Home > Creative Writing Exercises, Fallen Earth, NaNoWriMo, Writing > FE NaNoWriMo 2010: Installment No. 7

FE NaNoWriMo 2010: Installment No. 7

June 21, 2156

It had been about a year since the last time I had seen John Reynolds. We’d originally met right after the fall of Hoover Dam, when his squad of Enforcers happened on the mercantile encampment Old LaRue had established on the edge of the canyon, overlooking the Colorado River.

Now, we both looked older, but he seemed in better spirits these days. It hit him hard when Alec Masters won the loyalty of so many apparently well-intentioned Enforcers, people that John had considered friends and allies; people he thought that he could trust with his life. Their role as protectors of the great dictator himself really drove a knife in the heart of their image. He took it personally. He was going to abandon the Enforcers, because he didn’t want to be seen as a lapdog of the monster of Hoover Dam.

Old LaRue didn’t care much for the zealotry and high-mindedness of the Enforcers and their dogmatic pursuit of law and order, but he liked John Reynolds. I remember sitting by the campfire that night in early May 2152, and I remember what LaRue said to my friend: “You can quit if you want and call that good, sure. No arguments here. That’s the easy way to do it, truth be told. A clean break. Move on. But that doesn’t solve the real problem. It won’t keep that truth from nagging at you, day and night, for the rest of your life. That question in your mind: Could I have made a difference? Give it all up if you want, John, but consider for just a little bit what you might be able to accomplish if you hold fast and try to improve the Enforcers from within.”

And so, at LaRue’s earnest urging, John Reynolds had redoubled his efforts on behalf of the Enforcers. He joined a squad that spearheaded the effort to convert the old GlobalTech Watchtower No. 3 into a burgeoning town at the crossroads of the Upper Plateau. The old monorail track snaked across the landscape, with a lengthy gap along the way where a stretch of steel-supported concrete had been blasted away by a crashing commercial jetliner, the charred remnants of which had been scattered near the rippling lake.

“How’ve you been, Amp?” he asked as we sat on the ground outside the concrete pillbox in front of the grassy berm that encircled the rustic little town of shacks and barns. The sun was just coming up over the glassy lake east of us. “Besides the tooth thing.”

“Not great,” I admitted with a shrug. My gaze drifted to a couple of bright-robed Lightbearers haggling with a merchant near a campfire with a spit that was roasting armadillo for breakfast. I frowned, but then saw that the Lightbearers were two women, not the man who knifed my surrogate father. I returned my attention to John. “Ever since Old LaRue died, it feels like I’ve been wandering in a fog, y’know? I’ve made some dumb mistakes. The moldy fucker’s probably spinning in his grave right now because of me. I’m his legacy, after all, and look at me: Trounced by Gully Dogs, shown up by a clone, and desperately trying to get to the one guy in the Grand Canyon Province who’s apparently able to do something about this diseased tooth that’s trying to kill me. I can’t do ANYTHING competently by myself.” I sighed. The Lightbearers completed their business with the merchant, then walked away. I wondered if they might know the guy who killed Old LaRue. “Maybe I’m just not meant to be a Traveler.”

John laughed, shaking his head. “Maybe. Or maybe you’re just having too much fun feeling sorry for yourself.”

I stared angrily at my friend. “I’m glad YOU think this is funny. Always glad to provide amusement through my misadventures.”

“Lighten up,” he said, slapping the palm of his hand against my back, right between the shoulder blades. “You’re just in a slump. We’ll get you right as rain before you know it.”

“I wish I shared your optimism,” I replied. Yes, it was possible that I might make it to Picus Ridge, find Doc Ames, undergo treatment for the rotting tooth and the infected abscess, and make a complete physical recovery. But I wasn’t so sure about a rebound for my self-confidence.

“Before you check in with the caravan, I want you to stop by Dr. Lafferty’s shack so he can look you over,” John Reynolds said. “He’s got painkillers to spare and at least enough antibiotics to see you safely to Picus Ridge.”

Nodding, I got to my feet, brushing dirt off my trousers. “Thanks again, John. I appreciate the help. And the ear.”

“Don’t wait a year to drop by next time,” he said, standing to shake my hand. “And if it makes a difference, I miss him too.”

I turned to walk toward the doctor’s shack overlooking the lake, but then stopped and turned back to face John. “A couple of days ago, a Rider came through – young girl, curly black hair. Did you see her?”

“Alastair, right?”

“Fern Alastair, yeah. That’s her name. You saw her, then?”

John nodded. “She stopped in town just long enough to get a fresh horse. Then she was gone. Why? Friend of yours?”

“Maybe,” I said. Then I walked away.

***

The bald-headed scarecrow of a doctor shoved a small scuffed yellow pen flashlight in my open mouth and peered inside through squinting blue eyes.

“Oh, yes, yes,” Dr. Lafferty said, a wicked grin stealing across his face and pure mirth oozing in his voice. “That is quite infected. The spread has slowed somewhat, but, inevitably, inexorably, it will creep into your bloodstream and into your brain. You’ll go mad before it kills you.” He tilted his head, set down the flashlight, and then reached for the journal on the nearby table. His fingers crept across the cover of the small brown book like the legs of a flesh-colored spider. “Are you sure you really must go? I would relish the opportunity to observe the final stages of such an illness first-hand.”

