by Pauline Creeden -
Zana Black stepped inside the darkness of the pub to a greeting of silence. A gasp went up as she pulled down the kerchief that covered her nose and mouth, and her boots echoed as she strode across the hardwood. She squinted her way to the bar, straining against the flash blindness that blocked her ability to see faces. Hushed whispers replaced the silence.
As she set her robotic left arm on the bar, her eyes finally adjusted and she could see the bartender staring at it. He shook his head and looked away quickly. He stuttered as he said, “How can I help you?”
“I’ll take a Spring Root Ale.” She handed over the credits.
Zana turned around and leaned against the bar, scanning the dark tavern. He wasn’t there.
The bartender set the drink next to her right elbow and Zana turned around. It wouldn’t do to crush the glass with her robotic grip, so she pulled it across the surface with her right hand.
She laid her left arm on the bar and opened the panel on the wrist. She pressed a few buttons and a hologram popped up in the center of her hand. The murmuring at the bar grew in intensity and the bartender’s eyes widened.
“You seen this guy around?” she asked him.
The bartender hesitated and tore his eyes away from the hologram. He shook his head and tried to go back to wiping the bar.
“You’re lying,” she said, making her robotic hand into a fist. The hologram popped like a bubble.
The man swallowed hard, blood draining from his face. “I…I…He was in here yesterday, but he left.”
“And he said something about going west, I think…”
“You think?” Zana narrowed her eyes.
“I know he said west. He definitely said west.”
Zana nodded and picked up her mug, turning around again so that she faced the room. A sigh of relief came from behind.
“So what did you do?” A little tow-haired boy looked up at Zana, his big blue eyes wide with wonder and sticky fingers reaching toward the robotic appendage.
Zana looked around and couldn’t tell who the kid belonged to. He looked about four Foundings old and she couldn’t see anyone who looked as though they missed him. She set down her ale and kneeled, unbuttoning and pushing her duster back.
She pulled her robotic arm closer to him and set it on her cybernetic knee. “Beetle attack, kid. I’ve never been a slave.”
His eyes grew wider, “You mean you survived?”
She nodded, and answered, “But my arm and leg didn’t.”
“Wow!” He reached out and touched the silver titanium that covered her left cheek. She leaned in for his touch and her black braid fell forward. He asked, “Here, too?”
“That’s where one sprayed me with acid.”
“It’s true? They can spray acid?”
“Only the female cannonbeetle, and only during breeding season.”
He grabbed a hold of the black braid and tugged it with a giggle. Zana smiled wider, tempted to pick the kid up and hug him.
“KRISTOF!” A woman squealed as she walked out of the kitchen. A plate slipped off her tray and fell to the floor.
The little boy winced and jumped back from Zana, putting his hands behind his back. The woman set her tray on an empty table and marched over. He started pouting before she even got there.
“What did I tell you about bothering customers?” The woman’s voice shook.
Zana stood up and leaned against the bar again. The waitress looked at Zana with eyes full of fear and apologized. Zana gave a head tilt and took another sip of her ale.
The woman rushed away, dragging the boy by the elbow. “I didn’t do nothing. She wasn’t bothered, I swear!” The boy whined.
She said something under her breath that couldn’t be heard. The boy’s response made it obvious enough. “Un-uh! It was a beetle attack! Her face was sprayed with acid.”
The woman looked back quickly and said in a harsh whisper that Zana didn’t miss this time, “Beetles don’t shoot acid—that’s just a myth.”
Zana smiled and headed for the tavern door, her boots resounding on the floorboards where silence otherwise reigned. Everyone’s eyes followed her once more. No matter to her. She raised the red kerchief over her mouth and nose once more to keep the ash out. Zana pushed the door open and pulled her duster in tighter to face the ashy eastern wind. At least it would be to her back as she made her way west to the mountains.