“In my dreams, the world was mine. Awake, only half of it is.” – Luke “Drifter” Caldwell
Luke Caldwell, known as the Drifter by his folks, thought himself a smart man for one without much schooling. He had to be. Not many fellas made here to his ripe old age of seventy-four outta being stupid. His brothers doubted him after they escaped working the menial labor in the mines to make something out of the family on the Dusk Orbit planets. They should’ve known by now not to doubt what old Drifter can do. Their little sting operations here and there had made them quite the successful “entrepreneurs”. Was it terribly legal? Nah, not in the slightest, but it got food on the table and later respect in their names. Who could ask for more?
Except Drifter always asked for more.
Drifter looked up into the rearview mirror of his old beat up white and blue truck, checking on the cargo of his recent pick up. Salvage for the most part for today: parts of old crashed ships, ancient technology from the Old Planets, and a few canisters of ship fuel that Drifter permanently borrowed from a few of those fancy Bluecoats. This was more Pit’s or Doc’s type of thing. They were good with their hands, like this techy nonsense of the young people. Give old Drifter a good old-fashioned gun, brew him a nice strong drink and he was set. But, eh. Everyone had their hobbies. Drifter tugged on his mesh red cap over his long white hair, checking the cargo and staring deeper into the smudged mirror. Blue and red lights swirled in the distance. Drifter snorted, grabbing flask from the drink holder and turning up his radio. He downed a long draft and pressed the pedal.
The Bluecoats knew better to not meet him on the road, or on foot, or anywhere really. They might’ve assumed that it was Big Thunder this time around. Not that it wasn’t any better. Nobody touched his kin. There was something particularly silly about trying to catch him on these dirt roads cutting through his mountains. Drifter sped through the dirt roads, cutting through the trees, little truck sailing through the air. The sirens went on behind him, whistling against the howling wind. Drifter yanked the steering wheel, turning through a thick thatch of tall black barked trees and thick muddy soil. Drifter grinned, speeding faster through the banks of the valley, the world becoming a green blur around him.
He howled, slapping his knee and the feeling of thrill coursing through him. Perhaps more than the ship fuel were theirs. Drifter shrugged. It didn’t matter. It was his now. Shouldn’t leave yer stuff lying around then. The young fancy coats couldn’t seem to grasp the idea of you leave it, Drifter and his boys were gonna take it. That was the law of the world. The Caldwells were the driving force on this planet, even if the Bluecoats thought otherwise. Gonna have to teach these young ones some lessons. By the heavens, they were trying their hardest too. The very thought of it gave him a buzz more than the contents of his flask.
They chased him through Rippling Creek, down another dirt road, bumpier than the last. Tall tree surrounded them on all sides, reaching out into blue above with their dark green leaves. The redgrass grew tall around them, each patch growing giant brown bulbs. A long clean water creek snaked through the land, cutting through the field of red, brown, and green with clean rushing water. Old machines carried from the Old Planets like Drifter’s truck lied abandoned on the side of the road. The newer technological beasts from the Bluecoats also lied, fresher than the old machines but all the more stripped to the bones. Drifter looked out of the window this time. Still following, are you? Drifter put down his flask momentarily, rummaging through the other side of the truck with his free hand. He found his pistol, a simple revolver. It was always loaded, always.
Drifter leaned out of the window, one arm on the steering wheel, his white hair fluttering in the air. A good day. Smelled of fresh water, fragrant flora, and exhaust. He leveled his revolver, watching the small black and blue shuttle came down a hill. He shot three shots. The bullets shattered through the windshield, each shot landing in the exact spot. The first little shuttle spun, the driver splashing into the creek with the pain from the shoulder. Whether the driver was dead or not, Drifter found that he didn’t care that much. Another one came rolling around the corner. The first shuttle was never the only one when they tried to catch the Caldwells. They brought out the big things often for them. Today was no different. The beast came out next, stomping over the horizon. The laughter in Drifter’s chest died. Had to bring out the 7-A’s.
He drove in silence, turning down the radio, a man’s voice lowering to a whisper against a banjo. The 7’As were standard issue mechanical behemoths, controlled by a single pilot. This one wasn’t the biggest he had seen, more of a capture model than a battle one. It was equipped with two machine cannons. Drifter eyed the 7-A, looking at the small reactors on the side. Can’t shoot through that. Don’t want to blow ‘em up. Again, not because he cared about the person inside, but his boy and his daughter fished in that creek. I don’t want their space crap in my water.
