In the State Once Known as Texas
A POSTAPOCALYPTIC SHORT STORY
In the State Once Known as Texas
From far away, Erin heard the familiar hoot of a night owl. The sound reminded her of growing up in the flatlands of the state once known as Texas, but that was impossible. Owls, like so many animals around the world, were extinct. Confused, Erin blinked, unsure of where she was, and only knew her head ached. Rolling onto her side, she realized her hands were bound behind her back, and if she had to guess, it was with her own handcuffs. Hay and sawdust covered the wooden floor, and she put it all together as the memories of what happened flooded her mind.
An anonymous call tipped her off that a CRUDE operation was running out of an old barn in her patrol zone. CRUDE was the new world's drug of choice. Just as humanity was collapsing in on itself, some high school chemistry whiz-kid posted on the dark web how to turn crude oil into a form of methamphetamine. Of all things to survive the nuclear holocaust, drug manufacturing was king—nothing useful like synthesizing food or medicine, but a way to get high. The worst part was the availability. Manufacturers could pump the source right out of the ground, and CRUDE was so addictive people would do anything to get it. Confederate Marshals like Erin were supposed to stop them.
“Oh looksee,” came the sound of a man’s drawl. “Seems the princess is awake." Not recognizing the voice but knowing evil when she heard it, Erin swallowed hard and looked around. Standing a few feet away from her were two men and a woman. All were staring at her, and they were a motley trio with lips and teeth turned black and open, weeping sores spotted their faces. Heavy CRUDE users, she thought, all too familiar with the look and well versed on the side effects. The addict apparently got a great high, a perfect escape from the horrors of the new world. Still, bone degeneration, hair loss, and sexual dysfunction were just some of the prices they paid. Diminished mental function was another side effect, and if they had smoked recently, Erin might have a chance.
As if reading her mind, one of the men stepped away from the others and knelt down beside her. Looking at least a little smarter than the others, she figured he was the leader. “Hi,” he said, his black mouth grinning wide. “You’re screwed, you know that, right?” Considering she saw her firearm hanging loosely in his hand, she worried he just might be. Guns were an exceedingly rare commodity in the new world, and ammunition was even harder to find. In some ways, the weapon he stole from her was worth more than her life.
Still, there was no way she was going down without a fight, and she scrambled into a sitting position. "I'm a marshal with the Confederation,” Erin said in her most commanding voice. “Uncuff me or there will be repercussions.”
At her words, the man’s grin faded, and for a moment, Erin thought he might be buying her bluff, but then he rocked back on his heels and bellowed a laugh. "Repercussions," he said. "I like that one." He stood, shaking his head. "You hear that, everybody. Repercussions."
Watching the rest of the crew laugh at her, Erin knew she was in trouble. There wasn’t any reason to bother asking what they intended to do with her. Marshals were worth a lot of CRUDE on the black market. Cartels who hated anything around authority enjoyed making slaves of them. Or worse. Keeping her breathing even, not allowing herself to panic, she looked around the room for a way to escape. In one corner was a set of tables with a rudimentary CRUDE distillation setup. At least the tip had been legitimate, although she’d stupidly let her guard down and been jumped by one of them from behind.
After the three stopped laughing, the leader pointed at her. “You’re a funny one,” he said. “Shame you don’t know when to keep out of where you don’t belong.” He looked at the others. “Okay, back to work. She’s not going anywhere.” As the three went back to manufacturing CRUDE, Erin kept looking. Her eyes fell on a set of rusty weights, a punching bag, and amazingly, an old sparring ring. Only this one was evil looking. Although it had the usual four sides, instead of ropes, there was barbed wire. Still, since waking up on the floor for the first time, she felt a glimmer of hope. If only she could get them to uncuff her hands.
“Hey,” she said to get the group’s attention. “What is that for?”
The woman looked up from the table where she chopped up a tray full of what looked like black ice. “What?” she asked, and Erin nodded towards the ring.
“That? You have boxing matches in here?” she asked, and the woman rolled her eyes.
“It’s nothing for you to worry about,” she said and went back to work. Erin gritted her teeth in frustration and tried again.
“Seriously,” she said. “Do you guys fight or something? Because I dare you to try me.”
All three of the addicts looked at her. “Try you?” the man with her gun stuck in his pants asked. “You mean like a fight?”
Erin nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “Let me fight for my freedom. I bet I can beat the best you got.” Taken by surprise, the group started to look at one another until the woman began to laugh. Then, the second man and finally, the leader joined in. Not sure why her request was funny, she tried to ignore her fear. If they would let her hands loose, she might be able to do something about her situation.
In what felt like an eternity ago, Erin was well acquainted with the sport of mixed martial arts. She’d even been a ranked amateur in the flyweight division right before the world fell apart. Part of her daily workout was sparring with other marshals. She was confident, beating the crap out of any of the three would be easy. "Well?" she asked. "Or are you chicken?"
Still laughing, the leader pushed the man with him. “Go get, Ogre,” he said. “We have a snack for him.” A sick feeling twisted in Erin’s stomach, but she knew this was her only opportunity.
“Cute nickname,” she said. “How about one of you uncuff me so I can get into the ring?” The leader smirked but came her way.
“I should leave you handcuffed just for fun,” he said. “But Ogre likes a fair fight.” Roughly helping her up, he led Erin to the ring but didn’t unlock her until she was inside the wire. The man might be addicted to CRUDE, but he wasn’t as stupid as most.
Suddenly, the back barn door opened, and in walked Erin’s worst nightmare. ‘Ogre’ was over six feet tall and easily three hundred pounds of old Texas farm boy fat and muscle. CRUDE residue blackened his lips and teeth, and sores covered his skin. The only weakness Erin could see was he only had one good eye. The other was a scarred over hole in his face. Clearly seeing the sick look on Erin’s face, the leader busted out laughing. “You’re the one who wanted to fight,” he cackled. “So, let’s see what you got.”
Not giving the man the satisfaction of an answer, Erin got into a crouch and waited. Ogre stepped forward, his fists the size of bread loaves. She had no doubt he expected her to run, to dodge, or try and outmaneuver her larger opponent. Instead, she screamed a war cry and got the reaction she wanted. The man paused, and she drove straight ahead, ducked down, and going against every rule in MMA fighting, slugged him directly between the legs. There was a pause as everyone in the barn waited for a response, and then the giant laughed. After a sick second, Erin realized her mistake. One of the main side effects of CRUDE waws sexual dysfunction. The monster had shriveled balls.
Instead of crumbling to the ground as she had hoped, Ogre put his hands around her throat, and before he could lift her off the ground, she scooped up a handful of sawdust. As he lifted her, she threw the dust into his good eye. Screaming with rage, he let her go. Erin dropped to the ground, side-stepped, and kicked with all her strength, striking the man behind one knee. Stumbling but not falling, he stooped enough Erin could climb onto this back. Grabbing him around the neck in a chokehold, Ogre went from trying to see to trying to breathe. Seeing her opportunity, she used her leverage to steer the monster of a man toward the side of the ring. Using his size to her advantage, she drove him through the barbed wire—straight at the leader with her gun. The weight of them combined crashed through the flimsy side, and in the bedlam, the leader lost the firearm in the scramble. Seeing her chance, Erin dove off Ogre, deftly picking up the weapon as she rolled to her feet. In another flash, she was behind the leader with her gun to his head.
Erin looked around at the others in the barn. They all stared at her stupidly, their mouths hanging open in shock. “I think I'll be leaving now," she said, and before any of them could move, ran out of the barn, not looking back.