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Photo by Jay Hood.
Afterlife is a sci fi/western action serial published every other week. Join us in a post-apocalyptic journey through a future where life has become little more than a struggle for survival. However, where there’s life, there’s always hope.
Read the previous chapter here:
Mark executes a prisoner against Alex’s wishes.
Eileen Traymont investigates a bank robbery.
Bobby cheats on Michelle with Alicia.
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Afterlife, Volume 2, Chapter 31
Abby and Della emerged from the vault carrying bags full of money and diamonds to see Annabelle shouting at a frightened man who was standing in the bank lobby. The other twenty or so patrons were still on the floor, but many were visibly nervous. East End, a town right on the Mexican border, was a far bigger town than Dark Trench had been, but it wasn’t as big as Tequila City or Black Rock. Still, it housed multiple banks, and the one they were robbing belonged to Rennock. “You’d better learn to listen before I end you,” Annabelle said, aiming her laser rifle at the man who was standing.
He was wearing a gray suit, was medium height and build, and had a balding head of brown hair and glasses on his face. Abby thought he looked like the friendly neighbor in some sitcom. “We didn’t ask to be here,” he said. “All I ask is that you let me, my wife, my son and my daughter leave.”
“So you can alert the authorities?” Ace asked, pointing his double barreled laser rifle at the man. “Now that wouldn’t be fair to everyone else here, would it? You can leave when we’re safely gone.”
“Now get back on the floor!” Annabelle shouted, making a motion with her rifle like she was about to shoot.
It didn’t seem to faze the man. “My daughter has a doctor’s appointment she can’t miss. We’re already late. Please.”
“A doctor’s appointment?” Annabelle asked, a perplexed look on her face. “It can wait a few more minutes. You wanna die over a doctor’s appointment?”
Abby frowned as she stood with Della near the door to the hallway where the vault was. Della was decked out in full drag. “We’re here,” Abby said. “We’ve got the money. We’re about to leave. Just let him go.”
“Let me show you,” the man said. He reached into his jacket and Annabelle pulled the trigger, sending a red laser blast through his heart and sending his body crashing into the floor. Several people screamed.
“You bitch!” A teenaged boy stood and started running towards Annabelle. A woman in a dress with long, curly brown hair also stood, reaching out towards the teenager. Annabelle fired at the woman, blasting through her head, and Ace fired at the teenaged boy with his double barreled laser rifle, blasting a hole through his stomach. There were more screams.
Abby noticed a girl who was around ten, on the floor, crying hysterically. Judging from her large nose and pointy chin that matched her mother’s, Abby surmised that she was the other member of this unfortunate family. “Let’s get out of here!” “Annabelle shouted. “Come on, Abby!” Abby looked at the dead man’s hand and saw a piece of bloody paper folded in it. It must have been some sort of appointment slip he’d wanted to show Ace and Annabelle. “Come on!” Annabelle shouted again. The whole situation didn’t seem real to Abby. Ace started blasting the teller windows, shattering the glass and causing more people to scream, as he, Annabelle, Abby, and Della rushed out the front door of the bank. Annabelle fired several shots outside of the bank and Abby watched as six enforcers running down the road towards them fell to the ground. Digits was waiting in the station wagon in front of the bank with the engine running, and Ace, Annabelle, Abby, and Della piled in as Ace fired several more shots at the front window of the bank. Digits sped off down the main road, weaving past some oncoming traffic.
“I take it this one was a little more eventful,” Digits said with a grin as he drove.
Ace nodded as he sat in the front passenger seat. “Some unfortunate casualties. The risks of our job. At least it wasn’t us.”
“You didn’t have to kill them,” Abby said. She was fuming. “It was unnecessary.”
“He had a gun for all I knew,” Annabelle said.
“He didn’t have a gun,” Abby said. “He wanted to show you a doctor’s slip or something.”
Annabelle laughed. “A doctor’s slip? Really? He got a doctor’s slip in case he needed to show it to bank robbers? I didn’t know doctors gave out slips like that.” She shook her head, still laughing. “Sorry, ma’am,” she said in a mocking masculine voice, “I have this here note that excuses me from this here bank robbery.”
“Can we get a doctor’s slip to show the next sheriff who tries to arrest us?” Ace asked, chuckling.
“It’s not funny!” Abby said. “People died back there!”
