The child stood on the torn ground. Heat rose from it like steam from boiling water, and it tracked across his skin, burning and blistering as it went.
“Get to the transport craft!” a faceless soldier shouted. His body was shaking under his jumpsuit, as if his skin had turned to ice. “Get that kid to the craft now!”
Another fissure opened off to the side of the child. It was like staring down into hell, with little red demons of molten rock jumping high into the sky all around him.
Two men grabbed him, one on either side, and hurled him forward. He looked up and could see their white helmets stark against the red sky.
“Is that all?” the soldier in charge shouted as they threw the kid into the cargo cabin of the transport. “Is that all?!” his voice peaked like a soprano trying to crack glass.
The child picked himself up and turned around to stare at the soldiers by the door. They were just white shapes against the soot-filled air and red boiling clouds.
The soldier in charge, the one the other exhausted soldiers looked up at even though their shoulders were caving in from exhaustion, shook his head. “Too late then. Close the doors and take off.”
The doors slammed closed just as a chunk of burning rock sailed through. One of the soldiers stamped on it with a jerky leg, hanging onto the railings as the transport craft tipped and shot forward.
Some lady he didn’t know put a hand on the kid’s shoulder and pulled him back. She rested her chin just by his face, her tears seeping through his shirt. “Everything is lost… it’s all lost.”
He pulled himself free. “Don’t say that! Zero’s gonna come! Zero’s gonna save our planet!”
One of the soldiers laughed. “Oh, she’s coming alright, kid, but it won’t be to save that planet. That dump of a planet is dead—”
“Stow it,” the soldier in charge kicked sharply at the metal floor by the other soldier’s legs, “kid doesn’t need to know a thing.”
“Zero’s going to save us all!” the kid screwed up his fists. He could feel his knuckles pop and crackle. “Zero’s going to save us!”
They all sobbed behind him, all the other survivors, pallid faces caked under soot and tears.
He wasn’t going to cry.
Zero was coming.
“Sit down, kid.” The soldier in charge wiped one of his gloves over his helmet, smearing the dust in great dirty lines. “We’ll be docking in a second. And if you’re lucky, you’ll see her, kid, you’ll see Zero. Just sit down.”
“Docking in five,” a voice crackled over the intercom. It was so harsh and filled with static that it sounded like the guy was still off-world, shouting through the tons of ash and soot that were engulfing the planet. “Four, three, two, dock.”
The floor lurched forward, and metal screeched on metal like a crying cat.
The transport doors opened.
More white-suited soldiers swarmed through the door, grabbing at the refugees and hauling them onto stretchers.
This time they didn’t have helmets; this time he could see their faces. They all looked sickly and pasty white, like walking corpses.
One of them bent down to him, offering a gloved hand. “You okay, kid?”
The kid slapped at the hand. “Where’s Zero? Why isn’t she here?”
“Whoa, buddy. Calm down, you’ll see her soon enough.” The soldier rose to his feet, his gaze flicking over the other survivors with jerky movements.
He wanted to see her now.
The kid pushed past the guy, sinking his small soot-blackened hands into the thick fabric of the soldier’s suit and pushing hard. The soldier teetered, and the kid shot past into the hallway, dodging around two other men who tried to grab him.
“Get back here, kid!”
He ran through the corridors. They were all white and clean, all metal and new paint.
There was an alarm, it kept whirring and whirring, and this little red light above every doorway flashed an angry red.
“Hey, kid! You shouldn’t be here!”
“Stop that kid from reaching the bridge!”
He dodged past this old guy with a donut-shaped belly and ran on. He’d never felt his heart beating like this – it was as if it would slam out of his chest and bounce around the walls like a rubber ball.
He didn’t care. He had to get to Zero. Zero was going to save his planet.
Then the corridor widened out through these thick doors. He knew it was the bridge right away. There was this massive screen stretched across nearly all the wall, and everyone was staring at it.
There was a red ball in the center of the screen. It looked like the pictures he’d seen of his planet in class… except it was a different color. Red, not blue. Everybody knew that Onus was a blue planet – so why did they have a red one on screen?
“The singularity is growing, sir. Five minutes before the planet’s core is compromised.”
“Can the machine be decoupled? Is there any chance we can reverse the effects?”
“It’s doomed. It was doomed well before we got here.”
Then a soldier in his clean uniform turned from the screen. “Hey, what the hell is a kid doing on the bridge? Get him out of here.”
Strong arms wrapped around his middle, and someone picked him up.
“Let me go!!” The kid screamed at the arms, kicking and scrambling, desperate to get loose.
The guy sitting in the biggest chair in the center of the room turned and looked straight past him. “Call her.”
