They entered the bar and they looked right out of place. Course they did, that fine looking couple walking into a room filled with us rats and dogs.
She was a young thing with flowing red hair and a soft, pretty face dotted with freckles. She wore one of them dresses that the high society women favor. It was drawn up tight around her neck, all prim and proper, and then flowed down her hourglass shape to the floor. I think it was blue. No doubt she was wearing a corset beneath it to hold that shape. She shouldn’t have bothered. Women shouldn’t be contorted into unnatural forms. It ain’t right.
Besides, the whole outfit was totally impractical. None of the other women in the bar she had just entered were wearing anything of the kind. They were all wearing grease-stained pants and torn khaki shirts. The ones looking for men folk may have washed themselves, but that would be as dolled up as they got.
The young woman’s husband was good-looking too. Course he was. A woman who looked like that could land any man she wanted. Hell, in his nice expensive clothes, he looked downright pretty. He had thick blond hair that came down just above his blue eyes. He had a damn perfect chin and high cheekbones. Look, I ain’t jealous of other men’s good looks, just a bit resentful that I have to move heaven to get any attention from a lady and pukes like that can just crack a smile and women are on them like flies on a corpse.
Okay, so maybe that’s exactly what jealousy is. Don’t matter how I feel about it anyway. It’s just the way it is. I wouldn’t ever want to be like him anyway, in his frilly blue dress shirt with a frilly white neckerchief and his frilly blue pants. Hell, his boots were somehow frilly. They were all shiny with silver buckles that would reflect more than enough light to delight a hunter.
My point is that those two were completely out of their element. Which was a good thing because if they weren’t, they would have had no need to hire me.
The gentleman asked the door bouncer a question while his wife scanned the bar. The dogs in the place were starting to look at her the same way a real dog eyes a steak. The big boys were mostly dredgers, but there were some smugglers mixed in, and some gunners. They were dangerous to be sure, but the lady need not have worried about them. There was an all-girl rat gang that had taken to messily removing certain parts of any male who forced his way with any girl in town. They’d come for such men in the middle of the night and there didn’t seem to be any place safe for ’em to sleep.
So anyway, yeah, the wife was safe inside with us. It was the stuff she and her hubby might encounter during the trip they were planning that was of real concern. And that’s why they needed me.
Though there was something in the way the lady was looking about that should have clued me in on her talents. I didn’t pick up on it though. We all see what we want to see, and right then I wanted to see a couple of neophytes who needed to hire me.
The bouncer responded to the husband’s question by raising his arm and pointing straight at me. Even across the crowded room I could see the disappointment crawl across his face. The wife eyed me with uncertainty. I wasn’t what they were expecting.
They moved toward me anyway, making their way across the room warily, dodging the outstretched legs of the dogs and the rats, moving through the smoke of cigars and the stench of all the folks who were not looking for anybody and so hadn’t bothered to bathe in quite some time. They arrived in front of my table in the corner and they looked down on me.
Course they looked down on me; I’m short, and I was seated, but I expected that they looked down on me in more ways than just stature. It’s always that way when folks from the interior meet us border folk. And I ain’t one of the finer looking examples of border folk, so their impression of me is usually downright dismal. Don’t matter, though, as long as I get the job.
The pretty man asked me in a pretty voice, “Are you Charon?”
“I’m a Charon,” I answered.
The man’s pretty face twisted up in confusion. “What do you mean by that?”
“It’s the name of a job, not a person. Charons. We’re ferrymen. People pay us to help cross the border into the wastes. Might be more poetic if there was some water left and we had boats.”
The man nodded and said. “Yes, that’s what we are looking for.” His blue eyes looked me up and down. “Aren’t you rather small for this type of work?”
“Course I’m small,” I snapped. “I’m a rat.”
“Excuse me?” said the man.
“You don’t look like a rat,” observed his wife.
It was rather nice of her to say so considering what she thought a rat was suppose to look like. I know I’m not a handsome man, but it was good to hear that a pretty lady didn’t think I resembled an actual rodent.
I stood up to my full five feet of height and shoved my dirty brown hair out of my face. I pointed around to the smaller folks in the bar. “Rats are the small ones.” I pointed to a few of the big folks. “Dogs are the big ones. Early on gangs here separated into groups by size. Dogs are stronger; rats are meaner.”
