Follow the Sun
Sunlight streamed yellow from east to west.
It was a bright and crisp morning, the sort you’d expect from a late May day, when summer was nudging spring out of the way. The heat, though, that leapt straight from an industrial kiln and slugged several left hooks to the most vulnerable places.
Once he had stopped feeling faint, Max squinted. In the hazy distance, he could make out Buzz’s Beds and Buzz’s billboard, the sign and the heat rising together. And - yes, beneath Buzz’s billboard was the cart, toy-sized, shimmering uncomfortably as the sun’s fists beat down.
And Billy yawned. Max realised that they’d missed a night’s sleep. But he wanted to get away from here before resting; for one, pleasant though Buzz’s Beds was, he didn’t feel like spending time curled up next to the deadies.
Which meant he had to drive.
They arrived at the cart, and both he and Billy both checked the thing over, Billy’s check involving feeling and sniffing his way around it, while Max ran a hand over the tyres then wondered why he was doing so.
Billy’s check finished first, the apparent verdict satisfaction, since he clambered over the back, plonked himself down on top of Max’s supplies, then stuck his head out of the wire roof, a strange lookout for a strange tank.
Then, not having nearly the right amount of impressed in his voice, he said:
‘So this thing moves, does it?’
Max frowned and climbed into the front. ‘It did when I left it.’
He flicked on the power switch with a flourish, and instantly there was nothing.
As they waited and waited and Max’s concerns about the cart’s remaining dignity grew, he heard a distant, ill whine that became louder and iller with each second. A half dead mosquito, maybe? Maybe yes, because when it couldn’t get any louder or iller the whine stopped, there was a pause, then the cart recoiled as if bitten.
Then the vehicle jolted forward, flung Max back, and in his bouncing peripheral vision he saw a spread-eagled Billy tumbling down the back of the cart with a really stupid grin on his face.
A quarter of a minute later, the vehicle rolled to a halt, engine humming happily to itself.
There were a few clangs and a few bangs and then Billy, wearing the same really stupid grin, reappeared above Max, who was presently thinking that some sadistic deity had assigned him a disproportionate amount of headaches. He wondered if it were possible to complain.
‘Doesn’t seem to want to give up just yet, right?’ said Billy, patting the metal frame.
‘Not just yet,’ said Max.
They drove for approximately two hours, until the sun blazed proudly from its throne in the sky, just about ready to abdicate into afternoon.
It was then that Max spotted an animal skeleton partly buried in the ground, its bleached bones clearly once part of something huge. Now its most notable feature was its ribcage, which reached from the rocks in two curved bunches. Each rib had a stubby noonday shadow beneath it. He drew the cart up alongside.
‘Why we stopping here, mister?’
‘We need to rest. This shade will be just right.’
‘I ain’t tired,’ yawned Billy.
‘Well, I am.’
Max got out of the cart, walked over to one of the larger ribs, and sat down shadow side, his back leaning against the bone. Ten seconds later, Billy had found a similar place, and ten seconds later, the boy was snoring in snatches.
And snatches were the start: his sleep didn’t look comfortable. Sporadically he would jerk about as if someone had attached puppet strings to his limbs and was now spasming on the handle. But at least it was rest.
Max wasn’t resting.
Max, with the sword slung across his knees, looking back the way they’d come, was waiting.
Because there was a reason for setting down here more pressing than sleep, a reason he didn’t want to worry Billy with until he was sure. And there was the reason, a black ink blot on the horizon, the same black ink blot he had noticed soon after emerging from the tunnels.
He watched, he waited, he rested a grip on the sword’s hilt. The ink blot squirmed and shivered.
Probability dissolved, and in its place, certainty.
They were being followed.
With the day’s slide, the ink blot had split, and now there were two, and now Max began to discern their details. Previously he had theorised that somehow the undead were tracking them, had discovered a way to move once more in daylight, but as the ink blots approached, they put paid to that theory. Because these ink blots were upright, these ink blots were lean.
Which meant either mutants or humans.
When they arrived, it became clear which they were.
And, what’s more, these humans were humans Max knew.
‘There he is,’ said the man, his skin even darker, his whole body plainly baked in the same industrial kiln Max had identified earlier. A wry grin. ‘You’re a hard man to catch, you know that, Max?’
Not hard enough, was Max’s internal response. His audible one was a grunted word: ‘How?’
The other man jerked a thumb behind him, and behind him there was nothing but rock, sky and cart.
