Another time, another place…
The world ended on Sunday. The apocalypse rode in on a glittering meteorite shower that bombarded the planet for fifty three hours. Over the next few months, mutations bloomed. New and monstrous forms of life developed as evolution went haywire. It was as if the nature itself surged to throw off the dominion of Man.
In the twenty second year since the shower, the cause of the ecosystem’s collapse was finally isolated. It was called simply the Bloom Virus, or BV. A vaccine was developed against BV, but for the most of the planet it was already too late. Famine and plagues decimated the population. The humans raised walls around the remaining cities and farmland and watched jungle claim the rest.
The walls didn’t stand unassaulted for long. Miuts, animals carrying highly contagious strands of the BV, emerged from the jungle and hurled themselves at the walls in a berserk frenzy. To combat this threat, a new profession emerged: the hunter. The hunters patrol the jungle before the walls, making their living from the miut bounty.
The initial infection by the virus led to the emergence of people with strange new powers. Such a power is called an “effect”.
The air smelled of soot and acid. The acrid stench summoned a host of memories, as Aby guided her silver Misano into the concrete cage of the protected garage.
Aby shut off the engine. In front of her on the concrete wall, acid-etched graffitti screamed “EFFECT”, razor-sharp letters embellished with painted drops of blood. Later someone had decided to improve on the message and added a large black D in front of the graffiti. Defect. That’s what we are, Aby thought with a dull ache. Defective people living in a defective neighborhood on the edge of hell. She had tried to so hard to break free, and now she was back.
She swiped her backpack from the passenger seat and stepped out of the car. Her spiked heels clicked on the hard concrete. She still wore her professional suit – a grand worth of grey wool, carefully cut, shaped and stitched to emphasize her figure, complete with three hundred dollar shoes. Her copper-colored hair, flat-ironed, layered, and sprayed in place, framed her face in perfect imitation of the do Marina Fradon wore to the latest premier. Her makeup was flawless.
She couldn’t have made a better target is she had painted a bull’s eye on her chest and topped it with a flashing neon sign: “Rob Me!” She should’ve stopped at one of the shops she had passed on the way and bought a change of clothes, but she just drove, hands clenching the wheel, eyes wet, haunted by the urgent need to go home.
Aby locked the car, reached for the heavy overhead door, and strained. The door refused to budge. Damn it. She jumped a couple of times, building up the juice, and hit the door with her fist, sending it thudding on the concrete. She locked the steel padlock and added the second one of dura-plastic. For all she knew, Benny still lived in the neighborhood. Benny made metal fluid. Only for a second but a second was long enough to chop a part off a vehicle. Finding Misano’s metal husk stripped of all removable and not-so-removable parts would be too much for her emotional state at this point.
Aby took the stairs out of the garage and paused in the doorway. A cluster of grim apartment buildings, dark and jagged, rose before her, etched against a gory sunset. Filthy streets carved pathways between the buildings, melting into the gloom. Somewhere in the distance gunfire erupted in short purposeful bursts: Griffin 345, a short-nosed cannon with a hell of a kick, guaranteed to send a bullet through a car door, both passengers, and out the other side. Richland. Home, sweet home.
She shouldered her pack and started up the street. Richland… It was suppose to be a win-win scenario, a safe cheap neighborhood for the effect-heavy Third Wave Veterans. The veterans got to raise their defective kids in relative peace, while the city got a shield of trained, toughened fighters to guard against the intrusion of the wilderness that had claimed the planet beyond the walls. A good idea, warped by its contact with reality.
A familiar low rumble dragged her attention from the landscape. Aby crossed the street to the concrete bridge and leaned on the rail. Below her stretched a deep concrete canyon, almost sixty yards wide. She smelled engine oil and sharp, acrid stench of spitter’s vomit. The rumble grew louder. The echos of the massive engine scattered along the walls, bouncing and clashing.
The leading edge of the crawler emerged from underneath the bridge. The moonlight clutched at the armor, enhancing the metal with a liquid sheen of silver. Each gouge, dent, and scar stood out in stark relief. Strands of widow’s kudzu dangled from the armor, glued to it by frothy yellow smudges of spitter vomit. The orange kudzu still had its leaves. It usually shriveled within two hours of being taken out of the Dead City. The crawler had just returned from the hunt. Inside it rode the navigator and a hunter or two. In its hull lay the catch from the Dead City: miut carcasses, salvaged metal, maybe a few plants prized by pharmaceuticals.
The crawler emerged fully. The Tick model, round, domed top designed to offer little purchase to claws. A big vehicle, nearly twenty five yards across.
Eight years ago she had ridden in crawlers just like this one. Although the tick was never her favorite. Too unwieldy in tight ruins.
Aby glanced after it and walked away.
Around the corner, the yellow and green window of Foxhole Bar greeted her, a mere block away. Her apartment building waited across the street of a Foxhole. A few hundred yards and she would be home.
She heard a quiet scrape of a foot on asphalt. Someone waited in the alley up ahead. It was the mugger-favorite when she was a kid. Nothing changed.
Aby slipped the pack off her shoulder and moved to the middle of the street, giving herself room to work. The only light came from the dying sky and the weak glow filtering through the Foxhole’s windows. Not a soul in sight. Too bad, a couple of witnesses would have been nice.
She passed the alley. Out of the corner of her eye she saw four lanky shadows move out of the darkness pooling in the alley.
“Here, chickie, chickie, chickie.”
She turned around. Four guys, young, sixteen at most. A fresh bumper crop of the neighborhood thugs, grown up while she was away.
Everybody had a nickname on the street. When she was a kid, hers was Thumper. Her foot started tapping the ground almost on its own, each burst of kinetic energy sinking into her toes.
