“Yeah, we got drinks at the Drum; but it ain’t all we got there.” Luke “Drifter’ Caldwell
Yeah, ‘bout time for it.
Whenya live as long as Drifter has, you start to pick up when things are ‘bout to go wrong. There was a pattern to it that young people couldn’t quite pick up without experience. The tune was always the same: good things happen, good things keep happening, everything goes according to plan, and like a swift kick in the balls, everything goes tits up. Didn’t mean he liked knowing. Being young meant it came with a certain invincibility when the inevitable cosmic shift happened. All Drifter got now was an uncomfortable feeling when they reached Big Thunder’s home and distillery, the Drum.
The Drum was tucked deep within the deep forests of the Dusk Mountain valleys beside a long-running stream of fresh water. Rain pelted down from the canopy of pine needles and oak leaves, sharp knives of pale light stabbing through its surface here and there. The thick layers of moss and mud gave their trucks and small tanks a bit of a struggle on the way. More than a few times they had to stop to fix a truck wheel or push them outta a ditch or a sea of a puddle. A trip that would’ve normally took them a couple of hours took well over a day, leaving the family tired and weary. Drifter could only hope that the Bluecoat was having as bad of a time of a time in their travels. Sure, hope so, at least we know what we were getting into. They continued down the rugged, beaten path, the sound of water in the air and at their back. It was a dang beautiful place, even when it was dreary, dark, and miserable. He loved this planet and he loved his family.
Today, he rode with the youngest of his brothers, Montgomery Caldwell. They had used their nicknames as armor on Daedal, a tradition they gave to their kids and them theirs. He got his from his quiet, refreshing outlook of religion and his calm demeanor. That and he split open a desert with his mind out of anger once. It kinda stuck after that. To see that same seriousness in his eyes, the one that got him locked up deep in the mines. The one that he saw before his abilities manifested and he tore that man to pieces. He drove, the thick thatch of his dreads covering down around his face. He knew that he would have to draw his gun today and was making peace with it. Pastor without the flowers and the robes. That meant seriousness. “Monty,” Drifter said, “you didn’t have to come. We had it.”
“Not a matter of what I wanna or not. This is my planet too.”
“Your promise.” That promise.
“I remember saying that I won’t pick up my gun or take a life for any personal gain. This isn’t personal gain. It’s survival.”
“When you start makin’ exceptions to your own rules, you start seein’ exceptions everywhere. I–you’re better than most of us, Monty. You’ve always have been. You don’t gotta–”
“Luke.” Pastor’ voice grew colder than the rain and much harsher. “My family, my wives, my kids, my grandkids, they’re important to me. I’m willing to fight for them.”
“Even for yer greedy older brother.”
“Even for my greedy older brother.” He laughed. The laugh remained flat and cold unlike his at all. “I’m serious, Luke, we’ve never seen anyone above a Captain back here. I don’t think I get it. Why come so far? There’s gotta be something else they want. Somethin’ they lookin’ for. Somethin’ more than finding some smuggling boys and girls on a planet. We aren’t that important to bring someone only a couple of steps down from the General himself. They want something on this planet, mark my words. There’s somethin’ else afoot. I feel it. Can’t back down from duty.”
Whatever that feeling was it had woken the deepest part of Pastor. Pastor’s different colored eyes flickered from side to side, taking in the world around him. The forest thickened and so did the rain. Grey and rusted memories of the Old Planet began to bleed through the colorful nature. They began to see parts of the devastation of the old Civilization tucked in this valley from long-buried spires, half-world eaten buildings broken into cliffs, rusted vehicles touching the clearwater, and an old world half-forgotten and conquered by nature. Now that he thought about it, experienced it, it wasn’t so odd to think they might’ve lost something on this planet that they wanted. Among all the things that they found during digs, salvages, and raids they found more than enough to survive on. Ya might be onto a thing there, Monty. But what do we get here? Curiosity peaked the old man interest. He turned his attention back to the road.
