Brett P. S.
Copyright © 2016 Brett P. S.
All rights reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
CHAPTER 1 – MINDS OF MORTAL MEN
CHAPTER 2 – UNSUSTAINABLE PARADISE
CHAPTER 3 – THREAT OF THE COMBINE
CHAPTER 4 – SEPARATE WAYS
Leon Godwin leaned back against the rickety interior lining of his e he twirled a piece of driftwood around with his fingertips. With the other hand, he cleaned the sweat from his brow and slicked back his ginger peppered hair. His face bore the marks of lashings and beatings, a weathered exterior not unlike his back, though he kept it covered most of the time. Some things, mortals didn’t have to see, little secrets he kept to himself.
He hardly recalled the time before the collapse, the muddied memories drifting about in his mind for the better half of two centuries. Brains weren’t nearly as reliable as computing technology, but good luck acquiring those goods. What little his crew could salvage from the wastelands amounted to tin cans and meager scraps of meat from carrion and lost cargo. The weather was growing worse here in the Midwest and morale had begun to reflect the apparent climate changes.
He jammed the staff into a wedge in the dirt by his feet and pulled himself off the wall at the sound of footsteps echoing through the outer halls of his enclave. The team had returned earlier than usual, an unfortunate resolution to the last great hunt before the end of this summer.
Leon frowned and strode over toward the exit of this particular chasm within the underground, but he stopped once the pacing increased abruptly. He could feel the tension in the footsteps mounting, and he drew back to grab his staff with a calm and collected stride. He snatched up his staff, tightening his grip as the clamoring of footsteps gathered and faded at the entrance behind him.
“Who is it this time?” Leon asked. “What scrawny runt do I have to beat down before you lot learn your place?”
He turned to face a group of youths in tattered garbs stitched together from fabrics gathered across the Midwest wasteland. His enclave had grown from 100 strong to nearly 200 over the last two summers, a greedy leap in numbers accompanied by a proportional call for good management. Unfortunately, good men and women were hard to come by. It felt to him that as soon as one matured, they wasted away or the wasteland struck them down through illness or war. Famine played its part as well, but the crops fared well this year.
Leon sighed and twirled his staff around while the children spoke ill thoughts. In the midst of the chatter, an older bearded man stepped out, brandishing an archaic weapon with a smug grin. It was neither blade nor staff. Leon eyed the contraption with a raised eyebrow.
The man’s name was a passing afterthought, but he recognized him as one of the individuals who worked directly beneath his second. It was a poorly coup to say the least. The mortal should have jumped at the chance, rather than stop to savor the moment, though if he actually managed to repair a working carbine, then Leon sorely underestimated the rabble.
“We’re giving you a choice,” the man said. Really now? How just. “You can leave this enclave to my council of associates or forfeit your life. The world no longer requires those of higher blood. You can revel in your curse as you wander elsewhere. I really don’t care as long as you relinquish your leadership.”
Leon smirked and eyed the youths’ faces. Their darting looks and trembling fingers clutching their knives told a very different story from the one able bodied combatant in the group, and the only reason he held any kind of confidence was because of the ruin that rested in his hands. Leon took a step forward and then to the side. He watched the group squirm, noting their jerked movements. This would be easy so long as he took out the big one.
“You have no chance against me,” he said to them, issuing an icy stare. “I’ve outlasted countless insurrections. You were not the first, and you certainly will not be the last. Ultimately, I will outlast you. You will grow old, wither and die and in your last breaths curse me as I send you off to the cleaver.”
“Don’t fall for his bravado!” The man shouted, raising his rifle. “He’s had centuries to learn how to manipulate good men with twisted words and veiled threats.”
Leon whipped up his staff. “I wouldn’t waste my time with your lot. If words will not reach you, however, we can skip to the part where you beg me for a merciful out. I assume you put these ‘good men’ up to your little stunt, Morgan.” He glanced past him and shot a glare toward them. “This is his battle, not yours. Feel free to side with whosoever remains at the count of three.”
“Damn you, Immortal son of a …”
Morgan ratcheted up his carbine as he spoke, but Leon cut him off as he lunged forward with a strike to the solar plexus. He drove the staff butt end into his gut and removed it thusly. Leon whirled around and cracked his weapon like a whip across Morgan’s back, shattering the pole in the process. He gripped the sliver still in his hand and drove a thorny slice into the thick of Morgan’s back, bursting capillaries and rupturing a number of arteries.
