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Old 11-05-2018, 11:13 PM
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Default Chapter 17



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Lefranc wasn't worried about the Capital Guard finding the tunnel on their own, but he was worried that animals might sniff out their garbage, thus revealing the tunnel's location. So they cleaned up the mouth of the tunnel where they made their bivouac. The trash they'd produced was loaded onto a tarp which Ajax dragged down the tunnel for several miles before just leaving it all behind.

"How far does this go again?" Ajax asked.

"Far," Lefranc answered with a word.

"What do we do when we get to the end of the tunnel?" Colt asked.

"We get out," Lefranc answered.

"Yeah. And then what do we do?"

"We stay alive," The old warrior answered. That was answer enough.

Lefranc was right. The tunnel went far. They wore their sunglass-like night vision glasses, utilizing the built-in IR flashlights as there was no ambient light in the tunnel to amplify. The tunnel ran arrow straight. Colt detected no incline or decline. From time to time he'd check their bearing on his compass. It never altered.

Time lost meaning under the tunnel. They plodded ever onward. Christian walked point with Lefranc right behind. The rest followed along. One foot in front of the other until walking was automatic. The concrete tunnel was polished smooth, without any breaks or branches. With so little stimulus, the mind could shut down, and the body went into autopilot. From time to time they'd stop to make head calls, but nothing more. Then, Lefranc called the group to a halt.

"We'll stop here for four hours."

Colt checked his watch. They'd been going for almost a full day.

"How much further?"

"Two more days," Lefranc answered.

They rested for four hours. Then they set out again.

The packs were heavy, loaded as they were with ammunition, rations, and supplies. They carried their burdens without complaint. They were used to it. Major K trained them well. The group marched along in the mind-numbing darkness. Colt's body carried him forward while his mind drifted. He thought of other subterranean odysseys in fantastical stories. He thought of the mines of Moria. He thought of Lewis’s Underland. He thought of the tunnel between Fedic and the Badlands. On the afternoon of the second day, Christian raised his hand and brought the group to a halt.

"Intersection."

They were at a T-intersection. A branch veered to the right, the main tunnel continued on. The righthand branch was labeled with a metal plate set into the concrete. It read:

The Way Station
J. Chambers
D. Callahan

"We stick to the main tunnel," Lefranc said. "Always the main tunnel. No deviation."


"What's the Way Station?" Doc asked.

Lefranc Shrugged.

"Who are J. Chambers and D. Callahan?" Ajax asked.

Lefranc shrugged again. "I don't remember that sign being here before."

"Don't remember it?"

"I must've missed it."

"You don't strike me as the missing it type, Master Guns."

Lefranc shrugged.

"You saying somebody's been down here recently?"

"No," Lefranc said. "I'm only saying I don't remember that sign from before. But we explored that branch."

Colt held his hand over the entrance to the right-hand branch. It felt cool. No, not just cool. It felt cold, chilly, icy. Not only did it feel chilly, but he felt a draft. But instead of feeling a breeze coming out of the branch and hitting his open palm, it felt like the air was being sucked into the branch. Perhaps it was just his mind running away, but Colt imagined something sinister lying in wait down that branch. Something dark and hungry, pulling energy toward itself.

"What’s down there?" Colt asked.

"Goes on another two miles and stops dead. No Way Station down there. No J. Chambers or D. Callahan down there either. A dead end and nothing else."

"Then why’s it written on the wall," Ajax asked. Lefranc raised up his open palms. Their emptiness symbolized the empty answer he gave.

"Who can say? And if they could, would it even matter?"

The answer, empty as it was, was all the answer anybody was going to get.

Colt looked down the right-hand branch. The night vision revealed little, and that tunnel continued laser straight. The IR light seemed to penetrate that tunnel less than the main tunnel. Colt looked from one tunnel to the next, comparing the way the IR light performed in both. He couldn't tell what was real, and what was maybe imagination.

"I don't like it," Colt said. "Let's get moving."

"I agree," Lefranc said. They got moving.

They continued their mindless subterranean plodding. Only now it wasn't so mindless. A feeling of trepidation ran through Colt's thoughts, inspired by the cold, dark, sucking branch off the main tunnel with its enigmatic sign. Lefranc said it ended in a dead end. Colt suspected that the branch had ended in a dead end back when Lefranc and the Long Range Group explored it years ago. But if they went down there now, Colt suspected they'd find something down there. Something they didn't want to find. Something better left unfound.

After an hour's march, Lefranc spoke. He could have been talking to all of them, or none of them, but he spoke like a sage. "Lots of tunnels under Gomorrah. Tunnels that were dug after the Protest. This tunnel is fine, but others, maybe not. There are spooky qualities to these tunnels, the ones dug after the Protest. There is a feeling like they were dug for some…" Lefranc let his voice trail off until he could find the right word. Their footsteps echoed against the smooth, round, concrete walls.

"It feels like the tunnels were dug for an unnatural purpose. They found one near Confluence, a tunnel going straight down into the earth. No idea how deep it goes, or who dug it, or why. Bottom line, most cases underground ain’t a good place to be, not out here in the Badlands of Gomorrah."

"Sounds like you are telling ghost stories," Doc said.

"I don’t believe in ghosts," Lefranc said. "But the High Council was into weird ****. Doctor Chosen, you’ve heard of him, right?" The question didn’t need an answer.

"Doctor Chosen did perverted things. Deviant things. Mad scientist type things. Nobody knows for sure what he was up to. I know he mutated people. I’ve seen screamers with legs that were four, five feet long. Others with computers bolted onto their heads and wired into their brains. That’s just the things I’ve seen, but nobody knows how deep the twisted experiments descended into shadows. Some say he was three hundred years old."

"Nobody could live to be three hundred," Doc replied. Colt thought about the branch they passed, the one marked way station. He wasn't so sure, but he let Doc continue with his contrarian position.

"Maybe he wasn't three hundred years old," Lefranc said. "But he was old as ****. Older than anybody has any right to be. Like I said, I don't believe in ghosts. I don't believe in coincidences either. The guy who just happens to be the head of the high council, and just happens to be some kind of mad scientist, that guy, he just happens to live to be over a hundred? I'm supposed to believe that just happened? That was just exercise and a diet rich in fiber? I don't think so. Gomorrah was up to weird ****. There’s no telling what you might find out here in the Badlands, not when you start poking around in the dark and unswept corners.

"These Badlands are as fantastical and alien a world as any planet casting about in the distant reaches of the cosmos. I suspect that there is no limit to what you might find out here. This is the proverbial Rabbit Hole. It will take you as deep as you want to go, and then it will take you deeper."

They continued their odyssey through the subterranean purgatory. Morning, noon and night were relative down in the gloom. On the afternoon of the last day, they came across the hole in the wall. Christian halted them before it and took a knee. That was a signal. It was a signal to get switched on. They got switched on, raising weapons and clearing minds of anything but the moment. Even Robins, the least known tactically, raised his sub-gun up to the ready.

They approached the hole with caution. The side of the tunnel had been punched in. Bits of broken concrete, dirt, sand, and gravel lay in a pile beneath a three-foot diameter hole. Leading with their weapons, they looked into the hole.

The tunnel was perfectly round. The hole was not, it opened into an irregular burrow dug by something long before Colt and his companions arrived. They saw nothing that offered any clue as to what made it, or where it went, or where it came from. Christian reached down, picked up a chunk of broken concrete, examined its width and held it up for the others to see.

"Any idea what kinda animal can punch through this?" he asked, holding the concrete aloft.

"No animal can punch through that," Doc said.

"Well, it wasn't made by no machine."

"****, he's got you all spooked with his ghost stories, like a bunch of kids at the campfire."

"Like a bunch of kids at a campfire? Doc, that metaphor is the most imaginative thing I've ever heard you say," Ajax sneered.

"That wasn't a metaphor. That was a simile, you big dummy," Doc fired back.

Colt saw something in the rubble. It had a shine to it, even on the night vision. And it's shape was too perfect to be natural. He drew the bowie knife with its parachute cord wrapped handle off his hip. Lefranc watched and shifted his rifle in his arms. Colt eased the blade into the rubble and came up with something dangling off the tip.

"Give me some white light," Colt ordered. The New Spartan's night vision was good, but it was only so good. White light came on and the night vision came off.

"What the hell is a Hurtly Steam Motor?" Christian asked.

Dangling from Colt's bowie knife was a medallion made of a bronze colored metal. It had a cheap look to it, like it was the kind of plastic tchotchke people gave away as an advertising gimmick. One face of the medallion was blank. The other read:

Hurtly Steam Motors

Behind the words was a logo comprised of two cogs with a lightning bolt running between them.

"There's no such thing as a steam motor," Robins said. "Steam engines. Not steam motors."

"Tell that to Hurtly," Christian said.

Colt looked at the medallion. Then into the hole. He let the medallion slip off the end of his knife and back into the pile.

To Lefranc, Colt said, "I think we better go."

"I agree."

They went back on night vision. Colt took one last look into the hole. He found no clue as to its origin. Nor did he find any clues about Hurtly and his steam motors.

#

Hours later they saw the light. A yellow speck on their horizon. It grew by the footstep, but slowly. Another seeming eternity passed, and they were at the source of the light. A shaft ran straight up out of the tunnel. At the top of it was a storm grate. Ladder steps made of rebar were set into the concrete. A chain ran through the grate, down around one of the rebar steps and was fastened back onto itself with a padlock.

Christian looked over the padlock. He announced, "I've got a key." Then he drew his shotgun out of the scabbard on his back and racked it.

"Slow down cowboy. There's no need for that," Lefranc said.

"We need to get rid of the lock to get up out of here."

"I know. That's why I've got the combination."

Christian lowered his shotgun, disappointed. "You do?"

"Of course I do. Who do you think put the lock there in the first place?"

Christian shrugged.

"Zero, zero, one, nine."

Christian rolled the four dials on the padlock and gave it a sharp tug. It popped open. The two ends of the chain, now loose, swung freely.

"Now what?"

"Now, we go up."

Christian went up the ladder first, without his pack, but with a long rope fashioned out of the small sling ropes each of the Spartan Knights carried. Robins offered up his pistol, but Christian waved it off, going up with his shotgun in hand and his rifle slung across his back. He reached the top of the ladder and heaved against the storm grate. It took an effort. Christian shouldered the grate several times, cursing and pushing. Motes of rust shook loose and drifted down, twisting in the beams of yellow sunlight. The grate finally broke free, and Christian disappeared out of the tunnel shaft and into the sun-washed surface. A few short minutes later the rope dropped back down.

"Alright, Ajax, your next. We'll use the ropes to haul up the packs."

Ajax dropped his pack but went up with his machine gun and load carrying equipment. The web gear which held a few hundred rounds of belted machine gun ammunition. Lefranc climbed up after Ajax. Then the packs went up.

Colt looked back down the tunnel in the direction they came. He didn't see anything, but he wasn't wearing his night vision. He had a feeling of dread. The same icy feeling as back at the branch to the way station. He checked the tunnel with his night vision. Nothing. But the feeling did not go away.

"Hurry up with the packs," Colt called up.

"Something down there," Ajax called back. His tone genuine. Lefranc's ghost stories had them all on edge. Or was it their own intuition. Colt's mind wandered. The strangely labeled branch. The burrow into the tunnel. J Chambers and D Callahan, and the Hurtly Steam Motor, whatever the **** that was. They all added up to the same thing. Time to get out of here.

"Nothing. Just hurry."

"Last pack," Robins said. Colt turned to see an enormous rucksack disappear up the shaft.

"Good, get your ass up the ladder." Robins didn't need to be told twice. He climbed the ladder so fast he might have had four arms instead of one.

Doc went next. It seemed to Colt that the medic was taking an agonizingly long time to climb the ladder; hand, rung, foot, rung, next hand, rung. C'mon, Colt thought. He looked back down the tunnel in the direction they'd come. It felt cold down there again. Icy. Colt's gut screamed danger.

Doc was halfway up the ladder. Colt jumped on and climbed like a monkey. Doc disappeared out the hole and into the sunlight. Then Christian's head popped back down the hole.

"We left the lock down there."

****, Colt thought. "I'll get it."

He went back down the ladder, his primordial senses screaming danger. When he stepped off the ladder, a shudder ran through his body, and he could swear it was ten degrees colder in the tunnel. He felt compelled to look down the shaft and did. He saw nothing but darkness in either direction. Even so, his mind screamed. His imagination conjured images of a monster thundering down the tunnel in his direction. There was a giant centipede down there; scuttling legs and a tubular body that ended in sightless eyes and a giant mouth that could swallow him whole. It made the hole in the tunnel wall. It had been waiting a thousand years for him, and now it was coming. There was a giant floating eye down there, one with a gaping mouth with curved fangs dripping poison. It had been lurking in the shadows, out in the branch to the way station. It had eaten J. Chambers and D. Callahan, and now it was going to eat him.

Colt saw the lock and snatched it up.

"Found it."

"Wrap the chain around one of the lower rungs," Lefranc called down. The end of the chain dropped and clinked metallically.

For ****'s sake, Colt screamed in his mind.

"Got it."

He worked the chain and began climbing. Each handhold felt as if it were made of ice. One hand felt like it was sticking to the metal rung. He yanked it away and kept climbing; hands, legs, hands again. He skipped rungs. In his mind's eye, he saw a tentacle reaching out to wrap around his legs. He climbed. The sun grew brighter. The exit grew bigger. He imagined the hairy and jointed leg of a huge spider. A gargantuan tongue, sandpaper rough and covered in warts and sores and slick with venoms. A few rungs left. He could see Christian looking down. He imagined rusty chains ending in bloody meat hooks shooting through the darkness. He imagined an insectile appendage ending in a barbed stinger. He imagined a robotic claw, powered by the Hurtly Steam Motor. All reaching out and pulling him off the ladder and into the darkness forever. He imagined.

He was out of the tunnel. Out, in the sunshine and on a plain carpeted with tall, yellow-brown, windswept grass. He was with his comrades. He was safe, or at least as safe as could be expected.

Christian replaced the grate, took the ends of the chain and padlocked them together. Ajax lay prone behind his machine gun. The big weapon stood up on its bipod. Ajax looked Colt up and down.

"Dude, you alright? You look like you've seen a ghost."

Lefranc came close, leaned into Colt and whispered.

"You felt it, didn't you?" Colt nodded a reply.

"Like I said, don't go underground, not if you don't have to. Somethings wrong down there."

Colt nodded again. He looked down at his hands. One had a tiny blister running across it. It was probably just from scrambling up the ladder, Colt thought. It couldn't have been caused by cold metal. The ladder couldn't have been cold enough to blister skin. That would have been impossible, he thought, reasonably. And then a deeper, less reasonable and more imaginative part of his mind though; yeah, as impossible as a steam-powered motor.

"Are we still in California?" Ajax asked loudly. The question was absurd enough to jar Colt back into the reality of the moment.

"Yeah, we're still in California," Lefranc answered.

"Well, ****."

Colt surveyed his surroundings. The team members had arranged themselves in a 360 formation around the manhole into the tunnel. Their feet were inboard, their eyes and weapons facing outboard, out into the Badlands. The rolling plain of brown stretched out forever. To the east and west were hills. The ones to the west were lower, and closer. The ones to the east were almost at the horizon. They reached up and became a purple and brown haze mixed with the skyline. Colt could tell just by looking that those foothills grew into great mountains. Nearby, a row of concrete pillars, each about thirty feet high, ran north to south, one after another, in another seemingly endless column.

"What are those," Colt asked.

"Concrete pillars," Lefranc answered. "They were built to support some kind of high-speed train that was supposed to connect all of California. This was back in the Pre-Protest, once-was."

"Another one of those billions of dollars projects?" Colt asked. Lefranc nodded yes.

"They say this one cost a trillion dollars. Started out as forty-five billion. Then sixty billion. Then a hundred billion. Next thing you know, it’s a trillion dollars, and all anybody has to show for it are a few concrete pylons. No train. Lots of money spent, but no train."

"They didn’t finish the aqueduct either. Doesn’t seem like they finished much."

"No, they didn’t," Lefranc agreed. All the young Spartan's were listening now. They'd all turned to face him. "It was one boondoggle after another, from what I was told. People in charge spent money like it didn't matter. They made themselves and their buddies rich in the process, but never delivered on anything they promised. Lots of taxes. Lots of spending. Little to show for it.

"From what I was told, the number of people paying taxes got fewer and fewer, and the amount of taxes they were paying got higher and higher. All that for unfinished tunnels and trains to nowhere. The taxpaying people didn't like that and started pushing back. Thing was, the people spending all the tax money didn't like that. So that's when the Protest started."

"And that's when everything went to ****," Ajax finished.

"Right, that's when everything went to ****," Lefranc agreed. He checked the skyline, the sun, and the mountains, getting his bearings. He pointed to the north-northwest.

"The problem out here will be water. Same as it was when this land was first conquered. We'll head that way. Put some miles between us and this hole and bed down for the night. Tomorrow morning we'll come across a village. There should be a waterhole just before it. How's everybody doing for water?"

"Full canteens," Colt answered. "We've got one water can with about a gallon inside."

"Good. We need to keep 'em that way. Ruck up."

They hoisted their packs onto their backs and followed Lefranc into the Badlands.

#

They bedded down without incident and started before dawn the next day. By midmorning, they came upon the waterhole, and the village, and the Gomorrah patrol in their black-sashes.

"They got an early start," Lefranc said, surveying the scene through the scope on his sniper rifle. Colt was at his side, peering through a small set of binoculars. The compact binoculars were handy, but they didn't have the magnification he needed. They were several kilometers away. The black-sashed fighters were just blurry humanoid images in the glass.

"Never seen ones in black-sashes before," Lefranc remarked. "Ones I saw always wore red. Red-sashes over black. Usually hooded sweatshirts."

"Something new?" Colt asked. Lefranc shrugged.

"They could be freelancers," Lefranc said. "Some groups buy licenses to take slaves and rape and pillage the countryside."

Colt grunted disapproval and turned to look at the others. They heard scattered gunshots before they reached the village and stopped well away from it to observe. The others occupied a small depression in the ground. Ajax covered their rear with his machine gun. Robins used the respite to clean his submachine gun. Christian worked the dip in his lip and carefully spit the juices into a tin. He was saving his tobacco spit. The next tobacco resupply was uncertain. In the village, the figures in their black-sashes assembled around their vehicles, a motley collection, each one sporting a black flag.

"Looks like they're leaving," Lefranc said. "Don't see any civilians. At least, don't see anybody not wearing black."

Colt squinted into his binoculars. The figures were just fuzzy, stick-like images moving across his field of view. Colt asked, "What should we do?"

"Once they leave, we'll creep in, get our water, and see what's what."

#

The village had once been a Pre-Protest shopping center built in the fashion of a Tuscan villa. After the Protest, it became a semi-fortified village surrounded by a few vegetable patches and crudely plowed fields. When Colt and his fellow Spartan's crept in, they found a ruin.

Smoke from cooking fires and the lingering clouds of diesel exhaust hung in the air and stung both eyes and nostrils. From out of the smashed open doors and windows, thin and delicate curls of smoke snuck out from the inside. The raiders made a half-hearted attempt to gut the building with fire before leaving. These smells were nothing compared to the smell of the bodies.

"Death smell," Christian said, his tone serious. They cleared the area. Christian was right. They found a crowd of dead bodies piled before a wall on the backside of the complex.

"The raiders in the black-sashes killed everybody," Ajax said. Lefranc grunted agreement. Nobody else spoke. They just looked over the thirty or forty bodies massacred at the foot of the wall. There were men, women, children, the elderly. They all lay in formless heaps, some entwined in the other's arms. Colt had seen dead bodies before, but he'd never seen a massacre. He looked into the faces of his young comrades and guessed they hadn't either. All except for Christian. He'd done a tour before going to the Knights Course. The carnage did not seem to impress him. Ajax, Doc, and Robins looked at the bodies. Christian focused outward, to where potential threats might come from.

Lefranc studied the pockmarked wall and the arrangements of the bodies. He walked around them, crouching from time to time to examine footprints in the dirt, the spray of blood, the scattering of shell casings. Squatting down on his heels, he slung his rifle, took out some chewing tobacco, then drew a knife and probed a footprint with the tip. He spat into the blood caked dust and spoke.

"They've been dead since yesterday. The black-sashes rounded them all up and lined them all up against this wall. The firing squad stood there," Lefranc pointed with his knife to where the young knights stood. "They must not have trusted their guns, or their ammo because they had others on the sides with clubs and knives… maybe spears. When the firing squad opened up, these ones tried to squirt out the sides where they were stabbed and clubbed." Lefranc did more pointing with his knife. "Then they came in and finished off the wounded. Then they spent the night here and left this morning."

Colt looked over the bodies. Some of the adults were missing their pants. Not only their pants, but parts of their bodies too. These half-naked corpses were also missing thighs or buttocks.

"What about them?"

Lefranc spat again. "Just what it looked like. After they killed them all, they carved those ones up. Filleted them. Took the flesh right off the bone."

Colt looked around and didn't see any pants or rags near the bodies. "They must have made them strip before lining them up for the slaughter," he growled. Colt tensed. The muscles in his jaw worked with an angry rhythm.

"So why would they remove all those human thighs?" Robins asked.

"You know why," Colt answered before Lefranc could. "Meat." Both Colt's face and the tone of his words had a hardness to them. This hardness wasn't normal for the Spartan Knight, but Lefranc couldn't help but notice it seemed to suit him, even if it was unsettling. The muscles in Colt's long, lean, gunfighter arms tensed, and his hazel eye's glinted with an emerald green fire. "You ever see anything like this before, Master Guns?"

Lefranc grunted. "I saw plenty of massacres before. When the Texas Baronies rose up, and the High Council sent in the Peaceful Army to knock them back down, they’d wipe out whole towns. Places that were a lot bigger than this. But the Peaceful Army used poison gas. At least they did until we killed them. Out in this part of Gomorrah they usually just take slaves."

"But back in Texas, that was against rebels. These were Gomorrah's own people," Robins said. He looked a little wide-eyed. He didn't look faint. He did look like he could not believe what he saw, that the stories of Gomorrah's depravity were true.

Colt ignored Robins comment and asked, "What about cannibalism?"

"Happens. Weird stuff happens out here in the Badlands. Never seen a whole village wiped out for their long pork before."

"Maybe this is a second order effect of the nuke going off? Like the supply networks collapsed, and now nobody can get food. They're forced into cannibalism by the situation. Starving," Ajax said. Robins straightened at this and moved amongst the corpses for further study.

"Maybe. They were hungry enough to clean out those vegetable patches before leaving," Lefranc said, using his knife as a pointer again.

"Maybe not. Not exactly," Robins said. He was focused now, thinking. The unease he displayed earlier replaced with intensive, analytical thought.

"We saw what, maybe a platoon of those black-sashed fighters this morning?" Robins began. "You figure at least a pound of meat per person per day. More if they are active." Robins had his own bowie knife out now, and he used it as a pointed, an exact and unconscious imitation of Master Gunnery Sergeant Lefranc.

"They didn't cut off much meat from these bodies. Enough for a day or two. Maybe three. If they were starving, they'd probably grab as much as they could."

Doc shrugged. "Maybe they aren't all cannibals. Maybe they couldn't figure out how to keep any surplus from spoiling."

"Maybe they figure when they get hungry, they just massacre the next village,"
Ajax said with obvious disgust.

Christian called out. "C'mon over here." He'd wandered off while the others studied the massacre. Now he was beckoning them around the building. They followed him to another of the complex's walls.

"What the hell is this horse-****ery," Ajax asked.

The wall before them was freshly painted with an elaborate and vivid mural. The mural was Dante-like in its inspiration. Stratified layers rose vertically up the wall. In the bottom layer, naked people writhed in a burning city that could only be the nuclear inferno that so recently was San Francisco. Above them, troupes of monsters pranced merrily through a garden paradise. The monsters were mixes of man and animal. Colt saw familiar beasts there: a half-man half-bull minotaur, a man-goat satyr, a harpy, something that looked like a werewolf. Colt saw less familiar beasts there too. A woman that was half cat. A man sprouting the hairy legs of a spider out of his back. Rat-faced children. A stiff, tall, lean man who looked like an undertaker but with the head of a yellow bird.

Lording over the beasts in the garden was a blue giant, bald, and stripped to the waist. Above them, at the top of the mural, a man and woman looked down from a heaven of billowing white clouds. Their hands were entwined with each other. They looked down on the others like a loving mother and father fawning upon their babes.

