Authors: D. L. Denham
“You stupid nukes!” the leader screamed as he looked at both of his guys, one a nasty shade of grey, his arm and jaw broken, the other dead in a lake of blood.
Four tables were now between them. He tossed the goon’s gun to the side and equipped his own pistol and wiped some of the blood that had splattered on his lips. “How does this help Dink?” Reho asked. “He’s dead, and now you have to explain all of this to your boss.” He broke one of his own rules with knock-down-drag-outs: keep the conversation brief.
The thug revealed a six-shooter from behind his back. “Screw Rodman!”
Reho dodged, sending the shot wild and into the crowd; the resulting screams rose above the music. Reho moved quickly and returned two shots. Three more flew his way as he dropped low and grabbed a broken chair leg, then rolled behind the bar. He checked his clip.
He holstered his gun and checked the mirror for the ringleader’s location. Instead, he saw his uncle being dragged across the room and out the side door.
Why didn’t you just run?
Outside, a large crowd had already formed. Somehow they knew the fighting would ultimately spread to the alley.
Dink’s brother pushed Ron to the ground. “A real fight requires a real motive.” Two shots thundered.
Reho rushed forward, but it was over. The two bullets had burrowed into his chest, taking his uncle’s last breath. His uncle’s eyes closed and his body laid still.
The killer tossed his gun aside and called out to Reho.
Reho felt fire burn in his lungs. Its heat escaped through his nostrils.
His words came out like acid as he walked into what had turned into an arena.
A fight is what you want?
“I’d say we are even now,” the ringleader said. “ Your uncle for my brother. So now it’s just us.”
Reho snarled. “Even? How does killing an innocent man make us even?” The crowd had swollen ten people deep.
Reho flexed his fingers and focused all his energy into keeping his body from exploding into action. His sweat burned as it spilled over his body. A trail of hot, thick blood gushed from the wound on his leg. It would heal, but not for a while.
Both men stood, bombs lit, waiting to explode.
Reho waited for his uncle’s killer to attack first.
The fight ended quickly. With each attack, the ringleader weakened. Exhausted and out of breath, he missed Reho with every swing. He stopped, breathing deeply. The crowd watched, cheering first the ringleader then Reho. Reho hadn’t even attacked, only defended himself from his enemy’s weakening assaults. This was not going to be the fight the goon had intended. Instead, a public execution.
Reho knew how this would end before they ever stepped into the alley. The crowd now knew as well. He waited for the ringleader to stop. He would take his time. Grabbing his arm in one quick, smooth move, Reho broke it into pieces with three quick snaps across his knee. The ringleader’s body fell backward to the earth, screams exploding from somewhere deep inside him. The arm, fragmented and attached only by shredded muscle and skin, swung loosely as he attempted to stand. Reho kicked the broken man in the chest, sending him flying into the air. He landed in a bloody heap next to Reho’s uncle.
He looked up at Reho, his face painted with vomit. “Ah, come on, just–”
Reho removed the nine-inch blade that had buried deep into his adversary’s chest, ignoring they shocked gazes of his audience.
He knelt next to his uncle’s lifeless, disgraced body and placed a hand on his uncle’s cheek. He had deserved a better life, a better death.
The crowd’s eyes were fixed on him, judging him for what had just happened. Instead of wild screams and cheering, there was just the silence that told him what they really thought. The same single word reflected in their gazes:
As he had in Red Denver, Reho would again have to vanish.
The crowded parted as he exited, heading east toward the piers. No one stopped him. No one called out to him and no Community Enforcers arrived to intervene. Even if they had, what would have changed? A cloud of fear and disgust followed Reho as he passed through the people of his community.
How many remembered me? One thing was for sure. No one would forget me now.
Reho could hear the pulsating bass from the band as they continued to play.
He returned to the place where he had stashed his rifle and pack, a secret spot he had used as a kid to hide his fishing gear and the wooden toy pulse rifle. No one had ever known the secret spot existed, except for Vaness and Drenfi.
Reho was aware of their presence long before anyone spoke. Back at the RT, they’d watched from a corner booth. During the fight outside, he’d noticed one of them near the front of the crowd.
Reho gazed from the end of the pier—not at his followers, but out across the ocean. He looked at the stars and imagined looking down on Earth from up there, how the Hegemon would have seen our planet before invading, conquering, and then killing any hope of rebuilding.
In the Old World, the ocean had been called the Atlantic. Reho had once read a book in school about men and women, pilgrims, who had braved the same ocean and started a colony for their homeland, much like the Hegemon. Reho couldn’t remember the name of the land the pilgrims had come from, only that they had arrived on ships, landing near section 2E long before it was called that. Reho knew the few facts that everyone else in Usona knew. The aliens had arrived on space ships from a homeland just as foreign to Reho as the one the pilgrims had left.
