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Ain't Talkin'

By Taylor Ryan Powers All Rights Reserved ©

Drama / Scifi

Blurb

A post-apocalyptic epic revolving around a bounty-hunting wastelander with a penchant for bad behavior and being a disagreeable cuss. The catastrophe of the old-world has left America a desolate and barren land populated with criminals, drunks, gamblers and feuding corporate-organizations. WIth the seperation of the planes from one another, the white or the ether is left between them, a worm-hole passage for those brave enough to enter and travel through. The planeswalkers are a dark bunch, but their services are often called upon for sensitive tasks. Walter Roche is a bounty hunter and a walker, and his next job may be his last.

Ain't Talkin'


Ain’t Talkin’

A Novel of the Wastelands

By: Taylor R. Powers








Copyright © 2015 Dragon Alley Books

All rights reserved.

ISBN-13:

978-1507683743

ISBN-10:

150768374X

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

This book was printed in the United States of America.

Also by Taylor R. Powers

The Summerswill Saga

The Adventures of the Summerswill book I: Aloft

The Adventures of the Summerswill book II: The Legacy

The Adventures of the Summerswill book III: The Crux (part 1)

Short Stories

Rickety

Crawlspace

Safe

Savior

By Taylor R. Powers & K.H. Daly

Beardology

Like ‘The Summerswill Saga’ and ‘Taylor R. Powers’ on Facebook!









As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden,

The wounded flowers were dangling from the vine.

I was passing by yon cool crystal fountain,

Someone hit me from behind.

Ain’t talking, just walking,

Through this weary world of woe.

Heart burning, still yearning,

No one on earth would ever know.

They say prayer has the power to heal,

So pray for me, mother.

In the human heart an evil spirit can dwell,

I am trying to love my neighbor and do good unto others,

But oh, mother, things ain’t going well.

Ain’t talking, just walking,

I’ll burn that bridge before you can cross.

Heart burning, still yearning,

There’ll be no mercy for you once you’ve lost.

-Bob Dylan

Copt

There was dust on his coat and dust in his boots when the hunter rolled into a dead town somewhere near sunset.

He spat a long arc of chew across the dry road. The hunter tipped his hat and walked down the street past empty windows.

The sun was high on his neck and the desert threatened to eclipse into the white nothing at it’s edges. The world was turning onward, and the hunter moved with it along dusty bootheels and the rustle of denim and leather.

Two and a hundred years back the wise men had tried their very best to empty the world of knowledge and writ it all down on carbon copy and it cost them the world. It cost them reality too. The hunter was one of the few who could stake a claim in this new madness that had become existence itself. One of the lonely few who knew what it felt like to decay, who knew how to navigate the endlessness of the white.

Now there was just the desert and when the sands spilled off into the endless ether there was the white.

Somewhere past the Polkun County line at the other end of Route 88 the ether flipped in like changing a channel to static.

Once you were in it you knew, and not a moment before. Sand and brush stinging at your cheekbones and the knobby bones of your wrist and all of a sudden there ain’t a peck but for the cold and the emptiness of the white.

Deaf.

The hunter always felt deaf the second he stepped over the flip into the ether. Not for a moment did he ever think it was possible, because no one went deaf for no reason, even plane changing, and he’d heard fine all his life.

But, no, deaf for a moment because all of that nothingness hit you like a sack of bricks every time you clipped in.

Bootheels rocking along, the hunter slapped his three fingers against the drum of his revolver in tune with a far away song he barely remembered. He kept walking through the white, knowing every step of the way exactly where he’d come out on the other side.

ic r

There was a gas station halfway between the beginning of the white on 88 and the end of the trail before the hunter reached Parmiskus.

Wasn’t there, really, not in the way things are. But, it was there all the same. A old switchback dirt trail between the back door and the outhouse, a run-down truck on the lawn and a hoary old crow that never left an’ never shut up. The pumps never worked no more and the register inside wouldn’t shut just tight, but that old light in the DIESEL sign wouldn’t quit come hell, high water or the end of the world.

The hunter supposed this was one of the places that got caught when the blinker went off. When the scientists couldn’t stop poking around and making the smallest things smaller and they pushed mother nature a hair too fair, well. . .there was a hundred dozen little pellet hole shots that tore through the book of Humanity that day, all ripped through every little thing and keepin’ them together at the same time. The Walkers called them doors, the hunter was a walker but not all walkers was hunters, some just made a way by getting folks where they needed to get.

The road was old and dusty, and what with six versions of the world all clamoring for attention it didn’t make much difference what anyone did anymore. Seemed it was up to a man and the yokel next to him to be their own judge, jury and executioner when the time come. No rule and no laws in the new way of the cosmos.

The tin sign out front creaked on a nonexistent pole and swayed. The DIESEL light flicked and popped and then ran steady with an electric hum. The hunter tapped a cigarette from his poke and wedged it in the corner of his sandpaper lips. He struck a match and cupped a hand against the wind that wasn’t there.

The menthols tobacco was smooth and cool in the rear of his throat, coarse and harsh like gravel. The gas station was a distant memory now, passed on by like it had never existed, and still didn’t. Just a ghost of a lonely place left behind when the world ended that would forever fidget in some dark corner of the universe doing what it always had done, just being there. Flickering light in the DIESEL sign, crooked hutch and broken truck, drip, drip, dripping gasoline fount and then the world was gone, moved along with everything and forgetting this little bit of home somewhere along the way.

The hunter snubbed his smoke.

eson

Bootheels scrabblin’ on the stray dry concrete the hunter made his way downtown. He’d passed through the white in an evening and come out the other side without a hair on his head astray. That was something most folks couldn’t do these days.

The yellow lamplight didn’t do much for the scenery and the alley itself didn’t have much to stand on to begin with. Parmiskus was a rag-tag shelter of a town way out beyond the Mojave desert. It was all ancient history even though barely a century had passed by, when the world turns so vastly and harsh the way it had these last hunnerd years, you did your best to move right along with it.

Sign hanging low over the sidewalk said Mutt’s and the hunter knew he was in the right place. He filched his way inside like a desert breeze and found a stool as easily as a waylaid fly might. The hunter waves a dusty glove over the counter and summons a bourbon with a beer back. He catches the ice cube in his teeth and cracks it in two loudly and swallows one half of the cube and the bourbon all at once. The hunter swigs off the beer and wipes his mouth with the back of his calloused hand staring into the mirror behind the bar. Staring into a reflection he barely recognizes ever since he started walking the ether and never looked back.

“Lookin’ for work, Roche?” A man sits beside the hunter, his coat is long and caresses the floor, his hat his wide and shades his face,

The hunter makes not remark, only a noise beneath his nostril in the deep part of his throat.

“Lots to be had out this way, I hear. Lad came by here looking for a planeswalker a day or two back but you was noweheres to be seen.” The man ordered himself a stiff, colorless drink.

“Work to be had comes to me, don’t need to seek it out.” Roche grated, his voice like charcoal.

“Aye, that’s the truth ol’ chap. What of it? Will ya take the boy?”

“What’s he to you?”

“I’m an inquiring mind is all, Mr. Roche, please don’t misunderstand. If you’d like I can show you my credentials.”

Roche, the hunter, stood for his barstool in the yellow of the desert daylight, the bar itself was sparsely frequented at all if ever and Roche wasn’t one for erring on the sides of civilian preferential care. He hung his head in a slattern, I don’t give a damn kind of way, his collar around his throat was buttoned wrong and loose. His denim and boots were dusty and worn to auld hell and his skin and hair was bleached so pale by the sun that he might have passed for a gunslingers ghost if he didn’t stand up, shit, drink, fuck and cuss with the rest of ’em.

“I want no trouble Mr. Roche, I assure you.”

“Want none, get none.” Before the man could have blinked Roche had pulled and drawn, cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger and reholstered the Ruger revolver at his hip. The only ringing memory was the sound of the gunshot and the sallow red hole in the man’s forehead when his knees buckled and he fell before Roche and crumpled and shit himself.

The hunter left a proper note on the barkeeps tab for the body he left behind and left Mutt’s bar the way he came in, through the front door. His bootheels clacked along the sidewalk all the same and he couldn’t quite remember for the nonce whether he had left the white behind or if he was running back to her dead, endless embrace. Roche just kept walkin;.

There was work to be had and a client to be held, but before aught else, there was blood to be spilled.

ance:

Nights along the highway was always the same. Campfires slung up in barrels along the 88 cropped up every fifty yards or so, and around them huddled black-toothed men and women who wore too much robbing from whatever beast they could come across, all grunting and sneering as the hunter passed them by and left them alone.

Roche flipped the cover of his collar up over the back of his neck and buried his head down deep. If he was going to find this one he’d need to dig through the lesser things.

A tug at the hinged corner of his instincts told Roche to veer back the way he had came, and he rounded a corner of stacked vehicles on rubber wheels.

The hunter wound through the ragged figures huddled around their orange flames against the chill of the desert nights. They flickered and danced like moths round a dim bulb hoping to bask in it’s light for as long as they could before the nickel and copper wiring finally sputtered out and whined dead.

Shades of humanity like these took little notice of the world as it moved by all around them, and cared less and less for those that stood beside them. The daily drawl was the search for a few fresh drops of water and a hooked end of bread to drag along the tongue for a meal. Then the cold of the night came and even your jacket needed a jacket against the winds that howled over the dunes from the west where the sun buried in sand.

The hunter had friends here where the scum of the earth huddled around flickering candles for warmth. Once his presence was known they would find there way to him, hoping to be repaid with a glint of copper coin or the ass-end of a loaf of bread. The hunter always paid his informants, it was bad business not to.

The night growled awake as the winds picked up, the sky going a deep bruised color and fading to a curdled black. A withered form detached from the nearest group and shuddered towards the hunter. Roche dug his bootheels down against the rising wind and waited for it to come to him.

“Your. . .your back, hunter.” Sand crunched through the shades teeth when it spoke.

“Has a man come through these parts, asking for me?”

“I don’t know your hunter-ship. . .I’m so hungry I can’t remember.” The shade grinned, it was missing more teeth than it had left.

The hunter twirled a curl of bread out of one of his deep pockets around a finger and spun it in place around his index finger. “Where did he go? The bread after.”

“Back, back that-aways, towards the ruins and the city.”

“Did he have a name?”

“None that he told us.”

Roche flicked the hook of bread through the air into the sand at the vagrants feet and was walking away before it landed.

“I’ll be back if I need anything more.” He said over one shoulder, sparking another thin cigarette, but the strange man wrapped in canvas and made of bones stretched under tar-paper was already clawing at the sands and digging for his hunk of bread, smashing the crust between the remaining teeth in his jaw.

The hunter puffed on his smoke and felt the wind and sand tugging at the hems of his coat as he made his way further from Parmiskus and towards the ruins of the city where the sand dunes bellied up from the old tunnels beneath.

Tran

By the time true night had set in the hunter had flicked in and out of the ether and Polkun county three times each. The winds tended to whistle less like hell when the sky was full dark, and Roche could draw on his cigarette without having to hold it in place with a finger lest it blow out of his mouth.

The ruins of the old city lay to the south end of Parmiskus where the peoples dumped their carts full of trash and unmentionable waste. The sand swallowed everything up eventually and as long as it was far enough out of sight it was out of mind enough for any old folk who still lives this close to the ethers edge.

Then again, the only things wretched enough to come crawling and living in these here ruins anymore were those so near death from their sins that they didn’t know no better, and those who were tempting death themselves.

Why a client would be awaiting him in this accused place could only be one thing, he not afraid to die, or what was hunting him was more frightening than death itself.

Roche picked over the husks of old automobiles stained a uniform color of oxidized iron and worn to a pearly luster by eons of blowing sand. Up-ended caskets of ancient buildings hung open like ribcages against the sky, their glassless windows yawning and whistling at the horizon. In an open expanse of slate-gray stone where a fountain had once stood Roche saw the figure of a small, stooped man chugging on a pipe and sipping at a bottle in a paper bag. He weighed enough to have not been swept away by the wind but not much else. A wide-brimmed cap was pulled low over his eyes and a kerchief tugged at his lower eyelids every time he removed it to swig off his bottle.

Roche approached him openly across the avenue and sat down a fair pace from the man down the stone bench, said nothing, and lit a smoke with deft hands against the wind.

Several minutes went by with neither man saying anything, Roche dragging on his cigarette and the client swigging at his bottle and lipping along the titty-end of his pipe through his kerchief.

“You’re the hunter I was looking for?”

“Aye.” Roche barked.

“They say you’re a man who can navigate the white, the ether, the blankness between worlds.”

“They say a lot of things.”

“Is it true?”

“For the right price it is.”

The man fished about in the canvas lining of his coat until he found a tied bundle of paper, tearing back one corner he revealed it to be a tightly bound packaging of many bank notes of a hefty sum.

“It’s all yours if you can get him back to me.”

“Him who?”

“My son. They came for him in the night.”

“Who did?”

“Men in dark jackets. They worked for the Corporation.” The man sipped at his bottle again, taking longer swigs.

“Why’d they come for your boy?”

“He. . .he did some work for them, I bet he found out more than he bargained for, and they took him away for it.”

“What’s so special about him you want him back so bad?”

“He’s all I got, mister. He’s the only son I got.”

“Know which way they went?”

“West into the sun, along the coast towards the Drying Plain, where the ether spills in like rain.”

“I know the place, how long ago they leave?”

“Two night past, now. Will you find him?”

Roche stood and snatched the parcel of bank notes from the mans hand before the man had though to react. The hunter was fast. He slid a calloused fingertip along the edge of the notes, eyeing them from under his hat. “This ought to get me started looking. And twice the amount when I return with him, or I plug both of you and leave to evaporate under the sun and sand until the ether swallows you up.”

“But I can’t-” The man started to argue, and his voice caught in his throat because when he went to grasp at the hunter’s sleeve to negotiate the man was gone. A small cherry ember from the tip of his cigarette winked brightly for half a moment before it died under the churning of the midnight sand, and that was all that was left of the hunter from Polkun County that night.

The man who’s son had gone missing at the hands of the Corporation turned his glass flagon up to the sky to finish off the brown stinking liquid inside but found that all that was left inside the bottle was cool sand and bits pf eroded metal from a world that had been left behind a century ago when the white started bleeding in from the framework of the universe.

smi

Roche knew little of the Corporation. Few people who were not employed by the Corporation itself did. It was a company that unlike any other, spanned the distance between worlds. It crossed between the distance of the white. How the branches kept in contact or moved goods from one plane to the other was anyone’s guess, the inner dealings of the Corporation were secretive.

That wasn’t to say that the man’s missing son was an anomaly. It was known that the Corporation often outsourced work here and there, but that being said, those who took contracts for the Corporation were seldom made aware of the true nature of their work. It was never in someone’s best interest to dig any deeper than absolutely necessary.

Roche spent the remainder of that night doing what he did best, gathering information. He asked around at the saloons and dive bars that littered the back streets of Parmiskus. Idle questions here and there, never anything direct enough to arouse suspicion, just a leading query that meant nothing by itself followed by a stale acknowledgement.

A younger man by the name of Alex Markus had disappeared two nights ago. Nothing out of the ordinary, people were known to come and go for days at a time. They’d binge, move on or hole up all alone for one reason or another at a moments notice. But this Alex, up and gone without a trace, poof. No note, no trail, no one asked to water his plants, just gone. Still not the strangest of occurrences, but that wasn’t the point.

A few more questions led Roche to the apartment. Second story in an old brick warehouse, converted loft space above a seedy clothing store on a back street. Door unlocked, but closed. Table in the main room askew, but not turned over. Bed unmade. Toiletries left behind in the restroom, winder in the bedroom open to the elements, littered dust and debris piling up in one corner.

All together nothing extraordinarily unusual. A missing young man, a disheveled apartment, a distraught parent.

Roche stood in the middle of the apartment, struck a match and lit a cigarette, tipped his hat back from his eyes and inhaled deeply. What was missing?

The room breathed in the way that old rooms do. Memories sinking through it like porridge water in a sieve. There it was.

Roche’s coat billowed out around his hips as he made his way to the entrance, a thick iron door on a slider, normally bolted from the inside. Outside the door the hallway was bare, the apartment was at the end of the hallway. Across the hall was an empty apartment, the door stood open. Roche let himself in.

The room inside was empty and abrasive. It stank of disrepair, and mold. Roche took a pen-sized flashlight from his jacket and flicked it on, still puffing on the cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth.

Aiming the beam of light downward he scanned around with his eyes, rubbing the three days of stubble on his chin with his thumb.

Dust, footprints and scuffs in the detritus on the floor.

There it was.

Thin layer of dust on the back, a hole punched in the corner, and there it was.

A playing card.

Strangely out of place.

This was where the captors had waited for Alex Markus to come home, and they’d waited long enough that they must have gotten bored. One of them, assuming there had been more than one, and that seemed likely, was a card player. Stood to reason if he’d defaulted to playing with cards to kill time. Solitaire?

The playing card, a jack of hearts, had a hole punched out of one corner. Common trend for saloons and casinos to keep players from keeping old decks and sleeving cards to cheat with. The recycled decks were thrown out or given away, but not before they put a hole in each card to weed out sleight of hand.

Few casinos in this area had the wherewithal or the disposable income to purchase new decks like this ad nauseam. That left a few choices. Roche tired. This type of detective work was a strong suit of his, but it wasn’t his favorite past time. The hunter was a hunter, and he preferred the strong arm approach to playing pick me up any day.

Roche snubbed his cigarette on the brick wall, folded the card and slid it into his pocket and left the apartment building behind him.

Outside the night was lit only by a lone working streetlight in a chemical orange glow. Sand and dust blew in strange patterns down the street.

The trail was alive, and Roche was a hunter.

ssio

No one remembered what year it was, even though time was one of the few consistencies across planes. All anyone was collectively sure of was that the catastrophe had occurred one hundred and two years ago.

Top rated scientists had delved too deep into the construct of things. Atoms and molecules and chemically stable ribbons of particles hadn’t been descriptive enough. Mankind had to know more. What made up the fabric of the fabric of existence. What made up the tiniest pieces of the tiniest pieces?

Their experiments and their research took them far and away to greater lengths than science had ever gone before. It all brought them too far.

The catastrophe had been a product of mankind’s folly. It had torn holes in the world. Many planes had arrived at the same conclusions in experimentation simultaneously. The holes had eroded through existence like an overheated film reel.

The final conclusion of was this. Universes were laid over each other. If everything you had ever known or had ever happened in history could be written on a single page of paper, then the number of existent universes would encompass an endless encyclopedia of variants layered over one another. Something had gone wrong in the world’s researches, and a birdshot blast had opened holes in these variants from one world to another and another and another.

With that, the ether, the white had spilled in. The space between worlds was as vast and as sparse and as unpredictable as the space beyond the universe. Blank and pointless and without description. Whiteness.

The world moved on. The ether burned at the edges of reality and the world heated up. Oceans dried away to nothing, species died by the thousands and the world lost it’s shape. It wasn’t long before governments collapsed upon each other and ate one another. It wasn’t any longer that people started walking between worlds. Thousands of people got lost at first.

They entered the holes between worlds and never returned. In the expressionless, featureless landscape they lost their way and wandered into oblivion. Those that managed to navigate found that they learned the trails and highways between worlds. They perfected their craft, and they found out a strange little nuance to the white, the ether. . .when there was nothing there truly was nothing.

The physics of the world existed because the walkers expected them to exist. Gravity was a truth because the walkers acted as though it ought to be and moved in accordance with the rules that they had grown to accept as passive reality. When they learned to accept that these were no longer truths, they found they could overcome the lack of strictures.

Time also ceased to pass.

The longer the walkers stayed within the white, the more they ceased to age, their features only lengthening for the duration of time they spend in the planes beyond the nothing.

The people in the worlds outside aged beyond the walkers, and before too long the families of those who chose the white grew old, and died, and their children grew old and died, and so on and so forth. The walkers became ghosts amongst their own people in a world that had just as quickly moved on to scattered city-state governments who relied more on self-preservation and the longevity of isolation.

The walkers were a force unto themselves, and they moved through the worlds from one to another. They made their way by bringing passengers.

Roche was a walker, and he made his way as a hunter. He stalked prey and found what was missing. And in all things he was wholly and completely alone.

n fro

The Old Hen was a true hive of deceit. The house always won, and not because it was in the cards. The casino used muscle, trickery and swift dealers to ensure they always came out ahead, as if the luck of the draw wasn’t always enough.

It was set out against the south edge of Parmiskus in an old warehouse building. Strongmen in tailored suits walked between the gambling tables flexing their arms and looking down at the patrons through dark glasses and through the clouded smoke of cheap cigars.

Roche sidled along the outside walls of the casino, hat pulled low, an unlit smoke hanging from his lips. His hands were deep in his pockets, fingering the holes cut into the lining where he could reach through and had access to the revolvers crossed over his hips.

It was first thing in the morning, only the palest bit of sky eked over the horizon to the east where the sun had barely begun to rise. Most of the city was sound asleep still. In this hole at the bottom of civilization, only the real carrion birds were still awake.

There had been no guard at the front door when Roche found the place, only a smattering of still-drunk gamblers filing out for the evening, their monies and senses frittered away over the night before.

Barely a score of patrons remained, scattered across the tables sparsely, trading crumpled bills and plastic coins for cards and sipping at smudged glasses of amber bourbon.

Roche scanned the remaining gamblers for a likely suspect.

A sweaty pear of a man in suspenders with a cheap prostitute under either arm at one table, a pair of off duty district sheriffs, a mother with a sleeping child in a basket beside her chair, and an elderly gentleman in a striped jacket that was more patches than original cloth.

Across the room was a pair of men. They were dressed in finer clothing than the remainder of the gamblers. They wore wide-brimmed hats with dark glasses, sipping at glasses and smoking. The dealer was a sharp-dressed young man with a prim haircut.

Roche found his way to the bar, settled and ordered himself a whiskey. He watched them play at their cards, sipping at his drink when it seemed appropriate but never swallowing.

They played at cards for an hour, and then longer. Outside the Old Hen the sun turned to risen and daylight slipped over the barren landscape of Polkun County. Somewhere a bird began to sing, and from under the front door, a slow beam of yellow inched through the cracks, the only place in the buildings exterior where light penetrated. Still, Roche watched, the level of his drink never lowering.

Another hour went by before the two men at the gambling table tossed down their cards.

The instant they stood Roche knew he had found them dead. The Corporation soldier on the left fingered inside his coat as he stood. He peeled a deck of cards held together with a band from the inside of his pocket and filched them loose. He began playing at a game of solitaire with the cards as he walked. This was a man who was seldom without cards in his hand, and somehow Roche had an inkling that the deck in his palms was only fifty one cards.

The two settled with the dealer and made for the front door, pushing their glasses up higher on their noses and pulling their hats lower over their eyes.

Roche set his drink on the bar, bit down on his cigarette and lit it, turned and followed the pair outside into the winking dawn of Parmiskus, when another day in the post-Catastrophic world had begun.

m the w

Roche followed the two men at a small distance down the alleys that ran behind the main drag of Parmiskus. The corners of the road were piled knee high with garbage from a hundred years ago, all festering and rusting to a solid mass of oxidized toxicity. Beyond the buildings to either side, Roche could hear the familiar small sounds of people readying for the day. Cart-mongers and newsboys were getting their up-and-at-em going with the rise of the sun and making their way to the streets. The many of them made a small enough living to squeak by and those that didn’t poured their pay into their arms through dirty needles and bent spoons.

Overhead crows perched on power lines that hadn’t carried current in longer than most books recorded histories, those books that hadn’t been put to the torch for fuel or a cause shortly after the catastrophe. Most of the buildings that still had electricity did so by the grace of in ground power strips that had gone into common practice before the end of the world, and then a good deal of them had gone out, poof, when all of civilization went dark.

Somewhere in the distance a steam whistle sounded and a stray dog barked at the noise.

The two Corporation men stuttered a step. They didn’t stop walking, but the jig in their gait was enough of a clue. They’d noticed something was amiss, made a quick decision to keep walking and then kept up appearances. Roche knew better though, they’d sensed him behind them the way an animal knows a hunter is looking at it down a scope, even from a long way off. They got that feeling, and trained killers they were, they kept right on walking as if nothing was wrong.

Roche buried his hands in his pockets to the holes cut in the bottom and fingered his revolvers. In front of him one of the men in black coats broke left a half step, making for a pile of old shipping crates, barely a noticeable move but Roche caught it.

One instant they were strangers in an alley amidst bowling dust under the early morning Polkun county sun, the next they were gunslingers and the air was thick with cordite.

The Corporation soldiers bolted left and right, one behind the shipping crates with a handgun pulled, the other slid behind an oil drum, turned it on it’s side and stuck a shotgun with a sawed off barrel over the top and pulled the trigger.

Roche hit the dust flat on his belly and spun, rolling like a log to the far side of the alley under the cover of a heap of rusted metal in a low dugout in the dust and sand.

“Who’s there!?” One of them called, cocking his sawed-off to reload.

“No one in particular, just a fella with some questions. You two got names?” Roche slid his guns from his hips, laying flat on his back.

They answered Roche with a pair of shots from the handgun, both bullets spitting noisily against the pile of twisted metal he lay behind, the echoes of the shots sounding back and forth across the brick alley for some seconds.

Roche sighed to himself, edged his chin over his breast and looked around. He spied a busted tin can near one heeled boot and kicked it into the alley. The can bounced a yard or so and a gunshot rang, the can leapt into the air and spun there for a beat before falling back to the ground.

They were crackshots, Roche could see. That wouldn’t make a world of difference in the long run, but it did mean he might not be able to take them alive.

The hunter could hear them chattering to one another down the alley, and he knew he would have only one more chance before they stormed down towards him guns blazing, and even an expert shot like he might not make it out of that alive, it was always safer to never chance the odds against you. He’d survived this long to know that.

He could call on the ether and the permeated white that bled into the planes of the worlds that overlapped all around him, but he didn’t think that was all so necessary for these two. Roche did what he did best. He holstered his guns, pulled his coat over his hips and spread his hands. Over the din of the still echoing shots and the tin can that was still awkwardly rolling, he shouted. “Hold up! I ain’t armed, and I’m comin’ out! Don’t shoot!”

He could sense the two of them looking all quizzically at each other. They had no reason to doubt him, really. Roche hadn’t fired a shot yet. For all they might have known Roche was just a passerby caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their doubt was palpable.

Roche held his fingers above the scrap metal barricade, just enough that they could see he was empty handed. When neither black jacketed soldier shot, Roche edged his hands higher, and then stood, ever so slowly.

They were where he had left them, the one with the sawed-off knelt behind an overturned oil drum, and the other poked out from behind the pile of crates. Neither moved as he stood up.

Roche still had a cigarette gripped tightly in his teeth as he put on a simpering and how-do-you-do grin and asked; “Look fellas, sorry to startle you. Just wanted to see if either of you mugs had a light?”

They tensed when Roche slid his hands into his coat pockets as if looking for a matchbook. He bent an eye under the brim of his hat at them and smiled shyly.

“Can’t seem to find mine.”

The two Corporation soldiers chanced a glance at one another across the alley, and once their eyes were off him Roche pulled the triggers of his revolvers and fired through the bottoms of his holsters and the bottom of his jacket.

Pink spray puffed out the backsides of each soldiers skulls, taking little torn curls of their wide-brimmed hats with them. The two paused half a moment as if in thought, their bones buckled and both of them collapsed.

Crimson pools of blood circled around their busted skulls in the dust. Roche slipped his hands from his pockets while gunsmoke laced from the hem of his coat.

While he stepped forward to check the bodies, Roche slipped his bronze flip-top lighter from his breast pocket and lit his cigarette. Far away, the stray dog barked again.

hit

Both of the Corporation soldiers had fallen in funny positions. Men often did when the kill shot went to the brain. Legs all askew and fingers curled in different positions each one. Roche scuffed a boot in the dirt and kicked some dust into the blood pool.

Cigarette still hanging from the corner of his lips, Roche bend and slipped open one of the soldiers coats with a gloved hand.

Cris-crossed gun belts and layered leather clothing. A knifebelt around his waist and another one over his breast. Few bank notes in cash, less so than when he went into the Old Hen most likely.

The other soldier proved just as fruitless. Standard fare wares for gun-toting hired hands. All save one thing.

In the back pocket of his trousers, Roche found a leatherbound address book, tied tightly with a small length of twine.

Wasn’t much, but the bygone days of men carrying identification were something out of ancient history. Roche pocketed the book, thought again and broke the sawed-off below the handle. One barrel was still loaded. Roche stripped a half dozen shells from the shotgun’s previous owner and slid the gun beneath his coat.

He puffed on his smoke and wandered back down the alley, leaving the bodies where they lay. Dead men didn’t tell stories or point fingers. The wind picked up and the dust started blowing, slowly beginning to cover the limp forms.

The world turned and two more dead men made no difference.

e rec

The day continued through the way most days did in the epilogue of the world. It had a tired, slow way of shifting to late morning and noon and finally into the twilight that brought about a burned sky the color of tropical fruit. Roche sat on a bench outside of a tavern that had no sign and no name. The barkeep inside, a heavyset man with an egg-head and suspenders had sold Roche a bottle of cheap bourbon and lent him a dirty glass.

Roche rolled a cigarette and took note that he was almost out of paper scrap to roll with.

He swigged out of the bottle and untied the twine from the Corporation soldiers address book.

It was a lost art in the world to be able to read and write. Roche had been lucky enough to have had a small library in the town where he was born and a kindly old woman who ran the place to teach him the art of letters from an early age.

He was lucky enough that this soldier had the privilege of also knowing his letters. There had been half a moment when Roche had thought that putting a bullet through both of the soldiers would have stymied his trail for a bit.

Knowing letters however, proved to be different from having neat handwriting.

The address book was disorganized above anything. No rhyme or reason to which notes pertained to which subject, only random scrawls and chicken-scratch. Dates. Names. Locations. The occasional list of ‘shit to buy’.

Roche tugged on his cigarette and took another lick from the bottle.

Dust devils sprang up in the street and across the way a beggar-man pushing a cart stooped to pick up something of interest from the pavement.

A copper came along the street from the other direction, and Roche tucked the address book in his pocket and bellied another draught from the bottle.

The coppers had found the bodies Roche had left in the alley by now, that much was certain. In small border towns like Parmiskus the law was made up of vigilante volunteers. They were quiet folk who’d spent their lives in Polkun county and after decades of lawlessness, excess and violence had organized themselves into small private-sector militia that masqueraded as law enforcement. Their only judicial power stemmed from a full-time executioner with a rope and mob justice. But if it was all the same, Roche tended to stay on their even-keel side. Wasn’t much use going around the wastelands of the Mojave pissing off every Tom-Dick-and-Harry law gang this side of the Colorado. Eventually you got a reputation, and Roche preferred his only reputation be as a for-hire man with a special set of skills. Not an outlaw. But who could really be sure in the world’s epilogue, it was all hazes of gray.

The copper drew closer to Roche and gave him a look up and down. Roche settled back against the bench and slid a hand in his jacket pocket past the address book and to his revolver, it was the same leg he had just strapped the sawed-off to with a couple lengths of leather and a makeshift holster. Roche dipped his chin as if drunk and slouched.

“Can’t drink out here.” The copper stopped in front of Roche and rested a palm on his exposed gun. “Gotta go inside the bar.”

“I’m sorry, officer. Didn’t know.” Roche mangled his tongue when he talked, making himself sound soused.

“Yeah, well. Parmiskus folk don’t like their drunk out and about where any all can see ’em. Just the preference of the people ’round here, but you’ll kindly go inside.” It wasn’t a request. This Dick was hard on himself about the little bit of power a tin badge gave him with a gibbet at his disposal.

“Yeah, alrigh’ then.” Roche said, still slurring his words for effect.

Roche stood to leave, one hand still deep in his jacket on his revolver. He capped his bourbon bottle with one hand and set it on the bench and turned to go, eyes watchful over his shoulder.

“Hey!” The copper held out a hand.

“Yeah?”

“You forgot your whiskey.”

“Ah. Oh, yeah.” Roche took the bourbon bottle from the Copper, who held it out to him with a wan smile. “Say, you didn’t happen to hear about a fella gone missing from around here?” Roche ventured, the question coming across idly as though it was just polite conversation, a ruse he had perfected.

The copper handed Roche the bottle and looked left and right, checking for prying ears. “That Alex Markus fella?”

“That’s the name? I heard it was something different.” Roche played.

“Nah. Alex was the guy. Went gone just over two days ago. Nothing much to say on it. Guy up and vanished. No trace. Militia been to the house on the father’s account and found nothin’ and less. Guy just up and left I guess. Maybe a struggle, maybe not. Not the first time or the hundredth time a guy gone up and disappeared for no reason though. Not our top care anyhow. Two men gunned down out past the Hen, for money I’d guess. Don’t matter so much as a killing scares folks.” The copper looked at his boots, realizing that he maybe had said too much, and then seemed to realize that he’d only told a soily drunk, and cared less.

“Ah. No idea which way he went then?” Roche ventured some more.

“Pfft, ah. West probably. Towards New San Fran, seems to be where they all head eventually if they get the idea to move out and get ‘er goin’. Always talk of bright waters and gold in the shallows. Come on then, you. Move along.”

Roche tipped his hat in thanks, stuffed the bourbon bottle under one arm and made his way not back into the bar but down the street.

“Hey-” The copper called, about to chastise him again for staying on the streets. But he did not, he simply kicked at the dust in the street, swung wide and turn the other direction.

Roche finally took his hand off of his revolver beneath his jacket and set the bourbon bottle down against a wall as he trod off towards the mangy rot of the setting sun in the western sky.

eive

The Emporium was a good ways west, just in the direction the walker had to go. Two days saw him that far, shifting in and out of the white as he went, passing through the nothing between worlds and walking along it’s edge the way one might tread through the surf along the coast.

Midway between the town of Parmiskus and the Emporium, the walker, Roche, stopped for the evening. He’d shot a jackrabbit not an hour past, and he made a small fire. The rodent skinned easily, and he skewered it on a stick and held the body over the flames listening to the timid pockets of fat crackle and hiss over the flames.

Roche thought while the jackrabbit cooked, and poked through the Corporation soldiers address book.

Terra 2, western passage, via New San, December 13th, bring him in alive, constructs.

Roche was sure of at least those messages scrawled in the little book, even through the soldiers atrocious handwriting.

Terra 2.

That was a notion. When the brightest minds in the world before the catastrophe had fucked everything up and opened the world to the white between planes they’d managed at least to chart the worlds they’d opened to. This world, the one Roche cooked his supper in, the world that had fucked it all up, was christened Terra 1, the first earth, the world where the catastrophe originated. Ground zero.

Terra 2 meant that the soldiers who’d captured Alex Markus were making for a passage into the white that would take them from Terra 1 to the second world the white opened up to. A whole ’nother earth, a whole ’nother wasted planet.

Nearest and only passage to Terra 2 was west, straight west to New San Fran. Roche had been there dozens of times over the years. The years and the years and the years.

Going that far and going through the white that deeply meant he’d have to outfit himself better, as a hunter and as a walker.

Fortunately, Jex and his Emporium were right on the way.

The jackrabbit’s thigh popped and blistered, the muscle curled just a little tighter and had gone black at the edges. It dripped. Roche pulled the critter from the fire and peeled off a length of sinew with gloved fingertips.

Gamey, but alright.

The walker couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten.

Bourbon and cigarettes were one thing, but they just held his mind together at the seams. After as long as he’d spent in the space between worlds, the hunter found that his body needed less and less food. The world and it’s rules just didn’t apply in the white, in the ether, and it was just so.

Same reason he’d forgotten how old he was, because after so long, when your face don’t crease with lines anymore and your bones never start aching and going arthritic and even the hair on your head and face seems to never get any longer a walker just stops caring. What was age anyway?

When the world swung on by in leaps and bounds further and further into disrepair and your body didn’t move along with it well. . .

Wasn’t the point, though was it.

Roche took another sprig of meat from the jackrabbit and chewed it.

Gamey, but alright.

In the west a series of old oil rigs silhouetted themselves in shades of rust and somewhere a coyote yipped and hollered.

The fire wasn’t much but it was warm against the closing chill of the night.

Roche shut his eyes and let the white creep into the corners of his vision in pin spots and fireworks of eyestrain.

Terra 2 and a trip to New San Fran to bring back a boy who’d gone awry of the Ethercorp. Not a bad way to pass the time.

d: Tra

Some mornings in the Mojave it seemed the sun needed to stretch it’s golden arms and wake up slowly. Some mornings it snapped awake like an eyelid after a bad dream. The next morning was the latter.

Roche sat up from the sand. The fire had gone out hours ago and he had slept, albeit uncomfortably, with his hat under his head and his hands in his pockets on his revolvers.

Brushing the dust from his coat, the sun clipping over the dunes onto the oilskin jacket over his shoulders, Roche looked west where the oil derricks lined themselves keenly up.

Beyond those derricks, and another some miles was the Emporium.

Roche lit a cigarette and started walking.

nspos

The sun was past the midpoint in the sky when Roche reached the oil derricks. The ancient, rusted struts left a pattern of dark lines and triangles of light in varying sizes strewn across the dust. Here and there were the remnants of a shanty town that had sprung up along the bases of the towers sometime in the last century. Corrugated tin roofing and stretched canvas walls spattered here and there around the iron legs of the derricks, and beneath one someone had built a fire pit out of thick tractor tires. High above him the rigs were rusted horse heads many stories tall, and along one Roche was sure he saw the hanging remnants of a gibbet, it’s occupants bones turning slowly to powder in the sun and wind.

Roche stopped short and put his heels at shoulder width.

He wasn’t alone.

All it had been was a whiff of scent on the same breeze that swirled sand and dust around his boots. It had been there, just a nothing on the wind, but it was cigarette smoke, and the fag in the corner of Roche’s mouth wasn’t lit.

Roche tipped his hat back off of his head where it hung on a leather thong clipped to his jacket.

“Come on out, now.” The walker said calmly, one hand in his pocket on a revolver, the other slipping open the length of his coat to show the second revolver, to show he was armed.

“Well fuck me and call me a whore!” Corrugated metal rumbled over in that way that it has and the vagrant who had been hiding behind it stood up straight and tall, or as straight as his slouch would allow. They all had that same slouch, Roche thought, highwaymen and robbers all have that same stupid ‘come-at-me’ slouch.

“I’d rather not, given the smell of you.” Roche eyed in all directions at once. This one wasn’t alone. “Tell your friends they can come out too, if they like. No use all of you hiding from one damn man, is there?”

A scrappy looking highwayman in a sleeveless coat stepped from behind a girder-leg of a derrick. Another rose out of a shallow ranger grave at Roche’s 2 o’clock in a respirator, probably more for show than anything. A fourth sidled out to Roche’s left from behind a scrap heap of old rusted barrels, and that one had been hidden the worst.

How’d I miss that one? Maybe I’m getting rusty?

The all of them were dressed in highwaymen fashion. The respirator-fella being the exception wearing something flowery and old-world, probably for some fucking stab at humor. They were all oilskin jackets, leather and high boots, knives belted where they could be grabbed on the fly, and something cloth along their necks and scalps to keep the sun off, scarves or masks or something or other.

“Well, fella, whatcha carrying?” The first highwayman asked.

“Nothing and less, boys. Let’s just make this easier on everybody and y’all let me go?” Roche smirked and turned a little so that gasmask and the others could see he was armed.

“Cha got there? Peashooter?” Gasmask laughed and held up his own gun. Long barreled, clip, probably twelve shots.

Highwayman on the left drew a rifle, more like made it more apparent he was carrying it. Old world gun, Garand?

First highwayman had a similar weapon to Gasmask.

Fourth man, poorly hidden highwayman had a knife in one hand, big buck knife, and a six-shot revolver in the other.

“Told you boys, lemme go.” Roche fingered the trigger of his holstered revolver, a fraction of a second from his grip.

“Eh, eh, eh! Don’t do it, buddy boy. Just hand over whatcha got an you get to go.”

“And what’re you fellas eating out here that you’re just gonna let me go? I had jackrabbit last night but you aren’t surviving on that. Where’s the body drop? Where you keeping the bones of whoever came right before me?” Roche smirked wider. The ether was at his back, he could feel the white tickling at the nape of his neck.

“Eh? We ain’t cannib’s, fucker!”

“Yeah, no one likes being accused of it. But I bet y’all just get so damn hungry sometimes, yeah?”

“Fuck you!”

“Fuck me, eat me, have at me.” Roche grinned even wider, the smile like a Cheshire moon and his eyes wide.

There was a half of a half second pause and Gasmask looked at the first highwayman while the one on the left seemed to doubt his aim for just a hair’s breadth. The white seeped into Roche’s fingertips.

The walker had both revolvers drawn. Gaskmask’s gas mask split old, dry rubber down the middle and his form slumped when his brains sprayed out the back of his skull. First highwayman opened his eyes wide when a pair of bullets hit him in the nape of his neck and in the hollow of his chest. Knife and gun got a shot off, wide to Roche’s left, lad might have been the fastest of the four. Roche put him down with a shot to his gut, and a second one higher and through his breastplate. Last man standing had the foresight to start to turn for a run. Roche took a step in his direction and dropped him with a shot that put a bullet into the back of his neck where it just popped through the front of his throat. Enough red sprayed out as he fell forward that the poor bastard wound up face first in his own blood.

Roche whirled on the spot, checking his whole view for any highwaymen that might now have showed themselves just. None made a sound or stood or ran or shot.

The desert was a household of one again.

The cordite hung in the air for a second and then went the way of the wind.

Roche lit the cigarette that had never left the corner of his mouth.

Exhaling smoke, Roche found the loops on his belt and reloaded his revolvers as he walked on.

Sand seeped over the bodies with the passing of the day and Roche looked toward the hills the Emporium hid in.

One more stop and it was back to the task at hand. The epilogue of the world sighed and the walker kept on walking.

ition

In the desert foothills beyond the derricks some miles Roche came upon the sign.

In was a tin rectangle four feet across laced with dozens of old bullet holes. Amidst scattered old graffiti worn to bare legibility were the words United States Government Property: No Admittance!

Scrawled at the bottom of the sign in old black paint was the word Empoorium. Jex was never a strong speller.

Roche chuckled and moved on.

Thirty yards further was a barbed wire fence, and beyond that was a minefield. The majority of the Claymores and pressure grenades were old-world and had long rusted or fused past being live. Never could be sure though, and Roche knew the snaking path that bypassed all of the mines by heart, he’d traced it so many times.

Off to his right was the dusted ribcage of someone who’d been unfortunate enough to have tripped an ancient mine. Roche had no idea who it had belonged to, the bones had been there on his last half dozen trips and Roche had never thought to ask Jex.

In a small hollow in the dunes and hills was the entrance to the Emporium.

The building was a pre-catastrophic survival bunker placed in the Mojave by the old United States. There were hundreds of them dotted across the landscape, but Jex had made this one his home and his business. Low concrete walls flanked the heavy steel door and on the stoop was an old welcome mat patterned with little birds.

A small panel to the left of the door blinked with a red light above a ten-button dial and a speaker. Above it a black, all-seeing surveillance camera stared across the wasteland of the continent west of the Colorado.

Roche stood at the door, watching the tiny eye of the camera. Several minutes went by with nothing. Then the lens on the camera flicked into motion and focused.

Static crackled from the speaker and it flicked to life.

-Hey. What’s up, Roche?-

“Nothing in particular, Jex, got a job and need me some sundries. You open?”

-Always am, partner, ’specially for you. Come on in, I’ll meet you at the front.-

“Keycode changed?”

-Yeah, changed it last week. Five-Seven-One-Three.-

“See you in a minute.”

-Got it!-

The speaker squalled with static and flicked off. The silence that filled the desert again swung in like a tide.

Roche keyed in the code on the panel and stepped back.

The lock inside the steel disengaged with a large, hollow sound and the door swung open a fraction of an inch.

Roche took the edge of the door with his fingertips and opened it the remainder of the way.

Just inside the door was a small landing and mesh stairs that were so steep they may as well have been vertical. Roche closed the door behind him, listened to the lock re-engage and made his way down by the filthy light of ancient yellow flourescents.

Down and down he went. The bunker was a fallout shelter and by nuclear exposure regulations they were something real deep.

Every time Roche made the descent it seemed to take longer, but he had the leisure of all the time he could ever want or need. Not aging had it’s perks.

The stairwell ended abruptly and opened into a small entry room with a dismantled metal detector and a guard’s desk. Jex sat behind the desk, boots up and a curly pipe gritted in his teeth.

“Roche, ol’ buddy! Been ages.”

“Has it?”

“Seven months, at least. Kinda disorienting when you don’t get above ground very often, but you’ll like my stock. New shipment came in a week ago, why I changed the door code.”

Jex was not a heavyset man but he was large. Broad shoulders, thick arms and a barrel of a torso. His neck was nonexistent and his shoulders seemed to dimple upward into his head. He kept his hair and face shaved neatly, but the remainder of his body was covered in a jungle of tight black hair. He wore khakis almost exclusively, and was always strapped. There was a .45 holstered at his side, a knife at his hip and Roche was sure he had a snubnose in his boot, he always did. Dark eyes were offset only by the rings of scars around his orbital sockets from ages of bar brawls, back alley fighting rings and combat cages. He’d done several years with mercenary companies until he lost a foot, it had been replaced with an iron peg.

He was a fighter and a soldier through and through, but ever since the peg, he’d made his way supplying men like himself. Roche had known the old merc for years.

“What’s the job, then, walker?” Jex sucked on his pipe, puffing clouds of smoke into the air.

“Kidnapping. Ethercorp took some kid. Father wants him back.” Roche leaned against the wall while he spoke.

“What kinda hardware you need?”

Roche motioned for Jex to move his feet and the old merc obliged. The walker laid out the sawed-off from his thigh, his revolvers and his gunbelts with half the bullet loops empty.

“This all I got for now.”

“And this ain’t enough?” Jex broke the sawed-off and inspected the gun. Taking an oil cloth from a pocket he began to wipe at the trigger box and the hammer where dust had settled in.

“I doubt it. Far as I know the Corporation may be trying the drag this guy all the way to Terra 2. Gotta make a full trek through the white and I haven’t been to 2 in some time, no idea what it’s like over there anymore.”

“Just being prepared. That’s what I like about you, Roche.” Jex puffed on his pipe. “Follow me, I got just what you need.”

The merc gathered up Roche’s gun, handed him back his revolvers and gunbelt and continued to fiddle with the sawed-off, muttering to himself as he led Roche deeper into the bunker.

“Fine piece of work, this. Remington made good shit in the old world. Sure as fuck they did. . .”

fol

The bunker had a real ass on it once Jex and Roche ventured past the entryway. Barracks and cafeterias opened onto the left and right. There was a medical wing further down, but Jex led Roche to the armory. Being an old-world government bunker, it thankfully had been equipped with a military-grade, state of the art armory.

Jex snapped the lights on with a lever by the door to the armory. Light-tables, overhead flourescents and a series of halogens over Jex’s workstation sputtered, blinked and flicked to life. Racks and racks and racks of hardware.

Long barreled pistols, shotguns, pumps and breaks, rifles, old-world and newer tech, long rage guns, automatics and squads, even an eight barrel mini with an ammunition pack of belt-fed beauty in one corner. Body armor, riot gear, steel plate and carbon weave plates. Military regalia, jackets, long coats, bandoliers, drop packs, bags, haversacks and even a racks of sunglasses. Machetes, long knives, boot jacks, and one or two black steel swords.

“Who the fuck fights with a sword nowadays, Jex?”

Jex crossed the room with a tapping of his iron peg. Flipping the sword off the table he spun it. “Intimidation, Roche. Some walkers and highwaymen like the idea of carrying a blade. Something quixotic about it I guess.”

“Not practical. You didn’t happen to outfit the mugs who drew down on me earlier did you?”

Jex slid the sword back onto the table where it had lay. “Doubt it. Haven’t outfitted any mercs in a month or so, why’d you ask. They breathing?”

“Highwaymen, and no they’re not breathing anymore.” Roche lit a cigarette.

“Should’ve known better than to draw on a walker. But, no. Weren’t me.” Jex fired up his pipe, it had gone out. “Have a look around.”

Roche obliged him. The walker checked the guns, picking up and aiming at nothing, cocking slides and pulling triggers on empty chambers. Jex’s wares were the best, though Roche had no clue who his supplier was, he didn’t much care.

