Read The saffron malformation Online

Authors: Walker, Bryan

The saffron malformation

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And Before We Begin

 

              The road is a lonely place to live, made up of long stretches of nothing between patches of where you’ve been and where you’re heading.  This town, that city, another settlement, glowing specks peppered across the world with thin threads of pavement running between.  A spiderweb of civilization across the vast wilds most spend their whole lives trying to avoid.  At least that’s how it was on Saffron, where the three billion people living on its surface were unwelcome guests of an inhospitable host.  They hid behind walls, sometimes protected themselves with watchtowers, and erected massive structures of a thin clear material overhead to catch and filter the rain.  There were lots of things that could kill you on Saffron, but what the rain did to you was worse.  As for their minds, they lost track of those with their devices, powerful computers easily carried in hand or pocket, accommodating them with limitless distractions.  Ignore a problem long enough, and eventually you forget it was ever there.

             Of course that was true outside of the cities as well.  Even Quey Von Zaul was guilty of ignorance, despite seeing the decay first hand as he made his living riding between the clusterings of people, traveling through ‘this’ town or ‘that’ city, rolling from bubble to bubble selling his goods.  He made his way across the land with nothing for company save his eighteen wheel rig and the sheet computer device currently attached to his dash, streaming one of his favorite shows while the auto-drive kept him rolling along the straight and narrow highway.  A few hundred kilometers and he’d turn onto the grey road, taking the shortcut across the waste.  It got a little bigger every year, the waste that is, but his notice of it remained the same.

             Movement in the dark outside his window caught his eye and he glanced up just in time to see one of the trains streak across the landscape like a lost bolt of lightning, carrying folks from one bubble to another.  Sometimes when he saw them or passed through one of the cities he stopped to wonder what his life would have been, had his parents lived past his fourteenth year.  How different would he be if so much of his life wasn’t focused on surviving, first the streets and now the road.

             It was a pointless thought.  He’d seen city folk and their lives had no more purpose than his.  They were listless as he was, just in a different way. They went to work too early, stayed too late, and got paid too little.  A whole civilization of people just trying to cope with their lives, and that was the problem.  They weren’t focused enough on surviving.

             The road was a lonely place, but he didn’t envy them.

             A thought tickled the back of his mind and wavered his focus from the show he was watching, bringing it to the empty seat beside him.  It was lonelier now since Cal had passed.

             Calbert T. Pickens was the reason he was on the road and not on the wrong side of a jail cell, or the bad end of a bullet.  He was a pudgy man in his forties with not a strand on his head save a few wisps of grey around the edges.  He’d bedded his share of ladies in his day, through no fault of his looks, but being as he was sterile as a mule he remained without offspring.  In his early days Cal had counted this predicament a blessing, but as he aged that particular outlook began to change.

             Cal, you see, he had a gift and a talent that he felt a need to pass down the way his father had passed it to him. Cal was the best moonshiner in the world, and four long years after their meeting he’d taught Quey Von Zaul everything he knew about the trade.

They’d met when the boy was seventeen, a few years and some change after his parents had died.  Cal caught Quey stealing food from the corner grocery in Arlee and called to him.  He gave him a hot meal and a place to stay the night.  Later Cal told him, “Stealing's a way to survive son,” and while puffing out his barrel of a body headded, “But it’s no way to live.”

             He offered Quey a job and a place to live and a chance to learn his trade.  With his only real friend, Dusty, lingering through a stint in a juvenile detention center, Quey had nothing better to do so he agreed.

             “Reason for moonshinin’ lay in the law,” Cal told him.

             Alcohol was legal but the licensing and taxing on the production of spirits was so expensive few could afford to buy or sell any of it legally.  Luckily, as Cal explained it, there was some oversight in the letters that made it legal (sort of) to produce spirits on the sly.  Also, you could avoid a great deal of snags by never referring to your product as it was traditionally known.  So it was that moonshine became the adopted moniker for any unlicensed alcohol, never vodka, or whiskey, or rum.  Quey never fully understood the law and its workings, but then, who was he to ask?  All he knew was that those were the ways to avoid breaking it, or at least those were the ways to avoid people taking notice of the fact that you were breaking it.

             “Shouldn’t it be brown?” Quey asked him as they watched the machine in the barn behind the house fill bottles with clear spirits.

