The Vanguards of Darkwind
The life and times of the Vanguards, a gang struggling to survive in the wastelands of Evan, based on the game Darkwind by Psychic Software

Oct
08

Enrique Ockendo cursed.

“Shana!”

“Yes, Boss.”

“You the one responsible for recruitment after Earl died?”

Shana shifted her weight from foot to foot. “Uh-huh. Is there a problem?”

“How did you decide who to hire?”

Shana bit her lower lip. “The usual. Asked around Dexter’s. Found out who was best. Took them on.”

“Did you meet all of them personally?” Enrique was no longer shouting. His tone was low and Shana strained to hear him over the clamour of Dexter’s patrons.

“Yes. I mean, I guess so.”

“Every single one? Even – ” Enrique picked up a sheet of paper from the desk and squinted in the gloom, “- Ernesto Zapata?”

Shana didn’t answer.

“Well? Did you?”

“I guess not, Boss.”

“I should damn well hope not,” Enrique shouted. “The man’s a freaking quadriplegic. He may have been the best damned deathracer in Somerset, but now he has to have a nursemaid just to scratch his own arse.”

Shana mumbled something under her breath.

“What’s that?” asked Enrique .

“He might get better.”

“He might get better?” roared Enrique . “He might get better?” He screwed up the piece of paper and flung it at Shana. “You’d goddamn better hope he will. Get him over to Elms and see if they can work their magic on him. And if they can’t, don’t bother coming back.”

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Oct
01

“I’m telling you. His heart – boom! Popped right out of his chest.”

“You’re kidding me right?”

“I never joke about death. Or sex,” said Shana Gomez. “Anyway, this ain’t no joke. I swear it was his heart – red, fleshy, pulsating – on his sodding lap.”

“On his lap…” Jesse Daly’s words tailed off. “Jesus, Shana. Is it always like that out there?”

“Not by a long chalk, kiddo. The stupid thing is, it was an easy encounter. We had three SUVs – the ram car and a pair of Viscerators. The bad guys had three too. But dregs, you know. Shoulda been a cakewalk.”

“A cakewalk? We lost our leader!” Jesse’s voice was shrill, and a few of Dexter’s other patrons glanced in their direction.

Shana took a long draught of beer.

“Sure, but we shouldn’t ‘ave. No way. We’d knocked out two of them and Jimmy was trying for a bead on the last Flame. The bastard was jinking everywhere so Enrique radioed if we needed help. Jimmy told him to back off. I guess being new and all, he thought he had to impress us.”

“Maybe he was just trying to impress you.” Jesse’s grin was halfway to a leer.

“Whatever. I’d just about lined him up when Enrique vectored in. He must’ve been doing 50. He spun the wheel to sear the Flame and just clipped our wing. ” She shook her head. “Goddamn it, Jimmy was unlucky. A gentle nudge like that and next thing you know, his freaking heart explodes.”

Jesse lowered his voice. “They say that this was no accident. They say that Enrique was pissed that the Vanguards called Jimmy up from Badlands after Earl died. They say…”

“What, exactly, do they say?” Jesse froze. Behind him, limned in the red light of the setting sun, Enrique Oquendo stood, massive hairy forearms folded across his muscled chest.

“Jees, Enrique, You could give a guy a heart attack, sneaking up on ‘im like that.”

“I’ll ask again. What, exactly, do they say?”

“N-nothing, Enrique.” said Jesse. “No-one says nothing,”

“Then what were you lot talking about?” Enrique glared around the dim bar. “And don’t tell me you weren’t all listening.”
“I’ll tell you want people are saying, Enrique,” said Shana. She looked straight at Enrique with clear, green eyes. “They’re saying the collision was no accident. They’re saying that Jimmy wasn’t unlucky. They’re saying that you killed Jimmy to take his job.”

“Are they now?”

“They are.” Shana held Enrique’s gaze for long seconds. She heard the steady thud of her own heartbeat, the loudest noise in the entire bar.

Enrique broke first. He leaned forward and planted two fists on the table.

“Well, you can tell anyone who cares to listen this: Jimmy weren’t no leader. He could shoot straight. Nothing more. He never knew how to prepare an ambush, or avoid one. How to fix up a car to get us home after a fight. How to drive and how to lead. Jimmy was a one-trick pony, and he’d’ve gotten us all killed.”

He straightened. “Jimmy was no more leader than you’re Lady goddamn Godiva. But let me ask you this, Shana Gomez. Even I had’a done it on purpose, and I ain’t saying I did, would you not, deep down in that pretty little breast of your, be glad that the Vanguards are being led by someone who fought for the job? And won.”

Enrique spun on his heel and strode through the double doors of Dexter’s, leaving Shana behind in silence, and not a little confused.

Sep
30

“You joining us, Shana?”

Shana slowed her pace as the Viathan Warrior drew level with her. Red sand billowed up from the trucks enormous wheels and clung to her sweat-slicked skin.

“We’re going after The Turpins”. Angela Dike gestured to Norm to slow down so she could speak. “Gonna show them you can’t chase down a runner with rockets and expect to live.”

Shana squinted back towards the wirelink gates in the Somerset fence. “You reckon the boss needs me, Angela? I’ve only run a couple of clicks. Wanted to do at least five before dark.”

“Nah, I reckon were good. The Turpins are just punks anyway. Should be a walk in the park. We’ve even got the med team along for the ride. Boss reckons they could use the target practice.”

Shana laughed. “Last time I saw Sawbones at the targets, he blew out half the windows in Jake’s. The tight-fisted old git nearly had a coronary.”

“I heard that,” came Sawbones’ disembodied voice from deep inside the lorry.

“Good. You were meant to.” Shana waved at Angela. “Happy hunting.”

“Thanks.” Angela lifted the heavy steel baffle in place over the window and the Viathan rejoined the Vanguard convoy as it vanished into the wasteland.

* * *

Enrique Ockendo manoeuvred Velocet through the ochre hills. Here, as the sand dunes around Somerset gave way to the rocky desert, farmers scratched out an existence growing pumpkins irrigated with water piped in from the Elmsfield lakes.

