The Love Market: Chapter Seventeen

It took several minutes for Piper to disentangle herself as well as Sequoia from the wreckage of the truck. There was a fleeting moment where she had attempted to drag the others from the vehicle, but the notion seemed superfluous. Rose wasn’t moving anymore, and Mika’s head hung at an odd angle. Monroe had let out one pained squeal after everything had come to a stop, but as Piper came clear of the truck, it ceased. The moisture on the road where the truck lay on the driver’s side told the story enough that Monroe hadn’t been fast enough to pull his arm in before the explosion. It was as her eyes trailed up from the transport that Piper saw the cause of such damage.

In the distance, far ahead where they had been intended to set up a new encampment, hung the heavy fungal-shaped cloud of dread. Piper’s breath fled then; the game was over, and she couldn’t claim anyway the act would be ignored. This would not be like a stone tossed into a pound, made to create ripples that would dissipate and return the calm surface to normal after a moment. The bomb would be the act of tossing a boulder into a frozen lake, jagged ice would jerk heavenward, and frigid water would pour out as it consumed more of the solid surface. These wars were going to end now, that much seemed evident, but what would be left of a world afterward, a world Sequoia would continue to grow in, was uncertain.

Piper looked at the bundle she had clutched to her breast, a weight that felt insubstantial, her limbs not the conflicting tantrum she expected of a child but calm and numb. She set the girl beside the truck before pulling some supplies from the back. There was water, food, and a few blankets that had been packed with a medical kit. Though she only had her sidearm, Piper figured survival, at least until they could reach somewhere safe, would not boil down to the ability to fight. Taking what she could, Piper loaded a bag before wrapping the girl in one of the blankets. The cold was setting in. Night had come and brought with it the grimmest of reapers. Regardless of what was to come, Piper would do all she could to protect Sequoia.

Fall out would be in the air, the blanket would not protect from radiation, but the cold would be deterred, and the bottled water a guard against contamination. It seemed wise to head south or west, anything but further on to the site of destruction. Far back along the road, Piper knew she might find the airstrip located only a few miles from the old camp. On foot, it would take a day, maybe days, but she knew, even if Sequoia became a bit of luggage, she might just make it.

Piper began down the road in darkness with the girl slung over her back and over Sequoia’s back, the pack of supplies. As troubling as it would have been otherwise, Piper could only thank the lucky stars guiding their trek south that the girl had been knocked out in the crash. It served as cause for Piper to check her occasionally as they stopped at some of the remaining military vehicles toppled on the roadside. Yet, every time she checked the girl, she was breathing, her pulse steady, and she showed no sign of injury. What was equally constant was the state of the motorcade and those fellows who had been caught in the blast.

Heavier vehicles and those carrying lighter loads seemed to have fared more poorly than Piper’s. The few staff members had met fates similar to those in her own vehicle, crushed, broken, or ejected from the trucks or the parts carried therein. The thought had crossed her mind as she made her way down the road, but seeing what had become of her fellow servicemen, the idea of being held up, robbed, raped, or worse was a distant concern to Piper. Worry now was the thought of an uncertain future.

She had orders, people to report to, and a job still to do, but all those moment-to-moment concerns had gone silent in the flash of that nuclear device. Piper was still waiting for even the terrors of what was to come to flit away with another blast that had yet to come. The immensity of paranoia lodged in her brain kept her from accessing any of the other vehicles to use their radios. Someone somewhere was likely trying to raise any member of the company they could, but Piper could imagine what they would ask of them. They would demand she turn tail and head into the blast, abandon the child, throw caution to the wind, and meet her duties as expected. The ignorance of another incoming bomb paled against the typhoon of rage that would enrapture her should she answer the call. Still, the looming fear of signs of life came, but not in the chatter of radio static.

From far up the road, in the direction Piper had fled, lights were growing on ground level. They were unmistakably the headlights of another vehicle, somehow untouched by the shockwave of impact. It felt like salvation for a moment, only for reality to come crashing in. She could see low odds of it being any member of the company coming to check the rest of the motorcade. More likely, Piper figured, it was a hostile come to pick the bones of fresh carcasses. The lights were growing closer, and there would be little time to disappear from sight. The space about the road was barren and empty. Hiking Sequoia on her shoulders better, Piper scampered for the nearest truck to tuck her away.

As the truck pulled up, Piper concealed the girl with the blanket, making sure the pack would be covered as well. There were good odds she put on being shot dead, even if she had the drop on them with her sidearm. If she were killed, she wanted to give Sequoia the best odds of survival, were she not discovered.

The truck halted beside the toppled vehicle, the engine continued on, but voices came across the dead air. They spoke English, but that was little reassurance to Piper. She crept to the corner of the tipped truck, her pistol at the ready. Though the engine might drown out her breath, Piper held in the air as she brought the barrel just before her nose. The metallic sent, the stink of a life about to end, penetrated her to her core as the shaking feeling that she might have to fire on another serviceman settled in her mind. As she moved to glance around the truck, the choice to fire was taken from her by force.

