Ashes

Reading Time: 17 minutes

The world is my expense
The cost of my desire
Jesus blessed me with its future
And I protect it with fire
Rage Against the Machine – Sleep Now in the Fire

 

Night had crept up and brought a bitter cold that clawed and bit at any exposed flesh. As if they were panes of glass, the frozen puddles shattered with each step, and the condensation of every breath danced and swirled like ghosts before being swept away. The car-clotted highway receded further and further behind us as we made our way through these desolate fields. All around us were rusted farm equipment and the dry, stunted remnants of failed crops. I glanced back at the distant city. The tale-tell mushroom cloud had dissipated hours ago, but a luminescence brushed the undersides of the tattering clouds with faint light. The city still burned.

I could see snowflakes drifting down around us in the faint moonlight. My mouth was dry, and my lips chapped; I held out one gloved hand and let the snowflakes slowly fill my cupped palm. I lifted my hand to my mouth and tasted…ash. I stumbled for a moment and then straightened, raising my face to a blood-red moon and a stark, unforgiving night sky, and let the ash gently settle down on me. The ash of a burning city. The ash of everything.

(Illustration by Marie Ginga from an image by Silvia from Pixabay)

I woke with a start and lay there disoriented. Burning cities and ashes lined my past like scars. It took a moment to remember that the War was years ago, and I was just one of the survivors getting by in the graveyard it left behind. I checked the time and had more than an hour before my watch started. The campfire had burned down, but I was warm in my sleeping bag and reluctant to leave it. I lay there for a while and tried to ignore the need to urinate. Finally, muttering a string of profanity, I unzipped the bag and, stiff and sore, walked to the latrine we had dug just outside the camp to relieve myself.

The late Autumn night was cool, and the sky was clear and densely salted with stars. Looming above the camp, a full moon stared down like the scarred face of some disdainful God. A light breeze blew, and it carried the faint sounds of the camp: the snuffles of the draught animals and horses, the faint snores from some of the tents, and the tinkle of the harnesses and reins of the trade wagons. The night was peaceful, and I stood for a while and enjoyed the quiet and solitude. I returned to my sleeping bag and gathered what I needed for the watch. Before I left, I tossed some of the scavenged wood on the fire, and, like crazed fireflies, sparks flew up and swirled through the darkness. Nearby, murmuring in her sleep, Maria tossed and turned in her sleeping bag. A past horror of her own throned in her dreams that night.

Up ahead, William, my boss on this run, was sprawled across the hood of one of the rusted wrecks that were scattered around. His rifle was in his lap, one hand lightly resting on it. He was 5’8’’, thin and wiry, with a shaven head and skin the color of a Hershey bar. He always looked so laid back that it was hard to imagine he would pose much of a threat. Occasionally, someone made a mistake and thought he was as much of a pushover as he looked. The end of his cigarette made a glowing arc as he smoked it. If he could get tobacco, he had better black-market contacts than I.

“You’re early,” he said as I walked up.

“Yeah. Woke up a bit ago and couldn’t get back to sleep. I’ll take over from you now.”

“Sounds good.” He offered the cigarette to me. I shook my head, and he pinched the end of it and put the remainder in his shirt pocket. “We need to talk about what went down today. You gotta dial it back with Jensen.”

“He’s an asshole. He was punishing that recom to hear it scream.”

“Yeah, he’s a piece of work, but he’s also their handler. And he has connections. Whatever else goes down with the recoms, you need to keep out of it. Seriously, you need the job, and I need you on my team. Promise you’ll stay out of his way.”

“All right, all right,” I raised my hand in the Scout sign. “On my honor, I will do my best not to beat on the little shit anymore.”

“Good man,” William slid off the car’s hood and started back towards his sleeping bag. “And fuck you, Jackson. You were never a Boy Scout.”