‘With the dust tracks you leave driving that? You drew us a map, old buddy. Following you was as easy as taking an afternoon stroll. Only problem was, we had to walk. But seems you went slow, or stopped to take an extra long leak.’ He paused. ‘To be honest, I’m surprised you’re not more pleased to see us, what with your sunny disposition. Pleased to see us like this, I mean.’ He paused again. ‘Because we could have been here for revenge.’
‘Jesus, Andrew, give it a rest,’ said his companion wearily.
What was her name - the woman from the fields. Kabela? Yes, Kabela. that was it. But where was the other one? Who always hung around her, all puppy-dog eyes, absolutely massive. Was his name Cobbold? That sounded right. Well, wherever Cobbold was, he wasn’t here, that was for sure.
‘Mind if I sit?’ asked Andrew.
Max shrugged, and Brac’s ex-Mayor strolled over to a rib bone opposite, slowing as he did to send a quizzical look Billy’s way. ‘I’d say something about that sort of thing taking nine months, but you really don’t look in the mood.’ Correct.
Andrew sat and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. ‘Hey, uh, Max... you’re aware that kid’s, uh, lacking somewhat in the eye department?’
When Max spoke, it certainly wasn’t an explosion. ‘Has the heat rotted your brain? Yes, I know he’s got no eyes. And he’s trying to sleep.’ Man thought he was a comedian; in Max’s opinion, he was not.
In the meantime, and with far less ceremony, Kabela had seated herself against a rib as well, and now she watched Max with dark, solemn eyes, as deep and still as a cave pool. She’d aged about ten years more than she should have: crows’ feet crinkled around the corners of her face, and her hair, once black, was wired with grey.
‘Kabela,’ stated Max.
Well, that used up his small talk, so Max fell silent, and for a while they all sat quietly listening to Billy snore and splutter. He could be wrong, but Max thought he discerned a hum buried in there somewhere.
Then Billy’s puppet master suffered a particularly violent spasm.
‘The kid looks like he’s having nightmares,’ said Andrew eventually.
He was ignored.
In fact, Kabela didn’t even seem to hear: with her back to the bone, she’d tilted her head to the sky, and her eyes were half closed in what looked a shallow sleep. Max wondered what she was dreaming about.
It came down to Billy to properly break the silence. A snore became a splutter became a choke then a cough, then woozily he pushed himself up against his rib bone until he was in a seated position.
His first word: ‘Max - ?’ then his tongue and nose took over, and his hand started to climb the bone behind him. While it clawed him upright, his head began to rove about increasingly wildly. Once standing, he slowly slid around the bone until it was completely between him and the new arrivals, and Max could see the boy’s skinny legs tensing. He decided it was time to speak.
‘It’s OK, Billy. They won’t hurt you.’
Then he fingered the sword hilt, made sure the others saw. No, they won’t hurt you, Billy.
‘Yeah, I knows that,’ said Billy, addressing the horizon opposite Andrew and Kabela. ‘What I wants to know is who they are.’
Before Max could reply, Andrew did. ‘Hello there, little fellow. I’m Andrew. An old friend of Max here.’
‘An old friend? You smells like you’re pretty old, yeah. Ain’t so sure about the friend part. Max?’ Max managed to keep his smile inside.
‘I know them, Billy. Not well, but they won’t attack.’
‘Attack? Us? We’re just about as beat as can be, right now. Max’d swat us like flies. With that fancy sword of his.’ Andrew turned to Max and smiled brightly, then gave an exaggerated wink. Yeah, so he recognised the sword. What was he going to do about it?
Meanwhile, Billy had slid back around the bone and now stepped away from it slightly.
‘I don’t trust you,’ he informed Andrew.
Andrew’s bright smile went brittle. ‘Well, I’m not that sold on you yet, kid. You haven’t even told me your name.’
‘Billy. Well, Billy. Maybe we’ll be friends still. A friend of Max - well, it’s better to be one of Max’s friends than one of his enemies. The man’s a monster!’ A joke so bad, no one even smiled.
Then Kabela, returning from whatever dream place she’d been visiting. lowered her head and opened her eyes on Billy.
‘Hi Billy. I’m Kabela.’
Billy’s reply: a half-hearted sniff. But his sightless gaze remained laser-locked on Andrew, and his body remained tensed. The man was shifting, clearly disconcerted. Good. Billy was handling the situation just fine. As another smile threatened to break free, Max sat back, relaxed, and determined to enjoy.
