Authors: Bryan Walker
And Before We Begin
The road is a lonely place to live, made up of long stretches of nothing between patches of where you’ve been and where you’re heading. This town, that city, another settlement, glowing specks peppered across the world with thin threads of pavement running between. A spiderweb of civilization across the vast wilds most spend their whole lives trying to avoid. At least that’s how it was on Saffron, where the three billion people living on its surface were unwelcome guests of an inhospitable host. They hid behind walls, sometimes protected themselves with watchtowers, and erected massive structures of a thin clear material overhead to catch and filter the rain. There were lots of things that could kill you on Saffron, but what the rain did to you was worse. As for their minds, they lost track of those with their devices, powerful computers easily carried in hand or pocket, accommodating them with limitless distractions. Ignore a problem long enough, and eventually you forget it was ever there.
Of course that was true outside of the cities as well. Even Quey Von Zaul was guilty of ignorance, despite seeing the decay first hand as he made his living riding between the clusterings of people, traveling through ‘this’ town or ‘that’ city, rolling from bubble to bubble selling his goods. He made his way across the land with nothing for company save his eighteen wheel rig and the sheet computer device currently attached to his dash, streaming one of his favorite shows while the auto-drive kept him rolling along the straight and narrow highway. A few hundred kilometers and he’d turn onto the grey road, taking the shortcut across the waste. It got a little bigger every year, the waste that is, but his notice of it remained the same.
Movement in the dark outside his window caught his eye and he glanced up just in time to see one of the trains streak across the landscape like a lost bolt of lightning, carrying folks from one bubble to another. Sometimes when he saw them or passed through one of the cities he stopped to wonder what his life would have been, had his parents lived past his fourteenth year. How different would he be if so much of his life wasn’t focused on surviving, first the streets and now the road.
It was a pointless thought. He’d seen city folk and their lives had no more purpose than his. They were listless as he was, just in a different way. They went to work too early, stayed too late, and got paid too little. A whole civilization of people just trying to cope with their lives, and that was the problem. They weren’t focused enough on surviving.
The road was a lonely place, but he didn’t envy them.
A thought tickled the back of his mind and wavered his focus from the show he was watching, bringing it to the empty seat beside him. It was lonelier now since Cal had passed.
Calbert T. Pickens was the reason he was on the road and not on the wrong side of a jail cell, or the bad end of a bullet. He was a pudgy man in his forties with not a strand on his head save a few wisps of grey around the edges. He’d bedded his share of ladies in his day, through no fault of his looks, but being as he was sterile as a mule he remained without offspring. In his early days Cal had counted this predicament a blessing, but as he aged that particular outlook began to change.
Cal, you see, he had a gift and a talent that he felt a need to pass down the way his father had passed it to him. Cal was the best moonshiner in the world, and four long years after their meeting he’d taught Quey Von Zaul everything he knew about the trade.
They’d met when the boy was seventeen, a few years and some change after his parents had died. Cal caught Quey stealing food from the corner grocery in Arlee and called to him. He gave him a hot meal and a place to stay the night. Later Cal told him, “Stealing's a way to survive son,” and while puffing out his barrel of a body he
added, “But it’s no way to live.”
He offered Quey a job and a place to live and a chance to learn his trade. With his only real friend, Dusty, lingering through a stint in a juvenile detention center, Quey had nothing better to do so he agreed.
“Reason for moonshinin’ lay in the law,” Cal told him.
Alcohol was legal but the licensing and taxing on the production of spirits was so expensive few could afford to buy or sell any of it legally. Luckily, as Cal explained it, there was some oversight in the letters that made it legal (sort of) to produce spirits on the sly. Also, you could avoid a great deal of snags by never referring to your product as it was traditionally known. So it was that moonshine became the adopted moniker for any unlicensed alcohol, never vodka, or whiskey, or rum. Quey never fully understood the law and its workings, but then, who was he to ask? All he knew was that those were the ways to avoid breaking it, or at least those were the ways to avoid people taking notice of the fact that you were breaking it.
“Shouldn’t it be brown?” Quey asked him as they watched the machine in the barn behind the house fill bottles with clear spirits.
“Brown in’t nothin’ but a color. Draws the attention of those that’d shut us down and don’t make a bit of difference to the tongue what with us adding the barrel flavoring to the mash. That’s where your attention aught a be, see. Secret’s in the mash,” Cal told him as a machine stirred the cloudy liquid steeping in the massive steel cauldron. “You’ve got to love your mash,” he said to Quey, who was watching the liquid churn intently. “You can love the shine all you like but that don’t do no good,” Cal warned with a stern tone and a gesture. His eyes drifted back to the caldron again. “By den, it’s too late.”
The true secret was Cal’s plot of land. Three acres behind a wall with a ranch house atop a small hill, nothing around save a long stretch of planes. Inside the wall he grew grains such as corn, rye, barley, and wheat. He had apple, lemon and lime trees. He grew grapes, cherries, watermelon, and a slew of other fruits and all of it was for his shine. That’s what stood him out from his competition, his willingness to use fresh fruits and grains in his mash.
