She overlooked the graveyard, holding a margarita in her left hand, her right occupied as it caressed the stock of her rifle. Carter wasn’t sure if any of that was appropriate, given the circumstances. Not that the boss cared. She seemed to have a hard time caring about anything.
“How’d they die?” The boss asked, settling down into a century old lawn chair. The weather-worn plastic groaned and created beneath the weight of her body and gear. A mutilated corpse lay not three feet from her. She hardly seemed to notice it.
“Arrows, I think.” Carter grimaced, trying his very hardest not to vomit. The smell was awful—the stench of corpses that had just recently begun to rot, mixed with the equally awful stink of human waste.
Carter crouched down, covering his nose with his free hand. A woman lay face down in the dry dirt, black fletching sprouting from her back. The arrow had punched through her spine at an angle, and drink into her heart. The one had died instantly, taken by surprise—her pistol was still stuck in the back of her waistband.
“Y-yeah.” Carter gagged. “This… one.” He paused, almost saying ‘woman.’ It was easier to deal with bodies if he told himself they weren’t people anyone. He rose, stepping past her. A man lay on his back not far from the woman, and Carter vomited a little in his mouth at the sight of this one. An arrow stood out of the man’s eye socket. His mouth hung open, perpetually screaming in pain. A sawed-off shotgun lay clasped in his hand, drawn but unfired.
“Boss… can we go?”
“Not yet.” She sipped at her drink set it aside. “Need ta know where he fired from. Need’a make sure we ain’t headin’ in the direction he went.”
“Can you help?”
“When I gone and finished my drink.” She held up the margarita glass. It was polished and clean, filled with a turquoise blend of mix and tequila. Carter couldn’t fathom how the boss had found any of that unspoiled. “Gonna be a bit. If you wanna go, best get started without me.”
“So not fair.” Carter mumbled, pulling his collar up over his mouth as he stepped over the corpses, searching for where the archer would’ve fired from. The city of El Bajio stood in the distance, perhaps a half-mile’s walk. The building’s there would’ve provided an optimal vantage point, but it was too far away for the precision the archer had eliminated his targets with.
Sixteen dead. Each felled by a single black arrow—carbon fiber shafts with plastic fletchings and stainless heads. Hunting arrows, fired from a compound bow. Carter could’ve have discerned any of that himself, he had no idea what made a compound bow different from a regular bow, but the boss had spoken with absolute certainly. She tended to be knowledgeable about such things. This was the third time they’d come upon a scene like this in the last month, and each time they’d head in the opposite direction. The boss hadn’t set it, but Carter could tell they were running from whoever shot these. He sometimes wondered if the shooter was chasing them. It wasn’t a pleasant thought.
The arrows hadn’t come from the direction of the city, to the east. It was all flat between here and there, easily visible. Carter would’ve guessed the archer had fired from the ridge, to the south, but that was the direction he and the boss had come over to get here, and they hadn’t seen any sign of another soul up on that ridge.
The dead had been raiders, banditos—people who moved from town to town, taking what they could. They would’ve been paranoid of attack and had even gone as far as to set up barricades between themselves and the ridge. It didn’t line up. Additionally, the bandits seemed to have been heading north, towards the border of the States. As such, it seemed doubtful the archer had headed southward to meet them. If that was the case, Carter and the boss would’ve run across the killer.
That left the west. The land gradually slopped downwards in that direction, and Carter could imagine someone crouching below a cleft, barely visible, and taking out each bandito at eye level.
He slowly made his way there, careful to avoid the pools of syrupy blood gathered on the ground. Sure enough, he noticed signs of a fight. Clods of dirt blasted out of the ground when some of the banditos had managed to return fire in the shooter’s direction, bullets caught in the ground. The archer himself left no evidence behind, but the banditos had given plenty of evidence the archer had killed them all from this area. Carter squatted where he imagined the shooter had and faced the campsite. He mimed drawing a bow and releasing it, making the appropriate noises with his mouth.
