a short story by Lexi Summer Hale
Ash swirled in the wastes as the caravan plodded forward. Samanya shielded her eyes against the hot glare of the sun as she stared out into the almost-featureless plain. Nothing to see but the distant flicker of the machines in the sky.
“We should be able to see the ocean by now,” she murmured.
“Dunno how good the map is,” Jeigh said, for what had to be the tenth time. “Hozeshi —”
“— knows where he’s going?” Samanya finished sourly. “I’m starting to doubt that.”
There was a crunch as the wagon wheel chanced on a small, brittle skull. Samanya flinched at the sound.
“You’re edgy today,” commented Jeigh.
“Are you sure you should be out here?”
“I’m FINE, Jeigh.”
“I don’t think you are, Sam. Your wife doesn’t think so either.”
“Don’t bring Rae into this.”
Jeigh shrugged. “The ashwinds can’t be good for you or for the child, that’s all I’m saying.”
Samanya glared at him. “Do you really think I’m so frail?”
“I think the ba— the child is,” said Jeigh peaceably. “Why are you so set on being out here, anyway?”
Samanya stared out into the wastes. “I guess I wanted to see the ocean.”
“Can’t you wait inside then?” said Jeigh. “I’ll call you when we can see it.”
“I just — I wanted to see when it came over the horizon.”
“That might not be for days, sister.”
“Hmph.” Samanya folded her arms. “Goddess, if I’d known you were going to be this much of a worry-wort, I’d have waited a month to get pregnant—”
Her eyes opened in horror and she clapped her hands to her mouth, but it was already too late.
“DISCOUNT MATERNITY CLOTHES, ONLY ON AMAZON.COM!” boomed a voice, drowning out the wind, slamming into the wasteland like a hammer-blow. The machines circling far above had stopped, and scenting at long last their prey, began to descend.
“Oh no,” moaned Jeigh. “No no no.”
“I am — I — oh Goddess, I’m so sorry,” whispered Samanya.
A wagon tipped and fell sideways, the horse whinnying in terror, and a spurt of sand and ash was blown into the air by the supersonic impact. Samanya glimpsed burning fragments of clothes in the air. “ENJOY THIS FREE SAMPLE OF NORDSTROM BABY CLOTHES,” came the hunter’s shrill cry.
Samanya jumped awkwardly from the wagon, running to try and help right the overturned carriage, hoping against hope nobody was dead. The sky was darkening with the machines now. “They’re swarming,” cried Jeigh, cursing.
There was a violent clatter as the machines began slamming into each other, falling from the sky in a deadly hail of metal and wire. One clipped the side of their carriage as it fell, repeating itself like a broken record. “KROGER BABY FORMULA AVAILABLE AT REDUCED PRICES FROM NOW TO DECEMBER FROM NOW TO DECEMBER FROM NOW TO—”
The whirring of rotors and the cacophonic medley of voices was deafening. A funnel was forming, filled with descending drones and a hail of parts knocking free in the impact. More free samples smashed into the ground as people fled in terror. Jeigh covered his ears as he clambered back into the wagon, where Rae and Shora were huddled.
“She said a Keyword, didn’t she,” whispered Rae, terror in her eyes.
Jeigh nodded. The wagon was rocked by the impact of another free sample nearby.
“We’ll be all right,” said Shora, patting her on the shoulder. “It’ll be over soon enough.”
“You’ve seen this before?” said Jeigh.
Shora nodded. “We got lucky. If we were anywhere near one of the old cities by now—”
Outside, the dazed and bloody riders were crawling from their stricken wagon. Samanya grabbed them by the arms, helping them down. “We need to get to cover,” she shouted over the roar of noise. “Did everyone make it out?” A woman nodded. Samanya breathed a sigh of relief, and beckoned them towards her carriage.
“HALF OFF ON ALL STROLLERS AT WALMART!” screamed a small drone as it buzzed past her head, its surface flickering with barcodes and images, before being obliterated by another supersonic blast of free baby clothes from above.
Jeigh helped the wounded into the wagon, Samanya clambering up behind and slamming the door behind her.
“This is your fault,” she snarled at Jeigh. “If you hadn’t been pushing me so much about the ba— the child—”
“Samanya, do not take that tone with your brother!” snapped Shora.
“Mother, it’s all ri—” began Jeigh.
“Apologize,” Shora snapped. “For pressuring her about the child.”
Jeigh sighed. “I’m sorry I kept on at you like that.”
“Good,” said Shora. “Now Sam, apologize for not using your indoor voice.”
“Mother, I am twenty-two years ol—” Samanya began. Shora folded her arms and glared.
“—oh, fine,” muttered Samanya, rolling her eyes. “Jeigh, I’m sorry I shouted at you.”
“There!” said Shora. “All better. Now let’s tend to the wounded.”
Half an hour later, the storm finally passed. The machines had finally all timed out from lack of response, and the survivors returned to their endless patrol of the skies. Samanya peeked out timidly, and breathed a sigh of relief. Most of the caravan was still intact. Most of the wagons had taken some damage. A few horses had fled, and some had been struck by the falling debris, but the caravan would survive.
Bits of machines littered the waste now, wings and rotors and jagged chunks of metal shorn off during midair collisions. A few damaged drones still sputtered and shrieked on the ground, and Samanya crushed a nearby one with a vengeful foot.
“I find this content offensive,” she hissed.