tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Wanderers

The Wanderers

byAfterDusk©

Happy Birthday, Eddie.

-AD


I sat upon the ridge looking at the caravan below. Though the sun had yet to rise, the night had begun to recede ever so slightly, allowing me the sight of families rising to prepare breakfast before packing up their wagons. The lightening sky revealed the parched prairie grass that stretched out far to the horizon, the bleak and desolate view in itself enough to make a man thirsty. The dry air seemed to dance in the distance, blurring the coming sunrise.

I leaned back against the deadwood behind me, crossing my boots at the ankles and resting the hot tin cup of simulated coffee on my chest, inhaling the smell that reminded me of life long ago, a life I tried to put behind me. It never worked, though, especially on beautiful mornings like this—granted, it was already close to eighty degrees out and once the sun was at its peak it would swelter well over a hundred but for the time being there was an uncanny nostalgia about the rugged plains, a nod back to a time long before I was born, one that reminded me of those rough and tumble westerns I used to look forward to as a kid. In my youth I played amongst the slightly dilapidated movie sets that were long since abandoned by the big studios, pretending to be Clint Eastwood or John Wayne, saving the town from outlaws or Indians, rescuing the damsel in distress before stealing a kiss and riding off into the sunset alone.

But real life wasn't like that. I was no longer young and never had the privilege of pretending, not anymore. Crist—I couldn't remember the last time I even read a book let alone saw a movie, in fact, I'm not even sure if any survived. Doesn't matter, I suppose, because who had time for entertainment when every moment of your life was an adventure.

I watched a tall, slender figure in the center of the circled wagons below me; he shook the dust off of his cowboy hat before tapping it onto his head, his confident gait heading my way. It took him a while to climb the ridge but when he neared, I looked over his features, features that were so similar to mine: shaggy, dirty blonde hair, a few days worth of a beard forming, deep brown eyes that rarely showed any sort of joy in them anymore. He stood over me for a moment before sitting at my side; reluctantly, I picked up my cup and scooted backwards to join him, blowing across the still molten liquid.

Richie handed me a scope, "I'm assuming you saw them already?"

I took it, holding it up to my eye and scanning the horizon; it automatically adjusted for the distance, barely able to focus on the small contingency of horses at the very edge of its range, "Yes, I saw them yesterday."

"Do you think they'll cause us any trouble, father?" His voice was smooth and quiet, pulling my attention to him. He rarely called me that anymore, even when we were alone. We never advertised the fact that he was my son, I his father, especially now that our cycles had neared and we physically appeared so close in age; in fact, he almost looked a few years older than me.

I returned my sights to the distance, slightly twisting the focusing ring to sharpen the image; there were three horses, two in front and one in back. It was easy enough to see them for what they were—two hunters and their bounty. Though the men's faces were clear underneath their wide brimmed hats, the one behind them was covered in a leather duster, a deep hood over its head to keep it sheltered from sight; even so, the minute differences in its stance, in the way it moved upon the horse below it, in the slightly lithe and tall form, it was obvious what it was—a wanderer.

"No, I don't Richie," I replied, handing him back the scope, "I would be willing to bet that they meet up with us by the time we camp tonight."

"Think they'll just pass through, Aldrich?" He asked, using my given name now as he often did. It always reminded me of when he was young, I would use his full name when he got in trouble—Aldrich Edgar Yearling Junior you get your butt over here! Of course, if I had known that centuries later we'd be trying to hide our relation, I wouldn't have named him after me.

"Let us hope that they do," I sighed, choking down the sorry attempt at simulated coffee—it was nothing like the hot comforting liquid I remembered. I dare say eating instant coffee out of a jar with a spoon would have been a closer attempt, yet even that was a forgotten thing of the past.

