The day was hot, the kind of heat that sucks moisture from everything and sends it to vanish into tremblingly feverish air. Shark watched regretfully as her spit dried off the sandy ground. Justice fumbled and swore beside her, the sniper rifle slipping from her sweaty palms. Shark smirked, dropping her head back against the rock, turning her eyes towards the vivid blue sky.
Justice grunted “huh.”
“When was the last time you saw a cloud?”
“Yesterday.” She answered. “Cirrus, really high up. I thought it looked a bit orange.” She leveled the rifle at the tiny old convenience store. “When was the last time you saw a proper shade of green?”
Shark smiled wryly. “The last time I looked into Net’s eyes.”
Justice sat back. “Net’s eyes are blue.”
“Really? Ok, not in ages, then, assuming these shrubs don’t count.”
“Those are more of a gray.” Justice said. She checked the crosshairs and then slumped down beside Shark. “It’s too hot to move. I’m exhausted.”
Shark groaned and nodded, slowly slapping a knife against her thigh.
“Can I take a nap?” Justice moaned.
“What’s taking them so long?”
“I think they were looking for a spot for Rain to set up a station.”
“Eh heh. That’s gonna be hard.”
“Think of it as another plus about this place, hard to ambush.” Shark said, leaning around the rock to stare at the ghost town, a handful of broken shacks and old stores. “And relatively undefended.”
“Yup. That’s the first thing I’m gonna do when its ours, build some walls. This place needs to be a fort.”
They took turns throwing pebbles at a dead bush.
“Take some pellets.”
Justice shook her head. “Pellets aren’t gonna help.”
“Please tell me your hands aren’t shaky.”
“Nah, they aren’t yet. I’m not going into withdrawal. I’m just thirsty. Does anyone in the group still have any water?”
Shark shrugged. “The Doc might. You’ll have to ask him later.”
“Doc has green eyes.” Justice said.
The Doc sat against the old chest of drawers. Cloud hummed beside him, tinkering away at a cube made of smaller, colored cubes, twisting the rows and columns.
“Where did you find that?”
“The last town we raided. Its kinda cool, isn’t it?”
“That’s a rubix cube. You’re supposed to get all the colors on their own sides. I haven’t seen one since I was little. My dad found one but he threw it away before I could solve it. Said it didn’t have a practical use.”
“Well it doesn’t, but that’s no reason to throw it away.”
She messed with it a bit more. “This is impossible.”
“Let me see.”
She handed it to him and watched him work, but turned away before long to look out at October-Sky and Car setting up their station, October manned the rifle, but Car had to set it up for her.
“Why do we have to fight?” She asked.
“We don’t have to. Rise is gonna try to negotiate, but it probably won’t work. These guys have too much pride to give up anything.”
“Someone will get hurt. We should just keep travelling and camping where we meet people. That’s not bad and I don’t see any reason to change it. Its fun.”
“Rumor has it that there is something here that we sorely want.” He glanced at her expression, her eyes staring into the cart like she was trying to find what was missing. “We have everything we need, I think, if what we need is a patchy livelihood, a band of borderline psychos, and sustenance almost every day. All those things are here, but do you ever feel like, oh, I don’t know, scrambling to stay alive, destroying entire towns just for a few meals, and running from everything that faces us just isn’t the way to live?”
“Settling in the middle of the desert, miles from anywhere, will change that?”
“Sometimes its just a matter of fitting together the pieces.” The Doc said, tossing her the solved rubix cube.
Fifty yards away, under the edge of a crater, Car patiently picked up the parts of the rifle October had carelessly knocked out of his hands. October lay at the bottom of the crater, her hand over her eyes, sobbing with apology. He listened for a while, fitting the parts back together and leaving her to aim it. “Its ok.” He said.
He glanced at her and sighed, “I said its ok. No big deal. I already fixed it.”
“Oh, ok. I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.” She cleared her throat and rose to aim the rifle, staring through the crosshairs and minutely adjusting it for quite some time. Car shuffled around with a box of gears beside her.
“What are you making?” She asked.
