There wasn’t much left of the village when the grinder appeared on the horizon. The huge machine took two days to arrive at the village proper, so everyone had plenty of time to get most of their stuff packed up and leave. A few people stayed, mostly old people, sitting on their steps or in their living rooms, waiting for the end. For the grinding. Some people’s spirit was already broken. Some people seemed to welcome the end ... and the end was on its way.
Dutch’s family fled the day before, when the grinder was just a cloud of dust on the horizon. The thing had a path almost two klicks wide, so they needed time just to clear the blades. No waiting till the last minute. As Dutch was helping pull the platform he could feel the vibrations through the earth beneath his feet. There was no stopping or even slowing down the grinder. It came.
He’d seen, long ago, a projection of the grinder’s path around North Am. Seven grinders operated on the planet. They ground up the big cities first, their paths decided by computers to be the most efficient routes. Lots of little towns fell to them during the start, even, of course. After the big cities, came the smaller. Twenty years ago this one had started on the simple towns. Now it was basically cleaning up the villages and tiny towns. In another ten years it would be done. Cradle Three would no longer exist, as an inhabited, civilized world. The savers would have finished and gone by then, and the slavers. Cradle’s people would be spread throughout the galaxy, some as free citizens, some as slaves, and most as just more displaced refugees. The galaxy-wide war was slowly tapering down into little smoldering brush fires, but there was still plenty of time for suffering. Cradle’s people had done their share, and would still do a little more.
For the next four days, Dutch just felt like they were running away from the grinder. Finally the ground no longer trembled, and clouds of smoke and dust no longer billowed up behind them. They got the grav engine on the platform working the third day, and they made pretty good time after that. Dutch’s father was voted out as leader of their little group, but the man that took over still followed his plan. To the south. The further south they went, the safer they were. That was impossible to argue with. If they could make it out of the plains and into the mountains they would be safe from everything except slavers. And they even had a secret weapon for that problem, a neural grenade that somebody had come up with, although it was only good for one shot.
Dutch’s status had dropped when his father fell from the pedestal of leadership. Another neighbor forced Dutch to care for his kids by secretly threatening Dutch’s invalid mother. Dutch silently promised himself to kill the man but finally gave in and watched the man’s children. He hated the boy but loved the girl. She was young and sweet, a jewel in the rough. And she seemed to liked him. He idly thought about just taking her one night and striking out on his own, maybe on a ninety degree tangent from the group’s path. He knew they couldn’t afford to waste time hunting him down. If he could just take one of the rifles ... he’d do it. If he could lift a weapon from the group’s stash, he’d do it, he’d go.
He was selected for guard duty one night and walked around the floating platform, carrying one of the group’s four rail rifles. He carefully got his charges ready for bed but made sure the girl was prepared to move quickly. He got all her stuff in a bag and put it under her head, hushing her when she acted curious. She trusted him, though, and accepted all his instructions. That night, about an hour before he was supposed to wake up his replacement, he stepped to the side of the platform where the girl was sleeping. He put his hand over her mouth, and shook her awake. She could see him clearly in the light of the moon, and he felt her smile beneath his hand. He removed it slowly, making the “hush” sign with his finger over his mouth. She sat up, and he helped her down from the platform and took both her bag and his. She followed him without question. They crept away, into the darkness.
When the sun came up, they were at least four or five klicks away. He finally stopped and they sat on an escarpment while he talked to her.
“Lotus ... It’s only fair that I ask you this,” she smiled and nodded expectantly at him, “as you may have figured out, I am leaving the group. Do you want to come with me?”
She almost looked puzzled at that, that he would feel the need to ask her. She just gazed at him.
“Do you understand? Leaving them forever. I’m going out on my own. I’m heading south, into the mountains, where the grinder can’t go.”
He gazed at her. She finally just shrugged. He wondered if she realized the foreverness of what he was talking about. That part about going to the mountains wasn’t really fair, the other group was going to the mountains, too. She could go with them as well as him. But for some reason, maybe just simple loneliness, he really wanted her to come with him.
“Lo ... if you go with me, you’ll never see them again. Anyone. Your dad, or anybody. If they ever see me, they’ll probably try to kill me. Do you understand? Never.”
“Yes, I understand. I don’t care,” she finally said, seeming to realize what he was saying. He sighed, and they stood. They continued on their way, to the south.
A day later she showed him a stunner pistol she had hidden in her bag.
“Lotus!” he said, “Where the hell did you get that?”
She giggled. “I stole it from the armory. I’ve had it for weeks.”
Grief, she was useful, he thought. She was handy to have around. He grabbed her and bent her over and scrubbed her hair with his fist as she giggled and shrieked and fought him. He let her win. She was pretty cool, he thought. Pretty damn cool, for a girl.
A month later they crossed the grinder’s path for the first time. For a solid kilometer all they saw were the little pellets the thing spit out, and finally they were walking on nothing but grinderdust. The rain had glued a lot of it together in this area. Dutch finally got a loose handful, and he held it inches from his eyes, trying to identify anything. He couldn’t. It was just a crazy mix of ground-up stuff, rocks, trees, houses, people, anything that the grinder ran over. It didn’t even smell.
“Why did the grinder come, anyway? What do you know?”
“Uhm. That’s a good question. They gave this world away, in some peace treaty or something. They gave it to the Freaks. And the Freaks didn’t want our stuff on it, our cities and stuff. Part of the deal was to return it to it’s natural state ... that’s how the Freaks live. That’s what the grinder does ... it just ... grinds up the cities. Crazy, but that’s what it does.”
“Were there a lot of cities on Cradle?”
“Hell yeah. It was as populated as the core worlds at one time. I mean, that was before my time, and yours ... but, hell yeah.”
“Yeah, silly. Lotus ... some people say ... some people say that Cradle is where our people started from. That it’s the world that humans came from long ago ... our home planet.”
She was silent for a while. Surely, he thought, surely she’s heard that theory before. In her lessons, if nothing else.
“Yeah, they told us that in school,” she finally said, “I don’t guess it matters much anymore, though ... does it?”
“Nah, I guess not. I mean hell, they’re giving it away ... to the Freaks...”
One sunny day the girl proved her worth to him. She was about fifty meters behind him, and she was carrying the rifle. He was passing a large clump of stones when a man stepped out behind the rocks, followed by two others. The first thing Dutch noticed was their legs. From their knees down, they had spindly metal artificial legs, with hydraulic cylinders and springs. They were all clothed in dark plastic sheeting, their faces covered, and each had a large steel blade of some kind in their hands. The blades were all pointing at Dutch, and he backed up hurriedly, wondering what this was all about. One of the men displayed a small computer strapped to his forearm.
“You are logged into the Ephrium, sinner,” said the man, in a sonorous voice. “Your sins are entered, sorted and spell-checked. Prepare to be penitent. Say goodbye to your feet and legs. You are a kneeler from now on.”
A loud crack split the air and the man fell, blood spraying behind him to splatter on the other two men. A bright white perfectly straight line had been drawn in the air from behind Dutch to the man before him as the tiny ceramic pellet burned from atmospheric friction, propelled to a few dozen klicks per second by the rifle. The other men had regarded the shooting with surprise, but made no move to save themselves. The girl carefully shot each of them and then advanced to stand beside Dutch.
He approached the dead man and pulled the computer off the man’s arm. It might come in handy if he could get all the sin crap out of it.
“Lo ... thanks, darlin’,” he finally said. “They were gonna cut off my legs. Thank you.”
.... There is more of this story ...