Cut from an old factory, the Drum sat within an old warehouse on a small hill, rocky hill. Big Thunder and his boys and girls had taken it and made it their own. They restored it from the ground up with the best of their ability. From there, they filled it with the thing that Thunder liked the most–booze. Moonshine and beer mostly. Good stuff too that he processed, brewed, and canned all in the facility. The upper portion of the Drum served as the living corners. The lights were off on that floor was off. A bad sign, all and all. The young kids were usually upstairs during this time. The only reason they wouldn’t be if they were–
Up ahead, Thunder stopped and pulled aside. He crept out of his truck, his weapon drawn. He extended his hand back before clenching it. Every vehicle in the caravan lost its power. Without the loud engines and the bright lights, only the sound of the storm, the river, and the darkness of the clouds remained. No birds. Not a sound of a single animal. He stalked through trees, squelching through the mud, rifle up and poised. A former member of the security team of Daedal since his hands and arms were big enough, Bobby knew stuff like this better than Drifter ever could. Better for him to take the lead in times like this, he reckoned. Drifter wasn’t below giving the reins to this bucking horse to someone else that knew how to ride.
Drifter watched Big Thunder stalk through the trees with a few of his sons and daughters, following what appeared to be a small red drone. From back here, they reminded Drifter of a small hunting party searching for a buck. Pit and his boys followed suit. Hunting dogs for the hunting party, it seemed. Drifter leaned in a bit, looking deeper into the forest. He found a revolver and a rifle, jumping out of the side of the truck and landing with a satisfying plop from the mud. The mud came almost knee-deep ankle deep, rain dripping down his body. Should’ve packed a good raincoat and a good pair of boots. Too late to think about it. Better muddy than dead.
The Hounds picked up a scent. They sprang into action, biting at the heels of an adversary. The first bullets were in the air within seconds, bursting through the bark of the trees. Bullets ricocheted in all directions, the flashes from the guns’ barrels lighting up the dark. Bluecoat surrounded them on all sides, firing both conventional and lasers of all kinds. The family fired back into the emptiness, through the trees, and up the cliffs. They had the advantage on that high ground. Down here, all of them were sitting ducks the gunmen above. Didn’t help that neither side could shoot their way outta paper bag right now. Maybe it was the weather. Drifter couldn’t make heads or tails outta of it.
Drifter stepped outta cover, showing the young people how to do it. His fired his gun and what do you know, he hit some men. They toppled over the side, landing face first in the mud. Three men were dead, and two droids disabled from the waist up, but he missed the last bullet completely. Rain. Gotta be. Messes with a man’s aim. He scrambled from cover to cover, reloading his six-shooter and eying the attacks on the tree line. They didn’t have enough bullets to keep going like this. They needed to–
A bullet hit him on the shoulder. The pain rose through his right side, spreading upward through his body. Blood pooled against the already wet fabric of his white t-shirt, dying it red with every second. From the pain alone, it wasn’t a confirmed hit and more like a nasty nick. Didn’t help his mood any though. Those bastards shot him. He threw his revolver to his left hand. As Thunder once said before, “better to know how to shoot with both hands and not need than wishing that you learned.” He fired off a few more within the trees, holding his position as the pain creeping up his neck in a fire. Drifter ran through the road, Pastor not far behind. Why’d we stop, Bobby? What did that drone tell ya?
It had to be Evan that sent it, maybe as a warning. He couldn’t think ‘bout maybes. He needed some definitelys. Growling through his aching shoulder, he followed where he last saw Thunder in the tree line. Rain dashed against his sprinting face, the taste of tree needles hard and sour in his mouth. Pastor and a few other men followed behind, laying down some cover fire for them. Drifter turned, slipping against the mud as he saw a platoon of Bluecoats charging at him. Trying his best to slow himself, Drifter grabbed onto a nearby tree with his injured, wheeling around it and shooting with his offhand. He missed gloriously. That he could blame on the rain.
Pastor stepped ahead in the nick of time, raising his hand and pushing forward with his palm. A powerful sonic boom rippled through the air, uprooting trees and men alike. He pulled his fingers back, holding them in place with his brain, then ripping them from the air and slamming them into the ground with a sickening crunch. One second was all it took for the frightening mind juju to grip the men and crushed them like a can. He picked the lump of meat and slammed it again for good measure. Or… perhaps out of habit. He did the meat pile up again…
“Monty, enough!” His brother didn’t move immediately, drawn the temptation of his power. The color of his eyes had already changed to that sickening pale white, empty of pupils and the thick purple masses began to bubble on the surface of his skin. All at once, he lost his interest. He dropped the people–or what was left of them–onto equally soft and mushy ground. He took a deep breath. After a few more, he returned to himself. A chill deeper than anything the rain could give ran down Drifter’s spine. Seein’ this mind stuff (telepathy? telekinesis? Never could remember the difference.) always disturbed him. He supposed turning into a giant lizard was equally as unnerving to some people. “Stay with us. We’re gonna need you.” Look forward, Drifter wanted to say but found his tongue stuck on the roof of his mouth. He thought he had the stomach for this kinda thing.
