I rolled off Hopper with a satisfied sigh. He stared up at the ceiling, with that look in his eyes that some men get right after they’ve gotten laid. I hoped he wasn’t going to be a problem. Sleeping with the help rarely ended well. I pulled the sheet up over my breasts, wished Hopper was the type to fall asleep after fucking and not inclined to talk after.
“Hey Pincher, I’ve been thinking.”
Shit. “Yeah? What about?”
“You ever think about what you want?”
I rolled over to him, nuzzled under his arm. “What do you mean? I control Blackgrave, make sure everyone eats regularly, has a bit of shelter over their heads, and nobody doesn’t kill anyone else without a good reason. I’m the top bitch here. What else do you think I want?”
He furrowed his brow, his mouth turning down at the corners and making him look less pretty than I preferred. “Yeah, but isn’t there more you want than that?”
I snorted. “Like what? I’m not that ambitious, Hopper. I control one settlement, and I’ve got enough people to hold that. There’s already enough of a target painted on my backside. The bigger you get, the bigger the target. ”
“What if someone bigger comes along?” Hopper rolled toward me, stared at me with his washed out blue eyes.
I smiled. “Bigger like who? Tungsten is gone and Ironbar is still trying to pick up the pieces from when Butcher Bird and his crew hit them. Trade Town? Those fucks are too busy fighting each other to make a bigger play. No. We stay sharp, we stay smart, and the biggest thing we have to worry about are the raiders and the slavers.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right-”
A long whistle pierced the early morning air. I punched Hopper in his toned stomach, ran my hand a bit lower to give him an affectionate squeeze. “They’re playing your song, lover.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
Rolling out of bed, I found my shirt and slipped it on over my head. “Not at all. You’ve got five minutes to get to your post, and I’d do it, too. I understand the bitch that runs this place is completely unforgiving. You could find yourself on outrider patrol for the next month if you’re found to be in dereliction.”
“Shit, shit, shit.”
I watched, amused, as he scrambled for his clothes, pulled them over his not-too-shabby naked body. It wouldn’t do anyone any good to think he was getting special treatment due to the fact I happened to be making use of his dick on a semi-regular basis.
“You want me to come back tonight?” He sounded so eager I had to work hard not to laugh.
“I’ll think about it.”
After Hopper left, I finished getting dressed. Frowning, I pulled the mask over my head, and adjusted the straps before I headed outside. Sure, the air might not be as bad as it could be, or there could be a West wind blowing invisible death off of the burning flats and I wouldn’t know about it until I was coughing up bloody bits of my lungs. Not worth the risk. I paused outside the door to survey my little kingdom. Fryback was over by her shack, waddling as she carried a joint of beef to be roasted. Hopper stood near the entrance with the other guards, eyes fixed out on the wilderness, alert to movement. I glanced up to the belltower, saw a glint of reflected light. Junker was supposed to be up there with JoJo, one with the rifle and the other with the field specs.
Blackgrave wasn’t much, but it was mine. A collection of tents and ramshackle shacks scattered about without much claim to rhyme or reason. A few hard scrabble crops breaking through the rocky ground, some animals not too far mutated so as to be useless or worse. The name came from when my sister and I found the place. There was even less then there was now, but a half charred sign reading BLACKGRAVE sat over the entrance. I have no idea what it meant, and still don’t. The name stuck, though.
Griper limping over to me broke me from my reverie, his cane punching the ground as he came. “We got a problem, boss.”
Only good thing about having to wear a mask to breathe was that it was easier to hide my frowning. “What kind of problem?”
Griper shrugged. His stringy white hair dangled down from under his mask, and dirt was caked on his hands and clothes. He wasn’t much to look at, but the fact that he was old as he was spoke volumes about his ability to survive, which was why he was one of my counselors. “Not sure. One of the scouts reported it this morning. Said she saw something out there you might want to see.”
The hackles on the back of my neck went up a bit at that. “What did she say it was? Hold on, which scout?”
