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From the Ashes of Our Fall

by Bryon Havranek

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Chapter 1: The Lordsmen

If it wasn’t for the bestial growl uttered by the big-time dieseler, I’d never have heard the Lordsmen coming until it was too late, and all I could do then was die. As it was, that north-bound monster wag made such a ruckus over the ruined wastes that I would’ve heard it crawling through my dreams.

It had been many seasons since the inland valleys had suffered a raid by the Black Masks, but there was no mistaking that sound. Only the Lords owned such muscled sets of wheels and, by all accounts, they just loved to drill anyone they found in their mucking way, which was a poser for me, since I happened to be crouched right down in the middle of the raiders’ path.

The tarmac beneath my feet began to tremble, informing me that I was about out of ticks. I ran as fast as my bare feet could carry me over the cracked and scrambled roadway until I came to one of those man-made rivers left over from my great-granny’s day and hopped down into it in a blink. It wasn’t deep like some I had seen and would only give me brief shelter.

I looked around until I scanned a drain hole in the nearby wall. As the ground continued to rumble and shake like the coming of a boss trembler, I dove into the round, gaping mouth and disappeared down its throat. Not too far, mind, for already the tube was beginning to show cracks from the vibes made by the approaching wag, and I wasn’t about to let myself be buried under a ton of scrap.

Though stiff as stone the walls might have looked, they were likely as rotted as any geezer’s teeth, and already chunks of concrete were dropping down about me in the shadows like clotted rain. Yet before I could rethink my hidey-hole, I heard the metal tracks crunching over the road above and knew that it was now too late for second thoughts.

“A lush haul this is turning out to be, Risker Dee,” I muttered to myself, my blood turning to slush as the tunnel rattled and shook around me. “What pickings brings these thuggers out so deep into the barrens? Nobody’s scanned a Masker wag since forever, yet I run into one my first day out.”

Back before I was born, the Lords had still been on the move, with Masker wags swarming far and wide to ravage the land, pinching anything deemed of the least value: fuel, machinery, pre-Fall technology, even people. All were shunted to the coast to feed the savage hunger of the Lords’ tyranny. Settlement after settlement had fallen until nothing remained but barren sand, and only when the last bit of copper wire had been stripped did the marauding hordes return to their coastal enclaves, never to be seen again.

But little did they know, the stupes, that they hadn’t grabbed everything, that there was flash swag still buried deep and unspoiled in the ruins of old, just waiting to be found by slinks like me. Probably some coastal Lord had finally realized this and sent his thuggers out to take what little was left.

And now that the Lordsmen were once more on the prowl, my people were in the gravest danger. Living high atop the mountain of Miguel, we had been left alone so long that we were finally making a techno comeback of our own, putting together enough jazz to distance even the coastal masters in all their finery. The last gasp of civilization in County East, that was us, come so far as to rival the glory days of old.

But should word leak back to the Rulers on the Coast that they had a competitor nesting in their own backyard, they wouldn’t hesitate a tick before throwing down on us. After all, we were a threat, plain as rain, to their power, an independent state that would not be tolerated.

I shivered as a horrible thought crossed my mind. Was that what this was, a scouting mission against the Bunker? Had someone finally put the finger on us? The Man had said that we would be found out eventually, and that our only hope would lie in being too tough to scrap with.

The more old-world tech we could lay our hands on, the bigger the edge we’d have against the Lords when they finally came, and it was in the hopes of making another such score that I’d been sent out alone into the barrens of the Valley. It was a vital task that I’d been given but, in the here and now, with a Masker wag sitting on top of my head, my dreams of a flash haul could wait. My life was now on the line, and all I hoped for was that whatever this crew was after, it was far from here and that the muckers were setting a distance record getting to it.

A chunk of cement banked off of my shoulder and I opened my mouth to curse it blue when I heard a shout come from somewhere outside and I pancaked flat as I could. There was movement now at the mouth of the tunnel, and my eyes grew saucer-wide in fear as I saw two pairs of jackboots appear right there in the sun. Then the dieseler above cycled its engine down to a low grumble, and things grew quiet enough outside so that I was able to hear two Lordsmen arguing.

One of the men, voice brittle as drywall, stamped down hard on the concrete. “I don’t care what you think you saw, Jimbo! We’re holdin’ up the line, and the Boss will have our balls for breakfast if’n we don’t get up outta this ditch. Come on!”

A laugh came from the other one, over the edge enough to send a shiver down my spine. “I say I saw her, Chuckee, a rotted little slink, skippin’ away over here as we crested that last pile of crap, flashin’ her goodie bag for all to see!”

“Jimbo,” came the scolding voice of Drywall Chuckee, “you been in three sheets since we set outta Bark Park. Always seein’ things that just ain’t there. Careful with how you tread or you just might wind up as Howler bait. Have another tug and let it go.”

“No, sir,” burped Jimbo, gurgling as he took a pull off of his bottle, “I seen that slink and it was definitely a ‘her’. I reckon she dove down this here sewer hole or maybe that one over yonder. If’n we can catch ‘er, we can each have a go. Been a long time since I had a go with a her, y’know.” The creepy clown was fairly drooling by now by the sound of his voice, and I didn’t like the sicko’s plans one bit.

