Everybody always talks about the Big-Bada-Booms: Shiva Virus and Thermonucleur Clusterfuckery. Bleeding the stone, if you ask me. I don’t live back then. I live in the now. I say, it’s just the Joker cashing everybody in all at once. Life’s a gamble, and the house will always, as the saying goes.
That’s why I don’t buy into that Vista stuff. They keep talking about rebuilding the world. World seems fine rebuilding itself. Big nasties roaming, hunting, and going Darwin all over. Trees growing where they can. Flowers blooming when they can. The wheel spins, right? Wheel don’t worry about the riders. Worse case, it’s all back to bacteria and viruses and we be just dinosaurs dead and down for good.
Yeah, we took on some Vistas along this canyon.
Me and my crew came up the canyon looking for an easy score. I remember, and this is important, that I had put Grax in charge of watching the canyon flank, because he was a terrible shot and I wanted him on the side where we expected the least danger. Grax was supposed to keep an eye on the canyon side. Got it? Right.
We found some girls planting trees over a little ridge. They had guns, sure, but everybody has guns. You can’t make it as a Traveler if a few stray pop guns got you squirming in your jackboots. We had guns, too. We had all kinds of good gear and bad shivs. We had the element of surprise. The girls were a bit ahead of us, and we had the canyon behind us. Grax was told to shut up and watch the canyon.
I was with my crew, like I said. We weren’t a big crew, just Johnny Six, Margo, Grax and me.
Johnny Six was my crack trapper ninja motherfucker. He could slip into an Enforcer perimeter and out again like he was never there. I’ve seen him set snares for rabbits that cracked the wolves’ necks in the blast. He cased the spot for trouble. He couldn’t find a thing. Not even an easy-peesy bouncing betty to scare off the wandering nasties. He crept through the saplings as quiet as a mouse. He whistled at us that the earth was clean.
Margo, my best bruiser, gestured at the tools inside her big, leather jacket. “Want to take them to the Children, or mulch’ em?”
I frowned. “Easy, Margo. Let’s round ’em up first. Maybe they have a surprise up their sleeves. Not even a Vista can be this dumb, stumbling around the edges with nothing but a couple of guns, planting some trees.”
“Let’s beat the grass to startle the snakes,” she said. The thing I loved most about Margo is that’s the only Sun-Tzu she knew, and all she ever seemed to need in her simple life.
“Let’s get a clean perimeter first. We want their backs to the canyon when we do. We want ‘em to come over this ridge, and realize they’ve been driven back into a flanking maneuver.”
Johnny Six opened his satchel. He had a few nasty surprises inside. “We can do this noisy, or soft.”
I smiled. “Let’s do this noisy. They’re going to start shooting fast, no matter what. We do anything, they’re shooting at us and making noise.”
Grax hadn’t said anything, yet. He grunted at me, over his shoulder, because he was watching the canyon behind us. “We should do it soft and fast. They won’t have time to shoot.”
Johnny Six grinned. He had crooked teeth, dirty as radioactive rocks. He had lost a few in spots. He pulled out a small land mine. “Too late, Grax. The boss made his call. I’ll blast some trees on the west. Be ready north and south to push them up against the canyon mouth. That’s east, Grax.”
“I know my directions, jackass.”
“Grax, stick with Margo. Margo’s going in for the kill, and I want you giving her cover fire.”
Margo popped her brass knuckles together. She pounded her Kevlar chest. “Shoot me in the back and it’s the Joker for you.”
“Whatever,” said Grax.
Grax and Margo slipped north. I dropped back away from the ridge. I was going to be the flank. I pulled out binoculars, and watched those dumb Vistas digging, planting, dumping buckets of water into the sapling roots. We’d have to get some saplings, too. Vistas have the best trees. It would give Grax something productive to do, to carry some trees.
I waited for Johnny’s signal in the south. He’d set off some charges, and get the Vistas looking that way. (The two Vistas, as far as I could tell, were oblivious to us – just planting their trees and planting their trees.)
I watched Johnny Six circling the fields at a low, crouching jog. He had a way of doing it that didn’t make a sound. I figured he had mutant feet, but I never really investigated it. Maybe he was just a damn crack trapper ninja, like he said.
