‘Neath the Atomic Skies

“No matter who you may be, there is always someone who is a little worst because he thinks he is a little better” – Sergio Aragones

The One-Armed Bounty Hunter flicked a match on his metal stump. “You sure about using mutants to track mutants?”

“My girls are the best north of the Glowing Glass Desert,” said Ms. X, “and if you want to go through Crater Country, mutants are all you’re gonna get.”

The One-Armed Bounty Hunter lit his cigarette. “My granddaddy says before the bombs fell, Crater Country was full of amber fields of grain. ‘Course, back then, if a fella incited a riot in Dodge City’s mutant ghetto, like Adam Atomyk did, there’d be lots of policemen to take him out. These days, there’s whoever’s willing to hunt for a bounty.”

“It’s the only way to make a living.”

The One-Armed Bounty Hunter took a deep drag. “Why does that little girl you brought look so much like Adam?”

“Amy is his twin sister, but I can vouch for her character.”

“You better. The leaders of Dodge City wanted to boost its population by inviting selected persona non grata to live among them. Mutants there can do anything they want, providing they don’t get uppity. They had a few peaceful years before Adam ruined everything by showing no regard for human life.”

“He’s out of the city. Why did they post a ‘Dead or Alive’ bounty on his head?”

“Because he took twenty-two mutants with him, and we get a bonus for every head we bring back whether it’s attached to a body or not. There’s no way a band of savages led by one little mutie bastard can’t be trouble.”

“I’d thank you to watch your language around the rest of the Sage Soul Patrol. Basher might forget we’re working together if you say ‘mutie’ around her.”

The One-Armed Bounty Hunter dropped his cigarette on the cracked and warped asphalt road and stomped it out. “If we bring Adam back, I’ll consider your team a credit to mutant-kind. But they ought to know not to let the sun set on them on any other town around here. So tell me, Ms. X, why’s a normal human like you hanging out with genetic misfits like them?”

Before Ms. X could reply Amy said, “I found their tracks. They’re heading southeast, towards the Burning Fields.”

“Guess it’s easier for short people to see things on the ground,” said the One-Armed Bounty Hunter.

“Let’s get this over with,” said Ms. X. “Basher, Sister Star-Spangled, and Libertina, mount up.”

Amy jumped on Ms. X’s cybernetic steed. With the sunset at their backs, the team rode into the encroaching starless night.

“I can’t imagine them going as far as the Burning Fields,” said Libertina, who lit the way with her flame-thrower torch. “That’s nothing but towers of flames from what were oil fields before the bombs came.”

“Plenty of places to hide in the craters,” said Sister Star-Spangled, who kept pace with the horses despite being on foot. “The land used to be so flat people called it the Great Plains. Can’t imagine why they dropped so many bombs here. ‘Course, it makes even less sense that they dropped bombs in what’s now the Glowing Glass Desert. Bombing a desert seems outright pointless.”

“Who dropped the bombs?” asked Basher. “Everyone I ask gives me a different answer.”

“Whoever it was,” said Libertina, “we got them worse. At least I hope we did.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better,” said Amy. “I don’t like to think there can be a worse place in the world than this.”

“This country was a beautiful place before the war,” said the One-Armed Bounty Hunter. “My granddaddy said back then there were cities, lots of food for everyone, music everywhere, and best of all only humans.”

Basher grumbled. “Excuse us for being born mutants.”

“Mutants are all right as long as they stay in their place.”

“Sure,” said Libertina. “We can clean your houses, but we can’t live in the house next door.”

“I’ll treat you like a human if you act like one.”

“We can’t change your mind,” said Sister Star-Spangled, “but you can’t change our DNA.”

The argument got more heated as they rode over the broken trail of asphalt marked with rusty signs that bore the number “70” in chipped paint over rust. For hours they followed Amy’s lead between the lifeless landscape marked by giant craters, some miles wide, where small towns and farms once stood. Sickly sheaves of wheat stuck out from soil made black and gray from a layer of ash and fallout.

After a few hours Amy rolled off of Ms. X’s horse. “The trail’s taking a sharp turn. Looks like they went into that cluster of craters.”

The One-Armed Bounty Hunter unslung his carbine. “Reckon there are a thousand ways they can ambush us in there. Who’s going to scout it out?”

Amy patted her boot. “I’ll go. My brother won’t kill me on sight.”

The posse hunkered down as Amy made her way through the shadows. The smell of smoke and burning meat got stronger as she went deeper into the broken earth.

She ducked behind a boulder framed by flickering shadows. On the other side she heard low whispering voices, metal clanking together, and a baby’s cry.

Her eyes glowed orange as she cautiously peeked around the stone and instantly adjusted to the ambient light from the cooking fires.

This was no band of runaways, this was a colony. There were women and children among the armed bandits, all of them mutants complete with tumors, extra or missing body parts, and ragged clothes. Other than a few rusty rifles and pole-arms made from old farm tools, they were practically unarmed.

Amy saw a short man with a green mohawk on the other side of the camp. She hadn’t seen Adam for years, but she recognized her brother instantly. With skill born from years of survival in the badlands, Amy made her way from one piece of cover to the next without arousing suspicion until she was almost within throwing distance.

Amy tried to get next to him with a quick quiet sprint. She made it a few steps before the ground gave away beneath her. Her fingers barely managed to catch the edge of the pit, and if she wasn’t a midget her dangling feet would’ve hit the sharpened spikes along the bottom.

Bells rang from wires pulled when the pit’s roof collapsed. Adam was the first to reach the pit and grab the flailing wrist.

By the yellow light in his glowing eyes, he recognized the face. “Amy?”

Amy swung her leg. Her heel caught a rut in the pit’s wall and gave her leverage as Adam pulled her up.

