The cold shock of water in my face brought me back to the land of the living. I gasped, shaking my head, my hair plastered to my face. I tried sitting up, but my hands were bound behind me along with my ankles, so all I managed was to wriggle a bit. I opened my right eye, but my left stubbornly refused to open. Not that there was much to see. Another shack, the walls corrugated tin, and the floor hard packed dirt underneath. I felt around for my knife, and whimpered a little when I found it missing.
“Good, you’re awake.” The voice was familiar, but it came from behind me, so I couldn’t be sure.
He came around and knelt in front of me. “You look like shit, boss.” He reached out and pushed my wet hair out of my eyes.
“What the fuck are you doing, Hopper? Why am I trussed up?”
He smiled a crooked half grin I remembered all too well. That smile was one of the reasons I’d decided to fuck him in the first place. A cold ball of panic settled into my guts.
“What were you doing with the mutants, Pincher? We found the scouting party, or what was left of it. Saw lots of tracks, lot of dead bodies. Then JoJo goes out with Junker, sees what she can find. And what should they find? Our beloved leader inside a mutant camp a stone’s throw from Blackgrave. So what happened? Planning to sell us out? Looking to save your skin?” Pulling a long knife from his belt, he dug it into the dirt.
Working some spit into my mouth, I lobbed it into the dirt. “Mutants hit the caravan. They must have been watching the spot, because they hit us coming away from it. We didn’t have a chance. I tried to get away, but I didn’t get far. I don’t know what they were planning for me, but it wasn’t anything I wanted. So are you going to cut me free or not?”
Hopper chuckled and shook his head. The cold ball in my stomach got a mite bigger. “I think it’s time for a change in leadership. I’d leave you alive, but you’d never stop scheming to get back on top, would you?”
I narrowed my one good eye. “So what? You’re going to cut my throat? Kill a defenseless woman? Yeah, you’ve got some big balls on you.”
He poked me with his knife and I writhed a bit, trying to get away. “Don’t give me that bullshit, Pincher. Are you telling me you’d hesitate to kill in order to get ahead?”
“What about JoJo and Junker? They know I’m still alive.”
Hopper’s smile grew wider, reminding me of the wild dogs you’d sometimes see out in the wastes, slaver dripping down as they eyed the weak and the old. “And? They’ll get a nice new place when I’m in charge. I think JoJo might even appreciate a bit of extra attention.”
“Got it all figured out then, huh?”
“Better believe it.”
“What about Fryback?”
“Fryback? Why would I give a shit what that fat fu-“
He crumpled to the ground. Something sprayed on my face, and it took me a moment to realize it was his blood. Standing behind him, in the doorway, was an immense, round figure. In one hand was a cleaver, in the other a pistol.
“Heya, boss.” Fryback didn’t so much walk as delicately shuffle her bulk around me. I felt my restraints part under the edge of her cleaver. “You look like shit.”
“Nice to see you, too.” Standing up was painful, all of my limbs protesting from being restrained, bounced around, and handled with less than the delicate care they deserve. Prying the knife from Hopper’s fingers, I took the gun from his holster, too. “How much trouble do you think there’s going to be?”
Fryback shrugged. “Depends on the trouble you’re expecting I guess. Hopper never officially declared you dead, and most people were waiting to see if you were going to show up again. JoJo and Junker are, sorry, were in his camp. But that’s about it. No offense, boss, but you have lousy taste in men.”
“Don’t I just.”
“That’s not the worst of it, though. Those mutants you two were talking about, they’re outside the gates. Junker and JoJo are up in the tower, but they’re saying the camp’s out of range. Figure there’s about twenty or thirty mutants out there.”
I cock an eyebrow. Sure, that was plenty for an ambush, but an assault on a settlement that was expecting them? Way too few, unless they had something planned.
“Anyone get a closer look?”
“Other than JoJo and Junker? No.”
“Shit. I don’t need them to know I’m still alive until this is all done.”
Fryback nodded, holstered her gun and hung her cleaver by a length of cord from her waist. She opened the satchel bag hanging off her massive frame. She pulls out a long, hooded coat and a gas mask. “Put those on, and those two won’t know what’s going on until it’s all over.”
