I quickly slam my food back into the box, then set it to the side. Jumping up, I draw my pistol and sword, ready for anything. “Mutants? What kind? Flying, I get that, but what should I do?”
“This gun makes a lot of noise which draws in other mutants. Keep them off us while we shoot.”
Dobas, similarly, has set his lunchbox to the side and has gotten to his position. Standing at the back of the gun, he firmly grabs the rear and twists it left and right, somehow coordinating with Dunwin to aim at whatever flying beast is on the approach.
I run closer to get a better look, and I make sure to slot my earmuffs on so the blast of the gunshots don’t make me sick.
The flying beast is far in the distance still, low to the sea of clouds but rising, I can just barely make out the details. It’s long and thin, a sleak body like a snake, but it sports five massive wings along its frame, four on one side and one on the other. Its large head sports a massive jaw full of teeth. In order to fly, its body is twisted awkwardly, so two wings are on one side and three on the other, but they seem to be just gliders, catching the heavy gusts of wind.
Around it are dozens of small black dots, I can only see them due to how they contrast against the green clouds beneath. Are those more mutants? They seem to have large wings. The big mutant is snapping at them, and the cluster of black dots is swarming. I can only guess they’re fighting a small war in the sky, but it won’t matter once they’re all dead.
With the target lined up, Dobas suddenly jumps out from behind the artillery gun. At the same time, Dunwin pulls a cord from his spot, and the gun fires! The air quakes, the loose bits of rubble on the ground vibrate from the sheer force of it all. From the end of the barrel, a fireball the size of a small house erupts, and the air visually distorts around it, making a shockwave that rattles my bones.
The rear of the massive gun pulls back with enough force that it would have punched a hole straight through Dobas’s torso, if he hadn’t deftly moved out of the way. With the rear fully extended, the spent bullet rolls out of the chamber, and the huge gun slides back into place. Dobas returns to his position, ready to aim once more. I don’t know where they’re getting a new bullet from. Since neither hemlock takes the time to put one in, I assume the ancient technology somehow reloads automatically.
But how can Dobas stand there? With Dunwin pulling the cord, he’s in danger of a slight miscommunication resulting in the end of his life. They’re not even talking to each other, how are they coordinating? How do they both know when exactly the other wants to fire? I doubt I could stomach having Dobas’s job. The worry of my armor, sternum, ribcage, and spine all being blown out in a second would keep me from doing my job right.
The first shot, as I reason from the lack of dead mutants, was a miss. But that’s fine. For a gun this large, you only need to hit once.
But there’s more gunfire than what’s coming from this single balcony. They ring out across the sky, far in the distance. I hear them from the left and right of the cove, beyond the cove’s walls, above us and below. With a building this colossal, it makes sense that the original builders made more than one gun line.
I cheer from the sidelines as Dunwin and Dobas put in work for the defense of their tribe. My blood is boiling, I’m ready for anything. It’s only a matter of time until a crimson mist explodes out there, and as the monster gets closer, the target is only getting easier to hit.
Then my ears perk.
Even as Dunwin and Dobas are blasting out that massive gun, and the eruptions from other guns echo through the sky, I hear some sort of tapping. Chittering, a high pitched noise, and grunts. They almost sound human, but they’re in the walls.
“Hmh?” I turn to the hallway, sword gripped tightly.
Suddenly, from the right, an airvent close to the ceiling is kicked off its hinges. The metal vent bashes against the far side of the hall and tumbles down before finally resting. Then, three creatures scale down to the floor.
They’re no larger than children, and marginally human in appearance. Horribly misshapen, lopsided, with various fingers and toes either missing or added to the ends of their limbs. They’re wearing no clothes, and are either fully bald, or with patches of hair placed sporadically around their bodies.
Quite the repulsive sight, but the worst part is the disgusting growths all over their flesh. Tumors, sacks of pus, organs that grew too large to be contained by the skin, I have no idea what’s going on with these abnormally pale demons.
“Eww,” I say as the three line up to face me. They howl, hiss, beat their hands against the floor, it seems they’re trying to intimidate me. It doesn’t work, and I shake my head, “you sad abominations.” I ready my sword, “I’ll put you out of your misery.” Taking another look at their disgusting bodies, I frown, “and mine.”
