They say humans are all the same. Throughout the twisting folds of reality, the pattern always emerges untainted: Smart and with hands. You have been afraid: Maybe reality is really nothing more; some years of normalcy and then the switch is flipped off. Permanently. For some, enough space to achieve happiness. For others less fortunate, a dilemma.
Everything eventually gets figured out. But there’s a bump on the road. It’s under the concrete, something we missed once, something a lot of people miss now. It lurks next to our very hearts, a little organ capable of creating a dose from an ethereal synthesis, ready to push you over the edge of this dimension. Skip the doctors for this one, lest you be diagnosed with some…
– – –
In the future, civilization collapsed after the nuclear war. What little of humanity was left had to do without the privileges of massive energy generation and distribution, and thus oil became a dangerous commodity. People fought over not only the precious liquid, but also for the rights to the machines left that could make use of it.
Smaller communities were the rule, but rogue aggressors kept posing a threat to the more peaceful settlers of the apocalypse. A noble group of guerrilla warriors, backed by the most influential leaders of these communities, rose to stand against this threat. They called themselves “Dry Mouths”, and not only took care of the new world, but kept watch over the known oil reservoirs that whispered easy riches to fortune-seeking bandits. Small numbers meant the bulk of the manpower had to be focused on the villages and settlements in need, leaving little hands left for the protection of the oil wells. A new branch of the Dry Mouths was created. Often left alone for extended periods of time and armed only with perimeter alarms and a torch, the Burners were charged with humanity’s toughest job yet: Dropping the hammer on the fate of thousands of lives. This the story of one such person.
– – –
Another morning as radiant and hot as noon shone upon the Burner. The cool, thick metal walls of his little bunker could always be counted on for shelter against the heat, but he had always suffered from an aversion to the indoors. A desire to leave safety, spiting the big white blasts perhaps. He held his thumb over the wick, his index and middle fingers gripping the flare loosely over the hole which led directly into the well full of volatile liquid. The alarm had rang a few minutes ago, which meant the trespasser was either not interested, or was walking towards him and the metal tower decorated with the big red banner of the Dry Mouths. He never liked the name, but understood it was adopted out of contempt for the enemy.
Thus he lost himself in thought while waiting for the possible invasion to conclude. An hour passed, and the rings were triggered in order at perfect intervals: They were walking in a straight line towards him. Ten more minutes should allow for visual confirmation. He lifted the flare again and waited.
He had to rub his eyes to make sure they weren’t lying: Amidst the rusty car frames and tilted telephone poles floating on their own mirages walked a girl towards him robed in what seemed like tattered white rags, sporting long hair that came down to her knees. An odd sight, but not too odd considering where she was likely walking from. He held steady.
As she came closer, his uneasiness started taking a hold of his body. His hands started shaking. The scorching rays clashing with her pale skin hurt to even look, and he could be forgiven for putting down his flare as his heart ached over the thought of her bare feet being dragged over five kilometers of sandy pavement. He ran towards her. The girl collapsed as soon as she saw the man in reach, but the truth is he only barely managed to save her head from banging against the concrete.
He looked at her sun-burnt complexion, and noticed some of her teeth were crooked. This one had gotten lucky with the mutations. He put the canteen to her lips, but she brushed it away with one hand.
“Please… Oil…” After uttering the words, she passed out.