“You lost, you poor thing?” The skinny thug on the left asked.
“Way out of your neighborhood. Tsokay. We don’t mind you visiting. You smell nice.”
“Wanna fuck?” The largest kid offered, unwinding a long chain off his wrist. They stood bunched together, obviously not considering her to be enough of a threat to flank. The chain made a slow circle as the thug swung it. That’s right, build up some momentum in it and hit me with it, big guy.
“She’s so scared, she can’t even talk.” The kid on the right, with spiky black hair, grinned, exposing misshapen teeth, fused into large chunks of enamel three at a time. A smile to give anyone a nightmare. “I bet you scream real good. Let’s find out how loud you can get.”
The chain had picked up enough speed for him to throw it. Aby tensed, the pent-up energy within her begging for a release.
“My kind of woman, knows her mouth is for…” The big thug stopped in midsentence. His face blanched. He jerked the chain back up. They backed away and fled down the street.
Aby turned slowly. A man stood on the corner, in the shadow of the building. Tall, dark hair cut short, wearing a long trench coat that obscured most of him. The gloom hid his face. An overwhelming sense of threat emanated from the man, so strong, it instantly brought her to the edge. Like glancing at the forest and seeing a tiger staring at you from the shadows, just before he pounced. Her mouth went dry. Her every instinct screamed, “Danger!”
He just stood there. Watching.
Aby willed herself to move. She took a step down the street, light on her toes, ready to leap aside at the slightest hint of movement.
He remained still.
Another step. Another. As she passed him, his eyes caught the light of the lone lamp from across the street. His irises shone once with faint silver. Every hair on the back of Aby’s neck stood on end.
She wanted to see his face. Curiosity gripped her, fighting with fear.
Slowly she took a single step toward him. He leaned forward a little. Silver rolled over his eyes.
She whirled at the familiar voice and saw Gina across the street, carrying a bag of groceries and a shotgun. She looked exactly the same: short, muscular, unruly blonde curls cut in a bob.
“Hi, mom,” Aby said.
Gina looked past her, over her shoulder, and flipped the shotgun in her hand, releasing the safety. “Come here, baby,” she said, keeping her voice level and her eyes and her barrels fixed on the man in the shadows.
Feeling like a teenager caught after curfew, Aby crossed the street to her. Mom smiled quickly, a short controlled stretching of lips, the business end of her gun rock-steady on the man. “It’s late. Let’s get inside.”
Twenty minutes later, freshly showered and wearing her old sweats, Aby wandered into the kitchen. A fresh pot of coffee sat waiting for her on the hot plate. Gina chased scrambled eggs and sliced mushrooms in an iron skillet with a wooden spatula.
“Breakfast for dinner,” she said. “Okay with you?”
Aby took two mugs and poured coffee, black for herself and sugar and cream for Gina.
“You’ve got too much coffee in my cream,” Gina commented.
Aby smiled and poured a little more creamer into the mug. She took her mug and sipped the strong brew, glancing out of the window. Across the street, in front of Foxhole bar, a familiar scrawny figure squared off against a large meaty-looking thug. Boo. Another blast from the past.
The thug took a swing. Boo danced away. They looked ridiculous together, like David and Goliath. She sipped her coffee.
The thug hooked Boo in the shoulder. The smaller man swayed. The thug grabbed him by the throat and pulled him close.
Pale green light flashed into the thug’s face. The thug released Boo, stumbled back, his face a contorted pale mask. He clawed at his eyes. His mouth gaped open and a bellow of pure horror burst from his throat.
“What’s that?” mother asked.
“Some moron hassled Boo.”
Gina came to the window. Boo pulled out a stinger stick and buried its business end in his opponent’s gut. The man doubled over. Boo hit him again, hard over the neck, and the big guy went down. Ranna smirked. Boo’s effect was the scare. It was a good effect but it lasted only four seconds. Had he hesitated for another moment, the bigger man would’ve come to his senses and bent him into a pretzel.
“Getting cocky,” Gina observed. “Another moment or two and the guy would’ve snapped out of it.”
“Wouldn’t have hurt to cut Boo down to size.” Aby stepped to the countertop to refill her mug. “Is he kicking him?”
Figured. Boo had a vicious streak a mile wide. He used to get his jollies by jumping girls, popping off his fright fireworks, and feeling them up while they screamed. He had tried it with her only once. The thing about fear is that, unlike her effect, it caused no actual damage. They both found that out when she came out of Boo’s scare show with her fingers locked on his throat.
“Eggs are getting cold,” Gina said.
Gina ate fast, chewing thoroughly but quickly, as if ready for a mortar shell to burst overhead any moment.
“So what brings you here after three years?” she said.
Aby scooted the eggs on her plate with her fork. Had it been that long? Mostly Gina visited her, not the other way around. “I left Travis.”
Gina stopped and looked at her with her light green eyes.
The words came tumbling out. “I walked in on him with a woman. I opened the door and there they were. In my apartment. In my bed. She was my coworker. I guess I thought she was my best friend.”
“Do I need to call Ricardo?”
Ricardo, who had served in the same unit as Gina, had the uncanny ability to smooth over troublesome incidents. Being a lieutenant of Game Warden Special Cases helped.
Aby shook her head. “I didn’t hurt them. I left.” She wanted to explain the look on Travis’s face. No guilt. No shame. Not even surprise. Just a wordless resignation she had seen him affect so many times when an unexpected obstacle presented itself in his business dealings. A hurdle, time and energy-consuming, but hardly a challenge. It was if he had said, “Oh well. I guess now I’ll have to do the expected and go through the motions of pretending to feel guilt and ask forgiveness. It will be a chore for awhile but eventually it will go back to normal.” In that moment she realized with crystal clarity that he didn’t love her and never would.
