“They’re strong, Major, but not as strong as they think they are. When it’s all said and done, they are relatively human, and I am not.” — Owen Xan, XA-003 Bioandriod, Sixth Battalion of the Bluecoats Fleet.
“Hm. They lived.”
Major Debenham put down his fork with a satisfying clank on the fine plate. He licked syrup from his lips, the crumbled pecans littering the stubble on his face. He closed the translucent blue screen of the video feed with a swipe of his finger. The audio died soon after. Appetite readjusted in the chair beside the good Major, stuffing down a grin. The Drum may have been gone and the gunfights still raged on, but they did much better than the Bluecoats thought. The Major leaned back in the wooden chair, kicking back for a while as he tried to mask his own surprise. For the first time upon his sudden appearance on the Homestead, he didn’t look as poised. Appetite reckoned that it was quite the opposite, the anger in his eyes betrayed every fiber of his being. He stood up from his chair, pushing himself away from the table. “You saw this, didn’t you,” the Major asked the matriarch sitting pleased at the other end of the table, “but how far can you see? When will that confidence that confidence of y’all’s burn out?”
“Steven,” the Augur of Owl said in her sweetest voice reserved for only her enemies, “I let you in my house. Not out of hospitality because if you left, you would’ve tipped the battle. There was no way Luke and his brothers could match you, not yet. But with you here, it gave us a little time. You’re going to have to recover and we can plan a bit more. This isn’t the end. You know it, I know it. So please, stop acting like you’re upset ’cause it’s not easy.”
“I am upset, Mrs. Caldwell. I don’t wanna be here. I would much rather be with my wife and my children. I’ll admit, I find the fighting enjoyable but at the end of the day, I don’t view y’all as meat. However, I can’t let you leave either. What you’re doing here is selfish. You don’t see it but there’s an order of things forming. Laws are being made and structure is forming. The Military Fleets, League of Colonies, the Science Committee, even the Churches of the Five Lights and the necessary evils of the Viscount Corporations, the Civilization is rebuilding itself. C’dar would’ve made a great colony for people but everyone ’round these parts know about you people. My question is why. Why do this? For what, complete freedom”
Appetite watched words come to his mother’s lips but never made it out. Freedom wasn’t a value that the Caldwells believed in. Freedom was who they were. The crashed spaceship served as a symbol of their escape, the thrive to get away from it all. History of old world countries was the first thing that Drifter taught himself to read. He grew up learning fights for freedom, A tattered and frayed old world flag, one of dirty pinkish-red and dirty white stripes and stars against a color that might have been blue, hung in his workshop. Hearing that, you don’t know us very well, Appetite thought. Why would he? He only saw them as an obstacle in the way of their peace. He couldn’t see how that peace came with a price. You’ve only seen good things ’bout them; we’ve only seen the bad. One thing Appetite learned on his travels with Ina was that everyone thought their way of life was right.
“It’s ’bout time you leave.”
Major Debenham blinked at Appetite’s cold words. “You’re probably right. I’ve overstayed my welcome.” The Major rose from his chair. Standing at his full height, the navy man still had to crane his head up to meet him in the eye to eye. He gave a deep sigh and gathered his stuff in his pack. “I’ll admit,” his voice whipped back to his normal fatherly tone, “you’ve all gotten far and played me good here. I got a bit too confident in my boys. That won’t happen again.”
A tense silence blanketed over the small cabin as the Major took towards the door. Jo glared a hole in his back, her fingers dancing on the handle of “Prairie”. Loner had put his mask back on, his remaining drone hovering over his head. Appetite smiled. He had eaten a full meal, more than his share. Right now, he was at his most dangerous. As good as he was, right now, they were all more than prepared to fight a cyborg of his level. The only reason they hadn’t ripped him apart was the safety of their old ma. However, nothing happened. The Major slipped on his boots, tightly tied his laces and opened the door. What met him on the other side was the full force of the Caldwell family. He shook his head, laughing all the while.