Several boats were docked nearby. Reho knew the basics of sailing; navigation he understood after years wandering the Blastlands and trekking the West Coast. He could disappear. No one was out here. He could easily steal a boat and vanish from Usona. Farther east, other lands existed. Survivors just like Usona. But some different, some lands never having suffered the Blasts, looking just as they always had since Pangaea had broken apart, dividing humans. Or so his teachers had explained.
“You look like you could use an escape.” The voice was deep and authoritative.
Reho dropped his gaze and stared at the end of the pier. This is as far as his feet could take him. “Where are your guys?” He turned and looked past the stranger to where he had sensed others standing a few minutes earlier.
Shadows hid the man’s face. “I sent them to get the boat ready.”
“What do you want?” Reho asked.
“You,” he replied. “We do merchant work for a well-paying employer and need another crewman.” He stepped out of the shadows, his eyes locked on Reho.
His face was square with a trio of scars running across his forehead. His hands stayed in his pockets. He was Reho’s height and dressed in black tactical clothing. Two pistols were strapped to either thigh. He was older, maybe in his forties, with broad shoulders and thick, scar-covered arms. His face reminded Reho of some of the knock-down-drag-outs he had encountered in Red Denver.
Reho stared. “Merchant work? How do you know me?”
“You were in the bar. Why did you stay?”
“We saw no reason to leave. You fight like a Hegemon.”
“How would you know?” Reho asked, unprepared for the comment and the unsettling comparison.
He stepped closer to Reho and slipped his hands out of his pockets. “I’ve seen them fight. They move like you do: strong and quick. I’ve even seen one appear to fly. Regardless, I’ve seen enough to keep my distance when I can.”
Reho looked at the man’s hands. They were scarred as well. “Why me?”
“We need another crewman for our next job,” Ends replied. “The pay is good, enough for someone wanting to disappear permanently.” He paused. “Or stay. You seem quite welcome here.”
Reho returned his gaze to the Atlantic. Emotions that had evaded him for years now bubbled beneath his skin and swelled in his gut. No one was meant to keep so much inside.
“We are taking our cargo to New Afrika,” Ends said.
New Afrika. One of the few lands left unaffected by the Blasts. A place filled with communities that he hadn’t heard about or seen merchandise from since he was a kid.
He didn’t turn around but knew what answer he needed to give. There hadn’t been two choices here. There was only one.
Reho had imagined
the boat differently. As they’d walked to join the other crewman, Ends had described the boat as being capable of reaching Darksteam in New Afrika in ten days. Reho expected that a boat with alien technology would look different than the rusted boats he had grown up around as a kid. If it could do what Ends described, no would expect the tattered vessel to carry 450,000 points worth of what he had referred to as electronic military devices, EMDs. He’d offered no more explanation than that.
“What’s he doing here?”
someone shouted from the boat as Reho and Ends stepped onboard.
“I told you this was nonnegotiable, Thursday,” Ends replied.
Thursday was tall with tanned skin and an athletic frame that rippled with muscles. His face was rugged like an alley fighter’s. His eyes were soft blue, but set in an intimidating face, they lost their appeal. His head was shaved, and he wore a thick goatee.
“We don’t know this guy,” he said. “We just watched him kill three men. Hell, his leg is bleeding. Look at him. He’s wounded. How can we take someone who’s wounded?”
A woman ascended from inside the ship. “He doesn’t seem to be limping.” She grinned and stood beside Ends.
Ends’ expression told the others that he’d already made up his mind. “He heals quickly.”
Her hair, pulled back in a ponytail, revealed a face that had seen its share of hard times. It was thin and boney but with hints of beauty. Her lips were full and red, not something he’d expected from someone who could pass as a soldier. Her eyes were bloodshot, and stressed screamed from the bags under her eyes and creases on her forehead. Her glazed expression suggested inebriation.
She attempted a smile. “I’m Sola,” she said as she offered her hand. “Welcome aboard. If this barrel doesn't sink halfway across the Atlantic, then perhaps you will be of some help in Darksteam.”
Reho nodded, taking her hand.
A skinny man appeared from below. He was shorter than the rest, and, in contrast to the others, his eyes were smart, his skin unblemished. His Lakers’ jersey sported the number 33.
He waved and offered a big smile. “I’m Gibson.”
He laughed, but his nervousness was apparent. “I guess my parents weren’t fooling me when they told me to eat my greens.” He looked at Ends. “So he’s part of our A-Team now?”
was on this A-Team?” Thursday asked, eyeing Gibson. “I look around and what do I see?” His eyes darted from person to person, as laughter erupted between Sola and Gibson. He targeted each.
