There Will Always Be a Max

A hero is missing. The post-apocalyptic wasteland is awash with violence and injustice, and the genrenauts’ own King must step in and show precisely why There Will Always be a Max.

 

In a world running on fumes, hope is priceless.

King opened up the throttle, shifting into higher gear as the Force Runner tore across the broken remnants of what used to be a road. Overhead, the sun beat down on the Kalahari.

Used to be, this region was Beta team’s beat. But you pick up a team member from a region, it ends up your problem from then on—it’s just how it is. Part of the payment, the back edge of recruiting from story worlds instead of Earth Prime.

King never set out to recruit Roman, but in King’s world, when you came across a broken man at the end of his rope, a man who’d rather walk off into the eternal stretch of featureless sands than let people in, who chose death over community, you did something.

Roman swore he’d never come back, not unless there were no other choice.

And that put King behind the wheel, with a car full of guns and ammo, tanks of water and hardtack, wearing the beaten leather jacket.

It fell to King to step into the legend, to find and address the breach. Since Roman’s departure, breaches broke harder there, the region deprived of a hero. So, instead of inserting himself as a helper, more often than not, King had to carry the story himself. Every mission, he danced the razor’s edge between failure and causing as much damage through gross action as he was addressing.

Ahead, the road was bare, sun dropping toward sunset. He’d be able to cover another hundred, hundred fifty miles that day, zigzagging across the Wasteland, looking for signs of life.

In this region, breaches didn’t advertise themselves well. You were lucky if you got a reading within a hundred square miles.

But there were only so many stories in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. Someone comes to town, someone leaves town (usually in a box). Someone takes what you have, you try to get it back (usually with force).

Someone needs help, and only one person can help them.

The Max.

King had first come up with the theory ten years before, cross-training with Mendoza’s team to round out his territory knowledge. A team leader needed to know as many worlds, as many regions as possible. He couldn’t count on his procedural knowledge to cross over into every situation. Time on-world was essential to stay on top of the game.

A dark shape moved against an ocean of yellow-orange brightness, popping with the glimmer of sunlight on metal.

King pulled on the wheel and went off-road, the car roaring over the water-starved earth. Dust rolled up behind him, signaling his presence to anyone for miles around.

Raiders would come soon enough. But good money said he’d find the breach first. That’s how it went. This region ached for stories like it ached for water.

He saw the glint again, a mile away, something metallic tucked into rocks, sand dunes on either side. The place was half-buried. But only half.

Dots and specks surrounded the building. Wreckage or ruins.

The car rumbled over the rough ground. King leaned over and grabbed the shotgun out of its sheath on the passenger’s-side door, wishing for the fiftieth time that this region was anything resembling friendly to groups.

But here, a lone rider could do three times as much as a full complement of Genrenauts.

A group was competition, rivals for resources.

But one man…one man could be a legend, a savior.

Coming closer, King started to piece together the story. Smoky wreckage. Bodies. A trio sitting beneath a hastily made lean-to. A trailer half-loaded with machinery of some kind.

But no tow truck, no car.

They’d been stranded. Probably half-killed by raiders, maybe a few of them stolen away.

He hadn’t pegged an enclave anywhere in the area, nothing on his map, so whoever they were, they were far from home, far from help.

And that’s when he felt it at the back of his neck, beneath the sweat and the already caked-on dust. It had all the right makings—group down on their luck, away from an Enclave, under imminent threat.

This was the breach.

A football field away, King let off the throttle and applied the brakes. “Be the story.” His words were invocation and affirmation at once, a tip Roman had passed on for the first time King deployed back to this world after recruiting the post-apocalyptic knight errant.

King stopped a hundred feet away, stepped out of the car without visible weaponry. He had a high-caliber revolver in his jacket, two knives in his boots, and a pair of holdout pistols, but left the shotgun inside, the stock pointing toward the driver’s-side window. Ready and available, but not in hand.

The trio gathered themselves, an older woman with white hair hiding behind the other two. Before her was a girl, almost a woman, tall but gangly, clothes hanging loose, her skin nearly onyx with cool undertones. She held a rifle like she knew how to use it but hadn’t. Her form was tight. Too tight. Roman, Shirin, Mendoza, all the veteran fighters he knew had an ease to their grips. The Italians called it sprezzatura.