I charge forward, intending to slice the first one in half. All three recoil in what appears to be shock, and none of them can react in time… but there’s something wrong with this. It doesn’t sit right with me. They were snarling and screeching just a moment ago. What changed?
Rather than use my sword, I bring my boot forward and kick the middle one in the face. He’s light, so he gets knocked far across the hallway. The mutant on the left jumps away, while the one to my right reels back his clawed hand.
Before he gets a chance to swing, I spin around and smash the back of my left fist against his face. The armored panel of my gauntlet connects, and he’s sent to the floor.
I glance to the first mutant I kicked, and he’s still struggling to get up. When I look for the one who was on the left, he’s now pressed against the wall, cowering in fear.
I swirl my sword, and he barks a few times. A ferocious look is somewhat visible on his face, but between the growths and folds of overgrown skin, it’s hard to tell what expression he’s making. But still, there’s an issue.
It’s his eyes.
Cloudy, unfocused, the left one is lazy and looking to the floor, but they’re undeniably human. I see the spark of intelligence behind those eyes.
The mutant glances to his right and sees the hemlocks on their gun. I’m to his front left, and the vent is behind me. Does he feel trapped?
Slowly, I take a step to my left. He watches me closely. I can see the gears in his brain turning.
I take another step to the left, and he edges along the wall to the right.
I put my pistol back in the holster, then raise my left hand, his eyes are drawn to my extended finger. I then swing that hand to my right, pointing at his bruised friends, and he glances to them before staring back at me. He edges closer to them.
I’m not an overly sentimental person. I’ve killed many times before, and the lives I’ve taken don’t bother me. If I’m forced to kill these three mutants, I’ll do it and sleep soundly tonight.
Yet, I’m curious.
What about these mutants is mutanous? Just their outward appearance, or their seemingly savage nature? If the poison of this world sapped their ability to think and reason, then fair enough, their deaths would be a kindness. But never being taught is fundamentally different than being unable to learn. If these mutants can be saved, then we peldaks have a moral and spiritual obligation to do so.
Now, my back is to the hemlocks, and the mutant is free to run away.
But he doesn’t.
Go on, mutant. Leave. Go back the way you came.
It slowly creeps its way into the center of the hallway… between me and the one I kicked in the face. Protecting his friends? It could be a coincidence, or for some other reason.
The two I beat finally manage to stand, and they brush their way in front of the other. Now that I get a good look at them, they’re all small, but the one I didn’t hit is even smaller. The two big ones seem protective over him, and their eyes too carry a fierceness within them.
I’m nearly ready to declare them parents and child, but I don’t know if such concepts would transfer well to their mutant society. Well, I don’t even know if mutants have anything that could resemble a society. It could also just be a coincidence, that they merely resemble something I’m familiar with.
There’s a flash far beyond the hemlock’s gun, and I turn to face it. I’m genuinely curious as to what it is, but also I want to give these mutants a chance to run, see if they’re smart enough to take it..
It’s an explosion in the sky, a large fireball. It cleanly severs the flying beast in half while also engulfing some of the smaller winged creatures it was fighting off. Interesting. The gun doesn’t just shoot bullets, but the bullets themselves explode when they hit their target. I’m sure the Protectorate would love to figure out how it works. The sound of the detonation fills the hallway a moment later, it’s even louder than when the gun fires, and a strong blast of wind rips through the gun’s archway. The smaller beasts are knocked to the side by the pressure of the shockwave, but quickly correct themselves in the air.
While I’m distracted looking at that, one of the two larger mutants lunges forward to take a swing at me.
I raise my sword hand and let the mutant’s feeble claws impotently clang against my armored gauntlet, then I bring my left hand forward to punch him in the head. I don’t want to kill him yet, and normally I’d avoid punching the face… but his body is covered in so many growths and plague bubbles, I don’t know if hitting him in the torso would cause something to rupture.
He lands with the other two, and they help him up. Their eyes stay locked on me, and they’re snarling. Why aren’t they leaving? I tap the flat of my sword against my armored shin as I try to figure it out. There’s nothing for them here. They must realize they can’t kill me, and I’m giving them a chance to escape. Why don’t they take it? Even an animal knows when to cut its losses.
Dunwin jumps off the controls of the gun, “Aleks, they are flying this way.”
Dobas, too, grabs his halberd.
