Carry on as normal. That’s what they did. Charlie was trying to rendezvous them with some other team, but all Aleisha could sense was that time was running out. They would carry on as normal right up to the last day, the last moment, and then it would be too late.
The team was out on the road again within days. Two weeks later they were homing in on one of their stopping points. Some kind of hunting community. Aleisha didn’t care. She scowled at the hand painted sign ahead.
MARAUDERS next 2000 miles. Keep windows shut!
“What are Marauders?” she asked.
“Look it up,” Sevi replied.
“And here I was thinking you had complete knowledge of the Universe.”
Sevi leveled a gaze at her. “Go ahead, irritate me, I’m feeling bored.”
Aleisha opened the computer screen. It powered up automatically. “Internet. Marauders.”
A moment later she had the information.
“Lizards,” she told Sevi. “Pretty, really. Green with a white band at the base of their tail, and their tails are blue. Otherwise known as Blue Tails.”
“What a surprise.”
“I hope we see some.”
“Judging by that sign, it’s likely. How big are they?”
Aleisha turned her attention to the Internet once more. “Adults are nine feet.”
“Not a bad length.”
Aleisha finally smiled. Sevi was in good form.
The afternoon was slipping into early evening when they saw the first of the creatures. Aleisha had been watching for them and now gasped in surprise. “Oh, look! Like a dinosaur! Those little ones, a raptor!”
The lizard was olive green and still. In the fading light it might easily have been missed and, had it been any later, they might not have seen it at all. It was up on its hind legs, balanced on a thick long tail that tapered to a sharp point. Its forelimbs were shorter, its head long and slim with a long mouth and sharp teeth. As the convoy approached, it lowered itself and scuttled forward across the road in an ungainly stride, its white-stripe thin and its blue tail swishing from side to side.
“Comm.,” Aleisha called. “Everyone, it’s crossing the road!”
“Holy fuck,” someone responded, seeing the thing.
“Shit, shit, up ahead!”
Aleisha took her gaze off the one and saw the multitude. Sevi hit the brakes.
A wave of the creatures came over the road, a gigantic mass of moving muscle. It was a whole sea of them, moving quietly.
Aleisha’s heart was already pounding hard when the nearest jumped onto the hood of the rig. She squealed, slamming back into the seat. Sevi remained calm, watching the creature with quiet concentration. It wasn’t interested in the cab and didn’t stay on the hood, but leap again and thudded onto the roof.
“Oh my god!” Stephen said, further back in the convoy. “You’ve got one on you, Sevi, we have two. We’re in the tide of them.”
Another thump and bang and their visitor left. They looked the other way, out to the side where it had come from just as dozens more swarmed over the line of trucks.
Sevi grinned. “Well, you wanted to see them.”
Aleisha was craning forward now, marveling at the sight. “Yeah, but I thought it would be one at a time.”
“There must be hundreds of them.”
“A thousand, easily.”
From anyone else that would be exaggeration, from Sevi the estimation was likely accurate.
“Scared the shit outta me,” Aleisha admitted.
The wave took a few minutes to cross the road, finally thinning out and leaving a few stragglers catching up with the main body of the horde.
“Man, they are huge,” one of the men enthused.
“They eat meat,” someone else responded, no doubt reading from the Net. “Live meat, dead meat, all kinds of meat.”
Another voice queried that. “What kinds of meat are there, apart from live meat or dead meat?”
“I dunno, running kind of meat, fighting kind of meat, shitting itself scared kind of meat.”
“This town,” Craig asked, a frown in his voice. “It’s in the middle of this Marauder zone or outside of it?”
“Smack bang, boy.”
“Shit, they must have some balls.”
“-Ball kind of meat-”
“Let’s see if we can get there before it’s fully dark,” Stephen suggested.
Sevi took them forward again. “ETA one hour.”
They didn’t make it. The condition of the road kept their speed below where they wanted it and the sun was long gone when their lights lit upon the Farr Ridge town sign.