"The broad is the Earth Mother," Lefranc said. "The guy is Doctor Chosen."

Colt's jaw tightened again at the name of Doctor Chosen.

"The Earth Mother is a whore, and the Colt's dad turned Doc Chosen into smoke," Ajax said.

"Who’s that blue guy," Christian asked.

Lefranc shrugged. "Don't know. Never saw him before. Probably just another mother****er who needs to be killed."

Colt walked to the mural and ran a finger down it. It came back wet with paint.

"Whoever he is, these black-sashes felt he was important enough that they needed to paint a mural for him before leaving."

"Part of the whole religion out here," Lefranc said. "They worship what they call the Earth Mother. Earth Mother, mother earth, you get the picture. Usually they depict Jesus as her son."

"Jesus, Jesus?" Ajax asked.

"The same, sort of," Lefranc answered. "Earth Mother as the mother and Jesus as the son. Since Colt's dad smoked Doctor Chosen, I can see why he'd be up in Gomorrah heaven hanging out with the Earth Mother. I still don't know who the blue guy is."

"Maybe the blue guy is Jesus," Ajax suggested.

"Jesus wasn't blue, and he had a beard," Doc snapped. "That blue guy's as hairless as a baby."

"Jesus was also the son of God, not some hippy-dippy Earth Mother? And who's to say Gomorrah Jesus can't be bald and blue and all yoked up," Ajax snapped back.

"What about those monsters," Colt asked. Lefranc shrugged again. He didn't know, and he didn't bother even guessing an answer. They didn't get a chance to discuss the subject any further.

"We got company coming," Christian said loudly. His spoke urgently, but not panicky. They heard the engines of approaching vehicles.

"Hide."

Everybody ran away from the compound, towards the fields beyond. All except Robins who made as if to run into the building before Lefranc grabbed him and swung him around.

"That's the first place they'll explore," he explained.

Ajax threw on his pack, and with his machine gun in one hand scooped up the water can on the run with the other.

"Hasty ambush, there," Colt ordered. A depression ran through the field, an irrigation ditch now dry. They dove into the empty ditch one after another. Just as the last of them cleared the lip of the trench, two trucks sped around the back of the shopping center.

"Red-sashes," Lefranc remarked. He shirked out of his pack and took up his sniper rifle. They were less than fifty yards from the ruined compound. Colt slid out of his own ruck, as did the others. The ditch offered cover, but they were close to these new arrivals. If the red-sashes did any exploring…

Colt and Lefranc peaked over the lip of the ditch. The two trucks each sported red flags from their beds. They slowed as they drove past the massacre but stopped in front of the mural. The men in one truck shouted at the ones in the other. Then the second truck sped around to the front of the building.

Inside the ditch, Ajax set up his machine gun on its bipod. Then he reached into one of the outside pouches on his pack and removed a metal can full of more ammunition. Christian reached into the top flap of his rucksack and removed an antipersonnel mine. Doc took one of their disposal rockets and moved down the ditch, out to the flank and away from the others.

When the second truck came back around, he brought all his buddies with them. Now six trucks sat parked in front of the murals. The men inside poured out. Next came the shouting.

"They ain't happy," Christian whispered to the others. They couldn't hear clearly what the red-sashed fighters were saying, but Christian was right. They weren't happy. They shouted at one another and made wild gestures. Sometimes they gestured towards the massacred bodies. More often they gestured at the mural. A small party went inside the building to scrounge for something. When they came out empty a few minutes later, the yelling intensified.

"They got here a day late and a dollar short, and they ain't happy about it," Lefranc said.

Colt could see they weren't happy, but he didn't think it was just about being beaten to the punch by the black-sashes from the morning. He felt like something else was at play here, something more significant. This suspicion was confirmed when one of the red-sashes squatted down in front of the mural. After emptying his bowls, this artist took a handful of his own waste and smeared it across the mural. Then the others joined in, squatting down to make their own waste, or scooping up each other's feces and spreading it over the mural in disgusting brown streaks.

"That is not sanitary," Doc said, with an appall that was both sincere and comical.

"Maybe not," Christian said. "But I gotta admit, I think it's damn entertaining watching them play with their own poo."

Ajax and Robins both snickered at this. Colt only squinted, concentrating on the scene before him and trying to make sense of it all. Something was going on out here in the Badlands. He didn't know what it was, but it was something. The plan had been to come here and hide out until the storm passed back in the Emerald City and it was safe to go home. That was the plan. As Colt watched the red-sashes deface the mural the black-sashes spent all morning painting, he became painfully aware that plans often change.

#
After they completed their destruction of the mural, the red-sashes got in their trucks and headed north. They did not explore the fields, and so the Spartan Knights repacked their rockets and mines and saved them for another day. When they were sure that raiding party was gone they headed northwest on their long journey to the coast.
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Default Chapter 18

Robert Murray

Robert Murray returned to the Emerald City on the early morning packet ship. The air, thickened by morning mist, smelled pleasantly of sea salt. Wordlessly, he hopped into his car and headed to his office. The last place he wanted to be was in the capital, and the last thing he wanted to be doing was attending his duties as a politician. What he wanted to do was eat a hearty breakfast, play eighteen holes of golf, drink down a lunch at the clubhouse, take a nap, play another round of golf, eat another meal, drink down his dessert, and go to bed, all in that order. The fantasy of this perfect day shattered like glass when he arrived at his office and saw Senator Applegate seated behind his desk.

"Sign this," Applegate said without preamble. Applegate did not say, "sign this, please" or, "I need you to sign this" or, "I'd like you to sign this." The words were curt and affirmative. An order. Murray watched the document slide towards him across his own desk.

He took the document, looked at it, then looked back at Applegate. Applegate's bald mass sat piled in Robert Murray's chair. A broad toothy grin spread across the senator's pudgy, pink face. Applegate looked like a smug, pale, banana slug. In my own office, in my own chair, the audacity of it, Murray thought. He looked back at the document and scanned the top of it.

Order of Subpoena
By Order of the Civil Authority of New Sparta:
The following person is ordered to report before a Joint Inquisitorial Panel of the Congress of New Sparta:


"Major K? You are issuing a subpoena to Major K?" Robert Murray asked. Applegate's grin broadened.

"Missing nuclear weapon. A rogue Spartan Knight. Now word is out that there is a team of Spartan Knights unaccounted for, one the son of the former rogue knight. Everything leads back to Major K and the Knights Course. I don't see any reason why I wouldn't have Major K brought before committee and forced to answer some questions."

Murray looked from Applegate to the document and then back again. "Did the Chief Marshal put you up to this?"

"Of course not," Applegate answered. "This is a purely civil matter, which is why I need you to cosign this subpoena. Your signature would also go a long way to…" Applegate's voice trailed off.

Murray felt apprehension about the subpoena. More accurately, he felt apprehension about Major K. Murray would be perfectly happy to never deal with that mechanical demon ever in his hopefully long life. Along with that apprehension, Murray felt anger, anger towards Applegate's pompous attitude. Lion of the senate or not, Murray did not appreciate being bushwhacked in his own office.

"Long way to what?" Murray asked.

"Well, your conduct the other day during the meeting about the Confluence incident, it raised some questions. Questions about your loyalty. Questions about your moral courage. If you were to sign this subpoena order, it would go a long way to restoring confidence."

Murray looked back down at the document and the name on it. Major K trained Spartan Knights for as long as Murray could remember. Before that, he'd been a Spartan Knight, rising up the ranks from private to major, paving the path of his success with the bodies of Gomorrah screamers. One Gomorrah horde almost killed Major K, almost. After that particular battle they found him beneath a mountain of mutilated bodies and spent brass. The screamers took half his body away and still the major survived, resurrected as a cyborg knight. Major K didn't die because he was not meant to die. Major K was meant to kill. Murray looked up at Applegate.

"You sure you want to do this?"

Applegate made a sweeping affirmative gesture with his hands.

Your funeral, Murray thought as he signed the document.


The Crown Prince

"They're coming for you," The Crown Prince told Major K. The two of them sat alone in Major K's home. The Knights Course was located on the Olympic Peninsula, at one of the old US Army coastal defense forts built in the early 1900's. From here, aspiring Spartan Knights went out to train in the nearby mountains and rainforests. As the school's commandant, Major K lived in the fort's refurbished, commanding officer's home. Here, the Crown Prince and Major K discussed this latest development in the sitting room.

"Senator Applegate is going to bring you before a joint congressional inquiry. He means to ask you about the boy, among other things."

Major K, a horrible mix of flesh and metal, did not look the least bit upset by this news. At present, his school grounds lay empty. This year's Knights Course had been postponed indefinitely under the Chief Marshal's orders. The instructors and faculty all received transfers to other commands. Now it was just Major K here, alone. He gave the Crown Prince's words a moment's thought as he drank a bitter drink that passed for coffee. It was a muddy gray, equal parts tea and chicory. After taking a sip, Major K wiped at his mouth with a cloth. His rictus was half lipless, backed by chrome teeth. Whenever Major K ate or drank he kept a napkin or handkerchief close at hand to wipe away at the lipless of his mouth.

"They can ask me any questions they want. It doesn't mean I'm going to answer any of them."

"They can force you to answer them," The Crown Prince said. "That's the whole damn point."

Major K flashed the Crown Prince a dubious look. One of the major's eyes was grim and forceful. The other eye was a camera lens connected to the computer processors wired into his brain tissue. Below the electro-mechanical eye, sat crisscrossing scar tissue, then the Parkerized metal appendages. A robotic arm and robotic leg, articulated, in bright black steal, protruded from Major K's equally black uniform. They moved with hydraulic power, stronger than any human muscles. The other half of his body, the part that was still human flesh, was all muscle. Thick knots of it rolled and bulged and met the Parkerized metal along the major's centerline, a grotesque landscape of scar tissue. Part of the major's dubious look asked, 'What more can they do to me?' The other part of that look said, 'nobody forces me to do anything.'

The Crown Prince sipped his own drink and looked around the room. Refurbished several times over the years, it reflected the age of its inception and its craftsman roots. Hand cut chair rails lined the walls. Wood panels, a hammered tin ceiling, and hardwood floors made the interior feel warm. Centered on one wall was an enormous fireplace made of river rock with a mantel of roughhewn timber. A rifle hung over the mantle in a glass case. The rifle was sleek, black, and unadorned with any accessories save it's sling. In one corner of the room, the guidon of the Knights Course rested in its wooden stand. The guidon rested snug in a sleeve of olive drab canvas, cased, as it is always cased.

"You still have the course's colors cased I see," The Crown Prince said.

"They're always cased," Major K said. "As a reminder. You know that." Major K paused and then asked, "Why are we hesitating on this? Why don't you just go in there and do it?"

"Go where?"

"The Emerald City. The Capital. We should just there and kill them."

"Kill who? The Chief Marshal?"

"No, everybody. Kill everybody in the capital, the whole lot of them. Kill them all and take over."

"A coup d'etat? You want me to launch a coup?"

"I don't want you to do anything. The fact is, the time has come for a change. This, all this," Major K waved a metal hand to indicate the room, the school, the peninsula and all of New Sparta. "All of this has evolved in a way it was never intended to.

"From the United States came The Protest, and from The Protest, came Gomorrah, a revolutionary state based on environmentalism and socialism and communism and statism. On utopianism, dystopianism, omnisexualism, progressivism, mysticism, tribalism. The counter revolution to that brought about New Sparta; a military-state alternative to Gomorrah.

"But New Sparta was never meant to simply resist Gomorrah. New Sparta's natural purpose was to destroy Gomorrah. If Gomorrah was borne out of evil, then New Sparta's design was to be borne for good. Good however cannot simply exist alongside evil… to perpetuate its own existence and coexist in the same ecosystem as evil. No, the purpose of good is to compete with evil. To fight against evil. To destroy evil, just as evil's purpose is to destroy good. Look at The Protest. The design of The Protest wasn't just to carve out some enclave of territory, a safe-space governed by the new laws of environmental-spiritual-tribal-progressivism. The design of the Protest was to destroy absolutely the United States and the old order. It wasn't enough for the founders of The Protest to what they wanted. For them to be satisfied, you had to do what they wanted. You couldn't be you. You had to be them. An independent soul was no different than an enemy soul or an apostate's soul. Each were intolerable. How many armies did Gomorrah send against our walls? How many battles of New Platea? Each one destroyed. Each one replaced by another. Why? Why couldn't they just leave us alone? They owned all of North America. We were but mote-specks on their map. So why couldn't they leave us alone? Because leaving us alone was contrary to the natural order of things, something they understood far better than we did. They had to destroy us because they were compelled to.

"This idea of peaceful coexistence is what killed New Sparta. We grew complacent, content to sit behind our walls and resist. We believed resistance was our purpose, denying our true purpose, which was to destroy Gomorrah, destroy the evil which it manifests and drive a stake through its heart. That was when they took people who we'd never let run a platoon and let these same people run the nation. We put people in charge who advocated reason and restraint, and moderation, reset and reconciliation, and what have those mealy-mouthed words gotten us? We've been fighting the war for how long? All with nothing to show for it. The closest we came to victory was The Hammer, and we know what happened to him." Major K made a flourishing gesture towards the rifle in its glass case before continuing. "He was in the first generation of our enterprise. It took one generation to go from the righteous sword arm of good to acceptance of evil and tolerance for mediocrity. We denied New Sparta its true purpose, to destroy Gomorrah.

"This idea of peaceful coexistence is our undoing. It is always our undoing. It rots us from within, like cancer through marrow. The only natural course in the evolution of this organism called New Sparta is for it to destroy itself. From that destruction, something pure might rise anew."

The Crown Prince took a long pull on his bitter drink, then carefully set the cup down and said to Major K, "That's ****ing crazy talk."

"What's crazy is that The Colonel blew hell out of Gomorrah, and now New Sparta's state apparatus is not only demonizing the man who gave us victory, but also wants to destroy his son."

"I'm not prepared to launch a coup to oust the Chief Marshal. That should be the course of action of last resort."

"If you save that option for a last resort, it'll be too late."

"We can still work within the system."

"You think the system is in place to protect you?"

"The system is in place to protect you," The Crown Prince replied.

"No, the system is in place to **** you. The system protects the system. It is in place to protect the Chief Marshal. Its in place to protect Senator Applegate. Its in place to protect that toady Lions and incompetents like the Needles brothers. The system protects the mediocre and the morally uncommitted, but most of all the system protects itself. It’s a perpetual motion machine whose purpose is to keep itself moving and destroy any resistance.

"And this idea that it is somehow noble to work within the confines of this corrupt machine is killing us. It always kills us. We kneel down, put our necks on the chopping block, then congratulate ourselves for working within the system, for being the better man, for being civilized. What good is being civilized if it means you lose?"

The Crown Prince looked around the room again. His eyes passed over the sleek, black rifle in its glass case. His eyes passed over the Knights Course guidon, cased in green canvas.

"I'm not ready to risk civil war," the Crown Prince said.

"The Chief Marshal is," Major K retorted. "He's ready to go to the mat, now. Think about that."



Lions

Lions sat inside the Chief Marshal's office, high in the building once known as the Space Needle. Outside was an all-encompassing view of the Emerald City. Inside, the view was as cold and as beautiful as inside any great museum. Weapons and artifacts representing all of mankind's military achievements adorned the walls, taken from around the world by the numbered groups. Lions sat at the conference table, along with Greylick and Needles. Chief Marshal William Powell Gorman sat at the head of the table. Gorman looked over his lieutenants and began.

"The Knights Course has only served to produce men who are very capable yet politically unreliable, and undesirable, as evidenced by the actions of the late Colonel. Ending the Spartan Knight program is an imperative. Therefore, I suspended the latest course indefinitely and had the office of personnel and manpower transfer out most of the faculty and staff. Now, I have made arrangements with Senator Applegate to have the school's commandant brought before congress and give testimony."

"Testimony on what?" General Greylick asked.

"Ostensibly, Major K will be asked to give testimony as to his knowledge of The Colonel's conspiracy. In reality, the purpose will be to charge Major K with either contempt or perjury, or both, at which point, you, Colonel Needles will arrest the major."

Colonel Needles nodded solemnly. Lions looked from Needles to Gorman, then back again. Greylick asked, "What if he doesn't perjure himself?"

"Don't be obtuse," Gorman snapped. "Even that fat idiot Applegate will be able to contrive a perjury charge. If he says anything it will be easy enough to twist it around to look like perjury. If he doesn’t say anything then we hold him in contempt. Once Major K is arrested, we can use him as leverage against other undesirables and unreliables and start cleansing and unifying this government behind me."

"Major K might not be arrested." Lions addressed this comment to Gorman and Needles.

"Suicide?"

"No. More along the lines of he won't be taken alive," Lions said. He shifted his body to face Colonel Needles directly. "When you go for Major K, go prepared. Go big. Don't take any chances."

"I won't," Needles said. Gorman dismissed the topic with a flick of his hand.

"If Major K is killed resisting arrest, so be it. Alive would better suit my purpose, but dead can be made to work. Now, what of the Gomorrah refugees?"

"No contact from the radio we sent them," Lions answered.

"We've focused the drones and other collection assets over the old Naval Weapons Station where they've made their encampment. Their internal radio traffic has increased, and the camp is getting bigger, and appears more organized, but they still have made no attempt to contact us," Greylick added.

Gorman drummed his fingers on the surface of the ornate desk before asking, "And how do we assess their logistics?"

Lions answered. "No change, sir. The analysts predict they are living hand to mouth at best. More likely they are operating at a deficit in terms of food, fuel and medicine. Their daily caloric requirements must be more than they have on hand or can produce. Recently they've been pushing out large patrols. We can't track all of those, but we suspect these are foraging parties." Lions felt uncomfortable about the situation in Gomorrah. It wasn't that he cared at all for the refugees or their plight. What he did not like was increasing the number of people in New Sparta who knew about what was going on down there. Getting an assessment on the Gomorrah camp meant bringing in analysts and experts and staff members. The more people involved, the more likely secrets would slip. Loose lips sank ships, as the saying went, thus it was best to keep the pairs of lips that could slip to a minimum. More lips also meant more possibilities to tie things back to Gorman, even with Lions acting as a cutout. Lions looked around the table at what he considered 'High Command,' or the 'Inner Circle.' It was just himself, Greylick, Needles and the boss. Nice and tight.

"How much aid did we give them with the radio?"

"A few pallet loads," Lions answered.

"How long would that last them?"

"For the amount of people down there, it wouldn't even make a snack."

Gorman drummed his fingers again. Then said, "We need to get them on that radio. If we provide them more aid, that might motivate them to contact us. We need open an air bridge to deliver more supplies into Gomorrah. Mass quantities." Gorman looked at Lions and asked, "Can we do that?"

"Loosing those aircraft at Confluence will hurt, but I'm sure we can make it work. We have a forward operating base down at Grant's Pass which can house Griffins and serve as a jump-off point."

"Good," the Chief Marshal said. "I want you to go into the class D war stocks. Open an airbridge into Gomorrah and start parachuting that stuff in."

Lions leaned back and reflected. The class D war stocks were literally the left-overs from a forgotten age, the stockpile of pre-protest weapons, technology and supplies. These were the cans of proverbial processed government cheese a decade past their expiration dates. These were the military vehicles the numbered groups pilfered from military museums around the world. These were tube radios and moth-eaten Cold-War clothing and all those things kept in storage incase Gomorrah ever breached the walls of New Sparta and full mobilization of the population became necessary. Nobody would miss the stocks, but…

"Aircraft won't be a problem, neither will supplies to drop. But parachutes will be. And manpower. We'll need air delivery specialists, parachute packers, maintainers for the aircraft… To create an airbridge large enough to supply what we found in Gomorrah will take a great deal of organization."

Gorman looked around the room into the various faces. Lions knew what the boss was thinking. Such a logistical effort would require a commander, somebody to be in charge. But who? Who among them was free enough to take on the task of supply the remnants of Gomorrah.

"Appoint Colonel Needles as commander of the operation."

"Me," Colonel Hendrick Needles gasped.

"No, not you. Your brother," Gorman snapped at the lizard-faced man.

Lions coughed. Greylick shifted uneasily but said nothing.

"Something wrong," Gorman asked.

Bald and portly Greylick kept his mouth shut. Needles steamed. "My ****ing no-good brother is a horse's ass. He's dog ****, sir. He got…"

Lions held out his hand to cut off Needle's tirade, then spoke calmly.

"Chief Marshal, Colonel Brown Needles just oversaw this biggest aviation disaster in our history. The Commanding Officer of the Confluence garrison, he wasn't even on the scene at the time of the crisis because he was illegally flying his mistresses and personal baggage back to New Sparta. He left the movement of his command to his executive officer, a man who is still missing in action.

"Colonel Brown Needles was absent from his post, derelict in his duties as a commanding officer, and was fraternizing with the enemy by maintaining a long-term relationship with a virtual harem of Gomorrah women, women he tried to smuggle back into New Sparta."

"From what I heard, they weren't even good looking," Greylick muttered. Lions ignored the comment and pushed on.

"Sir, Colonel Brown Needles deserves a court martial followed by a rope around the neck if only for the purpose of good order and discipline. Spartans out in the field are not supposed to be ****ing the locals. Spartan men for Spartan women. That amounts to canon law. Numerous careers have ended because of that. And here we have a commander, not some ranker but a commander, whose entire command ends in catastrophe while he's off monkeying around with his Jilly girls. How will it look if after all that he is allowed to be in charge once again? After what he's done, you could shoot him in the face in public and nobody would bat an eye."

Colonel Hendrick Needles smiled and nodded at the idea of the Chief Marshal publicly executing his twin brother. The Chief Marshal however leaned back in his chair, steepled his fingers and sighed thoughtfully.

"I don't necessarily disagree with you, Colonel Lions," the Chief Marshal began. "Colonel Brown Needles never had a reputation for being the most competent officer. His fornicating, and the disaster in Confluence did not help his reputation.

"But Brown is loyal. Loyalty is an important quality to me, especially now. The Colonel, the escape of his son, a missing numbered group, the scheming of men like the Crown Prince and this Major K; at every turn I find conspirators. I expect Colonel Needle's loyalty will only increase, given the court martial hanging over his head, and the fact that he's a colonel."

"A colonel?" Hendrick Needles asked.

"Every colonel yearns to be a general, just as every first sergeant yearns to be a sergeant major. You can count on that. Those ambitious desires make men loyal to those who can supply the rewards they covet," Gorman said. Needles looked to Lions, but Lions did not look his way. Gorman continued.

"Colonel Brown Needles will be put in charge of the resupply effort. If he goons it up, or if he lets spill secrets, well, Colonel Needles is also expendable."

Needles smiled at the idea of his twin being expended. Lions still didn't like the idea. But he decided that since the decision was made, it was best to just grin and bear it.

Gorman drummed his fingers on the desk again and then asked, "Anything new on the boy?

"Nothing," Lions answered. "All radio transmissions ceased. We have not intercepted anything being sent the other way, in the direction of the strike."

"Any unusual activity from the Crown Prince?" Gorman asked Needles.

"My surveillance teams haven't reported anything."

"I'm monitoring his computer and other communications devices, nothing there," Greylick answered.

Gorman thought about that for a moment. "It is all too neat, isn't it? Can we get somebody down there to do a battle damage assessment?"

"We have to be careful," Lions replied. "Goes back to the loyalty issue. I would not trust any unit composed of Spartan Knights. That rules out the Long Range Group and the numbered groups. Even the standard line units I think would best be avoided. If they did find the body of The Colonel's son, word would spread like wildfire."

"What about our mutual, outside, friend," Gorman asked. Needles raised an eyebrow.

"I would advise against him, sir. He's already got his hands full. Besides, he's too clever by half. He can add two and two together. If he found dead bodies he might try and use that leverage against you somehow. The less he knows about what goes on in here, the better.

Gorman nodded agreement. He turned to Colonel Hendrick Needles. "Can you put together a small reconnaissance team to go into Gomorrah."

Needles straightened uncomfortably. "I could sir, but it is not really our thing. The Capital Guard aren't infantrymen. We're military police." The Chief Marshal smiled at Colonel Needles disarmingly.

"I know all about the Capital Guard and their capabilities. Yes, this isn't really their thing. But we are only talking about poking into some craters and looking for dead bodies. I'm not asking you to take on the missions of the Long Range Group."

"Yes, sir," Needles replied, bowing his head with acceptance of the mission.

