“Tread lightly from here. Tread lightly and triumph.” — Jo Caldwell
They returned with their loot the next day to find that Shepherd had done somethin’ real stupid.
He knew that Spencer and the Hounds weren’t the most stable of the family. The Caldwells had to have some degree of madness to survive here on the planet with not a lotta people but a lot of other lotta things that could kill you. Drifter wasn’t one to judge about that. Shepherd was closer to a raider than anyone else in the family. He had done terrible things that the family. This one ranked in the top ten—no about top five–of the silliest things. Heads lined every post leading through the valley of the leading up the mountain, crows poking at their empty eyes. He didn’t discriminate: men, women, synthetics, organics, mutants, humans, all equally put on display. From the look of it, they appeared to be a small squad caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, not unlike those green boys the stole the 7-A from. There was no denying it now. They were at war.
Pit, despite his best efforts to conceal, couldn’t contain his glee at the grisly site. He rose from the back seat, pushing through the mountain of spoils and grinning like a madman. That was the reason why they gave them the collective nickname of the Hounds. Dogs are loyal, emotional, passionate creatures. They also hunted, mauled, and killed once they found a scent or blood. From grandfather to sons to the pups, they shared those single-minded traits with minor variations here and there. Drifter cursed under his breath. What did y’all do, he thought, clutching whitened knuckles against the steering wheel. He knew Pit hadn’t planned this, he didn’t really have…what’s the word…the foresight for that. At the very least, they could’ve been smart, but he knew they didn’t clean their nose of this. They never did. Gonna fix this too.
No one noticed that Drifter wasn’t too happy about it.
Big Thunder turned after a while, seeing the unhappiness creep on Drifter’s face in a stark contrast to their giddy brother. He flicked his eyes back and forth from one brother to other, obviously a tad confused on how he should feel. So, instead, he kept quiet. A smart move all in all. Drifter hadn’t the time or the dang patience right now to talk ‘’bout his feelings on the topic. Right now, Drifter was too busy mentally trying to find a big enough shovel to dig themselves out with. They sat in an uncomfortable silence, driving through the valley of the dead and ascending the mountain.
When they made it to the summit after a few empty minutes and to the Homestead, it appeared that he wasn’t the only one upset about this. A few of the family had already begun discussing. Very heatedly might he add. Drifter parked the truck by his garage. He jangled the keys from the ignition and opened the door with a bit more anger than he would’ve. He stomped around the back. The crowd of his kin silence as the patriarch silently unpacked the loot from the Huntsman. A few of the nephew and the nieces helped pack them the various crates, taking them to the warehouse behind the cabin. Their little arsenal for a rainy day. Sending the younger members away, it left a small family pack of kin.
Doc, Pastor, Jo, and Shepherd was all that remained. Drifter sent off anyone else for now without a single word. Everyone knew better than to test him in one of these moods. He tried his best to keep cool in this situation but his anger sputtered outta him like oil. What tipped him over the edge was the satisfied expression on Shepherd’s face. The boy had lost his son, he was willing to give him a pass in his grief. Not if he wasn’t going to be smug ‘bout it though. So, he did what good family member would do. He popped the boy right in his mouth.
The punch came hard and unexpected as one does when you sucker punch a fella. He fell to the ground, nose delightfully busted and crooked from the punch. He cursed, clawing at the dirt and blood trickling off of his chin. He growled, muttering. Pit opened his mouth and shut it with a glance over his shoulder. He knew that his son deserved that. “You don’t think,” he thought. Or at least he thought he thought it. He heard his voice echo against the trees and flocks of birds flew from their nest fleeing the scene. Or shouted apparently since everyone was looking at him with that agape expression. Drifter felt his knuckles sting a tad from the blow, his throat a little raw from the shout. No one said a word for a long time afterward Drifter peeled back his thick film of anger only a tad as he paced. “Did you think that maybe, just maybe, there might be reckonin’ to whatdya did, hm? Think ‘bout that. There’s a reason I went all the way out to vent my anger, boy. You might’ve just led them right to us!”
