Her captor’s overwhelming stench of old sweat, booze, and bear scat assaulted her nose. Her arm throbbed where he gripped her with fleshy fingers, jerking her along the rough mountain path. Natalie stumbled over an exposed tree root, but he continued to drag her, only stopping to raise the dirty bottle of alcohol he clutched in his hand for a long swallow.
“Move, woman. Ain’t got all day.” He slurred the words, belching them in her face before taking another swig. The carcass of a tiny bird was sandwiched against the bottle beneath one fat finger, its legs bouncing around with his movements in an obscene dance. Natalie gagged.
Goosebumps followed the creeping sweat down her neck beneath her thin sundress. She’d chosen a bright yellow dress this morning, well aware that the unpredictable weather could turn cold within minutes. The cheery color mocked her optimism of this morning and did little to ease the fear coursing through her.
A faint, strangely chaotic humming threatened the mountain’s usual peaceful atmosphere, silencing all other signs of life. As they moved closer, it morphed into boisterous singing.
Oh dear God.
He’d brought his friends, all of them drunk by the sound of it.
Her pulsating heartbeat hammered louder in her ears, in rhythm with her heavy breathing.
Just ahead of them a plume of gray-white smoke reached toward the sky, like a snake lazily uncoiling. She stared at it in shock. Making fires in any of the sparse forests left on Earth had been outlawed ages ago in the year 2350. A fire large enough to cause that much smoke could easily spread over the parched mountainside, killing her beloved trees and every living thing in this part of the Rocky Mountains.
This morning she’d checked on the trees she’d planted for the Forestry Department as she’d done every day for the last two years and for the first time, she’d seen that a tiny little bird had fallen out of its nest. She’d cried as she held it in her hand and tried to soothe the quivering little fledgling. Few bird species had survived the drug resistant chicken flu of the 2380s. Now, almost a century later, the earth was mostly bare of feathered creatures.
The stinking drunk, his hand still locked in a vice-grip around her arm, had stumbled upon her while she’d tried to put the tiny bird back in its nest. Natalie cringed at how easily he’d disarmed her and dragged her off. Her father would turn over in his grave if he knew she’d froze, unable to pull the trigger of the shotgun he’d given her on her sixteenth birthday.
“Let go of me,” Natalie said through gritted teeth. “I’m an official of the Forestry Department.” While being paid by the government agency to plant trees didn’t give her any kind of official title, she’d use any edge she had.
His grip around her arm strengthened as he jerked her toward the ominous singing. The wind must’ve changed direction, for she could smell the warm ashy fire now.
“Please let me go. I have to make an emergency call. Can’t you smell the fire? Look over there, it’s smoke.” Natalie pointed frantically with her free right hand.
“Yeah, I smell the smoke.” He smirked and almost lifted her off her feet when he tightened his beefy grip on her arm further. “Move, woman.”
She winced then screamed. Hunched over from the force of his grip, she was sure he’d break her arm. How was it possible that a drunk could be this fast and strong?
The murmur of male voices mixed with the singing, penetrating her terrified senses. Her body began to shake so much she could barely stumble along behind her drunk captor.
He was taking her to his friends.
What would they do to her?
Would they even care about the fire? Surely one of them would have a TC with them. The Touch Cell Communication Device, TC COMM or TC for short, was invented by Soft Cell a century ago and it allowed the user to make calls. It also functioned as a holographic device for watching movies and news programs. Even vagrants like these wouldn’t dare allow a mountain fire to go unreported. She refused to believe that they’d deliberately started the fire.
The breath in her lungs stuttered as she watched the smoke plume grow ever bigger. If she didn’t get to a TC to call for help, the trees and what little vegetation was left on the mountain could burn to nothing in a matter of hours. It’d happened once before and she never wanted to witness it again. Centuries ago the vegetation would come back stronger than ever after a fire. But now the mountain struggled for life even at the best of times.