Blood coursed out from Morgan’s open wounds and trickled down his beard as he lay on the ground, numbed from the shock of what had happened. He could have killed him and finished it, but this move would quell at least a generation and a half within his enclave, and it was about time he started thinking of the future.
Leon wiped the dirt from his hands and slicked back his hair.
Five days following the isolated insurrection within his enclave, the chatter had quieted to something manageable. Leon felt satisfied enough, and he’d acquired a new protégé from the mix, so he couldn’t complain. The long days of summer slowly faded, and the chilly fall winds were on the forecast.
A high noon sun beat down on his face while he took a stroll with the young man. Leon wore his duster and covered much of his sunburnt face with a wide brimmed hat. He walked with a new staff eating into the dirt with each step; nothing special, just a new piece of driftwood he’d plucked from the dried lakebed south of the enclave.
The youth, Jackson, a man in his early twenties, followed a step or two behind him, close enough for earshot, but not enough to keep a constant watch. He carried a short knife tucked by his side. Always a good idea to carry protection in the wasteland, and he could tell that Jackson felt a little intimidated. There weren’t many immortals left and though Leon had served as leader of the Midwest enclave for longer than he’d been alive, last week had been the first time Jackson had seen an immortal in action.
A carbine such as the one the late Morgan wielded could certainly kill any man, immortals included. Administered prior to the collapse, the cure rendered Leon immune to age, some diseases, cancer and little else, a sad fact that a number of immortals had faced at one point or another. He’d amassed his fortune and followers through careful planning and rich embellishing.
“You probably have some choice questions,” Leon said, continuing his pace. “I can answer three today, so choose wisely.”
“Why three?” Jackson asked.
“For reasons of arbitrary pacing, boy. You have two left.”
He caught the light curse Jackson uttered beneath his breath. Leon kept his brisk stride while he waited patiently for a reply.
“What was life like before the collapse?”
Leon stopped and slammed his staff into the charred, cracked dirt and smiled. He spun around to face the boy. Jackson wore some tattered garbs that resembled a tunic and some studded body armor. His short, dirty blonde hair ruffled a bit from the afternoon winds but otherwise stuck in place.
“Now, that’s a good one,” Leon said. “In a word, paradise, at least compared to this sweltering rot hole. I honestly recall very little though. Of the surviving immortals, I was in the fifth generation, so I was about ten when my parents moved us out into the wasteland. It was a smart move, considering the economic climate at the time. Demand for food and medicine outstripped the supply.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Jackson said. “How could a perfect civilization collapse all of a sudden?”
“It’s not so hard when you think about it, Jackson,” Leon said. He poked his staff into the ground and drew two circles through the dirt. He crouched down and place three rocks in one and five rocks in the other. “Imagine a world without any crisis of any kind. Resources are plentiful.” He paused and grabbed a pile of rocks from the side. “One day, around three centuries ago, some bloke patents an immortality drug. It’s cheap and easy to distribute, so naturally everyone and their uncle’s going to want a slice. Think of a world where you never need to say goodbye to your grandma. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
“It actually does,” Jackson said.
Leon smiled and dropped the pile of rocks he’d been holding.
“Well, now you’ve got a problem. There aren’t enough resources to go around and in five generations, infrastructure declines irreparably and factions fight over increasingly scarce resources. Bombs drop, and rivers dry up. It’s not so nice anymore, is it?”
“Why didn’t people just stop having children?” Jackson asked. “They’re already living forever.”
Leon sighed. “Son, institutions across time have tried and failed to curb procreation. It can’t be done, and believe me, the government tried. Chemical castration was on the table at one point, or so I heard.”
Leon stood up and dusted off his coat for show. He adjusted his hat and kept his eye planted on the horizon. The wasteland stretched on until the heavens met the ground ahead on the horizon. The land bent and swayed but ultimately faded into a soft blue atmospheric tint. A bright sun drifted high in the sky but had begun its descent to the west.
“This was a nice chat,” Leon said. “We should head back though.”
