I’d been feeling queazy for miles — too much fresh fruit last town, trying to pack in as much as I could — so finally I tapped Roto on the shoulder and we left the bus during a stretch and pee break. Big Fredo was driving the tents truck and he had a sweet spot for Roto, so he let us climb up into the sheltered spot just behind the cab, where we were sheltered from the wind but still could feel the bite of the air and where, if I needed to, I could lean out and vomit into the sandy gravel of the road.
It made me feel better almost immediately and my mood, which had been gloomy and self pitying (or so Roto kept informing me), lifted, as though the high blue sky overhead were pulling it upwards.
Okay, maybe I had been being kind of a bitch. I shrugged at Roto in apology and he shrugged back. That was one of the nice things about Roto. Once a fight was over, it was done with. It was a quality I envied, and couldn’t begin to claim. I was capable of holding a grudge for years, and had all my life, even though that was only fifteen years so far.
He grinned sideways at me, whiskers twitching, and leaned back to let his upper torso, bare except for the stripes of dun for, smolder golden in the sun. I settled back myself, though I stayed in the shade.
On my right, past Roto, was the steep downward slope of the cliff, covered with slides of shale and wiry brown bushes and past that, a blaze of sunlight on the ocean, dazzling and headache inducing. I looked away and up the mountainside. We were swinging out and around a curve before going inward and Sieg, who was the pace setter up front in his jeep, was, in my opinion, taking it a little fast.
That’s how I saw it. Flash flash. Two blinks of light from far up the mountain ahead of us. Then again. Flash flash.
I squinted up the mountain but didn’t see it again. But I crawled forward, clinging to the netting that held the ranks of tents in place, and tapped my knuckles hard on the cab’s back window. Kali was riding shotgun, her own window open and dreads flying back in the wind. She twisted around to slide the window open.
“I saw someone signaling up ahead,” I shouted.
“We’re on it,” she shouted back. Big Fredo tapped the bead in his ear. Someone else must’ve seen it as well, and gotten to our radio network faster than I had. That was always the story. I was never the hero. My spirits sagged again.
Kali slammed the window shut and turned back to watching the road ahead. I made my slow return to Roto. It seemed to me we had sped up a little but I couldn’t be sure. Maybe it was just my own anxiety.
Roto gave me a questioning look.
“They’re on it, she said.” I shrugged. Not like we could do much about anything. Better to move forward with our eyes open than let them know we had spotted them and they should open fire.
A faded blue sign flickered past. “Rest stop 1 mile Gas Services”
“You know that’s where they’re going to try to hit us,” Roto said. He stopped lounging and leaned forward.
“Yeah, but what else can they do? There’s no other place to turn around.”
We both wriggled back as far as we could, putting furled canvas between ourselves and possible missiles. The smart-canvas of the main tent might stop a bullet but the thick rolls of more ordinary heavy fabric would still foil arrows or darts.
My stomach wasn’t queasy anymore at all. Instead, hot bile chewed at the back of my throat and worry threaded all my bones. We hadn’t brought weapons with us from the bus; June doesn’t like us carrying them around, but when we’re traveling, we’re supposed to have something with us.
Roto had claws and teeth. I had nothing but my own blunt fists and wits.
Gravel hissed under the wheels as we swung left and slowed. I tried to peer out.
Roto put his palm on the top of my head and shoved downward. “Don’t be an asshole, Meg.”
We held still. I could hear the other cars and trucks pulling in, slowing. The turnaround must have been blocked, otherwise Sieg would have used it to lead the whole convoy to circle back as quickly as he could while Vera had our backs. But stopping there meant there was some sort of blockade.
A voice from up ahead. A man’s voice, and one that had meanness in it despite the pleasantness of the words. “And a good afternoon to you folks!”
Car door slamming and then the crunch crunch of footsteps, barely audible over the sound of the last few stragglers pulling in. I knew that if I looked back people would be fanning out as best they could. We all drilled aon what to do on occasions like this, but I’d only been in a few fights. And not since I had become, technically, an adult.
But surely an adult would have known enough to carry at least a knife with them. I glanced over at Roto and was relieved to see that he looked as anxious as I felt.
June’s deep voice, carefully modulated and empty of emotion. “Afternoon, gentlemen.”
I angled my line of sight upward, hoping to catch a glance of Vera. So much depended on what these bandits were carrying. Hopefully, just a few guns, but probably a bit more than that.
“We were just discussing how it looked as though your trucks were too heavily loaded,” the voice said. “We thought maybe we could help you out, maybe take some of the livestock. That way you’ve got less to feed, we’ve got more to feed ourselves with.” He laughed, the sort of laugh where you could easily imagine the sneer that came with it.
June’ voice, so polite. “I’m afraid that the livestock are members of the troupe as well.”
The man mimicked her. “I’m afraid that you don’t have a choice.”
“That’s a point of debate,” June said. “Vera, now.”
Not many people have seen any of the old war machines. Some were disabled, others disabled themselves. We don’t know what side Vera was on back then. Just that she was on ours now.