FE Project – Unfinished (2010)

I started working on a well-publicized NaNoWriMo project for Fallen Earth in November 2010. Little more than a week into it, I was laid off.

June 13, 2156

I woke up, flat on my back as the first sliver of the morning sun crept over the ridge of Brenhauer Gorge against a bloody purple-red sky. Glittering black eyes peered down at me: A scabrous vulture, talons clutching the upper curve of an ancient marble headstone.

If I had come around much later, I might’ve awakened to find that ugly bastard’s beak poking around my entrails.

The Gully Dogs aren’t known for their originality. They’d left me for dead in a cemetery behind an old pre-Fall church in what remained of a company town called Terance.

They grabbed both my pistols. Ammo. Took my boots too. Assholes!

I’d almost made it. They’d been after the all-terrain vehicle, of course. Sure, it was battered and mostly held together by hope and rusty staples, but it worked. It had a full tank of gasoline sloshing inside, with a couple of spare gallons in reserve. The ATV also held what supplies I had left. And the package.

My stomach lurched. I could live without the ATV. I knew people. I could get another. But that package had been meant for Enzo Scarpelli, the boss in charge of Depot 66, and I’d been given the seemingly simple job of making sure that package got to him safely.

So close. So very close. Looking northwest, I could see the ramshackle rollercoaster tracks rising against that blood blister sky.

I held out the slim hope that the bandits might have ditched everything else before making off with the ATV. Got to my bare feet. I felt a little dizzy. Touched a couple of fingers to my forehead. Nice welt there, just over the right eye. Made a good companion to the throbbing ache on the back of my head. They’d pistol-whipped me, nabbed my gear, and made off with just about everything that stood between me and extinction.

I walked past the broken-down church with the time-strangled bell. Small dust clouds swirled around my feet as I approached the rocky shoulder of the old-time asphalt road. Didn’t take long to spy the spot where I pulled over when they aimed their guns at me. They didn’t leave much behind. I recognized the crumpled soup tins – I’d kept the empties. Never know when they might come in handy. I found my lucky canteen. It had a slug hole right in the middle, sealed by duct tape and tin foil. In the nearby bushes, I found my loose-leaf notebook journal. In the dirt, found my precious pen. Looked like one of the bandits picked his nose with it. Nasty fuckers.

No sign of the green metal box, though.

I don’t even know what is inside. All I know is that it was important, it was locked, and the key had been sent separately to Boss Scarpelli.

The key, I heard, made it just fine.

Now, I face the very real prospect of walking into Depot 66 to break the bad news to a man who doesn’t respond well to disappointment.

No, thank you very much. Not while I still have my wits about me. Not while I have a trail left to follow, like the trio of tire tracks leading off to the southeast.

The lowest-rate bandits around, the Gully Dogs tend to attract the washouts who can’t make the cut to join the Enforcers – and it’s not like those jackboots are super particular when it comes to the quality of their recruits. These yokels don’t know much about covering their trail.

Soon, I’ll hunt them down, kill them, recover my stuff, and then make sure the package reaches Boss Scarpelli. First, I need some shoes, a decent knife, a sack big enough for their heads, and a last known mailing address for their mothers.

If I can, I’ll deliver that sack myself.

***
Scribbled in the left margin: FIRST GUY – Short, tubby, bald with a scar running from right eye to left ear. Wearing tattered patchwork shirt, too tight on his gut. Shoulder patch. Looks like old pre-Fall police uniform. New Flagstaff PD?

Scribbled in the right margin: SECOND GUY – Tall, gaunt, with shaggy black hair and a bushy beard. Dressed all in black. Scarecrow? Ninja-wannabe?

Scribbled along the bottom margin: Maybe killing’s not the way to go. If they’ve returned to a familiar base of operations, they’ll know the terrain better than me. They’ll have numbers on their side. They’ll also have weapons. Probably mine among them.

Scribbled upside down along the top margin: Scam?

***
“A little help, please?” This wiry guy in a familiar dark blue jacket and pants went running past along the ridge of Brenhauer Gorge with a squawking monstrosity in hot pursuit. The creature scampered on two legs, waving two stumpy little arms, with two large fangs jutting from the lower jaw below a pair of bulbous eyes. The prairie chicken looked like a horrifying fleshy gasbag, about twice the size of the prey it was chasing.

Honestly, it looked comical, up to a point.

I sat on a badly chipped tomb of polished granite, watching as the fellow fled from the angry mutant chicken monster. How could I possibly help? I didn’t even have shoes, let alone a weapon. What did he expect me to do? Maybe I could stand on the tomb, wave my arms, and make loud bok-bok noises! Or I could threaten to fetch a deep fryer! Or, just maybe, I could strike up a reasonable conversation with the beast, expressing sympathy for the deep-seated frustration it must feel about having arms too short to hug with.

So, yeah, I actually smirked a little at the sight. It didn’t seem so funny, though, when the prairie chicken impaled the poor guy through the back with the left fang. He lifted right off the ground, his boots casting shadows above the swirling dust in the glow of the midday sun, and then the prairie chicken flung him over the graveyard fence before huffing indignantly and wandering away.

The dead guy landed with a blood-soaked thump in the weeds about five feet from me. He had a holstered pistol. The boots looked just slightly too big for me, but I thought they’d do. I knew I didn’t have long – that collar around his neck already got to blinking and bleeping, doing that voodoo it did, processing, preparing.

I jumped down from the tomb, yanked off the clone’s boots, and relieved him of the gun strapped at his side.

Moments later, the corpse vanished in a dissipating cocoon of blue-white light.

***
Y’know, I feel a lot like that vulture now, but the boots aren’t a bad fit. That clone took pretty good care of his gun too. All I need is some ammo. Maybe I can work a deal with one of the die-hards in Terance. They’re pretty hard up for help around here.

***
Scribbled in the left margin: Must work on plans for the grift. Old LaRue always said it’s a rare Traveler who survives by quick wits alone. It ultimately all comes down to planning, the details, and the flexibility to deal with multiple contingencies. Or, as he put it, “Shit happens, son. Keep your biggest boots close.”

***
GULLY DOG PLAN A

• Show up at their camp.
• Pretend to be a Tech looking for a green metal box.
• Don’t care about the ATV, but that box is big trouble.
• Box contains something that’s been exposed to rothium.
• It probably won’t explode – too melodramatic and they might think it’s worth keeping for themselves to use against their enemies. If they keep it too long, though, it might make their junk fall off.

GULLY DOG PLAN B

• Show up at their camp.
• Pretend to be a bandit wannabe.
• Look around for familiar faces.
• Work a deal with

***
Shit. He came back. He had friends.

***
Sketched in the top margin: Three frowny stick figures with clone collars. Two of them have boots and guns. One has angry squiggles above his head, no boots, and no gun.

***
They found me where I sat against a leaning marble headstone, scribbling notes for the grift I planned to pull on the Gully Dogs. The sun was going down behind the hills to the west.

“Uh, hi,” I said, setting aside the journal and pen. “Nothing personal, pal. Just the law of the wastes, right? Didn’t think you’d be needing that stuff anymore. No hard feelings?” My best smile.

“I’ll have those boots back,” the barefoot clone said. “Pistol too.” No smile.

His friends didn’t wait to see if I’d comply. They kicked me in the gut and smacked me upside the head. Once I was laid out proper on the ground, the grumpiest one tugged the boots off and retrieved his gun.

“Nothing personal, pal,” he said. This time, he smirked. They walked back toward town.

***

Ending the day as it started: Flat on my back in a graveyard, no shoes, no weapon, no goddamned green metal box.

***
Scribbled along the bottom margin: Really wish I owned one of those collars. If I have to go to Enzo Scarpelli empty-handed, he’s going to kill me. For real. No do-overs like these reruns.

Scribbled along the right margin: Think I chewed a little too hard on the gristle of that big rat I strangled for the cookfire. Sore tooth.

June 14, 2156

The journal wasn’t my idea.

Old LaRue had kept a diary going since before Alec Masters lost the Hoover Dam to the Children of the Apocalypse. He swore up and down that it helped him keep track of the web of scams he kept cooking at any given time. It let him follow the accounting of fate and friendship. Who proved loyal? Who stabbed him in the back? How best to deliver payback?

When he died, gut-stabbed by a Lightbearer outside Odenville, I kept the notebook. It’s been a great resource so far, providing information about the wilds of the Grand Canyon Province that may just help keep me alive a good while – assuming Boss Scarpelli doesn’t kill me for losing the box.

I miss Old LaRue. He took me in when I was a kid. I never knew my parents. Am I an orphan? Did they die tragically, eaten by sand worms or mauled by grizzlies? Or did they dump me on a doorstep in front of one of the musty Odenville tenement buildings while acid rain splashed the pavement? I don’t know. I don’t really care. As far as it ever mattered to me, Old LaRue was my father. He took me in, taught me the Code, and trained me in the art of the steal, the delicate crafts of the long con and the short grift, and the importance of recognizing how people think and why they act the way they do.

So, after he died, I kept this book and I decided to add to it. I don’t pretend to think my life should be all that interesting to anyone else, but Old LaRue always said it was important to leave a legacy. Proof you lived. Proof you mattered, maybe just a little, to someone.

