Rosie was all but asleep on her father’s shoulder when I came out dressed in the coverall – yeah, it was damp in uncomfortable places but I’d been a lot worse off in my time – and my pack over one shoulder. Our “ride” was a four-seater off road buggy. The tires were fat and attached to a frame that had all-wheel suspension. It was little more than a metal frame with canvas skin except for its motor that was a dual purpose electric/fuel model. On top sat several small solar collectors that charged the motor and gave it its quiet and distinct sound.
And no I didn’t know all of this at first glance, machines aren’t my thing; I had to listen to Asa explain it all to me from where he road shotgun up front while Rob and Rosie and I squeezed into the two seats in the back. Eventually though Asa stopped talking as the night settled in around us on all sides.
Driving as fast as we were going with no lights was making me nauseous; it was like rappelling down elevator shafts with people after you, running level to level in underground parking lots, or trying to avoid predators in the storm drains. Probably like living all the time down in the subway tunnels but I’d never been scared enough or dumb enough to hide down there more than twice; there’s things down there that will eat you from the toes us and not all of them are four legged.
Rob must have sensed my discomfort because he said, “It’s all right. He really can see you know. He and Asa are both wearing night vision helmets. Asa is the one that fixed the depth perception problem they used to have and it is only minor now.” Great. I could have done with knowing that.
The night seemed endless and I lost track of how far we travelled and how many different twists and turns that we made. The buggy started to noticeably slow and Carmine started muttering and slamming the dashboard. “You break it and I’m not going to be the one to fix it this time,” Asa finally snarled at him.
Finally the sun came up and as soon as it hit a certain angle I could feel the power pouring back into the machine. But it wasn’t enough and it wasn’t soon enough. Carmine really started cursing when a road block appeared suddenly after we made a blind turn.
We pulled to a stop and in the resulting quiet a man said, “Well, well, well look who we have here … and so far from home too.” The speaker was a nasty looking piece of business with dirty blonde hair, bad teeth, and an attitude twice the size of his massive body. “And look boys, they brought us some toll candy.” Masculine laughter bellowed and I could tell it wasn’t the first time they’d made that joke.
Rosie was terrified. I could feel it coming off of her in waves. Rob, so easy going and nice up to that point, suddenly felt dangerous; like the apes that had lived over in the park that surrounded the old zoo. I had no doubt he would pound on any threat to his child. Carmine was coldly appraising, Asa calm and watchful.
I had my pack in my lap and holding onto it tight with one hand while the other was hidden beneath it holding onto my slingshot with a death grip. I watched as two other men made themselves plainly seen though they weren’t as big as the first guy.
My brain started categorizing the scene like I had learned to do on the streets. First guy to talk was the alpha. Next two guys dangerous, intimidating … but just worker bees, easy to lead. Big Alpha Due was only alpha because there was no one smarter around. He ruled by might, not by intellect. I could tell by the way he relied on his bulk to intimidate that he was a bully and not a brain. Vehicle blocking the road is a four-seater. No other vehicles in sight. That means there is one, maybe two guys, that are hidden. They weren’t surprised when we came around the corner – already had their rifles drawn and ready – so one of the unseen was the spotter.
My peripheral vision is very good. Without having to turn my head I saw a bush move a little and then saw a man making his way slowly through the hillside scrub above and to our right using rock outcroppings as cover. Here was the spotter … and one with no qualms about shooting people in the back.
When the Big Alpha Dude’s nod sent the two worker bees forward the whole dynamic suddenly changed. I felt Rob tense and saw Carmine and Asa going for handguns in the doors of the buggy. The worker bees started to raise their rifles, Asa and Carmine pulled the pistols out of the holsters. I decided to pick a side and it wasn’t the one belonging to tall, blonde and ooky. As Carmine and Asa got the pistols above the dash board I rolled out and onto the ground, grabbing a couple of stones from the old road bed. Rob laid Rosie over and protected her with his body and I came up loaded and cocked just as the guy on the hill revealed himself. I left fly with a solid thunk that took the spotter right in his temple. I loaded and cocked again and turned towards the Big Alpha Dude. I wasn’t completely set, being a little out of practice aiming on the move, and I only caught him in the mouth but that was damage enough to seriously distract him, long enough for Asa and Carmine to finish off the worker bees. Big Alpha Dude tried to take aim again and Carmine finished him off with a shot to the head.
As soon as that was finished I ran for the back of the truck and started tossing things out all willy nilly. Asa shouted, “Hey! What are you doing?!”
I stuck my head out of the canvas covered back and looked from him to Carmine. It sounded like the sec boss was being forced to drink battery acid but he said, “Leave her go. She’s right, we don’t need this getting traced to us. Make it look like a pack of raiders snuck up on them. Help me strip these guys down so we can get out of here.”
Pointing I told them, “Don’t forget the guy up there.”
They both jumped like they’d been goosed. I’d caught the spotter before he could get off a shot and I don’t guess they had realized he was there. Carmine did some fancy cussing but the climbed the incline and dragged the guy down from where he was hung up under some scraggly bushes. I left them to it and went back to work. I might have been tossing things around but that didn’t mean I wasn’t doing it with a purpose. When I was finished Carmine caught me by surprise, pulled me backwards out of the truck and asked, “OK, what’d you take Rat?”
