Pistol Packin' Mama
Ashe collapsed and rolled onto her back, gasping for breath. A cold numbness seeped from the granite cliffside into her skin—a relief to her burning muscles. Overhead, tree branches quaked in an unseen breeze as a quiet counterpoint to the terror she felt after her frantic marathon through the forest. The ringed moon Aetheron rode high in the sky, calming her. She liked it the most of Arcadia’s two moons and hoped to take a rocketship to it someday.
With a slow exhale she relaxed against the cool rock and unclenched her fingers, releasing the rifle that had kept her alive this long.
She looked over the cliff, noting the trees below.
There was nowhere else to run.
Taking a deep breath, she wondered, Should I give up? The world ended twenty-five years ago. Those of us still around—we’re all walking dead; we just don’t know it yet.
Feral screams broke her reverie, and she cursed, “Blast!”
She closed her eyes and tried to ignore the horror that came to her mind whenever she thought of the growlers. It was too much to hope I had lost them. A part of her worried about becoming one herself. To fight the growing fear, she focused on the flickering shadows from the leaves overhead.
Growlers were once people but had since changed—another aftereffect of the arrival and cleansing. Nobody was sure if they were alive or just reanimated corpses. Ashe felt it didn’t matter—they were feral, mindless, and nothing but killers.
I could just let them eat me.
But that would probably hurt.
With her breathing under control, Ashe sat up and ran her fingers through her sweaty, cropped red hair to cool off. She couldn’t help but feel a smoldering frustration and grumbled, “It was stupid to help Mosstown negotiate with Warthog!”
Speaking to herself was something she’d started doing with her self-imposed isolation.
A twinge of sad anger simmered in her chest as she thought about her lost backpack. While trying to find Warthog’s base, things went south, and she had to leave it behind in a scuffle with the raiders. Giving chase, they followed her on a mad race through the forest when she ran into a roving horde of growlers. But she didn’t slow and instead dashed through the gaunt, zombified humans.
They should have taken care of each other!
She let out a deep sigh, doing her best to keep calm.
After a moment, she fought down the natural fear anybody might feel on the edge of a cliff and scooted closer to look down. The wind gusted up, instantly bringing tears to her eyes. A cabin poked through the trees below her, perched just on the edge of an overlook into the densely forested fen and beyond. A faint hope grew as she realized how secluded it was, which meant it might have undiscovered supplies.
It could mean safety. And she needed safety. Safety she used to have.
“Damn Commissioner,” she growled, thinking how everything was easy growing up in Fenclave—an underground enclave shelter big enough to house a thousand people, with regulated temperature, food at the ready, other kids to hang out with, and normal things like weekly schooling.
Why did the Commissioner make us leave? I was born in Fenclave. I didn’t even know what it was like above ground! It’s horrible!
Ashe angrily grabbed her gun and checked the chamber. Out of ammo. She pulled a string from her neck and considered the bullet tied to the end. Even with the growler’s grunts and screams coming closer, she debated what to do. This round was special—it was for the Commissioner.
Should I use it now? The Commissioner deserves it for the hell she put me through.
A branch snapped in the distance, helping to make her decision. I can always write her name on another bullet.
With hands shaking from adrenaline, she untied the knot, slotted the bullet into the rifle, and shouldered the gun with its sling. Turning around, she slid her belly over the cliff’s edge and stretched for a toehold. A renewed vigor came to the growler’s calls, heralding their imminent arrival as they caught sight of her, but she focused on remaining calm and moving carefully.
She made it far enough down the cliff to be out of reach when the growlers arrived. Loose gravel fell on her as they shuffled around the top. One noticed her descent and snarled, “Escape!” while swiping his arms at her in mindless frustration, even though Ashe was out of reach. He wore a red baseball cap and couldn’t be more than eighteen.
To reassure herself, she muttered, “Growlers don’t climb, right, Ashe? Hopefully, they’ll just give up and find better prey.”