Grax and Margo were ready to flank. They had run up the canyon and circled around through the trees that had already been planted.
Grax had his sniper rifle out. He wasn’t out to kill anybody. We wanted these ladies alive, so we could sell them. Grax was going to be taking pot shots at legs and hands if anybody started fighting back too good. He was a terrible shot, honestly, but you couldn’t pry the rifle out of his hands with a crowbar. I considered it a good run if he didn’t accidentally shoot any of us in the back. I had tagged him onto Margo because she was the only one crazy enough to run around in Kevlar in this heat. She scared him more than I did, too. If he hit her in the back by accident, he knows what would happen to him.
What can I say? I’m too nice to my younglings.
I scanned the horizon with my binoculars, watching things get set up and watching out for trouble. I didn’t see a damn thing.
I should have looked harder.
I was looking at Margo. She went down hard, out of nowhere. Blood and brain splattered from what used to be her head like a busted pinata. I jumped my eyes over to Grax. He was down, and a man stood over him, like Grax had just been smashed in the back of the skull with the butt of a rifle. Where did that fellow come from? If I could signal Johnny Six, we might run for it together. I scanned for him, where he had been running. I couldn’t find him until he started setting off charges. Johnny Six was setting off the grenades, but he wasn’t doing it right. They were too close together.
Johnny Six could take care of himself.
I dropped my binoculars.
I hit the dirt.
I pulled out my trusty Magnum .44. I rolled around, and looked for trouble.
Six camoflaged men walked casually towards me, carrying high-powered rifles. Their barrels were leveled on my head.
I put my guns away, slowly. I raised my hands. “I surrender.”
“Scum like you doesn’t deserve to live.” One of the men lowered his barrel to my face.
“If I may ask a single question before you execute me?”
“Did we actually kill or harm any of your people.”
“You were about to.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
The ladies we had planned on taking hostage had not even bothered to look up. I glanced over in their direction, and they were still planting trees of in the distance as if nothing had happened. I wonder if they even bothered to look up from their task.
“No one was hurt, but we know you were about to try something.”
“My people get hurt?”
“Your sniper is still alive. He’s unconscious, but he’s still alive. One of them took himself out with a grenade.”
“Johnny Six was always a ninja. He’d never let himself be taken alive. Look, how do you know we were about to try to hurt your people. In fact, we were here to do something, but it had nothing to do with your people. We were here about trees, is all.”
“No, listen. We were going to cause a distraction. We wanted Johnny to pull your people towards a blast, or away from a blast. Really, we just wanted them gone. Then, we were all going to swoop in and take all the saplings we could carry. We weren’t out to hurt your people. We were just looking to swipe some trees. You Vistas have the best trees.”
“Right, and if my people happened to get hurt?”
“None of your people got hurt, right? We were spread out wide. We had a sniper that could have pinned you down while our resident ninja started tossing bombs. If we wanted bodies, we could’ve made bodies. We just wanted some trees. Hard to find good trees. They were pine, right? Christmas is coming, and everybody wants a nice pine tree at Christmas. They get a good price when they grow up a bit by Christmas time.”
Another of the men lifted his gun. “We should mulch him. He’s just talking.”
“Where in the name of the bloody apocalypse did YOU come from, anyway? We cased the spot, and we didn’t find a damn sign of anything as heavy as this. We thought this was going to be an easy-peasy Black Elvis tree caper. Look, let me go and get what’s left of my crew. We’ll be out of here and never come back. The Family deserves to know what happened to our people, right?”
“Travelers don’t deserve a damn thing. We’re going to take you to see Big Uncle Jimbo. See that you behave yourself. He might like to talk to you about Traveler activity.”
Then, I was hogtied. My guns were taken. Most of my knives were taken. I had a nasty little punch dagger hidden in my belt-buckle, and a switchblade tucked up a sleeve. Nothing that would stand a chance against six big rifles, and who knows what else crawling out of the ground.
I was carried on a pole like a backwards deer carcass, between two husky Vista men. It hurt to be carried like that, with two hands and a leg hanging off a pole behind me, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I didn’t whine or moan. I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction.
