Escape Pod 873: The Hazmat Sisters (Part 2 of 2)
The Hazmat Sisters (Part 2 of 2)
by L.X. Beckett
Another sundown, another night on the quest. Mom’s check-in is perfunctory: hand out XP, confirmation of their route. No mention of abnormal battery use, so they got away, once again, with their secret confab. She seems distracted. Things must be getting hot at the Chicago call center.
The girls push Mule along in the refugee fast lane, passing slower-moving families with kids and the occasional masked elder. Some of them are dragging smartcases. The real unfortunates are chipping the wheels off actual antique shopping carts, mile by brutal mile.
There’s no sign of Baron.
Around midnight they are crossing a bridge when the border of their hex runs up against the fairhair family, Papa Bear and his baseball bat mace and baby makes three. They’re riveted, watching something downriver.
Fee calls a stop before they get too close. She activates the infrared in her visor and shares the view with the others.
It’s a firefight. A clutch of warm bodies sheltering under a trio of armored cars exchanges fire with a thick concentration of autonomous platforms hovering over the blackly glinting river. Spotlights, tracers, and of course machine guns all pour fire into the ground position.
“Can we tell who’s who?” Wilmie subs.
Tess has shut off her display, opting to instead keep an eye on the family on the bridge. “Who cares?”
“Platforms are flying government tags,” Fee says. “Assuming they haven’t been captured…”
A global override goes out. Dragon shuts down. Tess lunges to catch her precious drone before it drops all the way to the water. Hugging it, she throws herself flat to the bridge deck. “Incoming!”
A missile shrieks overhead, so close Wilmie feels a backwash of something burnt on the back of her neck. The shock of the explosion is a whole-body slap. Her primer reboots into a baggy clownsuit.
There’s a crump. Crashes and tinkles. Silence, giving way to shrieks. The gun platforms downriver crank up their fire rate until the voices are gone. They glide in close, shining spotlights, just long enough to tag the body count, before rising into the skies.
Ears ringing, Wilmie asks: “Is it over?”
“Gun platforms herded the militia in close to each other and then hit ‘em with a single rocket.” Tess sounds like she admires them.
Fee stands, brushing herself off. “I know I’d desert if I was up against that.”
“Shhh!” Wilmie said, but Papa Bear shoots them a piercing look all the same.
Did he hear?
Both parties double-time down to the illusory safety of the Interstate. Fee has Wilmie boot Mule so it’s actually rolling on its own charge, allowing the three of them to break into a jog. They’re young, they’ve got better tech and Mama Bear’s humping that baby; they pass the fairhair family easily.
“Baron could be— a deserter— and a true believer,” Tess huffs.
“Shut up and jog,” Fee snaps.
Wilmie doesn’t know what to say. She likes her feelings about Dixie and the other antifed militias nice and neat. Yes, the missile made short work of them. But they can’t go feeling sorry for every boy who’s gotten drafted just because he has blue eyes.
Their next Questmaster meeting starts with a big hash over the firefight and missile strike—how close was it, was their hearing affected, how traumatized are they? Mom wants to divert them onto another road, before Dixie and their allies roll right up the allegedly demilitarized Midwest Evac route. But swinging north toward Kansas City is impossible—rumors of a new new coronavirus there are not hypothetical anymore, and of course going south’s a non-starter. “Dixie’s even stronger going into Tennessee,” Mom says, “It’s no place for three brown girls on their own.”
Either diversion will add weeks to the journey.
None of them tells Mom about the treeplanting platforms that might have been weaponized. She doesn’t need to think about a freefire zone breaking out around them if the DMZ truces covering the highways get violated. Come to that, neither does Wilmie.
All they can do is push the pace, try to outrun the battle. It’s the obvious answer…
… so obvious that every other refugee on the road has the same bright idea. Clusters of foot traffic double time it in the heat and humidity of the evenings, pinging back and forth, snarking as they negotiate who passes who, and at what distance.
