“God damnit!” the salty old man ripped his headset from his balding head and tossed it aside the radio.
“I’m on fire! Oh my God I’m on fire!” the sounds of garbled screams cut off into static decay.
“Bunch of idiots can’t listen worth a can of beans!” He sat back with a deep sigh as he wiped the look of mild annoyance and defeat from his face. He just shook his head as he reached to press a green button on the radio, it switched to an open channel as he held it in place and picked up his headset to grumble into the microphone, “ObsidianFang to all outposts, the convoy is toast…I repeat, the convoy is toast.” He depressed the button and, again, tossed the headset down aside the radio as he stood from behind the counter. He looked up from his things to see a man, long-haired and disheveled, standing not too far from the counter. Just out of Fang’s sight was a little girl, covered in filth and holding a tattered stuffed lion, both were staring right at him with concern in their eyes. Just then, the radio static faded back into the sound of someone barely able to speak, pleading for help to the sounds of crackling fire and exploding things. With a grimace and a nervous laugh, the old man just tuned the radio over to Control 17 and its old collection of upbeat music broadcasting on a loop.
Cool breezes were not the most common thing in the wasteland but, this morning, the air felt cool as ever as it dipped out of the clear blue sky. In the breeze, a sullen steel squeal of a weathered windmill whined. Rhythmically, it turned to hush and whine, hush and whine, clatter, hush and whine. The mill sat fixed to the roof of the old gas station —the only gas station— and served as the water-pump for the area as it doubled to help charge up batteries (a commodity in the wasteland). But, as the breeze settled, so too did the windmill and, finally, its metallic whine hushed up for a long bit. Even though the windmill sat silent, still, the sounds of electronics hummed away from near the base of one of its legs. There, at the foot of the windmill, sat a darkly colored and armored casing with red glowing lights at one end. A sentinel —one of many— keeping a watchful eye on things.
You should know that this “sentinel” that I said is “keeping a watchful eye on things” is not exactly keeping an eye to make sure things stay safe, not exactly. But we’ll get to that later. For now, all you need to know is that it’s there. Watching…like some kind of watcher…or something…
The gas station below usually sat quiet, save for the salty old man screaming away into his radio. Yeah, he does his best to direct cargo convoys through the valley on the safest routes to the station but, sometimes, those convoys lose some cargo and he loses a gasket…literally as that’s what the cargo usually is, and metaphorically too with a little bit of anger to show for it. The stations only customers were the truck drivers of the convoys, and people like me, scouts for the local clans who were lookin’ to re-up on supplies and resources from those convoys. That’s why, when I pulled up there that day, I thought it was odd to see some guy and his kid daughter millin’ around the mill on the roof, and no convoy to be seen. The usual trucker chatter on the overhead speakers had been replaced by the soothing and melodic sounds of AC/DC. And, what’s more, it looked like Fang had hired a new hand to help out at the station. I saw the punk gettin’ up as I turned the rig off, headin’ my direction.
“Hell yeah!” I says under my breath as I got out of my rig, gave the punk a nod and, then, headed inside.
“Diesel…” the old man says.
“Boss,” I says back. Yeah, his callsign was ObsidianFang but, face to face, everyone called him Boss. “What’s with the yokes on the roof? … and where’s the shipment?”
“Don’t ask me about the shipment Diesel.” He huffed, “It ain’t here, is it?!”
“Up in smoke, huh?”
“Burnt to a crisp…” he sighed.
“Oh, wow, dad!” I heard the little girl come hopping down the outside of the building with a thud onto some old sheet metal. “I can’t believe we got another one!” she rushed into the building with excitement written all over her.
“Hey hey hey, honey!” her father scaled his way down more cautiously, I could tell because there were no thuds of any sort. “Slow down there, your old pops ain’t what he used to be!” he said as he made his way after her.
“What you got there?” I asked the girl as she stopped cold, right in front of me.
She looked at me as though I had just asked her for her one and only heart.
“What’s wrong with your voice?” she finally asked with wide eyes.
“Oh…right…” I says as I ran a hand across my neck and, for the first time in forever, I had been embarrassed about the sound of my voice.
