A Novel by D.M.J. Aurini

For Josh, and all those broken roads we’ve travelled down.


This book never would have reached its present state without the support, encouragement, and most importantly the critiques of many people; both known to me in person and online. I can’t possibly hope to recall all of you who have helped me over the years, but know that you have my gratitude.

In particular I’d like to thank the No Mutants Allowed forum for giving me the inspiration to write this book in the first place, and the Rudius Media Messageboard for all the lessons, both in writing and in life, that I learned there; Tucker Max, Donika Miller, Ben Corman, Proser, Secret Agent Dan, and all the rest — I’m thinking of you guys right now.

My friends and family, of course, for putting up with my scribblings, but most of all I’d like to thank my best friend and confidant Chris Griffin for the encouragement, the whiskey, and the insight into the publishing industry he gave me. I couldn’t have done it without you, brother.

Chapter 1

The sun bore down through rippling air. It was sinking ever closer to the horizon and its glare was blinding. Sweat dripped down over his goggles, beading down the lens and vanishing. With each step his feet throbbed. There was no breeze and the road was silent, except for the ragged sound of his breathing and the endless creak of leather-on-wool from the duffel bag slung over his shoulder. In his hand was an assault rifle, gripped by the magazine housing. The sight of it ought to ward off any predators.

The highway he walked was cracked, bleached, and hard on the feet. For most of the journey the soft embankments had been too steep to walk on and he’d been stuck with the blacktop. The heat of it rose up through the soles of his boots, burning with each step.

But his trek was nearing its end. Twenty-three kilometres ago he’d decided to go no further than Blackstock before packing it in for the night. Both Nestleton Station and Yelverton had lain in ruin, and from the looks of things Blackstock would too. Somewhere out here he’d find people, but where they were or how far he’d have to go were questions he didn’t know the answers to. He hoped his rations would hold out.

The land was hilly, with brush and scrub lining the road. Occasionally he’d pass the remains of a barbwire fence, rusted and fallen from decades of neglect.

A cold breeze began to blow, harbinger of the coming gloom. It whistled through the trees, stirred up dust devils, and crept into the folds of his jacket. It chilled his arms and neck, but left his back sweating. The road led through a valley, and as he neared its low point the sun disappeared behind the slope. He pulled out his Datapad and tilted the olive drab casing left and right until he could make out the screen. The GPS claimed he had only five hundred meters to go, but it was only picking up two satellites, so its predictions were questionable. He put it away, and leaned into the hill’s slope.

As he crested the rise an old highway sign came into view. Village of Blackstock, Population 800; the Datapad had been right after all. Shading his eyes against the glare he saw a Victorian-style building down the road, stone walls with a red roof. It looked like it had been ancient even before the war, but it wasn’t abandoned — over the door hung a wooden sign of recent manufacture, and in good repair. Red letters spelled out Landfall’s Ale House.

“Damn,” he sighed, “You’re a sight for sore eyes.”

Beyond the Ale House he could make out the rest of the town stretching off to the left along a pair of south- bound roads. Most of the buildings were makeshift, shanties cobbled together from recycled materials. A few prewar places in decent repair could be spotted between them. On the closer side of town was a tan-brick building with a market set up in its parking lot; probably the centre of local governance. South of it were the various cobbled-together dwellings of the natives. Stretching out west of the town were tilled fields and penned-in cattle. Milling about the area were men, women, and children; the sight of them filled him with relief, and a slight apprehension.

He unslung his duffle and went down to one knee. He popped out his rifle’s retaining pins and separated the upper and lower receivers, storing them in the duffle bag; he didn’t want to provoke the locals. But he left his pistol where it was, holstered on his hip. He didn’t want to use it.

His knees cracked as he stood. He ignored them, threw the bag over his shoulder, and staggered over to the ale house. He opened the door and stepped into a cool room smelling of stale beer and sawdust. His goggles depolarized and he surveyed the scene.

* * *

The stranger’s presence was announced by the screech of the door and a flash of sunlight. The patrons paused in their conversation, and Eddie leaned away from the bar, sizing up his new customer. In the doorway slouched a dark figure, silhouetted by the setting sun, resting on his back heel. After a moment he strolled in with a deliberate gait. Muted conversation resumed amongst the regulars.

The door swung shut and the man grew visible. Like most foreigners his face was naked, no tattoos at all. He was dressed in leather, chaps and jacket, with a black helmet and a set of eye-lenses — like one of the old riders, almost. Not a derelict, but no merchant, either. His movements were self-assured and he seemed relaxed. Eddie brushed away a lock of hair and gripped the bar with both hands.

“Hi-ya there. You’re new in town, ai?”

The man put down the duffel he was carrying and leaned one elbow on the bar. “Yeah, I guess I am.”

“Well then, welcome to Blackstock.” He glanced down, grabbed a rag and started wiping the bar. The muted conversation of the others was just a cover up for the fact that they were listening in; he was the youngest man present, but it was a Landfall’s job to suss out strangers. He kept his gaze steady. “So what’s your name then, stranger?”

The question seemed to faze the man; it was a split second before he answered. “My name’s Wentworth.”

“Wentworth, ai?” he mulled it over. “Well I’m Eddie Landfall. What can I getcha?”

“I guess I’ll have a pitcher of whatever you guys brew up around here.”

“Sure thing, Wentworth,” he grabbed one of the steel pitchers from the shelf. “I don’t know where you’re from—” he moved back to the keg and started pouring, “but you won’t be disappointed with Landfall’s Ale. Been brewing for generations.” Out of the corner of his eye he saw Wentworth look about the room; the other patrons stole surreptitious glances when they thought he wasn’t looking. Eddie tapped off the keg and brought the pitcher forward. “So where ya from, Wentworth?”

“Out East. Heading West.” He put money on the counter.

“Huh. Ain’t never heard of no one coming from the East, before. Thought all those places were abandoned.”

“Yeah, they mostly are,” the stranger’s voice changed, swinging upwards in pitch, “Say, where’d you get the power for those lights?” He glanced towards the LEDs strung along the ceiling.

“You like ’em? They’re new — a guy moved into town, a few months back, built us a generator, works off of coal. But that ain’t nothin’. We got an old sound system that another guy salvaged — an old ‘record player.’ Now with the generator, we’ve got music, even when Murphy here don’t feel like playing. We turn it on after sunset — it’s real chill; you oughta stick around. And there’s a pool table upstairs, if you play.”

“Nah, I’m not too good. But I think I’ll just head up there and rest my feet for a bit, if you don’t mind. Thank

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