On the road to Atlas - Date Unknown

The ute rattled along the broken blacktop. Behind them, just audible over the din of their own engine, Lise could hear Reg's car purring. The cacophony was louder than the holos had led her to believe, but the rhythm had grown comforting after over a week on the road. Beside her, Bob worked the truck's controls, seeming at home despite the sheen of sweat on his face. The roads were barely better than open ground; even in these 'civilised' lands, the battered tarmac was cracked and humped by the ancient apocalypse. It was testament to the ancients, she thought, that their transport lines still stood.

Their vehicle was another relic. Harry said it would have been called a 'Taking-along Truck' in the old days, used to cart around anything and everything that'd fit in the flatbed behind the cab. Now it was carting Nobby, Philious, and one mother of a wooden crate, as long as a man and heavier, and sealed with serious-looking nails. Smiler had outdone himself this time - so had Philious too, for that matter - giving them what sounded like a doozy of a job. Haul this crate to Atlas, and they'd be paid handsomely in powder. Better yet, they'd be allowed to keep the truck assigned to them for the job, and transport meant more flexibility, independence, and prestige. It was a lot for Smiler to trust them with, Lise reflected. She hoped that was a sign of recognition that the last job had been tough on all of them, and that they were now considered solid, competent picks. The alternative was that they were being played. Not impossible, she thought, but not all that likely either. Men like Smiler wouldn't last if their game wasn't fair - though it was pretty clear the rules changed so often that one could never be sure what they were.

Shifting on the ribbed leather bench, she looked to Harry, who was leaning listlessly on the window to her right. "How much longer, you reckon?"

Harry pulled out their electronic map. "Well now, let's see. I think that clump of weeds there," he pointed out the window, "is this one here, and that hill over there could well be this one, so..." He raised his arms and smirked in a gesture of futility.

"Reg said it'd only be a couple of days after that big building we rested at", broke in Bob, briefly taking his eyes off the wheel. "So I think we could get there today if we're lucky."

Lise sighed. The trouble with stopping over at what amounted to a very large inn was that it reminded her of just what a real bed felt like. She'd broken a personal barrier there too, sleeping in a communal room for the first time since leaving the vault. Being the only woman among the five of them, her nights had been private and lonely. Her friendship with these men was strictly platonic, and it had seemed prudent to avoid any possible physical reminder that Lise wasn't "one of the lads", as Nobby would put it. It was silly really - none of them had the chance, means, or cause to undress often, never mind in front of each other, and she certainly trusted them to behave at night, but the shock of losing her own quarters back home had made it seem sensible to maintain separation on principle alone. Everything was very personal out here. They slept in close proximity, they shared in each others' stench, they drank and ate together, worked together, and laughed together - and sat crammed against one another in this cab.

"Yeah," Lise said. "Yeah, I think we could get there today. It's gone well so far, right?" She grinned at Bob and Harry, neither of whom paid much attention.

Just a few more hours, she'd thought. A few more hours, then a real bed, with real whiskey, and a real fire. The fog had put paid to that. Descending into a wooded valley, the little convoy had found itself stymied by nature, visibility dropping such that Lise could no longer see Reg's outriders, though she could hear the rumble of their motorbikes. It hadn't taken long for Bob to call a halt, declaring that he couldn't see the roadway. Philious and Harry had gone ahead on foot, pacing the way and calling out hazards as they found them.

Now Lise sat enjoying the extra space in the cab, her feet tucked up under her as she lounged against the doorframe. The truck crept forward, engine rattling softly in the eerie gloom. From time to time Harry or Philious would fade from view completely, before she or Nobby warned them over comms. Carl, one of Reg's outriders, was pushing his cycle, probably to save on gas.

Reg seemed content to follow still, trusting that these folk he'd joined knew what they were doing. It was a common enough arrangement, after all - if you were heading the same way as someone else, you went together. Safety in numbers. It was working for Lise and her friends too. Reg knew the way to Atlas, and as a trader he brought along his three guards.

