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Old 07-04-2011, 11:25 PM   #1
Light Ice
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Across the Sands

They had killed them quickly and it had been good. Bear had been right in assuming the mercenaries guarding the merchants caravan were carrying unloaded weapons. Few guns that he saw upon the road were loaded now. The firepower lay within the towns, guarded carefully, and those that wandered for trade or better fortune could not find ammunition or failed to conserve it. His men had carved through them, bathed the battered asphalt of the road in their blood, and begun the celebration that followed each hunt in earnest.

“Strip ‘em?” Asked Lizard, named for his sun-scaled skin and the look of his eyes through the small sun-goggles he wore.

Bear nodded.

They had no use for the clothes. They were well-clothed. Their armors, patchwork, were already threaded with bits of metal and cloth. He watched as Lizard bent and slashed a nose from one of the mercenaries and threaded it to the necklace he wore. Bear had the most noses and ears of any in this troop. It was why he lead them. It was why he needed to watch them now.

The merchants had lead four mutie cattle behind them, loaded heavily with goods. Bear watched as those packs were opened. Cigarettes, the new world’s currency, and dirty water. Fresh water was hard to find now and unnecessary. The radiation did not hurt in small doses. A man might piss blood or lose some teeth but he would not die. Drugs helped with those things and they liked them anyways. On the right dose of smack Bear could rip most men apart with his hands. The Merchants did not carry it but their cigarettes would help him get it from the Black Skulls across the hills.

It had been a successful morning.

“Bear?” Came a voice. Cracked and feminine.

Bear turned and saw Bird there, gangly as she was, on all fours with her pants thrust down. The pale skin of her backside was dirty from the road and sweat ran down the small of her narrow back and vanished between her cheeks. His prick swelled. Hard suddenly. He’d almost forgotten her in the high of their success.

It took a moment to move her with his big hands. Pushing her down, lowering her as he claimed a place on his knees behind her. He coughed up a thick wad of phlegm and spat it on the head of his dick, closed his eyes, and sank into her. She gave a rough grunt of discomfort that he ignored. Pounding into her.

She braced herself against his weight with her small hands for some time, pushing back against him, and then it was as though the air went out of her lungs and she went suddenly and abruptly quiet. The strength left her hands and she crumpled beneath him. Bear did not care. He kept pumping, feeling his moment on the horizon.

A shot rang out and he opened his eyes. A big, booming, distant shot that sounded almost as though it came from across the ridge and upon the otherside. So far off that at first he did not feel concerned.

Then, as he looked across his men as saw them return to their work, he saw Lizard. For a moment, Lizard was looking into the hills, and then he was lifted from his feet as though struck by some imaginary fist. It picked him up and rolled him across the roadside, where he landed, absolutely still. The sound of the shot rolled out a short time later. Followed by another as SoreFoot, to his left, crumpled.

“Bird.” He said, and cinched a fist on the back of her vest. She was light and he was strong and even with his body aching with his oncoming climax she offered no resistance.

“Fuck, come on!” But she did not move. He looked down and saw a neat hole behind her ear on one side and a hole the size of his fist on the other. Her brains were splattered in a wide arc across the asphalt and her eyes were pinched closed, features twisted in a grotesque and feral mask of a woman being roughly and unlovingly fucked.

Bear pissed himself. A hot jet of urine arced from his softening prick as he stood ram-rod straight upon the road. He saw the last of his men, Wolf Moon, turn toward him in blind panic. Their eyes met and then Wolf Moon’s head exploded. One moment it was the man’s bearded face and the next it was just a shower of blood and pale bits of bone and flapping flesh. The body went down in a pile, arms twitching grotesquely.

Looking up into the hills, Bear searched for the men who had snuck up on them. He saw nothing. It was not the Black Skulls or more Boot Thiefs. It was only the barren desert hardpan and the broken, rocky ledge. He raised his axe, terrified, and shook it. Then, impossibly far away, Bear saw the flicker of a muzzle flash. He had time to think that nobody in the New World could make that shot before everything went dark.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

It stretched beyond the limit of his eyes and forged itself into an uneven and craggy horizon some miles ahead. Experience had taught him to measure those miles, one after another, in a scale of hours. Time was a more precious currency than miles. Value in the New World was determined by a survivor’s measure. A cigarette had taken the place of the American dollar and fresh water had become more invaluable than diamonds or gold. Even corpses, the fresher the better, had their worth in trade. This world did not always have time for the rituals and rights to which humanity had at one time been accustomed. This world was an angry, red world. The sand shifted coarsely across the hardpan on hot breezes by day and billowed against the raging, chilled winds of evening. Beneath his feet, cracked and sand-swept, Interstate 51 stretched on like a long dead snake. Dunes had slid across large sections of it, hundreds of feet at a time, and there were places where the breeze had brushed back the sand and revealed uneven, glossy black glass where the world had been melted under the poisonous blanket of nuclear fire that had swept away the old world.

He walked on and squinted against the sun, despite the power mask that he wore. Metal and leather, the mask gave him the look of some nightmarish haunt. His eyes were black, non-reflective lenses. His nose and mouth were a filtered portal. The mask took hot air and filtered it into something cooler. It veiled his voice into a low, raspy mechanical growl. In the mornings when he rose from his camp and pulled it into place it turned him from a man, dark-haired and sharp-featured, into the monstrous apparition that the raiders of the road and even the brave Caravaneers from the east had come to fear. Looking now, he let the automated computer sharpen the lenses like binoculars. The horizon immediately grew into focus, swelled up to reveal the broken and ruinous cityscape of Dodge City. He was close. He would not camp for the day. He would not stay upon the road.

Turning, he cut his way from the asphalt and onto the hardpan. The sand was not soft. His boots did not sink or leave impressions. This was a desolate place. It was an unforgiving and calloused place. The sun was high and merciless in the sky. Unprotected skin burned quickly here, burned near to the point of blistering within two afternoons of exposure. The experienced travelers of the road covered themselves and he was no different. Dust clung to his coat, it invaded all spaces. It took a great deal of oil to keep the leather from cracking and drying and still, in the folds where the skin of it bunched, the sand found places to hide. It was discolored now. The deep, charcoal gray was now thinner. That suited him fine. He was no carpet bagger. The trenchcoat had the unenviable job of taking the beating of the hardpan. It protected the vest beneath and its many pockets. It protected his slacks and his calf-high boots. It was as much a part of who he was as his own face as far as Dodge City was concerned.

The road lay in a depression between two rocky hills and he climbed the one to the left. Few people braved the hardpan at all on their own. Fewer still were brave (or foolish) enough to stray from the road. His Geiger counter buzzed gently within his mask, numbers scrolling abruptly in the Heads-Up Display it provided. This place was familiar to him and he did not startle. Radiation was a frequent danger of the New World but the hill only provoked the meter to spark a soft, pickle green. The crescent Geiger was metered into three sections. Green, which while irradiated was not inherently dangerous. Yellow, where prolonged exposure to any area or deciding to eat a material registering this high could bring on minor symptoms of Radiation Sickness. And Red, which if not avoided quickly and entirely could rapidly ruin an otherwise survivable day.

He slowed on account of the terrain. The hardpan was unforgiving in every account. A slip could plunge him into a crevice filled with mutie snakes. It could cost him a broken ankle. Time had ensured he would not take his footing for granted and he had taken to measuring his experience in years. Thirty-Three years within the New World. Thirty-Three years surviving. He slowed and that experience paid itself back to him. The display of his helmet flickered to alert him of movement two-hundred meters ahead of him. He picked his way across the boulder-strewn hillside as quietly as he could manage and settled upon its crest. There, under the black holes of his mask’s eyes, the ruins of a Caravan lay strewn across the black skin of the road and the hardpan.

A pair of merchants had passed not long ago with an accompaniment of mercenaries. They wore patchwork armor and hardened faces and each lead a pair of mutie cattle burdened with bundles of material for trade and sale. The cattle were large and grotesque, as unthreaded as could be, but docile and capable and toilless as they moved along. This was the new world. The mercenaries carried automatic weapons but not one of them looked as though they were a capable shot or practiced. He had appraised them from the ridge, low and quiet as they passed, with the same scrutiny he afforded all strangers now.

