The white dunes spread to the horizon, where their monotonous expanse joined with the stark sky. The only boundaries of each were those placed by the limits of human sight. Jemail Brate watched with squinting eyes as five small shapes approached, obscured by waves of heated air. The sun blazed over the landscape, unobstructed by trees, buildings, or any other obstacles, and Jemail’s leathery red skin was a testament to that. The only sandblasted buildings within sight were the shack he lived in with his wife and two daughters, the garage where they kept their sand bikes and hover car, and the greenhouse where they grew food for themselves and just enough extra to sell in the closest villages, which were all at least twenty miles away.
Jemail frowned as the five sand bikes approached, hovering over the bleak desert dunes. The lead bike was black and the others were silver, reflecting the blazing sun. Jemail recognized the four riders behind the lead as Herman Rennock’s enforcers. He could see the blue uniforms they wore and the smooth sand shields which covered their faces. What did they want with him? As they came closer still, Jemail swallowed hard and his hands started sweating. Two red lights shined from the face of the lead rider. Jemail figured them to be the synthetic eyes of Warrick Baines, a man whose mentioned name was enough to cause many people to piss their pants.
Music filled the air. It was eerily raucous, and Jemail recognized the tune as “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones. The music grew louder as the five enforcers stopped their bikes in front of Jemail’s house, kicking up sand as they let the bikes hover down slowly to the ground before they each stepped off in turn. The music stopped and Warrick was the first to approach. He wore a black trench coat and a black, wide-brimmed hat which covered his face in shadows. The red lights shone out from beneath the brim, almost blinding Jemail as he watched the five enforcers walk towards him. As Warrick came closer, Jemail saw that his face was actually a skull patched with cybernetics with splotches of skin here and there. The skeletal mouth was twisted into a permanent smile. “Jemail Brate, I presume,” Warrick said in a metallic voice. He extended a gloved hand, which Jemail shook with his own shaky hand. “There’s no reason to be afraid,” Warrick said cordially. “We’re all friends here.” He turned to two of his associates. “Go in and search the house as we discussed before.” He faced Jemail once again. “Just a formality. Can we talk for a few minutes?” The two enforcers Warrick had spoken to walked into the house carrying bags of some sort.
Jemail nodded. “I’m a big supporter of Herman Rennock’s. I don’t know what you’ve heard, but…”
“Oh, I don’t doubt it,” Warrick said, putting his arm around Jemail’s shoulders and leading him out to the dunes away from the house. “Did you hear the song I was playing on my bike? It’s one of my favorites.”
“I heard it,” Jemail muttered.
“Nobody captured the controlled chaos of rock and roll like the Rolling Stones. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Jemail shrugged as the two men walked. “Sure, I guess so.” He wasn’t an expert on music from the old world, but he’d agree with anything Warrick said if it helped him get in the enforcer’s good graces.
Warrick nodded, his arm still around Jemail’s shoulders. “So, tell me, have you seen an Asian girl in these parts lately? Late teens or early twenties?”
“I ain’t seen nobody here for some time.”
Warrick nodded again. “That was a double negative, Jemail. By saying that you haven’t seen nobody, you’re actually saying that you have seen somebody.” Jemail looked at Warrick’s half-cybernetic face with confusion. “I’m sorry,” Warrick said with his synthetic voice. “That was a little over your head, I guess. Anyway, if you do see this woman, will you go to Everall and let the dispatcher there know so he can notify Mr. Rennock’s men?” Jemail nodded. “Very well,” Warrick said. “You’re very cooperative.” His permanent smile made everything he said seem to carry at least a hint of sarcasm.
Jemail smiled nervously. “I do what I can.”
“I’m sure you do. As do your wife and daughters. From what I’ve heard, you have a beautiful family. How are they holding up out here?”
“As well as can be expected,” Jemail replied.
“That’s good,” Warrick said. “I’ve always wanted a family of my own, but I’ve had trouble finding the right woman. I think the ladies are intimidated by my good looks.” He faced Jemail with his skeletal grin.