The biggest fear Drifter had when he saw the massive beast stomping through the red grass was for his truck. Not his life. The Bluecoats had already ruined one he intended to give to one of his sons, daughter, and granddaughter. Drifter slipped back into the truck, placing the revolver beside him. Though he was having a good time, he wasn’t going to risk the idea of losing all this cargo for this nonsense. The smile fell off of his face as he pulled on the side of the road, the smell of a freshly pulled trigger and whiskey in the air. Drifter pulled over, near the shoulder of the creek’s bank, yanking the key from the ignition. From small amusement to anger within a second, he tossed the keys into the passenger’s seat. Drifter stepped out of the car, boots crushing the dust and red grass underfoot.
Drifter tossed his cap on the roof of his truck. He rolled his shoulders, watched with harsh grey-blue eyes at the 7’A, through the glass of the cockpit. The beardless man looked in horror as he and his monster froze in place. Drifter licked his yellow teeth, a savage hunger rushing through him. They hadn’t expected him if so, they would’ve brought a bigger mech. He smiled, kicking off his boots and taking off his shirt. They were his nicer clothes; the wife wouldn’t like it much if he ruined them. He roared.
Pain and power ripped through him as his body bent and twisted. His muscles grew, a black chitin tearing through his pale skin. His sight a little faded from age became clear, clear than even when he was young. He hunched over, body bent and twisted. The bullets came a bit too late. They ricocheted off his skull, off his chest, off his legs and arm, all the while he grew to the size, dwarfing even the mechanical beast. The world trembled with every step underneath his massive feet, green liquid dripping from his massive maw. The taste was something he could never get used to like warm drink mixed with battery acid. Four-legged, Luke Caldwell, approached the Bluecoat, long tongue dragging against the grass. Drifter walked up, bullets still ricocheting from insect like armor. With a big meaty claw, Drifter tapped against the glass of the cockpit. The young man gulped and pulled a leaver.
“ ‘noon, officer,” Drifter began, his voice deep and and guttural, grinning with thousands of teeth, “whatdya pulled me over for?”
The Bluecoat gulped.
“C’mon, speak up boy. Don’t have all day.”
“T-that…that’s not yours,” the beardless boy said weakly.
Oh?” Drifter eyed the cargo safe at his truck. “That? Consider it tax.”
“You’re on my land, buddy. Caldwell land.”
“You weren’t when you–”
Drifter’ blinked an eye, the size the boy’s entire body. “Don’t matter. It’s on it now.”
The Bluecoat shook in his seat in his plush leather seat, throat closing with every second. Drifter plucked the long grey seat belt with a claw, snapping it within a second. He picked the young boy up by his waist with his long tongue. It took some carefulness not to melt the boy in a puddle of meat or break his spine. He placed him on the ground. “Come to think of it, this is mine too. Got something to say about that little Blue? Speak up now, boy or do I need to crunch some bones to make my point.” The boy found his cowardice once again as seen by the smell on the boy. “I’m gonna need you to leave your weapons, leave this here beauty, and drive off in your partner’s shuttle. I hope he ain’t dead. Gonna have a hard time explaining that your people.”
Drifter looked at the boy for a while, stilling thinking about biting him in half. Not tasty though. He tried it before when he was a young man. It didn’t quite get the taste for it like his son. He would he gotta though. A man would do anything if he gotta. Luckily, this time he didn’t. The little Bluecoat scrambled away, running and running on his hands and knees, trying to get away from the giant mutant. Drifter laughed at the desperation, huffing and puffing with amusement He got to the car, tore his partner from the driver seat, and drove off without a second thought.
Mutants frightened kids. They were a plenty in the Dusk Orbits, humans and animals, after years and years of evolution. They came in all shapes and sizes, as unassuming as a beard old man in the the mountains or a young woman on the streets. He hadn’t known the power he had for a very long time, the sheer immense strength he possessed. He had the power to own a planet with his power and his schemes. The young were often short sighted and with age came ambition. His grandkids won’t have to know hunger or pain or struggle. That was his dream here. A dream that he was gonna give to every member of his kin.
