Give and Take

On the road to Atlas - Date Unknown

Through the grimy glass window, Lise watched one of the convoy guards twist his accelerator. His engine coughed, grunted, and dragged the motorbike forward a little faster. Carl was a big man - quite attractive with it, Lise thought - and the rough road bounced him around a fair bit; the effect reminded her of the dancers she'd seen pogo-ing to punk bands in the old vids. The fellow looked a little bit punk actually, but then she supposed they all did. Leather and grime were the style, with a shower of dust atop everything. There wasn't really a lot of choice in the matter.

She'd had a long time to look on this trip, and not a lot to see. It felt like every detail was familiar: the dull rusty left fork of one of the cycles contrasting with its replaced counterpart; the rip in the leather of the ute's dash, which looked disturbingly like a mocking grin; the rough road dirt ingrained in the seams of the padded bench she sat on. The sun was poised overhead, throwing flickering midday shadows which skimmed the earth. Their progess was wavering, but smoothly effortless, and Lise envied them - they spoke of a peaceful and untouched passage through existence, taking nothing, and gaining nothing. This life she was living was one of alteration, she knew, both hers and those she met.

Rattling down the window with the foreshortened handle (the knob had fallen off a couple of days ago thanks to the rough ride), she leaned out and let the wind blast over her.

"Uh.." Bob began, but she waved him into silence. Tried, anyway. "You'll unbalance the truck!" he continued. That was vintage Bob - think of the gear before the folk.

Lise ignored him and looked back along the side of the ute. Grit stung her face, but she didn't care. The wind was a relief in the heat of the afternoon, and anyway, the view was a change. Craning over her left shoulder, she watched Nobby leaning on the big gun they'd mounted up front. She recalled there'd been a fight about that; some said the thing should point backwards, others said forward was fine. Lise thought forward was fine, but that might be because she'd suggested it in the first place. Nobby looked happy, in any case. He seemed to like the road, and he definitely liked the gun, evidenced by the gentle smile softening his worn face.

Behind them, she could see the second car of the small convoy, a simple sedan laden with Reg's goods. It rode low on the suspension, crashing across the broken tarmac, but the driver was wrestling the car around with gusto and keeping up with Radiation Hazard.

Nobby called out, pointing, and Lise heard Philious from in back too, then saw him as he came to stand nearer the cab with Nobby, peering out. With a little groan, she pulled herself back into the cab and looked to the horizon. It took her a moment to spot, but there it was, a small dust cloud. Bob saw it too, and he began to slow the car. "What is it?" she asked, but there was no need for the answer. She saw - motorbikes. At least two - no, three...six! The bikers roared over the crest of a hill ahead and to the right, followed by two odd-looking buggies, all tubes and welded metal plates.

She grabbed for her binoculars. Magnified, Lise could see the riders were armed, and heading straight for them. Her friends were talking urgently over the comms. Reg called out a command, and Bob nodded, seemingly forgetting Reg was in the rear vehicle and not sat next to him, before pulling the ute sharply right and to a stop. Reg quickly came up on their right, forming a vee pointing towards the oncoming bikes. Their own motorcycles stopped just in front, the riders hopping off and taking cover behind their mounts.

Taking her cue, Lise smiled grimly at Bob and scrambled out the door, strode round to the back, and climbed up into the armoured flat-bed. "You think they'll attack?" she asked Harry and Nobby.

"They've got guns - lots of guns - and they're coming right at us", said Harry, ever so slightly patronising. "I don't think they want us to have a nice cup of tea with their mothers."

Nobby nodded. "They're splitting left and right, look, to flank us."

Philious tapped Harry on the shoulder. "Come on, we're short range, we should be near the front." He patted his katana - Lise thought the sword was a silly affectation, but she knew the doctor kept it sharp - and the two of them made their way into cover inside the triangle of the vehicles.

Lise and Nobby watched as Reg's bodyguard called out a challenge over loud-hailer. There was no response, and the riders kept closing. He made a small movement, and there was a thud as the dirt in front the lead biker filled the air. The first biker tumbled from his saddle, his ride careening on a little way, but those behind him swerved, avoiding the worst of the explosion.