I glance to the air, and a dozen flying beasts, black as night, swoop down. Their bodies are covered in thin fur, their arms are merged with their black leathery wings, and their legs have talons on the end. Their faces vaguely resemble a human’s, but they have no nose, and their teeth are so sharp and jagged.
The flying beasts shoot into the hallway with a blinding speed, their wings open to let the wind carry them. I can tell their bodies are making only the most minute of adjustments to head in the direction they need. Mutated as they are, they seem well adjusted to flight, and all the beasts in the pack seem almost like a uniform species. Perhaps they only exist above the death cloud, and have avoided further mutation?
One of the beasts heads towards the mutants, on a direct course for the larger one I’ve beaten so thoroughly.
The flyers’ legs have six joints to them, ending off with four sharp talons spread evenly around the ankle. All joints shoot out at once, working together to increase the speed towards the mutant’s head.
But my body is faster.
I lunge forward and swing my sword in an upwards arch. The hollow bone of the beast’s leg is severed cleanly, though very little blood seeps out of the wound. That being said, I bring my left hand forward, grip his neck, then swing around and smash the flyers skull down against the metal ground. Dead instantly.
Raising my sword, I put my back to the mutants, then breathe in deep. “I’m the one you’ll fight, monsters!”
Even though my back is turned to them, the three mutants don’t attack me.
Just as I figured, they’re coherent enough to understand that I saved them, and am working to keep them alive. They’re sentient. They can understand and learn. We peldaks are the future masters of this world, and the whole galaxy. These three mutants are under my protection, and they recognize it.
These flyers, on the other hand, are not truly human. Their eyes are cold and pure black, like small marbles. I don’t see any real conciousness in them. They’re basically animals that have been morphed to look somewhat human, they’re not humans that have been deformed over time.
The hemlocks use their long halberds to swing and stab at the flying beasts, all the while dodging out of the way of their talons. I, meanwhile, shield the family of mutants with my body and swing where I can.
Through the haze of combat, I’m focused on not dying, protecting the mutants, and also observing how the hemlocks fight. It’s weird. They’ve no armor from what I can tell, just rags. Perhaps their bones form light protection, but it’s irrelevant anyway. They’re dodging all the flyers’ strikes, from no matter where they come.
With so many joints working in tandem, the talons flash out quickly. I have great reflexes so I can usually react in time, but some strikes get through and clang against my armor. For these hemlocks though, it’s like they’re dodging before the strikes even start. They dodge, then half a second later the flyers begin their attack, which only finds empty air as the hemlock has long since gotten out of the way. More like the hemlocks are predicting the strikes, rather than reacting to them. It doesn’t matter if they’re looking at the flyer, it doesn’t even look like they’re glancing around. Those rags don’t seem to offer a great range of visibility, so why does it seem like they have eyes in the back of their head?
I guess it doesn’t matter right now. Maybe it would be more difficult than I thought to take them down, but they’re good allies.
As I protect the mutant family, the flyers swarm around us.
I swing my sword this way and that, keeping them at a distance, but their legs are longer than my blade. Clang, clang, their talons scrape against my armor, unable to penetrate through hardened peldak steel.
Occasionally they slip between the gaps and dig into the chainmail underneath. The chainmail is quality and prevents them from digging far into my flesh, only a few centimeters. Enough to draw blood, but unless they go for my neck, I’ll be fine.
The mutants are huddled together, protecting the little one. They snarl and growl over the wind and animalistic screeches of the flyers, occasionally swatting at the beasts. They’re largely ineffectual, but I appreciate the fighting spirit.
More than once, I throw myself in the direction of an oncoming attack, using my chest as a shield for the family.
I catch one’s leg, then use it as leverage to bisect the beast from bottom to top. Bright red blood oozes from the two neat pieces as they plot to the ground.
From the corner of my eye, I see Dunwin spin out of the way of a beast’s lunge. He swings his halberd wide and the blade digs into its flank. The wound is deep, it’ll die soon.
A beast shoots his talon forward, aiming for my head, and I dodge a hair’s breadth too late. It slices open my cheek, the sharp sense of pain spreads through my body. This kind of pain reminds me that I’m alive! This is battle! Conquest! One day, when our position here is more secure, I look forward to marching with the legions as we conquer the lands beneath the death cloud.
Also, I swing my arm and slice off the beasts foot. It doesn’t get to wound me and escape with its life. It screeches and flails around the hallway wildly.