Jackson nodded, and Leon strode past him toward his enclave’s relative direction. He tipped his hat down to block out the sun’s rays and popped his staff against the soil as he made his way. It was true, more or less. The populace of centuries past had proved so resistant to population control measures that, at one point, people had boycotted the drinking water.
The cure was a disaster, not a godsend, and it left humanity nearly extinct. Leon knew of about two other enclaves in North America and a handful of others across the world. Humankind had dwindled down to the thousands, with war and disease killing more off every year. The one thing he didn’t know was how many immortals remained. He’d heard of some in China and Australia but none around here.
“Sir!” Jackson said, grabbing his arm. Leon froze on instinct, and a flare of his nostrils caused the young man to pry his hand. “I’m sorry, but I saw some movement to the north.”
Leon turned and eyed the dust clouds gathering in the distance. A sizable cluster kicked up and floated across a tiny section of the wastelands to the north. He squinted to make out some basic geometric shapes. He couldn’t discern human figures, but the brunt of it told him what he needed to know. Combine motorists, the lowest of scavengers, wanderers without an enclave. He held no delusions of outrunning them, so he sat down and fished out some reading material.
The Combine prowled the wasteland, a rogue, ruthless group of wanderers with no place to call home. Across South America, they decimated enclaves until the only ones left had forgone contact with the rest of the remaining world. Leon doubted even one enclave in South America still existed. He’d been hopeful for a few decades, but as the silence persisted and reports vanished, he’d come to expect that none were left.
The Combine weren’t trying to rebuild civilization. They relished in anarchy and only cared about what scant resources they could pillage from the surrounding population. If this band hit an enclave the size of Leon’s, they might get more than they bargained for, but he’d rather not risk it. He’d learned to steer clear of risky business when it could be helped.
Leon stood up and slapped Jackson’s back as the highwaymen drove over on motor bikes and one refurbished minivan. Jackson stumbled a step or two but regained his composure in time to shoot Leon a worried glance.
“Don’t worry about them,” Leon said. “Just lay low, and let me do the talking.”
Engines hummed around them as the Combine riders parked in a semi-circle around them. There were two bikers, probably an escort service for the group in the minivan. Leon eyed the windshields, which had been tinted and covered with iron bars for protection. However, he did spot two figures moving about. The driver of the minivan shut off his engine, and the passenger and driver side doors popped open.
On the passenger side, an older man stepped out. He looked somewhere in his late fifties. He wore a jean vest, and his face was riddled with age and stubble. He carried a handgun, a repurposed Beretta from before the collapse. Some of the parts weren’t stock though, and the replacements stunk of shoddy welding. Would the gun fire at all, or was it just for show? Maybe a little bit of both.
Out of the driver’s side stepped a middle-aged woman wearing a thick protective jacket. Her hair had begun to gray, salt and pepper amidst the darker shaded follicles. She’d been doing this for some time, probably a point man for the Combine in North America. She was the head of the serpent. Leon jotted down a mental note. She smiled at him, noticing him eyeing her on the way out, and she tapped her fingers against the broad blade strapped to her thigh.
“Let’s make this quick,” the woman said. “Tell me where you hide your enclave, and I might consider letting you live long enough to clear house.”
Jackson held his breath, and Leon did the same until he’d gathered up some proper retorts.
“Lady, we know your MO,” he said. “You let us walk free and hunt us down later. Besides, I’m not about to hand over my enclave to scum like the Combine.”
The woman shot him an icy glare and unsheathed her broad blade, resting the tip at his throat in one swift motion. She swung with the sort of precision that left less than an inch between the rusty steel and the skin of his neck.
“I would choose your words carefully,” she said.
“But I did,” Leon said. “I told you that I own that piece of rock you want to clean out. I’m the last man you want to threaten, believe me.”
The stubble-faced man cocked his handgun and rested the barrel inches from Leon’s head.
“We don’t need him, Mistress,” the man said. “We have the kid. He’ll talk.”
The woman glanced over toward Jackson briefly before redirecting her gaze back to Leon. She folder her arms and grimaced, letting out a sigh, as if it were too frustrating to take the easier path. Good lord, she was obstinate.
“Fine,” she said, drawing back her sword and gesturing toward Jackson.
