Part II of Chapter One
Copyright Skye Knizley 2017
Do not share, steal, borrow, fold, spindle or mutilate.
The Resistance Southwest Headquarters wasn’t so much a building, rather a collection of war-rigs, school buses and converted motorhomes that traveled the southwest, only camping for a few days to let refugees catch up before moving on. The only safety was as a wagon train; stay in one place too long, the Axis found you and people got dead.
This week they were camped on the outskirts of Dell City on the Texas/New Mexico border. Here, they were less than five hundred miles from the Axis base in Gila Battlefield. It was a risk, the resistance was all that stood between the United States and the Axis and they were constantly being hunted by Blackshirts and Raptor fighters, but the risk was worth it. They’d already picked up a dozen soldiers, part of the fighting force sent to Gila in 1975.
Kaija’s Stallion rumbled through the ruins of Dell, the engine’s rumble echoing off the empty buildings that stood along the road, silent monuments to a world long gone. Two drug stores, a hardware store, a family market and three gas stations had once been the heart of Dell, now they were wrecks picked clean by survivors. “No Gas, No Food” signs hung in smashed windows, gas pumps were overturned, shopping carts had been cut into scrap and water fountains scavenged for whatever water was in the pipes. Desperate measures in the last days of the western United States.
She turned the corner and slowed. The convoy was up ahead parked in the lot of an old truck stop. The buses and war-rigs formed the outer circle, like wagons of the old west, and sentries walked atop or manned the cannons and flame-throwers installed in scavenged turrets of steel and glass.
When she was close, she shut down the engine and climbed out, hands raised. It was standard protocol, confirm who was coming in before moving the armored rig that served as a gate.
The lead guard, Hank, pulled off his leather dust mask and smiled. “I heard on the radio, good hunt, eh?”
Kaija kept her hands raised. “Nothing Baby and I couldn’t handle.”
Hank nodded and held up a device whose design was clearly inspired by 60’s science fiction, complete with matte black casing and stylish leather strap. Kaija knew it was a combination Electro-magnetic field reader and Geiger counter. Blackshirts gave off both.
“Can I lower my hands?” She asked.
Hank looked behind him. “Open up, Kaija’s coming in.”
Kaija lowered her hands and climbed back inside her vehicle. The engine kicked to life and she moved slowly forward while the armored rig backed out of the way. The Stallion passed through the gap and into camp. They’d been busy in her absence. Two dozen tents were set up in the shelter of the canopy over the empty gas pumps, vehicles were being serviced on the far side near the truck-wash and children played in the dust between the tents and the restaurant, which was being used as a makeshift headquarters.
Kaija parked her Stallion behind the building and slid out, grateful to stretch her legs in the safety of the refugee camp. She removed her helmet and armored jacket and set them on the seat, then turned to find some food. Something was cooking near the tents and the scent made her stomach growl. It was probably some rat or other rodent they’d caught, but meat was meat and beggars couldn’t be choosers.
She was almost to the smoking grill when a young dark-skinned man in leather pants and vest stepped out of the shadows. A jagged scar pulled the corner of his mouth into a permanent grin and his right eye was milky white, a gift from the Axis vehicles that had destroyed his tribe in the early days of the war.
“Axel wants to see you, Kai,” he said.
Redstar was always like that. Laconic.
“After I eat,” Kaija replied.
“Axel said now,” Redstar said.
Kaija stopped. “How was his voice? Was he pissed, stressed or normal Axel?”
Redstar shrugged. “Normal, I think.”
“Then I’m eating first. You want anything?”
Redstar shook his head and looked away. Kaija gripped his wrist and turned him back.
“When was the last time you ate?”
Redstar shrugged. “Two, maybe three days. No trades.”
Kaija shook her head in disgust. Greed was still alive in well, even in the fires of death. Redstar wasn’t allowed on patrol or recon, his lack of depth perception made him a liability. At least, that’s what Axel said. Sometimes, Axel was an asshole.
“I have trades, come on you need food,” she said.
She took Redstar’s hand and guided him through the camp to the cooking area, which consisted of three massive grills made from spare parts like old tire rims, air-cleaners and exhaust pipes with holes in them. A heavy-set man with four chins and an eyepatch over his left eye slapped another slab of meat on the grill and looked at Redstar.
“No jack, no food!”
