Bonepicker (Episode 1)

By Matthew X. Gomez

“Well, well, well, what have we here?” I slid down the dirt hill, kicking up dust around my body.
“Probably ain’t nothin’, ‘Picker,” Breaker said, perching on the rusted out shell of the car.

“Nothing? Huh. Shows what you know, Breaker. ‘Nothin.'” Reaching into my tattered coat, I grabbed hold of my crowbar.
“How long you think it’s been sittin’ here, ‘Picker? Got to be at least fifty years or so. Been picked clean, and not by you.”
“Either lend a hand or fuck off, Breaker,” I mumbled through the thick scarf over my mouth and nose. Wouldn’t do no good breathing in that dust. No telling what was wrong with it. Might do something to your lungs, your guts, or your brain.
Breaker jumped from the trunk to the roof as I wedged the crowbar under the hood. I slid it back and forth a bit, great flakes of metal sliding off the rusted hulk. Nothing out here lasted long, metal least of all. There was something in the dust, in the water, in the bones of the Earth that ruined everything. It ruined metal, it ruined cloth, and it ruined men.

Pressing down, the hood gave way with a groan. Engine was still there, a corroded mess of metal and rubber. I picked around in it for a while, smiled when I found some rubber tubing, a few other bits and bobs.
“See that, Breaker? That right there’ll get us fed next time we stop to trade. Might even get me laid.”
Breaker snorted. “You ain’t never gonna get enough scrap to get your ugly mug laid.” He looked up into the sky, cocked his head to one side. “Don’t forget to check the trunk.”
I shuffled along the car, the skeletal driver still clutching the wheel. Made me wonder where he’d been hoping to get to, where he thought he could run. Truth was, ain’t no place wasn’t touched come The End. And this was all we were left with. Ruins and wrecks.
A bit of work with the crowbar and the trunk popped open with a protest of rusty hinges. A suitcase lay inside, rotted to tatters, whatever was inside far past gone. Smiling, I picked up a small red case with a white tee on it. I worked the zipper, my grin getting wider.
“Whatcha got there, ‘Picker?”
“Medical supplies, looks like.” I rooted around in it for a bit, zipped it back up. In the bag it went.

“Where to next?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but the distant roar of engines shut it right quick. Nothing good came of hearing that noise. I clambered up the side of the hill, making sure to keep my head down. That didn’t stop that damn fool Breaker from jumping off the roof, climbing up the hill and standing straight up like the damn fool he was.

“Who do you reckon that is?” he asked me. He wrinkled his nose. “Can’t make out their colors from here. Could be Butcher Bird’s crew, come back from raidin’.”

“Shit. I hope not. What’s out that way anyway?”

“Tungsten. Blackgrave. Ironbar. A few others I think.”

“Tungsten’s a ghost town. Got wiped out last year, remember?” I remembered it well enough, the smell of death and rot hanging over everything. Even the animals were dead, and the scavengers refused to touch the bodies. I didn’t stay long, even with all the scrap lying around. Wasn’t worth dying over.

“Oh yeah. Well, they’re definitely heading back toward Trade Town now, whoever they are. Should be clear to go in a few.”
I twisted around so my back was to the hill. Finding my canteen, I pulled the rag down, swallowed a couple of mouthfuls of warm water.

“Want some?” I held the canteen out to Breaker.
He looked away, skipped back down the hill, and started heading back to the camp. Asshole.
Camp didn’t amount to much. A bit of brown tarp thrown over the bike, more dirt piled on top with a few rocks to mask it from people coming by. The bike wasn’t much, just a bunch of spare parts I cobbled together, bags and baskets tied on where’d they fit. It ran though, and it beat walking by a wide mile.
Pulling my goggles down over my eyes, I kickstarted the bike, looked around for Breaker. I didn’t see him, but that didn’t mean much. He had his own ways about him, coming and going as he pleased. One thing was certain: he was never far away.

***

“Whatcha doing here, ‘Picker? Come to trade?”