             “Brown in’t nothin’ but a color.  Draws the attention of those that’d shut us down and don’t make a bit of difference to the tongue what with us adding the barrel flavoring to the mash.  That’s where your attention aught a be, see.  Secret’s in the mash,” Cal told him as a machine stirred the cloudy liquid steeping in the massive steel cauldron.  “You’ve got to love your mash,” he said to Quey, who was watching the liquid churn intently.  “You can love the shine all you like but that don’t do no good,” Cal warned with a stern tone and a gesture.  His eyes drifted back to the caldron again.  “By den, it’s too late.”

             The true secret was Cal’s plot of land.  Three acres behind a wall with a ranch house atop a small hill, nothing around save a long stretch of planes.  Inside the wall he grew grains such as corn, rye, barley, and wheat.  He had apple, lemon and lime trees.  He grew grapes, cherries, watermelon, and a slew of other fruits and all of it was for his shine.  That’s what stood him out from his competition, his willingness to use fresh fruits and grains in his mash.

             “Reason they willin’ ta pay,” Cal said proudly, “Is cause most dew passin’ about’s just a jumble a what no one wants no more.  But dis here,” he told Quey as they watched the machines stir, “Dis is wort sometin’, and ya know why?”

             Quey nodded slowly and looked up at Cal, “Because you love it.”

             Cal’s cracked lips peeled into a grin that showed his coffee and tobacco stained teeth and he praised, “Bingo,” with a click of his cheek.

             How Cal came to pass was after decades on the roads, surviving bandits and savages alike, some civilized folk got greedy.

             They’d just delivered a fresh batch of shine to a small settlement along the north woods border called Lockwood.  A late autumn chill was in the night air along with a presence that suggested it might rain.  In the distance there were the lingering strums of the drunken guitar player still sitting on his stool in the town square. The music was like the night and the festival that had taken place on it, winding down to an inevitable demise.

             Quey had just finished loading the truck while Cal shook the last hands of the local bar owners.  He closed the back of the truck and watched Cal and the three men standing at the front.

             “I have to tell you,” a man named Ron, owner of a place called The Thunder Branch Saloon, said. “Your shine gits better every year.”

             “Well thankya,” Cal answered with a smile and a nod and started to turn.  Ron held his hand fast.

             Quey was meters away, locking up the trailer door when something poked him in the back.  It was the barrel of an assault rifle.

             “Gotta say,” Ron continued.  “Seems a shame to let you roll away with so much of it.”

             Cal nodded solemnly.  “It’s like dat.”

             Ron’s lips and tongue moved as if trying to strip a bitter taste from his mouth before he confirmed, “It’s like that.”  The two men beside Ron raised their hands and aimed revolvers at Cal, who simply nodded.  “You don’t seem all that surprised,” Ron noted.

             “Not.  Know how dey say, it’s only a matter a time out here, fore even yer mother sells you for a nickel.”

             Ron considered a response but instead yelled to the man at the back of the truck.  “Bring the boy ‘round.”

             The gun jammed Quey in the back and he let the man lead him to the front of the truck where he took his place beside Cal.

             “Keys,” Ron said and Cal obliged.  Ron nodded to him, “Sorry ‘bout this old friend.”

             “Yeah,” Cal replied.  “Me too.”

             Ron and the two men beside him hurried to the truck.  The three of them climbed into the cab with Ron behind the wheel.  Smiles were on all their faces.  Even they couldn’t believe how easy it was.  Of course what they knew that Quey and Cal didn’t was that they couldn’t have word of this little acquisition getting around.  They’d be branded as a bandit town and no Roader would stop to do business with them again.  Ron considered this as he watched the cringe on Cal’s face and started the engine.

             Cal looked at Quey and held his gaze.  Like the bar owners stealing the truck, Quey and Cal knew something they had no intention of sharing.  They knew the importance of releasing the latch under the dash before starting the engine.  Quey and Cal counted to ten then fell to the ground as the trailer exploded and fire tore the rig into shrapnel.  The rifleman cried out as metal and bits of flaming shine pelted him and sent him stumbling backward.  Cal pulled a pistol from inside his jacket and fired once, striking the man in the left shoulder.  The rifleman, still stumbling and blind, lifted the barrel of his gun and squeezed the trigger.  Bullets flew in rapid succession, cracking against the pavement in a disjointed line, and then a few tore through Cal.

