Worry and relief made for strange bedfellows―stranger still when the bed is only big enough for one. Civilization, such as it was, ended fifty-one years ago. A war started on some forgotten day in August of 2021 ended forty-five minutes later amid the smoky haze of nuclear fallout and blind panic. Most people never even knew what hit them.
The driver curled and uncurled black-gloved fingers around the rubberized steering wheel. Clouds of dust whipped past the windows and billowed into a plume that made the rear viewscreen in the middle of the console useless. The silt invaded the air vents, tainting the fragrance of sweaty leather with earth. Pale blue bar graphs on the pieced-together dashboard reassured him the vehicle had enough juice left to finish the job. Loose spiral wires of red and yellow snaked among gauges, wobbling with every motion. The steady vibrating thrum of four electric motors stoked his adrenaline. He grinned at the large red LED numbers in the center of the console behind the wheel: 86 MPH. The six flicked to a seven or a five every few seconds. He’d go faster, but road crews hadn’t existed for a hundred years, and the last thing he needed would be to smash an e-motor out in the middle of nowhere.
The lack of bullets flying at him so far had him on edge, not to mention how wide open the road seemed. He sped past the occasional tangle of metal on one side or the other, a former vehicle picked to the frame by scavs. This far out in no-man’s land, he should’ve encountered at least one bandit party―especially with the valuable cargo in the passenger seat. He glanced at the unassuming metal can and patted it. A broad smile distorted skin covered with days’ worth of beard and road dirt. Gloves creaked over the wheel.
People tended to hear things, even in Wayne’s place. The scavs would know he was coming.
The iron sights of two hood-mounted machine guns wobbled from the occasional dip or pit, nothing that would threaten the solid tires. Flickering brass glinted as the ammo belts danced in the wind. He’d gone cheap, settling for 7.62 instead of going whole hog with .50 Cal. Anything heavy enough to need ordinance like that couldn’t catch this car.
He glanced again at the innocent-looking can. The payoff from this run would be another big step toward his dream, but the closer he got to reaching it, the more it felt like he’d never get there. Sure, the smaller guns saved him about three hundred coins, and with any luck, they wouldn’t kill him.
Glowing light pierced the dust cloud behind him. He squinted at the rearview screen, mounted where the radio had once been. No one needed those anymore. Two leather-clad figures on motorcycles fanned apart out of his wake. On the right, a little speed-machine with a couple of sub-guns in the handlebars; to the left, a larger cycle, a retrofit Harley with electro-motors and a rotary gun mounted to a side car.
Damn shame if I have to torch that Harley. Screw the Ninja.
His finger poked a small, square red button on the edge of the four-by-six-inch display screen. It flickered with static for a split second before a grainy feed from a trunk-mounted camera replaced the wide-angle rear view. A hair-thin green crosshair formed across an image flecked with mud. He flicked a toggle switch and one of many tiny pushbuttons on the side of the steering wheel lit up orange. He hovered his thumb over it and weaved to avoid a spray of fire from the smaller, more maneuverable Ninja. The biker’s attack ended a second later when he swerved in a desperate attempt to stay upright.
The driver grinned. “Watch them potholes, son.”
A quick shift of the wheel lined up the crosshair with the Harley as the giant rotary cannon on its sidecar spun up. I hope you go to hell for makin’ me do this. The driver pushed the thumb-trigger. In the trunk, mounted assault rifles barked to life: an AK on one side and an M-16 on the other. Muzzle flare blew like dragon’s breath from his taillights. As usual, the ‘16 let off about six rounds before it jammed. The AK continued chattering for a few more seconds until he released the button. Bike and sidecar burst into a fireball. The e-Harley veered off the road into an end-over-end tumble.
The Ninja’s engine wailed as its rider pinned the accelerator. A lone square headlight surrounded by dingy green rushed in on the rear view camera, hoping to get close enough for a ‘can’t-miss’ shot. The driver stomped on the brakes, chirping the tires and causing the small bike to smash into the rear bumper. All four tires threw off plumes of white smoke. A heavy whump landed on the roof a second before the bandit rider slid onto the hood in a flailing, gangly mass.
“Hmph. Ethanol.” The driver shook his head at the rearview. “That’s gonna burn hot. Damn waste of parts, even if it is a Ninja. Fuck it.”
The bandit pulled a revolver from his jacket and pointed it at the windshield. The driver cut the wheel and reversed hard. A shot went high as the bandit sailed off the long hood and fell onto the road. The driver straightened out of the turn and continued in reverse another few seconds before slamming on the brakes. He flicked the Challenger into drive and stomped on the pedal. Sand flew in torrents from all four wheels before the car caught traction and took off like a streak, straight at the prostrate figure. Sunlight glinted off the barrel of the old revolver as the man wobbled up to one knee. For a nanosecond, two men stared into each other’s souls.
A thudding clank rocked the undercarriage as all four-thousand some-odd pounds of car crushed flesh into pavement. The driver slowed and steered back around, stopping near the body. He waited a few minutes, staring at scraps of shredded leather fluttering in the wind while breathing the smell of molten tires. Once he felt confident no threat remained, he got out.
A pair of submachine gun mechanisms welded to the Ninja’s handlebars excited him, until he realized he’d found some H&K thing chambered in .40 cal. Despite having no guns that could use it, he still took the twenty-six rounds. The revolver looked in working order, albeit banged up. On the way back to his car, he pulled a leather belt full of .357 shells out of the semiliquid mass he had run over. Gun and bullets went into a bin he kept in the back, joining a handful of grenades, knives, and tools.
He fell into the driver’s seat, his weight barely noticed by the bulk of his rebuilt Challenger. Aside from the dirt, for a sixty-year-old frame, it looked mint. Granted, all the exposed wires and add-on tech inside was quite a far cry from what the designers originally planned on when the thing had a gasoline engine. Electric motors had been a novelty before the war, but now gasoline joined a long list of ghosts humanity may never see again. One more forgotten thing of the past, and only fools still used air-filled tires. Some die-hards clung to ethanol for the sound and fury, but the Roadhouse network made charging cheaper. He shut down the weapons to save battery life before returning to his delivery. The solar-powered trickle charger in the trunk could take twelve to fourteen hours to help him limp back to a waystation, and he’d rather not be exposed that long.
The driver brushed a smudge of dust from the rear-view targeting monitor, leaving finger trails of clean plastic. He offered a moment of silence for the death of a Harley, humming some song his dad used to put on in the truck all the time. He leaned back in his seat, arm draped over the wheel at the wrist, tapping one foot to ancient music that played only in his mind.
“Nice shot, man.”