Now, strewn upon the road, the ruin of their caravan lay open as a group of eight began pillaging through it. The cattle, too far from threaded to be eaten, had been butchered crudely regardless and would be left to rot in the desert sun. The mercenaries had formed two loose lines against the ambush and been cut down where they stood. It had been fast. Not a single man had survived long enough to lose his nerve and make a break from the road. They were riddled with horrible rents and their patchwork armor was cleaved over and over. Bodies upon the hardpan did not make pools of blood. The desert, hungry for the wet, drank it up so quickly it was as though it had not been there at all. A waste for raiders, most of whom were cannibals, so survival and bestial ingenuity had taught them to line their wagons in plastic. They dragged these behind them. The raiders were dressed in clothing stitched together with the prizes of their kills. Teeth. Bones. Ears. Noses. They were festooned across their chests and necks in horrible necklaces.

They were armed with a variety of weapons. Spears fashioned from sign-posts and machete cleavers. The truth, sad and ugly, was that few men brandishing rifles had ammunition for them. Raiders, often drug addicts with a predisposed taste for mayhem, were notorious for charging at groups of armed men. Ammunition was expensive and difficult to find, harder to conserve, and so the Raiders had descended upon them and ignored their lofted firearms and weak threats. A few heads lay in the sand, eyes wide with the horror of inevitability, seeing nothing and echoing the moment of grim realization that fell upon them. A few had drawn their knives. Too little. Too late.

The man looked down upon the carnage dispassionately. His eyes counted and recounted the Raiders numbers and took stock of the ridges nearby. None of the men looked up from their pillaging to search the roadside for signals or to give any. The eight were alone. Two of them, a particularly well-decorated man and a small, stringy woman, were fucking like dogs beside the road. The New World had kept little from the Old World. The man unshouldered his rifle and layed its long barrel on the sun-blistered surface of stone. The mask was synced with the weapon’s scope and allowed him to magnify the scene. The ruined caravan’s strewn loot drew his immediate interest. Cigarettes, which were being gathered in a small heap at the roadside, and a few small rations were being piled into a wooden cart took his immediate interest. Drinking water was being stacked more neatly beside the Raider’s carts and he studied the big plastic jugs. It looked dirty. Unclean. It did not interest him.

Despite eight automatic weapons there appeared to be no ammunition in the loot. The firearms had been left where the men holding them had fallen. They were in fair condition. Most likely, either through neglect or time’s course, a few would not fire. Still, in his mind, he saw the potential for parts. Repair or trade, it did not matter. There were pans, pots, and playing cards. The Raiders ignored them all. They could not trade with towns and did not care to. They traded only with the gangs that existed miles away. It was a grim exchange. The loot of the dead for drugs and liquor. This was not the humanity many had envisioned. The man frowned, took aim, and exhaled.

He squeezed the trigger and felt the rifle kick, too focused to register the booming retort of the high-caliber round exploding from the barrel. The woman, her twisted and sallow face blistered from the sun, crumpled beneath the large man thrusting roughly into her. His eyes were closed and he did not register the sound of the shot. Two shots took two more of the men while the Raiders began to take notice and stare up at the ridges that flanked them. The first took the impact hard and was much lighter than he expected, lifting clean off his feet and rolling across the road. The other crumpled immediately, one hand lifted to point (wrongly) to the hill opposite where the man firing at them still crouched, and went still. He fired on until the eight was reduced to one bewildered and frightened man with pants half-done and his pecker shriveling. For a moment he though the Raider saw him. His horrible features tightened in a crude, ugly grimace up towards the proper hill. He lifted one hand, carrying a rusty and carnage-stained axe, and shook it. The last shot struck true and did not quite remove his head. Instead, as the man in the mask looked on, the top of the Raider’s skull evaporated in a puff of red and pink mist as the large-caliber round turned his head into a canoe. The body fell straight back, stiff as a board, and the booted feet twitched madly.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

He had not immediately descended to the road. Instead, after gathering the spent cartridges upon the rock, he had reloaded his rifle and waited. Minutes had passed. Five turned into ten. Ten turned into twenty. Finally, after thirty, he had begun the laborious task of picking his way down to the cracked and carnage-riddled asphalt. He went first to the mercenaries and traders, ensuring what he had known upon arrival. They were dead. There was nothing else he could have done. It would have pleased him to bury them, or in the very least, stack them with a mark. A quick glance skyward told him that he did not have the time.

He filled his pack with the cigarettes and rations first: a solar calculator, a wristwatch, two packs of playing cards with naked women on their backs, a pack of blue playing cards, a camping skillet, a pair of sunglasses, a hot plate, and was thrilled to discover a woman’s flower print dress in the bottom of one of the satchels lashed to the mutie cattle.

(This thread is closed.)
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Old 07-06-2011, 05:14 PM   #2
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Jessica Parks. Simple right? The daughter of Kenneth and Ramona Parks. Nothing outstanding. Nothing special. She had been born in one of the underground refugee vaults. There had been a lottery. It was the only fair thing the government could think of at the time. Every household had to fill out a questionnaire and were given a number. Jessica’s mother was pregnant at the time. Jessica often wondered over the years if that had padded their chances.

She knew nothing of the world topside. Vault-N1000. She grew up there, got an education, lost her virginity, lost her mother and probably would have married and had children as well. Except for one thing. They were all being pushed out into the world above ground. The New World, they called it, the Elders. Some New World it turned out to be.


~~0~~


“Dog,” she called softly, her voice muted by the thin material across her mouth and nose. The animal came to her out of the shadows and stood at her hip. Its piercing eyes were more amber than brown. Its tongue lolled out of its mouth as it quietly stood there. It had amused her to call the animal Dog. It obviously was more wolf than anything else, cross bred over time to be domesticated. Her father had brought it back for her, having found the pup in some rubble of an alley on one of his foraging trips to Dodge City.

She scanned, one more time, the land below her where the main road was. Nothing coming or going. Good. Jessica hitched the bow over her shoulder as she and the animal turned as one and disappeared back over the sand dune.

Jess wandered out further than she intended but there had been no help for it, she had picked over everything close to home. Now and then she found a book to add to her meager collection, a few cans of milk, dented cans of fruit, a few sodas even. But it was the books that she treasured the most. She missed the library The Vault had provided for all those years. It didn’t matter what the book contained, she read it, her mind always voracious for knowledge.


~~0~~


She glanced at her watch and sighed as she unshouldered her pack, setting her bow against the wall as she did. Jess swung the pack to table before she reached for her bow and released the string, setting it back against the wall. Peeling away the gauzy material wrapped around her face and what was draped over her head, she tugged it free, letting it float to the table in a heap. She ran fingers through her damp red tresses with a soft sigh pleasure. Dog padded in and sat at her feet, tongue lolling. She glanced down and rubbed between his ears, smiling affectionately down at him.

“Looks like you’re hunting tonight, Dog.” As if he understood her, he got to his feet and padded out the door. Whatever Dog managed to hunt up would have to do for tonight’s meal. Maybe a simple stew.

She sat on the step outside of the home she and her daddy had built, drinking a cold soda. It had been hard going for several years learning how to live topside, staying off the radar of the ruthless, animalistic packs of raiders, haggling with the traveling merchants, and learning to build this place, including figuring out how to wire the place for electricity. Again, books came to their rescue. Solar panels. Her father had been gone for days, seeking out what they needed, leaving her behind with Dog and instructions, careful, deliberate instructions.

Her father had picked here to settle because it was on the outskirts of Dodge City, yet close enough to the main road that they could deal with the traveling merchants. However, that also meant they were susceptible to the raiders as well. She looked around the little compound with satisfaction. At first glance it looked just like other ruins around her. Cleverly, her father had built their home from whatever materials he could find, concrete, wood, stone. Then covered it with sand. It blended in well with her surroundings. It resembled another small sand dune except for the door. She didn’t have windows, considering the house was buried under sand but Jess didn’t mind. She had lived underground since she was born. Besides, it was cooler below.

A high ragged concrete wall, off to one side, hid the small garden she grew. That garden meant a lot to her. Her father had died because of it. He had been coming back from Dodge City with seeds and other supplies when he ran into a pack of jackal raiders. She had found his body three days later, what was left of it and had found the seeds for their garden, in his pocket, in a small plastic bag. She drug his remains home and buried him, over there, under the only tree they had. She had been alone ever since, well, except for Dog, and as far as she could recollect, it had been about three years now.

