The Homecoming: Chapter 1

Confused about what on earth this is? There’s an explanation here. In the meantime, here’s some silly prose.

***

The carrier burst through the last, low layer of cloud and began its approach, prompting the occupants of the hold to stare slack jawed out of the tiny windows at the scene emerging below them. An industrial complex spilled out onto the landscape, a pool of gradually expanding, featureless grey polluting the pristine valley. It was like an acidic spillage, scarring the ground and burning away the lush, rich jungle that it touched, leaving a ragged hole in the treeline. As the carrier approached the panorama, cutting through sheets of driving rain, the landscape gleamed with a weird, rippling light, the trees and leaves glittering with rainbow flashes as they swirled in the wind of the carrier’s passing. The metallic structures of the complex, belching smoke and chemicals, looked hard and sharp in contrast, clear, defined angles marking them as out of place.

The towering, sheer faces of the mountain range were almost impossibly dramatic, great wedges of rock as clean and sharp as if they had been freshly cut by some great celestial sculptor. They rose precipitously to perfect, needle points, like the teeth of some massive sleeping beast extending as far as the eye could see. The creeping intrusion of the jungle onto those mighty slopes was similarly impossible, too green, too tall and almost vibrating with vitality. Looking out of the window of the transport as they serenely glided closer in, it was almost possible to see the individual trees, even at a distance at which entire mountains were encompassed in the view; and there was a strange, straining feeling emanating off of them, the trees somehow growing and reaching into the sky to snatch at the foreign intruder as it passed overhead.

To the occupants of the carrier, awed at the sight of the alien world, the jungle seemed to be flourishing as they drew breath and dying as they exhaled. It glistened wetly, abstract scientific processes seeming real and immediate, being repeated millions of times as they watched. An aura of sheer life hung over the jungle, snapping branches and twisting roots. The jungle was unsettlingly strange, though, with the faint blue tinge to the leaves they had been told about meaning it took on an otherworldly, threatening aspect. The trees looked twisted and gnarled and close, and the faint snatches of the ground below that could be glimpsed through the canopy looked choked and forgotten.

The interior of the carrier was silent, some gawking out of the windows whilst others idly lounged in their chairs, trying to project a sense of ease. It wasn’t necessary for much longer, as the carrier skipped lightly over a final ridge and into the next valley, leaving the fantastically alien landscape temporarily behind them.

The area it circled down into looked like it had been a part of the jungle once. Now it was a long plain stretching the length of a wide, shallow corridor formed by two roots of the nearest mountain. The trees stopped in a surgically straight line just on the other side of the two ridges as if the jungle had been precisely excised. Now, instead of trees, there was a smooth plain of sparse, blue-green grasses being battered by the pouring rain.  There were buildings huddled around one another in a vague pattern, the edges of the base marked with low towers. Water streamed off roofs and flowed into the small river rushing busily past the uneven oval of structures. The buildings swayed slightly in the wind, bending as each new sheet of rain washed over them. A cloud had rolled down from the mountain. It loomed over the valley and dulled the light, making the metal sheets that made up the soggy grey clumps of buildings a dull grey. Some of the foundation pins hung uselessly limp on the sides of structures, and there was at least one door swinging free in the breeze.

Teams of people were surrounding some of the buildings, driving in stabilising mechanisms and trying to anchor them more securely to the ground, but there was at least one that was at risk of being washed away. All of the light, prebuilt structures were arrayed in a loose order, with some variation in size and shape following a noticeable pattern. There were the low guard towers marking vague boundaries, with the basic units sprouting more modules in differing shapes and sizes towards the centre, presumably marking out some special function or importance. What those were, though, Markus didn’t know. Instead of joining the others trying to catch glimpses of their destination, he glared unblinkingly at the ceiling of the carrier.

The valley floor loomed outside the windows as it rushed towards them; the sudden, absolute drop of the carrier made Markus’ guts swoop away from him and he gasped in shock. Looking around the interior for the first time, he guessed he wasn’t alone in that feeling. A couple of faces looked distinctly green or grey, and many more had sweat breaking out on their foreheads in the cool air of the transport bay. The experienced spacefarers, on the other hand, were marked by their calm, relaxed gazes and unclenched jaws.

