Beyond Fury Road

Copyright © 2011 Maeryn Lamonte – All Rights Reserved.

Mad Maxine

Welcome to the future, what there is of it.

You see, things are going to hell in a hand-basket, and have been since before I was old enough to understand. I grew up in the aftermath of the world banking crisis; fuel prices going up, cost of living going up, businesses tightening their belts, laying people off, rising unemployment on the verge of going out of control. You name it, it was going wrong, and still the greedy bastards at the top of the food chain wanted more.

I’m not the world’s leading economist, far from it, but I reckon it doesn’t take anyone of great knowledge and understanding to figure out that the thing that contributed most to the collapse of twenty-first century society was market forces; an economical construct based on a primitive understanding of evolution. Find out what sells and manufacture it, compete with other businesses to keep prices down. The thing is, what sells isn’t necessarily what’s needed. On top of that, the whole survival of the fittest thing means that only the most ruthless survive and expand, and the most ruthless are the ones who will make a profit at any cost, regardless of the hardship they inflict on their own workforce, or the high prices and low quality that they end up throwing at Joe Public.

That’s what turned the crumbling edges into a landslide. Millions upon millions of people struggling to make ends meet, and all the while watching the fucking bastards at the top of the tree raking off obscene amounts of money.

The public might have sat back even then and allowed themselves to be eviscerated by the greedy leeches who ran the banks and the businesses, had it not been for the Internet and the growing strength of the global community. More and more examples of how the majority were being exploited by a very small minority made it onto the web. Same story with different ways of expressing it; using humour, using logic, using just about everything. YouTube videos going viral, ironically lining the pockets of a few of the fat cats even as they provided evidence and suggested a means of redressing the balance.

At first it was peaceful protests, but a bunch of hippies with placards is hardly going persuade a school of sharks to give up their dinner. So then it escalated to violence, rocks thrown at Mercs and Beemers, mass raids on the homes of the undeservedly wealthy, vandalism, wanton destruction, desecration of that last bastion of civilisation; the home. And of course that’s where I came in.

The city police force used to command respect. They used to have standards; you had to be at least six foot and a hundred and eighty pounds of muscle to even qualify for an interview, but with too much of the money earmarked for public services ending up lining the suits of the fuckers at the top with silk, policemen just weren’t getting paid, and a lot of the tall, bronzed hunks that used to swell the ranks headed off to make better money constructing high rise buildings or farming or fishing or whatever. It left the police underpaid and badly understaffed, creating openings for guys like me.

See, I’m only about five foot four and I barely top eighty pounds, let alone a hundred and eighty. Something to do with my pituitary gland not producing enough growth hormone or something. It’s left me with somewhat boyish features and a chin that’s reluctant to sprout. I was also really late into puberty, but both my voice and my balls did eventually drop.

I used to do technical stuff with aircraft, that and fly them a little, until the powers that be in the company I worked for decided to cut the staff by half. It didn’t matter that I was good at my job, I didn’t know the right people, so I ended up out on the streets just about the time my daughter was born.

Kendall, my wife, is the only girl I know who’s actually shorter than me. It amazes me still that she ever wanted anything to do with me, and I’m only grateful that she did. The evening I told her about my redundancy, she gave me a sad, sympathetic smile, put her arms around me and told me that something was sure to turn up. She never once blamed me for the hardship in our lives, or called me a loser as some of my mates had had to endure. She was perfect my Kendall. She filled my life with strength and joy while everything else in the world seemed to be conspiring to turn it into shit. Runny shit at that; full blown amoebic dysentery style diarrhoea. It was because of her that I fought to stop our lives going completely down the toilet, why I went out searching for jobs, resolved to take anything as long as it would keep my girls fed and clothed. By then there were no jobs going anywhere except in the underpaid support services, and most people I talked to told me I was backing a loser in joining up. Public sector salaries had gone down as the city council coffers emptied into one or another swindling fuckhead’s pockets, and all I could hope for was longer hours and shorter rations. We needed the money though, so I signed up.

The police were trying to introduce new ideas to make up for their lack of resources, and one of the better ones was to use micro-lights to take over from street patrols. One small aircraft, buzzing gently over the city could keep a better eye on more of the city than maybe ten patrol cars, and for less financial outlay too. Compared to the craft I was used to maintaining they were toys and, with my light weight, it was actually cheaper for me to fly them than most of my colleagues. I had to go through something that passed for standard police training, self-defence, firearms, ethics and law etcetera, but for the most part they weren’t that bothered. They wanted me to fly the planes and point out trouble spots to the real cops, and that’s what I did.

So that was me. City police spotter. Helping to keep the filthy rich wealthy and bringing home just enough cash to pay the rent and feed the family. It took a fair amount of creative housekeeping on Kendall’s part to keep our little family together, and I would love to say that the love we shared, along with our little Belinda, were enough. They were a lot of the time, but we both felt the strain and, as time passed, we ended up with our fair share of fights. Mostly we made up pretty quickly and I didn’t spend many nights on the couch though I did spend a lot of them worrying about our situation. I wanted the best for my family, and what I was providing was far from that, and only likely to get worse.

Then six months ago, my brother tried to persuade us to join him and his brood in leaving the city. “Max,” he said, “the bigwigs need us here to keep their factories working, to keep the money rolling in for them. More and more people are giving up on mob violence, just like they gave up on peaceful rallies. There’s a new thing going round the web which makes a whole lot of sense. If we vote with our feet and leave the city, they’ll realise that they can’t keep treating us like livestock. They’ll have to talk to us, share some of their wealth back into the general population, bring things back to the way they were.”

He was joining a convoy that planned to leave the city, head off somewhere to form a small self-contained colony some place. I was sorely tempted, but Belinda was barely toddling then and it seemed to me the poor certainty we had was better than richer risk they were planning to take. If it hadn’t been for my daughter, I might have been persuaded, along with Kendall, to pitch in with them. As it is our pragmatism, or perhaps cowardice, saved our lives.

You see ruthless, heartless bastards don’t rise to the top by rolling over and being reasonable. All the fat cats understood was force. Somebody comes and pisses on your fence, you go and piss on them. If they don’t piss off then, you go get a baseball bat and make sure they don’t have anything to piss through. They knew of the planned mass exodus and they put together their own response. They spent some of their hard earned cash hiring in outlaws who were already living outside of the cities. My brother’s convoy drove straight into an ambush and not one single person survived, not even the women and kids.

It wasn’t quick for everyone. Those who survived the initial attack was tied up in full view of the city, tortured and abused. These freaks had spent too much time outside of civilisation; so much so they had forgotten what the word even meant. It made a clear statement to anyone else in the city who might have been thinking of leaving, but I suspect considerably more harshly than even the guys who had bankrolled it had intended. For weeks afterwards, I woke up in a cold sweat, thinking what might have happened to Kendall and my little Bel, and I resolved not to leave, not to risk the same thing happening to them.

Then the situation turned round and bit us all in the ass. The animals – and I hesitate to use the term, not wishing to denigrate even the basest of animals – set up camp to the north of the city. Not satisfied with the payment they had already received, or the wealth they had looted from the convoy, they decided to see what more they could take from us.

The first few weeks were relatively quiet. I overflew their camp a few times, narrowly escaping being shot out of the sky on at least two occasions, but they seemed caught up in what passes for internal politics among such people. Clan leader fought clan leader, with at least some part of the loser ending up on display as some grotesque victory trophy, and in time one real brute of a man emerged from the horror with enough leadership to take and hold the standard. The infighting stopped and they turned their attention toward the city.

To start with, all they did was stake out the roads and attack any transport in or out, which meant that supplies in the city started to grow perilously low. Then just as moral was hitting an all-time low, the renegades changed the game plan. They started sending raiding parties into the outer suburbs, killing the elderly, the men and the children, taking the women and anything else of value and burning what remained.

The police were stretched too thin to respond effectively and started deputising anyone without a job into a sort of city militia. They fought back, but were out-gunned and outmanoeuvred, and by degrees, the outer suburbs fell to the control of the barbarian hordes.

The richest of the rich saw the inevitable fall of the city and, taking what wealth they could carry along with their families, they called in a fleet of helicopters and tried to make a run for it. Quite a few were shot down in the attempt, but more than any of us would have preferred did make it out. Those of us who remained could hope for little more than a long drawn out death, either from starvation or eventual capture, torture and worse.

I hate to say it, but whatever thin and faded veneer of civility had survived to that point, crumbled in the face of the horrific future that awaited us. Neighbours became withdrawn, defensive, abrasive, aggressive even, and I adopted similar habits. I carried on working for the police; no salary, but they did feed us and it allowed me to hold onto my police issue weapons and to carry on flying.

One of the micro-lights on the police tower, designed as a two-seater, was given the name Big Bird. It wasn’t yellow, but it was ugly and a little ungainly in flight. The advantage of having a second person as spotter and gunner made up for this though, leaving the pilot free to concentrate on staying out of trouble. It was a favourite amongst pilots and, being a ways down the pecking order, I rarely had a chance to fly it. My small stature suited me better to the lighter craft, they told me.