We both rose and walked down the ridge, joining the caravan below. Neither one of us felt like bothering with a fire or cooking so I fished some jerky out of my pack and handed him half. Eating in silence, he walked one way around the circled wagons, I the other, checking out our charges to make sure they were all still alive. They were of course, we rarely lost anyone—we made a good duo and our services came at a high cost; making the trek from what was left of the east coast through the middle of the old continental states to New Washington was quite a trip, at least seven months of a grueling pace, longer depending on the grit of those in the caravan. Elderly people rarely even attempted the journey anymore, which was just as well because chances are they'd die along the way.

Once folks started packing up their breakfast mess, Richie and I returned to our small camp, gathering up our saddles and packs, hoisting them onto our horses. I gently rubbed the brown nose of Judge while slipping his bridle on. He was a good horse, didn't spook easily, never wandered off and on the rare occasion I had fired a weapon he was unconcerned with the noise. Richie's horse, Jury, was the same way—they were brothers that we picked up a few years back from a small tribe of plainsmen near the old border of Canada and the US, though now it was pretty much the middle of the country, a vast almost uninhabitable prairie. Without the cool breezes coming off of the ocean, the middle of Canmerica sweltered in heat and drought and few had the resolve to live there, though most that did were dark skinned or some percentage of one, simply because they could tolerate the sun much better than full white people. Not many of them left now, though, in fact I think that Richie and I often drew curious glances from the muddled heritage that inevitably made up our caravans—survival of the fittest, natural selection, call it what you like but most folks now a days had dark hair and naturally olive hued complexions. Funny how it took something like an outside invasion to make humans finally look past skin color to realize we were all the same.

As the sun began to rise high enough to power the wagons, Richie led the way with the caravan following in a single line behind him. I sat on top of Judge, quietly waiting as one by one the wagons uncoiled from their tightly knit circle like a snake and slithered off over the tall brown grass. When the last one quietly pulled out, its owner walking near the front of it to mind the controls, I glanced around our old camp to ensure that no one was left behind. Pulling up the scope, I sighted out over the distance, reaffirming that the hunters and their bounty were still headed in our direction. Raising my bandana up over my nose to cut the dust, I slid on a pair of sunglasses and trailed behind the caravan.

The morning droned on as it usually did. When Richie called for a halt, a quick rest for midday meal, I dismounted Judge and got out his water bag. Holding it open for the beast, he lapped the refreshing fluid up. Once he was finished I grabbed a survival bar from my pack along with some more jerky to cut the dull taste of nutrients. I chewed slowly, my eyes scanning the horizon, the miles of open grassland that once made up Montana, I think. That name was lost on the younger generations, most of what life was like before Day One was. A damned shame, if you asked me—the only way to avoid repeating the past was to remember what mistakes were made in the first place.

I finished my meal, climbing back up onto my mount well before the caravan started moving again. Looking around, I drew in a sharp breath, the hairs on the back of my neck causing a tingle down my spine—I couldn't see anything, though I knew well enough that that meant nothing; wanderers blended into the landscape of our world so well it was uncanny. I drew my rifle, checking that the clip was fully charged even though I knew it was, a full fifteen shots. Checking my pistol, I ensure the same—six. I had two other charge packs for my pistol in my saddle bag, giving me an additional dozen shots; part of me laughed, reminded of those old six shooters I used to see on the big screen. Guns were rare these times and even by today's standards Richie and I carried antiques.

Long ago, projectile weapons became a thing of the past, replaced by solar powered technology at the turn of an old century; of course, a weapon with unlimited firepower was a dangerous notion so laws restricted the amount of solar charge a pack could carry. After Day One few things on the surface survived, the gun factories definitely not one of them. Even these weapons cost me years of credits, the last pack I managed to find in one of the towns was a full decade worth of work. Not that credits were hard to come by when one got up to my age; I urged Judge forward, pondering on it—how old was I?