The dumb beasts don’t form a coherent strategy to deal with me. Swipe after swipe clangs against my armor, but they can’t figure out that it’s pointless. As I and the hemlocks cut them down more and more, they don’t even think to retreat.
Perhaps there’s a sunk cost mentality on this world. As I skewer a flyer through the chest and throw his body to the side, I have to imagine retreat isn’t an option for them. They’ve taken too many losses, their group won’t be able to survive if they pull out now.
Or maybe I’m wrong and overthinking this. They could just be stupid animals.
Ultimately, I guess my thoughts are unecessary.
These creatures are no match for the hemlocks and I. The only people in danger are the mutants, but I’m not a poor enough soldier to let anything slip through.
Just as I dispatch the last flyer around me, I turn to the hemlocks and see them both swing their halberds horizontally, slicing a flyer into three sections.
It’s over. A nice workout, but this outcome was inevitable. The cut on my cheek hurts, and I have a few small wounds beneath my chainmail, but the damage isn’t that bad.
“Haaa,” I sigh before turning to the mutants. They’re looking around, glancing at the corpses of the flyers, then they turn to me. Slowly, I bring my left hand forward. My palm and wrist are turned up, a sign of peace.
The biggest mutant is hesitant, but I can see he senses no hostility in my gesture. Carefully, he brings his hand up, then gently places it on mine.
I smile, and even beneath his deformed face, I can see him smile too.
It’s said that even those who were born blind know how to smile. These mutants are human.
Then they stop smiling. They bare their teeth and hunch forward, hissing and growling. It’s not directed towards me though, is a flyer still alive?
Turning around, I see Dunwin and Dobas. Their halberds are at the ready. There’s this certain kind of killing intent oozing off of them, a bloodlust I’ve seen often, and occasionally let out myself.
“Aleks. Move.” Dunwin orders.
Dobas is characteristically silent, but stands by his friend’s words.
“Why? Got something in mind?”
“I am going to kill the mutants behind you.”
“…” I grip the handle of my unsheathed sword tight, “oh no, there’s no need. They’re fine.”
“They are mutants, Aleks.” His words are harsh and matter-of-fact, like that’s supposed to explain it.
“And I’m an alien. What’s your point?”
“You came from the stars, they came from the clouds. They need to die.”
“Oh, is that right?” I say with a raised eyebrow and a taunting expression, “I wouldn’t say that’s true. They’re no threat to us. Or, at least, no threat to me.”
Dunwin’s voice grows harsher, “their existence is a threat. They are beasts, and too clever for their own good. They attack our patrols, they direct monsters towards our holdings, they steal and sabatoge. If the hemlock have any hope of surviving, mutants need to be eradicated from our world. They cannot escape.”
Dobas nods, but keeps his head angled towards the mutants behind me. They’re a good distance away, but the pair are unexpectedly athletic. If I let my guard down, they could slip those halberds past me and kill the mutants.
“See, I can’t let you do that though. These mutants are human, they can be reasoned with.”
“They are mutants. Not hemlock, not from the Protectorate. If they could be reasoned with, it would have happened by now.”
“Then why aren’t they attacking? My back is turned, I’m wide open. Clearly, we’ve come to an understanding.”
“I already said they are too clever for their own good. They know to take advantage of an idiot not smart enough to see through their deception.”
“…” The wind howls through the hall, only the impotent growls and snarls of the mutants cut through it.
“Alright,” I say, “forget the mutants.” I grab the pistol from my thigh and point it at Dunwin’s heart. The hemlocks tighten and lower their stances, ready to dodge at a moment’s notice. “You wanna die for that ‘idiot’ comment?” I won’t let that slide.
I narrow my brow.
Dunwin leans forward ever so slightly.
I slowly press my finger against the trigger…
Suddenly Dobas drops his halberd and jumps in the middle, frantically shifting his gaze between us while waving his arms, signaling us to stop.
“Dobas?” I raise an eyebrow but don’t take my eyes off Dunwin.
“What is it,” Dunwin demands to know.
I wish the mutants would just flee already. Why are they still here?
Dobas makes all kinds of hand signals to Dunwin. I understand none of it.
“What’s he saying?” I ask.
