by Caleb Nova
Unstable alliances and treaties before the war had formed a climate so volatile, that if one nation went down, the entire world went with it. The US had annexed Canada, and skirmishes and full-fledged wars were fought over territorial and personal disputes as the world went to hell. By the end, the spoils of war were also it's weapons, petroleum and uranium.
It is unknown who started it, but in the end, irrelevant. The first exchange had triggered a terror, and the rest was sure to follow.
It was over almost overnight. In 48 hours, most of the world was reduced to cinders, and the earth grew quiet behind a blanket of background radiation. But humanity was not extinguished, and from the ashes of nuclear devastation a new civilization would struggle to arise, surfacing after the deadly remnants of the fallout and radiation had diminished to a level which was not immediately fatal.
Some families reached the relative safety of large underground Vaults, built for the very purpose they were used, the survival of mankind. And so a generation lived and died without knowledge of the outside world.
Later a man called the Vault Dweller became a thing of legend, and his battle against the mutants from the north saved the humans from extinction. This is not his story.
It wasn't a large city by Oldworld standards, but in a wasteland of scrub brush and rock it was the closest thing to a major city around, barring Necropolis and the Boneyard, which were mostly depopulated and in ruins anyway. If the citizens didn't seem friendly, well, they weren't. A life such as this left no room for kindness, and the weak had died beneath that cancerous storm long ago.
The Hub was a trading post by necessity, a oasis of commerce in a land where barter and scrounge were the rules of the day, and because it was the only place with a economy worth something, Hub currency was accepted as the scrip of the wastes. 80 years after the bombs dropped anyone who had ever collected bottlecaps was a rich man overnight. There was stores in the Hub, merchants and caravans. You could buy many things if the price was right, although it usually wasn't.
Of course, no town is without it's darker element, and that is why a twenty-five year old man called, "Card", was crouching in a dark alley behind the local Chapter of the Children of the Apocalypse. He was waiting for something he desperately hoped wouldn't come.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Card scratched an irritating bite on his neck as he shifted his cramped legs to relieve some of the tension. Looking up at the darkening sky he cursed quietly, mentally berating himself. Why the hell did I ever listen to Decker?
Because he needed the money, that's why. Because he couldn't keep his damn mouth shut. And because of Garth, damn his soul to hell. This was all his fault. It had to be. Ma Teller's boy was just too smart to get into something like this without help from an influencing jackass. Normal people sometimes stumble into trouble, but Garth had a knack for jumping in like his ass was on fire. And maybe it was.
What had been a simple game of poker in a alleyway turned onto a living nightmare sometime around the third hand. Garth had been trying to angle a cracked hubcap with his foot to look at his opponent's cards when Kane had walked out of the side door to the Falcon. Things quickly went to hell. Kane was a legend of the infamous sort, a sadistic killer with an eye for causing trouble and the will to do so whenever possible.
Kane had looked at their makeshift crate and board table with open disgust. He had turned to leave, but stopped at the last moment. He turned with a malicious glint in his eye. Walking over to them, he laid his hands flat on the table, upsetting their deck. "You know boys, this is casino property. If you want to gamble, you come to us."
Card had been ready to gracefully quit the field after that, but he had forgotten one important fact- his so-called friend didn't believe in legends.
Garth had jumped up, his eyes blazing in anger. "Watch your hands, asshole, before I break them. We were here first."
Before Kane could react Card leaned over the table and forcefully grabbed Garth by the shirt front, dragging him down to hiss incredously into his ear.
"He'll fuckin' kill us."
As he began to let go Garth angrily jerked away. "But, we were here first! This dipshit has no ri-"
Most people shouted before it came to blows, or threatened and blustered. However, the customary, I'm-gonna-kick-you-ass's were forgone as Kane's fist flew out and with no warning smashed into Garth's face. He flew back in a flurry of blood and teeth, slamming into the shoddy brick wall and slumping to the ground. Card had never been punched with a fist full of steel, but he would bet his Granddad Teller's wooden leg that it wasn't pleasant. He watched as Garth's head lolled to where he could see the congealing blood on his lip and face. No, most likely not pleasant.
It wasn't that he didn't resign himself to the similar fate almost certainly in store for him, but he resented it greatly because, after all, he hadn't done anything. But the look on Kane's face was that of a judge passing a dire sentence, and Card figured he would get back to the homestead a bit late this evening, if at all.