Knowing him, he had already sent his assistant out to pick out a suitably expensive rock. That’s how little she meant. Slimebag.
She became aware of Gina looking at her.
“Good riddance. I always thought he was an asshole.”
Aby shrugged, suddenly irritated. “So good of you to dismiss two years of my life with two sentences.”
“More like eighteen months. Come on, Abigail. Deep down you knew he wasn’t the one.” Gina gulped her coffee. “He was weak and spoiled and he didn’t suit you. You need to find a strong man. Someone who might balance you.”
“Like dad balanced you?” That was a hit below the belt.
“Exactly.” Gina’s eyes went from blue to steel grey.
“How is he, by the way?”
“I told you before, your dad died in childbirth.”
“Mom, you know that makes no sense, right?”
Gina got up and took the plates to the sink.
Aby crossed her arms on the table. Her head suddenly felt too heavy and she put it down on the crook of her arm. She heard Gina stop behind her. A warm hand rested on her shoulder. “I’m sorry,” Gina murmured softly. “I’m so sorry you got hurt. I wish I could make it better.”
Aby raised her head from the table. Gina hugged her gently.
A clump blocked Aby’s throat. “I’m going to visit here for awhile. If you don’t mind.”
“Stay as long as you like, darling.”
Aby dropped the bag of trash into the huge green bin. Across the street Boo startled at the sound, rising from the prone figure sprawled in the yellow and green glow of Foxhole’s windows.
“You’ve been kicking him this whole time?”
“What’s it to you, skank? Want some of this?”
She put a bit of malice into her voice. “Four seconds, Boo. That’s all you’ve got. Any time you want to bring ‘this’ over, you let me know.”
He squinted and took a step forward. His face went slack. “Thumper? Thumper! I haven’t seen you in ages. You look… hot.”
He sounded surprised.
“You don’t say.”
“No, I mean you’re always looked cute and all, but shit. I mean, you look different now.” He dragged his hand through his hair. “I work for Rock now. In collections.”
“Say what you mean, Boo: you break legs for a living when gamblers default on their payments.”
He grinned. “Yeah. What do you nowdays?”
“I’m an investment banker. Corporate accounts. “
“No shit.” His eyes widened.
She frowned. “Something wrong with banking?”
“Naah. With your effect, I thought maybe you know, special forces, Night Owls, you know. Heeey. We’re almost in the same business. You’re in investments, I’m in recovery. We can talk shop sometime.”
Now she was no better than a legbreaker. “Sure, Boo.” She turned to leave and paused. “I saw a guy tonight. Eyes glowing silver.”
Boo nodded. “Trouble. You remember him, right?”
Trouble… “Yeah. I thought he left.”
“Well, he came back about a year ago, more fucked up than ever. I don’t know what kind of shit he did or where he did it, but take my word on it, you don’t want to find out.”
“Yeah, you too.”
She climbed the stairs to the apartment. His name was Trouble. She remembered him very well: of all adolescent thugs in Richland Trouble had been the worst. Some guys were vicious, some were tough, but Trouble was crazy. Unstoppable and berserk. Nobody knew what his effect was, but he had one. Things he did were legend among the teen criminals. Rumor had it, five older thugs from Raffi, Rock’s predecessor, had jumped him once, got him down and kicked him for ten minutes. He got up to his feet laughing and put three of them in the hospital. For the other two the hospital couldn’t do anything. People left him alone after that.
Aby got inside, locked the door and washed her hands. Gina nodded at her in passing, immersed in her book. Aby headed for her old bedroom.
It was sad, really. Disappointing. Now that she knew who he was, the mystery was solved.
Aby pulled down her comforter and stripped off her sneakers. Her sweat pants followed. Funny how she couldn’t recall his face. He was about four or five years older and all the little kids knew when Trouble showed up, they had to get scarce in a hurry. The closest she ever came to seeing him was when she and her best friend, Verna, hid on Verna’s balcony, overhanging the south entrance to the complex and watched as Trouble and some blond chic made out in the shadow of a huge walnut, growing by their apartments. They couldn’t see much, but they had heard noises, moaning and heavy breathing.
She walked to the window and unlatched it, letting the night air stream into the bedroom through the latticework of metal bars. The walnut was still there, spreading its enormous branches. She smiled at the memories. Right around her fifteenth birthday, Trouble disappeared. People said he had killed his father and had to take off for good. Apparently, she wasn’t the only one who needed to come home. Aby sighed, looked down, and saw Trouble’s silver eyes staring back at her.
Her heart skipped a beat.
He stood in the shadow of the tree.
He jumped preternaturally high, caught the lowest branch with one hand, pulled himself up, and scrambled up the tree limbs, agile like a cat. His trench coat flapped about him like folded batwings.
In seconds he reached the branch stretching to her window and walked along it like it was solid ground. The moonlight clutched his face and she finally saw what he looked like.
He had a hard face, with a square jaw and good cheekbones. A fighter’s face, no fragile angles, no weak spots to shatter under a punch. His dark hair was cropped short, his mouth well-shaped, despite a scar snaking its way across his left cheek to his chin. He stared at her from mere three feet away and she realized with a shock that behind the silver sheen his eyes were dark blue. She looked into those eyes and felt a cold streak of fear run down her spine. Those eyes held an edge, a promise of caged violence unleashed at the slightest provocation, a kind of raw power that slapped the senses and made one want to back away with her hands up in the air. It was frightening. And irresistibly erotic.
Trouble was hot.
Aby looked at him, suddenly sharply aware of the fact that she wore only her T-shirt and there was a bed behind her. She glanced down at her bare legs and back again.