Jemail chuckled. “I’m sure that’s it.”
“Do you want to hear a joke?” Warrick stopped walking, his arm still around Jemail’s shoulders as the sun beat down on the two men.
Jemail frowned. “A joke?”
“A witticism or play on words that’s meant to be funny. I say ‘meant to be’ because most jokes aren’t funny. They range between mildly amusing and grimace-inducingly annoying.”
“Um, sure,” Jemail said. “I could listen to a joke, I guess.” The other two enforces stood by their bikes, looking out at Warrick and Jemail as they stood atop a particularly high dune.
“Who has sunburnt skin and lies like a dead rat?” Warrick asked. Jemail’s stubbly jaw dropped. “Oh, you don’t have to answer,” Warrick explained. “It’s a joke. I’m supposed to tell you the punch line.”
“I’m not so sure I want to hear that punch line,” Jemail muttered. Sweat soaked his jeans and t-shirt.
“Oh, but of course you do,” Warrick said. “You won’t laugh at the joke if you never hear the punch line. I can tell you later, though. You don’t have to hear it now. You said your wife and daughters are doing well?”
Jemail frowned. “I did. Look, you don’t need to bring them into this.”
“Turn around and look down at your house,” Warrick said.
Jemail turned slowly and watched as one of the enforcers came out of the house with an occupied body bag. Jemail turned to Warrick, shocked. “That was your wife,” Warrick stated. “Your two young daughters will follow unless you tell me the truth about that Asian girl.”
Tears dripped from Jemail’s eyes. “You bastard!” He raised a hand to hit Warrick, but a blade shot out from one of the cyborg’s trench coat cuffs and sliced off Jemail’s hand, leaving a bloody stump. Warrick kicked Jemail to the ground and put a booted foot on his chest. Jemail raised his head up from the sand and looked down at the house. He noticed the enforcer bringing another body bag out. The body inside this one was smaller than the first. As Jemail lay in pain, he remembered his daughter Amy practicing her flute just a few hours ago. Tears streamed down his cheeks.
“You have one daughter left and one hand left,” Warrick said. “If you want to keep them, tell me everything you know about the Asian girl.”
“She was here two days ago,” Jemail said hysterically. “She said she was heading west, towards Dune Post. That’s all I know. I swear. I didn’t ask no questions.”
Warrick pressed harder on Jemail’s chest with his foot, looking down with his shining red eyes. “Another double negative, Jemail. By saying that you didn’t ask no questions, you’re actually saying that you did ask questions.”
Jemail watched as the enforcer brought another body bag out of his house. This body was the smallest of the three. “No no!” Jemail yelled. He could no longer speak, overcome with sobbing hysteria.
Warrick pulled a double barreled laser rifle out from beneath his trench coat and aimed it at Jemail’s face. “Too late. Your family’s already dead, Jemail. I’m sorry it had to happen this way. You seem like a pleasant fellow.” He fired the laser rifle and Jemail’s face exploded, staining the pristine sand with brains and blood.
Warrick hid the laser rifle under his trench coat once again and walked down the dune towards the four enforcers, who’d gathered near the sand bikes. “Noah, I want you to go back to Everall and send a message to our enforcers closest to Dune Post. Tell them Abigail Song is heading their way. Tell them to kill her on sight, along with everyone she’s made contact with. Tell them to kill them quickly and don’t ask questions, and their reward will be great.” One of the enforcers nodded, got on his sand bike, and rode it swiftly away. Warrick stopped walking and looked at one of the other enforcers with his shining red eyes. “Was there coffee inside?” The enforcer nodded. “Good. I could use a little pick me up. Oh, and feel free to take anything inside the house. It’s all on me. You’re good soldiers and you deserve a little extra. There’s probably not much, but the wife may have had some jewelry. You don’t know until you check.” The enforcers thanked him as they walked towards the front door of the house.
