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Old 05-25-2018, 12:07 AM
sharkman6 sharkman6 is offline
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Default The Spartan's Ashes: The Spartan's Last March Book II Updated 6/27/18

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This is the sequel to The Spartan's Last March and begins just after the final events there. If you have not read that entire book, there will be spoilers below.

“[War’s] element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason...”
One of the three elements of Clausewitz’s Remarkable Trinity, from his work, On War.

People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, "Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?"
Revelations 13:4

Welcome my son
Welcome to the machine
Pink Floyd, Welcome to the Machine

Chapter 1

Eight miles high and when you touch down
You'll find that it's stranger than known
The Byrds, Eight Miles High


The Colonel walked alone into the heart of his enemies, and with a single stroke, he set the world on fire. Claw watched the fire from the bank of the San Francisco Bay. Even now, days later, it still burned, filling the night sky with hell’s illumination. To the west, across the black mirror of water, Gomorrah’s former capital blazed. The western skyline was a red-orange glow, a ribbon of nuclear fury, the testament of Gomorrah’s end. The outline of shattered buildings stood before a background of fire that burned with the fury of the man who destroyed it.

Fires blazed behind claw too. These were the bonfires of the survivors, the mutated and the damned, the insane survivors of this dystopian apocalypse. They’d made their camp here, on the other side of the bay. Away from their capital but close enough to witness its ruination. They came crawling to this place from all over, dragging whatever they could with them. They built their fires and the set to the tasks of the doomed and lunatic. More came every day after the blast and more were still to come. There was no order to any of it, no organization other than the new mad canon that had been born from the flames. It could not last, Claw knew. The weight of that fact pressed down upon him. He sighed heavily, wearily, and the fires raged on, placing their claim upon a world reborn through flame.

Claw wore an olive green military surplus coat. With one hand he smoked a cigarette. The other hand he pushed deeper into one of the coat’s empty pockets. He smoked quietly, his eyes taking in the nightmare landscape. Not far away, naked men and women bathed in the night air. They splashed and soaked in the waters of the San Francisco Bay. Their bodies were smooth, with the clean and symmetrical lines of humanity. By the eerie light of the inferno, he watched a woman spread her legs and fill herself with dirty water, hoping to catch a dose of the fallout, if not for herself, then to mutate the children she might someday bear. Claw didn’t know whether to scream or cry. He took a last puff on his cigarette and flicked it towards the bay. He turned and headed into the camp of the survivors. A rusted remnant of a barbed wire fence attempted to block his path. Affixed to the single wire was a faded metal sign that read, “Naval Weapons Station, Concord California.” Claw stepped over the wire and went to see the boss.

Claw was once called Cassandra, but Cassandra died in the nuclear blast that destroyed the city. Casandra was gone, Gomorrah was gone, Doctor Chosen and the High Council were gone. He never liked the name, Cassandra. If there was one good thing that came out of this whole thing, that was it he supposed. His parents named him Cassandra as some strange form of protest. They believed that gender was an artificial construct, a social fabrication imposed by ancient elites to maintain their control. Claw\Cassandra always thought that odd, that a man and a woman could mate, have offspring, and still think gender was an artificial thing. And his parents did have many offspring, although he was the only one who survived. His brothers and sisters had all been sacrificed to the Earth Mother, pitched from the tops of buildings or ritualistically crushed in public ceremonies, or ritualistically killed by whatever the ritualistic execution fad of the day happened to be. It was only by luck that Claw\Cassandra survived his parents' devotion to the Earth Mother, just as it was only by luck that he'd been outside the city in one of Doctor Chosen's many laboratories when the bomb went off. Luck? Claw wondered if that was the right word as he approached the bonfires of the survivors camped along the bank. They danced in the inferno light, mad celebrants reveling in their survival, reveling in what they thought this calamity meant, reveling in the worship of their new god. Claw thought fate might be a better word than luck.

The bass of drum beats pressed upon his chest, and he entered the disorganized collection of bonfires and dancers. Naked forms, scarred, mutated and grotesque all undulated about him. No, this wasn’t luck. This was fate. But was this a fate he was worthy of? Something in a nearby fire exploded and a swarm of embers shot up into the sky. Firelight shifted and he saw a human face that looked half canine. It cackled. The light shifted again and the face was gone as if only a passing nightmare. Claw pushed his one hand deeper into the pocket, not that it had anywhere to go. He could still feel the burning pain there, where his implanted "gadget," had once been. Like so many of Gomorrah's favored citizens, he had technology implanted into his body, for what purpose, he could no longer remember. He could only remember that for some reason he had to have it. And in those final moments, before the bomb went off, he had to get it out. Pain and some mad-science poison had flowed out of it and into his body, twisting it and wrecking it, infecting him until he finally tore the implant free with his one good hand. The implant was gone, but the damage was done. A hideous testament to his vanity remained.

The tempo of the drums rose. The firelight cast more undulating shadows across the dancers. Each dancer’s face was a twisted monstrosity. Human features turned beastly. Claw saw misshapen eyes. Noses became snouts. Skin became scales. Ears stretched out to points. Teeth elongated to fangs. Maybe luck would have been vaporization in the nuclear blast. Gomorrah was never a society based on logic and reason, but this thing that crawled out of its ashes was insane. Not just a disordered insanity, but an evil one.

“Hell is insanity. And this is hell,” Claw said to himself as he weaved past a host of naked creatures who swayed and weaved and gyrated before a bonfire of stacked refuse. Drums throbbed. Smoke and embers swirled in the air and he saw a pair of glowing yellow, slanted cat-like eyes beckoning him into the darkness. He stalked past them but felt the eyes tracking him long after he passed.

He moved through the camp. At the edge of the firelight, Claw saw and heard more survivors building a tall structure out of scraps of wood. The clap of hammers contrasted with the kettledrum bass of drums. The wooden monument was still in its infancy, but Claw knew what it would be, who it would be, and he could see the image already in his mind’s eye. The wind shifted and his ears picked up the telltale sounds of men digging, unearthing the treasures buried here.

Set aside from the bonfires and crude lean-tos and huts of the survivors was a canvas military tent. It stood alone, olive drab and huge. Two guards stood outside, each swaddled in black robes and red sashes. The firelight danced across them, throwing light and shadow, revealing and hiding. Claw didn’t look at them and they did not challenge him. When he passed them the firelight shifted again but fixed for a short moment. This time the monstrous features did not change. One guard had the yellow eyes and elongated slit irises of a goat. The second guard had a face that dropped on one side and formed an asymmetrical mask marked with a yellow tusk that jutted out diagonally. Both guards bore scars where their gadgets had once been before they, like Claw, had torn them out. It wasn’t the shifting light or tricks of the eye. The mutations were real, products of technology they put into their bodies. From the nuclear fire, they'd all been reborn, reborn as monsters to roam a world once ruled by men.

Claw ducked into the canvas opening of the tent. This was the new reality of Gomorrah, the first step in the new madness. It had been just days since the nuclear fire destroyed their empire and already a new social structure had emerged. At the bottom were those humans who escaped un-mutated, like those bathing in the fallout-polluted waters. Above them were those who had been mutated in the final moments before the atomic flash; Gomorrah’s former elites with their surgically implanted technology. But at the top of the caste system, at the very top were the ones who been mutated long before the attack. Those who Doctor Chosen has personally selected and modified. The ones who had received what was now being called the Doctor’s “Gift.”

Claw stopped just inside the tent. The light was different in here and his eyes had to adjust to it. As he stood, he heard a deep and familiar voice that filled the tent.

“Claw… Claw… Don’t hide your gift. Reveal it for the world to see.”

Claw’s eyes adjusted to the darkness. At the back of the tent, an enormous form took shape. It was human, or at least humanoid. Thickly muscled limbs sprouted out of a body that seemed all chest and shoulders. An oval head sat upon a bull’s neck. The man was hairless, save for eyebrows and eyelashes that were pewter in color, as were the beds of the man’s fingernails. Claw’s eyes discerned more colors and could see the man’s skin was the color blue. This was the lord of whatever was left of Gomorrah. This was Winston Indigo. He was one of Doctor’s Chosen’s genetic experiments. Once upon a time, he was also the doctor’s lover. And now, this man-giant was the inheritor of all that Doctor Chosen had left behind.

“Take it out,” Winston said. His deep voice matched his muscled body. “Don’t be ashamed, Claw. Show the world what the Great Father blessed you with.”

Claw removed the other hand from his coat pocket and held it up into the tent’s dim light. The tips of each finger and thumb were withering and had turned black at the tips. The little finger looked like it might fall off in the very near future, and indeed it would. Jutting out of the hand between the second and third fingers was the tip of a black, hooked claw. Three inches of it were out now, but the talon was growing as the rest of Claw\Cassandra’s hand was dying. Further up the arm, between the claw and the elbow, a wrap of dirty bandages marked where the gadget had been ripped out.

“It smells,” Claw said. “It’s probably infected.”

“It is your blessing,” hissed a voice from deeper in the shadows of the tent. “The Great Father would not have spared you only to have you die of some infection.” Claw saw two more forms in the tent, shadows within the shadows. He knew who they were and ignored them for now. His loyalty lay with Winston.

“We unearthed another container,” Claw said to his massive, blue¬-skinned, lord.

“What’s inside,” Winston asked. He’d been seated behind a desk improvised from plywood and sawhorses. Now the man stood, his giant’s muscles stretching and flexing. He stood more than seven feet tall, without an ounce of fat anywhere. He looks like Paul Bunyan's blue ox, Claw thought, but of course, he did not say that.

“More of the same I expect,” Claw answered. “But we didn’t open it. I thought you might want to be there for the unveiling.”

The voice in the back of the tent hissed again.

“The son of the Great Father has more important things to do than supervise common errands.”

Claw knew it was an insult. Not an overt one, but an insult just the same. He gritted his teeth. He wanted to say something but couldn’t think of anything and so he just tensed at the harsh words. Winston turned toward the hissing voice. Claw couldn’t tell if Winston’s face held approval or a rebuke.

Damn, Claw cursed himself. He’d never been one for conflict. He’d always been more than a little timid, always eager to demonstrate his loyal compliance, his subservience. That was perhaps why he’d held a position in one of Doctor Chosen’s laboratories for so long. But this new world and his new position within it would require from him more than compliance and loyal submission. In the past, he'd been able to squeak by. Those days ended with Casandra’s death in the nuclear flash. If what was left of Gomorrah was to survive, he’d have to stand up for himself and stand for his beliefs. No small amount of self-doubt filled Claw.

Luckily tonight Winston came to his rescue, at least in a roundabout way.

“Turn on the light,” the deep voice boomed.

“The light hurts his eyes,” another voice hissed. This one was feminine and strangely feline, and filled with an angry cat’s hissing malice.

“Turn it on,” Winston thundered back immediately. His voice shook the tent. Claw saw veins on that thick, blue, bullish neck pop out.

A switch in the back of the tent clicked. A small electric lantern on the floor filled the back corner of the tent with a dim blue light that barely rose above the floor. Two figures became visible. One, old and frail, lay sprawled across an army surplus cot. The head was a checkerboard, with patches of long stringy white hair and bald patches where the hair had fallen out. The limbs were thin and twisted around, as if by some super strand of polio. On this broken figure’s left forearm, the titanium casing of a gadget still gleamed.

Take that damned thing out of your body, Claw thought. But this too he didn’t say aloud.

“She’s right,” The old man croaked. “The light does hurt my eyes. But for the son of the Great Father, I can endure.”

The figure next to the old man purred. It was a she, and she brought a damp cloth to the old man’s forehead and delicately patted it. She had neither gadget, nor the mark of a gadget, yet she looked beastly too. She was naked, save for some golden chains she wore around her wrists and ankles, and the piercings scattered all over her body; rings and small barbells in gold and copper and bronze. Her skin was honey brown, her head shaved down to a fine stumble, her front teeth filed down to sharp points.

“The Oracle is not well,” she hissed.

The Oracle is not well because the Oracle needs to rip that technological poison out of his body, Claw thought again.

“The Oracle needs to relax, and so do you Raux,” Winston said firmly. “The Great Father left me in charge. The Great Father buried those containers here for us. Claw is right. I should be there when they crack them open. The people need me, and they need my leadership.”

The woman, Raux, drew her lips back into a sneer, revealing the perfectly white, filed teeth of a cannibal. The Oracle reclined on his cot and brought a limp hand to his head, like some Victorian woman afflicted with the vapors. He let out a soft whimper.

“So they do. But beware the trads, my son. This is not their world anymore. They cannot be trusted.” Claw narrowed his eyes but said nothing to the Oracle. Seconds later he again cursed himself for his cowardice in not speaking up.

Claw and Winston left the tent. The giant ducked low to clear the opening, then moved in great stomps that seemed to shake the earth. They moved through the camp, bonfire flames and floating cinders illuminating their way. All around the dancing monstrosities gyrated. Some stopped and followed Winston, the faithful behind their prophet. Claw studied them. There were beast-people of all kinds, mutants like him. But more were what the Oracle called “trads,” short for “traditional humans.” These were the less favored citizens of Gomorrah, the ones who weren’t implanted with Doctor Chosen’s mysterious technology and thus spared mutation on the day of The Colonel’s attack. In the shifting firelight, they looked just as grotesque, just as crazed as the others. Claw knew that wasn't an illusion. They were just as crazed, they were just as monstrous, and they were made desperate not only by the destruction of Gomorrah but also by their degraded social status. The Oracle hated the trads. Raux, his servant hated the trads. Many of the mutated hated the trads. Gomorrah was mercilessly attacked by New Sparta just days ago and now what was left of that empire was about to turn upon itself in some sort of interspecies conflict. Claw knew if they were to survive they would have to join together; the mutated and the trads. Alone they were too weak. Claw also knew that the Oracle would never allow such a reconciliation. Winston could unite all these refugees. Winston spoke with the authority of Doctor Chosen, the Great Father, a man who’d been made a god by recent events. But as Claw watched the blue monstrosity move through the camp, he doubted more and more that Winston wanted such a reconciliation.

They passed through the camp and came into an open field. The scene looked like some great archaeological dig. By the light of torches and bonfires and a few sets of electrical lights powered by gasping generators, hordes of more refugees dug at the earth by hand. Mounds of wet, excavated dirt lay in disordered heaps. A man wearing only an old pair of mismatched basketball shoes ran wild, a pickaxe in each hand. Red rings around his eyes suggested drugs, which was likely. Those seemed to have survived the attack in abundance.

“This way,” Claw said, careful to motion with the black ‘gift,’ at the end of his arm. He pointed to a crowd of men with dirt covered bodies and beaming faces. They parted at Winston’s approach, opening a path to a 40 foot-long shipping container that was recently unearthed by hand. It had been buried for some time. Rust covered most of its surface. Faded stencil letters on the doors read, "USNU." Winston marched forward. His blue muscled body seems as wide as the container. Animalistic faces gleamed in the light. Lips stretched back to reveal smiles, fangs, asymmetrical tusks. A sledgehammer appeared from nowhere. Winston took it with one hand and smashed the padlock off. Doors creaked on hinges. Lantern light flashed to reveal the buried treasure inside.

Guns. Guns filled the container. They ran along the walls in double rows stacked one over the other. More guns lay spilled across the floor. There were bolt action rifles with wood furniture, sleek black rifles, double-barreled shotguns, compact submachine guns. There were finely tuned pistols, and pistols worth only their weight in scrap. There were unfired and unissued military grade weapons, and pieces that looked like they spent their lifetime on the bottom of the ocean. Machineguns and grenade launchers neighbored mouse guns and boys’ .22 rifles.

The prize of the lot stood on its unfolded bipod on a plywood table in the back of the container. Winston went in to seize it at once, his bulk filled the container. He took the weapon, came out of the container and exposed it to the dizzying firelight. In his hands, he held a gold-plated Russian RPK machinegun, the buttstock and barrel shortened to make it easier to wield. On one side of the receiver, a gold palm tree swayed. On the opposite side, scrolling letters of a foreign language wrote out a single sentence which neither Winston nor Claw could read. The words read:

I am Saddam

Winston held the weapon aloft in a triumphant gesture. The mob around him went wild. They cheered and roared. They snarled and growled.

“These are our gifts,” Winston roared. “Left here for us by the Great Father! Bestowed upon us by his wife, the Earth Mother. We are all their children! We are here to do their bidding. We are their servants. Take up arms.”

The mob surged in, grabbing at whatever weapons were available. Claw watched them. Animal bodies, human bodies, all in a mad dash to arm themselves. There were weapons, Claw noticed. Lots of weapons, but no ammunition to speak of. Claw gritted his teeth. They had arms but no ammo. They had mouths, but no food. They had a bay full of water that they could not drink. They had bonfires but no shelter, the surrounding structures being torn down to fuel the flames, or to build the crazy structure at the edge of the camp. And then there was the divide between the trads and the mutants. This was a fragile society, and Claw doubted if anybody saw it but him.

The mob did its work. Winston motioned Claw aside and they both walked back to the command tent.

“How many does this make?”

“We’ve uncovered four.”

“And how many left?”

“According to Doctor Chosen’s notes, there are 73 containers still buried out here.”

Winston nodded his head and grunted an approval. During Gomorrah’s heyday, the ruling council had all available weapons collected. Most had been publicly destroyed, like the Hitler-ite book burnings of an age before. But some of the weapons, Doctor Chosen had wisely secreted away.

"There are supposed to be vehicles too, military vehicles. We're not sure where Doctor Chosen hid those though. We're still checking his notes.

Winston made another grunt of approval. They continued walking.

They circled around the edge of the camp. On the east side, facing where tomorrow’s sun would rise, they passed the structure. Even now, at night, survivors were hard at work. Most of the surrounding buildings were torn down to feed the many bonfires. But some wood was set aside to build this giant effigy. It had only just begun, a pair of legs not much past the knees were planted there. But in their minds' eye, both Winston and Claw could see what it would be.

“When it’s done, the rising sun will be at his back,” Claw said. “As he looks down upon us.”

“He’s always looking down upon us,” Winston returned. “He and the Earth Mother.” Claw turned to face the king of Gomorrah’s ruins.

“Do you really believe that,” Claw asked. It was a dangerous question to ask. Winston's eyes shone. They were the color of pewter and matched his nail beds and his eyebrows.

“It doesn’t matter what I believe,” Winston laughed. “And it doesn’t matter what you believe. What matters is what they believe.” Winston nodded with his chin at the workers.
When they got back to the tent, the Oracle and Raux were gone. Winston collapsed into a chair and looked up at Claw.

Claw had a multitude of questions. What were they going to do about New Sparta? What might these mutations mean long term? Were the widespread mutations the results of New Sparta’s attack? One of Doctor Chosen’s experiments? The work of an unknown third party? What was going on in the rest of Gomorrah’s empire? And what about all of Doctor Chosen’s research and technology? For decades Doctor Chosen had conducted biotech research and development, with the resources of an entire empire at his disposal, and completely unhampered by a single moral or ethical consideration. The fruits of that R&D was housed in secret laboratories spread all over North America. Not only did they not know what the Doctor’s work yielded, they didn’t even have a solid idea of where those laboratories were located, or even how many there were. For that matter, they didn’t even have a solid idea of what he was working on.

“No questions now,” Claw said.

“I’m hungry,” Winston said. Claw had no doubt he was. Winston was ravenous, always ravenous. How much did he weight? Claw’s guess was 350 pounds, all of it muscle. Even that estimate might be on the low side. It took a lot to fuel that much mass, and Claw also guessed Winston might still be growing. The mutating poison that was turning his hand into a claw was also making Winston grow even bigger.

“Bring me meat,” Winston ordered without looking up at his lieutenant. Claw nodded and left the tent, cursing himself as he went. Winston needed meat, and Claw was the one who brought it to him. The arrangement was proof the whole thing it couldn’t last.

“It is all too fragile, and I’m a coward,” Claw said to himself in a whisper that was barely audible and yet thundered inside his soul.

In addition to his claw, he had an exquisite knife he kept on his belt. It was a quality weapon, made before the protest. The knife was long and sharp, and its blade slanted back into a wicked point. It was dark out. The trads were down in the water.