I’ve still got the old pages. From time to time, I look through them. They give me comfort. When time permits, I’ll share some of the old man’s writings.

***
Now for today’s business.

• Need shoes.
• Need weapon.
• Need location of the Gully Dogs who took that box.

It’d be nice to track down some food too. First things first, though.

***
No luck so far.

The toothache’s not getting better. Every once in a while it sends a sharp, stabbing pain right through my upper jaw. It’s like I’ve been shanked in the cheek. Can’t remember the last time I felt pain this bad.

It’s awfully hard to concentrate on the details of the grift with that nagging ache in my face.

And now I can’t help but think of what Old LaRue would’ve said to this: “Your face is hurting you? Well, it’s killing me!”

***
I suppose it could be argued that I’m making this much more difficult than necessary. Maybe it’d be more efficient for me to just suck it up, take that walk to Depot 66 without the green metal box, and insist that it’s not my fault the Gully Dogs made off with his prize. After all, what would’ve happened if I’d resisted? I might’ve killed one of them. Maybe just wounded one or the other. But then I’d sure as hell be dead on the ground. That box would still be gone.

Of course, depending on what’s in the box, Boss Scarpelli might not consider me nearly as valuable as what I lost.

***

Scribbled in the right margin: Found a dead scavenger behind a burned-out house along the main drag in town. No special resurrection collar on this one. The shoes are tight, but they’ll do. No laces. Nothing much in the way of weapons, but I did take the garden fork slung from his belt.

Scribbled in the bottom two lines of the page beneath the last entry and underlined twice: FOUND CAMP. ATV. WELL-GUARDED. TOMORROW?

Scribbled in the top margin: Mmm. Rat again. Trying to chew just with the right side of my mouth. Too painful with that tooth on the left side.

June 15, 2156

I’m sitting against a dirt-streaked concrete pylon in the shadow of the old GlobalTech monorail that used to shuttle commuters around the Grand Canyon Province back in the days before the shitstorm struck, the Shiva Virus spread across the world, and civilization hit the big RESET button.

The Gully Dog camp with my ATV and, hopefully, that damned green metal box, is about a half mile away, just over a low cluster of hills.

I can’t think straight. Feverish. My jaw feels sore and swollen. Tooth’s aching like a bullseye in the middle of a target painted on my face. Won’t be able to pull off a scam in this condition. Certainly won’t be able to fight with any clarity of mind should I have to defend myself. Even against a brain-damaged opponent like a Gully Dog, it’d be a suicide mission.

I’m so screwed. What the hell am I going to do? I can’t deliver the goods to Enzo Scarpelli until I recover them from that camp. It’s stupid to try recovering them until I’ve dealt with this aching tooth. I could just try yanking the tooth out myself, but I’m no dentist.

***

Scribbled in the right margin: A tooth-like figure with big eyes and angry squiggles floating overhead.

Scribbled in the left margin and underlined three times: FUCKING AGONY.

Scribbled in the bottom margin: Even soup hurts.

June 17, 2156

I don’t remember much about the last couple of days. Bits and pieces, really; snippets of memory.

Here’s what I know right now:

I’m laid up in a bed in the clinic run by Pat Haskins in Oilville. My mouth feels better. Worlds better! He gave me something for the pain.

Up until a few months ago, Haskins was the sawbones for Depot 66. He moved his practice about the time this woman he calls “One” popped out of the pod and went wandering west. I don’t know much about her, but she must have been something special to snare his attention and pull him here. Now, he’s the chief medic for this town, built amidst the ruins of an old petroleum refinery, run by the gadget-heads.

Somehow, I got here. Haskins tells me that a couple of roving merchants found me about a mile and a half southeast of here, arms wrapped around a big prairie chicken egg, crooning about a skillet. Apparently, they loaded me in the back of their horse-drawn flatbed trailer and took me to Oilville. Nice of them, all things considered. If they knew what I was really like, they probably would have liberated my shoes and garden fork, then left me for dead the way the Gully Dogs had done. But, hey, I’ll take charity when I can get it.

“Fever’s pretty bad,” Haskins said, reading from a ledger he’d opened on the table next to the bed. “Looks like an abscess. Infected. You’ll need a root canal. Antibiotics too.” He flipped the page, then quietly stroked his moustache before concluding: “Closest dentist I know of is Doctor Ames in Picus Ridge. Techs run the place. Sensible folks. Should have plenty of antibiotics on hand. I’m tapped. Expecting a shipment of fresh supplies next week.” Haskins looked me over, then sighed, shaking his head. “Can’t make you wait until next week. Infection like this, it can kill a man easy. I can give you a couple of doses to stave it off just enough to get you on your way out to the Northfields. Beyond that, though…” His voice trailed off into a shrug.

I frowned. “Doc, how the hell am I going to make it to Picus Ridge? I’m pretty sure I couldn’t walk across this room, let alone make the trip north through the Upper Plateau.”

Haskins nodded. “There’s a Rider in town, due to depart for New Flagstaff in the morning. You good on a horse?”

Not really, I didn’t say. Truth be told, I prefer riding around on a machine that doesn’t rely on the care and attention that a horse would require. When someone pops a bullet into the frame of my ATV, it doesn’t whinny and bleed. It doesn’t make me feel like I’ve just subjected it to some cruel torture.

But, what I actually said: “Sure, Doc. Horse. Fine.” It wouldn’t be comfortable. In fact, I suspected that being jostled around on the back of a horse would just amplify the misery. I could expect a long ride with tremendous pain.

“All right, I’ll make the arrangements for you,” Haskins replied. He closed his ledger and turned to leave, approaching the rough green fabric curtain that separated the treatment room from the lobby. But then he stopped and turned back to me. “Hope you’re feeling up to a visitor.”

“Visitor?”

“He’s been waiting since this morning.” Haskins pulled open the curtain.

Into the room stepped a broad-shouldered man with tanned skin, salt and pepper hair, and cold gray eyes, wearing a black leather duster over gray denim pants and a blue cotton tunic. His black snakeskin boots had metallic tips. Middle-aged, grim-faced, the man stood at least six-foot-two.

I’d never met Enzo Scarpelli in person before. I just knew him by reputation. I knew him when I saw him, though. Here he was. I had nowhere to run, and even if I knew of a hiding place, I didn’t have the strength to flee. I couldn’t go anywhere. Trapped!

After Haskins passed into the lobby, the curtain fell back into place.

Scarpelli scowled at me, stopping about two feet from the side of the bed. “All right, Denton, where the hell is my box?” His right hand rested on the butt of a revolver holstered at his side.

Well, I thought, maybe I won’t need that dentist after all.

It was quite a surprise, seeing Enzo Scarpelli dealing with a wayward courier and a lost package on his own. I figured a visit from his right-hand man, Slammer Winstead, would’ve been far more likely. But here he was, real as the end of the world.

“I tried, Mr. Scarpelli,” I said, staring at my hands. I knew it might be futile, that this wasn’t a man who gave much credence to excuses. “Got waylaid by a couple of bandits. They stole my ATV, weapons, supplies, and that box. They left me for dead in a boneyard near Terance. I found the camp, though. I think I was going after it when the fever of this infection just knocked me on my ass. I’m sorry.”

The Depot 66 boss nodded slowly. “I should put a couple of slugs into your brain pan.” He tugged the gun loose of its holster, testing the heft of the weapon in his palm. “You didn’t just get jumped by bandits, Denton. You got your lunch served by Gully Dogs. That’s just plain embarrassing. If I killed you right now, it’d be a mercy.” A taut smile. “So, that’s why I won’t kill you right now. If what Doc Haskins says is true, well, you’re in a world of suffering just now, and that’s not liable to get better for a while. Lucky you, huh?” Scarpelli slid the gun back into its holster. “Draw a map in that book of yours. Tear out the page. Give it to me. I’ll have Slammer and No-Toes deal with the bandits. They’ll even get your ATV back. Come see me when you’re done in Picus Ridge. I’ll tell you what you can do to win it back for yourself.” The faint smile faded. “Of course, if they bring me that box and it’s empty, I’m going to pour every round I’ve got into you. So, think it over while you’re recuperating. If you stole from me, Denton, you better keep running until you can’t run no more.”

I shook my head. How could I convince this guy that I wouldn’t dare rip him off? Would it ever be possible to persuade him that I possessed honor, insofar as it affected my allegiance to the Travelers? I knew the Code. My word was my bond. I don’t piss off allies if I don’t have to. Certainly, I don’t piss off people more powerful than me. “I didn’t steal anything from you, Mr. Scarpelli. I know better. Old LaRue taught me better.”

That drew a raised eyebrow from him. “You trained with LaRue?” At my nod, he said, “He was a sharp guy. I miss him a lot. They ever catch the tea-sipper who took him out?”

“No,” I answered. “Not yet.”

June 18, 2156

Slept better last night than I have all week, thanks to the painkillers prescribed by Doc Haskins. The infected tooth’s still throbbing, though.

***

For joy. The Rider’s not technically a Rider yet. She’s a courier-in-training, making her second run for the Franklin’s Riders. It’ll be her first trip beyond the Plateau and into the Northfields.

“No need to fret,” she told me. Big smile on her face. “Most new Riders make it through just fine. I haven’t lost a package, so far.”