On the other side of the metal bars Trouble shifted forward ever so slightly. She nearly jumped back. If he really wanted to get in, the half-inch steel bars wouldn’t stop him.
Aby took three slow steps back and slid her hand under the pillow on her bed. If she knew anything about her mother… Her hand closed about cold heavy metal. Slowly she took the gun from under the pillow. Pulse Penetrator, red handle, with heat-seeking capability rounds. Thank you, mom.
Aby turned so he would have complete view of her with the gun. She flipped the safety off and chambered a round with a soft metallic click. She put the gun back under the pillow, approached the window, and, moving in a deliberate, unhurried fashion, closed the glass frame.
Trouble grinned, baring the edge of his teeth.
God, he was a handsome bastard.
Aby pulled the curtain closed and sprinted to her bed on soft feet. She swiped the gun and dropped into familiar shooter pose: feet shoulder wide, knees slightly back, body ready to absorb the kick of the gun.
The curtain remained still.
Thirty seconds later, she realized he wouldn’t be coming through.
She put the safety back on, returned the gun back to its resting place, and fell into her bed. The springs creaked. She wasn’t sure if she was relieved or disappointed. This day didn’t go as planned all around and she closed her eyes and willed it to end.
“I called to Allied Mutual and told them I wouldn’t be coming in.” Aby glanced at Gina over the brim of her coffee cup. Outside the kitchen window the sunrise colored the sky a pale grey.
Gina drank her coffee. She was wearing half of her work get-up: the padded leather coveralls reinforced with plasti-steel plates, a grey tactical t-shirt made from temperature/moisture control fabric, and steel-toed, ankle-high boots. She would add a trauma vest and probably a leather jacket before she left, although Aby had known her to go out just like this. Gina hadn’t aged at all. Her arms still showed crisp definition, and when she lifted the coffee cup, her biceps rolled, bulging the horned Devil Dog tattoo with the legion number etched in crisp strokes under it.
On one hand, it was a relief to see mom unchanged. She was home, safety, a childhood god, all rolled into one. On the other hand, those biceps pounded home the sad fact that Aby’s own body left a lot to be desired. She hadn’t let herself go, but for the last couple of years her workout focused on pretty, with lots of muscle reps and light weight. Aby made use of the free weights this morning. She still had her endurance and it wouldn’t take too long to build up strength. Or so she hoped.
“You’re taking some vacation days?” Gina asked.
“No. I quit.”
The words lay between them like a challenge glove.
Gina’s light eyes focused on her. “I see. With your resume, I don’t expect you’ll have any trouble getting hired by another bank in Tryon. Or a consultant firm. I heard financial consultants make good money.”
“I’m not applying to any jobs.”
Gina raised her eyebrows. “Is there a plan that goes with that statement?”
“I’m going hunting.”
Gina stared at her, unblinking.
Aby clenched her teeth and matched her mother’s stare.
“Not with me, you don’t.” Gina’s voice had all of the warmth of a glacier.
“I wasn’t planning on going with you. The 67B quadrant is still registered in my name. I’ve checked the records this morning on the net. You’ve never been able to stomach working with any partner except me and you only have one crawler registered in your name. One crawler can only cover so much territory. You’re working 66 and 67A quadrants. 67B is empty. Before you say no, I also checked your logs. You haven’t been in 67B for four years.”
Gina’s tone cut like a dagger. “You wouldn’t last a minute out there. You’ve gone soft. Didn’t even bring a gun with you to the neighborhood. Dace Farrar nearly had you last night.”
“I don’t need a gun. And he didn’t have me. Not even close.” Dace Farrar. Nice to know your name, Trouble.
Gina pointed a spoon at her. “You stay the hell away from him. I know all of you, young idiot girls, panted after him but that was a long time ago. He’s got a grinning skull in a fool’s cap on his arm. And you know how you get that.”
Aby swallowed. A skull in fool’s hat meant Fool’s Tools. The special forces of the special forces. You didn’t get Fool’s Tool tattoo in a parlor. You got in the barracks after you’ve proven your death count. Some called them Midnighters. When effect legionnaires of the Third Enhanced went rogue and dug in at Falcon’s Roost, which was by all accounts an impregnable fortress, the Legions sent ten Fool’s Tools to clear them out. They struck at midnight: ten men against seventy three veteran legionnaires, all effective and all trigger happy. By sunrise Falcon’s Roost was empty of life and full of bodies. The Fool’s Tools walked away without a single casualty. Dace Trouble, with his silver eyes and dream-hot face, was a killer. The kind of killer who would screw her, reach over for his glass of water by bedside, and casually strangle her with one hand, watching her die while he finished his drink.
“Dace has nothing to do with this,” Aby said. “The quadrant is mine, yes or no?”
“Do you remember when you were in college and you would call me and cry on the phone that you were stupid and you could never finish your degree?”
Aby dropped her spoon. “Mom, that’s not fair.”
“It was the hardest thing you’ve ever done, but you did it. You finished. You’ve got the degree, you’ve got the job, you’ve got the life you dreamed about. You’re going to throw all of that away, why? Because you found your scumbag boyfriend fucking some bitch in your bedroom? You’re going to let that take you down?”
“It’s not about Travis either. It’s about me.”
“So all of that hard work is down the drain? A waste?”
“It’s not a waste. I did it, I was good at it, and I found out it wasn’t for me. Now I don’t have to wonder what if I had left and made a new me.” Aby glared. “Some people spend their entire lives going through the motions, not sure if they like their lives. It only cost me seven years to find out I hate mine. And now I’m going to do something about it.”
Gina put her hands on her hips. “I guess you’re ahead of the curve then. A regular overachiever.”