Claw went to get his master meat, cursing himself as a coward the whole way.

Last edited by sharkman6; 06-27-2018 at 09:59 PM.. Reason: update title
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Old 05-25-2018, 12:08 AM
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Default Chapter 2, 3

Chapter 2
Lost in a Roman Wilderness of Pain
And all the Children are Insane

The Doors, The End

Jim Pale

Jim Pale spent the morning taking slaves on the road that led east out of The Bay and into the mountains. Now, with the midday sun shining down, he walked at the head of the column of slavers and slaves, the wailing women and their children, and led them back to the tribal compound of The Pale.

The slaving had been good since the bomb went off. New Sparta had nuked the city once called San Francisco, home of the High Council, and capital of Gomorrah. Nobody knew whether or not more bombs would fall, but there was that fear. And so, refugees poured out from the west and headed up the roads into the Sierra Nevada. Where they thought they were going, Jim Pale did not know and did not care. Their exodus took them through the territory of The Pale, where the smaller, more vulnerable groups were picked off one by one.

Behind him, a woman screamed something. Jim turned in time to see one of his fellow slavers slap her mercilessly. Jim turned back around and kept hiking up the well-trodden path. He was of average height, with small, beady black eyes and a head of black hair that looked like a greasy wire brush. His skin was well tanned, which was a contrast to the other slavers. Most of them were albino pale, though they had the same wiry black hair and pinpoint eyes as Jim. He was young, maybe twenty, and had a young man’s wiry muscled arms. His stomach, however, had a middle-aged man’s bulge.

The beaten woman whimpered. A child in the ranks screamed and cried and then there was more slapping. Impassive, Jim led the column on.

The compound of the Pale sat perched on a hill that overlooked the highway. It had once been a suburban subdivision. Now it was a tribal fortress, a combination of the medieval and post-apocalyptic. An earthen berm topped with a wooden palisade surrounded a score of former Mc-Mansions that had been fortified and modified to suit the times. Two wooden watch towers rose above the palisade. At the base of one tower, an old army deuce-and-a-half truck stood on cinderblock cribbing. The sun had faded its olive drab paint to a pale green. In a ring-mount above the cab, a pair of machine guns hung limply. A heavy wooden gate blocked access to the inside. Jim led the column up the hill to it, past a series of mostly dry retaining ponds that were arranged on the hillside like terraces. When they got close a voice shouted down from the nearest tower and the heavy gate swung open. Jim stepped inside and braced himself for what would come next.

As soon as the tail of the column passed through, the gate slammed closed. A heavy crossbar was thrown to seal the portal, and a rough voice shouted out.

“Separate the woman from the kids, and get them bitches down into the tunnels.”

Jim knew that’s when the screams would begin, and they did, just like every time before.

More albino-skinned people came out from all directions. Children, now slave children, were separated from their mothers. There were screams and cries, the products of the horror that can only come when a mother sees her children stolen away from her. There were rough shouts and the sounds of flesh being beaten. Jim Pale turned his back to the scene, tuned out the noises. It was nothing new to him. He headed across the compound to the largest of the fortified suburban homes to see his father, John Pale.

To get to his father’s house he had to walk through the center of the compound, and in the center of the former cul-de-sac was a kind of traffic island. In the center of this island, a tarp-covered a tall, lean, structure. Jim Pale passed it, shaking his head with disapproval. Outside his father’s house, amidst a chaotic scattering of old plastic buckets and barrels, and sheet-metal tables, men wearing old respirator masks spread out paste on metal sheets to dry in the sun. In addition to slaving, the Pale produced two drugs. The first, which looked like ground metal, was called Hush. The second, called Shake, was refined into a liquid that looked like chew-spit. Hush brought you down. Shake brought you up. Jim fingered a small vial of Shake in his pocket. Then he went inside to see his father.

“How did it go,” A voice asked before Jim even entered the room. The voice rattled, like a tin can full of peddles. The room stunk of human odors and sickness. Dirty smells. Unclean smells. Wrong smells. Jim tuned out the smells just as he tuned out the slaves’ screams. He went inside, into the office of John Pale, his father and the leader of The Pale.

“Not bad,” Jim answered. “We brought back an even dozen. Half kids, half women.”

“All the women fit to be tunnel wives,” The old man asked. He looked a lot like Jim. He had the same facial features, the same jet-black, wire-brush hair. A pair of dark and beady eyes flashed behind a pair of glasses, the lenses Coke-bottle thick. The glasses magnified the tiny eyes, giving the illusion they were too big to fit inside the man’s oval face. After the hair and the eyes, the next thing one noticed was the older man’s skin. His skin had the color and texture of kindergarten paste, whereas Jim’ skin had some color to it. John Pale looked old and sickly, and fanatically crazy. He sat at a pre-protest desk, a cheap thing made out of compressed sawdust and glue. It seemed to list and was covered with junk. The whole room, in fact, was covered with junk, a hoarder's paradise. Knick-knacks and random, useless items filled every corner and covered every horizontal surface, with everything blanketed by a thickness of grey dust.

“All the women we brought back are fit to be tunnel wives. The ones we caught that weren’t fit, we didn’t bring back, same as the men.” Jim moved to a chair in the center of the room, cleared some clutter off of it and sat down. As he sat he pulled a weapon out of his belt. The weapon was a long-handled war hammer, and it was Jim Pale’s pride and joy. It was a pre-protest weapon, the product of both quality metal and quality craftsmanship. The long ash shaft was protected by a set of black metal lancets. The head at the business end sported a long curved spike opposite the striking surface. Jim saw some blood and bits of gore there. He removed a dirty bandana from his back pocket and commenced to cleaning.

"We only went after the smaller parties, small families traveling alone. There were a few bigger groups. We steered clear of them. We just don’t have the men to take them on.” Jim thought for a moment, then followed up. “With all the tunnel wives we’ve been taking, that will change in a few years.”

John Pale grimaced. He'd been reading a leather-bound book. He set it down and pointed at Jim with a hand that shook with a terrible palsy.

“Things will change, but not for your reasons. Things will change because of our gift from Doctor Chosen.”

Jim glanced out the window, at the tarp-covered thing in the center of their compound. He'd hoped to avoid the subject of the golem. His father was obsessed with the thing. He talked about it incessantly, a true believer in the great Doctor Chosen and all his hocus-pocus.

“You said we took six children,” John Pale asked. Jim cringed.

“Yes. Six.”

“A good start,” John replied. “A good start indeed. The next full moon is not far off. Between those six and the ones we already have, we should have a good offering. Better than last time.”

Jim set the war hammer down in his lap. He had to speak, but he knew he had to be careful.

“We could always trade them, the kids. Slaves always have value. Especially young children.”

“Who would we trade them to,” John asked, his tone one of annoyance. “The whole High Council is gone. All of the Bay is gone.”

“There has to be somebody left. And somebody will have something to trade for them. Like I said, people out there always want young kids.”

“We save the kids for the full moon. We’re doing what Doctor Chosen told me to do.”

Jim leaned back in his chair and twisted his lips together. A tell he always showed when he thought of something unpleasant. And the topic of Dr. Chosen was always unpleasant. “How can you be sure,” Jim asked his father. “How can you be sure of that Doctor Chosen told you will come true?”

The sickly old man hissed disapproval. As he hissed, his hands shook some more. “Doctor Chosen and the Pale were always strong allies. We took slaves for him and other members of the High Council since before you were born. He would never have been able to perform his research without the captives we provided. All his research, all his knowledge came about because of us. We were good to him. He rewarded us for our loyal service, and he will continue to reward us, even in his death.”

John Pale made a weak gesture towards the window with a white, shaking hand. Jim followed the direction and saw the tarp covered thing outside. His father, John, continued.

“He gave us that gift. He gave us the key to unlock it.” John held up the leather bound book and shook it in his son’s face. “Now it is up to us. We will unlock it. Our golem will rise and will make our people strong. But we must have faith. Faith in Doctor Chosen. Faith in his new wife, the Earth Mother.”

Jim mulled that over. The Pale’s relationship with the High Council had been a profitable one. They produced drugs for the elites in The Bay to consume. As for the slaves, they’d preyed upon travelers for years. Some they took for their own, the tunnel wives. But most they delivered to Doctor Chosen and the other members of the High Council. A plastic sheet protector taped to the wall above his father’s desk contained a yellowed document. Signed by members of the High Council, it was a license to take slaves and proof of the relationship between the Pale and the old rulers of Gomorrah. On the wall next to the certificate was a framed picture of Doctor Chosen. The doctor was dressed up like a cowboy, with a white hat and a pink neckerchief and a brace of cheap plastic six-shooters with blaze orange tips. He sat astride a horse, which made the already short Doctor Chosen appear even shorter. The stirrups had not even been adjusted and so the doctor’s legs, which ended in shiny purple cowboy boots, just dangled. Altogether the contrived buckaroo outfit, combined with his short stumpy little legs, made Doctor Chosen look absurd. Whatever look the photographer was going for, it didn’t work. But that was the way of Gomorrah. Absurd or not, Doctor Chosen was both adored and feared. Jim had heard all the stories about Doctor Chosen. He’d heard how the doctor had secret laboratories hidden all over the empire. That he conducted experiments with the many slaves his loyal subjects provided him. That the doctor had combined men and animals together to create fantastic monsters. But the idea that some inanimate object would come to life and serve the Pale was just too much for Jim.

In the corner of the room, something jerked violently to life. Brick-a-brack spilled off a nearby shelf in an avalanche of junk. Jim, who had been sitting, jumped straight up to his feet, shaking with fright. His hammer fell out of his lap and clattered on the floor. His father tittered.

“Relax, relax. It is just my tunnel wife, waking up, isn’t it” John Pale cooed. Tucked in a corner by the desk, hidden by all the hoarded junk in the room, a girl stirred out of a hazy slumber. She was a young girl but looked much, much older. Her green eyes were framed with purple rings. Her skin was phone-book yellow and dotted with brown pockmarks and raised red sores. Her auburn hair was dirty and matted, and coming out in clumps. Around her neck, she wore a filthy nylon animal collar. Attached to the collar was the end of a chain. The other end of that chain was bolted to John Pale’s desk. Given that the desk was nothing more than a few pounds of sawdust and glue, the girl could have ripped the bolt out of the desk and made her escape, if she was so inclined. But she wasn't so inclined. It wasn’t the chain that restrained her.

"There, there, my girl," John said soothingly. He patted the girl's matted red hair. "Just waking up, are we? Would you like a little something? Would you like daddy to give you a little something?”

Jim watched his father pull an old jar out of his desk and open it. The jar contained what looked like fine grains of metal. John poured a tiny bit on the web of his hand, then presented it to the girl.

“Go ahead,” The old pasty man said, offering it up. The girl snorted the powder up in a flash, then collapsed back into her corner amongst the other junk and clutter.

“Would you like some more, honey?” The girl nodded and gave a soft whimper.

“Good,” John said. "That's real... real, good. I'll give you a bigger taste a little later. After you do Daddy right."

The red-haired girl smiled dreamily. Whatever she sniffed took effect and she crumpled back into her stupor and her nest among the junk.

Jim sniffed with disapproval.

“I don’t know why you keep that bitch around,” he said.

"I keep this bitch around because she keeps that other bitch up on her mountain," John said. He put the jar away and turned to face Jim. The contempt John Pale had for his bastard son was all too evident.

“As long as we have this one, that flaming **** up on the mountain will leave us alone. We’ve got a hostage and she can sit up there and **** herself. And once we have our golem, we are going up that mountain and then we’re going to **** her and her whole little entourage.”

Jim looked out of the window again, the Sierra Nevada Mountains rose to the east. The golem again. His doubts grew every time his father said that word. Golem. Jim spoke.

“We’ve got plenty of Shake, but this will probably be our last batch of Hush. We've run out of chemicals we need. Unlikely the bay will be sending us anymore, now that it has blown to hell. Without Hush, the tunnel wives are likely to start getting non-compliant.”

“You rape ‘em enough times they’ll get compliant enough. If you aren’t man enough to get the job done, go ask your brother to show you how it’s done.”

Jim gritted his teeth. He could take plenty of abuse from his father, but the subject of his half-brother George grated on Jim like broken glass. He barked at his father.

“I’m a warrior. I’ve been out there leading our warriors and taking slaves while George has been here doing… doing what? Posing in front of a ****ing mirror.”

“George has been preparing to be king. George has faith. George believes in me and he believes in Doctor Chosen. And George is my son, my real son. He’s not the product of some, tunnel wife.”

Jim’s eyes narrowed. “Half of the men in our tribe are the sons of tunnel wives.”

“Half the men in this tribe aren’t going to rule. Your brother George is.”

Jim fumed. He and his father stared each other down with their dark and beady eyes. The red-haired girl lay motionless in the corner, oblivious to the family squabble. When John finally spoke, the rattle in his voice was gone.

“There is a reason why I named him George and named you Jimmy. George is a royal name, a strong and noble name, the name of a king.” John looked Jimmy up and down, the dark eyes rolling behind the thick glasses. Those eyes were thick with contempt.

“Who ever heard of a King Jimmy?"

On the way out of the house, Jim Pale stopped in front of a wall mirror that hung amongst the clutter. Jim squared off to the mirror and looked himself over, his prized war hammer in hand. He was like his father, but not like his father. He had the same black, wire-brush hair as his father. His tanned complexion he got from his mother, some tunnel wife long passed. There was more there too, Jim knew. His arms were lean but muscled. He had a paunch at his midsection, but not too much of one, and he knew if he worked at it he could melt that fat off. Most importantly he had his hammer. Jim looked himself over and decided he was looking at a warrior. He was the one leading the Pale expeditions. He was the one taking the slaves. He was a warrior, he thought, and not just a warrior, but a warrior king.

He pulled a vial out of his pocket. This one held a fluid that looked like chew spit. Built into the bottle cap was an eye dropper. He tilted his head back and put a few drops of the dirty liquid into his mouth. He’d heard that others, the really addicted dripped shake into their eyes. Within moments he felt the shake coursing through his system, making him feel powerful. Making him feel like the warrior king he was destined to be.

Yes, Jim Pale said to himself. I’m a warrior. I’m a warrior king. Let my father say what he will. Let my brother do what he will. I’ll take over the tribe. Someday, when the time is right, I will take over the tribe.

Jim caressed the cold, steel, head of the hammer and left the house of his father, promising himself, "Someday."

Chapter 3

Well, she was an American Girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinkin’
That there was a little more to life, somewhere else
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, American Girl

Cora watched the inside of the Pales' compound from inside a hide sight over a mile to the north, a camouflaged slit she cut into the mountain herself. She watched Jimmy Pale's arrival through an old coin-operated pair of binoculars. Like most of her equipment, the binoculars were a relic of the old world repurposed for the new. They'd been hacked off their mount, the coin-operation mechanism bypassed, and then hauled into the hide to better observe the Pale's activities. Above each lens, she'd fixed a shroud of cardboard and green duct tape to prevent any glare. On her right side was an ancient M16A2 assault rifle, complete with a G.I. issue canvas sling, its metal parts covered in green tape to prevent noise, and a scope mounted on the carry handle. Near her right hand lay the detonator for an improvised claymore covering the approach to her post. This antipersonnel mine was made from a length of cast iron pipe, scored with a pipe cutter and packed full of black powder and several handfuls of bent nails and rusty nuts and bolts. Around her waist, she wore an olive-drab, military ALICE belt, with one magazine pouch for the M16A2, one first aid kit, one canteen, and a bayonet. At her other side were two books, both dog-eared and stained with dirt and sweat and decades of use. As she watched the Pale through the giant binoculars she scribbled notes along the margins of the two texts, more relics of the old world scavenged from… somewhere. The title of the first was, Scouting and Patrolling for Infantry Units. The title of the second was, The Ranger Handbook.

Her name was Corraich. She went by Cora. She wore brown leather boots and tight brown leather pants, both handmade. The leather hugged curves which were muscular but still feminine. Tucked inside one boot was a punch dagger sharp enough to shave with. She was young, maybe twenty, beautiful, and angry. Her anger was an ever-present and consuming thing, and some might say it accentuated her beauty. This anger was a powerful motivator for Cora. She channeled into both purpose and action. She was the one who dug this observation post out of the side of the mountain. She was the one who manned it whenever she could, watching the comings and goings of John Pale and Jimmy Pale and all those other albino bastards. She was the one who led the patrols around the periphery of the Pales’ tiny empire. She was the one who plotted and schemed and obsessed about bringing about his downfall.

She raised a hand and swiped at the droplets of sweat beading on her brow, then moved back to the binoculars. She swiveled them gently, as she'd done hundreds of times before, panning them over the two watchtowers, over the members of the Pale making drugs, over the dead-lined deuce-and-a-half truck sporting its twin machine guns.

Cora's anger was like a triangle, composed of three elements, each one supporting the other two. The first side of her triangle of fury was reserved for John Pale and his Pale tribe, whom she watched now. Slavers and murders all, the Pale now operated with near impunity given the hostage they kept. Her cousin was locked away in John Pale’s fortress. With that bargaining chip, John Pale could threaten to execute his hostage and counter any moves they might make against him. That perhaps was why Cora watched the compound so intently. She hoped to see some weakness, some chink in the Pale’s armor that would allow her to get in and rescue her kin. Rescue her, or maybe just outright kill her. Either way would result in Cora’s ultimate goal of taking away John Pale’s leverage.

The second side of the triangle was for her matron. The Pale had their king, John Pale. She and her tribe had Eldra. Eldra was no John Pale, and that was a good thing. She didn’t order the slaving and drug running and pseudo-occult rituals that John Pale did. She wasn’t evil, the way those alabaster figures in her binoculars were. But Eldra had still not led her people down off the mountain and destroyed the Pale once and for all, either trying to rescue their captured relative or rolling the dice that she might not be executed. It was Eldra’s inaction that made Cora mad. After all, it had been Eldra who had led this contingent out of Jefferson, sick of that Cosmopolitan Democracy’s soft handling of Gomorrah and the High Council. Years ago, Eldra was ready to take action against the High Council and took on the political apparatus of Jefferson. And when the Jeffersonians didn’t relent to her demands, Eldra took her followers out of hiding and into the cruel world. But for all her bluster and talk back in Jefferson, Eldra had not delivered enough action to suit Cora. The fiery woman who once talked of casting down Doctor Chosen and the whole High Council was confounded by a pasty-faced geek of an occult leader, and his band of misfits, inbreds and bastards.

A part of Cora, a part deep back inside her mind, knew that her anger towards Eldra was unwarranted, just a manifestation of her own youthful impatience. Eldra may have been a manipulative bitch, but she was correct in her assessment that they were not yet in a position to go toe-to-toe with the Pale. The Pale may not have been much. They were just a jumped-up band of druggies and highwaymen. But in a battle, even if the Pale lost they could inflict too much damage and Cora and Eldra’s band. A pyrrhic victory is what the books called it. The Pale were weak, but then so were Cora’s people. So was Cora, really, when she thought about it, alone in the pretend-play hide she’d built. That led to the third part of her triangle, the base upon which the rest of her anger was built. That part of her anger was aimed right back at herself.

Cora’s world was a cruel world, crueler than the brutish world of mankind’s’ medieval age. Her world was one where the weak suffered; enslavement by the Pale, rape and murder at the hands of roving bands of thugs, occult murders, ritualized executions at the hands of the High Council, mutation at the hands of Doctor Chosen. It was an age for warriors, and Cora knew she was no warrior. She was just a girl playing dress-up, with her M16A2 rifle and her ancient military texts. She was doing the best she could. She had disciple and motivation, but at the end of the day she was figuring all this out as she went along, making it up, stumbling her way through it. Her people weren’t a warrior people, with formalized training and rites of passage. Her people were just another ragtag bunch trying to hang on to what little they’d been able to steal or scrounge up from the pre-protest world. They were better than the Pale, better than the red-sashed Gomorrah raiders, but they were a far cry from what she imagined warriors were supposed to be.