Unlike me. She didn’t say that, but I heard it in my mind just the same.

Her name is Fern Alastair. She seems ambitious enough, eager and unafraid, and I have to admit that just gives me more reason to worry about this trip. She’s looking forward to the adventure of traveling north to the Upper Plateau and then through the wastes along the road to the Northfields.

I’m almost tempted to take my chances with this crazy infection.

Almost.

“We’ll hit the trail after breakfast,” she said.

***

Waiting for the Rider-in-training to prep my horse.

She says we’ll aim to stop in Watchtower before night falls. Guess I should credit her with more sense now. She’s a nice enough kid, really. It’s just that she IS little more than a kid and I find it very difficult to place my life in the hands of a child who’s never been so far from home before.

I look forward to reaching Watchtower. I’ve got a couple of friends there that I haven’t seen in a good long while. It’d be nice to take some time to catch up, if Fern’s schedule allows.

***

Before dawn, I walked down the main drag through Oilville, listening to the churn and rattle of the pumps. A few merchants looking to score a few extra chips in sales are up before first light, stocking their stalls.

I could smell something savory cooking on the grill in Otis Peet’s place – a salty tang in the air, maybe creeper bacon.

I would have loved a piece, but it would probably be too damned tough to chew with this infected tooth. Best to follow doctor’s orders for the moment: Drink fluids, avoid chewy foods, and rinse with warm salt water every couple of hours.

The big globular refinery tanks rose above the angular buildings that made up the town. A few workers in oil-stained gray jumpsuits hung suspended from rope-and-pulley contraptions, inspecting the structures to make sure they weren’t leaking, in danger of collapse, or on the verge of exploding.

It occurred to me that I wouldn’t want to be in or near Oilville if those tanks ever ignited.

***

Sketched in the left margin: A passable facsimile of the gun Enzo Scarpelli held in the clinic.

Scribbled in the right margin:
 LUCKY YOU.

***

Oh, God, help me. She’s a talker.

***

We didn’t make it to Watchtower. Tonight, we’re camped under a big sand-blasted radar dish surrounded by rusty chain link that vibrates in the chill wind that blows up from the prairie.

We’re on a ridge known as Dead Man’s Buttress. The Upper Plateau rises to the north. I figure we can make it to Watchtower sometime around early afternoon tomorrow if Fern stays focused and doesn’t keep chatting with me.

I’ve never been a fan of small talk on good days. Now that my mouth is already in plenty of pain thanks to an infected abscess, I’ve got even less tolerance for it.

I lost track of almost everything she babbled about between Oilville and here, but I think I remember enough to document some highlights.

HER: “Sorry to hear about those Gully Dogs jacking your car and that package. I know all about Enzo Scarpelli. That is NOT a man you want mad at you.”

ME: “You don’t say.”

HER: “Lazlo Planck, he’s another Rider – a real good one, experienced, been on the trails since before the Dam fell, he says he once saw Enzo Scarpelli shank a man in the belly and leave him out next to Dundy Cavern for those oversized scorpions to snack on. The reason why: The fella was a tailor. He made some new pants for Boss Scarpelli, but they were about two sizes too small.”

Later…

HER: “Why’d you become a Traveler?”

ME: “Become? I didn’t become a Traveler. I’ve been one as long as I can remember.”

HER: 
“So what do you like about being a Traveler?”

ME: “I like learning to rely on myself, my wits, and my friends.”

HER: “Good thing you’ve got friends, then.”

Later…

HER: “How’d your tooth get messed up?”

ME: “I’ve never been big on oral hygiene.”

HER: “My folks always told me that was a good way to let Mother Nature kill you right off. I never go anywhere without my brush. Floss when I can, too.”

ME: “Ever tried flossing with razor wire?”

HER: “Now, that just sounds dangerous.”

Later…

HER: “If you could get out of the Grand Canyon Province and go anywhere, where would you go?”

ME: “Are you going too?”

HER: “What? No. It’s just hypothetical. Everyone knows we can’t get past the death zones. But if you could – let’s say someone gave you a special suit with enough air to get you out to the rest of the world – where would you go?”

ME: “Home.”

HER: “That doesn’t count. Home’s inside the Province. I’m talking about outside, in the Big Desolation. Y’know, Seattle? Chicago? Paris? Orlando? Sydney? Beijing?”

Later…

HER: “I’m not looking for a boyfriend.”

ME:
 “Uh…”

HER: “It’s not that you aren’t attractive. I guess you’re okay. It’s just…well, the hygiene thing. I’m a stickler.”

ME: “Ah…”

HER: “Don’t feel bad. I’m sure you’ll find someone.”

ME: “Uh-huh.”

HER: “It’s okay if you want to cry. I won’t tell.”

ME: 
“Erm…”

***

Sketched in the bottom margin: Two stick figures. One looks male. He also looks angry. He’s stabbing another stick figure, one with curly hair and a Rider’s hat. Little dark blood drops fly up from the falling female.

***

Taking first watch while Fern gets a couple of hours of sleep. Mercifully, it’s quiet. It would be overstating things to say I hate this woman. I don’t. She’s just very annoying with constant exposure and a dwindling supply of painkillers.

No matter what she seems to think, I’m not a nasty slob who never cleans his teeth. I do, every chance that I get! I hate how my mouth feels when I go too long without brushing and rinsing.

I don’t like shirking on hygiene. Not one little bit. If I could brush my teeth and rinse my mouth right here, right now, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

Trouble is, my brush and baking soda were in the kit nabbed by the Gully Dogs. I think I heard a stream gurgling not too far from here, though. If the water’s not glowing, it’ll serve.

***

What the hell was I thinking?

Now I doubt I’ll ever hear the end of this.

***

I found the stream about thirty yards southeast of our campsite on the ridge. The water smelled clean enough to drink. It didn’t glow. I tapped my tongue with a wet thumb. Tasted fresh enough.

It had been weeks since the last time I found a stream that was clean enough and fresh enough to drink from. Most of the time, I settled for pump water that smelled like rotten eggs or drank from old drainage ponds favored by the double-headed deer that roamed the prairie.

I cupped my hands, dipped them into the water, splashed my face. That felt good. Repeated the action, then slurped the chilly fluid into my mouth, where it splashed against the raw nerves of the abscessed tooth. That didn’t feel so good.

“OW!” Then I heard the grumbling, and it wasn’t my stomach.

Across the stream, in the shadows, a pair of glowing crimson eyes opened slowly. I decided that it wouldn’t be in my best interest to wait and see what it was, because it sounded big and nasty. I turned and ran back to the northwest. I might have screamed. It probably sounded like a shrieking girl. I didn’t care.

I was halfway up the ridge, scared as hell to look over my shoulder for fear of tripping on a rock, when I saw Fern waiting at the top, rifle ready. She fired off three quick shots. I felt the beast’s breath on my back as it roared in pain from the impacts. At the top, I spun to watch the shaggy black blight wolf tumble back down the slope.

“Told you to stay close,” she said, cradling the rifle in her arms.

“Didn’t go far,” I replied. “Just down to the stream.”

“Obviously too far,” she snapped.

I frowned. “Obviously.”

***

She’s taking over my shift on watch. I don’t feel much like sleeping, though. I’m too troubled by how utterly incompetent and useless I feel.

I can’t even make a simple package delivery to Depot 66 without losing the box to the Gully Dogs. The GULLY DOGS!

And now I’m on the trail to Picus Ridge with a little girl who’s clearly got a much better survival instinct and knack for the wastes than I’ve ever known.

Truth is, the sad fact of it all, I could’ve gotten both of us killed by that blight wolf. Would’ve, if Fern hadn’t been wary for trouble and ready with that rifle. She was in the right place at the right time. She saved us both.

I didn’t thank her. I should. Maybe I will sometime.

Right now, though, I just don’t feel like saying anything. Best to keep my mouth shut. They say you might be silent and look foolish, but open your yap and prove it’s true.

I’ll go with silence for the time being. Seems safer. Smarter.

***

Sketched along the top margin: Metal box with the lid open and a big, growly, fang-filled mutant wolf head popping out of it.

June 19, 2156

I woke to find Fern between me and the morning sun, maybe three inches from my face, her eyes squinting.

“Awake,” she said. “Good.” She thumped the blue Franklin’s Rider cap against the palm of her right hand and stood upright. “Look, Denton, we need to talk.” Her head nudged in the direction of the small fire that she’d built. A kettle hung suspended over the flames. “Help yourself to some tea, if you like.”

I couldn’t remember drifting off to sleep. Exhaustion must have overwhelmed my brain in the end. I borrowed one of the courier’s dented metal mugs and poured tea into it. Couldn’t drink it right away, however. That’d just make the infected tooth flare up.

Once I had my tea, Fern broke the news: “I gave it a lot of thought. Believe me, I did. Got no choice, though. I’m carrying cargo due in New Flagstaff just a couple of days from now. That stunt you pulled last night…look, I owe Pat Haskins a favor or two, but I answer to the Riders first and foremost. You’re reckless, Denton. I can’t afford the risk of taking you with me. You’re slowing me down and you’re making mistakes that could get both of us killed.”

I blinked. My mouth fell open. “You’re leaving me out here in the middle of nowhere?”

