I. Return to the Wastelands
A Lone Rider, Back from Hell...
“Excuse me? Ma’am? Ma’am?”
A gentle tap came on the driver-side window of the hulking beige Humvee. Rapping upon the door was a middle-aged gray wolf, his loose denim and gentle features reflected by the blackened glass. The Mechanic stood back, tapping the toe of his work boot on the dusty floor of his garage.
It took the Humvee’s occupant a moment to come to her senses. He could hear the gentle rustling from within, and soon enough, she proffered a meek reply couched in yawns.
“What’s going on?”
“Making sure you’re alive for starters,” he quipped.
“The hell’d this blanket come from?”
“Well, you weren’t decent when I found you,” he teased, “I threw some stuff on the passenger seat if you can reach it. The sandals were already in there.”
“Yeah, yeah…give me a second.”
He sighed as he leaned up against the wall, scratching at his back. After a few minutes, the Humvee’s door parted and out stepped the clothed Driver.
She was pure white, the tank top blending in with her fur, and the ripped blue jeans and Romanesque sandals revealing cuts and scrapes on her knees and drops of blood on her feet, all dying her pure fur a brutal red. The Mechanic’s jovial nature evaporated, leaving only a concerned stoicism.
“I hope you don’t mind me bringing you here,” he started, “The desert wasn’t exactly the kindest last night.”
The Driver looked over to the only other vehicle in the shop, a dirty but sturdy red pickup truck.
“Yeah, the Chevy did all the heavy lifting,” he smiled, breaking the ice, “That big fella of yours wasn’t easy on her, but my Apache got him in just the same, tough old goat she is.”
The Driver flashed a brief grin before returning to her confused demeanor. The Mechanic cocked his head to the door.
“Hey, come in for some coffee,” he encouraged, “You look like Hell was just beat out ya.”
The Driver simply nodded and the two made their way into the office of the shop.
It was just as any office for a garage should be; messy beyond comprehension, but with plenty of room for conversation and a cup of Joe. The Driver took a seat opposite of the Mechanic at the terribly cluttered desk, littered with papers and plans. The Mechanic raked in a massive stack of these, slipping them into an overstuffed drawer to give his company some breathing room.
He picked up his freshly brewed pot and two plain mugs, pouring some out into each cup before passing one over to the Driver.
“We obviously ain’t making it by Old World rules, but I got sugar if you’d li—”
But before he could finish, his guest downed the scalding black brew like a cold glass of milk. She shook her head and smacked her muzzle before taking in and letting out a deep breath.
The Mechanic simply poured some sugar and gingerly sipped from his mug, a look of bemusement and confusion sat on his face all the while.
“Now that you’re fully awake, I hope,” he joked, “What kind of ghoul are you?”
“Frankly, I don’t know anymore,” she replied, looking down at her mug, “If I told you how I got there you wouldn’t believe me. If I told you what had happened, you wouldn’t understand. If you knew what I did, you wouldn’t look at me the same way again.”
“Well you won’t know ‘til you try, now will ya,” he pressed, “I know we’re strangers here, but I think you owe it to yourself to let it all out.”
And so she did.
“I’ve been a bit of a vagabond ever since my old man kicked it. He left me plenty of gas, as much food as he could, and the Hummer. The Big Guy’s the only family I got now. I’ll even chat with him every now and then, his engine grumbling and revving in reply. But all I was, and am, is a wanderer. Not into hunting anyone down for money, screwing around with the Duellists. Hell, not even getting laid really piqued my interest. Might’ve once or twice at a solar joint, but that was that really. Just me and my machine taking it to the redline, going wherever the hell we wanted. Then one night, that all changed.
“I was sleeping. Hand to God, I locked his doors. I was always on edge when roaming. Don’t ask me how I learned to, but I learned to sleep with my claws out, so if anyone came at me at night, one good kick and scratch and they’d be on their ass. But for some reason, that night, my guard was down and the last thing I saw that night was a rag over my mouth…I still can’t figure how long I was out for. Could’ve been a few hours, maybe a few days. Hell, I don’t know how strong the stuff was. But soon enough, I woke up, and what I woke up to was a…a nightmare.