Here, it was just grit.

The third split the difference, mid-thirties probably, though he looked older. Everyone did here. This region rode people hard, chewed them up and spat them out desiccated. He had a pistol held high—too high, breaking the line of his wrist. It’d be a hell of a kickback if he fired.

King raised his voice, made it carry across the sand separating them. “Looks like you folks could use some help.”

“Who the hell are you?” called the girl.

“I’m Max.”

Even a hundred feet away, King could see the words strike home. The people here didn’t talk about Maxes, but each time he’d invoked the name, he could see the subconscious adjustment—like he slid into place in their minds.

“So what?” the girl said. “You ain’t no one to us. The Skull Boys rule here. No stopping them.”

A Max rode solo, just him and the car, with a jacket. He arrived just in time to change the course of events to protect those that couldn’t protect themselves.

Maxes were this world’s guardian angels. Post-apocalyptic tricksters, culture heroes. King’s presentation to the High Council figured Max stories as this region’s equivalent to Jack tales from European folklore. They weren’t always named Max, King had found, just the first one, which gave the archetype its name. But every time he’d visited the region for a mission, there was either a Max figure in the story, or it had broken down because there wasn’t a Max figure. Like this one.

“I’m Max,” King said, the repetition as much affirmation as insistence, “and I’m here to help. What happened?”

Now sixty feet away, King already had an answer to his question about what had happened to the group.

A crashed motorcycle. Dead body beside it, cracked cow’s-skull helmet caved into its wearer’s face.

Dead woman, maybe forty, in leathers and muslin like the survivors, grays and browns. Armored, but it hadn’t helped. Her body was riddled with bullet wounds and long gashes from blades. Her arms wrapped around another Skull Boy, body slacked.

She’d gone down fighting, had taken two of them with her. But they’d lost their ride, maybe some of their party.

But the cart—that had something interesting. He had his guess of what it could be but wanted to hear it from them.

Maxes were messengers, wasteland psychopomps. They got you where you needed to be to live your life, to make your own story.

This was the life Roman had walked away from. Constant danger, itinerant heroism without end.

He had a family now, a home.

But this world would always need a Max.

The older woman stood up from behind her protectors.

“We came here for supplies. Xiao spotted this place, but the Skull Boys caught us while we were loading up.”

“There were six of them, a raiding party. Four bikes and a war buggy. Artemis killed two, and they skipped out with our ride. Left just me, Sarah, and little Bo.”

“I ain’t little,” Bo said with all the petulance of a teen trying to play older than their years.

King waved to the cart. “What supplies?”

The woman, Sarah, said, “This was an aid station. We found a mobile water filtration system. One of these can make two hundred gallons an hour when it’s working right. Triple filtration—minerals, muck, and breather deaths, all of it. Everything. We haven’t had clean drinking water in years.”

“What about filters?”

“Got filters, too,” the man said. “Enough for a lifetime.”

King approached, hands open. “Here’s the score. We load up as much as we can, hook the trailer to my rig, and then we drive as fast as can be for your Enclave. How far?”

Bo answered. “A hundred miles, down and up a valley, over a canyon. The Skull Boys don’t like to go past the canyon—too much sand and dust down there. It’s dirty.”

The woman added, “Irradiated.”

King nodded. “But you went through.”

“We ain’t exactly flush, Max.” The girl spat his name like a dart. She wasn’t sold on him as their savior. Not yet.

She was right to doubt. Maxes weren’t infallible—they lost their way, got swallowed up by the wasteland like Roman almost had been. They’d only trust King as far as they could use him, if that.

“I can get you there. Payment in gasoline. Enough to get me back here, plus some extra. And some of those filters.”

“Done,” Sarah said.

Xiao turned at her, doubt-wracked. “Can we trust him?”

“You can trust me, or you can walk home. Even with a filter, you’ll need storms to get that far back, and more food than I ken, ’less you’ve got some cows inside all stealth-like.” King heightened the post-apocalypse cant to put them at ease, show that he was apart but not unlike. He belonged here as much as they did. Even if it was all a lie.