Fern shook her head. “No, sir. Like I said, I’ve got a debt to settle with the doctor. I’ll see you get somewhere safe. I just can’t take you all the way to Northfields with me. I’m thinking I can take you as far as Pass Chris. From there, it’s just an afternoon’s walk to Watchtower. You said you know people. Could they secure passage for you?”

“Maybe,” I replied.

“Tea’s getting cold,” she said.

“Good,” I seethed. When it stopped steaming, I would venture a sip. “Look, Fern, what happened last night…it won’t happen again. Can’t you give me another chance?”

The Rider-in-training sighed. “I wish I could. Really, I do. But let’s consider your recent track record, shall we? Even before you went down to that stream to play tag with a blight wolf, you ran into trouble with a couple of Gully Dogs who walked away with your ATV, your cargo, your weapons…”

“Shitty run of luck,” I insisted. “Good fortune’s just waiting around the corner.”

“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe not. Could be that you’ve got impaired judgment because of that infection. The fever. Might be it’s baking your brain just a little. I hate doing this, Denton, but I just don’t see any other choice. I’m not equipped to deal with your little bouts of crazy right now.”

Well, I guess I could take some comfort in the fact that she wasn’t just abandoning me on Dead Man’s Buttress to fend for myself.

I took a sip of tea. Winced. Not cool enough yet.

“I know a short cut,” Fern went on. “It’ll take us a little out of the way, up through the Falkenberg Hills to Murphy. Once we’re there, though, it’s just a short hop to Pass Chris.”

***

Scribbled in the right margin: Re-read Old LaRue’s pages sooner rather than later.

Scribbled in the left margin: GET GLUE.

***

The short cut didn’t work out quite like Fern planned.

We had just cantered into the dusty town of Murphy shortly after lunchtime when a trio of rickety-looking dune buggies came buzzing over the rim of the crater in which the scatter of pre-Fall buildings sat.

These vehicles were followed by riders on horseback, clad in studded black leather. The bandits whooped and hollered, howling like desert coyotes.

“Night Wolves,” Fern said, brow furrowed. She didn’t reach for her rifle just yet.

Residents of the sleepy little town shouted and ran around. Some looked for places to hide, while others rushed about trying to gather whatever valuables they could carry and then started running toward the northern edge of town. A few stood their ground not far from us, apparently taking some misguided sense of strength from the Rider-in-training and the fevered Traveler.

More than two dozen bandits mounted the rim of the crater on foot, gazing down at the town. They meant to take this place; meant to hold it. I didn’t think the stalwarts stood much of a chance.

“We should go,” I suggested, probably a little louder than I intended. Fern looked my way, but so did the citizens who clearly felt too proud to just flee the ground they’d worked to keep for so long. I shrugged at the courier. “It might just be the fever talking, but the numbers aren’t working out in our favor.”

She huffed, but agreed. Tugging on the reins, she brought her horse around. We started off at a trot toward the broken pavement of the ancient road. I didn’t look back. Fern couldn’t help herself. I saw her cringe. I heard the brief screams before the buggies plowed into the stalwarts, and the splashy red thumps when the wheels crushed their bodies.

***

The road to Pass Chris followed an incline northwest from the doomed town we had left behind. We stopped near a looming LifeNet bunker – one of the facilities capable of spitting out the clones that have been showing up in the Province in recent months.

We looked back toward Murphy. A column of black smoke roiled from the middle of town.

“We should have done something,” Fern said somberly. “Should’ve helped. They needed us!”

I shrugged. “Really? What about that package for New Flagstaff? Isn’t it supposed to be more important than any other obligation you might have? Like, say, making sure a guy with a nasty infection gets to Picus Ridge, even if he makes a stupid mistake? No, no. Think about it. We did the right thing. What’s the benefit of giving our lives to NOT save that town from an inevitable takeover?”

“My conscience,” she said.

“Not worth much when you’re dead,” I told her. “I didn’t like the odds. We’re alive now, right? We can warn the folks in Pass Chris and make sure that they’re ready to defend against the Night Wolves. That ought to make your conscience feel a little better.”

I could tell it didn’t, but she didn’t argue the point further. She just gave a nod before nudging her horse along. Our shadows stretched ahead in the afternoon sun.

***

“More water for us, then.”

That comment, plus a faint smile, pretty much summed up the attitude of the short, balding man who held sway over the people of Pass Chris. His name was Jacob Method.

I’d heard about him before, through Old LaRue. Method was a scientist and engineer who had helped devise and maintain the town’s drilled well system. He also served as their primary doctor. I asked if he could help with my problem. “I’m not a dentist,” Method scoffed.

For the past few years, since the downfall of Alec Masters at Hoover Dam, Method had kept an arrangement with the leader of Murphy, Beck Smalls, to provide that town with water in exchange for grain and other useful supplies.

Now that the Night Wolves had invaded, it was apparently time to cancel that arrangement.

“The survivors still need help,” Fern said. We stood in Method’s laboratory on a hill overlooking the small farm and the smattering of pre-Fall structures that made up the town below.

“Any refugees with useful skills are welcome to seek sanctuary here in Pass Chris,” Method replied. “They’ll get a fair share of rationed supplies.”

“So, let me see if I’ve got this straight,” I said. “If people from Murphy can make it here alive, and if they can do something you consider useful, you’ll take them in. If they can’t, they’re screwed?”

Method gave a vague shrug. “It’s a tough world, Mr. Denton. The strong and the clever survive.”

***

I don’t know why Fern expected any better.

She cried for a while, sitting on the steps of an elevated wooden longhouse next to Method’s lab.

“He’s an ass,” I said. “But he’s got a point. They’ve got limited resources here, just like everywhere. If he threw the doors open wide for everybody, they’d pick this place apart like vultures on a sandworm.”

Fern didn’t seem to find that comforting. I don’t know why I expected she would.

***

Yesterday, I couldn’t get her to shut up.

Today, I can’t get a word out of her anymore.

She didn’t even say goodbye before she galloped away under the bloody glow of the setting sun and left me standing on the road outside Pass Chris.

I wonder if I’ll ever see her again.

Surprisingly, I hope so.

***

Scribbled in the left margin: ONE DOSE LEFT.

June 20, 2156

Tommy Smalls shook his head, released a disappointed sigh, and then pointed northwest toward the tunnel that cut through the mountain, normally providing a route between Pass Chris and Watchtower.

“Night Wolves got it blocked off during the night,” he said. “No one comes or goes without taking fire from the bandits.”

I wondered if Fern made it through in time, but I didn’t voice the concern.

Tommy Smalls was a young man, but he looked haggard and worn out, his eyes dark and sullen. Stubble peppered his cheeks. We stood outside his house along the main street leading through Pass Chris. Folks often referred to him as “Chief,” “Mayor,” or “Sheriff.” Not that he was ever elected, really. Not that Jacob Method would’ve let him wield any real power, either. But he got along well with his fellow residents. He sympathized with them. Tommy Smalls possessed the warmth and humanity that Method, known as “the wizard on the hill,” absolutely lacked.

His father, Beck, was among the citizens of Murphy when the town fell to the raiders. Beck Smalls hadn’t been among the refugees who reached Pass Chris, though. I wondered if I’d seen him, if he’d been one of the stalwarts who stood their ground as those rumbling buggies tore through town and mowed them down.

I didn’t mention that to Tommy, though. He had enough on his mind.

“We’re cut off,” he said, settling onto the stoop and burying his face in his hands. “They’ve put us in a stranglehold. We need help, but how can anyone get to us?”

A voice off to my right spoke: “Break the stranglehold.”

I turned to see a familiar figure – blue LifeNet jacket and pants, blinking black plastic and metal collar, a mess of brown hair. He was a couple of inches shorter than me. His boots looked new, but the gun holstered at his side hadn’t changed since he took it back from me in Terance.

“I’m surprised to see you’re still above snakes,” he said, smirking, but he extended a hand just the same. “We’re on the same side this time, though. I’m Jonas Lander.”

I shook his hand. “Amp Denton.”

Tommy lifted his face from his hands to gaze at the clone. He couldn’t conceal the glimmer of hope inspired by Lander’s words. “How? How do we break it?”

Lander took a step toward the house and said, “I’ll need explosives.” He looked at me. “And a partner with a gun.”

I could feel Tommy’s eyes upon me. I frowned, shaking my head. “Don’t have a gun. Sorry.”

The clone unholstered his pistol and offered it to me. “I’ll want it back, of course.”

***

The plan’s not elaborate, but it is certainly suicidal. What it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in pure, unadulterated foolhardiness.

Luckily, guys like Jonas Lander are mostly immune to suicide.

Unluckily, guys like me aren’t.

***

Scribbled in the right margin: If I had a cloning collar, I could jump off a bridge and regen with perfect teeth.

Sketched in the left margin: A stick figure with a collar, angry wiggles coming from his cheeks, jumping off a bridge.
***

The tooth aches. The last dose of medicine is wearing off. Soon, the fever’s coming back.

That’s why I’m doing this. I don’t care specifically about the people of this town. Their problems are their own. Sad about Tommy’s dad, but like Jacob Method said: It’s a tough world.

