“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.”
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.
“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.