“Why else would I be here?” I tried not to stare as Breaker pissed into one of the trenches the locals had dug around Blackgrave proper.  “It aint’ for the scenery or the company.”
“You’d probably have better luck in Trade Town,” the guard offered. I knew he was trying to be helpful, but him telling me how to do my job was just aggravating. It wasn’t like I went around telling him how to stand and carry his gun. If it was, I’d have told him he’d better clean it and quick otherwise it was likely to jam on him should he need to use it. Shameful the way some people treat their things.
“Maybe. Look, is it going to be much longer?”

“Nah. Just got to get the okay from Pincher. You know how it is.”

“Yeah, yeah.”
Pincher was one of those that held themselves up to be a leader type, looking after the wellbeing of their little communities. Truth was they were a bigger bastard than the others. Pincher was a decent sort, as they went, which meant I’d barely stop to scrape them off the bottom of my boot, given half a chance.
Breaker was shaking his dick dry when Pincher came up to the gate. Her mask was fitted nicely, the lenses of her goggles polished bright. She was wearing what might have been nice clothes once, but out here in the Burned Lands nice didn’t last. Hopper came with her, one of the other guards. Breaker smiled at Hopper and winked. No accounting for taste, I suppose.

“Bonepicker.” The mask muffled Pincher’s voice, but not enough for me not to hear the distaste in her voice. “Been a while. What was the last thing I remember saying to you?”
I scuffed my feet in the dirt.

“Not to get caught trading around your place without permission,” I offered.

“Yeah. That’s what I thought. So what are you doing here?”

“Come to ask permission, ma’am.”

“Huh. Just you?”

“Well, there’s-” I caught Breaker shaking his head, frowning at me, his brow furrowed. “Uh, yeah, just me.”

“You see anything while you were out there?”

“Caught sight of raiders, might have been Butcher Bird’s crew. Didn’t think it would be smart to get close enough to be sure, you know?”
Pincher stared for a while. I hated those masks, hated the fact I couldn’t get a read on what folk were thinking while they were wearing them.

“You know who they hit?”
I shook my head.

“Ironbar, probably, seeing as how it wasn’t here. Could have been someone else though.”
Pincher sighed. Hopper cursed.

“Fine. You can come in. You’ve got two days to trade, and then I want you gone. You want food, water, or gas, you need to pay in advance. We’re no charity. Understand?”
I tried out a smile. It felt weird. “Got it. Two days, and if I want anything I need to trade for it. Err, where can I sleep?”

“You’ve got a tent, right?” She turned around, headed back where she came. Hopper stood there staring at me.

“Uh, yeah… yeah, I’ve got a tent.”
She didn’t bother replying.
It was getting late by the time I squared my camp away. Honestly, my tent was probably a better shelter than what most of the poor bastards had to work with. Corrugated metal rusting away to nothing, holey tarpaulins, and crude brick shelters dominated. Pincher had the nice house, and her trusted circle would be in there with her. Made no difference to me. In the morning, I’d see what I could trade.
I woke up to Breaker shaking me awake. Cracking an eye open, I studied him.

“What’s up?” I mumbled, my tongue thick. I took a few, warm swallows of water, rubbed the grit out my eyes.

“Trouble. Maybe.” He raised his nose, sniffed the air like he smells something off. “I don’t like Pincher.”

“We need the trade though. Wasn’t going to make it all the way back to Trade Town as it was.”
He shook his head as I gathered my gear together, wondering who to hit up first.  “What would you do if I wasn’t there to watch your back?” he asked.
I opened my mouth to answer, but he was already gone. Pissed me off when he did that.
Once outside the tent, I saw Fryback waddling over to me, beady eyes squinting against the morning light.

“Hey, there ‘Picker.”

“Heya Fryback. Still hanging around here, huh?”
She smiled, a broken tooth grin warming my heart.  “Yeah, you know how it is. ‘Sides, I like it here. What would I be anywhere else?”

“Still, the best damn cook in the wastes.”
Her smile grew even wider at that.

“You sweet talker you. Think you can spare a moment? The purifier I’ve got is on the fritz again.”

