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IV. Facing the Pack
Defending a Homestead in the First Leg of their Grand Hunt...
The rev and roar of the bikes bled their ears drier than the dust, the sun strobing as each passed the boarded windows. The white wolves huddled in the shack’s center. The man of the house held the rifle tight in his fist as he thumbed the tears from his wife and boy’s eyes.
“Ain’t no one gon’ hurt us, I’ll make sure of it.”
“Josiah, be careful,” the wife pleaded.
His only answer was the sweetest kiss they ever shared. Whatever Josiah Sumner met on the other side of the door, he was prepared to fight it to the last. He walked up to the door and gave a final look through the keyhole.
Streaks of black and red whizzed by long enough for him to see who they were.
“Got-damned scavengers,” he muttered to himself.
He loaded the rifle and went for the handle, when a sudden volley of laser-fire came rocketing around the house. He readied his gun as quickly as he could, taking one last peak through the keyhole to see.
“They ain’t shootin’ at us?”
From beyond the threshold of the lock came thin lines of orange knocking wolf and machine down in an instant, the scavengers returning fire to no avail. Those that weren’t dead were tucking tail and bucketing away. The last dog, white with grizzled fur, cried out, “THIS AIN’T THE END SUMNER! TELL THEM GOONS JUST SO, YOU SONOFABITCH!”
He didn’t know what to do. Josiah slumped down against the door, looking to his woman and child with a foreign gaze.
“They’re gone, right Pa?” the boy asked.
The white wolf snapped out of it and sat back down with them.
“They’re gone Chet, they’re gone.”
Suddenly, a voice rang out from outside. A softer, feminine voice. “It’s alright folks, we ain’t with ‘em.” There was at once courage and a quiver of fear on her tongue. The quiver became a shiver in a male’s voice.
“We saw you were in a spot, and came to help!”
Josiah went up to the door and barked loudly.
“I want names! I want ‘em now.”
He looked in the keyhole to see four wolves. A pair of reds, a gray, and a white wolf. They were a strange sandal-footed crew. The reds were dressed like tourists, with their exotic shirts and shorts, the gray like a beatnik with his black long-sleeved shirt and jeans, and the white like a ramble-on hippie, with loose-fitting blue denim and a brown belt. It wasn’t exactly a sight that instilled confidence.
“The name’s Valentina,” the white wolf started, “This here’s Brennus, Marcus, and Sabina. We ain’t here to hurt you, honest.”
The father sighed as he unlocked the door, the bright light of the desert sun filling the room.
“Guess I gotta start with thank you, don’t I?”
After Hell Patrol had came and went, the dead dragged off to meet a pauper’s grave, all four were welcomed into the Sumner home. The wife, Elisa, poured each a cold drink.
“Where y’all folks from?” Josiah asked.
“Little ways further West,” Valentina started, “Been on a hunt.”
“Like for boars and bears?” the giddy Chet asked.
“Sorta,” she chuckled. “It’s a…bit more personal than that.”
“We’re laying traps.” Marcus added. “We proof-proofed ‘em, made ‘em all magnetic too.”
“Trappin’ bots?” Josiah chuckled.
Brennus looked to the white wolf, quite seriously. “Yes and no. We’re not sure how much of them is organic and how much is android.”
“Been about three days on the road, so far.” Sabina chimed in. “Still nothing, por dios.”
Elisa grinned. “Jo knows it best, huntin’ ain’t for the impatient.”
“I’m learning though!” the Latina perked up. “A pretty good school to learn from too.” She wrapped her arms around Marcus, playfully pecking at his cheek.
Josiah still looked skeptical. “So you’re not sure what it is you’re catching, just that you want it caught, hmph?”
Valentina shot him a cold look. “To level with you sir, we’re after a kidnapper. We figure he might be in the area. Takes both ride and rider. We just don’t know if he’s a ‘droid or not.”
Elisa pulled Chet close to her, Josiah sighing defeatedly. “If thems rebel-rousers wasn’t enough.”
Brennus looked curious. “Begging pardon sir, but who exactly were these people?”
The white wolf grumbled as he slid out of his suede vest. “Liz and I rock a Cougar. Gal’s out back. Gets us every where we gotta be. I know us down-homers don’t look like artistic types, but I’m a cameraman. Went on a drive, cooling my jets when I stopped to snap a couple of shots of the landscape. Little did I know we had a pack of scavengers rolling our way. They start going for her like I wasn’t even there, and I whip around and fire a warning shot with my Remington. Shot didn’t take so I dropped one of ‘em on the spot. Rest went running scared, I jumped back in her and hightailed it home. Did everything to make sure they didn’t tail me, and for a while, they were all yesterday’s news. ‘Til just about now.”
Valentina looked to her team, all three wolves staring right back at her. The four nodded before turning their attention back to the Sumners.