“Yeah, that’s me.”
Gina swiped her cup, dumped the coffee in the sink, turned on the water and rinsed her cup, scrubbing the inside of the mug with steel wool entirely too hard.
“I bought a crawler,” Aby said.
Gina froze, her shoulders hunched. “When?” she asked without turning.
“This morning. I couldn’t fall asleep last night.” Mentioning that memories of Trouble’s face kept her jittery didn’t seem like a good piece of information to offer. “I spent a few hours on the net, looking, and transferred the down payment this morning, while you were in the shower.”
“What did you get?” Gina’s voice was flat.
“The Brute. The latest model they had.”
Gina turned, her eyes wide. “Dear God, Aby, they cost half a mil.”
“I wanted a good crawler.”
“How much did you put down?”
“One seventy. All of my savings. I’ve got enough money for my gear and a couple of good guns, but that’s it.” Aby grinned. “The deposit is non-refundable. I’m wiped out. I’ll have to sleep in the crawler – I’ve got no money left for rent.”
Gina rubbed her face with her hands. Her voice was very soft. “You make me want to cry sometimes.”
“I’m sorry, mom.”
“You’re really going to do this.”
Aby nodded. “Yes. I will do it whether or not you will fight me on it, but I would like it a lot more if you helped me instead.”
Gina sat in her chair, the kitchen towel in her hands, her face a picture of abject misery. “You’re going to get killed.”
“I’ve been going on the jobs with you since I was seven. I was almost as good as you. I can be that good again.”
Gina shook her head. “When you have children, I hope they are just like you.”
It sounded vaguely like a threat. Or maybe a curse.
“I’ll need a navigator,” Aby said.
“All the good ones are taken, and what’s left you don’t want. Besides, none of them will work with you. You’ve been out of the Zone for seven years, Aby. Even if I vouch for you…” Gina fell silent.
“There has to be somebody.”
“There is one girl,” Gina said carefully. “Iris. Iris Angel Madden. Good sensory effect. You know how some people say miuts emanate their own energy? Well, I always thought it was bullshit until I met her. She can anticipate them coming through and the spot where they do it. Knows right where they can pop up. First time she did it and turned out to be right, I almost peed myself.”
“But?” There was always a but.
“She’s a gimp.”
Aby winced. “What do you mean, a gimp?”
“Her legs don’t work right. She isn’t paraplegic, she can stand up and take a few steps, maybe even walk a bit with a walker or a couple of canes, but that’s it.”
Aby’s heart sank. “She can’t run?”
“She can’t even get out of the crawler by herself.”
Aby squished the urge to let out a teenage whiny “Moooom!” A navigator who couldn’t walk. First, she might have trouble working the crawler. Most control layouts utilized the legs, but a layout itself could be remapped to hands-only. She would have to be very fast with her fingers, but it’s been done before. The layout problem wasn’t the tie breaker.
Second, crawlers did get attacked and despite all of their heavy armor and defense capabilities, occasionally navigators did have to bail. Iris wouldn’t be bailing anywhere. The crawler was her tank and would be her grave. Or a grave to both of them–bailing with a helpless cripple in tow simply wasn’t feasible and Aby knew herself well enough to understand she wouldn’t be able to leave her navigator behind to be eaten alive.
Third, the real kicker: because of her weak legs, Iris wouldn’t be able to operate the scooter. It was a rare hunt where a hunter didn’t get hurt. Most hunters took a serious hit at least once or twice a year, the kind of hit that left them immobile. In those cases, the navigator was expected to abandon the safety of the crawler and take a scooter, a fast light-armor vehicle, to pick up the incapacitated hunter and bring them into the crawler. In the Zone every second counted in blood. A crippled navigator would take too long to get to the scooter and if she did manage it, a scooter was basically a glorified ATV. With pedals for brakes and gas.
Hunting was a lonely, lethal business. To know that you have a buddy back at the crawler who had your back meant everything. The mere idea of going at it solo, with no back-up, sent chills down Aby’s spine.
“There is nobody else?”
Gina shook her head. “I’ll make some calls. But don’t get your hopes up.”
Aby rose. “Thanks, mom. I mean it.” Anybody but a crippled navigator.
Gina sighed. “You’re not welcome. I will come to regret this. I know it.”
Iris Angel Madden had striking eyes: bright, clear-summer-sky blue, framed in long eyelashes. Those eyes, excellent cheekbones, and dark red hair made her into a stunner. In the right outfit, she would turn heads in any bar.
Unfortunately, if she tried to enter a bar, heads would turn anyway, Aby reflected. Given the size of her wheelchair, she would get stuck in the doorway.
Shaped like a walnut, scarred with acid and stained with oil and half a dozen shades of paint, the chair bristled with a dozen attachments: an extendable hydraulic arm tipped with three metal “fingers”, a blow torch, a high-powered saw, a paint sprayer, a second telescopic arm – this one allowing for tools to be inserted, another attachment and another, oddly shaped and no doubt great at performing their mysterious function. It looked as if a high-speed tank unit had exploded from the inside, and Iris, its lone driver, was still trapped in its wire and steel innards.
Iris peered at her from behind round glasses. Behind her spread the bedlam of the machine shop: metal screeched against metal, the air vibrated with hard ringing sounds of a sledge hammer hitting something heavy, sparks flew, and the stench of blow torch nipped at Aby’s nostrils. Half-a-dozen mechanics went about their business, doing their best to ignore their presence.
Aby tried not to look like a cringing dog begging for scraps. The shop sat tucked away under and overpass. It took her forever to find it and she had almost given up. All in all, the day didn’t go as she planned.
“Let me guess,” Iris said dryly. “I’m your last stop. Everybody else turned you down.”
