"So, there I was," said Josh, as the fire's light flickered on his face. "Out in the middle of nowhere with nothin' on but my honpants and that rope she tied tight 'round my arms, when out of nowhere, her posse shows up. They thought I was the bounty!"
"And can ya blame them?" interrupted Rachel. "With how easily she had you wrapped around her finger?"
Josh gave a sarcastic "Ha," and continued, "Anyway, getting on her steed wasn't easy. She picked me up BY THE EARS and let me do the rest. Had a dude pointing his X-bow at me the whole time. They took me a few miles before you guys ran into us, and you know the rest." He nodded at Tanaka, who had a treated wound in his shoulder.
"It was really miraculous that we just ran into you like that, Josh," said Harold. "Saved us a lot of time looking."
"Like we'd bother looking anyway," replied Rachel with a wry smile.
"Well, I would," Harold said, overly earnestly since Rachel was joking.
"You'd comb the entire Wastes for anybody who gave you the time of day," replied Josh. "It's this lot I've got to worry about." He motioned at the other two around the campfire.
"I-I'm the one who took a shot for you," said Tanaka after a pause, awkwardly trying to joke.
"Yeah, but you didn't choose to. You're new, and not from where we're from, dude. I don't blame you if you feel the same way as Rachel. At least, not as much as I blame Rachel," Josh replied. He looked Tanaka in the eye, and Tanaka looked down, more nervous. "Thanks, though. Choice or not, you really went through hell to get me back." His eyes looked around. "All of you."
The next morning began with some breakfast--courtesy of Harold, with his trusty pack of cooking supplies. Normally, they had to hunt for the occasional gecko or jackrabbit, but after what they had been through, "I thought I'd use one of my special saved cans this time," he told them.
"Right, 'special cans.' You mean the beans," Rachel replied.
"Beans are mighty healthy, Rachel. And I think they taste pretty alright with a little spice thrown in," explained Harold.
"I don't think they're so delicious a little afterwards," Josh complained. "But, better than those damn lizards."
"Or being thrown onto a horse by your ears," chimed in Rachel.
"Dammit, girl, I wasn't thrown!" Josh exclaimed. Whether he was playing along or geniunely mad was unclear.
"Right, so what's the plan today? We were headin' west, right?" asked Rachel.
"That's right, to visit old Ben's. I haven't seen my uncle in a long time," Harold answered.
"But, that's not all there is to it. We don't go out and Brave The Wastes just to say 'sup to old friends," Rachel continued.
"Maybe you don't. But, you're right. You see, fellas, my hospital's out of some supplies. The kind nobody knows how to make but him," said Harold. "Plus, I missed the old days, when we'd go out just for the thrill and the beauty. That's mostly why I brought you two along."
"We were idjits back then," said Josh. "Young and foolish."
"And most of all, without our own families to take care of," added Rachel. "Besides Josh, I mean."
"Hey, I help out Harold's kids a lot!" defended Josh. "Might as well be family."
"Maybe when you start acting like it, I'll believe you," Rachel said, this time matter-of-factly. Josh wondered what that was supposed to mean.
"Never said I regret all these years we've spent safe inside the dome," replied Harold. "Or my wonderful family."
"But your patients are running out of time?" Tanaka guessed excitedly, making an effort to be included in this group of strangers he'd already taken a bolt for.
"Precisely," Harold confirmed, smiling at him.
After packing up their pots, pans, and sleeping bags, they set out to continue west, guided by the red, barren landscape that was once their oyster, and the occasional road.
"So, Tanaka, what's it like where yer from, anyway?" Josh eventually wondered.
"I-I think my dome is a bit different," Tanaka answered.
"Oh? How so?" asked Harold.
"Well, nobody would ever behave like Rachel does to Josh," Tanaka explained. Josh gave a hearty laugh. "Or the way Josh did last night, with that woman who captured him afterwards." Josh's laughing was cut short.
"He's got you both," commented Harold. "Why'd you leave, Tanaka?"
"Well, I was looking for something else," Tanaka replied. He looked down.
"That sure wasn't cryptic!" Josh said sarcastically. Tanaka responded with silence, and remained looking down.