“Why did you come up the mountain? There’s nothing here,” Natalie gasped, out of breath. He’d dragged her over what felt like half the Rockies, drinking steadily from whatever was in the bottle he lugged around while she grew more and more thirsty.
“How did you get through the pass?” she asked. Years ago her father had blasted the only road into the mountain. Now the only way to reach the mountain was on foot.
He didn’t answer, just grunted and walked faster.
She tried to wriggle the fingers of her left hand, but they had long since gone numb from his cruel grip on her arm. Her heartbeat thundered louder in her ears as they abruptly entered a clearing surrounded by pine trees. The smell of smoke intensified, rising from a crackling fire right in the middle of a crude camp.
Natalie peered through the mass of brown hair hanging over her face and staggered. Pale yellow flames were eating away at one of her precious pine trees with obscene efficiency. The crackling of the fire sounded like gunshots in her ears, each time startling her to the point her bladder threatened to embarrass her. Never before had fear invaded her body so completely.
Through the haze of smoke, she saw men lying around in the dirt in drunken stupors. Her stomach reacted to the smell of roasting meat and she gagged when she saw the small bird speared on a stick stretched over the fire. She wanted to scream at them for their senseless cruelty of burning a dying species. Burning a pine tree meant jail time, but the penalty for killing an animal or bird meant incarceration for life.
“I caught me two more birds,” her captor said, laughing uproariously at his own joke as he lifted the bottle where he still clutched the carcass of the baby bird he’d killed.
Natalie closed her eyes as the foul-looking bunch of men leered, whistled, and made obscene gestures. Her captor hurled her forward and she fell with a painful thump, scraping both knees raw. A soft groan slipped past her lips without her permission.
She knew she should try to run, but the orange-yellow fire mesmerised her. She stumbled upright and something dripped down her leg, but it hardly registered as the dancing flames held her gaze.
“It’s against the law to burn wood and kill animals,” she murmured, as if making dinner conversation. Her mind screamed out against the atrocity in front of her, but her vocal chords simply wouldn’t cooperate. Even so, her softly spoken words seemed to cut like a bullet through the chaos around her.
“Shurrip about it, bitch. No one wanna know.” The slob who’d brought her here pushed against her back with his dirty paw and she stumbled into the midst of the group, each man looking as though they would make her sorry she’d ever been born. Every horror story she’d ever seen on the Touch Cell News flashed through her mind. If her ears weren’t ringing, she’d probably hear her knees knocking together.
Never show fear to predators.
Her father’s words, one of the many lessons he’d drilled into her head before he’d died.
She took a deep breath, pressed her trembling lips together, and lifted her chin.
“See? Told you we won’t have to go look. She was just walking on this here mountain.” Her captor swaggered to where a bottle of yellow liquid sat on the ground. Grabbing it, he took a swig then belched.
“This is private property, and you’re trespassing,” she said, injecting as much authority as she could into her voice. “As the designated forestry official for this area, I order you to put out the fire and leave the mountain.” She was proud of how firm she sounded, though she doubted it would make a difference to this bunch.
A month ago, a group of men had come up the mountain and raided her house before burning it to the ground. Natalie had watched, helpless from the cover of the trees while they destroyed the only home she’d known. She’d thought she would never be that frightened and helpless again, but she was wrong. This was much worse.
She had to find a way out of this, but her legs trembled so much she doubted she could take even a single step. And if she did manage to get her legs to run, they’d just catch her again anyway.
She stared at the fire, watching the bird’s flesh slowly char. Disgust rose up her throat even as her mouth watered from the smell of roasting meat.
Did they think they were above the law? That they wouldn’t get caught? Sure, the police were slow to react these days, but they dealt swift justice to anyone harming plant or animal life.
“The penalty for burning wood and killing animals is a lifetime in jail.”
The massive hand of her captor made contact with her jaw and a dull crack echoed around the clearing. The force of the blow jerked her head to the left with such violence, it slammed her to the ground. Her ears rang and black spots stole her vision.