“I see,” said the man. “And are all Charons… um… rats?”
“The good ones are,” I said. “Dogs attract too much attention from hunters. The key to getting through the zone is to be small and quick.”
The man glanced nervously at his wife. “And if you are neither small nor quick?”
“You hire me to be small and quick for you. I’ll provide a distraction. Your trip across the zone will be an easy stroll.”
The man seemed to like the sound of that. He nodded and said, “Well, then, we are interested in hiring your services, Mr…?”
“Most folks call me Scag,” I told him.
My lack of a proper name chastened his brief moment of enthusiasm for me. He gave a quick frown and then carried on. “Yes… well… I am Mr. Haden and this is my wife, Mrs. Haden.”
Mrs. Haden flashed me a quick smile and said, “Linda.” That drew a look of reproach from her husband.
I sat down and motioned to the two remaining chairs at my table. “Have a seat, Hadens.”
My clients sat down. Then Mr. Haden said, “I can’t tell you why we are running from the Authority.”
I held my hand up. “Don’t want to know. Don’t care. Let’s just work out the details of your crossing. If we can come to an agreement about my fee and you have the supplies you need to travel through the waste and get to Sanctum, then we can probably cross the zone tomorrow morning.”
“We’re going to cross during the day?” asked Mrs. Haden. “Shouldn’t we go at night?”
I shook my head. “The hunters and killers can see in the dark. Since we can’t, might as well go when it’s light out.” I saw her husband’s eyes widen a little when I said “hunters and killers.” He was a nervous one.
He ran his fingers through his blond hair and asked, “Mr… Scag. Just how dangerous is this sort of thing?”
“There’s no lying about it; there’s some risk,” I told him. “But I ain’t ever lost one of my charges. If both of you listen to me and do as I say, the chances of something going wrong are probably less than the chances you took on your journey here.”
The man nervously tapped on the table. “But if something were to go wrong…”
“They’re called `killers’ for a reason, Mr. Haden.” I eyed him warily. “If you’re changing your mind about this, best do it now. If you change your mind in the middle of the zone and try to backtrack, you won’t make it.”
In the dim light of the bar, he looked absolutely pale, but he waved his hand and said, “No, no. We have to cross.”
I nodded and said, “Right then, let’s go over my fee and make sure you will have everything you need for your journey.” I named my price, and Mr. Haden agreed immediately.
Damn, should have asked for more.
I started in on my standard prep spiel. “Lose the pretty clothes. Wear something you can run in. Don’t have anything on that might sparkle. Make sure you have water and food for a five day journey through the wastes. That’s going to weigh a lot, so dump any extra luggage you might have been thinking of carting along.”
Mrs. Haden piped up. “Five days? I thought that the journey to Sanctum should only take three.”
I nodded. “Yeah, should only take. But you should be prepared in case it takes longer.”
“Are the wastes dangerous?” she asked.
“It’s called the wastes because there’s nothing there. No animals, no vegetation, nothing. That’s good in that there’s no one out there looking to hurt you. But it’s bad in that there’s no one out there looking to help you either. What if one of you twists an ankle or what if you wander off course? A couple of extra days of rations is just a good insurance policy.” The thought of them wandering off course suddenly sparked a question in my brain. “One of you has a compass, right?”
Neither of them had a compass.
Guess it shouldn’t matter to me if my clients die in the wastes after I get ’em through the zone, but the idea of it just bugged me. It was kind of like building something for somebody, getting paid, and then watching ’em smash it. Sure, you got your money, but no real sense of accomplishment.
“Look, meet me at the general store tomorrow morning. You’ve got the money. There’s no sense in you heading out there without what you need.”
It was clear to me by breakfast time that we would not be setting out till the afternoon. The Hadens were still coming to grips with what their journey was really going to require them to do. Linda, with nothing more than a frown, gave up the pretty dress she had worn the night before and another one that was red, which I’ll confess I wouldn’t have minded seeing her in. Corsets, shoes, impractical tiny hats; they were all traded in for dull khakis and boots. Her husband, though, practically threw a tantrum. He didn’t want to go anywhere without looking like a silly dandy. I finally convinced him to at least ditch his shiny boots in favor of a pair less likely to attract attention.