– – –
Once upon a tomorrow, our foolishness was so great it managed to rise above the cities in big mushroom shapes of dust and heat. The survivors of this great outburst of rage managed to locate the best pieces of land remaining, while sleeping a solid 8 hours to keep their spirits up. A new hope was born from the ashes, and it was nourished with clear heads and signed papers. But where there is light, there is also darkness, and a further third colour, one which can’t be seen with just a quick glance. For to really look into something, you must first understand its purpose. And here is a strange brand of men, one with an even stranger taste for life. These are the protectors of the lemon tree, ready to cut or burn it down, lest it fall in the hands of another certain brand of men… Ones with a bit of the old…
– – –
Noon arrived in full, blazing glory. This time the bunker was the only option. He looked at the tiny thing resting on his mattress. The outward bent canines on her mouth made her look like a mischievous devil taken birth on this plane. Other than her need of orthodontics, there seemed to be nothing wrong with the child. Judging from her undeveloped physique, he put her at around 10 years of age. A healthy kid walking the white desert, asking for oil? Something had happened, and it probably wasn’t good. Suddenly, he jumped out of his seat, ultimately landing ass first on the ground. The girl had opened her eyes, and her expression was nothing short of extremely unsettling. They stared at each other for a bit, him frightened, her as though waiting for a reply. After a bit, she passed out again. He relaxed his guard a bit, and managed with some difficulty to swallow some of his own saliva.
– – –
It had been a day since her arrival. Now recovered, she playfully pranced up and down the big metal rig. Watching her from a distance made it seem as though a ghost was haunting his usual post, one with a lot of energy to spare. He checked the remote monitor. No alarm. He was extremely paranoid now, his tangled nerves blowing in the southern wind. Hell was going to break lose, it was only a matter of time. The day his kind both dreaded and longed for was close. The girl was definitely old enough to pull something on him, but her story checked out, for the most part. Tonight he would make sure. He grabbed the flare stuck to his belt, and started down the hill back to his post.
– – –
Night was starting to creep from the top of the sky. The little girl slowly poked her head into the bunker. When the Burner noticed, she recoiled, but remained in sight. After gathering her courage, she walked in while excusing herself. The Burner looked at her as she sat on the opposite side of the little table. He moved some of the bread towards her, pointed at the canned meat and cheese he’d put out, and then continued his chewing.
“Is it really okay?” The girl was civilized, enough to make his stomach twist on the thought of raiders decimating years of efforts again.
“Eat as much as you need”, he replied. Burners were stocked to face new bomb drops, which of course was impossible. A superlative emphasis was placed on his task and his remaining on post.
The girl read the same sad expression her parents used to make when talking about the outside world on the Burner, and decided to try and cheer him up.
“Mister, would you like to tell me about your life before… Before the war?” A good effort on her part, if maybe a bit disjointed. While reminiscing about the old times was frequently a time of joy in the settlements, people like him preferred to stay in the present. Burners were usually like this; it was better left unsaid, but the bombs had left them in better positions overall. “Never mind the past” he’d often hear the Dry’s leader say. “Let the fact you survived be reason enough to prove your worth”.
“I’d appreciate silence”, the man replied after a while, and thus another day went by.
– – –
He woke up in the early hours, the sun barely catching up to him. He calculated he’d gotten at least two hours of sleep, which was better than nothing.
“Little girl”, the Burner said as he shook her gently out of sleep.
“Yes mister?” Her reply was lucid, even though she could barely open her eyes.
“You probably already know what happened to your home by now.”
“Yes” she replied, unable to keep her eyes dry, but still managing to hold back her emotions in order to listen carefully.
“I have prepared a bag for you. You must keep walking down the same path and never look back. I am sorry you will have to suffer from the sun again, but you know how Nightworms are.”
“But mister, why can’t I stay with you? I can sleep on the couch if you want, I…”
“Little girl, do you know why I didn’t tell you my name? Do you know who… What I do?”
“They… Those bad people told me to ask you for oil, and to not come back unless I had some for them.”
“I am sorry, little girl. It is by luck, or perhaps by cruel calculations that we have been granted as long as we have. I have been a fool to keep you here, and I apologize again for my selfishness. It is high time you got out of here before the worst comes to pass. There is also a letter in the bag, I would appreciate it if you passed it on to any men in red you might find.”
“What about the oil mister? I can go back if you can give me some, I promise I won’t tell anyone!”
The little monitor beeped. “We’re out of time.” The Burner checked for the remote possibility it was a Dry supply wagon. It wasn’t. He looked into the distance. They were coming from the same direction she had. Blood had been shed over the sands, an offering to the greedy Rust which tore apart anything uninhabited, and to the deadly hunger of the dark creatures that prowled in the night. Now they were coming for more. They had sent him a living message, a notice of vicious eviction. They were more, and were looking to grow even larger.
