So yeah, it's been a while. I had a busy few weeks. Some of the being busy was life handing me a few unhappy things, and some of it was life making up for it. I have no excuse for last week. I just didn't do anything at all except clean up my place and get a new kitty and that was pretty nice. Now the new kitty is curled up on my feet, sleeping, which is exactly the sort of thing kitties ought to do, and it's pretty awesome.
Anyway, Monsters will be back soonish, but I figured I should get something out. So here's chapter 2 of The Way Station. It's kinda more filler than plot, but worlds need a little setting up, and this world has got a lot going on in it. I'm also contemplating recording some of the radio broadcasts as companion pieces to the story. Maybe even whole broadcasts that won't ever appear in the story, because it turns out it's super fun to write fake news and I've spent way too much time doing that. We'll see.
Anywho, here's the story.
She hit the volume button on her headset to turn the news back on as she headed for the relative safety of the road. David Windsor’s voice sounded in her ear, low and gravelly, speaking of monsters in the Lakelands the size of small ships that could slip in and out of the water at will. Of course, no one had ever seen such a thing.
She would have thought at least one person would have seen one at the World’s Fair when she was a little girl, when people from all over the civilized countries of this part of the world flocked to the Lakelands to see the newest innovations and inventions and works of art and plays. The Lakelands had benefited greatly from the influx of tourists and their hard-earned money and goods, and tourists merrily spent their hard-earned money and traded their goods to travel all over the place, delighting in the sheer amount of fresh and available water. Not one of them ever spotted a single ship-sized creature. If such a thing existed, at least one person ought to have laid eyes on it.
Certainly she should have seen the thing. She had a long track record of coincidences and lucky breaks. Everything about her, about her history, about her very names demanded it. Her mother named her Grace, and she was lithe and swift and graceful enough to justify it the name given at birth. Her friends called her Lucky, and that name stuck like a two-part epoxy because she earned it. They said she was immensely lucky. She was damn near unstoppable, and extraordinary things had a way of happening to her.
Of course, the way Lucky saw it, extraordinary things happened to her because she looked for opportunities in every corner. Constant forward movement meant constant change, and constant change meant things constantly happened. But in her early years, she had scoured the Lakelands, specifically the waters of the Lakelands, for every valuable thing she could find or steal. If a ship-sized creature lived there, she never came across it. The place was lousy with shipwrecks galore, but not one ship-sized creature.
Luckily, that nonsense turned out to have a short run time, and then the news was back. “Maggie42 here, with all your news, tips, and chatter. From the western steppes to the eastern greenlands, Radio SR2 is here for you. Unexpectedly speedy progress on the next World’s Fair has some commentators predicting that it may open ahead of schedule by several months, but others warn than bumps in the road are still possible. We here at Radio SR2 are personally excited by the possibility of an early World’s Fair, given that it’s happening in our home state, though some are still concerned about the proximity to the Wasteland border.”
It happened every ten years like clockwork, and though Lucky hadn’t been alive for more than two of them and remembered only one, she knew they were not going to open early unless they could get extra food in from one of the neighboring provinces to support the influx of people. Any province for five thousand miles could have a surplus of food to last them ten years and they still wouldn’t donate it, though they would all merrily flood through the the gates once the fair officially opened.
The World’s Fair was a strange thing. Lucky knew there were other civilizations beyond the oceans. She knew the coalition that united the monarchies and republics of the continent communicated with those other civilizations, but they were barely represented at the “World’s Fair.” It was as if this corner of the world was the entire world and everything beyond its borders was only a distant dream, only vaguely verifiable and hardly worth anyone’s time.
She planned to visit the fair, but that still seemed like ages and hundreds of square miles scavenged from now. She crested the top of a hill and saw the relatively smooth line of the road in the distance and what looked to be a trading caravan. If she hurried, she could catch up.
“Commander Julius Grayson of the MC commented that there is little need for concern, as the Wasteland has entered an extended period of quiet. They estimate that 80% of the live kethstone bombs have been safely recovered, and suggest that the rise in animal populations, both mutant and pre-war, supports the claim. However, others suggest that the small increase in feral attacks may indicate that there are still pockets of land with an enormous number of undetonated kethstones.”