William was right. Old Town was an unforgiving place for anyone without a credit balance, and I needed the job. Caring about anything other than your self-interest wasn’t a good survival trait, and the recoms weren’t my concern. The job was riding shotgun on one of the trade caravans. Like centipedes scurrying out from their nest in a garbage dump, the caravans went out daily now, hauling manufactured goods and anything else tradable to communities in the region. The current run was farm equipment and recombinants, our bio-engineered workers/slaves, to the communities on the other side of these mountains. We’d been on the road for a week and should reach them in another day or two.

I slid onto the hood that William had vacated. A shivering of cracks radiated out from the base of the windshield, but it was still intact, and I leaned back against it. The fingers on my right hand started to tremble again. I took out the small pouch that held my tools, slit open the Syntha-Flesh on my arm, and began to probe around my wrist and palm. I was augmented and enhanced, but it was all Pre-Burn, and the warranty on decades-old military tech had long run out.

We camped at an old rest stop/play area near the summit for the night. It had a huge parking lot, the tumbled-down remnants of a fast-food restaurant, and a large hill in the far back corner. Pre-Burn, the hill must have made this place a draw during winter. It was the sort of place I’d take my daughter to when I was home between deployments. Wearing a snowsuit that made her look like a mini-Michelin Man, she would hug a saucer sled to her chest as she struggled up a hill like that one. I sat for a while, lost in memories as I fiddled with my prosthetic.

When the trembling in my hand finally stopped, I sealed up the Syntha-Flesh and slid off the car to make a circuit of the camp. I walked along the tree line and looked for anything out of the ordinary. The wagon the recoms were secured in was parked between the campfire and the first set of tents. At least one of them was awake. As it watched me, its eyes reflected the light from the campfire and shined like tiny twin stars in the darkness. When I got close to the wagon, I saw it was the recom that Jensen had abused that afternoon. The splicers had used a lot of canine DNA in his makeup. Shorter and slighter in build than the Canis used for security, he was covered in thick fur and had a pronounced muzzle. The skin around his obedience collar was raw and painful looking.

“You guys good?” I asked quietly as I walked up. “Need anything?”

“Thirsty. No water” His mouth distorted as he struggled with the words.

“Didn’t Jensen leave water for you?”

“No.”

“I’ll get you some,” I silently cursed Jensen as I walked away. Even before our confrontation today, Jensen’s casual cruelty had gotten under my skin. He was a weak little man and brutalized the recoms just because he could, but I needed to pick my battles. The recoms weren’t my responsibility.

“Here,” I handed him one of the cooking pots filled with water. The chains around his wrists rattled as he reached out and took it. He lowered his head and lapped up the water for a few minutes. In the wagon’s bed behind him, the rest of the recoms were sleeping, for lack of a better term, in one big dogpile.

“Thanks…and thanks for stopping him earlier,” he said when he finished.

“Yeah…Jensen is…”

“a dick.”

“Yeah, he’s a dick,” I laughed. His eyes were a dark, soulful brown, and while he wasn’t human, I struggled, as usual, with the idea that he wasn’t a person either. “Look, we’ll be at the farms in a few days. I’ll make sure Jensen doesn’t hurt you again while we’re on the road. You have my word.”

“Thanks.”

As I walked away, I wanted to throttle the little voice that insisted I do the right thing. The wrong thing was so much safer and easier. Another sentry was posted at the far end of the camp, and I walked over there to check in with him. I was pleased to see that it was Cruz. This was his first run, and he was young, but he was also hard-working and conscientious.

“Reynolds is missing,” he blurted out as I walked up.

“Whoa, slow down. The fuck you mean he’s missing.”

“He wasn’t here when I came to relieve him.”

“He’s probably asleep in one of the wagons again.”

“No, I checked. He’s gone.”

“Go wake William up and let him know,” I told him, and he started to hurry away. “Cruz!” I called out and waited until he looked back at me. “Next time, don’t screw around. Something like this happens; wake everybody up.”