Annabelle, who was sitting to Abby’s right, turned her head to face her and smiled. “I’ve got news for you, honey. We’re not the good guys. All that stuff they say about us? It’s all true. Every bit of it. We’ve killed lots of people. Innocent people. I once shot a woman in the back. And Ace? He killed a family. Husband, wife, kids, and all. And you want to know why he did it? To shut the baby up. It was crying too loud.”
Abby gritted her teeth in anger and glared at Ace. “Is that true?” He looked out the window, watching the town disappear in the distance. “Is it true?” Abby asked again.
Ace nodded. “Yes. It’s true. It’s all true, like Annabelle said. We’re not the good guys.” He turned and looked at her, a grave look in his eyes. “But I’ve got news for you, too. There are no good guys. There’s just us and there’s them. And the one who wins is the one who’s willing to go the farthest to rig the game in their favor.”
Abby wasn’t sure how to respond to that. She just frowned and shook her head, watching out the window as East End disappeared on the horizon. Why was she so angry? It should have come as no surprise. Nat had warned her who Ace and Annabelle were. Everyone knew who Ace and Annabelle were. They were dangerous criminals. And now she was one of them. Even if what they were doing was ultimately for the greater good, hurting Rennock and helping the resistance, at what cost were they doing it? How far was too far, when the suffering they were inflicting on innocent people outweighed any benefits. Abby realized life wasn’t an equation, no matter what Einstein liked to think. There wasn’t a simple balance. Everything was getting chaotic and messy, and Abby felt like she was starting to lose herself in the insanity she was helping to create. She closed her eyes and leaned back in the seat as Digits continued driving northeast towards the Rockies.
Paul was surrounded by unrelenting blue sky in all directions as he sat in the cockpit of his aerial assault vehicle. He was locked onto Tom’s ship, waiting for them to move to the location where they were going to attack several of Rennock’s aerial assault vehicles. These would have real human pilots, so it would most likely be a harder battle than the previous one where they fought unmanned adversaries. The ground below spread out into the mountains to the east, but Paul’s mind was racing so he was having trouble enjoying the view. He wondered what had come from any inquiries made into Tom’s actions during their last mission. Captain Frank Waters and his formation were flying with Tom and Paul this time, and Paul was trying his best to seem like there was nothing going on. Still, he wondered if Frank had brought the issue up to General Rodriguez yet, like he said he was going to.
Paul’s ship zipped away to the east and hovered over the mountains in formation with Tom and Roger, where he spotted four enemy AAV’s ahead of him and at a slightly lower altitude. As soon as Paul had one in his sights, he began firing, and the ship plummeted towards the mountains below. Tom and Roger also fired, taking out two more startled enemy ships, while Paul took out the last one. Those three also fell towards the mountains as Paul checked the skies and his scanner screen to make sure there were no other ships in their vicinity. “Be careful,” Tom said. “There should be at least three other bogeys around somewhere. Let me know the second you see something.”
Paul looked down and to his right to see Frank and his wing men in their saucer shaped ships. He watched as two more enemy AAV’s appeared in the sky behind them and started firing. “Down there!” Paul exclaimed into the formation channel.
“I see,” Tom said. “Stay with me. They’ll have to deal with them themselves.”
“What?” Paul shouted. He wasn’t going to sit around and let more pilots die if he could help it. He dropped out of formation and flew down towards the two enemy ships, firing his lasers at the surprised saucers. One of the enemy ships was hit and began dropping, while the other shot off towards some clouds above them and to the left. Paul kept his eyes focused on the airship and zipped up after it. He and the enemy zigzagged through the skies at lighting speed as Paul chased his prey. A smile appeared on his face. This was what aerial combat was supposed to be like. He anticipated his opponent’s next move and shot up to a spot above where he estimated it to be, turning downward and diving, firing his lasers with the sun behind him. Sure enough, the enemy AAV appeared there and Paul’s lasers shredded it, sending two halves plummeting along with the pilot, whose parachute didn’t open as he tumbled through thousands of feet of air.
Paul looked around for Tom, Frank, and the others. He couldn’t see where they were so he checked his scanners and saw five airships about a mile west. “Crap,” he muttered. The enemy had intentionally drawn him away from the battle. As Paul zipped back to where the others were, he wasn’t sure what to expect. He didn’t know how many of his friends were left in the sky and how many of those ships were the enemy. When he got there, he watched as Tom shot down the last enemy ship. Paul went back to his spot in formation with Tom, nervous and angry at himself. He could hear both Tom and Frank over the all wings resistance channel. “Roger,” Tom said. “Roger, answer if you read this.” Paul noticed that Roger was missing from formation; it was just him and Tom.
