James and Deborah leaned forward to help the buggy’s momentum reach the top of the dusty plateau. The vehicle’s red frame shook when James slammed the brakes. He and Deborah scanned the ruined campsite in silence. Only the faint electric hum of the buggy could be heard.
Deborah insisted, “We need to leave.”
The mechanic turned the key back two clicks. The motor faded silent and the solar bubbles emerged from around the frame to gather the afternoon sunlight. Fist sized, lightly dusted globes poked out from behind the headlights, taillights and headrests. The automatic light detection wasn’t working, so James quickly bent the flexible posts to point the globes at the sun.
James flipped over the gauntlet on his left forearm. On the other side of the harpoon controls, the time read eleven forty-three A.M. Good time for a quick charge. Then he glanced to Deborah, one foot in the buggy, the other in the sand. She pulled her black hood a little lower. James would never forgive himself for failing her.
Shotgun in hand, James turned back to Ryback and Reese’s camp. Their truck was easily twice the size of Deborah’s buggy, six batteries for six wheels, and a shattered ultraviolet spotlight mounted alongside a heavy machine gun. The red frame was fitted with bullet proof armor and glass, both doors hanging open.
Brass casings shined at the base of the truck and a few meters around. The plateau was mostly rock, with just enough sand to make out the struggle. A torn blue backpack lay toppled alongside a mangled set of aluminum pots and pans.
Deborah’s gravely voice snuck up on him. “Two or more dragged Reese over the northern edge. Found Ryback.”
James spun back to the truck. Deborah was hunched over the crime scene, pointing under the truck. A knot welled up in the mechanic’s stomach. He stepped closer to drop to a knee and examined the bulky arm. Black skin was torn to shreds with a mutilated, red and black tattoo. The picture of a snake used to run from Ryback’s right shoulder to his fist.
If he had any food in his gut, James might have something to vomit. Dry heaves convulsed his body as he fell against the truck. He felt Deborah hovering behind him. “We need to leave.”
Okay Miss Sensitive. The young man felt bad for thinking that. She had spent more time alone in the sand than anyone from the village. Sensitivity didn’t keep her alive. James closed his eyes and grabbed his forehead. “Let me see if the truck runs.”
He let his arm drop to look at his sister-in-law. She looked down at him with a blank stare, then finally nodded and turned away.
James closed his eyes for a deep breath, doing his best to ignore the smell of fresh meat. The mechanic grabbed the open truck door to help himself stand. He set the shotgun on the driver seat and leaned in. The key was turned to neutral, the charge meter sat in the lower fifth, almost red.
He clicked the key to turn on and felt all six batteries turn on with a low hum. Cold air blasted into Jame’s face. The initial blast kicked some dust, but he still forced himself to turn it off. He moved the shotgun to the passenger seat and hopped in behind the wheel.
Blood was splattered across the windshield. It looked like a hand had smeared it as the driver fell out of the seat. James forced his eyes closed and gripped the wheel even tighter. Deep breaths. James had killed before, been to funerals. He had stayed in the village because he knew he couldn’t handle it. I shouldn’t be out here. I don’t know what I’m doing.
He jumped when Deborah grabbed his arm. She gave him that same blank stare. It wouldn’t have been so jarring to James if she hadn’t lost so much weight overnight. She held a camel pack in her fat-free arm. “You need more water.”
James tried to grin as he accepted it. “Thanks.” He uncapped the straw and took four careful swallows. He exhaled relief. “Thanks.”
Deborah managed a small smirk, a glimmer of humanity he didn’t see often. “One ‘thank you’ is good enough James.”
He smiled back, “Well I’m doubly grateful.”
She resumed her grim attitude. “I’m sorry we couldn’t help them.”
James felt his whole body slump. “Yeah…”
Deborah broke the silence, “Well, we should get back.”
James nodded agreement. He hadn’t realized it, but Deborah knelt down to gather a few other backpacks she had already collected from the campsite. She called over her shoulder as she threw the bags in the truck bed, “Want me to lead?”
James’ attention snapped to the crack of a distant firearm. Before he could discern the direction, the truck vibrated slightly. A dulled bullet half the width of James’ pinky had formed a miniscule cobweb of shattered windshield in front of his face.
Before he could react, James heard another distant shot. The mechanic ducked beneath the steering wheel, but he didn’t hear an impact. A brief moment passed before his eyes widened. He quickly twisted to yell out the open door, “Deb?”
Deborah was untouched. She stood in the open with her arms outstretched, her black cloak on the ground. The woman had her eyes closed and chin raised.
“Dammit!” James sat up in the heavily armored truck, accelerated, and turned it sideways in front of Deborah. He yelled, “The hell am I supposed to tell Tsara?”
She kept her arms up but let her head drop to stare back. “I won’t be a freak of nature.”
Before James could even think of a reply, Deborah burst into a sprint and easily leapt over the truck bed. She landed at the edge of the plateau and raised her arms again. “Do it! Come on! Kill me!”
James noticed the passenger door was still open. They could’ve shot me easily. Then he clicked a lever on the dash into reverse. Sorry Deb. The truck flew backwards, and James slammed the open door into Deborah, dragging her back out of the sniper’s line of sight.
