We were told that where we were going the terrain would get too rough for J-Lo, so we were loaned a thing that was kind of like a dune buggy but barely bigger than a four wheeler. I was surprised at the offer since a vehicle seems to be the most valuable commodity around here. But I suppose we are going to save everyone and everything so it’s the least they could do really. Martialla drove that thing, which I have named Modest Mouse, while I trailed her in J-Lo until we could find a good place to stash her.
I’ve never been one of those people that got emotionally attached to their cars. They’re like coffee makers to me, as long as they work I could give a shit about them. It’s funny how living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland can change your viewpoint on inanimate objects. I’ve come to view J-Lo as our home and leaving her behind was tough. It seems like there’s no chance that someone won’t come along and steal it or it will just fall in a crevasse after an earthquake or something. It felt like I was a turtle being asked to leave my shell behind.
Walking out of Cryogenics West was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Just being “out there” I felt so exposed and vulnerable, like anything horrible could happen to us at any time. Once we got that car the fear of death went down a full eight percent, which is pretty good under the circumstances.
And I don’t think it’s just because it’s covered with armored plates, I think it’s more having a base of operations – or just something that’s ours. I assume this is how old timey nomads felt about their horses or camels or wives or whatever they rode around on. It becomes your whole life. I never thought that I would be capable of loving a car, but here we are.
Once we had J-Lo stashed away, we made our way upriver and the land did get pretty rough but Modest Mouse handled it like a champion. At one point we saw some guys with spears watching us from not that far away. We had been told that there were exiles up here that weren’t able to fit into even the loose civic standards of a mudhole like Bosstown. I can only imagine what kind of kill-crazy lunatics they must be if they can’t hack it in what passes for “civilization” around here but they didn’t do anything. What could they do? They had spears.
Late in the day we came across a couple of mud-brick huts with roofs that looked like they had actual shingles on them. What is that about? When did shingles become a thing? Is the shingle an older technology than I think? Can you make shingles out of mud? The place looked abandoned but we did find some saddles and other leatherwork in a half-shed type thing, so maybe it was a ranch or a farm. We also found out that one of the things we thought was a storage shed or a small building was actually an armadillo shell (skin?) that, I kid you not, was the size of a VW Van. What the hell do you do with something like that?
While we were debating staying the night there, we heard the sound of engines approaching. Good job us for not being caught off guard for once! We sprinted (well Martialla sprinted, I was a few steps behind, there’s no reason for both of us to run right?) into cover at the edge of the compound and saw a pile of trash coming our way. It looked very much like the wagon of the peddlers we met at the cryo place, only it was being pulled along by these freaky little things that looked like the front half of a motorcycle attached to the back of an El Camino. Martialla called them half-track motorcycles which is a dumb name. There were three of them pulling the heap of garbage like it was a chariot in one of those old homoerotic sand and sandals movies.
The people driving/riding them looked a lot like those traders as well. I guess it’s like a family resemblance? We yelled out at them not to come any closer but they didn’t listen. Or maybe they didn’t hear us, those things they were on were awful loud. They pulled right into the place with us and seemed surprised when we brandished our pistols at them. Overall they were a lot less skittish than their cousins we met before. Their leader (or at least their spokesperson) had a piece of metal strapped to his forehead for some reason and wore a black pelt that looked shiny like it had oil on it or something. He seemed more annoyed than frightened that we had them on overwatch. That’s a term right?
“Digger hi baker!” I yelled at them hoping that it wasn’t a deadly insult.
We put our weapons away once it seemed they had no hostile intent and they just wanted to trade. Although they were kind of hostile about the trading itself. Hostile like a pushy car salesman hostile. I told them we weren’t interested and even if we were, we didn’t really have anything to trade but they wouldn’t take no for an answer. Like a telemarketer, oily pelt insisted that I look through their mountain of refuse. There was a crowbar and some nails, things like that, but most of it was trash. What am I going to do with broken pieces of brick or some old empty toothpaste tubes?
Oily kept asking me what I wanted and eventually to shut him up, I said that we were more interested in information than things. I asked what they could tell us about what we might find upriver. His response, reasonably, was to ask how much it was worth to me. I told him again that we didn’t really have anything to trade and he was barking up the wrong tree. He said that we must carry a lot of food since we’re so huge and we could trade that. Rude.
Before I could say anything in response, there was a crack of thunder and I have to admit that I hit the deck like a frightened mongoose. Martialla had blown one of the other traders away. Literally, I saw him get lifted off his feet by the force of the bullet and he was airborne for a second with his ratty clothes puffed up around him like he was a kite. She immediately spun and started firing at someone who appeared at the side of one of the buildings holding a rifle.
Oily Coat brought up what looked like a literal hand cannon. It was as thick as a pipe under a bathroom sink – I think it actually was a pipe of some kind. I can’t remember why but Martialla had told me to put my gun on my left hip even though I’m right handed. So when I ducked down (cringed might be more truthful) and my hand went to my right side and I felt nothing, I thought my gun was gone.
On the ground was a machete that we had found in one of the buildings. It looked like it was made out of fiberglass or something but it was sharp as hell. It had a big chip out of it about a third of the way down that made it look like an elongated Easter Island head. I kind of grabbed it and swung it up at Oily Coat’s hands in the same motion as I was straightening out. He kind of turned to point the pipe-gun at me at the last second. I don’t know if I hacked into it and it went off, or if he fired at the same time, or if the damn thing exploded – all I know is the next moment I was flat on my back with my ears singing and his mouth was open in a scream I couldn’t hear while he clutched his bloody wrists together. I’m glad I didn’t get a good look because just in profile, his fingers looked like shredded cabbage.
His other friend came at me with a blade that was so bent it looked like a boomerang. Why do people in the future not like straight blades? Is there some reason you want a thing like that instead of a knife? I finally remembered I had a gun on my left hip and I grabbed it. Apparently I can only shoot when I’m sitting on my ass in the dirt. I fired at least seven times and I didn’t hit him once, but a fifth guy (from where?) coming up behind him with a speargun looking thing got hit several times and kind of stumbled/crumbled onto his face. It reminded me of when someone sacks a quarterback by taking out their knees – they don’t fall so much as they collapse.
Boomerang knife ran at that point but Martialla chased him down and bashed him a couple dozen times before walking back and knocking Oily Coat down and putting her knee on his throat until he stopped moving. She looked over at me with her knee still on the man’s windpipe.
“Are you okay?”
At least that’s what I think she said, I still couldn’t hear anything.