I jerked out of his reach and told him, “Ball bearings, a tube of grease, some funky rope, a knife, wire strippers, and a big screwdriver.” I figured he was likely to frisk me if I gave him half a reason to so as much as I wanted to kick him I didn’t.
He came towards me to shake me down and I backed up ready to fight but Rob said in a resigned voice, “Carmine, let it go.”
“She could have the gold or silver. I don’t know what she found and what she didn’t.”
I sneered. “I don’t care what you think but I have more sense than to try and carry stuff like that around. It weighs too much and you can’t eat it and everyone will just try and hunt you down and kill you to take it from you. If you want to bother with it go ahead, it’s probably in the metal box behind the driver’s seat; it looks sec locked.” I purposefully ignored him at that point and told Rob, “There’s a first aid kit and some food in a crate in the back.”
I don’t know why but Carmine suddenly just relaxed, “What were you hoping to find?”
Still suspicious about whether it was a trap or not I nevertheless responded truthfully, “Clothes that would fit.”
Carmine nodded and then hopped into the back of the truck and started digging through the mess I had already made. I sighed and could have kicked myself for warning, “I didn’t see any sleeping gear. They may have a camp close by.”
Asa said to me, “You aren’t exactly walking around with a plethora of camping stuff yourself you know.”
“Right, but these guys aren’t rats … something tells me their too soft, or maybe used to comfort, to sleep on a piece of plastic on the ground.”
Asa looked at Carmine and Carmine at me. “Fine, fine. Whatever. You are what you say you are Rat. And you’re right; but they wouldn’t be camping out. We are less than half day’s drive from Firewater and these guys are probably a patrol. The blonde looks like the kind of merc that Dabney favors. Guy you took out – and you’re gonna show me how a little bit of nothing like you did that with just that stupid rubber band you’ve been playing with – is definitely one of Dabney’s. I’ve seen him a couple of times. If you’re looking for clothes, take his pack. He’s the closest in size to you.”
I upended the pack he indicated. I looked at the spare set of clothes and decided that they’d be better than the coveralls. A little narrow in the hips, too big in the waist, and the shirt completely swallowed me but with a little work they’d do. When I tossed the pack with everything else still in it back on the pile Asa and Rob were going through Rob said, “You took him … by rights the whole pack and contents is yours.”
People like him were too nice to be let out without a keeper and that’s probably why his brother had agreed to Carmine going with him to get Rosie. I shrugged, “I travel light; always have. What’s the use in collecting stuff if you can’t hold it and take care of it? If it just weighs you down?”
The men loaded a few things into the buggy and we were finally on our way. I caught Rosie staring at me out of the corner of my eye. I slowly turned to look at her. She smiled and despite myself I gave her a small smile back. My small one caused her to beam and that seemed to be all she wanted. She snuggled up to her father and I saw that he was more than willing to play teddy bear.
I jumped as a memory chinked into place. I couldn’t really remember how old I had been but it was raining outside and I was sitting in my dad’s lap. I felt … safe … and loved; I almost didn’t recognize what I was feeling. It was just a flash but it was more than I had remembered in so long it took my breath away. I rode the rest of the way in silence and didn’t care what anyone thought.
I kind of noted how Carmine waved a couple of times but we never stopped. Then we left the old black top and hit a gravel road that took us into a small town that looked like the buildings were left over from an old western movie set. The buggy had slowed to a crawl as we drove down the street then around the corner and up to a tall stockade wall. A woman rushed out of the gate and Rosie and Rob nearly fell out of the buggy trying to run to meet her. They walked off arm-in-arm without a backwards glance.
I turned only in time to see Asa being hauled away by some people slapping him on the back and laughing. That left Carmine and I saw he was talking to a couple of other people that had his full attention. I mentally shrugged and figured it was the end of the line and set the pack more easily and started walking back down the street to go out of town. A few people gave me a curious glance but mostly they minded their own business; that was kinda nice I have to admit. I felt the free to walk where I wanted to and I hadn’t felt like that in a long time.
The only problem with people leaving you alone to make your own decisions though is that you have to make your own decisions. When you make the wrong decision you only have yourself to blame. I read someplace that with freedom comes responsibility and consequences; as a slave you don’t have any responsibility for yourself and your decisions.
As I walked, or in this area I suppose you would have called it hiking, I thought about freedom. The call of the Street Rat was freedom; it was the one thing that was supposed to make our life livable. We thought of ourselves as ultimately free as you could get. But after I lost my freedom to SEPH I realized I wasn’t as free as I thought I was as a Street Rat. As a Street Rat I lived in anarchy; anarchy is not really freedom. Anarchy is a lack of order and control, freedom is the opposite so long as it is chosen order and chosen control.
In SEPH they took away what freedom I did have and tried to substitute it with something that was only an illusion of freedom; if I did all I was told to do then they would place me with someone that they chose and I could serve my purpose to society. My choice was to serve my purpose or not serve my purpose … but it was at the whim of society, not really true freedom where I got to choose what that purpose was. My personal desires, wants, and needs had nothing to do with it and because of that the other part of freedom wasn’t there … personal accountability. If someone else is choosing your purpose then how can you be personally accountable for the choice?
Frankly it all gave me a headache. I wanted freedom … something inside me craved it … but I wasn’t real sure I yet knew what freedom was since I had never fully experienced it. I felt that I was closer in the Wastelands but I wasn’t sure that I was there quite yet.