WHO DESTROYED THE GAS STATION?
Joe and Mitra just felt the shockwave when the gas station blew up. Who did it? Readers wanted these two to scout ahead and find out what they’re dealing with. Safety in numbers, right?
They carried blades. The raiders were on horseback, and Joe saw the wrapped handles of makeshift machetes tucked into their saddles. Knives and shivs lashed to their ankles. One burly man wielded a kind of polearm, a 12-inch fanblade topping a length of knobbled wood like a voulge. Others carried swords in scabbards. Their clothes were strangely clean, save for the mud splatters on their boots where their riding had kicked up the soiled earth.
They sat astride their mounts, the hellish glow of the gas station’s wreckage illuminating their figures. Smoke belched thick into the sky, the eastbound wind pulling it into mists.
Joe peered through the forest at the strange assemblage. Joe sighted a few guns on the raiders, but they were carried almost as afterthoughts and not kept with care. Still, they were outgunned. Mitra flattened herself against a tree, keeping her profile as small as possible and sighting the horsemen through a pair of binoculars. They’d driven the ATV into the forest to hide it from view, and approached on foot to survey the intruders. Joe had switched the dial on his radio off and told Todd back at base to do the same.
Sweat beaded under Mitra’s hairline. An unblinking expression on her face. She’d never been in combat. And Joe had no intention of turning this situation into her first time, no matter how focused she looked.
One of the men nickered his mount and trotted up, turned the horse, and faced the others. The man’s face was clean, like he had taken the time to shave that morning. He was out of earshot, and the wind and the still-burning wreckage of the gas station prevented Joe from hearing his words clearly. He addressed the group, signaled them, and they moved off south down the road. Joe watched them go and Mitra looked up from the binoculars.
“Well, that’s about the creepiest thing I’ve seen,” she said. “And I’ve seen some creepy shit.”
Joe stood up. “We need to know where they’re going.”
“Can we radio back? Mr. Scissorhands and his pals didn’t seem to have any comms.”
She was right. If anyone was listening in on their channel, it probably wasn’t the gang. Joe learned into the radio and contacted Todd, who predictably freaked out. Joe calmed him down and told him to get Hank back to camp.
“Everyone is asking about the explosion,” Todd sputtered out. “We can see the smoke from here.”
“Just get people to the mess hall and start passing out dinner plates, alright? We’ll be back as soon as we can. We just gotta scope these guys out.”
“They’re not idiots, they know something’s wrong.”
“So do I. But we gotta know just how wrong. Keep it together over there, man.”
Joe thought of the people he’d spent the last year and half watching over. He’d not yet learned all their names—there were over 50 to keep track of—but there were plenty of standouts. Lydia, the 12 year old who loved books and always asked Joe if he’d found any new ones. Jackson, the widowed electrician who was kind of an asshole, but was handy with wiring and never said no to a challenge. Grace, the grade-school teacher and defacto mayor, despite her repeated pleas to Joe to serve as the leader instead.
I’m not a leader. I just know how to teach people to kill something with one shot rather than four. I know how to follow orders, even if no one is giving them to me anymore. And I know how to survive.
“So what now?” Mitra asked.
“We get the ATV and unload the camping supplies. We’re gonna follow them.”
They stayed off the road as much as possible. With no crews to maintain the road, windblown earth and debris had littered the sunbaked asphalt. They found more destruction along the way, alongside horsetracks. A scorched coastal community, down to cinders. It must have been torched the day previously. Blackened metal frames of abandoned cars. They’d been busy.
Joe had seen much of the remains of the destroyed world. But now someone was burning the wreckage.
Eventually the evidence of their arson stopped, and their tracks reached into the hills. The trees thinned out as the terrain dropped low. After stashing the ATV and concealing it as best they could, they pushed into the hills on foot into the fading light. Night fell, and the moon was just a sliver; not enough illumination to track properly.
What I wouldn’t give for a pair of NVGs right now.
They set up a tent, and within an hour Mitra was snoring as loud as any Marine he’d ever served with. He took watch, sitting on a log, a low-watt lantern beside him producing a smallish halo around the campsite.
He thought again of the horsemen. Their blades, which they seemed to favor over their rifles. And in better condition, too. Polished to a gleaming shine, while the guns showed sign of wear and accumulated grime.
Then he thought of the gas station. The camp’s lifeblood, at least for a while. He always knew that eventually the gas would dry up and they’d need to find another supply, but he didn’t expect it to get blown up by a roving band of sword-wielding hostiles.
I could’ve used a few more months, he thought. You rebuild a burnt house one brick at a time. No matter how far I’ve traveled, I’ve found nothing of authority. I’ve just found this ruined world. I need to find a way to contact Pendleton, there’s gotta be someone there who’s still alive. Maybe others. We need to unify, get power grids back up, get the country running again. Get the world running again.
We need to go south and contact what’s left of the division. But there’s no way that will happen with these maniacs blowing things up.
A few hours passed and Mitra’s wristwatch chimed her awake. As much as he wanted to press on, Joe convinced himself to sleep while Mitra sat on the log, rifle across her lap.
Joe tried to reach Todd back at camp. They were too far out of range.