“How four extra sets of hands, guns, and rods sound?” Val offered.
Josiah and Elisa couldn’t believe what they were hearing.
“Are you folks all bent in the head?” he barked. “Them’s a standing army right there, just damned lucky you even shook ‘em off.”
“But we shook ‘em,” Marcus shot back. “Lord did we shake ‘em! Mister, we are not trafficking in diplomacy. We promised ourselves the second we set out on this to help anyone who needed it, and I see three folks who’ve got a cannonful of crap, pardon my French, heading your way!”
Marcus shivered furiously, Sabina doing her best to soothe him.
Josiah took a deep breath. “It ain’t that I don’t want the help…I don’t need no one dying on my account. Not no more.”
Val wanted to ask, but she hushed her crew instead. “We ain’t gonna. We’re skilled. And we’re capable. And we ain’t doing ourselves any favors by twiddling thumbs and pretending like we have a full trap to run off to. We ain’t with Hell Patrol, we ain’t with the Force. We’re out here for our own sake’s, and the sake of any who need us. We won’t help if you don’t want us to, but I want to see that boy grow up into a man.”
She turned to look at the soft-eyed child. “I betcha you want to see the world with Ma and Pa one day, right Son?”
He shook his head, gladly, Elisa smiling a distant, knowing smile.
“I say we let ‘em Jo,” she said, “I figure they’re good people.”
They looked to one another before Josiah looked back at his son. “Whaddya say Partner? Think they can do it?”
“Bet my bottom dollar.” he nodded.
He tussled his son’s fur playfully. “Alright Sport, let’s try ‘em on for size,” extending his hand, and shaking on it with Val, Marcus, Sabina, and Brennus. Even as his head was still unsure, Sumner’s gut told him he was working with the right people. Now they had to prove it.
The sun had finally set, Elisa having cooked for the visiting crew. Marcus proved quite the entertainer, regaling young Chet with tales of adventure he and Sabina had been on, while Val and Brennus talked with the parents on some of the truth of their plight, having grown comfortable with the family.
“We’ve so many questions unanswered,” Val sighed. “We tried coming up with every plan of attack, but it’s like trying to catch a ghost in the palm of your hand.”
Brennus pulled Val closer to him. “We figure this kidnapper might be able to give us an inkling of what we’re up against.”
“Mighty sorry it happened to you three.” said Josiah. “There is a little trinket of info I can give you on the thing’s front end.”
Val was all ears at the very thought, leaning in close. Brennus gently brought her back to his side before the father went on.
“I was a kiddo when they did, but for about…ten years or so, they broadcast ‘em terrestrial. The sangy-et…”
“Sanguis et Oleum, Señor.” Sabina chimed in.
“Gracias. But yeah, they showed them over-the-air. Anyone with an antenna and a TV could see the matches, as well as the full-length programming blocks from Comm/Ent in Haven.”
Val looked to Brennus sharply. “Why didn’t Eric tell us?”
The gray wolf smiled gently before saying, “Honey, that dog hasn’t touched a screen in the ten years I’ve known him.”
The Sumners chuckled at the thought. “Besides that,” Elisa added, “They stopped all broadcasts about five years before then. Eric wouldn’t have had the chance. How’s my favorite mage, anyhow?”
“He’s ferrying us on this voyage,” Brennus replied. “Great health, staying fit as a fiddle.”
“Good,” she smiled. “Very good.”
“What’d you mean by mage?” Val asked.
Elisa looked rather surprised at the question. “He’s got a bit of a reputation as more than a medicine man.”
Josiah chimed in with his best campfire horror voice. “Some say he has the ability to levitate, read minds, predict the future, and cure the blind!”
“Josiah Edwin Sumner, you cut that out!” Elisa scolded. “He is a very spiritually minded man. Just has a special way about it is all.”
“Babe, babe, c’mere.” her husband coaxed. She came to rest in his lap where she looked him in his sweet brown eyes.
“I didn’t mean nothing by it Darling.” he smiled. “Besides, you should hear him after a good ale at a card table. He’d tell you the same thing, and the way he tells it, I believe him.”
She couldn’t stay mad if she tried, the two pecking at each other sweetly. Val and Brennus snickered between each other before turning to look at Marcus and Sabina and the worn-out Chet.
“El niño está muy cansado,” she whispered, cradling the boy in his arms. Mrs. Sumner hopped off her man’s lap and scooped him up from Sabina.
“Natural born mother,” Elisa smiled. “I’m surprised either pairs of you haven’t had kids yet.”
“We ain’t rushing things,” Val snickered, looking to Brennus coyly.
Sabina blushed, a flutter in her voice. “It’s not been for…for lack of…trying.”
Elisa looked to her as she tucked Chet in, coming back beside the red wolf as her lover held her dear.
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
“Part of it’s me, Ma’am,” Marcus added as he hushed Sabina, “We don’t know how much of the change is genetic. Anything coulda happened in the blackout. She miscarried some, but we ain’t felt safe trying after my time in the ring. I ain’t always this together.”
Elisa held both reds’ hands, thumbing each as she tried to find the words.
“You are so young yet. You got plenty more time to try. No matter the hurdle, just don’t give it up.”
Sabina dried her eyes and smiled. “Thank you so much, Senora.”
Josiah looked upon the crowd in his home. “I think, considering where Chet’s at, everyone catch some shuteye. Our outlook notwithstanding.” He shook hands with Val, the first of the crew to be on lookout.
With that, Sabina and Marcus piled into their DeSoto and Brennus into his Mustang. Everyone locked their doors. Val stayed back for a cup of coffee.
“Brewed this up cowpoke style,” Josiah smiled, “Strongest I could.”
It was a cup of Joe built to kill, and she loved every drop. They sat for a while on the swinging chair outside of the cabin, to give the Missus a chance to sleep.
“Truth be told, you ain’t the hunting type.” he started. “But you sure got the tenacity for it.”
“I’m doing this so no one else has to go through it,” she said between sips. “Marcus is about the worst off, I’m a close second, and Brennus is the only man who’s got it all on a leash. But even he said it took ‘em a good long while to deprogram.”
“Why don’t you guys?”
“His answer was selective amnesia. You can’t end what you can’t remember. And even then, he only remembers the damn thing being called ‘Aremort,’ so now we got to fit that piece in the jigsaw.”
Josiah nodded. “Well, wish you all the best. And thank you. I know I’s been a bit cold about things, pay that no mind. This shit’s made for a long day. And I don’t want it to go on any longer for my wife and boy.”
“If they don’t come ‘round in three days time,” Val promised. “We’ll leave y’all to it.”
They shook on it as the white wolves parted ways. But before she got too far, he flung the keys her way. The chain hit the ground as she stopped to look. She was puzzled.
“If they’s after anything, best be in the thing they’s after.” Josiah said.
Val saluted and took the keys. Walking around to the back of the cabin, it was there she met the Cougar. She was a ‘67 in maroon, automatic; a true classic. She slid behind the wheel, the window facing the desert beyond. She rested her sandalled paws on the pedals while looking her pistol over. Her Mars had served her well all this time, and she had a feeling it would tonight.
Before settling in as lookout, she decided to pull the Cougar out front, seeing as the front door was the scavengers’ only way in. With a twist of the key, and a few gentle revs, the cat slunk out of the overhang to stand guard over the Sumner home.
When Josiah saw her parking the beast, he went to protest, but those jade eyes alone reassured him as she turned the engine off. He went to sleep without another word spoken.
Val enjoyed looking into the night from behind the Cougar’s wheel.
“I can see why they love you so,” she smiled, stroking the wheel. “You make anyone feel right at home.”
At first, the hours crawled by. No light safe for the stars, and no motion safe for the rustling of her crew in slumber. She could hear a little shaking coming from the DeSoto, but the smiling Adventurer wasn’t telling any tales with her tinted windows.
She turned her attention back to the land. East, West, North, South; all barren, only distant hills and splashes of greenery silhouetted by the starlight of the New Moon. Until, a single spec of white darted across the horizon. The land-bound shooting star was gone as soon as it appeared. Val figured it must’ve been a trick of light, especially since it wasn’t coming their way. However, the seven that followed would.
Valentina cocked her ears towards the grumbling and revving horde of engines. Three of the lights revealed themselves to be bikes, but the other four came in the form of two cars. All were roaring their way towards the Sumner home.
She whipped out her pocket radio, clicking three times before saying “Ignis, Ignis. Everyone up.”
“Incendo,” answered Brennus.
“Incendo,” answered Marcus.
Quick as she could, Val fired up the Cougar and slipped her back behind the Sumner home. As she darted back to the Hummer, she could see the scavengers drawing near. The second she climbed into the cab of her beige behemoth, she sent a final message on the radio.
She turned the key, Brennus and Marcus following suit, their six lights flashing in the dark and sent flying towards the seven. The scavengers knew once they saw them.
“IT’S SUMNER’S GOONS, KILL ‘EM!” cried the white biker.
The fire in Valentina grew, the cruel feral twist came screaming out of her as she threw the throttle to the ground, claws digging into the leather of her caligae as she steered the Hummer directly into the path of the scavengers. The bikers were quick to move. The cars were not.
The engines scrunched and buckled as she barreled through them, blood staining the windshields from within. A fireball ripped through each car as the Hummer kept forging ahead, pushing the two away from the house as far as the ride could take them.
