Dice bid a happy farewell—temporarily, he knew—to the barren, dusty, rocky, and overall inhospitable 'wastelands' that encompassed far too much of the Earth's surface. The trail turned into honest-to-goodness soil that struggled to grow pale grass and rows of tangled young trees. Yet growth, nonetheless.
The flatlands gave way to gentle hills and he saw white, red, purple, and green wildflowers as well as a few berry bushes that drew small song birds.
The Jeep led the way with the Heavy Duty Armored Shrike right behind, as had been the case since their escape from the meeting with Mann. Dice did not like that. Shrikes were not designed to act like passenger cars. He felt lucky the thing still ran.
As a consequence of the new terrain, the road beneath the wheels turned from smooth with a few jostles into bumps with scattered patches of smooth. The shaking rustled Major from a nap; he pulled his slumping head off the side window and blinked awake. The hot afternoon sun grew a little less so as scattered branches created flashes of shade and the breeze blowing in through the open-air cabin offered a hint of moisture.
Dice steered the vehicle around a bend and the landscape opened up with a meadow sloping gently to their left as they traveled on what became actual pavement—the remains of a road built decades before. To their right things dropped off and tangled brush filled a sharp embankment between the road and a small pond. The sun returned but Dice did not mind watching it glitter off the waters. Hot, yes, but he also found the reflection on the waters refreshing; to his mind, at least.
"Are we on time?" Major asked.
"Yep. Or, I think so."
Dice alternated his eyes from the road ahead to the land around. He forgot how good it felt to the soul to be surrounded by plants, grass, and water filled with life. Spending too much time in the mostly-dead wastelands could drain a man; make him cold and heartless to match the world. He looked forward to the day he might be able to settle in a place like this, but that would not be for a long while. He still had too much to do before he could satisfy what he thought she would want.
Still missing you, baby.
The radio on the front seat crackled as Ishiko called from the cockpit of the Shrike.
"The turn is up here somewhere, right?"
Major reached for the radio but Dice reached faster. He figured the kid would only have something wise ass to say. He kept one hand on the wheel and worked the transmitter with the other.
"Yeah it's right about—crap, here!"
Dice swung the Jeep hard as the spotted the remains of an old wood fence peeking out from beneath a veil of yellow and green ivory that had crept and crawled to nearly suffocate the fence.
The Shrike followed with less drama being a machine built for quick turns and fast maneuvers, if not long distance. Both vehicles splashed through a muddy puddle that suggested recent rainfall; another rarity in the half-dead world.
The trees returned, this time healthier ones; healthy enough to form a canopy of green overtop the mud-and-gravel road. Splatters of brown wetness peppered the windscreen and the air felt heavy.
He slowed the Jeep. A quarter-mile past the turn the trees thinned and the remains of an old world farm came in to view: the foundation of a destroyed house, a field with decayed crops, a fenced meadow where the bones of cows and horses lay, a rusted tractor toppled on its side, and a red barn that still stood despite black burn marks suggesting a fire many years before.
The doors to the barn hung ajar. Dice eased to a stop at the front of the barn; Ishiko rolled the Shrike around and entered the darkness there.
As usual, Dice felt the hair on his neck stand taught despite trusting the people he expected to be waiting inside. It was the 'expecting' part that so often screwed him.
He and Major exited the Jeep and walked inside. The metallic smell of the Shrike's idling power cells mixed with a sweet aroma of rotting hay to create a bouquet of distinct odors that coerced a sneeze from Dice. But it was the sight, not the smell, that allowed those taught hairs to relax and brought a smile to his lips.
Inside the barn just past the stopped Shrike waited two vehicles; a larger carrier designed to transport the armored beasts as well as an old military Hummer painted in desert camouflage colors.