“Roger,” Frank said. “Are you there?”
“Paul, I told you to stay in formation,” Tom said. “We lost Roger.”
Paul bit his lip. “I made a poor decision.”
“You did,” Tom said. “And we lost a man today. You’re going to have to answer for it. His ship went down and we didn’t see a parachute.”
“The blasts may have hit his ejection system,” Frank said.
Paul frowned. It wasn’t the time for arguing his case. Tom had known there were other ships out there this time and that’s why he didn’t fly to save Frank. It made sense. The situation had been different last time, though. There were several other ships from their squadron with them and they were fighting unmanned vehicles, which were far more predictable than humans. Paul knew he could have saved the three men who died. He also knew that after today’s fighting, his argument had suffered a huge blow. He’d gambled and lost, but at least Frank was still alive. “Well,” Tom said, “let’s head home. We’ll send a reconnaissance craft out here to find what’s left of Roger’s ship.” Paul could hear the sadness in Tom’s voice. He locked onto Tom’s ship and they flew back towards their base of operations.
“So where we goin’ today?” Big Ed asked Marv as he and Mavery strapped their bags onto Big Ed’s new sand bike. Mavery wasn’t happy about how it had been obtained. Marv and some of his men had stolen it from a man on his way to Black Rock. The man was left stranded, likely to die, but Marv gifted the sand bike to Big Ed, and Mavery knew if they didn’t have it, it would have been them left stranded instead. She didn’t have to like it, though.
Marv glanced at Big Ed as he packed his stuff onto his own sand bike. His scarred, ugly face still intimidated Mavery. “We’re hittin’ a resistance outpost today. Wavy found it on his scoutin’ ride. About ten men or so there. Lots of good weapons for us, though. We should be able to kill ‘em all if we surprise ‘em.” The other six bandits were also packing up their tents and other camping gear.
Mavery frowned. She hoped Big Ed realized this was when they’d have to flip sides. There was no way she was attacking the resistance. Big Ed and Mavery could join the fight against Marv and his men and surprise them. “Sounds good,” Big Ed said. Mavery looked at his face to see if she could tell if he meant it or not. He wasn’t giving anything away.
The men continued packing their bags. Mavery strapped her last bag onto Big Ed’s new sand bike and turned to face Marv, who was just finishing up. “So how does this IAO thing work? Who do you answer to?”
Marv grinned. “I don’t answer to nobody.”
“So how’s it an organization?” Mavery asked.
“We give ‘em a tribute from everything we take. Ten percent, and they give us tips and stuff like that. It’s a loose system.” He frowned. “Hey Big Ed, why’s your woman askin’ so many questions?”
Big Ed turned to him and practically growled. “She can ask what she wants.”
“All right,” Marv said defensively. “No need to get mean about it. I was just wonderin’.”
“Well now you the one askin’ questions,” Big Ed said as he strapped the rolled up tent to the back of the bike. It was a big, sleek black bike which Spraycan had painted the IAO skull and crossbones on the side of. The bandits all had crazy names. Marv was the leader, and there was Spraycan and Wavy and Hawk, but the one who Mavery liked the least was the big, Hispanic guy they all called Chopper. Mavery didn’t want to know how he’d gotten that name, but it probably had something to do with the meat cleaver he carried on his belt. He most definitely wasn’t a chef. Big Ed and Mavery got on their sand bike as the bandits got on their bikes and started their engines. Marv led the way as they rode across dunes with the unwavering sky spread out above the endless sand.
They eventually stopped on a dune and Marv rode over to Big Ed and Mavery’s bike. “So you’re goin’ in with Chopper, Reed, and Vulture,” he said to Big Ed. “Spraycan, Hawk, and I’ll give ya cover from a nearby dune.” He nodded to Mavery. “She can hang back with Scope. He’s gonna cover everyone from further out. The outpost is on a high dune, so they’ll probably see us comin’. We’ll start takin’ out their defenses long before you get there, though, and you guys can do the butcher’s work. Two from each side. You and Reed from the east. Chopper and Vulture from the west. Understood?”