He won’t give up any precious antibiotics or painkillers. So, the only chance that I’ve got is to bust through the Night Wolf blockade and get to Watchtower. It just so happens that the only way Pass Chris can survive coincides with the only way that I can survive.

That’s why I’m doing this. Don’t mistake it for altruism. I’ve looked at the costs and the benefits. The deal works for me. I’ll take it.

Gotta do it soon, though.

***

Jonas galloped toward the mouth of the tunnel where five Night Wolf bandits formed the blockade. He howled furiously, arms outstretched, the long fuses of the two dynamite sticks sparking and hissing.

The bandits might’ve just gunned him down, if not for the fact that I started opening fire from behind a boulder about ten yards away. The gunshots sent them bolting for cover. Jonas spurred his horse onward just before he hurled himself out of the saddle in a head-over-heels leap from the stirrups that brought him down behind the barricade with the bad guys.

The horse charged onward into the tunnel.

Stunned, the Night Wolves barely had time to register what was happening before they reached for their guns.

And by then, of course, it was too late.

The fuses ran out, detonating the sticks of dynamite. The blast killed Jonas, but he took those bandits with him.

The route to Watchtower was clear for now.

***

“So, is Amp short for something?”

Jonas Lander found me sitting in the bunker bar that was buried below the dirt street that ran through the settlement known as Watchtower. In the old days, back when GlobalTech owned the Grand Canyon and built up its own paramilitary organization, this had been one of many outposts. Back then, they called it Watchtower No. 3.

I swished warm salt water in my mouth, then spat it on the concrete floor.
“Ampersand,” I said.

“Seriously?” Jonas Lander chuckled.

“Yep. Apparently, my parents had a tough time coming up with a suitable name. Here.” I fumbled through the right pocket of my brown duster until I found the creased photograph. The picture showed a young man and woman, and she was cradling a swaddled baby in her arms. On the back, this was scrawled: DENNIS, JANE, &. “Old LaRue decided to call me Amp. I guess it stuck.” I slid the pistol across the table to him. “That was a pretty good trick with the dynamite. Almost seems like cheating, but, y’know, if your cheating works to my advantage, who am I to complain?”

He smirked. “It’s not something I want to do a lot. Yes, I get resurrected by the LifeNet system. But it usually hurts like hell when I die. I try not to make a habit of it.”

“Still, I’m jealous,” I said. “I keep wishing I had one of those collars.”

“Don’t be jealous,” Jonas cautioned. He tapped the photo on the table. “At least you have some sense of where you come from and who your parents are. You’re not marked as a freak. No one’s calling you rerun, retread, or puppet. It’s not all you probably think it is. If I could give you this collar, though, I would. In a heartbeat. Don’t doubt that for a second.”

“You can’t remove it?”

He shook his head. “No. I’ve tried more than a few times. It won’t come off.” Jonas shrugged. “Anyway, it is what it is. I’ll deal with it.”

“Look, about that trouble back in Terance,” I said, “I just…y’know, I didn’t mean anything by it. Just trying to survive. It was selfish, I know, but that’s the way of the world.”

“The law of the wastes,” Jonas said, smirking again. “Forget about it.” But he reclaimed his pistol and slid it back into the holster at his side. “Still going to Picus Ridge?”

I nodded. “Trade caravan leaves in the morning. I’m riding north with them. You?”

The clone shrugged. “Back to Pass Chris, I think. The Night Wolves will definitely try to block off that tunnel again. They’re probably gunning for the town’s water supply. I don’t want to see them get that kind of a foothold.”

“Why?” I asked. “You’re clear of the place. You blew yourself up to break the blockade. Now Watchtower’s sending supplies and a few reinforcements to help. It’s not your fight.”

That elicited a smile from Jonas. “Now, see, it became my fight the minute the Night Wolves overran Murphy and set their sights on a town full of honest settlers just trying to cling to what little livelihood they can eke out in the wastes. It just rankles my sense of right and wrong.”

“So what’s in it for you?”

“A good night’s sleep at the end of the day,” he replied. His right hand stretched out to me. “Safe travels, Amp.”

I shook the offered hand. “Good luck, Jonas.”

June 21, 2156

It had been about a year since the last time I had seen John Reynolds. We’d originally met right after the fall of Hoover Dam, when his squad of Enforcers happened on the mercantile encampment Old LaRue had established on the edge of the canyon, overlooking the Colorado River.

Now, we both looked older, but he seemed in better spirits these days. It hit him hard when Alec Masters won the loyalty of so many apparently well-intentioned Enforcers, people that John had considered friends and allies; people he thought that he could trust with his life. Their role as protectors of the great dictator himself really drove a knife in the heart of their image. He took it personally. He was going to abandon the Enforcers, because he didn’t want to be seen as a lapdog of the monster of Hoover Dam.

Old LaRue didn’t care much for the zealotry and high-mindedness of the Enforcers and their dogmatic pursuit of law and order, but he liked John Reynolds. I remember sitting by the campfire that night in early May 2152, and I remember what LaRue said to my friend: “You can quit if you want and call that good, sure. No arguments here. That’s the easy way to do it, truth be told. A clean break. Move on. But that doesn’t solve the real problem. It won’t keep that truth from nagging at you, day and night, for the rest of your life. That question in your mind: Could I have made a difference? Give it all up if you want, John, but consider for just a little bit what you might be able to accomplish if you hold fast and try to improve the Enforcers from within.”

And so, at LaRue’s earnest urging, John Reynolds had redoubled his efforts on behalf of the Enforcers. He joined a squad that spearheaded the effort to convert the old GlobalTech Watchtower No. 3 into a burgeoning town at the crossroads of the Upper Plateau. The old monorail track snaked across the landscape, with a lengthy gap along the way where a stretch of steel-supported concrete had been blasted away by a crashing commercial jetliner, the charred remnants of which had been scattered near the rippling lake.

“How’ve you been, Amp?” he asked as we sat on the ground outside the concrete pillbox in front of the grassy berm that encircled the rustic little town of shacks and barns. The sun was just coming up over the glassy lake east of us. “Besides the tooth thing.”

“Not great,” I admitted with a shrug. My gaze drifted to a couple of bright-robed Lightbearers haggling with a merchant near a campfire with a spit that was roasting armadillo for breakfast. I frowned, but then saw that the Lightbearers were two women, not the man who knifed my surrogate father. I returned my attention to John. “Ever since Old LaRue died, it feels like I’ve been wandering in a fog, y’know? I’ve made some dumb mistakes. The moldy fucker’s probably spinning in his grave right now because of me. I’m his legacy, after all, and look at me: Trounced by Gully Dogs, shown up by a clone, and desperately trying to get to the one guy in the Grand Canyon Province who’s apparently able to do something about this diseased tooth that’s trying to kill me. I can’t do ANYTHING competently by myself.” I sighed. The Lightbearers completed their business with the merchant, then walked away. I wondered if they might know the guy who killed Old LaRue. “Maybe I’m just not meant to be a Traveler.”

John laughed, shaking his head. “Maybe. Or maybe you’re just having too much fun feeling sorry for yourself.”

I stared angrily at my friend. “I’m glad YOU think this is funny. Always glad to provide amusement through my misadventures.”

“Lighten up,” he said, slapping the palm of his hand against my back, right between the shoulder blades. “You’re just in a slump. We’ll get you right as rain before you know it.”

“I wish I shared your optimism,” I replied. Yes, it was possible that I might make it to Picus Ridge, find Doc Ames, undergo treatment for the rotting tooth and the infected abscess, and make a complete physical recovery. But I wasn’t so sure about a rebound for my self-confidence.

“Before you check in with the caravan, I want you to stop by Dr. Lafferty’s shack so he can look you over,” John Reynolds said. “He’s got painkillers to spare and at least enough antibiotics to see you safely to Picus Ridge.”

Nodding, I got to my feet, brushing dirt off my trousers. “Thanks again, John. I appreciate the help. And the ear.”

“Don’t wait a year to drop by next time,” he said, standing to shake my hand. “And if it makes a difference, I miss him too.”

I turned to walk toward the doctor’s shack overlooking the lake, but then stopped and turned back to face John. “A couple of days ago, a Rider came through – young girl, curly black hair. Did you see her?”

“Alastair, right?”

“Fern Alastair, yeah. That’s her name. You saw her, then?”

John nodded. “She stopped in town just long enough to get a fresh horse. Then she was gone. Why? Friend of yours?”

“Maybe,” I said. Then I walked away.

***

The bald-headed scarecrow of a doctor shoved a small scuffed yellow pen flashlight in my open mouth and peered inside through squinting blue eyes.

“Oh, yes, yes,” Dr. Lafferty said, a wicked grin stealing across his face and pure mirth oozing in his voice. “That is quite infected. The spread has slowed somewhat, but, inevitably, inexorably, it will creep into your bloodstream and into your brain. You’ll go mad before it kills you.” He tilted his head, set down the flashlight, and then reached for the journal on the nearby table. His fingers crept across the cover of the small brown book like the legs of a flesh-colored spider. “Are you sure you really must go? I would relish the opportunity to observe the final stages of such an illness first-hand.”

“Yes,” I said. “Sorry. I don’t want to go crazy and die while you watch, doc. No offense.”

