Garat glared out the forward screen, trying to maintain focus. He shifted in his seat, relieving the numbness in his backside. The seat padding had been worn down over the years to almost nothing, matching the general shabbiness of the vehicle. His beard was unshaven, his hair uncombed, his clothes a crumpled mess from two days of continuous travel. He looked in the rear vid screen. Nothing. They weren’t being followed. They had never been followed in the time they had been travelling, but he couldn’t settle his nerves enough to believe they were safe.
He driven most of the previous day and now had been driving since before dawn. His wife, napping in the seat beside him, had taken the long overnight shift while he had lapsed into a fitful sleep. A quick glance into the back seat assured him that the kids were still sleeping. Good. That way they wouldn’t notice how hungry they were. After the stupid refrigeration unit had died and spoiled the last of the meat, there had been little to eat. The remaining snacks had been dinner last night, eaten as they traveled. Breakfast and lunch today had been water and juice.
Memories of what he had seen, what he had done came unbidden; he shook his head to clear them away. He told himself that his actions had all been for the family, for their survival. Cannibalism. Jeez, how did that happen. Some said it was a parasite or a virus. He didn’t know. He needed to do whatever it took. He hadn’t done anything more than that.
Right now he needed to concentrate on driving. They were still in danger. The whistling noise from the engine that had started the night before couldn’t be good. He worried, will the skimmer keep going, will the fuel hold out?
The view outside was the same as it had been for two days; a flat white expanse of salt covered dirt. The dried out remains of a vast inland sea, devoid of life, it was a route taken only out of desperation. If the skimmer died out here, there would be no rescue.
His wife stirred, slowly sitting up and looking around. "The scenery doesn’t change, does it. How are we doing?"
He managed a thin smile. "It’s early afternoon. If we keep up this pace, we’ll be across before dark."
"That engine noise," she observed, "It’s gotten worse. What’s causing it?"
"Don’t know. Hasn’t slowed us down yet."
"Even if it quits on us out here, we won’t wind up like the Millers or the Burtons." She shuddered. "Do you think either of the kids saw what happened next door?"
He couldn’t think of what to say to her. She had seen him do terrible things, but they were all necessary. They had both witnessed killings, monstrous scenes. Still, when it was your friends and neighbors, it was different. He decided on the comforting lie. "No. At least, I pretty sure they didn’t."
"They used to play with those children all the time. Maureen was a good friend. I never would have…" Stifling a whimper, she turned around to check on the kids, diverting her thoughts. Settling back down in her seat with a deep frown, she closed her eyes again.
Hours later, as the skimmer droned on, he began to see a thin dark line across the horizon, the far edge of the dead ocean. Hope began to steal into his thoughts; they would escape the horror they had fled.
Marks in the ground began to appear. Tracks of wheeled flats buggies that had come out to race across the vast white sheet. He could discern the outlines of individual trees along the border of the ancient sea. A break in the tree line became visible where the flats buggy tracks began to converge. The brown gash in the shoreline vegetation had to be the ramp up to the road.
Slowing as he approached the ramp, he consulted the nav panel. Turning right onto the road would leave the shortest distance to a town. Awakened by the change in speed, his wife rubbed her eyes and looked around. "We made it across?" she asked happily.
"Now we just have to get to a town. We can feed the kids there."
He continued on, pushing the old skimmer for whatever speed it could give. The road curved away from the vanished sea and soon joined a larger highway carrying a load of evening traffic.
The children woke up, fussing and grumbling. Their mother assured them that they would be able to eat soon, which did little to mollify the complainers.
The line of traffic slowed. Garat could see lights flashing in the distance. He groaned, hoping it wasn’t an accident. Peering forward, he could see the line was long and moving past the blockage one vehicle at a time. Could they be checking for refugees? What if he was arrested? How would the family survive?
Inching forward in the queue, the skimmer eventually reached a temporary barrier, manned by a skinny older cop. Garat slid the side screen open and, projecting a calm he didn’t feel, handed over his license and asked what the problem was.
The cop stared at Garat. "Sobriety checkpoint. Some of the folks stop off for a few after work. We like to stop ’em before they get into town. You seem OK. Your license says you’re from the northwest quadrant. Long way from home aren’t you?"