Drifter let his body relax, his body returning to the thin, old man with white hair much too long. He grabbed his boots, shirt, and cap from the outside of the truck. He entered the car in his birthday suit, reclining in his seat. After a moment of rest, Drifter leaned over the seat and found his spare pair of jeans and undergarments. “Ruining my darn clothes. Bluecoats and their dang kids. Greener than a dang bell pepper.” Drifter wanted to curse, but the wife had gotten on him for that. Not a good impression for the grand kids, so he had to curb the habit. He couldn’t quite take himself seriously as naked as a baby bird. He grabbed his keys and threw the back into his pocket.
Exiting the truck again, he went to check the rest of his cargo. Everything was there. He frowned, turning towards the now empty mech. My, she’s a beauty. Not a combat type, but the pieces, well, Doc was working on something nice of the kids. Nobody was gonna come this far into his lands to retrieve it. Drifter stuffed his hands in pockets of his spare, finding a small figurine once belonging to his granddaughter. He gave a smile for her, for al his folks, he would do anything. “Now, how am I gonna get you home, big boy?” Last time, he tore the arms off and Doc and kids lost their dang mind. “Guess that’s gonna be his problem figuring out. I ain’t gonna figure this out for you.”
He shrugged. The least he could do was to take some of the batteries with him for the family. Drifter walked around the 7-A and found some small climbing studs on its back. Machines weren’t too difficult to figure out after a while. Though as not technologically savvy as some of kin, he knew the workings well enough. With a heave, a turn, and hiss of steam, Drifter pulled out the small blue glowing battery on the back, shouldered it hot against his neck, and climbed back down. Once firmly on the ground, he grabbed the battery by the handle and walked to the bed of his truck, frowning. He didn’t have enough space for everything to fit and be safe too. Ain’t a young man anymore, not thinking about my own safety. “Guess you’re riding shotgun today.”
Drifter entered his truck again, put the battery in the passenger seat, and lock the battery and himself in with the seatbelts. It didn’t matter if you could become a fourteen-foot monster that could crunch a man’s bones and spew highly acidic liquid. A man gotta put his seatbelt on. He hadn’t before, forgotten in his brief span of youthful thrill. Drifter touched the figurine in his pocket once again, a silly little soldier in Old World camouflage they found, cleaned and repainted from one of their raids. Kindle was fond of it, gave to him as a lucky charm when she didn’t play with it anymore. A feeling of pride filled his chest. Excitement was well and good, he hungered for it from time to time. But there was nothing like home. Nothing. He started the car and went on his way, the familiar sounds of his favorite songs blaring through open windows.
Drifter returned to the Dusk Mountains with all his spoils intact. Most of it anyway. One piece of salvage, part of a wing, was determined to free itself from its bungie and sail back into the sky. Ain’t much Drifter could do about that. He considered it more of a good sin more than anything. If part of a wing wanted to head to the sky once again, who was he stop it? So, he drove on without it, up the winding stony roads of the snow topped mountain ranges where the Caldwells settled.
At first, it was this mountain with his brothers when they escaped the mines of another world. Now their kin reached from the mountains to the valleys, to the creeks, to the grasslands, and the plains besides. They were a force of nature on the planet C’dar. It wasn’t like that before. The Bluecoats forgot before they got here, the Caldwells were here. Only one family predated them, and they had reached an agreement. No way no galaxy corporation was gonna step up to him. Not after all the time, it took for them to get away from those money men. Drifter lowered his shoulders, trying not to get tense thinking about it. They had picked a beautiful place to have their family. Not to say it was paradise.
As he drove up and up, he began seeing more and more of their own influences on the land. He came upon Doc, his daughter Maribelle, and Little Beau’s scrap yard first. Their mounds and mounds of metal from ships, cars, shuttles, and mechs lined the small cave they had cut out for themselves. Doc was out in his yard, short, barrel-chested, with a strong muscled gut. He pulled his red goggles, thin white lines on his darker skin where they once settled on his meaty face. He grinned like an absolute idiot when Drifter rolled up with a truck full of things for him. Drifter cranked down the window. “‘Ey! Got some things for you?”
“Oh thank heaven,” he heard his shorter brother shout. “Thought you brought something for Pit, Thunder, or Pastor. Like you’ve for the last umpteenth times.”
“Thank’ya Luke for the ship fuel you found me. I appreciate you. You’re a good older brother,” Drifter said, mocking his brother’s husky voice, sounding of smoke and metal.