“None taken,” he replied ruefully. “A shame.” He scribbled notes in his journal, looking up to smile eerily at me once or twice before completing the entry and setting the book down once more. “I’ll get those pills for you, then.”

***

Scribbled in the right margin: FREAK.

***

Sprawled on the side of the road, half-naked and baking in the late morning sun, the scab-faced man writhed and hissed between incoherent rants. His legs were adorned with old computer circuit boards and peripheral cards that were held in place by coils of barbed wire. His nipples had been pierced by paper clips bent to look like infinity symbols.

He wailed at the cloudless blue sky: “Chuh mod! Telnet! Grep! Guh zip! Eff tee pee! Muck deer! Puh wood! Rum deer! You mask! Who am I? No hup! Cut roll see! Cut roll pee! Cut roll you! Esk! Esk! Esk!”

The caravan had ground to a halt when it happened upon this lunatic.

“Who is he?” asked the burly, brown-bearded man who led the caravan. An explorer by trade, Coleman Vassar was taking the caravan to Credit Bend, the Traveler stronghold in Northfields.

We rode together in the front of an old pre-Fall panel truck pulled by a pair of sturdy brown and black work horses. The truck was whitewashed, but beneath the streaky paint, one could make out the words CANYON MOVERS. Behind us followed a battered blue and green Interceptor, a couple of smoke-spewing dune buggies, one scout on a motorcycle, and another on a dappled gray horse.

“Looks like a Cog,” I said. “Machine worshipers. Never seen one before?”

“No, no, I haven’t,” Coleman answered. He stroked his beard, pondering the lunatic shouting at the sky. “Should we help him?”

“Maybe,” I said. Nodding toward the holster at his side, I asked, “Is that a classic Smith & Wesson?”

“It is,” he confirmed, unclasping the holster and drawing the gun. Coleman offered it to me. “Give it a look. It’s vintage! Circa 2050, just before the Fall.”

I accepted the gun. Switched off the safety. Checked the chamber. And then I aimed at the Cog’s head and pulled the trigger. The gunshot echoed across the dusty flatland. Clumps of hair and brain splattered the cracked asphalt road. He twitched for a few moments and then he was still.

Coleman stared at me, dumbfounded, his eyes wide and his sunburned cheeks flushing a deeper red.

I offered the gun back to him. Smoke wafted from the barrel. “Works like the day it came off the line. Good quality,” I said.

“I gave you no authority to shoot that man!” Coleman said, furious. “Explain yourself, Mr. Denton!”

“Cogs aren’t men, not the way you and I reckon,” I said with a shrug. “They consider themselves above men, on their way to the perfection of the machines that used to dominate the old world. They’re batshit crazy. Psycho. And they’re downright murderous if you get between them and some shiny trinket of pre-Fall technology. If you ever run into another one, don’t stop to chat. Shoot the crazy bastard right in the head. Saves loads of trouble.”

“Have you no remorse?” he asked, flustered, still trying to wrap his brain around what I’d just done.

“I’m not sorry I killed the loony Cog, no,” I said. A faint smile, then I added, “Of course, I do feel a little bit sorry that I gave that gun back to you. What now? Vigilante justice? Vengeance for the twitchy madman on the side of the road?”

It’s a tough world. Method’s motto. Law of the wastes. Bad shit happens to good people and evil alike. That blight wolf back on Dead Man’s Buttress didn’t give a shit about Fern’s good intentions or my wicked ways – all it knew was that it was hungry and we might make good food.

Coleman grunted, holstering the gun and shaking his head. “I’m a civilized man, Mr. Denton. You’ll be held to account by a higher power when your time comes at last.”

“Maybe,” I said. Then I pointed at the corpse. “Meanwhile, you might think about scavenging those bits of barbed wire and computer parts. Might fetch a few extra chips in the market up at Credit Bend.”

Coleman’s mouth fell open in dismay. “Mr. Denton, I am NOT rolling a dead man for scraps.”

“Fine,” I said, jumping down to the road with a wry smile. “I’ll claim salvage rights, then. Don’t go anywhere without me.”

***

The two horses pulling the old panel truck had just passed into the shadow of the monorail track span that crossed the road ahead of us when the pavement gave way, revealing an undermining trench about six feet deep and twelve feet long.

Lurching forward, the truck tumbled hood first into the cavity with a sickening crunch that signified the shattering of the axle. The horses whinnied and reared, frightened by the collapse, and then they slid backward into the trench on either side of the truck.

“What happened?” Coleman asked, his eyes wide and panicked.

“Get out of the truck,” I urged, quietly at first. My eyes swept from right to left, toward the openings at either end of the trench. The horses scrambled back to their hooves, continuing to whicker and whinny in horror. One reared again, swatting its front hooves at some unseen danger in the shadows.

“We’ll be trampled,” the caravan leader said.

I figured he might have a point. Trying to navigate past a couple of terrified horses wouldn’t be the best course of action. I sat back against the seat of the truck cab, braced my boots on the windshield, then drew back my legs before slamming them forward like pistons. The glass cracked, but didn’t shatter.

“What are you doing to my truck?” Coleman demanded, scowling. The horses became more agitated. I didn’t have much time. So I didn’t answer right away. Instead, I kicked the windshield a second time. More cracks spider-webbed across the windshield. “Mr. Denton, I insist that you -” Whatever he said next got blotted out by the shattering glass of the windshield as I kicked it a third time. Little blue-green chunks spilled down the dusty dashboard like chips pouring out of a jackpot slot machine. Both horses reared, eyes rolling from panic.

“Get out of the truck!” I yelled it this time, then scrambled over the dashboard, through the windshield frame, and onto the hood of the truck. The horse to the right bucked up against the hood, jarring me sideways. I bit my tongue, then cursed angrily – although, looking back, new and different pain actually seemed like a welcome change of pace compared to the relentless aching throb of the infected tooth. Dust swirled around me as I struggled to make my way up the broken asphalt slabs leading to the surface of the road.

“Mr. Denton!” the caravan leader called after me. He crawled cautiously out onto the hood, taking his time. “I trust you will compensate me in full for this damage!”

I pulled myself up onto the road, huffing from the exertion, and then rolled onto my back. Closing my eyes, I had just a few moments respite to breathe a sigh of relief before the rumbling started. “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” I muttered. Opened my eyes, got into a crouch beside the road, and jammed my right hand into the trench so that I could reach for Coleman Vassar. “Take hold! No time to chat!”

“Insufferable man,” Coleman said, clutching my hand with his just as a huge brown-gray blur lunged from the darkness to his left and one of the horses vanished in a flurry of gnashing fangs and flailing hooves. The great fast-moving monstrosity kept going, slamming into the panel truck and crushing the other horse beneath the toppled vehicle. Coleman’s feet dangled, pinwheeling above the trench floor. Instinctively, I clenched my teeth while pulling him up to the relative safety of the road. This hurt. A lot. Once he was clear, I fumbled through my pocket for the little envelope with the painkiller pills that Dr. Lafferty had provided. I poured out one, considered the severity, and shook out a second. I popped both into my mouth, swallowed them dry, and then collapsed on the asphalt again.

I saw the stranger’s silhouette as I stared up at the monorail track once more. He wore a sleeveless gray shirt, blue jeans, reptile skin boots, and a black fedora. He cradled a scoped rifle in his arms.

“Well,” he called down from his high perch, frustration in his voice, “look at what you went and ruined! Been trackin’ that sandworm for the better part of three days. Now he’s eaten, won’t be coming back around for at least a week.”

***

Scribbled in the top margin: A big round maw with lots and lots of triangles representing fangs.

***

“Oh, no worries, you’re safe enough for now,” the hunter assured us as he poked around the wreckage of the panel truck.

I knew Brock Dundy by reputation, if nothing else. He was a pretty big celebrity in Depot 66, where he’d earned fame slaughtering giant scorpions on behalf of the settlers in the region. They’d even named an otherwise insignificant hole in the ground after him to show how much they appreciated his efforts.

Everything I’d ever heard suggested that he was his own number one fan.

“Truck’s a loss, though. Shame,” he said. “Looked like a nice one before that rumbler got at it.” Brock climbed back up the asphalt slabs, picked up his rifle from the road, and then said, “Best reroute your caravan over to that western ridge.” The car, dune buggies, and scout cycle were on the south side of the trench. We stood on the north. Brock pointed helpfully toward the sinking sun, then looked back toward Coleman Vassar. “Send someone to walk ahead with a good plumb stick to jab the ground as they go, though. Prairie around here’s liable to be riddled with worm burrows.”

Great, I thought. Something else to slow me down. “Look, Mr. Dundy, I really, really, really need to get to Picus Ridge. Infected tooth. It’s going to kill me if I don’t get treatment soon. Every minute counts. Any chance you’ve got a ride?”

I didn’t relish the thought of leaving Coleman and his caravan in their dilemma, but their problem wasn’t mine. Their unfortunate inconvenience shouldn’t stand between me and my hope for survival.

Sadly, Brock Dundy didn’t feel the same way.

“Hold tight, friend,” he said, shaking his head. “Now’s no time to abandon Mr. Vassar and his companions. Sun’s going down, y’see.”

That got another panic-stricken look from the caravan leader, whose face seemed in serious danger of freezing that way. “What happens when the sun goes down?”