He went over the stock once and then twice. Jex waited patiently, smoking his pipe and cleaning the sawed-off. The whole process took well over an hour, but both men were patient beyond many things.

“Clean up the sawed-off.”

“Did already, while you’ve been looking. Got a belt with loops that’ll fit the shells. And I have shells.”

“Leave it to you. I’ll need body armor. Something lightweight that I can wear under a jacket.”

“Nothing bulky, got it.”

“I’ll need a long gun. The A-Mat in the corner will do nicely.”

“It’s yours for eight-hundred. Plus rounds and a back sleeve, make it nine.”

“Done, and a sidearm. That .45 you have, got a good pull to it?”

Jex drew the gun and handed it to Roche. “Hairpin and a smooth slide. Kick isn’t bad neither.”

“I’ll take one.”

“Take that one, I have others.” Jex slid the holster off of his shoulders and handed it to Roche who took his jacket from his shoulders and slung the hostler in place across his back. “Anything else?”

“How’re you fixed for horses?” Roche smiled and tugged on his smoke.

lows:

Two levels down the bunker had a hanger. A trio of canvas-backed trucks stood to one side flanked by a pair of motorcycles. A half dozen cars in various states of disrepair lay scattered across the room, which all told was larger than most large houses. Most valuable of all was a gasoline pump in one corner. Jex had told Roche once that there were reserves of gasoline held beneath the bunker. Enough gas for ten vehicles to cross the continent and back many times. In a world where the majority of the gas reserves had been tapped out some fifty years back, it was like living above a gold mine.

But, that wasn’t what Roche had come for. In one corner of the hanger Jex had built a makeshift stable. Six stalls in all, though four stood empty.

Synthetic horses had been a product of the pre-Catastrophic world. Militaries were fixed to begin invading countries with ill-suited terrain for vehicles of any kind. It only made sense to hearken back to the days where wars were fought on horseback, but the likelihood of pouring funds into breeding stock and losing out on animals killed in action at a consistent rate didn’t fly with major military organizations. The solution was as simple as the problem.

Mechanical horses, synthetics. Orchestrated with the latest in muscle replacement technology and animatronics, these metal and ceramic-weave beasts were powered with lithium batteries and ran as smoothly as any real animal.

It was a blessing that any of these creations survived the end of the world, but they did. There were thousands of them scattered across the globe, and though they were expensive, for those who could afford them they were invaluable.

“Down to just two of them, eh?” Roche asked.

“One actually. Had five and four of them got bought out by some mercs headed up to the northwest. Rough country out there and I’m the only man in two-hundred miles with horses in stock. They paid a pretty penny and wanted all five but I kept one for myself just in case. You never know, and I’d rather have a horse on hand for myself then not. Know what I mean?” Jex puffed on his pipe and his voice echoed across the hanger, which, large as it was and stocked with vehicles, was predominantly empty. “I know what you mean. Said you had one horse for yourself, why’re two stalls closed? And you said you had stock for me, Jex, what is this?” Roche was all of the sudden irritated with the Emporium’s owner and operator. He turned on Jex and his body language said it all, Roche was a man of patience and means but he was not a man who enjoyed being jerked around.

Jex laughed. The sound was hearty and deep and when the old merc caught some pipe smoke on a guffaw’s inhale he doubled over in a coughing fit. When all this was through, teary eyed from coughing and red in the gob from laughing Jex just pointed at the second closed stall door.

Roche trod over to the half-door.

When you’re a man who spends his days slipping from one world to the next and to the spaces in between, when you’ve ceased to age and stopped needing to eat on a daily basis, when you kill men at a pinfall for looking at you the wrong way, it becomes hard to be surprised.

Roche had to grip the half-door to the horse stall to keep from falling over.

The walker could think of nothing to say, it had been decades since he had been speechless.

Inside the stall, saddle-sore and well ridden, but healthy looking and stout all the same was a bay mare with a black mane and tail and a single white fetlock.

“Showed up outside the front door one day. Caught a look at her through the camera. I went out the front and let her in the back way through the vehicle entrance and brought her down here. Been feeding her that dehydrated corn stuff that’s stocked in all the larders, fuck I still have a lot of that shit, they really prepped this place to be occupied for years, but when it’s only one man eating-”

“Where the fuck did a horse come from?”

“Still a few out there I’ve heard. More synthetics than real ones nowadays, but every once in a while you run across one. This poor girl showed up with tack and saddle all ready to go. Hungry and thirsty to be sure, but missing a rider. Poor bastard got shot off somewhere in the Mojave.”

“And she got through the minefield?” Roche was still stunned.

“Somehow, lucky bitch.” Jex just smiled wider and wider. “Been calling her just that. Lucky.”

Roche snapped his fingers and the mare turned to face him, all big brown eyes and twitchy ears. “How about it, Lucky?”

The mare nickered at the walker and the walker smiled.

-sh

Jex rode with Roche to the end of his property, that being the edge of where he maintained surveillance.

“Why’d you come this far?”

“See you on your way. Have to check the traps, too.” Jex puffed on his pipe.

The synthetic horse beneath him was an older model, probably one of the first to hit the production lines before the catastrophe. It’s muscles and joints were exposed whereas newer models wore a tight, carbon-weave skin. It’s tail was more akin to the knobbed, long-boned tail of a rat or a marsupial. Barring that, it was a near exact replica of a horse wrought in steel, carbon-fiber and military grade plastics with an ion battery that had to be electrically charged every week or so. It operated the way living horses responded to a riders heels and neck-rein pulls at it’s jaw and neck, albeit with pressure-sensitive plates the routed to an internal computer. It had been some time since Roche had needed a mount, and his last mount had been a synthetic, shot out from under him with several blasts from a high-powered rifle somewhere near the Great Lakes region nearly two years ago.

It was comforting to ride a real horse again, something Roche had not done since his childhood which had then been nearly a century ago, if the walker remembered correctly. Not that it mattered, he hadn’t forgotten how to ride.

“Traps?”

“Yeah. Can’t eat dehydrated meat from a hundred years ago every day. Did just that for my first month here before I got good and sick of it. Got a couple trap lines out here for coyotes and the like. Ain’t a ton of meat on ’em but they taste just fine when you grill ’em up right.” The synthetic horse moved under him with mechanical precision.

“Get a lot of coyotes out here then?”

“A few, some, a couple here and there. Don’t make much matter either way. I’d check them every day if I was sure they’d be full, but they never are.”

Roche lit a cigarette and looked west. The sun was up over the hills and day was alive across the Mojave.

“What’s the quickest way to New San Fran?”

“Think that’s where they’re headed?”

Roche tucked his smoke in the corner of his mouth and took the small black address book he had taken from the Ethercorp soldier from his pocket. He handed it across the gap between both horses to Jex.

“What’s this?”

“A notebook. Took it off of an Ethercorp mercenary back in Polkun county. Caught them as they were leaving a casino first thing in the morning.” Roche dragged from his smoke.

Jex flipped through the pages, taking everything written there in, but just as idly looking for the appearance of looking. Roche’s business wasn’t his own, and Jex was a man who kept his sentiments to himself. “And it says in here, with all this fuckin’ jib-jab, that they’re headed for New San Fran?”

“I know his spelling and handwriting aren’t all that they’re cracked up to be-”

“Wouldn’t I know too much of the difference.”

“-but the city is noted in there, after Terra 2 is mentioned and before a date of December 13th.”

“You think they’re taking the passage in New San Fran to Terra 2?”

“S’ what the little black book says.” Roche looked west again.

“And this weren’t the boys who took in your charge?”

“Nope. Just some other unlucky hands who were surveiling the kid. They didn’t have him and I had to put them down.”

“They were unlucky then.” Jex tapped the remaining spent tobacco from his pipe on his synthetic horses withers. “Well, quickest way to New San Fran is through Carson City. Head south and west for a day and you’ll probably get a glimpse of what remains of it. Mostly a hideout for highwaymen and wastelanders these days. Once your through Carson you’ll hit the Sierra’s goin’ west.”

“Haven’t been over the mountains in ages. Be a nice little reunion. Whaddaya think, Lucky?” Roche patted the horse on the neck and she nickered in response. Roche flipped the butt of his smoke away.

“Likely if they’re on foot the mountains’ll slow them up. You can catch them there. If you don’t get there in time they’ll head to New San Fran via Sacramento. It’s a government toll road, but if they’re Ethercorp soldiers they’ll have the dough for it. That’s my best guess, Roche. Good on ya.” Jex pulled his hat low and whirled his synthetic horse north at a canter.

No goodbyes, no shaking hands, not even a nod of farewell. An old merc and a walker parted ways beneath the Mojave sun of Terra 1 and the universe didn’t notice. Two hundred years of the world wasting away simply continued to decay beneath Lucky’s hooves as Roche spurred her into a gallop west towards the purple risers of the Sierra’s.

e was

There was dust on Roche’s jacket when the sun went down. Halfway through the day a storm had kicked up and Roche had spurred his mare to a full-bent gallop that left her covered in foamy sweat and heaving. They’d outran the dust storm but at the cost of most of Lucky’s stamina.

The dying light saw Roche leading his mare on foot, scanning the gullies and gaps in the hills for water.

Within an hour of total darkness, Roche came upon an old industrial culvert pipe as wide as his arm sticking straight out of a hill. The running water had worn through the bottom of the pipe over the course of time. But from somewhere deep in the hill, water still flowed, and a small pool collected under the pipe near it’s base.

Roche left Lucky to drink and hobbled her with a length of rope. He set off in search of dried wood for a night’s fire.

Returning with enough old boards and roots dug up from the sand and the dust Roche lit a small fire, not to cook or for the warmth but more out of habit than anything.

The same way the walker had not forgotten how to ride, so had he not forgotten that the warmth of a fire helped him sleep.

Roche unslung the A-Mat rifle from his shoulders and checked his new equipment while the fire took to the dry old wood and crept to life.

Under his old duster jacket Roche now wore body armor made from ceramics and carbon-weave. Plates in tight-fitting military regalia bound his belly, chest, shoulders, hips and thighs. It was extra weight to carry but the protection would likely be worth it. Body armor besides Jex had sold him a weave hood that he promised would stop a knife, though it wouldn’t be much good against bullets.

Jex’s .45 was buckled to his thigh, and Roche’s revolvers hung cris-crossed around his waist. With the A-Mat and the sawed-off counted he was carrying five firearms, a boot knife and a pair of metal cestus knuckles at each hip that he could slip his fingers into at a seconds notice if things got too close, too dicey.

In the end, Roche had been on his way out the door when he’d spied a fine pair of old-world sunglasses. When and where the walker had lost his last pair he couldn’t remember, but these were close enough as made no matter, and he’s taken the shades too.

With the horse and the equipment Roche had rung up a tidy little bill with the old merc, but Jex, as always, was a fair man and made it his business to keep his prices just as even-keel. They’d settled up and Jex had rode with Roche as far as his coyote traps.

Now in the cold blue light of the desert evening, Roche sat with his arms on his knees and his heels in the dust before his makeshift little fire, listening to Lucky drink her fill of the water pooled under the old industrial pipe.

Roche rolled a cigarette and stared into the fire.

He was well ahead of schedule now that he had a mount, but he still couldn’t be sure how quickly the Corporation soldiers who’d taken Alex Markus were moving. If they were on foot he might be on them by tomorrow. If they’d brought synthetics or bikes they might be a ways off and nearly through the Sierra’s at this point. Didn’t matter. The horse needed rest and somewhere in the back of his mind Roche knew that his body wasn’t entire inhuman yet. He wasn’t tired, but the walker had to sleep just the same as any man.

The warmth of a wasteland campfire helped, the smoke stinking of old world-chemicals soaked into the wood and dried by the sand and dust of two hundred years of dead civilization.

Roche let the fire lick warmth at his heels and he puddled his hood behind his head while he closed his eyes to sleep.

ever

Somewhere west of the Sierra’s, Roche caught the first whiff of the trail. It wasn’t much, but there it was.

In a hollow between two hills was a campsite. An old tire had been used to contain the meager camp fire that the Corporation soldiers had built for the night. There were tread tracks, two in a line and three small tracks off to one side. There were two bikes, then, not just one. Roche had been under the assumption, he wasn’t sure why, that there had only been two soldiers, but a pair of motorbikes meant that there were at least three in addition to Alex Markus.

They had the poor guy bound, from the look of the leftover marks in the sand. Scuffs and shoulder prints meant that they kept his feet and hands tied tight at night while they slept, lest he try to get away. During they day they might take turns with him on the back of one of the bikes, slouched across it on his belly or riding sidesaddle Roche couldn’t be sure.

He’d left Lucky at the edge of the campsite when he came upon it and the horse whinnied behind him. Roche followed the horses eyes. She’d seen something.

Over the next rise of the hills was a trio of circling bald birds, riding thermals with wings spread wide.

“Good girl.” Roche said to the horse and walked toward where the vultures circled, Lucky followed several paces behind.

Beneath the vultures was a dead highwayman. He was dressed all in faded blacks and a long jacket. His hood had been cowled over his head and he wore a pair of old night goggles that probably barely worked well enough to see your hand in front of your face.

The highwayman must have tried to sneak up on the trio of soldiers in the night, hoping for an easy kill, maybe a meal, but you couldn’t tell if a dead man had the shakes.

His neck had been blown through with something high-powered, and there was a second hole in his gut from something of a smaller caliber. Either the soldiers heard him coming or they were still vigilant enough to be posting one man on watch while the other two slept, it was hard to tell from the tracks.

Winking up through his shades at the noon sun Roche tried to guess at how long the highwayman had been dead.

There was a good deal of sand in his wounds, but the breezes and winds in the Mojave for the last day or so had been strangely light, apart from the dust storm that Lucky and he had outrun the day before. That storm had not touched this far west. The highwayman had been dead a day, two at the most, and Roche knew that he was gaining on them.

They had motorbikes, sure, but even if they kept to the roads, which they hadn’t been, it seemed, the going would be slow with two men to a bike, and he had to bet they were hauling their own gasoline as well.

Another day at a good clip and he might be hot enough on their trail to catch them during the night.

Roche gripped the pommel and rear of Lucky’s saddle and swung a leg over the mare. He put his heels into her sides just hard enough to get his point across and off they went towards the ache of the Sierra’s against the horizon.

ythi

By that evening Roche could smell civilization. Carson City would likely be over the next rise.

In the years immediately following the catastrophe the world had been alive with war.

Governments collapsed and sprang back up like weeds. On Terra 1, the United States and the Russian Government had gone into nuclear fisticuffs over the western edges of the North American continent. Seattle, Vancouver and Portland were the first to fall. When Canadian militia stood up to Russian soldiers crossing the Bering Strait there were quickly cut down. When the American military retaliated by launching nuclear strikes on their own soil the entire government collapsed under the weight of the people’s retaliation. Civil War erupted simultaneously with an international bomb exchange. America went by the wayside and all that was left were walled cities and border towns that still flew the Stars and Stripes or the Union Jack. They claimed to be American still, but all they were truly doing was surviving.

The less-than-major cities that fell to the post-catastrophe chaos fell to looting, to gang warfare, to rioting and to roving bands of territorial militias who stood for nothing but themselves. Carson City was one such.

Lucky crested a knoll of dust and debris, made almost entirely of heaped old cars that had rusted to a solid mass and been buried in the exhalations of the Mojave. Roche caught his first glimpse of Carson City in many years, and the damn husk hadn’t changed a lick.

The city had been composed of low brick buildings, the outskirts filled with factory outlets and commercial housing while the interior maintained an air of quiet dignity. All of that was gone now. Buildings that hadn’t at some point in the last two hundred years been put to the torch had glassless windows like hollow eyes and doors that were nothing short of dark holes that led nowhere. The businesses had all been picked clean a century ago and all that was left were brick hulls filled with filthy shelving and broken seating. The streets were graveyards populated by rusted cars and any bodies that accumulated were quickly swallowed up by the sun and sand and buzzards.

Roche tipped his hat back but stood his lapels up against his neck as he rode into the city, lighting a cigarette.

Somewhere off to the northern end of the city he’d seen a couple plumes of dark smoke from tire fires, the kind that burned for weeks and stank to high hell. He smelled shit, too. The city wasn’t empty, it just looked like something out of a bad dream.

Lucky’s hooves rocked on the pavement with an even gait that rang off of the empty bricks. Roche wove the mare through the cars that dotted the road and kept one hand on his revolver while the other neck reined the horse.

In a far away window Roche saw a figure move. It had been skinny and brown, and it had moved quickly. He woahed the horse.

The sun was approaching it’s peak in the sky and the clouds above were puffy and gray at the corners. There was plenty of light and Roche took a quiet look at his surroundings.

He’d made no point of entering the city carefully, deciding instead to ride in with his head on a swivel and let whoever came come.

At his left someone stepped on broken glass.

A coyote darted out of a storefront and broke across a gap in the street.

Roche puffed on his cigarette.

“Hey, mister.” Whispered something.

Roche turned to the sound of the voice. An old, no not old, just unwashed and haggard, woman bent out from behind a rusted truck up on old cinderblocks that had crack through with time. Her hair had become dreadlocked with time and oil and filth and fell across her face. Her hands were gloved and she’d wrapped a blanket about her shoulders despite the heat.

“Mister!” She said more insistently, and when she spoke Roche could count how many teeth she was missing by the few she had left.

Roche responded only by wheeling Lucky in her direction slightly, he kept wary eyes over his shoulders, watching for attackers.

“Mister!”

“Yeah. What?” Roche pulled on his smoke, gloved fingers on his revolver’s trigger in his pocket.

“Gotta smoke, mister?” The hag in a blanket smiled a brown-gummed grin as she asked, showing the whites of her eyes which were decidedly yellow.

“Nope.” Roche dragged again.

“You do, you sure do.” She pointed at the smoke in the corner of Roche’s mouth with a gnarled, knuckly finger.

“I do if you have something for me.” Roche held up his tobacco pouch and a loop of rolling papers.

“Ain’t got nothin’, mister. Nothin’.”

“You might. Seen any motorbikes come through here recently?” Roche held the tobacco and the papers a mote higher.

The hag’s eyes shifted left and right quickly, thinking. “Ain’t not, mister. No bikes or nothin’, mister.”

“Now I know you’re lying.” Roche went to store his tobacco back in his jacket.

“Wait!” The hag stepped out from behind the car completely and Roche could see that she was holding a snubnose revolver in one shaky hand.

Roche drew his gun faster than the woman could have reacted and had her dead to rites. “Don’t do it, bitch.”

The hag’s eyes went so wide they threatened to pop right out of her gaunt sockets, her hand shook the revolver noisily. “I-”

“Motorbikes. When? Where?” Roche clicked the hammer on his revolver for effect.

The snubnose pistol clattered to the ground when the hag dropped it and fell to her knees. “I dunno, mister. They came through.” She was sobbing openly, the tears streaking the muck off of her skinny cheeks. “Today or this morning, maybe yesterday. I been sleepin’, the pills, mister, they make me sleep somethin’ awful an’ I just wanted a smoke.” She wiped her face with the back of her sleeve and stuck a finger between her gums like a toddler.

“Fine then.” Roche kept the revolver’s barrel staring between her eyes and flicked a wisp of tobacco onto the pavement and let a single paper flutter off of the loop. He spun his mount up the street and walked on, hoping for a better answer further down.

“Mister!” She called after him. “I ain’t got a light!”

“Tire fire north of here, try not to burn yourself.” Roche spat over his shoulder, Lucky moved to a trot. More eyes in edged windows followed the walker on his bay mare as he pressed deeper into the corpse of Carson City.

ng an

The city burled on around Roche the further he rode. Avenues of burnt out buildings stretched away on either side and became more open the closer Roche and Lucky drew to the center of town. An old government building with a columned facade stood out behind a wrought iron fence that had been shored up with hubcaps, old sandbags and rusted doors ripped from surrounding cars. The building’s peak was a bulbous little dome the shape of an onion and topped with a flagpole that flew a piece of black cloth. where the gate in the fence ought to have been someone had pushed a car, completing the low wall around the building.

A half dozen wastelanders, all men, sat on the stoop of the building or leaned against the columns which Roche could only guess had once been white, but were now a burned brown with disrepair and ichor.

Roche halted his horse in front of the car-gate and waited to be seen.

It didn’t take the men on the steps long, three seconds at most before one of them whooped and hollered and four came down to the low wall with guns drawn while the others bolted inside.

They were dressed in various states of wastelander garb, the kind of clothing one found in a ditch because it was no good as a piece of clothing anymore or you took off another you’d cut to death in a similar ditch. The biggest one, a wastelander with dark glasses and a sickly smelling cigarette in his teeth put a rifle on Roche. Single shot and then a re-load. Not that this one could get a good enough shot off in time.

Roche had his revolvers aimed through the leather and denim of his coat when he spoke.

“Sorry to bother y’all. Got some questions. I can pay.” He added.

“Wha’choo want, cowboy?” The big one asked through his bottom lip.

“Just need to know about some folks passing through. Probably on motorbikes.” Roche took note that those who had rushed inside at the sight of him had just returned with reinforcements, making the total wastelanders by the fence number four and five more on the stoop some forty yards back.

“Fuck off, cowboy. We don’t know nothin’.”

“Yeah. I can see that. But maybe you can count. Hold up, I’m gonna reach into my jacket.” Roche took his left hand from his revolver and held it flat up, wiggled his fingers and reached in his coat for the bank notes he’d taken as down payment on Alex Markus. He flipped off the top few bills and held them high folded into his palm. “See this? Cash for info. Sound good to you fellas?”

The wastelanders exchanged looks. Roche thought that thinking wasn’t their strong suit but kept quiet.

The big one, who was at this point clearly in charge, at least for now, answered. “How much’choo got there?”

“Enough. Can you count?”

“Fuck can I count. I can count.”

Roche flipped off the top three bills and folded them in quarter with his left hand and flipped them at the car-gate where they flopped against the pavement. “That’s twenty. Twenty, got it. I’m looking for motorbikes, they been through here?”

“Maybe they have and maybe they ain’t, cowboy. Twenty more.”

Roche smiled under his hat brim. “And how many does that make, fella?”

“Fuck you!” The big one stuffed his rifle back into his shoulder and pointed it at Roche’s breast.

“Right. Look, I’ll do forty. That’s twenty and twenty. You tell me where they went and how long ago they were here.” Roche flipped forty more in bank notes to the pavement in front of the car-gate. “Or I can keep my money and kill you all and ask the next wastelander I come across and he’ll be forty richer.”

“Forty buy us a lotta-” The wastelander to the big one’s left started.

“Shut up, Finley!” The big one cursed at his buddy. Turning back to Roche he said. “You can’t kill us all, cowboy. We got guns on the roof too.”

“No you don’t, fella or I’d have seen them by now. I been doing this longer than you been alive, now just tell me.” Roche slipped his left to his thigh and unholstered Jex’s .45. “Twelve rounds in this clip and I bet I take out those nine with the first ten shots and put the next two in your balls and let you bleed it out. I’m done fucking around.”

The big one saw something in Roche he hadn’t noticed before. Some folks caught the sense of him right off the bat, some it took a minute or two and some never saw it at all. This wastelander saw it now though. There was a bending of things around a walker who’d done his time in the white. A sense that things weren’t just right and that this was a man who had seen the other side of things, a man who’d been inside what makes the universe up and come out the other side with a shit-eating grin and a hard on.

Sometimes there were men out there you just didn’t fuck with, and the big wastelander was getting that sense that Roche was one of ’em.

The big one smacked his lips like his mouth had gone dry and realized then that his smoke had gone out and dropped from his lips. He put up the barrel of his gun and said plainly.

“Two bikes came by yesterday mid-morning. Four guys on ’em. Three in black all official like. One tied up. We didn’t cross ‘em and they didn’t cross us. Jus’ like that.”

“I have your word on that?” Roche cocked his head.

“Yeah. . .yeah, man. West, I think they went west.”

“What’s the quickest way to Sacramento and New San Fran from here?”

“Ain’t never been out there, cowboy. Most folks take the main road through the mountains I guess. Some folks go that way always. Nobody comes back this way much. Must be nicer out there.”

“So why haven’t you gone?” Roche asked.

“Me?”

“Nevermind.” Roche reached for his envelope and flicked another ten note to the pavement before he turned Lucky west.

“Hey!”

Roche wheeled back the big wastelander. “Yeah?”

“Thanks. You need anything you call us. We got reach. . .an’ communication.”

“Us who?”

The big wastelander pointed to the top of the government building where the black cloth flew. “Blackbirds, cowboy. We got reach all around here, if you can pay, man.”

“Thanks for the tip. I may do that.” Roche spurred Lucky west and left the Blackbirds behind him where they pushed the rusted car-gate aside and retrieved the bank notes he’d tossed to the sidewalk.

He was never one to deal with mercs. Especially ones that didn’t run themselves out of somewhere more organized than a burnt out border city. But, that was as close to friends as a man like Roche ever came. Even if that kind of friend only hand your back at a daily rate.

d i lo

Further into the city Roche came to a cross of two main roads. The 395 and the 50 parted ways at Carson City’s south end, beyond the final rows of dilapidated buildings and brick skeletons.

Signs for the 50 were coupled with signs for Lake Tahoe. Roche could have taken the 395 straight south and then picked his way back west just as easily as anything, but he hadn’t seen the lake in some years, and there was an old witcher woman who used to live on the steppes by the lake’s southern edge who made a vodka that’d flatten you right out.

It wasn’t much of a choice.

Roche turned his bay mare with the single white fetlock down the 50 towards Lake Tahoe.

st he

By the end of the day Roche was deep into the wooded lands southwest of Carson City.

Half a dozen wastelanders had followed him for some hours, their bare feet plodding along the highway pavement under the beating sun. Whenever Roche eyed back over his shoulder they would hide behind rundown vehicles or in ditches.

Just kids.

Kids with no homes and no families. Too often they were born into being wastelanders with no chance of ever getting out. Some made their way to larger cities and walled refuges. Some joined bands of roving mercenaries as ammunition carriers or servants. Some fell quickly into prostitution, thinking that if they made enough coin they could get back out of the life and go somewhere nice.

They were hopeless cases mostly. Some made it, Roche was sure, not that it mattered in the big scheme. The world turned onward. Men died, women died, children died and the aftermath of the catastrophe continued to erode at the fabric of things. In the end there would be less nothing than there was now. . .and Roche scanned the hills around him along the 50 and saw a whole lot of nothing.

He was making good time. His mind had blinked in and out of the white, and he knew that the minute holes sometimes appeared and disappeared seemingly at a whim. Little lapses in the here and there. Most folks didn’t notice them at all, but the walkers were more susceptible than most.

Roche had the strangest feeling that he had missed a day somewhere in the last three. That a whole 24 hours had picked itself under his fingernails and just as quickly cleaned itself out before he’d ever noticed there was anything there to wipe out from under the edges.

Yet he was farther down the 50 than he ought to have been. Lucky plodded along beneath him, mostly walking but adjusting to a light trot on the roads downswings and cantering when she caught an even straightaway of road. She wasn’t fatigued enough to have gone all night. It didn’t make sense. But, whatever did anymore was more frightening than the shit that didn’t.

The thick-trunked old pines that stretched away on the hills to the north and south of the road were grasping at the undercarriage of the sky. Needleless and scorched by the wind and the sun Roche could see for miles between them. In intermittent fires and over the years of the trees being cut for building their numbers had thinned dramatically. Roche wouldn’t have known except for the stumps.

Here and there a sprightly little shit would eke itself out of the dusty earth and make a chance at life, all bright green needles and wispy branches. By the time the leftover radiation that seeped through the soil and the unforgiving sun beat it back to hell the tree was little more than dried twigs.

Didn’t matter. Mankind had fucked nature beyond repair long before the catastrophe if you listened to the stories and read the old books. The ether blast that had ripped the universe a new one had only been icing on an apocalyptic cake.

People said the planet, Terra 1 at least, was closer to the sun now. Not much, a few miles at the most, but enough that the star had burned the world’s surface to the point of overcooked.

Roche rode on through the streams of dust and the cadavers of once mighty trees, almost thinking twice before he tossed his finished cigarette, still barely lit, off to one side. But a forest fire wouldn’t have been the biggest of the world’s problems right now. Not by the longest shot ever taken.

Roche patted Lucky on the neck and tossed the cigarette.

“Be ready to run a marathon if that catches.”

Lucky whinnied and trotted on, understanding.

r i tr

Lake Tahoe appeared around a bend in the road where a number of cars had piled up in some long-forgotten accident. An old wooden sign welcomed visitors with a depiction of the lake in faded blue and green paint. The lake itself was nothing short of it’s paintings polar opposite.

From the road the lake stretched away into the southern distance. It had gone dry over a century ago. It’s bottom was strewn with ancient vehicles, garbage solidified to a mass and bones. Roche had never seen the lake when it still had water in it, but once, as a child he had seen pictures of it in a book in the old library where he had learned his letters. The water had been the vibrant blue of a child’s eyes, surrounded on all sides by trees of deep green and old rustic cabins of strong-looking wood.

As a child Roche had made a promise to himself that he would see all the wonders of the world, and Lake Tahoe had been one of those places he had wanted most to visit.

Visit Historic Nevada. That had been the book’s title.

Mollie was gone, and after her he had taken to the white. When he emerged again some number of years had gone by and he was a walker. When he finally saw Tahoe his heart sank much the same it had when she’d died.

The lake was a blistered basin of sand and rock and the leftovers of a world that had long ago died.

He was an ant picking at the corpse of that world, and if Tahoe had once been a brilliant blue eye it was now a moldering socket, all bone and leathern skin.

Lucky nickered. They’d stopped walking. Roche didn’t think he’d woahed the horse but he must have, if only to stare at the dank yellow of the lake’s bottom from on high atop route 50.

The smell of smoke jarred him a second time. Camp fire smoke and Roche scanned the road where it stretched out beneath him. There was not a plume of smoke in sight, and the old witcher who stilled the vodka he liked so well lived further to the south.

Still nothing, yet Roche continued to look out from beneath the brim of his hat and behind the lens of his shades. The hunter settled a hand on his revolver all the same and moved Lucky back into a steady walk down the 50 with dead trees on all sides. Sure-footed she picked her way through the cars that clammed up a portion of road, and for a half a heartbeat Roche could have swore it wasn’t camp fire he smelled but the scent of cool water and pine. He shook the scent from his mind and kept on towards the lake.

ied m

The heaped garbage and old cars grew more and more frequent as Roche drew nearer to the lake. The 50 was a snakelike bit of cracked asphalt, and the twists and turns had long ago clogged traffic of thousands of people fleeing in both directions. Half of the cars had been folks fleeing the war ravaged coastline, while the other half had been folks hedging their bets that the turmoil along the coast was less dangerous than the chaos that had erupted in Middle America.

A nuclear blast somewhere to the south had burned all of the cars and all of the people inside to a crisp. The dust had long since settled, and those that had burned alive were the lucky ones. The lands south of the old borders had taken most of the fallout when weather patterns shoved the clouds of radiation towards Central America.

Lucky wove in and out of stalled vehicles dutifully, with sure steps. Roche wasn’t sure where she’d come from, but whoever had trained her had done so well. The mare balked at nothing and didn’t drive herself to exhaustion. She had a clear head and if Roche rode her too hard, she’d stubborn right up and take things at a walk until she got her wind back.

The dun and yellow basin that had once been Lake Tahoe grew across the landscape.

Roche woahed his mare. He’d smelled it again, and Lucky nickered.

“The fuck?” Roche scanned all around. Campfire. He’d smelled a campfire and there was not a wisp of smoke to be seen in any direction. “Do you smell that?” He asked the horse.

Lucky blew her lips at him.

“No, huh? Shit.” Roche put his heels into the mare’s sides and urged her on. they continued down the 50.

Within an hour Roche and his horse were along the Lake’s edge. For some many miles the 50 wound along the lake like a fly’s trail. The going would be even slower from then on in, but Roche knew that the old bird lived around here, or at least she had last he made his way through.

Odds were that she moved around some, and didn’t live anywhere near the actual stills. It was never a good idea to keep to one place for too long in the wastelands. Highwaymen picked their way through the dust back and forth and over and over again sometimes, looking for food or relics or folks to rob. Some of them looked for folks to rob and then eat. Didn’t make a whole lot of difference, none of them could be trusted.

Horse and rider rounded a bend for the hundredth time that day and Roche head the old bag before he saw her.

She jittered along like she was always dancing to music that wasn’t ever playing. Her calves were sticks of white beneath rough-spun wool shawls packed atop one another until her hunchback seemed to tower above the span of her shoulders, to the point where her head almost appeared to jut from her chest. Her old tits sometimes hung out the bottom of her woolen garments and Roche imagined that bothered some people. Her face was as worn and dry as the sands she lived in, and her eyes behind those thick, old glasses might as well have been a pair of garnet marbles stuck into her face too close together.

Roche didn’t slow the horse but kept walking right on up to her.

That good mare didn’t even startle when the old bag whirled with a double-barreled shotty aimed at it. Lucky just blinked twice and tossed her head a little.

“Hello, Alma.” Roche hopped down off his horse respectfully.

“Roche? That you?” The old woman sucked at her gums and turned her head up and down trying to see him better.

“Yes, ma’am. It’s me. Been a long time.” Roche smiled and lit a smoke.

“Not for you it ain’t, walker. But, me I only got a year left in these old bones!” She put up the shotty with a paper-thin hand and tucked it under her woolens.

“No, I spose not. How is the desert treating you, Alma?”

“Oh, the same, dear. Ever the same. What brings you out Tahoe way?” The old woman puttered closer on tiny feet and held out her hand. Roche took it politely and gave it a small shake and held it a long second.

“Job. Always a job, Alma. That and I took the 50 hoping you still made that old kicker drink o’ yours.” Roche dragged on his smoke and grinned.

“I do, dear. I do. Follow me then. Fancy seeing you on a horse.”

y b

Alma, the old woman who lived by the remains of Lake Tahoe, lived out of a tent. It was an old world set of poles repurposed with a mish-mash of tarpaulin, sail-cloth and canvas. She carried everything she needed with her on her back while she moved place to place, and where she was staying nowadays was not where Roche had left her last.

She’d found a small hideaway between two hills where a bare rivulet of water still dripped out of a pair of stones. She had a small wooden table, a pair of chairs, eating utensils for two and a pair of cups in case she ever had a guest. Roche had never asked after any other she saw coming and going but he had a feeling he was one of the scant few that she entertained on occasion.

“Where’d you come by the horse, Roche?”

“The old merc who runs the emporium beyond Parmiskus, out in old government territory.”

“Would’ve pegged you for a man who’d choose a synthetic.”

“I would have. This was all that was available.” Roche stabbed a thumb at Lucky. The mare whinnied. “’Sides of which it’s nice to have a little company on the road now and again.”

“Which is why I so enjoy your visits, walker. Tell me, whose your target this time? Another highwayman being brought back to whatever walled city for trial?”

“No. Kidnapping victim. Client is the father. Some bum gone awry of the Corporation. They’re headed to New San Fran as near as I can figure.”

“Motorbikes?” Alma pulled a brown bottle from her woolens and tipped it into both glasses.

“I don’t think that’s a lucky guess, Alma.”

“It ain’t. The three of them went by here yesterday, right around first light they crossed my path.”

“So I’m not far behind them. Thank you, by the way.” Roche took his tin cup half-full of pale-smelling liquid and threw back a swig.

“Welcome. Ain’t many folks who wanna share my home still these days.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. How long you been between these hills, Alma?”

“Roche you know I been living in these hills most of my life. Or do you mean these distinct two?” The old bird threw back an entire cup of the vodka and poured herself another. “I been between these two particular hills a few weeks time. Come the next full moon I’ll pack it in and move a ways back up the lake. Or maybe I’ll winter along the lakebed. There’s a lee in a ring of old cars ain’t no one can tell you have a fire going for miles.”

Fire. The smell. “Alma, you been making fires these days?”

“Heaven’s no. Not here. Not yet. Still warm enough these days to sleep with just the woolens.”

“No fires, eh?”

“Nope.” Alma threw back another cup.

Roche put the thought out of his mind. He had been sure he’d smelled a fire though. Must be the Corporate boys had lit one and let it go until past when they’d left. Yeah, that’s what Roche had smelled. That was it.

“Roche?”

“Yes?” Roche threw back the rest of his vodka, the sting of the stuff hitting the rear of his throat and burning up through his sinus.

“Those men you’re after.”

“What about ’em?”

“I dunno. Something about them though. Roche, do you know what the fish are?” Alma slammed another bout of vodka.

“I know what fish are, yes. Swimmin’ in the sea and tasting great with a little bit of sauce, right?” Roche couldn’t make hide or tail of what the old bat was getting at.

“Not fishes, Roche. Fish.” Alma poured another drink.

The sun was setting brilliant behind her when Roche said what he said next. He’d almost wished he hadn’t said it at all. The hag slinging vodka looked like a beast out of some long forgotten hell for half a moment.

“You drunk already, Alma?”

“You jest, young man but I know you’re older than I can ever be. You know the fish I speak of.

Folks in the old world called them tachyons, but we know better now that we’ve been walking the white for so many years. You ain’t the first walker I known, Roche. I known many in my years. They come and they go. And they all see the fish one time or another.

Ordinary people feel them. They see the same white bird take off from a lamp post twice, one right after another and they wonder how they could’ve made the mistake. Used to be folks called it a déjà vu. Old French meant ‘already seen’, Roche. But, you knew that didn’t you?”

“What’re you getting at, Alma?”

“You seen the fish in the white. The etherfish. Seen ’em moving backwards and sideways through things that ought to only go forward. One gets too close to a person while it’s swimming all fucked up and they’ll swear to judge and glory all up and down that they seen that same black cat twice licking itself. Those fish swimming in the white can influence things. You know they can and so do I.”

“Alma-”

“What, Roche?”

“What’re you getting at?”

The old bat left the tin cup alone and took a swig straight out of the brown bottle, a long thick gulp that looked like it hurt as much as it looked like a relief. When she spoke her voice was like gravel. “I been to the white, Roche. I seen things. I known folks who seen worse things than me. You’re one of ’em, Roche. And I’m saying I see the fish swimming around those Corporate boys when they passed by. They’re swimming right along with them though, ain’t nothing random and natural about that.

You watch yourself with those boys, Roche. Something ain’t right.”

est

Roche slept with his head against his saddle and his feet up on a stone beside Alma’s tent. The old woman snored to high hell and Roche barely slept. What couple hours he did manage to nod off was due entirely to the four full cups of vodka he’d downed with the old woman.

Fuck, for a broad who looked a hundred she could still drink like a fish.

And the fish. There was still the yarn Alma had strung about the fish.

Etherfish were a common thing. A bit of ether that was somehow alive and managed to tweek people’s perceptions of their world for a moment before they were gone again, picking at consciousness and slipping in and out of their own twisted reality on white currents.

A walker generally didn’t notice the fish anymore unless they gathered en masse, in schools. A group of them could cause a noticeable perversion of the white. Older walkers than Roche could ignore even these. But that begged the question.

Didn’t it?

she

Roche left early the next morning. He’d cocked his hat low over his eyes and hung his shades from the lapel of his long jacket. Lucky seemed eager to get along, and the mare fidgeted and tossed her head while Roche belted his saddle around her midsection and fastened the breastplate.

He had one foot up in the stirrup when Alma teetered out of the tent on her pinpoint little feet.

“Going so early?”

“Yeah, sorry Alma but I got work. I’ll be seeing you next time.” Roche swung his leg over the saddle and check his guns. The A-Mat was in a saddle holster slung up in front of his left leg. His revolvers at his sides and the .45 and sawed-off strapped to either thigh. The water skins were full and there was bundled grass for the horse in case it was too sparse further towards the Sierra’s. Roche rolled a smoke with a pinch of tobacco and started to turn the horse.

“Won’t be going without this.” Alma puttered back into the tent and returned with a handled jug of the potato stilled vodka she made somewhere in the hills.

Roche took the jug and when he did the old woman gripped his hand with her own so firmly it shocked him.

“You be careful out there, Roche. And don’t you say I didn’t warn you. You take care, you take real care.” She let go and disappeared back inside her tent without saying another word.

Roche buckled the jug to his saddle after he’d taken a long gulp. He was grateful for the stuff. As he made his way further down the 50 he could have sworn he heard old Alma humming a tune as she picked along behind him, seeing him off in an unseen, thievish way.

The sun was high over the mountains to the west by the time Roche looped around the bottom of the post script to Lake Tahoe. There were some coyotes ravaging something that looked all too human to be of any consolation. Roche simply looked the other way and smoked his cigarette, taking draughts from the vodka jug as he went.

Before the night was out he found he was humming the same tune that Alma had while she followed him a ways to see him off. Some strange old tune that the world had forgotten.

“Sergeant Peppah’s lonely hearts bum ban. . .ba-ba-ba-ba-ba. . .”

A walker gruffly spat a forgotten tune, the sun set to the west of Lake Tahoe’s leftover dustbowl, and somewhere approaching the Sierra’s on the way to New San Fran, a trio of soldiers dragged a poor boy behind a motorbike en route to a door to this worlds second doppleganger.

In the epilogue of all things, not even a cosmic speck of dust noticed that Roche was being followed, and not by old Alma.

s go

An quaint wooden sign beside the road welcomed all travelers along the 50 to Stateline.

Roche was familiar enough with the old maps he’d studied in the library as a boy. Beneath Tahoe the old invisible state lines between what was California and Nevada met here. Stateline itself, the old city, wasn’t much left, but there was some civilization. That was considering that civilization in the wastelands meant only that there was gambling and liquor.

The city announced itself from a ways off. If Roche hadn’t noticed the buildings, a half-dozen middle-rise old world scrapers amidst an underbrush of stucco and brick avenues, he would have known from the ever-increasing rays of flotsam that spread out from Stateline.

Shanty towns and makeshift camps that had been erected, left behind, burned, disused and re-erected dozens of times since the catastrophe. They’d rose up during times of prosperity in the cities and fall back into the landscape and the dust when their occupants left. The time wore away on everything and by the time people nowadays found a city, it’s borders spread farther and wider than the city limits ever had before the world went to hell.

Lucky plodded along. Even the horse could tell that they were nearing something dully alive, Roche could feel it in her gait.

It was later in the day, somewhere past noon, and Roche could hear the people of the city out-and-about. When Lucky and her rider rolled into the town along the main drag, people turned to look. Locals attending market stalls and trading, folks out for a walk, children playing with whatever the could find, and the occasional copper looking just as full of piss as any copper anywhere, they all turned to glance at a newcomer in their city.

That being the case, all folk went right back about their business once they’d taken a look at the man on a horse, which on all counts was a little strange, being that it was an actual horse.

The main drag was a wide, paved street. Someone had gotten the people together to move all of the old autos out of the way and rolled them into wherever so that the road could be used for a market, and for what it was worth, it seemed the people here kept their border town a good deal cleaner than most.

Roche rode into the crowd, which was sparse. Further down the way a two-story cowboy waved and pointed to a small building, touting that ′This Is The Place’. Seemed to be as good a place as any, Roche rode towards it.

Whatever the concrete building had been in it’s former life, it looked to be a saloon now. A fence outside the main doors had a pair of synthetic horses tied to it. They sat still in the motionless, robotic way that they had. Their silicone withers and breasts did not heave with breath, and they did not toss their heads or look to see their new compatriot when Roche tied Lucky’s reins in a quick release to the fence beside them. To her credit, Lucky seemed to care about the synthetics even less.

The main doors to the building had been replaced with ramshackle wooden ones and painted with the saloon’s name ′The Place’. Roche chuckled, at least someone at some point in this bastard version of history had some sense of humor.

The walker threw the doors open and stepped inside.

ne n

The saloon was a hive of various kinds of human insects. Spread legged whores who reeked of sickness, thick-handed bounty hunters like himself, mercenaries blowing away the prize from their last job on booze and women, high rolling businessmen with wives and children at home with different children on their laps and Roche could smell the stink on all of them. It was moments like these that the walker realized how little he missed being a part of this humanity, the same humanity that had done away with Mollie. The day Roche shot the old man Will Dunham so full of holes the last seven or eight had no blood left to bleed he’d left it all behind. Though he’d left a good part of himself behind when he’d found Patchy Wilkes and Andrew Vickers too, hadn’t he?

Roche found the bar and pulled out a leather-seated stool. The bartender took his time coming over. Bartenders knew their regulars, and took their turned serving everyone in the damn place before they’d hit to an outsider. Didn’t bother the walker, but the hunter in Roche felt a little miffed.

“Can I getcha?” The gent finally found his way over and made a point of cleaning a glass in front of Roche for whatever effect that garnered. Rolled up sleeves, suspenders and a vest to boot. The kind of guy who was trying to keep an image alive that had been dead for nearly three hundred years.

“Whiskey. Three fingers.”

“Shelf?”

“Top if you got it but I have a feeling you’ll charge me top n’ serve me bottom.” Roche smiled.

“You’ll pay what I ask and get what I got, hunter. You got the coin you get top shelf.” The bartender kept squeaking the rag around inside the glass.

“Don’t like outsiders.” It wasn’t a question. Roche took out a few bank notes from his fold. “I have the cash, barkeep. Top shelf.”

“You got it.” The bartender stepped away and Roche spun in his stool, resting his elbows on the bar and scanning the room.

A pair of hunters in the far corner, just a hair hidden by a poker table, eyed Roche. In the opposite corner a boy of barely eleven played the piano with more skill than most Roche had heard in near anyplace. A copper at a table near the middle of the room with a too young girl on his lap had watched Roche since he threw open the front doors, to what end was the copper’s problem, not the walker’s.

The bartender returned with Roche’s whiskey and took his pay with a light tip back down the bar. Roche sipped at the liquor and felt it over his tongue before he threw back a belt. Damn it all, but the bartender had actually given him top shelf. Good man.

Roche turned back to the bar, threw back the remainder of his drink and summoned the bartender with a raised finger and a tap of his glass. The man returned with the bottle and filled the hunter’s glass again. Roche held out the bank note for pay and then some, When the bartender took the bill with two fingers Roche held on and motioned the man closer.

The bartender leaned in.

“S’your name, barkeep?”

“Whitney. Why?”

“Listen, Whitney. This full twenty for you if you can tell me why that copper is staring a hole in me and one more thing?” Roche eyed the copper over his shoulder. The man had a flat, stone face and all of his head shaved. He wore a too-tight blue jacket with a badge and had his hand down the girl’s blouse but his eyes were on the hunter.

“Eh? That’s officer Thompson. Not sure why he got eyes on you, hunter, but you cast a hell of a shadow.”

“How’s that?”

“Folks jus’ come through. Corporate boys with an official transport prisoner. On motorbikes. They said they was being followed and they thought by hunters.”

“Official transport and they was being followed, eh?”

“Yessir. Said they was being wrongly followed by hunters.” The bartender started to look uncomfortable and leaned back away from Roche, snatching his bank note. “Don’t think I’ll answer your other question if that’s alright.”

“You did already. Thank you, barkeep.” Roche turned back to the room and sipped at his drink, one mouthful at a time.

So the Corporate boys came through with Markus and they left a trail with the local law to watch for hunters. Smart boys. ’Course whether they knew Roche was following them or they was just being careful was anyone’s guess. Didn’t so much matter as it was an inconvenience.

Roche finished his drink and hopped down from his barstool. The hunter tipped his hat back from his eyes a little and left the saloon.

ow p

Watching carefully, Roche saw the copper, Thompson, stand and follow him as he left.

The hunter lit a smoke and made his way into the alley between two buildings across the street, waving a small wave at Lucky when he passed by.

Roche picked his step up, weaving through the folk of Stateline and slipping into the alley across the street. He stood in the space between brick buildings for half a second and let himself be seen. The copper stormed out of the Place and caught sight of Roche.

“Come on, precious.” Roche smiled a little through his teeth.

The copper did just what Roche had hoped he would. He didn’t go for help, He didn’t radio his buddies and tell them what was up. He didn’t even look both ways. The copper put his palm on the butt of his gun and stamped across the street like a child whose spied a piece of stray candy across the way.

Roche slipped backward into the alley and around the back corner. The hunter put his back to the brick and listened.

The copper wasn’t quiet about his movements, he thundered down the alley. His boots clacked on the concrete and papers rustled around his ankles. Roche could make out the noise of his gunmetal as it slithered from it’s holster.

The white coalesced where he’d called it and filtered around his fingertips. The leather gloves on his fist squeaked and crinkled as Roche clenched his fists and relaxed them again.