The descent went well enough, considering she had no climbing gear. The rocks were rough and not steeply sloped, which made her course less treacherous than it could have been. By the time she reached the bottom, the bleakness she felt at the top had started to fade.
She stayed out of sight while cautiously approaching the cabin, mumbling, “You never know what you might come across, Ashe. Be careful.” She felt more secure knowing she wore a chameleon body suit under her clothes—an invaluable find that helped her blend into the terrain when activated.
As she drew near, the crackling popular song of “Atom Bomb Baby” wafted through the trees, coming from a radio—and that meant people. She held back a curse and mentally debated her options, her hopes fading. If somebody is in the cabin, they could be friendly. Or, they could be another raider gang. Not that I have anything left for them to steal.
Her stomach groaned, reminding her that she had skipped lunch, and she tried not to think of what else raiders might do besides simply stealing her things.
Using every skill she’d learned since leaving Fenclave, she crept closer, pulling a hood over her face before tapping her thigh to engage the chameleon effect of the body suit and keeping herself in the growing shadows of the setting sun.
The log cabin looked to be in decent shape for the badlands. As an A-frame it looked to have an upper floor and sat nestled midway along a steep incline, tucked in among the trees. The steel hulk of an old truck sat parked to the side, its rounded fenders a rusty reminder of the sleek, pre-arrival world that was no more.
An automated turret chirped a warning from the side of the cabin, and she froze.
“Of course they have robotic defenses,” she grumbled to herself while scanning the house for additional threats. Her chameleon suit worked best against people, not turrets, which usually had infra-red cameras.
I am shadow incarnate. She reassured herself. I’ve snuck past a whole squad of Wardens. I can do this. Perhaps if I run fast, then it can’t get a lock on me.
It’ll work, won’t it?
Her stomach groaned again, and she mumbled, “Sorry Miss Sneaky Pants. Looks like we’ll be running for it today.”
With the choice made, she dashed for the building at an angle from the turret. A staccato firing of bullets peppered the ground behind her close enough that she could feel the sting of ricochet from their strikes. With a desperate burst, she rounded the side of the building, making it to safety.
A second turret on the cabin’s wall spun to face her. Spotting an open cellar door, she lunged through it as the turret traced her steps with a spray of bullets.
“Too close,” she muttered.
With the automated guns spinning down, she paused, leaving the door open to help illuminate the gloomy interior while listening for alarms from the occupants. Soon, she decided anybody here was likely dead—the stench of rotten flesh gave it away.
Other than the radio playing upstairs, and the soft whine of a tired old reactor still running in the corner, the only sound was a drone of flies from above, probably circling the prior owner.
After her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she moved up to the main floor, turned the radio off, and found the source of the stench—a dead man in a bedroom. By the looks of things, he likely expired from a nasty bout of void worms.
She winced at the gruesome sight. “Poor guy.”
Ashe needed to deal with the man first. The smell was overpowering. A quick search led her to a switch that disabled the turrets. She made a mental note to turn them back on after she finished hauling him out; though inaccurate, the turrets were a good early warning signal of danger.
She rolled the fellow up in his old blanket, gagging at the malodor that wafted up and trying to avoid the glowing, purplish worms still crawling through his body. It wasn’t easy, but she managed to drag his bundled remains out to the trees—far enough away that they wouldn’t draw the attention of predators or void-created terrors to the cabin.
With that finished, she returned and took a closer look around. It was a nice cabin, if not a little run-down, and it had a great view overlooking the Fen. Surprisingly, a panoramic window pane in the east wall remained unbroken, highlighting the vista beyond.
Ashe had become very good at finding supplies in every nook and cranny of pre-arrival ruins. Her search for supplies in the cabin was unfruitful, however, as she turned up little of use. Instead, she found old clothes, dried toothpaste, and dusty books. One thing that struck her was the wiring—she'd have to do something about the random cables stretched back and forth and tucked in corners—probably for the turrets. It made a mess of things, and could even be a hazard in the dark.