He stopped struggling.
The bridge smelled of sweat; he could make it out now as he hacked up the black ash that clogged his nose and throat.
The guy that was holding him stopped, about to push him through the bridge doors, but stepped back as if he’d been burnt. He didn’t let go, but he backtracked quickly, as if he was scared the doors would turn red and scream at him.
They swooshed open, and Zero walked through.
He’d seen her before; he had her poster, and Steve even had a figurine. But it was like all the other soldiers in the room had never seen her at all – they were all staring with these wide, unblinking eyes.
She was pretty, right? Wasn’t that why guys stared? Or was it the cool black-and-white armor that hugged her like a jumpsuit? That wasn’t what he liked best, though. He liked the rod she held. It was awesome, with a blue glowing bubble at the end. If he had a rod like that, he’d get the other kids that bullied him. They wouldn’t stand a chance against that rod. Or better still: he’d just take Zero along; she’d sort them out.
It was all okay now; Zero was here. Zero would fix everything.
The kid relaxed further.
“Singularity growing, sir,” some guy said, “we’re running out of time!”
“Zero.” The guy in the big chair stood with his feet planted firmly apart, like a gym teacher doing star jumps. “The planet is lost.”
“I will destroy it,” she said.
The guy that held the kid slackened his arms for a moment.
“No!” The kid forced his body forward, a heat he’d never felt before spiking through his bones. “You can’t destroy it – you’re Zero!”
They all looked at him, then she looked at him.
Zero smiled and disappeared in a twist of blue transporter light.
Seconds later, the planet Onus was crushed like an egg….
Oatmeal woke with a start. He put a hand up to his chest and rubbed through the fabric of his shirt with a gruff movement.
Goddamn dreams. Always the same goddamn dreams.
He pushed himself up and took one hell of a breath, holding the air in until he could feel it push at his lungs, expanding his chest like a hot balloon.
Just one night, just once, he’d like to dream of something else.
Oatmeal pushed himself up and leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees, still sucking in the air and trying to coax his heart into a steady rhythm.
Was it too much to ask to dream of pretty girls or bunny rabbits or goddamn ice cream? Why did it always have to be the same sickening sequence over and over again? Prack, prack, prack – he’d been dreaming of the destruction of his planet for his whole life, and it still had the power to rattle his bones.
Oatmeal rubbed his eyes, pressing too hard and seeing streaks of light before he realized what he was doing.
“Prack!” He bunched up a fist and struck the wall by his bed. He was satisfied at the chunks of plaster and paint that crumbled around his knuckles.
“You’re up then?” Jelly called from the other room. “Hitting walls as usual.”
“Shut up, Jelly!” Oatmeal screamed furiously. “I thought I told you never to talk to me in the morning.”
“Oh, I haven’t forgotten, sir, but you also told me to tell you the moment a target came up. And boy, have we got one.”
Oatmeal frowned at the wall, picturing Jelly’s ball-like face beyond it. The kid better not be playing, he thought to himself. “Serious?”
“Oh yeah,” Jelly called back. “I fixed your motorbike too.”
Oatmeal nodded approvingly at the wall and flicked off the plaster that was still clinging to his fist. “All right.” He rolled to the side and jumped out of bed, his bare feet slapping against the cold floor. “Well, fix me some breakfast, Jelly; I’m going hunting.”
“Already? Aren’t you going to watch your morning TV? MacGyver’s on later.”
Oatmeal pulled on his favorite pair of pants. These babies had been with him through all the tough years. So what if they were a little tight now – they were still pracking lucky. And no bounty hunter leaves his house without a lucky charm. “Tape it. I’m sure this won’t take very long.”
It never did. He’d been on Earth nearly a year now, and in between watching reruns of MacGyver and the A-Team, he’d always managed to wrap up his cases before lunch. Oatmeal may have been a galactic screw-up who found pleasure in putting everyone he met off-side, but that made him the perfect guy for the job. Bounty hunters were supposed to like punching people and getting in laser-gun fights, and Oatmeal loved that stuff.
Oatmeal cracked his knuckles and ran a hand through his wiry, black hair. He hadn’t brushed it for 23 years now and wasn’t about to start. Jelly called it a mad cubist experiment that belonged in the broom cupboard, but Oatmeal didn’t care. The bounty hunter business wasn’t about looks.
The bounty hunter business was all about making enemies, and Oatmeal was really, really good at that. Jelly called it uncanny, Oatmeal called it a gift – but sure as hell, no matter how angelic the person, Oatmeal could find a way to annoy the prack out of them.
God makes us all special, right?
Well Oatmeal knew he was real special.
The rest of Zero Episode One is available from most ebook retailers.