“They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes!
…You gotta admit I sounded good there for a minute, huh?”
Roger Ward, Mad Max (1979)
The sky burned a rusted orange over the hot sands. Waves of heat, disturbances in the fabric of the air, rendered distance unknowable. The acrid stench of rotting cities and decaying dreams filled nostrils from one horizon to the other.
Only one city was safe. Only Oakland, where the monsters lived.
Well, most of them.
One monster rode alone, eyes glowing with a rage long contained, but recently freed. He looked around. He took in the destruction all around him. In the distance he could hear the thudding of a dribble, the squeaking of shoes, the swish of the net. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t his game. It wasn’t his challenge. Some doomed fools want to battle to die at the Warriors’ feet? It wasn’t his concern.
Yet, without noticing, he’d begun approaching the sound. It reminded him of something; of battles long ended, and others yet to be fought. Most of all it reminded him of a betrayal. The first domino that led him here. The push that landed Russel Westbrook scouting ahead of a doomed caravan riding over a twisted, broken landscape.
He could see the cloud of dust approaching behind him. Victor and the others would catch up soon. If he wanted to clear the area, to do away with the fools over the hill; their ball still bouncing, he’d have to do it quickly. So he did. With a swift leap he flew from the back of his horse, and landed ready to take off again. His second jump took him through the glass panels separating the wooden court from the dangers of outside.
He shook off the broken glass and looked around. The onlookers were dressed in purple and silver. Their leader, a big man, with a familiar rage behind his eyes, snapped up the ball and held it close.
“You don’t belong here.”
“Y’all tryna get to Oakland?”
“Only one team gets a shot at ‘em, and that shot’s mine by right. Guess what I’m sayin’ is, you’re in my way, and I can’t abide obstacles. Now, check the damn ball.” The sound of the wagon was closing in. He could hear Steven and Enes yelling at each other over cards, the twin baritones carried easily on the wind. He didn’t have much time.
He didn’t need it.
By the time the others arrived, the purple clad foes were scattered. Their leader lay bruised and beaten. The rims had come off both baskets. Russel wiped the blood from his hands onto his garish orange shorts, and busted out his most welcoming smile.
“Y’all finally made it.” Steven’s goateed face poked out the back of the wagon.
“Don’t make much of a difference if we make it or not, does it?”
“I don’t need you now. I’ll need you then.” Steven had climbed down. He helped Enes down and they lifted the others. As soon as Deion had stable ground under him he was inches away from Russel’s face.
“We can help though! We can take some of the weight off your shoulders. You don’t need to do this alone.”
Russel looked at the young man, so eager, so full of hope. He shook his head.
“It’s my fight. It’s a joke from the fates that you fine folks have gotten tied up in this; but I ain’t gonna put you at risk until I’ve got no other choice.”
“You already did!” Deion waved at the dying world around them. “This world is a risk, and you made it! The least you can do is let us live in it!”
It was his fault. The day it had happened… well, he couldn’t describe it really. They said he got the paper, read the headline, and hours later earthquakes struck around Oklahoma, It began raining acid. The sun burned to bright and water began evaporating. It was him. He’d cracked. His best friend – his brother – left him for greener pastures and the promise of an easy life in the Northwest. He hadn’t taken it well.
The volcano that lived inside of Russel erupted that day, and no one was spared. Since then, he’d sought but one thing amongst the chaos, revenge. He’d reach Oakland, and when he did they’d know he was coming, but they’d also know he was the best, and the fear of knowing what was coming would keep them up at night.
Fear can be a powerful weapon in the right hands, and never before had more deserving hands wielded the deadly blade. Those hands would sink the blade right into Kev The Traitor’s back and throw him and his cronies down from their perch. Russel’s Rage hadn’t reached Oakland yet, but it was coming.
He snapped back to reality. He realized he hadn’t spoken, and Deion was begging for a response, for something. He opened his mouth, but before he could get a word out, a horse’s whinny filled the air between them.
“They’re already here? Shit. It’s too soon.” Russel caught Steven’s eye as he looked up from the hacky sack game the rest of the team had fallen into. Russel turned to Deion. “Want to prove your worth. Looks like you got your chance.” Deion smiled.
“Just you watch.” At least he was confident, if irrational.
It wasn’t long until the Grey Riders were arranged on the court. Their leader, an old man, but unchanged by time, stepped down from his horse and crossed the court to Russel. He stood almost a full 8 inches below the man in grey, but Russ didn’t back down. Not a step. He met the man’s ageless gaze head on.
“Russ, just take your people and leave. There’s no need to fight.”
“You know there is, Tim.”
“It was our crown they stole; our future they destroyed. They obliterated the balance and it let your demons free.” The tall man gestured to the hellscape around them. “Now look where we are. I don’t blame you. I blame them, and so do my fellows. We don’t want to harm you. Just step aside.”
Russ looked into the face of the warrior who had weathered countless storms. It was a face empty of the stories it could tell. Those were all locked tightly behind his eyes. If you looked closely though, the violence, the power: it was all there. It was just carefully disguised.
Russ gazed into that face. He gazed into the rage. He gazed into the vaults deep behind the eyes.
“He left. He was my friend. I will end this.”
The old man sighed.
“Very well. Let’s settle this.” He started to walk away. Russ wasn’t done.
“Wait.” The old man stopped.
“What is it, Russ?”
“How many are left?”
“After what you did here, only us and the boys in red back east.”
“You think you can handle us and them?”
“I think we have to.”
“So do we.” With that they parted ways. With heavy hearts, they told their men of the battle to come.
The battle was pitched, and it raged. Enes and Steven slammed hard against the old man, and his protege with the beautiful spin move. Victor and Deion ran like bats out of hell drawing attention away from Russ and opening spaces, cracks for him to exploit. Russel did the rest. Dunks, threes, lay-ups, pull-ups – the whole menu was on display.
Mere seconds remained. Russel was shocked to find his team losing. Down a point. The clock ticked away toward nothingness. Deion ran toward him. Russel dribbled. At the last moment, he led the long armed anomaly in front of him directly into Deion’s path. Space appeared, and Russel flew into it, careening toward the basket.
The old man stepped into his way. They made eye contact. It all came to this. A battle of wills to decide it all. It was the sort of battle Russel wasn’t known for losing. He pushed off the ground. He went up, up, up! The old man reached like a tree to stop him, but nothing would. He pushed through the arms worn by time and slammed the ball through the hoop. The rim, replaced only moments ago, came free again under his fury. The blast of the dunk sent the other players scattering.
Seconds passed. They felt like eternity as he fell to Earth. In those brief seconds he felt a glorious nothing. It was freedom, of a sort. He was free from worry, free from vengeance, in this single moment he was alone with the air, with his muse. The dirt under his shoe pulled him from his reverie. The old man met his eye. He nodded with a wisdom earned by time. With a wave of his hand the Grey Riders mounted up. Within moments they were gone. Russel collapsed to the ground. His team swarmed him.
“Are you ok?”
“That was amazing!”
“We did it! We beat them!”
“Told you I could help.”
That last was Deion. On a normal day, Russel would have ripped him apart and put him back together, but after a hard fought victory, he simply put his arm around the young man.
“So you did.” Steven stroked his off-putting facial hair and looked into the distance.
“We ride east. We destroy the King in Ohio, and the road to Oakland is open to us.”
“And when we get there?”
“We win. Or we die.”
Russel leapt back onto the horse as the others made camp. He looked behind him as he rode out to scout the surroundings. They were a ramshackle group of weirdos; but they were his weirdos.
This was his team, and unlike The Traitor, he’d never leave them. He’d carry them as far as he could.