The nearby woods were swaddled in shadow. Though, here and there, the cold moonlight trickled down through openings in the canopy and pooled in silvery puddles on the forest floor.  My right eye was prosthetic, so I switched to night vision and moved slowly to the edge of the woods, looking for any sign of what had happened to Reynolds. It had rained a few days ago, and the ground was still soft. Tracks lead into the woods. Twenty yards in, the bark of one of the trees was wet, and I knelt to check it out. There was a small empty vial in the weeds nearby. I picked it up, carefully sniffed it, and grimaced at the acrid smell. I slipped it into my vest pocket. When I heard footsteps, I glanced over my shoulder and gave William a nod.

“Whaddya got?” He asked, pointing his flashlight to the side as he came up.

“Don’t know yet. All I know is we don’t got Reynolds.” I said distractedly as I turned back and studied the area around the tree.

“If that asshole is asleep again, he’s out of a job and walking back.”

“I don’t think he is. Check out the ground around here,” I pointed to where the weeds were torn up and the mud churned. “Someone took a leak against this tree recently. I’m guessing it was Reynolds, and that’s when he was grabbed.”

“Shit. What do you think? Is he on someone’s dinner menu for later?”

“They didn’t snatch him for his conversational skills. Give me Cruz and Maria, and we’ll look for him.”

“This is going to sound messed up, but no. We don’t know what’s out there. Might be one or two scavengers or a whole group of them.”

“It’s your call, Boss, but I don’t like leaving anyone behind like this. Even Reynolds.”

“Yeah, I know, but that’s how it’s gotta be.” He turned towards the camp when he heard Maria calling his name. “Over here,” he called out.

“Missing two more, Boss,” she said as she ran up. “Lenny and Tom are gone. Their tent’s closest to the trees, and the back of it is slit open. I got everyone up. The drivers are harnessing the wagons, and we should be able to go soon.”

“I’ll see if I can hurry them up.” He started back towards the camp.

I debated going after him to make my case for a search party again. I liked both Lenny and Tom. Lenny was short and stoop-shouldered, with a sad excuse of a beard and long, greasy hair that he wore in a ponytail. With the dirty bandana he always wore, he looked like someone had snatched him off some 1960s Height Ashbury Street corner. He was anxious and twitchy but also good-natured. Next to Maria, Tom was my closest friend on this run. He was tall and quiet, with a sardonic sense of humor that came at you from left field.

“So, what happened to Reynolds?” Maria asked. She was in her late 40s, with close-cropped black hair and a thin build. Despite an ugly knife scar that started under her chin and ran up to the corner of her right eye, she was pretty. She never talked about how she got it, but I hoped whoever gave it to her paid for it with a pound or two of flesh. She listened to me and then said, “Fucking Reynolds. Only he would get caught with nothing in his hands ‘cept his dick.”

“Yeah, he’s given William the fits from the start,” I held out the vial I found. “Bliss. He’s using. William searched his gear several times, but I bet Reynolds has a stash hidden in one of the wagons. He’s a goldbrick, but he doesn’t deserve whatever is happening to him. Neither do Lenny or Tom. They’re good people.”

“We’re being watched.” She brought her shotgun up as she said this.

“Whoever took them is long gone. Don’t let it spook you.”

“I don’t spook, Gramps.’ She said with such intensity that I took a step backward and raised my hands placatingly. She absentmindedly ran her hand along her scar and then asked quietly, “When things went to shit, you missed the worse, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I was hunkered down and safe for the worse of it.”

“When it was bad, knowing you were being watched kept you alive. We’re being watched.”

“Then let’s get back to camp and see what we can do to put some miles between them and us.”

The camp was in an uproar when we arrived. Some of the drivers were tearing down the tents, and others were trying to coax the draught animals into their harnesses. The draughts were bioengineered, and many of them refused to budge. Their yowls of protest at being woken and the curses of their drivers only added to the pandemonium. Cruz and the other four guards had made a picket line between the forest and the camp. As I passed the recom wagon, I made eye contact with Jensen and gave him a wink. His right eye looked worse in the light from his lantern, and I felt a perverse pleasure at that. It was swollen partly shut, and the skin around it was bruised and mottled. I was just about to tell him that shade of purple suited him when the howling started.