Lucky scanned the ground around her. It was an instinctive response to the word ‘kethstone,’ as natural as breathing or blinking at a sneeze or pulling a hand away from a hot stove. The ground was barren and rocky and pitted but she saw no perfect, dull grey spheres with the three latitudinal grooves. Only earth washed of all colors but brown and grey and tan and bone white. She breathed a sigh of relief, though she knew deep down she wouldn’t have seen any. The war ended centuries ago, and live kethstones had become a rarity in the years following.
Lucky drew in another steady breath and hit the button on her personal beacon. The traders would pick up the signal on their sensors and know she was coming. It wouldn’t slow them down, but she wouldn’t be able to sneak up on them either.
The long column of horses and wagons and walkers moved slowly down the road and she was able to catch up quick. “How you do?” she asked as she moved up alongside column. “Name’s Lucky.”
She got nods and a few introductions in return, and as per usual she was shuffled up to the front of the line. She knew this drill well. They didn’t know her so they all wanted to keep an eye on her. The leader sat astride a short, stocky horse. He was grizzled and tattooed and had a steely glint in his one good eye when he looked to her. “Goin’ to Charlie?”
“I am,” she replied. “You stopping there or passing through?”
“Guess we gotta stop now. We don’t have time to make Echo if we try to push through. Puts off my whole schedule.”
“I heard the news.” Lucky tapped her headset. “Shame about Delta.”
“Happens,” he said evenly. “Your name?”
“Got a family name, Lucky?”
“O’Hara,” she replied.
“Lucky O’Hara. Sounds made up.”
She smiled. “What’s your name?”
He flashed a toothy grin. “Hawk Lincoln.”
“Sounds made up,” she said.
“Mine’s half made up. Lucky’s a nickname.”
“You’re pulling my leg.”
“I might be.”
She laughed. “Mind if I travel with you?”
“Were I to have a choice, I’d still say you can.”
“You’ve got a choice.”
“What do I do, tell you to stay behind? Give us a two hour lead?”
“Or tell me to start running.”
“That would be ungentlemanly.”
“That it would, but that don’t matter out here.”
“Shame, that. Should matter out here more than in the safe zones.”
“Those rules would get us killed faster than field mice. Too many people don’t abide by rules.”
He smiled and they traveled in silence for a time. They were two hours out from WS Charlie at least, maybe three at the speed the caravan traveled.
“How long you been walking today?” he asked after a while.
“Since first light,” she replied.
“You can ride on a wagon if you like.”
Lucky grinned at him. “I don’t wanna get used to that kind of pampering.”
“Your choice,” he said, but he reached into his saddlebag and pulled a pack of trail mix out and tossed it to her.
She caught it, and tested the seal discreetly before she tore it open. “Thanks.”
“No problem. We like to be hospitable to other travelers. And you’re traveling pretty well armed. I gotta figure you’ve been out here before.”
Figures, she thought. Turning into a job interview. “I’ve been doing this for almost a year,” she said.
“What were you before you did this?”
“All trades?” he asked, one brow arched.
She smiled and said what she knew he wanted to hear. Luckily, it was mostly true. “Violent ones.”
“Mercenary,” he said, as if he’d guessed all along. “What made you turn scavenger?”
“Got tired of taking orders,” she said with finality, hoping to put him off.
“So, not freelance, then.”
You dumb bitch, she thought to herself. But she didn’t want to show any discomfort, so she just nodded cheerfully and munched on a few peanuts. “My boss was a bit of a prick,” she said.
“Most mercs are.” He smiled and added apologetically, “No offense.”
“I suppose the ‘tired of taking orders’ bit was your way of saying that you didn’t want to join up with an outfit like mine.”
“Your men look tough enough. Doesn’t look like you need another gun.”
“More money in trading than scavenging.”
“There’s an element of trade to scavenging.”
“Got an answer for everything, don’t you?”
Lucky smiled and shrugged. “I know what I want. I’ll find ways to justify it if I have to.”
“I won’t bother you then.” He smiled companionably at her. “It’s just that I could always use more guns, you understand.”
“I understand.” That would be true enough, but Lucky couldn’t help a tiny, niggling doubt in the back of her mind. Did he recognize her from somewhere? Was he trying to keep her close?
You’re not quite that important, she thought. Don’t let it get to your head.