From the Ashes of Our Fall
by Bryon Havranek
Chapter 3: When Trouble Comes A-Howling
It was to the sound of birdsong and rattling metal that I awoke early the next morning. I opened my eyes and saw Doc Matheson bent over the fire, tossing a handful of dark brown powder into a small kettle that hung from a stick over the crackling flames. Her face was drawn with fatigue and pain but, for all that, she looked determined to press on with her journey.
She turned and saw that I was watching her. “Awake at last. Good. I’ve got some coffee on the boil and it will be ready in a bit. We have enough time to eat before we head out.” She fished out a couple more MREs, and we shared a silent breakfast there in the ruined school complex.
“So what was that you said about the Maskers leaving something behind?” I asked, taking a sip of coffee before passing the insulated cup over to the doctor. “I ran into those thuggers yesterday and overheard them jawing about dumping off some Howlers.”
Doc Matheson stared thoughtfully into the depths of the coffee. “Indeed they were, and I stumbled upon them while they were making the drop. That’s why I got shot, having seen what they didn’t want me to see.” She shivered for a moment.
“On my travels over the years, I’ve heard stories about folks going missing only to turn up again later, horribly changed. I’ve encountered the Howlers before, though I have yet to examine a living one. From their corpses I’ve been able to determine that some sort of mutagen is at work, changing ordinary people into those savage monstrosities. This much we already know.”
Doc looked up at me and frowned. “But I had always wondered how such a mutagen could still be active in the wasteland after so many years of exposure to the natural elements. The substance should have been neutralized long ago, yet it remains horribly potent.
“Then I heard about a patrol of Lordsmen, thrusting deep into the Valley Sprung for no apparent reason. I set out to see what was going on. I came upon them just as they were releasing several Howlers from a large iron cage that was hitched up to their wagon, and I moved in for a closer look.
“The half-dozen creatures I saw still wore the remnants of clothing, something unheard of until then. While the Lordsmen were herding the skulks about with their long prods, I got the drop on one of the Maskers and hauled him away for a private little chat. It was from him that I learned the horrible truth: one of the Lords of the Coast is actually manufacturing Howlers!”
I sat back, stunned. “But how? And more important, why? Why is this Lord doing such a thing?”
“Apparently he got his hands on some pre-Fall compounds, chemicals that promised to turn ordinary men and women into something superhuman.” Doc Matheson took a deep drink from the cup and passed it back to me. “This Lord wouldn’t be the first to try and create the perfect soldier out of something that came from a test tube. But so far the experiments have all failed, and the Howler is the end result of these failures.”
“All right,” I said, able to follow most of what Doc said, thanks to the Man’s training, “but if that is the case, and the Lords are making monsters, why are they hauling them out here into the County East? Why not just kill all the mistakes and burn the evidence? Why the secrecy?”
“The Howlers are being used to keep the East pacified, at least until the experiments are perfected. The need for secrecy is simple. The Lord in question doesn’t want the other Masters to know that he is trying to build a private army of superthugs. If the Lords’ Alliance did find out, they’d cash out this renegade right quick.
“Of course, if this slime perfects a viable formula first, he can crush his peers and take complete control of the Coastal Enclave. If that happens, the renegade plans an iron thrust to the east, where he has learned of a secret cache of nukes lying buried in an old silo deep under the Borrego sands. He gets his hands on those, God help us all!”
My blood ran chill in my veins as I did the sums. “This psycho plans to set fire to the whole world! And with an army of thugs that don’t care about the Rads, what can stop him?” If there was to be any hope of a future for any of us, I had to act now. “I must get word to the Man right away!”
“That was where I was headed when the Maskers caught up with me,” Doc replied grimly. “I dropped a couple before they shot my leg out from under me, and I had just enough time to disappear down into an underground cellar before they could finish me off. They eventually gave up looking for me, assuming that I was dead and, after they were gone, I had just enough strength left to reach this school and see to my wound.”
She reached around behind her and pulled out a large canvas satchel, a large red cross emblazoned on the side. She opened the top and began to pull out medical supplies, carefully setting them on the ground.
“Not exactly a sterile environment, but I will need your help to get the bullet out of my leg. Once we get me patched up, I’ll slap on another patch, and we can head out.”