“Christine!” her father started in through the door of the shop, close enough to place a hand in front of the girl and usher her behind himself. Flushed from exertion, and suddenly aware that his daughter needed corralling, he turned to look at me. “I’m sorry about that…she’s not used to interacting with other people.”
“But daddy, her voice…” the little girl whispered.
“Please,” he says to both his girl and myself as he blushed. “I’m so sorry.”
“No, no…it’s okay.” and that’s when I actually heard my voice for the 1st time in a long time. I guess I had tuned out the gruff manliness over the years. I leaned down to be eye to eye with the little girl, “Christine, is it?” and she shyly nodded. “I hurt my voice playing with guns, so, don’t ever play with guns, okay?” and she nodded vigorously.
“Is that true?” her dad asked as I stood up.
“I got my vocal cords severed when a .50 caliber rifle misfired in my face.”
His eyes went wide as he looked to the old man who just nodded to confirm my story.
“You got a name?” I asked.
“I-…” he stopped to look curiously at his daughter, then, back to me. “I’m Carl.”
“What’s a carl, daddy?” Christine whispered up at him.
“I’ll explain later, honey.” He says quietly out of the side of his mouth. “She’s never heard my name before…” he says to me with loss in his eyes.
“Ah, I get it…” and I did: they had lost her mother at some point before the girl could talk. “Change of subject, then. You guys huntin’ down sentinels?” I pointed to the contraption in the girl’s hands.
Carl scratched at his shoulder as he motioned for Christine to let him take the thing, and she slipped it into his hand. “Electronic parts, actually.” He held it up in view. “These peepers are loaded with the stuff.”
“That they are,” I says, turning to the old man and pointing outside. “Who’s the new guy?”
“Huh?” Fang looked out with a squint. “Oh, just some punk —said he’d work for cheap— told’em he could have whatever-whoever gives him for helpin’ out…”
“Alright…” I nodded in thought while I fished around in my back pocket for a surprise. “I’m guessin’ since there’s no shipment, that, whatever fuel you got left is gonna’ be at a premium?”
“Premium price for a premium account like yours?” the old man laughed. “And have your whole clan after my hide for tryin’ to take advantage…no thank you!” he laughed again, this time more nervously.
“Well, take this anyways…” like an old coin I flipped a small chip into the air and onto the counter, and I started to turn to leave the building. “Maybe you can bilk Carl, here, for something, sounds like he needs it.” I stopped at the doorway, and saw that punk was eyeballing my rig like he’d never seen anything like it. “I’m grabbing about 60 gallons…10 in the rig and 50 in the barrel.”
“Have at it!” he said while happily looking over the gold-pinned chip.
The radio suddenly cut from music to a broadcast, “Breaking! Breaking! Reports are coming in that this week’s supply convoy from the Reconstructed Quarter has been stopped along the border entrance to the canyon,” oddly enough, the woman’s voice seemed a little too cheerful for the news being delivered, and it continued, “Looks like these boys don’t know how to ease big things into tight spaces.” I stopped suddenly at the callous nature of the joke…and the familiarity of it…but I brushed it aside and continued my way out of the building.
Outside, compared to inside that stuffy store, the cool breeze felt more welcoming than ever. There was even a different sound to the shuffle of dirt under my boots, as though the light gusts just carried the sounds away. The broadcast had ended and, just like that, the song it had cut into returned from where it left off. There came a small serenity in the moment that I’ve managed to hold on to for all this time. The blue and crisp sky of morning, the cool and crisp breeze, the view of the desert dunes…crisp…all seemed perfect and serene.
“Yeah, what’doya want?” the question shot quick and rough from a high pitched and annoying voice.
Rattled and disturbed from my peace I answered, “You know what I’m here for…”
“Yeah? What’daya got?” he spat back.
“The usual wares, how much you want?” I was referring to the wires, batteries, and scrap metal that one in the wasteland usually barters with.
He didn’t think one more second and, just like that, he raised his crossbow right at me, “How ‘bout all of it!” he meant my rig.
“Aw crap!” A crossbow bolt zipped passed my head as I dove for the ground. Now, I thought I was using some serious big-brained muscles when I grabbed at my pocket for the starter module but, as you’re about to see, that was not the best of my ideas.