“I don’t though.” Doc grinned. “Pull around, can’t have you hitting my fence like that one time.”
“That was years ago.”
“It was my fence, I get to forget it on my time.”
Doc shuffled outta the way, waddling to the side. Drifter turned the truck around and back in (perfectly might he added) through the cave’s entrance. That was when the mechanic saw it, the glowing battery sitting in the front seat, all scrapped and safe. Doc almost tripped over the laces of his black combat boots, mouth salivating with the very thought of having a battery for his new project. “How’d you get that? It’s barely used! They didn’t have that lying around, did they?”
“Am I good brother now?”
“Urgh.”. Doc all but tore the passenger’s door. His fiery red eyes, the color of his forges, sparkled with the delight. He picked up the battery with care remarkably close to him holding his children when they were newborns. “I guess I can forgive you for the fence.”
Drifter rolled his eyes.
“Beau! Get this stuff outcha Uncle’s truck before I snatch a knot in you.”
Vermin, Beau Caldwell the son of Doc Caldwell, shuffled from the junkyard. A young oil covered man man, as thin as a whip and as small as his father, wandered over with a piece of straw in yellow teeth rotten teeth. He wiped his brow with a black rag and then against his loose-fitting blue coveralls. He boasted a beard longer than even his uncle’s with wisps of brownish-black hair on the top of his head. Drifter wished he would’ve cut the top off already, the boy’s been balding since he was fourteen. He grinned an ugly at the spoils too, very much his father son. Not an appealing fella, but very few Caldwells could boast on their looks alone. “‘Ey, Uncle Luke,” he said, his voice small but deep. “How’s it going?”
“Seen my boy and girl?”
“Appetite and Kindle just got back from fishing. Brought back enough for everybody.”
“Good, they’re home now?”
“Boy, if you don’t get to work,” Doc shouted from the cave, “or I’m gonna come over there and stick my boot up your–”
“Language, pa!” Vermin shouted back. “I gotcha Uncle Luke, let me unpack you.”
The oddest thing about Vermin was his mutation gave him four arms and adhesive sweat. Came as quite the surprise for Doc and his wife. Drifter barely had even noticed then and barely noticed now. It was a part of who he was. Each was functional, though the lower ones were a bit less muscular than the upper ones out of sheer usage. Drifter watched him from the back, taking bit by bit from his bed with his four limbs with a strength impressive for a man so slender. He finished unloading the truck within fifteen minutes of getting started. The stickiness of his sweat made lifting jobs easy, allowing him to pluck heavy objects and kept them in his grasp with little to no resistance. After Vermin was done, he closed the bed of the truck, walked around to Drifter’s side and slapped the side of his truck, earning a thick green slime handprint on his door. “Vermin!”
The young man cackled. “Thanks for the stuff, Unc’. Don’t be shy now! Drifter’s leaving, pa! Say something!”
“Don’t get killed or nothin’!”
“He’s tryin’ his best.”
“‘ight, I’m gone. If I can’t get this gunk off, I’m comin’ right back so get the hose ready.”
Drifter started his truck, backed (again perfectly may he add) and continued his way. He blared his horn at the scrap yard, feeling the lightness of an unloaded truck. Vermin waved for the sake of his now distracted father, the sparks of whatever he was working on lighting up the entrance of his cave. Drifter couldn’t fight off the grin. Doc was a tough nut to crack. He didn’t like many people outside of his kin. Drifter got that. Still, it took a special something to get a smile out of the cranky old geezer. Old geezer. I guess we all are now. Drifter shook his head and drove back up the mountain.
Doc was the only brother that he shared a mountain with Pastor, Pit, and Big Thunder each had a bigger family with as many children and grandchildren as to fill an ark. In comparison, Drifter’s–though the head of the Caldwells–was small with two sons, a daughter, and a grandchild. He came upon the land of his middle son first, Evan Caldwell. He had a small shack on overlooking cliff, his home carved out from a rusted out oldest models they salvaged. Evan, known more as the Loner, was a quiet man with great ideas like his uncle with a temperance Drifter liked to think that he got from him. Passing by and honking horn, he earned a wave from his pepper haired son, leaning over the edge of his “porch”. Loner sipped his rum over the edge, the ominous red glass of dead machine’s eye glowing behind him.