What could possess someone to kill sixteen people with a bow? Heck, how did a person kill sixteen people with a bow? These were hardened killers, people who stole and murdered to survive. And this guy had killed them all with a bow and arrow without suffering a scratch? That didn’t compute in Carter’s mind. How fast could one really fire a bow? Certainly not faster than a gun.
A thought struck him, and he walked back across the campsite turned graveyard, to the eastern portion of it, a swept the entire area. As he thought, no arrows. Either the archer had retrieved an missed shots—which Carter found unlikely given the attack had occurred overnight, and trying to find black arrows in the dark would’ve been very difficult—or he simply hadn’t missed. Carter tried to imagine that. Almost twenty people with firearms unloading at this guy, and he took them all down with a bow and arrows, never suffering an injury himself. Carter shook his head, more in awe and disbelief than anything. He supposed he should’ve been afraid, given it was possible they could run across this archer, but he couldn’t summon up the fear. It just wasn’t real enough to him yet.
He walked back over to the boss, mindful of the corpses. She hadn’t moved from her seat.
“He came from the west, Boss.” Carter said, pointing in the opposite direction of the sun rise. It cast a faint orange glow over the dusty Mexican dirt.
“Then the bastard’s headed east into the city.” The boss decided, briskly rising from her seat. She finished the rest of her drink in a single gulp, wincing at the tequila inevitably scoured her throat, and tossed the glass aside. “Could’ve gone around these fuckers if he was headed north or south, but decided it’d be quickest to go through ‘em.”
“North, then?” Carter guessed.
“Looks it.” She agreed.
The boss cut through the center of the dead banditos, swinging the strap of her rifle up over her shoulder.
“Shouldn’t we do something for them?” Carter asked, staring at the corpses.
“Fucking why?” The boss didn’t dignify the question with a glance. “These assholes weren’t nothing when they were alive. Probably made lot of good folk miserable. It’s justice that they rot in the sun.”
“It seems… wrong.”
“Suck it up, boy. We ain’t got the time anyway. I wanna be in the States ‘fore sundown. You wanna stick back and dig graves for a baker’s dozen, be my damn guest.”
She was already ahead of him, pausing a moment to loot a flashlight from once of the corpses. A quick flick on and off demonstrated it still had juice, and she tucked it away, before continuing.
Carter looked out over the corpses again. The frozen expressions of terror, the limp bodies lying in unnatural positions. Maybe they were bad people, maybe they’d been more complex than that, had their own motives for doing what they’d done, Carter would never know. But they were people still, and he didn’t think anyone deserve to die like that.
He crouched down by the woman with an arrow through her back, felt her pockets.
“I’m sorry.” He muttered, before hurrying after the boss. She didn’t slow her pass in the slightest for him to catch up, and she was taller than him. The boss wasn’t a small woman. She was a little over six feet tall, a few inches taller than Carter’s own 5’10, and broad through the shoulders. She had muscular physique that would’ve been appropriate on some men, although with age it’d began to soften, and her arms and shoulders were taking on that characteristics that ran in line with Carter’s expectations of what a woman’s arms and shoulders should look like. She was older, Carter guessed early to late fifties, although he wasn’t certain, with dark skin that must’ve been a rich almond color at one point, but too much time in the sun had darkened it to an almost-charcoal. She had an angular, well-proportioned face that would’ve been attractive on a younger woman, but on the boss it just made her look stern and military, added to the deep wrinkles on her brow, and frown lines alongside her mouth. Her graying, black hair was done back behind her head in a tight braid that never came undone unless she washed it.
It all coalesced to create a distinguished woman, who cut an intimidating figure. She’d been a soldier or warrior of some kind in past life, Carter thought. He’d come to this conclusion by how she talked, how she handled the weapons, and the visible scars. He figured it was why she had the tough-as-nails demeanor and flagrant disregard for human life. That was the extent of what he knew. Whenever Carter tried to press for more information, his response came in the form of silence or a ‘fuck off.’