The rig roared to life as I clicked the module in my pocket and, as I triggered its weapons systems, one of its handy-dandy drones popped out of the side and clobbered me right in the dome. When I woke up, the module had been fished outta’ my pocket and the rig was gone. Fang and the others stood over me, vultures circled overhead, a lone explosion far off in the distance…and that cool breeze mocked me as it gusted up to tussle my hair, tickling my nose while I laid there in the dirt. And, woefully, the smell of excrement permeating all around. The sound of the weathered windmill picked back up as I, too, picked myself up, and it whined into the wind as I grumbled and shuffled into the distance.
Yeah, for those that can’t visually put things together, let me spell it out for you in this here black and white: I crapped my pants when I got knocked out by the drone. Yeah, yeah, laugh it up…get it outta’ your system…these things happen. Thanks for making me feel more embarrassed about it…good on you! Meh… … …look, I’m sorry for getting antagonistic on you, there. Just, please, for the sake of everyone involved, try to work on that imagination of yours so that I don’t need to spell things out so matter-of-fact. It ruins the subtle mystic of the story. And, what’s a story without mystic? Moving on!
The gas station, and its people, stood kilometers behind as I trudged along the battered and rundown asphalt on my walk of shame. But those damn vultures just kept circling overhead, they could smell the gut-rot smeared all up in my trousers and, since there ain’t much to survive off of around here, what we do get to eat tends to make for some serious got-rot. In the midday sun that smell was starting to get deathly, and the vultures circled as they waited, their shadows passing over me here and there.
I shielded my eyes to look up, “Hells bells, go away!” I shouted, “I smell like brown, not death!” and I waved them off like they cared about the difference between smells. “Hells bells…” It was stuck in my head from being played at Obsidian’s gas station, and it mocked me as the birds circled overhead, ‘we’re gonna’ get ya, hells bells!’ So, I mocked them back as I shook my fist in the air while yelling, “I ain’t dead yet you ravaging birds!” The wind gusted up to steal my words away and, surprising even myself, my voice bounced back from being thrown against the canyon walls of the Blood Rocks, and it echoed “Ravaging birds! — Ravaging bir—Ravaging b—Ravaging—.”
A good two hours had passed before I made it back to my old camp, still like I left it a couple months back after joining the clan. It was hidden, well, in a nook on a bluff with a good view of the market square several kilometers away. It seeped with a natural spring that drained and disappeared down through cracks in the rock floor. I had managed to fashion on old corrugated piece of metal as a makeshift door over a natural opening in the cliff. Not exactly a cave, but a space large enough to catch a good nap, and store some clothes. Believe you me, clothing didn’t stay ‘clean’ for very long around here. Blood and guts and, yes, poops, piss, and puss. All of it was certain to find its way on you at some point throughout the week, and having a stash of clothes to change into is this woman’s #2 priority. Specially after an unexpected #2.
What’s my #1 priority in this Godforsaken realm? Stayin’ alive.
I pulled the metal door shut, slipped out of my cruddy pants and, before shoving my cruddy bottom up against the spring to clean it off, first, I took a few good long sips.
“Ah!” I smacked my lips. “That’s really damn good…” After a few more sips, I used what water had smeared my face to rinse it off as best I could, then, set to washin’ my rear.
My bum all scrubbed, I needed to scrub up the rock face to make sure the spring could wash all the filth down into the cracks. It’s a bit of catharsis, you could say, to make sure your good with at least one thing in life and, for me, that’s cleaning myself up after a disaster. I’m good at that, and that’s all I need to keep going. I emerged from the nook with my trusty cargo pants on and, with my soiled pants in one hand, I scaled my way down from the bluff. “I should just toss these crappy pants into the acid lake…” but I knew better than that, I knew I would need them again at some point soon.
At the base of the bluff sat a rundown, rickety shack and, inside the shack lived an old woman. She was a nice old lady but I never did spend too much time with her, or else I’d be suckered into helping her clean all the crappy clothes that get dropped off there…like my pants. I’ll tell you what, for being in the wasteland, that old lady ran a tidy business. —That’s ‘tidy business’ not titty business!—
“Diesel!” she hollered out as I came walkin’ up. “Oof! I can smell you for here!”