He was less willing than his wife to give up on his extra clothes, so I just shrugged and stuffed the bottles of water he was going to need into his overflowing backpack. I don’t know if you have ever tried to carry water in any serious quantity, but it is God-awful heavy. He threw all of his clothes out of the pack by the time we got to the edge of town.
I handed out wide brimmed hats and goggles as they peered out at the old settlement. “You don’t have to wear these right away, but you’ll need ’em out in the wastes. The sun can be brutal.” I pulled on my own pair of goggles, but didn’t bother with a hat. I needed to be sure I wasn’t blinded by the sun bouncing off the shiny hides of the hunters and killers, but I didn’t plan to be out in the sun for long.
Mr. Haden crammed the items into his backpack while his wife donned them and somehow made the goofy things still look fashionable. She pointed out into the zone and asked, “What are those buildings out there? They look like houses.”
I nodded. “They were. That’s the old settlement where this town’s residents lived before the Authority shifted the zone back a half mile.”
Linda looked at me in alarm. “You mean they sent their monsters right into people’s homes? Why?”
“Couple of the gunner dogs had started picking hunters and killers off with an old artillery piece they found. The Authority didn’t take kindly to that so they shifted the border back. That was a pretty exciting night, I’ll admit. Damn hunter came into my bedroom, and the killer it called came through the living room wall. I barely got away. A lot of folks didn’t make it.” I turned and looked into the zone. I was pretty sure I caught a glimpse of a hunter slipping between buildings, a flash of sunlight off a metal leg. “The old settlement gives the things cover from the gunners, but that’s okay. It gives us cover, too. It’s made my job a whole lot easier.”
She took a sudden quick breath. “I think I just saw one.”
“Yeah. Looks like it’s moving west.”
We sat there on the edge of town for a while and watched to see if there were any more about. We didn’t spot any. Didn’t mean there weren’t more out there, but this business has never been a sure thing.
I turned to my clients and said, “All right, the zone starts about fifty feet from here. Once we’ve crossed into it, the hunters and killers consider us fair game. We’re gonna run to the east side of the old town and find some cover. Then I’ll break off from you two and find that hunter we just saw. Once I got its attention, you two continue straight north. Zone is about a mile wide, so don’t try to sprint it. Just keep a nice steady pace and don’t stop for anything. If a hunter spots you, just ignore it and keep going. I’m going to make sure that I’m the top priority. You should be clear of the zone by the time any killers are freed up to respond to your presence. Any questions?”
I couldn’t see Mrs. Haden’s eyes beneath the tint of her goggles, but I could tell she was glancing between the zone and me with nervous anticipation. “How will we know when you have that thing’s attention? And how are you going to escape once you do?” she asked.
“I’ll make a long clanging noise with a pipe I have hidden out there. That’ll be your signal to hoof it.” I couldn’t help but break into a grin. The thought that a pretty girl like that had any concern at all for me made me feel funny. “As for how I’ll get away, don’t worry about it, darlin’. This is what I do.”
Mr. Haden gave me a scowl that told me he didn’t like me calling his wife “darlin’” but in about ten minutes we’d never see one another again anyway.
And fuck him, anyhow.
We took off running at a good clip. Crossing the gap between the new settlement and the old was the most likely moment to be spotted. But I don’t consider it the worst part. It’s only about fifty yards. We were up against the nearest building of the old settlement in less than half a minute. I held my hand out to let the Hadens know that I wanted them to stay put. I moved up to the edge of the building and prepared to look around the corner.
This was the worst part. There could always be a hunter right there. Or even worse, a killer resting there, waiting for orders. If I poked my nose around the building and came face to face with one of them, I’d likely be dead before I had time to scream.
I forced myself to look around the corner.
I motioned to the Hadens to follow me, and we ran across the street to the next row of abandoned houses. My old house was only a couple of doors down. It would serve as cover for the mister and missus until I caused a distraction for them. I led my charges from house to house, stopping to check between each building for any hidden murder machines.