Drifter trembled. In all his born years, he hadn’t experienced something like this. Shepherd sat in the dirt, holding his nose, eyes alight with mild and deep recognition. The display of anger had given the Bluecoats a crumbs trail path up Dusk Mountain. The Dusk Mountains served as a natural defense for the family. Doc and Loner had made sure they had other defenses besides. They didn’t ‘want to have to use those. The mountain and the natural traps always had been enough with the idiots before now. Now, Shepherd might give them the key to the front door. The fool. A single punch suddenly didn’t feel like punishment enough. “Remember when your ma died to those off-world pirates. I told ya, we’ll get revenge for her. It didn’t happen overnight, it didn’t even happen over a year. We took our time. We take our time here, Spencer!”
“That’s enough, he gets it, Pa.” Jo grabbed Drifter by the arm. “He knows what he did wrong. But what’s done is done. How ‘bout you cool off, eh?”
Drifter felt his thin body being dragged by Jo away from the rest of his family and onto the porch. His body continued to tremble, but the fog of anger treated. He took off his red mesh ball cap and slammed into the dust. He took a breath, the thick kinda breath meant for the only truly rare type of frustrated. His daughter eased him back into his rocking chair, fetching him a cold cup of water and a few aspirins. Slumping in his chair, Drifter downed the medicine and the water in a single gulp, unsure of which his body needed more. He groaned. Jo had the look. The look that Mary had when they were going to say something he might not like. “You know we get it from y’all, right?”
“I know,” he grumbled. “You want better sense for your kids.”
“You know. Apples and trees and what not.” Jo sighed. “We can’t help it.”
“All I’m askin’ for is that if you’re going on a killing spree, do it right. There’s a time and place for that. A sensible type of brooding. I thought I at least taught ‘em that, y’know.”
“It’s something I picked up after a time. You’re really good at it, dad.”
“Sometimes.” Jo smiled. “But really we’re in trouble now with that little stunt he pulled. Also, where were you guys all yesterday anyway?”
“Shooting some Bluecoats and taking their stuff.”
“You do see why Spencer thought what he did was a good idea because of stuff like that, right?”
Fair point. Drifter relaxed. Jo knew how to put things into perspective. Even when she was a kid, she knew how to correct her ol’ pa. Still, he wasn’t going to apologize, nor did she expect him to. The fact remained they were in trouble and no matter how well-intentioned her nephew was, he screwed them more than he could possibly imagine. Drifter filled the cup with a little more water, kinda hoping there was something stronger in his small cup. He needed to cool down. “Where Evan and Wood?”
“Wood’s heading back. Evan said he’s coming up the mountain too. He got something he’s been working on. Not to mention Doc’s been working on a few things. Nothing like funerals and imminent danger to bring our families together. I take it where I can take it though.”
Jo spoke Appetite up. Not even a few minutes after she said it, the small brown and green tank came rolling up the side of the mountain. He didn’t stop for a second, hardly noticing the crowd. Drifter watched his big son climb out of the side and land with a thunderous crash. A few of the cousins laughed under their breaths as they usually did when seeing Appetite move. Never to his face, of course. Though normally patient with them beyond what was acceptable, his darkest mood stripped that away. He charged into the house, came back only minutes later dressed down in sweatpants, a tank top, and flip-flops. He charged towards them, his hair wild and his beard long against his collar bones. He heaved a heavy breath. “What’s happening,” he asked in a slow, measured anger.
“Spencer killed a bunch of Bluecoats and put them on display.”
“Of course, he did,” Appetite frowned. He took a deep breath. “Cassie’s stayin’ for a spell at the Willow’s Grove.”
“‘Don’t seem too happy ‘bout that,” Jo said, folding her his arms.