“Creepers come out,” Brock said.

***

Full moon tonight.

We watched from the relative safety of the monorail track, about sixty feet up, as the first swarm of thirty or so creepers tick-tick-ticked their scuttling, spindly legs over the broken asphalt and spilled down into the fresh trench.

The wrecked panel truck shook and wobbled in the moonlight as the monsters wriggled beneath and began feasting on the dead horse that had been trapped below.

“They’ll leave by morning, will they?” Coleman asked, whispering to Brock Dundy.

The hunter nodded, whispering back, “Usually.”

June 22, 2156

By daybreak, the creepers had slipped off into the prairie grass to the east to lurk in whatever hole they could claim as shelter until the return of night.

They’d picked the dead horse clean and then some, crushing the bones to get to the marrow after they’d chewed off all the flesh and muscle. Before the sun climbed too high in the sky, the remains of Coleman Vassar’s caravan maneuvered along that western ridge overlooking Mowbray Basin to avoid any further sandworm burrows.

“I should never have left Watchtower,” the caravan leader said, watching with a grim demeanor as the dune buggies, Interceptor, scout cycle, and horseman closed on our spot next to the roadside monorail pylon.

“That’s no way to talk,” I said. “You’re alive. You lost a couple of horses and a truck, but your team’s healthy.”

“For now,” Coleman noted. He shook his head, retrieved his canteen, and took a long sip. Then he said, “Since we left Watchtower, I’ve seen a man killed on the side of the road like he was nothing more than a mad dog. My truck and horses got wrecked by a sandworm. And I had to spend the night hiding on a high, narrow concrete rail from those damnable creepers.” The bearded man fixed me with his weary gaze. “I’m sorry, Mr. Denton, but I’m insufferably superstitious about some things. My caravan arrived in Watchtower three days ago after spending a week on the road from Mumford. We traveled from the Lower Plateau, up through Pass Chris and on to Watchtower without so much as a horse coming up lame. Then, in Watchtower, we take you on as a passenger. Within hours, violence and mayhem ensue. You’re bad luck, Mr. Denton. I won’t put the lives of my colleagues in further jeopardy on your behalf. I’m sorry.”

So, there it was. Fern cut me loose because I made stupid mistakes. Coleman didn’t want me around because he thought I jinxed his trip. Maybe neither of them were wrong.

“My tooth, Coleman – it’s not getting any better,” I said. It occurred to me then that before too much longer I might be lying on the side of the road like that lunatic Cog, writhing in the sun, screaming at the sky, and waiting for someone to show up and put a bullet in my brain.

He nodded, but he didn’t relent. “I am truly sorry. I wish I could do something more for you, but I can’t.” The dune buggies and Interceptor rolled up behind him, accompanied by the rider on the scout cycle. A few hundred yards back, the rider on horseback lagged behind.

“Fine,” I said. “I guess I won’t be the only one answering for his sins someday.”

“That is true enough,” he agreed. “However, if I recall correctly, you were primed to abandon the caravan when Mr. Dundy arrived yesterday. He might still be an option for you.”

***

Scribbled in the right margin: UNLUCKY YOU.

***

Brock Dundy owned a truck. Before embarking across the prairie of the Upper Plateau to hunt for elusive sandworms, he had parked it in a nearby settlement built around a played out copper mine.

The old Reyes Mine No. 4 was home to about sixty men, women, and children. The wealthiest among them lived in the nicer pre-Fall structures. Less affluent residents huddled in shanties and hovels with small campfires. The poorest among them had little choice but to settle for accommodations inside the honeycomb of caves within the old mine – taking their chances with critters and the occasional tunnel collapse.

But as we walked into town just after noon, it seemed that the old mine had become more popular for everyone all of a sudden. Several denizens of Reyes Mine hauled supplies from town down the path toward the entrance to the mine. Men and women armed with rifles and pistols stood watch on the town perimeter.

“What’s going on, Lydia?” Brock asked a dark-haired woman with a scarred face.

“Rider came through the other day and told us the Night Wolves overran Murphy and put Pass Chris under siege,” she said. “We’re hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.”

“Rider?” I asked, smiling a little at the suspicion. “A girl? Curly hair?”

“Said her name was Fern,” Lydia replied. “Yes. Why?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Just glad to hear she’s getting the word out.”

And, honestly, glad to hear that she had made it this far. She’d be a full-fledged Franklin’s Rider in no time. I looked around the town, my brow furrowed. “No offense,” I said, “but what’s here that the Night Wolves would want? The mine’s tapped, isn’t it?”

Lydia nodded. “It is. But they might want our strategic location: last town before the roads fork up north. Any traffic coming to and from Watchtower and other destinations would be subject to hijacking, theft, or worse.”

Brock frowned, asking, “Who kicked their goddamned ant hill? That’s what I’m dying to know. I’ve never seen them on the offensive like this before.”

“I suppose you can ask them if you want,” she said, raising her pistol to sight down the barrel as she aimed southeast at the dust cloud roiling behind a line of riders on dune buggies, motorcycles, and horseback. “Incoming!” she shouted over her shoulder, but the alert wasn’t necessary. More riders were closing from other directions, within easy view of all the sentries.

Not my problem, I told myself. If I got pulled into this town’s problems, I’d be stuck in Reyes Mine for who knows how long. Too long, certainly. The infection would spread. Untreated, I’d suffer hideously and go batshit insane before I died. “I can’t stay, Brock.”

“No, you can’t,” the hunter agreed. “I can’t leave these people to fight without my aid, though.”

“Why the hell not?” I asked. “Jesus, why do people like you think it’s so damned noble to fight a pitched battle that you KNOW you can’t win?”

That earned me an icy “Fuck you very much” from Lydia before she shot the first rider who came into range. The bullet struck him right above the nose. His buggy jerked hard to the right, slamming into the car next to him. Both vehicles went tumbling in spirals of dust and spinning metal.

“Take my truck,” Brock said, drawing a pistol from the holster at his side. “I want to go back to Depot 66 when you’ve finished your business up in Picus Ridge. Don’t want to see a scratch on the truck when you bring it back. Got it, Denton?”

“Got it,” I confirmed.

***

Stopped to refuel in a little desert outpost called the Oasis. It’s run by the Riders. They say Fern made it this far, at least.

Night’s not far off. I shouldn’t keep going today, but the tooth hurts like hell and I can feel the fever simmering. If I push on, I can reach Picus Ridge before dawn.

***

I swear to God that I didn’t fall asleep.

The two-headed deer loped across the road out of nowhere, directly in the path of the truck. Panicked eyes glowed bright in the headlight beams. I tried to swerve, but I just didn’t have time to avoid the collision.

When the truck came to rest, it was parked at an angle across the road about thirty feet past the crash site. It had spun almost all the way around after I slammed on the brakes. The headlights shone on the twitching animal on the broken asphalt.

Dazed, I climbed out of the truck and checked the damage. The engine still chugged healthily, but the hood and grill were caved in from the impact. Didn’t take long to break that promise to Brock Dundy, did it? Then I thought maybe some preserved venison might be just the thing to compensate Brock for the trouble. Just load up the deer, haul it to Picus Ridge, and ask someone there to prep the meat for a share.

Genius idea, I thought. I knelt beside the double-headed deer, resting a hand on the creature’s twitching flank. Blood frothed from its mouth. I’d need to finish the deer off before trying to drag it to the truck. I didn’t have a knife, but maybe I’d find one in the hunter’s truck.

I stood, turned toward the glow of the headlights, and took three steps before I heard something skittering on the old pavement.

Christ, I thought. Creepers. Well, it had been a good run, hadn’t it? Almost made it to Northfields, didn’t I? Practically within shouting distance of Picus Ridge. Now, I faced the prospect of having my skeleton picked clean. On one hand, I just felt like closing my eyes and waiting for the end to come. On the other, I heard the voice of Old LaRue in my mind: “When someone wants to kill you, face them down and give as good as you can for as long as you can. Never go quietly. Never go running the other way.” I’d always kind of wanted to call bullshit on that particular suggestion, but I did it this time just the same.

It wasn’t creepers.

A giant hairy-legged spider, about ten feet tall, loomed just beyond the fallen deer. Its deep black compound eyes glittered in the glow of the truck’s headlights. I saw myself reflected in those eyes. They were like clusters of vile grapes. Greasy green toxin oozed from the great arachnid’s fangs. It drew back, preparing to strike.

“Sorry, LaRue,” I muttered. “Running the other way. Right now.”

The spider wasn’t after me, though. Once I had slid under the truck, I watched as the fangs sank redundantly into the dying double-headed deer. The spider then proceeded to spin a silky blue-white web around its victim before dragging the deer off through the high grass toward the canyon.

June 24, 2156

I don’t remember all that much about those pre-dawn hours on June 22 after I escaped the giant spider and drove those last few miles to Picus Ridge.

All I really know is that shit got mighty weird as the fever took hold and the infection in my mouth dragged me to the verge of madness.

Like that conversation with Old LaRue as he rode shotgun in the cab of the truck, hands gingerly clasping the hilt of the blade that had been stabbed into his stomach. Blood spilled from the wound, staining his shirt and dripping onto his pants.