Kaija glared up at him. “I have trade for both of us, Gonzo. Two meats, whatever veggies you’ve got and some of that bread.”
“Let’s see the trade,” Gonzo snapped.
“What do you want?” Kaija asked. “Coin, water or supplies?”
Gonzo leered and licked his chapped lips. “How ’bout−”
Kaija’s hand fell to the Magnum on her hip. “Don’t, Gonzo. I will put a hole through your fat face before you finish the sentence.”
“Fine. Two coins, one water,” Gonzo said without missing a beat.
“That’s a lot,” Redstar said uncomfortably.
Kaija fished two silver coins from her pocket and handed them over. “What’s the meat choice?”
Gonzo opened the smoker to his left and scooped a generous portion of meat into a metal cup. It looked and smelled delicious, but Kaija wasn’t hungry enough to eat without question.
“This is the cheap stuff, giant roach we picked up near Gila,” Gonzo said.
“What do I get for the water?” Kaija asked.
Redstar poked her shoulder. “I’ll eat it, keep your water.”
Kaija ignored him. “Well, Gonzo?”
The fat man through the meat back on the grill and opened another cooker. The smell rolling from the coals reminded Kaija of her mother’s hamburgers on a Sunday afternoon. Her mind’s eye rolled over a scene of the last Sunday they’d been together. They’d spent the day at Rollingwood Park. Green grass, fragrant breezes from the west and her little brother Tomas playing in the sandbox with some other boys.
Kaija pushed the thought away and focused on Gonzo. That life was over, this was now.
“Got some fresh game, deer and wild pork sausage patties on bread,” Gonzo said.
“Agreed. Two of everything,” Kaija said.
She shrugged out of her pack and unzipped the top. Inside were foil-wrapped water packets she’d salvaged from a military camp three days before. The soldiers weren’t going to be needing them, they’d been dead at least a month when she’d found their charred remains. Blackshirts had burned them down with flame units.
She handed four of the packets to Gonzo and accepted two plates laden with meat, some sort of root vegetable and hunks of fresh bread torn from the pan. The fat man was as mean as they came, a pervert with disgusting tastes, but he knew how to make edible foods from the worst of ingredients. Its why Axel let him live.
Kaija found a spot out of the wind against the side of the building and handed one of the plates to Redstar.
“Thank you, Kai,” he said. He set the plate down and said a short prayer over the food in Hopi, then began to eat.
Kai watched him for a moment, she knew he was starving but he still ate with care, exercising manners that seemed out of place in the ruins.
“You’re welcome,” she said.
They ate in silence, enjoying a quiet moment together while around them the camp went about its business. When they were finished, Kaija opened two cans of coffee and offered one to Redstar, who took it without comment. Caffeine was a welcome luxury when sleep wouldn’t come. There wasn’t a resistance member who didn’t suffer nightmares and sleep deprivation was a problem they all faced. Caffeine pushed the nightmares away for a few more hours.
“I will give Baby a tune-up before nightfall,” Redstar said, sipping his coffee.
“She’s not ready for sparks, but there’s probably a half-pound of sand in the intakes, can you clean those instead?” Kaija asked.
Redstar inclined his head. “Of course. Reloads?”
“All around. I’ve got rounds in the storage bay, I found some cannon shells, too,” Kaija said.
A shadow fell over them and she looked up to see Axel looming over her like some kind of specter. He hadn’t shaved in days and his whiskers stood out sharply against his tanned skin. He raised his Marine-style cap and scratched his forehead before settling it back down.
“I asked you to meet me when you came in,” he growled.
“Yeah, and we hadn’t eaten in days. Food was the priority and I’m due for downtime. I’ve had the last six scavenge runs,” Kaija said. “Baby and I are both tired.”
“Sorry, kid, no downtime. I need you in the field. Redstar, get her car ready to go back out then take a look at Takata’s bike. She took a nasty fall on recon last night,” Axel said.
Redstar stood and gathered both empty plates. “I will return these. Thank you again, Kai.”
“You’re welcome, Red,” Kaija said. She turned her attention back to Axel. “Is Takata okay?”
Axel extended a hand and she let him help her up. “She’s fine, her bike isn’t. Come on, I need to show you something.”