We arrived at my old homestead without encountering any unpleasantness. The old house was looking pretty run-down. The hole in the wall was allowing rain to cause a lot of water damage, and rot had set in. Eventually it would collapse, and I’d have to find another hiding spot for my clients. It was sturdy enough for now, though. I directed the Hadens through the hole in the wall and into my former living room.
I had us all kneel down so I could make sure they understood my final instructions. “You wait here,” I told them, “until you hear the clanging and shouting. Then you get up and you run north. No stopping, no turning back, no matter what. You understand?”
They both nodded, but I could tell they didn’t really understand what was going to happen next. Didn’t matter as long as they got the direction right.
“Check the compass I gave you, and then be prepared to move.” I held out my hand to the man and then the woman. “Sir. Ma’am,” I said in turn as I shook their hands. “Hope you both find a great life in Sanctum.” I stood up and stepped through the hole in the wall of what use to be my home. I turned back and said “Goodbye,” then I was off and running.
I could move much faster without the couple in tow. I knew this old town. I had lived in it for years. If anything spotted me, I knew alleys and shortcuts that would get me clear. Wouldn’t save me if I literally ran into a killer, of course, but I always told myself that those things stayed farther back in the old settlement until the hunters called them in. It might even be true.
I made my way to the west side of town, taking a brief detour to make sure that a metal pike I intended to use was in place. It didn’t take me long to find the hunter we had seen earlier. It was slowly moving down a street in the merchant district, making its way past crumbling storefronts that were lined with piles of broken glass.
Hunters have four legs, all with the knees going backward. The pair in the back is set out wider than the pair in the front so that when the thing gallops the back legs can push up past the front ones during extra-long strides. The things have hinged metal backs that pump up and down as they move. Sitting atop the front of the body, on a serpentine neck, is a metal sphere that acts as their head. Their heads have one great glass eye that glows red or white depending on what kind of light they’re looking at. The things can see visible light, just like us, but they can see heat, too. They can even see the heat in the footprints you leave behind. That’s why you don’t ever go back on your path in the zone, because if one’s tracking your footsteps, you’ll run right into it.
The hunter I was watching had made it to the end of the street, and I knew that it was about to turn around and come back toward me. I moved back alongside a store and looked down. A nice heavy metal pipe was leaning up against the building. I had left the things all over the town. Other Charons would leave ’em around sometimes, too. I reached out and grabbed it, then I leaned back out around the corner of the store.
As I expected, the thing had turned around and spotted me at once. Its head turned slightly, and its big eye focused right on me. I ducked back behind the store. The hunter was too quiet for me to hear, but I knew it was rapidly moving toward me. Hunters always seek to maintain visual contact once they’ve spotted someone. They’ll try to keep as much distance as possible, but the need to maintain visual contact was the priority. I knew I could lure it in close. The things ain’t dumb, but they ain’t strictly speaking smart, either. They follow a “if this, then do that” kind of thinking that made them predictable.
Taking the pipe with me, I moved toward the back of the store. The hunter appeared across the street from me, positioned so it could see right down the alley. I let it get a good look at me, and then I went behind the store.
I knew the thing was already silently calling out to the closest killer, but I had to make sure that I was the priority, so I waited there with my back up against the store while holding onto the pipe with both hands. Soon enough, the hunter came down the alley.
Hunters are armored. Not as well as killers, but good enough that a pistol usually won’t bother them none. But I’d found the link holding their heads onto their necks isn’t particularly strong.
My first swing connected with a nice loud clang. The hunter’s head snapped back and then hung down to one side. I raised the pipe over my head and swung it down hard bashing the head from the body. The two loud hits should have been enough to send the Hadens into motion, but I tossed out a few shouts that were variations on my favorite theme of how I was the greatest rat Charon who ever lived.
Knocking the heads off hunters is the damn best part of the job. Pisses the other hunters and killers off something fierce.
A heavy scuffling sound came from down the street. I dropped the pipe and ran. A few seconds later, I looked back over my shoulder and saw a killer trample over the remains of the hunter and come tearing after me.