“Where’re we headed?”
“Sells. Town on the border. Big Native American population back in the day. Probably still the same.”
Carter blinked. The boss had explained how things out west tended to be worse than things in the east, where he was from. She had gone on to say that she’d never lead him into the western States if she could help it.
“Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. We ain’t gonna to bug the men in charge if we can help it.”
“We be layin’ low from now on, yeah? We’ve got what we need.”
The component. Carter mouthed the words. He didn’t say them outloud. The boss tended to get upset if he did.
The walking grew longer as the quiet set in. Carter had trouble finding the beauty in Mexico. The boss loved it, would murmur something everyone and a while about resorts and cheap drugs, things that went over Carter’s head. He didn’t see whatever she saw; he lacked the benefits of nostalgia. He couldn’t only see the barren desert, cacti, the empty cities. It was pretty sometimes—like when the sun rose over the horizon and cast a glow over the parched earth. Or they came upon an abandoned ancient villa that had managed to survive the test of time, and Carter got a glimpse into what life had been like. But frequently it just made him sad. The boss had described Mexico as an unpleasant place before the world had collapsed. Now it wasn’t so much unpleasant as depressing. What people he met were either jaded, expecting violence, or were violent themselves. It didn’t leave much room for endearment. Of course, Carter was looking through the eyes of a foreigner. The States weren’t much better. In many ways, they were worse.
Carter’s thoughts returned to the archer, and the corpses. This was the third site they’d found. The first had been two men outside Mexico City, with arrows through their backs. The boss had surmised they’d been enforcers for one of the cartels that ran the area and been killed unawares. The second site had been five people, three women and two men, one that had been in his early twenties, possibly only a year or two older than Carter. The boss had said they were probably looters of some sort, given that they’d had carts full of equipment scavenged from abandoned cities. Carter had begun harboring worries that the archer was following them, or perhaps taking the same path north as them, but the boss said it was probably just coincidence. Carter didn’t know about that. There was a whole idiom about lightning not striking the same place twice, and in this case it’d struck three times.
“This archer…” Carter began, testing the waters. The boss didn’t say anything, so he took it as a sign to continue. “How do you know it’s a guy?”
“Just do.” Was the curt reply.
“And you could explain how, but you won’t.”
“Why do you think he’s killing people?”
“Fun. Crazy. Angry. Why’s the sky fucking blue? I don’t know.”
“Could he be a Duplicate?” Carter asked, entertaining the idea.
The boss paused for a half-step. “No. Don’t bring those up, Carter. Ain’t gonna say that twice.” Her words carried an unusual gravity that the boss only ever reserved for important issue. That, combined the seriousness of her tone and the use of his actual name, instead of being called ‘boy,’ or ‘kid,’ convinced Carter to drop it. He didn’t really know much about ‘Duplicates,’ aside from urban myths, and stories the older generations would tell, but they were never pleasant. His suggestion hadn’t been serious, only speculation by someone ignorant on the subject.
The border rose up in front of them. It wasn’t an imaginary border, one a person could only see if they knew it was there, but a physical one. A tall fence rose up in from them, rusted, flimsy, but coated in barbed wire. Carter would’ve been hard pressed to a find a through, had there not been a gaping hole in one of the panels.
“Used ta’be people’d try their best to get ‘cross the border.” The boss said as they approached the fence. It extended far as they could see in either direction. “Checkpoints e’ery once in a while, where people could cross legally. Tunnels and gaps for people to get across illegally. People looking for work, smuggling drugs, running from something.”
The boss scratched her chin, ponderous. “Ain’t so different now, really. Difference is that ain’t nobody give a fuck if you do cross.”
“I thought you said there were militias that try and keep people out.” Carter said as he ducked down, passing through the hole in the fence behind the boss.