The little girl hugged his stretched out arm, with which he held the red tube over the strange metal sleeve. “I’m scared Mister, will everything be alright?”
“Yes” the Burner replied. A two part lie where he only needed to deliver the punchline. They would both have to die here, lest thousands more suffer a similar fate.
– – –
The attack had been carefully planned. Only the first perimeter had been breached, and they had likely set up camp inside it for the day. He could see the billowing tire smoke covering the setting sun. It was psychological warfare. She was part of the plan, meant to lower his guard, soften his heart and allow them to have their cake whilst smashing everyone else’s. Knowing your enemy was half the battle, the rest he would have to improvise. Live or die, the girl wasn’t a true concern. The lives of ninety thousand people were riding on this particular cache of black gold. There was no contest.
– – –
Six hours had passed since the alarm was first triggered. He was a wreck, and hadn’t taken his sight off the horizon. They would likely wait a bit until he met his exhaustion limit and then maybe attempt to trigger the next alarm while he slept, but they had prepared him for these situations. He lowered his guard, and turned to the table the girl had set. It was time for dinner.
She had put up a decoration on the eastern wall of the bunker. A tumbleweed cross, wrapped in a piece of red cloth torn from the big banner. She had hung it from the wrong arm, and now he was wondering if yet another curse would befall earth again because of a dumb, crooked totem. Maybe the straw that would break the camel’s back wouldn’t even be a real thing, but only a dark feeling hidden inside a remote corner of some random devil’s mind, a fleeting touch of potential sin so noxious and raw that angels would shush you if you tried to bring it up during your last meal.
They ate. They talked a bit.
“Do you always have the same for dinner?”
“No. But I’m stingy.”
He pulled out a loaf of black olive bread and a little bottle of wine. Burners may not live in luxury, but they always partook when they had to.
“Wow” said the Girl after drinking two quarter-full glasses. They were big glasses.
“Ultimately it all reduces to this beverage, thus it was likened to our very blood.” He was finally realizing how much he loved what he did, what he believed in. Pride was at hand. Maybe the truth could be tinged with one’s guts. Rather, it would be written in bile, wrapped in lymph, all green and gooey and floating in the ceiling of the sky. You’d reach out, trying to catch it, as it fluttered about and banged its head against the impassable barrier beyond which lie the gems. And so hard would the butterfly try that it would slowly smear its own gray matter into the surface, staining the little window into truth with little dots of universal black magic.
“I feel stupid and crazy and I’m sleepy. Are you going to “rape” me?” He hoped her knowing the word was as far as her understanding went. He shook the idea off.
He thought of his kid. He thought of her. He wasn’t even sure it was his, but damned it if he didn’t pay to kill it. Sure enough it was better on the ground. And then the bombs had dropped. A man who sinned right before the rapture came. How he had managed to survive wasn’t entirely clear. He remembered his time in the hospital, a crude and sad effort from those a little harmed to help those with bigger wounds. He tried to kill himself once he could stand up, but the shoddy walls had been weakened by the blasts, and they crumbled as soon as he hanged himself from them. The bricks fell on top of him and left several new scars. From the second floor he could now see a dusky, brown, rubble-ridden city, a husk of what once could have been a place of happiness. The devil himself welcomed him: “You’re already in hell, boy. Might as well take your time getting to these parts.”
The Girl was now laying down in the table, one arm crossed over her head. He stared for a bit at the drunken Goldilocks and a little spike of shame popped out of his gut. Men could both kill and get killed for stuff like this.
“Little Girl” he said, trying to sound as sober as possible.
She replied with an inquiring “Hmmm?”, unwilling to lift her head.
“What is your name?”
At this she quickly sat up-straight and looked at him. Whether it was with a lazy eye or a questioning eyebrow he couldn’t tell, as her upfront attitude caught him off guard and he had to look away.