“There I was, in the driver’s seat, with not a single thing on me. Someone had taken my boots, my denim, my shirt, everything. I was there…totally exposed. And when I came to my senses, I realized not only am I stark naked with only my fur still on me, but I’ve got leather straps holding me back to the seat. I look out the windshield and see two heavy chains draped over the Hummer. So not only am I being held down, but so’s my only friend. And there…THEY were. We’ve got thousands of eyes staring at us. Spectators in seats like we’re some circus freaks about to go on display. Not to mention there were these tall grays, hung like horses, armed to the teeth, staring right at me with these black eyes…oh God, those piercing black eyes…
“I saw them standing and staring, holding up everything from these bizarre blades to guns and Lord knows what else. When I saw ‘em, Lord have mercy did I panic. I tried to get myself out of the straps first. I tried to brute-force my way out, but they only stung and scraped my skin. I tried to calm myself down and took a shot at slipping my hands out first so I can undo the rest. Thankfully I could, hurt like a bitch getting them free though. I undid everything, freeing myself up. The first thing I felt was how cold he was to me. I put my hands on the wheel and both feet on the pedals, and all I felt on my pads was cold. We must’ve been sitting in…storage or something for ages.
“I took a deep breath and turned that key, cranking like mad. He came through and roared to life. I threw him into Drive and started pounding on the throttle. He was jockeying like mad. I could hear the chains rattling and clanking above me. I threw him in Reverse to see if that would help to put stress on them, but then…it happened.
“I floored him…and heard a scream and a crunch. I looked back. There were grays in my holding cell too and I…I had just knocked one of them over. I could see those black eyes looking at me from the dark, only beady reflections to reveal themselves to me. I yanked my foot off the throttle, but in a split second, the thought rushed into my head. ‘It’s us or them.’ With that, my mind just emptied. I didn’t think, I didn’t feel, I just did. And then…I just lost it.
“I rocked him back and forth until those chains finally gave way, and then I just started mowing over these guys. They aimed for his hood and I knocked them over, nails sunk deep in the wheel, claws in the throttle. They tried to harpoon him from the back, I whipped them into the walls of wherever we were. Then the last straw came when one of these harpoons managed to get through his door. It sliced across both my knees. They didn’t cut through them, but when I saw the blood start to trickle, I yanked the bastard in, and popped it back out. First guy who came for us got it in his throat.
“I could hear the crowds cheering callously, the announcer saying some crap about points or something, but then my eyes locked onto a gate. Oh man, when I saw that gate, I zeroed in on it like it was the only thing in the world. I backed over bodies and busted weapons to build up speed and I just began wailing on it. His bull bar kept him safe from real damage, but I just felt nothing but unhinged tension. Each time my foot hit the floor, it felt like an earthquake. It was on our third ramming that we broke through. And you’d never guess where I ended up.
“It was the City. The damned City! My old man told me to never, ever, not in a million years go there, and here I was, bloodied and out of my head, in the City. I couldn’t even stop to marvel at it all. I just pinned the gas to the floor and careened down the streets, looking for the border. When I finally did, I was kinda surprised to see it was just a chain-link fence. Praying to God it wasn’t made of titanium, we pressed on, and I ripped through it like tissue paper. I could see the lights of police cars in the rearview, so I knew just to keep him going as fast as he could. We almost went off the cliff and into the Marshall Settlements, but I kicked the brake and swung him away.
“That night might’ve been the first night he made it to 120 too. But I just kept him firing off on all cylinders for the next few hours. Must’ve been 3 or 4 in the morning when I finally dropped both feet on the brakes like a ton of bricks. When we came to a full stop, I turned off his engine, and just…melted down. I’m surprised you didn’t find me in a puddle of tears when you towed us here. I fell asleep saying ‘I’m sorry,’ over and over again like a madwoman. I can’t remember if I was apologizing to my dad, the Hummer, or myself. I was just…I was just done. I’d had it…”
The Mechanic sat, soaking in the story she had laid bare. The Driver dried some stray tears, the memories still fresh and painful in her mind. He reached out and patted her hand.
“Well you did a fine job bugging out,” he started, “You’re well over a hundred miles out from the place. And as for what you did—”
“—Don’t say a damn thing about it,” she cut off, “It was an act of survival, and—”
“—Survival is what we’re all about out here,” he reassured, “If you knew how many shitbags I wasted with just me and my gal alone, not to mention my peacemaker, you’d call me Jack the Ripper, not the other way round. You don’t have to love it, you just need to know when to do it.”
The Driver looked up, her eyes now fully dried. The Mechanic smiled softly at her, still patting her hand.
