It paid off to have survival skills in the wasteland. Every salvager needed them or else death treaded pretty close. He read about the days before the Big Boom, when a man’s freedom out in the wilds depended on his ability to be responsible. It was different now though; the survival skills back then paled in comparison to the ones for the wasteland. Jason lapsed into a small bout of contemplation as he swept a thickly gloved hand over his ragged and grimy brown hair.
The Big Boom. It was such a simple name for the day the world ended but no one really cared about what to call it. Making ends meet in this new, decrepit world without morals or humanity tested minds and killed off the weak. He wasn’t weak in the physical sense; his hulking physique intimidated most people from picking fights with him. The problem was keeping his focus since his mind always leapt back home, concerned about his wife.
He knew he needed to strengthen his weaknesses. He scratched his thick, rough beard and checked his rifle while ensuring his salvaging equipment was ready to deal with anything he could get his hands on. The thick, comfortable clothing shielding his leathery skin from the cold of the wastes wouldn’t be enough to stop a bullet. Carrying a mobile cutting torch didn’t do favors for his back, either. He needed to rely on his wits more than anything since his aiming was pretty piss poor as well.
He looked over the ruins of the hotel before him and choked down a lump in his throat. His salvaging buddies said it was completely empty, untouched by the psychotic bandits and man-eating wildlife. Yet the fresh corpse in front of him completely said otherwise. It was normal to see corpses, sure; but the bullet hole in the corpse’s head told him that the killer was armed.
Strange enough, the corpse didn’t seem similar to what Psycho bandits normally wear. Rather than bare-chested and red eyed it was pretty much clothed with gear handmade for travelling the wastes. “Ah shit,” Jason muttered to himself. There was a painting of an orange skull on the guy’s vest. Psychos set the minimum bar on the already high threat level; running into any sort of organized group pretty much placed that bar into an unknown area.
Jason scavenged whatever ammo and supplies he found from the dead bandit. The situation seemed to be getting worse. He wanted to cut his losses but he didn’t have anything to lose. As the salvager saying went the more you gathered the more you got. Even if he returned home with the small amount of supplies from the corpse that wouldn’t fetch much from the commission. That meant neither Belle nor the baby in her would get enough to eat.
No more thinking. He assessed the hotel ruins a little bit more as he slowly passed the rusty iron gate held up by crumbling brick walls. The structure towered about four stories high and the front of it fell into disrepair. Only the fourth floor remained intact but it creaked painfully. The remaining floors below exposed its ruined innards to the sun, and Jason thought it was a miracle the bandits didn’t see him approaching but sticking around down here meant pushing his luck. He zipped towards the entrance, hopping over shattered wood and ruined steel.
The wooden door was reinforced yet open. With heavy breaths he peeked inside, stifling his fear as his eyes adjusted to the remnants of luminescent lights buzzing quietly upon the ceiling. He slowly pushed the door open but a shock bolted over his skin when he realized the door knobs were gone.
It looked like they were shot off. He entered slowly as the stench of death huddled through his nostrils. Bullet holes riddled the small reception area, a few bandit corpses rotting near the desk at the far end of the hallway. Two other dead bandits laid in pools of their own blood at the smaller halls beside Jason. He didn’t see much combat, but he saw enough to know what a shootout looked like. The whole scene felt off to him.
He started scavenging the corpses. One of the bandits in the small halls died from a blade wound to the throat; the other fell from a gunshot to the chest. When Jason approached the reception desk he realized some of the bullet holes tilted at a strange angle. Wait a minute….
He eyed some of the holes closer. Pieces of metal stuck out from many of them that he decided to pick out. The bandits near the reception desk died from a fucking grenade! Such ordinance fetched exorbitant prices in this lawless world, so how could anyone waste one on some bandits? He cursed his luck as he chipped away at the walls with a hammer. He wished he came sooner just to at least see the grenade explode. Saving such an item didn’t seem like an option in this fight. He tucked away the small pieces of metal and cautiously made his way past the receptionist desk.
The silence threatened to scare the life from him. These bandits pissed off someone heavily armed and Jason hoped to God he didn’t meet him. He thanked his fortune for having a rifle and now plenty of ammo from the bandits, but the less he used the more he returned home with. Truth be told he already scavenged enough to reach his daily quota. Was it greed that motivated him to press on or sheer curiosity? It was too late to even begin contemplating about the thought as a hand pulled him through the door and into the stairway.