“Not me…” I held up the pants. “These puppies…” I tossed the pants into a bin just outside her door. “I got myself cleaned up before comin’ over this time.”
“Thank God!” the old woman laughed. “You got the worst gut-rot of’em all ‘round here!”
“Yeah, don’t remind me…look, I know I usually pay you up-front but, uuhhhh…”
The old woman’s jovial face turned sour on me and, without missing a beat, and without break eye contact, she kicked the bin over to dump out the pants. “Oh…little donkey’s back, huh?”
“Hey! What’s with the insults? You know I’m good for the payments.”
“You know how it works around here…you lose your tail and come lookin’ for handouts, all you’re gonna’ get from me is nicknames.”
I sighed, frowned, bent down to scoop up my pants, and walked away. No sense in starting fights while I’m down for the count.
Steppe spiders are all too common a thing in the wasteland but, if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you…or so they say. It was around 2pm, I think, and that cool breeze had long since evaporated into the dry hot gusts of the irradiated desert. Thankfully, though, I had managed to pull up a prime piece of realestate next to one of my friend’s shacks, waiting for him to get back from the days grind. It wasn’t so shady but it was positioned just right in the canyon to still get a slight cool wind, all day long. I sat with my back up against his toolshed, his shack to my left, and his broken-down van to my right —and one giant, huge, gargantuan tarantula crawling its way straight towards me.
“Eh!” I cringed and inched back a little. “Goddamn steppe spiders! Go away!” I tried waving it off as though it had any sense of what that meant. “Shoo! Go away!”
The spider veered off and toward the van, just off to my right, and it inched by my knee so close I could count its eight beady little ey-…—seven, seven beady little eyes— yeah, I remember now because it looked like the little beast had lost one of them in a fight, a small clean scratch marked a light spot across its rosy-brown toughened little fuzzy cranium. Finally, it left me alone as it crawled off to take refuge under the shade of the van.
“Huh…trust me…you don’t wanna’ be around me anyways…” I hung my head in that dejected shameful memory of waking up to a stolen rig, and in my soiled trousers. “Everything around me turns to crap…”
The walls of the canyon began to echo with the rumble of an approaching truck, followed more strongly by the sound of thundering drums and crushing guitars. There was a woman singing…Russian…
“Awwwww crap…” I sighed and swung my head to stew in the coming humiliation.
A school bus in haphazard disrepair pulled into view from down the way, its once brightly colored paint, now, just a dull shade of its former self. The one side that I could see had graffiti and skeletons painted all over it but, really, I knew that the whole thing had been painted that way because I been privy to a few certain raiding parties involved against it. And, right now, I really was not looking forward to this meeting. The bus slowed to a stop and, as I looked to the ground, I could hear the squeal of its door opening, the thud of its heavy driver hopping out, and the slam of the door closing shut. I winced.
“Well, well, well…” his Russian accent was thick. “If it isn’t little Diesel crying on her hill like sad pathetic donkey. Did you lose your tail again little donkey?”
I just sighed and remembered that thing about starting fights while I’m down and, without looking at him I replied, “Not today, Demitri…” That’s when I looked up at him in all his impressive, and severely threatening raiding gear.
Just then, unexpectedly, Demitri’s posture straightened up as he cocked his helmeted head to the side. I could feel him looking me up and down through the blacked-out eyes of that wannabe Darth Vader helmet. His black jacket, long and to the ankles, caught a gust that furled it out to the side as he silently stood there. I started to feel more awkward than humiliated in the silence because I was expecting just that, a full-on roasting of all my failures to this point, even the last raid against his clan. But, no, that didn’t happen. He just stood there, looking at me and, then, he put his arms akimbo and said, “This is serous…”
I didn’t know what else to say, so, I agreed with him, “Yeah.”
“What happened?” his voice softened and he put his hands behind his back.
“I don’t wanna’ talk about it…”
“Come on!” he began doing this stupid pose of random strongman flexing and, I have to admit that, for just a second it made me chuckle on the inside.
“Fine…” I sighed as I eased up. “Well, you heard about that cargo shipment comin’ in, right?”
“Well,” I rubbed my neck to ease out more of the tension to tell my story. “My clan was picked to help escort it and…”
More at: https://youtu.be/SQ2n3XrcUag