“There are. But they’re too small to make any real difference. Most just angry dickheads that wanna take that anger out on some poor bastard.”
The ground grew even more dry on this side of the border. Flat, and without much flora. Each footstep kicked up spirals of dust.
Carter thought he saw a rock in the distance, until he got close enough and he realized it was some kind of machine.
“Boss!” Carter pointed. She swiveled her head in the direction of his finger.
“Good eye, boy.” The boss nodded. Carter felt a swell of pride at the praise, and smile forced its way onto his face. The boss was stingy with her compliments, so whenever he got one it seemed all the more meaningful.
“I’mma get in close.” She said. “Stay back, might still got some in kick in it.”
The boss slowly approached the machine, weapon half-raised, and Carter hung back. He wasn’t very good with his weapon, and the boss never needed his help anyway. It didn’t appear there would be any trouble however, as she returned her rifle to her shoulder when she saw the machine’s condition.
“It’s fucked, Carter. Come’ere and take a look.”
Carter trudged over, wary of the thing. The boss rested one dust-covered boot high up on it, elbows leaned over her knee. The machine was half buried, it’s tail and wings sticking out of the ground, it’s head buried. It wasn’t large, perhaps only seven feet long front to back, with a sixteen-foot wing span. There were stories of weaponized machines been used in the conflicts way back when, but Carter didn’t see how this could be as dangerous was said.
“What is it?”
“Surveillance drone. Would’ve watched for people tryin’a cross. There’s a camera on the front of it. Someone pops over, troops come in and grab ‘em.”
“And send them back?”
“Sometimes. Other times welcome ‘em in.”
“Huh.” Carter mumbled.
The boss crouched down by the machine, and ran her hand over it.
“What’re you doing?” Carter asked.
“Feeling for a panel.”
“If I pop it open, I can get it look at the serial number.”
“The serial number?”
“So I can find what base it’s at.”
“How do you–?”
“Cut the fucking questions, boy.”
He went quiet. The boss’ hand found a seam. “There we go.” She drew an oversized KABAR knife from her belt, and jabbed it the seam, and yanked it like a lever. The cover popped off with a loud crack, revealing the drone’s innards. Lengths of wires ran between circuit boards and microchips.
“Tasty.” The boss muttered, smirking. “Wanna bite, boy?”
“What?” He replied, bewildered.
The boss ignored him, although she was grinning wider now at her own joke. Carter thought the boss could really weird sometimes. He chalked it up to her being old.
The boss turned and picked up the panel from where it had fallen to the ground, and turned it over. A series of numbers was printed on the previously concealed side of it. The boss spent a few moments scanning it, before tossing the panel aside.
“That’s it?” Carter asked.
“That’s it.” The boss set off again, heading north.
“You got what you needed from a number.”
“’Cause I’mma fucking genius. I ain’t gonna explain it, so shut the fuck up.”
He sighed. The walk continued in silence.
The sun was halfway through it’s daily inexorable march, and Carter was soaked through with sweat. The boss was as unstoppable as the sun, showing only the faintest signs of exhaustion. Sweat beaded her brow, but Carter bet she could march halfway into Nevada before she needed a break. Stuff like that made Carter wonder if the boss was a Duplicate. Of course, there were no female, or black, Duplicates, but he still wondered.
Sells spread before them or, at least, Carter thought it did. It was hard to tell in place that looked so poorly put together. Houses of cement blocks and dry wall sat on flat plots of gravel. The both of them were summarily ignored by the few people actually outdoors. Carter took back what he said—this place was depressing.
“Sells sucks.” Carter muttered. “You said ‘town.’ This looks less like a town and more like the end of an Ayn Rand novel.”
The boss looked over her shoulder at Carter.
“I read.” He shrugged.
“Sells is a shithole, yeah.” The boss agreed, proceeding down the town’s main street. Almost every home was identical, pre-fabricated and bland. Some were in livable condition, but many were little more than ruins. “But it’s a shithole that’s got what we need.”