I smiled at her and quickly dressed. I stuck the pistol in the pocket of the coat, but decided to carry the knife. I didn’t have any place to put it where I wouldn’t end up sticking myself.
People swarmed all over the settlement when we stepped out. The pale golden ball of the sun struggled through the ever present grey haze, and clouds of dust were kicked up by the people, my people, running all over the place, like someone had kicked an ant hill. Anyone with even one good eye like I had could see something was up, and I could be sure the mutants knew they’d been spotted. So what were they waiting for?
I clambered up a ladder and onto a platform on the wall. I couldn’t really make out the mutant’s camp through the dust being kicked up through the swirling winds, but I could imagine it was out there. I wondered how JoJo and Junker could see it, but they were up higher, and might be able to look down through the dust cloud.
“Shit, I wish Pincher was here.” I turned to the person speaking, realizing that they didn’t recognize me given I wasn’t wearing my usual attire. My skin tingled a bit at the sentiment. Maybe everyone in Blackgrave wasn’t an unrepentant bastard, Hopper notwithstanding.
“Seen any sign of the mutants?” I pressed my hand down on the railing, squinting into the distance, willing something to show itself. I lowered my voice a bit, hoping the person didn’t know me well enough.
“Ain’t seen shit.” His rifle rested, stock down, on the platform as he leaned out over the wall, trying to see anything. Two satchels rested down by his feet.
I heard the ladder rattle behind me as someone made their slow process up. “Hey Griper,” my platform mate called out, moving over to let the old man up. I could feel the old man’s eyes on me through the lenses, sizing me up and wondering if I was a known or an unknown and how much of a risk I posed.
“Hey there, Rusty. Seen any movement?”
“Nah. Nothing but wind and dust out there.”
Griper snorted through his mask. “Don’t get complacent. Those damn mutants’ll be on us sooner than you can blink. The only questions you should be asking are ‘When?’ and ‘How?’”
In the distance, I heard a motor stutter and cough to life over the driving howl of the wind. I glanced up at the tower, and JoJo or Junker started flashing with their signal mirror. “Seems we got our answer.”
“Since when do mutants have vehicles?” Rusty asked.
“Since they wiped out a caravan and Pincher’s scouting party,” Griper growled. He leaned down and grabbed one of the two satchels on the platform. “Don’t mistake barbaric for stupid. Sure, most of the mutants out there have about as much sense as walking outside without a mask on, but that’s the rank and file.” He spooled out a length of cord from the satchel and stared down over the edge. The sound of the motors grew louder and, out in the distance, I could see dark shapes looming out of the dust clouds, the familiar shapes causing my fear to grow. “Come on Rusty, get that other package ready. We need to give our guests a proper welcome.”
“But what? Give the girl here your gun and get working. Or do you prefer ending they day in a mutant cook pot?”
Even though I knew he couldn’t see my face, I cocked an eyebrow at Griper. I took the offered gun, and sighted along it at the incoming vehicles. Sure as Griper had said, the lead truck was the one we’d taken out to where Needles said the caravan had been attacked. The mutants had been busy, however, and had added a few of their own improvements.
“That’s not good,” I muttered, sighting along the gun. In addition to adding rebar to the front of the truck to make a battering ram, they’d also installed sheets of metal over the windows. I could make out a small slit, where a driver could look through, but barring an improbable amount of luck on my part, there was no way I was making that shot. At least four mutants were piled in the back of the truck, so I drew a bead on one of them instead. Following the truck were more vehicles, less heavily kitted out but still bringing more mutants faster than I cared for.
Griper looked up and sniffed. He looked down at the satchel, then back up at the approaching battering truck. He snipped off a bit of cord, nodded, then fumbled in his pocket for something. I heard the lighter spark, then the sizzle as the fuse caught. He waited for what I thought was an inordinate amount of time before tossing the package off the wall.
“Get down!” he shouted, nearly falling off the platform as he ducked back behind it. I followed suit, as did Rusty, though he was a bit smaller. The resultant explosion was still deafening, and a shower of dirt and small rocks followed. The entire platform and wall shook from the explosion, and I wondered if the whole thing was going to collapse. I got my bearings and popped up from behind the wall.