The copper rounded the corner with his gun by his cheek. ′

Roche had the copper’s wrist and a forearm across his throat, a revolver drawn and the barrel in his chest, he had the copper’s back jammed into the brick wall and a bootheel behind the copper’s ankle to keep him off balance in a hair off of a second’s back.

By the instant the copper had a moment to breath and realize, Roche had the end of his cigarette so near the man’s teeth the copper could feel the root of his front tooth irritate into his skull.

“The-”

“Shut up!” Embers fell from the end of Roche’s smoke when he spat the words. “Who told you I was coming?”

“Fuck you.”

“Wrong answer, shitbag.” Roche drew back from the copper and belted him in the temple with the butt of his gun. As the copper fell to one knee, tripped with the help of Roche’s bootheel, Roche twisted the gun from his hand and held them both on the man the bartender had called Thompson.

Through a mouthful of pink teeth the copper groaned and coughed. “I am an officer of-”

Roche kicked the copper in his gut.

Between coughs and wheezing the copper kept on.

“Fucking hunter, I’ll have you-”

“Tough one aintcha?” Roche kicked out the palm the copper kept himself up with and put his boot on the man’s wrist, paused a second and the brought his heel down between the bones of the copper’s forearm. The bones separated and the man’s wrist broke.

“Garrgh!” Roche knelt and shoved the barrel of the copper’s own gun into his mouth.

“Shut the fuck up and talk.”

The copper’s eyes ground tight and tears appeared. His face had gone as bright as a cherry.

“Mff! Mff! Mff.” The copper winked his eyes open and nodded, his teeth clacked against the barrel of his gun.

“Good, we can dispense with all of that, then? I will put a bullet in you, fool. Don’t start up with me again.”

“Mff!” The copper nodded.

“Good. I take your own damn gun out of your teeth and you tell me what I want to know and I maybe don’t put a slug in each of your knees, good?”

“Mff!”

Roche smiled. “Who told you a hunter was coming after you? Did they mention me specifically?” Roche slipped the gun from the coppers mouth.

Panting the copper caught his breath. Roche thought the fucker might have even pissed himself but he didn’t care to check.

“Corporation boys came through last night. They checked at the station and said there were probably hunters after them. Said there’d be a bounty on any hunters that came through after them from the Corporation itself.”

“And me?”

“They didn’t say. Just said there were hunters coming.”

“More than one?” Roche asked.

“I thought so but-”

Roche pressed the gun barrel into the man’s broken wrist and put the barrel of the other into the man’s open mouth again to stifle the groans.

“Thought so?” He removed the gun.

“Gah! Fuck! They didn’t say, okay!”

“Alright.” Roche took the other gun off of the copper’s wrist. “Who else in this town is out for me?”

“Just the other officers. Most of us know, but word only came through last night. I swear, man. Please.” The copper was whimpering.

“Fine, then. Get the fuck out of my sight. You tell anyone I find you.” Roche stood off of the copper. Creeping up the copper held his wrist pitifully.

“My gun?”

“Nope.” Roche clicked the slide off and let the magazine slip onto the concrete. Broken in two, Roche tossed the pieces of the gun to either side of the alley and turned to walk away.

“Wait.”

“What?” Roche turned back to the copper.

“There’ll be more like me. I promise you.”

“Promise away, shitbag. I got plenty of bullets and a lot of time to waste.” Roche scuffed his boots as he strode back down the alley and disappeared into the crowd.

art o

There were enough bodies moving along the streets of Stateline that Roche quickly slipped into nothing, an ether of human beings. The white noise of their conversations drowned out the world for a moment, but was not loud enough that Roche did not hear the copper cry out from the entrance of the alley.

“Help! Help! Officer down! It’s the hunter, he’s here! Help, officer down!”

Roche skimmed a glance over his shoulder. The copper was leaning on the brick wall for support, his broken wrist hanging useless at his side and the idiot had managed to retrieve at least one half of his gun before he got back to the street. The fool ought to have stayed down, but now he was scanning the streets, looking for Roche.

The hunter melted back two more steps into the crowd, and had turned to make a break for his horse when the copper raised his voice again.

“He’s there! The hunter, in the hat! Stop him, stop him!”

The hat? Apparently that was all the description the people of Stateline needed. The static echo of the crowd went silent and people backed away from the hunter. Men put their arms protectively across the breasts of their women, and a mother turned her shoulder over the swaddled mass of an infant protectively.

“Oh, fuck all of you.” Roche said under his breath and backed three quick steps to his horse.

Coppers came out of the woodwork. Two burst out the front doors of the Place, another pushed civilians out of his way and emerged from the crowd and a fourth stepped and turned to fetch more from wherever their station was at a run.

First policy always was not to kill anyone who wasn’t going to kill you if you didn’t, second often was to keep the peace with local law enforcement because they had a nasty habit of remembering faces and causing headaches and hiccups later in life. Seemed to Roche that these two policies were at odds at the moment.

“Look! I don’t want to have to kill any of y’all! I’m on the job much as any of you! I don’t know what the bounty is on my head but I promise you there will be other hunters coming that you’d rather collect a bounty on than me.” Roche held one gloved hand at chest height, open, hoping to stall the drawing of guns. His other hand had inched to the sawed-off holstered under his coat at his thigh.

“Hold! Don’t you move!” The two coppers from the Place had drawn their handguns. Little peashooter snubnoses but when bullets started flying from all directions it didn’t always matter how big the gun firing them was.

“Yeah, yeah. Look fellas I get it. Lemme go and I’ll be on my way and never, ever come back to Stateline. Okey dokey?” There was a layer of sarcasm there.

“Don’t you move.”

“Why do all of you say the same recorded lines? Is there a copper script out there I’m unaware of?” Roche’s fingertip was on the trigger of the sawed off. Flipping a glance left the hunter saw that Lucky was looking at him with a horse look that said we-going-or-are-we-staying-what’s-up.

“Show me your hands! Don’t move!" The coppers from the Place edged down off the sidewalk into the street with little, measured steps. The one who’d come from the crowd had also now drawn a gun and was inching forward. The one Roche had left in the alley hitched himself to a nearby lamppost and fidgeted with his gun, trying to put it back together one-handed. Apparently he’d found both pieces and the clip after all. Smart boy he was not.

“You don’t wanna see both hands, fella. Let me get on my horse and be on my way. Don’t be stupid.” That was about as reasonable as Roche got.

“Show me those hands, get on the ground!” Gun hammers clicked back for effect.

Roche spun right and drew the sawed-off with one hand and a revolver with the other, quick as a striking snake. The white was in the space between his eyes and his eyelids, and it was beneath his fingernails.

The first blast from the sawed off peppered open a copper’s uniform jacket with little holes and flung his arms wide, by the time he hit the dust little red pools were expanding from all of those holes and his eyes had rolled back into his skull with shock until he bled out.

The revolver’s trigger pulled like a hairpin and a bullet ripped a neat circle in the side of another copper’s neck. The officer gripped at the blood and squeezed off a shot into the air before he fell against the lip of the sidewalk.

The copper from the crowd went to one knee and pulled the trigger of his gun in a tight three cluster. In the space of time they’d been speaking, the street had cleared of civilians for the most part, and the shots rang off down the street where they broke the glass of a storefront. Roche had moved to the right and towards his horse some more steps between gunshots, and by the time the kneeling copper realized he hadn’t hit the hunter there was a mushroomed ball of lead resting in his brain and he had hit the ground, courtesy of Roche’s revolver.

Those folk who hadn’t gone to ground when the gunslingers had started jawing had all screamed bloody hell and gotten back into their respective holes right quick. The street emptied in the space of three seconds and Roche had a leg over his horse while he slipped the knot in her reins.

A clatter of metal drew the hunter’s eyes, and the copper from the alley flung himself down to retrieve the half of his gun he’d dropped.

Roche leaned on the pommel of his saddle and stuffed the sawed-off back in his leg hostler. “Didn’t I tell you not to say anything, dipshit?”

“F-f-fuck you.” The copper scrambled after the half of his gun he’d dropped but every time he grabbed at it he knocked it further from himself, and crawling on a broken wrist he looked like a three-legged dog who’d been kicked too much for one day.

“Yeah, fuck me. Listen, I’m gonna be taking off outta here right now. You’re not gonna be sending more of you after me are you?”

“Gonna, gonna, gonna get you.”

“That’s what I thought.”

The copper grabbed finally at the broken piece of his gun along the concrete and looked up at the hunter. Their eyes met for a portion of a moment and Roche shot him through the bridge of his nose.

The walker spurred his horse in the sides and Lucky took off down the paved road west out of Stateline while people watched from the windows.

f th

When Roche had put several miles between himself and the town of Stateline, he pulled Lucky to a walk and turned in his saddle to look back.

The 50 stretched back north and east to the city, and Tahoe lingered behind it like a smudge on a lens. There was at least seven miles between the walker and the city he’d just shot four coppers in, and Roche knew that it would be at least another fifty years before he could show his face in Stateline without someone recognizing him. It was why a hunter tried to get along with law enforcement, though not at the expense of the job.

If there was a hunter’s code it was a loose one, and being a walker besides made a lot of the ideals murkier than they ought to be.

Didn’t matter. Roche lived along the big scheme of things, and in that scheme most things weren’t of much consequence.

There was another city south of the dead lake. According to maps it had once had an original name of South Lake Tahoe, though the aftermath of the catastrophe had seen to it that all that remained of the city was a smoldering ribcage. The only folk who still lived there were wastelanders and the occasional roving band of highwaymen who’d roll into town with whatever they’d stolen and trade for women and booze and cigarettes. Drugs too, if there were any to be had.

The city was as ripe a place as any to make for with copper’s on his heels, and Roche didn’t kid himself with thinking that they’d just let four dead officers roll into the breeze without saying boo.

Lucky’s sides heaved. She’d done seven miles at nothing short of a gallop and a canter between wreckage and dunes of dust.

“Let’s get us that far tonight, girl. We’ll find you some water and bed down. That sound like a plan?”

Lucky blew out her lips at him and walked on.

e wh

The husk of a city that had once been South Lake Tahoe wasn’t much at all anymore. The main stripe of road was dotted with buildings that were barely four walls and a roof. Whatever the population had been before the catastrophe it had dwindled to the occasional group of squatters in a building, or the odd child playing in the street with a tin can.

The sun set in a spasm of reds and oranges and by the time Roche reached the center of town it was minutes until dark. Spotted orange fires in tires or old drums poked from the hulls of buildings and dark shadows huddled around them against the coming cold of the night.

A beggar with a mountain of collected things slung across his back crossed Roche’s path and the walker hailed him.

“You there. Stop a moment.”

The beggar looked at the walker with one eye that was far too large for his head and an empty socket besides. His teeth were rotted brown and he seemed to be wholly hairless.

“What’choo be needin’?” The beggar let the satchel of his things clatter to the ground. Roche could only imagine what was in it but it sounded like bones.

“I need water for my horse and a place to lie down for the night.”

“Places all ’round but water is so precious to us.”

“I can pay. Where is the nearest well?” Roche lit a smoke.

“Pay my way and pay the wellmaster.”

“Pay you to tell me where the well is, and then I have to pay the wellmaster? Right then, how much?” Roche reached into his pocket to remove the fold of bank notes.

“Three smokes is all.” The beggar eyed Roche’s cigarette. The single eye left in his head look like a ripe fruit about to bust.

“Alright then.” Roche flipped open the pack of rolled cigarettes he filled every night, removed three and held them to the beggar, who took them eagerly.

“Follow me.” The beggar placed a smoke behind each ear and one in his lips. He hefted his bag of bones across his shoulder and hobbled down the street back the way he had come.

Roche squeezed Lucky with his calves.

The beggar with the bag of bones led Roche down a sideways alley between two walls that were all that remained of two great buildings. Further on a small hovel town had been shored up into organized streets with wooden pallets and tin roofing.

Past that Roche was led to a series of dried up river beds, no larger or deeper than hand dug canals made by children. The beggar turned and followed the canals up and to their source which proved to be an old stone well beneath a stand of dead trees. Atop the three foot high ring of slabstone was a wooden lid. Sitting on the lid was an elderly man smoking a pipe.

“Five punts.” He didn’t bother to look up, his hood was cowled lightly over his head and he wore a long oilskin coat.

“Do you have a bucket?”

“Bucket’s one punt.”

Roche fished in his jacket and peeled off a count of eleven from various old-world banks.

“Bucket, refill it once the horse is done, please. Roche hopped down from the mare’s back with a thud of boots and rustle of leather and denim and flak gear.

“Oi.” The old man with the pipe slipped off of the well and took a steel bucket on a rope from behind the well. He bit down on his pipe and lowered the bucket, clashing on the stones, down the well.

“Got a light?” The beggar-man asked.

Roche flipped his bronze lighter open and held it out to the little man. The beggar smoked greedily and plopped himself down atop his bag of bones.

“Brings you this way?” The old man asked Roche, though the question seemed idle chatter rather than genuine interest.

“Job. Might have some folks following after me.”

“Folk’n.”

“Yeah. Went awry of the local coppers back north a ways.”

“Copper’s ain’t come here any.” The pipe clicked in his teeth as he spoke.

“Killed a couple of them. They may be looking for me for whatever they can get out of finding me.” Roche inhaled and held the smoke in his throat for several seconds before letting it out.

“They draw first?”

“They drew on me first and I ended that.”

“Ain’t no thing. Coppers don’t come ’round here.” The old man tugged on his pipe with one hand and set the full bucket in front of Lucky when he’d drawn it up.

Roche settled back on his heels and watched the other two men. An unlikely trio of a beggar, and old wellwatcher and a walker sitting around a horse while it drank, smoking their pipes in the center of a world that had burned and never regrown.

“Why didn’t you offer me any water?” Roche asked the wellwatcher, somewhat idly, but with intent.

“Walker’s don’t drink much, as I understand.”

“Who says I’m a walker?”

The old man with the pipe looked out from under his hood at Roche with fixed eyes. “No man kills four men without a scratch on him and then tells about it without blinking unless he be a psychopath or’n a walker.”

“And how is it you know I’ve killed four men?”

“A man listens by a waterwell long enough he gets so’s that he knows a man who’s thirsty. He get’s so he knows what a man done to come through this place. Not darkest of worst places to be but still nowhere to be.

And I can smell it on you.”

Roche laughed aloud. “Smell it, eh?

“Aye. Seen some walkers come and go. Old ones and younger ones, new comer walkers. You all got that distaste about you. You stink like a life that’s gone bad and ain’t never gonna be the same.”

Lucky finished her first bucket and the old man sent the rope back down the well to fetch another.

Roche dragged on his smoke and listened.

“You though. You’re different ain’t you. A walker who hunts? Ain’t that a strange mixture. Found yourself a niche though haven’t you? Fine little place in these blasted worlds all joined at the hip.”

“Suppose I have.”

“I know what you’re after, walker. I seen the fish schooling around those boys who came through. Ain’t not a one person ’round here can see ’em or been around long enough way I have, but I seen ’em. Fish ’round ’em like that.”

“So I’ve heard.” Roche took a hint from the last person who’d warned him about the Corporate boys and the etherfish that seemed to be particularly attracted to them, and took Alma’s bottle from his saddle bag and swigged back a belt of vodka.

“Aye. Anyone who been around enough could see it. ’Specially those getting ready to return to the ether.”

“Old ones do know me better. Old ones and ex-walkers. Been some time since I met someone your age though, fella. Which one are you?” Roche was keenly aware of that. Older folks just didn’t last outside of walled cities anymore, and those that lived in said cities often cared little and less for the outside world. It was why they shut themselves in their protected holes in the first place.

“I’m old enough for this world. And you’ll likely not see another. I’m eighty-seven last count I took and may not live until tomorrow.”

The old man was right. Most folks in the post-catastrophic world barely lived past fifty. The fact that he’d made it to eighty-seven was nothing short of miraculous. Though why he was still sitting and charging people to use the well and no one had simply taken the well or his life from him was anyone’s guess.

Roche hopped back atop his horse when she’d finished drinking.

He felt they eyes of the old man and the beggar watching him as he rode back towards the burnt out buildings to find a place to bed down.

It was true, too, that the elderly, the truly old, could all but taste the ether on a walker. Their bodies and minds so close to being reunited with that particles that made up the iotic nothingness that made up all things, they could feel it. Whether the man was as old as he said or just a retired walker was still a mystery when Roche awoke. He’d always wondered, late at night when he dreamt of his Mollie, if there was a way to end this ageless life, to repent for the sin of walking too long. Perhaps that old man had found it. Walkers could recognize each other. But Roche never got to ask him, he never saw the old wellwatcher again.

ite an

Roche slept between the walls of two abandoned buildings. He shored up a pile on old metal to one side and wheeled a dumpster to block the other. He rested that night more for the horse than anything, she’d run hard for him that day. No way of telling whether the coppers from Stateline would track him this far, but the mare needed to take the night.

Roche hobbled Lucky and slept with his head against her saddle, propped up in the alley.

Worlds away he still heard her screams, though he hadn’t been there to hear them at all or protect her.

When Roche had found her she’d already been dead.

Beaten.

Raped.

Beaten and then left to snuff out in the cold like a candle.

He’d taken her as far as he could, and even then been dismayed when he realized the only blood of hers on his shirt was from carrying her. She wasn’t bleeding anymore. She wasn’t bleeding onto his collar and she wasn’t breathing against his neck.

Some nights he knew that for a cold hard fact. Some nights he knew that her eyes had been open and empty and going yellow in the cold when he found her. And then there were the nights where his heart told him different.

There’d been a mist of breath from her lips, there had been hope.

Maybe she could come out of it.

Maybe she could be his Mollie again.

He’d known her as a girl only once in his life, the evening following the harvest feast. Way away in a land called by books New England.

There was a rift in the quarry. There was a hole to the nothing and they said that the white there was different. The stories said. . .

What had they said?

Bang. They said bang.

Roche shot up. The gunshot had awoken him and he drew both of his revolvers. Lucky nickered and Roche held up a finger to shush her. She obliged.

Smart horse.

Sounds of an engine, sounds of shouting and somewhere on the wind was a whiff of cordite from a single gunshot.

Roche waved a hand at the horse to make her stay and hopped into and over the dumpster blocking the alley. Reaching the corner he peered around the bricks into the night along the city street.

The coppers had been tenacious. Gasoline was a precious commodity and they were wasting it coming after a hunter. ’Course that might have been a little bit of combined rallying for the bounty the Corporation had left on any pursuing hunters and the fact that Roche had slain four officers in the city streets.

They had a truck. Single cab that held three coppers and a fourth in the bed with a 50-cal. There were two other officers in the street on foot, and a further two on synthetic mounts.

Eight of them in all and a dead man on the ground. From the corner where he hid Roche could see a single bulbous eye and a bag of bones clutched lovingly to the dead man’s chest. For whatever reason they’d shot the beggar. Either they’d asked for his whereabouts and the beggar hadn’t told them or he’d demanded more cigarettes for the information. One way or another they’d shot him like a dog in the street, holding on to whatever it was that the beggar-man collected in his pack.

Roche eased himself back behind the brick wall, out of sight.

There were whispers and scrapings in the buildings around him. The wastelanders who called this defunct city home had crawled out of their holes to see what the commotion was all about. They were spiders on the walls peeking from cracks and crevices in the ruined masonry. They paid Roche no mind.

“Fan out!” The lead copper called to his crew and a number of the wastelanders shuddered back into their cracks.

The coppers hoisted their guns to their chests and shoulders. Long arms and automatics, a few long-barreled revolvers and one fella with a pump-action shotty. The engine of the truck revved and the two coppers in the bitch and passenger seat put boots to ground too.

Eight men, four on foot, two on mounts, two in the truck.

Roche loosened his sawed-off in his leg holster and checked that his A-Mat was loaded. He slung the high-powered rifle across his back.

“Wait here.” He told the horse.

Roche peeked back around the brick corner of the wall down the street. The truck was moving slowly down the street, the copper in the bed scanning the 50-cal left and right. In the light of the headlights the other six, some with flashlights pored over the ruined main drag of the city.

The coppers were a block from the hunter, far enough yet that the headlights from the truck had not touched the alley where he hid.

Roche went prone and steadied the A-Mat with a crossed grip. He stared through the scope. The rifle would put a bullet through the radiator and stop the truck, but if he fired they would almost certainly see the muzzle flash.

Safer to stop the truck or to beat the hell out of dodge?

Sometimes it seemed it was safer to just fuck off and let the coppers keep thinking their badges made their dicks bigger.

Roche shouldered the rifle and went back to Lucky. Quietly he placed her saddle back on, strapped the girth and swung a leg. Lucky moved carefully over the pile of scrap that blocked the alley in the other direction and down a side alley southwards out of the dead city.

The mare’s hooves clopped on the pavement but the copper’s were near enough the trucks engine that they couldn’t make out the noise.

By the time the trucks lights were a memory among the rotting buildings and stories-high heaps of debris, Roche was south of the burned city of South Lake Tahoe and on his way still down the 50 towards the Sierra’s.

Moving at a walk, Lucky kept a steady pace through the night and until the first knuckle of the sun bent up in the east. Neither the horse nor the walker knew that they were still being followed by something thin and thick all-at-once.

d e

Roche rode through the night, keeping a wary eye at his back in case the coppers exhausted their search of the dead city and decided to continue the chase down the 50.

The sun rose and scattered light over the facade of the world.

Near midday Roche neared a rundown gasoline pump with a nearby teller station. It wasn’t much, a metal and light sign that had bowled over long ago and a gas pump that was surely tapped and dry. Out back of the station a truck settled further and further into the ground, only it’s cab and a portion of the hood were still visible beneath the dust and the age of the land.

Roche hopped down from his mare. The old stations were always worth checking out. Gasoline had once been a precious commodity and it’s distribution was closely guarded. Following the catastrophe most stations had been bled dry by looters and bands of highwaymen who had taken all the gas they could carry.

Still, gasoline being what it was, these old stations often had hidden caches of valuables. Bullets, shells, bank notes, cigarettes, liquor, maps. Valuable things.

Roche was a man who took his time, and understood the value in checking old buildings like gasoline stations.

The station looked deserted, he drew his sawed-off and let his wrist dangle it across his shoulders all the same.

“Wait here.” He told Lucky, leaving her by the gas pump. She nickered in response. Good horse.

The station was one of those two-doors-and-a-box kind. No toilet inside or place to sell food. It wasn’t a real emporium of any kind. Just tobacco, fuel and an exchange of bank notes.

One of the glass doors had been smashed in so long ago the blowing dust had worn the sharp edges soft like the ocean did.

The floor inside the little glass station box was thick with dust, the frames and shelves that had once held automotive fluids and cigarettes were bent and dismantled.

Roche kicked at the dust, moving the wreckage with his toes.

Nothing.

Nothing.

Less than nothing.

Providence.

Still in a plastic wrapped package, in the ass-end of a thin paper container that dozens if not hundreds of looters must have somehow missed was a package of smokes.

Roche picked the box up and dusted it against his oilskin jacket. Red and white box said Marlboro. Nothing Roche hadn’t smoked before but it had been some time since he’d seen a package of Marlboro’s. He stuffed the package in his jacket and walked back out into the sunlight.

The hunter looked south. He thought he smelled a campfire.

There was smoke to the south, further along the 50. Black smoke. It wasn’t a campfire. The smell didn’t matter, the smoke did though.

Roche whistled and Lucky trotted up. Roche spurred the bay mare south along the 50 towards the plume of black smoke that rose up out of the dusty hills.

vap

The plume of black smoke seemed not to grow closer in the way that it does. No matter how many hours Roche rode towards it the smoke remained a solid mass against the horizon of maintained size.

But by the time sundown was imminent the hunter atop his horse looked down at the smoke from a sandy bluff.

In a divot carved in the earth by an ancient bomb was a ring of cars. People traveling west had taken a leaf of wisdom from the long extinct buffalo and ringed their vehicles for the night around the elderly and the young to keep them safe from roving bands of wastelanders and highwaymen. But the cars were hulks of useless steel now and had become one with the landscape.

In the center of the ring of cars was a tractor tire filled with garbage set alight. A plume of acrid smoke rose from it up into the sky and drifted into forever.

Roche took the A-Mat from his back and settled the barrel along Lucky’s neck, staring down into the hole in the earth. In the cancer-dying light of day it was hard to make much out, and the smoke was thick around the tops of the cars, mushrooming over them like a blanket. But in the glow of the fire Roche could make out footprints ringed in orange highlights.

The dust hadn’t swallowed them yet, which meant the footprints were not that old. No gang signs painted across the car doors and hoods and no detritus of food stuffs and shitting meant that no one had lived here recently and no party of highwaymen kept it occupied, or at least didn’t want it known that they did. But, an absence of day-to-day living evidence meant that no one had been bedding down here long enough to leave evidence, and the freshness of the footprints meant that-

The bullet hit Roche in the center of his chest. Lead expanded into a disc against his flak jacket and the skin beneath the kevlar burst red with millions of tiny ruptured capillaries. The force of the shot threw him backwards against the butt of his saddle and Lucky skittered back several steps, not in fear but with the sense of a good horse who’s seen some gunfights in her life.

Roche slipped his stirrups and rolled off of Lucky into the dust.. He went prone with the A-Mat couched against his shoulder. Lucky backed further down the bluff, past the point of being seen from wherever the gunshot had come from, across the dent in the earth. Good horse.

Roche couldn’t see shit. The thickness of the smoke blurred everything. The shot hadn’t been full-on-straight, but straight enough. And fuck. That hurt.

Pressing his belly down against the sand and the dirt kept his profile small but it also shoved the growing wound in his chest against the earth. The bullet hadn’t penetrated the kevlar. Bulletproof was good, didn’t mean getting shot didn’t hurt none.

Roche was something pissed. And not about getting shot.

The corporate boys knew he was following them, or at least that a hunter was probably following them. They’d lit a garbage and tire fire that’d throw a load of black smoke and then waited on the other side. They’d bought themselves time by putting a bounty on him with the coppers at Stateline and set themselves a little trap. Whether Roche was losing his knack for the work or he’d just been sloppy. . .didn’t matter. What mattered was he was going to kill the sonofabitch that shot him square in the chest while he’d been distracted by one of the oldest tricks in the book.

Scope flash.

Whoever had the rifle had moved and a bare hint of sun had ticked off of his rifle scope.

The shooter was across the divot in the earth. Roche watched closely. The shooter had either lost sight of Roche or was adjusting himself for another shot. That gave Roche a couple seconds, three at the most. Not enough time for a shot, but enough time to move.

In a smooth motion Roche slung the A-Mat back across his shoulder and broke into a run. He drew his revolvers from across his waist and leapt with his heels together over the edge of the bluff to the floor of the divot in the earth. His heels hit and Roche rolled over the flat of his back, caught a solid step with his left foot and kept up a sprint. A gunshot cracked overhead. Roche slid on a hip into cover behind the closest car just as a third shot ricocheted off the car’s hood and buried itself somewhere in the bluff.

Roche slung his hat back on it’s leather thong off of his head. Three shots had given him a better idea of where the shooter was. He’d moved to Roche’s right for a better shot but was still covered by a heap of metal grown into the stones of the crater’s edge.

Dust exploded in a tiny puff a yard from Roche’s boot. The shot had come from somewhere else. A second shooter was off at the north end of the crater while the first had been to the west.

There was something else too. A bare moment of unease followed by a familiar sense of disharmony with the world. There were fish here and a second of clarity Roche knew he had found the corporate boys, and they had laid out a neat little trap.

Wherever the third Corporation soldier was he wasn’t shooting yet. He either had no shot or was waiting for Roche to make a mistake.

Roche wasn’t about to let that happen.

The white glimmered across Roche’s vision and filtered down his gums and across his tongue. It crept in rivulets from his navel under the kevlar and down the front of his denim to the earth. Roche holstered both revolvers and dug his fingers under the rim of the hulk of the car. Little four-door sedan so sand-blasted it no longer had a color. Roche felt the white sift through him like a flesh and blood colander and he flipped the car out of inches of accrued dust and up on it’s side. The metal screamed protest and a cloud of dust spilled from the undercarriage of the vehicle. It rocked, cried and then settled in place, burrowed on the drivers side in the dust. Full protection facing west, Roche flipped the A-Mat from his back and knelt.

Down the barrel of the scope time slipped by slower than it should have. Roche looked north atop the bluff and waited one second, then two and then the soldier made a mistake.

One quick look from behind his cover of a turned up road sign against the crater’s rim, the soldier poked his head out to peek at his target. Dark goggles and a bandana around his face, the soldier saw Roche with his gun at the same moment the A-Mat fired and blew an open hole the size of a fist through his skull.

The ether shifted and Roche turned.

There was something behind him, something huge. It moved on knuckles the size of dinner-plates, on all fours with fingers the breadth of an arm. When it shifted it’s weight the earth did not notice, and when it roared the wind carried no sound. Roche spun on a dime and shouldered the butt of the A-Mat. The trigger-pull would have happened in an instant if there had been a something to shoot at.

But there was nothing. Just a sharp sense of wrong that there was a creature beyond belief at his front many yards away and it was larger than any living thing anymore had a right to be.

Roche blinked ether and saw what the true thing was.

Something wrapped in the skin of a fish but muscled and shouldered like a gorilla in a picture book. A head too small for it’s body and rear limbs that bent at incorrect angles. It grunted and shuffled and it moved towards him at an off-kilter run screaming the ricochet sound of silence.

Roche slid into a sprint and vaulted a car into the circle. Somehow when the not-thing moved through the ring of cars in pursuit.

The walker ran and crossed the other side of the car-ring in a slide over a sandy hood. A gunshot rang from somewhere but seemed less important than the not-thing made of ether the size of a house chasing him across a crater in the earth.

Roche went up the edge of the crater. The Corporate boy who’d been hiding along the west edge of the divot made a wrong move. He stood, rifle at his hip for a shot at the hunter. Roche drew a revolver and put a bullet through his cheekbone. A scribbled line of blood followed the soldier to the ground and Roche whipped around in time to see the not-thing of ether disappear into the side of the crater and into the earth beneath his feet.

“Help!” The call came from several yards further west, just on the other side of a large stone.

Roche moved and found the man laying there. Bound at ankle and wrist the captive had shimmied his bandana-gag from his mouth and had tears of frustration cutting dusty mud-lines in his features.

“You have to help me, my name is-”

“Alex Markus?”

orat

“How?”

“No time, lad.” Roche holstered a revolver and slipped his knife from his boot. He cut the rope binding Alex Markus’ ankle’s together. “Can you walk?”

“Yes. Sore but I can walk.”

“The third soldier, where’s he at?”

“South of here. He’s armed.”

“If I cut your hands free you’re coming with me, I’m taking you back to your father.” Roche didn’t waste anymore time, he slashed the bindings on his wrist.

“My what?” Alex rubbed his wrists with his hands with a puzzled look on his face.

“Father, boy. Fuck it, no time. S’go.”

“Where’s the construct!?”

“The what?” Roche asked before he realized what the construct must have been. The not-thing made of ether that smelled of white-swimming fish had settled within the earth, but Roche could feel it probing the world with thick fingers. “Nevermind. Come on.”

The young man that was Alex Markus wasn’t much to look at. He looked a man who spent a good deal of time indoors. He was scrawny, tousled dusty hair and spectacles covered eyes that blinked back the sun. At the very least, he followed orders well, when Roche turned and edged back around the crater from cover to cover towards the eastern side, Alex followed closely.

The crater was not large enough to have taken overly long to circumvent. They reached the east side. Roche whistled for his horse and the final Corporation soldier popped up from behind a rock like a carnival pin with a shotgun drawn.

“Let him go, hunter!”

“Nope.” Roche felt the pull of the white, drew and pulled the trigger of his revolver and a hole opened between the black-masked soldier’s eyes. He crumpled and on cue, Lucky crested back over the bluff and whinnied.

“You’re riding bitch, Markus. Not going to get an apology.”

“None needed, just get me out of here.”

Arms holding tight to Roche’s waist, Alex sat behind the hunter as they rode back east along the 50 on a bay horse.

Somewhere behind the two the strange creature crawled back from the earth with thick limbs and an open mouth screamed that sounded to all the world like nothing more than a seashell’s crescendo.

ed l

Alex Markus was silent for the first several miles of the gallop. Roche brought Lucky to a slow canter and then a trot somewhere miles from the crater where the Corporation had laid out a trap for the hunter.

There was shelter in the lee of a sand-covered hill. Roche woahed up his horse and scanned the area with his eyes.

Alex Markus flopped from the horse, gripping and massaging the insides of his thighs.

“Goddamn.”

“Yeah, riding bitch ain’t always a good time but it got you the fuck outta there.” Roche put boots to ground and fished through the bundles on his saddle for a wrapping of dried grass for the horse.

“Hey. Thank you.” Alex stood to his full height, which wasn’t much height at all, scrawny thing that he was, and held out a hand.

Roche looked at the young man over his shoulder and went back to the saddle bags.

“I’m thanking you.”

“I get that, kiddo. No thanks necessary. You’re a job. Daddy paid me well to get you back.” Roche handed a fistful of hay to Lucky. The horse dropped it to the ground and ate it from there.

“That’s just it though.” Markus dropped his hand, seeing that the hunter wasn’t going to shake it and put his hands on his hips. “I don’t have a father.”

“Everyone’s got a father. Just because you ain’t met him don’t always mean he won’t pay to get you back.”

“No. I’ve met my dad. I’m saying he’s dead. He caught a chest cold back east during a hard winter. We were foodless and he never made it through.” The sun was setting behind Alex’s ruddy hair when Roche turned to him with a palm on a revolver out of instinct.

“Who paid me then? He paid me well enough. And the fuck is this all anyhow?”

“All what?”

Roche drew his gun.

“Woah! Wait, hold it, c’mon man!”

“Who paid me? I knew this whole thing stank from way back.” Roche clicked the hammer back on the revolver for effect. That kinda theatricality worked on putzes like this kid in the buttoned shirt.

“Wait! Put the gun down and I’ll tell you. C’mon.” Markus almost had tears in his eyes and his cheeks had gone red. This was a man who wasn’t used to having guns pulled on him. Probably less used to being kidnapped by Corporation soldiers and dragged halfway across the Mojave.

Roche flipped the revolver onto his finger and slipped it into it’s holster. He was just as well off threatening this one with harsh words as a gun.

“Okay, shitstain. Spill it.” Roche took Alma’s bottle of vodka from his pack and dragged on it.

“May I?” Alex’s eyes got all kinds of wanting at the sight of liquor. Roche relented and handed him the bottle. “And do you have any water?” His mouth turned down at the taste of the potato liquor. Roche threw a water skin at him and he drank fully of that too. When Roche held his hand out for the bottle of vodka Markus handed it back.

Gasping a thank you, Markus sat down hard in the dirt. The liquor had already hit him. Roche cocked his head and frowned.

“Look. I’m gonna go find something light for a fire. You sit the fuck still and wait. When I get back I want answers. Got that?” Roche scuffed a boot.

Settling back with his palms behind him Alex Markus nodded and breathed deep.

The wind picked up for a few minutes while Roche was away gathering tinder and anything dried enough to burn. In the sand and dust that skimmed the edges of his sight, Alex Markus watched carefully lest the ether-thing that he and the Corporation knew as a construct would show itself again. He had been important enough for the Corporate boys to weed one out to guard him, and only they and his ‘father’ knew why. Was it worth telling this hunter?

If Markus’ sense was right then it might be worth it, but that was always a gamble with walkers.

ike sh

Roche returned to the makeshift campsite in the lee of the dunes within a few minutes. Providence had led him to a dry, dead bush and a few scattered boards from a house that had been blown in and out by bombs or shelling or whatever else. The boards were dry and there were enough of them to keep a fire going for some hours.

Alex Markus was seated back where he had been. The vodka bottle was between his knees and his head was slumped with his chin in his chest.

Roche said nothing and dug out a hole in the earth with the end of a board. He made a teepee of the boards and a padding of twiggy-bush branches underneath. the hunter flipped open his lighter with a ting of metal and lit the bushes.

Roche hobbled lucky with an end of rope and gave the mare another fistful of dried grass while he took her saddle down. The fire took quickly and Roche sat with his boots to the flame and his ass against his saddle.

“Where’s my rifle?” Roche asked calmly, holding his hand out for the vodka. He knew where the gun was, though.

“I’m sorry. I got worried.” Alex handed Roche the vodka bottle and clumsily and half-soberly pulled the A-Mat from his side and into his lap.

“Wasn’t gone more than fifteen minutes. You might have wanted to take the safety off anyhow.” Roche took the rifle from Markus and hitched it against the saddle while he dragged from the bottle. “It’s here. But couch it close against your shoulder if’n you’re gonna shoot it, kid. And be ready for it. Fucker will kick you backwards.” Roche tapped the safety on the rifle above and forward of the trigger-pull.

“I will. And I won’t shoot you with it, I promise. Just get me back.”

“Not the least worried about you, Markus-”

“Call me Alex?”

“Alex I ain’t a mite worried about you shooting me with this. This A-Mat would chew your arm up and kick you while you’re down for me. ‘Sides o’ which you ain’t the type.” Roche swigged vodka and swallowed thickly.

“The type?”

“Son you would drop trouser and do cartwheels if someone asked you politely let alone point a gun at you. Biggest wonder is why the Corporation needed three men to cage you. One schoolboy would have been enough.” Roche smirked and drank.

“I don’t like being made fun of.”

“Harsh world, harsh words. This is the epilogue of all things fuckwit and the world will fuck you, eat you and shit you out if you ain’t the type to stand tall and stare back.”

“You’re bitter. You’ve seen a lot?” The fuck was with this kid and the questions, he must have been drunk already, all ten stone of him.

“I’ve seen more than you or anyone will ever see, lad.”

“Except others like you.”

Roche laughed aloud. “And what is it that I am, Alex?” Funny being on a first name basis with this one already, at least in a one-way street fashion.

“A walker.”

“And where’s his prize, Slappy? He guessed the number of pebbles in the jar so get the kid a free beer.”

“What?” Alex had a real stupid look on his gob.

“Yes, lad. Yes. And I only say yes without a beat because you knew that already didn’t you? My time for questions.”

“Alright then.” Markus settled back on his butt a little. Agreeable little shit.

The half moon was rising in the east and the fire was burning on quickly through the dried wood. Roche tossed another board into the flames casting a million little embers into the air.

“What’s on December 13th?”

Alex screwed his mouth up before answering. “You need to get me back to the Res before that date.”

“Why?”

“Because of what the Corporation is about to do.”

“Which is?”

“Not the point.”

“It sure as shit is, lad. If it involves me and this job then it sure as all shit is the point.”

“They’re releasing constructs.”

“Which are?” Roche drank.

“Mutated etherfish.”

“Alright, put a pin in that. Who’s your daddy?”

“My father is dead, like I said. The man who I suppose posed as my father is a representative of the Res. A lieutenant named Kendall Miner is a resident official for the Res in Polkun County.”

“That’s the one.”

“Then that’s who it was. Their aim is to get me back before the 13th.”

“You work for the Res?” Roche lit a smoke and watched Markus fidget at the question.

“No. I worked for Ethercorp as a research analyst, in the applied sciences division. I got picked up by a recruiter when I was real young from back east. I was good with numbers and the sciences, physics, you know?”

“Hmm.” Roche made a continue motion with one hand.

“Well, I did real well with the Corp, this was after my father died that I started working for the Corp. No mother or other family to speak of. Anyways, I did well and after some time working in genetic research and realistics they moved me to ether research and I found out what they were doing.

The Corp has been working with ether for as long as it’s been around. Some years ago they managed to find ways to keep and contain fish in string fields. Manipulations of the ether using magnets and ionically bonded strands of protein. The kind of stuff that can be created in and exist in the ether. Once they’d captured a few dozen schools of fish they started doing. . .things, to them.”

When Alex went silent for nearly a minute Roche prompted him again. “Like?”

“The kinds of conceptual things that no one knows about. Even I wasn’t totally privy to their methods and I was on a higher level team. The kind of things that involved killing indigent wastelanders for their exit particles - the last breath bit of existence that some people theorize quantifies the state of being alive. They used anything and everything the could and they made these fish something different. They made the constructs.”

Both men were silent for some time. The walker lit another cigarette when Markus started up again, not wanting to stall the kid’s spilling by asking more questions.

“That’s when I went to the Res. They’re planning something for the 13th of December that involves the bridge-door between Terra 1 and Terra 2 in New San Fran. I believed they were going to militarize the constructs. I was close enough to the program that the Corp got to me in Polkun County when I was slated to meet Mr. Miner, the Res lieutenant and my contact.

From there I can only assume he hired you to bring me back to them before I was gone. The Res knows enough about what the Corp is doing and I was a key piece in helping them stop it.”

“That’s a lot of moving parts, kid.” Roche dragged long on his smoke.

“Yes, I suppose. And you’re a key to it.”

“Getting you back is my job. To your father or whoever the fuck wants to pay my other two-thirds. That’s all.”

e was s

“Why send a prototype-mutant-ethereal being to guard your skinny ass?”

“To make sure I didn’t fall into the Res.”

“Shooting you would have just been easier.”

“Excuse me!?” Markus tried to stand quickly and flopped all-tipsy back onto his ass.

Roche smoked and wished he had some chew to soften the sting of the vodka. “Just saying. If the Corporate boys didn’t want you to talk, shooting you would have done a more permanent and assured job of that than dragging you across a fifth of the continent bound and gagged.”

Alex Markus chewed on the idea. Swallowed it. Resigned himself to it and held out a hand for the vodka.

Roche passed Alex the bottle and watched the fire dance. “So why didn’t they just kill you.”

“Sounds like you’re asking yourself that and not me.”

“I am. If you knew you’d have spilled it by now. You’re drunk enough at this point.”

“Was that your plan? Get me drunk and then let me spill my guts? Bet you do that to all the girls.”

“Not a chance, kiddo. Just thought you could use a drink. Didn’t realize you’d polish most of that bottle.”

Alex replied by taking another sip, though a marketedly smaller one than before.

“Can you kill those things?”

“The constructs? I don’t know. That’s why the Res wanted my help. That’s why I reached out to them. I didn’t like the idea of a conquering force of constructs under the control of the Corporation with no one knowing how to fight back.”

“You’re a true hero, kid.” Roche chucked under his breath but Alex didn’t hear the sarcasm in it. “How’re you gonna help the Res if you don’t even know how to kill the things?”

“I don’t even know. But I can try. If they hadn’t reached out to me I might still be helping the Corp.”

“Thought you said you reached out to them.” Roche turned his eyes from the fire to the young man with the glasses and the button-shirt and the wispy hair. Markus was lost in the flames himself, well beyond tipsy and approaching the point of being too tired to make sense.

“I did. I- I think I’m drunk.”

“I know you’re drunk, shithead. Get some sleep. Plenty of time to talk on the way back to Polkun County and I got more I wanna know.”

“I got stuff I want to know of you, too. . .” The kid trailed off, barely finishing the sentence.

“Good luck, shithead.” Roche picked the bottle and swigged once more from it and lit another rolled smoke.

Alex Markus was asleep within a minute, curled in the dust with his arms tight against his chest and his shoes near the fire. He fitted all night and made a whimpering noise once or twice. He wasn’t drunk enough to wet, and somewhere past midnight he stood quietly, walked some paces away and pissed before coming back to the fire and laying back down without saying a word.

Roche didn’t sleep a wink. When the embers died down to nothing somewhere around the time the moon had fallen behind the mountains to the west, Roche had oiled and cleaned all of his weapons and loaded every chamber and clip twice over to be sure. Between weapons he would smoke and watch the world, waiting for a thing made of nothing and everything all at once to scream the noises of mice while it ripped itself out of the hills and came for them with meaty arms and stone knuckles.

But it didn’t come that night. And when Alex Markus woke dazed and dehydrated Roche gave him the water skin and they continued back up the 50 to the east.

o muc

Alex Markus chattered most of the morning away while Roche rode silently, smoking his cigarettes and rolling them against the groin of his jeans. Markus walked beside the horse at a good clip, asking now and then for Roche’s water-skin to waylay the hangover he’d incurred from the night before.

The landscape of dust and dead trees was spattered with steel skeletons and low brick walls that were all that remained of the world before the catastrophe. Above them, the sky was clouded and the sun shone only weakly.

“So, how old are you, Roche?”

“You sure as shit talk a lot.”

“And I could make the argument that you don’t talk enough.”

“Ain’t no need to talk when you’re in the badlands alone. Better make time to listen.”

“You don’t even talk to the horse?” Alex patted Lucky on the neck and the mare shied away from him a step. Even the damn horse wasn’t totally thrilled with the kid’s caterwauling.

“Lucky and I only been partners for this one gig, kid. Picked her up from the Emporium not long back.”

“Why?”

“You and your lot had motorbikes. I had to get right up on you quicker than usual.”

“Couldn’t you have just walked all day and all night? Might have been just as fast. The way you walkers do. Or just bought a synthetic.”

“Maybe I didn’t feel like it. Maybe I liked the idea of having some company. Walking all night might have worked, what makes you so sure I’m a walker.” Roche knew Markus knew, but if the kid wouldn’t shut up wouldn’t matter to get him talkative about like-minded things.

“I could feel it in you. You know? People been around and through the ether enough get to know the feeling of others that have seen the same things. The emptiness, the possibilities.”

“Possibilities?”

Markus got excited and started talking with his hands. “Yes. Think about it. It’s a blank canvas. The white is everything and it can become anything, we can create anything.”

“You’re sounding quite the Corporate boy.”

“I never wanted to see the ether weaponized. That was never my endgame.”

“Wasn’t quite what you thought any of it was, is it?” Roche looked at the boy for the first time this morning and saw that he really did look like hell. A person like Alex Markus would never have survived in the wastelands, unless he had grown up in them. This was a man who’d been nurtured by artificial lighting and an employee handing him three meals a day without compensation that didn’t come from the top down.

“No. I suppose not.”

“When they recruited you, did they tell you what you’d be doing?”

“No. They came the spring after my old man died. I learned . . .classically, I suppose you might say. I devoured books and they, well, they said that they could find me a place where a person like me might flourish.”

"Like you.”

“I’m not a soldier, I’m not a warrior-”

“And you’re not a survivor. Lots of folks learn the way you did. What’s that. . .classically?”

Neither spoke for a long time. Lucky nickering some miles down the road seemed to be the only thing that prompted Alex to speak again. “Is that how you learned, walker?”

“Maybe it was.”

h liqui

The library was a lifetime ago and then another. Roche could no longer remember the name of the old woman who’d ran it. Yet he remembered every crack and rub and ding in his Ruger revolvers. Did it matter?

It had been forty years in the white after Mollie. When Roche had returned for the three, there had been nothing left of the library but a dried shell. The books had made up several nights worth of bonfire fuel, and the rest was ash.

“Why’d you get all quiet?”

“Hoping you’d take a lesson from me, shithead.”

“Fuck you very much too, walker.” Markus kicked the dust along the 50.

“I might as well put a bullet in your skull too.”

“Then you wouldn’t get paid.”

“Nope but the silence would be priceless.” Roche lit a smoke, sloping along in the saddle.

“Is that all you care about then? Money?”

“Just about.”

“What about the brewing conflict? If Ethercorp succeeds in making weaponized ether constructs available to militaries or organizations it’ll change the face of conflict. The Res aims to stop that and you. . .a man of the ether have no qualms with letting them sort it out all on their own without batting an eye?”

“And why shouldn’t I?” Roche looked to the road ahead and wondered how long the talking would keep going on.

Alex Markus spread his arms wide. “Because this will affect everything! wars will be fought across planes of existence by soldiers that technically don’t even exist in any conjecture with us but can affect the world on a grand scale. They can destroy, they can impair and they can kill because they’re made of the particles that make up the particles that fabricate the nothing that is everything.”

Roche felt it bubble in his throat first before the laugh roared out of him train-like from the tunnel of his throat.

“And you’ll be the one to lead the charge into infinity!? Fuck yourself, Alex Markus. Fuck yourself and your righteous indignation. The world’s have been warring within each other for thousands of years and mankind finally fucked everything up enough that we broke the universe. And you’re worried that you won’t get your heroic last minute. and you’re not sure which side you’re even on are you?”

For a glorious minute the kid went silent.

