Authors: D. L. Denham
The Hegemon Wars
D. L. Denham
Edited by Susan Hughes
Original Cover Art By Pavol Sokov
Also by D. L. Denham
A Post Apocalyptic Short Story
For a current list of books,
Print edition: ISBN: 9781500553470
E-book edition: ASIN:
Published by BlackHats Publishing
First Edition: July 2014
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business, establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright 2014 by D. L. Denham
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the author, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
Author Photograph by Michael Tortorich
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Special thanks is given to my mother, father, and sister—without whom, I would be lost.
And for their wisdom and encouragement along the way: Nick, Bill, and Susan
It is fatal to enter any war without the will to win it.”
The sun burned
as it had for five billion years. It would burn for another five before it exhausted its nuclear fuel. Humankind hadn’t been so lucky. They’d used most of their nuclear energy during the Blasts. And what hadn’t exploded in the form of a nuclear warhead went the way of Three Mile Island.
The sun’s heat boiled the air to temperatur
es above human survival rates. Yet some areas were still safe enough to occupy, but not here. Outside the Safe Zones, the radiated atmosphere acted as an accelerant.
In all directions, nothing moved. Only Reho.
ho checked the
Analysis Interface Monitor (AIM) embedded in his wrist. The radiation levels were stable. Only the sparse pockets of high radiation would affect his body. For anyone else, the levels of polluted air would result in death within twenty minutes. He had seen it before. Like the boy who had followed him out of that desolate community near the Great Lakes.
The boy had tracked him for a day until he’d gone too far outside the Safe Zone. Reho had heard his screams, but it had been too late. The sweat-soaked boy had vomited; his skin barely had time to blister before he died from radiation poisoning. Reho had left him there. There were few choices in the Blastlands. Most lead to death.
The sun was at its peak. The atomic watch on Reho’s other wrist displayed OldWorld time. It was 12:31. Reho had found the watch a few years before on the corpse of an unfortunate. “Unfortunate” was what his uncle called those unprepared people who ventured too far beyond the Safe Zones. The watch was black and had an OldWorld name written at the top of its face: Casio.
Even though it was advanced technology, his AIM did not provide the basic resources one needed when wandering the Blastlands: the ability to tell the time and play music. Reho thumbed the power button on his Walkman and blasted “Nothin’ But a Good Time” into his headphones as he trekked east.
Reho had followed the sun as it rose; soon it would be to his back as he continued east, toward home. After six years of searching in the West for something he could never fully explain. He’d always been different from those in his community. He’d felt like a dangerous outsider, a foreigner, living among good people as he grew up. But now he was ready to return to that community—if they would have him.
Something shimmered ahead.
Reho disliked encounters with those traveling across the Blastlands. One of two things always happened. Most of the time, they were low on oxygen and expected him to share. Upon seeing that he had no oxygen suit, they immediately became defensive, flighty, and scared. Other times, they were violent and looking for trouble. Reho had heard these sorts referred to as knock-down-drag-outs. Reho hated this sort, because encounters with them always ended the same way.
Then, there was always the chance a group of Hegemon from Omega would pass through. These alien invaders preyed on the planet, converting biological life into weapons and attempting to control what remained of humanity. Their presence restricted communities from networking with each other. Few merchant crews existed anymore because of this. But the Hegemon rarely had reason to come to Usona. Reho hadn’t seen one since he was a child, and even then he hadn’t really seen it, only its suited body for a brief moment. No one in Reho’s community knew what they actually looked like beneath—except maybe his mother and the others who’d been abducted.
Reho continued east. The shimmer was what he’d assumed: two oxygen helms crossing the Blastlands. Reho judged that they were militant, most likely of the knock-down-drag-out sort. Their suits were metallic and reflective. Their oxygen helms were not combat, though, which meant the suit was piecemeal. Stolen or bought, it didn’t matter. Both carried sizable rifles. Judging by their length, Reho assumed they were OldWorld rifles. Those hurt the worst.
Reho heard metal shift and clank above his music as one of the OldWorld rifles readied a bullet. He saw the rifle level and center on him. The taller of the two forms, unarmed, approached Reho first. Reho thumbed the power button to his Walkman and waited for them to speak.
