“That plan didn’t fly, superhero, and now we’re short a bazooka.”
I glared at Shocktop, but that didn’t change the fact she was right. It seemed a good idea at the time. Send Wicked out with the boom-boom to take out the gate, then the rest of us could roll right in with the smoke and the chaos and the confusion. Didn’t work out that way. A sniper drilled Wicked just as he was getting set and now his corpse was cooling in the killing zone between the ruins where we were camped and the hardhold we were trying to hit. We needed to hit it, too, as moving on wasn’t an option. The crew was low on gas, low on clean water, and low on morale. The only thing we had a lot of was bullets, but the hardhold was tall and mighty with concrete and barbed wire defenses. And a sniper. Hadn’t counted on the sniper.
“What are we going to do, Boss?” asked Dum-Dum. He looked out over the ruined landscape, his washed out blue eyes staring out from his gas mask, the lenses long since broken and cracked.
I ran my hand over the stubble on my head. I tugged on my beard. I scratched a pernicious itch.
Dark clouds were rolling in, threatening a beaut of a thunderstorm. We had cover here, but it made me worry that something out there might use the storm to sneak up on us. The Burned Lands weren’t a place to sit still. Unless of course you had a hardhold. And a sniper. Goddamn sniper.
“Right. So we’re sure that’s the only way in?”
“Yep, just the one gate,” Shocktop said.
“Well, other than the drain pipe,” Dum-Dum said.
I glared at him. “What. Drain. Pipe?”
He shifted his body, going from one foot to the other. I think I made him nervous. Nervous was good. “There’s a drain pipe, none too big. Maybe a kid could fit through there.”
“So a small person, huh?” Rain had started falling, sizzling as it struck the ground. “Someone like Razzle?”
“Yeah, Razzle would fit great!” Dum-Dum said.
“Living up to your name as always,” Shocktop sighed.
“Nevermind that,” I said. “Where’s Razzle?”
“Sleeping probably. Want me to go wake her?” I think Dum-Dum was trying to redeem himself, which was great. Waking up Razzle though, well that was a terminally stupid thing to do unless you were careful. Dum-Dum was never careful.
“Nah, I’ll handle it. Don’t want you overexerting yourself or anything.”
“Oh, uhm, okay Boss.”
Razzle was sleeping all right, bundled under a heap of plastic tarps with just her purple pigtails sticking out. As soon as I stepped a bit closer, her head snapped up and I was staring down the business end of a barrel.
“Easy, Razzle. Got a job for you.” I kept my hands up and empty, where she could see them.
“What’s the job?”
“Drain pipe. Need you to climb through, open up the gates for the rest of us.”
She narrowed her eyes, slowly, slowly took her finger off the trigger. “My share?”
“It’ll get doubled, you know that.”
Razzle smiled, flipped off the tarp and pulled her goggles up over her eyes. “So where’s this drain pipe then?”
We sat there, all of us, eyes glued to the gate of the hardhold, me with the binocs pressed to my face. Occasionally, I’d look with longing at where Wicked lay, his flesh already beginning to dissolve from the rain. Looked like the bazooka was intact. Would be nice to get that back, when all was said and done.
A noise was heard, a grinding of gears and the rattle of chains. I raised my arm, dropped it down hard and fast. The bikes spluttered, chattered, and finally roared as we let them loose. Scavenger dogs of the apocalypse howling out of the wilds, come down to ravage the sheep.
I caught a glint of light off a bit of metal from the hardhold. Before I had time to contemplate my short, malicious life, it was gone. Razzle was earning her share and then some.
We roared past where Wicked lay, fast approaching the opening gate. A few of the braver, more foolish inhabitants came rushing to meet us, armed with bolt action rifles and not much else. I brought the auto up, cradled in the nook of my arm. Short controlled bursts, just like I’d been taught by my daddy, just like his daddy taught him. Shocktop swung her chain, caught one of the defenders around the neck as she sped by. He was dead before he hit the ground, neck snapped hard to one side. Dum-dum rode hard and fast, head low, as the gunner in his sidecar howled with murderous glee and unleashed hell with the machinegun.
Inside the walls then. More resistance. They were better defended here, able to take high ground, hide behind barrels and bushels, doors and walls. They also had crops, a few water towers, a still for ethanol: Everything a growing biker gang needed. They didn’t have explosives, though, and they didn’t have the sort of desperate courage being hungry gives you. I sat back, directing our forces toward the pockets of harsh resistance. After a period, I raised my old battered bullhorn to my lips.
“Ain’t no need for anyone else to die today,” I called out. “We’re not interested in killing everyone.”
An old man peeked up from around his cover, a homemade helmet on his head and a cobbled together rifle in his hands. “You mean that?” he asked.
I nodded, tried to give a reassuring smile. I don’t think it went over well. “We’ll take what food, water, and fuel we can carry, we’ll be on our way, Grey Beard. No more corpses. Just throw down your weapons and come on out.”
My dogs were already pulling out bags of grain and salted meat from cellars and storehouses. I knew Shocktop would be leading a small crew looking for anything small and valuable. Pre-Crash items were a rare commodity, but you could find a bit worth trading here and there. I watched as the rest of the gang came through the gates, bringing the trucks with them. They were worthless for raiding or fighting, but they were perfect for hauling goods, ill-gotten or otherwise.
“You heard the man,” Grey Beard yelled out. “Put down your weapons.” He wasn’t one not to do the same as his people, coming out with his hands up and empty. I got the feeling this wasn’t the first time he’d been in this situation.
“Nothing but jackals,” he spat. “Raiding innocent settlers like this.”
I laughed. “Sure. Innocent. I bet.”