Killers’ bodies are separated into three segments, each supporting a set of scythe-like metal legs. The front segments are smaller than the back segments so, like the hunters, their back legs can move up past their forward ones. Unlike hunters, killers ain’t got no knees. Their legs are just metal blades that end in nasty points that dig into the ground. The things have wedge-shaped heads mounted on their front segment. No real neck to speak of. They have an eye mounted in the middle of their head, but it’s smaller than the hunters’. Hanging from where the things should have mouths is a set of three or four blades that are nearly six feet long. When a killer gets close, it starts spinning those blades so fast they look like a floating plate made of silver. Killers can also rear back on their last four legs so that the front pair can stab at you.
I’ve heard some dogs refer to killers as spiders, but they’re set up more like ants. But I can understand why no one feels right calling them ants; killers are huge. They’re about the size of a train car. And let me tell you, having a killer chase after you is got to be one of the more terrifying things you can experience.
I had a plan for this particular experience, but even so I could feel my heart pumping hard. I ran down the alleyway as fast as I could. I could hear the thing gaining on me, its metal legs tearing into the dirt and its blades whirring with a constant thrumming sound.
I turned a sharp corner and ran straight at a wall. Attached to the wall was a metal rung ladder. I leapt at it and felt the ladder sag a bit under my weight. I noted with some alarm the amount of rust built up on its surface, but then I was clambering up it. I swung onto the roof just as the killer’s blades sliced the lower half of the ladder clean off. I paused a moment to watch as one of the thing’s front legs poked between the steps and then pulled down. The weight of the machine ripped the ladder off the wall. The ladder slammed onto the top of the killer, which shook it off without any ill effect.
The killer reared back and punched its front two legs into the wall. A cascade of bricks and dirt fell as the machine began to pull itself up.
It was time for me to start running again. I was halfway across the rooftop when the killer made it up top. It charged after me. I kept running. The end of the rooftop was coming up quickly. I had to time this just right. I had to let the machine get closer, but not so close that I lost my head to its blades.
There was another building a scant four feet away from where the one I was on came to an end. I had chosen this building because of the ladder and the need for a nice tight alley. I could have jumped across, but I didn’t. I reached the end of the roof and just stepped off. I felt the wind from the blades of the killer ruffle my hair, then I hit the ground.
The landing always hurt like hell, but I didn’t have time to whine about it. I grabbed the metal pike that I had stashed in this alley weeks ago, and stabbed upwards just as the killer tried to force its way down after me, ripping up the walls of the buildings on both sides of the alley.
Killers are even more armored than hunters, but just like hunters, the armor is all on top. I shoved my pike up into the middle segment of the killer and it tore right through. I then stood back and let the weight of the monster cause the thing to impale itself.
Its legs flailed all over the place, and its spinning blades clanged to a stop. It was too big to slide all the way down into the alley, but it was trapped. I took a moment to admire my handiwork and then moved out. I should have had a couple minutes, before any more killers arrived, I don’t think there are that many of them deployed at any given time, but there was no doubt that more were on their way.
I mention that I should have had a couple of minutes, because I ended up not having any. I turned to run out of the narrow alley and found it blocked by the hulking form of another killer. I had never known another one of them to turn up so fast, not since the night they overran the old settlement, anyway.
I turned and ducked under the corpse of the still-quivering killer I had impaled and ran down the alley in the opposite direction. A hunter turned into the alley and turned its big eye right on me. I shoved my way past it, hoping to knock it off balance. It kept its footing and turned around with remarkable agility. It was right on my heels as I ran out of the alley. I turned and ran down a wide street lined with decaying houses.
I was really screwed. I didn’t have any other pikes in place, didn’t really have any other plans for how to deal with a second killer arriving so soon. I could see it past the houses on a parallel street, pacing me. With the hunter following me, it knew exactly where I was.
I spied a pipe leaning up against a house and ran over and grabbed it, but the hunter had backed off, content, as they always were, with just keeping me in its sights. I decided to wait there for a second to see between which set of houses the killer decided to run past so that it could fillet me.
It made its choice, and I sprinted between a different set of buildings. I was running toward the thing, but with a house in between me and it. I heard the thing come to a stop on the other side of the house and then begin moving in the same direction I was. The hunter had told it what I was doing, and it was going to slice me apart as soon as I was past the house. I changed direction and began to run back toward the hunter. I heard the killer change direction, too. I came to a stop. The thing stopped moving.