There had once been a house here so digging for water had taken considerable time, but her father had found a small water table. If she remained frugal, it would hold out until the storms raged through, bringing water, IF the storms brought rain this year. One could just never be sure.

She bartered for most things she needed and could use or she scavenged. That’s how she got the bow and arrows, found them under some rubble and sand. She taught herself to use them, remembering what she had once read. She had taught herself to shoot as well. Books were great providers of knowledge but there was nothing like practical use to truly learn. Bullets and fresh water were a rare commodity. Even her water supply was brackish, but safe to drink. She reached behind her, her fingertips grazing against the handgrip of the small firearm she had tucked in the waistband of her pants at the small of her back. She got paid in cigarettes for things she fixed and sold to merchants if they didn’t have what she wanted to barter for. Since she didn’t smoke, she used the cigarettes to trade for bullets, when she could get them. Jess had a meager supply, so every bullet counted. She preferred to use the bow and arrow. It was quiet and deadly. It may not outrun a bullet but as far as sneak tactics went, she couldn’t beat it. She had killed enough raiders to know that for a surety.

She was female. She wasn’t stupid. She kept her head and face covered, not only to keep out the sand but to help hide nature’s facts. She was well endowed but the bulky desert camouflaged shirt she wore on top of her usual tank top, did much to hide that fact. Likewise the same kind of bulky camo pants she wore, hid her backside curvature. The only thing, she thought, that gave away her sex was her eyes, always visible over the gauzy material she wore. There was no mistaking how feminine they were up close, hazel in color, but even that changed with her moods.

She sat there, on the step, finishing off her drink and waiting for Dog to return so she would know what to cook for them tonight.
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Old 07-19-2011, 12:21 AM   #3
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It was the dog that had led him to her home.

Dogs were rare on the hard pan. The demands of a pet, particularly one as large and as active as a dog, were the kind that the people of the New World simply could not meet. He’d seen them before, though. Mostly within the city of Dodge and mostly kept by those with smokes to spare. On the hard pan they were just as likely to be killed by hungry travelers as they were the beasts of the wild.

He’d seen it without letting himself be noticed. The mask upon his face picking up on its movements and alerting him before it’d crested the rise near the hill he was moving along. It had a large, mutie jack-rabbit in its jaws and was moving with long, loping strides to cross on beyond the road and out into the hard pan. Dogs, like most predators here, did not often carry their kills. They ate them ravenously, thoroughly, where they had claimed them before moving on with scraps to bear. The jack-rabbit in its jaws had been untouched and that was how he knew it was not wild.

The body on the steps moved to greet the animal, stretching two slender hands out towards it and accepting the kill. Behind him the darkness was coming, creeping eastward while the sun made its retreat beyond the swell of craggy rock on the horizon. How long had it been since he had shared a fire with another? Months? Years? The instance stretched clear in his mind. A woman with dark hair. She’d intended on being a singer on The Strip and had been happy to have company once he’d removed the mask and she’d heard him speak. They’d shared a meal and fucked gently by the fire. He’d gone before she’d woken, watched to ensure she slept safely from the hills nearby, before moving on. Her name had been Alice.

Or that’s what she’d told him.

For a moment he thought he was looking at a boy. An adolescent boy, maybe, with a reedy and unfilled body. It was her grace that gave her as a woman, though. The practical cut of her movements could not conceal the subtle fluidity as she rose up onto her feet. It could not hide the way she turned on the balls of her feet, boots and all, and the certainty of her strides.

He frowned. Women were more dangerous to approach. They were an asset in the New World and often treated like a commodity. He had seen what the Raiders did to women. He was certain she had heard horror stories and steeled herself against the possibility of being taken. The home, itself, told him much in that regard. It was discreetly built, hidden, and cleverly placed. Had it not been for the dog he would never have found it. She was bright. And with the dog’s actions she’d proven resourceful.

He did not care for the idea of being shot.

The trip down to her door took him nearly thirty minutes. Experience had made him wary of traps, improvised and otherwise. Buried in the gritty sand, hung in scrub brush, even the most poorly constructed booby trap could cripple him or worse. This, and a fear of being shot at from her door, had kept him focused as he descended. It was past twilight when his hand thudded upon her door.
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Old 07-20-2011, 10:44 PM   #4
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Dog came trotting back home, a jack rabbit dangling from his jaws. She smiled as she reached for it and the wolf released it into her hands.

“Looks like stew tonight again,” she reached out and scratched him between the ears.

She opened the door and both of them went inside, closing the door behind them. Pausing at the sink, she pulled one of the drawers open and took out a skinning knife. As she headed out back to clean and skin it, Dog was right beside her. He stopped, sitting on his haunches in the open doorway as she moved further out, digging a hole to bury the guts in, just under a tree, covering it with sand and adding a small pile of rocks. She skinned the rabbit carefully, setting aside the hide to see to in a moment. In the meanwhile, she took the skinned rabbit indoors, setting it in the frig. Dinner would have to wait just a little longer. She went back outside to take care of the rabbit pelt.

Glanced up at the sky as she finished setting the pelt to dry. In the desert heat, it wouldn’t take long to cure. It was getting darker now, outside. The outdoor temperature was dropping. She glanced at Dog. His tail thumped on the floor there in the open doorway. She smiled.

“I’m going to get right on it. You’ve been patient. I know you must be starved. “

She scratched him behind the ear as she came by him and walked into the small kitchen. Dog got up, turned and moved to trail behind her, sitting on his haunches again as she opened the refrigerator and took out the rabbit meat. She turned toward the sink, washing her hands again before she lifted the lid on the pot of stock she had been simmering while waiting for Dog to return. She was cutting chunks of meat off the bones and tossing them gently into the pot. Now and then, she tossed a piece to Dog, who, obviously and with great relish, wolfed them down. She wrapped the bones up and slipped them into the small freezer compartment.

Dog’s deep threatening growl came from his throat. She paused. Then slowly closed the freezer door. Putting a finger across her lips as she observed the wolf’s hackles rising. His warning growl ceased. Her hand went to the back of her pants, her fingers closing reassuringly around gun’s grip. Someone was out there. Somewhere. Dog had picked up on it. She had just picked up the length of gauzy material from the table where she had left it and was in the process of wrapping it over her head and around her face when then knock came on her door. She reached for her bow, resetting the string and then nodded at toward the back door. Hackles still risen along the back of his neck, Dog turned obediently toward the back door and waited for her. Shouldering the bow and the quiver, she moved on silent feet toward the back entrance, opening it just enough to let them both slip out. Jess left the door slightly open. Dog had his eyes trained on her. Using her first two fingers on her right hand, she pointed to her eyes and then pointed around the house to her right. Dog trotted off in the direction she pointed. She, herself, went to the left, making her way toward the front of the house. She paused long enough to notch an arrow and draw the string back before she swung around the corner to face her uninvited guest.

“I don’t suggest you move, Mister,” her voice was muffled by the material across it.

Her eyes, the only thing that could be seen, were steady, clear and focused. At the same time, Dog came around the other side of the house, lips drawn back, teeth bared in a deadly snarl. His stance showed he was ready to leap at the stranger in a moment’s notice if he perceived threat to his mistress. The man didn’t look like a Raider or a traveling merchant. And how the hell did he find her? She was always careful. They both were, her and Dog.

“Who are you and what do you want?”

As if to emphasize the quandary the man was in, Dog growled low in his throat. She wasn’t worried. One step, one breath in her direction and Dog would leap and viciously go for his throat, even if it meant he’d die. It would be the only time he overruled his mistress' commands.
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Old 07-20-2011, 11:37 PM   #5
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They had been quiet. Damned quiet. He had heard only the first tremble within the dog's throat before his senses had failed him and the quiet of the house had put him entirely on edge. The mask's sensors picked up on her movement and more slowly that of the dog. They were, for a moment, red shapes moving along the Heads-Up Display. It was enough to provoke one of his hands to move beneath the folds of his duster and to his side, resting upon the hilt of the revolver holstered there. A precaution, really, given the nature of the Hard Pan and its occupants.

