On this planet, the wall is safety. Go beyond it, and the settlers will die.
A birth. And the party that night was bigger than usual. Everyone gathered in the square as if hoping to share the glory. The women queued up to peer in at the baby, then they shared smiles and said, “Perfect.” The men mostly stayed farther away, huddling in groups around the bonfire and giving each other sideways looks. “Wait and see,” they said and cracked a couple kegs of groundweed beer. Calum Davey slipped in among the drinkers, keeping an eye out for an unguarded mug. He caught a glimpse of movement from the corner of his eye, but before he could react, someone grabbed his right arm and spun him around.
“Got you! You little bastard!” Mac leaned over Calum, his face too close. The man’s florid face seemed huge, his greasy black beard matted, his straggly hair a wild and tangled mess. Mac breathed out and Calum flinched at the stench of stale beer and rancid meat. “What are you doing here?” Mac slurred. “Think you can hang out with the men, is that it?”
“Get off me, you jerk.” Calum struggled to pull his arm free from Mac’s fingers, but the older man had a grip like a dirt python, and he wasn’t letting go.
Mac laughed, sending fresh waves of foul breath into Calum’s face. “Why should I? Unless you’re going to make me—is that what you’re saying?”
“Just leave me alone,” Calum said. “I’m sixteen, I’m old enough to have a beer, aren’t I?”
“Old enough, yes. Man enough, no.”
Calum stopped struggling and looked Mac in the eye. “You’d better back off before my dad—”
Mac didn’t let him finish. “Oh, going to set your old man on me. The mighty cock of the roost.” He lowered his voice to a growling whisper. “You know, I think I might enjoy that.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” Calum said. “But I fight my own battles.” He lunged forward, forcing Mac’s arm back, and turned his body to break the older man’s grip. With his left hand, he grabbed the knife at Mac’s belt and pulled it from its sheath. Then he spun clear of Mac’s reach and held the knife ready, making sure to use the reverse grip his sister had shown him, the cutting edge facing his enemy. Evade, disarm, disable—Siobhan had drilled the phrase into his mind, and now Calum narrowed his eyes, searching out his opponent’s greatest weakness. Mac was a big man and strong; he relied on his size and bulk to intimidate. The beer would make him unpredictable, but it would also slow him down and make him clumsy. I’m faster than him, Calum told himself. I have to be smarter too.
“You little bastard,” Mac spluttered. He leaped forward, arms outstretched, but Calum sidestepped, and Mac’s momentum carried him forward, his grasping hands closing on thin air.
Before his opponent could turn, Calum kicked out low and hard, aiming for the big man’s kneecap. But he mistimed it, and his boot only connected with Mac’s shin. “Shit!” Calum hissed. It wasn’t enough to put the man down.
Mac roared and tried to spin around, but the beer must’ve done its work on Mac’s motor neurons, and he stumbled and lost his balance, staggering backward. He crashed into a group of men, his flailing arms knocking the mugs from their hands, then he fell, landing flat on his back at the men’s feet.
“For Christ’s sake!”
“Mac, you asshole!”
One of the men aimed a kick at Mac’s side. Another turned to glare, looking for someone to blame. Calum dropped his hand to his side, letting the knife slip silently to the ground. “Don’t blame me,” he said. “Stupid jerk can’t hold his beer.” The man nodded then looked back at Mac, watching him struggle to his knees.
Calum took his chance and darted away from the fire and into the darkness at the edge of the settlement. He spotted a familiar outcrop of rock and pressed himself against it, leaning his back against the cold stone. No one would bother him out here. He was safe.
He looked back toward the fire and smiled. Mac had found a new way to occupy his time. The men he’d barged into did not like his attitude. They formed a circle around him, and the more Mac yelled and tried to push them away, the more they jeered and pushed back. There he goes, Calum thought, turning on the charm. “Stupid bastard,” he whispered.
“Yeah, he is.”
Calum tensed, ready to push away from the rock. He should’ve kept hold of Mac’s knife. A dark shape moved toward him. A man, no—a group. There were four or five of them. Someone snickered and said, “Sorry, did we make you jump?”
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