Appetite followed him into the living room for a closer look.
On the lawn of the Homestead, Doc sat the cockpit of a massive unfinished mech–one step up from metal skeleton work. Its reactor glowed red exposed in the dark shadow of the overcast sky. The sheer height of it all sent chills down Appetite’s spine, standing over 25 feet into the air and wide too. He had seen mechs before, but nothing of that magnitude. With him, was the remaining members of the family who hadn’t gone to the Drum. They were armed to the teeth with weapons of all sorts, ranging from well-made laser guns to the common shovel. All for one man. One man who looked completely unenthused at his apparent situation. Major Debenham readjusted the strap of his backpack. He can kill us in an instant. We could take ’em but not without a lotta graves. He took a step forward towards the crowd.
All Appetite heard at first was the sharp hiss of steam. He hadn’t seen him leave the door, only a broken floorboard where his left foot once was. Tracking him with his eyes proved equally impossible. The Major moved like a blue streak of lightning, swerving through the crowd with ease. Doc came down on with a large metal fist, machinery cranking into motion, but he proved too slow. The fist only managed to hit the air and the ground, shaking the entire Homestead with a tremor. The Major ran under the mech’s legs, slipping through the gap with little effort. He hadn’t a weapon on him, armed only with the expert use of his cyborg enhancements. Deftly, he dodged an attack throw his way with fleet footwork, never missing a beat. No one managed a sound bullet or laser on the man, aside from scrapes here and there on the Major’s navy-blue uniform. Joseph, one of Pastor’s sons, stepped forward with pitchfork trying to catch him in the leg. The metal snapped on the man’s thigh. Maribelle followed up a shot from a plasma shotgun at point blank range and caught only the light of personal shield. Debenham turned to them, a mild irritation in his eyes, and raised his fist.
“Let ’em go,” Appetite shouted from the porch.
Appetite remembered the hole that the Major left in his cousin’s chest. The precision blow left the boy’s lungs outside of his chest. You’ll kill us all if it meant that you could go home. “Don’t fight ’em. He’s playin’ with us. Let ’em go or he’s gonna kill y’all.”
The mob froze in their tracks. Everyone felt it now. Everyone saw him for that moment. This wasn’t a normal Bluecoat, the ones that they beat for decades. This man was trained to kill people like them. We’re a clockwork case. Bug spray to an ant hill. They couldn’t risk it, not without a plan. Patience. Slow and steady. There was value in those quotes. Some of his family wasn’t going to see this as the right call. Some might even hate him for it. Their lives meant more than their pride. They lowered their weapons. The Major looked at them, smiling. He lowered his fist.
“I see. Someone has some sense. For that, I’ll let these boys and girls live. See you around, Woodrow.”
And like that he was gone. Appetite watched him leave, jogging through the forested treeline and leaping over the snow-touched cliffs of the mountain. They watched his back even after they lost track of his silhouette. An exhale rippled through the mob, sweat beading on dozens of different faces. Appetite exhaled himself, his large chest and belly deflating from the tension. A dull headache bumped hard in the back of his head, reminiscence of a fear. Not for himself. Appetite never feared for himself. He feared for everyone around him. He hadn’t felt this way before and for the first time, Woodrow Caldwell knew exactly how his father must’ve felt every day of his life.
Drifter stumbled into the door, black and bloodied burns underneath his brother’s oversized clothes. Appetite ran (as best as the big man could do) to his pa side, propping him up with a meaty arm. Warm and sickly sweat soaked through the thin white t-shirt and denim jeans as though he had jumped into a river of his own making. His face lost all color, his bright eyes dulled to the point of emptiness he had never seen in his father. The worst of all of this was the smell: the choking stench of burnt skin and heavy infection. Appetite carried his father to his recliner, helping him out of his clothes. They needed to treat these now. With the rest of the brothers in similar conditions, it fell upon them. It didn’t feel like a victory or even taste like one. From the looks of it, despite them not getting their hands on whatever was the Drum, they barely got out with their lives. ‘Nother push like that… he couldn’t think about that right now. His pa needed him.