The raiders had to be close. They pushed on before the sun rose and crested the nearest hill just as the morning light appeared.
Mitra tensed up. “The fuck is that?” She seized the binoculars.
A herd crested a ridge, darkened silhouettes in the dawn, moving with a resolute steadiness. The pasture before them lush and inviting. They moved, a mass of brown and black, and in the stillness they could hear the braying of the animals.
Joe took the binoculars and peered at the herd. Clearly domesticated.
Gotta be a barn nearby.
“I would give my left arm for a filet mignon right about now,” Mitra said, as they moved through the herd of grunting, snuffling animals, chewing contentedly on clumps of grass-stalks.
“I thought you were a vegetarian.”
“Naw, the Air Force changed my mind about that pretty quick.”
They crested the ridge where they’d first sighted the cows. Below, a vast farming establishment. Rows of crops. Tents. Shelters. Wooden stables and structures with thatched roofs. The horses laid or grazed in an enclosed field. Their riders milled about, their blades glinting in the sun.
Some of the raiders stood guarding a stream of people lined up before the encampment’s entrance. Joe focused the binoculars on them. They were being checked, one at a time, and then led under a vast tent. Some had dogs. He saw one man with a goat on a leash. Most were hunched under backpacks.
They surveyed the camp for a long time. The refugees, or whoever the mass of people queued up before the entrance to the camp were, seemed to be treated well. Some exited the camp and trudged away. The goat man seemed to have loaded up his companion with supplies, like a pack animal from ancient times.
“They’re helping them,” Mitra said.
“Or they’re recruiting.”
“Either way, it’s our way in.”
Joe turned to face her. “What?”
“We have to know what we’re up against. I say we get inside, scope out the place, and leave.”
“You stay here, I need you to cover me. If I’m not back in an hour, get back to camp and warn the others.”
He felt anxious without the rifle on his back. He tried to take comfort knowing the Mk-14 was in Mitra’s hands, where she lay prone on a ridge overlooking the encampment, covering him. As much improvement as she’d shown in marksmanship, he would’ve preferred to do his own fighting.
He approached the gate, mixed in with an assortment of other travelers. Two machete-wielding men flanked both sides of the entrance, which was lined with burning torches trailing thin white smoke. The travelers moved soundlessly, except for a few coughs and sniffs. Quiet, like a church congregation in a communal procession. Joe kept his head low but eyes up, scanning the entrance. Evaluating.
A huge man in utility pants and lumberjack’s flannel shirt stopped him.
“Arms up,” he ordered.
Joe did as he was told. He kept his breathing steady as the man searched him. The man looked directly into his eyes before letting him pass into the camp with the rest of the travelers.
The clean-shaven leader of the horsemen stood before an assemblage of travelers, co-mingled with more of his followers. He wore a long brown robe and stood atop a platform, a single torch burning in a bracket over his shoulder.
“We are the exonerated,” he called out like a proselytizer, his hands at the small of his back and standing tall. “We, who did not get sick, have remained behind to answer the call of the earth. It was the machinations of corrupt which led to man’s punishment. The excesses of technology, the war-mongering of nations, the squabbling for resources and the burning of her precious oil, poisoning her air. These are evils you must cast aside. Eat of this land. You will find much to feed your stomachs here, not the trash and remnants that remain in the lands of the dead. Scavenge not from the old world. Grow on this land. Do not destroy it. All transgressors shall be punished. Now, come and prove yourselves.”
Joe and the others were herded into a line. He stood behind a woman and her daughter. One by one, they advanced. Each person received a knife, and soundlessly, they slashed their palms. It was some kind of loyalty pledge. The woman received the blade and slashed her hand quickly, then took her daughter’s hand. The girl closed her eyes, tears streaming from the corners of them, and winced when her mother cut her hand.
Then it was Joe’s turn. He looked at the raider. Another clean-shaven man, like their leader. Stony faced and unmoved. He took the handle of the blade.
The man seized his wrist, and turned Joe’s palm upward with a jerk. He looked at the tattoo on his wrist, the tattoo he’d received on his second deployment:
The raider look at him with hate in his eyes. Joe wrenched his hand out of the man’s grip but the man grabbed him again. Joe kneed him straight in the groin, and he doubled over.
Joe tried to pivot, anticipating a blow, but he was too late. They grabbed him through the elbows.
He jerked his torso hard and fought and snarled. The woman and her daughter were screaming. He couldn’t shake the men at his elbows, and others swarmed him, shouting. He jumped, countered his weight. Kicked a raider with both feet square in the chest and he fell backward onto his captors.
Elbows free! He wrestled himself out of the pile and got to his feet.
Crack. A sharp pain at his temple. He saw a flash of light and collapsed facedown into the grass.
It had been more than an hour. Joe had been gone for ninety minutes, and Mitra grew anxious. She sighted the camp through the scope of Joe’s rifle, looking for a target. There was nothing.
People began milling out of camp. She placed the reticle on each one. She counted twenty of them. The last to leave were a woman and a young girl next to her.
He was still inside.
Dammit, Joe. You told me to go back and warn the others. But where does that leave you?
Where does that leave me?