“Yes,” I said. “Sorry. I don’t want to go crazy and die while you watch, doc. No offense.”

“None taken,” he replied ruefully. “A shame.” He scribbled notes in his journal, looking up to smile eerily at me once or twice before completing the entry and setting the book down once more. “I’ll get those pills for you, then.”

***

Scribbled in the right margin: FREAK.

***

Sprawled on the side of the road, half-naked and baking in the late morning sun, the scab-faced man writhed and hissed between incoherent rants. His legs were adorned with old computer circuit boards and peripheral cards that were held in place by coils of barbed wire. His nipples had been pierced by paper clips bent to look like infinity symbols.

He wailed at the cloudless blue sky: “Chuh mod! Telnet! Grep! Guh zip! Eff tee pee! Muck deer! Puh wood! Rum deer! You mask! Who am I? No hup! Cut roll see! Cut roll pee! Cut roll you! Esk! Esk! Esk!”

The caravan had ground to a halt when it happened upon this lunatic.

“Who is he?” asked the burly, brown-bearded man who led the caravan. An explorer by trade, Coleman Vassar was taking the caravan to Credit Bend, the Traveler stronghold in Northfields.

We rode together in the front of an old pre-Fall panel truck pulled by a pair of sturdy brown and black work horses. The truck was whitewashed, but beneath the streaky paint, one could make out the words CANYON MOVERS. Behind us followed a battered blue and green Interceptor, a couple of smoke-spewing dune buggies, one scout on a motorcycle, and another on a dappled gray horse.

“Looks like a Cog,” I said. “Machine worshipers. Never seen one before?”

“No, no, I haven’t,” Coleman answered. He stroked his beard, pondering the lunatic shouting at the sky. “Should we help him?”

“Maybe,” I said. Nodding toward the holster at his side, I asked, “Is that a classic Smith & Wesson?”

“It is,” he confirmed, unclasping the holster and drawing the gun. Coleman offered it to me. “Give it a look. It’s vintage! Circa 2050, just before the Fall.”

I accepted the gun. Switched off the safety. Checked the chamber. And then I aimed at the Cog’s head and pulled the trigger. The gunshot echoed across the dusty flatland. Clumps of hair and brain splattered the cracked asphalt road. He twitched for a few moments and then he was still.

Coleman stared at me, dumbfounded, his eyes wide and his sunburned cheeks flushing a deeper red.

I offered the gun back to him. Smoke wafted from the barrel. “Works like the day it came off the line. Good quality,” I said.

“I gave you no authority to shoot that man!” Coleman said, furious. “Explain yourself, Mr. Denton!”

“Cogs aren’t men, not the way you and I reckon,” I said with a shrug. “They consider themselves above men, on their way to the perfection of the machines that used to dominate the old world. They’re batshit crazy. Psycho. And they’re downright murderous if you get between them and some shiny trinket of pre-Fall technology. If you ever run into another one, don’t stop to chat. Shoot the crazy bastard right in the head. Saves loads of trouble.”

“Have you no remorse?” he asked, flustered, still trying to wrap his brain around what I’d just done.

“I’m not sorry I killed the loony Cog, no,” I said. A faint smile, then I added, “Of course, I do feel a little bit sorry that I gave that gun back to you. What now? Vigilante justice? Vengeance for the twitchy madman on the side of the road?”

It’s a tough world. Method’s motto. Law of the wastes. Bad shit happens to good people and evil alike. That blight wolf back on Dead Man’s Buttress didn’t give a shit about Fern’s good intentions or my wicked ways – all it knew was that it was hungry and we might make good food.

Coleman grunted, holstering the gun and shaking his head. “I’m a civilized man, Mr. Denton. You’ll be held to account by a higher power when your time comes at last.”

“Maybe,” I said. Then I pointed at the corpse. “Meanwhile, you might think about scavenging those bits of barbed wire and computer parts. Might fetch a few extra chips in the market up at Credit Bend.”

Coleman’s mouth fell open in dismay. “Mr. Denton, I am NOT rolling a dead man for scraps.”

“Fine,” I said, jumping down to the road with a wry smile. “I’ll claim salvage rights, then. Don’t go anywhere without me.”

***

The two horses pulling the old panel truck had just passed into the shadow of the monorail track span that crossed the road ahead of us when the pavement gave way, revealing an undermining trench about six feet deep and twelve feet long.

Lurching forward, the truck tumbled hood first into the cavity with a sickening crunch that signified the shattering of the axle. The horses whinnied and reared, frightened by the collapse, and then they slid backward into the trench on either side of the truck.

“What happened?” Coleman asked, his eyes wide and panicked.

“Get out of the truck,” I urged, quietly at first. My eyes swept from right to left, toward the openings at either end of the trench. The horses scrambled back to their hooves, continuing to whicker and whinny in horror. One reared again, swatting its front hooves at some unseen danger in the shadows.

“We’ll be trampled,” the caravan leader said.