He tripped onto the cold, stone floor with a mixed grunt of shock and pain. As he rolled onto his back the only thought on his mind was to see who was going to kill him. The luminescent lights overhead seemed brighter, reflecting the glint of the attacker’s revolver. The young Asian man stood around a few inches over five feet with short black hair, a hairless face and deep brown eyes. He also dressed sharply with a blue, white pin-striped suit jacket and pants with a white suit shirt underneath his jacket. Jason admitted death dressed pretty snazzy even though his attire was pretty dirty.
Death didn’t fire though. Jason found himself realizing the man’s attire wasn’t torn or ripped in any way. This man must be a professional if he managed to bust in here without ruining his suit. Instead of getting a lead lobotomy Jason watched the man lift his revolver. Was he really going to be spared? Surprised dressed his face when he realized he was living long enough to see what the slender man even looked like.
“Name?” The man asked calmly, casually even. Jason’s mouth tripped over itself as his mind processed why this guy seemed so damn lax.
“What?” was all Jason answered with. A dumb-founded, numb tasting single word that caused the interrogator to again lower his revolver to the salvager’s head.
“Hello, What,” he began with a blank face and a rather gentle but condescending tone. “My name is Charon. Do you know who that is?”
Jason already felt his throat clog up with Charon’s bullets. What did he do to deserve this? His salvager friends talked a lot about some group banding together to give the world hope, but this wasn’t convincing at all. No one even knew what they looked like yet Jason’s misfortune threw him at the mercy of someone referring himself as one of the fabled legends. That didn’t matter worth a damn right now, only that a guy was aiming a gun right at his face and that he could pull the trigger at a moment’s notice.
“Jason,” he said briskly. “My name is Jason.” His palms sweated profusely but he kept his gaze on Charon. This was a rotten way to go but Jason wanted to die with whatever honor he could scrounge up. He let out a gasp of horror when Charon lifted his gun again, and in the same instance Charon extended his hand towards him. Jason’s mind reeled at the turn of events but he pushed his fears away. With utmost hesitation he grasped the hand and helped himself up along with Charon’s assistance.
“That’s better,” Charon quipped with an almost invisible smirk. “But you still didn’t answer my question.”
Jason worried about how long this was going to take. Where one corpse or bandit laid plenty of others did as well. Though, if this was the genuine Charon then perhaps Jason didn’t have much to worry about. Without much say in the matter the salvager began conveying his knowledge about what he heard of the great Charon.
There were many tales spun around the Black Sparrows despite little information known about them. Some called them merciless killers, others a vestige of hope for a crippled and hollowed world. Old Beacon in particular only carried praise for the Black Sparrows. Before the Big Boom the old history books told of Charon being the carrier of souls, and some form of that seemed true around Old Beacon. Instead of souls the city believed Charon was the carrier of communication.
“That’s about right,” Charon admitted with arched brows. “Aside from the tales about us being merciless killers, but I can’t really say it’s out of the question.” He rubbed his chin for a bit as he gazed up in contemplation. “I’m actually surprised your town caught that; people usually stick with the souls thing rather than the carrier part.”
“Is that really your name?” Jason asked. There were only a few factual pieces of information about the Black Sparrows. False names and the group name itself were the only things widely known around settlements.
“Nah,” Charon confessed. “There’s a reason for that, but it’s not something you need to worry about. Oh hey, does Old Beacon have some wacky nickname for me?”
Jason brushed some sweat from his forehead. Charon was being so calm and relaxed that it worried him. The salvager kept darting his eyes to the stairs leading towards the second floor. “We call you death in a suit jacket.”
“That’s priceless!” Charon barked with a laugh. “Hell, it’s not that far from the truth either.”
Clank! Trouble brewed from the second floor. Voices barked above them as some people began descending the stairs. Charon ushered Jason underneath the stairway and crouched down beside him. The small compartment barely fit the big man and he strained to hold still, crooking his neck and scratching his cheek against the rough stone.
“You might wanna close your eyes,” Charon cautioned in a whisper. “This’ll get pretty bloody.” His face completely changed from before. The young man’s brows furrowed in anticipation as his eyes stuck to the stairway above them. Jason wondered if Charon was still the same person from before, and despite his warning the salvager kept his attention towards the stairs as well.
Shadows twisted across the walls. The sound of equipment echoed through the corridor as the bandits made their way closer to the two. Jason’s heart pumped furiously but he forced himself farther into the small, cramped compartment. He wasn’t a fighter; his mind demanded him to run as fast as he could. Even though his meeting with Charon began roughly Jason trusted him. He found more faith in the young legend than in his own shooting skills.