Cora brushed away a lock of her dark brown hair and watched as the sentries changed inside the Pale’s guard towers. She took up a pencil and scribbled her notes inside the back cover of The Ranger Handbook, and hoped that maybe someday all her efforts would pay off.
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Default Chapters 4 and 5

Chapter 4
Casey joins the hollow sound of silent people walking down
The stairway to the subway in the shadows down below
Following their footsteps through the neon-darkened corridors
Of silent desperation, never speakin' to a soul

Kris Kristofferson, Casey’s Last Ride


Colonel Nathan Lions strode purposefully through the pre-morning gray and mist. This pre-dawn world was a haze; wet, brightening but still dark, waking but not yet awake. Lions like this early hour. It was the time when lesser men were still in their beds and the ambitious men could shape the world. It was time free of distractions and distracting people. It was a time when he could get things done.

Lions did, in fact, look like a lion. He was a striking man; tall, confident, poised, and forceful. He looked young for his age. He looked especially young for a full colonel. His full head of blonde hair radiated a clean glow. The man in his entirety radiated military efficiency, confidence, and ambition. He moved like a man on a mission, which he was, toward the futuristic tower that was once called the Space Needle but now served as both the office and the home of the Chief Marshal of New Sparta.

Lions marched past the capital guardsmen in their red and black uniforms and into a waiting elevator. He spoke not a word. The doors shut behind him and in moments he rose up, above the Emerald City. The glass elevator offered a full view of the capital in all its gray sleepiness. The sky was the color of slate, and the mood of the city seemed equally gray. Hardly the mood one would expect of a nation which completely destroyed its mortal enemy just days before. Only, it wasn’t precisely New Sparta that destroyed its mortal enemy. That had been one man’s work. The Colonel’s work.

And that was the problem.

The elevator stopped, and the doors opened. Lions stepped out into the office and personal living quarters of Chief Marshal William Powell Gorman. The place looked like a museum. Artifacts representing centuries of warfare lined the walls: weapons of all types, armor, maps, personal items from the Great Captains of History; they all gleamed for visitors and sycophants to admire. The Chief Marshal himself was also up. He was getting dressed. A squad of valets attended him. One came forward with a large red velvet pillow, its surface covered with antique sidearms. Gorman looked it over and mused.

“I’ll take the Mauser today.”

The valet nodded once, set aside a Mauser pistol with a red “9” on its handle and then went to fetch a matching holster. Gorman nodded acknowledgment of Lion's presence but said nothing. Lions stood quietly, awaiting his turn.

The attendants fixed a red sash around Gorman’s waist and then buckled on a gleaming, black leather gunbelt. Above the gunbelt, a chest of medals also gleamed, and so did the buttons on the Chief Marshal’s dress uniform. Lions tried to recall if he had ever seen the Chief Marshal in a field uniform. He couldn’t remember any such time.

Once fully dressed, Chief Marshal Gorman dismissed his valets. They left as silently as Lions had entered. Gorman took a few moments to inspect himself in a full-length mirror. When the Chief Marshal was satisfied with his appearance he spoke to his aide.

“What is the situation?”

Lions stepped forward and answered.

“We have a lot to go over.”

From under his arm, Lions pulled out the briefing he prepared for the Chief Marshal. It was all paper copies of electronic slides. Lions liked paper. Paper left no electronic tell tales as to whom it had been shown to, like emails. Paper could always be burned.

“Sir, the general recall is in full effect. All naval assets have acknowledged receipt and are heading back to the capital. The Long Range Group has gone firm near what was once Columbus Ohio. Airlift is en route to recover them. Lieutenant Colonel Sieber has begun evacuation of our facility at Confluence.”

“What about Groups 1 through 4?”

Lions had anticipated that question and answered it promptly. Groups 1 through 4, also called the numbered groups, were small, mobile, New Spartan companies that ranged on other continents. The Long Range Group, on the other hand, operated in the land people once called the United States. All these units were made up almost entirely of Spartan Knights and operated with almost complete independence. They were also a target of the Chief Marshal’s disapproval.

“Groups 1, 2 and 3 have all been contacted. Strategic Airlift is being coordinated to recover them.”

“Did Group 3 find what they were looking for,” The Chief Marshal asked. Lions had anticipated this question as well.

"They did not. Their lead turned out to be a dry hole. Barring any breakthrough from one of our historians or archeologists, there is no reason to keep them out there."

“What about Group 4?”

Lions, finally, anticipated that question too.

“No response from Group 4, but we haven’t had any contact with them in two months. Their last known location was in Siberia.”

Gorman frowned. “Of all the numbered groups, they’ve always been the most problematic.” Then the Chief Marshal must have decided an unaccounted for company didn’t really matter, for he changed the subject.

“What’s the situation in Gomorrah?”

Lions answered unequivocally. “Complete collapse.”

“Enlighten us.”

“Intercepted radio traffic indicated the entire High Council was in the Bay at the time of the detonation. We can safely assume all are dead, including Doctor Chosen. We have reason to believe Doctor Chosen was personally leading an assault against…” Lions hesitated, an act quite out of character for him. “An assault against The Colonel when the device detonated.”

Chief Marshal Gorman frowned. “No chance the Doctor is alive?”

“Sir, there is no reason to hold any hope.”

Gorman sighed and ran a hair through his hair. His hair was jet black, with distinguished gray streaks at the temples.

“Too bad. I find that disappointing for a number of reasons.”

Lions continued. “The Texas Baronies went into full revolt once the news got out. That entire region is in a kind of free-for-all. Some of the major urban areas to the east are trying to declare themselves as kinds of, independent city-states, but they won't be anything more than local powers."

“With the High Council gone is there any defacto leader of what was Gomorrah?”

“None that we can identify, and there is no reason to believe there will be. It was typical of a dictatorial society. Anybody that might have been powerful enough to challenge the High Council, Doctor Chosen executed.

“The city of Angeles was of course destroyed by The Hammer a long time ago. The Mile-High City and the City of Wind went equally defunct years ago. Those are just shells of cities, ruins. There is some talk that there is a leader down on the border near Aztlan, but that most likely is just rumor, and even if it were true there is no reason he would have the political power to unite Gomorrah. But, it is not easy to separate the facts from all the clutter right now, due to the limits of our ability collect,” Lions said. That brought him to the heart of another matter.

“Sir, with our Morning Star Fleet on lockdown it is going to be difficult for us to really know what is going on outside New Sparta.”

Gorman drummed his fingers on his desk. “Yes,” he said. “The Morning Stars are a problem. The legislature acted rashly when they ordered them locked down.”

The Morning Stars were the premier weapon of New Sparta and a favorite of Chief Marshal Gorman. He had helped develop them for New Sparta and that was one of the reasons for his ascendancy to his nation’s highest post. A spaced based platform, the Morning Stars had all the sensor capabilities of a spy satellite as well as a ground attack laser system and on the latest models, a rail gun. In the final moments before the nuclear explosion in San Francisco, Gorman tried to use one of his Morning Stars to destroy the bomb before The Colonel could detonate it and kill The Colonel. But he’d lost control of the Morning Star Constellation. Instead of making a precise attack on the Chief Marshal’s nemesis the Morning Star went haywire and self-destructed. Because of that incident, the political leaders of New Sparta had “grounded” the Morning Star fleet, pending an investigation into what exactly went wrong. Colonel Lions took a single sheet of paper out of his stack and handed it to Gorman.

“Sir, on that subject, this was intercepted by one of our signals intelligence platforms just before we lost control of the Morning Star above The Bay. What you see on this paper is part of a data burst transmission, and was directed to the Morning Star we lost.”

Gorman took the paper and looked it over with discerning eyes. “Computer code,” Gorman said. “But not a coding language I’ve ever seen.”

“Neither has any of General Greylick’s people in the Science and Technology Directorate. He’s running it through his computers, but so far they can’t decipher any of it. And if they haven’t deciphered it yet they probably are not going to.”

“General Greylick has a lot of computing power at his disposal. If he can’t crack it…” Gorman’s voice trailed off. Then he asked, “Do we think it is a Gomorrah coding language?”

“It is far more advanced than anything else they had. Even the technology and software purportedly developed by Doctor Chosen wasn’t this advanced, at least not as far as we know. That being said, we can’t be sure how far Doctor Chosen’s research took him.”

“No. We know pitifully little about Doctor Chosen and his scientific pursuits,” Gorman said aloud. The Chief Marshal said this more to himself than to Lions. His eyes briefly took on a day-dreamy look, and his voice was heavy with regret, as if he considered not having access to Doctor Chosen’s research a great tragedy. But quickly Gorman returned from wherever he was and addressed Lions. “If Gomorrah didn’t develop this, then who?”

Lions shook his head. “We don’t know.” Those words, “We don’t know” were painful to the ambitious colonel. But there it was. One of their prized weapons had been hacked. And they had no idea who did it.

“Who else has seen this?”

“I’ve kept it tight. Less than a dozen people know the whole story. General Greylick told his people this is just part of a training exercise.”

“Good,” Gorman answered. “Keep it tight. We don’t need people getting their hands on this information. I need my Morning Star’s back. I want you to get a hold of Senator Applegate’s office. I need to meet with him, today. We need to get this investigation nonsense over with.”

“Yes Sir,” Lions replied crisply. “If I may, Sir, what are you going to tell Senator Applegate?”

Gorman looked at Lions pointedly. The older Chief Marshal’s brow furrowed. He rubbed his chin.

“I’m going to tell Applegate the same thing I tell any politician; what they want to hear. That there is no issue with the Morning Stars and that the incident was caused by The Colonel and his as of yet unknown co-conspirators."

"Even though we know that neither of those points is true?"

Gorman shrugged as if the truth meant nothing to him. "I need the Morning Stars back, and that is the fastest way to get them back. As far as the co-conspirators go, getting Applegate and all the other political stooges scared about conspiracies and secret cabals and chasing after ghosts will be to our advantage. And when it is to my advantage to reverse course and tell the politicians that the Morning Stars were hacked, after all, I'll do that too. The legislature is a stumbling block, but not a serious obstacle. They’ve willingly handed over almost all their power to the executive. They don’t need to be overcome, only placated, like children.”

Lions nodded, but said, “There still is the question of the bomb? The Colonel must have had help in getting it out of the armory.” Gorman shook his head.

“The Colonel was a capable man. He didn’t need any help getting that bomb out,” Gorman said grudgingly. “He wouldn’t have brought anybody in on this either, that wasn’t his way. The Colonel’s final defiant act was his alone.” Now Gorman straightened up and pointed a finger right at Lions.

"Now, there are those in New Sparta who are sympathetic to that madman, starting with the Crown Prince. And I intend to purge them in due time. One of the reasons I'm going to tell Applegate that The Colonel had co-conspirators is so I can hunt down these ‘co-conspirators,' and drive stakes through their hearts, starting with the Crown Prince. Major K with his ridiculous Knights’ Course will be a close second. We need to shut that monster and his schoolhouse on the peninsula and we need to do it soon. Every knight he graduates is another loyalty risk that I have to worry about. And I have enough of those already." When Gorman spat out the word knight, it dripped with contempt.

“Shutting down the Knights’ Course won’t be easy,” Lions said.

“No,” Gorman agreed. “It has a cult-like following. But, there is nothing the knights can do that technology can’t. With the High Council gone, one can argue that Major K’s little gladiator academy is unnecessary…” Gorman paused and mused and added, “And if Major K was accused of conspiracy…” Gorman let the thought hang in the air for a bit before changing the subject.

“Dr. Chosen wasn’t just the political head of Gomorrah, he was also their intellectual head. The advances he made in science, in biotech and bioengineering, in genetics, in longevity… the man was what, a century and a half old when he was killed? His ability to conduct unfettered experiments undoubtedly resulted in miraculous discoveries. We need to get into his laboratories as quickly as possible and harvest his knowledge. I especially want his longevity research. How soon can we move on Motor City?”

“I’ve got a team assembled, all made up of men from the Capital Guard, loyal men who are capable and can keep their mouths shut. All that is left is to appoint a mission commander.”
Gorman’s eyes narrowed. “What about Colonel Needles? He is the commander of the Capital Guard after all.”

Lions shook his head and did it very slowly for emphasis. “Sir, you put Colonel Needles in charge of the Capital Guard for his loyalty and for political reasons. He is not a field commander, and I would not send him to Motor City. Especially not for that negotiation.”

Gorman sighed. “True enough. Do you have any other candidates?”

“I’d like to go.”

Gorman nodded consent. “Want to get your boots dirty, eh? I suppose you’ve earned the right to get back out into the field. Alright, lead the team, but get out there quickly, and quietly. I need more chess pieces I can put on the board. And don’t get yourself murdered by that crazy person either.”

The Chief Marshal checked the clock. “I’ve got another meeting. Is there anything else pressing in that stack of papers of yours?”

“No, Sir,” Lions answered crisply.

“Good. Burn them, starting with the sheet of code.”

“Yes, Sir,” Lions answered again. “Anything else I can do for you?”

“Yes,” Gorman answered back immediately.

“I want you to find The Colonel’s son.”

Chapter 5

Spent the last year, Rocky Mountain way
Couldn't get much higher
Out to pasture, think it's safe to say
Time to open fire

Joe Walsh, Rocky Mountain Way


Two Spartan aircraft made their way east over the Cascade Mountains. These aircraft were called Griffins and like their fictional namesake, they were a little bit of everything. Wide fuselages with four tilt-rotor engines, they could be configured to fulfill a variety of roles: gunship, tanker, command and control platform, electronic warfare platform, and more. Right now the second aircraft carried fuel. The lead aircraft, commanded by Major Ron “Sleazy” Peters was configured as a transport. The cargo being transported included a handful of young New Spartan warriors. One of those warriors was The Colonel’s son.

“Griffin three-deuce-five to Griffin four-deuce-five; over this next knife ridge and we should be there.”

“Copy, Sleazy,” The second aircraft’s commander responded on the radio, using Major Peters’s callsign.

“Keep it low and keep it tight four-deuce-five,” The lead pilot and mission commander shot back. The mission they were on came to them straight from the Crown Prince. It wasn’t necessarily off the books, but it certainly wasn’t on the books either. The closer they were to the ground, the less time they spent on the radar. The less time they spent on the radar, the better Major Peters felt.

Major Peters stole a glance back into the cargo area. Two light tactical vehicles, militarized pickup trucks, occupied the center of the cargo hold. Each truck was loaded with a variety of boxes and barrels and cans. On the canvas jump seats along the aircraft’s bulkheads sat five New Spartan warriors, and young ones at that. The four on one side were all newly minted Spartan Knights. They’d graduated Major K’s Knights Course only 96 hours ago. Typically a Spartan Knight got 90 days of liberty after graduating the course, and for good reason. The year-long course was grueling, and the three months of liberty was a necessary part of physically recovering. But these kids didn’t get two months. They got four days before being sent right out into… Into what? Sleazy did not know exactly.

Technical Sergeant Brady, the crew chief made his way up from the rear cargo ramp to the cockpit. Sleazy kept both eyes on the snowcapped ridgeline just ahead. When the chief got up to the cockpit he whispered in the major’s ear.

“So, which one’s The Colonel’s kid?”

Sleazy answered without taking his eyes off the advancing ridgeline.

“The one that looks like a Colt.”

The chief, a squat man of medium height, stole a glance back into the cargo bay. All four of the Spartan Knights were dead asleep. The fifth kid, who sat by himself opposite the others, was wide awake. Dale glanced over the sleeping knights, his eyes lingering on the one with burnished pips on the tattered collar of his uniform. He turned back to Sleazy.

“He does look like a Colt,” Brady said. The term, ‘Colt’ was used by Spartans to describe a certain type of officer. Like the term, ‘Mustang’ defined an officer who came up from the ranks, ‘Colt’ meant an officer whose father was an officer. “He looks like his dad too, maybe not as mean. Who’s the loner?”

"Don't know," Sleazy answered. And he didn't. Their fifth passenger they picked up in the Emerald City before they headed out to the Olympic Peninsula to get The Colonel's son and the others. The fifth kid was young, and no Spartan night. A patch on his uniform indicated he was a member of the New Spartan general staff, and his lack of age and lack of rank would indicate he was a clerk or coffee maker or some other flunky. Even stranger, this kid had only one arm. His right arm was whole, but his left ended in a deformed stump just beyond the elbow. The stump wasn't from a wound but from some birth defect. Slung across the cripple's chest was a submachine gun. Four brand new Spartan Knights and a cripple, Sleazy wondered. It was a motley crew. It was about to get even more motley.

“Coming over the ridge now,” Captain Grace, Sleazy’s co-pilot announced. The aircraft cleared the ridge by less than six feet, then banked slightly. Below them was a crystal blue alpine lake. At one end was a dam, a few buildings, and a landing pad. The aircraft began their descent. They had one more passenger to pick up.

The alpine lake reflected the green of the surrounding forest and the majesty of the mountains. It sat high up in the Cascades, beautiful and noble and with a lonely defiance. At the lake’s edge sat Charles Lefranc, Master Gunnery Sergeant retired. Lefranc had the lean, hard, hungry look of most of Sparta’s old warriors. Gray eyes flashed above a tangled beard of red and gray. Those eyes reflected the experience of decades spent fighting. The old warrior had an ax in his belt, a rifle at his side, and a bottle in his hand. He sat facing west. He drank, and he waited.

He'd been retired for some years now. After active service, he'd been given the job of caretaker of the dam facilities at this remote lake. Some might say he'd been rewarded for his faithful service with an easy job. Others might say he’d been shuffled off into a corner to be forgotten. Lefranc sipped at the brown liquor in his bottle. He’d say he’d been “hidden,” if anybody had asked him. Many old Spartan warriors chose to go on a Last March; a final, lone mission from which they would not return. Lefranc had not taken that route. Instead, he opted for a safe, comfortable retirement. It was a decision he quickly learned to regret.

As a young man, he’d served in the Long Range Group, tearing all over the continent. He’d led men, fought battles, killed enemies, accomplished missions, and moved from one adventure to the next. He’d been a knight of New Sparta. His life had a purpose to it. But the drive and the purpose of that life went away the day he retired. Now he was an old man, old and growing older, alone, tucked away out of sight like an unwanted gift. He was still alive, his lungs drew air and his heart still beat, but his life was over. A Last March had a dignity to it. To go from Spartan Knight to a tired and forgotten groundskeeper brought a humiliation that was not easy to live with, even with the help of the bottle. He’d often wished, when his mind was a whirlpool of loneliness, humiliation, regret and alcoholic haze, that he could get a chance at one last mission.

Then The Colonel walked into Gomorrah with a nuclear bomb on his back, and Lefranc’s wish was granted.

He saw the aircraft crest the peak. Lefranc took one last pull from the bottle, capped it, then stood it upright on a nearby boulder. The aircraft were quiet. Their engines muffled for covert insertion. Lefranc took a last look over his gear: rucksack, cartridge belt with a bowie knife and hand ax, bolt action rifle with a scope. He took a smoke grenade from his pack, popped it, then tossed it towards the nearby landing pad to mark for the pilots. Not that this was necessary. Major Sleazy was flying, and Lefranc knew him to be a good pilot. No, the retired Master Gunnery Sergeant pulled the pin because it felt good to pop ordnance, and it had been a long time.

“I’ve got one last good run in me,” Lefranc said aloud to himself. He shouldered the pack and rifle and waited for the Griffins to touch down. He’d prayed for a mission. The Crown Prince and the martyred Colonel had given him one. It wasn’t going to be any walk in the park though. Not by a long shot.

“You asked for it, you got it,” Lefranc said to himself. He cast a sideways glance to the bottle, then turned back to the aircraft. They touched down, their tilt rotors throwing angry swirls of prop wash as the engines hummed. The pilots shut down their machines. The cargo ramps dropped and the aircrew came out to check things over. Lefranc waited until a helmeted figure in a flight suit approached. The helmet came off, and there was Major “Sleazy” Peters. The pilot’s hand extended.

"It has been a long time, Master Guns," Sleazy said. "How are you doing old man?"

“Fair-to-middling,” Lefranc answered back. “Corporal Brady still with you?”

“No, but Technical Sergeant Brady is.”