I had a plan though, to get Kendall and Belinda and myself out of this hell-hole, and Big Bird was a part of it. Desperate times lead to desperate measures and I started sabotaging the larger plane. Not in any way that threatened either the craft or the life of the people on board, but just enough to scare the pilots and crew until no-one wanted to go up in her.

I already had a reputation for being a top mechanic, so it didn’t seem totally unusual that I always seemed to know what to do to breathe new life back into Big Bird. In a short time I became the regular right seat then, as mechanical problems continued to plague the machine, they eventually let me take her for my own. By that time, the pilots were scared enough of her that I no-one would fly with me, but suited my plans well. I fitted additional fuel tanks to take advantage of her higher payload and for some weeks I volunteered to fly extended patrol outside the city, going further into the wilderness until I found an old abandoned farm in a secluded valley far from anywhere.

That changed the daily routine. I’d load up the plane with is many provisions as I could find and sneak on without arousing suspicion. Then I’d head out as though I were on a long range patrol, circling around as soon as I was out of sight and heading as directly as possible for the abandoned farm. I’d land, unload the provision and syphon off the excess fuel, then set about making the farm house secure for several hours until it was time to head back from patrol.

Sometimes I’d fake damage to the plane, always I’d fake my reports. No-one suspected a thing, and the at the rate I was squirrelling things away I’d soon be able to smuggle my family out of the city to safety. We couldn’t help anyone else. We didn’t want to, I mean everyone else was looking out just for themselves, so why shouldn’t we?

Just two more weeks of stockpiling runs and we’d be ready. Just two more weeks and Kendall and Bel and I would climb into Big Bird and fly out of this death trap of a place, leaving those same scared, angry people who had once been friends and neighbours, before dwindling resourced turned them nasty, to the mercy – or lack of it – of the siege as they slowly swarmed over the city like so many army ants and picked its bones clean.

Two weeks more. Just two weeks more. We didn’t have two weeks.

There hadn’t seemed any great sense of urgency, so I’d erred on the side of caution, not wishing to risk being found out by my colleagues at the police force. Living in civilisation, even a broken one like ours, you become complacent, incapable of imagining that truly terrible things can happen to you. Ok, maybe you live with the fear of losing your job, your home, the love of your family, but things like that are nothing compared to the really nasty monsters. Monsters that can tear away the things most precious to you in a paroxysm of unfettered savagery, and rip them to shreds in front of your eyes. Monsters so hideous that they’ve long since been consigned to that place under the bed with the dust bunnies and childhood nightmares. Monsters so terrifying that you can’t bring yourself to believe in them anymore, and when you no longer believe, the shock of discovering that they exist nonetheless tears at your sanity until little more is left of it than tattered rags blowing in the wind.

The outer neighbourhoods near us had fallen to the army of misfits besieging the city. Most of our neighbours had already moved further in towards the centre, taking advantage of some of the richer residences, vacated by the businessmen and bankers who had run away. All that still lived near us were some older people who didn’t have the strength to move and a few obstinate families who refused to be pushed out of their homes.

Kendall was scared, but I persuaded her to stay put for a few more days until we were ready to make our escape. Chances were that if anyone saw us leaving, they’d try to stop us, and there would be considerably fewer twitching curtains in our nearly deserted neighbourhood. If only the marauders had kept away from our part of the city for just another two weeks, we would have been home and dry.

My patrol route took me to the north that day. I was following my usual plan to fly out of sight of the city then head towards the farm, when I spotted them. About two dozen assorted vehicles making a bee line directly towards my home. I called it in to the precinct and stayed close to direct the response team. We outnumbered them about two to one and managed to set up a roadblock ahead of their route. We should have been able to send them running with their tails between their legs, but they had found a fifty calibre machine gun from somewhere. They kept it hidden ’til they saw our forces, then they pulled off the tarpaulin and tore a hole through the barricade like it was so much butter on a hot day.

Twelve of my colleagues lost their lives in that brief encounter, and another twenty were injured. The attackers only suffered one casualty, and that was more from of stupidity on their part. One arrogant idiot was moronic enough to lean out of his vehicle and raise his finger at our guys as he drove by. He took a shotgun blast in the face that all but separated his head from his body, leaving his driverless machine to swerve off the road and into the front room of a deserted house.

The militia were in no condition to carry on the fight and the marauders were only minutes away from my home. I reacted without thinking. Turning Big Bird towards a park near our house, I took her low and cut the engine, gliding in to a silent landing.

I ran for all I was worth. I had no plan, just one weedy little squit against nearly three dozen wilderness hardened freaks, but I had to do something. My lungs were desperate for air as I rounded the corner onto our street. The raider vehicles were stopped in the middle of the road, engines running and screams and shouting coming from the nearby houses. I approached our place as rapidly as I dared, gun out and wide eyed with fear. I was afraid that the rasping wheeze in my throat would alert someone somewhere, doubly afraid that sometime soon I would face off against one of these animals and have to pull the trigger.

You see, it’s one thing to carry a gun, to practice with it on the range, but quite another thing altogether to point it at another human being, however loose that definition might be. I had never shot another person, not even at another person, and I didn’t know if I could.

I reached the hedge in front of our house. I could hear Kendall’s terrified voice yelling and begging from upstairs, and Belinda’s too. There was an agonised, desperate cry from my wife, and the bedroom window exploded as a small bundle of arms and legs came flying through. Instinct took over and I ran to try and catch my flailing daughter. The mechanical stutter of a machine pistol sounded loud in my ears and a dozen bullets struck me in the back, lifting me off the ground. I hit hard, blackness taking me almost immediately, but not before I saw my dear, sweet Belinda fly into a car on the opposite side of the road; not before I heard the sickening crunch of her tiny bones against the hard metal.

-oOo-

I awoke to a world filled with pain. The silence was surreal, obscene almost in the aftermath of the raid. I struggled to my feet, not knowing whether they had left me for dead or just not thought me worth the extra bullet. In front of me, not ten feet away, lay the broken, twisted body of my daughter. It seemed they had no use for my two year old girl and had thrown her away like an empty beer can. I felt something snap inside of me, an odd unbalanced feeling as though my mind were breaking free of its moorings. I staggered forward a few steps then fell to my knees, reaching out to straighten her arms and legs. Somewhere an animal was crying out in distress. It took some time for me to realise it was my voice making that noise, and with the realisation I cried out all the more, all the louder. A visceral, desperate noise it was. An agonised attempt at tearing the unbearable pain from my body and casting it away. I doubled over and howled until there was no strength left in me.

They found me that way, doubled over my daughter and weeping silent, dry, soul wracking sobs. Barely able to breath, careless of the pain, staring sightlessly. Unable to face… unable to… Filled with inescapable horrors, an utterly broken thing. Utterly broken. Like my… Oh God, Belinda…

My next rational thought drifted through a fog of numbness and haze. The texture of starched cotton, the distant bustle of incessant work, the regular beeping. Enough clues as to where I was, but this feeling was wrong. I had no right to be without pain… My mind shied away from the memories. I closed my eyes to avoid the images, but they were in here with me and they rose, unbidden to torture me through the morphine.

Someone noticed me moving and alerted someone, who passed it on to someone else. In next to no time I was surrounded by doctors and nurses and one other, more familiar face. The distraction was a relief, an escape from the memories. I did my best to answer their questions, but for the most part what I said was indistinct, all but unintelligible. Eventually they seemed satisfied with what I’d told them and drifted off. All but one.

I looked up at Captain Hamersley and saw him flinch away. Something of the emptiness inside me must have been evident in my eyes because he could not hold my gaze.

“They killed Belinda Mike,” I could hear the deadness in my own voice. “What kind of animal throws a two year old girl out of a window?”

He shook his head and lowered his heavy frame into a chair. Mike was a lifer and had joined the police back in the days when they had pride and dignity. The past years had weighed heavily on him, seeing his profession and the city he sought to protect eroded into the crumbling ruins they were today. At fifty four, he was still an impressive looking man, carrying a lot of muscle and almost no fat on his six foot frame.

“Max I don’t know what to say. They took Kendall as well. She put up a fight if the amount of blood is anything to go by, but the lab guys think she’s still alive at least.”

“Better she were dead,” I said turning my head away. “What they did to Bel. What they’ll do to her. There won’t be much left, not inside.”

He looked down, staring at the cap in his hands, holding onto it like a lifeline. Anything to avoid looking at me. I hadn’t been on the force for that many years, but in the time I’d known him, I’d never seen him quite like this.

“I’m going after them Mike, don’t try to stop me. I’m going after the fuckers and I’m going to erase them, like they never existed. People like that don’t have a right to live in this world. They don’t have a right to be called people. I may not be able to fix this for Kendall or my little girl, but I can make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

He looked at the door, perhaps looking for escape. There was more bad news to come, and it was bad enough he’d rather run away than share it.