“If you want, lemme get those wounds healed up best I can, then I’ll take you for a ride to cool off,” he said, “The garage has two doors at both ends, so we’ll let the big guy rest, alright?”
She smiled sheepishly and nodded as the two finished their drinks.
The Driver didn’t even have to get up from the desk as the Mechanic dug out a makeshift First Aid kit from one of his kipple-filled drawers, and set about patching her up. In no time, the Driver was well-bandaged, and the Mechanic led her back out to the Garage.
“She’s a tough little lady alright,” he smiled, patting the truck’s hood, “Been on this here Earth for longer than the pair of us have.”
The Mechanic winked as he rolled up the backside garage door.
“Want me to take it easy, or show you what she can really do,” he grinned.
The Driver was silent for a moment before flashing that soft grin of hers.
“Show me what makes her tough.”
The Mechanic was beaming from ear-to-ear.
“You haven’t lost the spirit,” he said, “That’s good to hear at least.”
His truck was small, sitting rather low compared to most, but her thick tires and side pipes suggested that toughness he kept alluding to. They clambered into the cab, the Driver pushing the seat back the moment she got in, allowing her to fully stretch her legs. The Mechanic’s was already stretched back about the same length. When he dropped into the seat, he immediately hit the clutch and turned the key, and within seconds, his baby roared to life. He pounded out some monstrous revs, his boot banging on the metal footwell like a hammer on an anvil.
“Enough showing off, right,” he smirked.
The Driver smirked back. With a shift of the gear lever and a kick of the throttle, the mighty half-pint spat the desert sand back into the garage and tore off into the distance. Shifting furiously, the Mechanic had her running hotter than Hell; just how he liked it. The Driver’s nerves were melting away with each gear, and soon she was just as cheery as he was. The Mechanic, throttle flat on the floor, stuck his head out the window and started to howl like mad. This finally broke the Driver and she was simply in stitches at the display. When he pulled his head back in, he saw the smile on her face and nodded, content he’d finally smoothed her over.
“For the record,” he stated, “I’m just as much a clown in the company of friends as I am with strangers.”
The Driver simply chuckled.
“Two questions for you,” he continued, “First off, and I probably shoulda asked you earlier, but what’s your name?”
“Oh yeah, right,” she said, “Valentina. And you?”
“Eric,” he replied, “Just plain, simple Eric. No surname too, eh?”
“Not much use for ‘em out here, right?”
“I guess not. Now hang on a quick minute, alright?”
Eric slammed on the brakes and swung the truck around.
“Now this next question is a biggie,” Eric began, “If you don’t mind me saying, you’ve been through a lot, and I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind hanging around here for a bit?”
Valentina looked puzzled by the invitation.
“Now this ain’t an overture to anything,” Eric continued, “Just long enough so you're healed up well and good, and we can get that beast of yours cleaned up and repaired. Big fella had quite the workout. If you’d like, I can bring you around to some of my clientele. I’m something of a travelling repairman during the day. Will break the monotony of laying on the Murph all day.”
“That’s very kind of you, but—”
“—I’ll even throw in an all-expense-paid self-defense course.”
“In plain English please,” chuckled Valentina.
“I got guns. I got ammo,” he said curtly, “I did some dirty fighting myself, kept my claws sharp as pins, but sometimes, a .44 caliber farewell is the only way.”
Valentina paused, mulling the options over. She raised her head, took a deep breath, and held out her hand.
“No strings attached,” she inquired cautiously. Eric simply smiled and shook her hand.
“No strings,” he said, “No need to be a dick out here. That’s what the land’s for, right?”
Eric winked at her and she winked right back at her.
When they returned to the garage, Eric hopped out to grab his tools from the bench on the wall. Valentina strolled over to the Humvee. She smiled at the behemoth, who stood idle and stoic, no worse for the wear he had endured. But as she stroked her cherished beast, something caught her eye.
Something she hadn’t noticed.
“This isn’t right,” she said to herself.
“What isn’t,” asked Eric.
“The windows, they’re all black,” she said. Eric looked up at her.
“That’s the way I found him,” he replied, “You’re saying your old man never tinted them?”
“He never did,” came the reply. An eerie silence fell over the garage before Valentina drew her conclusion.
“So I could see them…but they couldn’t see me.”
Chilled, Valentina looked at the Humvee.
“We’ll get to the bottom of it Old Boy.”