Roche added. “If there was anything left worth fighting for in this world, shithead, I ain’t found it. I saw the pit of mankind one night and I took the white and the solace over these worlds. When I came back I saw this-

-a lifetime had gone by and nothing had changed. People were still fighting one another, fucking and raping one another and when they got scared or bored they were inventing phenomenal new ways to torture and murder each other. Time’s changed and people stayed the fucking same.

I went where the money was and kept myself off the line between humanity and animals. Ain’t much but a dark smudge anyhow. Gotta find that niche in this world, even if it is just surviving, and I’ve been doing that since before your granddaddy was born, shithead.”

Roche spurred Lucky into a canter and rode a mile ahead.

The dust kicked up by the mare’s hooves settled away and mingled with the dust of a dozen civilizations and the world didn’t miss a beat. Along the peripherals of existence the other variations of that same universe went along just as they had for millennia, and Roche watched calmly while Markus caught up, one scuffing, angry step at a time.

Roche smoked and polished his Ruger revolver with an oilcloth, remembering all the little dings and rubs and nicks.

Markus didn’t say a word when he caught up, but just kept on walking down the 50. Roche followed while the burnt sun slipped down behind them.

d and cel

Night cleared in like a flock of black birds and brought with it an unusual cold. Roche left the horse and his charge in the shadow of an old general store with a high wooden front by the side of the 50. When little wood could be found nearby for a fire Roche took a length of rebar and pried an armload of boards from the rear face of the building beside a pair of ancient propane tanks.

The fire burned brightly enough that Roche worried about it being too visible to the surrounding hills. He resolved not to sleep without a revolver snuggled in each palm.

“I’m sorry about today.” Was all Markus said when they had both sat beside the fire on a pair of old plastic crates. The mark took a draught from both the vodka bottle and the water skin in turn and passed them back to the walker.

“You’re just more talkative than most.”

“I could say you’re less talkative than most by the same token, then.”

“Ain’t no one worth talkin’ to this far out in the wastes.” Roche drank deeply and lit a smoke.

The pair were silent for a good while, listening to the yipping of coyotes in the sand dunes as they hunted night terns and rodents.

“You hungry?” Roche asked.

“Yeah. The dehydrated stuff the horse eats isn’t awful but it isn’t very filling either. They’re cecal fermenters and our bodies break down food differently. I don’t know how much more of that I can handle.”

“Alrigh’ then. Be right back.” Roche snubbed his cigarette beneath a booted heel and strode into the darkness away from the fire.

Orange smudges of oil on a lens blinked away. Roche crossed the dust between burned trees and hollow things until he crested a small hill.

Atop a car in a low point in the earth a half-dozen terns perched, avoiding a group of coyotes who jibbered and cried at them, trying to frighten their prey down.

Roche clicked the hammer back on his Ruger and aimed for the largest desert-dog.

A gunshot rang and the flash from the muzzle left a set of blinks behind his eyelids. Roche slid down to the carcass with his Ruger still drawn.

The coyotes has turned on their brother once he’d gone down. Roche fired a second shot into the sky and they scattered. The terns took off and the coyotes took their chance at chasing after their dinner.

’Sides a few bites on the legs and throat from it’s kin the coyote was whole with a bullet through the rear point of it’s skull. Roche took his boot knife to it’s belly and spilled it in the sand.

The walker slung his kill over his back where the blood wouldn’t ruin the oilskin and made his way back to the camp.

Alex Markus had the A-Mat in his lap again, having taken it from Roche’s saddle-sling.

“Fuck! I heard shots, is everything alright?”

Roche smiled down at him with thick teeth. “Boy, I said I was gettin’ food. Can’t eat what you don’t kill. Second shot was just to keep this’n whole and uneaten by his friends.” Roche dropped the coyote by the fire and took his boot knife to the skin at the base of it’s tail and back of it’s skull.

“Her.”

“Hm?” Roche kept skinning.

“It’s a she. There’s no penis.” Alex had his knee hugged to his chest and had set the A-Mat aside obediently.

“Fuck cares? He, she, they hump and they make more coyotes. Tastes the same.”

“It’ll taste better. They say that uncastrated males who produce excess testosterone have bitter meat. It’s the same with swine.”

Roche stopped. He removed his glove and stuffed two fingers into the space between the coyotes hide and it’s muscle. The hunter licked the red tips of his fingers. “Tastes fine. Lemme ask you something.”

“Sure?”

“You say you learned, erm, classically. What did you mean by that?”

Markus rolled the question through his mouth before he answered.

“In the old world. There were places called universities, colleges, places of higher learning where adolescents would be scholared in. The especially gifted were treated in high regard and trained to become masters at their chosen profession. A good number of these institutions still exist, in that the buildings still stand.

I grew up not too far from some of those buildings. Old libraries and research laboratories. I took it upon myself to learn to read and then to make the studies of the old sciences my own. The reading took a good long while and I had some help along the way, but I eventually, after years, had a very solid grasp on a number of old sciences. Mathematics, geology, veterinary, medical, physical, theoretic, even some old religious rhetoric studies. The kind of stuff the world forgot. The kind of stuff that. . .”

“Hm?”

“The kind of stuff that we learned that made us smart enough to do what we did to the world. We broke it.”

“We sure did. That’s why the Corporation and the Resistance both want you then?”

“I suppose so.”

Roche skewered the coyote up it’s ass and out it’s neck with the rebar and held it over the fire.

“can I ask you something, then?” Markus ventured.

“I suppose.”

“If it came down to it, who would you bring me to. Where do your loyalties lie. I think I have a right to know that at least.”

“Whoever pays more.”

“That’s it? You throw in with whoever is willing to pay you more?” Markus had a scared look.

“Has been for longer than you’ve been alive.”

“Why?” Markus seemed even more nervous to ask again.

“Because I’m a hunter-”

“And a walker.”

“And a walker, yes. You find your place in the world and you make it your own. I am what I am.”

“A drunk with a penchant for violence?”

Roche laughed aloud, the first good laugh he could remember in a long time. “That’s the funniest thing you’ve said yet, kid.”

“So you be who you are regardless of how it affects the rest of the world, regardless of the impact you can have?”

“That’s it.”

Both men were quiet again. The coyote roasted on it’s rebar skewer and what little fat was on the dune-dog popped and crackled. Roche pulled the animal from the flames and handed it across the pit to Markus. The man the Corporation and the Res wanted so badly stripped a bit of meat from the coyotes thigh and swallowed it whole.

“Thank you.”

“Welcome.” Roche bit into the coyote’s shoulder with bare teeth.

“Before all of this is over you’re going to know what you are in relation to all of this. How you can make a difference.”

“Tall order.”

“You don’t even know do you?” Markus seemed genuinely surprised.

“Know what, kid?” Roche chewed down another mouthful of meat and took a swig from the vodka bottle.

“The walkers. They’re choosing. And the ones who are not, well. . .the Corp is seeing to them with public executions.”

Roche stopped chewing his meat, swallowed whole and drank another draught. There was no reason to believe Markus, but it made things seem a little clearer.

He smelled campfire again.

“Those who are taking sides are the few and far between. Most of the walkers out there are as stubborn as you. They’re content with their loneliness and their freedom. They aren’t geared for a war. They’re geared to do what they do and be left alone doing it. You. . .you get me to the Res and you’ll see this all come to pass and to end.”

“They’re killing walkers?”

“By the hundreds. There are few of you to begin with. And the Corp is seeing that there are even less of you for when they launch the 13th step.”

Roche stood quietly and brought the vodka bottle with him. He strode a ways into the night and drank headily, staring across the dunes of dust lit silver by the waning moonlight.

lular m

After several more swigs from the vodka, Roche was taking long steps into the desert, swinging the bottle with wide arms like a town drunk, singing a song he barely remembered from a radio recording that played over from long ago.

“Are-ee espee-ee-sea-tea! Find out what she means to me. Are-ee espee-ee-sea-tea, flounder, ee-sea, tee-pee-tea!”

The walker remembered the old records. The black discs that played through the cornucopia-shaped machine. The record-player. The sound came out with a resound of static and age but the colored girl on the record could sing so beautifully.

From somewhere in the wreckage of the world someone had pulled a small black and white television and a box of tapes that played through a similar box that was little more than an extension of the tapes. The box had been engraved with Panasonic.

That was the first time he’d met Mollie Groux.

A boy of eight sitting alone amidst stacks of books in a decrepit library with holes in the roof so that half of the old manuscripts were moldering and rotted, their leather covers stripped away for food long ago and their chapters torn out as fuel for the burning times.

He’d sit there most days. Reading, learning things from old books, watching and rewatching tapes, listening to old records. When the old woman who watched the building was there she would teach him small things. She had been alive through the end. She had seen the end of the world and heard the ripping of the universe pulling itself apart at the seams. She was brittle and aged the way she might have been a part of the old library itself. On this day she wasn’t there.

The boy Roche had been sat with the television playing a silent film, one that had been made with no noise or words, such that the actions of those involved spoke for themselves. A man in a dapper jacket was convincing a woman of far younger to dance with him in the belly of a great building with marbled columns and a staircase that filled the background.

Electricity was a gift. And what meager wattage was put from the windmills atop the nearby hills was funneled into the small town where Roche had been born. The librarian was tightly-lipped about the little bit of electricity that she siphoned from the grid, but she believed that there was knowledge in those old tapes as well, and they ought to be experienced to understand with the eyes what came before.

Mollie peeked out from behind a stack of books. A sinewy little thing with dusty hair who ran like a boy. Roche had known she’d been watching him for some time. He knew the sounds and smells of the library better than any place, and he could sense when someone new came by.

She never said a word, and neither did he. The little girl sat with the little boy and together, in the gray light of the small black-and-white television the two children watched a pair who’s bones were less than dust dance across a mansion so extravagant it was the stuff of scripture.

He never heard her leave but one moment the boy was watching the television and she was there. When the tape ended and he removed it from the player he looked again and she was gone. The sun had been too low for another tape. The little boy took a book home for the nights reading and petered out of the library.

Somewhere over a century later, the walker in the long jacket with revolvers at both hips and a sawed-off on his thigh swung to and fro in the sand and the winds of the wastelands, his hat hanging on it’s leather thong and his boots full of dust. His cheeks were wet and his mouth had curled down in sobbing. He drew again from the bottle and sat down too hard.

atter a

The night moved forward with it’s plans and high into the nether regions of space all of the stars glowed as they slowly died. Roche leaned his weight against one knee pulled into his chest and swigged off of the bottle. A cigarette was lit and held between two fingers of the same hand. With his other the walker flicked the hammer of his Ruger, forward and back, forward and back. The clicking of the gunmetal was the only sound for miles in the wastelands.

The memory played over in a fast forward. Twelve-times motion and a gibbering of speech and sound and Roche was sixteen.

Harvest had come in, a ripe and bountiful one considering the nuclear ash that had breezed in from the west and covered a good deal of the crops for nearly a week before it was safe for the farm hands to go out and shake loose the soot from each stalk of corn and rash of beans.

Somewhere around the middle of October the farms would gather together in the grange and pool their crops, divide them and plan rotations for the next season. Most celebrations and holidays had died away with the catastrophe, but the town council believed in the morale that came with the October harvest festival.

While the farmers met with in the grange, the townspeople prepared a grand feast. Even some electricity was allotted for lights in the streets on strands of cord. There was dancing, there was a band, for one evening the world seemed alright.

Roche had started smoking the summer before and a hand-rolled cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth. His shoulders had grown broad from working at the mill, and his hands were leathery and thick. Sun-dried hair hung past his neck and over his cheeks. When he found the time, he still read and re-read his books feverishly.

And she’d been there that night. The yellow-fluorescence of the lights hanging over the street bounced rays off her hair. She had flowers from her mother’s garden in her hair, too. There was something shiftless about her dress. She was barefoot even though the first cold days of winter in the northeast had already set in.

She asked him to dance with a curled finger and her eyes.

Within the hour they’d borrowed a bottle of berry wine and split it between them. Their dancing grew silly.

By midnight they were well sloshed.

By midnight she’d kissed him, just the one time, and it had been just as sloppy as they’d been.

That was the first time he’d kissed a girl. He’d known other women since that night it ways he’d never known Mollie Groux. But his heart would always belong to her.

She’d fallen asleep with her head on his chest in McMullin’s hay loft. Old Man McMullin had been long gone, drunk and passed out by the time they’d snuck in. The both of them were gone before he woke.

Roche walked his Mollie Groux home and she planted a kiss on his cheek, her breath still vaguely smelling of wine.

Halfway home, Roche skipped a beat and sat with his boots in a ditch by the side of the road, watching the blue of the sky rotate into a shade of strange green. The world’s record slipped a needle and the walker was back in the Mojave, his bottle held by the neck and his cigarette ashed into nothing in his hand.

Roche dug out a little ditch with the heel of his boot, drunkenly thinking it was so similar.

The sky had turned the shade of sunglasses with the approaching dawn. Roche stood shakily. He belted back another draught, finding the bottle with barely a few drops remaining. He cursed his luck, spat, and turned back towards the old general store.

nd no

“You were gone a long time.”

“Scared I wouldn’t come back?” Roche walked up on the backside of the general store. Markus had the A-Mat beside him, taken again and was scooted close to the dead fire, getting what little warmth was left from it.

“I had a feeling you wouldn’t leave your horse behind.” Lucky nickered on cue. Good horse.

“You were right there. Paid good coin for this’n.” Roche patted the mare’s neck, dust puffed off her in little clouds.

“Where are we headed today?” Markus stood, his knees cracking stiffly, and stretched.

“Into the white. There’s a hole near here that don’t go far, not too deep, a peripheral one that’ll save us some time getting back to Parmiskus.”

“That’ll cut out how much?”

“We can bypass most of the 50 around Tahoe.”

“And you didn’t take that way down because you might have caught us sooner, unawares?”

“You’re catching on.” Roche realized he was still holding the empty vodka bottle. Bypassing Tahoe would also mean he wouldn’t have the chance to get more from Alma. But, there was good whiskey in Parmiskus. The walker threw his saddle over Lucky’s back and cinched the leather girth snug. “Good girl.”

They set off east again, the rising sun a blotch in the sky that made Markus squint, and Roche don his sunglasses. A few precious hours of silence ebbed on with nothing to show for their progress but footprints in the dust and the slow clockwork of the moving sun before either spoke. In true form, it was Alex Markus who broke the quiet.

“Have you thought any more about what I said? While you were on your evening walkabout?”

“What part of it?” Roche lit a smoke and longed for a chew, at least the dip didn’t dry his mouth so bad.

“The part about choosing sides?”

“Nope.”

“And why is that?” Markus was genuinely curious.

“Why choose sides that ain’t my own. I’m on my own side here, kid.”

“You keep calling me kid and you’re not a boatload older than I am. In body, I mean. Doesn’t that bother you?”

“Also nope. When you’ve been around more than a century even geezers is kids.”

“I suppose. But being on your own side isn’t the way to go in this, Mr. Roche.”

“Just Roche.”

“Roche, right. As I said, you’ve no reason to not pick a side. Though I’d recommend the Res.”

“Why can’t I just be me and do what I want in this world, then?” Roche asked flippantly. “A schoolgirl’s gotta be a schoolgirl, right?”

“Not anymore. The Ethercorp, they’re executing the likes of you.”

“Like to see them try.”

“The have and they are!”

“Prove it.”

“Fine!” Markus stopped walking abruptly and whirled on the walker. Had he been anyone else Roche’s hand would have gone to his revolver but Markus was unarmed, and was probably even less dangerous if he was armed, clumsy thing that he was. “Think about it. How many walkers have you seen trotting their way about the world in the last year? How many? Somehow you’ve managed to avoid the conflict until now, wherever you’ve been and whatever you’ve been doing. . .neither here nor there. But, somehow you’ve been missed.”

“Been exactly that. Been here and there doing this and that. Hunter stuff. Jus’ been doing hunter stuff. And for the words they’re worth, kid. . . hunters and walkers don’t necessarily even fucking like one another. I like them all about as much as I like anyone who talks as much as you do, and that ain’t much at all. Been years gone by where I ain’t seen but a few souls anyway, and none of them hunters or walkers, besides. Not that uncommon. What other evidence I got from you?”

Markus got stupid and quiet. “Nothing, I guess. Except the construct that came after us when you picked me up.”

“The there-and-not-there-armored-gorilla-madness thing? Yep, that was something I’ve never seen before.”

“Then what I’m telling you is credible.” Markus punched his palm.

Roche smoked quietly, sitting in the saddle with this small man in front of his horse, heaving breath and sweating with excitement or exasperation, one tiny balled fist clutched in his tense, spidery fingers.

“Is it though?”

“You’re so fucking stubborn.”

"That at the very least is true.” Roche wheeled Lucky around Alex Markus and kept her walking down the cracked pavement. Along the 50 going east, the burned trees that petered across the landscape gave the faint appearance of movement, when in truth it was just a trick of the eye in the way the dust storms swirled through them.

Markus fell in step beside the walker atop his horse and stuffed his hands in his pockets like a pissed off kid.

“Tell me this at least. Who is killing the walkers. If there’s one thing I know about people like me it’s that the older we get the tougher we are for human beings to kill.”

Markus answered matter-of-factly. “Other walkers. One’s who’ve turned their coats.”

“That makes sense, too, I suppose.”

“What do you mean ‘human beings’? You’re human too, Mr. Roche.”

“Nah, I ain’t. I ain’t been like you for a good long while.”

w im a

Some miles further down the 50, Roche turned his mare off the highway and into the aspen forest to the south of the road. What was left of the trees was the bare-bones and husks of once proud evergreens. The rocks that supported them had been bleached by the sun. The rivulets of mountain water that had once run down into mighty rivers and fueled Colorado Lakes spilled only water thick with salt and trace minerals that drinking the stuff too long wore your teeth to nubs.

Lucky was sure of foot picking her way through the hills and along the faces of higher landmarks. Roche followed the saddle with his hips in the way of a long-rider, settling his weight low. He smoked and shut his eyes and smoked some more, peeking up only occasionally to see that they were making along the appropriate path.

“Is this the way to the hole?” Markus asked after a time, his voice thick with dehydration.

Roche tossed his water skin and cursed himself for always forgetting that he needed less water than the average folk. “Yep. Along this ridge a ways more and we’ll meet the fella who keeps the gate.”

“A gatekeeper?”

“Something of the sort. More like a man who has little of a lot left in this world.”

“Who is he?”

“You’ll see, kid. Might be the first and last one you’ll see.”

Roche let Markus chew on the vagueness of his statement and savored the return to quiet. Besides the shimmer of hooves against stone and dust, the rustle of his leather duster and the snapping of sticks and kicking of stones along the way, the world was queerly at peace with it’s epilogue for the nonce.

The travelers arched over an elbow-bump in the hills and the sound came. It was a sound that pre-dated civilization. Hammering like a heartbeat on a strike of panic, and the tongue and cheek howling of a world that had been decimated thrice over before it had even been recorded in the histories.

Bom-bom-bom-bom-bom-bom-bom-bom-bom-bom. . .

“Drums?” Markus whipped around looking, his mind quickly concluding that the sound was echoing across the hills and could be coming from anywhere. “Who’s playing drums?”

“Our gatekeeper. Keep on movin’. We ain’t far.”

The drumming and ululating vocals grew clearer and louder, crisp noise in the red afternoon.

They descended another rise in the earth and now Roche could smell the campfire. The sounds of loss and tragedy were thick in the vocals and Roche could feel their direction. He turned Lucky towards the source of the singing and Markus followed.

In a dent in the earth, a bomb crater, sitting at the epicenter amidst animal drawings scratched in the earth in massive scale was an indian.

His clothing was frilled and frayed leather, tanned with care, and a pair of jump-boots. His breast was bare and painted with red clay, and around his throat hung a respirator with two soda-can tanks for filtering the air. In one palm he held a wide drum, and he beat it in timeless rhythm with the other palm. His voice was the high-and-low song of his people, and it was at all times both beautiful and haunting.

Roche approached on horseback and only slid from the saddle when they reached the edge of the crater.

“Don’t step on his drawings. Walk between them.” Roche chided Markus, who was wide-eyed on starstruck at seeing a Native American this far into the wastelands, probably one of the only few hundred remaining in the world.

Roche led his mare carefully through salt etchings of great birds and bears, men with many faces and the world borne on the backs of shelled turtles.

As the hunter grew near the shaman took no notice, it was not until Roche in his long oilskin coat, hat tipped low, leading his bay mare stood within ten feet of the old indian that the music abruptly stopped.

“Hello, Wind In the Trees.”

The shaman looked up. His hair was sleek and black and worn in a braid that fell to his buttocks. Setting his drum down the old shaman held his palms in his lap facing the sky. “Walks With Many Legs. It has been some time since you came to these parts. What brings you?”

“A job, Wind. I require passage.”

“You spend much time walking in the spirit realm, Walks With Many Legs. I see more and more of the great spirit’s essence surrounding you each time we meet. Who is your fellow?” Tired eyed nodded to Markus across Roche’s shoulder.

“This is my charge. I’m to return him to my employer in Polkun County.” Roche gave Alex Markus a ‘sit-still-and-shut-up’ look with his eyes and a turn of his mouth.

“The wind whispers of that place. The places northeast have seen hardship only since last you passed through. There is a white-eyed wolf at your heels, Walks With Many Legs, and he will tail you until the afterlife.” The shaman, Wind In The Trees, sat stock-still, palms still up and spoke only with his mouth, like a puppet whose master hid deep in the earth.

“I killed men in Polkun County and a some more along the 50 to get this charge. I don’t imagine there’re many spirits all too happy with me at this point.” Roche rolled a smoke from his tobacco pouch in his palm and let Lucky’s reins slide down his wrist.

“All the more legs to walk along beside you. You feel the strength of their numbers growing. Wise man say, he who walks along too-many feet may trip that much more often.” The shaman eyed Roche’s boots as though he expected to see many pairs of shoes beneath Roche’s duster coat, though there was only one.

“You’ve told me before, Wind In The Trees. And this wise man say that wind through these trees brings only dust and ruins your drawings.” Roche spread a hand, now with a lit smoke between his fingers, around and pointed out the acres and acres of dead and fallen trees and the gusts of dust-devils who threatened to erase the old indian’s animal drawings in the crater.

“The wind brings with it only change and the chance to make things anew. The great spirit knows that change is inevitable and that with great change comes new life.”

“So keep to your scribbles and allow me passage, wise one.”

“We make trade, then.” The shaman stood quickly, spry for a man who looked to be nearing a hundred.

Roche settled back on his heels and looped his thumbs into his gunbelt. “I’m afraid I don’t have much this time around.”

“We drank all of the booze.” Markus piped.

Roche sneered over his shoulder at the kid. Fucking idiot. Told him not to speak.

“Pity. We make trade for other things, then.”

“I got guns, ammunition, some odds and ends, and smokes. Take your pick, Wind. We need to keep moving.”

“The Wolf is on your heels, hunter. Great Spirit has shown me the thing that follows you while you came. A great spirit of ill-temper. It seeks the one you bring with you. He is tainted in the way that the spirit is.”

“You’ve seen the thing?” Roche turned and look back the way they had come. He could see nothing, he could sense nothing, but the old indian was seldom wrong.

“I have, and it comes for your companion. But, we must make trade before you may enter the spirit world.”

“How about I trade you getting the fuck out of here, Wind In The Trees. That things that’s coming, it ain’t friendly. You’re better off getting out of here as well.”

Wind In The Trees pursed his lips and looked to the sky, his eyes went far away. “A long time ago the white man pushed my people from these lands. they kept my people in special reservations where we were not guests but prisoners. They gave us false gifts and treated my people like undesirable things. When the Great Spirit opened the spirit realm for men of strange talent to enter, and burned away the wretchedness of the world, he gave my people back our lands. But, few are my people now. Coyote has been trickster again.”

“Yeah. So you’re not coming?”

“No, my friend. I would ask some of your tobacco. And grant you passage.”

“Alrigh’ then.” Roche reached for his tobacco poke, and emptied a portion of it into a leather sack that Wind In The Trees held open. The old indian pinched some into a long pipe and lit it with a match, sitting back in the center of the crater amidst a cloud of smoke. “Thank you, Wind In The Trees. Are you certain you won’t come with us?” Roche already made the assumption that the shaman wouldn’t come. He hitched his gunbelt on his hips and took Lucky by the reins and began leading her past the indian, through his salt etchings. Still stuck and staying quiet, Markus followed.

The shaman did not accept nor decline, he merely remained seated in his crater, smoking long curls of blue. Roche walked his mare on, and in a blink of motion had drawn his revolver and whipped about when he saw the shaman’s hand dart out and grip Alex Markus on his leg.

Markus stood dumbly. The shaman was not hurting the boy, just gripping him tightly, keeping him from moving forward.

“Wind, I’m gonna have to ask you to release my charge. No disrespect an’ I appreciate the cheapness of the passage toll, but I need to get him movin’ again.”

Wind In The Trees acted as though he had not heard the walker, but instead looked to Alex Markus and spoke in monotone.

“The Great Spirit does not walk beside you. What name are you called by?”

“Markus. My name is Alex Markus. Why?”

“I name you Speaks Without Words. I pray that my friend Walks With Many Legs will see you before long in the light of a clean sun. Go.”

The shaman released his grip on Markus’ leg, slowly turned back to face into the wastelands beyond his crater full of drawings and smoke his pipe.

Roche took the kid by the arm and pulled him past the shaman. They walked in tandem ten yards beyond Wind In The Trees.

“Wha-” Markus started to say. Roche took him by the shoulders, turned him around and shoved him through the hole into the void.

lone wi

Flip-switch. Static. Deaf sound and then a slap in the face of absence of everything. Walking into a hole was less like traipsing across the shorelines of the white. It was stepping into the foundation void of all things.

The hole was not an obvious thing. The indian guarded a vague ripple in the landscape. A tear in the substance of things that was non-existent unless seen at an angle, from a perfect perspective, at a certain height, when the light was just right.

The gatekeeper knew it was there, the walker knew it was there. Any average passerby would have merely sensed unease and a general discomfort with their surroundings. Markus claimed to have experience with the white, but whether that had been a bold-faced lie or a push to seem more reliable was the case, but also neither here-nor-there.

The young man in foggy glasses and a buttoned shirt did what folks sometimes did when they passed into the ether for the first time. The lack of any sensory stimuli was a shock to the system, and he stood silent for several seconds before he started to panic.

“I-, Oh my. Oh, the-. . .oh, fuck, what is? Shit, shit, shit.”

“Relax. We crossed over to the ether. Ain’t nothing worth yammering about.” Roche entered the void a step behind the kid with the horse in tow along her reins. Somehow, somewhere previous, the horse had seen this white before. Lucky was either stupid, afraid of absolutely nothing, or had done this before. She shook her mane and nickered, and kept walking behind her rider like nothing had happened. Good horse.

“But, where-”

“Save it, kid. You’ve never done this before, have you?” Roche eyed Alex Markus up and down, keenly aware that his coat and hair were falling strangely around him, governed only by the semblance of physics that Roche had forgotten during his first forty years wandering nothing. Once you stopped believing in rules the rules stopped believing in you.

Markus on the other hand, had clothing and hair that fell naturally, like he had never stepped off of Terra 1.

“I! Shit. I done this. I’ve been here, not here. I’ve been through the white, just never. . .oh, fuck.”

“Save it. If you’ve had any experience with this shit you’ve been doing it peripherally. Along the fringes. You’ve never dove in. Why did you lie?”

“Lie?”

“You said you had plenty of knowledge and experience. I thought you knew what this was. And now I’ve even got Johnny Redskin telling me that you’re lying to me.”

“How?”

“Speaks Without Words? You’re talking a lot but not saying anything. And now we’ve got a long walk through nothingness and if you don’t start telling me the fucking truth then I’m gonna leave you to wander the white until you go blind, deaf and mad. Try spending an eternity in a world where you can’t physically die and without any stimulation to any senses your mind retreats to the only anchor of realism left and that’s itself. You’ll drive yourself to a gibbering, drooling, mad fool before seven days pass and you’ll be stuck here forever.”

“Fuck me.”

“If you were prettier I might do it just to add insult to injury you simple fuck. Now talk.” To add whatever measure of ‘fuck you’ to the conversation, Roche drew his revolver slowly and rested the end of the barrel on Markus’ lips.

Lucky blew out her breath. Good horse.

th thi

When Roche first stepped out of the white he hadn’t been sure how much time had passed. A year, a decade, a single day, it made little difference. The sensory deprivation settled in within the first few minutes. Longer than an hour with no company was enough to drive those of simple mind completely mad.

He’d gone in with a purpose. She’d been long gone by the time he’d even crossed the static-flip into nothing. Nothing had remained after a few minutes in the ether. The way out couldn’t be clearly seen. So he’d started walking.

The white began to make sense. The holes never changed their locations. The constructed void that was the ether was not fluid nonsense. There were patterns and subtle nuances that were invisible until you saw them. The boy who was Roche became something else. The white crept into the corner of his eyes and reflected back beneath his lids. He could feel it cushioned beneath the heels of his boots and kneading the muscles that wrapped his bones.

He saw the truth of the world, and he could taste the founding blocks of creation. They were bitter things.

Roche found the way out. But not before he had found all of the ways out and their respective ins. When he finally stepped from the ether he was a different man. The boy who had gone into the nothing for his Mollie Groux had been eaten by the wolf at his heels and the white that fueled it’s terrible little soul.

The world had not surprised him. It had blown him backwards. He’d played the moment over in his mind for an assembled eternity and imagined what colors would look like. What the breeze would feel like on his skin. What the taste of the first bit of oxygen would be and the euphoria it would bring to his lungs. What had stunned him more than anything had been the gradual realization that nothing had changed.

This had led the walker first to believe that no time had passed, or perhaps even a mere day or week and that time had passed differently in the white. But he’d been wrong. The white had no linear or cyclical time, it was the big freeze. Roche had not changed, and the world had changed neither. Only both assumptions had been wrong.

Roche had become something more.

And forty years had ratcheted by on rusted gears.

And the world was the same. Irrefutably and terribly the same.

s grea

Markus held his hands up slowly, open. Roche clicked the hammer on the Ruger and pushed it tighter against the kid’s teeth, listening the chattering of ivory on gunmetal.

“Ain’t gonna ask you again, kid. Start talkin’ sense.”

“I. . .fucking. . .swear. I’ve been telling you the truth.”

“Dead walkers, experimental etherfish, divided factions of corporate and rebellion, you being on the run from both and your background which sounds incomplete and that’s the best damn way I can make it sound. Start from the beginning and don’t stop until I say boo. Got it?”

“Yeah. Yeah, fuck. Can. . .can we get the gun out of my face, though?” Markus went cross-eyed trying to focus on the revolvers barrel resting on his bottom lip.

“Nope. Just start talkin’, kid.”

Markus shifted his eyes and swallowed hard. He took a tentative step back, not to run but just to get the revolver off of his lip. Roche kept the gun trained on him but didn’t bother putting the Ruger back in his face.

“Look. The conflict is real. The Corporation is weaponizing etherfish, it’s true, you saw them. The Corporation is taking walkers for their war on the Res and the Res is doing the same thing.”

“Why are you the crux point in all this, then?”

“I helped create the constructs. I was on the team that developed the machines that batter them with an environment.”

“Say again.”

“Think about it!” Alex Markus started to get animated, like he was throwing a sales pitch. “All life is the product of stardust, electricity and a proper chemical environment. Look back at what the primordial soup created. Millions of species competing for a niche in a world that only exists as a proper breeding ground for other life forms because it is the perfectly placed celestial body revolving around a burning ball of gas that provides a sufficient light and dark cycle for organisms to thrive.”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

“Don’t you see. We created that environment within the white. A closed case of primordial existence where we exposed etherfish to the same set of circumstances that caused life to exist in the first place. Exit particles and all.”

“Look kid.” Roche holstered his gun. “Etherfish ain’t alive. They aren’t blessed with the same terrible affliction as every other being on this planet. They’re a conceptual nuance.”

“Conceptual nuance! I love it! Perfectly summed up, Mr. Roche. Yes! They are, but what if they weren’t quite?”

“Explain further, dipshit.” Roche hooked his thumbs into his belt and leaned back. All around them the white stayed static and featureless. A nether-region of the cosmos as inconsequential and damning as the space between pages of a book. Without the space there were no pages, but it’s form was as needless as a bottle of whiskey to a corpse.

“They aren’t. The just aren’t. These conceptual nuances as you so eloquently put it, are very much alive. And I know what you’re going to say! They can’t be, right!? There’s no food in the white, there’s no light or dark there’s no atmosphere there’s no nothing. Yet here we are!”

“If you know the white, son you know that it adapts to our preconceived perceptions of things. We expect to be breathing and alive and not hungry all the time and need sleep and all of the other normalcies that living things just live with on a day-to-day basis, and the white, being the blueprint for all things, adapts to us. Believe me, kid. I lived in, on and with this ethereal nothing for forty years.”

“F-forty years? My god.”

“Ain’t the point or the idea, kid.”

“How did you-”

“Said, it ain’t the point.” Roche put his palm on the butt of his revolver once more.

“Right! Right, of course. What I was getting at-” Markus began, taking another step back and steadying himself “-was that the etherfish are alive. Not in the sense of things we know as being alive, but in a way that I doubt even old-world scientists with unending funds and nearly limitless technology could understand. They’re alive in the way that microorganisms on far away asteroids are alive but have been frozen for eons. They’re alive in the way that mushrooms can communicate telepathically. They’re alive in the way that mankind once was before the advent of the wheel, when we used ever-presence of sound to move mountains.” Markus was nearly out of breath from the rapture of his speech.

Roche stared quietly at Alex for some time, if it could be called time in the ether. “You’re saying mushrooms are telepathic?”

“I’m saying that for the finite amount of things we as a species understand, there are boundless counts of ideas that we can’t even begin to grasp.”

“And?”

“And that a boy from a small town with a better-than-basic knowledge of physics and biology managed to spark a new form of life between one we do not understand and the primordial ooze that effectively created all living things.”

Roche pursed his lips and stuffed a rolled cigarette into his mouth. He flipped open his lighter and inhaled cool-blue smoke with a menthol crisp.

Alex Markus leaned in close. “What governs how the smoke curls from the end of your cigarette?”

“My understanding of the way smoke is supposed to curl in context with your own.”

“Exactly. Now I helped create a slue of beings who can not only exist in the ether and can control the nothingness in the way that you and I can, but can cross over to our own plane and manifest themselves.”

Roche let Markus’ words settle before he responded.

“Then you, kid, have damned us all.”

Roche led Lucky further into the white without saying another word, watching the smoke curl off of his cigarette in intricate loops and waves that came as he imagined they should. Alex Markus did the only thing he could, he followed the man who knew the way out of nowhere.

t wild d

“So what happens now?”

“You ask like you already know the answer, and I’m betting you do.” Roche sighed.

“You get me to the Res because they’re the ones paying you?”

“Ding, ding, ding we have a winner.”

“You saw television as a boy?” Markus seemed more intrigued than slighted by the sharpness of Roche’s retort.

“Occasionally. Often enough I suppose. Old tapes. Leftovers from the old-world.”

“I should have liked to have seen them. You had a very interesting upbringing, Roche.”

“You don’t know nothing about where I was brought up.”

“No. I don’t. But I think I’m starting to narrow it down.” Markus rubbed his chin. The two of them, leading the horse, had been walking abreast through the white, Markus taking his cues from Roche. Their direction had subtlety changed over the course of their time in the ether, but only by the smallest of degrees on the compass. “Forty years in the white. Plus, as a reasonable guess you were in your twenties when you made the choice to enter the white, and then how long outside the ether since then, again?”

“Kid if you’re still bent on finding out how old I am it’s safe to say that even I don’t know exactly anymore.”

“One-hundred twenty at the least.”

“Maybe.”

“But then you could be as old as one-hundred sixty.”

“What’s that old saying?”

“One-hundred eighty!?”

“You’re only as old as you feel.” Roche stopped in his tracks. Fuck. There is was. Again.

Markus stopped and something in Roche’s face must have given him away, because the look Markus gave him said it all. “Roche. . .the fuck?”

He’d smelled it again. Here of all places. That lingering smell in a place that ought to have no scents or sights or feelings or emotions associated with anything sensory.

The white was the absence of all things. Yet that stinking campfire was still lit somewhere.

“Roche?” Markus looked up at Roche in his eyes beneath the brim of his hat. “Man, what the hell, you alright?”

“Tell me something, smartass.”

“Sure?” Markus’ face continued to reflect Roche’s. He was clearly frightened by the deeping lines in the walker’s skin.

“What does it mean when someone keeps smellin’ something that ain’t there?”

“Like what?”

“Fuckin’ whatever, dipshit! Does it matter? I keep smellin’ it and it sure as shit ain’t there. Same smell, over and over, won’t quit. What’s that mean to you?”

“Sounds medical. Look I bet the Res has people that’d know better. Doctors and surgeons and-” Markus’ voice caught in his throat. His eyes were watching over Roche’s shoulder.

There was something moving in the white.

og at m

It was Roche’s turn to ask. “What? What is it?”

Markus’ mouth hung open. He spoke over a swollen tongue. “There’s something out there.”

Roche whirled and watched over his shoulder. There was nothing. The white was a featureless vision of absolutely nothing. There was no ripple in the nothing. Not a speck of color in the pristine slate of the ether. No creature, man or animal, stood against the backdrop. But even Roche couldn’t argue with the feeling.

The smell of campfire immediately forgotten, he’d been distracted by it, the hunter’s senses tingled with static electricity. Something wasn’t right. That was undeniable.

“Do you see it?”

“Nothing to see, kid. But you ain’t wrong. Something don’t feel right.” Roche drew his Ruger’s and tipped his hat back with a gun barrel.

“Yes. It’s there.”

Roche strained his eyes. The walls of the white were all at once an inch from his eyes and beyond sight in the distance. The white flickered. Something the walker had never seen in all his endless years wandering through the nothing. Even the presence of etherfish could cause nothing more than a vague unease and a hairline ripple in the fabric of things. But here, now, like a dying fluorescent light the white had blinked.

It had taken a blink of a portion of a second, so fast that even Roche was doubtful if it had happened at all. Maybe the walker had just blinked his eyes and not realized it. Then it happened again.

The ether shuddered and like a light against a closed eye there remained a hideous gray shadow, fading into the white. It beat red for a half-moment, like an organ, and then the shape slipped down into the floor of the ether, beneath the walker and his charge.

“Did-”

“Yeah, kid. I saw it that time.”

“It dove under-”

“Yep. It sure did. We need to move. Get on the horse.” Roche pulled Lucky’s reins and shouldered the mare towards Markus.

“But I don’t know where I’m going.”

“‘Course you don’t. If that thing comes at us though, you kick the horse and you fuckin’ go. I’ll find you.”

“How will you find me?”

“Are you kidding me with this right now? If it comes you go. I’ll worry about finding you. Not my first rodeo.” Roche took Lucky’s reins, Markus sitting in the saddle and started leading the horse further through the ether, keeping his eyes over his shoulder.

The not-thing shuddered like it was cold. It crept like a tape that’d been played too many times, through static and noise and white nothing. It shifted, nearer and farther away without a second of notice. It shivered and it danced. The shape was that of a long-bodied lizard with far too many legs. It moved like a swimmer, gyrating and slipping through the white like the ether was liquid. It was near and far and under them and even with them.

“Roche?”

“Eyes front kid. I’m gonna drop the reins and you take them up. If I give you the go ahead, you spur the horse on and get as far from here as you can. You got it?”

“Y-yeah. Yeah, I got it.” Roche let the reins go and Markus took them up. The walker started walking backwards, facing the construct as it jittered through the white behind them, both a stone’s throw away and miles in the distance at once.

“Kid?”

“Yeah?”

“Any advice on how to kill this thing?”

Alex Markus slumped and his jaw went loose. “It’s alive. If it’s alive it can die, right?”

“Bullets are always bullets. Get going on, kid.”

When Markus simply sat for another moment, Roche slapped Lucky on the ass with the barrel of his gun and she took off at a canter. Within seconds Markus had tightened his legs and settled in the saddle, he spurred the mare to a gallop and was quickly disappearing into the ether.

Roche stood solidly in the middle of a vast endlessness of nothing. The walker clicked the hammer’s of his Ruger revolvers and gritted his teeth.

Silently the construct fiddled forward, an amoeba figure of neither reality or pure ether, cocking something like a confused head with staccato movements.

“Hey, you!” Roche shouted at the thing. It’s attention snapped to the walker in the wide-brimmed hat and duster coat that was pointing two revolvers at what was vaguely it’s chest.

Roche pulled the triggers and charged forward, the heels of his boots making no noise in the void.

y heel

If the thing had any emotions, it was certainly for a moment surprised. Two small holes appeared in the vague lizard-fish shape. It occurred only fleetingly to the hunter as he sprinted towards the construct that this was a different not-thing than had chased them from the crater where he’d found Markus.

It made a noise with a gaping mouth that opened in it’s throat. It cried out a sound in the endless white that sounded like creaking boards. The construct flitted beneath the plane that Roche stood on and burst upward screaming like wood. The holes in the construct stayed open, weeping something like milk.

So it bleeds, the hunter noticed. He fired his weapons again at the breeching many-legged-lizard-fish the color of morning fog.

More holes in the thing opened. So the hunter kept shooting, his feet moving under him and he drew down upon the construct.

Shrieking, the construct flipped to it’s side and lashed out with one of it’s clawed legs. The walker was a master of the ether, of his surroundings. Ages within the celestial nether had taught him well. Roche leapt up over the swiping claw and holstered one revolver and drew his boot knife with two quick flips of his wrist. He sailed down onto the body of the construct with the blade edged downward. The razor-edge of the knife opened against the constructs body. More milky blood bubbled from the wound and flowed out into the ether like dust in a breeze. Roche rolled over his shoulder, somewhere to the construct’s left, if it had a left.

He got to his feet and held the knife back handed before his eyes like a slum-fighter. He worked a glance at the blade while keeping his eyes on the construct. There was nothing on the edge of the blade. No residual blood or secretions. The construct seemed to be bleeding bits of itself, misting them away into the ether. None of the bits of the thing had stayed behind on the knife.

It’s form became more recognizable. The lizard-fish-thing scaled over with bits of mirror-like flesh the color of old boards. This was a thing that could not decide if it was real itself, or whether it was made of flesh or ether or something as mundane as barnwood. It bled all the same.

Roche slid his knife into his boot and pulled the sawed-off from his thigh.

The construct murmured a guttural noise and slumped. It could not seem to decide, either, if it was wounded or not. It’s half-existing body continued to bleed dusty bits of itself while it slapped itself against the floor-plane that Roche walked up to it on.

A misshapen mouth twisted across it’s wooden-scaled throat. It screamed a barely audible sound and opened wide. Roche stuffed the sawed-off downward into it’s maw and pulled both barrels. Scatter-shot burst through the back of the construct’s head and neck where the hundreds of bits of lead dispersed into the ether, where it fizzled into nothing as the void.

The construct went silent and the absence of sound clouded into the ether again.

Roche heaved breath, standing over the body of the construct. His chest rocked, though in the void he was not breathing anything at all.

Beneath and beside his boots, the construct seemed to flow downwards, it’s body as much melting as going limp. It’s mouth hung wide open, tearing down it’s neck further and further past it’s many legs and to it’s groin. The construct tore in half through a wound that refused to stop tearing.

Roche watched as the thing faded, it’s colors and textures dying away into the white of the ether.

It rotted before his eyes into pure nonexistence.

He’d watched someone disappear in the same way a long, long time ago.

She was gone now.

And so was the construct. Nothing left of the thing but a vague feeling that something had been at his feet just a moment ago.

Another moment passed and Roche had almost forgotten that it had been there at all.

The walker turned and felt with his senses out across the white.

Markus was far away. Lucky had stopped running. Roche felt him in the distance on his horse. The walker started walking.

s - stop

On and on the void stretched. It was all and nothing. Roche kept on walking. He’d done this for forty years straight once, lost and alone in the coalesced nothing that made up untold numbers of parallel realities. It was all very poetic. So much so that Roche lit a smoke and wished he still had some liquor.

How far or how long Markus and Lucky had ridden was had to tell. The formless and timeless white stretched infinitely, but with characteristics that were tellable only to the most experienced of walkers. A place where the plane of impossible evenness was off by a bare hint of nothing for a pace. A mirror-sheen spot the size of a pinhead that appeared only when seen from directly above .The white was impossibly perfect tempered steel, tainted only by the barest irrevocable bits of warped reality.

He walked on and on, feeling with his senses to track his charge and his horse. The walker continued, keeping careful, automatic track of the subtle nuances of the white as he went.

In an endless world of white nothingness, Roche was entirely aware of where he was.

He expanded his senses, sending tendrils of white feeling out into the created void and looked for his oldest friend. He who had stalked him so long ago and had always found him in the nothing nearly every time that Roche entered the ether.

Ah. . .there he was. Way away into the endlessness. A cosmos and a galaxy and only a hop, skip and jump farther. But, the wolf was there, indeed.

He’d started following Roche some many dozens and dozens of years ago. Roche had made the mistake of asking old Wind In The Trees about the wolf. Wind In The Trees had a different interpretation of the wolf that followed Roche with his pale white eyes.

For the indian, the wolf was the soul that Roche had left behind when he first entered the white, the youth and the luster and the innocence that a human being left behind when he became a walker.

For Roche, it was just some poor scavenger that had wandered into a hole in the world without meaning to, and had never gotten back out. Without a conscious sense of itself it had forgotten that it was ever hungry, or tired, or should have died ages ago, it only knew moment to moment that it was still a wolf, and that the white was still endless, so walk a little further. . .walk a little further.

And nothing became of it, until the wolf had seen Roche ambling by.

He’d been a young walker then, but the wolf had taken to him all the same.

The wolf followed him a ways at a cautious distance, scampering further back any time Roche attempted to come close.

It danced along his peripheral vision and spooked when Roche made a sound. And it followed at a walk a little further.

The only time the wolf hadn’t followed Roche was when he’d stepped from the white through a hole.

That first day he’d sort of hoped he could lead the wolf back out into the world. But the wolf either didn’t understand where the walker had gone, suddenly disappeared, when he stepped back out of the white. . .or he just didn’t wanna go back to the real world.

But there, far into the reaches of everything and nothing, Roche felt the white-eyed wolf, deep in the bowels of existence. And the wolf at that second felt the walker reach out.

His tongue lolled, and the wolf broke into a run across the facelessness of white nothing, coming to find Roche.

And for nothing else but to walk a little further, Roche turned back to his path and continued through the ether to find Alex Markus and his horse.

it - th

They’d gone a ways. It was difficult to put a pin in the exact distance in the ether, but they’d ridden hard for a good clip. Roche had neglected to take the A-Mat out of the saddle holster before confronting the construct. Markus had the high-powered rifle couched against his chest and was watching the white through the scope.

Markus spotted Roche a long ways off, and lowered the rifle for a minute, then realized he ought to watch the walker’s back while he approached. He almost held the rifle like a man who knew what he was doing. Safe bet the safety was still on though.

Lucky’s ears twitched towards Roche long before he was anywhere near them, but it was easy to see and hear a long ways when the world was made up of nothing at all.

Roche threw up a gloved hand, if for nothing else then to show Markus that he came in peace in case the idiot somehow had gotten the safety off and was holding the rifle with his finger on the trigger. `

“Where is it!?” Markus called, not setting the gun down a hair.

“Where’s what?” Roche lit a smoke, a stones throw away from his horse and Markus.

“The construct! Where is it?” Markus watched over Roche’s shoulders like a guard dog,

“Killed it.”

Markus almost dropped the gun. “What!?”

Roche gave the kid a ‘fuck-did-I-just-say’ look.

“How?”

By the time Roche stood in front of Markus atop his horse, hands in his pockets resting through the holes on the butts of his revolvers, burning down a smoke, boots shoulder width apart, he’d decided he’d placate the kid.

“I took my guns, loaded with bullets, and shot the thing, with my loaded-gun-bullets, until there were daylight-filled holes through it’s ether-carcass. I shot it, it died. Satisfactory for you, Markus?”

The kid didn’t answer right away. “But how?”

“Just told you how, dipshit.”

“That doesn’t make any sense, though.”

“Things bleed when they’re shot, when they bleed enough, they die. Makes plenty of sense to me.”

“But the constructs aren’t alive. Not in the way that they could be killed with bullets.” Markus shook his head.