A middle-aged man with Mediterranean tone on his skin waited alongside a similarly-aged red-haired woman whose far paler complexion contrasted with her husband's. And there, Dice saw, stood the future of humanity: Jose Paris—a former 'groundling'—married to Donna—a former Second Earth infantryman. In the loft watched two other strong men with guns who struck Dice as survivors from the now-destroyed satellites who served mainly as field hands for the Paris' but whose combat skills were still occasionally required.
"Dice!" Donna hurried to him and gave the big guy a friendly hug. "You did it," she referenced the Shrike, from which Ishiko exited through the rear hatch.
"Yes, well, um--"
Jose stepped forward, "So Mr. Mann was willing to bargain after all! This is great news. The way things are going we should have another five thousand gallons of fresh petrol for trade before the end of the week."
Dice scratched his head, "Gee, that's great, Jose. Really. But, well, you see…"
"You must be starving," Donna suggested and produced a picnic basket from the front of the Hummer. Dice chuckled at how easily the former soldier—Donna—had morphed from warrior to mother-figure. He hoped Ishiko would make some kind of transition herself some day.
Jose ruffled Major's hair. The kid acted annoyed but Dice guessed it to be a front.
"Tell me, Dice, what does Mann offer to trade next?"
Ishiko said in such a dry voice that the Paris' did not catch the sarcasm: "Bullets."
"Well, we have plenty of those from our ammunition caches," Jose's expression corkscrewed. "I was hoping for something more like machine parts, chemicals, and particularly medical supplies. Is that all he offered?"
Dice—still scratching his head—tried to break the news softly: "Well, no, he actually, um--"
Major blurted, "That Mann guy tried to shoot Dice," and then chomped into a sandwich Donna gave him.
Donna stumbled, "He…tried…to…what?"
Ishiko shed her battle suit down to a sleeveless t-shirt and examined one of the Shrike's massive legs and said, "It's like I have always said, the best thing for negotiations is having a bigger gun."
"Well, it didn't go exactly as planned, see?" Dice explained. "I guess this Mann fella isn't really a 'live and let live' type of guy."
Jose pointed toward the Shrike where Ishiko popped off a metal plate to examine a mess of wires and cables. He said, "But you got the Shrike. I don't understand…he did trade you the Shrike for the gas, right?"
"Well, he took the gas but, um, wasn't going to give up his end of the bargain."
Major mumbled through a mouth of bread and meat: "So we shot em' up and took off with the goods. I drove!"
"Let me get this straight," Donna stopped handing out sandwiches. "You told us he agreed to the whole swap in the preliminary negotiations."
"Well…he did, yep."
"So when you show up with the tanker he refuses to make the trade."
"Right," Dice nodded his head. "He wanted to keep the gas and come see you in person."
Donna said, "I wish he would have," and Dice caught a glimpse of the soldier behind her eyes. "We could have worked it out," and he figured she meant 'worked it out' with rifles.
"Now, hold on," he tried to calm her down. "First off, you don't want to go messin' with this Mann guy. He's got a small army of goons some of them ex-military, too. Plus we saw this Shrike and two others; he's probably got a stable full of them."
"Yes, we know," Jose said and placed a hand on Dice's shoulder. "That's why we were thankful you volunteered to be the go-between. We have just enough people to operate the drills and the refinery with a skeleton staff; not an army. That's why we wanted the Shrike."
"And now you've got it," Dice motioned toward the vehicle again. He saw Ishiko digging deeper into the electronics with zeal.
Donna moved closer to the young girl and asked, "What is it?"
"I'm checking the hydraulics on this side," Ishiko said. "They felt kind of sluggish like there's some interference or something."
"No, no," Donna corrected. "What is that on your arm?"
Ishiko paused and held her right arm out. On the bicep rested a faded tattoo depicting a scythe in the clutches of skeletal fingers.
"Huh? Oh, that? I dunno. I've had it from as far back as I can remember. Think I got it as a kind, maybe even an infant."
"Point is," Dice interrupted, "You've got your Shrike and we got out of there before he could kill any of us and without finding where you're at."