The stubble-faced man paused and shrugged. “Should I pop this one first?”
“I suppose,” she replied.
Leon glanced aside in time to catch a slight grin on his killer’s face as his finger eased in on the trigger. If there were ever a time to take back control of the situation, now would be that time. He scanned the situation. The bikers would pose little trouble, but he’d need to do away with the gunman before he took on the head mistress. Lucky for him, the old man didn’t look much like a close combat specialist.
Leon gripped his staff, swerved to the right to avoid the clang of the gun and jabbed the butt end into the man’s gut. Fire crackled and his ears rang from a shot too close to his head, but he kept on through the disorientation. He removed his staff and struck the man on the back of the neck, knocking him out in one go before he turned to face the head mistress.
Logan swerved his head in time to keep his nose intact from a near fatal swipe of the woman’s broad blade. She sneered and swung again, this time clawing out a chunk of Logan’s staff. He’d tried to block with it, but the hunk of sharpened metal cleaved through it with little effort on her part.
He had about one good shot before she cut off too much for him to retain his reach advantage. Logan lunged forward and ducked her strike, swinging at her legs. The driftwood hit her good, cracking against her kneecap. He felt something break and turned to see her hobbling on one foot out of his reach.
“Don’t make this too easy,” Logan said.
The woman frowned and pressed back with labored breathing. However, she saw the same thing Logan saw, and she reached for her ace in the hole before he could say a word. She grabbed Jackson by the collar and held her sword to his throat. The dumb kid had been awestruck, and it all happened so quickly.
“Don’t come another step or this one slits down the middle,” she stammered. Logan grinned and calmly strode toward her. “Are you crazy?” she shouted. “Stay back or he dies!”
Logan paused briefly and frowned on the inside. His next words hurt him deeply, but they felt true nonetheless.
“Dozens come and go every year. This little one is no different so go ahead and try.”
Leon clutched his staff in frustration, angry at the situation and himself, watching the woman’s disposition melt as she withdrew the young man from her clutches. Hurriedly, she hobbled across the cracked soil and back into her vehicle. Leon would have liked to pursue her, but that leg wouldn’t heal right regardless. She’d outlived her usefulness as a scout. In the coming months, she’d be lucky get behind the wheel by any stretch of the imagination.
Leon jabbed his staff into the ground and took a seat as the group drove off to worse parts of the wasteland, wherever they came from. He thumbed through a piece of literature to calm himself and prepare for the fallout.
An orange sun loomed across the horizon, casting a red glint over the cloudy skies and the barren landscape of a rocky wasteland. The Midwest had suffered enough through futile efforts to reseed the soil. Once the heartland of crops prior to the collapse, it now stood as a lifeless expanse for miles in any direction. Leon closed his book and rested it on the dead man’s carcass. The sun would eat that one up soon enough. He cleared his throat.
“I’m not going back,” Leon said. “Go ahead without me. I’ll find my way.”
“But you are coming back, aren’t you?” Jackson asked. “We need you, you know? The enclave needs you.”
Leon sighed and stood up. “That Combine woman showed me something today, something I’ve been avoiding for the better part of a century. I’m not like your lot, not anymore.”
“Pardon my language,” Jackson said, resting a hand on Leon’s shoulder. “Don’t be stupid. You are the same as every flesh and blood person. You can die like the rest of us in ninety-nine ways out of a hundred.”
Leon brushed off his hand and eyed the emptiness of the wasteland he’d come to know as his home. The dust had settled, leaving no hint of the motorists for the time being. More so, the cover of night would leave the two of them more difficult to track.
“Don’t patronize me,” Leon said. “I’m not saying I won’t join you in a few weeks or months. I just need to think this over. For a person such as myself, that takes a bit.”
Jackson shrugged. “Whatever you say, boss. Do you need any supplies?”
“A new walking stick wouldn’t hurt,” Leon said, holding up the rickety sliced open piece he’d banged against solid bone. “I’ll pick up something along the way though.”
Jackson gave him a thumb’s up and a relic salute gesture before he broke into an eastbound jog.
“Hey,” Leon called out. “One more thing, Jackson. You’re the boss until I return.”
Jackson turned around briefly and the two of them made eye contact. “Understood!”