Roche held his cigarette in front his face, trying to decide whether or not to throw it at Alex Markus, but the dipshit was still sitting on his horse. “So you let me fight something that you weren’t even entirely sure could be killed by reasonable means? After you told me that exact means might be wholly possible. Are you fucking out of your mind?” Roche took a step forward and held Lucky by her throat-strap. “Get off of my goddamn horse, I’m leaving you here.”

“What!? Hey, come on now! The hell-”

“Yep, off the horse.”

“You can’t, man!”

“Man? You left me to fight with a thing you created that you weren’t even sure could be killed? I’m done.”

“Wait! Wait!” Markus holstered the rifle in the saddle and held both hands up, as though Roche might shoot him. Truth, Roche was thinking about it. “This is big! This is important, please hear me out!”

“You’ve got a couple seconds before I shoot you.”

“Look, Roche! This is big. You’re saying you killed the construct?”

“Yep.”

“Then that’s the key. Listen we were never really sure whether they were animate and crossed enough into our plane to even have enough of a quality of life to be able to die. If you could kill it in the ether then maybe you could kill another on one of the Terra planes.”

“When they cross over? On December thirteenth?

“Yes, maybe. What if that’s the key? If the Ethercorp knows that to be the case.”

“Knows what?”

“That walkers are a bridge of the gap between the ether and the real as much as constructs are. But men with beating hearts and free will and the choice of who to fight for. If they know that then the Corporation is going to go way out of it’s way to make sure that the walkers either join their side or get executed before they have a chance to stand in their way.” Markus had gone on another of his pitch-to-sell tangents, he was out of breath and wide-eyed. Lucky just looked bored.

“If I can kill it then any walker can.”

“Maybe not though. I’ve been in the ether, and it’s been proven that once someone, anyone, has been through the white and come out the other side then they’re more perceptive to the bits and pieces of the ether that permeate into the real, the parts unknown that seep in, and can even have a discerning sense of who walkers are at all. Normal people don’t have that sense. It’s like once you’ve seen a house get built you have an appreciation for how much work goes into it. Before that all you ever see is just a house.”

“Not a time for analogies, kid.”

“No, maybe not. And that’s not a very good one either, but then what if only walkers who are as much a part of the ether as it is of them, like you. . .what if you’re the key to all of this. The walkers who could stand in the Corporations way. You know how to build it up, so you’re just that much better at tearing it down.”

Roche smoked quietly and thought.

“And the biggest part might be this. The Res might not even know about this. That a walker can kill a construct, the way you did. You killed it like it might have been anything else-”

“Bullets and trigger pulls, yep.”

“Exactly! If the res doesn’t know that yet, then we might have a chance here to change everything. We could fix what happens before it does. We could prevent another catastrophe, something terrible.”

Roche sat quietly for a minute. He lit another cigarette and patted Lucky on her bay nose. He turned and looked out into the white, wondering if and when the wolf might come. It usually did. Sad thing that an immortal wild animal had an infinite number of years between when Roche showed up and passed through. Maybe the only thing it even cared for anymore. Dog years too.

Thoughts distracted him. Roche turned back to Markus.

“Kid. You keep trying to sell me on this fight coming up between the Resistance and the Ethercorp. Picking sides before the next big thing. It may just be your misplaced conscience telling you to make up for what you helped start before it gets rollin’ in motion. That’s all well and good, kid.

Listen to me when I say this though. You’re spending all you’ve got, putting yourself out there and stringing that scrawny little neck of yours out there for anyone to cut. That’s admirable. But for what.

You’re trying to balance a complex equation, one that people been trying to figure out since ancient times. You’re doing all the math correctly and keeping track of the process like a diligent little schoolboy but your problem isn’t in your methods it’s in the problem itself.”

“What? How do you mean?”

“Problem with it is it’s an equation that uses a problematic number. It destroys whatever equation it’s entered in. That number is man.”

Markus was quiet.

“Let me tell you a little something. There is a city out there. In a place in the middle of the world that the history books refer to as the cradle of civilization. There’s a city that mankind has been warring over for millennia, since the dawn of civilization itself. It’s one of the few things. . .one of the very, very few things that are common across every. . .listen to me Markus. . .every facet of the Terra’s. Every plane. Jerusalem was there once, across the board in every parallel iteration of reality there was a Jerusalem. And countless people died trying to take it. Millions and millions and millions.

When the Catastrophe hit. Know what happened? Across every Terra, the folks who’ve been fighting over Jerusalem, almost simultaneously, bought back right into it. They went at it tooth and nail because of the rapture, or the end of days, or whatever. Like across every reality of mankind there were millions of people waiting for the excuse to break down and start one more bloodbath over a city that has passed hands between empires and civilizations from the days it was built. The holy land. The beginning and end of everything. Millions died, and know what Jerusalem is now?”

Markus stayed quiet, big eyes and listening.

“It’s a smoldering hole. It’s gone. In every Terra it’s just damn gone. Because when one side couldn’t hold it, and the other couldn’t gain it, it was better for neither to have it at all. the problem with what you think you can do for this world is that no matter what you do there will always be people involved. People will always be people and they will never change. Didn’t when I left earth. Haven’t since we evolved from flap-fisted mud puppy retards. Never have, never will. If you stop this one. . .just this one, kid. They’ll go back at it harder and harder just for the sake of proving you wrong and proving that nothing will stand in the way of mankind’s manifest destiny of progress towards the eventuality when the true accomplishment of our species is that we managed to wipe ourselves from existence in time for it to be cosmically funny.” Roche took Lucky by her reins. Markus had sallowed back in the saddle. Roche let his words sink in and started leading the mare further into the white, to where the three would re-emerge closer to Polkun county. From there he could pawn the kid off on to the Resistance or whoever decided to pay. From there the walker could buy a couple bottles, a full tobacco poke with some chew, and enough water to keep him hydrated before he took off into the desert again, free of the kids prattlings.

“Fuck you.” Was all Markus said somewhere between the speech and the moment they found the hole out of the ether and back into Terra 1. Roche let it slip over him and even for a while thought that maybe he had imagined the kid saying it at all.

Before he led Lucky through the holey doorway back to the real, Roche took a glance back at the ether. There was a wolf with white eyes sitting deep in the nothing, watching quietly as Roche left. It didn’t whine or bark, it just sat very still. When Roche stepped out of the white the wolf turned heel and trotted off into the ether with it’s tongue lolling out.

e nothi

Polkun county swept in like a rank smell. Dust and dry trees and half-buildings with skeletons made of rust slapped across the visual range in shades of red and yellow and a palette of earth tones. The sky was wide open and cloudless. On the skyline to the west a half-dozen oil rigs struck upwards.

Markus behaved as most of them did. Them being first-timers. Those who’ve been in, out and through the ether. They came back to reality hard and fast like they’d taken a punch to the kidneys. Markus retched, coughing and making that awful gurgling sound folks do when they upchuck. The horse was more perturbed than the walker. It was her that was getting bile on her back.

“If you’re gonna keep puking kindly get off of the horse.” Roche walked up a small rise in the dunes, barely anything at all, and took his bearings.

Alex Markus hopped down, leaning against the horse’s side and gagging. Roche tossed him a water skin from his belt and the kid drank heartily, almost so much that he started choking again on the water.

“Alright?” Roche lit a cigarette and turned back down the dune to Markus. “Looks like we still got a fair clip of moving to do. We’re south of the county now. Could be in Parmiskus within three days. Two if we don’t take too long in the evenings or if’n we go through the night. How’re you fixed for that?”

Alex Markus spat the last bit of yellow thickness from his lips and stood tall. He polished his glasses on his shirt and blinked up at the sun.

“What day is it?” Markus asked, spitting again.

“No idea. Best thing we can do is find someone and ask. Sun just tells me what time of the day it is, not the date. So let’s go.”

Roche turned and took Lucky by the bridle, leading her north with Alex Markus in tow.

ng ecl

They had arrived back on Terra 1 somewhere in the early afternoon. After some hours of walking the night was beginning to creep in. There was an absence of roads, the two men walked over dry riverbeds, through groves of trees that crumbled like old paper when touched, and graveyards of metal and bone. The wastelands were thick here, and far enough from the roads that they were almost completely deserted. Their only companions were the crows who kept to the trees. Screaming, skinny black birds with hoary feathers and gnarled toes waiting for one or the other or the horse to drop dead from exhaustion or dehydration.

It was almost by a point of obstinance that none of the three obliged the crows.

Dust swirled over the world. Heaps of it and waves in small swirls. Roche collected bits of wood as they moved to save time later, strapping branches and thicker chunks to Lucky’s saddle with a length of cord.

Neither man said much as they moved, obligatory bits of conversation that kept them going and broke up the silence.

By the time the sky had gone the color of a bruise, Roche had stopped in a crook of streambed, long dry. He bunched a small pyramid of the dried wood and struck a match, lighting both the kindling and a cigarette.

The two men passed the water skin back and forth, seated by the fire as the night gripped at the sky.

“You don’t have to come you know.” Alex said finally, swigging from the waterskin and wishing that it was something tougher than alkali.

Roche didn’t respond to that for a few minutes. He just stared into the fire, watching the licks of flame.

“Kid. If you think at this point I was ever just going to leave you behind then you really are stupid. Despite all the smarts.”

“No, it’s fine. I’ll find my way.”

“Like hell you will. My job is simple. I get you, I bring you back. If I can’t even manage that then I ain’t much of a hunter am I?”

“Why?”

“Said it before, kid. Said it before.”

Roche dozed with a smoke for some time. When he remembered to check again, Alex Markus was curled up beside the fire with his jacket over his shoulders and his glasses neatly folded in the dirt.

Roche hadn’t seen a kid like Alex Markus in a very long time. Somehow the hardness of the world had missed him. He’d been coddled and let be for the better part of a lifetime because he was smart enough to be necessary to some people. And here the kid was, still thought that he could do some good to try and repair the bad that he was a part of causing. Kid with a conscience.

All he was to Roche was a job. That was all he could be.

But damnit the kid was a firecracker. The kid needed to get where he was going.

That was his job. Wasn’t it?

ipses i

Roche slept little that night. The world turned onward. Roche watched the stars breath awake and then blink out many hours later. Markus fitted and started in his sleep for a while, but overall slept well, curled by the fire.

When the bits of morning dew on the dust sparkled alive with the first glimpse rays of orange sunlight, Roche stood and went to the horse, patting her on the neck.

“Mornin’ girl. Ready?”

The walker took a fistful of the stuff Jex had given him for the horse to eat and fed it to her from a gloved hand. Markus started up, shaking a little at first with the cold of the morning and then rolling to his knees and stretching.

“C’mon, kid. We got a full day’s walk ahead. Happens we meet someone on the road we can figure out what day it is.”

“You always lose this much time when you walk through the white?”

“Usually. Only problem is you never know just how much time you lose. Sort of the hazard guess that goes along with walkin’. You might save yourself some time, and then sometimes it’s the only way. But sometimes you lose ten times the time you thought you’d saved. For all we know it’s already happened and the Corp has loosed those things on Terra 1 from Terra 2 and the plane’s been ransacked.”

“I don’t think that’s the case.” Markus replied after looking all around and surveying the dead landscape. New dawn or not, the was only so much that sunlight could do to soften wreckage, craters, dust and debris from the old world.

“Maybe not. But we won’t know until we move along. S’go.”

And they left camp, moving northwards still with the dawn sun on their right shoulders to the sounds of footsteps, denim, gunbelts, hooves and slithering dust.

nto eff

They walked. They walked the entire morning. A walker, his horse and his charge made their way through the wasteland along no road. The dunes rose and fell. Broken buildings were sparse but clung to their foundations in odd places, hanging from created hills and leaning against dead trees for support while they drew their last breaths.

Lucky followed dutifully close by, stopping now and then whenever a cluster of scrubgrass presented itself but always catching up at a trot.

By the afternoon Roche was sure they had crossed back into Polkun county. The place had a vibe. A certain hopelessness to it that you could feel in the ground through your boots. The way a book felt when you knew the last chapter had been ripped out for fire fuel. The story was all there, but you knew it would leave you mentally broken with no conclusion.

“Are we there yet?” Markus was thankfully walking strong and had been quiet for the day. Something about the way he said it made Roche grit his teeth around the butt of his cigarette.

“Trying to be funny?”

Markus didn’t have to think about his answer. “Yeah, I guess I was.”

“Short answer is yes. We’re back in Polkun county. Long answer is I am not sure how far south of Parmiskus we are or what day it is.”

“So we just keep walking?”

“Welcome to the life, kid.” Roche smiled in spite of himself.

“Wouldn’t be so bad.” Markus said more to himself.

“What’s that?”

“Just walking. Going from one place to another. Getting people places. Everyone leaving you alone. The world kinda just passing you by.” Markus kicked at the dust.

Roche thought about it for a minute, inhaling deeply and blowing smoke from his nostrils. “Ain’t all that. Folks ain’t always totally happy with you taking them places. Or taking people who other people don’t want taken. Like yourself. The occasional job when you get a guy who just wants to try his life on Terra 3 and get the fuck out of here. Guy that just needs a guide. Nothing more. Those are the rare bits. Quick pay, easy job, happy client and I’m done. Mostly, kid, people try to shoot you.”

“Yeah. Or create half-real ether monsters that’re gonna be unleashed on an unsuspecting plane full of innocent people.” Markus said sarcastically.

“Well. Yeah. . .or that.”

Both men laughed.

ervesce

A town appeared over the next rise. Savage buildings of wood and brick. A single plume of smoke rose from within four brick walls with no roof. The town was little more than a crossroads with a single stoplight still hanging queerly from a line.

“Roche? Where are we?”

“Dead town. Never seen it before.”

“Never?”

“Kid, I ain’t been to every single place in every plane for the last hundred years. Places change, and po-dunk places like this don’t always make an impression. Maybe I been here. Don’t think so though. Take this all the same.” Roche handed Alex Markus Jex’s old .45 and slipped off the safety. “Little lighter use than that A-Mat you’re growing so fond of. And this one won’t break your shoulder.”

“Thanks.” Markus looked down at the handgun like it was an alien technology.

“Point and shoot, kid. The barrel is like your pointer finger, your pointer finger that’s gonna spew some lead and kill a guy.”

“Probably the most helpful and insightful thing you’ve said to me yet.” Markus stuffed the gun in the waistband of his trousers and soldiered on.

By the time they’d crossed into the town Roche said what he’d said while they were in the white. “Get on the horse. I say the word you kick her and head north.”

“North, right.” Markus hopped onto Lucky’s back with a swing of a leg.

“If it gets dark you know which one the North Star is?”

“Yes, Roche.”

“Some folks don’t. Just keep heading that way and I’ll find you if we get separated.” Bootheels clicked on the appearing pavement, until just now hidden with dust and blown sand.

“Who do you suppose is stoking the flames, as it were, over there?” Markus pointed to the brick walls where the smoke rose.

“Don’t point! If they’re watching they’ll know we spotted them.”

“So?”

“Better to let them think we’re just wastelanders passing through who didn’t notice them, not highwaymen interested in taking whatever nothing they happen to have.”

“Ah. So I suppose heading over, knocking on the door and saying ‘Hey, we don’t actually want to kill you and take your things’ is sort of out of the question?”

“Yep. Keep your head down, then.”

They’d nearly passed the four brick walls with the interior campfire and reached the dingy stoplight when Roche heard the unmistakable cracking of guns being loaded and rounds being chambered.

He was almost surprised when Corporation soldiers stepped out from behind corners and walls and leaned up from laying in ditches along the road.

A score or more men in black and navy fatigues with automatic weapons and body armor, helmets, glasses and masks shouting orders. Drop your weapons, get off the horse, down on the ground, hands in the air. Too many contradicting orders, one couldn’t keep track. Roche did what he did best. Hands in his pockets on the handles of his Ruger’s and smoke cocked in the corner of his mouth he simply said; “Hello there, chaps.” and opened fire.

nt ever

Cordite and lead filled the air. The stink of the gunpowder burrowed deep into Roche’s nostrils and he could taste the grit and dust and sand that flew up into the air from his feet. His footwork was flawless. Step and brace and fire, two feet planted firm, then move, brace, trigger, brace, trigger, point with your long, gunmetal finger and spew lead.

Before the Ethercorp boys had even had the chance to react, their world was thrown into a cacophony of gunshots and burning oxygen. Within the first few seconds a half dozen of them lay dead. Their own punishment for standing straight and tall. Show themselves and a show of force and the walker will drop his guard. Fools all of ’em.

Roche spun out, bent low and recovered behind a low concrete wall. He flipped open the cylinders of his Rugers and slid fresh rounds in. Sidelong glance back at the street told him Markus had disobeyed an order and taken to the opposite side of the street, in cover behind half a building. He’d slid from the horse and like a good girl, Lucky was well in shadow of cover, out of the line of fire. Markus, an equal fool to the Corporate fellas, had the .45 drawn and was peeking in quick fits around the corner for an open shot.

“Stay there!” Roche hollered across the street. Markus caught his eye just a shot blew dust off the brick near his eyes. Roche didn’t wait for a reply, he rolled low into the street over his shoulders, barrels blowing flame.

They’d moved up, a couple of them at least, taking the pair of seconds it took Roche to reload to advance down the roadway. They didn’t get far, and they didn’t manage to find cover before Roche was back in the thick of it.

A soldier clutched feebly at his throat when one of Roche’s bullets tore open the side of his neck. Another went to his knees grasping at his belly and the new hole that it had.

Their body armor covered wide bits of them, but Roche was no spray and pray kind of gunslinger, and the white was in him. Every move the soldiers made was made a second too late, or a half-step too shy of safety. The ether bled from Roche’s gums and his ears seeped with the thin film of it, like a diver who’d come up too fast.

A soldier got close, too close. He aimed straight with his rifle couched nicely in his shoulder. Roche was near enough that he crossed the remaining distance before the soldier could fire. The walker came up under the gun barrel and drove it upwards with a shoulder. The stock cracked against the soldiers helmet and his head nodded back. Roche drove his gun barrel up under the mans chin and pulled the trigger.

“I got one!” Markus called from somewhere behind the walker. Apparently he’d gotten a lucky shot off. Roche smirked and made a mental note to ask the kid about it later. Probably-no certainly, the first man Alex Markus had ever shot.

When another soldier got too close, knife drawn and held backhand like a wastelander might, Roche holstered a gun and took the man by his wrist, he drove the soldier’s knife into his own gut with a cursory move, then drew his Ruger again and kept shooting.

Back behind a wall. Gunshots ringing out and hitting pavement and concrete a foot or three too far to the left. Roche had already reloaded and moved out of cover again by the time the remaining soldiers had deciphered where he’d been hiding to refill his guns.

From under a black mask, a soldier shouted something at the walker. Stop, or hold up, or drop it, it didn’t matter what he’d said. The poor soul had wasted his last breath saying something that didn’t make a difference. Roche had put a bullet through the soldier’s eye before he’d finished saying what he had to say.

A frank lull in the noise. No more shouting, no more gunshots, no sounds of body armor rustling and gunmetal shackling.

Was that really all of them?

Nope.

One left. The remaining soldier stood beneath the dead stop light, gun dropped, hands up, mask pulled down and piss in his trousers.

Roche smiled and holstered his guns. He strode up to the remaining soldier, coat flapping all around him and blinked away the remnants of the white that thrummed through his limbs.

“What’s your name, son?”

The soldier’s lip quivered and he made a whimpering noise in the back of his throat.

Roche drew his Ruger again and aimed it square at the soldier’s nose. “Name?”

“F-F-Fray. . .sir?”

“Fray. Right. Who told you we were gonna be here?”

“Sir?”

“Stop calling me sir and just answer the question. Or this next bullet busts out the back of your skull.”

The soldier’s answer spewed out of him like a bout of vomit and he pissed himself. . .again. “Word came down from the top! Intelligence said a person of interest and a walker would be making out of the hole south of Parmiskus and to intercept and capture, dead or alive, I swear!”

“Right, I believe you.” Roche flipped his revolver around and caught the barrel. He struck the soldier in the temple with the handle. Soldier went down and out cold. Done is done.

“Markus!?” Roche turned and looked back down the street. “People are dead! Let’s go!”

The kid fell out from behind his cover, having not moved for the last couple of minutes. Roche couldn’t help but notice him limping slightly as he came up on the walker, stepping over the bodies of nearly twenty men who’d been alive until just recently.

“Fuck, kid. You hit?”

“Grazed. Right by my calf. Didn’t take nothing off that won’t heal back.” A small ring of red blood seeped around Markus’ calf. The kid sat hard and tore his pants around the bullet hole, setting about bandaging the wound with the same fabric he’d torn off.

“Fine working then?”

“Yeah, I’ll be alright.”

“Where’s the horse?”

Lucky clopped up the street shortly behind Markus.

“Good horse.”

ything - be

Roche and Alex Markus sat in the center of the dead crossroads town, just beneath the stoplight. Markus had managed to bandage the wound to his calf from a stray bullet. It hadn’t been anything serious, more a flesh wound. The kid was almost more excited about having shot his first enemy soldier. The whole thing was almost comical.

“Leg okay?”

“Yeah. Just a graze shot. I’ll be fine.”

“Pour some of this on it, soak the bandage.” Roche held up a bottle of cream-colored whiskey. He’d had a go around of the campsite where the Corporation had set up and come back with a couple boxes of bullets, some rations of dried meat and dehydrated potatoes, threadbare blankets that he’d tied to Lucky’s saddle, some waterskins, and above all else, half a dozen bottles of decently stilled whiskey. Without saying anything else, he’d upended the bottle over the kid’s bandaged leg. Alex Markus sucked on his teeth and winced, but stuck through the pain like a good boy.

“How do you do it?” Markus asked through the pain, sweating a little.

“Do what?”

“Kill men like that.” Markus said plainly. Looking towards the pile they’d made of the bodies. When it had all been done, while Markus picked at his wound and cleaned it, Roche had picked through the crossroads and collected the bodies, piling them in a heap where he’d set them on fire. The last part had been a courtesy. On the off chance that wastelanders who were keen on eating person steak happened by, it was better for the folks Roche had just shot if they were already burned away to nothing. Even cannib wastelanders couldn’t get much out of sucking on blackened bones and connective tissue. Dead didn’t mean you had to be eaten too. The smoke plume from the burning heap was rank and foul, rising black into the dying daylight. They’d better move on quick, before any wastelanders or highwaymen did get it into their minds to check it out.

“What do you mean how do I kill ’em? Bullets do the trick just right. Same way one did for your calf.”

“That’s not what I meant. Your speed, the way you move. It’s. . .”

“It’s the white, kid. But you knew that. You’re just looking for topics of conversation because you have a problem with keeping your yap shut.”

Markus didn’t say a word.

“The white seeps into those of us that spent enough time in it. Once you’ve got a taste for using it, it becomes easier and easier. You live long enough on a plane where you can be as fast or as strong as you wanna be and some of that insanity carries itself with you. I seen walkers that abused the ways of it too much and they had to consciously keep themselves from moving too fast, or from crushing every whiskey glass they laid fingers on because they’d forgotten how to not be too strong. It’s all a way of the thing.” Roche took a swig from the whiskey bottle and sighed.

“You’d have been a valuable asset at the Corp.” Was all Markus said.

“Probably why I prefer to do things on my own. Fewer people I run with, fewer people I knew, fewer people got hurt.”

“And you’ll be a valuable asset to the Res, if you can stomach it.”

“Not gonna let that dream die, are you?” Roche asked, smirking wryly down at the kid seated indian-style on the concrete with his bum leg. “Son I ain’t convinced, but that does lead me to something else.” Roche set the bottle back in his saddle bag, capped and took the A-Mat from it’s holster.

“What?” Markus stood shakily, the flesh wound in his leg clearly hurting more than he was letting on.

“You’ll see.”

They’d left the sole survivor from the encounter, the one Roche had pistol-whipped, bound and gagged with a couple lengths of rope, leaned up against an old propane tank. He’d come to about an hour ago and decided his best bet was to stay quiet and hope that Roche or Markus didn’t take to disliking him. His feet were hobbled together and his wrists were bound behind his back, where could he go? Now Roche strode over to the bound soldier, a boy himself of no more than twenty-five and put the A-Mat in his chest.

“Son, they call this an anti-material rifle. I’m not exactly sure why but I have an inkling it’s because whatever I shoot with it ceases to be anything other than dust and pink mist. And if I take this gag off and you scream or do anything besides answer my questions quickly and to the point then I will pull this trigger and evaporate your ribcage. The last seven-tenths of a second that you draw breath will be terrible and cold and painful and I will not do you the courtesy of burning your corpse and the wastelanders will eat your guts for breakfast sausages. We have an understanding?”

The soldier, Fray, nodded vigorously. This was a young man who was not interested in having his chest cavity cease to exist.

“Good.” Roche removed the gag of thick rope. Fray stretched his mouth and smacked his lips, wetting his teeth again. “Question number one.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Okay, statement one; cut that shit right out. I’m not your commander I’m the one who will decide not to kill you if you answer my questions.”

“Yes, s-. . .yes.”

“Good. Where did the intelligence that we were going to arrive here come from?”

“Terra 2, a waystation commanded by the Corporation that manages constructs.”

“So they knew we were coming through the white because they saw us in the white?”

“And guessed where you were headed, yes.”

“Good. Good, boy. You’re good at this. Question two; what day is today?”

Fray screwed up his mouth. “Thursday?”

Roche sighed. “I’m sure it is. The date, son. The date.”

“Oh, shit. . .um, the ninth. Ninth of December. Please don’t shoot me.”

“Not gonna, yet. No need to, yet. Question three; you’re not the cavalry or the vanguard. How many more of you are waiting for us between here and Parmiskus?”

“A lot.”

“How many?”

“I don’t know. Several more. Probably at least a hundred and fifty men, and constructs besides.”

“Are you lying to me?”

“No! No, I swear!” Fray was a smart boy. Roche could tell the liars when he saw them, especially under duress. And threat of losing most of your thoracic cavity would be considered duress. This kid was more worried about his own life than what the Corporation would do to him if they found out he ratted. And that was a good thing for the hunter and his charge.

“Yes, yes, son. I believe you. So here’s what I’m going to do. That transport truck that the lot of you brought here, we’re going to take that, and I’m going to leave you here. I’ll be assuming that you can eventually weasel your way out of those ropes and pick up the .22 that I’m going to leave you, but the rest of the guns are coming with me on the truck. You told me what I needed to know, so you get your freedom and a gun with a half-full clip to fight your way back to whatever fuck-hole town is nearby. I advise you not to return to the Ethercorp or they’ll have you shot for insubordination, because after what I’ve got in mind they’ll certainly know someone ratted. Go find yourself a nice girl and put a baby in her. And get the hell out of Polkun County. You get me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.” Roche gagged him again and pistol whipped him again, knocking him out cold.

“What did you do that for!?” Markus squealed like a little girl.

“So he can’t see where we go. Now let’s take a look at their truck.”

nding co

The Corporation transport was a canvas-backed truck on ten wheels.

Roche and Markus had gone about stockpiling all of the guns and ammunition that they didn’t actually need and loading it in the truck along with the rations, blankets and other provisions that Lucky could not carry.

Now the plan seemed to be changing.

“What’s this idea of yours?”

“We take the truck. It’ll be faster but if the Corp sends any men down to check with these dead fools they’ll know we’ve taken it and come after us. Hopefully the changing sands in this godforsaken county will make our trail a little harder to find, though.”

“What about the horse?”

“Ain’t leaving her. She can ride in the back of the truck. Right, girl?”

Lucky looked sidelong at the hunter. If horses could express disdain, the bay mare did.

“Well. If that’s the case, I’m not letting you drive in your condition.” Markus wheeled around and popped the cab door open. “You’re drunk.”

“Yeah? And you’ve got a bum leg.”

Markus poked his head inside the cab. “Clutch. Shit. I’m still driving, even with the bum leg.” Without another word the kid pushed his glasses up higher on his nose, grabbed the handle beside the door and swung up into the cab.

Roche took one last look at the po-dunk shitty crossroads where he’d killed twenty or so men. The young soldier, Fray, was groaning, already starting to come to.

“Good luck, son.” Roche grumbled, lighting a smoke. “Horse! In the truck, let’s go.” Roche threw down the gang plank into the back of the transport. Lucky trotted into the back between a pair of metal hang-down benches, assorted artillery and automatic weapons, foodstuffs and bedding for twenty men. She picked up and loose bit of salted meat and chewed on it numbly, while Roche shut the gang plank and shut her in halfway so that she might hang her head out the back. If the mood struck. “Good horse.”

Roche hefted a bottle of whiskey in one hand, taken from the saddle bags and stowed in his jacket, drank deep and leapt into the passenger seat.

“Start her up, kid!”

“Oh my god. Are you in a good mood? Or are you just drunk?”

“The good times come around every now and then when you’re as old as I am, shithead. Let’s go!”

Markus, shaking his head in disbelief, put the truck in first, clutched in, and turned the key. The engine roared to life and the windshield wipers squealed across the dust-covered glass.

“Where we headed, Roche?”

“East for the night. S’go.”

Checking the compass attached to the dash, Markus slid the truck in gear, and they rumbled off into the east with their headlights on brightly against the simmering night.

rners at t

The dashboard of the troop transport lit the front cab of the truck with sickly green light. Someone had seen fit to install a tape-deck beside the stick shift and the only thing that either man could find to play was a mixed-tape, likely from before the catastrophe.

An’ it’s 1,2 ,3 what’re we fightin’ for? Don’ ask me I don’ givva damn, next stop is Vietnam!

“Ever been to Vietnam, kid?” Roche nursed along on his bottle, holding it between his legs while he used an oiled rag to clean one of his Ruger’s.

“No. You?” Markus kept his eyes on the potholed road in front of them, lit brightly with halogen lights.

“I dunno. Not sure where it used to be. Been to Asia, sure. The continents survived. But all those national borders and state lines, they were imaginary way back then. When I was a kid looking at old maps I used to think you’d know for a certainty when you crossed into somewhere new, ‘cus there’d be a big ol’ red line dividing where you were from where you just got to. Ain’t the case. Less you go along a road and the old-world welcome sign still happens to be standing, it’s all just one big world.”

“That sounds philosophical.”

“Might be. Probably just drunk ramblings, shithead.” Roche swigged from the bottle.

5, 6, 7 open up the pearly gates. Well, there ain’t no time to wonder why, whoopee we all gonna die!

Markus kept his eyes trained ahead. They weren’t going terribly fast, somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five miles an hour, but moving over rough terrain and a road that was under cover of dust and sand in the few places it wasn’t just churned up concrete meant that the truck wasn’t going to be speeding along. The chains on the tires helped with the sand, and the ten wheels helped get them over the rougher stuff. Truck had axles and shocks on it that would’ve been at home on a dune-car.

Roche lit a cigarette and rolled the window down an inch.

“How do you think the horse is handling the bed?” Markus asked.

“Dunno. She’s a surefoot. She’ll be alright.”

“How far are we going? It’s almost one.” Markus tapped the green block-number clock set into the dashboard. Time was a funny thing. Didn’t seem to matter much when there were no clocks or calendars around. The moment you were faced with a one-inch green reticule of minutes ticking away, it seemed like time was the most precious thing in the world.

“So it’s the tenth of December now, is it.” Roche inhaled smoke, swigged from his bottle and then exhaled after swallowing the liquor, something he was fond of doing.

“Seems that way. Unless that soldier lied.”

“He wouldn’t lie, kid. Had no reason to. And he had every reason under the sun to tell me the truth. That’s the thing with mercs and bought soldiers like that one. A salary and a place to sleep will buy some loyalty, but how much is different with everyone, and it’s seldom enough to keep from shooting off the mouth when they’re threatened with a big gun.”

“Right, I suppose.”

“Well think about it. They lost your loyalty the second you got a little pink in the gills about releasing constructs on Terra.”

“Because it ain’t right.”

“Nope. Probably not. And you’ll be the one to fix all that, kid.” Roche’s sarcasm was palpable.

Markus opened his mouth to retort but a bump in the road clacked his teeth back shut for him. They were making their way over rutted drifts of sandy debris, red the color of rust. The troop transport made good headway and kept pretty even-keel, but occasional bumps were too thickly edged and knocked their boots up.

“One-fifteen. Kill it, kid.” Roche said, drinking.

Alex Markus clutched in and eased the brake on. The truck shivered a little on the sand, her back end winding out to the left, but stopped firmly. When he killed the engine and cut the lights the world plunged into real blackness. In the back of the truck Lucky shifted from one foot to another, hooves kicking bullet casings.

“Alright then, night.” Roche tossed a rolled blanket at Markus, opened the passenger door and hopped to the sand. As he wandered to the back of the transport he vaguely heard Markus mutter ‘night’ before wrapping the blanket around his shoulders and leaning up against the truck’s door for some shuteye.

Roche flipped open his lighter and lit a smoke. at the back of the truck, Lucky had her head out over the tailgate, looking down at Roche with a perturbed look.

“Wanna get down, girl?” Roche opened the tailgate with it’s latch and large bolt. Lucky stepped daintily down into the sank and tossed her head, sputtering.

“I know it ain’t the best way to travel, but it’s quicker than riding.” He smiled at the look Lucky gave him and puffed on his smoke. The horse wandered off a couple paces and nibbled at a tuft of scrubgrass that Markus had driven over. Roche took a noisy, metal seat on the tailgate and looked up at the sky.

His eyes had taken the couple seconds necessary in the pure dark to adjust. The ghosts of the halogen headlights no longer batted at his vision and the night came alive the longer he looked into it. Coyotes traipsed along a ridge not a half mile off, yipping. The scrubgrass caught a little breeze and tickled it back and forth. Besides the sound of the coyotes there was only the yawning of the world as it turned, little vocals of individual blades of grass and the creaking of branches.

Markus shuffled his weight in the cab and Lucky dropped a pile of dung in the dirt.

Roche took another swig of whiskey and killed what was left of the bottle. He tossed the bottle into the night. He took another full liter from Lucky’s saddle and sat with it between his bootheels. When his cigarette was finished he lay along the side of the down tailgate, wide enough to move a vehicle up and down, and looked up at the stars while he nodded off to sleep.

he edge of

Roche woke when Lucky made her way back up the tailgate into the truck. Her weight and hoof-steps rattled the metal and shook loose dust and dirt that had blown in from the night before. Roche sat up quickly, found his whiskey right where he had left it between his heels and uncapped the bottle and took a big swig.

Alex Markus was still asleep when Roche swung into the cab, shoved the mixed-tape back into the deck and kicked the dashboard yelling “S’go!”

“Alright, alright, I’m up, I’m up.” Markus let the scratchy blanket he’d slept in fall from his shoulders, sat up in his seat, put in the clutch started the truck.

Within seconds after a full-hearted start, the two were back on the drive again with the horse safely tucked in the canvas-back of the truck again, watching out over the tailgate as the desert wasteland shrank away thirty miles to the hour.

the equili

“What was the wolf?”

“Hm?”

Markus hadn’t spoken the whole morning. Somewhere around nine they’d turned along a main intersection and were headed along the 361 North. They’d skirted around a city that a green and white sign claimed used to be Luning. Here the roads were better, and besides swerving through the occasional blockade of ancient cars, the driving was clear. Now Markus was asking about the wolf.

“The wolf that was in the ether. It showed up just as we were stepping back into the world. Stood a ways back like it was just watching but you didn’t seem to care. Nothin’ I guess. Just made me think that maybe you’d seen it before.”

“Have.” Was all Roche replied with.

The mixed-tape looped on the deck.

Yer gonna cry, cry, cry and you’ll cry alone,

When everyone’s forgotten and you’re left on your own.

Yer gonna cry, cry, cry.

“So. . .” Markus filled the space in the cab.

"So I’ve seen him before. That’s all. Long time ago and a couple times since.”

“I didn’t know animals could go into the ether.”

“‘Course they can. You’re not that fuckin’ stupid. If you wanna talk about my feelings then lets just talk. No use prodding at me with ignorance.”

Markus clamped his mouth shut tight.

“The wolf was the first creature I ever saw besides my own self when I first went in. Long time ago now. At the time I guess I didn’t rightly know animals could go into the white either. Takes a special kind of creature to have the forbearance to just keep on going like that.

They wander in now and then. The same way a leg-hole trap works because occasionally a coyote will get stupid and step just there. So my guess is that wolf wandered in some way and just never was conscionable enough to let go and die. So there he sits. He wanders some. Last I checked he never leaves, because he’s always there. Seems to find me all too often, too.”

“Does he find you or do you call out to him?”

“Now you shut your trap right there, kid.” Roche swigged on the bottle.

“Did it help you?”

“What, the wolf? Never could catch him and eat him so no, he didn’t help much.”

“No. But if you saw that a wolf could manifest and stay alive that long in a nothingness that made no sense and all too much sense at the same time didn’t it give you a little bit of hope that you’d be alright and not to let go.”

Roche screwed up his mouth around another drink, watching the Mojave sift by like an hourglass. “I didn’t need no help letting go. I let go a long time ago. What I needed was for the white to just give up on me and digest me like it should have.”

“And the old indian-”

“Wind In The Trees. Stupid fuckin’ name with no trees around for the wind to blow through.”

“Right, Wind In The Trees said you walk with many legs. Was that what he meant. The legs of the wolf and the white-eyes following you.”

“I always took that to be what he meant until I asked him one day.”

“And what’d he say?” Markus swerved the truck when he turned his head his hands followed. Lucky stamped a hoof in the back of the truck in protest. Markus righted himself after a look of reproach from the walker and kept his eyes front.

Roche thought for a while before he answered. What the fuck did this kid care? He was either passing the time or was getting a little chubby on the hunter who’d helped get him this far back to Polkun County and the Res.

“Wind In The Trees said I left something behind with me the first time I took to the white. Now there’s no way that he can know this unless he’s walked with me this whole time and just been invisible, or those indians really can see things that ain’t better never seen. He said I left something when I meant to bring it with me. He said I left a pair of legs behind. And now all I do is kill and keep walking, hoping I’ll find me a better set of legs to walk with, but at the same time all those men I killed just keep on walking beside me and behind me and I can’t stop ’em.”

Markus chewed on Roche’s words. “Who’d you leave behind.”

“I never could figure. Don’t know if Wind In The Trees meant the girl I brought with me or the wolf that found me after. Which set of legs. . .”

“Girl?”

Roche knew he’d said too much.

“Shut the fuck up and keep eyes on the road, shithead. Quit talkin’.” Roche swallowed three long gulps of whiskey hard and rolled his window down for a smoke.

brium of

Cause the simple man, baby. pays for thrills, the bills, the pills, that kill.

Oh, but ain’t that America. For you and me.

It was something around the thirtieth time the tape had rolled over, but neither man said a world. The charge kept on driving and the walker kept a lit cigarette near the window, ashing into the wind. Neither man could complain. Roche had grown up on records stockpiled in the old library where he grew up, listing to this, that n’ the other thing.

As for Markus, well he was a cultured kid, not many of them left around. And he was the kind who appreciated music. And if he didn’t, well, he wasn’t stupid enough to say anything about it, probably because he was unsure if Roche would put a bullet in him.

“See that?” Roche asked.

“What?”

Roche pointed over the dashboard with his cigarette. A few small rolling hills stilled against the horizon in the Mojave, covered in dead trees and an old factory building with a metal radio spire. “Turn off here. That’s the old Spooner factory.”

“Spooner?”

“That’s what it says on the side of the building, lackwit. It’s just outside Parmiskus, a mile out, tops. Turn off this exit.”

Alex Markus rolled the wheel right and took the exit, thankfully free of debris and too much sand. The dust squealed under the turning wheels and the road opened up.

“Parmiskus still nice?”

“Nice? ’Bout as nice as any place, kid. Whores and gambling and a couple saloons. Ain’t all bad.”

“Didn’t know you were a whoring man, Roche.”

“I ain’t.”

“Because of the mysterious girl?”

“The fuck did I say about talking!?”

all thi

Parmiskus rolled in. The low, brick buildings and greasy-windowed storefronts were as at home in Parmiskus as they would have been anywhere in the post-catastrophe. People milled about, doing their daily things, shopping at vendor stalls, picking through the detritus metal piles along the road and fixing shoddy meals over fires in oil drums. Some folks took notice of a Corporation troop transport but paid little mind. Unless someone was actively taking the food out of their hands or offering these people money, they were just as at home keeping their business to themselves.

“We’ll go back to my apartment, then?” Markus asked, starting to turn down a street. Roche ripped the steering wheel back into place and shot Alex Markus a look.

“Idiot. No. You used to live here while you worked, nothing more now then to get you back to the Res. Mostly because they didn’t make it clear where to drop you off when I was done with you.”

“You’re done with me then?”

“Second the Res picks you up from me, I am. Stop at this saloon.” Roche pointed out a red-faced building that had a tall facade. It was one Roche had gathered information at when he’d first started asking around about Alex Markus. It stuck out in his mind as one that had plenty of dark corners and a bar at the back of the room, anyone waltzing in would have to cross the entire room to order a drink, long enough for Roche to size them up.

“Why this one? I’ve been here, it’s disgusting.”

“Then that’s precisely why. Park out front, I’ll get the horse out. You don’t go in until I do.”

Markus parked sidelong in front of the red saloon and took the keys out of the ignition. Roche undid the tailgate and walked Lucky down to the side of the building where there was an old lamppost to tie her to. He fed her a mouthful of the salted meat that she seemed to continue to strangely enjoy and tipped his hat. “Be back in a little, sweetheart.” Roche waved Markus over and the two went into the saloon to join the remainder of Parmiskus who preferred a morning drink.

ngs - shut

The saloon was packed to the brim with wastelanders. If packed to the brim meant that every third seat was occupied, but this was as crowded as things ever got in Parmiskus. Men and women with gunbelts and scarves over their heads sipped at morning drinks, cigarettes and foul-smelling cigars hung from their mouths. A few folks had cards out and were toying at gambling, but there were no open tables with real dealers.

Roche let Markus walk a half-step in front of him.

“Go straight to the bar.” Markus did as ordered. Roche noticed the .45 was still tucked in the waistband of his pants. the trigger just over the edge of his belt. The kid even walked with a hint of swagger. Or maybe it was the bullet gouge in his leg.

The barkeep was a smaller man. His head was a stubbly brown fruit. He cleaned a mug and when he spoke only his lower lip moved.

“What’ll you ’ave?”

“Three fingers of bourbon, times two.” Markus ordered with all the panache of two kids in an overcoat buying their first glass of liquor.

“Leave the bottle.” Roche turned his back to the barkeep and rested his elbows on the bar.

“Cash, then.” The barkeep grumbled. Roche took out the billfold, noticeably thinner than when he’d started this job, and slipped twenty off the top. Grubby, barkeep fingers snatched the cash from the bar and left the bourbon bottle behind.

Roche swallowed his three fingers in a single drink and handed his glass to Markus to pour him another. He watched the saloon. What sunlight spilled through the swinging doors and the pair of front-facing windows only made the shadows of the bar seem deeper. There wasn’t enough overhead lighting, and the corners of the room disappeared into pitch, They seemed for the time being to be empty, and Roche couldn’t feel anyone there the way he always could, that was good enough for him.

“See anyone you recognize?” Roche asked Markus, still eyeing the room.

Markus sipped at his bourbon timidly and looked left and right across the bar.

“Not so far. But I didn’t live here long. Corporation brought me out here to be closer to the workspace, but I left them before I ever got that far. Made contacts with the Res-”

“You talk too damn much and you talk too damn loud, kid. I asked you one thing.”

“The answer is no, then. I don’t recognize anyone.”

Roche lit a cigarette and drowned a second glass of bourbon down the other side of his mouth.

“What if they don’t find us?”

“There’s a Corp troop transport parked out front and no troops to be had. They’ll figure it all out in a few minutes. Ain’t exactly a subtle hint.”

“And when they find us?”

“I turn you over and that ratfink ‘father’ of yours pays my other two-thirds.”

“Wasn’t ever my father. They tried to play on the sympathies of a man who clearly has none.” Markus took the bottle from Roche’s hand and drank straight out of the neck like a pissed off teenager.

“And you can knock off the angry little-girl routine. Stompin’ your feet like a bitch.” Roche stuffed a hand in one pocket and fingered the trigger of his Ruger. Three men had just walked into the bar abreast in long coats, hats pulled low, fidgeting their hands around their belts edgily. “Because they’re here.”

“What?” Markus turned around all too fast and obviously. The three men in coats spotted him immediately. Their faces were hidden with bundled scarves, one wore goggles against the late-morning sun. “Oh. That was fast.”

“Told you.” Roche stepped out from the bar, downed another glass and set it down on a table. He stuffed his hands into the holes in his duster-coat pockets around the handles of his Ruger revolver’s. Home-rolled smoke dangling over the whiskers of his chin he said; “Alright, boys. Far enough.”

Like parodies of spaghetti gunslingers the three coated men fluffed open their jackets revealing holstered guns, palming them and cocking stances.

“We’re here for Markus, hunter. We’ll be taking it from here.”

“Yeah?” Roche’s eyes got all wide and smiley. “That so? And where’s my money?”

“You’ll be paid in kind soon enough. Hand over Alex Markus.” The main soldier in the middle kept talking at him. It was the man to his left in the goggles that became quickly of interest. He whispered something in the middle-man’s ear.

Main-speaker shrugged left-hand off and put his hand firmly down to his gun, inching it from it’s holster.

“Don’t do it, friend.” Roche said, breathing smoke.

Left-hand surprised just about everyone in the bar, who’d all set their drinks down hoping for a gun-show. Didn’t much happen in Parmiskus after all. Left-hand shouldered forward and stood right between main-speaker and Roche.

“Stop it, both of you.” He shrugged off his hat and took his goggled down, revealed his mouth from under the scarf. “Look, Pauly you can’t win this, and this man probably don’t wanna kill us three before he even had breakfast. Nice to see you again though, walker.”

When main-speaker made a move to throw left-hand out of the way the soldier to his right held him back, convinced by left-hand’s words. Roche cocked his head and looked left-hand up and down. Wasn’t to say he didn’t look familiar but where the hell from? Was hard to angle it when you’d been alive that long. Maybe he knew his daddy somewhere along the line. Maybe he shot his daddy?

“Where I know you from?”

“Don’t recognize me? Carson City? Blackbird’s. You came through asking after bikes that come through. I kept my boys from shooting you back there and I thought I’d just do it one more time. Not killin’ you worked out for us before.”

Roche recognized the man. Big guy that ran the Blackbird’s mercenary company out of the Carson City capital building. So they’d opted in with the Resistance, eh. No foolin’.

“Right, I remember you. Shootin’ me wouldn’t have worked out for you either time.”

“Right. You’d have us all dead before a working man could cash his pay.”

“Yep.”

“Right on. So, here’s the bit. The Resistance hired my Blackbird’s to join in the fight. You know, mercenaries and all. Miner just sent us out this way to collect the Markus fella, hearin’ he was back in town.”

“Kendall Miner, right?”

“That’s the one. Had I known you were the boyo that was out for him I’d have either brought more men or less, can’t quite decide on that. But there it is. So you’ll get your pay, I’m sure, but we gotta take the kid.”

Roche smiled down at the toes of his boots and clicked the hammers of his revolvers through the pockets of his coat. “Not without me you ain’t.”

“Oh, I figured that. I ain’t slow. So you come on ahead, then. We’ll show you where we’re headed.”

“Alright, kid, s’go.” Roche turned to Markus behind him, took him by the collar like an indolent and threw him at the three Resistance men. They took him, already reasonably intoxicated from a couple bourbons, and helped him to the front door. Roche followed behind after throwing another five bank note at the barkeep ‘for the trouble’, and heading back into the sunlight along the main drag of Parmiskus.

it, shut it

Roche kept his hands in his pockets on his revolvers while the five men exited the saloon.

“Where to, then?” Roche asked the three Res soldiers.

“We make our way to the exchange location.”

“Never was one for anything besides a neutral location for exchanges, and I don’t like changing.”

“Not to be the ones to say so, Mr. Roche, but the exchange isn’t gonna be here and it probably ain’t gonna be anywhere you want it to be either. The Res has a place set up and it’s gonna be there.”

Roche stopped walking and stood stock still, putting an arm out and stopping Markus by the sleeve of his shirt. “And what if I tell you that’s not the way we’re doing things?”

“Then I’d say that’s not going to work.” The big guy, the one who’d led the Blackbird’s in Carson City said. “We don’t have the cash on us and it isn’t like we can just tell our employers we failed. There ain’t much time left and they’re countin’ on us bringing this one in by tonight.” He gestured to Markus with a wave of a hand.

