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The engine sounded sick, like a primitive beast coughing out its last few breaths before dying. It also didn't help that the road was so damn bad it was barely drivable. Everywhere they went in this hellhole of a city the roads were full of potholes and broken pavement. Ruth heard Zoey give the vehicle a little more gas as she worked to keep the car from stalling. The brakes squealed loudly as they pulled up in front of the Handi-Mart. The noise was murder on the ears, pure metal on metal and it set Ruth's teeth on edge.
Ruth pulled out some binoculars and scanned up and down the trash-strewn street for any sign of trouble. A few pages of yellow phone book paper floated past on a northward wind. Thank God no dogs in sight. At least that's good. She lowered them and tried to get a gut sense for any sign of danger. She felt nothing, but she knew from experience that was usually a bad sign.
Glancing around the car, she wondered if the other two women were up for this. Zoey, a twenty-something African American woman, volunteered to be their driver today. It didn't surprise Ruth she wanted to drive since--with her trait for sickle cell anemia--Zoey had the most to lose out of all of them on this mission. One body scan from a copperhead and she'd be smoked on the spot. At least as their driver, she had a good chance of getting away if the group ran into trouble.
Jazz was today's second volunteer. She was a moody, smart, Hispanic woman with a hard attitude and a lot of ghosts in her closet. Most of the time she wore her black hair in a tight braid that ran halfway down her back. Jazz had that quiet fury that told anyone the minute they met her that somethingvery bad had happened to her and she was never going to let it happen again.
Ruth took a deep breath and fingered the button on her radio. "Anything, Bonnie?"
The radio crackled. "Nothing," Bonnie replied, her voice partially garbled by static. "Some stray dogs in the area but no large packs. Just keep your radio close."
Dogs were the common slang for men. But the term didn't apply to every man, only those who'd checked their humanity at the door after the strike. Most of the time they roamed alone but sometimes they packed together. At the last government census two years ago, men outnumbered women on the planet ten to one. One of the women at the bunker had started calling them dogs and the nickname stuck because that's what they were, stray dogs looking for a bone.
Their prey of choice was women. Sometimes they hunted alone, other times in packs. They were always dangerous not only because they could take a woman as a sex slave if they got their hands on one, but because if a pack of them got a woman, she'd be servicing them all.
Not a happy prospect for any female.
"Will do," Ruth said. She clipped the radio to her utility belt and grabbed the silver door handle. Pulling it all the way out she shoved her boot into the center of the car door and pushed with all her strength. The hinge groaned and the door popped open. "Ready, Jazz?" she said, glancing at the other woman as she slid across the seat to exit.
Jazz held up some bolt cutters and winked. Her dark eyes were intense. "Ready," she replied. They both exited the car and froze, listening for any movement.
Ruth stared up at the sky and felt her tension rise. Some thick, dark, orange clouds moved across the sun and the temperature went down about ten degrees. Just like that. After five years the weather was just starting to stabilize from months of devastating floods and unpredictable droughts. Ruth could hardly believe all this destruction came from just one meteor strike. But at least there were signs things were starting to get better. Sometimes the clouds would part and a hint of blue sky would peak through. It was a good thing too because it was hard enough to survive on this scorched earth without also having to deal with the constant violent weather.
Another relentless headache was the government's gene police--the copperheads. Technically they were men too but they had a very different agenda. Bred from embryos in carefully monitored labs, these biological monsters killed everything impure they came in contact with. Men--women--none of it mattered to a copperhead. If a person had a genetic flaw they'd shoot them down like a rabid coon in the street. Ruth wanted to hate them for it but they were only doing what they'd been bred and trained to do. For them it was natural selection. But over the past two years, things had been changing and Ruth suspected it was because of the scarcity of women. Copperheads were much less likely to shoot first if a woman was involved. Now they asked lots of stupid questions before wasting one.
All of it was just plain crazy.
She heard Jazz swear in Spanish as she walked up to the heavily chained front doors of the Handi-Mart. "What's the matter?" Ruth asked.
"Fuckers have a least three chains on this thing, man," Jazz said, grabbing the chain and flinging it down in disgust.
"Just do the best you can," Ruth said. She was starting to feel that old nausea creeping into her belly. This is taking way too long. We should abort.
The car finally stalled and Zoey pumped the gas and turned the key several times trying to get it restarted. It cranked but refused to turn over. Ruth leaned in the passenger window. "Take it easy, Zoe," she said. "Don't flood it. We're okay, just take your time."
Zoey nodded and took a breath so deep it lifted her shoulders. She looked so young against Ruth's forty-two years. She's still just a kid. I should have insisted on someone older. Then Zoey resumed trying to get the engine started.
Ruth came over to see how Jazz was doing with the chains. She'd cut away the first two and was busy working on the third. "I almost got it," she said between clenched teeth.
Ruth's radio crackled and she grabbed it off her hip. Bonnie said something but it was heavily garbled and Ruth couldn't make out a word. Jazz stopped working on the chain and fixed Ruth with her dark brown eyes. Ruth depressed the button. "Repeat, Bonnie," she said. "I didn't hear a word you just said."
"I said I have movement!" Bonnie's voice barked in a broken message.
Zoey, who hadn't heard Bonnie's message, finally got the car started. She leaned across the driver's seat and shouted, "I got it!" out the window.