I figured he might have a point. Trying to navigate past a couple of terrified horses wouldn’t be the best course of action. I sat back against the seat of the truck cab, braced my boots on the windshield, then drew back my legs before slamming them forward like pistons. The glass cracked, but didn’t shatter.

“What are you doing to my truck?” Coleman demanded, scowling. The horses became more agitated. I didn’t have much time. So I didn’t answer right away. Instead, I kicked the windshield a second time. More cracks spider-webbed across the windshield. “Mr. Denton, I insist that you -” Whatever he said next got blotted out by the shattering glass of the windshield as I kicked it a third time. Little blue-green chunks spilled down the dusty dashboard like chips pouring out of a jackpot slot machine. Both horses reared, eyes rolling from panic.

“Get out of the truck!” I yelled it this time, then scrambled over the dashboard, through the windshield frame, and onto the hood of the truck. The horse to the right bucked up against the hood, jarring me sideways. I bit my tongue, then cursed angrily – although, looking back, new and different pain actually seemed like a welcome change of pace compared to the relentless aching throb of the infected tooth. Dust swirled around me as I struggled to make my way up the broken asphalt slabs leading to the surface of the road.

“Mr. Denton!” the caravan leader called after me. He crawled cautiously out onto the hood, taking his time. “I trust you will compensate me in full for this damage!”

I pulled myself up onto the road, huffing from the exertion, and then rolled onto my back. Closing my eyes, I had just a few moments respite to breathe a sigh of relief before the rumbling started. “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” I muttered. Opened my eyes, got into a crouch beside the road, and jammed my right hand into the trench so that I could reach for Coleman Vassar. “Take hold! No time to chat!”

“Insufferable man,” Coleman said, clutching my hand with his just as a huge brown-gray blur lunged from the darkness to his left and one of the horses vanished in a flurry of gnashing fangs and flailing hooves. The great fast-moving monstrosity kept going, slamming into the panel truck and crushing the other horse beneath the toppled vehicle. Coleman’s feet dangled, pinwheeling above the trench floor. Instinctively, I clenched my teeth while pulling him up to the relative safety of the road. This hurt. A lot. Once he was clear, I fumbled through my pocket for the little envelope with the painkiller pills that Dr. Lafferty had provided. I poured out one, considered the severity, and shook out a second. I popped both into my mouth, swallowed them dry, and then collapsed on the asphalt again.

I saw the stranger’s silhouette as I stared up at the monorail track once more. He wore a sleeveless gray shirt, blue jeans, reptile skin boots, and a black fedora. He cradled a scoped rifle in his arms.

“Well,” he called down from his high perch, frustration in his voice, “look at what you went and ruined! Been trackin’ that sandworm for the better part of three days. Now he’s eaten, won’t be coming back around for at least a week.”

***

Scribbled in the top margin: A big round maw with lots and lots of triangles representing fangs.

***

“Oh, no worries, you’re safe enough for now,” the hunter assured us as he poked around the wreckage of the panel truck.

I knew Brock Dundy by reputation, if nothing else. He was a pretty big celebrity in Depot 66, where he’d earned fame slaughtering giant scorpions on behalf of the settlers in the region. They’d even named an otherwise insignificant hole in the ground after him to show how much they appreciated his efforts.

Everything I’d ever heard suggested that he was his own number one fan.

“Truck’s a loss, though. Shame,” he said. “Looked like a nice one before that rumbler got at it.” Brock climbed back up the asphalt slabs, picked up his rifle from the road, and then said, “Best reroute your caravan over to that western ridge.” The car, dune buggies, and scout cycle were on the south side of the trench. We stood on the north. Brock pointed helpfully toward the sinking sun, then looked back toward Coleman Vassar. “Send someone to walk ahead with a good plumb stick to jab the ground as they go, though. Prairie around here’s liable to be riddled with worm burrows.”

Great, I thought. Something else to slow me down. “Look, Mr. Dundy, I really, really, really need to get to Picus Ridge. Infected tooth. It’s going to kill me if I don’t get treatment soon. Every minute counts. Any chance you’ve got a ride?”

I didn’t relish the thought of leaving Coleman and his caravan in their dilemma, but their problem wasn’t mine. Their unfortunate inconvenience shouldn’t stand between me and my hope for survival.

Sadly, Brock Dundy didn’t feel the same way.

“Hold tight, friend,” he said, shaking his head. “Now’s no time to abandon Mr. Vassar and his companions. Sun’s going down, y’see.”

That got another panic-stricken look from the caravan leader, whose face seemed in serious danger of freezing that way. “What happens when the sun goes down?”

“Creepers come out,” Brock said.

***

Full moon tonight.

We watched from the relative safety of the monorail track, about sixty feet up, as the first swarm of thirty or so creepers tick-tick-ticked their scuttling, spindly legs over the broken asphalt and spilled down into the fresh trench.

The wrecked panel truck shook and wobbled in the moonlight as the monsters wriggled beneath and began feasting on the dead horse that had been trapped below.

“They’ll leave by morning, will they?” Coleman asked, whispering to Brock Dundy.

The hunter nodded, whispering back, “Usually.”

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