The tires crunched over the dirt road as the “Number Two” bus rolled at a respectable thirty kilometers an hour across the barren wasteland. Jonathan Richter sat on the floor, his pack sitting next to him, his back to one of the rusty walls of the old bus. The driver and the rear gunner ignored the passengers while they were moving.
The tires threw up dust and much of it hung in the air inside of the bus since all the window had broken out years ago. Once upon a time these things had row after row of comfortable seats, but those had either been stolen or rotted away way back. Now the passengers on the floor, where a thin worn carpet barely covered a floor that was rusting away.
The other passengers included an old woman closer to the front who carried an ungainly suitcase and a wooden chicken coop, with chicken. No doubt this was a new purchase and she was returning to her family with the prized possession. She had one of those paper masks over her face that had been used too many times.
There was an older man, staring as if blind, and a woman who appeared to be in her thirties. Jonathan had heard her call him “pa”, so she must be guiding the blind. She had used some precious water to wipe the dust from his face the last time they stopped for a break.
The others included a woman with two children, one a girl. The reason Jonathan noticed the females is that they stood out. They were more rare and precious than gold these days. The other passengers were mainly nondescript men wearing jackets with cloths over their mouths and noses. Some of them were coughing more than seemed normal.
Jonathan didn't like to be reminded of the plague. The plague had killed his Belinda, the mother of his children. He didn't understand how it had gotten her and no-one else in the family. It wasn't easy to protect his children while making a living for them alone.
Sometimes he had the irrational thought that Belinda should have lived and that it was himself who have gotten sick and died. His eyes moved back to the woman with the two children. Then he moved his hand over his eyes, don't let them see a tear fall. This world was no place for a single mother like this one.
Donny had been kidnapped by the gangs a couple years after Belinda died. They either called it recruitment or the draft. It didn't matter. His son might be alive or he might not, either way there was little doubt it was a horrifying experience. The rumors of what the older boys and men did to younger ones was painful to contemplate.
He let his hand fall from his face and rested his head back against the rusted wall of the bus. His hand landed on his pack. The image of the rag doll entered his mind. Jonathan had found it among the rubble of one of the old cities, destroyed in the cataclysm. Somehow the rag doll had been preserved in pretty good condition.
It was destined for his daughter, April May Richter. April May was waiting for her father to return from the expedition to the city. The scavenging trips were getting less and less fruitful, most of the useful things had already been harvested years ago.
Jonathan rolled to his knees and rose to look out the window at the passing desolation. This whole continent except for the southwest had once been fertile and green, now it was just dead. The moving air felt good on his forehead, it was cleaner than the settlements too.
Suddenly he was alert. Something had moved on the horizon. He scanned it quickly but couldn't tell what had changed for a moment, then he noticed something moving fast toward them leaving a white contrail behind it.
“Missile!” He had time to think, but not say out loud before the explosion occurred.
Jonathan was deaf, he covered his face from the heat and flash and felt himself falling. He hit the ground on his side, his right shoulder taking most of the impact but lessened because he had rolled. He hadn't rolled on purpose, of course, it's just how he landed.
When he stopped he lay there breathing hard, arms underneath his chest, fingers gripping the ground while his legs lay spread out. “Attack. We were attacked!” He thought to himself, he looked around and saw no attackers.
Finally he looked back to find the bus. Instead he found the wreckage torn into pieces, especially two large chunks. His hearing started to return and he could hear the cries and pleas of other survivors. Probably thrown clear the same way he had been, when the rusty bus was split into two like an egg.
Jonathan found the single mother crying over the body of the boy child. “Please help me, somebody save my son!” she cried, her own legs bloody. The boy was already dead, though. She should be more worried about finding the girl, Jonathan thought to himself. He shook his head and walked away.
He found his pack and hefted it over his shoulder. The survivors were starting to crawl together in a huddle. He saw another man picking up several bags and packs and running off away from where the missile had come. “Smart.” Jonathan told himself.
Only an idiot would stick around until the marauders who had fired the missile finally arrived. These people could not be saved. He could already hear the whine of an engine in the distance. It was time to get as far away as possible.
Jonathan moved toward a nearby hill, hoping to find a cave or something he could hide out in and get some rest, before moving again when nightfall came.
“May God have mercy on you all!” He said before getting as far as fast as he could.
Jonathan was able to reach the boulders in front of the hill before the marauders had shown up at the explosion site. A two-wheeled vehicle and a six-wheeled truck with a double-cab carrying a big cage in the back. At least five large men with weapons sifted through the remains, digging through bags and packs.
Then they shot the wailing woman who fell atop the body of her dead son. The marauders then took two younger men as prisoners. Jonathan was confused. He had been certain the woman and the old blind man had survived, where were they? These guys would have whooped it up and had a good time raping her, they would kill the useless old man.