The silence in the cabin was tenser now, unease bleeding upwards and changing as it went from stomachs to minds. Markus cast his gaze out of the window and balled his fists, digging his nails into the palm of his hands and concentrating on the sharp immediacy of the pain. The nervous tension in the air was tangible, a metallically bitter tang that tasted of sweat and fear. It fit nicely with the rudimentary landing pad they were headed for, a flattened circle of grass with abstract markings absently painted on it. Expecting any sort of welcome turned out to have been a waste of time. Two men, dripping visibly from their now ruined uniforms, a sculpted ode to human misery, were all that awaited them.

There was no sensation of touching down. The ground abruptly stopped threatening to crush the carrier and they were there, settling gently into the soft mud. The hum of engines and field generators died away as the systems were switched off, and the door swung open abruptly, letting smells and noises from the outside wash into the interior of the carrier and rid the functional box of stale sweat and silence. Instead, a pungent, murky scent replaced it, a mixture of rotting vegetation, steam and mud. Markus broke into a sweat as the humidity coated him in moisture, roiling smells fighting to enter his lungs. The air felt heavy, thick with decomposition and the drifting undercurrent of massed humanity. Markus panted slightly in the unfamiliar heat as he undid his harness and stood up.

The passengers flopped out of the carrier in an unruly heap, huddling under the shelter of the hatch they had exited through. Some noticed a group of people emerging from over the top of the ridge and moving towards the base. A couple nudged those next to them and pointed unashamedly. The group walked smartly past the landing pad and the new arrivals gawped at them curiously. Soldiers, clad in light, dull armour, they loped easily over the ground, but slowed on noticing the gazes directed towards them. One of them spat disgustedly in the thick mud and they laughed, before sweeping quickly away.

By contrast, the newcomers massed sloppily under cover, a couple of subtle elbows trying to ensure their wielder’s comfort. This was not lost on the two dripping men, one of whom now stepped forward and swept a dismissive gaze over the whole group. He had a sneer on his face as he confronted them, a condescending buyer inspecting inferior livestock at a market. The half-armour he wore struggled to contain a pulsing series of muscles, and a vein throbbed angrily on his sodden temple.

“Right.” Somehow the single word, thrown quietly and calmly into a great empty ring, stood out amongst the background noise. Everyone looked at the speaker, wondering what all the symbols and shapes on his sleeve meant.

“Welcome to the planet currently designated Rho-D-6. All of you are in barrack 11-A. You’ll have a locker with all your worldly possessions for the next three years in it assigned to you by the good lieutenant.”

Here he paused and indicated the other man, small, pasty and grey; he looked like a grocer rather than a soldier, and the markings on the sleeve of his shirt were different from those borne by the first man.

“Then you’ll put on your lovely new clothes and begin to find out why most of the base hates me. Everyone back here in half an hour. And that isn’t a request.” He paused, his eyes roving sharply over the crowd. “Conscripts or not, you’re members of the Federation military now, and you live or die on my command.”

***

Markus gasped for breath as he struggled up the sheer slope, water and mud sliming its way down his face. The gigantic mountains on the young planet, incredible to look at though they were, were less pleasant to run up. Markus had considered himself in decent enough shape, but now he knew better. A fire was raging in his chest, having caught there almost as soon as he started running, and had now spread throughout his lungs, growing in size and intensity, being fed to greater heat every time he took a rasping, snatched gulp of air.

Sergeant was right. Markus did hate him now, hated his quiet, unemotional face every time he got to the top of the ridge and was sent back down it again, hated the way he was just kept driving on and on, hated how much of a bullshit chance this whole fucking thing was. One in ten thousand of being drafted, and yet here he was, in pain and suffering and hatred. He took another ragged breath and almost inhaled a gobbet of clumped earth spat at him from the shoe of another of the new conscripts in his unit. He managed to move his head just enough, shifting his gaping mouth out of the way, but it hit him in the face and slithered down his neck anyway. He could feel it sliding down him, underneath his clothes, cold misery creeping onto his bare skin and doing nothing to cool the burning in his chest.

Markus finally clawed his way to the top again and took a moment, resting his hands on the top of his head to try and breathe. He shivered and looked around at every other person who had arrived on the carrier that afternoon with him, similarly struggling pointlessly up and down the slope. He still hadn’t even talked to any of them yet. Everyone had been sullen and morose, lost in their own thoughts and sorrows at being made to do military service. He took another deep breath and felt a strange lightness in his head, the tiredness from his legs seeping into his mind. He looked around, feeling as if he were slightly drunk. Standing and sucking in air, while savouring the cooling rain on his face, washing away the mud and pain, looking out over the spectacular views of this rugged frontier world; he could almost forget his resentment for a moment.