“Needles.” Griper scratched at the edge of his mask. I resisted the urge to do the same. Damn things weren’t built for comfort. “Looked like a convoy got hit pretty hard. She says it looks like there’s quite a bit of scrap left over though.”
Needles was new to the camp, but a decent enough scout, and an even better scavenger. If she said there was scrap to be had, well, then there was scrap to be had.
“How far out?”
“Six miles or so.” Griper drew a rough map in the dirt with his cane. He marked the settlement, then a few landscape features I recognized, followed by a general idea of where the caravan was.
“Any idea how long it’s been out there?” I stared down at the map, wondering what hit it. Could have been raiders. Could have been some new nightmare out of the wastes. Neither one filled my heart with gladness, especially so close.
Griper shook his head. “Needles said it couldn’t have been too long. Smoke was still coming up from it.”
“You and I both know that don’t mean shit.” There were places out there that had been on fire as long as I’ve been alive. They didn’t call it the Burned Lands for nothing.
“Fine, fine. But we run patrols out there on a regular basis. It couldn’t have been too long, could it? Someone else would have mentioned it by now.”
“Assuming they weren’t keeping the information to themselves,” I countered.
Griper shook his head at me. “You can’t suspect everyone,” he said.
I patted him on the shoulder. “Oh, but I can. Which is why I’m still leader of this little settlement.”
“Fine,” he said. “Do you want to send a crew out to check it out?”
“Yeah, do that. I want to go along, too, though. It’s been a while since I’ve been out in the world and I want to get a closer look at what Needles thinks she saw.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Griper used the tip of the cane to obliterate the map.
“Why not? Get a few of the boys together, and two of the trucks. Let’s see what they have out there.”
The ride out was less than comfortable, and I was riding up front. It had to be worse for the boys riding in the back, bouncing off of the holes in the ground, the makeshift suspensions in the trucks rattling them like dice. I rested my hand on the pistol in my belt as I surveyed the landscape. It was much as I remembered it. Grey ash spotted with blackened swathes of dirt. The occasional twisted tree clawed its way skyward. Twisted bits of metal and long abandoned structures broke up the monotony. Smoke from the desperate camps of scavengers and mutants living out in the burned lands, and all of them smart enough to stay out of sight. Eyes stared up from brackish pools of water giving off the stench of rotten eggs. All of it made me miss the comforting security of Blackgrave, even knowing each of the trucks had a gunner up on top, carrying enough firepower to given even the desperate gangers out here pause. So long as we didn’t run into one the smart groups… I shuddered to think what would happen if Butcher Bird and his group caught up with us.
We crested a rise and looked down the broken pavement and grey ash at the caravan. Or what was left of it. Black smoke still rose in places and I could see the red orange flicker of flames dancing in the wreckage.
Tapping the driver on the shoulder, I pointed down at the caravan and gave him a thumbs up. We rumbled down the hill, tires skidding on the loose ash.
We stopped about three hundred feet from the wreckage. The boys got out of the truck and spread out to cover the area. The guys on the big guns stayed put, keeping an eye on the hills in case anyone was using this as bait to bring in other prey. I figured as well armed as we were, we’d be left alone by most things out here, but there were things out here, things that were all teeth, claws, and hunger that wouldn’t be put off by a couple of belt-fed machine guns and a group of armed hardcases. It paid to stay alert.
“Let’s head over here,” Griper called out, hopping between the rocks and burned wreckage. It always surprised me how agile he was, even with the bad leg. He led me and a few others around a small hill, closer to where part of the caravan still burned. The smell of roasted meat assailed my senses and I tried hard not to think of the source. There didn’t seem to be much left, the metal left being twisted and scorched. Scattered supplies littered the ground, and I doubted much of it would still be useable.
“It doesn’t look like raiders hit this.” Kneeling down, I picked up a ragged doll. It was missing one leg, and someone had sewn bits of bone into it for eyes. “Mutants, probably. Damn. I didn’t think they’d hit anything this close to Blackgrave. Or this big. If I didn’t know better, I’d say something was organizing them.”