Big Ed nodded. “Understood.” And Marv rode off to make sure everyone else knew the plan.
“You know that’s not what we’re doing,” Mavery said softly enough that only Big Ed could hear it over the engine of his sand bike. “Right?”
Big Ed nodded and rode off after the other bikes. They reached a high dune where Mavery could see a metal watchtower far in the distance and stopped. Big Ed shut the engine down and got down off the bike. Mavery noticed the Hispanic bandit they all called Scope standing near her, holding the long rifle with several barrels and a scope, hence his nickname. He wore a black bandana had an eyepatch covered his right eye, making him look sort of like a pirate from some old adventure story. Mavery got down off the bike. “You’re stayin’ with me,” Scope muttered. “And don’t do nothin’ that’ll distract me or I’ll gut ya.” Mavery noticed that the others were already walking away. She felt more vulnerable than ever without Big Ed nearby.
Scope wasn’t much of a conversationalist. Mavery figured that was probably a good thing, though, as she watched the other seven men walk to a dune between them and the watchtower. She probably didn’t want to hear anything Scope had to say. He aimed his weapon and started firing multiple shots at the watchtower. Several laser blasts from the tower hit the dune where the others were, but none came close to Mavery and Scope. Scope continued firing at the watchtower and Mavery watched as smoke rose up from it. She wasn’t sure what to do. Scope was far more muscular than her, but maybe she could surprise him. He had a knife in his belt and laser pistol to go with the large rifle. Maybe she could wrestle one of the weapons away from him. He glanced at her, seeming to know what she was thinking.
Now, Marv and the two bandits with him were firing at the watchtower with RLR’s and high powered rifles and there were flames flicking up to go with the smoke. Mavery watched in the distance as four shapes closed in on the tower. She could see the largest of the four men and knew it was Big Ed. He was firing at the watchtower. She started breathing heavily as the anger built up in her. They’d agreed they would help the resistance. Mavery felt the need to do something, but Scope was still looking at her. “I think it’s over,” he said. “They’re dead. I don’t see no more lasers comin’ out of that tower.”
Mavery frowned as the four distant shapes entered the tower. “Sure,” she said. “That’s great.”
A few minutes later, everyone was congregated near the sand bikes once again. “Well, that was easy,” Marv said as he mounted his sand bike. He grinned at Scope. “Let’s head to the tower. They got some good stuff in there. Some RLR’s. Another surface to air. Laser rifles and pistols up the wazoo. Concussion grenades, portable chargin’ stations. And best of all, they had a heat vapor canon. It’s like Christmas morning! ‘Cept our toys kill people.” He grinned as he started his engine and headed towards the tower, followed by the other IAO bandits.
Big Ed got on his sand bike and started the engine also, nodding towards Mavery. “You comin’?”
Mavery frowned. “I don’t know!”
“You ain’t gonna stay out here,” he said. “You okay?”
“No,” Mavery said. “I’m not okay.” She felt like a traitor.
“There was no way those resistance guys were gonna beat us,” Big Ed said. “If we joined them, we’d be dead, too.”
“Maybe,” Mavery said as she walked over and got onto the bike. “At least we’d still have our souls.”
Big Ed took off after the other bikes. “Don’t be so melodramatic. We still gonna leave. Just not yet. When the time is right.”
“It’s too late,” Mavery muttered. Maybe she’d have to leave on her own. She’d never felt so betrayed. She felt sick to her stomach as she watched the dunes fly past. Part of her wanted to jump off the sand bike right then and there. She didn’t though. She kept holding Big Ed’s waist as he rode through the desert.
Abby opened the tent flap carefully, her laser pistol drawn. The moon shined down, providing the only pale light on the dunes as Abby looked into the tent to see Ace and Annabelle snuggled together in their sleeping bag. She pointed her laser pistol at Ace’s face. She moved it to Annabelle’s as the pretty redhead slept, her eyes closed and her mouth snoring. Abby prepared to fire, but she didn’t. She just continued aiming the pistol. She’d be doing the world a favor. Who knew how many innocent people Ace and Annabelle had killed? Who knew how many more they’d kill? Abby looked outside the tent to see Della standing nearby, staring at her with folded arms. He was wearing his black pants and black shirt, and he was smiling and shaking his head. Abby put the gun back in its holster and walked over to Della, frowning. “We need to leave,” she said. “I don’t feel comfortable with them anymore.”