“Technical Sergeant? ****. What happened?”

“You got old.” Sleazy pulled a pouch of tobacco out of his flight suit and tossed it to Lefranc, who caught it handily and opened it up.

“We’ve got more inside. Figured you’d need it wherever you’re going.”

Lefranc smiled. “We will. How are things in the Emerald City?”

Sleazy shook his head. “Lot of uncertainty in the capital right now. Nobody saw it coming, of course, The Colonel blowing up Gomorrah and the High Council. Nobody's celebrating, even though our mortal enemy just got wiped out in one shot. Word is the Chief Marshal isn’t happy.”

“I wouldn’t expect him to be,” Lefranc said. “Not that I care much about his happiness.” Lefranc popped in a chaw.

“You still carrying that antique I see,” Sleazy said, nodding towards the rifle slung on Lefranc’s shoulder. It was a vintage piece; wood and steel, a leather sling with brass fittings, and a scope older than both the men admiring it. In another life, somebody used it to kill Germans, back before the Germans were called Nazis.

“She’s got me out of plenty of scrapes. She deserves one last go around.” Out of the back of a Griffin, the passengers shuffled out. Lefranc shifted his gaze to them.

“That’s who all the fuss is about?”

Sleazy nodded. “The Colonel’s son is the one that looks like a younger version of The Colonel.”

“I expect that makes sense,” Lefranc said. He spat out a brown stream and considered his charges.

Four stood together. These were the new Spartan Knights. They wore rags that had been Spartan uniforms when they started the Knights Course a year ago. They looked lean and miserable, unshaven and dirty, wild and mean. But they looked like warriors. The Crown Prince and Major K must have wasted no time, shipping them out right after they graduated the Knights course without a pause for even a shower and a change of clothes. This was hard proof of just how worried they were for The Colonel’s son. Revenge was in the air.

The tallest of the new Knights carried a medium machinegun. Even in his emaciated state, Lefranc could see he was a specimen. Over his solid frame, the big guy wore a load bearing harness loaded down with belts of ammunition. Lefranc heard one of the others call the big gunner Ajax, and he supposed that fit. Once he put the weight back on that he’d lost in the Knights Course he’d be a giant.

The one standing next to the big one wore a medical pack on his shoulder. The others called him Doc, naturally enough. He and the big one were quibbling about something. Lefranc couldn’t tell what, but he didn’t need to. He’d seen it before a thousand times; two troopers in the field who couldn’t be happy unless they were mad at each other, husband-and-wife types. He’d have to watch that, but he’d watched it before and managed it before.

The third in the group was shorter than the rest and even though they’d all just walked out of the year-long Knights Course together, he looked filthier than the rest. The others called him Christian. Lefranc thought he looked less like one of Jesus’s disciples and more like one of the lepers before they were healed. His clothes, particularly his pants, were tattered rags, patched half-heartedly with strips of olive-green duct tape. His stubble covered chin was stained with tobacco juice. His face was a patchwork of dirt and grime and old camouflage paint. His greasy hair jutted out crazily, each strand rebelling against the others. If this kid were a cartoon, he’d be constantly surrounded by a whirlwind of stink lines and dust clouds. But his weapons were clean. The rifle with grenade launcher he carried, and the shotgun slung on his back didn’t have a speck of dust on them.

The fourth new knight was the colt, The Colonel's son. He stood next to the others, but there was an air of distance between him and the others. Not a physical difference, but an emotional one. His uniform sleeves were rolled up midway between the wrist and the elbow and he had the same long, lanky, gunfighter look of his father. His rifle was clean, with just a day/night sight and no other accessories. He wore a minimalist rig over his chest, loaded with just a few rifle magazines. From his belt hung a bowie knife. Its handle was wrapped in olive green parachute cord. He had thoughtful eyes, windows to a churning mind and a soul which, like his father's, was in its own violent conflict.

Lefranc could figure out these four easily enough. They’d just spent the last year together, enduring the hardships of the Major K’s torture tests, and forging bonds of loyalty that Chief Marshal Gorman and his many toadies and schemers would not break. Lefranc could still remember well the other members of his own four-man team when he through the Knights Course. Those men were dead now, but his love and loyalty for them lived on. The Emerald City had its way of turning men inside out, inflating ambition and sucking away principal. These knights may be kids, but they wouldn’t break, not for Chief Marshal Gorman, not for anybody. They wouldn’t turn on each other, not now, not ever.

That left the fifth kid. He was a mystery. Some young, egg-headed, staff gopher, and a cripple at that. Lefranc looked up and down the young man’s deformed stump with both contempt and curiosity. The patch on his arm indicating his affiliation with the General Staff added insult to the injury. Why send him along on this quest, this half-man who would likely only slow them down? The Crown Prince was no idiot. He must have had his reasons, but Lefranc couldn’t imagine what they might be. In the end, it didn't matter. Lefranc had his mission, and he would execute. Get The Colonel’s son and these other kids (they might have been Spartan Warriors, but he still thought of them as kids) out of the Chief Marshal’s reach.

“That bastard’s gonna want his revenge,” Lefranc muttered.

“What’s that,” Sleazy asked. Lefranc shook his head.

“Nothing. What’s it going to take to get going?”

“The crew chiefs just need to do their once over. Plenty of fuel in dash-two, so no need to worry about that.”

Lefranc checked his watch, calculating his timeline. “The sooner we get this rodeo started, the better.”

“Sounds good,” Sleazy replied.

Ten minutes later, engines were turning and the two aircraft were ready. The kids filed past Lefranc and back into the lead bird.

“Who’s the old man with the musket,” One of the kids asked the others as he past Lefranc. It was the big machine gunner, the one called Ajax. Lefranc pretended not to hear. He looked over the lake and the scattered buildings one last time. I’ll never see them again, Lefranc thought. And he didn’t care. The Colonel had done it right. Go out on one Last March and end it all in one great angry moment of blood and thunder. The Crown Prince had given him one last mission, one last chance to live and to die the way he was meant to, one last chance to matter again.

Lefranc leaned over and yelled into crew chief’s ear.

“Bring her up fifty feet and put her into a hover. Don’t close the ramp just yet.” Brady nodded then keyed his intercom to talk to the pilot. The aircraft lifted, then paused and went into a hover, and then shifted so the cargo ramp was pointed back toward the lake.

Lefranc unslung his rifle. He turned to the kids. They all watched him now. Good, he thought. He worked the bolt in one blur of motion. He stepped onto the open cargo ramp, twisted his arm into the sling and then shouldered the rifle. Naturally, the kids followed the line of aim, from Lefranc’s eye, down the length of the rifle, out the back of the aircraft and to the liquor bottle standing on its boulder perch down below.

Standing on the deck of a moving aircraft, Lefranc fired a single shot offhand. Down by the lake, his last bottle exploded in a flash of glass and brown mist.

The retired Master Gunnery Sergeant put his weapon on safe, walked over to the tall machine gunner and leaned in close, so close they were nose to nose. He spoke loudly, loud enough that all of his charges could hear him above the roar of the engines.

"Where we're going, you see an old man with an old gun, you keep your mouth shut and you might just live to talk about it.”

The old-timer didn't wait for a response. He turned, making sure to catch the eye of Colt, and made is way up to the cockpit.

“The Crown Prince didn’t tell me where we are going,” Sleazy said to Lefranc.

“The Crown Prince didn’t tell you where we are going because I didn’t tell him where we are going.”

“So, where are we going?”


“South to where?”

“Head south until you get to that city that just got nuked. I’ll talk you in the rest of the way from there.”
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Default Chapter 6

Wooden ships on the water very free and easy
Easy you know the way it's supposed to be
Silver people on the shoreline leave us be
Very free and easy
Crosby Stills and Nash, Wooden Ships

Robert Murray

Robert Murray considered himself a coward. As he stood on the deck of the Spartan Naval pinnace and watched it cut through the slate gray waters of the Puget Sound, he contemplated his cowardice and decided he was comfortable with both it and the life in meant for him.

Comfort was the keyword. Robert Murray enjoyed his comforts. He enjoyed a lifestyle that was free and easy. Being a soldier, stationed near the front lines with swarming hordes of Gomorrah screamers coming down upon you was decidedly an uncomfortable place to be. It was a scary place to be, with its death and violence and uncertainty. That was why, many years before when Robert entered the Spartan army, he volunteered to be a mechanic rather than an infantryman. That was also why at the first opportunity he transferred out of the army and into the navy, giving up soldiering for the life of a sailor. The Spartan navy was a much better place for a man who enjoyed his comforts. In the Spartan Navy, you slept in beds. In the Spartan Navy, you ate three hot meals a day. Gomorrah had no navy of their own to speak of, so the ever-present risk of bodily harm and death was not quite so looming, a fact that Robert Murray appreciated. Finally, comfort was what drove Robert Murray to leave the military as early as possible and pursue a modest career as a civilian politician. In politics, he faced neither the dangers nor the discomforts of military service. In politics, he could serve his country not through force of arms, but by legislating in the lowest of New Sparta’s four congressional bodies. For Robert Murray this meant mostly listening to speeches he didn’t want to hear, being pleasant to people he didn’t particularly like, cosigning bills he didn’t particularly agree with, and generally avoiding any real work, risk, or responsibility. While Robert considered himself a coward, he wasn’t an ungrateful one. His short time in the military taught him that things could always get worse and they often did so without any warning.

The bow of the small pinnace pitched up on a swell and then dipped down again. Behind him, Spartan sailors were busy about their work, their naval dirks in their scabbards and swinging at their belts. Ahead rose the Emerald City, the capital of New Sparta. While not a career man, Murray appreciated his time in the navy and crossed the sound by means of the navy’s packet ships whenever possible. The morning sea air had the clean, salty smell to it. The day had not fully broken yet, and the whole world seemed washed in mid-dawn greys. Robert like this time in the morning, the pre-dawn. He especially liked it when at sea, when his vessel was underway and the rest of the world still dreaming. But as much as he liked the sea, the safety, comfort, and generally laissez-faire attitude of politics called out to him. Not that he was an ambitious man. He didn’t crave power, or adoration, or any of the other ‘silly’ things his fellow politicians seemed to lust after. He wanted nothing more than a quiet, comfortable and safe life. So, he’d secured a seat as an alderman, a minor post, representing a minor district. In his nearly three decades in the legislature of New Sparta, Robert Murray had written no laws, sponsored no bills, co-sponsored no bills of any importance, and in short done nothing of any note whatsoever. This was the way he wanted it. His political career, like the rest of his life, was quiet. It kept him safe, and comfortable. He should have had no reason to worry.

Yet Robert Murray was worried. He was very worried.

The pinnace moored to a pier in the Emerald City’s harbor and while he waited for the gangway to drop, Robert Murray carefully observed his capital. It was quiet as a ghost town, desolate in the early gray light. It should not have been desolate. Only days ago the old city of San Francisco, the capital of New Sparta’s mortal enemy since before he’d been born, had been wiped off the map; destroyed by a single nuclear blast. The bomb had been carried into the heart of the enemy city on the back of a single soldier, an old Spartan Knight that no one would have missed anyway. It should have been a cause for celebration. The war which defined his country since its formation was over. The enemy leadership dead to man, the rest of that hated nation in tattered disarray. The war was over. There should be parties in the streets, parades, streamers, and confetti floating down from the heavens, open bars with free booze for anyone who could pour it down their throat. Robert recalled a famous photograph from WWII. Victory in Europe had just been declared. In Times Square a sailor held a nurse in a passionate embrace while the rest of the city reveled around them, rejoicing in the victory. Gomorrah was now gone, but victory had not been declared. The city was not reveling. There was no rejoicing. In the photograph, the sailor and nurse seemed to be kissing out of pure joy. In the Emerald City, the mood wasn't one of joy. The mood was one of uncertainty and uncertainty’s older, meaner brother: fear.

A car waited at the pier to take him to his legislative office. The lower house’s offices were located in the southern part of the city, where real estate was in less demand and reflected the importance of the lower house. When he climbed into the backseat of the car, Murray chanced to look up and caught the site of the top of the Space Needle. Chief Marshal Gorman was up there. Murray felt a chill run down his spine and an uneasiness deep in his stomach. He wondered which burned up Gorman more, that the war was finally over? Or that it had been The Colonel and not the Chief Marshal who had ended it.

The lower house's legislative offices were in converted industrial spaces near the city's airfield. In the early hours of the morning, the offices were still mostly deserted. Robert placed a premium on being comfortable, but he also enjoyed being up and in the office before everybody else. Rising early and getting a head start on the day, even if he didn’t have any actual work to do, was the one place he naturally showed initiative. On the few occasions he had real work he needed to do, he found he could get more of it done when nobody else was around.

Robert passed the small security station manned by one of the Capital Guardsmen in their red and black uniforms. There was no metal detectors or body scanners or any of that nonsense here. Such measures were deemed unnecessary in the militocracy of New Sparta, where roughly half the population was in the military, the other half of the population was actively supporting the military, and where most people went around armed just as a matter of course. The Capital Guardsman gave a crisp salute that matched his crisp uniform. Robert saluted back, less crisply, and proceeded down a hallway to his office suite. It was a modest suite that matched Robert Murray’s ambitions. It was located on the first floor and not on a corner. The few windows in the office offered only a ground view of the street, as the office was halfway below ground. The suite consisted of Robert’s own office, a reception area, and smaller offices for his staff members. None of his staff members, all of which were attractive young women (you couldn’t put a price on comfort) were here at this hour, but the lights in the office were on. Alarms bells went off in Robert’s mind, and when he saw the door to own office ajar, those alarm bells rose to a fever pitch.

Sitting in his office, in his own desk chair no less, was the honorable Mr. Perry Applegate; career politician, self-described, ‘Giant of the New Spartan Senate,’ and the current president of the same Senate.

A single word immediately ran through Robert Murray’s mind. That word was, ‘****.’

Perry Applegate was a politically powerful man. He sat at the head of New Sparta’s civilian legislative branch and was thus at the nexus of the civilian-staffed legislative and the military-led executive. The septuagenarian’s position represented five decades spent in politics. He had never served in the Spartan military. Despite this fact, Perry Applegate thrived in Spartan politics because he was a man born to it. He was a man who never forgot a name or a face. A man who could circulate any room, anywhere, and never be at a loss for a witty remark or an amusing anecdote. He could make introductions with the casual ease and skill of a gunfighter changing magazines. He seemed to know everybody and have a history with everybody. Everybody owed him favors, and he seemed to owe everybody favors in a complex system of reward and patronage whose ledgers existed only in his sharp mind. In his seventies, Applegate was still sharp as a needle. Murray always though Perry Applegate looked like Humpty Dumpty. He was a large, oval-shaped man with an equally large, oval head. Bald of course, with the lightest scattering of snow white fuzz across the top. Applegate’s complexion was pale, with veiny cheeks that looked like they would burn at the first hint of sunshine. He was a far cry from the lean, hard, tanned warriors that the word ‘Spartan’ emoted. Even so, only a fool would underestimate Applegate based on his appearance. Many fools had, to their regret.

Thus, Perry Applegate wasn’t a man who just showed up at the office, early, alone, just to say, ‘how do.” Applegate was a man with agenda. He wanted something. He wanted something from Murray. And Murray had no doubt that this self-described Giant of the Senate would get it.

“Alderman Murray, I was hoping to catch you early this morning. I hope you didn’t mind, but I left myself in.”

“Good morning, and I don’t mind at all. It isn’t my office, after all. This office belongs to New Sparta. I just happen to work here, for now.” Murray said this pleasantly. It always paid to be pleasant here in amongst the courtiers and perfumed diplomats, especially when you felt the opposite. Murray doubted that their early morning meeting was by chance though. Applegate had been tipped off of his early arrival, either by some sailor or more likely the driver who picked him up at the pier. And if Perry had access to his office, that meant he had access to the office of every alderman and congressman. He probably had access to every senate office as well.

“What can I do for you this morning? I’d offer you some coffee, but we’re out. Tea is the best I can do right now.”

“Oh, no tea for me, thank you. As far as the coffee goes, from what I’ve heard the NSS Youngblood is heading back home with a cargo hold full of coffee. Once it docks, I’ll make sure a few bags make their way into your office.”

“I heard the Youngblood got into a little bit of action.”

“It did,” Applegate agreed. “Nothing it couldn’t handle. And there seems to have been a lot of action lately. Some of this action warrants a strong response from our government, lest things get out worse.”

“Sir, I assume you’re talking about The Colonel and this business with Gomorrah?”

“Yes, and no,” Applegate said. Then he paused, seeming to get pensive. Murray wasn’t sure if it was genuine or an affectation. In Murray’s mind, everything about Applegate was like that. You couldn’t tell what was genuine and what was a false façade. Thus, for Murray the only logical course was to inherently distrust everything that Applegate said. In the end, that rarely made no matter either, for Applegate always seemed to get what he wanted. The President of the Senate continued.
“Nasty business, this thing with The Colonel. Horrible way for a man to go… to scuttle his otherwise honorable legacy like that. But, here we are, in positions which demand we pick up the pieces that bloodthirsty rogue left behind.”

Murray was a flexible man, especially when it came to political matters. He’d always found it best to go along get along. Even so, he had difficulty with Applegate’s language. In his mind, The Colonel wasn’t a rogue madman acting alone, but perhaps the only one thinking with clarity. It was a cold-blooded clarity to be sure, but wasn’t cold-blooded clarity what men like The Colonel were expected to demonstrate? Isn’t that what New Sparta trained them to demonstrate? In Murray’s mind, The Colonel was a hero. But now, here was the head of the senate portraying him as a villain. Applegate droned on about the barbarity of The Colonel’s actions. Murray only half-listened to the older man as he gathered wool. When Applegate made the briefest pause in his soliloquy, Robert Murray jumped in.

“Well, we can’t very well go down to The Bay and put the sunshine back inside the can. So, what is it you’d like to do?”

Perry smiled and leaned back in his chair, which was Murray's chair, behind Murray's desk. "You get right down to it. Well, that's good. I expect it is why people like you and I get up early in the morning; to get down to it and get things done. The issue is the Morning Stars. Right now, they are on lock-down.”

Murray gave a nod understanding but said nothing more.

“We need to get them back under the Chief Marshal’s control.”

Murray nodded again and then asked, “Wasn’t one hacked right before the bomb went off?”

"We can't be sure it was hacked. In any event, if it was, it was The Colonel who hacked it, and he's dead now."

“The Colonel… hacked it,” Murray asked this slowly, his disbelief heavy on his words. “Hard to imagine The Colonel picking up a communications suite and hacking into one of our Morning Stars. Hard to imagine him hacking into anything. I always saw him as more of a bludgeoner than a technocrat. If the Morning Stars were rapiers, then The Colonel’s weapon of choice would be along the lines of a big rock.”

“If any hacking took place it must have been The Colonel. Who else could it have been? In any event,” Applegate continued. “The Morning Star’s are as much an intelligence collection platform as a weapon. Without their sensors, the Chief Marshal is blind as to what’s going on in Gomorrah.”

“And what do we think is going on in Gomorrah?”

“We have no idea,” Applegate sighed. “Regrettably, as our Morning Star constellation became more capable we let other intelligence assets linger on the vine and die. We had no human intelligence activities anywhere near Gomorrah itself. We had some people in the baronies, the Motor City… we had our facility in confluence and the Long Range Group, and whatever the numbered groups and our activities abroad bring in. But they’ve all been recalled. Even the Confluence facility is being shut down and evacuated. And since we have nothing around the Bay itself we have no idea of what’s happening there. They could be preparing for a counterattack. They could be begging to surrender. There could be, and likely is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. We just don’t know. And until we, the legislative branch, reverse this recall and give Gorman control over his Morning Star constellation we aren’t going to know.”

“Couldn’t we send to Long Range Group down there to check things out?”

“We could. But the worry is that The Colonel might have had co-conspirators in his plot. If that’s the case, the LRG would be ripe with operatives of a similarly seditious bent. It’s almost entirely made up of Spartan Knights, men similar to The Colonel in their outlook on life and their predilection towards unthinking violence. The Chief Marshal feels, and I happen to agree with him, that until we thoroughly investigate the terrorist attack on the High Council, we maximize our use the Morning Stars and minimize our reliance on those whose loyalties are unproven. Instead of grounding machines like the Morning Stars, we should have been grounding people. Which brings me to my next point.