             Quey felt his heart wrench as he saw blood soak to the surface of Cal’s thick jacket.  He pulled his own pistol and fired.  His shot took the back of the rifleman’s head off and collapsed him lifelessly to the ground.

             It was bright as noon as the truck spewed flames up and into the autumn colored trees, igniting them into a brilliant fury of crackling luminance.  Leaves drifted toward the ground like dozens of tiny meteors as Quey crawled over to Cal and looked down at the man’s sweat soaked face.

             “Help!” he shouted.  People he’d been celebrating with just hours ago stood dumbfounded before the raging inferno that had been a massive hauling rig.

             “S-alright,” Cal told him, gripping his hand.  “You know ta love tha mash,” Cal coughed and blood sputtered up between his lips.  “An howta get tha shine from it.”

             Quey watched the faces of the onlookers, he couldn’t even think about how many of them had known or how many were about to do the same.

             Cal coughed violently and then spit a thick bloody mass onto the ground beside him.  “All I ever wanted,” he began as tears fell from his eyes, shimmering in the raging blue shine flame a dozen steps from them.  Struggling to breathe, he smiled and looked up at Quey.  “It’s been a good run boy,” he said and then gagged and wheezed and finally fell still.

             When Quey looked down at his friend and mentor he nodded, swallowing what was about to spill him to the ground and render him trembling and useless.  Cal couldn’t say any more but his last words said everything.  He’d taken pride in his shine and the reputation he’d built as the world’s best moonshiner and he’d passed that along, not to a son but to Quey and that was good enough for him.  If his go around was to end right there on the ground beside a ravenous torch fueled by his beloved shine then so be it, because he’d had a good run.

             Now Quey, in many ways orphaned again, had taken over the operation and was making the shine run on his own, currently heading out from Metratan on his way to Fen Quada, where his old friend Dusty was awaiting his arrival.  He could take the long road circling the southern tip of the continent, adding days to his journey, but instead he turned down the grey road, meaning to take the shortcut through the wastes.  It was near noon when the Once Men spotted him, and the danger of the road once again took a turn towards deadly.

 

 

 

 

 

The Saffron Malformation

 

 

 

Quey and The Once Men

 

 

             Wind carried dirt across the road while the sun was just past peaking in the sky, and the deep silence over the waste was broken by a set of cars, beaten past being worthy of scrap, chasing after Quey Von Zaul in his eighteen-wheel rig, intent on running it down.  The truck had been a brilliant silver many years ago, but time had worn on it and now it was simply the color of metal.  All that remained of its former glory were the faded decals across the sides of the trailer and its doors—a simple diamond with:

 

Pickens

&

Zaul

             written through the middle.

             Quey kept his head low and gripped the massive steering wheel, slick with sweat, in both hands as the truck roared along the highway.  He wiped his hands on his jeans one at a time then shrugged the short sleeve of his faded grey ‘Pickens and Zaul’ logo T over his drenched hairline.  He’d had gentle features once but that was in his other life, the one that existed before his parents got sick and he learned some harsh truths about the workings of the world.

             A bullet pinged off the side of the rig so close to his window he saw the spark out of the corner of his eye.

             Fucking Once Men, nipping at his heels like ravenous dogs, which wasn’t too far from a good description of them.  They snarled as they leaned from the windows of the cars speeding after him, grey cracked lips peeled back against their rotting teeth.  They screamed in their simple monosyllabic language as mad with excitement as any animal caught up in the hunt.  They were chasing him but they couldn’t tell you why.  They had no idea what, nor any use for whatever he might be carrying.  They were hunting him because he happened by.  Later they would eat him because they might as well.

             He took a moment to silently curse the cars they were driving for still running, and let his foot lay heavy on the accelerator. ‘Whoever made these cars,’he thought,‘should record this for their next ad campaign.’ 

             “Iftheycan’t run our vehicles into the ground, what chance do you have?” he joked to himself as the engines roared behind him.

             Gunfire cracked across the cloudless sky as Quey sped along the narrow and seemingly endless highway.  The tires kicked the thin layer of dirt that had settled on the road up into a cloud of dust behind him.  He heard the ricochets of small caliber shells as they dented the sides of the cab and the trailer he was hauling.  Both were reinforced, as Once Men weren’t the only dangers along the road.

             Heart racing, he steered the truck with two hands, both gripping far more fiercely than they should, and looked over at the gun resting on the seat beside him, shining in the sunlight like a well-polished sword.