Tired and a little thunderstruck, Drifter led them through the dark trees, up the hill through the side. They were heading towards the back end of the Distillery. The back end wasn’t as nearly impressive as the front, the only sewer drains and garbage bins. Thunder stood with a small group of boys and girls around him. His oldest (the first of many and should be considered an accomplishment) stood beside him. Eleen, a spitting image of her father with her dark hair and her grandmother’s sharp eyes and lean features, stood hunched over, catching her breath and muttering under her breath. By the look on Thunder’s face, it wasn’t good news.
“Three problems,” Thunder growled, “There’re explosives on the road, they’re in my Distillery, and Toby’s trapped inside.”
“Don’t worry about it. I got him. Anything else I need to know ‘bout?”
“Except the shooting and the bombs, I got nothin’ else to tell ya. Someone saw the Captain ‘round here somewhere.”
“Once I got Toby, we’re getting out of here. No need to lose any more kin off this.
“‘irght. Y’know what we’re gonna have to do.”
“I gotta back up plan. Do what you hafta do.”
“Get it started. I’ll be out in a few. Make sure Pastor don’t get himself in trouble.”
Another pack of soldiers rolled over the hills to their south. Drifter loaded his revolver and prepared to shoot, but Thunder pushed him off towards the Distillery. They had that. He needed to think about Toby first and then what they were going to do with the Distillery. Drifter left them to fend off the soldiers, rushing through to the back door with the sound of gunfire rippling behind him. He yanked the door open, the smell of dust and days old garbage hitting him in the face. The smell of smoke lied softly within the rotten stench of the single passage dark corridor of the back entrance. After what felt like a small eternity, the corridor spewed him out into the massive main room of beer, moonshine, and an ever-growing inferno. Drifter cursed. Some idiot tripped the failsafe. Not entirely, but enough for it to do what it was intended to do.
…And that was to explode.
They learned things on their time on this planet. One thing doesn’t leave anything behind.
Though this was his largest home and breadwinner for his products, it wasn’t his only one on the planet. Still. This was gonna be a loss all the same. Hundreds of thick wooden kegs lined every wall and stacked upwards and outwards to the window. Some were filled with drinks, while other kegs were only to get certainly questionable merchandise off-planet. Over ten metal fermenters and stills glimmered from the warm light of small fires peppered throughout the main room. Drifter blinked away the pain in his sweat-burning eyes, stepping in with care. The place was swarmed with Bluecoats. Whatdya lookin’ for, ya morons? That creeping hunch that Pastor had in the truck resonated in his head like an echo in a cave. They were looking for something on the planet, getting rid of some backwater mutant clan was a bonus. But what? There weren’t too many things on this planet that he didn’t know about. What made them think that they had found whatever they were looking for? Drifter shook off the thought. Toby. Gotta find Toby.
Drifter eyed the top floor, overlooking the main floor. Tucked tight within a crevice of a few stacked boxes he saw the little man, shaking and afraid. He had found a good hiding spot at least. No fires had started up there and the failsafes was still a long time before truly going off. That didn’t mean the Little Thunder wasn’t in danger. Smoke and little lungs didn’t play well together. One brother had to bury a grandkid, he wasn’t gonna let it stand twice. How I’m gonna get up there? There was bound to be another way up, there had to be. The rest of the kids had made it out. Drifter crept, around the corners, low and tight. The Bluecoats weren’t lookin’ for nobody, so they weren’t gonna find nobody. That was usually how it went down at least.
Slithering through the shadows of machinery, he listened. The Bluecoats talked amongst themselves, frustration and worry from the creep flames littering their words. The lean figure with a few more stars on his fancy lil’ coat barked some orders to the rest. “It has to be here. It’s no way that these hoarding hillfolks hadn’t found it yet. Search harder. I’m not gonna be the one to explain it to the Major or worse if it gets to the Chairswoman.” They were opening kegs now. A dangerous thing. Big Thunder liked rigging things. Call it an odd pastime of his old brother. Sooner rather than later, they were gonna trip something they gonna wish that they hadn’t. Right now, I wish they wouldn’t. When they did, he might want to be miles and miles away. Drifter gave a low groan in his head. He had to hurry.