“Why would you make a watch?” She giggled. “Aren’t those used to tell time? No one uses time. It’s such an antique idea. Well, time itself isn’t antique, but measuring it in numbers is. It just isn’t practical. You can try to set events that pass into a certain sequence, but over the year the sunset and the sunrise change and the light of the day and the time we do things change, so we have to change the time and its not always accurate enough to be of use. Think of leap years, if you know what those are. Only the Dispensers use clocks and watches because they’re the only ones with tedious and regular schedules. Do you really want to look like you’re part of the Dispensaries? That’ll only invite trouble.”
Car didn’t answer for a moment, taking the time to tighten a screw and take a deep breath. “I’m making one for the challenge.”
“Oh.” She cleared her throat again and adjusted the rifle a bit more. “So do you have any water on you or anything?”
“Nope. Ask Salt.”
“Give. Me. The. Water.” Salt said.
“Nope.” said Pepper. “You shouldn’t have let me hold it. I’m gonna drink the rest.”
“No you’re not! That’s mine! I paid for it and I’ve been saving it!”
“Ew! It’ll grow stuff! You shouldn’t save water, especially not in an unsanitary container! Just drink it!”
“I will as soon as you give it back. I’ve told you so many times not to take my stuff.”
“My stuff is your stuff! We’re twins, gosh darn it, we’ve never had different stuff.”
“We do if I paid for it!” Salt shrieked and leapt on Pepper.
“Fine! Take it and get off me!”
Salt grabbed the bottle and chugged the water down, sat back against the rocks, and sighed, a smile stretched across her dirty face. She reluctantly handed the last few mouthfuls to her sister. They both grinned and sat down in front of their rifles.
“No one has to know about that.” Pepper said.
“We never had anything.” Salt agreed.
“Do you know if Salt and Pepper actually have water?” Kite asked.
“If they did, I bet its gone by now.” Net said, fanning himself with a flat-ish stone, his eyes on the teasingly blue sky. When he stared up at the sky he liked to imagine that he was looking far down at an ocean through the clouds, if they were there, instead of up at a void. It felt more lonely, but less empty.
“Are you gonna shoot, or shall I?”
Net glanced at the rifle, then at the assortment of close-range weapons collected on the ground. “You shoot. I’ll fight.”
“Nah, I think I’ll let you have the honor of shooting.”
“Just so you can mock me when I miss?”
“Its better than you mocking me.”
“Just stay here and be the sniper, will you?”
“Nope, I’m gonna go fight.”
“One of us needs to stay here.”
“By all means,” Kite said, “go ahead.” He fidgeted at the wrecked hem of his jeans, staring expectantly up at Net.
Net shook his head, kicking at a shrub. “I’m amazed that you’ve stayed alive this long.”
“Must be my charm. Do you want a sandwich?”
“It has ham in it.”
“Where the hell did you get ham?”
Kite smirked, taking a bite out of his sandwich and chewing slowly and grinning contentedly at Net. “Not every day you find someone sellin’ fresh, juicy ham. I had to take advantage.”
“What did you use to buy it?”
“What makes you think I bought it?”
Net glared for a solid minute before demanding the sandwich. Kite grinned and gave him a piece.
“Thanks.” Net muttered.
“Glad to be of service. You’re shooting.”
“Got any pellets on you?” Rain said.
Rise handed him several, which Rain swallowed dry, flinching. “I’ll never get used to those things.”
“You do eventually.”
“You’ve used them since the day you could swallow them, though. I really can’t.”
“You were a spoiled kid.” Rise said, smiling.
Rain shrugged. “Doesn’t mean I’m not useful.”
“You sure are that, just so long as you don’t come and try to fight.”
“Nah, I’m much happier back here, picking off foes from a distance. Keeping you guys safe. And you guys can draw their attention away from me!” Rain grinned, bouncing up and down with energy, his messy sun bleached hair flying.
“I’m all set up here, if you guys wanna go now.”
“Could we, please?” Fried said from his position, flattened out on the ground, trying to stay hidden behind the craggy broken asphalt that used to be the highway. “I’m getting dirt down my jeans and it ain’t pleasant.”
Rise snickered. “Yeah, sorry. Let’s go.”