“She’s her own girl. Don’t trust her stayin’ close to Ignace.”
“He’s still around?”
“And you haven’t killed ‘em yet,” Drifter found himself adding. Ah, see, bad habit. “Don’t say it, Jo. I heard what I said.”
Appetite gave a puzzled look but didn’t ask. “She’s going to stay for a while. What are we doing ‘round here?”
“Tryin’ not to die.” Jo shrugged.
“What’s the plan, Pa?”
“We haven’t gotten that far yet” Drifter pinched his nose. There was a lotta of things a lot of things they could do; there was a lotta things needed to be done. They had prepared for this eventuality for years. And they called me paranoid. Nothing came easy. They get here easy. They didn’t stay here ‘cause it was easy. They learned what worked and how to survive, preparing for the day that the colonizer would grow interested in C’dar. Only a matter of time. Only a matter of time. “I need some company, y’all alright coming along. I know you’ve had a long day, Wood, and your patience for your ol pa’s gettin’ thin, Jo. I honestly need both of ya if you can manage the time. If I stay around them, I might do something I regret.”
“We might have even more company.”
Drifter furrowed his brows, seeing a man in a tattered cloak coming up the mountain. He leaned heavily on a twisted old rod, fashioned from parts of a car axis. He wasn’t a big man or tall much the same as Drifter himself. There was something about him though, even in his tattered wandering clothes of tan and grey pants and a t-shirt that might’ve been white once with a few too many holes. Puffs of grey-green smoke left his respirator, billow around his hood and through the fabric of his hood. Two small rusted red drones buzzed around his head and a long, bare skeleton droid followed him closely. Loner, the youngest of Drifter’s children, silenced the light hum of conversation. He wasn’t one to leave his cave at the bottom of the mountain with his uncle Doc unless he went on a scavenge for parts or work on the radio station network. He wandered in their way, his small mechanized army making a bit of a ruckus in this awkward silence. Drifter grabbed him into a hug, the man smelling of oil, rust, and sand. He loved him for it.
Loner huffed a little, patting his ol’ dad on the back. “‘Ey, dad. Jo. Wood.” His hugs continued around their small family.
“Hood off, son.” Drifter smiled. He hated it, but he did it anyway.
Loner tossed off his hood. Though younger than both Appetite and the Rancher Queen, Loner had inherited Drifter’s apparent ability to lose all the color in his hair in his mid-thirties. There were a few persistent flecks of weak darkness in his hair, cut short in a messy uneven mass by what looked like a knife. His eyes were a shade darker than the rest of the family’s blue eyes, rimmed with dark circles. He hadn’t been out much lately it seemed by the color of his milky skin, almost sick against the metal of his respirator. He huffed again, deep, measured and a little uncomfortable out in the open. “‘right you guys got me outta my cave. What now?”
“The droid is new,” Jo said, drawing out the conversation. Loner hated talking about himself.
“They can’t speak yet, trying to learn itself. New AI. I’m messing with. Jesse. Say hi.” The bare droid of black bones looked as startled as a machine could. The awkward droid waved after a time. “Good. Good.”
“Don’t overwork yourself, Evan.” Drifter found himself saying. “Last time…”
“I know. I know,” he muttered. He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “What’s happening? I heard about Matt.”
Jo took the lead. “Let me bring you up to date.”
Like that, their little clan was together. Drifter and his three children walked through the Homestead, inspecting the defenses and checking the inventory. The anger he felt hibernated for the whole situation dissolved into shallow puddles in his head. He listened to Jo’s explanation on what was happening between them. Loner and Appetite listened and then shared what was happening to them. All the years of raising them in that small cabin gave them a closer bond with one another. Kids were cruel at any age and in any galaxy and his children knew that too well. They learned to deal by working as a unit. That didn’t change in their older age. They were a pack–his pack of smart, witty, and resourceful men and women. Drifter continued to listen as they exchanged information, talking amongst themselves about all sort of things.