He sighed. “Look, you’re better off staying with me. You wouldn’t last a day should you walk ahead alone. I can’t leave this place. If the people that robbed your family and sent you here should get a hold of what we’re guarding, the tragedy will only expand further. For that reason they must not be allowed to leave. Are you ready to protect the people with me?”
The girl looked at the big monitor, then at the little one.
“Can’t you stop them?” Her expression coupled with the upward pointing canines twisted her concerned grimace into an expression of spiritual horror, the sort of thing you’d read into an Oni mask. A fear so deep it runs as the blood of a being far beyond comprehension.
“I’ll see what I can do. No promises though kid.”
“Good enough, mister.” She couldn’t help hugging him. What had made him lie and pretend there was hope, he didn’t know, but an attempt would have to be made now. At the very least, it would ease the time they had left by busying their hands.
“Rest now kid. Big day tomorrow.” The girl had already jumped on the bed, and replied with a lazy hum. He turned to look at the horizon one more time. They’d have to be burning a lot of material, since he could see the smoke and the fire´s reflection in it even in the night. He paid close attention. Drums. They were playing music. This didn’t seem like a normal effort on their part. It was big. They were putting a lot into this. Maybe they’d be sending a patrol around the perimeter to the other side of the road, a single sniper with an anti-tank rifle could be enough to create some serious damage. He muted the alarm for the other half of the first circle, and decided to head for the couch. He shut the lights inside the bunker, and then sat with a big sigh. Four thin slits, one in each wall. The floating dust reflected it, and against the black ceiling, a tiny replica of the night sky formed before his eyes in the moments leading up to the end of his wake.
– – –
The next day started a little later than optimal. He explained the mechanism they’d have to use, should the worst case come to pass. Should the neat cylinder fall the length of an arm down the tube, the release switch would be activated, and the crude would exit violently up the same way. The flare would serve as a spark, and the whole thing would turn into a blowout, rendering the oil irretrievable.
“Are you sure that would be enough to stop them? Can’t the flame be… Turned off?” While asking this the girl looked at the mechanism itself, and immediately noticed the small packets under the tube. “What’s that?”
He again marveled at her sharpness. Fast curiosity. “That’s the real ticket”, he replied. The alarm monitor still showed every part of the outer perimeter breached. While there was noting going on at the moment, a beam of light could always perforate the perimeters and hit him straight in the head in under a second. As such, being in a rush was uncalled for. It was better if you didn’t have any expectations in regards to technology in this world- Most of it is junk, some of it is dangerous junk.
“Sir, you’re going blank again” the girl said.
“Sorry. Let’s begin.”
– – –
An hour had passed. He was making sandals out of more pieces from the red banner that flapped in the wind, torn and gutted. From the bunker and its little terrace you could now see more of the inside of the rig. The silver alloy tubes and modules intertwined with the old, rusted metal ones gave the thing a futuristic noir look; old technology sustaining even older machines, like humans on life support. While he was getting the sandals ready, he had her running around with his shoes. Fortunately, what they had to do did not require tremendous speed or dexterity, so they could afford to have her walking around as though she had just gotten up in the midnight to grab a snack. He had given her an extra t-shirt as well, one more than a couple sizes too big for her. A life-size doll in a big shirt pajama, walking clumsily around with over-sized shoes, holding packaged explosives in her small hands, stringed straight into the bunker. It’s as if he was fishing for an ancient sand worm with a tiny human live bait. He wondered if he’d make for a good sand hunter.
He’d seen them once. They used big harpoons, homemade explosives, and usually organized themselves around the use of a couple of dune-hovers, ones retrofitted for the use of enhanced crude as fuel. There were a couple of groups equipped with the bigger, rarer hovers that were left, dedicated solely to the chasing and exterminating of big class animals, the kind capable of smashing his rig and bunker with a single stomp. The bunker could probably take a couple or twenty, in all honesty, and the rig could be electrified on demand. Big animals were really more of a threat to unprotected houses and buildings. Those big hunting operations would sometimes have scheduled stops on certain rigs like his, and while charts of probable paths were fed to him when resupply convoys came around every month, there really were few ways to change the whims of beasts that weighed over a tonne. One such expedition was due a week ago, which could mean anything at this point.