“Reason they willin’ ta pay,” Cal said proudly, “Is cause most dew passin’ about’s just a jumble a what no one wants no more. But dis here,” he told Quey as they watched the machines stir, “Dis is wort sometin’, and ya know why?”
Quey nodded slowly and looked up at Cal, “Because you love it.”
Cal’s cracked lips peeled into a grin that showed his coffee and tobacco stained teeth and he praised, “Bingo,” with a click of his cheek.
How Cal came to pass was after decades on the roads, surviving bandits and savages alike, some civilized folk got greedy.
They’d just delivered a fresh batch of shine to a small settlement along the north woods border called Lockwood. A late autumn chill was in the night air along with a presence that suggested it might rain. In the distance there were the lingering strums of the drunken guitar player still sitting on his stool in the town square. The music was like the night and the festival that had taken place on it, winding down to an inevitable demise.
Quey had just finished loading the truck while Cal shook the last hands of the local bar owners. He closed the back of the truck and watched Cal and the three men standing at the front.
“I have to tell you,” a man named Ron, owner of a place called The Thunder Branch Saloon, said. “Your shine gits better every year.”
“Well thankya,” Cal answered with a smile and a nod and started to turn. Ron held his hand fast.
Quey was meters away, locking up the trailer door when something poked him in the back. It was the barrel of an assault rifle.
“Gotta say,” Ron continued. “Seems a shame to let you roll away with so much of it.”
Cal nodded solemnly. “It’s like dat.”
Ron’s lips and tongue moved as if trying to strip a bitter taste from his mouth before he confirmed, “It’s like that.” The two men beside Ron raised their hands and aimed revolvers at Cal, who simply nodded. “You don’t seem all that surprised,” Ron noted.
“Not. Know how dey say, it’s only a matter a time out here, fore even yer mother sells you for a nickel.”
Ron considered a response but instead yelled to the man at the back of the truck. “Bring the boy ‘round.”
The gun jammed Quey in the back and he let the man lead him to the front of the truck where he took his place beside Cal.
“Keys,” Ron said and Cal obliged. Ron nodded to him, “Sorry ‘bout this old friend.”
“Yeah,” Cal replied. “Me too.”
Ron and the two men beside him hurried to the truck. The three of them climbed into the cab with Ron behind the wheel. Smiles were on all their faces. Even they couldn’t believe how easy it was. Of course what they knew that Quey and Cal didn’t was that they couldn’t have word of this little acquisition getting around. They’d be branded as a bandit town and no Roader would stop to do business with them again. Ron considered this as he watched the cringe on Cal’s face and started the engine.
Cal looked at Quey and held his gaze. Like the bar owners stealing the truck, Quey and Cal knew something they had no intention of sharing. They knew the importance of releasing the latch under the dash before starting the engine. Quey and Cal counted to ten then fell to the ground as the trailer exploded and fire tore the rig into shrapnel. The rifleman cried out as metal and bits of flaming shine pelted him and sent him stumbling backward. Cal pulled a pistol from inside his jacket and fired once, striking the man in the left shoulder. The rifleman, still stumbling and blind, lifted the barrel of his gun and squeezed the trigger. Bullets flew in rapid succession, cracking against the pavement in a disjointed line, and then a few tore through Cal.
Quey felt his heart wrench as he saw blood soak to the surface of Cal’s thick jacket. He pulled his own pistol and fired. His shot took the back of the rifleman’s head off and collapsed him lifelessly to the ground.
It was bright as noon as the truck spewed flames up and into the autumn colored trees, igniting them into a brilliant fury of crackling luminance. Leaves drifted toward the ground like dozens of tiny meteors as Quey crawled over to Cal and looked down at the man’s sweat soaked face.
“Help!” he shouted. People he’d been celebrating with just hours ago stood dumbfounded before the raging inferno that had been a massive hauling rig.
“S-alright,” Cal told him, gripping his hand. “You know ta love tha mash,” Cal coughed and blood sputtered up between his lips. “An howta get tha shine from it.”
Quey watched the faces of the onlookers, he couldn’t even think about how many of them had known or how many were about to do the same.
Cal coughed violently and then spit a thick bloody mass onto the ground beside him. “All I ever wanted,” he began as tears fell from his eyes, shimmering in the raging blue shine flame a dozen steps from them. Struggling to breathe, he smiled and looked up at Quey. “It’s been a good run boy,” he said and then gagged and wheezed and finally fell still.
When Quey looked down at his friend and mentor he nodded, swallowing what was about to spill him to the ground and render him trembling and useless. Cal couldn’t say any more but his last words said everything. He’d taken pride in his shine and the reputation he’d built as the world’s best moonshiner and he’d passed that along, not to a son but to Quey and that was good enough for him. If his go around was to end right there on the ground beside a ravenous torch fueled by his beloved shine then so be it, because he’d had a good run.
Now Quey, in many ways orphaned again, had taken over the operation and was making the shine run on his own, currently heading out from Metratan on his way to Fen Quada, where his old friend Dusty was awaiting his arrival. He could take the long road circling the southern tip of the continent, adding days to his journey, but instead he turned down the grey road, meaning to take the shortcut through the wastes. It was near noon when the Once Men spotted him, and the danger of the road once again took a turn towards deadly.