“What’s your name, big guy? Don’t like doing negotiating with a man who’s name I don’t even know.” Roche puffed on the half-soggy cigarette hanging from his lips, eyeing the big one.

“Name’s Lansing. Got a first name but no one ever calls me by it and if I told it to you I might not even remember if it was the one I was born with or not. Man in charge is the Lieutenant Miner and a doctor named Weaving, they’re the ones who need the kid. Make you feel better?”

Roche didn’t like this mercenary Lansing getting cheeky, but he was willing to bet that it was just a rooster crow coming out. “Then you tell these boys Weaving and Miner to meet me six miles due southeast of Parmiskus, there’s a gas station there along a dirt road, they come lightly armed if it makes them feel good about themselves but they bring the cash and no negotiations.” Roche felt the cool wood of the revolvers handle’s in his palms, every particle a memory.

“Now, look-” One of the other soldiers began and made a grab at Markus. Within a space of a second Roche had pulled the kid bodily behind him and drawn a revolver, the end of the barrel was a hand-breadth from the soldiers nose when Roche spoke.

“Me and the kid. Six miles southeast of Parmiskus. We’re heading there now, and you go get your bosses and we’ll see you there. Get me?”

The soldier started to protest when Lansing drew his men back with gloved fists and stood with his arms spread, palms up.

“Alright, friend, alright. We’ll tell them that. They won’t be nothing happy about it, but I’m sure they’ll see a way to make this work. Understood.” Once more, Lansing had proven himself to be of a more reasonable mind than most. He was more eager to keep people alive than to fuck with a walker in a bad mood. At least he was smart. He had that going for him.

“Good.”

“Isn’t anybody gonna ask how I feel about where and when I’m exchanged!?” Markus half-soberly sounded real-damn undignified.

“Nope, get back in the truck, kid, I’m driving.” Roche shoved Markus towards the Corporation truck and kept his revolver trained in the way of the three Res soldiers, who all back carefully back into the Parmiskus street. Folks milling about had taken a liking of notice to the goings on, but four men pulling guns on one another over a fifth man and who he was going with seemed to be about par for the course for a day in a border town in the smack-dab middle of the wastelands. They went about their way after stopping for a moment or two to see what was going on, making their way about their business in the filth of their lives.

Roche loaded the horse into the bed of the truck again, Lucky loudly protesting by blowing air through her big horsey lips, and hopped back around into the cab, the barrel of his gun never leaving the three Resistance soldiers who kept in profile standing in the center of the street, watching Roche and Markus take off back the way they had come.

up, for t

“Where are we going?”

“We’re taking things out of the way. I don’t like doing business on other people’s terms. Most of the time they get wise and try to set something up. Ambush, firefight, try to cheat me out of my due. Never works out for them and I usually make out with less pay. One of the many hazards of my business, easily avoided when people just do things my way.”

“Your way is to set up a similar kind of trap, laying in wait at a bust-town gas station six miles south of a town that’s barely civilization anyhow.”

“Southeast.”

“Whatever. Sounds like two sides of the same outlaw, bandit kinda coin to me.” Markus was back at being a nancy-titted kinda shit again, acting put-out.

“Probably is, but I found you and I’m exchanging you on my terms. That’s how it is.”

“You do realize I’m a person, right? It isn’t exactly like exchanging a package of dry-goods.”

“It is when you’re me, kid.” Roche smiled, somehow the thought had made him something close to giddy.

The Corporation transport was rumbling along smoothly, and for the first mile Roche had two eyes on the rear-mirror to his right, watching to see if the Resistance boys were stupid enough to skip out and follow them directly. They weren’t.

The dirt roads around Parmiskus snaked through old mobile-home parks, campgrounds and seedy little businesses with big-toothed indian mascots. The dust rolled by and had bleached every single bit of man-made infrastructure an even shade of canvas-brown. The sun was high, and no birds were calling overhead.

Markus kept quiet the rest of the ride, folding his arms all tight-like over his chest, frowning. Roche just kept the bourbon bottle he’d kept from the bar tucked in the crotch of his pants and a smoke nestled between his teeth.

The old gas station in question was a nice little spot that Roche had used once or twice before. The station itself was a larger one, the kind that used to sell dry goods and alcohol as well as gasoline and automotive fluids. A large portion of the roof had blown off many years ago, and the racks and shelves inside were bare except for an inch layer of sand and dust. Roche had checked it for packs of smokes many times over, but it never hurt to turn over the sand again.

He led Markus into the gas station, kicking at the dust and the old cardboard and plastic containers. No smokes apparently. Roche couldn’t find anyway, didn’t mean Markus couldn’t.

“Kid, I’m gonna leave you right here. While you’re waiting, check around in here for smokes. I like those old, sealed packs in plastic. Keep ’em in your pocket and I’ll grab them from you in a bit.”

“Where are you going?” Markus stood and asked, not checking for cigarettes.

“Out back. I’m gonna keep an eye on stuff from up top. Horse is tied out back and the truck has the keys in it. Try not to get spooked, but if you do, definitely take the truck and not the horse. I like the horse.”

“Pft. Better than me?” Markus was indignant.

“Yep, a lot better than you. The horse is quiet and does what she’s told. Now, look for some smokes for me while I set up. when the Res shows their faces, keep quiet and let me do the talking.” Roche spun out the door in a swirl of oilcloth, denim and dust.

This gas station was a good place for drops, because if you had a cooperative charge, you could leave them where all eyes could see, in the station, with the light coming in through the roof, but they were behind low brick walls, they could get cover, quick. The pumps in front of the station got in the way of any trucks or horses getting right up to the front of the station without some pause. Best of all, a low ridge overlooked the one-story gas station, shadowed with a four o’clock of dead trees that had most of their branches still intact. From up there, Roche could watch the deal go down, and his voice carried. He could talk to the charge, and the client, and be well out of sight and range the whole time. Shit went bad, and Roche could cap the whole lot of them, charge, client, mercs and all from that ridge.

Only hitch in the plan might have been the horse if he’d brought her up the ridge with him, she was tall enough that it would have been obvious, but tying her behind the gas station kept that problem at bay, and she was out of sight besides.

Prone, whiskey bottle propped by his elbow, smoke in his lips and the A-Mat couched against his shoulder, Roche looked out over the ridge at the dirt road that crossed the front of the gas station. he could see the way stretching north and south. He’d have a sightline on any vehicle coming up or down the road.

Afternoon gulped down the skyline inch by inch. By the time Roche could see the dust from the dirt road kicking up, the sun was low in the west. Daylight was left, but only a couple of hours, more than enough time for the walker to close the deal with the Resistance and see Markus got where he was supposed to be.

They’d come in a car, one of the old old-world models. A red sedan that was more rust that real metal anymore, kicking up a cloud from the road that could have been seen for miles. They rolled into the gas station and didn’t get past the parking lot before they squealed over sand and stopped dead. Three armed soldiers in coats, goggles and helmets piled out of the car with automatic rifles strapped to their rigs, followed by a trimly man in a spotless suit in sunglasses and the old fellow that had hired Roche in the first place, walking with a cane.

The soldiers made short work of clipping across the parking lot and checking every angle around the station. When Roche wasn’t among the trash and the pumps they made their way for the station itself and the low walls it had. Markus stood inside, a pair of smoke packs in his hands. Hey, good job, kid. Before the soldiers reached the station, Roche whistled through his teeth.

In a snap, all three soldiers had their guns up to the horizon. The way the ridge curled in a semi-circle around the station, it made the direction of the sound hard to discern. The soldiers scanned along the cusp of hills and saw nothing. One trained his gun back on Markus, who stood still and silent with his hands raised, the other two kept their heads on swivels, watching and waiting for another sign of the hunter.

“Y’all fellas drop your guns! Do it now!” Roche hollered out over the station. They’d figured out the general direction of Roche’s voice and snapped their guns towards him. They sketched their voices at one another, unsure of what to do. Shoot, step back, drop ’em? What?

“Drop your guns, lads. The man we’re dealing with is more than the three of you can handle and if you don’t know already you’re only here out of courtesy anyhow.” The old man, Lieutenant Miner said calmly, locking his fingers over the top of his cane and turning to face Roche. “Can you hear me, Mr. Roche?”

The old man’s voice carried well. “Sure can. Just Roche, thank you.”

“Good. Then you’ll see we’ve taken your words in kind and have come to treat with you over the transfer of Mr. Markus. Are we in agreement?”

“Where’s my money, old timer? Jus’ about sick of dealing with your little Resistance and your crap.”

“Of course, of course. Doctor Weaving, if you please?” The old man, Miner gestured to the svelte, balding man in the nice suit, who Roche took to be Doctor Weaving.

Suit Doctor went to the sedan and took a small brown bag from the backseat and held it out as though it held something disgusting. Roche could see from the weight and fall of the paper bag that it held rolls of bank notes. He could also see from the turn of the Doctor’s suit coat that he was strapped with a pistol, a big one. Didn’t much matter, though. Just nice to know who was packing lead and who wasn’t.

“That my money?”

“Doctor.”

Doctor Weaving upended the bag and sure enough, several bundled rolls of bank notes fell onto the pavement below. The doctor let the bag go and it lifted off along the wind and across the parking lot.

“There you have it, Mr. Roche. And there’s a little bonus accrued of ten-percent of the total value in thanks for the expediency of your work.” Miner gestured to the pavement and the rolls of bills. “Now that we’ve conducted our business, perhaps we could negotiate another contract?”

“Nothing doin’. Appreciate the offer, now please take the kid and get him the fuck away from me. He talks too much.” Roche smiled, eyes down the scope of the A-Mat.

“That’ll all be fine, sir, though I appreciate your way of doing business I must insist that you entertain our offer.”

“I must insist that you get your men, the kid and get back in that car and be gone. Get me?”

“Or you’ll shoot us?” Miner almost laughed at the thought.

“Yep. I might.”

“I see you will not be easily persuaded. Perhaps my friend Doctor Weaving may be more convincing.” Miner gestured quietly to Doctor Weaving in his nice suit as he stepped forward.

The man was a skeleton of a human, with a thin layer of muscle applied to the necessary areas for functionality. His balding hair was swept back with grease and his eyes were covered in dark glasses. He was a man who’s resting expression was a thick, too-many-teeth kind of smile. When he’d finished speaking, he started grinning.

"Mister Roche! How I’ve been eager to meet you. Perhaps we might have a word where I’m not shouting at a vague area of the bluffs surrounding this ancient gasoline establishment.” Grin, grin, grin.

Roche didn’t like the way this man talked and he didn’t like the way this man wore a spotless suit that was already accumulating dust in the wastelands of the Mojave. Old-world American money-type.

“This is just fine with me.” Roche watched the man’s movements, though he didn’t think this doctor would go for his gun, or even if he was a reasonable shot with any kind of gun.

“Of course it is. Though I estimate that you’ll see things a little clearer and perhaps acquiesce to my idea of a face-to-face negotiation when you hear what I have to say.” Grin.

“Say it then, if I don’t like it I’ll put a bullet beside your feet. Then you can go.”

Grin, grin, grin. No response for a few seconds. Roche readied the A-Mat and crosshaired the pavement twenty inches from the doctor’s feet. His mouth dropped when the words slithered over his pearly teeth.

“Mollie. Groux.”

Roche shut his mouth and considered putting a fist-sized hole through the good doctor. Skip a beat one, skip a beat two.

“I’m coming down.”

he love o

The A-Mat slung across the breadth of his shoulders, hat cocked low and scarf pulled high, Roche stood in the blowing dust. The gas station was an old-world graveyard, silent and thin. Oilskin and leather creaking around the length of his legs, Roche watched coldly the teeth of the grinning doctor.

“First off, let me acknowledge my true admiration for what it is that you do, Walter.”

“Walter?” Alex Markus asked.

“My first name, go ahead and forget it now, kid. Go pick up my money and keep yourself useful. Keep talking, doc. You’ve got my attention until I decide otherwise.”

“Of course. It’s true what they say about you walkers, isn’t it? You don’t age. Just. . .just fascinating.”

“Nope, not unless we keep out of our element long enough it seems. Fuck you too, by the by. Losing patience.”

“You don’t remember me then, do you?” Grin, grin.

“Should I?”

“No, perhaps not. Not that is unless you remember specifically every man, woman and child that you have ever met or seen in the entirety of all your years.”

“Nope.” Roche spat on the pavement.

“Then of course you wouldn’t. I was a boy of twelve when I first saw you. You’d come rolling into town like a true, brazen, old-world gunslinger with your hat low and your gunbelts high. I grew up in a remote part of the world once known as New England. You were in town on business and just stopped through to visit our saloon on your way through. Whatever adventure or hunt you were on made little matter, it was twenty-six years ago now and I doubt if you, I or anyone involved even remembers the circumstances or details. What mattered was the whispers that surrounded your coming and followed your going.”

Roche puffed on his cigarette, more irritated than he could remember being in some time, but this Cheshire-grinned doctor had said the only name that might have ever given Walter Roche a hairsbreadth of pause.

“Walker, planesman, hunter they called you. A man of repute who could bend the world to his whims because he had crossed the nether regions of reality and learned the trappings of existence itself. You looked the same, though you spoke less back then.”

“Spoke less before I met this dipshit. Afraid it may be contagious.” Roche looked from Markus back to the grinning Doctor Weaving.

“Yet you looked the same. Amazing isn’t it. Your breed of men, the genetic predisposition towards planewalking is as fascinating as it is perturbing. Reasonably speaking I was gooked on the idea of you from the onset.

I went to school and was trained classically. There are still universities and schools of higher learning in the northern places of the world. I fear it may have something in concurrence with the winters there. When the world is cold as it is some of the times in the hemisphere northern, it pays to remain indoors and educate oneself. Perhaps such attrition is why such schools survived through the catastrophe. Which is a fascinating subject in itself, is it not!?”

“Losing patience, doctor.” Markus had finished collecting the errant rolls of bank notes scattered on the ground and piled them in front of Roche.

“Yes, yes of course.” Grin, grin. “Yet, for all of my fascination with the ether and the men who found it within themselves to manipulate it through a higher learning of their own, I could find no quantitative data on the subject. Only vague sources and incomplete recounts of experiences men and women claim to have had in congruence with walkers like you.

Needless to say I was frustrated. Yet, being the kind of man I am, I turned my frustration into something constructive. I studied other subjects, and I became quite fluent in all manner of mathematical, physical, old-world contemporary, theoretical and biological sciences. A doctor many times over, yet of all things the ether vexed me, I could never find a man like you who was willing to walk me through the steps, who could bring me to the truth of what a walker is.”

“And you think I will?”

“You will help the Resistance and I will act as a casual observer, taking careful notes of course.”

“And in return?” Roche dreaded the answer.

“In return I will tell you what I know regarding genetic reconditioning through electrical signals. I will explain how I am going to bring your Mollie Groux back to you.”

f - i trie

So many years back. There had been some bad years. There had been some good years. what finally wound up mattering was that one night that it seemed the whole of a life culminated in. There was a finite point that the universe returned to, and that was the night of the harvest festival.

Not the festival where Walter Roche had realized not for the first time that he had loved Mollie Groux more than he could love anything or anyone else. Nor was it the time that he had realized that his Mollie, who would always be his Mollie, that she and he both knew, had not really preferred the company of men.

It had all been the same to Roche. He loved her and she loved him, just not in the way that the stories said they ought to.

That night she’d worn a shirt cut from an old tablecloth and sewn to her figure. She had a flower, she always did, in her hair. They’d danced and they’d loved each other, not in the way people thought they should have, the kind of love where they melted into each other.

She’d gone home early, a victim of too much wine. Roche had stayed behind to enjoy the company of others with her blessing.

Mollie Groux never made it home.

In an alley behind a shop, Will Dunham, Patchy Wilkes, and Andrew Vickers had raped Mollie Groux before beating her to death. To hear it told, Andrew had been against the whole thing, and hadn’t wanted to harm the girl just because of who she liked to go with, but he hadn’t stopped them neither.

Roche had been kind to him when he’d stepped back into the world from the white.

Walter Roche had sensed something was amiss the moment he’d walked past Mollie’s home somewhere around dawn, half-drunk and still reeling from the longest he’d stayed at a harvest dance in years.

It was the way the crisp of snow on her porch had no footprints. It was the way her gate was shut tight and Mollie had that bad habit of always leaving it open. In a blasted nothing of a world she still kept her home inviting with a gate ajar.

When Roche found her, the pool of blood around her bare thighs had already frozen to a soft purple. Her skin was already blue, and the way her eyes had clouded and frozen snapped open staring into the opal dawn had turned him.

Roche put her pants back on. Why he couldn’t say, it had just been what he’d done. Under her knees and under her legs he’d carried her off into nowhere.

He’d heard the stories of the white. He’d heard where there was a tear. He’d sought it out.

That was the first and last time he’d walked. By the time he’d found it his shoes had torn from his feet and his joints would not bend back to their natural leisure.

Walter Roche stepped through the hole in the universe, hoping against all things that maybe. . .just maybe, in the nothing that was the construct of all things, here. . .she might still be alive.

Mollie Groux had been dead then for two days, and inside the white she’d fell apart in his hands like a sandcastle woman amidst ether surf whittling away at her particles. Then there was nothing of her. There was the white, and Roche was left in it.

And he didn’t remember the way back out.

d and she

“You can’t bring her back.”

“You say that with such finality, Walter.” Grin, grin.

“Because it’s true.” Roche said it with real finality.

“You might think so. Of course it is true that resurrecting the dead is impossible. Such things would be the work of miracles. Yet what if I told you that this was a time of miracles. And they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world?”

“Speak sense.”

“I do. Have you heard of my science? My genetic reconditioning?” Grin.

“No.” Roche spat on the pavement. The world remained still besides the dust that blew across the wasteland. Somewhere far away a powerline snapped with a twang. Hundreds of years of wind and sand had been abuse enough it seemed.

“The human mind is a collected encyclopedia of data and experiences. Noise and endless transcripts of every iotic detail. Prerecorded instincts derived from millions of years of genetic drift propagate the majority of the data but there’s that insignificant bit. The couple lines of ones and zeroes that make up the person, the individual. Minutiae in comparison to the preemptive data. I can encode that bit, that last little bit, like writing a program for a computer before it’s more than a couple wires. A fetus that will grow into the woman you loved. You see I’ve been following you a long time, Walter. Most of my life, not so much of yours. It wasn’t difficult in the course of things to track you down, to find your history, to find what was left of her family. Ancestry is a beautiful thing. Isolated genetic codes-”

Roche whipped the grinning Doctor Weaving across his teeth with his revolver’s barrel.

“You ever try to sell me on creating some genetic fucking copy of a human being again and I will gun you down. It’ll be worse if you ever speak her name again, I’ll end you slowly.” Roche growled through cigarette smoke.

Weaving just grinned his many-toothed smile, his teeth gone pink from the bleeding in his cheeks. A fresh bruise was welling across his face, but he pushed his sunglasses back in place. It was not before Roche had seen his eyes. Pale eyes, like a predator, like something that should have been woven out of humanities thread a long, long time ago, but was still poisoning it from the inside.

He laughed something like a raspy chuckle, a dark sound, like chalk.

“You’re still believing I haven’t done it yet. That’s your fault, Walter. That’s your fault.”

s gone - m

The grinning Doctor Weaving stood with dust on his pressed suit, sucking the blood from his mouth through his teeth and spitting a red hawk on the ground.

“That’s it, Mr. Roche, your solution to all things. The violence in you it’s . . . intoxicating.”

“Fuck you.”

“Yes, yes indeed. And yet you’ve not heard the entirety of my offer, nor deigned to ask what I am and what my role in all of this is.”

Roche clicked the hammer on his Ruger. “You’ve got ten seconds. I’m listening.”

The Resistance soldiers had their guns up, trained on Roche, edgily unsure of themselves though. Alex Markus’ hands hung limply at his sides, helpless. Only Kendall Miner had the fortitude to step forward, putting a shoulder shakily between the hunter and the doctor, moving slowly with his cane.

“Please, Mr. Roche. There’s no need for this. We’re all on the same side here.”

“I ain’t on no one’s side, mister. Best get that good n’ straight.”

“Yes, yes. But, we’d appreciate your cooperation and hearing out our offer. Please?” Miner’s eyes were pleading, as desperate as the old man could make them seem through the wrinkles and ridges.

Roche kept the revolver trained on the doctor’s thick grin for another second before putting up the gun. He neglected to holster it, but kept it handy.

“Talk then.”

“Excellent. Please bear with me through this, I’d hate to have another whack to the head. I do need my brains after all.” Grin. “You know my background, yet I have neglected to state my affiliations. Until recently I was in the employ of the Corporation. I worked closely with men like young Mr. Markus here. Though, I must admit, my line of work was more hands-on.

In dealing with the astounding number of walkers who seem to populate the worlds, I found a common enough name that seemed to connect to most of the dots. Roche, they all said. They knew of a Roche, a man who was older and more experienced in the ways of the ether than most. Though try as we might we could not locate you. Perhaps because you were between worlds whenever we looked or because of your penchant for not leaving witnesses to attest to your doings. Either way is incidental. So we tracked your history, hoping for a link that would help us get your attention.

Did you know there’s still an outstanding bounty on your head for the deaths of William Dunham, Andrew Vickers and Patrick ‘Patchy’ Wilkes? The three of them being men of interest in the disappearance of a one Mollie Groux.”

Roche’s blood rose to a thump in his breast. Weaving held his hands up defensively, placatingly, and grinned.

“I apologize, I won’t use her name again. Quite the effect it has on you. The most interesting point was that these men had all been murdered in er. . .hideous, I believe is the appropriate word. Hideous circumstances. And over forty years after they had been acquitted due to lack of evidence. Lack of a body or any testimony specifically. Then the transcript of a young police officer directly preceding their untimely demises. Threatened with bodily harm, he gave out information regarding a then closed case. Though I suppose you remember all of this.

In turn, we tracked the young miss’ family tree and were able to obtain genetic samples from her familial line through relatives. Using these I was able to further my research in the science of genetic reconstruction. More specifically using genetic reprints of tissue to influence the growth and development of a bundle of zygotic cells. Creating individuals, cloning, more like. Though I must admit the subject of my interest was both purely a selfish and altruistically chosen individual all at once.

This all being said, the child in question is still in the possession of the Ethercorp. I was unable to retrieve her on my way out.”

“Her?”

“Yes, a little girl.”

“Way out?”

“I defected, chose what I believed to be the winning side. Imagine my elation at discovering that you were the hunter hired to track down Mr. Markus. Pure coincidence or the aligning of fated stars? It’s all kismet, Mr. Roche.”

The air was thick with tension. Roche could smell the sweat off the Resistance soldiers as they sweated and worried. Doctor Weaving just kept grinning like a bastard. Markus just stood there uselessly. Miner spoke with care.

“That all being said, Roche, would you consider my offer of assisting the Resistance in stopping this construct experiment, this invasion, if it meant we would help procure this child? We would render her to your care if you wish, or just keep her out of harms way for as long as necessary. The choice there is up to you, but we need the assistance of walkers in this matter. Please?”

Roche ground his teeth, so hard that it made his eyes ache. He holstered his gun. He turned rigidly and looked back over the dunes of the wastelands, far away a flock of bird lifted from a metal cavalcade of power lines, the sun beat down and the dust swirled in devils.

“You got me. And when all this is over, I’m killing the doctor.”

“That’s not part of the deal.” Miner said stubbornly.

“Then I guess we got some negotiating to do.” Roche lit a cigarette.

y poor moll

Seven men stood in the lengthening shadows of a gas station southeast of Parmiskus somewhere in Polkun County. The three Resistance soldiers in black and gray fatigues had lowered their automatic rifles and stood at attention, awaiting orders. Kendall Miner stood with the help of his cane, shaking slightly, as though standing this long was accomplished with great physical pain. Doctor Weaving rubbed the smoothly shaven rumble of his jaw with two fingers, grinning. Alex Markus stood with his hands in his pockets somewhere between Roche and the Resistance men, but more to Roche’s side. Roche smoked his cigarette, fingering his revolvers more passively than ready to draw.

“Are we settled down enough to negotiate, Mr. Roche?” Miner asked.

“I suppose we’re as settled down as we’re gonna get.”

“I have a few questions, myself.” Markus folded his arms over his chest.

“That’s great, kid. You ain’t really a part of this anymore.” Roche shot him a look.

“Fuck you too then. I’m still staying a part of it. You’re the one that asked to have me picked up by the Res, aren’t you?” he asked Weaving.

Grin, grin. “Why my dear boy, how perceptive of you.”

“I’m not helping with any of that research. You can send me right back to the Corporation before I will.”

“And they’ll have you executed or worse. Though it may well come to that before all of this is through-”

"Gentlemen!” Miner rapped his cane on the side of the sedan, letting loose a cloud of rust. “I am afraid we must delay this conversation and quit the bickering. The sun is going down and the compound is far safe a place to talk then here. If that is agreeable to all parties involved.” He didn’t make it a question. “Mr. Roche, I’ll assume you’ll follow.”

“Yep.”

“I’m going with Roche.”

“That’s fine Mr. Markus. We’ll show you the way.” Miner whistled and the three Resistance soldiers piled into the sedan, one helping Miner into the backseat. The sedan started right up as Roche was leading Lucky from behind the gas station to the bed of the troop transport once more. The mare wasn’t enthused.

“Why you wanna come with me, kid?”

“Besides the fact their car was full? I dunno. Force of habit.” Markus smirked and swung into the truck behind the wheel. “I’ll drive.”

“Suits me just fine. Roche secured the bolts of the tailgate and apologized to the horse with a tip of his hat.

ie is vapo

Miner and his compatriots had been tight-lipped about their destination, though they drove slow enough for Roche and Alex Markus to follow closely in the transport.
The sun set quickly, and after nearly an hour on the main drag, the sedan turned off to a dirt road through a chain link gate. Cacti and dry trees flanked the road as the landscape rose into the foothills of a cluster of mountains. Within another mile, the road was a carved divot in the scenery that may have once been a riverbed.

Rounding an arc of road, Roche could see the faint glimmer of lights far ahead.

The floodlamps over the main gate were bright halogen and blinding. The way the shale banks along the sides of the road crept tightly inward, it made it impossible to turn around, and with the lights blinding them from the front Roche saw the checkpoint for what it was; a killbox. Anyone who followed a Res car down the road would be shot dead and blind. But the sedan led the way, and Miner made sure to wave the Corporation truck through. Passing the light stands Roche could see what the entrance was. Racks of sheetmetal and tire-walls, the kind of stuff that’d slow a car down but not stop it, framed over steel girders that supported catwalks. Atop them were four-foot halogen spotlamps trained on the riverbed-road, and a dozen armed soldiers.

Once through the gate, the miniature canyon opened up outward and down.

The Resistance outpost was an old silver mine. In times gone by thousands of men had gone to the west to seek their fortune in the hills and mountains of the Mojave. The landscape beyond the reach of civilization was dotted with mine shafts of varying depths and sizes. This mine may have been a smaller thing once, but the Resistance had fortified it.

Reached only by a hazardous switchback trail, and blocked at the end by blinder lights and a funnel of walls, the killbox was their welcome mat. The compound spread out to the left and right, a series of low, wooden buildings like somethin’ out of an Americana painting, something Mormon. A gas pump was hitched to the back end of a tanker truck sat in the center of the open hole in the landscape. Men on the backs on synthetic horses milled about the edges of the compound, scanning the dusky desert with binoculars in night vision. They wore masks and scarves against the coming nighttime cold and kept a wary eye on the Corporation truck as it rumbled into the compound.

Markus stopped the truck behind the sedan when the little red car crept to a stall. The kid pulled the brake up and turned to Roche.

“Why’re you doin’ this?”

“What’s that?” Roche flipped his lighter open and struck the flint.

“Helping the Resistance.”

“I ain’t yet. Suffice to say what the good doctor said got me some kinda curious.” Roche tugged on the cigarette and watched the soldiers outside the windshield rustle up from the outpost, jogging with their rifles strapped to their vests.

“Yeah, but you’re here. That’s further than all the stuff I said would’ve ever gotten you. What gives? Something that doctor said about a girl.”

“Yeah, kid. Somethin’ about a girl.” Roche’s eyes glowed with the cherry from the end of his smoke.

Alex Markus held out a hand, thumb and forefinger pressed together in a can-I-have-a-smoke gesture.

“Kid?”

“Can I have one?”

“You smoke?” Roche was genuinely surprised.

“Used to, quit a long time ago. Too expensive or something. I had a reason, I’ve forgotten it.”

“You’ll live longer.”

“You’re the exception to that aren’t you?” Markus smiled as Roche handed him a hand-rolled menthol cigarette from his poke.

Roche laughed a little, small sound in the back of his throat. “Guess you’re right, kid. Guess you’re right.”

Markus lit the cigarette, inhaled, coughed and asked again;

“So?”

“Doesn’t matter who she was, kid.”

“She’s your kin?”

“Not even close. Just someone I knew once. Long gone.”

“But still dear to you.” Markus watched out the windshield. The soldiers seemed to be getting impatient and were agitatedly dancing around the truck, though Miner, with his cane and wobbly knees seemed to be keeping them at bay.

“Watch yourself, kid. And maybe, just maybe you’re right.” Roche snubbed his smoke on the dashboard of the truck. “C’mon, we gotta go before they rip us outta this truck.”

“Hey?” Markus stopped Roche before he’d hopped down. “One more thing.”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t like that doctor, and I don’t know who this girl was he’s cloned or whatever the hell he’s done was to you, but if she mattered I’m sorry. And she must have if you’re sticking with the Res just to get her out. And if there’s anything I can do, I’ll try to help, but they might ferry me off to start working for them wherever, but Roche. . .you been alright to me. I won’t forget that. Thank you.”

Roche turned all the way around in the bucket seat of the truck and looked at the kid from under the wide brim of his had. He never was much of a thing. More a scared animal than a man, but half good at things when he set his mind to them. Wasn’t such a bad kid, no. Still a single charge job in a sea of work that had gone on for longer than Roche cared to think about.

And this girl, if the doctor was lying about making a baby from genetic material collected from Mollie’s relatives for the sake of spurning Roche and getting his attention, then Roche would kill him. If he wasn’t lying, Roche would kill him slow. Wasn’t a world for a baby and wasn’t a world for a girl like Mollie Groux, some bastard version of a girl he’d known. It was all a shit-storm in a world gone to hell in a handbasket. Wasn’t much choice. Wasn’t much to do.

“You been alright too, kid. You been alright. S’go.”

r and gase

“Hands up!” A small band of uniformed Res soldiers had their guns trained on the hunter the second his boots hit the dust. Roche widened his hands, palms out from his hips. “I said up!”

“Yeah, except that ain’t gonna happen.”

“Stop it, stop it, you.” Kendall Miner shuffled over from the left, waving a thin-skinned hand and shouting. “Mr. Roche was invited here by me and is to be treated as a guest.”

“Sir, yes sir. We’ll need to check him for weapons though, sir. It’s protocol.” Stubborn military-types. They were an irritating bunch.

Miner chewed on this for a moment. He turned to Roche and asked placatingly; “Roche, if you please. . .the men here need to inspect the weapons you’ve brought with you. I’m afraid it’s pretty standard procedure.”

“S’fine.” Roche opened his oilskin duster, revealing his kevlar body armor, cris-crossed gunbelts, drop bags and a pack that hung around his waist carrying odds and ends. Two Ruger revolvers, a sawed-off double-barrel, a bootknife. The .45 he’d given to the kid, and the A-Mat was still in Lucky’s saddle. His waist pack held only a set of lockpicks, his pen-sized flashlight, tobacco poke and his lighter. “Horse in the trailer has an Anti-Mat in a holster on the saddle, and there are some assorted automatics and handguns and whatnot in boxes and racks in the back. Those all belong to me.” Damned if he’d just hand over a truckload of weapons to the Res without some kind of compensation.

He watched for Doctor Weaving, hoping to get an idea of where the ratfink was stationed and worked out of, but the snake had managed to slither back to whatever hole he’d come from the moment the sedan stopped without Roche noticing.

“Remove all of your weapons from your person and lay them on the ground.”

“Yeah. No.” Roche let go of the lapels of his jacket and his coat fell back around himself. “Not doing that.”

The Res soldiers didn’t know much what to make of that, and looked back and forth at each other.

“It’s fine, you idiots.” Miner clipped at the soldiers, his voice thick with disdain for the whole business. “Mr. Roche, if you please, I believe we have some business to attend to.” Miner held out a hand and beckoned Roche follow him.

Roche took a step in the direction before he turned back to the soldiers.

“Horse in the back is Lucky, you keep her good and if I catch a fuckin’ hair on her outta place I will personally feed you your own teeth.”

Somewhere from the back of the truck Lucky heard and blew out her lips.

Roche turned and followed Miner deeper into the Res compound under the glow of halogen lights and the faint hiss of the sand as it blew over the brim of the mine canyon.

ous mole

Above all the low buildings, tin-roofed and an even shade of khaki, there stood a pair of metal towers the shape of shelving brackets. Old mine shaft toppers for winching out carts and drawing up loads of ore-filled stone. Atop the two shaft towers were crow’s nest baskets where lookouts with long-vision scopes watched the horizon. Between the two towers, maybe a distance of ten or twenty meters, someone had strung a length of old telephone wire. Three bodies hung from it.

“Who’re they?” Roche asked nonchalantly of Kendall Miner.

“Corporation scout team that got too close to our perimeters. We caught them on sensors and brought them back. Boosts morale, I suppose.”

“Hm. Hanging a man who’s already dead?”

“I know the whole thing seems superfluous. And some of those men with families here have asked that they be taken down. Scares the children.”

“There are men here with families?”

“Of course. They’ve signed on with the Resistance to the Ethercorp and their ways, but that doesn’t mean that they signed away their lives.”

“What is your beef with the Corp, anyhow? Seems to me they offer men like you’ve assembled here a good days pay and consistent work.” Roche played devil’s advocate for the nonce while he walked slowly through the old silver mine with his host amid soldiers and those in the employ of the Res going about their business.

“Imagine you’ve frequented a casino for a long time, get to know the place, get to like it, but somewhere along the line you discover there’s a dealer who’s been cheating folk for the duration of his employment. He’s terminated and sent on his way but not before he’s made a holy mess of things, maybe he goes off and torches the casino that fired him out of anger or some such scenario. Everything is ruined, not only was the dealer a crook, now you have no place to enjoy your whiskey and women and cards. You’re shit out o’ luck. Years later, you’re gambling at a different locale, and you notice that the same man is dealing, albeit in a different casino. Do you tell the manager what he’s done in the past and hope that things will go well this time around? or do you take matters into your own hands and run the dealer out of town yourself to save your newfound casino that you’ve grown to like, knowing that you’re doing the right thing, albeit for subliminally selfish reasons, being that you enjoy casinos.”

“I’d just shoot him right there.” Roche grumbled.

“Ah, yes. Which is why we’ve asked you here. Our situation is similar. Men in the Ethercorp’s position hundreds of years ago blasted our world and caused the catastrophe that has mankind ferreting about the wastelands and scrounging for enough to make it through the next day. We kill each other and we’ve lost our sense of civilization and humanity. Men eat one another for lack of sustenance. Mankind was once the alpha predator, top of the food chain, we put men on the moon for god’s sake. We can’t let another catastrophe happen. It is our responsibility to ensure that it does not happen again, that people with power and influence don’t go messing about in the ether. Ever again.”

“And the selfish reason?”

“The hypothetical man enjoyed gambling, we simply enjoy not being dead. If the Ethercorp has it’s way, we may all be dead. Men, women, children. . .the first catastrophe caused the doors through the ether. The fallout from such knowledge led to a world war that saw a quarter of the population, nearly three billion people wasted away for nothing by nuclear wind and the spread of infectious poisoning. Radiation and civil war did the rest. What’s left is what we see every day.”

“And you need me?” Roche stopped. They stood near the center of the little mining village tucked away in the crevices of a great set of silver hills somewhere lost in the wastelands of the Mojave.

Miner rested his weight with both crinkled hands on the head of his cane. His eyes looked weary and lined with a lifetime of rigor and hardship and loss.

“We believe that the best fighters in this, the ones most apt to help us stop these constructs from ravaging across the land, to stop the Ethercorp from weaponizing the white and selling it to the highest bidder, is to combat their creations with the yin to their yang. A man made part of the white against the white made part of a creature.”

“Has a certain serendipity to it.”

“Doesn’t it though?” Kendall Miner smiled widely, a grin that touched his ears and made the wattles of his throaty neck tighten up across his chin. “I’m afraid it’s been some time since I smiled, Mr. Roche. Serendipity. Quite. Please to come have a drink with me?”

“You have a saloon?”

“What settlement in the wasteland would be complete without a house of ill-repute. Of course we do. Follow me.”

A smile spread across his own face, and Roche followed the old Lieutenant to the outpost’s saloon.

cules - wa

The Res outpost saloon was little more than a converted barracks with the cots removed. Though it now served a more permanent and necessary service than sleep and housing.

The barkeep was an off-duty soldier with tight hair and a thick jaw who was amiable enough, but quiet. Roche and Miner sat in a far corner with an oil lamp between them and a bottle of brown whiskey between them.

“The doctor. who is he?” Roche asked after his third glass, a cigarette hanging cold from his lips.

“Weaving. Yes. I apologize for him. He is. . .an unsettling necessity in this. He came to use so recently, and with the coming of the thirteenth we dare not turn him away. His methods had not been disclosed to me until just today, outside that station before you hit him. I was under the impression he was a mere researcher, though a highly educated one, with some manner of understanding regarding the Ethercorp’s current project.”

“Where is he now?” Roche asked.

“I’ve asked to have him quarantined to his office for the nonce, until I can decide what to do. I am as shocked as you-”

“Doubt it.”

“Yes. No. I suppose not. I don’t know who or what he’s done that involves you and your past, Mr. Roche, and I don’t care to. What’s your business is your business.”

“But it got me here, helping. I can’t help but wonder if you’re so innocent in this if you just got me here to do whatever it is you need?”

“Of course not!” Miner seemed genuinely offended. “I would never endanger the life of a child knowingly for the purpose of any cause. That’s detestable.”

“Suppose so. But, you’re a man I’ve met twice now, Miner. I believed you honest the first time when you told me you were that kid’s father. Wasn’t so true.”

“Perhaps not. I had intended to play on your sympathies, though I did not know you were a shrewd enough man that such things would not matter.”

“I can see that. All it proves to me is that I can’t read you as well as I’d thought.” Roche downed three fingers in a swallow.

“Then you don’t trust me.”

“I don’t trust anyone, least of all that Doctor Weaving.”

“You don’t have to trust him Roche, but just know that I’m going to do everything I can to help you find that little girl for whatever she is to you. If you help us avert a second catastrophe, that’s the very least that I owe you.”

“Yep.” Roche swallowed another drink.

lking - wa

Roche left the saloon somewhere near the midpoint of the night. Halogen lamps flicked and hummed where they hung. The sound of bootheels on metal gangways was intermittent and soft. The wind whispered and the drifts of dust between low buildings shifted and rolled, slowly changing position over the night and washing away any trace of footprints. The whole Resistance mob that was here could up and leave tonight and the wasteland would see to it that there was no evidence they had ever been.

The troop transport and the sedan had been moved. Lucky has presumably been taken to the stables with the synthetics. The central square of the compound was a vague shape of dusky brown earth. Markus was standing in the middle of it all, staring up at nothing.

“Kid?” Roche was feeling the whiskey a little, his footsteps seemed a hair off.

Alex Markus whipped around. “Oh, hey.”

Roche lit a cigarette and handed his poke to Markus.

“I couldn’t sleep.” Markus said around a lipful of cigarette.

“Did I ask?”

“No. What’ve you been up to?”

“Talked with that Miner fellow for a bit. Stayed at the saloon after he left. Came out to find my horse, really.”

“Lucky’s fine. She’s stabled with the synthetics. They fed her and gave her water. She looked kinda pissy, actually.”

“She usually is. She’s a good girl.” Roche smiled a little in spite of it all. “Miner said we’re gearing up for tomorrow. Headed to New San Fran, taking it as we go.”

“You’re going to head off the Corp.” It wasn’t a question.

“As best we can. Suppose a lot of it remains to be seen, but that’s where they’re based and we’ve got to get there by the thirteenth. We’re cutting down to the line. We’ve got a day, maybe a little more.”

“I see. And that’s where you meet the other walkers?”

“The others that have come to the cause, yeah. They’re few and far between. From there, we unleash hell. And do our best not to get killed.” Roche puffed on his smoke.

“Don’t think I won’t be coming along.”

“Oh, no?”

“Yeah. They need me along with the soldiers for whatever help I can give in how to destroy the constructs. Which may not be much, but I owe it to them for getting me out of the Corp’s grip.”

“Suppose you do.”

“Suppose I do.”

“Night then.” Roche turned abruptly and stepped on his cigarette on the way to the stables, still reeling slightly from the drink. Markus started to protest but stopped, and returned to gazing upwards at the stars, cigarette cocked strangely in the corner of his mouth, ribbons of smoke curling over the lenses of his glasses.

lking - walk

Roche found a place to sleep for an hour between the stables and a granary building. He’d stayed the entire night awake and wandering the Resistance compound, bootheels scratching a path in the dirt.

It was the only night he’d be spending here. Miner had made it clear over drinks that he wanted to get while the going was good first thing in the morning, headed for New San Fran. From there, they’d head off the Corp before they could pull their constructs through the door and into Terra 1. Once that was over, Roche would have Doctor Weaving bring him to the clone-bastard-child of Mollie Groux’s descendants, something the good doctor had thought would be eternally and appropriately funny as a bargaining chip for the walker.

Wandering the compound, all Roche had been reminded of was exactly why he preferred not to deal with people at all if he could help it. Shit, if it was a job that needed doing a strongly worded letter followed by a wire transfer of some bank notes would have been fine n’ dandy, ain’t no need for chit-chat and idle bullshit. Just do the job and go.

Roche sat against the lee side of the stables between an old mine cart and a heap of old blankets taller than he was. The cloth smelled like it had been soaked in gasoline but he lit a cigarette anyway.

The sun would be up soon, and Miner would be eager to get on his way.

The halogen hum was a constant thing here, along with the vaporized sputter of flies and mosquitoes landing on the lamps.

Roche leaned his head back too hard and too fast, thumping it against the stable wall. Old wood racketed against itself and somewhere inside Lucky nickered.

“Lucky?” Roche groaned up at the sky, slowly turning a pale shade of purple.

The mare nickered again.

“Yeah, girl. We gotta go. There’s a war goin’ on and it’s about time for me to be a part of it.”

Nickering.

“Yeah. I know. Not exactly what you signed up for.”
Nickering.

“I’ll see to it you’re compensated well. Oats?”

Blowing lips.

“No? What then?”

Nicker.

“Corn!? Listen cuss, where am I supposed to get corn?”

Blowing lips.

“Eh, you don’t care you mangy bitch. I’ll figure something out. You’ll get your pay. You negotiate with the best of them.”

Nicker.

“Yeah. yeah you do.”

The sun was finally coming up.

ing - worl

As the sun rose the Resistance assembled half a dozen trucks. Men with families said their goodbyes to their wives and children, those with no one took morning meals with whiskey and colorless liquors. Some men sat astride synthetic horses, others took motorbikes from a machine shop near the entrance of the compound. Those who had neither piled into the backs of the transports with their automatic rifles strapped to their bodies, check, check, checking their slides and magazines.

Roche sat in Lucky’s saddle amidst all of the hustle and bustle. In one hand he held the reins, in the other was a cup of black coffee given to him by the passing cafeteria head, a portly man in an apron with a back-full of hair. The coffee had seemed like a good idea, strong and gritty and thick as tar. He hadn’t regretted it.

Markus was nowhere to be seen, though Roche had already spied Doctor Weaving, bound at the wrists, being led to a transport among the soldiers in their helmets and scarves.

“Where are you taking him?” Roche asked a passing soldier, jigging his chin towards the doctor.

“Boss wants him in tow for the conflict. Says he knows about the constructs.”

“That so?”

“Yeah. He are you the walker that they’re saying killed a white-construct?”

“Maybe so.”

The soldiers eyes lit right up at that. “How!?”

“Same way you kill anything. . .bullets and shotgun shells.” Roche tapped the sawed-off strapped to one thigh.

“Good to know.” The soldier emptied off with a little spring in his step.

By mid-morning they’d dallied around enough that Miner grew impatient. The old man hobbled out from his quarters somewhere near the back of the compound with a regalia jacket on and a military cap cocked back on his thin hair.

“Why are we not moving yet, Mr. Briggs!?”

A soldier, presumably Briggs, rapped his heels together and saluted toy-like. “Sir, just been loading up for the fight. We’re near finished, sir.”

“Did you speak with Mr. Roche about purchasing the excess armaments from him?”

“Sir, not yet, sir.”

“Then I’ll bloody-well take care of it.” Miner dismissed Briggs with a wave of one old-man hand and caned his way to Roche and Lucky. “I take it you heard that exchange?” He asked upon standing under Lucky’s shoulder.

“Aye. You want the guns in the truck, ain’t nothin’ free in the wasteland.”

“I supposed that would be your response. I can offer you five-thousand bank notes for the lot. Ammunition, guns and the rest.”

“Blankets and foodstuffs too? I’ll take five and a half.”

“Five and two fifty and that’s my offer.”

“Done.”

“Fine then.” Miner dug a wad of rolled bank notes from a pocket and supplemented it with bills folded out from his own leather wallet. Roche hopped down from his horse to take the money, respectfully.

Flipping the cash with one gloved finger Roche asked; “We headin’ out soon. When do we meet the other walkers?”

“They’ll meet us on the way.”

“And what’s the plan when they do?”

“Might I suggest another story as a way of er. . .making a simile to my point?”

Roche groaned. “Sure.” He sipped his tar-coffee, bitter as sin.

“Have you heard of Gévaudan, Mr. Roche?”

“Nope.”

“It’s a region in what used to be France. Following the second revolution, a beast terrorized the landscape. Many assumed it was a shapeshifter, a beast of folklore and horror story. Whether it was or not has been lost to history, though many suspect that it was no more than a trained foreign animal.”

“This is ancient history. So?”

“We believe the work at New San Fran may be something similar. Some believe that the Beast of Gévaudan was a political ploy to unite France and the Gaul region under one banner. An area of the kingdom divided on whether or not to support the new aristocracy turned to them rather quickly when it seemed things were getting bad and they needed a savior. If Ethercorp releases constructs on New San Fran and then rallies in quickly to stop the attacks, it brings faith in them on behalf of the people, and demonstrates all at once their control over these ether-weapons, buying them the interest of wealthy parties.”

“Two birds?”

“Yes, precisely. We aim to stop them before they get started.”

“Would their ploy not unite the people though?” Roche sipped his coffee, wishing there was whiskey in it. An easy fix though.

“Perhaps.”

“So the alternative to a united populace driven by fear is the chaotic way mankind has been living since the catastrophe?”

“One could see it that way, yes.” Miner shifted his weight on his cane.

“What if one did?”

“Then you’d be of no use and you’d be branded by our organization as a defect and a traitor. Is that what you wish?”

“Not when you’re the one holding the ace-in-the-hole.” Roche thought of the little girl that Weaving had claimed was a near-copy of the woman he’d once known better than any other, and wondered not for the first time if it was too good to be true.

“Then we have an agreement that still stands Mr. Roche. I’ll see to it that you’re bound to it. As for the other two walkers, we’ll meet them closer to New San Fran. And I’m afraid we’ve spent too much time gabbing. There’s work to be done.” Miner did not say goodbye, he simply turned an hobbled away with a poor gait.

Roche downed the remainder of his coffee and dropped the cup to the dust for the wastelands to swallow up if it saw fit, or for someone else to pick up, whichever came first. He wheeled Lucky about and stared across the compound at Weaving grin, grinning in the back of the transport with too many teeth, surrounded by soldiers like a Cheshire monster.

What is it you want you sick sumbitch, Roche thought.

ds are turn

A cloud of dust that must have been visible for miles and miles and miles followed the convoy as they made their way down the 50 towards New San Fran. Roche had caught a brief glimpse of Alex Markus hopping aboard one of the trucks before they’d been given the order to leave, but the kid hadn’t even bothered to look up. Miner, too was aboard a transport, being the local authority in the Res, though he was near-enough to pushing daisies to be of no combat effectiveness. In all, the Res had left a paltry score of soldiers at the compound and was en route to New San Fran in a half-dozen transport trucks, assorted motorbikes and synthetics with nearly a hundred men, armed to the teeth with gasoline in their hearts for a cause that Roche had less and less interest in.