But scavenging was her thing, and she worked harder, searching for secret panels and hidden doors. After a more careful effort, she found a stash of supplies hidden behind a bookshelf in the loft.
“I’m so good!” she exclaimed smugly before pushing the bookshelf out of the way. A grin spread on her face as she considered the variety of items in the hidden stash.
“Cool beans! This is a cornucopia of supplies! Did you catch that, Mister Emmett? I remembered my vocabulary from your class. Lot of good that will do me now. Thanks to you, Mrs. Commissioner.”
Ashe grabbed a package of Frosted Sugar Bombs cereal from the trove, tore it open, and started eating it dry while carrying the rest of the supplies from the loft down to the kitchen.
Her shoulders relaxed after she found a box of ammo hidden in the back. Setting aside everything else, she ejected the Commissioner’s unused round from the rifle and deliberately tied it to the string around her neck. Once finished, she renewed her vow: “You’ll get what’s coming, if I can ever find you. It’s all your fault that Mom, Dad, and—” Her voice choked.
With a pause to draw in a deep breath, she forced herself to let the anger pass. Then, with focused determination, she returned to sorting everything from the stash into organized piles. This repetitive action helped her calm down and feel safe, even knowing the growlers still prowled nearby.
After a while, Ashe noticed deep shadows settling on the room, reminding her how fast night came in the badlands. She flicked on her AstroCom’s lamp, conveniently strapped to her wrist, and searched for the cabin lights, a smile touching her lips as she remembered receiving the device when she turned eight.
It was heavy on her arm, with three pieces wrapping around her wrist on a canvas strap, but she didn’t care. It could do all sorts of things for school and even around the enclave, but that’s not what she liked most. Her parents had pre-filled it with songs, and she wore it proudly, happy to share the tunes with her best friend, Talia. She played the music so much that her parents gave her headphones to stop her from annoying everybody around.
She fingered the cable of her headphones—still mostly functional and hanging around her neck. A pinch of hurt twisted her gut as she remembered her last birthday at Fenclave.
Did I turn sixteen last month? It feels like a decade since we left, not a year.
Ashe and her family were part of the lucky few who lived in Fenclave, which was what the locals called their Enclave—a nuclear fallout bunker set up by the government before “the arrival.” Since her parents were scientists, they were allowed in early to get things set up. Then the Kraal came, followed by “the cleansing,” after which it was too late for anybody else. At least, that’s what she was told. Ever since they were kicked out, she had begun questioning the Commissioner’s story.
Drawing a slow breath, Ashe thought of her father always telling her she was his favorite daughter and smiled again. Admittedly, Dad, I was your only daughter, but who’s keeping track of these things?
In the dark, her thoughts invariably looped back to the crazy Commissioner who made everybody leave and how that led to her family’s death. We could have stayed there. She didn’t have to send us out to clean up the world. Everything was just fine. Ashe didn’t buy the excuse that Fenclave’s water purification systems had failed.
She groaned. I need to stop thinking about what was.
Finally finding the switch, she turned the lights on and looked around. Deciding a pick-me-up might help, she pulled her headphones on, dialed the AstroCom’s entertainment library and, with “Pistol Packin’ Mama” to accompany her efforts, started inventorying the rest of the cabin. She couldn’t help but find a bob in her step, laughing at her luck.
“That’s right, Ashe, the dulcet tones of some dead guy can put a hop in your step long after civilization has ended. Besides, I am a pistol-packin’ mama, after all. Well, an Arbiter combat rifle-packin’ mama, but that’s a mouthful. I do pack a pistol, though.” She slapped the holster lower on her thigh.
Ashe started dancing in time with the music, gracefully sliding across the linoleum kitchen floor and narrating her movements. “I’m such a cool cat. Nobody can catch me.”
She crouched in a pose and whispered dramatically, “Hello shadows, I’m Miss Sneaky Pants, and stealthy mojo courses through my veins!”