“Spit it out Mike. What aren’t you telling me.”

He let out a long sigh. “You were shot Max. The way you’re doped up at the moment you won’t be feeling it, but you’ve got a lot of mending to do before you’re go anywhere.

“Twelve slugs from a MAC-10. Your vest took nine of them, but not without busting three of your ribs. One of them hit your left shoulder, tissue damage and a slight knick in the bone, lucky there. Another in the ass, lodged in the pelvic bone before it hit anything essential, but you’ll be carrying that one for the rest of your life. The third…”

Shit. Any injury that Mike Hamersley found difficulty talking about had to be pretty bad. I gave him the time he needed to gather himself. Eventually he took a deep breath and continued.

“The last one went between your legs just below your groin. Tore away your balls and a big chunk of your dick. The surgeon said he was able to save the sphincter, whatever the hell that is. He says it means you won’t have to be catheterised in the long term, but you aren’t going function as a man anymore. The reason they have you doped up on so much morphine. The pain would be… Shit, I don’t even want to think about it.

“You’re in here for a while anyway, eight, ten weeks minimum. It’ll take you a while to get that arm up to anywhere near full strength again, plus you’ll probably have a limp from the bullet in your ass. What the rest is going to mean I don’t know.

“The thing is Max, and I hate myself for saying this, but you weren’t the biggest bloke in the first place. Now with all this… You wouldn’t last a day out there mate.” He shook his head, the weight of all the misery he’d seen in thirty and more years dragging his shoulders down. “I’m sorry, I can’t sanction letting you go out there.

“I’ve authorise raiding parties to go out to their camps, take a few prisoners, find out what we can. If Kendall’s out there, we’ll find her and bring her back. Let us look after this.”

The morphine must have been affecting my ability to feel. I had no sense of horror at my injuries, just a cold, hardness spreading through me. I turned away from Mike. If he wasn’t going to help me then he was of no use. I would find another way.

He stood fiddling nervously with his cap for a few moments more, then walked out leaving me to the numbness and the cold.

Over the next week, the nurses progressively reduced my dose of morphine, meaning that I started feeling the pain, but I also regained some clarity of thought. The pain I accepted as my due for the stupidity I’d shown in leaving my family in danger, and for not being fast enough or strong enough to help them. The ability to think and feel left me brooding over what had happened, and most of my waking hours were spent bouncing back and forth between guilt and black rage. At night the nightmares would come and I would wake, screaming, as I relived Belinda’s tiny body flying through our bedroom window, and her twisted, bloody remains lying in the road. They started restraining and sedating me at night after the second time I tore out my drip.

I was a wild, unreasoning mess of anger and madness, and the doctors and nurses who treated me took to spending as minimum of time in my room, afraid of setting me off on one of my episodes. I have vague memories of seeing Mike at the door, or some other colleague from work, but they never came in and, whether real or imagined, they stopped coming after a while.

The body has a way of adapting to pain, as does the mind. Somehow I found my way back to the surface, escaping my nightmares to find loose periods of lucidity. I clung to them, and in time I found a dead spot in my soul where I could exist without feeling. I turned a laser like focus on the problem at hand, considering my options and juggling them to find a way, any way, of getting my revenge. A plan slowly started to form. Not in any way a good plan, bit one that might work. You know, million to one chances work out more often than not. That sort of thing.

There was a doctor in my room, writing something on my chart. I turned to him and spoke my first coherent words in seven days.

“So what are my options doc?”

“What? I’m sorry, what?”

“I understand that things are a bit of a mess between my legs. I was wondering what’s going to happen, what choices I have.”

“Well er,” you could see he didn’t want to answer, but I hooked him with a relentless gaze and I refused to let him escape, no matter how much he squirmed.

“Listen doc, I’ve been lying in this bed for God knows how long, with just enough morphine to stop me going completely crazy with the pain, everyone’s been avoiding me as much as they can, and I’m getting fed up with my own company. Now please will you tell me what the deal is?”

There was one of those moments where the doctor let his shoulders slump and let out a long breath. Decision made.

“What do you know?”

“I was told I’d lost both my testicles and a chunk out of my penis.”

“That’s about right. The long and the short of it is that we can’t really do that much more than we already have. A couple of years ago we might have been able to offer you some form of prosthesis, but these days we just don’t have the funds or the resources. With your testes gone, you never were going to have sex again, not properly, and with what’s left of your penis, it would take a lot more reconstruction than we can justify to give you something that would even vaguely work. By the time the bandages come off, you should have enough there to point your piss but, I’m dreadfully sorry, not a lot else.”

My turn for a deep breath. Time to raise one part of what had been occupying my mind this past few weeks. “What about going the other way?”

“I’m sorry?”

“What if, instead of trying to build up what little I have, you use what’s there to go in the other direction? I mean it seems I don’t have the option of living out what’s left of my life as anything like a normal bloke, so rather than being stuck somewhere in the middle, what are the chances of taking me to the other side?”

“You mean you…

“I mean the idea of living the rest of my life as a woman seems a whole lot more appealing than being stuck with being a freak somewhere between. What do you say?

I’d managed to knock the wind well and truly out of his sails. To be fair, it had taken me several days to acknowledge the idea myself but, once I’d got past that point, it made more and more sense. I mean my height and weight were more the norm for a girl than a bloke, my features weren’t going to win any beauty contests, but neither could they be called rugged. Then there was the whole thing about surviving in the wild. A man of my stature didn’t have a snowflakes chance in hell, just as Mike had said, but as a girl, there might be ways. I was determined not to let the guys who had destroyed my family get away with what they had done, and if I couldn’t do anything about it as Max…

“Have you thought this through? I mean there’s more to being a woman than not having a dick you know?

“I’ve given it a lot of thought doctor. I’ve had little to do this last week but think, and not much else to think about but what my life’s going to be like when I leave here. My daughter’s dead, my wife’s been taken by those shits outside the city and, if she’s not dead too, she soon will be. There’s fuck all I can do for them, and little enough I can do for myself, but I’ll be buggered if I live out my life as some charity case with half a dick.

“I’ll have to talk it through with my colleagues. We’ll have to conduct some tests and you’ll need some sessions with our psychiatrists but, if you’re really serious about this, there may be something we can do.

-oOo-

The next week I had a lot more visitors. All medical professionals admittedly, and all covering some aspect or another of the suggested resolution of my condition, but having other human beings talking to me did a lot to lighten the darkness. Most of it was pretty straight forward, but the psychiatrists were a challenge.

“So Max, Dr Henderson tells me you wish to be considered for gender reassignment. How long have you felt you wanted to be a girl?

“Pretty much since I lost the option of being a man.

“Perhaps you could elaborate.

“A few weeks back I had me genitalia more or less blown off. I don’t have any nuts, and I barely have a dick left.

“Many men have suffered similar injuries and gone on to live fulfilling lives as men. With the help of prosthetics, many were even able to enjoy sex. Better sex in fact since they were able to control directly how long an erection lasted.

“All well and good doctor, but I’ve been told I don’t have the option of a prosthetic due to the hospital’s limited resources. I don’t want to leave here as a freak of nature.

She put her pen down and took off her glasses. “It’s not so simple Max. You have to bear in mind that you aren’t prepared to live life as a woman. It’s a different way entirely to the one you’ve been living and you’ve shown no reason yet why we should consider you for it.

“How about this then. Whatever future I end up having, it’ll be different from the one I had. Without my nadgers I’m not going to be producing testosterone anymore, which means that my moods are going to change, in fact they already are and not for the best. Given my small stature, it never was easy for me to fit in with the rest of the lads. I always had to fight just that little harder, and even then I didn’t fit in too well. I never was much of a man, and now without the aggression from my male hormones, I’m going to fit even worse.

“Plus when people see me now, given what’s happened to me, I’ll either be a butt for their jokes or I’ll get the pity treatment. Neither is conducive to a stable frame of mind, which is already a little off kilter since my daughter was killed and my wife kidnapped. Right now I have very little to live for. If I go out into the world as I am, I’ll most likely lose even that.

“Give me what I’m asking for though, and I have a chance of fitting back into society. OK it’s not what I would have chosen given my druthers, but all I have is a choice between two bad alternatives. Turn me into a woman and I’ll have hormones to work with. Ok, different from the ones I’m used to and artificial, but at least they’ll be something. Turn me into a woman and at least I can have something approaching a normal life. It’ll be a steep learning curve, but I’ll be able to adapt to the way people treat me. Turn me into a woman and I’ll have a place out there, which, as I have already said, I don’t currently have.

It took a fair amount more reasoning along those lines, but eventually they came round. Blood tests showed that I was fit enough for the procedure, and thankfully there was still enough bits of skin hanging off the wound to be able to complete the surgery.

They started me off on hormone patches pretty much straight away, and my body responded with a will. It may have been the dearth of any male hormones in my body, but my cells soaked up the oestrogen like candy, and within weeks there was evidence of change. Smoother skin, budding breasts, thickening thighs. My voice softened naturally too, my hair grew like the grass in spring and even my facial features took on a softer quality.