“You’re a real disappointment, son,” he said. Three black and red spiders skittered down his tongue, over his lips, and across his cheeks before they found new perches on his shoulders.

“Sorry about that,” I replied.

“I know you heard everything I ever said,” LaRue went on, pulling a scorpion from his left ear and dangling it out the passenger window by the stinger. “I just don’t know if you ever truly listened. Did you learn anything?”

I shrugged. “Maybe. Next time, man up and pull my own goddamned tooth.”

LaRue sighed. His tongue changed into a swiftly growing sandworm, whose fang-circled maw roared open and lunged toward me.

I slammed on the brakes just outside the front gate of the adobe-walled town of Picus Ridge, a stronghold of the Techs. I swung open the driver’s side door of the truck. Sagged against the steering wheel for a few minutes.

“You okay?” asked a sentry in dark leather and metal body armor. He held his rifle at the ready, approaching the truck. “Sir, you okay?”

I leaned left, fell out of the truck, and rolled onto my back on the ground at the sentry’s feet. “Doc…Ames,” I gasped. “Gotta see…Ames.” Despite the growing madness, I recall the euphoric sense of relief that I had arrived at my destination. I allowed myself just the hint of hope that I might survive this nightmare after all.

“Ames?” The sentry frowned. “Aw, shit. He left a few days back for an emergency call in Reyes Mine. Due back tomorrow.”

Reyes Mine?! The town I’d just fled as another platoon of Night Wolf bandits swarmed in from the wastes to invade? When Brock Dundy and I arrived, I bet he was inside the mine, helping the residents prepare to defend their town against the raiders. If I’d been a little less hasty, a little less selfish, then I probably would’ve run into him soon enough. Now I knew he was trapped and under siege, at best. At worst, the bandits had killed him. Either way, he wasn’t in Picus Ridge and my infected tooth couldn’t go untreated any longer. Enzo Scarpelli’s voice piped up from where he appeared impossibly to be standing on his head on the hood of the truck. “Lucky you, huh?”

“The fuck…” I muttered in disgust, and then I passed out.

***

Two days later, I awoke in the Picus Ridge clinic. Sunlight filtered through gray cheesecloth hung over the windows. Those makeshift curtains fluttered lightly in the warm breeze. I’d been hooked up to a sack of intravenous fluid that dripped slowly through a tube and into my veins. The tooth didn’t hurt at all. My tongue poked around, exploring the gap where the tooth used to be.

“Careful,” cautioned a beefy woman with dark skin and a shaved head. She stood in the doorway, wearing dark blue medical scrubs and slippers. “Got some stitches in there.” She smiled, then took a few steps closer. “Glad to see you’re coming around. It was touch and go for you the first day after you arrived. I extracted the tooth, though, and then we pounded the infection back with antibiotics. You’ll live. If you’d arrived a day later without treatment, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation right now.” She put a hand on my shoulder. “We weren’t able to get your name before you passed out.”

“Denton,” I said. “Amp Denton.”

“Well, good to meet you, Amp,” she replied. “I’m Dr. Alicia Solata. I’ve been an assistant to Doc Ames for a couple of years. Can’t say I match his skills, but I do okay in a pinch. I want him back, though. I hope he’s okay.”

I scratched the back of my head. “One of the last things I remember hearing is that he went south to Reyes Mine on an emergency call. I left there the afternoon before I got here. I left in a hurry. Night Wolves swarmed the place, just like they did to Murphy and tried to do to Pass Chris. The doc might be holed up in the old mine outside town.”

Alicia knit her brow as she tugged my mouth open with a gloved finger to get a look at the sutures in the socket where the traitorous tooth had been. “He’s a good man, but a little too selfless for his own good. I warned him these remote calls were dangerous. He knew the risks. He did it anyway.” She released my mouth and stepped back. “It’s healing nicely. We’ll keep you a couple more days to get your system back in balance, make sure the infection’s stomped good and proper, and then you should be fit enough for release.”

I risked a smile. “Glad to hear it,” I said. “I feel much better. Thanks. I appreciate the help.”

“That’s nice,” Alicia said, pulling off first one glove and then the other before dropping them in a bowl of alcohol. “I sure hope you don’t think the treatment was free.”

“What?” I asked.

“We’re getting a team ready to make a run down to Reyes Mine to rescue Doc Ames,” she explained. “You’re going along to help.”

***

I can’t say that I’m too pleased that this doctor wants to put me over a barrel for her boss.

Granted, I owe her for saving my life. But what sense does it make for her to nurse me back to health just to send me off to certain death on some suicide mission in Reyes Mine?

Then there’s the matter of Enzo Scarpelli, probably waiting in Depot 66 this very minute for me to come back so he can tell me what to do to earn back the ATV, assuming Slammer and No-Toes managed to recover that along with the green metal box that had been so precious to their boss.

June 25, 2156

I feel so much better today now that the tooth’s out and the infection seems to be gone. Colors seem more vivid. Smells don’t seem as stale and flavorless. No lunatic hallucinations! It might just be the slow drip of mild painkillers, but I’m a hundred percent improved. The mishaps and mayhem of the past few days seem like distant history.

Maybe I can just forget everything that’s gone before. Start over with a clean slate!

I’m tempted to leave this clinic, climb into Brock’s truck, and just drive all the way to Kaibab Forest.

Doc Ames isn’t my problem. He made a choice. Every choice comes with a consequence. Old LaRue taught me that.

The green metal box isn’t my problem. Enzo Scarpelli put that concern in the hands of his minions in the Lower Plateau.

The Night Wolves going on the offensive isn’t my problem. When settlers choose to dwell on the fringes of the province, well away from the centralized and better-defended towns, they must accept the consequences. Sometimes, that means falling prey to bandits and raiders who want what they have.

The Lightbearer who killed Old LaRue? Not my problem. Their animosity didn’t have anything to do with me. That was between my mentor and the tea-sipper.

It’s a tough world, yes, but those particular problems aren’t mine. They belong to other people.

My biggest problems had been a rotten tooth and a dangerous infection. No longer. I’m healthy. I’m free and clear.

So, that’s that, then. I’m not involving myself in this raid on Reyes Mine.

***

Scribbled in the left margin: Someone else’s poor planning doesn’t count as my emergency.

Scribbled in the right margin: Truck needs gas.

***

Alicia Solata scowled angrily at me when I broke the news that I wouldn’t be participating in the effort to rescue Doc Ames from the clutches of the Night Wolves in Reyes Mine.

“You owe this town a debt,” she said.

“Yes, I do,” I agreed. “I’ll happily do something that stands to profit Picus Ridge, but that doesn’t include getting myself killed on some crazy mission to get your wayward doctor out of captivity. I didn’t go through everything I did to get here just so that I could go back and martyr myself. Doc Ames is an old guy, right? He’s had a full life. Let him go.”

Alicia gave a slow nod. “Your mind is made up, I suppose.”

“Sorry,” I said. “It is. It’s nothing personal. Just business.”

“Fine,” she replied. A taut smile, forced and almost friendly. “All right, then. I’ll give you one last dose of antibiotics. You can leave after that, if you like. I wouldn’t want to keep you from moving on.” She prepared a hypodermic needle, drew some clear liquid from a brown glass vial, and then swabbed my arm before making the final injection. I thought it might have been my imagination, but she seemed to jab with a little more enthusiasm than normal. “That should do it.”

“We’re done?” I asked.

“Mostly,” she said, returning the brown vial to a cabinet and dropping the needle in a beaker full of alcohol. Alicia kept her back to me as she began cleaning off the counter in the clinic room. “Still, I’m hoping you’ll reconsider assisting us with the rescue of Doc Ames.”

I laughed, shaking my head. “Look, you really need to stop kicking that poor horse. It’s dead.”

She turned to regard me with an icy smile as she said, “So are you, if you insist on refusing to settle this debt.” Holding up her right hand, she displayed a small metal rectangle with a blinking red light above a green button. “You do know how much we Techs love our gadgets, Mr. Denton. You’ve been injected with a nanoexplosive that should be following its preprogrammed course to a strategic location somewhere in the vicinity of your brain stem in just the next couple of minutes.”

She couldn’t be serious. It had to be a bluff. “I thought you people had an oath to do no harm!” The situation terrified and intrigued me simultaneously. If it was a bluff, I had to admire the temerity.

“We modified the oath about a hundred years ago,” Alicia said. “It’s called the Cowardly Asshole Exemption.” She kept a tight grip on the trigger device as she continued, “If I push and hold the button once, your head goes off like a meat-filled firecracker. There’s a nanotransmitter on the device, sending and receiving pulse signals from the trigger. The transmission outer range is about thirty yards. Don’t wander too far from the team or boom. And try to steer clear of any microwave emissions. They can scramble signals and make the trigger think you’ve left the transmission range. Boom.”

“Huh,” I said. The beauty of the best cons can be found in the details. If she was lying, it was convincingly perpetrated. If she was telling the truth, I didn’t want to find out.

“Nothing personal,” she replied.

“Just business,” I agreed.

***

So, that’s that.

I’m in on the raid on Reyes Mine, whether I like it or not, because my life apparently depends on it.

***

Scribbled in the right margin: BOOM.

Sketched below that: A surprised face with wide eyes, open mouth, and a mushroom cloud blossoming from the skull.


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