It’s tempting to use Pony’s flasher and siren to jump ahead, but Fee’s pretense of being on a priority delivery mission is wafer-thin as it is. And there’s always that slight chance of pissing off someone who’s already on the DisMazon customer blacklist, who’s got nothing to lose if they go on the attack.
So they trot some, walk fast. Eat on the move rather than stopping. Long sore nights. Wilmie takes as many shifts pushing Mule as she can. Being a sled dog for their server lets her zone out within her antihistamine haze. She can disappear into her lessons and her spellbook and pore over Baron’s primer firewall. If the team of programmers that built his firewall also hacked the agricultural network, they might have a standard bag of tricks.
Each night starts out sticky and hot and then becomes wet, sweaty and cold. Each morning when they make camp, she is ridiculously jealous when it’s one of the others who has a turn with the shower. They feel the same. Hostilities rise, and she begins to regret buying the thing at all.
You’d think with everyone being so much stickier, and hungrier, and more tired, that Fee and Tess wouldn’t have energy for fighting. Instead, they bicker back and forth, nastier by the day.
The heat, the thickness of the air, the feel of summer all around… it puts the lie to fall approaching. Yet Wilmie imagines she can feel winter pacing and muttering up north, ready to flow down from the Arctic and sink fangs into them all.
What if they don’t make it to the Lakes before the snow flies? They were supposed to be out of the battle zone by now. Instead, America’s patchwork civil war seems to be chasing them east.
They reach a field of late summer peaches, produce going bad on the branch as picker bots pointlessly harvest fruit the farmers can’t sell. They take a break in the orchard’s shadow, just for an hour, so Wilmie can look over the picker security codes.
None of this is what her life is supposed to be. Chakeesa was going to get a corporate car for their flight out of Oklahoma. Or she was supposed to be the one walking them out. She wasn’t supposed to get sick, wasn’t supposed to insist, in concert with Mom, that the three girls had to burn down Fee’s childhood home and go it alone.
They’d left her bones behind, unmarked and unmourned, slagged to ash by one of Wilmie’s own fireballs, all so Fee could have her mother’s corporate ID and the company bots, the HazMat shipping license that allowed them trank darts and fireballs and armor and a night vision visor.
They should have been four strong and ahead of the evacuation, not stuck in the middle of this throng of scared young families and horny Dixie deserters.
Wilmie tries not to let herself think like this, not to let herself get wrung out until the injustice of it all burns her throat, so acrid not even the fake papaya gum can dispel it.
A week goes by where they don’t see Baron. Whenever she’s near a farm bot Wilmie has a little peek at its code, looking for evidence of weaponization, bit by bit and mile by mile assembling a passkey. Maybe it’ll all be okay.
When the fight finally breaks between her sisters, it’s over the shower. Fee falls into a mudhole, and Tess says she did it on purpose to get an extra turn at a wash. It turns into a Whole Huge Thing, escalating into actual yelling, and in the end Wilmie has to grab the showerhead and threaten to frisbee it into the river just to get them to pause for breath.
“You wouldn’t,” Fee says.
There’s a twitch in her elder sister’s cheek.
Tess emits bored now moji. “Go on. Pull the trigger for once.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re all threat, Wilmie, no follow-through.” Even though the two of them were at each other’s throats a second ago, Fee is nodding. Wilmie wonders if they’ll forget fighting each other if they both turn on her.
The obvious way to prove them both wrong is hurl the shower into the river. But how does giving up the one thing making her own life better help any of them? Instead she shoves it at Fee: “She’s filthy, Tess. What are we gonna do?”
Triumphant, Fee washes and combs out her hair, letting it sun-dry into a glorious curled tangle. She produces some lipstick from somewhere.
“Told you,” Tess says. “She’s on the make.”
Giving them a contemptuous look, Fee vanishes into the bush.
Wilmie calls, “Where are you going?”