“He is saying our mission is to man this gun and make friends with the peldaks. If we kill you…” he waits for Dobas to signal more, “then we will have failed our task… if letting the mutants go makes you happy, we should do it.”
“Smart man, though a bit full of yourself to think you could kill me.”
Dunwin lowers his halberd first, then I lower my pistol. The mutants slow their howling, but stay alert.
With a final nod, I turn my back on the hemlocks, then crouch down to meet the mutants eye to eye. Well, their eyes are a bit wonky.
“We’re giving you a chance to get out of here,” I say, calmly. “Take it, go. Run back to your vents. I’ll bring news back to the peldaks that our protection needs to extend to you as well, but for now, you need to leave.”
The smallest cocks his head, a distinctly human gesture that seems to translate well to their kind. They have no idea what I’m saying.
I point to the vent they crawled through, “goooooo, awaaaaaaay.” Talking slower should do the trick. “Beeeeegooooone.”
They have no idea what I’m trying to tell them. Maybe-
My ears perk at the sound of something metal being kicked across the floor. At the same time, the mutants’ eyes constrict in surprise and fear. So that’s how it is? The hemlocks got me to turn my back, now they’re attacking? Cowards.
With excellent reflexes honed from centuries of combat, I rise to my feet and turn around. Both of them are charging this way, their halberds out. I react faster than they can, sliding to the right and swinging my sword to parry Dunwin’s spear, while bringing my left forearm up so Dobas’s blade slides off my gauntlet and out of the way of the mutant.
My timing isn’t perfect.
I swing my sword too quickly and don’t even touch Dunwin’s blade. The spear of his halberd connects with my breastplate. His surprisingly strong arms force the spear through steel, puncturing the chainmail underneath, and digging into my flesh.
“Hgck!” Is the gutteral sound I make from the sudden pain in my right lung.
My left forearm, similarly, is misplaced. Rather than Dobas’s spear harmlessly sliding up the metal, it goes straight through. The tip of the blade even breaks through the other side of my gauntlet. Blood drips down from my arm, and the mutants jump back, screaming at the hemlocks for what they’ve done.
The hemlocks stand there. Stunned? I wonder what emotions are swirling around beneath their rags.
“…We did not mean to hurt you.”
I glare at them both, my brow tight. I cough, and a bit of blood comes out. My lung was definitely punctured. “Well then, you don’t get to complain about what happens next!”
I drop my sword and bring my right hand down to grip Dunwin’s halberd. At the same time, I twist my left forearm to pinch the blade so Dobas can’t move it. Then, I charge forward.
The hemlocks are taken so off guard that they try to backpedale but only manage to trip over themselves. I twist my body to swing the halberds around and further bring them off balance.
Simultaneously, I pull my left arm free of the spear while I push Dunwin’s halberd out of my chest and pull it to the side. I close the distance to the hemlocks and they can’t move fast enough. Coiling my right hand into a fist, I punch Dunwin in the chest with all my might, knocking the wind out of him and forcing him to drop his weapon.
Dobas tries to back away, but I’m too quick! Grabbing his collar, I yank him closer, then bash my forehead against his. It aches, and my head bleeds, but it hurts him more.
To finish them off, I wrap my arms around their shoulders in a tight hug. I can’t connect my hands, so I turn to the left and charge forward. Their backs hit the metal wall and I hold them in place.
Only slightly disoriented from the pain and headache, I yell “go! Get out of here, now!”
The mutants should be able to understand the urgency in my voice.
The hemlocks aren’t struggling yet, but I don’t know how long it’ll be until they recover. I glance back and… the mutants quickly shuffle over to the balcony.
“What are you..?”
They climb atop the giant gun, and the largest mutant uses his claws to rip something out of it. It’s a strange part with a curious shape, I have no idea what it does, but the mutant holds it up like it’s some kind of grand prize. Only once it’s secured do they turn to leave. Howls, hollers, victory screeches, I watch them head down the hallway until they find the vent they came in through. They climb up the walls one by one and, before they disappear, each turns to me with a great big smile. The smallest one also waves.
So that’s what they came here for? They wanted to steal something from the gun? Why we’re they so desperate, willing to die for it?
I purse my lips as my eyes go wide. I’m sweating, and my stomach hurts. How important was that piece? Did I just allow an enemy to sabatoge our defenses?