Seemed to be the path the road was taking him in though. Worse ideas had struck in the past. Not today and not yesterday, but worse ones.

Lucky kept pace with the trucks at something between a trot and a canter. The going was slow, and most of the roads, despite a hundred years of gradual clearing by all passers-by, were still tough to drive on. They were all crumbling pavement, dust-drifts, immobile rusted wrecks and the occasional heap of bones that were both human and animal from cannibs who’d taken time to camp on the roads for easier prey. The world continued to pass right on by as if nothing were going on, though to look into the eyes of some of the young Resistance men, it might as well have been the last day in forever. for some of them it might be.

Near Carson City where Roche was sure he was still a wanted man, the convoy thankfully turned north on a main road whose signs had somehow all disappeared.

They were making for the 80 route, which Roche knew would be more direct, though possibly slower. He might have advised against turning north in order to go south, he was old-fashioned in that way, but he also wasn’t running the caravan. So north they turned.

The 80 would wind south and west, passing by the city of Sacramento, which Roche understood was still a bustle and thrum of activity on Terra 1, and from there they would be less than a days serious trek to New San Fran.

Some hours north of Carson City, just as they turned onto the 80 West, the caravan stopped to refuel and collect itself before the final stretch of long road.

There was an overpass that had been made into a longhouse with corrugated metal, bits and pieces of blown down cityscapes and the odd road sign. It served mainly as an inn for travelers. It was a place Roche had been once before, though many, many years ago, and he doubted if the proprietors would be the same folks he’d known before.

The caravan situated like a group of protective animals, all of the trucks backing around each other, with the bikes and horses in a second ring around the main group.

Soldiers hopped from their transports and stretched their legs before chow shifts and checking their perimeters. Three men in full assault gear went to the inn to pay for their time, though the caravan would only stop for little more than a half-hour. Still, it seemed politeness had not completely abandoned the wasteland. Or maybe the new proprietors were known for being greasy-palmed. Didn’t matter.

Roche tethered Lucky to the back of one of the trucks and stood smoking outside the center ring while soldiers hurried here and there, acting productive while their fellows took turns tearing at salted meat with their teeth and rationing water.

The doctor came up so silently that he actually caught Roche off-guard.

“Pleasant isn’t it, Mr. Roche? A stop on the long road towards almost certain destruction?”

“If you’re so sure of our deaths than aren’t you on the wrong side?”

“Oh, no my walking friend. I am assuredly as close to you as I’ve ever wished to be, bindings or not.” Doctor Weaving twisted his wrists, the ropes binding them creaked like old wood.

“Why me, then?”

“Your story fascinates me. A man who went into the white with pure intentions and came back out a twisted remnant of a human being. You are an invigorating study. Precisely why I’ve made such great strides to land where you did.”

“And how, if I may ask, did you come to know where I’ve been and how I’d get here?” Roche puffed on his menthol and made a point of blowing the smoke directly into the doctor’s shit-eating grin.

“This is the wasteland of America, of the world, my dear friend. Information is always worth a numerical amount.” He spoke over the gnash of his big ol’ teeth.

Then perhaps I could ask you for some information?” Roche had been holding on to this one. “What happens to your grand-scheme plan if I die in the battle?”

“Oh, but you won’t. You’re far too stubborn for that, my friend.” Grin.

“Maybe. But I’m not too stubborn to not die of a serious illness.”

The corners of the doctor’s mouth wavered only a little, but the rattle was clearly there. “Whatever do you mean?” Grin.

“I mean this weird smell I been figuring on for months now. Comes and goes, and sometimes it ain’t there for weeks at a time, but it always comes back. I didn’t know it for sure until it happened in the ether. And then the kid drove the point home. He’s as smart if not smarter than you by a long throw.”

“Smell?”

“Campfire usually. Smell it when there ain’t a campfire for miles, and then when there ain’t nothing until the edges of the universe but white and basic universal coding for nothing and everything all at once. I figured it out a little bit ago, but now that I’ve got you pissin’ up my tree I done and come to terms with it better than ever.”

Weaving’s expression faltered further, his grin became an open lip spread of teeth minus the glee.

“I got cancer, dipshit. The kind you don’t get better from, I imagine. Maybe from all the walking, maybe from all the drink and the smoke and the nonsense of not needing to eat or sleep or shit or piss like the rest of you mortal paraphernalia. Maybe I’m just not as lucky as I ought to be. But if it’s fucking with my sense of smell I’m smart enough to know that’s in an organ that mankind didn’t even understand before all this world-weary end of days shit. I’m gonna die, and maybe it’s gonna be sudden and maybe it’s not. But now that I got a good reason to stay the high and highwaters away from you. So you won’t get to poke and prod and pick at me. . .your favorite subject in school.” Roche spat on the ground, dropped his cigarette into the glob of phlegm and stomped it out.

Weaving’s face had become something grim and sad. He might not get his plaything and he knew it. “I can help you, Mr. Roche. I am a trained surgeon. Wherever the growth is-”

“Save it. I ain’t letting the likes of you anywhere near my gray matter. Enjoy this trip, Doctor. When this is over I’m putting a bullet through those teeth and watching you bleed out quick.” Roche swept his coat out and turned to walk back to Lucky. The soldiers were mounting up and the caravan was about to get moving again.

“If I die you’ll never find her. If I don’t want you to, you’ll never find her.” He said with some finality.

“I don’t doubt that. Which is why you get to live just long enough, my friend.” Roche cussed. The walker swung a leg over his horse and trotted off. He didn’t look, but he could hear the scuffle as soldiers dragged the Doctor back onto the truck to keep moving.

ing and vice

The 80 West proved to be more passive than Roche had believed. Somewhere along the line enough caravans and travelers had gone through this road that the way was clear enough. Maybe a smarter man had brought a plow and pushed most of the wrecks into the ditches and gullies along the road. Maybe.

The desert of the Mojave skated by, and Roche knew he would be making better time if he’d just shifted through the white, but that would leave the rest of these men in the dust. It was still an option. He knew a number of doors near here that allowed for passage under and through Terra 1, rather than from one plane to another. Maybe he’d bring the idea up tonight when they stopped. Maybe not.

The mountains did not appear as if from thin air, though they might as well have. One moment the desert seemed as nondescript and endless as the white, and then there were mountains.

The Sierra’s came and went. It all seemed to float on by like it were nothing. Roche supposed he spent most of that day and evening in his head, feeling Lucky sway and trot beneath him. They made good time, but it was the eleventh of December, and they’d only just entered the Sierra’s. If they made good time the rest of the day, they’d be most of the way through the mountains. Then came Sacramento and New San Fran.

Twilight in the Mountains, through the passes and high roads was different than it was in the desert. It seemed like the sun was a good deal closer, and it was that much more daunting when the orb disappeared from the sky. Night hit like a gloved punch, and the caravan trucks hit their headlights, the motorbikes too, it was the men on synthetics that had to take time for their eyes to adjust. They fell behind a step and caught up.

The mountains used to be covered in snow, the books said. In winter months like December the slopes and stones would be coated in fine, white powder. The old books had pictures, but they didn’t do it justices. Roche had seen snow a few times in all of his years, and even the color photos could not capture the crispness and sparkle of newly fallen snow. The kind of twinkle that it had before boots and mud and blood tainted the color and washed it out to that terrible beige that permeated the entire planet after the catastrophe.

The heat died and it may well have been cold enough for snow, but the moisture wasn’t there anymore. There was no water in the air, no humidity, nothing to freeze and sprinkle and fall to the earth below and cover up all the shit.

If nothing else, Roche thought the lack thereof was a little poetic. Just a hair appropriate.

The caravan stopped at a rest area, just a wider expanse of pavement that lurched off the edge of the 80 like a slow punch.

Again, they rolled into a pair of wide circles and the soldiers took their turns on watch and eating. Roche found Lucky a few sprigs of dry grass in a small stand of mountain trees and fed them to the mare. A cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth while he scrounged up a bottle of whiskey from one of the trucks. A crate tucked under one of the benches beneath some sleeping blankets held two-dozen bottles for the men. Roche took a pair and stuck one in his saddle-bag. He wandered through the camp.

Men oiled their guns and checked themselves, their clips, their belts, their bloused pants. They might well have been gearing up for a war. Soldiers for a cause. There was nothing more depressing and terrifying.

“Hey.” Markus sauntered up with a tin tray of unconscionable gray glop, a smoke between his fingers. “Want anything to eat?”

Roche swigged on the bottle in response.

“No, huh? Don’t blame you. If I was the kind of man who didn’t need to eat more than once or twice a month I wouldn’t pick this crap. Filling though.” The kid jammed a spoonful of the stuff into his gob and sucked on his cigarette like it was a pacifier.

“What do you want, kid?” Roche watched the stars through the veil of the light pollution from the trucks lamps.

“Nothin’. See you kept it in mind to make the trip.”

“Didn’t have much choice, did I?”

“Guess you didn’t, no. Something you did spooked Doctor Weaving though.” Markus turned and looked back a pack of soldiers around the bound doctor, eating with his wrists tied together.

“Yeah. Told him I got cancer.”

Markus nearly choked on his food. “You what!?”

“Yep.” Roche drank.

“How? You’re a walker. You body doesn’t age or need things the way the rest of us do. Shit I never even seen you take a piss. How do you have cancer?”

“No idea.” Drink.

“Were you lying?”

“Nope. I don’t lie, kid. Haven’t figured that out yet?”

“Then how?”

“Dunno. Luck of the draw? Age and beauty can’t be my only assets, might as well throw in some cell mutation to boot.” Roche sniggered and drank some more.

Markus was quiet, chewing on the gray, soldier-glop like a cow, smoking occasionally out the corner of his mouth.

The night stretched on and the first group of soldiers turned in while the others took a four-hour watch, lining themselves around the caravan and scanning the edges of the mountainside and over the length of the ravines to the east.

“It was the white wasn’t it? it did that to you.”

“How could it? The white ain’t anything. It’s the building blocks of all things, you said it yourself. You understand the science of it, don’t fuck around about it. It’s the drink and the smokes and the rotten luck I’ve been dealt. Nothing more.”

“Did you know before you picked me up?”

“Awe, don’t get all mushy on me, dipshit. But, no. I didn’t. I’d been smelling that same smell for a while at that point. Guess I just needed you to paint me in the direction of it being something medical. The thought hadn’t crossed my mind really until then, seein’ as how everything else pretty much stopped once I started walkin’.”

“The smell. The-, you think it’s in your brain don’t you?”

“Sure do.” Swig.

“Then it’s really uncertain. There may be help for. . .the Res has-”

“Kid.” Roche turned to Markus and looked him as dead-in-the-eye as he’d ever looked anyone before. “I ain’t looking for any fix-me-ups. I ain’t tryin’ to be saved. I’m just doing what I do. I got one more walk in me for tomorrow and maybe the next day. I do what I came here to do. Help you idiots get your chaotic peace or whatever it is set in motion. Stop the Corp from bastardizing the ether any further, and save a little girls life in the meantime.”

“And what happens to her after? With this on your plate now?”

Roche smoked an entire other cigarette before he answered, watching the cool blue clouds that flowed out of his teeth rise into the night sky and dissipate into the replete black nothing that was space.

“I haven’t figured that one out yet, cowboy.” Roche snubbed his smoke against the side of a truck and left Alex Markus feeling very, very alone in the Sierra’s and the world.

s are burnin

From the peak of the mountains Roche could see the valley of the California basin slipping out towards the ocean. The highest point of the 80 West trailed off downwards and rambled through the remaining mountains. Roche could see now the point in taking the 80 rather than another route. They spent less time in the mountains, it was less direct, and probably took longer, but the mountains had the possibility of rock slides, washed out roads and broken trails. Roche had forgotten what it was to have to worry about such things. In his world the clock was never ticking or running out. Time was a novelty that he didn’t appreciate, distance and difficulty could be passed by slipping through the white, or just walkin’ and walkin’, you got there eventually. Been a long time. And now it seemed time was something Roche would have to keep tabs on. Though how much or how little he had was anyone’s guess. So it didn’t really bear to think about, did it?

The hunter had ridden ahead a mile to reach a vantage point. Two soldiers on synthetics - clicky, awful, mechanical beasts - came up behind him, checking the road with binoculars.

“Look clear enough for you boys?” Roche asked, flipping open his lighter with a metallic sound and lighting a smoke.

“Small choke point about seven, . .eight miles up, caved out road. Might be a little tight for the bigger transports, but we send them over last and we’ll be fine.”

“Briggs, right?” Roche recognized the soldier.

“Yeah. You’re the walker?”

“As if that wasn’t a common-knowledge fact.”

“Sorry. Meant no disrespect.” The soldier got smart real quick and wheeled his synthetic around, followed closely by the second uniform. Roche guessed he must give off an I-don’t-wanna-chit-chat vibe. Oh, well.

Roche spurred Lucky with a squeeze of his bootheels. The mare nickered and walked on, well ahead of the Resistance caravan and making good headway through the remainder of the Sierra’s into the basin where New San Fran waited.

g and all i

Coming down the 80 West was easier going than they’d thought it might be. The choke-point in the road proved passable, and barring a bit of falling asphalt and a shower of dust from beneath the road, there was no incident as the larger trucks went through.

Roche rode ahead a mile or so, scouting out the lay of the road in front of the caravan. Not for any reason, no one had asked him to, it just seemed like a thing to do while they crawled along the 80, and Lucky wanted to get moving.

It occurred to the walker that he could have made New San Fran some time ago, traipsing through the ether, he knew a number of doorways and holes that tunneled beneath Terra 1 to closer places. His way was with the caravan now, though. Again, not for any reason in particular. He had no contract with these men, he could have come and gone as he pleased. But the statement that Doctor weaving had made, talking about the ‘made’ girl, it was intriguing to say the least, and terrifying to say the most.

A few miles further on Roche fell back in step with the caravan. The trucks moved at maybe only thirty, thirty-five miles an hour, and the horse kept pace with them easily.

They’d gotten an early start, and the sun hadn’t hit the midpoint of the sky just yet, and they were nearly clear of the Sierra’s.

A truck pulled up, evened it’s pace and Kendall Miner, the resident Lieutenant of the Resistance brigade stuck his pasty head into the sunshine out the passenger’s side window.

“We’re making good time, Mr. Roche.”

“Seems that way. Couldn’t have hoped for better passage really.”

“Though I suppose you could’ve made this trip in half the time or less if you were on your own.”

“Yep, probably. that’s not why you stopped to chit-chat though is it?”

Miner smiled. “No, not at all. It was rather to ask if you’ve felt anything since we breached the midpoint of the mountains.”

Roche understood now why the Res had wanted to take the 80. It crossed the mountains where they were at their thinnest point, and it was a major road. If push came to shove there was a better chance of fallout and busted pavement that the trucks wouldn’t be able to pass on the smaller roads that wound through the mountains at a leisurely clip. Seemed a dullard’s choice to head north in order to go south at first, now it was making better sense.

“What do you mean?” Roche asked, though he knew. He just wanted to hear the old man say it.

“The way you walkers can feel each other. I’m aware that you all have a cognitive sixth sense for each other, that sometimes you know where each other are before you’re in company. We ought to be nearing the meeting place for one of the other walkers whose joined our cause. Is he present?”

Roche hadn’t mentioned a word to anyone about it, but he had felt the walker some time ago. It had been a linchpin sticking in between his shoulder sat first, growing to a thick feeling beneath his sternum. A pull, a gentle tug. Flip-switch to nagging, and there it was. The hunter wasn’t as old as Roche was, he knew, and this one had a penchant for spending more time out of the white than in, he had a softer feeling to him, a watered-down coffee kind of soft. But he was there, ahead and nearby, waiting.

“Aye. I’ve felt him. What of it?”

“Well you didn’t mention it so I thought it better to save some stumbling and just ask you right out. How far away is he?”

“Can’t tell that. Just know he’s ahead.” Roche narrowed his eyes beneath his sunglasses and stared down the length of the 80 West in front of him.

“Ah. Well good to know at the least that he’s on time and in place.”

“Yep.”

“I should think you and he will get along well.” Miner chuckled.

“And why is that? Because we’re both walkers?” There was a tone of acid in Roche’s response.

“Oh, of course not. I’m not as small-minded as that, Mr. Roche. I meant only because from what I’ve known of the two of you, you seem to be similarly minded men. I thought you might get along.” Miner puffed.

“Ain’t likely. Most folk I don’t like, and the ones I do like I expect don’t like me much, though they’re way few and far between.”

“Interesting. Had I known that there were actually people whose company you did enjoy I should have put money into the betting pool?”

“Betting pool?”

“Word is that a number of the men in the company had pooled some cash as to whether you were a constant solitary loner or if there ever was a time that you ever had anyone you could call friend.”

“I would’ve bet on that.” Roche smiled.

“Well it wouldn’t have been a fair wager then, would it?”

“Might have. I’m not even sure myself if I’ve ever had people like that.” Roche cut the conversation short, spurring his mare and galloping to the front of the caravan, leaving Miner and the transport he rode in well behind him, choking on the dust kicked up by Lucky’s hooves.

ever needed w

Three miles further, Roche saw the other walker for the first time.

He’d ridden ahead again at a decent clip, and the Resistance boys were a good mile behind him, playing keep up.

The walker was a younger fellow. He’d stopped aging at around twenty-five or twenty six. His chin was a patchy rigging of stubble and bone. His eyes were sunken but bright and alert. Spry-looking and lean, he wore a hooded coat, denim trousers and boots that laced to the knee. He carried himself like a man who was armed, but Roche could see no obvious weapon on him. A motorbike stood on it’s kickstand by the side of the road.

As he rode up on the walker, Roche puts his palms up. I-come-in-peace.

The hooded walker shifted his weight from one foot to the next. He didn’t move, he didn’t say a word, just stood there.

“Woah.” Roche halted Lucky twenty paces from the walker and put one boot on the asphalt, keeping the other in the stirrup. He tipped his hat.

“Howdy!” Roche made an attempt at being jovial, but it sounded false.

“Oy. Who’re you?” The walker tipped his head and put his hands on his hips. The way he bent Roche could tell he had an irritatingly long barreled pistol tucked in the waistband of his pants.

“Name’s Roche.”

“Then howdy, Roche. I’m Thomas.” He smiled a little, showing pristinely white teeth and creases around his eyes. He said howdy like it was a foreign word to him. “You with the Resistance?”

“Suppose I am. You?”

“Suppose, suppose. Hired by a man named Miner a few months back. He asked me to meet him in the Sierra’s along the 80. He on his way?”

“Yeah, he’s a bit behind. Not too far.”

“I can tell. You boys throw up quite the dust cloud. I saw you coming miles off.”

“Well, the trucks do make a racket and throw up some dirt.” Roche turned and looked back at the 80. True, for someone looking up the road it was obvious they were approaching.

“How many are you?” Thomas asked, taking a couple steps forward, hands still on his hips.

“Don’t matter. How much longer until we’re out of the mountains?”

“Couple hours at your pace.” Thomas looked over Roche’s shoulder at the approaching caravan, bearing down on them, and then back West along the dwindling road.

He was probably right, the air was thickening already. Soon they would be in the California Basin and approaching Sacramento.

“There’s a town called Colfax down the road another hour. The boys in the caravan need a rest and a meal?” Thomas asked.

Roche considered this. “No. What they need is to keep barreling down this road until we hit New San Fran if there’s any chance of heading off the Corp.”

“That’s what this is all about.” Thomas said smirking. He turned and swung a leg over the old motorbike he’d probably jibbed off of an unsuspecting wastelander. He kicked down the start and the engine rumbled. He chocked the bike and it rumbled louder and louder, a breathing, groaning beastly sound.

When the walker called Thomas pulled his hood back to slip riding goggles over his eyes Roche could see that his hair was close-cropped, and his scalp cris-crossed with scar tissue. Young though he might have been when he entered the white for the first time, and younger than Roche still, but this was a man who’d seen his share of shit.

“Shall we ride back and meet up with the caravan then?” Thomas called over the bumble and roar of his bike’s engine.

“You can, I’ll be waitin’ here.”

“Suit yourself, Roche.” Thomas started, stopped and turned back over his shoulder to shout another question. “Why just the last name, Roche!?”

“Why just the first, Thomas?” Roche quipped back. The other walker laughed, shook his head placatingly and rode back up the 80 East to meet the Resistance caravan and his employer who’d apparently hired him months back.

Sitting in his saddle again, Roche watched the skyline and smoked a rolled cigarette. He heard the caravan slow and stall, presumably when Thomas rolled up to meet them. A minute later the caravan started back up again. When the caravan rolled by, Roche spurred Lucky into motion and fell in with them.

The Resistance now had two walkers in tow, and was well on their way to New San Fran.

as her - the

The town of Colfax was right where Thomas said it would be. A train town amidst a sea of dead and dying conifer trees that choked the low mountainsides like a pox.

At Miner’s order, the Caravan stopped for only a half-hour, so that men could relieve themselves, smoke, take a quick bite to eat and refuel the trucks.

The town was a couple of remaining small streets lined with old businesses. The passing of the caravan was perhaps the only thing of note that had happened in some time. The hundred or so people who made their lives in Colfax exited their homes inside the old shops and hovels and tin-roofed lean-to’s to take a good long look at the military brigade that was moving on by.

Soldiers of the Resistance kept their guns up and their eyes winking in every direction. No one approached the caravan too closely except one naked little boy of about ten whose mother scooped him right up before he got too close to the soldiers in their fatigues and their ranks.

They took meals and refueled the trucks, soldiers standing watch over the caravan. Roche lit a cigarette and tied Lucky with some room to a truck. The horse went about scrounging for grasses and keeping to herself.

Colfax wasn’t much. Another blasted border town in the wasteland. Still there was a saloon, and Roche wasn’t sure if he had enough whiskey to tide him over until they reached New San Fran. Was always better to be safe than sorry.

To the left of a brick building that vaguely read ‘Colfax Pharmacy’ was an old liquor store with a neon sign that hadn’t worked in probably near a century. The storefront had been converted to a bar, appropriate to it’s sign. A pair of tables sat in the front windows with a couple of chairs clustered around each, seated with grizzled men of the wasteland and a single mother who chain smoked cigarettes the entire time Roche was in the store, a child clinging to her hemp skirt.

The proprietor was a stunted little man with a neanderthal brow and a hairy neck. He sold Roche a glass bottle of thin whiskey with a handle. The exchange was nothing of note, and within ten minutes Roche was seated on the boardwalk with a cigarette in his lips and the whiskey between his knees.

A little girl in a sack-dress watched him from behind a lamp pole, two fingers stuffed in her mouth, covered in dirt with hair in oily dreadlocks.

Roche stared at the waif from under his hat, smiled and held out the bottle to her. “Want a sip?”

The little girl took a tentative step forward, looked left and right and grabbed at the bottle. Roche snatched the bottle away before she could touch it.

“Kiddin’ me? How old are you girl? Six? Seven?”

She shrugged.

“Fuckin’ kiddin’ me.” Roche swigged off the bottle.

Briggs appeared from the mob surrounding the caravan, men loading up and checking their gear for dist before they got back on the road, oiling their guns and shrouding them with cloth to keep the dirt spray from jamming the mechanisms. He shouted; “Roche! We’re heading out, let’s get to it!”

Roche didn’t answer. Just took another swig and stood from the boardwalk.

He didn’t look back at the liquor store or the girl. He didn’t notice the waif enter the liquor store and steal a bottle with grubby fingertips anyway. One just little enough to fit in her tiny hands. Roche mounted up and drove off with the caravan out of Colfax and down the 80 West into the California basin.

y took it fro

The remainder of the way to Sacramento was a straight shot down the 80 West. No turns, no changes in elevation and barely even any civilization along the way.

By the time Sacramento was in sight, a city appeared on the caravan’s left. Citrus Heights, the signs said it was. But somewhere after the catastrophe, during the nuclear fallout between the Russians and the Americans had seen to it that Citrus Heights was a smoldering wreck. All that was left of the buildings were steel skeletons slowly eroding away in the sand and dust and wind. The streets were chalk-lines that barely registered as anything remotely unnatural, except that they were completely straight. Nature didn’t work in straight lines. Given another ten years the entire memory of Citrus Heights might have just withered away into nothing and been forgotten by all of history.

It was all very sad. What was sadder was that Roche could not have given less of a damn.

Sacramento was on the rise. An actual city. One that hadn’t been blown to hell and wiped from the map. It was structures of still-standing wreckage that was still inhabited.

Whatever it was about Sacramento that kept people coming and staying and coming back was as well known in the East still as it was a fact here in the West. When folks tired of the world, they went West, seemed an old genetic memory of the pioneers and their manifest destiny.

The Resistance approached Sacramento slowly, with rounds chambered and eyes up.

It was the evening of December eleventh. It was time to take a couple hours rest, but wasting time was the furthest thing from Miner’s objective, and the last thing on his mind.

Pushing through Sacramento meant keeping to the 80, and avoiding the walled city all together.

Ages ago, when men had decided to remain in the city, they’d thrown up walls of rubble-stone, metal, sandbags and anything else they could lay their hands on.

Twilight only made the city gleam a little brighter. If there was ever a time that any broken, run-down city in the wastelands could look inviting it was at night. Torch light mingled with artificial light, the city still had coal and gasoline generators, enough to keep the street lamps and some of the public buildings lights on all night long. That was the way of walled cities, everyone did their piece for the sake of the city, and they got to drink at the pub all night long.

Roche let his gaze linger over the city as they rolled by along the clear asphalt of the 80 West. It had been many years since he’d visited Sacramento. Too many years to actually have kept track. Who could say how long it had been. Twenty? Fifty? Did it matter?

Within an hour Sacramento was a memory. Only the vague light pollution behind them to the north and east kept the stars from shining as brightly thataways. Trotting along on Lucky’s back, Roche swigged heavily from the handled whiskey bottle, keeping his heels down in his stirrups and his shoulders over his hips. If he caught some shuteye in the saddle his heels had at least be down, and some shuteye wouldn’t be the worst thing. The horse could follow the others. And some shuteye. . .well it might even be kinda nice.

m me - the

Whatever the reason the dreams came. The drink usually kept the dreams out, kept the memories from his head. The dreams might have been lamps on the prows of the fishing boats where the boy was raised, but the drink. . .well the drink was a heavy morning fog, and those boats couldn’t go nowhere with that much fog. Kept ’em down it did. That it did.

But then nothing works all the time.

That night in the saddle, with his mare beneath him following the convoy of soldiers bound for their last days on earth, Roche dreamt of Patrick Wilkes.

Growing up they’d called him ‘Patchy’, on account of his name and the plumb terrible haircuts he always gave himself.

Growing up, Walter hadn’t known Patchy well. It wasn’t until they’d been older working boys that Walter had ever had cause to know Patchy.

Patchy liked Mollie Groux, but Mollie Groux wasn’t the kinda girl who liked to go with boys, and that’s what made Roche love her all the more. What she and he had, well it weren’t about goin’ together and romps in old man McMullin’s hay loft. It was about kindred spirits. Two kids that loved each other more than anything else.

That night after the harvest dance. Patchy and two other good ol’ boys had beaten and raped Mollie Groux and let the poor girl die out there in the cold.

When Walter had taken that girl’s body to the white he’d gotten himself lost. When he found his way back out he found that same little town where he grew up. The library was a memory now, but the copper’s still had themselves a little station. A few threats and hittin’ the copper on duty with the butt of his gun and Roche had found the old records. He found the three boys who’d been brought in for questioning when Mollie Groux went missing.

Patrick Wilkes.

William Dunham.

Andrew Vickers.

Patchy Wilkes was the first on the list. When Walter Roche found Patchy he was an old man, sitting in a comfortable chair in front of a big fireplace with the gout in his legs and cataracts in one eye, all the problems that come with drinking bad water and drinking too much booze in the wastelands. Bad booze, bad water, bad livin’ all the way down.

Old man or no, he’d been the one. Roche dragged him out of bed with a rope tied around his wrists. Roche dragged old Patchy Wilkes to a tree and hung him up by his wrists. Big gouty feet dangling all helpless, Patchy cried and said he was innocent. Lying filth. Roche stuffed a rag into his mouth to shut him up. And a good thing too, because Patchy Wilkes screamed like a stuck swine when Roche cut his balls off with his bootknife and hung them around Patchy’s neck on a length of baling twine.

He didn’t scream so much, the rapist, when Roche cut his belly open, all rubber stinking snakes fallin’ to the earth below the tree. That was where Walter Roche left him.

Balls around his neck.

Guts on the ground.

A scream on his lips that froze in rigor for the coppers to find the next day.

Roche had made that mistake of letting the copper live. He’d been soft then, and that had meant records of him, that had meant he hadn’t been forgotten.

That had meant that the good Doctor John Weaving could find him, could find out about him.

Even a hundred and fifty plus years later, Roche’s mistake was costing him.

Wasn’t that just a trip.

The walker’s eyes snapped open and he lurched forward in the saddle.

The convoy was still on the move and it was still night, the light pollution from Sacramento so, so far behind. He drank deeply and kept his heels down, feeling the asphalt shudder up through Lucky’s hooves and into his hips. The road was ahead, and there was so much ahead. He drank some more.

y took he

Sacramento would have came and went wither way. Roche’s original path down the 50 West would have brought him to the same place. Now the sun was rising on December twelfth, and trucking the convoy down the 80 West Roche and the Resistance were passing signs for the approaching town of Fairfield.

Trotting along between Thomas’ motorbike and the passenger window of Miner’s truck, the three men talked at a quick pace.

“Once in Fairfield we meet our third man.”

“Why space us out?” Thomas hollered over the sounds of engines.

“Give us time to pick you all up one at a time, lest you decide on a choice of action all your own.”

“Free thinkin’ outside the box is a dangerous thing.” Roche said dryly, but he knew he was on the mark.

Miner ignored the jest, which only meant to Roche that he was spot-on. “We reach Fairfield and we meet up with the third walker, refuel and get set for the final push, got it?”

“Yes, sir.” Thomas shouted and revved the motorbike harder and threw it into a haul, pulling ahead.

Cantering beside the truck, even paced, Roche gave Miner a hard look, nodded and kicked Lucky to a gallop, taking the trucks over in speed quickly.

Hat hanging on the thong about his neck, hair pulling back against the wind with the speed he rode, Roche watched ahead as the road disappeared in gouts beneath hooves.

The third walker he could already feel, deep in his gut, sinking and throbbing. He was there, and they were coming for him.

r from m

The third walker employed by the Resistance was an older man by his face, but Roche could feel the youth in him. He had not been long in the white. He was unlike Thomas and himself in that, an older gentleman who was in fact younger. Strange times, these. He stood by the side of the road smoking a long pipe. He wore a simple hat with a brim that kept his long hair from his face, sunglasses, a leather jacket over a hooded shirt, dusty leggings and a pair of handguns in visible holsters slung over one shoulder.

The caravan slowed to a crawl and finally a stop as they drew down on the third walker.

Roche and Thomas exchanged a look of that’s-him-eh. Kendall Miner hopped his privileged bottom from the transport truck and held out a hand to the stranger leaning on the guardrail.

“Mr. Leon, I presume?”

“It’s Mr. Wellam, actually. Leon Wellam. And I presume you to be Lieutenant Miner?”

“Yes, pleasure, Mr. Wellam. I’ve heard nothing but good things about you.”

“It would seem, yes.”

While the two men exchanged a myriad of thickly worded pleasantries, Thomas got Roche’s attention.

“Oy.”

“What?”

“See that band on his arm?” Thomas pointed at Leon Wellam’s jacket with his chin. Indeed there was a black armband like the ones worn by many members of the resistance. “He’s Res already. What’s that make the two of us?”

Roche lit a smoke and tisked with his tongue against his teeth. “I suppose that makes us employees of the Res same as he’s a part of it. We all picked a side didn’t we?” Roche sniggered.

“We picked the right one, right?” Thomas asked.

“Right or not, we picked it. We get paid, we see it through.”

“You’re a man of your convictions, Roche. I like that.”

Roche dragged on his cigarette and exhaled through his nose. “About all we got.”

Miner and Leon Wellam had hit it off heartily, likely joshing one another about their affiliations with the Res and the coming conflict. Miner hand his hand on Leon’s back and was leading him to the cab of the truck. Seemed that Leon Wellam had no vehicle of his own and had walked to the meeting point.

They stopped by the truck as Leon caught sight of Roche and Thomas, sitting a ways back, watching Leon from a ways off.

Leon walked promptly away from Miner and straight to the other two walkers. His arms were spread wide, welcoming, like some kind of approaching messiah.

“My friends and compatriots, it is good, isn’t it? My name is Leon Wellam.”

“Thomas.”

“Roche.”

“Well met then, Thomas. Well met, Roche. This is a curious predicament for three walkers such as ourselves, isn’t it?” Leon Wellam had thin lips, and a wide mouth, a face lined by dozens of years of exposure to the sand and the sun and the wind. He carried himself like a military man, with purpose and sure steps.

“Did you join the Resistance before or after you started walking?” Roche asked the question straight out of nothing.

“Nothing gets by you, does it? Yes, sir. I was a walker before the Res. Not that it matters now, though does it? We’re all in one boat together. Might as well make the best of knowing one another.” Leon smiled wide, his face creasing a hundred times over.

“There’s an idea.” Thomas said, smirking and looking to Roche. It seemed the younger walker was taking his cues now from Roche, though the two had known one another for less than a day. Roche sighed subconsciously, exasperated. It was the kid all over again. The hell?

“If we’re gonna do the koom-bye-ah crap I’ll be drinking by the transport truck after we stop tonight. You’re all welcome to come by and chit-chat, except probably not. But bring your own booze if you do.” Roche kicked his mare and rode down the 80 West. Thomas and Leon Wellam looked from one another to the trail of dust and hoof beats that rang down the 80. Thomas shrugged.

“He does that. A lot.”

“I see.”

The caravan mounted back up, Fairfield was over the next rise, and it was past noon.

Roche rode ahead, a slipping dark figure over the thermals on the asphalt, shimmering in and out of vision as the caravan caught up.

e - choral e

The caravan drove hard the remainder of the day. The 80 West disappeared beneath tires and hooves and bootheels, a hundred miles cut away like reaping grass.

There at the end of the world, across the bay, was New San Fran. The bay had gone to gray water, graveyards of military boats and passenger vessels, their prows lancing at the sky.

Roche hopped off Lucky and stood at the edge of the water, his boots in the mud.

The Bay Bridge leading into New San Fran was a skyward expanse of metal from where Roche stood. Of the many, many suspension bridges that had once spanned great expanses of waters, this was one of the few that still stood. It was four massive towers of formed steel and a central spar of concrete and metal that drove down into the bay, all supporting a wide lane of asphalt. It showed it’s disrepair in some places, bits and angles of road missing, steel cables snapped off halfway. bright brown patches of corrosion and salt-poisoning along the metal. But, this was a bridge meant to support many thousands of tons. . .it would allow for the passage of the Resistance convoy.

And there was the bay, and beyond the bay there was the sea. The world beside the ocean smelled different, it smelled still alive. In the Mojave, in the central parts of the wasteland where the dust and the sand and the fire burned across the vastness of continents and squeezed the last iotic bits of life from the soil, but by the ocean there was still hope.

It smelled like brine and rotting things, like dead plants and shit and change. Somewhere in the depths of the gray-blue there were still organisms evolving and changing, adapting to a world that had been burned by nuclear winters and the sun’s radiation and mankind’s ignorance. But even after everything that had happened, the sea would persist. . .endure.

Gulls screamed from the hulls of ruined boats beneath the bridge, and Roche swigged from his handled bottle.

The caravan was still on the road, coming down the 80 from the north where the road bent along the edges of the bay. A half-dozen outriders on synthetic horses, along with Thomas and Leon Wellam had moved ahead of the caravan to see that the way to the bridge was clear. It was. Besides a dozen wastelanders in makeshift armor with taped-together weapons who’d gone about their own way and stayed a safe distance, the shorelines were empty.

It was the bridge that would be the problem.

xponents of bi

New San Fran may not have owed it’s allegiance to any faction or sect, and it flew the stars and stripes overhead, but it was a walled city all the same, and was reached most easily by the bridge. They’d taken advantage of this.

The eastern end of the Bay Bridge was fortified with concrete bunkers and gun nests. It was manned day and night by a volunteer corp out of New San Fran. Paramilitary maybe, but gun-toting and zealous all the same.

Ethercorp had set up shop in the college grounds in New San Fran, and padded the walled cities funds overly well in the interest of maintaining their secrecy and isolation from the world.

Infiltrating the city would be one problem. Reconnecting with one another once inside would be another.

The caravan settled for the evening behind a few stray sand and stone bluffs dotted with cacti and dead trees. The Resistance soldiers broke out a desalinator and traded turns getting buckets of saltwater from the bay and making it drinkable. It was the first time in weeks that Lucky had a full belly of fresh water, and her pleasure showed.

The ring of trucks kept the light from the campfire low and invisible to the world, and soldiers watched the perimeter.

Roche sat on the down tailgate of a transport and smoked. Markus leaned on the truck beside him, also smoking. Thomas sat on his bike and chewed thoughtfully on something while Leon paced a line in the sand. Miner spoke to all of them at once, leaning shivering on his cane, his military jacket seeming baggier all the time, as though the man inside were slowly shrinking.

“Tonight, when you’ve all had some hours rest, we make across the bay. There are inflatable rafts in store in the backs of the trucks and my men will begin working on them as soon as they’ve eaten.”

“And when we’ve crossed the bay into the city?” Thomas asked.

“That’s where our friend Doctor Weaving comes in. He knows the way through the college grounds to the research labs of the Ethercorp. From there we plant explosives, old-world recipe C-4, and bring down the laboratory on their heads. Walkers take care of the likely numbers of constructs they’ve assembled, soldiers handle other soldiers. None of that isn’t to say that you don’t give each other hands where and when you can.”

“Don’t want that rat comin’ with us.” Roche spat and swigged his drink. Somewhere a ways off coyotes yippered back and forth at one another.

“He has to, I’m afraid. I’m sending Markus along with you all to help navigate and decipher any Corporate linguistics and, or be of any help he can. He can help you keep the doctor in check.”

“So we’re bringing two civilians into a walled city likely patrolled by bounds of Corp soldiers bent on their mission of ether terrorism?” It was Leon Wellam’s turn to sound skeptical.

“I’m afraid that’s the plan, yes. If you have a better idea I am open to it.” Miner chastised, shaking with his age.

All were silent.

“Then that’s the plan. Everyone get a couple of hours of rest, drink and food if you need it.”

The rag-tag group of wasteland revolutionaries stood by for some minutes while Miner hobbled away to the cab of his transport truck to sleep while he could. When he was gone they looked to one another, exchanging looks of unease, confidence, what-the-hell grins and tacit acceptance.

Roche looked at Markus and Markus looked at Roche. Both men smoked their rolled cigarettes and shared a swig from the whiskey bottle Before Markus wandered off to find a bedroll near a campfire for the next hour or so.

Roche wandered from the circle of Resistance trucks and found a dusty knoll that overlooked the bay.

Lights from the walls and still-standing buildings of the city glimmered over the whitecaps in the surf. There was a far-off sound of music. The howls and yips of desert dogs calling at the moon echoed in. Roche inhaled deeply and blew his breath at the sky before he upended the whiskey bottle.

Tomorrow was the thirteenth, and the world had come too soon.

logical mathemati

It was shortly past midnight. The soldiers had spent the better part of the night pumping air into the most patchwork-looking rafts that Roche had ever seen. The plus-side was that the rafts had wide-blade motors for speed and silence. They wouldn’t be rowing across the bay.

The hardest part of the night was patting Lucky on the nose and handing her a bundle of dried grass saying; “I’ll be back for you, you bitch. Damnit but you’re growing on me. When all this is done, I’ll be back for you. Just sit tight.” The mare nickered in response and Roche pulled his revolver on the next Resistance soldier who walked past and made him swear on his own life and the presence of his balls that he would watch over the bay mare with the single white fetlock on pain of a slow and terrible death. When the soldier leaked a little bit of piss and agreed, Roche was satisfied. He patted the mare on her neck with a gloved hand and made his way to the rafts.

Weren’t like they were too small for the choppy night-waters of the bay. Each raft seated eight or ten men proper, and was high-sided.

Roche, Markus and six soldiers took a raft, They lifted it into the surf and hopped aboard amongst the softly rushing bay waters and moonlight. As far as anyone could tell, the fortifications at the Bay Bridge had not been alerted to their presence, and no one in New San Fran would be expecting them.

Seven or eight or so rafts in all went into the surf, the walkers divided among them. The wide-blades of their motors made a good deal less noise than a conventional boat motor, and Roche and the others were glad that someone in the equipment department had the foresight to consider entering the walled city silently and over the water.

A soldier manning the rudder and another on hand with the motor set the raft going. Two soldiers at the prow with guns up and one to port and starboard equally ready. Markus sat center with his .45 in his hands, safety off. Roche tucked a chaw of tobacco from one of the soldiers in the space of his bottom lip and spit. It was worth it, he’d traded the remainder of his whiskey for some dip. Two bottles of the soldiers own had gone ‘missing’ somewhere along the line.

As quiet as the motors were, they sounded to Roche as if they were making far too much noise, but no shouts or alarms from the bay bridge went up, and no spotlights triggered, searching the waves for approaching boats. As far as he could tell, they were moving softly, and silently across the waters beneath the bridge towards New San Fran.

“When we get there kid, you stick with me. Whatever happens, you get me to the college.”

“You’re thinking about the girl.”

“If nothing else, I’m getting that one out. And before we get back out of the city I want the doctor dead. Not laying bleeding dead, caved-in skull dead. Dead as dead can. Got me.”

“Quiet there!” One of the soldiers hushed them.

“Right.” Markus whispered back. You got it. Just gimme the heads up.”

“Got it, got it.” Roche spit over the edge of the raft. The shore was fast approaching.

cs and singin

The old docks had gone to hell and come back as twisted remnants of themselves. Dead ships on risers stuck out like busted fingers, and the factory and storage buildings were burned out hulls.

The waters of New San Fran acted as their own type of wall, and nothing had been erected around the docks of the old cities east side to wave off interlopers except two watchtowers spaced a good ten city blocks apart. The raft hit the shoreline between the watchtowers, their’s was the first to make the shore, if it could be called a shore. The rocks and sands of the east side of the city were covered in a thick layer of garbage and tin cans, thick as winter snow.

Roche’s boots crunched over the ground and he kept his body low. Thirty meters down between two factory buildings were a series of concrete blocks, he made his way for them followed by the soldiers and Markus.

Behind them, two more rafts struck shore, and then a third. Soldiers boots hit the ground and moved an instant later, all shuffling and edging for cover against factory walls and the low concrete barriers. The walkers, the other two, moved quietly in tow with the soldiers.

Spotlights and lamps lit the street parallel to the docks, Roche, followed by Alex Markus and the Resistance soldiers slipped into hiding behind the barriers, helmets and hats pulled low and scarves pulled high. Their guns were all drawn and their safeties were all off.

“Roche, what’s the plan?” Markus asked either full of worry or adrenaline.

The sky boomed overhead and the air thickened.

“What the-”

The rumbling and cracking of the clouds ricocheted again and swelled through the streets, amplified by the bricks and the concrete. The piddling sound of rain followed, sparse, but there.

“Ain’t that just the way.” Roche spat.

Another dozen soldiers slammed up against the concrete barriers, hiding from the lights of the street. They had Doctor Weaving in tow, his wrists still bound and tied again to his waist by his belt and another length of rope. The doctor’s tooth-thick smile grimaced in the polluted light from the city.

“Gentlemen, please. If you would be so kind as to remove the bindings? I fear I’m rather a useless without even hands to move with.”

“Don’t need your hands to run.” One of the soldiers, Briggs it was, put a shoulder into the doctor, knocking him closer to the pavement.

“How far is the Corp’s place?” Markus asked the doctor, whose breath hissed through his teeth.

“Across most of the city, hiss.” Grin. “It’ll take the rest of the night if I’m bumbling along bound.”

The soldiers looked to Roche, and Roche looked to Markus. Sleazy-Pete wanted to be free, and they couldn’t none of them trust him as far as he’d like to be thrown.

“How far?”

“The center of the landmass. Miles, or so. Too far to get numbered and armed like this. New San Fran takes it’s toll well.”

Roche frowned and spit a brown stream of chew. The walker opened the cylinder of his Ruger and checked his shots. He looked the doctor up and down. Slimy piece of shit that he was. . .he knew the way.

“Untie him, and if he makes a wrong move, hey, listen up! You make a wrong move Weaving, and I put a round in the back of your skull.” Roche clicked the hammer of his revolver back and forth.

The doctor’s eyes brightened and that grin of his spread wide, wide, wide until it met around the back of his head.

g nonsense in the midst of st

Roche cut the bindings from Doctor Weaving’s wrists himself with his bootknife. That grin had been painted on his face for a good two minutes now, eerie as a mannequins expression.

“Alright. Weaving you’re coming with us, Markus too. Briggs, grab your four best and you move with us.”

“Sir, Miner gave us specific orders-”

“Don’t know and I don’t care what your orders were.” Roche spat. “You’re with me now.”

Briggs nodded quietly and checked the slide on his rifle. “Got it. Palmer, Welkins, Riley and Torrence, you four with us. The rest of you,” He shouted a whisper to the remaining soldiers, nearly two dozen silent watchers in battle-dress uniform with Resistance armbands. “Break into two. Keep at our four and eight, stay in the shadows and keep formations tight.”

Soldiers nodded, saluted with fists across their hearts and strapped their rifles tight.

The docks were quiet. Silent monolith factories hung low in the sky, moisture in the air making their brick siding shine. Artificial light darkened out the stars, and clouds of underlit steam rose from the center of the city from a dozen vents.

Roche spat chew in a brown wire. “Where we goin’, shithead?”

“To the coll-” Markus started to instinctively answer.

“Not you, idiot. You’re not shithead anymore. The good doctor is shithead now.”

Markus seemed deeply appreciative.

“You, doctor shithead. Where we goin’?” Roche drew his gun and held it at his hip, threatening without aiming.

“Those steam vents are from the college. We make for those.” Grin, grin.

“Right then. S’go.” Roche stood and hauled Weaving up from under his arm. The Resistance soldiers fell into place behind them, moving along the dark streets of New San Fran.

atic and white nois

“The Resistance put feelers out here. We’re gonna be on our own the whole way. We have sympathetic ears but no support.” Briggs said in a low voice. He jogged beside Roche as they made their way towards the streets of New San Fran from the docks.

“Didn’t expect any. Easier to move with fewer people anyhow.” Roche grumbled, hands in the holes through his pockets on his Ruger’s. Doctor Weaving moved in the front, with Roche, Briggs and Markus behind. Palmer, Welkins, Riley and Torrence brought up the rear, watching their sides and their backs. Further back the other two teams of Resistance soldiers with the other two walkers moved quickly and quietly, stepping deliberately, guns trained in every direction.

“This is Third Street.” Briggs toned.

“Know this place well. You spend time here?” Roche was curious.

“Nope. Studied maps. My business to be prepared.”

“Good soldier.” Roche said.

The street opened up into a wide avenue. The city was cleaner than most. Garbage did not litter the sidewalks and the asphalt between the buildings was clear, though the docks had been something else. Seemed the people of the city liked their streets clean, but at the expense of the shorelines and the ocean. Street lamps glowed a dull orange, the kind of lighting fed by faulty wiring and half-fueled generators running below capacity. Down the street to the south a dozen people stood outside a saloon yammering to each other. To the north a solitary figure leaned on a brick wall and vomited. There was no one else on the street.

e - shes gone - mol

The middle of the night saw the streets nearly empty, but still the Resistance boys were quick and quiet, checking every corner. Even one person noticing a merc troop cavorting around in the night would raise a panic unless they put them down.

They kept to the alleys and dark corners far from street lights. The doctor moved with quick feet, a strange shuffling-run that befit a man who hadn’t spent much time out on his own. He was an educated man, a man who’d spent years in libraries and laboratories.

Eighth Street. They’d come this far. The string of alleys looked clear ahead, save a solitary man wrapped in a blanket, seated and breathing misty breath.