He slipped through the darker side of the room, narrowly missing the sight of an annoyed stocky man in a stupid hat. After a little searching, he found a small ladder to the second floor. Drifter cursed. There was no way that he could use that without being seen. He thought himself a mighty fast climber, but he was still an old man now and it wasn’t the quietest way to get up there. Besides, Thunder had a few children that hadn’t use of the limbs. He would’ve had another way up. Should know my way ‘round. He knew that he was the best one for this job with his patience but gosh darn it, he wished that he knew a bit more about the actual layout. Winging it was only fun when it was only your life in danger. Again, he searched with his eyes again. If the solution was a snake, it would’ve bitten him. A simple door leading to a wrapping ramp was only a stone throw away, light still on from when the others escaped. At least he didn’t have to climb, he might’ve exaggerated of fast of a climber he was.
Waiting until the Bluecoats was distracted, he dashed to the door and up the ramp to the second floor.
A second problem arose once he made it up. He wondered why Toby hadn’t moved, despite being younger and fast to make it to the ramped corridor with ease. Underfoot was metal mesh flooring meant for overlooking the main floor. Each step came with a loud chink. Tiptoeing did nothing to stifle the noise. To a little boy seeing a bunch of strangers with guns below him, the sound might’ve as well been a siren sayin’ shoot me. There was no way around it though. Drifter crept forward, putting a single finger on his mouth telling the boy to keep quiet. A wide smile stretched across the little boy’s face. Drifter smiled back, taking steps forward. Chink. Chink. Chink. Three steps. A little closer. Chink. Chink. Chink. A little more. Chink. Whispers below. Drifter felt his muscles tightened. Chink. One more step. The muffled sounds below grew a little louder. Dipping low, he joined the little boy underneath boxes of what appeared to be tools. Drifter gave a brief glance over the railing. The Coats noticed the sound but couldn’t really figure out where.
“‘Ey Little Thunder,” he whispered. “Your grandpa and mom’s worried ‘bout ya. How about I get you out of here, buddy?”
Toby nodded. Smart kid. ‘Course he is, he’s a Caldwell. Drifter swept the boy in his arms, little arms locking around his neck. “Up ya go.” He heaved the thin boy over his shoulder. He remained quiet, not even a whimper or a word. Quiet. Quiet. Drifter took tentative steps backward, the vague tastes of thick ash and alcohol in his mouth. The fire was getting stronger by the second, touching on the outskirts of an inferno. He kept Toby close to his shoulder. The less the little boy breathed in whatever was in the air, the better. He took more steps back down the corridor, his heart slamming into his chest. Clink. Clunk. Bang. The smallest part of the railing fell away, tumbling down to the bottom and onto a soldier’s fancy blue cap. He looked up.
Drifter wasn’t a man to believe in luck whether good or bad. Things either went your way or they didn’t, he always figured. Seeing every eye slowly itch up to the second floor over one single screw-sized debris made him re-evaluate his outlook. He grabbed the little boy a bit closer. Getting this boy to safety took priority over ripping these men’s faces off. They blinked in confusion, recognition itching on their face minute by minute. They knew who he was. The leader of the pack recovered first, drawing his laser rifle up. An order was on his lip but a little slow on the draw. Drifter shouted first.
“Get on my back, kid, take my weapons and hold on,” Drifter said taking advantage of the stunned hesitation. “Hold on tight.”
Toby knew what was going to happen next. He scrambled on his back faster than a squirrel scurrying up a tree with the weapons around his small shoulders. Once tightly secured, Drifter vaulted the ledge. They were falling for a brief second, the rain of lasers flying around. His muscles strained tight against his body, bones cracking and reforming underneath his skin. From there, he grew and grew. He landed with a powerful thump on the ground. The wooden floor shattered on his landing. His mass took a little under a quarter of the room, his long green tail wrapping the full length around No matter how many times he had done this across his decades, the feeling of transformation felt as foreign as the first time. The little boy on his back cheered in excitement. No doubt Bobby had filled the boys head with all kinds of stories about his Great-uncle Luke.
