Thursday, February 18, 2016

2/18/16

Whistling In The Wasteland Winds
By E.S. Wynn


Dust plumes on the horizon. Sun-Hands sends up a cry, loud and trilling. Cracked binoculars fall away from her quick eyes, disappear into a pouch at her side. Lips as dark, as weathered as ancient leather crease around a broken smile. "Black Legion!" She shouts over her shoulder. "West Route!"
Immediately, there is a stirring in the camp. Anxious, excited, Sun-Hands pumps the pedals on her bike with one powerful thigh. Behind her, men and women swathed in filthy shreds of leather, rug and rope mount their own bikes, pop kickstands back against lightweight aluminum frames. There's no waiting– in seconds, the bikes are singing through the flying sand, Sun-Hands leading the charge, setting a rhythm with the pulse of her pounding pedals. A crossbow of piano wire and particleboard as ancient and weathered as she is slaps against the cross of her handlebars, rattles as she slams a cracked cooler full of short, sharpened rebar lengths next to it, loads the bow with quick, deft movements. To her left and right, two others sail up beside her on stripped-down mountain bikes, ready their own weapons with grins under dusty hoods cut from nylon area rugs.
The convoy comes into view before the burn even begins to set in. Sun-Hands calls out the order, gestures sharp and direct. "Three electrics! Four frames! Intel spot-on!"
"Let's just hope it stays that way!" The woman on Sun-Hands's right shouts back, rips off her hood, squints fierce, indigo eyes against flying sand as wind whips out and unfurls her mane of midnight hair like a banner. Two quick gestures, firm as her tone. "Corv and Knives. You're with me." The woman shoots a sharp smile at Sun-Hands. "We'll take the electrics. You take care of the frames."
"Tiger!" Sun-Hands shouts, but the younger woman is already gone, slamming pedals, sailing off through the sand with Corv and Knives trailing her, the trio aiming to cut off the convoy, or slide up alongside the boxy, four-wheeled electrics before they can accelerate away. "Dammit!" Only the barest drop in speed. Sun-Hands shouts to the eleven raiders still riding behind and beside her. "Sticks! Pictures! Go after Tiger! Make sure she doesn't get herself killed! The rest of you, follow me!"
Someone sends up another trilling war cry behind her. The others catch it, echo it, draw her into it. Her grin is as sharp, as feral as Tiger's.
Cutting a line to the right, Sun-Hands throws every ounce of power she has into her pedals, goes screaming straight at the convoy. "Not gonna best me yet," the old woman growls.
Leaning into their frames, Sticks and Pictures hurl themselves after Tiger, chase the streamer of her midnight mane through the grit and haze. Seven seconds, eight, and the familiar crack of gunfire splits the sky. Sun-Hands's eyes widen.
Intel didn't say anything about guns.
It's almost enough to slow the elder, make her think twice. Almost. Greed kicks fresh adrenalin into her veins. Greed, hunger, and the knowledge that whatever the convoy is carrying must be valuable to justify guns. Real smoke and fire guns!
Sun-Hands doesn't waver when Corv hits the sand, his bike splintering, flying apart under the speed of impact. Tiger throws up a war cry that gets lost in the dust, and then Sun-Hands sees the younger woman leaning in close against the bars of her frame, lining up a shot with her own makeshift crossbow. One second. Two. The wire sings, slings a chunk of rebar through the air.
The shot is sharp, precise. It slides in right between the frames where the lead electric's windshield would be. Sun-Hands grins. Tiger's sting is keen. The lead electric goes wild on the road, and in the space of a breath, it spins out in the sand, flips over, rolls end-over-end until it comes to a crunching stop. The four frames and the other electrics slow to cut around their fallen. It's enough. In another breath, Sun-Hands is on them, loosing her own bolt, raising her hands and standing on the pedals of her bike as a volley of rebar goes screaming past her, turns the two remaining electrics into pincushions.
The Black Legionnaires on frames turn out to be hired guns. They don't stick around, don't put up a fight. Even before the last electric grinds to a stop, they scatter into the sands, throw their thighs into their sudden escape, shaved and waxed heads flashing in the sun. Sun-Hands rallies her own with a standing victory cry, and as the fourteen frames following her orders sail in to circle around the fallen electrics, she sees one of her boys slide to a stop, throwing up a curtain of sand as he looses another length of rebar, plugs a grunting face just as it rises from the wreckage.
A gesture, a shrill whistle. Sun-Hands coasts to a stop, dismounts a dozen paces from the mangled mass of the lead electric. Tiger jogs her own frame through the sand, kicks down the stand and leaves it as she strides up to stand beside Sun-Hands. There's blood on the crunched frame of the electric's passenger-side door. No movement inside.