Still, he did not move to shoot them or to draw. He had found that given a moment, given an option, most travelers cared more for a friendly face and some trade than they cared for an exchange of bullets and blood. The moment stretched until the veiled face appeared, bright eyes shining in the dark down the length of a nocked arrow. It were those eyes that captured his attention, brought him to turn his masked face so that his red-lensed stare could meet that which appraised him. The dog, for the moment, was paid no mind.

It was not the master here.

"Trade." He said. The nature of his words mechanized by the regulator that filtered his air. It gave him a distinct and inhuman sound. Robotic, almost, save the telltale reflection. The mask itself was of steel and veiled his face entirely. It hid it. Protected it. And turned him into a grim spectre. "Goods for a bed and a meal."

In itself the request was not odd. Though, armed as he was, it may not be received. There were worse things than camping in the desert. He had done it before. Now, though, the light was gone and night had come. There was no time to prepare and little hope for precautions to be made. Should he be turned out it would be straight to the city, not risking sleep. A grim prospect.

One he was willing to accept, however, given his appearance. The mechanical face, bleak and unkind, and a veiled torso beneath dark duster. His rifle was a massive length upon his back. The sword, beneath it, telltale only by the hilt that protruded over one broad shoulder.

"One night, gone at sunrise. There will be no trouble." And this was a solemn promise.

Too many troubles for too many people throughout the Hard Pan. Dodge City, a beacon amidst the dark, served as a proclamation of hope for so many. A proclamation that was too often as elusive as it was inspiring. Still, he waited, certain that if the arrow flew it would strike him and his armor. If he was fortunate it would not strike deep enough to prove fatal, giving him time to kill the dog and the veiled face above him before a second could be flown. It would be close but he'd have the time.

His hands were certain.

Even if his heart was less so.
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Old 07-21-2011, 06:56 PM   #6
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Those hazel eyes of hers still held him in sight, down the length of her arrow. Her hands remained steady as she listened to him. The thing he wore on his head looked odd to her and it gave his voice a unique sound, not human, yet she knew he was flesh and blood. She heard his word and continued to study him for a long moment before she lowered the armed bow. She nodded curtly toward the front door.

“Go ahead, Mister. Enter. You first.” She eyed the wolf, “Dog.”

The animal moved slowly behind the stranger, never taking his feral eyes off of him. The wolf’s muscles were still coiled to launch. Her eyes moved to quickly scan the area around them. She’d send Dog out to scout the area later. After they all ate. Yes, she was going to let the stranger in and yes, she was going to offer him a night’s shelter and food. She wouldn’t take anything in trade. Goods were hard to come by, she knew that. She had been lucky. She had a decent store. But. There might be something they could trade for. She must be crazy to think of it. Her eyes narrowed on the stranger. She’d think about it more and maybe before she retired for the night, she’d know if it was a good thought or no. Since he’d be gone by sunrise, she’d be quick to ask, if it was right.

“It’s not locked.”

She advised as she waited for him to open the door and as she did so, she and the wolf moved closer to him, but remained out of arm’s reach. She didn’t want him thinking he could suddenly disarm her. He could have shot her and Dog both if he had wanted to and if she wasn’t mistaken, that was a sword he was packing on his back as well.

"I've got a stew on the stove, Mister and I really don't want it to burn. So, if you're hungry..." she let the rest of the sentence fall away.
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Old 07-21-2011, 09:46 PM   #7
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It was the voice that betrayed her as female, strong or otherwise. With each exchange between them it'd become more clear than before and he counted himself unfortunate that it was the case. Women, rightfully, were prone to shooting first and asking questions later. It was a small miracle she'd given him a chance to speak. It was another that she'd not hurried him inside and proven herself too agreeable. That'd have provoked his own anxiety more than anything else. He'd have killed her for it.

"It's nice." He said as he stepped in. The dog, which she'd simply called "Dog", kept near him. It was a big animal. Dangerous.

And it listened to her. That was the most important thing.

He was assaulted by the smells of a woman's home. Food, stew, steaming in a pot on the stove that was scrubbed cast iron. Soap. A luxury. She washed her clothes, several were hung on a line on one end of the room. Through the mask he saw everything first. The electronics whirred softly as they automatically adjusted his lenses to the change in light. There were no traps that he could see. No additional bodies hidden inside.

But he didn't remove the mask right away. He couldn't. Instead, he swept his pack off his shoulder and hunched behind it on the floor. His muscled haunches supported him, flexed hard and coiled in a way not unlike Dog who hovered close. It growled as he flipped open its top and produced a few of the rations he'd taken. He selected the one marked green beens and tucked the rest inside. The liberty he took was to move about her home, listening to her as she came near her own entryway. Her water was shit. He found the supply in plastic jugs and immediately decided he'd not drink from it.

He produced his own. Clear and clean. It was liquid gold here but it did not matter. He worked to cook with it, pouring the rations in her stew and watching as they colored and hydrated. The additional serving of water served to do the rest. A contribution. It didn't matter that by now she was watching him. The mask tracked her movements until he turned to face her, aware that by now they'd come to the point where one of them would end up shooting.

Or they'd actually be able to spend a night with one another's company.
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Old 07-22-2011, 12:43 AM   #8
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She let him take his time. He was just as cautious as she was, maybe more. Both had reason to be. Females were a commodity. Most of the ones she had seen or came across were used up, merely husks of what they once were. Life out here wasn’t easy. You either learned to survive or you found someone who could keep you alive. The price for the latter would cause a female to turn into one of those husks. She wasn’t about to become one of those. His cautiousness had to stem from knowing or guessing she knew all that and how she was going to react to him.

“Dog.”

The wolf looked up at her. He was sitting in the doorway where she was still standing.

“Perimeter.”

He hesitated, glancing at the stranger for a moment.. She reached out to scratch behind his ear affectionately,

“Go. Now.”

She spoke softly, quietly. She didn’t have the heart to scold him. She couldn’t blame him. They had never had a guest before. If she knew the wolf, he would do his job quickly and efficiently and return to her side just as quickly. He was hungry. She had made them both wait for their dinner.

Moving into the house, Jess remove the arrow from the bow and put it back into the quiver still on her back. She released the string from the bow and set it against the wall again. The gun stayed where it was, for now. She watched him go through his pack. He had taken out a can of something. From here, she wasn’t sure what it was and water too. She hadn’t seen water that clear or clean since she came topside. She moved to the other side of the table and began unwinding the cloth from her head, dropping it to the table in a small pile. She shook her head from side to side, ruffling her hair as it came out of confinement. Her red tresses spilled across her shoulders, before she began gathering it up, placing it into a ponytail as she came around the table. She stood, arms folded over her chest as she watched him. He turned to face her. She stared back at him for a long moment. Then as if she made a silent decision. She nodded to the stove.

“Turn the oven on for me please?” She kept her voice soft.

It was all she said before taking out a mixing bowl and ingredients. She kept an eye on him though. One wrong move and she would put a bullet through him. She didn’t know how good he was but she knew she was good and deadly accurate. She turned back to her cabinets and opened one door. The shelves were stocked. She drew out a tin of milk, closing the door again. Squatting down, she opened a lower cabinet door and drew out a long baking sheet. Setting the pan on the counter, she started dropping dough on the sheet. It wasn’t pretty but they turned out like they should. She set the empty bowl in the sink at the same moment Dog came in the back door. He came right up to her. Everything must be okay. The stranger was a lone stranger. And now that Dog was back? She slowly reached behind her and took out the handgun. Slow, deliberate movements. She made a show of ejecting the clip, showing him both. She made a show of putting the gun on the top of the refrigerator and the clip in one of the pockets of her pants.

The ball was now in his court as she passed him the pan of biscuits to put in the oven.
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Old 07-22-2011, 01:09 AM   #9
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They found a rhythm then. Just like that. Outside the temperature made its hard plummet southward. As hot as the hard pan got during the day was how cold it became at night. Unforgiving. Unyielding. It made hell for travel. Hell, it made hell for everything. But they'd found their rhythm here and in short order. He'd answered her with action, something natural to him, and without looking to her. The mask scrolled data along the side. Temperature read-outs, heat source locations, and even the few chemical signatures throughout the place. Common agents. Nothing alarming.