The three whispered. The girl waved the gun around, forgetting muzzle discipline in her passion. King flinched every time her arm swung around, the gun’s barrel crossing the line of his body.

They’d say yes. That’s how this story went. What wasn’t certain was who would survive. Who’d walk across the finish line, and with how much gas or blood or water remaining. This region wasn’t known for its clean endings.

“Fine,” Sarah said. “We’ll pay your price, Max. Now get us home.”

King nodded, then started barking orders. “You, kid, you’re Bo?”

She raised her jaw. “Bo, daughter of Artemis, daughter of Lenae.” A lineage, and one to be proud of, judging by the child’s tone.

King nodded. “You keep watch. But not just the way they came from. Every which way. Put a swivel on.” Pointing at Xiao, he said, “You help me hook up the tow winch.” Then to Sarah: “Make sure everything’s loaded, and sort out whatever bullets and bangers you’ve got left. We motor in five.”

 

Bo rode shotgun, head swiveling to watch the horizon in all directions. Xiao rode the still-functional motorcycle left by the Skull Boys. Sarah sat in the back with the spare guns and ammo.

The car’s engine moaned a complaint, dragging nearly a ton of extra weight between passengers and the cargo.

But it was still a Force. The Max always drove a Force. It was part and parcel with the guns, the jacket. Every legend had its raiment, its icons. But the raiment alone wasn’t enough to channel the legend.

King had worked four missions on this world, one before Roman, one with, then another two after Roman had joined the team. Two times as a Max. And not a single time had he come back without at least one broken bone or two pints down.

Stories patched hard in this world, just like everything else. Nothing came for free.

“Eyes?” King asked.

“No Skull Boys. Sandstorm in the distance; it’ll pass us by, most like. Jump to if not; we’ll be blasted.”

King looked at the storm in the distance. It was going the wrong way, but winds could change. “Gallon of diesel says it passes us by.”

“No take, no take,” Bo said. She put up a good front, but she’d been biting her nails since they hit the road. They’d wrapped the dead and put them in the trunk, not willing to leave them for buzzards. Another three hundred pounds in his trunk. The closure was worth the ballast. Assuming they made it. If not, they’d all ride to the boneyards together.

“How’re we for ammo?” King asked. He knew, but keeping them busy, their minds occupied, would do them good. He was the calm at the center of the storm. They revolved around him, carried in the wake of a Max.

“Same as last time. Ten shells, three magazines for Bo’s popper, and fifteen shots for the hand cannon.”

King looked ahead. A few miles ahead was a rent in the earth, probably from an earthquake or the like. It looked like something from during the world’s breaking, not before.

“Drought-damn-rad-faak!” Bo said, looking back.

“What you ken?” King asked.

“Skull Boys on our tail, motoring.”

King looked through the rear- and side-view mirrors but caught nothing.

“How many, Bo? And where’s the road down the canyon?”

“To the right, beneath the triangle rock,” Sarah said.

King spied the rock and pulled the wheel. But crossing would cost him time, and the Skull Boys would be faster. If he could get onto the incline before they caught up, it’d limit their options. But then he’d be pushing the engine to its limit getting them back up.

Soon enough, he saw the Skull Boys. Three bikes, then a dune buggy with a scrap-metal hull, jagged edges and amateur welds, shaking as it slalomed over the broken road.

He could handle three.

One eye on the road, King flashed Xiao a closed fist, the signal for him to keep the Skull Boys from flanking the car. They’d had all of minutes to work out signals, and he hoped they’d stick in a crisis. These people lived on the edge every day, but adrenaline and fear made for a dangerous cocktail.

“Scissors means flank them. Rock means keep them from flanking me. Paper means stay tight. One finger means go ahead of me. Four means drop back.”

Xiao dropped back behind the Runner, ready to veer either way to keep the Skull Boys at bay.

But first, they’d go down the ramp.

“How sharp can I take the curve?”

“How good are you?”

“How sharp?” King asked, an edge in his voice.

