"You're sure this Rabbit Hole is a safe place?" Scarlet groaned. The Firebrand glanced over his shoulder at her and said nothing. The woman went on. "I mean, how safe can it be if we need all you hired guns to take us there?"
The Firebrand fingered the pommel of his sword. "I don't use guns."
A man who used to be called Jonathan Milliner nodded as he urged his horse past Scarlet and the Firebrand. "We're here for your protection, lady. For the protection of all you refugees." He pulled his wide-brimmed hat over his eyes. "Not many safe places left."
Alice, the leader of the mercenary band, looked up from the baby she held in her arms. "Listen. Do you hear that?"
The Firebrand's head tilted to the side. Milliner was already reaching for his submachine gun. "Got 'em. Coming in from the left flank. Those bushes over there."
The Firebrand shook his head. "No, that outcropping on the right."
"Fuck," Ace said as he took the safety off one of his pistols. "Ambush."
The savages sprang up from all sides. They carried salvaged guns and crude clubs made from wood and scrap metal. The Firebrand engaged one, who wore the siding of a car as armor, attached with old belts. The mercenary's sword slashed through a gap, and red blood rained onto the ground.
Milliner fired off a magazine to cover his companion, and whooped, addressing the refugees over his shoulder. "Have no fear, the Mad Hatter is here!"
Alice thrust the baby into the arms of a nearby woman, and drew two pistols from her coat. As she fired, she tried to marshal the screaming evacuees. "Please! Stay calm! The White Rabbits will protect you!" Several refugees screamed. Alice held up her hands. "Everyone, please! We've have handled situations like this before!"
Scarlet shook her head. "I shouldn't have left! I was safe in Portland!" A complete lie.
Scarlet turned and ran back the way they had come, and a savage leapt up from the brush, throwing off a crude camouflage coat. He swept out with an axe, and cut off her head in one smooth motion. As the man bent to claim his prize, he gulped. A steel point protruded from his chest.
"Bastard," the Firebrand spat, and shook the carcass off his blade.
Knight and Rook leapt into the back of the Rabbit's precious pickup truck, and drew out the rocket propelled grenade launcher. Rook carefully loaded the explosive, and as soon as he was given the all clear, Knight launched it into the largest concentration of feral men. It detonated with a large boom, killing many savages with the shrapnel.
The surviving wild men screamed and drew back. They fled into the scrubland, glancing back over their shoulder. Alice pulled a hunting rifle from the truck, and fired off several shots, knocking down a few wild men from afar.
Hatter smiled at her. "That took care of them, didn't it?"
Alice shook her head. "No. They'll be back if we're not careful. We have to hurry to the Rabbit Hole."
Ace paused from some distance up the cracked asphalt. He banged his hand against the warped remains of an old road sign. "Come on, let's go! We're late!"
Alice sat with her skewer turning slowly over the embers of the cook fire. Hatter winked at her as he tuned his guitar. He played a melancholy tune, one of the four he had learned before the Sixty Minute War.
Alice shuddered at the very thought. She could scarcely believe that eight months ago, she had just been a college student. An English major, of all things! And now she was the head of the White Rabbits, a feared and respected mercenary band. If it weren't for the War, she would probably be getting drunk off her ass at some bar right now.
But the lands that used to be called, Russia, China, Iran, Brazil and the United States changed that future when the global economy collapsed and international relations fell apart. The rising global superpowers threw every super weapon they had at each other for a terrifying fifty-three minutes. Many detonated above the atmosphere, spreading a radiation cloud in the upper air, but a few managed to strike their intended targets.
When the mushroom clouds cleared and the radioactive dust settled, whole cities were in ruins, and society was already starting to collapse in those that remained. Alice remembered seeing it on the news, those surreal three days before all the power died, never to come back again. She had lain low in Hatter's apartment until the food ran out, and they were forced to go out on the road to survive.
She had founded the White Rabbits soon after, almost by accident. Hatter had come up with the name as a joke, but to everyone else, it was much more than that. It was something to cling to. Alice went along with it, not because she liked everyone believing they were stumbling along to Wonderland, but because she needed them to keep faith up.
As they left what remained of Lewiston, they picked up Ace at a gas station. He was fighting the crazies away with just a wrench. Rook and Knight were holed up in that church in Springfield, but after Alice rescued them, they were happy to come along for the ride. Spade was a few years younger than Alice's own twenty-two, but she had successfully held off the savages from the top of her private school for two weeks before Hatter and Knight found her on a salvage mission.
Then, she stared at the young man who sat across from her, polishing his sword. The seventeen-year old Firebrand had come across the White Rabbits only a month ago, and were already proving a valuable asset. They met up with Jason Harte on a salvage mission in Dodge City, where he was leading a troop of teenagers that were protecting the elementary school from the cannibals on the outskirts of town. His sword had come from a pawnshop, he said, and it was the only weapon he needed to take care of any "damn eaters."
Jason had joined the Rabbits on the condition that his charges be given sanctuary at the newly founded Rabbit Hole, a converted military base that was the last outpost of civilization for at least two hundred miles. There he swore to work for the White Queen, an ex-mayor who was now in charge of the White Rabbit's operations, and the day-to-day management of the Rabbit Hole.
Rook and Spade tried to push the moniker of the March Hare off onto Jason, but the young man stuck with the title his followers had given him following the War, the Firebrand. He said he wasn't going to be a "spazzy bunny". Hatter had jokingly pointed out that the White Rabbit was just as "spazzy" as the March Hare, but the Firebrand shrugged it off.