After a pause, Harold said, "Hey, he'll tell us what he feels comfortable with. In his own time. I mean, he did take a bolt for you last night, Josh."
"And I'm never gonna hear the end of it," said Josh.
"That's right!" added Rachel.
After another, longer pause, Tanaka said, "N-no, it's alright. I had my own friends, and sometimes we would go out into the Wastes, too. Well, they would. I never wanted to, but I had to follow them. I had no family, and my home was a bad place for people like me without some friends.
"Eventually, everything went wrong. Out of nowhere, we were ambushed by raiders. But they weren't... normal. They were wearing strange clothes and wielding oddly-shaped, shiny, hand-held rods of some kind, and when they pointed them at you, they could somehow create explosions out of them.
"My friends all dropped around me, but I managed to think fast. I dropped low and crawled as fast as I could behind a rock nearby. They were hiding behind some rocks uphill, shooting something too fast to see with those explosive devices. They weren't too far away. I took one of my friends' X-bows and launched one, right between a raider's eyes, and hid behind the rock and waited. They must not have been very smart, or maybe they cared about their dead friend, because they ran off even though I was out of ammo.
"After that, I was in shock. My friends had all died in front of me. I wandered around aimlessly until you guys found me, but I think I would have decided to leave my old life anyway."
"Wow, Tanaka..." Harold began.
"I had no idea you could fight like that!" Josh interjected. "You are the most bad ass dude in this group."
"Where I'm from, my skills are normal. We're all trained like that, to be literate in both fighting and words," Tanaka explained. "Given a choice, I'd be in a nice home with a family."
"Well, when we get back, you're more than welcome to stay with mine for a while," said Harold.
Tanaka smiled. Then, he remembered something. "When the raiders ran off, they didn't stop for their... friend. I was out of food and ammo, so I had to loot everybody, including him, and I found his explosive device. It looked exquisitely crafted. I have no idea how it works or how to use it, but I've got it here in my pocket." He pulled it out and showed it to them. Captivated by its beauty and mystery, the four of them stopped walking.
The device was almost pure, solid, polished metal, except for its carefully shaped, wooden handle. It was a 2-dimensional design, mirrored on both sides, but sticking out of its relatively flat body was a rotating cylinder with 6 holes bored into it--some of them filled with other metal devices. At its end, it came almost to a point, and another, deeper hole was bored into that end. And between its metal and wooden sections was a small rectangular frame, with a small, curved, metal prick inside.
Later that day, they arrived at Ben's home. It was half-wooden, half-carved into a cliff-face. The wooden parts were disguised by a combination of red paint, trees, and foliage. A visible, lone house in the Wastes was a dangerous thing, and lone buildings in general were uncommon.
"Hey, old Ben!" Harold shouted, knocking at the door. "It's me, Harold, and also Rachel and Josh, and a new friend. I've come for a resupply."
After a long moment, they began hearing many locks behind the door come undone, and the door opened wide to an old man with a smiling face. "Hello, my nephew!" said Ben. "Come inside!" They did, and the door closed behind them.
The house inside probably had a lot of space, but it was piled almost to the ceiling with junk and scrap. Workbenches with recently-worked-on projects were scattered about. In the corner was a bed, a clean table and chair, and a refridgerator hooked up to an abnormally quiet generator. The house was very dark, with shafts of daylight illuminating just enough from holes high up in the wall. That would explain why it was very dusty inside. It looked like Ben had a few electrical light fixtures, but none of them were turned on.
"Rachel. Josh," said Ben, nodding at them. "And who's this?"
"We ran into him on our way here," explained Harold. "His name's Tanaka. He's been through hell, both off and on our account."
"Sir," Tanaka greeted, bowing a little.
Ben inspected him briefly, with quizzical eyes. "I see. Where's he from?"
"An older dome out east, called Yamato," Harold answered. "Don't feel nervous, Tanaka. He's like this with everyone."
"Oh, right! I'm sorry; where are my manners?" Ben exclaimed as he reached out his hand to shake. Tanaka stared at it for a moment, before Ben confusedly lowered it again.
"I, uh... I don't..." Tanaka's voice trailed off. "Why do you live out here?"