The howling came from among the trees, and the sound of it stalked throughout the camp like something dark and primal. I ran to my gear and stuffed as many mags into my vest pockets as possible. All work stopped, and all eyes were fixed on the tree line.

“Did someone say it was break time? Get these wagons harnessed. God damn it!” William shouted at the workers as I reached the picnic table that Cruz had flipped over on its side and was now crouched behind.

“The fuck, man,” Cruz said, and I nodded in agreement. I scanned the tree line with night vision and then switched to thermal.

“Boss,” I shouted. “You need to get up here. I’ve got movement in the trees.”

They came out of the trees like some fever dream of Dr. Moreau, a menagerie of recoms dressed in rags and animal skins. Slaves who had been clever enough to remove their obedience collars and escape. These mountains could be seen from Old Town and the areas we traded with, and they probably called to the newly freed slaves like sirens. Most of them were Canis, but a hulking shape in the back had to have bear as its base. At the very front of the group was Reynolds. Two ferals held him up, and he hung between them like a tattered scarecrow. He was a raggedy husk of a man, pale and gaunt, with long stringy hair and bad teeth in a mouth like an open knife wound. Whoever signed him up for the run must have been in a hurry to fill the quota. His hands were tied behind his back, and a rope was around his neck. A third recom held the rope like a leash and had Reynolds’ automatic. The ferals had a sprinkling of weapons, primarily crossbows, and antique rifles. No doubt took from any hunters who came up here looking for game. Lenny and Tom were nowhere to be seen.

“Trade,” the one holding the leash shouted. The splicers had used a lot of simian DNA in his cocktail, so he looked a little more human than usual. “Yours for ours.”

“The fuck,” William said as he crouched next to Cruz and me. That seemed to be the sentiment of the day.

“If there’s a reason why you’re not gunning those animals down, I’d like to hear it,” Jensen said as he joined him. Jensen was just under 6 feet, with a paunch and a buzz cut. He also had the florid complexion and bloat of a heavy drinker.

“They’ve got our men. I want to get them back.” William snapped.

“OK, to be clear here, nobody’s trading nothing. Once these wagons are hooked up, we’re leaving.”

“If we do, they’ll kill them, asshole,” I said.

“I don’t care if they eat them alive. I shouldn’t have to remind you idiots, but your job is to protect these wagons and their merchandise. And the recoms in that wagon over there are the most valuable merchandise on this run. So do your jobs.” He started to walk away and then paused for a moment. “Look, if it makes you feel better, I’ll have them come up with Hunter Drones when we get back. A little payback. When the drones get done, there’ll be nothing left alive larger than a squirrel around here.”

“Que cabrón,” Cruz muttered at his retreating back.

“You know this is his fault, don’t you?” I said to William. “They must’ve watched him abuse that recom while we set up camp.”

“Yeah, I’ll file a complaint when we get back…for all that will do. You think Lenny and Tom are still alive?’

“They’re alive. They’ll have them somewhere in the woods as an insurance policy. Know what’s sad? The ferals must think we care as much for our people as they do for theirs. Makes you wonder who the real animals are”

“If I buy you some time, think you’d be able to find them?”

“I’ll find them, Boss…thanks.”

I ran back to my gear and rooted in my dwindling military surplus supply. Some of it was older than most people on this run and didn’t always work how it was supposed to, but I was comfortable with it. I pulled out one of the Eyes, a mini drone cam, and powered it up. The searching icon flashed in the corner of my prosthetic while I waited for the connection to be made. Just as I was about to give up hope, images from the drone finally flooded in. I took control and sent it zipping off through the camp. The drone was the size of a bumble bee, but nothing was bumbling about how it weaved and dove among the men, the ferals, and the trees. When vertigo started to overwhelm me, I slowed it down to a more manageable speed.