“And we need…?”
“A map. I don’t gotta map of Arizona.”
“Alright.” Carter nodded. He looked back over the houses again, and caught a woman peering at him out from a dark window, visible only by the sunlight that hit her. They stared at each other for a moment, Carter’s hairs standing up on his neck, before the woman ducked out of sight. Creepy. He noted. The town was quiet, ominously so. “WATCH FOR COPIES” was spray-painted on the side of one of the houses.
A man waited for them up ahead, a pump-action shotgun resting in his hands. He stood with the intent of stopping them. He wore ragged, worn clothing, and wasn’t very pleasant to look at with a sun-beaten face, and an unkept hair and beard.
“You come from down south?” He asked as they approached.
The boss nodded, unfazed by the weapon or opposition. She glanced around distractedly, as if this wasn’t worth her time.
“Pretty heavily armed.” The man stated and wasn’t wrong. In addition to the rifle the boss had over her shoulder, she had a sheathed machete strapped over the other across her back, a knife stuck in her belt, a heavy pistol in her waistband, and, although Carter knew the man couldn’t see, she had a .357 magnum strapped to her calf. All this, combined with the flak jacket, bandoleer of ammunition, cargo pants, and military boots, gave her the impression of a woman going to war.
The boss only smiled. “Of course.”
“Mind telling me what you’re doing in Sells?”
The boss sniffed, taking her time to formulate an answer, not looking at the man. “I do.”
“I do mind.” She looked directly at him.
The man crinkled his brow, frowning factionally. “We gunna have a problem?” Carter was mindful of how the grip on the shotgun shifted from relaxed to prepared.
“You tell me.” The boss seemed to be onto whatever this guy’s angle was, and the confrontational attitude of it made Carter anxious.
“This is how things are run around her, lady. I ask you some questions, you make some, er, concessions. And you don’t make trouble for me. Trouble for you is trouble for me.”
“Who made you king of the fucking castle?” The boss stepped closer, and the man nudged the shotgun ever so slightly in her direction.
“What are you talking about?” He asked tensely.
“See, I don’t think for one damn second you’s the ‘sheriff’ or any other dumb shit like that.” She said, leaning closer. She was taller than he was, even a bit broader. “I see you ain’t got men with you, and I see ain’t no one’s given us a second look. I think you’re some dumb asshole who harasses people as they come in, gets some fun outta it, makes you feel tough, maybe you get’em to cough up something extra.” She shook her head. “Makes you, a nuisance is all it does. Makes me, think that if I snapped your fucking neck and lay you out here on the road to cook nobody’d give two shits.”
His knuckles were white on the shotgun.
The boss cocked her head. “Go on.” The words were growled. “Try it. I fucking dare you.”
They stared at each other for several nail-biting moments, the man’s face paling, his jaw clenched, the boss maintaining a calm façade over barely restrained fury.
The man slowly lowered his weapon and stepped aside. “I’ve got friends, people who were counting on me. You’d better get out while you can, ‘cause they’ll be angry now.”
“Imma be here long as I damn well please. You gotta issue, come find me.”
He gave the boss one long glare, before turning and hurrying away.
“Was that smart?” Carter asked once he was gone, nervous about the man’s promised retaliation.
“No.” The boss snorted. “But it made me feel good though.”
“All is right with the world.” Carter muttered dryly.
“Don’t mouth off at me, boy. Look, either he’s done doing that shit from now on, or I made it worse and he’ll get a gang to shake someone down next time.” She shrugged, like it didn’t matter either way.
Carter often entertained the notion that the boss was insane. It would’ve explained a lot. The boss sought aggressive confrontations such as that and was frequently the driving factor that made them turn violent.
They came to a house with plywood sign staked into the ground out front; the word’s “Maggy’S Store” were hastily painted on in black.