Charon holstered his gun and moved his hand into his suit jacket. What the hell was he doing? As soon as he saw the bandits Jason heard a thick, metal click and watched as Charon leapt over the stair’s railing and stabbed one of the men in the throat. The sound of gunfire screamed across the small area but the bullets only tore through some of the lights above. Broken glass rained down upon the fighters as Charon continued his merciless assault, giving no time for the other bandit to respond. The thick, black combat knife quickly ripped through the man’s heel and he buckled hard onto the stairs with a cry of anguish.
Jason watched as the bandit with the throat wound suffocated from his blood. His last, struggling breath finalized his end while Charon finished off his friend with a cross-section through the throat. All Jason heard was a yelp and then a horrifying silence overcome the area. Charon cleaned his knife on one of the bandit’s pant legs before sheathing it with the same steely click. He peeked across the railing with a rather unsurprised look on his face. “Told you not to look,” Charon casually chided. Jason knew the face was the same from before the fight, but now it carried a much more sinister expression. He swallowed a knot and rubbed some more sweat from his face while shifting out of the compartment.
“Salvage what you can and stay behind me.” Charon wiped some stuck glass from his suit and gazed towards the next flight of stairs. “You’ll get out of this alive with plenty of commission.”
“I just wanna get out of this alive,” Jason confessed. His trembling hands sifted through the dead corpses, finding plenty more ammo and even some health kits. Medical supplies fetched extremely good prices but a nagging realization came to his mind. Belle would probably need these to care for her health. He squatted over the bandit, looking thoughtfully at the medical kit until Charon gently tapped him on the shoulder.
“Got someone back home?” Charon asked, studying the older man’s eyes. He knew that look very well. Jason gazed down and nodded slightly.
“Wife and kid. Well, soon; we don’t know if it’ll be a boy or girl.” Jason chuckled with a vibrant smile. Charon’s chest tightened up with furious resolve as he took a calm, deep breath. He wanted him to make it through this alive.
“You’ll find out,” Charon assured, stifling the pressure from his chest. He gestured to the Marlin 336 rifle on Jason’s back. “You know how to use that? Cleaned it?”
The lever-action rifle looked pretty worn out but Jason always kept it clean on the inside. He nodded with confidence. “Looks in bad shape but I know it’ll fire. The problem’s my aim.”
Charon grinned before looking over his shoulder. Jason followed behind him as Charon removed his revolver from its holster. An ugly scene was getting ready to show as the thick, metal door came into Charon’s sights, plainly open with barely any lighting on the second floor. He kept his aim towards the entrance until a click resonated from the next flight of stairs. One leftover bandit kept his rifle leveled with Charon’s head while a ragged looking man sauntered down the stairs.
“Looks like we got another bitch crawling all over our pad.” Razley grinned as Charon slowly held his hands up. One of the bandits snatched away the revolver and jerked the young man to the floor. Charon looked over the AR-15 rifle aimed at his head and scoffed when he noticed the barrel was slightly bent to the side. He wanted to laugh but it was a competition between the bent barrel and the magazine loaded in the wrong way. Razley grabbed Charon hard by the face and forced him to look his way.
The bandit leader spoke coarse and low. “I don’t fucking care who you shits are. This is our territory now, and some raggedy-ass kids aren’t gonna tell us otherwise.”
Jason recognized the greasy son of a bitch. Razley dressed like a guerilla war fighter from before the Big Boom. His green, dirty fatigues matched his frayed headband with short tails but his coal dusted blonde hair seemed out of place. The bounty posters scattered across Old Beacon depicted him as a horrible man who’s raped, killed and murdered countless people from different settlements. Jason believed it difficult for any man to forget the face of a person who’s killed several of your buddies.
Things looked grim. What was Charon’s plan now? Jason didn’t know what to think when the young man started quacking with his squeezed face. “Razzy prease,” he spewed out with an arrogant smile. Razley wasn’t the least bit pleased and he shoved Charon’s face into the wall.
“Got a pretty fucking mouth,” Razley growled as his foul smelling breath wafted over Charon’s face. “Harder head too. Bullet’ll fix that.” The bandit put more pressure against Charon’s head as it throbbed wickedly. Despite the massive amount of blood rushing through it he was able to notice Razley’s AK-47 cleaned and properly armed.
That would fetch a really good price, he thought. Charon didn’t consider Razley a threat at all. Let the idiot think he was winning when he couldn’t even guide his own men properly. Even in this broken world underground organizations thrived well enough to kill a person in a moment’s notice if they wanted. The Black Sparrows found the misfortune of being targeted by some of these groups but the Orange Skull Raiders weren’t one of them. In this predicament it was actually the other way around: The Sparrows targeted the band of raiders because they were annoying honest civilians.