And so he relaxed with her. The situation unwound as quickly as it'd escalated. The dog had returned, less anxious now, and so he began to turn. Only to pause, abruptly, as his eyes narrowed behind those crimson lenses on the face she'd finally presented him.

She was beautiful.

He'd seen pretty before. There were plenty of pretty in the towns and in Dodge. A few of the girls he'd bought had been pretty. He'd bought that night with them for a reason. The New World was an ugly place and a little bit of pretty went a long way for a tired heart. He'd expected her to be pretty.

He just hadn't anticipated beautiful.

Beauty was extinct in the New World. Even the hard pan, a place of nature to which romantics might find shades of it, was truthfully devoid. The radiation, the bombs, had stripped the land of anything natural a long time ago. Nature had attempted its come back. From what he knew, from what he'd heard, there were places far from the ruinous cities that had begun to find themselves again. But not the hard pan. Not here.

Her features were soft and refined. A touch aristocratic. Her skin was fair. Her throat was slender. The color of her hair, a bold red, stood in sudden and colorful contrast to the bland surroundings he'd grown so accustomed. The reaction that surged through him was boyish. A hint of wonder. A rush of arousal. It took everything not to stare, to turn away, and it did everything necessary to make his next decision much easier.

The mask's rebreather required no tank. A miracle of science. But, for that, it'd required itself to be pressurized. He triggered the release with his fingers and the mass released the sharp hiss of escaping clean-air. Drawing it free, he stowed it in his pack, shaking out the shorn but unkempt hair atop his head. It was coal-black. Dark as a raven's feather. The color echoed itself in the coarse stubble that clung to his jawline and cheeks. He'd shaven his upper-lip bare, never much to tolerate the feel of a mustache, and he was clean. Not pretty. Not traditionally handsome. His squared jaw and sharply-angled face masculine. She'd find his eyes clear and sharp and focused immediately on her face. He'd simply had to see her with his own eyes.

But still, it took more than beauty to distract him entirely. He laid his rifle and the sword beside the pack, in the midst of the floor, before brushing that short hair out with one rough pass of his palm.

"I've things for trade. For the meal. For my time here. For anything you have that you might be trying to part with." His voice a baritone, not a bass, low and clear. Softly, though. Direct and to the point.
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Old 07-22-2011, 02:15 PM   #10
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Maybe it was because she hadn’t had male company since her father died. Maybe it was because she knew the Hard Pan was a harsh living by day. At night, it became worse and that made her decide to let him in. Regardless of her reasons, it didn’t mean she trusted him one iota nor was she comfortable with having him there. She had lived alone with Dog long enough to be comfy. A stranger in her space made her uneasy. Still, she would get through it. He would be gone by day break.

After handing him the pan of biscuits, she stepped back, leaning against the small kitchen counter and watched him. Dog had gone to lay in his corner of the living space beyond the small kitchen area. His eyes ever watchful on the stranger. The man had turned toward her after sliding the pan into the oven and closing the door, pausing, abruptly. She idly wondered what caused that. She wanted to request he take that thing off his head so she could see the actual man under it. It was a bit daunting. However, at his own pace, in his own time and she figured he wouldn’t be wearing it when he ate.

Then, out of the blue, as if he had heard her thought, he removed it. She wasn’t sure what she expected. Her eyes went to his head and hair so black, she didn’t think she had ever seen hair that color before. It was tousled from being confined in that thing he wore. Her fingers, surprisingly enough, wanted to thread through it, feel it in her hands. That thought made her uncomfortable. Her eyes skimmed down his face, taking in the masculine stubble on his jaw and cheeks. As her eyes shifted again, she found herself staring directly into his. A small shock of some sort went through her at the contact. He wasn’t a handsome man by most standards. It was a fleeting observation for her. It was the character in his face that fascinated her. Firm, no nonsense with this one. Straight and to the point. She managed to swallow. She liked what she saw and if she was uncomfortable before with him in her space, she was moreso now.

She watched as he set his rifle and sword beside his pack. The rifle she gave a cursory glance. Her eyes stayed fastened on the sword. She had always wanted to learn to use one and it was hard to teach yourself to wield one when you had no one to practice on. In fact, she had bartered for a couple of weapons herself that were stashed in her bedroom closet, a short sword and a tomahawk. They might have seemed like odd bedfellows to some, but she didn’t care. She pleased herself. Again the idea came to---

"I've things for trade. For the meal. For my time here. For anything you have that you might be trying to part with."

The sound of his voice drew her out of her thoughts. Jillian’s eyes refocused on him as his voice cut through her like butter. She felt her fingers dig into her palms. She managed to shake her head.

“I have no need for your supplies,” her voice was soft, a melodious alto and firm, “keep them. You’ll need them more than I will. But the clean water, how did you come by it?”

She hadn’t seen or tasted clear, clean water since she came topside. Below, in the Vaults, they had manufactured their clean water. She had been trying, unsuccessfully so far, to reproduce that ability. She needed more books.
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Old 07-22-2011, 03:29 PM   #11
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She was beautiful. It inspired thoughts pure and otherwise to ramble through the darkened corridors of his mind. There was no chance she was the kind of woman that could be bought. The state of her home, the dog, and the way she watched him betrayed any of the loose hospitality a woman for sale could offer. Those girls were not beautiful. Most were not pretty. They were common and plentiful though and aware that they had been born with an asset to which most men found themselves bereft when they'd started out across the New World.

He'd paid for his share of company. This was the first time he was sorry not to.

As would anyone topside - she asked about his water. The only immediate answer she would get was the bottle he'd rationed to cook with being tossed her way. It was clean neoprene plastic and the contents sloshed steadily inside. If she thought he meant to torment her he was wrong. She was beautiful. Her eyes were clear and intelligent. It was enough to inspire the want to do so. It pleased him to give her something.

But as for the source, he had only two choices. The first was to insult her by not answering; the second was to taunt her with a lie. He hadn't made his decision when the stew caught his eye, buying him the time it took to fill two bowls and cross the space between them. She didn't smell of sand or dust. She smelled soft. Sweet. It became an intoxicating distraction as he neared but he managed, with a surprising strain on his considerable self-control, to offer her the bowl without pausing.

"The only clean water you'll come by out here is by trade." He said then. Watching her. "But you knew that by now."

The trouble was water was not filtration. Everyone could learn to filter water. The trouble with water was finding a clean-enough source that filtration was less a necessity than it was a luxury. Pure sources of drinking water were incredibly difficult to find. Dodge City had their own but it was controlled by the gangs. They kept the best stuff for themselves and for sale in their casinos and brothels. It was good business. The rest, the not-so-great stock, was rationed out or sold to the public. By the time it reached them it was fetid and barely drinkable. That's where filtration units became essential. Communities often shared one because they were damned hard to maintain and expensive. The result was that water stayed precious. Stayed hard to come by. It starved the folks out on the Hard Pan and forced them to the city. It tempted them there.

That's what the gangs wanted. The more bodies in the casinos, the more folks trying to carve out a living in the slums, the better.

The stew was damned good. Better than rations. Freeze-dried and bland. The taste pushed some of the ache from his bones and some of the fatigue back, sharpened him some. Watching her while he ate, he settled into a feral crouch near his things. She'd looked at the sword longer than the rifle. Curious.

"My name is Owen." He said finally. "Thank you."
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Old 07-23-2011, 02:28 PM   #12
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She got the answer she expected to get, as she deftly caught the container he had been using. It was frustrating. Her water source wasn’t anything like this, she thought as she peered at the remaining water in the jug. She set it on the counter. She really did need to get more books. Maybe a trip into Dodge City was called for. She knew they had books there.

She took the bowl of stew he handed her, not digging into it yet. She set it on the counter next to the jug, reached for another bowl and filled it. She set it on the floor next to a water dish that obviously was for the wolf. Turning back to the stove, she opened the oven door, grabbed a nearby dish towel and took out the pan of biscuits, setting them on the side of the stove top not being used. Reaching for another bowl, she piled the golden biscuits into it, setting it on the counter. She flipped off the knobs on the stove. It was times like this she wished she had butter. God, how she missed butter or anything resembling it. Rummaging around in the cabinets she found a jar of honey tucked away. She pulled that out and set it by the biscuits. Shifting back across the kitchen floor, Jess picked up her bowl of stew, glancing across the open space.