I closed my eyes and focused on the images from the drone as I flew it through the trees in an ever-widening search pattern. I found them a ¼ of a mile out in a small clearing. Lenny and Tom were still alive and guarded by 6 or 7 ferals. I minimized the drone feed and left it hovering in the corner of my vision. Maria was at the far end of the camp, crouched next to a rusted-out Benz with Rafe. I gathered a few more things and went to get her.

“I’m going after our guys,” I told her after giving Rafe a brief nod. “Wanna tag along?”

“Hell yeah. Somebody has to prop your old ass up.”

The sun was starting to rise, a burning matchhead that lit the edges of the night sky aflame. We crossed the road and made our way through the woods. With the trees blocking the breeze, it began to feel a little warmer. It was also quieter. Soon, the camp sounds faded; the only things we heard were the rustling of the trees and the steady drip of moisture from their branches. A trio of raccoons darted across our path, and, in the distance, a well-fed skunk waddled out from under a fallen log.

As we neared the clearing, I motioned for Maria to be quiet. Lenny and Tom were kneeling with their hands tied behind their backs. Some of the recoms that guarded them were armed like the ones back at camp. I brought out my Stingers and assigned each of them a target. The Stingers had been perfect for stealth and infiltration. They were quick, silent, and delivered a powerful anesthetic that dropped a sentry in his tracks.

Each of the ferals yelped as they were stung. In a few moments, they started to drop. All except one. The largest, a security recom that looked like a lycanthropic horror out of an old Hammer film, swayed and shook himself like a dog. As we came into the clearing, he grabbed Tom from the ground, held a knife to his throat, and bared his teeth in a snarl.

“Run, you idiot,” Maria shouted to Lenny as the recom threw back his head and howled.

Lenny struggled up to his feet and ran awkwardly to Maria. She cut the ropes from his wrist. The recom continued to howl, and there were answering howls from the woods around us. I fired a short burst into the air to persuade the newcomers to keep their distance. Maria grabbed Lenny by the arm, and we ran through the forest towards the road. Dark shapes shadowed us through the trees, and the branches raked and clawed at us as we ran. As we broke through the tree line, Lenny tripped over some roots and went down hard. He lay on the ground, held his ankle, and let loose a string of profanity.

“No one’s died yet. Let’s keep it that way,” I shouted at the shapes in the trees. Maria knelt and examined Lenny’s ankle.

“I think it’s just sprained,” Maria said to me and then asked Lenny, “Can you put any weight on it?”

“Nah, I don’t think so,” he said after he tried to stand.

“Help me get him up,” Maria said to me.

We slowly made our way back to the camp, Lenny supported by Maria as he hobbled along. At any point, the ferals could have picked us off from the shelter of the trees, but they didn’t. I hoped they just wanted the slaves set free instead of payback on the slavers. When we got to the camp, all the wagons were harnessed, and the horses had been saddled. Jensen, William, and most of the team were by the Benz.

“You got one of them back, so it’s time to go,” Jensen was snapping at William as I walked up.

“Enough of this bullshit, Jensen,” I said with cold fury. “Get those collars off them. We’re making the trade.” Most of the group gathered around voiced some agreement with me.

“Know the difference between you losers and the recoms in that wagon? They.Are.Worth.Something. I’ve got a bonus riding on delivering those animals, and I’m not losing it for street trash. Fuck it.” At those last two words, he yanked Cruz’s rifle away from him and spun towards Reynolds and the ferals. He fired a long burst that caught Reynolds directly in the chest. Two of the ferals nearest Reynolds went down, and the rest ran to the trees.

“Don’t fucking even think it,” Jensen yelled as the people closest lunged toward him. “Anyone who touches me will be collared when we get back. Want that? Want to spend the next five years indentured? Then fucking touch me.”

I handed my rifle to Maria and slowly moved closer to Jensen. He noticed me and brought his rifle up. For a moment or so, it looked like he was considering a little payback for the beatdown I gave him yesterday. I looked just past him; my eyes focused over his right shoulder. When I nodded, he jerked his head to see who was behind him. I spun into him, tearing the rifle out of his hands as I slammed my elbow into his nose. For good measure, I drove the butt of the rifle into his face. If his nose wasn’t broken before, it was then. Jensen dropped to his knees, his hands cupped around his battered, bleeding nose.