It took a moment to realize he’d slapped her so hard she’d almost lost consciousness. Dazed, Natalie shook her head and tried to focus through the thin layer of black spots still flashing in front of her eyes. Slowly, the scene around her came into focus. The men were closing in, leering down at her. She bit her lip raw trying to suppress a moan of fear. The mountain was isolated. Even if she screamed her lungs out, no one would come to her rescue.
“You don’t stop yer preaching, there’s more where that came from,” her captor threatened.
Her body jerked with harsh shudders as the raucous laughter of the other drunks turned ominous.
“Bet she’s the tall bitch them townsfolk said live in that house we gone burned while ago.” A man with a coarse accent ambled closer. “Shoulda come afore Murdoch sent us.”
“Told ye she was here,” another man slurred.
“You bastards!” Natalie screamed. They had gotten what they wanted, looted her house of everything of value. So what purpose had it served to burn down her home? What kind of monsters would do that?
As the first man came closer, fear forced her to focus on his feet, crunching across the dry earth. Her heart stopped beating for a moment. Breathing became torture, her lungs too frightened to contract and expand.
Army boots! He wore army boots.
Natalie jerked her head around like a malfunctioning crane. They all wore army boots.
They were raiders. Murdoch’s raiders.
Her body frozen with horror, she tried to move, to do something, anything, but her muscles had locked down.
For two years now, the TC COMM news had been showing reports of bands of homeless and jobless men going around the country, looting and killing. Ruthless, with sickening cruelty, they killed women and children, anyone that resisted them. One newscaster had called them raiders and the name had stuck. Their merciless leader, Murdoch, had only two requirements for his men. They had to kill and loot without mercy. And they had to wear army boots. News programs on the Touch Cell frequently speculated on Murdoch’s requirement for the boots, though the only thing everyone could agree on was that it must be because he was crazy.
Her lungs continued to ignore the desperate commands from her brain. She needed to use her inhaler, but she still couldn’t move. Her body shook uncontrollably and a cold sweat coated her skin, gluing her sundress to her abdomen and legs. She forced herself to take long, deep breaths.
Slowly, the ringing in her ears faded and her sight cleared. No longer burdened by tunnel vision, she watched the Murdoch scum surround her and couldn’t stop the shivers from rattling through her body.
Are they going to kill me here?
Natalie didn’t want to die, but she’d seen on the news what happened to the women they brought to their camps. And she would rather die than go through that. The graphic news photos of their unfortunate victims, their eyes vacant and empty, still haunted her. She whimpered. “Let me go.”
“Shut yer trap, you bitch.” The beefy man who’d captured her raised his hand, as though preparing to slap her again, and she flinched.
“Look, she’s gonna cry,” one raider taunted, mimicking her by curling into a ball and shaking dramatically. The others laughed, showering her with spittle.
Natalie blinked to force back tears of fury and fear. Animals. No, they’re worse than animals. Animals only killed to survive. These monsters looted and killed their way around the country, preying on the helpless. Natalie lowered her head, refusing to allow scum like them to see her tears.
“Ooh, lookee! She’s a right obedient one.” Another raider appeared from among the trees. He swaggered toward her cringing figure and bile bubbled up into her throat.
There are more?
She’d counted at least seventeen drunks, seven surrounding her and the rest sprawled around the camp, watching her with rapacious hunger. How many more were lurking in the trees?
High in the sky, the autumn sun burned down on the pale skin exposed by her sleeveless sundress. Her palms scraped over the ground as she tried to inch backward, but a raider casually stepped on the hem, trapping her in place. More monsters drunkenly lumbered closer, no doubt anticipating a show.
Panicked, Natalie tried to scramble back, tearing her dress in the process. The sound of rending fabric cut like a laser through their jeering. All the men froze, their faces darkening with hunger as they focused on her now exposed thigh. “Let me go,” she repeated. “How can you do this?” The moment the words left her mouth, she regretted them.
