Back at the truck Father greets us with open arms. His thick dark hair falls about his face and in the half-light of the sun he looks, for a moment, younger than he should. Care lines and old scars fade and he is once again the man I knew back on the farm. But his eyes darken as he sees us running towards him, our clothes filthy and torn and our faces pale. Then I see again the man that roared and screamed into the trapped night beneath the moth mountain.
“People tried to take us.” Susanna buries her head in his chest and he holds her tight, his hand reaching out to touch my shoulder and draw me in. I pull away from him, the memory of the rage machine he could become still fresh and haunting.
“What did they look like,” Father asks, his hand falling back to Susanna’s head.
How can I answer that?
“Señor?” A woman approaches us. She is tanned and draped in a sack dress, her hands dripping with wooden beads and tiny figures of some religion I do not know. Her skin, the comforting dusty brown of my own families, makes me think that she is some survivor of the raider attack on the farm. She speaks again, and my simple hopes are turned to childish lies.
“Señor,” she puts her hand on Father’s shoulder. “The girl… would you- ”
Susanna is up and scrambling away from her, Father rising to his full height, his fists balling as he faces the woman. She quails.
“Get away from my daughter,” Father shakes as he speaks, anger threatening to bubble up beneath the words. I cannot help but shrink away.
“Señor,” a small man runs forward, taking the woman by the shoulders, “Señor, she meant no offence.”
Father faces them, his mouth set in a grim line and his heavy brows bunched like thunderheads.
“What do you want?”
“The girl, she… she reminds us of our daughter. Just a lock of hair, that is all we would ask. We would pay.” He trembles and huddles close to his wife. The both look at Father, at Susanna, at me. People in the street pass by, staring and saying nothing.
Father’s shoulders slump and his head bows.
“Go away, please,” he says simply. Father and the man share a look, before the couple turn and walk away, the woman huddled up and weeping against her husband’s shoulder.
A meal of cold bean wraps and a swig of questionable milk are all the food we eat that day as we huddle in the cab of the truck. Night falls although the hustle and hum of the town does not end. Outside the windows I can see the grey night illuminated by blushes of strange colour from signs and exotic lamps.
“I found a caravan heading East, across the Land Bridge,” Mother says.
“What’s the Land Bridge?” I ask.
“What do you think,” she smiles as she settles back into her seat.
“A bridge? Of land?”
Mother laughs and the fatigue melts from her face. We sit in soft silence, chewing the wraps, listening to our breathing and the hum of the night outside.
Susanna looks out the window.
“Err, family. Have a look at this.”
In the street outside a man stands. His arms are raised up and wooden beads are cupped in his hands, a cross symbol dangling from his wrist. More people arrive, each one either kneeling or raising their hands to us. Some stay only moments, others look as if they may not rise for days. I recognise the grey skinned man from before, his face still heavy with lumps and his eyes just as wet and red. I see crude prosthetic limbs being raised to us, heads covered in scars or sores bowed and hear words from a hundred languages all murmuring what I can only think of as a prayer.
“Todo-Padre,” Mother mutters. She reaches for the door handle, I assume she intends to tell them to leave, but Father touches her hand with his.
The people stand or kneel in the dirt, candles and small torches scattering light across them. They chant and sway and mutter or else weep in bitter reverence.
Back on the farm, when we lost a family member to flux or injury, we would lay them in the barn and pray to the gods for their safe keeping. I remember my aunt passing. Mother sat by her head all night, the statue of Hodin in her lap as she stroked her sister’s hair.
Tonight we are the ones being paid vigil to, we were the ones form whom prayers are said.
Are we dead? Have we died and not yet realised? Or do these strange people simply know that we will die soon.
All night long they stay, their soft chanting and weeping like rain against the windows. Unsurprisingly none of us sleep well.
Hand carts and pedestrians vie for space with beaten down old combustion walkers on the road. The sheer weight of foot traffic makes the journey like a squeeze through a pipe.
Mother walks to my left, Father and Susanna to my right. People still stare, some whispering behind their hands, others talking and calling to their friends. Father has one of his axes drawn, the hiss and sizzle of its blade keeping most people at a distance and, although I do not see it, I know Mother is armed.
We pass some mighty scrap hall filled with cyber augmented giant ants that pick through the waste metal, carrying the precious few pieces worth salvage and resale to their overseer for examination. Several of the beasts turn their heads towards us and chitter in some strange binary code, their feelers and antenna swivelling to aim at Mother’s bionic arm.
A tentacled woman with three breasts eyes Father from her perch outside a filthy grog shop, as if measuring him for a fight. Her drinking partner, a hooded monk with features like a dented oil drum, leers at Mother from over his mug.
“Why are these people so… so different?” My sister has her hands on her wrench and I see the distinctive outline of one of my grandfather’s pistols hidden in her overalls.
“That’s what years of exposure to radiation will do for you,” Mother doesn’t take her eyes off the crowds.