Honestly, I didn't even know what year it was now. I was born in the early 50's. I married, a had kid, had a family—my first wife died though, years before Day One. I missed her still but in a way she was one of the lucky ones as she never had to see the death of an era, the end of a planet, the beginning of a new existence. My second wife, Carolyn, she was nice enough and we got on okay, at least in the beginning. I was well past my prime when we got hitched, she as well—she had kids of her own, a widow. Seemed like a good match. But then, they came—the wanderers. There was no word in our language for what they were, the only ones close enough didn't do them justice: aliens, invaders, creatures from another galaxy. Sure, they were aliens I suppose, foreign looking but close enough in physical appearance to humans: all were lithe, six foot if not taller, bipedal, two eyes, a nose, a mouth...basically, human, except for small details: their skin was a matted gold, their long wavy hair matching, their eyes a vibrant, uncanny green. Proportionally their faces were human, though their eyes always reminded me of a cat's with the way their pupils could adjust so quickly, get so huge to view the surroundings in such detail.

But they weren't invaders—they came in peace. They were a race of wanderers, nomads of the galaxy, gypsies of the stars. Their people had left their home planet eons ago, breaking up into smaller groups upon massive starships, drifting amongst the vacuum of space until they came across other sentient beings to trade with or learn from. They never wanted anything from us that we weren't willing to give and they offered up some interesting technology. Initially, relations were amiable, a few hundred of the thousand that made them up ventured to the surface to interact with us. That is when shit hit the fan.

Nothing emasculates a man more than one who can please a woman with little effort and that is what the male wanderers were capable of—mind blowing, sating sex. At first it was just a few curious women, some odd fetish to fuck an alien but after word got out more and more women flocked to them. Afterwards, lying with a human man was unsatisfying. Frankly, I always thought it was the quality of the human men that they chose—if I'm going to be honest though, men as a whole were lazy sons of bitches. It took too much effort to ensure a lady's satisfaction especially when our own could be had within a couple of minutes if we pushed it.

So, we fell into the age old trap of our gender: fear of losing our women—just like the cavemen did to other tribes, the white man to the black, the civilized to the savages. Since the world was run by a bunch of misogynistic idiots who viewed women as a commodity, the wanderers became a threat. And what do humans do to a threat? That's right—they blow it the fuck up.

For as smart, as industrial, as perceptive as humans can be, we're a bunch of dipshits most of the time. Either those in charge disregarded the unknown technology the starship possessed or they were too stupid to think ahead that far but that was Day One. I can still remember it clearly; I was sitting at my kitchen table, at my ranch in the desert stretch of California, a cup of authentic dark roasted coffee in my hand, watching the news as it unfolded on the TV. The starship was roughly the size of Texas, hovering outside of the atmosphere but still visible to the naked eye. Dozens of missiles launched, hitting their target; the dark alien metal buckled inward before the explosion shattered it into millions of pieces. Whatever mysteries were inside disintegrated, sending out a shockwave across the entire world that blew out all electronics, shattered every single window and knocked out every living being.

When I came to hours later, the world was in chaos; my truck didn't work so I had to saddle up a horse and search the ruins of the city for my family. Luckily, they were all still alive but it would be years before we made another startling discovery—not only did most of the wanderers escape to Earth but the technology that we destroyed devastated our own planet. Greenhouse gases went through the roof, ice caps melted allowing the swelling oceans to reclaim our land, millions died and those that lived, well, were changed to put it bluntly.

The wanderers didn't age—some of the ones that came to our planet initially were the same ones that left theirs eons ago; whatever it was that kept them from succumbing to time was amongst the things we destroyed and its power was sent through the planet. I was in my late sixties but each year that passed I was shocked to discover my face, my body got younger and younger. By the time I was nearing a hundred I looked like I was barely twenty five; it seemed a horrible fate, to unage back to a child but that's when I noticed myself getting older. I thought I would finally have the opportunity to die old and grey, a silver fox, but alas, those of us who had survived Day One wouldn't be that lucky. Our internal time clocks were glitchy; it varied from person to person but for me I was stuck in a perpetual cycle between my twenties and my sixties, aging to one extreme, deaging back, repeating over and over again. Richie was subjected to the same fate, though since our cycles were opposite we were often on opposing ends of the spectrum; visually meeting in the middle for a few years made us appear to be brothers.