"I think he knows," Ishiko—her head back in the Shrike again—blurted.
"What?" Dice stepped closer. "Don't be a dumb ass. No one followed us."
She stopped him not with words but by pulling a round silver object about the size of a tea cup from the innards of the war machine's leg. Several lights on the surface blinked and it vibrated softly.
"A tracker," Ishiko said.
Donna added, "Yes, it is. Back in the old days we'd shoot them onto Blues to track them to their nest."
"Awe, Christ," Dice slapped a hand over his face. "I shoulda known."
Jose asked, "What does this mean?" And his hand moved instinctively to the side arm strapped to his thigh.
"It means Mann has a pretty good idea where his Shrike is," Dice admitted. "I'm sorry. Sonofabitch!"
Ishiko added—almost hopefully—"He could attack us any second."
"No, no," Dice waved his hand. "We took out his other two mechs that he had at the meeting spot. He'll have to fix them or bring in new ones. Besides, if he's following us it's from pretty far off, I didn't see anything and he'll want to wait until he knows we've delivered the goods."
"I don't understand," Jose said. "Why would he go to all that trouble?"
"For your gas," Dice said as he recalled how valuable even a single can of the stuff could be worth—or how much trouble it could get a guy into. "He knows you drill, he knows you refine. That's liquid gold. Most Shrikes still run on the old power cells but can be modified to run on petrol. A ton of junk left over from the old world still runs on gas, too. It's wealth for a guy like Mann. He'll want it. And he'll want you, too."
"Well fight him," Jose tensed and Donna stood at his side. "They won't take what we've built up without a fight."
"He'll bring an army," Dice doused their enthusiasm.
"I don't care," Jose stiffed his lip. "We have worked too hard to scrape out a life in this wasteland. We have farms, now, and have scavenged enough to put together a little community. We meant to make our gasoline production something we could trade…to start the world anew just like in ancient times. I will not give that up."
Dice smiled. He liked the Paris'. He liked them because they had a vision of how to get from the apocalypse left behind by the Blue to a new civilization and they were willing to do the work to get there.
Unlike types like Mann who offered only guns and thugs. He would make slaves of the Paris', waste their hard effort, and build nothing but more misery. If humanity were to survive on the new Earth it would take the cooperation, intelligence, and foresight of people like Jose and Donna and their small group. The Mann's of the world were obstacles that needed to be avoided until they could be defeated.
"Don't you worry about a thing," he told them. "I have an idea."
Dice grabbed the tracking device from Ishiko and held it aloft.
"We'll keep heading east. Give him a trail to follow while you bug out and head back north to your place. Take him on a real trip, we will."
"I do not understand," Jose scratched his chin. "What will you do?"
"You take the Shrike," Dice nodded to himself as the plan came into focus. "We'll take this tracking thing with us and drive east. As long as he doesn't get sight of us he'll think his A.S. is heading east, while you take off to the north. Just try and cover up your tracks real good when you leave here in case he comes past here along the way."
"More running," Ishiko sneered under her breath. Dice ignored her.
"Look, I'd love to stick around and chat but we don't know how far behind us he is." Dice did some mental calculations. "I have to figure we've got a good twenty-four hours on him but who knows, I've been wrong before, he-he."
Donna stepped forward.
"You don't have to do this. Just bury that damn tracker and come on back with us. We could use a strong back like yours. And the kids could actually be kids."
Both Ishiko and Major protested in unison, their voices carried a whine akin to the sound of children from the old world at bed time.
"No way, I don't want to live in a refinery!"
"I'm not staying; I have to find my dad!"
"Dice, you promised we'd keep moving!"
He held a hand aloft to silence the choir and then spoke to Donna and Jose.
"Don't mind them, they're just kids. Still, you know, trying to figure things out. They wouldn't know a good thing if landed hard on their laps. I guess…" his mind drifted off for a moment and he softly pondered, "…I guess we were all like that once."