Her voice floats back. “I need some space.”
Tess shimmers with fury. “I am so done with this whole family.”
“Thanks a lot,” Wilmie says. This barely gets her a glance.
She tries again. “It’s not Fee’s fault this sucks.”
“It’s her fault she sucks.”
“C’mon. What’re you gonna do?”
Tess comes back, too fast, with the answer. “Join the feds.”
“You’re too young. You’d need—” Wilmie’s throat goes dry. She’d need parental permission. Mom promised one of them a wish…
Tess pops a lightbulb moji overhead, confirming Wilmie’s guess is right. Then she turns on her heel. “Since it’s apparently date night, I’m gonna go find Patty. Watch the camp, I guess.”
Off she flounces. And then, as if things aren’t rotten enough, Mom promptly phones.
“Where’s your sisters?”
“Cooling off in separate corners.”
Long venting breath from Mom as she scans the transcript of the fight. “You didn’t defuse that very well, honey.”
“Right. Make it my fault.”
“This is life or death, in case you haven’t noticed. I rely on you to be the responsible one.”
“Fee’s in charge, not me. And you’re welcome to join us anytime you want.”
“Come on, Wilmie.”
Instead of answering, she sits cross-legged in Mule’s miserable slip of shadow and opens one of the cans of spaghetti. She eats the whole thing, all four portions. She pulls her earbuds so Mom’s voice is a tinny buzz at her neck. She eyes the code on Baron’s firewall and the treeplanting bots and scans for overlaps and similarities, crunching, crunching, while Mom makes sounds like she’s going bananas and Fee presumably gets laid and who even knows what Tess is actually up to? Maybe the girlfriend has been a figment all along and she’s playing aptitude games with the recruiting officers who dog the evac route.
It was like this before, too. They’ve all just been pretending. The friendship between Mom and Chakeesa was totally dysfunctional from the start: Dad was screwing Mom while he was still married to Chakeesa. What were the chances that the five of them could form a family around that?
“Wilma Jean!” Tinny shriek from the earbuds.
“We’re just kids and it’s not fair!” She starts chanting it, “Not fair, not fair, not fair…” She keeps it up until Mom logs, and if she’s crying too, Wilmie pretends she doesn’t hear.
Nobody’s coming for us.
Somehow this feels like new information.
A few hours later, in the hot sticky height of afternoon, Pony flags something bigger, for once, than a coyote.
“I have tranks!” She shouts, and too bad if he hears she’s hoarse from crying.
“Hey, girl. Girl, it’s me.” It’s Papa Bear, nail-studded baseball bat and all. The weapon is lowered, and he stands well back, a good five meters. “Name’s Jim. I’m… you’ve seen me and my wife, Stacy?
“And baby makes three.” Wilmie peers at him from behind Mule.
“I think something’s wrong with your… aunt?”
He’d say sister if he meant Tess—the twin thing makes that relationship undeniable. Instead of answering, Wilmie puts Dragon on high alert over Mule and switches Pony into piggyback mode, scooping the armor onto her back. The effect might almost have made her look cool, except she sneezes just as soon as she has the robot mounted.
Jim turns on his heel, keeping the mace down. Showing her his back, a sign of trust. She sends him a stroke in thanks and scrubs snot off her lips.
They go about half a click, toward an old church.
“I was hoping to find better water bottles in the kitchen here, or …” He shrugs, maybe realizing he doesn’t have to explain scavenging. “I thought I heard—”
He lets that trail off too, gesturing at a window.
Wilmie goes up on tiptoe, peering through dirty glass. Fee is sitting, barely, next to a litter of plastic and marshmallow dust. She’s humming.
No blood, no bruises. A flood of relief, even though Wilmie knows this means nothing. Still, she doesn’t look hurt.
Instead of going straight in, she backs up several paces, looking to Jim. “Can you break the glass?”
He obligingly smashes out the window with the mace, an action that sends a shudder through Wilmie’s whole body. Then he backs up again.