Sun-Hands squint-grins at Tiger, catches the other woman's indigo eyes just for a breath, then glances down the line at the other two electrics. The others come to a stop an instant later, step off their frames, flip up their goggles, some drawing knives, a few snapping makeshift rebar crossbows free from their handlebars. Silently, they stalk the shadows inside the boxy electrics, keen to any movement, but none comes.
There's a crunch. Sun-Hands looks back toward the lead electric, her eyes sharp, wary, hand going immediately to her knife. Tiger meets her stare evenly, then yanks something from the shadows of the vehicle's crumpled cab.
“My kill,” Tiger says, holding up a dusty, lever-action rifle. Cracking it open at the breech, she squints inside the chamber, blows the dust out of it with one quick burst, then looks back to Sun-Hands. “By rights, I get first salvage.”
“As it has always been,” Sun-Hands says. She's jealous, but she offers a smile and a nod anyway, hides anything else by turning back to the others, making a sharp gesture. “Not much time.” She barks her orders. “Strip the cells, water, guns, anything. We divide everything at dusk.”
“You're getting slow, old woman,” Tiger says. Sun-Hands ignores the remark, focuses on the burn in her thighs, watches as the others rip into the electrics, scurry inside and yank free everything they can get hands on. Bundles of wires, a clattering soup cup with a dozen twenty-two rounds in the bottom. Pictures finds something wrapped in foil, shouts, then thinks better of it and crams it into his mouth. Three others tackle him as he tries to run for his bike, plant him face-down in the dirt. There's screaming, thrashing, the snapping of teeth, then coughing. Nimble hands extract the foil-wrapped food, then toss it to Sun-Hands. Without looking at it, the old woman pushes it into her pack. As the closest thing they have to a leader, the others trust her to keep it until dusk.
“And your intel was off, same as last time,” Tiger adds. She's closer now, Sun-Hands notes. Five paces, maybe six. Still, the old woman doesn't turn. In the space of a few breaths, the frames are sagging on their tires, heavily-laden. There's a squeal as rough hands start to pull lengths of sharpened rebar from the aluminum doors and sides of the electrics. A backpack full of recovered handguns sits open in the sand, clangs as Knives tosses another into the sack. When Sun-Hands turns again, Tiger is looking right at her, eyes full of fight.
“You're not ready to lead us yet, daughter,” Sun-Hands shifts into a swaggering stance, one hip cocked. Tiger meets her eyes only for a moment more, then looks away. It's all the old woman can do not to grin. “Your brashness cost us a man today. Corv. Corv took a bullet for you.”
“Bullet wasn't meant for me,” Tiger's flashing eyes fix with her mother's again. “Bullet was meant for Corv. Aim was true. Just not his lucky day.”
“Can't think that way if you want to lead,” Sun-Hands shakes her head. “Take every bullet as meant for you. Just others who pay the price. Corv trusted you. He's dead for that.”
Tiger looks away again, scowling. The edges of a grin pull at the older woman's lips as she turns back towards the others. Knives, Sticks, Pictures and all the rest. The pace has slowed. The bikes are heavy. There isn't much more to be picked from the carcasses of the Black Legion electrics. The haul is good, mostly food and water, a sack full of guns. No point in waiting. The four men on frames have had enough time to call in reinforcements. If anyone's coming, better to bug-out soon rather than pick around for scraps. A breath, considering, and then Sun-Hands notes the thin haze of dust plumes on the horizon, maybe a mile down the West Route. Minutes, maybe less.
“Give it time, Tiger.” She offers, words coming with a soft smile, just above a whisper. “Learn. Stay alive. You'll be leading this pack soon enough.”
Tiger doesn't say anything, only looks at her mother, seems to study the older woman's deeply tanned, age-lined face. Sun-Hands doesn't wait, only nods, swings herself onto her bike, turns back to the others.
“Saddle up!” Sun-Hands shouts. Beside her, Tiger slings her trophy, pulls her hood back over her eyes, pops the kickstand on her bike. “South! Tight line! Follow me!”
Thighs flex, shift bikes one hundred eighty degrees. When the pulse comes, it comes quick, feet pushing pedals, flinging frames to singing speed in seconds. Tiger falls in behind her mother, and then in the space of a breath, the rest jam in, following close, riding the lines Sun-Hands cuts through the sand.
By the time the Black Legionnaires arrive, those who follow Sun-Hands are already gone. Gone, like ghosts, whistling in the wasteland winds.


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This story appears as part of E.S. Wynn's 62nd book, Gold Hills, Rust Valley: 20 Tales From Apocalyptic California.


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