Adam didn’t look happy. “What are you doing here?”

“There are people from Dodge City looking for you,” said Amy. “They say you killed some people.”

Other mutants surrounded them.

“What do you want me to say, Amy? That I didn’t?”

Amy stood face-to-face with Adam. “Why do you have no respect for human lives?”

“Because humans have no respect for ours.”

Outside the crater, the One-Armed Bounty Hunter checked his watch. “Your girl’s been gone for a long time.”

Ms. X loaded her rifle. “Guess it’s time we get her out.”

Basher brandished her mace. Libertina checked the fuel connection for her flamethrower. Sister Star-Spangled loaded her Uzi.

Due to the distraction Amy unwittingly made, no mutants were watching the entrance to the crater. Ms. X led the Sage Soul Patrol and the One-Armed Bounty Hunter close enough for them to get a view of the whole camp.

“You said there were only twenty-two escapees,” said Libertina.

“That’s all the bounty from Dodge City is for,” said the One-Armed Bandit. “But over in New Wichita, they pay for each mutant head you bring back. So what I’m thinking is we kill all but twenty-two, and then decapitate all we kill. Survivors go to Dodge City, heads go north, we all get enough money to survive the winter in luxury.”

“Does it matter that the ones we kill may be the ones that escaped?” asked Basher.

“Or that the ones we bring back may not be escapees?” asked Sister Star-Spangled.

“I don’t recon they’ll care. I sure don’t. No offense, but y’all look alike.”

Basher growled. “I’ve had enough. No bounty is worth your abuse.”

Before any of the Sage Soul Patrol could stop him, the One-Armed Bounty Hunter cocked his carbine and shot her and Sister Star-Spangled in the stomach.

On the other side of the camp, Amy said, “Don’t you see? This is why humans hate mutants.”

“We got our reasons to hate the humans,” said Adam. “Dodge City was no sanctuary.”

“It’s true,” said a nearby mutant. “They enslaved us.”

“We did the dirtiest jobs for almost no pay,” said another, “so we got the hell out of Dodge.”

“The last straw was when they killed one of us,” said a third. “That boy did nothing wrong, but they beat him to death in the streets for not bowing to a town councilman.”

“I couldn’t take that,” said Adam. “Won’t bow. Don’t know how.”

Gunshots echoed through the crater. The mutants screamed and took cover.

Amy, Adam, and a few warriors ran towards the flashing gun barrels.

“Did you bring them?” asked Adam.

“They’re after the bounty posted on you.”

“You sold out your own brother? And your own kind?”

“Didn’t know what happened,” said Amy. “Sometimes justice is blind. Other times, we can’t see it.”

Amy and Adam took cover. Amy drew her revolver. Adam loaded a small crossbow.

Amy’s eyes glowed orange. “They aren’t shooting at us. What’s going on?”

With the aid of her enhanced vision Amy saw the One-Armed Bounty Hunter behind a boulder. Ms. X was behind another and shot at him. Basher and Star-Spangled Sister lay in the middle, their blood shining in the faint light, as Libertina stalked around the side with her flame-thrower torch ready for a blast.

The One-Armed Bounty Hunter threw a flash grenade that simultaneously blinded Amy, Ms. X and Libertina. By pure luck Adam had his head behind a sheet of metal during the explosion, so he saw the One-Armed Bounty Hunter moving into a better position with no trouble.

“I know that guy,” said Adam. “He chased me into Dodge City.

Adam dashed up the crater so quickly he was within punching distance before the One-Armed Hunter knew it. He landed a solid punch that made the bounty hunter fall over backwards and drop the carbine.

Libertina blinked until her vision came back. She saw the man who earned the ire of the Sage Soul Patrol wrestling with the murderer they were sent to apprehend dead-or-alive.

She pointed her flame-thrower torch at both of them and pulled the trigger.

Amy screamed as she ran across the field but the flames were much faster. She plunged into them and tackled her brother. They tumbled down the crater, smoke coming from their hair and clothes.

After they stopped rolling Amy patted her brother’s mohawk until the fire went out. There wasn’t much left of his hair but a smoldering stub. “Are you okay?”

Adam pushed her off of him. “Get the hell off me. I wouldn’t have these blisters if you didn’t lead him here.”

“But at least now he’s …” Amy turned. All that was left of the One-Armed Bounty Hunter was a pile of ashes.

Libertina kicked the pile. “This ain’t right. No bones, no cooked flesh. He shed his duster and slipped away.”

Ms. X said, “Let him go. We need to take care of Basher and Star-Spandled Sister.”

Basher pushed herself up. “I’m fine. What my toughened skin didn’t stop, my healing factor is fixing.”

Star-Spangled Sister tried to get up but failed. “I survived worse … just can’t remember when.”

Ms. X looked around. “That greedy bastard will be back. As long as there’s a bounty on mutants, they’ll be hunted.”

“Oh please,” said Adam. “You don’t care about us. Get lost.”

“You need to move this colony to a safer place, somewhere further from humans and easier to defend,” Ms. X said. “The Sage Soul Posse will help.”

“No, we need to get revenge on the humans,” said Adam. “We need to raid Dodge City so they’ll be too hurt to come after us.”

Several mutant warriors grabbed their weapons and got behind Adam. The rest, mainly the women and children, got behind Ms. X.

Amy stood in the middle. She looked at the mutant women and children. “I want to fight the evil, but if we sacrifice the future then we have nothing to fight for.” She looked at Adam. “Revenge will only hurt more people.”

“And forgiveness will show we can be hurt.” Adam turned to his supporters. “Let’s move.”

The two groups split and went opposite directions across the broken earth beneath the atomic skies.
The One-Armed Bounty Hunter
Amy and Adam Atomyk
The Sage Soul Patrol