A deafening clap of thunder shook the entire cabin, causing the floor to tremble and rattling the furniture and appliances around her.
Ashe let out a sharp yelp of surprise at the unexpected clap, and with adrenaline rushing through her stealthy veins, “Miss Sneaky Pants” twisted the dial of her AstroCom, silencing the music, and lurched toward the Arbiter.
But her stealthy mojo didn’t stop her from tripping over a wire stretched across the room. The lights went out, and the turrets fell silent, yet the reactor continued its gentle whine in the background.
“Fuuuuudge!” erupted from her mouth as a drawn-out groan as she fought the pain of her bruised knee. She immediately felt embarrassed for almost cursing and reflexively glanced around to make sure nobody heard her.
After the pain subsided, she whispered in a sulky voice, “I know, Mom! My mouth is foul! I blame the badlands.”
Her mom had once told Ashe how cultured she was, with her straight posture and a lady’s voice—but that was then.
Ashe felt around in the darkness for her rifle. Violet lightning flashed outside, helping her find the Arbiter in the brief illumination. She crept to the door, easing it open to peek through the gap.
The coming void storm cast everything in a surreal, purple-tinted gloom, and her pulse increased. The growlers were more active during a void storm.
The storms started after the Union of Stars military nuked all the worlds in their fight against the extra-cosmic Kraal. Now all that remained of the military were the Wardens, and Ashe always tried to give them a wide berth. They had very dogmatic thinking—notably, that superior force was necessary to keep civil order. They used nukes twenty-five years before to hold back the Kraal as they invaded from outside of reality, and they still maintain it was a necessary move, despite its devastating effects on all the worlds.
The storms were the icing on the Wardens’ cake. They came without warning and left behind ruined creatures: either desiccated, voracious shadows of people like the growlers or void-mutated aberrations like the Deathmarks. Her blood ran cold even thinking of the Deathmarks.
Clenching her teeth to focus, Ashe looked through the Arbiter’s scope, scanning the nearby terrain while thinking about how to secure the cabin from the coming storm. The front door had a bar across it, which was good. And all the windows had shutters, which she could fasten closed. And the turrets. Cold anxiety clenched her gut as she realized she hadn’t turned them back on. And—did she ever close the door in the basement?
The whine of the reactor below cut out, and a silence settled over the cabin, interrupted by a rumble from the coming void storm. Her pulse raced as fear spiked her adrenaline.
“We’re coming,” came a hiss from below.
The growlers were inside!
She wanted to run. It was the sane thing to do. But she knew being outside in a void storm was a death sentence.
The stair creaked, and she flung the front door open before turning around and pointing her Arbiter at the growlers shambling up from the basement.
With a stroke of the trigger, she sent a spray of bullets across them. Many shots missed, but enough landed, dropping the first two as they reached the top. Yet more followed. Through clenched teeth, she snarled, “How many of you are there?!”
One of them, wearing a tattered business suit, his face burned and twisted, lurched over the two writhing on the floor and darted toward her while hissing through withered lips, “Run!”
The single word struck cold terror in her gut.
Growlers uttered random exclamations while attacking, and what they said was often chilling, almost like they were warning of their coming. Some speculated that the person they once were was still locked deep within, though Ashe had never bought into that theory.
With a second pull on the trigger, the burst from her Arbiter crossed the growler’s chest to his shoulder, spinning him back. But more came into the light from below, and she gave up, resigning herself to the void storm.
It’s either death by growler now, or turning into a growler later. I’ll take the latter for ten points, thank you.
Turning, she ran, launching herself from the steps to the ground in a single movement, knowing the growlers were following. On the horizon, a dark wall of boiling clouds rolled toward her, lit by an extra-cosmic purple radiance with occasional flickers dancing across the edges and illuminating something deeper within. She knew not to study it too closely because she would see shapes in the clouds—things that could not be explained, like tentacles and eyes.