Aby took a deep breath and nodded. “Yep.” Mostly she got a surly no, but a couple of navigators had laughed in her face. It was beyond pathetic. You knew you had no cred when out of work navigators had fits of giggles after you offered them work.
Iris threw the oil cloth she had held onto the table and crossed her arms. “I’ll make it short: no, I can’t ride the scooter, no, there won’t be any pick up, yes, you’re on your own. Okay? Bye.”
She keyed the control in her arm rest. The chair turned away with a soft metallic purr.
Aby blinked. Here went her last chance.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll level. I’ve been out of the Zone for eight years, I’ve got an old quadrant that hasn’t been cleaned out in four, and I’ve just bought a crawler. I can’t drive for shit and I’m flat broke.”
The chair stopped, then turned back slowly. Iris glanced at her with obvious suspicion.
“What did you do before this?”
“I was an investment banker.”
The frown slid off Iris’s face. “You’re gonna get killed.”
“I’m not planning on it,” Aby said. “But I figure my chances are better with a navigator than without one.”
“No shit.” Iris drummed her fingernails on the handrest of her chair. “What kind of crawler did you get?”
“Three sixty Model?”
Iris’s eyes lit up and Aby realized that Iris was actually much younger than her first assessment. She couldn’t be more than twenty, twenty two tops. “The new one?”
“The newest they had. It will be done by the end of the week. If you want a shot at driving it, it’s yours.”
“I’ll think about it,” Iris said.
“Fair enough.” Aby started toward the doorway.
“Hey!” Iris’s voice rang out.
She turned. “Yes?”
“What engine are they putting into the crawler?”
Aby shrugged. “I don’t know. Whatever can get it up and running.”
“It better not be the Mercury, because those fuckers overheat like crazy.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Aby turned to the door.
“Wait.” The chair hummed and Iris closed the distance between them. “I’m coming with you. If I’m going to be driving it, I better make sure they don’t screw it up.”
“So you decided to take the job?”
Iris sneered. “I’m still thinking about it.”
Iris considered her for a long moment and grinned back. “You said a week. When are we going out?”
“I’d like to leave on Monday.”
“It’s doable.” Iris took a deep breath and yelled. “Dad! I’m going hunting.”
“Okay,” came a deep voice from somewhere within the shop. “Try not to die.”
At four o’clock on Monday morning and Aby was in her first and last cup of coffee. Across the table Gina sighed. They both wore identical hunter garb: tactical T-s, reinforced leather, trauma vests. For the first time in years, they looked like mother and daughter. Eight years ago that fact would’ve made Aby unhappy. Now it brought her an odd sense of comfort.
“Did you take the Gatling?” Gina asked.
“Do you have plenty of ammo?”
“Did you pack extra underwear?”
“Don’t mom me. Trust me, you’ll be grateful for extra underwear.”
Aby put her coffee down. “It might surprise you but somehow I survived eight years on my own without your help.”
“Not in the Zone, you didn’t.” Gina rubbed her face with her hands. “I can’t believe you’re doing this. You gave the frequency printout to Iris, right? If anything, you call, you get me?”
Even if she did call, there wasn’t a hell of a lot Gina could do to help. Besides, she’d rather die than cry to mommy over open radio. Literally. “Yes, mom,” Aby said. “Of course, I’ll call.”
Gina sighed. “Did Iris get a chance to handle the crawler?”
Aby nodded. “It’s at her Dad’s shop. She wanted modifications.”
“How much did these modifications cost?”
“It’s her tab. We’re partners.” Aby grinned. “She’s in debt to her Dad up to her eyeballs.”
“God, you two are idiots. Don’t say anything else, you’re making me feel worse with every word.” Gina shook her head.
“It’s four thirty,” Aby said. They rose at the same time. “Give me a lift to the access tunnel?”
Outside an old ATV waited for them. Grigori, Gina’s navigator, grinned as Aby dropped her duffel in the back. Dark-eyed and dark-haired with swarthy skin the color of brown tea, he could easily pass for a gypsy. “Hey there, sport. Just like the old times.”
“Yeah.” Except she couldn’t recall ever being so nervous. Aby forced herself to relax, to sink into her jittery anxiety. Fighting it would only make her weary and more nervous. A little nervous was good, it would keep her on her toes, alert and engaged. Too nervous would make her trigger-happy. She didn’t fancy dying.
The air was cold. The city flashed past her, a dark labyrinth of concrete shapes and dark passages. A flat grey glow sifted from the sky, a precursor to sunrise, and through the prism of that light, the city appeared, bleached of all color and life, a textured barren backdrop.
There was no going back. She sighed and brushed the comforting metal of the H-rifle.
The humvee made a sharp turn and rolled into the hub. Nicknamed Crush by the hunters, the hub was little more than a paved field, shaped like a trapezoid six hundred yards at the inner edge and eight hundred yards at the outer. The excitement rose in Aby. Suddenly she had trouble sitting still.
Grigorii angled the humvee to the inner edge, where the gargantuan shapes of the crawlers waited, hazy in the morning light. To the far right the gaping mouths of access tunnels flashed by. Eight tunnels, each leading to a quadrant, one of them hers. Aby peered through the haze, straining to find her crawler, and saw it, a huge rectangular shape set on nine axels, each supporting eight wheels. The tires alone were taller than the humvee.
Three other crawlers warmed up next to the Brute. One of them belonged to Gina. There used to be five others, besides Gina’s.
Abi leaned toward Gina. “What happened to the other crews?”
