“What’ve we got?” Elaine asked as she carefully blew sand off the lenses of her wraparound sunglasses. Rubbing the sand away would scratch the polarized plastic, and she doubted she’d find replacement lenses anytime soon.
“Convoy, ma’am,” Renner called down from his watch post. “Ain’t flying no flags. Should I fire a warning shot, let ‘em know to be heading elsewhere?”
Elaine fought down the urge to say yes. “Renner, in twenty years, when have I ever asked you to fire a warning shot?”
The guardsman coughed. “Never. Ma’am.”
“That’s right. They can come in if they want. They got something to trade, we trade. They got an eye for trouble, well, you’d best not be wasting ammo on warnings.”
Renner rode with Elaine since before the founding of Icehouse. He knew better than to ask questions like that.
“Something wrong, Ren?”
“Nah,” he replied.
He looked through his scope again. “It’s just that, well, it’s probably nothing.”
“Spit it out, Renner.”
“Three riders are leading the convoy. Something about ‘em feel off.”
Elaine froze. “Riders? Like on horses?”
“Crotch rockets. Suzukis, if I had to guess.”
Seems like they’d upgraded.
Renner coughed. “Want me to take the shot?”
Elaine took a deep breath. She exhaled, long and slow, shaking her head. “Same as same is. We talk first. No trouble if they don’t start it.”
“And the little ones?”
Elaine fought down a shiver. “Been a while since we’ve had a shelter drill. Now’s as good a time as any to run one.”
Renner tapped a signal on the wireless, sending a pulse through the settlement. In less time than it took Elain to walk to the decontamination lock, every family filed orderly into the underground bunkers that housed most of them for the better part of the last two decades.
A woman’s face greeted Elaine from high above the lock’s thick steel door.
“Mornin’ Boss!” the other woman called down. “What can I do ya for?”
“Need to go through, Marissa. I’ll meet our visitors in the red zone.”
“But the radiation – “
Elaine cut her off with a wave. “I’ll be fine. Better me there than them in here.”
Three feet of solid steel couldn’t protect her people completely, but it provided more shielding than the nothing they’d have if the riders got in Icehouse.
Marissa vanished from sight. A few moments later, the entrance to the lock shuddered open. Elaine felt the uneasy stairs upon her from the faces lining the guardrail. This unsettled them. It reminded everyone of what she had been, no matter what she had become.
The heavy door closed behind her, allowing a similar aperture on the other side to open. Before long, the three riders crossed the threshold, their convoy wavering behind them like a fever dream.
The leftmost rider dressed in grimy leathers, the once-white material thick and crusted with grime and filth. She sat atop a white bike, miraculously pristine in spite of everything. The rider on the right wore skintight ragged neoprene, her bones showing clearly through the fabric. At their head rode a woman wearing scuffed jeans and a battered leather jacket. She sat atop a bike the color of dried bone.
All three riders wore helmets that matched their motorcycles.
Elaine bowed her head in greeting. Respectful, but not too deep.
“Hello, sister,” the lead rider said, her voice dry as the cracked earth. “You look well.”
“What can I say? The road to hell is a girl’s best friend.” Elaine said with a smile that never quite reached her eyes.
The word hung in the air for a moment. The rider in white coughed.
“Since we got pleasantries out of the way, y’all mind telling me what brings you to my neck of the woods? If I remember correctly, we had an agreement.”
“Name’s Elaine, nowadays.”
The woman in jeans shrugged. “Call yourself what you will. It will not matter long. It’s time to finish what we started.”
“Now where’s the fun in that?” Elaine asked. “It took less than six months to wipe out every nation in the planet.”
“Exactly!” the lead rider hissed. “The job should have been done within a year. Why do you keep them alive.”
Elaine reached into her back pocket and pulled out a cigarette. She held it out to the woman on the pale bike. “Rare thing these days. Any comfort or commodity is rare. Every day for these folks is a battle. Whole damn world trying to kill them. Their ain’t no struggle like keeping a crop alive through these summers.”
The rider in black snorted. “So that’s where your sword went? Turned to plowshares?”
Elaine smiled again. “A bit of it.”
The lead rider’s helmet gave no indication of her mood. “And the rest of it?”
The sound of a dozen rifles cocking filled the air. A single thwip, and a small bit of ground near the lead rider’s front tire burst into flames.
Elaine kept her expression level. She’d have to have a word with Renner later.
“Strange aeons, sister, ” Elaine replied. “Now ride along and don’t come back.”
The riders in black and white turned, but the leader stayed focused on Elaine. “I’ll take everyone here, eventually.”
“You’ll win the battles, but you won’t win the war.”
The pale rider crushed a scorpion under her boot. “We’ll see.”
Elaine watched her three former companions ride off into the afternoon sun, their convoy reflecting off the glass domes of the irradiated dunes. Part of her wished they’d put up even more of a fight. She reckoned that nature was the only worthy opponent left for her to fight.
“Start decontamination!” she shouted to the guards as the far entrance to the lock shuddered closed, sealing off their little town from the ruins of the world.