“Dog. Food’s ready.”

She spooned up a bite of stew and slipped it into her mouth. Dog padded across the room, stopping only minutely to sniff at the stranger before he headed for his ration of dinner. The water made such a difference. More than ever, she was determined to figure out how to make her water cleaner. She lived out here in the hard pan. You either survived it or you learned to live in it. She chose to live in it and make it work for her in the best ways she could develop as possible. She had a brain and she had two good hands. They were slender, almost fragile looking, but looks were deceiving. Between her brains and her hands, she had this uncanny ability to create and fix things.

"My name is Owen." He said finally. "Thank you."


Owen. She looked up from her bowl and looked at him. It was a fine name. Her lips twitched into a small smile.

“You’re welcome.”

He had manners. She appreciated that. Out here, in this desolate place they lived, most people had lost their manners or any sense of civility in their fight for every day survival. She wasn’t under any illusion however. Owen, like herself or anyone else, would do what they had to, to survive. Manners, however, gave her a very small glimpse into his character. It was a glimpse she didn’t have before. He intrigued her and she wasn’t at all sure how she felt about that.

“Jessica.” She offered.

Her spoon dipped back into her bowl again. She watched in amusement as Dog licked his bowl across the room, making sure he got every drop.
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Old 07-23-2011, 11:41 PM   #13
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Outside the wind picked up. Storms were common out here. They picked up sand and carried in on harsh waves that scoured the hard-pan and could bury entire encampments. The weather was danger enough. It was the radiation that made it worse. A sand storm passing over a dangerous area could carry radioactive particles in its sand for miles, catching travelers while they slept and exposing them to toxic amounts over the course of a few short minutes. Owen had learned to carry Rad-Gone with him. It was a painful way to save your life. The flushing of your system with the potent chemical components came with their own symptoms. Vomiting. Nausea. Vanished appetite. Dehydration. It was a small price to pay in comparison.

Inside though nothing shifted. Nothing swayed. The house bore the weight of the storm outside with stoic indifference and Owen looked up from the silence of his meal to consider it once more. There were hints of femininity within. Sparse ones. It had taken him this second look to find them.

Jessica she'd said. He'd nodded and then silence had taken him.

When it broke, it broke suddenly. The words that came from him as marked in their sincerity as it was in their brevity. Owen had seen that look before. Men and women from all walks who hung their minds on a problem that had no solution and, capable or otherwise, refused to accept there was no piece to the puzzle for them to find.

"Dodge City has no answers for your situation, Jessica."

It was not meant to be condescending. There was simply nothing she would find, save servitude to the gangs, that would present her with a steady source of clean water. Owen's eyes cut along her face once more, walked the delicate angles and soft lines. He abruptly pushed his empty bowl aside on a nearby shelf and looked to her.

"But they have circulators." Machines that kept water moving, running, on a loop in a way that kept it from going stagnant. From what he'd seen she did not have one.

"And I would trade you water if you laid with me."

A man's request. Unveiled. His eyes remained sharp in the way they held to her own. They were not a charmer's blue. They were not exotic green. They were softer. Hazel. A color of amber flanked by a changing landscape of gentler green and tender brown. Their softness contrasted the hard angles of his face and the frankness of his look.
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Old 07-24-2011, 01:39 AM   #14
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She had finished her food. Her bowl was empty and she had moved to close the back door, locking it just before the winds picked up outside. She glanced toward the front door as she moved back to the kitchen area. They were safe enough inside. Dog had gone back to his corner and curled up to sleep. Glancing at her watch, she noted the time. It was getting late. She had just stored the stew in the refrigerator when his voice broke the silence.

"Dodge City has no answers for your situation, Jessica.”


She glanced his way. Her first thought was combative. What the hell would he know about what she was thinking?

“But they have circulators.”

Circulators. She thought for a moment, “Then Dodge City does have answers. Maybe not the ones I’m looking for exactly, but it’s a start.”

Then he said something that she had not expected. Well, maybe she had, somewhere in the back of her mind. He was a man and she was a female. Such matters, in times likes these, were not unexpected. She wondered how long it had been since he had a woman.

"And I would trade you water if you laid with me."

Water, clean water, as he had in his possession, was a precious commodity. The fact he was willing to trade it….

“You want me.”

Three simple words. Direct. Softly spoken with no hint of emotion behind them. Obvious words. He offered a trade. She set her bowl in the sink. Turned back to retrieve the bowl Dog had eaten out of and put that in the sink too. Jess moved toward a room off the kitchen and came back a few minutes later with a blanket, a sheet and a couple of pillows in her arms. Crossing the floor to where he was and held them out to him.

“You can bunk down on the couch. It’s not the best for a man your size but my father often fell asleep on it.”

She moved back toward the unseen room off the kitchen, but she paused before disappearing and turned her own hazel eyes back upon him. Studying him silently. Assessing.

“Don’t disappear at morning’s light, Owen. There’s a couple of things I wish to discuss with you when I wake.”

She didn’t ask him to stay. She would either find him here in the morning or she wouldn’t. It was just that simple.

“Dog.”

The wolf got up from his corner, padding over to join his mistress and disappeared with her into the interior of her bedroom. The door closed softly behind them.
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Old 07-24-2011, 01:56 AM   #15
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It hadn't been a question. There was no need to answer it. From that, from there, the rest was an expected run of procedure. The couch. Pillows. Offers made and expectations spoken. Owen said nothing but watched her, tracked her movements without argument. The words rang sharp in that space between his ears, echoed through him, as certain as the storm outside and almost as impossible to navigate. Sleep, she'd said. It'd be difficult now. The door could have been paper now.

She'd looked at him, not as though he were crazy, but as though it had been inevitable the conversation had turned that way. She'd walked off then and when she'd walked off it'd been with a twist of that deceptively neutral stride. He'd watched the way her pony tail had swayed. The absence of a sway in her hips, which he'd hoped for, and found that he could not be crestfallen.

Alone, now, Owen considered the couch and tossed the pillows atop it.

Yes, he wanted her. Any man would have. It had not been a question because, like most women, she understood the power it gave her. Tentative as it might be, all things considered, it was power. The New World had made it a dangerous thing to wield, though, and she had left giving it the respect she should have. She could not have known what Owen knew. He would not claim it by force.

He was a brutal man. In many ways he was a ruthless man.

But he was not that kind of man.

It was a long time until sleep came. Hours hovered where he lingered between the place of waking and dream. The length of his prick forged itself into a column of hot steel down his thigh, prominent and unapologetic. A manifestation of what he had so blatantly made clear. Still, he resisted the desire to stroke himself to climax. There was no appeal to it. Only the hollow ache that did not fade, did not slip away, until at last it drifted to a dull throb and he slipped into a deep, relieved slumber.
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Old 07-24-2011, 02:23 AM   #16
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She stood on the other side of the door, for a moment. Thinking. Not even for the precious, much sought after water, would she barter her body. She idly watched the wolf jump up on the bed, settling himself at the foot of it. She sat down on the edge of the bed and removed her boots, letting them hit the floor with a soft thud. The socks came next and haphazardly tossed into the tops of her boots before she bent over and set them off to one side. Glancing at Dog, she grinned. He had his eyes closed and was sound asleep already.

She started to undress. The shirt came first. It was tossed over the metal frame at the end of the bed. The tank top came next, joining the shirt. Reaching behind her, she undid her bra and sent it the same way. Her breasts were high and firm. She wasn't overly endowed, but she wasn't small either. She ran her palms under them then up over them, as if touching them, could release the stress of being confined all day. Her hands slipped down to her pants, unbuckling and unbuttoning them. Her palms slid down to her hips, pushing the material off her hips and her simple lace panties went with them. Her hips had that womanly flare to them, rounded but not overly so. Her waist was small, easily spanned by a man’s hands. Her buttocks were rounded and firm. She worked. Hard. Every day. She couldn’t stand being idle. If she wasn’t hiking over sand dunes, she was tinkering with things in her small compound. Her pants slid down over slim, muscle toned legs. She bent to retrieve them both and placed them with the rest of her clothing. Crossing the room stark naked, she opened the closet door and drew out one of her father’s flannel shirts, drawing it on and buttoning it. It came just above her knees and hung off her shoulders. Reaching for her hair brush with one hand, she undid the ponytail with the other. As she drew the brush through her hair, her thoughts returned to the man in the other room.