The mind meddlers kept tabs on me and, astonished at the apparent change in my demeanour, they allowed the surgery sooner than they might have done otherwise. So it was that by the end of my fifth week in the place, I was wheeled down to the OR where what was left of the bits hanging outside were altered to make a space inside.

I was back to being sore down there and coping without morphine. I kept my mind working on plans for revenge to cope with it, pouring out all my venom into achievable ideas for bringing a world of pain to the monsters who had thrown my Belinda away like a broken toy, and might even now be using my poor Kendall as a working one.

The oestrogen brought its motherload of mood swings. Every time I thought of my family’s fate, I would burst into tears, sobbing out the misery and helplessness I felt, and only gradually directing the wasted emotion down the route of retribution. The continued lack of visitor information from the police was another source of frustration which led to more tears, and eventually a deep burning resentment that left me caring very little for my colleagues and former friends.

More weeks past. I was allowed a television in my room and saw how much deeper into the city the outlanders were reaching. I realised just how hard pressed my friends and colleagues were and forgave them a little for leaving me alone with my misery.

Eventually the day came when the bandages were removed and I was able to climb, carefully mind, out of bed and look at the new me. Attractive, perhaps, but not likely to win any beauty pageants, and at least I looked the part. The nurses started to treat me differently then, seeing that I was now irrevocably on their side of the gender divide. I was no longer the lecherous, sex mad danger to maidens virtue that the feminist lunatic fringe warned about. Instead the saw me as the girl I had asked to be, which meant they became more chatty, friendly, sharing their lives and their problems and looking for the same from me. It was an odd change of status, and one that took a little getting used to on my part. It felt oddly good being accepted in that way, but I found myself unable to commit with all the rage and resentment still boiling inside me.

One nurse in particular developed a soft spot for me. Paula her name was. She was about my height and build, and as the day of my release approached, she kept pushing me to come stay with her.

Eventually the day arrived. Two months since I had first been admitted, and now I was leaving a very different person. Paula brought in some clothes for me to wear. I don’t know what she was thinking, help me get in touch with my inner girl or something, but it was all delicate, floaty fabrics, short skirts and moderately high heels. She sat me in front of a mirror and painted my face a little, then brushed my hair, now past my shoulders, into some sort of a style, all the while keeping up an incessant chatter.

When she was done I felt a strange mix of feelings pass through me. The girl in the mirror was actually quite pretty, but petite and vulnerable too. For the first time I looked at myself and wondered if I had the strength to do what I planned. It took all my resolve to hold onto my course as I stood to me feet and tottered uncertainly on my borrowed strap-on stilts. The short skirt floated about my legs, caressing them softly, promising a softer, kinder way of life. I took a grip on my anger and shut out the feeling.

All the hospital knew about me, so it was a surprise when the orderly who turned up to take me to the entrance of the hospital smiled at me shyly. He stuttered his way through a few topics, but I was in no mood to be chatted up. I hadn’t considered that any man might find me attractive in my new body, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.

My royal carriage made eventually arrived at the main doors. I stepped out of it and found grace enough to favour my chauffeur with a smile and a thank-you. He blushed profusely as he backed away, leaving me with a short walk to freedom and a new life.

The heels left me with a choice between taking short steps or falling flat on my face. I chose the former, acutely aware of my new jiggling gate and the number of heads that turned to watch me. I made it, with only a couple of minor mishaps, to the taxi stand and climbed into an empty cab. The shortness of my skirt had me holding my legs together as I sat, lady like by default.

I gave my old address by habit and earned an odd look via the mirror for my mistake.

“That’s in occupied territory miss. I’m sorry I don’t go into the war zone. Company policy.”

I fished a piece of paper from my borrowed handbag, cursing the strap as it tangled in my arm, and read out Paula’s address. I hadn’t wanted to take her offer, but for now I had nowhere else to go. I was already feeling sore and tired simply from walking out here, and didn’t think an afternoon’s flat hunting would do me any good.

I paid the fare and climbed the stairs, hating those heels with every step for the way they pinched and limited my stride. There were communal areas around the flat, small groups of the inevitable unemployed sat around talking and playing cards. I ran the gauntlet of hungry eyes and wolf-whistles, arriving at Paula’s front door wearing a blush that clashed with the pink fabric of the dress. The door was already coded to my new identity and let me in.

The place was a mess, but I was in no mood to do anything about it. I unfastened the buckles on the silly shoes and released my feet from captivity and torture. I shifted a pile of ironing form the sofa and sat, then lay down. The next thing I knew was the door opening and Paula’s bright face peering over at me.

“I’m glad you decided to stay. It’s a little cramped, I know, but life’s so much better when you have someone to share it with, don’t you think?”

Shit, had she even read my chart history? I felt a sudden, overwhelming pang of guilt at being here in this place, with this girl. Guilt at being alive when my Belinda was not. Guilt at relaxing when my Kendall might still be alive out there, suffering at the hands of…

I had to break off the thought, turning my head as I did. Paula mistook the gesture.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. Well I don’t know, maybe. But no, I know you’re dealing with stuff right now. I only want to help you get back on your feet again. You’re going to be wobbly for a few days I know, but maybe we can go shopping later, get you some clothes of your own. It may take a while to find you a place of your own, I mean with the siege pushing in every day, there are fewer places to stay, but you’re welcome here as long as you like. I’m afraid the couch is a little small, but we can both fit in my bed if you don’t mind…”

She petered out as she noticed the tears forming in my eyes. She sat down beside me and put an arm around me. I buried my face in her neck and cried out the misery that engulfed me.

The tears helped to release some of the pent up feeling inside me, and I realised I would have to be careful about giving into such impulses if I didn’t want to lose my anger. I let Paula make us a light tea, than allowed her to drag me out to the shops for some late night retail therapy, as she called it.

I wasn’t the best company, as she kept offering up new skirts and dresses for my consideration. I could see how this might be fun, and many of the clothes suggested would have looked really good on me. I was too new to this though, and not ready to give in to being a girl. It surprised me that I was tempted, but I had other things on my mind which superseded any desire to explore the feminine and when we came across a shop selling gear, it was my turn to take the lead.

Paula tried to steer me away, but I was determined. Leather seemed to be the fashion statement of the scum surrounding the city, but that worked for me in any case. I went through nearly everything in the shop, starting with the trousers which I thought would be more comfortable for me, and in more ways than one. In the end though, I had to admit that they didn’t achieve the look I was aiming for. I needed to look… sexy, slutty, a hard-assed bitch. And finally there it was, right at the back of the shop, perfect for my purposes.

It was a black mini-dress, leather of course, with thigh-length boots in matching style and colour. I bought a pair of fishnet stockings to go with it and wore it out of the shop, much to Paula’s dismay.

“You look like a… a…”

“A whore?” I smiled at her. “All part of the plan sugar.”

I felt a new confidence, a hardness and an anger emerging from within. Image was everything. If you looked it, you felt it, and right now I didn’t look like I was ready to get lovey dovey with anyone. The boots had stronger ankle support so, despite the three inch spike heels, I was able to take confident strides.

I found a Goth hairdressers nearby and walked up to the face full of piercings and attitude sitting behind the desk and pointed at my face and hair, then my clothes.

“Make this match this.”

Sitting in a short leather skirt was a new experience in itself, but I got used to keeping my legs closed and pulling the hem down. I watched as Barbarella from hell teased and cut my hair into a suitably nightmarish fantasy, then set about doing the same to my face.

Dark smoky eyes and full, dark red lips did wonders for the overall look and renewed the aggression I had been losing, drawing it back to the surface. No softness here. I sneered my thanks as I paid for my transformation.

She sneered back. ”Don’t fancy any tats or piercings to go with that lot then?”

I thought about having my ears done at least, but any bits of metal sticking through my skin would only be points of vulnerability I couldn’t afford.

“Not this time, but I’ll need some stuff to keep this going.” I indicated my eyes and lips, and the relevant makeup was added to the bill.

Paula was subdued as we returned to her flat. I sensed she was regretting her offer of hospitality, but then it would only be for tonight, maybe tomorrow too. Softness where softness is due. I turned her gently towards me and waited for her to raise reluctant eyes to mine.

“I know this isn’t what you had in mind,” I softened my voice as I spoke, “and I’m grateful for the kindness you’ve shown me. Right now though, there’s something I have to do, and being girly would get in the way.

“If you need me to, I’ll go now, otherwise I’d appreciate having this place to crash for a day or two.”

She nodded, slowly, reluctantly.

“Thank-you. I’ll take the couch.”

The next day, once she’d left for the hospital, I dressed and set about the task in hand. I went through some of the Tai Chi exercises that had been part of basic training, rediscovering my centre and learning to balance more easily on my heels. The leather restricted my movement somewhat, so I had to adjust some moves to fit, but by the end of two hours I was feeling more confident. I had to rest for a while afterwards, constitution still slow in restoring itself, then about lunchtime I headed off for police HQ.