"Good," Gorman said, and he sprung to his feet, signaling that the meeting was over.

"Arrest Major K, open an air supply route into Gomorrah, and bring back The Colonel's son's body. I'd say we all have our work to do."
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Default Chapter 19


Keep your eyes on the road, your hand upon the wheel
Keep your eyes on the road, your hand upon the wheel
Yeah, we're goin' to the Roadhouse
We're gonna have a real, Good time

The Doors, Roadhouse Blues

Colt
"I want information. I want to know what the hell is going on out here, and the people down there might know," Colt said. He said this firmly, forcefully, but not angrily. He did not raise his voice, but he did not convey any hint he would be denied. Lefranc shifted uneasily. He didn't like the idea. It was night time. They now traveled at night and holed-up during the day. This was in response to seeing the army two days before.

Colt and his party made it to the Sacramento River. On its bank sat a tavern called, "The Fish Camp," which was little more than a pair of trailers joined together. Laying on their stomachs, the party watched the tavern through their night vision glasses. While not much to look at, The Fish Camp was active. A few vehicles sat in its parking lot: a Honda Accord that had seen better days, a van missing all its doors, a full-size, crew-cab pickup truck that must have once been a railroad vehicle. None of the vehicles bore red or black pennants. Nor were they decorated with bleached human skulls, crucified bodies, or any of the other savagery that passed for civilization here in the badlands. A generator hummed outside, and electric lights glowed inside. Soft country music wafted out of the bar and into the night air.

"Best thing for us to do is sneak around this place and keep going," Lefranc said.

"We sneak around, we won't know any more about what's going on down here than we already do, and that's too damn little."

"What we saw two days ago in the valley isn't our business," Lefranc said.

"I disagree," Colt said.

Behind them, Doc made a shifting noise. Doc and Robins watched their rear this time so that Ajax could train his machine gun on the buildings. He lay on one flank, Christian with his grenade launcher lay on the other.

"Best thing to do is bypass this and keep going," Lefranc repeated. Colt did not reply.

The country music coming from the bar paused. Christian smiled, raised his hand and counted down with his fingers while at the same time saying, "and a one, and a two, and a one-two-three-four."

The music started back up again. First the soft strumming of an acoustic guitar. Then a woman's melodious voice.

People Tell Me I'm the Lucky One…
And We've Just Begun.
Think I'm Gonna Have a Son.

"They've played that same song twelve times in a row now," Doc grumbled.

Robins grinned and said, "That's, Danny's Song, by Anne Murray. Released in 1972. Originally written by singer-songwriter Kenny Loggins." The others looked at him as if he were crazy. Robins shrugged nervously. "My brain… Things go in there and stick. I remember everything, even things I have no business remembering. Some people can run really fast, some are really strong," Robins gave a nod to Ajax when he said this. "I've got a great memory. It's like I was born with half the arms but twice the brains," Robins said, laughing nervously at his own joke.

"You are such a ****ing nerd," Ajax said with disgust.

Anne Murray kept singing down in The Fish Camp. Colt remained undeterred.

"We need to know what it was we saw the other day. Those people down there might know. Maybe we can get a vehicle from them too."

"I can get that truck easy enough," Lefranc said.

"I don't doubt you can, Master Guns. But that still won't tell us what we saw out there."

"What we saw out there's got nothing to do with keeping you alive."

"Maybe not," Colt agreed. "But it ain't just about me. And you said it yourself; you killed them all."

Lefranc grumbled something disapproving.


Two days ago, they were sneaking their way through the flat scrubland of the Central Valley. They heard the convoy long before they saw it. Amplified music tore across the plain, warbling with electronic distortion. The noise made them all stop and orient in its direction, which was what they were supposed to do. In that brief moment when they stopped, Colt saw something in Lefranc's face; a mix of anger, nostalgia, and terror.

"Rally Point," Colt hissed. He pointed with his free hand, the one not holding his carbine's pistol grip. They trotted back to a depression they had just passed, packs and pouches bouncing on their bodies in time with their movements. They jumped into the depression, and each man moved to cover his preassigned section without being asked. Such actions were instinctive now, even for the outsider Robins.

The tear of music grew louder. The cacophony was noisy, angry, and overwhelming in its audible force. The mix of guitars and drums and other electronically enhanced and amplified noises seemed to be random but at the same time, melodious. And always, the music was angry.

"What the hell is that noise," Doc asked. Lefranc answered. His knuckles were white around his sniper rifle. He had a distant look in his eyes.

"The song's called, Ratfinks, Suicide Tanks and Cannibal Girls. It's the marching song of the Peaceful Army."

"I thought you said you and the Crown Prince destroyed the Peaceful Army," Christian said.

Lefranc spat a dark, angry stream of tobacco juice into the dust.

"We did."

"Sounds like they're back from the dead," Christian said, his eyes bright, with a grin smeared across his dirty face. He set down his carbine/grenade launcher to pack his lip full of tobacco. All the while he bobbed his head and jiggled his hips in time with the music blasting across the landscape, jiving, grooving to it as the others prepared for the worst. Robins circled around their packs, removing the disposable rocket launchers and readying them for action.

After ten or more minutes, they saw the convoy snaking down the road. It was a motley mix of vehicles, three dozen strong. There were some old wheeled military vehicles mixed with heavy-duty civilian vehicles, pre-Protest models, all heavily modified. Most looked to be redesigned to run off alcohol or wood gas. When the sixth vehicle in the convoy came into view, they saw the source of the music. It was a big-rig wrecker whose towing equipment had been removed and replaced with sets of giant stadium speakers. Lefranc checked it through the scope of his Enfield. There were banks of batteries and pair of running generators there too, running the massive sound system. The convoy rolled along, blaring its music and oblivious to the watchers hiding on its flank.

“Sounds like a raiding party of demons,” Doc said.

“It probably is,” Christian replied. “Maybe not demons in the biblical sense, but demons all the same.”

The music came on. The wailing, drum-thunder, heavy bass, and deep guttural vocals came out like a chant, the DJ looping the song over, and over, and over again. Contrasted with the peaceful desert plain that existed minutes before, it was even more disturbing.

Hidden in their depression, they watched the demon-convoy pass by. The last to pass was a 1958 Buick Super 8, lifted, and angled so that its chrome grill grinned like a rictus down at the roadway. Every bit of chrome on the car sparkled, and each body panel was a different shade of primer. Two long whip antennas rose off the back of the car, each topped with a bleached skull. A flagstaff also rose off the end of the car. The flag it trailed bore the sigil of the Peaceful Army: a combination of a Peace Sign and the Jolly Roger's skull and crossbones. In one corner sat the number, "2.0."

"We wait here until we can't hear the music anymore, then we wait another fifteen minutes," Lefranc advised. Nobody argued.

"Didn't the Peaceful Army use poison gas," Colt asked Lefranc when the notes faded beneath the sound of the wind. "They used chemical weapons to suppress the Texas Baronies when they revolted?"

"They did," Lefranc agreed. "The High Council raised the Peaceful Army to carry out a punitive expedition against Texas. Wasn't pretty. They were like a Nazi Einsatzgruppen, only with chemical weapons, fewer rules and restraint, and more fanaticism. They killed everything: people, animals, crops… everything."

"I saw nothing in that convoy that looked like chemical weapons or support equipment," Robins offered.

"Neither did I," Colt agreed. "My question is why would anybody want to raise up the Peaceful Army again?"

"Because people are ****ed up," Christian said. He popped the top of a can of energy drink. The can was warm from the heat of the sun and sitting inside Christian's colossal rucksack. The grenadier gulped it happily. Then he spat a stream of dip spit into the can, sloshed it around to mix it with the last of the warm energy drink, and downed the last of it.


Back at their position overlooking The Fish Camp, Colt spoke.

"If whatever is left of Gomorrah is raising another Peaceful Army, a Peaceful Army 2.0, then we need to know. We need to let the Crown Prince know."

"What we need to do is keep quiet, get to the coast, and wait for the Crown Prince to contact us. This Peaceful Army business has nothing to do with us."

"And what if there is a Peaceful Army 2.0, and they get their **** together and head north? What if they do have a bunch of chemical weapons and head to Grant's Pass? That's something they need to know back in the Emerald City. And what about the two factions? The red sashes and black sashes? And that ****ed up mural that the one group literally **** all over? Maybe there's a war going on down here we don't even know about. People back home have to think that's important. Maybe then they'll stop their petty bull**** bickering and come together."

"The Chief Marshal couldn't give a tin **** about any Peaceful Army or any other army Gomorrah could put together. He wants your dad's head on the top of that tower of his, and since he can't get that he'll settle for yours. He wants to be king or god-emperor or some other power-hungry bull****. He cares about what goes on in Gomorrah only some much as to how it makes him more powerful."

"If the Chief Marshal wants to play the Iron Throne back in the Emerald City, that's one thing. But this is another. They think Gomorrah is done. But if a new Peaceful Army is forming it changes everything."

"It doesn't change anything," Lefranc said. "You think the Chief Marshal or any of his cronies will see a Peaceful Army as a threat? They won't. They don't. They don't see outsiders as threats because they know that somebody will come along to take care of the outside threats. Somebody like your dad, or the Hammer. Somebody like you or me. Instead of the external threats, they go after the internal threat; the threat against their power, their position, their ambitions.

"Say there is another Peaceful Army out here. You send word back to the Emerald City, and the first thing the Chief Marshal is gonna do is vector another drone on us. Then he'll task some subordinate to deal with the threat down here and go back to polishing his antiques and writing fancy speeches."

"Maybe," Colt said. "But I still want to know."

"It’s a stupid idea."

"Maybe it is a stupid idea, Master Gunnery Sergeant, but it is my idea, and I'm doing it, alone if I have to."

"You pulling rank on me, kid?"

"I don't need to pull rank on you," Colt said firmly. "This was my team long before you came along."

Lefranc looked around. The eyes of all the kids were on him now, even Robins, and they were all backing Colt. They wanted to know. Lefranc cursed.

"We go into the bar and chances are more than even there's gonna be a fight."

Colt shrugged. "This outfit's got to get their first taste of combat sometime.”

“You go down there, and it won’t be combat. It will be murder.”

“What’s the difference?”

Lefranc spat onto the ground.

“About ten minutes from now, you’ll know.”

Lefranc looked the others over one last time. "You all wait here. I'm going to go down and check it out. I do that first. I see what's what. Then we can go down there."

Colt nodded.

"I'll go with you," Christian offered. Lefranc shook his head no.

“I’m going alone,” Lefranc growled. “You all stay here. You’re young. Young people don’t know how to be quiet.” With that, Lefranc handed off his sniper rifle. Robins unslung the submachine gun from around his neck.

"You want this?"

Lefranc looked the gun over but shook his head no. He drew the handaxe from his belt. Then, without a whisper of sound, he slipped into the darkness. The night went still for a few moments. The dark and the soundlessness stretched. Then the plucking of the guitar again, and the voice.

People Smile And Tell Me I'm The Lucky One.
And We've Just Begun…

"****," Ajax said, drawing the word out as long as he could to highlight his misery at hearing the song another time.

"I'm hoping we get to go down there and kill everything, but I think that's only because I've heard this same Anne ****ing Murray song thirty times in a row now," Christian moaned.
Ten iterations of Danny's song later, Lefranc returned. The others gathered around him. Lefranc drew a bowie knife and scratched in the dirt as he talked.

"The place is divided into two sections. There's the main room, and then a back room at this end. That's for storage, or a kitchen or whatever. Five patrons in the main room, plus a bartender makes six. There's at least one person in the back room. Maybe more. But the backroom's got the lights out. All the vehicles are right where you see them. Nothing on the opposite side."

Lefranc looked the crew over. Young faces all around. He pointed at Christian with his bowie knife.

"You come down with the Colt and me. Bring your scattergun. Leave the blooper. If we have to break contact that'll be better served with the support element. The rest of you, stay up here. You've got good coverage of the building from here. If somebody news shows up after we go inside, don't let 'em in. If the shooting starts, get any squirters before they make it to those vehicles, and try not to hit that pickup if you can help it."

Now Lefranc pointed at Ajax. "We'll stay in the main room. If things get dicey, or we yell for cover fire, tear up the back half of the building with that pig of yours."

To Doc, "Be ready with that med kit." Doc nodded. Robins offered up his pistol. Lefranc took it along with a spare magazine and tucked it in on his weak side hip for a cross body draw.

Colt checked his carbine. Christian handed over his grenade launcher to Doc along with the bandolier of grenades for it. Then he took up his shotgun and replaced the pistol-grip with a full-length stock that snapped securely in place. From out of his back, Christian pulled out a second bandolier full of shotgun shells which he buckled around his waist.

When all was ready, Colt said let's go. And Colt headed into The Fish Camp, as fearlessly as his father entered the Coyote Bar and Grill so long ago.


Anne Murray began the last chorus of Danny's song when the three Spartan's entered The Fish Camp. The barman and the patrons stopped what they were doing when Colt, Lefranc, and Christian came through the door and took up station in the center of the room. In the back, by the jukebox, a trio of men sat at a table. Christian oriented on them, his shotgun held casually at a low ready. Two more patrons sat at a table at the opposite end of the room, next to a chest freezer, its sheet metal surface white with rust spots. Beyond them, stood the pitch-black opening to the far room. One man with a waxed mustache of thick black stood behind the bar. He wore a gray apron that might have been white in a previous decade. He, like the others, looked apprehensive. Hands slowly gravitated to weapons. One man reached for a backpack on the floor.

"I wouldn't do that," Lefranc said. His own hands were empty, but the pistol, knife, and tomahawk in his belt were easily accessible.

Anne Murray stopped singing. Nobody said a word. The juke reset. Anne Murray began again.

People Smile And Tell Me I'm the Lucky One…
And We've Just Begun.
Think I'm Gonna Have a Son.

"So," Christian began, hesitantly. "You guys must be big Anne Murray fans?"

"Jukebox's broke," the barman in the dirty apron explained. "Only plays the one song. Over and over."

"Lucky you," Christian smiled. Nobody smiled back.

"We're Spartans," Colt began.

"No ****," one of the patrons mumbled, not loud, but loud enough. Somebody s******ed, then quieted quickly under Colt's glare.

"We saw a couple convoys," Colt continued. "One was sporting black pennants. Another was sporting red ones. You know anything about that?" As Colt asked this, he reached into a pocket and pulled out a handful of spent brass which he set on the closest table. Spent brass was as good as currency out here in the badlands. Eyes around the bar lit up at the flash of brass. All but the barman's. He looked uneasily from Colt to the brass, and back to Colt again.

Nobody spoke. Colt produced more pieces of brass and set them with the others. They clinked onto the table while Anne kept singing.

"Seems the ones with the black flags have a thing for some giant blue guy. They drew a big picture of him. Only, the red flag guys don't seem to like those pictures too much. Ringing any bells for any of you?" The last of the brass clinked. One of the patrons spoke.

"The blue man is Winston. He is the son of the Great Father and the Earth Mother, and he's going to feast on your Spartan flesh."

Another patron hissed for this one to be quiet. Colt glared, but the damage was done. The one's remark emboldened the others. The barman spoke next. When he spoke, he leered with the cruel delight of somebody who knows something others don't.

"The red sashes, why those are the trads. And the black sashes, those are the mods. But I don't think you know anything about that, do you Spartan?"

Colt shifted feet uneasily, not saying anything. There came a scuffing sound from the back room. Lefranc looked from the barman to Colt, to the blackened entryway.

"No, you don't know about the trads, do you, Spartans. You should. You made them. Made them with that damn bomb of yours. You thought you could get one over on the doctor, on our Great Father. But he got one over on all of you."

Colt didn't say anything. Things weren't going as he planned it, as he imagined it. He felt himself losing control. Lefranc saw it too. The barman continued.

"You blew up that Spartan bomb of yours. Some people it killed. Others got remade in its fires. Remade by the Great Father, Doctor Chosen."

"What the **** are you talking about," Lefranc interjected.

A member of the trio shifted. Christian shook his head no.

The barman sneered. "The Great Father's gift to the most faithful. His gift. You want to see it?"

More scuffing sounds came from the backroom. The patron nearest Colt tittered. Open, bloody sores filled his mouth of missing teeth.

Anne Murray kept it going.

Bring A Tear Of Joy To My Eyes


"It was the ones that had the gadgets. Those got the blessing."

More scuffing sounds from the back.

Colt pivoted to face the blackness of the entryway to the back room.

Anne Murray crooned.


And Tell Me Everything's Gonna Be All Right


Lefranc's hand drifted to his axe.

Another titter. Another leer.

"Eddie Jay, come on out here," the barman said.

From the back room came a lurching, stomping, Frankenstein-like shuffling sound. A form emerged from the darkness, as if it were a monster, not emerging from the darkness but forming form it. The form was tall, almost seven feet. As the form became clearer, Colt saw pale grey skin that wasn't skin at all, but scales. He saw a long, narrow, misshapen head. No hair on the head at all. Not bald, but hairless, as if hair was never there and never meant to be there. Worst of it all was the eyes. The eyes weren't on the face. The eyes were on the sides of the head, on either side of the head, the way a fish's eyes are mounted. The eyes bulged. Beneath those bulging eyes lay lunatic idiocy. Colt looked from the fish-eyes to the scales. Fish scales and fish eyes. A Fish-man.

"Eddie Jay had the gadget when your flash came Spartan. Look at him now."

A massive scar on Eddie Jay's forearm marked where a gadget was once mounted. Colt stood stunned. He hadn't imagined this. He couldn't speak. He stood transfixed by the mutant before him.

The jukebox reset. First silence, then the mechanical and electronic noises.

The eyes on the sides of the Fish-man's misshaped head seemed to inflate with the energy of a half-wit. He drew in a deep breath and let it out in a howl, and when he did, flaps of the sides of his neck flared out. Meaty flaps that were what? Gills? What was this monstrosity? Colt stood mute, temporarily frozen in the face of this grotesquery. Lefranc, however, got the ball rolling.

The Master Guns stepped forward, and as he did, he simultaneously turned sideways and drew the pistol across his body. Facing sideways to the monster and holding the gun one-handed like a dualist, Lefranc fired. The left half of the Fish-man's face came off in a single, bloodless, flap. But instead of dropping to the floor, Fish-man charged at Lefranc, screaming. Then the bar erupted.

The barman dropped behind his counter to retrieve some weapon.

The man nearest Colt lunged out and grabbed the muzzle of his carbine while his partner went for a weapon in the bag at his feet.

Anne Murray started singing again.

Christian spun on the trio in the back of the bar. One went for the pistol at his waist. The other lifted a bludgeon from under the table. Christian fired. He was so close the buckshot barely had time to pattern and ripped into the pistolero's head. A compact black pistol went flying as Christian racked his gun and fired into the next man. The bludgeon skidded across the table and thumped on the floor. The third man raised his empty hands, but Christian didn't pause. He shot the third man then turned to face a new threat coming up from behind the bar.

One man had Colt's rifle by the barrel and the second man went for a pistol. Colt slid his hand up the carbine's handguard, put his hand over his attacker's and clamped it to the muzzle. Then he twisted his rifle around. The front sight post caught the attacker's wrist and forced it to bend in the wrong direction. The attacker was involuntarily bent over into an L shape at the waist, and when he was, Colt fired three times. The first bullet zipped up the attacker's arm bones and exited out his shoulder. The next two went into his armpit, through lungs and heart, and exited the other side.

Colt shook the dead man off his rifle just in time to shoot his next attacker. Two shots rang out, the first took that man in the throat. Blood jetted. The man dropped his pistol and grabbed his neck with both hands in a vain attempt to staunch the flow.

The barman sprang back up from behind the counter. He held a revolver as long as a submachine gun and outfitted with a triangle stock made of channel steel.

"Bar!" Colt shouted.


Outside, a door on the back half of the bar flew open, and three men ran out. They raced across the dusty parking lot to the parked Honda.

"Squirters," Doc said.

"Got 'em," Ajax answered. His machine gun roared. Around the running trio, clouds of dust erupted, and blood sprayed, and the trio tumbled to the ground.


Inside, Christian heard Colt yell, "bar." He turned to see the barman leveling the revolver his way. Christian snapped off a shot that shattered bottles along the bar, then dropped behind a table just as the barman's own shots thundered back. They huge revolver belched a thick fog of black powder smoke.

In his peripheral vision, Colt saw Lefranc grappling with Fish-man. The sniper had his bowie knife and axe out. The barman fired and ducked back behind the bar. Colt moved to get an angle on him, but then, from out of the blackness of the back room came an arm. Phantom-like in its appearance from the dark, the appendage could have been detached from any living soul. At the end of this arm was a ripper: the crude automatic pistols so common here in the Gomorrah badlands. The ripper looked like a reciprocating saw. Jutting from the side was a snail drum, pitted with rust, but big.

"Get down," Colt screamed as he threw himself to the floor.

The ripper screamed and spat fire across the bar. The arm wavered and waggled and fought to control the exploding pistol. Fire and empty shells flew in all directions. Lefranc hooked the Fish-man's leg, and they both dropped just before the air they once occupied filled with bullets.

Christian kicked up on the table beside him and flipped it onto its side, forming a thin barricade between himself and the front of the room. The ripper went wild, shooting the ceiling apart. Bits of dust showered down.

The patron Colt shot in the throat rolled on the ground, gurgling and trying desperately with both hands to stop the blood spraying out across the floor. In the background, Anne Murray kept singing.

And Even Though We Ain't Got Money,
I'm So In Love With You Honey

Colt rolled onto his side, aimed his weapon at the doorframe just to the side of the arm and fired. Once, twice, a third time. Bullets zipped through the wall, into the back room, and hopefully into whoever was holding the ripper. The arm withdrew into the gloom.

Behind his counter, the barman yelled. Incoherently.

Behind his table barricade, Christian pulled a slug out of the shotgun shell belt around his waist and fed it into his weapon. He grabbed two more buckshot shells and fed those into the shotgun too. The brass lip of the shells made a scraping sound as they entered the steel magazine. Christian racked the action.

Colt rolled again and fired through the bar. Crack-crack-crack. Wood splintered.

The barman popped back up, and his big revolver belched. He wasn't aiming, just firing wildly. Black smoke rolled across the room. A chair next to Lefranc became kindling, just as he stabbed with his big bowie knife.

Christian came up over his barricade. He fired once. Racked the shotgun. Fired twice. Buckshot ripped apart the bar. The barman dropped for cover. Colt scrambled to get an angle on him.

Anne sang.

And In The Morning When I Rise
Bring A Tear Of Joy To My Eyes

Christian dropped behind his barricade, racked his shotgun, and put a slug right through the jukebox. It exploded in a shower of electric sparks.

Anne stopped singing.

Colt maneuvered around the end of the bar.

The barman popped up one more time to shoot at Christian. When he did, Colt was ready. He squeezed his trigger twice, then once more. The barman rolled to one side. Christian hit him in the face with a load of buck-shot. The barman's body ricocheted along the bar then collapsed. He fired his revolver one last time into the ceiling.

Colt saw the ripper emerge again and point at his head. He dropped just before it erupted. Colt and Christian both fired. Bullets and buckshot ripped the interior wall apart. The hand snaked away again.

Lefranc had the Fish-man pinned to a table with a bowie knife. The blade ran through Fish-man's shoulder and into the table top, and a thin and watery blood puddled out. Lefranc held his axe in the other hand, chopping the Fish-man apart one hack at a time. He pointed with his hatchet at the back room.

"Get a grenade in there!"

Colt was already on it, pulling a grenade from a pouch and prepping it. The arm with the ripper snaked around the doorframe and sprayed the room with fire again. Christian dropped. Colt dropped and rolled to his left, while just to his right, a burst skipped along the face of the rusty chest-freezer. A chair behind Lefranc splintered as he brought the axe down one last time on Fish-man's skull.

Christian shouted out a shattered window. "Ajax! Light it up!"

Outside the machine gun roared and ripped the back room apart. The din inside The Fish Camp was deafening. Colt yelled, "frag out!"

Lefranc yanked his axe out of Fish-man's skull, and when he did, half of his enemy's head sluffed onto the floor. Lefranc threw himself flat.

Colt sent the grenade skidding across the floor.

Christian ducked back behind his barricade and opened his mouth.

The grenade went off with an earsplitting, "whump." Colt saw a broken and bloodstained ripper come flying out from the back room. A spring spilled out of the shattered snail drum, like the intestine from a disemboweled animal. When the echo of the grenade blast died away, the room finally went quiet.