A rough hand seized the barrel and, because she hadn’t been ready, easily moved the end to point to the sky. Piper attempted to fire, but the slide wouldn’t move until the entire thing came away, her attacker slipping his other hand in close enough to touch the necessary parts to force disassembly. She staggered back, expecting to feel the burning augur of a bullet through her chest, the cold embrace of the crypt setting dagger claws into her flesh before she even fell, but no such luck. As she opened her eyes, Piper found Staff Sergeant Perez standing in front of her, holding the slide of her pistol and looking more confused than angry.

“Dauring? What are you doing so far back?”

Piper’s throat was sand, but she crackled out words, “Looking for help.”

“Why didn’t you continue north to the rendezvous?”

“The bomb.”

“Alright. That’s a fair one. Well, come on. We’re getting back to the airstrip. We’ll wait out until we can leave safely,” he was already away as he finished the order, her slide tossed to her only to fall short by a pace.

Piper looked back to the truck. Her first and foremost concern was the child still unconscious in the back of the truck. If she placed her bet wrong, if Perez was a man of orders and not action, if this was just directions to take them to another battlefield, Sequoia was no less dead if abandoned here and now. But Piper thought highly of Perez, at least thought he would be reasonable about the girl if he answered the chain of command. And, if she were left alone in the wild world, Sequoia would die a slow and undoubtedly painful death in fear and confusion alone. Piper couldn’t do much, but the least she could offer was to help the girl go in peace if she was not fated to live.

Coming to the battered truck, Piper carried Sequoia still shrouded as though a body of a saint meant to keep their dignity after death. Perez looked curiously but said nothing until Piper was inside with the girl sitting up in a seat, the blanket falling away from her pale face. Turning about, Masterson jabbed a finger towards Sequoia, “Is she dead?”

“She’s out cold, but she’s breathing,” Piper answered as she put her sidearm back in order, “Is it a problem I brought her with?”

“Anyone we take with us is what we’re supposed to do,” Perez cut in, “I would rather another hand with a rifle or someone with a skill we might use, but Marketers are people too.”

“Shame it wasn’t the old bitch. I ain’t down with that kind of play,” Masterson remarked as they put ever more distance between the other Marketers dead in their transport.

They drove late into the night, picking over trucks to see what could be found, only to come up with little of practical use. Masterson and Perez had picked through a few of the other trucks bringing out supplies and taking away the necessities which were crammed in the back. Between the four of them, they might make it a month on what they had if they remained grounded at the airstrip that long or if orders came in to wait for reinforcements. The last thing Piper wanted was the latter alternative. As the moon finally erupted with brilliant blue light onto the desert from behind the fading mushroom cloud, the fatal fear of a second impact returned to her mind.

Leaning forward, she shook Perez at the wheel, “Staff Sergeant, have you heard anything about retaliation or another strike?”

“Have you?”

“I haven’t been near a radio tonight.”

Perez let a tiny grin slip for the second he glanced back at her, “Since impact, world leaders have been in talks. They haven’t determined the attacker, no one in the air space at the time, and nothing was sent from any known bases storing nuclear arms. What has come to us through the radio is a ceasefire. No one is bold enough to send a massive attack without confirmation who they might target.”

“So, no bombs?”

“No bombs. We’re supposed to await orders once we get to the airstrip, but I’m not so sure about that. Ricter isn’t an idiot, and if he had his way, he’d have flown already and just might have. But with the worry over airspace, I think he’s sitting tight at least until morning, maybe the next day. He won’t be hard to convince that he has to get back somewhere safe, let everyone lick their wounds for a while.”

Piper slumped back in the seat, breathing a sigh of relief that, without warning, a world-ending barrage of bombs was not about to fall on their heads. Cooler heads had prevailed for the moment, that much she could be thankful for. The chance she might go back to the empty and nothing of home almost felt like a prize rightly won and not just a consolation for all she’d been through. Fatigue set in as she rested her head against the window, a long time coming but now feeling like the only thing left. Just as Piper became comfortable with her face against the cold window, she felt the warmth of another body.

Looking down, she found Sequoia lying half across her lap, half still in the seat. She hadn’t fallen in her sleep but had clearly woken, undone her belt, and slid over to collapse on Piper. It was strange at first, the odd contact that she had not felt comfortable making in the room of stifling heat, stained with the furtive desires of sicker minds. Yet, after a moment, Piper warmed to the touch. Sequoia was weak, tired, but most importantly, vulnerably young. What she wanted, what Piper knew she needed from all those years spent in such a way, was just this; the gentle hand to comfort the weary and wounded mind.

freedom carried on a miraculous spore

the lands god abandoned forevermore

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