My former colleagues gave me some odd looks as I walked in. Looking for reasons to arrest me perhaps. None of them recognised me, even when I asked to see Mike Hamersley. Then again even my voice had changed.

He stepped out of his office in response to a call from the desk, and looked me over with mounting curiosity.

“Can I help you miss?”

“Yeah, why not, but in private like.”

I grabbed his tie, all sass and arrogance, and led him back to his office. He allowed that much, but pulled the tie out of my hands once we were safely behind closed doors.

“Perhaps you’ll tell me what this is about now. I’m a busy man and I don’t have time for nonsense.”

“Officer Maxine Blake reporting for duty sir,” I grinned at him, the smile growing as recognition and realisation dawned.

“What the fu…”

“I was released from hospital yesterday Mike. I’m still a little shaky, but give me a day or two and I’ll be good to go.”

“Max, what did you do?”

“I listened. I listened to what you said and I thought hard about things. This way I get something like a normal life, and you don’t get to invalid me out. I’m just as capable as any other woman you have on the force.”

“You mean you… you’re…”

“I mean I went all the way. It’s like you said, there wasn’t much left down there to say I was a man, so I got my doctor and a group of others at the hospital to turn me into a different kind of normal human being.”

He found his way round the desk to his chair and settled unsteadily into it.

“Max, there’s more to being a woman than losing your dick…”

“You’d be surprised how many people have said those exact words Mike. Do you think they’d have allowed this without giving me a proper psych consult? I managed to persuade them that this was the best solution, and it is.”

“So why are you dressed like… like that?”

“It’s like I said two months ago Mike. I want to go after the bastards who killed my family. Tell me I won’t pass as one of them. Tell me I won’t fit under cover.”

“It’s not that Max. I’m just terrified of what you’ll do when you get there, and what they’ll do to you once they catch you, and they will.”

“Mike, I’m doing this with or without your help. With means I get the benefit of your support and a few bits of essential kit, and you get necessary intel from me.”

He let out an exasperated sigh. “How do you plan to infiltrate them then?”

“If you’ll help me, I’ll take one of the micro-lights, Big Bird if your pilots are still scared of her. I’ll land the other side and drift in from the wilderness like the rest who are coming to join them. If you won’t, I’ll just have to head out to the outskirts of the city and let them capture me.”

“You’re mad, you know that?”

“Right now, I think it helps. I think it’s all that’s keeping me sane.”

I gave him a sudden, manic grin and he burst out laughing.

“Fuck me!”

It was an exclamation rather than a request or an order, but I wasn’t going to let anything slip by.

“If that’s what it takes. I’ll be able to blackmail you afterwards then wouldn’t I?”

“Sod it, you win. If you’re going to do it, I’d rather you had backup. There’ll be conditions though.”

“I was sure there would be.”

-oOo-

Big Bird was pretty much as I’d left her. I don’t know which pilot had drawn the short straw and flown her back to the rooftop landing pad, but since she’d been back no-one had touched her. She was even filled with the canned goods I’d been taking out to the farm.

With Mike’s authorisation this time, I requisitioned a camouflage net, some explosives and a selection of weapons, loaded them on board, and without so much as a wave at my former colleagues, I launched Big Bird into the ether.

I took a roundabout route to the farm, still preferring that no-one knew its whereabouts, and taxied Big Bird into the barn. Underneath the camo she was all but invisible, but fully fuelled and ready to go at a minutes notice if needed. I stashed the majority of the gear I’d brought with me and settled down for the night in a large and moderately comfortable bed, the cotton nightdress Paula had given me proving to be far more comfortable than the leathers, at least for sleeping.

Over the next few days I continued my exercises and practised handling the weapons I’d brought. They were the same as the ones I’d trained on, but I was aware that my arms weren’t as strong as they had been. I didn’t fire off any rounds, not wanting to attract attention, but the workout was good, helping to restore more of my lost health and muscle, and building my confidence. I set up a burst repeater on a nearby hill, out of sight of the farm, and tried it out. A brief message, recorded on a digital recorder, scrambled, then transmitted at high speed reducing transmission length to a mere fraction of a second. The reply came back a short while later, automatically decoded and expanded by the hand held transceiver on my belt. I was now officially in the field and in possession of latest police intel about the enemy’s location. One of the camps was only a couple of miles from the farm and I set about planning a visit.

I set off a couple of hours before dawn, having strapped two pieces of plywood to the otherwise impractical boots. It was slow going and a tough slog through the sand, but I could feel strength returning to my legs with every stride. By the time first light broached the eastern horizon, I was lying at the top of a dune observing a small corral of encircled motor vehicles, all of them hand built from scraps, and none of them quite fitting into any category of motorised locomotion I’d come across before.

Neither dress nor leather leant themselves to life in the desert, and sand was creeping into all sorts of uncomfortable places. Still it couldn’t be helped. I climbed to my feet, slung my rifle across my shoulder and walked the last few hundred yards towards the camp.

The guard was sleeping but jerked awake with me still ten feet away. His crossbow rose to point shakily in my direction. I put on my best sassy pose and smiled at him.

“Want a fuck?”

The confusion was a delight to see. He was young, a mess of acne, bad teeth and downy stubble, and evidently not used to women offering themselves to him. I took a couple more steps towards him and settled my own automatic rifle against the side of the nearest car.

“Come on, I’m sure you’ve got something else you’d rather be poking in my direction.”

He lowered the crossbow as I slid my hands up under my dress and slipped my knickers down over my boots. The bulge in his trousers was large enough to be visible even in the poor pre-dawn light. He let the weapon fall and stumbled forward fumbling madly with his belt buckle. It was almost unfair. He didn’t see me slip the stiletto out of my boot, barely had time to feel it as I slid it up under his jaw and into his brainstem, sidestepping the spurting blood.

I marvelled at how easy it had been to take a life. I felt no remorse, just a banking of the fires inside me. Satisfied warmth, and a gentle simmering of the rage inside. It was almost certain this youngster had had no part in what had befallen my wife and daughter, but he had chosen to join those who did so why should he live?

I retrieved my knife from the corpse, blood still oozing slowly form the wound, and cleaned it in the sand. The rifle went over one shoulder and I picked up the crossbow too. Promise of at least one more silent death.

Inside the circle of vehicles a smaller circle of sleeping bodies lay around the remains of a camp fire. Embers glowed, picking out the shadowy forms in silhouette. Feeling nothing, no exhilaration, no trepidation, no nothing, I raised the crossbow and aimed at the nearest and largest shape, at what would be the rough location of the heart. Safety off, squeeze. The bow string made a thrumming noise as it discharged its deadly missile. Quieter than a gunshot, but loud even so. The large shape jerked and let out a grunt, then lay still.

I put the tip of my pointed boot into the stirrup and pulled the bowstring back to the catch; it took most of my strength but I managed it. Safety on, new quarrel selected from the quiver on the side and inserted. All calm and unhurried. I picked out a second target, aimed and fired.

My luck ran out. One of the remaining four bodies twitched at the sound and leapt, scrabbling to get free of his sleeping bag, yelling in alarm. The rest of the camp started to jump and squirm too. I dropped the crossbow, and unslung the rifle. Click to full automatic, careful aim, double taps to each moving figure, then run into the shadows and wait.

It had taken seconds. The camp was silent apart from my breathing, now slightly heavier than normal. What were the chances of there being another guard, or maybe someone sleeping in one of the vehicles. This was where patience decided who lived, and I was in no hurry. There was a noise. A gun being cocked, slowly, but not quietly enough. I hunkered down and waited, bringing my own weapon to bear.

Dawn light was seeping in now. Neither of us would be able to hide for long. I used the time to listen for any other movement, but there was none. The door of a nearby vehicle eased open a little. Decoy? I waited. A head appeared. No a helmet. Keep waiting. There. A shadowy form moving between the wheels. No more than five feet away. Rifle into left hand, stiletto in the right. Gently forward and thrust. Into the base of the brain. This time not so lucky avoiding the blood, but I had to ease the body down gently, quietly.

“Doug?”

There had been two in the vehicle after all then. It wasn’t a girl’s voice for which I was grateful. I didn’t think I was ready to kill a girl. Yet. I eased back into the dwindling shadows and waited, rifle at the ready.

A shape started forward from between the vehicles, crouched over the body and let out a yell.

“Doug!” If there anyone left alive that would alert them. “Hey guys, we’re being at…”

The double tap cut him short as I ducked between the machinery. Better to have cover and not need it than the other way round.

Silence reigned. I switched magazines and made a careful circle of the camp, both inside and out, before allowing myself to relax. I stripped off my clothes and used most of the water in their canteens to clean the blood off my clothes, the rest going to clear the remaining spatter from my face and hands. I checked through the vehicles, choosing the most serviceable of them and transferring all the supplies and spare fuel to it.

Bodies into the remaining desert rovers, torn cloth from the abandoned sleeping bags inserted far enough into the fuel tanks to wick up some fuel, judicious use of matches and retire. I was half a mile away, heading away from the sun, when the first one blew. The rest weren’t far behind.

