The Captain focused his binoculars and scrutinized the valley below. The highway bent around the hills, littered with refuse and empty cars. Beyond the road was an inlet. The muddy waters flowed sluggishly, packed with flotsam, around the bows of a listing destroyer. A suspension bridge had collapsed on the stern of the ship. The vessel had remained, half submerged, for the short months since the war. The yellowing corpse of a cow had lodged in its trailing cables. Through his binoculars, the Captain could see the flies dancing around it, even from his roost atop the hill.
The tarp around his shoulders ruffled in the sharp wind, and he drew it close. The gray plastic blended well with the mottled land, the dead grass, the darkened sky. A convoy was plodding the highway below, vehicles winding around the broken asphalt and drifting ash. The lead tank had a dozer blade fixed to it and was shoving aside the rusting car-carcasses obstructing the road. A small detachment of soldiers followed, maybe twenty five. They wore black uniforms, and marched before an eighteen-wheeler. It was low slung, heavily armored. A second tank took the rear, turret swept back to ward off attack.
The Captain thought eagerly of the contents of that truck. As he looked back at his gathered men, he saw they did, too. Rifle Company B hunkered on the ashen mount, hands tightly clutching weapons. They needed action to take their minds off the burning in their lungs and the pangs in their bellies. They were tired and worn from these wretched months. Some of them had worn out rad-suits and were coughing piteously, spitting little globules of mucous and blood. Miserable as they were, they perched like hawks above unsuspecting prey.
What that convoy was guarding, they could only imagine; incredible wealth, an armory of devastating technologies, or one of the last politicians – those dogs who brought on the holocaust. Or perhaps it was something more. There were rumors, from travelers and sporadic radio contacts, of strange and unnatural things occurring across the globe. Tales of walking dead, of machines that spoke, of unearthly creatures and men with godly powers. A few weeks ago they had come across a great fat man who called himself the King of Philadelphia. It was as if his every word was gold, and they would have gladly submitted to his every order if the Doctor hadn’t put a round through the back of his skull.
The Doctor was back at the camp. Lately he took no interest in the raids, speaking of nothing but the Eden Gate. The men were demoralized enough without their leader babbling obsessively about some old story. There were whisperings about the Doctor that spread among the soldiers. That he had been a top researcher, a director in some enigmatic international program. That he had gone insane.
The Captain had been his friend years ago, before he joined the British Army, when things were first starting to fall apart. He was there when the Doctor partook of the Spring of Youth. He had helped push the dioxin barrels in when the Doctor was done with his injections. The rusty red drums cracked easily, bleeding the oily chemicals into the cold, clear water.
Five months ago, Company B had come over with the European invasion of the States. They quietly went rogue when everything collapsed. And when the Captain found the Doctor again, they took him as their leader.
The caravan drew closer in the valley below, and the Captain spoke a few words into his radio. And suddenly it was all chaos for the convoy, and tattered green raining fire down on shiny black. When the first shots hit, the soldiers below scattered, taking cover behind wreckage and returning fire into the hills. The Captain’s men whooped like red Indians, their rifles cracking sporadically in the bleak sunlight.
Their numbers would quickly have over-swept their prey, but they held back for the two tanks, which fired blindly into the hillside. And the small band below might have pulled a hasty retreat, might have saved their cargo, if not for the ruined destroyer lying in the waters to their right side. The destroyer was tilted, half sunk, but the bow still sat above the water. The refurbished and manned front turret began turning. The members of the convoy had no time to react. The naval gun flamed, and the lead tank exploded, blasting sharp chunks of metal dozens of meters.
The black-armored operatives were quickly reduced in numbers. Someone – a white-suited figure – had extended their torso from the hatch of the remaining rear tank. The person lifted a megaphone, speaking clearly in a woman’s voice.
“Cease firing! We are not with the United States government!” Perhaps she had recognized the uniforms of soldiers on her assailants. It was of no matter, though, as a second rumbling blast from the destroyer announced the end of her short plea for parley.
Soon the victorious ambushers were down among the remains of the convoy. They sifted through the bodies and the scalding fragments of the two tanks with hope for loot. The Captain stood eagerly by as two of his men clipped the lock away from the back of the eighteen-wheeler. They threw the double doors open. Several cowering scientists and a series of electronic panels were exposed to the light, and the two soldiers climbed up. The Captain listened to the brief bursts of gunfire.
“What’s up there?” he yelled into the cavern of the truck.
“Not much…hold on,” one of the men called back from the depths. “There’s another door farther back here. We’ve got to cut through these chains.”
There was a clink of metal against metal, and the man called back again. “It’s a bare room. There’s nothing back here but…” He snorted derisively.
“What?” yelled the Captain, growing impatient.
“It looks like a guy in an oversized clown-suit. What the fuck!”
The soldier laughed again. He poked his head out of the truck, grinning at the Captain. There was a subtle snapping, and the man collapsed.
It took only a few more minutes for the one hundred and thirty one members of Company B to be killed. A few seagulls were the only witnesses to the oddly proportioned creature. It moved rapidly across the landscape in short and erratic jumps.
The sun began to set, and the Doctor settled comfortably down on the torn out rear seat of an old sedan. He cradled a steel banjo in the curve of his lap, strumming a few slow chords. He breathed the acrid air of the outside world unfiltered, unaffected by the deadly conditions. The tall creature had halted twenty paces before him, transfixed by his unbroken stare. The Doctor’s eyes watered and burned, but he had no need to close them. The thing stood awkwardly alone in the gathering darkness.
“Looks like we’re going to be here for a while, big man,” the Doctor said, sighing. Then he added, “At least until I break one of these strings.” He nodded to the banjo. The odd figure stood, silent and unmoving.