Lise grabbed for her rifle. "Fuck, fuck me," she cursed as she swung it around on her sling, resting the barrel atop the cab. Her ears rang with the clatter of Nobby's machine gun as he opened up, the ute vibrating under its recoil. Gunshots cracked around her, pinging off the metalwork and tapping softly into the dirt. There were shouts, and screams. The glass in the windshield shattered down in front, and she heard Bob yell in pain.

It was all nothing as she focussed her scope, letting her training take hold, from hours spent in the sims hunting man and animal. Just a vid, she told herself. Find a mark. Lead the target. Exhale. Squeeze. The man in her sights bucked and fell, her shot taking the side off his face. She grabbed for the bolt and worked it back, shaking. Sweaty , even through her fingerless gloves, she let the bolt spring back before it was engaged. "God...shit." She tried again, making a better job this time, and zeroed in on one of the bikers who was veering off to the right, past the semicircle of defenders. Lifting the rifle off the cab, she braced it against her shoulder and turned to follow her target, who was pumping off bursts from a compact machine pistol towards one of the convoy guards. She squeezed again and the rifle pushed against her. This time she'd been unsure, this time there was pressure, and the shot only clipped the man's chest armour.

The dust rose as her target skidded around to change direction, obscuring her view through the scope. Lise lowered the rifle.

With an unearthly yell, Philious charged the rider, brandishing his sword. The doctor made for a strange sight, his dirty white coat flapping as he loped towards the man. Lise was almost tempted to giggle, but that urge left her as Philious swung, cleaving the man's belly open. His armour ran red as he fell silently to the floor.

Shots knocked Philious off his feet - another rider. Almost automatically, Lise chambered another round and swung the sights up to her eye, firing as soon as she had a shot. Missed! She slammed back the bolt, taking another shot, more carefully this time. The man jerked as the round took him in the shoulder, dropping the shotgun he'd been levelling at Philious.

"Come on!" Lise screamed at her friend as he hauled himself to his feet, breathing heavily.

The doctor closed with the biker, who grabbed a length of metal pipe. The bandit pulled down the bandanna that covered his mouth, issuing some taunt which was lost in the firefight. Lise could see his scarred and tattooed skin shining with sweat and fear. Philious went for him, and the two traded blows briefly with no effect, before the doctor ended it by hacking the bandits legs out from under him. Lise looked away as he finished it.

A triumphant yell went up from Nobby. "That's it! Fuck off boys!" he called out as the couple of remaining bikers turned away and rode desperately back whence they'd come. Over the comms, she heard someone, Reg perhaps, shouting not to let them get away, but Lise was done. She climbed from the truck, rifle dangling against her legs in its sling. Sporadic reports from the convoy guns rang out after the retreating bandits, soon tailing off into a pallid quiet.

Staggering, one hand on the ute for support, she went around to the side and collapsed against it, head in her hands. It doesn't get easier, she thought, half relieved, half despairing. The vision of the man's cheek collapsing seemed frozen in her mind. She could even tell the man's age - a young twenty she'd say - and she saw the shock and disappointment in his eyes as he registered the end of his life. That disappointment was the worst part, as if he was asking "is this it? That's all I get?"

She became aware of a presence by her side. Philious was holding out a joint. She eyed it warily.

"Now's the time, believe me," said Philious. He looked as worn as she felt; worse, actually, she realised, seeing the wound to his side. He looked down. "I'm alright. Trust me, I'm a doctor." He forced a sickly smile.

Sighing, Lise accepted the offering and took a pull. They passed the drug between them for a couple of minutes, their nerves beginning to settle.

The spell was broken by a high pitched scream, as Harry came running out from in front of the convoy. The old teacher was waving his sharpened ruler and rushing toward the body of one of the bandits. Lise felt a chill as Harry began stabbing the corpse, over and over.

"You bastards!" he was yelling, "you bastards!".

It was the final straw for Lise. As she lurched to her feet to stop him, nausea rushed in and she heaved, bent over. Again and again she vomited, the days meal splashing brown upon brown on the dirt. Again and again, until there was no more to give.