“Excuse me Private, but did I tell you to stop?”

It was the Sergeant, politely inquiring, but with a steely edge to his voice that said he wouldn’t hesitate to be impolite if Markus waited to obey.

“No. But fuck this.” Markus started to walk off, heading for a shower and a change of clothes and his bed.

“Pardon, Private?” The two words were still quietly spoken, still very restrained, but the steely edge that had been in his voice before was sharper now.

“Look, I’m a conscript. Don’t take it personally, but fuck this. If I’m stuck here for three years I’m not going to pretend I’m a volunteer like you and that I actually signed up for this shit.”

The Sergeant sighed and looked around. Everyone else had straggled to a halt in the mud below, waiting tensely to see what would happen.

“Well, fine then.” The Sergeant seemed to have accepted Markus’ explanation and turned to watch Markus walk off. Then the blade in his voice flashed. “But do you know I’m used to dealing with new conscripts?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Well, they always assign me the task of getting conscripts into shape. Because I always do.”

“I’ll take three years in solitary confinement or whatever else over this shit.”

“Oh, I can go a little better than that. Officially, corporal punishment is frowned upon by Central Command. But everyone here knows I’m not always working with the best of the best, and grants me a certain amount of… leeway in that area. Do I need to explain myself any more, Private?”

“No.”

“No, sir.”

“No, sir. But fuck you anyway, sir.” With that, Markus walked off, not looking back and trying to ignore the sound of so many people being deathly silent.

Blinding, red-white pain. Flashing from his lower leg, catching on the rest of his body and spreading quickly, consuming him. Now he is pain, he is suffering, he is only in the moment, and the moment is pain, all-enveloping pain, pain that is his entire life and his eventual death. He cannot see, he cannot hear, he has no sense other than awareness of the suffering.

And then it was over. Markus found himself lying on the wet ground, cool and comforting mud oozing around him, sucking him into what felt like a healing embrace. Pure, clean rain fell on his face, washing away the stark horror of remembrance, eroding it and dulling its edges, wearing it down until it was there, but not the bleakly, keenly sharp terror that it had been. He stared up at the sky above, seeing shapes in the clouds, shapes of people and places he knew from home. They beckoned at him to join them and fly away from the last few days of his life, escape the nightmare that had suddenly leapt from the dark and swallowed him whole.

“Get up, Private.”

Markus didn’t respond. The soaked grass and dirt was so comfortable, so welcoming, and confronting reality could wait for a while yet.

“I’ll do it again if you don’t get up right now, Private.”

The Sergeant still hadn’t raised his voice, speaking as normally as if they were in the pub. Markus slowly closed his eyes on the dreamily nostalgic fantasy floating above him and willed his muscles to start working again. He forced his legs into motion, the left screaming in protest where the impact had been. Standing up, he swayed gently, but eventually straightened and tried to look the Sergeant in the eye.

“What did you do to me, sir?”

“Incapacitate setting on my pistol. Completely harmless, and any after-effects’ll wear off in a couple of hours. However, Private, you don’t have a couple of hours. Get down there with the rest of your unit and finish the drill.”

“Yes sir.”

Markus trembled his way over to the top of the slope and looked down. Everyone other conscript from the carrier was diligently toiling up and down, concentrating hard on the clumps of grass in front of them. One reached the top and Markus turned, but the man immediately swivelled and loped awkwardly down again, somewhat faster than he needed to. Markus stood and looked for a moment longer.

“Private?”

The single word lashed him viciously, and almost without any conscious command, his legs began to move, teetering over the summit of the slope. Then the gradient caught him, and he accelerated, but his legs were still weak and frail and he fell, tumbling and rolling and sliding down the long stretch of smooth, slippery mud.

He collapsed in a heap at the bottom, and a small clear jewel on a string fell out from under his shirt. He hurriedly tucked it away again, leaving it to hang concealed around his neck, shivering at the memory of the pain. Markus glanced upwards and saw the silhouette of the Sergeant outlined against those spectacular mountains. So he picked himself up and, despite the raucous protests of every part of his body, began to run.

