Art by Melissa Mead
V is for Vámonos
by Tim Pratt, Jenn Reese, Heather Shaw, Greg van Eekhout
The Explorer hacked her way through the dense jungle foliage, the ruins of her riverboat smoking and sinking beside the rotting pier behind her. Night was falling, and only the fire from her burning ship provided illumination.
The Explorer's brown skin had darkened further on the long journey, and though her black hair had grown out, she'd hacked it back to a sensible bob with her knife. Her faithful backpack--so full of useful things, from medicines to signal flares to extra ammunition--hung tattered and patched and nearly empty from her bony shoulders.
The magical, loudmouthed map--which had led her to this place of savagery and loss, as requested--was rolled tight and stuffed in a leather tube to muffle its constant recitation of the route they'd followed to get this far: "Central Station--The River--Colonel D.'s Camp."
"They're all dead," her companion said. "Muerto." He was a monkey, though she didn't think about his species much; he was simply her loyal friend. He'd started this journey wearing his iconic red boots, but they'd rotted off his feet weeks ago, and she'd taken to calling him Shanks since then, because his exposed shins were mangy and hairless.
"Only the people are dead," The Explorer said, stepping over the bodies that sprawled in the camp's pathways. Dark shapes slunk among the sagging huts like predatory shadows, and an ammonia smell--the piss of jungle cats--suffused the air. "The animals are fine. My cousin was always better with animals than he was with humans. Humanos."
"Do you think you can bring him back?" Shanks asked.
The Explorer paused, squinting into the sky. Here, near the center of the camp, with the trees pushed back by the axes of the Colonel's laborers, she could clearly see the stars shining in the sky. But the stars were no use to her. Why had she ever believed otherwise? "I can bring his body back," she said. "But will I be able to bring his mind back? His soul? Alma? Those may be lost forever. He may have traded them away for whatever power he found here." She sensed a movement, deeper in the camp, something that wasn't a jungle cat. "Cousin!" she called. "Primo! I've come to take you home."
Her cousin emerged from the shadows, and his voice and body alike were thin and indistinct. "You... they sent you...."
"No one else would come," The Explorer said. "You must return with me, or you will be lost. Perdido."
He looked around, muttering to himself, shaking his head. "I had such plans--immense plans. I was on the threshold of great things..."
Somewhere a jungle cat roared. The cats had all forgotten to speak in the language of humans, if they'd ever known. They had become beasts. How long before her cousin forgot to speak as humans did? "Come with me," the Explorer said. "Vámonos."