“Forty at most, unless your tires are made of glue.”

The tires weren’t glue, but they were as good as anyone got in that world, but not so good they’d stick out.

Which meant slowing down. King swung wide and started the curve before hitting the ramp, slowing as the car kicked up a cloud of dust.

The ramp was worn down, but only just. On horseback, it’d have been easy. Maybe even on bikes. But in a four-wheeler with a trailer, they rocked and bobbed and shook. His skull vibrated, hands straining as he kept the wheel steady, forearms straining.

The Skull Boys took the turn sharp, a leader with a massive mane, fur or wig, catching dust and flaring like a monstrous mandorla as he lobbed a Molotov cocktail.

It had something in it for extra kick, making a spider web of his back windshield. But the window held.

“That shield goes out, you duck down, stay out of view. Bo, eyes back; start taking potshots. You ken?”

“I ken. Ma taught me to shoot grace-like. I’ll pop ’em.”

“You do that. Pop ’em for your ma.”

Bo shifted, turning backward, using the seat as her rifle stand. “No good. Too far. They zooming, weaving.”

“Wait for them to close in. They’ll stop weaving.”

A beat. Then a nod. She wasn’t quite ready to believe.

Switchback ahead. There’d be an opportunity to gain time, but not for him. No way to jump that corner without damaging the cargo. He threw the parking brake and pulled a bootleg turn. The cart scraped along the side of the cavern but righted itself, on too short a swivel to overcorrect the other way. King dropped the brake and hit the gas halfway down toward the valley.

The valley was bone-dry, all the water sucked up long before. The ground floor was rubble, half-cleared to make a road.

Which meant cover.

One of the bikes made the jump, took the landing hard on its shocks, wobbling, but they came after, no more than ten feet back. They’d jumped past Xiao entirely. The scout popped off shots from his pistol, but he was a rider, not a shooter, and the bullets went wide around the more experienced driver.

Another Molotov shattered the windshield, a flash of heat and dust piercing the air as the car’s weak seal broke. Dust and air and howling wind and the roar of tires on dirt filled King’s ears.

It was on. He pulled down the goggles, motoring ahead into the half-cleared path. Scrapes and bangs rattled up as the car rumbled over the rough terrain.

The window broken, King pulled the shotgun from the sheath by his left foot. He leaned out the window, gun first, taking a quick left-handed shot at one of the bikers, trusting himself to keep the Force on the road with one hand. The Skull Boy turned sharp, ramping up onto the broken earth, but the shot missed. King corrected and fired again, aiming down at the front wheel.

The buckshot hit the motorcycle like a bowling ball, mangling the machinery. The Skull Boy bailed out, taking the fall well.

“Reload!” King passed the shotgun back to Susan and returned his focus to the road.

A few seconds later, the dismounted Skull Boy’s companion drove up and picked him up. Once settled, the passenger loaded a crossbow and the bolt punched through the door frame behind King’s head. Not quite behind. The back of his heat felt hot. He moved slightly to test. Just a graze.

Where was Xiao?

The scout and his bike appeared as King swerved right to stay on the path. Behind and to the right, Xiao leaned into the bike to stay out of the clutches of the dune buggy. The passenger in the car had a wicked scythe, leaning out of the car and swiping at the bike.

“Take out that cutter!” King commanded. Bo shifted, taking aim. She fired once, twice, three times as the buggy and bike danced along the narrow road, Xiao driving with great skill taxed to the desperate end. The buggy was better equipped for the broken valley floor, powerful shocks compensating for the bike’s greater speed.

“Ready!” Susan said, the stock popping into King’s peripheral vision.

He grabbed the gun and leaned into a turn, stilling his mind as he lined up a shot. The world slowed, action-hero cinematic adrenaline giving him the time he needed to aim an otherwise-impossible shot.

Even in a region of action world, King didn’t often get slow-mo. Roman could tap into it far better, but he wasn’t there. King took his blessings where they came and fired, shattering the scythe mid-swing.

But even with the blade shattered, the pole was long enough, the swing true.

The pole slid through and cracked in the rear wheel of the bike, sending Xiao flying.

