Tsara walked between the thick, grated shelving with her clipboard and pen. James had set up fluorescent bulbs along the ceiling of the whole adobe building. The lights had a faint hum, but they were nearly as bright as the sunlight shining through the high window.
The inventory of gears, wires, nuts, bolts and more was overwhelming. Tsara was tall enough to scan the top shelves on her tiptoes. She almost tripped over a thick metal cube that James had often used to reach Tsara’s height.
Her peers used to make fun of Tsara’s height growing up, until Deborah came along. Tsara had been ten, and Deborah was seventeen. Tsara’s quips hadn’t been harsh enough to deter bullies. Deborah’s fighting lessons had helped though.
Twenty years old now, Tsara was finally working a job that she enjoyed. Her family, minus James, was fairly high on the village council’s shit list. Her father had been demoted from Head Engineer to Head of Sanitation for nearly sixteen years. An important job on its own, but Tsara’s father had preferred a position where he did more than basic maintenance.
Deborah had been promoted amongst the scouts quicker than most. Tsara wasn’t sure if Deborah really was one of the best, or if the council just liked to keep her out of the village as often as possible. Tsara’s older sister only cared about a safe place to call home, so Deborah rarely complained about village politics and the like.
Tsara had worked every odd job she was allowed, which wasn’t much. The villagers were often nice enough, but the veiled threats of the council had kept many from hiring her. She had always liked her brief stint as a freelance janitor, moving from shop to shop when needed. One of her clients had let Tsara help with decorative crafts like dream catchers and doormats.
James had been a respected member of the community like his parents. Tsara had met him in the sheriff’s office when she was claiming Deborah after a bar brawl. James had been there to drop off a shell loader he had restored.
She still smiled when she thought about him. He could rattle off mechanical jargon without skipping a beat, but James could barley ask her out for dinner.
There was a pounding on the front garage door. Tsara left the clipboard lay and jogged to out to the larger area where James had four vehicles under maintenance. The floor was the smoothest slab of concrete in the village.
Tsara nearly blinded herself when she whipped the front door open. The sun was much higher than when she had started inventory. The messenger smiled wide, “James has a tank.”
Tears immediately filled Tsara’s eyes as she ran away from the garage.
Tate threw his head back, wiping the cool, clean water back through his long, dirty blonde hair. On his knees, Tate was bent over at the waist in front of the white marble fountain. The round base was nearly as wide as the tank. In the center of the base, a large bowl sat atop the water. Tate could easily curl into a ball inside of it.
Above the second level was yet another bowl of water, but nearly half of it had been broken off. Overall, the fountain was in great shape, with only a few noticeable cracks throughout. Tate stared up at the broken bowl; six streams of water shot into the air. Three landed in the base, the others fell into the lower bowl.
Brody’s deep, gentle voice called out, “Chief?”
Tate wiped his brown eyes clear; he could feel his red face paint smearing away. Still on his knees, he looked around the fountain to the few tribesmen he had left. No one wore the red paint on their faces or bodies unless they left the oasis.
Nineteen villagers and one newborn surrounded Tate in their loose, tattered pants. The younglings were often barefoot. Good boots and shoes were reserved for the adults. Anyone too old to run were provided sandals, unless their shoes were too worn down to pass on.
James and his vamper had killed five of his people. Genie had survived just long enough to be a meal for more vampers.
Including himself, Tate counted twenty. He pushed himself up to sit on the fountain’s edge. “Brody, who else is missing?”
Brody was taller and broader than Tate, but he had never made a play to be chief. The big man had slanted eyes and spiked black hair. “Gonzo and Pina went looking for you. Took six scouts.”
Tate pointed to Stevie in the crowd, “Get them on the radio.” The little girl nodded and ran across the white brick plaza to the marble radio tower.
Brody spoke up, “Gonzo said he wanted radio silence.”
Tate rolled his head around to crack his neck, “Of course he did.” He looked around at the group of Red Bones he had left. Five laborers. Eight kids, one baby. Four slaves not fit to fight. Two cripples. Gonzo has seven raiders.
“Brody, when you get a hold of Gonzo, tell him to come back. I want Pina to follow the tank for as long as possible.” Tate pointed to the slave girl with the longest legs, “You.” The submissive blonde didn’t hesitate to join Tate’s side. He took the leather leash that she offered him, “Brody, I’m taking a nap.”
James blindly tossed the tank’s key to the small crowd of scouts and engineers. Among the blocky, adobe buildings of the village, he saw Tsara kick up a small dust trail as she ran to him. The young mechanic limped as quickly as he could to her.
Tsara pounced James to the sand. He hugged Tsara around her waist as she grabbed his face and kissed him rigorously. He tried to speak between gasps, but Tsara ended with a slap to his face.
Her hand could cover half of James’ face. From chin to temple, he could already feel the left side of his face stinging. Tsara grabbed him by his tank top straps, tears falling on his chest. She cried, “Don’t ever do that to me again! Are you limping? Did I slap you too hard? I really didn’t think I’d slap you, I was so worried sick about you! What’s that bandage on your arm?”
James smirked, “Come here.” He squeezed the woman tightly to his chest. Tsara may have been a head taller than James, but he knew how fragile she could be. He ran his fingers through her short brown hair. “I’m back.”
Tsara’s sobbing eased away. She looked up to James with tears still filling her deep blue eyes. “Where’s Debbie?”
She looked up towards the tank and the small crowd, “Debbie!”
James softly clenched Tsara’s shoulders. “Deb’s gone.”
Tsara’s face scrunched together, her tears still welling, her nose running. “No.” She shook her head back and forth, short strands of her frizzled hair clung to her eyes and edges of her mouth. The young woman collapsed backwards.
