The dust wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was when the land was bright green and blooming from El Nino weather; that was unusual. Today was bright but nothing outside was even close to green. The wind scoured the rough pavement of I10 clean leaving only swirls of sand in its wake. I kept switching CDs and finally settled on some adult alternative band I’d never heard. Radio stations never penetrated this desert. Not before, not now. Shadows pulled from the base of the scrub and occasional Yucca. At least the ac was able to keep up.
I glanced at my passenger. I’d labeled him Raj. He hadn’t spoken so I had no clue where he was from. I didn’t know his name, didn’t ask, but I decided he had the telltale look of someone from the Middle East. I had no idea how he ended up in the depot in Phoenix but he didn’t hesitate to get in the car after I showed him a map of the US and pointed to San Antonio. It didn’t really matter where he was from. There was only one ethnicity and culture; the survivors.
Whoever he was, like me, he was a mutt. The more ‘pure’ bloodlines were hit the hardest, obviously cross-breeding had immunological benefits. Genetics didn’t protect anyone from what happened afterward though. No one was immune to Iraq’s last ditch dirty bombs or other general ignorance backed by bullets. It was a long, weirdly tense few hours. We rolled through Tucson, smoke still wafted lazily from the remnants of its business district in the distance. Like other ghost towns, it had burn pits as deep as the desert canyons. There hadn’t been time for funerals, fire was efficient. Raj looked sideways at me, I just shook my head. There wasn’t any reason to stop in Tucson. More CDs and the hum of the tires passed the time. The welcome sign for the Land of Enchantment was still standing against the blasting winds. I pulled into the welcome center and stopped in the trucking parking away from the buildings. Sand swirled around the bullet riddled and rusting snack machines. Nothing else moved. I slid the thumb break off my chest mounted 9mm and stepped out of the car. I didn’t really expect trouble, but that’s when it usually showed up. The guy stepped away from the car and watered a large Yucca on the edge of the pavement. I stepped the opposite direction, slipped a femme wee from my cargo pocket and followed suit. Nature may have made it easy for him to not be caught with his pants down, plastics engineering did it for me.
A few uneventful hours later, El Paso came into view. A hotel just off the western edge of town served as a sponsored stop for food, fuel and rest. I pulled into the covered drive and honked lightly. I looked at my passenger, “You, don’t get out of the car until I come get you.” Raj nodded and just looked out the window. Two well-armed soldiers stepped out from behind cover. They approached on each side of the car with a cautious and practiced formality. In my mind I instantly classified them as remnants of Fort Bliss. I rolled down the window, “Transporter with one, headed for San Antonio.” The local militia waved me out of the car and pointed to the lobby. “Command is inside.” I rolled the window back up, turned off the car and stepped out.
The militias learned early on to leave the transporters alone. We didn’t play nice and if we disappeared, so did their meager customer base. It’s not like we couldn’t just take a different route. Even early on when there had been bandits and bad actors along the roads, it didn’t take long for them to meet their end. Bad guys aren’t popular or protected and everyone has access to weapons. EL Paso command was looking for information. I told them what I knew of the latest news. There weren’t any secrets left, at least none I thought important enough to hide. I shared that the latest estimate was that there were 250 million or so of us left. That was a lot less than the scientists originally thought. It was the reason transporters were employed. Find survivors, bring them to San Antonio.
The twenty-something, Command asked if I’d heard anything from Washington state. I shook my head, “No more runs further west than Reno and nothing north of Boise. None of us are willing to risk it since the militia went dark. We still don’t know what happened.” Command walked back to the car with me and peered inside at Raj. He straightened and invited everyone inside for dinner. Raj settled into a chair at the edge the somber conversation. He had a cold beer, a fresh steak and all the fixings. I sat at the other end of the table. “So, can you speak?” Raj closed his eyes and sighed, “Yeah, I can speak.” He opened his eyes, looked straight at me with a disinterested, almost malevolent look and then pointedly went back to his food. I took the hint and turned my attention back to the local group. The camaraderie of the night was a welcome change to my routine. Perhaps this would be a good place to take a break from the transporter road.
Swallowing the last of a really good brownie, I glanced outside at the darkness. I looked at command, “Which room?” One of the soldiers from the driveway stepped up, “Come on, I’ll show you.” Raj followed as well. My room was right off the lobby, the window faced the front parking area. The soldier pointed to the next room for Raj. “We’re all on this corridor, easier on the generator and such.” There was hot water, the bed was solid, and the crew was friendly and competent. It was a good stop.
Dawn crept over the mountains with a lethargy I shared. No one else was up so I made myself at home and pushed the button on the coffee. I looked up and saw Raj stepping out of a room across the hallway from mine, he quietly closed the door. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I ducked behind the front desk before he turned around. Something was very wrong. I waited, listening intently I heard the click of a door handle. I dropped low and took a peek down the hall, no one was in sight. I slipped back to my room and strapped up. I shouldn’t have left my room without my weapon! I made noises, flushed the toilet and then turned on the shower. I opened the window and popped the screen out. Dropping into the bushes, I stayed against the wall. I slipped up to the lobby doors, behind the cover, both soldiers were dead and cold to the touch. Inside, the coffee pot beeped repeatedly to announce that its job was complete. The sounds would let Raj know someone was up. I decided it was safer to assume the rest of the unit shared the fate of the two outside. Comfort had put me off guard, I cursed myself. A terrible thought crept forward in my mind: maybe this is what happened in Washington. I slipped inside and ducked back behind the lobby desk. I watched for Raj. He stepped into the hall with a surprising confidence. I guess the sounds of running water from my room had him fooled. He walked quietly toward the lobby, a silenced 9mm in his left hand. I stepped around a column and fired two rounds into him before he could raise his gun. He wasn’t quite dead when I walked up on him and put a round through his forehead.
The coffee kept the chill off my fingers as I sat out on the pool deck. I stared at the light sliding over the mountains. The morning was bitterly silent.