The issue wasn’t murdering all these sons of bitches since they ranked pretty low on the metaphorical threat chart. One Sparrow left to deal with them but didn’t return, and Charon tasked himself with recovering her. Dove normally didn’t do such work but she wanted more practice dealing with wasteland scum. Always keep the medic behind the lines, Charon insisted. He wanted to take the job but no wasn’t an answer for her. Charon’s heart fluttered despite the aching pain coursing through the back of his head. If they did anything to her he promised to dice up every bastard in the hotel.
When he smiled at Razley it was partially because he and his goon didn’t notice Jason there huddling near the railing. The bandit leader squatted down in front of Charon and glared. “You know who else had a pretty fucking mouth? Your bitch.”
Oh fuck that, Dove was more than a pretty but a moron like Razley wouldn’t know that. Long, red hair and gentle eyes that could calm the most savage soul. Aside from that and a slender figure she carried an intelligence worthy to lead a city of any size . Her medical prowess could patch up the sorriest wanderer from certain death, and that wasn’t a myth. Not even a faint twinge of anger littered Charon’s face when he smiled again at Razley.
Charon could think of something better but he knew his smiling made Razley go bananas. He huffed out in anger and started spewing out more taunts. “Yeah, I’d smile too after all that fucking we did. She was begging for it, man. Can’t believe you had a grade-A whore around you this whole time!” He grinned crazily, confident his words reached into Charon’s mind. Jason’s body felt completely paralyzed as he watched the two from the corner of the stairway. He worried that Charon was going to die until Razley leaned a bit over to the side and whispered into Charon’s ear. “Whaddya gonna do about that, pussy?”
Slowly, ever so slowly, the smile on Charon’s face disappeared. Jason’s ears blanked out with numbing silence as that expression took what felt like hours to completely go away. He never saw such a face in a tense moment like this; something about it gripped his spine and tugged, wildly and relentlessly like a child within a rabid bear’s maw. Charon locked gazes with Razley as a slight twitch tugged at the corner of the young man’s mouth. He took a calm breath, slow and gentle, then clearly barked out words that caught Jason completely by surprise.
“How about I wreck your shit?” His expression persisted as he quickly pulled his knife from its holster. Razley grunted in unbridled anguish as Charon stuck the knife into his gut and twisted the blade. While Charon socked Razley across the temple with his elbow the other bandit pulled the trigger of his rifle only to find nothing happening.
Charon pulled his knife out and let Razley writhe across the floor in pain. The lackey started freaking out, still wondering why his gun wasn’t working until he noticed the magazine. As he clumsily reinserted it and chambered in a round Charon tossed Razley’s AK to the side. The bandit wildly fired several times at Charon but the bullets went around him and threw dust and concrete across the stairway. Even Jason knew his aim wasn’t that bad regardless of the bent rifle barrel.
The bandit fell into a dazed state of panic. He deemed the rifle useless and hurled it to the ground, roaring angrily as he removed Charon’s revolver from his belt and fired once. The roar from the pistol charged across the hotel floor as some unnatural wind swept through it. Where this wind came from baffled Jason and the bandit, but what came afterwards shocked them both into further confusion.
Charon stood here as if nothing even happened. He simply brushed the bullet off his suit, letting it bounce across the concrete before laying still in front of the raider goon. He looked about ready to pass out. His grip weakened on the revolver and it clacked down the stairs. His legs stopped supporting him and he slid down the wall with a face dribbling with complete horror.
“Nice bit of pre-Boom tech, ain’t it?” Charon smiled down at his suit. “They call it sonic fiber.” He looked towards the bandit, who now sat on the ground breathing hard while staring wide-eyed at Charon. “Bullets are fast. We both know that. I mean, who wouldn’t know that?” He chuckled and took the AR-15 from the ground and assessed it.
“So,” Charon grunted as he struck his foot down onto the barrel. “Since bullets are fast and move at a life-threatening rate, once the fiber feels the force of the bullet it works at light-flashing speeds to use the bullet’s own momentum against itself.” He looked over the rifle and nodded. “I’m not really sure about the specifics but that’s what my father told me. He was a pretty smart man.”
Bang. Razley screamed out obscenities as the rifle’s bullet pierced through a joint. Jason looked towards the bleeding man and noticed he was trying to crawl to his AK. Charon turned and shook his head chidingly.