As soon as he’s clear, Wilmie throws Pony through the window.
She orders the metal bones to deploy around Fee—who shrieks in surprise. Wilmie keeps the bot on override, poking her with a sharp, forcing her sister up to her dumb stoned feet, burning battery like nobody’s business.
“Wake up!” Wilmie shouts, waving.
Fee staggers to the window, nearly sticking her hands in jagged shards as she supports herself. She slurs. “It’s Conan Babydaddy.”
“Don’t mind her,” Wilmie says.
“Don’ ‘pologize for me!”
“You’re coming back to camp,” Wilmie says. Fee tumbles out the window, more or less headfirst. Pony turns the move into a rolling somersault that brings her right up, on her feet and nose to nose with Jim. He steps back, weapon trailing in the dirt.
Fee rips the bat out of his hand, brandishing it… then tosses it at his feet. He scoops it up and backpedals, fast.
“I’ll—uh. Leave you to it—”
“Wait!” Wilmie calls before he can book. “Thank you.”
He shrugs. “I gotta daughter, right?”
Wilmie feels tears pricking. “We have a collapsible bucket. If you want it.”
He smiles. “Join you in a minute, then. I want to grab some—” He gestures at the glass shards.
It’s not a bad idea—she scoops one or two herself. Then: “Come on, Fee.”
If she needs to, she can use Pony to force her sister to walk. But now Fee’s up, her basic athleticism has taken over. She stumps along, drunk but humming.
Wilmie takes point. What did Baron give her? What if it’s poison or viruses, not drugs?
I rely on you to be responsible…
At least things can’t get any worse, right?
When Wilmie gets back to the camp Tess is there. With Baron. He’s got Dragon in his left hand and her sister in an armlock in his right. He’s wearing Tess’s goggles and he’s trying to hack the locks on Mule.
Wilmie freezes. She’s no thief. They’ve only got one chance to sneak up on him…
And then they don’t, because Fee yells “Unhand her, varlet!”
Baron wheels, throwing Dragon upward. The bot isn’t on their network anymore. Wilmie throws up a thread of enchantment, trying to charm it back to their side. Then it aims a trank dart at her, and she has to hurl herself under a bush.
“Leggo a Tess!” Fee says.
Pony’s battery is already half burned; she can’t do a fight. If Baron tranks Wilmie, it’s bags and tags for them all.
She’s got to be the responsible one.
She reaches out, finds a salmon-counting bot on the river, just barely within range. Shoots it a packet of code. Then she waits, like she’s waiting for the hot water, waiting for the right moment.
It comes when Fee decides to charge straight at Baron. “Let! Tess! Go!”
Wilmie handshakes with Baron’s primer. She unlocks his firewall. Reboots him.
There’s a sound—Dragon firing darts.
“Come out come out wherever you are!” Baron shouts. “Get this mule open for me and—” A grunt. Hopefully Fee hit him. “I’ll leave you all in peace!”
Wilmie hears bodies colliding, a chorus of cries and grunts. She risks a peek around the trunk of a tree. Fee and Tess are flailing, a pile of girls and robot mixed in with deserter boy. Baron’s still got her twin around the throat.
Restore Dragon or try to remote-pilot Pony?
The dragon. Wilmie redoubles her efforts to charm the drone into a reboot. Baron sees the play, takes command, slamming Dragon propellers-first into a poplar. Tess, despite the fact that she’s being choked, finds energy to moan as something pops.
“In peace or in pieces—” Suddenly Baron freezes. “What did you do?”
Pausing was a mistake. Fee’s armored hand is suddenly clamped over the top of his skull. Sharps start noodling up her wrist, laying points against his eye sockets.
“Let Tess go,” she says again.
Baron tightens up on Tess. Wilmie takes advantage of the distraction to try to shinny up the tree toward Dragon. If she can get to Tess’s stinger supply…
But she’s no athlete, and there are no pegs in this tree; she slides down the trunk. Her bare hands, no doubt exposed to a billion types of pollen, dust, and dirt, begin to itch and blister.