"Don't fool yourself, Mr. Quaid," Jose observed. "You are not going to settle down any time soon. One look at you and that is obvious. The question is…why?"
Dice scratched his noggin.
"He-he, well, you see here's the thing. I did just that. Found myself a nice stretch of desolation and bunked up for a while. Thought I'd build myself a new world in a corner of the old one. Thing is, sooner or later the problems come looking for you."
"Dice," Donna asked gently. "Were you by yourself in that world?"
He shot her a glance and she saw the answer in his eyes. No more explanation was necessary; not in that world. Death and loss were as much a part of post-Blue world as hunger and violence.
"So any-who," Dice moved things along. "I figure I've got a lot more left to do before I can find somewhere to settle up again."
"There is more to it than that, Mr. Quaid," Jose knew. "You are not just some wanderer. I knew that the moment you first found us; when you brought a truck full of vegetables from those farmers outside of Volgograd. The same way you took our offer of gasoline to Mr. Mann. Tell me, why are you doing this?"
Dice fidgeted. Major and Ishiko let out loud, long huffs of air to show their impatience.
"Well, I, see, I guess," he stumbled. "Look, let's just say I'm trying to do my part to get this whole human race thing up and going. It's sort of my debt…my piece of the puzzle. Or, I guess, you might call it my punishment for sitting on the side lines for so long. In the end, what does it matter? I'm doing what I think I have to do, you see? The same way you're doing what you have to do."
"You're a good man, Dice," Donna said.
"Say, careful you don't let that word get around. I've got an image to keep up. And speaking of that…well, I um, hate to say it but I think we've got a payment due on this…"
"Oh! Yes of course," Jose waved to his men in the rafters who switched roles from guards to pack mules. They put aside their rifles and transferred several large crates from the carrier vehicle to Dice's Jeep.
Jose ticked off the 'payment': "Food stuffs, water, first-aid materials, and twenty gallons of water plus enough gasoline for a couple of full tanks."
Major cleared his throat from behind, a reminder that the basic supplies served merely as part of their reward.
Jose himself took care of the rest. He produced a duffle bag from his vehicle and approached Dice's trio like Santa Claus on Christmas morning, not that either child had any concept of who that was.
"Two hundred rounds of ammunition…"
"That'd be me," Ishiko raised her hand and received her deadly bounty.
"One carton of hand-rolled cigarettes."
Both kids pointed to Dice who grinned sheepishly.
"And here, for you," Jose knelt in from of the little boy and produced a small jewelry box. Major's eyes grew wide. "Two gold oak leaves."
Jose pinned the insignias on the dirty collar of the boy's shirt and light heartedly warned, "Careful now, it's illegal to impersonate an officer."
"My father was a Major!" He told Jose through a grin.
Ishiko rolled her eyes but a stern look from Dice kept her from being any more mean.
Jose finished decorating the boy: "And now you wear the rank he wore."
Major moved to the side view mirror on the Jeep to admire his new decorations. Ishiko added the ordnance to her collection. Dice lingered for a moment.
"Well, we had better hit the road. We'll take this tracking device as far east as we can to throw him off your trail. Sooner or later I'll think of some safe way of ditching it. Maybe I can find a few left over Blue to hold on to it for me. Now that would be a nice howdy-do for those goons."
"Thank you, Dice," Donna said yet again. "And good luck to you."
"Luck? Honest Ma'am, I've had my fair share of luck and it's been mostly bad. I'll do for myself, if you don't mind."
"That's what tough guys always say," Donna smiled. "But sooner or later even the toughest guy realizes that he needs someone. Keep looking, Dice. Sometimes you get more than one chance in a life time."
He could think of no rebuttal, so he nodded and guided his 'kids' into the Jeep. Donna piloted the Shrike into the carrier truck and Jose watched the Jeep as it drove off to the east.