Kaija followed him through the camp, both grateful they had him, and annoyed at how he treated Redstar. Axel was a Marine, Force Recon. He was the only one left of an advance team that had fought Axis Blackshirts in the heart of San Francisco. He’d built this cell of the resistance from the ground up, and saved dozens of lives in the process.
“You should treat Redstar better,” she said.
Axel stopped. “What?”
Kaija looked up at him. “You heard me. He’s the best mechanic we have, yet he doesn’t get paid.”
Axel’s face darkened. “He gets a safe place to sleep, same as everyone else.”
“What good is that if he starves to death? Either put him in scavenge rotation or do something to make sure he earns trades. Gonzo won’t feed him or anyone else without something in trade,” Kaija said.
“He can’t go in rotation, he’s−”
“−a liability,” Kaija finished. “Yeah, I heard you the last thousand times. So pay him. Give him a share of what everyone brings back. Without him, half our fleet wouldn’t run.”
Axel turned away. “I don’t want to play favorites.”
“Dammit, Axel, he hadn’t eaten in days!” Kaija yelled. “No water either, I’d guess. Don’t you care?”
“Of course I care, Kaija.”
He opened the door to the building. “Get inside and we’ll talk.”
Kaija sighed and passed beneath his arm into the too-warm confines of an old trucker’s diner. Though it was obvious no food had been served inside in years, the aroma of cheeseburgers, potatoes and warm pie clung to the place like mold on old cheese.
Equipment had been set up on tables in the middle of the room, a mix of radios, portable radar devices that weren’t all that portable, field telephones and maps. A dozen men and women sat at the equipment monitoring and listening. They were often the difference between spotting a Raptor or dying beneath its weapons.
The booths set beside the mud and grease-stained windows had been converted to sleeping areas for the orphans of the camp, and several were sitting inside their makeshift blanket forts playing or, in more cases, coughing. The last batch they’d rescued had been suffering from plague and malnutrition. Only a handful had survived, and it was still touch and go for the youngest of the group.
Kaija pulled a handful of toys from her backpack and handed them out as she passed, then met Axel by the long counter, where he was looking at a map and some sort of paper readout that she didn’t recognize.
“What’s going on?” She asked.
Axel placed a scrap of grubby paper on the counter. Numbers written pencil were crossed out and smaller numbers written over and over again. The last clear number was fifty.
“We’re almost out of water,” Axel said quietly.
Kaija blinked. “How? I thought the tanker we picked up in Ryersville was potable,” Kaija said.
“It was, but only the first panel had any water. The rest was rust and oil,” Axel said. “We’ve got fifty gallons left for a hundred and twenty people.”
“That’s not even enough for a whole day.”
“No, it isn’t,” Axel said, putting the scrap back in his pocket. “We’ve already started rationing but we need more. Which is where you come in.”
He turned to the map. “There’s an old US stockpile in Sierra Blanca, about seventy miles from here.”
Kaija looked where he was pointing. Sierra Blanca, or what was left of it, was at the edge of the Big Bend Waste outside El Paso. If it wasn’t crawling with Axis troops, there would be wasters, or worse.
“It’s a long way, but I think you can make it,” Axel said.
“I can’t carry much in the Stallion,” Kaija said. She ignored the fact that the mission was suicide.
“You aren’t taking the Stallion,” Axel said. “Not by itself, anyway. You and Takata will take the war-rig and fill it with whatever you can find, using your car as an interceptor.”
“This is stupid, Axel,” Kaija said. “What about Artesia? Or Roswell, to the north?”
Axel shook his head. “No good, Takata ran into Rattlers and Aspers in Artesia, guarding the reservoir. Sierra Blanca looks clear.”
“Define clear,” Kaija said, looking at the map. It looked like a straight shot, but the rig was slow, sixty miles an hour tops. It would take almost two hours just to get there, then time to load whatever was at the stockpile, if anything.
“Radar shows no aerial recon or patrols in the area, Rico said the town was clear,” Axel said.
Kaija rolled her eyes. “Rico? How do you know he wasn’t high on dreamdust or pixyflowers? He could have imagined faeries and brownies for all you know!”
“I trust him, Kaija, and I need you to do this. Meet Taks at the war-rig, I want you two out at full dark.”
Kaija looked at the map again. Blanca was less than five miles from the waste. For all intents and purposes it was the waste, and Rico was about as reliable as the weather.
“I have a very bad feeling about this,” she muttered.