“Xiao!” Bo cried, firing faster now.

“Breathe. Aim. Kill,” King instructed. He looked away from the wreck and brought the car out of the turn. Ahead was a straightaway stretch, several hundred feet before the so-called road curved back around toward the ramp up to the far side of the valley.

The two-rider bike came up on him, the pair leaning into the turn. The bolt bounced off his hubcap mere inches from the tire.

King juked the car back and forth, stones scraping and cracking on the door as he dodged. But it wasn’t enough.

A tire popped, and the car slumped, dragging. They’d hit the tire.

“Pop that crossbowman now, kid!” King called, straining to keep the car on-track. The Runner had run-flats, but they weren’t perfect. Especially not with that much cargo.

Bo hit the driver, sending the bike wobbling as the crossbow-man tried to steady his companion.

King pushed the car forward, testing its limits with the run-flat tire. The choking sound and straining of belts told him this was as fast as it went.

Couldn’t speed up, couldn’t dodge and weave as fast as them. Which meant it was time for the explosives.

“Sarah. Grey bag,” he said, eyes on the road, watching the side-view mirrors. “Pull the pins and then you have a five count. Throw on two; make sure they’re at least twenty feet away from us or the gear. You ken?”

“I ken,” she said, rummaging.

Sarah eyed the Skull Boys out the shattered rear windshield, throwing on two as instructed. The first grenade caught the two-man bikers as they struggled to keep up, consumed in a plume of flame and dust.

That left one biker and the buggy. If they could wreck the last bike, maybe they’d be able to get away once they hit the bridge.

King felt options narrowing with each grenade thrown, each bullet spent, every mile they drove.

It’d have to be enough.

Inhabit the role.

The ramp up the far side of the valley began with a full switchback. The weight and repetition of thousands of wheels had packed down the earth for a wide approach, which King took, riding the edge of what the Runner could handle with a run-flat and a thousand pounds of cargo.

“Hang on!” he called as they hit the ramp, and King pulled the parking brake and then hauled on the wheel with his entire body.

The tires squealed as the car swung around, centripetal force slamming King and his passengers to the right. Bo crashed into the passenger’s-side window, and the entire back-seat, from ammo to engineer, lurched and scattered, shells rattling against the window like hail.

King released the brake and put the pedal to the metal, willing the car forward. “Come on, come on.”

The remaining bike took a jump off of a stack of rocks and arced up and up and directly onto the ramp ahead of their car.

“Shit.” King leaned out the driver’s-side window, firing the shotgun, trying to catch the rider before he’d settled out the momentum from the jump.

But the biker dodged right, running up the side of the valley and ramping back onto the path.

King dropped the shotgun behind him, calling, “Reload!” He picked up the pistol and took aim.

The sights pointed directly at another Molotov, which exploded against the front windshield. Shards caught King in the shoulder and grazed his face.

The car lurched left as he flinched in pain, heading for the cliff.

King hit the safety, dropping the pistol into his lap to put both hands on the wheel again while his vision went red with blood.

Focus, old man. You’re a Max. The story needs a Max; it will support you.

“Damnit. Bo, do you have a shot?” he asked, muscling the car to stay on the ramp as it scaled ever upward.

“Dune buggy’s right behind us. Shoot forward or back?” Bo asked.

“Forward!”

Ahead, the biker dropped a satchel full of something. In this region, “satchel full of something” was never good news.

Concussive force rocked the car as something exploded below. A high-pitched whistling joined the cacophony. A line burst or shredded.

“What was that?” Sarah asked.

“Don’t know. Can’t deal with it now. How’s that reload?”

Something appeared by his left ear. He reached up and took hold of the shotgun once more. He had two bad options. Steer with the wounded arm or fire with it. He chose bad option A.

Half-standing out the window, King leaned over, open air and hundreds of feet of nothingness beneath him.

The Skull Boy let loose with a crossbow bolt, which buried itself in the windshield right at his head level. That was going to be a problem.

But not just yet.

He blinked the blood out of his eye, exhaled, and fired.

The buckshot hit the Skull Boy in the shoulder, and the biker slumped, taking the motorcycle racing off the edge of the path and down to a rocky end.