“Honey,” Della said, still shaking his head, “you knew what you were getting into. Why do you seem so surprised?”
“Why do you seem like you don’t care?” Abby asked.
“Oh, I care,” Della said. “I just know when to fish and when to cut bait. Come with me.” The two of them walked away from the hover car and the tents and sat down on the side of the dune, looking out at the moon and the stars.
“The dead haunt my dreams,” Abby said. “Judith and the men I killed in Primrose. Do you ever dream of the people you’ve killed?”
Della nodded. “All the time.”
“Do you think Ace and Annabelle do?”
Della shrugged and shook his head. “I don’t know. It gets easier the more you do it, just like anything else.”
“How many people do I have to kill for it to get easy?” Abby asked. “How many people have you killed?”
“I’ve lost count,” Della said. “Look, Abby, I know you’re a good person. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t even care that you’ve killed people. It wouldn’t even bother you. Just like it doesn’t seem to bother Annabelle.”
“What about Ace?” Abby asked.
Della smiled. “Now he’s a different story. It’s hard to figure him out sometimes. It’s hard to know what’s really him and what’s just the façade he chooses to show us.”
Abby laughed. “Says the drag queen.”
“It takes one to know one I guess.”
Della shook his head. “Actor.”
Abby nodded. “Della, what did you do before you joined the resistance? Where did you learn to shoot so well?”
Della grinned. Abby could tell his mind was drifting off. “I grew up in Weston,” he said. “With a single mother. Wasn’t much to do in Weston if you wanted to stay alive unless you joined a gang. So I joined a gang. We dealt drugs. We robbed people, killed people, and I got caught and ended up in prison.”
“A gang in Weston?” Abby asked. Della nodded. “What color?” Abby asked. “Red or blue.”
Della smiled. “I’ll never tell.” He winked at her.
“How did they take your sexuality?” Abby asked. “I mean, gangs aren’t known for being open minded when it comes to homosexuality, are they?”
“I kept it under wraps back then,” Della said. “Anyway, in prison I met a man who got me thinking about the resistance and what they stood for. He gave me the Trials of the Downtrodden by Eric Bates, and I read it cover to cover. I read more, like the Open Utopia by Henri Popper and a bunch of other stuff, and when I finally got out, I decided my time would be better spent fighting for the resistance than dealing drugs.”
Abby nodded. “Do you think what we’re doing now is okay? Stealing for the resistance, I mean.”
Della shrugged. “There’s a fine line between what’s right and what isn’t when you’re fighting for a cause.”
“Did we cross that line today?”
“We didn’t,” Della said. “Ace and Annabelle may have.”
“What should we do about them?” Abby asked.
“I don’t know,” Della said. “Maybe forgive them. We’re stuck with them for better or for worse.”
“Forgive them for killing innocent people?” Abby asked.
“Forgiveness isn’t about the past,” Della said. “It isn’t about what someone has done. It’s about the future. It’s about looking forward. And not seeing who someone is or was necessarily, but who they can become. I mean look at me, I’ve changed a lot through the years. Maybe Ace and Annabelle can change.”
Abby bit her lip. “I don’t think so. I think you are right about one thing, though. I think we’re stuck with them for better or for worse, and I take full responsibility for that.” She stood and walked back towards her tent, as it was time for Della to relieve her on watch duty.
“Have a good night’s sleep, Abby,” Della said.
“Thanks,” she said as she got into her tent. She turned on her flashlight and looked at the floor of the tent next to her sleeping bag where Pastor Earl’s Bible and Bobby’s book he’d given her lay. She wished Pastor Earl were still alive. Einstein was useless to her now, and while Della was a good person to talk to, he didn’t have Pastor Earl’s wisdom. Even Nat had some morals. Definitely more than her present company other than Della. Nat would have been a good person to talk to. Or Bobby. Bobby had been Abby’s rock. She didn’t realize how much she’d miss him. Her eyes drifted from the Bible to On the Road and she picked up the latter. She stared at the pages and the words seemed to dance around. She couldn’t concentrate. If only she had some pain killers to take the edge off. Abby shook off the thought and continued trying to read until she fell asleep for the night, her head resting on the open book.
Continue on to the next chapter:
Afterlife, Volume 2, Chapter 32
Nat and his deputies attack an IAO stronghold.
Warrick Baines is given some key information.
Mark Gonzalez and his group experience another delay.
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