She gave the Humvee a tender kiss on the grill before walking back to Eric’s truck. She couldn’t take her eyes off of him, even as she took her seat in the cab. After glancing back at her ride himself, Eric loaded his tools in the bed of the truck before piling in and heading off.
The next few days were calm ones. Valentina grew to know the many faces on Eric’s route. Simple folk, often kind in spite of their burly and rugged looks. Not too dissimilar to her father’s friends, though she wasn’t in the same neck of the woods. Those days on the road were contrasted with long nights patching up the Humvee with the flames of a welder’s torch. The only things that remained unchanged were the Humvee’s windows, a lingering question that Valentina simply had no answers to. Eric’s good spirits helped to keep her mind off of the past all the while, and when the day came for her to take up marksmanship, little did she know how pivotal that day would become.
“Right,” started Eric that morning, “I got a little something for you. A rare gal like yourself deserves a rare breed of weapon.”
Eric opened up a chest in the office and produced a handgun.
“Val, meet the Mars,” he proudly proclaimed, “An Old World beauty that packs a mean little punch. And thankfully no recoil these days.”
The two walked outside into the hot desert sun. Sitting but a few yards away was a tin can perched atop some crates. Eric walked Valentina through the loading process with a gentle hand.
“The laser tech means this here bullet is the only one you’ll ever need. You can recharge it in the sun, which we have plenty of, and you can keep her locked and loaded for days.”
He loaded the cartridge for her before handing the gun off to her. She cocked the hammer back with great care and took aim, her hands trembling. Eric stood behind her, holding her arms in place.
“I know you’re nervous,” he whispered, “But it ain’t that hard. Line the shot with the sight and press that little pad of yours against the trigger.”
With a deep breath, she did just that. The tin can was blown away, shrapnel scattering to the four winds. Eric nodded in approval and took the gun back.
“Let me get you something real quick,” he said, “Wait here.”
In a split second, he darted back into the office and produced a holster for Valentina. He wrapped the brown leather strap around her belt and placed the pistol into it.
“Fair warning, I leave the bullet in so if you have to use it in a pinch, all you got to worry about is the safety, hammer, and trigger,” he said, “You think you can handle that?”
“I think so,” she reservedly replied.
“Alright then, let’s go for a ride.”
The pair made their way over to the truck. When they got there, Eric clambered into the passenger seat. Valentina shot a puzzled look his way before he cocked his head to the driver’s side.
“Your turn” was all that he said. She giddily slid into the driver’s seat and proceeded to turn over that little truck of his.
“Where to,” she inquired.
“Just go for broke,” he smirked.
And so she did, pinning the throttle down and thundering off into the distance once more. It was a thrill she had almost forgotten about, but not quite. The endless expanse of sand, sun, and sky welcomed her with open arms as she pushed that Apache to her limits. It was on that horizon where they met trouble.
A smoke cloud grew in the distance. Thinking nothing of it, they continued. As the billowing gray gave way to flaming reds and oranges, they still kept going, now provoked by a sort of curiosity. It was only when they got there that they realized what had happened.
A genuine killing.
They saw what remained of the car’s driver and the car itself, but what proved most startling was a red wolf who emerged from the fire, seemingly unscathed, with a sadistic gleam in his eye. He was bare-chested, the fire having singed his pants and boots. Whether he was a bandit or madman, he must’ve been the one behind it. At first, flight was the thing that came to mind and Valentina threw the truck in Reverse. However, she stopped and looked dead into the eyes of this killer. The eyes of those depraved grays, their blades and barrels held aloft, flashed through her mind.
Suddenly, flight turned to fight.
She could feel her claws digging into the leather of her sandals, her nails into the steering wheel. In a split second, she shifted gears and floored the truck. The Killer rolled onto the hood and was ejected just as soon as she hit the brakes.
For a moment, there was silence, only the flames before them. She breathed a sigh of relief.
A premature relief.
The relief was pierced by the faint, withered cry of “help” that came from Eric. The Killer had him in a choke hold, a knife readied for any number of depraved mutilations. As natural a reflex as she ever had, Valentina drew her pistol. The safety was off, the hammer was cocked, and she put one between his eyes like she had been at it for years. The blood flew out the back of his head as his whole body slumped onto the desert ground, the crimson pool complimenting the heat of his destructive act.
Eric looked over to see a distraught Valentina. She slumped onto the steering wheel, sobbing, uttering “Oh God” under her breath. He patted her back gently and pulled her face towards his.