Enrique whistled a tune as he spun the wheel. He relished taking point. Velocet, his beloved Landrunner, could take whatever the punks could throw at her. He enjoyed seeing the fear in their eyes as he punched in towards them, flame belching from the vents in the front grille. If they didn’t surrender, they rarely survived the impact from his reinforced steel bumper. And that was just the way Enrique liked it.

Beside him, Little Ken Cedeno pointed. “What`s that?”

Faint tendrils of red dust were visible peeking over the summit of a low hill.

“Ten bucks says it’s the Turpins,” grinned Enrique. “Call it in.”

Cedeno picked up the radio transmitter. “We got ’em , Boss. Jes’ round this bend. We’s gonna stick our nose round the corner and see what we’ve got.”

Enrique floored the gas. “Come on, boys. I’ve got ten bucks on you.” The heavy Landrunner bounced across the sand. The roar of the v8 echoed down the valley.

“What the…?”

Eight cars, flying the Turpins’ colours, alright. But they weren’t fleeing.

“Boss, we’s in trouble. They’re coming right for us.”

* * *

“Repeat!” called Earl.

He heard the panic in Cedeno’s voice. “They’re coming right for us! Maybe 60 metres away. We’re so screwed.”

“Now listen kid. We’ll be fine, you hear me? Tell Enrique to circle round to protect the Viathan. We’ll perch on that hill and cover you.”

There was a pause. “Enrique says he can take ’em head on,” said Ken.

“Negative,” said Earl. “Get back and protect the Viathan.”

Earl didn’t wait for an answer. He clicked channels.

“Norm, receiving?”

“Here, boss.”

“No time to set up. Spin the Viathan, mortar where you can, but you’re gonna get up and close and personal pretty damn soon.”

“Makes a nice change,” said Norm.

Earl clicked the radio off. “Park us on that there hill, Joseph,” he said to the driver, a 19 year old novice on his first run. “We’re gonna have to keep the Turpins off their backs.”

“Roger that,” said Joseph and gunned the engine.

* * *

Angela flinched as machine gun rounds from an Eliminator rattled off the Viathan’s armour.

“Can’t you do something about that Elim,” she shouted.

“Working on it,” called Sawbones. He triggered his rocket launcher. “Damn.” The Elim shook from the near miss and a deluge of sandy gravel clattered against its armour.

Ffa-dum. Ffa-dum. The rear mortars belched flame and two projectiles arced into the sky.

Angela counted under her breath. “1… 2… 3… Impact!”

“Woo-hoo!. Totalled a Blaster.”The ballistics team, Randy and Thunderbird, high-fived in the tail of the truck. “First mortar killed the roof. Second detonated inside. Ain’t gonna be pretty hosing it down later.”

“Good shooting,” said Angela. “Now kill something else!”

“Ain’t got no targets,” said Randy. “All too close to Earl.”

“Line ’em up anyway. You can shoot it when he moves off that stupid hill.”

* * *   

“We got two Scorpions incoming. Joseph, swing the nose around.”

The engine screamed. Scree and stones spewed down the hill and pattered onto the roadway.

“Can’t do it, Boss.”

“Whaddya mean? Swing us round now, goddammit, or those Scorps will get free shots at us.”

“We’re stuck. I ain’t got no traction.”

The Scorps fired. Earl’s reply was lost in multiple explosions as four warheads detonated in the space of a single second.

* * *

“Crap! Earl’s in trouble.”

Angela picked up the radio. “Enrique, can you get to him?”

“Negative. We’re busy, and my flamer won’t reach him anyways.”

She looked at Norm. He shook his head.

“You’re crazy, Angela. We can’t mix it up in no furball. Ain’t no way.”

“And if we don’t, Earl’s history. History cos we were too chicken to help him. What’s it going to be, Norm?”

Angela held the silence for several long seconds. A rocket impacted on the ground ahead, showering the Viathan’s front grille with debris.

“Alright, alright, goddammit. But on your head be it.”

“That`s fine with me.” She raised her voice. “Brace yourself back there. We’re going in.”

* * *

“We’re gonna die,” sobbed Joseph.

“No, we ain’t,” said Earl. “When they hit us again, we’ll trigger all our front weapons. The recoil’ll kick us back over the hill. You ready for that?”

Joseph nodded.

“I said, are you ready for that?” barked Earl.

“Yes, sir!” said Joseph. His knuckles turned white on the wheel as he waited for the volley.

* * *

Forty feet of searing napalm engulfed the Elim. The driver veered right, straight into the path of the Viathan.

Norm gripped the wheel as the heavy truck bucked its way across the remains of the car.

“They ain’t getting up from that,” he remarked. He shifted a quid of tobacco from cheek to the other. “Who next?”

“Just punch it,” said Angela. “Earl’s still in trouble.”

* * *

Rockets detonated. The big Apache rocked. Earl pressed his firing stud and emptied volley after volley of gatling rounds across the empty valley. The recoil kicked the nose of the Apache into the air and the rear wheels bit into the hillside.

“It’s working,” said Joseph as the engine whined.

“Great, now get some fresh armour between us and them rockets.”

The Apache slid down the hill. Joseph wrenched the wheel to the right and turned to bring the front guns to bear.

Another rocket volley hit them on the turn and the Apache flipped and rolled.

* * *

Boom!

“What the hell was that?” shouted Angela.

“Rear armour breach! Mortars gone, Randy’s out cold,” called Sawbones. “Thunderbird’s bleeding like a stuck pig. I’m on it.’

“This is going to get messy,” said Angela.

“Hang on,” said Norm. “We’re going after those Scorps.”

He punched the gas.

* * *

“You OK?” asked Earl.

“I guess,” said Joseph.

“We’re lucky, we’ve landed on our wheels. So get us moving!” Blood streamed down his left arm. He ignored it and picked up the mike.

“Angela, who we still got in the fight?”

“Two Scorps, that rocket pickup. Enrique’s engaging a couple of Desert Flames. How are you guys doing?”

“Left armour breach. Car cannon gone. Still got the heavy gatling, and Joseph is doing just great.” His voice was drowned out in the buzzcutter roar of the gatling.  “… about you?”

“Rear amour out and the mortars are totalled. We’re on our way to get the Scorps.”

“Roger that.”