The truck was a burning wreck. The driver stumbled out from the door, but was shot as I was drawing a bead on him, his head exploding. I turned my attention to the rest of the mutants who, undaunted by the destruction of their ram, still advanced their movements erratic and constant. I picked out a large trike, one mutant driving while the passenger riding behind fumbled with a long tube. Squeezing the trigger, I missed the driver but did hit the lead tire. The rubber shredded, the driver lost control, and the whole thing flipped end over end. More firing followed, most of it from our side. Yeah, we might have lost most of our best in that ambush, but you didn’t survive for long these days without knowing your way around a gun, or a knife, or really any sort of weapon at all. I knew Fryback would have converted her kitchen to a hospital and would be pulling duty as surgeon. JoJo and Junker were picking out targets of opportunity, something I knew whenever I aimed at a mutant only for them to drop to the ground. The ground before the walls was filled with the crawling, screaming, bleeding mutants. The truck continued to burn near the gates, and a few more wrecked vehicles dotted the landscape. The rest of the mutants still in vehicles wheeled them around and sped away from the walls, their initial attack thwarted. I caught sight of their Chief, standing up in a flatbed truck, his face screwed up in a scowl as he surveyed the wreckage.
I smiled under my mask and pulled the trigger. In the distance, a large figure flopped out of the back of the truck, bounced once, and was still.
“Nice shot, Pincher,” Griper said, patting me on the shoulder. When I looked at him, he shrugged. “Fryback told me. Not like she could ever keep a secret, could she? Anyway, glad to have you back, boss. Hopper would have been shit to work for.”
“Thanks, Griper.” After handing the rifle off to Rusty, I went down the ladder. Making my way back to my residence, I stopped short when I saw Junker and JoJo waiting for me. Yeah, I knew I’d have to deal with them sooner or later, and it might as well be now.
“Heya, boss,” Junker called out. His mask was decorated with bright blue paint, while JoJo’s was pink. I have no idea where she’d found it, but I didn’t know anyone who’d argue her choice.
“Junker. JoJo. Nice shooting.” My hand rested on the grip of the pistol, and I wished I could see their eyes. After everything else, for it come to this? I figured I’d shoot JoJo and try to go for Junker after. I didn’t like my odds.
“Thanks, Pincher.” JoJo shuffled her feet in the dirt, stared down at the ground. “Look, no hard feelings, all right? For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I hit you. I didn’t know Hopper was planning on making a play. And you were the only one to survive the ambush. How was I supposed to know you weren’t working with the mutants?”
“Because they were attacking the place I run?”
“Look, I’m willing to let bygones be bygones. Mostly because we’re going to be short people for a while, especially after that debacle with the caravan. I expect you two to be on your best behavior, understand? Otherwise Fryback gets to play with you.”
They both nodded and shuffled away, heads bent close and talking to each other. I’d have to keep an eye on them, to be sure, but I couldn’t spare the competent manpower to make an example of one of them. Even if I did, I’d probably have to kill both to keep the other one from being a problem down the line.
Finally, I made my way over to Fryback’s, lured over by the smell of cooking meat. “Boss, glad to see you,” she said, looking up long enough from the butcher work she was doing. She slapped a hunk of meat onto the grill, wiping her hands off on her bloody apron. “Figure we’ll get some peace now?”
Chuckling, I eased into one of the stools at her bar, my entire body aching. “Maybe a bit, but I don’t expect that to last. I’m going to have to head out to Trade Town sooner rather than later. The caravan getting hit hurts us, and we’ll need some new soldiers to replace our losses.”
She nodded, taking two big meat forks and flipping over a roast she was cooking. “It doesn’t get easier does it?”
I smiled, tapping my fingers on the table. “We’re still alive though, so there’s that.”
Fryback smiled, shaking her head. She reached under the bar top, pulled up a mason jar and set it before me. “Drink up. World’ll still be here tomorrow.”
I nodded, my fingers curling around the cool of the glass. I swiveled on my seat, leaned back against the bar, and surveyed my kingdom.