“Sure, sure, let me grab a few things.”
Together, we walked over to where she had her kitchen. It was open air, for the most part. A bit of metal overhang was rigged up to keep the worst of the weather off her customers, but her cooking area was open and exposed. Her purifier was set up in a locked shed off the main structure. Pincher let Fryback hook it up to the wind turbine, something she didn’t do for most people.. It was set up to a rain collector, and when it did rain, the water flowed in, went through the purifier and came out as something you could actually drink. I opened it up and nearly gagged on the stench coming from inside.

“Fryback, how long has it been like this?” I pulled my scarf up over my mouth, took small shallow breaths.
“Uhm, well, people have been complaining about a funny taste for a while now.”

“Uh-huh. Anybody get sick recently?” I set my satchel down, pulled out a few tools.

“Now that you mention it, yeah. Why?”

“You didn’t notice the smell?” Grabbing my screwdriver, I started taking the metal casing off housing the purifier.  Sure enough, once I got it off, I found the culprit—a rotting, festering carcass of something. It was hard to tell how long it had been in there. It probably had climbed up on top, tried to get some of the water, and fallen in. The fact no one had bothered to check it pissed me off.

“So if that’s the problem, why isn’t Fryback sick?” Breaker whispered in my ear. I turned to answer him, but he was gone. I went back to pulling bits and pieces of whatever it was out. Rat, maybe, but it looked too big for that.

“You don’t drink the water?” I called out behind my shoulder.

“Huh? Not usually,” she replied. I heard her slapping meat down on her grill, and my mouth watered in anticipation, despite the noxious task I was elbow deep in. “I’ve got some homebrew I usually drink.”
That made sense then. Most folk’s didn’t have a purifier to keep their water clean, but high proof alcohol did the trick almost as well. If they were using water from the purifier, it would give it a funky taste, but the alcohol would prevent you from getting too sick.

“Here, let me get one of those jars,” I said.

What for? You know I gotta charge you for it.”

“It aint’ for me, Fryback. I need to clean out the purifier.”

“Thought you did that.”
Sighing, I pulled the scarf down from off my mouth.

“Just the big pieces. I want to make sure to clean it, make sure any little bits are gone.”

“Tell her about the germs,” Breaker said from back in the shed.

“Why? Not like anyone believes me.”

“What was that? You talking to someone in there?”

“Ah… no, just me,” I said, forcing a  laugh. People got nervous when I told them about Breaker, so I stopped doing that a while ago.
I finished up, got the casing back on. I climbed up on top of the shed, scratched my chin as I stared at the collector. “Yeah, that’ll do it.”
Heading back to my scooter, I found a spool of fencing among the scrap I’d    been collecting. The holes were small enough to keep most critters out. A bit of work, and I had a nice screen set up  to let the water in and keep the critters out.  I tried to remember why I hadn’t done that last time I looked at the purifier.
“Because you only just found it, stupid.” Breaker was lounging on top  the shed. He’d found something to smoke along the way and was blowing lazy rings of smoke into the azure sky.
“Right.”

“What’s that?” Fryback asked.

“Huh, uhm… nothing.” I turned back to Breaker, but he was gone again. Asshole.

“So what do I owe you?” Fryback asked.
I thought about asking for water, and then remembered I’d just fixed the purifier.

“How about some of that moonshine and a bit of food?” I asked.
I squared away my payment, and was busy chewing some of it when Hopper came up to me.

“Pincher wants to see you,” he said.
I frowned, feeling a ball of worry settle in  my guts like a hornet hive.

“What’s she want? I’ve got two more days.”
He smiled at me, shook his head.

“She didn’t tell me, and it ain’t my place to ask. Now, are you coming?”

“Ain’t like I’ve got much of a choice, it?”

“No. You don’t,” Breaker whispered in my ear as I followed Hopper toward Pincher’s.

Update 06/20/2014

Before anything else, I just want to say that Dark Futures Annual 1 is almost ready to go. It just needs a couple more stories formatted and my introduction before I can send it off to Amazon for Kindle release, followed shortly thereafter by release of Smashwords, and finally formatting for the physical print edition.

Next, I want to formally announce that anyone who ordered a print copy from our Indiegogo campaign will receive an electronic copy first, free of charge, because of the extreme delay of release.

