The first winter in
Tennessee was much milder than Max was used to. The deepest snowfall all season was six inches, which she was happy to
bear. The couple days she couldn’t go
out, she snuggled inside, watched movies, and drank hot coffee.
Any day with a temperature above freezing, she continued adapting her pickup to run on a vegetable oil engine similar to the one her bike used. She was glad it was finished. Her menagerie was big enough now she had to make weekly trips to town for feed and supplies.
Her cow, Milly, courtesy of a secluded farm west of town, gave birth to the most gorgeous bull calf in January. Max was thrilled to have a decent chance of having a herd at some point. She still hoped to find another bull, to prevent too much inbreeding.
From what she could tell, there must have been something related to an animal being pregnant at the time of the plague which gave them some immunity to it. Obviously it wasn’t the entire answer, or there would have been a lot more mammals left, but it seemed to have helped in some way at least.
It was now March, and Max needed to stock her supply of vaccinations and de-wormer. She headed to her closet to get dressed. She debated whether or not to wear her body armor and mask any more. It had been over seven months since she’d even seen a live human being, and with so few gasoline engines out there working any more, it seemed unlikely she ever would again.
She reminded herself there were solar and electric-powered cars out there. If someone planned ahead, they might still be mobile. Now that spring was here, it was possible there might be some passersby.
After she was dressed, she covered her suit with street clothes. She pulled out her new beard, courtesy of a local wig store. It was much more realistic than the costume-store version she used earlier. The glue was also much better. It left some redness, but so far, no rashes.
She secured her beard, then pulled her mask carefully over her head, making sure only her moustached lips and her eyes showed. She tucked in a few stray hairs from the braid wound tightly on the top of her head. She put her goggles on with her bulletproof helmet over the band, and stretched them up to rest on the front.
She checked her bike to make sure it was securely attached to the side of the truck, hopped in and turned the key. The engine purred and Max indulged in an exultant grin at her success. Her new vegetable oil engine had the added advantage of being significantly quieter than the old gasoline one. She was pretty sure she could pass someone a half a block away and they wouldn’t even hear her.
The trip started out uneventful. Max filled the bed of the truck with enough feed for the next couple of weeks. As she emerged from the veterinarian’s, she contemplated some sort of large-scale storage for vegetable oil to save some trips to town.
Then she heard the unmistakable sound of an engine.
For a few seconds, the entire earth rotated more slowly as her mind raced to assess the approaching danger. She was closer to the truck than the clinic, so she closed the gap with a few steps. She tossed her supplies in the bed and hid behind the vehicle as a stranger approached.
Max held her dart gun in her right hand, and a .357 in her left. She peered over the bed of the pickup, aiming both at the head of the man who was driving up on a motorized dirt bike. She could see he was well armed, with a thigh holster on each leg and a rifle on his back. His body was protected as hers, from the bulk of his clothing.
He didn’t appear to know exactly where she was, though he clearly noticed either the movement or the loaded pickup. He came to a cautious stop fifty yards away—too far away to dart.
“Hello?” he called out. “Is anyone there? I’m not going to hurt you.” He got off his bike and took a few steps toward her.
Max holstered her pistol and quietly unsnapped her bike from its rack with her left hand. The man came closer, looking under the vehicle. When he was fifteen feet from his motorcycle, she sheathed her dart gun, pushed the start button on her bike, and took off like a jackrabbit down the street.
The newcomer ran back to
his bike and went after her, but he was outmatched. She was out of sight in a few seconds. He
didn’t have the slightest chance of catching up.
Unwilling to leave her pickup and all her hard work in the stranger’s hands, Max circled back and parked her bike a couple blocks away. She pulled her pistol and crept back towards the clinic to monitor the stranger while she decided what to do. She hid behind a nearby trash can and watched as he did a quick recon of the area.
Not seeing her, he began to dig around in her truck bed, then inside the cab. He apparently didn’t find what he was looking for. He seemed to get frustrated. He went back up to the road and looked down in the direction in which she disappeared, kicked his bike into gear, and headed that way.
Max rolled her bike back to her truck, watching the road to make sure the stranger didn’t return. She took out her radio frequency scanner and scanned the truck for any tracking devices or bugs. When she didn’t find any, she got in and headed the opposite way.
The long way home was a bit of a pain, especially since the dirt roads were not maintained after the snow and ice. She made it safely, unloaded her things, and headed back to cover her tracks near the main road. The stranger’s method of doing things made her think he was police or military of some kind, and she wanted to make sure she was untraceable.