Someone had added to it, scrawling in crude letters ked at the end of the first word and a hyphen and ed at the end of the second. It looked like it had been done a long time ago and no one had pride enough to change it.
Sevi gave it some consideration. “I wonder if that’s a witticism or a statement.” She was amused by it, but Aleisha felt a chill go through her body.
“This is a bad place to come to,” she announced.
“Probably. This, however, was done by a couple of boys with a can of paint about ten years ago. They should have grown up by now.”
“Take me seriously, Sevi, something is going to happen here.”
Sevi didn’t bother glancing over. The cab was too dark. “To us?”
“I don’t know! How should I know? It’s just a feeling. Strong. Bad.”
Sevi turned to the console. “Comm.” She watched the light come on green. “Heads up boys and girls. Watch your backs on this one.”
“Okay,” Craig replied, easy with it.
“We watch our backs on every one, Sevi,” Vlad informed her.
“How do you mean?” Kristi asked, sounding nervous.
“Exactly what it sounds like. No fraternizing, no fighting, no stirring the locals. Tell Sasha to do her top up.”
“Shit, must be serious!” Kristi responded. She didn’t mean it to be amusing, but it earned a giggle or two along the convoy.
“What’s up?” Sturn asked.
“Aleisha’s picking up something. A bad feeling.”
“Roger on that,” Craig said, more seriously.
“Got it,” Bret added, soberly.
“Hang on, I’m checking out the place,” Kevin said. “Let’s see. Farrked Ridge-ed. It’s a small town.”
“I can tell.”
“Established sixty years back. That was the first time. It says here the town was abandoned only three years later due to lack of water, poor mining and poor farming results, plus some difficulty with Marauders. No surprise on that one. It became a hunting camp about fifty years ago, was properly fenced and had deeper bores put in.”
“Population fifty-five?” Sevi asked.
“Three thousand plus.”
“Oh, I was way out.”
Aleisha smiled again.
“They won’t mess with a road crew, will they?” Tanya asked. “I mean, not if they value getting their supplies, right?”
“A town this small needs us,” Bret replied.
“That’s the theory,” Stephen responded.
The town of Farr Ridge came into view. The walls would look impressive in daylight but tonight all the team saw was a dark shadow looming ahead, a fort town. The outer wall was solid and high with no gaps, and the town lights beyond them showed as a weak glow against the sky.
As the convoy approached, the vehicle lights revealed the structure to be black stone and brick in places, but most of it was dark wooden poles, great logs raised upright, strapped together and buttressed with metal bands and girders. By day, the fortification would be dark and miserable looking, by night it seemed oppressive.
Leaning forward in her seat to see the height of it up close, Aleisha could see by silhouette that the walls were bristling at the top with razor wire.
Then the searchlights hit them. Sevi halted the convoy, blinded and annoyed, the beams had come on aimed right into their cab. “Oi, a bit of warning!” she said, crossly.
It came clear what the locals on the gate were doing. More lights came on, sweeping their length, exploring the convoy for illicit passengers, wanting to be sure there were no Marauders riding in on any roof.
“Assholes,” Stephen commented down the line.
Then the gates were pulled inwards and the searchlights arced away from them, and they drove into an interior that was crowded, dirty and worn.
The roads were black dust. There were no pavements, no gardens, no civic pride. The buildings were crude and uncared for, crushed in against each other and taking every ounce of space. Wood was the main building material, poorly finished off. Even the lighting was cheap and patchy. The whole place was squalid.
The convoy rolled in and the gates were pushed closed again, mechanical wheels and pulleys heaving the massive weights into place against the wild.
The town itself was quiet despite the fact it was not late. At the same time, it felt stifling.
“Now, we’re locked in,” Vlad said quietly down the convoy.
“Thanks for that, mate,” Geoff told him.
Someone else swore.
“I don’t think anyone has a good feeling about this place,” Stephen observed.
“Yeah, well Aleisha said it first,” Sevi commented, sounding so at ease.
“I never thought I’d say this, Sevi,” Aleisha told her. “But I’m glad you’re here.”
Sevi gave a chuckle.