“I gotta say though,” Charon began as he slammed his thick soled, pitch black shoe down onto the joint wound. “You know who’s not smart? Your boss.” He sheathed his knife and then shot Razley again, this time through another joint. More screams echoed across the hotel floor as Charon did this several times. Once he ran out of major joints to shoot the merciless Sparrow started on the fingers.
“Little shits like you giving honest, hard-working people grievances.” Charon spoke calmly yet it translated as psychotic to both the bandit and Jason. This torture seemed to last for hours as the screams escalated across the hotel floor with every shot. The pool of blood expanded so far out it leaked down the stairs. Jason managed to tear his gaze away from the unsightly puddle before the blood stained his gloves.
“I do believe in redemption though,” Charon confessed with a slight nod. “But, sorry Razley. Your bounty’s pretty much claimed.” He put a bullet through Razley’s head before the latter finished his obscene farewell. A satisfied expression filled Charon’s face as he checked the AR-15’s chamber. It was as hollow as the dead man laying beside his shoes. He dumped the rifle onto Razley’s corpse and then looked over to the cowering man still leaning on the wall. Initially the bandit’s first response was to run away but his feet wouldn’t work. Instead he choked on his spit with a loud mix of a grunt and a gag as Charon casually patted him down.
“Jason, you’ll fetch a lot of money from that AK. You’ll need it for the bounty claim plus some extra cash from the weapon itself.” Charon looked to the side as he tossed the bandit’s equipment to the side, away from the blood spilling down the stairs. “Now, as for you….” He lightly slapped the man’s shocked face as Jason carefully made his way up the stairs, worried that his legs would buckle from the overall horror of the scene. “You’re gonna go away from here. I don’t care where you go, but just remember to tell your friends about me, eh? Death wears a suit jacket.”
Charon shoved the man down the stairs, watching his gear soak up some of Razley’s blood on the trip down. He whimpered and cried, tripping several times before making it out of the stairway. The poor guy would be traumatized for life but perhaps this thick brush with death would do him some good. Charon only knew of one tale of such redemption happening, but the person in question toted big enough balls to go toe-to-toe against a different legend.
Although the guy came near death he still survived, so Charon imagined it was possible. The trembling Jason collected all the gear he could and wiped away more streaks of sweat from his face. “You’re damn crazy,” he said weak and hoarsely. “But hell, the bastard killed some of my friends. Just wasn’t expecting that.” He felt his stomach roll a bit when he looked over Razley’s bloodied corpse. Jason certainly felt no sorrow for the heartless raider’s death. After what happened his head didn’t seem worth ten-thousand bucks, and maybe Old Beacon exaggerated when issuing the claim. Then again, Charon wasn’t your typical headhunter, not even close; but Jason worried about the truths regarding the tales about the Sparrows.
“Kinda goes without saying, but I scare you, don’t I?” Charon looked to Jason from the flight of stairs leading to the third floor. The young man read his face like a book.
“A bit,” Jason confessed. “But if you wanted to kill me you would’ve done it a while ago. Old Beacon folk don’t think wrongly of you guys and all this goes to show it.”
Charon nodded. “Appreciate the honesty. Just so you know though, we’re not out of this mess yet.”
The thought trickled a knife down Jason’s spine. “How many of these bastards are there?” If things got worse would he be able to help? The husky salvager felt completely useless during this whole time. Strangers and non-salvaging folk thought badly of people like him, believing them to be nothing but heartless looters hell-bent on striking it rich. He only took this job to support his family but his fear of getting back home weakened him from realizing the present. Charon glanced behind him and saw Jason with a pained, thoughtful look. The salvager’s absent gaze trailed towards his lever-action rifle as a hand slowly trickled down the barrel.
“These guys don’t focus on cunning of any sort.” As Charon explained he continued reading over Jason’s expressions. “The bulk of them go out and raid nearby places while the leader drowns out in all the gatherings. As you might be able to tell his leadership skills were lacking, so now he’s kissing the floor in his own blood.”
“Right,” Jason muttered discouragingly. If Charon wasn’t here maybe he’d be the one kissing the floor. No, he knew that; this wasn’t his sort of job but he knew he needed the money. It didn’t matter what the hell anyone said, what vile things people spewed at him just because he gained a title of ill repute. Under the circumstances of this moment, where bloodthirsty raiders wouldn’t think twice about blowing your brains out, how was he expected to defend his family if it came to that?
“Jason!” Charon called out. The salvager returned from his thoughts. He looked up to the Sparrow and noticed a serious expression plastered on his face. “Don’t be a hero,” he stated simply. “You’ve got nothing to prove, alright? Just stick by me and you’ll be fine.”