Jo and Loner rushed over, the first aid kit unlocked and ready to go. They treated the burns the best they could, using everything they had on them for the job. From medical gels to burn treatments to cold water, Drifter braved through the pain with little more than a few pained whimpers. He clawed at the arm of his chair, nails ripping through the fake leather and to the cotton underneath. He can feel pain, that’s good. Appetite always saw his father as this invincible man. This wasn’t the first time he had come home like this, riddled with bullet holes, bruises, or cuts. He was always smiling before, self-assured in whatever he was doing. In that chair, he looked his age and Appetite hated every second of it. He held his pa’s hand. “You’re gonna be okay, pa, you’re gonna be okay.” No matter how many times he said it, neither of them felt any better. He gave a tight squeeze on his dad’s knuckles, earning a smile. A weak thing. One meant for the family, not for him. “I’m ‘right, boy, you can stop worryin’. All of you stop your dang worrying, I’m a little hurt as all.”
“When are you gonna stop this tough act, pa?” Jo took in a sharp breath. “You ain’t as young as you used to be.”
“I know,” he laughed. Weak. Not the same as before. “I know,” he whispered.
They sat quietly as a church mouse as they took turns dressing him in bandage with a soft reverence. Their mother’s face was the worst. She had a bit of bitterness in her eyes, warmth gone in her eyes and a soft, harsh frown on her face. “You could’ve gotten killed. You would’ve if Loner didn’t tip y’all off. Why’d you go anyway? What were they lookin’ for at the Drum?”
“Somethin’ we got that we didn’t know what we had. Don’t think it matters right now. It ain’t there or we just got rid of it.” Drifter gritted his yellowed teeth for a brief second. He straightened his back in this chair, serious in his mummified state. “I ain’t ’bout that. They tried to take more from me and I ain’t havin’ it. Y’all are mine. This planet is ours. I won’t let them have it.” Drifter blinked a few times, eyes heavy from fatigue and wear. His consciousness swayed but he shook it off. Somewhere in that fleeting moment, he had a thought. Appetite didn’t know what it was or what changed, but it startled him awake. “I’m gonna look out for y’all,” he said after a time. He heaved himself up, groaning and muttering under his breath. “Got some thinkin’ to do. Check on everyone, will ya, kiddos.”
Appetite knew those thoughts well. The ones that shocked a man awake in the dead of night, ruining a good nap or a good meal. After that shock wore off, the idea coddled every thought in their head. He scrambled to his room. Appetite turned to his mom, expecting an answer and found nothing. She followed him out of the room, the sounds of her cane knocking against the wood. They weren’t gonna any more insight into his thoughts. Not until he was ready. Not a second sooner. Appetite shrugged. At least you’re alive, old man, whatever you up to. Appetite gathered himself, worry bundling in a tight knot in his stomach. “Let’s leave ’em alone. The best thing for him right now is rest. I’ll come back to later.”
Jo and Loner agreed. They gathered their things in the house including the bare bones droid.
“Woody,” Jo said as they opened the door and a blast of lukewarm air hitting them in the face. Loner made a noise that sounded a bit like a squeal. A cold breeze must’ve hit him mighty hard. “I think we’re fighting this all wrong.”
“Whatcha mean?” Appetite asked. The answer came to him a little later with a little more thought. “Oh.”
Looking at the Homestead, the answer came as clear as day. The family sat huddled against a roaring bonfire, bandaging wounds and doctoring up. Someone plucked at banjo, trying the best at a song of some sort. The booze wasn’t out yet, so no singing yet. That fact alone told their tales. How they were acting, it wasn’t them. They weren’t used to getting punched in the mouth, licking their wounds in a dark corner of a room. Appetite clenched his teeth, grinding hard against his uneven gums. Only sad faces, sadder nervous stirring and the saddest strings from that dang outta tune banjo. A fit of sudden anger blossomed where worry once was. They made it out alive with little to no casualties from what he could see; they deserved better than that. Appetite squared his shoulders, coming to his full towering height and stuck out his chest. Standing this tall, people noticed ya. They couldn’t help it. Their heads turned.