Bobby Brooklyn rode his sand bike across a white expanse so flat he could see the curvature of the Earth. Everything looked the same in all directions: white sand with bright blue sky above, and the sun beating down like an angry god. He wondered if he was getting close to Dune Post. He quickly checked the wrist watch he’d taken from a body several weeks before. Three o’clock. He still had a ways to go. If he could make it to town, he had enough gold from his last score that he’d be able to live comfortably for at least a few days.
His eyes scoured the desert for another score as he rode: a dead body, a wrecked sand bike or hover car, or an abandoned homestead. Any of these would do. He kicked the bike into high gear, hoping he had enough fuel to make it to the next town or village. He also checked the air meter on his sand bike, which indicated that the chemicals in the air were present at breathable levels. Bobby had oxygen masks and tanks on his bike in case he needed them, but he wasn’t sure how long they’d last. He’d used one fairly recently when traveling across a particularly toxic wasteland. In the distance far ahead, he could make out a pair of massive metal shapes. They were air converters. That explained why the air levels were so good here. Since there weren’t many trees or plants left in the world, the converters were needed to remove toxins from the air and add the right amount of oxygen to make it breathable. Not knowing what else to do and having no other landmarks, Bobby headed towards the metal structures.
He soon noticed a small spec on the landscape. The converters were still about three or four miles away, but the spec was off to the right. Bobby turned his bike in that direction, hoping to find something worthwhile. As he approached, he perked up at the sight of what appeared to be a body. What had somebody been doing out here all alone with no sand bike or other means of transportation? As long as they had some good stuff, Bobby didn’t care. He was hungry. He wondered if maybe they had a snack on them. As he rode closer, he could see that it appeared to be a girl. She didn’t even have a sand shield over her face. Her long, black hair was strewn all across the sand and she was wearing a very nice white jacket. Probably rich. Bobby wondered what else she had as he rode his bike up next to her, let it hover to the ground, and stopped the engine. He slowly stepped towards the body. It was an Asian girl, about twenty years old, with badly chapped lips. Poor kid. She didn’t stand a chance. There was a bag of some kind in the sand next to her. As Bobby bent down to investigate, he jumped back. She was still breathing. He turned towards his bike. He was a scavenger, not a thief. As he flung a leg over the bike, he heard her say something. He looked down at her through his sand shield. “What was that?”
“Water,” he heard her say softly.
She’d run out of water. She was dehydrated. Bobby didn’t care. He wasn’t in the business of helping strangers. If he left her, that wouldn’t count as murder. He started the engine, watching her mouth move. The sound of the engine drowned out any sounds she was making. “Don’t help her,” Bobby told himself. “Just get on your way.” He gritted his teeth and turned the engine off. Bobby knelt down beside her, took a water bottle out of his backpack, and poured some over her lips. “Don’t drink too much. You’ll throw it right back up. Take it real slow.”
“Stay. Help me.” It was hard for her to speak.
“I’ll do what I can.” He continued to gradually give her water until she was able to slowly sit up.
“I have an awful headache,” the girl said, grabbing her bag.
“What are you doing out here?”
“Should I answer?” Before Bobby could say anything, she answered her own question. “No, he doesn’t need to know.”
Bobby gave her another drink of water. She was delirious and talking to herself. “Well, either way, it’s dangerous out here,” Bobby said.
“Don’t you think I already know that?” the girl asked. “He’s not too swift, is he? No, he’s not.”
“Great,” Bobby muttered. “You’re crazy.”
“I’m not crazy. I haven’t seen anyone in a while, that’s all. There’s no company out here.”
Bobby shook his head. “No, you’re nuts.”
“You were going to steal from me, weren’t you?” Her eyes seemed to pierce right through him like floodlights. “Don’t lie. I know you were.”
“That’s some thanks I get for saving your life.”
“You haven’t saved it yet,” the girl blurted. “I could still die. You’re a thief, though. I can tell.”
Bobby grimaced at her. “Not a thief. A scavenger. I thought you were dead.”
She laughed in a hysterical manner that made Bobby feel uncomfortable. “If you don’t think those are the same thing, you’re crazier than you think I am. My parents told me about people like you.”
