There Will Always Be a Max

By Michael R. Underwood

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.

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