Colt got to his feet and yelled out the window, "Ajax, hold fast." He and Christian cleared the backroom and found nobody alive. That done, Colt yelled for the others to join them. They came inside and stood in awe at the damage. Bodies, broken furniture, bullet holes lay everywhere.

Robins asked, "What happened to Anne Murray?"

"I shot her ass," Christian answered.

"What the **** is that?" Ajax demanded. He stood over the hacked-up body of Fish-man. Even in his mutilated state, Fish-man's mutations were quickly recognized.

"Some kinda mutant, they said. That, or some other weird-ass ****," Lefranc said, wiping Fish-man's blood off his weapons. Christian took his carbine/grenade launcher from Robins. Ajax stood over the Fish-man's corpse, staring in disbelief.

"Doc! Doc! Get your ass over here. This ****er is half man, half fish," Ajax screamed.

"Impossible," Doc said. He looked over the corpse, making a preliminary assessment, then spoke authoritatively. "A man can't be half fish. This is just a skin disorder. Ichthyosis. It makes the skin scaly."

"Ichthyosis," Lefranc asked, dubiously.

"Ichthyosis," Doc repeated. "The root comes from the Greek word for fish. It's characterized by dry, scaly skin."

Ajax thundered.

"Ichthyosis my ass. This mother ****er has gills!"

Amid all this, Christian cleared his throat. It wasn't the kind of clearing of the throat whose purpose was to actually clear a throat. It was the type of throat clearing meant to get people's attention. All eyes turned to Christian.

He stood, shotgun up and ready, oriented on the chest freezer. Now, the others noticed three things they had not seen before. First, the freezer was not plugged into anything; its cord snaked around itself on the floor. Second, a hasp and padlock secured the freezer from the outside. Lastly, a neat line of holes ran along the top of the top of the freezer; round holes; air holes.

Nobody made a sound.

Christian reached to his shotgun belt, removed a shell from a loop, brought it up to his ear and made the universal "listen" motion, then fed the shell into his shotgun's magazine. They listened and heard the slightest rustling sound from inside the freezer.

Lefranc raised a single finger and gave the signal to "wait a minute." Then he checked his pistol. The others glided into positions around the freezer. Robins spoke to camouflage the silence.

"So, what was the deal with all the Anne Murray songs?" Robins padded silently into a position to cover the freezer with his submachine gun as he said this.

"They said the jukebox was busted," Lefranc replied. "Only played the one song."

Lefranc took a position at the head of the freezer, arms out, pistol gripped in both hands and ready to fire. Christian stood ready to blast the lock with his shotgun. Ajax set his machine gun down on a table and gripped the lid of the chest.

"Yeah, a hell'uva thing that was," Colt said. He raised three fingers and silently counted down to action.

One… Two…

"A hell'uva thing."

Three.

The shotgun roared. The hasp disintegrated, and the shattered remains of the lock flew across the room. Ajax yanked open the lid, and Lefranc leaned in with a raised pistol, Christian and Robins backing him up with their carbine and submachine gun.

"Don't shoot," screamed a cowering man packed inside the freezer. His raised hands were bound together with a pair of rusty cuffs. He had a crazed look in his eyes, as if he'd been packed in the freezer for a long time. His hair ran wild and tangled. The freezer man reminded Colt of the marooned Ben Gunn from Treasure Island.

"The ****…" Ajax said with disgust. Oozing sores covered one of the man's raised arms, and the stink of their sickness hit their nostrils, along with the smell of the man's wastes, which were caked across the bottom of the freezer. Freezer man looked in Ajax's direction, his eyes adjusting from the darkness of his coffin-like to the light. All at once his eyes brightened with recognition.

"Spartans," Freezer man shouted. "You're Spartans, aren't you? Yes, yes, you're Spartans. I'm a friend. A friend. Don't shoot. Please. I'm a friend."

"Bull****," Ajax mumbled.

"No," Freezer man replied. "No. I am a friend. Trust me. The Spartan. The old one. The old one with the bomb. I helped him. I did. I helped him. The one with the nuclear bomb, I saved him."

At this, Colt tensed. His muscles bulged. His jaw set. Colt placed one hand on the handle of his bowie knife and leaned into the freezer. The young Spartan was so grim that Freezer man cowered into a corner of the chest freezer.

"You better not be ****ing with us," Colt growled. "What do you know about the Spartan with the bomb?"

"I met him," Freezer man stammered out. "I met him here in the valley. I was there in the city before the bomb went off. I helped him, I helped him destroy the city. Destroy the High Council and The Bay. And he helped me, even though he didn't know it."

"Who are you?" Colt demanded.

The man in the freezer stammered out, "Nicky-Lee.

"My name's Nicky-Lee."
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Old 01-17-2019, 07:07 PM
Alan45 Alan45 is offline
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I love this story and can’t wait to see how it turns out.
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Old 01-17-2019, 07:08 PM
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And thank you for your great work.
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Old 01-18-2019, 01:32 PM
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I bought the last one on Amazon - will you be publishing this one as well (I'd much rather read it in book format than in the forum here - just my personal preference)?
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Old 01-19-2019, 06:53 AM
sharkman6 sharkman6 is offline
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Originally Posted by STEEPOE View Post
I bought the last one on Amazon - will you be publishing this one as well (I'd much rather read it in book format than in the forum here - just my personal preference)?
I will be publishing it on Amazon when I get done and can go back and edit it all again. Maybe add some more chapters to make it worth the time and $.

No sweat. I know it is tough to get through it on this format. And the time between posts doesn't help either.
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Old 01-19-2019, 06:54 AM
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Default Chapter 20

The Priest's Tale (Instrumental)
From the album: The Dark Tower, Wolves of the Calla, music inspired by the Dark Tower.
BGG Productions


Colt

Colt reached into the freezer with both hands and lifted Nicky-Lee out as easily as if he were a child. Standing him up on his unsteady feet, Colt leaned in close.

"Tell me more about the man with the bomb. And you better not be ****ing with me."

"Freebooters captured him out here in the badlands. They blew up his truck with an IED. They captured the old man and killed his dog. They could have gotten the bomb, but they didn't know what it was, so they just left it alone. I orchestrated his escape."

"How?" Colt asked.

"I passed him a weapon, and then I got the hell out of his way. He did the rest."

Colt's eyes blazed with anger and determination. Nicky-Lee looked into those angry, violent eyes. He recognized those eyes, and he cursed.

"Yes. That old man was my dad," Colt said. "And you're coming with us. Clean him up and get him in the truck."

"C'mon, let's go," Ajax said, wrapping a big arm around Nicky-Lee's shoulder and using the opposite hand to cover his nose. Before they got a single step, Nicky-Lee became frantic.

"My box! My black box. My computer. I need her," Nicky-Lee screamed.

"We ain't got time to be ****ing around here. Get chilly willy here outside," Colt said.

"No! I need my computer!" Nicky-Lee shouted this like an order, as if he was the one in charge and not a ward in handcuffs.

"You're not in a position make any demands of us. I can put you back in that freezer just as easily as I took you out of it."

"My computer, she saved your dad. That computer, she hacked into your damned Morning Stars when they were trying to laser your dad."

Colt froze. Lefranc froze. Everybody froze. To hack into the Morning Stars was impossible. Wasn't it? Nicky-Lee continued.

"She's a black box, looks like black glass, like she's made of obsidian. This big." Nicky-Lee held up his handcuffed paws to indicate the size. "She's powerful enough to hack into your Morning Star network, and I don't think you want to leave it behind for these people to find." Colt gestured toward the chopped up Fish-man's body sprawled across the table.

"Bull****," Ajax said. "Ten minutes ago you were locked in a freezer. Now you're telling me you can hack our networks. How does that add up?"

"I got unlucky," Nicky-Lee said.

"That's a bull**** psyche job."

Lefranc grabbed Colt by the shoulder and turned him away from their detainee.

"I can appreciate you wanting to talk to this guy, but the more we talk, the more we're going to keep talking. We need to get out of here quick, before more of these Fish-men, or trads, or whatever they are, show up."

Colt agreed and set to the more immediate tasks at hand; putting as much distance as possible between themselves and the Fish Camp.

"Doc, take a look at Nicky-Lee here. Christian, search this front room. Ajax, you get the back. Check out these bodies and see if they have anything useful, like the keys to that truck out front." Colt leaned in close and added conspiratorially, "See if you can find this black-box thing of his."

"I'll check out that truck," Lefranc said. He turned to Robins and with a nod of his head, the Master Gunnery Sergeant ordered the younger man, 'let's go.' Robins followed him out the door.

Each set about their tasks. Doc found a blanket for Nicky-Lee, then proceeded to cut the soiled and reeking clothes away. Christian rummaged through the bodies in the front room. He set aside the few weapons of value and disabled the others. He moved quickly but efficiently as if he'd practiced this activity thousands of times, which of course he had. After a few minutes, Ajax called out from the back room.

"I got the black-box thing, or at least what's left of it." Ajax entered the main room with a handful of what looked like shattered bits of obsidian. "Looks like it ate the brunt of the grenade blast, or a burst from my machine gun, or both."

Nicky-Lee saw the broken bits and immediately sank at the knees. "No," he whimpered, and he moved to Ajax's debris-filled hand. "No," he whimpered again, making to scoop up the fragments in his own, still cuffed hands. And then he began to sob over the broken pieces. Tears rolled, and his body convulsed. He muttered out the name, "Jekyll." He did this as if the black box were a lost child and Jekyll its name.

"Easy there, you," Doc said, yanking him back. He, Colt and Ajax exchanged glances at the awkward scene.

"What do you want me to do with these?" Ajax asked.

"Take 'em with us," Colt answered.

Outside an engine rumbled. Lefranc came in a moment later.

"Truck's running, and it's got gas. We've been on the X now for," Lefranc paused to check his watch. "Too long. Where we at?"

Colt turned to Ajax. "Anything else of value in that back room?"

"Doubt it."

"Good. Get out there and load up the packs. We'll be out in a minute."

Ajax left in a flash. Next Doc approached Colt. Colt asked, "What's your diagnosis?"

"Dehydration, malnutrition, and he's got a bad infection on that bloody arm. It's probably gangrene. And his mental shape is bad. He doesn’t know how long he's been locked up in there, but it's been a least a week."

"Thanks. How bad is the infection? Can you do anything about it?"

"I can amputate the arm, or euthanize the patient," Doc said without any emotion.

"Anything less drastic?"

Doc shrugged. "I can give him a broad-spectrum antibiotic. That should kill off the infection."

"Why don't we do that," Colt said. "And see if you can find some new clothes for him. We don't want to be running around the badlands with a naked man."

Another minute or two of activity inside the Fish Camp and then Colt vacated the building for good. He found Lefranc in front of the running truck, his sniper rifle in hand, watching the perimeter.

"Truck's got a nearly full tank, and a fuel can in the back. Looks like it won't **** out on us on the road. I disabled the others." Colt nodded approval. Christian approached Lefranc with two pistols in his hands.

"Which one d'you want Master Guns: the .45 or the 9mm?"

"That one," Lefranc said without a moment's pause to consider. He snatched one pistol out of Christian's hand. Christian offered the other to Colt, but Colt shook his head no. Christian tucked the second one away inside his vest.

Doc walked past them with Nicky-Lee. Their captive shook violently. Maybe it was from the cold night air, but more likely from emotion. He had a blanket around his shoulders and carried a bundle of boots and pilfered clothes. As they passed, Doc leaned in conspiratorially and whispered to Colt.

"I gave him a dose of antibiotics. And I gave him something else. If you want to ask him anything, give it about ten minutes. After that, he'll tell you anything you want to know."

"Thanks," Colt said. Doc shuffled his ward into the back of the truck. Robins sat in the backseat already. His window was down, the muzzle of his submachine gun poking out of it. Ajax stood in the bed of the truck. Christian tossed packs up to him, then he climbed into the back too. Machine gun and grenade launcher bristled outward.

"We finally ready?" Lefranc asked. Colt nodded once. The truck rumbled away into the night.


The road flew past, a darkened streak along the ground. There was no light at all. The streetlights went dark generations ago, and no other vehicles shared the road. They drove on night vision, not risking getting compromised by the truck's headlights. Colt waited the prescribed ten minutes, and then he began asking Nicky-Lee questions. Whatever Doc gave Nicky-Lee, it worked. The dark-skinned man's head rolled from shoulder to shoulder like a drunkard's. His lubricated tongue flapped without restraint. All listened as Nicky-Lee described the battle in the city that once was San Francisco, described his escape before the detonation, and explained how he was ambushed days later and captured out in the valley not long after.

"Why did they lock you in the freezer?" Colt asked.

"They were going to eat me," Nicky-Lee answered. "That's what they did to the other guy."

All shuddered at the prospect of cannibalism.

Then Nicky-Lee got to the real story, the story of what happened before he crossed paths with The Colonel.


The establishment of New Sparta was a counterrevolution to The Protest and the rise of Gomorrah. But the military state of New Sparta was not the only entity that saw the rise of Gomorrah as a threat. Others tried to carve out their own enclaves. Most failed.

One did not.


In the final days of the United States, when The Protest gained momentum and power daily, a group of tech-elitists saw the writing on the wall. San Francisco was the heart of The Protest, and from their tech campuses overlooking ground zero, they witnessed the growing insanity first hand. The government of the United States would not stand against the weight of The Protest, and when it broke, The Protest would drag the world down into a new Dark Age.

So they took action.

These tech-elites formed a secret society. Using their own fortunes, they secured property on the forested coastline near the California-Oregon border. Their goal: an off-grid, self-contained, self-sustaining community, insulated from the coming violence and ignorance. They worked in secret, building, making, creating, and capitalizing on their mastery of tech. They remained aloof, standing out of the path of The Protest. They stayed equally aloof of the counterrevolutionary militarism gaining momentum. They adopted a policy of 'Underground Neutrality.' They called their new and hidden state, Jefferson. Here they built the Hive, a custom-built, technologically advanced village beneath the forests of the California Coast.


While New Sparta and Gomorrah fought their war, Jefferson lay hidden beneath the coastal mountains. There, the tech- wizards and digital-sorcerers of Jefferson poured over their work. Both Gomorrah and New Sparta remained oblivious while the people of Jefferson went about their work.

Years became decades, and decades became generations. The Hammer, The Colonel, the many battles of New Plataea all passed. New Sparta expanded into the stars. Doctor Chosen twisted science. Deep in the Hive, the Jeffersonians built digital worlds within digital worlds. They tested the bounds of the possible in the realm of computer science. Their digital creations became smarter, faster, more powerful, more independent. Over time, the culture of the Jeffersonians changed too. Mothers and fathers begot sons and daughters, and they, in turn, had children of their own, children with their own opinions and outlooks on the world. Underground Neutrality, a policy that was once vital to Jefferson's survival, came into question.


"It was the animals that did it," Nicky-Lee explained. His words moved freely. He slurred his speech, drunk on whatever Doc administered to him.

"Doctor Chosen built one of his secret labs not far from our Hive. His lab animals kept escaping. We found hideous mutations: animals surgically mixed with other animals, animals genetically modified with the features of other animals, animals fused with machinery. These tortured beasts would run wild through the woods and make their way to the Hive. Doctor Chosen's lab workers never bothered to go look for the escaped animals. They had no idea we existed and thus no fear that we might find them. At first, it was just one or two minor mutations. As time went on, we discovered more animals. And each one more unnatural than the next. These escaped experiments were the living manifestations of the amoral, of evil.

"The old guard of Jefferson bid that we ignore what we saw. They maintained that we adhere to the policy of Underground Neutrality. These were mostly older people. They felt safe in the hive, like a bird in its nest. Comfortable. The remaining digital-sorcerers had virtual worlds they could retreat into, insulated from the horrors of the real world.

"Some couldn't stand by though. Eldra was the leader of this faction. She spoke out. She said that what Doctor Chosen was doing went beyond the pale. She said we couldn't just hide like mice while Doctor Chosen unwound the laws of nature and humanity and twisted them back around however it amused him. She said we need to fight. She said we needed to go down to the lab and destroy it."

"Who's Eldra?" Colt asked.

Nicky-Lee's head rolled to back. He looked up at the cab's headliner, and his eyes blinked excessively. He snorted out a wicked laugh.

"Eldra… she burns things. She burns people." Colt and his companions exchanged nervous glances.

"Eldra remained defiant against hiding, against neutrality. She had no love for New Sparta. Nobody in Jefferson does. Still, Eldra wanted to fight against Gomorrah's perversions. She spoke out. The more she spoke, and the more monsters we found. The more people listened.

"Politically, Jefferson is a Cosmopolitan Democracy. We vote. We vote on everything. We love voting. We love it so much we'd rather vote than actually do anything. One day, deep inside the Hive, Eldra assembled our people and made her case to go to war. And a vote was cast."

"And so, Jefferson declared war on Doctor Chosen?" Colt asked.

"No," Nicky-Lee said. And he laughed with a mix of amusement and disappointment. "Jefferson voted to conduct another study to see if they should attack the lab. Jefferson voted to wait and see and to convene a committee to look into the matter. Jefferson voted to table the discussion and reconvene at a later date, at which time they would, naturally and inevitably, stall again.

"You see, the problem with a Cosmopolitan Democracy is that everybody gets to vote on everything, and because everybody gets to vote on everything, nothing ever actually gets done. Everybody is too busy shouting their bull**** opinions at each other.

"And so, Eldra gathered up a few of us, and we attacked the lab on our own.

"We came in early in the morning. The people in the lab never saw us coming, and they never had a chance. They never imagined anybody could come for them, that anybody would come for them. We possessed outstanding technology by then. We jammed and spoofed any comms they might have had and then kicked in the door. The first part of the operation was done in a matter of minutes. We caught all the lab workers asleep. We gathered them all up and began searching the lab. Of course, we found more animals. They stacked they cages and kennels on top of each other from floor to ceiling. We discovered all sorts of weird ****: animal-machine fusions, crude attempts to bioengineer the creatures of mythology. Then we saw the really terrible ****. They weren't just experimenting on animals. They were experimenting on people.

"In a sub-basement under the lab, they had them packed in like livestock. Old men, kids, girls, adults, babies. Later on, we found out the doctors in the lab lobotomized them all, to make them easier to handle. It was a total horror show. Real inhuman ****. Things that made all those Nazi experiments look tame. All these people, mutated, mute, and drooling over themselves, naked, chained to walls and ****ting and ****ing everywhere. Those gadget things bolted and fused all over their bodies. The things they did to those people were just as bad as anything they did to the animals. Worse. I remember these stainless-steel dog bowls all over the floor. They fed and watered the people they experimented on out of dog bowls. I remember one caked in **** that had crystallized. This old lady was eating out of it.

"Eldra came down into the basement and just stood there staring at all these mutant catatonics for a long time. She didn't say anything, she just stood there, boiling over with anger. When she'd seen enough, she went back upstairs and lined up all the prisoners.

"There were these generators that supported the lab. They stacked up fuel cans next to the generators. Eldra doused the lab workers with fuel. Then she lit them on fire one by one. You ever see somebody burned alive? They run. Don't matter how tight you tie them down. You light a man on fire, he runs... or at least tries to.

"We all watched the burning. It made you sick. As bad as everything in the lab was, as much as you wanted revenge and justice, it still made you sick to see all these people being burned alive one at a time. The dead ones smoldering and stinking up the place. The ones waiting their turns, screaming and pleading and ****ing themselves.

"Eldra had us euthanize all the mutants… all of them. After the burning, it seemed a mercy. We looted the lab, then burned it down to nothing and did what we could to cover our tracks.

"Eldra went back to the Hive and called for an assembly. She told everybody what we'd found. She told them about the human experiments, the animal experiments, the gadgets, and the whole deal. She thought that this time for sure there would be action. In the face of such evil, she thought people were sure to rise up. Nothing. Jefferson voted to wait and see, again. The vote was closer this time, but not enough. As for Eldra, she had enough at that point. The next day she rallied a bunch of her closest followers and left the Hive, left Jefferson for good."

"You leave with her?" Colt asked.

"No," Nicky-Lee said. "I stayed. Good thing I did too because right after Eldra left two crazy things happened.

"Not everybody who agreed with Eldra left. Plenty of sympathizers stayed. We went through all the stuff we looted from the lab; the records, the scientists' notes, and obviously the computer hard drives. By this time, we had developed computing power and algorithms that ripped through the Gomorrah stuff like it was wet tissue paper. That when we discovered Doctor Chosen's master plan.

"It was those stupid ****ing gadgets all of Gomorrah's elites implanted into their bodies. Using those gadgets, Doctor Chosen had a plan where he was going to mutate all of Gomorrah in one fail swoop. The gadgets were so wired into their hosts, that Doctor Chosen could use them to remotely alter and unwind DNA."

"Wait a minute," Lefranc interrupted. "I've spent almost my entire adult life in Gomorrah. Gomorrah screamers fight with clubs and guns so poorly cobbled together they're just as dangerous to the shooter as the target. They ride around in cars built before The Protest. They let the most fertile farmland in the world go to dust because they lacked the knowledge to maintain the irrigation. Gomorrah marched headlong… no, danced right into a new Dark Age. Now you're telling me these ass-backwards luddites have the power to remotely manipulate DNA? Through a damn smart device?"

"Technology isn't an all-or-nothing deal," Nicky-Lee answered. "While the Nazis were launching V2 rockets and testing jet planes, their armies still relied on horses for transport. At the height of its power, the Soviet Union could harness the power of the atom, put men in space, field nuclear submarines, yet they had less paved roads than most states in the old United States. North Korean scientists developed nuclear weapons while North Korean peasants ate grass and dug into the ground for worms. Technology isn't a binary, take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Instead, 'you take what you want and leave the rest, just like your salad bar.' Even more so in dictatorships."

"But manipulating DNA to mutate an entire population?" Robins said with disbelief.

"Is it so outlandish? In the years before The Protest, people changed their genders at will. Through surgery, through hormone therapy, through other twists and perversions of science and medicine. These manipulations were not only possible but condoned, encouraged even. Parents changed their children's genders based on whimsies, cheered on by doctors and protected by the courts. While members of society applauded these parent's insanity. They fawned over the creation of boutique children and called it, 'courage.'

"Doctor Chosen just took this insanity to its next level. If biological genders were just obstacles to overcome, why not the very makeup of humanity? If a boy could become a girl, why couldn't a girl become a tiger? Or a boy a lizard? If morality and ethics were no limit on science, why not push the limits beyond the pale? And if the state always knows best, in all matters, why shouldn't the experts in the state determine if a human shouldn't be a human but a human-animal hybrid? If courts and judges could determine a girl should… no, must be a boy, must undergo the requisite surgeries and chemical cocktails, then why shouldn't experts like the High Council determine which people should undergo animalistic modifications? After all, it was to benefit the state. It was to serve the greater good through the state. A good only known and determined by him, the true and enlightened leader of Gomorrah."

"So, you uncovered Doctor Chosen's little secret. You said two things happened. What was the other thing that happened after Eldra left?" Colt asked.

Nicky-Lee turned melancholy. "You have to understand; the founders of Jefferson were technology geniuses. Before The Protest, they built tech empires and amassed fortunes through their creativity and their understanding of and willingness to push the bounds of computer science. Generations spent deep inside the Hive didn't stifle their creativity. Without the distractions of an outside world, they were able to truly dedicate their lives to their work, like seminarians locked away in some remote, mountaintop monastery.

"We had a computer, a computer program really. This program was decoding and processing all of Doctor Chosen's work. Two days into processing all of the Doctor's data, it became self-aware."

Looking into the rearview mirror, Colt saw Lefranc raise an eyebrow. Robin's shoulders and spine stiffened, and he turned from the window and his assigned security sector to look at their prisoner. Nicky-Lee's head dropped to his chest, the combined effects of the drugs and exhaustion. Colt reached over and shoot him back awake.

"Self-aware? What do you mean self-aware? You have Artificial Intelligence? Working AI? Is that how you were able to hack the Morning Stars?"

Nicky-Lee let out a snore. Colt reached back and with an open palm, slapped him awake with one solid smack.

"What do you mean self-aware?"

Nicky-Lee blinked twice. Dilated pupils seemed to wobble in the center of eyes as big as dinner plates.

"You killed her," Nicky-Lee said. "When never planned on making artificial attention, not like that. It was an accident. One minute it was a program crunching Doctor Chosen's data. The next minute… the next minute it was like talking to a real human being.