I drove on a few more miles then turned around. The plume of black smoke was impressive and promised to draw the curious from miles around. My way in. I recorded a brief report on the burst transmitter and sent it in. Camp at such and such co-ordinates destroyed, nine people dead, none of them me. Next stage contact and infiltrate.

I drove back to camp, covering my outbound tracks, and arrived a few seconds behind a group of vehicles coming from the city. Guns were drawn as I climbed out. I kept my rifle to one side, not aiming, not threatening, relying on my appearance to keep them from pulling their own triggers.

“That’s Harry’s ride.” The speaker had a nasty scar on his face, crossing a milk white eye.

“Was that his name? He was a dick.”

Scar face let out a deep belly laugh. “You’re right he was. Do I take it he’s dead then?”

“Can’t say for sure. He lost this to me in a game of poker. He was riding with these jokers when he left.”

“What do you have that’s so valuable he’d stake his ride in a game of cards?”

“Me.”

“You bet yourself? Don’t take this wrong girl, but you got balls.”

“How d’you meet up with this lot in the first place?”

It was a woman’s voice. Long blond hair streaming out from under a helmet as she jumped down from examining one of the vehicles, most of her face hidden by a visor. No loss to the world if what I could see was anything to go by.

“The group I was riding with shared a camp with this lot a few days back. One of the guys was getting a bit too clingy for comfort so I figured if I bet myself in the game, I’d either win myself a ride or at least have a reason to join this lot. I guess they didn’t like losing me, decided to try and get me back.”

“You think your old crew did this? Who the hell are they?”

“Just a bunch of guys with dicks and bad breath. Who bothers to learn names these days?”

“We come across them, you point them out.”

“Sure. Like I said they were a bunch of fuckheads anyway.”

“Mount up guys, Xerxes will want to know about this.”

Xerxes? What kind of pretentious idiot would adopt that as a name? I climbed into my motor, scar face joining me as shotgun, and took my place in the convoy, heading back towards the city. Infiltration accomplished.

-oOo-

And it was that easy to get into the outlaw’s central compound. We drove past armed encampments, gun emplacements, trenches, minefields, you name it. A frontal assault would have been impossible, but for one person who didn’t care what happened afterwards, it was a cinch.

We pulled up outside a large structure, more ostentation than practicality, and I followed my new companions inside. We had to wait, though not for long. Xerxes had his own method of dispensing justice, which usually resulted in trial by combat and had more to do with entertainment than fairness. Xerxes would sometimes pit the two protagonists against each other, otherwise he would choose one and set him against someone from the crowd. I witnessed examples of each and a fair amount of blood and brains were spilled on the ground before we were called forward.

My companions knelt and bowed their heads. I followed suit a moment later, but not before I had a chance to look him over, this great leader of the desert.

Physically he was impressive. Three hundred plus pounds of muscle arrayed on a seven foot frame. He knew it too. All he wore was a loin cloth and a winged, conquistador style helmet. His face was heavy boned with a large protruding nose and overshadowing brows. His lips were thick and sensual. A voice as deep as distant thunder emanated from them and rolled across the gap between us.

“Sasha, stand and speak. What do you have for me?”

The girl with golden tresses stood, but kept her head bowed as she approached the dais.

“Lord Xerxes. We followed a column of smoke this morning to an encampment. The vehicles were burned and their divers left inside to roast, but we reached them before they were beyond recognition. It was Ralph’s crew, and they were all killed before they burned.

“This woman arrived shortly after us, on Harry’s ride. Says she won it from him in a game of cards.”

Intense black eyes turned on me, I felt them as an itch between my shoulder blades. For a while, silence hung heavy in the vast room, then that deep, gravelly voice spoke again.

“Stand and look at me.”

I did as I was told, staring him down, trying to keep the hate and loathing I felt from my expression.

“I know your face.”

“I doubt that, I feel I would remember yours.” A ripple of laughter chased around the auditorium. Yet there was something.

A flash of an image crossed my mind’s eye, the briefest fraction of a second, yet clear. A bare chest and a face, visible through flying shards of glass, and a fist holding her hair, forcing my Kendall to watch as her baby girl flew to her death. Then another image, suppressed, forgotten, rising like a ball of swamp gas from the miry depths of my mind. A memory of pain as a heavy boot turned me onto my back, and a sneering face with dark, dark eyes, staring into my own.

I must have flinched or given some tell, because he turned to Sasha and gave her an order.

“Search her vehicle. Search her belongings. Search her. Bring me what you find.”

It didn’t take long. The burst transmitter had been hidden under the seat in my stolen ride. Sasha brought it to him and he held it up.

“What’s this?”

“A voice recorder. In my position you’d be surprised at how often it’s useful to have a recording of an agreement.”

He pressed the play button and there was no sound. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows.

“I have no agreements outstanding.”

“It might have helped your defence if I’d heard Harry’s voice just now.”

“Our business was concluded. He gave me the keys to his monster and I left; no reason to keep the proof.”

He threw it to a man standing to the side.

“Take it apart and tell me what you find.”

My only hope now was that his man didn’t know what he was talking about. I held his gaze and waited.

“Burst transmitter, encoder and decoder. She’s working with the city.”

“Ah,” he smiled a sad little smile. “You have courage little one, but poor luck it seems. Take her to my rooms. Put her with the other one.”

I was dragged away. Unceremoniously lifted off my feet by two guards and carried out of the room. It would have been useless to struggle and I sacrificed no dignity in trying.

Behind the makeshift dome of Xerxes audience chamber was another large structure. I was dragged in backwards and taken over to one corner. One of the guards took over holding me firmly in his vice-like fists while the other pulled out a large iron key and turned it in a heavy lock. I was thrown into a cage and the door slammed behind me. There wouldn’t have been room for a normal sized man to stand in here, but for once I had reason to be grateful for my shortness. A tight latticework of steel bands crossed all around me. Four walls, floor, ceiling, all the same. I checked the door, but the hinges were enclosed and the lock too heavy to pick, at least with the delicate tools I had on me. There was a noise from the corner and I turned to see a small bundle of rags screwed up in the corner. Even as I watched it, it moved.

I ran over and turned the bundle towards me, towards the light. Kendall, impossibly Kendall and she was still alive. For the briefest second I hoped, but then I saw her eyes. There wasn’t much of the woman I loved left there. I stroked her cheek gently and she focused on me.

“Max? Max is that you? You look… different.”

“It’s me Kendall. I came for you. As soon as I could, I came for you.”

“Belinda?”

I had nothing to offer her but the truth. “She’s dead love. It was very quick, she didn’t suffer.”

She closed her eyes and rolled away, tears escaping from between lids clenched tight. Nothing I could say would help now. She had to grieve, to survive if she could. I would hold her, let her know I was there, but there wasn’t much else I could do.

A low, throaty chuckle filled the room and the cage. A screen flashed on and I looked up into unrelenting eyes.

“I knew I recognised you. You’re the little policeman I shot aren’t you? Her husband? The father to that little girl? I only have one question: Why are you wearing a dress?”

There was laughter in the background. I had no intention of playing his game. Instead I turned back to Kendall, spooning up behind her, holding her to me. She shuddered as she shed what tears she had left, and I held on. Eventually she stilled as sleep took her. It took me longer, being the middle of the day, but in time I followed her into a light, fitful drowse. Whatever was coming my way was not likely to be pleasant, and while my waking brain could think of no way out, perhaps my subconscious could offer a clue or two.

I woke in the dark. Beside me, Kendall was still and cold. Too still, too cold. I placed a hand on her cheek. Cool like marble, the muscles stiffening to match. She’d been holding on for Belinda; holding on to life, to sanity, in the vaguest of hopes that somewhere her daughter still needed her, somehow they would be reunited. I wasn’t enough to keep her in this world, and she had slipped away in the night, making the only escape she could.

I lay still and cried silent tears of grief into the filthy rags she wore. Hope and love, pain and misery, all bled from me in those hours, leaving me empty as my tears ran dry, with nothing but a small, hard central core of hatred. This man, this one man, had taken everything that mattered to me simply to amuse himself, just as he had taken love and laughter and hope from so many in the city. I had no thought for what might follow, but right now, all I knew was he had to die.

-oOo-

They left me alone for some days. It was always dark in Xerxes’ chambers so it was difficult to keep track of time. I did what I could for Kendall, laying her straight and covering her as well as I was able, but there were no blankets or anything similar in the cage so even in that I was sorely limited. I remember the cloying, sickly smell of death pervading everything then fading into the background. It put me off my food for some time, but I couldn’t afford to weaken now, so as soon as I was able to without heaving, I forced myself to eat .

I stayed as far as I could from Kendall’s decaying remains, not that that was much in the limited confines of the cell, and focus on my rage, refusing to give in to the horror of my situation or the madness that threatened. Xerxes ignored me – perhaps his punishment for my not answering his last question – but I held on to the hope that he would return to me eventually, that sometime soon I would have my opportunity.