Suddenly, Bob jumped, jerking the wheel and causing Lise to nearly slide off the worn seat.

"Hey! Shit, did you see that?" Nobby asked from the load bay.

"Yeah - that looked like a little girl!" Harry called back.

"A what?" asked Lise, unsure if she'd heard correctly. No small child could survive out in this wilderness. "You lot been smoking Philious's stash again?"

"No, I saw her too," said Bob, hauling the truck out of gear and setting the brakes. "She ran off into the woods over there."

Lise raised her eyebrows. "What do you wanna do then? We can't go off the road, we'll get lost."

In front, Harry raised his arm. "Er, Lise. Good thing you're sitting down for this. We're already lost. We haven't been on the road for at least an hour."

This was news to her, but Bob nodded in agreement. Apparently it had been such bouncy and uncomfortable going in the truck that she hadn't noticed they'd been driving over rocky earth for the past hour.

Philious broke in over comms, his laid-back voice unusually urgent. "Maybe she knows the way! If we're quick, we can catch up. Come on!" He hesitated only briefly for Harry to shrug assent, before leading him off in the direction Bob had indicated.

"Bloody hell, we're lost enough aren't we?" muttered Lise. "Stay in contact," she voiced into her mic.

Five minutes later, she decided that neither Harry nor Philious had paid any attention. "Uhh, lads? What's going on?" she called over the open channel, raising an eyebrow sardonically at Bob.

There was a pause. Come on, she thought, not now, after all this. Her link crackled, and Harry spoke up. "It's alright, we've found her. Philious is just buying her."

Bob frowned, clearly thinking the same thought as Lise. "Sorry, did you say you're buying someone?"

There came no response. Lise tried again.

"Yep, yep, it's all right, he's offering him drugs," said Harry, his tone attempting reassurance and failing utterly. Lise was not at all pleased to hear him add: "Oh, and I just had to knock out her father."

She turned to Bob. "You know what, let's not get involved. I'm sure they know what they're doing."

Soon, the two men returned, leading behind them a young girl of around 10 years old, and a woman - the mother, Lise assumed. Both were poorly dressed and under-nourished, their blonde hair straggly, their posture and eyes submissive and nervous. Fuck. Lise yanked open the door and piled out of the cab, jogging around the front of the truck with one hand on the bonnet for support. She ran up to the returning group, glaring at Harry and Philious incredulously. Gently, she greeted first the woman, who gave her name as Jessica after some prompting, and then the child, who less reticently named herself Jenny.

After getting the two of them some rations and a drink, Lise spoke quietly with Harry and Philious, who explained that they'd followed the girl to a shack. There, they'd met her father, by their account a weasely, wheedling drug-addict of a man. Asked if he could guide them back to the road, he'd bartered, offering his own daughter in exchange for an admittedly impressive amount of drugs from Philious. Lise shook her head, despairingly. "One of the jobs we got offered was to save a girl from slavers, and you've just bought someone?"

"No, no - I just thought it was better than the life she had there," explained Philious. "Her father's a dick", he went on. Sure enough, the mother was clearly mostly passive, as she stood eating the travel rations and staring wide-eyed at the vehicles.

"Anyway," said Harry, "we didn't pay in the end. I saw how the bloke was treating his family and I got angry. I'm sorry!" He spread his hands in a not entirely remorseful apology. "This way they can come with us, and they can stop at the next town."

Lise didn't bother arguing further. It was uncomfortable, but the girl and her mother were badly treated, she could see that just by looking. Maybe the men were right, and this was a rescue. Or maybe they'd just broken a family apart, for the sake of their journey. Whatever the father was, the three of them must have had a means of providing for themselves to survive out here, between towns. Sure, they'd come willingly, but one had to question just how much choice there was in following two armed men who'd just clubbed your man with a pistol. Forget it, she told herself as she climbed back into the truck, the newcomers stepping out in front to lead the way. It's just something new for them. We all have to change, sometimes.