He crossed his arms and shot Ends his most pissed-off-looking face. “Dalton.”
He unfolded his arms and flexed his biceps. “I’m Chuck Norris
Sola snickered. He shot both his arms at her like bazookas. “Molly Ringwald.”
Sola flipped both middle fingers toward him.
“Whoa, enemy fire!” Thursday said, hiding his face behind his arms.
“And you?” Thursday said, nodding to Reho. He drummed his fingers across his cheek in an effort to appear deep in thought. “ Hmmm . . .”
“What about me?” Gibson asked.
Thursday chuckled and stepped away from the group. “I think it would be better if I didn’t answer that one, dip stick!”
“This is the crew,” Ends said. “ If we weren’t so desperate, I’d tell you to rethink it.”
“Yeah,” Gibson said, “if it wasn’t for Thursday’s tender cuddling, I’d have left this worthless crew a dozen commissions back.” Thursday turned around and shot his arm upward under the opposite forearm. Reho hadn’t seen the gesture before but considered it equal to the birds Sola delivered a minute ago.
“If you two murks are done,” Sola said, “I’d like to leave before sunrise. We still need to secure the cargo below, unless you want to explain a half-million points in damaged device.” She headed below deck.
“You can store your stuff in the room across from Sola’s,” Ends said. “Go down, then turn right behind the stairs. Yours is the one without a handle—which you might want to fix it if you don’t want Thursday throwing dead fish under your mattress.”
Reho waited for a laugh from Ends, but it didn’t come. Instead, he left him standing alone on the deck.
Reho glanced back at 4E. He had returned after six years only to leave it after a few hours. His aunt and uncle were dead. He came back with nothing but memories and now would leave again the same way. Whatever future he was to have, it would be somewhere on the other side of the ocean.
The room was the size of a truck bed. The mattress, too short for him, took up most of the floor space. A cabinet, two of its drawers missing, was pushed against the opposite wall. Reho scanned the walls. OldWorld posters covered nearly every square inch: movies, bands, and advertisements for products, most of which Reho had seen before. One poster stood out from the rest. Reho edged around the room before giving up and stepping onto the bed to get a closer look. The poster featured a deserted, blast-ridden land. A barren road cut through the center; a lone man walked toward him with a mangy-looking dog. He wore black leather and appeared injured, desperate, and exhausted. But there was a fire, a purpose, in his eyes.
What motivated him to continue? Was it the search for a new life or something more basic?
Reho thought he knew what it was: he sought revenge, had a need for wrongs to be made right. The poster was entitled
The Road Warrior
. Reho thought back to his years walking the Blastlands and wondered how others must have perceived him.
Had they seen in him what Reho saw in the poster?
“I see you met Max,” Sola said. “Have you seen the movie?”
Sola stood in the doorway. She hung on the doorframe, arms raised above her head. She had a beauty uncommon to Usona. She was from somewhere else, maybe the Eastern Bloc or one of the Antarctic communities. Her skin was milky white, and, like Ends, her arms were sinewy but still attractive. She wore a tight, black shirt and equally tight, black combat-style pants with expensive boots. Reho had only seen combats a few times in his wanderings. They were one of the most sought-after items in Red Denver. Out in the Blastlands, you could only go as far as your shoes could take you.
“No,” Reho replied, “it looks as though it could have been filmed after the Blasts.”
She stepped into the room. “Before the Blasts, lots of writers and filmmakers imagined what the apocalypse would look like and what would cause it. And from what I’ve seen . . .” She pointed to a poster depicting the severed head of Lady Liberty on the streets of what Reho knew to be OldWorld New York City. Its title read
Escape from New York
. “… every one of them got it wrong.”
“At least we aren’t dealing with zombies,” Reho said with a nod toward a poster below the porthole. A zombie’s decayed, tortured face screamed out from the poster, as several undeads stumbled through eerie, moonlit fog. He had seen the film before but couldn't remember where. In it, radiation from a crashed alien satellite had resurrected the local dead.
“Everyone will be in the mess room in about an hour,” Sola said. “Thursday might be an idiot, but he can cook.” She looked deep into Reho’s eyes as though searching for an answer to some mysterious question. Or maybe she was just trying to understand why Ends had decided to bring him along on the journey to New Afrika.
“Thanks,” Reho replied.
Sola left. He pulled the corner dresser a foot away from one wall and propped his rifle on it. Its long, metal body showed its age. The guy who sold it to him called it an L86. Reho never found out what exactly made it an L86, but it had drawn enough attention over the years from knock-down-drag-outs, some attempting to lift it from him. Broken jaws had changed a lot of minds over the years.