"When she became self-aware, we had to get her a body of her own. She was growing, learning, expanding. Some of us were all about it, but prudence dictated we keep her out of some of our networks. You see, she wasn't just some logical program. She developed her own thoughts. Her own feelings and opinions. It was her idea to go into Gomorrah and pirate Doctor Chosen's networks. Her idea to use the Doctor's schemes against him. According to her plan, we could accelerate the mutation process to a velocity greater than what the human body could physically handle. Instead of mutating into Doctor Chosen's nightmares, all those people with gadgets would mutate, go into shock, and die. Only it didn't work out that way. That's why you had fish face back there. Jekyll's process was supposed to kill them all, only it didn't.

"Anyway, that shattered black box you found? That was her. That was her body. That material is the latest in computer hardware. Makes the Pre-Protest microprocessors look like punch cards. But you blew her up. Now she's dead. Now she's…" Nicky-Lee drifted off again. Colt reached over the seats and shook Nicky-Lee.

"Can you fix it? Can you rewrite the code?" Nicky-Lee's head lolled. Colt shook harder.

"Can you rebuild the AI? Can you get back into the Morning Star network?"

Nicky-Lee smiled. "We tried to duplicate her. It didn't work out. He can. He's crazy though. He's angry, and dangerous. I left him behind and took her for a reason." Nicky-Lee closed one eye. With the other, he squinted and looked into Colt's grim and determined face.

"He might like you though. He would've loved your dad, I think." Nicky-Lee's head bobbed once more and then he sunk into a state of unconsciousness so deep no amount of slapping was going to break it.

"He's down for the count," Doc said. "He'll be alright. He'll feel like a he's got a massive hangover tomorrow though. Normally I'd run an IV into him, but under the present circumstances, I think I should save my IV kits."

Colt grunted, a sigh of acknowledging and approving Doc's course of action.

Silence filled the cab of the truck. The miles passed. Finally, Robins spoke.

"What in the blue **** have you guys gotten me into?"



Not long before dawn, Lefranc pulled the truck off the highway and into an abandoned orchard. The almond trees died long ago, denied the life-giving water provided by Pre-Protest hydroponics and irrigation. Tumbleweeds and other scrub tangled around the bases of the dead, black, trees. Lefranc brought the big pickup inside the vegetation, parked, and shut off the engine. The big diesel sent a shudder through the entire vehicle. The companions jumped out of the truck and went to work.

Ajax and Christian circled the perimeter, patrolling and making sure there were no surprises. Doc stood guard over their sleeping prisoner, picking the lock on his handcuffs and re-cuffing him to an interior door handle. Robins set to camouflaging the truck. Colt and Lefranc met at the tailgate and held council.

"What d'you think Master Guns?"

Lefranc shook his head, but not necessarily out of disbelief. "What Doc juiced him up with; he wouldn't be cooking up a story with that running through his veins. He'd tell what he believed was the truth."

"The key phrase being, 'what he believed,' to be the truth. He could be delusional to the point of ****house crazy."

"He kept calling that computer, 'her,' and 'she.' Like it was an actual person. Who knows if it even was a computer and not some piece of garbage he found in a ditch somewhere?"

"It could all be one giant delusion."

"Exactly," Lefranc said. "Still, if it was all a delusion, then this Nicky-Lee cat is the all-time delusional story-telling champion of the world. Could it be true? Could there be some secret society hidden from both Gomorrah and us?" Lefranc nodded, answering his own question. "I've spent almost my whole career ranging all over North America. This country is a pretty big place. There are a lot of corners and pockets left unexplored. Plenty of places for people to hide if they are smart about it. Still…"

Lefranc dug into his pack and pulled out a map. He rolled it out on the tailgate. Colt removed a pair of loaded rifle magazines to serve as paperweights to keep the laminated sheet from rolling back up. Lefranc used his bowie knife as a pointer.

"The theme of Jefferson is a real. In the Pre-Protest world, there was a political movement to form a new state in the northern part of the state of California state, right on the border with the state of Oregon. But with this story it ain't just that, is it? We've got artificial intelligence, secret societies, secret wars, mutant conspiracies. It isn't just one fantastic story, it was a host of stories all woven together into one giant fantastical story."

"That's pretty fantastic," Colt agreed.

"It is," Lefranc replied. "But I'll tell you what. That Fish-man in the bar… I shot of the side of his face off, stabbed him about a dozen times, chopped him apart with my axe, and still, it wasn't until I took the top half of his skull off that he actually died. No disrespect to our good doctor, but that wasn't any icky-tee-osis. That thing might not have been a fish, but it wasn't human either. If there are more of those things running around here, things are libel to get dicey."

Colt toed the dirt. Then he spoke.

"Master Guns, I ****ed up. I froze back there in the bar. When that, that Fish-man thing came in, I froze. I didn't know what to think or what to say." Colt looked Lefranc right in the eyes and finished. "I won't make that mistake again. I owe you and the others better than that. I owe my dad better than that."

Lefranc clapped Colt on the shoulder and flashed a rare smile.

"Kid, I'm just a dumb grunt, but let me tell you something. Your dad was a great man, but don't spend your life living in his shadow. You need to be your own man. Your teammates need you to be your own man. You go and do what needs to be done."
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Default Chapter 21

Chapter 21

Dishonored

Doctor Chosen hid one of his many secret laboratories deep in the hills of Ojai, in the once-was land of California. The ex-Spartan Knight Vlain and his crew attacked it in the afternoon, during the hottest part of the day when people typically get sluggish and were inclined to siesta. Newly outfitted with weapons and equipment provided by Colonel Lions, Dishonored's crew outmatched the token force guarding the place. The ritually scarred and savage mercenaries made short work of the defenders. Two of the ten guards were shot. One was straggled and another stabbed to death. They took the remaining six prisoners, along with an equal number of disoriented lab technicians. Death proved a better fate than captivity. The captives' doom began when Chamo took out his ballpeen hammer and smashed out all their teeth.

While the other members of the Unforgiven began making sport of their prisoner, the former Captain Vl¬ain turned Dishonored, explored the lab. Newly kitted out, he wore a new set of Nomex coveralls with the sleeves cut off, and machine pistols slung over each shoulder. In the lab he found things both horrifying and fascinating. The noise of the torture and gang rape set the perfect soundtrack to the grotesque scene.

Once the lab conducted bioengineering research. Dishonored guessed that the place must have gone to pot after The Bay got nuked, because the entire lab was in a horrible state of disrepair. Lights blinked in and out. Nothing was clean. Dirty stains washed over white tile floors and walls. Anything metal left rust stains. Animals, people, and weird animal-man hybrids all served as test subjects. Almost all were dead. All through the corridors lay misshapen corpses, often infested with maggots and buzzing with flies. One room contained a half dozen geriatric bodies, chained to their gurneys, decomposing and crawling and buzzing with vermin. Dishonored found them fused to their mattresses with a glue made of their bodily wastes and black and rotting flesh. But not all the lab experiments died off.

The masterpiece of the laboratory was the Pegasus. Dishonored found the living Pegasus in the deepest reaches of the lab. This room's floor and walls were completely lined with white and black tile. The place smelled sour. It stunk of urine and pus, decomposing manure and diseased meat, precisely the way a mad scientist's lab should smell. In the corners stood metal desks and cluttered bookcases which turned out to be treasure troves. More brown and sticky stains covered their surfaces.

The Pegasus was chained to wall inside a plexiglass stall with a stainless steel floor. It lay on its side, and at first glance Dishonored and his people thought it was a dead horse. It wasn't until Chamo exclaimed, "It has ****ing wings," and the thing stirred enough to set its chain rattling that they gave it a proper look.

A Pegasus was supposed to be a majestic animal; strong, noble, and white as snow. This beast possessed none of the magnificent splendor of its mythical namesake. It was not pure white, nor did it have majestic outstretched wings. This experiment looked like a cross between a diseased city pigeon, and an old and broken mare on its way to the knackers. It rested on its side, unmoving, covered in its own filth, and breathing in ragged gasps. Fleas danced and hopped along gray and brown wings. Feathers shed away in mange-like patches. Bright red surgical scars marked where the pigeon wings became horse. Uneven black stitches crisscrossed one. Festering sores covered the thing's body. A bloody plit ran down the middle of one hoof. An inflamed lump covered one eye, and it oozed yellow pus. Clear plastic tubes and electrical wires ran out of a surgical incision along the animal's stomach and into a beige machine that looked like a refrigerator. Dishonored had no idea what the device did and didn't care to know. A metal plate on it advertised its maker. Chamo stepped up to the machine and read it aloud as best he could.

“Nort Ken-tral Posi Tro-nicks.”

The engineered Pegasus made no sound of its own and barely moved. It looked like it was tired of being alive.

Dishonored looked over the animal with disgust and an emotion he rarely felt: pity. Then he set to his real work of exploring the lab and uncovering its secrets for Chief Marshal Gorman. He rummaged through the desks and bookshelves, discovering ledgers and journals, notebooks, three-ring binders full of data, and all sorts of media devices. He found several computers but didn't bother with them himself. Instead, he ordered his minions to haul them out to their newly acquired New Spartan gun trucks; gifts from Colonel Lions. Behind one desk he found a small safe. Their New Spartan equipment included some explosives. After a few moments work and a small piece of plastic explosive, Dishonored opened the safe with a loud boom and a puff of black smoke. Inside sat four leather-bound journals. They sat there as if they'd been waiting for Dishonored, waiting for him for a thousand years. He took out the journals, opened the first one, and read. And read. And read.

The other members of the Unforgiven turned their attention to torturing their captives. They were not the first to commit acts of torture here. Mixed among the laboratory equipment were items more suited to a medieval dungeon. There were manacles and stocks. A bloodstained dentist's chair sat in one corner. Dishonored’s men made good use of that, stripping one of the scientists naked and dragging her screaming into the chair. From the backroom where he read, Dishonored heard all sorts of sounds highlighting man's inhumanity; screams and sobs, choking sounds, gurgling sounds, the sound of flesh hitting flesh, pitiful whimpers and pained grunts. The sounds of hopelessness. None of these sounds could distract him from his reading. It went on for hours.

After they busted their human toys, the Unforgiven turned their attention to the lab animals. A trio of scarred fighters surrounded the Pegasus. They took turns poking it with sharp sticks, seeing if they could get a rise out of it. The beast only lay on its side. It made no sound. It blinked its one good eye in time with the stabbings, waiting patiently for its own death.

Chamo waded through the scenes of torture and cruelty. His gait was graceful in spite of his immense size. He sat down next to his boss.

"Boys really put it to them prisoners we took. They broke most of them. Want me to save one for ya?"

“Too busy reading,” Dishonored said without looking up.

Chamo's face twisted with curiosity. “Must be good.”

“It is… interesting,” Dishonored replied.

The strange refrigerator machine hooked up to the Pegasus let out a hiss and a beep. A red light on the top of it blinked frantically. The trio of fighters jumped back. Chamo and Dishonored both looked up. When the alarm stopped, Dishonored\Vlain turned back to his reading.

"Should we save that horse thing for the Chief Marshal?" Chamo asked.

“No. He don't want that ****ing thing. He wants this.” Dishonored held up one of the leather bound journals. The title stamped in the cover read:

Longevity: Volume 6

Chamo asked, “What’s dat?”

“The fountain of youth. The secret to immortality. Doctor Chosen was at least 150 years old, and it wasn’t old age that killed him.” Dishonored pointed a finger and swirled it around, pointing at everything in the lab. “That quack’s secrets are in here, some of them anyway. That's what the Chief Marshal wants. New Sparta ain’t enough for him. ****er wants to live forever. He wants to be a god-emperor. He's got the latter part down, he just needs to work on the former. He thinks Doctor Chosen's research is gonna help him do just that."

Chamo picked up one of the books and thumbed through its pages. He could read, at least a little bit. Spread throughout the book amongst the easily recognizable numbers and letters where symbols Chamo had never seen before: hand drawn spirals. Caligraphic squiggles and zags. He leaned over with the notebook open for Dishonored to see.

“What the hell are these?” Chamo asked.

“Satanic symbols,” Dishonored muttered.

“Huh?”

“Satanic symbols. **** used for the occult. Devil worship ship.”

Chamo looked back down into his book, at the scrawled pentagrams, skrims and sankofrits, japs and mirks. Then he looked back up at Dishonored.

“Bull****,” the big man said, disbelieving.

“No bull****. Its devil worship ****. That notebook you’re holding… the cover is bound in human skin.”

Chamo looked down at his hand and its off-white leather cover. It took a second for the realization to set in, then the man dropped as if it were a hot piece of metal. Apparently, this man, who carried around a ballpeen hammer for the sole purpose of bashing out peoples’ teeth before he raped them to death, even he had his limits.

“Bull****,” Chamo repeated.

“No bull****,” Dishonored replied.

Chamo paused, pensive for a moment, a wise and thoughtful head on a massive body. Finally, he said, “****. Devil worship **** and books with human skin. Who would do something like that?”

Dishonored turned another page in the notebook. “Somebody who is ****ing crazy. ****ing crazy or not though… the dear departed doctor was a genius. If half the **** in this book is real, he found ways to either outright stop organs from aging, or to reverse the process.

"So Chamo, the dear departed doctor is one person who'd do that. Our new employer, the Chief Marshal of New Sparta, is another. He may not be crazy like Doctor Chosen was crazy, but he's still crazy."

Vlain\Dishonored held open a notebook and tapped a pentagram surrounded by skrims in blood-red ink. "If Chief Marshal Gorman needs to sacrifice babies to Satan to achieve his earthly desires, he'll do it."

Chamo shook his head. "Why are powerful people always into weird ****?"

"Some people might find that an ironic question from a guy who carries a hammer with him wherever he goes so he can bash people's teeth out," Dishonored said.

"That's a practical precaution," Chamo replied. "I don't want to get bit. Besides, it is better without teeth getting in the way."

"That's why I like you Chamo. You're grounded in practicality."

A thunder filled the room. One of the delinquents stabbed the Pegasus with a little too much force. It kicked out hard with a hind leg. The hoof strike shook loose one of the Plexiglas walls and filled the room with noise.

The outcast Captain Vlain turned Dishonored may have become a criminal warlord, but he was born a Spartan. He was raised a Spartan and trained as a Spartan officer and Knight. Some small part of him still craved the Spartan discipline he outwardly rejected. Just as some small part of him could pity the Pegasus. Although his Spartan days were far behind him, Dishonored could transition from the role of brigand leader to disciplinarian with ease.

"Dammit, you three. Quit dilly-****ing around and just shoot that thing in the head before it hauls off and kicks one of you, you ****tards," Dishonored ordered. His tone and volume did not invite any questioning of this order. The youngest of the trio, a kid named Gear-Splitter Joe, fished a revolver out of a pocket. Dishonored turned to Chamo.

"Gather up all the computers, notebooks, binders… all the paperwork. We'll give a call out to our buddy up north and arrange a pickup."

Chamo nodded and reached for the notebooks. Quick as a snake, Dishonored reached out and stopped his lieutenant's hand.

"Not these. Not yet. I want to keep these for a bit."

Chamo withdrew his hand and left the notebooks and his boss alone.

Trucks and weapons weren't the only things Lions supplied the Unforgiven. Dishonored pulled out of a pocket another small plastic bottle full of the dirty brown liquid. He removed the cap, tipped his head back and put a couple of drops into each of his already pale eyes. He sniffed, then shuddered with a cold spasm that ran down his spine. Tears that were pink with hints of blood, rolled down his cheeks. He let out a sharp hoot and recapped the bottle.

Moments later an old Smith and Wesson Model 10 cracked, and that was it for the Pegasus. The former Spartan Knight went back to reading the notebooks bound in human skin. He, like so many others in the Gomorrah badlands, remained in Doctor Chosen's thrall.


Lions

Lance Corporal Howarth didn't stand a chance.

All around him, bodies dropped beneath clouds of smoke and blood. All Howarth could think to do is run. Run as far and as fast as he could.

Off to his right, Renteria tumbled down when a rifle round struck his shoulder. Renteria crashed face first into the dirt, and then a fusillade of bullets and other missiles crashed into him, kicking up puffs of dust and vaporous clouds of blood. Behind Howarth rose a chorus of demons cheers. Howarth kept running.


The operation began smoothly enough. Lance Corporal Howarth and the rest of his Capital Guard platoon flew from the Emerald City into the Gomorrah Badlands. Their mission: to perform a battle damage assessment from a drone strike. The Griffins landed them near the site, a sloping ridgeline covered with tall scrub brush. There they found craters, the wreckage of two Spartan Gun trucks, strips of uniforms, burnt boots, burnt bits of equipment, and trash. They even found a broken machine gun still mounted in its pedestal.

"Any bodies?" The voice on the other end of the radio asked.

"Negative," Captain Shep, the mission commander responded into the handset. "We found plenty of blood, but no bodies." His assistant, a young and innocent-faced Lieutenant named Russell, nodded in time with the conversation.

"Keep looking," the voice on the radio ordered. "Bones, body parts, drag marks, something. We need to be sure."

Shep replied, "Yes sir," and the search widened. The aircraft circling overhead remained on station as long as they could before leaving to make a rendezvous with a tanker to refuel. Although they didn't know it, the Capital Guard platoon was left alone and unafraid in the Gomorrah Badlands. For soldiers trained for ceremonial duties and military policing, it was a rookie mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. And a fatal one.

Howarth and the rest of third squad swept up towards the crest of the hill, fanning out, looking down at their feet for signs of bodies. Sergeant Church and the other non-commissioned officers shouted orders from time to time. Soon they were huffing and puffing from the strain of the uphill climb. Packs and weapons seemed to double in weight. Out of the corner of his eye, Howarth watched Private Dillion surreptitiously dump the water out of a canteen to save weight. Renteria cursed first and second squads for having all the luck.

"They got to sweep downhill while we have to go uphill," Renteria said. Howarth didn't see how it made any difference. The other squads would have to hike uphill again to rendezvous at the captain's command post once the whole thing was over. Waste of time, Howarth thought, kicking a stone with the toe of his boot.

"Hey, look," somebody shouted. Howarth looked up. Dillion pointed into the scrub vegetation near the crest of the hill. Howarth followed the pointing finger and saw a face disappear into the sage.

"What do you got?" Sergeant Church yelled.

"****ing kangaroo. In the bush." Dillion resumed his pointing. His finger waggled with youthful enthusiasm.

"Kangaroo? Bull****. Ain't no kangaroos outside Straya," Sergeant Church replied.

"Maybe it escaped from some zoo, Sergeant," Lieutenant Russell said as he hiked up to join the line. Sweat stains grew in the armpits of the lieutenant's red and black uniform. "You know, like back during the Protest, when everything was collapsing."

The lieutenant's young faced beamed, clearly proud of his thesis. "Can you imagine it? A kangaroo! Maybe there's a whole pack of them!"

Sergeant Church looked skeptical. But then another trooper shouted.

"I see it! There!"

Now the whole skirmish line looked up and saw it. A kangaroo-like face peered through a gap in the sagebrush. Yellow-brown eyes swept over the advancing troopers from left to right, and back again. Then the face dropped back into the sea of vegetation. Howarth and all the others saw a trace-line of moving vegetation cut towards the top of the ridge. It was like the wake of a large fish, swimming just beneath the water's surface.

"Get it," somebody shouted. The line surged forward, charging, reckless in the pursuit, fevered with the thrill of the hunt. Howarth ran forward, the rigors of the climb forgotten in the excitement. He saw the lieutenant sprinting ahead. Gear bounced off the officer's lean frame.

There came another shout, and then a triple snap of rifle fire. The wake line zigged and zagged through the bush.

Renteria shouted something, then threw back his head and laughed. Sergeant Church's angry voice could be heard, but the squad leader was ignored. Howarth caught a glimpse of the prey. It bounded with lupine movements, moving in a way not quite kangaroo-like, but not the quite the erect and bipedal movements of a human. The animal neared the crest of the ridge, but the troopers were closing in on it quickly, soon to overtake it.

The wake-line zigged toward Dillon. He yelled and snapped off almost half a rifle mag. When he lowered his rifle, he giggled like a school girl, and Sergeant Church shouted with fury. The sergeant tried in vain to regain control of his squad. Even the lieutenant was caught up in the antics too. He was ahead of the whole line now, sprinting to the top, crashing through the brush. Renteria stumbled, and Howarth surged past him. Now it was Howarth and Lieutenant Russell in the lead. A blur of brown zigged again and crested the hill. Russell poured on a final burst of speed, crested the ridge and dipped down the other side. Howarth pumped his legs and followed. Some dry and thorny bush, chest high, blocked his path. With a swipe, Howarth brushed a branch full of dry, brown leaves out of his face and crashed over the ridge.

And froze.

Howarth and Lieutenant Russell were on the opposite side of the ridge in an open and dusty patch of ground. On the open slope before them stood the kangaroo. Only it wasn't a kangaroo, but some disturbing kangaroo-man hybrid. It stood upright. Patches of brown fur covered a bare torso, above oddly shaped legs clad in dirty jeans. The mutant's yellow-brown eyes looked up at Howarth with an intelligent hate.

On the slope below the kangaroo-man stood dozens of other mutants. Hybrids. Things that weren't wholly men but weren't wholly animals either.

Disguises, Howarth's rational brain shouted. They must be wearing disguises. While his mind race, his stomach twisted. Sweat poured out his skin. It wasn't the sweat of exertion, but the cold sweat of panic. It can't be, Howarth thought. It can't be what it looks like. It just can't be.

Neither Howarth nor Lieutenant Russell spoke or moved. They just stared, dumbstruck at the menagerie before them, all of which glared back with hateful eyes.

Dillion broke the crest next. He nearly skidded to stop near Howarth, delirious with laughter and howling with the thrill of the chase. His merriment ended the instant his brain absorbed the sight before him. Dillion raised his hand and pointed. His mouth opened up into a soundless hole.

A rifle cracked, and Dillion's chest burst apart. Then the massacre began.

The rest of the squad crested the ridge just as the band of animal-men stirred into action. A trooper named Kirby broke out of the sage only to be hit by a fusillade of bullets.

Lieutenant Russell raised his carbine and fired wildly, snapping off what seemed like a dozen shots before turning his head to shout an order that was neither understood nor followed. The monsters charged. All manner of weapons opened fire: rifles, rippers, big Gomorrah revolvers, shoddy zip guns, and Pre-Protest shotguns.

Howarth turned and ran. HeHowarth raised his arms and pumped in time with his legs, as hard and as fast as he could. The other guardsmen followed suit. The fever of the hunt was drowned in waves of panic. On his way back down the ridge, Howarth saw Sergeant Church coming up. The squad leader was angry, shouting, frustrated. He had no idea what was going on. Howarth shouted to him, but before he could explain, an arrow appeared in Church's neck. Blood spurted. Church stumbled. Then a javelin sailed through the air and hit the sergeant in the face, and he dropped beneath the sagebrush sea never to be seen again.

The line of monsters was over the ridge top now and descending on the troopers. Their skirmish line stretched wide. Howarth could see more monsters on either flank. Grotesque heads bobbed above the vegetation, human heads with animal features, animal heads with human features. Howarth saw some tiger-human fusion to his left, overtaking the line of fleeing humans and pausing to fire bursts from an auto pistol. To his right, a trooper named Kingsly tossed aside his light machine gun without having fired a single round. Two seconds later, a stone bullet thrown from a sling exploded through Kingsly's knee cap. Kingsly dropped and screamed. Howarth kept running and didn't look back, not even when Kingsly's screams rose to blood-curdling pitch.

Ahead lay the blast site where Captain Shep set up his command post. Only, by the time Howarth got there the animals on the flanks had already swept in and were tearing apart the camp. Captain Shep lay dead, slumped over his radios. A swarm of demons drug the first sergeant down into a pit of swinging clubs. The clubs kept swinging. On their upswing, they threw out ropes of blood, flesh, brain, bone fragments. A radio operator held his carbine by the barrel, swinging it back and forth in a vain attempt to hold off the murderous waves before him.

Howarth ran straight through the camp, straight past the blown-up gun-trucks and dead bodies. Before him, the ridgeline swept down into a lush creek bed and then rose up again into sandy cliffs. The ground now was mostly bare. Renteria was at his side, pumping his arms and panting. A javelin landed between them.