“Reading me like a book,” Jason said as he made his way up the stairs. “What if I have to prove something to myself? I can’t just let it go now.”
Damn. Charon understood what he meant. Everyone did something important in the Black Sparrows, whether it was handling communications or keeping everyone’s spirits up. Although he did both handling communications happened behind the scenes where you got to sit in front of a computer screen and keep tabs on your compatriots. And then when shit hit the fan you could only pray that they’d make it back.
Hell, Charon might as well help him. He asked for the rifle and, with some hesitation Jason slid the rifle’s strap off and handed the gun to the young man. Charon checked the rifle so quickly that the salvager found difficulty processing some of the actions.
Lever mechanism oiled, rifle barrel straight and narrow; after the initial prep he weighed the rifle and knew it was completely full. Charon aimed the rifle at the ceiling and ensured the sights wouldn’t deceive Jason in the heat of battle.
“Damn,” Charon said with surprise. “This is a pretty old model but you kept it in really good shape.” He handed the rifle back to Jason, who bore a glint of pride in his eyes. “Just remember: Aim for mass. These guys shouldn’t be too heavily armored.”
Jason wanted to relish in the pride of his rifle but danger started creeping up from below. A slew of angry voices echoed from the lobby floor as the stairway door slammed open and ushered forth several bodies armed to the teeth with varying protective gear and automatic rifles.
Charon gestured Jason up the stairs and they ran into the third floor. “Fuck,” Charon swore as the voices got closer. The raiders hooted childishly as they mixed taunting wails in between. “Alright, Jason, let me fill you in on something else.”
They made their way to the other end of the floor. Nothing but ruined rooms and broken walls passed by them as Charon explained why he came here. Aside from murdering whatever scumbags put up opposition he told Jason about Dove and how he was here to uncover her whereabouts.
“Was that what Razley was talking about?” Jason asked as they busted through the other stairway of the floor.
“Pretty much, but if he left his goons in charge of her they probably had a bad time.”
Gunfire erupted from below before Jason found any time to think. The rabid hollering escalated as the bandits wasted bullet after bullet shooting wildly up the stairway. Dust and concrete splintered down onto the two as Charon guided Jason to the fourth floor’s entrance.
“Do you even know where she is?” Before they fled into the floor Jason fired off a shot and clipped one of the shooters through the shoulder. The raider swore his head off before denting the thick door with several shots.
“Friend did some recon; should be this floor.” Sure enough a thickly reinforced door met their eyes but that did nothing to prevent Charon from swearing under his breath at it. The bandits came closer as the metal doors of the stairways flung open.
“Shit.” he said aloud out as he took out his revolver.
“Shit!” He forgot to retrieve his revolver from the lobby floor! The raiders swarmed across the level as they blasted the hallway with a barrage of gunfire. The two lunged into an adjacent room with a broken down section of wall that opened up to another room.
“Jason! AK!” Charon snatched the rifle from him and fired in a prone position. An assaulting raider stumbled to retain his balance until another shot deflected against his metal armor and flung right into the exposed gap of his neck. Bloodied gurgling mixed with the chaos of the firefight as he collapsed to the floor and writhed for air.
“What happened!?” Jason yelled. One of the raiders attempted to flank them but Jason clipped him through the leg. The assailant buckled to the floor with a angry grunt of pain but a shot from Charon silenced him.
“Something really embarrassing!” Charon really didn’t want to explain himself. In all honesty he was thankful the band of raiders gave no time for him to go into detail. However, even though he was grateful for that the attackers also took from him an opportunity to finally free Dove.
Bullets ripped through the rotting walls as the two struggled to hold their position. Charon’s eyes darted across the room for any ideas. The Big Boom managed to spare some ruined furniture consisting of a queen sized bed and half a couch. It was better than nothing. He directed Jason towards the bed but not before asking him to remove the cutting torch from his back.
Jason wondered why but this wasn’t the time to think about it. He already thought too much and now was the time to strengthen his weaknesses. He quickly removed the tool from his back, feeling a slight reprieve despite the moment.
“When I give you the go,” Charon barked as he peppered another fighter in the face. “Throw it at the metal door and yell ‘Fire in the hole!’” He kept his sights on the door of the other room as he maneuvered his way into it. An idea formulated in his mind as his eyes darted towards the rotting cabinets and television stand near the wall. There was no way of knowing what these idiots would do but Charon hoped his plan would work.