It had been a long time since she had been with a man and he wasn’t unattractive to her either. It was just sex. He wanted her. She could easily want him as well. She set the brush back on the dresser and pulled back the covers on the bed before she slipped onto it and covered up. Sleep did not come easily or readily for her. An old familiar ache was filling her. An ache she hadn’t felt in a long, long time.
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Old 07-24-2011, 02:45 AM   #17
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By the time morning had come the storm had gone. This was the endless movement of life upon the hard pan. Nothing ever resided for long. Each and every moment was fleeting. Dangerous. Hard. He woke to find himself alone, still, with her door closed. Beyond it was something mysterious. Beautiful. The want returned as he had left it. Aching. Unyielding. Owen shrugged it off and rose as he had laid, dressed, with an arm looped across his pack as though it was a part of him. The couch had been comfortable and he had slept deeply. Dreamed. It lingered now in a sublime feeling almost cat-like laziness.

It took almost ten minutes for him to shake it fully.

He cooked. Rations. Used more of the water she'd set aside and left. Enough for three. This little consideration had come more naturally than he'd anticipated. It had required no thought. Pleased, if only because it had been over a year since he had made camp with someone before and his manners had remained intact, he had filled a glass he'd found more than half-full with his drinking water. It has almost seemed like a bad idea. He'd thought, if only for a moment, she might believe it was in some way a temptation laid out for her to accept his proposal.

In the end he'd simply decided it did not matter what she believed. She lived well. With care. He admired that. Few did.

The sound of movement beyond the door drew his attention. He shook it off as best he could. Visions of her dressing, of what her shape looked like in the hazy light of a desert morning, haunted him. He ate without her if only to kill time. Keep busy. Keep moving. The rifle was cleaned. His routine was meticulous. Each part pulled and the necessary ones oiled. He cleaned up and began an abridged version of his next step. Push-ups. Sit-ups. It almost felt like home.

This had not always been her place alone. It became more and more clear as he went about his morning. There were keepsakes, small and personal, in places throughout. Remnants of a past, he thought, that she had never allowed to slip away. It was something he recognized in himself, in his way. A rarity now. Tradition was not the most efficient exercise. The New World hadn't much room for it.

Owen took up his sword and pulled it from the sheath, leather wrapped around wood. The familiar metallic rasp of the blade gaining freedom accompanied by the glint of the well-oiled steel coming loose. It was a master's work. Steel, folded and refolded, until it had been given the distinct water-mark of its quality. He passed the whetstone across it, felt the easy glide of the honed blade. She'd find him like that, kneeling. Breakfast waiting nearby.

And that would be how she found him.
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Old 07-24-2011, 10:45 AM   #18
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Somewhere. On the rim of her consciousness, she heard someone moving about her home. For a split second, she knew fear and then it abated. Owen. She allowed sleep to pull her back into its embrace. Only to have it abruptly shattered, by what seemed like moments later, by a wet nose shoved in her ear and a paw on her chest.

“Alright already. Give me a second,” she managed to mutter, throwing back the covers and slipping her bare feet to the floor.

The door to her room opened quietly. The wolf did not go barreling out, he stayed by her side as she moved into the kitchen area and without even glancing around, headed for the front door. Her hair was a tumbled, tousled mess around her shoulders. Sleep laden, she rubbed at her eyes and that was when she saw him. Kneeling. With his blade. She couldn’t take her eyes off it. It was a thing of deadly beauty. And she craved it. She wanted to get it in her hands, feel its weight, feel its graceful power slice through the air. She swallowed. Hard. Turning abruptly to move into the kitchen, noting the food he had prepared. Jess reached for a mug and a pot. There was still water left in the jug he had passed her last night, she set about making tea with it. Her hand set another mug on the counter in hind thought. She grew her own herbs. Taking down a jar, she placed some dried leaves in each mug. Wile she waited for the water to boil, she dished up food for Dog, giving him a slightly larger portion of what was left. Food did not settle well with her stomach so early in the morning.

There was a light scratching at the door. Crossing the floor, from kitchen to front door, she silently let the wolf back in. He went from door to food dish. Typical. The water was hot enough by now so she poured it over the leaves, leaving it to seep and the leaves to fall to the bottom of the mugs as she dished up the remainder of the food. Grabbing a biscuit from last night and after splitting it open, drizzled honey on it. Taking both mugs in hand, she headed for Owen and stopped, at his side, extending the mug. Her bare feet and a small portion of her leg, visible to his view.

Still, they hadn’t spoken. Silence swirled around them, not an uncomfortable one either as she waited for him to accept the mug or not. It was a weird feeling for her. Her eyes roamed from blade to man. Back and forth. It suited and oddly enough, she wanted it to suit her as well.
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Old 07-24-2011, 11:01 AM   #19
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She moved. He watched her. The rumpled state of her, the way she moved, all a revelation. Without the wrappings, the density of her attire, he could see her. Long, lean and strong. His prick twitched suddenly and the ache surged through him, twisting into every synapse, invading him as she made her way through the confines of her home and found herself at his side. For a moment he did nothing but gather himself, steady the desire to make nervous and disjointed conversation. It was only when the impulse to be foolish had gone that he accepted the mug, pretending that their fingers had not shared brief contact during the exchange.

"Thank you." He said.

As ever the words failed him. Brevity, in the place of wit, served him well enough. It'd been his intent to wait for her to speak to him. She had questions. Things had not been settled the night before. Still, with her near, temptation got the better of his restraint and Owen looked up to her. Elegant features. Tussled hair. He met her eyes and realized that she wasn't looking at him at all. Her attention lay fixed on the blade.

True steel, particularly a sword's steel, was a lost art in the New World. The blades were makeshift, most typically, or built from building-grade steel pulled from the rubble of fallen buildings. Owen's sword had been made. Forged. The process as time consuming as it was emotionally draining.

He had watched it. Sat by Elijah as his hands had worked magic upon red-hot steel with a worn hammer and an artisan's eye. It was one of the last by Elijah's hands. Noah had taken over the majority of the crafting shortly after. One generation passes on. A new one rises up. This had always been the case.

Nothing resided in the desert for long. Even silence.

"I used my own rations for breakfast." He explained. It was no trouble. They had been salvaged from the ambush site. He looked back to his blade and passed the stone across it one final time before stowing it in his pack. His eyes strayed sidelong, admiring the delicate turn of her ankle and the sleek glide of her calf. The morning was proving long.
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Old 07-24-2011, 11:36 AM   #20
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Owen broke the silence with that low, clear, baritone voice of his. It was palpable. It was inevitable. She knew it deep inside her. She would give herself to this man. It may not be right this minute or the next, but it was coming, just like the storm that had risen up last night. Still, she didn’t speak. It was rude of her, she knew that but she didn’t think she could find her voice right then. She turned, retrieved the food and sat down, across from him, setting mug to floor, tucking the ends of the shirt between her crossed legs as she held the plate. Her eyes once more going from blade to man. She looked at his face.

“Will you go with me to Dodge City? I want one of those circulators. I also want books.”

She took a bite of food. It had no taste. It did, but just not for her right then. Dog meandered back into the living space, pausing next to her. She looped an arm around his neck and buried her face affectionately into the scruff of his neck for a moment. A scratch of his ears before she let him go and he happily went to lie down in his corner, closing his eyes. She looked back at Owen.

“And what did you learn about me this morning?”

She picked up the mug and sipped the hot liquid. Dear god, the water made all the difference. She was almost, almost, tempted to take him up on his barter in that moment. Yet, she knew she couldn’t. Wouldn’t. Water was fleeting. It would be gone, eventually. She wouldn’t. Not even for water could she sell herself. In one night, he had awakened a need in her. A need for something that would last longer than a night. She briefly wondered how she was going to tolerate being alone again when he walked away.