Howarth spun around and fired his rifle from the hip. He didn't aim, he just swept it from side to side, spraying bullets. His panicked mind didn't perceive anything beyond the tip of his muzzle. The bolt locked back. Howarth turned to run again. His free hand patted over his unfamiliar gear looking for a spare magazine. A Capital Guardsman, Howarth didn't typically wear field equipment. Actions which should have been automatic and instinctive through practice and muscle memory, required conscious thought and mental effort. Howarth's panicked mind didn't have the bandwidth for that. He abandoned his weapon.

As far as Howarth could tell, only he and Renteria were left alive. Clouds of dust rose from the impacts all around them. Howarth's vision tunneled down, giving him a perspective that ended just the few paces before his pumping legs. The ground dropped away steeply. Howarth followed it down into a depression. Cliffs rose on either side of him, and then brambles, thick and thorny branches, closed in. Renteria fell. Howarth kept going until canyon walls and vines thicker than concertina boxed him in. Howarth stopped. His chest heaved in its search for breath.

Howarth's legs came out from under him as a single bullet passed through both kneecaps. Howarth tumbled, landing face first into the California dust. The agony of two shattered knees ripped through his body.

When he rolled over, his mouth full of dust and his eyes full of tears, he saw them. A semi-circle of monstrosities closing in on him. They carried all manner of weapons. Some held rippers, or big revolvers/sub gun hybrids. Some carried pre-protest weapons. Here an AK with magazines taped end-to-end. There an SKS rifle. The monstrosities clutched these not with human hands, but with animal appendages: black talons; furry paws; bony hooks; thin, jointed, hair covered digits that spoke to some arachnid design. The kangaroo-man was there, standing bipedal and holding a rawhide sling. It whistled as he spun it.

The chieftain of this band of freaks stepped forward. He held an Uzi submachine gun. A suppressor made from an old flashlight body capped the Uzi's muzzle. An old face, tanned, scarred and weathered peered through the sites. One arm that held the Uzi was coated in a thick layer of short blue feathers, an avian undercoating somehow grown on a human being by processes that to Howarth were unknown and unnatural.

The blue-feathered man passed off his Uzi submachine gun to a minion. The outstretched and empty hands then reached up over his back and unslung a sword still in its scabbard. One set of monster hands rushed forward to take the lacquered wooden scabbard, and the blue-feathered man drew out the long, sleek katana. Other monster hands pinned Howarth's arm behind his back and held him still. Howarth's mouth gaped into a silent scream as the mutant swordsman advanced.


Colonel Lions watched the beheading on his laptop from the backseat of the staff car. A drone, an unarmed one, arrived on the scene to capture the final moments of the slaughter. Captain Shep managed to get out a plea for help before being massacred along with the rest of his command. The two Griffins who departed to refuel requested to return to the scene and deliver close air support. Chief Marshal Gorman personally intervened to deny the request.

"I'm trying to end this war. I'm not going to restart it over a platoon of men who are already dead."

The Griffins turned away.

After Howarth's beheading, the savages on the ground beheaded the rest and looted what they could from the bodies. The drone's cameras clearly caught one of the raiders standing next to the swordsman and pointing directly up at the drone. At that point, the group scattered in a dozen different directions. The drone operator followed the swordsman as long as possible, but Lions could infer where he was going.

He was going back to the refugee camp at the old Concord Naval Weapons Station, the one with the huge wooden structure.

"These Gomorrah Screamers are more organized than we thought," Lions whispered to the laptop.

The drone's cameras captured images in the black-and-white spectrum of thermal imaging. That and the drone's altitude made some things not as clear as they could be. One thing Lions could tell for certain was that there was something off about the Screamers on the ground. They looked… not quite human. Lions saw limbs that were out of proportion, alien movements, appendages that seemed to bend the wrong way. When the one standing next to the swordsman looked up, even the limitations of the drone's camera revealed an inhuman face. Lions thought of the antique Mempo masks displayed in the Chief Marshal's office. But what he saw on the computer screen didn't look like masks. Lions knew that the people of Gomorrah modified their bodies. They altered them via surgery, hormone cocktails, bio-chemical-mechanics. Lion's gut told him this was different. Things were afoot in the ruins of Gomorrah, secrets that the grainy images of the Chief's Marshal's technology could not reveal.

The staff car came to a stop. Lions snapped the laptop shut and stepped out when the driver opened the door. Rain drizzled down. Before him stood Colonel Brown Needles. Behind Colonel Needles stood long lines of warehouses constructed out of sheet metal.

"Colonel, welcome to the Ham," Colonel Needles said, and with that, he executed a mock salute with a swagger stick.

Lions thought there was few accouterments more ridiculous than a swagger stick.

Internally, Lions let out a groan. Externally, he greeted his fellow colonel with the courtesy that professionalism demanded. Then, with a gesture towards the warehouses, Lions said, "Let's see what we have to give to our new allies in Gomorrah."

The Ham was the northernmost city in New Sparta. It possessed a small port facility with good road and rail access and thus made an ideal site to stockpile equipment in the case of a full mobilization. Lions and Brown Needles began their tour of the warehouses. Inside they found stocks of gear from an earlier age. No railguns or drones or directed energy weapons here, but troves of equipment the forces down in Gomorrah would undoubtedly find useful.

The first warehouse contained loadbearing gear and field equipment. Large cardboard boxes and barrels were piled high with web belts, plastic canteens, canvass backpacks. Everything came in either shades of olive drab or woodland camouflage. A lot of it stunk like mildew or vomit. Lions passed a row of cardboard barrels containing entrenching tools with wood handles. He walked past plastic tubs full of bayonets. He walked past huge plywood crates full of rifle and pistol magazines. Some of these were new in their wrappers. Others were pitted and pockmarked with rust.

The next warehouse contained foodstuffs. Lions saw racks full of metal cans with labels like, "Peaches: Halved In Syrup," and, "Beans: Lima," and, "Drink Base: Lemon-Lime Flavored." Other racks held large metal trays with similar labels. "Potatoes: Au gratin," and, "Lasagna: Vegetable with Vegetable Sausage Crumbles," and, "Egg Noodles: Buttered." Lions saw one vacuum metal vat that boasted containing 80 pounds of, "Omelet with Ham."

"Most of this stuff expired," Brown explained. "The nutrition content has suffered, but the food service people say it is still edible. We might as well get rid of all of it. Our agriculture now is such that we can replace this in just a few seasons.

Mixed amongst the rations were stainless steel equipment used for cooking, along with aluminum trays, Bakelite table settings, chipped ceramic bowls and coffee cups in a flat coyote brown color. Everything in the food warehouse spoke of unappetizing blandness.

Lions and Needles entered the next warehouse.

"Mixed ammunition. Same as the rations. It isn't worth the space it occupies," Needles said. The shelves of this warehouse were full of metal cans and cases, along with a lot of wooden boxes. Needles gestured to one open wooden crate with a crowbar leaning against it.

"Check this out," Needles said.

Lions looked inside the wooden crate, then he reached inside. He drew out a handful of mixed rifle and pistol ammunition. Lions let the shells slip through his fingers. They tinkled as they cascaded back into the box.

"Looks like they just dumped whatever bullets they had into these, and once they were full, they nailed them shut."

Lions read the black stencil on the wooden crate. It said, "Mixed Caliber Ammunition: 200lbs."

"Not very efficient if you needed to distribute it in a hurry," Lions said.

"No," Needles agreed. "The theory is this is all Pre-Protest Ammunition. Whatever stuff they captured out of sporting goods stores and homes and whatnot. They mixed brass cased with steel case. Some of it was wet when it went in, and we've got corrosion... rust on the steel stuff. It isn't worth the time it would take us to sort through it all by caliber. For those refugees, it might be worth the time."

"What else have you got?" Lions asked.

The next two warehouses contained military vehicles. All were Pre-Protest models. Lions saw things like 5-ton and deuce-and-a-half trucks, old military ambulances, trailers, mobile command centers full of vacuum tube radios, and towed workshops. A row of loaded pallets sat nestled between two rows of trucks. White signs with red letters declared these pallets, "Highest Priority."

"Parts for their M113s," Needles explained. "All the compatible parts we could find for the armor we know they have."

"What about things like specialized tools, repair manuals?" Lions asked. He expected to catch Needles flat-footed with that question. Surprisingly, Brown Needles had an answer, and one that was thought out.

"We've gathered all that up but packaged it separately from these loads. We assess that tools and know-how are more of a critical requirement to keep their fleet of vehicles running than the parts, so we packaged them in a high visibility manner. We don't want those manuals and tools getting lost or ignored.

"On that same subject, we also assessed that parts and supplies aren't going to be enough. The refugees will need logistics expertise. We are going to need to send them maintainers, mechanics, engineers, preventive medicine technicians, logistics and supply planners and the like if we're really serious about this."

"We're not at that point yet," Lions said, not that he disagreed with Needles. Right now, the mandate was just to equip the Gomorrah refugees. Train and advise might come later. They'd worry about that bridge when it came time to cross it.

Needles gestured towards the next warehouse with his swagger stick.

"Let me show you something."

Not all the vehicles came from the U.S. military. Foreign vehicles captured by the Numbered Groups filled the last warehouse. The latent firepower sitting there on immobile, former Soviet treads was massive.

"We can get eight of those T-72 tanks running. The rest we're stripping down for parts. We can parachute those the T-72s in, but we'll need the right aircraft to do it. Those towed 23mm guns all work, and the mechanics tell me that the ZSU-23 you see never left whatever storage facility the 4th Group found it in. The engine only has thirty-six hours on it. The cannons were test fired, and that's it."

"You got ammo for any of these?"

"The 4th Group wasn't stupid. They packaged up what ammo they could find to go with the vehicles. Wasn't much though. Maybe enough for one or two firefights. That's better than nothing."

Lions looked thoughtfully over the row of former Soviet vehicles. They constituted a lot of firepower. It might not be prudent to hand it all over to their former enemy. Of course, questioning the Chief Marshal was not prudent either. Beyond the massive, four-barreled, tracked and armored anti-aircraft vehicle stood one last vehicle.

"Does that BRDM work?" Lions asked.

"The engine runs," Needles answered. "We're still testing the missiles and the launchers on top." Needles paused, then added, "Our aircrafts' countermeasures should be good enough to that those anti-aircraft missiles won't be a threat, assuming they work."

"That's more assuming away threats and problems than I am really comfortable with."

"Me too," Brown agreed. "But the Chief Marshal want's all this stuff to go to the Gomorrah refugees. The Chief Marshal's wrath is a greater threat to us than four bull**** old Soviet anti-aircraft missiles."

Lions thought that New Sparta's pilots might not agree, but Needles did have a point. Going head-to-head with the Chief Marshal over four missiles that probably didn't work was a non-starter.

"What's your design for getting all this down there," Lions asked Needles.

"Flight hours, aircraft maintenance and crew rest are going to be my biggest limiting factors, behind the parachutes and pallets required to actually drop this stuff. We can shorten the airbridge considerably by trucking this stuff down to our expeditionary airfield at Grant's Pass, and then flying it in from there."

With that, Needles pulled out a large notebook with a cover bound in rough green cloth. He flipped it open and showed Lions hand drawn tables that calculated the enormous math of what he was proposing; the required numbers of aircraft by type and model, the number of sorties, the required manpower, tarmac space for aircraft parking, maintenance space, tool sets, spare parts, support equipment, the enormous amounts of fuel, and most important of all: time. It was a rough swag, but Lions had little doubt that Colonel Brown Needles's numbers were close. Lions felt impressed. He began to see Brown Needles in a different light. Before he thought of the man as an incompetent, just like his twin brother. The disaster at Confluence still fresh in his mind, Lions saw Brown Needles's incompetence from a different angle. The man could plan. The thoroughness of his initial design so far was testament to that. The other Needles brother couldn't do that, Lions knew. Hendrick Needles was the kind of commander who delegated all the planning to a subordinate, if any planning was done at all. Lions figured that Brown Needles was the kind of commander who could plan but didn't have the ability to execute. Maybe because he was just a ****ty leader, or perhaps because of his moral shortcomings. When the mishap befell the expeditionary base at Confluence, Brown Needles was absent, conspiring how to smuggle his foreign mistresses back into New Sparta. Brown might be the kind of officer who could be a good leader, but would sabotage himself with self-destructive behavior, like diving head first into a bottle, or chasing down women he shouldn't be chasing.

Lions rubbed his chin. If he could keep Brown confined to the Ham, the Emerald City, and within the base at Grant's Pass, maybe that would keep him focused on his work and not chasing after the local strange. That was a better problem to have than the Hendrick Brown problem, which was one of general, complete, all-around incompetence. Lions did not share the Chief Marshal's assessment that personal loyalty trumped mission accomplishment.

A communications device inside Lions' pocket buzzed. He checked it.

"Who is it? The Chief Marshal?" Brown asked.

"No," Lions answered. "Not the Chief Marshal. Just a former college."

Lions read through the encrypted message. The former Spartan Captain, Rodrigo Vlain had just struck gold and needed a pickup. That would be easy enough. He could dispatch a couple of Griffins out of Grant's Pass for this mission. Midway through his reply, he got another message. This one was from General Greylick, the Chief Marshal's deputy for science and technology. Lions read the new message. It simply said.

Come Back to The Emerald City Soonest

And then:

He's Still Alive
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Old 02-25-2019, 01:24 AM
hoplite59 hoplite59 is offline
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JG,

excellent ! Waiting for the next installment.
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Old 02-25-2019, 08:08 PM
sharkman6 sharkman6 is offline
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Default Working on it

Working on it. Work's been killer.
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Old 02-28-2019, 11:32 PM
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Default Chapter 22

Nobody gonna take my car
I'm gonna race it to the ground
Nobody gonna beat my car
It's gonna break the speed of sound
Deep Purple, Highway Star


Colt
The team operated on a reverse cycle now; they slept during the day and traveled by night when their training and night vision gave them an advantage. As a precaution, they all were awake in the hours before sunset. Any site that was good enough for them to camp in during the day, some other travelers might find good enough to camp in during the night, and Lefranc wanted everybody awake in the event of a meeting engagement.

In these hours before sunset, each team member went about their routines. Doc either attended to Nicky-Lee or inventoried his medical bag. Ajax maintained his workout routine with whatever he could find, sometimes lifting huge rocks, other times hugging his rucksack to his chest and squatting until his legs gave out. Robins poured over the books stashed in his pack, and Lefranc studied his maps of the once-was California.

On this particular evening, Colt watched Christian prepare his retreads with curious fascination. The grenadier worked at his ritual with the focus and intensity of a priest preparing communion. Christian carefully took all the old dip out of his lip, or poured it out of a plastic bottle wrapped in green duct tape, and spread it on an old plastic panel that might have once been part of a car body. He left the plastic panel out in the sun to dry. Then he finely chopped some roasted dandelion roots with his bowie knife. Ajax, who had previously spurned Robins, now joined the clerk in collecting dandelion roots and roasting them, an old trick for a coffee substitute. Christian mixed his roasted dandelion roots with the dried, used dip, then carefully repacked the fusion into an empty tin labeled, "retread," with black permanent marker and more olive-green duct tape. Before sealing the container, Christian opened a couple of paper packets of salt from a ration pack and dumped their contents onto the used-tobacco/dandelion mix.

"The salt keeps the mildew taste from getting too overpowering," Christian explained.

"That work?" Colt asked.

"I'll add some hot sauce to it before I pop it in and rehydrate it with some of the dip spit I save."

"Sounds disgusting."

"It is, but I need my fix."

Colt joined Lefranc, who dropped the truck's tailgate and unrolled a map. An orange line on the western horizon marked the remains of the day. With the map unrolled on the tailgate-table, Lefranc talked through their next movement. He used a yellow stalk of grass as a pointer.

"Sacramento's here, we want to stay away from that. Oakland's out here, and we absolutely want to stay away from that. Here we've got the Marin headlands. The problem is we have to get around the water feature of the San Francisco Bay and all these old urban areas. I figure we can start cutting Northwest, come through here." The stalk of grass traced a line of old second-use roads. "Two nights if we're lucky will put us here. Then we can go straight shot north up the coast. There's a coastal mountain range along here, good for camping."

Colt took it all in, nodding that he understood. He asked, "What d'you think about this Jefferson business?"

Lefranc frowned. "I don't like it and think we need to stay the hell away from the very idea of it. Our new addition said this Jefferson place's survival means staying hidden from both Gomorrah and New Sparta. If that's the case, we go to this Jefferson place, and we just might get our throats slit for our troubles… assuming its even real. An argument I am not convinced of just yet."

"You think we should do anything with him?"

Lefranc looked over at Nicky-Lee. The man now wore pilfered clothes. Brown boots, black pants, a short-sleeved work shirt of rough, post-protest cloth. He still wore the handcuffs, but he hadn't tried to escape. At least not yet. His wounds had yet to heal, and Doc was the only medical care he was likely to receive this side of the fabled Jefferson. Doc's antibiotics were as good as any ball and chain.

Lefranc said, "Let's keep him around for now. But let's not trust him."

"I agree," Colt said.

A sallow expression covered Nicky-Lee's face. Since the night Doc's drugs had loosened his tongue, Nicky-Lee had gone quiet. He hardly spoke about Jefferson or anything else. Neither Colt nor any of the others mistook his silence for lack of ability or a lack of will.


An hour after sunset they left their lager site. Ajax and Doc rode in the back. Lefranc drove, and Colt rode shotgun. Robins and Christian took the backseat, with the handcuffed Nicky-Lee sandwiched between them. They operated on night vision. Lefranc disabled the vehicle's daytime running lights earlier, which somehow survived after decades of apocalypse. They moved, the truck a dark blur gliding through the night, swerving its way along twisting back roads.

The wind and the cool, fresh, night air rushed in through the open slider window. The night air smelled clean. Nicky-Lee craned his neck to catch a glimpse of the stars in their orbits, his cuffed hands rested in his lap.

"We're generally heading west," Nicky-Lee said.

Nobody responded.

"We're not headed north, back to New Sparta."

Still nobody responded.

"If we were going to New Sparta, the best bet would be to head east out into the high desert, away from everybody. Maybe get on the other side of the mountains. Then go north. Going west brings us towards more people. Which is dangerous."

Still none of the Spartan's spoke.

"Going towards the coast would take us to Jefferson. Are we going to Jefferson?"

"You'll be going to pick your teeth up off the floorboards if you don't stop with the questions," Christian said. He said this with a mildness that amplified the force of the threat.

Nicky-Lee stopped with the questions.

The truck ate up the road, the massive engine rumbling. The faded lines painted on the road streaked by. Colt lifted his night vision glasses up on his head and turned to face Nicky-Lee.

"How far to this Jefferson place?"

Nicky-Lee didn't speak at first. He let the pause draw out into awkward moment before answering, "I'm sorry. I thought I wasn't supposed to talk."

Christian drove the buttstock of his carbine into Nicky-Lee's ribs, not hard, but hard enough.

"How about this. You talk when we tell you to, and shut up when we don't."

"You guys drugged me the other night. Gave me something to make me talk."

"We also gave you antibiotics for that infection of yours. And we got you out of that freezer, don't forget that," Colt said.

Nicky-Lee considered this, then answered. "Maybe 400 miles. Finding it ain't easy though. You can't just drive in there."

"We didn't figure you posted a lot of signs," Lefranc said.

Nicky-Lee looked over the others in the cab and then said, "Something tells me you aren't exactly welcome in New Sparta."

"What makes you say that?"

"You're zorching around the Badlands in a stolen piece of **** truck. You don't have a single radio with you." Nicky-Lee took another look over Christian and said, "This one looks like he's been living in a cave for the better part of a year."

"He always looks like that," Colt replied.

"The last Spartan I ran into almost got vaporized by his own people… if I hadn't of saved him. I gotta worry about death rays, or eating a tungsten rod from space?"

"Let's just say," Colt began. "Let's just say its better if our location is kept a mystery. Kinda like this fabled Jefferson place of yours."

"Jefferson's no fable," Nicky-Lee answered. "If you can get me back there a reward would be…"

"Tell me more about the computer," Robins interrupted.

"The computer that you blew up?"

"No, the computer that got smashed while we were killing the cannibals that were about to eat you."

Nicky-Lee's face twisted with anger.

"You referred to the computer as she," Robins said. "You said she could hack into our Morning Stars."

"She could. But she's gone," Nicky-Lee said. The words came out with a mix of anger and sorrow that Colt couldn't help but feel. Anger that his precious computer was destroyed in the crossfire. Grief, in that losing this computer was like losing a… what? A friend? A companion? A fellow warrior, as close to this Nicky-Lee's heart as Christian or any of the other companions were to his own? The cab went silent save the rumble of the engine and the noise of tires on pavement. Robin spoke again.

"She's gone. But she isn't the only one, is she? She isn't the only self-aware computer you have. There is at least one other, isn't there?" Nicky-Lee's face paled. He raised an eyebrow. Robins answered the unasked question.

"It's in the name. Jekyll. It pairs too easily. She has a brother, of sorts, doesn't she?"

Nicky-Lee nodded.

Colt spun in his seat. "Where's this other computer? Jefferson?"

Nicky-Lee nodded gravely.

"And it can hack the Morning Star network."

"He can do everything Jekyll can. Not as cleanly. Not as controlled. But he can do it. Yeah, he can get into your Morning Stars. Plug him into the right antenna and such, but yeah, he can do it."

"Heckle," Robins blurted out with excitement. "The other one, his name is Heckle, right? Heckle and Jekyll?"

"No," Nicky-Lee answered, as solemn as an undertaker. "Not Heckle… Hyde."

"****," Lefranc shouted, and everybody in the cab was thrown violently as Lefranc cranked the steering wheel hard to the side. They had just rounded a blind turn in the road and come face to face with a group of men. No, not a group, a column. A column of men on the march. The truck swerved hard. One of the men, who'd missed being run over by a hair's breadth, raised a fist and shook it.

"Turn on your lights, *******."

Robin's head spun frantically on his shoulders. There were men on either side of the vehicle now, marching on the shoulders of the road, heads down, weary, but numerous. Some carried torches or lanterns. Others pulled or pushed loads of booty. Firelight cast diabolical shadows and blurred features. From his seat, Colt saw two weary men pushing a bicycle laden with gear look up from their burden.

"There's an army out there," Robins bleated in panic.

The road turned again. Lefranc slowed for the turn. Another fist shook in the dark. Colt saw lips curled back in a sneer that could have been animalistic or just a trick of the light.

"Turn your headlights on, *******!" A red-sashed non-commissioned officer yelled.

"It is an army," Robins said. "It is an army, and we're right in the middle of them. What are we gonna do?"

"We're gonna turn these headlights on for starters," Lefranc answered calmly. Colt and Christian removed their sunglasses just as the headlights flicked on.

A giant head poked through the open slider window. Ajax.

"There's an army out there."

"We noticed."

"What are we going to do?" Ajax asked.

"We play it cool. We drove in one end maybe we can drive out the other end," Colt answered. He removed a map and unfolded it in his lap.

"Be ready on that pig," Lefranc answered. He held the wheel with one hand now. The other gripped his newly acquired pistol.

"We are in the belly of the beast," Christian said with gleeful enthusiasm. He poked Nicky-Lee in the ribs again, but this time with a playful eagerness. Nicky-Lee looked over and saw the dirty little man grinning from ear to ear, like a moron with a brand-new toy.

A column of ill-equipped infantry glided by, moving one direction while the truck moved in the other.

"They think we're with them," Robins said. "Keep driving."

"Yeah, I wasn't going to stop, kid," Lefranc answered. To Colt, he asked, "How far west are we?"

"Not far enough," Colt said without looking up from the map. "We're still too far south and on the wrong side of everything."

Christian gave Nicky-Lee another playful jab in the ribs. "Dude, I could shoot in any direction and hit bad guys," the grenadier said. Then he opened one on the tins labeled "retreads" and scooped out a fingerful of used dip.

Colt closed up the map, then did a brass check on his carbine. "If we have to bail out, head east. That's to the right." He saw a flash of brass in the chamber and sent the bolt home. Christian leaned his head back out slider window to spread the word.

The road turned again, and they rounded another corner. Lefranc swerved again to avoid a pair of handcarts loaded with some booty or another. Behind them, a man leaped off his bicycle to avoid being crushed. The man screamed and shook an angry fist.

"Looks like a one-way road," Robins said. "This is a column on the march."

"What's to our flank?" Lefranc demanded. They passed a marching column of red-sashed infantry. Most stared at their feet, a few looked up. Their faces were more puzzled than anything. A man who must have been are sergeant of some sort ordered them off the road.