He let the AK dangle over his shoulder as he leaned his weight to scoot the cabinet from the wall. The thing weighed a ton to Charon but he grunted with furious resolve. One of the bandits prepared to enter but found a crotch full of rotting wooden cabinet. Charon pinned him to the wall in the hallway and then shot him once in the head. Sweat rolled down Charon’s face as he positioned the television stand beside one end of the cabinets and then used it as leverage to slide the stand onto it.
The stand quickly slid into the hallway while smashing another raider’s face. The attackers behind the blocked hallway sent a rampaging hail of bullets through it to no avail. They started trying to kick it down and Charon sent a few shots through a crack to rile them up.
“Now!” he screamed. Jason hurled the tanks of acetylene and oxygen across the bed and into the hallway. With a quaking roar he yelled what was told of him and peppered the tanks with his rifle. A burning gust of wind screamed through the hallway and caught several of the mindless gunmen ablaze. The barricade crumpled against the force and torched whatever opposition existed behind it. Charon lunged away from the fire as he felt the wash of stinging heat blow over him. Jason ducked low behind the bed as part of the fiery explosion skimmed across it and bought forth splinters of thick wood.
The hotel quaked painfully. The walls cracked and splintered in protest while the rumbling of stone strained through the hallways. Puffs of dust fell from the ceiling and covered Charon and Jason in a fine coat of gray and dead brown. Charon looked to the floor and noticed thick cracks trailing across the edges of the doorways. “Get out!” he cried as he stumbled his way into the other room. What rotten luck for him! The charred remains of the blockade remained in the other doorway. A thick cloud of dust sifted across the hall as Jason struggled to hold his balance and follow.
Crash. The ruined hotel rooms started giving away. Each step Jason took made him realize the floor would fall too quickly for him to make it. Belle’s face flashed before his eyes as his mind seized to process any of the sound around him. The thump of his heartbeat matched the pace of his run and he cried out with all of his might, jumping to reach Charon’s outstretched hand.
Jason held on for dear life, daring not to look down as the rooms collapsed into shambles and crashed hard onto the lower levels. Charon’s grip slowly weakened but he used his other hand to recover the loss. The young man clipped his body onto the frame of the door but the awkward angle denied him any attempts of rescue. He let out an angry grunt as he shuffled his feet to gain some semblance of grip with the wall.
“Charon,” Jason struggled to say as he coughed away the thin coat of dust in his lungs. “I just wanna thank you for everything you’ve done.”
“Shut up,” Charon grunted as he tried to pull Jason up. “Don’t give me the God damn thank you speech; I’ve heard enough of that!”
“I bet you have,” Jason admitted. He felt his grip sliding away, knowing there was no way to reinforce it. “Kinda funny though. Guy like me? Thirty-five? Thought I saw some crazy shit in my time but it don’t compare.”
This was it. Jason was too heavy for Charon to lift. For a moment the salvager wished he wasn’t naturally husky but it supposedly helped him fend off any potential threats back at home. Now that he thought about it if it wasn’t for his physique he would’ve never been able to meet Belle in the first place. Old Beacon was mostly a nice, honest place but it did have its share of bad seeds. He remembered how he defended Belle’s honor from some unscrupulous thugs bothering her in the tavern she worked at. A smile gleamed over Jason’s face, an expression that horrified Charon as he struggled to maintain his balance with the door frame. The man was ready to die without any regrets. Jason accepted his fate, knowing at least he put up a fight for his life before dying.
“Look for Belle Krailson in Old Beacon,” Jason quickly said as his grip continued slipping. “Tell her I’d be fine with calling the baby Jacob if it’s a boy.”
“Shut up!” Charon ordered. He pulled with all his might but his grip with Jason slipped even more. The young man started losing his cool. He held his fair share of broken promises to honest people trying to survive this fucking, broken world. Horror crushed his psyche as his mind recalled every dead man, woman and child he tried to help.
“If it’s a girl,” Jason continued as tears started trickling down his eyes. “Tell her I’m fine with Madeline, alright? Tell her it’s fine!” He struggled to stop the tears but they didn’t. His eyes burned like the explosion from the cutting torch. The wind from the outside drifted like death, and Jason’s swore he heard a baby’s laugh from the casual gust.
A grunt came from behind. Dove threw herself to the floor and reinforced Charon’s efforts. Faded white armor covered most of her body as she balanced her legs for leverage against the other side of the doorframe. She motioned for Jason’s other arm and he whipped it to her. Death seemed to skip Jason for today as Dove and Charon worked together to lift the heavy salvager from the precipice of doom.