The first one to notice him in the crowd was Big Thunder. Uncle Bobby, the usual life of the party, sat mute at the edge of the bonfire. He held wrapped and ruined stump that was once his left arm without even a tankard of drink. He had lost his home, his arm, his demeanor like Uncle Buck did before. This wasn’t gonna happen again. “Evan. Can ya–”
“Already on it.”
“Jo. Can ya–”
“Already on it.”
“Well…” Appetite straightened his shirt. “Good to know we’re on the same page.”
They dispersed on their own quests to fix this mess. Appetite lumbered to home, trying his best to look as confident as possible. Keeping his back straight always proved difficult, a habit Ina had beaten into him. “A big man like you, hunching over like that. Makes you look small and dumb.” That was one thing ’bout Ina, she didn’t pull punches. Right now, he was happy to have that tutoring. The more he walked, the more he caught the eyes of his family. Digging deep, Appetite heaved a bag of charcoal, tucking the bag underneath the top of a grill. He, then, with a massive display of strength and picked the whole thing up. That got a whistle from the crowd. A little bit of life. Better, better.
Once the grill was into place, he turned around back towards his cabin to the deep freezer in the back. He took some wire and thick roped, tied it across his chest and his stomach in a “x” and adorned it with small, metal fishing hooks. From there, it was a matter of getting all the food wrapped and pinned to him. This was where his size came to his advantage. He managed to hook over fifty pounds of chickens, veal, bear, sausage, and beef to himself, weathering the intense cold against his body. Nope. This ain’t gonna be enough. Bearing through the cold, he waddled to a small shack on the outer rim.
The shack wasn’t particularly big but air-tight–one small window, thick wooden walls, and creaky floors. Large barrels, gifts from the Drum, lined every wall of the storage room. The largest nice wooden keg was filled with a pale ale, a gift from Big Thunder a while back for his eighteenth birthday. He wrapped his big arms around the keg, picking it up and over his head. A small waft of liquid that soaked through the wood hit him with a pleasant aroma, his muscles bulging at the weight of it all. It should be enough for now. If he needed another one, he would just have to make another trip or two.
Appetite turned, closed the door to the shack, and wandered back to the bonfire as the herald of food and alcohol, a god of tomfoolery. He slammed down the keg with a powerful thud, kicking up dirt and dust into the air.
“Alright,” he shouted. “We’re sittin’ here being sorry for ourselves and moping. That ain’t us. Yeah, they made a fool outta us, almost killed us. It ain’t about that. We’ve been in similar situations before. What’s wrong is that we’re off our game. We’re playin’ their game, not ours. So, we’re gonna have some good food, have some good drinks, and work through this. We ain’t gonna sit by and let ’em get to us. Time to man up and figure out what’s gonna happen next. Not in this doom n’ gloom type of way either. We’re gonna have a good time doin’ it ’cause that’s where we are at our best.”
His folks blinked at him confused. They hadn’t expected something like that from Drifter’s big, quiet, slow speaking boy. He was the thinker, the planner, the quiet one in the back, not the one trying to rouse them up. They shared glances for a while, saw the food and the drink he carried. Small grins traveled from person to person. They nodded, life running through the once dead audience. “And if somebody don’t rip that banjo from Bulldog’s fingers, I might smash it on his head.” That got a laugh at out of them. “We’re alive. Y’all made it. We’re gonna make it.” Their faces changed even more to a blossoming adoration, even among men and women older than him. “How ’bout eat? We eat. We patch up. We get better and we give ’em what’s comin’ to ’em.”