***

The newly christened squad Kharon trudged back to their assigned barrack, a featureless box made of thin metal sheets hastily bolted together and thrown on the plain. Feet dragged through the mud and sludge, and some stumbled, leaning on comrades for support. Markus limped alone, running his hand over the spot on his thigh where the Sergeant had hit him. There was a slight weal, but nothing more. A couple of the others glanced at him, but Markus avoided their gazes, instead staring fixedly at the ground. A set of steps drifted into view and he climbed them, dragged his deadened leg into the room and slumped onto his hard, narrow bed.

Mud dribbled steadily down his legs, pooling and caking on his mattress. He didn’t care, content to lie there with his eyes closed, savouring the moment. Apparently, though, not everyone else felt the same way. Markus could hear movements, bustling, as people busied themselves. A hand gently touched Markus’ shoulder and he jerked his eyes open to see an unfamiliar face.

“Hey, you’d better get up.” The tone and the eyes were kindly. “We’ve got to get to the mess hall, and no-one wants to see you go through another round with the Sarge.”

Markus threw the hand off him and closed his eyes again. “Look, I don’t give a shit. Just leave me alone.”

“Suit yourself,” the woman said tartly and Markus heard her walk away. He lay back, luxuriating in the hard mattress and the thin pillow, softly rubbing his leg to try and work the stiffness and memories from the muscle.

“So, where’re you from, mate?” Voices were striking up cautious conversations around Markus, and he idly eavesdropped on the nearest.

“A tiny little mining station on some forsaken rock floating in towards the hub. I almost volunteered, then I got the letter anyway.”

“A mining station on an asteroid?” The snippets of conversation were punctuated with the noises of people changing, lockers banging and boots being shaken and stamped. “Fuuuck, man, that’s rough. How’d you end up there?”

“Eh, it’s where my parents were put. Still, as soon as I could talk, I wanted to try and get myself a better place.”

“Yeah, I bet.”

“I mean, I thought being a freighter captain was the most exciting thing in the universe when I was a kid.”

“Probably was compared to… how many people were on your station?”

“Ten, including me.” The other voice laughed, and the conversation was in a lull for a moment. “How about you?”

“Nice metropolis family, you know, wife, two kids, all that business. Solid job in planetary admin, nothing too important, but you know, it kept me alright. Bosses were happy with where I was.”

“Guess the whole thing about it being totally random is true, then?”

“Yeah, I can’t see the benefit in me getting drafted if it wasn’t. I mean, look at this body.” There were a couple of mocking wolf whistles, and Markus opened his eyes to see a podgy man in his early fifties, topless and flexing fatty biceps.

“But to get a government job… I mean, you might be better for military service than some of the other guys around.”

“I suppose. Although look at that idiot who talked back to the Sarge earlier. I reckon the Federation can handle all the assholes who don’t like it.” Markus shut his eyes again and massaged his aching leg a little too firmly.

“There are some legit points against the Federation, though. I mean-“

“Oh, come on, really?”

“All I mean to say is that there are some complaints that can be-“

“Ugh, you sound like one of those indie weirdos who like starving to death.”

“Well, you’ve got to admit, there are a lot of them.”

“And most people are idiots, my friend. At least the younger ones like you are being raised better, in Federation schools, even if they’re churning out dreamy idealists.” There was another hearty guffaw. “Anyway, come on, we’re going to be late.”

“But just because they’re idiots doesn’t mean we should be pointing guns at them.”

“You know what, talking politics is always a recipe for disagreement, so let’s leave it for now, eh? Just make sure we don’t get in Sarge’s way like that other chump.”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

At that, the conversation ended and Markus heard the sound of two more pairs of boots stamping away. Throughout the discussion, the door had been continually hissing as it slid open and closed, open and closed, and the tramp of boots had beaten a steady rhythm on the bare floor. There was a final little shuffling, one last set of footsteps echoing around the large room, and then silence. Markus opened his eyes again and looked round at the now empty room.

He sighed and touched the jewel around his neck. Then he sank back into the pillow, as much as he could anyway, and drifted into a light sleep.

Markus awoke to an empty room, so he raised his arm to his face and glanced at his wrist unit. He’d only been asleep for about half an hour. Turning himself over, he went to stand up from his bed and collapsed onto the hard floor, his aching legs unable to bear his weight now that they had stiffened up. Markus gritted his teeth and stretched some of the kinks out, rubbing and loosening until he could stand and walk in a reasonable imitation of a functioning human.