The Viathan thundered across the valley floor. It shrugged off the pickup’s attack and zeroed in on the Scorpions. Angela triggered the flamer. The two cars split either side. Norm yanked the wheel and hit one head on. The entire front crumpled and the steering column shot up through the driver’s ribcage.

The other Scorp spun. Its nose pointed straight at the gaping hole Ein arl’s Apache. The Viathan opened up with everything it had – rockets, machine guns, flame – and the Scorp died. But not before its last two rockets streaked out across the desert.

***
“Got ya!” said Enrique. The second Flame died and he let his situational awareness flow out into the battlefield.

“Earl, you hear me? Earl?”

No answer.

Enrique threw Velocet into a tight turn and headed back into the fray.

* * *

“Fire!”

The shout sent a jolt of fear through Angela. The heavy flamer was still half fuelled. Clouds of black smoke billowed through the Viathan and sent a plume rising fifty feet into the sky.

“Damn pickup musta got lucky in the back,” said Norm.

A scream of pain cut through the air.

“Sawbones! How bad is it?”

Angela turned in her seat. The entire cargo bay of the Viathan was a mass of flame. The scent of roasted meat filled her nostrils and she fought down the bile that surged into her mouth.

“We gotta bail, Norm.”

“Can’t. Got a pickup on our tail.”

* * *

Little Ken gasped.

“Holy crap! The Viathan’s an inferno.”

“Concentrate, kid,” said Enrique. “Just that pickup left and then we’re clear.”

The pickup sent another rocket into the inferno, and then another. Enrique saw a figure, clothes and hair aflame, leap from the truck and roll on the sand.

Kaboom! The Viathan vanished. In its place, a roiling, tumbling cloud of flame and destruction. Enrique ducked as a huge, dark shape flew overhead missing Velocet by inches.

“What the…?” said Little Ken. “I think the Viathan just exploded.”

“No crap, son. Now where the hell is that pickup.”

“It’s gone. The explosion must have flung it a coupla hundred metres over our heads. We’ve won.”

* * *

Enrique stood on the scorched sand. Earl dead. Angela dead. Sawbones, Thunderbird, Randy. Eight Vanguards gone. The pirates lost more, but this wan’t an arena contest. Points didn’t matter a damn.

“Over here,” called Little Ken. “I think he’s alive.”

Enrique raced to the ruined Apache. Joseph sagged in his harness. Crimson blood soaked his coveralls and he was covered in foul-smelling viscera.

“Christ, is that all his?” asked Enrique.

“No. I think it’s Earl’s.” Ken paused and corrected himself. “Was Earl’s, that is.”

Joseph moaned.

“You’re alright, son. We won. The Vanguards won,’ said Enrique.

But at what a cost.

The graves of eight Vanguards

The graves of eight Vanguards

Requiescat in Pace
Robert `Earl` Hickey
`The Hon.` Marcus Tremaine
Norman `Troll` Washington
`Randy` Randall Powell
Thomas `Thunderbird` Tracy
Clayton `Sawbones` Burgess
`Doctor` Jose Lankford
Angeline `Ain`t No` Dike

Based on a true story

Aug
18

Angela Dike took a deep breath and pushed open the door to Dexter’s.

 
After the glare of the noonday sun, the bar was gloomy and dark. Shards of glass crunched under her feet.

“Beg your pardon,” she said as she barked her shin on something hard.

She heard a throaty chuckle. “Stand still for a moment, love. Your eyes will adjust soon enough.”

She did as she was told. After a couple of blinks, her pupils dilated and the ruins of the bar emerged. She stood by an upended table. One of its legs was missing, probably snapped off and used as a club last night. There were broken chairs, damaged tables, even an eight inch combat knife sticking up from the wooden bar and vibrating every time someone moved.

A girl, no more than fifteen, was sweeping shattered bottles off the floor.

“Bad night?” Angela asked.

The girl stayed mute.

“No worse than usual.” It was Dexter who spoke, his bass tones rumbling in the darkness. “But we won’t be open for business for an hour or two.”

“I’m not here for a drink. I`m looking for Robert Hickey.” She paused. “The leader of the Vanguards.”

“You don’t need to tell me who he is,” said Dexter. “Everyone knows Earl.” The barman shrugged one massive shoulder in the direction of a darkened alcove. “He’s over there. But tread carefully. He’s got papers with him.”

* * *

“Do we really need this crap?”

Robert Hickey spoke aloud into the darkness. Ever since Amy had died in the ambush at the truckstop, he’d been leading the Vanguards.

And he couldn’t believe the paperwork. Invoices from Jakes for repairs. Training rosters. Bills of lading for the trade runs from Badlands. Recommendations from the team leaders for gangers who’d earned the right to a gang name.

He’d never wanted to be the leader. He was a mechanic. A good one. But now he had to deal with everything. With a curse, he pushed Dexter’s latest damage claims away. A large file fell to the floor with a clatter.

“Mr Hickey?”

“What?” he snapped.

The girl recoiled. She had dark hair, held back in a high ponytail. He sat back in his chair and wiped his forehead.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Just this damn paperwork.”

“Dexter warned me,” she said. She stepped forward and her smile lit up her face. Hickey was struck by how attractive she was, even in these squalid surroundings.

“So, what can I do for you, Miss…?”

“Angela. You can call me Angela. I came about the job.”

Hickey struggled to remember what the Vanguards were recruiting for this week. Medic? Trucker? She saw his hesitation.

“I`m a good driver. I’ve been practising since I was twelve. I can throw a Phoenix into a powerslide and punch it out clean. I can find the racing line on every track in Somerset. You don’t have to look down on me just because I’m a girl.” The confidence in her voice was palpable.

“Hell no, you`ve got me all wrong,” said Hickey, getting to his feet. “The best scout, the best driver, the best goddamn leader I ever knew. They was all women. There ain’t no prejudice in the Vanguards.”

“I just thought… I mean, you didn’t seem very keen,” she said.

“Just my tired brain trying to remember what we was recruiting for. We need a driver.” Hickey extended his right hand. “Welcome to the Vanguards, Angela.”