“The Knights Course. Major K has been given too free a hand over his little fiefdom on the peninsula for too long. We give him moldable young minds for a year at a time, but we don’t have any idea what he’s filling those minds with, other than it is unacceptably violent. If there is a conspiracy that extends beyond The Colonel, then it begins there, with Major K.”

“You don’t really think Major K is doing what, using his position as director of the Knights Course to politically indoctrinate his students? The man has been training Spartan Knights since forever… or at least since his wounding.”

Applegate’s egg-shaped face twisted with contempt for the man known as Major K. “Who knows what the monstrosity is doing? He’s been operating without any oversight all these years. He’s also less man than contraption. A prosthetic arm, a prosthetic leg, steel plates throughout his head, organs replaced with the stuff of science fiction, even the man’s teeth are fake. Have you ever seen him smile? His real teeth were replaced with chrome plated metal. He smiles like an automaton shark. They should have just left him to die under whatever pile of bodies they found him in. The Chief Marshal wants us to shut down the Knights Course pending a full investigation.”

“The Chief Marshal can do that on his own. It is within his authorities. What does he need us for on that,” Murray asked.

"He's worried about the optics, how it might look. I agree with him. We, the Spartan legislature need to appear strong at this moment in time. And if there is a conspiracy, the Chief Marshal needs to be given the support and the flexibility to root it out, entirely.

“And also speaking of optics, we also need to consider our responsibility to protect. The Colonel's actions have likely sparked a humanitarian crisis. We don't know, because we don't have the Morning Stars in action, but there are likely millions of people down there in need. How will history judge us if we allow Gomorrah's most vulnerable citizens to perish in the ruins of a terrorist's nuclear fire? How will history judge those who were driven to act every time violence was called for, but who stumbled and stalled when a compassionate heart was what was needed most? Where is the warrior's nobility in all of that? Are we all just heartless ‘Colonel,’ wandering the wastelands from gunfight to gunfight? I like to think that we, the people of New Sparta are made of more magnanimous stuff."

‘For ****’s sake, get to the point,’ Robert Murray screamed at Applegate from within the safety of his own mind. The Humpty-Dumpty like politician was carrying on like he was at a town hall meeting. Murray had never spent any time with this Giant of the Senate before. Now, the more Applegate droned on, the less impressive he seemed to be.

“Robby, may I call you Robby?” Robert Murray didn’t give an answer, because Perry Applegate did not wait for one but instead proceeded.

“Robby, there is something you must understand about our political system, the same political system I dedicated my life to once I learned, to my deep regret of course, that I could not serve in the Spartan military. Medical condition you see. Our political system has an inherent flaw. An original sin if you will, stemming from some poor decisions made by those who founded our nation as an act of survival when faced with all the insanity stemming from the protest and all that nonsense. The father of our system was the United States, the same political institution that allowed the protest to take hold and eventually grow into Gomorrah and the High Council. One of the founding principals of that system was this notion of checks and balances; this idea that elements of the government could counter the power of each other and thus prevent any single branch from gaining too much power, namely the executive branch. It was this dispersal of power that ultimately prevented any single element of the government of the United States from seizing control and shooting all the protestors in the street outright, which is what they should have done. This idea of limiting power was noble in its intent, but harmful in its practice.

“Regrettably our own founding fathers seized upon this idea of checks and balances. Not only did they continue to practice it, but they also doubled down on it. The legislative branch of the old United States had two elements; the house and the senate. We have four; a senate, an inner house of congress, an outer house, and the lower house where you aldermen meet. We have a chief executive, who is also the head of the military; our Chief Marshal. But some of his decisions can be vetoed by the Crown Prince, the head of our Royal Family whose sole duty is to veto the Chief Marshal’s decisions. We’re a militorcarcy, combined with elements of a democracy and a republic and various other political ‘good ideas,’ all of which came out of the heads of old veterans, gunfighter men who for all their noble efforts and sacrifice had no idea of what a government needed to be, nor any idea about how politics actually worked.”

“I’m not sure what you are saying,” Robert chimed in, as quick as he could less Applegate drone on forever.

“What I’m saying is we face a crisis of the highest order, and we sit in a government who by design cannot get things done. The destruction of Gomorrah and the murder of the high council didn’t solve any problems, but instead created a catastrophe. Our key weapons remain inert in space. We have no idea what may be left of Gomorrah and the high council. No idea of the humanitarian crisis we created and our responsibility to protect those in need. Moreover, we have no idea of how deep The Colonel’s schemes might have run? Was the High Council the only target, or are there more? Who his co-conspirators might be and what their next moves are?"

Perry continued on, but Murray’s mind lingered on the phrase, ‘murder of the high council,’ specifically the word, ‘murder.’ Perry Applegate was a man who chose his words carefully, and only a fool wouldn’t think he had rehearsed this little speech a hundred times already, as intimate as the setting might be. But was it ‘murder,’ Murray asked himself. The High Council were New Sparta’s enemies. What The Colonel did couldn’t be murder. Could it? Perry continued.

“What we need to do is to ensure that our chief executive has all the power and the freedom of action he needs to solve these calamities, to stop any sedition before it goes any further, and deliver on our responsibility to protect those now suffering in Gomorrah. We need to consolidate power in Chief Marshal Gorman and give him everything he needs.”

Murray snapped out of his little mental vacation. “And you think by re-releasing the Morning Star fleet to his control and shutting down the Knights’ Course are the appropriate first steps?”

Perry smiled a smug, conspiratorial smile. “He thinks so, and who am I to question the Chief Marshal?”

Robert Murray ran a hand over his trim beard. It was a lot to take in, especially this hour. He spoke slowly. "Well, I don't know about any responsibility to protect people who were trying to destroy our nation just a week ago. I don't really see what Major K and the Knights' course has to do with any of this either. If there is sedition afoot, then let's have an investigation and a trial and get it out in the open. There are reasons why we fought Gomorrah, I think the rule of law was one of them. But as for the Morning Star fleet, if they aren't compromised, I don't see any reason why we shouldn't put them back in use." The words weren't powerful, but for a politician, particularly one as non-confrontational as Robert Murray, a coward whose chief aim was his own comfort, they were strong. Murray, for all his faults, wasn't an idiot and when Perry leaned forward to shake his hand, the younger politician could read the Giant of the Senate's mind. It said, ‘one out of three is enough, for now.”

“Great,” Perry said. “We’re going to round up the votes on the Morning Star matter today and put it to bed before lunch. We’ll work out the other two issues in the next few days.” Murray’s face went awash with alarm.

“A full voting session today? It’s not on the calendar. Can we make it happen in the next few hours, call a session? Is everybody even here in the capital?”

Perry dismissed both the alarm and the idea with a wave of his hand. “There is no need for a formal session, at least not on the Morning Stars. I'll make the rounds, and if the votes are there, then the votes are there. No need to go through all the formal procedures of a session and a vote and recordings of the proceedings. If everybody agrees then that’s good enough for me,” Applegate said. Then he added. “And if its good enough for me, it is good enough for the Chief Marshal.”

His whipping done, Applegate lifted his rotundity out from behind Murray’s desk and made for the door without meeting his eyes. “Need to be on my way now, Robby. Lot’s to do today. Miles to go before I sleep and all that.” But at the door, Applegate paused, turned, and looked back at Robert Murray; the Giant of the Senate looking down at this mouse of an alderman.

“Oh, one last thing before I go,” Applegate began. “I don’t suppose you know where The Colonel’s son has gone off to? He should be back on the peninsula with the rest of Major K’s graduates, but he’s not. He seems to have gone missing.”

“Not like Major K to lose anything, much less one of his students.”

“Indeed not. Not unless losing something was his purpose,” Applegate retorted. His eyes still looked into Murray’s for an answer. A man doesn’t spend a lifetime in politics without learning how to sniff out a lie. Fortunately for Murray, he didn’t have to lie.

“I have no idea where the son is at.”

Applegate saw the truth, and he accepted it. He left Murray alone.

Murray was no statesman. He had entered politics not to satisfy any grand ambitions, but because of a lack of them. Even so, he was no dummy. He knew how the game worked. Perry Applegate didn’t make off-hand remarks or ask questions that weren’t rehearsed one hundred times in advance. The ‘priorities’ weren’t the priorities at all. Those were the ‘nice to haves,’ which meant that the priority was the ‘off-hand’ question asked at the end. Which meant Perry Applegate wanted to know where The Colonel’s son was. Which also meant that Chief Marshal Gorman wanted to know where The Colonel’s son was.

Murray collapsed into the leather chair behind his desk. It was still warm from its recent occupation by Applegate's considerable ass. "Well, ****," Murray grumbled aloud to himself. For a man whose number one priority was to do nothing, this morning was off to a terrible start. Not only was he not getting rip-roaring drunk to celebrate New Sparta's victory over Gomorrah, but it also looked like the political crisis he feared was about to unfold. Murray didn’t like the idea of being swept up in this game. His conscious, the one that accused him of being a coward, might also compel him to do something noble. Things that were noble were often also things which were stupid, in Murray's opinion. Doing the noble thing was an excellent way to get yourself sent across the river.

“****,” Murray mumbled aloud to his still empty office. His world just took the first descending step into hell, and he hadn’t even had his breakfast yet.
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Old 06-07-2018, 08:49 PM
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Riveting as usual, Thank You for all of your work.
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Old 06-07-2018, 09:01 PM
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Thanks for the new post... Good story!

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Old 06-09-2018, 08:02 AM
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Default Chapter 7

She’s a good-hearted woman in love with a good-timin’ man
She loves him in spite of his wicked ways that she don’t understand
Waylon Jennings, Good Hearted Woman

The Crown Prince

“What have you done with my son,” The Colonel’s widow asked the Crown Prince. Her name was Elizabeth. Her manners reflected that queenly name, and while she was dressed for mourning, she did not seem the least bit unsettled by her husband’s passing. It was almost as if she expected it, which she had. She had no foreknowledge of her husband’s intent and was in no way a co-conspirator, although those accusations would certainly come later. She was a woman who knew who and what her husband was. Knowing that made her love him all the more. Like her husband, she was unrelenting when matters required. The issue most on her mind was not grieving for her husband, but the safety of their one and only child.

She and the Crown Prince both sat in the Crown Prince’s basement office. It was located in the center of the Emerald City, New Sparta’s capital, and not much more than a stone’s throw from the office/tower of Chief Marshal Gorman. This office was the antithesis of the Chief Marshal’s, just as the Crown Prince himself was the antithesis of Gorman. The Chief Marshal’s office was beautiful, but sterile, like a museum exhibit. The Crown Prince’s office had all the beauty and sterility of a mop closet. The Crown Prince occupied a basement office. Gorman occupied the top of the structure once called the Space Needle. Everything in Gorman's office was neat, orderly, organized. The Prince's office looked like the space of some eccentric and disorganized college professor. Every horizontal surface was littered with papers, dust-covered books, cups of old and stale coffee, a few bottles of moldering tobacco spit. In one corner stood a black, pump-action shotgun, the Prince’s weapon of choice. A head injury from long ago made it difficult for him to properly aim a rifle. The scars from that injury stretched down his bald head and around one cheek. On the cluttered desk stood a framed photograph of the Crown Prince with The Colonel, the only obviously sentimental item here amongst all the clutter.

The Crown Prince answered the Colonel’s widow.

“Your son is safe. Beyond that, I cannot answer.”

“Cannot, or will not? There is a distinction between the two.”

“Cannot,” The Crown Prince answered. The answer was true, and Elizabeth saw it as such. She tapped her nails on the arm of her chair, once, twice, thrice.

“If you cannot tell me, then it is because you used a cut-out. One of your friends, of which there are very few.” She tapped her fingers again. She was a beautiful woman, even in her age, and a no nonsense one. Never one to mince her words, the death of her husband and the risk to her son removed whatever few governors her tongue might have once had.

"For a man who is supposed to be a political power, I must say you are doing it all wrong. The idea is to increase your network of friends and relations, and thus increase your power. Instead, you sit here in your cave, brooding." She sighed and rolled her eyes. "Of course, you probably learned that from my late husband."

“Your son is safe,” The Crown Prince repeated.

"Yes, you said that already. I lost my husband, not my hearing." She cocked her head, paused, and asked, "So who is he with? You haven't many friends. I expect half the people in this city would sell my son to Gorman for a wooden nickel. And the other half would give him away for free." She cocked her head again, reading the Crown Prince as if she were a soothsayer or a telepath. The Crown Prince, was no meek personality himself, but he felt uneasy under the weight of Elizabeth’s reproachful glare.

“Oh lord. You’ve put him under the care of that old drunkard, haven’t you?”

“He’s not drinking now,” The Crown Prince answered. “And he won’t start up again. Not while he’s with your son.”

“What makes you so sure of that?”

“Retirement didn’t suit him,” The Crown Prince said. He could have added, “Like somebody else I knew,” but did not. “The old ranger needed a mission just as badly as your son needed to get out of town. Besides, the safest place for your son is outside New Sparta. There’s only one other Spartan who knows the wastelands half as good as he.”

“And I trust you and he have compartmentalized your information to the point that one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing?”

“Of course we have. And because that information is compartmentalized, it makes it impossible for anybody here to betray your son, willingly or unwillingly. Even you. Gorman’s no fool. He won’t hesitate to use anyone to get to your son. That ‘anyone’ includes you.”

“I’ve considered that.” Her eyes rose from the prince and made a circuit of his office as she spoke. “Marshal Gorman always saw himself as some statesman-warrior. His vision was to end the war with Gomorrah by some grand diplomatic move; a historic reconciliation brought about solely by the force of his presence and strength of his will. He saw such a move as the foundation of his legacy and thus the path to his immortality. His name would be forever etched into history as the greatest of peacemakers; the man who brought Gomorrah and New Sparta together through the power of his own greatness.

“But his hope of immortality was destroyed when my husband walked into the enemy capital with a bomb on his back and destroyed the place. My husband didn’t just kill Doctor Chosen and the High Council. He killed Chief Marshal’s dreams of immortality. Now the Chief Marshal will want his revenge. The most immediate target is The Colonel’s only child, my son.”

The Crown Prince nodded. “None of that escaped me. You can be assured that taking measures to protect your son has been my only priority since the explosion.”

“Who else is with him, or did you send him off with just that oiled-up old fool for company?”

“Friends. Friends who will keep him safe. People with no love for the Chief Marshal.”

“You and Major K up to your old tricks again,” she asked.

“Major K is no friend of Marshal Gorman, and he is incorruptible. A true Untouchable. Gorman has nothing the major wants. Were Gorman to offer him something, he’d probably refuse it outright just to be obstinate.”

“That cyborg is stubborn as a mule.”

“He may be stubborn, yes,” The prince said. “But he is the most loyal alley we have. He’ll die for his principals. And he’s a fighter too, obviosuly.”

“Principals. That makes him a minority in this city," she said. "This place is entirely populated by quislings and toadies. Anyone of them would slit my son's throat for a promotion or a shiny new medal to wear on their chest."

“Don’t be so pessimistic. You husband had his followers as well,” The prince offered. She shot him a look that was quite fierce.

“His remaining loyalists are all in the field, the ones who did not go on their own Last Marches. His people are not in the capital and never were. If they had been, my husband would have been Chief Marshal, and this nonsense would have ended long ago, and on better terms." She sighed. Then focused the considerable weight of her eyes on the Crown Prince.

“If I can’t see my own son, then who can I see?”

“Who would you like to see?”

“I’m told he saved a family in the wastelands. Saved a baby? Delivered the baby by his own hand?”

“You heard true. They are here in the Emerald City. Would you like to see them?”

“I would.”

“I’ll arrange it then.”

Elizabeth smiled. “Just like my husband, to interrupt his suicide mission of blowing up an entire city to deliver a single baby, the child of some family he had never met before. For all his exterior hardness, he had his sentimentality. That sentimentality was perhaps his undoing. He’d fought and killed and burned, ordered men to their death and caused ruin his entire life. The one thing he couldn’t do was let the war go on. Even so, by destroying the High Council and finishing one war he will probably end up starting another. My husband destroyed half his enemies when he blew up The Bay. The other half are still alive, running about here in the capital. By destroying one set, I fear he only made the other half more powerful." She shook her head in disapproval and then said, “I believe my husband blew up the wrong city.”

The Crown Prince stole a glance at the framed photo on his desk, then back to Elizabeth. “Don't be so harsh. Like I said, your husband had supporters too. Many believe in him and in what he did. Major K for one. Kelly for another. None of those who were actually fighting this war wanted it to last forever. You can only send men in to fight the same battles so many times.”

“My husband had his supporters, few as they are. But as I said most are not here, in the seat of government. Here in the capital things are different. Who stays behind in the capital when men of principal and conviction march off to the field to fight? Who remains behind to put on suits and circulate amongst the parlors and bureaucratic halls? Most people here did not support the Chief Marshal and did not support my husband. Most people here support nothing, believe in nothing and will fight for nothing. They exist, but they are nothing. They are dead, dry leaves on a country road; they’ll go wherever the wind blows them.

“And right now, the wind blows in favor of the Chief Marshal. You would do well to remember that.”

Elizabeth had had enough of this conversation, and so she ended it. “Please arrange my meeting with that family as soon as possible. She rose to leave. The Crown Prince spoke.

“Once again, I’m sorry for your loss,” The Crown Prince said.

"Young man," she said. "You do not need to feel sorry for my loss, because I do not feel sorry for my loss. Even as a girl I was never any starry-eyed waif. I knew the man I married. I’m a woman of New Sparta. That my husband would die in combat was something I prepared for long ago. We all know the saying, ‘With your shield, or on it.’ Such sayings were not mere words to the man I loved and married. They are not mere words to me either. You think I mourn the fact that he died destroying what he hated and to protect what he loved? I do not mourn his death. I celebrate it, even if I may be the only one. And the fact that he pursued his mission to the end, alone, daring what others dared not… well my Crown Prince, that makes me love him even more. I might be dressed in black, but inside I am rejoicing.

“The man who walked into The Bay is the man I married, the man I loved. I never could have loved him if he hadn’t been one to commit that last defiant act. But a wife’s love for her husband is different from a mother’s love for her only child. Now I must look to the next mission, and that is my son. My son. First to keep him safe. Then, to destroy the man who threatens him.”

“Going after Gorman right now, in that way, I think, is neither warranted nor helpful in any way. The idea is to contain this crisis. Not let it escalate out of control."

She smiled at the Crown Prince. It was the pitying smile one might give to a fool.

“You’re wrong. There is no way this ends well with the Chief Marshall still alive.”
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Old 06-10-2018, 03:58 PM
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Yup, that last sentence sums it all up.
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Old 06-10-2018, 06:12 PM
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Great story! Adding a fierce Mother will certainly bring more intrigue.

Thanks for sharing this with us.

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Old 06-10-2018, 08:58 PM
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Really enjoying this.
Many thanks.
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Old 06-23-2018, 01:31 AM
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So, Sharkman, are you writing as you go or posting chapters as you will? Just curious because I REALLY want to read the second book( as well as find out when the Colonel's son hooks up with Cora. I mean, COME ON, a hot redhead in skintight leather pants with the Marine Corps scouting and patrolling in one pocket, and the Ranger handbook in the other? If she were only real.....)
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Old 06-25-2018, 07:03 AM
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Originally Posted by DisgruntledPatriot View Post
So, Sharkman, are you writing as you go or posting chapters as you will? Just curious because I REALLY want to read the second book( as well as find out when the Colonel's son hooks up with Cora. I mean, COME ON, a hot redhead in skintight leather pants with the Marine Corps scouting and patrolling in one pocket, and the Ranger handbook in the other? If she were only real.....)
I've got a lot of chapters already written, but they are not all connected. So basically I'm writing as I go. When we get towards the end things will go faster.