Also, we intend to step away from our use of DriveThruFiction and PDF copies so, if there are no objections, we will be replacing the DRM-free PDF copies described in the preorder campaign with other electronic copies. If you ordered one of those, we will happily get you a copy in any ebook file type you prefer but we hope to be able to do so through either Amazon or Smashwords. If not, we will do what we need to do for you.

Now for the bad news: Yesterday, I began experiencing computer problems. Please understand that I am a lifelong geek and when I say, “computer problems,” I really mean, “my computer has all but ceased functioning.” I hope to have the issue resolved this weekend but I first need to determine precisely what the issue is. I want Dark Futures Annual 1 out in at least ebook format by CONvergence, at the beginning of next month, even if it requires staying up all night on my couple of remaining days off from my normal job before then to make it happen.

As always, if you have any questions, please contact me.

David Stegora
Editor-In-Chief

Car Wrecks

By Roy C. Booth and Nicholas Johnson

In the wastes of the once great United States of America, in the ash fields of what was once called Kansas – in the rubble of what was once a town with a name and was now a collection of crumbling bricks, burnt out car frames, and doll heads with their dirty matted hair and their unblinking eyes – the little amount of life that kept on in these parts collected on what people might have once said was a regular basis for a brief moment in their pitiful existence and scrapped together what food and unkilling water they had for the celebration that was what had came to be known as the Great Last Race. Pox marked peoples, universally suffering from malnutrition, skin diseases, oral cancers, and sexually transmitted aliments, came to the skeleton town carrying bits and pieces of the past and, in two great piles at what would have been the edge of town, they dropped the pieces and then found some place to hunker down until the time of drawing was upon them. There was nothing that marked the time of drawing. There was just a sense of when the two piles were big enough, and then the lasts of humanity pooled together around the piles – one by one they made their mark in the dirt in a square the length and breath of a man lying on his side. When the marks had been made and everyone had stepped away, the chosen one was brought out and the chant went up from the mass of dregs.

“Co-Ka-Cola! Calvin Klein! Ex-lax! DOR-EE-TOES!”

The chosen one this time was a blind man with a gimp arm and open sores on both of his legs. Two of those assembled pulled him along and forced him to his knees before the drawn dirt square as the crowd continued the holy proclamation.

“Jiffy Lube! Captain Crunch! Say No to Dish!”

The chanting built and as collected bodies shouted and threw their withered limbs into the air there was a sense of something that came upon them. A learned man of the now dead world, of the world before, might have thought it some kind of genetic memory or psychic residue, but for those that gathered, for those that chanted and thrust and gyrated, they could hear more than just what their raspy voices could produce. They could see more than just the desolate waste in which they found themselves slowly dying. For those that partook in this Last Great Race, they were part of something greater.

“Tampax! Cool-Aid! Chevrolet! Unlimited Texting!” they called to the barren world, and around them a great phantom world replied. A great stadium of people with its Klieg lights and bountiful food stuffs on sticks, in paper wraps, and plastic cups answered their call. Like an echo, the old world could be heard cheering them on. The ghosts and specters of sportsmanship called up in the rush of their blood surrounded, infusing them and promising them: “Instant relief from burning sensations! A good night’s sleep! All you can eat!” they screamed and thrashed and wailed around the two great piles until, when all their prayers were in the wind and something shifted in them, a call from the ether that said, “Let’s have a clean fight!” or “They’ve won the flip!” and en masse they fell upon the Chosen One. Their chant having changed, they now shouted randomly: “Home of the Free! Rocket’s Red Glare! The Last Gleaming!” – scrambling over one another to find a piece of the Chosen One to bite off. He died horribly, like he lived, and when he was dead and everyone had bitten from him, they would look across the dirt square with their mark scratched in it and they would see what team they played for. If their mark was wiped away or covered by the blood of the Chosen One they would play for Team Blood. If they could still see all or a part of their mark the played for Team Dirt.