* * *

Big Billie Hadley pushed the old broom deep into the car cannon. He rotated the handle as the swab disappeared down the bore. He withdrew the broom and the bundle of rags lashed to the end, now coated with carbon, copper and sand, and swilled it in a bucket of solvents. That’s the problem with having a mech as a gang leader, he thought. He’s damn hard on keeping the cars in good condition.

“Hey, Billie.”

Speak of the devil. “Yeah, Boss.”

Billie turned. Hickey came into the garage, leading a young girl with him. Damn, she was pretty. Dark hair, grey eyes, dimple in her left cheek when she smiled like she did now.

“Meet Angela. She’s just joined as a driver.”

Billie stretched out one dirty hand to shake, but thought better of it.  “Nice to meet you, hen,” he said.

“There’s a deathrace this afternoon on the Junkyard Track. Pitbulls. Thought we’d break her in gently, put her through her paces. Will you take the Ma Deuce?”

“Sure. It’ll be my pleasure.”

Angela grinned at him, and he realised that for once, his reflex response would be the gospel truth.

* * *

“So that’s all there is to it?” she asked. “Stay out of the line of fire, keep my foot down, you’ll shoot when you can.”

“That`s about it,” said Billie.

“No special tactics? Advanced lessons?”

“Nope. Jes’ concentrate and we’ll come through it alive.”

“Don’t you mean we’ll win?”

Billie laughed and clapped her on the shoulder with one massive hand. “Winning is great, hen. Staying alive is better.”

He straightened and stretched. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a figure approaching. “Uh-oh.”

“What?” Angela asked.

“Trouble. Listen, just ignore him. He’s jes’ trying to rile you afore the race.” He turned to greet the newcomer.

“Harris. What can I do you for?”

“Just coming to check out the new meat. Is this she?” Albert Harris leered at Angela. The left side of his face was a patchwork of livid scars where the skin had melted and puckered into sharp ridges. His eye was red and bloody and drooped with his skin. He smiled and the result was repulsive, a reptilian leer that was hungry and predatory.

“What say you to a wager on the race, Billie?” he asked without taking his gaze off Angela. He licked thin, bloodless lips. A small stream of spittle ran out of the deformed corner.

“What sort of wager?” Billie’s voice was wary.

“Oh, the usual. If you win, I`ll pay you five kay. If I win, well, I don’t need the money.” His leer deepened.  He gestured at Angela. “I get half an hour with her.”

Billie’s fist was arcing through the air even as Angela caught his arm. Albert danced back, delight evident on his face.

“He’s just trying to wind you up, Billie,” said Angela. “Besides, I can fight my own battles.” She put her hands on her hips and eyed Albert. “And alright. Give me half an hour with him if we lose. He’ll wish he’d never been born.”

Albert cackled. “We’ll see about that, missy. Break a leg.” And with that, he turned and was gone.

* * *

“Are ye sure that was wise?” asked Billie.

“What?”

“The bet.”

Angela shrugged. “He was just trying to wind us up. I couldn’t let him get to us, so I took the bet. We’ll beat him, it will be no problem.” She grinned and punched his arm. “Besides, I can’t let you get over-protective of me already.”

A crimson glow spread over Billie’s face. He bent over the targeting reticule of the front mounted heavy machine gun to hide his discomfort.

Angela’s peal of laughter was lost in the sudden blare of the starting klaxon.

* * *

“What the hell are you doing?” shouted Billie over the roar of the engine. The sluggish Pitbull must have been pushing 110 as it hurtled down the opening hill of the Junkyard. “I thought we agreed to sit at the back.”

“Relax, big boy,” said Angela. She shifted the wheel to the left, knocked another racer off its line, and slipped in front. “Check the countdown. We`ve got 15 seconds to weapons free.”

She hugged the crash barrier tight. Orange and yellow chevrons flashed past in a kaleidoscopic blur. Billie braced himself against the door as the turn pushed his bulk outwards.

“Five seconds, hen.”

“Time,” she said. She straightened the wheel and eased her foot off the gas. The Pitbull left the wall, slowing as it rose up an incline. The rest of the pack leaped ahead and Angela nipped in behind. As the timer reached zero, Billie’s heavy machine gun was lined up on Albert and not a single car could get a bead on the Vanguards.

“Smooth,” he said as he depressed the firing stud and sent several rounds of steel slugs into Albert’s rear armour. He was rewarded as the deathracer jumped sideways across the blasted asphalt.

“Now let’s jes’ stay out of trouble and let the others clear the field.”

* * *

Angela glanced at the status board. Four dead or quit, two up ahead, one other trailing four hundred metres behind, spouting great plumes of black smoke. She threw the wheel hard left to avoid a wreck.

“Can’t you hold it still, hen?” shouted Billie. “I cannae hit if you jerk so much.”

“I’ll do my job, you do yours,” said Angela. She squinted up the hill. “Those idiots are firing so much, the recoil’s slowing them down. Hold your fire, I`ll take them on the inside.”

She stamped down on the gas, willing the heavy Pitbull up the sloping asphalt. The engine whined its protests and acrid fumes rose out of the overheating engine.

“Watch it,” said Billie.

“I know what I’m doing.”

Further ahead, Harris fired a burst into the right hand side of a flame red Pitbull. The armour gave way, and the driver flagged his surrender. The next burst caught him full in the head. It disappeared in a crimson mist which coated the windscreen and covered his gangmate with blood and brains.

“That bastard,” screamed Angela. “That’s cold-blooded murder.”

“It is a death-race,” said Billie

“I don’t care. We ain’t gonna let that toerag win.” The Pitbull bounced over the broken asphalt as Angela cut the corner. The heavy car drifted sideways and slammed into Harris’s wing. He spun out and Angela punched the gas again.

“That’ll show him,” she exulted.

“It’s not over yet,” cautioned Billie.

His words were punctuated by a staccato burst of .50 calibre slugs on the rear armour. Angela tightened her grip on the wheel, jinking left and right.

“Break his lock, hen!”

“S’only two hundred metres. We can make it!”

“Go wide, let him through if you must.”

“No way. We’re gonna show that murdering bastard how to win.”

Another burst caught the rear, and another. Sunlight streamed through the shattered armour, dancing across the bare metal of the interior. Angela hunched down in her seat, as if that would make her harder to hit. The telegraph poles that marked the finish flashed into view and she straightened the wheel to give the screaming engine maximum acceleration.