The helmet’s exterior speaker beeped. “I won’t ask you why you don’t have a suit,” a gruff, mechanical voice said. “That much I can guess for myself. So, let me ask, why don’t you have your gun drawn?” The man’s voice was deep and raspy, reminding Reho of a hard shine seller from Red Denver.
Reho shifted his OldWorld rifle on his shoulder. “I have no intention of taking anything from you.”
“Oh, I know you won’t rob us,” the taller of the two said with a derisive snort. “I meant to keep your face from being smashed into the blastsoil. To keep us from shoving a mouthful of death down your throat.” Reho eyed the rapid rise and fall of the tall man’s suited chest.
The other form stepped closer to Reho, placing the OldWorld rifle near Reho’s chest.
Reho looked the gunman in the eye. “I’d rather just tell you that there’s a town six days’ walk west, where you can get oxygen and water.” He hoped they would lose interest. Knock-down-drag-outs rarely did.
Reho watched as the one who’d done the speaking fingered the OldWorld holstered on the side of his right thigh, ignoring the larger rifle strapped across his back. He squinted and swiped his tongue across his lips.
The sun was unbearable. Fighting both seemed pointless; any harm inflicted on them ultimately ended in death in the Blastlands. Words were ineffective outside of one’s own community. Actions spoke louder in places like this.
Reho moved first. The short man’s OldWorld weapon blasted into the air as Reho thrust the barrel up and spun behind, breaking the man’s arm, the bone snapping and tearing through the tight oxygen suit, poisonous atmosphere replacing the suit’s purified air. The other man ran, but Reho caught up with him. No problem.
“No, God, just let me—” Reho rammed his elbow through the tall man’s oxygen helm before he could draw his pistol. Outside air filled the suit, as it had for the other man. Reho knew the radiation had already crept in through their skin and eyes, and in a few moments, it would fill their lungs as they gasped for life. Reho looked back. The short man screamed and thrashed on the Blastlands. Broken glass had punched into his cheek, and blood poured from his oxygen helm and spilled onto the dead ground. Reho thought this was better. Suffering would be worse, but death would come much quicker. He watched as the man tried to speak. Nothing intelligible escaped. His eyes widened as his body convulsed. Reho remembered his mother for a moment, how her eyes had widened as the life left her body. Reho could remember the smell of flowers, her magnolias and dogwoods, filling the house that day.
Killing came easily after six years of wandering Usona. Reho wondered if there was somewhere to escape, somewhere to start over. Someplace filled with people just like him, a place where confrontations did not always end with death.
He continued east.
he walked, he heard a final scream, then nothing, as he lost sight of the two men behind him. Survival was hard enough. Being different from every other human on the planet did not help things either. Human evolution hadn’t stopped before the Blast, but continued at an accelerated pace as a result. Some, like his aunt, had developed negative mutations. Her weak, matchstick legs only left her dependent on others. Reho was different. Every time a crisis occurred, he discovered a new adaption and ability. Then there were those like his uncle and his mother, unaffected by the spikes of human evolution. His uncle had told him that his father had been like Reho: strong and, most importantly, different.
The sun beat down on Reho’s back. Its heat burned his neck through his head covering. He checked the Casio: 5:02. He scanned the eastern horizon with his binoculars. There it was, maybe an hour’s walk away.
Reho spotted Traveler’s Rest Stop, a relief to those who crossed the Blastlands headed for the coast. Reho had talked to dozens of walkers from the mountains who were preparing for the journey. Each knew that Traveler’s Rest Stop was the sign that the journey could be finished, that the greater dangers of the Blastlands were behind and old highways lay ahead.
Reho saw them first.
The town was empty, except for the two boys kicking a dilapidated ball against a wall and an aged woman making her way to what would be her home just outside the station. Each wore a minimalist oxygen suit. The old lady was too far away. She would never notice that he’d arrived. The two boys stopped playing and stared when they heard him approach.
Reho acknowledged the boys with a wave and removed his head cover. They continued to stare.
Reho approached the taller of the two.
Reho swiped the sweat and sand from his forehead. “Which building is the inn?” He knew the answer but wanted to initiate conversation with the boys.
The boy pointed to Reho’s left.