The next couple of hours were a blur, my hands following closely the instructions that Doc gave me for the surgery while my mind escaped to a distance sufficient enough for me to keep from getting sick to my stomach.
As I was wrapping the bandage to keep it in place around the medical patch that covered the wound site, I gave a start, suddenly realizing my own mission. “You’re all set, Doc. Now I need to find that cache and we can skedaddle.” I helped her to her feet, and held her up when she nearly fainted. “You’ve lost an awful amount of blood. Are you sure you can make it?”
Doc Matheson gritted her teeth until the dizziness passed. She reached into her bag and pulled out two more patches, which she stuck to her forearms. “I’ve got no choice, Dee. If I don’t come with you, I will die. These extra patches will give me enough stimulant to hopefully make the trip. I’ll be in bad shape when they wear off, but hopefully we’ll be safe up at the Bunker by then, where the Man can give me proper treatment.”
She slung her satchel over a shoulder and poured the dregs of the kettle over the dwindling fire to smother it. “I’ll finish packing up. You best be getting those books.”
I looked around, spotting my marker right away. About dead center in the square-shaped yard rested the broken statue of a bullfighter, standing waist-deep in a patch of overgrown weeds; according to the Man, the books were buried next to the statue’s right foot. Moving to that spot, I pulled out my short-bladed knife and hacked away at the thick plants until I could see dirt.
Suppressing a wave of excitement, I knelt down, loosening up the soil until the tip of my knife turned up a small bundle wrapped in a thick blanket of plastic. Pulling the grubby package from the earth, I sat down and made room in my pack for the precious haul; I had an urge to open the bundle to skim through the pages, but there was just no time. Maybe when I had them up top of the Miguel, I’d be given a chance to study them some. But first I had to get them home.
Traveling light makes for a rather speedy clean-up, so soonest Doc and I were set to go. We quickly moved through the shabby ruins and emerged onto the old roadway around mid-day. We had lost maybe half a daylight’s worth of journey, but it couldn’t be helped none. Two sets of eyes were much better than one, so there was no danger that could easily get the drop on us this time.
Doc’s leg held us up some, but she was a hard case and made no complaint. Our fear was high-up all the same: Howlers were on the prowl in the neighborhood, a danger of the worst sort, and us with little in the way of weaponry to make a fight of it should we run into some of those skulks.
But our luck held good, and by mid-afternoon we’d reached a large patch of tarmac. It looked like the mother of all wag pens; there was little else but flat. A pair of shacks rested more or less dead center in the blackened field, the only sign that folks might have actually done something other than squat in this desolate place.
My bare feet trudging over the cracked and splintered surface made no sound, and Doc was but a whisper in her boots as we cautiously approached the cluster of hovels. They looked in fair shape, all things considered, with walls more or less intact and a bit of roof still hanging in here and there. By the nearer wall I saw a large warped piece of wood, the faint words ‘SWAP MEET’ still emblazoned on the side in bold letters and looked back at Doc with a puzzled expression. What was this?
Doc moved up close and whispered in my ear. “A swap meet was an ancient gathering of folks who came from far and wide to trade.” She gestured at the tarmac about us. “They’d set up their wags all over, bits of tent and the like, and for a few days they would have a sort of temporary city. People could come out and buy all sorts of wonderful things, everything from produce to tech.”
I grew excited. “That sounds like it must’ve been a happening time.” Thoughts began to whirl in my brain. “What say, Doc, if’n we could get that sort of action going once more? Gather the people from all over the wastes, to trade goods and lore? The Lords would have a much harder time of rubbing us out if we could somehow stand united against them.”
Doc looked at me, her eyes glowing with admiration. “Why, Risker Dee, that is the most brilliant thing that I have ever heard come from you.” She rubbed a gloved hand over the signboard, pursing her lips in thought. “Getting started would take a bit of time, but I could help spread the word as I make my rounds to the locals. But to get this to work, we would absolutely have to have the support of the Bunker.”
“The Man might be talked into it if we made the deal sweet enough,” I commented. A slight noise, sounding like the wind brushing over the dust, came from within the further building, making my hackles rise. I held my finger to my lips, calling for quiet. Doc immediately complied, tilting her head to hear better, and what she heard made her draw a line across her throat with a finger. Danger ahead and here we were, stuck out in the big wide open.
Copyright © 2017 by Bryon Havranek