“He’s still behind us,” said Billie, craning to track Harris. “Let’s finish this.”

The Pitbull rattled and rocked as it crossed the line. The adulation of the crowds filled Angela’s ears as she roared her success. She spun the wheel into a T-stop and turned to share the win with Billie.

Who hung in his safety harness, bright, glistening blood spreading across his blue coveralls and with a fist sized hole punched in his chest.

Aug
13

`Little` Bettye Cornell of The Vanguards died at Forever Yellow Skies. In a perfectly executed ambush, she climbed out of her Windsor to check on the unconscious pedestrian. Who fired a crossbow bolt at point blank range straight between the eyes. You will be missed.

James ‘Jimmy’ Ward, died on the Road to Elmsfield when Enrique Ockendo drove his ram-Landrunner into his side at 50. Some say it was an accident. Enrique is the new leader of the Vanguards.

`Big Don` Donald Amado – the original trucker, and the first lorry lost by the Vanguards. Three car rifles and a heavy machine gun stripped the armour bare, set fire to the truck, and, to his everlasting shame, Big Don panicked. He was executed by Death or Taxes for his cowardice.

Pedro Unzueta – crackshot with a crossbow, victim of a lucky shot from a car rifle while fleeing for the safety of Elmsfield

Kristopher `Gunny Zunny` Zuniga – gunner, died in an Elmsfield scout gone horribly wrong

Morgan Weems – novice gunner, died in a looted Eliminator at the Gates of Elmsfield, that others might live

`Big` Billie Hadley – large gunner, shot in the back of the head in the dying moments of a Pitbull deathrace

Donald Roman  – died while fighting in the Somerset Arena

Michael `Mikey` Hernandez – scout, disappeared on a courier run from Firelight to Badlands Truckstop

Santiago `Santos` Vallejo – scout, died in an ambush in the wind-swept dunes outside Somerset

`Professor` Gerald Weiner – doctor, gunner, future leader, gave his life that others may live

Olive `Twinkletoes` Richards, trucker, `Wee Willie` William Ruth, ebullient large gunner, Teresa `Tessa` Williams, gunner, died when their bus was overturned and destroyed by volley after volley of rocket fire   

Amy `Banestorm` Banuelos , the finest leader the Vanguards ever had, died with her bodyguard Darrell `Hillbilly` Jordan and fellow gunner, Agnes `Polska` Thomas in a cowardly ambush at the very gates of Gateway returning from a hard-fought engagement in the scattered hills south of the truckstop. The Vanguards will honour her name for eternity.

`Doctor` Harmony Wacker died when her Landrunner plunged into a ravine in the Elmsfield Hills Rally Circuit

Rosetta `Stone` Almendarez , scout, died defending the crew of a Last Leaf Trader Lorry

Howard `One-Eye` Spicer , leader and driver, died when his unarmoured Vampire crashed into a concrete barrier on the Somerset Dirt Racing Track at 90 mph

Charles McKinnon, large gunner, died in an attempt to claim a bounty from the people of Badlands Truckstop

Katherine Barbour died, and her deeds go unrecorded

Providencia Sierra, Ericka McKee died as they sought to make the Badlands safer; Steven Jones survived only to succumb to his wounds at the very gates of safety

Gene `Genie` Garcia and his passengers died crossing the volcanic hills to Firelight

Carla `Squirrel` Concepcion made it through the hills of Firelight, and died in sight of sanctuary

Carlos `Cojones` Henderson  and John Croteau died defending Honour or Death; they died, that others may live

Jul
27
The Vanguards latest recruit

Shana Gomez, the Vanguard's latest recruit

Shana Gomez grumbled.

Great gouts of black smoke shot skyward from the engine compartment. Soot and grease, oil and sand, all mixed on the windshield.

“Goddamnit,” she swore, as she leaned out of the Blaster’s ruined side door. Her face was soon black with oil and gritty with dust, but at least she could see the damn road.

“ ‘It’s nothing personal’,” she mimicked. “ ‘You’re just new, and for now, that means you drive the shot-up cars. If we meet anyone on the way home, you have my full permission to abandon the car.’ ”

She wriggled in the seat, closing her mind to the squelching and the sickening miasma of blood and fear that even overheating oil couldn’t disguise.

“Damn right I’ll abandon it, Hickey” she said to the empty wasteland of Evan, and got a mouthful of oily sand for her trouble.

The gates of Somerset

The gates of Somerset

Two hours later, the convoy crawled into through the foothills that marked the outskirts of Somerset. The eight cars, half of them in the colours of the Vanguards, wove between low sand dunes and rocky hillocks.

Maybe it was bad luck. Maybe it was Enrique sleeping on the job. Or maybe it was the black plume of greasy smoke that drew the pirates as surely as a different pillar drew the Israelites out of a different desert.

Either way, the Turpins were waiting.

“Goddamit,” Shana cursed again.

“You know the drill, Shana.” Hickey called over the radio. “Execute.”

Shana threw the wheel hard towards the nearest hill. She propped the gas pedal down with a looted rifle barrel and threw herself out of the door. The Turpins opened fire on the doomed Blaster as Shana ran in a shambling half-sprint, half-crouch towards the rolling dunes and the haven of the corrugated fencing that surrounded Somerset.

The sand was soft and her booted feet sank deep into the treacherous slope. Her breath came fast and perspiration ran down her face. She heard a dull crump as several heavy machine gun rounds blew what little remained of the Blaster’s engine to shreds.

She crested a dune and dropped below the summit before turning back and peeking over the top. The Turpins had made short work of the Blaster and were looking for new targets. The rest of the Vanguards were nearing the safety of the gates but an Enforcer and a pair of Marauders, rocket-toting pickups, slewed round to give chase.

“You’ll never get them, bozos,” said Shana, as she stood bent over, hands on knees, to get her breath back. She saw a volley of rockets miss Hickey’s SUV as he passed the town fence.

“That’s it, losers,” she said. “You ain’t got nothing but a hunk of junk Blaster. Now just give up and go home.” And with that, she turned and started a slow, steady jog across the dunes to the fence.

For two seconds.