“Don’t worry about it,” she says to the others. “He’s done. He just doesn’t know it yet.”
Nobody’s listening, but suddenly, Tess is free.
She grabs Fee by the armor, pulling her back. The girls stagger away, getting distance from the boy.
“What did you do?” Baron shouts it this time.
His uniform is color-shifting, from safe-mode black to butternut khaki. The vile Dixie flag is resolving on his shoulders.
Wilmie finds her voice. “They’ll be coming for you.”
“Party’s got nothing in the area,” he says, a little shakily.
“Actually, there’s a cornpicker with your name on it,” she informs him. “Only half a click away.”
Baron makes a lunge then, one last desperate grab for Mule. Hoping to get to the server and use it to create a new ghost ID for himself, probably.
Wilmie steps in front of her bot. She tosses Tess a shard of glass she picked up at the church. She pulls out a fireball.
“You utter fucking bitch!”
Somehow it’s weirdly satisfying that he means Wilmie. Not Fee, not Tess. For once, she’s not invisible.
“I’m widecasting your portrait to the socials and the agricultural network. Giving your coordinates to DisMazon and logging an interference complaint. Your best bet now is to go into the water and hope the current carries you out of the region. You might be able to get your pants back into safe mode if you get far enough from Mule. Unless, of course, you keep Tess’s goggs.”
He rips them off, throwing them away like they burn.
“Yeah,” Fee agrees. “Time-ma float away.”
Baron looks like he’s about to charge them again—Wilmie can see him thinking it—when there’s a rustle behind them. Jim and his wife appear on the edges of camp.
Jim has the mace raised. The woman has a rock in each hand.
Wilmie raises the fireball. “We see you again, we’re lighting you up.”
Baron’s expression turns red and ugly. But he takes her advice, pulling the whole of his primer into itself, stripping with one gesture down to disgusting full-bore naked and he’s so dirty and, God, how did Fee ever? He seals the nanosilk into beach ball mode.
“I’m marking your face, girl,” he says to Wilmie, and then he swims for it. And then he’s gone.
Wilmie lets out a long, slow breath. She tries to watch him retreating on Dragoncam—tuning in is second nature—and gets a view of leaves, the tree it’s crashed in.
At least that means the uplink is working, even if it can’t fly for awhile.
Jim lowers the mace. “Oh, thank Christ.”
Mama Bear smirks. “Jimmy wouldn’t hurt a fly, he had his druthers.”
“Maybe you should give me the bat, in that case,” Tess growls. “I could cave in serious head with that thing.”
“Don’t be fucking rude,” Wilmie says, and her twin’s eyes widen. “Neighbors saved our ass, case you didn’t notice. You should be thanking them.”
“You saved…” Fee says. They all turn to look at her as, instead of finishing that thought, she does a slow-motion curl down to hands and knees, then fetal.
“Pony, disengage,” Wilmie says but it’s too late; the armor’s battery’s at red; it stays boned around Fee as she curls up and lets out a snore.
“Rousing endorsement,” says Mama Bear, and even Tess snorts, despite herself.
“I’ll get you that bucket,” Wilmie says. “Tess, do medical. This is Jim and—”
“Stacy. And—” The woman retrieves a kevlar-wrapped bullet from behind a tree. “—our baby, Future.”
“Stacy and Future,” Tess says, in her extra polite voice. “Hi!”
Tess opens Mule, digging for the stimulant kit and the blood test kit, all the kits, in case Fee’s crashing.
She’s not going to crash, Wilmie promises herself. She says, in a bright, tea-party tone: “We’re walking to the Lakes!”
“Us too,” Stacy tells her. “You got people there?”
“Mom,” Tess says, stabbing the blood tester into Fee’s thigh. “You?”