"Yes, we are. We just got here." Garat looked at the cop’s thin face. Almost gaunt. He had seen that before. Were the eyes reddened? He couldn’t tell in the flashing lights from the police skimmer.
"Bad stuff happening over there, what I hear."
Garat shook his head. He hoped the man had no idea. "Yeah, real bad."
The cop ran his eyes over the family. "Some of the stories made it sound like there weren’t many normal people left."
Garat slid his hand over to the throttle as he stared back at the cop. There were almost no normal people left. Cannibals were starting to attack each other, there being no easier prey left. "It was awful. Worse than awful. It wasn’t safe to go out. We had to leave. The jumpjet port and the connector road were closed, so we came across the salt flats."
"I can see that. Your car’s covered with it" said the cop. He nodded towards the engine compartment where the plaintive whistle had become a low-throated groan. "The salt’s corroding your engine. Better get it taken care of real soon or it’ll destroy the thing. I’ll let you folks go. It’s about 30 klicks further to town."
Garat moved the skimmer forward past the barrier, the vehicle now moving sluggishly. The road entered a wooded area, with trees arching over the pavement. Daylight was fading quickly, an effect enhanced by the thick forest. The family was soon in a deep tunnel of foliage. Booming echoes of the failing engine increased as the power of the skimmer diminished. Garat steered the craft off the road as the speed slid down to zero.
The skimmer settled onto the gravel by the side of the road, issuing a final deafening roar that signaled the demise of the engine. Garat climbed out and opened the engine compartment. A billow of smoke and steam gushed outwards, sending him staggering back. As the cloud dissipated, he edged forward, peering into the blackened machinery. It was hopeless.
Other skimmers zipped by without slowing as he despaired over his next move. The distance into town was too great to walk with the small children. His wife got out of the skimmer, with the children clambering over each other immediately in her wake, and stood beside him.
"Can you fix it?"
"No tools, no parts, I don’t even know where to begin."
"Do you think we’re really safe here? I mean, out in the open like this? What if it’s like it was…" She paused.
"Back at home? No. It hasn’t gotten over here. I’m certain," he said to assuage her concerns, although he was not fully confident in his assurances.
As they stared at the wreckage of the engine, a woman’s voice called out, "Are you all right?"
Garat spun to face the new threat. The voice seemed to have come from a small house that was barely visible through the trees. Garat moved cautiously up the road to get a better view. "Our skimmer broke down. Are there any garages around here?"
"Made a heck of a noise didn’t it? I came out to see what happened." A woman walked to the end of the driveway and, hands on her hips, sniffed the stench of the dead machine. "Nope. Nobody’s going to be open this late. You’re stuck for the night. From the smell of it, that thing’s not going anywhere soon. Where were you headed?"
Garat could barely make out the woman in the faded light. Middle aged, wearing a simple house dress, she was thin. Very thin. "We were headed into town. I need to get the children some dinner. We escaped from the mess in the northwest quadrant and haven’t eaten all day."
"I saw a program about that. How horrible. Your poor children, of course you must come in. I’m sure we have something." The woman seemed to be studying him carefully.
"That’s very kind of you. We’re lucky you were here. I didn’t think there were any houses this far out from town."
"We are rather isolated, but we like the privacy. Please come inside."
At the invitation, Garat walked towards the house. As he approached the woman, he could see that her eyes were bloodshot, as though she had been crying. He pressed his arm against his side, feeling the pistol tucked into his waistband under his jacket. He had seen this before. He was ready.
Garat waved the woman ahead of him through the front door and steeled himself. Entering the front room, he saw a man sitting in a large recliner watching a vid screen, with a bowl of snacks in his lap. A big man. Not just heavy, fat. The man glanced up briefly, grunted, and returned to his show. Garat smiled. His family would eat well tonight.
More in SciFi/Fantasy…
by Pierre Comtois
"Miles and miles and miles!"

by Karina Fabian
Beloved husband comes back from the dead–what could go wrong?
by Frank Fleming
There’s an industry secret to the scientist trade.