Then Jonathan wondered where that little girl had run off to. He hadn't seen her body, but surely she had been killed too. It was mostly a wide open wasteland, where could these people have run off to? Where could they have hidden?
As he watched the driver crawled out of the front of the wreckage and pulled a pistol. He shot one of the marauders in the back at close range before the others had shot him down. They put several more rounds into the body to make sure, then they took the pistol too.
“Nothing I can do.” Jonathan told himself as he sat with his back to the boulder.
“You didn't exactly try!” A complaining voice said, Jonathan opened his eyes to see April May Richter standing there with her hands on her hip. “I'm very disappointed.”
She wasn't real, this was part of his imagination. She was wearing the flower-patterned dress, her favorite, except this one was clean as new.
“How would I fight those guys off? I'd be dead too.” Jonathan explained.
April May stamped her foot. “You could have led some of them away. Brought them with you. They weren't all helpless, just in shock.”
“I'm no hero.” Jonathan told her. “I'm just trying to survive. If that makes me a coward then so be it.”
The look on April May's face softened. “You are so much better when you aren't alone. You act like a real man when you have something to protect.”
Jonathan wanted to say something in reply but the imaginary girl was no longer looking at him, she was looking off to his right. He followed her gaze and was shocked to see a woman, a little girl and the old blind man hiding behind the next boulder. The girls were staring at Jonathan Richter as if they expected something from him.
April May was gone.
The cave wasn't very large but it was shelter against the sun, weather and from being seen for the moment. The marauders had left the attack site but there was no good reason for them to go back there.
Jonathan stood near the mouth of the cave looking in. The old man sat on the dirt floor next to his daughter who was consoling the sobbing girl child. When the shock of the explosion and crash had finally worn off, the girl had another shock: her mother and brother were dead.
“I'm going to climb the hill and scout around. I don't think we were all that far from the next outpost before the attack.” Jonathan told them. He didn't get any reply or even an acknowledgment, so after a moment he turned and left.
At the top of the hill he could see the bus, looking in the direction they had been going he could see the pyramid-like top of another hill in the distance. When he had made the trip coming here, there had been a way-stop over there on the far side. It had to be several miles or more, he was no real judge of that.
He looked down at his pack, lighter because he had offered a liter of water and some bandages to the others when they reached the cave. The daughter of the old blind man, who said she was called Sela, had taken charge of the orphan and now played caregiver to both of them. Jonathan shook his head, they were doomed. He'd be doomed too, if he stayed.
“You can't just abandon them.” April May said, she was standing right behind Jonathan.
“We'll just all die together if I don't.” He replied.
“You always run away!” She accused him.
He nodded. “That's called survival.”
“Sela tries to help people.” April May said.
“Selia is a fool. I'm shocked she lived this long. Probably never left the safety of the settlements before for all I know.” Jonathan said, “Now that she's out here in the wastelands, her lifespan could be measured in hours.”
“I could make it to the Way-Station in a couple of hours by myself.” Jonathan told her, “If I have to bring them along, it could take more than a day. That's how people die out here, they get concerned with others who become anchors.”
“They're people too.” his daughter responded. His imagined daughter, at any rate.
Humanity was nearly extinguished in the cataclysm and had been cheap ever since. Life was brutal and short, unless you were “lucky” to live long enough to suffer even more. The blind old man would have been dispatched in most communities, “mercifully”, as a burden on others. Hardship was a way of life for everyone, sometimes it made no sense to sacrifice everyone for the sake of one person.
No doubt that Sela loved her father, but she might condemn all of them to die on his behalf when the time came.
Jonathon pushed the thoughts away. He was getting way ahead of himself. He decided to return to the cave and inform Selia that the Way-Station wasn't too far away. “Too far” had been a stupid comment, what was the alternative? Die here instead?
When he returned to the cave Selia looked up in surprise, as if she never expected him to come back. The little girl was leaning against her, asleep. Selia had been dabbing at the tears on the face of the girl with a cloth when he walked in.
“We can get there before nightfall.” He told her. Actually, he suspected that the girl and old man would slow them down far too much for that to happen. “If we could hurry.”
Selia looked at her father. “So, realistically, it would take longer than that?”
Jonathan sat near the cave entrance with his back to the wall. “A person could make the trip in a couple of hours. I was being reasonable.”
Selia shook her head and answered, “No, you were being a jerk. Are you suggesting that you go alone and that you would bring back help? Because I know that never happens.”
“Well, it'll take forever if you decide to pick up and carry every boulder we come across along the way back to civilization, such as it is.” He told her.