He wandered out of the building and headed towards the larger, communal ones clustered at the centre of the camp. A shower would be perfect just about now, and if he was quick he’d be able to sneak in and be back in the barrack before anyone noticed he was gone.

Squelching his way over the muddy plain, the mud began to run off him again as sweat broke out all over his body. The oppressive heat of this place was like nothing he’d ever known; Cernunnos didn’t ever get this warm. Something to do with how close this Rho-D-6 was to the system’s star, and the type of radiation it gave off. The short briefing they’d had aboard the military cruiser shipping them here had said that accounted for the weird looking plant life as well.

The conversation he’d overheard in the barrack stayed in his mind as he trudged towards the big building he vaguely remembered contained all the washing facilities. He was aware that there was some sort of politics among the older generations, but he’d always been able to ignore it, tucked away as he was. His home had been rural enough that he just hadn’t cared. Right up until the message announcing itself on his com with an innocuous beep, when he’d suddenly started a crash course in galactic politics.

The uniformity of the gunmetal grey, dully glinting architecture struck him as he sauntered through the base. The only distinction between buildings in the same section was in the numbers sprayed on each face. Loose rows, structures placed haphazardly wherever there was enough flat ground, made for irregular, crooked streets. Even though the land had been cleared, it still asserted itself on the humans, forcing their settlement into its pattern, denying them the order the buildings so clearly wanted. The muddy ground, barely covered with sparse grass, flowed freely down the slight slope of the valley, and Markus guessed that the trees were what usually held all this in place. Still, a cleared valley was easier to defend.

As he looked down at one of the tufts of grass, trying to figure out whether they were native or introduced, Markus saw that his shirt had been covered in mud from the morning’s exercise and his rank was unreadable. He grinned.

He reached the building memory had pointed him towards and approached the door. It opened smoothly before him and Markus tried to slip inside. There were people everywhere, crammed into a large central hall, disappearing off through doors and bursting out of side corridors. There was a pattern to it, an order to the flow and eddies of people, but Markus couldn’t quite work out what it was. He tried to cut across it, unsure where he was heading, having to force himself through and past arms and protesting bodies. He spotted a spartan sign, sprayed on the wall, ‘SHOWERS’, and swam slowly through the resistant crowd towards it. People were lining up outside the door for a second before being allowed in with a cloud of steam and a burst of fragrant cleanliness.

Markus could fell the dirt and sweat and grime on his skin and in his hair, making his scalp itch and his thighs chafe. The sweet, warm purification of a hot shower melting away the dirt and the aches and the residual muscle pain from his experience with the Sergeant was weighing on his mind, so heavily that he almost didn’t notice as he slipped unobtrusively into the back of the line. Reaching the door, he looked around for any sort of handle or device that would open it. It stayed stubbornly shut, so he stood there awkwardly, uncertain and unsure. Then he noticed two indentations, roughly foot shaped on the floor and stepped onto them, prompting a standard issue identity scanner to unfold and survey him. It honked dismissively and disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. The door stood fast.

Markus felt a rough shove in his back as a large hand pushed him aside. He whirled around, fists raised as suddenly all the feelings of the last few weeks flooded up, filling his brain and his thoughts with a hazy fire. His vision and his judgement blurred anger rising in waves, feeding off itself until he could barely see anything past his suddenly cocked fist.

The hand pushed him again, this time hard enough to send him sprawling to the floor, and the icy coldness of the metal against the bare hands he stretched out to break his fall shocked him back to his senses and extinguished the fire instantly. He looked up tentatively, the memory of his time with the Sergeant painfully fresh in his mind.

“You want to spend some time in solitary, motherfucker? ‘Cos it’ll give you time to get better from the beating you’ll get if you ever put your fucking hands near me again.”

The man standing in front of him was huge, a roiling mass of constantly shifting muscles. They were barely contained within the taut casing of visibly straining skin that seemed to serve only to hinder any further growth. He also had far more shapes and symbols on his shoulder than Markus did, so any attempt to start something would probably end in both a beating and punishment for starting it, whilst the monster would presumably get off without a hitch. Hastily suppressing a sarcastic remark that had risen unbidden to his tongue, Markus unfolded himself from the heap he was piled in on the floor and messily saluted, trying his best to feign subservience.