I also just moved. So my writing time has been interrupted by the need to hang pictures and move furniture.
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Old 06-27-2018, 09:58 PM
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Default Chapter 8

I’m gonna tell Aunt Mary ‘bout Uncle John
He claims he has the misery, but he has a lot of fun
Oh baby, yeah baby
Ooh baby, havin’ me some fun tonight, yeah

Little Richard Long Tall Sally

Colt: Part I
The aircraft headed south and the day slipped into night. No streetwise infantryman ever passes up a chance to sleep, and so most of the party did just that. Lefranc was the first to rack out. After talking with the pilots, he stretched out on the aircraft’s deck, using his small pack as a pillow. However many years the old sniper might have been out of the saddle, he reverted back to grunt mode quickly and was asleep instantly. The others soon followed, unbuckling from their seats and stretching out. Doc threw down his medical pack to use it as a pillow. Ajax stretched out on the decking of the aircraft after first placing his machinegun at his side on its unfolded bipod. He knitted his hands together on his broad chest and was quickly out. Christian, the filthy animal that he was, produced an energy drink from somewhere and downed it in a single go. That done, he removed a camouflage poncho liner from his ruck, swaddled himself, and soon was also fast asleep. As he slumbered, drool mixed with some final brown hints of tobacco spit dribbled down his chin. Even the one-armed kid drifted off. It was then that Colt, son of The Colonel and great-grandson of the Hammer, was left alone with his thoughts.

Colt looked like his father, just as the pilot called Sleazy had said. He had that same long, lean, gunfighter look. When he stood, his long arms hung naturally at where a pistol would be, if he carried one. His green speckled eyes had the same predatory aspect to them. But these eyes weren't quite as hard as his father's, at least not yet. If eyes are windows, then these eyes revealed an amount of sympathy his father had not possessed. Whether or not that sympathy would survive adventures into the vast badlands of Gomorrah, or the machinations and schemes of the Chief Marshal, only time would tell.

It was only natural that sleep, which had so quickly embraced his new companions, eluded Colt. The situation was much and more for a man of his young age to handle. His father wasn’t just dead, but dead after undertaking an unauthorized, one-man suicide mission which involved nuking the enemy capital. Such an act might have made the elder man a hero. Instead, Colt’s father was persona non grata, an enemy to such an extent that Colt had to be spirited out of his homeland in secret, lest the son be punished for the sins of the father. Days ago, he had his whole life ahead of him; he was graduating as a Knight of Sparta, he was about to receive his commission and carry on the family legacy. Now he was what? An outlaw? Renegade? As disturbing as that was, Colt could accept the idea that he needed to leave New Sparta. Less easy to deal with was the idea that his companions from the Knights Course were being forced along with him. Ajax, Doc, and Christian; they had all spent the last year living together and training together. They were the proverbial company who enjoyed all the misery that Major K dealt out. They were forged in the fires of what was almost certainly the toughest military training of the modern age. But his teammate had lives they wanted to live too. They had dreams and aspirations, the frustratingly sweet burdens of families, legacies to build. At least they all had before Major K loaded them onto the Griffin aircraft and sent them away. Colt didn’t want them here, tied to his own fate, condemned to join him in… what? He did not know.

Such thoughts were disconcerting to put it mildly. But as unsettling as they were there was nothing Colt could do about them, at least not now. One could sit on their ass brooding forever, or they could do something productive. Outside the aircraft's bubble windows, the sky went from blue, to gold, to purple and finally to the deep and dark blue of midnight. Colt decided to do something productive. He unbuckled from his seat and took stock of the aircraft’s cargo.

In addition to the passengers, Sleazy’s Griffin aircraft carried two trucks. These were militarized light pickup trucks, both parked facing out towards the Griffin’s rear cargo ramp. They were nothing extravagant. They weren’t armored or armed, aside from the pedestals in the backs for mounting machineguns or other crew served weapons. These trucks were built to move. They were light and rugged, designed to range across the dystopian landscapes of North America. Each pickup was packed full of the gear needed for a long expedition. The beds were full of cardboard cartons of rations, jugs of water, metal cans of ammunition, pre-formed cases of rubberized plastic full of communications gear, medical bags, rockets in disposable fiberglass tubes, brand new uniforms and boots still in their plastic wrappers, spare tires, tools, explosives in canvas satchels, more food, and the expedition member’s own packs. These latter items were olive drab monsters, packed so full they looked like they might explode. There were also more pre-formed cases buried beneath all the rest. These held radiation testing equipment. That made sense, Colt figured. He overheard Lefranc say to the pilot that they'd be going past the site of the nuclear explosion. Each truck, packed to near overflowing, was set up in a way that made sense except for one thing. Both vehicles also contained several black bags of trash. It was the kind of trash one would expect troops to generate in the field; items like old ration wrappers, expended reactive chemical lights, old plastic bottles filled with moldering tobacco spit, dead batteries, scraps of old green duct tape and lengths of parachute cord too short to be useful. That didn’t make much sense to Colt. Why bring garbage into the field? Colt glanced up to where Lefranc was sleeping. If the old man wanted to bring trash out into the field, then he must have a good reason for it. Colt was willing to accept the older warrior’s abilities as a matter of faith, at least for now.

After making his circuit of the vehicles, Colt saw that the kid with one arm was awake. He sat upright in his folding jump seat, cleaning his submachine gun. This kid was about the same age as Colt and the other Spartan Knights. He was very early twenties. He didn’t wear the same hazy gray/green/brown/nothing-dust colored fatigues as the Spartan Knights. Instead, he wore a completely black utility uniform. A warfare pin on the uniform chest depicted a sword crossed with a quill pen over a burning lamp. A patch on one shoulder depicted the heraldic shield of the general staff.

Colt and his three teammates were familiar with each other. Lefranc, although older to the point of being ancient by the standards of men in their early twenties, was still obviously a veteran grunt and thus bore a familiarity with the others. This new guy was the odd man out. An unknown “other,” wearing a different uniform, the badge of a rear-echelon entity, and with a deformed stump for an arm. If the idea was to pick somebody different than all the others, this kid with his single arm was more than a good start. Still, if he was here, then he was here for a reason. Colt was willing to also accept that as an article of faith. Wherever they were going, it wouldn’t do to have one member on the outside looking in. He went over to the one-armed man and introduced himself.

"My name's Robins," the young man said. He set down his submachine gun and offered up his one and only hand. Colt shook it and glanced over the weapon. It was a squat, dark gray weapon that took magazines up through the pistol grip. Robins wore spare magazines in pouches arranged across his chest. The magazines were made of smoky gray plastic, transparent enough to see the bullets inside.

“You all just graduated from the Knights Course,” Robins said. This was not a question, but a statement of fact. Colt nodded agreement.

“I just graduated from the Operational Planners Course,” Robins said next. His eyes were light brown, and they simultaneously held both intelligence and melancholy. His voice had an awkward amiability to it. It was like Robins wanted to be friendly, but didn’t quite know how. Colt didn’t need to risk another glance at the stump to know a few things about Robins. A child born missing an arm wasn’t in for an easy go of it, even less so born into a militocracy like New Sparta, where a high premium was placed on physical prowess. Colt also quickly surmised that Robins was both highly intelligent, and academically inclined. Those weren’t bad things, but combined with self-consciousness about missing an arm and what was probably an already awkward nature, well… Colt guessed that Robins was the kind of guy who had a hard time with people. Not that Robins was difficult to work with. Colt guessed that Robins was actually a hard worker and probably did his share and more at any given task. But Colt also guessed that Robins was the guy who spent a lot of time alone. When liberty was sounded, Robins was the kind of guy who remained behind in the barracks, sitting on his bunk and reading, uninvited while others went out together. Robins was the kind of person who sat in a far corner of the chow hall, the nearest other diners sitting three or four chairs away if they sat at the same table at all.

Colt made a knife-hand motion to the seat next to Robins. Robins nodded, and Colt sat down in it.

“Operational Planners Course,” Colt began. “Is that as tough as I heard it is?”

Robins picked his submachine gun again and using his one good arm and the stump of the other reassembled the weapon with a dexterity that was impressive. Robins pursed his lips together and swished them around before speaking. It was a tick of his, and Colt would see it again many times when Robins was about to say something of note.

“To put it in the context of an earlier time, the Operational Planner Course is like a combination of all the old professional military education schools. Its career course, command and staff, war college and capstone all rolled into one and compressed into a year. This is not even for the officers mind you, this is what you have to go through just to be a clerk or a coffee fetcher.

“You get to drink a lot of coffee on the staff,” Colt interrupted. Robins smiled.

"Nobody in New Sparta gets to drink a lot of coffee, not the real stuff anyway. It's all chicory and energy drinks. Easier to get sugar and B vitamins than real coffee. You know what's ironic? The headquarters building for what used to be the biggest coffee company in the world is now the headquarters of the general staff. But you can't get a cup of coffee, a real cup I mean, not chicory or some other ersatz stuff except maybe six, seven times a year.”

Robins stopped speaking, looked at Colt conspiratorially and said. “I’m digressing, but coffee is my one and only weakness." After saying this, he made a show of looking at his stump of an arm, then looked back up at Colt and grinned. Colt grinned back.

“Anyway,” Robins continued. “The Operational Planner Course was designed to take the smart kids and see just how smarter they could get. One instructor said the goal was to turn human brains into organic computers. Another said it made Jesuit prep school look like a kindergarten finger-painting class. You know who the Jesuits were?”

“Yeah,” Colt answered. “They were guys who didn’t put up with a lot of ****.”

“Right,” Robins said. “I don't know about that, but I do know a lot of smart kids showed up and a lot of them did not graduate.
Colt watched as the stump held down the compact subgun while the good hand inserted the bolt and bolt carrier, compress springs and lock pins into place. Colt asked, “If these kids are all so smart, how is it some didn’t graduate?”

“It is not a question of intelligence, but of effort, of putting in the hours. Every student selected for the course was smart. Top of their class type smart. These were people used to being the smartest one in the room, and thus they were used to getting by on just their smarts alone. That worked in most settings, but when everybody in the class is brilliant, then it isn't just about who's the smartest. Then it comes down to who is putting the work in. It is not a matter of intelligence, but who is willing to outwork the other guy.” Robins pursed his lips together and made that swishing motion. Then added, “It is not a battle of wits, but a battle of wills.”
Colt nodded understanding. Robins, his submachine gun now fully assembled, clipped the weapon into a sling across his chest.

“How did you lose your arm,” Colt asked next.

“I did not lose it. I was born without it,” Robins answered. “Birth defect. Bad genes I guess.” Robins voice now took on a melancholy tone. Colt also had the sense that Robins was used to people being friendly to him not in a sincere way, but in a pitying way. Robins was always the odd man out. He knew it. Other people knew it. And so, some would make an extra, and perhaps strained, effort to be kind and friendly to him. Given that Robins was one of the sharper knives in the drawer, he could separate the genuine efforts of friendship from the efforts that were made out of pity, or professional obligation, or self-interest.

“Lots of Spartan’s lost arms and legs in the wars. Prosthetics are pretty good, from what I’ve heard. Why don’t you have one?”

"I do," Robins replied, and he gave a quick point with his chin to his own rucksack. "It's in there, along with another prosthetic of my own design."

“You designed your own prosthetic?”

“I just built on an existing design, really. Took a prosthetic arm and added an attachment to it to make it easier to operate this thing.” Robins patted the submachinegun across his chest.

“Why don’t you wear them?”

"I sometimes do, when I need to. But, like I said, I didn't lose my arm in combat. I was born without it." Robins shrugged then said, "To me, wearing those always felt like cheating."

Out of the corner of his eye, Colt saw Lefranc sit upright, shake himself awake, and then stand. He made the grumbles and groans of an old man beset with an old man’s stiff joints and aches. Then Lefranc ambled into the cockpit, his sniper rifle in hand. Colt and Robins exchanged glances and eyed the cockpit carefully. A few minutes the crew chief came up from the back of the aircraft, and he also crammed himself into the cockpit. Not long after that, the Griffin’s engines changed their pitch and tone. Slowing. Descending.

Colt snapped his fingers twice. The eyes of his three team members, Ajax, Christian, and Doc, instantly flashed awake. They made alternate glances from Colt seated along the bulkhead, to the entrance of the cockpit. After a minute or so the crew chief came out. Lefranc followed and said, “ten minutes.”

Colt and the others sprang into action. Each jumped up and stuffed anything they’d taken out back into their packs. Ajax climbed into the back of the second vehicle. Its weapons pedestal empty, he mounted his own machine gun in its cradle. Lefranc tossed his own pack into the first vehicle. Colt approached him.

“Where are we?”

“Southeast of the Bay. The old Central Valley. Desert country.”

“Where are we going?”

“Deeper into the desert,” Lefranc answered flatly.

“We inserting fast?”

LeFranc shook his head to indicate the negative. “Slow.”

“We can do a fast insert. We’ve done them before.”

“I know, but no need to get fancy,” LeFranc said. “We’ll land and drive off like gentlemen. Nobody is out here but us.”

“How do you know that?”

“I know,” LeFranc grumbled. “Ain’t no water. Get your people ready to go. You, me and the grenadier will ride in the first vehicle. Doc and the other can join the big guy in the second."

“Roger. I’ll drive,” Colt offered.

“The hell you will,” Lefranc replied.

Stacked in the corner of the aircraft where several dozen cans of energy drinks laid out on cardboard trays. Christian grabbed two, one in each fist, and downed them. Then he went to a member of the aircraft crew and after a brief conversation, lifted up the whole stack of energy drinks and dumped them into the back of the first truck. In the bed of the second vehicle, Ajax ripped open a black plastic trash bag and rummaged through the contents.

“What the hell are you doing,” Doc asked.

“Looking for some cherry flavored beverage powder.”

“Dude. You know we have like a couple dozen cases of rations. You don’t have to go digging through the trash.”

“Yeah, well,” The big machine gunner protested half-heartedly. He found a half-eaten cracker packet and held it aloft triumphantly. Then he dumped the contents into his mouth, shrugged off Doc’s disapproval, then went back to his cherry flavored inspired search. Doc shook his head in disgust. Christian watched the exchange as he checked over a satchel full of explosives. He reached in a pocket, pulled out a pouch of tobacco, and popped in a mouthful. The kid with one arm was checking the sub-machinegun magazines in his vest. Christian offered him some chaw, but the cripple declined. Instead, he moved over to the passenger door of the second vehicle.
Brady, the crew chief, waved his arms to get everybody’s attention. “Two minutes,” Brady yelled out. He held up the obligatory two fingers in a victory sign, his hand encased in a glove of green Nomex. The other aircrew members worked loose the cargo straps that held the vehicles in place. The adventurers climbed into their trucks. Lefranc and Doc in the driver’s seats, Christian and Ajax manned the weapons stations in the back, and Colt and Robins rode shotgun. The interior lights of the cargo bay dimmed aside from a bulbous red light near the cargo ramp.

The engines whined. Inside the lead vehicle, Colt felt the aircraft’s velocity change. He looked over at the bearded sniper who was the Crown Prince’s agent. Lefranc’s face was impassive until Christian reached down into the truck's cabin and offer a chaw of tobacco. Lefranc gladly accepted.

The aircraft slowed further. The crew chief yelled over the din of the engines.

“One minute. Lock and load,” The crew chief announced. He mimicked chambering a round on an imaginary rifle.

On the back deck of the vehicles, Ajax and Christian worked the bolt on the machineguns on their pedestal mounts and chambered a round. Robins, who kept his compact submachinegun slung across his chest, swung it over to one side and pinned it with his stump. With his free hand he drew a magazine and, with a movement that might have seen awkward had he not obviously practiced it thousands of times, he loaded his weapon and chambered a round. Then the one-armed clerk drew his pistol from his holster and, dragged it across his gear so that the pistol’s slide caught and chambered a round.

Colt made his carbine condition one, then pulled back the bolt to conduct a brass check, just to be sure.

“Thirty seconds,” The crew chief yelled. The dim lights inside the Griffin’s cargo bay went out. The whole aircraft groaned as it transitioned from forward flight into a vertical descent. Another member of the aircrew took up a position near the loading ramp and threw a switch. The ramp opened up revealing a night sky swept with the swirling winds of the prop wash. The crew chief made another motion with his hand, a mime of turning a key in an ignition. The engines on both vehicles simultaneously roared to life.

Inside the cockpit, Sleazy and his copilot surveyed the landing site, using their eyes, their instruments, and their sensors, while Brady called out instructions from the back deck. The second Griffin circled overhead, scanning for trouble, weapons ready. Sleazy completed his descent a few feet at a time. Lower, lower, it dropped. Colt reached up and lowered his night vision glasses. They looked like nothing more than a thick set of the sport sunglasses worn by the American warriors who proceeded him. The world went awash in shades of luminous green.

The aircraft dropped one last foot, and they all felt first the ramp, then the landing gear hit the deck. The crew chief took a quick look outside to verify they were indeed on the deck, then gave another signal with his hand. A light beside the loading ramp flashed from red to green and both vehicles accelerated, speeding out of the aircraft and into the night, and the unknown. As soon as the rear wheels of the second truck cleared the ramp, the Griffin lifted back up and joined its companion in the night sky. Together they circled the area once, then turned back to the north and left six Spartans alone in the apocalyptic desert.
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Default Chapter 8 Part II

Colt took in his surroundings. They were on a road of broken asphalt at an exit off the interstate freeway that ran from north to south along the old country’s West Coast. From the passenger seat Colt spied several old buildings made of cinder blocks. There were the remains of a couple of gas stations and fast food restaurants, each one crumbling. The glass was smashed out of all the windows, and the doors all kicked in by scavengers. The huge signs that once advertised these businesses to approaching cars on the freeway had long since tumbled to the ground. One, a white and red giant made from plastic, lay face up and flat on the ground as if it now advertised to the passing clouds. It’s broken surface now only spoke an incomplete “Dairy Q.” The unused parking lots sprouted desert weeds. Behind a few of the cinder block buildings lay the final remains of a hotel. Someone had put it to the flame long ago, and now it was just the charred skeleton of a building. Only the thicker timbers remained, standing upright and arranged like blackened ribs. In its parking lot was a Kenworth semi which had inexplicably been flipped over to lay on the roof of its cab. Its wheels with their rotting tires seemed to kick skyward like a dying insect’s legs.

“Where are we,” Colt asked Lefranc.

“The Panoche,” Lefranc responded. “Old California.”

Colt watched Lefranc. The old man scanned the night sky for the North Star. Upon finding it, the old sniper oriented on the other constellations in the midnight blue sky, measuring their positions with raised fingers which represented units of mils. Once satisfied, he led the two-vehicle convoy out of the ruins and to the west, where there were no more buildings, ruined or otherwise. All there was, was the rolling hills of the high desert, washed green in the Spartan’s night vision. The broken asphalt road transitioned to gravel. Then it transitioned to dirt. In the back of the truck, Christian scanned the terrain from behind his machine gun.

The track Lefranc led them on ran across rolling hills, each swept with dry grass and desert scrub. To the north and south stood ridgelines. Both were tall and ran from east to west. No one talked, not even Colt. From the passenger seat, he scanned the landscape through his night vision glasses. Skinny jackrabbits scattered before the convoy. The vehicles rumbled along, passing abandoned cattle tanks, crossing knocked over fences of rusted barbed wire. They passed a wooden corral, its tumbledown timbers sun bleached and dry as sand.

“Not far now,” Lefranc spoke. Colt couldn’t tell if the old man was speaking to him, or only to himself. They crossed over onto a long-abandoned dirt road that turned up of the ridges. It was just the trace of a road really. Two tire ruts barely noticeable in the scrub. The slope of the ridge was gentle, and the trucks climbed it easily. Three-quarters of the way up they stopped. There was a spot where the slope of the ascending ridge flatted out a bit and then depressed into a bowl shape before rising again. Lefranc circled this area for a bit, the way a dog might circle its bedding once or twice before laying down. Then Lefranc parked. Doc brought the second truck in and parked facing out, so the tailgates of the two trucks nearly touched. The engines went quiet.

“We walk in from here,” Lefranc said.