King sat back into the seat, faced with an opaque spider-webbing of cracked glass before him. But he could see well enough to know road from not road.

For now.

“Reload!” he said, passing the shotgun back to Sarah.

“Dune buggy coming up!” she answered.

“Poppers for shite! Won’t but crack their glass!”

King watched the buggy. “Go for the tires.”

The Skull Boys leaned out his window and fired another crossbow bolt.

Sarah cried out. Rearview told King she’d taken it in the shoulder, several inches in from the joint, right at the top of where her lungs might be.

“Sarah!” Bo said, her gun forgotten.

“Keep firing,” King said. “Best way to help her is to end the fight.”’

Sarah slumped in the back seat, the shotgun forgotten. King grabbed the pistol. But he wasn’t half the driver he’d need to be to drive and fire a sidearm backwards. His shoulders were too broad, arms too short. Some people had gorilla arms, incredible reach, like Roman. King was not one of them. He could look over his shoulder and fire inside the car, but that’d deafen them right quick.

Which meant Bo was their only shooter remaining.

“Keep firing, Bo. Nearly there, ken?”

Bo’s gaze was locked on Sarah, the older woman bleeding out on the leather seats.

Crossbow bolts kept flying. They kept Bo pinned down, firing every other time she did, spoiling her shots and keeping her afraid.

They came up to another switchback, and King had to brake in order to take it without losing the cargo. As it was, the cart slammed into the wall, several smaller pieces falling loose of the crossbars of the trailer’s cage.

“Almost to the top. Keep firing, Bo. You can do this. Your mother would be proud. But you have to be the fighter now. You have to protect us.”

Bo shook in her seat, holding the rifle close. She was flailing, looking for something, anything to hold onto. To lose your mother, to see such violence all at once, right when she thought she was ready, when she thought she wanted to step into the role.

It was one thing to want to be a fighter, to train.

It was something else to walk the path, to pull the trigger.

But Maxes weren’t just guardians; they were inspiration. They called people to their better natures. “You can do this, Bo. I need your help. We’re none of us getting home unless we do it together.”

King put the car through one more turn and pulled up onto the plateau. Ahead was a narrow stone bridge, no more than twenty feet wide. And it looked like it got narrower at the top.

“Heading for the bridge now. We need to keep them behind or get them dead,” King said. “Whatever you think of me, know that I need you to step up. You come from a line of heroes. Their blood runs in you. It’s fuel; use it.”

Bo straightened, her posture set, relaxed. She’d found her grit. She leaned out the window and started firing, even as the crossbow bolts clanged inches from her face.

King pushed the car to its limits, thumping growing louder as the outer tire continued to shear, threatening to take the inner tire with it.

On the straightaway, the dune buggy revved and started to catch up.

“Stop them, Bo. They’re coming up on my side!”

It was smart. Put the shooter on the far side of their own car, come up on King’s side where they could attack him directly.

The car thumped up onto the bridge, racing for the apex, where the bridge narrowed to ten, maybe fifteen feet. Not nearly enough for two cars abreast.

Bo fired off one more shot and then cursed as the buggy passed out of her range. King fired out the window, the pistol rounds doing a whole lot of nothing. Everything shook too much for him to land a good shot through the window.

Then, out of nowhere, a bike came roaring up onto the plateau behind them, moving at top speed.

But the rider wasn’t a Skull Boy. It was Xiao. The left side of his face was covered in blood, but even from a hundred feet away, he had determination in his eyes.

“Xiao’s alive!” King said. “We can do this!” he shouted, as much to himself as his passengers.

Xiao and his bike closed the distance, the bike undamaged, unlike the hobbled Runner and battered buggy. But rather than harrying the buggy from behind or shooting up the middle to try to force the buggy off, he took the wide way, sliding in on the buggy’s left, bike riding the razor’s edge.

King tried to signal the biker, to make a plan.

But Xiao already had a plan. The cars closed on one another, the passenger Skull Boy slashing at King with a knife. King leaned inside the car, raising the windshield. The Skull Boy grabbed the raising windshield and shoved it down, leaning on it with arms thick with muscle, the wrists of a road veteran.