“We can keep goin’ down. Briggs take him out, don’t kill him.” Roche watched the alley as they came up to Eighth Street. They’d have to cross the road to get to the alley when the man sat huddled.

Roche peeked left and right. Old cars, rusted in place and burned out. Orange Street lamps. Twenty yards to the left, a small group of bar-hoppers was going in the other direction, wandering drunkenly around.

When the drunken travelers had moved another ten yards away Roche motioned the soldiers across the street.

Once there, Briggs switched his automatic rifle around and brought the butt down on the man covered in his blanket. The figure groaned, started and slumped sideways.

Briggs drew the canvas blanket back and nearly shit himself, he threw the blanket off.

The remaining soldiers shuffled into the alley across Eighth Street, swallowed up by the darkness between the bricks and hidden by dumpsters, an upturned car and an old panel truck with it’s metal frame stripped completely off of the front end.

“What’s the problem?” Roche asked, spitting chew.

“Look.” Briggs said, pointing down at the man, presumed to be an old homeless fellow in a blanket, that he had just knocked senseless and black with the butt of his gun.

It was a Corp hired-gun, a soldier, in a flak-jacket, battle-dress, goggles and appropriate colors.

“So what?” Roche spat.

“Why’s he here?”

“Cares? Drinking out late, on leave, just cold, the shit cares?” Roche stood up and looked down the alley and then back towards Eighth Street. Weaving was beside him, and his breath was growing heavier.

Briggs knew it before Roche did, and he could feel the wrongness of it creeping in.

“Not everything means something is up. Just a soldier in a blanket. That’s all.” Roche said but even he didn’t believe the words when he said them.

Markus, .45 in his hands and the gun trained on Weaving out of instinct and mistrust looked to Roche.

Even the kid, Roche knew, could feel something wasn’t right. Soldier in a blanket could’ve just been a soldier in a blanket. But Roche knew that wasn’t the case. Soldier in a blanket meant they were waiting. Maybe they didn’t know for sure that the Res was gonna come into New San Fran tonight to get their own work done, but they knew someone might try, or maybe they were just being cautious. One way or another, when Markus took a half second to start to ask Roche what to do next, the good Doctor Shithead made a break for it at a dead sprint down the alley.

Rifles went up, trained on the doctor’s nice suit.

“Don’t shoot!” Roche slapped out at their weapon barrels. The soldiers of the Res, mercenaries, took the order. Markus did not. In the one time the kid could maybe have stood to miss a shot, he flicked the safety back from the .45 and pulled the trigger.

The doctor clipped in his run, faltered and then kept going. The bullet hit him somewhere in the shoulder, but he just kept on bookin’ it.

Roche swore and took off after the doctor down the alley on dusty bootheels. Markus followed somewhere behind, and the Resistance boys took their sweet seconds deciding what to do.

lie is dead and

“You knew he’d run!” Markus hissed.

“Didn’t doubt it for a second.” Roche said. “Let’s go.” Roche jogged after the doctor, who even with a bullet in his shoulder, had picked up and kept sprinting down the end of the alley and just moved from sight.

The Res boys still looked back and forth at one another, wondering who to take orders from, especially since no one was giving any.

Briggs took the radio attached to his chest and bent his neck to speak into it, it crackled with static. “We lost the package, he’s running. In pursuit. Briggs out.”

Briggs stood against a brick wall snaked with old iron pipes.

“We’re moving out, pursue and track the target.”

Wellam and Thomas, with the other Res soldiers made their way over in a soldierly fashion.

“The kid stays with me, you lot do your thing.” Roche spat chew and fiddled with the inside of his lip with a finger.

“The hell he does. You let the doctor go, cut his binds!” Briggs hefted his rifle in the way military boys do, trying to be intimidating.

Roche grinned a little and stared at the ground beside Briggs’ feet before he spat there. “You wanna tango with me, beautiful? Back the fuck up.”

Briggs didn’t know what to make of this and stepped back.

“Good. Markus, let’s go.”

“I’m afraid we can’t let you do that.” Thomas wheeled around the alley and stood in their way, hands out at his sides like a crossing guard.

Roche felt the white peel off of the walker’s skin like an overripe fruit. Felt it pushing and curling off, misting.

It was trick Roche used often, a little bit of intimidation went a long way when you were dealing in wastelanders and mercs. This walker Thomas didn’t seem to realize yet that the trick rarely worked on other walkers, especially when they were decades older than you.

Roche put his feet apart, consciously aware that Markus stood behind him, and had stepped out to follow him. The kid was nothing if not stupidly loyal, for whatever reason. But, Roche needed him for what was to come next.

“You want this, Tommy? You sure you want this?” Roche kept the white inside, letting it out a nick and a prayer at a time. A little light, a little drip from beneath his coat, a little prickle on the back of his neck, but he knew that Thomas could sense not what was being let out, but how much more was being contained.

Thomas’ eyes shifted and his nerve faltered. Roche moved past him, Markus in tow.

The sound of guns being readied behind them made Roche turn, putting a hand on Markus and pushing him further ahead.

The Res soldiers had their guns half-up, not sure whether to aim or to stand down. Briggs had his radio tucked to his chin ready to transmit, but unsure what to say.

“Guns down, boys. We got this from here. You wanna swing in on a chandelier and save the day at the last minute and blow the college, go right ahead. But for now. the kid and I got this.”

Something about the way he said it made the Resistance drop their guns, stand at ease and look to Briggs for what to do. Briggs stayed quiet.

A single soldier kept his gun up, the youngest soldier that Briggs had called Torrence.

“I got him, sir!” Torrence shouted to Briggs.

“No, don’t!” Briggs put out a hand to stop him, but he was too far to do a thing.

When the gunshot rang out the streets awoke. Cries and muttering voices rose from the streets at both ends of the alley. Folk, mostly drunkards still awake at this hour, poked their heads out of saloon windows and down the alleys, looking for the origin of the gunshot. Worst, the gunshot go heard by the New San Fran coppers. Wouldn’t be long before they checked in with the Corp Mercs like the one Briggs had put down in the last alley, and the gig might well have been up.

Besides it all, Torrence had squeezed his trigger and fired a single shot, and seemed surprised that he had done so. The bullet buried in Roche’s left thigh, clipped through the muscle and missing the bone, a good through-and-through.

It fuckin’ hurt though.

White and dark red soaked Roche’s denims, and all he could see for a split second was the rage. When he held his hand out to the kid, Torrence and crunched his fist, he collapsed. Without nothing but his ether and that control and that energy that walkers had, he’d grabbed Torrence by the throat and crunched that voice box to splintered bone. Torrence was dead before he hit the ground, and Roche was turned and running by the same instant.

Briggs called it into his radio, and more shots followed Roche and Markus down the alley.

All around them, the city of New San Fran woke right up, and mercs, coppers and Corp soldiers bullied into the streets by the dozens and dozens and dozens.

returned - what

The gunshot wound broke the outside of Roche’s thigh, through and through. It had clipped through a good chunk of muscle and skin, but the walker could still run, though for how long was perhaps the better question.

Markus kept a clip ahead of the hunter, looking over his shoulder a half dozen times before they stopped to make sure Roche was keeping up. A kiddie-corner movement saw them two streets over and one alley up, and already the chaos the gunshots had caused was apparent.

People in New San Fran were still people, who had that ugly tendency of running towards trouble rather than away. Folks in night-dress and less stood on the stoops outside of their re-commissioned brownstone homes and leaned out of windows. Parents with squalling children held them tightly and chatted with one another.

“Gunshots?”

“What’s goin’ on?”

“Are the soldiers out?”

“The hell?”

“C’mon, Roche!” Markus had made into a alley, slamming shut a chain-link entrance gate behind Roche as he barreled through, revolvers drawn at his sides.

Heaving breath, Roche turned and aimed squarely at the chain-link, waiting and daring any Res soldiers to follow them and appear beyond the gate.

Markus, frustrated kicked a garbage can against the cobbled wall causing a ruckus. “The fuck was that!?”

“He shot me and I killed him and we ran. Need further explanation?”

“No! Shit. I didn’t know you could. . .” Markus trailed off, sitting back against the wall. Somewhere in the city a siren sounded, the old wailing of an air-raid warning. The sound echoed a hundred times through the alleys, so loud.

“Yeah, well I can. The older we get the more we can manipulate the living world through the white. Doesn’t fucking matter now does it.”

“You let him go.” Markus was tearing up, his face growing red, he watched down the alley, hoping faintly that Doctor Weaving would be lying there shot, or maybe turning down the brick way.

“I did. Because I don’t trust your Res and I didn’t like how slow we were moving. I ain’t never been one for group-therapy and I sure as shit ain’t one for group-assaulting a city. I do this my way or not at all.” Roche spat, peeled the remaining tobacco from his gums with a finger and flicked it against the wall in a wet cud. “And you’re with me because I need someone who knows about how this is all gonna go down.”

“Well I don’t know about New San, motherfucker. I’ve never worked here, I’ve never been here. They were bringing me here when you showed up and brought me back to the Res. Why would you think I’d know anything about this place?”

“Because you’re a smart kid and you’d have at least looked up the city you were going to be working in and would have checked out the kind of work you’d have been doin’ for the Corp one way or another. You’re a dipshit, but you’re not fuckin’ stupid.” Roche grinned, and a sound of running feet made him slam his back against the brick and draw on the chain-link door to the alley a few yards away.

It was just scared locals running by, night-owls fully dressed to the nine’s for wherever they’d come from and folk who’d just been rudely awakened by a full-on panic-call from the siren’s and the coppers and the soldiers.

“Maybe you’re right. Look, I may have some idea where the doctor is going, but I’m not gonna be much use to you once we’re out of this alley.”

“Bullshit, you survived one gunfight with the Corp, you’ll survive another. Where we headed?” Roche took out his tin of chew he’d traded from the Res soldier back at camp and packed another lug of it in his bottom lip. He spit.

Markus stood up straight, sweating and tired already, red in the face, half crying, half exhausted, half something else. “City College is towards the western side of the city. Straight west and south from where we landed. If he’s running, he’ll make it there pretty quick. We can catch him, or maybe not, what about your leg?” Markus pointed to Roche’s gunshot wound with the barrel of his .45.

“Probably better than your old wound.” Roche pointed back to the kid’s calf, where he’d been grazed by a bullet, the bandage was looking rotten. Roche bent and tore open his denim around the bullet wound. He’d pushed past the pain of the shot and started running, by now the adrenaline had all but made him forget about it. Even, round hole. The bullet hadn’t been a mushroom-hollowpoint. It was assault ammunition, just a solid-rifled bullet, straight through. It was bleeding in pumps and fits. Roche dug through the garbage can Markus had kicked over, found an old shirt and tore it into strips. He balled up two small bits of cloth and stuffed them in the in-hole and the out-hole, then bound his leg with a length of shirt. “Yours looks like it needs a new bandage.” Roche held out the rest of the shirt. Markus laughed aloud.

“You’re shitting me. C’mon. Let’s get out of here. Weaving is moving.” Markus tucked his gun in his pants and started down the alley.

Kid was changing all the time. He’d make a wastelander yet. Roche stood, spat and kicked the ground with his boot to make sure his leg was good. Hurt, but he’d be fine. Not the end of the world. That had already happened.

i exit the whit

Roche and Markus jogged down the alley between two brownstone buildings, when they emerged on the other side they found themselves on a wide north-south stretch of road lined with homes and offices and businesses.

“I’m pretty sure this is Mission Street.” Markus said, rotating and looking for a sign.

“What good does that do us?” Roche asked. The people of New San Fran were in a panic, for sure. Those who had not barred all their doors and shuttered their windows were waiting patiently on doorsteps and sidewalks with their home-defense weapons drawn, ready to take on all comers like a city full of cage-fighters. This only made Roche and Markus blend in further. They were just another couple of good ol’ boys armed for defending the homestead.

“Mission Street runs south and then curves west. It’s one of the longer streets in the city and it loops almost all the way to the College. If we can. . .holy shit. We’re on it.” Markus pointed up at a sign above a barred-window storefront that read ‘Mission Street General’ in artfully painted letters across a metal panel ripped from a different building.

“Well let’s go, kid.” Roche sauntered down the street at a good pace. Less than a jog but a good deal faster than a walk. Markus fell is step beside him, and if anyone happened to notice them, they would just be another couple of fellas on their way home or to defend their charge from whomever happened to be invading the city.

A transport truck, much like the one that Roche and Markus had taken back to Parmiskus, rolled onto Mission Street from the left. Atop the cab of the truck were a number of pivoting halogen spotlights, checking the alleys and dark spots between buildings.

“Walk like you belong here.” Roche said under his breath.

“Won’t they recognize us?”

“I haven’t left any witnesses in longer than you’ve been alive. Might be a lot of folk looking for me but there ain’t but a handful that actually know my face.” Roche spat tobacco juice into the street when the lights fell over his jacket and kept walking.

“And me?” Markus jittered.

“Walk like you belong and keep your idiot head down.”

Markus hunched his shoulders down and tipped his head. The lights had passed and the transport, loaded in the canvas-covered back with armed soldiers, moved north up Mission Street. Over a loudspeaker from the truck, a soldier in the passenger seat intoned; “Stay in your homes, this is just a drill. On behalf of Ethercorp we apologize for this disruption. Please stay in your homes, this is just a drill. On behalf. . .”

The truck continued, but soon it was blocks away and a distant memory, though they could still hear the monotone voice from the loudspeaker.

“How much farther?” Roche asked. The sign they’d just passed while crossing a street read ‘Army St.’

“Little ways, yet. You were right though, this is quicker.” Markus said, looking around it was almost comical how they were not noticed at all.

“Isn’t it though? Send a militia in and they have to do everything the militia way, soldiers will be soldiers. But when this shit goes down, it’s better if you don’t look like a soldier.”

Markus thought about this. The next street came up as they passed theaters and once brilliantly painted buildings. Markus read the sign aloud.

“Army street.”

Roche stopped and turned around. He read the sign himself.

“Army? But.” The walker’s mind worked quickly. “Shit.” It would have been easy to miss seeing the same sign twice and dismiss it, but a walker learned to take such things seriously. A walker knew that little brain malfunctions were caused by fish.

“What?” Markus asked but Roche had already given up the jaunting walk and was running down Mission Street.

“Already seen! Déjà vu! Run, kid! They let the constructs out!”

e as will no

Mission Street went quiet for a heartbeat before the first construct bulled out of a butcher’s shop on the right hand side of the street.

Displaced strips of paper and a flowering cloud of dust from the edges of the sidewalk bloomed out when the construct screeched to a halt on all four limbs in the center of the street.

This one was not like the last two had been. It’s form and body had more substance, were somehow more there, though it still had a see-through and insubstantial quality. It’s legs were tree-trunk thick and ended in paws with opposable thumbs. It’s chest was a barrel and it’s head sat plopped on it’s shoulders without a neck. It’s face was that of a small child’s, freckle-faced with sandy hair and missing teeth. When it spotted the walker, it recognized it’s counterpoint and let out a small yowl like a cat in heat.

Roche ground to a stop on his bootheels. Markus nearly ran into the hunter’s backside. Both men drew their guns.

“How many of these things are there, kid?” This one made three.

“How am I supposed to know? Three? Thirty? Who cares shoot it!” Markus leveled his .45 barrel at the construct’s head with a steadier hand than Roche thought the kid had.

“Wait, no don’t.” Roche put his hand on the barrel.

Around them, women and men shrieked, pointing at the not-thing that stood taller at the shoulder than any man even though it walked on all-fours. Some men drew guns, aimed and waited, but did not fire.

The construct cocked it’s little-boy face to one side, confused.

Roche took a slow step forward.

“Easy.” Roche told it, chiding it like it was a horse. “Easy.”

“The hell are you doing?” Markus hissed through his teeth.

“Making sure it don’t hunt us. Maybe it’ll move on and hunt other folk. One’s that ain’t us.” Roche holstered one revolver and held his palm out to the thing. It’s head shook like a dogs. It reared back on it’s haunches and held it’s front hands at it’s sides, flickering in and out of reality. “You ain’t gonna hurt us, right?”

Roche wheeled sideways around the construct, holding his hand out to it, stepping sideways to keep facing it.

It yowled, low and long.

A woman, a fat barmaid in her brown nighty stood in a doorway behind Roche. While the hunter wheeled around the construct, the construct met the fat old maid’s eyes with it’s own. She screamed and fell to her knees, bleating like a throated sheep.

When the woman shrieked, the construct lunged. It might have just been a confused toddler of a thing with a little-boys face, but it lunged over Roche at the screaming fat barmaid with her golden braids and her sheeply operetta voice.

The not-thing’s body lengthened over Roche, when fully extended it stretched fully across the street and sidewalk.

While it’s belly stretched over the walker’s head, Roche moved quick. He bent at the knees and drew his bootknife. Bouncing off his toes he moved, he ripped sideways with the knife and opened the construct’s belly. Fresh offal and roped insides spilled over Roche’s oilskin coat and he rolled sideways. The construct tumbled, a thrown coil of shit, and Roche stood over it. He emptied his revolvers cylinder into it’s little-boy, freckled, full face. Eyes thick with whites opened to the sky full of holes and the missing-teeth mouth sagged open and dribbled fuel.

The operetta barmaid had kept right on screaming for the whole few seconds it had taken Roche to kill the thing. He drew his second revolver and fired it, burying a bullet beside her head in the closed tavern door. That shut her right the hell up. She clapped her mouth shut with a snap of lips sound, teared up and started crying. Roche holstered his guns after reloading the chambers from the loops of his gunbelt.

The not-thing bled white and red into the street, and all around Mission Street, lights flickered on in the storefronts and lofts, folk crawled from their hiding places and those who had not entered the streets initially were now wandering to windows and into the street.

Roche turned to Markus and said; “We have to go. Now.” The sirens began to scream out again, and the unmistakable light of floodlamps cornered into the street from the alleys and side streets followed closely by half a dozen Corp trucks loaded with soldiers, clamoring into the street.

Markus pointed his pistol at the lot of them, wheeling in circles. Roche stood quietly checking the bullets in his revolver chambers while Corporation soldiers surrounded the two of them and aimed dozens of rifles. Their commanders shouted orders. Roche and Markus took hollow steps closer to each other, the dead construct between them.

When Doctor Weaving, arm in a sling with a fresh bandage over his crisp, starchy shirt, stepped out of the Ethercorp truck’s cab, Roche instinctively clicked the hammers on his revolvers.

t be the ma

After Roche had dealt with Patchy Wilkes, he’d gone to find Andrew Vickers. The scumbag’s dossier from the copper station made it clear that he had been the culprit with the least amount of guilt. He’d been there that night, and he’d wanted nothing to do with what went down. But that didn’t mean he had stopped it. He may not have put his thing in Mollie Groux, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t watched while the other two did.

When Walter Roche had walked into the last known address of Andrew Vickers, he’d found an old man seated in a chair, sipping scotch and working through a book of puzzles. He’d protested when Roche had kicked out the front door, he’d protested unintelligibly when Roche put his gun in Andrew’s mouth and forced him to the floor.

There was a nice little creek outside the house, gurgling full with runoff from the mountains. Roche dragged the old man that he’d known as a pie-eyed kid with a knack for getting himself out of trouble outside and left him a good ten yards from the stream. The morning had been heavy with fog, somehow that part of the memory had stuck, and the amphibians were singing.

Beside Andrew’s truck, Roche had found gasoline, these were days before the stock of gas had been so scarce that men killed one another over it. Roche returned to Vickers, found him climbing to his feet and kicked him in the ribs until he was down and stayed down.

He poured the gasoline over him until his clothes were soaked.

He held Vickers by the hair and spoke calmly into his ear. If you’re truly not guilty, get yourself in that stream and I’ll accept it. If you’re guilty of what happened that night, and I think you are you fuck, then you’ll burn, burn, burn.

Roche lit a cigarette and smoked most of it while Andrew whimpered on the frosty grass, cryin’ like a beaten dog.

When the walker thought enough time had gone by, he dropped the cigarette on Andrew’s back.

Poor sucker went up like a match. He screamed and he cried a godawful sound. When he finally stood to run for the stream, it felt like minutes had gone by but it might only have been seconds, Roche put a bullet in the small of his back, right above the crack of his ass hanging through his belt.

That kept him down.

He may have thought, in those last minutes that he wasn’t guilty, and deserved a bath after a good burn, but Roche thought differently. That bullet kept him down. The fire did the rest.

When it was all over there was a wide ring in the frost where all the infinitely small water crystals had melted from the heat.

n i w

When the doctor drew forth the little girl Roche’s heart stopped for more than a second. From behind him, on the side of his good arm, Doctor John Weaving pulled a little girl, barely old enough to be walking on her own without a hand to hold. Her head was shaved like a lobotomy patient and the clothing she wore was threadbare. Damned if she wasn’t the spitting image of the girl Roche had seen that day in the library, hiding behind the stacks.

A dozen and more guns were trained on Roche and Markus, and in his core the walker could feel more constructs rearing out of the world into existence. He could feel them opening the throats of men and women, so fearful of their own existence that they lashed out at those that were truly there. None of that mattered at the specific moment.

The doctor hadn’t been lying. Whatever bastard science he’d used in test tubes and petri dishes and ovens full of somatic cells, he’d built a little person. He’d built her out of her.

“You harbored some doubt, did you? I don’t blame you, the claims I made were wide and improbable. I apologize for any time you may have wasted considering whether or not I was telling you the truth, but I went to great lengths to find you, Mr. Roche, and I’ve been going to those lengths for a good long time. This-” He jerked the girl by the arm. “I’m afraid was one of the lesser lengths I went to. The science was all there for us to discover! Pre-catastrophic research into rebundling and conditioning the human genome to suit out needs. Imagine choosing the eye-color of your offspring!? This wretch was a long-term investment towards a bargaining chip.” Grin.

Roche’s arms felt limp at his sides. The gunmetal chik-chak of rifles was an intermittent noise all around, with overtones of air-raid siren, very human screams and the electric hum of lights over distant gunshots where the Res had met fire with the Corp some streets back.

Rain from the booming clouds pattered down cold and thin.

Markus kept his gun up, but the play was hopeless, too many barrels trained on two men.

“What do you want?” Roche asked, though he was sure he knew the answer already.

“I want what I want, Mr. Roche. I want the original.”

“Wha-?” Markus made a noise in his throat.

“Yes, Mr. Markus. The original. The conduit point in all things. The first walker, the first man. Do the math son. Catastrophe, doors and holes into the white, the ages of the walkers. . .all the men we pulled apart who gave their ages up after days in torment, protecting the numbers of years like trade secrets and matters of vast import. But they all gave up their ages. I’ve been hunting this hunter most of my life Mr. Markus, and through a carefully executed series of events financed by inquiring and ever-interested minds we’ve brought the plan to fruition perfectly.” Grin, squeeze the girls arm, she howled a little in protest when Weaving yanked her to the front like a doe-eyed shield.

Roche was silent. The chaw in his lip filled up and he spat, but he did not move. Guns in his gloved hands, coat flapping a canvas noise in the New San Fran breeze, bootheels solid on the asphalt, gunshot wound forgotten save a tidy throb of heat.

“Me for the girl.” Roche said coolly.

“Precisely. I give your precious a second chance at life, something even your white could not give her. Through the miracles of science she again draws breath in a similar husk. She lives, you become mine.”

“To do what with? Fuck, kill, eat?” Roche gritted his teeth, but he was trying to bait the doctor into a mistake.

“Oh, no, no, no. . .that won’t do. You take me for a man of baser interests when in fact I am a man of epicurean standards and tastes. I want to know you, Mr. Roche. I want to know what makes you work. Why you of all the others? The white ought to have ripped a living creature apart as it has so many who went in before you and after you and instead of you. But you. . .you changed things. . .something about you changed things and since you there have been hundreds like you.

`You’re the crux point and the conduit and the enigma that plagues my analytic mind. I. Want. You. You for the girl. She goes free, you give up without a fight.”

Roche moved his chaw around in his mouth, thinking. He could open fire, and risk a child that looked so like his Mollie, getting hurt. He could run, slip out of things and into the white at his next chance. He could stall, but who knew what would happen, the Res fighting the Corp in the distance some streets over might make it as far as the standoff taking place on Mission Street, but what if they didn’t. Would any of it be worth it. Was the girl worth it?

Roche was not a stupid man, he was as educated as any man in the wastelands and then some much more. This girl was not the girl he’d carried cold and dead into the white all those years ago. This girl was a construct in her own way. Something terrible and new and created from composite parts that made her the same, but in all ways made her the vastly inappropriate opposite. But created or not, that didn’t make her not a human being, not a little girl deserving of a life, of happiness. She might have fun sometime.

“Alright.”

“Excellent. Mr. Markus if you would please drop your gun, then.” The doctor waved his hand at Alex Markus, and a pair of Corp men in fatigues motioned him with the barrels of their guns.

Markus looked to Roche, then to the girl and then to the doctor. He wasn’t sure what to do. He wasn’t sure how to do it.

Roche prompted him. “Drop the gun, kid. Get that girl and get her out of here.”

“How?” Markus laid the gun at his feet and kicked it another couple feet across the asphalt.

“Dunno, kid. Just get her out of here. And I better not find out you were a part of this.” Roche spit onto the ground, he still had his guns in his hands.

“I swear-”

Doctor Weaving cut Markus off. “I’ll alleviate that suspicion Mr. Roche. I can assure you Mr. Markus is more a patsy in all of this than anything. I’m afraid I must take the credit for the entirety of this charade. I’ve worked far too hard for far too long at making sure this all falls into place to not take my piece for my ingenuity. Go on now sweety, see your uncle Alex.” Grinning, Doctor Weaving put a dainty hand on the little girls back and nudged her forward. She hugged herself with skinny little arms and walked toddering to Markus. She couldn’t have been more than four, and her big ol’ eyes watched all of the soldiers with their guns trained. When she reached Markus he bent down and put his jacket around her and picked her up, holding her to his chest muttering “It’s okay. It’s okay. I gotcha.”

Over Markus’ shoulder, the little girl met Roche’s eyes and for the first time in many long years, Walter Roche tried his very best to smile genuinely for someone else. He tried with his eyes to affirm what Markus was telling her. It’s okay. . .I promise it’s okay.

“Care to complete the exchange Mr. Roche?”

Roche stepped forward.

“Guns?”

Roche dropped his guns quietly to the ground, setting them with care. In the near distance, constructs shifted.

“Come to me then, Mr. Roche. My original. Let me have you.” Grin, grin, grin, grin, grin, grin, grin.

In the face of a split second, Roche got a look at Markus and said all he needed to say with a single look, then the world exploded.

as.

Get-the-girl-down-and-out-of-here, Roche said with his eyes. Somehow Markus understood in that blink of a moment. When it all broke open, Markus had shouldered through the unsuspecting Corp men and was sprinting full-board down a side street, running towards the faint decay-smell of the ocean.

Roche held his wrists out as though he was going to be cuffed, and when Doctor Weaving reached out with his good hand, Roche took him and hurled him bodily over his shoulder. The doctor’s form rag-dolled through the air, his limbs all willy-nilly when he crashed into the Corp soldiers behind.

Roche hoped the throw and the fall would at least hurt the bastard a lick, even cripple or kill him. He didn’t get a chance to check, because a moment after Roche threw the doctor the way he would have thrown a bad bite of fruit, the Ethercorp soldiers opened fire.

A dozen and more automatic rifles lit a deafening wall of noise with gunshots and cordite and burning muzzle-breaks. Body armor collected shots until it could no more and twined out with lightning bolts of twisted, woven wire. His hat fell from his brow and was opened with a half dozen new holes before it hit the asphalt. Roche buckled and gyrated in a conniption fit of being shot. How many bullets ripped into the walker couldn’t be said, because a half-second later, he’d fallen backwards while clips slid to the ground with a clattering.

Flat on his back, blood pooling out from a hundred holes, Roche lay in the middle of Mission Street.

In the atmosphere around, rain continued to piddle down, the constructs moaned strange noises, gunfire continued to ring through the alleys as the walkers and the Resistance boys fought their way tooth and nail to the College to pursue their own agenda, and in the buildings that lined the streets women and other folk who lived in this walled city gasped at the sight of a man being gunned down by a dozen plus guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Had anyone opened his flak jacket they might have thought that Roche’s body resembled finely ground burger.

Eyes wide open to the sky, the walker did not stop breathing, though his lungs were tattered sailcloth. His feet planted, and invisible marionette strings drew the walker upwards by his shoulders in the most unnatural of motions.

“Yes, yes, yes it’s true! Oh, God, my God! There is a deity and he is a man!” Doctor John Weaving thrust his hips up from where he lay on the pavement, shrieking through pink-bloodied teeth at the chaotic sky, eyes wide with a madness that bore down on his mind. “There is a God and I held you for a moment!”

Roche’s eyes flip through the static of television channels and went white and black and transfixed. Soft, pulsing tendrils of there and not-there index fingers pushed outwards from the epicenter of his man. Inching along they pushed the bullets from him. Tick, tick, tick the little brass shells, all bound and rolled into amoebic balls of distorted metal fell to the concrete. The holes in his body let light through, and still the walker drew breath. Brown spittle dribbled from Roche’s chin. In the deepest point of his mind he saw the third and final man, he saw Will Dunham as an old man. He saw the myriad bullet wounds and sharp bits of glass and metal he’d driven into his fingertips and the bottoms of his feet. He saw all the wounds he’d cauterized with a welding torch. He remembered the wooden pencil he’d forced into Willie’s pee-hole while he’d struggled against the wooden chair to which he was bound. He saw and he remembered the perfect look on Will Dunham’s old face when he’d finally pulled the trigger of his Ruger and blown the brains out the side of his head. When it had all been done and he’d avenged a single death he’d realized that he’d become something more, but something darker and more terrible than any of the boys who’d raped and murdered his Mollie Groux had ever been. The holes in the walkers body filled with white, and where his feet were magnet-drawn to the concrete, the polarity suddenly reversed and Roche lifted into the air.

The soldiers of the Ethercorp would have told different stories if they’d lived through the encounter. Some men saw a great hand rise from the earth and lift Roche into the air like a child holding a doll. Some men saw a pair of pristine white wings tear from the skin of the walker’s back and lift him up on high. Some saw the tentacles of a white octopus slither wetly from the bottom of his coat and propel him muscled and wretchedly up. Whatever each man saw, Roche lifted. Someday, when she was much older, the little girl would ask her friend Alex Markus if the man in the hat and the coat had been an angel, because he’d had big, pretty wings when he died. Her friend Alex would think about it before he’d say; Yes, sweetheart. Yes, that man was an angel.

White light filled and spilled and bled from the ruins of his body, belching out in pustules and spraying from burst arteries. His eyes went bloodshot and weeping with white.

“I held you!” The Doctor intoned.

The shade of Roche turned to the doctor on the white limbs that held it up. With a wave of a destroyed hand, the doctor convulsed in pain and twisted a wrung-towel kind of twist. Blood pooled in the corners of his eyes and puddled out of his mouth and anus before he went wholly limp.

White forms of barbed wire spilled from the walker-shade’s mouth and splayed out in a bouquet, one tendril striking a viper-strike at each Corp soldier, through their hearts and temples and bellies and throats where they all burbled and shrieked and bled and collapsed to the concrete.

Glass panes shattered and the dead, ancient forms of decorative palm trees went off like firecrackers, splintering into oblivion. The walker-shade opened it’s mouth so wide that it’s jaw fell below the threshold of it’s throat. The scream broke the world all over again.

Fingers splayed opened and bent back too far and splayed too wide, the flesh of the walker-shade’s hands tore like paper, and more light and white and snaking barbed-wire spilled from the wounds. The thigh wound through-and-through was a second mouth, yawning open and crying with pristine white teeth and a lolling muscular tongue.

The asphalt of the street peeled upwards, the buildings caved in. Whether from the Resistance fulfilling their mission or from the ire of the walker-shade, the City College collapsed burning and imploding with bending shrieks of rebar and cracking concrete formations.

In a dark corner of the city, burrowed against a corner in the masonry, miraculously untouched, Alex Markus held a little girl and prayed to the endless strings of equilibrium that he and she would remain safe, and through the noise of time the shade heard, they were not touched by a speck of anything.

When the street collapsed dozens of feet in a wash of ether light and burning, burning, burning flames and oil and gasoline and barbed wire, the constructs went with it, screaming their odd noises and bleakly grasping out at reality and their own understanding for some kind of purchase. They became nothing and their bodies boiled in the heat of the world’s collapsing on a point.

All the Terra’s touched in one conduit point in New San Fran. When the smoke and the dust settled later, there was a hole in the world the size of a full city-block. There was no walker among the hundreds of dead.

Stop t

Alex Markus never got out of new San Fran that night. He’d hidden huddled in a corner with his arms around the little girl and his back to the world, protecting her with everything he had, honoring the last words Walter Roche had said to him. Not a lance of white, not a bullet, not a flaming explosion of kerosene or gasoline, not even a single pebble of rubble had touched him or the girl. After a night of shrieking noise, collapsing buildings, dying tanks of combustibles erupting in the night and human beings being torn asunder, the sun rose over the Sierra’s and lit the streets of New San Fran.

Tangles of metal beams and rebar framing were a thicket of briars and brambles. Bodies fouled the air, the stink of their guts thickening and wafting in the growing heat of the day. All the world was covered in a newly fallen shroud of dust and debris and detritus, muddy from the rain. Through the evening, the wasteland had vomited into and cut a swathe through the city.

The occasional wastelander filtered into the city, searching for anything of value in the fallout. Corp and Res soldiers picked through the bones, searching for comrades and friends, paying no attention to their old hatreds for the nonce. Citizens of the city tried their best to hold it together, though those of them that numbered in the dead were few and far between, unfortunate souls who had been stuck in the wrong place, causality of war.

“Uncle Alex?” The waif girl asked.

“Yes, sweetheart?”

“Where the angel go?” She looked over the wreckage with doe eyes and two fingers in her mouth.

“I don’t know.” Markus felt tears well in the corners of his eyes.

A sign for Mission Street stuck out of the world at an angle. Down the way from it, south with the rising sun at their left shoulder, was a crater in the earth. The mouth of hell itself with teeth of steel girders and concrete points. At the bottom of the crater, there was nothing. No anything, simply wreckage and burned-black rubble.

“I don’t know where he went.” Markus told the little girl again as they stared down into the pit. A water main had split and the bottom of the crater was filled with some inches of stinking brown seawater siphoned in for the city. A good ten yards deep and fully empty.

“What’s my name?” The girl asked, looking to the rising sun where seabirds had taken flight and cut little black letters over the bay.

Alex felt himself choke in his throat and start to weep openly. Of course they hadn’t named her. And she was asking him. He did all he could. “What would you like your name to be, sweety?”

“You called me ‘moisy’.” She giggled, thinking it was a funny name.

Alex breathed out spit and snot hard in a sobbing laugh. Mercy. He’d spent the night covering the girl with his body and begging for mercy.

“Okay, sweety. We’ll call you Mercy, would you like that?”

“Uh-huh. Look birds!” Mercy pointed at the sky and ran away over the rubble, chasing seabirds in the sky and giggling, waving her arms in the way that kids do when they’re running without a care in the world.

ransmi

The man in the white became aware of his body. He became aware of the pain. He breathed for the first time in coughing, heaving gouts of conceptual nothing and snotty cords spilling from his throat and nose and eyes. He arched to his knees, bent like a fetal child, naked and shivering and desperately, fitfully trying to grasp a full breath, an even intake and exhale of life-giving, hot breath.

He settled and fell sideways across the planar nothing of the white.

Were there sound he might have heard the approach of the two others in the nothing. Two to find him his way back.

There were larger things there, settled on misshapen haunches and watching with child-like eyes and unfinished cognizance. Their artificial beings waited patiently and did not interfere. They merely watched and listened and waited and rested on the bent string of possibility that they clung to. Neither alive nor concept, but constructed of void and substantial in the way that a thought is. They merely watched the man in the white cling nude to his own knees and sob.

A nickering.

A wide-flat tongue lapped at the man’s face. Waking him to the reality of the fact. There were things alive here besides the nothing-made-whole of the watchers in the white.

With gentle teeth the wolf tugged at the man’s arm. Get up, come on.

The nickering came again. The man sat up. He smelled a campfire.

A faithful steed with a single white fetlock had found her master and come to take him safely.

The man wished he had a drink to celebrate. He could hear the sloshing of a bottle in her saddlebags.

“Good horse. Good. . .good horse.”

ssion.

As I walked out in the mystic garden,

On a hot summer day, a hot summer lawn.

Excuse me, ma’am, I beg your pardon,

There’s no one here, the gardener is gone.

Ain’t talking, just walking,

Up the road, around the bend.

Heart burning, still yearning,

In the last outback at the world’s end.

-Bob Dylan

About the Author:

Taylor R. Powers is a native of Cooperstown, New York. He attended the University of Massachusetts, Amherst for Veterinary and Animal Science and Wildlife and Fisheries Conservation. After writing the first three novels of the young adult adventure series ‘The Summerswill Saga’ and a number of short stories, he decided to write something else for a while. He has since returned to the land of Sylva and the Summerswill though he has not left the world of Terra behind just yet. He is an advocate for the 4H program and has been raising and showing poultry since childhood.

Glossary of Terms For Ain’t Talkin’

Bank Notes - Currency. Bank notes have differing value across worlds due to individual historical timelines that affect inflation. Most forms of currency in the post-catastrophic world are interchangeable and are essentially worth the number that is printed on them. Ie: A 5$ note is worth the same as a 5£ note in most places, given that most people are not literate. Though bank notes are accepted currency, this is simply because they are of not other use. Many people in the wastelands also prefer to trade in liquor, tobacco, ammunition or services.

Border Towns - Towns that are not necessarily on the ‘border’ of anything. This term simply refers to towns that are off the beaten path and more often than not do not have any real organized system of government, defense or judicial system. Towns that do are usually only ruled over by elected coppers. They differ mainly from most larger cities and walled cities in that aspect.

The Catastrophe - The event that occurred at Ground Zero (Terra 1) which ate holes through the fabric of existence into six different realities of Earth, each fundamentally the same yet vastly different. The catastrophe is a mysterious historical event though it is clear that it was caused by old-world scientists working with the ether.

Copper - A slang term for members of organized law enforcement in towns and settlements. These men are mercenaries who are paid through collective taxation of their home town to protect the better interests of locals. They are not above bribery or persuasion in most cases and are often reformed mercs or highwaymen who have settled in one place.

The Corporation - See: Ethercorp

Ether (The White) - The space between worlds. The ether is the construct substance that makes up the smallest iotic particles of existence. The ether was discovered and isolated in containment by scientific researchers over 200 years before the present day. The experiments and research conducted on the ether caused a catastrophic event referred to simply as the ‘catastrophe’. This catastrophe essentially bored myriad holes between the fabric of the Ground Zero plane (referred to as Terra 1) and a number of other planes, six of which have been catalogued and explored. Each plane is referred to as Terra 1-6 in the order that they were discovered and entered. This does not account for myriad other worlds which may be accessible but have not yet been catalogued.

Ethercorp (The Corporation) - Ethercorp is one of the only private, government or military entities that exists across multiple planes, not because each plane developed it independently (as with many governments and military bodies), but because the minds behind Ethercorp saw to it that the corporation established itself post-catastrophe in multiple planes. The nature of the Corporation is secretive, though it presents the appearance of being research based and for the betterment of mankind across all six planes. Meeting employees or hired guns of the Corporation would beg to differ however, as they operate on a similar level to a major criminal organization.

Etherfish - Tachyons. Entities that populate the ether. Neither living nor inanimate, they are particle-based conceptual entities that travel backwards or sideways through time, which is cyclical but perceived in a linear fashion. Laypeople in contact with etherfish while they swim through the fabric of existence often experience phenomenon similar to déjà vu (seeing the same thing twice, forgetting obvious notions, the tip-of-the-tongue feeling, among many others). Walkers are accustomed to seeing and feeling the effects of etherfish, so much so that they rarely notice them unless they school.

Highwaymen - A general term for criminals who prey on others in the post-catastrophic wasteland. They often work in groups and use surprise attacks and trickery to subdue their foes. They have no hierarchy or organization outside of their individual bands. Some bands of highwaymen have been known to eat human flesh to survive in the wastelands for lack of any other meat. Continuous consumption gives them the ‘shakes’ in their hands making these individuals easy to identify.

Hunter - A bounty hunter. Less specifically a mercenary who specializes in finding people. Whether these be men who have skipped town after committing a crime, missing persons or anyone who needs to be found and brought back in a specific or unspecific condition is often inconsequential.

Merc (Mercenary) - Hired soldiers who are not necessarily a far cry from being highwaymen themselves. The only difference being that these soldiers for hire present themselves as being more honorable or reliable than the average highwayman, though this is generally not the case.

Old-World - Refers to anything that has existed since before the catastrophe event.

Resistance (The Res) - A pocket of militia soldiers who fight against Ethercorp. They can be known as both freedom fighters or terrorists, though both labels are appropriate. They know that Ethercorp is in essence working towards creating a New World Order that crosses planar boundaries and experimenting with weaponizing ether. They work towards thwarting the Ethercorp at all turns, though their efforts are often undermined by the simple fact that they have little financial backing.

Walker - A professional who has mastered the art of moving through the vague whiteness of the ether that exists between worlds. Often employed as a guide or a tracker. Their consistent exposure to the fabric of existence between worlds means that their bodies no longer necessarily adhere to the rules of our own worlds. They age extremely slowly, require little to nothing for nutrition, and through manipulations of the ether that seeps into our world have faster reflexes than the average person. A select few who have mastered the art of calling upon the ether can use it to their advantage in grave situations, essentially making them stronger, faster and more deadly than other human beings. This all being said, these qualities alienate them from most people who still occupy the post-catastrophic world and they tend to be loners and vagabonds.

Walled Cities - In the chaos following the catastrophe many cities, mostly larger cities, put up barrier walls made of concrete, stacked cars, metal barricades and stockade wood to keep roving bands of raiders and militia out and to keep the populace in. These cities have a tendency to be more strongly and efficiently governed than border towns, usually with an elected mayor, standing police force and other elected officials.

Wastelander - Someone who lives alone outside of an organized settlement. Usually for a reason (criminal activity, undesirable in some way), though sometimes for no reason besides being a person who prefers to live in solitude.

The White - See: Ether

Cast of Characters for Ain’t Talkin’

Alex Markus - A young man in the employ of Ethercorp. Handpicked by a district manager for the corporation. He was invited to work for the Corporation and quickly found a niche in the Applied Sciences division conducting research on the ether and doing weaponization research. Upon discovering the bastardization of etherfish and formation of military ether-constructs, Alex fled to the only organization he could turn to, the Resistance. Before he made contact with the Res, he was apprehended in Polkun county by the Corporation. A Res member posing as Alex’s father hired Walter Roche to retrieve the young scientist.

Alma Merryweather - An old woman who wanders the wastelands around Lake Tahoe. Close to a hundred years in age, she carries her life with her on her back, moving from place to place periodically to avoid highwaymen and other wastelanders, yet always staying in the Tahoe region. She’s known for distilling some of the finest potato vodka west of the Mississippi, though where she grows the potatoes or where she distills the liquor is anyone’s guess. Carries a 12-gauge for protection, not terribly fond of company other than those she knows well.

Blackbirds - The Blackbirds are a wastelander mercenary corp. Such battalions and brigades of loosely organized soldiers-for-hire are a common thing in the wastelands, though the Blackbirds claim to have the asset of ‘communication’. Whether this communication is short-wave or long-distance is unclear, though it must contribute to their organizations efficiency.

Briggs - A Resistance soldier.

Fray - A Corporation soldier.

Jex (Jackson Bullock) - A former mercenary out of the central U.S. Lost his leg below the knee in a firefight some years back in the Great Lakes region and replaced it with a handmade iron peg. Now maintains the Emporium (Empoorium), a waystation west of Polkun County that sells miscellany to an exclusive set of customers. These products range from guns, bullets and body armor to cigarette rolling papers and coloring books. An easy-going man with strong loyalties to those he considers friend.

Dr. John Weaving - A clasically trained physician and researcher originally working for the Corporation. He had defected to the Resistance shortly before the release of constructs from New San Francisco into the world. Claims to have knowledge in genetic reconditioning of unborn fetuses and propagates to be able to condition the brain via electrical signals to ‘transplant’ a human being. Is one of the largest benefactors of the Resistance. He is a man of incredible capability and a shrewd constitution without the burden and restriction of a conscience.

Kendall Miner (Alex Markus’ ‘father’) - An older gentleman who ranks as a Lieutenant with the Resistance. A longtime resident of Polkun County who was enlisted to liason with Alex Markus and discern his usefullness to the Res. Seeing that Alex was swiftly apprehended by Corporation soldiers gave Kendall the idea that Alex was indeed a valuable asset. As such he hired Walter Roche, a hunter with a reputation for success, discretion and ability.

Lansing - The ‘leader’ of the mercenary company, the Blackbird’s. A man of solid common sense and large build.

Leon Wellam - A walker. A former soldier who began walking for his own reasons. Following his exit from the white, Leon joined the service of the Resistance. A man of his early sixties, his time walking has not been long, though this does not make him one to underestimate. Rolls with a pair of pistols and prefers solitary walking to vehicles or horses.

Mollie Groux - A young woman who figured in Roche’s youth. Whether she and Roche were in a relationship or perhaps family is unclear. The only fact is that her death was what cause Roche to take to the white, hoping to save her life. This was fruitless and she dissolved into the ether while Roche began wandering the spaces between existences.

Thomas - A walker. A younger man of twenty-five, probably walking for something on the order of eighty years. Wears a hooded jacket and carries a long-barreled pistol. Rides a motorbike often. Close cropped hair reveals a number of scars crossing his scalp. A loner with few loyalties other than money.

Walter Roche - Born in the Northeastern part of the old United States sometime after the catatstrophe. Learned to read and write at a local library (a rarity in the current world, both to have access to books and to be literate). Following a tragedy in his early twenties involving a young woman by the name of Mollie Groux, Roche took to the white to become a walker. Has been walking and taking jobs as a hunter for longer than a century. Prefers gunfighting with a pair of old-world Ruger revolvers to any other firearm, but has been known to be very proficient in the use of most guns and can also capably weild a knife or shortblade. Penchant for drinking and smoking. He is a man who is often referred to out of context as he is not in the habit of leaving witnesses to his transgressions outside of the ‘law’, though when it suits him he prefers to keep on the better side of the local coppers.

The Wolf - The wolf referred to by Roche and Wind In The Trees is a possible anomaly in the ether, a mutated etherfish or a figment of Roche’s imagination, though it is just as likely to be an actual wolf that happened to wander into the white of it’s own accord. This occurrence is not unheard of. Occasionally an animal will accidentally enter a hole or door into the white, though due to their lesser-intelligent conscious-selves, they tend to dissipate into nothing, as their minds have great difficulty in understanding the complete lack of stimuli and physical limitation. This wolf, in particular, it seems, is an exception to that rule, and has lived in the white for an unknown length of time.

Will Dunham, Patchy Wilkes, Andrew Vickers - The three young men who, after a harvest dance, raped Mollie Groux and beat her to death. Walter Roche attempted to save her by carrying her through a door into the ether in a ravine near their hometown. She dissolved and he became lost. When he reemerged he hunted down the three young men, who were now old and decrepit and murdered them for vengeance. Roche hung Patchy with a rope by his wrists behind his back and slit his belly open after he castrated him as Patchy was the one who had instigated the rape. Andrew was shot in the lower spine by Roche and set afire with gasoline near a river with a chance to save himself as he was the one who was least guilty. Will Dunham was found sleeping in his home in a chair. Roche shot him again and again over the course of many hours, cauterizing his wounds as he went with a hot poker, starting with his extremeties until Roche lost control and fired dozens of shots into Dunham’s chest.

Wind In The Trees - An ancient Cherokee medicine man and shamen. Considers himself the gatekeeper of a tear into the ether somewhere south of the 50 below Lake Tahoe. Sits in a crater of animal drawings and sings and plays his drum. Calls Roche ‘Walks With Many Legs’ on account of the white-eyed wolf that follows him and the many, many people Roche has killed over the years who walk beside him.

Songs That Play In Ain’t Talkin

It Feels Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag - Country Joe and the Fish

Cry, Cry, Cry - Johnny Cash

Pink Houses - John Mellencamp

Segeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band - The Beatles

Ain’t Talkin’ - Bob Dylan

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