“What the…?”

A rocket flew past her left ear, maybe two feet away. She was close enough to feel the wind of its passing, for wisps of her dark hair to sizzle in the rocket exhaust. She risked a glance over her shoulder.

The entire strength of the Turpin squad was ranged against her.

Nine cars. Rocket-laden pickups. Enforcers with super-accurate rifles. Even a tiny little Sonic, weighed down by its ludicrously-oversized heavy-calibre machine gun. The entire goddamn fleet was chasing her.

She dropped her head, dug her toes in and ran.

Every few seconds, she pumped another round into the shotgun, swung round and fired wildly before taking off running again. A round from a car rifle hit the ground by her feet and she jinked left. Her breathing was steady and easy now, adrenaline flowing through her as she danced across the dunes. A rocket missed to the right and she swerved again.

Halfway there. Another glance. They were gaining. That pickup must have been doing at least 60 as it barrelled across a dune trying to get a lock. She reached the top of a hillock and leaped down it, feeling sand and rocks peppering her back as three rockets impacted into the sand behind it.

“Come on, you bastards,” she screamed as she ran. “Nine of you against one woman and you still can’t win.”

She heard the whine of an engine as the pickup launched itself over the hillock. She stopped and emptied two rounds of her shotgun into the exposed underbelly, hoping to hit the transmission or an oil-line.

“Don’t just stand there, Shana! Run!”

She looked round. The Vanguards were lining the fence. Every single one of them. Hickey. Enrique. Marcus with his crossbow. Even wingnut had raced out of the hospital, arm in a sling, and rested his rifle on the fence.

“Come on!”

She took off as if the hounds of hell were on her very heels. The Marauder behind landed awkwardly and rolled, and the crowd cheered. She dropped her head to watch where her feet were going, instinctively leaping left or right every few seconds. By the time she looked up the crowd had doubled, tripled.

Someone must have told Dexter what was going on. And no-one in Dexter’s wants to miss a scrap. They scrambled for the fence, cocking weapons as they ran. The Madhats and BamBam, The BroadRausters and Cats Laughing. Doc Matthias was there, elegant and dapper, as he braced an antique Magnum on the fence. The Somerset agent of Latte’s Raiders and the War Hippies. A faceless member of the BFF’s and his speaking puppet. Even one of the Klingon’s midget strippers was there, sitting on Enrique’s shoulders with a shotgun held in her folded arms.

She had never felt so alive. This was her moment. Moments stretched into eternity as she jumped and dodged. Her every sense was attuned. She could feel where rifle rounds were going and ducked around them. Her feet found solid ground in the scree and sand and she dropped her head again just as a rocket whistled through the space it had occupied half a second before.

She set her eyes on the fence, between Hickey and Enrique. With every remaining ounce of strength she took three long strides and soared. Her right hand found the top of the fence, her feet didn’t touch. She landed in a crouch and the crowd roared their approval.

And they showed what they thought of the Turpins.

As if they had been waiting for a signal, the assembled gangers turned on the Turpins.

They say that hand-weapons are no match for vehicles.

They have obviously never been on the receiving end of the might of an entire town.

The volley was deafening. And then another. And another. The Turpins turned tail and fled. They abandoned their looted car and scattered, scared bullies running home to mummy.

A hand appeared in front of Shana’s face. She took a deep breath and looked into Hickey’s face. Which broke into a broad smile.

“Congratulations,” he said, as Somerset crowded round.

“I guess you’ve proved your worth. No more Blasters for you.”
Shana exulted as she was hoisted shoulder high and carried into Dexter’s.

She belonged to the Vanguards now. And boy, did it feel good.

Jul
21

This story originally appeared in the Darkwind Gazette

Firelight is a forbidding place. For many, the very name is synonymous with Hell on earth, the Inferno as envisaged by Dante or Hieronymous Bosch, a Ragnarok where the dead stalk the land and the fires of Judgement Day spew forth from a blasted landscape.

To the brave and foolhardy crew of Cuddle Fiesta and Drive Backwards BFFs, it is a land of opportunity.

Harry Dong leans on the bonnet of a flame-red Flail. He cuts an ominous figure because, like every one of the BFFs, he wears a white, featureless facemask. As he speaks, the leathery sock puppet on his left hand moves in sync with his words

“Nah-one scouts ‘ere.” The puppet’s mouth opens and closes. I catch a glimpse of a tattoo on the leather and realise that the puppet is made of tanned human skin. “Nah-one. They’re just pussies. But we know. We know what’s aht there. And it’s good stuff.”

Willie Nelson agrees. “I ain’t be scouting here long, but the pickings are good. Worth the risk, I reckon.”

Jesus Christ – a blasphemous pseudonym in a ravaged land – doesn’t speak. Willie throws a glance in his direction and shrugs. “Greenhorn. He’ll lighten up soon enough. Hey, Harry, where’s Long anyway?”

Harry shrugs and the puppet speaks. “Around. Somewhere.”

“You two ain’t fighting over that mutie broad again, is ya? She ain’t worth it, I tell ya.”

Harry shrugs again. The puppet’s mouth opens and shuts without a sound.

* * *

Our Firelight Correspondent in a a Gazette Sunrise

Our Firelight Correspondent in a a Gazette Sunrise

Half an hour later, we are sweating our way up the jagged solidified lava that passes for the road between Badlands and Firelight. Our crew looks solid enough: three musclecars with horse- and firepower. The sun hangs low in the sky, illuminating the dancing motes of ash and dust that hang in the air. Gouts of flame jet heavenwards as the tortured earth vents its inner bile. A violent eruption draws my eye, and when I turn my attention back to the road, the mutants are everywhere.

Ahead, a Buzz Cut and an Eliminator block our path. An Antagonist and a Radon Rancher hold our right flank. A Beaster – a monstrous van with reinforced plates welded to around the front – threatens to block our retreat.

“Charging a buzzer on a hill ain’t so smart,” says Willie. “Bootlegger it.”

We throw the vehicles into a sharp turn and accelerate down the rocky hill. Behind us, the Antagonist opens up with a car rifle, round after round finding the tail end of Willie’s Phoenix. Smoke pours out and for a moment, I fear a lucky strike has found the engine. But it’s the blue-grey cloud of a smoke generator covering our retreat.