“You’re going to punch in the passcode and release those collars. Don’t make me ask you twice.” I told him.

“Fuck you,” he spat out.

“Jackson….” William started to say as he stepped towards me.

“Stay out of this, William,” I brought the rifle up and moved back a few feet. William wasn’t enhanced, but he was fast and dangerous. “We’re doing this, and I’ll accept the consequences.”

“Mother fucker!” William snarled as he continued to take slow, measured steps toward me. He leaned forward until the rifle barrel was pressed against his chest. “Point a gun at me; you better be willing to pull the trigger. That’s better,” he said as I lowered the rifle.

“You fucking junkpile,” Jensen was up on his feet and screaming in my face. “Forget five years. You’re going to be collared ‘til you die. You’ll be doing all the shit jobs even the recoms won’t do.”

William swung around and delivered a roundhouse kick that landed on the side of Jensen’s head. Jensen went down. Hard. William leaned over and pulled him slightly off the ground by his shirt front. “Wakey wakey, little man,” William said as he slapped Jensen repeatedly across the face. When William released his shirt, Jensen scuttled backward until he was up against the flattened rear tire of the Benz. William knelt next to him, pulled the controller out of Jensen’s jacket pocket, and placed the barrel of his Glock against Jensen’s knee.

“You’ve got ‘til the count of three to enter the passcode ‘fore I pull the trigger,” William held the controller out to Jensen.

“You’re going to regret this,” Jensen muttered as he inserted his thumb into the biometric reader and punched in the passcode. He dropped the controller to the ground and leaned back against the car with his legs splayed out in front of him.

“Get those chains and collars off them,” William shouted, and several drivers went to the recom wagon to free them.

‘So, what about him?” I said to William with a nod toward Jensen. “The idea of being collared for the rest of my life isn’t all that appealing.”

“No shit. Didn’t think about that ‘fore you broke the man’s nose?”

“What can I say? Sometimes I have these flashes of morality. I think it might be a personality flaw.”

“Fuck you, Jackson. Everyone, get over here.” He waited until the group had gathered around. “Raiders hit us at daybreak. Reynolds and Jensen were killed, and the recoms got caught in the crossfire. Anybody got a problem with that?”

“One of these lowlifes will talk, and I’ve got important friends,” Jensen shouted.

“Pendejo,” Maria spat in his face.

“Nah, I don’t think so. You’re fucked.” William turned to me and asked: “You want to do the honors, or should I?”

“I’ve got a better idea. Give me a minute,” I went to the recom wagon, and returned with one of the obedience collars. “Hold him down,” I said and waited while Maria and Rafe grabbed Jensen’s arms. I put the obedience collar around his neck, snapped it closed, and tossed the controller to the recom he had abused.

“He’s all yours,’ I said. “Wait until we’re out of earshot before playtime starts.”

He smiled at me, and that was the first time I noticed how long and sharp his teeth were. The ferals gave Tom back to us, and as we rode away, Jensen’s threats and pleadings followed us down the mountain. As usual, I was on point. In the distance, storm clouds were on the horizon. It was going to be a wet afternoon. The breeze from this morning had turned into a strong wind that made the trees bend and shiver. The wind almost drowned out the sound of screams.

 

This story previously appeared in Del Sol SFF Review, 2023.
Edited by Marie Ginga

 

Writing in the third person always makes the author feel like he's writing his obituary, but here goes: a lover of alt-rock, Akira Kurosawa movies, and craft beer, the author lives in Northern California with his wife and two kids. His beautiful wife definitely could do better, but, luckily for him, she hasn't caught on to that fact yet. Rage Against the Machine, the Black Keys, and the Warlocks are in heavy rotation on Spotify for writing inspiration.

%d bloggers like this: