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Science Fiction Adventure Crime

-Look at the stars... They’re shining bright for you...

-That’s a little on the nose, Strickland.

-Sorry. Old habit.


I had always thought Herbert was more Slipknot than Coldplay. Go figure.


We were lying in what I thought was an old shopping mall parking lot, next to an old van and a pickup that seemed caught in the middle of mating. It was a perfect summer sky, no clouds, no moon. So I could basically reach out and grab a fistful of stars if I had that cosmic power. I had only seen a sky this perfect once, in the mountains of Venezuela. Right next to the Chama river, that night that we---


--C’mon, Chris Martin. We gotta keep moving.


I was annoyed but a little grateful, since I didn’t want to go that particular memory lane. Venezuela was twenty lifetimes ago, and I couldn’t afford the nostalgia. It offered this parting thought: of that happy night by the Chama, I was the only one alive.


Herbert poked me with a boot. --Today, Strickland.

--Yes, ma’am.

--And quit the night dreaming. Venezuela was a long time ago. We gotta think of a long time ahead.


Yeah, she could read minds. I was sure of that. Maybe she is a witch. That, or my face really was a kid’s book, like Shane used to say.


I looked up at the stars one more time. Thought of the satellites circling around over and over. Thought whether the stars would look any different with no horizon. Thought of the people still in the Space Station, hoping somehow they had enough food to hold out till...


Thought I was thinking too damn much. I grabbed my backpack and walked after Herbert.


---



We had walked an hour in silence, in the ditches next to the road. Old strip malls rose in the distance like dead dinosaurs. We thought we saw a light in the distance one time, but other than that only the sound of our boots broke the silence. I never thought I’d miss crickets.


Herbert walked a little ahead of me. I let my mind picture her outside the uniform once, then remembered my place and glanced away, and when I looked back she was looking at me grinning.


--So... Coldplay?

--Yes, ma’am.

--You ever see them live?

--My dad took me on their last tour. He was stationed in Brazil, so he took me and my brother to see them at Maracana.

--Oh, Brazil! And Venezuela? You must have had quite the tail collection, Strickland.

--I wish, ma’am.

--Oh come on now. The most beautiful women in the world at your disposal and you didn’t have a parade in that bedroom?


I thought when did we step back to the 1940s locker room talk, and considering who said it was a woman who, jacked or not, was all of five feet eight, I had to chuckle.


--Always been more of a one-girl-at-a-time kind of guy, ma’am.

--Still are, aren’t ya? Well, now I feel extra safe.


We both laughed, then quieted down for a while. Then Herbert asked, “Did you come back here before or after Everything?”


I could actually hear the capital “E”. “Before. Two years before”.


I knew what she would ask next, and I surprised myself by how touched I was to sense the hesitation before the next question. So she cared enough. “Any of yours...”


“No”, I answered before she finished. “None of them made it, ma’am”.


--Sorry to hear that, Strickland. And sorry for asking.

--It’s okay, ma’am. I’ve had my chance to grieve.

--I’d say you’re one of the lucky ones, then.


I opened my mouth to ask why, but Herbert walked a little ahead of me, like shutting me off. Every time we started to talk, she was both the beginner and the ender. I’ve been walking with Janet Herbert for coming on a week now, searching for the mark, and I still didn’t know much about her.


Was I forced to trust her, then? Just because she--


This time, I stopped myself. We had come over a hillside on the road and were now looking down at a long stretch of almost nothing. It was more wilderness than civilization, some silver lining in all of the mess, so visibility was almost perfect. About two miles down, in what looked like an old Wawa station, we could see a faint orange glow. We dropped quickly on one knee.


--Think that’s our mark?-- Herbert asked.

--Doubt it’s a family, ma’am.

--Spyglass.

--Done.


I took out the eyepiece from the backpack and adjusted it. The Wawa came into sharp proximity, and I confirmed it was indeed a light coming from the glass doors of the main entrance. Maybe a campfire. I told Herbert.


--Time?

I checked the timeband. --Four twenty a.m., ma’am.

--We’re what, half an hour away, maybe more?

--I’d say that’s about right, ma’am.

--No way to know if it’s him for sure, right?

--I don’t see any movement yet, so hard to tell.

--At what time’s sunrise?

I checked again. --Five forty.

--Shit...


No one could be outside in daylight, not anymore. This meant that by the time we reached the gas station, if our mark was indeed there, it gave us some twenty minutes to secure the mark and find shelter until the next night. It was doable but tight. The mark would probably put up a fight, make us lose time. It was really a short window.


--Any chance it’s someone else?-- Herbert asked.

--Could be gypsies. Unlikely, but not impossible. Maybe some other drifter. Also could be enforcers from another tribeland. Doubt our mark is the only fugitive.


She stared at the light. I could almost hear the gears in her head turning.


--All right... Time’s a-wasting. If it’s him we secure him there and then. If not we camp for the night, deal with whomever it really is. Let’s take the scenic route, Strickland.


------


We reached the station some forty minutes later, avoiding the main road where it was easier to see us coming. I looked up at the stars again, and saw that east was starting to get a tiny bit less dark. Old Yeller was getting ready to wake up, and that meant the flocks. Whatever was out in the open during the day had a good chance to be found by them, and that would be it. It’s what turned us into a night species for the last few years. After Everything.


We had to hurry.


Herbert touched my arm. When I turned, she signaled me to walk right, she would go left, behind the building. I nodded. We both had the wrist guns out and ready. Herbert slinked off, while I moved off. I got to the main door first; it had been almost entirely made out of glass, so now it was just an open cave. I peered inside; the orange glow was coming from the back, behind some shelves. If there actually was someone there, they would still be pretty exposed. I doubted our mark was stupid enough to choose this place to spend the day, but sometimes luck was on the side of the good guys.


Those were us, right?


Herbert appeared on the other side of the building, signaling all clear. She asked whether I saw anything; I shook my head, pointed out where the glow was. She nodded, signaled we would go in on separate sides. I nodded again. We carefully walked inside, avoiding any broken glass. The shelves had been emptied of any food long ago, some toppled over, some --where the glow came from-- arranged in a circle. We got there together, and I felt adrenaline slowly seethe away when we saw that yes, it was a campfire, but other than the remains of a jackalope, there was no one there. I saw Herbert’s eyes go from green to yellow; the subtle sign that she was pissed.


--Shit-- she hissed.

--Think it was our mark, ma’am?-- I asked.

--Oh yeah. I doubt there was anyone else out this late, this far away from any big city.


She bent down to inspect the fire. It was placed in a large metal tray, with “logs” made from reams of paper, probably taken from what was the main office. The jackalope still had some meat hanging on to its bones; there was a tiny but nasty looking hole right between its horns. About the size of a slingshot pebble. The kind you used when you didn’t have access to a wrist gun.


--It was him, all right-- Herbert sighed--. He was here maybe an hour ago. Maybe less. Fuck me in the ass, we’re so close... What time is it, Strickland?

--Ten past five, ma’am.

--Shit. He must be hunkering down for the day. And we can’t follow him anymore. Fuck, fuck, FUCK!


She punctuated the last "fuck" with a kick to the jackalope. The carcass flew and hit a wall. I said nothing, although I shared the frustration. We had been after this guy for a week, since the arrest order came from Atlanta, and we had never been closer to catching him. He could be hiding down the road, and because of the flocks, there was no way we could go after him. I cursed the moment Everything happened.


Herbert sighed again, calming herself down. --Sorry Strickland. That was... unladylike.


She chuckled after that. She looked out and stared. It was now a dull gray, announcing that sunrise was now minutes away. I could imagine the flocks starting to stir, ready to take flight, ready to find whatever was stupid enough to be caught out in the open. And that of course made me remember my brother Shane. Big brother Shane, so much in love with wrestling. A massive fan of Tiana Johnson, cried when her father finally passed away. So excited because he got to see Drew McIntyre’s last match live. And whom I heard, not saw, but heard, die in a flock.


--Hey, Strickland, look alive!


I jumped back to the now.


--Sorry, ma’am.

--I said check the back, man. Let’s start setting up camp. We’ll set off after him as soon as the first stars show up. I need you all with me, OK?

--Yes, ma’am.


----


Ten minutes later, we were hunkered in what was left of the men’s room, lit up by our torches. It was almost daybreak, and outside, faintly, we could hear a deafening silence. I watched the door uneasily. It could close completely and no light came through, but still. The flock could see and hear everything. They were all eyes and ears and teeth and feathers and hunger.


Herbert had taken off her enforcer vest and shirt and just sat there looking at her torch. She had a blue tank top, so I saw her tattoos for the first time. A large Eastern dragon holding a pearl graced her left arm, while a mystic owl flew on her right; underneath this one were the words “Juan And Only”. I wondered who this Juan is or was.


--Strickland.

--Ma’am.

--Any ideas?


I sighed and thought. The mark was maybe two clicks away. It was as easy as walking to where he was, and it was as impossible as walking to where he was. So close, yet so far away. Was that a Hall and Oates song? Seems like it. Who cares.


--We might have a chance right before sunset, but without knowing where he went or how far he is, we might not even make it to where he is.

--True. But I’m sick and tired of not gaining on this putz. It’s not like he’s the freaking Man in Black.

--Who?

--Never mind, old book. Anyway, we gotta find a way to cut the distance between us and him. Without, you know, dying ourselves.


As if on cue, we heard the mix of high screeches and furious beating of thousands of wings. The first flock had started its morning patrol, tens of thousands of weird pinkish things that looked like a cross between a weasel and a seagull, with four winged legs and a yellow snout full of teeth that could cut through wood. But come night they were blind as moles and depended on each other for hearing, so they gathered in trees or caves to spend the day. Hence us --their prey-- had turned to the night for protection.


--Let’s sleep on it-- Herbert whispered.

--Copy that, ma’am. I’ll take first watch.

--Nah. I need you sharp, big guy. Have a good one.

--All right. Good night, ma’am.


----


--Stop squirming, love.


That was a man’s voice, I thought.


I sprang to my feet, swung my torch toward the sound of the voice. It was our mark, a ridiculously tall brute called Ian with a three-day shade on his face and a scar on his left cheek. I saw the slingshot on his belt. He had Herbert pressed against his chest, a huge knife against her throat. She only had shorts and her top; he had sneaked up while we slept. Must have been hiding somewhere in the building. Cursing myself, I aimed the wrist gun to his face.


--You wanna put that down, matey. Makes me nervous. Might cut a nearby throat, you see.


He drew the knife closer. I immediately raised the gun.


--Strickland, don’t be an asshole, shoot this prick now!

--Oh yeah, he could, except he’s not loaded.


I looked at the gun like a moron. Of course he was right. The charger indicator was at zero. Dammit.


--Now if you don’t mind walking out with me. Slowly, please. Don’t worry, it’s night time. We’ll chat and then I’ll leave.

--The fuck you...-- Herbert started before the blade actually pricked her neck.

--Don’t interrupt, love.


We obliged. We didn’t have a choice. Night had indeed fallen, but it had to have been minutes ago; I could only see Venus and a few other dots of light outside. That made me nervous --had indeed the flock gone to sleep? I felt so exposed, even inside the gas station.


--Gotta commend the both of you, lads. You followed me this far. And I should’ve killed you both in your sleep, but hey, my people appreciate dames this fit. She’s coming with me.

--The hell you are, bro--. My brain was going at five a second, trying to figure out how I was going to get Herbert out of this. Then I saw something at the upper corner of my sight. I felt cold. But it was a shot.


--Strickland, shoot this pig or I swear to God...

--Sorry, are you deaf, love? He has. No. Charge.

--Maybe--I said-- but that doesn’t mean I’m useless. Ma’am?


Herbert looked straight in my eyes. I looked up at the corner, looked back at her. For a half-second, I thought she wouldn’t get me. But her eyes widened instantly.


--Care to say goodbye, mate?

--Goodbye, punk.


Herbert lunged her foot in a straight arc forward and back, hitting Ian right on the nose, which erupted in a blood volcano. The mix of shock and anger made him drop the knife, which was enough for Herbert to drop to one knee and ram her right fist right between his legs. I grabbed a torch and lunged forward, landing a dropkick right in his chest. As he fell back toward the wall, I flung the torch and hit him right at his broken nose. He howled in pain.


When the torch hit the ground, it lit up. Ian was temporarily blinded, and he looked up to block the light. He stared straight into fifty large beady eyes and rows of sharp teeth drooling over their late night snack. The station was a flock roost.


I grabbed Herbert and carried her out, as far as we could from the sounds of Ian being torn apart. We ran until we reached a lonely tree away from the station, and then we collapsed on the floor.


--Quick thinking, Strickland-- Herbert panted--. I owe you.

--You would’ve done the same thing, ma’am.

--But you know you’re going back for our packs. And my clothes.

--You look fine to me, ma’am.


She looked at me with that sly grin again. --Don’t get fresh, Strickland. I’m your superior.

I returned the grin between short breaths. --Apologies, ma’am.


We collapsed on our backs, panting the adrenaline away. It was another clear night, a night where Death saw us walk by and decided to take another soul. These were hard times, no doubt, harder than ever, but at least we had made it alive.


--Care to sing to me, Jeff?


I didn’t recall when was the last time Herbert had addressed me by my first name. I said of course.


--No Coldplay, please.


I chuckled. I started off with “Hard Times Come Easy” by Richie Sambora. Janet said I was truly an oldies station. And there, lying down, as we kept looking up at the stars and the galaxies and watching time go by, clear perfect skies that came because of the Apocalypse, we laughed.

April 30, 2020 02:10

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