Driving a little further up the mountain, he came upon his daughter’s land. She was tucked into a sloped part of the mountain in a small wooden cabin, overlooking a plain of yellow flowers and a small ranch. Jo was a willowy woman with none of her father’s features aside from those harsh green eyes. Her hair wasn’t the clay red-brown of Drifter’s youth, but gold like her mother’s once in a sharp ponytail high on the back of her head. She waved at her as she glided through the field, looking every part lady and every part survivor. Drifter couldn’t help but notice saw-off shotgun dangling from her leather holster. That’s my girl, Drifter thought, giving a small salute with two fingers. To think that he worried about her for so long. She was her papa’s daughter through and through. Bluecoats, raiders, animals, mutants knew better to best with her.
Up and up he went until he reached the top. The Homestead was once the land for the Caldwell seniors. Fond memories of decades ago passed through the ol’ mind and through this land. In short, they crashed landed here. Long ago, when they were young men chasing dreams and women. The land was good, surprising at the time even before the atmosphere stabilized and became livable for anyone other than mutants. He remembered stepping out of that mangled mess of a ship they had stolen, bleeding and smiling all the same. The ship remained on their stake of the land of Dusk Mountain. Around the small ship (stripped of everything important) was two sizable houses made of wood and metal, a fenced off area where the animals stayed, and a barn.
The last of his son, the oldest, Woodrow Caldwell–or Appetite– as everyone called him, lived on the Homestead itself with his ma and pa with his daughter, Kindle. Drifter saw them pull up to the cabin, each shouldering racks and racks of fish. Appetite lived up to his name. He was bigger than a normal man, made of pounds and pounds of pure hairy weight. He lumbered from place to place with a slow deliberate movement, big arms placing things down with an obscene amount of care. Flecks of fish scales and blood (he assumed it was only fish blood) stained his white tank top and Old World green and brown camo pants. At his side was his daughter, Kindle, with warm dark skin, kinky black hair, and her father’s and grandfather’s eyes. She got her pa’s fashion though.
Kindle hardly waited for the truck to stop to come running.
“Grandpa!” Drifter stepped out of the truck and into the arms of the teenage girl. She’s fifteen now, not a child no more. Still, he picked her up all the same and swung her around like she was five and they were the river.
“Where have you been?” she asked once her feet were on the ground.
“Yeah, where’ve ya been, Pa,” Appetite grinned. He knew exactly where he was.
“Out and about,” Drifter said shrugging.
“You went to steal some stuff, didn’t ya? You can just say that y’know. I’m ain’t little girl. I know what we do.”
Drifter gave an honest and awkward laugh. “Yeah, I know you know by now. Ain’t that much a secret ‘round these parts.”
“That’s what the Bluecoats said too.”
Appetite frowned. “They’ve been gettin’ kinda close, Pa. Bold even. They shoulda known better by now.”
“Bill and Jose say that they got a new commander on the planet. Gettin’ kind of handsy with other planets. Ours is next.”
“No need to worry ‘bout that, Kindle.” Not right now. “Get those fish inside before they jump back into the river you found ‘em.”
Kindle nodded and took the fish racks from her pa. Appetite smiled, looking at his daughter running into their cabin. “She’s right, you know,” the big man said after a while. His voice was as slow and deliberate as his movements like he planned his words like he planned his meals. This chunky build and slow voice made him an underestimated member of the family. He was strong. Drifter had seen his son crunch a man in half, crunched into the fellow soon after. His strength was only matched by his smarts. He knew his stuff. Not technical things like his uncles or trigger skills like himself. Didn’t mean he couldn’t fight or hold his own. He was more of a planner, a “strategist”. “They’re gettin’ mighty close, Pa. Ain’t long before they cross our borders.”
“We don’t got no borders. This is our planet.”
“Okay, pa, I get that but they aren’t aware. New guy on the scene. Captain Xan thought to come down to finally clean up the mess that is us.”
“Captain Xan.” The voice sounded familiar, at least the name Xan. He assumed it was the fella’s last name, but he couldn’t be sure. Bluecoats didn’t work with no sense after all. The name tugged at an old thread in his head, but he couldn’t quite remember where. “Ain’t the first to come here and expected the land to be their’s, son.”
“Didn’t say it was, pa. But you were the one that told me, don’t underestimate no one. Don’t care if it’s a fish, a dog, a raider, a man or a woman, family or Bluecoat. You gotta be careful, always.”
He’s right. I taught ‘em that.