The rest of his people came out, a well fed bunch looking relatively clean and healthy. If I’d been in the slave-taking business I could do worse than this bunch, but I wasn’t.
“Going to leave us poor and starving,” he said. “Might as well as pull the trigger.”
“Now why would I do that?” I asked. “Might be back this way sometime, and well, it’s nice having a place where we can restock. We’ll leave you enough to get back on your feet.”
Grey Beard glared at me, a hate filled gaze pouring heat and venom. That was fine though. I was used to those kinds of looks. Didn’t bother me none.
“Look, I asked if we could come in to trade. You said, and I quote, ‘Fuck off.’ You can’t expect a man not too take that kind of thing personally, especially when you say it in front of his people. No sir, a man will not abide that. One of your people shot one of my best men, and you’ll notice I’m not slaughtering every last one of you. I’m not burning your little hardhold to cinders. That’s what’s called restraint. You go and pull the kind of shit you did, well, there are consequences. There’s always consequences. This time we’re just stripping you of food, water, and fuel. Next time? Well, maybe next time we won’t be so nice.”
He nodded, but his gaze was still hard and cold. I knew he was thinking how nice my corpse would look strung up on his wall. That was fine. Looks never killed anyone.
“Whoa! Razzle! What happened to you?” Poor girl was covered in a thick brown sludge, and she stunk even worse than was usual.
“That wasn’t a drain pipe, boss,” she said. “That was their sewer pipe.”
“Oh. Oh God. Look, I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. I didn’t know.”
She glared at me, stomped off to the water towers. I heard her yelling something about needing soap, and lots of it.
I was so busy watching Razzle walk away, I didn’t see Shocktop come strolling up, Dum-Dum on her heels like a little lost puppy.
“Wow. Never seen her that angry before,” she said, causing me to nearly jump out of my skin.
“Shocktop.” I eased my hand away from my gun, tried to force my heartbeat to go back to something resembling normal. “Find anything good?”
She shrugged, tossed something in my direction. I fumbled it, managed not to drop it. It was a grey box, a few wires and colored lights coming off of it.
“What is it?” I asked. There was a button on the side, but I knew better than just to push it.
“Don’t know. Thought maybe he would,” she said, pointing with her sawed-off at Grey Beard. It was worth watching him flinch, even if her finger was nowhere near the trigger. “Found it in his room. Figured it must be his given all the nice flash it was decorated with.”
“Well? What does it do?”
He frowned, showing cracked yellow teeth. “No idea. Some trader came through here last season, had a bunch of bits and bobs for trade, including that. Had a couple of my people take a look at it, one them even tried to crack it open. Nothing doing though. So sure, go on, take it. I hope you choke on it.”
I tossed the box back to Shocktop. “Put it with the rest of the flash,” I said. “We’ll get Bottlecap to take a look at it when we get squared away.”
“Sure thing,” she said. I didn’t have much hope of Bottlecap figuring out what it was. He was good with engines and guns, but anything more complicated tended to stump him. It would be a start though. Shocktop stood there, still looking at me.
“Was there something else?” I asked.
“Well, we were wondering what we’re going to do with them,” she said, gesturing to Grey Beard and the other settlers behind him.
I saw her eyes narrow, her lips go thin. “What do you mean, ‘nothing?’ They killed Wicked.”
I sighed, kicking myself for not seeing this coming. “You heard me. They were defending themselves, and well, I’m not going to begrudge them that, even if all this unpleasantness could have been otherwise avoided. Besides, they’ve paid enough in blood today.” I pointed at the corpses still cooling on the ground. “We lost Wicked. Anyone else?”
Shocktop shook her head. “A couple of nicks and grazes, but nothing nobody won’t recover from,” she said, then smiled. “We got pretty lucky all things considered.”
“Except for Wicked,” Dum-dum said.
“Yeah.” Truth to tell, I wouldn’t be shedding many tears for him. He was one of those that lived up to the name, and it was getting harder and harder to hold on to his leash. I wasn’t psychic or anything, but it wasn’t hard to see a time when something would need to be done about him. Lucky for me, Grey Beard here and his folk had solved my problem for me. “Like I said, they’ve paid enough in blood. Wouldn’t you agree old man?”
He nodded, if a bit slowly. The old man knew there was nothing stopping this from being a total massacre other than my good graces. I hoped he’d remember that next time we rolled through.
All while this was going on, my band of jackals were busy stripping the place, loading up the trucks with fuel, food, and water. It looked to be a good haul, all things considered.
I mounted my bike, ready to give the order to roll out, when one of the settlers came running up, a satchel bag slung over his shoulder. He put his hands up when he saw me reach for the gun.
“What do you want?”
“Can I come with?” he asked.
I looked him over. He was maybe fifteen, maybe sixteen. Blonde, well built. Probably knew shit about bikes or guns, but maybe he knew other things. Besides, we were down a body, and he looked to be Razzle’s type and I owed her. As for the whys and wherefores, well, this place offered a bit of safety and security and probably not much else. And seeing how we just crushed any notions of the former, I couldn’t begrudge him wanting to try the other side of things. ‘Sides, we were always on the lookout for fresh recruits.
“Fine. Find someone to ride with.” I looked him over again, the old gears clicking. “From now on you’re Ticker. Anybody asks, that’s your name. Whoever you were, whoever you think you were, that person’s dead so long as you ride with us. Understand?”
He nodded, but I don’t think he fully grasped it. There’d be time enough to clue him in later.
As we rolled out, loaded with fuel, food, and water, I couldn’t help but smile. Sure, we might have lost Wicked, but we had a good haul anyway.
Fair trade, as far as I was concerned.