"Somebody's got to gather the local herbs and make what Harold needs for our people," explained Ben. Something told Tanaka that wasn't the real reason.
Harold, Josh, and Rachel had been gathering Ben's newest batch of medical supplies. When the conversation died, Harold said, "Uncle, Tanaka found something curious right before we met him. You seem to know more about these things than we do. Wanna take a look?"
Taken by surprise, Tanaka took out the metal device and handed it to Ben. "This is interesting..." Ben said, almost to himself, as he poured over it.
"Some raiders were using it as a weapon against me," Tanaka explained. "They pointed that end, there, at me, and little explosions shot things too fast to see around me. I think they were supposed to hit me."
Ben didn't take long to figure out the proper way to hold it. From there, he noticed his finger slipped naturally onto the curved, metal prick. He fiddled with it, and realized it gave way in one direction, towards the rest of his hand...
A loud BANG shattered everyone's ears and echoed through the surrounding countryside. Everyone turned to Ben, and saw Tanaka against the wall, his face in shock, and a small red stain in his abdomen growing in size. Tanaka fell down along the wall to a sitting position.
"Tanaka's hurt!" somebody shouted.
"A-alright, Ben, I'm a doctor and you're an herbalist. We can figure this out," said Harold. Trying to be calm, but shaking a little, he walked over to Tanaka and inspected his wound.
"You said those things shot something too small to see with their little explosions..." began Harold. He noticed the bloodstain and, upon inspection, found a hole in Tanaka's shirt at its center. "Whatever it is, it's punctured you and gone into your body, like a bolt. Only this time, it's not conveniently sticking out. Ben, I'll need some tweezers or pliers."
Ben handed Harold a pair of pliers. Then, he walked over to a chest filled with herbs, opened it, and began mixing something. "I'll make something for the pain," he said. Harold nodded at him.
Slowly and carefully, the pliers made their way into Tanaka's stomach, twisting and pushing to give Harold enough of a view. Tanaka grimaced.
"You just keep taking hits for us, Tanaka," Harold joked absent-mindedly as he worked. "One o' these days, we gotta make you a cake."
As Tanaka watched him work, he noticed through the pain that Harold's nervousness had completely evaporated. Harold was consumed by his focus on saving his life.
After a few moments of excruciating pain, Ben gave Tanaka something to drink. A day ago, he wouldn't have been as trustworthy, but he took Ben's mixture without hesitation. The pain subsided to a dull, numb echo and he felt a little woozy, but good.
"Found it!" Harold announced, as he used the pliers to pull out a small, half-circle metal object. He inspected it for a moment before putting it and the pliers on a table nearby, immediately dirtying it with blood. He then reached for some alcohol, poured it over the wound, and rapped bandages around Tanaka's stomach over the hole.
"That should do it," he said with a smile, his nervousness replaced with a strong success-based pride.
Suddenly, another BANG sounded from outside, and Tanaka's head whipped forward. They all stared at each other in shock for a moment, until Tanaka fell over with a gasp, revealing a fresh hole in the back of his head.
More shots followed as Ben and the original trio jumped behind tables and junk. Dozens of them came through the wooden wall and bounced harmlessly off their cover, on and on, until eventually, they stopped. But the four of them didn't get up or stop being quiet.
"They must have heard us," Ben whispered, referring to when he accidentally fired their device. "Those damn bandits have known someone was around here for years. I figured when I found my herbs outside cut by someone else. I figure they did the same. But I made sure they never found this place. I didn't realize that thing was so loud. I had no idea they had their own, either."
Soon, they heard shouting outside. "Search the place!"
Ben grabbed a crossbow he kept on one of the tables and ran back to his hiding place, handing it to Josh. Then, he handed the metal device to Rachel. "You're our best shot," he said. "Make it count."
As Rachel took a moment to familiarize herself with this new device, they heard footsteps as the strangers came closer to the door. Soon, it was open, and a woman they had never seen before, weilding a bigger, longer metal-and-wooden device with two hands, was in Ben's house uninvited and pointing it wherever she looked. Josh began to raise his crossbow, until Rachel put her hand over it. She gave him a glare that said, "Not yet."