Drifter led the small crowd across the Homestead, checking things here and there. The watchtowers were back up. They hadn’t been up in years, not since the pirate problems they had a while back. Doc’s kids and grandkids worked on setting up the fences and the turrets. The familiar sounds of metalworking and woodworking filled the area: the buzzing of saws, the beating of hammers, and the humming of drills all around. While Doc and Vermin worked on that, Drifter couldn’t help but notice Mirabelle taking what seemed to be parts of a reactor. The young woman, as thick and darker skinned as her father, carted the pieces onto her small floating shuttle wordlessly and smiling from ear to ear. It might as well be her birthday with how well she was taking this.
Big Thunder and Pastor’s countless number of children and grandchildren scurried around the Homestead, ranging from the young kids to the grown adult older than Appetite. They had started earlier and hadn’t stopped. At the very least, the Caldwells genetics would survive into the next few centuries through them. Drifter saw the children’s several mothers (something had they gotten from the father they shared and the cause for their vastly different appearances) huddled and talking amongst themselves.
Big Thunder was instructing safe gun rules with any kid that could hold a weapon under the massive oak tree. Pastor preached by the crashed spaceship, their ark, with a small congregation, speaking words of equal parts wrath and mercy. Drifter couldn’t help but notice the similarities of how the brothers handled the topics, each with the same type of tone in their voice. Eerie how similar their words were. Drifter let that thought sink in for a while and found the hole a bit too deep for his liking. He put that thought deep away in his head and kept scrolling.
“Yeah,” Drifter said, turning to Appetite. They had asked him a question cause none of them went in further. “Gonna have to ask whatever you were asking again. Wasn’t paying attention.”
“Where are we going?”
“Oh, nowhere in particular. Been thinking about what we’re gonna do next.” Drifter wasn’t telling all the truth there. He was, in fact, pondering about anything besides. He pinched his nose and cleared his head. There was plenty of things on the table now. First and foremost was to check on Big Thunder’s distillery though. The moonshine was the primary source of bartering after fuel and salvage. It was by far the most consistent outta all of them. Before they even attempted the mountain, they will go there to cut them off from potential allies. Maybe they’ll do it to try to stay in the law. They would’ve come up here before that if that wasn’t the case. Luckily, it wasn’t a rule they had to abide by. They would cut corners if they had to. Cheat if they gotta. That was the difference between the two factions. They believed they were in the right and legal. Drifter knew that he and his kin were anything but legal.
“Gather around everyone,” Drifter barked.
The family stopped what they were doing. Guns were put away, bibles were closed, and all matters of talking stopped. The throng of the family made a tight circle around him. Drifter couldn’t help but noticing the Hounds standing a little further away. He sighed. Right now, he couldn’t afford to alienate them. Besides, they were some of the best gunmen in the family. Drifter found himself wishing a little that Kindle was here. Pit, his brother, he could handle. The Hounds as an angry ball revenge, he couldn’t. Sheppard stood in the forefront, broken nose taped but dribbling a bit of blood on his lips. He still hungered, biting at bones without meat on it. Might can use that. Gotta use that, stoke that flame. “As we all know by now, we done got the attention from a Major of the Civilization’s Bluecoats.” Drifter took a deep breath and continued.
“I know, I know. We’re all partially to blame, me included. We poked this cage enough times. Now the cage’s down and we’re gonna have put the beast down.” Drifter cleared his throat. “First, we need to make sure Thunder’s Distillery’s ‘right. There’re too many things that they can’t have. Secondly, our homes. They’re gonna come for me. I know it. Y’all already done a good job startin’ it. But take this seriously. These ain’t people we want to mess with. We hit them hard before they hit us. Got that?”
“What’s stopping them from coming up here right now,” one of Pastor’s many grandkids shouted. Zeke, maybe.