“Walk to where,” Colt asked. From their perch they could look down into the valley and along the face of the ascending ridge on the other side. At the bottom of the valley ran a line of thick vegetation which marked the trace of what was now a dry creek bed. This creek bed hugged a cliff face that eventually sloped back into the opposite ridgeline. Lefranc made a motion for everybody to get out. They assembled in a circle where the trucks’ tailgates met. Lefranc spoke.

“From here we walk in. You four,” he said, indicating the newly minted Spartan knights, still wearing their tattered rags of uniforms from the Knights Course. “New uniforms and boots in the trucks. Change out of those and throw them in here.” Lefranc held out a black plastic garbage bag, which Doc took from him. Lefranc dropped one of the tailgates so its surface could be used as a table.

“Before you do that though, go through your gear. Put anything and everything that can send a signal and anything and everything that can receive a signal here. And I mean everything. Navigation devices, radios, everything. If it sends or receives a signal, then it goes.”

Lefranc looked at Doc, his gaze piercing. “You have a Digi-doc?” A Digi-doc was a computer tablet, ruggedized for use in the field and designed to connect to a patient and assist with patient care.

“I do,” Doc answered.

“Give it up.”

Doc reached into a pouch on his gear and removed his electronic assistant, grumbling the whole time. “How am I can do my job without this?”

“You just graduated the Knights Course. You shouldn’t need some gizmo to do your ****ing job,” Lefranc answered with angry contempt. He set Doc’s table down with the other electronic devices.

“How are we supposed to navigate without our handhelds,” Ajax asked incredulously. It was less a legitimate question than a whine. Lefranc shot the big man a cold, hard look. To answer, Lefranc didn't speak a word but instead removed a compass from his pocket and held it up for all to see. Ajax blushed and asked no more questions. Once the contraband devices were all collected up, Lefranc continued.

“After you get changed, load up with all the food and water you can hump, and I do mean all you can hump. We’re not getting any resupply for a while and you four need all the calories you can get. From here head due North, 360 degrees magnetic across the valley. You see the line of vegetation at the bottom of the valley?”

The younger men didn’t speak, but all bobbed their heads in unison. Robins nodded too.

“That vegetation marks the trace of a creek bed. Its probably dry and nothing but sand now. On the opposite side of the creek bed a cliff rises up. If you hit it at 360 degrees, straight on and no deviations, you’ll see a hole halfway up the cliff. Who’s your point man?” This question was directed at Colt. Colt pointed to Christian.
“Don’t stray off course,” Lefranc ordered the grenadier.

“I never do,” Christian replied, and he flashed a grin that was half white teeth and half dribbling tobacco spit. Next, Lefranc reached into his pocket, removed something and tossed it to Ajax. The machine gunner caught it handily. It was a spare bolt for the lead truck’s machine gun.

“Swap it with that one,” Lefranc said, nodding towards his truck. Ajax turned the bolt over in his hand, carefully examining and frowning at its heft, which felt off. The machine gunner said, “This one isn’t going to work, is it?”

“It’ll work… for about half a burst. Then it won’t work.”

“Want me to keep that other bolt as a spare?”

“That’d be a good idea,” Lefranc answered. And now the old sniper raised his even older rifle and chambered a round. “You all have your orders. Carry them out. I’m gonna scout around first.” Soundlessly, Lefranc slipped out of the camp and into the darkness.

“What the ****,” Ajax finally said when he was certain Lefranc was out of earshot. Christian, who had stripped naked save for his boots and the rifle slung around his neck, shrugged. He was in the field, ‘grunting around and getting gungy’ as he liked to say, and he couldn’t be happier.

“Get dressed before the bugs get you,” Doc said, stripping down out of his own old uniform and tossing it into Lefranc’s garbage bag.

“I’ll take security,” Robins volunteered, trying to be both helpful and part of the conversation, trying to be part of the group. Ajax and Doc ignored him, but Colt nodded thanks.

“What the **** are we doing out here anyway,” Ajax complained.

“Ask him,” Doc said, indicating Colt. “His dad was the one that stole the bomb and blew up Gomorrah’s capital. Don’t think that isn’t what all this is about.”

“What I want to know,” Christian said loudly and forcibly, drawing all the attention on to himself and away from Colt, cutting off any further questions before they could be asked. “What I want to know is how we’re gonna hump all these cans of energy drinks across this valley." He paused and reflected on the terrain, his every movement an over-dramatic farce. As he did this he opened another can. The can itself was silver, with metallic stripes crossing its face to form a series of Xs. Beneath Christian's fingers the word, "Rip," was visible.

“You drink any more of those you’ll never get to sleep,” Doc said.

“You’re damn right I won’t,” Christian replied with his devilish grin.

“Let’s finish getting changed and load up,” Colt said. His authority to exercise command over this outfit was sketchy, especially with the retired Master Gunnery Sergeant Lefranc running around. Even so, the others changed out of their old fatigues while Robins kept watch from the bed of one of the trucks. After Ajax changed, he swapped out the bolt on the machinegun they were leaving with the vehicles.

They all stuffed their packs with all the rations they could fit inside. Doc took a collapsible stretcher off one of the trucks and unfolded it. Instead of loading it with a patient, they loaded it with water jugs. Christian, already carrying his carbine with grenade launcher, shotgun, and pack, grabbed another water jug and carried it in his free hand. The others arranged themselves on the stretcher. When Robins took up position at the last free space on the back, he looked down to the stretcher, then up at his missing arm, which was aligned against the open handle. Then he looked over at Ajax, wordlessly asking to switch positions. Ajax made a show of huffing and rolling his eyes, but he switched places.

They set off across the valley, Christian in the lead, with the other four moving the stretcher full of gear. Between the weight of the stretcher and the weight of their packs, each step was soon an agony. Nobody complained though, not even Robins, who shuffled along unbalanced but still carrying his share of the burden. They stopped a few times along the way, with everybody except for Robins switching positions on the stretcher to give their arms and shoulders a break. At last they came to the creek bed.

The creek bed was deep, deceptively so. The banks abruptly dropped to a depth four times the height of a man. The bed was all sand and river rock. It was dry, just as Lefranc said. Reeds, eight feet tall and yellow-green, swished lightly with the breeze. They dropped the stretcher and continued single-file weaving through the reeds and across the sand. From beyond the veil of grass and out of the midnight blue haze of the night sky the cliff face emerged. Its color was an earthy red, vibrant enough to be seen even with only the stars for illumination. The course Christian set must have been true, for two-thirds of the way up the cliff, set into the red was a perfect circle of the darkest black.

“We’ve got ourselves a cave,” Doc said. He looked up at it, almost in awe. On closer examination, the tunnel was actually a pipe, maybe ten feet in diameter. Its lip sat flush with the cliff face.

Colt gave Christian a “go-ahead” nod. Christian dropped his pack and carbine, took up his short shotgun and slung it, then climbed up to the tunnel to clear its entrance. The others watched. Ajax unslung his machinegun and held it at the ready should he need to put it to use. After a few minutes, Christian popped his head out of the tunnel. He spoke in a kind of loud whisper.

"Clear. Nobody's been in here for a long time. There's an inch of undisturbed dust on the floor."

“How deep does is it go,” Doc asked.

“Deep,” Christian answered.

“Let’s get the gear up there,” Colt said. They did just that. A few of them had lengths of ropes in their packs. They connected them together to make a longer rope and hauled the packs, cartons of rations, water jugs and other items into the tunnel. Once that was completed they climbed in the tunnel and stood there looking at each other.

“Any sign of the old man,” Ajax asked.

“I think you might not want to call him ‘old man,’” Doc said. “He hears you call him that again I think he’s liable to kick your stupid ass.”

“Maybe he got lost,” Ajax mused, ignoring Doc’s comments.

“He doesn’t strike me as the getting’ lost type,” Colt said. He looked out the mouth of the tunnel towards the ridgeline they descended with the gear. He was pretty sure from the mouth of the tunnel they were looking right back at the exact spot where they parked the trucks.

“We left all those energy drinks with the trucks. I think we need to go back and get them,” Christian said.

“You don’t need any more energy drinks,” Doc grumbled. “You get a kidney stone and I’m going to end up having to cut your **** open to get it out.”

“Good thing you brought a machete then,” Colt said grinning, pleased with his own joke.
"Master Guns said we were going to be here awhile," Colt said looking back in the direction of the trucks. "We left a lot of supplies back there. We should make a second run to max out our food and water. Let's get an inventory of how much we have now." Before anybody could move, Robins spoke up.

“We’ve got enough food to last two weeks. Longer if we ration, but, I don’t think the… the ‘old man’ wants us rationing. He mentioned you four need to eat and you are looking skinny. As for the water, what we have now might last us a week if we conserve. But conserving water will negatively impact your bodies’ ability to metabolize the food you do eat.”

The others either looked at Robins with no emotion whatsoever or looked at him like he was an insane person.

“Are you saying that you’re in favor of making a second trip,” Colt asked. Robins nodded. “Okay.”

Colt surveyed his crew. He wasn't keen on leaving the tunnel unguarded now that they had just occupied it. It was never a good idea to leave a man alone out here in the badlands, so leaving one man to stand guard meant leaving two. Robins, with his one arm, was the obvious candidate to leave behind. The question was who to pair with him. Colt couldn't help but notice how Ajax made a point of keeping his distance from the man. And whenever Robins spoke, Doc had the habit of looking in the opposite direction.

"Christian. You and Robins stay here and post security. The rest of us will empty out our packs and head back to the trucks." Colt checked the time, thought about when sunrise could be expected and did some quick math. He didn't want to be caught in the open when the sun came up.

“We need to hurry.”

“Don’t forget the energy drinks,” Christian said.

Hurry is what they did. They emptied their backs and set back off across the valley, Colt in the lead. When they got to the trucks they found Lefranc there, setting up some communications equipment. He had run out an antenna that was essentially a long, sloping wire aimed back towards the Emerald City. This was connected to a radio which in turn was connected to a computer.

“We came back for the rest of the supplies,” Colt said. Lefranc grunted as he worked over his radio equipment. He added, “Food and water. Leave the rest.”

Ajax looked over the cases of radiation monitoring equipment. Although he did not say it publicly, the idea of radiation terrified him. Colt knew why. “Should we bring any of this radiation stuff,” Ajax asked.

“Leave it,” Lefranc repeated.

Colt and Doc broke open some of the cardboard cartons and began stuffing rations into their packs. While they worked, Ajax stood frozen over the NBC gear, his head swinging from left to right. Finally, Ajax asked, "What about the Geiger counter?”

“We ain’t here to count no damn Geigers,” Lefranc hissed.

“Grab another water jug and some food,” Doc said his patience for his big friend worn out. “You’re the one who’s going to eat half of this anyways.”

Resigned, Ajax set to work, placing a water jug into his empty pack. Soon their packs were filled. They’d brought the stretcher with them and laid more water cans on it. When it was time to go, Colt and Doc each took a handle on the front, while Ajax carried the back end, his machinegun laid along the stretcher, so he could quickly grab it if needed. Just before they set out again, Colt caught Lefranc’s eyes. The man was kneeling and spreading some of the trash from one of the bags around the trucks.

“I’ll catch up,” Lefranc said. “You three better get moving. It’ll start getting light soon.” The three set out. The weight soon yanked down hard on already sore muscles. Each step became an agony that each bore silently. When they got to the mouth of the tunnel, Lefranc had caught up to them. The old man had a pack, his rifle, and a water can in each hand. Christian threw down the rope to haul up supplies. Colt massaged his shoulders and forearms, which screamed in pain from the exertion. Lefranc stood at his side, also looking spent from the trek. “How did you know about this place,” Colt asked.

“The LRG. I was on the Long Range Group for twenty years,” Lefranc answered. “We found all kinds of places like this.”

“How many?”

“More than enough.”

They all followed the supplies up into the tunnel. Lefranc was the last one up, staying behind long enough to circle the dry creek bed a few times to cover the tracks they had left in the dry sand. When Lefranc finally entered the tunnel, he found the five young faces looking at him, their countenances each asking questions.

“This tunnel was part of an irrigation project,” Lefranc began. He patted the tunnel’s wall, which was made from a single, huge, concrete pipe. The concrete was smooth as glass and cool to the touch. "Back when this was California, these pipes were supposed to run water all over the state. They were supposed to bring down water from the mountains, bring water up from the aquifers, and bring in desalinized water from the coast, and use it all to irrigate the farmland and keep the big cities in water. This was started before the protest, but it was never finished. There were a lot of pre-protest public work projects like this… things started but never finished." Lefranc made a sweeping gesture with his hand, indicating the tunnels but also indicating the broader issues they represented. He continued.

“Huge public work projects, grand in their scale and promise, all started but never completed. Kinda like the way a child will start a hobby but only take it so far, losing interest after a short time.”

Lefranc looked at Colt. “Money. ‘Billions of dollars,’ do you understand that phrase, ‘billions of dollars? You understand what it means?”

Colt nodded.

“This was billions of dollars,” Lefranc said, pointing down the tunnel. “Billions spent, taxed, shuffled around but never finished. Where this comes out, they laid the groundwork for a massive railroad project. A high-speed train system that was supposed to crisscross the state. They never finished that thing either.”

Now Colt pointed down the length of the tunnel. It seemed to go on forever, getting darker and more ominous every step of the way. If you followed the tunnel to its terminus you’d come out in China, or Kowloon, or the Caliphate, or the glowing hot gates of hell.

“How far does this run?”

“Far. It’ll take you just southwest of the old capital. Don’t go exploring though, not without me. There are branches and forks and turns. These tunnels are complex enough you could get lost and wander forever.”

“Is this place on any map,” Colt asked.

“It ain’t on the map,” Christian said. Lefranc nodded confirmation with Christian’s statement.

“No, it ain't. Ain't on any map, and ain't nobody knows about this place ‘less they been here."

“And how many have been here,” Colt asked.

“Not many who are still alive and kicking,” Lefranc answered. “Even the Crown Prince doesn’t know about this place. C’mon, let’s get unpacked and settled in. We’re going to be here for a while.”

That seemed to be all the information the young knights needed, at least for now. Their curiosity settled they went about arranging packs, unloading equipment, checking and testing their weapons and gear. Lefranc drifted to the mouth of the tunnel and cradled the old rifle it his arms. The smooth wood felt warm against his skin. The metal of the barrel cool in a pleasant, refreshing way. The smell of the gun oil rose to his nostrils and was welcomed. The old man watched as Christian arrange some squat, green, anti-personnel mines in a neat row. He watched as Doc stood some collapsible rockets against the tunnel wall. He watched them set about the mundane tasks of the common grunt, actions he’d seen performed a thousand times before. Actions that produced little excitement but in the right moment could prove fatal to either themselves or their enemy. The simple unpacking of ammo and rations, the unrolling of a bedroll, the function checking of a machine gun; these all raised in Lefranc a certain sense of nostalgia.

For the first time in a long time, Lefranc was smiling. The smile was concealed by his bushy red and grey beard, but it was there. He kept his joy secreted away, hidden from these new charges, but it was there. He was a grunt, back in the field, and back on campaign, right where he belonged. The going would not be easy, and the odds were stacked against them in more ways than his straightforward mind cared to consider. In the end that didn't matter. The Crown Prince had granted him one last hurrah. Few men in his station in life were so lucky. Lefranc knew that, and so as the young men set to work he sat at the mouth of the tunnel, and watched, and secretly smiled the smile of an old man who has returned home, perhaps for one last time.

As the others worked, Colt approached Lefranc so they could speak in confidence. Standing close to Lefranc, Colt looked from the old man to the mouth of the cave, to the trucks which were hidden in their harbor sight on the opposite ridgeline. Then he looked back at the old man.

“So, what do we do now?”

“We wait and see what happens,” Lefranc said.

“We wait and see what happens.”
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Old 07-19-2018, 02:57 AM
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Is the night star orientation and mils by fingers measurement in 3-25.26 or another FM?

Story is rockin', by the way.
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Old 07-19-2018, 06:43 PM
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Originally Posted by DisgruntledPatriot View Post
Is the night star orientation and mils by fingers measurement in 3-25.26 or another FM?

Story is rockin', by the way.

FM 6-30 is the pub you seek. It discusses hand measurements of angular deviation: how to use you hand/fingers to represent units of mils. This is for adjusting fire, but if you can track Polaris and the east-west movement of
the stars, and have the ability to accurately tell time you can land navigate at night. I've seen it done in 29 Palms where the light pollution is near zero.

Using the East West movement of stars to navigate is covered in the Survival FM if I'm not mistaken.
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Old 07-20-2018, 01:22 AM
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Yep. TTP for Observed Fire.

When you picture Lefranc's rifle in your story, do you see an 1917 Enfield or a 1903 Springfield?
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Old 07-24-2018, 02:56 PM
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Originally Posted by DisgruntledPatriot View Post
Yep. TTP for Observed Fire.

When you picture Lefranc's rifle in your story, do you see an 1917 Enfield or a 1903 Springfield?
I hesitate to say, only because it might ruin the imagination of other readers.
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Old 07-30-2018, 09:18 AM
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Default Chapter 9

Left school with a first class pass,
Started work but as second class.
School taught one and one is two.
But right now, that answer just ain't true.

The Moody Blues, Ride My See-Saw


The foreman yelled, “heave” from atop the giant aluminum box. And the people heaved. There were great long lines of them, a hundred or more on each of the two thick hawsers that ran back to the lifting points of the armored personnel carrier. These strings of humanity pulled with sweating, straining, grunting, back-breaking determination. They looked like slaves of the Pharaoh, moving the cornerstones of Giza. Claw watched their exertions. When they were done, the armored personnel carrier moved maybe a fraction of an inch.

“There’s got to be a better way,” Claw mumbled to himself.

They’d found ten of the armored personnel carriers. They were buried in the same fields as the containers full of weapons, just as Doctor Chosen promised they would be. They were old US Army M113s; squat, aluminum boxes that moved on tracks whose rubber pads had gone to rot. Of the ten, they’d dug out four, and they’d dug them out by hand. They managed to find a backhoe and tried putting it to use. But the rusting machine would only move a few buckets worth of dirt at a time before it shuddered to a stop and have to be nursed back into a mechanical life. And so, the Great Empire of Gomorrah resorted to digging them all out by hand, just as they were now trying to pull them out of their muddy sepulchers by hand; attaching cables to them and playing this great game of tug-o-war. Somebody had the idea of chopping down telephone poles and using them as rollers. The idea seemed feasible enough, after all, there were still plenty of poles around. But when it came time to cut down the poles a working chainsaw couldn't be found. Here, amongst thousands of refugees, many of whom were still pounding away in drum circles, or dancing, or building the wooden monument to Doctor Chosen, not a single working chainsaw could be found. Another person had the bright idea of lighting fires at the bases of the poles and burning them down. That seemed a good idea, at first. But the timber poles had spent decades baking under the California sun, and when the fire did take hold, they went up like roman candles. Claw had drafted a man named Diego to serve as his master mechanic. Diego found a couple of decrepit chainsaws and now this lead mechanic of the Gomorrah empire was struggling through small engine repair. Meanwhile, a mob of people had been sent to try and hack down telephone poles by hand, using blunt axes and kitchen knives that would most likely break before any poles were felled. Mobs of people thrown at every problem because they had plenty of people, and because they had no other solutions.

“Pull,” the foreman yelled again from atop the deck of the M113. His people heaved again and when they were done Claw guessed the machine advanced maybe half an inch.

“There’s got to be a better way,” Claw repeated. “We’re getting nowhere fast.” He said this to himself, softly. It was not so softly that those standing next to him did not overhear.

“We move at the Great Father’s pace, Claw,” a quavering voice spat. “You need to learn both patience and faith. Or do you doubt Winston as you doubt the Great Father and the Earth Mother.”

What was now the entire high-command of the Gomorrah Empire stood on a rise overlooking the excavations; Winston Indigo, Claw, the man who called himself the Oracle, and his nurse and bodyguard, the naked and cannabilistic looking Raux.

