(If you want, buy their previous rampages for $2 by clicking on the covers below.)
Sitting on the jeep’s roof, Cassidy watches the chaotic battle with nothing more than a casual interest and a bucket of popcorn. Small explosions earn a sarcastic ooh and aah from the mercenary, the blasts rarely taking out more than two people. She hears miniguns going off in the fray, but cannot find the user or a group of people being mowed down by what should be a barrage of bullets. One man on a terrified horse swings his sword over his head, but he shouts commands instead of attacking. A rock hits him in the head and knocks him out of the saddle, his own steed kicking him in the face before charging away. Not far away, a tank tries to join the fight, but every shot sails over the battle and crashes harmlessly into the ground. The dangerous vehicle has more luck running people over, nearly half of its victims being from the same army as the operators. The tank is stopped when a woman clambers up, knocks on the top, and drops in a stick of dynamite as soon as someone opens the hatch. Chuckling at the cartoonish scene, Cassidy uses a trash picker to grab a cold beer from the small cooler they took from their last stop.
“So, I asked around and think I have it figured out,” Lloyd announces as he trudges up the hill. Putting his machete and paintball gun in the jeep, he grabs a drink and leans against the warm vehicle. “Everybody down there is part of an army that wants this Great, Evil, Selfish, Selfless, Awesome Messiah. I’d think they were going after different people if they didn’t give similar descriptions of this mystery woman. Now, one army wants to kill her before she can stop Custer and another wants her to lead them against him. Another group wants to bring her to Custer’s side and build her up as a villain that he can deflect problems too. Basically, a human shield and scapegoat. The fourth army wants to kill her because they believe she’ll bring in a new age of suffering if given power. Not that they like Custer or the current state of the world, but, as one said, they’d rather fuck a rusty cheese grater than allow this woman to live. The last group simply wants her autograph. On the plus side, there isn’t a sixth Bullwhip to be found, so we’re done with that joke.”
“All this over a dead woman,” Cassidy replies as she leans on the roof dome. Handing the popcorn to Lloyd, she watches a hissing rocket rise into the air and fall straight down without exploding. “I’ve been thinking about what the groups said every time we found them torturing a Half-Dead. The description and fervor makes me think they’re after a woman who was influential before the collapse. If she came from one of the political dynasties then she’s probably dead. Most of those families were targeted and supposedly wiped out after D.C. got nuked. This single group believed that one of them was behind the attack, but didn’t have evidence or know which one. The terrified mob did the rest. I’ve heard rumors that one or two survived by escaping or being in Hawaii. Nobody knows what happened to the state, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the people there are fine. Anyway, these idiots are battling for an icon that is either dead or has no power.”
“Sounds like they just want a symbol, which makes sense,” the serial killer says with a yawn. Turning away from the battle, he stares at a pair of stones that are surrounded by colorful flowers. “This does make me wonder how many people want things to return to normal. They may have carved out a niche and found a way to survive, but they keep dreaming of the country going back to what it was before. Sucks for them because that ain’t happening. What’s dead is dead no matter how often you talk about it in the present tense?”
Finishing her beer, Cassidy clumsily slides off the jeep and grabs an ice cube to pop into her mouth. She spits the sour-tasting piece out and goes for another beer, which spews foam over her hand. The mercenary wanders over to the flowers and gently pushes a few away from the stones, which have faint etchings on the front. She can make out enough of the markings to be sure that they were once words that have been rubbed away. Using one of the wobbly rocks to help her stand, Cassidy looks out and notices similar markers running down the hill. She takes a step to check them, but the world spins and forces her to have a seat. Shaking her head clear, the mercenary has another sip of beer and yawns in the hopes of making Lloyd think she is merely tired.
“This whole mess has me thinking about the future,” Cassidy admits, plucking a purple flower from the ground. Taking a sniff, she sneezes and coughs at the pollen that attacks her nose. “Custer and his people seem to be coming close to conquering the country. He probably won’t be the last one to try either. What if someone actually succeeds? On the surface, it seems like a good idea, but there’s an obvious flaw. You get factions skull-fucking each other for supremacy like you see here. Might take years, but we’ll end up back where we started since everybody thinks their ideology is the perfect one. Eventually, one group gets everything they want and the others get angry.”
“Welcome to human society and civilization,” Lloyd proudly declares with a grin. He cracks open another beer and puts it between the stones, foam flowing down the side. “Ever wonder if the two of us are the normal ones and the humans acting civilized are the freaks? A person is pushed ever so slightly and they go rabid. Doesn’t even have to be a real threat. They’ll snarl and hiss and attack at everyone even if it’s a battle of words. Very deep stuff that you’re bringing up, kid. Do we really care enough to have a philosophical conversation?”
“Then, why bring it up?”
“Just letting my mind wander.”
“Guess it beats watching these idiots kill each other.”
“Where did the armies go?”
Cassidy and Lloyd look out over the battlefield that has gone quiet, the bodies having already attracted scavengers. The only humans in sight are a pack of fur-wearing Wilders, who are investigating the abandoned tank. One of them is struggling to control the horse, which is still terrified and bucking at the slightest touch. It takes Cassidy and Lloyd a moment to spot the armies in the distance, all of them fighting as they move east. With the sun setting, it is impossible to get a clear view of the battle. All they can see are patches of dust being kicked up by hundreds of feet and the occasional explosion.
“They’re heading right into the radiation zone,” Cassidy points out, her words filled with shock. Finishing her beer, she stumbles toward the jeep and leans on the hood in order to catch her breath. “This is why I think the whole faction shit is stupid. You fall into a pack mentality or lock yourself in an echo chamber or whatever. Then, you just walk off the fucking cliff with the rest of the idiots that happen to think like you do. The dumbest part is that every group claims to be open-minded while getting angry at everything that even remotely goes against how they think the world works. Honestly, I like the simplicity of the Shattered States a lot more. Kill or be killed, right?”
“You’re sounding drunk and I know you’ve only had two beers,” Lloyd mentions, catching his friend by the arm. Leading her to the passenger seat, he turns her an instant before she vomits onto the ground. “Okay, that’s enough soap box ranting for you. Let’s get you into your baby and ignore how creepy that sounds. Just sleep off the booze and . . . is that blood?”