Aroused from their carnal daze, they began to move in again, rampant lust etched on their faces. “Ooh, a goody-goody. Show the bitch how we can do this, Dan.”
Terror raced through her body. She couldn’t breathe. Please, not an asthma attack on top of everything else.
“Hey, she’s smotherin’ or somethin’,” one of them slurred.
Gasping, desperate to breathe, she sucked in the stench of old sweat and rotten breath, only to gag and cough as her body convulsed in dry-heaves.
“So? We don’t need her breathin’. Without air, she won’t irritate us with her bitchin’.” The man standing over her sneered down at her as he spoke.
She opened her mouth but couldn’t get any words out.
Her captor licked his lips. “Speak fer yesself. I like me some fight in me women.”
She scanned the area around her, desperate to find a means of escape. She was trapped, surrounded by these animals, and choking on her own breath.
I can’t die like this. She balled her fists. I have to get away from them.
Her captor bent, grasped a fistful of her long brown hair, and pulled. Hoarse sounds gurgled up from her throat and fresh tears welled in her eyes as they laughed and mimicked her.
“That’s right, pant fer me,” her captor slurred, his foul breath hot on her face.
“Ye can’t keep her to yerself, Big Joe. We want some fun, too.” The raider they’d called Dan fell down on his knees in front of her and wrenched her legs apart. Others grabbed her arms, holding her in place, their drunken laughter echoing shrilly around the clearing.
She gasped, opened her mouth to scream, but the sound remained painfully trapped in her lungs. Humiliation and disgust burned through her. Frantic, she kicked savagely, trying to pull her arms from their grip.
Hands groped, jerking her bright yellow dress up to her thighs. Mouths bit and tongues slobbered over her exposed flesh while fingernails clawed at her underwear.
Dear God, no! Please! I don’t want this! She squeezed her eyes shut and prayed that her asthma attack would kill her before these animals could rape her.
When a raider grabbed her left leg and wrenched it to the side, a painful scream forced the trapped air out of her lungs.
Suddenly, a bright light pierced through her eyelids. Natalie opened her eyes a fraction, afraid of what she’d see. Off to her right, the light flashed, fast and glaring, a good distance away. As though oblivious to it, the raiders continued to paw at her, their fingers digging into the soft flesh of her thighs and abdomen.
Desperate to detach herself from her horrifying reality, she focused on the light, but it was like staring at the sun. Her eyes watered and she blinked repeatedly, the excess fluid streaming down her face. Even squinting did little to keep the light from burning her pupils.
Perhaps it was a hallucination. Never before had she seen the sky sparkle as though it had turned to diamonds. But if it was an illusion, why did her eyes hurt?
Am I dead? Had they killed her already? And was this the portal to the afterlife?
No. She could still feel the raiders’ groping hands and hot breath.
Natalie focused on the strange light again and to her surprise, a strange sense of peace came over her. If dying meant being enveloped by this light, then she welcomed it gladly.
The sparkling faded and the sky returned to normal, revealing a tall masculine figure, dressed in military-style combat clothes made from the strangest fabric she’d even seen. Standing where the source of the light had been, he appeared human, but something about him made her suspect otherwise.
He towered over the drunken raiders like a giant, observing the scene in front of him, his face expressionless. Sharp cheekbones and a strong jaw jutted through bronzed skin, giving him a lethal look. A sharp ridge bisected his bald head, stopping above his nose. His eyes bored into hers, red eyes that terrified her.
The bottom of her stomach dropped out, as though she was falling into an abyss. She tried to free her hand from the raiders’ grip, tried to raise it in supplication to the strange being before her. He could be the devil himself, but right now, she’d take help from any source, even a red-eyed devil.
Both her hands were pinned down, away from her body by her attackers. Still, she opened her balled fist, her palm held out in a silent plea.
Time seemed to stop as he looked from her hand to her face.
Please! Please help me!