Two humanoid forms appeared before her, illuminated by a flash of violet lightning, while ominous clicking from the Geiger counter in her AstroCom warned of the increased radiation brought by the storm.
Instinctually, she raised the Arbiter and stroked the trigger, her mind trailing behind her muscle memory as she slowly realized that these two didn’t look like withered growlers. Seeing her gun, the figures ducked as bullets sprayed over their heads. One of them cried out with a pained gasp, obviously hit, and the other barked in a deep voice, “Don’t shoot!”
Ashe didn’t know what to do. She didn’t dare trust strangers, but the growlers were coming on her heels. These two had to hear their shrieks.
The larger man darted past her, nothing more than a dark shadow in the gloom. The other stepped to the side and fired a pistol, but not at her—beyond.
She turned, her gun ready.
The taller man faced three growlers, slashing a fierce, bladed gauntlet as they tried to catch him. Two more followed, and she sighted in on one, firing, only to miss. Her aim was off for fear of hitting the man in the melee.
Taking a deep breath, she fired again and, this time landed a shot in the growler’s chest. It stopped moving and collapsed to the ground.
With the help of the two strangers, she soon finished off the remaining growlers, then paused, listening for more. Once again, lightning flickered across the sky. The wind kicked up, warning of the coming storm, as the three people stared at each other, debating what to say.
Meeting strangers in the badlands was always dangerous. Ashe knew she couldn’t trust anybody. The darker man who had fought with the gauntlet wore a top hat, but she couldn’t make out his features. The other held his shoulder, and she guessed that he was the one she had shot.
Still wired with adrenaline, Ashe darted to the cabin and made it to the porch before the one she’d shot called out, “Don’t run! We’re friendly! We come in peace!”
She paused, then yelled back, lowering her voice as best she could to be more intimidating, “Then you can go in peace, too! Or come closer and be in pieces! Now make like a tree and leave!”
The void storm flickered overhead, and the Geiger counter clicked again, this time matching the patter of rain.
The wounded man took a few steps toward the cabin while responding, “My friend, Rainwood, said we should find shelter from the storm. Then, would you believe it, we saw your cabin!”
“If you come any closer, I shoot!” she hollered.
“Well . . . that wouldn’t be very nice.”
He continued to approach, closing the gap between them. Ashe backed across the threshold into the cabin while keeping her Arbiter trained on him.
“I have you in my sights, and I’ve killed hundreds of people,” she declared confidently, racking a new round, hoping he could hear it.
The ejected bullet rolled away.
He stepped closer, keeping his hands high.
Even in the gloom of the coming void storm she noticed his features, and realized he was near her age. He gave her a gentle smile. His dark wavy hair curled around to frame his eyes just right. And the way he stood with a little shrug to his shoulders. A rogue part of her—the part that still seemed to think she was back at a safer time in Fenclave—had an irresponsible thought: He is kinda cute.
“Stop coming closer!” she hollered in frustration at herself, as much as at him.
With little steps, he had already made it to the stairs.
She scowled, giving him that dead look she figured scary killers had while reassuring herself, I can be intimidating. I look like a raider. He has to see my raider attire and war paint.
He didn’t seem to notice as he mounted the first step of the porch, much to her frustration. Just behind him, the tall man arrived, his features dark as the night. Ashe snapped the gun to the new target. He stepped past the younger guy, speaking in a low husky voice, “Just go in, boy. She won’t shoot us.”
Wait, did . . . did he . . . just dismiss me?
A boiling fury welled up in her.
She racked the chamber again, hoping it would intimidate him, but he just caught the ejected bullet mid-air and walked past her, his eyes darting around the interior.
He wore a black trench coat and top hat. His face was grizzled with many scars—stories of hard-fought survival—and his white-peppered hair made it clear he was an old guy, maybe even before the arrival of the Kraal 25 years before.
If he’s survived this long, he’s probably super dangerous.
Fighting back a dramatic sigh, she declared, “Fine, come in. But stay over there, where I can keep an eye on both of you.”