“People like me?”
The girl nodded. “Black people. You’re all thieves and murderers.”
If she were a man, Bobby would have punched her in the face right then and there. “Look! I helped you, and you’re sitting here stereotyping me like this? I don’t appreciate it. I’m getting the hell out of here. I hope you die of thirst.” He stood and turned to his sand bike.
“You are a thief, aren’t you? You’re proving the stereotype right.”
Bobby got on the bike and started the engine. Had she really said that? The anger was boiling in him. He had to get away from her to avoid doing something he’d regret. He never hit a girl in his life and he wasn’t about to start here. He quickly started riding away from her, fuming. On the one hand, he didn’t care one way or the other what happened to her after what she said to him, but on the other hand, he felt guilty for leaving her. “Get over it,” he muttered to himself as he rode away. Besides, there was a chance she’d live now that she had some water. A very slight chance, but a chance all the same.
He noticed a cloud of dust on the horizon and cursed under his breath. “A sandstorm,” he muttered. Okay, she had absolutely no chance whatsoever of surviving now. “Damn it.” Bobby turned the bike around and headed back towards the girl as the wall of sand moved closer.
“Come on,” he shouted at the girl as he lowered the bike to the ground. “Get on!” She was sitting in the sand, still finding her bearings. She seemed to be saying something. Still talking to herself, Bobby figured. “There’s a sandstorm coming!”
“What?” she shouted back.
Bobby turned off the engine. “There’s a sandstorm coming. You have to come with me. We don’t have much time.” He wasn’t sure he could outrun the storm as it was, and she was holding him up.
“Should I go with him?” she asked. “I don’t know.”
“Look!” Bobby shouted. “You need to come with me, but you need to keep your big mouth shut so I don’t kill you and prove your parents right! I do what I need to do to survive. We can’t all be rich like you. I’d be dead if I didn’t do what I have to. All I do is take stuff that nobody has any use for anymore anyway. So if you insult me again, I swear I’ll leave you to die. Now, come on!”
“I’m not rich anymore,” the girl muttered.
“Whatever, just come on.”
“My parents are dead. Now I don’t have anything to my name.” She slowly stood and started walking away from Bobby.
“I don’t know why I’m doing this,” Bobby muttered as he leapt off the bike and took off running after her. He grabbed her and tried to pull her to the bike by her arm, but she bit his gloved hand and ran. Bobby took a flashlight out of his bag. “Why am I helping this girl?” He ran up behind her and hit her in the back of the head with the heavy flashlight, knocking her out. It was the first time he’d ever hit a girl. She was small and light, so he lifted her over his shoulder and carried her back to the bike, carrying her bag in his other hand. He wasn’t sure what she had in the bag, but it was heavier than it looked. He draped her over the back and strapped her and her bag to the bike the best he could with some cargo straps. Then, he hopped on and started the engine. As the sandstorm neared swiftly, Bobby took off full speed in the opposite direction.
The winds were soon howling all around him. Bobby saw the sand and dust blowing everywhere. He could barely see five feet ahead. And that crazy girl didn’t even have a sand shield to cover her face. She wouldn’t last long in this, especially being dehydrated like she was. He noticed something up ahead that looked like a dark opening in the ground, so he turned on his bike’s headlight and sped towards it. His sand bike shot into the cave as the sandstorm packed the opening with sand. Bobby rode into the cave far enough to get away from the storm and then stopped the bike and let it hover down onto concrete. He appeared to be in a dried up sewer of some kind, a remnant of the old world which ended thousands of years ago. The opening now appeared to be sealed closed by the moving sands of the storm. Bobby muttered curses under his breath. He was trapped inside with some crazy girl. He turned off the engine, dug his flashlight out of his backpack and stepped off the bike, ready to do some exploring.
Continue on to the next chapter:
Bobby explores the sewer.
Abigail Song reveals a little about her past.
Bobby and Abby realize there are living things in the sewer other than them.
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