"And we're going the wrong way," Robins finished.

"Well we damn well can’t turn around, can we," Colt said in a tone that wasn't snappy, but calm and rational. "We've got good escape and evade country to the east."

They passed another column on the driver's side, a platoon of infantry types. Most of the marchers stared at their feet. One raised a torch and attempted to peer into the vehicle.

"Your little subterfuge can't last forever," Nicky-Lee said.

And it didn't.

The next time the road snaked, up ahead they saw a half dozen men standing in the middle of the road, reading a map by firelight. All six looked up, and one waved a torch in a slowdown motion. Lefranc stopped the truck about fifty feet from the group. Close, but not so close they could see inside.

"Got any ideas?" Colt asked.

One of the six came forward towards the truck. He held a clipboard in one hand and a flashlight in the other.

"Looks like we found the roadmaster," Christian said.

"Only one way out of this now," Lefranc answered. Colt nodded agreement.

The roadmaster walked to the truck slowly. Nicky-Lee watched as each of the Spartan's shifted their weapons, then removed earplugs from pouches and pockets and stuffed them in their ears. He felt another jab in his ribs and looked down to see Christian's open palm with a pair of earplugs inside.

"You'll want these."

Nicky-Lee grabbed at the foam earplugs. Christian collapsed the telescoping stock on his carbine as short as it would go, then shifted in his seat.

"I got him."

At his other side, the one-armed Spartan opened a flap on his chest rig, making it easier to access one of his submachine gun magazines.

The roadmaster closed in. Just a few steps away. Colt adjusted his own carbine.

The flashlight played over the vehicle. The roadmaster squinted and craned his neck to see inside. He approached the driver's side and Lefranc's open window.

Christian let out a long, calming breath.

The roadmaster closed in. Three steps away. Two steps away.

Lefranc leaned to his right, then tilted his head over so his right ear was almost on his right shoulder.

The light flashed across the cab. The roadmaster's face filled the open driver's side window. He saw inside, an in a moment his face changed from a look of annoyance to one of shocked recognition. He never got a word out.

Christian brought his carbine up and squeezed the trigger. The roadmaster dropped. Before his body hit the ground Lefranc mashed down on the gas pedal. The big truck charged forward. Colt saw panicked faces, frozen in the center of the road and washed in the truck's headlights. He raised his carbine and opened fire, shooting through the windshield. Some bodies scattered and some dropped. Lefranc hit one with the truck, and it went rolling and flopping up over the truck's protective cage, thumping and bumping all the way.

In the back, Nicky-Lee cringed as Christian and Robins simultaneously opened fire out either side. Submachine gun and carbine hammered away. Spent brass went flying and crisscrossing through the cab. On either side of the road, men either threw themselves onto the shoulder or fell under the fire. In the back of the truck, Ajax and Doc opened up too. The machine gun gave out a deeper, more powerful, more mechanical sound as it ripped away. Bodies outside the truck dropped left and right.

The truck charged forward into the night, spitting fire in all directions. The Gomorrah fighters in the road ran for cover or fell. The truck came upon a shopping cart abandoned in the middle of the road. It struck it head on, and the metal wire cart exploded, showering its contents in all directions. They came upon another turn. Lefranc put the truck into the turn, then powered his way through it. Another turn and another platoon-sized element of Gomorrah infantry. These ones were ready. One stood in the middle of the road, a ripper raised in both hands.

"****," somebody screamed. Colt opened up, and the man with ripper fell. In his death grip he mashed down the trigger, and a runaway gun spat fire into the air. The bolt on Colt's weapon locked back.

A trio stood in the middle of the road and Lefranc aimed the truck at them.

Nicky-Lee cringed as he heard the loud smacks of bullets punching through metal, the metal of the truck's cab.

In the back of the truck, Ajax spun around and placed his machine gun on the truck's roof and opened up. A steady fire poured down the road. Brass and disintegrating steel links rained down from the roof.

"Look out," Lefranc screamed, his voice barely audible above the din. The truck smashed into two bodies. One went under the truck, the other went up and over, bouncing off the hood and spilling off to the side.

The mirror on Colt's side exploded into a cloud of glass and plastic. He slapped a magazine into his weapon and sent the bolt home with a smack.

One man ran down the road. Lefranc first swerved to the right, then veered back to the left and sideswiped the man, whose head caught the driver's side mirror and exploded that into a similar cloud.

Christian leaned out his window and dropped a trio of fleeing Gomorrah fighters with a short burst. He spat, and the wind caught his chew spit and smeared it lengthwise across his face. There came a smack-smack sound, and bullet holes appeared on the pillars on either side of Christian's head.

A fighter ran into the road. Ajax cut him down with a machinegun burst, but not before the fighter got off a blast with a single barrel shotgun. The blast hit the windshield, and the windshield collapsed inward, now just one big spiderweb of laminated glass.

"Get it out of here," Lefranc said. He used his pistol to hammer the ruined windshield out of the way. Colt put his weapon on safe, then used his buttstock as a hammer. The windshield gave way, spilling out bits of smashed glass.

Ajax hammered on the roof with a fist and yelled, "Turn! Turn!"

Colt gave the shattered windshield one last smash, and it spilled out onto the hood and rolled off in a mess.

"Turn!"

In the middle of the road lay a rusted hulk of a car, long abandoned and sitting on rusted steel rims whose tires had rotted away. On top of the car stood a sashed fighter with a hunting rifle.

"Turn!"

Lefranc swerved just enough to miss hitting the car hulk head on. He swerved so hard, Ajax was thrown off his feet and down into the bed. The truck clipped the wreck. One headlight shattered away instantly; a spray of glass and plastic. Metal bent and screamed from the stress. The bumper, already buckled from smashing through carts and people, swung down from sheared bolts and threw up orange sparks. The truck's protective cage ripped open at the corner. In the dimmed light, Colt saw the rifleman on the roof go flying, thrown by the force of the impact into darkness.

Another light exploded, this time a taillight. Then came more smack-smack-smack sounds of bullets piercing sheet metal. Red-sashes behind them fired trailing shots into the back of the truck.

"Drive damn it," Doc screamed from the back. He had his night vision glasses on. He fired twice back down the road, then lowered his rifle and shot through the truck's tailgate and destroyed the remaining taillight.

Ahead, more rifleman ran. This time they ran into the road and took firing positions. The night air whipped in through the open windshield. Colt raised his carbine and fired away. Smoke, thunder, and hot brass filled the interior of the cab. Nicky-Lee ducked down and covered his ears with his hands. From one wrist swung a partially unlocked handcuff, like some gaudy bracelet.

Some of the riflemen fell. Others got their shots off before scattering. The fusillade ripped into the front of the truck. Plastic bits shattered; the last headlight and bits of the grill. Steam rose up out of a pierced radiator. The truck pulled to one side. Colt heard the whump-whump-whump of a flat tire. Then the hood flew straight up, blocking their view of the road.

"This rig's done," Lefranc shouted.

Colt donned his glasses and leaned out the open window. "Veer right," he ordered. "Right, right."

Lefranc leaned out his window and saw it too; an unpaved road to the right, perhaps an old driveway or farm road. He brought the truck right. The engine screamed its mechanical death rattles. Overhead, rifle bullets snipped and snapped.

"They're behind us! They're behind us," Doc shouted. The truck hit a bump in the road. In the truck bed, Spartans and rucksacks bounced into the air and landed back down with thumps. Another tire came apart, collapsing into a rat's nest of steel belts and strips of rubber. The steering wheel spasmed, and Lefranc struggled to keep it under control and bring the vehicle safely to a stop. When he did, the Spartans and Nicky-Lee piled out.

They were in a field of wild grass and shoulder-high scrub brush. Through his night vision, Colt saw a collapsed building off to their left. He didn't see any Gomorrah red-sashes, but they could hear them pack on the road.

"Anybody hit," Doc asked. Nobody was.

"Get your packs and let's get moving," Colt ordered.

Christian jabbed Nicky-Lee in the ribs one more time. Smears of chew-spit ringed the grenadier's face and ran down his neck. "That was a ****ing rush, eh? Eh?" He jabbed Nicky-Lee a few more times in the ribs. If Nicky-Lee felt any rush, his face didn't show it.

"East, let's go. The deeper we get into this brush, the more they'll have to spread out to find us. I got point," Colt ordered.

"Wait one," Christian said. He drew a hand grenade out of a pouch and dove headfirst back into the truck, landing lengthwise across the front bench seat. He removed the thumb safety from the grenade, then reached over and opened the driver's side door just slightly. Gingerly, he put the grenade between the door and the cushion of the front seat, then closed the door again so that the grenade and its spoon were pinched between the truck's door and bench seat. Then, gingerly again, he pulled the pin on the grenade and carefully climbed out of the rig.

"Whoever opens that door is in for a surprise," Christian explained, his mouth a disgusting combination of maniacal grin and dirty spittle.

"Sure, but everything being equal, I think I'd rather have the grenade," Lefranc said.

"I can make more grenades," Christian assured him.

"Enough dilly-****ing around. Let's go," Colt ordered. They filed away from the truck and into the night, moving swift and silent, through the elephant grass and moving east. After moving about fifty yards, Robins grabbed Nicky-Lee roughly by the shoulder and spun him around. Nicky-Lee came face to face with the muzzle of Robins' submachine gun. The others stopped.

"His cuffs. His cuffs are gone," Robins said.

Nicky-Lee shrugged. "I picked them during the firefight," he said petulantly.

"So where are they now?" Lefranc asked.

Nicky-Lee jerked his head in the direction they'd just come. "Back in the truck, if you want to go get it," came the answer.

They all took a look back the way they came, then continued through the grass.

After about ten minutes they heard the dull "whump" of a grenade exploding.
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Old 05-09-2019, 05:04 PM
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Default Chapter 23

Colt

"Range to target," Colt asked the grumpy old sniper beside him. Lefranc clicked a turret on his ancient rifle's scope.

"A klick, plus two or three nickels in change." Lefranc chewed slowly and spat into the dust. He and Colt lay camouflaged in some sagebrush. They watched the roadway ahead, Lefranc through his rifle scope and Colt through a pair of small binoculars. The others in the party lay behind them, also camouflaged. Ajax cleaned his machine gun. Doc tended to Nicky-Lee, who was healing nicely. Robins, who had dark rings around his eyes, pretended to sleep. Christian slept like a baby. Christian lightly held a pistol on his chest. At his side stood a half-empty can of warm energy drink. Or maybe it was chew spit, saved for his latest recycling scheme.

"Can you hit them from here, if you needed to?" Colt asked. Lefranc took his time answering.

"Yeah, I could. No wind. It'd be a dicier shot than I'd like to try with this rifle though."

"Think they are looking for us?" Colt asked. Another pause, another spit, and then…

"Yeah, they're looking for us."

A dozen bicycles stood on the roadway and around them milled a squad of Gomorrah fighters. Two searched the shoulder of the road, looking for signs of Colt and his team. The other milled about the bikes. Colt thought those looked unsure of what to do.

"Any fish-men amongst them?" Robins asked from his sham slumber.

Even though they came in a wide variety of forms, they'd taken to calling the Gomorrah mutants fish-men based on their first mutant encounter back at the Fish Camp.

"You need to sleep," Doc said forcefully to Robins. You're a wreck. If you don't get some sleep, you're going to start making mistakes, and that's going to cause problems for all of us."

After shooting their way through the enemy column three days before, Colt's crew found themselves pursued by a variety of Gomorrah groups. Some were fish-men, and some were your run-of-the-mill Gomorrah savages. Some came in vehicles, some came on foot, and now it seemed some came on bicycles. The good news was the enemy pursuers stayed on the roads and didn't chase Colt and the others into the bush. The bad news was that by staying on the roads, their Gomorrah pursuers were able to move quickly and continually cut off their escape routes. So far, their pursuers remained two-steps behind. That could not last forever though.

"My brain won't shut down," Robins explained.

"Well make it shut down," Doc snapped, a bit crabby himself and in need of sleep.

Lefranc turned. He spoke to Robins, but not in his sergeant-tyrant manner.

"Doc's right. Get some sleep. If we need you, we'll wake you up."

Robins rolled over and wrapped himself up in his poncho. Lefranc turned back to the roadway and their bicycle-borne pursuers.

"No black sashes," Colt commented. "Let's trade glass."

They traded, the rifle for the binoculars.

"These ones are all in red," Lefranc said. "Crap weapons, but that's typical down here. Twelve fellas don't make for much of a posse."

"Maybe that's all the working bikes they could muster," Colt mused. He handed back the rifle, turned over on his side, and consulted the map.

"Hard west is still no-go. And we've got pursuers from the south as well as the west now. East just takes us out further into nothing. We're going to have to keep pushing north and hope we get hook around them, then beat for the coast."

"North then Northwest," Nicky-Lee interrupted while Doc swabbed his wounds. "You want to go north, to Jefferson." Lefranc rolled his eyes.

"You're still on this Jefferson kick?"

"Jefferson's real," Nicky-Lee protested.

"Maybe it is kid," Lefranc began. "But all the way up to the old California-Oregon border is quite the haul."

"It ain't that much further than you were already planning to go. Besides that…"

Lefranc knew that Nicky-Lee was a talker. He consciously cutoff the Jeffersonian spy's sales pitch.

"It also puts us closer to New Sparta, which is not where we want to be. And, it sounds like you didn't leave on the best of terms. They may not want you back. And while they may want you back, there's no way they want us mucking up their barn."

Colt kept his eyes on the roadway. He felt Lefranc was correct. Jefferson was not a place they wanted to go if they could help it, for a long list of reasons. Even so, they could only run around old California for so long. They only had so much food and so much water. They could stretch the food out by rationing, but water was another story. Each Spartan carried canteens and water bladders in their pack. Each Spartan also carried water purification tablets and knew a half-dozen other ways to clean water for drinking. The problem was there wasn't much water to be had. Now that the Central Valley had fallen back to nature, water of any kind was scarce. They could run around playing this cat and mouse game for a long time. But they weren't just playing the game against Gomorrah, they were playing against New Sparta too. On a long enough timeline, they could only end up losing.

"I got friends to the east too, maybe," Nicky-Lee said. His words came out hesitantly as if he were suggesting a dangerous last resort. Maybe he was.

"For a guy we found locked in a freezer all by himself, you sure claim to have a lot of friends," Lefranc said.

As the argument went back and forth, Colt remained detached. He kept his eyes on the road, on his pursuers. They had a manner about them, an uneasy, uncomfortable, amateurish manner. They looked like men not entirely sure of what they were doing, what they were supposed to be doing. They held their weapons all wrong. They lounged about their bikes, unconcerned about local security in this violent land. At this distance, Colt couldn't hear them talk, but he could see the way they communicated, or didn't communicate. It wasn't the smooth, intuitive communication of a well-disciplined team. Their interactions were forced, broken, stuttering. These red-sashed pursuers weren't professional warriors. Fighters, maybe. Armed men, certainly. But they were a machine honed for violence the way Colt and his men were.

His concentration broke at the sound of engines. The argument between Lefranc and Nicky-Lee ceased. Ajax snapped his machine gun back together and in a flash had it next to Colt and trained on the road. Robins popped up from under his poncho with his submachine gun. Christian didn't move.

Three trucks screamed down the roadway and skidded to a stop just before the bicycles.

"Fish-men. Black Sashes," Lefranc called out. Men… or mutants… poured out of the trucks. They waved their hands and their weapons, and the red-sashes waved back at them.

"One with dog fur, one with scales, one's got bug-eyes, actual bug eyes, like the eyes of a fly," Lefranc called out. Now all the team members were arranged facing the road, all but Doc who watched their rear, and Christian who still slept.

"They look angry," Colt said.

"They do. What do you suppose they're angry about?" Doc asked.

"Probably ****ed that they can't find us," Robins mused. "They've been chasing us for days and…"

Before he could finish his thought, the roadway exploded with gunfire. Colt and the others saw the flashes and smoke a second before the sounds of it all hit their ears. The mutants, the black-sashes, opened fire on their red-sashed comrades, cutting them down in a single devastating fusillade. It came so quick, so unexpected that the red-sashes didn't even get a single shot off. One ran off into the brush. A mutant with an automatic shotgun climbed onto the hood of a truck and standing there, unloaded into the runner's back. He tumbled to the ground sending up a cloud of dust.

The next thing that happened seemed even odder to Colt. One of the mutants climbed back into a truck, started it up, then plowed through the bicycles. Not once, not twice, but three times. He ran them over and then backed over them again. It was as if the bikes were their real enemy and the dead red-sashes in the roadway just an ancillary target. Once they felt the bicycles sufficiently destroyed, the black-sashed mutants mounted up in their trucks and took off as quickly as they came.

"What do you suppose that was all about," Ajax asked when the trucks disappeared.

"They weren't looking for us, that's for sure," Robins said.

"No, they weren't," Colt agreed. "They weren't looking for us. They were looking for those red-sashes. The non-mutants. And when they found them, they killed them."

Lefranc's brow wrinkled. "You saying there's some kinda Gomorrah civil war going on?"

"They just massacred twelve of their fellow screamers. That's a long way from smearing **** on a mural."

"Not good if a civil war breaks out down here."

"Not good for them, but good for us," Colt answered.

Behind them, Christian let out a long, raspy snore, sat up and grabbed the can at his side.

"What did I miss?" he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he chugged at the can, swished a mouthful of it around in his mouth, then spat out a stream of dark brown liquid into the dust.

Sleazy and his two Griffin section were somewhere above the Once-Was California, near the coastline. Today, Sleazy's aircraft was configured as a transport. The other Griffin was set up as a heavy gunship. Batteries lined its cargo hold, and a railgun projected out one side. Down below, breakers crashed along the beach. The radio squawked.

"Ground callsign, this is Griffin Three-Deuce-Five. We are battle position Hue City, inbound."

"Roger Three-Deuce-Five. This is callsign Dishonored-Six, actual. Standby for landing zone brief."

"Ready to copy," Sleazy answered. While the ground station relayed the details of the landing zone, he switched over his radio to his wingman's channel.

"Trail, this is Lead, how are we looking on that railgun?"

"Greenlights across the board boss. Who is the pickup for anyway?"

"No idea," Sleazy answered. "This mission came straight from some Capital Guard bagman. He was light on the details and heavy with the threats if the mission failed and all that black-ops bull****."

"You think this is related to that other drop off we made?"

"I hope not," Sleazy said. "Just stay frosty on the railgun. Any mission this deep into Gomorrah has got to be dicey."

Sleazy switched to the intercom.

"Brady?"

"Yo?" Tech Sergeant Brady answered from the cargo compartment.

"The 'stay frosty' order goes for you too."

"We're on it," Brady answered. Like most Spartan aircrews, Three-Deuce-Five kept a small arsenal of privately acquired weapons handy. The junior crew member had an automatic shotgun with a drum full of buckshot close at hand. Brady, the senior crew chief, held an infantry automatic rifle loaded with a sixty-round magazine. If trouble got close to their aircraft, they planned to just empty their weapons into the threat and hope Sleazy could fly them out of danger. Brady checked the chamber of the weapon. Satisfied with the flash of brass inside, he rechecked the safety and stood by.

The Griffin's turned inland and climbed over the ridgelines that ran parallel to the coast. After one such ridgeline, the radio barked.

"Got you on visual Three-Deuce-Five. Smoke is available to mark."

"Pop your smoke," Sleazy answered. At his tail, Griffin Four-Deuce-Five added power and climbed. Once at the desired altitude, it would fly in a racetrack pattern over the landing zone, keeping its railgun trained on whatever might be below.

"Popping smoke," the radio answered.

"Tally smoke. Green," Sleazy answered. Then pointed out the rising green pillar of smoke to his copilot.

"Yep. Our contacts must be in that treeline bordering the road," Captain Grace answered.

"Whoever they are, they're running a tight operation. That smoke is the only sign anybody is out there. I'm going to bring the ramp around, butt it up near the trees, and give us more runway space if we need to get out in a hurry."

"Ever the paranoid," Grace said.

"Paranoid keeps you alive down here."

The Griffin pivoted around, and Brady lowered the ramp. The back of the Griffin opened, just as it had before when Brady set Colt and his team loose into the Gomorrah badlands. As soon as the aircraft touched down, a man stalked out of the vegetation, waved and Brady, then waved back towards the treeline. For Brady, that's when it happened.

Out of the treeline came a quartet of gunmen. They were armed like Spartans, with New Spartan carbines, submachine guns, and armor. But they didn't look like Spartans. They looked like a wild tribe of pagan warriors, each one tattooed and branded and ritualistically scarred. Shaved heads, piercings, stained beards, and dreadlocks. Worst of all were the eyes. Each one's eyes were cataract milky; the sign of hardcore drug use.

In between these gunmen came a human parade that shocked Brady. Twelve men and women, each naked and tied to the others by a length of rope that connected neck to neck. They stumble-ran towards the Griffin. Loaded into their arms were crates and cartons, computers, and bags full of paper.

"Get it in there. Get it all inside," The lead gunman shouted. He wore a set of Spartan coveralls with the sleeves cut off. He carried two Spartan submachine guns. One he held in his hand, the other he'd slung over a shoulder. His eyes were two faint blue dots in milky pools. He grinned sadistically as the naked slaves entered the Griffin and dumped their cargo on the floor. Brady looked into the prisoners' eyes and saw only hopelessness. One naked woman stood motionless on the deck of the Griffin after dropping her armload of three-ring binders. Her hesitation amounted to a plea for help. A gunman gave her no warning to get moving, but instead gave the rope a tug hard enough to send heads whiplashing back and forth. In a flash, it was over. The cargo deposited on the floor of the Griffin, and the naked captives disappeared back into the trees along with all the gunmen save the one in the coveralls. He handed Brady a piece of paper, then leaned in close so he could be heard above the engine noise.

"Here's your manifest. And give the Chief Marshal my compliments." And without another word to Brady, he disappeared.

Brady thought the man looked familiar, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.

"We loaded?" Major Peters asked over the intercom.

Brady unrolled the manifest, and there it was. There was the answer to why that gunman looked so familiar.

"Brady? We loaded," Sleazy asked again.

The bottom of the manifest was signed, R Vlain.

"We're loaded boss. Get us outta here, now. Fast."

"We hot?"

"No, but get us out now. I'll explain later. Just go. Now!"

Brady closed the ramp as the Griffin lifted off. When they were safely back at altitude and returning to their home base of Grants Pass, Brady went forward and explained they'd just accepted a load of cargo from the Spartan outlaw Rodrigo Vlain.



Dishonored

Captain Rodrigo Vlain, now known as Dishonored to his crew of freebooters and ruffians, watched the Griffin aircraft climb into the sky and disappear. He did this with some sense of melancholy, of longing for the past life that was no longer his, the life of a Spartan Knight. Those days were gone now, and they were never coming back. His war crimes and banishment executed any possibility of that with the finality of the headsman's axe. Now he had only his bunch. It wasn't the same, but it would do.

When the Griffins disappeared into the haze of sky, Chamo approached and stood off of Dishonored's shoulder.

"What do you want to do with them?" Chamo asked, and he gestured in the direction of the trees where the naked captives huddled and trembled. Vlain\Dishonored spared them a glance, considering them but only for a moment. They'd hit another lab since the first one where they found the pathetic attempt at a Pegasus. They found no more monstrosities there. They did find more of Doctor Chosen's research, including more of the notebooks bound in human skin. The slaves didn't carry those onto the aircraft. Dishonored wasn't giving those to the Chief Marshal. No. The Chief Marshal didn't deserve those. Dishonored would keep those books and their secrets all to himself.

After considering the captives for a brief moment, Dishonored turned away.

"We're heading east, more sites to hit. We can always get more slaves. Have your fun with these and then get rid of 'em. We need to ride, and they'll only slow us down."

Chamo grinned and drew the hammer from his belt. Dishonored found a shady spot to sit down, then opened up his latest skin-bound book. In the background, pleas for mercy became screams. Screams became moans and grunts of pain, and those became whimpers, and those became the still silence of death. And while this happened, Dishonored sat transfixed by the glamor of Doctor Chosen's writings.


Sleazy

Sleazy felt little but exhaustion when he returned to Grant's Pass. A round trip that far into the Gomorrah badlands required a midair refueling and took several hours, even with the engines rotated for forward flight. Compounding the physical exhaustion was the emotional exhaustion of knowing they'd just accepted cargo from a Spartan outlaw, and done so under the orders of the very authority that outlawed him. What he wanted to do when he landed at Grants Pass was to shower, sleep, and take some time to sort this all out in his mind. For Sleazy, no such respite was in the cards.