The girl was down to the last two pieces of plastic explosive when he heard a rumble in the distance. He whistled and gestured a signal to the girl, who turned to him and stared, one hand lifting the remaining packages, the other acting as visor against the glare of the sun reflecting on the bunker windows. She couldn’t see him, but her brain eventually processed the whistling. Then she noticed the rumbling behind her, like a growling cacophonous stampede without footsteps, the same noise she heard when they first came to her city. She tried to keep the images of the horrors she lived in the village out, but they flooded her mind and rendered her immobile as her body stared deep through the lines that morphed into the sky at the horizon.
The Burner shouted at her to no avail. The second perimeter alarm triggered at all eight points at once, meaning they were well equipped. There was little room for success. The matter at hand, however, was the girl, who still held the remainder of the trap in the air, making a crude and dubious defense even more so. There was no bringing her back. He jumped from the little balcony into the pavement. He’d have to dirty his socks for this one. He grabbed one end of the wire leading to the bombs and yanked it carefully to first lift them off of the little sand mounds they were hidden in. He yanked again and tensed the line three quarters of the way. He tried one last time. He managed to pull her hand slightly in his direction, but immediately after, the wire snapped between the first and second packages. The girl however had noticed, and was now staring with her mouth agape at the failed trap. The Burner looked at her with relief, but then looked past her at the place where the ground melted with the sky, and saw a little line turning into a black cube with a reflecting face. They were here. He beckoned at her to return and then pointed at the incoming threat. She turned around and began staring again. They were screwed now.
– – –
“Come back! They’re here!” he shouted again.
“What about the trap?!” she shouted back.
“Just leave it! Get back here now!”
She looked one more time at the incoming caravan, now a distinct collection of black and rusted frames approaching steadily through the flatland. She began dragging the line towards her, gathering the packs in her arms. Once she had all of them, she stood in the middle of the road facing the bandits. The Burner looked at the sole piece of the trap that could be triggered reliably, and then at the big rig next to him. They were definitely screwed.
– – –
As the caravan stopped sequentially in front of the girl, the Burner started making way towards the conglomeration of fates that now awaited just a few meters from the bunker. He had strapped on an old Kevlar helmet, which he’d tossed into some corner since he never imagined going out in this situation. Walking steadily, he glanced around to the multiple snipers set atop the dunes and hidden behind the eroded junk that made the landscape he’d called home all these years. On one hand he held the remote monitor, and in the other, the cross the girl had made. He stopped next to the girl, who still looked intently at the big truck at the head of the group. The truck driver, hidden from view by the reflection on the windshield, turned the engine off, and every vehicle behind it did so as well in succession. The diesel roaring of the engines slowly gave way to the sounds of the desert, and the soothing south noon wind set the stage for the players, ready to throw it all away on a moment’s notice. A couple of tumbleweeds also made an appearance, clashing into the vehicle caravan.
“Mister” she said, without looking at him.
“Yes little girl?”
“Will we ever know each other’s names?”
At this, the big, featureless black truck swung open its door. The driver took one step down the little ladder on the side. They saw a robust leg with a black sandal, and then the driver jumped the rest of the way down.
“Hello. You’re the Burner of this rig, I presume?” Aside from the sandals, the man wore only a black speedo to cover his privates. His red tattoos against the black skin created a macabre bloodied look, which was probably the intention. He managed to distinguish some classic raider motifs, along with other symbols which he did not quite recognize, and what seemed like a counter of some sorts etched into his skin. The girl spoke softly to him:
Sure he was. It sure looked like a “Him”. There always was, and this he counted on. Taking Him’s out usually meant the others would disperse, but with such a large operation he doubted they could really put a dent in it. They were ready for him, but he was ready for them, too. At least, as ready as one man… Well, one and a half man could be.
