The twenty-one gear plowed through the ash along highway 70. With each downward stroke of the pedal, Eura felt the sharp pain of lactic acid course along the tense muscle fibers of her leg. Enhanced musculature or not, cycling though a sea of inch-thick ash was a workout.
She got off the highway just past a restaurant with a caved in roof. A sign out front advertised all-you-could-eat pancakes, the thick globs of melted butter running down a plate and mixing with the sausages and eggs. She salivated at the sight. Protein bars were well and good for fighting off starvation, but that was it. Right now, she would murder to get some pancakes.
The road went due east, residential streets branching off. Mobile homes for the most part. The homes not covered in ash or consumed by fire were missing doors when looters pried off the hinges. Low moans swelled out like lonely ghosts from some of the homes. Junkie squatters searching for their next high, or a place to die.
Finding a house with a more stable foundation, she propped the bicycle against the legs of a car port and pulled herself onto the roof in one smooth motion. She walked across the metal siding and jumped to the roof of the home, knocking the satellite dish to the ground with the force of her impact. The dish crashed against the brick fence and hit a Toyota parked peacefully under the car port. The car alarm went off, announcing her arrival in town as clearly as shouting.
“So much for stealth,” Eura groaned. She tip-toed across the roof and looked out to the north. The fence cut a straight line east-west from were she sat, walling off a large section of the center of town. In a vast, empty parking lot, a great bonfire raged surround by several pieces of patio furniture. She looked through the binoculars into the fading daylight. Hools, about twenty or so from a quick count, each armed with weapons ranging from golf clubs to assault rifles, milled about talking and pointing in her direction. Fucking car. Soon enough, they’ll be coming her way. With surprise on her side, she could take down a handful, possibly even before they got a shot off. And if he came, well… that would be the end of it.
She scanned the parking lot. Where was he? Even from this distance, he would stand out like an oak in the lifeless desert. A gate opened in the fence and a troop of Compound thugs marched out, the car alarm blaring her location. A shadow moving in her peripheral. What that him? She swiveled the nocs finding nothing but the fire.
“Fucking seeing things,” she murmured.
She refocused the lenses. Just past the parking lot was the shop. The Repair Shop.
“What a clever name.”
The sound of voices over the blaring of the horn. She didn’t need the nocs to see them now. Four of them, each with military-style assault rifles. Guns resting in lazy hands or propped on the shoulder, the thugs were more prepared for a night of drinking than guerrilla fighting. She slipped down from the house, hopped the fences to get a better view of them coming. Their backs were to her now, about a dozen yards away. Eura slid the knife out from her belt.
She took a deep breath.
Crouching low, she ran down the road, silent as a bat. Eight yards. The car alarm now warning the men of their approaching death.Three yards. Their footsteps crunched road gravel. She grabbed the bearded on by the forehead, exposing his throat to her knife. An eruption of hot blood drenching his companions. On the backstroke, she threw the dagger at her next target, burying it up to the hilt in his neck. A silent spinning kick brought a third to the ground, the fall driving the air from his chest. She stomped on his throat, the heel of her boot crushing his larynx. Now the final victim raised his weapon. She charged into him, throwing his aim off balance, and slamming the heel of her palm into his nose. Before the man could scream, Eura rotated her wrist to cover his mouth. Down they went, landing in a cloud of ash. Eura jabbing her deadly fingers into the man’s neck over and over until his struggling finally ceased.
“How do you shut this fucking thing up?” one of the thugs asked.
She watched them from her vantage point down the street as they examined the car.
“Lucky little shits,” she said and made for the bicycle.
The bonfire reached out into the clouded night, tendrils of flame grasping out like demonic fingers. The silhouettes of more than fifty thugs gathered in the twilight gloom, drinking and laughing, their muffled voices riding the still desert breeze to reach her ears. With it came the intoxicating smell of cooking, setting her stomach to angry growling. She reminded it of the origin of the food, that it was unfit for consumption, but it only protested the louder.