Split into their teams they would work without rest until the sun rose again and in that time they would build themselves into the Dream. Taken from their great pile of parts they would use wire or strapping and bind the pieces to themselves. Rocker panels and rear view mirrors. Hub caps and steering wheels. Through the night the teams would pull the pieces onto themselves and bind themselves to it and to each other, until, when the unforgiving sun would crest the horizon of the barren ash wastes, they would begin to race. Off towards the sun the two teams carried themselves and their Dream until, one of them, the Blood or the Dirt, would crash in a pile degraded bodies and rusted American steel, a spent thing that had lived briefly and then ran itself into the ground, sacrificed to the Gods of Consumption.

Then, if the other team had the mind to do so, they would eat them and wait for the next race to begin.

Alex S. Johnson Interview (Part Two)

We’re back with the second part of our interview with Alex S. Johnson, writer and editor of Axes of Evil, a heavy metal themed horror anthology. The first part of this interview was largely about his work as editor for Axes of Evil. This time, we delve more into the topic of writing fiction.

When did you start writing fiction?

I’ve been making up stories ever since I was a little kid, even before I learned to read and write. My first writing teacher was my dad, Steven M. Johnson. Not in any formal sense, but in the way we used to take camping trips and tell each other stories. He would start them and I took them up and continued them. I think I developed an almost visceral thirst for narrative from those trips. When he got tired I would beg him for more; I would get so psyched up, it was almost painful when the story time stopped. I just wanted them to go on forever. I think that was my first impetus to start writing, so I could continue the stories. We would make tape recordings and I listened to the tapes so many times that I memorized them and wrote them down in notebooks and illustrated them. It was so much fun to enter a completely imaginary world and inhabit it. To this day we still do routines and make up funny voices. It’s an unusual relationship to say the least. From there, it’s been a matter of trying to tap that pure element of storytelling while at the same time incorporating all those formal aspects I’ve learned.

Do you only write horror or do you branch out some?

Over the years I’ve tried different genres, from fantasy to science fiction to horror, but I’ve never been able to confine myself to the rules of a single game. I do love and appreciate writers like Stephen King and Clive Barker, but I’ll never be them. Part of the reason is that I always want to interrogate the ground rules or the limits of the genre and mix it up with humor, which results in a hopefully unique blend of genres with a satirical/meta-fictional slant to it. My stories are always at some level about storytelling. Authors such as Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino, Nicolai Gogol, Jorge Luis Borges—Fabulists—have probably influenced me as much or more than any strict genre writer. I want to give you a rollercoaster ride while at the same time doing a meta-analysis of the rollercoaster ride experience. In the words of Jim Morrison, more, more, more!

Do you have any writing credits you’re particularly proud of?

Yes, and they’re probably not the ones people would expect. I’m proud to have published stories in magazines like Bloodsongs and Chthulhu Sex alongside Edward Lee and Wrath James Waite. I’m proud of my music journalism, especially the articles I wrote during the final years of Metal Maniacs in its print form. I’m mostly proud of the fact that I continue to write and have gradually improved over the years, sanding off some of my excesses and self-indulgences. My latest published book, Outlaw Circus, contains a novella co-written by myself and Charie. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever accomplished in terms of writing.

Are there any writing goals you’re still hoping to achieve?

I want to create much lengthier works, more and larger novels. I’d like to push whatever talents I may have to their ultimate extent, and maybe a little further. If I ever find myself settling into a pattern or repeating myself without adding something new with every iteration, that will be the day I take some time off and go foraging again. I just want to be better at everything—narrative, dialog, plotting, pace, characterization, setting—than I am now. That is the basic goal, to be better.

Other than continuing Axes of Evil, do you have any other current projects you’d like to share?

I’m working on a collection entitled Doctor Flesh and Other Stories

Do you have any advice you’d like to pass on to other writers?

Try to find that aspect of the story you tell that is larger than you. Invest that place with human reality. Always ask what motivates your characters; why should we care about their dilemma? Write every day, and write well. If someone gives you advice about your writing, consider the source. They may not know what the hell they’re talking about. At the same time, do listen, and never forget the reader. Treat her kindly and with respect and give her a satisfying experience. Writing is a form of love in action.