“Pay attention, love, for Gawd’s sake.” Harry’s voice crackles on the radio. “Watch your 2 o’clock.”

I swing round. The Beaster is careering across the rocks to cut off our retreat. I swing the wheel hard left, but it’s too late. With a sickening crunch, the reinforced plates welded to the Beaster’s frame crash into my side and the Sunrise flies off the road into a jagged lava field. The van driver slides his van sidewards and crunches into the BFF Flail, turning it through 180 degrees.

Our correspondent flees

Our correspondent flees

I wrestle to regain control, swearing as I feel all four of the tyres explode on the unforgiving rock. I hear Willie Nelson cry out in pain as a bullet all but severs his leg, and a spume of black, oily smoke spills from his engine.

“So, we all gonna die?” I ask, proud that I kept my voice matter-of-fact.

Willie guffawed. “”You ain’t dead till you’re dead. Jes’ focus on getting up that hill.”

Over the radio, I can Jesus whimpering. No one comments as Willie shuts off his transmission.

Three musclecars limped up the hill on either side of the Beaster, while an Antagonist kept a steady accurate fire. Then we have a stroke of luck.

A van rams his squadmate

A van rams his squadmate

“You’ll never believe it. That Beaster jes’ rammed his own ganger.” Tongues of flame flickered across the hood of the Antagonist and the rate of fire dropped. “We might have a chance.”

I stomped my foot down hard and the car responded sluggishly, four rims digging deep into the surface of the road and throwing sparks in a wide arc. I felt a jolt and looked round in panic.

“That’ll help you.” In the rear-view mirror, I could just see Harry’s expressionless mask as he pushes my rear-end up the hill.

“Now, get them off our tail,” he ordered as the Flail swerved to pass me, the throaty roar of the 5 litre engine rumbling around the hilltops. I triggered the flaming oil and prayed to whichever deity was listening that I could make it up the hill.

Leaving a trail of fire behind us

Leaving a trail of fire behind us

“You two get clear at the top,” instructed Harry. “I’ll set up an ambush and hug ‘em good.” He threw the Flail into a loop and raced back along an elevated rock formation. I crawled past his hilltop perch, relieved that only the Antagonist and Radon Rancher had stuck to the chase. My relief was short-lived as a carmine beam from a heavy laser sizzled past my right ear.

“It’s kissing time,” screamed Harry. The staccato rhythm of a heavy gatling gat rent the air. The Antagonist swerved left, narrowly avoiding the plunge into a deep ravine. The Rancher broke right, lurching across tyre-destroying lava fields and coming to rest with its hood wrapped around a decaying tree.

Our counter-attack

Our counter-attack

“And we’re home free,” whooped Harry, as we fled across the blasted roadway.

* * *

“That was a disaster,” said Willie. He clasped a field bandage to his left leg and tightened his belt around it.

“Nah,” said Harry. “You’re still alive, aincha? Sides, half our scouts go like that.” On his left hand, the sock puppet smirked. “So, yous all ready to go again?”

* * *

Sheila “Ma” Smith has lived and worked for the Vanguards in Firelight for three years. She is a crack shot and expert tracker. She hopes to settle down to the safe life of writing for a living.

Mar
15

Jake was an habitual early riser. By midday, the heat of the inflamed sun was unbearable, so he always aimed to make use of the early hours, when the heat was only memory, a fear, before the sun’s strength sapped energy and enthusiasm and your only thought was to find shade and curl up and wait for dusk.

Jake walked through the cool night air, in the still, calm hiatus between night and day. The landscape even had a blue tinge, reminding him of the days before the Apocalypse, wintry February mornings.

As he approached his compound, he was surprised to see he already had a customer. Most of the gangs weren’t early risers – no surprise, Jake thought, they partied hard each night to forget the terrors of the day before – so it was rare to see anyone on the streets of Somerset at this time of day.

A battered van was parked across the entrance. The only sign of the driver was a pair of travel-stained boots with thick soles sticking out from underneath.

“Howdy.”

A thump and a curse. The feet wiggled in the dust and a youth emerged. Long, lanky, with dishevelled hair and dressed in dusty blue coveralls. The man got to his feet and Jake saw in his eyes the feral terror of hunted prey.

“Jake, man, am I glad to see you. Listen. You’ve got to help me.” The youth removed a half-smoked roll-up from behind his left ear and lit it with a shaking hand. “You know about that old stuff, right. You know, before the sun did its thing.”

Jake nodded slowly. “A little, sonny. I know a little.”

“You know about limpet beacons?”

“Not sure as I ever came across those particular things, meself.”

“Homing beacons? Magnetic attractors? Automatic argeting devices?” The youth’s voice rose in a pitch,and his words tumbled out.

“Slow down, sonny. What you on about?”.

“It’s this van. Four runs, I’ve been on. Four runs. And every single time I bring it you the underneath is shot to crap.”

“Every time?” said Jake, careful to keep the disbelief out of his voice.

The kid took a long drag on the rollup, then nodded. “Every time. They shoot from the front, they hit the bottom; they shoot from the sides, and the engine coughs smoke; they shoot from the back…” The kid reached up and pulled back the hair that flopped over his face to reveal red, puckered tissue that ran for six inches across his forehead.

“So I got to thinking, what if someone had found one of those things, like the used in the old wars to attract weapons. Something magnetic, or electrical, or magical, for Christ’s sake.” He exhaled, the smoke and water vapour in his breath condensing in the morning chill. “Maybe someone was out to kill me.”

“Kid,” said Jake.

“The name’s Josh. Josh Wang,”

“Josh, I’ll take a look, and I’ll fix ‘er up for ya, but I should warn you,” Jake shook his head, “I ain’t never heard of no limpet beacons in Evan.”

Mar
11

“Hey Boss, look what I found.”

Enrique Oquendo hurried into Dexter’s. His youthful face shone with enthusiasm and pride. In his hands he held a small rectangular object, wrapped in a bloodied shirt.