Kane turned that face on Card, and he braced himself for a lot of pain, when Kane inexplicably stopped, and a slow smile came to his face. Card supposed this was all funny in a cosmic sort of way, but he didn't feel like smiling back. Kane apparently wasn't going to hit him, but Card found himself thinking that was probably preferable. Then, of course, the punch came.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Card came to with a full-blown orchestra playing a live show in his head, and he had a front row seat and a season pass.
Apart from the less than beautiful symphony he was privileged to, the first thing he noticed was the unpleasantly gritty taste and tang of dried blood in his mouth, and the hard wood floor. Very hard, actually. They probably had cured it just for the purpose of roughly throwing prisoners on it. He could imagine an add for such a curing product, 'More painful that concrete, or your money back.'.
And they had certainly thrown him roughly. Judging by the drops of blood scattered about, he had bounced five feet, though in what direction he was unsure of. Card unsteadily reached out and touched the steel bars that held him in the cell. Of course, they can't just have a door. Everyone has to see you piss or it's not humiliating enough. He just hoped Garth had survived, though privately he didn't mind if they roughed him up some more. He was going to speak very firmly to him about this, although he might let his foot do the talking. Firmly.
That particular fear was laid to rest when he saw the bleeding form of his friend doubled-over in the corner. Card hoped they hadn't kicked him in the balls. A man needed those. Just the thought was causing him some sympathy pains, so he limped over to make sure.
Garth was suffering from an extensive beating, but nothing appeared to be broken except for his right wrist, which was twisted at an uncomfortable angle. After Card reached down and shook him, Garth rolled over and sat up, his eyes still angry. Wonderful. If they haven't already used his nuts for soccer, they will after he does something else. He knew all to well that look in Garth's eye. Kill the bastards and damn the consequences.
Garth slowly searched the stark room with those burning eyes. His first words were, "Allright, where are those sons of bitches? Someone is gonna pay for this, I'm right handed!"
Card shook his head and hid a smile. He sighed in mocking pity. "Poor righty. He was your best friend, and a faithful lover."
That took a moment to set in. "You piece of shit!" Garth slowly got to his feet. "If my wrist wasn't busted, I'd punch you out."
"Like you could."
"Like I will."
They grinned at each other, then Garth's face turned serious as he took in their situation. "We got ourselves knee deep in the brahmin pile this time, man."
Garth had the grace to look embarrassed. "Well, we were there first. I bet if we went down to the Sheriff, he would say that's okay."
Card glared at him. "But you didn't exactly wait to find out, did you?" Garth shifted uncomfortably. "And now we're in this mess 'cause someone didn't keep their damn mouth shut."
Garth glared back. "He was out to piss me off man, he was looking for a fight!"
"Yeah, well you gave him one. For about point five seconds."
"Alright, I'm sorry, okay?"
"Apology accepted until we get out of here," He walked over to the bars and stuck his head out enough to see down both ways of the corridor. Nothing. Just empty hall. He turned back to Garth. "Judging by the other doors I'd say we're somewhere at the end of the back hallway in the Falcon."
Garth suddenly looked excited. "What, you mean the one with the hookers?"
Card gave him a withering look. "First we get out, then you can start thinking with your smallest digit."
Garth backed down. "Right, right. Gotcha."
Card rolled his eyes. "If only." He moved away to face the back wall, noting with some pleasure it was also made of wood. He eyed Garth speculatively.
"You have a good kick, right?"
Garth drew himself up proudly. "Best this side of the canyons. Of course, all the ladies say-"
He was cut off by a wave of Card's hand. "I don't care what the ladies say, I want to know if you can kick down this wall, or least make a hole."
"I can give it a try."
After taking three steps back, Garth cradled his broken wrist as he ran towards the wall and gave it a solid Jackie Chan Style kick. There was the loud crack of splintering wood, but a reverberating metallic clang followed after. Garth collapsed to the floor, holding his injured foot and swearing loudly.
"Goddamn, there's fucking metal in that wall!"
Card reached out and hit the wall softly, getting the same distant clang. "Yeah, must be steel bars in there."
"Why the hell didn't you try that before?!"
He frowned. "Just didn't occur to me, I guess."
Card held up his hand for silence. "Shhh! Listen!"