The mechanic slammed the driver door shut and climbed over the seat. Deborah’s eyes were closed. “Shit!” James jumped out and lifted her into the passenger seat.
So light. Too light. He climbed back over her, closed the door and drove past the buggy. He’d only had to fix Deborah’s “red sled” a handful of times. She had never pushed her vehicle like anyone else. She had claimed she didn’t know much about cars, but enough to keep it running smoothly. He had always respected her for that.
He didn’t want to leave the little buggy, but it wouldn’t stop a bullet. Especially a bullet that managed to put a hole in a triple-forged polymer-resin windshield designed to deflect bullets. The buggy had James’ toolbox, but not much else he needed. I have three of everything anyway.
James accidentally ramped the truck over the plateau’s edge. All six wheels had great suspension, Deborah didn’t shoot awake, and James kept his bearings just fine. The rusted, gray armored pickup truck bounced its way out of the raised canyon and made its way to the mostly flat dunes not far away. A few purple tumbleweeds and some dead, white trees were scattered over the plains.
The truck moved quickly enough to kick up dust. He forced himself to keep slow enough to easily dodge sharp falls in the orange sand. James plotted a fairly straight path and examined his right hand. It trembled the way it had when he had killed his first victim. He reclaimed the wheel and shook his head from left to right. I got this. We’re going home.
Movement caught his attention in the side mirror. Behind his thin trail of dust, a much darker, much larger cloud of dirt was rising. Please be a sand storm. He knew it wasn’t. Shit.
* * *
Tate considered himself a level-headed, fair leader. He was elected, fair and square to lead the group of twenty-four men and women. He may have crippled the other candidate before the election, but the other man had had the same opportunity.
Nearing seventeen, Tate was taller than most men he’d ever known. He gained muscle easily, but only when he had a steady diet. His people had done very well in the last few cycles. The sun was kind to him, granting him a hard tan; making his facial scars a distinct shade of white. Facial hair was still lost on him, but his dirty blonde hair was thick, draping past his shoulder blades.
He was in charge of securing resources for his people. They had gone more than nine primary lunar cycles before finding an oasis. Tate’s group had made a nice big camp around that watering hole. It was on the fringes of vamper territory, but they had plenty of ethanol flamethrowers, and none of the vampers were very smart. Tate’s tribe was winning the war, but the vampers had a large collection of bodies as well.
Tate shifted gears in his hauler tank. Two well-greased, thick and heavy treads ran along its sides. The cockpit was designed for one man, the windshield was round with flat bars crisscrossing at enough random points to keep the cracked resin together. His hauler was twice his own considerable height, heavily rusted, with a few chips of bright yellow remaining.
Local vampers were the only competition Tate had had to worry about. Now he had four foreigners poking their noses in the vamper caves. Tate’s sniper had reported three being dragged in for breakfast, with one man going in at dawn.
The hauler rig almost looked like a wedge with the rear end widening towards the cockpit. The treads were more like trapezoids, Tate’s favorite shape. Behind the wedge of a tank, he usually hauled a trailer carrying a flamethrower operator, another with a harpoon gun and two fighters with spears and other melee weapons. They were only going after one truck, so he had left it behind in exchange for speed.
Tate had monitors inside his cockpit; the corresponding cameras protruding from different areas of the rig. He puffed his thick joint with a nod when he saw his other two vehicles following him on each side. He barely felt the rig tilt back and forth along the small dunes, even when he crushed a few dead trees. They were small and hollow to begin with; nothing but white splinters when he ran over them.
On the center most monitor above Tate, he spread his fingers to zoom his camera in. The thin dust cloud ahead wasn’t far, but it was beginning to thicken. Tate flicked the “talk” switch at his armrest. “Attention Red Bones, this scout and his vamper woman cannot escape. We’ve worked too hard, and lost too much for our slice of heaven. Praise Tate.”
Through the clanking treads to either side, and the reinforced windshield, Tate could still hear the loudspeakers on the other two vehicles. “Praise Tate!” He smiled with another puff as the faster trucks speed off ahead. Tate often wondered why his tribe started painting red skeletons on their bodies in the first place. It’s not even detailed. Just a line down the middle with lazy rib cages and stupid stripes down the arms.
Tate didn’t have to keep contact with the controls. He only had to lock some levers in place to monitor direction and speed. There were a few levers for functions that the rig couldn’t do, or made no noticeable difference. A fellow tribesman had informed Tate that the rig used to be able to drill through solid rock in minutes. Shouldn’t have dismantled it when we found the thing. Could’ve drilled into the vamper caves in the daylight or something.
Random visions of melting vampers flourished through Tate’s mind. He laughed in a high pitch cackle that he heard echo. The teenager grinned with a grimace, “Oh shit!” Quickly, he leaned forward and turned the loudspeaker off again. “Can’t let them know what I’m thinking… or laughing… or can I?” The stoned leader leaned back and wondered if his laughing would affect morale. Maybe if it’s a ferocious laugh? He exhaled with a grin and nodded, “Shway.”