The sun was beginning to set over the horizon, casting an orange glow over the quiet stretch of road that ran close to the natural rock formations. Nestled at the base of one of the largest rocks stood a rough-looking service station. It looked like it was functioning and open, but time and the elements had long removed the shine from it. But in this day and age, folks were much less concerned about how something looked. Well, mostly. Out front, there are two gas pumps, a sprawling parking lot for long haulers, and a cluster of squat buildings jutting out from and built into the rock, known to regular travellers in the area as "Freedom Rock". There's a full-service garage, which can fix anything from 18-wheelers to motorbikes, and even has a machine shop to craft parts, an essential in this remote place. Then there's the store, where customers stop in to pay for their gas, replenish supplies, or enjoy a rare home-cooked meal at the lunch counter. Next to the store is the bathhouse and pool, where one can wash off the dust of the road and relax in a cool area to escape the punishing midday heat. On the other end of the station from the garage, built partly into the rock, is a motel with a dozen rooms where travelers could enjoy a clean and comfortable bed for a night or two. Freedom Rock Stop is set squarely between two settlements that sprang up from the rubble of the War. Two settlements that had survived, at any rate. These days, it was safer to stay in groups. Shipments travelled in convoy, people lived in settlements that looked more like fortified cities of old than modern towns. Those who prefer to be loners don't survive very long. If you try to strike out on your own, you become prey for what has simply become known as the Trade, and those who deal in the Trade, the Traffickers. In the aftermath of War, when things become scarce, everything becomes a commodity. Including people. But in this harsh climate, there is another side to Freedom Rock Stop. On the lee side of the Rock, facing the rising sun, there lays a world unseen by all but those who need to see it. Behind a small oil refinery which supplies gas and diesel for the pumps, there is a garage cut into the rock which leads to an underground bunker, the hideout of the group simply known as the Tribe. They call themselves Freedom's Tribe, a group made up mostly of those who were freed from, and now fight against, the Trade. The Tribe owns and runs the Stop, using it as a cover and a finance for their covert activities, which is mainly to sabotage the Traffickers, rescue and rehabilitate the Taken, those who were forcibly removed from their old lives and thrown into the Trade. Years ago, right after the War, they were mostly sold to work camps, the old money looking for cheap labour to get their businesses and factories jumpstarted again. But now, with more infrastructure in place, the major focus of the Trade has shifted from production to pleasure, and a large sex industry has blossomed. And while there is still a need for the Taken in factories and on farms, the young and the pretty are kept for much different, more depraved, work. Now, a cloud of dust begins to rise from the desert, off the ribbon of asphalt that cuts like a scar through the desert, along the more natural tracks of dirt trails that criss-cross the barren plane of land, headed towards the one place 3,000 miles from anywhere. The tribe is returning home, their masks and helmets covering their faces to hide them from being recognized as the small co-op that mildly serves the wayfaring journeymen. On the backs of bikes, ATVs and trucks sit others, huddled together in fear, pain and sickness. A new batch of nameless victims of the Trade, who won't be nameless for much longer. The convoy splits and skirts a wide berth around the Stop, approaching from several angles to create confused tracks in case they were followed. One by one they roll into the garage and begin unloading passengers, those who've stayed behind standing by to assist and welcome the newcomers, offering them blankets and hugs, leading them down to the safety of the bunkers, where a hot meal, a soothing shower, clothes, cots and medical attention were all waiting for them. Among those in the welcoming group is an older, dreadlocked black woman named Denise Chook, whom the Tribe affectionately called Momma. Momma immediately gravitates to the youngest or those who look the worst for wear, gently guiding them with a comforting hug and soft words. Soon, everyone is settled down to eat in a comfortable room, a motley collection of couches, circles of soft armchairs and booths are interspersed amongst tables and chairs, enough space for the Tribe and their guests to all find a seat or a space to relax. There are not only the new arrivals, but those whom the Tribe are still caring for. Once they are well enough, those who wish to leave will be transported to one of the two closest settlements to either start a new life, or attempt to make their way back home. Those who have nowhere else to go or wish to stay are given a place in the Tribe. ================================================== Momma had a bowl in her hand, eating while she circled the room, checking on the newcomers and encouraging them to eat, as well as taking count of the Tribe, most of whom she thought of as her children, to make sure everyone had made it home safe. This was a little ritual she had, because it was more than common that someone who left never made it back home. The raids were dangerous, the Traffickers ruthless. Everyone who went on a raid went with the knowledge that they themselves could be taken, or even killed. It was a risk they all understood and accepted. Momma herself didn't go on raids much anymore, unless there was intelligence of a lot of children to rescue. Children were her big weakness, after she'd lost her own little girl so many years ago. The child had died of sickness while they were escaping the Trade. Nowadays, she mostly ran the Stop and nursed the newcomers back to health. She was a mother figure to most of the Tribe, being one of the oldest, and founding, members. Finally finished her rounds, Momma sat down in an armchair with a sigh to finish her meal. Everyone had made it home safe this time, and she could finally relax for a few moments.