They hadn’t searched me before throwing me in here so my stilettos were still in their sheaths at the tops of my boots. I might have used one to try and pick the lock, but I would most likely have destroyed the blade without achieving anything. Besides, I’d already learnt that the room was under surveillance and I would most likely lose it as soon as I used it. Instead I kept my mind and body occupied with my modified Tai Chi regime along with a few other exercises to maintain strength in my legs and arms.

Eventually my patience was rewarded. The cage door was unlocked and I was removed, as were Kendall’s remains. I don’t know what they planned to do with her body, but it didn’t matter, her spirit was free, and so soon would I be.

Once again I was held off the ground by a guard on either side grasping my upper arm. Once again I was carried without ceremony into the audience chamber. Once again I faced my tormentor, my nemesis.

“Search her. Him. It.”

The deep bass tones reverberated around the large room and my guards complied, taking the opportunity to grope more delicate areas of my anatomy. The knives were found and removed. Oh well.

“What exactly are you?”

I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of an answer, of a discussion. I focused on the pain in my arms where the guards fingers dug in and bided my time.

“You were a man, I know that much. You had a wife, and a daughter. I mean, tiny slip of a thing that you are, you were never much of a man I’m sure,” his sycophantic crowd snickered and jeered on cue. “But why the change? Are you one of those abominations who rejects what he really is? Or are you a freak who wants to pretend he’s something he’s not?”

I calmed my mind, not rising to his taunts. I didn’t have to ask questions to know what kind of abomination stood before me. I lifted my gaze and stared into his eyes. He declined the staring contest with a shrug and a laugh.

“Let’s see what she’s got under the hood shall we people?”

Once more I was handled roughly. The thick leather of the dress wasn’t going to tear easily, so the guards unzipped it from behind and pulled it off me. The knickers were more flimsy and tore away without much effort. The bra went the same way leaving me standing before him in just my suspender belt, stockings and boots. I wasn’t about to give them the satisfaction of seeing me struggle to hide my modesty, so instead remained still, stood proud and let them look.

“Ah. Complete transformation. One of the abominations then. It’s as well your wife and daughter died before knowing what you are. You want to know what it’s like to be a woman then? You’d like to know what your wife experienced before she died?”

He stood and pulled off his loin cloth. What hung limp between his legs was already as large as most men have when erect. I didn’t want to think what internal injuries he’d cause if he impaled me with that, so instead I allowed my thoughts to be distracted by… some memory from long ago, something tantalising on the edge of recall. He couldn’t stand fully upright. His ligaments were too short, his arms and legs bent. He climbed down from the dais with a lumbering gait, his shoulders stooped, and walked up to me, a hunger in his eyes and a sick anticipation playing across his lips. The crowd were cheering as he approached, as the blood began to engorge his royal immenseness.

No-one really counts footwear as a weapon. However impractical spike stiletto heels are for the desert, I was glad to be wearing them now. The second he was in range I lashed out. After hanging passively in the grasp of his guards for all this while, I managed to take everyone by surprise. I don’t know quite what I managed to impale, but Xerxes staggered back, hands hastily covering, protecting, blood pumping from between his fingers.

I took the moment of surprise a step further, twisting in the guards’ grip and breaking their hold. I dropped to one knee, one hand out to steady myself, then launched myself upright, kicking my right leg out behind me and way up, skewering one guard’s eye on my heel, pushing further through the orbital cavity. He barely had time to register the loss of his sight before he died.

I spun around to face the other guard who had lowered into a wrestler’s crouch, ready to charge me, to tear me apart if the look in his eyes spoke true.

“No!”

The voice like thunder reverberated around the chamber and both the guard and I turned in its direction. Xerxes was standing, naked and bleeding, his face twisted in a snarl of pain and fury.

“She’s mine.”

He held up bloody hands, readying a charge. I had missed his dick, but with luck maybe I’d perforated his bladder. He wasn’t going to get out of this encounter lightly, and he had reason to be mad.

He charged at me, surprisingly fast, and I only just managed to duck and dive under his grasp. The guard behind me wasn’t so lucky and paid the price for allowing me my freedom. I regained my feet just in time to see the quick jerk, hear the sickening sound of the guard’s neck breaking, watch the broken body fall limp to the ground, the head discarded separately.

Xerxes turned his livid features toward me again. Heavy brow, oversized features, giant’s bones, shortened ligaments. They meant something. It was important. He charged again and I dived and rolled to escape, barely avoiding those enormous hands.

I needed a weapon. I looked around, but there was nothing. Just sand and blood and… No that was sick, still needs must when the devil drives.

I sprinted for the guard’s body as Xerxes checked his charge and turned to face me once more. A stoop, a roll and I came up holding something heavy, damp, sticky. Xerxes charged again. I would be lucky to avoid him a third time. Then, born from desperation inspiration struck, memory surfaced. I spun and hurled the helmeted head of the dead guard straight between the charging monster’s outstretched arms, straight into his forehead.

Impossibly it sunk into the bone. The charge turned into a stumble then a headlong fall, face first into the sand. I sidestepped it easily then stood silent, watching with bated breath as the gargantuan figure remained still on the ground.

This was a moment for finesse. Careless of my nakedness, I strode over to Xerxes still form. Grasping the wings of his helmet, I pulled back, lifting his face clear of the sand, showing the deep indentation in his forehead and the lifeless, staring eyes. I let the head fall back into the sand, walked over to my dress and stepped into it.

The crowd was held spellbound, but it wouldn’t last. I’d defeated their mighty leader, but they were hardly going to accept a diminutive girl in his place, especially one who had once been a man. There would be challenges and fights that I couldn’t win, not without the advantage I’d had in this fight.

I sauntered up to the dais, avoiding eye contact, maintaining the spell, hoping that I could keep them all off balance and stupefied long enough. The stilettos went back into their sheaths. The burst transmitter, now back in one piece and hopefully working, I clipped to my belt. I turned and walked slowly from the room.

Harry’s monstrous vehicle was where I had parked it, not twenty yards from the entrance. There were sounds of stirring behind me. I sprinted forward and vaulted into the cockpit, pressing the starter and jamming the vehicle into gear even as the engine roared into life.

I glanced over at the entrance to Xerxes’ audience chamber, now vomiting enraged guards, and dumped the clutch. The wheels spun for a moment, raising a cloud of sand, then bit hard, the vehicle lurching forward and round to the entrance. A hail of bullets followed, spanging off the chassis beside me. I changed gear and hit the nitrous as the wheels bit again.

I was gone too fast for them to react. People were scurrying for the gun emplacements as I roared past, out of range before they could come to bear. Dune buggies and sand rovers, trials bikes and who knows what else came spewing from the encampments as I tore past. I had the advantage of speed for now, but some of those things were seriously nippy and would be alongside before long. I needed an advantage. Size helped, but all they needed was to get a crossbow bolt into one of my tyres and I was finished.

I turned towards the city and kept the accelerator on the floor, changing up through the gears until I was launching myself off dunes so fast and so far I was in danger of wrecking my ride. I grabbed the burst transmitter from my belt and pressed record.

“The rebel leader’s dead, but I think I pissed off his friends. I’m heading towards the city direct from the rebel camp, and I have a shitload of bad guys on my ass. Now would be a really good time for a counter strike.”

I stopped the recording then pressed the combination of buttons that fired off the burst transmission. There was no way of telling if it worked, and a moment later a particularly heavy jolt knocked the thing out of my hands. I concentrated on driving as fast as I could and checking my mirrors for incoming.

The chase blurred into an endless confusion of bumps and jolts, exhilarating, terrifying, ultimately exhausting.

A trials bike came alongside, the rider raising an arm mounted crossbow. Before he could fire I swerved into him, grinding him into the sand and almost overturning my own vehicle. Next a dune buggy came alongside, passenger standing braced against the roll bar, ready to jump across. He jumped and I twitched to one side, just enough for him to miss his handhold and disappear beneath my wheels.

The main north road headed past the rebel camp to the west so I turned right a little, looking for the long strip of black. My vehicle was made for off-roading as much as these others, but it could maintain a higher speed on a smooth surface.

A crossbow bolt embedded itself in the bodywork beside me, the needle sharp point stopping less than an inch from my left boot. I stomped down on it, snapping the hollow aluminium shaft, and glared over at my latest attacker. Another dune buggy, the jump seat passenger straining to re-load his weapon. I snarled, changed down and pulled round behind him.

Harry’s ride was one of the big ones. Four fat tractor wheels bolted to a chassis the size of an aircraft engine. The vehicle in front of me was a bug to be squashed, so much smaller than me, but if running over the trials bike had nearly upended me, I could hardly driving straight over him. I hit the gas and charged forward, swerving at the last moment to catch just the corner. My leviathan leaped into the air as the rear of the dune buggy was jammed down into soft sand. I leaned with all my meagre weight on the steering wheel, turning away from the buggy, forcing my own wheels back onto the sand and catching just a glimpse of the two occupants flying over the hood. They would survive, but they were out of the chase.