I lasted about fourteen swinging steps. Then, I gave them all the satisfaction they could ever want. I grunted and choked. I felt my bones grinding. The weight of my one dangling leg bouncing in the footfall yanked everything in my arms and hips to the edge of out of joint.
They walked me over to the canyon’s edge. I assumed – glumly – that I was going to be tossed over the side, and down the ragged rocks to my crushing death at the river far below. I was almost right.
I was led over the edge. I was not thrown. In the cliff-side, old Anasazi ruins had been reclaimed by Vistas as a settlement. My crew and I hadn’t checked over the sides of the cliff. Grax was supposed to be watching for things like this. He should have seen a dozen men climbing up out of the canyon with guns. If we had driven the planting women towards the canyon, they would have happily fallen into the arms of their well-armed protectors.
I was carried down a series of hemp rope and wood plank walkways. I was led into the big mouth of the old cave complex. The walls were covered in old Indian cave paintings. The floors were covered in furniture, hydroponic gardens, sleeping pallets, and crates of weapons. Vistas hung around like lazy cats. I couldn’t really see that well, on account of being hanging from a long pole, hogtied, and screaming in pain as my shoulders risked popping out of joint.
I was glad when they threw me down to the ground, even if it hurt like crazy to be dropped face first. I seemed to be at the feet of a very large pedestal that bent under the weight of an even larger man. His corpulant flesh extended below the line of his shirt. It loomed like a hairy half-moon when he bent forward, over me.
“Traveler, eh? You think we’re going to let you go back to your little operation and tell them everything about our little operation?”
“I only wanted some trees. Vistas have the best trees.”
“What will you trade for my trees, Traveler?”
“I got the shirt on my back left, and a pretty good pair of pants. Also, my boots are real nice. I’d like to keep my boots, though. Long walk, with some heavy trees.”
The big man rolled back on his huge pedestal. I couldn’t see his face anymore, only his bulk on the pedestal. The wooden legs of the pedestal groaned when he leaned around. I think he might have been laughing, but it was hard for the sound to work its way through the rolls of flesh. Some burbling emerged from his jowls. Also, spittle. I basked in it, unhappily.
“We have your sniper here. He’s still unconscious. We’ll take him off your hands for five trees.”
“I can only carry two. Maybe three if you let me keep my boots.”
“You get five. You’ll be expected to take all five.”
“What do you plan on using my sniper for? You’ve got plenty of fertilizer from the rest of my crew. Why worry over just the one? Let him come back with me. He’ll wake up, and we’ll walk out of here. We’ll warn off the rest of us about you.”
“He’s staying here. You get to have five trees for one man, or nothing.”
“I’ll take the trees.”
“Good choice. Take him up. Cut him loose and give him five apple trees. They are our best trees, and I want him to get a fair deal. Also, he’ll probably need a shovel. We’ll let him borrow a shovel for now.”
The six men hefted me up the ropes and planks to the top of the canyon. It still hurt. One of my shoulders finally popped out of joint. I felt the bruise flowering across my shoulder. I hated that feeling. The six Vistas laughed at me. They carried me past the young trees and saplings. They took me over a ridge – it was a long, painful walk. They dropped me in a grove of apple trees. They cut me loose with what used to be my best knife.
I held very still, waiting for the pain in my shoulder to become manageable. Also, I was screaming a lot. I wanted to finish up with all my pained screaming. I had quite a lot of pained screaming. It took me some time to finish up. Then, when my voice was completely blown from my screaming, I wriggled in the dirt to get my boots back under me.
The six Vistas watched me. They sat around like lazy cats, cradling rifles and looking very amused. I picked the biggest, gnarliest-looking tree. I charged it, screaming at the top of my lungs. The first hit didn’t help. It just hurt more than I have ever been hurt in my life, and I’ve been shot with very big guns. I had to rest a bit, before I tried again. I leaned against the tree, gasping for air. Then, I backed up. I lowered my head. I charged the tree, and aimed my shoulder right at it. The pain knocked me out a little while, but it couldn’t have been too long because the six Vista men were still laughing at me.
I leaned against the tree, with my shoulder back in joint, but feeling no better for it.
“Let me guess,” I said. “Big Uncle just gave me a sweet deal. Instead of saplings, he gave me big, full-grown trees.”
A Vista man threw a shovel at my feet.