She looked from thug to thug through the binoculars. Still no sign of the Tower. She sighed out her bottled up tension. He wasn’t here. The old man was just cracked. Sitting alone in the middle of that dreadful desert with nothing to keep him company but a voiceless automat, endless dunes, and fading memories made him soft in the head. Eura had been close to that state herself once, squatting in a suburban home with the ghosts of the past all around her. She wandered from house to house, seeking distraction from the mind-numbing boredom, examining portraits and speculating on family histories. She kept this up for three straight months, until she saw the photo. It wasn’t anything particularly striking, just a family of three down at the beach on a summer’s day. The father wore a fisherman’s hat, the mother’s long, blond hair shimming in the noon-day sun, her sunglasses catching the light in a spectacular lens flare. Their daughter, about ten years old, laughed as she smeared a handful of sand against her father’s stubbled face. Behind them was the sea. An endless blue plain, twinkling like the stars Eura rarely saw. Above the azure blue, the cloudless sky hovered, a heavenly curtain unfolding the world’s natural beauty.
Eura picked up the photo, leaving thumbprint of blackened ash on the chipped, wooden frame. She removed the back paneling and took it out. There was no mention of place or date, but Eura was convinced she could find the wide, blue sea out west.
Out west. That was all she ever needed. Bathing in the pure waters of the ocean, washing off the unclean ash of the world. Exposing herself now would only prove she was alive. No one in the Compound had seen her for months, even the Tower thought her dead. What would she gain by popping up now? Another lifetime of running, if she didn’t die right here. And killing the Tower, wouldn’t stop the Compound. They would come after her like wolves on the scent, tracking her fear and anger.
She swiveled the binoculars until she found the garage, not too far from, just on the other side of the fence. She leapt down from the roof, scurrying through shadows like a weary mouse, and reached the fence. It was ten-feet tall, cannibalized from various wooden and metal structures, and tipped with razor wire. Eura cocked her head and pushed hard on the barrier. It resisted her with little more give than a brick wall. Gripping a support post, she clambered up the fence like a monkey, arm-over-arm, and paused just a foot from the wire.
Ears alert for any sound over her own steady breathing, but there was nothing except friendly chatting from the fire a hundred hards away. Eura licked her lips, bent her knees against the fence, and vaulted over the wire. She cleared the deadly blades easily, but did not count on the pile of electronic garbage awaiting her arrival on the other side.
“Shit!” she squeaked before she landed feet first into the pile. Metal clashed as she struggled to spring out. Circuit boards rattled against steel frames, which jostled against hundreds and hundreds of cell phones, a rat caught in a mountain of spring traps.
She got of the pile, the last of the cell phones settling back into meta-stability, and listened, hearing nothing but the air in her nose and the pounding of her heart. She rushed to the backdoor of the garage, locked of course, and so dashed to the window. It was secured with a simple lever, the kind she had forced so many times back in the suburb, but then she didn’t have to bother with silence. She got a grip under the sill and strained against the lock. It didn’t budge. She stopped. Voices, coming closer. She pried at the window again, but the lock continued to defy her. She sneered at it, wishing she had the time to break the damn window.
“It’d have to be a big fuckin’ rat,” a woman’s gruff voice said.
Abandoning the window, she ran to the front of the building, sticking to the shadows just under the roof. The fire was in plain sight with a cluster of thugs milling in front of it, a murder of black crows looking for a quick meal. Eura turned and wiped the ash from the front window to look into the garage, but could see nothing in the darkness.
“There’s nothing here,” a man’s voice said.
“Then what made the noise, Jim? Ghosts?”
“Maybe. How the shit should I know?”
Eura crept to along the front of the garage and to the glass front doors. The were padlocked with a chain between the bars.
“God damn it, old man.” She grasped the handles and tested the strength of the chain with a tentative tug.
The window exploded. Shards of glass launching in all directions as Eura covered her face with an arm. She turned, ready to run when a large object rocketed just inches from her face and smashed into the other window. Glass stabbed her in the neck and face. She fell to her knees from the pain and shock.
A laugh, deep and familiar, rolled across the empty landscape like thunder, echos bouncing off empty buildings. The oncoming of the storm.
“Here you are, little dumpling.”