“Nothin’, to be honest. That’s why we’re gonna keep people here. Two teams: one for the Distillery and one for the Homestead.”
“Where are you gonna go?” Bulldog asked. He expected, of course, expected him to stay at the Homestead. It was his home after all. Drifter smiled at the young boy through the crowd.
“I’m gonna go with y’all, it only makes sense.”
The Hounds nodded. Suddenly being punched in the nose didn’t seem like that bad of a thing for Shepherd. They wanna fight, let ‘em. “Of course, y’all gonna have to listen to me. We didn’t get this far being dumb. If I ask you to do it, do it. Don’t ask me questions, don’t say the word ‘but’, don’t even look at me the wrong way. You do it even if you don’t agree with it. Y’all gotta trust me, all y’all. I didn’t bring my brothers and here to let us lose all we got.”
“I gotta question, Pops.” Appetite raised a single finger. “Why exactly do you think they want us gone? We’re just a backwater planet, full of nothing but old stuff.”
The Patriarchs knew this answer. There were pieces of their life they didn’t want to talk about. Drifter saw his brother’s faces change within the crowd, some soft and others harder. There were pieces of their past, things they kept from their children and grandchildren. Not out of secrecy. Not entirely. There were things a man couldn’t find a way to talk about. This was one of them. The Space Prison of Taros and the Desert Prison Planet of Daedal was all his childhood and the reason he could do what he did. The dark metal cells, the hours in a glass pod filled with stasis liquids, the silver sands of windy dunes in his mouth, the hammering of ore for days at a time. Those things he spares the next generation of. How could he tell them that the oddity of their mutations was no different than a farmer growing the perfect breed of corn? But they had the right to know where they came from, right? The very thought terrified him.
“I–” He took a deep breath. “The Civilization engineered us. Sold by our dad, Max Caldwell, to a space station prison known as the Taros for his own crimes, we became lab rats for the Civilization. After being experimented on for several years, they dropped us off at desert prison planet of Daedal. Mutants like us slipped through the cracks during the prison planet riots across the galaxy. Now the Civilization’s back stable under a new Chairwoman, they’re tryin’ to clean up their own mess. We are part of that mess. Besides, this planet ain’t a bad one for them to get their hands on. Could be great for a new colony. But first and foremost, it’s about cleaning up the previous government’s mess. That’s the long and short of it. Anyone that wants to know anything else, feel free to ask any question ‘bout it but you might not want to know the answers. What are what we are, and they don’t like it very much. “
Everyone in the crowd stiffened. It was one thing hearing bits and pieces from their own fathers. Saying it aloud came with a certain indescribable shame like being stripped away by the elements. Drifter swallowed his pride for a moment, taking another deep ragged breath. “We don’t like talking ‘bout it but it’s part of us. You have every right to know why you’re being hunted and why they were different. Should’ve told y’all sooner but it is what it is.”
“Well…” Appetite said, after a long silence. “That explains quite a bit.”
Jo nodded too. “All because we’re a little different than them.”
Drifter felt himself grow cold and distant. “Everyone git now we got work to do and it ain’t gonna fix itself. We’re leaving in a bit.” He took stunned the silence to slink away. The soft memories of a hard past came rushing back at once. He liked to think that he got it out of his system, made peace with it. When the words came out of his mouth, he wasn’t the experienced ol’ man. Seconds there, he was that little boy with clay-red hair wandering the Taros for a glimpse of a dad that sold him. He stepped away, slipping through the mass of kin and to the other side without another word.
He made it to his own porch before he allowed to break a little. Mary Lu sat in her rocking chair, a long-crocheted blanket of purple and white over her lap. She smiled at him and somehow it made the feeling in his gut ease a little. She turned to him with those knowing soft eyes. With her right hand, she patted on the rocking chair beside her, beckoning him to come over. He did so, slumping in the comforts of wood and mindless rocking. Mary Lu grabbed his fingers and said nothing. She never needed to.