The Firebrand held his blade up to the firelight, inspecting it for any nicks. "Do you think it was the radiation that did it?" he asked. "You know, that made the crazies go… crazy? Or is it just kinda Lord of the Flies and Hobbes and the inherent evil of mankind?"
Knight ripped open a bag of marshmallows salvaged from a convenience store and passed it around the circle. He spitted one on a twig and began roasting it. "If that's the case, then why are only certain people affected in certain places? Because the radiation cloud is global."
"It's the fact that there's less food," Hatter said. "They got more desperate in poorer, more urban areas. In rural places, farther from cities, there's less craziness, more survivors. What I'm wondering is why we ran into the savages today."
The Firebrand sheathed his sword. "Yeah, didn't Absalom say this Portland trip would be easy?"
Alice shrugged. "I don't know. No matter how smart Richard is, and how many maps he goes over, there's always going to be x-factors. We just weren't lucky today. The Rabbit Hole is a day's travel from here, if we can get these evacuees moving. Maybe we can outrun them."
Ace and Spade came back from watch, and plopped down at the Rabbits' fire pit. The Firebrand and Hatter stood up to take their shift. Hatter glanced around the ring. "You should all get to sleep. Make sure the refugees do too. Less noise is better out here."
The large walls of the Rabbit Hole loomed up against the setting sun. The Firebrand grinned as Ace sent up two signal flares from the back of the pickup. A response came from over the walls. A warm bed and a good meal were just two miles away.
Some of the refugees started running towards safety. It had been a risky journey for everyone, over what had proved to be dangerous territory. But now that sanctuary was in sight, hope swelled within every breast.
Spade bumped the Firebrand with her elbow. "You did good out there." Then, she winked. "But you only got eight crazies. I took down fourteen."
"No! I got twelve!"
"I still beat you!"
Alice shook her head and smiled at Hatter. "Kids."
"Jokers and queens, woman, you're making me feel old at twenty five!"
"Oh, don't start with that Wonderland crap again, Johnny." She cuffed his kneecap, the only thing she could reach while he rode on his horse.
"Nah, Alice. Screw John Milliner. I'm the Mad Hatter now. We left the old world behind when the bombs dropped. A new name is doing us all some good, you know?"
A horn sounded from behind them. Ace leapt through the truck's sunroof, a pair of binoculars in hand. "Savages! They're back, and they brought friends! I'm counting at least twenty more than yesterday!"
Knight marshaled some nearby refugees into the back of the truck, signaling Rook at the wheel. "Gun it, honey." The woman nodded, and fired off at eighty miles an hour, the pickup's engine groaning.
Ace rolled out of the passenger side door, his rifle in hand. The other Rabbits drew their weapons, chambering cartridges and flicking off safeties. Alice cocked her two pistols. "Hatter, you've got the best range and mobility on that horse. Stay in motion. Firebrand, take down what you can, but stay out of the line of fire. Everyone else, we're going hit and run tactics until we get in range of the Rabbit Hole."
The savages whooped as they came close. With a series of bangs, Knight and Spade let loose with their machine guns. Ace grabbed the minigun and belt he had tossed out of the truck before it drove away. He cackled as he let the rounds fly.
"Before the war, they used these to blow up choppers. Imagine what it'll do to heads!"
The fire offered enough cover for the White Rabbits to pull back into range of the walls. Arrows and bullets rained down from the fortification, making the savages scream and draw back. There was a loud snap, and rocks were hurled from trebuchets behind the walls. The Firebrand danced across the chaos, his blade flashing as it drank in the blood.
Refugees poured screaming through the gates, and soon, only the Rabbits were left outside. Hatter's horse charged by Alice's line of sight, the man's semiautomatic rattling. "I was a law major! I expected to become a ruthless scoundrel, but I always assumed it'd be a metaphor!"
Alice signaled wildly, and Ace, Spade, Knight and the Firebrand ran back to the safety of the walls. Hatter tried to follow, but a savage with a rifle hit his horse on the flank, dangerously close to its heart. The beast screamed, and collapsed in the dirt. Hatter limped from beneath the dying animal, favoring his right leg.
"Hatter!" Alice screamed. "Hurry!" She tried to cover him, but both her pistols clicked. She was out of ammo. A wild man grinned at her, and tossed a small round object.
"No!" Hatter roared, and dove on top of it, covering it with his hat. The headgear was a military helmet with a long felt band Hatter had sewn on to complete his storybook image. There was a muffled boom as the frag grenade detonated, and the Mad Hatter slumped. Alice dragged him back to the walls, where he stared up at her with vacant eyes.
Alice barely registered the men and women fighting on the walls, driving the savages back. All she saw was Hatter, bloody and dying in her arms. The man took her hand in his, and smiled. "Hatter," she sobbed. "Don't leave me here."
"Hey, hey, it's all right," the man chuckled. "It's tea time. Alice, you know that riddle? Why is the raven like a writing desk?" Alice nodded. Hatter was rambling. This wasn't a good sign. "I finally know the answer."
"That's good, Hatter. Easy now, easy. We'll get you through this."
The Mad Hatter's face was serene as he died, slipping away gently.
"Welcome to Wonderland, Alice."
A/N: This was for the November Writing Contest Challenge. The prompt was "Ah, this is obviously some strange usage of the word 'safe' that I wasn't previously aware of." -Douglas Adams, Arthur Dent in "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy". The contest (and voting) can be found through the Review Game.