“Brandon died two years ago. He was always cheap on equipment, and didn’t keep the crawler up to date. His sonics malfunctioned and a swarm of locusts tore the crawler apart and sucked out his brain. I was part of the recovery – his head was hollowed out like an empty egg. Jeremiah is dead, crushed during a stampede twenty yards from his crawler. Boris is dead, got caught by a pack of spitters, of all things. Hannah is…”
“Dead?” Abi guessed.
“Retired. Got married. The Zone has been advancing pretty hard in the last few years. The money is good, but death rate went up.”
The humvee pulled up to the Brute. Abi hopped out and swiped her duffel.
“Good luck!” Gina called
“Good hunting!” Grigorii waved at her and the humvee sped into the morning, carrying them away.
At the nearest crawler, a bulky Rhino model armed with a battering ram and perched on compound tracks, a woman shot Aby with her finger. She was tall and lanky, her black hair cut in an ultra-sharp bob, her clothes tailored black leather. Her knee-high boots had spike heels. Her clothes were too new, her boots too shiny, and Aby would bet a twenty, which she didn’t have, that her nails were perfectly manicured. When Inner City fashion editors wanted to dress their models as hunters, that’s what they ended up with.
Above the woman, a man paused on the access ladder. He was muscled like a pitbull, and his leathers looked like they’ve seen some blood.
In her mind Abi dropped fashion plate’s hair to her shoulders and colored it mousy blond. Jennifer Mall. Two years ahead of her in highschool, used to wear designer jeans and paint her nails blue, and get off on putting people down. Perhaps she had changed.
“Hey!” Jennifer flashed a smile. “I heard you went to the Inner City. Couldn’t hack it in the big leagues, yeh?”
Nope, she didn’t. “Yeah.” Aby headed to the access ladder.
“You must’ve been real desperate to hire a gimp as a navigator.” It was said loud. Even over the hum of the engines at least a few people had to have heard it.
Aby turned around and walked over to Jennifer. Jennifer grinned. The guy on the ladder watched them with great interest.
Aby stopped before her. “Jennifer Mall, right? You’re still dumb as a board.”
Jennifer’s mouth gaped open.
“You can’t shoot. You can’t fight. So let me explain to you what will happen: you will shut up, turn you shiny ass around and hide in your vehicle. Or you will be crawling around on the ground with eyes swollen shut, feeling for your teeth on the pavement.”
Jennifer blinked. Her mouth clicked shut. She glanced at the man on the ladder. “George? Are you going to let her talk to me like that?”
George shrugged on the ladder. “It’s your fight. You picked it.”
George slid into the hatch.
Aby nodded at the ladder. “Up you go.”
Jennifer squinted at her. “It’s not over.”
“Yes it is.”
She watched Jennifer climb the ladder and returned to the Brute. Across the crawler’s side a large blue graffiti proclaimed, “Rubicon.” As she climbed the ladder into the cabin, Aby decided the name fit perfectly.
Iris waited in the cabin. Her crawler chair was a slick ergonomic contraption of steel and cushions. Its legs locked into the floor. At Aby’s approach, Iris touched the controls on her handrest. The locks on the chair popped open and it slid across the floor gliding along the recessed track with a soft whisper. The chair landed in front of Aby and Iris wagged her eyebrows dramatically.
Aby looked around the cabin. Iris had squeezed as much out of the space as it would allow, while still managing to leave enough room to keep them from feeling claustrophobic. The front housed the complex array of the control console that curled into the sensory equipment along the right wall. On Aby’s left, the back wall supported two cots, both neatly folded into their recess at the moment, a combination unit of a sink, two burners, and a microwave. Beyond that was a dim rectangle of the bathroom, just big enough to house a toilet and a shower. Their home for the next week.
“Great,” she said. “Looks great.”
Iris slid back to the console. “I see you’ve made a friend.”
“Jennifer Mall. Know her?” Aby took her seat on Iris’s left. For this part of the hunt, the hunter played second hand to the navigator. Their roles would reverse in the Zone.
Iris nodded. “The word is, she’s banging George. Or his brother Roger, who navigates. Or both. They let her go on hunts with them and she gets to pose pretty and they pick up her shopping tab. She’s never seen the outside of the Zone.”
“What did she say to piss you off?”
Iris’s fingers danced on the console. A rectangle flared on the left side of the windshield. A transparent crystal film sheathed the glass of the windshield and the side windows, allowing any part of the glass to turn into a digital display at a touch of a button. A digital playback of the confrontation greeted Aby, complete with stereo sound.
“Good sensors,” Iris said.
“Yeah.” Aby watched herself walk over to Jennifer. “My hair looks screwed up from here.”
She reached over. It took her a second to find the right key and then she turned off the recording.
“I am a gimp, you know,” Iris said.
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
Ahead big blue lights came on above the access tunnels. Iris leaned forward, playing the console like a virtuoso pianist. “Shield check.”
Thick plasti-steel crashed over the windshield, turning the crawler into an armored bunker and drenching the cabin in darkness. Almost immediately the electric lights came on. The console glowed with an array of pastel colors.
The armor slid back.
The video and audio from eight external and four internal cameras positioned along the crawler’s perimeter filled the windshield.
One by one they checked the engine status, the fuel, the communication array, the weapon systems, the refrigeration units, the vacuum-sealed storage. Everything came fully operational. Check completed, Iris sent a ping to the access tunnel dispatcher. The light above the tunnel turned green and then bright yellow.
“Yellow means go,” Iris said.
Aby nodded. “Take her out.”
Iris took a deep breath. Her right hand closed on a large handle. Gently she eased it from the cradle and pushed it forward.
The crawler screeched like a pissed-off spitter. The cabin jerked forward. Aby’s heart skipped a beat.
Iris dropped her left hand and pulled something under the console. “Forgot the brakes,” she said through clenched teeth.