A signal.

Xiao gave the signal to break, then counted down. Three fingers. Two. One.

He jumped out off of his bike and grabbed the wheel of the dune buggy, pulling the car left.

King hit the brakes, dropping behind the dune buggy. The Skull Boy driver slashed Xiao’s arms with a jagged bone knife, hauling the wheel the other way.

Too far. Without the Force Runner to stop its movement, the dune buggy, going seventy miles an hour, chewed up the width of the narrow bridge before the Skull Boy could even out the wheel. The dune buggy shot right off, Xiao holding on even though he was plummeting to a doom of his own design, watching as King and the Runner drove on unimpeded.

The bridge was already too narrow for repairs, so King hit the throttle again.

They were safe. They were through. Xiao had seen to it. The Max had inspired another champion, borne witness to their deeds, and he would see them home.

King hit the throttle, and guided the Force on the last leg of the journey to the Enclave.

 

The car was beat to hell and running on fumes by the time they made it to the enclave. He’d lost probably a unit of blood down his front, jacket and pants soaked, seat too. The car’s fuel line had been shredded; it’d need patching. But they’d made it.

They passed a watchtower ahead of a gate drawn across the narrow path leading up to a plateau inset on a butte. Naturally defensible, a good spot, dug into the cliff. It had the marks of an engineer’s work—Sarah.

The group was greeted by a half-dozen tired and scared survivors.

King carried Sarah up to them—not many people would slit your throat when you were carrying wounded, even if you were a half-deaf stranger whose hands wouldn’t stop shaking, whose heart kept pounding.

Roman was an adrenaline junkie, a natural-born Max.

King was just playing the part.

“What happened?” an older survivor said, leaning on a hand-carved cane as King approached.

Bo ran up to the group, talking a mile a minute.

A pair of younger men took Sarah from King and laid her out on a flat, clean rock. Another woman ran up with a bag, gauze and tubing and supplies. They had a proper doctor, or close enough.

Bo relayed their trip, the ambush, King’s arrival, and their escape. She didn’t stop moving, one hand touching the rifle at all times, like a talisman she was afraid would disappear if she let it go.

“Max,” the leader said, turning to King. “Thank you. You’ve saved us.”

“Couldn’t save everyone.”

“You did plenty, Max,” Bo said. “Just like you said.”

The leader nodded. “Please, stay. I can fix you up. We have food, water, and gasoline to see you off.”

The group grew closer, watching him like he was an elephant in a zoo. Children peeked out from behind their parents’ tattered clothes, hair wild, eyes wide.

“We ain’t seen someone like you in years. Just Skull Boys,” said a dust-covered girl with 4c hair and umber skin.

“Thought maybe there weren’t nobody brave enough to be a Max left.” A boy, East Asian heritage, his hair clipped short.

A taller boy with fair skin, wrapped in cloths but still sunburned. “Or they’d all died out.”

King walked back to his car, unlatched the trunk. His cargo was still there.

“Did what I could. And I’d be honored to eat with you all. But first, we oughta bury the victorious dead.”

King stayed the night. He shared stories of his exploits—mostly Roman’s exploits, and the survivors shared their few stories of other heroes, none of them newer than three years. Were the Genrenauts the only ones willing to be Maxes anymore? Something to put in his report. Or maybe their interference had colonized the archetype, edged out the region’s ability to generate its own heroes.

Worry about that later, he told himself.

The next morning, Sarah brought him three jugs of crystal-clear water. He refused two of them—he’d be returning to HQ, and they’d need it more than he did. Bo brought him a hand-carved wooden car that read Max along the top.

They filled his tank and gave him a fresh wheel. The rest of the repairs took until noon.

Once the heat broke, they saw him off with grateful waves and a teary Bo.

That’s how it was when you were a Max. Never staying, never settling.

King might never be truly comfortable in the role. But as long as he still breathed, as long as he could still drive and fight?

There would always be a Max.

 

“There Will Always Be a Max” copyright © 2016 by Michael R. Underwood

Art copyright © 2016 by Goñi Montes

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