“What do you want?” the Burner asked.
“What is this?” the man replied, his voice deep and confident. “Are you trying to make time or something? You know what I want. It’s that little rig you’re hiding behind your back. At least, a little bit of what it puts out. Care to spare a gallon or ten for our trip? The desert is a treacherous place Mr. Burner, and I have a big family to feed, you understand…” he closed with a little laugh.
“This is only for Dry use. See that big banner over there? I’m afraid without the proper authority, my hands are tied.”
“But my dearest Burner, I am a bit of an authority myself, if you don’t mind my saying.”
“Oh? Care to present some credentials then? A Mouther badge perhaps, or an affiliation one? At the very least, be kind enough to provide me with a name, dear sir.”
The black man chuckled loudly. “A burner, asking for a name? That’s rich. I know how your kind plays, mister. I’ve heard the stories, too. I’m not dumb enough to believe them, mind you, but a good leader needs good ears. Why keep you isolated when you hold the power to stop armies? A couple of you fellas would have been enough to stop our little enterprise in the child’s town, would it not? You’re just a phony, just like the other useless reds.”
“You tremble with hesitation at the request of a name?” The Burner felt the weight of the luck he was now pushing. “Quite interesting, considering the man you presumably hold yourself to be. Is that a death counter on your chest? It doesn’t seem too big. Am I wrong to assume you may have had mercy on the townsfolk? Or are you just a cynic who only counts the fingers in front of his face?”
“Enough talk, Burner. I’ve seen what you do. You’re glorified psychopaths, they keep you here because you’re only good for one thing: Nothing. Only voids like you, with nothing to live for, can pull the trigger on the livelihood of thousands just because of a whim. Are you really okay with shutting down an entire city to not give us the pleasure? Who gives you the right?”
“Everyone does. Everyone is ready to make the sacrifice, because we know people like you exist.” He gripped the remote tightly, his hands sweating. “You’re the reason we can’t have nice things. The fact that we can dispense of this little fountain of goodness whenever we want is proof of the nobility of our intentions. It means more for you than it does for us. Are you ready to die for it, little raider? Or is the one holding your leash hiding behind one of those cars?”
“You can talk big, Burner” the man said as he walked in front of his truck. “But can you do big? You, I can understand, but would you really go as far as to sacrifice this… Thing I hesitate to call human?”
The little girl reared her upper lip, showing her canines in full glory. She growled slightly, too. A stark contrast from her usual, kind face. There was something he’d heard about angering a god, but he couldn’t remember it right now. Now that he brought it up, the Burner realized the man had no visible mutations. He was hairy, and younger than him, so he’d definitely been born after the war. This one had gotten lucky. He wondered how it was that these raider officers were made, as they always seemed just a few degrees off sanity.
“Are you a believer?” the Burner asked, spinning the cross in his hand.
“Don’t tell me you’re a nut on top of being a bigger nut, Burner. Is this your way of pleading salvation?”
“It’s the way I sleep at night, that’s all. Is your conscience clear, my son?”
“Oh it is, Mr. Death’s reverend. But if I confess my sins, will you give us what we want?”
“You can try.”
The outlaw screamed and at the same time began an arm motion. The Burner grabbed the girl and jumped to the right of the road. Shots were heard. He pushed a button on the remote, which triggered the charge he had set up at the base of the metal tower, as well as a few smaller ones set in the spots which overlooked the bunker. Two of the frame’s legs disappeared, and the whole thing came crashing down towards them.
– – –
A minute passed, and the dust cleared a little. The Burner was again in the middle of the road, holding a bleeding girl in one arm and the remote on the other. His helmet had been lost. The giant red banner had been set free, and now glided peacefully up the currents into the blue sky, shadowing the Burner from the sun briefly. The bandit leader lay on the grill of his truck, bleeding as well.
“Little girl, little girl! Are you okay?” The Burner took a look at her head, bloodying the remote in the process. He couldn’t find any cuts.
“Now’s our chance, you must return to the bunker now!”