“Sorry for the mess, boss. Didn’t have anything else to protect it from the dust, and I figured Xena’s cohort didn’t need this anymore. But we were out scouting in the dunes, you know, those burnt-out buildings by the oasis. Me and the boys were jumped, but good. Nailed them after a long fight, you shoulda seen Marcus’s sniping, what a doozy…” Enrique’s voice faltered as Amy Banuelos started to drum her fingers on the table. “Yeah, so we won, and I checked out the buildings. Found this. Reckon you needed to see it pronto.”

Reverentially, Enrique placed the object on the table in front of Amy Banuelos and unwrapped it. Sleek, metallic, ultra-thin.

“Ta-dah,” said Enrique. “I present you with an… Orange.”

“An orange?” said Amy. “Damned strangest orange I ever saw.”

“No, no, Enrique’s right,” said “Earl” Hickey, the group’s mechanic. “I’ve heard of these things. Back in the day, they were the repository of all wisdom and knowledge. Ask them anything, anything at all, and they’d tell you the answer.”

“Like how to destroy Xena once for all,” asked Amy, her interest piqued.

“Well, I don’t know about that,” said Earl. “Mebbe it only works for stuff that was real then, you know, before the Apocalypse.”

“Can you get it working?” asked Amy.

“Dunno. I’ll need to cadge some time on the generators from Dexter, find some way to get power into the device. Give me some time.”

“Do it,” ordered Amy. “If this device is as powerful as you say, we can use it to clean up Somerset.”

Earl reached across to pick up the ultra-thin package.

“Oh and by the way, I don’t think it was called an Orange.” Amy traced her finger around the image on the glossy, reflective surface.

“I think they called it an Apple.”

Mar
10

“One lap down, five entrants out, Time to make my play.”

Amy passed the lap marker and considered her position. Her armour was gone on the left, but otherwise strong. The pack was reduced, more than half the competitors had resigned. At least two of them were dead.

She was at the back of the pack, five Sunrises all vying for the deathrace cash. But for Amy, the cash didn’t matter. She needed the kudos, to prove to the Vanguards that skill and tactics are what make a survivor, not sheer dumb bravery.

The Somerset Rally Circuit was perfect for her tactics. With its figure eight loop and tight corners, she would have good sightlines to hit the paper-thin armour on the Sunrises, and ample opportunity for her laser to recharge between shots.

She put her foot down hard as she approached the intersection. It would be dangerous as hell here, as the pack spun round the hairpin and headed back towards her.

Sarsfield Grenadiers was in the lead. An arrogant youth, gangly and pimpled. She picked her spot carefully, waited three seconds.

Pzow. The laser lanced out. Steam erupted from the engine as the coolant lines melted. Amy passed behind the slowing car on the crossroads. One down, three to go.

“Christ.” A shot from the left, searing pain in her calf as the beam sliced flesh and burnt skin. She reflexively jerked the wheel right, moving out of line as another beam missed behind her. Then she was past the crossing, and turning the wheel to slide into the corner.

As she straightened, she saw the good news. The wrecked Sarsfield Grenadiers was coasting to a stop, and one of the other contenders had driven smack into its rear. The driver was slumped over the steering wheel, not moving. She hoped he was just concussed, not dead, but either way, only two more cars stood between her and victory.

She tightened her grip on the wheel, her fingers leaving indentations in the black leather covering. The chicane ahead was a strong opportunity, as the leaders would be forced to expose their weaker sides to her. The three of them were bunched together as they entered the chicane – Battlefield Crew in the lead, the driver a red-headed novice; the Fighting Celts second, an grizzled veteran at the wheel; then Amy.

And this chicane was going to win her the race. Beam after beam of laser fire lanced out. The Fighting Celts were taking chunks out of Battlefield Crew, and Amy held fire as the Celts softened up the armour of the leader for her. Then, as she swept through the turn, she pressed down on the firing stud. The pent up energy of the laser burst forth, showering sparks in the driver’s compartment of the Celt’s Sunrise. The second beam hit the driver, and Amy saw a fountain of blood spray from his wounded forearm. The third beam severed the steering linkages, and Celts was out of the race.

Amy blasted past, barely able to acknowledge the salute of the defeated driver of the Celts. She had lost time, and Battlefield Crew was out of sight at the hairpin. She threw the Sunrise into a powerslide, risking a wipeout as she battled to maximise the speed through the turn. Through the corner of her eye, she saw the rockface hurtle past. She blanched as she remembered her left side was unprotected, the memory of One-Eye slamming his damaged Asp into the concrete wall coming unbidden to her mind.

“I WILL NOT DIE TODAY.”

Not today, not any time soon. She accelerated through the corner, her left side scant inches from the protruding rock. Sweat gathered inside her helmet, blurring her vision as it dripped into her eyes. She shook her head to clear it and homed in our target.

50 metres. 45. Amy conserved the power in her laser. This driver was a rookie, a novice. She didn’t need to kill him. Just make him break his line on the final corner, steer left and wide, and she’d be past him to the winner’s circle.

40 metres, 35. Time. The crimson beam sizzled through the air, diffracting on the armoured glass by the driver’s head. Amy saw the glass deform and crack, saw the driver flinch as megajoules of power fractured the flimsy protection on his left.

She pressed the stud again. “Flinch, damn you. Flinch.” The second shot landed exactly on the first, and the glass shattered, shard of crystal spraying out, coruscating with the crimson energy from the laser. The driver cried out and jerked the wheel left, losing his racing line and veering into the grassy outfield.

“Yes,” exulted Amy. She hugged the wall close, cut inside Battlefield Crew and crossed the line.

***

“You did it!” Earl was the first to reach the car, to congratulate Amy on her win. “And everyone was watching.”

Amy looked behind Earl to see the every member of the Vanguards crowding onto the track. Even Darrell was there, all 6’6” of him, and Amy was surprised to see that he was sporting a grin.

He pushed through the throng as she climbed out of the shattered door of the Sunrise.

“Banestorm, maybe you got it right. You need brains, and you need balls to survive out there, to lead a gang. I knew you had the brains, and you just proved, you’ve sure as hell got the balls.” He reached out a massive hand. “I’d be honoured to follow you, Amy Banuelos.”

Amy took his hand, and shook. Darrell’s smile broadened, and he enveloped Amy in a bearhug.

“The Vanguards gonna be unbeatable now,” he said.