             No.  It’d do him no good to start shooting now.  Bullets were a commodity these days, and he didn’t make a habit of throwing them away by firing blindly behind him.

             The savages giving chase grew bold, he heard the lead engine roar as it leapt forward and tried to pull past the trailer and close on the truck’s cab.  He let it gain ground, watching it in the dust-coated mirror at his side, then swerved right and sideswiped the vehicle sending an earsplitting cry of tortured metal across the grey.  He heard another cry, this one of excitement, as the driver of the car struggled to keep his tires on the road.

Heat swarmed the cabin of the truck.  It could get to be over one hundred and twenty degrees in the waste at times.  Quey suspected it wasn’t near that today, but over a hundred for sure.

He wiped at the fresh sweat beading along his brow, pasting his light brown hair to his skin as his sharp gaze glanced from the road ahead, strait on to the horizon, to the side mirrors.  Quey saw one of their faces in that grimy reflective surface, wild with fury, and knew he was right in that the term men didn’t apply to them any longer.  They had abandoned that likeness out here in the wastes.  They chose to leave the safety of the cities and settlements for whatever tempts a man to give up hope.  They’d walked away from reason, wandered out here into the tainted land.   And they drank the water.

             The car he’d run off the road kicked up a cloud of sand as its tires spun and struggled for traction.  The two others rolled side by side just behind him.  Once Men leaned from the passenger side windows of the two cars and aimed handguns at his truck.

             He could see the damage living off the wastes had done to them.  Their skin was dry and grey, and their hair grew in thin, colorless patches.  Up close he knew it would be worse, as he’d seen them before.  Often the whites of their eyes were yellow or brown, and their fingernails had a tendency to turn black and fall off.  Their mouths were full of sores.  Their teeth were rotting in their gums and it stunk like rancid meat.

             Gunfire cracked behind him once again and Quey swayed the truck into the middle of the two lanes.  Watching his side mirrors, he could see the men firing wildly and the small puffs of smoke that exploded into existence around the gleaming metal in their hands.

             Once Men preferred their guns to have as few moving parts as possible.  They liked old fashion barrel shotguns, the sort you don’t have to pump, and revolvers, because they had a tendency to leave their weapons lying around in the sand and rarely, if ever, cleaned them.  Guns with an automatic loader were far more likely to jam when kept in that sort of care.

             Quey’s eyes widened when he saw one of the Once Men reach into the car and trade the revolver he’d been firing for a double barrel shotgun.  The truck was reinforced so he didn’t feel threatened by the spray of the gun, but the aim of the Once Man holding it.  When he saw where it was targeting it made his heart skip into a trot.

             “No no nonono,” Quey muttered as the barrel of the Once Man’s gun aimed low.  He was taking his time, training in on the rig’s back tires.  They were made of puncture proof rubber, of course, and that would hold up against a bullet from a handgun but a shotguns spray was another animal.  It wouldn’t just punch a hole or two through the wheel, there was a good chance it would rip it to shreds.

             Quey watched the man intently.               

             It was a difficult shot at this speed, with the condition of the road questionable as it was, but Quey knew with the force and spread of that gun close might be good enough.

             His eyes, steel and focused, watched the Once Man in his filthy, jostling side mirror, waiting to see the change in him that said, ‘I’m about to fire,’ and when he saw it he slammed on his breaks.  The shotgun roared and leapt in the Once Man’s hands.  Pellets crashed into the pavement under the trailer.  The truck’s breaks squealed and Quey’s hands gripped the wheel so tight his fingernails dug into his palms as he struggled to keep the rig strait.  Last thing he needed to do now was jackknife the fucking thing.

             Quey felt every one of the thousands of cracks and chunks missing from the road under his tires as his truck protested the sudden stop.

             The two cars racing behind him dodged to either side, kicking up sand along the shoulders of the highway as they flashed past his rig.  Quey allowed himself a brief smile that was snatched from his lips when he saw the third car, not quite up to speed yet, screech to a stop beside him.

             “Shit,” he said.  He hadn’t considered that one.

             He ducked as gunfire cracked and metal panged against the side of his truck.  He heard a reverberating boom and the shredding of rubber followed by the hiss of air escaping.  He felt the left side of the truck sink a centimeter at a time, taking his heart with it.