Wilmie hands their old bucket to Stacy. Blood data starts coming up on their shareboard, and Fee turns out to be heavily tranked, nothing’s in the redzone. She smiles at her sister, there at her feet. Tess is staring at the ground, hiding tears of relief from the strangers.
“We’ll try to get casual shifts at a warehouse or something in Detroit,” Stacy says. “Work our way up to proper work and housing.”
“Maybe we’ll see you on the road.” Wilmie makes up a code for friending, sends it to them both so they can text and share. They accept right away, even though the cornpicker thrashing its way to the banks of the river, even now chasing Baron, has got to have confirmed for them that she’s a mage. They must know she can crawl into their systems and fuck with their stuff.
Your friend invite has been accepted. Baby pictures fill an icon on her contacts list.
Catching at Stacy’s free hand, Jim salutes them with his ugly-looking weapon. Then they make their way out to the road, carrying Future in their new bucket.
“Mixing a stimulant cocktail for Fee,” Tess reports.
“Great.” Wilmie bends to the task of picking Pony bones off Fee’s sleeping body. She twists them into a long metal rope, connecting to Mule’s charger, the better to encourage the rest of the armor to retract on its own. It’ll be slow; the sun’s not up yet. Better to do as much as they can manually.
Tess decants pills into a crusher, powdering them in an injector, shaking that into solution. She almost hesitates before sticking the injector into Fee’s throat, but when she glances up Wilmie is watching.
“Pull the trigger,” Wilmie says. She’s limp with relief.
So Tess does, steady-handed, and still wet-faced, before climbing into the tree, to retrieve Dragon.
“You called it,” Wilmie says to her twin. “Baron was a dirty taker.”
“Wrong about Papa Bear though.” Giving her the option to say I told you so, even the score. “Took him for a big bully.”
“To be fair, he is walking away with some of our stuff.”
“He earned the fucking bucket,” Tess says, and hops down. She hands the bot to Wilmie. “You did good. You’re gonna get all the XP tonight.”
Licking their wounds as they continue to make camp, the sisters pull out the hand crank and continue disassembling Pony, waiting on Fee to wake up so they can begin figuring out how to spin the night’s adventure for Mom.
Once again, that was The HazMat Sisters, by L.X. Beckett.
I loved the relationships of the characters in this story, all of them relying on each other for support even when they fought. Trust was sometimes gifted and sometimes earned, and sometimes rightfully taken away. While their quest to reach their promised land wasn’t completed within the story, as the saying goes, the real treasure was the friends they made along the way.
Escape Pod is part of the Escape Artists Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and this episode is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Please do share it.
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And our closing quotation this week is from Octavia Butler, who said, “The weak can overcome the strong if the weak persist. Persisting isn’t always safe, but it’s often necessary.”
Thanks for joining us, and may your escape pod be fully stocked with stories.
About the Author
L. X. Beckett
Toronto author and editor L.X. Beckett frittered their youth working as an actor and theater technician in Southern Alberta before deciding to make a shift into writing science fiction. Their first novella, “Freezing Rain, a Chance of Falling,” appeared in the July/August issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 2018, and takes place in the same universe as “The Hazmat Sisters” as well as their novels Dealbreaker and Gamechanger. Lex identifies as feminist, lesbian, genderqueer, and married. An insatiable consumer of kdramas, mysteries, and true crime podcasts, they can be found enthusing about these and other topics on Twitter at @LXBeckett.
About the Narrator
Rasheedah Prioleau is an award winning southern writer with an eclectic range of screenwriting and ghostwriting credits. She graduated from Georgia College & State University with a BS in Art & Marketing and went on to earn her MFA in Creative Writing from Full Sail University. Her self-published novels include the southern dark fantasy series, American Specter and the Gullah horror novel, Everlasting: Da Eb’bulastin. They can be found in paperback on Amazon and downloaded on Kindle. She currently resides in Sumter County, South Carolina.