“These are your trees, Traveler. They are our best trees.”
“Right.” I picked up the shovel. I tested its heft, and imagined how good it would feel to brain the six men with my shovel. The shovel felt sturdy enough for it, but the guns would stop me after only one or two men went down.
“You six going to sit there watching me dig, or are you going to help?” I started to dig around the roots. I could only use the one arm, so it was slow going.
“They’re your trees, Traveler. You dig them up.”
Four of them waved good-bye to their brethren. They wandered off through the trees and the fields. The other two sat watching me dig. I spit. “I don’t suppose anyone has any water to spare. For some reason, I seem to be thirsty as hell.”
“Must be all that screaming,” said one of them.
“Must be,” I said.
He pulled out a canteen. He held it out to me. I reached for it. He pulled it away before I could get it. He held it out again, and I fell for it again.
“Grax sold you out, you know,” he said. “He hates your guts. Part of the deal was torturing any survivors before we did them. So, if you dig a tree out, I’ll give you some water. That tree has to come faling down, though, all the way.”
I nodded slowly. Grax wasn’t much of a sniper, but he was a fool if he thought the Travelers would endure this. He was a fool if he thought I would endure this. He was the weakest member of my crew, and he got the good ones mulched.
“What was the nature of your deal with Grax?”
“He kept your eyes off the canyon long enough for us to spring, he gets all the water he can carry and he gets ten percent of your team’s gear. I don’t think he liked you. Look, if you’re done being tortured, we can shoot you now. It’s hot out here.”
His partner lifted his rifle up. “Midday is the worst.”
Did I mention it was hot. It was hot. It was an early summer day, and it was hot, and it was getting hotter by the second.
I bent over my new tree. I started digging with my good arm. “Traveler’s don’t turn on each other,” I said. “It’s against the code.”
“It’s only against the code if someone lives to speak about it. Let me know when you’ve had enough of the heat. I know I have…”
From the corner of my eye, I saw one of the Vistas handing a canteen to the other. They looked at each other when they did it. The thirsty one threw his head back to drink, and the one who owned the canteen was watching his water being drunk. Of course he was. He was thirsty, too, and I bet he was thinking about keeping track of what was rightfully his. It was his canteen, and his water, after all.
Not for long.
I swung my shovel hard right up the backside of the canteen-owner’s head. I swung it as hard as I could with both hands, even if it hurt my shoulder fierce. I didn’t wait for the man to fall before I went after the other one. He dropped the canteen, and started lifting his rifle. I jabbed him real hard, right in the throat, with the edge of the shovel. I had drawn blood. The man fell back, clutching his bleeding.
Gotta give it to the Vistas: they knew how to craft a solid shovel.
I swung the shovel again, hard, right in that thirsty Vista’s face.
The first one I hit started to move a little, in that disoriented way people move when they’ve just been given a concussion. I pulled the hidden punch-dagger from my belt with my bad hand, and put it in my good hand. I punctured the arteries in their necks, and took their eyes out for good measure. If I had a longer knife, I’d have cut out their tongues and ears, too, but my little punch dagger wasn’t up to the task. I needed a bowie knife for that. Also, I needed more time. I was almost out of time, already.
I didn’t have time to strip the corpses with my bad arm, and I knew it. I slung their rifles over my shoulder. I wrapped one knapsack around my neck. I grabbed the other one and carried it in my good hand. I didn’t stop to look inside. I was ready to drop everything at the first sign of trouble. I ran away from the canyon, and away from the trees. I ran hard as I could.
Already, I was thinking about what the Family ought to do about Grax, and about that fat Vista – Big Uncle Jimbo, was it? – that helped Grax turn on my good, little crew.
I knew the Vistas would track me a while. They were good trackers – some of the best. I was fast, though, and after a while of hard running, I was back in familiar territory. I knew the road pirates by name out there. I knew the path back to the Family, and I knew who my friends were, because they never much liked Grax.
Grax, wherever you are, you’d best lay low and change your name. We’ll still find you. Travelers always do. It will only buy you some time. My shoulder is healing up, fine. I’ll get a new crew together real soon. First thing we do will be hunting you down, and cutting you up. We’ll be careful when we cut you, though. We’re still going to want to burn you alive.