Dried sweat mangled her long hair while a dark, black eye tarnished her dirt covered face. Medical crosses adorned her shoulder pads and a white, half headband clipped around her head held a green scanning lens over her left eye. As much as Jason wanted to it was difficult to issue a word of thanks to the Dove. All of them worked to catch their breaths from the death defying moment.
It seemed like an inopportune time for words anyways. Charon struggled to grasp Dove’s head, but when he did he pulled her towards him as gently as possible and pressed her forehead against his. She chuckled a bit, smiling vibrantly as she pet Charon’s face. Jason saw the love in their eyes and thought about his romances with Belle. Ah, young love.
Once they recuperated Jason salvaged as much as he could carry, including the AK. Charon found his revolver and got scolded by Dove for losing it. They felt fine laughing about it though; the Orange Skull Raiders laid dead in their former headquarters and the section of land would find some sense of peace for the moment.
They made their way out of the hotel and a makeshift desert rover greeted their eyes. Rust covered the steel bars composing the driver’s seat but it seemed durable otherwise. Charon urged Jason to take the vehicle since the commission would be grand. In the end, despite numerous protests Jason accepted the vehicle and carefully piled his findings into the adjacent seat.
“Before I go,” Jason began as he entered the rover. “You mentioned that a friend scouted this place out.”
Charon and Dove looked to each other. Charon smiled at Jason and nodded. “Curious?”
Damn right he was curious. This was a once in a lifetime moment! Before Charon delivered his answer he asked Jason if Dove carried any wacky nickname in Old Beacon.
“The Angel,” Jason said. “There aren’t that many bad stories about you, but Old Beacon folk say you’ve even healed people from beyond the grave.”
“Oh wow,” Dove remarked softly as she pressed a hand against her chest in surprise. Her voice certainly sounded as gentle as an angel’s. Charon smiled at the response and nodded.
“You know about Guide?” Charon asked. Jason heard a lot about him. A husky, commanding man dressed in pitch black with a leather duster. Stories say he led a revolution after uncovering some serious scandal concerning the Big Boom. People knew what he looked like but only by the armor. The man kept his identity concealed in a full-headed combat helmet with a gas mask filter, and some bandits spun tales about how his eyes turn bright red when ready to kill.
“These tales are pretty close,” Charon admitted. “Even that tidbit about the scandal isn’t too far off from the truth.”
Jason felt hesitant to ask but again, this was a once in a lifetime moment. “What caused the Big Boom?”
“We’re looking into that,” Charon said. “Can’t tell you much right now, though it’s not like you have to worry about it.” He nodded confidently to Jason. “We’ll take care of it.”
Jason smiled. Good enough, he supposed. More pressing matters hit closer to home than anything about the ending of the world. He revved up the rover and bid the two farewell. Before he prepared to drive off he called for Charon.
“If Guide’s wondering people call him Ghost at Old Beacon.” Jason laughed over the roar of the rover’s engine. Dust spat in his wake as he waved goodbye to them and disappeared into the distance. As Jason left Charon smiled, knowing that Ghost was a completely different person, but the young man thought the nickname fit Guide anyways.
Charon sighed peacefully as he leaned onto a big rock and relaxed his shoulders. “Man, a good end to an otherwise annoying day.” He looked to Dove, whose face slowly curled into a smile. She knew he was genuinely happy. It was a rare moment where he managed to keep one of his promises. As the two embraced a shadowy figure watched from afar, on a cliff side overlooking the ruined hotel. He pressed a button on the side of his helmet and spoke.
“Dove,” the deep-toned Russian said. “Are you alright?”
Dove pressed a button on her headband. “Yes. Adam’s fine, too. We’re ready for a pickup whenever you’re ready.
“Understood. Guide over and out.” He cut off communications as soft radio silence filled Dove’s ear.
“Y’know,” Charon started, brushing a hand through his greasy short hair. “This might’ve been less painful for all of us if I didn’t demand to go find you.”
“Don’t be like that,” Dove chided gently. She leaned her side onto Charon and wrapped an arm around him. “You kept your promise to him. Don’t beat yourself up.”
Bah. Charon knew she was right. If he found time to think he always bought negative thoughts into his mind. He kissed Dove’s head and snuggled with her as the cool wind of the dead wastes bought some peace to his mind. The sound of a motorbike approached from the distance, and as Guide came into view Charon knew he could now rest easy. Though, knowing about Jason’s baby, Charon wondered what he’d call his child if Dove was pregnant.
“Say, Dove,” Charon asked as Guide whisked them away. “If we had a kid….”