He scanned Reho. “Where do you come from?” His voice sounded as all voices do when coming from an oxygen helm with no outer speaker—muffled and hollow, as if rebounding off the walls of some unending tunnel.
Reho pointed behind the boys. “From the east near the coast.” The boy looked in that direction, as if he was trying to see Reho’s community somewhere in the distance. The younger boy mimicked.
“You have blood on your boots,” the younger boy said. He could be no older than eight or nine. “Are you a bounty hunter?”
Reho looked down. The sides of his boots were indeed caked in blood, gritty and flakey from the sand and heat. The kid knew what blood looked like, probably had already seen his share of it by now.
“Yes,” Reho replied, “let me see your ball.”
Hesitating, the younger boy looked to the older. He nodded. The young boy threw the ball to the stranger. Reho held it. It was partially deflated. Reho dug a plastic air pump out of his pack. As he pumped the ball a few dozen times, he sniffed its rubber surface. A flash from his childhood flooded his memory and his senses. He missed the hoop nailed to the side of his uncle’s house. These sorts of sentiments seemed to matter the most out in the Blastlands.
Reho dribbled the ball a few times and bounced it to the younger boy.
“Good as new.”
The older boy stared at the pump.
“What can you trade for it?” Reho asked. No one expected to get something for nothing out in the Blastlands.
In a flash, the boy held up a cracked whistle made of red plastic.
“Toss it,” Reho said. He blew into the whistle. It sounded awful as air escaped through its splintered side.
“You have to cover the crack with a finger for it to work,” the older boy said.
Reho covered the crack.
He held the air pump out to the boy. “Deal.” The boy retrieved it, his movements cautious.
The boy stuck out his hand. “My name is Dell, and this is my kid brother, Ralfie.”
The boy’s gloved hand felt withered in his own.
When was the last time they had a decent meal?
“What’s your name, mister?” Dell asked. “My dad always used to say, ‘Shake on a deal and get the person’s name.’”
Reho looked at the kids. Both needed a bath and proper food. He could tell from their faces they hadn’t seen a shower for some time. Reho wondered if they lived with the old woman or at a nearby residence. Or perhaps they lived alone, waiting for the next serviceman and pretending that their parents were just sick, despite the fact that they hadn’t moved or breathed in a week. Reho had seen it before. Kids could fall into denial just as easily as adults and could live an elaborate lie for months.
He looked at the inn’s entrance panel then at the two boys. “Reho.”
Reho noticed the patched holes in the side of the inn’s wall. Despite any violence that might have gone on outside, the inn at Traveler’s Rest Stop’s sign lit green. Reho tried its Com Panel.
He jabbed the assistance button and requested admittance.
The panel flashed, and an automated voice replied. “Thank you for your interest in Traveler’s Rest Stop. Our current minimum spending requirement is forty points. Please insert your smartcard to ensure that you have adequate points.” The voice was mechanical and sounded like an OldWorld payphone operator.
Reho inserted his smartcard into the slot. The device sucked it in, then immediately spit it back out. “You have sufficient points. Please enter the Decon and secure your oxygen suit and all lethal belongings into the privacy locker. You are assigned to Rec Room 15. And as always, thank you for choosing Traveler’s Rest Stop: the oasis of the Blastlands.”
Reho retrieved his card and entered the Decon. The room’s exterior door shut behind him, as a panel flashed to his right.
“Privacy Locker 143. Press ‘Open’ to access.”
Reho took off his coat and rifle. He needed a shower. The stench from six days of walking across lands that should have turned him into fried bacon left him smelling as such. Luckily, no one supervised Traveler’s Rest Stop. It was fully automated. A service person ventured to the station once every three or four weeks. A range of services were offered in stations such as this one: food, a place to sleep, showers, and, of course, hard shine for those looking to dull their pain or loneliness. For some, it was both. Reho avoided the hard shines, due to his body’s inability to consume them properly. He’d never been inebriated.
A few other services were offered in other stations. Places just for food or sleep pods lined the walkway across from the inn. In the past, more people had traveled across the Blastlands; now, few possessed the funds or the balls to travel it. There was nothing better on the other side. But one had to cross to the other side to realize this.
No one lived at the stations permanently, though a handful of homes surrounded the station for the servicemen who had to stay for days or weeks at a time to do repairs.