We had been told of the Meta-People and their Great War and about the mighty devises that had been unleashed by each side during the conflict. Grandfather had a map on which he had marked out the Dead Areas, places so blighted by toxic madness that no one would ever be able to go there. Mother had explained about the horrors of potential radiation exposure.
But seeing its effects… I have no words for it. If I had a man made of soft wax then I could never have sculpted him into such variety.
“Hieme,” Father’s voice breaks me from my thoughts. “We’re here.”
The carriage station looms above us. It is the colour of pollution and despair, set against the days new clouds like a fairy tale castle of doom. Its office windows look out across the squalor of the town like disapproving eyes.
Mother hopes to book us passage on the caravan here. It leaves in a few days so we must be quick. On the outer door we pass a pair of guards dressed in long robes that do little to disguise the blades and pistols they carry. Inside the building we find ourselves in short hall with a second set of guards and a barred door.
“Business?” One asks.
“We want to see the Trade Lord,” Mother says.
“He’s busy. I can’t admit anyone unless you’re on my official list.” He waves a hand and grins in a way that makes me think that there is no list, official or otherwise.
“My name is Maeve Ortega. I used to be known as Maeve Chul. Check your list. I will be on it.”
The guard stares. So does his partner. Father clears his throat and mutters, “tell everyone, why don’t you.”
The first Guard shifts, his hands trying to move out of site. Father shakes his head and the guard stops.
“Let me check,” he says and slips through the doors.
It takes no more than a minute for him return and we are ushered into a room that was once beautiful and opulent but has now become thick with mould and grime. As we enter I see an enormous man standing behind a desk. He looms a head and shoulders taller than the colossal men I saw the day before and carries a pipe as long as I am tall in one hand. He is naked except for a tattered pair of trousers. His skin has the same thick blotchiness as the freaks in the market and I recognise him as a mutant, one of the Mangle Men my Father has spoken of before.
Sitting at the desk is a short fat man with a long nose and a widow’s peek. Mother walks us towards the pair and gives a formal looking bow.
“Greetings, Trade Lord.”
“Greetings, Ortega.” The portly little man gives us a knowing grin. His coat is a thing of faded finery, patched and nearly threadbare and stained with Hodin only knows what.
“We would like to book passage on your caravan heading East.”
The fat man plays idly with a battered old pen, toying with the priceless artefact as if it were inconsequential.
“What do you offer in payment?”
“We own a large truck, fully customised for both war and commerce. It would be a fine addition to your fleet. We would also offer our services to the caravan master as either guards or guides. The Land Bridge is a perilous place, especially if you pass through the Scrap King’s empire.”
The Trade Lord pursed his lips and leaned back in his chair.
“That would be an acceptable price.”
Mother and Father started to smile.
“For two people. You have four. What will you pay for the children to travel?”
The Trade Lord leaned forward, his gaze sweeping over Susanna.
“I think a girl like that would be welcome in caravan, provided she knows her place.” He made an obscene gesture with his mouth. “Maybe the boy too, my Caravan Master has particular tastes and I’m sure your boy could be trained to fulfil them.”
Both my parents stare at him. The mutant chuckles.
“Why?” Mother’s eyes narrow.
“Oh, you know why, Ortega. Or have you forgotten New Birmingham.”
Father places his hand on her shoulder –
– faster than I would have thought possible, Mother reaches across the desk and grabs the man by his coat.
“You son of a bitch,” she spits in his face, “you son of a fucking bitch!” She tries to haul the Trade Lord across the wood but mutant thug behind snatches his legs and for a brief moment Mother and the monster struggle in a tug of war with the fat little man.
“Help,” the Trade Lord screams as they pull. The mutant is far bigger and heavier than Mother and although her augmetic grants tremendous strength she is dragged forward.
“Fuck you and New Birmingham, fascist,” Mother’s face is red with anger, her dark curls flying across her face. Father picks her up by the waist and yanks her as hard as he can. She loses her grip and falls on top of him.
“Guards, guards!” The Trade Lord roars, a second armed guard stomping into view, its green skin thick with warts and scars. More arrive, the cloaked men from the front, now exposing their junk guns and scrapyard cannons. “Kill them,” their master orders.
Mother comes up, her hand clutching the statue of Hodin, it’s eyes glowing with a red light. My father surges upright as well, his axe brandished in both hands, the glacier cold of the blade making the air crisp and tight.
Guns clatter as safety switches are flipped off and a long low buzzing groan emerges from Father. The studs in his skull gleam like pearls in moonlight.
“You know what happens next,” Mother’s voice is not weak, not frantic or angry. She is calm. “You all know what happens,” she pointed at the Trade Lord, “and you all know who it would happen to first. So back away. Let us leave and never come after us.”
The Trade Lord pulls himself upright. He wants to give them the order to kill us, I can feel it. I just know it. He wants us to die. But he knows what will happen. He has seen what people like Mother and Father can do. Whatever happened at New Birmingham, he saw it.
“Go,” he says.