             The glass from the driver’s side window exploded and rained prismatic shards down on the legs of his jeans.  He felt a chunk scrape his ankle as it began to work its way into his boot.

             Quey took up his gun, an automatic, and counted the pops outside.  When he got to six he sat up and emptied his weapon into the rusted heap stopped on the road beside him.  The sides of his truck were armored, and he smiled slightly when he saw theirs were not.

The Once Man sitting in the passenger’s seat reloading his revolver didn’t even have time to react to the shot that shattered his skull and sprayed bits of his brain onto the one sitting in the driver’s seat.  He just sat grinning as he reloaded the gun one shell at a time and then… nothing.

It took the driver a full pair of ticks to realize that the chunks of wet sticky stuff clinging to his face and the warm fluid slowly trickling down to his chin had been his friend’s head a moment before.  He touched his cheek and wiped bits of skull and brain into his hand and peered down at it quizzically as one of Quey’s bullets sunk into his torso, broke through his ribs and popped his right lung.

             Ten shots spread between the front and back seats and Quey was empty.  He ducked back down, lying flat against the passenger seat and reached into the glove compartment where two more magazines were loaded and waiting.

             Outside there was shouting and he heard the other two cars making their way back.  Gunfire cracked, shattering the windshield and raining more glass down on him.  Covering his head, Quey waited for a break in the shots.  He knew he’d hit the guys in the front seat, but the two in back might have scampered out and taken cover.

             Bullets rang all around him and he knew the other two cars had turned around and come back.  He listened to metal hammer into the truck like dried corn rattling around in a tin can.  He could wait out their ammo here in the reinforced cab, and then he could take them.

A louder gun boomed twice from in front of the truck.  Bullets punctured the hood and rattled around the engine a bit before the truck sputtered to a stop.  That was when Quey’s face went blank.  He realized, as he listened to the engine sputter and quit, that he was a dead man.  Even if he somehow managed to fend off the Once Men, even if he had enough spare tires in the back, the engine was finished and he didn’t have the water to make it anywhere.  Not to mention the wildlife that roamed around out here, and the other Once Men who were likely to hear the scuffle and come to investigate.

              There was a part of him, in the back of his head, that denied such a thought.  ‘I’ll be alright,’ it told him.  ‘I won’t die out here, not like this.’

             But his heart knew the truth.  He’d been making this run for almost a decade, four of those years on his own, and he’d had a few close calls but nothing like this.  He’d been lucky and now luck had tossed him to the Once Men.  ‘No,’ that place in the back of his brain insisted, ‘You’ll be just fine.  The truck is reinforced.  Their shells can’t get through. You’ll take them out and then…’

             Quey smiled and laughed at himself.  “Then what?” he asked the cab.  And he wondered, as he reloaded, if the hundreds of other roaders who’d met this fate had thought the same thing before the Once Men got hold of them.  “Not me,” they’d insisted, even as they felt their skin being sliced off, “I’m going to live.”

             One of them jumped up onto the side of the truck and stared through the shattered window at Quey lying on the seat.  He saw everything in that scarred, colorless and leathery face peering in over the jagged glass teeth jutting up from the driver’s side door.  They were as smart as men, had the awareness of men, but they’d lost something and what that was, he suspected, was what made men people.

             To Quey’s horror the Once Man snarled at him and he saw its rotting teeth and black, bleeding gums.  Chunks of teeth were chipped away and the bits that remained were yellow at best and drifted toward black from there.

Quey cringed as the thing’s yellow brown eyes glared at him and then he let his gun destroy the Once Man’s face with a resonating boom, jerking its head back and sendingit tumbling to the pavement.  ‘Hopeless or not there was no point in making it easy for them,’ he thought.

             They answered his shot with a dozen of their own, all of which cracked uselessly against the truck.  When the echo’s faded into the distance he heard them shouting back and forth in their simple language, short sounds that communicated basic thoughts.

             “Ka na!”

             “Ra ba.”

             No words in the Once Men’s language spanned more than a single syllable and he knew this was it.  They still had the brains of men and they were using them now.  Coordinating their efforts into a single final assault.

             Quey sat up and fired wildly at the Once Men.  The first shot struck one and a red mist burst from his shoulder and sent him spinning to the ground.  The others reacted, ducking behind the cars and his shots hit air or metal.  When he was empty he lay flat against the seat again and listened to the frantic shouts of their staccato language as he loaded his last magazine into his gun and chambered a round.

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