“You sure you’re okay to drive?”
The radio came on and Jennifer’s voice hissed, “Oh that was real smoo…”
Aby muted the radio to nothing.
Iris bit her bottom lip and tried the handle again. With ponderous slowness, the huge machine started forward. The digital speedometer ignited on the dash: Ten clicks per hour. Fifteen. Twenty. A curious elation came over Aby. She grinned.
The access tunnel loomed before them. They entered dead-center. Iris let out a breath. They were off.
Aby sat atop the crawler, hugging her rifle. The Zone spread before her in a garish riot of color. Bright yellow widow’s kudzu claimed the ruins of what once had been a busy business district. Greenery shivered in the weak breeze. Nameless flowers bloomed, carmine, turquoise, lavender, sending a dizzying perfume into the air. The urge to take off into the jungle pulled on her, but Aby sat still. The Zone breathed and lived. She had to become attuned to its pulse or she would die quickly and in pain.
“I’m done with the scans,” Iris’s voice said in her ear.
Aby adjusted the small rectangular patch of the communicator under her ear and dropped through the hatch into the cabin. They had fired off four remote sensors and scanned the Zone for the last four hours. It was longer than most hunters would bother, but the quadrant had gone completely wild with no crew culling the miut population. She wanted to know what she was up against.
“Let’s see what we’ve got.”
Iris keyed up the map of the quadrant. Small green dots indicated the location of the sensors. Iris pulled up the recording and let the computer scroll. Images flashed and slowed to normal speed, showing a pack of spitters mulling about.
On the right a database image of the spitter ignited into life with statistics running along the bottom. Aby knew all of them. Weight at one hundred and eighty to two hundred and ten pounds. Height at 46 inches at the shoulder. Wickedly curved claws and short jaws carrying two-inch fangs.
The spitter on the screen sniffed at the ground. Its sides, chest and legs were bare, the flesh sheathed in thick pink hide. A mane of stiff bristles flared from its ears in a bright splash of orange and ran down its spine. The spitter glands, bright red bulbous sacks, bulged the sides of its neck. Their presence accounted for the spitters’ ability to loose a stream of projectile “spit” up to nine yards. The viscous glue-like spit trapped the victim impairing its movement and would eventually harden to a solid crust. The spitters hunted in packs of six to eight members. A simultaneous salvo of the spit would bring down a human and keep her down while the pack tore the pieces off of her at their leisure.
As game, the spitters were basically useless. The spit was worth a little bit of money, but it was virtually impossible to bring down a spitter with its sacks still full. They voided the sack at the moment of death. Their meat was too stringy, and there was barely enough pelt to bother.
“Next,” Aby said.
“Gorlocks.” The blue-plumed terrestrial bird flared on the screen. About seven feet tall, with a buzzard-like head and enormous claws. The plumage was worth money, but not as much as the eggs. Gorlocks’ egg shell contained a powerful antibiotic.
“Arva.” A sleek predator stretched on the screen. Its feline body was awash in green and red rosettes. “Estimated weight, three hundred and twenty pounds,” Iris supplied. “Its paws are bigger than your head.”
The scan scrolled, and came to a stop. Something tall shifted in the greenery on the screen, moving in the darkness of the kudzu cascade.
Aby leaned forward.
Two eyes flashed in the gloom, predator’s green.
The brush bowed, bent aside, and a man stepped into the open. He wore a vest and pants of pixelated camo fabric. The outfit left a lot of him bare. He was muscled like a Roman statue. Every part of him — powerful shoulders, perfect chest, ridged stomach, long hard legs – was designed with combat in mind. His hair, a soft, muted black that seemed to swallow the light, fell on his shoulders.
His skin was a light bronze splattered with feint grey rosettes across his torso. A row of grey spikes lay flat against his shoulders and spine. The sensor caught his eyes, and they flashed green again. Like looking into the eyes of an arva about to pounce. The juxtaposition of human and beast was so startling, it sent shivers down Aby’s spine.
The man peered into the jungle and melted back into the brush.
“The grays!” Iris whispered. “Wow. Pretty.”
“The grays? This far north?”
“Oh yeah.” Iris nodded. “I keep forgetting you’ve been out of the loop. We have a settlement somewhere out there. They’ve been popping up here and there. I’ve only seen them once before.” She dug in the pocket of her chair.
“Just what we need.” Aby signed. After the Blast, some people refused to join the Cities. Without the benefits of the vaccine, the Zone grasped them and took them for its own. They seemed to thrive, wanting nothing to do with the Cities, except for the rare times they made contact to trade. By all accounts, they were lethal. Not the type you would want to run into, especially when you’re a bit rusty.
“Found it!” Iris thrust a digitablet at her. “I took this shot the last time I went out.”
Aby took it. The tablet presented her with an image of a Gray male, strikingly similar to the one who just disappeared into the Zone. He was caught in a dramatic pose, head held high, his body turning, presenting her with a view of a perfect chest. Framed in a poofy white shirt. Blue pants, red sash, and tall leather boots completed the outfit
“That’s some serious man-titty,” Iris supplied.
Aby blinked. “Iris? Why is he wearing a pirate outfit?”
Iris turned pink. “Well… A chest like that deserves a pirate shirt. And you know, if you have the shirt, you have to have the boots. I thought of leaving the pants off but it looked dorky.”
Aby stared at the pirate gray.
Iris gave her a defensive glance. “I have a thing about pirates.”
“And mutated wild humans, apparently.”
Iris turned a shade darker.
Aby handed her the tablet. “I’m going out for the Gorlocks. We’ve got to eat something.”
She headed for the hatch and paused. “You know what he needs? A big hat. With a feather.”
Iris examined the tablet. “Really?”