I felt like I was an old-time pioneer who had a rock between him and a cougar. Only it wouldn’t be too long before the cougar chasing me simply tore through the rock. The killer could come straight through the house if it wanted. It was only a matter of time. I was a dead man. All I could do was delay the inevitable.
The female voice startled me. I looked over and saw Mrs. Haden staring at me in between a couple of houses over.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I yelled at her.
“I came to see if you were okay!” she yelled back. “We saw you fall off a roof!”
I couldn’t believe it. The crazy pretty lady had come back to see if I was all right.
“Where’s your husband?”
There was a moment’s pause, then she yelled, “He kept going!”
I was too far away to clearly see the expression on her face, but I could hear the hurt in her voice. Her husband had abandoned her out here. Because of her concern for me. The right thing to do for both of them would have been to keep going. She should have listened to me. Her husband had listened to me, but any man leaving a woman like her behind is a fool.
The killer began to rip through the house. I heard it crash through the far wall. I heard glass shattering and bricks being tossed aside.
A lot of emotions were coursing through me right then. The fear that I was about to die being one of the highest. But I was also feeling pretty angry that a young lady was going to die soon after me only because she had dared showed some compassion. I decided there was no way in hell I was going to let that happen.
I dropped the pipe and sprinted toward Linda. I managed to reach her just as the killer broke through the other side of the house I had been hiding behind. I grabbed her hand and pulled her after me. I saw her look back and gasp as she got her first look at a killer. We ran out past the houses and then turned onto what had once been Main Street. I had us running back toward the new settlement. There was no way I could get her heading back toward Sanctum. She’d backtracked once already. Who knew how many hunters were on her trail? The new settlement was the quickest way out of the zone anyway.
Only we weren’t going to make it. The killer was charging after us, kicking up a spray of cobblestones torn loose by its razor-sharp legs. We’d still be in the zone by the time it caught up to us.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Linda pull a large handgun out of her satchel. She let go of my hand, turned, and fired. Her shot hit smack in the middle of the killer’s eye. It bounced right off.
“Those things are too well armored on top for you to hurt them!” I yelled at her.
I heard her mutter “Damn.” Then, calm as you please, she said, “I’d rather go down shooting than running.” She squeezed off another shot at the thing with the same lack of effect.
I looked around frantically and spied an alley I recalled being peculiar in a way that might buy us a little more time.
“How about just a little more running?” I suggested. Without waiting for an answer, I took her hand and dragged her off the street and into the tiny alley just as the monster was almost on top of us.
This alley was only three feet wide. The killer lunged at us, and its blades tore into the walls, but it couldn’t fit its body in. I led Linda down to the end of the alley. It was a dead end, but there was a ladder that led up to the rooftops.
The killer reared up and began to use its front legs to rip the alley apart.
I grabbed onto the first rung of the ladder and the rusty thing came free of the wall. It fell three feet, slid along the wall, and broke in two.
I stared at it in shock for a moment, then foolishly tried to prop what was left of the ladder up against the wall, but it was clear that it was now way too short. I’d led us into a dead end.
I turned to Linda and said, “Climb up. I’ll give you a boost when you get to the top of what’s left of the ladder.”
She gave me a look filled with doubt. “And who’s going to give you a boost?”
“Don’t matter!” I told her. “Climb!”
She shook her head. “That thing will fall apart the moment I step onto it.”
I sighed knowing that she was right. We turned and watched the killer as it chewed its way toward us. The fear in me gave way to a sense of utter despair.
Linda hefted her gun in both hands, and turned to me. “You said the thing was armored up top,” she said. “How well is it armored on the bottom?”
“Not very,” I replied.
She gave me this crazy grin, then took off running straight at the killer. I thought I was about to see her get decapitated, but she suddenly kicked out with both her legs and slid on her back right under the thing. She held the gun up and shot into its belly.
The killer thrashed about. It strained to get her with its front blades, but she was too far beneath it. Its front legs were caught up in the walls of the alley, and the rest of it was too wide to fit until the front legs cleared a path. She fired shot after shot into its underside until the killer stopped moving.
Now, it’s true that I proposed to her as I helped pull her out from beneath the thing, but she didn’t say yes right then. No, that was quite some time later, after we had earned our rep as the greatest Charons the border had ever seen.