"Shut the fuck up, Zoey!" Jazz said, moving closer to Ruth to hear what Bonnie was saying. Zoey scowled as if she'd just drank a glass full of vinegar. She got out of the car and stood next to the open driver's door. She opened her mouth to answer Jazz but Ruth held her hand up for silence. Zoey closed her mouth and glared at them.
"How many are there, Bonnie?" Ruth asked as the sickness in her belly grew. "Are we dealing with dogs or a copperhead?"
"It's one person," Bonnie said. More static. "He's armed to the gills. This thing's got to be a copperhead."
This time Zoey heard the message and her face went slack with terror. Ruth walked toward the car to talk the young woman down from her panic, but it was too late. Somewhere not too far off, a killer was coming to put a bullet in Zoey's brain and she only had seconds to get away. Jumping back into the car, Zoey did what Ruth feared she'd do.
She gunned the engine and took off down the street.
Jazz raced into the middle of the road as if she could will the car to return, her fists clenched at her sides. "I can't believe this, man! The little girl just took off!"
"She just panicked," Ruth said, forcing herself not to lose hope. "She'll be back."
"Back, my ass!" Jazz shouted. "She's gone!"
A second of sunlight bled through the clouds above. Then the copperhead rounded the corner and parked only a few yards from them. He kept his engine running and it had the heavy, brutal sound of a big block V8. The car was an unmarked beat-up black coupe with red flashing lights on top. Two curved exhaust pipes lay just behind the driver's door looking like silver animal ribs.
The driver's door opened and the copperhead emerged. Like all the others of his kind, he was dressed in black combat pants, black boots and an olive green t-shirt. His thick arms strained the sleeves of his t-shirt. He was muscular, combat thick and tall, probably about six-five with a body that looked like it was carved from solid rock. Ruth tried to see his eyes, but they were completely hidden by dark sunglasses. He wore his dark brown hair short, and had a hard wickedness to his face that made her throat tighten. Strapped to both legs were two holstered ionic blasters. The copperhead smiled and Ruth heard Jazz swear in Spanish.
"Candy," the copperhead whispered in a deadly, seductive tone. He started walking toward them and Ruth caught Jazz making a sudden move for her own blaster.
Ruth glared at her. "Don't," she murmured. Killing a copperhead would only put the androids on their ass, and that was the last thing they needed.
Jazz seethed but didn't pull her weapon. "We're not your fucking candy, freak."
Ruth could see the copperhead getting anxious, his right hand twitchy, wanting to pull his weapon but he held back. Where the hell is Zoey? "What do you want?" Ruth said to him. "We've been scanned already. We're clean."
The copperhead took another step forward and Ruth prayed Jazz would keep her cool. "Not by me," he said. His voice was harsh and commanding, made all the more intimidating by its low, rumbling bass.
Ruth sensed Jazz about to open her mouth and say something nasty but she glared at the other woman and shook her head indicating quiet. Ruth knew exactly how to handle a copperhead. She'd served with enough of them during the Third World War to know what their weaknesses were. She stepped forward. "You can scan me if you want," she said.
For a moment, the copperhead seemed to change his mind about challenging them. He hesitated. Then he took off his sunglasses and fixed her with those chilling altered eyes. From behind blue eyes, his pupils flashed a reddish-orange, like an animal caught by surprise by a flash bulb. Those shiny computer chips embedded in his eyes were a dead giveaway and how these killers got their street name. He also had a small black barcode on his right cheekbone which Ruth knew to be an inventory number from the lab that had bred him.
The copperhead was edgy, nervous but eager to get close to a woman. His lust was so raw it had substance, reminding her of a cat rubbing against her leg. He is a man, just like all the rest. Lucky for me, he's a virgin and not too sure what to do with that big, troublesome thing busting out of his pants. After a brief pause, he stalked up for the scan stopping very close to Ruth. She fixed her gaze on his chest and waited for that old familiar burn.
The scan began slowly.
Dry heat touched her skin, starting from the top of her head and running like fingertips down her face and body. It didn't hurt but it was unpleasant and she fought the urge to move or complain. It went much faster if she stayed still. Within seconds it was over.
The copperhead had had his fun. Now it was her turn to mess with him.
"I think you'd better search me," she said, stretching her torso and daring to look him in the eye. "You can't be too careful."
The copperhead froze, his tongue coming out to caress his lower lip. "Would you like that?" he said.
Ruth smiled, glancing down at the obvious erection in his pants. "I'd just love that. Would you like me to turn around and put my hands against the wall?"
A screech of tires pierced the quiet and Ruth was relieved to see Zoey return. No getting your rocks off today, copperhead. I'm afraid you're gonna have to jerk off in a corner. Zoey rounded the corner so hard Ruth was sure she was going to blow a tire. Zoey pulled up and Jazz scrambled in through the open passenger window yelling for Ruth to get in.
Ruth looked up at the copperhead. It would be too easy for him to grab her and keep her from escaping but he didn't. His pupils shone at her but his demeanor betrayed nothing. She knew he was hot for her, but like all the other copperheads, he wasn't quite sure what to do about it. Poor thing. For a moment, Ruth felt a deep sense of pity for this man the government had raised, trained, and unleashed upon the world. But the feeling didn't last long. A second later, she too was jumping into the getaway car and speeding off to the bunker and freedom.