“Sir, I’m sorry sir. First day on the base sir. Won’t happen again sir.”

The tenseness of the muscles loosened and the skin stopped looking like it was about to tear in ten different places. He still looked like a vacuum packed bag of meat, though, just with fewer explosive undertones. Looking around at the circle that had gathered as soon as they heard raised voices, he smirked back at Markus. Markus was suddenly aware of the way the surrounding eyes had shifted and narrowed slightly when he announced how long he’d been here. The lumbering mass of violently sloshing stimulants on the other side of the tightly packed circle opened his mouth, giving the audience his full rhetorical flourish.

“One of the new ones. I should just give you that beating now anyway. Everyone here’ll swear that you started swinging and I just had to defend myself. And that the way I caved in your fat, pampered, soft fucking face was just self-defence. You piece of shit. Conscript.” He practically spat the last word out on to the ground, and Markus could feel the hatred radiating in waves from the professionals packed around him. His squad was the only conscripted one on the whole base, and he was suddenly aware of how contemptible he looked.

Fuck this. Markus was tired of being shoved around.

“Well fuck you, you little bitch. You’re not worth fighting anyway.”

The room drew still and held its breath at that statement. There was a whipping sound from in front of him and the next thing Markus saw was the steely grey floor, slowly vanishing beneath a thin coating of deep red, before he passed out.

***

Ten days of no vision of the outside world, and the scenery was still just as spectacular as it had been the last time he saw it. The mountains climbed, straining to try and scrape the edges off the clouds. The jungle the base nestled above was so vibrant and colourful it seemed to suck the life out of everything else. It was so alive that the mountains were impossibly stark in contrast, the gigantic slate spires towering over the slowly pulsing vibrancy. The light was fresh and bright, making him squint to see. It was purple, somehow. The clouds and the star and the steam rising off the jungle gave everything an odd violet hue. This was the first time he’d noticed. Granted, of course, he’d spent more time in solitary than actually outside at this point.

The base had grown slightly while he’d been inside, the mass of structures spilling down the valley with more troops arriving each day. Markus sighed and continued walking to his barracks.

He found it easily enough, double checking the number stencilled on the side just to make sure. Stepping up to the door, he would have sworn that his senses, deprived after ten days of confinement in a cold, lightless void, felt the capricious attentions of the scanner flicker over him. It discarded him as harmless and opened the door, letting a brief burst of noise spill out before it was quickly contained.

Some faces were focused on him; some were hastily turned away as he entered. Eyes peered at him from beds, the squadmates he still didn’t know evaluating him. The room was silent apart from a couple of embarrassed coughs. Markus stood in the doorway for a second, looking around the room. Some of the faces flinched from his gaze, while others stared back defiantly, daring him to judge them. Eventually a man stood up and walked over to him. Markus recognised him as the ex-administrator he’d overheard days before.

“So… eh, Markus, is it?” he said with a forced joviality.

“Yep,” Markus replied.

At Markus’ iciness, all the fake friendliness dropped from man’s voice.

“Look, mate, either you buy in or you’re not one of us. We’ve all had a vote,” At this he looked around the room, to some hurried nods, “and you can either be a squadmate or you can be an asshole. You can’t be both.”

“As in, I have to pretend I like this whole deal and I get to join the best friend’s club?”

“You don’t have to like it. Just stop fucking everyone around.”

“And take orders and behave myself and look like a good citizen?”

The man sighed. “Look, you don’t get it, do you? Nobody gives a shit if you like it or not. All that matters is that we’re stuck here together. So don’t be a dick and screw us all over for some petty rebellion.”

Markus looked around the room again. Some people still couldn’t bring themselves to look at him, but then he looked back at the rotund, pompous figure in front of him.

“No.”

He walked back out again, satisfied in hearing the sputtering of the administrator behind him. The door swept open with a hiss and Markus strode out onto the surface of Rho-D-6, raising a hand to shield his eyes from the bright, purplish light shining through the odd atmosphere. The jungle below him glowed unnaturally in the sun, and as he looked up, the mountains reflected it back down at him, twinkling like jewels. The air was heavy, thick with the scent of vegetation and people.

There was another hiss behind him as the door closed over again. He looked back, spat on the ground, and wandered aimlessly off down the valley.

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