These were the main players, but other courtiers and hangers-on stood close by, including a human boy named Tomas. Twelve years old with huge dark eyes, Claw found Tomas burying a pair of bodies in the mud that he assumed were family members, and so he adopted the boy as his personal gopher. Standing in around Tomas were a handful of mods, handpicked by the Oracle, who served no actual function Claw could discern. Behind Winston, two mods held a giant parasol to shade the blue, mutant-king from the sun. One's forearms had turned green and gray from the overlapping snake-scales forming there. The second had lost one eye. It looked like it had fallen out and a tentacle was developing in its socket. The second eye had turned yellow with a goat's slit-like pupil, only running sideways. Claw kept one hand, what he thought of as his ‘claw hand,’ buried deep in the pocket of his bush jacket. He was still not comfortable with his modification, this gift from the, ‘Great Father,’ just as he was not comfortable with himself, or the Oracle, or the simmering trad and mod tensions, or his role in this new chapter of the apocalypse.

The Oracle went on in his voice that was both quavering and cruel. “Perhaps if you spent less time agonizing over your numbers and more time contemplating the Great Father’s glory, you wouldn’t be so… ill at ease.”

The Oracle's barbs and insults had only increased in their bite and bile. The old man, literally twisted by the gadget still attached to his body and its mutating technological poison, again pushed for a war between the mutated mods and the trads. And he advocated blind and absolute faith in this new religion which was based on the worship of the recently martyred Doctor Chosen, a religion whose canons and articles of faith were known only to the Oracle himself. Worst of all, the Oracle still took every opportunity to belittle, insult, and humiliate Claw in front of Winston. Claw didn’t know why he was the target of the Oracle’s venom. In another life, he would have submissively accepted such affronts. Now, he couldn’t help but feel that the success or failure of Gomorrah, that its very survival rested on his shoulders. He was the only one seeing with any clarity. He had to stand up for himself, for standing up for himself meant standing up for Gomorrah.

A long pause intervened between the Oracle's words and Claw's response. A little too long to be sure, but eventually, when he got his thoughts and his words together, Claw did speak.

“Another one of our people fell of the monument to Doctor Chosen this morning. They fell forty feet and landed in a pile of ****. And by ****, I mean a literal pile of human **** because we don’t have anything that passes for sanitation around here and people just squat down and **** and **** wherever. The fall broke their leg: a compound fracture of the femur. Since we don’t have a doctor, or a hospital, or nurses, or antibiotics, he'll likely be dead in a week. Right now, about two people are falling off that thing every day. Then there is diarrhea running through the camp. You don’t know of that, because you spend all day in your tent laying on your cot with Raux attending you. Anyway, one of my people tells me it might be dysentery, but we don’t know for sure. Like I said, we don’t have a medical doctor. Well, we actually probably do have a medical doctor around here somewhere, but because there is no screening process for all the people coming in we don’t know who we have here and what skills they possess. We've got no food. We've got no clean water, and unless it rains soon, we won't even have dirty water.” Claw’s own voice was shaking now. It wasn’t the old and sick wavering of the Oracle’s voice. This was the wavering of somebody who is passionate, but afraid. The wavering of somebody who lacks self-confidence but does not lack conviction in their beliefs. Claw went on.

“So far as we can tell nobody is suffering radiation sickness. That’s good, but it doesn’t really matter though, because we have enough people dying from other ways to make up for it. People falling off your wooden golem or ****ting themselves to death. And when they do die, they stay where they lay, just like the ****. Pretty soon all these dead bodies are going to be a real problem.” Claw made a gesture towards a crude lean-to at the edge of the excavation pit. At its base lay a crumpled form that could only be a dead human body. Flies buzzed around it in a thick black cloud.
“Right now we are unable to care for ourselves. If you and have some insightful interpretation of the Great Father’s plan, then you better share it with us quick before we’re all dead.”

Raux, bald and brown-skinned and naked save for her glittering jewelry, made a groan. Gleaming white teeth, each filed down to a point, flashed. “Blasphemy,” the Oracle croaked out. “Blasphemer. Defiler. How dare you…”

“Shut it, the both of you,” Winston roared. His voice so loud and commanding that it ended the argument before it could go any further. His sheer size was intimidating enough, but Winston also had his gold-plated RPK machinegun with him too. He’d removed the stock and wielded it like a giant pistol. Winston didn’t take his eyes, those cold pewter colored eyes, off of the tug-o-war between the laborers and the armored vehicle. "Where we at with these, Claw."

“We’ve found ten of them. We need to dig them all up and get them somewhere where we can overhaul them mechanically and see if we can get them running.”

Winston asked, “Is that possible?”

“The Great Father would not leave us so much scrap metal,” the Oracle chimed in.

“Is it possible, Claw,” Winston asked again, not even looking at the Oracle.

Claw could only shrug. He did not have a solid answer. That wasn’t good considering the dynamic between himself and the Oracle. He gave Winston the truth just the same.

“My lead mechanic says these are relatively simple mechanically. So, provided we can come up with the tools and parts, or make our own parts, we should be able to get them running.”

“But…” Winston said, leading Claw in.

“But, right now we’re having trouble just finding spark plugs for a couple of chainsaws. I can’t guarantee anything. Even if we do get them running, then we need to answer how we’re going to get fuel for them, get ammo for their weapons… we just aren’t in a position supply-wise to guarantee anything.”

“The Great Father will provide,” the Oracle said. Raux moved behind him. She stepped softly, with the silky grace of a feline. When she got behind the twisted old man, she stroked his shoulders soothingly. From this position she eyed Claw coldly.

“Yes, he will,” Winston responded. “As you’ve mentioned repeatedly.”

“If, supplies are low, as Claw quite clearly says they are,” the Oracle said in a servile voice. “Then perhaps it is time for us to cut our ties with all these trads completely? Save what we do have for those blessed by the Great Father’s gifts?”

Claw trembled with emotion. ‘Damn you,' he screamed at the Oracle from the safety of his mind. What he wanted to do was walk away, run away, hide in the safety of his tent or some hole at the end of the world. He knew he couldn’t do that. There was another long and awkward pause, as he tried to force his mind to work. Why couldn’t he have born with a quick tongue and a quicker wit, Claw asked himself as he tried to push his brain into action, forcing the correct response to the Oracle.

After a few seconds that seemed like eons, Claw stepped forward, out from under the shade of the parasol and turned to face Raux, the Oracle, but most importantly, to face Winston.

“Look,” Claw began. “The one and only thing we do have is manpower.”

“Mankind…” the Oracle said with disgust. “Traditional mankind does not concern us. What concerns us are those blessed by the Great…”

“We have unlimited manpower,” Claw said louder, interrupting the Oracle, compensating for his nervousness by increasing his volume. He directed his comments at Winston and Winston alone. The giant’s face was impassive. It would remain that way throughout Claw’s speech. Just as it did during the Oracle’s many barbs and slights.
“We have unlimited manpower. We have thousands here. We have trads, and the mods gifted by Doctor Chosen. We can dig all this stuff out of the earth by hand and build this monument to the doctor because with all these people having enough hands to work isn’t an issue. But this whole thing isn’t sustainable. We can’t just sit here in the mud, digging through the muck and scavenging off the little scraps that are around us. If we do, at some point soon starvation and disease will set in. The elements will get us, even here in California. And once one of those events occur, it is going to go like a roller coaster. The dying is going to start, and it isn't going to stop.”

Claw risked a quick glance at the Oracle, then looked right into Winston’s pewter colored eyes. “If we are the legacy of Doctor Chosen, the High Council of Nines and the great Gomorrah empire, we need to act like it. We need to reassert our authority over the empire. The entire empire.”

Winston, expressionless as ever, looked down at Claw for a few seconds. Then he shifted his gaze back upon the great tug-o-war before them. Over the period of their discourse the APC had moved maybe four inches. There was another long pause. This was not an awkward pause, because a king who weighs in at over 350 pounds of solid muscle does not have to worry about awkward pauses. When Winston next spoke he asked, “What are you proposing?”

The Oracle made a noise that was half cough, half contemptuous chuckle. It was designed to throw Claw off stride. Claw ignored the Oracle’s little trick.

“If Gomorrah is an empire, then we need to act like it. Instead of confining ourselves here, under the shadow of that smoking city, sitting around and waiting to receive whatever comes in we should reach out into the rest of the empire and start bringing in the things we need. Things like food, tools, supplies, people with skills. We shouldn’t even have to reach out and take these things. The rest of our empire should be sending them to us in our hour of need. They should really be sending these things to us as tribute. Our empire stretches across the continent, it wasn’t just The Bay. Our empire stretches from ocean to ocean, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Think of all the resources between here and there. Our resources. The resources of the empire built by the protest and the High Council and the Great Father. That's what we should be doing. Instead, we're sitting here digging with our hands like animals.”

“Those lands are no longer our lands,” the Oracle protested. “Those lands are populated entirely by trads. The Bay is the Great Father’s lands, our lands.”

“We don’t know that,” Claw shot back. His words came, quick, angry, full of rancor for the Oracle, but most of all they came with confidence. He raised his one good hand and pointed it like a gun at the Oracle. On the periphery, Raux let out a low hiss. She crouched, tensing to spring into the attack. Claw charged on with his verbal assault. “We don’t know that. We don’t know that there aren’t any mods out there. We don’t know that at all,” Claw repeated. Now he turned to look right into Winston’s eyes again.

“We have no idea what’s going on in the rest of our empire. Of your empire. The other great cities could have experienced what we did.”

“Ruins,” the Oracle shouted, trying to interrupt.

“The Motor-City, the City of Wind, the Big Easy, the Cradle, Confluence; all those cities might have been gifted by the Great Father just as we were. Even if they weren’t, they still owe us tribute and resources.”

“And what if those cities did not receive the Great Father’s blessing? What if they are filled with trads,” the Oracle asked.

"Our war is with New Sparta, not with our own people," Claw replied. This time he reacted instantly and confidently.

Winston, who up to this point listened to all this without any response whatsoever, stated flatly, “All those cities are a long, long way away Claw.”

“If we are an empire, then we need to think beyond our immediate surroundings.” When Claw said this, he withdrew his single back claw from his coat pocket and swept it across the horizon and the hustle and bustle of the thousands of refugees toiling around them. “Maybe we don’t go all the way out to the Wind City, or Confluence, but we need to think beyond what’s immediately in front of us. We also need to start thinking about what we’re going to do about New Sparta, and how we are going to beat them.”

The Oracle started to speak. Winston cut the old man off with a grunt, whose meaning was absolutely clear; ‘don’t speak.’ The Oracle bit his tongue. Down below, the armored personnel carrier had moved almost a foot. Without looking at Claw or the Oracle, Winston gestured towards the shanties of the refugee camp with his chin. “Let’s go in there and have a look around,” the giant said. And so they did.

Claw didn’t catch it at first. But that evening, inside his tent and thinking about the disastrous turn the day’s events took, he would remember the Oracle and Raux, and how they looked at each other and smiled knowingly when Winston ordered them all into the camp.

Winston led the way, the parasol carriers right behind him. The Oracle shuffled along, helped by Raux, and Winston slowed his pace to accommodate the Oracle’s frailty. Claw moved at Winston’s left. Behind the parasol team came the rest of the entourage, including Tomas, with his big head and huge, dark, Spanish eyes.

The refugee camp/shanty town was just as Claw had described it. The muddy lanes that served as streets stunk of filth and **** and ****. Every twenty paces or so was a dead body. Somewhere animals, many were humans. While food and water were in short supply, drugs were not. Claw saw a small group of people squatting on their haunches, passing around a glass pipe and sucking down its thick white smoke. One was a woman, naked from the waist down. Her nude and hairy pubis seemed to waggle at Claw. A three-legged dog with filthy gray fur barked at their approach and then skipped off down a row of lean-tos made of old pallets, ratty blue tarps, and cardboard. Everything amongst the shanties suggested absolute misery, absolute poverty, and imminent death.

Claw didn’t hear the altercation start. He saw it develop out of the corner of his eye and didn’t recognize its portent until it was too late. A gang of mods moved down a side alley. They moved quickly and purposefully, the movements of a group who has committed to getting into a fight and confident in their ability to win it. At the head of this group as a mod with yellow-brown skin and a scarred cheek above a wirey gray and black beard. This one's beard reminded Claw of the muddy gray dog with three legs. He was old and weathered, but the brightness of his eyes suggested a nobility. The only mutation this man bore was on his right arm, which was covered with a short but thick coat of blue feathers, the same hue as a blue jay. This feathered right arm held a length of red oak in the shape of a sword. Behind this swordsman where half a dozen others, all armed with various bludgeons: a length of pipe with a grip of electrical tape, a truncheon fashioned from a turnbuckle of galvanized steel, the thick end of a broken pool cue. They descended upon one of the hovels and shouting ensued.

This shouting quickly escalated in volume in tempo. Claw thought he heard something about a, ‘bad batch of drugs,’ and ‘unpaid debts.’ Casually he observed that the human was some kind of drug cooker, and the mods were not happy with his work. Before he and Winston knew what was going on, the half-dozen armed mods had doubled. They surrounded four trads.

“You gave us a bad batch of shake, you’re trying to kill us," the scarred man said. He pointed his wooden sword accusingly at a pale trad who was stripped to the waist and shaking uncontrollably with fear.

“Filthy poisoning trads. They’re trying to kill us. It's us or them,” one of the swordsman’s compatriots yelled. It was then that the sword lashed out. The oak sword moved in a blur and struck the skinny trad in the mouth. Blood and bits of tooth went flying. From this single blow a melee erupted. The swordsman's pals charged into the remaining three, swinging their clubs and beating down first the trads they’d encircled, then any other trads they could reach. Blood flew through the air. Mud was kicked up. Tomas stood dumbstruck alone. Claw rushed to the boy and pushed his way in front of him lest he get swept up in the skirmish too.

Claw watched as the swordsman deftly stepped into a blonde-haired trad, checking him and knocking him off-balance. Then the oak flashed. It swung down and broke the blonde man's arm, then came up like a boxer's uppercut, hitting the man under the jaw and knocking him to the floor.

“Get ‘em,” a mod screamed. This one had a beak where her nose should have been. One of her ears was black and the other appeared to have rotted off. Claw heard Raux cackle behind him. Two fighters were rolling in the mud, punching at each other. A woman, by the looks of it a trad, stumbled out of fighting, her nose gushing blood and a knife slice across the width of her forehead.

“Get those mother****ers. Kill the mods,” came a shout from one of the alleys. Claw turned to see an impromptu militia of trads come running into the fray. Their leader held a rifle by the barrel and swung it like a baseball bat. There were no bullets for it of course, and latter Claw would later consider their lack of ammunition a blessing in disguise. The mod with the rotting ear was struck in the back of the head and dropped like a stone. A short trad dashed into the fray with an icepick in his hand, its tip gleaming. Claw heard a girlish shriek behind him but ignored it. He looked to his right and saw his chief mechanic there, staring dumbstruck into the battle. He had a pipe wrench in hand and looked ready to wade into the fray. Claw shot the man a look forceful enough to stop him in his tracks.

“No,” Claw grunted at his mechanic. “I can’t lose you.” Claw grabbed Tomas with his one good hand and shoved him into the mechanic’s arms. “Get him outta here. Wait for me at my tent." The mechanic took Tomas and disappeared. When Claw turned back around thirty or forty people were brawling. Several lean-tos had been knocked over. Bodies lay in the mud, some moving, some not. Claw saw the Oracle. His arms were twisted in at the elbows, and his back twisted so spasmodically that Raux had to hold him upright. But the man had smiled broadly with a look of absolute glee. His blue eyes flashed with malevolent delight. Claw wanted to race over and bury his knife in that smug, self-satisfied face.

Throughout the street battle, Winston Indigo stood both motionless and expressionless. Were it not for his massive size and distinct blue skin, he might have been attacked and brought into the fray. But instead, the fighting swirled around him, the way a stormy sea might swirl around a great rock.

While slow to anger and slow to act, after a while Winston had had enough. He raised the gold-plated RPK over his head. The weapon had a 75-round drum, also gold-plated. With the weapon set on full auto, Winston emptied the entire drum into the air. The noise of it was deafening. The combatants all stopped and cowered beneath the deadly booms that went on and on while a cascade of hot shell casings spilled all over them. When the drum went empty, Winston dropped the weapon to his side.

“Enough fighting,” Winston said. He said this calmly, and more quietly the Claw would have expected. In fact, he sounded more like a mild-mannered office worker than the mutated, giant, emperor-king of Gomorrah. It was perhaps this mild mannerism that brought about what happened next.

“Enough fighting,” Winston repeated. The fighters picked themselves out of the mud and straightened themselves out as best the could. Hands wiped away at blood. Hands rubbed at bruises and cuts. Some people rolled on the ground, wounded and unable to stand. Winston began to speak about unity, and the Great Father, and the Earth Mother, and Claw watched a mod help a wounded trad to his feet. That was a hopeful sign. But there always has to be one, one who always tries to push the boundaries and see just how far they can go, what they can get away with. In this case, it was short trad with the icepick.

As Winston spoke about unity, Icepick, an evil grin across his face, stepped forward and when he thought Winston wasn’t looking, jabbed the swordsman in the thigh. It wasn’t a hard jab. It was less a real attack than the kind of cheap shot a schoolyard bully might try and pull off right in front of the teacher’s nose, just to see if he could get away with it.

In this case he didn’t get away with it.

Winston did see the attack. In an instant the mild-mannered façade vanished, and a rage boiled up befitting a man who was seven feet of pure muscle. Winston had ordered them to stop, and they all had except for this one with the icepick. Winston, heir to the Great Father and Emperor of Gomorrah, was not about to let this defiance of his authority go unpunished.

“I told you to stop,” Winston shouted directly at Icepick. As he did so, he raised his pistol and charged the man. Icepick dropped his weapon. His eyes went wide with terror. He looked like he wanted to run, but he was too terrified to move. Winston was on him. He raised the pistol but didn't shoot. Instead, he brought the butt end of the gun down on the skinny man's head. There was a sickening crunch. The exposed metal tangs that once held the RPK’s buttstock cracked their way into the short man’s skull. Icepick’s eyes rolled back into his head.

“I said stop,” Winston repeated at the top of his considerable lungs. The short man was already flopping on the ground, not dead yet, but literally knocked senseless. Winston didn’t relent. He dropped his golden pistol into the mud and grabbed Icepick by both ankles.

“I said stop,” Winston roared again. “I said stop.”

Claw watched on in amazement as Winston first swung the man up by his ankles, and then swung him back down. Icepick’s body literally cracked like a whip, and whipped with such force that his neck snapped with an audible crack, so loud all the onlookers heard it. Icepick’s head flopped and twisted around formlessly, the dead eyes open and staring back at the shocked onlookers.

Winston let the dead body fall, and it landed in the mud with a wet thump. For a few moments he stood, staring down the crowd, his vast blue chest heaving like a bull, daring anybody else to defy him. Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. Fear paralyzed the crowd.

Winston’s chest continued to heave. At last he said, “No more fighting. Get out of here. Get back to work.”

The crowd scattered, slowly at first but then all at once. One man moved away, tentatively. Once the others saw one man could get away without incurring Winston’s wrath, they followed quickly, fleeing the scene of the crime. And as the crowd dispersed, Winston came up to Claw and whispered into his ear. Winston did not smile. He glared, hatefully.

“Meat. Tonight, bring me meat.” And then the giant left the scene too. The Oracle and Raux followed in his wake, both smiling ever so smugly. And Icepick’s dead body was left in the mud, the head twisted around unnaturally, the eyes staring out.

The first shots had been fired in the Oracle’s war between the trads and the mods. The mods may have instigated it, but it was a trad who defied Winston’s authority. That unwise move played right into the Oracle’s script.
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Old 07-30-2018, 09:22 AM
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Originally Posted by 2medicine woman View Post
Great story! Adding a fierce Mother will certainly bring more intrigue.

Thanks for sharing this with us.

Thanks. I feel like I always struggle with women characters. In my Sean Bastle stories I always felt like Sean's wife was rather flat. Hopefully between Cora, The Colonel's widow, and another character in this story I can develop some female characters who have some depth to them.
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