean on the boy’s shirt made of woven plant fibers.

He approached the girl and stood over her, taking in her condition. The man that had attacked her had used his fists to knock her senseless and his greedy hands to rip her shirt to shreds. It seemed to be all the abuse she’d taken for her chest rose and fell evenly. Pericles looked at the round, firm breasts pointing at the sky with their pink tips and turned halfway away. It would be better to leave her here. The Changed abhorred humans above all.

Pericles looked about at the puttering vehicles the nomads had been riding. These would be useful. And, he had to admit, so would the dead bodies. It wasn’t often they had such an abundance of meat at their disposal and some of his companions thought it the ultimate revenge to dine on the flesh of humans. He searched the bodies and found a few interesting things. One item was beyond him but he tucked the flat, black box into a leather bag attached to the side of the three-wheeled vehicle and unstrapped it. He found an animal skin that held a noxious liquid and laid it in the growing pile of spoils now rightfully belonging to him. He was the victor and entitled. He grunted with satisfaction upon finding hemp rope and even a book that had nothing but drawings on a few pages. Then his eyes fell on a rifle protruding from a holder at the side of the four-wheeler. Not knowing much about it, he left it where it was. He found a handgun strapped in a holster on one of the men, took it off him and added it to the goods.

Yes, these things would be welcomed and he tied one of the bodies to the domed top of the buggy. Again, he turned and looked back at the unconscious girl. His feet drug in her direction. It wasn’t her naked torso or her soft, hairless and sunburned skin that tempted him. No. It was the thought of her being as helpless as a child in this cruel wasteland. As helpless as they’d been in the laboratory cages in the face of tranquilizer darts and restraints and chemicals. His brothers and sisters would be angry, even scared, if he brought her back with him.

He never asked for anything. Never demanded. Today he would because he couldn’t just leave her here to die. She’d had the courage to at least try to fight off the man who’d have defiled her if not for Pericles. If he was any judge of such things, she was pretty in her human way under the coating of dirt and dust. Bending down, he lifted her and threw her over his shoulder and set her in the other seat of the buggy. It took a minute to figure out the controls, pedals and wheels but he did. Aiming the thing toward the oasis, he planned in his mind what he was going to say to the others.

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