Billy: ‘Kabela. You another friend of Max’s?’ Still not taking his focus off the ex-Mayor. If Kabela noticed, she didn’t care.
‘Kind of. We spoke a few times. Never really got to speak properly.’
‘You sounds tired, Kabela.’
‘Yeah, you could say that, Billy. You could say that.’
Prompting Andrew to experience visible relief, Billy abruptly broke his laser-lock and dropped to the ground in a squat. For the time being, it seemed, some test had been passed.
His next question: ‘So what’re you doing here?’
Andrew answered. ‘Well, we didn’t have much place else to go. Our home burnt down, see.’
‘Hmmph. You two used to live together, then?’
‘Yeah’ said Andrew as Kabela said, ‘No’. After an exchange of glances, Andrew shrugged. ‘Yes and no. Kind of. Not together together, you know?’ Kabela looked sad, a word far heavier than its three letters implied.
For several seconds, the only sound was Billy’s tongue smacking his lips.
Then: ‘Well. I reckon I won’t ask you more about that til you’re gonna tell me what really happened.’
A shadow of a smile fell across Andrew’s mouth. ‘Smart kid.’ His voice was softer too, having dropped the overloud tone reserved for children and old people. ‘Yeah, when things are a bit more relaxed around here, we might have time to tell that story. Whaddya say, Max?’
Max had been quite content before the entertainment became interactive, and suspected his facial expression attested to that fact. Now he shrugged. ‘If you want. Brac was your town.’
Like black clouds scudding across the sun, a brief look of thunder passed over Andrew’s face then was gone as if it had never been there. ‘That it was, Max, old buddy. That it was.’ And Kabela’s dark eyes were glistening rain, and Billy’s head was swinging as if buffeted by a breeze, and words lapped unsaid between them all.
‘We can leave that for later, though,’ said Andrew, the momentary storm having happened in another world. ‘What I imagine Max wants to know is, where we’re planning to go now. Am I right, Max?’
Again Max shrugged, a gesture which had been used a lot recently. ‘The rocks are a big place. Pick a direction.’
‘See, that’s the thing. We were following you for a reason.’
Of course they were. And here it came -
‘Cards on the table, as they say. We figure that we stand more chance if we travel together. And, well, I’ve got no experience of life out here, Bela - sorry, Kabela - she hasn’t been on the rocks for years, so...’
‘Look, Max, it’s basic survival. For us, anyway. We’ve got nowhere to go. No direction. And both of us agree that out of anyone we’ve ever met, you’re the person who’d have a plan, who’d have a direction. You’ve lived out here for, for who knows how long, and... ’
Kabela took over. ‘I still remember Sergeant Flash, Max, how you dealt with that. And then, somehow you got into Brac, and... I don’t know. Out here, on the rocks, things move for you, and you’re - you’re immune from many of the things that would kill us, it seems.’
Her eyes looked away and went through a series of blinks; in that moment, Max thought, Kabela looked very beautiful. Perhaps Andrew thought so too, because he reached out to press an uncertain hand onto hers, which she quickly withdrew - but not, Max noted, immediately. She continued.
‘I don’t know why it is. There’s just something about you. You... belong in this new world; you’re as hard and worn as the rocks, and you can work them, make them work for you, or they -’
She stopped, having said too much, or frustrated at the wrong words, or exhausted, or something else. Whatever it was, Andrew spoke next.
‘What we’re trying to say is, we’d like to travel with you. And the way you’ve been cutting a dead straight path - well, if you’re heading somewhere, if you know of somewhere, anywhere, then we’d like to go there too. Together. If you’ll have us. I’m a washed up ex-drunk, and Kabela’s... Kabela.’ An ending likely made lame by a last minute change. ‘You won’t need to worry about us being a burden, as far as food and water goes. We can look after ourselves, just about.’
Andrew paused, then his voice quietened, became harder. ‘And, Max, old buddy, you once gave me some good advice. Serves me well out here. Now, what was it? Often slips my mind, but - ah, yes. “Be careful, Andrew Mark. Be vigilant.” That was it. Real... good... advice.’
The brilliant white smile that Andrew flashed Max climbed his face right up to his eyes, whereupon his stare took out a gun and shot it stone dead.
In much less than a second Billy’s head snapped round, and as the boy’s sharpened teeth glistened and the sword became heavy Max wondered if Andrew Mark had other reasons for travelling here.