The snarls and growls bounced down the stairwell like the blasts of a shotgun.
Girl crouched and waited, but the sounds persisted. She crept up the steps, her bare feet silent on the concrete. The barks came over and over and over, without reprieve. Girl’s fingers tightened around the spoon as she stared through the star-shaped hole in the door. Overhead, blue stretched off into infinity. Wisps of white clouds floated across the patch of sky.
She made no sound as she neared the exit. The spiders had pierced the metal and bent it inwards when they ambushed the bunker. She grabbed the latch and gave it a slight tug. A small squeak peeped out of the rusted mechanism, but it would not budge. Girl tensed and gritted her teeth, yet the blue above remained unhindered. Finally, she tightened her grip and yanked at the handle. Corroded metal screeched, and the weight of the door groaned, but still, it remained shut.
Sharp metal edges encircled her like mechanical teeth. With the can and spoon safe in her waistband, she grabbed the lacerated ridge and lifted herself. She managed to pass through without even a minor scrape. As her head poked up from the ground for the first time since the Fireball, a breeze ruffled her hair. Girl gasped and almost lost her grip. The sky might be the same cobalt it had always been, but the fire had incinerated the greens and browns of the world. Only orange desert remained, pockmarked by hills and ruins and rubble. No trees reached for the sky, no grass swayed in the breeze, no soil nurtured plantlife.
And a German Shephard stood a few feet from the bunker, eyes on her.
The dog continued to bark.
Girl hoisted herself up and over the jagged lip and tumbled down the angled door, warm from the sunshine. Dust greeted her as she fell into a pile of black sticks, which waited for her at the bottom. The stakes clattered as she disturbed them, and the dog’s yaps hesitated. Girl froze in a tangled mess amongst the sticks as a cloud of orange puffed up around her.
She reached out and steadied herself as she got to her feet. Her fingers slotted into something with the perfect precision of a seasoned bowler. Something smooth and round — something with holes, something she’d seen in books. Chills prickled her skin as she took in the object, as she took in the entire mess of charred pieces. Far away, the Shephard renewed its bark. Louder, now. More ferocious. Each blast hit her like miniature versions of the shockwaves from the Fireball. Behind her, loose scree skittered down the slope.
Girl had landed in a mound of the blackened bones of Papa and the Bad Man. The skeleton pieces mixed, forever intertwined. Which parts had been Papa? Which fragments had been the Bad Man, and how could she not tell the difference? A shadow clenched Girl’s heart, and tears sprung up at the corners of her eyes. A winded groan sighed out of her. Girl scrambled out of the charred skeletons, pieces scattered in all directions. A skull, teeth still attached, rolled here. A section of spine spun off over there. Something with a hinge here. Something with a balljoint there.
Girl dashed to the side. The Shephard continued to bark and snarl. It looked almost like the picture of a dog she’d held in her mind since the Fireball. The Shephard had a standard size. Some burn scars knotted the dog’s face and added to the ferociousness of the animal. Of course, she and Skye and Mama and Papa had never owned a pet — Papa had allergies. But Girl always stared at these animals, who walked with obedience on leashes.
Now, here one stood, sans lead and human.
And it had a temper problem.
Girl side rolled out of the remains of her father and the man who’d caused his death. Her eyes, wide and red with the dust, stayed locked on the canine. The dog had dashed several steps towards her, and flecks of saliva sprayed from its bared teeth. Girl recoiled, hands in the dirt. The dog had reached biting distance, its odour of fur thick in her nostrils. But the Shephard turned away from her, it—
Something chittered above, and pebbles tumbled down the slope.
Girl twisted her head, and the tendons in her neck creaked. Joints popped. Her eyes lolled in her skull. She kept the Shephard in the corner of her vision as it lunged forward. She threw a hand up to the dog. To the side, more movement made Girl’s stomach clench. Something big, fat and black blurred the air — something with too many legs and too many eyes.
The Shephard tackled the spider before it even reached Girl.
Both spider and dog tumbled to the dirt, a dirt haze puffed up around them. The dog’s growls buzzed like a chainsaw, and the tarantula’s hisses spat from the mess of its mouth like steam out of a pipe. Girl crouched in the filth, inches away from Papa’s bone scaffolding. Her eyes widened. The spider had identical markings to the one that had lingered after the others. She glanced to the slope above the bunker door, then back to the dog, and all the pieces slotted together.
The monster flipped but landed on its eight legs. It crouched, head down, abdomen raised. The appendages in front of its mouth swished, and the yellow of its fangs glinted in the Sun. Dog grunted and rolled over with less grace. Girl saw why. A fifth limb had grown out of Dog’s side, between her hind leg and stomach. She got to her feet and snarled, hackles raised, like a shield between Girl and the monster.
The tarantula struck first. It scuttled at Girl and Dog with a high-pitched shriek. Its four pairs of legs rolled with hidden muscles. Dog coiled and sprang at the beast and snapped its jaws. Teeth came an inch away from closing over the spider’s marble eyes. And then four of the spider’s arms snaked around her and clawed into her hide. The spider’s gibber drove a shard of ice into Girl’s nervous system, but the dog’s yelps yanked at Girl’s heart.