Carolyn, though, wasn't as lucky. She continued on until her eighties before reverting back to mid fifties; the physical appearance always bothered her no matter how much I assured her of my loyalty. It was the same with most women who survived Day One, perhaps it was some sort of cosmic middle finger for them wanting physical pleasure from the wanderers but the women who lived through that day remained perpetually stuck between old and older. It took almost a century for any of us to discover that our fate wasn't inflicted upon future generations—those born after, grew, lived and died like normal. It changes something about you, watching your grandchildren, your distant genetic progeny life a life that alluded you. Richie felt the same way which is why we got on so well together. In our solitude, venturing across the ruins of a once great nation, we found a sort of peace with our existence. Our wives lived in the cities; they didn't want to get divorced, though they didn't really want us around when we were young because all it did was make them feel old. Every fifty years or so I'd see Carolyn, when our physical appearances were close in age; we would make a go of it, like old times, until she inevitably grew older and I younger. Eventually it would get to the point that she'd be too self conscious about herself and kick me out; I'd join up with Richie and we would guard the caravans for a few decades until he got old enough to meet up with his wife.

It took a few times of this before I came to terms with it; I loved my wife, heart and soul, yet when we were apart, when she turned me out it killed me, Richie too. We knew why they did it, we understood it even but that doesn't mean it didn't hurt; Carolyn gave me her blessing to satisfy my needs however I saw fit, as long as I returned to her as her husband at the end of my cycle. I did a few times, I mean I'm a man after all but sex with strange women was simply that—sex. Not that it happened often enough to matter, though there was always one woman in each caravan who'd take a shine to me. I would never get near enough to her until we were at the end of the trek—then I'd spend a week fucking her every chance I got before kissing her goodbye and riding off into the sunset.

In this caravan though the only single woman took a shine to Richie. Sure, a few of the married ones had turned those doe eyes to me on occasion but I'd never touch one of them—too messy. Sighing, I returned my focus back to the sprawling grassland, looking for a glimpse of black, some darkness out of place to give me an inkling of any wanderers nearby; those that were left or at least those that attacked the caravans were all half breeds, bastard spawn of a male wanderer and a female human. After Day One, any woman found carrying bairn of theirs were forced to abort it; that didn't stop them from getting retribution though—the women, that is. Many left the human populous, seeking out the safety of the wanderer tribes, living out their lives among them, baring their mutt kin. The mixing of the two DNAs changed something, though—the full blooded wanderers by nature were kind and gentle, almost demure creatures but when paired with human genetics they became brutal, powerful, domineering beings that hunted and killed with little remorse. Physically their appearances were different, their golden skin the same but their hair always became darker, almost pitch black and their slender build was shorter. If any in the caravan were lucky enough to see a wanderer and live, it was a half breed. All of them were hard to kill but it had been centuries since I last saw a full blooded wanderer; the government had a habit of rounding them up for experimentation.

The temperature began to drop slightly as the sun dipped in the sky, changing the terrain from the gates of hell to barely tolerable. Ahead of me I could see the caravan begin to curve in on itself, forming a large circle, preparing to bed down for the night. There was maybe an hour of sunlight left but Richie never liked to chance not finding a decent camp before the solar power was cut. I followed the tail wagon as it filled in the last open spot, glancing around one final time though I saw nothing out of the ordinary.

Judge and I wandered over to the center of the circle where I took off his tack and tended to his needs, Richie doing the same.

"You feel it too?" He asked quietly.

I nodded in response—out of necessity we had come to rely on our gut feelings over the years. Something was off. Once our animals were fed and watered, we both grabbed our weapons, rifles included and headed off towards the direction we had come, prepared to meet the hunters. They were still a ways off down the trail and it took them about half an hour to come close enough for me to size them up; both men were rough looking, dark hair and eyes, skin tanned from hours of searching the open landscape. I figured right off that they were the age they looked, men of nowadays instead of long ago like myself. Their bounty was still well covered, hands bound behind its back, the angle of the leather hood told me its chin was down, possibly sleeping.

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byAfterDusk© 10 comments/ 4410 views/ 17 favorites

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