And like that, he broke through. It was like they all realized at once that this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. A few men and women stood up, gathering themselves and helping Appetite with this impromptu cookout. Going out and fighting the Bluecoats on their terms, that wasn’t their way. They weren’t built for that. They were scavengers, bandits, thieves, raiders. On their quest to avenge their kin, they had forgotten that, even Drifter to an extent. They backed themselves into this shallow grave and now they had to claw out of it. Whether that was with a shovel or dynamite, that was their call. Looks like their coming back to me. Next time he was gonna have to be on that battlefield with ’em, it looked like. They needed his sense.
By the time they got all set up around the bonfire, Jo and Loner had returned from their quests.
Loner wasn’t the type to want to stick around for things like this. For that reason, a few of the family got a little skittish when he was around. They often forgot that he cared. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. He cared. You couldn’t be raised by Drifter and not care for these crazy folks. He wandered to Big Thunder, sizing up his arm with a long measuring tape. The stout man frowned for a second until he realized what was happening. Loner began that very moment on making a new arm for their uncle, talking him through designs with hard light constructions from his droid. Experiencing this almost immediately lifted the spirit of the down man. He had always wanted a cool, metal prosthetic. Loner would make the coolest for the excitable old man. He would’ve cut his own arm off sooner if he knows this was what was going to happen. Crazy old man.
Jo, on the other hand, returned mingled with the crowd. She gathered all their weapons, making jokes to each and everyone one of them. Putting the weapons away and getting them prepared needed to happen sooner rather than later. It would give her a project to do since her cooking was outta the question. She worked and fixed Ham Bone a few times. When it came to weapons, though, she was the cream of the crop. He let her do her thing while he did his. The mood rose again. The weapons away, the start of the crackling charcoal grill and a few drinks being passed around. There we go.
Everyone settled in around the fire. Bulldog brought over a table. Appetite tossed all the frozen meat on it after a quick wipe off. Bulldog’s sister Dane was now plucking at the banjo. She was a much better player, leagues better than her brother. Knew a few songs that the family recognized too. A certain degree of hominess fell over them, especially over the Hounds. They were docile, out of their element again. Ever since Mastiff died, they hadn’t been the same. Appetite knew it hurt. It hurt when Jo lost her son and her husband, a close friend of his. Scars don’t heal well when you didn’t slap medicine on it. Words served good for that. He beckoned them over, stoking the flames until the meat thawed enough. The two Hounds awkwardly shuffled over. “‘Ey,” Appetite began. “Y’all doing alright?”
“We’re managin’,” Dane said. She missed a chore in the song she was playing. Told him she was growing uncomfortable. She adjusted her fingers, her dark hair covering one side of her face in a crow feather dark veil. Hadn’t slept well since this all started. Haunted was the only thing tougher than scarred.”Is this ’bout–”
Bulldog made a face. He did look like his namesake, squashed face, beady eyes, and a small nose. “Where’s Cassie?”
“She’s with her other grandpa at the swamp right now. Learning a few things.”
“Ah…” The two Hounds nodded.
“I wanted to pull ya aside to tell you and your family that you don’t have to do it alone. My pa ain’t that good with things like that. He’s not good at all. What I’m tryin’ to say is that, yeah, we’re tough, but we don’t have to be quiet ’bout it. My pa and your granddad Pit, they aren’t used to talkin’ bout things. They keep it inside until it boils over outta their control. I want you to know that ain’t good. You’re better when you talk ’bout it. Cassie likes you guys and I don’t want her to come back to see y’all like that. So, don’t keep it inside. Let it out. I want y’all at your best too.” The two young pups nodded. They weren’t gonna do it now. Too embarrassed. One day though, they would. No rush in that. They shuffled away. Appetite watched their backs. They were good kids.
“Hey, Woody.” Appetite turned his head to see Vermin grinning. The tall, four-armed man cocked his head and gave his cousin a quick punch in the shoulder. “What’s gotten into you, man? You sounded like your dad. Shucks, you have me believing we can do this.”
“‘Cause we can. All it takes is finding our footing.”