Suck it up, buttercup.
The words were a mantra. They kept Jude going when her mind and body betrayed her. Weakness was death in the Rocket City. She’d learned that growing up as an orphan in this gang-infested territory, the last human colony on Earth. Ripping out your heart, distancing yourself, was the only way to survive.
That’s why she moved to the outskirts of town. Solitude was safe.
One last bolt and the heavy machine gun would be ready to test. Ax, the leader of the Raging Pistons, had requested the weapon weeks ago. He was coming to check it out today and, if it went well, he’d order enough to keep Jude working for a year. She needed this. Supplies were thin, and nobody else was willing to take a chance on a sixteen-year-old girl building specialized weapons for them.
Freshly greased, the large wheels glided with minimal force as Jude pushed the free-standing gun out of her dilapidated shop. Its dark, matte finish absorbed the glare of the sun instead of reflecting it. No one wanted a weapon that could double as a beacon.
Everyone was armed out here. The element of surprise mattered, unless, like Ax, you had five times more people than anyone else. Of course, he was also shrewd and knew arrogance could get you killed. No matter how fierce you were, there was nothing you could do if Ax came for you. He would wait, lulling you into believing you were safe, and then pounce, a predator in the dark, his eyes locked on yours a moment before releasing repressed rage.
Jude shielded her eyes and looked toward the city. Dust clouds blocked the view of the buildings in the distance. Ax rode hard, and he wasn’t alone. Jude tensed. She patted her thighs without looking away from the incoming riders, and then remembered she had removed her weapons. With only a few seconds to prepare, she ducked into the shop to arm herself. She belted the holster with her twin eighteen-inch machetes, pulled on the metal lined vest lying next to her toolbox, and grabbed the big wrench on top of the workbench.
Ax and his gang dismounted as Jude emerged from the shop. With narrowed eyes, Ax followed her movements. He grinned as she shifted from one foot to another. An older, brutish man with massive hands, his deep, gravel voice sent chills up her spine. “You seem nervous, Jude. Is it ready?”
Jude licked her lips. “Haven’t tested it yet, but, yeah, it’s ready.”
“Good.” Ax walked over to the heavy machine gun to inspect it. In his hands, the weapon looked like a toy.
At any moment, he could crush it like a can, crush me like a can.
“Get the ammo,” Ax ordered.
Jude walked to the back of the shop to grab the ammo. From inside, she heard Ax’s men start shouting. Their words ran together. She couldn’t understand most of what they said, but she heard something about a ship in the sky. Jude rushed back outside; her arms weighed down by ammo cans. Ax grabbed them from her while she stood there with her mouth wide open. Hundreds of Shark Riders, zombies on the backs of cyborg sharks, descended from an airship circling above the clouds. It’s gleaming metal exterior reflected beams of sunlight like a disco ball.
“We need weapons, ammo – anything you got. Move.” Ax ordered.
Jude only had seconds to decide. If she revealed her deception, Ax would demand her head. However, if she didn’t, they might all die.
It was only one ship. Maybe we could take it down without the extra firepower?
The portal in the sky opened again, purging a dozen more airships like the first. This time, the Shark Riders hadn’t merely stumbled upon them. It was a full-scale invasion.
On heavy gun and a small arsenal wouldn’t be enough. They’d all die for sure without more firepower.
Stealing from Axe had been stupid. But desperation performed its own kind of lobotomy on a person. Jude never thought he’d find out about the extra parts. And now, her only chance at survival hinged on coming clean.
She clenched her jaw.
Commanding the attention of several of Ax’s men, Jude shouted, “Come on. Gimme a hand.” She motioned to the other large shop doors. Together, they retrieved three more heavy machine guns. Jude risked a glance at Ax as they loaded the weapons. Their eyes locked. Ax gave Jude a knowing look. Had he suspected since the beginning that she had overcharged him for parts?
“Fire.” Ax shouted. Jude’s ears filled with ringing from the loud, constant clanging. Her arms felt like they were being ripped from the sockets but she managed to keep control of the weapon. Sharks fell from the sky, but more took their place. The enormous, winged beasts with razor-sharp teeth had a blood thirst matched only by the zombies rising from the ground.
Jude looked at the men around her. Focused. Determined. Closing ranks.
Jude had existed alone most of her life. But alone, none of them would survive. None of them would live.
***This story has been modified and refined from its original version, first published in 2017. If you enjoyed this story, drop a line in the comments or share it with a friend.