The weapon-wielding woman walked around, inspecting the place. She was getting closer and closer to Josh and Rachel, who had picked the same hiding place. Rachel silently and quickly traded weapons with Josh, realizing she needed something quiet. As soon as the stranger saw them, she had a bolt going through her neck, blood spouting as she gurgled and fell to the ground.
They waited for a few moments. Soon, another shout came through the open door.
"Hannah! You still in there?"
The strangers must have realized their friend was either dead or captured, because they fired another volley of shots all over the place. A stray shot hit Ben's generator, a piece of it flew off, and it suddenly began leaking gas and making a lot of noise.
"They're trying to escape!"
The strangers ran for their house and were soon through the front door. What followed was a bloodbath. Rachel was unloading bolt after bolt, Josh was firing their new weapon, and Harold and Ben were throwing random sharp objects they could find. Josh's weapon quickly ran out of ammo and gave a click sound, but soon, Rachel had finished them all off.
In shock, and almost like it was routine, they looted and carried out the bodies, and inspected Tanaka to find he was dead.
"We'll have to leave this place, for good," Rachel advised. "If any more of this group exist, they'll have heard all this."
"No," Ben replied simply. "I can't go back. Just give me one of those things, and I'll fend off any more that come."
They didn't like it, but they followed his direction, and left him one of the devices and a crossbow. They took what was left--one explosive device for each of them--and set out back home, with the medical supplies Harold had come for. They left the fifth one, the one Josh was using that ran out of ammo, with Ben to study.
They didn't have a long time of peace back on the road. The stress had gotten to them, and Rachel and Josh were fighting.
"Yes, Josh! It is your fault! I haven't seen these weapons around before, so those raiders must have been the same ones that attacked Tanaka. Which means they were going in the same direction as us, and the only reason they were around soon enough to hear Ben's mistake is that we were delayed. A lot," Rachel explained, aggravated.
"And what about Ben's mistake? It was that damn shot that got Tanaka killed in the first place!" Josh replied.
"Ben couldn't have known!"
"Oh, and I could have known that beautiful woman was a bounty hunter?"
"Ben was trying to inspect a new device. At least he made his mistake while doing something right!"
"What do you got against me and women?"
"I think it's something all women have against you alone, Josh."
"Enough!" boomed Harold. "We lost a man, and we probably lost my uncle, too. I don't need you two being petty. I just want to get home to my family and forget about this."
Rachel and Josh calmed down and looked sympathetically at Harold, even though he was walking ahead and couldn't see them.
"I'm sorry, Harold."
"Yeah, sorry, dude. Didn't realize you're probably taking this a lot harder than us."
Harold walked on in silence for a moment. He sighed.
"It doesn't matter. You keep walking forward," he said, trying more to convince himself than his friends. He was a doctor. He'd seen death plenty of times before, but this was different. This was a life he had just saved, and at that moment, nothing could have touched him. But something did.
"I wasn't observant enough," Harold said.
"Harold..." began Rachel.
"No, it's true. The shot signaled for those raiders to show up. It was so obvious! I mean, we were still around the same area as Tanaka when..." His voice trailed off. Rachel hoped it was because Harold was done blaming himself, but it was for an entirely different reason. Harold stopped moving and stared, frozen, at a nearby hill.
"Uh, Harold?" Rachel asked. She waved her hand over his face. "Are... you OK?" She looked worried, until she saw what Harold saw.
Josh was the last to see it. "Fuck!" he shouted, at the top of his lungs. Barely sticking out of a rock on that hill was somebody's head, and on top of the rock between them was another explosive device.
Rachel was first. A boom, a zip, and her body was oozing blood, right where her heart was. She stared at it in shock for a moment before falling down. Josh screamed her name as Harold ran for cover.
When Harold got behind a rock, Josh was still out in the open, cradling Rachel's head and crying over her dying body, apologizing for his entire life and then some.
"Josh, you idiot! Get back here!" Harold screamed at him. Josh didn't seem to hear him, and soon, a shot exploded his head. This time, Harold screamed. He pulled out his device and tried to use it on the lone raider, but it made its out-of-ammo click.