“This girl is not a boulder. Her name is Rose, by the way.” Selia told him. “You never asked, because you didn't want to personalize this. My father's name is Jack.”
The old man looked around. “I can talk, you know.”
Jonathan couldn't help but grin but he looked outside the cave to keep Selia from seeing it. That was the first time the blind old man had said anything at all in his presence.
“My name is Jonathan Richter. I want to get back to Great City as badly as anyone. I have my own little burden there, waiting for me.” He told her, not looking in her direction. “If we are going to reach the Way-Station sometime tonight, we should start walking.”
Soon they were walking through the desolated landscape toward where the Way-Station was supposed to be. To say the landscape was totally barren was untrue, there were large clumps of green mold growing here and there. These served as a food source for the giant lizards, Reekers, that roamed the continent, but they would just as soon eat an animal or a person.
The little girl, Rose, walked quietly. She didn't complain and seemed lost in her own world. Selia kept an eye on the girl but her hand was holding that of her fathers.
“The first thing I'm going to do when we get back to Great City is rob my piggy bank and buy me some actual meat.” Sela said in a hopeful voice, “I don't care if it's Reeker meat, I'll take it.”
“Yuck, Reeker meat.” Rose said.
“The secret is to soak it in a sauce for an hour before you cook it.” The old man said, “Then it'll taste and smell more like the sauce than the Reeker.”
“Well, I couldn't afford much better.” Sela replied. “Then again, I guess I could always stick to beans and potatoes.”
Jonathan rolled his eyes. Sela was trying to keep the minds of her two tired charges off of their long trek, a distraction. Still, he found all this talking to be annoying.
“So Jonathan.” She called out. “Where abouts in Great City do you live?”
After a sigh he answered, “The Northern-eastern quarter.”
“I see.” She answered, and didn't offer a response telling him where she lived. He wondered if she was trying to bait him into conversation.
Great City had been built after the Cataclysm by those who survived. At the center was the core that had once been a township, beyond that it had all started as a shanty full of refugees from the death that had conquered the world. Since then the shanty town had been improved but it was still nowhere near the advanced civilization that had existed before.
Jonathan and April May had lived in a three-room tenement. There was a bathroom in the hall. One room was the living room, one was a kitchen and one was a bedroom. It was small, as all of the housing in Great City was, unless you had grown wealthy.
There were peddlers on the streets and some shops took up the bottom floors in the tenement buildings because life and commerce had to go on. Seeing a wagon pulled by a horse or dog was common, but a few times he had seen running vehicles that weren't buses.
“I had a radio.” Selia said.
“Really?” Rose asked, “I saw one in a shop once. The shopkeeper wound it up and I heard music from it. It was too expensive though. Like seven whole pounds of potatoes expensive.”
The Great City authority owned the broadcast tower and for a few hours every day there were two channels of music and later on there was an official broadcast for an hour or so. There might only be a thousand working radios in the whole city, and it seemed wasteful to Jonathan. People were dying because of diseases spread by all the human waste and dead animals and the authority was more interested in entertainment.
It was starting to get dark and they were coming up to the hill with the pointy top. The Way-Station was probably only a mile or two away but they would not make it before dark.
“I'm tired.” Rose said. The old man echoed her, “Me too.”
“Jonathan, look for a place to stop for the night.” Selia called out.
He stopped and looked back at them. “Who put her in charge?” Jonathan asked himself, but out loud he said “I'll look for a cave or something.”
As soon as he was out of their sight, April May was walking next to him.
“Rose seems nice.” April May said, “Sad, though.”
Jonathan tried to ignore the imaginary image of his daughter. He found a depression surrounded on three sides by boulders. It might do for the night.
“Do you think it will ever rain out here again?” April May asked.
He shrugged. “As long as this isn't a Reeker nest, and it's too clean for that, I think we're in business.”
He found the others and led them back.
“This is kind of cozy.” Sela said.
“Like a topless cave.” Rose told her.
“We should be safe here for the night.” Jonathan told them.
Later the blind old man asked, “Selia, can you see the stars? Do you remember the constellations?”
She shook her head. “I don't really remember.”
“Oh, come on, what about the easy ones?” he asked his daughter.
She looked around and then pointed up, “That's the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper.”
The old man laughed. “If you keep looking, you'll find other ones too.”
Then Rose pointed to a moving light in the sky. “What is that?”
Jonathan answered, “It's a satellite. Probably a dead one. It's bright because the sunlight is glinting off of it.”
“Oh.” The little girl said. “I guess the stories about the old world were true then.”
“Try to get some sleep. Tomorrow we will reach the Way Station and find a ride back to Great City where we live.” Selia told the girl who looked sadder than before. “You can live with me, if you want to.”
“Okay.” Rose said before lying down and turned to face the boulder wall.
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