“Course you been without, mash-head. His Lordship don’t like his merchandise roughed up, and you never seem to have a go with a her without cuttin’ her up.” Chuckee paused, thinking things over. “All the same, if there really is someone down the rabbit hole, we need to find out if they saw us makin’ the drop. Don’t need word spreading about where the Howlers are comin’ from.”

That got me to thinking despite my fear. Every child in the Bunker had grown up with every ghostly story imaginable, the more horrible the better, but nothing could hold a patch to the reality of the Howlers. Though I’d never seen one before, they had been described to me in gory detail by several of the older trackers.

Lean and withered like corpses left too long in the desert sun, they had terrible strength and a taste for human flesh. Their hairless skin was said to be so tough that they could shrug off all but the most fatal of wounds and keep on going, unstoppable killers with ghoulish appetites.

The Man thought that they had once been human but that exposure to some chemical leftovers from before the Fall had changed them into ravenous monsters. But listening now to the two thuggers outside, it sounded like the Howlers had some sort of link to the Lordsmen. Yet what could it be? The Man would need to about hear this!

“There ya go,” smirked Jimbo, “you done made a good point on why we need to get that slink outta there. She prob’ly knows too much! We can take turns puttin’ her to the question while the other one gets his jollies off. Don’t rightly matter, though, on what she might’a seen, since I’ll gut her when we’re through. This lil bird won’t get a chance to sing, I promise ya.”

Crazy took another drink. “Here, Chuck, hold my jug while I take a gander down this hole.” A moment later, what little light that came from the entrance was blotted out by Crazy’s ugly bearded face and shoulders as he tried to stuff himself into the pipe. There came a click and my stomach tore my guts apart as the yellow beam of a torch came on. I couldn’t help but blink at the sudden brightness, holding up a hand to shade my face from the glare.

“Rightee oh!” whooped Crazy as he gazed hungrily at me down the hole. “There she be, mighty young and sweet from what I can see!”

“All right, so you was on the level,” grumbled the Chuckster. “Now get her outta there. But I got first dibs, since I like my meat still kicking.”

Knowing what these two thuggers had in store for me, there was no way that I was going to let them get near me. I promptly turned end over elbow and scrambled down the pipe.

“She’s a nice little package,” crowed Jimbo, his voice following me as I fled deeper underground, “but she’s fair goin’ further down the drain.” There came the clicking sound of a gun safety being disabled and I squealed, pancaking again just as thunder boomed and something spranged a hole in the cement near my bare feet.

“You sludge-mucker!” howled Chuckee, all worked up now. “Don’t shoot her! Won’t have no fun with her smokin’ full of holes!”

“How am I to get her outta there then? No way in Hell am I gonna crawl in there after her. Slink probably has a blade on her.” Jimbo shook his torch beam to get my attention. “You in there, Slink, come on outta there right now or I’m gonna drill you right where you are!”

I looked up from the dust and saw that there was a branch in the tunnel just off to my right. Swallowing my thundering heartbeat I got up onto all fours and skedaddled up to the turnoff and tossed myself into the branch shaft just as another shot tore apart the concrete I’d just vacated. I hugged the rounded wall, the nearest to tears I had been since I was a youngling.

Suddenly there was a ruckus outside, and I could now hear a third voice, bullfrog loud and raging like a brushfire. “What are you two wackers doing down there? Get your wazoos back up here right now! We’re supposed to be on the sneak, but with you clods shooting up the place every scav and slink in the area will put the finger on us!”

“But, Boss,” giggled Jimbo, not heeding the warning, “there’s a fair handsome piece of her down this hole, and we want her.”

Apparently such defiance was not to be tolerated, for there came the sound of heavy boots storming down the concrete embankment, followed quickly by the sound of a heavy blow. Jimbo was promptly yanked out of the opening and, presumably, sent rolling clear down to the bottom of the riverbank. Light flooded into the tunnel mouth again, but I didn’t dare risk more than a peek around the corner to see what was going on.

“I don’t care if you imajeened an entire hareem of hers down that hole, Jimbo,” yelled Bullfrog in fury. “You get your pickled butt up outta there right now or I’ll march you back to the drop point and feed you to those Howlers myself!”

There came the sound of mad scrambling followed by running feet, and I began to breathe once more. Right then I could have kissed Bullfrog, I was so relieved. Well, almost. Soonest there came the roar of the dieseler revving up again, and I counted down the ticks as the monster machine slowly crept into the distance. Only when I could no longer feel the cement thrumming did I even dare to pop my head around that corner, and then it was to find the tunnel entrance deserted.

I gave it a few more ticks, just to be safe, before I finally crept up the tube and peeked outside. The Lordsmen were gone all right but, all the same, I wasn’t such a stupe that I didn’t wait until dark before I crawled out of that tunnel to continue on my way.

Proceed to Chapter 2...

Copyright © 2017 by Bryon Havranek

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