Rise whistled long and low through his teeth. It rang around the rocks, breaking the sweltering silence. He saw four hands rise from behind rocks around the town, circling it. Fried had already stood behind him, adjusting the extra ammo hanging around him and shouldering his rocket launcher. They walked forward, backs straight, strides long, metal clinking all over against their frayed, faded clothes and dusty skin.
“Positions.” muttered Shark, hand still up in response to the whistle. Justice sat up, handed the binoculars to Shark and, and situated herself at the crosshairs.
Through the binoculars, Shark saw Rise and Fried stride towards the town, Rise calm and unthreatening, most of his many weapons concealed. Fried loomed beside him, huge and menacing, all guns and bristling knives, ammo looped across his chest, and his baby, a rocket launcher, propped up on his shoulder. One man came out to meet them, a single revolver in one hand, a bottle in the other. He had the guts to look annoyed. Rise talked, the man stared, mouth open. He abruptly smashed his bottle against the side of a building. Rise didn’t flinch, but Fried’s hand flew to a holster and Justice twitched, finger taut over the trigger.
“So wasteful.” Shark growled, eyeing the glass shards and the scratches on the wall it had hit.
“Why would he disrespect that place?” Justice hissed.
“He doesn’t understand how lucky he is to have it.”
“Can I shoot? What are they doing?”
“So tell me, exactly, instead of all this fancy beatin’ around the bush you’re doin’, what you expect me to do for you.” The man hissed. A few other residents, hailed by the smashing bottle, emerged from the dingy trailers, men and women roughly the size and shape of bears, and of the same temper.
Rise smiled pleasantly. “I want you to leave immediately so my crew and I can move in. In return, we won’t kill you.”
The man snorted. “You go back to your boss, whoever he is, and tell him that sending a couple kids in here to threaten me with a rocket launcher is not doin’ him much credit. “
“The leader decided to direct operations from the back so I could do the negotiations, actually, since she doesn’t think you’d take her seriously. See, she’s even younger than I am.”
The man laughed humorlessly. “So you’re a bunch of kids, huh. That’s pathetic. Stop wastin’ my time and go home to your mommas. He turned to walk back inside.
Rise called after him, “If you think we won’t kill every single one of you if you don’t give up this place easily because you think we’re innocent, inexperienced children, you’re wrong on all accounts.”
“And what are you thinking? That I’m a fat, lazy old man that won’t put up a fight?”
“Yeah, that’s what I think. I also think you’re a degenerate slob with no more brain cells than a brick. I think you’re an easy defeat.”
The man turned around. “Now you’re just makin’ me mad.” He raised the revolver. Five rifles fired.
“You know,” Rise said as he and Fried dodged behind a trailer to avoid the fire of the now enraged residents, “I don’t think he believed us when we said there were snipers surrounding the town. Only three bullets hit. We’re lucky the people who missed didn’t hit us.”
“That would probably be October and Kite.” Fried muttered, locking and loading, firing around the corner of the building. “Rocket launcher?” He asked hopefully.
“Too many scattered, moving targets and you’d destroy the property. Next time, big guy.”
Fried sighed, whipped out his machetes, and engaged the nearest resident. Rise threw daggers and Shark appeared out of nowhere, screaming, and wrestled a woman to the ground, spitting and twisting, a knife between her teeth.
Kite and Net arrived from the South, also screaming, though it appeared to be more at each other than at the residents, and ran like blenders through the trailers, flushing out anyone still hiding. Car ran in from the East, braved a couple stabs, and retreated behind some shrapnel to shoot from an impersonal distance. October followed him, joining Salt and Pepper, Rain and Justice got a bullet in where they could.
There were only eight residents. They were all dead in a matter of seconds.
“That was fast.” muttered Kite.
“Victory!” Rise screamed. Justice, Cloud, Rain, and the Doc exploded into cheers out on in the desert.
“Hope you had fun, kids.” Shark roared. “That was probably the last raid we’re gonna have to do in a while. Now go find it.”
“Its in here.” Car said. They rushed after him into the convenience store. In the back, in and old, worn, dirty, women’s bathroom, a single, clean sink sat like a porcelain shrine in a cave. Shark lifted the old handle and water poured into the basin. She turned it off quickly and they all held each other. October Sky cried for wonder.