“Look at me,” he said softly, “You just saved my life. And you did it just about the way I would’ve. She’s my first line of defense, the peacemaker always comes second.”
She was still near inconsolable.
“Look at me,” he soothed.
The tears stopped as she saw the warm smile of her friend. She looked over to the fire before them.
“I’d be crying for them too,” he observed, “That’s the kind of rough shit you get out here. No helping though…c’mon, let’s head back. Gotta file a report with Hell Patrol about this.”
She nodded calmly as she threw the truck into Reverse and punched the gas. She looked behind her all the while before whipping the little red beast around. From then on, she wouldn’t look into any of the rear-views, not for love nor money. She feared her carnage above all, and it was just that with which she cut the silence.
“All…all it is…is,” she started, fighting back every emotion within, “It happened again. My mind empties, and I kill. It’s like I lose it all.”
“In self-defense,” Eric consoled, “No one said it was easy, but then again, no one said living here was easy.”
Valentina eased up on herself. Once they got to the garage, she brought the truck to a stop and fell into Eric’s arms. He held her gently, nuzzling her a little.
“You’re not mad,” he whispered, “And you ain’t going mad. Just remember that, alright?”
They stayed embraced for but a moment longer, letting all of the emotions of the day out in the solace of his abode.
Valentina’s final day at the garage came as a bittersweet one. Over their morning coffee, Eric produced his final parting gifts.
“Well, you know I ain’t a sap,” he smiled between sips, “But I’m gonna miss you. You’re a good kid. Christ, kinda showing my age saying that. But it’s true. A good kid, and I’d say a good friend too.”
Valentina could only grin as he spoke.
“And I know I showered you with loads of bullshit,” he continued, “Some necessary, y’know, like clothes and a piece, and some unnecessary, like making you drink this horseshit.”
The young driver almost choked on her coffee with that one.
“Hey, don’t kill yourself, it wasn’t that funny,” he quipped, “Anyways. I got three things I want you to have. First off are a pair of these.”
Eric slapped a pair of brown, fingerless driving gloves on the desk.
“Gets you just a bit more grip when you’re bombing around.”
Valentina slipped them on. A perfect fit that she fell in love with.
“The second,” he continued, “Is something I think fits with what’s been going on. I’m a bit of a student of history, real Old World stuff, and I noticed that you’ve been paling around in caligae, a type of old Roman sandal, they just opened the toe for you. So, I felt it fitting I’d make a kind of Roman trinket, a bracelet. Give me your hand.”
Valentina extended it, and received a shining bracelet upon her wrist, practically made of gold.
“It’s not the real stuff,” he acknowledged, “But it’s close to it.”
Valentina didn’t care, the gesture meant more than the metal’s authenticity.
“And lastly, these.”
A small metal plate with numbers inscribed on it.
“What’s this,” she asked.
“Coordinates,” he replied, “Remember, you’ve got a bouncing baby GPS system in that big boy of yours. If you ever need anything, just punch in those numbers and he’ll lead ya right back here. Lord good enough to keep the satellites going for us.”
This just about broke Valentina and she came right around the back of the desk gave Eric the biggest hug she ever had.
“Easy Val,” he teased, “Don’t snap my back.”
They embrace a little while longer.
“Alright, let’s load you up.”
And he did just that, helping her pack everything into the Humvee, who sat outside the friendly little garage. When they finished, Eric ran down the mental list.
“You got everything,” he asked, “Pistol, bullet, gas, food, drink, jeans, shirt?”
“Check every box down the line,” Valentina nodded.
“Take care Val,” he replied in kind, “Take care.”
Her parting shot was a gentle kiss, right on his lips before hopping into the cab of her beloved beast. Even a fellow like Eric couldn’t help but blush.
She fired up his engine, it roaring to life after a well-earned rest. Before she peeled out, he tapped on the window. No sooner did she roll them down was she flung a pair of shades. A nice gold-rimmed pair of Aviators.
“Keep you from burning your retinas out on the road,” he winked.
All she could do was slip them on and smile. She gave the Mechanic a firm salute and tore out away into the Wastelands beyond.
Having left her only safe haven, the Driver set off to strike it out on her own, yet never would she suspect the fury and passion of the quest she would ultimately embark on, one that would push her to her very limits.
It was to be a true Hunt if ever there was one.
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