Within the dust zone there is only one way station known among even outsiders, Bertie’s. When trouble’s coming, Bertha knows about it. Already burning midday heat, I ride the lead in Leviathan with Leonid manning the .50 caliber from the truck bed. He’s a deadlier aim and Leviathan’s undercarriage can withstand improvised explosives better than the truck.
I barrel past a burned out metal hulk in the road, crushing a ruined door with my treads. The glass shatters and I bounce to a stop indicating for Pyotr to drive around before I kick Leviathan back up to cruising speed, around 25mph. At top speed she’ll reach 30 plus, fast enough to outrun most twitchers.
Twice in recent months we’ve seen refugees’ rigs smoldering in the road after tripping explosives set by twitchers—nothing left but burnt hulls and melted rubber. And blood, always blood. I’ve never seen one of the explosives and can’t figure how they set them without fine motor skills. Throwing caution to the wind, I trust Pyotr’s additions to Leviathan to keep her intact. Still, the threat lingers in my mind.
What started as territorial attacks and raids for water and food escalated into full-scale war a couple years ago without explanation. Leonid, as good at interpreting twitcher motives and movements as anyone in the dust zone, thinks the twitchers are dying—that desperation is changing their behavior. Maybe so. Unfortunately, a wounded animal often poses greater threat than a healthy one—whatever healthy is for a twitcher.
Massive fire sign plumes a hundred feet into the air less than a mile northeast of our position, close enough for us to taste the crackle. I open Leviathan’s throttle. The hair on my arms raises and I count the seconds. The cinnabar deposits are getting bigger.
By the time I get to forty-five I start to worry. At fifty I crane my neck to witness the final woof of pale blue flame around the edges of the storm, indicating the end of the burn—less than a few hundred yards away. I let up on the throttle as the hair on my arms settles. Mykola had first asked about the blue flame. Once we deduced it was quicksilver, Pyotr adapted it for our lanterns. I’m damn proud of each of them. I love my boys.
Without warning Leviathan bucks and a deafening wind and scorching heat engulfs me. Careening sideways and bouncing on the right tread, I cut the motor and disengage the transmission just in time to keep the machine from toppling forward. A secondary quicksilver burst plumes, crackle thick in my throat. Less than a second before it burns me to death from the inside out, I slam my skull into the crash pad in the head rest, igniting the counter burn and releasing my harness.
A sudden whoosh chokes me and thrusts me from my chair. Blocking my descent with my hands in front of my face, I crash to the asphalt as the pale blue flame licks my back. Just as sudden as it began, the popping ends. Face down in the road, my eyes still closed against the crackle, the first sensation I register is road rash on my right arm—a good sign.
“Are you o.k., Papa?”
Gentle hands roll me over and I open my eyes to see all three of my sons hovering over me. I give them my best smile. “That was a close one.” I see genuine relief in each of their expressions. They still love their old papa, despite his weaknesses.
Mykola leans close. “Happy Birthday, Papa.” The intimate words startle me.
“Mik!” Pyotr shoves him, but smiles as the two lug me into a sitting position. “We were going to wait until this evening to surprise you.”
The sentiment, as sudden as the explosion, takes a few seconds to settle in. “I didn’t, but I didn’t think—“
“Of course we remembered.” Pyotr mocks offense. “Now let’s get you in your chair.”
I search for Leonid, but he disengages. Turning his back to us, he fiddles with a few levers on Leviathan, lowering my chair to road level.