A few lasers smacked hot against his skin. The red rays exploding hot in burst through the lizard scales and insect carapace. The heat left his scales glowing red, hot against his skin. Mutant Killers. High heat lasers meant to cut through him. This time they were prepared for him. The leader stepped forward, his entire forearm hissing open into a well-fashioned gatling. Fire licked around him, ash danced near his face. The thick shadows from the rafters fell over the man’s scowling face. There was an odd red sheen to his eyes, an odd color to the beads of sweat rolling down his face. Drifter gritted the inner workings of his teeth, slamming his tail into the ground. This was Captain Owen Xan and the Captain was a droid. He looked human, smelled, sweated, and breathed like humans. Some androids even ate and drank. Make no mistake though, they weren’t human. Given a directive whether by their creator or by their own judgment, they would kill everyone without a second thought. Drifter winced. He could only assume that the gatling wasn’t for show.
“I’m going to ask you once, stand down. Tell us where it is.” Drifter didn’t know what it was. He didn’t care right now. He growled and snapped. “Have it your way, animal.”
The rain of laser fire began again on the tip of a head. Drifter kept forward, shouldering the blows. The exoskeleton and scales of his body were a bit weaker in the front of his body, but he couldn’t risk turning around. He took every explosion, the heat melting away his skin. The pain rippled through him, resonated with him. He couldn’t take this for long. The pain ran through his body, bursting against his skin in rapid succession. He pressed forward, the thought of the little boy melted into a heap of bones by those rifles or that gatling giving him strength. The family was his reward for surviving that planet. His family was his life and his joy. He would do dang well anything for them whether that’s stealing or killing. They wouldn’t take another one of his kin away from him. No, not with the idea of Pit’s boy in the dirt still fresh in his head.
Drifter let out an ear-splitting roar.
He leaped over the crowd, through the pipes of the distiller and fermenters and crashing through a few kegs on the other side. Clear alcohol sprawled against the surface, spreading against the surface. The fires soon drank it up the liquid within seconds. Toby yelped in excitement in the way only a little boy could in a situation as the inferno grew. This was one of Bobby’s brood alright. Good. An excited boy can make good decisions, a scared one didn’t. At least one of us is havin’ a good time. “Keep yer head down,” Drifter growled in his best impression of a responsible adult, “You don’t wanna take this in.”
Drifter headed towards the barred front door, grabbing the boy with his tail. The heavy sounds of his massive claws scraped against the wood as he increased his speed, pushing all four of his legs further and further. Only a few minutes into the transformation, his body strained to keep the speed, and everything already ached. Gettin’ old, ol’ boy. Ya gettin’ old. Beast or man, that fact remained the same. Anytime now the flames were going to find their mark. He didn’t want to be here when that happened. He shouldered through the front door with all the power he could muster through the pain of the still pelting lasers on his back. He howled as splinters of wood stabbing into the now soft parts of his melted skin. The door wouldn’t budge. The bulk, the scales, the monstrous mix of a lizard and a bug, underneath it all was blood, muscle, and bones. Those things made an old boy feel a little less invincible. One more shove. One powerful lurch then the door left its hinges.
The air gave the fire a much-needed meal to go with its drink.
The failsafe went off all at once. An ear-splitting sound ripple through the once quiet valley. Drifter pulled out another leap, using all his muscles to jump on the cliffs. He ran through the forest, the little boy still attached to him. He was looking back, Drifter knew. That was his home in flames, crumbling to the ground. The excitement had died for him, leaving the ash remained afterward. He remembered those feelings as a kid. He hoped for them to never taste that sour bitterness so young. Homes can be rebuilt. You can’t. “Uncle Luke.”
“Yeah, Lil’ Thunder.”
“They’re still alive.”
Drifter turned his head. The boy’s eyes hadn’t failed him. Among the ruins of the Drum, Captain Owen stood within the rumble with his team. A light blue force field enveloped the area, leaving none of the men to die in that horrible explosion. At the very least, it slowed them down. Forcefields of that strength came up quick enough and held its shape for a bit. They didn’t come down easy from there. At the very least, they destroyed anything they could use against them whether they knew the value of it or not. They needed to clear their head, create a better plan. Think we might’ve underestimated the Coats here. It was time they formed up and retreated. There was a time to fight and a time to turn tail and run.