“But mister, I can’t leave you here. What’s gonna happen to you if I do?”
“Don’t worry about me kid… I’ll ask you again: Are you ready to protect the people with me?”
“Yes, of course.”
“I said yes! I promise mister, I promise…”
“Then do your part, just as I have to do mine right now.”
“I understand… Mister, will we ever meet again?”
“Of course we will. But until then, you have to keep your word. Do you think you can manage?”
“Good. Now go, leave this to me. You know what to do.”
“Fine. Do you want your shoes back?”
“Keep them. But remember… Always shine them. A Burner can’t afford to show weakness.”
He handed her a piece from the big banner. She let a few tears down at the prospect of losing loved ones again, and gave him a little kiss on the cheek. He felt her curved canines and lips touching his stubble, and felt at peace. The girl ran disjointedly back to the bunker. Once there, she fitted the special glove on her hand, and lifted the flare over the metal sleeve while she waited for the dust to clear.
– – –
With the remainder of his energy, the Burner lifted himself. He still had a little fight in him, but they had shot him good. Not that it mattered, anyway. There was more blood now. He was relieved it wasn’t the girl’s. He made for the tattooed raider and his big rig.
“I didn’t think you had it in you” started the man as he lay in the floor, his back on the big truck. “Why aren’t they blowing your head up right now?”
“I figure the ones that didn’t get caught in the remote traps may have fled out of respect for their lives. Any last words?”
“Not for you, my fellow man.”
The Burner left one of the packages next to the rig’s fuel tank. He walked towards the rest of the convoy. They saw him when he did them, coming out of the sand cloud. They saw the remote on one hand and the explosives in the other. Some of them started their cars and left the way they came. The ones closer to him just ditched the vehicles and ran for it. He managed to walk as far as the chained packages allowed him to. Then he fell to his knees. He looked up. A drop of rain fell on him. One of the big, black clouds was heading their way. He grasped the cross against his chest, and took a deep breath. Then he pushed the button.
– – –
“Captain, I think I see the bunker. But… Captain, the rig! It’s been blown!”
“Take a closer look cadet, there’s no blowout.”
The military jeep leading the convoy, beautifully adorned with a red carp bearing the Dry Mouths emblem, started to slow down while signaling back. The entire convoy stopped at once while the jeep advanced alone.
“So it was true, the raiders really took over Coldstile. I wonder how farther up north they managed to raid…” The young cadet got a bit distracted with the idea of lands he knew getting destroyed; cities had always felt safe for him, and while he’d gotten through his training without a hitch, the psychological horrors of this new world had still not set in.
“Focus on driving right now, cadet. We have another immediate matter at hand. You get lost in your imagination and that’s one desert you ain’t coming back from.”
They stopped 50 meters short of the bunker. The busted rig was now half covered with sand, and the Rust had already taken its toll on the newer parts of the structure. An undefined mass of junk lay on the other end of the road, and a couple of worms had nested on it. The bunker seemed fine, and the lower part of the oil rig had clearly taken a blast, but was still holding up well enough. The men placed their guns on the floor where they could be seen from the tinted bulletproofed windows, as per protocol, and then proceeded up the little balcony. When they came to the door they stumbled and gasped. Instead of a man, they saw a girl with a serious teeth issue, wearing a helmet, over-sized shirt and shoes who was holding up the Burner’s flare in a hand gloved to light it. A pair of red sandals were hanging in the wall behind her. They stared in awe for a couple of seconds without saying anything. The younger one snapped out first, and ventured a question.
“Little girl, who are you? Where’s this post’s Burner?”
“That would be me” the little girl replied.
The men looked at each other, then back at her. The girl licked the tip of both her upward canines.
“I am the Burner.”
– – –
Once upon a tomorrow, our foolishness continued to be as grand as our hearts. After we had decimated the world, we picked up the pieces, and started again. But it’s easier to build a tall skyscraper out of sand than to restore the soul of someone who has given up on it. Leave it to the experts of love to fix a broken man. All it takes is a genuine smile, and a bit of…