It was human nature to be curious. She would have been surprised if he hadn't wandered around her living space, noting things about her. Now, whether or not he wanted to know about her, that was something different. That, spoke of something else entirely.
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Old 07-24-2011, 12:38 PM   #21
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He watched her with the dog, her companion. The animal's movements spoke of comfort and claim on the place they shared. It was submissive to her with a dutiful reluctance. She'd earned more than its obedience. There was trust there and that was almost as rare as water. Moments like that one, sparse as they were, afforded him glimpses of who she was. They came together in a loose collage, full of holes and gaps, to which he so frequently dismissed in people. It was not her beauty that inspired his curiosity now. It was the way she kept her home. The way she lived. It was how she'd expressed a desire for books.

"You shared this place with someone before." He said.

And that was the extent of it.

The sword was long, some forty inches so. The watermarked blade glinted as he lifted it before the steel slid home into the sheath he'd set aside. Owen caught her eyes shifting toward it. Saw the glint fashioned there and this time found that he knew, right away, what it was.

The very first time he had seen a blade he had wanted one for his own. Amongst his people, scattered as they were, professions were sacred callings. Some wielded blades and firearms, ranging across the wastes salvaging materials, knowledge, or the hopes of others for preservation. These were the Knights, warriors of education. The greatest of those received the hand-forged blades of the Order and were Champions. Owen had seen them on their rare sojourns back inside the Vault and learned, very early on, that was the life he desired for himself.

His father had been a a mechanic.

His father had supported him in his efforts, worked favors to the Order to earn training sessions for his boy. Owen had been a dedicated, inspired student. He'd learned. And, eventually, he'd earned the right to carry the blade himself. And years ago, he'd earned his mark as Champion.

"You had questions to ask me." He said suddenly. Watching her.
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Old 07-24-2011, 05:46 PM   #22
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"You shared this place with someone before." He said.

She set the plate aside, food unfinished, frowning. She didn’t like wasting food. Here, in the hard pan, nothing went to waste if it could be used. Scooping one side of the biscuit with honey in one hand and the mug of tea in the other, she cocked her head slightly to one side as she studied him.

“My father.”

There was a small tremble in her voice then. Very slight, barely noticeable. She missed him. Deeply and to the core. For a moment, her emotions took over and the color of her eyes altered, leaning toward green. It had been a few years. However, years didn’t seem to matter much in the face of losing a loved one. Having lost her mother at a very early age, all she had was her father. To say they had been close, would be an understatement.

Her eyes kept going back to his sword. It was a thing of lethal beauty. It wasn’t anywhere near the common class of the blade in her closet. This had been forged by a master craftsman. And she wanted one. With every fiber of her being. Jess felt at home with her handgun and her bow. She knew how they worked, how to adjust for accuracy. But the blade? Somehow, she knew it would fit in the palm of her hand and when her fingers closed around it, it would become an extension of her soul.

"You had questions to ask me."


Her eyes reluctantly pulled away from the siren’s song of the cold steel and she turned them on him. She took her time, licking at the honey that threatened to fall off the biscuit, like ice cream threatened to fall off its cone on a hot day. She ran her tongue over her lips, taking traces of honey from them then nodded.

“My first was to ask you to go with me to Dodge City. Dog and I are going to go, regardless. I just think numbers would be better. The second question,” her eyes went back to the blade. Honey dripped down her arm but she didn’t even notice.

“Will you teach me to use one of these? Room and board if you’ll agree for as long as it takes.”
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Old 07-24-2011, 06:10 PM   #23
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For a long moment the silence stretched on and Owen found himself regarding her with sudden, potent intensity. The New World, more than what he knew of the old one, was founded on the principles of barter and trade. Nothing was for free. Nothing spoke more to this reality than their interaction and how it had always been centered around a proposition of some kind. This for that.

The road from here to Dodge City was not particularly dangerous. It was less than two hours of walking at his pace, perhaps three with her in tow, to the gates of the slums outside the strip. Numbers had their benefits, she was right, but a more realistic reason for her to accompany him was company. There was an appeal there. It'd been a long time since he'd had any lengthy conversation. It'd been a long time since he'd travelled with anyone.

"We can go together." He said.

But the rest was a more difficult matter. It should not have been. Owen realized immediately that it was his duty, his oath, to deny her right away. Outsiders were not permitted instruction in the arts of the Order. They were left to their own devices. But she was beautiful and she was capable, enough to provoke a long hesitation. He watched her, watched her face and those gentle features. The elegance comprised in them, the steely way she hardened her eyes after a moment's weakness.

Her father. It made sense. There were no hints of this place being a lover's den. It was homey. Practical. Subtly sentimental. This had been the only real home she'd known and she had not been tempted, even for a moment, to abandon it for a fresh start.

But swordsmanship was not a craft of its own. It came with a commitment of a different sort. A lifelong one. It wasn't a skill so much as a philosophy, a way of breathing and reacting. She would learn nothing here amidst the ghosts of her past and the heart of the life she had built. Owen found himself shaking his head and reaching for the mask that had become his face for so many.

"I have a home." He said finally. It was the crestfallen cast to her face that provoked him to say more. "And if you want to learn the sword and the disciplines that go with it then you've to abandon yours."
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Old 07-24-2011, 06:51 PM   #24
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Suddenly, the food that was in her belly turned to lead. Her eyes, which had been disinclined to glance away from the call of the blade, now did so. She didn’t even glance at Owen. She got to her feet in a graceful, fluid motion, picking up her plate as she did so. Setting plate and mug, with deliberation on the counter, she turned on the tap and washed her hands.

Leave here. Her memories, everything she had worked so hard to help build and maintain. Where would she go? It wasn’t about what she would do or how she would survive, she knew she could find something to do. She was good with her hands. She knew she could survive, because she was one. A survivor. No, what ached, what hurt was the thought of leaving this all behind. It had been her first real home since she came topside. How could she leave it? Dog would come with her if she decided to leave. She wasn’t giving him up. She couldn’t believe she was even thinking about it. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She had another question and she knew one would turn into another then another, at some point.

You need to question everything, Jessica. Even be brave enough to question your own principles, morals and paths. If they can’t stand up to questions, then how much truth do you believe them to be?

Her father’s words.

She turned, leaning back against the sink as she regarded him.

“What direction would I need to travel in?” Her voice was soft, but rang with determination.

This place had been her home. But it was, just a place. A place to make memories. Her memories went with her, wherever she went. These were just things she had grown attached to. The sweet call of the sword rang through her. They belonged together, she and path the sword. If she needed to leave here to find it, so be it.
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Old 07-24-2011, 08:24 PM   #25
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This was what fanatics in the old world had called blasphemy. He knew it. The Order had not taken an outsider within their ranks, ever. It was unheard of. Throughout generations they had maintained themselves by the strict tenants that bound them Leeway, always, was given to the Champions. They did not live within the boundaries of Camelot. They did not answer to Masters. But, despite this freedom, they were bound within reason to all that the others lived by. It had been a line explained to him many times as he had neared his pinnacle. It'd been a point driven home once he'd been proclaimed a Champion himself.

But she was beautiful. Not pretty. Beautiful. And fierce. He saw it in the stiff determination that took her movements and the sudden, grim certainty in her features. The questions were natural. He had asked his share when the path had first been laid before him and fielded the first as it came.

"First, with me. Eventually, on your own."

There would be no mystery in regards to the amount of hardships she would face. They were numerous and unique for each Champion. But the full extent of her path would not reveal itself for some time. This was the way of it. Commitment, often a measure of faith, could not be measured when the consequences were so simple to decipher. A part of the test had always been the unknown.

She would share his home with him. Small as it was. It had a room that had long been empty, prepared for the inevitability of a student. She would be allowed the animal. There was nothing that proclaimed otherwise. But, if he were to give her a chance, he'd have to be hard on her.

"Pack light. If you decide not to accept my terms than I will escort you as far as Dodge City for your circulator. If you decide to come with me then you'll accompany me on an errand in Dodge City and then continue on with me."

It was hard to see her beauty now. The hardened cast of her eyes took form, sharp upon his face, echoing the intensity of the decision that lay before her. He saw something in her then. It reminded him of his own face when he had been a boy, before the mirror, practicing the movements of the blade. That had been twenty years ago.
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