I’ve read that you’re the author of a Jason X book that at least one reviewer on Amazon has suggested may be the worst novel ever written, but you take an odd sort of pride in that. Why is that and what advice can you offer others for taking unkind criticism so well?

I haven’t always responded so well to unkind criticism. I think the main thing to keep in mind is, as I said above, consider the source. There’s a list of one star review of classic novels circulating around on the net. If your unkind critic reacts with violent hostility to your steampunk epic, bear in mind that they may only read paranormal romance and have no understanding of how well you’ve deployed the conventions of the steampunk genre. How old is the critic? What kind of education does she have? Check out the other books they enjoy. I am a huge fan of the author Pat Cadigan, who wrote the original Jason X novelization, and my book is very much in the vein of hers. Pat was generous enough to tell me I should be proud of it. Yes, it has huge flaws, but it’s hardly the worst novel ever written, or published, or whatever.

I hope they weren’t expecting to find a soon-to-be classic literary gem in a Jason X novel. If it was violent, I think you probably hit the mark (or at least close enough.)

The two-star reviewers complained that there wasn’t enough Jason in the book. I don’t know how much Jason they required or if there’s some kind of quota. He wasn’t on every page but maybe every two pages. There is a great deal of bloody mayhem in Death Moon that should more than suffice, if you like that kind of thing. After awhile you find yourself struggling to come up with novel ways to kill off teenage campers. In outer space. But to answer your question, I did attempt to create a soon-to-be classic literary gem in a Jason X novel, and it still hasn’t found the appropriate readers.

Who are some authors you would say have been influential to you or who you look to for inspiration?

William S. Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Baudelaire, Vladimir Nabokov, John Shirley, Poppy Z. Brite, Truman Capote, Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare…there would be far too many to list in this interview and do justice to my inspirations or influences. I’ve lately become a great admirer of Joe Hill.

That’s all for now. There is one final part of this interview, which is much shorter and less serious. It will be published on Editor-In-Chief David Stegora’s personal blog sometime in the near future. You can expect an announcement here on the main Dark Futures site when that happens.

Update 06/01/2014

We were mostly quiet last month but we’re coming back full strength in the month of June.

The end of last month brought with it the third and final installment in the Scavenger Dogs story. Scavenger Dogs is just the first Burned Lands story. Matthew X. Gomez will be returning later this month with the start of the second. All three Scavenger Dogs episodes are still available on the site:
Episode 1
Episode 2
Episode 3

Back on the 14th of last month, we published the first part of an interview with author and Axes of Evil anthology editor Alex S. Johnson. The first part of this interview focused primarily on Alex as editor of Axes of Evil. It can be found here. Part two will be published on Wednesday of this week and shifts the focus onto Alex as a writer. A third, more light hearted portion of the interview will be posted to my personal blog sometime after that.

We’re pleased to announce Car Wrecks, a story by Roy C. Booth and Nicholas Johnson, will be published on the site on the 15th of this month. That weekend (June 12-15), Roy will be a guest at CoreCon in Fargo, North Dakota. If you’re not aware, this same writing team has a story called Clone George Washington in the 24th Century appearing in Dark Futures Annual 1, which will be available on Kindle sometime this month. Other formats will follow soon after.

Finally, I would like to apologize for being so far behind on the annual and Phase 2. I hope to get fully caught up on both of those this month.

David Stegora
Editor-In-Chief

Roy C Booth

Roy C. Booth is a published author, comedian, poet, journalist, essayist, screenwriter, and internationally awarded playwright with nearly 60 plays published (Samuel French, Heuer, et al) with 775+ productions worldwide in 28 countries in ten languages. Also known for collaborations with R Thomas Riley, Brian Keene, Eric M. Heideman, William F. Wu, and others (along with his presence on the regional convention circuit), Roy hails from Bemidji, MN where he also manages Roy’s Comics & Games. Roy can be found on Facebook, and his work can be seen at Samuel French, Heuer Publications, on Amazon, and elsewhere.

Works Published By Dark Futures
Car Wrecks (with Nicholas Johnson), June 2014