Garth to fell silent, and quickly heard the distinctive thud of booted feet on wooden floors. He looked wildly at Card. "You think they heard us?" Card whirled to face him.
"How could they not, what with you yelling like a deathclaw bit your ass? Now shut up, their getting closer."
With that the door at the end of the short hall swung open and Kane strode in, and close behind him was the pockmarked man Card knew as Decker. Oh shit.
Decker watched them for a moment with unreadable eyes, cold and black as a basilisk's, two gun barrels through which he looked out at the world. There would be no mercy in whatever he wanted from them, none at all.
Card felt it was his duty to speak first. "Mr. Decker, sir, I would just like to apologize for my friends actions, he's pretty stupid sometimes, you know, and I promise we'll never play cards in your alleyway anymore. Ever."
A hollow feeling was prevailing in Card's stomach when Decker finally deemed to speak. "Promises. Why should I believe you? Ahh....But I see you are a man of...Fiber, so to speak. Morality may be a hindrance, but it has uses. Kane."
Kane reached into his vest and pulled out a Desert Eagle .44, which he cocked and casually pointed at Garth's head. Card eyed him warily. Garth was two seconds from hysterics.
Decker smiled coldly. "I have a proposition for you, and you have two choices. You can agree to work for me, just a little job that needs doing, and you friend here walks free. Or, you can refuse my more than generous offer, and you both feed the worms. The choice, as I said, is yours."
Garth swallowed hard. "N-now think about this Decker. Don't do anything s-stupid." Card looked at him with pained eyes, then resigned himself.
"Fine. I'll do it."
"Excellent choice," Decker nodded to Kane. "Free him."
Looking rather disappointed, Kane opened the door and shoved Garth down the hall. Garth stopped for a moment, slowly turned back, and mouthed to Card, "I'll be back." Card shook his head violently, but Garth was already running out the door.
Decker swung back to Card. "Now, Card, about that job..."
* * * * * * * * * * *
So now he was freezing his ass off in a deserted alley in the south part of town, holding a gun he didn't know how to use and ordered to kill a woman that he didn't want to. Apparently Decker had something against the High Priestess of this chapter and he was to be the instrument of destruction. Card hated being used. He had killed people before, when you lived on a farm you almost had to, but syndicated murder was something else. What would Ma think of me?
No, he couldn't do this. Ma and the others lived by Junktown, they would be safe from Decker there. After some crazy gun-jockey from up North had killed Gizmo last month, the underground had no foothold, and the local gangs wouldn't work for Decker anyway.
If he could get out of the city, then he would be safe. Well, as relatively safe as one could get in the wastes. At least he'd have a gun.
Then a man walked past the alley, whistling. He almost absently tossed a empty beer bottle in the alley. Card picked it up. Sure enough, taped to the bottom was a note. Time.
With Decker's men stationed around, his only chance was to cause a big enough distraction to run for the edge of town. That would probably mean bringing in the cops, and he didn't want to do that. Around here, the cops shot on sight.
Oh yeah, I'm fucked.
There was nothing else for it. Damned if I do, damned if I don't, so hell- damn them. Rising up, he clambered to the top of a roof of the building directly next to the COTA chapter, raised his gun, and fired.
A agent Decker had sent to make sure Card did his job went down with a juicy hole in his small intestine, bleeding profusely as he screamed in terror. Watch that, bastard. Unfortunately, the police took that as an unwarranted attack on a innocent bystander, and Card didn't have the time to explain.
Two Hub guards raised their assault rifles and the brickwork to Card's right literally exploded into millions of shards as they empty their clips in his general direction. Card ran across the roof at full speed, gaining enough momentum to leap over the gap between the next building. Halting next to a drainage pipe he slid down and ducked into a small room when the front door burst in and another of Decker's men raised a SMG aimed at Card's forehead.
Card's life flashed before his eyes, which he found rather disconcerting, because it was actually quite boring. He'd have to fix that, if he lived.
Then the boarded window collapsed in fragments of glass and wood as three more Hub police opened fire on the building. The agent took two hits to the chest and collapsed without a word.
Card had already planned his escape, and so without hesitation he pushed aside some shelves and threw open a pre-Burn sewer cover, sliding off the edge into the dank tunnel. He couldn't stop think about what direction he should take, so whipping out his old battery lantern, he sprinted full-tilt into the darkness.