“Who names their kid ‘Maggy?’” Carter wondered aloud, staring at the sign.
“It’s short for Margaret.” The boss shrugged, heading up towards the house.
“Aren’t these Indians?” Carter asked.
“Native Americans, boy.” The boss corrected. “And white people ain’t got a monopoly on Margaret. Just… keep quiet, minimize the stupid shit that comes outta your mouth.” She pounded on the plastic door, and it swung upon to reveal a sparsely decorated interior, no less clean than the outdoors. The boss was quick in her transaction with the shop keeper, an elderly woman who spoke only when necessary, and always monosyllabically. Carter thought the exchange was amusing, as the boss spoke just as infrequently, and the transaction was completed through a series of grunts and inaudibly uttered words. The boss got her map, bartered her flashlight in exchange, and then made for the door.
“What’s your name?” Carter asked the woman as they made their way out.
“Maggy.” The elderly woman wrinkled her nose. The sagging skin of her face rippled like waves on the ocean as a result. “The sign.” She pointed towards the door.
“Your full name, ma’am?” He rephrased politely.
The woman considered him with beady eyes. “Magaskawee.”
Carter gave the boss a knowing look.
She rolled her eyes and shoved his face away. “Shut up.”
Outside, the boss unfolded her map, and Carter crowded her shoulder to look down at it. She pushed him away with an elbow, and he circled around to view it from the side, out of range.
“What’s this military base we’re going to?”
“The ‘Thomas National Guard Installation.’” She said, pointing to the spot on the map.
“What kind of a base is an installation?”
“The kind that is run by machines.” The boss said.
Carter balked. “You’re going to make us fight robots?”
“One, boy, don’t call ‘em ‘robots,’ this ain’t a Disney movie. And it ain’t Terminator neither. They’re long offline by now, and they don’t have a satellite uplink to run their operations through.”
“What’s the point then?”
“The point is what I fucking say it is.” The boss snapped. “Lord give me strength, don’t you got anything else to say ‘sides questions?”
“I have sarcasm and obscure facts.” He offered with a toothy grin.
The boss grunted wordlessly in response and began folding up the map, as a gunshot cracked off somewhere else in town.
“What was that?” Carter asked, fumbling to pull his rifle off his shoulder and deposit it in his hands. “Those guys?”
“Ain’t anywhere near us, kid. Other side of town, back where we came in.” She paused, listening.
Several more gunshots soon followed the first. Carter didn’t know much about guns, but he thought that they were all fired from the same kind of weapon.
“Do you think—”
“Quiet.” The boss hissed as the shooting continued. The sound of yelling and shouting filled the gaps between the staccato gunfire.
“We should go investigate.” Carter said, turning in that direction, “Someone might need help!”
The boss arm darted out and she clamped a hand down on his arm. The grip was painfully strong, and Carter muffled a surprised yelp.
“No. Listen.” The boss held up a finger and looked seriously at Carter.
He listened. “Hear what?”
The boss glowered at him. “Fuck, does nothing I teach you stick?” He blushed, as she continued. “Once source of gunshots. No return fire.”
“So? Maybe they killed the other guy.”
“Wouldn’t be shooting if he was dead, boy, ammo ain’t cheap. Nah, reason there ain’t return fire is ‘cause whoever they’re shooting at ain’t got a gun.”
Carter stared blankly at the boss for several moments before it dawned on him. “The archer.”
The boss nodded. “You still wanna head over and investigate?”
Carter fervently shook his head, trying to force down the panic he was experiencing. Okay, he was afraid now. He was definitely afraid. He didn’t know if he was imagining it, but he thought he could hear screaming in the distance.
The boss gestured onwards. “Then let’s go.”
“He followed us.” Carter said. The boss started to jog, and Carter matched her pace, gripping his rifle as it bounced around on his shoulder.
“Why would he do that? What’s he want?”
“You really wanna wait around to find out? My best bet, boy, is that he wants to kill us.”