When she was done, and it was clear she had not been followed, her curiosity got the better of her. He couldn’t have come far on his motocross bike. He was lucky it was still running at all.
The engine appeared to be original. Someone must have used good stabilizer from the beginning. In any case, she didn’t think it had much lifetime left. She wondered if he was staying nearby. Max made a habit of looking around for smoke as she did her daily walkabout, and she hadn’t noticed any all winter. Maybe the stranger just arrived. It seemed unlikely on that mode of transportation.
She decided she would observe him for a while. She didn’t have anything pressing planned for the afternoon, and he would provide her with some entertainment. She took her bike through the woods instead of by the road, and left it a hundred feet inside the dense forest, leaning against a tree. The vet’s office wasn’t more than a quarter mile away, and she enjoyed the cool, fresh air as she hiked toward it. She heard some yelling and slowed her pace, keeping hidden behind trees as she approached the sound.
Unable to find her, the stranger apparently returned to the clinic to find the truck missing. He was in the process of berating himself for letting her double back on him. Max hunkered down to the ground and snickered at his tantrum. He leaned against the front door of the vet’s office, directly facing the woods across the street, and took a deep breath.
Max carefully pulled a pair of binoculars from her belt and took a closer look at him. He was well over six feet tall, with dark hair that curled under the edges of his helmet. He took off one glove to rub his forehead. His fingers were long and slender, with some scrapes and bruises here and there. His dark beard was neatly trimmed, and dotted here and there with gray. She estimated he was probably pushing forty years old, if not a bit beyond. He wasn’t exactly handsome, but there was something about his expression Max liked. He looked tough and smart, and very determined.
He looked up at the sky, trying to decide what to do next. His eyes were hazel, almost golden, and Max realized now they were looking very intently at something in the woods to her left. She followed his gaze, and realized the angle was directly toward where she parked her bike.
Max thought there was no way he could see it from where he was, but there he was, walking right toward it. Max looked up at the sky. The sun was fully overhead. She couldn’t tell from her vantage point, but she wondered if the light was reflecting off of the fender. She should have painted it by now, but she had been busy with other tasks.
The stranger paused and changed directions, heading right toward her. He kept his eyes on the bike, but approached cautiously. She slid into a shallow depression behind some exposed tree roots and hoped he wouldn’t look too closely. She didn’t want to shoot him, but she would do what she had to.
He drew one of his pistols and side-stepped his way closer and closer to her. She appreciated his skill and the silence of his approach. She remained still until he was ten feet past her position, then stood with her pistol aimed at the back of his neck.
“Freeze. Toss your pistol away from you,” she commanded.
“I’m not here to hurt you.”
“I do not give orders twice.”
The man tossed his weapon ten feet away.
“Now the other one.”
The stranger unsnapped the holster, and tossed it away as well.
The strap slowly lifted over the man’s head and he hurled it harder to get it far enough away.
Max heard the pop of the fastener, and the stranger tossed it away, releasing a mass of unruly curls into the spring air. “I’m out looking for other people. I’ve been here all fall and winter with no signs of anyone. I swear, I just wanted to hear another human voice.”
“Unfortunately for you, I am not burdened with that particular need. Kneel down and put your hands on your head.” The man complied. Max pulled a dart from her dart gun. “Do not move,” she commanded. She approached cautiously, her gun cocked and ready, and plunged the dart manually into the now-exposed area between his shoulder and neck.
“You don’t have to…” he started to object, trying to keep his balance as the drugs kicked in. He sat down on his heels, but it took him a minute to fall. Max thought for a moment it wasn’t enough medication. She pulled out another dart, but before she could inject him he crumpled to the ground.
Unsure whether he was completely subdued, she pretended to walk away, half expecting him to pop to his feet and reach for a weapon, but he lay still. She rolled him over and opened his shirt to relieve him of his body armor, then pushed him onto his stomach. She secured his hands behind him with plastic ties, and hog-tied his feet to his hands.
He was very muscular, and she didn’t think he would stay knocked out for very long. Lifting and transporting a man his size was going to be a huge pain, so she considered taking his bike and weapons as well and leaving him. However, she didn’t like the idea of him being free so close to her homestead. She didn’t have much time, so she sprinted for her bike and went to retrieve a more suitable conveyance for her new guest.