The rest fell back, consolidating, planning a combined attack. I jinked back and forth, twisting and turning, braking and accelerating at random to keep them off guard, wrong footed.

Then suddenly it was there. A steep bank and I was flying over a narrow strip of black. I eased into a shallow left turn, climbing the embankment and easing onto the tarmac. The tyres whined and rattled on the smooth surface, but finally I could accelerate. I changed gear and kicked in some of the remaining nitrous. My vision tunnelled and before I knew it the rev counter was in the red. Release nitrous, change gear, accelerate and nitrous again. The gas gave out as I topped one sixty, then settled to a steady one fifty. Steering was a mare at this speed, poor aerodynamics causing the monster to twitch about like a moth in a hurricane. The mirrors were vibrating too much to show anything of the road behind me, then there were dots ahead, growing rapidly into recognisable shapes. I hauled on the brakes and veered off the road just as the first of the police armoured support vehicles roared past in the opposite direction.

I sped on, maintaining a steady sixty beside the road. More police vehicles sped past. In my mirrors, stable now again at the lower speed, the leaders were scattering , chasing my former pursuers. One of them broke off, spun around to come alongside me, waved me to stop. Waves of relief poured over me as I eased off the accelerator and braked gently to a standstill. Mike Hamersley grinned up at me, then turned away, embarrassed, as I slid down the side of my mount.

“You do know you’re not wearing any…”

“Oh shit.” How could I forget that. The sand was getting in everywhere else, my breasts rubbed raw without a bra. I pulled my dress down to a more respectable level. “Sorry, this takes some getting used to.”

He held up his hands deflecting the apology. “So, d’you want to tell me what just happened ?”

-oOo-

Mercifully the debrief waited until later. Much later, after the police forces had chased down and captured most of my pursuers along with their vehicles, and after I’d been escorted back to police HQ in the city where a hot shower was waiting along with a change of clothing, courtesy of one of the female police officers. No leather either, for which I was very grateful. The knickers and bra were new, again courtesy of one of the WPOs who took my measurements over the radio and ducked out to the shops while I was still en-route.

So, feeling altogether more comfortable in a clean skin, new undies and a light cotton sun dress, I sat with Mike and a couple of other police bigwigs, describing my little excursion in the desert. The single handed night raid on the encampment passed without comment, as did my joining the investigating group the next morning and following them into the middle of Xerxes camp. The search of my belongings and my subsequent incarceration earned me a ‘hardly surprising’ or two, though they were suitably sympathetic when I described my reunion with Kendall.

My encounter with Xerxes raised a few eyebrows, then my description of our fight brought the rest up to join them, like so many pole-vaulting caterpillars. Apparently ‘a mere slip of thing’ like myself couldn’t possibly have stood against such a brute. Reports of his giant stature had made it back into the city, raising him to the status of legend.

“There’s the thing though,” I told them. “He may have been big and strong, but he was slower than me which gave me one advantage. Then all those things about his appearance dug away at the back of my brain and gave me the rest of the advantage I needed.”

“Which was?”

“He suffered from gigantism.”

“He what?”

“It’s a medical disorder where you produce too much growth hormone, specifically before your bones have stopped growing. My grandfather had it. I remember being shown a photograph of him, and everyone joking that he’d used up all the growth that I should have had. Bones grow longer than usual, but ligaments stay short so you can’t straighten your limbs. That’s why he was stooped. There’s also a tendency to heavy growth in the face leading oversized features. In reality the bones are weaker than usual, especially the forehead. There’s speculation that Goliath from the David and Goliath story had a similar condition. Once I’d figured it out, once I had my weapon, I threw it as hard as I could at his face, and it just caved in.”

“And then the others just let you walk?”

“Well it’s all about attitude when you get to that point. There’s a period of unreality where everyone’s wondering what you’re going to do next and no-one’s prepared to make the first move. As long as you show a confident front then you can get away with a lot before they start chasing after you with guns.”

“Anyway, it seems to have turned out alright. We managed to capture quite a few of them along with their vehicles. Enough to put a dent in their ability to raid us, and with their general dead at your hands, and all the other potential leaders dead at his, they’re disorganised and running around like proverbial headless chickens.

“We’re planning an offensive, combining bombing from the micro-lights with a concerted effort to raid their outer camps. We’re hoping for a white flag before the week’s out. How do you fancy joining the bombing detail? Get a bit more revenge?”

“No I think I’ll pass if you don’t mind. I’ll go fetch Big Bird if you don’t mind lending me a driver to take me out to where I hid it, but I’ve had my fill of death.”

“I don’t understand. A couple of days ago all you wanted was revenge.”

“And I got it.” It should have been an exultation, but it came out in dead, flat tones. “Xerxes led the raiding party on my neighbourhood. Xerxes threw my daughter through the window, took my wife prisoner, beat her, raped her, did God alone knows what to her. Xerxes shot me in the back while I was trying to save Belinda, shot my nuts off and turned me into this. I faced him down and I killed him and do you know how that makes me feel? Go on, take a guess. Relieved? Gratified? Justified? What do you think?”

The tone of my voice shocked them into silence. I continued in my quiet voice.

“Truth be told I feel numb, and more than a little sick. I took the lives of nine people who had nothing to do with the raid on my family just to get close to him. Stabbed two, killed two with a crossbow while they were sleeping, shot the rest with my rifle before they had a chance to react. I killed a guard who was only obeying orders; stabbed him through the eye with a stiletto heel. I goaded Xerxes into the temper that killed the other one. And after I bashed his brains in, I ran over two more during my escape. I’m responsible for over a dozen deaths just because I was angry enough to want revenge.

“No more gentlemen. Kendall taught me one last lesson in that cell before she died. It’s not desire for death that keeps you hanging on, but desire for life. I think I’m going to go get me some.”

I rose and walked out of the room, leaving them shocked and unable to respond. A weight lifted from my shoulders as I left the building. There was a bus pulled up nearby. I leaned in towards the driver.

“Do you go anywhere near Kingston Mall?”

“Six stops down, we’ll be about a block away.”

“That’ll do.”

I handed him my fair and smiled gratefully at the young man who stood to offer me his seat. I had a bonus due for my part in the recent successes against the outlanders. Most of it would go to pay off my outstanding hospital bills, but I could afford to splurge a little. My eyes brightened a little at the prospect and I pushed at the dark clouds threatening to engulf my mind.

My first stop was a beauty salon where a very camp wizard used his magical scissors and certain mysterious potions to turn my rats nest into shining, lustrous shoulder length curls. All the while equally tented artists tended to my face and nails. Next I revisited all the shops Paula had taken me to and tried on everything she had suggested. I bought perhaps more than I could readily afford, but it was all therapy. One particular light swirly dress I wore out of the shop with a pair of strappy sandals. The storm clouds at the edge of my consciousness receded a little further as I realised how much I actually enjoyed the way the clothes made me look and feel.

As a last job, I found a cleaning service where I handed my borrowed clothes over and paid for them to be cleaned and returned to their rightful owner. I had no intention of setting foot back in police headquarters. That had been Max’s life, and the madness of the last few days had been the fading residue of a man driven to extremes by the horrors in his life. I meant to let go of that life and all the ugliness in it. If the siege was nearly over then good, I might stay and help to rebuild what we had here. If not, there was always the farm and Big Bird. Mike hadn’t asked for her back and I doubted any of the pilots would be in a hurry to have the jinx back with them, so unless he sought me out and specifically asked me to return her, I would assume custody.

She was built for two…

I stepped off the bus near the park, overloaded with bags, but I’d have to make do somehow. In one of those conversations, so much resented at the time, she’d told me she came here when she was sad, or when she wanted to think. I found her by the lake, watching the swans. I sat at the other end of the bench and waited for her to notice me. When she finally looked across, she did a double take and then a passable goldfish impression. I smiled shyly.

“A couple of months ago I was a man, hurting from a multiple tragedy and trying anything to find a way through. A couple of weeks ago I was still a man, albeit with a modified body. I was filled with rage and a desire for revenge and refused to see anything else. It didn’t work out quite the way I thought, but you probably knew that anyway.

“I want to leave that behind. I mean I’m probably still a man who looks like a woman, probably always will be, but I’m ready to try things your way now. That is if I haven’t misunderstood, if you’re willing…”

I trailed off uncertainly, my eyes locked on my newly painted fingernails. What if I was wrong? Could I handle rejection right now?

Gentle fingers cupped my chin and raised it. My eyes met hers, saw delight, acceptance, tears of relief. She pulled me into an embrace and the last of the clouds faded to insignificance.

They would be back. I would live the rest of my life with the faces of the dead visiting me in my dreams. There were consequences to driving the fury road; consequences to every decision made whether good or bad. Right here, in the arms of someone who cared for me, and filling with the gentle euphoria of newly discovered love, I could hope for a brighter, happier dawn.

-Fin-