The dark haired boy turned back over his shoulder, looking at the other two who had come with him. Milla stood with her shovel still in the gravel by the old stump, Vesper stood beside her with his thumb in his mouth.
“Titus, you need to come look at this.”
Milla was shaking, her eyes huge in her small face. Titus jogged over, his curls bouncing as he joined her by the stump.
“What? Something wrong? You know we need to get this stuff back home before nightfall.”
“I…I know. But, I heard something.”
Vesper looked up at both of them, his dirty face solemn.
“It said ow.”
Vesper clutched Milla’s pant-leg as a sound come from under the heap of gravel again. Titus knelt, looking all around the stump.
“Could be anything…”
That was what he said. Inside, though, he was remembering the stories he’d been told all his life. About the war that had ended war, about how they’d all had to go under the earth to survive when death rained down from the sky. He adjusted his gloves and gave the stump a push. How far down were the homes under the ground?
“What did it sound like, Milla?”
“Like a person,” she hissed. “Titus, I think we need to go.”
He tugged at the shovel, trying to prize it from her hands.
“If you’re going to be a coward, then let me dig. You can go gather nuts.”
She grabbed it fiercely, refusing to hand it over. Then she jammed it into the ground again and they heard another cry of pain.
“See, Titus? Do you see now?”
He frowned and Vesper looked like he was going to cry. Vesper cried a lot. Milla had moved the shovel once more, trying to dig around the stump.
“There can’t be anyone in the ground, right Titus?”
Vesper’s voice was soft. For a long moment, Titus just watched Milla dig in silence. Then he scooped Vesper up and balanced the little boy on his hip.
“We don’t know. We won’t know until your sister finishes digging. So how about we let her, alright?”
It seemed like ages before Milla made a sound that wasn’t a grunt of exertion. The sudden scream tore out of her throat before she could stop it and Titus scanned the horizon in alarm. No movement. Milla had both hands over her mouth now. Vesper tried to fight to see past Titus but the older boy blocked his vision.
“Get Vesper out of here. Now.”
“Milla? What’s going on?”
“Just go, Titus! Now!”
Her voice pitched upward with more than a bit of fear and Titus looked at her. She was shaking from head to toe, her eyes wide and her breathing coming fast. Titus didn’t question her words, he just ran.
Milla looked into the shallow grave by the stump. That was what it was, wasn’t it? A grave. Only the poor wretch wasn’t dead. She knelt and offered her hands to the woman. She was broken and battered, her eyes blacked and her arm twisted unnaturally. Whoever she was, she was covered in dirt and looked like she hadn’t seen food or water in far too long. Coughing, she let Milla pull her out.
The woman turned her ashen face to look at Milla and said nothing. Then she looked at the horizon.
“They will come back.”
Milla felt like her blood had turned to ice in her veins. ‘They’ could only be one thing around here and there was nothing that could be worse, especially not for her.
“Come on, we have a camp near here. We can help you.”
The woman’s eyes seemed to look through Milla, beyond her body, and into her soul.
“There was no help for me. There is no help for me. There will be no help for you.”
Before she could question what that meant, Milla heard the sound of engines.
“No. No. No. No. No.”
The simple word became a chant on her lips as she turned and ran. She ran as hard and as fast as she could. She could also hear the woman laughing.
“No help for you, girl. No help.”
Milla tore through the desert scrubland headed away from her band’s camp. She couldn’t return to them. Not with them on her heels. She glanced back and saw the green. There was no question then, it was them. Another vehicle came screaming out from the side, some little fast thing on two wheels. She screamed, dropping and hoped they would think she was dead. The thing skidded to a halt and the rider jumped off, pulling a helmet off to reveal a woman of middle years with her hair up in a tight bun.
“Damn it all to hell. Are you alright, girl?”
She knelt beside Milla, checking her for a pulse. Then she passed a little black box that fit in the palm over her hand over Milla’s body and glanced at it.
“She’s got a pulse and low rad numbers!”
She shouted those words to two men who had jumped out of one of the larger four-wheeled vehicles. With a nod, she began to direct the others and moved to help Milla to her feet. The girl was shaking again, fear overwhelming her.
“Please…please don’t…don’t hurt me.”
The woman looked confused and then sighed.
“Escher, Lincoln, grab a ration tray and a canteen for our new friend here. Girl, I’m Sargent Tycho and this is my unit. We’re friends, alright?”
Milla shook her head frantically.
“You’re the bad people. I know you are. My…my parents always said, only bad things come from the people on wheels.”
Escher and Lincoln returned, holding the requested supplies and then some. They offered a blanket and a first aid kit, even a small block of something dark and sweet that Milla had never seen before. But they exchanged worried glances with Tycho.
“Must be raiders in the area…”
“Explains the tracks we saw.”
Milla ate and drank what they gave her warily, watching them constantly from where they’d sat her on the back of one of the vehicles. Why weren’t they hurting her? Why hadn’t they done to her what they’d obviously done to the woman she and Titus and Vesper had found. She looked up, startled again. Had Titus gotten Vesper away? The camp would move soon if they knew the wheel riders were in the area again.
“The old woman.”
She blurted it out and then stopped, cutting herself off.
Again, the strangers exchanged that confused glance.
Tycho beckoned for Milla to explain, concern in her eyes.
“The…the woman. We found her buried, over there.” She pointed past her, regretting saying we and hoping they wouldn’t notice. “She wasn’t dead.”
Escher swore so harshly that Milla was honestly impressed. She’d thought her Grand’ther swore the best she’d ever heard, but this was just amazing. Blew him right out of the water.
“It’s the raiders again, Sarge. Has to be.”
Tycho pulled her helmet back on.
“Lincoln, new orders. Get this girl back to base on the double. Get her safe and settled. Escher, pull everyone in. We’re going hunting.”
Milla looked back as the desert she’d grown up in was lost to distance, wondering if she would ever see it again, ever see her band again. Lincoln was talking quite cheerfully, telling her about their base and how they had clean water and good food. He talked about how they were building the world again and how their leader had a vision of the future. She didn’t really listen. She would see soon enough if it was real. Maybe then, maybe she would ask if she could find the others and bring them. Until then, she was alone.