James sat up and knelt over her, “Tsara, baby, listen to me.” He gently swept Tsara’s hair from her face.
“She always comes back. Always.”
James pulled Tsara back to his chest and rubbed her back. “I’m so, so sorry babe.” It’s my fault. He was getting choked up just thinking the words. Dear God how can I tell her?
“Where? Where’s her…”
“Tsara, she just, left. I don’t know where she is.”
James lowered his voice, “I’ll tell you everything. In private.” He looked around to see if anyone was eavesdropping, “Right now, I just really, really need some water and food.”
The oasis was surrounded by smooth, towering walls of orange stone. The edges of the crater sloped down into a central base with lush, green palm trees, bushes and more. A large clearing sat in the center of the small jungle, with a few white marble buildings basking in the sunlight.
Gonzo steadily let the jeep trickle its way down to the bottom of the bowl. The oasis had a fountain in the center of a few buildings. The closest structure to the fountain was a small cubic shack with a rusted radio tower on the roof.
Along the left side of the plaza was a garage with ten bays. Tate had tried to fit the tank inside once; he had never fixed the overhead door or the chunk of wall that was missing. Jackass.
The opposite side of the plaza had two houses with cracked, brown tiles on the rooftops. Since the last election, Gonzo was reduced to living with the children and elders. The other house was for the laborers and slaves.
At the far end of the fountain was the mansion. Wider than both houses combined, the white material seemed to be a more pristine, white marble that made up the plaza and other structures. Giant green globes with gold trimmings sat at each corner, and the utmost center of the pyramid roof. Tate and his raiders lived in there, though it was easily big enough for the whole tribe.
Gonzo coasted the jeep to the garage. Brody and another laborer were waiting for him. Gonzo parked the jeep and saluted two fingers to the sniper in the radio tower. He could barely see the rifleman wave back.
Brody and his partner joined Gonzo as he walked towards the fountain. Brody was strong, a bit taller than Gonzo or Tate, but was too slow to be a good fighter. Given our recent losses, he’s one of the better fighters we have left.
“Gonzo, we’ve been trying to hail you all morning. Tate came back.”
Not surprised, tough little prick. “Radio’s busted. Where is he?”
“Fucking.” The other laborer was a little too young for Gonzo, but she looked like she knew how to use the spear she was carrying.
Gonzo felt his eye twitch and dryly replied, “Yeah. Great time for that right now.”
Brody’s deep voice sounded concerned, “Where’s everyone else? Did Pina’s radio get busted too?”
Gonzo dropped to his knees at the fountain. Between handfuls of water, he spoke, “I’ll tell you where… We all got wiped out by a vamper ambush.” He draped his hair and spiked goatee with fresh water. “And we got ambushed cause our great leader fucked up.”
The man wiped his eyes clear and stared at the mansion. Brody responded, “Tate found this place. He keeps us safe, and happy to be alive for a change. Anything can happen out there in the sand.”
Gonzo licked off the front of his upper teeth. “Yeah, well, maybe he doesn’t have anything left to give us. How many people did we lose to the vamper nest over the valley? How many of us did he send into those tunnels to save his old man? How many did he lose on a simple raid for two people?
“I lost seven of our clan to find Tate. We never should’ve looked for him at night! You know why we did? Cause that arrogant asshole has half this tribe so hooked on his shrooms and herbs that everyone thought their faces would melt off if he didn’t come back!
“You know what else? I don’t see his tank. If Tate’s here, and the tank ain’t, then he doesn’t have any fuckin’ product to use for leverage.”
Brody shook his head, “Don’t do it Gonzo. You won’t win.”
Gonzo sniffed a laugh, “What do I have to lose? If I die then at least I don’t have to watch the Red Bones die in the hands of a fuckin’ child.”
Pina put her jeep in park. The fit woman’s knuckles where white, even after she left go of the wheel. Her passenger pushed her to take longer strides. Pina kept her hands spread as instructed.
Pina asked, “How does your tribe deal with vampers? We like to burn ours at nighttime. It lures in the feral vampers like bugs to a lamp. We got some fire throwers that do ‘em up like barbeque.”
Deborah shoved the older woman once more. The sun beat down on her assortment of rags and a thin brown jacket that reached her knees. The heat made her feel like she was in an oven, even with ample clothing. Does the heat feel worse now that I’ve fully transformed?
Pina stopped short of the edge of the canyon and pointed to the bottom. “Doesn’t matter what you do to me. My clan’s gonna shove a pike up your ass and let the sun melt ya.”
Deborah clasped her gloved hand around Pina’s skinny throat as she looked over the edge. She was glad she had thick sunglasses to tame down the blaring white village below. Beautiful.
A mansion, two houses, a radio tower and a garage all built from a vibrant, white material sat at the center of the basin. A large lake of clear blue water lay behind the mansion. Deborah and Pina stood well over ten stories from the cliff to the rounded bottom.
She felt Pina try to throw her down the pit. Deborah was hindered by the sun, but she had been waiting for her hostage to try this. The vampire stiffened her arm and rotated her shoulder forward. Deborah dislocated her own shoulder and put Pina in a headlock with her good arm.
Pina was light enough that Deborah easily dragged her back to the jeep. Deborah shot her knee up into Pina’s solar plexus and held the headlock until the woman passed out, and dropped her.
Deborah wrapped her arm between the jeep’s roll bar and driver seat. The vampire popped her shoulder back in place with deep crack. She stayed low and crawled back to the edge of the crater to look back down to the home of the Red Bones. Fuck you Tate.