Girl glanced to the horizon. No sign of the swarm that had attacked. No sign of Skye. No sign of imminent danger lurked anywhere other than right here at the bunker’s exit. She turned back to the fight. Dog’s cries grew more desperate, and the arachnid’s rasps gained a victorious edge. Girl looked back and forth two more times, brain and heart headed in two different directions.
Girl scrambled in the dust and came up with a charred femur bone. Had it belonged to Papa or the Bad Man? It didn’t matter. She rose, weapon in hand. The spider swarmed over Dog, and its feet waggled in frantic circles. The palps and chelicera squirmed. The fangs, lubricated with venom, snapped towards Dog’s neck. Its eight eyes sparkled with mad glee. The milky clouds within swirled like ink in water.
Girl threw herself into the fray and screamed a wordless cry. She wielded the femur — a knight with a sword — and went for the spider’s eyes. Both spider and Dog paused at the sound. Three out of three of the beings present hadn’t expected this. The ten animal eyes took in this stranger in their midst, headed for them with a fragment of its species.
Dog seized this opportunity and twisted around the tarantula’s thorax. It clamped its jaws at the back of the horror’s head. The spider squealed, and its legs spasmed and beat a tattoo against the dust. Dog broke free of the arachnid’s loosened grip and shook the spider back and forth. A low chainsaw growl bubbled out of its throat. Bloodied puncture marks dotted her fur.
Girl plunged the bone through the creature’s face and caved it in. Several of the eyeballs popped and spilled grey jelly into the coarse hairs. The shriek the spider issued pierced her eardrums, but Girl did not relent. She pushed further and further until the bone punctured the devil’s brain.
The spider screeched and scrunched its legs up into a tight ball. Dog gave it one last shake, and a final growl resounded. She dropped the carcass, and they both stared at this thing that should not be. It did not twitch — the only motion came from the goop that poured from its broken face.
Girl stepped back and pulled the bone with her. It came free with the sound of a boot in the mud, and some gore flecked against her skin. She shook it off and readjusted her grip. Bits of the spider’s brains sprayed across the hardpan and stained the orange. Dog nudged the corpse with her snout. The spider ball rocked back and forth, but no legs unfolded.
Dog and Girl both gaped at each other.
Heartbeats thumped in the space between them.
The tension had left neither of the two.
Girl’s jaw worked as her teeth ground against each other, the weapon at the ready.
Dog remained wound up, her wounds not yet licked.
Girl flicked her eyes to the bunker, to the spot where the spider had hidden. The canine’s warning barks echoed in her mind, and in the background, the spider sat curled up like a piece of lint. She gazed into Dog’s brown eyes, so warm and deep. The animal’s one eyebrow twitched in a human expression, and the knotted scars shifted. Girl crouched down to the floor and dropped her weapon.
She offered Dog her hand.
Dog’s nervous eyes twitched from Girl’s face to her hand, to her face, back to the presented hand. She took a step closer, head down. And another, and another. She raised her nose to Girl’s fingers and took one cautious sniff. Girl’s hand trembled as the animal’s teeth came closer to her flesh, but she did not retreat. After one shaky breath, Dog began to wag her tail, and she licked Girl’s hand. This time, Girl didn’t repress the grin that bloomed on her face.
As Girl stroked Dog, she investigated the animal’s injuries. Burn marks covered half her face and a good part of the side of her body. The collar had fused into the dog’s skin and hair. The metal of a tag glinted at the bottom, and a single word remained legible. She must have found a safe place to shelter from the worst of the Fireball’s damage.
Dog panted and grinned — almost like a person — when Girl scratched under her chin. They both gazed out across the barren wastelands that stretched before them. Utter stillness trembled in ripples of heat. The touch of this animal beneath Girl’s fingers soothed her disquieted heart and let her think. A million different holes and ruins could house the spiders’ nest. They could have burrowed underground themselves.
The idea came to her at once.
Girl lowered herself back down into that shelter, that prison. She had to give Dog reassurances that she’d come back up. So fast had the animal attached herself to Girl, sisters separated by species. The animal had wanted to follow her, but Girl didn’t think she could lift both herself and Dog back out again. She convinced her with, as she’d so often heard that dogs loved, a bone. A part of her hoped it hadn’t been from Papa, and another part hoped that it had. Let him live on at this moment in the brief happiness he gave to an animal that saved his daughter’s life.
Girl found it not too far from the foot of the steps. Somehow, it had avoided the carnage and remained in one piece. Sure enough, a small amount of blood lined the serrated rim of the tin. The sharp metal had cut Skye’s fingers as she dug for whatever nourishment she could get. Tears stung Girl’s eyes once more, and heat rose and reddened her cheeks. She showed the container to Dog, who sniffed it and then turned in the direction in which the Sun had begun to set.
“C’mon, Luna.” Girl grabbed the femur and slung it over her shoulder. She set off, and Luna followed her heel without question. Once the direction became plain, the dog took the lead. She glanced back, now and then, as if to make sure that Girl hadn’t abandoned her. The kindness in Luna’s eyes communicated a message without words.
Let’s go get our sister.