Griper spat in the dust. “As if we didn’t have enough troubles to deal with. At least Fryback got the filter system running again, huh?”
Shaking my head, I dropped the doll back into the blackened dust. “Bonepicker did that, not Fryback. I’m amazed she doesn’t fall into one of her pots and cook herself one of these days.”
Griper chuckled. “If she was any smaller or the pots any bigger, she just might. But you’re right, I don’t remember the freaks hitting anything this size before.”
“Anyway, I’ve seen enough. Let’s head back to Blackgrave. I don’t want to get caught out here after the sun goes down.”
We loaded back up into the trucks, the motors grinding to life, black smoke belching into the grey sky.
“That close to Blackgrave isn’t good.” Griper winced as he stretched out his bad leg, moving his walking stick into a more comfortable position in the cab. “I can’t remember the last time they hit a caravan less than ten miles from our place.”
Frowning, I stared out at the passing landscape. “It isn’t like I have a lot of options. We don’t have the manpower for patrols out here. If there were enough mutants to burn out a caravan of that size, we’d be throwing people away. The good news is that caravan wasn’t headed toward us, anyway, and I didn’t recognize any of the markings on the vehicles, did you?”
Griper shook his head. “Not this time. But what about next? It isn’t like we’re self-sufficient, and it’s probably too much to hope that the mutants that did this are going to pack up and leave.”
The trucks started up the hill. I could feel the tires spinning, gaining traction in the loose dirt of the track. I gnawed on my lower lip, not wanting to admit Griper was right, but knowing he was. And even if that caravan wasn’t headed toward us this time, chances were we might have done business in the future. The number of people willing to take their chances out in the wastes were few, what with the raiders, the mutants and whatever else was out there in the ruined lands waiting to strike. A cold pit settled into the pit of my stomach when I considered how very few options I had.
“You think we should bring in some outside help?” Griper tapped his fingers against his cane.
Turning toward him, I raised an eyebrow. “What do you think we’re going to pay them with? And who’d you suggest we hire?”
He shrugged, narrowing his eyes against the glare coming through the clouds. “There’s always hard folk out there willing to bleed a bit if it means a few steady meals, maybe a bit of scrap for trade. I’m not suggesting bringing anyone in on a permanent basis, only to get rid of this current problem.”
I nodded. “Yeah, that might-”
The rebar punching through the window interrupted my thought. Luckily, it missed me, but Griper wasn’t so lucky as it pierced his chest, pinning him to his seat. Covered in his blood, I screamed, “Go, go, go!”
Pulling the pistol from my belt, I scanned the landscape. More metal spears lanced through the air, crashing against the sides of the trucks. Chunks of concrete and other items fell as well. The attackers had chosen their ground well, up on the edges of the road where they could barrage us with missiles. They were the same mutants as had attacked the caravan, I was sure of it. They were smart enough to duck back down under cover as I heard the steady rattle of our big guns answering in kind.
“Look out!” I heard our gunner shout as a flaming projectile tumbled through the air. He tried to bring his machine gun up to track it, maybe thinking he could shoot it out of the sky. It was too small, too fast, and it impacted in the bed of the truck. I heard a dull roar as it exploded, felt the heat as flames spread throughout the flatbed of the truck.
The big gun fell silent, replaced by the screams of my men on fire.
My driver shifted gears, tried to get us out of the trap. I risked sticking my head out the window, caught sight of the other truck. It was on fire now, too, and being swarmed by mutants, their long arms dragging near the ground, their large hands gripping makeshift metal weapons.
“Come on, come on, come on,” the driver shouted. I saw the massive hunk of concrete arc up into the sky, aimed for the truck. I kicked the door open and tumbled out moments before it crushed the cab. I rolled to the side, looking for a way out. I saw Needles running by me, on fire. Served the fucker right, leading us into this bastard of a trap.
I stumbled, slid down the hill, and took off running. As I rounded a small hill, I saw a mutant waiting for me, its big fist moving to connect with my head. I tried to get under it, but it must have clipped the side of my head because all I remember next was pain exploding behind my eyes followed by darkness.