Reho unlatched his pistol’s side holster and removed the case strapped across his lower back to house his blade. He laid them on the mattress and checked the contents of his pack. Several sandwiches still rested inside, mostly squished now. He didn’t own much, but what he did possess had kept him alive.
He moved everything to the dresser. Reho rarely used his guns, but his knife had always been essential.
The guns acted more as a deterrent, a visible threat when needed. The rifle had been out of shells since he shot Soapy just after leaving Red Denver. As for his pistol, the last few shots had been spent at the RT.
He’d used his knife to cut himself out of most situations, though most fights never required a weapon at all. It was one way he kept it fair. The knife had belonged to his father. His uncle had told him how it had saved his father’s life once. Reho could recall every detail of the story he’d heard often growing up.
It had happened a few years after his parents married. They had lived closer to the docks, in a rented room not far from where his mother worked at the RT. Living so close to the harbor, even twenty years ago, had required community members to arm themselves. The original charter for Virginia Bloc left out any laws governing weapons. Only one bloc, 2E, had voted to place weapon restrictions in their community. Growing up, Reho had watched as 4E’s legislators turned down every gun restriction proposition introduced. Democracy prevailed in Virginia Bloc, minus whatever influence men like Rodman casted over the business sector and the docks. His father had never owned a gun, carrying only his knife. A few weeks before his father purchased the house that his aunt and uncle had inherited and where Reho had grown up, his father was attacked in an alley not far from where he was working as a shopkeeper.
Two men had approached and forced him to the ground. They attempted to scam his smartcard and transfer his points onto a safecard reader. Reho’s AIM functioned as a safecard reader; the model his uncle had described was one he had seen in communities farther out in the Blastlands, a bulky device that was known to malfunction. The safecard reader gave an error message each time they swiped his father’s smartcard. Frustrated, they argued, each trying to fix it. Reho’s father twisted, slashing both men across their legs. Dropping to their knees, both pressed on their fresh wounds, sending the device to ground. Springs and plastic pieces exploded, littering the ground.
The fat one, as his uncle referred to him, positioned his gun in the air like an outlaw in a Western. The next part had fascinated Reho as a child. His uncle would stand up and then straighten Reho up in front of him, about five feet away. His uncle’s hand would rise, imitating a gun, and then he would yell,
Now!” Reho played the role of his father. He had heard it so many times as a child. Reho dropped to a knee, as his father had, and flung an imaginary knife toward his uncle. His uncle would drop the pretend gun and grab his chest, then fall over.
The other one, Skinny, his uncle would call him, looked down at his partner, the knife planted like a sapling in his chest. As his father moved to uproot the blade, Skinny ran away.
His father hadn’t been hurt that night. Reho was like his father; they both healed at an accelerated rate. Their minds also processed information with lightning-fast speed, often noticing details most overlooked. His body could endure almost anything. Out in the Blastlands, he had discovered only one thing that seemed to harm him: high levels of radiation. In most areas, the radiation levels were minimal and of no real safety concern. But the pockets of high radiation that dotted the area were an immediate deathtrap for anyone unfortunate enough to walk into one, including Reho.
Before having the AIM surgically embedded, he had wandered into one of the high radiation spot near OldWorld St. Louis, just as he’d crossed the Great River. Signs of the sickness began with a shortness of breath, followed by nausea. Realizing he’d traveled into a death trap, he struggled to retrace his steps. He had blacked out near the river, waking late that night. His skin was covered with boils filled with sticky, green toxins. His body shivered and burned throughout the night as it sought to rid him of the radiation. Less than a month later, he’d found a doctor capable of implanting a device that could warn him of radiation levels. Among other things, the AIM was meant to keep him alive. But it had become more than that over the years. Its mapping system had helped him navigate his way through the Blastlands, finding communities that most would never know existed.
Reho sat on the tattered mattress; it reminded him of the one he had slept on in the Red Hall holding cell. His mind flooded with questions, as it often did when we thought back on his childhood.
What if his mother had never been abducted by the Hegemon? If his father hadn’t been at work in the tannery with his brother the day she was taken, could he have prevented her abduction?
If so, maybe she would have had a life worth living instead of the frightened mess she endured after being returned. Maybe she could have enjoyed her son. The only pleasant memories Reho had of his mother were of the rare moments when she sang. Her lilting voice filled the house with soothing melodies, the antithesis of the hell she endured each sleepless night. Reho remembered the screams that plagued him as a child—most notably, her final scream.
He hated the alien invaders for that.
The mess room was below the navigation cabin on the top deck. Smoke hung in the air around the stove. A cigarette dangled from Thursday’s lips as he stirred a sizzling skillet. The room was filled with a heady aroma, a mixture of the two—delicious, yet acrid.