The bikers came for the Mustang and Adventurer. Two black bikers eyed the DeSoto, rearing up on their wheels before slamming their weight into both sides. Marcus pinned his foot to the floor as Sabina readied the gun. The bikers got the red wolf swerving behind the wheel as he tried to shake them off. Back and forth, back and forth their Lady rocked and revved, trying to shake the twin-V fleas off her back. Sabina slapped the window crank, the handle spinning madly as the window raced down. The shotgun-side biker met both twin barrels as she blew his head off. Marcus spun his around as Sabina tossed him the sawed-off.
“Vale Canis,” he spat as he pulled the trigger, the other biker sent hurtling off into the distance as Marcus slammed the brakes and swung their Lady around.
Brennus gunned for the white wolf the second he got close, only for the rider to completely blow past him.
The gray hopped on the radio. “Headcat’s eyeing the Cougar.”
Both the DeSoto and the Hummer spun around and went racing back towards the cabin. There stood Josiah Sumner, shotgun in hand as the white biker race fiendishly towards him. His laser-powered Remington took shot after shot, only for the biker to weave his way around them. Shots to the bike, body, and head, all missed. And when the white biker came around, it wasn’t the father he took aim at.
In his hand was a machine gun, its barrel aimed at the shack. With a single spray of electric lead, he could riddle the house, Elisa, and Chet into an afghan of splintered wood and bloodied fur. He raised the gun, and as he went to fire...
Josiah blasted the gun clean out of his hand. The shock gave Brennus enough time to swing in and knock him off the bike. The bike fell into Val’s path, where she tore over it, its gas tank detonating as she did. The white biker’s head fell directly under the DeSoto’s wheel. Marcus punched the button for 4th on the gearshift panel and slammed his foot down on the accelerator. The scavenger wouldn’t be coming back from the mess he made of him.
When the three rides returned, Josiah stood both horrified and grateful, only for his smile to sour upon seeing the state of Val and Marcus as they exited the vehicles. Marcus was trembling, stumbling over himself as Sabina propped him up and sat him back in the driver’s seat, unbuttoning his Aloha shirt and resting her head on his chest.
Valentina was no better, tripping onto the desert floor as she exited the Hummer. Josiah and Brennus leapt out to help her up, resting her on her ride’s running board as her gray lover checked her pulse. He rested his head on her chest, her breath growing heavy before, finally, relaxing. Her pulse slowed, and at last, she was back in control of herself. They embraced, as did Marcus and Sabina.
Josiah could only look on, stunned. “What is all this?”
Brennus looked to him, “A hell of the mind. A hell we try to use for good.”
The morning brought with it a cool air. Elisa fixed the biggest breakfast she ever had for the team. Hell Patrol had already been and gone to scrape up the remains, and the more honorable scavengers came to pilfer the wrecked metals. But within that quiet little cabin, Chet was being spun the biggest yarn of his young life by the chipper Marcus.
“And that’s when your old man, right when it all looked awful, blew the gun right out of his hand.” He pantomimed a rickety Tommy Gun as the boy clapped with wide-eyed awe.
Josiah blushed as his wife pecked him on the cheek.
“Marcus, you’re liable to have to take that show on the road.” she chortled.
“Never say never, Ma’am!” he teased in kind.
After they had all finished, the parents shook hands with their perfect strangers, as the son embraced Valentina, Brennus, Marcus, and lastly, Sabina. She crouched down and looked the young man in his eyes.
“You be good for Madre y Padre, ¿Sí?”
“Sí, Señora.” he beamed.
“Turning my son bilingual now, are we?” Josiah chuckled, patting his kid’s back.
“Never hurts to learn a few new things,” she grinned.
“Can’t argue with that.”
As the crew piled into their rides, Josiah went up to Val one last time.
“If you ever need a thing, and happen to be cruising the neighborhood, pop these in the computer.” It was a tinplate with coordinates.
She shook hands with the white wolf one last time. “You can count on it. I hope to see y’all someday soon.”
As he playfully saluted and walked off, Val fired up the Hummer. As soon as the computer systems came back on, a five-alarm scream came from the GPS tracker. Everyone heard it. Everyone also heard the whoop of glee from Valentina.
“WE GOT SOMETHING! It’s Trap 4, it’s locked in good, it’s metal and…it’s got a signal unlike anything I’ve seen yet.”
Without missing a beat, the trio of rides thundered off into the desert, each driver waving by to the Sumners as they peeled out. The land became a blur as the thrill of Valentina’s discovery dragged everyone on at top speed. And when they reached Trap 4, they were greeted by something no one could have expected.
It was electric, but not an android. It had the hands of a wolf, down to the fur, but not the body of one. It’s body was a monitor, and its arms metallic tubes. When Valentina stepped out to look closer, each hunter joining in her amazement, there was only one question on her lips.
“Who are you?”
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