New Sparta designated Grants Pass as an expeditionary airfield. As the designation would suggest, the facilities at Grants Pass Expeditionary Airfield were minimal. Along the airfield were a few revetments, maintenance buildings, and barracks. Further out stood the fuel tanks, ammunition bunkers, and armories. Beyond those lay the force protection measures; the fence line, ground sensors, and the gun towers which were all automated. Grant's pass rarely housed more than half a squadron of aircraft and the necessary support personnel.

When the airfield came into view, Sleazy found the sleepy nature of his home station upended. All manner of aircraft filled the tarmac and adjacent spaces. In the rougher ground unsuitable for parking aircraft, sat dozens upon dozens of trucks and transport vehicles. Soldiers scrambled around each one, unloading its cargo onto pallets to be later loaded into the backs of aircraft. At the far end of the runway, Spartan workers erected an antenna farm and metal towers topped with radar arrays. New floodlights on mechanical masts drove away the darkness. Mixed in with the workers were Capital Guardsmen in their distinct black and red uniforms.

"What the hell is all this?" Brady asked.

"Get up here and give me that cargo manifest," Sleazy said with urgency. As soon as Sleazy got the paper slip, he ripped it in half and then, not knowing what else to do, he ate the two halves. Despite his call sign, Major Peters was as straight-laced as they came. He believed in the system. There was a book for a reason, and he did things by the book because that was the right thing to do. Even so, something in his gut told him that manifest, with Rodrigo Vlain's signature on the bottom it was dangerous; dangerous to himself and his crew.

"We never saw Rodrigo Vlain down there," Sleazy ordered. "We never saw him. We never saw anybody or anything down there we recognized. And we never received any manifest, autographed or otherwise. Understand?"

"Understood," Captain Grace answered.

"Understood?" Sleazy asked again in a forceful manner so alien to his typical temperament that each member of his aircrew responded immediately and in turn.

"Understood."

As soon as Griffin Three-Deuce-Five touched down a team of Capital Guardsmen entered the aircraft. A humorless Lieutenant Colonel led them. They snatched up all of Sleazy's cargo with little exchange of words and disappeared into the night. They didn't ask about any manifest, and Sleazy heaved a sigh of relief at that. He'd done more than his fair share of the black operations, but there was something about this run into Gomorrah that put him ill at ease.

"Boss, let's find out what the hell's been going on around here since we left," Captain Grace suggested.

They exited their aircraft and looked around. Grants Pass expeditionary airfield buzzed with activity. It looked like supplies were being staged for a major invasion.

"Holy ****. Boss, check that out!"

Sleazy followed his crew chief's gaze. A hulking, four-barreled, self-propelled anti-aircraft gun lumbered onto an aluminum cargo pallet and stopped jerkily.

"What d'ya think they're doing with that?" Brady asked.

Logisticians scrambled about the anti-aircraft gun with heavy duty cargo straps and secured it to the pallet.

"Remember those supplies we dropped into Gomorrah, into the screamers' camp?" Captain Grace asked.

"No way," Brady said. "No way they are dropping those into Gomorrah…are they?"

Sleazy watched as the logisticians ratcheted the cargo straps down tight. Other logistics types brought out sage green bundles which could only be parachutes and laid them out on the machine's deck and flanks.

"It looks like that's exactly what they are going to do," Sleazy said.

"That gun maybe older than all of us put together," Brady began. "But I'd be happier if it didn't make its way into Gomorrah."

"What's the big deal," Captain Grace said cockily. "A railgun would make short work out of one of those."

"And one of those would make short work out of a Griffin, which makes it even odds."

"What's wrong with even odds?"

"When it comes to my life and the life of my crew, even odds ain't good enough for me," Brady said. "Fair fights are for fools."

"Let's get to our quarters," Sleazy suggested. He felt physically exhausted from the flight, and now emotionally exhausted from witnessing what was in all probability a massive airdrop of supplies into Gomorrah, on top of the black op he'd just executed. He and his team walked towards the modest steel buildings which served as their barracks. On the way there he got one more surprise.

Under the blaze of artificial lights, a Spartan colonel directed orders to various staff officers and runners who came and went with a sense of urgency that bordered on panic. Flanking the colonel were what looked like two robots painted in a black with red trim color scheme that matched the uniforms of the Capital Guard. Only the transparent face shields betrayed that men were inside these enormous suits of armor. Brady and the other crew members gasped at the spectacle. Sleazy found the colonel more interesting than his high-tech bodyguards.

"That was Colonel Needles," Sleazy snarled once inside the sanctuary of the crew quarters.

"Colonel Needles, the commander of the Capital Guard Regiment?" Captain Grace asked.

"No, the other one. Colonel Brown Needles, his brother."

Captain Grace's face twisted into an expression of puzzlement, so Sleazy explained.

"Colonel Brown Needles was the garrison commander at Confluence when the mishap went down, and all those aircraft crashed with everybody onboard, only he wasn't there at Confluence. He was transporting his mistresses across the continent and trying to sneak them back into New Sparta. Biggest aircraft mishap in our history and the guy who's supposed to be in charge wasn't even on the scene."

"Sounds like he should have been relieved and court-martialed," Captain Grace said.

"He should have," Sleazy agreed. "Only he wasn't relieved and court-martialed. He's here, giving orders… He's here giving orders. We've got half of New Sparta down here prepping to airdrop supplies into Gomorrah, and…"

"And we just finished a black op where we picked up cargo from the outcast Rodrigo Vlain," Captain Grace finished. Sleazy only nodded.

A day later the crew of Griffin Three-Deuce-Five were back in the air, headed south in an air armada that seemed to fill the sky. Ahead, behind, and on either flank, Spartan aircraft held their positions in a sky train that stretched to the horizon. At the mission briefing before departure, Sleazy recalled images of WWII, of auditoriums packed full of aircrews about to depart for Normandy, Holland, or to make the bombing runs into occupied Europe; massive air operations. This was such an operation.

"We already dropped one of those into Gomorrah," Sleazy had told the Capital Guard Lieutenant Colonel who assigned them to drop a communications bundle.

"Good. Now drop another one," The Lieutenant Colonel ordered. His manner was curt, humorless, and almost confrontational. The Capital Guardsmen who lorded over the operation treated the aircrews, logistics personnel, and ground crews the way prison screws treat convicts. After the sun came up, Sleazy saw more guardsmen in suits of powered armor. Each was a hulking giant in thick, articulated metal skins. They moved amongst the crews as the aircraft were loaded. Sleazy knew intuitively that they weren't there to provide security for the base, but to intimidate the workers. This wasn't without reason. When Brady saw a BRDM with a rack for anti-aircraft missiles get loaded onto a cargo pallet, he suggested sneaking over and disabling the weapon system before it was delivered into the hands of their just so recent enemy.

"It is an outdated weapon system that probably doesn't work, and those screamers certainly don't know how to operate it. Be a dumb way to get yourself thrown in the Stockade," Sleazy said to his crew chief.

"Maybe they won't throw him in the Stockade. Maybe they'll send him into the badlands on some black-op mission, like they did with Vlain," Captain Grace said.

"Knock that talk off," Sleazy ordered, although deep down he empathized with his crew's misgivings. Delivering supplies to the enemy made no sense to him, especially supplies as lethal as anti-aircraft guns and surface to air missiles. Sleazy doubted his was the only aircrew contemplating sabotaging the cargo.

The radio crackled.

"Griffin Flight Deuce-Five, we are IP Orion inbound. Our mark is purple smoke on the deck. I say again, purple smoke on the deck."

"Lead, this is Three-Deuce-Five. Copy. Purple Smoke on the deck," Sleazy said into his microphone. They were back over Gomorrah. Back over the screamers refugee camp, with its towering wooden artifact. But this time the air was filled with Spartan Aircraft. Ahead and behind, Griffin aircraft stretched out in a sky train that ran from horizon to horizon, each one's engines configured for forward flight. Sleazy checked his flank where a similar sky train flew. This one was comprised of bigger transports, jet engine powered monsters which held the vehicles bound for their all too recent enemy. Icons appeared on Sleazy's helmet display, advertising the other aircrafts' callsigns, airspeeds, distances, and altitudes. As he turned his head, the augmented reality built into his helmet's visor took over. In places which should have been blind-spots because of the aircraft's fuselage, images of the outside world appeared. Sleazy looked down. Instead of floorboards, he saw the green and brown California fields, hundreds of feet below.

"Tally purple haze," Captain Grace announced over the intercom.

Sleazy saw it ahead and below. A column of purple smoke plumed up into the sky. Similar plumes flanked it, yellow and green, laid by the spotter aircraft that swooped into the area just before the sky trains.

"Lower the ramp. Prepare to drop."

In the back of the Griffin, Brady dropped the cargo ramp. All throughout the sky hundreds of aircraft followed suit. Minutes later Griffin Three-Deuce-Five's computer chirped out an alert. The light near the back-cargo ramp changed from red to green, and Brady and the other crew members pushed the bundle out of the back.

They were not the only ones to do so.

Sleazy banked into a climb and took the pre-determined route out of the area. The aircraft would not fly over the refugee camp, with its squalor and poverty, and its strange wooden structure. Instead, they made a tight turn that brought them back around to the north and home to Grants Pass. The other aircraft followed suit, maintaining their neat and long formations. Medium Griffins and the bigger planes all dropping their loads and making the turnaround back to the north.

Out of the corner of his eye, Sleazy caught a bundle tumbling to earth. The augmented reality display identified it as a threat. A red triangle appeared over the descending load, blinking red and displaying direction and distance. Sleazy focused on that pip. The ZSU-23 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun drifted to the ground, and Sleazy watched it the whole way down. It landed hard, but not hard enough to suggest it wouldn't work. Other bundles didn't fare so well. Brady let out a loud, "Ugh," over the intercom when a blue plastic barrel full of ammunition thundered in, its unopened parachutes fluttering behind it like olive drab ribbons. It hit the ground an exploded, showering mixed brass in all directions.

Other bundles crashed in too, enough to suggest to Sleazy at least some small amount of sabotage took place. Most packages landed intact, however. After completing his turn, Sleazy saw a gaggle of refugees swarm over the deck of one of the BRDMs. Naturally, it was the one with the anti-aircraft missiles. The Gomorrah screamers would get their supplies. Why they were getting supplies? That was another mystery, and one Sleazy was not comfortable pondering.


When they returned to Grants Pass, all the aircraft commanders assembled in a hangar. They'd been ordered to do so, and when they arrived, they found another dour-faced officer wearing the black and scarlet of the Capital Guard. His orders came out loud and clear: get some rest, because in twelve hours they were going back into Gomorrah to make another drop.

Sleazy left the hangar to find his aircrew. On the way he passed dozens upon dozens of New Spartan logisticians building the next set of bundles to drop into Gomorrah.
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Default 23 Continued

Lions

The conference room at the top of the Chief Marshal's tower came alive with the sounds of gunfire, and the pleas of men in panic.

"You gotta help us! There's an army of them out here. Zillions of them!"

Between the words came the snap-snaps of carbine fire. The chatter of a medium machine gun. The noises came out of a speaker in the center of the polished hardwood conference table.

"It’s a massacre! Do you hear me? A massacre!"

Around the table sat the Chief Marshal and his closest advisors: Colonel Lions, the two Needles twins, General Greylick, and Senator Applegate. Lions spoke.

"One of our eavesdropper drones picked up the radio signals you are hearing. A column of Gomorrah refugees came under attack by a small, but powerful force that shot its way right through them. This incident occurred a couple of days ago, at a point several days' march north of where Colonel Needle's platoon was recently massacred." Lions nodded to Hendrick Needles, the commander of the capital guard, the act a gesture of sympathy. The speaker crackled with a warbled cry for help.

"They've got at least a dozen tanks, and they're running right through us. Tanks! They got tanks!"

Lions continued. "No tanks were actually involved. We vectored a camera equipped drone over the scene after the incident to capture the aftermath. An analysis of those images suggests that this attack could have been carried out by a fireteam sized element. That size of a force is consistent with the size of the party we believe The Colonel's son is traveling with."

With this, Colonel Lions slide two manila folders across the table to Chief Marshal Gorman.

"In addition to his training fireteam from the Knights Course, we have reason to believe these two are traveling with The Colonel's son."

The Chief Marshal looked resplendent at the head of the conference table. He wore his full-dress uniform. His medals and polished Sam Brown belt gleamed. An intricately engraved .45 caliber pistol sat in a holster at his side. He took up the first folder. Clipped on the outside cover was a color picture of a younger Master Gunnery Sergeant Lefranc.

"This man is a retired Spartan Knight gone missing from his retirement post recently. He was a member of the Long-Range Group for almost the entirety of his career. He undoubtedly knows the backcountry and knows it very well."

Gorman casually flipped through the folder, then passed it off to his other advisors. "Another Spartan Knight," the Chief Marshal grumbled. "Can none be trusted?" Colonel Lions ignored that statement.

"Any connection between this Lefranc and The Colonel?" Greylick asked.

"None that we've discovered," Lions answered. Chief Marshal Gorman picked up the second folder. Clipped to its outside was a picture of a young man with a shriveled stump for an arm.

"This second man graduated from the Operational Planners course at the same time The Colonel's son graduated from the Knights Course. As you can see, he was born with a deformity. We have not been able to establish any connection between this young man and The Colonel. Both of his parents have passed. He never went to the Knights Course."

Gorman passed the second folder without looking into it. When Brown Needles saw the picture clipped to the outside, he scoffed. "An old man and a cripple? This is the Crown Prince's great conspiracy? Ha!"

Stoic at the head of the conference table, Gorman ignored the quip. He sat rigidly, solemnly. He remained composed, but Lions sensed a burning rage deep inside the Chief Marshal, held beneath a thin veneer of military bearing.

"We vectored in a camera-equipped drone after the event. Photos of the scene showed rifle, medium machine gun and submachine gun brass, and machine links, consistent with Spartan ammunition," General Greylick added. "I think we can more than safely assume that this is our missing child."

"What happened next," Gorman asked.

A video monitor at the end of the conference table flicked to life. Lions narrated while the video played.

"After the shootout on the road, they abandoned the truck they were driving and set out on foot. Multiple patrols were launched from the central encampment of the new Gomorrah government to pursue them."

"The camp where they are building that wooden structure?" Gorman interrupted.

"The same," Lions answered. "One of our video-equipped drones came on the scene just in time to capture this footage."

Gorman watched the scene unfold on the monitor, shot from a drone looking almost straight down from several thousand feet up. A Gomorrah patrol in vehicles approached a second patrol, dismounted from their bicycles. A few moments later, the vehicle patrol massacred the other, then drove off.

"You'll notice the two patrols are wearing different colors, the first in red and the second in black. These patrols are all emanating out of the same refugee camp, the one with the wooden structure. Our drone followed the vehicle-mounted patrol back to the refugee camp. When they returned, there was no further sign of black-on-red violence."

"What about outside the refugee camp?" Gorman asked.

"Our drones have captured three other incidents of black-on-red or red-on-black violence."

Gorman leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers together. He spoke slowly, solemnly, with a wise and authoritarian air. "We're seeing the start of civil war among the remaining factions of the High Council and the Gomorrah government. A Gomorrah civil war is disadvantageous to us because it will delay our policy goal of reconciliation with our former enemy." Gorman put emphasis on the word, former. He continued.

"We might be forced to wait for a clear-cut victor to emerge. Or we might fall into the age-old trap of backing the weaker party. Either way, this potential civil war in Gomorrah puts our larger policy goal at risk."

Laid out on the conference table was a map of California, marked to reveal the dates and location of the recent, significant events. An icon marked the site of the drone strike where Needle's capital guard platoon was later massacred. Further north, another symbol marked the location of the shootout on the road. The Colonel's son, with his rogue's gallery of traveling companions, was heading north. To what purpose, Gorman could only guess. To the west stood the refugee camp, marked on the map with a figure made of wooden match sticks that looked like the lower half of a man. Arrayed around that were icons marking all the points of black-on-red violence they knew about, and the sites of all the air drops. The map of Northern California was getting busy.

Without thinking about it, Gorman reached into the breast pocket of his dress tunic and removed a single piece of spent brass. Lions watched as the Chief Marshal rolled the long piece of rifle brass in the palm of his hand. As the wheels in Gorman's head spun, his thumb rolled the brass cylinder up and down his palm. Finally, the Chief Marshal spoke.

"Hunting down The Colonel's son is important, but not the priority. We must prevent a civil war from breaking out among the Gomorrah factions. Reconciliation is my policy aim, not revenge. Colonel Brown Needles, how is the resupply effort going?"

Before his twin brother could answer, Hendrick Brown spoke out. "I just lost a platoon of guardsmen tracking down this son of a traitor! Killed by these same Gomorrah screamers!"

"Their sacrifice was regrettable but acceptable," Gorman responded, with all the emotion of a piece of ice. "Through reconciliation and assimilation, we can avoid further losses of Spartan lives in the long term. Until those great ambitions are realized, sacrifices will be required." Turning back to the other twin, Gorman raised an eyebrow and asked the question about the sky trains again."


"The first series of major drops are complete. We've delivered old weapons, vehicles, food, medicine, and other humanitarian supplies. We also delivered additional communications suites."

"But they have not contacted us, have they?"

"No Chief Marshal," Brown Needles answered. "We thought these major drops would do it, that they would call after receiving all this aid. But they have not called. We could drop supplies into Gomorrah every day for a month, that's no guarantee they'll ever call us back. My suggestion is we communicate to them that they will not get any more aid unless they open a channel with us."

Gorman scowled and turned to Greylick.

"Where are we at with bringing the Morning Stars online?"

"We have enough resources to maintain the sky trains into Gomorrah, or enough resources to bring the Morning Stars back online. We don't have enough to do both. I've arranged another launch three nights from now, but this will only allow us to bring one platform online. It's a start, but bringing them online one by one will be time-consuming.

"One of our problems with tracking down The Colonel's soon is the lack of ISR drones relative to the size of California. If our Morning Star fleet were back online, collection platforms would no longer be an issue."

"True, General Greylick, but any vendetta against the son cannot be a priority."

"As you say, sir. But his very existence serves as an inspiration for any detractors you might have. The sooner he's gone, the better."

"The Gomorrah screamers," Lions said. "Gomorrah's looking for them. He's killed a bunch of their people. When we do contact whoever is left in Gomorrah, we offer up The Colonel's son and his companions as a peace offering. Let them do the dirty work for us."

Gorman nodded acceptance of the plan. "Do it."

Lions' mind reverted back to the launch schedule. He calculated the time until the launch, then said aloud, "Full moon." All the faces at the table turned in his direction. Their expressions asked the question their closed mouths did not.

"It will be a full moon," Lions explained. "The Morning Star mission will go the night of the next full moon."

"Why's that important?" Hendrick Brown asked. Lions shrugged.

"I don't know. It just seemed important," Lions said.

"Indeed," Gorman said, not knowing what his aide was saying and not really caring either. Gorman rolled the spent brass in his hand faster now. Beneath the polished uniform and rigidly controlled exterior, Lions detected simmering rage in his commander.

"So, we still have not opened a diplomatic channel with Gomorrah, the Morning Star fleet is still offline, and the Colonel's son is still running loose. We have failed to make any significant progress on anything. We're no further along than we were at the last meeting. What about co-conspirators? Have we brought charges against Major K yet?"

Lions turned to the end of the table, where Senator Applegate sat. Lions felt relieved that this question was not directed at him. He could sense the wrath bubbling up inside Chief Marshal Gorman. But if Applegate sensed the same thing, he showed no sign of it. The bald, fat politician smiled amiably and answered.

"The judiciary committee will convene next week and hold a vote to subpoena Major K."

"Hold a vote to subpoena?"

"Yes, Chief Marshal."

"Next week?"

The fat man smiled broadly. "Yes, Chief Marshal."

Lions saw the bottled-up frustration the senator did not. Applegate was standing on a bomb and didn't even know it. Lions braced himself. The veneer, the stiff military bearing washed away in an instant, replaced by blind rage.

"What the **** do you think we're doing here!" Gorman screamed. He slammed his hand down flat on the table. The brass shell popped out and went flying across the conference room with such force it hit a wood-paneled wall and ricocheted off.

"You don't understand, do you? None of you understand. You don't understand what's at stake? What the game is that we're playing?

"The Colonel didn't wait, didn't consult, didn't follow some stupid checklist. He wanted a bomb and just took it. He wanted to destroy the High Council, and he did it. He stole a nuclear bomb and just walked it into the Bay. His son was supposed to be detained at the Knights Course. Instead, Major K, this Lefranc," Gorman lifted out the picture of Lefranc and waved it in front of all his advisors' faces. "Those two, this cripple, whoever the **** he is, and the Crown Prince no doubt, just smuggled him out of the city. They didn't wait, or ask permission, or follow any formal process. They just went after it. They planned their missions and just executed. They made it happen. Hell, even our outcast down south is making it happen. And what are you doing? Here I sit, humiliated. The most powerful military leader in human history weighed down by your bull**** bureaucracy."

Gorman slammed a fist on the table again, harder this time. Lions let the wave of frustrated violence roll off him, the others squirmed in their seats.

"The Colonel just acted. His son just acted. Major K, The Crown Prince, this Lefranc. They act. They don't just sit. They go out and act. They get things done."

"Chief Marshal, I'm drafting up the notice to appear before the Senate for Major K as we speak. After the vote, we can have him in front of a joint session in two weeks and then…"

"We don't have time for that," Gorman snarled. "I can't just sit here in this ****ing tower while you **** away time. Two weeks to summon Major K will turn to three. By then the Morning Stars will still be offline, half of Gomorrah will have starved to death, and Major K will have his own army and another two stolen nukes to boot."

"Sir, I assure you the legislative branch will do the right and correct thing…" Applegate tried to protest, but Gorman ignored him.

"Colonel Hendrick Brown, take your men and arrest Major K, immediately. No warrants, no subpoenas, just do it. Arrested or dead, I don't care which, but I want it done in 48 hours."

Hendrick Needles eyes narrowed, and his lip curled up into the thin smile of a snake about to strike. Colonel Lions studied his counterpart carefully. Hendrick had been waiting to get his revenge on Major K for a long, long time. Now was his chance.

Applegate's eyes shifted nervously. Sweat droplets beaded on his bald, pink pate. "Chief Marshal, I assure you the Spartan Senate…" This time Hendrick Needles interrupted him.

"As you command Chief Marshal. I'll bring you his head on a pike." And so great was Hendrick Needle's enthusiasm, that he stood up at attention as he spoke. This act seemed to calm Gorman down. The boiling rage reduced to a simmer again, covered by a lid of military bearing.

"My timeline is not the Spartan Senate's timeline, Senator Applegate." Gorman's tone was respectful again. "I haven't time to waste. My enemies are running circles around me, humiliating me. Moving faster than I am. I am left behind. The clock keeps ticking, and here I sit with so much left to do, and so little time to do it in."

Lions understood what the Chief Marshal was talking about. It wasn't just his time relative to his enemies, but his time left on earth. The Chief Marshal was in his sixties, well past the point of a man's midlife crisis. What he still wanted to do, who he still wanted to be, he only had so much time left to accomplish those things. That was why he had Rodrigo Vlain scouring all of Doctor Chosen's old labs, searching for the doctor's secrets of longevity. At some point, every man's ambitions, every man's quest for power is limited by man's mortal nature. But if a man could unlock the secrets of longevity, as Doctor Chosen had, if a man could defeat aging, then who could see what such a man could accomplish. Especially when a man was already so powerful, as the Chief Marshal was.

Something in Lions' pocket buzzed. It was his hand terminal, announcing a pre-set alert. Lions fished out the device while Gorman continued speaking. He stole a quick glance at the screen and froze, oblivious to Gorman's words until they stopped altogether.

"Something you want to share with the group, Colonel Lions?"

Lions looked up from his handheld terminal and spoke.

"It’s them."

And then,

"They're trying to make contact with us."
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Old 06-15-2019, 05:36 PM
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Sharkman? HEY, you there? You get sent to where-the-hell-is-it-stan or something?

WE NEED MOAR!!
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I gave in and read the forum - now I await...
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I bought your first book can’t wait to buy the second one. Thank you for your writing
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will there be any more to this story?
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