I gulp, then release the hemlocks, letting them slide down the wall until they hit the floor. Dunwin is gasping for breath, coughing slightly, and Dobas is completely out of it. A lot of blood is coming out of the gash on my forehead, so maybe I hit him harder than I intended.
Well… morally, my actions were justified! They were human, they could be communicated with, I was right! It was only after the hemlocks started the fight that I got distracted! Of course I wouldn’t have just let anyone stroll in and take a part from our machine. But the hemlocks stabbed me.
The two slowly manage to pick themselves up from the floor while I collect my sword and return to my box. I want to see if the gun still works but my left arm is bleeding quite a lot, as is my forehead, and my right lung is messed up. My breathing is bad, I feel blood sloshing around in there.
“When do we,” I cough up more blood, “head back to the safe zone? I need a doctor.”
Dunwin stretches his back and takes a few deep breaths. “When someone comes to take our place on this gun.” He slowly gets up, walks to Dobas’s halberd, then tosses it to him. “Why risk your life for mutants?”
Hopefully they weren’t concious when the mutants stole that piece. “Th-they didn’t deserve to die, idiot. I would have done the same for you.” I look down at the blood dripping off me, then I tighten one of the straps on my gauntlet. It’s tight enough to stem the bleeding. “Well, maybe not right now.”
“We are not mutants.”
“All I know is you’re not peldaks. The specifics beyond that bore me, to be honest.”
Case in point, I doubt they could carry on a conversation with a punctured lung. There are real, tangible differences between us. I used those differences to beat them both up. But that’s just the way it goes for us peldaks, sometimes we have to knock some sense into people that don’t have any.
But even though I won, how am I the most wounded person out of everyone?
Whatever. I stay on this box and try not to agitate my injuries further. Dunwin and Dobas, after being concious when the mutants stole that part, went to the gun to inspect it. They went through the usual process, sliding back and forth, up and down, then shooting. When the gun reloads automatically, however, there’s a horrific grinding noise that puts me on edge, like nails on a chalkboard, hightened by my sensitive ears.
“You are lucky that the gun still fires.”
“Y-yeah… lucky me.” I say as I rub my ears after such a traumatic noise. I guess the piece was meant to keep that grinding from happening.
But with their inspection done, Dunwin heads out to the balcony, though there are no more flying beasts. Dobas returns to his spot, and continues eating his meal. Thanks to the container, it should still be hot. My mouth waters as I watch him eat, that watery stick just didn’t cut it.
The hour passes by without further incident, though I notice my conciousness slowly fade. It could be blood loss, or disease passing into my many open wounds. I keep sneezing, which hurts my lungs, and there are a few bouts of coughing to expel the accumulated blood.
By the time the next patrol arrives, I can barely stand. My head hurts, I have a headache, my left hand is completely numb, I’m hot, and I can’t stay steady on my feet.
Dunwin and Dobas grant the new hemlocks right to use the gun, and I wave to the new peldak.
“You look terrible,” he says confidently. “Are the mutants of this world really that dangerous?”
I shake my head, sneeze, then wipe my nose on my gauntlet. “no…” I gesture to the hemlocks, “it was them.”
He raises an eyebrow, but I shuffle off alongside the pair as we return up top. But I turn back, “oh, and, uh… sorry about the noise you’ll hear.” That really puzzles him, but he’ll figure it out soon.
“We have a long way to march until home.” Dunwin says.
“We do…” I struggle to get out as I sniff deeply.
“We will be going up stairs.”
“We would be more than willing to carry you the distance. As apology for stabbing you.”
“…” Calculating the distance we have to go, how many levels we have to scale… it’s a lot, but… no. No way can I accept that. “I’ll be fine.”
Then, Dobas raises my arm and wraps it over his shoulder. Rather than carry me, he’s just supporting my weight. His steps are perfectly in tune with mine, and he’s taking pressure off my chest. He looks to me.
“…Fine. This is okay.”
He nods, and we head back to the safe zone together.
I give command my observations about how the hemlocks fight, and they’re impressed that Dunwin and Dobas were able to give me the worst wounds. Beyond a new level of respect, nothing happens to them. Sometimes tempers flare and you stab each other on patrol, it happens, no need to get mad or punish them. But I spend the next four days in a field hospital being treated for half a dozen different disease, all of which would be fatal without medicine.
I guess I see why we don’t go beneath the death cloud.